It's 10:30 am on February 29, and even though her chance only comes along every four years and she's already missed it twice, Ella still isn't ready to be married. It's not that she doesn't want to though. She loves Greg, at least as much as—if not more than—she loved the others before him. He's done everything right, from proposing at the top of the Eiffel Tower (they'd had to queue for ages to get into the lift, and she'd kept asking him why he was fidgeting in line), to doing most of the wedding planning (Ella has always hated planning events and Greg has connections), to making everyone in her immediate and extended family laugh when he met them at Christmas dinner, even her spinster Aunt Cecilia, whom Ella is not-so-secretly terrified of turning into if she doesn't get married soon.
That's the problem though. In fact, it's always been the problem all along. Like the men before him, Greg is, well, too perfect. He can't not be, the Registrar has made sure of that. To make a match for you, the Registrar combs through its databases and spits a name out, embossed on a card. You can make your selection criteria as broad or narrow as you want to suit your individual preferences. There's someone out there for you who's your type, and the Registrar will find him/her because everyone who's a legal citizen of the EuroAmerican Conglomeration will have been tracked by the System from birth. This third time, Ella opted for the bare minimum of 'male', 'single' and 'straight', and then added 'attractive' as a minor indulgence. She'd only been given a third because someone in the Office of Marital Compacts owed her mother a favour, having used up the favour owed to her father to find Oscar, who'd also been, like Greg feels to her now, perfect and sweet and wrong.
Ella thinks the fault really must lie with her. The System knows her intimately, has known her from the moment she was born, tagged her with the appropriate search terms, which she isn't exactly privy to but she hopes includes adjectives like 'attractive' and 'intelligent' and 'humorous' and all the other things that she thinks and wants herself to be. So she's as much the perfect woman for Greg as he's her perfect man, right? The Registrar is never wrong and Ella knows she's incredibly lucky to have found a third match. You're guaranteed a partner on your first try, that's how good the Registrar is, but she's never heard of anyone ever having any luck on a second go, whatever crazy reason they have for not making it work the first time. Yet surely there must be more than one match for everyone in the System, unless you're one of the crazy people who believe in 'the one and only'.
Aunt Cecilia is one of those people, which is why she's never married. She thinks it's wrong to pluck the person you marry from a database. Just two names on two cards that you have to exchange and authenticate on your first date, pricking yourself to draw blood so the card's biochip will recognise your unique DNA sequence. The Registrar even picks out your wedding date in advance, so you know how slowly or quickly your dating process needs to be, whether you have sex on the first date or the fifth. Unless the System has marked you down as the type of people who wait. Where's the romance in any of that, Aunt Cecilia complains, whenever anyone cares to ask her for an opinion. Ella used to think Aunt Cecilia was missing the point, that the Registrar existed to eliminate the chance of getting it wrong and having your heart broken, maybe more than once. Now she isn't so sure and it frightens her, this loss of faith in electronic voodoo.
The wedding ceremony's happening at noon, and Ella knows she has to go through with it, no matter how she feels, because she doesn't want to disappoint her family again and there just aren't any more favours to call in so there isn't going to be another chance. Not to mention that she's one of those unlucky people the Registrar dictates have to be married on the leap day, so even if she could find a fourth man, she'd be too old to get married by then, according to the rules governing all citizens of the EuroAmerican Conglomeration. She could, she supposes, move to the PanAsian Polity or the Union of Africa where the rules are different, but she doubts she'll have much luck finding a partner without the Registrar's assistance. She doesn't know how. In the Conglomeration, even your friends are indirectly picked out for you by your parents, using the System and the Registrar, of course.
Ella wishes she knew who created the System and the Registrar. Who decided that nothing should ever be left to chance and why? There are official answers to this, which everyone in the Conglomeration can parrot because they have been trained to since the age that they begin to speak. The Registrar is a blessing. Without the Registrar, our lives would not be as happy. Together, the System and the Registrar protect us from our bad decisions. On some level, this is all true. For example, it's hardly surprising that since the System eliminated unhealthy food choices throughout the Conglomeration, people don't die of the old diseases anymore. Not as frequently anyway. Your genetic heritage can still betray you, but with each generation, the Registrar gets better at weeding those people out, denying them the right to marital and reproductive compacts. Ella knows this is a good thing. Her own extended family had a history of Huntington's, but the gene was successfully purged by her generation.
She's not going to run away this time, she knows that much now. Whatever her misgivings, she will marry Greg at noon. The reception after that will be perfect. After all the practice they've had, their first time having sex as a married couple will also be perfect. Ella is going to live out her perfect little life, even if it kills her trying, as the alternative of joining Aunt Cecilia in perpetual spinsterhood is unthinkable. One sour-faced relative at holiday dinners is more than enough for everybody. Ella hopes that thought will fortify her enough to at least get through the ceremony proper. She's sure Greg won't mind whisking her away early from the reception. He's perfect that way.