From the author: I started writing this near-future SF story about education fraud and the privilege of wealth sometime before 2002. I wanted the story to have a more human (and animal) touch, though, so it also features a miniature guide horse named Molly. Which really is a thing.
Just as Eric’s shades buzzed, Molly Brown snorted softly in her sleep. Lying on his back, Eric reached down with his right hand and twined his fingers in Molly’s mane; with his left, he pulled the shades from the small shelf over the bed and put them on, fitting them to the small prongs in his temples.
He accepted the call, and a familiar blob of an icon appeared against a black background. “Sheila,” Eric said.
“I have a client for you,” the icon said. Sheila didn’t like to waste time. “They’re gonna be a real pain in the ass, but they’re gonna pay big.”
“What do they want?” Eric asked, not yet completely awake.
“Bachelor and Master’s in Public Admin,” Sheila said. “Four-year dual degree. Your fee will match the tuition, half up front each semester, the other half with the grades, plus a bonus when the degrees are done.”
That was big. “So what are they going to be a pain in the ass about?” Eric asked, propping himself up further on his elbow. “Wait . . . Public Admin. Some politician is buying junior his future career, right? Let me guess, they don’t want any face-to-face meetings and don’t want me to know where junior lives.”
“You got it.”
Next to the bed, Molly shifted, and Eric absently stroked her until the little horse pushed her nose into his hand, seeking a treat. “Sheila,” he said, reaching down to root through the pack that lay on the floor, “tell them it’s not safe unless I install my programs personally. They can run my stuff through their own security, but I have to install it. Tell them I’m blind and they can check my shades themselves. It’s not like I’m gonna be able to identify anybody or know how to find the place again.”
“Okay,” Sheila said. “I’ll get back to you.”
“Thanks,” he said. He pulled a slice of dried apple out of his pack and held it out to Molly, enjoying the tickling sensation as she took it gently with her teeth.
“Eric, if we land this job . . . well, just be careful. These guys don’t seem like your usual clients.”
“I’ll be careful,” he promised. The Sheila-icon shrank to a dot and disappeared.
Eric checked out of the room at ten minutes before nine. The routine was tiresome, but he didn’t want to spend a lot on rent, and a daily was still the cheapest. Luckily the manager had a soft spot for Molly, and tried to give them the same room each night, which gave Eric the slight illusion of stability.
When they stepped out onto the street, the heat and noise felt like an assault. Eric’s shades allowed him to see fuzzy light and dark shapes, but the streets were so crowded that the shapes blended together in a seething, noisy mess that would have been a nightmare to navigate without Molly’s patient guidance. Maybe someday he’d be able to afford implants that would provide real-time, realistic visuals, but high-end implants cost a fortune, especially on the black market.
Molly waited for Eric to indicate a direction, then began picking her way through the throngs of people. Eric held on to her harness with one hand and adjusted his pack, which held everything he owned except Molly, so that it lay almost flat against his chest. He’d learned the hard way that thieves found backpacks easier to lift than chestpacks.
When they reached Lark Street, Eric nudged Molly to turn right. She picked up her pace, understanding that they were headed to Grogan’s and therefore breakfast. The crowd was thinner here, but Molly still had to maneuver them around broken bits of pavement and piles of debris.
When Eric’s right hand felt the smooth glass of the café window, he walked a few more paces and pushed the door in.
“Hey, Eric,” called a bulky shape from behind the counter to the right. “Your table’s open. Usual breakfast?”
“Morning, Jed. Yeah, usual’s good,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”
He prodded Molly towards the restroom at the back of the restaurant. Once inside, he pulled off Molly’s waste bag, deposited the degradable liner and its very degradable contents into the wall chute, and inserted a fresh liner. He used a small currycomb to brush Molly’s coat and mane, making her shake her head with pleasure. Then he took off her right front sneaker to feel her hoof. They would need trimming soon.
Back out in the café, Molly headed automatically to a table opposite the counter. As Eric sat down, Jed set a steaming omelet, hash browns, a protein shake, and a plastic container full of pellets on the table. Then he fed Molly a slice of fresh apple, which she much preferred over the dried variety.
“Jed, you’re gonna spoil her,” Eric said, smiling.
“Nah, Molly’ll never be spoiled. How’s the work?” Jed asked.
“The usual,” Eric said. “I got some processing work that a company in D.C. contracted out to a data sweatshop in Ghana, of all places. Boring, but easy.” He pulled a collapsible canvas feed bucket out of his pack, poured the pellets into it, and fastened it around Molly’s head. “I’m also doing some marketing research for some corporate exec, can you believe it? His bosses have no idea he doesn’t write his own reports. Oh, hey, listen, can you give me some pellets to take with me? I may not be back in here tonight.”
“Sure,” said Jed. “You’re getting low, by the way. I can’t keep anything bigger than a fifty kilo sack back there without the owner noticing.”
“I’ll have a new one delivered next week, and make a deposit to your account. Thanks, Jed.”
After their meal, Eric worked for the next half-hour on a psychology assignment while the little horse stood patiently beside him. This client -- a business major, what else? -- only hired him for the general ed courses he thought were a waste of time. Eric ran his filtering program, read the results, and sent the assignment off.
The noise in the room as well as an increase in the number of people-sized shapes told Eric that it was almost time to leave. He didn’t want to get Jed in trouble by ignoring the squatting time limit.
As he and Molly rejoined the throngs on the sidewalk, Eric’s shades buzzed again. “Hi, Sheila,” he said.
“Corner of Travis and St. Joseph at 2 o’clock. They’ll call you Mr. Wilkins. They said it’ll take a few hours to get where you’re going.”
“Okay. Thanks, Sheila.” He disconnected. “C’mon, Mol, let’s find somewhere to hang out a while.”
“She’s not supposed to be petted while she’s working, but if you put your hand under her nose, she’ll check you out and then she’ll feel more comfortable.” Eric coughed self-consciously in an effort to hide his surprise that “Junior” had turned out to be female.
Molly nuzzled the young woman’s palm for a moment, and then lowered her head, pushed it under the hand, and raised both to a position perfect for stroking. After a sideways look at Eric, the girl petted the horse’s shaggy mane gently.
“What’s her name?” the girl asked. “Uh, and yours,” she added belatedly.
“Are you kidding?” Eric said. “The less we know about each other the better.”
“Oh please,” she said. “I’ve seen your face. You have a guide horse, for god’s sake. You probably stand out a little in a crowd, don’t you think?”
Eric settled down in front of the terminal, his hands hovering over the objects on the desk as he got his bearings. “Haven’t paid much attention to the world lately, have you.” It was a statement, not a question, and a somewhat distracted one at that. “There’s been a huge increase in congenital blindness in the last thirty years. Nobody knows what caused it and nobody much cares because most of the blind are outside the system. Most can’t afford anything better than the crappy kind of shades I’ve got, if that, so they have guide animals.” He pulled his portable out of his pack and opened it. “Lots of people still have dogs, but minis like Molly have become pretty common. They live longer than dogs, for one thing.
“So I’m not as unique as you might think. Besides, you don’t even know what city I live in, and I can leave it on about two seconds’ notice. You wouldn’t find me.”
“Okay,” she said. “Relax, I didn’t know. So how long have you had her?”
Eric hesitated, then said, “About thirteen years, since I was nine. Her name’s Molly.” He was silent a moment, remembering. “Before Molly it was just me and my mom, and let’s just say mom had other things to worry about than a blind kid. She’d pretty much stash me wherever she could. But then she got me Molly -- begged or bribed someone, I guess, or stole her for all I know. There’s a lot of things my mom didn’t do right, but she made up for a whole lot the day she brought me Molly.”
“And your mom . . . ?” the girl’s question trailed off, as if she suddenly realized how nosy she was being.
“Stuck around for a few more years. I was already a whiz on the nets, but I needed Molly to get around the real world. By the time Mom took off, I could pretty much handle myself.”
Eric suddenly realized he wasn’t working. He unfolded a flat keypad, plugged it into the portable’s small drive, and began connecting the two systems by feel. “I need you to get into your system -- use keys, not voice. I don’t want to know your name or your password.”
“Then how are you--”
“My system’s going to record your password but it’ll encrypt it so I don’t actually have access to it. It will only get me into the places I need to do the work -- I won’t be able to hack into the family secrets or anything.” He felt her presence close on his right side for a moment and heard her fingers on the keys.
“I’m in,” the girl said. “What now?”
“Get out of the way,” Eric said, not unpleasantly, as he hooked another jack into the side of his visor. “I shouldn’t need you again, but stick around in case I run into any roadblocks. It won’t take long.”
“What are you doing?”
“Lots of things,” he said, his fingers moving as he talked. “Piggybacking my setup on yours so it’ll look like the work I send comes from here. Telling my system to analyze your schoolwork and your other files to get a psych profile.” She started to protest, but he interrupted. “I’m not seeing the files myself. But my program will be able to tweak the assignments to make the tone and style match your work from before, only improve it a little. Like you’ve grown up a bit since then.”
“Isn’t this a little excessive? You think the university’s going to do a psych analysis on every paper I send in? Well, that you send in?”
“Of course,” he said. “How do you think they prevent education fraud?”
“And your program can deal with all that?” Clearly she didn’t have a lot of confidence in his ability.
“I’m one of the best,” he said. “It’s a big industry these days to make sure that junior can party without being distracted by actual schoolwork. You’ll get your degrees in public admin, with grades that are good enough but not too good. And then when you pretend to run for public office, the voters will think you’ve done your homework, no pun intended.”
“What’s your problem?” she snapped. “What did I ever do to you?”
“It’s what you won’t do when you inherit daddy’s job, whoever he is. There was a time, you know, when elected offices weren’t just handed down from one generation to the next. You’d know that if you’d ever actually taken a history class.”
“Oh, and I can see how hard you’re working to change the system, selling degrees to the highest bidder. Very noble.”
“I have my reasons. Besides, I can’t change the system because I’m not in the system. The government doesn’t recognize my existence -- me and a few million other people. I can’t get medical care, can’t enroll in school. I don’t exist.”
He stood up and started pulling the connections. “Why don’t you get your own degree, anyway? You don’t sound that stupid.”
“I have my reasons,” she mocked.
He folded up the keypad and stuffed it into his pack. “Sure you do. By the way, you’ll be locked out of your system at class times, plus when I do your research and send the assignments. It would look pretty bad if anyone noticed there were two of you online at the same time. You’ll have to find something to entertain yourself besides net shopping. Have a nice life. Come on, Mol.”
Seven months and several courses later, Eric and Molly were sitting in Grogan’s when he heard the girl’s voice. That was ridiculous, of course. There was no way she could have tracked him down.
But he never forgot a voice.
He knew it was her, but played dumb out of reflex. He moved his head vaguely towards her, exaggerating the effect of his blindness. “You talking to me?” he mumbled.
“Eric, I know it’s you. It’s me, the public admin thing. Melissa Stevenson.”
“What the hell are you doing?” he said in a low, angry voice as she sat down at his table uninvited. Melissa Stevenson. Why did that name sound familiar?
His shades buzzed; he accepted and switched to manual input so the girl -- Melissa -- wouldn’t overhear.
Sheila. “Eric, Jesus, I’ve been trying to get you but the call wouldn’t go through. People have been asking questions--”
He typed rapidly. Got it, Sheila, have to call you back. I’m OK. He cut the connection.
“We have to talk,” Melissa said.
“This better be important. You’re putting us both at risk.”
“Jed,” Eric called and waited until the man came over. “Is there some place in the back we can talk for a few minutes?” he asked in a lower voice. “We need some privacy.”
“Sure,” Jed said. He seemed puzzled but he trusted Eric. “This way.”
Molly and Eric followed Jed with Melissa trailing slightly behind. The bulky man led them into a cramped storeroom with boxes piled high on either side. Eric signaled Molly her “at ease” cue and turned towards Melissa.
“I wanted to warn you,” she said without preamble. “I blew the whistle on my father this morning. I don’t think they can trace anything directly to you, but you probably should lie low just in case. The news will break on the nets any minute.”
Eric could hear both satisfaction and contempt in Melissa’s voice. “That the Honorable David Smith Stevenson is a fraud. That he was willing to buy his daughter the credentials to keep the political power in the family. I also hacked some financial records--”
“Hacked?” Eric’s voice rose. “You can hack. But you . . . Oh, Jesus.”
“I know,” she said. “But I’m one of the best.” He could hear her brief smile. “I wanted you to think I was a brat letting daddy buy me a continuation of his life. I couldn’t exactly fake faking my own degree.”
Eric shook his head in disbelief. “So why are you telling me this? I never would have known you leaked the story yourself.”
“Look,” she said. “I knew things were bad outside of daddy’s little bubble, but I didn’t know how bad. The things you said that day . . . I thought you’d be some slick con artist. I didn’t know what you’d be like.”
“So you feel sorry for the blind guy.”
There was a discreet tap at the door, and Jed poked his head in. “Hey, man, two guys were just in here looking for a young lady. They said she might be with a blind guy with a little horse.”
“Oh crap,” Eric and Melissa said together.
“You want to go out the back way?”
When they reached the back alley, Eric turned to Melissa again. “Look, it’s too early to check into a room. I’ll go to the park for now -- it’s near the Center for the Blind so there are a lot of minis there and I won’t stand out too much. Are these the same guys who took me to your place last year?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Okay, try to change your appearance as much as you can -- buy dark glasses, cut your hair, whatever -- and keep moving around. Most restaurants have an hour limit unless you have a lot of cash, but that just draws attention. Go in and order something but keep a low profile. Leave when your time is up, not before, then go to another one and do the same thing. Check into a daily tonight. Most of them will let you check in any time after sunset.” He thought for a moment. “Meet me tomorrow morning at Cramer’s in Kingston, ten o’clock. Don’t ask anyone for directions; look it up.”
“Okay. Be careful, Eric.”
Eric heard the news on his audio feed at about four that afternoon. The park was crowded as always, with police moving among the throngs to keep people and their animals from lingering too long in one spot. Eric knew from experience that he could sit in one place for about an hour without being bothered.
Molly shifted and huffed constantly, her sensitive nose assaulted by the smell of the powder Eric had brushed into her coat to darken it. He’d gone to a cheap barber to darken and cut his own hair, and traded his blue pack for a shabby brown one.
There it was. Texas Congressman David Smith Stevenson was being investigated for education fraud as well as several shady financial dealings. Senator Andrew Parker, one of Stevenson’s most vocal critics, was being interviewed by all the stations, trying hard to keep from crowing.
“I’m shocked,” Parker said with barely concealed glee. “To think that a trusted official would violate the sacred trust we place in our educational institutions . . . This just shows how far some people are willing to go . . ..”
A deep voice, a live one standing right in front of Eric, interrupted the broadcast. “Excuse me,” the voice said, the words far more polite than the tone. “We’re looking for someone to do a job for us and we heard you might be able to help.”
“Job?” Eric asked. “I’m a good worker,” he said, slurring his words slightly. “I count things, I deliver packages, my horse shows me where to go. You gotta package? Fifty credits, I’ll take it anywhere in the city.”
“Never mind,” the man said.
“Spare a few credits?” Eric asked, but the two men were already walking away.
“Melissa,” Eric said across another café table. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“No, but it’s already done,” she said. She sounded determined and scared.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
She hesitated. “I can’t stay in Texas. I have to go somewhere where I won’t run into anyone who might recognize me. You saw the nets; they’re saying I’ve disappeared. My father’s trying for the sympathy vote right now by pretending I’ve been kidnapped and this is all a set-up, but I’m sure he’d like to arrange a little accident for me if he could.”
“You think your own father would--”
“Yeah, I think my own father would,” she said.
Eric had no idea what to say. They sat in silence, until Melissa finally spoke. “I’m sorry if I put a dent in your livelihood. They’ll be looking for degree jockeys, you know, so you probably shouldn't . . . . And you really should get out of town.”
Eric was skeptical. “Those jokers in the park weren’t exactly sharp. As long as I stay off the ed circuit for a while I should be fine.”
“No! No, Eric, I mean it. Those goons may have been easy to brush off, but I know my father and his people. They’ll keep looking until they find you. Even if he ends up in jail where he belongs, he’ll make sure someone on the outside is still after you. That’s what he’s like.” She paused. “I better go. I’m sorry for screwing up your life.”
Eric snorted. “You call this a life?”
“Yes! You used your brains and you were making your way and I’ve screwed that up. I really am sorry. But my father had to be stopped. He’s way dirtier than anyone knows yet. Keep an eye on the news and you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
Melissa stood up and walked around the table, put her hands on his shoulders, and brushed her lips against his cheek. Eric’s eyes closed involuntarily behind the shades. Her skin was incredibly soft.
“Goodbye, Molly,” Melissa said quietly, scratching the little horse under the chin. “Take care of Eric.” Molly huffed and raised her head as if to show that she understood.
And then Melissa was gone.
The next morning Eric sat on the edge of the bed, ready yet not ready to leave. It was true when he’d told Melissa that he could leave the city on two seconds’ notice. But leaving wasn’t the problem; arriving somewhere else was. Damn it, he and Molly had spent years getting to know every street and corner and café in this town. He had his haunts, his contacts, his suppliers. How was he supposed to do that all over again?
But Melissa’s urgency had finally penetrated, and when Eric had tried to call Sheila to warn her, she hadn’t accepted his call. He was as alone as he’d ever been.
Molly nickered, puzzled by the delay. Eric absently reached into his pack for the last piece of dried apple.
That was when he found the plexi. Melissa must have put it there when she was saying goodbye to Molly. Damn, she was good. Usually Eric knew the instant someone touched his horse.
He still had twenty minutes until check-out, so he inserted the tiny cube into his portable, hands hovering over the keypad in case there was a virus or tapeworm. There wasn’t, but the contents of the plexi left him stunned.
If he wanted it, he had an identity now, an official one, part of the system. Jesus, he thought. He could be a citizen. He could get a degree for himself, in any field he wanted -- hell, he could even go to an actual, physical university.
If Melissa had pulled this off by herself, she really was one of the best.
She’d also given him enough credits for implants, the high-end kind. The ability to see real life in real time, not just the vague shapes supplied by his shades or the rough images sent from the nets directly to his brain. He’d be able to see, really see, for the first time. A sunset, a pretty girl, even Molly.
Then Eric remembered that of course he wasn’t alone, not with Molly by his side. But how could he explain a guide horse at a university? Any citizen who could afford a real school would have had top-line implants since infancy. No citizen would have a guide animal.
Well then. Implants -- and citizenship -- would have to wait, because he wasn’t going anywhere without Molly. Less than ten minutes ago, he’d known that he wouldn’t last more than a few days in a new city without her. He wasn’t going to abandon her just because some money and a new identity had magically appeared.
The five-minutes-to-nine bell rang, signaling one last warning to the stragglers. Molly shifted from hoof to hoof, impatient to start the day.
Suddenly Eric agreed with her completely. “Let’s go, Molly Brown,” he said with a grin, and turned towards the door.
This story originally appeared in A Quiet Shelter There (2015).