He sipped the fragrant tea and let his mind wander.
There was a time when he couldn’t have let it go far. But he’d come a long way in his practice of tea shop meditation. He found it easier each time to let go of the present and wander more freely in other times. The past came easiest for him, as it does for most aspirants. Learning to trigger memories of future events is a more advanced skill, one that might come with time and practice.
He sipped the tea, and remembered.
He remembered a child that was always careful to get the last cookie. A young man that easily manipulated circumstances to get the better seat in class, the better seat on the train, and the first pick of the box of kittens.
Wait. That bit about the kittens wasn’t actually his own experience. He never had a kitten, it was always dogs. Wasn’t it?
He sipped the tea.
He sipped the tea and wandered into the cloudy corners of his mind.
No, he never had a kitten.
But there were fish. Endless fish. Fish with large, lidless eyes staring at him while he did his homework. Watching him as he read. Staring at him as he slept. Everywhere he looked there were fish watching.
He took a deep breath, and sipped his tea.
Eyes. There were always eyes.
And occasionally a tentacle.
He dropped the cup and hurried out of the shop. Perhaps a walk through Ipswitch would clear his mind without calling attention of any old ones…
Mars was more than met the eye. On the surface the cold, bleak, rusty, and windy landscape was a challenge for any living thing. But find the way underground, and a different picture emerges.
The air is, of course, still thin. But the temperature is usually well above freezing, and several varieties of luminescent lichens keep the tunnels lit just brightly enough to permit exploration in relative safety.
The real surprise is the vast underground sea, filled with wonderfully weird creatures.
The lighting under water is always shifting as flocks of lightbirds drift in giant schools. These are large creatures, flat triangles with brightly glowing undersides and long trailing tails. We still aren’t precisely sure what they eat, but they don’t seem to threaten anything large enough to be visible.
The water is cold by Earth’s standards, but sufficiently above freezing to permit inhabitation. And most importantly, it has enough dissolved oxygen to breathe with only a simple gill structure to extract it. The first colonies were established with unmodified stock. And since then modifications both legal and illegal have been tried that give the colonists greater freedom of movement underwater.
The babelfish evolved to eat thoughts. That as a side effect it was able to serve as a translator was a happy coincidence. History is silent on who was foolish enough to allow the first babelfish to crawl inside their ear. But the fish certainly was not silent.
Imagine the commotion.
The fish takes hold, and we can know it has a good grip because it will announce when it is happy. Once attached, little will dislodge it.
Bring it near an interesting language, and it will nudge the user’s brain towards comprehension.
The remaining question is its accuracy. No one has caught a babelfish in a lie. But that is hardly evidence that it is true. After all, it works by reading thoughts. It could, in principle, tell if it is being tested and be more truthful. A blind test would need to guard against the fish getting any hint at all.
I’m a big fish in a small pond, which leaves me so little to look forward to.
Every day it’s the same old grind. Yell at the wife. Get chased by the Crocodile. Chase the Baby. Avoid the Constable. Watch Judy whack anyone who displeases her. If I’m lucky, apply my slapstick to some lout.
But all in all, it is a dull life confined to the tiny stage.
No chance to exercise my art. I want to write. To publish. To be famous for something aside from slapstick and professed clumsiness.
My lot in life is always be a puppet for the Professor.