Banner Art: This Charter, Earth

This Charter, Earth:
Book Four

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Contents:
Compensations
Sister Death
Dirge
Angelus
Voices
Inquest
Beached

My site signature.

Generosity gives,
Lacking naught;
Mercy knows,
Forgiving all;
Courage strives,
Forsaking self;
Epiphany strikes,
Revealing all;
Serenity takes,
Embracing all.
What name touches
Virtue's ageless symmetry?

  • — Opening Codex of Virtue's Mystery

Compensations

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The conditioning that allowed Neil to live among the Goldens had produced obsessive-compulsive and occasionally paranoid behavior: Pam's fits of pacing; Valerie's repeated baths; Joel's obsession for memory lapses; Barry's searches for cameras and computer viruses. Stroma resolved every outbreak — at least for the moment — but new expressions of insecurity would erupt. He would watch them after Neil's departure. If their sanity suffered, Stroma would have Neil return to take them under. The Goldens and the others like them had been of immeasurable assistance. They deserved the coalition's best. Theoretically, they had exposed their hosts to possible long-term harm. For that, most of their coalition was sorry, but it couldn't be helped.

One night, the Goldens were surprised to found themselves in their living room. They were surprised because they all distinctly remembered going to bed. Also, this living room had neither walls nor exits. They stared past the missing walls at a panorama no human could see, but somehow they did. With perfect clarity, they saw a perpetual organic blizzard through which swam or drifted creatures known and unknown. More amazing still was the behemoth that swam through this menagerie until it dominated their view. Beyond belief, it smelled familiar. Knowing him by scent, Pam pointed at Stroma and exclaimed, That's Peaches!

It spoke to them with a voice resembling Neil's but somehow grander, Yes, Pam, but while I like your name for me, I should explain that my name is Stroma.

Joel recognized his nightmare, but this time there was no fear. He boldly accused the monster, You are responsible for what has happened!

It admitted, I am, entirely.

Joel shouted, Why?

Patterns stopped, shifted, and then flowed another way as he answered, Because you were available.

Though still in a rage, Joel's tone moderated somewhat when he asked, What gives you the right?

What right do predators have over prey? Neither has a choice. Our Charter has vast needs that you answered.

Valerie asked calmly, though she was every bit as angry, If that's true, why does the predator talk to the prey?

She waited, watching the creature's colors change as it explained, Because while we must use you, there is no need for harm.

But you have, she insisted.

Stroma sighed, admitting, Yes, I have. Then he added, That is why we share this totality.

Pam asked, This is not a dream?

Stroma answered, No. We can't share a dream and in a dream you would likely be afraid of me. A totality is a simulation in which every sense, emotion, and even memory can be programmed.

Barry asked, Is that why we aren't afraid now? I should think you'd want to dominate us here, as you have in reality.

I know your father has explained that what any of us wants has little to do with what happens. Remember that. It's true for everyone, everywhere.

Valerie asked, more curious than accusing, Were you feeding off us? A chorus of Yeah! and Hey! and That's right! confirmed she wasn't alone in her suspicions.

Stroma admitted, No offense. Neil wasn't eating well those first weeks and you had in excess what he needed. The stingers used were too small for anything other than blood serum. He's helped as much as helped himself.

Pam said, This is all very interesting, but why are we here? Why are you talking to us rather than giving our strings another pull? Though I enjoyed some of your games. She ignored the noises everyone made at that understatement and continued, I didn't like being forced to ignore what I felt, heard, and saw every day.

We — my people and I — want to restore your dignity and compensate you by doing far more than simply apologizing for what we have done. Toward that end, in addition to removing your mental restraints and admitting our mistakes, we shall be generous to the point of excess.

Fascinated by the sudden offer, Joel asked, Generous? How?

For one thing, we've given you a technology better than anything humanity shall have for at least a thousand years. In public, you'll continue using your active walls, notepads and headsets, because they'll conceal what you have. Included are medical resources that'll keep you healthy for as long as you want. To keep all sides happy, we'll pull your strings, as Pam so aptly put it, so that you won't reveal your gifts. We won't allow anything glamorous, such as becoming star athletes. Peacocks are plucked, but the meek inherit everything. We'll be at hand if you need help.

As Stroma offered these gifts, they experienced a sudden crash course on their new features and pointers for dealing with sudden affluence. Every one of them realized that generous to the point of excess was a gross understatement.

Valerie asked, shaking her head, Why are you doing this now? Why couldn't you have done this earlier?

There are two reasons. First, we are learning. One cannot learn without making mistakes. Unfortunately, you suffered for it. We know better now. The second reason is that this is farewell. We have what we need, and now you have what you need. All that's left is to say good-bye and wish you well.

Neil stepped out with his suitcase as the door to the Goldens' household locked behind him. The cabbie helped him load his surface-walker things and drove him away.

Sister Death

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Sixteen months after the coalition's arrival to Earth's waters, Samsara found herself in a desperate fight with Uzume. Two of Uzume's arms swept Samsara's apart, exposing her gill ring to a deadly Ampoti sweep.

Samsara's free arms lashed the waters, flipping her clear of the inner flying-blades Uzume set to cleave vitals. Now dome-to-dome with her assailant, she spun her imprisoned arms clear of the tangle and slapped the offending arm with a skimming flat Ka'a strike. Bits of flying-blades and branchlets tumbled in swirling clouds of Uzume's blood as Samsara thrust her toward the main corridor.

Two sets of nine arms grappled as branches thrashed and flying-blades slashed and branchlets exchanged thousands of stings and jolts from legions of clusters bent instantly to combat. Offensive implants spread as far as they might before defensive implants countered them or dispensed serum for spreading venom.

In spite of the storming carnage, both avoided injury to the ship's soft interior. Its fleshy walls trembled in the presence of unaccustomed violence. Designed and grown without a single motive center, it was a high-order program (a behavior profile) that sent the general alarm to Stroma Coalition's array.

Titans in a fight were never equaled in all the ages they swam the galaxy, except by their own. Uzume's and Samsara's flying-blades constantly changed thickness, width, and texture in perpetual displays — a game of rock, paper, scissors with infinite permutations, of bluff-and-counterbluff, as branch and branchlets postured for defense and attack. Skin patterns flashed and rippled vainly to confuse and dazzle the other but both cunningly attended to their senses: presence foremost, paying sight the least interest. As every opportunity presented itself, each struck telling blows upon the other without pause.

For Uzume, it was a living nightmare. Not because she was afraid for her safety but for Samsara's. Uzume was Black Water's best. Now she found her skills turned against her dearest friend. A prisoner in her own body, Uzume struggled to regain control. Throughout the ordeal, shouts of single-minded fury filled her array's motive centers: Kill! Kill! Kill! They were the disembodied voices of Black Water's First Dark Mother, Atai.

Uzume herself had no voice, but all the time she was cheering Samsara on in spirit as they fought. That's the girl, Samsara! Cut me a new gill ring! Watch out! Wow! How did you do that? Oh! Way to go, Samsara!

Meanwhile, Atai's disembodied voices continued their rant, Kill! Kill! Kill!

Blasted hag! Uzume thought with utter revulsion, To think that you were once my hero! How can you be here? Why do you want her dead? I hope Samsara returns to cram your gills up your vent!

The battle raged down the ship's main corridor and then spilled outside. Samsara had been brilliant, but then she faltered even as the ship closed behind them. Perhaps it was the venom and implants Uzume had injected. Samsara wavered and Uzume got the better with a Parfonu grapple. After that, Samsara defended herself absentmindedly, even indifferently, as more implants and venom inundated her increasingly passive defenses.

Desperately afraid for Samsara, Uzume prayed to their notion of divinity, Oh please, Abyssal Mother, protect her! Let her win! I don't care if I die. I am clearly insane. Let Samsara prevail!

Uzume won the upper branch despite herself, cleaving Samsara's body with a vicious Mok'ni spike. Her branchlets then seized Samsara's defenseless gills as she finally won control of her voices while Atai continued raging within her.

I'm sorry, Samsara faintly heard Uzume cry as numb limbs quivered and lost their grip upon their attacker. Weakened by venom, hostile implants, and oxygen deprivation, with defenses failing inside and out, Samsara's array told the ship to delete their codex. The only acknowledgement was the disappearance of a menu from her array's interface. Its presence faded even as her presence faded, leaving Uzume stunned and alone.

She had just killed a sister-consort.

Coalition membership required Sharing-of-the-Flesh. It was essential for reproduction. Only those of-the-flesh could share their prince's seed, which spread as a cloud from the center of a copulari sphere. Sharing-of-the-Flesh made family of all who shared the coalition's prince.

And Uzume had killed a sister.

When last consorts killed sister-consorts, a Middle-Kingdom prince also died. Religion justified that insanity. Uzume sadly wondered what motivated Atai's voices. Even as they left their treacherous blue star to spread among kind stars, they were quickly becoming rare. Another dead prince could tip extinction's balance.

Atai was silent, but still had control, using Uzume to drag Samsara's body back to the ship. Uzume laughed despite her grief when the ship's mighty bivalve shell blocked the way and ignored her array's commands. She could almost feel Samsara's smug presence. Denied access, Atai's presence vanished, leaving Uzume alone with a mangled knotty corpse that clung to her almost as tenaciously as her guilt.

The coalition would soon return to witness this outrage. Uzume realized she couldn't face them. If she stayed, Atai might make her kill again. No. Without answers, no justice could be served. Not yet.

Samsara often said, Time answers all. But Uzume doubted she would find those answers as a captive. She released Samsara's tangled arms and strangled gills to swim away as fast as she could. Her skin and voices cried as she left, I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm sorry!

Behind her, Samsara's body tumbled through the ship's vast concealing shoal of fish, squid, and shrimp toward a rift's countless canyons far below. A tiny figure drifted clear of the waters twisted in the wake of Uzume's departure. Having too much buoyancy to linger in those depths, it slowly rose as lingering bits and pieces of torn flying-blades and branchlets fell after one of their owners.

Dirge

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Amidst the islands of the Antarctic Archipelago, Prince Stroma amused himself in the company of some inquisitive seals as he squeezed between the muddy bottom and the shrinking seasonal ice. That ended when the ship's alarm appeared in his array's interface. Confusion became panic when Samsara's array presence ended with signs of a catastrophic failure. Soon after, Uzume removed herself without explanation. Since this simply wasn't done to one's own coalition, it was as shocking as Samsara's termination.

Questions echoed throughout the coalition's array from Doris, What happened to Samsara? Where's Uzume?

Despite knowing the question wasn't directed toward him, Stroma cried, I don't know, as he crawled from the shallows to deeper waters and then swam even deeper to fashion a class-4 hydraulic engine. He streaked north along the west coast. Samsara's dead! he wailed, but by then everyone knew.

Within the coalition's commons totality, Doris stank of fear before she had the presence of mind to mask that odor. They didn't need panic spreading through the ranks. Even so, her shock was evident as she shouted, Stay where you are, Stroma! Megaira, you are closest. Go to Stroma!

Megaira's presence seethed with unbridled anger as she asked, Why? I am a shipper. I should be at the ship!

Doris couldn't believe her orders were being questioned in an emergency. She considered demoting her below Yami but then realized the extremity of Megaira's anguish. She decided for once to repeat herself, You're closest to Stroma, that's why! Think if you want to keep your new rank, Eightieth! Yami, you're closest to the ship. That's where they were. Go! Go! Everyone in the vicinity, head for the ship! No! Not you, Stroma! Wait for Megaira. I said, wait! Megaira, intercept and hold our prince until Kadru joins you. She won't be long. Did you hear me, Kadru?

I heard, Stroma's Fifth answered flatly, increasing her already considerable speed when she realized the First's point was that Uzume might try taking Stroma from them. With Megaira there and Kadru joining them, Stroma would be safe.

To Doris's relief, Athtart's voices calmly chimed in, Humblest apologies, I have queried the ship. No one is inside. It smells of blood. I am replaying the monitors. Leave it to the pilot to be first to think of asking the ship what happened. Athtart's quiet presence changed to electric rage.

Well? Doris asked impatiently.

Now Seventy-Ninth with Samsara's death, Athtart was so upset that she forgot her customary humility as she explained, I regret to report that Uzume attacked Samsara inside the ship. Samsara forced her out. Samsara then ordered the ship to drop them both from the command roster.

Europa, Stroma's Seventh, asked, How did she get the clearance?

Athtart's presence shrugged in the commons totality as she speculated in her usual fashion, Our unworthy opinion is that Samsara gave herself that privilege. She bypassed the key command code.

Leave it to her to know how, Doris said amid admiring odors emanating from every consort for an unassuming rival who had always impressed them.

And leave it to that damned bottom-feeder....

Take care, Megaira! I am also a bottom-feeder.

I'll keep that in mind, Europa, she answered with a shallow storm's rage.

As am I, Gimokod interjected with quiet dignity though the Sixty-Third's odor was amused for typically inscrutable reasons.

Pachamama, Stroma's Seventeenth, didn't bother commenting on her nationality; but Sedna, Thirty-Second of Stroma, challenged Megaira, saying, They are my Waters too! Is there grievance?

Megaira's tone suddenly changed. No offense meant, Sedna! She belatedly added, Please forgive me, Gimokod, Europa. Oh! You, too, Pachamama. Sorry.

Considering Megaira unimportant, Europa addressed the subject of pursuit instead, Uzume should know her engine might rumble the trench walls. She won't go that way. Just in case she tries to do the unexpected, Pachamama should detour over the near end of the trench to see if there's anything unusual. She'd know better than any of us.

What do you think, Pachamama?

I could, but I'm anxious to discover what happened.

Yami will arrive there in a moment, and I'm sure Athtart is continuing her interrogation of the ship. You can count on them to show us what they find just as we know we can count on you to tell us if anything unusual is in the trench.

Pachamama agreed reluctantly, Right, number one. I'll go, but my hearts are with Samsara. I liked that freak.

Between them, Doris said, I liked her too. She's with the Abyssal Mother now. Take care that you don't follow too soon after, Pacha.

I hear you. Uzume can't sneak up on me, and I certainly won't try to take her without help.

Doris asked Megaira, Have you found our prince?

She answered almost absently, Yes. He's trying to swim too deep even though he knows full well he's not equipped. You hear me, Stroma? Though still outraged and grieving, a bit of coalition pride flavored her thorny presence as she said matter-of-factly, Stubborn for a prince. Don't worry. I'll catch him before he hurts himself.

Yami reported with her usual note of professional arrogance, I'm near the ship now and have crossed a fresh trail. No doubt I'll have her before she sinks too deep for me. There, I hear her echo now. She's really rather close, but I don't feel her presence. The waters taste much of her blood. A shark is feeding on some.... When she spoke again, she didn't at all sound like herself, Scat! Scat! Oh, Samsara, you poor thing!

Doris couldn't stand the suspense of the quiet moments that followed. Well, what is it?

With a hurried quiet voice, Yami answered, I'm encoding mine-to-yours, girls. Then, all but Stroma witnessed Yami's experience, as she swatted a persistent shark away and gathered their sister-consort's body into her arms.

Cold, seething rage spat out of the violet dark behind Stroma, What did you expect to find, you idiots? That she'd be cleaned and bundled for final viewing? Despite Megaira's venomous tone, no one could have been angry with her. Unlike everybody else, she never filtered, masked, or programmed her scent. Her grief was as thick as anyone's could be. Stroma immediately turned around and flew into his pursuer's arms.

Kadru found them not long after — a tangled ball of sorrow slowly rising out of the depths. I'll take him, she said, as impassive as ever.

Megaira reluctantly began to pull him out of her arms, but he resisted, saying, No, thank you, Kadru. Megaira shall take me. Won't you, Megaira?

Megaira was uncharacteristically meek as she asked her, You wouldn't mind, Kadru?

All the same to me. He'd be there faster with me, she answered as a few branchlets coiled into a titan shrug. Megaira was of no clique, so the point wouldn't be strategic.

Stroma interrupted her thoughts, explaining, as he hugged his poor Megaira, I know, but I think we should be together when they bring her up.

Suit yourselves, Kadru said almost as an afterthought, already spinning and tipping around before streaking away as only long-armed Kadru could.

Megaira softly said, We shall, and gave her prince a gentle hug.

Knowing better than to spoil the moment with useless words, Stroma quietly laced his arms and rode her to where the others tended Samsara's body.

Megaira's presence concealed the congregation until he released her. Stroma hadn't seen so many of his consorts together since their voyage to Earth. The water shook with every swell of the dirge and hung on every wake's pause while most circled the core where the privileged few prepared her for last rites. Stroma knew none would forget this moment, for at its center was the last vestige of Samsara.

He tried his best to feel nothing, knowing that would soon be impossible — as impossible as Samsara's murder by Uzume. Had she slipped him into some terrible totality? She had done that before, and he had learned much from it. Was she, even now, laughing at his latest folly? No. His systems insisted this was real. Then, what was that before him? Could that wretched bundle really be his Samsara?

Of course it could, and it was undeniably her.

Stroma lost control, launching himself at the cadaver, screaming. Xochi tried to gently pry her prince from the thing that was once their wonderfully mysterious troublemaker: Samsara. Xochiquetzal said, She's gone, my prince.

Yes, he said, trembling in grief. He continued his wistful caresses over his lost consort's body. He could taste everyone's anguish. Samsara was their rival, but they loved her as much as he. He realized it was selfish of him to confine himself to her when she was everyone's loss. Yes, she's gone, he said finally, releasing Samsara.

The dirge ended with her release. Everyone silently watched Samsara's corpse slowly tumble into the depths of Earth's South Atlantic — and she passed beyond their senses. Though they knew the Divine She dwelt everywhere, it salved their torn spirits to imagine the Abyssal Mother's open arms welcoming her daughter. She would be missed.

Angelus

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Neil walked the capital's streets alone, ignorant of the sunny spring day because his eyes were shut. A bell rang in the distance ahead. Had he ever thought he could feel such pain, he doubted he would have taken this life's first breath. Gills and lungs were not meant to support such grief.

Neil felt abandoned. Stroma had his consorts' clinging comfort, but there was no one to hold him. Stroma could only exchange pain for pain, so he withdrew into his own little pit of despair.

He stopped at the sound of a bell. He had heard it earlier, but now it rang as near and dear as a familiar voice. The church across the intersection was ringing the morning's Angelus. A tear ran from one shut eye. He opened them and blinked before more could follow the first. The bell sounded a little like one of Samsara's voices.

Come, it seemed to chime. Come. Come. Come.

He came, straight across the intersection, heedless of traffic, outraged shouts, and honks. The bell stopped just as he got to the door at the top of the steps. Nine times it had chimed. A sudden fit of fury shook him. What he would have given for nine arms. Nine arms for the nine loving arms that sank to the bottom of an ocean on the other side of this shallow stupid planet!

No. That was Uzume. But why Uzume? She loved Samsara too dearly to even suffer the thought of hurting her, let alone act. Stroma was right. This was impossible! And yet it was reality. His hand clenched to strike the double door in front of him, but instead he watched one of the two handles turn and its door swing toward him.

Neil backed away and bowed slightly to an old woman being helped outside by a friend. He held the door for the friend and watched as they slowly walked down the steps and around the corner. The woman's tired, worn face seemed molded by years of sorrow. He looked inside the church as he considered releasing the door. No one followed. They were the only ones attending the morning's service. He blinked and looked after them in puzzlement. There had been considerable pain in their presence, yet despite that pain, they came. What could drive such devotion?

He suddenly noticed a presence in the dark shadows beyond the door. It stood there so quietly that he might have missed it if not for presence. Neil blindly acknowledged it with a blink and a nod.

The presence spoke, Well, now. Are you coming in or are you our new door stop?

I guess I'd like to come in.

Then come in.

Neil entered and stood beside the man as his eyes grew accustomed to his dimly lit surroundings. He saw that the presence was a priest. He asked him, Would it be all right if I looked around?

A brief tone interrupted them, and the priest pulled out a small notepad. He read it as he said, Sure. Look all you want. Would you excuse me? I won't be long. Just call out if you need anything.

Alone again, Neil slowly walked down the aisle toward the altar. It was a big place with grotto-like walls and columns capped by a vaulted ceiling. The statues and paintings above were so fascinating that he wished the place were flooded so he could swim up and have a closer look. A few sonic ticks gauged the general dimensions of the basilica. It was a big place, but even Stroma would have had trouble fitting one of his short arms in without curling a single branch. There were so many seats. Neil supposed there must have been occasions when they were all filled, but they were empty now.

Staring up, he wandered down the aisle until a short gate nearly tripped him. There, the Christian messiah looked down at him with a crown of bloody thorns. They gave Neil the impression that the Abyssal Mother's innumerable arms were reaching out of Jesus's head to bless the absent multitudes through her surrogate. Christ's eyes were rolled upward, either in human pain or sublime rapture. Surface-walkers could be so strange, but then Stroma's ancestors used to believe that the Mother's heavenly abode lay in the other direction. That myth burst when they went looking, only to find another kingdom to pioneer.

Neil turned and saw a statue of the Madonna with Child. Of all the images surrounding him, he understood this one without accessing his libraries. He walked straight to it and knelt at the statue's pedestal's base, near crying. The mother and child were as Samsara to him, and the Great Lady to her in turn. He leaned against the base with renewed grief and found a prayer within him: Blessed Mother, please forgive my selfish desires. Who am I but a lost fool to wish she were with me and not with you?

A hand touched his arm. Neil raised teary eyes. So absorbed was he in his pain, he hadn't felt the priest's approach. He turned and embraced him as he wailed in abject misery.

Stroma was too caught up in his own grief to notice his surrogate's pain. Even if he had been paying attention, there was no emotional contrast between them to tell the difference.

He vaguely heard someone say, Please, let me through. Excuse me. Excuse me. Pardon. It was Hi'iaka, the peacemaker and everyone's favorite sister. Normally unobtrusive, this was her first occasion to get on Sedna's hard side.

No, I shall not excuse you, Seventy-Second. What do you mean barging through at a time like this?

Doris was outraged, but not at Hi'iaka. Sedna! Pulling rank on her of all people!

Please be calm, the both of you. Hi'iaka's sympathetic scent enveloped Sedna as she explained, I am aware of how much this reminds you of your loss. I'm sure you would feel much better if you went to Megaira.

Sedna was in the habit of absently picking at the stubs on the arm she had injured enne-enneads ago, but had refused to heal. The branchlets currently involved in that task paused while her minds embraced an unexpected puzzle. She asked Hi'iaka incredulously, Megaira?

Yes, she feels as much pain and anger as you. Don't ask her to explain. Simply embrace her as you would the ship-sisters you lost with those branches. Megaira respects you very much and would accept you with gratitude. She needs you, as Stroma needs me now.

Yes, Sedna said as her skin colored with belated embarrassment. To speak to Hi'iaka like that — it was like screaming at one's dearest friend. I'm sorry.

Hi'iaka's answer was typically Hi'iaka, No need for that. I understand.

Doris quietly released Stroma into Hi'iaka's care. He tried to ignore her, but a human would have as much trouble ignoring the approach of a cool summer's shower over a hot dry day. The sensation was too magnificent to ignore. Her presence was every bit as dear as Samsara's. Thinking of her, he cried, gratefully returning her embrace.

I know, dear prince, I know. It hurts. In time you shall accept it and let it pass, but presently you have responsibilities.

Even now, Stroma couldn't be angry with Hi'iaka, but his skin showed some resentment as it asked, What could you mean at a time like this?

Aren't you forgetting someone?

I don't think so. Who?

Hi'iaka didn't answer. Earlier she had seen that Lakshmi's wild human worked well with the prince's surrogate, so she borrowed her, anticipating Stroma's present state. Hi'iaka opened a mouth, and Claire slipped out to approach Stroma's nearest ear, asking, How's Neil doing?

It didn't take Stroma long to find out. Oh, Mother! he said as he hurriedly opened the bandwidth between himself and his surrogate, filling him not with despair, but with concern and compassion.

The priest felt the stranger's clutching arms relax. Weeping breaths gave way, with a sigh, to an eerie calmness. The powerful arms that once held him with desperate urgency now coolly pushed him away.

Wiping his tears away, the man smiled and said, Thank you, Father. I'm quite all right. I'm sorry to have made such use of you only to leave so abruptly, but I must be going.

The sudden change in character disturbed the priest. It hinted at insanity, but the man regarding him with heart-felt appreciation was anything but deranged. Still, he felt bound to ask, Are you sure?

Yes. Thank you, he said, giving the priest's arm a little shake after he patted him on the shoulder.

The priest accompanied him to the door and stared after him as he left. What a remarkable man — one moment crying like a child, and the next, a paragon of mature self-possession.

Neil walked away from the church in Stroma's presence. He felt, through his master, the arms of their consorts. Through His gill ring, he breathed familiar dark, cold waters. Throughout His branchlets, he felt his brother and sister surrogates' embrace. He still suffered, but he was no longer alone.

Prince Stroma was full of remorse. I'm so sorry, Neil, for forgetting you. It was thoughtless and cruel.

Neil's unconditional love had no words. He could only answer with typical pride, I am Stroma.

Voices

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Sounds travel far in the ocean. Despite the radical thermal and chemical gradients between the depths of the coalition, and the slow abyssal current in which she sheltered, Uzume heard the coalition's final farewell to Samsara.

Though faint and badly distorted and delayed by distance, she knew when they found the body, when they gathered for the funeral, and when they released her to Earth's strange abyss. She even heard her poor prince's despairing cries.

She confined her participation to the silent depths of a private totality where she cried with their likenesses. Because of her guilt, she mourned Samsara's death more than anyone. She was intimately aware of the pain and hardship that she had inflicted on her own flesh.

Uzume crawled, gill-side-up, with barely enough buoyancy to avoid disturbing the mud that her arms slowly slithered over. She used the flats her flying-blades to provide sufficient traction to maneuver as an obliging current nudged her along. This minimized her efforts and so minimized her presence, should someone swim by. She held her distended gills clear of the stagnant current so that she could breathe comfortably.

Now and then, she heard her coalition call for her to return, but she couldn't. She was dangerous because she didn't know why. Uzume didn't know why she did what she did. Why, in the midst of a conversation with Samsara, did she suddenly hear Atai shout, Kill! Kill! Kill!? The First Dark Mother was in the other side of the galactic bulge. Why would she hear her?

Uzume almost jumped when she heard Samsara's voices say, Why would you hear me?

That was not external!

Quickly running diagnostics at all of her array's depths, she found nothing. Perhaps it worked with the interface. Hoping to get a response, she imagined calling out, Samsara! In the quiet after, Uzume trembled with superstitious dread, remembering that some considered Samsara a Mother's Little Helper. If there were truly such people, she suspected that Samsara would have qualified.

It seemed such a long time ago that she asked Samsara about her reputation. Uzume's question amused her. She exclaimed with laughing colors, Honestly! I don't know how I gave anyone that impression. Aren't Mother's Little Helpers supposed to come and go without ado? As Doris is apt to say: ridiculous! Again she laughed. As willful and rowdy as I am, a fine example I'd be! You know I always do what pleases me. As I understand it, Mother's Little Helpers are the culmination of an experience that is beyond self-interest.

Baffled, Uzume asked, An experience beyond self-interest? I don't understand.

Samsara hugged her and said, My dear, why bother understanding? If we understood, we'd be someone else.

Stop that, Uzume told her playfully. It was curious how she always said things that tended to twist the minds of her audiences into odd shapes. Small wonder many considered her a freak. Somehow that brought to mind her rival for Samsara's affection. She said, I really don't know how you can be interested in Megaira.

Funny, she said the same to me about you.

Uzume wasn't at all happy with the thought that she had done anything the same as that explosion-to-be. She asked, What did you tell her?

The same that I'm telling you now, I'm using her.

There, Samsara went and did it again, folding her brains into what might resemble the codex of one of Kirti's demented, yet highly functional, algorithms. So the essential fact was that Samsara used them both. Uzume realized that she didn't mind that at all. As a matter of fact, she somehow found it a rather pleasant thought. She gladly embraced her role, saying, I love you.

Laughing, Samsara gave her another hug and said, I appreciate that. I know what they call me. They're absolutely right, but the truest thing this conniving freak can possibly say is that I love you too.

A rush of sorrow shook Uzume from that memory. Yes, Samsara was troublemaker, but somehow everything always ended with matters much better than before. The entire coalition loved and feared her for it. Uzume briefly wondered what Megaira thought of her now. She loathed that bag of bile, but oddly enough, that mattered.

Alone and hunted on a strange planet, Uzume created a quiet little totality and vented all her grief and rage into it. When she finally came out, she was resolved to keep her freedom and find the answers she wanted desperately to know. All the better if Megaira got in her way.

Inquest

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While Stroma and Neil sought distraction in a game totality, Doris called every consort into her own totality for a meeting. Representing her clique, Lakshmi was among those in the center of the local gathering. Among the surrogates loitering in her branches, Claire gaped in awe at their coalition's august inner sphere. She knew them all by sight, smell, sound, and presence — so there was no mistaking this crowd for any other.

Because much of Claire's former surface-walker profession involved writing research papers and correspondence and books, part of her mind troubled itself with finding the right English words for any occasion. In this case, it was the matter of what to call a group of titans — as in a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, a pod of whales, and a frolic of surrogate humans. School or shoal didn't do titan gatherings justice. Witnessing how many of Lakshmi's minds habitually slipped into politics and plots in the company of other titans, Claire decided that the best word would be intrigue.

Today's intrigue of titans was so thick; she couldn't hear or smell the ocean though she breathed its waters. Their presences impressed Claire as being alert — even hyper-alert — but the lot of them absently mumbled to themselves with voices and/or skin. It seemed like madness until Lakshmi shared the meeting's totality with her surrogates in time for the meeting's start.

Doris called the meeting to order with a gesture and began by saying with voice and skin, "We are here to make some sense of today's tragedy. I am sure that those of us who know Uzume are bewildered by her actions, to say the least. Xochiquetzal, Europa, Alilat, Gimokod, and I are releasing our investigation's preliminary results. Doubtless, there is much more to be discovered, so in truth our conclusions are best taken as theories and suspicions.

"Indications are that Samsara's murder was due to Black Water Youth conditioning performed on Uzume in her past. Uzume has likely gone insane and will probably interfere with the surface-walkers. That would void our Charter, which is likely what Black Water desires. It would force the return of Stroma Coalition to Waters and Ogma Conglomerate, indebting the Middle Kingdom Queen to them. Most of all it would give Achimi Conglomerate Charter primacy, and you know what they'd do.

Based on a conversation overheard by the ship shortly before the attack, we suspect that Samsara may have been murdered specifically in response to something Black Water would interpret as a threat to their interests.

Megaira's presence crackled. Everyone waited for the inevitable outburst, but she kept silent, which was more ominous than anything she could have said.

Though not of her clique, one of Uzume's confidants, Lakshmi, asked with bewildered skin, How? When could Uzume have been conditioned? I have never felt the slightest hint of trauma.

Alilat explained, There were no signs of trauma because her conditioning occurred when she was young — when she was indoctrinated as a Black Water Youth.

Again Megaira's presence crackled and again she said nothing. Clearly she had something she wanted to say, but she said nothing despite her distress. The rest decided it was well enough left alone.

Tris asked, You say that her murder may have been a response to a topic in their conversation. Tris. What could have triggered such a reaction? Tris.

Doris answered, There are several possible motives, but the timing of the assault is suggestive.

Because the conversation had wandered to her area of expertise, Alilat interrupted by asking everyone, Remember that treatment I prescribed earlier today?

The sudden change in subject confused Tris. Haltingly, she replied, Yes. Tris. It worked wonders. Tris. What was the toxin's source? Tris.

Soon after our arrival, we were infected by symbiotic algae the surface-walkers call zooxanthellae. They are even happier in our tissues than their usual hosts: this planet's corals.

If it's symbiotic, why did it make us ill? Tris.

They were dying in the depths to which we ventured since our initial survey. The treatment simply forced them to spore. They're still with us, waiting to be born again.

Kadru asked, Why should we keep them if they're such a bother?

Doris laughed. Oh, you'll want to keep them!

Alilat explained, These little darlings take our wastes and return oxygen and sugar without compromising any other system. They're Mother's own blessing. Nothing is as compatible in the known galaxy. They are our very own. Simply add a subprotocol to your maintenance routines that'll keep them as spores whenever you're not in shallow depths or near a suitable light source. Inaras is busy working on expanding their vital parameters for deeper depths and a broader light spectrum. If she's successful, all we need to do is keep the lights on.

Aruna asked, Is this why our food intake dropped after landing? It infected us that quickly?

Alilat answered, As I said, they are very happy with our anatomy, provided we don't go too deep for them.

Doris said, We suspect that this is why Uzume killed Samsara.

Aruna's skin tone shifted to bewildered shades that asked, For symbiotic algae? In Mother's name, why?

Doris explained, This endangers the Middle-Kingdom horticultural syndicates and ultimately the depending Abyssal-Kingdom horticultural supply syndicates. They maintain the fisheries upon which the Shallow-Kingdom populations depend. Remember how our needs waned while we were shallow? If this 'infection' spreads, so shall the Shallow-Kingdoms' nutritional needs dwindle — to the detriment of these franchises — not only for Waters but for every station and colony. Their business would be reduced to producing novelties or treats for special occasions rather than daily staples.

Though First of the First Sphere, Kirtibandha usually kept quiet at meetings. Her skin shivered, as if she had tasted someone's backwater, and said, I've had a very nasty thought. Did Uzume leave any surrogates in Waters?

What? Doris asked and then likewise shuddered when she realized the question's direction. Oh! No, thank Mother! That certainly would have been nasty. They'd scorch, freeze, or shatter everything to eradicate this. There's another reason to get hold of Uzume as fast as possible. If she's familiar with the theory, she might develop the equipment to make that call regardless. She may be sufficiently motivated to independently formulate the theory by extrapolating what she does know about interstellar arrays.

Megaira's skin laughed bitter patterns as her voices said, I doubt very much that she has anything on that subject in her libraries. As for the theory, it originally explained an accident. Her chances of duplicating that are almost absolutely nil.

Though doing her best to ignore Megaira's ill humor, Europa agreed with cautious colors, Likely not, but it never pays to underestimate the opposition — especially Uzume.

Likely not, Megaira said, sarcastically imitating Europa's patterns. Then, with voice, she broached a surprising change of topic. The surface-walkers are another complication. A global search for Uzume shall not go unnoticed. We must contact them in order to avoid misunderstandings.

As shocked as everyone else by her shipmate's proposal, Athtart said, Apologies for asking, but this unworthy person does not understand. Why discuss anything with them?

They could be of considerable use. Having already violated one convention, it is unlikely Uzume would leave the surface-walkers alone if she decides she needs more resources. They are better suited for recognizing abnormal behavior among their own people. Despite their simplicity, they have a civilization of some depth. They have an excellent collection of tragedies.

Athtart's startled colors relaxed as she chuckled and forgot to debase herself as she replied, Leave it to you to find new ways of being miserable.

Xochi said with reluctant colors, I must agree with Megaira. We cannot avoid contact with the surface-walkers. It's far better to establish relationships with key governments before any accidents happen. Mine have shown me that humans are remarkably adaptive creatures.

Kadru asked testily, Could your opinion of the surface-walkers have been influenced by your pride in your human surrogates?

Lakshmi answered before Xochi could, My experience with a native surface-walker, who is now my own, amply validates Xochi's observation. The species has great potential, if they survive.

Kadru quickly reconsidered. Two high-ranking consorts of rival cliques, who were certainly not fools, thought the surface-walkers worth contacting. Well, at least the points prevented a shift relative to each other. Though Megaira was of the outermost sphere and affiliated with no clique, it was amazing that this grim, ill-tempered consort cared to speak for surface-walkers of any sort. Megaira certainly had no surrogates to influence her opinion, so Kadru conceded — conditionally — in hopes of gaining a future point, Tell them only what they absolutely need to know.

Xochi agreed with skin that said, Certainly, while she explained with voice, Regardless of what we tell them, I'm sure they'll fathom the scope of our emergency simply because we speak to them. Meanwhile, we must retask the monitors our surfaced agents have spread. They must look for latent signs of tampering and accelerate their propagation within hosts with sufficient reserves to support their proliferation.

The patterns on Doris's body suggested that she was in agreement but had decided upon yet another course of action. She said, Yes, but before we confess ourselves to our neighbors, we should perform a bit of civic service to announce us and convince them of our good intentions. Athtart, prepare the ship for a local mission. It's time for some trash disposal.

Sedna interrupted, bringing up another topic, This planet has a dangerous condition that Uzume may exploit. There are massive reserves of methane ice — enough for a mass extinction if sufficiently disturbed. Not being a surface-walker sympathizer, she added with more humor than concern, The surface-walkers are trying to mine them for fuel, though some of their scientists suspect the risk.

In their time of legends, before dates were fixed to events, there were tales of their near extinction. In recorded history, volcanism and methane ice deposits were discovered to have been the calamity's origin. From then on, the Abyssal Kingdom performed seasonal disruptions of ice deposits to prevent another extinction event. Clearly, most surface-walkers had not realized the threat.

Doris shouted, What? Ridiculous! Don't these surface-walkers have any sense? Talk about a fool's game of chance!

Sedna's colors shifted to somewhat embarrassed shades before she said, Now is a good time to admit to a mistake.

A mistake? I take it that this touches upon this topic.

I'm afraid so. Since landing, my teams have encountered scattered features in the muddy bottom resembling boom troughs.

Boom troughs? Here? That's not possible.

Sedna wore relieved skin that said, Thank you for saying that. This was our conclusion also — they were very poorly done — but we were wrong.

Why do you say that?

Before the funeral, we were searching for Uzume and came upon an entire field of them. One side was badly managed, but someone was getting practiced toward the end. Something appears to have interrupted their work because there was much more they could have done.

Doris's skin flashed when she connected Sedna's revelation with the unforeseen vanished ice caps. She asked with disturbed colors, Are you saying that our people intentionally disrupted this planet's ecosystem?

Yes. I had my clique survey other regions with large methane ice patches and discovered exactly the same thing had happened in many of those locations.

Any idea when this happened?

Our examination of the sediment indicates that it happened little more than an enne-ennead ago.

That's not long after the initial global survey.

That's right. As I said, they appeared unfamiliar with the process when they began. Evidently, they didn't have access to the totalities for learning the proper technique. Whoever did this were not Abyssal Kingdomers.

Doris asked incredulously, The Achimi Conglomerate?

Sedna gestured affirmative as she added, Or one of their investors, trying to remove the surface-walker barrier to their Charter.

Everyone knew that Uzume, an Abyssal Kingdomer, was familiar with the danger. In her youth, she likely participated in controlled disruptions of Waters' methane ice deposits. If she wanted the surface-walkers removed, she'd do it with minimum effort and exposure. That would please the Achimi Conglomerate and their investors immensely.

Doris settled her selves before saying, Good point. We must guard against Uzume disrupting the ice deposits. If she manages, we could produce evidence of the earlier tampering. We might preserve the Charter on a technicality, but I doubt it. Am I right, Thyme?

The coalition's lawyer, Thyme, agreed, You are right. I doubt the technicality would hold. Achimi would benefit if Uzume succeeded because there would not be enough surface-walkers to prevent their Charter.

Beached

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Patrolling Africa's southwestern beaches was the favorite part of Kurt Rehder's job. Aside from an occasional passerby leaving trash, there wasn't much to do except stop the four-wheeler, peer through binoculars and listen to the surf turn his troubles into forgotten dreams. This day was like any other — better than most. It was that time of day and year when the sun made the Atlantic Ocean look dazzlingly beautiful. Times like this made him wish his wife were with him to share sights so rare as to be accounted miracles.

Accustomed to the normal action of surf against the stony beach, he didn't need binoculars to see that something was wrong up shore. He dropped into the driver's seat and drove. It could have been a dying seal or a small stranded whale, but something fought the crashing surf.

It took him less than two minutes to drive there. As his truck rolled to a stop, he gawked in amazement. A bald naked black girl struggled and cried in the surf. She faced the waves, not the shore, as if wanting to go into the frigid ocean. She was either confused or crazy. In waters so cold, a swim without protection was suicidal.

Kurt grabbed an old blanket and jumped out of his truck. The poor thing must have intended to swim out until she couldn't swim anymore, but the sea kept pounding her back to shore. Things often showed more sense than people. He dropped the blanket on the beach above the spray and ran into the surf, grabbing her arm. She slipped from his fingers as she spun around to angrily face him and then spun again to run away. When he glanced at what coated his fingers, a familiar odor struck him with astonishing intensity. Fish?

He shook thick clinging oil off his hand as he ran after her. Venturing much deeper into the surf than he wanted to, Kurt wrapped an arm around her waist and hauled her off her thrashing feet. Teeth chattering, he ran up to dry land with her kicking and screaming all the way.

He couldn't believe how cold she was — as cold as the sea — and she didn't shiver. It must have been deep hypothermia. She should have been dead, and yet she pulled away from him with a manic vigor he could barely master. Suddenly she went limp, hanging in his arm like an unstrung marionette. Clear of the surf, he gently lowered her onto the beach's stony pebbles, beside where he left the blanket.

Kurt knew the girl would certainly die if he didn't get her core temperature warm, but she was too cold for the blanket to do any good by itself. Draping the blanket over his shoulders, he lay down beside her and pulled her against his chest as he wrapped the blanket around them tightly. As he hugged her against him, the same thick curious odor, like fish and flowers, filled his nose.

He shuddered from the pain her flesh gave him. Hugging a block of dry ice couldn't have been worse. The cold bit and pricked his skin as if he had landed on a great nest of ants, and they were tearing into his chest and arms with their stingers and jaws. As he shivered with eyes clenched shut, withstanding the pain for her sake, he was amazed when he felt her stir against him.

They were face-to-face, so when Kurt's eyes opened, he realized that she had very oriental eyes. These black eyes looked into his with neither passion nor compassion. They simply focused on his face as if it were something to dissect and study in a lab. When Kurt opened his mouth to say something reassuring, her mouth immediately closed over his.

For an instant, Kurt thought it was some sort of insane kiss, but then he felt something trickle into his mouth just as her back arched against his arms. What followed was a salty gush of what tasted like brackish water. Some of it poured out his nose as he gagged and swallowed. He struggled to tear himself away, but his arms stuck to her. Her chest tugged his as her body convulsed, again and again, as she coughed thick fluids down a throat suddenly possessed to swallow every successive draft with the same enthusiasm they were offered. With his mouth covered, Kurt had to breathe though his nose, so he inhaled and sucked what had flooded his sinuses into his lungs.

Everything went hazy grey. Kurt had sudden doubts as to who — and if — he was at all. The struggle had long since dwindled to an end by the time two mouths finally parted, greedily panting air like spent runners. Their flesh no longer clung. Together they rolled on their sides, placidly regarding each other like old friends.

Her warm skin had since lightened to a soft olive color. She was no longer a mystery to him. He knew who she was and who he was now. She shivered and cuddled against him as he drew her tight against him, pulling the blanket tight around them. She really didn't have to say it, because he said it for her, I'm sorry.

An hour later at the Rehder household, Kurt's wife, Anne, was surprised to hear the kitchen door open and close. She was even more surprised when her husband stepped into the dining room, meeting her on her way to investigate. For some strange reason, she smelled something like fishy toilet water — or was it myrtle? The scent strengthened as her husband approached. Worried, she said, You're back early. Is something wrong?

Kurt seemed preoccupied, but he answered, No. Nothing's wrong. I took the day off.

Just like that, she said.

Yes, just like that, he said as he gathered her into his arms and lifted her like they were on their way to second honeymoon. I love you, he said with urgent passion.

I love you too, darling, but what are you doing? she asked as he rushed her to their bedroom. Without fanfare, he dropped her onto their bed, pinned her down hard with his body, and planted a wide kiss over her mouth as Anne tried to shout, Kurt!

Her arms and legs had wrapped around Kurt's waist and thighs from the impact of his body against hers. Reflex and surprise made her cling to him at first, but Anne soon discovered that she no longer had a choice. She couldn't let go. As she fought the tug of their clinging flesh, she felt Kurt spew something down her throat.

Anne stared in shock at the ceiling as she heard more than felt herself mechanically swallow everything that rushed down her throat. Somehow in the midst of the horror, she found acceptance, and in acceptance — the sublime. As this beautiful tranquility flowed through her, she wondered if she were dying, not truly caring what the answer might be.

The door creaked and a bald naked Oriental woman leaned over her, dripping oil and shivering under a coarse blanket. The intruder looked Anne in the one staring eye not obscured by her straining husband's head. That face held a trace of some indefinable emotion as Anne's vision slowly vanished into a fog that seemed to take every thought with it until she saw herself through their eyes and heard herself say, I'm sorry.

After they bathed and dressed, there were three hungry mouths at the Rehder's kitchen table early that afternoon. Two knew exactly where everything was and how to fix food that was strange to the third. This one soon caught on to how to use spoon, fork, and knife, what to season and with what sauce or spice, and even to smile when something was funny or frown when things got serious. There were gestures and eye contact and the occasional gentle touch, but all conversation was mute because they were all far too busy eating.

Kurt looked at Anne as he pointed a thumb in the newcomer's direction and then looked down to stab some more food with his greedy fork. Anne's eyes opened wide and turned toward their guest, reaching a hand out toward her. The little woman stopped eating long enough to let Anne stroke a naked brow with her thumb as she peered at it curiously. Anne's face turned back toward her husband with a smile. Kurt almost coughed. He dropped his fork and had another look at the face their fresh acquaintance offered for his own examination. He nodded as he and Anne returned to the business of eating. The subject of their inquiry put down her mango juice and rubbed her head in wonder as the other two watched, smiling while they chewed their food. The consensus was that she wouldn't be hairless for long.

Sounds of the school bus's brakes and its door opening to shouts and screams of wild exuberance told them that their kids were home from school. Anne was hoping their oldest boy wouldn't notice that someone wearing his pants when the others gave her the news.

Shocked, she sat up straight and blinked before finally slamming the fork down on the table. Kurt presented his hands, palms up, while he made a face as if he had delivered some undeniable point. She looked from her husband to the other and back again before reluctantly nodding.

Right, she said out loud, shaking the fork she snatched up and pointed it at each of them to emphasize, but not until they're asleep.

They heard the front door crash open as the Rehder children raced in. One of them shouted, Mommy, I'm thirsty!

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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.