So, when I take a break from writing the big story, I tinker with a little story. This is the first part of that story.
It’s the near future.
Emma stood under a lamp post. Across the street a pub had disgorged a boisterous group of men and women, laughing together. Music, voices, and the clatter of dishes poured out around them. For a minute they were one being, many-armed, joyful, reluctant to break apart just yet.
Her hand tightened into a fist in her jacket pocket.
All you have to do is go in and order. Something easy. Something from the application’s list. Businesses want you to spend money. Communal eating is essential for socialisation.
But what if they were closing? Or you had to be with someone? What if it was a private event?
The litany of possible problems kept her rooted to her spot. Above her head the blue-white safety light hummed.
If she only went over, maybe someone would talk to her. It was exciting and frightening all at once.
The group reached for their tablets. Musical notes rang out in cheerful cacophony, and after a minute they exclaimed over whatever it was telling them. She’d seen that happen before. She needed to find out what it was. Everyone had it now. She should have it, too.
The happy entity began to fragment into ones and twos, scattering away down the street. Arms went around shoulders. Hands were held.
A police cruiser swept down from the upper deck of the city, and began to move along the street. Its cameras searched the faces of the people there. She started to walk. She was guiltless; she was certain she was guiltless, but it wasn’t a good idea to be seen lurking alone. It might bring suspicion onto her.
Her apartment was dark, silent. She stopped in the kitchen, letting the quiet wrap around her. Two chairs. Two plates. Two sets of silverware. She had a lot of cups. Dishes were rinsed, then sat awaiting a good wash. More cups made the process seem more necessary.
Two chairs. Just in case.
Her phone made a plonking sound. A mandatory response message lit the screen, filling the dark room with blue light. It pulsed gently. The Centre Application knew she was home.
The application skin was cartoonish and cute. Friendly. Under the counsellor’s watchful eyes she’d been made to choose one from an approved list. She had recognised the character from the tide of merchandised goods in the shops on one of her trial trips, which the Centre called “Warm Ups” with its unfailing optimism.
“Oh, that’s a lovely one.” Her counsellor’s name was Mary, and she always worked hard to make Emma feel as though they shared something. Liking the same character fitted the criteria. Emma had felt breathless with relief: she was approved of.
Emma prodded the screen.
“Welcome home!” the application chirped brightly.
“It’s so early. I thought you were going out for drinks.”
She had thought about this on the walk home.
“My friend couldn’t go out drinking after all. She’s pregnant,” she added. The application might not prod her to go out as often if there was a reason.
“That’s wonderful news! Why, I’d expect some kind of celebration after that!”
“She wanted to go home. She was a bit tired.”
“Of course, of course. There will be so much to do! As a friend you’ll at least have to go to the baby shower and give gifts. There will be a registration for it. You could make baked goods! Handmade gifts are very much a thing right now. And increasing your skill set will help expand your social network and raise your potential for earning.”
She watched notes appear in the application, for baking lessons, courses on pregnancy support, and party organising seminars. The friendly voice was excited about her non-existent friend’s fictional pregnancy with the tirelessness that only a program could have. She’d chosen the wrong story to excuse her early return. Now she could either explain that she’d lied about making a friend in the first place, pretend later that her friend lost the pregnancy, or continue the charade. Only the last one would keep the Centre from learning about her lie, and her failure.
The notes shrank into a corner.
“Well, this unexpected change in schedule really opens up your evening. Someone will be very happy to see you.”
The application’s voice was conspiratorial.
“I don’t know.”
“But it’s been so long! I know he’s been eager to see you again.” It waited for her response. It would try one more time to coax her, and then it would issue a statement that would carry a nebulous threat.
“It’s such a lovely night to share. The skies are quite clear. You could sit outside awhile. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“It’s a little cold.”
It wasn’t, really. But sometimes it would turn to worrying about her health, and the whole thing could be put off. In fact, if it thought she was ill it might be a way out of her lie about her fictional friend. She could say that she was making excuses because she wasn’t feeling well.
“A cozy blanket and some wine will be just the thing!”
It must have decided she was too healthy.
“He’s already on his way. Should I tell him to turn around?”
It was couched as a kind offer, but there was, as the application had explained, an average number of times that women her age ought to be having sex. Falling too far behind that average might be enough to require a return trip to the Centre.
“No. It will be nice to have company.”
Wyn was sweet, and kind. He teased her about the dark apartment and asked her easy questions while retrieving the wine from the cupboard. They were small talk questions. She’d learned that the answers had to come from a selection of responses, otherwise people would get that look on their faces. They weren’t really asking, and it wasn’t the time to tell them even if they were familiar enough to want to know.
His welcoming hug and kiss were acceptable. The first time he was sent had been awkward, because he’d been trying to learn what she wanted, and she didn’t know. The Centre had given them a thorough education, and she had been told that university would prove the opportunity to develop adult sexuality. The application had tirelessly encouraged mixers and parties but, just like the pub tonight, she couldn’t compel herself to go. They had sent her back the Centre for an expansion course, and Wyn was assigned to ensure that she didn’t get rusty.
They sat together on the sofa. It was still hard to get comfortable when she was meant to recline easily against him. That’s the phrase Mary had used. It wasn’t Wyn’s fault. Who would have guessed that reclining easily was hard to do? The wine tasted sour. She was really trying to like it. Everyone her age seemed to.
Once the sex started it was better. That part felt good sometimes. When it felt good she liked the few minutes where she didn’t have to think or worry at all. She didn’t think that Wyn was testing her then, and it was one of the few things that the application never asked about. It always slyly insinuated things the next morning, instead.
The baking lessons took place in a community education centre located a few stops away on the monorail. It would be two nights a week, because she had to be able to make something acceptable for her friend by the time the baby came. She sat at the work tables with nineteen other people in the beginner class, taking careful notes about food safety. At the other end of the room, still in shadow, were the ovens and sinks. Tonight was only the introduction. She liked those: it was information, and information was essential for a firm understanding of the principles.
There were the same number of men and women. Before the class one of the men joked that women liked a man who could cook, and another had said that his friend had met his wife at a knitting course. They laughed easily together, even though they had just met. Each one was now seated next to a woman.
Her own partner was also a woman. Her name was Ed, though. She was tall, and had long, blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. She was wearing a red shirt and black jeans, and slouched over her tablet so far that it looked like she badly needed glasses.
Emma’s tablet blinked. She poked at the alert, wondering what was wrong. She’d never seen that icon before.
“Isn’t this boring?”
It was a chat application. It must have been some kind of default. She didn’t remember turning it on. The Centre might have done it. Or the application. It sometimes signed her up for new things.
She tapped away at the screen.
“Who are you?”
A slight movement to her right caught her eye. Ed waggled her fingers.
She turned back to her screen. Food safety was important, even if it wasn’t exciting.
“How do you know this profile?”
A picture popped up, of the chat program in all of its stark white and blue. There was a grey box where a photo should be, and her name. None of the other fields were filled in. Was the chat application something from the community education centre? She didn’t remember reading about it in the introductory packet. Her heart fluttered nervously. Was she meant to fill it all out?
At the next lesson they were going to make a simple white cake. “As simple as pie!” the instructor chirped. There was dutiful laughter, and she smiled belatedly.
The chat application blinked. When she checked it she saw that Ed had said goodbye. She was already gone. Was it too late also to say goodbye? She thought it might be. It would be odd, after a certain amount of time, to say goodbye. She was pretty sure.