One future December morning Lin sits in the perfect coffee shop, secure from the relentless rain. There’s a good selection of drinks, hot and cold, and sweet and savory pastries, but not so many as to tip the indecisive into confusion. Waiting while someone chooses among too many varieties of profiterole can lead to hard words, and hard words aren’t spoken here.
The barista is just friendly enough to put everyone at ease while wasting no one’s time. The staff and customers of Coffee Hero are always in accord.
Accord, it so happens, is a popular name in the future. There are six towns called Accord in the Midwest alone, along with 23,743 people, spread out across the genders.
Harmony and Rapport are favorites too.
Dara comes in and buys a medium-sized mocha. He sits across from Lin and lines up his mug with hers.
Lin isn’t a cut-to-the-chase kind of person, but then neither is Dara. They agree about the weather and touch on one or two of the latest soft news stories.
It’s Lin’s second year as councilor so she smiles and takes the lead. “The way I see it, we have to make the decision that generates the most peace.”
“The human right to be with people like yourself.” Dara is smiling back.
Lin nods. “It’s only fair to everybody.” She blows gently on her drink and the scent of cinnamon wafts upwards.
“Sixteen is what we’re used to,” Dara says. “By then a person’s generally unearthed a basic sense of who they are. Eleven, though? You’re all about protective coloration.” The rain is falling harder and the lights inside the coffee shop glow just that bit more warmly.
“You’re right. Eleven’s young. But it’s our turn to be councilors and the Authority says the towns have to decide.”
Dara is leaning slightly forward. “What happens if we can’t get unanimity?”
Lin looks around. The other customers are chatting comfortably. “I’ve heard Equality was part of Unison until they disagreed about the date for Easter.”
“So further fragmentation then?” Dara spoons the foam that crowns his mocha to one side and peers down into his drink.
“It beats conflict. My daughter’s ten. People say we’re so alike I’m sure she’ll get to stay with me, whichever age we all agree on. But if kids started teasing Melissa--if she hated chutney or chocolate or chihuahuas--I’d want her to go where she’d be happy.” Lin smooths the paper napkin on her lap and glances around again. “But of course she loves them.”
“Of course she does.” Dara picks his cup up, drains it, and sets it to one side.
“I’m saying if she were different. I’d remind myself that peace means sacrifice. Our parents knew it.”
If Dara had bought a pastry he could occupy his hands. “The thing is, I’ve stopped believing in it altogether. I felt I ought to tell you. I’m going to make my case tonight.”
Lin’s laugh sounds nervous. “Case?”
“At sixteen I was terrified.”
Her instinct is to soothe. “That’s normal. You survived.”
“You’re sure of that?” Three booths away a baby cries, but not for long. Small speakers generate pink noise that lulls her back to sleep. “As the day approached I tried to anticipate everything I could. Over and over I pictured how I’d lie slotted into the fMRI cylinder. How little I would see from in there. I wondered whether it was going to hurt, how much I’d sweat. Above all, I tried to imagine the questions. I even wrote out a script and memorized it. On the day itself I forgot everything else and my thoughts came down to this: What if I was the only one like me? What if they decided it was best to leave me lying there forever, stored inside the cylinder, my own exclusive village just for one?”
“‘Choose,’ the Technician said. ‘The smell of raspberries or the crack of bat on ball. Punctuality or singing in tune. Winter lightning or Louis Armstrong. Choose.’”
“My shirt was soaked by the time the Technician switched to telling stories about the other sixteen-year-olds she’d scanned. The ones who arrived in pajamas and slippers, certain they’d be going back to bed as soon as it was over. The ones who came with filled-to-bursting backpacks. The ones who’d carried library books, desperately hoping they’d have the chance to finish them. The ones who brought along their dogs.
“And then she told me how welcome and relieved they’d found themselves, how safe, how much at home, and any minute now I’d find myself absorbed by such a welcome, too.
“In the end, she managed to convince me machines like hers were far too costly to repurpose as storage spaces for stowing the odd malcontent. Too vital to the maintenance of a wholesome society was the way she put it. As far as that went I believed her, but my Village of One obsession? The dread never budged. Finally, she admitted I wasn’t like anyone else she’d ever met.”
Lin keeps her voice down. “I’m not surprised,” she says. She sounds appalled.
“It was her idea,” says Dara. “Her idea and her decision to falsify my results. I stayed here.”
“A criminal offense,” Lin hisses.
“I spoil the uniformity, but hear me out. The reason I stopped believing is I’ve visited some other places.”
Lin stops reaching for her coat to ask him how.
“There aren’t any barriers. Your SafeCard isn’t recognized so you can’t stay for long, but if you bring sandwiches you’re good to walk around outdoors all day. I talk to people in the park.”
“They have parks?”
“Very much like ours. Concord favors birdbaths. Harmony sells hot dogs.” He’s leaning forward again. “Now Comity’s an outlier. They built themselves a bandstand. A little different, but not enough to go to war over.”
“You’re admitting to sedition. What’s more, you sound proud of it.”
“They’re all nice places. I think you’d be surprised how much you liked them. Surprise is a thing in short supply.”
“I’m glad we have surprises. Marilyn at the diner made rhubarb pie last week--in December! I was in awe. And Melissa named our puppy Tiger.“
“I’m going to propose we stop the sorting. Not anyone at any age.”
“You’ll never get a consensus.” Lin laughs at him as she stands up to leave.
“You’re probably right. Still, I want to say something. Plant a seed, I guess.”
By April Dara has visited upwards of thirty towns--no mean feat when one’s only transportation is by foot, but it’s not as if there’s somewhere else he needs to be. He’s fondest of the towns with gardeners, and of late he’s been cross-pollinating daffodils, seeing if he can hybridize a flower that grows wild up on the northwest slope of Unison with one they cultivate on Friendship Common. It’s only an impulse, but he wants to see if a daffodil radiant with blue petals and an extravagant green trumpet might delight someone--anyone--by being different.