Chapter 1: Cassie, Julie and Eve
Julie and Cassie had been together for a long, long time.
They had been at the same uni for six years now, and both were in their final year of a Ph.D.
They'd met in on the first day of O-week, in Canberra, at the National University of Australia, when they had moved into ressies, Julie from Perth, and Cassie from Sydney.
Their rooms were on the same floor, and they'd clicked immediately.
On that first day there was a party put on to welcome all of the first-years, and they'd got far too drunk on cheap, crappy bubbly. That first night they did not sleep, but instead they poured out all of their thoughts to each other in Julie's room, and then each had taken their turn baring their hearts, and then their souls, to each other.
To a point.
Cassie was a Lesbian, and she'd fallen in love with Julie that first night.
Julie didn't work this out until second semester.
They were drunk again, this time in Cassie's room, and Cassie surprised Julie by kissing her.
Cassie had liked kissing Julie, she liked it very much, but Julie made it quite clear that it was a one-off experiment. Julie hadn't liked the soft, squishy sensation of Cassie's mouth against hers, and Cassie soon learned that the softer side of Julie, the one she coveted so much, was strictly off-limits.
Still, when all was said and done, even if the relationship wasn't everything that Cassie wanted, their friendship suited each other well enough, and they were firm friends through two degrees.
Those were good times, nothing much to worry about, nothing but study, parties, politics, drink and a little weed.
For that first degree, most of that time was actually study. They were both on good NUSA scholarships, and got loads of high distinctions, and the few plain old distinctions they received could be dismissed as the price of actually having a life.
Julie was doing a medical science degree, and although Cassie was doing an arts degree, she really did love science, and coveted Julie's mind.
Without Cassie, Julie wasn't all that sociable. Cassie supplied Julie with a social life, and was heavily involved in university politics. Everyone on the campus had been accosted by Cassie at one time or another in support of women's groups, or peace rallies, or GLBT rights, and sometimes Julie came along to let herself feel like a little bit of a radical.
Cassie was also a good judge of character, and Julie relied on Cassie to look after her.
Cassie had learned not to press the issue of love, and Julie guessed the reason for Cassie's occasional dark, foul moods, but she assumed they would pass, and they always did.
By third year, Julie had worked out that she wasn't interested in Cassie that way, and Cassie had given up on all of her other relationships to be with Julie. They moved into a house together, and Cassie stopped hanging out with most of her Lesbian friends. Many of them just assumed Cassie and Julie were a couple, but the few that stayed close to Cassie knew the truth.
The house they shared was cold, damp, and mouldy. It had been a group house since the '70s, and it wasn't in good condition.
It was way out in Downer, a suburb that could be used as a definition for nominative determinism: dull and dreary, nowhere near any night life, and named after a second-rate prime minister.
Cassie's Ph.D. was in Psychology, which she no longer enjoyed. She didn't spend much time in her office, it was dreary, and made her feel depressed. As Psychology was one of the university departments, she had to deal with snotty undergraduates, tutoring them in B.F. Skinner, who she abhorred.
She spent more time over the other side of campus with Julie in the School of Biological Sciences Research. Julie's Ph.D. was in biology, but she was that rare thing, a biologist with computer science skills. She was always busy, with programming mostly, but she didn't mind Cassie's company while she was working. As Biological Sciences was one of the Schools, there weren't any undergraduates to teach, and she could concentrate on her thesis.
Cassie wished that her thesis topic could be more like Julie's.
Julie was getting to study parasitic worms.
She was studying the cysts and trails caused by parasitic worms as they invaded the human body.
She had started out by examining MRI and CAT scans of victims whose flesh was infected by tapeworms, in Cysticercosis. The older imaging devices could only see the cysts, but she had lucked out by being in the right place at the right time when the School of Physical Sciences, right next door, built the first practical Taubett X-ray interferometer.
The Taubett machine was a new imaging device which uses X-rays at very low doses, a thousand times smaller than regular X-rays, and measures refraction instead of absorption. It could produce excellent images of soft body tissues, and by scanning a sequence of 2d images in a spiral arrangement, could reconstruct a volumetric view of the three-dimensional structures inside the human body.
Julie's programming skills had already transformed old-fashioned CAT scans into beautiful visualisations. She wanted to see some scans of infected humans taken with the Taubett machine, but so far she'd only been allowed to take images of plastic phantoms and small dead animals.
She was hoping she could use the Taubett machine to analyse the tiny trails left by worms in a patient's flesh.
Julie actually didn't much care for the worms herself, but she liked talking about them with Cassie.
Cassie had followed Julie's progress closely, and was fascinated by the many different species of parasite which made a home in the human body, the various symptoms they caused, and the ingenuity of the solutions evolution had devised for them.
Julie guessed at Cassie's interest, and fed her with many titbits of information.
One of Julie's most cherished memories was describing to Cassie the process by which Schistosoma colonises a human host. Tiny worms, Cercariae, are released by their snail hosts once per day into water. If any come into contact with a poor individual's skin, they search the skin for a hair follicle and release enzymes to digest the skin and allow them to enter their host's capillaries. After visiting various way-points in their host's body, they develop suckers to attach to their host's liver, and begin to feast on red blood cells. A male and a female worm might meet, perhaps in the host's heart, and then fuse, to begin expelling eggs into the bloodstream and the intestines of their victim.
Once the eggs entered the water and infected another snail, the whole cycle would begin again.
Cassie found the whole idea of parasitic infection strangely appealing, especially coming from Julie's delicious, educated lips.
The idea of having one's body co-opted by a creature which would feed from you, and and multiply within oneself, held a strange fascination for Cassie, and she loved to have discussions with Julie about the many and varied mechanisms parasitic worms used to infect their victims.
Truth to tell, she could never entirely tell whether her interest was due to the worms, or if it was as a result of listening to such a beautiful woman.
Julie wasn't conventionally beautiful, but she was beautiful to Cassie, nonetheless.
She actually looked rather like a photo of Nana Mouskouri that Cassie had seen in her own Nana's LP collection.
She had very fine skin; elegant, if sharp, features; long, dark, hair; and lively, intelligent eyes behind her not-very-flattering spectacles.
She was tall, and slender, and Cassie enjoyed watching her economical movements, and Cassie thought Julie very elegant.
As with Cassie, Julie also had a sharp tongue, and they both liked to compete in a kind of bitchy one-upmanship, especially when they were talking about boys.
Julie knew what she was to Cassie, and didn't mind it.
Rather than being pretty, Cassie was handsome in a tomboyish kind of a way. She had her hair dyed black and cut short, many, many piercings, including her ears, lower lip, and her tongue, and she was a little on the heavy side.
Cassie's obvious regard made Julie feel appreciated.
Julie gave Cassie all the affection that she felt able to, while still remaining aloof, and dressed.
Cassie was physical, and demonstrative, and Julie didn't when Cassie held her as they watched Doctor Who on their sofa, sometimes drunk, sometimes stoned, Julie stroking Cassie's hair, and content in each other's company.
When Cassie and Julie had first started uni together, they had heard about the parasitic worm infection in the USA. It was exciting news at the time, and trying to work out the truth about worms from the heavily-censored media was one of the first games to draw them together.
Some of the conspiracy websites called it an "alien invasion", but those websites were always full of UFO stories, so neither of them paid much attention to that idea.
Cassie found some stories on the web which described the invasion in graphic detail. She found them on a science-fiction story site, and, although she enjoyed reading the stories very much, she didn't realise for quite some time how accurately they had portrayed events.
Some of the details of the epidemic had emerged in the main-stream media, and the initial stories had been extremely concerning, as thousands of people had been infected, but a cure had been found within a year.
Australia's top-notch quarantine regulations and huge sea border had kept the worms offshore, so that so far, Julie and Cassie had only heard unreliable reports, second-hand, of the symptoms of the infections, and the life-cycle of the worms.
All of that changed one bright, crisp July morning, the heart of winter in Canberra, at the beginning of a new semester.
Julie and Cassie had taken a break between semesters, and Julie had only just returned from a family wedding in WA.
She was keen to get back to work in her little office.
It was normally a long, straight, ride from Downer to the university, but today Julie took her bicycle along the back streets near Black Mountain. The air, full of frost, invigorated her as the stands of gum trees reminded her why Canberra was called "the bush capital".
She had some thinking to do, as she was in a bit of a bind right now.
Her supervisor had been offered a lucrative sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, at very short notice. He had left Australia as soon as the offer came up, much to Julie's chagrin, and had taken many of the senior staff with him. He should have been organising examiners, and meetings of Julie's supervisory panel, and helping Julie through the whole sorry process, but he had only sent her one curt email before he left, and hadn't responded to her since.
She still had to write up her thesis, and find reviewers, and Julie was starting to get worried about even finishing her degree.
Locking up her bike, she walked up to the familiar doors of the Biological Sciences building. The building dated from the 1950's, and still smelled of the same linoleum polish they must have been using when it first opened.
As Julie pushed the door open, there was a woman standing next to the empty reception desk, seemingly waiting for someone, and she caught Julie's eye. Julie was immediately attracted by the straightness of her posture, the efficiency of her smart business suit, and her immaculate make-up, which didn't obscure her bright smile and her obviously intelligent eyes.
"Julie Smith, I presume?"
The woman, high on her heels, clicked over the linoleum and extended a hand in greeting, leaving no possibility of being ignored. She enfolded Julie's cold right hand with both of her own, which were warm, and soft.
"My name is Eve Hunter. I should have emailed you earlier, or called, but I know you've been on vacation, and I thought it would be more pleasant to meet you in person.
"I'm from Johns Hopkins university in the States. I apologise in advance for all the trouble we've caused you by stealing your supervisor away. However, he recommends you very highly, which is why I am here."
"Nice to meet you," Julie responded, perhaps a little curtly.
Julie had been caught a little off-balance by Eve's presence. She was only just back at work, and didn't have a supervisor. Her face was flushed, and her hair tousled from her cold, windy ride.
Eve handed a business card to Julie.
Eve was a Senior Partner, Johns Hopkins University.
Whatever that meant, Julie thought.
"Julie," Eve said, "I have a proposition for you. I think it's one you will like very much, but you'll have to make up your mind at very short notice."
Eve's accent was American, East-coast perhaps, and Julie thought it was rich, and slightly exotic. Perhaps Eve had travelled.
Eve gently took Julie's elbow and steered her into the Dean's office, which was open, but empty.
Julie found the human contact a little too intimate for a first meeting. Or ever at all, really.
"I'm in Australia with a colleague of mine, Doctor Lucille Kelly, to open a new cancer clinic." Eve said.
"It's called Lennox Hospital, and we've built it near the site of the old Canberra Hospital. I've personally brought a new gamma-ray source into the country for our radiotherapy machine, and I'd like to get you organised at the same time.
"Your government has been extremely generous in supporting our new treatment methods. We believe that they will be very effective.
"You might find it a bit quiet around here at the Uni.
"Most of the staff that have not gone to Baltimore have gone to the new hospital, and they'll be working with Doctor Kelly
"We've taken the Taubett machine from Physical Sciences to the hospital, too.
"Julie, I know that you've been studying parasitic worms for your Ph.D. dissertation. As you may know, Johns Hopkins university was instrumental in stemming the recent outbreak of black thread-worms in the United States, and through our fast response, we managed to contain the outbreak to only a few states.
Julie's ears pricked up.
Cassie was going to love this!
Julie nodded her encouragement, and Eve continued.
"Your supervisor has brought your recent paper in Nurture to our attention, and our staff in Baltimore have also followed your work with a great deal of interest."
Unlikely, Julie thought, her expression unchanging. She hadn't yet had any interest whatsoever from clinicians.
"Canberra seems to be a good centre for studying the worms. The Taubett instrument shows a great deal of promise, and you have several years of experience imaging other parasites.
"To cut a long story short, Julie, we will be offering you a $60,000 top-up scholarship, tax free, to continue your work, and we shall request that you extend your work to imaging women who have been hosts for black thread-worms. With Doctor Kelly I can help arrange for examiners for your thesis.
"It's a wide-open area, Julie.
"You won't have any trouble at all finding material, and there is a strong possibility that we might be funding an ongoing research centre here to continue your work.
"Because the nature of the worms is rather sensitive, I'm afraid you'll have to sign an NDA.
"We would also like you to find us someone who can interview the women involved. Of course, we need a woman for the job."
Julie thought about her immediate scientific contacts, and didn't think any of them would be suitable.
"She doesn't need to be a biologist," Eve suggested. "Ideally, someone with a human touch and good language skills would be perfect."
Julie realised that she'd just missed the obvious.
"Eve, I know someone. My house-mate, Cassie Grayndler, would fit the bill perfectly. She's doing a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's only got an arts degree, actually, but she's done a lot of survey work, and I'm sure she'd jump at an opportunity to study the worms."
Julie hoped that the coincidence of her house-mate's interest wouldn't sound too odd.
She smiled at Eve for the first time,
"She's very good with people, actually, she's very perceptive. Better than me, actually."
Eve accepted Julie's little joke at face value, giving a little nod in acknowledgement.
Julie felt miffed.
"Excellent." said Eve. "Cassie sounds perfect. Bring her in tomorrow, you can both sign the NDAs, and I shall give you some more details. We shall also be offering you both better accommodation, rent free of course, and I hope that this allows you to devote more time to your work.
"Julie, there are quite a few people from this school, and the physics school, who will be working for me over at the hospital.
"Your colleague Gabriella Henderson is still here, but will be relocating to the hospital presently.
"I'll be talking to your colleague Stefan Pama today, who I also believe will be returning from his vacation, and he'll be working for me too.
Julie didn't really like Stefan very much. He used to work over at the other side of campus in the Computer Science department, but since he had started working with the Taubett machine next door, he had seemed to take a special liking to Cassie and Julie, and just kept hanging around.
He was an okay guy, that was true, but he did seem a little dull. He talked about his old work at the CS department, endlessly, and Julie wasn't much interested in it. He was trying to work out how to prove statements about the security of kernels, and, as far as Julie could tell, that kind of work could only be used for stealing information, keeping secrets, and spying on people.
Julie had always thought that Stefan was keen on her. She liked the awkwardness she engendered in him, and couldn't resist showing just a little interest. He probably thought that Cassie and Julie were a couple, he seemed clueless enough, but if this were true, his continued interest in her did seem a bit creepy.
Eve continued, "I've got him programming some embedded communications firmware for the Taubett machine we're installing at the hospital. It's medical equipment, it will have to be approved by the FDA before we can start using it in the States. Stefan's got great skills in writing low-level code, and we'll need that.
"Julie, just remember that it is your work, and your work alone, that is key to the success of our contract with the University. It would not be an exaggeration to say that many people's lives are currently at stake, and your work is of vital importance to them.
"It is only you that can fulfil our goals personally.
"I am sure that you will be grateful for the assistance of your friends Cassie and Stefan, but you must look inside yourself and draw on all of your resources.
"This will not be a walk in the park for you, Miss Smith."
Feeling dismissed, Julie thanked Eve, and walked out of the Dean's office straight into the tearoom.
She hadn't even had the first coffee of the day, yet her life had just been turned upside down.