The Vanishing Mediator

Having fun on the internet.

dtx

A story of the Machine of Death by Christopher Osborn

The Root

One day, while walking to work, I found a small, pink piece of paper decorated with a bright red sticker in the shape of a heart. Written on it in loopy, whimsical cursive was “I love you, honey.”

It struck me as endearingly romantic, so I picked it up.

It lived in my wallet for a while, then moved to the top of my dresser. Periodically, its message would be obscured by loose change or unpaired socks. But whenever I cleaned, I would make sure that it was put right back where it had been. Where I could see it every day.

It made me feel good to know that love like that existed in the world. It may not have been mine, and it may not have been represented by anything more than just a dirty piece of paper, but it still existed. Someone was able to open their heart to another person. Able to share hopes, dreams, fears, secrets… With seven billion people on Earth, the odds that the right two are able to find one another are astronomical, but it happens all the time.

That’s the power of love. That’s what has caused thousands of generations of humanity to weep, wail, and cry in sorrow. To gnash their teeth and rend their garments. Though I suppose rending of garments applies to more positive outcomes of love, as well.

It’s something I believe in.

So it was an unsettling day when I – in the middle of a lovesick depression – looked at the message more closely. Closely enough to realize that the cursive was both loopy and whimsical enough to cause me to misread a single letter. And that I had treasured for over a year a message that read “I love you, money.”

First Sight

“You’re just a hopelessly romantic idiot, Eric.”

And this treatment from a friend. Terry slammed back another shot of Goldschläger and wiped his mouth with the back of his tie before continuing.

“What you need to do– Are you paying attention? What you need to do is just get out there and grab what you want. Literally. Go to a club, find a hottie in spaghetti straps, and grab… anything, really. Are you going to drink that?”

He pointed to the shot he’d set in front of me earlier.

“Uh, no,” I said. “My boss frowns on liquid lunchbreaks.”

“Yeah, well, your boss is probably on one of his own right now. Or his boss is. When you report to nobody…”

Terry drained the second shot.

you can basically do whatever you want. How’s that job going, anyway? Didn’t you win an award or something?”

“Would you believe that winning an award turns out to suck? Expectations are through the roof, and P&G haven’t come back since. Funny thing: Companies with award-winning soap packaging don’t want to change it that often. They just unified the line and –”

He interrupted me. “Unified? What?”

“They took my design and applied it to all of their soaps. Antibacterial, scentless, the kind with the scrubby… ball-things… What’re those called?”

“Hell if I know. I don’t use the stuff. Doesn’t that cost them, though?”

“Only a little. We just changed the colors, made the words a little different, and added exclamation points.”

“No, no! You have to charge big for that kind of thing! You had them right where you wanted them. Sales were probably through the roof, and they must have wanted that growth everywhere.”

I shrugged. “I don’t set prices.”

“You should. Or someone with sense should. First rule of marketing: People’s perceptions change based on price. Hang on, example time.”

“You really don’t have to –”

But Terry had already ordered two more shots. When they arrived, he slid one in front of me. The other, he raised up to eye level.

“Now, pretend this is vodka.”

“But it’s Goldschläger. That’s schnapps.”

“No, it’s Grey Goose. Use your imagination.”

“I can see the gold flakes.”

“Imagination!”

“Why didn’t you just order shots of vodka?”

“Because nobody with money drinks shots of vodka. Play along, geez.”

Terry cleared his throat and started again.

“Now, this vodka cost me a certain amount of money. Let’s say, two billion dollars. That’s top-quality vodka. Purified spring water and Parisian wheat probably went into its manufacture.”

“So?”

“Exactly. It doesn’t matter what goes into vodka. By definition, it’s colorless, odorless, and flavorless. The only thing that makes it better is better filtering. Cheers.”

The transubstantiated vodka disappeared down Terry’s throat, and the shot glass joined its brethren upside-down on the edge of the bar.

I surreptitiously slid my shot glass closer to him.

“That explains why my soap expenses have gone up so much over the last year.”

“Yeah, what they’re doing is limiting access. Perceived supply decreases, actual demand increases.”

I thought for a moment, and said, “Make people think they’re buying a privilege, not a product.”

“Catchy! I like the alliteration. That artist brain of yours comes up with a gem every once in a while, I have to admit. Can I steal that?”

“It’s not stealing if I give it to you.”

Terry pulled a Moleskine notebook from a pocket of his suit and wrote in it.

“Great. That, I can use. I’m not big on presents, though. Let’s make it a proper transaction.”

He shook the Moleskine and something flat and glossy fell out, which he pushed toward me. A business card. It read “modMatching”, in that intercaps style that the internet had made so popular.

“Mod… Matching?” I asked.

“It’s a matchmaking service. One of my latest investments. I think you’d do well with them. Heck, you were the model for several of the use cases I had them walk me through during due diligence. A lonely, single art designer living in the heart of Boston. Reasonably attractive, but his relationships seem never to last more than a week or so.”

“I’m reasonably attractive, am I?”

“I exaggerated a little. But I also de-exaggerated that your relationships don’t last because you date shrieking harpies. At least, I think I did.”

“OK, sure. But what’s the ‘mod’ stand for?”

“It’s doesn’t matter. It’s marketing. Model, modern, modular, moderate… Maybe not ‘moderate’; this service is not cheap.”

“Dating services feel like desperation to me. I’m not sure the kind of person I’m looking for –”

“Eric, did we not just have this discussion? I said it’s not cheap. Just the fact that we charge is enough to make most people think that it’s for the elite. And the people who already consider themselves elite jump at the chance to prove it. Tell you what. Give me your shot and I’ll make it an even better deal.”

After only a slight gesture of acceptance from me, Terry drained another shot. He snatched the card out of my hand and scribbled on its back.

“There,” he said. “Show them this card, and you won’t even have to pay. Just see Dr. Qawi – I wrote his name so you won’t forget.”

The back of the card looked like a rough draft of a Jackson Pollack painting. Then again, if anyone could read lousy handwriting, it would be a doctor.

Underneath the ballpoint pen ink, though, was a slogan from the original printing. I couldn’t quite make it out at first, but when I tipped the card so that it caught the light better, its gloss reflected back legibly.

Then you’re meant to be together.

Meant to be together. Big words, coming from a business card.

But right then, at that moment, they must have been the words I wanted… or needed.

“So, what do you think?” Terry asked impatiently.

“Well, I think I want to throttle whoever designed this. You have to manually kern Gill Sans; it doesn’t work right on computers. Poorly optimized metrics.”

“You are just talking gobbledygook at me. You know that, right?”

“I think I’ll give it a try anyway.”

An alarm on Terry’s cell phone went off. He slapped at his breast pocket to make it stop.

“Great! You caved right on schedule, so it is time for me to go. I have to convince people to give me money so I can spend it. You can go back to… soap packaging or whatever.”

“I’m working on potato chips now, actually.”

Or whatever,” Terry repeated. He surveyed the bar as he pulled out his wallet. “Five shots, huh? I had one before you got here, so… That’s three for me and two for you, right?”

Heart-Shaped Box

The card burned a hole in my pocket for several days. Once I decided to visit modMatching, I did so right after work. They were a short T ride away, at Downtown Crossing on the Red Line.

Inside was a long, crowded waiting room. Terry hadn’t mentioned how popular this service was. I pushed through to the far wall and the reception desk. An interchangeable nameplate announced that the secretary’s name was Navah.

“Hi, Navah,” I said.

“Navah,” she replied. With the accent on the second syllable.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK, I should probably be used to it by now. Are you here to sign up for our matchmaking service?”

She pointed to a pile of clipboards and a mug filled with golf pencils.

“Actually, I’m here to see Dr. Qawi.”

“Sir, this isn’t a doctor’s office; we don’t take appointments. If you sit down and fill out an application, you’ll be assigned an amorologist who can assist you with your modMatching experience.”

“No, I have a… a card…”

I got Terry’s business card from my wallet and placed it on the desk, writing side up. Navah eyed it skeptically at first, but then:

“Is this Mr. Gunderson’s handwriting?” she asked, meaning Terry.

“Yeah. He gave me that card. He’s a friend of mine.”

Navah’s eyes went wide.

“Then you must be Eric.”

“I’m an Eric; I don’t know why you’re putting –”

“This is great. I feel like I know you so well already. I’m sorry about all the shrieking harpies, by the way. Let me page Dr. Qawi for you.”

Which she did.

“He’ll be right out, I’m sure.”

I leaned in closer to her. “Does… everyone here know who I am? I don’t want to sound paranoid, but if even the secretaries know clients’ personal details –”

“Oh, no. I’m an amorologist, too. We’re rotating front desk duties until we can hire a full-time secretary. Don’t worry. There’s only 23 of us.”

I didn’t have time to be bothered by that before Dr. Qawi appeared. A broad smile painted his face, and his hand was extended in greeting.

“Eric! How wonderful to meet you. I feel like I know you so well already.”

“I know, right?” Navah exclaimed.

“Let’s talk more in my office. You can skip all this paperwork.”

Navah waved as we left.

Dr. Qawi led me down a long hallway, with many doors set into both sides. Through the doors’ small windows, I could see people in lab coats assisting other applicants. Some were frantically filling out forms, and others were taking what looked like a dexterity test. In one room, everyone was just shouting at each other.

That room did not appeal to me.

We stopped in front of one particular door – the only one without a window – and Dr. Qawi unlocked it, revealing a large office. He headed inside, and I followed.

“Those people in the lab coats, are they the amorologists?”

“Oh, yes. It’s sort of a uniform we have here.”

We sat in folding chairs and Dr. Qawi continued.

“Thank you so much for finally coming in, Eric. I’m sure you’ve heard that you occupy a special place here at modMatching. It’s little exaggeration to say that this company was built on your failed relationships. Because of that, I think I can let you ‘inside’ on some of our methods.”

Dr. Qawi steepled his fingers, thought for a moment, and asked:

“Eric, how are you going to die?”

“How… am I… what?” I sputtered.

“Do you know?”

“No, of course not.”

“I do. Or, I can. Not through actuarial tables, not probabilistically. I can tell you – scientifically, with certainty – how you are going to die.”

“You can see into the future or something?”

“Just a glimpse. But a glimpse is enough to be able to start putting the puzzle pieces together. Let’s say you find that 10,000 people in San Francisco are going to die in an EARTHQUAKE. A man in Ohio with the same fate is going to be looking to move at some point in the future. A woman in Miami is going to be CRUSHED BY POLAR BEAR. She should consider avoiding zoos. Though what might get her is a visit only an hour west of here to Worcester, home of Polar Beverages and their many bear-themed billboards.”

He paused, as though waiting for me to laugh. I did not, and he eventually continued.

“But what if two people who have never met are going to die in the same way? Not as part of a larger group, but just those two. What would that mean? People who are meant to die together will probably be very close in the events leading up to their deaths.”

It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.

“This… This sounds incredible. But I can’t believe that you just magically know how people will die.”

“It’s not magic, no. It’s this.”

Dr. Qawi gestured to our left. I turned, expecting a crystal ball to have materialized when I wasn’t looking. But it was just a desk, with a computer on top of it.

“Oh, a computer. I thought –”

“Not exactly. It’s a machine I invented. It takes a sample of your blood, and tells you how you’re going to die. It’s sometimes vague, but it’s never wrong. By the way, were you told what the ‘mod’ in modMatching stands for?”

“Lots of things.”

“Those are just for marketing. It’s named after this. The Machine of Death.”

“Machine of Death. M, o, D, matching. modMatching. If you’re meant to die together…”

“Then you’re meant to be together. Exactly.”

“And when people are going to die in the same way, you pair them up?”

Dr. Qawi leaned back and stared at the ceiling.

“If only it were that simple. We’ve had just one couple whose predictions and circumstances matched perfectly. It took thousands of samples to find them, but we needed a trial couple to get funding. Thomas and Mary Jenkett. They live out in Watertown, married already. Proudest day of my life.”

“So they have no idea that they’re together because of how they’re going to die.”

“No, I told them once they got engaged. I figured we owed them that much. Also, we paid for the wedding. And since then, we’ve refined the process into a workable, repeatable system. We can determine to a high degree of confidence whether two people’s similar fates are actually one shared fate.”

“But only if the machine is actually never wrong,” I said.

“It’s complex, but it is based on solid physics theories. Actually, my first attempt at controlling the effect resulted in a Machine of Life. But everyone’s results read SHOVED HEADFIRST THROUGH VAGINA.”

“What, really?”

“No, I’m only joking. All this talk of death has a way of darkening the mood.”

“Oh, OK. Good. Because that would have been –”

“Some people’s read CAESARIAN SECTION, of course.”

“In any case, that information wasn’t very useful. It’s easier to go backwards than forwards, but I discovered that by measuring and comparing the resonances of the quantum –”

“Nope!” I shouted all but involuntarily. “That was the password: I now regret asking. The answer is magic.m As far as I’m concerned, that machine contains chicken bones and a chalk transmutation circle.”

“No one ever wants to hear the full explanation.” Dr. Qawi looked almost forlorn. “But that’s OK. Science doesn’t demand your understanding to work, only your participation. So, are you ready?”

“Ready for what?”

“To participate… in science!”

His unbridled joy was intoxicating. And if the machine worked as he claimed, then whether I did or didn’t was predetermined. So the only thing to do was to follow my heart.

And see to whose heart it led me.

“Yes,” I said. “I am ready to make this happen. I don’t like needles, but as long as I get a comfortable couch and a cookie at the end, I think I’ll get through it.”

“Why in the world do you need those?”

“Well, I’ve never donated blood before, but I’m pretty sure they give you juice or cookies at the end. Right? To raise your blood sugar, or something?”

“That won’t be necessary. It’s made from a glucose monitoring device; it only takes a drop of blood. I could… still get you a cookie. If you want.”

I sheepishly ignored his offer and put my finger into the machine. It whirred for a moment, and something tapped against my finger. More whirring, then silence.

I let out the breath I’d been holding.

“If nothing else, it’s good practice for if I ever get diabetes.”

Dr. Qawi frowned. “If the machine prints DIABETES, try to keep that optimism.”

The machine whirred again. A curled bit of paper slid out from it, looking just like a receipt from the grocery store. Dr. Qawi tore it from the machine.

“Do you want to see it?” he asked.

“Not at all.”

And it went into a manila folder.

“In that case, you’re all set. We’ll give you a call when we find enough people with high correlation, and you can all meet one another.”

I stood up, and Dr. Qawi and I shook hands.

“This goes without saying,” he said, “but everything I’ve told you doesn’t leave this company. The Jenketts signed NDAs as long as their arms. I hope we can count on you to be just as… discreet?”

“I’m not even sure how I would explain it. Not without going cross-eyed.”

Dr Qawi laughed. “It’s surprisingly effective security. Here, let me show you out.”

On the way home, I bought myself a whole box of cookies.

The Dating Game

The call came only a week later. The event was at 7:00, at an Irish pub near the Government Center stop on the Green Line. I was told that being late was not an option.

That gave me just enough time to get home from work and reapply deodorant before heading out again. I arrived at 6:45, but my name badge was the only one remaining on the sign-in table. Number M15, last to arrive. An inauspicious start.

I slouched in a chair and sighed.

“Relax, Eric,” someone said, and patted me on the shoulder.

I looked up. It was Navah.

“Is this how you get for all your dates?” she asked jokingly. “I checked the list, and nobody’s half-bird, so you’re already doing fine.”

“Ah, you’ve struck at the heart of the problem. I psych myself out so much. And that’s even aside from…”

“Aside from what?”

“You know. The predictions –”

“Eric,” Navah interrupted, “I insist, as an official representative of modMatching, that my official position is that I do not know what ‘predictions’ you are referring to.”

“Official, you say?”

“Twice, even.”

“I’d sure like an official cover story. Soap packaging and potato chip bags? Maybe I could say I’m a space archaeologist instead.”

“If you get stuck, remember our motto: You’re meant to be together. So just relax and be yourself. I admit, it’s somewhat clichéd advice, but it’s never been more applicable. The future comes when it comes, and you’re rushing toward it at a rate of one second per second.”

“Knowing that my future is written down on a slip of paper –”

“Which I insist I know nothing about.”

“Yes, OK. If that, then what you said would help me feel a lot better. So, hypothetical thanks. You sure it’s not you I’m here to meet?”

“Nope, sorry.” Navah held up her left hand. “Already engaged. Outside the company and its methods.”

“Is there supposed to be a ring on your finger?”

“Hm? Oh, right. I don’t wear it on the clock; we want the amorologists to seem approachable and available so that, um…”

I picked up where she trailed off.

“Basically, to make what just happened happen.”

She shrugged. “It’s not you in particular. It’s marketing.”

“Hopefully there’s someone here looking for the world’s biggest rube. If a prediction ever comes out as RUBE-RELATED INCIDENT, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”

From a corner of the room, a bell rang. 7:00.

“Just relax,” Navah repeated. “It’ll turn out great. I have to go be official for a while.”

She waved as she disappeared into the crowd. A few moments later, she and a gaggle of lab-coated amorologists addressed the room.

The system was similar to speed dating, they explained. Five minutes per pairing, and those minutes were anything-goes. Talk, wrestle, stare at each other… Whatever it took to decide your compatibility, as long as it was PG-13.

That drew snickers from several members of the crowd.

We all sat down, and the bell rang again.

Dyanne, number F7.

“I didn’t even learn English until I turned 20. But I think I’m adjusting to city life pretty well. I have a job and an apartment, and I haven’t bitten anyone. Mom told me that people don’t do that, and I’m glad I listened. I won’t lie, though. Sometimes I do miss my friends. But I’m sure they’ve all moved on; deforestation is ravaging this country. They’re probably running with new packs, litters by their sides… But I’m monopolizing the conversation, I’m sorry. Usually I have better manners than this. I mean, I wasn’t raised by bears.”

Pass.

Shannon, number F9.

“I mark that thine eye hath marked my baselard. I assure thee, all meet registrations have been made with the local constabulary. None be in peril or hazard from my blade but for those who would seek to convey my coinage. I shall not leave my liberty be impugned by blackwretches, neither in provincial nor country matters. Some would hold my like as merely touched. However, I hold contrariwise. I say thee, the protector and protectee must be self-similar, else there can be no– Oops! Can we pause here? I have to go feed the meter.”

Pass.

Amanda, number F11.

“The problem is, even if you work in fashion, you so rarely get to see people dressed up. There are people here in jeans, can you believe it? But I try not to judge. I just love clothes, and I love dressing appropriately for occasions and locations. I wouldn’t have worked so hard to break into the business if I didn’t sweat the details. I even considered checking this place out beforehand, after I got the call from my amorologist. But I decided that an Irish pub would probably have lots of green and dark wood. Totally nailed it. The little touches really make a difference, especially because there’s so much psychology behind color.”

“Pass!”

She tilted her head. “Sorry, did you just say pass?”

“I… can’t believe I said that out loud.”

“You seem very excited to pass on me.”

“No, the other – You pass, not I pass… on you. I mean, look, that’s really interesting. I had a color psychology problem at work just yesterday.”

“Oh, really?” she asked. “What do you do?”

“Nothing I consider exciting. I’m a consumer products packaging designer. So, cereal boxes, water bottles, spaghetti sauce labels. That kind of thing.”

“Any good?”

“Well, I did win a national award last year for soap packaging. Just look for the box of Ivory with the three swooshes; that’s my handiwork.”

“Hey, congratulations.”

“Thanks. But right now I’m working on potato chip bags, and it’s surprisingly hard.”

“I can imagine. Those bags get manhandled on their way to the shelves.”

“Exactly! The top gets crumpled in, and that’s where the logo is. It’s the classic form-follows-function problem, since they have to be filled with air. There’s no avoiding it.”

“See, it’s the opposite problem in fashion. We have to cover up the function. It has to look effortless, laws of physics be damned. I made this dress –”

“Really? Yourself? It looks great. Is it a prototype for a designer?”

“Ah, I just threw it together in my spare time. But thank you. So, I made this dress, and these straps are just decoration. See?”

She slipped a strap from one shoulder, and waved that arm around.

“I could turn cartwheels like this – or even with both of them loose – and I’d still look this good. Wouldn’t get arrested, either. The trick is down here, in the midriff. I sewed in some boning, and that’s what’s holding everything up. You can’t even tell that I’m not wearing a bra.”

“I’ve been looking for this whole conversation, and I couldn’t tell.”

I’m sure I winced once I realized what I’d said. I must have. I winced on the inside, for sure. If it showed on my face, Amanda didn’t comment. She only raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, you have, have you?”

“I am… just saying so many things out loud tonight…”

“Now, why could that be, I wonder? It couldn’t possibly be the boning, could it?”

“No, it’s definitely something having to do with boning.”

“You say interesting things when you’re not thinking, Eric. Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”

“But you have me backwards.”

“Do I?”

“I’m saying exactly what I’m thinking.”

“That’s even more interesting.”

Amanda smiled.

I smiled.

I could feel the emotion pouring out of her.

Her eyes and my heartbeat were the entire universe.

But then, all at once, the spell was broken. Everything that was neither her nor me began to exist again. All caused by the worst sound in the world: The ringing of that damnable bell.

Amanda and I both turned back from the bell and stared at each other, wide-eyed.

“Um…”

“Right.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think –?”

“Totally.”

We grabbed our pencils and scrambled to fill in the “5—Extremely Compatible” columns on our rating sheets as fast as we could. We each saw what the other was doing and laughed.

“Check marks, huh?” she asked.

“Hey, they’re faster than Xs.”

“What? No way! It’s a swooshing motion. I thought you would know all about swooshes, Mr. Award-Winner. I bet, in the time it takes you to make ten check marks, that I can – No, wait, I’m sorry. We have to…”

“Yeah. We have to.”

Neither of us wanted to actually say the words that would end it. But F10 and M12 were standing very close, with crossed arms and dour looks.

“It was great to meet you, Eric.”

“You, too, Amanda.”

And we moved on.

Each of the rest of the women I met with was a blur. By the time our five minutes were up, I’d forgotten her name and anything she’d said to me. They were all perfectly nice people, but…

But.

While the amorologists were thanking us all for our participation, Navah waved frantically to get my attention. She tapped her wrist, made a circle motion with one finger, and pointed out at the bar.

I may have been a rube, but I knew how to take a hint.

After about ten minutes of waiting – or a beer and a half – Navah dropped onto the stool next to mine.

“Buy me a drink, sailor?”

“Aren’t you engaged?”

“You got me.” She held up her left hand again, now adorned with –

“Whoa,” I said. “That is… one big diamond.”

“What, this old thing? It’s pretty big, I guess.”

“All right, I get it. I am officially no threat.”

“So you can buy me a drink because you owe me, not because you’re trying to pick me up.”

“I owe you? For what?”

She cleared her throat. “What did Navah say to do?”

“She said to be myself…”

“And how did Navah say it would turn out?”

“She said it would turn out great…”

“And how did it turn out? I drink appletinis, by the way.”

“So great. There was this one, number F11 –”

“Amanda Webb.”

 and she is just coloring all of my thoughts. I don’t even want to leave this stuffy, overdecorated pub because it reminds me of her.”

“Yeah, I bet. If the interviews were six minutes long, I think the two of you would have run out of here looking for a Justice of the Peace. Would you want to see her again?”

“Yes. Definitely, absolutely yes. I cannot wait for you all to crunch the numbers.”

“Eric.” Navah shook her head. “Those numbers are… not the most important thing. We amorologists are supposed to look for when people gravitate toward one another. And there was definitely gravitation.”

“I sure thought so.”

“With a steady hand, I could have put a shot glass in orbit around you. It was like the Jenketts all over again. Would you want to see her again on Saturday at 2:00? Say, at the Boston Public Garden?”

“If she wants to. I think it went well, but there’s no way to know…”

Navah showed me the face of her cell phone, opened to an e-mail program.

Yes. Definitely, absolutely yes.

— Amanda

“You want to thank me? Invite me to the wedding. I’ll have the chicken, my plus-one will have the beef.”

A Lifetime To Forget

“I used your soap this morning.”

That was the first thing Amanda said at the start of our date.

We met under the statue of George Washington. She had arrived first, a vision in sky blue and white with matching parasol. She must have designed them herself; they both looked as though they were made of countless clouds. She spun the parasol slowly as we walked and talked.

“That’s what I get for not locking the front door,” I said in reply.

“Ha, ha. I was shopping, and I saw the three swooshes. So I decided to give it a try.”

“And?”

“Nothing special. Though I did learn that Ivory doesn’t float anymore. At least, not the kind with the microbeads.”

“Huh? What’re those?”

“The scrubby ball-things. Did they do their advertised job? Do I look any cleaner than the last time you saw me?”

I pretended to inspect her face carefully. “Hmm. Well, I don’t know about cleaner. But in the daylight, you look even prettier.”

“Do I, now? I don’t think it’s from the soap. Must be the award-winning packaging.”

“You know, if we play this game every time I compliment you, our date will take all day.”

“That…” An enigmatic smile crossed her face. “That has its ups and downs. But you’re right. Let’s get all of the standard things out of the way. Then we’ll see what comes next.”

And so we learned each other’s favorite color. We learned which foods the other couldn’t stand, and which were our secret favorites. What things made us smile and what things made us scared.

“Needles,” I said. “Definitely needles. I can’t stand them. I’m really glad that I’ve been lucky enough never to need surgery.”

“Surgery, I would still be skittish about, probably. I have some… bad memories associated with the hospital. Needles are fine, though. I was scared when I was younger, but I grew out of it.”

“Well, maybe I still have some growing to do, then.”

“I’m just glad I didn’t have to go to the hospital to get my blood drawn last week.”

“May I ask for what?”

“For modMatching. The STD test. You got that, too, right?”

“Oh, uh…”

Amanda stopped walking.

“You got that, too, right?”

I turned back to her. She grabbed my hand and pulled down until our eyes were level. Normally, I would have had no complaints about looking a beautiful woman in the eyes. But there was a serious glimmer deep within them that made my heart skip a beat in an unpleasant way.

“Eric,” she said sternly, “tell me the truth. Did they take a sample of your blood at modMatching?”

“They –”

“Just yes or no, please.”

Well, given those two options…

“Yes.”

She inspected my face carefully. It was in much the same way as I had pretended to earlier, but with clear seriousness as its motivation, rather than flirting.

After an uncomfortably long time, she smiled.

“Good.”

“I pass?”

“Mhm. Just wanted to be sure. I can tell a liar.”

And we started walking again. I was a little flustered, so it took me almost five minutes to realize something that made my heart skip a beat… in a pleasant way.

She hadn’t let go of my hand.

Later, we rode on the swan boats, she to port and I to starboard. Amanda made it very clear to the attendant that “the lady” would not be needing to “check her umbrella” before getting on board.

“My amorologist mistook it for an umbrella when I met her, too,” she said as we pedaled and paddled. “Not this one in particular, though. I made it for this da–this kind of day. She laughed when I corrected her. But skin cancer is no laughing matter.”

“No, certainly not.”

“My heritage turns out to have its drawbacks sometimes. And if I can look stylish while staying healthy, then why not?”

“You definitely pull off stylish.”

“And healthy?”

I shrugged. “Still gathering evidence.”

“Oh, are you? Well, what would it take to convince you… No, focus, Amanda. Standard things.”

“I wouldn’t mind –”

“Standard things!” she said vehemently. “Anyway, it was my turn to laugh when she told me what her job title was.”

“Is amorologist a funny word?”

“It’s less ‘ha-ha’ funny and more ‘this milk tastes’ funny. Amor- comes from Latin and -ology comes from Greek. It should be philology.”

“But that word’s taken for something else. It’s the study of language from historical sources. Or something like that. I had an ex who got her degree in that field. Don’t know what she expected to do with it, though.”

“She must have been smart.”

“Smart, but upsetting. My friends have a collective nickname for the women I’ve dated: shrieking harpies.”

“Oh, my.”

“I… have not had the best of luck in love. So far. That’s what got me to sign up with modMatching. How about you? Any ‘interesting’ ex-boyfriends?”

Amanda didn’t answer, and she stopped pedaling. I waited as long as I thought was polite before speaking.

“You don’t have to –”

“I don’t have any ex-boyfriends. I… have an ex-husband. Sort of. He died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. We were very young, to be married. It just felt like the right thing to do. He didn’t tell me that he was sick. I don’t know why; I probably never will. But it all… everything fell apart so suddenly. I was mad, at first. I felt… tricked. Or cheated. If I’d known he was steadily deteriorating, that would have been one thing. Maybe I could have taken it more in stride? I don’t know. Just knowing that kind of thing in advance, it really helps people. It’s meaningful. You can prepare, you can be ready. It’s like clenching your jaw in anticipation of being punched. Even if it doesn’t soften the blow, it… it helps. Just knowing.”

She sighed.

“I don’t like deceit. I’m the suspicious type. So… Yeah, this is also a roundabout way of apologizing for overreacting earlier, about the blood sample. I hope you can see how…”

“No apology necessary. Not at all. What, are you apologizing for being yourself?”

“Hey… Eric?”

“Yes, Amanda?”

“How long have we been going in circles?”

After our somewhat dizzying boat ride, Amanda was noticeably quieter. Times when I expected her to launch into a story, she would only say “Yeah.” It was a difficult mood to feel out.

We bought sandwiches and a Harvard logo blanket, and had a makeshift picnic dinner on a hill. The sun was just beginning to touch the horizon as we lay and watched it.

“You know, I have tried dating other people,” Amanda said, apropos of nothing.

“I will try to be appropriately jealous.”

“You asked before if I had any exes. And I should. It’s been so long. But none of those relationships lasted any longer than a week. None of them… clicked. That’s what got me to sign up for modMatching.”

“Do you think we click?”

“Hang on, we’ll get there. Why did you let me talk about him?”

“Him?”

“Why did you let me talk about my late husband? We’re on a date. You and I, not anyone else. You’re supposed to try to steer the conversation back to you. Or be dismissive, at the very least. I… I shouldn’t be bringing up things like that on a first date.”

“We…” I took a breath, and started again. “We are on a date. And the goal of dating you, to be honest, is to see if I fall in love with you. To do that, I need to know all of you, not just the parts I can deal with easily. If talking about it makes you feel better, then who am I to say no?”

“I do feel as though a certain weight has been lifted.”

I took her hand and said, “It’s really just a long way for me to say that it doesn’t bother me. But in a way that’s, you know… charming, rather than begrudging.”

“Charming? Let’s not go crazy. Endearing, at best.”

“Only endearing? I couldn’t push it over the line?”

“Just short, sorry. But there’s still a little sunlight left. Do you think we’ve exhausted all the ‘standard things’ by now?”

“Nothing else comes to mind.”

“Good. Now for something non-standard!”

Amanda sat up and dug into her purse. She tossed onto the blanket two sheets of paper and two sharp #2 pencils. I picked up one of each, and the papers turned out to be Scantron sheets.

“You’re not asking me to rate our date, are you? It would be pretty favorable, but it’s a little –”

She thrust a finger up to my face. “No matter how endearing you act, you are not getting out of our race so easily, Mr. Award-Winner. You get checks, I get Xs.”

We did several heats. Just to be scientific, of course. We filled in bubbles until the sun disappeared.

“All right,” I said, “I admit it. Xs are faster… as long as you don’t care about accuracy. Look at this, here. You missed the column completely. No one would know which one you were trying to mark. B. C? Hidden option F?”

“Ah, but I was faster.”

“True. As long as we ignore accuracy, evenness, neatness, consistency…”

“Ahem.”

machine legibility…”

“Ahem!”

“As long as we ignore all those things,” I said jokingly, “I do see certain advantages to the swooshing method. I guess I have to say that you win.”

“Ooh, I win. But what do I win?”

So I kissed her.

And I honestly think I managed to take her by surprise. For an instant – just an instant – her hands flew up to push me away. But her conscious mind caught up with what was happening, and she leaned into it.

We eventually separated, and turned to stare at the horizon.

“Look at that, our date took all day anyway,” she said. “I guess that’s what happens when two people click.”

“Oh, that’s what happens. It’s been so long, I’d forgotten what it was like.”

“Me, too. But… but a memory is coming back, just vaguely.”

“Of what?”

“Of other things that happen when two people click…”

I’ll write no further of that night.

Total Eclipse

It had been hammered into me by popular media and a certain friend that a man must wait three days – no more, no less – before calling a woman after a successful date. It was as good a guideline as any.

The first day seemed to go by in an heartbeat. The second was considerably slower, due to work. I woke up, took the subway in ate lunch, and went back home. Possibly even in that order. Little made its way into my long-term memory until about 5:30, when the phone rang. I thought it would be Amanda.

“Amanda?”

“Bar. Now.”

And Terry hung up. I swallowed my disappointment. Also, I apologized to my co-workers for jumping up and running out of a design meeting.

After work let out, I found the bar Terry meant on only my second try.

“Hey, there he is!” he shouted in greeting. “Come here and drink. I’m buying.”

“Such magical words. Don’t have to tell me twice.”

I snatched Terry’s shot out of his hand and drank it. Goldschläger, as usual. I set the glass upside-down in the bar, next to… one, two, three, four other shot glasses.

“Wow,” I said, “you aren’t messing around tonight. Something to celebrate?”

“Just the opposite! It’s a funeral. And the worst kind: A funeral for money. I pulled my investment from modMatching. They had this trial couple that they matched –”

“The Jenketts, yeah.”

“How do you know who they are?”

“Dr. Qawi told me.”

Terry ordered two more shots as he contemplated this.

“But not… everything. Right?”

“He let me skip all the paperwork, and he told me about… the machine.”

Terry threw his hands up in disgust. “Aw, that’s no fun! You were supposed to do the dexterity test, maybe take a turn in the Shouting Room, the whole shebang. Make it an experience.”

The shots arrived, and he drank his immediately.

“Terry, I know you have a high alcohol tolerance –”

“It is from fine Scandanavian blood!” he shouted with an affected – though Russian – accent.

“Sure. Still, you should slow down. Or it’ll kill you.”

“Nope! While I was waiting for the repo men, I figured I’d take that creepy machine for a whirl. Just for kicks, you know.”

Terry triumphantly reached into his breast pocket, pulling out a curled bit of paper. One that looked just like a receipt from the grocery store. Printed on it in crisp, black letters was one word.

DTX

No pronunciation I tried made sense. “What the hell does it mean?”

“Not a clue. But it doesn’t spell Goldschläger, so I’m in the clear forever. Ooh, Everclear. Now there’s a –”

“Terry, the Jenketts?”

“Right, the Jenketts. I guess I don’t need that cover story. They seemed like a perfect match. Went to high school together, were each other’s prom date, lost contact in college. Both had the same creepy prediction from that creepy machine. INFERNO.”

“That’s simple enough, as long as it’s not a disco INFERNO. Did they drown instead?”

“Nope, their house burned down this afternoon. Huge fire, took out two neighbors’ houses, too.”

“That just proves –”

“Mary died. Thomas survived.”

My jaw dropped. “Oh. Oh, shit.”

“No kidding. Something went snap in his head, and he blabbed the whole thing to the press. Guy’s tried to self-immolate twice already; he’s on suicide watch at the hospital. I pulled what was left of my investment, kicked all those… ametologists out, and started the shredders. The harder it is for the press to trace this back to me, the better.”

“You’re a monster.”

“Come on. I can’t have a business where the downside is that you might have the person you love ripped horribly from you by cruel, unforgiving Fate. That’s lousy marketing. Also, it’s how life works normally–no one would pay for it. So now I’m investing in this bar. One bottle at a time! Something good has to come out of this, geez.”

“Something good did come out of it. Something great. Did you read any of those files before you shredded them?”

He shrugged. “Of course not.”

“They matched me with someone, Terry. And she’s wonderful. She designs clothes, and she carries a parasol, and when she smiles, it… she just… Ah, I can’t even describe it. We had one date, on Saturday, but it feels like forever.”

“Well, you better hope she doesn’t read the newspaper. Because tomorrow, this story is going to be everywhere.”

“You’re right. I have to go call her right now.”

“Breaking the three-day rule, huh?”

“Shut up.”

I toasted Courage, drank my shot, and headed outside. I hoped it would be quieter. And, frankly, I didn’t want Terry eavesdropping on the conversation.

It was raining. That should have been my first clue. The universe wouldn’t pass up a chance for a dramatic environment so easily. I ducked into a doorway and tried to protect my phone from stray raindrops.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Amanda. It’s Eric. Eric from… Eric.”

“Hi, Eric.”

“I’m calling because, um… I’m calling… you.”

I realized I should have thought of what to say before pressing Send.

“They shut down modMatching,” Amanda said.

“How did you hear about that?”

“It’s on TV. And it’s on the internet.”

I silently cursed the 24-hour news cycle.

She went on. “And there’s a man in Watertown who says he knows why. His wife died. He says he was supposed to die, too. That they have a box that tells you, in advance, how you’re going to die. And they’re using it to make money, of all things. So I’m thinking, That’s crazy. It must be crazy, right?”

“Tom Jenkett is… very depressed. He just lost his wife, and his house–”

“But the press didn’t release his name, or hers. They said they specifically can’t, not until he gets out of the hospital. Because he’s on suicide watch. You stole my heart, so I kept dismissing it before… But now I’m thinking, Eric knew the whole time. But I must be crazy. Tell me I’m crazy, Eric. Did you know?”

“I…”

“Just yes or no, please.”

It was a conversational zugzwang. Lying boded poorly in the long-term, and the truth hurt the short-term. I longed simply to say nothing, but…

“Yes.”

The sound of a stifled sob, and she disconnected.

I called back, but she didn’t answer.

Not a second time.

Not a third time.

“Damn, damn, damn! I told the truth. Isn’t everything supposed to be fine if you tell the truth?”

The urge to smash my phone was strong, but I convinced myself it wouldn’t help.

I paced back and forth in the rain. I needed to fix this. There had to be a way. I needed… something.

The machine.

It could see into the future, right? So I would… I wasn’t sure yet. But there would be time for plans once I had it. And for that, I needed Dr. Qawi.

Back in the bar, Terry was nowhere to be found. I went outside again and called him.

“Gunderson VC: It’s a privilege, not a product.”

“Terry, where the hell did you go?”

“Oh, hang on.” Muffled footsteps came from the phone for a few seconds. “So, after you left, I picked up a chick.”

“Already? But I was only gone for, like, five minutes.”

“One shot, one kill. What can I say? It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m wearing enough Axe to sink a battleship, so it was probably inevitable. Man, it’s one of the ametologists. I remember her, but I don’t know if she recognizes me.”

“Great. Good for you. I need Dr. Qawi’s phone number.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll get that to you. The train’s about to arrive. Wow, she’s impatient; she wants me to stand right on the yellow line.”

“Terry, I need that now.”

“God, fine.” Tapping sounds. “Nope, sorry. I looked through all the Ks in my contacts, and I didn’t see it. I’ll talk to you later!”

“His name,” I said through gritted teeth, “begins with Q. You wrote it down for me.”

“The train’s right here, and– That’s weird, she doesn’t look impatient anymore. Still, can’t I give it to you in the morning?”

“Dammit, Terry, quit screwing around and give me his phone number!”

A pause from the other end of the line.

“Wow. It’s not like you to shout.”

“Look, it’s just… You have all night together. You can be one train late. Help me out, will you?”

“This girl, she’s really something, huh?”

“She really is.”

“And it’s all because of me.”

“That’s… Sure, OK.”

“An accomplishment like that, I can take to my grave. Well, the train’s already left, so…”

Terry mumbled and tapped for a while, then my phone buzzed with a new e-mail notification.

“Did that make it through?” Terry asked. “I’m at Downtown Crossing; the data reception’s lousy.”

“No, I got it. Thanks. Sorry to steal your time like this.”

“It’s not stealing if I give it to you. And you’re right, it’s just one train. I wasn’t thinking. Or, I was thinking, just with my– Anyway, it’s OK if she’s angry. I love aggression.”

“Just go get laid.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice. Check you later, man.”

“Later.”

Show Me

I arranged to meet with Dr. Qawi at his Cambridge apartment late the next morning.

“Welcome!” Dr. Qawi said as the door opened. “Won’t you come in? Have you had lunch yet? I could make us some tea and scones.”

Upon entering, it did not look like the kind of place in which I wanted to eat anything, especially food. More like a workshop than a place to live.

“Um, no. But thank you. Sorry that I’m late. Downtown Crossing was crawling with police, so the subway took forever. I switched to the bus instead of sitting through it.”

“That’s quite all right. I’m currently unemployed, as you know, so I have all day. Let’s talk in the living room.”

We sat on his couch, which was surprisingly new. On a low table in front of us, the Machine of Death loomed. Or so I saw it. Dr. Qawi probably saw just another black box. But to my eyes, it absorbed all the light in the room.

“Dr. Qawi, I’ve been thinking since we spoke last night, and I have an idea. But I don’t know if it’s feasible. So, the machine can see into the future, with magic or whatever.”

“It’s a simple –”

Or whatever,” I repeated. “And right now it’s… ‘tuned’ or ‘balanced’ for future events that result in the death of the person whose blood sample it reads.”

“It is taking effort not to correct you.”

“Which is what makes it a Machine of Death. Now, you said that it used to look back, and it was a Machine of Life. Could you modify it to look at other important life events?”

“That would be considerably more difficult, since none of them are endpoints. But it should be possible, theoretically. As long as it would produce a detectable resonance in the quantum – I mean, as long as it… Well, which ones did you have in mind?”

“Can you make it,” I asked, “into a Machine of Love?”

“Tricky.”

Dr. Qawi worked for several hours. He occasionally asked for my help holding something down, but mostly I fanned away fumes from the soldering iron. When the job was done, he sat up and wiped his brow.

“All right. That ought to do it.”

“Great. So I’ll get a prediction, and it will read AMANDA WEBB. Then we’ll bring the machine to her, and… You know, I have no idea where she lives. But I’ll find her. And hers will read ERIC –”

“If it doesn’t have your name on it, all this work will have been for nothing. We need to test the modifications first. Unfortunately, all the sharps from modMatching were repossessed. But I do still have access to some of the blood samples.”

“Are they nearby?”

“They’re in the refrigerator in the kitchen.”

I stopped. And turned toward Dr. Qawi slowly.

“All right, look,” he said. “The repo men were packing up everything in sight, so I grabbed what I could. And I may only be a physicist, but even I know that you can’t just pour human blood down the sink! I was looking for a safe way to dispose of the samples, but if we can use them for science, then so much the better!”

Without further comment, I retrieved a rack of labeled test tubes from the refrigerator.

Dr. Qawi drew blood from one of the tubes into a disposable plastic pipette and dripped it carefully onto a slide. The slide went into the machine, which whirred, paused, and whirred again.

“You collected these under the guide of STD testing, right?” I asked.

“Which we also actually performed, of course.”

“But what about me?”

“Mr. Gunderson provided us with your full medical history. You… didn’t give it to him?”

“The next time I see Terry, he’s a dead man.”

The machine finished processing, and printed. Dr. Qawi tore off the result and showed it to me.

THY NEIGHBOR

I grimaced. “Well, that’s not… wrong. But it’s not helpful. Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Not who someone should love, but who they will – or do – love.”

“It isn’t quite so exact. But I think I can make a tweak like that, yes.”

He dove in with his soldering iron, and I continued fanning. Twenty minutes later, it was time for a second trial.

“Let’s use someone else this time,” I suggested.

Pipette, tube, slide. Then into the machine, which now clicked as it whirred. After more processing than usual, the result printed. Dr. Qawi held it up.

MONEY

“Huh. I think I’ve run into that person before,” I said. “But, no, this isn’t right either. Can’t you keep tweaking it?”

“I could, but I don’t think we can get it as exact as you want anytime soon. It took me months to convert it from the original Machine of Life. Besides, I ran a dating service. If I could easily have created a Machine of Love, wouldn’t I have?”

I sighed and sank back onto the sofa.

“There has to be something useful we can do with this…”

“If people won’t pay for it, then it’s not worth anything. So it’s not useful. Or so says Mr. Gunderson.”

Useful.

Marketing.

Making money.

Softening the blow.

Knowing in advance.

“Put it back the way it was,” I said. “Make it a Machine of Death again.”

“What? Why?”

“I’ll be back in an hour. Are there any drugstores nearby? I’m going to buy every sharp they have.”

It actually took two hours. But with a box full of diabetic sharps, a folding table, and a Machine of Death, Dr. Qawi and I set up shop at the Public Gardens. A long period of boredom began. Neither of us had the natural showmanship needed to draw people in.

But when a police officer passed by to make sure that our operation was aboveboard, we managed to get him to participate. Fortunately, Dr. Qawi’s phlebotomy license from modMatching was still valid.

His prediction read KIDNEY FAILURE. Nothing that was on the job, nothing that would suddenly separate him from his wife, and nothing that would keep him from collecting his full pension.

Just like that, we had a police escort.

A young woman with a dyed-blue streak in her hair: TYPE 2 DIABETES. “If you go talk to Dr. Qawi, he can teach you how to use a blood glucose monitor.”

Our one-officer escort became two. Some grateful person donated a booth-sized tent to give applicants privacy, and help us look more legitimate. I called in sick to work. We made several readings every hour.

A man in his late forties, with a thick French accent: FROGS. “No, sir, we’re laughing with you.”

People who had already gotten their predictions were now bringing their friends and family members to get their own. We periodically paid people not in line to go to drugstores and buy new sharps, which happened more and more frequently. The line became long enough to start disrupting normal Public Garden services.

A woman wearing a headscarf, with no eyebrows: PANCREATIC CANCER. “I’m… so sorry. But no matter how many times you come back, it’s going to say the same thing.”

My sick days at work ran out, and I started burning through vacation time. Even that ran out, and I just stopped answering my cell phone. Several manufacturers of diabetic sharps sent us boxes of their product. They probably hoped for promotional consideration, but I tore the logos off. Between readings, I worked on writing down what I wanted to say to Amanda if I ever saw her again. Two mounted police officers trotted up and down the line, making sure everything was OK.

A high-school aged girl, clutching her boyfriend’s hand: LIGHTLY TOASTED, BUTTER ON ONE SIDE. “Yeah, I have to admit, that one’s a real head-scratcher.”

Work had long given up on getting me to come back in. I knew that my lies were exposed after giving TV interviews, and nothing was left for me there but a pink slip. The pile of index cards on which I poured my heart out to Amanda grew. The line for readings was so long that it was more of a crowd. People were waiting more than a day to reach its front.

A hyperventilating man: LETHAL INJECTION. “I… think it malfunctioned; this one’s blank. Come back in a week. Or two.”

People brought us newspapers from all over the world, showing how they had heard of us. Dr. Qawi had become famous back in Pakistan, and people there were sending his grandparents money in the hope that it would somehow reach him. What they expected him to do without any blood samples, I did not know. I long ago gave up trying to judge how big the crowd was. I just kept giving results.

A woman in a very pretty dress, with oversized sunglasses –

“Eric, don’t read it.”

“Amanda.”

She took off her sunglasses. “It’s going to be the same as yours. And the paper said that you haven’t gotten your own prediction yet.”

“I… just never saw the point. But I’m glad that it helps other people.”

“If you keep up this pace, it will be about a million people by the end of the month.”

“Only one matters to me.”

“Eric…”

I stood up and started reading what I had written to her.

“Amanda, you said I stole your heart –”

But she smacked the cards out of my hands.

They caught the wind and floated over to the crowd of waiting people, falling like snow. People started reading them, each seeing one sentence, one thought, one expression of the feelings that I had worked so hard to distill into words. Even though none of them knew the whole story, the pieces were enough for many to figure out what was happening.

Amanda looked me in the eyes.

“It’s not stealing if I give it to you.”

So I kissed her.

And I honestly think I managed to take myself by surprise. The crowd cheered, and for an instant – just an instant – no one cared that I was holding up the proceedings. But reality and human nature set in, and the people near the front started to press in close.

“I think they’ve been waiting for a long time,” Amanda said.

“Not as long as I have.”

“Still…”

Dr. Qawi rolled his eyes. “Oh, get out of here. I’ll take over. I only built the damn thing, after all.”

As soon as we walked out of the tent, Amanda and I were on our second date.

Later, a third. A fourth, a fifth…

Eventually they stopped being dates, and they became just “being together.”

And since we seemed to like it so much, we decided to be together forever.

’Til Death

It was difficult to explain to our relatives exactly how we had met and fallen in love. We were roundly dismissed as crazy. Or, at best, young and crazy. But…

But.

If we choose to believe the methods of Dr. Qawi, Navah, and everyone else from modMatching…

If we choose to believe the words of a machine that sees a glimpse of the future based on just a drop of blood…

And if we choose to believe the feelings in our own hearts…

Not even death will us part.