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flailing in the deep

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Beatrix never told anyone before she left, but the honest truth was that she had some doubts about this whole slime-ranching venture. The sense of adventure—building a ranch on a frontier so distant it was actually another planet, pioneering new techniques for feeding and breeding an alien species—was a big part of the appeal, so that part never bothered her, but…well, they were gelatinous blobs, no matter how cute or cheerful, and the whole point of farming them was harvesting their poop. Sure, the name was plort, and it was valuable, but that really didn’t change the actual fact that she’d signed up to raise gelatinous blobs and harvest their poop.

As it turned out, the land around her ranch was starkly beautiful, the slimes were pretty easy-going (as farm animals went, anyway) once she figured out their quirks, and she didn’t actually have to touch anything she didn’t want to—and the plorts weren’t any nastier or more poop-like than the slimes themselves. The slimes themselves, of course, were damn cute. Earning enough money to buy better equipment took several weeks of hard work, during which she was usually dusty and sunburnt by the time she collapsed into her bunk, but after that every upgrade made her life easier and her ranch more profitable.

It’s been six months, now, and her ranch practically runs itself. All the pens have automatic feeders and collectors, her chickens are healthy, and all her slimes spend their days happily eating and pooping. (Plorting? She’s never asked another rancher, and all the official literature refers to stuff like “excreting waste product, colloquially termed ‘plort.’”) She doesn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn anymore, or keep working past sunset; mostly her days involve checking her pens for damage, filling feeders, emptying plort collectors, and occasionally setting up breeding experiments or exploring further and further afield to see if the surrounding area holds any species she hasn’t found yet.

There’s only one problem: it’s also been six months since she last had a chance to talk to something that could talk back.

There’s email, sure, but that’s not the same, and life on the frontier means spotty communication systems that don’t work for real-time conversations. She can’t properly talk to anybody offplanet, and none of her fellow ranchers are close enough for anything but email either.

It’s a little ridiculous, honestly, because Beatrix has always considered herself an introvert. She likes being alone, in theory. The chance to get far away from her huge and well-meaning but loud and overbearing family was a big part of the reason she signed up for this in the first place. And it was nice at first, the solitude and the quiet, until she caught herself looking forward to visits from the drone pilots that picked up her shipments because at least they would usually say things, even if it wasn’t in response to anything she’d said.

So, okay, she’s maybe developing a little cabin fever and she needs to find an actual sentient being to talk to before she moves from idly talking to her slimes to carrying on both sides of a conversation with them. There aren’t any ranchers nearby, but maybe there’s somebody, out exploring or doing a wildlife study or…something. Hell, there’s always a chance she’ll find a slime colony that’s evolved enough to communicate. (Yes, maybe she should have noticed already that she was getting a little desperate.)

Before she sets out for the day (number 187, not that she’s counting), she spends an hour or so voiding the warranty on her communications equipment and eventually gets it set up to scan an increasingly widening area for the kinds of signals that could indicate intelligent life. That done, she heads out to make her usual rounds, figuring she’ll come back to check it again tonight.

Which, naturally, is when everything goes to hell.

A huge storm sweeps in, damaging most of her pens and equipment and throwing her into a frantic scramble to repair everything before any of her animals escape or die. She ends up contending with a major escape anyway while she’s missing parts to fix all the pens, and by then half the chickens are gone and the gardens are wrecked, so she barely has enough to feed the remaining slimes. Fixing that problem requires more foraging, doubly hard when a good part of the surrounding area has been blasted clean by the storm, and to top it off, she has to repel several nighttime attacks from dark slimes while her security systems are down.

All told, it’s several days before she even remembers her communications array, and several more before she actually has the time to check it. Even then, she’s still running around putting out fires (usually metaphorical, sometimes less so) and collapsing exhausted into bed hours after dark, so for a solid month after starting the scan, she’s only had time to confirm that it’s found something but not what or where.

Finally, when things are mostly back to normal and she actually has a little time to herself again, Beatrix sits down at her computer and pulls up the results of the past month’s scan. It’s out in the ocean, first of all, so far from land the signal is barely within range of her boosted scan. It starts with a distress call from a colonizing ship, cut off abruptly as it crashes, and Beatrix sits up straight with a jolt of horror. Life signs indicate only one passenger survived in a functioning life pod, but everyone else onboard died on or before impact, and it’s not much comfort to know she couldn’t have helped them even if she’d caught the distress call as it was transmitted.

Well, maybe she can at least help the survivor, assuming the life pod is still functioning at this point. She’s expecting a distress beacon on the life pod, maybe an early attempt at communication from the survivor, and then she figures she’ll have to piece together everything else from whatever life-signs readings her scan picked up. Instead, it turns out that her comms array managed to pick up all the frequencies in use in the life pod and the survivor’s suit even when they’re not actually broadcasting, which explains the enormous size of the file. At least she won’t have to comb through all of it manually; for as little use as she’s really gotten out of her own system, it’s a good one, and it’s produced a combined transcription and recording that will let her skip around to anything relevant. Most of the file is probably background noise, whatever was loud enough to be saved without actually being flagged as speech or anything else important.

Except, actually, there’s a wall of text when she opens the transcription, and it just keeps going, because it turns out the survivor talked a lot over the past month. Like, almost constantly, every day, whenever he was awake, by the look of things.

Beatrix skips ahead to the most recent timestamp to check that the survivor’s still alive, which he is, at least as of this morning, and pulls up her own coordinates to transmit to him. Signals indicate he has a small underwater base by now and a couple vehicles of some kind, so he might not even want to come to land anymore, but at least this way he’ll know which way to go if he’s getting tired of the ocean, and she’ll maybe get somebody to talk to.

She glances again at the pages of transcription and the huge audio files and thinks, okay, maybe she should at least glance through it before she tells the survivor where she is. It’s not like she has any other major plans for the night anyway.

The survivor identifies himself as Mark Iplier from the Aurora and confirms with his own life-signs check that he’s the only one to have made it out alive. He seems pretty freaked out at first, which is only to be expected under the circumstances, and Beatrix winces in sympathy when he starts talking about how endless and terrifying the ocean is.

But it’s…well, it’s also a little weird. It’s not just the fact that he talks almost constantly despite having no one else around, even at the beginning when he’s been alone for maybe 10 minutes—some of the things he says are just…strange. “Oh, those are weird noises,” he says at one point, and then “I’M SCARED, I HATE THE OCEAN,” which, fair enough, Beatrix is quite happy to be living on solid ground. Slightly less normal is his shouted declaration that “the ocean is full of DEATH” and then, even louder, “I KNOW THAT DEATH AWAITS ME AROUND EVERY CORNER!” Less than five minutes later, he says in a perfectly conversational tone, “What is that? Is that a sand butthole? Ooh, acid mushrooms! Hell yeah, it’s gonna be a party under the ocean!”

Beatrix’s eyebrows go up, all by themselves. She starts skimming.

There’s...a lot of yelling. A lot of actual screaming. A lot of singing. A not insignificant amount of maniacal laughter. A female robotic voice warns Mark when he’s about to run out of oxygen and welcomes him aboard any vehicles; he calls her his “sassy computer wife,” names her Karen, and yells at her. He gets four little vehicle-construction robots, calls them his children, names them (Jeffery, Billy, Samwise, and Marshall), and yells at them. (“Jeffery, come on, you gotta help me out here, I don’t know what I’m doing. Samwise, stop laughin’ at me. Billy, go help out Marshall, Marshall doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in life.”) He says his own name is Bubblebutt. “Deploying mobile vehicle bay,” says “Karen” at one point, followed by a pause, and then Mark, incredulous: “What the titties?” He names several of the fish he meets, too; one is dubbed Strudabega, or Strudy for short, after which he implores, “Strudy, why you gotta be like that, Stroods? Come on! Oh god, did you just poop? Are you poopin’? Stop poopin’.”

When he manages to build a couple submersibles, the names he chooses are equally...creative: Fuck A Duck for the small one, USS Fuck The Ocean for the bigger submarine. He doesn’t just talk to Karen, Jeffery, Billy, Samwise, Marshall, or Strudy, either; he seems to think he has a wider audience of some kind and spends a lot of time addressing vague remarks in that direction, like “I’m cool, right guys? Right?” followed by whimpering noises, or “Ohhhh, do you guys hear that? …it stopped AHHH oh god. Sorry, everybody, that was scary to me.” At another point, he seems to be talking to the ocean at large when he says plaintively, “Could we not? Could we have a fun time? Could we have happy la-la fun times?”

By the time she's scanned through half the file, Beatrix is pretty sure her eyebrows are trying to take up permanent residence as close to her hairline as possible, and she has to stop to rub her forehead before she gives herself a headache.

Okay, so maybe she doesn’t actually want this guy for a guest, or even a neighbor. He’s probably harmless, by all indications, but he also seems really weird, more than the effect of prolonged solitude can really explain.

She glances down over the rest of the file, well aware that she doesn’t really need to keep going, she already has all the info she needs, but…okay, it’s still kind of interesting, and she’s still kind of bored, and frankly at this point she’s more than a little morbidly curious to see just how strange this guy will get.

The answer, apparently, is pretty damn strange. Some highlights:

“Whoa. Hello! Can I stab you? I just want to stab you a little for research.”

“I don’t know why they’re called pooperfish but I can’t wait to put them in my mouth hole.” [slurping]

“I can feel it in my bones! I can feel it in my butt. I can feel a lot of things in my butt.”

“NO! DO NOT! I WILL WRECK YOUR SHIT, BIRD!”

“Me no likey! You eat me up gobble gobble!”

“There’s so many wondrous and beautiful and weird things happening in the ocean all the time and it grosses me out!”

[singing] “Need some foodie-woodie in my tummy-tummy...”

“What a load of porker-hork. What a load of corpus-croo. What a junky piece of poopy-paste. What a bag of sack.”

“Oh, that’s a little dildo-esque, but you know what, that’s okay.”

“Oh, this was a mistake. I shouldn’t be here. Why do I run facefirst into danger? OH GOD THIS WAS A MISTAKE” [screaming and explosions]

“No matter what I’ve got, I can make lube out of it. That’s my one superpower—the ability to make lube.”

“It’s so pretty! It almost makes me forget the ocean is entirely comprised of fish poop.”

[singing] “Boom-ba-doom-ba-doom-ba! Boom-ba-doom-ba-doom-ba! Oh, ocean is really fun! We love it, and love to eat all the fish, and we’re probably gonna die, and it’s really bad, and I already have that, and goddammit I should probably stop singing this stupid song.”

“That’s gonna be a headline someday for me. ‘Mark Iplier yells at ocean; everyone confused’”

“I’ve usually been told I’m a badass by a panel of myself and…a mirror…”

“Bite me! Your mom was a fish!”

“Stop it! You’re going nowhere! You need to give up on your dreams!”

“Goddamn, it’s so pretty, and I’m so scared.”

“Maaaaybe I should be concerned. Maaaaybe I should pee my pants.”

[singing] “I need copper, I need copper… Don’t ask me why I need copper, I have a deliciously delectable plan that will shake this world to its very foundations!”

Beatrix finally skips ahead and pauses, near the most recent bits of the recording. “—and if I can find an island,” Mark says, his voice bright and enthusiastic, “I’m gonna summon some demons.”

Beatrix pulls her hands back from the keyboard. “Yeah, no. Uh-uh. Nope. Not anywhere around me, buddy.”

After a little deliberation, she creates a message with the coordinates of the island nearest Mark’s underwater base, scrubs it of all identifying info, and sends it out, because she’s not a horrible person and she’s not going to leave him totally stuck in the ocean if there’s anything at all she can do about it. She just, you know, really doesn’t want to have to deal with him and the inevitable headaches.

“Honestly,” she mutters to her plush slime as she finally climbs into bed, “conversation is overrated.”

The plush slime doesn’t reply. Beatrix is very much okay with that.