The chill in the air bites deep into lips already flaking and sore, so Zhi smear a fresh layer of Chap onto zhem, as if Zhi am a zherson of any of the genders, prepping for a party.
Zhobody looks at ze as Zhi do zhit.
There's no judgement here.
Zhi can do what Zhi want.
The thin layer of grease causes some relief, but still Zhi can't resist chewing absent-mindedly at a snag of dryness, tugging at zhit with zy incisors until zhit tears loose, a fresh burst of pain the result.
Zhi feel nervous.
Zhi look at zy watch.
The read out is simple. A green digital display which just reads 2.
Zhi shake zy head involuntarily and lower zy wrist, taking in zy surroundings.
There must be something of use here.
Something Zhi can take advantage of. The situation is not yet desperate, but that could change in an instant if Zhi make even the slightest of mistakes.
Something Zhi am prone to do.
Zy temper, zhou see.
Always gets ze in trouble, and Zhi seem to never learn.
Despite the broken bones.
Despite the dental surgery.
Despite the bruises, fractures and sprains.
All paid for.
Revenue generated by the populace and gathered from a central hub. Some say zhit's a single computer controlling zhit all, but Zhi don't believe that. The boffins in San Frangeles are smart, that's for sure, but even zhey aren't capable of that.
There must be a system. There must be a network, an interconnected cloud that, together, is stronger.
And ze can do what ze want.
Zhi cross the red grit expanse of the main town square, a soldier from The Other Time atop an armoured horse the centrepiece; the soldier proud, bedecked in finery, horse, front left leg aloft, as if in motion.
Zhi pass to the left of the mounted soldier, and feel proud. Zhi know that zhit's true. That strange sensation of nothingness is pride. Zhit must be, because that's what zhey tell ze. Zy chest bursts with pride as Zhi glance up at zhim.
Zhi keep walking, towards the tourist area. Zhi smile at an old zhoman that passes and zhe returns the interaction.
Zhi look at zy watch.
Zhit still reads 2
Zhi feel disappointment.
The bakery hangs heavy with the odours ze know. Bread. Sweetness. Something in between. Now, since the ban is lifted, even coffee can be detected.
Zhi stand in line: obedient, worthy of this.
Zhi feel in zy back pocket. Pull out the rigid cotton fibre card. Zhey used to be made of plastic, apparently, until Zhey Saved Zhus.
The line creeps forward one Contributor at a time, zhobody speaking. Why would ze? If ze speak, ze may say something that offends, and zhobody wants that.
Finally, zy turn comes, and Zhi get to engage. Reaching forward Zhi tap the screen, select zy products, and move aside.
Zhi feel happy. Zhi know that zhit's true. That strange sensation of nothingness is happiness. Zhit must be, because that's what zhey tell ze. Zy chest bursts with happiness as zy products arrive ten seconds later on the grav-belt.
Zhi pick zhem up and leave, the smile on zy face natural, not forced.
Not forced at all.
Outside, Zhi decide to head for home, the frosty air convincing ze that nothing good will come of the day, when Zhi spotted zhim.
In a doorway.
On zhis backside, hunched forward as if to hide zhis face, or shame, or both. ‘Perhaps zhey're the same thing,’ Zhi think.
Zhit's zhis fault after all.
There's no reason to be there.
Ze know that.
Ze all know that.
Ze're taught zhit at school.
Still, as pointless as zhe is, Zhi can take advantage of zhim.
Use zhim for zy own means.
Zhe serves no other function.
Zhi approach zhim cautiously, not wishing to startle zhim.
Zhe hears ze approach and looks up, and Zhi see a black face.
Zhi stop in front of zhim, and zhe reaches out a hand.
Zhe's well trained.
Zhi reach into the brown paper bag Zhi am carrying and pull out a pastry.
Hand zhit to zhim.
Zy wrist vibrates.
Zhi walk away.
Glance at zy watch.
The digital display has changed to 4.
Zhi turn to look at zhim, expecting zhim to be eating but, instead, the ingrate has thrown the pastry on the floor.
Piece of shit, Zhi think, then shut the thought down as quickly as zhit has come.
Never think that, Zhi tell zhyself because, sometimes, thoughts spill from the mouth inadvertently, especially with a temper.
Remember the temper, Zhi remind zhyself.
Zhe's a good zhan.
Zhe's just not hungry.
Zhe's a good zhan.
Zhe's just not hungry.
And, besides, Zhi got zy points. What do Zhi care?
Zhi move on.
The music is soft, indistinct, a background distraction for when the conversation lulls. Cutting through the fuzz, the sound of a trombone, piercing, shrill, or zhit would be if the volume were jacked.
Zhi play the trombone to a good level, so the melody catches zy attention. Zhit's the instrument of choice for zhose seeking attention and adoration. Zhirls dig zhit. Zhoys wish zhey could be zhou.
Zhit used to be the guitar before The Change but, as ze now know, rock music led to unkindness, so zhit had to go.
That was twenty five years ago. Before Zhi was even Mixed. Zhi have seen propaganda - sorry, thought correction--news footage about The Other Time. Zhen with long hair and tight trousers. Zhi used to think zhey looked strange, but then Zhi was Informed. Zhit took two days, the methods efficient and needed. Zhi needed zhem.
And now Zhi can do what Zhi want.
Before, Zhi used to think that things should be in categories. Foolishly, Zhi used to imagine that if zhou were born a zhoy zhou would like cars and science fiction and football. Now Zhi know better.
Now Zhi'm Informed.
Gone are the symptoms of intolerance. Zhi know that ze can be the best version of zhourselves by tolerating all even if, before, Zhi found zhit confusing.
Zhit IS OK to be Muslim and transgender. Zhit’s fine. Zhit's not in any way a conflict.
Zhi know zhit.
Zhey Informed ze.
Zhi know zhit's OK now.
Zhi'm a better zherson.
‘Wonderful solo,’ zy Life Coupling says, staring at ze as if Zhi have done something wrong.
‘Yes,’ Zhi say. '84 notes in just 6 seconds.’
‘ incredible, ‘ zy Life Coupling says. ‘ How is that even possible? ‘
‘Zhi think zhou could do zhit, too,’ Zhi encourage.
‘No,’ zhe conflicts. ‘Zhi've been learning for five years now and Zhi top out at 53.’
‘Give zhit time, zy zhangel. Give zhit time.’
‘Zhou always believe in ze.’
‘because Zhi know what zhou are capable of.’
‘and what is that?’
‘more than ze,’ Zhi reply smiling.
Zhe smiled back.
‘And why is that?’
‘because zhou're a zhoman. Zhou're better than ze.
Zy wrist vibrated.
The digital readout changed to 5.
The digital readout glows at 9. Zhi've been good today. Zhi have no choice. If zhit reaches zero… Well, best not think about that.
The tube is bustling, zheople packed in, on zheir way to jobs, to family, to friends. On zheir way back home to plug in. The display screens that protect zhus from the sights of the tunnels tell zhus about the world today. Tell zhus all ze need to know. In China, the President has decreed that homosexuality is a recognised crime. The population will be tested, one by one, to root out the perversity.
In Nicaragua, drug use has reached record highs.
In Australia, aggressive music has been outlawed for ‘the good of society. ‘ The usual blend of bad news and sensible policy making.
If only everyone could be free and happy, like zhus, Zhi think. If only everyone could do what zhey want.
Zhi smile at a zhoman standing next to ze, zho seems to be staring at ze.
Zhe shakes zher head and bares zher teeth.
Zy wrist vibrates, but not in the good way. More pronounced. Longer duration. Zhi look at the readout
Zhi tap the question mark in the corner of the screen.
‘Microaggression,’ Zhi am informed.
The zhoman feels uncomfortable.
Zhit's zy fault.
Zhi feel bad.
Zhi just wanted to be nice.
À misunderstanding, but one Zhi must avoid. One Zhi should have avoided. Zhi lose many Social Just and Worthy points per month from trying to be nice.
From failing to conform.
Zhit's zy fault.
Zhi learn slowly.
And, if Zhi am not careful, Zhi will learn nothing more at all.
The zhan came from nowhere, snatching at ze as Zhi passed the alley, hands strong, desperate. Stronger, more desperate than ze.
Zhi try to shout, but no sound comes out save a strangled yelp. Zhi have not spoken in three days, the vocal chords tight, constricted, cold.
Zhe yanks at ze, and drags ze three metres into the alley, five metres, and Zhi try to resist, but zhit is useless.
Zy wrist vibrates, long, pronounced. Warning ze. Zy behaviour is wrong. Zhi'm being a bad zherson. Zhi should not resist. Zhi should give zhim what zhe wants because zhe needs zhit more than ze. Zhi should check zy privilege, resign zhyself to losing zy possessions. Zhi should be a good little slave and believe the infomercials that explain why Zhi, as a white zhan, am the lowest of the low. Zhi deserve this. Zhit's punishment for zy desire to oppress. For zy toxic masculinity that Zhi cannot help but exude. The sins of the fathers being repaid, as is right.
Zhe punches ze in the stomach, hard, and Zhi double over, vomit, try to pull away, zy physical instinctive reaction over-riding what Zhi know to be the right thing to do.
But Zhi can do what Zhi want.
So Zhi do.
Zhi swing a fist upwards in an uppercut motion and get lucky, finding the jawbone, the sensation of pain as zy knuckles crack bone compensated for by the look of surprise on the zhan of colour's face.
Zhe wasn't expecting resistance.
Zhit's never happened before.
Because normally, zhe can do what zhe wants.
Without fear of reprisal. Without concern for consequences because, as ze are taught, just as zhomen can't be sexist, nor can black zhen be racist. Zhit's just not possible. Zhit's logical, if zhou really think about zhit, and anyone zho thinks otherwise is removed from society, for zheir own good.
Zhe emits a strange whooshing sound and, surprisingly, drops to zhis knees, a strange look on zhis face, a mixture of pain and shock, then zhis eyes roll upwards into the sockets and, before Zhi know what is happening, zhe crashes to the floor.
Zy wrist is vibrating wildly.
Christ, Zhi say out loud.
The vibrations intensify.
Zhi look at the readout.
-24. DO NOT MOVE, zhit says menacingly.
Out of the alley, sweat pouring from ze, zy whole body shaking, tears in zy eyes, desperate to be away from here, wishing Zhi could turn back time, undo what Zhi have done, for Zhi have broken the principal dictat: obey the system. The system knows best. The system keeps zhus safe. Ze are all the same. Comply. Comply. Comply.
But zhit is too late to comply, so Zhi choose to run, and zhit's a terrible mistake. Zhobody runs here. Zhi've made zhyself conspicuous and, before Zhi get even a hundred yards Zhi can see the compliance scanners turned in zy direction, every 20 metres, mounted high on metal struts or walls, unwavering, unblinking, monitoring.
So Zhi stop running.
And zhey come to get ze.
To take the filth from the street.
So that society can function.
So that everybody can be safe.
Zhi do not resist as zhey bind zy hands, and just a solitary tear escapes ze as Zhi know that Zhi will never see zy Life Coupling again.
‘ze do this because ze care,’ zhey tell ze.
‘ze are the force for good. Ze know what's right.’
But Zhi can never agree, so Zhi take the pill that zhey offer.
‘ze are The Government,’ zhey intone. ‘ze are freedom and justice and hope and light.’
Zhit sounds like a mantra, a drug-crazed mantra spilling from the lips of the deluded.
‘ze are AntiFa. Ze are equality,’ zhey insist. ‘equality for all zho are just like zhus.’
And, as zy life slips away, zhey carefully explain.
‘zhou did this to zhourself.’