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art by Wi Waffles

The Programmer and the Social Worker, or, A Love Story about Feature Creep

Tina Connolly lives with her family in Portland, Oregon. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her Nebula-nominated novel Ironskin is now out from Tor Books, with the sequel Copperhead coming in October 2013. She narrates for Podcastle and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake. Her website is tinaconnolly.com.
He was the most expert programmer in the world, and yet when his wife discovered the malignant stage 4 paraganglioma, all that perl and C++ and knowledge of forked looped chain arrays could do nothing. So he packed up his seven laptops and his eight monitors and unrolled a spool of CAT6 cable into the cellar. He disappeared from the world while his wife remained in it. While she went about reassigning her cases at the nonprofit, he tasked his IRC client to chat with fifteen of the greatest geniuses in other fields. She went to the drugstore and the ice cream store and the drugstore again, and called someone to cut the grass that her husband usually cut. And at night she finished her library books, one by one so he would not have to remember to return them, while the other side of the bed remained flat.
On the seventh day, he arose from the cellar, eyes caffeinated and bloodshot. He seized her arm, muttering about a new operating system, a new programming language. GACT, he called it, and said it was a recursive acronym for GACT Altered Code Translation, and laughed wildly.
She text messaged work, and she followed him to Sweden, where one of the other geniuses lived. They put her under. They downloaded her--her!--reprogrammed, tested, and uploaded his changes.
When she woke, he watched her with the eye of the most expert programmer in the world, the one who found flaws in everything. She moved around the Swede's house in a daze, touching blond wood and white walls as if they told her stories that had never been heard by her ears. The slanting sunlight seemed too clear to see.
And then she sneezed. Her husband took his three laptops and four CD-ROMs into the back bedroom while she watched boats with a tickly throat and wondered what passed for ice cream in Ystad. Three days later they put her under. When next she woke, the Swede told her she would never be sick again.
Her husband did not emerge from the back bedroom.
She took her insanely good health and lungfuls of sunlit air and walked twelve miles until she found an ice cream shop with chocolate hazelnut and caramel pistachio and salt licorice. She ran home along the beach, barefoot until she stepped on glass, and then she limped home, still tasting the bitter anise. She would not have told him, but the eye of the most expert programmer in the world emerged from the back bedroom long enough to study the foot, and advise her to be put under.
She insisted they fly home instead.
He had an eight-hour flight to wear her down. The next time she went under, it was in their own cellar, surrounded by his seven laptops, eight monitors, and their cardboard boxes of canning jars and winter coats.
When she found out she was not only going to live, but might well live forever, she unaccountably burst into tears. All those Kleenex boxes she had not gone through before, she went through now. She did not go into work, she did not retrieve her clients, and the genius from Sweden (who had flown home with them) ended up following her around the house, occasionally poking her with a knitting needle to watch the skin heal up and close over.
She tried to talk to her husband. But the math rock was turned to 11 and he looked past her, not at her, lips mumbling about nested matrices and infrared vision.
She ran three marathons in a day. He stayed in the cellar, ignoring the calls from the media. The Swede took over his Twitter feed. She went skydiving without a net. He consented to a Skype interview on NPR. (Though he only gave a quarter of his attention to it, she could tell.) The Swede began answering his cell, writing down long messages, possibly in Swedish. She ate gallons of tin roof sundae, which her system efficiently metabolized.
She was bouldering in Alaska when the tweet from his account showed up.
@XPertProg: Need a genius for the next frontier. WINGS.
She rolled down the mountain, pulled out her laptop, and found the nearest wifi point. She tunneled through remote IPs, masked her origin. (A long-ago lecture of his came in handy.) The 16th genius appeared in his IRC client with the handle featureCREEP.
>>XPertProg: Are you the wing-o-phile?
>>featureCREEP: Are you afraid to leave the cellar?
>>XPertProg: What? No.
>>featureCREEP: I think you should come see your program for yourself.
>>XPertProg: ...Wife?
>>featureCREEP: Anchorage airport. 10AM tomorrow. NO SWEDE.
In a different story, he would have meant to come, and failed, caught up in making just one more change before he left the cellar. In that story, she would have waited in the Anchorage airport for a day and a half before catching the next flight to Tibet, and going to the top of a mountain to come to terms with immortality.
But this is a love story. And he had always meant to come out of that cellar, after just one more upgrade.
He met her by the baggage claim. He had brought only one laptop, and an electric razor, and a dozen tulips. (They were only a little smashed.) He had grown pale and scrawny. She was tanned and gleaming.
She took him out for hot fudge sundaes, and together they talked of how to change the world.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, July 29th, 2013


My husband's a programmer, and he graciously let me consult him about story details (why seven laptops? He wouldn't need seven laptops. Well, YOU have seven laptops....) and why CAT6 cable (instead of CAT5 or DOG42 for all I know). And of course, every programmer I know laughs wildly when explaining to me that something is a recursive acronym. Anyway, my thanks go out to him for this story.

- Tina Connolly

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