Melissa Montalvo folded her hands on her lap and stared across the table at her final interviewer.
He adjusted the name badge on his shirt. Chief Software Scientist Aaron Getz. “You’ve excelled in both your other interviews, but this is a different kind of meeting.” He leaned in toward Melissa. She felt his gaze upon her. He was slender, with dark eyes that burned under thick, curling eyebrows.
This was it. She either had the job or she didn’t.
“I’d like you to take a look at this, Melissa.” Getz withdrew a letter envelope from his jacket pocket, turned it facedown, and slid it across the rosewood table. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
She searched his face, but his eyes gave nothing away. It must be a job offer, but . . .
Melissa picked up the unsealed envelope bearing the embossed Virtual Friend Me logo, and withdrew the letter inside. Getz’s eyes remained noncommittal as she unfolded the paper.
Dear Ms. Montalvo:
Virtual Friend Me is pleased to offer you the position of chief architect . . .
Her chest constricted as the breath caught in her throat. They were offering her the second position in software development? And more. They were proposing a salary 10 percent above what she had requested.
Getz continued to look at her with the same deadpan expression. What did he expect her to say? “Mr. Getz . . .”
“Call me Aaron, Melissa.”
“I’m very pleased with the offer. When do you want me to start?” She held the employment offer with both hands, unwilling to let it escape her grasp.
Getz smiled. “How about Monday? Or do you need a couple of weeks to finish up with your current employer?”
“No, Monday is fine.” She shut her eyes, a rush of relief washing over her. “I would like to know a little more about the project, though. It’s all been so super-secret.”
“No hurry. We want you to be completely comfortable with everything we’re doing here.”
His hand glided unerringly across the table to rest on hers. His lotioned skin felt soft and slimy as the fingers moved across the back of her hand.
She pulled back, looked down at his pale hand still poised like some serpent over the spot where her hand had been.
“Problem?” he asked.
She choked back the revulsion she felt at being touched that way. “No, no problem,” she said stiffly, struggling to regain composure.
“The project. Can you tell me more about it now?”
Getz’s hand slid silently back behind the tabletop.
“No problem. We can take a few minutes right now.”
If he had noticed her reaction to his touch, he wasn’t showing it. If a man was going to touch her, she wanted it to be on her own terms. She would not be used.
Getz continued, “What we’ve got going on here is, in my estimation, the most aggressive, cutting-edge, artificial intelligence project in the nation. At least in terms of social networking. And you are going to be a major part of it.” He leaned forward, eyebrows raised. “No one outside this company is to know what we’re doing until it’s done. That’s very important. Can you agree to that?”
“Here it is.” Getz held up both hands, as if ready to catch a ball. “You know about the whole social-networking thing. We’ve got Facebook, MyLife, and all the rest. People are looking to the web for friendships, for relationships at all levels.”
“I know. It’s been a major cultural phenomenon.”
“The big question is, how can someone, some company, break into that in a really unique way? Facebook already has more than eight hundred million active users. That’s from them, their own statistics. Eight hundred million! That’s better than eleven percent of the entire population of planet Earth. Do you know how many friends each user has?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll tell you how many. The average Facebook user has over one hundred friends.” Getz’s green eyes grew large, intense. “Do the math. Fifty percent of their active users log on every day. Every one of them has an average of one hundred thirty friends,
right? How many people are potentially touched by all that? How many?”
Melissa worked the numbers. She had only gotten to the first set before Getz spoke again.
“Half of eight hundred million is four hundred million. Multiply that by a hundred thirty. Know what you’ll get? Fifty-two billion people!”
“But that’s more people than there are on the whole Earth,” answered Melissa. “What sense would it make? That would mean we’re hitting many people more than one time.”
“Exactly. So we have overlap. What it comes down to is we’re hitting all those millions of people six, seven, maybe eight times a day. Somehow, we’re touching all of them.”
Melissa considered the implications. “Okay, so there’s all this social interaction. I get that. But how does that help us? How do we benefit?”
“Okay, here’s where it gets good. Imagine . . .” He raised one finger right in front of her nose. “Just imagine we’ve got a percentage of those ‘friends’ working for us. Even a very small percentage. Keep imagining. What if we could get those workers of ours to recommend movies, products, vacations . . . you name it. Would that be huge?”
Nodding, she stretched herself mentally.
“Are you imagining? You get online with Facebook, and we’ve got one of your friends telling you how great the latest chick flick is, and that you ought to go see it. Or she’s using some new kind of dish soap and you ought to try it. Any kind of product, you just name it. As they say, this is the most amazing concept since sliced bread. And you’re going to be front and center, right in the middle of all of it.”
Getz stood up and turned to the whiteboard behind him. “We do it like God did it, but better.” With a bright blue marker he drew a circle on the board. “We create them.”
“Create them? How’s that?” It was common among software developers to use the word create freely. But to create people? Where was this going?
“Let me illustrate it for you.” He drew a smile in the circle, then added two eyes, with turned-up, innocent-looking eyebrows. “So far, so good. We’ve got a friendly face. What’s missing?”
“That’s good, but what I mean is, what’s missing in the face? Don’t answer. It’s a nose.” He drew a rounded triangle in the center.
“Now, how about the body? Should it be slender or fat? Your call.”
“Fat. It should be fat because the face is round.”
“Right, because the two go together. We know what makes us comfortable.” He sketched a rotund figure into the drawing, which began to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
“Now, Melissa, look at his right hand. It’s empty. Tell me which object you prefer.” As he spoke, he drew a handgun in the right hand, paused, then erased the handgun and replaced it with an umbrella. Then he erased the umbrella and faced her. “Which did you like? The gun or the umbrella?”
“I liked the umbrella.”
“Why?” He redrew the umbrella.
“Because you drew a friendly figure to start with, and the umbrella was more consistent with that. The gun looked out of place.”
“You’ve got it. We just designed someone you were comfortable
with. It was simple, it was intuitive, and it was interesting.”
I know where this is going. I’m a mile ahead of you, Mr. Getz.
“Here it is, Melissa. Plain and simple. We are going to provide the means to let people custom-design their own friends. Yes, I really mean friends. We’ve got the technology, you know that. What we’ve lacked was the platform to make it worthwhile. Social networking—Facebook and all the rest—gives that to us.”
Silence settled in the air as he allowed the implications of that to form in her mind.
“Let’s imagine Jane Doe sitting at home. She’s worried, she’s depressed, she wants someone to confide in. Who’s she going to turn to?”
“But those friends are real people. She doesn’t dare tell them what’s really going on. For all she knows, it could be all over Facebook in an hour, and then the whole world would know her secret. No, she needs someone she can trust with the deepest secrets of her life.
“So, Jane Doe goes to our website and we let her design the perfect friend. A virtual friend.”
“She designs one online?”
“We start with something as simple as the basic personality types and have her build from there. So she chooses introverted or outgoing, friendly or reserved, kind or difficult, understanding or impatient.
“Someone’s going to choose an impatient friend?”
“The important thing is that we provide the choice. From there she picks her friend’s hair, physique, family background,
age, everything. Maybe she builds the sister she never had. Perhaps she builds a high school friend she lost touch with. It’s up to her.”
Melissa realized what Getz was presenting to her was not only doable, it was perfect. Why has no one ever done this? “So, how far does this go? Synthesized voice? Conversations? The whole works? I mean, I can see getting all of this done if we have the resources.”
“We take it as far as we can, Melissa. And we’ve definitely got the resources. I envision our Jane Doe building her friend and then we automatically register her friend on Facebook. From then on, she can interact with her virtual friend just as easily as she could with a real person.” He flashed a conspiratorial smile. “Well, any way but physical.”
She didn’t like what Getz was doing with his eyes and squirmed under his gaze.
Melissa pointed at the whiteboard, drawing Getz’s eyes off her. “And how do we profit from this?”
He blinked, turned back to her. “We make money two ways. First, even though we start out with this as a free service, eventually we ramp it up and charge money for the ‘premium’ friend. People won’t hesitate. Second, these friends can sell products, services. Old-fashioned click-through advertising will be like a horse cart compared to what we can offer.”
I’ve got it, Mr. Getz. You won’t see me coming till I run over you.
“This is fascinating. I never . . .”
“I’ve only begun to scratch the surface here, Melissa. For instance, well, may I ask you a personal question?”
“Is your mother living?”
It felt like she’d been struck in the chest with a rock. Why in the world would he ask her a question like that? Her, of all people. Could he know?
Control. She shook her head slowly. “No, she’s not.”
Getz bent over the table, palms flat, his face close to hers. “Then here’s the big one, Melissa. We can give her back to you in every way but physically.”
Yes, it’s true. We can do that. The potential, the power of what they had in their hands was overwhelming. She shook off the lightheaded feeling.
People would be re-creating deceased children, mothers, fathers. They’d be getting e-mails on their birthdays from people who’d been gone for many years. Was it a kind of self-deception? Sure, but how different was it from hanging a picture of a loved one in the hallway? Wasn’t it there to remind you of the person? Something to help you recall old conversations, hugs, and special times? And perhaps to imagine what might have been?
I can make it real.
She felt again the pressure of Getz’s gaze on her as she worked through it mentally, emotionally. This will work, and I can do it.
Another idea tugged on the edges of her mind with tiny, insistent fingers. The one that would make it supremely worthwhile. Not now. Later. I’ll think about that when the time comes.
• • •
THE WAY HE’S LOOKING AT me. A shiver fluttered along Melissa’s exposed forearm.
She needed to steer the conversation somewhere else, and still stroke the man’s ego. “How did you come up with the idea? I
mean, this isn’t just numbers lined up in columns. This is genius.”
He rolled his head to one side, as if savoring the memory. “I remember the moment of . . . inspiration . . . when the concept of the virtual friend came to me. It left me nearly breathless. This was the multimillion-dollar idea I’d been searching for all my adult life.”
She watched an expression slither over his features and recoiled at the way it made her feel. The man was a snake.
“And you will be the greatest asset of all. Your design and architectural talents will make the virtual friend a reality, Melissa. There is nothing to stop us.”
Us. She swallowed, smiled back.
“We’ll make an incredible team, Mr. Getz.”
No one had to tell her she was good. And there was much more he would learn about her, but he could wait a little longer for that surprise.
He slid his soft fingers across her hand. “Yes, Melissa. The two of us will be working very closely over the next four or five years. A project this size will surely take that long before it’s ready for the world to see. And all the time, we’ll be working together, planning, developing. Both of us learning what the other has to offer.”
The question was, how closely would they be working? Getz was a predator. He probably thought of himself as the big brass ring every girl wants to snag, but she wasn’t here to become his trophy. She was here for work, serious work.
She still clutched the employment letter in one hand as she looked up at the whiteboard.
Getz asked, “So, what do you think? Are you starting to see the possibilities?”
Always the suggestive comments. How should she answer? “The possibilities? Yes, absolutely. This is brilliant.”
Melissa looked up at Getz, who still stood by the whiteboard. Keep his mind on the project. “We could build out a library of celebrity characters. Everyone from Madonna to Steve Jobs. People would go crazy.”
“There you go, you’ve got the idea,” said Getz. “Already in the plans. What else?”
Melissa looked at the whiteboard, then back to Getz, forcing herself to remain clear and focused. “Some people will just be looking for a new relationship. A boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. Someone to talk to. There’s that.”
“Premium content.” Getz grinned. “And you’ve just approached what’s probably going to be the main profit center. What we call ‘The Virtual Ideal.’ There’s something inside people that’s always searching for that ideal relationship. We’re going to come pretty close to fulfilling that.”
I have an ideal man, and he’s not virtual. He exists somewhere, and this will help me find him.
Getz erased the Doughboy figure with the umbrella off the whiteboard. “I’ve got a meeting with our CEO, Dan Hammersmith, in a few minutes. He’ll want to meet you on Monday when you come in. You can go through all the Human Resources rigmarole then, all right?”
“Sure,” said Melissa. “That sounds great. I’ll be here when the doors open.”
Getz reached toward her and took her hand before she could withdraw it. He held on to it as he looked into her eyes, eyebrows slightly raised.
“I’d like to talk to you more before then. There’s a lot we
need to discuss before we . . .” He grinned, mirthlessly. “Before we get down and dirty, so to speak.” He paused. “I could, say, meet you for dinner tonight? Just talk through some things? I think it’s going to be important to know we’re compatible, that we think the same way about things, don’t you?”
Here it is. Oh, I know you, Getz. Down, dirty, and compatible.
She looked at his left hand. No wedding ring. She didn’t want to lose this job before she got it.
No matter. If it went wrong, she knew what to do. “Sure, Mr. Getz. What do you have in mind?”
“Aaron, call me Aaron,” he said. He still gripped her hand. “I’ve got your address from your résumé. How about I pick you up at six-thirty and we go out to the Tuscan Villa? It’s in downtown Indianapolis near where you live.”
She hid a shudder, as if she were in the coils of a venomous serpent.
Getz hesitated. Had he seen her react?
“Don’t worry. Strictly professional. Do you like Italian okay?”
She withdrew her hand. “That will work. I’ll expect you then. And thank you for working out the job.”
Melissa could still feel Getz’s green eyes on her as she walked through the double glass doors to the street outside.