William F. Prine
Could our bodies work if we held anything back?
Stroma's consorts were wrong in assuming their prince and his surrogate were playing games. In fact, they were immersed in a remembrance of the Earth Charter review. For a little while, they forgot all that had passed since to remember that day precisely as it was.
Stroma hoped that when they emerged, the contrast between then and now would reveal the cause of Samsara's murder. In addition to his own memories, he added Europa's recollections of that day, which had been submitted for the inquest. His consorts didn't know he had that. Kirti was far from the coalition's only hacker, and no one ever suspected a male of subtlety.
The day of the review came during the season of Satan's Decline. His mother's palace drifted northeast in the subduction portion of the Qudlivun Current's Elderbane variant. The whepoketta, fat with poisonous eggs, were off the menu though they constituted a majority of the palace. Their placid shoals bolstered the walls and corridors, dissuading unwanted intrusions with the press of their swirling numbers, lighting its passages with their presence and providing privacy for the occupants of the adjoining chambers. They and the minority species swimming with them gave the waters of every hall a unique flavor, telling those who were familiar of their precise location within a flowing complex whose scope rivaled Earth's Mexico City. It contained far fewer people. The Abyssal Mother grew folks bigger in the planet Waters.
Even princes needed to keep physically fit, but if any prince swam outside their palace, the alarm would stop local traffic. Consequently Stroma's exercises were confined to a swim mill.
These artificial creatures were originally designed to operate the transit tubes of Shallow-Kingdom cities. Gifted with gadgetry, it wasn't long before the conglomerate producing them realized the organic pumps could keep shippers fit during long voyages. They became standard fixtures within ships. Then some consort remembered that a healthy prince was a prolific prince and added them to her palace. Discovering a new outlet for their product, the conglomerate's marketing did the rest. Now, no palace in any kingdom would be without them.
Stroma's motive caching reminded him of the day's itinerary. He signaled the swim mill to interrupt his usual routine. Its waters slowed until his hot muscles cooled. When he was ready, it opened an orifice and ejected him into a waiting swarm of cleaners that scrubbed and siphoned every bit of skin until nothing of interest remained. The cleaners dispersed into the gym's undulating wall as Stroma turned toward a section of wall that swam out of his way. In the corridor beyond, he turned toward his goal.
As he passed down the empty twisting corridor, he realized that his presence was as nervous as he felt. Stroma stopped to enjoy a rare moment's solitude and calm himself. Shaking out nine arms from shoulders to arms to branches to branchlets to clusters and flying-blades, Stroma counted prime numbers in nine different bases and proofed division-by-zero as he groomed a particularly twitchy branchlet. He had good reason to be nervous. Today his coalition would meet with the League of Kingdoms in their bid to make his virtual visit to Earth a reality. Among Stroma's minds, Neil crowed like Peter Pan.
Enneads had passed since Samsara's inspired Earth totality, and yet he couldn't escape thinking like his would-be-human surrogate at the oddest moments. Though no one else knew why, his notoriously precocious nature now had an eccentric edge that worried Ogma's First, the Queen Mother, and triggered gleeful laughs among his consorts. Morale was high, as surface-walkers would say.
His relationship with his consorts had improved since his return from that totality. He wasn't the only one weary of his mother's dominance. Pressured by her constant demands, it was all too easy to become unpleasant and edgy in her sons' coalitions. There was no debate when he announced his intention to bring Samsara into their coalition. Everyone needed help. No one ever questioned her abilities, but her allegiances were inscrutable. After the sharing-of-flesh, no doubts were possible. He didn't disabuse them of that illusion. He knew Samsara's interests were wider than any coalition or conglomerate could embrace.
A human expression came to mind that
all good things must end when he felt a disturbance cascade through the walls from the way head. It wasn't much, a startled break in the cadence and sweep of the palace elementals. Stroma affected an absent minded swim toward the intrusion as his skin took on social tones for the typical palace passersby who were invariably of-the-flesh: Stroma Coalition or Ogma Conglomerate. Brother Phragmites' coalition was elsewhere for the duration of the Earth Charter review.
Not all patrols kept the swimming walls from closing neglected corridors. Some, like Tris, passed without leaving warding scents, swimming in long uniform sweeps of feathery arms thick with things far more offensive than the usual stingers, stunners, and flying-blades.
In their vanguard, surrogate eels with their mistresses' eyes looked down every bend and intersection, even slipping through walls to investigate anything unusual. Stroma recognized these by their mistresses' odor: Emain and Farel, two of his father's lower-ranking consorts.
The eels knew him by scent to be flesh of the King and Queen. Their mistresses were by sharing-of-flesh Ogma Coalition consorts, as his consorts were of Stroma, and all in brother Phragmites' coalition. Regardless of station, surrogates and all, they were family.
Farel joined as 157th, long before he was born; Emain, 298th, about the time of his birth. Though far from useless, they were quickly surmounted by talented, smart, hard-working consorts who made themselves far more useful. Now they were 415th and 461st and never did anything that would rate a higher-ranking sister-consort granting them their station in any of the King's copulars. With practically no prospect for children in their spheres, they were like spinster aunts at surface-walker family reunions who took joy in pinching or kissing the cheeks of nieces and nephews.
Emain heartily greeted him as they rounded the bend,
Ah! Good day, my prince! She wore surprised skin as if her eel hadn't noticed him. Perhaps her unborn were better off. A natural actor, Stroma pretended to be happy to see them, his bodyskin streaming glad colors.
The slippery give and take of court life witnessed from his mother's branches taught him this was a gift he had to perfect or suffer his brother's fate: oblivion as a faceless nexus of Ogma's burgeoning splendor. He watched this happen, thinking that he'd know better. Despite himself, it later happened to him. Then Samsara's Earth totality opened him to new possibilities.
While this passed through Stroma's minds, Farel made the human equivalent of a pompous harrumph and said,
Really! I doubt very much if it'll be a good day for any but our rivals when our prince's coalition disgraces the entire Ogma-Phragmites-Stroma Conglomerate with their foolish proposal.
How could they do that? Emain asked innocently, playing to their audience of one.
Farel acted like it was being forced out of her, bright yellow specks blooming out until they almost overwhelmed her glowing purple complexion as her voices blurted out,
By making grand fools of themselves!
Oh! Today... is the day? Oh my! She laid a consoling branchlet on Stroma's arm, inside the first branch. In human terms, this was the proverbial hand-on-the-thigh. It was so ludicrous; he almost polluted their water. As he struggled to contain himself, she said,
Don't worry, my prince, you don't have to expose yourself. Hide and let your consorts do the talking. There's nothing you can do to help.
In the days before Samsara, he might have done that to simply get away from them. He let his luminescence fade a tad and shifted his pattern into worried mottled lines. His humor almost got the better of his self-control. Instead, it enhanced the effect by making his features tremble with what they took for remorse.
Stroma suffered a clinging hug from Emain as she said,
Now, now. Don't let it bother you. Things like this happen when we forget our station. Let it be a lesson you remember the next time pride gets the better of common sense.
As they all turned to resume their journeys, he said,
Yes. I won't forget. Farel gave him a playful swat as they parted company.
He left them inwardly laughing, as he knew they surely were. Their fall to the bottom might not be all that slow after all. Not that it really mattered. They were practically at the outer sphere already, a clique notoriously full of embittered ambitions, jealousy, and complacency. He wondered briefly what it was like for his outside girls. He should ask Samsara.
Like Hi'iaka (his Seventy-Second), Samsara made herself useful without being asked. She never imposed herself, but her mere presence commanded respect. No one forget her good works. Thyme, their foremost lawyer, insisted that Samsara take promotions required by law for services rendered, but her rise was not far enough to remove her from where he suspected she wanted to be: outside.
Alone once more, he paused to consider. Yes, it could be mighty stifling inside. Unlike her, he was stuck at the center. He flung out an arm and then two more, dismissing that thought and resuming his swim. To think such petulant thoughts were once routine. Old habits die hard.
Samsara had new company in the shippers: Athtart, Megaira, and Yami. They were invited into their coalition on her recommendation. Upon Samsara's sharing-of-the-flesh, she and he cosigned a coalition-wide memo. It was a question: Does anyone want to stay with Ogma? The response was swift and unanimously negative. The resulting dialogue led to the formulation of their Earth Charter ambitions.
Ogma Coalition had a firm hold on Stroma-Phragmites' gills, so to speak, because the conglomerate was by his mother's design. It controlled her sons' coalitions by maintaining their absolute dependence on the senior partner, so growth was always to Ogma's benefit. The only way out of the conglomerate was by winning a League of Kingdoms pioneer Charter. There was a need for a way station in Earth's stellar neighborhood.
The shippers' entry into Stroma's coalition was their first substantial stroke in achieving that goal. The shippers and their ship provided significant space-faring expertise. The second stroke followed immediately after Athtart, Megaira, and Yami's sharing-of-flesh. They petitioned to contest Achimi Conglomerate for the Earth Charter. Now, they had everybody's attention.
Emain and Farel were nothing compared to the planetary and interstellar exchanges and markets gossiping and rumor mongering worse than nymphs waiting for naptime to end. Stroma Coalition's array was nearly overloaded, deciding which correspondence was worth review, let alone answering. What must Ogma's traffic be like? Correspondence between the his coalition and his mother's conglomerate was strangely quiet today. Were they resigned to losing them or did they conspire to keep them?
The assembly chamber was monstrous. It was meant to accommodate huge meetings, but it was filling fast. Europa Seventh-of-Stroma supposed it was the novelty of a Middle Kingdom coalition asking for a Charter to a star system across the galaxy. If guests kept arriving, they'd need to urge the palace to make more room. There was another problem. Ogma was being understandingly, if excessively, stingy, so their coalition larder was hard-pressed to feed the arriving horde that may just turn around and bite them — figuratively, of course — by meeting's end.
No wonder Kulimina's surrogate takeaway, Zanahary, seemed nervous. She was a beautiful, flamboyant animal, better suited to open ocean. Takeaways use to hunt their ancestors, but their people had grown since then. Zanahary did not like being inside. Stroma's Sixty-Ninth should take better care of her surrogate.
Europa turned to inquire as to the comfort of their more important guests when Uzume raced by and snatched her arm with a youngster's giddy joy,
She's here! I can't believe she's made it!
Europa caught up with her hyperextended arm and her home-water-friend, laughing,
Hey, hey, hey, hey! What's the rush? Who's here?
It's.... Uzume was so overcome with excitement she interrupted herself with a boom and a screech, finally saying,
Oh, it's too wonderful to say!
Europe's gills puckered and billowed as they broke into as hard a swimming stroke as could be managed with only eight arms. They almost swam square into Megaira Eighty-First of Stroma, which did nothing to improve her already legendary temper. When Europa felt the presence they were racing toward, her temper matched Megaira's.
It was Black Water's so-called First Mother, Atai. She was First in a rather poorly managed coalition that owed most of its wealth to a dubious inheritance from the former First Dark Mother, Holawaka. There was a lot of stale water in speculation of how Holawaka managed to accumulate that.
Europa had some evidence she had direct links to the worst element of the Abyssal Kingdom's Black Water institution—wrapped in patriotism, suffused in blood. Gathering that much nearly cost her Gimokod's friendship. Sometime soon, she'd find out why her sister-consort wouldn't give everything to her. Old confused allegiances no doubt.
Uzume called to Atai with far more affection than that one deserved,
Welcome, First Mother! We're so glad you could make it!
Europa saw no point in correcting Uzume's presumption. Besides, perhaps her sincerity would make Atai careless; perchance to let slip some fact she could follow to the truth. How she'd love to know where that one made the worms happy!
Atai affected smiling deep-water colors whose pattern's spoke,
Well, if it isn't Uzume and... Europe. How is your mother, my child?
So much for her chances of being mistaken for another acolyte. Europa gave her cocky patterns, saying with voice,
Thank you for asking! She's doing marvelously, having won back far more than was taken. She expects to clear the waters between the two of you shortly.
How nice. I wish her luck, she said in tones Uzume likely thought gracious but looked profoundly sarcastic to Europa. Though she looked carefree, Atai's presence was growing tense by degrees.
Continuing with voice, she answered smoothly,
I'll be sure to pass that along. She'll be quite encouraged. I know I find myself inspired to bring your good works to light. That last was as close as one could politely say, "I'll see you beached on a bright bad-season morning."
Uzume was getting uncomfortable, rapidly coming to the conclusion she had made a terrible mistake in bringing her. Struggling to find a change of topic, she said in fawning colors,
What do you think are our chances of winning the Charter, First Mother?
I think they're very good. Wherever you go, daughters, I'm confident you shall forever remember your water.
Yes, First Dark Mother, Europa answered with a taste of irony as she pondered the phrase. Obviously, that wasn't directed at her because it had no meaning.
Always, First Mother.
Uzume's fervent response startled Europa. She briefly wondered how someone so clever could be so blindly patriotic. Motive caching, anticipating the need to know, highlighted a portion of Uzume's biography. Uzume was a former Black Water Youth. Europa shuddered, remembering her brief tenure at one of their campuses. The poor kid.
Her mother had sent her there to gain discipline, but that changed when she discovered they had isolated Europa from even domestic array access. There were no letters from camp. When her mother asked why, they said it was part of her "purification."
She was being "purified" all right. When mother swam in unannounced, she found her starved, in cold sleepless isolation, with only thugs calling themselves Youth Leaders for company. It took Europa a cycli to regenerate her damaged branchlets and enneads before her mother forgave herself.
If Uzume was the product of such purification, she was intensely grateful to her mother for her rescue. Proud too. Her daughter's withdrawal and subsequent prosecution of the youth movement cost her politically. She lost spheres of rank, but as she told Atai, she had since more than compensated. It was no longer damning to question and criticize Black Water. No wonder Atai looked so uncomfortable.
To Uzume and Atai's scarcely repressed relief, Europa excused herself from their company. Wanting to be as far as possible as fast as possible, Europa passed Megaira — this time at a polite distance and speed.
Comfortably distant from Atai and her entourage, Europa slowed to an absent swim, considering their conversation. Her mother would want to know Atai was here. Uzume was right; her appearance here was mighty unusual. There were three other abyssal sister-consorts who might know. She composed and transmitted a letter home along with a record of their conversation. The record also went to Pachamama, Sedna, and Gimokod with a brief query:
Does the phrase 'remember your Water' mean anything to you?
When she returned her full attention to those around her, she noticed a sudden tension in the chamber. Short of an emergency, that meant they were in the company of a fertile male: almost an emergency. Europa had no doubt who that was, since King Ogma was unlikely to grace the assembly with an appearance.
She had no trouble finding him. She just followed his scent and said with voice as soon as she felt his presence,
Good day, my prince. Are you well rested?
Stroma swam to her and embraced. His skin said,
I'm surprised I am, as busy as things have been. Releasing her, he made a show of stretching his masculinely short arms.
That was brave for him because Europa knew he was uneasy in the company of so many strangers. She made conversation.
Don't worry. We are all ready.
I know, he said laughing,
Emain suggested I hide, moments ago. She joined him in laughing colors after he related the whole story. They hurriedly returned to somber tones, but their patterns were still a little merry.
For security's sake, Europa initiated a conversational totality between them. Her skin said,
Those two are hopeless. Emain's in thorough disfavor with your mother. That's why Uzume used Farel to pass on some choice bits of misinformation, as part of our propaganda.
Do you think she believes her?
Please! This is Uzume! I think she could deceive your mother, let alone Farel. She has described Farel as a hopeful skeptic — expecting deception — but always looking for reasons to believe good news.
I know that's right! he said, softly clapping a set of flying-blades together in agreement. Consumed with curiosity, he asked,
How did she manage it?
Well, everyone knows Uzume has never been in shallow waters. As part of the usual social chatter, she confessed some apprehension about the alien shallows to which our enterprise would send her. Of course Farel was all comfort and sympathy even as she said little things to appeal to her fear. Meanwhile, Uzume used her frank misgivings to slip in lies and half-truths Farel willingly swallowed.
Stroma looked worried and asked,
Would Uzume be all right in Earth's shallows?
I think so. Shallow or not, Uzume's been in favor of your project right from the start. Samsara is helping her. Well, you know how close they've become. I'm told they've been to the Shallow Kingdoms, in totality, and later trained her up in an Earth totality. She may never feel at home, but she'll be fine.
I'm glad. What's this? he asked when she spun around and presented a package to him with an arm that had been on the far side.
A present, my prince. I made a quick abyssal trip to a farm I knew well in my youth. Open it now. You won't have any time to enjoy it later.
He did as he was told, and a delightful aroma spilled out of the torn wrapping. It was a pickled tubeworm, big enough to give a human oceanographer a fit and simply chocked full of anaerobic bacteria and sulfur.
Great Mother! It's beautiful and smells so good! What did I do to deserve this? What's the occasion?
Nothing special. I'm simply very happy to be your consort. How this day ends can't change that. I have to go. They embraced before she left him to his treat.
Tearing the wrapping asunder, several of the pinnules of that arm's branchlets closed around the worm and began shredding its flesh to a consistency suitable for his radiagastral system to process through that branch's mouths, at the base of each branchlet, through arm, to the core alimentary tract. It was delicious, if a bit chewy. There was nothing like hot food, particularly when there was a constant stomach-teasing background clatter that went something like
After the ceremony that made Europa his consort, his mother sent her on a mission to her home waters. Stroma never found out what that mission was, but Europa jumped seventy ranks, becoming Seventh upon her return without a single word of protest from her former superiors. It was he who held the grudge — for her absence.
It wasn't the ventworm's flavor he savored so much as his tender moments with Europa before Samsara became his Seventy-Ninth. Stroma never knew an apology could cost so little and bring such friendship. Courtship with her was no longer a formality, but a passion that all but led to copular. There was another occasion to regret his Princelink suspicions. He could tell motive caching to make him forget Princelink, but that wouldn't be right. Princelink would simply haunt him in other ways. Remembering a lesson taught by Samsara during his fanciful Earth exile, he immediately cued motive caching for a new directive forbidding it from confusing a desire to forget Princelink for a command.
Meanwhile, a stately presence rose on buoyancy and said with voice,
I must say, Stroma, I like the change Samsara has brought in you. It was Doris, his First. She had been his First from the beginning. She was also the largest. Perhaps that accounted somehow for her boundless generosity, even for a potential rival. Then again, perhaps not. Long-armed Kadru — second in size, Fifth in rank — was nearly as apoplectic as the Queen Mother when he brought Samsara into their coalition, though his Fifth soon appreciated her help.
He said to Doris with voice,
Thank you. Please have some ventworm.
Firmly, but not unkindly, her skin said,
Don't be ridiculous. My shallow tastes could never manage it.
Stroma's skin laughed as he said,
Oh? Afraid you'll give the screamers something to scream about?
Look out below, she said in a queasy sounding parody of open-water toilet protocol. They laughed and several branches intertwined.
The prince teased her branchlets, saying in an intimate tone,
Samsara has brought an appreciation for what I have.
Doris drew her little prince into her arms and made a show of fussing over his appearance. Meanwhile, one arm played in a manner that had nothing to do with hygiene. His branchlet followed suit as her caresses became bolder. Shallow tastes or not, she evidently liked how the ventworm flavored him. The amorous pair withdrew to a polite distance when they noticed his surrounding consorts' bioluminescence was changing color in response to their odor. Now was not a time for sex-play.
Sink the meeting, he muttered with mock impatience.
She laughed and wagged a branchlet at him.
Now, now. Can't do that to a conference we called. Cheer up. If we're successful today, we'll have plenty of time for fun and games during the trip. She punctuated that last sentence by sweeping her branches through his, giving him one last taste of her aroused flesh before they settled down.
In dreamily colored patterns she said,
I would very much like to see this world that has so captivated you. I've studied it. Why is it so different?
Abyss knows. Some theories suggest their large satellite stabilized Earth's spin, allowing stable ecosystems to develop beyond the oceans. Statistically, it is a fact most intelligent surface dwellers originate from paired planetary bodies. Regardless, chance could have easily favored other life forms. Chance many humans call Mother Nature no matter what their faith.
The surprising parallel to their faith and pride in her sex made her laugh,
Yes. I thought that would please you. The Mother is praised all over Earth, but because they are surface-walkers, they believe the Mother resides in the earth.
The earth? Doris left him laughing,
Girls. Girls! You've got to hear this!
Samsara swam up beside him and slipped her branches into his. She sounded almost amazed with herself when she said,
I've always liked Doris.
She thinks highly of you too, he said. Stroma studied Samsara's relaxed posture, odor, and skin, envying her composure. She had lost her girlish presence since becoming his consort. That was almost to be expected, but he wouldn't have expected that of Samsara. Her muscle mass was approaching a trooper's bulk. This was probably a component in some fresh intrigue. Oh, yes, she needed watching.
Samsara noticed his thoughtful silence and asked suspiciously, as if he were the source of all mischief,
Stroma, what's on your minds?
He answered with his first thought,
I wish I had your presence.
You shouldn't. Half of our visitors are picking their branchlets over me.
Yes. Why is that? I've noticed you occasionally give even my mother the jitters.
Most have heard stories and wonder about my motives. The rest only think they know me, fearing the imagined odors and echoes I encourage. Your mother and I have had history long before she won your father. Both of us are constrained from ever relating those episodes. She knows me well enough to try to buy my good will with gifts, position, and kind words to key contacts in her network of friends. She even offered you.
The revelation startled Stroma. The luminescence of every inch of skin flashed and blacked out. He asked with voice only,
Why didn't you accept?
Stroma, remember to never take as a gift what you'll have anyway. Gratitude can be costly in politics, particularly if the debt is unnecessary. I certainly wanted you, but I wanted you to want me.
His skin sparkled back to life as he absently played with her branchlets. Attempting to use her news to peek past her enigma, Stroma casually asked Samsara,
Why was mother trying to appease you?
She knows I think she threatens that which I value: Diversity. She has strong alliances in every depth of this and several other planets. There are too many like her in the other kingdoms. Consequently, array traffic has gotten as unexciting as the whepoketta around us. Empty indulgence has replaced a thirst for knowledge. Should we be plankton?
His skin said cheerfully,
I hope not.
Quite right. Your mother's rule has been mostly benign, if constricting. That can't last. Sooner or later, she or another like her shall squeeze too hard and lose control. Thereafter, the quest for power dominates, diminishing everyone and releasing chaos throughout the ranks of the plankton she's creating. Now, I'm all in favor of a bit of chaos, but amidst folk well able to fend for themselves and shelter their own. Otherwise, everything flies into anarchy. The plankton mindlessly sort themselves — predators and prey.
He felt a range of emotions assail his reason. He hastily made conversation as he sorted them out,
So what we intend to do today would help her as well as us.
It can't help but help her. Your mother means to have too much. I intend to prevent her expansion by our defection. In doing so, we'll promote her well-being, and more importantly, Diversity's.
So... Stroma's voice stuttered twice after that first attempt. He continued with skin talk in hurt colors,
So I am not only my mother's tool, but yours?
Just so, Samsara admitted with seemingly rash candor. She added,
There is a difference.
What is that? he asked, desperate to believe in her friendship. He was afraid he couldn't possibly after this confession.
Your mother makes tools of those she loves. I love who I use. A tool has no choice, but you are aware and can stop my use of you at any time. I've heard you made a joke of it, but you could postpone the conference. Since the plan calls for the removal of a prince from the planet, you could cancel the entire project, even after our arrival — and no one, not even I, would blame you.
He swam over her and ran a few arms across her body.
I'll think about it, his skin's pattern whispered in teasingly delicate pastels, adding in bolder colors,
Still, I wish I had your presence.
She laughed, grabbed an arm, and spun him into a brief dance, seemingly careless of the fact he could spoil her plans at any moment. Between them, she imitated Doris's tone, saying,
Don't be ridiculous and don't be shy! Returning to her own voice and patterns, she explained,
You're the only male in an assembly of females. Use your sex appeal when you need time to come up with a good answer. When you have a good answer, present it calmly. Though you may stink of fear, they would account you a rare male with forthright female courage. Regardless of the outcome, your mother has to acknowledge that there's something very wrong when her son wants to cross the galaxy to get out of her clutches. Either way, we can't lose.
Stroma's expression was every bit as confident as Samsara's. Inwardly, he wondered why she needed to convince him everything was fine. Regardless of the outcome? Then there was Europa, bearing extra special gifts. Was this to relieve the pressure they all felt or did they suspect that they hadn't a chance?
His personal array notified him that links to various levels of the meeting were activating: complimentary tokens and credentials offered, protocols queried and accepted between a swiftly growing number of observers and participants. Though many were going to participate personally, most couldn't make the trip for any number of reasons. Some had previous commitments elsewhere. Some didn't care to suffer the rigors of his mother's hospitality. Others simply didn't think it important enough to bother changing their agendas. Present or not, they were undoubtedly attending — if for no reason other than the novelty of a prince not only attending, but taking part.
Additionally, anything involving Ogma Coalition was big news. A multitude of contracts depended upon this meeting's outcome. Would the conglomerate end the day minus an arm? If so, how would this affect the planetary and galactic markets? Who was to profit? He laughed when the answer occurred to him: Samsara's Diversity.
A tremor passed through the assemblage, shaking Stroma from his reverie. Danann, queen of the Shallow Kingdom's Kuat Coalition and this meeting's speaker, called everyone to order. She paused before beginning,
Today's meeting addresses the issue of Stroma Coalition's bid for the Earth Charter. If any attending has not studied the petition's prospectus, do not indulge any temptation to take part in this discussion at peril of your reputation. The subject matter is voluminous; the repercussions, substantial. She paused once more for emphasis.
First of Stroma, she said naming Doris by title, a mannerism at once formal and slightly condescending given the circumstances.
It is upon this point I must express some wonder at a coalition of this vintage proposing a plan of this scope.
Stroma would have shaken his head if he had one. Danann had a reputation for being provocative, but the speed with which she envenomed Doris's ego was amazing. He hoped he was the only one who noticed how unnerved she was when she asked,
What has age to do with this? We have all that is necessary.
Shallow Kingdom skin tones tended to be overdone in darker waters. The puzzled colors erupting across the queen's skin were almost painful to see. She asked,
But how is that possible? Individual age is not the issue, but rather your coalition's. Your young prince has only eighty-two consorts. Three hundred might tackle something this ambitious, but....
To everyone's astonishment, particularly his own, Stroma found himself interrupting,
I beg your pardon, Queen Danann, but you have my First at a disadvantage.
The Shallow Waters First-of-First's affectation of bewilderment instantly fell away. His concern for Doris had blundered him into her wit's flying-blades. He felt them cut as she asked,
Have I, Prince Stroma? Well then, can you answer or will you be silent?
His skin flashed, pausing as Samsara had suggested earlier before replying with voice,
She is baffled because if anyone other than yourself had asked, she would have swiftly answered: Ridiculous! A stranger to our world could succeed if only they knew to ask either you or her for aid. We can do this precisely because our First is Doris! She is the queen of supply and demand. If you want someone to state the obvious, I am amply suited to that task.
Doris is First in a coalition of marvels. In this, my mother has been generous. He paused to let that sink in before he continued,
Phragmites and I have been blessed with all that might have rivaled her in Ogma, had not their ambitions been divert with offers of her sons. My outer sphere is filled with individuals who could have reached the first two of most others, if not co-centrum. Despite their excellence, have no doubt Doris shall always be First. None of them would dispute the fact that it's largely because of her that we have the connections necessary to support this Charter.
Patronizing patterns played over Danann's countenance as she said,
Your pride in Doris, and your coalition does you credit, my prince, but surely you exaggerate.
Among Stroma's many minds, the tactician wondered what the shallow kingdom queen was up to while the rest of him responded,
To the contrary, my confidence could be justified in any court of law. The subject of law brought to mind the speaker's recent misfortune. Motive caching brought up a catalog celebrating the exploits of a particular consort on conglomerate business. He followed that trend by saying,
My first exhibit would appropriately be Thyme, my Fourth, who won for our conglomerate several punishing suits.
Meanwhile, codex from Doris's link flashed him urgently, asking,
What are you doing?
That link became a person-to-person totality as he explained,
Samsara had reminded me that the competition has cause to regret our talents. He sent her the results of his array's impromptu research.
Though publicly confident, her expression on their link was dubious until she digested his food for thought. Grudgingly, she agreed,
All right, but remember our goals. We don't want their resentment.
On their coalition-wide link, he passed along a conclusion just reached by Tactician,
Danann is an ally in this meeting. She knows us too well to question our abilities. The speaker is goading us to inform others before opinions can harden against us. No one disagreed.
In the assembly's presence, Stroma continued, reading from his freshly compiled script,
One of our latest acquisitions, Athtart, is an experienced galaxy-class fleet-captain who has negotiated with myriad life forms and cultures: both through intermediaries and surrogates. She has not contributed to date in conglomerate matters, but have no doubt her skills would send a powerful arm into the galaxy should today's bid fail. He almost felt a shudder pass through every conglomerate rival at the thought: Ogma-Phragmites-Stroma GalactInc.
Stroma skipped a few codex strings for something to rattle Abyssal Kingdom nationalism. Many there considered the Middle Kingdoms a bunch of pious relics bent on restoring the old order under his mother's leadership. This should remind them that all of the conglomerate's abyssal members — therefore the best and brightest to their minds — were in his coalition,
For my third exhibit, I would direct your attention to Pachamama, my Seventeenth, whose prediction of the volcanic outbreak in the abyssal Jeikeha district established our conglomerate's pioneering horticultural presence there.
He mumbled the rest almost as if it didn't matter, but it was clear enough for everyone to get the message,
By the way, the franchise was secured by Uzume, my Twentieth; its subsequent success, the result of market and production guidelines established by Europa, my Seventh. Gimokod, my Sixty-Third, settled the matter of the as yet unnamed group responsible for the initial vandalism. Now there was a bone pile Black Water didn't want found any time soon! Their abyssal sponsors would love to see a million light-cycli between them and his to keep that quiet.
Stroma threw out his arms in a there-you-have-it gesture as he concluded,
I think I've made my point. We have the resources to fulfill every term of this Charter. We can use them, there, or we can use them here.
Danann thanked him with barely civil overtones, blithely changing the subject as if he said nothing that mattered. Outwardly, Stroma looked a little offended, but his skin lied.
A Conglomerate link demanded his attention. He checked the sender's ID, though he had a good idea who it was, and agreed to her protocol for a standard person-to-person totality.
What are you doing? his mother, Queen Toi-Mata First of Ogma, asked with voice. Not a single bit of light shown from her wrinkled, bumpy skin. It was rage that gave her this complexion. This totality featured their depth's normal lighting, so to his eyes she was an obscure silhouette in the dark violet above. She was clear to his presence.
Stroma refused to be intimidated despite the fact he suspected she snuck up her scale to make her female bulk more formidable. His colors spoke to her shadow,
I should think that's obvious, Mother.
Her skin relaxed and shimmered a bit as her arms made a calming gesture, more for her benefit than his, as she said,
Okay. Let's talk. Why are you doing this?
Stroma almost laughed at her, but avoided that by answering,
If you mean why am I supporting my consorts' petition, I'll put it plainly. We want out, Mother. You won't let us go, so we're finding our own way. Sorry about the mess, but it can't be helped.
After a moment's silence, she tried a different tact,
This is Samsara's doing. I won't forgive this you know.
Momentarily afraid for Samsara, he used a bit of anger to color his counterthrust,
Petulance does not become you. She's of-the-flesh. Don't consider touching us without considering the secrets we know. That was too close to the matter of Princelink, so he obscured that by explaining,
Never mind the things you managed to talk my consorts into doing. As a nymph in your branches, I've heard you discuss matters that would over-qualify you as a Black Water Dark Mother or a Coral Gables Sand Keeper.
Flattery shall get you nowhere, she said, refusing his provocations.
Besides, Samsara saved your honor.
That broke the flow of her idle-time patterns. Her voices asked,
Did she? as casually as possible while her patterns restored themselves to a slightly faster pace.
I won't tell you how, but it's true.
All right, I'll take for granted that it's true. Since you haven't told me about this before, I doubt if you'll explain. I am grateful for our honor. The rest I won't forgive.
Why not? Long before I knew Samsara, I've forgiven you for sacrificing your children for your ambitions, instantly regretting the almost accusation. Attempting to broaden his meaning, he added,
You've reduced your sons and daughters to vassals and pawns.
It's as well she had a protocol running her skin in public. Within their totality, her skin issued an alarmed flash followed by a helter-skelter complexion that was worthy of the sudden appearance of some legendary predator. Had he struck Princelink with that remark about her sons? If so, she covered herself by answering to her daughters' plight. She shouted,
How many times do I have to explain to people? I am no tyrant! His mother explained, more to herself than to him,
I hold no slaves. Everyone is free to go!
Rather than let her distract him from the meeting any longer, he withdrew most of his selves from the conversation, leaving Gamester to play a rear-guard action sufficient to enact the closing lines of his mother's farce.
My sisters, perhaps, he said,
but Phragmites and I are stuck with you.
Your brother has never complained.
Gamester thought that was really lame, wondering if there was as much of her as him in this conversation. Both sides were cutting their losses in this arena as they prepared to play their parts in the other. He told the last of her,
That's my brother's problem. I am not my brother.
Indeed you're not, she said, breaking their link.
When his full attention returned to the meeting, his personal array brought Gamester up-to-date on the current topic. His Fourteenth, Aruna, addressed a matter raised by Kasogonaga, Preeminence of the Galactic Trade Union.
Kasogonaga had said,
I must admit the plan has merit. What concerns me is our commitment to the Non-Interference Doctrine. Too much of this plan depends upon your assessment of surface-walker psychology.
Stroma's personas were fully involved by the time Aruna replied,
We shall demonstrate in the upcoming presentation that our analysis of their essential nature is sufficient to initiate phase one. The conventions are not threatened if this program is followed. Admittedly, it skirts the limits of the Doctrine's guidelines, but we are committed to go no further.
Commendable, but you have just admitted that the integrity of the guidelines is nearly at hazard. Why risk their violation?
First contact is itself interference, particularly if the culture in question is not ready. Their fragility is taken into account at every stage of this plan. Phase one of our plan establishes a network of human surrogates in their society. Their initial task is to survey their hosts' psyches as well as to familiarize themselves to the prevalent mores, manners, and fashions. They shall then position themselves to present our propaganda through their local and worldwide media arrays. Phase two would apply various methods of implantation to enforce the illusion that we do not exist. To insure accidents are ignored, phase two shall not be implemented until the propaganda has been generally accepted. Phase three....
Phase two and three are not contested. What shall phase one's propaganda say?
You aren't alone. We are friends. You are alone. We are not real. We are legend. We are a commercial.
They sound contradictory, but the appropriate message, like an implant finding its niche, shall find the appropriate audience. Those who are fit to know shall know without making a fuss. Those who are unfit shall regard an accidental overflight by a bulk liner as a publicity stunt.
Since there are no obvious agencies to contact, we shall contact them through entertainment. Their institutions treat the possibility that there are other people in the universe as academic at best; at worst, as well-favored vehicles for mythological metaphors. The last Aruna said with amused colors.
Mythological metaphors? Kasogonaga asked, bewildered.
Yes, that's one aspect of their entertainment. You will recall that as recently as a thousand enneads ago the so-called Holy Realm treated religion as the axis around which all answers depended. Such is the case for Earth, where sensitive issues are often confronted as metaphor. Their speculative fiction is the safest because they see so much of it as being so beyond measure as to be fantasy.
You seem well versed in their sociology. Are you an expert on Earth's surface-walkers?
No, not in the least.
Does your coalition have such an expert?
That sounded like his cue. Stroma sent a message, telling Aruna he was ready. She acknowledged his link as she answered Kasogonaga,
Yes, we do. As you may have just noticed, the 'Earth Totality' link has been activated. Please punch it and select your depth. Selection of a depth other than those to which you are accustomed may result in unpleasant perceptual input levels. Scale has been adjusted to give us the participatory perspective we need to fully appreciate the surface-walkers' world.
The conference's participants found themselves suspended at eye level with the first human presence they had ever experienced. When Stroma told him that he had their full attention, his surrogate introduced himself,
Hello, my name is Neil Stroma.
At the end of the presentation, Stroma congratulated his would-be surrogate. Though everything progressed as scripted, the question and answer period was intense. This mostly from shallow folk who were most familiar with environments above the rippled ceiling and so the least intimidated.
Though Kasogonaga had personal dealings with surface-walkers in her past, she was visibly impressed, with running streaks of yellow and orange, by the totality's realism — something the inexperienced couldn't appreciate. Perhaps it was for their benefit she said to the general assembly,
I haven't encountered anything like that since my surrogates walked the streets of Sebri!
Pamba, regent of the Pan-Stellar Mandate, was next on the interrogative. She did Stroma the courtesy of warning him with a considerable list of questions. Her stately passage forward calmed the convention in the Earth totality's wake.
Prince Stroma, she said,
as far as anyone is able to gauge a subject so grotesque, you are the expert on the people of this planet.
I could find no other, he said, wondering why she would begin the questions listed in that manner.
You don't sound happy, achieving this feat.
Stroma realized the list was a ruse and deleted it. This conversation would not be a debate. It was a fight; and she, the opponent. He could not let her set the pace or direction of this contest to her liking. If she wanted to go fast, he would take his time, as Samsara advised. If she wanted to go slow, he would push her.
Ignoring her false concern for his happiness, he addressed the feat, explaining with forthright skin tones,
I am the expert because there are no experts to consult. I may have collected sufficient data to produce a fairly accurate totality, but I'm not satisfied that there is enough to provide him with the human perspective he'll need to blend in with the natives. We won't know until Neil breaths air and walks into their society. Phase one of the plan takes that into account.
Pamba's skin displayed what he took for genuine amusement as she said with complementary colors verging on sarcasm,
So I have the pleasure of addressing an artist. As are all their best, you are obsessed with your craft. At least you can take comfort in the fact this was your idea.
Stroma answered in kind,
While your flattery and concerns for my happiness overwhelm me, I must admit that I was introduced, he said the first part with slightly ironic colors but returned to his former shades for the rest, hoping the latter statement was suitably vague. He knew she wanted their discussion to drift into this direction for some reason. Was she going to imply that he wasn't in his right minds?
The regent's patterns slowed marginally, cataloging that response no doubt as she attempted to turn his admission to her advantage by stating as fact,
Introduced... to this obsession.
Pushing her pace, Stroma responded before she could continue. He said with almost snarky colors,
I perceive your obsession with obsessions.
She seemed to ignore him. With a sudden tinge of sympathy, she said,
You are spado.
He knew that sympathy did not motivate the change of topic. He forced himself to answer at an adult level,
Yes, I began my coalition young, but many have established their coalitions earlier, conceiving their first season. We've had fifteen cycli and not a single copular. Some, such as I, are not captive breeders. Stroma said that last sentence, almost convincing himself that was the reason. How could he explain to anyone — even Doris and Xochi — the shameful secret he suspected?
If Pamba had any inkling there was another reason for his condition, it was lost in her machinations as she continued,
Here we return to the point of obsession. You perceive this as your way out.
Stroma suppressed an urge to sarcasm as he repeated her words,
'My way out,' you say. Yes and no. My coalition perceives the Charter as our way out of Ogma, but there is more for me personally. One passion I've seldom satisfied is Discovery. Earth interests me. I want to taste its waters as my surrogate talks to people more strange and familiar than we can imagine. I want to see this Charter done right.
By the disappointed colors the regent wore, that was plainly not the response she wanted. Her next words demonstrated a change in tactics,
These surface-walkers, these humans don't impress me as having anatomy sufficient to support the intelligence with which you've endowed your surrogate.
Again he responded swiftly, giving her no time to realign her strategies:
Human anatomy possesses sufficient brain mass to support the surrogate personality developed. Since the questions concerned what it was to be human, Neil needed no help answering, aside from my translation. Neil won't be calculating chaotic transient iterations, but as a human, he'll be plenty smart.
Something seemed to please the regent, and Stroma worried that somehow he had provided the means of his coalition's defeat. She said with pious colors,
I am reminded of when Syahy'o admonished the Central Tribunal with the words, 'You are all children and animals.'
Stroma knew the quote, but it had nothing to do with the current topic. The tribunal asked Syahy'o,
What makes you so special? To that, the prophet answered,
My pride needs not the reminder. It took him a while to realize what she was driving at. The insinuation was that he had forgotten his place.
Stroma incandesced brilliantly, advancing on her as his voices accused,
Are you trying to push me down, North Shallows First? He was using Shallow Kingdom slang for forcing someone out of their depth. From a Middle Kingdomer that was a low blow, and there were so many ways to take it very badly coming from a Middle Kingdom prince. It pitched her back, as if to flee.
He followed up before the regent could recover,
If you had a son, you'd know we get pushed plenty. Well, you aren't my mother, though I see her coaching in our conversation. What did she promise you, I wonder, a place for one of your brightest daughters in Ogma? To what depths? How far would you go? What would you truly gain, or would rather truly lose, in her service?
Pamba lost control of her skin at that point and blurted out,
Enough! We're here to question your motives and what part Samsara — this reputed Mother's Little Helper — has played, inspiring this pointless discussion!
Bewildered by the regent's sudden rant, Stroma privately asked Samsara,
Mother's Little Helper? I don't understand.
Samsara laughed out loud with voice and skin, and the entire palace was lit and rang with gaiety. While laughing publicly, she answered Stroma privately,
Neither does she, or she wouldn't have phrased it that way.
Well? What does she mean?
It's the culmination of an experience beyond self-interest. By using it, she names herself 'fool.' Poor Pamba. I've almost forgotten being that angry.
Samsara openly addressed the regent,
All children have the choice to either tear their mothers' branchlets in selfish idle play, or play an active part as Mother's Little Helper.
The North Shallows First appeared shocked, and then transfixed, as if skewered upon some enormous stinger. Then her skin's pattern softened into smooth grateful colors as she said,
The regent shook herself from her reverie and called for everyone's attention. After waiting long enough for the message to register throughout the links, she declared,
I support and endorse, without reservation, Stroma Coalition's Charter for Earth.
That was that.
Stroma and Neil returned to the stark reality of life without Samsara. Master kept surrogate firmly engaged, as his sub-persona, until the shock passed. Stroma released Neil's mind gradually as they shared their opinions of that long ago day.
Stroma contritely admitted between them,
I'm embarrassed now that I've seen Europa's memories.
Why? Neil wondered.
I assumed she edited them, but she left everything intact.
His surrogate offered his opinion,
Maybe she was afraid she might have edited something important with anything personal. That took character.
You're right. This has left me with even more respect for my Seventh than I had.
Neil reminded him,
You were kinda rough on her.
Yes, and I was wrong. He had another thought.
This is another reason to hold Samsara's memory dear. I was a galaxy-class fool before she got her manipulative stingers in me.
Neil didn't fully understand his master's experience of Samsara, but she knew how to appeal to his surrogate. He shared that with Stroma.
All I know is that she was always in fine form as Eva Wu. I don't know if you knew, but if she had something tedious to explain, she'd engage me in a totality as Eva Wu.
Stroma's humor filled them as he admitted to his surrogate.
I knew. She certainly kept your attention.
His surrogate felt his master already had decided why Samsara was killed,
You've made up your mind who's at fault.
Not after you reminded me. We can't afford to jump to conclusions, as you might say. All we have at this point are suspicions and doubts.
Black Water too convenient?
Perhaps. Though they had a part, I suspect that they are not the root cause of this matter. Uzume was undoubtedly their tool, but there may have been a special request. My mother....
Neil interrupted Stroma's thoughts with an opinion,
I'm no Pamba, but if you have an obsession, it may be there. Am I right in saying that Princelink has no relation to Samsara's death?
Amused and amazed, Stroma agreed,
You're right. Until we discover otherwise, Princelink isn't a factor.
Neil continued his line of reason, but he wasn't comfortable interpreting titan memories,
I didn't understand all that Samsara said, but didn't she say she knew your mother before Ogma? I am not very bright about these matters, but perhaps we should confine ourselves to what you witnessed personally and everything Samsara had to say about their association.
Stroma delved a little deeper into Neil's thoughts,
You are a revelation in yourself, Neil. Where did you get that?
Neil playfully protested the intrusion, though he enjoyed the sensation,
Ha! No fair peeking! Yes. Pam has printed books of Agatha Christie's entire works stacked around her room. They were her grandmother's. She often read them to me, sometimes while in coitus. It was her special way of ensuring that I paid attention. Oddly enough, even now I smell the scent of old paper and human sex: both highly complementary to my human nose and memory. Neil laughed because Stroma thought that odd enough to study,
I'm sorry. I should have called you. It was remarkable.
You can remember it to me later.
Certainly. Back on the topic of Poirot, I would commend something the character said to a friend in one of those stories. I paraphrase: 'We shall organize the facts that belong, in their order. And the facts that don't, we sweep them away.'
Stroma thought that would be a change from the works of Basho, Franklin, and Tolstoy he was reading.
Agatha Christie, you say.
Yes, an Eva Wu in her own right. That was Neil's way of saying that she was a writer worthy of a titan's notice.
Might I suggest that if your mother had a role at all, it may have resembled that of the English King Henry the Second. He happened to vent a desire concerning the Archbishop of Canterbury in the presence of the wrong people. They in turn reacted like badly trained motive caching and cut Thomas Becket down.
Yes. That's closer to it. If that were the case, her errant knights were Black Water. My mother may have 'vented,' or Black Water simply perceived a double opportunity to indebt her. I don't think they set off Black Water Youth with any frequency or folks would have long since catch on to what they are.
Or someone or something else may have triggered their desire to preserve the status quo, regardless of your mother's desires or needs.
Yes, Neil, and there is this matter of the algae. I can't wait to go shallow and watch these things in action. I had noticed my neutral tint shifting slightly, but I had no idea.
Realizing he was digressing, he wandering back to his point,
What bothers me about the algae is that when Samsara finds out, she chooses to break the news to Uzume in absolute privacy, except for the ship's monitors. I'd be very surprised if Samsara didn't know Uzume was a former Black Water Youth, but not quite as surprised if she didn't know about their conditioning. None the less, we have this curious sequence of events: Samsara finds out about the algae, she gets Uzume alone but monitored, she tells her, she is attacked, she pushes Uzume out of the ship, removes their access, and dies.
If she did know about both — Uzume being Black Water Youth and her conditioning — why would she push Uzume's buttons? Samsara was not a thrill seeker.
That is a very good question. Neither was she suicidal, and she should have put up a better fight than she did. This might be hero worship, but somehow she impressed me as being able to take anything and anyone, surprised or not.
Neil surprised his master with a sudden change of topic,
What do you make of what Atai said to Uzume and Europa?
Stroma repeated it between them as he considered,
Remember your water.
Didn't Europa think it was nationalistic pap?
Neil felt Stroma's sadness and regret as he shared an opinion,
Yes, and I agree with her. I doubt very much that it was a trigger phrase because a trigger touch or odor would be far less obvious. I think it was simply something people — sharing a mutual delusion — would share while someone else gets uncomfortable watching friends fool themselves.
Neil, despite his poor opinion of her, was surprised. Though at times frivolous, her presence demanded respect beyond her rank. Thinking he misunderstood, he asked
Uzume is deluded?
"Certainly, but aren't we all about something? I'm concerned for Uzume's life. The same mechanism that triggers Black Water Youth likely encourages them to escape and self-destruct without implicating Black Water. Unless there's more to her agenda, she may be dead or soon shall be.
Where would we be then? Minus answers and an excellent negotiator.
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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.