It felt like an age had passed while I was in the restroom. Yet it hadn’t been long enough. The older I get the less these conditional holidays seem like holidays at all, and more like work in disguise.
Reluctantly, I turned towards the voice and the mountains. Either it was my imagination or the twilight on that side of the plaza was deepening; shadows darkening the flowers among the scrub, and far above them, the pines and the crags. Someone had seen fit to leave a stone table on the grass not far from me, and its weathered scrollwork, and cracked surface, managed to convey forlornness amid the rest of this zytocoke1-fueled fantasy.
Mavind was sitting there, waiting for me with her cream self perched upon the faded grey, feet off the ground and legs swaying slightly. The table might as well have been placed for her. A creeper was growing up one leg.
“Lalantree, it doesn’t seem like you are enjoying my advances.”
Since it seemed like we were being honest I opened my mouth, but Mavind raised her hand.
“Ah,” she laughed, but her smile was rueful. “Maybe I already understand! Maybe I don’t.” She got up, a single, fluid motion, and strode towards me. Towards me, but clearly going away.
“I always pick the ones that I can’t get – call it a talent of mine.”
We were of a level now, and she didn’t want me to apologize. “Seems a bit masochistic,” I remarked wryly.
“Does it?” Mavind tilted her head to look back at me. Her eyes could have swallowed the world. “Maybe you would like that?”
A buzzer went off in my head. Give her a single opening, and clearly she’d still try to score.
I must’ve jumped back. Mavind shrugged, almost sheepishly – almost. “I couldn’t resist! Not that I meant to startle you any more.2 Anyway, I think I’ll head home. But before I go,” she turned round to face me fully, and I stiffened, “tell me, Lalantree – which are the ones that you pick out? Is it possible that you prefer people like that – that character with whom you were talking before I came?”
What a strange person she was. Not a single intoxicant, and she was still leaning, saying anything and asking everything, trying to pry her way inside. The silence stretched.
Mavind sighed. “I suppose there’s no reason for you to answer that!” She kept her grimace of disappointment fleeting, however, and even gave a small smile before that toss of her hair, the final punctuation point on life, the universe, and everything.
Except it wasn’t.
“None,” I said, once she was safely out of sight.
I am afraid I didn’t get far before Loddi found me again. Predictably, after Mavind he and his awfulness didn’t seem like an all-consuming cosmic phenomenon anymore – closer to a vacuum cleaner, actually – and as I glanced around, I realized that I might be one of the only people here who gave even the appearance of tolerating his company.
“Oh, there you two are!” Loddi’s mum swept up, mumu trailing behind her. Now that I wasn’t cornered like a helpless gimfrir3 I realized that she was just holo today, with a bit of uncorrected fuzzing around her ears and her sleeves; if she’d only thought of it, she could have tweaked her avatar to look as un-aged as she pleased. “But where did you, er, friend go, Lalantree? What a marvellous presence she has –”
“She had to leave. Actually, I didn’t know her. At all.”
“Really? Well, perhaps that makes sense…” I could see her mentally holding up yardsticks to Mavind and I; to be any less subtle about it, she would have to hit me over the head with a hammer.
“Mum! We were in the middle of discussing my new Kimble4 Racer!”
“That thing! Loddi, I still don’t know if racers are really all that safe…”
Much as I would like to pretend that I maintained a state of zen-like calm when confronted by the black hole that was not a black hole, vacuum cleaners can still be very annoying. I’m not sure why we haven’t invented something better yet.
“I have to go,” I said. They looked at me. And I left.
The VR did a cheesy fade on the way out – if it were sentient I’d claim that it was sneaking in one last horrible pun. Only then was I able to turn off the VR program and shut the door on that big blank gymnasium full of people. On the threshold I stretched, smelling the disinfectant on the air of the domed street lined by windowless doors, and then I set off for home.
Having spent only 17% of my day-hours in the company of those who were, by and large, my relations, on my HUI I saw the CLPFC non-compliance fee leave my account with all the parsimonious bitterness of someone who is guaranteed a good living, and who still obsesses over their bank account. Sometimes there is no one more zealous than the comfortable5.
My consolation prize arrived that evening, though. I had a quick message from my os-father, who said that I’d “been missed”. There was a hint of reproach running through his message, for representation of our pseudo-nuclear unit had been sparse; Rike never showed, and Kimbrid had arrived late, clad in all her usual armor6 for these occasions.
But all I really cared about was the last sentence. Apparently my es-father was thoroughly, unaccountably disenchanted with Frisket get-togethers, so we wouldn’t be going next time.
1It is what you are imagining, only ten times loopier (thirty times if you are one of those “my body will only ingest pure, natural substances” types).
2Ridiculous. She knew exactly what she was doing.
3They are neither quick nor stealthy. They are neither large nor intelligent. Nature did not arm them against their enemies. Experts are still trying to unravel the great mystery that is the gimfrir’s existence.
4Loud and angsty, these hydrophobic velo-racers are a genius’ bid to profit off of adolescent idiocy. Or 30-something-year-old idiocy, as in Loddi’s case.
5The Carwallians (not the smugglers) have a similar saying.
6A small host of fellow theological etymologists, and six bottles of nur.