Still More Zombies
This is a short story I published with the anthology Flight #008 way back in 2017. The site with the stories seems to be down, so I thought I’d republish my contribution here.
The Girl Who Almost Became a Zombie
I pushed through the crowd of dancing protesters and came to the glass and steel entrance of the Story Building. I stopped dead. A river of drones flowed over my head, appearing from, and disappearing into, San Francisco fog, mini-props humming, too close for comfort. Self-driving cars glided along Market, algorithms avoiding as best they could the dangerous humans who shared the road with them. Colorful AR tracers hung over everyone’s heads, hundreds of Stories intersecting. I still found the social metadata people wore super-confusing. One protester, a heavily tattooed teenager bundled up against the July chill—holding a sign that read “Seize the Story!”—glared at me.
He turned to a girl with bright pink hair. “That’s totes the girl from the time plane!”
“Thar she blows, matey.”
“That’s so Prada!”
“Raz-ma-tazzle!” he said, his eyes wide with excitement.
Crap. My dark glasses and hoodie didn’t fool anyone. My heart raced. I had had a couple of panic attacks since the time glitch; I wasn’t used to all this attention.
Ginsberg’s comforting voice whispered through my hoodie speakers. “You should say ‘Boy-oy-oy-oy-oing.’”
“Why?” I subvocalized.
“It’s hard to explain. I’d recommend you just do it.”
“Boy-oy-oy-oy-oing,” I said, impersonating Ginsberg’s smooth cadence.
The protesters smiled hugely and gave each other a high five. Whatever I had just said, they suddenly loved me. I relaxed. I stepped up to the automatic doors, which opened and closed with a comforting rhythm. Getting through the protesters had been the easy part. Now I had to go inside. He was supposed to meet me in the lobby. I was shaking; my mouth was a desert. I had known seeing Taylor would be hard, but I didn’t realize just how hard until that moment.
“My mouth is so dry,” I said.
“I noticed,” Ginsberg said.
A drone dropped down from the stream above; it had a coffee cup in its tray with my name, Michiko, written in script on the side. Ginsberg had predicted I would want one. My hand unsteady, I took the cup, grateful that my Assistant was so good at anticipating my needs. I couldn’t have made it this far without him. I removed the cap and licked the delicious milky foam.
“Pumpkin spice,” I said. “How did you know?”
“I was reviewing your old Twitter feed. You can get them year-round now.”
I tried to enjoy the drink, my favorite, but it wouldn’t go down. “I can’t do this.”
Seeing my parents hadn’t been nearly this rough. It helped that I was still confused when I met them. Getting out of the airport had been a pain; the FBI guys explained as best they could what had happened, how our plane had gone through what the media was calling a time wrinkle. How the wrinkle had propelled us twenty years into the future—from 2017 to 2037.
After debriefing us, and making sure we weren’t alien pod people, they brought us out to reunite with our loved ones. My parents cried like crazy when they saw me, but I was numb. From my perspective, I had seen them only a week before. Sure, I had missed them when I was visiting my cousins in Tokyo, but mom and dad looked more or less the same as they had before I left. They had a few more gray hairs, a few more wrinkles. No big deal. For them, though, I had been gone twenty years. I had disappeared. They thought I was dead. CNN hadn’t stopped covering the disappearance of ANA Flight 008 for years.
Now, my older brother, Eric, he did look different. He had lost weight. Distinguished gray streaks crossed his temples. He had a husband and two kids and a whole lifetime of stories to tell me. He cried and hugged me tight, and—yeah—I cried too, but we quickly reverted to old routines. He joked I would probably have to reapply to UCLA; but he suspected my personal essay would be way more interesting this time around. I was lucky, I guess. Reuniting with my family had been easier than for other Flight 008 passengers.
But seeing Taylor again, that was another story. Two week ago—twenty years ago—we had been in the basement of his mother’s Victorian in the Mission. We were both seventeen. Had been flirting all senior year before that crazy New Year’s party at Leonard’s stepdad’s in Oakland, the party where I guess we officially started dating. We had been going out six months, and those months had been wonderful, but we had a problem. After the summer, Taylor was going to MIT, and I was heading to UCLA. He had grand ideas about starting his own tech company. I knew I had a different destiny. I was going to major in English and computer science, and would become the greatest playwright-programmer of the twenty-first century. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was sure it would be awesome once I figured it out.
And (I told Taylor) I just didn’t want to do a long-distance relationship. That’s what I was doing in his mother’s basement that day. Breaking up with him. Period. Nonnegotiable. “Sorry, bro,” I said, trying to be lighthearted (he hated when I called him “bro”). And then, I’m not sure how it happened, we were making out on his smelly old couch.
“I love you,” he blurted out, his face a mask of embarrassment and lust.
Taylor had never been very good at talking about his feelings. He was genius-level smart and super-witty one-on-one, but he suffered from crippling social anxiety. He was always planning things out, creating elaborate scripts for himself to help him get through ordinary human interactions. He hadn’t said he loved me in all the months we’d been together. And this is how he breaks from the script? He confesses his feelings now, the night before my flight to Tokyo? I was furious. Between sobs, I said we’d figure it all out when I got back. I took a Lyft home, packed my bags, and lay in bed all night, staring at the glowing dial of my alarm clock.
Fast forward one week (aka, twenty years): When a woman named Neela called me and said Taylor wanted to meet, I wasn’t sure what to say. On the flight, I had decided that I did, after all, want to give a long-distance relationship a try. What was I supposed to tell him now? I agreed to see him before I could stop myself. Neela clapped three times and said “Yippee!” She said she’d send me “a little something special.” I got a beta invite for the newest version of Story’s Assistant app; I got Ginsberg. Over the last week, Ginsberg had been giving me very helpful recaps of the last twenty years of world history using a spaced repetition review system. But what I really needed, what Ginsberg couldn’t give me, was courage to see this through.
“Do you want me to call you a car?” my Assistant asked, sensing my mood. “I can reschedule or cancel your meeting with Taylor.”
I swallowed another sip of pumpkin spice latte. “No,” I said. “I’m ready.”
I pulled off my hoodie, took off my glasses, and stepped into the Story Building. The lobby was huge, its marble floors shiny. Story employees were young, in their twenties and thirties, fit, good looking. Their clothes were informal but obviously expensive, high-end casual. I was way underdressed in my ratty Berkeley Rep hoodie. I scanned the lobby. Ultramodern chairs were everywhere, circling glass tables with magazines and general-purpose tablets. I hadn’t gotten used to the idea that people didn’t really use mobile devices anymore. Or not, at least, in the same way. The cloud just followed you around, and gave you what you needed when you needed it, including—thanks to Story—suggestions for how to interact with other people.
“Sooo, that just happened!” a man with a goatee said to a woman in an A-line knee-length skirt.
The woman laughed derisively. “I just threw up a little in my mouth.”
“‘Threw up in my mouth’? More like, “I just shat myself a little.’ That man is muy scary.”
“I give Zippo fucks!” the woman said. “He’s an asshat Dumpster person.”
“Snickity-snap-nap!” The man snapped his fingers dramatically, and then made his hand into a little gun. “Shots fired. Pew, pew, pew; pew, pew!”
“I’m just saying, I can’t unsee that!”
“That’s why we can’t have nice things.”
The man laughed a little too loudly, as if the woman had alluded to some shared knowledge. “Well played.”
They spoke with an odd, too-regular rhythm. I recognized the cadences of their speech; they were called Story Zombies, people who took Story’s real-time conversational recs—its machine-learning orchestrated social cues—a little too literally. I guess it makes sense that Story employees would use their own product. That’s what you’d call “eating your own dog food,” if you were a ridiculous—sorry, I mean a ree-donkey-lus—meme spouting robot.
I giggled. Of course this was the company Taylor would create! He probably wrote the first version of the Story app to get through college without breaking out into uncontrollable sweats every five minutes. It was funny. The socially anxious boy had become a mega-rich CEO; while I, former president of my drama club, was the one now constantly on the verge of a panic attack. The shoe was on the other foot… That’s how nervous I was: My mind was crowded with clichés.
“I so totally thought that was you, Michiko!”
I turned and saw a familiar face. In her heels, she was almost the same height as me. A snug tan dress hugged her slim frame. Her hair was molded into a stylish pixie cut. The lenses of her pseudo-vintage cat-eye glasses were throwing off all sorts of light. Warmth, optimism, and positivity erupted from every gesture she made. She leaned in and air-kissed my cheek. I loved her perfume. She was hot.
“Hi Neela,” I said.
“How’s our lil’ Assist-a-roon-y working out for you?”
“Ginsberg is great,” I said.
“You named it Ginsberg! That’s a-dork-able!”
Ginsberg said, via directional mic, “You should respond, ‘Ginsberg thinks he’s pretty a-dork-able, too.’”
“Ginsberg thinks—” I started automatically, but then stopped myself, “He’s working out fine.”
Neela seemed not to hear what I had said. She turned and half-ran on heels across the lobby, and found a man who was lurking uncomfortably near the reception desk; she dragged him, it seemed against his will, toward me. We met half-way, near the indoor palm tree.
“Oh,” the man said. “You already have a coffee? I’d planned to take you to the café upstairs.”
“No problem-o,” Neela said, and began scanning something in her glasses. “We’ll figure out a Plan B.”
Ginsberg whispered: “You should say, in a playful tone, ‘I’m just pre-gaming with a Pre-Coffee Latte.’”
“That’ll be enough, Ginsberg,” I subvocalized.
“I’ll be here if you need me,” he said.
“It’s you,” I said.
The shy man, Taylor, swallowed. “Who were you expecting, Spartacus?”
“What? I don’t don’t understand.”
“Hashtag meme fail,” he said.
“Would you mind talking like a human being?”
“Sorry, bad habit.”
This cliché-spouting man couldn’t be my Taylor. My Taylor was whip-thin; this man was heavy around the middle. My Taylor had a full head of blond hair; this man had very little. My Taylor was a boy, full of life, in love with me; this man wore a wedding ring. But it was true: Taylor was thirty-seven. He was married. He had a five-year-old daughter. He had founded the Story Corporation in his dorm room at MIT, had dropped out, and now, twenty years later, was worth half a trillion dollars. Taylor, my introverted Taylor, a half-trillionaire! He was wearing a black button down shirt and dress pants made out of some fabric I’d never seen before; three thin activity trackers, each a different color, circled his left wrist; and a pair of wireframe glasses sat atop his big nose.
I stepped up to him and hugged him. I was still taller than thirty-seven-year-old Taylor. He still slouched. And as I pressed my head against his, I discovered that he smelled the same, used the same brand of soap as in high school. As he hugged me back, I convinced myself for a moment that no time had passed. That I had come back from Tokyo as scheduled. That we were giving our relationship a second chance.
I convinced myself for a moment that no time had passed
“You know, we should probably…” he said.
His voice pulled me out of my reverie. No, it wasn’t 2017. There was no going back. When I released him, I spilled my latte onto his pants.
“I’m so sorry.”
His pants repelled the coffee; the liquid slipped to the floor.
“No worry-O’s,” Neela said, taking my empty cup. “We’ll get a lil’ bot on that right away.”
A crowd had gathered around us. I guess it’s not every day that you see the CEO of your trillion-dollar company reuniting with his clumsy, time-traveling ex-girlfriend. They stood there until Taylor got annoyed. “What are you staring at?” He momentarily seemed like his old irritable self; then his voice reverted to a Story-assisted cadence. “Back to the salt mines, guys!”
Everyone laughed and dispersed on cue. A boxy robot sucked up my spill.
“Let’s take you somewhere a little more private,” Neela said, gently pushing us forward.
Neela led me and Taylor up an escalator to a mezzanine with potted plants, hammocks, bean bag chairs, and café tables. A dozen baristas manned pour-over stations.
“Ritual Coffee?” I said. “They’re still around?”
“Not only around,” he said. “I own them now.”
Neela brought us to a table under a huge skylight. We had a great view of the front entrance; every time the doors slid opened, I could see protesters outside. “You guys catch up, and I’ll get you your drinks. I know what you like,” she said to Taylor, and then turned to me. “Ginsberg tells me you like pumpkin-spice lattes. That’s not on the menu here, but I’ll get you something fun.”
“He told you that?”
“Uh huh,” she said.
Her big, friendly smile prevented me from asking the obvious follow-up question. Paranoia seized me. Had Ginsberg been spying on me? What else was he sharing with Neela? Had Taylor grown into a bad guy? Why were all those kids protesting him? We sat, and Taylor made a gesture. The table’s noise cancelling system turned on, and the hum of the mezzanine faded, like he had turned down the volume knob on reality.
“Who knew you’d become one of those tech bros we always complained about,” I said before I could censor myself.
“What are you talking about?” He chewed on his cuticle. “I don’t know what Stories you’ve been reading about me.”
“Are there any you’d recommend I avoid?”
“You can read any Story you want. It’s just, the moment you become successful, people come after you.”
“The protesters are all just jealous, I guess?”
“Look,” Taylor said, as if reading from a press release. “Story is not just a fun way to bring sick memes to your next party. Our Adult Literacy and Global Education Projects are huge. Ten million people are participating in those Stories. And those are just the two biggest successes. There are thousands of user-generated Stories that have done a lot of good, too. Almost a billion people have joined at least one Story.”
“Taylor Reynolds, Robber Baron Hero.”
“What I’m saying is, the anti-Story groups are so hypocritical. The two big anti-Story movements—‘The Presentists’ and ‘Looking Forward’—they couldn’t even exist without Story. They freaking used Story to infiltrate our Board! It’s outrageous. And they call us Story Zombies? The younger generation just has no sense of responsibility. Now you might be thinking, why not just kick them off Story?”
“Definitely not what I’m thinking.”
“But we can’t do that. Either we subvert our own platform’s integrity, and everyone abandons us; or we let people use Story however they want, and some use it to dismantle us. ‘The Presentists’ want the government to break us up; they call us a monopoly. ‘Looking Forward’ calls us that, too, but they want the government to make us into a so-called public utility. Whichever side wins, we’re hosed. It’s like I sold a noose to my own executioners.”
“I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things?” I said.
“Exactly,” Taylor said, his eyes wide with frenzy. “Exactly.”
And then he actually heard what I had said—he realized how he was acting—and he laughed anxiously, and I laughed, and we were laughing together.
“Why are you giving me shit, Michiko?”
I felt embarrassed. “I don’t know. This is so weird.”
“You know we can’t…” he said. “You know I’m married now, right?”
“How could you even think that? Don’t be gross!”
“I just thought… I resolved my feelings for you a long time ago. You were gone. Everyone thought you were dead. But for you… It just must be hard reintegrating.”
“You’re so concerned for my well-being.”
“Of course I’m concerned. You were my first—my first serious girlfriend. When you disappeared, it was horrible. The worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“It didn’t ‘happen to you.’ It happened to me.”
I was tearing up. I hated being such a cliché. But what can you do? Sometimes, the clichés are true. Sometimes, your life is the cliché.
“If you didn’t… Why did you want to see me?” he asked.
“Me? I didn’t want to see you. Your hot assistant said you wanted to see me?”
“Who? Wait, you think Neela is my assistant?”
“She’s my head of global marketing.”
Taylor’s face became grim. When Neela returned with our coffees, she saw that she had been found out.
“What did you do, Neela?” Taylor said in a cadence that reminded me of Ricky Ricardo.
She batted her long eyelashes innocently; a grin unfolded on her face.
“Is Ginsberg spying on me?” I said before she could respond.
“I wasn’t spying on you,” Ginsberg whispered to me. “I was just following your privacy settings. I’ll fix that now.”
Neela raised her hands. “When I read about Flight 008, and found out about Michiko, I thought you two just had to reunite.”
I said, “You mean you asked me here because you wanted us to get back together?”
It seemed like some zany setup from a bad romantic comedy.
“No, she didn’t,” Taylor said. “What’s your angle here, Neela?”
Neela sighed. “Story users are getting restless. They participate in Stories every day, but they’re also uber-uncomfortable with how big we’ve become. And after we bought the publishing industry, all the newspapers, and all the magazines, we’ve been struggling with the challenge of content creation. Michiko comes at the perfect moment; she’s a godsend. How better to show how Story brings people together than to tell the story of someone connected to the founder of Story? What we want to do, what I want to do, is buy your life rights, Michiko. You don’t have to do anything. Just keep talking to Ginsberg. Answer whatever questions you feel comfortable answering. And then, when Ginsberg collects enough info, he’ll whip up a draft of your life story in your voice. We publish your story on Story, and voila! you’re gonna make a bundle on residuals. Now, you shouldn’t just accept our offer. Get an agent and make sure you like our terms. But I think you’ll see this is totes win-win.”
Taylor was red with anger. “You should not have asked her here without telling me.”
Neela looked confused. “Are you mad? Did I do something wrong? I thought—”
“That is e-nough, Neela. We’ll discuss this later. I want to talk to Michiko alone.”
After Neela left, Taylor had trouble talking through his rage. “You think you think your life is going to turn out a certain way. But then you make some… You tell a certain story about yourself. And you become a fucking prisoner of that story.”
I was flat-out crying now. “I wish I had never gotten on that stupid plane. I want to go back to 2017. My whole life is over.”
Taylor looked at me for a long time. “You’re wrong. Your whole life is ahead of you. This might sound weird, but I envy you. You’re still at the start of your story. You still have a chance to do things right.”
“I hate this future. I hate all the attention I’m getting.”
“You love the attention. And you’re so going to accept Neela’s offer.”
“How can you say that?”
“You may’ve been gone twenty years, but you can’t bullshit me. What you’re really mad about is, you want to deserve the attention. Any loser can fly through a wrinkle in time; you want to be recognized for your unique awesomeness. You still want to be a kickass playwright-programmer, though I have to admit I never understood what that meant.”
“I know you. And I know coming into this future must have sucked.”
“It may be a cliché to say it, but you’re going to be OK. You’ll succeed at whatever you choose to do.”
I squeezed his hand. “Thank you.”
“For still being you.” I released him. “I needed that.”
“I don’t know how to be anyone else.”
Down the escalator, through the sliding doors, I saw anti-Story protesters, waving signs, dancing. As they chanted slogans, I saw in outline the story that would become mine. And I couldn’t help but smile. He might be twenty years older, but I knew Taylor, too. And I knew he didn’t stand a chance. Not against me.
“Let’s be clear,” I said. “If I accept Neela’s offer—if—I’ll write my own story. Myself.”
In the glow of fog-muted San Francisco sun, under the skylight of the Story Building, I saw the remainders of Taylor’s seventeen-year-old smile emerge from behind the jowly mask of disappointed adulthood.
“I bet you will,” he said.
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