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Artistic image of a sea of model human heads kissing and reursing to infinity

Illustration by Jacey

We’re racing through the streets, leaping over people slumped on sidewalks and spilling from cars, and all I can think is I can’t remember where we’re going when I slam into Neven. He’s stopped dead and I’m about to scream RUN! when he whispers, “It ricochets.”

My belly tightens in a tourniquet of dread. That’s what they all say. Right before the fugitive bio-nanites, lab escapees hiding out in all our brains, go berserk. Oops, the researchers had said. We didn’t foresee the whole airborne thing. The lung-transference thing. The brain-breach thing. Sorry about that.

Neven!” His gaze is vacant. Preoccupied.

He collapses.

No!” I shake him wildly. We’d held out for so long. Why now? He’s staring up at a print taped inside the window of a store: Escher’s iconic drawing of hands drawing themselves. My mind cramps. Hands drawing themselves drawing hands drawing themselves drawing hands —


The thought rebounds inside my mind, faster and faster, scything through my memories. I clutch my head. I need to go … somewhere. Do … something. I hug Neven. “Please wake up. You said you’d never forget me. That you forgive me.” Because the ricochet, it’s —

All my fault.

Inexplicably, my memories flood back. I swallow. After the infestation, while governments scrambled, while the world held its collective breath, I’d reasoned the nanites were, fundamentally, computers, and did what any self-respecting programmer would do.

I wrote an app for that.

Oh my God.

I race towards my apartment, because that’s where we were heading. That’s where I can fix it. Fix Neven.

Oh Lord. What did you do? I’d only wanted to find my soulmate, that’s all. So I wrote a dating app. Used myself as a beta tester. Hacked the nanites and instructed them to find my perfect match. Neven. But to fulfil that directive, they evaluated everyone. Signed up everyone. Networked everyone. And spread the ricochet.

Anguish pours into my blood, and I stumble. Don’t leave him. Go back. GO BACK. I shriek and collapse, every muscle a knot of agony. Dear God, WHAT IS THIS? But I know.

My app exploited the bio-nanites’ access to love’s secret sauce: chemistry. Biochemistry. Hormones, pheromones, neurotransmitters; the nanites not only matched couples who were compatible, they were biochemically compatible. Relationships shattered as old married couples and newlyweds alike abandoned their current partners for their perfect match. That’s why the streets were so clogged. They were frantic to be with their newfound loves. Because the nanites forced everyone into a state of biochemical withdrawal until they were.

The state I’m in now.

My withdrawal fades as I rush back to Neven. I kiss him desperately, then gasp as his arms encircle me, sleeping beauty awakened. “RUN, GODDAMMIT!” I yell, and he does.

We burst into my apartment; who needs locks when everyone’s a vegetable? Come to think of it, why are you the last ones standing? I wish I knew.

The holographic blocks of code I left up, they’re utterly foreign. Dear Jesus, I can’t remember how to program —

“It ricochets.”

Neven. My heart freezes. I find him in the bathroom, staring into the side panel of the trifold mirror reflecting his reflection reflecting his reflection —


It’s never-ending, like hands drawing themselves drawing hands —



It’s also familiar. Why? I squeeze my temples as Escher’s hands loop, as the mirrors recurse through my mind — wait. Recursion. That’s why it’s familiar. It’s like that — thing I do on computers. Coding. Sometimes I’d inadvertently write a program that called itself, looped over and over, recursed into infinity-y-y —




But most systems have built-in programs to limit recursion. Otherwise the code continuously executes itself until the system runs out of memory.

I freeze.

Runs out of memory.

As in the ricochet effect.

The nanites. They’re computers without recursion limits. The moment someone thinks of recursion, the nanites use up the brain’s resources to follow that recursion into infinity-y-y-y—


And my networked app allows the recursion to spread.

Oh, God. It’s hopeless. I have to think of recursion to fix the ricochet-t-t-t —



I squeeze my eyes closed as my heart pounds, my mind on the abyss of the ricochet-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t —

But you held out, dammit. Why?

Don’t know — little computers — in my head — eating my memory —


No use — everyone succumbs — a world of sleeping beauties —

Sleeping beauty awakened.

My eyes snap open.

Neven woke — when I kissed him. Why?


My memories came back — when I hugged him. Why?


Because love — it’s like —

A drug.


I hold Neven close, kiss him tenderly, and the ricochet recedes. Those butterflies I feel, they’re really oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin. The biochemicals of love. Maybe they drug the bio-nanites. Slow the recursion. Free up memory. Am I the last one standing because I was the beta tester? The first one to reach my biochemical soulmate, to pump out love’s biochemicals? Maybe the nanites learnt from me. Tried to force soulmates together to … produce enough biochemicals to medicate themselves out of the recursion.

Maybe I can drug the nanites by thinking of Neven.

I flick the holographic display and frantically start coding —


I love you. That’s what Neven said when we first heard about — the bad memory thing. I’ll never forget you. My fingers fly over the interface. C’mon, c’mon —


But he did forget me and so did I because who is this man? If only I could remember his name — rhymes with seven heaven nevennnnnnnnnn-n-n-n-n-n

Oh, God, upload —







I open my eyes.

Neven. He’s smiling. “I told you I’d never forget you.”

Love’s biochemicals flood my brain, and I swear I hear the nanites sigh.

The story behind the story: RICOCHET-T-T-T-T-T-T

Judy Helfrich reveals the inspiration behind her latest tale.

I know just enough about programming to be dangerous. This point was driven home one day when I inadvertently introduced an infinite recursive loop into my code. For those not familiar with a recursive loop, it occurs when a program calls itself, over and over, and loops endlessly. The only thing stopping it from running forever and using up the server’s memory are built-in recursion limits (no doubt designed with people like yours-truly in mind).

While I was fussing with my code, trying to fix my goof, a random thought occurred to me: what if people didn’t have recursion limits? Because although some of us tend to be obsessive, *waves*, we do have the option to just not think about certain things, if we so choose (pink elephants notwithstanding). But what if limitless recursion ‘infected’ the human population? And how could that happen? There would have to be some sort of vector, something combining biology and technology, something that could spread from person to person, like a virus. Bio-nanites (microscopic cyborgs, if you will) seemed both a terrifying possibility and a fun way to torture characters, and if there’s one thing writers love, it’s torturing characters.

But sometimes writers do go soft and opt for a happily-ever-after. And what makes humans happy? You might say love, but I say dopamine. Our brains are junkies programmed to seek a biochemical reward, and things like love are simply the delivery method. Cupid’s arrow is actually the brain’s ventral tegmental area pumping out dopamine in response to a potential mate. And if biochemicals such as dopamine can make humans drunk on love, maybe they could make the bio-nanites tipsy enough to interfere with the execution of their code. A sort of biochemical recursion limit.

Well, it seemed quite a challenge to cram all those concepts into a flash story, but I went ahead and wrote it anyway, because of course writers also love to torture themselves.


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