Derek Vlinder was utterly content. Aside from a brief hormonal phase in his teenage years while his therapeuticals had been getting dialed in, he had been utterly content his entire life. He had graduated from law school a few years ago and landed a rewarding job at a firm that specialized in international environmental protection. He recently purchased a small but stylish converted warehouse condo in a vibrant part of the city. He had the support and companionship of a solid group of long-time friends. Everything was on schedule.
He had been a member of SoulMates™ for almost a year, and his PotSpoMa (Potential Spouse Matches) had been winnowed to three, any one of which he knew would make a delightful life partner. They were in their fourth week of domestic dating: hanging out on weeknights, having dinner and doing chores, experiencing real-time conflict resolution scenarios and exploring the potential ennui of daily life, defining the last remaining variables in their relational equations. There should be sufficient data for the final determination to be made soon.
“Alexa,” said Derek, “I’m going to need to buy an engagement ring.”
“Okay,” said the soothing voice of Alexa into his earbud, “I found one all possible fiancés will love and is an appropriate price based on your savings and salary. I’ll have it delivered tonight. Please authorize.”
He pressed his right thumb against the subcutaneous scanner on the back of his left wrist. Then he stood up, closed the toilet seat, and flushed. The MediPotti™ flashed green, indicating it had sufficient samples for his daily urine and fecal analysis. He stepped into his closet and dressed in his standard office ensemble: a gray wool blend suit with gray shirt from Ted Baker. It was flattering and perfectly comfortable. His single decision regarding his daily professional wardrobe was which silk tie to wear. He had collected over one hundred. This selection was his singular moment of personal expression, surprisingly fraught with psychological and existential undercurrents.
“The MediPotti™ has completed your health analysis,” said Alexa, “I’ll forward the results to JackedJuice™. Please authorize.”
Derek absent-mindedly thumbed his wrist again as he stood in his closet, caught between the purple ombre tie or the pale yellow with blue butterflies. Both seemed to symbolize transformation, and as he held one in either hand, he wondered why he had gravitated toward them today. Was the ombre showing the descent of darkness, or the rising of the light? Were the butterflies a call to freedom or a reminder of the fleeting nature of life?
“Your results are clear of STDs,” Alexa informed him, “I can schedule you a BootyCall™ for this evening. You have availability between 7 and 8 o’clock. Would you like to see your matches?”
Derek knotted the butterfly tie in the mirror. “No, go ahead. Just choose someone new. No gender preference.”
“Okay,” said Alexa, “I have you at 7:15 with Warren in room 1480. Please authorize.”
He thumbed his wrist as he tied on his shoes. He grabbed his Yeti™ cup, stepped into the hall, thumbed the keypad locking his condo behind him, and took the elevator to the lobby. He crossed to the interior entrance of the JackedJuice™, went in and put his cup on the sterilizer track.
“Good morning, Derek,” said the robot behind the counter. “Do you want a print-out of your MediPotti™ report?”
“No, I trust you, Roberta.” The robot had no name, of course, being nothing more elaborate than a pair of bionic arms rising from a touch screen base balanced on a SpherO locomator. But Derek felt a certain affectionate familiarity, since he saw it nearly every day, and projected upon it more personality than it was technically programmed to emote.
The robotic arm held a blender under the spout of various frozen fruits and vegetables, moving down the line to release the proportions Derek preferred, topped with a sprinkle of personally calibrated powdered vitamins, protein, and supplements. Its pleasant voice increased in volume to be heard over the noise of the blender, “You were a little short on Vitamin D and Potassium today, and we balanced out a slight increase in yesterday’s calorie intake.” It poured the smoothie into his Yeti cup and placed it onto the counter.
He pressed his thumb against the payment scanner. “Thanks, Roberta!” He left through the exterior doors, and crossed the street to the stairs to the subway. The station was pristinely clean, and the invigorating smell of mint and eucalyptus wafted through the aromatherapy system. All around him, well-dressed and smiling people sipped from their own Yeti™ cups and held murmurred conversations with their own Alexa interfaces, or sometimes watched their screens as they checked their media. Occasionally, louder bursts of chatter or laughter erupted from those connected to IRL friends.
This was why he loved the city. This flow. The hum of society working as a finely tuned machine. He shuddered as he tried to imagine the chaos described by his parents of what life had been like when they were young. They were divorced, of course. Almost everyone of that generation was. It turned out that romance and passion were terrible methods to choose a spouse. They were both very happily remarried to their SoulMates™, and Derek couldn’t imagine them being with anyone else. His mother was still a pediatrician, but his father had left his job as an investment banker when his Adult Recalibration™ revealed he would find greater satisfaction and success as a glass blower. Derek shook his head. How lucky he was to live in the new age when his natural interests and skills had been accurately identified and nourished from birth! He was exactly where he should be.
He boarded the 7:12 train, and closed his eyes to listen to the audio reports coming in for the new case his firm was taking on, litigating the radiation cleanup in Turkey. Alexa interrupted the report to let him know they had arrived at his station. He stopped at the Starbucks™ on the platform, ran his empty Yeti through the sterilizer, and continued on his way with a French Roast drip coffee with hazelnut sweetener.
Just as he emerged from the subway entrance into the bright daylight of the business district, he was blindsided by someone running – running!—down the sidewalk. The collision nearly took him off his feet, and somehow perfectly struck his Yeti so that the lid was dislodged and the contents splashed dark brown all across his suit jacket and pants. He looked down at himself in disbelief.
“Oh my god! I am SO sorry!” Derek looked to his right to see an oddly dressed young woman staring at him with wide eyes. “Are you OK? Oh my god, your coffee! Was it hot? Are you burned?”
The voice reached him as though underwater, all the sounds of the street faded to a dull roar. He patted absently and ineffectually at his front. It was wet and warm, and weirdly sticky. He was not burned. He looked into his Yeti cup. It still had a few ounces of coffee in the bottom. He drank it.
“Are you OK?” the woman repeated. Sounds were starting to return to normal. He glanced around and noticed people were slowing in their paths to stare at the spectacle. The flow of pedestrians was bunching up and becoming erratic as confused and disapproving faces stared into his. His face flushed. The last time he had been embarrassed was when he was fourteen, and determined, against all advice, to try out for the soccer team because he thought it would impress a girl. He tried to head a ball during drills and caught it full in the face. His bloody nose was a good reminder to stay in his lane.
“I’m all right,” he said at last. “Alexa, my clothing is ruined. I can’t go in to the office like this.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Derek,” Alexa said into his ear, “The next train home is not for 45 minutes. You would not have time to return to the office before your first meeting.”
His heart hammered. What was he supposed to do, now? He noticed the woman rubbing her elbow. “Are you hurt?”
“Derek,” said Alexa, “I have arranged for a Lyft that can get you home in 12 minutes. Please authorize.”
Meanwhile, the woman was speaking. “No, I’m fine. I’m just…so, so sorry.”
“Why were you running?” He realized he never saw anyone running down the street. Ever. At the gym, obviously, at the park, sometimes. On the sidewalk? Never. Why would they?
“Please authorize,” said Alexa.
The woman blushed, and he realized she was also embarrassed. “I…was chasing…a butterfly.”
He burst out laughing, “Are you serious?”
She smiled ruefully and nodded. “I’ve lived in the city for two years, and it’s the first one I’ve seen. There were so many where I grew up. I didn’t even think about it, I just…ran. I ran right into you. I’m so sorry. Your suit!”
He took a closer look at the woman. She would never have been matched with him on any platform. She was considerably shorter than him, with half her black hair shaved into a geometric pattern. Her clothes were loose layers of bright colors, like a skirt over pantaloons and multiple shawls. It almost hurt his eyes to try and define the kaleidoscopic effect. He was surprised to see gym shoes on her feet. Although, perhaps not such a surprise given the speed at which she had crashed into him. He had never seen anyone IRL who looked like her. His gaze travelled back up to her face. Wide cheekbones, a nose verging on too assertive, and eyes…looking past him over his shoulder.
“Please authorize,” repeated Alexa.
He turned and followed the woman’s gaze to a clothing shop window. The display was a nod to the new spring season, and featured animatronic mannequins moving through some hallucinatory version of an English garden. The window was a riot of flowers, all artificial, of course. Smashed against the inside of the glass in the corner closest to them was a tall spike of foxglove. And on the outside of the glass, crawling vainly toward the false promise of flowers, was a large yellow butterfly. He turned back to the woman and she met his eyes with a face alive with delight.
“Please authorize,” said Alexa.
The woman stepped toward him, and he stepped back awkwardly before realizing she was moving to the window. She passed so close he caught a whiff of her fragrance, musky, woodsy, he couldn’t place it exactly, but he had to restrain himself from leaning in closer. She moved so slowly, patiently, he was nearly hypnotized by her deliberation. Inch by inch, she lifted her hands to the butterfly.
“Derek,” said Alexa, “you are holding your breath. Are you in distress? I can summon medical assistance. Please authorize.”
The woman stood on tiptoe, arms fully extended along the glass. But her fingertips were inches short of the butterfly. Her shoulders slumped in disappointment. She slowly lowered her arms and turned to him. “Can you reach it?” she asked hopefully.
He felt the moment as an eternity, as though he were not standing firmly in the middle of a city sidewalk, but balanced on a lofty precipice buffeted by winds. The safety and satisfaction of a perfected life called for him to step back, reconnect, move back into his lane.
“Derek,” came Alexa’s voice, “you have less than one minute to call a Lyft in time to take you home and return to work for your meeting. Please authorize.”
Almost without conscious volition, he set his Yeti on the sidewalk against the building. He stepped forward, and the woman slid gracefully to the side. Slowly, he raised his arms and carefully caught the butterfly between his two cupped hands. The woman’s hands flew to either side of her face, her mouth open in a little “o” of astonishment. It was a look he had only ever seen on very small children. But it made him want to see it more.
She bounced in excitement. “Can we take it to the park?” she asked breathlessly.
He felt the flutter of soft wings against his palms, and looked at the woman standing with her feet planted on the sidewalk as though she was about to run a race. She smiled and stretched her hand back toward him. He felt a weirdly euphoric smile stretch his lips.
“Derek, your heart rate is unusually high. Do you require medical attention? Please authorize.”
“Alexa, engage silent mode,” he said. It felt like the rising of the light, after all.