Free Short Story

 

FILTERED

(first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in July 2016)

 

            “You know I can’t print this.” Margie tossed Steve’s article onto her desk, with such force that the stapled papers slid all the way to the edge. They balanced just on the rim of the desk, right on the crease where he had folded them in half. “I’m telling you this for your own good, Steve: you need to let it go. Start working on something else.”

            Steve’s hand twitched, but he refused to reach for the papers. They were nothing but a symbol; it wouldn’t have mattered if, instead of tossing them, she had fed them into her shredder. He had hoped that by bringing over printed papers, he would stir some nostalgia in Margie, a hankering for the good-old-days-of-journalism — something he wasn’t sure had ever existed, but that he knew Margie believed in. She had a surprisingly old-fashioned streak at times.

            Unfortunately, she had a stronger business sense.

            “It’s important,” Steve said. “People should know about this.”

            “I agree. But they’re not going to know. It won’t get through the filters, even if I publish it.”

            “I submitted a filter analysis — “

            “Yes. I saw it.”

            Her tone was enough to make his face turn hot.

            You know she’s right. Let it go.

            He did know she was right. And he also knew he couldn’t let it go, not and still look at himself in the mirror every morning.

            He nudged the papers safely back onto her desk. “If even one of my categories gets through — “

            “But they won’t. The filter programs are too sophisticated. You can’t throw in a random quote by a rabbi and expect “Jewish interest” to let it through. Or mention that someone voted Republican and think the anti-Republican filters will be fooled by that.” She shook her head and gave him a pained look. “It’s been years since we could get away with that kind of nonsense.”

            “I’m just asking you to try. You read my article — how can you not try?”

            Her gaze softened. He tried to imagine he saw guilt in her eyes, and not just pity. “I know. And I’m sorry. But publishing the story isn’t going to make anyone pay attention. It will be filtered out before any human being even sees the title.”

            One last, desperate attempt. More to try her patience, he would realize later, than because he thought it would work. He couldn’t live with himself if he walked away from this.

            If he got thrown out of her office, that wasn’t walking away.

            “You can’t be sure. You never know — “

            It worked. The sympathy vanished. “We have an entire department devoted to analyzing the filter programs. I am sure, Steve. And much as I admire your scrappy integrity, I don’t want to explain to the Board why I ignored millions of dollars worth of research and published a story that no one will read!”

            She seemed not to realize she was shouting until after she had stopped. Her cheekbones turned faintly pink, but she held his gaze.

            “This discussion is over,” she said.

            Not as good as being kicked out, but close enough. He turned and walked out.

            He left the printout on her desk.

#

            He managed to hold out for the rest of the day, keeping himself busy with a story about a senator who had said something that was either sexist or misinterpreted, depending on whether you liked him or not. It was the type of story guaranteed to shoot to the top of every filter program, even the elitist ones. And it was, arguably, important… or so he would have thought, once.

            But he couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm. The story might go viral, it might sell ads. It might add some confirmatory data to the powerful information matrixes already swirling around every person who glanced at it. But the filter programs already knew who would click on it, who would comment on it, who would share it, who would ignore it. It would change not a single opinion. It was more entertainment than news. He was just decorating peoples’ own opinions with some wit and color before bouncing it back to them.

            He knew better than to say that out loud, especially to Margie. She threw herself into the story with full-fledged enthusiasm, staying in the newsroom past midnight, fulsomely praising Steve’s contributions. As if that would make things better.

            He thought about waiting until the next day, when her triumphant glow had faded. Usually, he hated ruining her good moods. But that night, as they lay in bed, he found himself saying, “I want your help.”

            Margie put her book down on her lap. It was a romance paperback she had been reading a page at a time, right before going to sleep, for over a month. “Steve.”

            He knew the rules. He had come up with most of the rules, when she had been promoted last year. They were designed to strictly divide their work relationship from their marriage. It had worked so far, despite the swirl of snide remarks and wild rumors that surrounded them in the newsroom. Every time they discussed their arrangement, they agreed not to mess with it.

            They hadn’t discussed it in months. That was when crises usually hit, of course — once you had been lulled into complacency.

            “I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important,” he said.

            She bit her lower lip and stared at her book. The air in the room felt weighted. He had crossed a line. A boundary that had kept their relationship safe and intact — sometimes off-balance, but never dangerously so — for the past year.

            “What do you need?” Margie asked finally.

            Better than he might have hoped for. But the caution in her voice felt like a betrayal.

            If it was me, I wouldn’t hesitate. But there was a core of coldness — no, of practicality — in Margie. He didn’t have it, and he had always thought it was good that she did. One of them needed it.

            “A contact,” he said. “Someone in the sponsored news department of YourWorld or MyFrontPage.” Those were the top two news filter programs, and the only fully customizable ones. There were a dozen other filters designed for specific groups — people who didn’t want to hear about anything political, anything pop culture, anything non-vegan, anything religious, anything anti-religious. But almost all functioned as add-ons to YourWorld or MyFrontPage. Between them, the two programs filtered what 90% of Americans read about.

            “Is that all?” Margie’s relief was so evident that he wondered what she’d been expecting. “You don’t need me for that. None of the sponsored news programs are secrets. Just do the legwork.”

            She was right… but she could speed things up. It was the least she could do. “I want a meeting soon. Tomorrow.”

            She nodded. “Someone from YourWorld will contact you by noon.”

            “Thank you.”

            She opened her book, then closed it again. “You know the Board won’t approve a payment for news placement.”

            Irritation rippled through him. She might disagree with him, but she didn’t have to act like he was stupid. “We pay for news placement all the time.”

            “But we won’t for this article. Paying for display results is a gamble. We only do it for articles we think will go viral.”

            “Right. Weight loss and celebrity scandals.”

            She laughed. “We don’t pay for those. They go viral anyhow.”

            “How high-minded.”

            “Steve — “

            “Forget it,” he said shortly. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be overdramatic.”

            Except deep down, he didn’t think it was overdramatic at all.

            When he’d met Margie, back in journalism school, he had told her the truth about himself — every pretentious iota of it. How he’d decided to become a journalist after reading about Bill Dedman’s articles exposing racial mortgage discrimination. How he dreamed of opening people’s minds, changing the world through the power of the pen. Back then, she had admired him for it. Or so he’d thought.

            But she didn’t get it, not really. She had gone into journalism for reasons entirely different from his. She spoke passionately about glass ceilings and equal representation and the lack of authentic female voices in the mainstream media. Which meant that to achieve her ideals, all she had to do was be as successful as possible.

            It was a neat set-up, with very little inner conflict. Sometimes, Steve envied her.

            He clicked off the beside lamp, turned on his side, and closed his eyes.

            She drew in her breath, as if to say something. Then the blankets shifted as she, too, turned on her side and pretended to go to sleep.

#

            The next morning, more than half the articles on his news feed were about the filtering programs, especially YourWorld. He would have sworn he had done nothing online to indicate his new interest, that its only manifestation had been his bedtime talk with Margie. But he must have done something, clicked on something, without realizing it. The filter programs were very good at knowing what people were interested in, and they were rarely wrong.

            We know what you care about before you do. That had been one of the early ads for YourWorld, and one of their few missteps. They had pulled it fast once they had realized their core audience found it creepy.

            That didn’t make it any less true.

            One of the articles on his feed was entitled Filtering: The Latest Boogeyman of Libertarian Paranoia. The summary described the article as a defense of “techno-determinism,” a phrase Steve had never come across before (why? and why had the filters decided he would be interested in it now?). Despite himself, he clicked on it. He was halfway through the article when his computer pinged with a video-link request from YourWorld itself.

            He minimized the article and pulled up the link.

            Margie’s contact was a chubby woman named Beza, who now had the distinction of being the second person in the world to read his article. She was distraught and tearful about it, which gave him hope.

            For about two minutes.

            “I’m sorry, Mr. Goldberg.” She sniffled as she spoke. “YourWorld exercises strict discretion about which articles we accept for paid sponsorship. I’m afraid this one would never qualify.”

            “Why? If we’ll pay…” Which they wouldn’t. He’d worry about that later.

            “It’s too obvious. All our users will know the article isn’t on their feeds because they want it there.”

            “The sponsorship program is public knowledge,” Steve pointed out. “People already know that some of their newsfeed is paid for.”

            She shook her head. “The information is out there, yes, but few people care. And they won’t, as long as we don’t shove it in their faces. It’s important that sponsored articles look like a natural outcome of people’s filters. When we do it right, our customers can’t tell the difference between the articles they’ve chosen to see and the articles our sponsors want them to see.”

            “Because otherwise they might object?” Steve said. He knew it wasn’t wise, but this conversation was obviously futile anyhow. “It might bother them that their worldview is bought and paid for?”

            She blinked at him. “I doubt it. But they might switch to one of our competitors.”

            “Right,” Steve said.

            “I’m really sorry I can’t help you.” Her sincerity was unmistakable. “The article is amazing. I hope you find a way to get it to the people who should read it.”

            He closed the link on her earnest face before he could say something he would regret.

#

            Margie didn’t ask how the meeting had gone. She didn’t say I told you so, either. But she set the table for dinner with the air of someone waiting for a… concession? apology? reconciliation?

            Whatever it was, it irritated him so much he opened his laptop before he even put the takeout containers on the table.

            His newsfeed was crowded with articles about the filter programs — no surprise there. Tonight, most of them were opinion pieces decrying them as a danger to public discourse — articles he would have thought shrill and alarmist, once, would have passed over without a second glance. He read the summary of the one with the most comments: it was from a Christian publication he hadn’t heard of, claiming filtering was “an aid to selfishness.” There was a Bible quote right there in the summary, something he had never before seen on his feed. He was about to click the link when the smell of curry made his stomach grumble. He hesitated, then pushed his laptop to the side.

            Margie looked at him over her own laptop, which was still shut. Usually, they managed at least a few minutes of conversation before they got on their computers. “What are you working on?”

            “I don’t know yet. There are nude pictures of Ashari online, and then there’s that baby panda who played with a kitten. It’s so hard to choose.”

            “Actually,” she said, “I was thinking you could put today’s meeting to good use, and write an article about the filter programs.”

            She was smiling brightly, as if this was the solution to everything.

            “Don’t,” he said sharply. “Don’t throw me a bone.”

            “That’s not what I’m doing.” She began pulling white plastic containers out of the bag, arranging them on the table. “Look, we all know the filter programs have their problems. People with different views can’t even talk to each other anymore. You could write up an expose. We would promote it heavily. Most people are interested in reading about how their news is filtered.”

            Of course they did. They thought if they knew how they were being controlled, that meant it wasn’t happening.

            “There are already dozens of articles about the filters.” He should know; every single one of them was on his feed today. “The information is all available. It’s just that no one cares.”

            “So make them care. You can come up with a new angle.” Margie’s enthusiasm was undimmed by his silence. “Plus, since you sort of came up with it, I can safely assign it to you. Kyla and Selim will whine, of course, but even they won’t be able to seriously accuse me of nepotism.”

            “Oh, good,” Steve said. “As long as your career isn’t put at risk, who cares what happens to those people?”

            Her face went hard. “Enough, Steve. You have to move on.”

            “Do I?”

            “We’re not gods. You can’t make people care about what you think they should care about.”

            “Right. Instead, they care about what corporations think they should care about.”

            She rolled her eyes. “What is this, the 2010s? The corporations aren’t making anyone think anything. They’re just collecting data.”

            “It’s not that benign, and you know it.” He had been researching this all afternoon. “Do you know how few users even bother to set their own filter parameters? The news filters track people so well that they do an almost perfect job of predicting what will interest them. The algorithms know them better than they know themselves.”

            She cracked open the cover of a round bin. The smell of cumin wafted up with the steam. “The data still originates from the people.”

            “People can change their minds. But not if they don’t know there’s a reason to. They just allow the programs to show them the world they want to see, and then they think that’s the real world.”

            Margie shrugged. “We don’t all live in the same world. We never have.”

            “What a convenient way to think.”

            It came out nastier than he had intended, and her eyes narrowed. He was about to apologize when she said, “So what you’re really saying is that you should be the one deciding what they care about. Maybe you could scale back on the megalomania a little?”

            They glared at each other across the table. Once again, Steve felt the sense of something slipping out of his control.

            For the first time, he wondered if this was important enough to risk his marriage for.

            What was happening was far more devastating than a failed marriage, to the people it was happening to. But looking across the table at Margie’s set face, he felt a drop in his stomach, far more visceral than the despair and pity with which he had written the article.

            But that was ridiculous and alarmist. He and Margie were solid. Their arrangement, which everyone in the newsroom had advised against, was a constant balancing act. This wasn’t the first time a misstep had sent them teetering. It certainly wasn’t the first time a fight had turned nasty. They would recover.

            “All I’m saying,” he said, “is that I think I could convince people to care about what’s happening. If I got a chance.”

            “And you think I’m the one denying you that chance?”

            He had no answer to that. He knew the right, rational answer — no, it’s not you, it’s the filters.

            But it was her. It was.

            “Look at me,” she said. “Do you honestly think I’m a bad person? That I don’t care?”

            “I think you care,” he said. “Just maybe not as much as you care about your career.”

            “My career?” She made an odd sound. It took him a moment to realize it was a laugh. “Do you remember when I reported on the San Francisco attacks?”

            It had been a year after they were married, and the only time he had seen her lose all sense of perspective. She had wanted to adopt one of the orphans. They had gotten almost all the way through the agency approval process before the thing fell through. He had gone along with it, terrified. Afraid that if he said no, he would lose her.

            “Okay,” he said finally. “So that time, you were the better person. But this time — “

            “That’s not my point.” She shook her head, brown curls swaying across her sharp chin. “I was so distraught by what I was seeing, what I was hearing. Remember? I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat, not normal food, anyhow. I just kept grabbing cheap snacks. I gained five pounds.”

            He opened his mouth, then thought better of it and waited.

            “I remember the morning I stepped on the scale.” She drew in a breath. “I saw the numbers, and I have to tell you: at some level, I cared more about the fact that I had gained weight than about everything else. All the terrible things that were happening. To other people.”

            Her face was ashamed but set. He said, “I don’t believe you.”

            She made another strangled sound, this one half-laugh, half-sob. “Believe it or not. I know how I felt. And I understood right then that everything that happens has two axes of importance: how much it matters in the greater scale of things, and how much it matters to you. You don’t get that, Steve. And that’s why you’re never going to get promoted to editor.”

            His jaw dropped. It was an unstated part of their arrangement: she would never, ever throw her success in his face. Never think less of him because of it.

            Or at least, never let him know if she did.

            “I wouldn’t want to be that type of editor,” he said.

            “Even as a writer, you use this. Remember when you were covering traffic? What did you tell people first, when there was an accident? The names and ages of the people who were hurt? Or how the crash was going to affect the morning commute?”

            “That’s not the same.”

            “How is it not? Give me a rational answer, Steve.”

            She managed to say it without condescension. That didn’t make it better. He pulled over a tin of salad, opened it, and clicked on an article about the previous night’s football game.

            After a moment, Margie opened her own laptop, and they ate dinner to the accompaniment of silence and clicks.

#

            He woke up the next morning feeling not only rational, but guilty. It wasn’t Margie’s way to rail futilely against the ways of the world. It was unfair to punish her for being herself, and even more unfair to resent her for it.

            He would have apologized, but she was already gone. Looking at her empty bed, he felt that churning in his stomach again, fear twisted with pain. He knew again what he had known five years ago, when he had gone with her to adopt a child he didn’t want: that he would do anything, anything at all, to keep from losing her. He couldn’t imagine his life without her.

            When he opened his computer, he saw that she had sent him an email: “Disney announced they’re remaking Casablanca. I had to go in early. See you at the office.”

            He thought about emailing back, but it seemed inadequate. He would apologize in person.

            He arrived at his desk full of determination. The first thing he saw, when he pulled back his chair, was the printout of his article, placed squarely in the center of his desk.

            He was surprised by the strength of his rage. Somehow, his unrealized intent to apologize made the insult even worse. He loved her, he wanted to make things right. If she was going to rub her power in his face…

            He took a deep breath, sat, and flipped the printout over.

            The back was covered with Margie’s neat, angular handwriting.

            He blinked at it for a moment before his anger receded enough to let him realize what he was seeing. Then he pulled his chair closer and picked the printout up.

            He read what she had written carefully — once, then twice. Then he looked across the newsroom, to where she was on two phones at once while simultaneously watching a video-feed. Guilt stabbed him. She was willing to risk more for their relationship than he was.

            The thought rose unbidden: But this article is more important than our relationship.

            She glanced up and met his eyes, just for a moment. Her face was worn and tired, but simultaneously beautiful and noble. It reminded him, again, that he had never met anyone like her, and never would.

            By the time he had summoned up a smile, she was already turning to something else.

#

            “You’re taking a big risk even talking to us,” the first hacker said. “You realize that, right?”

            There were two of them, and they had refused to give Steve their names. Mentally, he had already designated them Sociopath Hacker and OCD Hacker — terms which, of course, would not make it into his article.

            If he actually wrote an article.

            OCD Hacker, a lanky brown-skinned teenager, was the one doing the talking. Sociopath Hacker, slightly overweight with longish blond hair, watched and glowered.

            “You still haven’t told us,” OCD Hacker said, “how you got our contact information.”

            “And I’m not going to,” Steve said. The fact that Margie had set this up surreptitiously told him it was a real danger, not just to her long-term career prospects but to her current job. “I’m the only one willing to take the risk of helping you.”

            “Help us how?” OCD Hacker said.

            “By giving you access to my news site’s servers.” He took a deep breath. This part was going to be dangerous for Margie, no matter what; if his involvement was discovered, suspicion would naturally fall on her. “We have contracts with MyFrontPage and YourWorld, that allow us to advance-run stories through their filters and get a sense of how many readers we’ll reach. Once you’re inside our system, you should be able to crack their codes.”

            Silence.

            “They already have subprograms that disable the filters,” Steve added. “They do it carefully, tweaking results for a few thousand people at a time, for research. But once you’re in, you can alter the subprograms…”

            The scorn on their faces made him stop babbling. They knew this already. And they clearly didn’t appreciate suggestions from an amateur.

            “We don’t have any money,” OCD Hacker said, crossing his arms over his chest.

            “I know.”

            “So, what? You’re doing this for ideological reasons?”

            “In a manner of speaking.”

            “Meaning what, exactly?” OCD Hacker drummed his fingers in a perfectly even staccato on the arm of his chair. “What do you want? An exclusive?”

            “I don’t want to write an article about you.” Misstep; they didn’t like that. “I mean, I will, but just as a cover. To explain why we met, in case that becomes necessary.”

            “So what do you want?” Sociopath Hacker was losing patience.

            “When you do the hack,” Steve said. “When you disable the filters. There’s one article in particular I would like you to send through.”

#

            He had hoped that once the hackers read the article, they would be more enthusiastic. But as it turned out, they didn’t have much of a social conscience. As far as Steve could tell, they were motivated primarily by the challenge of out-smarting the filter programmers.

            Not that it mattered. They would do what he had asked — they had no reason not to. And surely there was honor among hackers, or something like that.

            When he got back to the office, he got right to work on the filter story Margie had suggested. It was the perfect cover. He sent the preliminary draft to her at 9 p.m.

            She didn’t get home until after he was asleep, but he knew not to read too much into that — not with the Red Sox vandalism story having broken that morning. She had apologized in her own way, he had apologized in his. They done it in the wrong order, but he knew Margie would let that slide.

            He was safe. He could breathe again. Everything between the two of them was fine.

#

            The hack went down at noon the next day, and took everyone — including Steve — by surprise. He hadn’t expected it to be so fast. Those hackers were every bit as good as they had claimed.

            And they were honest. The second the filters went down, his article went through.

            Then, of course, every reporter had to scramble to cover the hack itself. Because he’d already been working on the filters article, Steve had a head start — something else, he realized, that Margie had planned for. He tried to shoot her a grateful grin, but she was too busy to notice.

            The filters were down for forty-five minutes. Long enough for hundreds of articles, op-eds, and bloggers’ rants to burst into the newfeeds of people who didn’t want to read them. Reactions ranged from gleeful to outraged — most people were capable of both at once. Comments sections returned to the vitriolic inanity of the pre-filter days. A rash of dis-linkings occurred, as people realized how many of their friends’ opinions were moronic and evil. Online dictionaries crashed every five minutes — people with opposing views had literally started speaking in different languages, with ever-more specialized terms that newbies didn’t understand.

            At Margie’s suggestion, Steve created a chart of which articles got through the filters in the largest numbers. It was an obvious next step for him to create a parallel chart of what people had read during those forty-five minutes.

            When he was done, he walked into Margie’s office and slammed yet another printout on her desk.

            “You planned this,” he said. “Didn’t you?”

            She didn’t even look at the charts. She looked at him, her expression laden with sympathy.

            “Fine,” Steve said. “You’ve proven your point.” And he had mistaken it for an apology. Idiot.

            Everyone in the newsroom was watching them. There were long-standing bets, Steve knew, about how long he and Margie were going to be able to keep this going.

            “Steve.” Her voice was very soft, and very final. “Not here.”

            He couldn’t manage a response. He turned and left her office. And then, instead of going to his desk, he went home and proceeded to get very drunk.

#

            By the time Margie got home — after midnight; she had probably been hoping he would be asleep — he was mostly sober, and a little ashamed of himself. Until she sat on the couch across from him and said, “I’m sorry.”

            But she so clearly wasn’t.

            “Why did you help me?” he demanded. “Why did you set up the meeting with the hackers, risk so much? If you knew it wouldn’t make a difference?”

            She leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees. “I thought it would help you. To know you did everything you could.”

            Everything I could. But he had been doomed to failure all along. How was knowing that supposed to make him feel better?

            Was Margie really okay with feeling this powerless? Or was it just okay for him to feel it?

            “The story is out there,” she added, and he couldn’t help it. He whirled on her.

            “For all the good it did. You saw the charts. What people paid attention to without the filters was practically identical to what they paid attention to with their filters up.” Bile swirled in his throat, almost choking him. “They read things that made them angry, sure; that was different. But they still didn’t read things that didn’t interest them. Like my article. Nobody read it during those forty-five minutes, Margie. Nobody.”

            “If they wanted to read it,” Margie said gently, “it would have gone through their filters in the first place.”

            “I get it. It’s not your fault. You proved that.” He got to his feet. “Well done. I’m going to bed.”

            Margie sat back and hissed through her teeth. “Here’s the thing, Steve. There’s nothing you can do about the filters, and nothing you can do to help those people.” She stood. “But there is something you can do about this. About us. If you stop obsessing about this article — “

            “It’s not about the article! It’s about what’s happening, right now.”

            “What’s happening thousands of miles away. Look at what’s happening right here. Between the two of us.”

            “This is more important!”

            He’d said it out loud. Something loosened inside him. He couldn’t tell if it was relief, or the start of something unraveling.

            The beginning of the end for everything they had worked so hard to keep.

            “More important,” Margie said, softly, “to you. Not to me. But I helped you. And now it’s your turn. Let it go.”

            “I’ll write that article about the filters,” Steve said. His mind raced suddenly. “And I’ll use this as the starting point. The news no one would ever get to read. It’s the perfect symbol of everything wrong with the filters.”

            Margie hesitated — a phenomenon rare enough to catch his attention. He felt himself stiffen, and worked to keep his voice neutral. “What?”

            She sighed. “You can’t trick people into reading about something they’re not interested in. Your readers will just skip that part, or forget it.”

            “Maybe. Maybe not.”

            “How much are you willing to lose, for that infinitesimal chance?”

            He had to work to keep his voice even. It came out steady, but hard. “What is that — some sort of threat? Are you going to fire me, Margie?”

            She opened her mouth, then changed her mind. She lifted one shoulder — a slow, resigned shrug — and left the room.

#

            He wrote the first draft longhand, in a surge of inspiration. It would need a lot of fact-checking, a lot of editing, but he had it: a way to tell people something they didn’t want to know, by imbedding it in something they did want to know.

            Unless Margie’s right…

            He pushed the thought away. Just because she had been right before, didn’t mean she was right this time.

            He flipped open his computer, pulled up his word processor, and spared a second to glance at his news feed. On its top, above a slew of his usual articles about politics, filters, and football, was a piece called, “Is Your Marriage in Trouble? Ten Warning Signs.”

            He clenched all his muscles to keep from shuddering. The filter programs did seem telepathetic at times… but they weren’t, not really. They were just very good.

            He might have done something online that was a tip-off, something he hadn’t even realized was a sign of his concern. But there was a more likely explanation. The program knew he and Margie were married. And it knew what she had been doing online.

            How much are you willing to lose? It hadn’t been a threat. She was worried, and not about his job.

            He clicked on the article, knowing full well that by doing so, he was changing the nature of his newsfeed for months ahead. The filters knew that some topics, once they mattered to someone, would dominate his click habits. Would feel more important than anything else going on in the world.

            He went from click to click, reading avidly, for the next hour.

            He didn’t consciously plan not to finish the article. But by the time he tore himself away from his feed, it was too late to keep working on it.

#

            Margie was already in bed. He slid in next to her, turned sideways, and wrapped one arm around her.

            “You’re late,” she said, after a moment. Her body was rigid. “You finished the article?”

            “It wasn’t coming together,” he said. “I think I’m going to give it up. Focus on something else tomorrow.”

            She relaxed against him. After a moment, her breathing went slow and steady. She always fell asleep like that — in mid-sentence, fast as falling off a cliff.

            It always took him longer, no matter how tired he was. But he closed his eyes and listened to her breathe. For days now, he had felt strung out and exhausted, his body in constant fight-or-flight mode. But now, a subtle peace fell over him.

            His lips curved upward as he followed her into sleep.

 

 

–End–