Startled awake, Samantha Longfellow’s sheets were tangled around her legs and her arm was numb under her pillow. She sat up and shook her tingling arm. The red digits of her monitoring system flashed 4:01a.m. She swallowed to moisten her tongue, swiped a long dark strand of hair away from her face and climbed out of her sleeping pod. She moved slowly, feeling her way along the wall. In the bathroom, lights, triggered by her movement turned on automatically. Her bladder couldn't wait.
When she was done, she made her way back to the pod and climbed under the thermo-sensitive sheet. She closed her eyes, but sleep eluded her. After tossing and turning for what seemed like hours, her body finally started to relax. Just as she felt herself drifting to off sleep, she saw something bright flash near the corner of her vision. Oh, no. she thought, another migraine.
As the light grew brighter, Samantha felt an unfamiliar pulsing vibration inside her pod. Before she had time to process what was going on, she felt a strange whoosh and was suddenly somewhere else entirely. There was an intense white light, and then as quickly as it had come, it was gone.
She sat up and then stood. Dizzy, she steadied herself and looked around to get her bearings. It was dark all around her. But on the ground in front of her, Samantha saw an illuminated trail of heart-shaped pink lights glowing brightly. What the hell is going on? she said aloud.
The closest hearts were solid, but the ones further ahead were blinking, as if beckoning to her. Feeling a little steadier now, she walked toward them, putting one tentative foot in front of the other.
Samantha had been barefoot in her pod, but now she was wearing flimsy pale pink slippers. She’d never worn anything like them before and couldn’t figure out how they’d gotten on her feet. She was also wearing an unfamiliar skirt with a pale pink hem that extended to her slippers. As she stared at her legs, she noticed the skirt and slippers were the same exact shade of pink.
Suddenly, two pulsating square images appeared in front of Samantha with two shimmering male faces, one in each box. The man in the square to her left wore black wire glasses, had clear blue eyes and a close-shaved head. He was framed by a box of vivid blue light that faded and then solidified again and again.
In the pulsating square to her right, there was a man with a goatee and a close-cropped head of salt and pepper hair. She noticed the dimple on his left cheek. Samantha tried to move but felt stuck, like her feet were trapped by a force field. She wanted to walk around the floating images to get a closer look, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t move. Unsure of what to do next, Samantha stood staring from one face to the other.
As she looked at the man with the wire-rimmed glasses, a line of unrecognizable symbols began to scroll from left to right across the bottom of his box. The effect was like a ticker tape running across the bottom of a newscast. Gradually, the symbols turned into letters, and she began to read:
Male, forty-eight years old, MBA, McLean, Virginia, divorced, has two children and they sometimes live at home. Likes to cook, listen to music and can grill a mean steak.
Then Samantha turned to look at the man in the other glowing box. Her eyes followed the trail of words at the bottom of his screen.
Male, fifty-two years old, PhD, Washington, DC, divorced, one child and they live away from home. Enjoys hiking, tasting microbrews, and college sports.
This is so bizarre, she thought. How is this happening?
Samantha pinched herself to make sure she was awake and not dreaming. That’s when she noticed something soft on her hands. She was wearing white gloves. Without thinking, she reached a white-gloved hand toward the box around the dark haired man. She watched as it turned a warm glowing red, and her fingers began to tingle. Startled, she quickly pulled away as the other box disappeared. Samantha felt her feet release. She took a tentative step forward and started down the path of blinking hearts, past the glowing red box.
As she walked from heart to heart, she saw rows of similar boxes on her left and her right. Inside each one was a floating male head, and when she looked more closely, the heads turned into figures doing all sorts of things. A muscular man was climbing a precarious cliff. Another was outside playing tennis. And a long-haired man sat strumming a guitar. Each frame was a GIF, with one brief scene repeating.
Sam continued to stroll along the trail of hearts until one particular box caught her attention. Inside, a man was relaxing on a dark leather couch reading a book. When she paused in front of the box, she could hear strains of an old Rolling Stones song.
Her eyes widened as she watched the man smile and shut his book. Then, barefoot, he ambled into another room. At first, the room was barely visible, but it gradually grew clearer, and she watched, mesmerized. He had on a pair of faded jeans that looked soft to the touch. His t-shirt was vintage blue with the words Beck on the front. He had close-cropped, jet-black hair, and she noticed a bit of gray sprinkled in.
The music got clearer and she could make out the words, “I'm not waiting on a lady, I'm just waiting on a friend.” He turned to open the fridge. When he bent over to reach inside, she couldn't help but notice he had a nice ass. When he stood up, he was holding vegetables and some paper-wrapped packages.
The man turned in her direction and then walked to a tawny-colored granite countertop where he deposited the food. The stone slab sparkled, and Samantha, wondered if this could possibly be real. She reached to touch the scene and with another whoosh she found herself standing in the man’s kitchen!
Suddenly, she was wearing a similar pair of faded jeans and a washed-out red cotton tank top. Unfazed, he turned to her and lightly touched her on the cheek. She froze, stunned. With her fingers now free of gloves, she touched the spot on her cheek where he had touched her. Unsure of what to do next, she stood watching him.
Without saying a word, he took her hand, led her to a barstool, and motioned for her to sit, which she did. Then he went back to preparations for his food. The island where she sat had a state-of-the-art four-burner stove.
"My name is Kyle”, he said. “I'm really glad you stopped in to visit. Dating is so much more civilized this way." He paused. "We can see each other right away and test our compatibility without having to email, call, or meet in a public place."
Dumbfounded, she stared at him, her jaw slightly ajar. Confusion clouded her mind. She was speechless. He smiled gently at her dazed look, "You must be a newbie. So this your first simulated experience?" . Samantha sat there unresponsive.
"Okay, let's start slowly. I’ll explain." He moved around the kitchen island and sat down next to her. "This is not a dream, but it’s also not real. It's sort of hard to explain. Do you remember when you checked the box that said you agreed to be part of experimental new methods they might be trying out on LoVR?"
She did remember and nodded.
He patted her arm. "Okay good, so you're hearing me and able to respond. This is working."
A tentative wisp of a smile played across her lips.
He returned the gesture. "Why don’t you start by telling me your name and why you were curious about me?"
"S-S-Samantha, but my friends call me Sam." She managed to get out.
He waited patiently, not rushing her. He watched her with warm green eyes.
She thought for a moment. "You seemed calm, and I liked the music. And when you stopped reading and went into the kitchen, I was curious about what you were going to whip up." She paused looking thoughtful.
She put her hand on the counter and ran her fingers over it. She tapped her nail on the granite, and at the click could hear it was solid.
Then she looked back at Kyle. "I reached my finger out toward your box, and then I suddenly found myself in your kitchen!" She looked around the room and back at him. "I don't know exactly how it happened. And now I’m having a conversation with you!" She laughed out loud at the sheer impossibility of the situation.
Kyle grinned, glad she was laughing. "Yeah, I know it's pretty weird, right? The first time I wandered around chasing those hearts, I was confused myself."
She sat considering his words for a moment.
"And the clothing?” She looked down at her outfit. “I was wearing lacy old-fashioned clothes and now I'm in jeans and a tank top. How did that happen exactly?”
"I was wearing a tuxedo and tails as my wandering costume," Kyle said. "I think those were our romance-seeking outfits." He chuckled.
"How did the clothing change like that?" She asked.
"Your guess is as good as mine”.
With a scrape of his bar stool against the warm, clay-colored ceramic tile, Kyle stood and went around the island again. "Would you like something to drink?”
Sam looked at him and said, "Sure, why not? That would be great. What are my options?"
"How about some nice hot tea? It's too early to break into the hard stuff." He smiled.
Sam felt herself relax and started to giggle.
"Okay, tea sounds good." Soon the kettle whistled to announce the water was ready. The sound startled her. Kyle looked at her sheepishly, "I kind of like making tea the old-fashioned way. Does it bother you?”
Sam shook her head. "No, it's quaint and sort of comforting." She looked up at him and smiled.
Kyle turned and bustled about. He took two white ceramic mugs and two packets of herbal tea from a cabinet. Sam stood up to help and grabbed the handle of the kettle with a kitchen towel that was hanging nearby. Without talking, they prepared the tea together.
Back on her stool with her hands wrapped around the warm mug, Sam savored the smell of mint and the tang of lemon wafting from the steam.
"Hey, Kyle, can I help with whatever else you are making? I'm a pretty good sous chef." she smiled.
He walked around the island and stood next to her. Slowly, he lifted his hand to her chin and leaned down to her upturned face. He looked into her hazel eyes and gently kissed her lips. "Sure, I'd really like that. I’m glad you reached out."
Before he could continue there was another whoosh. The room faded and then disappeared. Sam found herself standing on the path of hearts staring down at her pale pink shoes. She looked up at the box where she had watched Kyle reading on the couch. Had it all really happened?
There he was! He was back on his couch, reading as if they’d never met. The only difference was the box was now outlined in pink rather than blue. She tried touching the box again, but this time nothing happened.
Sam looked at the path and saw blue boxes lining both sides as far as she could see. She didn't want to move, but the flashing hearts beckoned her feet forward. With one last fleeting look at Kyle, she moved forward. As she was propelled reluctantly down the path, she hoped she would be allowed to see him again.
Slowly Sam moved forward along the trail of the blinking hearts. Thoughts of the exchange with Kyle wafted around her brain. Was that real? She paused and turned back in the direction she had come, her skirt swayed around her hips. Whatever the rules were in this place, Sam found she was unable to return to the pink box where Kyle lay on the couch with his book. With a pounding heart, Sam swallowed and tried to calm herself. You can do this, she repeated again and again, sort of like a mantra. Well, she thought, might as well see what else is in store for me, and Sam started to move again with a swish of her pale pink skirt.
Another split appeared ahead with two boxes flickering at the entrance. Sam stopped to examine them both. In the first box on her right she saw a pair of warm brown eyes framed by smile wrinkles. Her eyes traveled to the crooked grin below a well formed nose, and without a glance at the 2nd box, her gloved hand moved forward to touch the man’s face. The unexamined box disappeared and Sam moved towards the blinking hearts. Along this path, like before, were a series of boxes with a male figure in each one. She hoped she’d see the warm brown eyes in one of them.
The first box had a dark bar scene with some live music and a crowd of people gyrating to the beat. One figure was back lit so she could see his face, but it wasn’t the warm brown eyes man and crowds weren’t her thing.
The next box had a long, lean muscular man in bright clothing pumping away on a bike loaded with chrome and gadgets. The peeling birch trees and tiny purple flowers climbing the mountains on either side of him were breathtaking. Sam rubbed her bum absentmindedly and thought how uncomfortable bicycle seats could be. Nope not for me, she said out loud.
Before she arrived at the next box, she could hear the steady roar of a strong wind and the sound of a motor. A bright green motorcycle rounded a curve with a rider in jeans, a plaid flannel shirt flapping behind him and a dark retro helmet . His t-shirt was plastered to his chest, the sight made Sam catch her breath. Speed wasn't her thing, but impulsively her finger touched the frame before she could think twice.
This time the whoosh that pulled her into the scene was slightly less startling. Sam found herself perched on the seat behind the rider with her body wedged against his. Out of fear she wrapped her arms around the stranger even more tightly. His chest rumbled as he laughed.
His voice whipped by her ear. "That's it, hold on tight."
Fear rose and her stomach felt queasy. This was nothing like the first experience. It was too loud to talk, so they rode in silence. Sam’s head felt heavy inside the helmet she wore, and she moved side to side trying to find a comfortable angle. Her pilot protected her from most of the wind, although her knees were cold as her legs splayed out on either side of him. With a quick glance down at the foot rests, she say black Doc Martens tied on her feet, but her eyes were pulled back up to the road quickly.
The bike started to sway more and she tightened her grip on the driver. They zipped back and forth through three or four curves. Each time they dipped, she fought the gravity and leaned away holding her breath. Sam started to wonder when this would stop.
Then he slowed and he pulled the bike onto a narrow dirt pathway.
He turned his head as they moved along and said, "It's just bit further, are you doing okay?"
All she could do was nod her head and continue to hold on tight.
"Just follow my lead, and then lean in the same direction. It will be easier," he added.
After a few more gentle curves, the bike rolled to a stop and her pilot laughed.
"You can let go now," he said.
She dropped her arms quickly. "Sorry about that, but I was..." She paused, then blurted out. "Kinda scared.”
He chuckled. "I would help you down but you need to get off first."
Sam sat still.
"If I go first, then you might get kicked in the head." Gently, he guided her with his voice. "Stand up slowly and then lift your right leg over the back and down to the ground. You can do it," he added.
Slowly, she stood upright and then kicked her leg over the bike and landed smoothly.
"Ta-da!" she said with a big smile.
He dismounted and laughed. "You nailed that landing."
The tension broke. Sam's legs were a bit stiff and she shifted her weight back and forth in her black leather ankle boots to get the blood flowing again. From her Doc Martens emerged black leggings and snug soft purple tunic. Her pilot grabbed her hand and led her to a picnic table surrounded by trees wearing fall colors of vivid orange, striking yellow, and her favorite, deep magenta.
Sliding down to the wooden bench, she tried to catch her breath. Her companion took off his helmet and she sighed at the sight of his warm brown eyes. It was the same face from the original box. He leaned down and undid the strap below her chin and helped remove her helmet. It was a kind gesture but also intimate, especially since she didn't even know his name.
Her curly, long, dark hair fell around her face. His hand grazed hers as he took the helmet from her. Then he looked at her for the first time.
"You're beautiful," he said.
The blush was instantaneous.
And then he grinned. "I'm forgetting my manners." He held out a large paw to shake her hand. "Name's Griff, and he continued more formally, “I'm glad you decided to come on a ride with me this afternoon."
Sam cleared her throat. Kyle had explained the rules to her but she was still flustered. She looked up at Griff and couldn't help smiling back. He seemed so genuine, standing there in front of her in his jeans and plaid pearl button shirt.
"Sam, my name's Sam, short for Samantha."
"I like it," he said and joined her on the bench. "This is one of my favorite spots in the fall. Are you game to take a walk with me?"
She looked at their surroundings and noticed a path heading off into the woods.
Then she giggled. "Am I supposed to accept an offer from a perfect stranger to walk in the woods?"
His laughter filled the glade. "Touché, didn't they teach us in kindergarten not to do those kinds of things?"
Griff stood up and held out his hand. Sam put her long, tapered fingers in his and let him pull her to her feet.
"Well, I'm going to take the risk," she said.
And they started down the pathway. The leaves crunched under their boots, and released the musty scent of fall. The wind was absent so Sam’s ears felt calmer. The sun shone through the branches of the birch trees. As they entered the forest, though, the temps dropped a bit.
"You going to be warm enough?" Griff asked.
"With this sweater and walking, I should be fine," Sam said.
She noted they were still walking hand in hand. At first, she thought this odd, but then started to enjoy the sensation. Griff pointed out a bird call, and told her the trill was a cardinal. They made one strong tweet, that's how you could tell it was them.
She heard another sound and she asked him, "What is that one?"
Griff grinned down at her. "Just know the one bird call, so I can't impress you further."
She smiled. "That's one more than I know."
The silence was comfortable and Sam didn’t feel the urge to fill it with chatter.
Griff finally started to talk in his low country twang. "How's the simulation experience treating you?"
It was Sam's turn to laugh. "I have no clue which end is up." And she added, "This is only my second adventure."
Griff looked thoughtful as they continued to amble along. The path got a bit steeper. "Yeah," he said, "I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into when I agreed to be a guinea pig."
Sam digested his comment and still wasn't sure what to make of it. "What do you mean a guinea pig"?
"Well, do you know how this all works?" Griff said.
"No clue," Sam said.
Griff's eyes widened. "We had to sign a release statement that explained it all before the trials."
Sam shook her head. "Not me, I was sleeping and then I found myself having a psychedelic dream." Then she continued. "I'm not even sure if I'm awake or still lying in my pod to be honest."
"Well, young lady, I feel honored to be in your dreams," Griff said with a gallant bow.
There was a strong whoosh of air at his words.
Sam found herself standing on the pathway of hearts with the framed picture of Griff frozen and framed in pink. She touched it wistfully with a gloved hand. Based on her earlier experience with Kyle, Sam guessed she couldn't return or finish her conversation with Griff. His kindness and the solid feel of him had been a nice change from the type A people she hung out with during the day. Griff was different from Kyle, but she liked him all the same.
Tired and a bit frustrated by her evening adventure, Sam resisted the urge to continue along the blinking path. She stamped her light pink shoe on the ground.
Out loud, she blurted. "I'd like a user's guide or something, isn't there someone who can explain what the heck is going on?"
She looked around for a sign that anyone was even around to hear her. Sam pinched herself again to see if she could wake up, and then she refused to take another step.
Turning in a circle she yelled, "Anyone out there?"
In utter frustration, Sam sank to the floor with her skirts pooling around her. Slowly she lay her head down and started to sob out all the confusion that had seeped into her.
A gentle hand touched her shoulder and startled her from her crying. Sam's head came up with a jerk. Tears still trailed down her cheeks. Her lower lip quivered as her hazel eyes searched to see who was there.
"Sam, Sam, take a deep breath and calm yourself," the woman said.
Sam's chest heaved and her nose ran. She took a swipe at it with her gloved hand. This brought a chuckle from the woman.
"Here's a tissue, no need to mess up your pretty gloves," she said.
A slight smile graced Sam's lips. She accepted the tissue and the crying gradually came to a halt. At first, she sniffled a bit, but then she let go of any genteel nose wiping etiquette. Loudly, Sam blew her nose. It was the woman's turn to be surprised and then they both broke out in laughter.
"Sounds like the trumpet of a swan, doesn't it? They say I blow my nose just like my grandpa," Sam said.
"I think they were right!" the woman said. Then she looked at Sam with a serious face. "Are you ready to stand up and join me at the table for a chat and a cup of tea?"
Sam nodded and got slowly to her feet. She took a deep breath and followed the woman to the table she, which was now sitting on the path. The hearts were solid and nothing was flashing or moving about. Calmness overtook Sam.
Out loud, she commented. "A good cry always makes me feel better."
"Agreed, it's cathartic," the woman said.
She was seated and already pouring out two cups of tea. One was a delicate china cup and the other was in a tall steaming mug.
"How'd that get here?" Sam asked, pointing at the mug.
"We like to make everyone feel at home here, and that seems to be your mug of choice, yes?"
Sam nodded and took a seat in front of her favorite tall, teal blue mug. Her daughter had made the mug and dipped it in the glaze to make it look like drippy ice cream. She wrapped her fingers around the familiar cup but didn't sip from it. For now, she let the warmth seep into her hands. The woman tasted her tea after she added milk and some sugar. She looked at Sam with a question in her eyes.
"I don't drink it for awhile, 'cause it always burns my tongue," Sam said.
The woman nodded because she understood and said, "I guess I should introduce myself, my name is Eliza and I'm your gUIde for this experience."
After her long night, Sam, sat on the edge of her seat to hear more.
"Let me start at the beginning," Eliza said. And she began.
You are in a semiconscious state, sort of like what you told that young man, Griff. A dream world," Eliza said. She paused to look at Sam and see if she was following her words. Sam stared, mesmerized. Eliza continued. "Do you remember when you were answering all those LoVR site questions?"
"Well, we included several that were able to determine who might be better able to successfully participate in this trial." She let the information sink in and then continued. "We have tried recruiting participants in different ways over the years, and always seem to attract more men to the program. This was an attempt to capture more of the female audience. Unfortunately, we found too much disclosure can impact the results unnaturally."
Sam's forehead wrinkled in thought and she said, "I don't understand."
"Basically, if we disclosed our testing to the female audience, they were unable to fully participate, so we decided to subliminally select women who were more susceptible to suggestion."
"Do you mean you are playing with my mind?"
"Not exactly," Eliza said. "We know you have vivid dreams and we know you are a strong communicator, so we leveraged your innate abilities to explore our new approach to online dating."
Eliza took a sip of her tea and peered over the edge of her cup, silently
observing Sam. Eliza waited patiently. Sam recalled seeing something on social media about controversy over the past twenty years as various dating sites, and internet engines had attempted to learn more about human behavior without biasing their results.
Sam didn't know how other women might have reacted, but she could only imagine. She thought about asking Eliza. Was it even legal, what they had thrust her into?"Am I still dreaming or am I really here?" Sam looked at Eliza waiting for a response.
"You are actually still home, asleep in your pod, and we are having this
conversation in your subconscious." Eliza paused and then continued. “Same as your two encounters with Kyle and Griff."
"Were they real people?" Sam asked.
"Very real," Eliza said. "The difference is they agreed to participate in the program."
"Was my experience with them pre-programmed as well?" Sam played absently with a curl as she tried to digest the information.
"No," Eliza said, "we can't control what happens during the interaction so each one is unique, but the setting remains the same so the participants can actually compare each encounter with different women in the same situation."
"It's like a scientific experiment," Sam said.
Eliza's face lit with a smile. "Yes, exactly, we are controlling the setting so the human participants can note the differences in the quality of the exchange rather than getting confused by the locale or activity."
The inner geek in Sam admired the idea. But her heart was heavy. "Is it a onetime thing or does it ever become real?"
Eliza shifted forward to the edge of her seat. "This is new territory and there are only a few women who get to this point. The possibilities are limitless." Eliza's face grew more animated. "Would you like to continue to participate?"
Sam was quiet and then she blurted out. "But what if I want to meet Kyle or Griff again?" Then she added, "I mean the ones I like, how do I actually figure out if there's potential or any real possibilities if I’m dreaming?"
"Excellent question," Eliza said. "Because of the simulated experience,you can meet more potential suitors in one evening than you would going through the traditional online communication process over several weeks. We would like you to complete several rounds before you narrow the field."
"Are you saying you want me to let you into my dreams several nights in a row?" Sam asked.
"Ideally, we would like this. The data we could collect would be invaluable. And we could learn a lot about your responses to help others,” Eliza said.
"What if I don't want to help others? What if I just want to meet Kyle or Griff and keep my dreams private?
"That's your choice," Eliza said. "Could you at least give it some thought before you decide? Please?" she said softly. A thought came to Sam and she sat up taller and leaned her elbows on the table. "What if I enter one of the boxes and the scenario doesn't go so well, what happens then? Am I in danger? Can I escape early?" Sam chuckled. "Trust me; I have had bad dates that needed escape hatches.”
Eliza seemed to be caught off guard. She rubbed her chin and closed her eyes as if thinking. Sam watched her and waited for her response. "We do have an early abort system, but we haven't had to use it. We also highly screen the male participants and check for mental stability."
"Well, how long do the simulations last?" Sam asked. "I mean, the first experiences were really fun and just getting started. I was enjoying myself. I wish I could have stayed longer and cooked with Kyle or continued my walk with Griff. Why did the experiences end where they did? And, if it's bad, can I end it earlier?"
"We monitor the vitals of the participants during the experience and the timing varies for each situation, but there is a critical point where the chemistry and emotional bond is created and that is when the experience ends. The goal is to leave both people wanting to see each other again."
"Oh, so I do get to see Kyle and Griff again if I want?"
"If the feeling was mutual, yes, and we help orchestrate the next several communications and the first live meetings."
Sam digested this new information. A wrinkle appeared between her eyes as she seemed to puzzle over some detail. "Are you real, too? I mean when will I see you again?"
"I'm a user interface, thus my moniker, gUIde. We will spend a lot of time together, I promise." Eliza said.
Sam looked directly at the older woman and firmly said, "I'm in."
"Excellent." Eliza responded.
"So, what happens next?"
"You wake up and go about your day and we will see you later this
evening, in your dreams."