Banner Art: This Charter, Earth

This Charter, Earth:
Book Two

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Moksha
Kama
Dharma
Artha
Lakshmi

My site signature.

Lacking the knack for self-promotion, I've never won a large research grant. Consequently, I make do with outdated equipment. That's just as well, since technology has never fascinated me nearly as much as biology. I'm slow to adopt new tools, but the tools I have, I know very well.

  • — Dr. Claire Ochoa, The Oceans' Gifts

Moksha

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What an unusual dream, Claire thought as she slowly turned her head, languidly opening her eyes to shut them again. She almost fell completely asleep before realizing she was fully submerged. Curious, her eyes opened and stared, seeing the surface at least fifteen meters above. Otherwise comfortable, this surprised, but did not frighten. Gazing at the surface, her skin flickered unseen, laughing for the first time. She had belatedly remembered that she had never been drowned before.

She looked around as soon as she realized someone held her from behind. In addition to the one hugging her, others idly lounged around them in the water's neutral buoyancy. She felt their presence as if they physically touched her, but this was a new and different skin sensation. As an oceanographer, Claire wondered if this was what sharks and rays felt.

The hazy waters nearly obscured some of her companions. Despite that, she felt every slow breath and heartbeat. Intimately distinct was the presence embracing her. Tiny things fluttered and pulsed in the surrounding waters. Claire suspected these were plankton. Something larger approached with rhythms suggesting a fish. When it appeared, she saw that it was indeed a fish. It passed below and vanished beyond all sight, yet she knew it sheltered in their group's shadow. Sight was no longer what it use to be. Claire found this to be more of a novelty than breathing water.

Her new companions watched her as light danced among them in light blue shafts cascading down from above. Having previously seen only their heads above water, she now saw that they were all nearly giants in comparison. Aside from their total absence of hair and their gaunt boyish chests, she observed that their genitalia appeared to be female. Well, male sea horses appeared to be female, giving live birth, and she appeared to be as human as they, but here everyone breathed water. Huh!

As she studied them, her mind at times swam, awash in a murmuring sea of thoughts both immense and small. Some occasionally echoed her own, giving her the impression that she was the topic of many conversations. Their thoughts were friendly and curious so she smiled, unconcerned, because she felt that they were all close friends.

Suddenly realizing that she hadn't seen or felt hair stream around her head, Claire felt her scalp, finding nothing but slippery skin. Further self-examination revealed that she was every bit like them. Until now, she considered herself over-endowed, but her vanity would have preferred something to nothing. The shimmering light and her black skin made it difficult to see, but as near as she could tell, it was as if puberty never happened. Even her nipples were small. She could have passed for a boy if she had shorts.

A finger incidentally brushed an itty-bitty nipple. It instantly retracted. Now, what was that all about? She gave it a poke, and it relaxed, returning to its original state. Obviously, this merited further study.

Claire's exploring fingers found something else that was new. Two sets of gill slits billowed every time she exhaled — behind her jaw, beneath her ears, where neck met head. She inhaled through her mouth and felt the influx fill her chest, but clearly not into a pair of lungs. Flooded lungs wouldn't have passed the volume of water she breathed so effortlessly. A new reflex exhaled through her gill slits, rather than through her mouth or nose. This new anatomy worked so well, she noticed these changes last.

The one holding her said without speaking, Well, that wasn't so bad. Was it? Claire felt an affectionate kiss on the back of her bald head.

No, it wasn't, Claire admitted sleepily, vaguely wondering how they spoke at all. Questions pestered a mind ill-disposed toward pursuing answers.

All surrogate to Lakshmi? What is a surrogate? Who was Lakshmi and why did she love her? How did she know that Lakshmi loved her? Why did she love Lakshmi more than even Ann? What was that marvelous creature she glimpsed? Was that her? How did she know that Lakshmi was female? Why did she hear daydream voices and glimpse an imaginary alien version of her mask's dive status display? Not knowing and only half-caring where to start, Claire simply asked, What happened?

One of the arms holding her stroked her belly as her affectionate warden said all at once:

I am Moksha. We were passing by when we saw you up there. Until then, none of us had ever seen an actual surface-walker. Since you were clearly dying, we let you see us see you. We were about to leave when we discovered that you are intelligent and brave. We told Lakshmi. Our conduct disappointed her until she saw you. You won her love when you said as you were dying: Where can we go, what can we do, if we let fear stop us? I'm sorry we were so abrupt. You were almost beyond saving and by then some of us were getting mighty giddy. Even one breath of air to speak with you was too rich with oxygen for our black blood.

Black blood, Claire repeated as she drew a conclusion from everyone's impossibly dark flesh. She asked, Is that why my color has changed? While asking, she realized that more than her blood had changed. The water should have felt cool, if not cold, but it felt almost warm. Her metabolism had shifted. She was as cold-blooded as any fish. No wonder everybody's heartbeats felt so slow — by her reckoning, about a sixth of her former rate.

She felt Moksha's mind agree with hers while she explained, Hyperoxidant increases the efficiency of what are normally a surface-walker's red blood cells. There are many more now and they are black with hyperoxidant. Our tissues are black with the muscles' counterpart to myoglobin but in every cell. These are a few of many adaptations of human anatomy for aquatic life: our gills for one, our skin for another. Moksha held her hand in front of Claire's face. Skin that at first appeared as shadow flashed in a dancing flurry of light, color and pattern.

That roused Claire from her lethargy. She excitedly asked, Can I do that? as she caught Moksha's arm for a closer look. Her new sister's skin obliged with another display, but more sensational than before. Claire's fingers felt Moksha's skin texture change from smooth to dimples and ridges that marched independent of the patterns. The dancing textures weren't as exaggerated as what octopi could do with their skin, but it was radical for Claire to feel otherwise human skin change so dramatically — doing far more than goose bumps. Even then, no octopus could move their textures as this surrogate did.

Moksha's skin laughed brightly as she said, Oh yes, and much more. Yours already does it instinctively. It's another way we talk and play. Don't be so intimidated by all these changes. You'll learn quickly, teamed as we are.

Teamed? Is that telepathy? Claire asked absently as she witnessed a procession of strange but fascinating thoughts mingled with hers. She could tell which belonged to whom by the contrast in content: one of surfaces and inorganic tools, the other of depths and life with a purpose. She knew that Moksha was glad they hadn't abandoned the surface-walker. Was that really what she once was? If this was her new life and they continued as they were, she suspected they'd have trouble knowing who owned what thought and which memory.

Of Moksha's memories, most were profoundly alien but all was a game of go-seek. Human or not, surrogates were a pioneering lot. That was fine with her. It seemed like the only time life meant anything was when she tipped into the ocean. The sea had always been there for her. Well, now she'd always be there for the sea. Adventures indeed. Her skin laughed as her head peered down, and her eyes stared lustily into the vast dark deep, far, far below.

Claire felt Moksha smile at her thoughts as she answered, Perhaps it is telepathy, but I wouldn't know. We take it for granted. This is the first time I've had to describe it. The words that might describe it are systemic quantum entanglement. Moksha made a face and practiced shaking her head for their sister the surface-walker. She admitted, "That's not quite it either. It's deeply theoretical and beyond my interests. To me, such matters feel like someone lied to seem smart. Suffice it to say that we talk in more ways than sight and sound and array. Our mistress may know, but that's a topic for her later.

You share a co-surrogate link with everyone and everything that is Lakshmi. The link we usually share is the least invasive, with the least systemic bandwidth, sharing specific thoughts or experiences. At the opposite extreme, bonding is the most profound, having the greatest bandwidth. What you and I are experiencing is called teaming, a moderate-to-extreme variety of bonding unique to surrogates. As you noticed, this shares our thoughts and nearly our minds. As is any powerful tool, it can be dangerous.

Distracted by some curious memories that clearly were not hers, a word recalled Claire to the present. She repeated that word as a question, Dangerous?

Moksha's mind briefly exploded within hers, forgetting their selves in that instant. Themselves again, Moksha explained, Teaming too long can damage or destroy our individuality. To that extent, we would be forever bonded: a composite personality. We'll avoid that by having several of us take turns teaming with you until you get into the swim of things. Speaking of which... Moksha paused, spinning Claire around and hugging her face-to-face. The presence of one of Moksha's naked brows danced as she continued, It's time I taught you to swim more than water.

Moksha's mind flooded hers again. Having no point to prove, Moksha didn't overwhelm her partner as she revealed the intricate display Claire had glimpsed earlier. This time it didn't come and go like a day dream. It swarmed, flashed and swam around them with a reality in sharp contrast to their surroundings. Joined as they were, Claire understood every command and gesture as Moksha summoned her own interface, synchronizing them. Their united minds danced between the pair, manipulating alien icons and menus with shared ambition. Moksha's display disappeared, leaving Claire with what she took to be her own because rigid tags and flags in English bracketed otherwise flowing codex streamers.

Moksha explained, This is your array's interface. It allows you to interact with not only your own array but subsequent array depths and domains: Lakshmi's personal array, her clique's array, Stroma Coalition's array, Earth's surface-walker mesh array, and so on.

Moksha's interface briefly returned, synchronizing something like a poly-spherical compass with Claire's own. As one, they turned while water slipped past their skin. They accelerated until they reached a preset speed she had seen set by Moksha. Evidently she hadn't warned the others. There were some startled chirps from behind, but the rest soon caught up. A few passed ahead, screaming with inhuman laughter as they took the vanguard's challenge. They felt the waters smooth with their combined slipstream. The rest crowded around them like dolphins trailing in each other's wake.

Claire at first tried to look ahead but ducked back to her original position. Looking ahead in the rushing water hurt her eyes and strained her neck. It also made it difficult to take a decent breath of water. Though unable to look ahead, she felt and heard more than enough to revel in their speed and in her companions' close proximity. Glancing toward her feet, she discovered why her nipple retracted. Her skin shuddered in the turbulence of their passage. Despite that, her nipples were safe, countersunk as they were.

As near as she could tell, everyone's skin shuddered. At first, she thought it was from the water slipping past their skin, but then she realized the areas that shook were over major muscle groups. These muscles strained, as if heavily loaded. She surmised that something there somehow drove the waters to give them astounding speed.

How? Claire hadn't the vaguest notion. It worked at some fundamental level she had yet to comprehend. There was so much she didn't understand. They had chosen an idiot for a sister. She tried hard not to be ashamed, determined to succeed. For them, she would do better.

As they sped through the waters, Moksha continued their tour of Claire's interface, selecting strings of bead-like links that pulled them to functional depths and shoals of controls and indicators, or reefs or forests of codified data resembling corals and jellyfish tendrils. Moksha expanded the bandwidth between their minds as she explained, "Surrogate or mistress, much of our technology is within our own bodies. Every living cell has implanted organelles that help us do everything we need to do. Other implants have created their own tissues and organs, such as the gills in our chest and neck. Our cells are mostly human, but the patterns they follow are not.

There are tissues in our skin that are analogous to the electroreception of your more sophisticated fish. These are the source of that new sensation you've noticed. Presence senses electrical and magnetic fields. Implanted tissues in our skin control the boundary layer between skin and water. Others are laced throughout the major muscle bundles. These bend what surface-walkers know as space-time to accelerate the waters past our skin, allowing us to swim faster than most fish.

Claire distracted herself from her growing feelings of inferiority with her interest in the organics, asking, How can I feel the presence of my surroundings without my own interfering?

Your presence is fed back to cancel its noise, Moksha absently explained as she continued their tour at another interface level.

Claire was overwhelmed with the complexity of the interface that seemed to clamor for their attention. She admitted, I'm afraid I'll get lost in this.

Despite the turbulence of the passing waters, Moksha kissed her cheek before saying, There's no need to know everything. None of us do. Even Lakshmi has discovered depths in her own that she didn't know existed. We have her lifetime to learn it all, though there's clearly no need with motive caching.

Motive caching?

That's how our arrays anticipate our needs. Mine has grown with me. Yours is growing to know you. I've given yours some basic tasks and rules to get you started. Lakshmi shall have some training totalities ready for you by the time we arrive. After that, you can take an active role in managing your array. In the meantime, I advise you to think positively. Focus on desires, not fears. If you expect the worst, motive caching shall certainly oblige and that would be bad. Optimism is key to a successful outcome.

What are totalities? Claire asked as she tried to make sense of Moksha's memories of Lakshmi. Most didn't involve vision and those that did were like looking at an elephant at nose length in a haze. Some glimpses resembled the vision she had seen before she awoke breathing water.

Moksha explained, Totalities are not real, but seem that way. Even memory and emotions are programmable. You can experience a lifetime in hours as someone else if necessary. They're wonderful for meetings, games, celebrations, or lessons.

Claire couldn't imagine anything being that real. Their interfaces certainly weren't real. She played along by simply saying, Okay.

Moksha laughed at her sister's skepticism and continued Claire's lesson. We'll return to your first interface depth and expound from there. Until you know our standards, I'm having your motive caching translate. This is your current location, heading and course history. Here's water mineral content and temperature. That tracks history by time, depth, and distance.

While Moksha continued with her instruction, someone slipped a hand onto Claire's lower back. In the presences surrounding them, she felt a trellis pattern of arms holding each other in close formation. Claire tried to follow their example, but the slipstream kept throwing her hands off her partners' skin. Knowing there must be a trick to this, she asked, How can I stay in place?

With stingers, Moksha answered matter-of-factly.

Stingers! Claire shouted between them, though she was more amazed than distressed.

Moksha had Claire's interface report every foreign stinger's location. There were hundreds of thousands in her. She hadn't felt a thing. These were threads compared to the fire hoses they had in her earlier. Their sheer numbers made them thick silken ropes that tied their lot together.

Moksha said, Relax. We're all Lakshmi. Our skin is loaded with all sorts. These are the most numerous and have no venom. This is how you trigger the smaller ones without being impolite. She provided a partial totality, showing how they worked while she explained, When they're no longer needed, they're abandoned to dissolve.

Claire tried it, neatly stitching her hands to her companions. Evidently it was crucial to keeping everyone situated in relation to each other. Their formation complete, everyone teamed, producing a slight increase in their collective thrust. The rushing waters tried to separate them, but everyone, including Claire, automatically adjusted their thrust to compensate. To her amazement, she and everyone else released each other, remaining in formation with their arms pinned tight against their sides. Whether it was reduced drag or improved efficiency, their speed increased dramatically as the ocean slowly tumbled around them.

With chirps and whistles of glee, their formation rolled on an axis Claire shared with her partners. Moksha laughed, saying to everyone, Looks like I'm Co-Centrum! Claire didn't understand the comment. Her impression was that it was bawdy humor that had nothing to do with human sexuality. Human or not, sexual or not, they were an affectionate lot.

Claire enjoyed the trip and teaming with her sister travelers, but after a while, she began slipping in and out of sleep. While she slept, she had brief flashes of flying-blades and branchlets with pinnules and clusters. When she woke, she'd wonder about the dreams. She had no idea why she knew that flurry of alien anatomy. Perhaps it was more of Moksha's memories.

She was jolted back to reality when their formation flew apart — mentally and physically. Moksha stayed with her as most of the others scattered to form a spherical defensive picket. Waking irritated Claire. She did her best to hide her feelings from Moksha, but under the circumstances that was impossible. Moksha stated the obvious, You were plainly getting tired.

Embarrassed, Claire yawned, I'm so sorry.

Moksha kissed and caressed her, saying, Please don't be. You are not an inconvenience, but our joy. Fatigue is a natural response to your condition. It's your body and mind's way of taking time out to acclimate. We can play later. Claire smiled, feeling more than one companion's kiss in passing as sleep took her.

Moksha tenderly removed herself from Claire's arms and reported to their mistress. She gave her sister another kiss before leaving. Motive caching kept her buoyancy neutral, and the ocean was her womb as she drifted wherever the waters took her.

Kama

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Claire blinked, but that blink lasted a little more than five hours according to her interface's time. There was a dream, but the instant she tried to recall it, she forgot much of it. All she could remember was playing blind-baby games with someone who was as loving as she was massive. Giving up on making sense of nonsense, she realized she was alone with a new partner. Feeling Claire's presence awaken, a gust of wordless thoughts and emotions swirled through hers, bearing nothing else but a name: Kama.

Claire repeated the name as she pointed at her partner's muscular chest, Kama? For an answer, she got a mighty hug and a taste of Kama's memories. Claire was startled when she discovered that her partner was not only male, but his mind resembled neither Moksha's nor her own.

Returning his hug with nearly equal vigor, she said, I don't remember you. Where have you been keeping yourself?

Kama answered by remembering, for Claire, himself patrolling their perimeter with others she hadn't seen and then himself as a wild creature of an ocean that resembled nothing like Earth's. She judged by the company he kept in those sadly nostalgic memories that he was once some kind of intelligent segmented worm. It resembled a cross between a rattlesnake skeleton and a fern leaf — at once bizarre and beautiful.

Evidently, a surrogate could expect to wear all sorts of bodies. If a big worm could become human, what would she become someday?

So preoccupied was she with him and their thoughts that Claire belatedly realized the total absence of light. Only occasional bioluminescence flashes marred the otherwise perfect blackness of her nocturnal depth. She couldn't see, but every other sensation told her so much that she hadn't noticed. At arm's length, she clearly felt Kama's presence as organs and muscles worked to support and drive life.

Presence, presence, presence; touch without touching had become more important to her than seeing. It made for a topsy-turvy world to a sight-oriented mind. She paused to focus on this sensation that was now more important than seeing once was.

Kama caught her attention by patting her belly. Only then did Claire realize that she was hungry. By rights, she should have been famished. She hadn't eaten since she tipped off her boat many days ago. They must have slipped her nutrients while they converted her into an amphibian, or she wouldn't have lasted this long.

She wondered with an increasingly ravenous appetite what she could eat when Kama suddenly slipped away. Though beyond her senses, he was still in her mind, so she wasn't lonely in those dark waters. He shared his technique with her as he slowed to hunt, clicking and chirping with what she realized was his sonic signature. Anyone hunting nearby would recognize him, know where he hunted, and not confuse his echoes for their own.

Now knowing how, the sonic implants in her face chirped. She heard her echoes reflect off the creatures around her with receptors implanted throughout her body. She laughed, realizing that she was practically all ears. Claire tried imitating a dolphin's looping squealing series of clicks as she turned her head, like a sonic flashlight, in search of food.

Her attention returned to Kama when he found a large shoal of squid he easily outpaced. Evidently this was today's special. Through their connection, Claire watched him as he reached out to snatch a pair with stingers in his grip. Observing how he paralyzed and injected digestive enzymes into his prey with his stingers, Claire felt she knew enough to go chasing after the same shoal.

Before hunting, she answered another of nature's calls.

Kama was distracted from his latest meal when he heard Claire shout, Ugh! That is nasty! He belatedly explained toilet protocols with a few concise visuals that stressed it was only performed while swimming. There was also a courtesy her sonics repeated in surrogate's lingo Look out below! as a warning for anyone in their corner of the ocean.

Distancing herself from one disaster, Claire soon confronted another. This was her first time on her own, using propulsion she knew little about. Consequently she sped off in every direction except those she intended and smacked into a huge jellyfish. Its tendrils draped all around her. She was horrified until she realized it hadn't stung her. It should have, but it didn't — even while she disentangled herself. No longer concerned for herself, she felt guilty about the mess she made of the jellyfish and tried to help organize its frills and tendrils. Once clear of the disheveled jelly, she thought to herself, I am Superwoman!

Resuming her hunt, she caught three squids after colliding with their shoal. She stung two and let go of one to inject the last of the trio before it recovered. As a biologist and biochemist, she knew the principle of venom as a digestive enzyme. It was like marinating meat, only the marinade pumped through her preys' hearts to every cell in their bodies.

Having caught and prepared her meal, Claire now considered the problem of eating something that wasn't bite-sized. She didn't relish the thought of biting and chewing her food underwater. It was messy and would surely attract competition. Superwoman did not want to collide with sharks just yet, but her usual table manners would ring the dinner bell for anything with a nose within a hundred kilometers. Amused, Kama approached with his latest catch and showed her how it was done. He swallowed it whole, fins first.

Claire copied him and nearly gagged. She suppressed the reflex and swallowed again. The body's passage down her throat dragged the longer tentacles after. The last two were also two swallows each, but now she had the hang of it. Her taste had definitely changed. Her tongue barely noticed the water's salt except for subtle differences in mineral content as she slipped from here to there.

As much a writer as a scientist, Claire knew that a group of squids were sometimes called a 'roundup' and other times an 'audience'. These neither had any interest in being her audience nor in being rounded up. She had to chase each down, sting, gulp, gulp, and chase the next fleeting echo. It was good practice with her new anatomy and highly gratifying. Claire and Kama picked off twenty-three more between them before they had enough. Unaccountably, this was the first time she ate far more than a man.

When enough was enough, Kama came to her, and following his lead, they scrubbed each other clean. They handled their own private parts, but otherwise they obliged each other by clearing all else, including their backs and feet. Each appreciated the help of the other.

Running her fingers between Kama's toes, Claire followed a whim and played "This Little Pig" and was treated to Kama's only outburst of laughter. Otherwise, he lacked any joy — in marked contrast to the exuberance of the rest.

That disturbed her. Feeling Claire's distress, Kama sadly cuddled her, and she napped. While she slept, Kama suppressed his anguish and reported to their mistress.

She was not fooled, but pretended not to notice.

Dharma

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When Claire awoke, another fantastic dream escaped her memory. There was something about swimming ahead of someone incredibly huge and fast. That didn't make sense. How could she swim in front of someone faster without colliding? It certainly wasn't a nightmare. It was simply marvelous. She cherished the feeling, if not the memory.

Someone new was in her mind. This one's presence was another of what she took for Lakshmi's innumerable girls. Noticing that Claire was awake, she said, Well, hello there. I'm Dharma. I —

Recognizing the name, Claire interrupted, Wait a minute! I know that word! Did Lakshmi name you?

Dharma shrugged, smiling as she answered, Of course she did.

Did she name you after the Buddhist concept of divine law?

Indirectly. She was humoring our Prince's selection for her surface-walker name. She reminded him of the surface-walker Hindu goddess of prosperity and she, in turn, found it fitting to name me for one of that goddess's hands.

Our Prince? Who is our Prince?

His surface-walker name is Stroma. It's as well you ask because that's my part in your education. I —

Claire interrupted again, Good, but how about Moksha and Kama?

Mildly annoyed, judging by her presence, Dharma huffed before answering, Lakshmi named four of us after the four hands of the goddess. She matched them to our personalities. Artha, who is not with us, means 'wealth'. You know my name. 'Moksha' means 'liberation', and 'Kama' means 'sensuality'.

Concerned for Kama, Claire asked, Is he all right?

Dharma's brows rose as she asked, Why do you ask?

He doesn't impress me as being at all happy. So far, he's the closest I've seen to depression in any of us. Claire blinked with surprise when she realized she considered herself one of them. True, she felt like an oddball, but she felt like she certainly belonged with them.

Joined as they were, the revelation pleased them both. Dharma hugged her as she said, "You're a very good judge of character. Kama has a problem. He's not happy with his new body. The rest of us started as sub-personas within Lakshmi, or as creatures taken earlier that approximate surface-walker intelligence. Despite the differences, everyone else has adapted. Not Kama, though.

He was a symagrafin. They are approximately the intellect of your apes. Lakshmi augmented Kama's intellect, but he lacks our flexibility and occasionally gets upset. Lakshmi admits to an error in character selection when she expanded his mind. She is considering bringing him in.

Claire asked suspiciously, Bringing him in? She wondered if that was a polite euphemism for kill.

Dharma wagged her finger at her, saying, No, no, no. It's nothing like that. Surrogates are not casually used and discarded. What I mean is bring him in literally — in body and mind. We are all part of Lakshmi. A good Shallow Kingdom analogy might be that she's the ocean, and we are waves she flung into strange tidal pools.

Feeling disturbed and rebellious, Claire disagreed, She didn't fling me!

She tensed when she felt Dharma almost laugh, but Dharma understood her concern. After giving Claire a moment to compose herself, Dharma agreed, That's correct. You were found worthy and brought in, but someday when your body is no longer useful, you shall flow into her ocean.

Our consciousness goes into Lakshmi's? Claire asked, not knowing what to make of Dharma's analogy.

Dharma laughed, Not exactly. My analogy is flawed on this point. As her surrogates, you and I and Kama, and the others, we are already with Lakshmi. There is no difference. This is how you and I team and why this bond is unique to surrogates. Parts of her that are us, connect through her. Our separateness is an illusion. This illusion persists because we center ourselves in bodies we tolerate. Why? She needs us there! This planet is Earth, not our planet Waters. She needs Kama to be human, but she also needs his enthusiasm. Who can be enthusiastic about being unhappy?

Feeling sentimental, the waters tasted of Claire's tears as she exclaimed, How beautiful and sad!

Dharma was at first confused, but then she witnessed Claire's topsy-turvy surface-walker viewpoint: It was beautiful that Lakshmi needed her surrogates happy, and it was sad that Kama was not. Also, Claire felt that she could not be happy, failing Lakshmi. Dharma realized that what she took for granted was clearly new and overwhelming to this suddenly unhappy sister. Comprehending all this, she reported to their mistress while she agreed and returned Claire to the object of her lesson, "Yes it is, but this shall be discussed in depth later.

For now, it is my pleasure to introduce to you the vast society that, through Lakshmi, we share.

Claire made an impatient face as she said, Social studies? I must warn you that I never was very good with that topic.

Dharma laughed, although she tried to seem stern, "Stop interrupting! Be still and attentive for just a little while. I'm sure you'll appreciate this lesson. Without exception, all societies are cooperatives that grow by supporting the needs of their citizens.

Let's start with our mistress. Lakshmi is one of eighty-two consorts in Prince Stroma's coalition. Princes are fertile males, which are quite rare among their kind. Consequently, competition for a consortship is intense. Coalitions are what you might call a family business, but on a corporate — almost nationalistic — scale in surface-walker terms. Among consorts, there is another competition. Reproduction is accomplished in a Copular, which is like an organized mob surrounding an aroused male. Our coalition is young and consequentially small. Out of eighty-two, Lakshmi is Stroma's Eighth. She ranks Third of the Second Sphere and leads the third most powerful clique.

Though Claire didn't understand everything she was being told, her impression was that their mistress was doing well. She asked, I don't understand this sphere thing.

Rather than scold her for interrupting, her teacher explained, Males broadcast sperm similar to the way this world's corals do. The difference is that in a Copular, males are surrounded by females to receive his cloud of sperm. The foremost ranks have the most favorable positions for conception. Lakshmi is third in the second sphere, which makes her chances for pregnancy practically a certainty though not as certain as the innermost first sphere and co-centrum who embrace our Prince. The lowest ranks are outside where conception is improbable to impossible.

Oh, Claire said, suspecting by the pride Dharma felt that it must be good to be Third of the Second Sphere.

Dharma imagined all that she knew and presented Lakshmi as if in clear lit waters. This was Claire's first good look at her mistress. She was amazed. Lakshmi looked like one of Earth's feather or basket stars, but with wide variety of slicing slippery paddles shaped like feathers or knives on the secondary limbs. She counted the primary and secondary appendages. What was it with all those nines?

After allowing Claire some time to study their mistress, Dharma resumed her lessons. The body has nine arms. Each arm has nine branches for a total of 81. Each branch has nine branchlets, for a total of 729, and a variable number of various flying-blades. At the base of each branchlet is a mouth, also totaling 729. These feed into a radial gastric tract. On the branchlets, pinnules and clusters perform any number of functions for which they were designed. As it is with the flying-blades, the variety and number of clusters depend upon individual preference. Consequently, there is no confusing one presence for another. You would know your mistress from any number of her kind.

The mind of an ecstatic marine biologist suddenly erupted with questions: How is their brain organized? How are the arms' nerve cords connected to it? Where is her vent? How does she breathe? What —

It was Dharma's turn to interrupt, but with laughter. Finally she said, "Later. Soon you'll have plenty of time to explore her to your heart's content. These details have no importance without context.

To most of the galaxy's interstellar species, we are wild rumors seldom given credence. The few who know our kind call us titans. Ah! You like this name. Our Prince, who is also our expert on Earth, provided the translation.

Dharma felt another storm of questions thunder through their minds. She shouted them down, Shush! Questions wait!

Having subdued her new sister's exuberance, she continued, "They are huge in every respect, with an arm span more than a forty times your height.

"For your convenience, the statistics provided are base ten/decimal. Much of our reckoning is base nine. Understand that this is by nature of their anatomy: nine arms, nine branches, and nine branchlets — ennead, upon ennead, upon ennead — nine, eighty-one, 729. Keep this in mind when sharing numbers with us. Don't make that face. Motive caching shall help until it becomes second nature.

"Now we come to the matter of why a little Middle-Kingdom coalition is here, rather than in our accustomed depths of Waters. Our coalition had been part of Stroma's mother's conglomerate since he came of age. Neither he nor our mistresses liked being dominated, so when our Prince and a new consort named Samsara proposed a viable solution, we swam for it. Our coalition invited a ship's crew to join us with Samsara's endorsement. Then we competed for a Charter to establish a way station within Earth's planetary system. Winning that charter freed us from all obligations to the Ogma Conglomerate.

"Why did we win? As I said, Stroma is an expert on Earth — for reasons none of us understand — and our coalition has a lot of talent. Every potential rival to his mother's place in Ogma was sent to our coalition instead. Lakshmi suspected that this was also to destabilize our First Consort, Doris, for whom the Queen had developed an enmity. Ultimately, the Queen-Mother was not amused when she realized she had supplied the means for the liberation of her son's coalition.

"Our society is very ancient, but it was only within the past few eons that we appreciated there are worlds beyond ours. Moreover, we discovered that our great star — which we have always considered our enemy — is a blue star that is nearly nova. Since then, they have been casting Princes into far-flung deep planets. We have taken a desperate chance to bring our Prince to this shallow planet. And so, we are all happily met with you.

"Our Charter is to establish that way station without interfering with surface-walker development. A scientist such as yourself is aware that your world has suffered several extinction events. Sooner or later, another calamity is going to cause the next mass extinction on Earth. Having a measure of intelligence, Earth's surface-walkers may avoid that. In that event, they won't be bothered. If, for whatever reason, they become unviable, we are constrained by our Charter to report our findings. A Shallow-Kingdom conglomerate would take our Charter to salvage what they can for the colonies. Until then, they cannot interfere with our charter. That's why we didn't take you until you were as good as dead. Meat is meat, after all.

"No! Wait a moment longer, dear! I know there are questions, but there is more to make plain.

The final matter is why human surrogates exist on this surface-walker world. While we can't interfere with human development, accidents do happen. Under the present circumstances, if one of our ships appears, there would be panic and revelation, and suddenly they would measure all hopes and fears by our example. From then on, our shadow, not their humanity, would guide them. That would destroy their viability, and so on. To avoid that, we shall send surrogates on missions to socially engineer humanity into ignoring us, should we appear. Now, you are part of that goal.

Dharma then announced, Here ends the lesson, and tackled Claire to begin a tickling game with her.

Claire retaliated with exploring fingers and toes of her own. Far more practiced at this, Dharma's chin, knees, and elbows soon had Claire retreating. Before she could go far, Dharma grabbed a leg and pulled Claire to her. They grappled, laughing and jabbing anything that either considered the slightest bit ticklish. The loser was the first to lose control.

They rested after cleaning up. Claire was so utterly defeated by fatigue that she couldn't remember any of her questions. Yawning, Claire asked one that came to mind, Why did Lakshmi name you Dharma?

As she drifted into sleep, Claire heard her reply, She told me that it was because Dharma teaches and cannot be broken.

Artha

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When Claire woke up, she found that she had been left on her own. She didn't panic because she didn't have the slightest doubt that they were nearby, though her sonics failed to locate any human fishes. She peered up and saw a dark blue glow, so the sun was somewhere up there. One of Moksha's convenient motive caching routines converted the interface's time to the local surface-walker time. Little more than a day had passed since they pulled her under. As her sister surrogates might say: how time swam!

Hungry again, she zipped around in search of something she could swallow whole. Her directional control was still a little iffy, but she figured she'd manage to grab and sting something. She spun, belly up, peering at the dim distant surface. She saw nothing silhouetted above, so she leaned back and dove as her search pattern expanded into chilly waters to which she swiftly became accustomed. Startled, she dodged a large presence that was somewhat fishy in profile. They circled each other at a cautious distance, as her sonics softly clicked and squealed a series of rapid pulses.

Guessing it was not a fish, but a beaked whale, she reached out and stroked its side in passing. Its hard slick skin implied that it may be a fish after all. It shied from further contact but its presence indicated that it was neither intimidated nor belligerent. Too hungry to be curious and not wanting competition, Claire slipped away, seeking waters she could hunt alone.

Behind her, the whale-sized fish easily kept pace with her as another mind slipped into hers, saying, Hello, my name is Artha.

Claire dipped clear of that annoying whale-fish as she said to Artha, I'm glad you are with me, Artha. Dharma gave me your name. Where are you?

A big tail gave Claire's rump a playful swat as Artha said, Beside you.

Only then did Claire notice that her large-economy-sized companion was not swimming, but slipped through the waters as she did. She was about to give it another sweep with her sonics when its skin lit, briefly revealing a long, skinny glow-in-the-dark beaked whale. Incredulous, she stated the obvious, You are a whale.

The whale looped around her as Artha asked with some amusement, You were expecting another human surrogate?

I'm sorry, Claire said, admitting her bigotry, I was, but knowing Kama, I should have known better.

That's understandable. Until now you've never conversed with someone who wasn't human.

Yes, you are a new experience. I'm pleased to meet you, Artha.

Likewise.

I take it there are reasons why you are not human.

Yes, two reasons. First, our mistress knows she needs a diversity of surrogates for diverse uses. Second, my bulk allows a capacity to support my brother and sister surrogates in a number of ways. For example, you are hungry.

Claire admitted, Yes, I am mighty hungry. And then she asked, almost wistfully, How could you help me?

Again the answer comes in two parts. First, I am configured to provide milk.

Having previously feasted on live squids and now being terribly hungry, Artha's suggestion wasn't in the least daunting. The whale obligingly rolled her belly toward her new sister as Claire's hand searched for one of the whale's two mammary slits.

When Claire found them, Artha warned, I am a whale, so —

Knowing before Artha finished that thought, Claire finished it for her, Your teats squirt. Whales aren't my area of study, but I know. She kissed a slit, and its nipple emerged between her lips. She felt the presence of muscles contracting and the milk squirted into her mouth with some force. It was so thick and rich, it was almost chewy. Claire asked as she took a breath of water before continuing to feed, Did you calve?

Amused, Artha answered, No. High-order surrogates such as ourselves seldom propagate. Ours is a small coalition. They generally can't spare us for gestation. It was a very simple matter to have my endocrine system trigger milk production. We're using this milk to nourish you and transport upgrades for your implant array.

Amazed, Claire paused as she digested the fact she was swallowing more than milk. Upgrades? she asked as she moved to the other slit. To her new surrogate's tastes, the milk was tasty and quickly took the edge off her hunger.

Artha explained, Oh yes. You'll need more size to support your missions, though I don't think you'll be walking anywhere anytime soon. Your bones need guidance to grow longer as well as larger. Knowing you need the rest, we decided I'd deliver them to you before her arrival.

Though she had heard Artha express her opinion that she wouldn't be walking anywhere anytime soon, she didn't remember until much later — and by that time, Artha was wrong.

Claire was distracted by Artha's last words because there was no mistaking what she meant. Claire stopped feeding and hugged as much of Artha as she could embrace. We're meeting Lakshmi! Let's go! I can't wait to meet her!

The whale laughed, saying, Oh, yes you can. Have more milk and relax. How happy would you be if you came to her tired and hungry? You'll see her, today. Well, after you are neither hungry nor tired. A little patience, please!

Returning to her meal, Claire said, I'll do my best, but I can hardly wait to meet her.

Well, that's all quite natural, but know that she knows you far more than any of us could possibly know her. She knows your desire to be useful. They are new to instrumenting human anatomy. Consequently, totalities for human surrogates are not as real as they should be. As a native, you're the best judge of what it is to be human.

Claire wasn't sure exactly how she knew, but she immediately got Artha's meaning. I'm going to be a guinea pig? Claire asked, mildly annoyed until she realized how it would benefit Lakshmi and her clique. Mentally mingled as they were, she wasn't sure how much of that realization was Artha realizing it for her or Lakshmi intimating as much directly, which would be very sly of either her sister or their better part.

Humor filled the whale's mind as she commented, Aside for the odd fact that your primate genus shares its vitamin C deficiency, there is little resemblance between you and that rodent. No. Not a guinea pig. In point of fact, you'll be the standard by which all human totalities are measured. Understand also that you'll be the very first to benefit by it. Then your real lessons shall take practically no real time at all.

Relieved almost to tears, Claire confessed, I wouldn't mind that!

Knowing the origin of Claire's anguish, Artha decided to confide, Lakshmi knew that you wouldn't mind. That's one of many factors that led her to this decision.

Oh, Claire said, realizing Lakshmi at least tried to suit her surrogates' ambitions when she formulated her otherwise titanic schemes. She asked with some trepidation, Would this take long?

Perhaps two days, worst case, but not more.

Two days, Claire repeated sadly, thinking even that was too long. Feeling pessimistic, she suspected that maybe she, not Kama, should be brought in.

Knowing her sister's unhappiness, Artha said with growing impatience, Don't rush matters! You'll need to eat, rest and play between sessions. You are very new to this life. Otherwise, it wouldn't be easy. No one wants to make this an ordeal, particularly our mistress. Patience!

Claire gave that some thought. If she understood what they needed — and she was fairly sure that she did — she was going to calibrate the reality of their simulations. She immediately corrected herself with their terminology: totalities, which should seem real, for both the good or the bad. Of course not all realities were pleasant, so neither would be these 'totalities'. What would Lakshmi do? Replay bits of the best and worst times of her life? Almost certainly.

Between gulps of Artha's potent milk, Claire took determined breaths of water, again committing herself to doing her best before Lakshmi realizes her mistake. She wasn't a child. This wouldn't be the first time she did something, knowing it would hurt. Well, it was only two days and clearly Lakshmi didn't want to hurt her any more than absolutely necessary. Never mind that Lakshmi would likely have to bring her in regardless, even before unhappy Kama.

She said to sister-whale, All right. I'll be patient, but only if you explain what you were before. I don't understand your memories.

Certainly. I was once an andai.

What's that?

Andais are so big that they can hold many of our people and still have room for provisions and cargo. Many of our spacecraft, including our own, are patterned after andai physiology, though they are entirely artificial creatures on a far grander scale.

Claire remembered some of Artha's andai memories, in the presence of other andai docked around her at port, and all those mighty, though tiny by comparison, titans coming and going almost like plankton themselves. She exclaimed, Wow! You were your own ecosphere!

I certainly was. Kama — oh, and Moksha, who was a surrogate takeaway — use to remove pests for me.

Artha's memories of Moksha the takeaway looked like an oarfish from hell, but wasn't a fish. Claire asked, Why would an andai have your intelligence?

As you've guessed, andais ordinarily aren't intelligent. Lakshmi purchased and implanted a domestic andai, expanded its central nervous system and imprinted my personality. That was quite an experience. One moment, I'm part of Lakshmi, and the next, I'm a surrogate andai.

Why did she need an intelligent andai?

The coalition needed a private, autonomous transport. I was involved in several clandestine operations and even carried Stroma once. It's a rare andai that hosts a Prince, but that was near the end, shortly before I returned to Lakshmi. My former body is a bone pile at the bottom of Waters' ocean. Perhaps someday I can show it to you.

Artha's imagery was not of an actual pile of bones, but a place where living unused bodies were kept inside Artha's otherwise vacant body. The surface-walker expression for a place to store surplus vessels would be 'boneyard'. Somewhere in Artha's hibernating andai body was Kama's former wormy body, and Moksha and Dharma. Titans didn't waste their surrogates. Joined as they were, Claire knew that what she saw was not what Artha meant by "show it to you." Puzzled, Claire asked, What?

We won't be here all the time. We'll be reporting our progress and keeping in touch back home. Our mistress has many friends in high and low places. She's a galaxy class Promoter. Our coalition won't be isolated and forgotten. I miss Waters already. Splendid as it is, Earth is quite a dry planet.

Oh? Do you miss being an andai?

I liked being an andai, but I'm having as much fun now.

So am I, but I worry.

Knowing Claire's mind, Artha spoke her fears though she didn't understand them, You are afraid you won't... fit? Am I right?

Claire almost cried, Yes.

Rather than being soothing, Artha was exasperated, Please remember this, Claire Muriel Ochoa-Lakshmi. We know you: Moksha, Kama, Dharma, myself. Most of all, Lakshmi knows you. We know you better than anyone — even more than your surface-walker parents. Knowing you, we know that you shall fit.

Claire tried to take comfort and even steeled herself to be as much use as possible for these splendid people, but she confessed with more anguish than she cared to admit: There's so much I don't know!

Laughing, Artha explained, You'll learn quicker than you can imagine. Don't let motive caching eat you with self-doubt. Here is a lesson revisited. Moksha told me she warned you, but I'll repeat it because this is a matter that has ruined much greater beings than ourselves. Motive caching works with what it is given. You must dominate it! Be its mistress, not its food!

Reminded of what Moksha said earlier, clearly this wasn't something to forget. Then, remembering Kama, she asked, Hasn't Kama learned?

He knows more than most surrogates, even with his... well, his limits. He's the bravest of us all, and not because he doesn't know better. Yet his present circumstance doesn't suit the worm he shall always be.

I don't understand. Why not? You were a swimming clam before you became a whale. I imagine you'd make a fine human surrogate despite the difference. Why can't he deal with being human?

For once, Artha seemed at a loss. Claire waited. Finally Artha said, "Symagrafins are fantastic creatures. If our people hadn't existed, perhaps they would have evolved to form their own civilization. For better or worse, that was not to be.

They are remarkably intelligent despite their lack of capacity, but this new human anatomy simply drives Kama crazy. Our most experienced surrogate human, the Prince's surrogate, Neil, couldn't help — though he has been of immense help to everyone else. You would have no problem being a worm, but he cannot deal with being human.

Claire paused between squirts and thought about that. Before returning to the first teat's slit, she said, That makes sense of what I've felt in him. Lakshmi made him a genius in worm terms, but he lacks the experience to deal with thoughts we know are fantasies. He's afraid to imagine. Remarkable.

Claire pondered Kama's lack of experience as Artha replied, I'm glad you understand, but that won't help Kama. I'm afraid that all that can be done is to call him in. Only within Lakshmi can he understand that it's what we do, not what we think, that matters.

Claire didn't comment. Physically, she was milking Artha as close to dry as any human stomach could manage to empty a whale's teats. Mentally, she navigated her own currents, snatching at thoughts in her own fashion. Those thoughts were as burdened with doubts and fears and hopes as her belly was bloated with milk and implants.

Lost in her thoughts, Artha startled her by saying, I need you to hug me on the highlighted area of my belly.

Sure. Why?

It's time for part two of my answer about helping you. I have a load of upgrades and supplements for direct delivery to your systems with stingers.

This was hardly her first time, so she complied without comment. She laughed when she found the Claire-sized outline on Artha's belly. She used some of her own stingers to get a grip on the slippery surrogate whale. The instant she made sufficient contact, Artha's stingers lanced her. There might have been a sedative in that lot, or perhaps either Artha or Lakshmi figuratively flipped the Snooze switch. Claire felt herself slipping into unconsciousness.

Claire remembered that dream:

She beheld the sad presence of her favorite — the brave and faithful Kama. She could not bear his unhappiness any longer. The allotted span had passed and matters were as before. With nine voices she called to him, Return to me, my dear.

Confronted with a command he could obey, he joyously withdrew to her, leaving passive flesh that slowly sank toward distant depths. Before the body sank far, her arm reached out and a branch's flying-blades left a diced cloud of implant-laden chum. This was gathered by another branch's branchlets for consumption by the mouth at the base of each branchlet.

With her now, Kama was at peace.

Lakshmi

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Claire awoke thinking she still dreamed. Physically and mentally, she felt the overwhelming presence of what could only be Lakshmi. The titan held her gently in a vast forest of arms, branches, branchlets, and flying-blades. The latter were safely rolled length-wise while the pinnules softly embraced her.

Knowing that Claire was awake, Lakshmi's finger-like pinnules immediately began cleaning her as an ocean of thoughts washed through Claire's mind, leaving her giddy in the massive tide. She could never have guessed it possible to feel so big and small at once.

Claire remembered that dream and wondered if this was anything like being brought in?

Knowing her thoughts, a surprised Lakshmi asked, Now, how could you have gotten that?

In their shared state of minds, Claire knew the question was rhetorical because her mistress performed something of a security audit between their systems. Finding the cause, Lakshmi explained conversationally, more in the manner of a teacher than her mistress, Here, you see the hazard of taking in wild creatures, such as yourself. Despite Lakshmi's choice of words, Claire knew that her mistress was far from displeased. She continued, The surrogate link works by using characteristics in common between master and surrogate. When I create surrogate personalities, I pick and choose what parts of me to manifest in them for their role.

On the other branch, there was no choosing when we made Kama and you our own. Like the currents that swept you into our arms, there is no knowing precisely where they go without riding them. As with Kama, some of what we share goes to our core. There you have it. Knowing this, how could I abandon one whose pain cuts us both?

Though pleased that Lakshmi wasn't angry, Claire's thoughts returned to the dream. She repeated her mistress's thoughts, asking, Yes, how could you?

Lakshmi answered with regret, I'm afraid I have been cruel, allowing him to suffer this long. He needs to be with me until either his spirit recovers its old vigor or I need a form in which he shall thrive. What her mistress didn't say, but Claire somehow knew, was that there was a practical reason for regretting Kama's destruction. Lakshmi was nearly at her limit, having recently produced so many surrogates for their Earth Charter — one of them a whale.

That reminded Claire of the andai bone pile, storing all those surplus surrogate bodies. Knowing her thoughts, Lakshmi said, "Ordinarily, that's an excellent idea, except that Kama would know it was waiting for him. Its presence would fester in the recesses of our thoughts. Being who I am, I know how to explain why his human body must be destroyed.

There are all kinds of bravery. For example, Kama is bravest of all in action; Moksha in love; Dharma in faith; and Artha in giving. On the other branch, you are bravest of all in memory. You are the only surface-walker I know, but I know you are a rarity. Your memories are clear; unblemished by denial, excuses or blame. In them, I've seen many events: most happy and more than a few tragedies. You've guessed that I would replay your life in order to perfect our human totalities. You know what is needed, what is planned, what shall come, and yet you accept it all. Whether human or worm, Kama could not do that just as he could not tolerate his human body in storage.

Desperate thoughts raced through Claire's mind. She hesitated with a thought that she then urgently pushed forward, There is another way!

Lakshmi shuddered, suppressing her minds' mixed states of impatience and humor. She indulged her pretty wild surface-walker, courteously saying with voice and skin, I would be delighted if there were. What else could be done?

Claire had no ready answer, though she was sure that there was one somewhere in her mind. Perhaps she could blunder into something that would inspire Lakshmi. It had something to do with experience. Had she learned enough to help Kama? What did Moksha say? What did Dharma mean precisely? Did she understand Artha correctly? There was more than her memory in doubt.

Though she hadn't had a chance to grab someone to compare, she knew the implants in Artha's milk had taken effect. Claire hadn't felt so awkward since she was a gawky eleven-year-old girl. When they first met, her sister-surrogates were noticeably bigger than she. Now their presences seemed smaller and a host of curious sonic clicks were sent her way since her arrival. Her body fidgeted from the hormones and implants supporting her sudden growth. Could they have affected her mind? Surely she wasn't thinking clearly, but if she waited until she felt more herself, the issue would become academic. Did titans say oops? Besides, even fools sometimes said something bright. Remembering how she got here, she certainly qualified as that.

Around her, she saw that Lakshmi's skin could be quite dazzling. She understood that this was how they often spoke, but it was a bit distracting. It was too dark to see anything that otherwise mattered, so she closed her eyes as she fought to explain her nonsense. She said, I understand that Kama's humanity frustrates and confuses him. For my part, I very much want to be a good surrogate, but I feel lost because this life is so strange. Well, actually it's that interface that's strange. Claire fought to explain and finally blurted, It's so big inside my memories, it frightens me! Since her eyes were shut, she didn't see her skin spontaneously flash anguished inarticulate patterns as she added, I'm terribly afraid I'll disappoint everyone.

Claire tasted the tears she spilled into the Pacific's waters. Hoping to keep them to herself, she vainly crushed them against her face but only succeeded in spreading them further. Her colors shifted to determined shades as she focused on presenting her solution. She explained, While I was teamed with him, I noticed that Karma made little use of his interface. His experience allows him to operate it instinctively. Bonded, Kama would have my human insights and I would gain his surrogate experience. You'd have two happy surrogates you could use with confidence almost immediately.

Claire didn't dare say any more. Not knowing what else to say, she opened her eyes to her mistress and waited while Lakshmi pondered. Meanwhile, many surrogates rushed to embrace and caress her in sympathy. Claire belatedly realized that her thoughts were shared with the others. At first embarrassed, she appreciated their comfort despite the tears with which she continued to pollute their waters.

Though it seemed an anxious eternity, in fact Lakshmi's answer came seconds later. She said to everyone with voice and skin, In part, Claire is correct, but we have plenty of time to avoid such radical solutions. Blending, rather than bonding, is the answer. It's unique to surrogates in that the mistress controls the give and take. Using it, I can allow you both to share without sacrificing your individuality. With a bit of training, and judicious blending, we'll keep what we need: the worm in Kama and the surface-walker in Claire.

Friendly hands congratulated Claire while she wondered if she understood Lakshmi correctly. Things would be all right after all? She felt like she would explode from sheer relief and happiness.

Lakshmi put an immediate end to her joy by sternly saying, Now, I have a challenge that you must answer this very instant!

Despite the renewed fear of disappointing her mistress, she answered, Command me!

Seemingly unimpressed with Claire's response, Lakshmi's tone was no less severe when she said, Have your motive caching take every fear you ever had in your entire lifetime and compare that to what actually transpired. Give me the ratio for the sum of your fears to their reality, in whole numbers.

Puzzled, Claire did exactly as she was told. In comparison to her other problems, this was easily done. Motive caching answered almost immediately and she was amazed as she recited the figures, Nine to one!

Claire quickly reviewed what motive caching had gathered. In fact, it had discovered fears long since forgotten because nothing had happened. The figure was nearly ten to one, but by whole numbers it was nine.

Satisfied that her point was made, Lakshmi said, mildly chiding, There you have it. Kama may lack experience with his imagination, but don't you imagine that 'may happen' and 'shall happen' have much in common. Knowing now that your fears are at best exaggerated, can you ever be afraid again?

Ecstatic in the presence of her joy, the surrogates celebrated as they often did, with Claire at its center.

Though pleased with her selves, Lakshmi muttered with exasperated colors to an amused whale, Typical! These surrogates! They start and end all things with play!

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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.