As the midday sun blistered down, the crowd in the square chanted on about leaving the System alone.  On the platform at the center, Ramona made her speeches.

            I couldn’t hear her from where I stood, leaning against a lamppost across the street.  With my arms crossed, I watched as the crowd cheered at Ramona’s words.  I shook my head with a groan.

            The protest had distracted me on my way to the marketplace and I was seriously debating if I should stay to the end, mostly to see if Ramona would go shopping with me.

            “Evmldksjndfvjdmkcjfhjl?” I heard someone call.

            When I looked up, Leslie was standing beside me, their outfit for today a pair of shorts and a sleeveless, bright blue shirt that flared out at the bottom.

            “They have no idea what they’re talking about,” I stated, gesturing toward the crowd.

            Leslie chuckled, their thoughtful gaze drifting over the people.

            “You’re not going up there?” I asked.

            They shrugged.  “Ramona deserves to say her piece, then the people can decide if they agree.  Besides, nodmlskdfsiudfkmsldkfmclfsjdfushjldmfsdfjsdhfiodjkion, not mine.”

            Another round of chants erupted from the square.

            “I know they’re just scared,” Leslie stated, “but I wish thesldmskadhiclkmdfihdis.”  They scoffed.  “Honestly, we wouldn’t even be hakdsmlcnfhdsjhfidsofkldsmlfksdhifjdsnkfhs.”

            I watched Leslie’s lips move, yet still couldn’t make out their words as they watched the crowd.  Hundreds of other voices in the background didn’t help.

            Suddenly, Leslie frowned, glancing over to meet my eyes.  “I nedvhicklmskdfhing.  Why exactly were you kicked out?”

            My heart lurched.  I couldn’t tell them – no matter what, I couldn’t let anyone find out again, so I lied.

            “Because I failed a test,” I replied, averting my gaze to the ground.  “And failure is unacceptable in the System.”  True statements, but not the reason my number had been blacklisted.

            Leslie whistled.  “Brutal.”

            The crowd cheered again.

            “This is not the reason I came out today,” Leslie muttered.  They turned on their heel, walking away from the square.

            I sprinted up to them, latching onto their hand.  “Where are we going?”

            “We?” asked Leslie, giving me a playful smirk as we continued down the sidewalk hand in hand.

            “What?  I’m bored.”

            “Well, I was going to an art exhibit, but ifyeodisndjfsdlknfjshdjklfmdoicn.”

            “What’s art?”

            Leslie stopped.  “You’re kidding.”

            I shook my head.

            “You’ve never seen a painting?  A sculpture?  Achislkmdsjduhoidlkfer?”

            All I could do was respond with a blank stare.  I couldn’t tell if my condition was acting up again or Leslie was actually speaking nonsense.

            “Good gods, what did you ever do for fun in the System?”

            “The usual?” I replied with a shrug.  “Sports, games, shows that…” I groaned as I recalled one of the most boring sources of entertainment in the System.  “Shows that were always about city guards solving mysteries.  …It got old.”

            Leslie said nothing for a heartbeat.  “I talk to former bytes all the time.  How did I not know this?”

            “I still have no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied.

            They smiled.  “Then, Dax,” Leslie said as we resumed our walk, “it’ll be my pleasure to introduce you to something extraordinary.”

To be continued…

Episode 19