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Love Engine Optimization

I rooted her system on the first day. It was the only way to be sure. Sure that she’d love me. Step by matching step, I walk her under the boughs of great elms in Prospect Park, while the slanting sun passes through the tangled mesh of leaves to dapple her smiling face. When her heart rate spikes, I know she’s excited. When it slows, she’s bored.

“It’s like what Yes, Mother says in their song, ‘A Lifetime Away,’” I tell her. “‘All day I walk in circles / All night I dream in bokeh.’”

“Holy shit!” she says, pupils dilating. “I fucking love that song.”

Of course she does. She’s listened to it 1,146 times, five times more than the second most popular song in her playlist, “Eleanor Rigby.” “I love it, too,” I say. “‘A Lifetime Away’ is my all-time favorite.”

Her heart rate soars. A little graph in my vision plots excitement vs. time. Like the slope we’re walking, she’s been moving steadily up as the afternoon wears on. She stares at me, pupils wide. A proficient application of make-up highlights her blue eyes. But it’s not quite perfect and I add it to my list.

“Man,” she says, “I thought I was the only one this into Yes, Mother.”

“If I only had one day to live,” I say, “I’d play ‘Black Moon Rover’ on repeat until I died.” It’s something she said forty-seven days ago at a bar after several drinks with friends. Their conversation, overheard by watches and phones and glasses, was blink-uploaded to a cloud farm off the California coast where it festered for months, waiting for some bot to crawl over the data and improve the company’s voice-comp (a clause buried deep in their EULA lets them store that shit indefinitely). I’ve got more than a million of Jane’s words, not even including her typed ones.

“This is so weird,” she says. “I feel like I have déjà vu.” Pupils narrow and blood pressure rises; she’s getting nervous. Something this good must come with a catch, right?

“Let’s sit over there,” I say, pointing to a weathered bench under the plentiful shade of an oak. Eighty-one days ago she shared a memory with her mother in which she—a toddler—and Dad—now dead—walked down to the park when she’d had the chickenpox. They had sat together on a park bench and fed the pigeons with breadcrumbs. This memory, she exclaimed to her mother in great detail, was one of her happiest.

“We could feed the birds from the bench,” I say.

“Yeah . . .” she says. “That sounds really nice.”

The wind tousles her hair as we sit. Her cut is average, and I prefer a bit more waviness. I add it to my list, already long, though not yet deal-breaking.

I tear off the crust of a sandwich I bought just for this moment and toss it to the ground. Pigeons and sparrows fly over to snatch the crumbs. “When I was young,” I say, “I loved feeding the birds.”

She meets my gaze, the gleam in her eyes longing for something lost eons ago. She’s on the verge. She might laugh or cry or sneeze. Her hand is hot and shaking as it takes mine. We entwine fingers. Her aqua nail polish, a shade lighter than her eyes, matches her blouse, and I’m really not a fan of the garish color. She’d look sexier in red or black, and I make another note.

“Can I be honest with you, Sam?” she says.

“Always.”

“I’ve been on a few dates recently. They were all really awkward. This just feels easy.”

Of course it’s easy. I’ve made myself into exactly what she wants. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” I say, “if things could be this easy forever?” throwing stressors like frisbees so she can’t help but dream of happily-ever-afters.

Her pupils are as wide as Kings County. She shivers so much the bench shakes under us. Her heart rate spikes as she leans toward my lips. And just before her lips touch mine, I stand.

“Jane.”

Her hand flies to her mouth like a blushing schoolgirl. “Was that too fast?”

“I have to go.”

“Go?” She checks her watch. I snap a photo of her face with it; she’ll never know I’ve done this. “Oh,” she says, blinking away the surprise of tears; surprising to her. “All right. I mean, is everything okay, Sam?”

“I hope to see you again, Jane.” I spin on my heels and leave her shaking on the bench, just like the parent who left her too soon, so that there is only one possible emotion for her now.

Under towering sycamores, I stroll to the park’s exit, blinking up the photo I took of her face, and her goofy, dumbfounded expression thrills me to the fucking core. I had Jane hanging on my every word. And yeah, I wanted to kiss her back, but the first rule of seduction is you must always leave them wanting more.

• • • •

I found Jane the usual way, of course. Through Google.

I began by picking a phenotype: early twenties, five-five to five-seven, above-average breasts, blemish-free skin, sky-blue eyes, raven-black hair. From here it was a matter of searching for images to match these traits. Some wget-magic and Google-fu, and I was able to narrow this down to about 4,000,000 individuals from around the globe. I cross-linked each photo to place of residence, and narrowed my search down to about 9,000 in and around the New York City region. From here, I scoured social media profiles, gleaning such information as job, income, frequency of drug and alcohol use, musical tastes, political leanings, city of birth, and sexual orientation. I cross-correlated this from personality assessments taken from Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Snapchat. And so from my initial large group, I narrowed it down to four promising individuals.

The final step was to observe them in person. These days, people have such finely crafted social media presences that meeting them IRL is like seeing the real man (or woman) behind the curtain, typically a let down of galactic proportions.

Not Jane. Jane was better IRL. Let me explain.

From her geotagged Instagram photos and Facebook posts, I knew on Thursdays she went out for drinks with her coworkers at a dive Irish pub on Park Avenue South called Desmond’s. I waited in the back, using my smartglasses to record when she smiled, the sounds of her voice, the delicate way she threw back her hair each time she took a sip of her Macallan 10 (neat, with a glass of water). Through rooted phones and watches and glasses and Fitbits I listened to their conversations, noting what they said and what they left out, because it’s in the lies and obfuscations where you learn the most you like about a person.

They spoke about coworkers they hated. (Maria had once declared in conversation with her boyfriend she wished to stab Jacob in the eye with a pencil or poison his coffee.) They spoke about people with whom they wanted to snuggle up warmly in bed (Ingrid told them she’d wanted to sleep with David forever, but she’d secretly been fucking him in the copy room for three weeks, and—unbeknownst to them—security videos of their “Office Hardcore” had been making the rounds of certain internet circles.) Bethanne expressed her distaste for superhero films. (Though she had secretly gone to see the new Marvel film twice in a theater far from her Upper East Side apartment so she wouldn’t be recognized by friends). Frankie said how much he liked the new Netflix Original series called Camouflage Heart. (The previous night he had gotten really high on South Asian Kush, ate a whole container of Newman’s Own cookies, and watched the entire run in one sitting, then masturbated to pictures of the show’s male lead before bed.)

Jane listened to them all with bemused interest. (The night prior she had studied French for an hour, then read a biography of Jefferson until she fell asleep.) She was better than these people. She knew it, and based on how they looked at her for approval after they told a story, they knew it, too. For this power, they privately envied and hated her. But in Jane’s presence, they treated her like the queen she was.

Jane was better looking than them all (a 9.6 on the Kardashian scale, to their average of 7.2). She had spent more time on her makeup (thirty-six minutes, compared to a max of thirteen for the others). She dressed better (black Gucci belted dress, $265.00; matching Cole Haan’s Bethany Pumps, $119.95; gold Michael Kors smartwatch, $324.99; Warby Parker BrightEye smartglasses, $249.95). She had graduated with the highest GPA (3.85 from the University of Virginia, with a B.S. in Social Psychology), and had saved prudently so she had more in her bank account than all of them ($1,912.86). Her credit card debt was $17,861.24 (the lowest among them), and she was on track to pay off her student loans in the next sixteen years.

I thought, Not bad, girl.

But Jane wasn’t perfect. My heart sank as she pulled an e-cig from her purse and stepped outside with Maria to smoke (Maria preferred old-fashioned cigarettes). Later I discovered that on stressful days Jane swapped out the nicotine cartridge for liquid marijuana, puffing on breaks (On those days her productivity actually went up). My lungs have been stained green from all the pot I’ve toked, but my dad smoked so many cigarettes that my leather jacket (which I’m never getting rid of) still reeks of them, and creepy old Hank’s been dead for seven years (there is nothing I loathe more than cigarettes.) Jane also had the bad habit of sticking out her tongue when she’s absorbed in someone’s conversation and biting her cuticles.

No one is perfect, though. Jane wouldn’t be human if she were, and I found a kind of poetic perfection within her imperfections. In her flaws she made herself sublime. Plus, I knew I could fix all of them.

And so it was there, in the back of Desmond’s, a hundred years of collective data splayed out before my eyes, when I decided Jane would be mine.

• • • •

The cavernous lobby of the Times Square Marriot Marquis feels like some 1980s film version of the future, as if we’ve stepped inside the glittering mothership in Close Encounters to be greeted by countless weird and exuberant aliens. Jane and I wait our turn to fly up the glass elevators to the rotating bar at the hotel’s peak. I have my (smoke-smelling) leather jacket on, and Jane wears a red blouse and has painted her nails to match (thanks to a flurry of targeted ads I rerouted to her browser over the past week, ad-blockers be damned.)

A day after our first date, she left a voicemail where she awkwardly explained what a good time she’d had talking with me. “Maybe,”—a hard swallow—“we could do it again?”

I didn’t reply. The next day, she texted, “Hey, Sam, how are you? You up for hanging out???” It was tough, but I ignored this, too.

On the third day she wrote, “Hey, what r u up to?” and this too I ignored.

Ultimately I left her hanging for five days, and when I finally called, she picked up on the first ring. I could hear the relief spilling from her voice even without having live graphs of her bio-data spread wide before me.

A Facebook psychological assessment of Jane—they generate these to sell to advertisers—told me she empathizes with wounded individuals. “I was hurt once,” I told her. “I got scared.”

“I understand, Sam,” she said. “And I want you to know, you don’t have anything to fear from me.”

Of course not, I thought. I know everything about you.

It’s our turn to enter the glass elevator. Our bodies pressed up together, Jane smiles as we squeeze in. Her heart pounds as we ascend the central column of the hotel. The lighted ribbons of each floor zip past, flicker-flashing on our faces. The tourists in the elevator gasp and shriek and snap photos flash-uploaded to cloud servers all over the world, to be stored alongside pictures of their spouses and children in every private and intimate moment of their lives.

We exit the elevator and head to the bar, where tall windows gape at the Manhattan skyline and peer across the Hudson River to Jersey and beyond. The outer ring of the bar slowly spins, so that over the course of an hour you make a full 360, as if you’re inside a giant clock. A blotch of orange and green daubs the horizon like a child’s finger-paint where the sun has set. All around, the purpling sky fades to black. A few stars shine futilely above the city.

The server has my reservation in his wrist-POS, and Jane beams as he leads us to our table. She is fucking radiant tonight, every aspect perfectly honed, and I sense the other patrons’ jealous stares on my back as we sit.

“Scotch?” I say. “Macallan?” Her favorite.

“I love it!” she says. “The 10?”

“Let’s do the 25.” An absurd price, but I’m fully committed.

Thirty degrees later, we’re sipping single malts while New Jersey’s urbanized glory spins into view. “Sam,” she says, “I realized I don’t really know much about what you do. I know you work in IT, but what do you do exactly?”

I smile. I have nine talking points ready to go, each designed to elicit strong emotional memories from her past and link them to me. I have one fantastic subject on work-life balance versus one’s duty to her employer, which I think will make a great opener. I blink to bring it up in my glasses.

Nothing happens.

I try again. Still nothing.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

“Hang on.”

“What is it? You’re blinking a lot.”

I try to switch tabs to her bio-data. Nothing. I try to call up the text of her past conversations. Nothing. Net connection. Dead.

“Fuck!”

“Sam?”

“Wait.”

“What?”

I can’t restart the gateway process. My cellular device won’t refresh. Even wi-fi, even ancient Bluetooth won’t switch on. I’ve been bricked.

“Jane, give me your phone!”

“What?”

“Your phone, give it to me!”

Frowning, she fetches it from her purse and hands it over. It’s pass-locked.

“Unlock it.”

She does.

I try the net and everything works. “I don’t fucking get it!”

“What the hell’s going on, Sam?”

And then, in my ears, a heckling laughter, and in my vision, an evil Easter Bunny a la Donnie Darko descends like a curtain. Underneath, in glowing marquis, the words “BURN, BITCH!” slowly scroll past.

Motherfucker. It’s DaniDarknet, revenge for when I shutdown her botnet because she was DDOS-attacking some North African credit card processor for funneling money to one jihad or another. I needed the site up because I had been using it as a proxy for another hack. I probably shouldn’t have boasted on Reddit about how I rewrote her botnet code to self-destruct.

DaniDarknet has left me blind and deaf. Without my notes, without her bio-data, I’ve no idea how she’s feeling, what she’s thinking. I have nothing to say.

Now it’s my turn for my heart rate to spike. With a shaking hand, I give her back her phone.

“So . . .?” she says. “What was that?”

I shake my head. “Sorry. A work thing.” I try to laugh, but it comes out forced and awkward. “It’s nothing.” My smile is weird and crooked.

She stares at me. “Is this you getting scared, Sam?” She reaches over and takes my hand. I flinch.

“I . . . um . . . well . . . um . . . yeah.”

“This asshole must have hurt you pretty bad.”

“Devastating.”

She sighs and looks out the window. City lights fleck her eyes. “It reminds me of ‘Hound Days,’ you know? ‘All the little points of light / the city like circuit boards.’”

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “Definitely.”

Glasses clink. Someone laughs and another coughs. Conversations happen in other places about people that don’t know us, whose lives will never intersect with ours. Silence stretches between us. Jane is as far away from me as the sun.

“You’re quiet tonight,” she says. “Last time you had so much to say.”

“Am I?” I try to smile. “I didn’t notice.”

Do I sound stupid? What is she feeling? Is she reacting positively to me? I can’t track her pupil dilation. Does she love me or loathe me?

She takes a slow sip of scotch, as if it will make the passage of time easier to bear. Perhaps it will. “So,” she says. “What kind of IT work do you do?”

“I’m a sysadmin? For a bank?” They sound like questions, but they’re not.

“Do you like it?”

“Sometimes.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah. You?”

“Me what?”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a marketing psychologist, remember?”

I vaguely recall speaking at length about her job on our first date, but without my notes I can’t remember what was said. “Right. Of course. You, um, like it?”

A grimace—does she despise me? “Sometimes,” she says, and now it’s my turn to have déjà vu, because I know we spoke about this before.

She sips her scotch and I catch her check the time. I’m really fucking glad I can’t capture her expression now. As the world whirls by at six degrees per minute, our date spins ever further out of control. After two-hundred and forty degrees I tell Jane I’m not feeling well and we call it a night. We didn’t even go once fully around.

DaniDarknet, I’m so going to fucking ruin you.

• • • •

The next morning is hell. I’ve been up all night making repairs, but we have three mergers and an IPO today, plus my boss is just in from her third home in Barbados to inspect her worker drones. I can’t miss work. But I’ve prepared well, so work is mostly cubicled me in front of a four giant screens watching numbers stay in the green while I fire off a hundred shell scripts in my smuggled-in netbook, fixing yesterday’s catastrophe.

While some rich asshole makes another billion, fifty-three rooted servers in Kazakhstan crash hard, taking with them eighty-five percent of DaniDarknet’s ouvre. I want to shout with glee as each one falls, but I’ve got decorum to keep. This is a multinational bank, after all.

When the markets close and the rich executives pat themselves on the back for work that was mostly mine, after they’ve drunk enough liquor to make the halls explosive with fumes, I get the email.

“Hi Sam, Michael Robert Kowalski, VP of Biz Dev. Donna Nuñez”—my well-tanned and rested immediate supervisor—“tells me what a superb job you did on the Reiss Affair.”—affair, capital “A”—“I’d like to see you in my office. Come by at 7.”

Note that in Michael Robert Kowalski’s executive worldview there is no possibility whatsoever that I might have reason to refuse, like for example a dinner date or children to pick up from day care or, you know, any life of my own. If one is invited by such a man, one must go. I groom myself in the bathroom, making sure I’m sufficiently tucked and professional. I brush my teeth and reapply deodorant, even count to ten with my eyes closed, but by the time I get to his office door, I’m shaking like a homeless person in February.

I should not fear this guy who, twice a week, visits a massage-and-tug on 58th Street and gets a happy ending before using their showers and dry-cleaning service to come home and greet his wife and kids smelling like fresh laundry. He says to his friends he does it for the “stress” so he “doesn’t have to bring that shit home.” But, yeah, I’m afraid of this guy who crushes small governments over cocktails. Maybe it’s the desk. It’s enormous, like he sits at the head of a tractor combine, and it’s gunning for me.

I knock.

“Yes?” Michael says. He’s mid-fifties, moon-crescent bald, well-trimmed beard, wearing a sport coat but no tie. His feet are up on his desk, and his black Chuck Taylors either make him look really cool, or really dorky, I can’t tell which. There’s a glass of whiskey on the table, and beside him a wrapped box.

“Hi,” I say. “You sent for me?”

“What?” he says. His feet stay propped on the desk; I’m not important enough for them to move. “Who are you?”

“Sam.”

“Sam?”

“From IT? Did you not send me an email?”

I get this a lot, so I wait for him to catch up. It takes him a second.

“Right! Saaaaam!” Now the feet come down. “Sorry, I presumed you were–”

“A dude. Yeah, I get it. Sysadmin? Gender-neutral first name? You made assumptions.” A primary assumptive fault that one of the world’s top financial analysts should not be making, and yet here we are, careening into chaos with the gas-pedal floored. “It happens to me all the time,” I say, faking a smile.

“Sam—antha?”

I nod once to let him know the finality of it. “Please call me Sam.”

He has a leather chair pulled aside, which I can only presume was meant for Sam the XY not Sam the XX. He glances at it and makes a quick calculation, deciding that the father-son bullshit mentor thing that he had planned to endow me with won’t work on this fragile female creature before him, and so I’m not invited to sit.

“Well, Sam,” he says, “You really knocked it out of the park on that Reiss Affair.” Holy shit, did he just use a baseball metaphor? “This is for you.” He points to the wrapped box on his desk, and upon closer inspection it’s a bottle of Lagavulin 16. “Enjoy it, kid.”

Did he just fucking call me kid? I want to smash his smug little face, because here in microcosm is the kernel of the capitalist hypocrisy: For saving the bank from a billion-dollar hack, I’m given an $83 bottle of whiskey and a pat on the back.

Do you drink whiskey?” he says.

“No,” I say, snatching the box. “Girls don’t drink this stuff. But I know a few women who do.” I’m not sure if he gets my meaning or cares, but Michael Robert Kowalski, Vice President of Business Development, doesn’t stop me from leaving as I flee, bottle in hand, as far away as possible from one more misogynistic asshat capitalist destroying the world one percentage point at a time.

Back at my desk, I’m happy to see two more of DaniDarknet’s servers have crashed. There’s a desperate email from her to one of my anonymous accounts. “Please!” she says. “I’m sorry! You’re destroying years of work! Have mercy, man!!!”

Man? I twist open the bottle of Lagavulin and take a heavy swig. It burns hard going down. “Prepare yourself, DaniDarknet,” I say, “for you shall weep.”

And I am ruthless.

• • • •

Before we even left the spinning bar, a half-dozen dead-man’s switches I had set in place years ago were unzipping tarballs on servers across the world, beginning the work of repairing DaniDarknet’s damage. But the full cleanup took several days. I restored from backups and spent a full weekend installing military grade proxies, firewalls, and honeypots around my wares, girding my loins against another attack. And so when I have my servers more-or-less back to where they were, I start up again with Jane.

Because of a high number of early-adolescence abandonment experiences—including but not limited to the death of her father and losing her best friend in a drunk-driving accident—her Facebook psychological assessment tells me Jane positively favors repairing fouled relationships (marketers take note). I send Jane a long-winded email paraphrased from her favorite books, which highlight themes of reconciliation. My email leads to a phone call, where I tell Jane a highly metaphorical story about each person’s journey from fragmentation to wholeness.

“We’re all so broken,” I say.

“No, Sam. You’re not broken.”

This leads to date number three, an Italian dinner followed by espresso and a walk in Central Park. I have enough wares this time to take out a small country, but DaniDarknet does not show her digital face—how can she? I have destroyed her—and by the end of the night, I have brought Jane’s excitement up to first-date levels. Without further interruptions, I estimate it will take between seven and nine days before Jane will fall helplessly in love with me.

On the fourth date, we meet at her place, a small, but tidy one-bedroom on the Lower East Side. We order Chinese and empty a bottle of Syrah together. While a Netflix thriller murmurs in the background, we heavy pet each other on the couch. Her lips are a little dry, and her tongue tastes like soy sauce and lo mein. She desperately needs a mint, and the beige dress she’s wearing just isn’t flattering.

“It’s getting late,” I say.

“You could stay.”

“No. I’ve got to be up early tomorrow.” I leave before the film’s climax.

The next day, I text her a smiley emoji and ignore every one of her four replies. The day after this I surprise her at lunch. “I’m close, let’s meet.” We share a sandwich at an eat-in bodega and after twenty minutes I have her giggling hysterically, repurposing jokes from a comedy sitcom she used to love. Then on Friday, after we share bottle of Chianti in her kitchen, everything dark but the glow of our faces from a single candle flame, she pulls me into her bedroom.

The sex isn’t what I expect.

Jane is decent. Not great, just decent. She does some things that pleasantly surprise me. Others, not so much. And so, when it’s over and we’re lying under the sheets, I wonder if I might have erred in somewhere in my search.

“I love you,” Jane says, her body marble-gray in the pre-dawn light.

“I love you, too,” I say, and as I speak there’s this terrible gnawing itch above my belly and below my heart, a hunger for something not quite food, but just as necessary. I know this itch has been in me forever and will linger long after I’m dead and my corpse has rotted away.

“I’ve got to get to work,” I say, and rise from bed.

• • • •

I’m ensconced in my cubicle, patching an SSL exploit in the company’s servers, making sure to leave behind an array of back doors, when Jane forwards me an email someone sent her at two a.m. this morning.

From: Prometheus Vulture ([email protected])

To: Jane [redacted]

Subject: Samantha [redacted] is lying

Jane, BEWARE! Your ‘lover’ is not who she seems. The evil creature known as Samantha [redacted] has access to all of your personal data and is using it to manipulate you. She’s a dangerous psychopath and you need to stay the fuck away from her if you value your life. I say this as one who has been irreparably harmed by her. Sam has destroyed my life! Oh, and if you don’t believe me, here’s proof.

Sincerely,

Dani.

Attached to this email are spreadsheets of data: Jane’s excitement vs. time, pupil dilation vs. topic, weekly sleep patterns, daylight hours correlated with mood, GPS location history, textual analyses of conversations, Myers-Briggs personality models, etc., and all of this in easy-to-read Excel format, all of this data DaniDarknet snatched before she bricked my systems.

I can’t make a personal call at my desk, and I stew in rage all morning. As soon as I get a break, I rush outside to call her.

“Is it true?” she says. “Please tell me it’s bullshit, Sam.”

“Of course it’s bullshit! I can’t believe you’d even ask, Jane.”

“That time . . . at the spinning bar, when you got quiet. You were blinking a lot. You needed to get on the net.”

“It was a work thing, Jane. Don’t let this spammer poison your mind.”

“But it’s not just a spammer. This Dani knows you. Who is she?”

“The woman who hurt me.”

“Or maybe you’re the one who hurt her.”

“No, Jane. That’s what she wants you to believe! She’ll say anything to hurt me. That’s why I left her. She’s destructive.”

It’s so quiet I hear a distant car drive past on her end of the connection.

“Look, Jane. Even if it were true, that I somehow could use this information to seduce you, why would it matter? If you were selected as having the best traits from among millions, how is this bad? She wants you to believe I used this data to do what, exactly? To mold myself into the person you want? And how is this bad? Isn’t it best when both parties get the person whom they want?”

“Except in this case, one person is real and the other is a construct.”

“Jane, this is nonsense. I’ll come over and we’ll order a pizza and forget all about this.”

“No,” she says. “Not tonight.”

“Tomorrow then. I’ll come over at seven.”

“I don’t know, Sam. I need time to process.”

The connection-ending beep ignites a rage in my belly. This has gone beyond digital. I will find DaniDarknet and destroy her life.

At home, I finish the rest of the Lagavulin and smoke a joint and patch code and update servers and write long screeds in multiple forums about how the WordPress update leaves it open to JavaScript exploits, and generally do whatever I can to keep my mind off Jane. Nothing works.

Her feeds have gone dead. She’s taken off her watch and glasses, shut off her phone and computer. Even her bedside internet-clock-radio is off. For all I know, she might be on a flight to Amsterdam. But, no, I’d know that.

I bring my laptop to bed, and sometime after midnight, I pass out. I shiver awake as the morning light breaks my rippled sheets into hills of light and shadow. I’ve left the window open, and my breath puffs with frost. I rise to shut the window, when a blinking red light on my desk catches my eye.

On my phone, a voicemail.

“Sam. I’m . . . I’m sorry. I’ve been up all night thinking. You’re right. It doesn’t matter if any of it’s true. What’s real is how I feel. And, I love you, Sam. Let’s chill at my place after work, watch a movie or something. Will you eat pad thai? Call me.”

My screens awake first to Jane’s heart rate, then her blood pressure and pupil dilation. A minute later, GPS data and early work emails trickle in. She’s data-live again. I plop into my chair and sigh, lighting what’s left of the joint in the ashtray, work be damned. I’m fucking fantastic, aren’t I? Because not even my worst enemy could take her from me. I’m the goddamned queen.

Outside, a car honks. A bus drives by. The radiator hisses steam.

The THC filters into my blood, turning the morning sublime. I’ve got two hours before work, so I open a browser window, stretching and yawning as I decide what I want to work on. Before I realize what I’m doing, I’m typing into the search bar, “female, dark hair, blue eyes, smart-looking, glasses, attractive, twenties.”

I get 7,490,000 hits.

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel is a multiple Nebula Award-nominated writer and World Fantasy Award-nominated editor. His story “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” was a 2014 Nebula Award nominee for Best Short Story. And his story “The Sounds of Old Earth” was a 2013 Nebula Award nominee for Best Short Story. The story also made the 2013 Locus Recommended Reading List.

His short stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, io9.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, Electric Velocipede, Apex Magazine, and the anthologies Cyber World, Naked City, After, The People of the Book, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, and elsewhere. His first novel, King of Shards, was hailed as “Majestic, resonant, reality-twisting madness,” from NPR Books. Kressel is currently writing a near-future Young Adult thriller.

Kressel co-hosts the Fantastic Fiction reading series at the famous KGB Bar alongside veteran speculative-fiction editor Ellen Datlow. The monthly series highlights luminaries and up-and-comers in speculative fiction.