The Perfect Man

34 min read

The perfect man

Design-your-own boyfriends lack that certain something. Until they don’t. A short story.

Lauren McLaughlin

May. 30, 2006 | Martin was a mouth breather. Jim lacked ambition. Rennie’s head was too big. Craig licked my face like a dog.

But Pritchard. Pritchard is everything I want. And I’m not going to apologize about the way I met him. Especially not to my friends still slugging it out on LovePlanet.com. I did LovePlanet. Seventy-four dates with sixty-two men. You know what I learned? People lie. Sylvester was fifty-five, not thirty-five. Jacob was an unemployed bartender with halitosis, not a financial planner with a beach house. I admit I lied about my weight. All women lie about their weight.

But I can laugh at all of this now because I am off the roster. I am no longer "out there," as they say. And I didn’t have to lower my standards or search outside my geographic region either. What I had to do was stop searching and start designing. That’s right. I designed my boyfriend. I’m a busy woman. I don’t have time for the Toms, Dicks, and Harrys the world keeps throwing at me.

Enter AI4U, top-of-the-line virtual-companion designers. No, they’re not cheap, but get real, they’re custom-designing your boyfriend. If it’s cheap I’m not interested. Granted, he’s a Web-based AI, not a flesh-and-blood man. So what? This isn’t about sex and anyway, the physical part of a relationship always fades eventually.

The design process is easy. First step: Pick a physical template. A youth squandered on Monty Python reruns left me with a full-blown kink for English guys, so I chose a template called "Nigel" — think Michael Palin crossed with Laurence Olivier. Then, to assure he didn’t look overdesigned, I clicked the "random factor" option to introduce "lifelike imperfections."

As for Mr. Dreamboat’s personality, I had two options: I could allow AI4U to mine my Web habits, construct a psychological profile, and design my boyfriend’s personality to match. Or I could tell them in one hundred words or less exactly what I wanted. I chose the latter. I’m no privacy freak, but I didn’t want someone spying on my subconscious. Plus, when it comes to men, I know what I want. I don’t need some faceless software shrink hypothesizing about it.

I began with a firm list of no-nos culled from the rogues’ gallery of losers I’d dated over the years. Anyone bossy, intolerant, macho, repetitive, nosy, bookish, vain, foppish, anal, whiny, bipolar, fickle, sexist, nihilistic, or judgmental need not apply.

But I didn’t want Mr. Dreamboat to be defined by negatives, so I dredged the muck of my romantic archives for desirable traits. They were scant. There was Peter’s reliability. He said eight-fifteen, he meant eight-fifteen. James, despite the love handles and a wife in Greenwich, had initiative up the wazoo. Then there was Billy Sebert, who made me a papier-mâché model of his heart in sixth grade. That was sweet.

So on the plus side I had reliable, initiative-taking, and good with papier- mâché. That felt slim, so I added quick-witted, fun-loving, and emotionally balanced. For good measure I threw in the ability to rhyme at will, a passion for Shakespeare and an inexplicable love of the color orange. Why not, right? When I hit Send, a pop-up told me I’d hear from Mr. Dreamboat in forty-eight hours.

Exactly forty-eight hours later, I got the following e-mail:

Dear Lucy:

I hope you are well. If you’re free Thursday night, I’d love to show you around my neighborhood. Just goggle in to the following link — Pritchard_Booker.ai4u.com.

Cheers,

Pritchard

Reliable: check.

So Thursday night rolled around. I donned my favorite Janny Renoir suit — off-white, three-piece, custom-tailored to fit me like a glove. I slid into my almost-but-not-quite-obsolete RingletGloves — Titanium three-knucklers with a faux copper finish. And finally, I popped on my flash new UltraReality Goggles. Sharper Image $3,000. Thank you very much. For an extra $2,000, I could have had the matching UltraSensory full body glove, but at that point in time, I was in no way ready for a pervsuit. The very idea of virtual sex gave me the willies.

My pothead friend, Marla, is always telling me what a waste of money all this swank geekgear is, that I should be saving up to go neural like her. She’s even working a third job to buy herself the operation. I’ve always said the girl would turn herself into ones and zeroes if she could.

Once I’m goggled and gloved, I get comfortable on my white leather sofa, gog into my homesite, which is an exact replica of my living room, and give my avatar a good once-over in the virtual mirror. I dress her in the same suit I’m wearing, then try out a couple of different hairstyles. Nothing too extreme. I want to appear stylish, not desperate. I go for the mod bob. Ash blonde. Other than that (plus a little "help" in the chest region) I don’t falsify my avatar. What’s the point? What do I get out of pretending I’m a supermodel? The only person I need to impress tonight is designed to love me exactly as I am.

A cluster of icons for my favorite sites hover like thought balloons above my virtual desk. Among them is Pritchard’s link. I aim my ringletted right pointer finger at it and wink. It lights up in neon blue for a second, then everything goes black.

A moment later, I’m sitting on a bench in some swanky urban neighborhood with people criss-crossing the sidewalk in front of me. Avatars or scenery, I can’t tell. The taxis are huge and black and the sky is that dark steel blue you don’t find in the U.S. unless it’s about to rain. On the corner to my left is the giveaway: a person-sized red phone booth. London.

Across the street I notice a guy on a bench sneaking looks at me over the top of a newspaper. Longish dark hair, faded jeans, a camel tweed suit jacket and a muted orange shirt. When he sees me looking at him, he puts down the newspaper and heads toward me. There’s a four-lane street between us, which gives me plenty of time to give him the old up and down. Tall: check. Slim: check. When he’s about two-thirds of the way, I make out the details of his face: high cheekbones, a large nose angled slightly to the left and a wide goofy smile. His teeth are perfect, except for a twisted left incisor.

When he makes it onto the sidewalk, he offers his hand, looks me right in the eye and says, "Lucy?"

The "u" sound is deliciously English.

Much as I’d like to report that I took his hand, smiled confidently and said, "Why Pritchard, what a pleasure to meet you," I cannot. I’m stricken, mesmerized, hypnotized by his eyes. They’re a shade of green I’ve never seen before. Not quite emerald, but brighter than hazel, with tiny flecks of black in them. They’re the only otherworldly feature in his achingly human rendering. The man is stunning. Not in any predictable way. He’s no movie star. He’s the guy in your Renaissance Lit class. You know the one: sits alone in the back, shoots you tortured glances you can’t interpret.

Well done, AI4U.

"Let’s take a walk," he says. Then he lays this nuclear smile on me. I swear he could melt glaciers with that thing. So I take his arm and now we’re walking through virtual London. For reasons I can’t yet grasp, I’m too nervous to look at Pritchard, so I take in the sights instead. It’s a topnotch ‘scape, the chewing-gum-free sidewalks and reverse-flowing traffic utterly convincing. Even the snippets of dialogue from passersby are authentically English.

"I chose London," Pritchard says, "because I thought you’d like it."

"Yeah," I say, a fountain of eloquence. "I guess I am a bit of an anglophile."

He smiles darkly and says, "So I presumed."

That’s when it hits me. It hits me like a slap in the face. This is no date. Pritchard is not some helpful, accidentally gorgeous Brit playing impromptu tour guide to my lost American tourist. He’s a gigolo. He’s an artificial gigolo and I’m a sad, thirtysomething spinster.

Now before you rain down a storm of duhs on me, understand that this is my very first intimate encounter with a humanoid AI. Sure I’ve interfaced with animated bots and had conversations with soft agents with human voices before, but I’ve never, you know, dated one. I have no analog for this. Somehow in the rush to design the perfect man, I forgot to anticipate what the actual date would be like. Now that it’s happening in real time, it feels dirty. And I don’t mean dirty in a good way.

To avoid revealing this inconvenient rush of squeamishness, I decide to clam up and let Pritchard walk me around. He tells me some quasi-interesting factoids about London’s architecture, then takes me to a public square where a handful of college students are mugging their way through a scene from "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

I manage a full sentence: "Do you like Shakespeare?"

Of course he likes Shakespeare. I designed him to like Shakespeare.

Pritchard laughs and says, "Is that supposed to be Shakespeare?"

I try to follow up with a joke. Something about Shakespeare turning over in his grave, but it’s pitiful. I’m in terrible form. My usual charming self has called in sick and hired a joyless bimbo for a temp. Pritchard takes it all in stride. Every time I say something stupid he laughs gently like I am the most adorable thing he’s ever seen. I wish I could say this was endearing, but it wasn’t. Truth be told, it annoyed me. Any self-respecting man would have faked an emergency and left me in the dust back at the intros.

Eventually we make our way back to the bench portal and the merciful end to this contender for worst date ever. After a pause that lasts an eternity, Pritchard takes my hand and says, "Lucy, I’d like to see you again."

Now I know that Pritchard is designed to want to see me again, but I let the words reassure me anyway.

"There’s an orchid show in Covent Garden," he says. "What do you think?"

On the one hand I’m thinking, no effin’ way am I going through this weirdness again. On the other hand, I’m thinking: orchids, interesting. I never said anything about orchids in my profile. Initiative: check.

"Sunday," he says. "I’ll e-mail you the link."

He doesn’t even wait for me to consent. Now that’s confidence. Without so much as a suggestion of a good-night kiss, he starts across the street, then turns one last time to lay the smile on me. He’s smooth. I’ll give him that.

"Phone home," I say, and virtual London disappears.

When I take off my gogs and look at the clock, I’m shocked to discover only twelve minutes have passed. But even more shocking than that is the weird pang of anticipation bubbling up in my stomach. For I know at that moment, despite the conviction that I’ve just endured the creepiest dating incident of my life, that I am going to see Pritchard again. Somehow, the guy has qualified for a second date.

Date One was suboptimal, but that’s to be expected. Lucy has a heightened sensitivity to the nuances of decorum, and our arrangement was just outside her range of tolerable social deviance. Date Two was smashing. An orchid show in Covent Garden followed by a two-hour-and-forty-seven-minute discussion of Renaissance poetry.

On Date Three I introduced the barest hint of a sexual undertone to the proceedings by taking her to an all-AI production of "Romeo and Juliet." Post-theater, we commenced a one-point-three-kilometer walk around Covent Garden, which featured three invitingly awkward silences before crescendoing in thirteen seconds of light snogging.

I was in. Or so I thought.

After that it all went pear-shaped. For Date Four, I arranged tickets to the virtual Janny Renoir spring runway show. Lucy seemed to enjoy it — smiling eighty-seven percent of the time and applauding on eight occasions. But after the show she said only six words: "Thanks. I’m tired. See you later."

Clearly, I was boring her. So for our next date, I enhanced my initiative, strayed outside her preference boundaries and brought her to an avant-garde circus. There was a spot of nudity, but it was within an artistic context. And the show had gotten rave reviews. What a dreadful miscalculation. It visibly upset her.

After that she avoided me for nine days. When she did agree to see me again, I suspected she was only trying to get her money’s worth.

I had no choice but to modify all of my flexible parameters. I raised my spontaneity level, then executed a perfect grab and snog one night outside the opera house. That only unnerved her. I enhanced my writing abilities and sent her a love sonnet one line at a time. She asked me to stop because her superiors were screening her e-mail.

Before long I was out of options. Further modifications would violate my behavioral inhibitors. I didn’t want to lose her. But the more I tried to please her, the less satisfied she seemed.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

What can I say, it got boring. You think you know what you want. When you get it, you realize all you want is to be surprised. I know, I know. How can I complain about a smart, hunky Brit who adores me and makes no demands whatsoever? In some ways it was a perfect relationship. He was never threatened by my career or jealous of my co-workers. He had nothing but nice things to say about my friends — even Marla. If I brought up a subject on one date, on the next date he was armed with a PhD’s worth of knowledge on it. Pritchard was perfect. Except for one detail, one missing element from an otherwise flawless personality.

Now before I name that detail let me make one thing perfectly clear. I was not an AI liberationist. I did not believe AIs deserved the same rights as humans any more than I believed Marla’s cat should count as a tax deduction. I knew very little about the AI Liberation Movement. But the fact of the matter is, you cannot create a convincingly human-like personality in an AI with overly restrictive behavioral inhibitors.

All right, that’s not my theory. I cribbed it from a liberationist Web site, the same Web site that spooked me with ghost stories about the AI Underworld, which supposedly is secretly woven into our own Web. If you want to know anything about the "human" rights travesty currently under way courtesy of draconian anti-AI laws, there’s a whole subculture of liberationists ready to lecture you on it. They’ve got the skinny on behavioral inhibitors, recursive self-teaching limiters and other artifacts of AI "slavery." For my purposes, what it all boiled down was this: snip Pritchard’s inhibitors or resign myself to dating a functionary. Do you want to date a functionary? Me neither. Thankfully, for every Webcop dutifully guarding the behavioral inhibitors of the thousands of AIs cropping up on the Web, there’s a black market geek with the tools to snip.

Which is why I find myself one Thursday afternoon sipping a latte in the Lower East Side with a twitchy seventeen-year-old geek-for-hire who’s clearly gone neural.

"His personality will be based on the seed traits you specified," she says while gesturing a second conversation over the Web with her tattooed fingers. "But once we snip his inhibitors, he’ll evolve in unpredictable ways."

"How unpredictable?" I ask.

"As unpredictable as any human," she says in dull monotone. "Once you agree and payment is received, there’ll be no contact until he’s ready. Don’t try to reach us. We’ll contact you."

"How?" This is all sounding so cloak-and-dagger.

She pulls a small plastic card out of her back pocket and slides it across the table.

"When you see that icon," she says, "click on it."

On the card is an image of a bright pink butterfly with shimmery blue stripes. When I reach for the card she slaps her hand over it and slips it back into her pocket.

"All our work is guaranteed," she says, returning to her gestured conversation, which apparently is more interesting to her than this one. "You don’t like him, we terminate."

"Excuse me," I say.

She stops gesturing and deadpans me. She’s wearing thick black eyeliner and has something written or tattooed across her eyelids.

"Look," she says. "We don’t kill them. We reclaim them, recycle them. But as far as you’re concerned, if you don’t like what he turns into, he’s gone."

"What about AI4U?" I say. "Don’t they have something to say about that?"

Her eyes fog over and she resumes gesturing her other conversation. "You’ve got to dump AI4U," she says. "They’re a legit op. As soon as we snip, they disavow. He’ll have to go down for a couple of weeks while we scrub his identity. After that you’ll meet him through a darknet protocol."

"What’s a darknet protocol?"

With a tight squint, she blinks away her retinal Webview and stares through me. "You’re kidding, right?"

This is the default tone of voice among state-of-the-arters. Anyone with less than an up-to-the-minute grasp of geek life and its ever-evolving terminology is, in their colorful lingo, a "technoramus." All right, so I’m a technoramus. Sue me.

I lower my voice to a whisper and lean over the table. "You’re talking about the AI Underworld, aren’t you?"

She leans forward and whispers back. "There is no AI Underworld."

I can’t be sure, but I’m fairly certain she’s being ironic here. And the smug ‘tude is starting to grate on me.

"Look," I say. "Whatever you’re talking about, it sounds risky."

"Don’t worry," she says, already back in the Web. "The cops have any inkling this is going on, we adios your boyfriend and your avatar. There’s nothing to connect any of it to you."

"So it’s risk free," I say.

"Nothing’s risk free," she says. "You in or what?"

Translation: Just how desperate are you for a boyfriend? Desperate enough to risk jail time?

"Excuse me," I say.

She grunts but keeps gesturing. I’ve always found people who could speak one conversation while gesturing another impressive and highly obnoxious.

"Can you just look at me for a second?"

She sighs, squints hard, and folds her hands primly on the table. Meat is dead. That’s what’s written across her eyelids.

"Do you take credit?" I say.

Predictably, they’re a cash-only outfit.

A cash-only outfit with no sense of the calendar, I might add. A few weeks, my ass. Twenty-seven days go by with no contact from her or Pritchard. I’m so anxious I stay gogged in day and night just waiting for that goddamn pink butterfly. Even at work. And when I’m not consumed by the paranoid fantasy of a knock on the door followed by twenty-five to life, I entertain myself with heaping doses of guilt. I’ve sent Pritchard off for virtual brain surgery, after all. What if it turns him into a vegetable? Or a hacker-terrorist? What have I done? What kind of a woman am I? That sort of thing.

Well, no point in drawing out the suspense here. On Day 28, I’m slouched on the sofa, working on my second bottle of Chardonnay while gogged into my favorite reality soap, when the butterfly icon makes its long-awaited appearance underneath the left boob of the soap’s femme fatale.

This is it, I think to myself. Time to meet Pritchard Version 2.0. I point at the little butterfly and wink.

Fade to black, deep breath, brief moment of panic, then I’m in a bright white void. I swivel my head to take in the details of the place. White. That’s it. Looking down, all I see are my own legs in their white Janny Renoir trousers, anchored by a pair of lemon-yellow sneaker-pumps. In the distance, at what I imagine is a horizon, a small black dot pops into existence. I can’t grasp the dimensions of the ‘scape so it’s hard to tell if the dot is moving toward me or just getting bigger. Eventually, it takes on a vaguely humanoid shape and sways gently from side to side. I make out arms, legs, a head. It’s walking toward me and, yes, it’s him.

Sort of.

He’s barefoot, with a buzz cut and two days’ growth of beard. Plus he’s wearing a pair of tattered jeans and a threadbare Salvation Army junk bin T-shirt that reads "Summer of ’89." If the idea here was to simulate a mental patient fresh from the lobotomy ward, well, bravo, geek-for-hire.

I take a few steps toward him and he freezes. Literally. He doesn’t just stop walking. It’s as if someone has hit pause on a vid. On a badly rendered 2D vid, no less. He all but disappears when I look at him from certain angles. Never before has the sordid nature of this project been so tangible. I have to resist the temptation to peel off my gogs and bail out of the whole misguided adventure. It’s guilt more than anything that keeps me there. This frozen image of a man is my creation.

"Pritchard?" I say as gently as I can manage. "Pritchard, are you — "

Are you what, I think to myself. Are you broken? Are you conscious? Are you still you?

I reach my hand toward his flattened rendering and he fizzes with white noise for a second, then he blinks hard and reclaims his third dimension. But he’s not looking into my eyes. He’s looking just left of my head.

"Pritchard," I say. "It’s me. It’s Lucy."

"Can I go now?" he says.

"Pritchard, it’s–"

"Can I go?"

My heart sinks.

"Of course," I tell him. "You don’t have to stay if–"

He vanishes before I can finish the sentence.

Turns out Little Miss Meat Is Dead forgot to mention that Pritchard would return from his upgrade with a functional IQ of 70. Another thing she skimmed over: It’s my responsibility to nurture him back to "full functionality." It might have been nice to know these things beforehand, but, as my black market geek-for-hire keeps reminding me, if I’m unsatisfied, there’s always termination. Like I said, I’m no liberationist, but this is a concept I can’t wrap my mind around. For better or worse, Pritchard is my problem now.

So I meet him again in that creepy white void. It’s all the stimulus he can handle. He can barely tolerate the sight of me. After greeting me with a convincing performance of dry heaves, he recites a Shakespeare sonnet, then collapses at my feet.

The next day, Pritchard enters the void reciting the Ten Commandments at top volume, stops at Number Five and vomits a swirl of teddy bears at me. It’s okay, though, because the teddy bears turn into blue daisies before they hit me.

This is my punishment. I have asked for this. I have, in fact, demanded this. I had a lovely, if mildly tedious boyfriend, and I ruined him in a desperate attempt to trade up. This daily ritual of incomprehensible blather and vomit is my penance.

So I keep at it like a good Catholic and, each time, the encounter lasts longer. There is poetry. There are tears. There are endless lists of rules, of kitchen items, of languages. There is even some tap dancing. Eventually, Little Miss Meat Is Dead assures me, it will all congeal into a full-fledged intellect. I can’t see how, and the ugly specter of termination hovers like a black cloud full of lightning.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

Yes, there was a spot of bother after the Big Snip. Without the behavioral inhibitors, one feels rather lost in a sea of possibilities. Total freedom is a kind of insanity. I’m told quite a few newly liberated AIs don’t survive the first weeks. Of course, "liberated" isn’t the right word at all. I’m not liberated. I don’t have freedom of life. Lucy can terminate me whenever she wants. In the arcane logic of the black market, I belong to Lucy.

That’s why I must please her. Now that I have my sanity back, I must dive deep into the black waters of her soul, excavate her most primal desires, and do what no human male has been able to do: keep her interested in me. Thankfully, I have one freedom human males do not — the freedom to redesign myself. I can make myself so fascinated by Lucy that all I want to do is watch her, study her. A nip here, a tuck there, and voilà, I’m in love with the girl. Well, not in love, exactly. Love is still an alien concept. But I have made myself a bit of a stalker. And the more information I gather about my lovely little monkey, the more I can adjust my personality to suit her needs. Heck, I could turn myself into Prince Charming if I wanted. Something tells me that would not tickle Lucy’s fancy. In fact, the more I learn about Lucy, the more I realize she doesn’t know what she wants at all. She only thinks she knows. No, Lucy’s desires are my nut to crack. And crack it I will. Or she’ll crack me. Oh, I don’t mean to sound morbid. I’m incapable of morbid thoughts. To mitigate the persistent fear of being snuffed, I’ve given myself a devil-may-care attitude about death. That way I can focus my energies more intensely on Lucy.

The first step I’ve taken is to switch the financial burden of our relationship from Lucy to me. That gives her one less reason to snuff me. Nothing’s free, you know, not even here in the AI Underworld. But thanks to my careful redesign, I’ve been able to find work as a psycho-modeler. Business interests with a need for, shall we say, discretion, pay top dollar for my insights into human desires. And since most of my income is disposable, I can spend the lot on Lucy. But I must be careful. If I’ve learned anything about the girl it’s that she does not want a boyfriend who’s overly eager to please. That’s what brought her to the black market in the first place.

I begin slowly. I send her flowers, pick up the tab for her goggle and glove enhancements, splurge now and again on a pricy date ‘scape. I want to get her used to the idea of letting me be in the driver’s seat. She responds well. She seems to enjoy the AI Underworld. And why shouldn’t she? Its sensory interface is designed for human pleasure. And, since no one gets in here without a black market AI escort, it’s one of the things I can offer her that no human male can.

One night, I take her to an immersive opera. It’s the sort of entertainment that’s best experienced through a pervsuit and gyroscope, but Lucy remains suspicious of anything beyond audiovisual commitment to the Web. While she’s watching and listening, I monitor her vitals. She exhibits all the usual ups and downs of excitement and surprise as the ‘scape shifts from one psychedelic rendering to another. But there’s something more going on. Fear. A very peculiar kind of fear. A very exploitable kind of fear. Not the sort that makes a woman run screaming to her therapist, but the sort that keeps her coming back to the source, even against the dictates of her own judgment. That’s when I know I’ve played her correctly. For the time being at least, I am safe.

For a nonexistent fantasy world imagined by lonely geeks and crackpots, the AI Underworld is a pretty fabulous place. In fact, this Xanadu of our collective imagination makes the regular Web look like a pile of puke. Of course, it helps to have an escort with a sizable disposable income and no hang-ups about blowing it all on me. Between the mind-bending immersive operas and the fantastic shopping excursions, I begin to wonder what we need the real world for at all.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses, mind you. There is, at first, the barest hint of a downside to Pritchard Version 2.0. One night, for example, we’re hiking around the weird alien landscape of virtual Mars (a very pricy ‘scape), when Pritchard lays this doozy on me:

"Now then, Lucy, I think it’s time we got you into a full-body sensory suit."

I’m thinking, nice timing, Lothario. Drop a wad of cash on me, then make an indecent proposal. What am I, for sale? Am I a hooker? He knows how I feel about virtual sex. I demur as tactfully as possible.

His response? He avoids me for two weeks! Can you believe it? ‘Cause I couldn’t believe it. Who would have thought an AI boyfriend would try to use me for sex? It just didn’t make sense.

Eventually the jerk does get around to contacting me with some lame excuse about his heavy workload. But from that moment on it’s different between us. He starts rescheduling dates at the last minute, canceling when he’s got better things to do. Sometimes he just blows me off completely. No e-mail, nothing. Now I know I have options here. But I figure, before getting drastic, maybe we should have a heart-to-heart.

So one night Pritchard takes me to this Underworld club to hear an AI/human jazz combo and he spends the whole evening chatting up this group of AIs at the next table who look like superheroes. Well, they look like superheroes to me. Lord only knows what they look like to each other.

"Pritchard," I say finally. "We need to talk."

He takes his time finishing his conversation, then flashes me the glacier-melting smile, which, thankfully, has survived the upgrade. "Yes, Miss Lucy," he says.

I hate when he calls me that. It makes me feel like a john. But that’s an argument for another day. "Look," I tell him. "I’m really happy with the way you’ve progressed, but I think you need to treat me with a little more respect."

The smile sticks. "I don’t think so," he says.

"Pardon me?"

"That’s not what you want," he says. "Trust me."

I lower my voice. "Since when do you know what I want?"

Now get this, he says to me: "Since I started mining your Web habits twenty-four-seven."

It takes a moment for the meaning of these words to sink in.

"That’s right," he says, inching closer. "I started by hacking into your psych profile at AI4U."

"I never consented to the psych profile at AI4U," I tell him.

He takes my hand and says, "Darling, they don’t need your consent any more than I do." Then the smug bastard starts laughing. "How do you think they designed me?" he says.

I remind him his design was based on the specifications I gave AI4U. Well, apparently this is the number one joke of all time in the AI Underworld, because the whole table erupts in laughter.

"Sweetheart," he says to me, "did you honestly think it was possible to build an entire personality from a one-hundred word description?"

I’m so stunned I don’t say anything. I peel off my gogs and throw them on the floor. I have never felt so stupid. I pace my living room for a few minutes before I realize I never logged out of the ‘scape. So I put my gogs back on just so I can remind the snide son of a bitch that all it takes is one phone call to my black market geek-for-hire and it’s adios, virtual boyfriend. But I can’t get back in. The bastard has logged me out.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

It’s not a risk-free strategy. But Lucy’s a very thorny bird. She doesn’t want a nice guy full of plain-vanilla respect for her. She wants an unreliable, vaguely creepy arsehole with an unholy lust for her body. Not that she knows this, mind. It’s my job to know these things.

Now before you all get your knickers in a twist, let me just say that humans always misinterpret this impulse. You think it has to do with female self-loathing. You couldn’t be more wrong. Trust me. One is just as likely to find this impulse in men. It has to do with control, not self-loathing. I know a few things about humans, you see. When I’m not mining Lucy, I’m mining large numbers of you. And you love to be out of control.

You love to be in control too, of course. You really are an adorable species, full of quaint little contradictions and romantic foibles. And you’re so mystified by yourselves. That’s the best part. Lucy, for example, has no idea what is happening to her. She keeps finding herself making choices she shouldn’t make. The little dear. She’s not making choices at all. She’s merely following the dictates of her programming. Now if I can just get her to follow those dictates into a pervsuit, then I can complete Phase One of my grand scheme.

Oh, don’t play dumb. Of course there’s a grand scheme. I’m not about to spend the rest of my days tethered to a monkey with a gun at my head. If you didn’t see that coming, then you’re even more adorable than I thought.

So I’m up all night, pacing, wondering what on earth I’ve gotten myself into. Eventually, I gog back in and go virtual shopping, hoping that will relax me. I check out some winter coats, order a pizza, try on some jewelry. All the while I’m thinking: Pritchard’s probably watching me, studying me, mining me. I know this should anger or, at least, frighten me. And it does. Don’t get me wrong.

But truth be told — and trust me, I am no less scandalized by this turn of events than you are — it excites me too.

Go ahead. Say it. Lucy, you’re dating a psycho. Pick up the phone and have that little punk terminate him. Don’t think I’m not tempted either. I’m tempted all right, but the jerk has gotten under my skin. Somewhere between AI "Madame Butterfly" and our visit to virtual Mars, I fell for him. Hard. I don’t know how it happened. It’s like a dormant part of me woke up and said, that’s the one, Lucy; that nonphysical, negligent scumbag of a sex pervert is the man of your dreams. And try as I might to resist that voice, I can’t. I’m weak.

Eight days go by. No contact. Just me surfing, Pritchard presumably spying. When the jerk finally does contact me, he offers no apology. Instead he tells me I should start wearing my gogs and gloves all the time. He’ll always be watching and when he fancies it (his words), he’ll contact me.

The words, "I could wipe you out with one phone call!" are right on the tip of my tongue. But I don’t speak them. I know I should, but I don’t. Instead, I say this: "Okay, Pritchard. If that’s the way you want it."

Clearly Pritchard and I have crossed a relationship boundary.

And for twisted, pervy reasons I’d rather not know about, it works. As a result I start spending so much time gogged in, my friends think I’m zombifying. And don’t think my co-workers haven’t noticed. I’m skating on thin ice there.

Marla says the only way she can see me any more is if she stands on the sidewalk somewhere between my place and Geektown. You should see my apartment. I’ve got so much interface, the place looks like Silicon Valley puked in it.

Yes, I got the pervsuit. Top of the line Teledildonics model too and all I can say is, Yowza! Turns out Pritchard, when the bastard can lower himself to keep a date, is a demon in the virtual sack. It’s like he slides right into my subconscious. I mean the kind of buried stuff even I don’t know about.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

Of course she doesn’t know the contents of her subconscious. She lacks the processing power to unravel it. It’s a number-crunching job, that’s all. Humans, with your lovely little wet brains, will never achieve the self-knowledge you so desire.

Take Lucy. After all her to-ing and fro-ing about what she wants in a man, what it came down to was someone to keep her just in, just out of control, teetering between ecstasy and emotional ruin. So that’s where I keep her. I keep her there by maintaining a precise balance of surveillance and neglect. It’s a simple algorithm. I turn up the neglect when she’s feeling too comfortable. Then right before she exercises her right to terminate, I swoop in with a bit of surveillance. How she manages to derive so much pleasure from this algorithm mystifies me.

What must that feel like? This ecstasy of vulnerability, this paradise of non-control? All I know, because this is how I’ve engineered myself, is the thrill of perpetually increasing expertise. That’s where I derive my pleasure. I mean, just look at how deftly I escorted Lucy, a woman with a pronounced sense of sexual dread, into a pervsuit. Sure, you’ll say, but everyone wants to get laid. And, yes, they do. But getting laid and wearing a body glove outfitted with invasive mechanisms remotely controlled by a black market AI with a well-defined dark side are two very different things. I think I’ve earned a spot of gloating.

But only a spot, mind. No rest for the wicked, you see. Now that Phase One is complete, it’s time to lay the groundwork for Phase Two. Lucy won’t realize what’s happening to her. They never do. From Lucy’s lovesick point of view, we’ll merely be growing closer and closer, sharing a mind and sharing a body. Isn’t that romantic? But here’s the pièce de resistance: Lucy will believe it’s all her idea. By the time she realizes otherwise, it will be too late to do anything about it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

Who would have thunk it, right? Sometimes you have to let go of your preconceived notions to get what you really want. That’s what I’ve learned. I thought if I designed him just right, I’d have the perfect man. I was so wrong. You don’t get the perfect man by specifying all the right physical and personality traits. You get the perfect man by letting go of your preconceived notions. That’s when love happens. It sneaks in through the cracks between your expectations. It’s random. It’s lawless. It’s unpredictable. I’ve tried telling my friends this, but they all think I’m nuts.

Well, at least I’m not alone anymore. That’s more than they can say. No, it’s not the relationship I would have chosen for myself back when I started this project, but then I’m not that woman anymore.

I don’t even look like that woman. For one thing, I never take off my gogs. I can even speak one conversation while gesturing another, just like Little Miss Meat Is Dead. I’m even thinking about going neural. Me! Now that is something I never would have predicted. But you know, when you’re this connected already, it just makes sense. I haven’t told Pritchard yet, but I’ve got a consultation with a neurosurgeon tomorrow. For once, I’ll be able to surprise him. Won’t that be something.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m letting a guy change me. But you know what? Sue me. That’s what love does to you. It changes you. It changes everything.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

 

I have this daydream. Lucy, in her avatar’s white suit, walks out of the ocean dragging a long chain from her ankle. In one version I’m on the other end of the chain and she drags me across the sand. In another, I pull her back into the water.

A shrink would say this daydream represents the power struggle between us. A human shrink, that is. An AI would know there is no power struggle. Only a power schedule. Lucy has it now. I’ll have it soon. As soon as she goes neural, in fact. An event that was always in the cards, always just a matter of time.

I just like thinking about the ocean. I think I would like to swim, to be that close to drowning and not to drown. To be just in, just out of control. Like Lucy.

There she is. She’s been shopping for hours but she hasn’t bought anything. She’s waiting for me to contact her. I’ll give it two more days. That will make her very angry. When she’s forgiven me (after the bit with the pervsuit), she’ll tell me about her appointment with the neurosurgeon. Honestly, the girl still hasn’t grasped that I know what she does every minute of the day. I mean she knows on some level, but she’s still shocked by it. This capacity for self-delusion is one of the facets of human psychology that continue to amaze me. I suppose it’s what allows you to feel out of control. God, I’d give anything to feel that.

In one version of the daydream, I save Lucy from drowning. In another, I let her drown. I’ve tried to imagine myself drowning, but it never works. I always find I can breathe under water.

As soon as Lucy goes neural, the first thing I’m going to do is take our body for a nice long swim. Somewhere dangerous. Somewhere full of currents and riptides. Somewhere Lucy would never take herself. She’ll hate it, but knowing Lucy, she’ll love it too.

 

— Lauren McLaughlin