William F. Prine
When folks ask,
Explanations only argue against my sanity.
Forget about it. There is no planet Waters. Their surrogates do not pass under your boats, walk your streets, fly overhead, or squirm beneath your feet. Ignore that hair, writhing in your sink's running water. It is just a hair. We are alone in the universe.
Others accuse me of being with them.
If I am surrogate at all, I am surrogate to my stories. Leave me to memories told in remembrance of what never was, is not now, and shall never be. I am a liar, but the truth may yet find you.
Near the other side of a yellow-white star, a ship appeared from seeming vapor into solid reality, then as quickly vanished. Yet something was there, a dimpled ripple in space, arcing around that star.
The ship and its surrogates sighted their objective: a tiny bright blue dot not so far away, as they reckoned near and far. Space swam past in the usual fashion for planetary approaches. Within an ennead of seconds, the star became a small bright ball; and the dot, a blue planet with a single moon. The ship slowed considerably by the time it punched into Earth's atmosphere. Despite being hypersonic, it felt neither heat nor turbulence as it approached the southern Indian Ocean near Antarctica.
The ship came to an instantaneous stop above the ocean's steep waves, transonic booms cracking and crashing all around. The mountainous shimmering mass, like a huge trembling slab of wet ice, descended into the ocean, taking hours to submerge without triggering any tsunami alarm. Surface-walkers seldom concerned themselves with currents, which went wild after the Antarctic Circumpolar Current encountered the sudden obstacle.
Enveloped in darkness, the ship dispensed with stealth. Had the surface-walkers seen it, they might have confused it for some titanic clam. Unlike a clam, it didn't sink to the bottom. Instead, it stopped and let the current carry it along. It took hours more as it tipped, distributing its mass to avoid the curiosity of geologic satellites that monitored such matters.
No longer in stealth mode, the ship made standard port call announcements. Intricate patterns danced across the broad expanses of its bivalve shell. Then it opened its double seal, exposing a row of monumental portals along the edge of the inner shell. Across these openings, glimmering barriers kept foreign waters apart, yet did not prevent the ship's passengers from swimming out with swift martial precision.
These troopers resembled a feathered frenzy of flapping trees. One would expect them to get tangled, but they moved with stealthy grace and great speed. From each body stretched nine arms. From every arm, nine branches spread to swim with flying-blades and nine inquiring branchlets.
They expected no danger, yet these were strange waters in frontier space, and a coalition should never risk their Prince. Having won the Charter, they might have irritated the Sandkeepers or their allies — in which case, Coral Gables agents were an appropriate choice. Assassins may have raced ahead with far more advanced ships to ambush them and lay their bones in the muck of Earth's shallow waters.
All possible dangers played through the minds of Stroma's First, Doris, as she followed the outer ranks to await their reports beside the ship. It had told them that there were no threats, but even ships could be fooled. Their coalition's newest sisters, the shippers, admitted the possibility if not the probability.
One of those who had gone out to look for trouble was not from the outer ranks. She was their galaxy-class warrior, Tris. Normally a sweetly meek girl who ended every sentence with tris, meaning "peace", Doris had felt her aspect change as the ship let them out. Even the shipper, Athtart — no novice to violence — almost blackened her skin, sensing a nasty set of offensive clusters gone active. No word of peace followed her terse instructions as they exited.
Doris waited with nine arms couched against the ship's shell. She saw that natives were already attracted by its beckoning scent. Shrimps and small fish approached in droves. The ship would even permit its hull to be fouled with whatever latched on. Larger fish would follow. In turn, each would take residence until their ship was entirely concealed by a vast shoal — a palace of sorts — gathering to conceal their ship from any passing —
What did the surface-walkers, these humans, call their surrogates? What was that word?
Motive caching provided the answer: robots.
Outwardly stoic, inwardly laughing, Doris shared her insights with her only surrogate, Dzelarhons, and they laughed together. Truly ridiculous creatures these surface-walkers!
A sizable fish nipped experimentally at a flying-blade. Doris indulged it until it tried sampling a branchlet. Slapped for its impertinence, it wisely left the branchlets alone and followed the faintly luminescent textured patterns slowly undulating across her skin. Since it did not snap at her idle patterns, she reasoned it understood that these were part of her and not to be molested. It had some intelligence, after all.
From a mouth at the base of another branchlet, Dzelarhons tried to leave and investigate this fish. The mouth opened by reflex, but Doris, being of many minds, suffered several second thoughts. She closed it around her surrogate's waist long enough to caution through the personal array they shared,
Do not wander beyond my reach, Dzel. There still may be trouble.
I won't! her surrogate's array promised as the sonics in her tiny grinning face earnestly tracked the fish from her temporary prison. The mouth relaxed, and she slipped after the fish, using the driver implants in her otherwise human anatomy. While the fish and her surrogate answered their mutual curiosity with a bit of play, Doris received terse reports from the scouts through the coalition's array. They had passed beyond each other's presence, sight, scent, and hearing until they cautiously probed distant waters with imitations of native sonics.
Finally satisfied, Tris simply said,
Tris, announcing that she had put away her horrible war toys.
As Doris gave the all-clear, a message from one of the outer ranks appeared in her interface. The codex suggested with the sender's usual humility,
I could leave now to reconnoiter the Atlantic for the Charter's first phase.
Knowing better than to refuse Samsara — she'd only leave anyway — Doris agreed, saying,
Her reply barely entered the coalition array when she faintly heard a hydraulic engine form. Samsara's distant presence was gone. A minor branch swatted empty waters. Typical — and somehow endearing.
Seeing Lakshmi emerge from the ship in a flurry of excited surrogates, Doris's skin said,
We'll drift into the Pacific tomorrow. I've revised the Charter's schedule for the Disembark milestone. You have that long to prepare your clique for their missions.
Stroma's Eighth answered serenely with voice and skin,
My thinking also.
Doris recognized a scent and spied the presence of one of Lakshmi's human surrogates loitering in her branches. By now a fair judge of the species, she realized it as one of their rare males. Certain she knew the scent and sure it was previously of that sex, Doris felt safe in asking,
Is that Kama I feel? Doris immediately regretted asking when she felt Lakshmi's skin frown. She deeply respected this rival as not someone to irritate.
Yes, Lakshmi's skin pronounced with uncharacteristic brevity.
Clearly there was a problem with the surrogate. He was a happier worm than his human presence told. Doris guessed the change was more than he could handle. He was a splendid worm though. Hopefully he would improve, but she couldn't imagine him thriving as a surface-walker.
Arms swept and Doris calmly swam away, politely keeping her thoughts to her selves. Of all her rival cliques, Lakshmi knew more about managing surrogates than any. Hers were a host whose production nearly harmed their mistress's health. That was clearly to be respected, as her first-clique-mate, Xochiquetzal, staunchly attested.
Doris had only one. As her tiny portal into the human condition, Dzel was more than sufficient. She had no intention of letting her little darling go anywhere near harm's way as a surface-walker, unlike their Prince.
She heard Uzume's voices shout in jest,
That's not food, my Prince! Laughing colors and voices erupted all around. Doris's myriad of eyes looked toward the distant surface to see their little Prince, Stroma, approaching a toothed whale. It descended at a leisurely pace though it clearly swept them with its primitive sonics. Surely it knew that it was over-matched, but it fell toward them with the presence of a brave heart. It must be female. Surface-walkers called them sperm whales. What a ridiculous name for such a handsome, though simplistic, little creature.
Doris suffered a moment's doubt and almost advanced three arms in pursuit. Then she realized that it was she who was now being ridiculous.
They were far from Waters, and all but one colony, for whose commerce the Earth Charter would act as way station. Though two-thirds a female's mass, Stroma was a match for a wild school of takeaways, let alone any number of this planet's toothy whales. Not food indeed.
Ahead of him, Neil Stroma — another rare male — rode his master's pressure crest. Neil might help himself, as he often did with her. Surrogates were always hungry. Doris's hearty laughter belatedly joined the others.
Knowing better than to act like food, Stroma's voices softly recited the opening codex of Virtue's Mystery and kept his skin dark rather than flash like a squid:
Generosity gives, lacking naught;
Mercy knows, forgiving all;
Courage strives —
Neil's sonics screamed with the wild joy of adventure. No doubt he was happy to be well clear of the ship's safe confines, eager to experience Earth's open waters and... open lands.
The last thought sent a shudder of revulsion throughout her massive body. She then shrugged in the fashion of her kind. Of course, that was what surrogates were for: to go where and do what their masters could not. Doris swiftly amended,
And play, when she felt Dzel succeed in teasing that fish into chasing her through her mistress's forests of branches and branchlets.
Claire secured her boat to a buoy set seemingly in the middle of the ocean. She raised an old-fashioned diver's flag and tipped off the boat's side with her cheap, antiquated equipment. Righting herself after entry, she swam to the buoy and followed the anchor cable down into the deep dark blue below. The bubbles brought by her plunge lingered in her wake before rising to burst at the ocean's surface.
She stared past the graphics and text displayed inside her full face mask, toward the invisible ocean floor. She felt her dry suit automatically inflate to control her buoyancy. Wanting to be slightly negative to help her descent, she blinked up the Buoyancy Compensation menu to change its setting. Then she passed the time by dictating a letter to her old friend, Ann.
Reviewing what there was so far, she added,
Please stop feeling guilty about your book's success. You are simply a better storyteller. You know me. I get hung up on technicalities. It's the message that matters.
Reading and rereading, she continued,
We should team up for a new book. It would be fun, and the oceans would surely benefit. We must avoid the global overfishing seen before the oceans rose. Who wants to eat nothing but jellyfish and squid again?
A depth alarm vibrated Claire's mask. She cleared the alarm and closed Ann's letter to check the rebreather's status. She overrode its standard profile, manually adjusting the ratios. The rebreather was too old to adapt for the latest best practices. As a matter of fact, the manufacturer didn't recommend this rebreather for use in dives below the depth she set to alarm. Consequently, it needed watching. No more letter-writing.
Approaching the buoy's anchor at 146 meters, an unexpected current caught her before she could react. The cable slipped from her fingers and the current took her wherever it went. Claire fought panic as she turned toward the vanishing line. She swam as fast as she could while she blinked up the compass to gauge her drift in the current as the distant seabed dimly flashed by behind the mask's displays. Though a powerful swimmer, the drag of her equipment made her no match for this current. The shadow of the drop-off passed beyond her sight the instant the compass appeared. There was no knowing where she was going.
Claire kicked in the drop-off's direction. Her speed made the water drag her mask, pushing it away from her intended direction. She blinked up the rebreather display and tweaked the mixture to aid her performance. Claire returned to the compass display, but without a reference, she didn't really know in what direction she drifted. At this depth, she was too far down to surface. The drop-off was much closer than the surface. She swam down five more meters in hopes of leaving the current.
An experienced diver, she should have known if she were clear of the current, or if another had taken her into a new direction, but the water felt the same. Maybe she swam too hard to feel the telltale turbulence or notice the temperature change at the edge of the current. All she could do was swim in the drop-off's direction and hope she would leave the current soon. Fear urged her to surface, but doing so would certainly cause her to miss her only landmark. She descended another five meters but felt no difference except the water temperature dropped a bit. Frustrated and afraid, she cursed and cried behind her mask.
The speakers in her mask asked,
Did you say: mother forking piece of slip?
She wept her answer,
The problem was so simple and yet so complicated. If she could find the drop-off, she could find the anchor and its cable.
After an eternal half hour of hard swimming, Claire saw nothing but open water. When the dive computer warned that she had to start decompression or drown, she swam toward the surface as fast as it allowed. Though her old rebreather permitted a faster ascent — once she returned to depths it could manage — if she came up too fast, she'd be deathly ill as well as lost.
Surfacing, Claire removed her mask and gasped the first breath of fresh air she had in hours. She kicked hard with her fins to lunge as high as possible on an approaching swell, hoping to spot her boat. Water was all she saw before she fell. Claire removed the rebreather and used her jacket buoyancy compensator as a life vest. She leapt five more times before exhaustion convinced her there was simply nothing to see.
Fighting back bitter curses and tears, Claire set herself to survive until someone spotted her. Suited for cold deep waters, the surface heat was already oppressive. She turned her rebreather into a buoy by inflating its buoyancy compensator and counterlung to capacity. She then hung the extras — including her fins and mask — on her makeshift buoy. Unencumbered, she had no problem removing the dry suit and the bottom half of her thermal underwear. She took off her diaper because what was the use? Claire kept the thermal top on for sun protection, and pushed up the hood of her suit until the bib flopped above her face and neck like the brim of a hat. The dry suit, weights and mask she stashed in the sample bag. She returned the fins to her feet and draped the bright white thermal pants over the rebreather to attract possible rescue.
Claire spent the unnumbered days that followed with her jacket buoyancy compensator inflated just enough to keep her now sun-burnt face above water. She occasionally ducked under for relief from the sun's heat and to wash the salt crusting her face and equipment. The salty water was no relief to her blistered skin and cracked lips.
No rain fell to collect. Rather than losing precious fluids with tears and curses, Claire confined herself to a marathon session of moping between the cramps and migraines that came with dehydration. For more than three years, she had violated a fundamental rule for diving: never dive alone. Her research grant barely covered the essentials. She couldn't afford inertial navigation, which would have guided her right back to that damned buoy — current or no current. With twenty-twenty hindsight, where you always see yourself as an ass, she realized she could have afforded a clip and a bit of rope to keep her tethered to the anchor's cable. Still, there was no anticipating that current. Evidently, it had wandered from its usual route, screwing her for not having a better grip on that blasted line.
She thought of how this would end: exposure, thirst, and delirium. What would become of her body? Remembering her discoveries of whale and seal carcasses by the gulls they attracted, Claire decided she'd take the rebreather on one last dive. Better to disappear as fish bait rather than let Ann or her parents see what the birds had left.
Drowsing between sanity and delirium, Claire jumped and shouted when she felt something touch her thigh and then the turbulence of several sizable animals swimming past her legs. The touch felt exactly like a hand, but clearly she was mistaken. She pressed her mask against her face for a quick look down and saw nothing. When her face resurfaced, she saw a glinting obsidian shadow shaped like a bald human head, looking at her from a few meters away. She couldn't see any eyes in that perfect shadow, but she felt like it was staring at her.
Though she dearly wanted to sleep, she welcomed this distraction from her misery. Claire stared back as she dropped the mask and let it float away. Her new acquaintance couldn't be real. Not giving a damn at this point, she peevishly asked her hallucination,
Where did you come from?
It didn't answer.
Claire remembered that her tongue was swollen from dehydration. Perhaps it didn't understand her fumbled-mumbled speech.
Then steely eyes opened, squinting briefly before closing again. Claire blinked in astonishment. Before remembering that this was a hallucination, she wondered if the sun was too bright or if seeing simply wasn't everything.
She was about to shout a heartfelt obscenity when it coughed water as if drowned. The shuddering breaths inhaled between coughs enforced that impression. Finally the apparition said, with a raspy sea-hag voice,
Put off from what she was about to say, she slowly shook her head as she said,
I beg your pardon. What did you say?
Lakshmi, the sparkling silhouette repeated after one more cough. It was in better voice this time, sounding like a woman rather than a salty old crone.
Giving up on comprehending what her figment meant, Claire admitted,
I don't understand.
Her companion explained,
You asked where we came from.
At a loss for words, Claire huffed, slowly blinking as her sleepy mind tried to comprehend this nonsense. We? Lakshmi? She knew someone by that name whose family was from India. She was about to ask another question when more shadows surfaced, coughing water. She slowly turn to examine all of them as best as her bleary eyes could manage. Every one of them glistened as if thickly coated with oil. She didn't see a single hair on any of them. Clearly she was going mad, but Claire never suspected that her imagination could be so prolific.
Though not part of the initial conversation, one of the newcomers croaked,
We are surrogate to Lakshmi, and coughed again. This one also had a woman's voice.
Before Claire could ask what she meant by surrogate, another shadow, behind her, asked,
Why are you here? She swam around to face the speaker and saw more beady eyes blinking rapidly in squinting inky black faces. The sun definitely bothered them. She shivered inside, suspecting now that they might not be imaginary.
Defying her fit of terror, Claire humored them, explaining with a shaky voice,
I was diving for research and got caught in a strange current. She coughed, herself. Having not spoken for days, her voice dried up quickly. After a failed attempt to moisten her dry mouth, she faintly concluded,
Now, I'm lost.
Yes, another newcomer agreed with clear voice after a few hurried coughs. Though Claire was resigned to death, it rattled her to hear someone pronounce her fate with one hard word.
Turning from her to the others, she realized that the skin inside their mouths was black as well — in sharp contrast to their opalescent teeth. Imagination or not, they seemed at home — even in the sun's glare. Desperation made her ask,
Could you help me?
Ignoring her plea, the first one said,
You say you were doing research. It asked with the slightest lilting hint of interest,
Are you a scientist?
Claire sighed under the growing load of her fatigue but decided to answer,
I'm an oceanographer, yes.
What is your name? another asked, as if it were a challenge.
Doctor... Claire... Ochoa, she answered as she fought sleep, wondering why they would need her name.
That's her, another one said as if she could identify her. She asked Claire,
Wasn't there anyone with you?
Claire was by now extremely tired and it showed in her curt reply,
You dive alone?
Despite the crushing fatigue, Claire was ashamed to admit,
Yes. Shouldn't have.
She is brave, another pronounced, as if that was significant.
Almost asleep, Claire summoned barely enough energy to shrug before saying,
Don't know... 'bout that. Where can... we go? What... can... we do... if... fear... stops us?
Claire fell asleep, but felt the waters surge up against her. More than one hand touched her, stinging wherever their flesh met. Claire knew the instant her eyes closed that she was dying. She was slipping away, but felt every sting as if experienced by a not-quite corpse. She roused herself enough to feel some curiosity as to why they were doing this. Otherwise, she didn't know or care what they were doing, as long as they didn't leave anything to find.
She vaguely felt clothes and equipment slip away. An odd fishy earthy wood spice scent enveloped her as lips pressed against the cracked blistered lips that were formerly her own. A fluid filled that distant mouth, and a parched throat swallowed by reflex. More lips followed, doing the same.
Claire wondered, What are they doing?
Someone said to an ear with a softly rasping voice,
Don't be afraid. We would not harm you. You are important.
Claire would have laughed if she could. The silly thing was trying to comfort the dead. Otherwise, she was a dispassionate observer as surreal sensations wriggled through her body. Still, it was mildly annoying that she hadn't already faded away. Her persistent corpse insisted on feeling long stringy thingies slink through her gut and chest like grave yard worms. This was getting tedious — where was fast-forward?
A gray fog pushed back the dark. She opened her eyes and saw through the filmy mist a distant gray sky over gray waves tilted at an angle, suggesting that her head lay on someone's shoulder. Smiling tar-baby faces were the last things she saw before her mind exploded. Dazzlingly massive thoughts pierced her with vistas as keen as shattered black glass. Far away, salt water slipped past lips and throat. Lungs briefly struggled with a sudden flood as suddenly accommodated.
In that distant dark, Claire somehow saw three sets of three arms shoot forward in turn, unfurl their flying-blades and shape the waters that rocketed them through faster than she could tell. Her heart, and many others, thundered, but none from fear. She was unaccountably happy and proud as she said in an extremely alien language, to no one in particular,
I am Lakshmi!
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© Copyright 1993 - William F. Prine. All rights reserved under United States copyright law and international copyright treaties. Do not reproduce without prior approval.
© Derechos de Autor 1993 - William F. Prine. Todos los derechos reservados conforme a de la ley derechos de autor de Estados Unidos y los tratados internacionales de copyright. No reproducir sin autorización previa.