Every month, you will find a new free short story here for your reading pleasure–after which, it will diminish to a sample. For April 2017, I’m proud to present you with The Open Source Woman, the first in what may become a series of hardSF tales examining life in a fully transparent world. And if you prefer to listen to me read it to you, you’re in luck. For the first time ever, I’ve released the audiobook simultaneously with the ebook. Click here to listen now!
Whichever way you choose to do it, join me now as we follow Luke, a transparency activist with his own unique code of ethics where the dating game is concerned, as he gets more than he bargains for when he sallies forth to the singles bar to fight dirty for truth, justice, and honesty in romance…
The moment he spotted her, Luke knew everything he needed to know about her to make his decision. Unfortunately for Luke, she wasn’t the one he really needed information about. It didn’t help that, until she walked in, he’d been otherwise occupied with his primary hobby, which his mother called “meddling in the affairs of others,” because she was one of those people who just didn’t get it.
The low-hanging flood lights painting the room with little pools of dazzling occupied by about thirty sitting people. Shortly before she walked in, his attention had been occupied by a couple on the far side of the bar, past the long mahogany high table. It was a garden-variety pickup, the kind Luke had seen a few thousand times, the kind he’d even engaged in back before he’d learned the hard way. Back before he’d found the collective and gotten things figured out.
The woman in the prospective couple hadn’t figured things out yet—neither had the man, as was obvious from Luke’s vantage point forty feet away. He could see that the moment he looked at the woman and her metadata popped up around her, the display framing her as Luke scanned back and forth between her and her prospective beau. It was the kind of display you’d expect from someone who’d just gotten their social networking license, which was excusable on someone in junior high, but unconscionable on someone who was twenty-seven, worked in finance, and had graduated Summa Cum Laude from Carnegie Mellon. Her metadata read like a CV.
His was just as bad. Pictures of him on his rowing team, a copy of his Juris Doctorate vellum and law license, pictures showing him with a full head of hair rather that the balding crown he sported now—which Luke could see, but, because of where she was standing, the woman couldn’t—and interests including “long romantic walks in the evening.”
They had freedom of speech, and they had the right to present themselves as the perfect potential marriage partners if they wanted to. Defrauding their prospective dupes, though, wasn’t exactly kosher. For example, what would Mr. JD think if he knew that Ms. Finance’s StreamFilms profile showed that she had a predilection for serial killer movies, chess competitions, and hardcore, but completely hated romance, action, and science fiction? And what would Ms. Finance think if she knew that Mr. JD also had a profile on CatholicDating.com under a pseudonym, where he confessed his total lack of respect for any woman that would sleep with him before things “got serious.”
Fortunately, Luke also had freedom of speech, and he used that freedom to blink-click on Ms. Finance’s “I Know Her” box and paste the link to her StreamFilms profile, then he looked down to the tabletop where he kept his virtual keyboard, and he typed in “One good thing about Tammie, she’s got the greatest taste in movies!” and hit “Enter.”
Then, to keep things equal, he switched over to Mr. JD, selected the same field in his public profile, and linked to the CatholicDating.com profile with the comment “One of the best things about Alan, he’s a man of good morals who isn’t afraid to tell the world that he’s no friend of promiscuity.”
One after the other, they stiffened noticeably, and within a minute their little tête-à-tête had broken up. They’d each discover why later, but by that time perhaps they’d find people whose company they’d enjoy more anyway.
Luke waved to the waiter, signaled for a refill on his Coke. He hadn’t gotten to the point in the evening yet where he felt like adding rum out of sheer depression. Keeping his whistle wet enough to enjoy the onion rings did the job just fine.
Wednesday nights were when he did his bit for the public good. As a member of the not-really-that-secret-anymore collective Open Source Lives, Luke devoted one night a week to introducing a little honesty and transparency into courtship rituals.
His reasons were his own, and he’d never published them online, but he paid his dues by selecting a bar every Wednesday and keeping an eye out for the kind of misguided souls that thought that lying about themselves would lead to happy relationships—like Ms. Finance and Mr. JD. Yes, some folks were fastidious online and kept private the parts of their lives they preferred to keep private, and then said so on what public profiles they kept. Though they might have buried secrets they were concealing, folks like that weren’t his concern—they were up-front about the fact that they were concealing something. Their partners were thus warned, and could go digging on their own if they wished to.
The collective was more concerned with folks who seemed to think that there were still real secrets in the world. Secrets were different from private things. Privacy was the zone someone preferred to reserve for their intimates. Secrets were the things people hid from their nearest and dearest for fear that it would make them unlikable—usually they were things so powerful that they’d share them with complete strangers, like psychologists, online friends, or hobby communities for the sheer relief of it. The difference, you might say, between delight and shame.
Luke’s booth wasn’t on a line-of-sight with the door, by intention. He wasn’t interested in scoping everyone, his was merely concerned with keeping everyone honest once negotiations were in progress—after all, despite being obscured beneath the propagandistic cruft that most people called “romance,” courtship was essentially a business transaction. Each party wanted something—sex, entertainment, bonding, friendship, marriage, what have you—and each was willing to supply something in-kind to get to it. The transactions only went sour when someone in the equation wasn’t honest about either what they were looking for, or about what they were offering. Luke—like the other members of Open Source Lives—saw his function as akin to a realtor’s title search database, or to the mechanic who gives a used car the once-over and checks it for hidden problems.
Not everyone saw it that way, of course. The group didn’t exactly have the shining reputation they might have liked, but he supposed a culture built so heavily around deception takes time to adapt to transparency, even when they thrust it upon themselves with the rabid clamor for technologies that enhanced it.
This was another one of the reasons why Luke wasn’t on a line-of-sight with the door. Anyone who looked at him (well, anyone with contacts or glasses with their metadata pingers turned on) would see in a moment who he was if they cared to actually read beyond his vital stats (height, age, weight, education), but since he was here in his official capacity rather than in an attempt to pick anyone up, he didn’t consider it fair to go cluttering up the visual field. He would have considered it rude to get in the way of quick decisions. Time was the only precious resource, and wasting someone’s time was rudeness bordering on theft, as far as he was concerned. As much as he might have been an outlier for the broader culture, on this, at least, he agreed with the mainstream.
Because his table was behind a tall partition out of view of the door, he did not expect to be noticed at all. He never had been before. Then again, in the six months he’d been an active member, he’d never noticed someone that he’d deemed worth a second glance on his own behalf, either. At least not until a few minutes after resolving the Ms. Finance/Mr. JD situation, when she walked up to the bar and stood in a pool of light, making her bottle-fire hair sparkle enough to draw his attention.
When he focused on her, his optics returned a flag:
Warning: Open Source Woman
Then, below, in smaller print:
Reciprocity expected. Click here to proceed at your own risk.
While Luke knew some Open Source Women from the circle, he’d never met one socially, and he’d never seen one that posted it as a warning label.
Or maybe a dare?
Proceed at your own risk.
He hesitated. He could do reciprocity. An evening of conversation with a kindred spirit, that might be nice too. But this was a pick-up joint, and that wasn’t something he was interested in at all. Not anymore. At least, not for a while.
Proceed at your own risk.
Then again, what was life without a little risk? Luke focused on the button, and blink-clicked.
Level 1 Access Privileges Granted, said the meta-cloud.
Almost instantly, she turned to look straight at him. She studied him for a moment—or, more likely, studied his metadata, since there was no way she could see anything interesting about him from back there, just a standard-issue face with some fuchsia AR contacts—then nodded and gave him a little smile. Under that harsh vertical light, it was hard to tell whether the smile was friendly, or if it was the kind of private smile a cat might make upon finding herself accidentally locked into the rodent section of a pet store overnight.
She walked with the kind of confidence that would have made Luke smile had it been directed at anyone but him. From across the room, all he could see was a youngish redhead in a black shirt. When she dodged around the tables, he saw that it wasn’t a shirt at all, but a calf-length singlet, clinging to all her curves—both the flattering and the unflattering, and stunning for it—and she had her bright blue eyes pointed right at him atop a mischievous smile.
When she was five steps away, he realized he hadn’t actually read her metadata, and started digesting it as fast as his brain could handle. Her name was Elsie. Twenty-three, a little younger than he was, college educated at one of the normal brain trusts that spelled “upward mobility,” with a stated aversion to people who were possessive, jealous, lazy, and/or boring. Judging by the extensive list of interests which he didn’t have time to fully scan, “boring” would probably be hard to pull off in any case.
By the time she sat down, he knew everything he needed to know about her to decide that, if he was here for this kind of thing, he’d have been interested. But he wasn’t here for this kind of thing—his activism time was sacred to him, a kind of penance, and he didn’t like having it intruded upon by someone so…distracting.
As she settled into the chair opposite him, it got worse. She smelled faintly of lemon with a hint of vanilla. His eyes flicked down to his onion rings and Coke, and he couldn’t figure out whether he regretted them or was grateful for the kiss-repellant he’d been consuming for the last hour.
“I’m not in the market tonight,” he said.
She reached for an onion ring and popped it into her mouth without asking, then raised an eyebrow at him. “I can see that. On patrol?”
She read that between the lines of his profile? Sharp. “Yup. You?”
She smirked. “On the prowl.”
“Then why the warning label?”
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, just a little bit. “I got a better question: why is someone with a masters in clinical psych and an interest in stage magic asking such an easy question?”
He sighed. “You’re trying to compensate for being burned by people who keep secrets. Or you’re just tired of preliminary bullshit. Or you just like getting a rise out of people.”
She twitched her head, letting him know that he was somewhere in the right neighborhood.
He took another onion ring and said, “But, really, I’m not on the prowl. You oughta try your luck somewhere else.”
“You’re the one who clicked.” She sang it, making it a playful chide rather than a pout.
“Never seen the warning label before.”
“Ah,” she sparkled, “you’re wondering what an Open Source Woman is.”
“Hmph.” He bit the onion ring, then talked around it. “Not really. Look, I really don’t…”
“Don’t want to talk, I know. Give me a break, at least tell me why?”
Luke waved his hand at the expanse of the bar. “I’m on duty for another hour.”
“In that case,” she said, “I’ll make you a deal. I give you an hour, then you give me twenty minutes. If you’re okay with that.”
“You’ll come back in an hour?”
“I’ll buy the next round, then I’ll help you wreak havoc.”
“Fair. Tell me why I’m about to say no, and you can stay.”
“Well,” her eyes scanned the air around him. He recognized the move, she was scanning his metadata for clues, “I’m betting you don’t trust your judgment with women.”
Luke smiled and offered the booth seat next to himself. “I like blue cheese with my onion rings.”
Elsie ordered the next round and settled in next to him. “Tell me the rules?”
“Open Source Woman doesn’t know?”
She laughed. It was lower, richer than her speaking voice, a lot of soul behind it. He was already liking her a lot more than he wanted to. “I picked the license from the MIT project, I’ve only ever heard about your collective.”
“Okay. So, we’re basically making sure that they’re playing fair.” He told her about the couple he’d interfered with a couple minutes before. “So, if you can find something on them that shows they’re cheating, you post the link to their comments section.”
“Got it. What’ll I need?”
“FaceCrawler, RelationalWeb, and GrepCollate. You can find them in the Open Source Lives app store.”
She looked down at the table, did some typing, then waved her hands in front of herself and blinked purposefully a few times. “Okay, I got ’em. Let me see….” She was quiet for a few breaths, then, “So with FaceCrawler, I take a snapshot and run it against…okay. Clever.”
“Right. Then you pipe the face profile through RelationalWeb and run GrepCollate on everything they turn up, so you get a picture of their whole online presence.”
“Ooh, devious, I like. Hey, good timing!” she bounced a little as the waiter approached. “Thank you!” She signed for the rings and the drinks and took a sip.
He joined her, relaxing into his scan of the room, enjoying her scent and the warmth seeping through her clothes against him.
About five minutes later, she said, “Ooh, look here.”
“Two o’clock, buzz cut and earrings. She’s shining him.”
Luke took a look at the profiles, then did his normal parallel search. “Good spot. What do you think?” He asked it more because he liked the sound of her voice than because he really needed to know.
“That guy’s nineteen, his metadata says he’s a sub looking for marriage. Her metadata doesn’t say anything that would put him off, but FaceCrawler says she’s got a FetGirl profile, and it says she likes older guys, and she’s not a dom.”
“So she’s just scoring ego points?”
“Mmm. May I?”
Luke smiled. “Go for it.”
She did. The guy’s face turned from hopeful to angry three seconds later, and he splashed his drink in her face. She shouted “Asshole!” after him as he stormed out.
“Jeez, poor guy,” Elsie said.
“Yeah, well, he’d have been a lot more pissed off if he spent another hour trying to get her into bed.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Elsie shifted a bit, wasn’t touching him anymore. “So you do this all the time?”
“Every Wednesday night.”
“Nah. I move around. The goal is to keep people honest, right? If I was here all the time, cheaters would just avoid the place.”
“Doesn’t it make you feel kinda…you know…icky?”
“Nope.” He took a swig of his Coke, chased it with a bite on a ring.
“Hm.” She made thoughtful noises for a few seconds, long enough that he had to force himself not to look at her. “I don’t know. I feel like a bit of an asshole, you know?”
“Oh? Well, you tell me, which open source license did you pick?”
“Public Open, General Private Share-Alike.”
The first was her public metadata license, meaning that any company could use her for data-mining within the bounds of the law, without compensation. The second was her personal use license—a concept that not a lot of people embraced in the first place—and said that she was up for just about anything and okay being approached for any kind of social or sexual contact, subject to consent and mutual reciprocity. “Pretty radical. Why the GPSA?”
“Well, what’s the biggest reason that things go sour when you’re with a girl?”
He turned to face her. “Really?”
“Okay, I’m gonna ask you about that when my hour’s up.”
“Fair. What’s your answer?”
“People being embarrassed about what they want. I’m not. So with this license, if I’m comfortable with someone I guarantee I’ll try anything twice.”
“Well, first time I might not like it just because it’s new and strange.”
“And what if you’ve already tried something twice?”
“Then it’s in my User’s Manual. Adventures in chapter two. Sex in chapter three. Religions in chapter four. But I won’t be a bitch about it.”
“Ah, I haven’t had time to read it yet.”
“Oh, the treasures you’ve missed!”
Luke chuckled, but stopped halfway through when a new player approached a mingling knot clustered around the pool table. “Yeah, that’s what I thought when I finally read my car’s shop manual, too. Take a look at this.” He nodded at the roundish shaven-headed, deep dark man approaching the group. The man’s eyes focused on one woman in particular, the look of a man on a mission. Luke scanned the data as fast as he could as the man came up behind the bottle blonde and tapped her on the shoulder, and presented her with a curious look as she turned around.
The two of them talked while Luke, and Elsie next to him, read and grepped and crawled and hacked through the network as quick as they could. The new arrival drew two others from the group—a man and a woman—and inside two minutes they had formed a new knot. It occurred to Luke, not for the first time, that people in bars moved around each other like birds flocking on an autumn afternoon.
“Interesting,” Elsie said.
“How so?” The no-longer-quite-casual body contact among the small knot of four was ramping up quickly.
“Well, I’m not finding anything for any of them that looks bad.”
Luke smiled. “Neither am I.”
And, as if they were waiting for his blessing, the four of them exchanged nods and shrugs all around, then turned and filed out the exit that led into the hotel.
“And that’s how it’s supposed to work. Everyone plays straight, everyone goes home happy.”
“It is kind of cool.” She moved closer again. Not quite close enough for him to feel her heat, but close enough that her scent pushed in on him afresh. “So why do you give a damn what they do?”
Luke covered his discomfort with his drink, then said: “Does it really matter?”
“What are you looking for?”
“You read my license.”
“Reciprocity is a contract term, not a desire.”
“Oh, it’s my desires you’re interested in.”
“You came to my table. I just looked at your data.”
“I like curious people.”
“Well, I’m curious now. How deep does your license go?”
“How do you mean?”
“Did you open source your genome?”
“Ha.” Like he would have asked if that was the case.
“Oh, come on. You leave it everywhere you sit. Anyone who wants it can pick it up, it’s not like you can control it, anymore than you can control who sees your face.” She chewed thoughtfully, then swallowed. “Maybe less, since you can wear a mask or a cowl if you don’t mind being stared at.”
“Fair point. So how deep does that license go?”
“Look me in the eye and ask me that.”
Luke turned his head from his scanning to meet her eyes, wide and black with electric blue rims. In the center, he could see little glowing traces in her contact displays sketching little shapes across her pupils. They danced as her display changed—once upon a time people would imagine seeing sparkles in a lover’s eyes, now, they actually could. Somehow, it made things even better.
“You were going to ask me something?” Her voice lowered, as if she were sharing something very private. “Go on.”
“How deep does the license go?” He asked it as if he wasn’t sure about the question anymore.
“All. The way. Down.”
“So this is access level one?”
She wrinkled her nose mischievously. “It is.”
“What’s access level two?”
“You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
“Wow, that’s not quite what I meant.”
She laughed. “Not sex, silly.”
“Call it a nosy question.”
“So I ask you one, and you ask me one?”
“You ask me anything, I ask you anything. I answer, you answer. Reciprocity.”
“Okay. And that means what for your metadata access?”
“A whole new world.”
“Right. And you think that’s reciprocity when mine is all out in the open?”
“The metadata is.”
“Hmm…okay, how about this…” she looked down at the table, wiggled her fingers.
Luke’s contacts flashed, he pulled the projection plane into focus, which meant looking a couple inches through the surface of her face at this distance, and saw Access Level 2 Granted.
He blink-clicked, and was treated to an archive of direct information. Pictures she’d taken—gorgeous landscape work—and pictures of her. Not the public pictures, but pictures of her in her home, in the bath, at a skinny dipping party. None of them airbrushed, none of them posed. All candid and easy.
“And you’re not worried that your parents will see these? Or the people at your church?”
“It’s hard to scandalize anyone when you’re not hiding anything. Isn’t that the point?”
“But this is access level two.”
“Look back at the metadata in level one.”
He did. Right there, under “Recreation Interests,” she listed “Skinny Dipping.”
“Okay. So, I guess I owe you a question. Ask away.”
“Why Open Source Lives? For real this time.”
“The emotional reason. The thing that attracted you, not the philosophy you settled on.”
“Oh.” He sighed. Then again, what could it hurt? The thing about having facts in the open was that it was like an arms race—that was the whole point of metadata. When everyone knows that everyone else is as weird as they are, it’s hard to use someone’s eccentricities against them. Secrets could only hurt when they’re secret. Enforcing that philosophy and keeping people honest was the point of the collective, he just hadn’t been on the pointy end of that equation in longer than he cared to admit, even to himself. He took a drink to fortify his courage, wishing there was rum in it. “I had this friend. Good friend. Knew her for years. Well, we got together one day…”
“Got together, like slept together?”
“That’s a mild way of putting it. Anyway, it was spectacular, intense, and then…” He shrugged, “She went nuts.”
“Yeah. Like, turned out she had some other boyfriends, wasn’t really safe with them. When I asked about it—and I really did just ask, since you never know how much of the gossip you hear is true and how much is malice—well, she got violent. Spray painted my car. Told another one of her boyfriends that I’d threatened her, had him get some of his friends together to jump me. Turns out she had what psychiatrists call ‘borderline personality.’”
“And that’s why you got the psych degree too.”
Luke nodded. “Yeah, I thought it would help me spot psychos. Turns out that part of the problem with borderlines is they’re hard to spot, you just have to give them enough rope to hang themselves, watch them closely. Well, you can guess what that does to trying to get to know people.”
She chuckled. A mirthless, cold-comfort sound.
“Yeah,” he said, “exactly.”
“So that explains the psych degree, why the activism?”
“Well, borderlines—and sociopaths, and just plain assholes—they make a habit out of personal fraud. They have a hard time hiding when you can check them across platforms. Most people show different parts of themselves at church or at work or at parties, but the dangerous people become entirely different, depending on what will get them the most sympathy, or advantage, or whatever their thing is.” He took another swig from his Coke, found only ice, and waved at the waiter. “So I put in a little time here, you know? Make things a little better for people by enforcing the rules everyone’s already agreed to play by.”
“And what about you?” She raised a reproving eyebrow. “All this work for everyone else to save them from a problem you had? Isn’t that called projection?”
“Transference, but yeah, probably.”
“All this and pedantic too? Meow.”
“Yeah, yeah, cute. Do you do any other tricks?”
“Well, it’s your turn. Per the license,” she added the last part with a wink.
“Well, what is it you desire? Again,” he found he was smiling, “for real.”
“You’ll have to define your scale. I mean, do you mean what do I want in my next drink, or what do I want to do before I die?”
“Why are you here, tonight?”
“I’m looking for something…interesting.”
“Oh, I think I’ve found it.”
She bobbed her head from side to side. “This conversation.”
“So why interesting?”
“Ah!” She held her finger up, took a drink. “Because, old soul, I am mortal.”
“I’m going to die. Well, someday. Not tonight, not that I know of. But there’s more out there,” she waved her hands to encompass the whole of existence, “than I can see if I live to a thousand. If I’m not doing something interesting, I’m wasting the only thing I can’t ever replace.”
Luke smiled. “I like that. And that’s the real reason for the license?”
She smiled back. Then her face clouded. “I think I just took my time out of the middle of your hour.”
“You need to go?”
“I guess so, unless…”
“Unless you have another question. You know, as payment.”
“Okay. What’s access level three?”
She leaned toward him, close enough that their noses were almost touching. “Look in the User Manual. Chapter three. If you like what you see, meet me in room 324 in fifteen minutes.” She kissed him quick, then slid back along the booth bench and stood up, straightened her singlet, and walked to the hotel exit like a woman with somewhere to be.
He bookmarked her metadata before she ducked out of view, then looked at the table. He pulled up her user manual, flipped to chapter three. Halfway through reading it, he found he did need a rum—just a small one—to steady his nerve. He found himself thinking…
What are the chances of that?
…but he knew they were pretty good. In a world with this many people, you were bound to run into a few whose tastes fit your tastes—and whose curiosities fit your curiosities—that well.
He had a second rum, just to be sure he could walk straight. He considered taking a third. He considered the fact that following her upstairs meant ducking out on his sacred obligation. He even thought about the fact that it might only be one night, and then he might feel even lonelier tomorrow. Her manual didn’t say anything about looking to settle down.
Fifteen minutes later, he knocked on the door of room 324. She opened the door in her skin, put her hand behind his head, and kissed him.
When he came up for air, he sent a quick note to his boss saying he wouldn’t be in to work tomorrow, then he turned off his optics for the evening.