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Written by Thea Hutcheson
Illustrated by Kelley Hensing



Maruka slid a grasping tentacle through the slit into another universe and fished around. The fluid, a mild surfactant, meant she could do without a protective sheath, allowing her to feel viscously instead of groping blindly. Her timing was perfect; the fluid was calm and the agitation cycle was some moments away.

The exploration was disappointing again. The human in the other universe had begun clipping the fashion sheaths together, rendering them too big to pull through. Doubly sad, Maruka thought, flushing green. The fashion sheaths had been paying her survival debts.

The sheaths were a perfect fit for a Cleemlik's courting appendage, creating a veil from which it glowed demurely. The humans in the other universe wore them on the ends of their lower mobility appendages, inside their exterior protectors, so they became worn and stained, but odd was as odd does and universes were odd.

That thought brought her back around to Benizeer's recent oddness. All Maruka wanted was a dark umber relationship that ultimately ran deep cobalt through parenthood. And Benizeer, like that other being, insisted on clipping things to it. Certainly they should have offspring, but why two litters, and why so quickly?

"Of course," she thought, "it's the same thing, macro and micro." She quoted her mentor, Quemish. "You're looking at the bottom side of another universe. What do you think you're seeing, Maruka?"

Her grasping tentacle had shaded to black distaste in the liquid, which, she realized, was exactly how Benizeer made her feel. "You're looking at Benizeer's bottom side," she said. "What do you think you're seeing?"

She withdrew her appendage and wiped it off. She'd worked both relationship and claim very productively until recently when they both started to go puce. Now the claim seemed played out, which also described her relationship with Benizeer. Together, these thoughts made a gadabout an appealing idea. Her timing was good, too. The universe fabric was puckered here, forming a big suck at her top right as she faced the universe's underside. Scholars theorized that pressure differential between the two sides of the universe created a low pressure system, which sucked matter through the dimple. It was going to commence shortly and she was dangerously close.

She moved away from the claim, closed her visuals and centered herself with a wan chi breathing ritual before spreading her awareness over the land. Drawn to face northwest, she focused and saw bluffs that were suffused red with the wealth of their slits.

Maruka felt drawn past them and concentrated. Yes, nestled two ridges over, a warm rainbow spelled an interesting community. She heard ticking. The suck hole dimple was beginning to draw. Its strength had increased since the last interval, drawing even her toward its mouth. She had told the universe cartographers and they had promised to send someone to look. She picked up her pack and began to move away. It would open quickly and suck anything in its radius into its maw. Cleemish knew where it would end up. She felt the suck's wind pull as she hit a ground-eating stride.

Maruka gadded throughout the day, reading the geography of the land, checking the color of any slits, laying stakes and marking sucks for placement on the great universe underbelly map. She went to register two small exploratory claims at the closest community. While she waited in line, two peace sentries went by with a bedraggled male.

"Geodan have mercy, there's another that can't meet his survival debts. How they let it get that far is beyond me."

She turned to see a handsome male.

"Name's Shaderjak." His voice was rich and friendly. He offered a grasping tentacle, which glowed a lovely rust. She blushed peach and noticed his courting appendage beaming brightly through a very attractive fashion sheath. She wondered if he'd fished it near here.

"Maruka," she replied, taking the tentacle. "Why did they take him?"

"His survival debt is very high and he couldn't make his promised litters to pay it off."

Maruka barely remembered to let go of Shaderjak's tentacle. His answer made her realize that survival debt explained all of Benizeer's oddness. The geography of Benizeer's underbelly was suddenly mapped in burning white.

She looked to Shaderjak, who was preening his courting appendage. She flushed orange with appreciation, maroon with pleasure at finding this place.

But she must go back and break off with Benizeer first. If Shaderjak was still available when she got back, a relationship would be worth exploring

"I have to go," she said when she had the claim titles. Shaderjak's courting appendage faded.

"But I'll be back." She blushed dark peach as his appendage brightened.

She loped back to her claim at an easy pace, arriving in darkest night to see Benizeer approaching it, rather stealthily, it seemed to her. She rounded on him, panting. He seemed surprised to see her.

"Maruka, I was coming to see you," he said, his courting appendage creating a dim rusty glow through his fashion sheath.

"About what?"

"About our impending union."

"Yes, about our union."

"We should do it as quickly as possible."

"Do you want this arrangement so you can provide litters for survival obligations?"

Looking down at her, he turned a queer bright yellow. "I chose you because you were such a slow thing, but sweet."

How could she have been so intent on her claim yet so blind to the folds and curves of Benizeer's deception? Maruka blanched in the bright, clean white light that revealed the map of Benizeer's plans for her. Then the thought that she had nearly succumbed turned her puce down to the tips of her mobility appendages. She was free to go back to the northwest and explore her new claims and Shaderjak with good color and a fresher eye for underbellies.

The familiar ticking began. She hitched her pack up, ready to go. "This constitutes a formal dismissal of your suit. I won't say thanks, but I will say goodbye."

"No," he said, coming at her, evidently too focused on her to recognize the danger the ticking signaled. "You'll have my two litters and as many others as I need."

She scrambled away from him and the mouth of the suck. Benizeer started to chase her. The ticking grew louder; the suck opened. Benizeer stood right in front of it. That close he had no chance. He was pulled through, flailing. Maruka stood out of range, flushing with shock at his fate.

She adjusted her pack and set off at a gallop back to the northwest. There waited the bottom side of a universe in all its wealthiest red. There was also the promise of umber to be mapped in Shaderjak's geography, and maybe a bit of parenting cobalt. She was sure there was much fishing to be done in both of them.

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