“Look,” BannaLinda said, “I want only one.”
The R-Agent shook its head, emitting the characteristic faint clinking sound that agent-robots make in motion.
“Sorry,” it said. “Not allowed. I’d lose my job.”
“You don’t have a job, moron,” said BannaLinda, “you’re an idiotic machine with a lowest-bidder program. I’d kick you to molecules right now, but I’m wearing new shoes.”
The R-Agent calmly ignored both insult and threat.
“Your scheduled mating season begins in exactly 27 months. Be advised that the usual incentives and penalties will apply.”
“You’re being unreasonable,” said BannaLinda’s friend Josziq later, as they discussed, over drinks, BannaLinda’s meeting with the Reproduction Agent. “You only want one mate? Where did you get that goofy idea, anyway?”
“Well,” said BannaLinda, “from a book.”
Josziq choked on her Platotini. After BannaLinda’s reoavatar, ReoBL45938p7, had thumped her firmly on the back, Josziq said, “Where on earth did you find a book?”
Books were dimly recalled relics of another age, a time before modern communications, when people had to occupy the same space in order to exchange information, to touch one another, or even to have fun together. In the long-ago age of books, she and BannaLinda would not have been able to enjoy each other’s company the way they did this afternoon, Josziq bodily in Beirut with ReoBL45938p7 while BannaLinda bodily remained at home in Waikiki.
“I found it,” said BannaLinda. “Never mind where.”
“I don’t want to know,” said Josziq. “Especially if, for example, you were prowling around in the NO Zone, ’cuz I might have to report you for it. I’ve heard there might be books there, though I haven’t seen… I mean, I doubt that. Anyway, just explain how some lame ancient artifact could have made you so nutty. Irresponsible. Nobody actually enjoys mating, but it’s our duty to follow the reproductive protocols.”
“You don’t seem so eager to conform to the MaTEsQ protocol,” said BannaLinda. “You haven’t showed any interest in acquiring mates.”
“Oh, I will, someday soon,” said Josziq. “I still have lots of time before deadline.”
BannaLinda frowned. “You do?”
“Yeah,” said Josziq, adding quickly, “Hey, I’m looking at a mountain-jump tour next month with Babbsie, Edota, Juditte, those guys, you know, the Australians.”
“What mountains, where? And you call me irresponsible!” said BannaLinda. “That stuff sounds dangerous.”
“You mean the mountains or the girls?” asked Josziq, giggling.
“Both,” said BannaLinda. “Those women are the dizziest ditzas on the planet.”
“They may be ditzas, but they’re not so brain-dead that they want just one mate,” said Josziq.
“Have you seen what’s available on the MaTEsQ now?”
“Okay, yeah, they’re incredibly boring. Like, it’s more fun to sex by yourself than with those losers. That’s why it’s good to have several of them. Don’t be so picky,” said Josziq.
Later, BannaLinda went for her usual evening walk.
It had been about six months since she had stumbled on the stranger, literally stumbled, because he had been reclining between boulders on a dead-dark night, when low-lying fog had blanketed what remains of the island of Hawaii. Her misstep had jolted him. He’d sat up abruptly and stared around as if unsure where he was.
“There was a beach here,” he said, “I was trying to remember...”
BannaLinda noticed that he was oddly asymmetrical, one arm a bit bulkier than the other, hair unevenly distributed on his chest, left foot slightly smaller than the right. He had a crooked nose, and a little scar on his cheekbone. She’d never seen anyone like him. The people on MaTEsQ, like BannaLinda and everyone else she knew, were 100% perfectly symmetrical and perfectly unscarred.
“I think you’re right about the beach,” said BannaLinda. “A long time ago. My friend Josziq could tell you the exact dates, it was after the Anthropocene epoch started, or maybe just before, something like that, but I’m no expert…” She had realized she was babbling, and had fallen silent.
“Who are you?” he’d asked.
They had gone on to talk, face to face, for hours, breathing each other’s breaths until she had felt almost drunk with the intensity of it. When dawn pierced the fog, they’d parted.
But nearly every night since, they’d met again. He usually responded to her questions about himself with a kind of bewilderment, reluctant or unable to reply. He had, he said, awoken one evening in a grass hut under a half-dead palm tree, with only a few fragments of memory. Since then, exploring away from the hut, he’d found a rather frightening world he didn’t recognize.
“So I decided to give up trying to figure things out, and concentrate on surviving where I am. I’ve got a garden and I fish. I forage on the outskirts of towns. Sometimes, though, I come to where I think this beach was. Where we met.”
Eventually, BannaLinda and the stranger had begun to lie together each night on the sandy grasses among the rocks, kissing and hugging.
“Look,” he said one night, “let’s go to my place.” BannaLinda lived in a dormitory with 100 other Unmateds, where privacy was nonexistent.
“Okay,” she said.
She followed him away from the rocky shore. They walked about 20 minutes through scrubby bushes and low trees, under a fuzzy fingernail moon, before BannaLinda halted abruptly.
“Oh,” she said. “What are you doing? We can’t.”
He stopped, looked quizzically at her. “What?”
“That’s the NO Zone,” she said.
“Where?” he said, staring ahead as if trying to see something through the darkness.
“Right here,” she said. “My sensors are registering an unauthorized close approach.”
“But there’s nothing there,” he said. “I go past here every night.”
This bizarre statement stunned BannaLinda. What could he mean? Then it occurred to her that maybe technical glitches really could happen – she’d heard the rumors – and his sensors might have failed.
“What did you say, no zone?” he said.
Suddenly it was clear to her that he had no idea what she was talking about. He must have experienced a catastrophic failure, a total brain reset or global circuit drop. Which would account for his inability to tell her much about himself, and for his strangeness in general.
“The No One Zone,” she said patiently. “This area is far too dangerous for Homo sapiens.”
“I’m of that species,” he said drily, “and it hasn’t hurt me.”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but it hasn’t been legal to go into any of these designated regions for a hundred years or more.”
“But there’s nothing there,” he said again. “Just my shack, my garden, my stuff, such as it is. Come on, I’ll show you.”
“I can’t,” she said. “The sensors will trigger the flight reaction, I’ll have to run away.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Where are those gizmos? Can we remove them?”
“That’s not possible,” she said. “I mean,” she added, realizing she needed to explain, “they’re tissue-integrated, not removable.”
“Ok,” he said, “I don’t know what’s up with that, but we’ll work around it. You stay here. I’ll go get some things and bring them back.”
“Like what?” BannaLinda asked.
“A blanket,” he said, “a candle, just stuff to make us more comfortable. I’m tired of getting stickers in my backside, aren’t you?”
She had to agree, so she waited.
And he came back, with the blanket, the candle, and a book.
“I know you’ve never had a book,” he said, “but you’ll like this one. It was in the hut when I… first arrived.”
She looked at the cover.
“ ‘Pride and Prejudice’,” she read aloud. “I think I’ve heard of it.”
So they lit the candle and lay on the blanket, and they had sex, and BannaLinda liked that, and him, very, very much.
“I like sexing with you,” she said.
“Listen,” he said, “that’s not sex. Well, it is, but really I’d say it’s making love, wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t know what you mean, exactly,” said BannaLinda.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
When they parted as the sky grew light, he kissed her warmly and then said, “Read the book.”
“Is there sexing in the story?” she said.
“Not really,” he said, “but there’s love. You’ll see.”
To her own surprise, she did see. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy loved one another.
Next time they met, she said, “You don’t know what your name is, right?”
“No,” he said. “It’s one of those things I’ve forgotten.”
“I’m going to call you Darcy,” she said. He seemed pleased.
Now, here she was, 27 months from being forced by law to begin making her choices from the MaTEsQ database. The initial stage was to select and be accepted by at least two individuals, but the required Scope of Encounter would eventually expand to encompass four or five more mates. The algorithm that channeled humanity’s sex drive through the MaTEsQ portal was highly sophisticated, geared to maximize reproductive success and minimize conflict, using a variety of powerfully effective gender-independent, genetically optimized technologies, and it worked perfectly.
But having acquired the habit of loving one person – a kind of addiction, really, she admitted to herself - BannaLinda felt sure that she would never be successful in relationships based on the MaTEsQ algorithm, however brilliantly designed it was.
Normally, BannaLinda was law-abiding and sensible. She was, she realized, a bit like Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility,” the second book Darcy had given her to read. So she set out to do some research and work her way systematically and logically through the Reproductive bureaucracy. But the sensible path had led only to the R-Agent, that definitive representative of an inflexible system. They were not going to permit her to have just one mate, much less a NO Zone outlier like Darcy. The authorities would probably arrest him instead. She faced reality; it was impossible.
BannaLinda reached out to Josziq. ReoJZ45938p6 met BannaLinda’s reoavatar, ReoBL45938p7, at a bar in Katmandu.
“Deactivate the flight reaction?” said Josziq. “You? Why? Are you crazy?”
“Look,” said BannaLinda, “we’ve been friends since we popped out of our Autowombs side by side in Brooklyn. Why not help me with this, no questions asked? Which reminds me, it’s weird, but I noticed that your date of emergence is wrong in the Reproductive Source database. According to what’s there, your mating deadline is 41 months after mine. That’s not right, because they should be the same. Somebody apparently slipped up and put a 3 where there should have been an 8, or something. You’re due up in less than 27 months.”
Joszig’s reoavatar looked alarmed, then pensive, then smiled.
“Oh, yeah,” Josziq said, “I’ve been meaning to get that date fixed. Meanwhile, hmm, deactivating the flight reaction. If you tell anyone I told you …”
“Our secret,” said BannaLinda, “like your real age and your real mating deadline.”
“Well, I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ve heard that if you – flesh and blood, not your reoavatar - no offense RBL (‘none taken’ interjected RBL45938p7) - if you drink at least 500 mL of ethyl alcohol, like Platotinis, for example, that numbs the reaction for several hours. In fact, I’ve heard some folks do it regularly so they can, ah, have extreme adventures.”
“Like jumping off mountains in the NO Zone with ditzas from Oz?”
“Maybe,” said Josziq slyly.
“And sometimes they don’t come back?” said BannaLinda.
“Yeah, well,” said Josziq. “Mostly people say, um, the Zone is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.” She giggled.
A few days later, BannaLinda awoke with a ferocious headache, nausea, and an aching body. She lay completely still, waiting for Darcy’s little grass shack to stop spinning.
“You overdid it,” her companion said, gazing at her fondly. “Double the necessary, I’d guess.”
“I wanted to be sure.”
“Well, here you are, darling girl. For us, the NO Zone has become the Yes Zone.”
“I love you, Darcy,” said BannaLinda.
“And I’ll love you,” he said, kissing her, “forever.”
Annie Osborne lives in Arizona with her husband, some hummingbirds, and some tarantulas, and is a lifelong Jane Austen fan.