© 2015 by Charon Dunn
Rotten awful no-good misbegotten travesty of a ridiculous unicorn.
© 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.
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.
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