Escape Pod 765: Tru Luv

Tru Luv

By Sarah Pinsker

The first three Tru fanatics were already waiting outside Meetspace when Molly arrived to open the bar. They were easy to recognize, pushing up their winter coats’ sleeves and glancing at the insides of their wrists every two seconds instead of their phones, each hoping for their algorithm-matched Prince or Princess or Princex to cross into range and light up their implant.

For all that Molly thought the implants were a scam, she appreciated that they broke people of obsessive phone-checking, at least a tiny bit. It was actually part of the marketing pitch: “Put your phone away and make a commitment. This isn’t social media; it’s Tru Luv.” She was still amazed that so many had taken them up on it, but, then again, she hadn’t gotten into bartending for her ability to understand people.

“Your group isn’t even supposed to be here until seven thirty,” Molly told them. “And we don’t open until six tonight.”

“It IS six,” the tall one said.

Crap. Molly checked her own old-school watch, still on her wrist, but destined for her pocket so she wouldn’t accidentally soak it when she washed glasses. Most nights her phone stayed hooked to the bar’s ancient speakers, and she still liked to be able to check the time. Except she hadn’t actually looked at it when she put it on that evening, and the hands had frozen in a V around 10:12. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d changed the battery.

She swore under her breath and slid it off her wrist. Checked her phone instead, which did indeed read six. Six oh five, to be exact. She’d have been on time if she hadn’t stopped to take a picture of a vacant rowhouse. The first-floor window had been boarded up the previous times she’d walked past, but this time the board was gone, revealing that there was no building behind the façade at all, just crumbling brick and magnificent decay. The shot she composed included the window and the greenery creeping through the foundation, like a glimpse into a terrarium. She loved that unguarded moment where character revealed itself, whether on buildings or faces.

She’d turned away, satisfied, to discover two middle-aged fratboy-looking white guys staring at her. One held up a glowing wrist, and said, “Is it you, baby? Don’t make me face the new year alone.”

She held up her bare wrist, then swiveled her hand to give him the finger. A polite ask was one thing, but she was nobody’s baby. She started walking away, and they walked in the same direction. The block before the bar, she ducked into the corner pharmacy and pretended to browse the candy and bargain bins until they walked on; she didn’t want them getting ideas about coming into her bar to drink. That was the worst part of the implant fad for her: all the people who felt entitled to your time and personal space under the assumption everyone was looking for the same thing they were. It was annoying and it had made her late.

At least she hadn’t inconvenienced anyone except these three early customers, all of whom probably needed to learn to slow down a little. She didn’t know them, but Molly found that to be the case with most people, especially on New Year’s Eve. Everyone always seemed so desperate for something significant to go down; she wished they’d see it was just another night. If you wanted to make a change in your life, you could take steps toward it any time. You didn’t have to wait for this one arbitrary date to roll around again.

“Come on in,” she said.

They had to stand awkwardly against the wall while Molly took the stools off the bar and the chairs off the tables. Angus had closed the night before, and he’d left her with dirty glasses and a full garbage can. She took her time hauling the garbage out to the dumpster and setting up the sinks, grumbling the whole way. Angus generally left things neat, so something must have gone wrong for him to abandon a mess.

The early birds chose a table opposite the bar. One flicked at a spot in front of her, which suggested maybe Angus hadn’t wiped those tables before putting up the chairs. From the look they were giving the whole place, they were probably rethinking their plan to spend New Year’s Eve – even early New Year’s Eve – at a grungy neighborhood dive bar. If the Tru Luv event organizers brought party glitz, there would be party glitz. Otherwise, the decorations were the standing art show of Molly’s photos of deserted houses and bar regulars. Her photos classed the place up most days, but they weren’t exactly festive, or, rather, they didn’t fall into the societally-approved list of holiday slash party decorations.

As far as she was concerned, they were decoration enough. She’d had shows at galleries around town, too, but she didn’t like the way people analyzed them in those spaces, like they were a critique of their subjects. Here, people recognized them for the celebration of survival that they were meant to be. When she’d asked her boss to let her put them up in place of the neon beer signs, it hadn’t been meant as a permanent installation, but they’d gradually become part of the bar’s identity. It made her happy; she’d rather work here forever, asking people with interesting faces if she could take their picture, selling the occasional portrait, than take glamour shots of perfect brides and babies.

Molly approached the occupied table and gave it a casual swipe with a cloth. “Okay, y’all. Sorry for the wait. What can I get you?”

The tall woman ordered the IPA on tap; one of her friends got a cranberry juice, and the other a gin and tonic. Meetspace wasn’t really a cocktail bar, and Molly wasn’t exactly a trained mixologist, but she could handle making drinks that had the ingredients embedded in the name.

“Why so early?” she asked as she poured the beer and the juice, then reached for the gin.

The tall one stood and transferred her friends’ drinks to their table, saving Molly the trouble of coming around the bar, which Molly appreciated. “We all got our implants three weeks ago, so this is the first Tru Luv event we’ve gotten to attend. ‘Ring in the new year with your new Tru Luv’ the ad said. We wanted to be here early enough to scope the place out, have a drink, get nerves out of the way…”

That made sense, even if it did make prep more difficult for her. Not their fault, she supposed, since she’d been late.

The door chimed, and Dr. Damien ducked in from the cold. All three women looked to the door and then to their wrists. What a funny world, where their wrists told him he wasn’t worth more of their time, despite his great smile.

Molly waved. Dr. Damien had moved into the neighborhood a few months before for his residency at the teaching hospital downtown, and was fast becoming a fixture. Usually she waited until someone had been around a while, but she’d asked to take his picture on his very first visit to the bar, when he’d stumbled in from a long shift. His photo, on the back wall, showed a face filled with weary bemusement. It was one of her favorites.

Molly reached for a stout glass and started the pour, and he smiled as he shrugged off his jacket and hung it on the hook in front of his knees. Some people resented it when you knew what they wanted before they said so, but most regulars liked the familiarity.

“Just to warn you, there’s an event going on for the next few hours,” she said, slapping down a coaster and then his drink.

“Private? Do I have to leave?”

“I don’t think they’d care if you’re sitting at the bar. You don’t have one of those implants, do you? Then you’d fit in.”

He shook his head. When he held up the glowing bracelet on his wrist, the three women at the table behind him immediately shifted their focus. The problem with a bar this small was that there was really no such thing as a private conversation.

“What’s that one like? My mother suggested I get one of those instead of the implant, but I said I needed to go all in.” The blond pointed to Dr. Damien’s cheap alternative to their implants. The heart-shaped LED in the doctor’s bracelet maintained a bright, steady glow, indicating he’d spent significant time in the presence of the matching signal.

The Lurrrvvv bracelet involved less burden than the implants – cheaper, no surgery– which some people said defeated the purpose. Tru Luv’s sales pitch claimed you needed the commitment of an implant to get the most out of their matchmaking. They’d clearly won the consumer loyalty war already; Lurrrvvv had declared bankruptcy a month before. Lately Molly had been seeing them in the markdown bins at stores.

Dr. Damien smiled. “I’m happy. I found what I was looking for. The Lurrrvvv brand is a little different from yours, though. You buy two and set them once you’ve already got someone for the second one, and the glow gets brighter the more time you spend together. It doesn’t help do the actual matching like yours.”

“What’s the difference between that and a wedding ring, then?”

“Aside from the glowing? It’s not a marriage. You can define it however you’d like. As far as I’m concerned, mine tells people I’ve got someone at home that makes me happy.”

They all smiled nervously and looked at each other. His answer had been generic, but truthful, and as a bonus, let them see he wasn’t much for talking about himself. Molly liked that about him; she hadn’t gotten into bartending to be anyone’s best friend. She’d listen as long as customers wanted to chat at her, and maybe even offer a little advice or sympathy, but it was not a two-way street.

The women raised a toast to the doctor and returned to talking amongst themselves.

“Sorry about the interrogation, Doc,” Molly said, getting to work on the glasses Angus had left in the sink. She’d heard Tru Luv events could get hectic, so she wanted to start with everything clean.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Honestly, I wear it to keep that whole Tru Luv crowd at bay. You can’t even imagine what it’s like when somebody’s implant lights up in the ER waiting room. They all want it to be one of the doctors, not the person next to them with the vomit bucket. But if the algorithm says that’s your person, what can you do, right?”

She nodded and moved on to logging into the cash register and entering the women’s orders. She’d been lazy; she should have asked them for credit cards to start tabs, especially since they were strangers, and it was New Year’s, when people ended up too drunk to remember to pay. She was about to ask when she noticed an apology note next to the cash register. It read, “Sorry Molly had to run Jack P to the ER split his head SORRY!!!”

The second “SORRY!!!” with its collection of exclamation points made her think he was apologizing for more than the dirty glasses. She did a quick tour, which was how she found the pool of congealed blood in one of the two single-stall bathrooms, below the paper-towel dispenser. Jack Powell was a regular, differentiated from Jack Brennan and Jack Toomey by his firm commitment to rail whiskey. Powell was her favorite Jack, and she hoped he was okay; he’d lost a lot of blood. It looked like maybe he’d lost his balance pissing, judging from the other forensic evidence.

She did a quick bleach-mop, wishing it was below her pay grade, or that there was someone else she could order to do it. On another night she’d have just duct taped a handwritten “Out of Order” sign to the door, but she supposed there should be two functioning bathrooms on New Year’s Eve with a private party.

The first organizer arrived half an hour before his event was due to begin, carrying a box overflowing with tinsel; it looked like silver tentacles trying to escape. He called, “Hi, I’m Marcus!” in Molly’s direction and started tossing decorations around the room in a way that seemed haphazard but somehow worked. She thought his speed was due to the guests already straggling in, but when his co-organizer, Stephanie, arrived six minutes later, Molly realized he’d wanted to make Stephanie think he’d been there a while.

“Where have you been?” Marcus asked. “We’re supposed to start soon! And have you seen how small this place is? Did you pick this dive just for the name?”

Stephanie entered carrying an enormous tray of crudité with a smaller tray of chocolate-dipped strawberries balanced on top of it. She only answered his first question. “All the registers at the supermarket were malfunctioning.”

He took the veggie tray and slid it onto the nearest table, still grumbling. Molly had lost sympathy for him when he’d disparaged Meetspace. Yes, it was a dive. It was a neighborhood bar, not a club or event hall.

“He barely beat you here,” Molly whispered to Stephanie while Marcus wrestled with the plastic that covered the food.

“I know,” Stephanie whispered back. “I track his phone.”

Molly automatically glanced down at Stephanie’s wrist, but her implant wasn’t glowing. Stephanie and Marcus must be friends, or co-workers, or something other than algorithm-dictated true loves. That was a relief. She didn’t like the idea of a relationship built on lies.

The bar had started to fill up, and Molly busied herself starting tabs and pouring drinks. She didn’t get a breather until Marcus stood on a chair. Meetspace normally frowned on chair-standing, but he wasn’t drunk so she allowed it; it meant everyone stopped ordering and drinking and turned their attention his way.

“Welcome to the official New Year’s Eve Tru Luv event! Welcome back if you’ve hung out with us before, here or in any of the forty-six other cities that now have sanctioned Tru Luv events.”

He paused for scattered applause, then continued. “I’m sure some of you have already looked at your wrists. If you’re seeing a blinking light, you’re probably eager to get chatting. If not, fear not. Think of it as an opportunity. You can still meet some awesome people…and remember, your Tru Luv is out there!”

He hopped off the chair, and he and Stephanie both moved into the crowd to chat. Molly was surprised they didn’t offer icebreakers or games or something to make it less awkward, or to keep people engaged if they weren’t already seeing the first stirrings of Tru Luv.

She scanned the busy bar, looking for anyone who looked like they’d made a connection. The tall woman who’d arrived early was jabbing at her wrist excitedly while her friends made similarly excited noises. Several people were holding their hands above their heads like eager schoolchildren, trying to tell the room they had a ping. She reached under the cash register for her camera and took a couple of quick, subtle shots, trying to do it without them seeing her. The expressions on their faces were a fascinating mix of eager, hopeful, disappointed, resigned.

“Molly, love, can I trouble you for a drink?”

She hadn’t seen Jack P come in, but he’d managed to part the crowd and make it to his favorite stool. The crowd-parting may have been made easier by the giant bandage he wore around his head which, combined with his ancient military overcoat, made him look like an extra from Les Miz.

“That depends,” she said. “Concussion or laceration? Are you sure you’re okay to drink?”

“Twelve stitches in my forehead, no concussion. Scout’s honor.”

She poured his rail whiskey, and gave an extra splash out of sympathy for the cut.

“Sorry for the crowd,” she said.

He flicked a wrist to dismiss the apology, and she spotted the pale heart implant beneath his skin.

“When’d you get that, Jack?”

“A few months ago. Figured it was worth a shot. Odds are as good as anything.”

“Are they?”

“If you pay for the local package. Local costs more, but it’s not going to do me any good if I’m matched with a guy who lives a thousand miles away. If they do a good job matching, he’ll be as reluctant to move as I am.” Jack owned a house around the corner, stuffed floor to ceiling with art, including four of her photos. She’d only been in his place once, to walk him home when he was too drunk to get there on his own, but what she’d seen of his collection told her he had pretty excellent taste. Yet another reason he was her favorite Jack.

“Any luck so far?”

“It glowed once at Artbazaar, but there were thirty thousand people walking around that day. I paid for a quick one-time upgrade to narrow the focus to twenty feet – I normally pay for a one-mile radius – but I never found my mystery man.” He sighed dramatically, punctuating the sigh with whiskey. “And then last night, of course, I was relieving myself when I noticed it was blinking again. In my haste to leave the restroom, I tripped over my own shoelace and split my forehead on the paper-towel crank. I tried to go after him, my mystery man, but Angus insisted on taking me to the hospital.”

That explained the bathroom. Molly poured him another.

She had to admit Tru Luv had figured out a good system. Pay for an implant. Pay for a local package, so you know that the person is in the bar and not in another bar ten blocks or ten miles away. Pay for more granular choices. Search for the person whose implant signal was matched to yours by the patented Tru Luv algorithm. Pay for a restart if the two of you don’t hit it off, though they encouraged you to look beyond first impressions. Each successive try was more expensive, which she thought was counterintuitive, but probably did encourage people not to dismiss the matches without at least trying first.

She had another question for him. “So are you here for the event tonight, or just your usual?”

“Usual. I mean, if it starts to flash I’m not going to ignore it, but I’m not exactly going to make a good impression today.” He gestured at his bandage.

The tall woman was aggressively talking her way around the room, trying to find the person who made her implant-heart beat faster. A few people stood staring after her, having been chatted up and discarded in a matter of seconds.

Molly wasn’t sure that was the way to go. What if it took a minute to acknowledge the right person, and in that time, you’d been rude to their best friend? No sense being a jerk to anyone who hadn’t been a jerk first. Or maybe that was her years in the service industry talking.

Something about these implants seemed to give people permission to be rude, though. At least three people grabbed her wrist while she was clearing glasses, trying to get a look at it. If there had been a fourth she would have punched someone. Why couldn’t people get that they didn’t have permission to touch her?

The tall woman and a guy in an ironic bolo tie and a nineties goatee had locked eyes across the room. She didn’t look quite as enthusiastic as she had when she’d been blazing through people a minute before, but they were holding their wrists up to each other and smiling shyly. The algorithm wouldn’t lie. Now it was up to them to determine where to take this.

The guy stepped over to the bar and ordered two IPAs. They retired to the corner table, where they spoke in whispers and every once in a while clinked glasses. Another successful Tru Luv match. Maybe.

The energy in the bar had shifted toward the potential couple, reorienting so everyone was pretending not to watch them while watching them. There were no other shouts of joy, no other aggressive searches. Nobody chatted much outside their friend groups now, since the algorithm had spoken. Why bother getting to know each other if Tru Luv said your match was elsewhere?

A few people settled their tabs and left for more exciting New Years’ parties, while others bellied up to the bar to drown their sorrows alongside Jack P and Dr. Damien.

Only the two in the corner looked like they were making a true night of it. The woman still looked somewhat skeptical, but she was clearly trying. At least they hadn’t disappeared into the one working bathroom to make out.

Around eleven, the guy stood, kissed the woman on the cheek, and left.

“Well?” Marcus the organizer, still at the table with the crudité, didn’t even wait for the door to close before crossing the room to ask. Molly was glad, since she wondered as well.

The woman shrugged. “He seems nice. We did have a lot in common. The algorithm knows what it’s doing, I guess.”

“But no New Year kiss?”

“He said he had to make an appearance at another party, and he didn’t want to rush me.”

“Will you be seeing each other again?”

“I think so. He said to text him to let him know I got home safely tonight, so I’ll do that. Maybe it’ll turn into something.”

That wasn’t the most enthusiastic endorsement, but it wasn’t a rejection. Marcus looked almost more excited at the news than the woman herself. He was clearly one of the big fans, the true believers in Tru Luv, the ones who considered this the new frontier of matchmaking. He would leave thinking he had made a difference in two lives tonight with his little meet-and-greet, even if the majority of the attendees had walked away disappointed.

After he left, the woman lingered near Dr. Damien another moment. “You said earlier: you’re happy?”

The doctor looked like he was about to explain, then decided this wasn’t the time. “I’m very happy,” he said.

Jack P coughed like he was trying to hide that he found that funny, but the woman didn’t notice. She and her friends left a minute later, deep in discussion about whether to try getting into a dance club or go home. They didn’t want to start the new year in a dive like this. Molly wanted to take their picture at that moment, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and exhaustion and hope and disappointment moving across their faces, but in the time it took her to grab her camera, their plans solidified and their expressions changed.

As soon as they left, Jack turned to the doctor. “You could’ve told her that your second bracelet is on your cat’s collar.”

Damien grinned. “She asked if I’m happy. I’m happy. I don’t need a relationship during my residency. Cats are way less trouble.”

The bar was empty now except a couple of regulars and the last lingering Tru Luvs. Everyone had an idea of what it meant to turn over the new year in a bar like this. Molly had a thought. “Hey, Doc, would you watch the bar for two minutes? I have to duck out for a sec.”

He nodded and waved her out. The temperature had dropped, and the street was empty; this close to midnight everyone was probably where they planned to be. The pharmacy was empty too, and it was easy enough to grab what she wanted.

The night clerk, Ben, looked up in surprise when she arrived at the counter. “You close early, Molly?” They’d been friendly since she’d asked to take his picture a year or so before; he liked to bring friends to the bar to see it.

“No, I needed to grab this quick.”

He nodded. Pharmacy clerks knew better than to comment on purchases, let alone strange close-to-midnight New Year’s Eve purchases. He rang her up, they wished each other a happy new year, and she ran back to the bar. One Tru fan was waiting impatiently to get her credit card back, but otherwise Molly hadn’t been missed. She was back in place in time to turn on their one tiny television for the countdown, and made a show of cheering with everyone at the start of something new. Anyone expecting more fanfare was at the wrong bar.

Nobody lingered long after the calendar ticked over, and by one she’d managed to get everyone out the door and to leave the place a little cleaner than Angus had. No more bathroom disasters, no broken glasses or spills. Nobody ran out on their tabs, nobody gave a particularly noteworthy tip, nobody made any declarations of love. A night like most, other than the Tru Luv interlude.

She used a rideshare app rather than risk walking home alone late. The driver’s Tru Luv implant glowed steady and he had a laminated picture of a baby dangling from his rearview mirror. Another happy customer. He didn’t talk to her; maybe he knew that bartenders heading home had usually reached their fill of conversation by this time of night.

As she rode, she fumbled with the packaging on her purchase, stuffing the shrink wrap and the pink “50% OFF” sticker into her pocket, and ripping open the box with the twinned Lurrrvvv bracelets. She strapped one to her wrist, where her dead watch had been, then reached into her bag and threaded the other through the strap loop on her camera. When she turned them on and held them close to each other, they both glowed dimly; they’d grow brighter over time.

The car stopped at a red light near a dance club, revelers spilling out onto the street singly, in groups, in pairs. She loved them all: the drunk, unguarded faces. Molly lowered her window and aimed her camera, waiting for someone to pass closer, waiting for the right moment, for something pure and true that she could capture and preserve.

Host Commentary

by S.B. Divya

This is our final episode of 2020. It’s been a year, hasn’t it? I suspect that for most you – and definitely for me – there has been no year like this in our lifetimes, and I really hope there isn’t one again.

A lot of science fiction likes to show how terrible people can be during an apocalyptic disaster, but the reality is quite the opposite. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell, “A disaster is a lot like a revolution when it comes to disruption and improvisation, to new roles and an unnerving or exhilarating sense that now anything is possible.”

2020 has been that kind of disaster. In the Western world, we’ve learned to embrace wearing masks and washing our hands a lot. Globally, we’ve come together on Zoom and Google Meet, Slack and Discord. We’ve lit candles and banged on pots to show our support to healthcare workers. We’ve sung opera from balconies and played drums from the back of pickup trucks.

In the midst of tragedy – and that word certainly applies to the situation where I am right now, in Southern California – we’ve found new ways to connect and stay human. We’ve relearned math and grammar with our children. We’ve delivered meals to older friends and family. We’ve had weddings and given birth and attended funeral. We’ve mourned through screens. Said last words via cell phones. I’ve done those two personally.

We’ve cultivated new ways to find solace. Rather than dinner parties or nights out, we bake bread. We garden. We rediscover long neglected musical instruments or dusty boxes of paint. We pick up a book. Or a camera.

Sarah’s story embodies this spirit. That we crave connection with our fellow human beings, but we also find great satisfaction through expressions of our own creativity. Her main character Molly bridges the two with her portraits, one of the most intimate and powerful forms of photography.

Sarah has this to say about it: “I once worked at a bar not unlike the one in this story, and I have mad respect for a good bartender’s skills. I’m fascinated by the trust people place in algorithms, and the way just about anything can be gamified. I didn’t push this technology all the way to its extreme the way I sometimes do, but I wanted to explore the idea of a company that convinced people that they were the ultimate matchmakers.”

2020 has accelerated our adoption of technology. It’s given Silicon Valley even more access to our lives and our data. It’s forced the transition to telework and distance learning. And to top that off, we’re relying more and more on algorithms and machine intelligence to make big decisions.

I’ve seen a lot of conversations happening in this space. On the ethical use of data and A.I. On the pitfalls of algorithmic decisions and how they can reinforce social biases – like the idea that a person who’s single must be in want of true love. As one of the most fundamental emotions of the animal kingdom, love can take many forms and have many different objects.

I hope that the new year brings you an abundance of love. For your family and friends. For your pets. For our frontline workers. For science and music and art. But most of all, I hope you give yourself some love because you’re worth it.

Happy New Year.

About the Author

Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker’s fiction has won the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Philip K. Dick Awards, and she has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea(Small Beer Press) and her first novel, Song For A New Day (Berkley), were published in 2019. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife and dog.

Find more by Sarah Pinsker

Sarah Pinsker

About the Narrator

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.

Find more by Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty