R9 at Baker Lane
The ambulance swerved off the toll road at the Davis Lane exit, its aging tires barely holding to the wet asphalt. Jerry the Driver leaned on the horn, honking it impatiently at the red sedan parked at the stop sign. It was closing in on three in the morning and Jerry the Driver along with Billy the Tech were coming to the end of an uneventful but tiring twelve-hour shift. The night’s calls had been unexpectedly low-key for a typical Austin weeknight. There had been only one fatal car wreck early in the evening, followed up by a domestic violence call around midnight. Since then, Jerry had taken them on a winding path through Austin’s west side, snaking through Barton Creek on Bee Caves or Loop 360. The constant change in direction gave Billy the feeling of being lost in his own town.
The sprawling neighborhood just off of Davis was a maze of well-appointed streets and welcoming dead ends that made Jerry curse the rich and their ongoing desire to stick it to public servants. Even his navigation system wasn’t sure which street led where. The entire screen had changed to black with a message indicating no data.
Jerry shook his head and pulled the radio from the dashboard. “Dispatch, this is seven oh two. Say again street address.”
In the passenger seat, Billy looked out at all the pretty houses with their early Christmas decorations that had to have been done by a team of professionals. Their large land plots and third floors put their prices in the millions and their build date some fifty years prior. Each one had its own look, its own unique way of sitting on the street and professing the fiscal competence of its owner. They were nothing like the tract houses behind his apartment complex with yards small enough to leap over in a single bound.
The radio crackled. “Seven oh two, one two zero two Baker Lane, beta alpha kilo echo radio. Confirm.”
Jerry squinted through the ambulance’s mist-soaked windshield to get a better look at the street signs. They weren’t in the normal green and white that had been mandated by the city, but instead were black on brown, an odd choice from a design perspective and absolutely impossible to see in the dark.
“Seven oh two,” continued Dispatch, “make an immediate right and proceed to target on your right.”
The back tires spun out a little as Jerry made the abrupt turn. From the back of the ambulance, Ricky the Leech cursed as medical supplies shook loose from their bins. A moment later, his angry red face appeared between the curtains.
“What in the hell is going on up here?”
“Nothing a little driving won’t fix,” said Jerry, flipping off the siren. The hum of the oversized, eight-cylinder engine filled the cabin, a low rumble in startling contrast to the piercing whine. The change caused an involuntary shudder in the men, a seeping out of adrenaline in anticipation of the work to come.
“There,” said Billy the Tech, gesturing to a two-story brickside. All of the lights in the house were on and people were standing in front of an open garage. As the ambulance closed in, they began waving frantically, as if anyone could miss the spectacle.
“Dispatch, seven oh two. Target acquired.”
“Confirmed, seven oh two. Proceed with caution.”
Billy cast a worried look, but Jerry shrugged it off. “They always say that when we beat Johnny Ley to the scene,” he explained. “There’s nothing more dangerous than an injured animal.”
The front tire hopped the curb as Jerry guided the ambulance into the driveway. The people scattered quickly, unwilling to play chicken with the cattle-guard on the front. From the rear, an agitated Ricky the Leech yelled out again, “Mother-f!”
“Are you jacked?” asked Jerry as he fumbled with the console between the driver and passenger seats.
“I’ve been leaving it on,” replied Billy. “Just in case.”
Jerry shook his head in fatherly condemnation. “You really shouldn’t do that. It’s one thing to jack in so we can do our jobs better, but man, they can watch everything you do if you leave it on all the time.”
“Incoming family,” warned Ricky.
“Alright,” said Jerry, sliding his finger over the sliver in his wrist. “Let’s go save this bitch.”
Billy repeated the gesture, but since his EMT_Assist was already on, it was more of a confirmation than anything else. The custom wetware that had been circling the skies above his Georgia chip suddenly broke formation and hooked back into the operating system. Millions of gigabit methods poured into his virtual memory, ready to be referenced should the need arise. Simple autonomics loaded first, propelling Billy and Jerry out of the ambulance and into the panicked household. It pointed out pupil dilation and erratic heartbeats in the people that surrounded them, helped them seek out the calmest of the group to ask what happened.
Linguistic engines spun up, translated the garbled Spanish into something Billy could understand. His responses, thought in English, appeared in his mind as a vague sequence of syllables that when spoken, allowed him to answer in kind. In the background, an AV feed was being transcoded and shuttled off to Dispatch for real-time evaluation. The interactions that it logged were then redirected to a nearby hospital where on-duty ER nurses watched with practiced intensity so that when the patient eventually arrived, they wouldn’t have to bother with questioning the EMTs.
In an unmarked room somewhere in the labyrinth of underground hallways beneath City Hall, a blank file was being filled in with the basic details as collected by Billy and Jerry. The girl’s name was Nadine and she was seventeen years of age. A search running in the background matched to twenty-three thousand girls in the Austin area. It wasn’t until Jerry put the Stat_Scan to the back of her neck that a match was found. The DNA signature helped the search narrow the possibilities down to one and the resulting file was then displayed next to the ongoing case report at the hospital. The patient’s history was culled from all available resources and detailed every visit she had ever made to a medical facility, both local and abroad. From a bank of small machines behind the nurses’ station, a white wristband was ejected onto a tray marked Incoming. It had Nadine’s name, social security number, and a red-font warning that indicated an allergy to Sulfa.
“Dispatch, seven oh two. Package is onboard, proceeding to secondary objective. Family is following in black and whites.”
“Confirmed, seven oh two. Additional escort en route.”
Jerry slapped the radio back into the dash, thankful that the family had agreed to take another boat to the hospital. He glanced towards the back for a split-second, saw Ricky and Billy already hard at work and Nadine on the stretcher between them.
“Pop that switch on the oxygen,” barked Ricky the Leech.
Billy obeyed without question. His EMT_Assist decoded Ricky’s commands and used visual overlays to direct his hands. It had switched modes automatically when he stepped into the back of the ambulance. Up front, Jerry the Driver was in charge, but back here, it was Ricky’s world. One day Billy would move up to take one of their positions. It just depended on which side of the job he preferred more.
“Fifteen minutes,” called Jerry.
“I’ll only need ten,” replied Ricky. He pulled various pieces of electronics from under his flip-down seat and wedged them unceremoniously between Nadine’s arm and torso. Finally finding the coupler he was looking for, he slipped it behind her neck and waited for the diagnostic lights to turn green.
“Vitals are dropping,” said Billy, noticing the increasing interval between peaks on the EKG. “She’s going into arrest.”
Ricky looked up and narrowed his eyes. “Cut the uplink, Billy. We can handle this. It’s a simple drug overdose so we’ll just stabilize until we get to the ER.”
Billy hesitated, but relented. He swiped his wrist and felt another shudder go through his body as EMT_Assist shut down and returned control to his conscious mind. The back of the ambulance seemed to close in around him and the beeping of the monitors suddenly grew too loud for comfort. He took a deep breath and waited for the bender to pass.
“F,” said Ricky, staring at the small vidscreen in his hand. “She’s a type two Georgia.”
“Is that bad?” asked Billy.
“I should hit you in the face,” he replied, shaking his head.
From the driver’s seat, “Did you say type two? Fuck!”
“Alright,” said Ricky, returning his equipment to the bag under his seat, “change of plans. You’re going to have to go in.”
“I’m not trained for that.”
“Look, I’m not asking you, Billy. There is only one person in this ambulance qualified to perform migration on a type two Guardian Angel chip and that’s me. It takes just the right power modulation to bring the chip online and then a constantly adapting cycle to keep it there. Do you know anything about dynamic power consumption in type two chips?”
“No, I don’t.” Billy looked down at the girl on the stretcher and wondered briefly what it was going to be like inside her mind. Would it be all unicorns and pink clouds or would she be darker than what her innocent face suggested? A jackline fell into his lap and ended his distraction.
“Put it on,” instructed Ricky. “We have to do this fast.”
“There’s no time,” protested Billy, even as he attached the wire to his neck. “She’ll have system failure in less than a minute.”
“Then you’d better move your rookie ass, huh?” The end of the jackline plugged into one side of an adhesive patch that Ricky affixed to the back of Nadine’s neck. From there, it split into two control wires that fed into his vidscreen and would allow him to modulate the chip’s power intake. “Are you ready?”
Billy nodded and let his finger hover over his wrist.
“Burn it,” yelled Ricky.
The texture of his wrist-plate changed from smooth metal to a liquid velvet that went on for miles. In his mind’s eye, he could see his hand continuing its motion, bending backwards on itself unnaturally. It was all part of the load processor’s attempt to combine two disparate realities. The result was something that wasn’t altogether real, but that was far from mere illusion.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” said a female voice from behind him. “This is girls’ detention.”
Billy turned around to see a classroom full of empty desks. Sitting two rows back was a healthier-looking version of Nadine.
“Are you even a student here?”
“No, I’m Billy the Tech. I’m an EMT.”
“Did Mrs. Martinez have a heart attack? That would be so Christmas.” She crossed her fingers hopefully.
“No, sorry,” said Billy. He tried to smile something friendly. “I’m actually here to see you.”
“Why me? I’m not sick.” She did a quick self-examination and found no open wounds.
“I’m afraid you are, Nadine. Or you will be, tonight.”
Nadine scrunched her face in confusion. It was a common reaction. The Guardian Angel chip was able to process reality at real-time levels, but the constructs it produced ran several hours behind the present. As the user grew older, that time increased. The chip was always trying to catch up, but the flow of information would never stop.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” he continued, approaching her desk. “Tonight around one a.m., you are going to ingest some kind of drug or chemical.” The brief training he had received indicated that it was best to be direct with the construct avatars, let them know immediately that time was a factor. Even though the simulation ran at one-fifteenth actual, there was little room for beating around the bush. “Your sister will find you about two hours later, unconscious on your bedroom floor. She will wake up your dad and he will call us. Ten minutes later, we’ll pick you up and drive you to BrackSouth.”
A look of disbelief came over Nadine’s face, followed by defiance. “I don’t do drugs.”
“We’re going to be arriving any minute now, and when we do, the doctors are going to test you to figure out what you took. That will waste precious time.”
“I swear, I don’t—”
A loud bang echoed in the room as Billy struck the desk with his fist. “Listen to me! You are dying on a gurney in the back of an ambulance! We don’t know what drug is safe to give you because we don’t know how it will interact with what you took.”
Nadine shook her head and turned away.
“Look, okay, it’s just me in here. This is not a question of doing right or wrong. Whatever you’ve done doesn’t really matter. We aren’t the law. We don’t care. We just want to save your life.”
“Aly,” whispered Nadine. “I have some Aly at home.”
“Were you planning on taking it tonight?”
A morbid smirk appeared on her face. “I’m going to take all of it.”
Billy moved closer and leaned down to get on her level. “How much do you have?”
She looked him in the eye and said with no emotion, “Enough.”
“Cut it!” The echo of Ricky’s command exploded in Billy’s head, dragging him out of the simulation. In an instant, the classroom construct fell away and Billy found himself once again in the ambulance.
“Running out of time,” warned Jerry the Driver.
“I’m done,” said Ricky.
“Did you get it?”
Billy and Ricky answered at the same time. The coincidence caused them to look at each other suspiciously.
“Well?” Ricky raised his eyebrows expectantly.
“Aly,” Billy answered, suddenly aware of how dry his tongue was.
Jerry let out a derisive laugh. “We drove all this way for a little mescaline?”
“Hand me that Slot_Eighty syringe.”
Billy turned to reach for the drug, but the blare of the EKG stopped him.
“She’s flat-lined,” yelled Ricky. He moved to reset the auto-defib and secured the electrodes. “Starting defib!” Then to Billy, “Give me the damn Eighty!”
“Fuck all,” said Billy, swiping at his wrist again. EMT_Assist roared back into production, removing all of his doubts and insecurities about his job performance. In the blur, he watched the well-oiled machine that had remained dormant in his GA chip come out and take control of the situation, applying oxygen at just the right intervals and retreating as the warning on the auto-defibrillator sounded.
The scene unfolded like a slow-motion video gradually winding down to nothing. It could have been that the EMT_Assist program was actually getting agitated at the lack of progress. It was nowhere near the frustration that a human mind would feel, but for code, it was something. It wasn’t until the solid tone of the monitoring equipment had gone on for a full minute that the program finally decided to give up.
As Billy came out of the haze, he heard Jerry the Driver on the radio.
“Dispatch, seven oh two. Prep for DOA. Repeat, prep for delta oscar alpha.”
“Confirmed seven oh two. Standing down.”
* * *
It was out of their hands, the fate of young Nadine. After passing her over to the staff, Jerry and company stood around for a moment, staring at the floor. It wasn’t until the family started pouring in that they retreated to the safety of the hospital cafeteria. Without speaking, they stood in line and collected their breakfasts, pancakes and toast that they would eat but not really enjoy. It was an automatic function, like anything else in life. As they sat around the table, pushing the food around their plates, an intern approached with a folded piece of paper. He handed it to Jerry without saying a word.
Jerry read the final report carefully, smirking as he got to the toxicology. “It wasn’t mescaline,” he said, biting his lip.
“She lied to me?” Billy couldn’t believe it.
“Looks like it.”
“What can you do?” asked Ricky, shrugging. He took a bite of the pre-cut pancakes and savored the syrup. “Some people in this world just don’t want to be helped. That’s all there is to it.”
“Slot_Eighty was the nail,” continued Jerry. He didn’t look at Ricky and there was no accusation in his voice. He turned to Billy. “Did you upload on the way in?”
“No,” he admitted, looking down at his tray.
“You should do that soon, before the investigation really gets off the ground. Are you positive that she said mescaline?”
“She said Aly.”
“It’s an analog to mescaline,” said Ricky. “It’s basically the same thing.”
Jerry nodded. “Then your construct VDR will back up our decision. I think they’re going to keep us on desk patrol until they get verification.”
“Yeah,” agreed Billy, for the sake of conversation. After a moment of silence, he looked up to find both men staring at him. “What?”
“That’s unpaid desk patrol,” said Ricky. “We have families to feed, if you get me.”
Billy took the hint. He stole a last bite from his tray and stood up. “I’ll uh, go upload,” he said, pulling on his jacket. “I still don’t know why she lied.”
“Because,” said Ricky, his voice tight and judgmental, “she’s a liar.”
Billy nodded and walked away, still pondering the dead girl’s deception.
Jerry waited until he was out of earshot before following up with, “Yeah, a hot liar.”
“No shit, huh?” Ricky smiled, looked off to the right at nothing at all. “I don’t know what it is about those Hispanic girls but, damn. Just damn, you know?”
“Did you get a download?”
Patting his chest pocket, he replied, “Four years’ worth.”
Jerry did the calculations in his head. “That’s four years, twelve-hundred days, twelve-hundred showers. Probably had a boyfriend, or at least done some solo work since what, thirteen?”
“I didn’t go back that far,” said Ricky.
“Yeah.” Jerry took a sip from his coffee, warmed by the thoughts of the impending payday. Sense-experience from a teenage Latina would fetch a good price on the open market. He laughed and when Ricky looked at him inquisitively, he raised his cup in a toast. “We may be thieves, but at least we’re not monsters.”
“To the moral immorals,” he replied.
They drank in agreement.