Mr. Z was getting off the monorail when he ran into Ms. P. They have known each since Conditioning School, during the Last Great Incorporation.
It was a cloudy, volatile day. Above the monolithic skyscrapers shadowing them the sky was churning, grey and foreboding. It hasn’t rained in months, though, this was just electricity.
Ms. P was wearing a straw hat she recently purchased, Model XB39, the one with the flower on the brim. The wind was whipping it about and she struggled to keep it on her head. Mr. Z complimented the flower. Just before she replied, a large metal object fell out of the sky and crashed violently to the ground. They both looked up and saw nothing. When they turned their attention back to the metal object they discovered it was a drone.
Mr. Z was alarmed. He told her, “Ms. P, I think they are following you!”
“Nobody would be following me. I live a very uneventful life, until this little incident, I suppose. Maybe they are following you?”
Mr. Z was taken aback. He reached for the skin on his wrist, where his chip was implanted. “Me? I’m sure my life is more uneventful than yours. I work in a library scanning books into computers, only the approved books, of course. I even bring my lunch to work. No, there is nothing interesting about me.”
Ms. P countered, “Well, I sew my own sweaters and don’t even watch the news. I never gossip, not even about celebrities! If you asked me who the Grand CEO of the Incorporated States was, I’d even have to think for a second.”
“Come on, you know it’s…”
Ms. P interrupted him. “Shh….”
They both looked at the drone laying broken on the sidewalk next to them. Any minute the men would come for it. They picked up and began walking briskly toward the river.
Mr. Z began to feel that everybody they passed eyed them suspiciously. The city flew by in a parade of overcoats and hats. He wanted to talk to Ms. P, really talk, like he hasn’t in years, but couldn’t find a place to begin. Every thought that entered his brain felt dangerous. We have to moderate our speech, he repeated obediently in his mind, to create a harmonious citizenry.
“I can’t even get to the end of a magazine article in Science Weekly before falling asleep,” he said loudly. “There’s no reason to take an interest in me. No, I’m a regular, abiding citizen without much excitement to note.”
They passed a store specializing in straw hats. Ms. P recognized seven models that were almost exactly like hers. The window was full of them. It reminded her of the rules and she felt a tinge of sadness.
Ms. P told him, “I eat oatmeal, a lot of it.”
“I pay my bills the day they arrive in the mail.”
“When I have sex I don’t make a sound.”
Mr. Z paused, considering this, then told her, “When I have sex I always warn the lady before climaxing — and then cuddle for at least thirty minutes.”
He watched her squirm, not in an ever-present-fear-of-being-watched sort of way, but, like, something-itching-her-from-the-inside sort of way. He tried not to be excited by this.
They stopped at the tracks of the B78 train. A 38-carriage monster roared by, carrying thousands of people out to the factories and making conversation impossible. When it finally passed after eight minutes, they continued.
“I look forward to my parents visiting,” Ms. P announced.
“I call my mother once, sometimes twice, a day.”
They could see the river now, black and swirling in place, rather than flowing downstream as rivers used to do. A small portion was aflame with orange and yellow fire. They looked over their heads but the clouds of electricity made it impossible to tell if there were drones or not. The terrible wind shoved the putrid smell of the river in their face. They tried not to gag.
“Look. It’s really on fire today,” Mr. Z said. She nodded. “It’s beautiful,” he added for protection.
They stared at the river, at the tornadoes of flame licking its surface. The heat blew at them fiercely, causing beads of sweat to coat their faces. Ms. P removed her hat. Her flaxen hair fell softly on her shoulders. In the reflection of the fire, she was quite beautiful, glowing even, Mr. Z thought. He noticed that she had a mole next to her ear and wondered if it was natural, or if it was an Incorporated Implant. You never knew where people shop these days. Still, he couldn’t help admiring it.
Enough is enough, he thought, then swallowed roughly, preparing for something terrible to happen. “Look,” he told her, “Sometimes in the Autumn, when there are a lot of leaves in piles, I’ll kick ’em and laugh, like when we were young… before.”
She gave him a concerned look and thought it over, then replied, “I pour chocolate milk into my cereal when I’m bored.”
They started walking along the river, sludge and flame and all. They slowed to a more languid pace, trying to control their blood pressure, both secretly trying to outsmart the chip. Conversation syntax that walked the line.
He revealed, “When I’m lying in bed I think about what it would be like to ride horses again and grow my own vegetables… just as an exercise, I never would.”
“Of course. I do the same… I think about picking flowers from the public gardens.” She instantly regretted saying this out loud. “Just sometimes, just as an exercise.”
They walked silently together. It was nice.
Mr. Z told her, “I have a ukulele at home that I bought in Hawaii, back when it belonged to us.”
“I love Hawaii,” she said.
“I know! The smell of the flowers they put around your neck at the airport and the green mountains. The blue of the water. It’s so peaceful.”
“Sooo peaceful,” she agreed.
“So peaceful, and so clean. It’s like the entire island is made out of a bar of soap.”
She added, “A bar of soap that is also like a piece of fruit.”
“Yeah, Hawaii is exactly like that,” he agreed, impressed. “Anyway, the point of the ukulele is I never play it. I’ve had it for seven years, but I haven’t even taken it out of its case.”
“Why not?” She asked.
He thought for a second, debating whether or not to tell her. Then, “Because it reminds me of Hawaii…” he mumbled under his breath.
They went quiet, both contemplating things that aren’t allowed, places in their souls they’re not allowed to go. He grabbed her hand and they felt a surge of electricity, attracted from the clouds to their bodies. The also felt their chips activate, their wrists tingle. A warning shot.
He held up his hand. “This damn thing! I’ve thought about removing it and living in the unassigned lands, even though they say it’s impossible,” he revealed. Then, realizing he’s said too much, he added, “Maybe it’s just a dream, I don’t know.” The electricity intensified to the point of excruciating pain, but neither let go. He thought about going to bed with her and having sex with her, and about not having sex with her, but just lying in bed next to her. “I really do like your hat,” he told her.
She looked into his eyes and saw this strange mixture of excitement and fear. She felt the same thing, saw her deepest thoughts reflected in those eyes, and told him, “It’s impossible to live when you can’t dream.”
Mr. Z grabbed her shoulders and held her gaze. The electric field between them was now reaching critical levels. You could hear it crackle around them. “I’m not that boring,” he confessed, the electricity almost bringing them to their knees.
Ms. P swallowed deeply. Her teeth chattered. If love will kill you, then maybe it’s worth trying, she thought. The air was thick with charged, emanating particles — lightning bolts circled around them, they were utterly exposed now. She whispered to him, “I sometimes do make a sound,” just as their chips delivered the fatal voltage.
The love was too much. Their bodies were quickly located and disposed in the river. Her hat was returned to the store, and within a day was back in the window. The Incorporation owns everything, even hats and love.