The fourth time that my palmtop buzzed on the plastic counter in front of me, I set down my burger and wiped my hands on my napkin. The blue attention light on the front of the case incessantly blinked. I flipped open the cover and thumbed through menus to my chat sessions, but all of the recent messages came from an anonymous source. I had my thumb on the lid, but then the phone rattled in my fingers and a window opened: New message from <unknown>: Alex, pick up; it’s Jules.
I frowned, then checked through my contacts list; I had several entries for Julia already, mostly e-mail or some messaging service or other that she’d used once or twice, then forgotten. I hit reply, then thumbed, Julia? What account is this?
Long story, came the quick response. Please answer. A few seconds later, the palmtop began to buzz once more, showing an incoming call.
I snapped the cover closed and held it to my ear, looking at it curiously. “Julia?”
“Close enough,” an unfamiliar voice—quite distinctly male, deep and rumbling—replied. “Listen, Adam—”
“Who is this?” I demanded.
“Adam, this is…” The voice suddenly dropped to a whisper. In the background I could hear some kind of muffled commotion. “This is Julia. I’m stuck in Irokai. I need your help.”
“Irokai?” I pulled the palmtop away from my ear, looking at it dubiously, then brought it back. “That’s very funny. Who are you and what do you want?”
Whoever was on the other end of the phone growled menacingly. “Damnit, Adam! I need your help!” The caller’s voice started rushing. “I’m running a hacked account on a grey-market rig, I’ve got an IV jammed in my arm, I can’t wake myself up, and I need to be at the Infinicom building in half an hour! I don’t have time for guessing games! What do you want? You’re allergic to uncooked tomatoes, you hate mayo, and you’ve got a birthmark on your left shoulder. If you want a detailed list of your eleventh-grade teachers, I can do that, too, but I don’t have the time.”
I looked at my handset again, then said more quietly, “It’s on my right shoulder, and who did I have for physics?”
“You didn’t take physics in eleventh grade,” Julia snarled. “You had Reidel for Chemistry II. Are you happy now? Twenty-nine minutes.”
“That’s cutting it close,” I said as I rose, motioning to the waiter for my bill. “What is it you need me to do? Come and unplug you?”
“Yes, thank you.” Julia’s voice sounded infinitely relieved. “Call me when you get to the front door of the building. I’ll walk you through it from there. Use this contact.” Then the phone went dead.
I exchanged my phone for my wallet, then shifted impatiently from one foot to the other as the waiter took his time in returning my credit card for me. My eyes kept snapping to the clock on the wall, but the numbers didn’t change that quickly. I had twenty-seven minutes to save her from herself on the way to whatever errand was so vital. The drive to her apartment building wasn’t any slower than normal, but my breath caught in my throat every time I tapped on the brake. Julia’s building had visitor parking, but of course today of all days the lot would be full; another three minutes vanished as I searched for a place to leave the car, then jogged back to the front door.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and hit redial, then tapped my foot as I waited for the answer. “You’re late,” Julia replied as soon as she answered. “The code is 22361.” I punched in the numbers, then tugged open the door when it beeped at me. The elevator took its time getting to the lobby, disgorging a gaggle of housewives on their way to lunch. The ride to Julia’s apartment was an uncomfortable silence, punctuated only by the occasional noise in the background of the call.
“Julia, what’s going on in there?” I asked as I watched the light at the top of the car tick slowly upwards.
“I’ll explain when I’m out,” she replied. “My front door code’s 161803; mind the table in the dining room.”
When I entered her door code, the deadbolt clicked open. “Lights, on,” I said, and the room lit with LED lamps. Discarded clothing lay strewn across the floor, and an unsorted pile of mail sat on the corner of the table on my left, directly past a kitchenette. To the right sat a glass sliding door out to a thin balcony. Directly in front of me lay the bathroom, but next to it on the right was a closed door. “Is that the bedroom?” I asked as I walked to it.
Julia grunted. “Yeah. Come on in, but don’t yell at me.”
“Julia, why would—” I stopped dead as the door opened. Behind a giant mahogany desk that seemed impossibly large for the space, Julia’s body sprawled, nude and corpse-like, in a leather executive chair that had been locked in a recline. Her head was at least supported by a thin pillow, but her right arm and legs hung over the arm rests and the end of the seat. Her left arm, she’d secured with cloth tape at the wrist and elbow, and a strip of gauze covered the back of her hand where she’d inserted a needle. A length of clear plastic tubing pinched with a garden clamp ran from Julia’s hand to a hot water bottle hung from a coathanger on a portable clothes rack. A plastic mesh covered her head, sending a rainbow of wires slithering under her desk. Her eyes twitched rapidly, and she was breathing, but a thin sheen of sweat covered her skin, giving her a ghastly pallor.
“What the hell were you thinking?” The words burst out of me as I stormed over to her body.
“I wasn’t,” she replied, “and I told you not to yell. It was a fuck-up. John’s already screamed at me, and double jeopardy’s against the law.” She’d gone into pedant mode, artificially calm and reasonable. “Are you going to help me or what?”
“Yes, but not because of you; this is a travesty of medicine.” I switched my phone to speaker and set it on the desk, then started loosening the tape on the back of her hand. “Where did you get all this?”
I could just hear Julia ticking off the words on her fingers as she spoke. “Sixteen-gauge needles online, along with instructions for the solution. Tubing for a tank aerator at a pet supply store, enema bottle at the pharmacist’s. Hangers and the rack at the boxmart. Stop messing with the meat and look at the screen. I need you to shut down the induction rig.”
“One moment; first, I—hell! You’ve blown the vein! Where’s the rest of this gauze roll?” I pressed on the back of her hand as the puncture site began to ooze, grimacing at the way the swollen flesh dented under my touch. “Did you sterilize any of this before you embarked on this little escapade?”
“Boiled everything but the gauze and tape,” she replied, her voice even more distorted over the palmtop’s speakers. “I’m no tyro, but it’s been years since I had any reason to practice. Now look at the screen. Just jiggle the mouse; it’ll light up.”
“Spare me,” I grumbled as I worked the tape from around her elbow. “Don’t tell me you used to do more than smoke.”
“Back off, Adam,” she snarled in reply. “Now, will you please—”
I’d had enough. Not bothering to look at her computer, I snapped the chinstrap loose with my other hand and yanked off the nylon skullcap. Instantly, Julia’s eyes snapped open and her body spasmed, sending her and the chair crashing to the floor. Her right arm flew up to her head as she started to swear, her left trying to follow but jerking tight against the tape I hadn’t yet removed. That set off a fresh round of curses, interrupted sharply by a gagging noise, and then Julia’s stomach inverting itself.
I put one foot on the casters and hauled Julia back upright, just in time for her to send another batch of vomit down her front. Then her eyes blearily met mine. “Don’t… ever… do that… again,” she managed to cough out around a mouthful of sick.
“I paid your body as much respect as you did,” I sneered. “Besides, aren’t you in a hurry?”
That stunned Julia into silence for a few seconds. “Okay, I deserved that,” she mumbled. “And yes, I am. Oh, man, what a stink. Here, almost done.” We finished extracting her from the chair, and then she was scrabbling for clothes, mopping the mess from her face and chest with a discarded towel. “Damnit, I can’t make a fist; help me dress?”
I put my hands on my hips, struggling to keep my voice level. “That’s because of the swelling. Julia, would you kindly tell me what the hell is happening?”
She stopped, took a deep breath, and sighed. “Irokai got hacked; you heard about that. John helped out from the inside, but his account got botched in the process. They gave him until tonight to pay his identity bill, and he organized a protest instead. When things got out of control, they announced a global rollback, no exceptions. John’s moving everyone onto his dev system so they’re not stored on Irokai’s database when the shutdown hits, but that box isn’t sized for that many people and I’m worried about hardware failures with that kind of load, plus he’s exposed since he’s now on an isolated server. I know where it is, but I have to get to it before Tadashiissei does so they don’t pull his plug. Again. And for the last fucking time, Adam, it’s Jules, not….” She looked down and raised an arm, gesturing downwards at herself. “Not this. Now hurry up and help me dress, damnit; we don’t have time for this!”
I crossed my arms, standing stock still. “When you actually come out to me, it’ll be Jules. Until then, it’s Julia. I dislike diminutives, and I hate taking things on faith, two things that you and Johnathan seem to enjoy far more than I find comfortable.”
Julia’s eyes went wide, thrown visibly off-balance by my remarks. She stared in open-mouthed shock. “But I… you knew?”
I scowled and grabbed one of the shirts that looked vaguely presentable off of the floor. “No, I didn’t know, because you never told me. I guessed, certainly; I’d have had to be an idiot not to see the signs, and you wouldn’t have suffered an idiot this long. Like Johnathan, though, you just assumed I would run with the guess and hope it all worked out. You hinted, prevaricated, and threatened, but not once did you actually tell me why it was so important to you that I use Jules instead of your legal name. Arms up.” As she complied, I pulled it on over her head. “Damnit, how can you both be so smart and still be so bloody stupid?”
Julia turned towards her dresser and pulled out a pair of y-fronts; her voice was very quiet when she next spoke. “After all your crap about not having proof for things, I didn’t think you’d listen.”
I sighed. “Yes, well… mea culpa.” I nodded as I took the underwear and held them out for him. “Sometimes there isn’t any proof to be had, and you have to go with your best evidence. In Johnathan’s case, that would have been research on others who’d been uploaded before him, which still hasn’t been done, mind you. In yours, you could have just said something, instead of all this bloody hint-dropping.”
“There has been research,” Jules snapped. “Imogen Franklin’s been studied intensely since her conversion, and nobody’s reported anything broken yet. As far as anyone cares, she’s alive and well, just living inside a computer. As for the rest, well….” He gestured towards the ground with his injured hand. “Maybe it’s not so easy to just say, ‘I’m a guy.” It’s not something that comes up in casual conversation, you know?” Jules admitted. Then he grinned weakly. “Besides, I was going to upload instead of transition. The surgical options still suck, and I don’t get the fur or the tail if I stay out here.”
I grinned and snagged a pair of his jeans. “That’s close enough. No time to bind, I’m afraid; you’ve got seventeen minutes to get to Infinicom and I’m parked three blocks away.”
Jules shook his head. “I don’t bind; hurts too damned much and I can’t breathe when I do it. Gets in the way of my smokes.”
“Filthy habit,” I muttered as I pulled two pairs of socks from his dresser, tossing one to him and knelt to help him step into the other. “I don’t even want to think about what else you’ve put in your body.”
Jules rolled his eyes and tossed the socks over my shoulder, back into the drawer. “I don’t bother. Anyway, when you hate your body, it doesn’t really matter what you do to it. Now c’mon. We’ve got to move.”