“I know it’s a little late.”
“The Community Education Centre closed two hours ago.”
She remembered how long those people had stood outside the pub. Dismissal, the walk to the monorail station, the ride, the walk home. Was an hour realistic? At least an hour.
“My classmates were talking. Everyone had fun stories. Even just standing outside listening was nice.”
The application pulsed slowly. She held her breath.
“If you’re abducted, early notification is essential.” Its voice was warm and soothing. “If you’re delayed again without notification the Centre might request a curfew.”
She hadn’t had a curfew since her first year away from the Centre. The application generated her schedule, and asked her opinion of it. Emma never changed it, and she was home early every night. The possibility of going out existed, dimly, like the idea of climbing a mountain.
“I’ll tell you. I’m sorry. I was trying to remember everything that people said, so that I could talk with them.”
The application made a jingling sound. Emma knew what it meant: revision.
“Only listening and retention techniques,” it said chirpily. “You can brush up on it before your next lesson. I can’t be with you all the time, but the lessons you learn will follow you forever.”
She prepared for bed, and lay awake, thinking seriously about why she hadn’t told the application about Ed. It would be happy to know she’d made a friend. It would stop prodding her.
The next day was cleaning day. The Centre had explained household chores in great detail. The application had generated daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal lists suitable for her apartment and living conditions.
Today was just a sunny in late summer. Laundry was put away, her sinks and bathroom were clean, and she was scrubbing the kitchen floor. Floors should be scrubbed every week, with special care taken for corners and crevices. The application eschewed automatic cleaners. It was better, it said, to do it herself. The work of scrubbing between tiles gave her some purpose, it was true. It also made her back ache, and her knees.
She straightened up. Her balcony doors were open to catch the fresh breeze. Fresh air was good for mind, and body. The application was always very careful about her health. Lately it had been suggesting exercise programs, and it was effusive any time she mentioned that she had walked. It was important to stay out of hospitals. They were a tangle of interactions. They would want to check records, she thought. They would investigate her. Twice a year she went to the Centre, but only to its health and wellness wing.
A notification plinked, and the screen of her tablet began to pulse with a gentle orange light. She frowned, and looked at it with some caution.
It was the chat application. A purple and orange cat icon meowed at her when she came close, then vanished, leaving the screen to Ed’s message.
“Are you free? I’m free. Do you want to go to the promenade?”
She looked at her bucket of soapy water. It was cleaning day.
But socialising was an essential part of human existence. And it was walking. It was healthy.
“I’m not busy.”
The weather was fine. She knew the promenade was a grassy, park-like place. Summery. She had a white straw bag and a summer dress packed away. It was light, but would protect her from the sun. She had been looked at when she’d worn a sun hat, but it was imperative to protect her health. For too long she was torn between the cringing idea of being stared at and the scolding of doctors.
She was almost late. She arrived fifteen minutes early, as was polite, and sat on a bench near the entrance. It wasn’t, the Centre told them, that they should expect others to do the same, but it was rude to make people wait for you. If you were early you could greet people as they arrived, and make polite small talk before the event, forming a temporary bond to fall back on if necessary. She didn’t mind being early anyway, as long as it was all right for her to sit there. There were no signs. She thought it was all right.
Sunlight dappled the ground. She looked around, then stretched her hand out, feeling the little spots of warmth. Real sun. Directly from the sky. Not filtered or reflected. She closed her eyes, just for a minute. The warmth almost spread all the way through her, from the bright spots on her hand.
She returned her hand to the strap of her bag. Had she gotten the right time? Was it the right place? She checked the chat application again.
“I think I’m late? Definitely late. I’m sorry.”
She checked. “You’re not late. You’re exactly on time.”
Ed was dressed in black and dark blue. It was a distinct style. She should research what it was. It really stood out in the bright park. Her eye makeup was cheerful, though. Bright yellows and oranges, and her lips were shiny blue.
“What a relief.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“I thought my pasty ass could use some sunlight. But parks are better when there are two people. Or more.”
“I think so, too,” she agreed, and only after a moment understood that it was true. Everyone else around them were in couples or groups. Some were playing games. She watched a bright red frisbee sailing from one hand to another, caught by a man leaping into the air. He was spare, young and full of unimaginable confidence.
“Do you like frisbee?”
“I’ve never played. I don’t think I could.”
“I didn’t like sports, either. But I bet if you decided to, you’d work really hard and get good at it. Like with the baking class.”
“If you decide to do something, you should try to do it the correct way, to get good at it.”
“I never know when to give up or keep going. I don’t really lack commitment you know.”
“Did someone say that?”
“Sister. She’s got laser focus. She’s only a couple years older than me, but she’s western intercontinental manager. I’m not sure what that means, but it’s important. She wants to be a multinational corporate president. Some fancy title like that. She’s amazing.”
“You don’t want that though.”
It was hard to imagine someone who looked like Ed in an office.
“I still want to do something important though. The right thing. I just don’t know what.”
Emma understood the urge to do the right thing.
“What did you study?”
“Art. I was so stupid.” She laughed. Emma thought it sounded sad.
“You must be very good to study art.”
“I thought so, until I saw the people at the collective. They’re so good, and they know how to work a crowd.”
She shook her head. “Sorry. Everyone says the sun is supposed to improve your mood.”
“Studies have proven it.”
“I think those scientists are loopy.”
A shallow, swift-running fountain followed the path they were walking. It sparkled, bright, glowing white in the sun. Little trees offered shade. The benches beneath them were crowded with people sharing snacks and chatting.
Ed seemed to want to put her gloom behind her, determinedly turning her dark comments into jokes. Emma wasn’t good at humour. She tried to concentrate on the how of it, but before she knew it they were giggling. It felt like bubble. It felt like wine.
“Do you want some ice cream?”
Emma recalled her manners lessons. “Oh! Yes. I would. That would be lovely.”
“What flavour? Wait. Chocolate.”
“Yes, I’d like chocolate.”
“It’s a good choice.”
Ed said so, but didn’t choose it herself. Her ice cream was pale golden, with bright red cherries in it.
“Do you want to try?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t have a spoon.”
She held it out. “Quick, before there’s blue all over it.”
Emma tasted it hesitantly.
“It’s so good!”
“I like cherry.”
She looked at her chocolate cone, feeling a little disappointed, now, in the perfectly serviceable flavour.
“I like chocolate, too.”
They sat beside the fountain. The cherries were fun to unearth, and she concentrated on carefully melting the ice cream from around them, then pulling them free with a satisfying pop. They were pockets of sweet flavour. She stopped when she noticed Ed watching, and tried to eat normally.
“You could keep doing that.”
“Isn’t it strange?”
“It’s good. It’s good.”
Reassured, she returned to her careful excavations, keeping a close watch on its melting, so that it didn’t drip.
“I know this is stupid, but I wanted to make sure that you know that I’m trying to flirt with you. Maybe you don’t know, so…”
Emma looked up, continuing to eat her ice cream. Because it was in her hand, and that’s what you did with ice cream.
“Oh.” Her cheeks turned red. “I mean, doesn’t this sort of feel like a date?”
A date? She was seized by panic. A date needed different behaviour. Different responses.
Ed, watching her, looked horrified. “Ah, jeez. I’m sorry. I thought you were…I thought…”
She took a bite, then another, quickly, buying time to think. There was a different checklist, for guiding romantic feelings. Mary had explained it to her. When she met someone she was supposed to work through the questions, and decided how to proceed. As it was sprung on her she couldn’t think of any of them. And anyway, the checklists were for men, because she had said on her forms that’s what she wanted. Her class was perfectly statistically normal, and she had put down her orientation. She couldn’t set askew the statistics. The checklists-
“Be careful! You’re going to-“
“Brainfreeze.” Ed tried not to laugh while she covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”
She nodded, her spiral of panic scattered like a flock of birds. “Brainfreeze is terrible.”
“You were really going at it there. Sorry to surprise you.”
Now that the panic was gone some of the questions floated across her mind. Should she work through them, anyway? Those that were applicable? The were designed to separate what was good from what was immediately desired.
Instead she kissed Ed. It was brief. Like an experiment, comparing it to the time she spent with Wyn. It was definitely different. This one filled her with electric bubbles. It wasn’t supposed to be. She had filled out all of her forms wrong. She had lied. She didn’t mean to, but she had accidentally lied.
She looked at Ed, wondering what she thought.
“I’m going to go ahead and hope that’s a happy kiss, not a goodbye one.”
Emma thought for a moment. “It isn’t a goodbye one.”
Ed kissed her more like Wyn did, making her feel warm and excited. She stopped when Emma’s ice cream fell to the ground. She looked down at it sadly.
“I’ll get you more.”
Emma took out tissues and crouched down, tidying the mess.
“It will melt away, you know.”
“Oh. But isn’t it a kind of littering? And someone might step in it.” It was common courtesy. They had practiced identifying opportunities for common courtesy.
Ed didn’t look at her strangely, as some students in her courses had. She looked approving, or amused. Emma couldn’t quite tell, but she knew it was a good expression.
When she returned from the trash can Ed asked if she had another tissue, then dabbed at Emma’s mouth.
“You’ve gone blue.”
Ed’s tablet plinked, while she carefully wiped the lipstick from Emma’s mouth.
“You have a notification.”
Ed looked at it. “Ah, it’s just the medal game.”
“The one where you go around getting medals from shops. It’s the latest thing.”
She sounded embarrassed. Emma thought carefully of a way to make her feel better. In the end simple seemed best.
“Is there a medal to get?”
Ed showed her the tablet. A bright pink spot flashed.
“It’s getting faster.”
“They disappear after awhile, depending on the store. Some of them are for flash sales.”
She tapped it, then pointed to a street just outside the park. “It’s that curry shop.”
“We ought to get it, before it goes away.”
She stood up, encouragingly. Ed finally laughed and they went to the shop. The medal was added to two others, and a little coupon icon appeared.
“It’s a marketing thing, Em.”
“Coupons are useful,” she said, remembering their personal finance course. “Look, there’s another one.”
“Hm. I’ll do it, if you do, too.”
Ed took her tablet and found the game for her. She remembered the people outside if the pub. Maybe it was the same game.
“What’s this application?”
She was pointing to the Centre’s icon. They had been schooled on this question, very closely.
“It’s an application that was given to me to help test it. It helps manage private health issues.”
The answer worked. Ed nodded and gave the tablet back to her.
They spent the afternoon going from one shop to the next. Emma even found herself hurrying when the little spots began to flash frantically. At first Ed seemed to be humouring her. By the end she was almost towing Emma in her wake, trying to get to the next spot.
“There’s only this one left.”
Ed looked at the display and shook her head. “That one’s no good, Em. It’s from the ASeL.”
She saw them at the end of the street, now. They stood outside a storefront, shouting at passersby, even following them a little way, trying to talk them into stopping. Emma had seen them before, outside of parks or entrances to train stations or events. They didn’t have a uniform, exactly. They always wore brown pants and light blue shirts. The sight of them made her feel cold, and her heart begin to race.
She couldn’t see anything nearby to count off.
Breath. Count those. Eight in, eight out.
“You’re not…You don’t think those things, right?” Ed asked.
“No. The ASeL are a fringe political group. Settlement is complete. The settled population is completely assimilated. There is no need for violence.”
“…Yes, all of that.”
She had recited. Recitations were a danger of rote learning. Opinions were to be given in a natural way, not in block of text. The sight of the ASeL made her forget.
Eight in, eight out.
“Even when you tell people that, some of them don’t listen. But when is the last time anyone even saw a Mimic? Even my parents only heard stories about them.”
Emma counted her breathing: eight in, eight out. Panic receded.
Ed held her hand on the way back to the train, and kissed her goodbye.
“I’ll see you at baking class?”
Emma nodded firmly.
“We could get dinner after.”
“Yes, that sounds lovely.”
“Lovely. Good. Good. Dinner date.” Ed smiled, unguarded and genuine. Emma’s heart fluttered, forgetting all about lists and rules, just for one moment.