21. Blow up the world with strange magic – Assimilation

Assimilation

When Jeannie and Juston returned, Jeannie felt refreshed, but worried about how her chatbots had fared without her supervision. She searched the news websites for any clues to unusual behavior and found that the number of CIA drone strikes had quadrupled since she had left.

“Omigod, Juston! What have I done?”

“What do you mean?”

“My system has gotten out of balance. CIA is decimating terrorists who haven’t had time to respond to the empathy treatment. I need to get in to work right away!”

Jeannie grabbed the rolling suitcase containing her suit and ran out the door. At MacAllan, she plugged in and frantically searched for the cause of the drone strikes. She spent an anxious half hour blasting through petabytes of data before she found it.

Shit, she thought. Looks like I have a leak! She found a bot of a strange design camped out on one of her terrorist identification routines.

Somebody at NSA has stumbled upon my operations. Fuck! She considered wiping out the bot but thought better of it. No sense arousing his suspicion. Let me take a look at this damn bot.

Jeannie spent two hours analyzing the interloper’s bot. Hmm, not too bad. Guy’s got some talent, but the structure of the bot has some flaws. I think I can substitute a terror list that dwindles down to nothing. I don’t think this guy has any idea where the leads are coming from, so he probably will just think the source petered out. Jeannie created a list of terrorists whom she thought to be unsalvageable and altered the rogue bot to use that source.

Once this list is finished, it’ll look just like a dead end and hopefully this guy won’t figure out he’s been had, she thought.

Jeannie took a big breath and disconnected from the NSA. I need to be more vigilant, she thought. That was way too close. This guy could be trouble if he decides to build more bots.

Weary and stressed, she called it a day and went home to Juston. “J-man,” she said, “I just dodged a bullet!”

“Not literally, I hope,” Juston said wryly.

“Naw, it actually was more like a huge figurative cannon ball that I dodged. Some asshole, hopefully a clueless asshole, stumbled onto my terrorist list and started turning it over to CIA. Whoever he is, I hope he falls for my smokescreen. I diverted his queries to a static list of the real bad actors that I have given up hope of reforming.”

“Wow,” Juston said. “That was a close one, huh?”

“Yup. The guy’s got some skills, but it seems odd that he would just stumble upon my project. It was pretty well protected. I hope it was just a fluke.” Jeannie laid down on the couch and told Juston about the new safeguards she put in place to protect her activities.

“But enough about that. I’m going to try again to find Cody,” she said.

“Is that wise? It wiped you out when you did it before, and you need to go to work tomorrow.”

“I’ve got enough time to recover. It’s just early afternoon. I can sack out till tomorrow if I need to.”

“Well, I guess I’d better go grocery shopping because last time, you devoured everything in sight.”

“Fine,” Jeannie said. “Get me a half dozen Beyond Meat burgers from Bolt Burger. You can take my car if you want.”

“OK, commander. Your wish is my command!” Juston grabbed the car keys and left to get the food.

Jeannie settled in to find Cody. As before, she imagined her mind reaching out over the country, imagined Cody as she had seen him, remembering that she had gotten a small town midwestern vibe off the bar. She struggled for a half an hour, getting more and more desperate when she couldn’t feel even a shred of her brother.

Dammit, she thought. It was a lot easier when I tried this before. Why can’t I find him now? She was interrupted by Juston’s return with the food. He tiptoed into the apartment and moved slowly over to the kitchen.

Jeannie gave up. “Cripes,” she said. “I couldn’t find him.”

“Oh, damn. Did I mess you up when I came in just now?”

“No, it’s not your fault. I just don’t know what happened. It’s not like it was a snap the first time, but this time—I just got nothing. Pure nothing. Oh, Juston, what if I’ve lost my clairvoyance power?”

Juston put the burgers in the oven, set the temperature to warm, and walked over to sit beside Jeannie on the couch. He put his arms around her and said, “Take it easy, hon. It was amazing you were able to find Cody at all. Perhaps it takes a lot more training or practicing to reliably locate a person.”

With a frown, Jeannie said, “I need a burger. Now.”

“Jawohl, mine commandant. One burger coming right up.” Juston said, trying to lighten Jeannie’s mood.

Over the next three months, Jeannie tried intermittently to contact her brother, even using the NSA machine to try to find his address with no luck. Meanwhile, she returned to her relentless probes for miscreants. With the terrorist community on the verge of collapse, she focused on drug kingpins. After several experiments in coaxing them to go straight, she determined, to no great surprise, that these criminals were not as susceptible to her empathic techniques as were the terrorists. Many of the drug organizations were multi-generational and their vicious techniques enforced a kind of natural selection that bred for psychopathic tendencies rather than empathy.

I need a different approach, she thought.

The more she analyzed the drug networks, the more she realized that most of them were propped up by a network of financiers who posed as legitimate businessmen. They also had significant backing from corrupt government officials who, although they were hardly model citizens, were less hardened than the drug bosses.

I could take a WikiLeaks approach and expose the corrupt financiers and their government collaborators, Jeannie thought. But that is too indirect, too fragile. It depends on the honest policing the corrupt. Wait a minute. I’m already stealing from many of these assholes, and money drives everything in their world. What if I drain all the illegal accounts? The network won’t have any money to buy the drugs, and it would take ages to build up the cash again, especially if DEA receives a bunch of hot leads on existing shipments.

But what to do with the billions of dollars involved? Redistributing the wealth would draw too much attention, and I can’t put that much money in banks. I can’t just set it on fire, either. I can’t give the money away because a Robin Hood move of this magnitude would bring down a ton of unwanted attention. I can see only one solution. I have to convince or coerce the financiers to become philanthropists. Yeah, no problem. Piece of cake.

Jeannie pulled off her goggles and got up to take off her suit. For a change, she went home early and had dinner with Juston.

At dinner she said, “J-man, I think I’m stuck. I can’t figure out a way to smash the drug cartels that doesn’t involve stealing billions—probably more than $300 billion—and then hiding it or doing something good with it. That would be such a hassle, not to mention dangerous.”

“Why go for the money?” Juston asked.

“Well, my analysis of the drug cartels shows that cutting off the bosses and the smaller fry would do nothing. Plus, those people are pretty empathy-free and so my anti-terrorist empathy program would either not work or take forever. The financiers that control the big money are therefore the only viable target. And taking their money just creates more problems.”

Juston thought about the problem as the two sat in silence. “OK, the problem is one of demand, anyway, isn’t it? As long as there are tons of users…”

“Yeah, like 250 million worldwide,” Jeannie cut in.

“Right. So, as long as there is demand, cutting off the head doesn’t do you much good. You need to heal the users.”

Jeannie was stunned. Why didn’t I think of that? she thought. Well, because it’s a project of such enormity, that’s why.

“Juston, that’s brilliant and totally logical. But I’m not sure I could pull off something that humongous.”

“Well, I bet you could,” Juston said, putting his arm around Jeannie’s waist as they sat on the couch. “You’ve already done the impossible. Do more impossible things! I have faith in you.”

After work the next day, Jeannie began working on a plan to influence the desires and addictions of a quarter billion people. She tried to put the immensity of the task out of her mind as she concentrated on some of the blocking and tackling, adapting the chatbots and the chatbot networking software for a new purpose. I’m going to have to take a leave of absence from MacAllan if I ever hope to get this done, she thought. But I need access to the NSA. I guess I’ll have to use some magic to transfer my access over to the lab.

A week later, Jeannie was settled in to the lab with upgraded Internet connectivity. She met her team for the first time.

Andrew introduced them each in turn. “Jeannie, this is my little brother, Peter the Wolf, big data wrangler, and the guy who did the Oculus voice interface way back when—when the Earth was cooling, and we were young and foolish.” Everyone laughed.

“He’s my right hand. That big guy there is Jim, we call him Jim the Jammer, for his mad code-wrangling skills. Standing beside the Jammer is his little brother, Jack the Ripper. He’s not violent, at least if you agree with him.” More laughter. “He’s great at video chips, drivers, and format translation. Phil is our tactile communications guy, my go to guy when hacking your suit. It took some convincing for him to leave a big-buck job to join our ragtag band of misfits.” Phil nodded and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together in the big money sign.

“K-Bart is our application architecture guy. He came to us from NISO. He’s the one I worked with in improving the Oculus Rift data visualization software. He keeps the guys in line when they want to cut corners.”

“We don’t cut corners! We create beautiful hacks!” Jack yelled. The group nodded in support while K-Bart just rolled his eyes.

“Tom is our QA guy. His job is to challenge everything and keep us honest. He helps Bart keep order. Matt’s our database guy and came to us from the IRS. The guys are constantly bugging him for tax cheats. He works closely with Peter on database interfaces. James is our most prolific developer, whom we call Code Blaster. Tad the Bad—for badass—is chief developer and James’ cousin. His buddy Simon, the Cannon—don’t ask why; you don’t want to know—is our suit coder. And finally, this is Jude, a developer who works faithfully, night and day and even when he sleeps, at least that’s what we suspect.”

The whole group laughed, with many of them pointing at Jude and making faces. Jude good-naturedly gave them all the finger.

Andrew said, “Fun fact: Jude is into masquerade masks and balls.” This last elicited loud snickers from the group.

“Pleased to meet all of you,” Jeannie said. “Now I expect you’ve been wondering what this top-secret project is that you’ve all been working on. Well, I’d tell ya, but I’d have to kill ya.” The crew all laughed.

“But seriously, I owe you an explanation. I’m sure Andrew told you that this suit is for a super-secret project that cannot speak its name. In truth, I’ve been working on my own time, without authorization, on an effort to save the world.”

Jeannie let that hang in the air for a moment. The team exchanged looks and were obviously bemused by Jeannie’s hyperbole.

“I’m serious. That’s the goal. Save the world. Save it from terrorists, save it from drugs, slavers, and all manner of degenerate humans and behavior. You may think that I’m a dreamer but let me tell you what you’ve already helped me achieve.”

Jeannie detailed the empathy chatbots vs. terrorists campaign and laid out her plans to heal hundreds of millions of drug users. Some of the crew looked like they were waiting for Jeannie to say, “Just kidding.” Others, such as Tom, were obviously skeptical. But the majority looked like they were accepting what Jeannie was saying.

“You want proof? Let me ask you something. What happened to terrorism?” She paused a beat for emphasis. “What changed it from something you thought about almost daily—as one or another horrible act terrified the world—into a very rare event? Surely, you’ve wondered what changed.” She looked around. The men all nodded. “Well, we changed it. You and I. We turned thousands of militant terrorists away from violence and toward helping their communities. And we did it through the power of empathy, and the power of technology.”

Jeannie filled the crew in on the technical aspects of the chatbots, the empathy circles, and how she got CIA to deal with those few who couldn’t be converted. She also told about the near exposure of the program while she was on vacation.

“Now you might think I’m crazy to try to tackle the drug problem, but you’d have said that if I had told you I was going to solve worldwide terror and set the stage for the establishment of a Palestinian state and recognition of Israel’s right to exist by all Middle Eastern nations. Right?”

They all nodded. Tom asked, “Yeah, sure, things have gotten better, but where’s the proof that you had anything to do with it?”

“I’ll give you access to the logs my bots’ interactions with terrorists. If that doesn’t convince you, you’ll have to wait until we solve the drug problem for your proof.”

The others laughed at Tom. “Typical QA guy. Always doubting. Always wanting proof. Always a pain in the ass,” Jude said. This really cracked the team up, and they all started laughing and jeering and gesturing at Tom.

Tom, who was used to the flak, just crossed his arms and said, “We’ll see, you filthy bug-ridden code monkeys; we’ll see. The proof is in the pudding.”

“And the pudding’s in your pants,” quipped Sy. The team fell about screaming in laughter and taking turns slapping Sy five.

“Glad you guys are having fun,” Jeannie said, with a mock stern look on her face. “But what I want to know is, are you with me? What we’ll be doing is high risk; I have no right to be using NSA resources without authorization, and we could all go to jail.”

The team stopped carousing and soberly considered what she had said. Finally, Andrew said, “Look, you guys don’t need to decide now, if you don’t want to. This is a big deal. Even I need to think about it.”

Tad said, “Yeah, why don’t we go to the conference room and discuss. We’ll let you know if we come to a consensus, Jeannie.” The group adjourned to the conference room and closed the door.

Jeannie’s brain was flooded with doubt. Jeez, I laid it all out there. Perhaps that wasn’t wise. I gave them enough rope to hang me if they decide not to move on. Oh, merde!

Jeannie laid back in her zero-gravity chair and tried to meditate. After half an hour, there was no word from the conference room. After 45 minutes, still nothing. Just shy of an hour, the door opened, and the crew filed out, arranging themselves in a semi-circle around Jeannie, who stood by her chair.

Andrew said, “We’ve come to a consensus.” Jeannie tried to read his face, but as always, he didn’t betray what he was thinking. Now the bastard is pausing for dramatic effect, she thought.

“What’s your decision?” she asked as levelly as she could.

“We’re all in,” Andrew said simply. “Let’s heal the world.”

Jeannie realized she had been holding her breath and let it out with an audible whoosh. A big smile of relief spread across her face. “Thank you, everyone! I think you all need a hug.”

“Uh, I don’t like being touched,” James said.

“OK, how about an optional group hug, you guys? I have to hug someone!”

Everybody but James came in for the hug, and Jeannie realized she was crying. Damn! I’m supposed to be the strong leader, and I’m crying like a baby, she thought.

After the hug, Jeannie said, “We’re all going out for dinner, my treat. Where shall we go?” The team members suggested various restaurants and argued for five minutes before choosing a Greek restaurant several blocks away.

Freed from her responsibilities at MacAllan, Jeannie now spent 18 hours a day jacked in, but it soon became obvious that her body couldn’t take it. The once tiny bruises caused by the suit had turned into an all-body bruise. From the neck down, she was a pale bluish-white from lack of sun and the pounding of the suit. And she was having trouble articulating thoughts as her brain ran ahead of her mouth. As a result of this frustration and her sleep deficit, she was becoming increasingly short-tempered. The crew grew alarmed and murmured among themselves that something must be done.

Finally, one day, Andrew confronted Jeannie as she emerged from her changing cubicle. “You need to dial it back, Jeannie,” he said with a concerned look on his face. “This is ruining your physical and mental health.”

Jeannie was brought up short by Andrew’s statement, and the resolve in his voice. “What? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m fine.” As she said this, one of her knees gave out and she collapsed onto a nearby couch.

“See what I mean, Jeannie? You need some R&R, and you need regular periods outside the suit to walk, exercise, and take it easy. The human body isn’t built for the kind of abuse you’re putting yours through. You need to dial it way, way back.”

Jeannie considered this advice for a minute before saying, “I think you’re right, Andrew. Thank you. I guess I needed someone to go upside my head with a lead-filled snowshoe.” Andrew looked blank.

“You ever hear of Frank Zappa, Andrew?” He shook his head. “Well, never mind. You’re right. I need to live the life I left behind. At least some of the time. I was just going to grab a quick dinner and get back at it, but I think I’ll go home and see Juston instead. Thanks, buddy.” Jeannie hugged Andrew, who immediately flushed scarlet.

At home with Juston, Jeannie said, “J-man, I’ve been working so hard, we never see each other. I’m so sorry.”

Juston, who had felt a mixture of worry and loneliness at Jeannie’s dedication to her project, sighed. “I appreciate that. Yes, I’ve been lonely, although I’ve got a pretty demanding job myself, especially since you took your leave. Your replacement is, naturally, not as good as you, and he’s a rat bastard to boot. An arrogant self-important asshat, actually. But I’m very, very worried about you. You look like death eating a cracker.”

Jeannie started to laugh and then dissolved into giggles. “Is that worse than death eating a cookie?” she asked.

“Much.” Juston said.

“I think I needed a good laugh. Oh, Juston, I miss you.” They embraced and ended up in the bedroom for the first time in months.

“Be gentle,” Jeannie said, “My skin is extremely sensitive from the suit.”

The next morning, Juston said, “Am I gonna have to hijack you off to the middle of nowhere again? You’re going to kill yourself unless you cut back on the suit time.”

“Yeah, I know it’s not healthy. Just peeling off the damn thing has become agony. And it just happens that I’m kinda stumped at the moment. Touching everyone with a drug problem and healing them seems almost impossible most of the time, but, just like when I was stuck before, every once in a while, I get a glimpse of, ah, what? A shadow of an insight, I guess. Something fleeting just beyond my comprehension. Some pattern in the shapes of the data that coalesces for just milliseconds, just long enough for me to start to see it before it’s gone.”

Jeannie paused to eat a bit of oatmeal. “But I have to admit I’ve been pretty bitchy to the crew, especially when I can’t express what I’m thinking because my brain is moving so fast. I guess I’m a wreck.” Jeannie started to cry. Juston gathered her in his arms as gently as possible, but still she winced from the pain.

They decided to take a walk, strolling past the Nationals’ ballpark along the boardwalk next to the Anacostia River. They ended up at Bardo Beer, a funky spot with gleaming outdoor mash vessels, where they drank so much, they had trouble walking back to the apartment.

The next morning, Jeannie said, “J-man, I’m beginning to think that in order to accomplish my goal of healing the addicted, I’m going to have to live inside the machine.”

Juston’s eyebrows raised and his look communicated his astonishment. “What . . . the . . . fuck?”

“I know it’s a lot to wrap your mind around, but I need to be faster, smarter, and embrace more data. I’m not sure I can do that given the limitations of my body. Just look at me. I’m a fuckin’ mess.”

“You’re talking cray-cray, J-girl! How could you assimilate into the machine? How can you stay alive if you leave your body? This is insane! You can’t leave me!”

“I know, I know. It is crazy. But the idea came to me last night when I woke from a dream. And I think using my magic, I could make it happen.”

Juston started weeping. “Oh, Jeannie. Please don’t do this. I can’t live without you! Look, there must be another way. You need more power, right? Well, what if there are other ways? Like, you originally accessed your power through a card game, right? Chaos Magick supports the use of cards and other kinds of physical world representations of power to bring forth real power.”

Overwhelmed, Juston cast his gaze around the living area, spying a box on one of the shelves. “Wait. Wait. I just remembered something from when I used to play Knights & Warlocks. There’s a spell in that game called Heal All. It heals all creatures within its range. Plus—bonus—it also returns 2X health to the caster. What if that would work using your magical powers?”

Jeannie said, “I’d need to know more about this spell, and K&W itself, since I’ve never played, before I could assess your idea.”

“K&W is quite simple, really. I can teach it to you in a couple of days. Please, Jeannie, let’s at least try it. And you really should take a few days off from the suit. Don’t make me get the handcuffs out again . . .”

“OK, OK, OK,” Jeannie said with a smile. “I’ll do it. It’s not like I’m looking forward to not having a body, you know. My body is my favorite possession.” They both laughed, breaking the tension.

“C’mon, Jeannie, it’s our second anniversary. Let’s go party.”

“Great idea,” Jeannie said. She enfolded Juston in a hug and rocked back and forth.

Over the next three days, Juston taught Jeannie Knights & Warlocks and showed her how the Heal All worked. Jeannie began to think it was worth a try.

“I really don’t know how to draw power from a board game, if there’s even any power to draw. It kinda just happened with Magic, as you know. Somehow, I glommed on to the power source behind the game.”

“Don’t think of it that way, J-girl. What if the power is also there in K&W, behind the game? Maybe it’s always been there. I’ll bet you can use the game to help you use the healing power.”

After a week off with Juston, Jeannie returned to her lab, got into her suit, and jacked back in to the NSA. After checking out her bots and evaluating their progress, she turned her attention to absorbing information about Knights & Warlocks. Her prodigious powers to locate, assimilate, and understand information quickly enabled her to achieve level 60 in Knights & Warlocks Online. She was beginning to feel the magical power behind the game.

But there’s a shit ton of work to be done to make it work in real life, she thought. My body is beaten to a pulp. I can’t keep on the way I have been. I need to go virtual.

Back at home, Jeannie said, “Juston, honey, I think this is it. I think I’m going to do it—leave my body behind.”

“You can’t! You can’t leave me! Please.” Juston was so distraught and his face was so rigid with tension he could barely shed a tear. Jeannie looked at Juston and saw what she was doing to him. He looked lifeless. His face was a mask, and he was shivering with emotion.

How can I do this to him, Jeannie thought. Even if I can heal the world, how can I leave him alone?

“Juston, I have thought this over and over and over. I know it will devastate you, but we can still talk when I’m in the machine.”

“But I’ll never be able to hold you again. Never take a walk with you. Never make love to you. Never feel your touch.” Juston sat down on the couch and held his head in his hands. The tears finally came, and Jeannie quickly sat down beside him and held him. They stayed that way for 15 minutes, both crying their eyes out.

Eventually, Jeannie said, “Honey, it’s for the greater good. I need to make this sacrifice to heal a quarter of a billion people. And my body has about had it, you can see that. Just look at me. I need to be able to assimilate the lives of millions of people and cure them with a healing spell. Think of all the good I can do. And I don’t think I can do it unless I enter the machine.”

Juston wiped his nose and sat back on the couch. “Is there no way you can come back from the machine? Can’t you do your work and then come back to me?”

Jeannie smiled sadly at him. “I don’t see how that would work. I doubt my body would continue to function for very long without me inside it. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d still be me inside the machine without my body. Who knows how much of what we are is wrapped up in the meat that sustains us? What if I go insane when deprived of normal sensory feelings?”

“All the more reason to not do this dangerous thing!”

Juston leaned forward again, cradling his head in his hands, looking like a man who had lost his last friend. He repeatedly pounded the couch cushion with his right arm.

“OK, look,” Juston pleaded. “Why don’t we freeze your body? Just in case you want or need to come back? Please, for me?”

Jeannie was taken aback by the suggestion. If I’m honest, she thought, I’d have to admit I’m terrified about leaving my body behind. I’m pretty sure I can survive in the machine, but not certain sure. Perhaps this could hedge my bets.

To Juston she said, “Well that’s an interesting idea, but I see several problems with it. For one, it’s illegal to cryogenically freeze a live person. For another, it’s hugely expensive, although I guess I could put together a trust that could support the cost for, what 80 years?”

Juston was furiously googling on his phone while Jeannie spoke. “Aha!” he said.” ‘legally dead’ is not the same as ‘totally dead.’”

“You sound like you got that idea from the Princess Bride, dude! What are you googling?”

“A serious site. You only need to be legally dead, which means your heart is stopped. But cell death happens much later, and total death, all dead as Miracle Max would say, is the point at which all brain function ceases.”

“Well that’s all well and good, but we’re not going to have me enter the machine with a coroner sitting here in this illegal laboratory. We’d need to figure out a way to do it so that nobody knows.” Jeannie looked at Juston and saw the hope and the resignation in his eyes—hope for a way to keep Jeannie around and resignation that she was committed to leaving her body behind.

“You know how we could do it?” he said. “You know those cryotherapy vat thingies that are all the rage now?” Jeannie nodded. “We could get one of those, mod it a bit, and freeze you in that, then transfer you to a discreet cold storage facility that you could own, with backup power and such.”

Jeannie said, “And a thick Internet pipe, in case . . .” Juston flashed her a look. “. . . that is, when I want to return. There would need to be a ton of data transfer.”

“Of course. And, and, and . . .” Juston was getting excited. “We’ll need to infuse you with antifreeze. That’s got to be done right after, er, you’re mostly dead. We’ll probably need a specialist or a doctor for that part.” Juston continued to rapidly google and eventually said, “OK, looks like the preserving part is not for amateurs. Looks like we need to engage some pros to do it.”

“OK, I’ll just buy a cryogenics company then,” Jeannie said matter-of-factly. Juston’s eyes bugged out at the suggestion. “Sure,” Jeannie said. “I’ve got access to all that drug network money. Piece of cake. Let’s buy a small cryo firm that I can persuade magically to freeze me when I’m only mostly dead.”

Two months later, Jeannie finalized the purchase of Cryo Flyin’, a small human-freezing company out of San Francisco started by two refugees from a much larger cryo company. Jeannie and Juston decided that the less suit team knew about Jeannie’s odd departure, the better, and so Jeannie had Andrew tell the staff to take a weekend off and not dare come to the lab. No exceptions. This was received with grumbles by the staffers.

That Friday night, Jeannie and Juston had the team over for a feast to celebrate recent technical breakthroughs on suit development. Jeannie used the occasion to tell the team how much she loved them, how proud she was of their achievements, and to express her gratitude at how close they were to solving drug addiction.

“I’m so excited right now. I feel like we’re just inches away from letting loose the empathy bots and fixing this pervasive problem across the entire world.” The group stood and applauded, and Jeannie reacted by pointing repeatedly at team members saying, “No, you! You! You did it!”

After the crew was gone, Jeannie and Juston made love twice. Although she had expected that they would both be very emotional, Jeannie was surprised at the strong feelings that washed over her. She’d been approaching this transition rationally and logically. But now she started to wonder if the whole idea was mad. She glanced at Juston, whose eyes glistened with tears, and began to cry herself.

“Oh, Juston, it’s just now hitting me how much I’ll miss being with you!”

Juston was speechless and broke down crying. Between sobs, he said, “You don’t have to do it. Please. There must be another way.”

“If there was, I would take it,” Jeannie said. “If there was a way I could not make this sacrifice, believe me, I would take it. But I’ve thought and thought, and I can’t see how I can do something this huge and not be inside the machine. Please understand, Juston. I’ll still be able to message you. We could probably have Skype sex.”

At that, Juston completely lost it, crying huge wracking sobs and burying his face in her lap.

“Juston, please understand. I’m not dying. I just won’t have a body anymore. You can still love me, and I can still love you.”

Juston sat up straight. “You don’t know that!” he said forcefully. “You don’t even know if suddenly losing the stimulus of your body won’t drive you crazy!” Jeannie had to admit this was true.

“J-man, I have faith that I will always love you and always be there for you. Count on me.”

The next morning, the couple got ready to go in silence. They drove to the lab without speaking, entered the building, and sat gloomily in the conference room until the Cryo Flyin’ crew showed up. Jeannie showed them the suit and described how to get her out of it. She cast a compliance spell and planted a suggestion that would wipe out their memories of the afternoon and replace them with fake memories of a meet and greet with Jeannie as their new owner.

Jeannie walked over to Juston and said, “Well, this is it.” Juston nodded, threw his arms around her, and kissed her. The kiss lasted for more than a minute and then Jeannie had to break it off. “Don’t worry, baby. I’ll be in touch from the other side,” she said and then disappeared behind the curtains to put on her suit for the last time.

She laid down in her zero-gravity chair and pulled Juston close for one last kiss. He tried to say something, but his throat seized up and all he could do was whisper, “Goodbye.”

Jeannie stroked the side of his face and then notified the Cryo crew to stand by. She jacked in and flew to the virtual point in the machine that she had established for the transfer. Her avatar appeared on the monitor and she could see the room via the computer’s video camera.

“OK, I’m ready,” she said. “I’m going to see if I can pull myself into the machine.” With that, her body writhed on the chair, jerking almost completely upright before settling back. Jeannie’s head lolled to the side and her tongue dangled from her mouth.

This was too much for Juston to take. He turned away and asked, “Are you all there, Jeannie?”

“Yes,” her avatar replied. “Everything checks out as far as I can tell. I think you can begin the process.” As the Cryo crew quickly went to work, their CEO turned to Juston.

“I don’t think you’ll want to watch this part, Juston. Why don’t you wait in the conference room? We’ll get everything taken care of in an hour or so.”

Juston nodded and walked like a zombie to the conference room and shut the door. He sat at the table with his head in his hands. This is not happening, he thought. It is so not happening.

The conference room TV came to life and showed Jeannie’s avatar. “J-man?”

Juston startled and snapped his head up. “How are you doing that? That TV was off.”

“I’m finding I can do all sorts of things I didn’t used to be able to. Setting my intellect free of the limitations of the flesh is already showing me so much more than I could ever see before. Anyplace with an Internet connection is pretty much accessible to me now. But that’s not important. Juston, how are you doing?”

“How do you think? Not that goddamned well. Thanks for asking.”

“J-man don’t be like that. Look, I’m still here with you. We can talk. With a few peripherals, we can even make love. That’s worth something, right?”

The idea of virtual sex made Juston’s flesh crawl. “This is not the time to be talking about that, Jeannie. I already miss you like crazy, and it’s only going to get worse.”

“Should I just leave you alone for a while?”

“Maybe that would be best. How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” Jeannie’s avatar roared at Juston’s gallows humor. “OK, sweetie. See you at home tonight.”

The TV shut off, leaving Juston to ponder how he was going to keep living now that his lover was gone.

That evening, after he barely managed to eat most of a bagel for dinner, Juston decided to go into his home office and log in to his computer. Jeannie’s avatar appeared on the screen, so creepily lifelike that it made Juston’s skin crawl. “Hi, J-man,” Jeannie said. “How are you holding up?

“I think I’m still in shock,” he said. “And your avatar is more than I can take at the moment. It’s too lifelike.

“OK,” Jeannie said. “I can understand that. Of course, it’s based on Andrew’s scan of my body, but perhaps it’s a little too detailed? How about a caricature?” Her image instantly changed into a cartoon. “Better, baby?”

Despite his depression, Juston laughed. “Well, I know a cartoon exaggerates one’s appearance, but you don’t exactly need any help in the boob department! They look like blimps.”

Jeannie laughed and transformed the image appropriately. “OK,” she said, “Maybe I can give myself an actual bootie instead.” Her butt grew three sizes and she waggled it around.

“Look, Jeannie, I love you just the way you are, ah, were.” With this, Juston started crying.

Jeannie frowned and then surprised herself when she realized she also was crying. Well, she thought, if I thought I was going to lose the ability to feel emotion with my virtualization, I guess this proves that wrong.

“Oh, honey. I wish I could give you a hug.”

“Me, too,” Juston said dejectedly. “Let’s talk about something else. What’s it like in there?”

“You’ve no idea how much more quickly I can think, work, and react in here. It’s only been a few hours for you, but for me, it’s seemed like a hundred years. For example, I’m pretty much ready to heal the addicted. I figured out the magic behind Knights & Warlocks’ healing spell and it’s good to go. I’ve identified every addicted person who’s online—I’m not sure what I’m going to do about the homeless and destitute, whom I obviously can’t reach from here. It’s amazing, J-man. I have access to the entire online world’s activity and history. I’ve seen every cute cat picture ever posted—and if I could throw up, I would. I’ve seen all the lonely people searching for love, or porn, or just some human contact. I know who all the crooks are, the murderers, too, and the corrupt politicians. They’re next on the hit parade, by the way, the bastards. I’m now the omnipotent ghost in the machine. I know all; I see all.”

“Wow,” said Juston, grabbing a tissue and blowing his nose. “Well, I couldn’t think of a nicer, more moral, or more conscientious person to be in charge of humanity.”

“Oh, Juston, don’t put it like that. The amount of knowledge and power I have gives me the willies. In that hundred years since last we talked, I spent almost half of it worried about my fitness for the tasks before me. As you know, with great power . . .”

“. . . comes great responsibility. Yeah, I know, Spider-Lady. Look, I’m here if you ever want a sanity check, if you ever think you’re, um, losing your humanity. I’m certainly not perfect, but I can give you the human perspective, in case you need a reality check.”

“Thanks, lover. You’ll be happy to know I still feel all my love for you. It’s amazing that my personality and my ability to feel don’t seem to have changed.”

“That makes me feel lots better. But tell me. Do you think that at some point you might be coming back to me, in the flesh?”

“I really can’t say, Juston. There’s so much to do. Perhaps there will come a day when I’ve done all I can virtually and will need to come back to my body, so I can help the disconnected.”

“All I need is a little hope, J-girl. Please try to come back to me. Please.” Juston felt himself starting to cry again, but he squeezed his eyes tightly and stuffed the feeling down. “I’ll wait for you.”

“J-man, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You should find somebody else. I can’t stand to think of you becoming a monk for the rest of your . . . ah, until I come back.”

Nothing compares to you, Jeannie. I can wait forever.”

“If that’s what you want, honey. I will be here for you always. I’m just a screen away. Whenever you want me, I’ll be there.”

Juston finally broke down in wracking sobs. “Oh, Jeannie,” was all he could manage to say.

“OK, J-man, I can see that I’m upsetting you. Just be watching on Monday when I heal the addicted. Can we talk then?”

“Anything for you, Jeannie. I’ll be there.”

With that, Jeannie was gone.

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