Wolfgang Armitage stared at his desk with no small amount of satisfaction. It had taken the better part of a month, but it was finally clear. All the names and details were in the system, and the matrix was completing its calculations that very minute. By the end of the day the newest couples would be decided, and Wolfgang would finally be free to relax. He might even allow himself his weekly stipend of tobacco all at once tonight.

His reverie was interrupted, however, by the unexpected arrival of his office neighbour, Betty Howitzer. She was a woman with the charisma of a filing cabinet, and the appearance of one as well. Wolfgang constantly thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t found himself coupled with a woman like her. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “What can I do for you, Betty, my dear?”

“We have a problem, Armitage,” Betty said, fixing her colleague with her chilliest glare.

Wolfgang frowned. “With what?” he snapped. “There shouldn’t be any issues from my end.”

“Don’t worry,” she said sourly, “I wasn’t blaming you, yet. But it’s a problem, nevertheless.”

“Spit it out then,” Wolfgang said, his hopes for a cheeky cigarette suddenly dwindling.

“We have a name that can’t be Coupled.”

The man fixed her a dubious glower. “What are you talking about?”

Without waiting for an invitation, Betty made her way behind Wolfgang’s desk, and then brought up a separate window on his screen. Chagrined at having his personal space invaded, Wolfgang first couldn’t make out what he was staring at. But, as he forced himself to focus on the work rather than the woman, he saw it.

He saw it, but he couldn’t quite believe it. “There must be a glitch in the system,” Wolfgang declared, brushing Betty away.

“You think I didn’t check that first?” she asked. “The matrix is operating as normal.”

“Are you implying I left a name out?” Wolfgang asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Again, I already checked that,” Betty said. “Trust me, me bringing this to you should be evidence enough that I have tried everything to fix this!”

He considered this, and then frowned more deeply. “How long have you been coupled, Betty?” he asked.

She gave a surprised blink at the sudden interrogation. “Twenty-two years,” she replied. “Why?”

“This year will be my thirty-seventh,” he said. “Do you know how essential the coupling process is to society? With it we have been able to weed out genetic deficiencies, keep population under control, and it has given the general population a sense of relief, and overall piece of mind.” Not used to speaking to Betty for this long, Wolfgang dabbed at the perspiration along his temples with his sleeve. “If we find ourselves unable to place a citizen in a suitable couple, then that could be the start of society’s downfall!”

Betty scoffed slightly. “Whilst I don’t share your views of Armageddon,” she said, “I quite agree that it is a problem. We must place this individual in a suitable union before the next Coupling Day. The only question is: How?”

Wolfgang grinned. “I have already considered a solution,” he declared. “Match them with one of the uncoupled.”

“Protocol says that an uncoupled should be paired with another uncoupled,” Betty said.

“Yes, but protocol doesn’t say anything about what to do with someone who can’t be Coupled, does it? No, so we do it this way. Understood?”

For a moment the woman looked as if she would argue. But finally, she gave a reluctant nod. “Good,” Wolfgang said. “Draw up a list of all the uncoupled we have, and then – oh, what’s the name of this problem child?”

“Clough,” Betty said, the name tattooed forever in her mind. “Harley Clough.”

*

“It’s almost the big day, Harl,” her dad said, his eyes not drifting away from his paper. “Excited?”

Harley gave an indifferent shrug. “Not really,” she said.

“Probably nervous,” her mum said, busy rearranging the innards of her briefcase. “I know I was.”

“Perfectly normal.”

“I remember the day your dad and I were first coupled like it was yesterday!”

“Feels more like a hundred years to me.”

“He was just as nervous as I was,” Harley’s mother went on, ignoring her partner. “He wouldn’t stop going on about Christopher.”

“Only because you asked if I had any experience,” Seb Clough said, irritably.

“Anyway,” Maryanne Clough said, giving the man a meaningful look. “All I’m trying to say is, don’t worry about it, because whoever you end up with, he’s feeling just the same as you are.”

She then looked down at her watch and uttered a small curse under her breath. “I’m running late!” she announced. “I’ll see you both tonight!”

“Actually, I’ll be seeing Chris later today,” Sebastian said.

“Okay,” Maryanne said. “I’ll see you, Harley, later on then.”

When she was out the door, Harley turned back to her father. He was still engrossed in his paper. He might have been alone for all he knew. “Dad,” Harley said. “What if . . . what if I don’t get coupled?”

“Everyone worries they won’t get coupled,” he said, indifferently. “And then everyone ends up getting coupled.”

“But, dad, when I took the test . . . I couldn’t fill it in properly.”

Only now did he pull himself away from the paper. He folded it up, and then laid it down on the table beside his breakfast plate. “You didn’t fill in your preferences, am I right?”

She nodded mutely.

“They don’t pay any attention to that crap anyway,” Sebastian explained. “You know I have no physical or emotional interest in your mother, and the system knows it as well. But, still, it coupled the pair of us together. And now look at us! Your mother has her career, I have mine, and we have you. Just because you haven’t had any lovers yet doesn’t mean a thing. The system knows what is best, and come Coupling Day, you’ll know as well.”

Mustering all her strength, Harley said what was lurking in her mind. “What if I don’t want to be coupled?”

Her dad gave a small, amused smile. “I thought you were just worrying you wouldn’t be coupled?”

“If I have to be, then yeah, I’m worried I’ll be the only one not picked,” Harley said, picking at the hem of her jumper. “But if I had a choice? I’d never bother.”

With a heavy, world-weary sigh patented to all fathers, Sebastian rose from the kitchen table and gave his daughter a pat on the shoulder. “You’ll grow out of that way of thinking,” he declared. “We all do, eventually.”

*

Harley tried to settle the storm of thoughts, but found nothing could calm her. That morning had been the first time she had tried to speaking to her parents about the way she had been feeling, and as she had feared, it had been like running into a brick wall. She’d long known that she was different to those around her. Not once had she considered seeking out a lover; never had she spoken with enthusiasm about her future coupling; and not a single part of her yearned for the connection her peers seemed to crave. Up until now, she had been content with that difference. It hadn’t hurt her, and it wasn’t hurting those around her. Those around her barely even knew she was existing, and she was comforted by that anonymity. But with the Coupling Day quickly approaching, she realised that invisibility was about to be torn away. When she was left alone, the only person who had failed to be coupled, her differences would finally be seen, and reviled.

Walking across the college grounds, she observed her peers. They were all clustered together in little groups, and she was sure she could guess what they were all discussing. But she wondered how that would change when they knew the truth about her? To be Coupled was a privilege, they were told. You were doing your part for the community, and you were bettering society as a whole. And if you were unable to take part in that? The very shame of it caused Harley to hang her head, and feel her cheeks begin to burn.

The cheery, hollow tolling of the announcement bell pulled her from her reverie. “Miss Harley Clugh to the Dean’s office,” the bird-like voice declared. “Miss Clough to the Dean’s office.”

Harley froze. She felt the unfamiliar sensation of having all eyes suddenly on her. Gnawing at the inside of her cheek in fear, she began to wonder what it could be about. Avoiding meeting anyone’s gaze, she made her way as quickly as she could to the office. Inside she found the Dean, but he was not at his desk. Instead he had been relegated to a corner of the room, his eyes glancing nervously from Harley and then towards the two new occupants of his desk. One was an enormous walrus of a man, his cheeks riddled with broken veins, and his eyes small and watery. Beside him was a chisel-faced woman, her light-yellow hair wrapped in a tight bun, and her lips so thin they were barely visible. They both attempted to smile as Harley took a nervous step inside.

“Miss Clough, I’m presuming?” the woman asked in a polite, but brittle tone. “My name is Mrs Howitzer, and this is my colleague, Mr Armitage.”

The hugely proportioned man gave her a leery nod. “Pleasure, my dear,” he purred. He shifted in the Dean’s chair, wincing as he heard it creak ominously. “We both work as administrators for this year’s Coupling Day. Ah, I can see that, perhaps, you know why we are here?”

“Am – am I in trouble?” Hilary mumbled.

Mr Armitage offered her a smile that made no attempt to reach his eyes, whilst Mrs Howitzer continued to glare. “Not necessarily,” the man said. “We think there’s just been a little . . . mistake, that’s all.”

“We would greatly appreciate it if you took the time to take the test again,” Mrs Howitzer said, placing a wad of paper down in front of Hilary. “Properly, this time, if you please.”

Harley stared at the first page, her eyes scanning the long list of questions. She looked back up at the pair of strangers. With her throat feeling like it was closing to the size of a pin hole, she started to speak: “What if I don’t –?”

“You don’t think you’re ready?” Mr Armitage said, snapping his jaws shut like a shark. “Believe me, we’ve heard it all before. You’re not ready; you’re scared; you’re worried you’ll be coupled with someone perfectly hideous!”

“Childish concerns,” Mrs Howitzer added.

“You may think all these things, but trust us, we know that these feelings will pass.” He gave the test a friendly pat. “Would you like some privacy?” he asked, his eyes flashing hungrily.

Considering the paper, and then the two adults in front of her, Harley realised that she stood at the cross-roads. Whatever step she took now, there would be no going back. Clenching her knees until she could feel her nails biting into the fabric of her skirt, Harley looked Mr Armitage in the eye. “I don’t want to be coupled,” she announced. “I didn’t fill in the test wrong.”

The smile lingered on the man’s pallid lips, but there was no humour to be found. Mrs Howitzer shifted slightly, her eyes narrowing with loathing. “You don’t want to be coupled?” she repeated.

At this point the Dean leant forward slightly. “Now, now, Harley,” he murmured.

Armitage held up a hand, silencing the old man. “I’m sure the young lady is all too willing to explain herself.”

“I . . . why don’t I get to choose?”

“Choose?” Mrs Howitzer said, her nostrils flaring. “You have a choice! We encourage citizens to take extra-marital partners in order to satisfy their emotional needs; and, of course, it is entirely up to you how large, or small, your family becomes.”

“But I want to be able to choose if I get coupled or not!”

Now the smile finally melted away. “And would you choose to be coupled?”

Wordlessly, Harley shook her head.

Armitage and Howitzer exchanged a quick, but dark look. “The Coupling process is an integral part to our modern society,” the woman started to explain, resting her palms on the desk and leaning over Harley. “Every man and woman take part, and feels honoured to do so. But not you?”

Armitage held up his hand again. “Perhaps we should be up front with you, Miss Clough,” he said, making the attempt to sound pleasant. “You see, we’re here because, unfortunately, our system is currently unable to couple you. We thought that we would give you the benefit of the doubt, and that perhaps there had been a clerical error, or you had indulged in a bit of youthful of rebellion.”

“Now we see that matters are much more serious,” Howitzer added.

“As my good colleague has already pointed out,” Armitage went on, “to be Coupled is to be . . . a decent citizen. You are doing your bit to better our collective future.”

Harley began to squirm in her seat. She felt herself wilting beneath the combined glares of the two officials before her. “I just . . . don’t want to be in a Couple,” she said, barely hearing herself. “I never have.”

“Some people feel that way,” Howitzer said. “But they also recognise it as their duty.”

“If it were simply a matter of what you want and do not want, we would not be here today,” Armitage said, his voice now dripping with impatience. “Our main concern is that we have been unable to Couple you. Do you see our predicament?”

The young woman shook her head. The man gave an angry snort.

“If it becomes known that our system has been unable to Couple you, questions might start to be asked,” Mrs Howitzer explained. “People partake in the Coupling because they know it is for the betterment of society.”

“Men and woman are matched based on the calculation that their progeny will be of first-class stock,” Armitage added.

“Through the system we have been able to eliminate genetic disorders; we have levelled the gap between social classes; the rates of violent crime have plummeted!”

“People find comfort in knowing the system works.”

“But you, Miss Clough, do not work,” Howitzer declared. “Someone who cannot be Coupled is an anomaly. An anomaly that should not exist.”

“And, if people realise that you do, then suddenly the compatibility of your mother and father comes into question. Were the calculations correct? Do you see? This is a cross-generational problem! If the system made a mistake with your parents, how many other Couples may suddenly find themselves questioning their compatibility? Who else might be looking at their children and wondering if they are up to scratch?” Mr Armitage gave her a thin smile. “I hope that you can understand,” he added, “that we only want what is best for you!”

“And what is best for our society,” Mrs Howitzer said.

Harley stared down at her lap, her mind bursting with their words. She thought of her mum and dad. Her father, who she only ever saw happy when he was about to see Christopher; her mother, who spent more time at work than at home. Were they compatible? The system said they were, and that was good enough for them. And they had her, and that made them happy; she had to believe that. She had to believe that what she saw in their eyes was love. But what if they found she was an anomaly? A corruption in the eyes of the system. What then would they make of their lives, and their daughter they had sacrificed it all for?

“But . . . you said . . .” she began, slight tears beginning to choke her, “that I couldn’t be coupled.”

Mr Armitage smiled, this time with what seemed to be genuine pleasure. “The System failed to Couple you with any of your peers,” he explained. “But, myself and Mrs Howitzer have found a solution.”

“In our society there are those who unfortunately find themselves Uncoupled,” the woman explained, her shoulders untensing marginally.

“Untimely deaths, usually,” Armitage added.

“We believe Coupling you with one such individual will be for the best,” Howitzer said. “We have him outside; he’s quite eager to meet you.”

Harley felt the blood leave her face. “Now? I – I’m being Coupled today?”

Both officials nodded. “We think it best,” Armitage said. “Nip it in the bud, as they say.”

Howitzer turned to the Dean. “Be so good as to show in Mr Yarrow.”

Into the office stepped a looming, six-foot-six man. He wore dark-rimmed glasses, had a small, whispery moustache, and his smile revealed two rows of small, slightly pointed teeth. His eyes instantly fixed on Harley as he strode in.

“Miss Clough,” Mr Armitage said, rising with great difficulty, “this is Mr Yarrow.”

“Please,” the man said, his voice dry as leather, “call me Ted.” His hands reached out and clasped Harley’s. “I can’t believe a lovely young lady such as yourself is struggling to be Coupled!”

“I’m glad that this arrangement suits you, Mr Yarrow,” Mrs Howitzer said, her eyes narrowing as she watched the man look Harley up and down.

“Oh, it does,” Yarrow declared. “I’m sure we shall have a wonderful time together, and look after one another splendidly.”

“Mr Yarrow has been Coupled three times now,” Mr Armitage explained. “So, he has a wealth of experience to share with you, Miss Clough.”

“Three times?” Harley repeated, her mouth becoming like sandpaper.

“Three tragedies,” Ted Yarrow stated, his hands still encompassing her own. “Three that I am still mourning.”

“So, Miss Clough,” Mr Armitage said, eyeing the young girl like a wolf, “with all that we have discussed, does this arrangement . . . suit you?”

Harley stared at the man, his eyes sparkling, but nonetheless still dead. She looked then at his colleague, Mrs Howitzer, hostility radiating off her, and hatred barely restrained. Finally, she turned to man she would Coupled with. She thought of her family and the sacrifices they had made, knowing that it was for the greater good. She thought of her peers, and their excitement at taking on such a responsibility. Then she thought of how they would view her if they knew. The idea of their reactions to her blot of an existence made her stomach twist and bile rush into her throat.

Slowly, feeling the weight of what was to come pressing down on her, and demanding the tears not to come, Harley Yarrow nodded.

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