Sunday, August 30, 2015

Sea Cow Boogie

Sea Cow Boogie
©2015 by Charon Dunn

“I like to boogie in the moonlight with my baby to a hot mix in the tropics, yeah, we shimmy and we shake it.”

Lily blinked. Tears welled up in her eyes. She hadn’t realized how much she missed music.

The music was coming from a turquoise jellyfish, hovering near the surface about half a meter from the tip of her surfboard. She’d been lying on top of it, dozing in the sun, just out of sight of the island where she lived. Checking lobster traps. She even had two lobsters as proof, floating in a net bag hooked to the fin of her board.

When the chorus came around again, she sang along with it.  Moonlight Boogie by Betty Beeswax and her Honey Dripping Orchestra. A perennial hit back in the city. You could hear it at ballgames, in shopping malls, at school dances, bursting out of enthusiastic cover bands down on the beach. Lily had never heard it played through a jellyfish before. The sound was faint and small, as well as watery-sounding.

She flashed back to the last school dance she’d attended. The screen-coated walls had turned the auditorium into a world of fluffy clouds in sunrise colors, with animated birds pretending to provide the music. She hadn’t known it would be her last school dance ever, or that her mom only had a couple of months before dying a frustratingly mysterious death. Or that she’d end up living in the outer islands, with her dad. And his new wife, Varla, who was a bitch. And her four sons, and her sister, and her sister’s two sons, plus the cats and dogs, on their very own island.

The nearest neighbors were a day away, if you were in dad’s sailboat. A couple days if you had to row. The ocean was very tame out here, which was why Lily was napping on a surfboard, out of the island’s sight. She had been living here for nearly a month. She was familiar with what the waves and currents were probably going to do, and just reckless enough not to care if they spontaneously did something different. For example, maybe a hurricane would come along and blow her back to the city, where she could dance to Moonlight Boogie.

There was music out here, but you had to play it yourself. Her stepbrother Nicky did just that, spending most of his time clumsily strumming on a ukulele. You couldn’t have recorded music. Phones. Screens. Computers. None of that. Circuitry fell apart once you got outside the city proper, unless you wanted to spend huge amounts of money on the shielded kind. Lily had no money, and that was just fine in the outer islands, unless you wanted some fancy city toy like a deld, so you could talk to your friends, and watch video, and play games, and all of the other things Lily wasn’t doing right now.

The song finished and the jellyfish hung there, pulsating. Lily watched it, wondering if it would play another song, mentally compiling a list of the top fifty songs she wished it would play. Instead it spoke to her, in a flat atonal voice.

“Hello. I hope you liked the musical selection.”

“Yes, I did. Moonlight Boogie. Is this some kind of jellyfish drone? Are you watching me on a camera?”

“No camera.” It dutifully pronounced each syllable. “I can improve the aud-i-o if you are willing to touch a blob of protoplasm. It will not harm you.”

“Yeah, sure. You’re in a fishing boat somewhere. Or you’re some rich kid with a fancy camera drone. You want to watch me get stung by a jellyfish and catch it on video so you can laugh.” 

“I am not in a boat.” The voice was robotically calm.

“Then where are you?” Lilly looked around, squinting at the bright waves.

“I am …” A long pause. “Not a human. A person. But not a human person.”

“Like one of those digital people made out of code? I’ve met a few of them. Back when I lived in the city.”

“I am something different.”

The surface broke a few meters away. Lily’s immediate reaction was to gather herself in a crouch atop her board. No limbs dangling. She watched a plume of spray spurt into the air. A big fluked tail slapped the surface, spattering her with droplets of seawater.

Not a whale, or a dolphin, or an orca. Those creatures rarely came this far north, and Lily had only seen them in pictures. She had never seen a picture of anything remotely like the creature swimming beside her. It was at least twice as long as her surfboard, fat and gray, with a pair of powerful pectoral fins, and no dorsal fin at all. It turned its tiny head toward her and nodded. It had a peaceful, kind expression and no visible teeth, but Lily kept her limbs out of the water anyway.

Another jellyfish floated to the surface and hung beside the first one. “Touch it,” said the robotic voice from the first jellyfish. “It will not harm you.”

Lilly reached out one sun-browned index finger and delicately poked the jellyfish. No burning, no stinging. She plunged her hand into the water and the jellyfish embraced it, enveloping her hand up to the wrist. It felt cool and a little slimy, but it wasn’t that unpleasant.

“What’s your favorite song?” The voice was in her head, playing up her armbones to her ears. Just like the deld she used to wear strapped to her palm, constantly feeding her music and friendly voices.

Serpentine Procession. By Blueflash.”

“That’s a good one.” The music swelled. Lily closed her eyes, aware tears were streaming down her cheeks. She let them flow, all the way to the end of the song. Then the music switched to something quiet and ambient while the robotic voice started up again, telling her the song was based on a saltarello rhythm, whatever that meant, and that Blueflash had recorded over eighty total hours of music.

Lily wiped her eyes on the strap of her bikini top. Instead of a bikini bottom she wore shorts, with pockets full of tools and odds and ends. She also had a hat with a floppy brim firmly anchored to her curly ponytail, in a failed effort to keep the sun from turning her glossy city girl hair into the frizzly fried, sun-bleached birds’ nests that sprouted from the heads of outer islanders. She interrupted the creature’s steady stream of factoids. “What are you?”

The voice paused. “That’s a very good question. I, personally, identify as an individual named Nepenthe, but I am also a member of my pod, and we refer to ourselves as Sirens when communicating in text or other human languages. We have only recently started doing that. We have only recently … been.”

“Nepenthe.” Lily wrinkled her nose. The word sounded familiar.

“You’re one of the first, in fact. We have been experimenting with ways to communicate with your species. We can access the internet, but occasionally we run afoul of protocols that require users to have a physical address, and a name, and a citizen identification code. Here in Carquinez the laws are a little more lax, yet they are still suboptimal.”

“Suboptimal doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Lily grouched. She plopped into the water, hanging onto her board, careful to keep her hand submerged in the jellyfish.  “There’s no internet out here at all. You can’t even make a phone call or listen to a song. And there’s nobody to talk to.”

It took her a moment to catch up to her words and realize she was listening to a song, and talking to somebody. The creature paddled around her in a wide circle. It looked like it was built for slow, langourous motion but it moved surprisingly fast. Lily noticed that it had both upward-facing nostrils and gills. She ducked her head beneath the waves so she could see it better.

“Stellar’s Sea Cow,” it informed her. “We’re an extrapolation of extinct DNA from the database, with various mods. We’ve been able to determine that much, at least. We were fabricated during the recent war, intended to be intelligent saboteurs that silhouette as harmless cetaceans. Once the war was over attempts were made to destroy us, but we disagreed. Several of us have migrated to the Pacific.”

Lily shook water from her hair and laughed. “Welcome to the outer islands. You picked a desolate spot.”

“It was deliberate.”  The Siren stopped circling and hovered a meter away, looking directly at her with its placid, friendly face.  “We are looking for humans that are interested in communicating with us. Helping each other. Does that appeal to you?”

Lily wrapped her arm around her board, squeezing it tight. “What do I have to do?  Is it dangerous?”

“A girl clinging to a board, in the middle of the ocean, worries about danger.”

“I live just over there.” Lily pointed at the cloud. Clouds hung over each island big enough to live on, a byproduct of the desalinizer that kept the plants green. Hundreds of years ago, a charitable group had built shelters on every single one of the outer islands big enough to support it.  Bedrooms, kitchens, toilets, showers. A garden of food-bearing plants, a reservoir of fresh water. Anybody could stay in them, for as long as they liked.

“You’ve laid your lobster traps a few meters south-southeast of here. One day you might find one of my protoplasm clusters floating nearby, and if that happens, we can talk again.”

“Yes,” Lily said. “I would like that.”

The jellyfish fell away from her pruny fingers. The Siren flicked its tail at her in a friendly way before darting off into the depths. Lily climbed back on her board and paddled toward home.

When she got close enough, she let the waves bring her in.  Her step-cousin Alfie was out there surfing, which was mostly what he did. She could hear her other steps making various types of noise as her board crunched into the sand. Nicky was playing the same monotonous chord on his ukulele, fighting with the concept of rhythm. Jeremiah was rhythmically kicking a soccer ball against the wall of the shower building, which was mostly what he did. Willy and Tommy, age eight, were sparring on the beach while swearing at each other, which were the main two things they did. One of the toddlers was covering himself in wet sand while the other squalled on the front porch for no apparent reason.

Varla and Step-Aunt Betty were in the kitchen, casually preparing dinner. They accepted Lily’s lobsters and set her to chopping vegetables while they nattered on about their wide circle of friends, most of whom were trashy, or slutty, or pathetic, or headed for an unsavory fate.

Lily’s knife was turning dull and brittle. They lasted about a year, according to dad. Cloth lasted two or three years, depending on its sturdiness, but most of the dye would bleach out during the first month of wear. Paper didn’t last long at all. You could get books printed on special paper that would hold up a little better, but they were expensive. Lily had seen some in the gift shop while she waited for her dad to pick her up. When she had suggested buying one or two, Varla had laughed at her.

Because things didn’t really last long, the family didn’t own much. It could all fit into dad’s fishing boat, which was the biggest thing they owned. The Abalone was over five years old, but it was made of bioengineered wood, which withstood the climate without disintegrating. Lily’s flesh had been bioengineered by her ancestors for pretty much the same reason. She had learned all about it in bio class, how people had tinkered with their genes after the meteors hit, when everybody was living in the domes. She had also learned about it in an animated show called Time Scramblers, where you could always tell if someone was a secret time traveler from the past by the way their skin blistered upon exposure to the outdoors. 

Most of her friends in the city never went outdoors anyway, and didn’t care, and colored their skins in fashionable shades of ice white and blue black and cerise sunset -- and sometimes ultramarine sparkle, but only if you were one of those sad people who liked poetry. Lily had always kept to her natural color, which got several shades darker after summer vacations with dad, and was currently the darkest it had ever been. Dad was an outer islander through and through, but mom couldn’t handle the lifestyle for more than a couple months at a time, and dad refused to even consider living in Lurie, the capitol of Carquinez, which was a sleek cluster of towers jutting up into the sky and plunging deep into the ocean floor, full of modern conveniences. Home to a sprawling international seaport, where vessels in various stages of disintegration huddled for repair after surviving their trips across the Carribbean or the Pacific.

At the base of the towers was a floating platform connecting them, and it was full of hotels and nightclubs and restaurants and tourist attractions. Most of Lily’s visits with her father had occurred there until she was ten. Then they took her on dive trips, and fishing trips, making sure she knew how to handle herself on the sea. A couple of times they went to outer islander gatherings, where large groups of extended family converged on one particular island for a week or so, and that was where Lily had learned to surf. She wasn’t very good at it, but she did notice that a surfboard could serve as a one-person boat that would take her just outside of the noise from the crowd.

Dad came back just before sunset, with his two crewmembers, Paco and Ralph, both of whom were somehow related to Varla, and three large green mahimahi, one of which went directly to the grill, accompanying the lobster salad. Some of the food they’d brought with them – drums full of rice, jars of sauce and candy and jam, flat squares of vatgrown meat indefinitely sealed in packaging that would last for decades as long as it was intact but swiftly biodegraded once you opened it. Dad traded his excess catch for it, which was really all they ever bought, aside from clothes.  They also had a drum of wine powder, which was only for the adults. Varla and Step-Aunt Betty drank it all day, and Dad and his crew joined in at night.

Lily had seen Nicky sneaking into it a couple times, but so far she hadn’t had the urge to join him.  Nicky was the kind of guy who would talk you into doing something bad and then gloat while you got in trouble; she had seen him pull that on his brothers a few times. Lily didn’t trust him. He was fifteen, a year younger, and Alfie was seventeen, a year older. They didn’t talk to other people much, and when they did, it was mostly to each other. 

“We’re going to a gathering in a week,” dad announced while Lily was scraping the compost off their dinner plates. The others flooded him with questions as she carried it out back, pausing to glance up at the stars. The buildings around her were lit with a soft golden light, powered by the solar collectors built into the walls. There were separate sleeping rooms and shower rooms and toilets, and a big common room with a lanai stretching around it. Everyone was gathered there, pestering dad with questions.

She waited until the little ones had gone to sleep before asking whose gathering this was, and who was going to be there. Dad turned to her with softness in his unfocused eyes. “Probably a couple of hundred, and they’re kin on Paco’s mother’s side, so you probably haven’t met most of them. This will be a very special gathering for you, Lily. Your stepmother and I have agreed that you are old enough to date. As well as Alfie and Nicky.”

“I dated last year,” Alfie said.

Lily blinked. She hadn’t really gone on any dates back home, but she had been to parties and restaurants and events where people flirted with each other and sometimes developed a romance. She had flirted but hadn’t yet got around to the romance development stage.  “How does that work here?”

They all interrupted each other attempting to explain. Dad had a strong voice from yelling over the wind, and his took over. “When we get to the gathering, instead of staying with the family, you’ll be staying with the other girls who are looking for someone to date.  Nicky and Alfie will be staying with the boys. There will be chaperones watching, to make sure everyone behaves themselves.  The two groups socialize with each other until everybody finds somebody.”

“You never know,” Varla chimed in. “You might fall in love and head off to start your own family.”

Lily’s stomach suddenly squirmed as if the mahi had come back to life. “I’m sixteen! I haven’t even been to college!”

Alfie and Nicky headed off to their room, whispering and snickering, as the grownups resumed interrupting each other for a while. Dad finally stood up and clamped his big callused hand around Lily’s upper arm. He led her outside, to the boat dock, where the Abalone was bobbing gently on the mild waves, and they sat down on the sand.

“I thought I’d be living with you here for a while, then I thought I’d go back to Lurie and go to school,” Lily said. “Nobody in Lurie starts a family at sixteen.”

“It’s different out here.”  He reached over and squeezed her knee. “Baby girl, you know I’m not just fishing out there, right? We’re also running patrols. Checking up on people that get lost, or stuck. Sometimes bad things happen out there.”

He jerked his chin toward the starry horizon. Lily sighed. He was on his way into “this is serious” mode, and nothing was going to stop him. “I know, dad.”

“No, you don’t know.  You don’t know what it’s like to be lying there with a broken leg for a couple of weeks, or what it’s like to see the aftermath of a big fight that all started because some girl cheated. You don’t know how some people treat each other when nobody’s watching. Occasionally you run into some bad folks out there. Your mother knew about them.”

Lily’s eyes opened wide. “Is that what happened to her?”

Dad nodded, sadness in his shoulders. “Diving accident. Those are real easy to have out here. She was laundering money. She had the feeling she was going to get popped, so she called me to make sure you’d be safe with family. You could probably go back, if you really wanted, but I think you’d probably get attention both from the police and from your mom’s old co-workers. Out here, it’s different. Out here, you’ve got six brothers.”

His smile glittered in the darkness, and Lily realized he was trying to dispel a little of the seriousness. She was having trouble getting past the idea that her mom was a criminal. Her mom had been a slender, animated lady with an asymmetrical haircut who typically kept three or more conversations open at once. She liked strawberry milktea, and lavender-scented showers. Lily realized she didn’t even have a picture to look at. “Five little brothers.”

“They’ll grow.” He gave her another knee-squeeze. “Nobody’s going to mess with you if you’ve got six brothers. And a dad who sails around on patrol. You could find a nice boy and start a family. Carve out a place of your own.  You can always go to college later, after the heat dies down.”

“Yeah.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say. She noticed something squirming on the beach. Her skin crawled until she realized she was seeing crabs. A small swarm of them, scrabbling across the sand. Dad went over and picked one up. He thought about it for a moment, then set the crab back down, gently, and it scuttled back to the rest.

“We’ve got plenty of food in the coldbox for now.”

“Where did they all come from?”

“In ancient times, they thought crabs came from spontaneous generation. They just appear. No mating, no dating, no babies. That’s not really true, of course, but when doctors first discovered the disease they named it cancer, because it spontaneously generates out of nowhere. That’s another thing can happen out here. You city people have doctors everywhere. Here you gotta make a special trip. Sometimes you can talk them into coming out and paying you a visit, but it’s gonna take a few days. If you end up living out in the remotes, promise me you’ll check in. Try to have your babies someplace where there’s a doctor, and get your checkups.”

He extended a hand to help her to her feet. Lily realized that in his mind, she was already married and pregnant and gone, problem solved.

Her bedding was soft and fresh-smelling, even though it was probably a couple hundred years old. There was a flower-scented breeze and a softly pounding surf, but Lily still couldn’t get to sleep until it was very late, and she slept through the boys’ noise until it was nearly lunchtime.

When she groggily set forth to check her traps it was mid-afternoon. She found six lobsters but no jellyfish, and she was starting to wonder if it had been some kind of hallucination, brought on by overexposure to the sun. Worry ran through her brain like a rhythm track. She imagined the kind of comments she’d get if she posted on her social node that she was married, and pregnant. She wondered, in fact, how many comments were backed up on her social mode since she hadn’t checked it for a few months. She wondered if she’d ever see it again. Maybe she’d die in childbirth on some distant island, or catch a case of cancer, or break her leg and lie there for weeks. Possibly all at the same time.

On the day before they left, she found a jellyfish. A small purple one. It briefly occurred to her that she would be in severe pain if this were the stinging kind of jellyfish, as opposed to the kind that let you communicate with talking sea cows, but it turned out to be the latter. It clung to her hand as she surfaced, playing soothing music through her wristbones. “Nepenthe?” she said once her face was in the air. “Where are you?”

“One thousand, two hundred and seventeen meters away,” said the robotic voice in reply.

Lily caught her breath. She had spent the past few days worrying, and during that process some part of her mind had decided Nepenthe had magical powers that could help with her dilemma. Now that they were actually in contact, the fantasy began seeping away. Still, there was a chance. “I’m supposed to be heading to some kind of party. My dad is trying to marry me off.”

The story spilled out of her in one long emotional rush. When it was over she felt embarrassed. She paused, leaning her head back to look at the blue sky. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to blurt out all of my weird drama. I’m just feeling kind of emotional about it.”

There was a long pause while Lily floated on her back. “Your mother was Madelyn Laguna,” Nepenthe finally said. “She died on April eighteenth.”

“A diving accident, according to the news.” Lily sniffled.

“She was working for a branch of the Red Flower Consortium. We know about them.”

There was another long pause while Lily considered what to say next. She came up with “You Sirens are pretty smart.”

“That may be correct. I have access to plenty of information. But then again, so does a rock lying on the ocean floor. There is no point in having information unless you can communicate. Sirens communicate with each other, constantly, and we have our own form of technology, but we are having difficulty learning to communicate with humans. That is why I request your help. As far as the help you request of me, in finding a way for you to avoid marriage to someone you haven’t met …”

“I’ll have to figure that out on my own, I guess. If you want to help me now, you could play Dream Version by the Love Insects.”

“One of my favorites.”

Music swelled out of the jellyfish and Lily savored it. When it finished, she asked Nepenthe what she could do to help with interspecies communication. A new jellyfish appeared, this one turquoise. It flashed letters at her, one at a time, and she repeated them back to the Siren. Sometimes they were difficult to read given the glare and the waves and the fact they were submerged, and the jellyfish could only really display one letter at a time. Nepenthe seemed disappointed by Lily’s feedback, and the test didn’t last long. 

“I want to keep helping you but I’m not sure I’ll be coming back to this island.”

“I can find you. I don’t think I can get physically close to you, but I can send … We do not have a mutual word yet. The creatures floating, one of which engulfs your hand. Protoplasm that we program, cell by cell.”

“Protoplasm blobs,” Lily said. “Protoblobs. P-blobs. Plobs.”

“Plobs.” The robot voice emitted a static cackle that might have been laughter. “I can send you plobs.”

Sailing to the gathering took two days. The Abalone was packed full of people, and Lily had to sleep on the deck because the bunks were full of grownups and toddlers. They arrived on a somewhat larger island that was probably big enough to hold three or four soccer fields. The boat dock was full of sailboats, canoes, kayaks, dories, dinghies and catamarans, all but a few of which were made of local wood. Lily could smell barbecue smoke. Musicians with more skill than Nicky were playing compact wooden instruments -- guitars and violins and ukuleles and mandolins, small drums and tamborines.

As soon as they disembarked she was sent to a dormitory where the single women lived. There she was bathed and scented, and her hair was styled by women experienced in making frizzle-fried hair look presentable, and dressed in a brand new wrap that still had its bright colors.

They asked whether she was interested in dating a boy or another girl, and for a moment she was tempted to say she was interested in girls. The house for the girl-dating girls was next door, and Lily could see a couple of them playing tetherball, wearing necklaces made of pale purple shells. All the women around Lily had similar necklaces with blue shells. “What about the people who aren’t interested in dating anyone?”

The blue-shell women conferred, whispering and giggling. One of the older ones took Lily aside and pointed her toward a house that was removed from the rest. A couple of guys and a women were sitting in front, sharing a plate of sliced melon, and all of them wore red seashell necklaces.  “If someone in red talks to you, turn around and walk away. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to wear red your very first time. People do talk.”

“Why are they wearing red?”

“She’s going through a terrible divorce. The man with the lobster tattoo is under treatment for a communicable disease. The other man was caught using explicit sexual language with a child under the age of sixteen over the internet.”

“Eww.” Lily wrinkled her nose.  She knew the government snooped in that particular area. Whenever she got a facecall from a teacher or someone like that, she got a little notification afterwards with a video of the conversation.

“Exactly. The government has no right to intrude in private matters, and my very own great-grandmother was only fourteen when she married my great-grandfather, who was fifty. These are the outer islands. We’re not like those city folk, but you’ve probably already figured that out.”

Lily stifled her next “eww” and accepted her blue necklace, figuring it would be easiest to hide in a crowd.  She joined the other single girls as they were herded to a courtyard and led through activities with the single boys. Sack races, and trivia quizzes, and rhythm games.

Some of the daters hooked up right away, at which point they handed in their shell necklaces and joined the general population. Most of the daters were around Lily’s age, although there were a few with gray hair on both sides. Nicky and Alfie were freshly groomed and flirting with the handful of girls who seemed to attract the most attention, and those girls seemed to enjoy having attention more than making decisions. Lily didn’t blame them, and was glad she wasn’t among them.

By her third day, most of the daters had found partners. The gray-haired men had stopped pestering the young women and started talking to their contemporaries. Nicky and Alfie had found girls from the select handful. The coupled had moved to another building that had private rooms and a romantic view of the waves.

There were four blue-shell women besides Lily, and only two white-shell men, and none of them were particularly motivated toward finding love.  The chaperones had given up on cajoling them into sack races and left them to their own devices. Lily’s main device had been a waterproof book someone had brought. It was missing the ending and large chunks of the middle, but she liked the way it was written. She also played lots of checkers and go and backgammon. Daters could only swim while chaperoned, so they did it in the early morning and late evening, in a pack. None of the chaperones surfed so that was off limits, and Lily missed it, especially when she could see Alfie riding the waves at the other end of the island, where the non-daters lived.

She understood there were good reasons for being strict about dating. She was being extremely strict with herself, in fact. Some of the boys she had talked to would be perfectly fine choices for accompanying her to a party or a movie or a concert. She was reluctant to move into a small private room with them for the rest of the week, however, and upon realizing that they moved along. 

She was sitting in a grassy, shady spot with her book, and a small plate of cookies, and a glass of lemonade that still contained some unmelted ice, when Josefina, one of the chaperones, plopped down beside her. “They’re organizing a dive trip tomorrow. Over one of the old cities, from before the meteor. Cabo San Diego or something like that. Not enough people were signing up so it was agreed to let some of the singles join, if they want. Are you interested?”

“Sure.” Lily was feeling soft and mushy from the lack of exercise, and all the cookies.  

The people on the boat couldn’t agree on the name of the city, but part of it was only a few meters below the surface. It was all covered with silt and coral but you could see where the tall buildings had been. The main attraction was the multicolored fish who had moved in after all the humans swam away, and Lily filled her eyes with their darting colors.

She had a snorkel and a mask. There was a compressor in the boat that dangled tubes, so you could swim over for a mouthful of air if you needed it. Lily had done a lot of diving and she didn’t bother. She did have her surfboard. She had noticed it strapped to the side of the Abalone while they were loading up the dive boat. It was now serving as her own private diving platform as she explored several meters south of the other divers.

The other divers had been politely ignoring her due to her conspicuous blue necklace. The men were careful not to talk to her, or even stand too close, except for a guy in a bright yellow shell necklace who helped her wrestle her board from the bindings once they arrived at the dive spot.

Lily kept her eyes open for plobs. She hadn’t seen any yet. She had seen an actual jellyfish. Now that she had also seen a few plobs, she was learning to tell the difference. Plobs were a little more substantial, and they came in brighter colors.

She also saw aenomones, and trigger fish, and angelfish. A rainbow of fish, thriving in the ruins. She also found a building that had been cracked open like an egg, revealing rooms and halls. Lily swam over them wondering if it had been a hotel, or an apartment building, or an office building. Maybe it was full of buried treasure.

She surfaced to rest on her board, thinking about buried treasure. Wondering how much it would take to move far away from the Red Flower Consortium and the outer island dating scene. To Nyorc, or Virginialina, or some place like that. A place with internet connections, and colleges, and music, and books.

Thinking about civilized pleasures made her so happy that at first she thought the gray shape beneath her was Nepenthe. She even dived and swam a little closer to it. Until she realized it had a dorsal fin. Aside from that, the shark was roughly the same size as Nepenthe. Cruising along the bottom, nosing around outcroppings.

Her heartbeat sped up as she ascended, careful not to make any extravagant, attention-grabbing motions. Her skin stung from the heat of her board as she slid onto it, dipping her hands smoothly into the water and paddling away. The thought of sudden impact with sharp teeth trended in her mind as she moved slowly toward the others. She wanted to yell, to warn them, but she wasn’t sure whether that would alert the shark.

She didn’t have to alert them. The shark’s dorsal fin popped out of the water, parallel to her and several meters away. Someone on the dive boat spotted it and Lily could hear them yelling as she stroked toward the boat.

A glimpse of orange caught her eye. Down below. Brighter even than the nearby fish. Definitely a plob.

She gulped down an extra-large lungful of air and dived. The plob was hugging the bottom about a meter-and-a-half down. Lily joined it, pressing her body against the uneven surface.

The shark passed directly overhead. She was afraid it would chomp her board in half since that seemed to be its target, but the wooden longboard bounced off its forehead as it surged forward. It was a very big shark. Bigger than any shark she had ever seen.

Her hand slid into the plob and she began talking, subvocing, bubbles streaming from her lips. “Hello? Nepenthe? Is anybody there? I have an emergency. There’s a very big shark.”

“Sharksharksharksharkshark.” A voice responded, modulating through many tones. “Nepenthe. Yes. We are paging her. You wish to report a shark?”

Lilly eyed the surface. She would have to head for it, soon. The shark’s tail was passing out of visible range. Best give it a second to be sure. “Shark, huge one. Right near me.”

“A megalodon?” Another robotic voice chimed in, and suddenly there were several of them, talking over each other.

“A big shark,” Lily repeated. “If you could help, that would be great.”

She stroked for the surface and feasted on air. She glanced around for her surfboard and spotted it a few meters ahead. She swam as smoothly and rapidly and efficiently as she possibly could to reach it. It was inverted with its fin in the air, and she embraced it and rolled.

There was enough of a current for her to ride along the gentle waves. Lily got into a crouch, paddling with her hands to increase her speed. The boat was still a minute or two away, and it looked like most of the divers were either back on board or climbing up the ladders.

A wash of color hit her eye, from below. A stampede of plobs, in rainbow colors. Some of them brushed her fingertips as she paddled faster.

Her board surged forward and her heart twitched. A wake was pushing her forward, and there was only one thing big enough to create a wake in her general area. She was afraid to look over her shoulder, but she did.

The shark flew out of the water, nose first. Just behind her, making an even bigger wake that pushed her away from the eruption. She could see plobs clinging to it as it surfaced. The moment they hit the air they sizzled and dried, and dropped away.

Blood droplets showered her as the shark flew over her head. There were no gaping wounds, but the shark seemed to be losing quite a lot of blood as it flew through the air. It soared over the dive boat, decorating it with a bold stripe of red before splashing into the water. The dive boat listed heavily to the side as everybody on board crowded around to watch.

Lily splashed herself with water, rinsing away the blood. A blue plob swam up while she was doing that and she dipped her hand in the water, letting it take hold. “Nepenthe?”

“Yes. This is Nepenthe. Greetings to Lily Laguna. I heard you identified a meg. We are all very grateful. And I believe we have conjectured a response to your dilemma.”

A pearly-white plob surfaced. This one was carrying a coiled rope. Lily took hold of one end and the plob anchored itself firmly around the other, descending as the coil played out.

She stood up, holding the rope. The plob propelled her forward, faster than the waves so that she skipped over them. She waved to the people on the dive boat as she moved past, the plob accelerating to a comfortable speed. Lily’s hair streamed out behind her. 

Sometime in the later afternoon, the plob deposited her at an island of her own. The garden hadn’t been harvested in a while, so it was full of fruit and vegetables, and the prior visitors had left her half a drum of grain and a freezer full of frozen shrimp. There was a little curved bay beneath her lanai, and after dinner she went there to watch the sunrise, leaning against a partially submerged tree with the waves lapping at her waist. As she anticipated, another plob appeared, this one cerise in color, and she plugged her hand into it.

“You won’t be alone for long,” Nepenthe said. “We talk to a few other people, and we’re going to try to get all of you together to help us refine the interface. Another one of my friends is in a canoe and should reach you the day after tomorrow.”

“I didn’t know sharks got that big.”

“The people who created us created them to hunt us. No doubt they’ll create something even bigger to hunt the megalodons. Their minds tend to work along those lines. But then, you would figure the kind of person who would decide to create a sentient species is missing a few crucial elements. Since I owe my existence to this critical cognitive deficiency, I can’t reject it entirely.”

“I suppose not.” Lily watched the sun sink beneath the horizon, yielding the sky to the Southern Cross. She sat in a puddle of warm light from her window, on her house, on her island.

“I have something to tell you. I found your mother.”

“You did?” Lily blinked.

“She is skeletonized by now. I can give you a location in nautical coordinates.”

“That’s okay.” She swallowed, hard, at the idea of her mother’s skeleton. It had probably been the crabs. The spontaneously generating crabs. At least she hadn’t been eaten by a giant shark. There was that.

Or maybe she had just dissolved in the water. Become one with the ocean.

“I’d like to try something, if you don’t mind. It may hurt a little.”

“A little?” She tensed her hand, anticipating a burning sensation. “Okay, if it’s only a little.”

Visuals flooded her eyes. A space-eye-view of the planet, with the camera hurtling down through the atmosphere, locating a spot in the South Pacific and plunging beneath the waves. Down, down, down, and there she was, a glimpse of a diver’s mask, and a skeletal shoulder.

The images were painfully sharp, and viciously bright. Each eye was seeing a different version, and the two versions didn’t quite synch right. It felt like her head was the wrong shape. Lily’s temples began to throb. “It hurts. Make it stop.”

The images vanished, replaced by soft music. Lullabystander by Twin Grape Theater.  “The video transmission is still experimental. I apologize.”

The headache stayed with Lily for longer than a day. She hid herself in the darkest room with a pillow over her face and a bucket beside her in case she had to vomit. Her father’s speech haunted her, about lying around with a broken leg and no medical attention, and she wondered if something inside her brain had ruptured.

She slept on and off, and one morning she woke up to a cool cloth on her eyes. Next there was cold juice and a soothing voice, and some kind of medication that made her sleep deeply. When she woke up the headache was gone, and the island had doubled in population.


Maria May was not very good at walking, since one of her legs faced the wrong way. She was very good at canoeing and cooking, and she nursed Lily back to health with shrimp noodle soup. And at regular intervals they went down to the bay to talk to the Sirens.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Stories to Nominate Next Year

If I post them on my blog, then I can find them later when it's time to send in nominations.  Plus other people may enjoy them.

I found a good one in the File 770 comments today: Cat Pictures, Please by Naomi Kritzer.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Photos from Sasquan

Flying over the Space Needle

Eerie red sunset over Spokane

Victorian splendor at the Davenport

Swag! Bunny shirts! Sasquatch socks!

All the furniture had clawed feet

Spokane street art

Spokane Falls

More falls

The bridge near the falls

Uncle George reading us a story

The Longbotham building? I suspect wizardry.

The audience arrives for the Hugo award ceremony
Just noticed I also made an appearance in one of File 770's photos (uncredited, just the way I like it :)

THE WORLDCON EXPERIENCE


I think I’m going to spend my twilight years vacationing at fandom conventions. They are relatively brief, provide intellectual stimulation, are full of instant friends to chat with and everything’s as accessible and non-physically-challenging as possible. The last couple I’ve been to had to do with video games, and were bright and flashy and loud, and full of people younger than me. Worldcon was peaceful and mellow and full of people older than me, although there was a little crossover.

I got into lots of impromptu random conversations. Sometimes I was organized and got the person’s name and copies of their card/ad/flier/whatever, and sometimes I didn’t.

NETWORKING AT WORLDCON

It was strange and wonderful being surrounded by other writers. The ones I chatted with were very gracious and encouraging when I admitted I was an unpublished noobasaurus.  I thought I’d mention some of the ones who encountered me when I was organized enough to learn names.

Annie Bellet – I met her at the SFWA booth where there were charity auctions to have various sci fi writers write a personal story about the bidder.  And I was tempted to enter them all, just so my name would actually appear in published sci fi. John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow were both participating, and I’ll admit the idea of buying (cough, charitably contributing) my way into getting my name in print appealed.

Annie went them one further and offered to kill me. I told her pshaw, I die all the time in World of Warcraft, and we began discussing this very interesting subject. Annie revealed she would like to play a mage but had trouble getting started. I made brief mention of my leet WoW skillz.  Annie, if you see this, my offer for assistance in becoming an overpowered, strutting, leet mage stands. Any time, any server.

I have been reading about Annie, and how she was one of the people who got hosed by the slating, and now that I’ve met her I’m even more annoyed because I really liked her.  So I went and acquired two of her books, both series-starters:
Justice Calling: The Twenty-Sided Sorceress, Book 1
and
Witch Hunt (The Gryphonpike Chronicles Book 1)
(I say “acquired” because she cleverly does the first-one’s-free marketing scheme, which I have been thinking of doing myself – I’ll read further into whichever series grabs me.)

Heather Rose Jones – I met her at a hive of scum and villainry, and later on I attended her reading. She writes lesbian regency romance with alchemy and magic, and her series begins with Daughter of Mystery.  I haven’t bought it because I’m kind of Austenphobic, but I am following her on Amazon in case she gets around to writing down some of that amazing haunting spin on the Mabinogion she sampled for us at the reading.  Do it, Heather!  I’m still thinking about the bread as thin as linen!

Mark Van Name – I showed up too early for Heather’s reading and got to hear some of Mr. Van Name’s reading, from a military sci fi story with a gay couple dealing with PTSD in the midst of a big war.  I’ve got a soft spot for mil sci fi, having read and forgotten (this way I can re-read it for the first time again, later) large amounts of Heinlein. At the end he said a few things about diversity, and Baen, and being liberal. I looked him up and noticed he has co-written with Sad Puppy founder Larry Correia.  I liked his reading very much, and he was another of the many people I encountered at Worldcon who brought it home for me that the slating mainly hurts the writers who have not yet achieved GRRM or Scalzi level status. 

Leigh Kimmel – She sold me some awesome Killer Bunnies t-shirts, and her work is in progress.  Do it, Leigh!

John Scalzi – is already megafamous and rich and everyone knows who he is. I can say that he’s lots of fun to watch – very energetic and clever and funny. After his reading, an audience member handed him a ukulele (all decorated gothy-like, with skulls) and he burst into a rendition of Radiohead’s hit “Creep”, and got us all to sing along on the chorus, which was probably my favorite thirty seconds of the entire convention.  He’s like the Mick Jagger of writers.

George R.R. Martin – I went to his reading and was utterly transported while he told us a tale from that book he’s taking forever to write. I also went to his old-dudes-remembering-Hugos chat with Robert Silverberg. Later, I saw him just hanging out being a nerd – chatting about nerdly things, cruising through the dealer’s room. I could have approached him in an obnoxiously fannish way and asked him some doltish question he’s probably already been asked several hundred times, but I gave him space and respect, like everyone else was doing. I saw other luminaries like Scalzi and Silverberg and Gerrold doing the same.

David Gerrold is not my friend.  On Facebook. But a couple of my friends are his friends and sometimes they link his posts, and I enjoy them so I follow David. That means I’m muted and can’t comment unless I do it on a shared comment, and I’ve actually gotten some decent book recommendations that way. Maybe one of David’s friends will read this and let him know I’d like to be on his friend waiting list.  I liked hearing his talks, I was part of a large general conversation he was also in, and I think he did an awesome job hosting the Hugos.  While hanging out waiting for him to show up late to his own panel, I was chatting with Wendy Sheridan, who does web/graphic design.

Robert Sheckley – is, unfortunately, dead. BUT.  I just have to mention this Sheckley book I was reading on the airplane, because it’s … rocketing its way into my all-time favorites list. After identifying him on File 770, I acquired most of his works on Kindle for a shockingly low price, since he seems to be sliding toward obscurity, and I want to do something to stop that if I can.

Options by Robert Sheckley.
You know that last scene in Mad Men? In my headcanon, the absolute next thing Don Draper does is run off with Robert Sheckley to some wild psychedelic party in Malibu where they sit up all night on the beach talking about what the future will look like while teenage George Lucas spies on them, concealed behind a surfboard.
Options has that same delirious, tomorrowland-sliding-into-counterculture, beat poetry kind of feel. It’s mostly about Mishkin, and this robot, although realities change from chapter to chapter (“absurdist” according to Goodreads, where I just five-starred it). If it helps, I was reading it simultaneous with the first Discworld book, which seemed cozy and orderly and British in comparison. Options made me laugh out loud on an airplane (the part about the guy who had his own way of catching fish for dinner – boring them to death with discussions of inalienable rights).  It’s philosophical, it’s zany, it’s got darkness, it’s brilliant. I plan to read it at least nine more times.

Anyway. Back to writers that are still alive.

Sheckley’s name was the first thing I saw when I entered the convention, because there was a big stack of big fat Sheckley books entitled Moon Over Manana on the free table. Moments later, I owned one, as well as an autographed copy of A [sword]ex Twice Abducted by TL Walker, who was manning the freebie table.

Mike Glyer does a webpage called File 770.  I have vague memories from when it was a printed zine. It has been an invaluable resource during the last few months as I sought to inform myself about the Puppies, their detractors, their supporters and the surrounding history.  Along the way I have learned a lot more about science fiction and related subjects, and my Kindle app staggers under the weight of books I have purchased solely through recommendations in the comments on File 770.  I have found my new literary gatekeeper.

I went to a soiree with a bunch of people from the File 770 comments, and (gulp) wound up sitting right next to Mr. Glyer, trying not to implode in a fit of spontaneous noobish combustion.  Mr. Glyer is the science fiction community’s chief reporter and gumshoe. He knows where all the bodies have been teleported to.  His comment section is now my favorite go-to spot for smart conversations.

Karen Azinger wrote a series called Silk & Steel, and she had the initiative to hand out postcards advertising it just before the GRRM reading. I admire initiative, and I bought The Steel Queen (The Silk & Steel Saga Book 1) for my Kindle.

Chad Scheres is an artist, not a writer.  He draws Big Daddy Roth style horror icons, and he makes resin sculptures too. If that sounds appealing, you should check him out. 

S. Usher Evans hangs out at http://www.susherevans.com/blog/ and has an article about not self-publishing which I should probably read, as well as links to several of her books. I have a coupon for a free copy of Double Life, the first of the Razia series.

Aviva Bel’Harold wrote a vampire story that looks pretty good, called Blood Matters. I remember looking at two different covers for it, an eye-catching-but-disturbing one and a toned-down one. 

Raymond Bolton wrote a steampunk story with space – Awakening: The Ydron Saga.  I have just acquired it for Kindle.

Henry Melton has written a lot of YA stories that sound interesting. He’s got a cool slogan – “Small towns, big ideas.”

Francis Hamit was also at the File 770 soiree, and I just bought his e-book Meltdown, a story about a nuclear accident. 

PANELS AT WORLDCON

I went to a few panels.

Women in videogames.  I walked out because there was some outdated info presented in order to portray one of my favorite games as being more sexist than it actually is. 

Violence in fiction.  This panel seemed comfortable with the idea that yes, some art is violent, plus some people like that, particularly those who enjoy a subgenre called grimdark, which probably needs no further explanation. Nobody was grandstanding about how books cause violence, although there was a threatened side discussion about the ethics of torture.  I liked the consensus suggestions to make sure the violence is necessary, and realistic. 

Writing about controversial subjects. Like many people, I sometimes wonder if mobs will converge on me and attempt to destroy my life for expressing honest opinions about things like mayonnaise (disgusting) and Obamacare (in favor).  It was nice to see high profile people like Laura Mixon, Mike Glyer, John Scalzi and Eric Flint elucidate on controversy, and remind us that there are far more opinionators, and people supportive of them, than silencers.

Self-publishing. In this panel I learned one can make about $200 for typesetting a manuscript in e-book format. This is nice to know, since I planned to learn how to do that anyway.

It also made me think seriously about joining the ranks of the self-pubbed, mainly since my first novel kind of deviates from the established path.  Possibly it will open doors to future publishers. Maybe self-pub would be a good route for me, since I’m ornery and don’t take direction well.  Something to ponder, anyway.

AND I LUXURIATED IN MY ROOM

The Davenport has these special mattresses that are topped with pillows, for sort of a featherbed effect. It was definitely one of the most comfortable beds I have ever encountered. And that was a good thing, because my back was screaming at me throughout most of my journey through the land of seating without lumbar support. 

In fact, the Davenport is my favorite out of all the hotels I’ve ever visited. It was built in 1912, and is covered with marvelous Victorian gingerbread. All the furniture has clawed feet. The party suites have middle-of-the-room fireplaces. I’m a sucker for restored old hotels, as opposed to creepy modern corporate hotels, and the Davenport delivers in spades. 

At turndown they give you their very own special recipe soft peanut brittle, in chocolate and regular, which is very much like pralines. Everything I ate in the restaurant was delicious, and the French Dip was so good I ate it twice.  I had the most perfectly-cooked filet mignon there, crispy exterior and rare center.

I did eat outside the Davenport a couple times, once at a chain and the other time at Saranac on Main Street near the convention hall, where I had killer kalua pork and mac ‘n cheese. Conclusion: there is no bad food in Spokane. There is also plenty of coffee in Spokane, and none of it is bad. 

PLUS THERE WAS A DISASTER

Spokane is a lovely Pacific Northwestern town full of funky old brick buildings and street art. It seems like there’s always a freight train going by. A river literally runs through it, complete with waterfalls and a little gondola ride that goes over them. I rented a car initially, and twenty minutes after I left the airport I made my way to a park full of towering evergreens, and then I found an overlook atop a gorgeous gap in a neighborhood full of spiffy old houses. After I got a look at the environs I turned the car back in, since Spokane is walkable, and I had pretty good luck with the convention shuttle. 

The Evergreen State was looking a little brown and crispy from the drought, and forest fires were burning all around the eastern half of the state. When I first arrived, you could see brownish haze on the horizon, coloring the sun a bright bloody red.  By Friday the smoke was so thick you could smell it inside the convention center, and the sky was thick and sepia-toned, and full of nasty little particles that inspired some people to don breathing masks, or handkerchiefs wrapped around their lower faces in train robbery fashion.

We were all advised to hole up in our hotels, so I did that, and discovered the president had declared an emergency.

AND AS FOR WHAT’S LEFT IN MY BIG BAG FULL OF MISCELLANEOUS PRINTED MATERIAL

Let’s see.  There’s going to be a Norwescon in March 2016, and Tanya Huff, Janny Wurts and William Hartman will be there.

Westercon is bidding for Denver, and invites me to help make this happen.  In 2016 it’s going to be in Portland. I like Portland. I should go. Stross, Scalzi and a bunch of other people will be there.

Northwest Independent Writers Association is something I may want to join if I ever move to WA or OR.  Just kidding! I love it here in San Francisco!

www.edgewebsite.com is a publisher of F, SF and H.  One of their books has an intriguing Space Invaders style cover. 

I have a coupon for a free e-book from Dreamspinner/Harmony Ink/DSP Publications.  I’ll have to investigate their offerings.

I also have a cool artsy bookmark plugging Guts & Glory, at Jessica-Rising.com.

www.galaxysedge.com is a SF&F magazine. I should read it.

http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/ is also a SF&F magazine,and I should read that too.

DID I GET INSPIRED OR ANYTHING?

My current game plan: 
  Spend at least a week sleeping on this before I do anything about it;
  Self-pub the novel on Amazon. It's broken into long chapters, four per novel. I can do those separately, with the first one being free. 
  I will need thumbnail-friendly cover art. My skills fail at big elaborate cover paintings of the type I fantasize about, but I could probably make a thumbnail.
  And I will also need to learn to typeset for e-book. That shouldn't take too long.
   Produce more publicity, so that I have cards to hand out at conventions.
   Give this thing one more good strong read-through, and toss it out there. 
   If it's good enough, publishers and editors will happen for subsequent books.
   Finish the short stories too.
   Always be writing.


No Award Sweeps Hugos

The winner was announced – No Award. A ripple of applause broke out. I realized that my hands had joined in on the applause.

Yes, I admit it. I’m not proud of it. I voted for a few No Awards myself. I wasn’t applauding for the nominees’ disappointment, or because I was having gleeful fantasies about cranial explosions, or for any perceived victories in some kind of convoluted culture war. I was applauding because the cheaters weren’t getting rewarded.

I mainly No Awarded ringleaders and people who stood to benefit financially from the cheating, and tried to be considerate of the writers dragged along in their wake.  I’m glad Guardians of the Galaxy won, even though it was slated. I’m glad Three Body Problem won, even though the puppies liked it too. I’m happy with the proposed rule changes to discourage future slating.

I approached the voting like this: I’m nineteen, and I’m on my way to my crappy job/class/distraction, on the public transit. Upon a nearby seat, someone has left a compilation paperback, Hugo Winners of 2015. Curious and bored, I reach over and pick it up. Does the story I encounter make me want to read more science fiction?  Or does it make me feel a different sensation – for example, some of the entries made me feel as though I had been sneezed on by a llama. 


I am looking forward to next year’s entries. I might even be looking forward to attending next year’s Worldcon. I had a pretty good time, and I’ll tell you all about it in the next few posts. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

A Post To Point Out That I Posted Some Fiction

My brain has a regrettable feature: whenever it has a good idea, it tends to head into macrocreative territory.

For instance, I decided to write some short stories just for this blog, in order to prove that I am too a real writer, just in case anybody at Sasquan asks. I had one mostly done, and a couple of others baking nicely. And then my stupid brain got involved.

“A creative project?!?! I know how to do that! See, you actually want a cycle consisting of a dozen short stories (six thematically contrasting pairs), plus there’s a character who appeas through the entire thing – he can be the star of one story, but only one. Plus each story must contain a reference to a different story, so it all hooks together like a Lego Death Star, and can be read out of sequence. Make sure every single extra, walk-on and janitor has a Deeply Symbolic Name!  Throw in some nods to your friends! Try not to take sides in any political kerfluffles or scandals that might result in badspam while desperately trying to court goodspam!” 

And suddenly, I’m mentally on the hook for a tremendous pile of words, and probably a bloated spreadsheet. With thinking required, meaning I can’t just stream-of-consciousness-on-autopilot. Like I’m doing now, using only the cooperative and friendly parts of my brain, and not the ones that think they’re Busby freaking Berkeley.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is why this novel I’m taking forever to write is taking forever. Macrocreativity has appeared, and I’m struggling with it. Defeated, yet again, by my own brain.


But anyway, I managed to finally let one story escape, and that is Purity Test.  It’s about a unicorn, and a virgin, or actually a grad student who doesn’t have the time or energy for a relationship regardless of whether she’s ever had sex, it’s really none of my business. It seemed like an appropriate story for a maiden voyage. 

Purity Test

Purity Test
© 2015 by Charon Dunn
Rotten awful no-good misbegotten travesty of a ridiculous unicorn.
Meredy disapproved from a safe distance as the handlers coaxed him from its padded crate. The beast was taller at the shoulder than all but two of the handlers. Its feathered blond hooves shuffled warily as it looked down at its tormentors, holding its head unnaturally high to counterbalance the stubby half-meter horn jutting out of its forehead. Meredy was more appalled by the other end.
“A stallion?” Her disapproval coalesced and expanded. “Were they actually trying to breed that thing?”
“Presumably that’s what the client ordered. Unicorn stallion, size large. He has been maintained on a rather high dosage of mood-altering medication for the last several years. It seems he has become increasingly difficult to handle.” Amrit was the facility manager tasked with showing ignorant visiting grad students around, and she bore it with grace and patience.
“Even despite the bonding chip?”
“The bonding chip induces pleasure in the brain whenever the eyes gaze upon the person who initialized it, but it does nothing to compensate for having a heavy foreign object grafted onto the forehead. We removed the chip, and that would tend to put him out of sorts during the post-surgical adjustment period.”
“Can’t you remove the horn?”
“We can’t treat him at all until we gradually withdraw him from his usual cocktail. I personally gave him enough to render an equivalent-sized horse unconscious, just a few hours ago. I would agree with you that he should undergo horn reduction, and potentially castration, but permanent surgical alterations must go through a lengthy review process. We are here to keep them alive, intact and healthy. Studying them is your job.”
Meredy was just starting to work up sympathy for the unicorn when it lashed out with a lazy backward kick that knocked a support bar off the cage. Handlers scattered and regrouped, stage-whispering furiously to each other beneath the Bach etude issuing from the speakers.
“Let me show you the blinds.” Amrit towed Meredy by the sleeve of the bright lime-colored t-shirt grad students were required to wear in order to broadcast their inexperience to everyone in sight, through a door and down a hall, then a brief elevator descent to an austere lobby, ringed with doors. There was a detailed map of the grounds displayed on the wall. The Vesta Animal Refuge logo floated above the top, a smiling maiden surrounded by cartoon creatures. At the bottom was the logo of Petrichor Corporation, along with a notice that Vesta was wholly owned and operated by Petrichor, and duly licensed as a non-profit educational facility.
The corporate logo was subtle and discrete, and Meredy’s heart sank at the sight of it. A second omen that her career had ended before it had even begun. Before she had even graduated.
The unicorn itself was her first obstacle. She only needed to wring one research paper out of her visit to Vesta. Then she’d have her degree in Animal Psychology, and she could apply to a project, and she even had one picked out: studying wrens and mice, in Bonterra, at a nice latitude that got plenty of snow in the winter and moderately hot summers. Out in the wilderness, yet so close to the border that she could get home in a couple of days if necessary.
Not only that, she rather liked wrens, and mice. They had survived the meteor that had hit the earth over a thousand years ago, and the volcanoes that sprouted where it landed, which had extincted most of the large animals, aside from the ones humans had taken into the domes with them, sometimes in the form of digital memory that could be painstakingly reassembled with fleshprinters, in case anybody needed a bear or rhinoceros. There was considerable debate about doing this in the an-psych community, with the general consensus being that it was unethical, but occasionally people did it anyway.
There was a more solid consensus about the ethics of fabbing creatures from the distant past, or creatures that had never existed in nature. Such as gigantic drug-addled unicorn stallions, and lap elephants, and the rumored aquatic dinosaurs haunting the Carribbean. Any animal psychologist speaking out in favor of this would be incenerated upon a pyre of ill will.
Animal fabbing was perfectly legal in Bonterra, however, as well as several other countries, because the kind of people who could do it traveled in different circles than people who worried whether they should. Bonterra even had one as a national symbol, a behemoth bovine cobbled together from Buffalo, Texas Longhorn, Silesian, Wagyu, Holstein, Aurochs and Yak, specially engineered to spread nitrogen and good cheer to the weary soil while providing delicious meat to people who ate meat that wasn’t grown in vats. Meredy didn’t, although she was aware she might encounter carnivores in Bonterra. The ethics consensus wasn’t too fond of Bonterra, even though most of the surviving animals in Namerica lived there. Wrens, mice, voles, bugs, snakes, rabbits, cats, dogs, pigs. Skunks. Meredy had once steered very clear of a family of skunks during a hiking trip in her sophomore year of high school. She had fallen in love with Bonterra then, while she was still ignorant of the an-psych community’s ethical consensus.
And she was well aware that expressing a desire to work in Bonterra raised alarms. As did working for a corporation. As did research papers on hacked creatures whose very existence was an affront to many.
She was also aware that too many alarms could result in a flood of disapproving messages directed toward her social node, and that her social node would be scrutinized in great detail before she would be permitted to graduate
In fact, an alarm was going off right now. A literal one, in the form of a throbbing red dot on the map, and a low-pitched attention-getting tone specifically designed not to alarm animals.
“A breach,” Amrit muttered. “The blind you want is number seven thirteen fifty-two, on the right. I had better see what that’s about.”
“Seven-one-three-five-two right,” Meredy repeated back. “Got it. Through this door? Or should I wait?”
“Go ahead.” Amrit joined a group of Vesta personnel rushing down a different hall. Meredy opened her door and stepped into a hallway full of numbered doors.
She muttered her numbers like a witch’s incantation as she hiked down the hallway. Hiking was second nature to Meredy. She had even done part of the Appalachian Trail, plus she’d be able to see more of it while tending to the mice and wrens. Maybe even on horseback. That was the only way you could get around in Bonterra.
She found her number and opened the door on a short hallway terminating in a ladder. She climbed up to a tiny closet of a room, clearly intended for single occupancy. There was a desk and chair, and a door opposite the entrance with a palmprint lock, decorated with several brightly colored warning signs.
The chair was very comfortable. It faced a window looking out on the outside world. The very edge of it, in fact, since Meredy could see the tall perimeter fence in the background. She had seen video of the blinds, filmed from the outside. They were encased in large fake rocks, their observation windows well-concealed with plants. There was a small waterfall behind Meredy that fed the drinking pool for the enclosure, and its rushing sound was soothing. She had an array of portals at the bottom of her window displaying the view from cameras mounted at different parts of the enclosure.
There were thousands of these enclosures, dividing up the natural-looking land set aside by the Petrichor Corporation for this purpose. Each enclosure was outlined in invisible sonic fencing, and each had a blind. Most contained animals, or groups of them. Vesta even ran an online service where you could pop in and watch the video stream to see how your favorite creature was doing, and several had their own fan clubs.
Some of the creatures were customized bioengineering projects, and some came from reconstituted data. There were pets that had suddenly turned violent, and illegal exotics confiscated from criminals. Some of the animals were there by virtue of the border. A wounded turkey or rabbit on the Bonterra side was likely to wind up as dinner, but if it made it into Virginialina, it had rights. Not as many rights as a human, but important rights nevertheless. And you never knew whether a Vesta enclosure would contain a squirrel, or a litter of friendly kittens, or a horse-sized mastiff with venomous fangs.
Enclosure 71352R was in the process of containing the unicorn. Meredy watched on the inset monitors as a small forklift shoved the padded cage along in a straight line, down an invisible corridor in the invisible fencing. Once the unicorn’s box was inside the enclosure the humans all backed away, following the reversing forklift in the same straight line. Meredy could hear its backup alarm faintly beeping. Once they were a safe distance away they opened the crate by remote control.
The unicorn stepped out, tossing its head petulantly. The handlers crept back for the empty crate and hauled it back up their invisible corridor while the unicorn strutted around the enclosure, inspecting his new borders.
There was a patch of screen on the wall in Meredy’s blind, but it was at an awkward angle, and it was getting some glare from the late morning sunlight. She called up the unicorn’s fact packet and downloaded it to her deld. Video filled her palm, a physical examination of the unicorn conducted by sturdy robots. She had to admit he was a beautiful animal, despite his sordid origins. Golden and powerful, elegantly proportioned. His blond mane and tail had been neatly trimmed, and his hooves had just the right amount of wear.
She moved past the video to the documents. Naturally there weren’t many prior photographs, given that the unicorn had grown up in cameraless Bonterra. There was a photo of a painting of him, in oils, showing him standing in a lush pasture scattered with little white flowers, gazing at a slice of nature that included a lake and a forest and some gently rounded hills, topped by serene blue sky. There was a long scanned-in handwritten document in old-fashioned joined-up letters and looking at it made Meredy’s eyes hurt. There was a brief medical record, consisting of the examination it had been given right here at Vista.
There was also a court file, indicating that an individual named Joaquin Jibbley had been convicted of fabbing mythological animals in an Ambit sting, caught red-handed with a purported baby dragon that was mostly bat, with a little iguana, which had suffered a fatal crash on its first attempted flight. Jibbley had confessed to creating the unicorn, among other things, and was serving a lengthy sentence sealed in a vat somewhere in the Justice system.
The monitor showed the unicorn drinking from his waterfall-fed pool, dappled with light from the surrounding trees. Meredy smiled, and almost snapped a picture. Then she caught herself. This was a horse that had been severely abused, with the equivalent of an extra femur grafted onto its head, by an animal-abusing criminal. And sold to a gullible rube out in the sticks. Where he would have spent an idyllic life with his white-flowered meadow if he hadn’t started getting vicious.
Meredy wondered just how bad things had gotten before the gullible rubes finally decided to pack the beast off to Vesta.  Maybe he had injured another animal, or a human.
She looked back at the monitor and watched it flicker and die. The rushing waterfall behind her went silent, and the light went out.
Meredy sighed in frustration. The power grid was being updated, and over the last couple of weeks, some glitch in the system was sporadically shutting down large chunks of the city. The engineers hadn’t been able to track it down yet. Vesta was at the very edge, nestled between Bonterra wilderness and Virginialina sprawl, block after block of moderately tall buildings until you got to the Atlantic. Occasional blocks of factories. Most of the trees were caged.
At least her deld was still charged. She tapped her palm in frustration, switching from the unicorn’s file to her regular apps. She called up her social node to check her messages and found a red warning floating across them, informing her that the power grid was taxed, in case she hadn’t already figured that out for herself. She could see everyone else’s messages but she couldn’t reply. Effectively mute, at least until the blackout ended.
This day just kept getting worse. Meredy paged through her messages, corraling the ones she actually meant to reply to, such as the one verifying the spelling of her name for the article she had written for An-Psych Journal on stress-compensatory behaviors in wrens.
Then she paged down to her social feed. Somebody named Gindle Riggs had excavated a promotional photograph from the Sunrise Ranch Horse Camp. Meredy had spent a blissful thirteenth summer there. The photo showed her astride a friendly mare named Candyapple, wearing a plaid flannel shirt, and pigtails, and a grin. Gindle had included a caption: “I’m feeling bothered by this.”
There were sixteen replies.
Meredy’s mouth went dry as she read them. Shaylie Sargasso had said: “I don’t think that horse asked those humans to mutilate its hooves and force it to bear loads on its spine.”
Zusha Grell had said: “This kind of thing makes me want to cry.”
The next poster had said it made her want to throw up, but Meredy was too focused on the fact that eight people had affirmed her to catch the name.
She scrolled up to Gindle Riggs. The name rang a bell. There she was, a mousy second-year an-psych student who had just transferred here from Nyorc. Meredy dimly recalled seeing her in class. She scrolled througn Gindle’s posts and quickly determined her main hobby was looking for flaws amongst her classmates. She had already caught Freddy Dasta enjoying a feast of barbecued spareribs, and Morgan Menzies wearing a pair of leather boots.
Most of Gindle’s friends were girls from Scose, with a smattering from the aircities. All places where nobody rode horses. People rode horses all over Samerica. The University of Zentaro even had a polo team, and Braganza had had horse races. In certain areas of Namerica it was the only way to get around, unless you enjoyed hiking with a backpack half your size. Meredy enjoyed hiking, but not as much as she enjoyed riding horses.
She was aware there was controversy in the an-psych world regarding whether horseback riding was ethical. She had known there were strong opinions on both sides, and she had insulated herself from them. There had been no horses beneath her butt since she turned fourteen. Even though being able to ride horses was one of the main reasons she wanted to be stationed in Bonterra, truthfully, in her heart of hearts, where she could state with confidence she was doing it for science. In case it ever came up.
Which it wouldn’t, since she didn’t know hardly any of those city girls from places where the only horses were decorative background screen icons. She didn’t care about any of those girls. She didn’t even really like them, in fact, with their crappy music and their ugly fashions and their piercing accents.
Especially Gindle. Meredy stared at Gindle’s simpering smirk as though she were shooting lasers from her eyeballs that would enter her deld and elbow their way through the power grid to Gindle’s crappy dorm room where she was probably blasting Nif Skiffy and the Gonzoteers right now, while dancing around wearing something tight and impractical, while yattering to someone in her irritating whiny voice and eating something stinky.
Meredy couldn’t actually recall hearing Gindle speak, but she just knew that a person like Gindle had to have an irritating whiny voice.
Kablam! Something hit the side of the blind, hard, and Meredy yelled in fright, momentarily convinced that her lasers had worked. There was an answering snort from the other side of the door. Another blow impacted the blind, and this time Meredy smelled fresh air. The unicorn had kicked the door so hard it had broken inward near the top, above the heavy reinforcing bar that ran through the middle.
She scrambled down the ladder and fumbled with the exit door. It wouldn’t open. Above her, blows rained down on the breached door, and equine curses filled the air.
Meredy pounded on the door, and yelled. Fresh, hot, humid air flooded down the ladder shaft as the unicorn did further damage to the door. Finally it stopped, and Meredy could hear its hooves clopping away. She stopped yelling, as that was having absolutely no effect on anything.
She stood in the circle of light from the laddershaft and looked up. Dust fluttered down to her face as she peered up. The top half door was broken inward, and the reinforcing bar was exposed.
Water splashed onto her face. Just a trickle, at first. She stepped back, wiping her cheek with the back of her hand. The flow increased to deluge, flooding her tiny slice of corridor. The exit door wasn’t watertight, but it was holding back most of the water cascading down the laddershaft. From the waterfall. Which the unicorn had destroyed.
Meredy held her hand up to keep her deld out of the water. It was supposed to be waterproof, but manufacturers lied about that all the time. The water rose to her knees, her waist, her shoulders, and finally she had to move to the laddershaft because the entire corridor was flooded. She ascended two rungs and clung there, waist deep, gulping down hot, humid air and listening carefully.
She could hear the death throes of the circulation pump, and the buzz of the insects who passed through sonic fences with impunity. Meredy gulped, wondering if the blackout meant the fences were down. Leaving every beast in Vesta free to gather around her exposed laddershaft like cats lurking around a mousehole.
She climbed as high as she dared, ready to drop back into the water at the least sign of trouble, and peered out.
The unicorn had made short work of the blind. The fake rock around the door was missing several large chunks, and the observation window had a hoof-sized hole in it, surrounded by a sunburst of stress cracks. The chair she had been sitting in recently was crushed beneath the top half of the door.
She could see the unicorn, profiled in the missing doorway. He tossed his head in an arrogant way and vanished from sight. Meredy arranged herself in a very uncomfortable position with her knees tucked up to keep most of her feet dry, and her back against the laddershaft. The water didn’t seem to be draining very fast. She fired up her deld, cupping her palm with her other hand to shield it from the sunlight’s glare, which made using the touchscreen awkward. She smiled with relief when the screen lit up, although the red warning was still present.
She scrolled down to Gindle’s post. Now there were forty-nine responses, and sixty people had affirmed.
Meredy groaned. There went her degree. It would probably be delayed for investigation. Some other lucky winner would get her post studying mice and wrens. She would be lucky to get a crappy job in the sprawl somewhere convincing lapdogs to poop in litterboxes. Maybe she’d have to take an extra semester of ethics courses. Maybe those crappy screechy-talking ugly-dressing city folk would drag her into a big dramatic controversy. There were already several professional organizations that made their members swear oaths against horseback riding.
And there was Meredy, not just doing it but promoting it.
She slipped down the laddershaft, splashing into the water. She grabbed madly with her right hand and caught hold of the ladder before her deld got wet, but her clothes were soggy again. Especially the lime green t-shirt of shame.
The unicorn appeared, alerted by her noise. His head appeared in the window, peering curiously at her as she lifted herself to the rim.
The head disappeared and a hoof replaced it, breaking another chunk away from the observation window. It bounced off Meredy’s head and splashed into the water below.
She re-wedged herself carefully in the laddershaft and checked her deld. Still alive. Good. She paged out of her social node. Plenty of time to deal with that later. She returned to the unicorn’s file, sorting through the medical records for anything remotely helpful. She was pleased to learn his next dose of mood altering medication would happen at fourteen hundred.  Only an hour away. She also paged through diagnostic minutiae about the unicorn’s intestinal bacteria and blood breakdown as well as a massive imaging file containing a scan of his entire body, and Meredy amused herself toggling it between musculoskeletal and venous for a minute or two. She was careful not to giggle. Everything was silent up above, and that was a good thing.
She returned to the scanned handwritten letter and enlarged it until the writing was normal book sized, although she still had to move the image around to get through a sentence. Fine. She didn’t really have anything better to do at the moment, aside from watching water drain.
Dear Scientists, the letter read. Meredy nodded at her palm, pleased at being acknowledged as a scientist. She really was one, despite Gindle. It was important to remember that. Maybe she could move to Samerica, and work with the U of Zentaro polo team. Travel home to see family every year or two. There was wildnerness in Zentaro, although the mice were different, and she wasn’t sure if there were any wrens. She blinked and turned back to the letter.
Sending Peppercorn to live with you was a really tough decision, and I just want you to know we all thought about it very carefully.
You should have thought very carefully about not dealing with criminals, Meredy thought, feeling a wave of disapproval surfacing. Peppercorn. That rang a bell.
My stepdad brought him home for me. My real dad died when I was nine, and my mom married Daddy Mike, who is a really nice guy. I didn’t want to have anything to do with Daddy Mike at first, because he has a big scratchy beard and he always smells like licorice. He gave me all kinds of presents to try to get me to like him, but I was missing my dad, and I didn’t like him or his presents.
One day he came home, all excited, and said he was going to show me something amazing. So we got on our horses and rode for a couple hours, out to some ranch where a bunch of men were hanging around drinking. These were some sketchy men, and there weren’t any little girls around, although there were some women just as rough. And they had a unicorn, in a paddock.
Somebody commissioned him, and raised him until he was about two, and then died.  Peppercorn was so overcome by his grief that he killed a man, and was sentenced to be shot. However, some criminals happened to rescue him from his death sentence, these being the ones Daddy Mike encountered through his cousin Willy, who had a taste for drinking, although Joe confines himself to a single shot of hashish cordial every evening after dinner.
They were going to sell him as soon as they could find a buyer crazy enough to pay for him. Daddy Mike lifted me up on his shoulders, so I wouldn’t get my shoes dirty in the mud, and he took me over to the paddock. And he said, “there you go, my princess, a golden unicorn.”
Now once you get to know Peppercorn you’ll find out he spooks easily. He spooked when he saw me, even though there were a bunch of guys egging me on to get closer on account of some kind of mystical belief about unicorns not harming little girls. He wanted to harm me, all right, because he charged the fence. Daddy Mike got me out of the way in time, and that was when I realized he was going to  be there for me, just like my daddy had even if he wasn’t my daddy, and I started to trust him.
As for the unicorn, he knocked itself stupid on the fence. Laid out for about half a minute. He got up, staggering around like he was drunk, and he looked at me, and he was still staring at me when I finally noticed. All moony-eyed.
We figured out he gave himself just enough brain damage to reset his bonding chip, and then he bonded with me. So these outlaws arranged to have him stay at our place until they could arrange a doctor to come out and zap him and reset the chip again and put him on neutral while he waits for his new owner. That never actually happened. Somebody got arrested, and somebody else took off, and I don’t think anybody ever found anyone crazy enough to want to pay money for Peppercorn. Of course, people out here haven’t got a whole lot of use for money.
So we kept Peppercorn. There were a few people he trusted, mostly my family, plus we had this little old man who delivered fresh hay. He’d come by every afternoon at three, singing “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah,” and Peppercorn would be right there at the fence to greet him.  Everyone else he basically tried to kill. We put a mare in with him and he broke her shoulder, and it was a couple years before she was sound enough to ride again, so after that happened we kept him isolated. The cats would hang out with him, sometimes.
He’s in good health and is quite sound, which is fortunate as the vet was afraid to approach him, especially after that incident where Peppercorn killed a prowler. He would stand still for me, but if anyone else approached he’d try to drive them off, protecting me. So you could say I spent my childhood being very well protected.
I spent some time with him every day, for twelve years. I kept his coat and his mane and tail nice. I rode him around the pasture some. No saddle or anything, just bareback. He likes it. Keeps him calm.
I was intending to keep him for the rest of his natural life but then I married Albert. I’ve got a baby on the way, in September. Peppercorn doesn’t like Albert at all, and you can probably imagine all kinds of bad scenarios. I can too, and that’s why Peppercorn is your problem now.
Good luck with him, and please give him as happy a life as you can. He can’t help being who he is, and he doesn’t deserve any of this.
Sophie Fields
Applejack Creek, Bonterra
Meredy’s mind kept drifting back to the word “kill” as she awkwardly maneuvered her way through the handwritten text, noticing her brain had adjusted to the joined-up letters. Sophie Fields wrote a very clear hand. Not only that, she had named her golden unicorn Peppercorn, after a character in a book called Mythmagicus, which coincidentally had been Meredy’s favorite book when she was nine. She hadn’t thought of Bonterrans as being well-read but considering that they didn’t have video, it made sense.
“Peppercorn?” Her voice echoed in the ladderwell. The unicorn responded immediately with a bass nicker. She heard it shuffling through the grass outside. “Hi, Peppercorn. You really are a beautiful unicorn. I’m sorry you feel so angry right now.”
The blind shook as Peppercorn’s rear hooves impacted the observation window. Once, twice, three times. The window was made of something shatterproof that broke off in dull chunks as opposed to sharp-edged shards, and Meredy was grateful for this as several of the dull chunks rained down on her head and arms. They still stung. Most of them splashed into the water below.
Peppercorn’s front end appeared in the window. Meredy summoned every ounce of her training and held her body perfectly still, making just enough eye contact to establish herself, not enough to present herself as a threat. Peppercorn’s upper lip curled as he evaluated her scent.
The horn poked through the remains of the window. Meredy watched it with huge eyes, backing down the ladder until the water rose to her waist. It was just long enough to reach the tip of the laddershaft. Peppercorn’s beard was wet with drool, and droplets of it pattered down on Meredy’s forehead as it probed the area, searching.
Sudden lunge. Loud, reverberating metallic sound as the tip of the horn made contact with the tip of the laddershaft. Meredy screamed. Peppercorn jerked his head back, whacking his horn on first the ceiling, then the window frame.
Once he was free, Peppercorn roared with rage. Meredy could hear him galloping away, then there was a crash outside as he attacked something else. Probably a tree. She eased up the ladder, flashing on uncomfortable thoughts about the whack-a-mole app she sometimes played on her deld.
Bang, bang, bang, outside by the waterfall pump.
A hole appeared in the wall, followed by a deluge of even more water. Meredy was washed back down the laddershaft. She scuttled into the corridor as a chunk of wall debris splashed down, and she held her breath as more of the wall collapsed, filling the laddershaft with more debris.
She held her breath until her head throbbed. There was nowhere to go except up the laddershaft, and over the meter-high pile of debris at the foot of it. The floor of the blind was flooded, and the laddershaft opening was underwater.
Meredy’s head burst above the surface. She filled her lungs with air. She ducked back down, watching through the water. Nothing happened, and she popped up for another lungful of air.
The enclosures were all full of climbable trees. Lots of animals enjoyed tree-climbing, and the sonic fences extended high enough to permit them a few meters of arboreal exercise. The trees themselves disregarded the fences, overlapping into neighboring enclosures. She doubted Peppercorn could climb a tree. He might be able to uproot a smaller tree, but not a big sturdy one. The problem had to do with locating a good tree, and climbing it before Peppercorn mistook her for a prowler.
Meredy raised her head as far as she dared, looking for good trees. Ready to dive back under at the first sign of unicorn. None of the trees against the perimeter wall were any good as they were limbless species, not intended for climbability. The trees she wanted were in the other three compass directions.
In order to reach them, Meredy was going to have to deliberately spook the unicorn. This went against all of her nature, and all of her training. It was an ethical failure far worse than riding horseback, which was merely controversial. Spooking a horse was cruel, and could incite it to run into something dangerous, injuring or even killing its large and situationally fragile self. Most an-psychs would allow an exception for self-defense, but not all of them.
Meredy slithered out of her lime green t-shirt. She was wearing a bra underneath, with a floral pattern. She selected a tree that she could probably reach in less than four seconds, assuming she didn’t mess up the shoulder roll she intended to do through the mostly-broken window. She gathered the wet t-shirt in her right hand, noting that her deld was thoroughly saturated and potentially dead. Great, now she would have to scrounge up the money for a new one.
“Hey, Peppercorn. You’re the ugliest unicorn in the world.”
Peppercorn responded with an irritated snort. Hoofbeats approached from a side still obstructed by wall, and Meredy took a deep breath. The minute Peppercorn’s head popped into view she rose from the water with a big splash, waving her lime green t-shirt in swooping arcs.
“Rawrawrawrawrawr!”  Meredy shrieked at the top of her lungs as Peppercorn neighed in surprise, darting away. She dived through the window, and yes in fact there was a rock right under her shoulder when she landed, but it wasn’t too sharp and she didn’t care. She bounced to her feet and sprinted toward her good tree, swinging her shirt in a circular motion until it was time to leap, grab a branch, swing herself up, just like those stupid parallel bars in gym class. Up, up, up, until she was straddling a fat branch, clinging to it as Peppercorn dealt the trunk a sound kick.
It was a very good tree.
Once she moved in close to the trunk, Meredy had a fine seat, wider than her butt, with lumbar support and an excellent view. Her feet dangled about a meter above Peppercorn’s horn tip as he angrily paced back and forth, churning the velvety grass to mud. Meredy had lost her t-shirt during the ascent and the remains of it were ground into the mud, covered with hoofprints the size of individual pizzas. 
She still had her deld, snugly attached to her little fingerless glove. She poked at it to see whether it was truly waterproof.
It was! The screen flashed to life. Meredy grinned. She opened up her social node to see whether she had an outgoing link yet. The red warning was gone, but there was a different yellow one flashing as she swiftly located Gindle Riggs’ posting, which now had eighty-one affirms and forty-two comments.
She opened up an update box, shook her head briefly to clear it, felt a twinge of pain from her rock-bruised sholder and projected a keyboard into the air, upon which she typed “As long as we’re talking about purity tests, why don’t you take a look at Gindle Riggs’ history, which suggests she’s more interested in stirring up social aggression against other students than learning about animal psychology.”
She posted. The yellow bar flashed, and she leaned back against the tree trunk, feeling satisfied. She checked the time. Thirteen fifty-seven.
To minimize contact with their uncooperative patients, the Vesta vets installed timed medicators directly into their bodies, programmed to dispense doses at regular intervals. In three more minutes, Peppercorn would get his dose of mood drugs. Since he had destroyed all the cameras, there would be no way to get a record of this aside from Meredy’s evaluation, which could be important information related to his future treatment. Demonstrating that she could be a professional scientist, objectively overriding her personal feelings about the subject would send an important message to the graduation committee.
She snapped a quick photo of Peppercorn, snarling up at her while pawing the ground with his hoof.  When she looked at the photo she winced, since it showed a section of her stomach and bra-clad boob. There was really no way to angle the shot without including her body in the frame, given the positioning. She deleted the shot.
The leaves of the tree were big and flat. It took half a dozen of them to create more modest attire. Meredy had a tagger in her pants pocket, a small veterinary tool that produced a spot of glue that lasted about twelve hours. Painless, non-harmful and useful for sticking tags temporarily on animals, as well as sticking notes to walls, cartoons to doors, and sporks to sleeping student’s faces. She tagged several leaves to her bra, concealing everything between her armpits and waistband, and then she snapped several shots of Peppercorn.
The drugs were taking effect. The photos showed Peppercorn’s progression from wild-eyed vicious to head-down swaying. In the final one Peppercorn was looking up at her with a fond expression. 
Meredy did a quick search on her deld. She found the song she wanted in a library of ancient songs, all free for listening. It was audible only to her, traveling directly from her palm to her ear without disturbing any air molecules. She listened to it until she had it memorized, which didn’t take very long, as it was kind of a simplistic song.
“Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Meredy sang. “Someone’s in the kitchen I know, oh oh oh. Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, strumming on the old banjo!”
Peppercorn gaped up at her with spacy eyes. Meredy continued to serenade him.
“Fee, fie, fiddly eye oh! Fee fie fiddly eye oh, oh, oh, oh.”
Her eyes met Peppercorn’s spacy eyes. The sole member of his species. The only defender of his territory. “I’d be pissed off too if I were you, strumming on the old banjo.”
Peppercorn nickered softly, a baby foal sound.
Meredy descended a branch. Then another. Hesitant and careful. Moving very slow. Singing. Peppercorn leaned his head against the tree, propping his heavy horn against its branches.
Her training told her not to approach animals that had been known to kill people. Her common sense agreed. She ignored both of them and laid her hand against the unicorn’s neck, reaching down from her branch. His muscles were tight, probably from his overly heavy hood ornament, and she rubbed behind his ears.
Peppercorn sighed with pleasure and rolled his eyes toward her, gazing at her with a doped-up soulful expression of love. He moved his drool-beaded chin toward his shoulder. Expectantly.
Meredy had already mentally resigned herself to cleaning litterboxes for a living as she climbed from the branches down to the unicorn’s back. Not only that, she intended to take a picture.
“Fee, fie, fiddly eye oh,” she sang under her breath as she fired up her deld. She put it in selfie mode, letting it project a little reflective disk a meter away, bouncing the image back to her camera. There she was, sitting on a unicorn, wearing a bra with leaves glued all over it. She smiled her most charming smile and snapped it. The yellow bar popped up again while she was saving it, so she took a couple more shots. Different poses. In one she held her arms out like an archer shooting an arrow.
Peppercorn walked her slowly around the enclosure, stopping briefly to drink from the remains of his watering hole. As he got close to the perimeter wall Meredy had a sudden idea. She reached down and patted his neck, and he stopped. She massaged his muscles for a while, and sang another chorus, before leaning forward.  Peppercorn resumed walking, all the way to the perimeter wall.
There were some sturdy light fixtures fastened up there, and Meredy could probably reach them if she were standing on top of Peppercorn’s back. Hauling herself up would require some upper body strength, which was not something she had in abundance, but she thought she could do it. The wall was rough and textured, enough for her feet to get a grip.
When Peppercorn was next to the wall and beneath a light fixture, she tapped his shoulder again, and he came to a stop. There happened to be some clover growing against the wall, and Peppercorn put his nose down to investigate.
Meredy drew her knees up and planted her toes on the unicorn’s nice broad back. She stood up quickly, reaching for the light fixture in one fluid motion. She was just tall enough. She caught it, with both hands, and then she swung herself up, walking her feet up the wall until she could hook a leg over the top.  A minute later she was on top of the wall, filthy and dressed in deteriorating leaves.
The power was still out. When she looked down at the sprawl on the other side she saw that entire blocks were dark. Some started to light up as she caught her breath. She watched the power return, block by block. Once it reached the front gate of Vesta the security cameras on top of the wall began moving, and the light fixtures flashed. Meredy leaned toward the nearest camera and waved. Then she started her deld, which was entirely free of colorul bars, and placed a call to the front lobby, and asked them if they could send someone with a ladder.
Considerable fuss was made, including a visit to the emergency room, where Meredy received a new t-shirt and a bandage for her shoulder bruise, and then gave a statement to Vesta’s legal department. It was late when she got back home, and her eyelids drooped as she showered. She grabbed a coldpack of lentil noodles and sporked it into her face while glancing at the news, and her schedule, and then, finally, her social node.
She headed directly to Gindle’s post, and her reply.
“As long as we’re talking about purity tests,” it said, before the message cut off. Following that was a photo of Meredy sitting on top of Peppercorn, posed with her hands in an arrow-shooting position.

So far it had eighty-seven thousand affirms, sixty-four thousand comments and one hundred and ninety-two shares.