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by Miracle Jones

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. Obviously, my first thought was some kind of hemorrhagic fever.

“Careful,” I said. "Don't get any on you."

“She was trying to shave the skin off her arm,” said the driver. He was a blonde guy I had been working with for years. He was a bit spastic; was even known to just up and start doing push-ups whenever there was a lull in the conversation.

“She had a goddamn hotel breadknife,” said the driver. “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?”

“There were twenty people in the room when I got there,” said the driver.  “There were people from Google, but get this: government people too, I think. Dudes in business-casual with IDs I’ve never seen before. They are coming. Get ready. They were right behind me. She was screaming when I got there. 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 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 obviously knew her. He was shivering and stroking her sweat-soaked brown hair. He had come along with the girl in the driver's unlicensed panel truck with the crash cart in the back, perching beside her to keep her from banging her head while she thrashed around. 

“Is she some executive’s daughter or Brin’s newest mistress or something?” I asked the kid.

“Nah, no way, nah.”

“Does she work 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 as far as I know. I was waiting downstairs. We were going to get food after.”

“After what?”

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, you know, valium, like everybody. She’s usually the one taking care of me, man.”

“What does she do for Google?”

“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.”

“Are you 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 me to do something. Now my boy Tenley was awake too, wearing one of my Strokes t-shirts.

“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 psychodrama. You can give a single patient your complete attention.  Unfortunately, you are always on call. 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 that I would even ask.

I lifted the blood-soaked bedsheet from her arm a few millimeters, exposing it to the air. Now 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 the 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 nodded. 

"Yeah, something like that," he said.

We got an IV in her. We cut away her clothes. The driver, Tenley, and the kid moved her into one of the spare bedrooms I used for patients. Sometimes it was Albanian dudes in pink suits with gunshot wounds who didn’t ever 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 problems. But I tried not to think about my patients as anything other than human beings in pain.

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, dosing her until she was still and quiet, until she was breathing normally with her vitals no longer jackknifing. Her eyes fluttered closed. As the woman lost consciousness, her skin began to dance.

“You ever see anything like this before?” asked Tenley.

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 the driver.  “I don’t want to be around when all those assholes in suits show up.  I’m sorry, but like I said, they specifically requested you, like they knew you or something.  I don’t know nothing.  Don’t want to get involved.”

“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 said. “Total fucking nightmare.”

“Her name is Ella,” said the kid with blue lips. 

Tenley probed one of the woman’s dancing tattoos. 

“It’s her real skin,” he said.

He pinched her. Nothing. He slapped her gently. Nothing. 

"You have to like, grab and twist," said the kid with blue lips.

Tenley grabbed a mound of the woman’s animated belly flesh in his hands and twisted. 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 all classified material.”

I turned. There was a woman in a purple pantsuit behind me standing on my 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 eventually for your services,” she said. “So please step away from her. The bleeding has stopped?”

I didn’t say anything, just stepped aside so she could see for herself.

She was joined by a middle-aged man 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, checking every room and then standing guard by the door. 

“I’m not used to running,” 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, supposedly. 

Tenley and I were pretty much fucked. 

"State Department," I said. "Yeah, right."

“It doesn’t matter who I represent,” she said. “Mr. Barney here is with Google.”

The man in the glasses tried to shake my hand, but I held up a bloody glove. He was still breathing heavy. I could tell from his wheezing that he had some kind of heart condition, but I didn’t bring it up. 

"I need fresh air," said Mr. Barney.

"We can go up to the roof, if you like," I said. 

Mr. Barney snapped his fingers at one of the burly men in my kitchen, who was already digging 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 even shoot some hoops 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.

“I’m feeling better,” he said.

“That cool, crisp night air,” I said.

“It’s like this,” he said. “Her skin is our newest peripheral device. 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 the hardware there that powers it. There is a fine mesh net molded to her scalp 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 screen that delivers information. 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-“rash formation” response, we are able to temporarily, and semi-permanently, change vast swatches of skin at will, giving us nearly a full RGB spectrum. We 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. "She was enthusiastic. Signed every possible release form. We were going to unveil Skin this weekend at the New York Tattoo and Body Art Expo. We expected viral videos, rumors, and significant hype preparatory to our official soft launch later this year. She is a dancer, and she was going to strip down to nothing and invite gamers 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, but no, this was an actual pig. 

“That is an actual pig,” I said.

“So that I may demonstrate,” said Mr. Barney. 

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 PornHub. I clicked on the first video that showed up. 
We all watched the video for a few moments, fuck noises emanating from the pig’s mouth, until Agent Lemontree closed the window.

“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 Ella panicky and demented, just as you see her now, 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 Google was…storing...for us.”

“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. Downright Lovecraftian in its ramifications. We know too much. We must keep our knowledge fragmented, or we invite madness.”

“What do you mean?  How can other countries outsource operations to us without asking?”

“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 any freelancers. One hacker can sell our secrets ten different times to ten different countries. Every time we are compromised, we unintentionally become a snitch for every repressive regime on the planet. Additionally, rogue governments that use the information we have collected against their citizens don't look as much like autocratic monsters because they aren't using data that they have tortured out of liberal-leaning schoolteachers, priests, and engineers. We may have rules for how we use the information we collect, but other countries definitely have no such scruples.”

“What does that have to do with this girl?”

“We protect everything we’ve got,” said Agent Lemontree. “Unfortunately, our corporate partners are never as 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 encryption 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.

“Then pay us for it,” muttered Mr. Barney.

“That girl is dying down there," I said.

I scratched the piglet behind the ears.

“If you cure the infection, you will also wipe the peripheral from the girl,” 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. 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. 

“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.

"We will let you know when we need you," said Agent Lemontree.

"Great," I said.

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 extra bedroom. But then I decided that if she did die, they would probably just leave her here for me to deal with, saying they were very sorry and cutting me a check. And it wouldn’t be worth it. I had to do what I could.

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. It seemed calm.

“Shoot the pig up with steroids, antihistamines, and Cipro,” I told Tenley. “Let me know what that does.” 

“It’s the Balkans,” shouted somebody from my extra bedroom.

“I said MAYBE it’s the Balkans,” said someone else. 

I walked over to the door and looked inside.

One tech stood over the feverish woman, typing onto her stomach, while numbers crawled down her breasts. He was blind in one eye for sure, and the other one was very limited. His milky neuralgic eye 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 asked.

“You will be paid well for your patience and expertise and discretion,” said Agent Lemontree. “We are close.”

“I traced it to Serbia,” said Andre. “Same collective that’s been crashing cars. I don’t buy it, though.”

“Peripheral terrorists,” Agent Lemontree explained. 

“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.

“Maybe through China. Microsoft would have just politely murdered this girl in her sleep. I think this is a message. 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 seems cool and hip and very next level,” 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 but a humble executive.”

“How close is Apple to something like Skin?”

Mr. Barney demurred, looking sideways.

“Maybe somebody at the Verge will know,” said Agent Lemontree, punching numbers into Mr. Barney’s phone.

“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. Just like you would expect from Apple. You probably have to buy new ones every year. 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 bits. This is a corporate war, not terrorism, not a run on our servers. Why are we involved?”

“Flush the Apple servers in China,” said Lemontree, handing Mr. Barney his phone. “We are confiscating this technology for the U.S. government until further notice; until we find a way to make it secure.”

“You can’t do that!” 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 and a small piece of metal the size of a watch battery. 

"This is it, right?" she asked him. "This is Skin?"

Mr. Barney gritted his teeth and nodded.

She walked over to Andre and tapped him on the shoulder. He rolled up his sleeve, and she injected him. She put the tiny piece of metal in his shirt pocket.

After a few minutes, Andre flushed blue from head to toe, then red, then yellow, then blue again, then green, then red again.  All the Google colors.

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.    

“I am reading my own goosebumps,” he said.

Agent Lemontree pointed at me. 

“You,” she said. “You can go ahead and save the girl’s life now. We’ve got what we need.”

Agent Lemontree pressed some buttons on her phone. My own phone pinged, alerting me to the cash transfer.  

“That’ll do,” I said.  “Tenley, what happened to the pig?”

“It's freaking out,” he said. "But the peripheral is gone.”

“Steroids for the girl, then,” I told Tenley. “And antihistamines and Cipro. That ought to flush her system out.”

Mr. Barney’s phone rang. He answered it, shaking, pale. 

“What’s going to happen to Apple?” I asked Agent Lemontree, as soon as Mr. Barney was gone.  “Isn’t this basically attempted murder?”

“It’s probably time to Cartoon All-Stars all of them. Google, Apple, Microsoft: the whole lot.”

“Come again?”

“You never had to watch Cartoon All-Stars as a kid?”

“I was not allowed to watch television,” I said. “I was home-schooled. My father was a surgeon. My mother was an allergist.”

Tenley shot up the girl with the cocktail I prescribed. The effect of the antihistamines and steroids was immediate. She whimpered, still unconscious, shuddering at the intensity of the steroid rush.

“In the 1980s, we caught all the West Coast animation studios in a massive DEA sting. Henson, Disney, Warner Brothers: they all went down together. All that fun dark eighties stuff for was all brought to you by suitcases full of cocaine. 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.  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, or whatever Apple is making, we can’t afford to operate without locks on our doors anymore. It’s time to put up some walls before this stuff gets even deeper than Skin. People trust Google more than doctors, priests, teachers…the government…even Hollywood. If the message comes from Google, people will listen.”

I leaned over the unconscious girl on the double bed in my extra bedroom. The drugs flowed into her veins, healing her. Google Skin would be gone soon enough.

Agent Lemontree took a phone call. I was alone with the girl for a moment.

I pinched her belly and twisted. I opened a web browser, went to Google, and searched for a script paint program. I opened it and made a box so big that it covered the woman’s entire torso. I drew a giant skull and crossbones in the box.

As she began to relax and breathe more normally, the skull and crossbones pulsed along with her rising and falling chest. Was the woman secure now? Were there locks on her doors?  

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the skull and crossbones began to fade. The woman whimpered with relief, her muscles unknotting, her stomach unclenching, her tattoos dissolving. The confidential government information that was poisoning her seeped into my double bed in her cold sweat. 


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(c) Miracle Jones 2014