Her arm was wrapped in a bloody hotel sheet when they brought her in and she was burning up with fever. Her eyes were so bloodshot that there wasn’t any white left: just a dab of black simmering in angry crimson. She was screaming, of course.
“Put her on the couch,” I said.
“She was trying to shave the skin off her arm,” said the driver, this blonde guy who liked to do push-ups whenever there was a lull in the conversation. I didn’t know his real name, but other drivers called him “Action Jack.”
“All she had was a goddamn hotel breadknife,” continued Action Jack. “She got all the way from her elbow to her wrist. Can you believe that?”
“What is she on?” I asked him, trying to get some actual information. “What did she take?”
A driver like Action Jack had a tendency to exaggerate. He worked for the thrill of it. He needed a story to tell later.
“There were twenty people in the room when I got there,” said Action Jack. “There were people from Google, but get this: government people too! Dudes in business-casual with IDs I’ve never seen before. They are coming. Get ready. They are right behind us. I lost them in traffic. She was screaming. Locked in the bathroom. We took the door off the hinges. I don’t know what she’s on. Nobody said. Google is the one who called me; not the hotel. You ever do any work for Google or the government before? They specifically requested you and told me you would know why. These government people are total assholes. I’m real sorry.”
A kid with blue lips and frosted hair squatted beside the screaming woman holding a kidney-shaped plastic tub full of her blood. He was obviously one of her friends. He had come along with the girl in Action Jack’s unlicensed panel truck with the crash cart in the back, ready in case she banged her head while thrashing around. Now the kid was shivering and trying to stroke his friend’s sweat-soaked brown hair, kneeling beside her next to my coffee table.
“Is she some executive’s daughter or Eric Schmidt’s newest mistress or something?” I asked the kid.
“Nah, no way, nah.”
“She works for Google?”
“Kinda,” said the kid. “Not really. Like, freelance. One or two jobs. Why aren’t we at the hospital? I thought we were going to the hospital.”
“How long has she been cutting herself?”
“Never. I was waiting downstairs. We were going to get food after.”
He didn’t answer.
The girl was covered in tattoos. There was a fox holding an umbrella stretching from her clavicle to her chin.
“What did she take?” I asked him. “What is she on?”
“Nothing,” he said. “She only likes weed and sometimes valium. She’s usually the one taking care of me, man.”
“What does she do for Google?”
“It’s this new peripheral. I told her not to take the job. I told her it was too weird. She was gonna dance at the New York Tattoo and Body Art Expo for them, and then again at Def Con. I was gonna go and like hold her sweat towel or something. ”
“You are her boyfriend?” I asked.
“Just a friend,” he said. “We are both dancers. I mean: I mainly do go-go.”
I leaned into the woman’s face. She was thrashing around on my couch, still screaming, now begging for me to do something. Now my boy Tenley was awake too, wearing one of my band t-shirts from back when I cared about bands.
“Get a line in her, please,” I told Tenley. Tenley was a Yale boy who was studying bioethics. We were fucking pretty regularly on the weekends and so he usually ended up as my assistant on nights like this. Tenley stumbled past me to get a bag of fluid from the refrigerator.
What is an emergency room? An emergency room is a free theater where a city’s homeless population fights the sick and dying for attention, time, drugs, and beds. The beauty of being a private, illegal emergency-care specialist operating out of your own apartment is that you don’t have to deal with any theater. You can give a single patient your complete attention. Unfortunately, you are always on call and you can never say no. And when they die, it is very expensive to get rid of them. So you try very hard to keep them alive.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?” I asked her. She stopped screaming, sort of flabbergasted.
I lifted the blood-soaked bedsheet from her arm a few millimeters, exposing it to the air. She screamed so loud that I had to clamp a hand over her mouth. She bleated something unintelligible in a voice that quivered like a theremin, and then her head lolled against her chest as she arched her back. It was like she was trying to break her own spine in order to end the pain.
But that was just the beginning.
When Tenley returned with the bag of fluid for the IV, something impossible happened to the fox tattoo on the girl’s neck.
The tattoo shifted, moving as if it were a cartoon. It turned into a goat playing pan pipes. I checked my own pulse. I pointed.
“What in fuck?” I said. “Did Google do that to her? Is that an animated .gif tattoo or something?”
The go-go dancer with the blue lips didn’t answer. Action Jack was busy messing with his phone.
We got an IV in her. We cut away her clothes. Action Jack, Tenley, and the kid moved her into my second bedroom, the one for patients. Sometimes it was Albanian dudes in pink suits with gunshot wounds who didn’t speak a word and paid in cash. Sometimes it was ladies from the Upper West Side who needed fast surgery and didn’t want there to be any kind of paper trail. Sometimes it was stuff like this: corporate experiments or government accidents. The CIA had me down as an asset. The North Koreans had me down as a doctor who didn’t tell stories.
Her body was a mess of bruises and rashes. She was covered in tattoos from head to toe. I wanted to stabilize her before we tried to cauterize the wound.
We shot her up with morphine, microdosing her until she was still and quiet, until she was breathing normally with her vitals no longer jackknifing. Her eyes fluttered closed.
“What is the deal with that rash,” said Tenley. “It is freaking me out.”
As the woman lost consciousness, her skin began to dance. The tattoos morphed and changed as we watched. A rabbit became a dragon. A skull became a bouquet of roses. A liquor bottle poured down her other arm, splashing inky currents down her wrist. Knives, ships, and vampire bats all played across her legs. Her body shimmered like an oil slick: ink, bruises, acne, and hives rippling across her face and chest in tattoo patterns.
“I gotta jet,” said Action Jack. “I don’t want to be around when all those government assholes show up. I’m sorry, but like I said, they specifically requested you and they paid up front so that’s the way it is. I don’t know nothing. I didn’t see nothing.”
“See you round,” I said as he left. “Thanks for the delivery.”
I went through the woman’s purse. Her friend with the blue lips didn’t try and stop me.
“She’s on fire with fever,” said Tenley. He put his hand on the woman’s belly.
“She doesn’t even have any credit cards,” I whined. “Total fucking nightmare.”
“Her name is Ella,” said the kid with blue lips. As if that’s why I wanted her credit cards.
Tenley stroked one of the woman’s dancing tattoos.
“It’s her real skin,” he said.
He pinched her. Nothing. He slapped her gently. Nothing.
Finally, Tenley grabbed a mound of the woman’s animated belly flesh in his hands and twisted. I leaned closer to see what would happen.
A square of clean pink skin materialized in the shimmering madness of her tattooed belly. There was a ping from her mouth, and the square of flesh showed what looked like a computer desktop, complete with icons and a blinking button that said “10 unread messages.”
Tenley looked at me.
“I think it’s a touchscreen,” I said.
I pressed the blinking button, feeling like an idiot.
The screen flashed. Messages scrolled down the patch of skin on her stomach.
“Step away from her,” said a voice behind me. “That’s classified material.”
I turned. There was a woman in a purple pantsuit behind me standing on my awesome three-inch-thick Georgian rug. She was a little older than me, but not much. I recognized the posture and aura of someone used to giving orders. Her accent was straight-up East Coast Ivy League. She reminded me of my roommate at Smith.
“Oh no,” I said. “The Man.”
“I’m sure you want to be paid for your services,” she said. “I’m the one with the checkbook.”
“I can give you the number for this Pakistani guy who is as good as me. He even has magazines you can read while you wait. I bet you like Redbook, am I right? Or maybe Foreign Affairs?”
“We want you. The bleeding has stopped?”
I didn’t say anything.
She was joined by a middle-aged technocrat in glasses who was definitely some kind of corporate vice-president. He smelled like Old Spice, toner cartridges, and stress. He was breathing heavy, sweating, leaning on his knees. Two burly looking dudes elbowed their way into my apartment behind him, standing guard by my kitchen.
“I ran here,” said the executive in glasses. He sort of waved at me and then went back to catching his breath.
“My diagnosis is blood loss, a skin wound which will probably require a graft, and infection,” I said.
“Terrible,” said the woman. “And we do want you to save this woman’s life. But not yet.”
She handed me her credentials. Diane Lemontree. She was with the State Department, which meant some black budget organization or another.
“There are sixteen different American intelligence organizations,” I said to Tenley. “How many can you name?”
Tenley started counting silently on his fingers, but didn’t say anything.
We were pretty much fucked. Now Agent Lemontree looked at Tenley, scrutinizing him. Maybe wondering if he would make a good recruit some day.
“It doesn’t matter who I represent,” she said. “Mr. Barney here is with Google. Where can we speak in private?”
The man in the glasses tried to shake my hand, but I wouldn’t cooperate. He was still breathing heavy. I could tell from his wheezing that he had an undiagnosed heart condition, but I didn’t bring it up.
“I’ll give you five minutes,” I said.
Mr. Barney snapped at one of the burly men in my kitchen, who was already digging his sausage fingers into my Cap’n Crunch.
“Bring us the pig,” said Mr. Barney.
I led them to the elevator and we went to the roof, where there was a basketball court that was always empty this time of night. There was a ball leaning against the basketball pole.
“Nobody ever comes up here,” I said. “We can shoot some hoops if you like while the infection spreads to her lungs and brain. I don’t mind.”
Mr. Barney from Google unwrapped a cough drop and crammed it into his mouth.
“Her skin is our newest peripheral device,” he said. “We don’t have a name for it yet, so we are just calling it Google Skin. We hollowed out one of her upper molars and installed a wireless router and processor. There is a fine mesh net she can wear under a wig that works as an EEG interface. As you can see, her skin now functions as a touchscreen. We chose her because she never had a rubella vaccine. Canadian hippy parents.”
“You turned her skin into a computer?” I asked, picking up the basketball.
“What is skin but a series of pixels with instructions for coloration that can be hacked by disease, pressure, or allergy?” he said. “The skin is the largest organ in the human body. It is already a computer screen. Our machine-virus spreads subcutaneously, carried by neurotransmitters coordinated by molecular buckyballs that respond to minute magnetic pulses, like a giant etch-a-sketch. By triggering an auto-immune response to a weakened rubella virus, and by using it to tap into the genetic-“freckle formation” response, we are able to temporarily, and semi-permanently, change vast swatches of skin at will, giving us nearly a full RGB spectrum. She can control the display on her skin with the mesh neuralnet, or by mere touch. We can create any color from deep bruise to white scar. We create the allergy, we contain it, and then we spread it according to careful algorithms.”
“She agreed to this?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said Mr. Barney. “Very much so. We were going to unveil Skin this weekend at the New York Tattoo and Body Art Expo. We expected viral videos, rumors, denials, and significant hype preparatory to our official soft launch. She is a dancer, and she was going to strip down to nothing and invite gamer dudes to press her skin to make the tattoos change, eventually leading to a full demonstration of Skin’s cloud computing technology at Def Con. Word processing and browsing and videos and so on.”
The elevator dinged and one of the bodyguards emerged, carrying a squealing piglet. When Mr. Barney said “bring us the pig,” I thought it was some kind of code.
“That is a squealing piglet,” I said.
“So that I may demonstrate,” said Mr. Barney.
He injected something into the piglet’s ass.
He pinched the piglet’s ass and twisted.
A computer screen came to life on the left flank of the piglet’s rear. Mr. Barney pressed a few buttons, bringing up the Google home page.
“You try,” he said.
The piglet was going crazy, but the bodyguard had it in a tight headlock. I typed in the url for my favorite porn site and did a search for “fisting hot blonde NSA MILF.” There were ten videos. I found the one with the lady that looked most like Agent Lemontree, and I opened it.
“How come there isn’t any sound?” I asked.
We all watched the video for a few moments, until Agent Lemontree closed the window.
“We can put a speaker in a back molar,” said Mr. Barney. “We use the skull as a natural amplifier.”
“So what went wrong? Why are you here?”
“We got an alert this evening that our dancer’s Skin had been compromised,” said Mr. Barney. “That’s when Agent Lemontree’s group contacted us. We found her all panicky and demented, checked into a nearby hotel.”
“She was hacked,” said Agent Lemontree. “We don’t know who or how. We are afraid they were able to access Google’s servers, and, as a result, we are afraid they were able to access some extremely sensitive information we were keeping there.”
“What sort of information?”
“I can’t tell you specifically,” said Mrs. Lemontree. “One of the unintended consequences of running surveillance on the entire world is that many countries have decided to outsource their spying operations to us without asking. It’s quite a nightmare, I’m afraid. We are like a character from Lovecraft, burdened by terrible knowledge that we can’t forget. So we must keep our knowledge fragmented, lest the entirety of the gestalt drive us mad.”
“What do you mean? How can they outsource operations to you?”
“Well, pretend you are the Iranian government. Wouldn’t you like to know which of your citizens has been contacting the United States and who they have been talking to? Conversations that we consider harmless to our national security are extremely useful to rogue states who have a zero tolerance policy for dissidents. Unfortunately, we have all the data, and, unfortunately, it is very well-organized. Hacking our servers is therefore very attractive to these rogue states. Every time we are compromised, we unintentionally become a snitch for every repressive regime on the planet. One hacker can sell our secrets ten different times to ten different countries.”
“What does that have to do with this girl?”
“We protect everything we’ve got,” said Agent Lemontree. “Unfortunately, our corporate partners are never so responsible. Sometimes they cut corners, especially with respect to new R&D like this Skin peripheral.”
“We didn’t have a chance to install the proper firewalls yet,” said Mr. Barney. “Skin is so new I barely know about it.”
“And yet here we are,” said Agent Lemontree.
“We didn’t know you were even using those servers!” said Mr. Barney. “If you never tell us what you are doing, then how can we possibly know what to protect?”
“Protect everything,” said Agent Lemontree.
“Pay us for it,” muttered Mr. Barney.
“This has been way longer than five minutes,” I said.
I scratched the piglet behind the ears.
“If you cure the infection, you will also destroy the peripheral,” said Agent Lemontree. “We can’t let you do that until we know exactly what is going on.”
“They trashed her body, knowing we’d try to save her,” explained Mr. Barney. “They accessed the skin of her throat, causing her to hyperventilate. They jacked up the pixel refresh rate on her skin a thousand percent, causing a maddening itch and excruciating inflammation. They have been blaring death metal through her teeth. When combined with the release of epinephrine from the itch and pain, she started to hallucinate. Hence trying to shave all her skin off.”
“I’m not going to let her just suffer and die,” I said. “I mean, that costs extra.”
“Yes, of course,” said Agent Lemontree. “But my people need time to complete a forensic analysis before we proceed with any heroic medical procedures. That’s why we came here and not a hospital.”
“Andre Laszlo is here,” said one of the bodyguards. “He is ready to proceed.”
Agent Lemontree nodded and went back to the elevator. Mr. Barney followed her.
Left alone, I shot a few free-throws.
I considered going down the fire escape and going to get a bite to eat while Google and the government tortured this poor girl in my second bedroom. But then I decided that if she did die, they would probably just leave her there for me to deal with.
I threw the basketball as hard as I could into the night, listening for a crash as it slammed into a parked car or a shop front. I didn’t hear anything.
I got back in the elevator.
One of the bodyguards patted me down as I entered my own home. Now they were making themselves sandwiches. Animals.
The piglet was laying down in my laundry basket.
“Shoot the piglet up with steroids, antihistamines, and Cipro,” I told Tenley and the kid with blue lips. “Let me know if that does anything.”
“It’s the Balkans,” shouted somebody from my second bedroom.
“Maybe,” said someone else.
One tech stood over the feverish woman, typing onto her stomach, while numbers crawled down her breasts. He was blind. His milky eyes flipped around in his head, worming through his own brain instead of fixating on any point in particular. He was smoking a cigarette and ashing into a tray balanced on the woman’s shoulder. A young tech was holding a fan which was sucking away the smoke from his cigarette. The tech shrugged at me apologetically.
“You can’t smoke in here,” I said.
“I already told them,” shouted Tenley from the living room.
“Andre smokes,” said Agent Lemontree.
“I smoke,” said Andre.
“Is there like a number I can call to file grievances or something,” I said.
“You will be paid well for your patience and expertise,” said Agent Lemontree. “We are close.”
“I traced it to Serbia,” said Andre. “Same collective that’s been fogging Google Glass. I don’t buy it, though.”
“They wait until people wearing Glass are driving their cars,” Agent Lemontree explained. “Then they start strobing lights or playing distracting music videos, trying to cause car accidents. Peripheral terrorists.”
“I think they are routing through the Balkans to throw us off. You want to know what I think? I think this is Americans. I think this is somebody right here at home. I think this is business.”
“Apple?” asked Agent Lemontree.
“It smells like it, yeah,” said Andre. “Maybe through China. Microsoft would have just politely murdered this girl in her sleep. This is a message, obviously. This is about Skin.”
Agent Lemontree walked out of the room and cornered Mr. Barney, grabbing his phone out of his hand and hanging it up for him.
“Skin is cool,” said Agent Lemontree.
“Yes,” said Mr. Barney.
“You can’t be the only people developing something like this,” said Agent Lemontree.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Mr. Barney. “I am human resources.”
“How close is Apple to something like Skin?”
Mr. Barney demurred, looking sideways.
“Maybe somebody at the Times will know,” said Agent Lemontree, punching numbers into Mr. Barney’s phone.
“Okay, okay!” said Mr. Barney. “They are taking a whole different approach. They are trying to make clothes that do the same thing. Like, spandex suits, all shiny and futuristic looking. It all looks like S&M aluminum foil to me, quite frankly. I’m sure it will go over well with the Apple crowd. Supposedly, they are close to something stable.”
“How close?” asked Agent Lemontree.
“They had a working prototype six months ago,” said Mr. Barney.
“And what happened to it?”
“It is possible that some of the chief engineers were arrested in Denmark for possibly having child pornography on their laptops. It is possible that this incident has caused significant delays.”
“It’s definitely Apple, then,” said Andre. “I can taste all the little Apple chunks. This is a corporate war, not terrorism, not a run on our servers.”
“Flush the Apple servers in China, then,” said Lemontree, handing Mr. Barney his phone. “We are confiscating this technology for the U.S. government.”
“You can’t!” said Mr. Barney.
“We aren’t your private army,” said Agent Lemontree. She reached into Mr. Barney’s suit jacket and pulled out a syringe. She walked over to Andre and tapped him on the shoulder. He rolled up his sleeve, and she injected him with whatever Mr. Barney was carrying.
"It should route off her for now," said Agent Lemontree. "Like the piglet. Afterwards the doctor here will put her processor in your teeth."
"Cool," said Andre. "I am the internet."
Andre stubbed out his cigarette and pinched his own forearm. A touchscreen opened up. Agent Lemontree went to the options menu and selected “Braille” for him. Andre sprouted raised bumps on his arm in a shifting line. He used the fingers of his right hand to feel the bumps, muttering to himself. He was using Skin as a living Braille keyboard.
“This is wonderful,” he said. “I am reading my own goosebumps.”
Agent Lemontree pointed at me.
“You,” she said. “Save her life.”
“For free?” I asked.
Agent Lemontree pressed some buttons on her phone. My own phone pinged. Ten thousand in Bitcoins, deposited in my offshore account.
“That’ll do,” I said. “Tenley?”
“The piglet is sleeping,” he said. “The skin computer is fading.”
“Steroids for the girl,” I told Tenley. “And antihistamines and Cipro.”
Mr. Barney’s phone rang. He answered it, shaking, pale.
“There’s been a problem,” he said, stepping outside.
“What’s going to happen to Apple?” I asked Agent Lemontree, as soon as Mr. Barney was gone. “Isn’t this basically attempted murder?”
“Oh, we have our ways. Things are getting out of hand. It’s probably time to Cartoon All-Stars all of them. Google, Apple, Microsoft: the whole lot.”
“You never had to watch Cartoon All-Stars as a kid?”
“I was not allowed to watch television,” I said. “I was home-schooled in Pennsylvania. My father was a surgeon. My mother was an allergist.”
“In the 1980s, we caught all the West Coast animation studios in a massive DEA sting. They were dealing and abusing designer hallucinogens. Henson, Disney, Warner Brothers: they were all in on it. It was vertical: they were dealing to kids and using themselves, funding laboratories and frying their minds to make shows like Muppet Babies, He-man, the Smurfs, Return to Oz, The Dark Crystal, The Neverending Story…all that stuff. There were massive purges, and as punishment, we made the studios collaborate on a program called Cartoon All-Stars. All the cartoon characters from all of the studios came together to fight drugs. We showed the program in schools. It was quite effective. It didn’t undo the damage, but it ended the cartoon acid highway for good. We put Disney under new management and of course Mr. Henson did not live too much longer.”
“So you are going to make Apple, Google, and Microsoft do a cartoon about drugs?”
“No,” said Agent Lemontree, thinking about it. “About cryptography. Every computer in the country is an open wound these days. With something like Skin on the market, we can’t afford to operate without locks on our doors anymore. The machines are inside us now. Code will penetrate deeper and deeper. It’s time to put up some walls before this stuff gets even deeper than Skin. Right now we can wipe people’s hard drives with a click of a button. What happens when our enemies can wipe our brains?”
“Nuclear Armageddon never happened,” I suggested. “Maybe people are actually good deep down inside.”
“Do you really believe that?” asked Agent Lemontree.
“Of course not,” I snorted.
“People trust Google more than doctors, priests, the government, and teachers,” said Agent Lemontree. “If the message comes from them, people will listen.”
“I wonder how well envelopes that became transparent under magical federal candlelight would have sold in 1750,” said Andre.
“Come again?” said Agent Lemontree.
“Ed Snowden quote,” he said.
I leaned over the unconscious girl on the double bed in my second bedroom. The steroids and antibiotics were flowing into her veins. Soon she would be cured of Google Skin, I hoped, and the infection that came with it.
I pinched her belly and twisted. I opened a web browser, went to Google, and searched for MS Paint. I found a script version that would run in the cloud. I opened it and made a box so big that it covered the woman’s entire torso. I drew a giant cock.
Then I erased it and drew a giant peace sign, waiting for it to fade.