“So, how’s it going?” Aurora asked when we had our first get-together. She had become aware, by then, that I wasn’t legally old enough to go to a bar for a glass of wine, so we met at a coffee house she liked instead.

“Great. I’m learning a ton, and it’s fun. To be honest, I wasn’t sure I would like doing tech support, but there’s a lot of problem-solving involved.”

“Your team manager tells me you’re a fast learner and the clients love you.”

“Uh … wow.”

“Look at you blush. He also said you had great tech skills for troubleshooting. Thing is, he seemed surprised. Like, how weird that a girl can do this job.  He didn’t come right out and say it, but it was pretty obvious. That’s a thing you’ll see them do, kind of stutter and stumble around when they just caught themselves about to say something that’s sexist as hell.”

“I haven’t seen that.”

“You mean, you haven’t noticed it yet. You will. It’s because they haven’t had to edit themselves before. I mostly see it when we’re prototyping and I have to remind them that not all of the target audience is male, white, affluent—basically exactly like them. They’re lacking in the cultural competence department. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but mostly they just don’t know. They spent all their time around guys who crack sexist, racist jokes and nobody says anything because proving you’re part of the same culture is the price of being an insider.”

I nodded, thinking about the banter on the IRC channels where I wanted nothing more than to blend in. Being raunchy and offensive was how you showed you belonged. One of the guys.

“Whatever, that’s their limitation. But when it comes to the code, I have to point it out. This isn’t like some, I don’t know, a delivery service. We’re trying to get inside people’s heads.”

“It’s not brain surgery—oh wait, it is!”

“Ha!” She laughed, then made a face. “Kind of? I mean, we have plenty of data, but if you ignore people’s actual lived experiences, their perspectives, if you make too many lazy assumptions when you’re writing the code, it won’t work. I can be a real pain in the ass about it.”

She started to tell me about her dissertation, and how her committee was making final recommendations, which was extra fun when they gave her conflicting advice. There were some strong personalities involved, and they wanted to ride their own hobby horses whenever they critiqued her work. It was exhausting. “But I’m nearly done, praise Jesus. Oh! I know what I wanted to ask you. Will you come to my defense?”

“Sure. What’s going on?”

She frowned, puzzled.

“Is it something at work? I’m new, so I don’t know if anyone will listen to me, but whatever it is, of course I’ll defend you.”

She looked blank for a moment, then giggled. “My dissertation defense, silly. It’s the final step of getting my degree. Like a job talk, or an oral exam. You don’t have to do anything, just let me put you to sleep talking about my research while my professors throw trick questions at me. You’ll be bored silly.”

“No, I won’t. Your work is fascinating.”

“Well, my family will be bored silly, and I need you to keep them company. I’d like that, I really would love having you there. Bored or not.”

“It would be an honor.”


I relied on touching base with Robbie over lunch or late-night pizza while at work. We talked idly about where we might want to take a vacation. Cabo or a mountain trek in Nepal? But that depended on having time, and we didn’t.

Hanging out with Aurora was already on the sched, though, and I fiercely defended those blocks of time. We kept on meeting once a month for coffee or, if the weather was nice, for a walk. It was only for an hour, but it was a chance to unwind, to let down my guard, and learn more about the inner workings of the company. She was close to the top, in constant contact with Adam Barton and the clients whose deep pockets funded experiments that made use of Aurora’s combination of imagination and her deep knowledge of neural networks, machine learning, and the latest developments in artificial intelligence.

I got to know her moods, too. Sometimes her energy threw off sparks, and other times she seemed relatively listless. She told me she was on medication for a mood disorder that had first surfaced in her adolescence. Luckily her parents didn’t dismiss it as just the usual mood swings of puberty and found a doctor who she trusted and who, in turn, recommended someone in Boston when she left for college. I wouldn’t have guessed if she hadn’t told me. It certainly didn’t appear to affect her work. She thought of it as just part of who she was, a condition that was not so much an illness as a trait that helped her achieve, so long as she paid it respect, tuned in to herself to monitor her moods, and kept up with medication and regular check-ins with her shrink.

I sensed she was nervous as her defense approached, but also excited and resolute. On the big day, I joined the small crowd in a room at MIT where an odd mixture of geeks in jeans and tees and members of her family dressed as if for church were gathered. I fit in with the church congregation since, having no idea what would be appropriate for the occasion, I had decided to wear the dress I’d had on the day I met her. As I found a seat, I guessed that the stocky man with a glossy bald head and dark skin sitting close to the front was her father, and the woman dressed in a sari, a long braid trailing down her back, was her mother. They were clearly the audience-members-of-honor at the center of a scrum of dressed-up cousins and aunties all twittering together nervously as the seats behind them filled.

I didn’t see anyone else from Eventive, which surprised me; I had half expected to see Adam Barton, attended by the man who seemed to have a tablet grafted onto his hand. I also mentioned the event to Robbie, but he said he’d already heard all about her research, so there was no reason for him to waste time traveling across town to listen to a presentation. Maybe that was true of everyone at work but me. But I liked to think I was there because I was her friend.

The chatter subsided as Aurora strode to the podium. She looked dead serious and fierce until she saw her family and gave them a bright smile. She nodded at acquaintances as her eyes roamed the room and rewarded me with a deeply dimpled grin that had something mischievous and conspiratorial in it. I settled into my seat as she brought up her slides and began to talk.

There was something about the way she explained her work as she clicked through her slides and animated visualizations that made me think I understood every word of it during her talk, though afterward when I tried to describe it to Robbie I realized all of my understanding had melted away. “I guess it’s over my head,” I told him that night as we shared one of the late-night pizzas. He was planning to work through a stubborn problem even if it took all night, and I had to catch up on the emails and messages that had piled up while I was at MIT.

“Her stuff is pretty abstract,” he said. “She has plenty of ideas, but some of them don’t really amount to much. I mean, if you can’t do something with it, if you can’t use it to make something, what’s the point?”

“You’re the maker around here,” I said. “The first time I met her she told me that, that you’re able to take her ideas and turn them into code that works. She was impressed.”

“Maybe now that she’s done with that degree she’ll be able to focus more on work.”

I took a slice of pizza back to my desk to work through more of the backlog. I was glad to have attended the defense, but it left me with an avalanche of work to catch up on.

It had taken longer than planned since I’d stayed for the reception following the main event and even drank a glass of the bubbly that a fellow grad student was pouring, surrounded by the chatter of an international crowd of students, teachers, and family members. “Emily!” her mother called out when Aurora pointed to me.

She sailed across the room to grip my hands in a warm greeting while her daughter stayed behind, caught by one of the faculty members who wanted to quiz her further. “We’ve heard so much about you. Well, not really so very much, poor Aurora hardly has time for a phone call, much less a visit, but she’s obviously delighted to have a girlfriend at work.” She gave my hands a little jiggle before releasing them. “Boston is such a lonely place for her,” she said, her voice lowered. “Plenty of intellectual company here, of course, and thank goodness for that, we can’t keep up with her research. But friends, real friends? Not until you joined the company. And she works much too hard. She has no time to meet people.”

“We miss her terribly,” her father said, overhearing our conversation. “Our home feels so empty without her. But we’re very proud of all she has accomplished.”

“Maybe now that she has finished her PhD she will have more time to visit us,” her mother said to him wistfully. I doubted that. Eventive had a way of laying claim to every free moment, but I just smiled.

Aurora impulsively invited me to join them in a celebratory dinner, but I begged off. It was family time. Besides, I knew from all the notifications pinging my phone that I had work to catch up on.

While I hacked my way through my messages, I found myself envying Aurora. She had parents who obviously cherished her. A warm and welcoming extended family. Even when they complained about infrequent visits they didn’t blame her; they understood the pressures of being a genius at a demanding job.

Nobody missed my calls or visits, except maybe Allie, and our friendship was more of a memory than a current reality. Robbie was the only family I had, and the only time we had together these days was stolen moments at work, when hunger drove him away from his keyboard. I often stayed late even when I was too tired to accomplish anything meaningful, just to have those minutes together when the pizza arrived. I was friendly with my team members, but Robbie didn’t approve of wasting time with office chatter, so I mostly kept to myself.

It felt like a secret betrayal when I began to travel regularly for work and was able to enjoy a nice meal or explore whatever city the sales pitch was in. If I was honest with myself, at those times I didn’t miss Robbie at all.


Allie came down for a weekend that first June, after her classes ended. I had been looking forward to it, but it turned out to be super awkward.

She was due in Friday night. I raced home to be available. The fridge was empty, as usual—no time to shop or cook, and no need with food available at work. At least we had a stash of beer and wine that Robbie ordered in bulk, which was fortunate because I wasn’t yet old enough to buy it myself. I got on my phone and ordered up a random selection of snacks and breakfast goodies to be delivered from a gourmet grocery and made up the bed in the guest room with sheets that had sharp creases from being still in their original packaging. We’d never had guests before. When I finished, it had the sterile look of a hospital room.

She got in just as I straightened the brand-new duvet, and laughed good-naturedly at the bookcase along the wall, the only furniture beyond the bed in the spare room. It had no books in it. “Don’t worry, I brought my own,” she said, taking four books out of her roller bag and arranging them on the shelf.

“Are you planning to read all weekend?” I asked.

“Hah, no. It’s just that I always panic if I think I’ll run out.”

“There are bookstores in Boston, you know.”

Her eyes lit up. “I know! I made a list.”

“You’re so weird. How about a glass of wine?”

We settled on the couch—another lonely piece of furniture in a room that suddenly looked too large—with our glasses and a plate of cheeses and crackers. She started to tell me about her freshman year, but my phone kept interrupting, buzzing with notifications. “Sorry. I have new client. They need a lot of hand-holding,” I explained as I fired off some texts. “You were saying?”

“This biology class, it had a lab, and I got the clumsiest guy as a partner. He broke so much glass, I had to take over the work while he stood over me and pretended to supervise.”

“Why were you taking biology?”

“Requirements. They make you take a bunch of different courses in case you discover you have an unexpected passion for science or economics.”

“I don’t see that happening.”

“Not for me. I know what I—go ahead.”

My phone was buzzing again. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” She got up to look at the view as I put out fires. “Thing is,” she said when I set my phone down, “I feel like I got all that already in high school, you know? Studying for a bio test feels like such a waste of—”

I winced apologetically and took a call. An emergency that couldn’t wait. I got out my laptop and spent the next forty minutes undoing the damage some hotshot did while customizing their reports function, all the while keeping up the soothing no-worries, we-can-fix-this chatter that clients expected. This was a major customer. I couldn’t afford to piss them off, even if they let one of their senor staff move stupidly and break things.

“I’m so sorry,” I told Allie, who had settled back into the couch, reading her phone and munching snacks.

“New client?” she said sympathetically.

“No, actually, they’ve been with us for a while, but they might upgrade if they can tailor it to their own specs, which wouldn’t be a problem if they let me do it, but they have a CTO who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Chief technology officer,” I added, seeing her frown as if checking her internal dictionary.

“But it’s Friday night. Don’t you get weekends off?”

“It’s the industry. Also, he was totally panicked. There would have been a shitstorm if management found out it was broken all weekend.”

She nodded, but my brain filled in the words she wasn’t saying out loud. I came all the way down here to hang out. You’re not going to make time for me? She didn’t get it. This was my life.

It went downhill from there.

We had planned to do some tourist things on Saturday, but I got called in to work when another one of the Client Solutions Analysts flaked out and went AWOL. He’d clearly been in over his head, and his client list was littered with unresolved tickets. Rumors were flying that his parents had lured him to a family dinner and then had him admitted to a hospital. I rolled up my sleeves, ready to prove I was talented, hard-working, and committed. To the company, that is, not to a locked ward like the other guy. I gave Allie a key to the apartment and a hasty apology. She said she understood.

I did manage to steal an hour on Sunday to take her to brunch at a restaurant recommended by the man with the tablet, supposedly one of the best in the city. It was a chance to show her just how successful I was, but it was uncomfortable, starting with a haughty waiter who described the glories of the menu in a tone that somehow conveyed it would be wasted on plebes like us. Though maybe the discomfort was a hangover from Saturday night, when Robbie had come home from work and immediately took issue with something Allie said about regulating big tech. He always spoke his mind, unfiltered, totally honest. I felt caught in the middle, but naturally took Robbie’s side out of loyalty.

At the restaurant, as large plates holding a small amount of food artfully arranged were slid in front of us, I was afraid she was going to start criticizing him again, but she didn’t say much at all, just picked at her food. I filled the silence with chatter about the job, about Aurora’s brilliant work, about how magnetic Adam Barton was, about nerdy co-workers and difficult clients. I finally remembered to thank her for giving me advice that night when I was freaking out about the job interview.

“You would have been hired anyway,” she said.

“Maybe, but I was losing my mind and you talked me down.”

“You’d been going through a tough time.”

“Yeah. It was gruesome.”

“You could have reached out. At least we could have texted, like old times.”

“I guess I was embarrassed. You were in college and I was going nowhere. But I got the job, and I moved in with Robbie and everything changed. I mean…” I opened my hands. Look at us, in a place like this.

She looked around, nodded, and sipped her tea. There was even a tea menu, though she disappointed the waiter by ordering her usual English Breakfast. He was pushing some extra-special early harvest Darjeeling. She frowned and rubbed at some crumbs on the tablecloth before asking “How are things going with Robbie?”

“They’re great. I mean, we don’t get much time together because of work, but we’re good. And working at Eventive is amazing.”

“You sure work hard.”

“Everyone does. It’s the culture.”

“Are you happy?”

I laughed. “I’m too busy to think about it.” She didn’t laugh with me, and I was suddenly fed up. “Look, I’m sorry I screwed up your weekend, but I love my job, and I’m good at it. And I love Robbie, too, even if you don’t like him. So yeah, I’m happy.” Was she trying to make me feel bad? Was she jealous?

“That’s good,” she said, giving me a tight little smile.

She sent me a thank-you card a week later, which made my irritation with her flare up again. I couldn’t help it if I had to work instead of showing her around town. She spent her free time making up stories and dreaming about being a famous writer. She didn’t know how the real world worked. I buried the card in the recycling before Robbie could see it. It wasn’t good when contexts collapsed and worlds collided.

I thought of her from time to time, like when I dusted the unused guest room with the still-empty bookcase. She sent Christmas cards and the occasional text, but that uncomfortable meal was the last time we talked face to face.


A year later I was in San Jose, pitching a start-up that had so much capital it was burning a hole in their pocket. Afterward, I headed up to San Francisco, to the lobby of a hotel where I knew an international collection of AI geeks was holding an academic conference, aiming to pick up ideas and possibly leads on new clients. I was standing in line at a coffee stand when I glanced behind me and caught the name printed on a conference badge, one that said PRESS on it. “Brian?”

“Hi,” he said, the vowel trailing off in that way it does when you’re talking to someone you’re supposed to recognize but don’t.

“I’m Emily. Emily Callander.” He still looked as if he were flipping through a mental address book. “Metamorph?” It was the nic I had used in my IRC hangouts where we’d first met.

He staggered back, clutching his badge theatrically. “Metamorph! Oh my god. So great to meet you in person finally.” He gripped my hand in a warm two-handed shake. “You’re not here to give a paper, are you?”

“No. I’m not even registered for the event. I’m in town for something else, thought I’d hang out in the lobby. The papers at things like this are over my head, but I can usually learn something just talking to people. Are you writing a story?”

“I’m not sure. I either picked all the wrong sessions to go to or this stuff really is completely beyond me. I’m hoping if I can talk to some of these guys informally they’ll translate it into English for me. What are you up to these days?”

“I got a job with a tech company in Boston. Eventive.”

“Fantastic. That’s … let me think, is that Adam Barton’s outfit?”

“That’s the one.”

“Sweet. Do you like it?”

“I’m working my butt off, but I love it.”

We got our coffees, carried them to a table and exchanged news, or as much of it as I could. I’d been put through the workshop that all new hires had to attend with the company’s PR consultants, and we were reminded regularly about what we could and couldn’t say to competitors—or to reporters, who might tip off competitors. Telling them we had deep datasets was fine, for example. Bragging that we had the goods on every adult American was not. It was a great selling point for serious customers but liable to scare people who weren’t. I kept it generic and mostly talked about office culture and the ten p.m. pizzas, about living in Boston and working with the love of my life. Brian talked about some of the characters he had met while working on a big story on AI ethics and about his wife and kids. His phone was full of photos of the two boys, who I agreed were the cutest ever.

“I’m going to be in Boston in a few weeks. Let me take you out for lunch to celebrate your new job.”

“Not that new. I’ve been there for over a year.”

“Jeez, they’re robbing cradles these days. We’ll celebrate your first year anniversary, then.” He took my phone number and then went off to talk to one of the academics whose paper sounded as if it should be newsworthy if only the researcher could explain it to him.


A couple of weeks later I got a text from Brian telling me the dates he would be in Boston. After some back and forth we found an hour that worked for both of us and agreed to meet at a restaurant. A few hours later, taking my headset off after finishing a call and logging my notes, I realized Robbie was standing over my shoulder, asking a question. “Who’s Brian Friedman?” he asked, spreading the words out with irritated patience, making it clear I hadn’t been listening. Since I had just finished talking a client through a new feature that I barely understood myself it took me a moment to switch gears and figure out who he was talking about.

“Brian? Oh, him. He’s a journalist.”

“You’re having lunch with him?”

He must had seen it on my calendar. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell him anything sensitive.”

“But who is this guy? Why are you having lunch with him?”

“He’s just a friend. An acquaintance. I bumped into him at an AI conference a few weeks ago. He’s coming to Boston and wanted to get together.”

“How long have you known him?”

Feeling an itchy need to get up and move, I showed Robbie my empty water bottle, stood and led him toward the galley, trying to keep it casual. Robbie was clearly in a mood. “Oh, man, for ages. Since I was twelve? But only virtually. We hung out on the same IRC channels.” As I filled my water bottle I remembered how Robbie had responded when he heard I’d had a boyfriend before him, freezing me out for days. He was just jealous, bless his nerdy heart. “He’s an old married guy,” I reassured him. “It’s just lunch.”

Robbie frowned, possibly relieved but still unhappy. “Don’t let him pump you for information. I’m not even sure you should be talking to a journalist.”

“Tell you what: I’ll talk to Bea, make sure I don’t accidentally cross any lines.” Bea was the PR contractor who regularly briefed us on what  we could and couldn’t say to the press or anyone else. “Last time I talked to Brian, he mostly showed me pictures of his kids. I doubt he’s fishing for info, but I’ll be prepared just in case.”


Lunch was fun and thankfully uneventful. More kid pictures, more war stories from the front lines of tech reporting. Brian probed for intel about Eventive, but got the message when I stuck to the limited talking points Bea had approved for public consumption. We spent more time comparing notes on the food at airports we had both spent too much time in. Our hour was up before I knew it, and Brian said he’d look me up next time he was in town. He had asked me at some point what I thought of the Gardner Museum and was shocked and appalled when he learned I hadn’t been there. He didn’t have time to go on this trip, but he insisted he would take me there next time.

The well-dressed Englishman with the ever-present tablet in hand intercepted me as I returned to the office. (I could never remember whether his name was Alec or Alex. In my own mind, I called him Jeeves.) He leaned toward me, as if to bring himself down to my height, and asked with starchy politeness “Could you spare a moment to stop by Mr. Barton’s office? It shouldn’t take long.”

I swallowed “Sure. Of course.” Though it had been asked in the form of a question, it was obvious I didn’t have a choice. He waved me toward the elevator chivalrously.

I hadn’t been in the CEO’s office since my interview over a year earlier. This time, Barton was tipped back in his chair, chatting with Connie Uys, the lean, wiry South African whose role at the company had been dismissed by Robbie as … what was it? Something to do with human intelligence, “meatspace” operations of some kind. It figured: There was something carnivorous about the man. He vacated the chair in front of the boss’s desk for me, but he didn’t leave, just closed the door and leaned against the jamb, arms crossed.

“How’d it go with Friedman?” Barton asked, still tipped back in his chair, relaxed. “Bea told me,” he added, since I must have looked confused.

“Oh. It was fine. Bea was great, she helped me know what to say. What not to say.”

“What did he want to know?”

“Honestly? He barely got a question in before I cut him off. He asked what I was working on and I stuck to the job title and a generic description of my position, like Bea said. Then he asked about Aurora. He’d read her papers. I said she was really nice and smart and … that was it. I mean, I don’t even know what she’s working on, but if I did I wouldn’t tell him. He got the message.”

“What else did you talk about?”

“His kids. Airports, which ones suck the most. He told me about some stories he’s working on.”

He raised his eyebrows, inviting more, so I told him which companies Brian was profiling and what issues he was researching. I offered that he wanted to drag me the Gardner art museum some time.

“You haven’t been? You hear that?” he asked Uys, who shook his head, disappointed in me. “You gotta go to the Gardner. Next time he’s in town, take the afternoon off. Enjoy yourselves. Right, Connie?”

He looked at Uys, who nodded. A man of few words.

“Okay.” Barton slapped his armrests with his palms. “I’m sure you’re busy. I’ll let you go.”

Uys moved aside and I opened the door. I was halfway out when Barton added, “oh hey, did you try the steak tips, or stick with pizza?”

I paused. “We split a pizza.”

“With sausage, I hope? Their sausage is famous. But try the steak tips one of these days. Santarpio’s looks like just a classic pizza joint, but their barbeque is surprisingly good.”

“Thanks, I’ll try it next time.” I smiled at him. At least I hoped what I did to my face came across as a smile.

I headed for my desk. Uys had followed me out, but peeled off for the elevator. I sat, opened my email, and stared at it. How did Adam Barton know where we’d eaten lunch? I opened my calendar—as I thought, I had an appointment block labeled “lunch w/ Brian Friedman,” but no mention of the location. Brian had texted the address to my personal phone.

The only thing I could think of was that I’d had my work phone in my bag. Maybe that gave Barton access to my geolocation. Or maybe Uys had followed me, old school surveillance. For some reason, Adam wanted me to know I was being watched.


“Don’t you think that’s weird?” I asked Robbie that night as we walked home from work. It was late, and the shadows looked spooky.

“Having lunch with a reporter is what’s weird.”

“We didn’t even talk about Eventive. He was town to interview some MIT guy about his research. I just think it’s creepy to be tracked like that.”

“You have any apps on your phone? You’re being tracked, and all of that info is bundled and sold over and over to all kinds of people.”

“I know, but this feels different.”

“Why? Isn’t it creepier to be tracked by someone you don’t even know?”

I shrugged. That made sense, logically, but people I didn’t know were an abstraction. Adam Barton was real. “Bea ratted me out. She’s the one who told Adam I was having lunch with a journalist.”

“She’s supposed to keep Adam up to speed. That’s her job, helping him shape the company’s image.”

Or keep the company from having an image. I flashed back to the dearth of articles about the company when I was prepping for my interview. “I don’t understand why Eventive doesn’t want publicity.”

“What good would it do? We don’t have any trouble getting clients, or investments. You get media coverage, it’s usually negative. I mean, look at Facebook. Nobody writes stories lately about how billions of people use it every day to keep in touch, or about the technical challenges they’ve solved, they just get slammed for stupid stuff. Why look for trouble?”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Our clients wouldn’t like it, either. Why would they want everyone knowing that we give them such a powerful edge over their competition? We’re their ace in the hole.”

“I’ll point that out next time somebody complains about the pricing structure.”

“Our metrics dashboard makes the benefits obvious. It’s totally worth the money. Do you show them the numbers?”

“They see the numbers, but sometimes people just want to vent. I always talk them around. I’m good at it.”

He stole a glance at me. “I’ll bet you are.” He surprised me by taking my hand. We walked the last block to the condo holding hands like a couple of people in love.


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