Free Short Story

 

CUPID’S COMPASS

(first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, Sept/Oct 2016)

 

            When Julie and Steve first decided to fall in love, they knew very little about each other. It was Julie’s sister’s idea. Mindy had met Steve at a legal conference, asked everyone she knew about him, and spent a few days checking public databases (and, against firm policy, some non-public ones) before she broached the idea to Julie.

            “Oh, come on,” Julie said. “I’m not into that kind of thing.”

            “You’re thirty-five,” Mindy said. “You said you would think about it when you were thirty-five.”

            So she had; but five years ago, thirty-five had felt very far away. It still did, actually. Julie scowled. “Okay, but there’s no way I’m falling in love with a lawyer.”

            “That’s the whole point. You can fall in love with whoever you want. Someone stable, someone you could have a real future with. Not an out-of-work musician or a small-time drug dealer or a man incapable of commitment. Or one who’s already married, or spends two hours a week in therapy talking about how much he distrusts women.”

            It was hard to tell if she was talking about Julie’s five most recent boyfriends, or just the last one. Either way, she had a point.

            Julie spent a moment contemplating her other options. As she saw it, she had two. She could aim for strings of disappointing dates punctuated by the occasional devastating heartbreak. Or she could give up, adopt some cats, become addicted to reality shows, and drown her loneliness with ambition.

            “All right,” she said. “Do you have a picture?”

            The picture her sister showed her was obviously touched up, but Julie pretended not to notice. Part of the point of Cupid’s Compass was that once she got her brain zapped, looks wouldn’t matter.

#

            “We discourage the use of the word ‘zapped,’” Larissa Monfried, founder of the field of romantic neuroscience and CEO of Cupid’s Compass, explained earnestly. She sat behind a businesslike but tasteful wooden desk, framed by pastel-colored wallpaper, her voice lilting to the tune of the soft rock playing in the background. “What we actually do is gently stimulate certain regions of the brain with our patented patterns of electromagnetic energy. It’s a carefully controlled process.”

            Julie, who had already studied the pamphlets in the waiting room, smiled politely.

            “Now that we have pinpointed the neural basis of romantic love, we can safely and effectively induce a long-lasting emotional attachment that will lead to a lifetime of happiness.” Larissa placed both her elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “But before we begin, I want to make sure you understand the payment plan.”

            “I do,” said Julie, who didn’t. Mindy was actually paying for the procedure as a birthday present, but she was embarrassed to tell Larissa that.

            “We are trying to get it covered by insurance. Statistically, married people tend to live longer and experience fewer health problems, so we have a good case.” Larissa sighed and propped her chin up with one hand. “Unfortunately, we’re constantly blocked by the online dating lobby.”

            “Being single isn’t a disease,” Julie snapped, against her better judgment. Mindy had driven her to Cupid’s Compass, and that half-hour car ride had exhausted her tolerance for being pitied. “It’s this unhealthy obsession with another person that’s a disease. And the fact that our society worships that disease is just . . . uh . . .” At that point, her eloquence failed her. “Another disease.”

            Larissa folded her hands together on her desk. “If you don’t mind being alone, why are you here? Do you really think you won’t be happier once you’re in a good, loving relationship?”

            “I’ll be happier,” Julie said. “But I’m . . . er . . . adequately happy now.”

            Larissa smiled, as if she had scored a point. Her voice switched back to its bright-and-cheerful setting. “Exactly! So you must be thrilled to have access to technology that can increase your happiness.”

            Julie shifted in her chair, feeling vaguely outmaneuvered. “I don’t know if I would use the word thrilled. But I’m willing to give it a try. How does it work?”

            Larissa cleared her throat. “You and your future soul mate will be fitted with helmets that produce a rotating magnetic field over the temporal lobes of your brains. When you meet each other, our techs will turn the helmets on, and a particular frequency and pattern of the field will be generated that will induce deep feelings of attraction, caring, and a sense that you are incomplete without each other. It usually takes only a few minutes, and studies have shown no negative side effects except for passing feelings of nausea and a few days of insomnia. Please keep in mind that the procedure is reversible, but the reversal is far more complicated and expensive than the initial treatment.” Which, Julie thought, explained the expensive desk. “It will also work best if the two of you have never met before, so we don’t have any pre-existing brain patterns to overcome.”

            “We haven’t,” Julie said. “My sister is the only one who’s talked to him. But honestly, I already have the impression that he’s not my type.”

            “Oh, my dear,” Larissa said with a chuckle, “that’s usually the case.”

#

            The meeting was set for four o’clock that Thursday, but Steve had to cancel because of an emergency deposition. He rescheduled the second meeting, too. By the time they did meet, Julie was quite concerned about her pre-existing brain patterns, but Larissa assured her it would be okay.

            “Our treatments are ninety percent effective,” she said, patting Julie’s shoulder. “Human beings are genetically predisposed to feel love, because it helps create stability and further our survival as a species.”

            Julie thought of her own love life, which, even at its best, could never have been described as stable. Apparently, evolution hadn’t taken the extra step of predisposing human beings to exercise good judgment in their love lives.

            But of course, that was why she was here.

            Sure enough, when Julie and Steve met in Cupid’s Compass’s offices, in a room cleverly designed to look like a restaurant, the conical helmets attached to each of their heads aimed their electromagnetic pulses precisely. Julie had only a brief—a very brief—moment to notice how the helmet straps emphasized Steve’s lack of a chin. And then it was done.

#

            They got married six months later, and Julie publicly thanked both Mindy and Larissa at the wedding. “For so long,” she said, smiling tearfully at Steve, “I was trapped by the myth of romantic love. I could never have pulled out of that trap by myself. I owe my happiness to you.”

            Between smiles and sobs, Larissa handed out business cards.

#

            All went well for a year of wedded bliss that not even their discovered discrepancies could shake. (Steve was a vegan who never ate saturated fat; Julie wasn’t sure how her sister had missed that, or whether she had.) They decided to have a child. For the next nine months, their love withstood the test of bloating, flatulence, vomit, heartburn, and Julie’s inability to be anywhere near tofu. They sent Larissa an expensive silver bowl for Christmas.

            Then their baby was born, a squalling, wrinkled girl they named Anna, and as they were packing up to go home from the hospital, Steve said, “How soon can we take her to Cupid’s Compass?”

            “What?” Julie said. “Why?”

            He looked at her the same way he had when she’d first breastfed Anna in front of his parents. “To make sure we love her. Larissa told me the treatments can be modified to stimulate parental love.”

            “Of course I love her!” Julie said, which wasn’t entirely true. For most of the first day, she had stared at the tiny creature curled up in the bassinet and felt like it had nothing to do with her. But it was now the end of the second day, and she could barely remember the first day. “Don’t you?”

            “No,” Steve said.

            “She’s your daughter!”

            “I know that intellectually. I just don’t feel it.”

            “Yet,” Julie said, suddenly recalling this section from one of the twenty baby books she’d read in the bathroom during pregnancy. “It can take a while. That’s normal. Just wait until she smiles at you for the first time.”

            “That doesn’t happen until six weeks at least.” Steve had also read a few baby books. “We could probably get an appointment at Cupid’s Compass in less than one week.”

#

            Julie couldn’t understand why it bothered her when Steve became a model father, grinning as he pushed the stroller around, beaming with pride when Anna drooled, even volunteering for the four a.m. feed. She attributed her negativity to post-childbirth hormones, but that didn’t change the effect. Finally, she called Larissa.

            “Is something wrong?” Larissa’s voice had grown a bit more harried over the past two years—Cupid’s Compass had become extremely popular—but it still had that soft, reassuring, you-can-tell-me-anything cadence.

            “No. Not really. It’s just . . . well, things have been different since Anna was born. We’re both so tired and preoccupied and we don’t have as much time for each other. I feel . . . kind of—”

            “Like you’re less in love?” On Larissa’s tongue, it sounded soothing. “Darling, that’s very natural and common. And we do offer booster treatments that reinforce the brain regions’ activation at very reasonable prices. You can even pay in advance for four and get the fifth free.”

            “Oh, I don’t think I’ll need more than—”

            “Actually, if you combine your account with Steve’s, I think you’re due for a free one soon. Julie?”

            “Sorry,” Julie said. “I . . . uh . . . I didn’t realize we could do that. I’ll have to ask Steve if he thinks it’s a good idea.”

            “He combined his last booster with the treatment for Anna, so he’s not due for his next for another two months. And if you’re going to be on the booster program, too, it makes sense to combine your accounts. Even if you think you’ll only want one, most people end up choosing to have more.”

            “Yes,” Julie said slowly. “I think I’ll probably be one of them.”

#

            That night, Steve and Julie had their first knock-out fight. Steve was concerned and kind—of course, Julie thought savagely, he’s recently boosted—but he found it difficult to understand what Julie was so upset about.

            “That’s the whole point of Cupid’s Compass,” he said. “Our marriage isn’t based on some random emotional turbulence. I choose to love you. I choose to love you every day.”

            “Bimonthly, you mean,” Julie snapped.

            “That seems to be the frequency that works best. Why does this bother you so much?”

            She didn’t know. But after a week of fruitless fighting, and another week of silent sulking and sudden eruptions of private tears, it was time for her booster anyhow. Steve, who had gone from bewildered to hurt to angry, was so relieved that he took time off from work to drive her to Cupid’s Compass’s new downtown building.

            Larissa’s new office was decorated in black and green instead of the old pastels—Cupid’s Compass was marketing itself to the younger and hipper crowd now, trying to shake its reputation as the last resort for desperate older singles. But Larissa herself still looked much the same.

            “It’s so good to see you again,” she said, folding her hands on her sleek metal desk. Behind her, the wall was a digital collage of happy couples, ever shifting, all smiling. “I don’t handle many accounts on my own any more, but I always think fondly of my first clients. Did you have questions about the booster?”

            “I don’t want a booster,” Julie said, gripping her handbag tightly. “I want a reversal.”

            Larissa blinked. “We don’t offer them anymore. Our mission is to bring people together, not tear them apart.”

            “Since the threatened lawsuit, you mean.”

            “How do you—”

            “Steve heard about it. But he said the claim was based on emotional damages. There were no physical side effects.” He’d also said it would have been thrown out of court, but Cupid’s Compass had paid a hefty settlement to avoid that type of publicity.

            Larissa leaned across her desk. “Julie, why would you want this?”

            “Because of Anna.”

            “It’s exactly for Anna’s sake that you should take the booster.”

            “He had to zap his brain to love his own child!” From the way Larissa blanched, Julie knew she was shouting. She made an effort to sound more rational. “He’s the coldest man alive, Larissa. Completely emotionally unavailable.”

            “Exactly the sort of man who benefits most from our treatments,” Larissa proclaimed. “He loves you, Julie. And he loves Anna as much as you do.”

            “No,” Julie said, “he doesn’t. He just feels like he does.”

            Larissa gave her a look that, after a week of arguing with Steve, was very familiar to Julie. “That’s all love is, dear.”

            You’re wrong, Julie thought; but crushed under the weight of her own obvious irrationality, she couldn’t say it.

            Larissa smiled gently. “He would have loved her eventually even without the electromagnetic stimulation. But isn’t it easier this way?”

            “Too easy,” Julie said. “Loving Anna isn’t easy. She’s so tiny and fragile and . . . and overwhelming. It hurts, sometimes, the way I feel about her. It never hurts with Steve.”

            “And that’s a bad thing?”

            “Yes. I want my feelings to be real.”

            “Oh, Julie.” Larissa sighed with such obvious disappointment that Julie felt guilty. “We run into this sort of primitive thinking all the time. Romantic love is just a side effect of a certain pattern of brain-wave activity. It makes no difference whether our treatment or electrical anomalies in your own brain are used to induce the hallucination we interpret as love.”

            Clearly, Larissa was stressed; words like “hallucination” were never used in Cupid’s Compass’s official statements.

            “How do you know?” Julie said. “How do you know that the brain waves are the cause and not just the symptom? That the surface feelings of love don’t reflect something else that doesn’t show up on your scans?”

            “Well,” Larissa said, “there’s no evidence for any such assertion.”

            “It’s not exactly the type of thing you can subject to a double-blind study.”

            “Exactly,” Larissa said smugly.

            “But it is,” Julie said, “the sort of thing that should be discussed. I bet an essay about this would go viral.”

            A flash of irritation marred Larissa’s calming smile, and then was gone. “I won’t argue with you, Julie. If you want the reversal, I can arrange it for you. But I suggest you take some time to think about it.”

            “I already have,” Julie said.

#

            Three weeks later, she was back. Larissa had time for only a quick meeting, sandwiched between press conferences. Cupid’s Compass’s latest ad campaign, aimed at teenagers, had caused a media uproar.

            “It didn’t work,” Julie said. “I still love him.”

            “That’s not poss— Oh, dear.” Larissa leaned back. “Julie, our previous reversals were all done within months of the initial treatment. You’ve lived with Steve, and loved him, for two years. The brain patterns may have become too deeply embedded for the reversal to work. I’m terribly sorry. I can arrange for a partial refund—”

            “No,” Julie said. There was a cold heaviness in her midriff that it took her a moment to identify. She had forgotten, since that first visit to Cupid’s Compass, what it felt like to be lonely. “Can you figure something else out?”

            “That aspect of our research was closed down completely after the lawsuit, I’m afraid. We’ve devoted our resources to developing new, more innovative programs.” Larissa’s phone buzzed. She glanced down at it and said hurriedly (but still reassuringly), “It’s probably for the best. Go back to Steve. The two of you are so happy together.”

            Julie swallowed a sharp lump in her throat. Brain patterns. That wasn’t it at all.

            Ironically, she had what she wanted. She had fallen in love with her husband for real.

            And she knew it was real, because it hurt.

            She didn’t realize she had spoken out loud until Larissa, already halfway around the desk, paused and shook her head. “That’s part of your problem, don’t you see? Deep down, you’re convinced that only pain is real. Happiness can be real, too.”

            “Can it?” Julie said sarcastically. “Maybe you could find the brain areas that light up when people feel happy, and skip the whole getting-married thing altogether.”

            A professionally blank expression slipped over Larissa’s face. “I’m afraid I can’t comment on any current research.”

            Julie looked at her sharply.

            “But I can tell you that you were right the first time around.” Larissa lifted her well-shaped eyebrows and smiled. “You don’t have to be with someone in order to be happy.”

            Julie watched Larissa walk to the door, processing the flair with which that line had been delivered. It sounded like the focus of an ad campaign. If Larissa was already practicing her press-release lines, the research and development must be pretty far along.

            New, more innovative programs.

            “How close are you?” she said, hearing and hating the desperation in her voice.

            Larissa hesitated in the doorway. Then she smiled slyly and flicked a switch on the wall.

            Instantly, the mirage of couples behind the desk vanished. In its place shimmered a dozen fractured images of different women: talking vivaciously in business meetings, relaxing on couches with wine and books, jogging along seashores, dancing at clubs. Above the images, in bold green and black letters, were the words: ARTEMIS’S ARROW.

            “It’s still in development,” Larissa said, with evident pride. “But I think we’re close to getting it right.”

            “Works for me,” Julie said, almost in a whisper. “Will there be a payment plan?”

            “Of course,” Larissa said. She smiled over her shoulder. “I can arrange for a significant discount, too, if you sign up now. I think you’ll be thrilled with the results.”

            Julie glanced at the shifting images of happy, smiling women. A flicker of distaste ran through her. But after a moment, her own lips curved up in an answering smile. A little more pained, a little less bright, than the smiles of the women on the wall.

            “I’m willing to give it a try,” she said, and twisted her wedding ring once around her finger before following Larissa from the room.

 

–The End —