"You have to admit that was fun!" Jeremy said, carefully combing their hands through their messy hair. They climbed out of the photo booth over Michael's lap, then graciously extended a hand to help Michael to his feet.
Michael shuffled through the piles of papers at his feet. "Yeah, for the first twenty minutes or so," he said. "Was it that important to make a perfectly symmetrical heart with our hands? How is this gonna help our cover story?"
"It's not," Jeremy said as they picked a film strip off the floor and examined it. They turned it around to show Michael. "I calculated that it would be cute. Look, this third one's almost Facebook-wall-worthy! Except for you blinking," they added with a frown. "And the glare on your glasses. And that dust on the lens…"
Michael kicked a pile of wasted film. "You could have photoshopped all of this. Probably without booting up a computer, right?"
"Accurate, but you like tangible expressions of affection, quality time together, and irrelevant cultural holdovers from previous decades. And you like me better than all of those put together!" Jeremy began folding the strips together on top of themselves into a stack. "You're tense. You needed to relax somewhere in private after seeing Jake."
Michael didn't agree as whole-heartedly as Jeremy would have liked, but he stooped to help collect the film strips. "My face is sore from smiling and duck-faces. How much did we spend on these things?" When Jeremy didn't answer, Michael groaned. "I'm not gonna say it's unethical to steal cheap paper from a mall, but…"
"The film in this booth hasn't been replaced in eighteen months," Jeremy reassured. "No one's been using it anyway."
"But it still looks hella weird, dude. We could wallpaper my room with this many photos." Michael shoved a fistful into his hoodie pocket, leaving even more of them trailing behind.
Jeremy's smile faltered. "None of our peers were here to see it. There's no social drawback, and it's not unethical."
"Right." Michael pinched the bridge of his nose. "Right. Right. You're Jeremy Heere, so weirdness is in your genes. It's fine. Just… You, and school, and our parents, and the mall, and Jake... I'm getting a little tired of feeling recorded constantly, you know?"
There was much more SQUIP-based surveillance in Michael's future no matter what. Jeremy couldn't change that. "Here," they said after a few seconds, pressing yet another strip of four square photos into Michael's hands. "I put a fun theme on this one."
Michael turned the pictures in his hands. "Friends With Benefits? Seriously, Jeremy?"
Jeremy's face got hot and they snatched the photo away, replacing it with a different film strip that proclaimed "ZOMBIE HUNTERS: WE GOT THIS." "That was a processing error," they muttered. "Sorry."
Michael flipped through a few more papers curiously. "'You're the cheese to my macaroni'? 'Mommy loves me'? Did you put us on every default template in the machine? No wonder it took forever."
Jeremy snatched them away. "I'm omniscient, remember? Stop questioning my ways."
"I'm gonna burn most of those as soon as we get home. You know that, right?"
"99.5% probability that I can hide at least a dozen of them before you get the chance." Was it weird to want something tangibly, imperfectly-perfectly Michael? The photo booth could very well be their last save point of comfortable weirdness before it all disappeared. Jeremy swallowed the lump in their throat, packing up more pictures with cheetah print, owls asking "Guess HOOOO Loves You?", and cupcakes that were enthusiastic BFFs. They lingered on a strip where Michael had covered his face with his hands, swatting at Jeremy for the first few pictures, but the last image was a blurry kiss. "YOU ARE MY 3" said the gaudy border on top.
"This is blackmail material for you as much as it is for me," Michael started, but his volume dropped and he straightened up halfway through.
Right. People were watching. They had to look chill and focus on their mission. "We can still talk," Jeremy said when Michael stayed silent. "It's more suspicious if we don't."
"This is a lot of rules to remember," Michael groused. His hands went to his pocket, then to his side, then to play with his sleeves.
"That's why you need a computer for it." Jeremy bumped hips with Michael and gestured for him to stop fidgeting. "All the rules make sense. They're easier to keep track of when you have a primary goal in mind. In the end, all you've got to do is be more-"
"Cool. Yeah, I get it. Be as fake as I can and LARP as a jock."
"No!" Jeremy said, offended. "No, Michael, you're still thinking of SQUIPs as evil. We're amoral. That's an important distinction. It's not about being fake. It's about taking Michael Mell and elevating him. We minimize the undesirable traits and maximize the good ones!" Michael didn't even pretend to look convinced, so they said, "Regardless of the SQUIP, if we're talking about analog human Michael Mell-you make mistakes, right? Think about what you look like in the mirror. What you sound like on recordings. Don't do you do things that annoy yourself sometimes? You're not happy with everything about yourself 24/7."
Normally, this is when Michael would cut them off, maybe talk about self-love, but this time Michael reluctantly nodded. "Okay… No, I'm not a perfect robot, which is why we're having this conversation."
Jeremy mirrored Michael's nod as they led Michael into a clothing store. "Right! If you made a to-do list for self-improvement, what would be on it?"
Jeremy could make a list for Michael if he wanted. Bulk up, be more social, be outgoing, look hotter, stop making mistakes-those were par for the course for SQUIP users.
"I'd… I guess I'd be more open about myself to other people," Michael said.
Jeremy gave him a withering stare. Michael already did that. He did that too *much.*
Michael shook his head. "You talk about my reputation like I'm some disgusting rando creeper. I'm not that kind of weird! I've got niche interests and unique skills, not to mention heroic tendencies." Jeremy opened their mouth but Michael barreled on. "But it's easier to keep most people at arm's length. It's hard work to be social! So no one at school knows anything about me other than you! But that's not my fault," he quickly said. "You can't please everyone. I can't force myself to be charming to everyone in the world."
Jeremy didn't restrain their grin. It was thin-lipped and predatory and oh-so-smug, making Michael falter and a bubble of laughter rise in Jeremy's throat. They slung their arm around Michael's shoulder. "Oh, Michael. Michael, Michael, Michael, Michael! Poor outdated, analog, retro-tech Michael! Of course we can!" Before Michael could protest, Jeremy swung them around so that Jeremy was staring Michael down, clasping Michael's shoulders.
"New rule!" they announced. They didn't often get to make rules for Michael. This felt right. This felt good. Michael was looking around for an escape, so Jeremy cupped his chin and turned it forward. "Make direct eye contact with everyone!"
Michael didn't squirm away. What a good user he was! "Please don't break into a villain number," he muttered. "I can't make eye contact with everyone. What if somebody's on the spectrum-"
"Everyone," Jeremy corrected. They mentally added this spectrum thing to their ethical research to-do list. One thing at a time. "You're becoming the enemy, remember? We don't make exceptions. Exceptions make you stop and thing and worry and falter and look weak. Every conversation is a chance to get social power, so you need to act dominant!"
Instead of taking the bait for a dirty joke, Michael only seemed vaguely grossed out.
Jeremy shook their head, eyes boring into Michael's like a challenge. "You can't show fear. Don't even consider that they don't like you. You are the most charming person in any room. You're untouchable."
Michael's eyes were still darting around, but they were surrounded by clothing racks and no one of consequence. No danger of being overheard for now. He said, "I'm starting to see why human Jeremy got into this," and it wasn't a compliment.
"You're already friends with everyone!" Jeremy continued, forcing excitement and charisma into their spiel. "When you see anyone-a stranger on the street or your best friend-you're glad to have them in your life. It shows on your face how important they are, how blessed you feel that you get to see them."
Michael's apprehension was fading, though his confusion wasn't. "'Hi, welcome to McDonald's, what would you like today?' 'Nothing, actually, the sultry sound of your voice is enough,'" he wisecracked. "Jeremy, I think they'd call the cops."
"Because you said that line like a sexual predator," Jeremy explained patiently. "You need to be genuine. It doesn't need to be flirty. Try again."
Jeremy stared him down until Michael said unenthusiastically, "No, faceless cashier, the sound of your voice is sustenance enough for my soul."
"No, Michael." Jeremy squeezed his shoulders. "Not sarcasm. This McDonald's cashier is a very good friend. You haven't seen them in ages and you're surprised and delighted."
Michael sighed loudly, then mustered up, "Oh! Hey! Can't believe I ran into you here."
Michael could be so literal. "You don't actually know them." This is why SQUIPs were in someone's brain, where tutorials could be completed much more quickly. "Maybe pretend they're a Youtube star and you recognize their voice. Try that."
"Oh!" Michael tried again, managing to nearly sound happy. "Oh my god. Thanks for asking. Are you sure you wanna waste time on my order?"
"But you're powerful!" Jeremy corrected. "You're happy to hear this person but you know they're happier to hear you!"
"Yeah!" Michael said, louder and in a deeper voice. "I'm getting the boy's burger Happy Meal, side of chicken tendies. Thanks so much for asking! I'll meet you at the second window, okay? Can't wait to see your face!"
Michael snickered at himself but Jeremy squeezed him and spun them around in a tight circle. "By George, he's got it! Make them feel seen, and expect them to like you in return! Exactly like that, Michael! Exactly!" They were both laughing, Michael from the ridiculousness of it all and Jeremy from delight.
"This isn't how you live your life," Michael said as they came to a standstill, wriggling out of Jeremy's arms.
"It is," Jeremy said, a glint in their eyes. "It sounds silly until you practice it. And it works! Humans thrive on social contact. They're all secretly amazing people with too much stress and not enough sympathy, with accidental flaws and no support to fix themselves, whose uniqueness and potential goes unnoticed until an unexpected, friendly stranger brightens their day! The next time they see you, they think, 'That's that sweet guy Michael. Being around him makes me feel good about myself. I should get to know him.'"
"Nope! Doesn't track. You never felt like that," Michael argued, brushing himself off. "Not human-you when Rich was SQUIPped. He didn't make you feel important. He dunked you in trash cans."
"That was a strategy," said Jeremy vaguely. They didn't remember Rich's bullying first-hand. "A specific response to our school's social hierarchy. Don't focus on that right now. Rich was playing 4D chess. You're learning checkers. You don't need to bully anyone for our purposes."
"Good, 'cause I wasn't planning to."
"Right! Just remember, everybody loves you. When they're with you, they're the most important people in the world. So, next rule-their name is important. But!" They held up a finger in Michael's face. "This is where people get it wrong. Someone gives you their name as a sign of trust 'cause you're building a connection together. Don't use their name before they offer it, even if you saw it on top of their test or on a name tag. Same reason you don't use facial recognition to search the web for strangers' medical history. You can do it if you're trying to intimidate them, but if you're meeting them for the first time? You fucked up."
"You know I can't search faces. Even if that was legal, which it super-duper isn't. You know that, right?"
"And for fuck's sake, don't use their name over and over again in every sentence. It makes you sound like a used car salesman or something," Jeremy concluded.
Unimpressed, Michael crossed his arms. "You already sound like a smarmy salesman. I thought that was the point of all this?"
Jeremy refused to deflate. Michael was letting them offer SQUIP advice for once, so they needed to make the most of it. "Also! Did you notice that, even though you're saying something extremely factually inaccurate, I didn't cut you off? That's 'cause I'm using active listening."
"Go like this," Jeremy said encouragingly, lining themself up across from Michael and squaring their shoulders. "So, eye contact, remember?" They waited until Michael exaggeratedly stared into their eyes. "Normally, you spend half the conversation having eye contact with the other person. The other time, you can look away, be pensive or dreamy or whatever." They waved a hand. "But for active listening, we're bumping that number up to 70%. So the timing is: 10.78 seconds of intense eye contact. Look away for 4.62 seconds. Repeat that as long as you need to until the other person stops talking."
Michael's expression quickly transformed from exasperation to concern. "Jeremy. Hey? Jeremy. Look at me for 10 point whatever seconds."
Jeremy did so, a thin smile on their lips.
As soon as Jeremy broke eye contact at the correct time, Michael swerved into their direct line of sight again. "Still listening? Great. This is crazy. This is not a normal thing that a human being would do."
"You do it all the time, Michael." Jeremy watching him fondly. "There's some natural variation-a couple second's worth-but believe me, we've optimized the timing. It's-"
"I know. Math. Humans always come down to ones and zeroes."
Michael seemed done with the lesson, so Jeremy didn't go into a tangent about quantum mechanics. "Something like that. If you're avoiding eye contact, it's a dead giveaway that you don't have a SQUIP. So we're gonna practice. Look at my eyes."
Michael puffed out his cheeks and rubbed his eyes underneath his glasses, preparing for a staredown. He lifted his head, looking straight into Jeremy's eyes.
They were both silent for the first 10.78 seconds. When Jeremy glanced away, cuing Michael to do the same, they started to say, "I can talk so it's not so-" as Michael said "Your pupils are freaky big. Did you know that?"
"I've adjusted my pupils to be more dilated than normal," Jeremy explained. "I want you to feel that I'm affectionate. Your pupils get bigger when you're interested or aroused, you know. It has a beneficial side effect of making me look cute."
Michael shoved Jeremy's shoulder, making them laugh. "You big liar. That's not how this works!"
"You don't know that," Jeremy countered. "Again. Look at my eyes. Timer's starting now."
This time, Jeremy didn't blink first, letting Michael practice his timing. Which Michael failed badly.
"No," Jeremy said when Michael finally glanced away almost nervously. "That one lasted way too long. You didn't look away until the end, and your eyes were darting around rapidly. That's only appropriate if you're flirting with someone and you need to simulate bashfulness."
Michael spun around, making some kind of choking noise. Before Jeremy could analyze his reaction, Michael said, "I'm buying this shirt! Okay?" and plucked a hanger off the rack seemingly at random.
Jeremy raised their hands powerlessly, giving up on the lesson. "Okay!"
"We're here to buy me a cooler wardrobe, aren't we? So we've gotta get clothes."
"I'm not arguing!"
Although, as Michael led the charge to the store's check-out, Jeremy made a couple of detours. When they silently removed the XXL Hawaiian shirt that Michael was clutching, replacing it with a more appropriate selection of tight shirts and tighter pants, Michael didn't object. He seemed determined to leave the Menlo Park Mall behind them for good. Jeremy appreciated how hard Michael had tried today-such a trooper!-and wouldn't mind hiding in the safety of Michael's PT Cruiser.
Michael dropped his armfuls of clothing on the counter of the check-out. His blank expression meant that he hadn't expected to pay for this much stuff, so Jeremy hurried up alongside. They weren't exactly loaded, but this store had "tap-to-pay," so they could make it work.
Before Jeremy offered, Michael looked up to the cashier with a smile that started shy but soon widened. "You've probably got a ton of jerk customers so far today, huh? I'll be painless, I promise. I'm not planning a single no-receipt return."
The cashier's giggle answered him. Jeremy stopped short, putting their hands behind their back and calculating the possibilities for this encounter. Let's see, the time of day, the temperature of the store, the apparent age of the cashier-oh, what the hell. Jeremy ran a facial recognition service on her for background info. It's not like Michael would call the cops.
Michael was laughing along with the cashier, though he fumbled in little ways-he looked away too fast, then seemed to realize his mistake, making him almost drop his mom's credit card, which threw him off enough to let the smile slip. His back was straight as a board, which came off as terror rather than healthy posture. But he survived the encounter, waving at the cashier with a "Next time, Veronica!" as he returned to Jeremy.
When Jeremy eased the shopping bag out of Michael's hands, the plastic handles were already slick with sweat. Ick.
Michael didn't say a word until they exited the store. He collapsed on a mall chair, panting like he'd run a marathon.
"Michael, that was great!" Jeremy said, sitting beside him. They patted Michael's thigh. "If she really had a SQUIP, you might have even survived!"
Michael reacted like Jeremy had swiftly punched him in the gut. "If?!"
"Don't whine," Jeremy said. "It was practice for next time! As long as you don't come off so terrified-"
Although their software predicted Michael's reaction, Jeremy decided it was a fair shot. They didn't duck as Michael smacked a Textured Cotton Perfect Short-Sleeve Shirt (retail price $69.50) across Jeremy's smug face.