IMPORTANT
A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.

Private Thoughts

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This story is part of a series
Preceded by: Public Domain
Author: Bryan

It must be closing time; Clair, one of the museum's guides, had come into the gallery and was going from patron to patron letting them know it was time to go. I smiled at the last few stragglers and rolled gently in the water, subtly waving goodbye with the stroking of my fins as the room reluctantly cleared.

I breathed a long, slow surge of water out through my gills, my equivalent of a sigh, and let myself drift as I relaxed. Clair was the only one left in the room now, walking a circuit to check on each of us in turn and pick up anything the patrons may have left behind. I ignored her. Clair was one of the sorts of people that seemed to consider me an inanimate fixture rather than a living, thinking being, so I generally returned the favor.

It had been months now since I had changed into Oranda and it seemed like Clair's sort of attitude was nearly universal among the museum's employees. They didn't pay much attention to me now that my novelty had worn off and I had learned how to behave 'properly.' I wasn't sure how I felt about that. I wasn't sure how I felt about a lot of things, even after all this time.

My fins brushed lightly on the pebbled floor of my aquarium as I reached the bottom and I supported myself with my fingertips while I arranged my posture to settle comfortably. I had no clear idea of exactly how many months it had been. More than one but less than three, probably. At first I had kept count of days, and then when I'd lost track of that I kept count of weekends, but somewhere along the line I'd managed to lose track of even that. If only I could catch a glimpse of the date on a newspaper of magazine, should one of the patrons ever accidentally carry one within sight...

Another sigh, and an ironic smile. If a newspaper were to be held within reading range I'd probably just orgasm from the flood of current events suddenly available to me and be too distracted to actually remember any of it. God, how I craved news from the outside world. Even something trivial about sports or weather. Was there snow on the ground, or was it still warm? I imagined I was lying out in a grassy field under the warmth of the Sun and rested my head lightly on folded scaly arms.

I opened my eyes with a start, not even aware until that moment that I'd already started falling asleep, and shook my head. I wasn't really tired, it was just conditioned habit; when nobody was watching me there was nothing I felt like I had to do.

There were still things I wanted to do, though, and I pushed off from the smooth bed of pebbles and slowly rose back up to the equator of my aquarium. It was a small, sparse place, even compared to the four others in the gallery. I was in the centerpiece of the room, a globular goldfish bowl ten feet across, whereas the other four tanks were more traditional rectangular aquaria set back against the walls.

I envied the others their accommodations. Not only were they somewhat larger and had more interesting internal decor, but they had walls that were not exposed directly to viewers. Granted, they didn't have any volume that wasn't exposed to viewers, but there were often times when I would love to have a place in my tank to go that was a bit more private even in just a metaphorical sense.

Whatever else I may think of it, though, my central location was the ideal place for contact with my five fellow living art exhibits. We weren't supposed to communicate even with each other; it was supposedly part of our mystique that we were totally isolated. But what else was there for us to do with our time? I'd worked out a set of subtle gestures and eye blinks, a form of simple covert sign language that let us exchange thoughts in the few hours a day when we were alone. Clair had left the room and the lights hadn't yet gone down for the night so now was the time to check in on everyone.

Eric, a seahorse-man whose tank was in the direction I'd decided to call north, was usually the most talkative so I swam over to the side of my bowl facing him first. His body was even less human than mine was, lacking any sort of arms and shaped exactly like an actual seahorse magnified to the size of a man. Blended with his piscine features were those of an actual land horse, most noticeably his almost fully equine head. Whereas I had a delicate and lacy beauty his was elegant and stately, gliding around in his aquarium like a knight on a chessboard.

His tail was coiled around one of the false tree stumps that decorated his 'flooded forest'-themed tank and for a moment I thought perhaps he'd already fallen asleep. But as soon as he noticed me he blinked in recognition, giving his head a little shake and flaring his nostrils. I smiled and nodded back, my own short black hair swirling in the water just like his mane had.

"News?" I asked. Communicating this way was very slow, so we always kept our pleasantries non-'verbal'.

"Neigh," Eric replied. Well, he just said 'no', but I liked to imagine the pun anyway. "Boring day. Some kid smeared up my glass, nothing interesting happened other than that."

I chuckled silently. Both Eric and the museum curators hated it when people touched the tanks, but I sometimes wound up encouraging it myself by placing my own palms against the inside to let the patrons try to 'touch' me back. I wasn't sure if it counted as misbehavior on my part, but what the hell; nobody seemed overly upset at me about it. I waited for a moment to see if Eric had anything else he wanted to talk about tonight then when he didn't I turned to face east.

This exhibit had the title "Ocean Flowers", and whenever self-pity threatened to overwhelm me I would think of it to remind myself how it could be worse. There were two people in this tank, both very far from human; a huge black sea slug with fleshy neon orange 'leaves' on her back and an equally huge sea anemone with pastel green and orange in her skin. Each had humanoid chests and faces blended with great skill into such otherwise alien forms.

The anemone sometimes seemed to desperately want to communicate, but despite my best efforts she had never been able to understand my subtle signals and had never been able to signal meaningfully back with her tendrils. I called her "Annie", lacking her proper name. The sea slug I called "Ben", and I don't know if I'd even managed to catch his attention before; I suspected he'd gone completely insane. He moved around the tank slowly but almost continuously with an expression of ecstasy on his face, as if he were overwhelmed by some sort of fantasy world of his own.

I met Annie's gaze for a few minutes and smiled sympathetically, letting her know that I at least recognized and acknowledged her even if she hadn't figured out what I said. She always seemed grateful for that. Then I moved on to facing south. A sort of cuttlefish named Gina was in that tank, her ellipsoidal body a fascinating blend of female torso and mollusc mantle. She was potentially the most expressive of us all with ten tentacles to gesture with and skin that changed color. But she was depressed and withdrawn, so unfortunately she rarely 'talked.' Today she just waved in acknowledgement and settled down to sleep.

Finally Ray, another whose real name I didn't know. He was a stingray with a human head, arms fused into his huge 'wing' fins and traces of human musculature sculpted on his chest. He was the most angry and rebellious of us over his treatment or maybe he was just violently insane. As a result he spent most of his time medicated, which left him swimming dreamily around the tank oblivious to anything outside it. This week had been one of those weeks for him.

I gave him a sympathetic smile anyway, knowing what it was like.

My first few weeks had been very rough. I'd nearly died hiding at home while I had transformed, responding to my condition with sheer denial, and when Dr. MacIntosh had finally 'rescued' me I continued trying to climb out of the transport tank despite my inability at that point to breathe air anymore. They'd given me my first dose of psychotropics before the truck had even reached the museum and I spent the next few days just lying on the bottom of the tank recuperating from the whole ordeal.

Dr. MacIntosh had talked to me a little back then. He'd murmured reassuringly how the change had gone perfectly, that I was a masterpiece of his craft, and that I shouldn't worry that my 'delusional' state would detract from my beauty. A well-known side effect that he accommodated for in his designs, accommodations that even enhanced the artistic statement he wanted to make. I had no vocal cords and even attempting to breathe air was painful. My lungs had been reduced to a pair of sacs meant solely for pumping water, my larynx a simple valve to direct the flow out through the gill slits in the sides of my neck. I wouldn't be telling anyone how I really felt any time soon.

I gave a small watery snort, turning away from Ray's tank and idly swimming a circuit of my small bowl. I doubted I could tell anyone how I really felt even with the clearest voice in the world, words failed and anyone who'd shared an experience similar enough to understand was now incommunicado too. My body image was all wrong, with phantom legs bound up within the flesh of my shapely tail and new finny appendages moving independently where I'd had none before. My scaly skin sent a constant stream of strange sensations that even now I hadn't become entirely used to, and I tingled...

A quick glance around confirmed that none of my fellow exhibits seemed to be watching me right now, and I furtively lowered a hand to give my slippery-smooth 'crotch' a gentle rub. Just briefly though; even unobserved like this I remained too embarrassed to give my libido full reign. When I was medicated those inhibitions vanished completely and I became a more overtly sensual goldfish, sometimes even rubbing my belly against the glass to stimulate myself in full view of the public. I wished the drugs would at least have the decency to suppress my memory of such episodes.

I'd blamed it on Dr. MacIntosh, messing with my endocrine system when he'd designed my current body to make me extra-sexy. I'd blamed it on all the porn sites the original Oranda photomanip of myself had been put up on, the collective beliefs of a million Internet perverts putting these feelings into my head when they'd redefined reality. But I had eventually come to admit that it was probably just me.

Good lord was I beautiful. Call it narcissism if you like but my body really was a work of art and months of living with it every waking moment hadn't begun to make it seem old. I wanted to be my old self again more than anything but I would still love to look at pictures of Oranda afterward, like I had before.

If wishes were fishes you could walk on the sea. I still had no idea what exactly had happened to me in the first place, let alone any ideas for how to change back. Everyone seemed to be quite confident that it was utterly impossible, that I would be stuck like this forever-

I shook my head, fighting down a momentary surge of panicked emotion. I still couldn't consider that right now, forcing my mind onto other more reassuring subjects. I wondered what my old friends were up to; it had been weeks since anyone I'd known before my change had come to visit. Those visits felt a little awkward, made me wish I at least had some trace of clothing on, but they let me know I hadn't been forgotten.

None of the parts of the museum guidebooks I'd been able to read as patrons had carried them past listed my real name or mentioned anything at all about the real me. The plaque by my tank simply read 'Oranda' in English and in Kanji. I knew I must be well known out there, my identity hadn't been kept a secret, but there was no sign of it anywhere in the tiny part of the world I had access to.

I swore I would never forget. Allowing myself to settle back down to the bottom of the tank again, the lids of my pretty almond-shaped eyes slowly drooping shut, I thought back to other little pleasures of my human life while I slipped off to sleep.

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The sharp clink of something against the outside of my tank woke me up with a start. I lifted my head and yawned. Opening time already? No... I blinked in surprise. The lights were still dimmed down to night-time levels.

I twitched my tail and lifted into the water with a quickness that startled the five ordinary 12-inch goldfish that shared my exhibit, causing them to dart about randomly for a moment before falling into close formation around me. It felt strangely comforting when they formed a school with me like that, a gut reaction that I knew had obviously been grafted into my hindbrain along with water breathing and other fishy reflexes but that I found reassuring anyway. I had long ago stopped trying to shoo them away from me.

I realized the clink was from a ladder being placed against the tank. Someone was climbing up to the solid brass lid covering the top of my ten foot fishbowl, and it wasn't regular feeding or cleaning time. I swam over to the side and peered out, trying to see who it was, and gulped a big nervous lungful of water when I made out the details. It was an man in a black outfit with his face concealed by a mask.

The man noticed my approach and hesitated, placing his gloved hand against the glass. My first urge was to flee... but where to? There should be an alarm button in here, damn artistic integrity. Fighting off that useless urge I reacted in the second way that came to mind instead; I smiled at the man, shifting to an almost-vertical posture turned slightly to the side with a frilly forearm fin held modestly across my white-scaled breasts.

One of the various 'endearingly shy' poses I practiced for patrons to keep my keepers satisfied. I grimaced to myself, wondering what I was thinking using it on someone like this who was obviously up to no good. But it gave the man pause at least, stopping for a moment to stare in at me with inscrutable emotion in his eyes.

Then he snapped out of it, hurried the rest of the way up, and opened the small hatch in the lid used for routine feeding and cleaning. The whole lid could be lifted using a winch concealed in the room's ceiling, for those rare times when major access was required, but the hatch wasn't nearly large enough for a man to fit through. He simply dropped a small off-white object into my water, then hurriedly closed the hatch and climbed back down the ladder while it sank slowly to the bottom.

I backed away from the object, my small schoolmates following my lead and preventing me from feeling too nervous with their close presence. The man didn't stop to explain. He took down the ladder, picked it up, and headed out the northeast door as fast as he could go while still trying to be stealthy.

Some sort of drug or poison, maybe? Horrible scenarios flashed through my mind, some sort of art Mafia demanding protection money or performing hits on rival artists' living art. I had no idea how plausible such a scenario might be, since I was either deeply delusional or from an alternate reality - it didn't really matter which was true, either one still meant I didn't really understand most of what went on out there in this art-crazy world. But there was nothing I could do if it was poison except move the thing near the water outlet and hope the tank's filters were really good. I forced myself to overcome my fear and descended cautiously, breathing shallowly and keeping an eye on the other fish for signs of trouble.

It didn't look much like a poison capsule when I got to it. It was a smooth light-gray oblong stone about an inch across and it blended in very well with the layer of pebbles the floor of my tank was covered with. Perhaps a spying device instead, then...? I picked it up and examined it more closely, turning it over gingerly in my delicate webbed fingers. There was a seam around its middle, and when I twisted one end it unscrewed into two halves.

A small bubble of air escaped from the cavity inside, carrying with it a tightly rolled white sheet. I dropped the capsule and grabbed the sheet before it floated to the surface, my heart suddenly pounding with excitement instead of fear. It was a piece of paper, covered in tiny text! Looking around furtively to make sure there was nobody to see what I had, I sank back down to the floor with the sheet clutched tightly to my bosom. Then I carefully smoothed it out, huddled over it to conceal it from view as much as possible. The light was poor, but my eyes were larger than they used to be so I was able to see well enough.

Dearest Oranda,
I've thought long and hard about what I should write on this, and whether I should write anything at all. Your dedication to your solitary art, to your solitary being, is what I love you for most of all, and I hate to think I'm making it harder for you by offering this contact. If you discard the rest of this letter unread I will understand, and never trouble you again. But since I love you so, I felt I must try...

It was fan mail. I felt an incredible mix of emotional reactions surging through me as I hungrily read onward, most of them good ones. I knew there were at least some people out there who wanted to communicate with me, every once in a while a visitor would whip out a note or sign to hold up to my tank before they were dragged away by security or by other angry patrons who preferred me to remain as isolated as I was intended. But this was the most meaningful contact I'd had since I'd become trapped here.

It hardly mattered that it was somewhat creepy fan mail from someone who'd clearly been obsessing over me, and that it had no real news of interest - just soppy prose about my beauty. I read it over and over, memorizing the precious words. The mystery man had signed his name only as "R. I.", either out of shyness or fear of being caught, and suggested that I hide or destroy the letter when I was finished. Since I wasn't sure how to destroy it thoroughly - the paper wasn't laminated but it didn't look ready to disintegrate in the water just yet and it certainly didn't seem appetizing - I carefully tucked it back in the hollowed-out false stone and then placed it among similar-looking pebbles.

The man had broken into an art museum to deliver a letter he thought I wouldn't even want to read, motivated simply by how beautiful he thought I was. Damn, that felt bizarrely good. With that on top of the simple joy of human contact, even as impersonal as via letter, I was positively squirming with pleasure.

Okay, okay, get a grip, I finally berated myself after a breathless cavort around my tank. There's more to this than just a letter. Think. What's this going to mean, really?

If my keepers caught me secretly corresponding, I'd be on the meds for sure. It was clear that my keepers didn't really care whether I was crazy, per se, they just used the psychotropic drugs to make sure I behaved properly as an exhibit. The full ground rules had never really been explained but I'd eventually figured out what the patrons seemed to like and conversely what behavior meant I'd be sent into a dreamy haze for the next few days to 'cure' it. Any sort of attempt at meaningful communication, even a hand-wave, was high on the forbidden list. I had to remain aloof and isolated in my display.

It had always struck me as a bit odd that Dr. MacIntosh would deliberately choose a thinking human being as the 'raw material' for creating Oranda and then go to such lengths to ensure that nobody could tell what I was thinking afterward. Why couldn't mindless automata, like my companion fish, fill this role of looking mysterious and beautiful instead? But what did I know about art, anyway. The simple fact remained that I would have to make sure I was never found out. Even after hours like this there were security cameras; I assumed R. I. had done something to evade them but my only recourse the rest of the time was to hope they weren't being closely monitored.

I tried to settle back down again. It wasn't easy; R. I. had suggested that he would try to deliver more letters in the future if I hadn't been offended by receiving this first one, leaving me at last with something to look forward to. He seemed to assume, like everyone else, that I really had volunteered for this and had truly wanted everything that happened to me. I'd have to figure out some way to signal otherwise.

I hadn't thought about escape plans in a while, but they came back to mind easily as I feigned sleep. Maybe R. I. was a capable art thief as well as simply a fan with good lock picking skills, maybe even good enough to rescue me. I tried to rein in my imaginings along those lines, though, since I was getting way ahead of myself. Even if he could do it I would still be stuck as a fish, and in the possession of a fugitive thief who was creepily obsessive about me. As much as I disliked the idea it might be that I was better off staying here for now. If I could somehow achieve full communication with someone out there, perhaps then I could work out what my options really were.

The room lights rose back to daytime levels, startling me from my rest a second time. Morning for real now? The time was confirmed by the entrance of Arnold and Francis, the two curators who usually handled the morning chores in this hall. I had no idea how long I'd been lying there with my thoughts whirling, it could have been hours... I hoped it hadn't been too long or I'd be getting tired by the end of the day. My 'job' was far from strenuous but it did require near-constant thought and attention.

Breakfast time first. I tried to let the night's excitement fade away under mundane routine, watching with bored disinterest as the two went around the four wall tanks before finally getting to mine. Francis dumped a container of food 'flakes' into the tank hatch - actually more like small round crackers than flakes - and then left the room with bored disinterest of their own. I was quite glad to be ignored during this little ritual that seemed to be specifically designed to wake me up every morning with the message "remember, you're a goldfish;" the others received somewhat more dignified 'natural' foods. I swam up to the silvery surface of the water to pluck the floating flakes down, crumbling a few in my hands for my smaller companions and munching the rest quickly. I had only half an hour or so before opening time.

What should I tell Eric and the others? Nobody in the other tanks seemed to be acting out of the ordinary, perhaps none of them had been awakened by R. I.'s visit. Sound didn't travel well from the outside air into our tanks and it had been pretty dark. There wasn't time to think up what to 'say' in the short morning window of opportunity, so I just went with the usual empty good-morning. I'd think of something during the day.

Then the first visitors of the day entered and I took a deep breath to ready myself. Okay, goldfish-girl, time for the mysterious Mona Lisa look. The expression had always come easily, my face was literally designed for expressing beautiful smiles, but for a change I actually meant it. And the patrons seemed to notice; over the course of the day they lingered longer than usual, perhaps trying to figure my secret out, sometimes requiring the guides to nudge them on to the next hall when too many had gathered for too long.

It was the first time I could recall being truly honest in my work. It felt pretty good.

By the end of the day I had decided to keep my late-night visitor and his letter largely a secret from the others. It was a little bit perverse after being so open about it to the patrons, in my own wordless way, but I figured it would probably be for the best. I would hate for anyone to feel jealous of me and in any case the letter hadn't contained anything of interest to them.

"A patron showed me a note," I reported to Eric instead. "Just 'I love you, Oranda,' nothing good."

"Heh. I saw you really stole their hearts today. Good show." I waggled my fins ambivalently; like me, Eric was only reluctantly resigned to the fate we'd found ourselves in and had probably meant that with a good deal of sarcasm. But it was hard to tell sometimes.

Ray was still high on meds, flying dreamily back and forth across his tank despite the last visitors having left long ago; he'd tried beating his head against the tank glass a few days back so he'd probably be dosed up for quite a while yet. Gina seemed to be actively avoiding talking this evening. I had a theory that she was bitter about her appearance, though a lot of people evidently thought she was quite a gorgeous cuttlefish, and perhaps my posing today had grated on her. Annie and Ben were their usual selves so once again Eric was the only one to talk to. He tried getting me interested in playing a game of chess again but thankfully that took so long to discuss that the lights went down before we got started. I'd lost quite badly the first time we'd done that over the course of several weeks, it had proven too hard to keep track of the pieces in my head.

I settled down to the floor for the night, furtively taking the letter out and rereading it a few more times. The paper was starting to get a bit sodden now and I figured I'd have to get rid of it eventually anyway, but for now it was still rather precious. Then I carefully folded and stored it in its little false stone hiding place again before I nodded off to sleep. I was exhausted, and the last thing I wanted to do was have the morning staff walk in to see it floating around.

My dreams were good that night. I dreamt of my old life, working in my ordinary office cubical, even walking around in a park. I still usually saw myself as human and male in most of my dreams, but all the excitement of the letter brought it forward with fresh clarity in my mind. It made the waking up again as Oranda all the more jarring and disappointing. The lights were on, R. I. hadn't made another visit during the night, and one of my keepers was already dumping my breakfast fish flakes onto the rippled surface above me.

I recovered my bearings with a sigh. Remember, you're a goldfish. I flexed my tail, the imaginary phantom legs inside it feeling frustratingly clear this morning, and rose gracefully to eat. Back to the daily grind again. It was strange to think that I'd been getting used to it, even a little, but now that I'd been jarred out of the routine I'd been falling into it was easy to see that I had.

It was two more frustratingly routine days, however, before R. I. made his next visit. This time it was during the day and I almost missed it; a nondescript young man in a plain blue shirt lingering outside my bowl, staring in at me as I circled with lazy elegance amid my retinue of smaller companion. Just like any other of my uncountable fans... but just as I passed him the third time I caught a glimpse of sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. He flashed two quick gestures with his hand. I didn't know any actual sign language, but they were quite clearly an R and an I.

I jerked, twirled, and for just a moment hovered before the curved glass staring back at him with a shocked expression. Then I broke into a radiant smile. He smiled back and placed his hands against the glass, and I placed mine against them on the inside. So that's what he looks like.

This caused a bit of a commotion among the handful of other patrons present in the room at the time, so before things got out of hand I sculled backward into the center of the tank again. Nobody was focusing their attention on R. I., so hopefully nobody other than me had seen his hand gestures. I did a slow, showy back flip in mid-tank, keeping everyone's attention on me instead.

Back when my exhibit had first opened, the crush of visitors had necessitated a carefully controlled three-minute time limit for each group watching me. In the time since then my novelty had gone down a little and such limits had been relaxed, allowing people to stay and watch as long as they wanted provided the room wasn't too full. I had found that I kind of preferred it that way - it felt less impersonal putting myself on display for people when they weren't being herded through. And now I was putting myself on display for someone quite specific, someone I "knew"... and whom I hadn't known before as a human. I was surprised by how little embarrassment I felt now, cavorting before him so nakedly and beautifully feminine. I owed him and was genuinely happy to pay him back, even like this.

It eventually started to draw a crowd, though, and eventually R. I. was forced to move on. I continued my enhanced performance for the rest of the day, buoyed as I was. A lot of the other people present must think about me the same way as R. I., after all.

God, that was weird. But I kind of enjoyed thinking about it. It would be the one positive feeling I took with me about this whole experience whenever I finally managed to get out.

R. I. dropped me another letter that same evening, darting in and out of the dark exhibit hall as quickly as he had the first time - evidently whatever window he'd found in the museum's security didn't stay open for very long. This one was longer than the first and much more conversational. R. I. had been waiting to see my reaction to the first letter before writing any more, afraid I would refuse or be offended.

The second letter was still pretty sparse on current events, but it did give me a lot more insight into the world I had only glimpsed briefly on the day I'd changed. It was eerily like the real world out there - like my original world, anyway - but gone completely art-crazy. For example, R. I. was a professional silk-screener, and whereas in my world that seemed like a pretty mundane job here there were apparently huge international organizations and competitions in the craft. 'Crimes against aesthetics' were actual legal crimes in many jurisdictions, and instead of rock stars or professional athletes getting legions of fans it was artists who received that kind of recognition. And people like me, who had 'volunteered' to be the subjects of their art.

Even taking into account the distorted snapshot of attitudes R. I. presented in his letter, it seemed pretty hard to understand as far as I was concerned. But it did seem to explain how Dr. MacIntosh could get away with it, and suggested that there wasn't much hope of me winning my rights back legally any time soon. Depressing but useful information. The world out there had apparently always been art crazy, a sort of twisted parody of normal life that I couldn't believe was natural.

I had two main theories about what had happened, the first and foremost being the one I'd come up with right from the beginning - that somehow, the collective beliefs of a million Internet viewers of my photomanipulation had thrust me into this existence. Given that I had turned into a Japanese goldfish girl this theory didn't seem all that much more unrealistic, and I liked it because it presented me with a possible path to fixing everything; if I could just get access to the Internet again, perhaps I could reestablish my identity as Bryan rather than as Oranda and fight back with mass beliefs of my own. My popularity with patrons of the art could help there.

My second theory was more distasteful; that I really was in a delusional state, and it was my memories of the world rather than the world itself that were distorted. If that were true then I really had volunteered, there really wasn't any way to alter my body again even slightly, and I was thoroughly stuck in this legal limbo I'd supposedly signed myself into. I had a hard time figuring out whether this was more realistic than the first; it didn't require the unexplained warping of reality through collective belief, but it did require that this society and technology that had changed me into a fish for their enjoyment was somehow natural. It just didn't make any sense to me.

But wasn't that also an obvious symptom of a delusional state?

'Round and 'round I went, both figuratively and literally. As the days passed and I circled my tank posing for the patrons, I went over these theories and R. I.'s letters again and again in my mind. I 'discussed' it all at length with Eric and even a little with Gina and Ray for all the good that did. I still hadn't let them know I was getting mail but there wasn't really any new information to bring up so it didn't really go anywhere.

R. I. visited during the day again and I put on another spectacular performance, but my unsettled state put a bit of a damper on it. R. I. must have sensed it - he was very perceptive for a scarily obsessive stalker-fan - because he mentioned it in his next letter after that one.

"You're as beautiful as ever, Oranda," he wrote. "But I can't help feeling a little sad. They try to keep it quiet, of course, but I know that you had problems with your transition. The rumors say that the old you went into denial before you started to physically change, despite all the corrections Dr. MacIntosh has tried to make to the process. It must be pretty hard but I'm not too worried - you must have had an incredible love of art to volunteer for this in the first place, so I'm sure you'll be able to overcome. I wish I could do more to help with that, I worry that perhaps by disturbing your beautiful meditation like this I'm even hindering. If there's anything you want, I will do whatever I can to fulfil that."

I hid the letter with the other two, each inside a slightly different-looking false stone that blended well with the pebble bed below me - R. I. had done a good job picking shells for them and I'd taken to arranging them where I was sure he'd be able to spot them during his visits. It was an exciting offer, one I'd been hoping for. What did I want?

Internet access. This was a real chance at it, surely there must be some sort of waterproof Palm Pilot or other small unit R. I. could get ahold of that I could hide under the pebbles. It'd be expensive for him and extremely risky for me, but...

Denial. Was I really so deeply in denial that I thought I could get a million anonymous people to wish me back into human form again? But they'd wished me into this form in the first place... or I thought they had... I screamed silently in frustration and started circling my tiny tank as fast as my diaphanous fins would propel me, working off the tension. When I'd exhausted myself I drifted back down to rest on the floor and think.

I was becoming convinced that denial made more sense, and I hated that. Not only had I convinced myself that I hadn't volunteered, but I'd created a fantasy life where I wouldn't have even dreamed of volunteering - where the opportunity itself didn't even exist. Perhaps Dr. MacIntosh had 'programmed' it in deliberately, intending it to kick in after I had changed so that I'd believe I had been a goldfish girl all along. That made even more sense considering all his other subjects seemed as deranged as I was... a pity the doctor just couldn't seem to get that part to work right.

So maybe I had volunteered for this, or my old pre-delusional self had anyway. And maybe there really was no magical cure, no way back. Given that, what did I want?

I wanted to cry, but tear ducts on a fish would have been silly. I gave it my best shot anyway. The combined physical and emotional fatigue caught up with me before I finished, and in that mood I drifted off to sleep.

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I dreamed I was human. I was in a mall with hundreds of other faceless people walking past me, sitting quietly on a bench. Nobody looked at me, I was completely normal and just as faceless as they were. I was me again. I should have felt good about it.

But the confusion had followed me. I knew I was dreaming. But if I was really delusional, was I a fish dreaming I was a man or a man who'd woken up from a dream of being a fish? I shook my head, knowing that this had to be the dream no matter how real it seemed right now. Why did my subconscious taunt me like this?

"Damn it, look at me!" I leapt to my feet and screamed at the faceless people. "You can hear me now, can't you? Please! Can't you even see me? I'm a man! I'm Bryan Roemann!" Everyone continued to ignore me, rushing to and fro with their own unknown purposes. I tried to grab one but for some reason I couldn't even touch them.

I ran and ran, endless mall corridors filled with endless people. Nobody could see me or hear me. I was frantic, on the verge of total panic, and then suddenly I was falling...

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I woke with a reflexive jerk. I really was falling! No, no... I breathed deeply and tried to calm my racing heart, fanning my fins gently to keep from darting straight into the glass. I was floating. I must have been swimming in my sleep.

I was a goldfish girl again and I felt so relieved it almost hurt. One of the curators was bringing over the ladder for my daily meal; I swam over to the side and smiled wearily at him.

He actually paused briefly and smiled back. It was a bit of a surprise; I recognized him as one of the longest-serving and most blase of my keepers. I waited until he'd gone before I actually ate.

Maybe I was going crazy now. If I hadn't been insane before, the months of isolation had finally started getting to me. Had R. I. really been sending me letters, or had I just dreamed that all too? Hell, had I even talked with the creatures in the other exhibits?

I could have double-checked all of that before the museum opened and people started coming to see me but I decided not to. There wasn't any point. Whether I was crazy or not it wouldn't change anything, and it wasn't really relevant anyway.

Patrons entered the room and I started my Oranda act for the day. A steady stream of people, hundreds per hour, filing slowly past my tank. Were they real? I turned slowly in the middle of the tank, my fins billowing out around me and my school of small companion fish turning with me, watching them pass.

They watched me back. They could see me. I smiled, and they smiled back.

R. I. didn't visit during that day, he never did immediately after delivering a note. But I danced as best as I could anyway. I was beautiful, and whatever else may be true I still felt good about that. I felt wonderful about that.

What was the term R. I. had used, 'beautiful meditation'? Maybe I'd simply become distracted from what I was really here for, and just needed to 'volunteer' over again. I was a work of art with a human mind. So, given that, what did I want?

Same question I'd been stuck at yesterday. But now I had less baggage, a clearer view. I came up with an answer by closing time.

As soon as the last museum staff had left the room I went to each of my neighbors in turn. "Just to give you fair warning, I may be finally cracking up," I told each who would listen. "I apologize if I do anything weird. I'll try not to ignore you all." Eric, Ray and Gina were all responsive this evening and offered sympathy and support; I was grateful even if the subtle gestures did ultimately turn out to be figments of my imagination. Even Annie the anemone seemed to understand - perhaps someday I'd get through to her yet.

The lights turned down. Okay, now, I knew what I wanted. What did I have? A circular patch of smooth white pebbles, nearly uniform in size and shape, with three smooth knobs of darker coral that were used to conceal the water inlets and outlets. A pair of hands, webbed and delicate but still quite functional. My mind to guide them. Everything I could possibly need.

I got to work quickly, hoping nobody would pay attention until I was done.

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Robert could tell something unusual was going on the moment he stepped into the museum's lobby. It was very early in the morning, only an hour since opening time, but even so there was a buzz of excitement in the air and an unusual number of people lined up for tickets.

For a moment he was disappointed, he'd been hoping to take the usual Tuesday morning slow time to visit Oranda at leisure. But the buzz was infectious and he became excited too only a moment later. There was something interesting to see and Oranda seemed to be involved. He bypassed the line, showed the admission booth his museum gold pass, and hurried inside.

The living statuary hall and the arboretum were deserted aside from the exhibits, and Robert hurried on through them without even pausing to meet their gazes. The entrance to the aquarium room was already packed with people starting to back up into the hallway when he got there. He arrived just ahead of a pair of museum curators carrying velvet ropes to set up a queue.

Robert was not a tall man, and it took a lot of careful shuffling through the crowd around Oranda's tank to get close enough to see her directly. Along the way he caught snatches of murmured conversation among the other patrons; "...is it performance? Has she ever done anything like it before? Perhaps it was planned all along..." "...maybe they haven't been medicating her properly. Oranda always was a delicate one, I hear..." "...MacIntosh is on his way here right now, I hear. So it is something big..." "...bet she didn't do it herself at all. It was the curators, it has to be..." By the time Robert made it to the front of the crowd his heart was pounding from all manner of terrible imagined scenarios, Oranda hurt or ill or gone mad.

The contrast with those scenarios was literally breathtaking. Oranda hovered in the center of her bowl, her diaphanous fins spread and gently waving to hold her there, a calm expression on her beautiful face. The background conversation faded from Robert's awareness, Oranda's serenity momentarily overwhelming him and easing away the nervous tension.

She saw him, turning slightly in recognition, and smiled. It was a subtle smile, warm and quietly bemused, very different from the energetic and eager way she'd smiled at him on his previous visits. What is it, Oranda? Robert looked into her large amber eyes searching for some clue explaining her mood.

Oranda nodded slightly, short black hair billowing elegantly around the sides of her face. What? Do you mean... down? Robert looked down below Oranda, finally realizing where most of the other patrons were focused on.

The bed of round white pebbles that lined the bottom of Oranda's enormous fish bowl had been painstakingly groomed. Perfectly uniform parallel grooves and ridges, each only a few inches wide, in concentric circles covering the entire floor. The pattern was broken in three places, where smaller sets of concentric ridges had been raked around the three smooth coral outcroppings on the floor. Exactly like ripples in a pond.

It was a Zen rock garden. Robert raised his eyes again to Oranda. She was still smiling at him, ignoring all the other people crowded around. Did you do this for me? The thought made his heart skip a beat and he examined the garden more intently in search of its meaning.

The passage of time was completely subjective while contemplating art, but Robert felt it took him rather a long time to spot the three false rocks containing his letters. They were a part of the pattern, arranged in harmony with all the rest... but they were not in the pattern's heart. When Robert finally returned to meet Oranda's gaze again she had added a slightly wistful, distant touch to her smile.

You didn't do this for me, Robert realized. Strangely, his heart didn't shatter and he barely even felt a tear.

Robert was still at the tank contemplating Oranda's garden when a new commotion arose; Dr. MacIntosh had arrived, accompanied by several museum guards and administrators. The crowd parted to let them through, and Robert allowed himself to move with the currents to make room at the side of the tank.

Oranda glanced at MacIntosh, and Robert thought he saw a momentary disturbance in her serene expression. But that passed quickly, and MacIntosh glared into the tank silently for a minute. She hadn't done this for MacIntosh either. Robert and the rest of the crowd waited, watching the tableaux anxiously to see what the artist's reaction would be.

A slight nod. "Perfect."

Breaths were exhaled all over the room and the quiet murmur of speculation over Oranda's new meaning resumed. The handful of art critics who were already present gravitated towards MacIntosh, pushing Robert farther away, but he didn't mind. He had a strong suspicion that MacIntosh himself didn't really know what Oranda meant, even though he'd crafted her.

Oranda herself had figured it out, though. Robert continued watching her, entranced by her smile, until eventually the museum had to reinstate a time limit for patrons to linger in her room. Robert didn't mind. He could come back later to watch her again, for as long as he wanted, and he was content with that. He probably wouldn't write any more letters to Oranda, either; in her own beautiful wordless way she'd given him an answer to his last question.

She didn't want anything. She simply was, and that was enough.

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