Sunday, October 4, 2015

Love and Guarantees by Meradeth Houston

(Okay, a quick disclaimer on this story: I sat down to write something "scary" for the monthly theme, and I started thinking about things that I find terrifying, one of which is the concept of soul-mates--really, I know that sounds weird, but think about it: one person you're meant to be with, but have no guarantee you'll meet? Or be the same age? Or have anything in common with? There are so many freakish things about the concept! Don't believe me? Read this! (I adore XKCD!) Anyhow, somehow, this is what came from that line of thinking. Blame my muse, she's apparently having a bad day.)

Sometimes love is the scariest thing of all...

We all know they are out there. That one person. Guy, girl, someone meant just for us. We’ve seen
our parents, watched them in their relationships—the kind that click and work out. Ever since the scientists figured out how to do the iris mapping and comparisons, it’s been possible to meet and find that person. It’s supposed to be beautiful. Magical, even.

I’ve heard tales of what it was like, before, before. When people didn’t know how to find their other half that made them whole. You could spend your whole life looking, staring people in the eye as you walked down the street, every single day, hoping, praying, to feel that click. You’d see it happen, sometimes, I’ve heard: friends would get lucky. The one-in-ten-billion shot that they found that person.

“That gave everyone hope,” my History teacher told us. “When the world needed it.”

“And before that?” I’d asked, ever the ridiculously curious twelve year old. My teacher had smiled, benevolent, as she twisted her wedding band on her finger.

“Before that, just how far before?”

“Before they knew there were matches? What did people do then?” I asked.

Her tight smile and quick glance out the window told me more than her words. “Before that, they didn’t think matches existed. It’s a marvel our species survived.”

A marvel we survived. Those words stuck with me. As I rode the train, rocking with the sway of the soundless magnets. Around me, cheerful couples laughed, small children cooed, and music tinkled from someone’s ear buds.

But people had to find love, back in those ages, right? Love had existed, certainly. Different from what we knew now, but in those old novels I’d found from the war-times, there had been matches. Love. Some security.

Not like now, though. Not now that anyone could be your match. Killing off your child’s match half a world away couldn’t be on any parent’s conscious. Funny how that had changed things.

My History teacher spoke as if it had been inevitable. Of course humanity had found a way to perfect Love. To end war. To direct our attentions to more productive matters. The first five matches moving to Mars had been proof of that, surely.


And now, now we were all registered at birth. The scan was quick, painless, easier than a camera flash. The database, officially run by the UN, was guarded closer than any bank vault.

Some people were luckier than others. They learned their match at a young age. Meeting on the playground, anyone could see their connection. Getting their official readings was just a formality at twenty. A piece of paper that told them what they already knew: that they were perfect for one another.

For the rest of us, the trek to pick up this information was enough to leave me vomiting in my bathroom.

What if he lived in the middle of nowhere? Another country? What if he was older? That didn’t happen much, but every once in a while a match came up where the people had a huge disparity in ages. That could be just gross.

My best friend had patted my shoulder and handed me a glass of juice.

“You don’t have to act on it. It’s not against the law to just ignore what you find out.” Her smile didn’t sit right: we both knew that would be dumb. Her match, who had arrived two months ago, was not what either of us had expected. She’d never considered that her other half would also be female. Of course that happened, but most people went in to get their papers knowing that ahead of time.

She’d decided not to do anything. It wasn’t what she wanted. Or so she’d thought.

But her match, a breathtakingly beautiful woman from New Seattle showed up on our doorstep two days after the paperwork had been released to my roommate.

I’d watched first hand as the two of them met. Scientists had it down to the exact chemicals, the chain of pheromones and reactions in the brain that explained what happened. They’d had plenty of people willing to be tested, of course. But it had still whispered of magic to me.

So, now, here I stood, waiting to get my papers. The train whispered to a stop and I stepped off, careful to avoid the crowds of people. Adds for everything from trips to the moon (“relive that honeymoon…on the moon!”), to the latest in nip-tucks (“keep them remembering the face they fell in love with at first sight”) plastered the walls. I ducked my head and rode the escalator up to the street.

A wall kept people away from the traffic—for safety’s sake. The barriers had been a recent addition, a way to ensure no one lost their match. The thought was inconceivable to those who had them.

As I approached the tall building that housed the Matching Office, a flutter of excitement tickled inside. I’d know. In just a little while, I’d know who my other person was. In a couple of hours, I could be even speaking with them.

It both pressed on my shoulders and lightened my step, making the trip inside and up to the twelfth floor an odd, hunched affair. The young woman in the elevator gave me a sympathetic look and a small smile as she exited.

The reception area was all white. Everything. Other than a few shadows, it seemed the whole place had been cleared of any color. While I think the designer had been going for official and scientific, it came off as frightening, and made me hope that I had avoided any puddles on the sidewalk.

The kiosk accepted my identification cards and told me to take a seat.

A bank of white, molded plastic chairs didn’t look inviting. My foot tapped a nervous rhythm as I settled onto the very edge of the seat.

Two minutes later, an honest-to-goodness real person came out to collect me. She was short, plump, and smiled too wide. It had been ages since I’d been greeted by anyone other than an automaton in an office, with the exception of my doctor’s office when theirs had come down with a virus.

Whatever the woman said while escorting me toward a meeting room at the back of the building was lost on me. She could have told me I’d been selected to colonize Neptune and I would have just nodded and smiled.

In just a few hours, I could be sharing parts of myself I never opened up about. About how much I had hated school. About how jealous I was of my roommate. About what I wanted to accomplish with my new art exhibit. And they might actually understand that. The thought made my plastered-on grin turn real.

The small room we entered held a desk, a chair, and a small screen and data center off to one side.

“Take a seat, my dear, and let me get things set up.” The woman’s voice finally penetrated my thoughts.

This seat, at least, was cushioned and comfortable as I settled into it.

The woman approached me with the scanner—a rod and tiny LED at the tip, that she held in front of my face. I obliged and held my eyes wide. Two flashes and the woman grinned at me.

“Well, you’re who you say are, Kati!” She said after tapping on the screen.

“Has anyone ever not been?”

She glanced over her shoulder at me, laughing a little. “Well, yes, sometimes.  People get nervous. And then there are those who don’t want to meet their match.” She shrugged.

Don’t want to meet them? The press of nerves from the morning made that not seem unreasonable.

“Well, are you ready for this?” the woman asked, tapping away on the screen again.

Science class had told me what she was doing. Every iris had a specific pattern that had originally thought to be unique, like a fingerprint. But once millions of people started being scanned, it was soon surmised that these patterns were not random. In fact, often, there were exact matches. And when these matches met, well, something funny seemed to happen.

A funny fluke of science, my History teacher had called it. I didn’t agree.

A rude beep came from the machine a moment later and we both jumped. “Well, that’s strange. Hold up a moment, deary.” The woman patted my shoulder and bustled from the room.

The screen at the data station just read “ERROR” in large red letters. I sighed. Some computer glitch with perfect timing.

I stared out the window, watching raindrops trickle down the glass, making patterns against the backdrop of the grid of windows across the street.

The door opened and two people entered, my original helper along with a younger woman. The younger woman busied herself with typing into the screen.

I watched them, my hands gripping my knees to keep myself still. Any moment now, I’d know a name. A place. My future. I could barely keep my breath even, and my heart rate was so high my bracelet was buzzing to alert me.

Then, another beep. A sigh of relief from both women. Then they both turned to look at one another.

“Run it again.” The tone my helper used made a chill creep across my scalp.

“You do it. I’ll check from the mainframe.” The younger woman kept her eyes trained on the white carpet as she raced from the room.

Neither of them would look at me, and my throat was far too dry to try and ask a question.

Another bing from the station and my helper let out a long sigh.

The younger woman poked her head back into the room, her eyes so wide she looked like something off a cartoon I’d seen in old history books. She just shook her head, her gaze skittering to me for the first time.

Her expression made my gut sink.

“I’ve never…” my helper said, her voice shaking.

“Me either.” The door clicked shut and my helper slumped onto the edge of the desk.

“This almost never happens,” she whispered. Her eyes met mine and I saw her glossy swim of tears.

I opened and closed my mouth several times and finally looked over at the screen, where more red words slashed through my confusion.

“Match deceased.”
Meradeth's never been a big fan of talking about herself, but if you really want to know, here are some random tidbits about her:

>She's a Northern California girl and now braves the cold winters in Montana.

>When she's not writing, she's sequencing dead people's DNA.

>She’s also an anthropology professor and loves getting people interested in studying humans.

>If she could have a super-power, it would totally be flying. Which is a little strange, because she's terrified of heights.

Find Meradeth Houston online, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Amazon, Goodreads, and of course her blog!

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