Ember stroked her finger over the small mark that now graced the outside of her wrist. It had appeared, like magic, about two days ago. Most people seemed to have one.
The marks were a combination of seven symbols, arranged symmetrically around a central dot. Well, mostly seven. Some people had elaborate multi-tiered rings with 14, 21, 28 or in one case 42 symbols. All of Ember’s friends, like herself, had only an un-filled dot and seven symbols. But some people who posted pictures online seemed to have a full dot. The rest of the symbols seemed random. Ember had a fish, a magic wand, an eagle, a square, a Greek letter pi, the alchemical symbol for water, and a globe.
She peered down at the symbols again. They didn’t appear like ink. They were more like very flat freckles - as much a part of her as the rest of her skin. She supposed it must have been nanobots - but rouge or uncontrolled nanobots always either shut down, or swept like locusts over the surface of the earth until one of the world powers exercised the Nuclear option. For nanobots to have altered almost every human on Earth in this way - and done nothing more - seemed almost to incredible to believe.
There must have been some rhyme or reason to the symbols. It was driving her mad. She flipped to a fresh page of her notebook, and began jotting down the same obvious questions in an attempt to brainstorm.
- Does everyone have a multiple of seven? - What different symbols are there? - Do they form an alphabet? - How many possible arrangements are there?
She paused, tapping her pencil against the page, a crease of concentration across her face. Finally, she jotted down the question which really ought to have been obvious.
- Who didn't have the marks?
Finally equipped with a question that she thought might lead somewhere, she took to the Internet to find answers.
“Hey Google, can you find a list of people who do not have any of the new wrist markings, and compile basic biographical data?”
The smooth voice of her assistant rolled out from her headphones after only a moment’s pause. “You realize that in order to comply with privacy regulations, I can only provide you with anonymized statistical information, or information about individuals who have opted-in to sharing their personal data?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“Okay. Just a moment,” the voice continued. “I’ve put a document with the list on your iPad.”
“Thank you,” she said. The AI said nothing.
Running her eyes down the list, there was nothing obvious tying the people together. About 250 people had full biographical details available, but a further 9 million had aggregated data available in the form of charts. None of the charts showed a single property that all these people had or lacked.
Ember bit her lip for another moment.
“Hey Google, can you put world average data beside this data for comparison?”
Wordlessly, additional charts and graphs appeared along the right side of her screen. The population of people without wrist-marks didn’t seem very different from the average world population. They were slightly younger - 60.3 average age vs 67.4 average age - slightly more liberal, slightly less religious, shared no common country, hobby, or education. It wasn’t until she was almost half way through the 10-page report - no one ever accused search engines of lacking thoroughness - that she found a deviation that was clearly significant, even to her own poor knowledge of statistics.
People without wrist markings were more likely to identify as Queer than the general population. About 79% vs 13%. She expanded the charts for further info, wondering what that meant.
“Hey Google, given that someone identifies as Queer, what is the percentage chance that they lack a wrist marking?”
“About 8.9%, or a little less than one eleventh.”
Hmm, she thought. So bare-wrist people are likely to be queer, but queer people aren’t very likely to have bare wrists?
“What is the base rate for lacking a wrist marking in the population?” she queried.
“About 0.6%, or one two-hundreth”
That brought her up short. Compared to one two-hundreth, one-eleventh was almost 20 times more likely. There was clearly a connection there.
“Okay Google, is there anyone in my immediate social circles who lacks a wrist marking?”
“There is no one within 1 degree of social separation from you who’s privacy settings allow me to say. There are 3 people within 2 degrees who have publicly posted images including bare wrists within the last two days.”
“What are their names?”
“Emiro Sanchez, Taylor Stone, and Ashleigh Spinn.”
“Would you please message each one, asking if they’d be open to meeting me and talking sometime this week?”
“Messages sent. You can review them in your Outbox.”
In the end, only Emiro and Taylor had agreed to meet. She was going to meet Emiro first, in a little coffee shop near downtown. She was waiting at a table outside, reading some posts by her cousin in Britain, when her headphones alerted her that Emiro was approaching. She looked up to see a tall, dark haired man in a blue blazer. He was a little too tall for his girth, giving the appearance that his coat had been hung over a rake. Still, he flashed her a smile, and sat across from her.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Emiro.”
“Ember,” she smiled, taking his hand from across the table. “May I buy you something to drink?”
“Certainly,” he agreed. A moment later, she received a murmured notification that $3.71 had been deducted from her account, and a drone wooshed overhead to deposit a small hot chocolate on their table.
He sipped his drink.
“So why did you want to meet?” he inquired.
“Honestly, I’m trying to solve a mystery,” she answered. “I’m certain you’ve heard all the news media abuzz about the wrist markings,” she continued, showing her own to him, “and of course no one knows what they mean or where they come from.”
He laughed, the sound softening the otherwise tight lines of his frame, as he relaxed into his chair.
“I’m afraid I’ve stayed well out of that - you must have noticed that I don’t have one of my own,” he said.
“That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you - did you know that not having a marking is incredibly rare? Only about one in two-hundred people don’t have one. I wanted to talk with you to get an idea what made you so special.”
Ember didn’t know how to interpret the suddenly wary look in his eye. He said nothing as he took another sip from his hot chocolate, before returning it to the table. He twisted something on his ring finger, drawing her attention to the thin black ring he kept there.
“Well, I don’t really know what would be special about me. I’m really just an ordinary guy.”
Ember, however, suspected that she already had what she came for. She asked him a few more perfunctory questions, carefully jotted down his answers, and then bid him goodday once he finished his chocolate.
Her second meeting was about a half-hour after her first. She had just ordered a new muffin for herself, when a brief chime alerted her that Taylor had arrived. Taylor was dressed in a comfortable sweater and jeans, and seemed completely at ease meeting a vague friend-of-a-friend for coffee. They danced through the initial social niceties, and Ember offered to buy Taylor a muffin as well. Eventually, however, Ember found herself trying to figure out how to ask the question that was on her mind.
“Are you asexual?” Ember blurted.
“Aro ace, yeah,” replied Taylor. “Why? Trying to figure out whether or not to hit on me?”
“No, it’s just,” Ember began, fumbling her words and blushing. “I’m trying to figure out the mystery of the marks, and I have a hunch.”
At this, Taylor’s eyes lit up.
“Ooh! You’ve noticed the same thing I have - several other aro ace people I know don’t have marks.”
Ember gave a mental sigh of relief at the confirmation of her theory. She eagerly tried to pump Taylor for information, but it became clear that neither of them really had any information. Ember made her goodbyes, and retreated to the local library to brainstorm once again.
A few days later, Ember was ranting to her friend Jasper.
“I just … why do some people have more and some fewer? What could it mean?”
She sighed, and flopped into the pillows that Jasper kept on his floor for dramatic fainting.
“You know what they sound like to me, actually?” queried Jasper.
Ember shot him a glare from the floor. “No, what?”
“They sound like soulmate-marks from one of those trashy, flowery pieces of fanfiction.”
Ember stared at him for a moment, before jerking upright. “Oh my god Jasper, that’s it! That’s why aro ace people don’t have the marks. I’m willing to bet you that polyamorous people are the ones with more than one ring. Aaaahhhh! Come on! This is huge!”
She grabbed his arm, and dragged him out the door with her.
It was only that night, after she had gone and verified the prediction of her theory and published a post about it for the world to see that she actually thought about what it would mean for these to be soulmate-marks. That would imply that there was some entity out there that could not only tell which people would be romantically compatible, but felt so strongly about this that it went out and made indelible marks on the wrist of every applicable human on the planet. What kind of computing power would it take to find the optimal match for every person on Earth?
She suddenly looked down at her own wrist, a feeling of dread creeping up her spine.
“Hey Google, how many people have the following marks in the following order on their wrist?” She listed off each of hers, running her finger around them in a circle. “Fish, magic wand, eagle, square, pi, water, globe?”
Her headphones were silent for a moment, and she wasn’t sure which answer she was dreading more - one, or zero.
“There are 115,200 people matching that description.”
Ember breathed a sigh of relief, and then blinked in confusion. 115,200 soulmates? That can’t be right, she thought. Still, if soulmates were one in 10 billion, you’d have no chance of meeting them, even with wrist marks. It made a certain amount of sense.
“How many of those people have I met?”
“How many of those people live within an hour’s travel of here?”
Ember rolled over and stuffed her head into her pillow, unsure of where to go from here.
The next morning found her walking back and forth on the train platform, unsure if she wanted to go, or even what she wanted to say. “Hey, our wrists match, please love me?”
She was still working up the courage to actually board the next one when it pulled up, and a tumult of people spilled out of the train. She stepped back against the wall to let the crowd move by, when she noticed a blue hat that was diligently fighting against the flow of human bodies to make its way towards her. When the commuters had cleared a bit, she saw that the hat rested atop the head of a cute ginger, who was piloting the hat with one hand pressed over their ear - a sure sign of AI assistance.
She was a bit ashamed to find herself still staring when the figure came up to her and asked “Are you Ember Lí? I’m Sidney McCarthwin. I’m … uh, that is to say, I have this theory.”
And Ember understood in a flash. She grabbed their wrist, pulling up their sleeve and lining their mark up beside hers.
“Hey Sidney. It’s great to meet you. I have a theory too. Want to get coffee?”