Tavis followed the stream of people entering the mess tent. He saw a lot of families and older folks, but not many teens. He spotted a pair of hyperlinks above the crowd. One of the links appeared pink, the other purple. The owners switched their connections to silent as soon as Tavis spotted them.
Benches and tables filled the tent. Tavis found a spot about halfway up. A man wearing a black suit stood on a wide platform at the front of the tent. He held a black cylindrical object and vocalized into it. “Hey, everyone.” The voice was loud; more than a few people around Tavis jumped.
“Don’t worry about the noise. You’ll get used to it. I’m speaking into a microphone; it’s how people would be able to hear each other before we had the technology that allows public threads on the uplink. We’re going to be trying to do some things the old way, just so we get to appreciate what we have all the more. After all, that is the point of Lent, isn’t it? Giving something up so that we appreciate it more, even while giving something to someone else?”
Tavis listened carefully. It was hard to follow meaning fast enough using only auditory channels. He ran a quick search that converted sound to text. There. Much easier.
The man paused and looked toward the back of the tent. “Come on forward. You don’t need to worry, plenty of room.” He waited a few moments before continuing, “Let’s start again. Hi, everyone. I’m Pastor Philippe Darrow, the minister here. Thanks for joining us for Forty Days of Love. It’s going to be a fantastic experience for everyone.”
Pastor Darrow paused a moment, scanning the crowd. “Over the next forty days, we’re going to be building homes for the homeless. We’ve got permission to use the old park just across the way.” He outlined some safety policies and work details. The next few days everyone would just get organized and figure out who could do what. Everyone be safe, check out if you leave the grounds, lots of rules. Boring stuff.
Tavis pinged Chris across town, but his friend didn’t answer. Apparently he was busy with Marcia. He raised up a picture of May, but closed it quickly. Stupid. She was gone now, the stupid phobe. It shouldn’t matter.
Pastor Darrow raised his voice, “And now, let’s ask for a blessing on this time.” He paused before closing his eyes and raising one hand. “Dear Lord, we know you want to add to everyone. Add to us during this time as we add to others. Move us to appreciate what you’ve given us, and to increase in our love for one another. In your name, amen!” He opened his eyes and made the sign of the plus as he intoned, “And now, go in love! Have fun tonight. Tomorrow, we start working!”
The crowd began breaking up. Tavis sat on his bench for a while. No use waiting in line to get out. A body plunked onto the bench next to him. Pink text opened a new chat window. “Hey.”
He turned his head to see a pudgy girl with deep tan skin. She wore blue jeans and a black shirt that declared in plain white text, “You have d20 chances to impress me.” Pink text in the chat window announced, “I’m Amalla.”
Well, she was older than he had expected; probably about his age, maybe a year or two younger. Cuter than he expected, too.
“Hey. Tavis.” He smiled. “You didn’t bring your friend?”
“Her family’s doing some ‘together time’ or whatever. I noticed your hyperlink and thought I should find you in person. Profile?” She entered her reply with ferocious speed. Either her crown was good or she processed at incredible speeds. Or she just had too much caffeine.
“Sure. Sending you the link.”
He opened a window and entered her link, accessing her semi-private profile. Amalla was eighteen, only a year younger than he was, but she’d already graduated from school. Living at home and trying to make it as a freelance Uplink engineer. She was either smarter than her posting let on or she was a dismal failure. Hard to tell by this profile alone, but the fast response time suggested at least some possible talent.
“You’re single?” she posted. Apparently she read quickly, too.
“I wouldn’t expect that. You’re too cute to be single.” She looked away. “Sorry. That was probably really dumb to post. Sometimes I post faster than I think.”
A person stopped in front of them. Tavis and Amalla looked up to see a stooped crone glaring at them. She vocalized with a creaky voice, “Crowns are supposed to be off! Follow the rules!” She wagged a finger. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing! Kids these days always sending each other in private links things that their parents wouldn’t share on any network! Uplink hooligans, that’s what you are!”
Tavis glanced at Amalla’s face. She hid a grin.
“If you can’t play by the rules, get out! Forty Days of Love doesn’t need people who don’t play by the rules!” The crone continued to frown at them.
“All right, all right,” Tavis vocalized. “I get the picture. We’ll voaclize instead, if it makes you happy. We’ll share our private links in the open where everyone can physicalhear.” He turned to Amalla. “So, how many children have you taught to steal?”
Amalla nodded with a straight face. “I’ve got a whole group of them. On Fridays we go down to the local bars and sing old songs. Make a ton of money between the singing and the stealing.”
The crone’s face twisted in anger for just a moment before softening. “All right, I get it. You’re trying to have a laugh at my expense. Well, I’m smarter than you!” She wagged her finger one more time before shuffling away.
Tavis stood. “If we’re going to chat privately, we should probably be out of sight. There wasn’t anyone in my tent before. Want to head back and just keep chatting?”
Amalla stayed seated, her face unexpressive. “You move fast,” she posted.
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. I just got out of a relationship. No offense, I’m not interested.”
A moment passed before Amalla responded, “All right. Take me to your tent.”
Tavis led the way, and they chatted back and forth about nothing important. Favorite bands, entertainment channels, most hated classes back in school. Above them, the night sky burst lilac and crimson. Amalla looked up as they arrived at Tavis’ temporary home. “I’m so glad they’re fighting the war so we don’t have to.”
Tavis nodded and ducked into the tent. He spotted a sleeping bag unrolled on the opposite cot. “Well, I guess the tent isn’t just mine any more,” he posted. “Maybe we should head elsewhere, just in case I’m rooming with some idiot who takes rules seriously.”
Amalla’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Actually, Julie just sent me. I guess her family is attending a bonfire on the other side of the camp. Someone’s telling ghost stories. Wanna go heckle?”
Tavis nodded. “Should be entertaining.”
Read Part 4 here.