Beautiful World 03: Confrontation

I was well into my third beer when Julia slid into the booth across from me, jacket-sheathed arms folding on the scuffed laminate tabletop, her fingers interlacing. "So, this is about John, isn't it." Her tone made it a statement.

I scraped a line of frost from my mug and looked up at her. Her back-length hair, tied back into a tight braid, was green this month, a dark forest green that have passed for natural on the first take. She hadn't bothered to remove her wraparound dark glasses, creating the illusion of a CENSORED bar obscuring her identity. Beneath it, her mouth was twisted into a permanent smirk, though the expression was currently more prominent than normal. She'd turned up the collar of her black windbreaker, and the T-shirt beneath it had a text-picture of pi comprised of its digits.

I smirked and lifted my beer in a mock-toast. "You know, you haven't changed since college, Julia."

The quirk of her mouth bent into a frown. "Neither have you, Adam; you're still the only one in the group who doesn't call me Jules. This isn't about me, though; it's about you. Rather, you think it's about John, which is why you called me."

I shrugged and set down my mug again, flagging down a waiter. "Call it a point of pride; I hate diminutives. And yes, it's about Johnathan. What're you having? I invited; my treat."

Julia shook her head, holding out a hand, palm extended. "Nothing for me; I'm ankle-deep-head-first in a project. You sounded desperate, though, so I got things to a breakpoint."

The summoned waiter made his way to the table, pulling a notepad out of his apron. "Can I get you two something?"

"Just a burger for me, no tomato, no mayonnaise," I asked, emphasizing the removals. "Seasoned fries. Oh, and a refill. Julia, anything? I'm paying."

She leaned back against the bench, grunting her acquiescence. "Yeah, okay, I'll have the turkey club and an iced tea. No salt on the fries, and bring it in a to-go box?"

The waiter nodded. "I'll get these started and be back with your drinks." Then he was gone again, leaving me alone with Julia's frown.

"Okay, Adam," she said somewhat testily as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. "I'll stick around for half a sandwich because we're friends, and because we've been friends, and I hope because we're going to keep being friends, but I'm not interested in solving your problems with John."

I frowned, but before I spoke, I took the time to drain my mug, setting it back down against the scratched plastic with a thunk. "I just... don't get it," I said, looking down at my empty glass. "I mean, how can he turn his back on all of us for this?"

Julia's smirk reasserted itself as she rummaged in the pocket of her windbreaker and pulled out a heavy refillable lighter. "Long as you're phrasing it like that, Adam, you're not going to get it. There's a difference between turning away from one thing and turning towards something else."

My frown deepened as I fidgeted with my mug. "Yeah, I guess," I conceded, but I came back quickly with the real point of my ire. "But... Mitsuko?"

Julia groaned quietly, covering her glasses with one hand, rolling the lighter around in the other. "I don't even want to try to discuss Mitsuko with you."

"Oh, c'mon," I said, leaning forward in my seat and pushing the empty mug to the edge of the table for the waiter to remove. "You're in software design. Of anybody in his circle of friends, you'd be the one most likely to be able to tell him."

"Tell him what, Adam?" She asked, her voice low and tight. "That he's dating a pocket calculator?"

"Now who's not respecting whose opinion?" I replied with a smirk of my own. "I'm sure she's a very well-coded expert system, but at the end of the day, she's still just that: software. She's a program. C'mon, Julia, you do this stuff for a living."

Julia shook her head again. "I work on expert systems, not digital sentience. One's programmable; the other's not." She nodded a thanks as the waiter set a glass of tea in front of her, then a fresh beer next to me, whisking away the empty.

"See, that's my very point!" I quietly crowed as soon as the waiter was gone again, stabbing the table for emphasis. "He's not in love with a real thinking being. Not a person. If he were falling for somebody from Japan and said he wanted to move out there, I'd be fine with that, but that's not what he's doing. He's talking about turning his brain into so many sample-slides and rendering himself as some kind of expert system inside one of Tadashiissei's networks, all so he can spend the rest of his life... or whatever... with a programmable sex toy!"

The frown reasserted itself on Julia's face, and she leaned forward, elbows on the table, ticking points off on one set of fingers with the other. "One, just because I said digital sentiences weren't programmable doesn't mean they don't exist; it means they can't be written." Her tone of voice had picked up a hard edge that suggested it would brook no interruption. "They can be evolved from expert systems with a sufficiently high degree of interconnectivity and a matching firmware base on which to grow. You're not into electronics, Adam; you're a biology professor. Stick to what you know.

"Two, the process of uploading doesn't to anybody's knowledge destroy anything other than the physical shell; every case of it that's been studied to date has shown no ill effect, no trauma, no disorders, and no loss of creativity or mental capacity. How many books has Imogene Franklin written since her conversion? Seven? Eight? And her literary critics say they're better now that she's no longer worrying about getting the whole thing done before the cancer kills her. Hell, imagine where cosmology might be today if this had been around during Hawking's time. John's an artist; if he really thought loss of creativity were a concern, he wouldn't do it, and Tadashiissei wouldn't let him if they were going to hire him. I know the idea of willingly giving up organics in favor of silicon squicks you, but that's a personal preference, not a fact, and no amount of wishing otherwise will change that.

"Three, Mitsuko is not a programmable sex toy; she's one of Tadashiissei's tour guides, and you're lucky that you said that to me and not to John, because he would punch you for that kind of crack. He may be just an art type, but I doubt he's forgotten his jeet kune do, and he still hits the gym pretty regularly."

During her tirade, I leaned back against the padded bench seat. Her blunt point-by-point had sucked a lot of the thrust out of my argument, but I wasn't prepared to grant that to her in public. "I don't see why he bothers hitting the gym if he's just going to go throw his body away in six months," I sulked.

"Procedural memory," Julia replied with her typical smirk. "Different part of the brain from regular memory. I'd have thought a biologist of your caliber would have realized that much."

"Oh, very funny," I snapped back, then sighed. "I'm sorry, Julia, I'm just—wait." Something she said during her rant came back to me. "How did you know about his new job?"

For the first time tonight, Julia chuckled. "Oh, he told me the day he got it. I've known for a week. We
did date for a few years."

I slumped back in my seat, defeated. "Am I the last person to know about everything that happens?"

"Not always," she said, leaning back and tucking her lighter back into her pocket as the waiter slid a plastic box in front of her. "I was the last one to figure out John and I weren't going to work out."

I sighed in response, looking with mild distaste at the burger I'd ordered and began picking at my fries. The conversation had killed my appetite. "I'm sorry; could I get a to-go box as well?" I asked the waiter, who nodded and left.

Julia took that as her cue to rise out of the bench. "If you're not eating, then I need to go. Tonight's a deadline I really can't miss." She stopped beside the table, one hand on her hip, the other holding her sandwich. "Look, I'm sorry this is hard on you. You and he have been best friends for years, and he's going through some changes that you're just not ready to face. I have it on good authority that he wants to remain friends with you, but this is something he's not prepared to give up, and you're going to have to decide either to accept it and stay friends, or give it up and him with it. I can't tell you which is the right answer, but I can tell you which answer he and I would both prefer."

I didn't look up at her. I couldn't look up at her. "Don't tell me you're on his side in this."

"I didn't break up with him because I quit caring about him, Adam." Suddenly, she sounded as tired as I felt. "I—never mind. Point is, I don't want to see the group split up over this. I want to see Mitsuko become part of the group, as much as possible. She's not the roadblock in this, and neither is John, for all his hard-assery. He just wants to be happy, and Mitsuko makes him happy. Being in Irokai makes him happy, happier than he can be out here."

Our waiter breezed by the table, dropping off a plastic box and a small tub of mustard. "So when are you going in there after him?" I quipped as I scraped fries off of my plate. I was burning every bridge at this point, but I was past the point of caring. I just wanted someone to understand, and here was Julia lecturing me like I was her student or something.

She turned away from me. "I'm not, Adam, not for a long time. I'll be glad to visit, but no way am I moving there right now."

"Why not?" I asked, trying my best to come across as genuinely curious but probably sounding more accusatory than anything else. "I would've thought a software designer of your caliber would've been the first in the group to jump at the chance to live a completely digital existence."

She chuckled darkly. "Touché. Let's just say I have my reasons and leave it at that. Look, I really have to go, or I'm going to miss my deadline, and then things will really suck. G'night, Adam. Next weekend, I'm free and I should have the cash from this project in hand. Give me a call, we'll get with John and maybe Mitsuko can join remotely and we can play Bartok or Barbuda or something."

I shrugged, closing up my box. "Yeah, maybe."

Julia paused a moment, as if weighing the tone of my response, then shrugged. "Whatever, man. Take care." Then she was out the door, leaving me alone with my beer and my frustration.

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