Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Affinities

Robert Charles Wilson

Tor Books

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CHAPTER 1



I made the decision when I saw the blood in the mirror. The blood was what changed my mind.

I had thought about it, of course. I had clipped the ad out of the back pages of the local entertainment paper, checked out the website, memorized the address of the local test center. I had strolled past the building earlier that afternoon, lingering at the brass-and-frosted-glass door with what I tried to pass off (not least, to myself) as idle curiosity. I pictured myself stepping into the cool, dim lobby behind the InterAlia logo and maybe changing the course of my life forever, but in the end I shrugged and walked on-a failure of courage, the better part of valor, I honestly couldn't say which.

Tempted as I was, opening that door would have seemed like a confession of my own inadequacy, a confession I wasn't prepared to make.

The sight of my own bloody face changed my mind.

* * *

I walked south from the InterAlia building, on my way to meet my ex-roommate Dex at the ferry docks: we had made plans to ride over to the Toronto Islands for an open-air concert. What I didn't know, because I had been too self-absorbed to pay attention to the news, was that a large-scale demo was going on in the city's financial district, directly between me and the lakeshore.

The sound of it reached me first. It was like the sound you hear from an open-air sports stadium when there's a game on: no discernible content, just the undulant buzz of massed human voices. A couple of blocks later, I thought: angry voices. Maybe a bullhorn or two in the mix. And then I turned a corner and saw it. A mass of protestors filling the street in either direction and about as easy to cross as a raging river. Bad news, because dithering at the door of the InterAlia office had already made me late.

The crowd appeared to be a mix of students and academics and labor union people, and according to their banners it was the new debt laws and a massive University of Toronto tuition hike that had brought them to the streets on a hot late-May evening. A block to the west, where the sky still smoldered with sunset, some kind of serious altercation had begun. Everyone was staring that way, and I guessed the sour tang in the air was a promissory drift of tear gas. But at that moment all I wanted was to get to the waterfront, where the air might be a degree or two cooler, and meet Dex, annoyed with me though he must already be. So I pushed east to the nearest intersection and tried to shoulder through the thick of the crowd at the crosswalk. Bad decision, and I knew it as soon as I was caught in the tidal bore of human flesh. Before I had made much progress, some new threat or obstruction forced everyone closer together.

By craning my head-I'm fairly tall-I caught a glimpse of police in riot gear advancing from the west, beating their sticks on their shields. Tear gas canisters arced into the crowd, trailing smoke, and a woman to the right of me pulled a bandanna over her nose and mouth. A yard from where I stood, a guy in a faded Propaghandi t-shirt climbed onto the roof of a parked car and tossed a Dasani bottle at the cops. I tried to turn back, but it had become impossible to make headway against the pressure of bodies.

A skirmish line of mounted police appeared at the adjoining intersection, and I began to realize it was actually possible that, worst case, I could be kettled into a mass arrest and carted off to a detention cell. (And who would I call, if that happened? My family in New York State would be shocked and angry that I had been arrested; my few friends in the city were hapless art-school types, in no position to post bail.) The crowd lurched eastward, and I tried to veer toward the nearest sidewalk. I took some elbows to the ribs but managed to reach the north side of the street. The building immediately in front of me was a café, locked and barred, but there was a set of concrete steps descending to a second storefront just below ground level-also barred, but I found a place to crouch in the overhang of the concrete stairwell.

I kept my eyes pressed shut against the drifting tear gas, so what little I saw, I saw in blurry glimpses: mostly moving legs at street level, once the face of a woman who had fallen, eyes wide and mouth in a panicked O, as she struggled to stand up. I covered my own mouth with my t-shirt and breathed in gulps as another round of tear gas drifted down from the street. The roar of voices gave way to random screams, the industrial stomp of the police line. Mounted cops passed the niche where I had hidden, a weird chorus line of horse legs.

I had begun to think I was safe when a cop in riot gear came down the steps and found me squatting in the shadows. His face was plainly visible behind the scuffed plastic faceguard of his helmet. A guy not much older than me, maybe one of the foot police who had been roughed up in the struggle. He looked almost as scared as the woman who had fallen a few minutes earlier: the same big, jittery eyes. But angry, too.

I held out my hands in a hey, wait gesture. "I'm not one of them," I said.

I'm not one of them. It was possibly the most cowardly thing I could have said, though it was also perfectly true. It was practically my fucking mantra. I should have had it tattooed on my forehead.

The cop swung his club. Maybe all he intended was a motivating blow to my shoulder, but the club bounced up and hit the left side of my face across the ridge of the cheekbone. I felt the skin break. A hot numbness that bloomed into pain.

Even the cop seemed startled. "Get the fuck out of here," he said. "Go!"

I stumbled up the stairs. The street was almost unrecognizable. I was behind the parade line of cops, who had encircled a body of protestors east of the intersection. The block where I stood was empty except for a litter of paper handouts, abandoned backpacks and banners, the still-sizzling husks of tear gas canisters, and the granular glass of broken windshields. A block to the west, someone's car was on fire. Blood from my face had begun to decorate my shirt in rust-red paisleys. I held my hand against the cut, and blood like warm oil seeped through my fingers.

I turned the nearest corner. I passed another cop, a woman, not in riot gear, who gave me a concerned look and seemed about to ask whether I needed help-I waved her away. I took my phone out of my pocket and tried to call Dex, but he didn't answer. I guessed he had written me off as a no-show. At University Avenue I stumbled into a subway entrance and caught a train, fending off expressions of concern from other passengers. All I wanted was to be alone in some sheltered place.

The bleeding had mostly stopped by the time I made it home. Home was a bachelor apartment on the third floor of a yellow brick low-rise with a parking lot view. Cheap parquet floors and a few crappy items of furniture. The most personal thing about it was the name on the call-board in the lobby: A. Fisk. A for Adam. The other A. Fisk in the family was my brother Aaron. Our mother had been a committed Bible reader with a taste for alliteration.

The bathroom mirror doubled as the door of the medicine cabinet. I fumbled out a bottle of Advil, closed the door, and stared at myself. I guessed I could get by without stitches. The cut had clotted, though it looked fairly gory. The bruise would be with me for days.

Blood on my face, my hands, my shirt. Blood pinking the water in the basin of the sink.

That was when I knew I was going to call InterAlia. What was there to lose? Book an appointment. Open that brass-and-glass door. And find what?

One more scam, most likely.

Or, just maybe, some new and different version of them. A them I could be one of.

* * *

They gave me an appointment for Tuesday after classes. I showed up ten minutes early.

Behind the door, past the tiled lobby of the remodeled two-story building, the local branch of InterAlia was a suite of cubicles divided by glass-brick walls. Cool air whispered from ceiling vents and a polarized window admitted amber-tinted sunlight. There was a steady in-and-out traffic of people, some in business clothes and some in street clothes. Nothing distinguished the employees from their clients but the embossed lapel badges they wore. A receptionist checked my name against an appointment list and directed me to cubicle nine: "Miriam will do your intake today."

Miriam turned out to be a thirtyish woman with a ready smile and a faint Caribbean accent. She thanked me for my interest in InterAlia and asked me how much I knew about Affinity testing.

"I read the website pretty carefully," I said. "And that article in The Atlantic a couple of months ago."

"Then you probably know most of what I'm going to tell you, but it's my job to make sure potential clients are aware of how we do placements and what's expected of them. Some people come in with misconceptions, and we want to correct them up front. So bear with me, and I'll try not to bore you." Smile.

I smiled back and didn't interrupt her monologue, which I figured was the verbal equivalent of those caveats in microprint at the bottom of pharmaceutical advertisements.

"First off," she said, "you need to know we can't guarantee you a placement. What we offer is a series of tests that will tell us whether you're compatible with any of the twenty-two Affinity groups. We ask for a small deposit up front, which will be refunded if you don't qualify. A little more than sixty percent of applicants ultimately do qualify, so your chances are better than even-but we still end up turning away four of every ten, so that's a real possibility. Do you understand?"

I said I did.

"We also like to remind our clients that failing to qualify isn't any kind of value judgment. We're looking for certain clusters of complex social traits, but everyone is unique. There's nothing wrong with you if you fall outside those parameters; all it means is that we're unable to provide our particular service. All right?"

All right.

"You also need to be clear on what we're offering if you do qualify. First off, we're not a dating service. Many people have found partners through their Affinity, but that's absolutely not a guaranteed outcome. Sometimes people come to us because they're in trouble, socially or psychologically. Such people may or may not need therapeutic attention, but that's also not the business we're in."

As she said this she glanced pointedly at the bandage I was wearing. I said, "This isn't-I mean, I don't go around getting into fights or anything. I just-"

"None of my business, Mr. Fisk. You'll be evaluated by professionals, and the tests, both physical and psychological, are completely objective. No one is standing in judgment of you."

"Right. Good."

"Should you qualify, you'll be placed in one of the twenty-two Affinities and offered an invitation to join a local group, called a tranche. Each Affinity has regional and local subdivisions-the regional groups are called sodalities, and the locals are called tranches. A tranche has a maximum of thirty members. As soon as one is filled, we initiate a new group. You might be assigned as a replacement to an existing group or as part of a new tranche-either way, there might be a waiting period before you're placed. Currently the average is two or three weeks following assessment. Got it?"

Got it.

"Assuming you're placed in a tranche, you'll find yourself in the company of people we call polycompatible. Some clients come in with the misconception that they'll be placed among people who are like themselves, but that's not the case. As a group, your tranche will most likely be physically, racially, socially, and psychologically diverse. Our evaluations look beyond race, gender, sexual preference, age, or national origin. Affinity groups aren't about excluding differences. They're about compatibilities that run deeper than superficial similarity. Among people of the same Affinity as yourself, you are statistically more likely to trust others, to be trusted, to make friends, to find partners, in general to have successful social engagements. Within your Affinity you will be misunderstood less often and you'll have an intuitive rapport with many of your tranchemates. Understood?"

Understood.

"Again, your deposit will be refunded in full if we fail to place you. But the testing requires a commitment of your time, which we can't refund. You'll have to attend five test sessions of at least two hours each, which we can book to suit your schedule-five consecutive evenings, once a week for five weeks, or any other sequence that suits you." She turned to the monitor on her desk and tapped a few keys. "You've already filled out the online form, so that's fine. What we need from you now, if you choose to proceed, is a valid credit or debit card and your signature on this consent form." She took a single sheet from a drawer and slid it to me. "You'll also need to show me a piece of government-issued photo ID. A nurse will take a blood sample before you leave."

"Blood sample?"

"One now, so we can commence basic DNA sequencing, and one at each session for a drug assay. Apart from bloodwork, all our tests are non-invasive-but the results will be useless if you come in under the influence of alcohol or other intoxicants, so we do have to test. Results are completely confidential, of course. Clients taking prescription medication need to make us aware of it at this point, but according to your application you don't fall into that category."

The only drugs I had been taking lately were over-the-counter painkillers, so I nodded.

"All right then. Take your time and read through the agreement carefully before you sign it. I'll step out for a cup of coffee while you do that, if you'll excuse me-would you like a cup?"

"Please," I said.

The logo at the top of the agreement form-

INTERALIA

Finding Yourself Among Others

-was the most comprehensible part of it; all else was legal boilerplate, mostly above my pay grade. But I set myself to the task of reading it. I was about finished when Miriam came back. "Any questions?"

"Just one. It says that the result of my tests becomes the property of the corporation?"

"The result, yes, but only after your name and other identifiers have been stripped from it. That lets us use the data to evaluate our client base and maybe focus our research a little better. We don't sell or share the information we collect."

So she claimed. Also, the check is in the mail and I'll pull out before I come. But I didn't really care who saw my test result. "I guess that's all right."

Miriam pushed a pen across the desk. I signed and dated the document. She smiled again.

* * *

Dex called me later that night. I saw his number and thought about letting the call go to voice mail, but picked up instead.

"Adam!" he said. "What are you doing?"

"Watching TV."

"What, like porn?"

"Some reality show."

"Yeah, I bet it's porn."

"It's a show with alligators in it. I don't watch alligator porn."

"Uh-huh. So what happened the other night?"

"I texted you about it."

"That bullshit about a demo? I almost missed the ferry, waiting for you."

"I'm lucky I didn't end up in the emergency room."

"You couldn't just take the subway?"

"I was almost there, and I was already late, so-"

"You were already late-that says it all, doesn't it?"

I had shared my apartment with Dex for six months last year. We took some of the same classes at Sheridan College. The roommate thing didn't work out. When he moved, he left his bong and his cat behind. He eventually came back for the bong. I gave the cat to the retired librarian in the apartment down the hall-she seemed grateful. "Thank you for your compassion."

"I could come over. We could watch a movie or something."

"I'm not in the mood."

"Come on, Adam. You owe me an evening's entertainment."

"Yeah ... no."

"You can't be a dick twice in one week."

"I'm pretty sure I can," I said.

* * *

Of course it wasn't Dex's fault that I was moody-not that Dex would ever admit that anything was his fault.

I figured I had a couple of good reasons for applying to the Affinities and a few bad ones. The fact that my social life revolved around a guy like Dex was one of the good ones. A bad one? The idea that I could buy a better life for a couple of hundred dollars and a battery of psych tests.

But I had done my research. I wasn't totally naïve. I knew a few things about the Affinities.

I knew the service had been commercially available for four years now. I knew it had gained popularity in the last year, after The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and BoingBoing ran feature articles about it. I knew it was the brainchild of Meir Klein, an Israeli teleodynamicist who had ditched a successful academic career to work for the corporation. I knew there were twenty-two major and minor Affinity groups, each named after a letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the "big five" being Bet, Zai, Het, Semk, and Tau.

What I didn't know was how the evaluation process actually worked, apart from the generalities I had read online.

Fortunately I had a talkative tester ... who turned out to be Miriam, the woman who had done my initial intake. She grinned like an old friend when I showed up for the first session. I recognized the smile as customer relations, but I was still grateful for it. I wondered whether Miriam was a member of an Affinity.

She escorted me to a nurse's station in the back hall of the InterAlia office, where I was relieved of another vial of blood, and then to a small evaluation room. The room was windowless and air-conditioned to a centigrade degree above chilly. It contained a teakwood desk and two chairs. On the desk was a fourteen-inch video monitor, a laptop computer, and a chunky leather headband with a couple of USB ports built into it. I said, "Do I wear that?"

"Yes. Tonight we'll use it to do some baseline measurements. You can put it on now if you like."

She helped me adjust it. The headband was heavy with electronics but surprisingly comfortable. Miriam plugged one end of a cable into the band, the other into the laptop. The monitor facing me wasn't connected to the laptop. I couldn't see whatever Miriam was looking at on the laptop's screen.

"It'll take a minute or two to initialize," she said. "Most of the information we collect is analyzed later, but it takes some heavy-duty number-crunching just to acquire the data."

I wondered if she was acquiring it now. Was our conversation part of the test? She seemed to anticipate the question: "The test hasn't started yet. Today, it's just you looking at a series of pictures on that monitor. Nothing complicated. Like I said, we're establishing a baseline."

"And the blood sample? That's for drug testing, you said?"

"Drug testing plus an assay for a range of primary and secondary metabolites. I know this must seem scattershot, Mr. Fisk, but it's all connected. That could be InterAlia's slogan, if we needed another one:everything's connected. A lot of modern science is concerned with understanding patterns of interaction. In heredity, that's the genome. In how DNA is expressed, we talk about the proteinome. In brain science it's what they call the connectome-how brain cells hook up and interact, singly or in groups. Meir Klein invented the wordsocionome, for the map of characteristic human interactions. But each affects the others, from DNA to protein, from protein to brain cells, from brain cells to how you react to the people you meet at work or school. To place you in an Affinity we need to look at where you are on all those different maps."

I said I understood. She consulted her laptop once more. "Okay, so we're good to go. I'll leave the room, and the monitor will show you a series of photographs, like a slide show, five seconds per slide. Twenty minutes of that, a coffee break, then twenty minutes more. You don't have to do anything but watch. Okay?"

And that was how it went. The pictures were hard to categorize. Most showed human beings, but a few were landscapes or photographs of inanimate objects, like an apple or a clock tower. The photographs of human beings were drawn from a broad cross section of cultures and ages and were gender-balanced. In most of them, people were doing undramatic things-chatting, fixing meals, working. I tried not to overanalyze either the pictures or my reaction to them.

And that was it: session one of five.

"We'll see you again tomorrow evening," Miriam said.

* * *

The next day's test used the same headset but no photographs. Instead, the monitor prompted me with displays of single words in lowercase letters: when the word appeared, all I had to do was read it aloud. A few seconds later, another word would appear. And so on. It felt awkward at first, sitting alone in a room saying things like, "Animal. Approach. Conciliation. Underwater. Song. Guilt. Vista..."-but before long it just seemed like a job, fairly tedious and not particularly difficult.

Miriam came back for the midpoint break, carrying a cup of coffee. "I remembered how you liked it. One cream, one sugar, right? Or would you prefer a glass of water?"

"Coffee's great. Thank you. Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Personal question?"

"Try me."

"Do you belong to an Affinity? I mean, if you're allowed to say."

"Oh, I'm allowed. Employees can take the test for free. I did. I know my Affinity. But no, I never joined a tranche."

"Why not?"

She held up her left hand, the ring finger circled by a modest gold band. "My husband was tested too, but he didn't qualify. And I don't want to commit to a social circle he can't join. It's not an insurmountable problem-tranches organize spouse-friendly auxiliary events. But he would have been shut out of official functions. And I didn't want that. That's why the existing Affinities are a little bit skewed toward young singles, divorcees, widowers. Over time, as people meet and mate inside their own Affinity groups, we expect the imbalance to even out. It's trending that way already."

"You ever regret not joining?"

"I regret not having what so many of our clients find so useful and empowering. Sure. But I made my decision when I married my husband, and I'm happy with it."

"Which Affinity did you qualify for?"

"Now that's a personal question. But I'm a Tau, for what it's worth. And I take some comfort from knowing I have a place to go, if I ever need to call on people I can really trust. But let's get on with business, okay?"

* * *

The next day I got a call from Jenny Symanski.

Some people thought of Jenny as my girlfriend. I wasn't sure I was one of those people. That wasn't a dig at Jenny. It was just that our relationship had a perpetually unsettled quality, and neither of us liked to name it.

"Hey," she said. "Is this a good time?"

She was calling from Schuyler, my home town. Schuyler is in upstate New York, and all my family were there. I had left Schuyler two years ago for a diploma program in graphic design at Sheridan College, and since then I had seen Jenny only on occasional visits home. "Good a time as any," I said.

"You sure? You sound kind of distracted."

"I kind of am. I think I told you I'm up for an internship at a local ad agency, but I haven't heard back. Classes this morning, but I'm home now, so..."

"I don't want to be a nuisance when there's so much else on your mind."

She was being weirdly solicitous. "Don't worry about it."

"You seem to be dealing with the situation pretty well."

"What situation? The internship? The job market sucks-what else is new?"

Long pause.

"Jenny?"

"Oh," she said. "Shit. Aaron didn't call you, did he?"

"No, why would Aaron call me?" Another silence. "Jen, what's up?"

"Your grandmother's in the hospital."

I sank onto the sofa. Dex and I had snagged the sofa when a neighbor put it out for the trash. The cushions were compacted and threadbare, and no matter how you shifted around you could never get comfortable. But right then I felt anesthetized. You could have pierced me with a sword. "What happened?"

"Okay, no, she's basically all right. Okay? Not dead. Not dying. Apparently she woke up in the night with pain in her chest, sweating, puking. Your dad called 911."

"Jesus, Jen-a heart attack?"

I pictured Grammy Fisk in her raggedy old flannel nightgown, white with a pink flower pattern. She loved that nightgown, but she wouldn't let any of us see her in it before nine at night or after six in the morning-and strangers never saw her in it. The prospect of paramedics invading her bedroom would have horrified her.

"That's what everybody thought. But I was over at your dad's house this morning and he said now the doctors are telling him it was her gallbladder."

I wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded slightly less terrifying than a cardiac condition. "So what do they do, operate on her?"

"That's not clear. She's still in the hospital for tests, but they think she can come home tomorrow. There's something about diet and medication, I don't really remember..."

"I guess that's good..."

"Under the circumstances."

"Yeah, under the circumstances."

"I'm really sorry to be the one to tell you."

"No," I said. "No, I appreciate it."

And that was true. In some ways, it was better getting the bad news from Jenny than from Aaron. My brother didn't entirely approve of me or Grammy Fisk. My father had underwritten Aaron's MBA, and Aaron currently co-managed the family business. But the only one willing to pay for my graphic design courses had been Grammy Fisk, and she had done it over my father's objections.

A question occurred to me. "How did you find out about it?"

"Well-Aaron told me."

The Fisks and the Symanskis had been close for decades. Jenny and I had grown up together; she was always at the house. Still: "Aaron told you but not me?"

"I swear, he said he was going to call. Have you checked your phone for messages?"

I rarely had to check my phone for messages. I didn't get a lot of calls or texts, outside of a few regulars. But I checked. Sure enough, two missed calls from a familiar number. Aaron had tried to get hold of me twice. Both attempts had been yesterday evening, when I had turned off my phone for my session at InterAlia.

* * *

I called Aaron and told him I'd heard the news from Jenny. I apologized for not getting back to him sooner.

"Well, turns out it's not such an emergency after all. She's home now."

"Can I talk to her?"

"She's sleeping, and she needs her rest, so better not."

It was easy to picture Aaron standing at the ancient landline phone in the living room back home. It was hot in Toronto and probably just as hot in Schuyler. The front windows would be open, curtains dappled with the shade of the willow tree in the yard. The inside of the house would be sultry and still, because my father didn't believe in air-conditioning before the first of June.

And Aaron himself: dressed the way he always dressed when he wasn't doing business, black jeans, white shirt, no tie. Dabbing a bead of sweat from his forehead with the knuckle of his thumb.

"How are Dad and Mama Laura taking it?"

Mama Laura was our stepmother.

"Ah, you know Dad. Taking charge. He was practically giving orders to the EMT guys. But worried, of course. Mama Laura's been in the kitchen most of the day. Neighbors keep coming by with food, like somebody died. It's nice, but we're up to our asses in lasagna and baked chicken."

"What about Geddy?"

Geddy, our twelve-year-old stepbrother, Mama Laura's gift to the family. "He seems to be dealing with it," Aaron said, "but Geddy's a puzzle."

"Tell Grammy Fisk I'll be there by tomorrow morning." I would have to rent a car. But the drive was only five hours, if the border crossing didn't slow me down.

"She says not."

"Who says not?"

"Grammy Fisk. She said to tell you not to come."

"Those were her words?"

"Her words were something like, You tell Adam not to mess up his schoolwork by running down here after me.And she's right. She's hardy as a hen. Wait till end of term, would be my advice."

Maybe, but I would have to hear it directly from Grammy Fisk.

"You'll be paying us a visit sometime in the next couple of months anyway, right?"

"Right. Absolutely."

"All right then. I'll put Dad on. He can fill you in on what the doctors are saying."

* * *

My father spent ten minutes repeating everything he'd learned about the nature and function of the gallbladder, the sum-up being that Grammy Fisk's condition was non-trivial but far from life-threatening. By that time she was awake and able to pick up the bedroom extension. She thanked me for my concern but urged me to stay put. "I don't want you ruining the education I paid for, just because I had a bad night. Come see me when I'm feeling better. I mean that, Adam."

I could hear the fatigue in her voice, but I could hear the determination, too.

"I'll see you in a few weeks, no matter what."

"And I look forward to it," she said.

* * *

My third test session was the most uncomfortable. They strapped me under the dome of an MRI scanner for half an hour. Miriam said the scan would be combined with EEG data from my earlier sessions to help calibrate the results.

The next evening it was back to the headband, this time listening to recorded voices speak a series of bland, cryptic English sentences. If it rains, you can use my umbrella. We saw you at the store yesterday.

"In the end," Miriam said, "the point of all this is to locate you on the grid of the human socionome."

I took her word for it. The details were a well-kept secret. Meir Klein, who invented the test, had done basic research in social teleodynamics when he was teaching at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, outlining what it would take to construct a taxonomy of human social behavior. But the meat of his work had taken place after he was hired by InterAlia, and the details were locked behind airtight nondisclosure agreements. The process by which people were assorted into the twenty-two Affinities had never been fully described or peer-reviewed. The best anyone could say was that it seemed to work. And that was good enough for me.

I liked the idea of it. I wanted it to be true. We're the most cooperative species on the planet-is there anything you own that you built entirely with your own hands, from materials you extracted from nature all by yourself? And without that network of cooperation we're as vulnerable as three-legged antelopes in lion territory. But at the same time: what a talent we have for greed, for moral indifference, for wars of conquest on every scale from kindergarten to the U.N. Who hasn't longed for a way out of that bind? It's as if we were designed for life in some storybook family, in a house where the doors are never locked and never need to be. Every half-baked utopia is a dream of that house. We want it so badly we refuse to believe it doesn't or can't exist.

Had Meir Klein found a way into that storybook house? He never made that claim, at least not explicitly. But even if all he had found was the next best thing-well, hey, it was the next best thing.

* * *

The final test session was four hours in front of a monitor with my body hooked up to some serious telemetry. Miriam appeared during breaks, bearing gifts of coffee and oatmeal raisin cookies.

The program running on the monitor was a series of interactive tests, using photographs, symbols, text, video, and occasional spoken words. The computer correlated my test performance with my facial expressions, eye movements, posture, blood pressure, EEG readings, and the beating of my heart.

The tests themselves were pretty simple. There was a spatial-relations test that worked like a game of Tetris. There was an animated puzzle involving a runaway train full of passengers headed for certain destruction: do you throw a switch that causes the train to change tracks, saving all the passengers but killing a couple of pedestrians who happen to be in the way, or do you let the train roll on, dooming everyone aboard it? Some of the tests seemed to touch on identifiable themes (ethnicity, gender, religion), but the majority were pretty obscure. At the end of four hours it began to seem like what was really being tested was my patience.

Then the screen went blank and Miriam popped in, smiling. "That's it!"

"That's it?"

"All done, Mr. Fisk, except for the analysis! You should get your results within a couple of weeks, maybe sooner."

She helped me peel off the headset and the telemetry patches. "Hard to believe it's over," I said.

"On the contrary," she said. "With any luck, you're just getting started."

* * *

I stepped out of the building into a hot, humid night. The last of the business crowd had gone home, abandoning the neighborhood to speeding cabs and a couple of sparsely populated coffee shops. I walked to the College Street subway station, where a homeless guy was propped against a wall with a change cup in front of him. He gave me a look that was either imploring or contemptuous. I put a dollar coin in his cup. "Bless you," he said. At least I think the word was "bless."

By the time I got back to my apartment a drilling rain had begun to fall. The short walk from the subway left me drenched, but that didn't seem like such a bad thing once I had a towel in my hand and a roof over my head. In the bathroom I looked at my cheek where the cop had clubbed me. The bruise was fading. All that was left of the gash was a pale pink line. But I dreamed of the incident that night, when the room was dark and the rain on the window sounded like the roar of massed voices.

* * *

Ten days passed.

Two interviews for a summer internship went nowhere. I finished an end-of-term project (a Flash video animation) and handed it in. I fretted about my future.

On the tenth day I opened an email from InterAlia Inc. My test results had been assessed, it said, and I had been placed in an Affinity. Not just any Affinity, but Tau, one of the big five. My test fees would be debited to my credit card, the email went on to say. And I would be hearing from a local tranche shortly.

* * *

I was headed to school when my phone burbled. I didn't let it go to voice mail. I picked up like a good citizen.

It was Aaron. "Things took a turn for the worse," he said. "Grammy Fisk's back in the hospital. And this time you really need to come down and see her."



Copyright © 2015 by Robert Charles Wilson