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User:Phil Geusz/Public Domain

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Public Domain

Author: Phil Geusz

"That's amazing," I gasped, as my friend James stood proudly smiling. "Simply amazing."

"Charles MacIntosh is a great photomanip artist," James agreed. He'd bought me the modified portrait of myself as a gift after dragging me to a science-fiction convention months before. I'd almost forgotten posing for the original pictures, it had been so long. Mr. MacIntosh apparently had quite a backlog. "It does look rather a lot like you."

I shook my head, examining the computer-constructed image carefully. It did look a lot like me, I was forced to admit, though on the face of things the very idea of such a thing was rather ridiculous. I'd been a little drunk at the convention, and had tried to test the boundaries of the medium. "What should I mix you with?" MacIntosh had asked, staring at me intently.

"A goldfish, and a girl," I replied with a rather self-satisfied smile on my face, suggesting the most outlandishly-impossible things I could come up with. "A fancy Japanese-type goldfish, and a Japanese girl."

Instead of running for cover, however, the artist had merely looked interested. "Really?" he asked, eyebrows rising. Then he'd had me turn this way and that as his electronic camera clicked away. And that had been that.

Until today.

The bizarre picture was gorgeous, I was forced to admit. Absolutely gorgeous! The goldfish girl's upper semi-human body merged seamlessly into a fancy goldfish's lower abdomen, whose curves had been subtly altered to suggest wide hips and long, shapely legs underneath the gold and white scales. Her whole body was patterned in the same fishlike orange and white, with raven-black hair and beautiful almond-shaped eyes. Long, supple frilly fins emerged from her in all the usual places, looking for all the world like the drapings of a beautiful dress. Her pose was the very essence of femininity, eyes sparkling mischievously and arms held just so. She was beautiful, all right.

And, even though I was neither Japanese nor female nor a goldfish, somehow she still managed to remind me of me. Maybe MacIntosh was legitimately an artist after all, I mused, as unlikely as his medium might appear. Certainly, I had to admit, he'd risen to my challenge and more.

"Damn," James said again. "She's a knockout." He pointed. "Her name is Oranda."

"Indeed it is," I agreed. Under the woman's image MacIntosh had inscribed two Japanese characters, and the single English word. "That's the kind of goldfish he used as a model. So, I guess it's appropriate."

"I like it," James agreed instantly. Then he smiled. "MacIntosh sent a note along with the picture, Bryan. He liked the way this came out too, and wanted to thank you for giving him such a challenge. He also wants to know if you would mind if he put this picture on his website, as a sort of advertisement."

I shrugged, still a little lost in Oranda's eyes. "Sure," I answered. "After all, why should I care? Heck, I might even visit his site myself, now that I've seen how good he is. This picture is simply amazing!"

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Time passed, and I nearly forgot about Oranda. I hung the original from my office cubicle wall, and after a few days my co-workers seemed to forget about her as well. From time to time someone would write me an e-mail asking permission to use Oranda's image some way or another, and except for one smut-peddling outfit I always gave my approval. After all, why should I not? Sharing Oranda cost me nothing, and gave others pleasure. Wasn't sharing beauty what the Internet was supposed to be all about? As the weeks rolled on, however, more and more requests came in. Eventually I was forced to set up an automated reply system, there were so many. Oranda's picture was posted on personal pages, in virtual art galleries, even on commercial sites.

"My heavens, but Oranda's out there!" James declared to me one day over lunch. "She's just everywhere!"

I nodded, a little perturbed. A co-worker had brought me a print-out of Oranda being used on not one, but a dozen pornographic websites. "More than I'd like," I agreed. "She's a lot more famous than I'll ever be."

Jim smiled. "It's funny, you know. A lot more people know you as a Japanese fish-girl than as a normal human being. It's a wonderful and amazing thing, the Internet is. Almost magical."

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More time passed, and eventually I had to shut down my e-mail address and get a new one; my ISP was complaining at the amount of traffic that Oranda was generating. My alter-ego was public-domain now, it seemed, whether I approved or not. It was silly to pretend that I had any control over her anymore. So one evening I decided to surrender gracefully, adding a simple statement to Oranda's web page declaring to the world that she was my gift to the world community, and that henceforth anyone could use her any way they wished. "I only hope that she brings everyone happiness," I said in closing. "I only hope that Oranda will bring a little warmth and joy into the world. What more could anyone ask?"

The next day, I went into work early. James was out undergoing some minor surgery, and he'd asked me to service the Addison account while he was gone. I was thumbing through the folder and sipping coffee when Georgia, who worked in the next cubicle, came walking up. She was an early starter too. "Bryan?" she whispered, her eyes red-rimmed.

I looked up. "Yes?"

She was looking down at the floor. "I just wanted to say... I mean..."

I cocked my head to one side. Normally, Georgia was anything but tongue-tied.

"Well... What you're doing is a good and noble thing, Bryan. I just wanted to tell you that."

I fear that I wasn't in a very good mood. My head and back were both aching, and I was itching all over something fierce. Probably I was coming down with the flu. "Covering the Addison account for James?" I asked. "That's a good and noble thing? He'd do the same for me, I'm sure."

Georgia half-smiled and met my eyes for a moment, then looked back down at the carpet. "No, silly!" she murmured. "I mean... Well, the Oranda thing."

I blinked. Sure, Georgia knew about Oranda. Everyone did, it seemed. But had she noticed that I'd declared my alter-ego public domain already? Perhaps she was a bigger fan than I'd realized. "It was the right thing to do," I explained, smiling nervously. "No big deal."

She grinned along with me, though a single tear ran down her cheek. "'No big deal', he calls it. Well, Bryan, so far as I'm concerned you're making a tremendous sacrifice in the name of art." She bent down and kissed me on the forehead. "And no matter what anyone else says, I'm very, very proud to have known you." Then she smiled again and walked away.

What on Earth was that all about, I wondered after Georgia left. I could hear faint sobbing coming from her desk, and I almost got up to go ask her if something was wrong. Then the phone rang, and I was lost in the world of work once more.

By mid-morning, it was clear that something was very wrong indeed. Not only was my itching and aching worse than ever, but everyone was avoiding me. Finally I went to the washroom and looked in the mirror. I looked fine, I decided, though my shirt had come a untucked from all of the scratching. I put everything back in order, then splashed some water on my face. It felt good. Which was just as well; when I got back to my desk Mr. Adams was waiting to see me. "Come on up to my office, Bryan," he said, not meeting my eyes. "And we'll get things all squared away and let you have the rest of the day off. Heaven knows that you've earned it."

I shook my head, once more not quite understanding, then followed my employer to his office. He closed the door behind us, then pointed to the chair opposite his own. "Sit down, Bryan. Take a load off."

Mystified, I did what I was told, scratching my knee nervously. It could use a little splash of water on it too, I realized deep down in my brain. That would be just the thing to make it feel better. Maybe I needed to see a doctor?

"...been a damned good employee," Mr. Adams was saying. "Even today of all days, you were out there covering your friend's work on top of your own. You've always had a powerful sense of duty."

"I do feel a little rough," I admitted. "But Jim's not here, and someone has to cover him."

Mr. Adams opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head and smiled sadly. "You've done a good and noble thing," he said, echoing Georgia's earlier words. "A good and noble thing, for the sake of beauty and of art and of the good of mankind in general. I'm going to be absolutely truthful here with you, Bryan. You've always been my favorite, and I'll miss you something fierce. But this is clearly destiny at work. You were a work of art as an employee, so to speak, and now you'll be more of one still. My loss is the world's gain." He extended his hand, and, a little dizzied by my illness, I shook it. "Now get out of here," Mr. Adams continued, his voice breaking with emotion. He turned away, so that I could not see that he was crying. "Get out of here, and on with your new life of beauty and tranquility. You were always too good for this company, son. I'm damn proud to have known you, and you can bet that I'll be coming to see you soon."

Either everyone was going nuts, I decided as I returned to my cubicle for my coat, or else I was even sicker than I thought. Surely I hadn't just been fired? It certainly hadn't sounded like it. Everyone was staring at me as I walked down the main aisle. I was itching abominably by now, and my left ankle gave out for a moment as I turned to enter my little office. I caught the doorframe for balance...

...and saw a huge cake sitting on top of my desk, with Oranda's picture on it.

"What?" I stuttered, looking around me in shock as seemingly everyone in the company cheered and patted me on the shoulder. "I mean..."

"Oh, Bryan!" Georgia sobbed, spreading her arms wide and hugging me tight. "Oh, Bryan! We are all so very proud of you!"

"But..." I stuttered. "But... But... All I did was..."

"For he's a jolly good fellow!" someone began singing, and then before I knew it I was cutting the cake and handing out slices, many of them to people I didn't even know. There was a big card with everyone's signature on it, and everyone, even the men, seemed to be weeping with joy. "I'm so proud," they all declared. "So very proud. We'll be coming to see you soon." It was after lunchtime before they finally let me leave, tired and itchy and achy and now very, very confused. Had I just been fired, I wondered? Or did they think it was birthday, maybe? But, I was too itchy to care. All I wanted was to get home to my apartment, and to a nice, cold bath. Then, I'd call a doctor.

When I got home, though, the place was practically empty! On top of everything else, I'd been robbed! "Shit!" I complained, standing out in the hallway. "I don't believe it!"

"Mr. Roemann!" my landlady called out from down the hall. "What a pleasant surprise! We weren't expecting you back."

I blinked, then automatically smiled. Mrs. Henderson always had that effect on me, being one of the nicest ladies I'd ever known. "Weren't expecting me back?" I asked.

It was her turn to blink. "Well," she said slowly. "It's not a problem, or anything like that. After what you've done, after you've been so generous, I mean, well... I'd let you stay on for quite some time, if you chose to. But... I mean... Would it be practical?"

I pressed my fingertips to my temples and pressed; suddenly it seemed as if my head was about to explode. "Mrs. Henderson," I explained, "I'm not feeling very well right now, and I fear that I'm not exactly myself. I need to go inside, take my clothes off, and soak for a while in a nice, cold bath. I need it worse than anything in the world, in fact. Can we discuss this later, after I've had a little rest and am feeling better?"

My landlady's brows narrowed in concern, and then she nodded. "But of course, Mr. Roemann! Of course! If that's what you want, then that's what you ought to do. I'll be down in my apartment. You call me if you need any little thing. All right?"

I nodded and smiled again. "You're a good friend."

"And you're a good man," Mrs. Henderson replied, looking searchingly into my eyes. "A very good one. You deserve what's going to happen to you." And then she was gone.

Whoever the robbers were, I decided as I limped painfully around my apartment, they were at least neat. My place hadn't been ransacked, not at all. Instead, practically everything that hadn't already been taken was neatly boxed up, as if the robber was planning to come back. And he had mighty strange taste in loot, whoever he was. My rather expensive computer, for example, was still set up in its usual corner, while the hall closet where I kept all of my personal effects was cleaned out bare naked. My furniture hadn't been particularly valuable, but most of it was gone. Most of my clothes were gone, as well. All in all, it looked more as if I were in the process of moving out than like I'd been robbed.

But that wasn't really important just then. What was important was that no one had stolen the bathtub! I turned the cold water on full blast, then practically tore my clothes off and leapt in. It felt so very, very good as I sat back and soaked! It felt so good, in fact, that it was quite some time before I noticed how red and inflamed the skin on most of my body had become. I had a rash with a vengeance; there were places where my skin was cracked so badly that blood was oozing out into the bathwater in a continual red trickle. My hands and head were mostly clear, except for some symmetrical discoloration here and there. But my torso and legs were a wreck!

I felt very rubbery-legged indeed when I finally climbed out of the tub; probably I'd lost a lot more blood than I'd realized. My head was clearer, though, and I knew that it was time to get to the emergency room. I tried to get dressed, but my clothing burned like fire wherever it touched my skin. My feet were the worst of all; the water seemed to have swollen them, because I could not even get them into the shoes they had just come out of. Finally, when I found even my underpants to be intolerable, I realized that things had gotten totally out of control. I needed an ambulance!

The phone was all the way across the room, on the computer table. I painfully waddled across to it, dripping cold water all of the way, then plopped down hard in the usually-comfortable swivel chair. But now, my back didn't seem to want to fit it! I picked up the receiver, and had already dialed the "nine" and a "one" when my eyes caught a big note taped to my desk. "In case of severe discomfort or delusions," the note read in large, bold letters, "call Dr. MacIntosh." And there was a phone number.

It was written in my own handwriting.

I hung the receiver up, my hand moving nearly as slowly as my mind. I'd not written myself any such note, or at least not that I could remember. Nor had I ever had any contact with a Dr. MacIntosh. A photomanip artist named MacIntosh, yes. But no doctors. Yet there the number was, bold as life. And the note specifically mentioned delusions...

Maybe I needed to call Dr. MacIntosh? Even if I didn't know who he was?

Maybe I was supposed to know who he was?

A new chill ran up and down my spine, one that had nothing to do with cold water. Suddenly I was scared, very scared, and my hands had dialed Dr. MacIntosh's number before I even realized what I'd done.

"Dr. MacIntosh's office," a female voice answered. "What is your emergency?"

Suddenly my lips were dry, and I couldn't make a sound. "I... Uh..."

"What is your emergency?" the voice asked again

"I'm... I'm very sick," I explained. "My skin... It almost seems to be peeling away."

"Are you a patient of Dr. MacIntosh's?"

I closed my eyes. "Maybe," I said slowly. My left thigh had begun itching again; the skin was particularly bad there, and I began picking at it idly. "I'm really not sure. I'm really not sure about much of anything anymore. People are acting very strangely."

There was a long pause. "Is this Bryan Roemann?" she demanded urgently.

My spine stiffened, and the back of the chair grew uncomfortable again. "Well..." I temporized.

"Bryan!" the voice on the other end of the line demanded. "We're worried sick about you! You should have been here over two hours ago, directly after your good-bye party. We should never have let you leave the Clinic, with you being so close to crisis. I bet you've started early! Where are you, hon? We're coming to get you, now!"

It was pure reflex; the phone was back in its cradle before I could even think about it. What Clinic? What crisis? And who in the hell was Dr. MacIntosh, anyway? What in the name of God was going on?

What had I signed up for? And when?

My thigh itched abominably; absently I dug at it some more with my fingernails. To my horror, a substantial piece of flesh tore painlessly. I rolled my chair back and looked down...

...to see a beautiful pattern of orange and white scales revealed under the bloody, ragged hole.

My jaw dropped and my brain froze; for a very long time I simply sat in my chair, staring at the impossible thing that was lurking under my own decaying flesh. Then suddenly the back of my throat was being tickled, and I went staggering back into the bathroom, this time to empty my stomach.

When I was done, the bathroom reeked of fish.

I stood poised over the toilet for what felt like forever, weakened and sickened by what had happened, mind still spinning away at a thousand miles an hour. What in the name of God is happening, I asked myself over and over. This can't be real! But there it was; even as I stood there doubting my own senses I was able to painlessly remove a patch of skin from my other thigh, exactly corresponding to the flesh I'd already lost. Sure enough, there were scales waiting under it as well, dappled just as beautifully as what had already been revealed.

I recognized the pattern, oh yes I surely did.

"This is insane!" I shouted aloud, the sound reverberating oddly off of the old ceramic tiles. "This is nuts! This is impossible!" Yet even as I screamed, I found myself filling a cup with water and dribbling it over my newly-revealed scales. It felt oh so much better, even though the water burned a little at first.

Must be the chlorine, part of me reasoned. But it can't be the chorine! Because you aren't really a fish!

I didn't know what to do next; didn't know at all. The whole universe was suddenly twisted and skewed and impossible. I didn't know what was real anymore from what wasn't. I was becoming Oranda, it was clear enough. Or else I was dreaming that I was becoming Oranda. Or hallucinating. Or whatever.

How could I know what to do if I couldn't even tell what was real?

I took three painful steps towards the telephone before I stopped myself cold. The lady at Dr. MacIntosh's office had sounded nice enough. But somehow I didn't want to call back, not just yet. After all, they thought I was delusional.

And how was I to know what they would consider to be a delusion? Would I agree with them?

So instead I waddled back to the sink and watered down my thighs again, then poured glass after glass of the stuff over my whole body for good measure. It felt so good! Then I filled up the tumbler one more time as a reserve and staggered back to my computer chair. The act of sitting down ignited a line a pain along my spine, a line of pain that, I deeply feared, represented a nascent frilly dorsal fin. The area continued to ache and burn as I turned on my computer and waited for it to boot up.

I'd use the Internet, I'd decided. The Internet could tell me what was real.

My browser normally opened to Oranda's home page; I blinked in irritation when it defaulted to some kind of art museum instead. Before it even finished loading, I clicked on my favorite news website. The headlines looked as normal as normal could be there. If I am delusional, I reassured myself, at least I'm still well-informed. Then I tried another news site, and another and another. Nothing!

My skin was continuing to itch all of this time, though the water was helping, and a line of red, puffy skin along my right lower arm was beginning to open up and bleed. This new wound was making quite a mess, so I cupped a little water in my left hand and began rubbing it in. Skin peeled away...

...and a long, delicate gossamer-like fin fell into my waiting fingers.

This is insane! my mind cried out again. Crazy! Nuts! The fin, however, stubbornly refused to take the hint and go away. Instead, it dangled limply beneath my forearm, itching something fierce until I watered it down.

And, I realized, suddenly, the forearm itself seemed to be considerably more feminine than it had once been. More finely sculpted. Delicate, even...

Insane!

Angrily I killed my web-browser, intending to give up and call Dr. MacIntosh. Then, at the last moment, I clicked on the browser again, to search MacIntosh's name. Sure, there were probably dozens of doctors out there named MacIntosh. But if I cross-referenced with my town's name, then maybe I could narrow it down some. At least I wouldn't be throwing myself on a stranger's mercy while totally blind. I reached for my mouse as the annoying museum page came flashing up again...

...then froze as the page loaded. I'd seen something familiar there this time. Something very familiar indeed.

My name. Under Oranda's picture.

"New Exhibit News!" the headline read. "MacIntosh's Long-Awaited Goldfish to be Unveiled Soon at Metropolitan Museum of Living Art!" And underneath, in a smaller font. "Local Man Volunteers Self; Hopes to 'Bring a Little Warmth and Joy into the World'".

My jaw dropped as I recognized the quoted phrase. No, I'd not volunteered to become a goldfish girl! I'd just given the world Oranda, made her public domain! What... How...

"More people know you as a goldfish girl than as a human being," James had told me once. And I knew that it was true, by a factor of thousands. Oranda was all over the 'net! But... But... That wasn't real!

Was it?

Exactly how was reality defined, anyway? Some sort of consensus, perhaps?

Suddenly I was shuddering again; I'd been rubbing my thighs together to relieve the itching, and now I couldn't pull them apart. They would be all attractive orange-and-white scales soon, I knew, and my feet would be pretty, frilly fins, and... and...

Angrily I turned back to my monitor. It was the Internet that had gotten me into this mess, I knew, and the Internet would have to get me out. Furiously, I typed "Oranda " into the little search box. All right, I reasoned to myself. So the Internet defines reality. Or maybe it shapes people's perceptions, and that defines reality. Either way, all I have to do is get Oranda off of the 'net!

The search seemed to take an unreasonably long time; I poured more water on myself and shifted uncomfortably in my chair while I waited, feeling my dorsal fin just beginning to emerge. Then, finally, the answer came up.

There were two hundred and twenty-four thousand, five hundred and sixteen hits for "Oranda".

Sick at heart, I narrowed my search. "Oranda photomanip", I tried.

Nothing came up. Nothing at all.

"Oranda Bryan Roemann" I tried.

This time there was another long wait, though not so bad as before. Still, there were over fifty thousand hits. Most of them seemed to be art-related. I clicked on them at random and read the text dully, though only certain phrases seemed to penetrate.

"...incredible generosity on the part of the subject..."

"...completely irreversible process..."

"...special funding by the National Endowment for the Living Arts..."

"..one of a series of so far critically-acclaimed human-based genetic manipulations by world-renowned Living Artist Dr. Charles MacIntosh..."

"...sure to become his masterpiece, his crowning achievement..."

"...contracted to become part of the public domain as the subject's personal gift to humanity..."

I was still reading web pages when the police opened up my apartment door, though the words didn't seem to matter much anymore. By the time they arrived, my legs were completely fused together, I was no longer even remotely male, and my reserve cup of water had long since gone dry. I was dying, in fact, and didn't really know whether to feel disappointed or not when Dr. MacIntosh himself directed a spray of aerated water onto my gill slits so that I could breathe properly once more. "She's out of her head," the doctor was explaining to anyone who would listen as they wet-packed me and then flopped me onto a gurney. "I should never have let her out. But she was doing so well! And, she wanted so badly to attend that going-away party." The doctor sighed. "That's the hardest part for my volunteers; the change-of-lifestyle issues. I try to give them as much latitude as I can. This one, it seems, I shaved too close."

"He seemed very confused," Mrs. Henderson confirmed as they wheeled me down the corridor. "As if he had no idea of what was happening to him. We didn't expect him back, after he donated everything to charity. I didn't even know he still had a key. And yet, there he was!"

"Well," Dr. MacIntosh replied, his voice fading in the distance. "I think that you've earned a lifetime free ticket to the Museum at the very least..."

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Being a goldfish isn't so bad, I decided eventually. Admittedly, living under water has its drawbacks. Sometimes I get terribly sick of cold, wet food all of the time, and I wish that they'd move me into a bigger home. The ornate globe I live in is so small that I can barely straighten myself out, much less stretch my fins and swim a little. Being female isn't all that bad either; in fact, the adjustment was relatively minor compared to the fin-and-tail thing. And, compared to the rest, becoming Japanese was nothing at all.

Being the centerpiece of an art museum, however, is downright awful!

All day long and well into the night, solemn-faced visitors tramp by, each hustled on past by the guards after their three minutes have elapsed, only to be replaced by the next little group. The children are easiest to take; they point and stare and jump up and down in glee at being so close to the living, breathing Oranda whose image they know so well from the Internet. I pose especially nicely for them, always demure and elegant in my motions. After all, it's easier to cooperate. And, I truly am beautiful. There's nothing to be done about my situation, so why shouldn't I let others appreciate my beauty, and make the world a happier place? Besides, when I cooperate they don't dissolve so many drugs in my water. I don't mind being hazy-minded, not at all. In fact, not-thinking can be rather nice. But the stuff makes me so loopy that sometimes I masturbate in public, and even though the critics think it's wonderful, I don't ever want to have that happen again.

So I pose, and smile gently, and admire the other displays. There's a coral-man and a manta ray-morph sharing a tank; it must be nice not to be so lonely. Then there's Eric; he's a sea-horse morph in a tank up against the far wall. Sometimes he and I send signals to each other via eye-blink. It takes a terribly long time, especially since we're careful never to get caught. But hey, what else do we have to do all day besides pose? He sat for a photomanip once too, it seems, and his story is much like my own. It's reassuring to know that it happened to someone else, too; otherwise I might begin to believe that I really was mad enough to volunteer to become public property.

That's exactly what I've become, in essence, and there's no sense fighting it. An ageless, timeless work of gene-splice art that will never, ever die. After all, once something enters the public domain it never quite fades away.

Just as I will not fade away, or so Dr. Macintosh assures me on those increasingly rare occasions when he speaks to me at all. I will spend the rest of my life posing and dancing and holding my pretty head just so. I'll twirl and weave and flip onto my back, and perhaps for a second or two my eyes will lock with those of a stranger, so that he or she might wonder at my supposed life of beauty and peace. Perhaps someone will be holding a magazine, and I'll be able to read the headline. Then Eric and I will have something to eye-blink about. That would be a fine thing indeed, almost too much to hope for!

Maybe I'll be able to catch a headline, or maybe not. But either way I'll dance, dance, dance among the ordinary goldfish who share my little tank, twisting and turning this way and that, whiling away the hours for the sake of beauty and for the sake of art, doing my best to fulfill my duties as part of the public domain.

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