Authors: Aubrey Parker
I pull my arm back, equally alarmed and aroused. The feelings echoing through me are strong. I want to lean in. I want to kiss him. My nipples harden more, and I want his hands to pinch them. My legs open a little, and if he reached for me, it might take me half a second to stop him. Or several minutes, or hours.
Once my arm is my own again, sense returns. I’m staring at Trevor, who for some reason is giving me a bitter half smile.
“It’s not hypnosis, if you’ve been wondering. It’s just a shortcut to things you’re already capable of feeling. We all develop triggers like that. It’s not much different from how you might think of your grandmother when you smell apple pie.”
“I never knew my grandmothers,” I say, knowing that’s not the point.
“It’s all wiring. This thing cross-connects to that thing. It’s one reason why Abbie was here. Her cross-connections were unusually strong.”
Abbie. She’s the one who had that condition that scrambled her senses. Months had colors. Tastes had sounds.
“Why are you here, Trevor?”
“Because I’m worried about you.”
He stands, looks away from me, starts to pace. I remember that the cameras and microphones are off, but a cynical voice inside me wonders if this is all another game.
“I don’t know how much Daniel told you. I imagine he mentioned that we conduct tests. Each is directed at one contestant, meant to challenge their special ability. The thing that makes them unique. Sometimes, the tests select
the targeted contestant, and sometimes
them. We knew Ivy had trouble parsing fantasy from reality. So Ivy’s test — setting Richard and Kylie up then putting them in front of her right after she had a dream about herself and Richard — was intended to select against her talent.
“You said she was schizophrenic.”
“Yes.” He nods. “But each blade cuts two ways. The test was meant to determine which was dominant: the negative aspects of her disease, or the positive aspects … which we’d consider a talent.”
“I don’t see how schizophrenia could possibly be a talent.”
He looks at me for a second, and I know he’s forcing himself not to say,
“It should be clear by now that we’re not really looking for my wife, but in a way, it’s still true. We’re looking for something different — something the board wants — but she’ll still slot in as my spouse. Publicly, I mean. She’ll need to live here, with me. Who knows? This might actually turn out to be the best dating process ever.”
He smiles, but I can’t smile back. It’s too fucked up. I still have the remnant of shivers from when Trevor triggered me; I’m definitely attracted to him; I’m eager to hear more of what’s been kept from me; I’m seriously freaked out. It’s a mess inside me.
“What the company is looking for … it comes with the need for a particular constellation of attributes. Each of the contestants embodied something we perceived as valuable. For Ivy, it was a certain talent — yes,
— for bringing the nature of sexual fantasy into reality. If something like that could be properly harnessed, it would be … worthy of our attention.”
Trevor crosses to the window. He looks back at me and continues. “Or consider Kylie. On the minus side, she’s incredibly devious and manipulative. But on the plus side, Kylie is able to pre-guess just about anyone. She’s always a few steps ahead, often
steps ahead. She’s essentially able to
people. To see what they want, what they need, what they fear, what turns them on. Someone like that would be the ultimate seducer. Just as she’s blindsided you again and again, she could blindside a man who doesn’t even know what gets him worked up. A man who says one thing but secretly wants another.”
“So you’re looking for a prostitute?”
Trevor sighs. “I’m trying hard not to put you off, Bridget. I need you to believe me. No, we’re not looking for a prostitute, but I don’t know how to explain what we are looking for. Partially because there’s too much you don’t and
know. But mostly because
don’t even know.”
“But you want a woman. A woman who’s willing to … ”
“A woman who can be modeled, maybe. Studied. Trained, or act as a trainer. We have equipment that’s not publicly known, able to map neural connections. It’s a private joke at Eros that we’re looking to find God in the machine … or possibly to put God
“I don’t understand.”
Trevor shrugs, and I see the truth:
doesn’t understand, either. Maybe nobody does. Perhaps Trevor, Daniel, Eros as a whole, and whoever else is involved are all stumbling through a pitch-black room, holding an electrical cord, stabbing blindly in hopes of plugging prongs into a socket out of dumb luck.
“Everyone has something. And at the last test, we were trying to select for Roxy’s
: specifically, that she has no sexual boundaries. We assumed sexuality was an obvious strength. Eros is in the eroticism business. Maybe we’re looking for better toys or maybe we’re looking for Porn 2.0. I honestly don’t know; nobody does. But sex, for sure. Maybe we needed fantasy/reality blending, as Ivy might have offered. But
we needed sexual adventurousness in the pool. By trying to trigger you, Daniel was hoping he could force you to pass. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but your time together must have made him feel that under maximum arousal, you’re plenty capable of impressing the algorithm.”
I flag the word for later as a more pressing question reaches my lips.
“But we didn’t do anything. I walked away from Daniel and went to bed.” I don’t mention the part where I painted the secret brick room with my bounty of orgasms. Supposedly, nobody knows about that … except for Daniel and Jessica, who maybe christened it together before I ever saw it.
Trevor returns to my side. He sits.
“And Roxy did the opposite. You should see the tapes, Bridget. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
“So why was she eliminated, and I wasn’t?”
Trevor gives me a boyish shrug. Somehow, it’s incredibly charming.
“Daniel? Did he somehow … I don’t know … push me through?”
“He can’t do that. Nobody can.”
“But you said he promised Jessica top three.” Saying the words isn’t easy. Blood wants to fill my face, make my tongue sluggish.
“That’s different. I can imagine ways he could influence trends, but never hotwire results.”
“Why can he do one but not the other?”
, isn’t it?” I say, resigned.
“Then what about Kat?”
Trevor seems surprised. “What about her?”
“Kylie said she was kicked out. Not eliminated in the normal way.”
“Yes. I authorized it. Decisions like that, at least, are mine to make.”
I stare daggers.
“Bridget, she was gay.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as wrong? Kicking someone out just because she’s a lesbian?”
“Not in this case. Preference matters. It’d be unconscionable for us to keep her here, doing things she doesn’t want to do. Desire trumps all. It’s the superpower that all of you were supposed to have. It’s why we gave you so many outlets. Made you comfortable enough to explore. Never persuaded or forced.”
I think of the mind games. I’m not sure that’s true.
“She’s not bisexual. She actively dislikes men sexually, Bridget. It all became clear once we started … ” He trails off.
“After you started spying.”
Trevor clarifies. “Research that was unforgivably missed. Kat kept an excellent disguise in place. But she has a hard history. It looks like she was raped repeatedly, and unwillingly coerced many other times. She seems to have shared straight porn with her
but kept her true affairs strictly to the flesh.”
I don’t know what that means, and don’t want to ask.
Trevor puts his hand on my arm, but I shake it away. I’m so frustrated. So angry. Trevor acts like my friend, but
cut Kat. I have no friends.
“Bridget, there was no choice. Keeping her wouldn’t have been fair to Kat. And it would have contradicted the purpose of everything we’re trying to do.”
I look back at him. I stand. My eyes are wet with fury, but I’m wearing an angry smile.
“What?” he says.
“They got you. They got all of you.”
“Kylie. Kat was a threat to her. Do you know about her and Caspian White?”
“No. What do you mean?”
“I guess we’ll never know, will we? I could tell you. I could even tell Caspian. But something tells me it won’t ring true without Kat to back me up. Something tells me convenient lies and excuses have already been put in place. She’s always ten steps ahead, isn’t she? After all, that’s her fucking
, isn’t it?”
“Bridget, what are you talking about?”
“And Jessica. Because second place wasn’t good enough for her. She wants to win it all. Is that what Kylie promised her? That she could come in first place once Kat was gone?” I give a cynical little smile. “I guess we’ll see what Kylie’s promises are worth with a knife in Jessica’s back.”
“You’re making too much of this. Once I learned Kat’s situation, I took care of it. It was just me. Nobody else — not Kylie, not Jessica.”
Then it hits me. My hand goes over my mouth, and I actually laugh.
“Oh my God,” I say.
“They’re playing you, too.”
“Nobody’s playing me.”
I sit back down. I can’t help myself. I grab Trevor by the upper arms and look him right in his sweet, almost innocent eyes.
“This is about you, Trevor. Not me, not the contest, not the company.
. Kat was eliminated because you never had a choice. She backed you into it.”
He’s getting annoyed, his face twisting.
“This whole thing is on you. It’s your name. Your company. Everything is being done for Trevor Stone.”
“So if it fails? If it goes horribly wrong? If someone can convince some other people that certain big-name billionaires should be squeezed out?”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
But I’m not. I see it clear as day.
Trevor stands, brushing off with an air of finality, as if these last thirty seconds have made him sorry for coming to see me.
“Trevor … ”
He meets my eyes with a hard stare — no matter what I say next, our discussion is over.
“I came here because I care about you, Bridget. That hasn’t changed.”
I don’t know what else to do, so as my shoulders sag, I nod.
“Are you leaving today?”
That was the plan, yes. But now I’m not so sure. If I leave, it’ll just be Jessica, Kylie, and Daniel versus Trevor. The three against one that’s also leveled against me. But I could stick around. I could keep being a wrench in the machine. The one question that nobody, no matter how honest they are, will answer is the biggest of all:
Why am I still here?
I survived the first elimination after refusing to play by the rules. I survived the second and third without blinking. And if Trevor is to be believed, I survived a sex-first challenge by being nonsexual while the sluttiest slut got the axe. All by following my gut and doing nothing special. All, it seems, without help of any meaningful kind.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Same reason as before.”
“Because he likes you.”
“Then I should have no problems.”
Trevor doesn’t respond. He looks somehow punched, but I can tell he feels that affection, from Caspian White, probably isn’t a good thing.
“I’ll be fine, Trevor. Thank you for your concern, but I’ve made it this far, even without a superpower.”
I try to smile at the idea of superpowers, but Trevor stops, on his way to my door, and takes my hand.
“Daniel didn’t tell you,” he says.
“Tell me what?”
“At least on paper, he’s named a talent for you. To our board. And to Mr. White.”
I blink back up at Trevor.
“He’s been telling people that he’s figured out my superpower?”
“Yes. And going to face Caspian White, that’s what scares me.”
“What is it?”
, no doubt piggybacking on what the cameras saw between you in the garden, when you resisted his triggers.” Trevor purses his lips. “But Caspian has chosen to interpret your unflappability differently, if not quite literally.”