I was starting to get tired of them telling me what to do.
"Be sure to watch or listen to the chapter portion from the book for tomorrow's class," said the recorded image of one of my history instructors from the large screen in front of me. He was a dark-haired man in good shape, probably in his mid-twenties.
"And also remember that your choice of topic for your research project must be decided by tomorrow," said the other instructor, an attractive blond woman next to him who always seemed to be smiling.
"Scanning for recorded choice of topic," said the first instructor. The image paused for a moment as the computer sought for my name and integrated it into the preexisting database of words, sentences, and vocal patterns. The instructor looked forward at me. "Martin Sauls," he said. "You have not yet submitted a choice for the topic of the research project. Is this correct?"
"Yes," I answered. "Sorry. I'll try to come up with one by tomorrow."
"Do you have a topic in mind yet?" the man asked me.
I really hadn't given the assignment much thought yet. I considered for a moment before responding, but couldn't come up with anything on the spot. "No, not really," I answered honestly. "I'll think of something."
"Would you like assistance in choosing a topic?" the blond woman asked in a high-pitched voice, still smiling widely as always. "You don't have to do it all on your own, you know."
"Um...sure," I replied, scratching my head. "What exactly does it have to be again?"
"Your project must focus on something about the history of our great society," the man explained. "It can be about the fall of the previous society and how ours rose up after the days of old, or about any of the impactful events or people that have come since then."
"Hmm," I said. "Maybe I'll do something about the rise of our society from the old one. That sounds kind of interesting."
"An excellent choice!" the woman gushed. "It's such an exciting topic!"
"Yes it is," said the man. "And there are plenty of sources for you to find on why the old society failed and how ours was able to take its place. Of course, you know the basics already."
"Yeah," I answered. I had learned them since I was a child.
"Good! And just what are the basics?"
"Um...well..." The question caught me off guard. Knowing them in my mind was easier than explaining them on demand in response to a vaguely phrased question. "What exactly are you looking for?"
"Perhaps I should rephrase the question," said the man. "Can you tell me why our society is so successful and prosperous? What makes a society work? Think back through everything we've covered in class so far."
"Oh," I said, remembering. "Well, a society is made up of basic units. Relationships. Relationships between people. And...those are what make a society function. Right?"
"Right!" the woman exclaimed. "Very good! And so what is a good, successful society built upon?"
"Relationships," I reiterated.
"That's right! And just why are relationships so important?"
"Well...they connect us to other people. Force us to cooperate with others and be actively involved with those around us. They make sure that none of us is ever alone."
"Correct!" said the man. "Previous societies have failed because they didn't value relationships enough. They valued things like politics or money or technology or freedom—none of which are bad things, but they just didn't have enough true, enjoyable companionship to sustain them and hold things together."
"But we don't do that," said the woman. "We make sure that there's always plenty of companionship to go around. It's like you said, Martin—no one ever has to be alone anymore." She looked up at the man next to her.
"No, they don't," said the man, returning her perpetual smile. "Because we always have each other." His image stepped closer to hers and suddenly grabbed her around the waist with both arms. The two of them pressed their faces together and began kissing passionately.
I watched them for a few seconds, but I had seen this recording before. There were only so many different ones that they could recycle throughout the course of the school year. My eyes began to drift lazily away from the screen.
"Okay, sounds good," I said. "I'll do my project on that. I'll do some research on how the old society didn't have enough relationships, and how ours does...or something like that. Is that okay?"
The image of the man quickly pulled his face away from the woman and looked back up at me. "Yes, that's fine! Be sure to ask us if you have any questions!" He went back to smothering the woman with kisses. I gazed on for a few more seconds, but I had seen it enough times that I knew what was coming next. They were getting toward the good part, though I didn't feel particularly inclined to keep watching again.
I didn't watch for much longer because at that moment a new window popped up on my screen. I told the computer to minimize the one of my instructors and to enlarge the new one instead. It was a communication from Johann, a classmate and friend of mine.
"Hey, Martin," he said. "Are you done with school yet?"
"Pretty much," I answered. "I was just talking about my project with the instructors..." I glanced back up the corner of the screen. "And now they're kissing and stuff."
"Nice. Sounds like fun."
"Yeah." I shrugged.
"Hey, are you doing anything else today, once you're done with school?"
"I don't think so," I said. "Probably just homework and stuff. I've still got to watch or listen to the chapter before tomorrow."
Johann smirked. "Aw, you can do that anytime. I was wondering if you'd want to come hang out or anything."
"Sure, I guess," I said. "When and where?"
"Well, me and Sheba are going out to the mall in a little while. Probably get some food, maybe see a couple movies. A few other people from class might be coming too."
"Hmm...I don't know. I do have some work to do."
"Forget about that!" Johann insisted. "I think you need to get out more and meet some more people. After all, you've only got a couple more months left to decide, right?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, yeah. I know. Don't remind me."
"Well, someone's apparently got to remind you, or else you'll end up as a lonely old exile!" Johann snickered. He was trying to make his words sound lighthearted, but I knew that he really meant them, at least to some degree.
"Don't worry about me," I said. "I'll find someone."
"Oh yeah? When?"
"I don't know. When the time is right, I guess. I always figured I would just find the right person at the right time."
"Well, since your joining is coming up pretty soon, I'm pretty sure the right time would have to be before that, which gives you…not a whole lot of time at all!"
"I'll be okay," I said. "Really."
"Sure. Fine. Look, just come to the mall with us today, okay? It couldn't really hurt, right?"
"Sure, whatever," I said. "Yeah, I guess I'll come."
"Great!" said Johann. "Just head over whenever the instructors let you go."
"Okay, I will."
"By the way, can you still—"
Johann's words were interrupted by my instructors, their window popping up from the corner again and resuming its full size. They had finished kissing for the time being and the image had switched back to the previous one, where they still stood simply side by side.
"Martin Sauls!" said the man. "Are you still listening?"
"Yeah, I'm here," I said. "Is there anything else I need to know for the project?"
"Well, not for this project, no. But there is something else that requires your attention."
I was pretty sure I knew what they were getting at, but I tried not to let on. "What is it?" I asked.
The woman spoke up. "Our databases indicate your birthdate as March 21st, 2196, meaning your 18th birthday will be on March 21st, 2214."
"Yeah," I said. "That's correct."
"Today is January 31st, 2214," she continued. "Your joining ceremony is to take place in precisely forty-nine days. Are you aware of this deadline?"
"Yes. I am."
"Good!" she exclaimed. "And do you yet have a chosen partner with whom you are to be joined?"
I looked down from the screen and let out a small sigh. "No. I don't. But I'll find someone."
"I'm sorry to hear that," the woman continued, forcing her smile into a sympathetic frown. "No one should ever have to be alone!"
"No, they certainly shouldn't," the man said. "But don't worry, Martin Sauls—there is still time for you! Are you aware of what is happening in two weeks?"
"The pairing fair?" I asked.
"Yes!" the woman gushed. "The annual pairing fair! Are you planning to attend?"
I shrugged. "I...um...hadn't really thought about it much yet."
"You should attend! Not only will you receive extra credit for your classes, but you may find a partner with whom to be joined!"
"Okay. I'll probably see if I can go."
"All teenagers who have not yet found partners are strongly encouraged to attend."
"Okay. I'll think about it."
"Please do," said the woman. "Now, do you have any more questions about your project, or about the requirements for your joining?"
"No," I said. I knew all about the requirements for the joining. They had been drilled into my mind since my childhood, as they were with every new child as they rose up into adolescence.
"Good," said the man. "Then you are dismissed. Have a wonderful evening!"
"And may the fruits of love be always at your lips!" called the woman.
The window closed. I looked back at the other window where I had been talking to Johann, but he was no longer present. He had probably gone off to the mall already. "Power down," I told the computer. The screen disappeared, leaving only the plain metallic wall behind it. I had my chair hover to the doorway of my room, then jumped out.
As I stepped toward the living room of my house, I heard sounds and muffled human voices that I first assumed were my parents. When I arrived, however, the couple holding each other and kissing on our couch was not the one I expected to see.
"Katrina?" I asked, raising an eyebrow.
The skinny, brown-haired girl opened her eyes, pulled her face away from her mate, and looked up at me. "Martin!" she exclaimed. She stood up to give me a hug, which I gently returned. "How's my favorite big brother in the world?"
"I'm your only big brother!" I reminded her teasingly.
"You're still my favorite." She smiled.
Katrina's mate nodded at me from the couch. "Martin."
I nodded back. "Lance. Good to see you." Then I turned back to Katrina. "I didn't know you were coming tonight. Any special occasion?"
Even though my sister was only fifteen, Lance had turned eighteen several months ago, and he had chosen Katrina on the day of his joining. The two of them had been joined officially and thus had moved into their own house. However, they still lived relatively close in the same city, so visits from them were not entirely uncommon—just not always expected or announced, either.
"Mom invited us at the last minute," Katrina explained. "Said she hadn't seen us in a while, and wanted us to come for dinner."
"She said she didn't want us to be lonely," Lance added with a slight chuckle.
"Yeah," said Katrina. "But that's silly. I'm never lonely with you around." She stepped back to Lance and planted another quick kiss on his lips.
Most people wouldn't think anything of it, but I had always felt a little strange seeing my little sister partake in joining activities so publicly. I quickly glanced around the room a few times. "Is Mom here, Kat?"
Katrina, now bent precariously over Lance, turned back to me. "She went out for a bit. I think we needed more food for dinner. What do you need?"
"I was gonna go hang out at the mall," I said. "Just wanted to make sure it was okay."
Katrina gasped. "Hang out? With who?"
I shrugged. "Just some friends."
"Johann and Sheba, and maybe some other people from class."
"What other people? Any girls?"
"Sheba's a girl."
"But she's already paired with Johann. You know what I mean. Any unjoined or available girls?"
"I don't know! Johann didn't say. He just said him and Sheba and maybe some other people."
"Well, there's always lots of girls at the mall anyway," Katrina pointed out. "Maybe you'll finally meet one."
"Finally? Come on. I've got time to find someone."
"Not a whole lot of it!" Katrina reminded me. "You've got less than two months! Forty-nine days, to be exact!"
I groaned. "Katrina, why are you counting down the days to my joining? I'm not even counting them down!"
"Exactly! Someone's got to if you don't. Can't have you putting it off and winding up all alone."
I ignored her and stepped further out into the living room. "Mom? Dad?"
Two separate windows popped up in the air in front of me. The first was of Mom—who, judging by the background of the image, was at the store—and the second was of Dad, who was at his job.
"Hi, Martin," said Mom.
"Hi, Martin," said Dad.
"Hi," I said. "Is it okay if I go to the mall for a while to hang out with some people?"
"Of course it's okay!" Mom beamed. "Go on. Have a great time!"
"Wait," said Dad. "Did you finish your schoolwork yet?"
Mom glanced toward his window. "Dear—"
Dad interrupted. "I know they're both important, but we can't just have him running off if he hasn't finished all his work."
"Yes," I said. "I finished."
"See?" Mom said to Dad. She turned back to me. "Go on, Martin. And remember, be friendly! Talk to people! There are always a lot of girls looking to be joined, you know."
I rolled my eyes. "I know how to hang out with my friends, Mom."
"I'm just trying to help you," she said defensively. "Only forty-nine days left, you know."
I sighed. "Yep. I know. I'll be ready."
"Just try to be home for dinner," Mom said. "I'm getting new food. Your sister and Lance are supposed to be coming over, too."
"Yeah, they're already here."
"Oh, good! Well then, just don't stay out too long. Unless, of course, you meet someone nice—then I'm okay with you staying out as long as you need to."
"Hey," said Dad. "How about this? Why don't you bring a girl home for dinner?"
"What?" I protested. "But I don't even know if I'm gonna meet a girl, or—"
Dad looked at me. "Martin."
"Well...I'll try. If I meet anyone."
"Maybe from now on we should make a new rule," said Mom. "No going out after school unless you bring someone home."
"But that's not fair!" I said. "I can't always control if I meet anyone!"
"I'm just teasing," Mom said. "But it isn't such a bad idea, you know..."
"Okay. Fine. I'll see what I can do."
"Good," said Mom. "Now, go have a good time."
"Oh, and take your hoverboard, if you don't mind," Dad said. "Those payments on the car are so high already, we don't want to use it too much."
"Oh, the payments aren't that bad," Mom commented.
Dad shot her a glance with furrowed brows.
"But yes. Listen to your father," Mom told me.
"Sure," I said. "I'll take my hoverboard. See you later."
"Don't forget to bring someone home!" Mom called before I walked away and both of the windows closed.
I tried not to look at Lance lying on top of Katrina as I picked up my hoverboard and stepped outside.