Authors: Christina Lauren
“No,” Jess admitted just as Fizzy gave an entitled “He is.”
Fizz waved Jess off. “You can tell him Felicity Chen and her associate are here.”
Jess coughed out a laugh, and the wary receptionist gestured to a guest log. “Okay, well, please go ahead and sign in. And I'll need to see your IDs. Are you here for a presentation?” She jotted down the info from their identification.
Jess frowned. “A what?”
“I meanâhas he recruited you for DNADuo?” she asked.
“DNADuo. That's the one.” Fizzy grinned down as she wrote their names in the log. “He saw two beautiful single ladies in the coffee shop and just begged us to come spit into vials.”
“Fizz.” For the thousandth time, Jess wondered whether she'd always follow Fizzy around like a broom and dustpan sweeping up chaos. Being around Fizzy made Jess feel simultaneously more alive and duller.
The receptionist returned a polite smile along with their IDs, and indicated they should take a seat. “I'll let Dr. PeÃ±a know you're here.”
Over on the red leather couches, Jess swore it felt like theirs were the first butts to ever sit down. There was literally no dust anywhere, no hint that another body had ever touched this furniture. “This is weird,” she whispered. “Are we sure this isn't a front for some organ-harvesting cult?” She carefully fingered a tidy stack of science journals. “They always use the pretty ones as bait.”
“Dr. PeÃ±a.” Fizzy pulled out her notebook and coyly licked the tip of her pen. “I'm definitely naming a hero after him now.”
“If I leave with only one kidney,” Jess said, “I'm coming for one of yours.”
Fizzy tapped her pen against the paper. “I wonder if a River PeÃ±a would have a brother. Luis. Antonioâ¦”
“And all of this costs money.” Jess ran a hand over the supple leather. “How many kidneys do you think a couch like this is worth?” She pulled out her phone and typed into the search bar, her mouth agape at the results. “According to Google, the going rate for a single kidney is $262,000. Why am I working? I could survive with only one, right?”
“Jessica Davis, you sound like you've never left your house before.”
“You're the one building his fictional family tree! What are we even doing here?”
“Finding The One?” Fizzy said, and then smiled slyly at her. “Or getting some freaky intel for a book.”
“You have to admit you don't look at Dr. River PeÃ±a and think, âNow, there's a romantic soul.'â”
“No,” Fizz conceded, “but I do look at him and think, âI bet he's got a fantastic penis.' Did you see the size of his hands? He could carry me by the head, like a basketball.”
A throat cleared, and they looked up to find River PeÃ±a standing not two feet away. “Well, you two sure didn't waste any time.”
Jess's stomach fell through the floor, and the words creaked out of her: “Oh shit.”
“Did you hear what I just said?” Fizzy asked.
He let out a slow, controlled exhale. He'd totally heard. “Hear what?” he managed, finally.
Fizzy stood, pulling Jess up with her. “Excellent.” She gave River a dainty curtsy. “Take us away.”
HEY FOLLOWED HIM
through a set of sterile double doors and down a long hall, with offices coming off the right side every few yards. Each door had a hammered stainless steel placard and a name: Lisa Addams. Sanjeev Jariwala. David Morris. River PeÃ±a. Tiffany Fujita. Brandon Butkis.
Jess glanced over to Fizzy, who, predictably, was already on it: “Butt kiss,” she whispered, delighted.
Through one open office door, Jess saw a broad window displaying a view of the La Jolla shoreline. Less than a mile away, gulls swooped down over white-capped water, and waves crashed violently against rocky cliffs. It was spectacular.
The annual lease on this property had to be at least a kidney and a half.
The trio tromped along in silence, reaching a set of elevators. River pushed the Up button with a long index finger, and then stared wordlessly ahead.
The silence grew heavy. “How long have you worked here?” Jess asked.
“Since it was founded.”
. She tried again. “How many employees are there?”
“About a dozen.”
“It's a shame you're not in marketing,” Jess said with a smile. “Such charm.”
River turned to look at her, and his expression sent a cold wash of sensation down her arms. “Yes, well. Luckily my talents lie elsewhere.” His gaze lingered on hers for just a beat too long, and the sensation turned into warm static just as the elevator doors opened.
Fizzy elbowed her sharply in the ribs.
, she was clearly thinking.
, Jess mentally replied.
For all of the promises of exploiting this great research opportunity, Fizzy was uncharacteristically quiet; maybe she was also cowed by River's rigid presence. It meant the rest of the slow elevator ride was as wordless as the bleak center of Siberia. When they stepped out, Jess watched her best friend begin scribbling note after note aboutâshe presumedâthe building; the handful of buttoned-up scientists they passed in the second hallway; River's composed pace, perfect posture, and visibly muscular thighs. Meanwhile, Jess grew increasingly self-conscious about the obnoxious squeak of her sneakers on the linoleum and the relative dumpiness of her outfit. Fizzy was dressed like she usually wasâan adorable polka dot silk blouse and pencil trousersâand River was dressed as he usually wasâa glossy magazine version of business
casual. It hadn't occurred to Jess that morning as she'd hurriedly pulled on a threadbare UCLA sweatshirt, some old Levi's, and a pair of scuffed Vans that she would later be strolling down a hallway in the most well-heeled part of biotech La Jolla.
At the end of the hall was an open door leading into a conference room. River paused and gestured for them to walk in ahead of him.
“Have a seat in here,” he said. “Lisa will join you momentarily.”
Fizzy glanced to Jess and then back to River. “Who's Lisa?”
“She's the head of customer relations and the lead on our app development. She'll explain the technology and the matching process.”
Frankly this whole thing had become a boatload of confusing secrecy. “You're not staying?” Jess asked.
He looked affronted, like she'd suggested he was the company water boy. “No.” With a vague smile, he turned and continued down the hallway.
Only a couple of minutes later, a brunette walked in. She had the sun-kissed, faux-no-makeup, beachy-waved look of perpetually active Southern Californians who could throw on a shapeless muumuu and look stylish.
“Hey!” She strode forward, reaching to shake their hands. “I'm Lisa Addams. Head of customer relations for GeneticAlly. I'm so glad you came in! I haven't given this presentation to such a small group yet, this'll be a blast. Are you two ready?”
Fizzy nodded enthusiastically, but Jess was starting to feel a bit like she'd been dropped into a world where she was the only one not in on an important secret. “Would you mind showing me to the restroom before we start?” she asked, wincing lightly. “Coffee.”
With another smile, Lisa gave Jess directions that seemed
simple enough. Jess passed a stretch of large doorways with a distinct laboratory vibe. One was labeled
. The next was
, followed by
. Finally: an alcove with restrooms.
Even the toilets were futuristic. Jess was honestly not sure how to feel about a public bidet, but there were so many buttons on the thingâand hey, warm waterâshe decided to roll with it. A check of her reflection while she washed her hands informed her that she hadn't put makeup on that morning and looked haggard and frazzled, even in the dim yet flattering light.
On the way back, her attention was snagged by an open door. It had been forever since she'd been in a real scientific setting, and nostalgia pulsed in the back of her mind. Peeking into the room labeled
, Jess saw a long stretch of lab benches and an assortment of machines with keypads and flashing full-color digital displays like something out of a movie.
And then she heard River's quiet, deep voice: “Isn't there another 10X bottle of extraction buffer?”
“We have some on order,” another man replied. “I think I have enough to finish this set.”
“Did I hear you had two people come in for a demo?”
“Yes,” River said. “Two women. One of them is apparently an author with a large online presence.”
There was a pause that Jess assumed held some wordless communication.
“I don't know, man,” River said. “I was just trying to get my coffee, so I suggested they come in so Lisa could handle it.”
“Got it,” the other voice said. “If they send in kits, I'll run them in quadruplicate with some reference sequences.”
“There may be times soon after the rollout that we only have a handful of samples at a time, so this'll be a good trial for that.”
She was just about to turn and walk back to the conference room when she heard River say with a laugh, “âan opportunity to prove that there's someone out there for everyone.”
The other man asked, “Ugly?”
“No, not ugly.” Jess immediately decided to receive this as River's version of a compliment, until he added: “Entirely average.”
She reared back, palm to chest in genuine offense, and startled when a voice came from behind her. “Did you want a lab tour after your meeting with Lisa?”
The man behind her held his hands up as Jess wheeled on him like she might throw a punch. He was tall and thin and looked like every actor in every movie playing a scientist: Caucasian, glasses, needed a haircut. He was Jeff Goldblum, if Jeff Goldblum were also Benedict Cumberbatch.
She wasn't sure whether he was genuinely offering her a tour or subtly chastising her for eavesdropping.
“Oh. No,” she said, “it's okay. Sorry. I was just on my way back from the restrooms and took a peek.”
Smiling, he held out his hand. “David Morris.”
Jess shook it tentatively. “Jessica.”
“We haven't had clients in the offices for a while. It's nice to see
a fresh face.” As he said this, his eyes did a quick sweep down her body and back up. “You're doing the DNADuo?”
She resisted the urge to cross her arms over her chest to hide the fact that she'd come to this high-end dating service looking like a hungover college kid. “I haven't decided yet. I'm here with my best friend. She's a romance author and completely lost her mind when AmericanoâDr. PeÃ±a, sorryâmentioned the business to us this morning.”
David gestured for her to lead them both back to the conference room. “Well, I hope you find the technology compelling.”
Jess forced a polite smile. “I'm sure we will.”
David stopped at the threshold to the conference room. “It was nice to meet you, Jessica. If you need anything else, please feel free to reach out.”
With another tight smile, Jess pushed down her bubbling uneasiness. “I absolutely will.”
SHE RETURNED TO
the conference room feeling roughly ten percent frumpier than she had before. Which was to say, scraping the bottom of the barrel. Fizzy and Lisa were chatting about the benefits and drawbacks of various dating apps, but they straightened like they'd been busted when Jess walked back in. Without either of them having to say it, Jess knew she absolutely looked the part of the friend who had been dragged along to this and would much rather be watching Netflix on her couch.
“Ready to get started?” Lisa asked, swiping through a menu on
an iPad. The room dimmed and a massive screen descended from the ceiling with a soft hum.
Fizzy played her role, “Hell yes!” so Jess played hers, too: “Sure, why not.”
Lisa strode to the front of the large room with confidence, like she was speaking to a crowd of fifty instead of two.
“What are your goals,” she began, “as far as romantic relationships go?”
Jess turned expectantly to Fizzy, who had turned expectantly to Jess.
“Okay, well, I guess I'll take the first shot,” Fizzy said, scoffing at Jess's blank expression. “I'm thirty-four, and I enjoy dating. A lot. But I suppose I'll eventually settle down, have some kids. It all depends on the person.”
Lisa nodded, smiling like this was a perfect answer, and then turned to Jess.
“Iâ¦” she began, flailing a little. “I assume there's someone out there for me, but I'm not really in a rush to find him. I'm about to turn thirty. I have a daughter; I don't have a lot of time.” Shrugging vaguely, she mumbled, “I don't really know.”
Clearly Lisa was used to people with a bit more drive, but she rolled out her spiel anyway. “Have you ever wondered what a soulmate truly is?” she asked. “Is love a quality you can quantify?”
“Oooh, good question.” Fizzy leaned in. Hook, line, and sinker.
“Here, we believe it is,” Lisa said. “Matchmaking through DNA technology is exactly what we offer here at GeneticAlly, through the DNADuo. GeneticAlly was officially founded six years ago, but the concept of the DNADuo was first conceived in the lab of Dr. David
Morris at the Salk Institute back in 2003.” Lisa swiped from the first imageâthe DNADuo logoâto an aerial view of the Salk, a stark collection of futuristic buildings just up the road. “The idea of genetic matchmaking is not new, but few companies have been able to create anything even a fraction as extensive as what Dr. Morris and his graduate student, River PeÃ±a, designed.”
Jess glanced at Fizzy, who looked back at her. If River and his mentor invented all of this, Jess figured she couldn't give him too much shit for being a terrible pitch man.
Even if she could give him shit for being a bit of an asshole.
Lisa continued: “The reason the DNADuo has been so successful at identifying genuine love matches is that the idea didn't start with DNA.” She paused dramatically. “It started with people.”
Jess stifled an eye roll as the slide became animated, zooming away from the Salk research buildings and along a street to a collection of computer-generated coeds standing on the patio of a bar, laughing and talking.
“Dr. PeÃ±a first asked whether he could find a complementary pattern in the DNA of two people who are attracted to each other.” Lisa's slide zoomed in on a couple speaking closely, flirtatiously. “That is, are we programmed to find certain people attractive, and can we predict which two people will be attracted to each other before they ever meet?” She grinned. “In a study of over one thousand students from UC San Diego, a series of nearly forty genes were found to be tightly correlated with attraction. Dr. PeÃ±a then pointed the lab in the opposite direction to look into lasting happiness. Could he find a genetic profile of people who had been happily married for longer than a decade?”
Lisa swiped the animation forward to show an older computer-generated couple sitting on a couch, cuddling. The view zoomed back to show a neighborhood, and then a city, and then farther until the city map looked like a double-helix strand of DNA. “From a study of over three hundred couples,” Lisa continued, “Dr. PeÃ±a found nearly two hundred genes that were linked to emotional compatibility long-term, including the same forty genes associated with attraction, as well as many other previously uncorrelated ones.” She paused, looking at them. “This was only the first generation of the DNADuo.”
Beside Jess, Fizzy was sitting up at full attention, completely plugged in. But Jess was skeptical. What Lisa was describing was essentially a slot machine with two hundred reels. Statistically speaking, landing on the right combination was an absurdly low-probability event. Even if GeneticAlly was just looking for pattern compatibility, with the number of variants of every gene in the human genome, this type of algorithm was so complex as to be nearly impossible to calculate manually. She couldn't see how they would begin to process the amount of data they were facing.