“Lie down! Show me your hands! Step away from the elephant!”
Casey isn’t sure how she’s supposed to do all that at once. The cops are hard to hear over the discordant clash of Gone II pumping out of her speakers, and Zuli is so freaked out by the bright lights and yelling that he’s trumpeting his elephant ass off.
The punk rock instrumental is blaring from a home-made boom box made of a fat piece of PVC pipe, mesh-capable flash memory, a couple of car speakers, and a lot of hot glue. Casey drops that first, and almost gets shot when something breaks on impact and the music cuts out with a screech. She’s also holding a 50cc medical syringe full of elephant blood, which admittedly must look pretty weird, so she drops that too. There’s a sharp tinkle and something warm sloshes on her calves. She winces and immediately hopes that won’t push the cops from get on your knees! all the way to the she’s a threat, dump your mags into her!
Heart beating like a snare drum, Casey drops to her knees, then lies on her face in the smell of hay and blood and elephant dung, hoping the cops won’t beat the shit out of her.
The cops beat the shit out of her. There’s absolutely no reason to rough up a skinny white girl for breaking into a zoo, but they give her a judicious working over anyway. When they book her, she has long red pavement scrapes on her chin and raw handcuff welts around each skinny wrist. She tries to explain why she broke into the San Diego Zoo with a bunch of needles, digital punk music, and portable DNA sequencing gear. No one listens. She’s pretty sure they think she’s a terrorist.
“Can I get a phone call, though?” Casey says, over and over.
She does get one, eventually. They let her have her smart phone back for a few minutes.
“You contact a lawyer?” the desk sergeant asks, “There’s a list of bail bond outfits on the wall.”
“I sent some email,” Casey says, “so I’m good.”
After a long time spent staring at a holding cell wall the color of old paper, a detective finally moves Casey to an interview room to ask why she was poking an elephant with a needle in the middle of the night while playing it a bunch of weird music. She tells him he doesn’t want to know.
“Yes,” the detective says, “I do.”
“Okay, I was curious if I could improve the elephant’s subjective quality of life by playing him punk rock. I tested that by drawing blood before and after playing the music, then running it through a portable sequencer to check his oxidative stress levels. Zuli doesn’t mind. I asked him first, and he’s cool with it.”
“The elephant,” Casey says.
The detective looks at her like she’s from another planet.
“So, who radicalized you?” he asks. He’s a serious looking guy with thinning curly hair and eyes at least as tired and colorless as his suit coat.
The detective makes a note of that.
“No, look. Greg Ginn was in a band called Gone. That’s the music I play for the elephant. I tried Beethoven, but he didn’t like it. Same deal for Megadeth. What he likes is instrumental punk rock. He waves his trunk around and stamps his feet.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with terrorism,” the detective says.
“Neither do I,” Casey replies. Before the cop can punch her teeth down into her stomach, someone knocks on the door.
“That Cassandra Collins?” another cop asks.
“Yeah,” says the detective.
“It’s Casey,” Casey says.
“Whatever. Your lawyer is here.”
The detective turns his old brown eyes on her. Casey shrugs.
“I didn’t call a lawyer,” she says.
Casey’s white knight is very white. A guy who looks like his suit cost more money than Casey has ever had at one time, or ever had period. He has a square chin and nice blue eyes that shine right through the grimy interview window. There’s a lanyard around his neck with a laminate on it that says Gilead Sciences above a forest of QR codes. They both pick up battered plastic phones that have actual cables like it was 1950.
“Oxidative stress is not the same as allostatic stress,” the Gilead Man says, getting right into it. “It’s not a valid way to measure how happy an elephant is. You know that, right?”
“I do now,” Casey says, trying not to touch her ear with the phone. “Look, I’m not going to lie. I was sort of making this up as I went along. I dropped out of Med School before I got to the serious neuroendocrine stuff.”
“Well, maybe I can help with that. I’m not going to lie to you, either. I read your email.”
“I didn’t send you an email.”
“Sure you did, you just didn’t know it. The main thing is that you and your elephant have come up with something really interesting. Gilead Sciences R&D have spent the past six hours reviewing your work. What you’ve done is accidentally isolate a gene that induces Bax-dependent apoptosis. It kills other genes whose DNA has been damaged, and it’s Crispr compatible. That is a Hollywood moment.”
“I get that,” Casey says, “more or less.”
“No, you don’t,” the Gilead Man says, “because if you did, you’d be jumping up and down more.”
“Look, I’m less interested in the gene stuff. All I wanted was to figure out if Zuli thinks Gone II is better than All The Dirt That’s Fit To Print.”
“Well,” the Gilead Man says, “you created a vaccine for cancer, instead.”
He says this in a tone that’s meant to make Casey jump. Make her woozy. Make her pliable. Instead, the skinny girl with the weird hair looks up at him with an expression he can’t read. The phone clicks against the earrings that trace the entire curve of her ear.
“Okay,” she says, “bail me out.”
The Gilead Man smiles.
They cruise north along the San Diego Freeway in a Cadillac VTS. The car drives itself sedately towards Los Angeles while Casey eats everything in the mini fridge. All of it has individual plastic wrapping, even the bananas. She litters the slip-resistant floor of the Cadillac with debris while the Gilead Man watches her indulgently.
“If you’re done, I have contracts that need your biometrics.”
“Yeah, no,” Casey says with a smile, wiping her hands on the Caddy’s expensive nanoporous seat covers, “I’m good.”
The Gilead Man actually laughs.
“I’m not trying to take advantage of you. When we patent this, you’re going to be a very, very rich young lady,” he says.
“No, I’m not,” Casey says, completely serious this time. “Have you ever heard of Jonas Salk? You don’t monetize something like this.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well, maybe you would. I won’t. I didn’t.”
“Yes, you will,” the Gilead Man says menacingly, then hesitates. “Wait. What do you mean, ‘didn’t?’”
She shows him her cell phone. The screen is cracked.
“I VPNed my files to Wikileaks before I sent it anywhere you would see it. It’s already out there. Everywhere. I just needed you to get me out of jail.”
“You… needed me?”
“Or anybody exactly like you. Hey Cadillac, pull over for a minute. No, at that In-N-Out Burger.”
“Certainly,” the Cadillac says in a soothing voice.
The Gilead Man gapes at her, speechless. Well, almost speechless. The Cadillac pulls over. They’re somewhere between Carlsbad Beach and the Music Museum.
“Why?” The Gilead Man chokes out, like he can feel the money draining out of him, like he’s had his wrists cut the right way, north to south.
“I just want to see what people do, you know; it’s a Hollywood moment. And you need to cut down your stress level. Music is pretty good for that. Hey, Cadillac-”
“Yes?” The car says.
“Play Insidious Distraction,” Casey says. Before the Gilead Man can pick his jaw up off his shirt and grab her, she steps out of the car into the California sun with the music throbbing in time with her steps.