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Steve’s friends were gathered in Sharon’s large Cape Cod, all talking about the missing member of the group: Steve. Jocasta was spread out on a couch, smoking a joint, while Avery sat in the armchair. Adrian was sitting atop the ottoman, and Kevin was squatted down on the floor. Peter was busy setting the mood by selecting a techno track on the videogram, “Hipster Hip-hop Hippo”.

Richie and Ramón were at a table pulling Likki-zunge candies out of a bag. These were candies – each one was red, white and pink – that changed color as they sat on your tongue. On the bag were pictures of teens wearing red-and-white-striped T-shirts. One of them had blonde hair, blue eyes and freckles, and Steve’s friends said he looked like Peter.

Sandy was in her yoga position on the yoga mat, a stick of gum in her mouth. Jessica and Stephanie shared another couch. Jeff was at the video game console, playing the secret levels in Elevel, a video game he had invented. Sandy’s boyfriend Greg Erikson, Kevin’s boyfriend Kiomars Tehrani, Peter’s girlfriend Tenisha Coleman and Avery’s girlfriend Tae-yeon Park were also at the house.

In the center of the room was Sharon Moran herself, paper and pen in hand, calling the meeting. “OK, everyone, we’re all gathered here in the name of Stephan Bruise. As we all know, Steve’s ill with DZD and we may not see him this time next year.” Sharon looked over at Greg.

Greg Erikson was a lanky boy with a brown boy’s cut, blue eyes and freckles, who was wearing flip-flops, blue jeans, a polo with red, white and blue stripes, and a blue baseball cap with the bill pointing backwards. He was on the yoga mat next to Sandy, in lotus position. He was listening to an Aquetta album on his iPod, with headphones on and his eyes closed.

“Sandy”, asked Sharon, “Could you tap Greg?”

Sandy tapped Greg on the shoulder. Greg lowered his headphones.

“Boy, open your eyes!”, said Sandy with a smile. “Sharon needs your attention!”

Greg opened his eyes and turned his head towards Sharon.

“Hipster Hip-hop Hippo” played in the background, blaring from the videogram:

Crocodile can’t snap that hippo Hip-hip-hip hop-hop-hop hippo Hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo Hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo

“Are all eyes on me?”, asked Sharon, taking a comprehensive survey of the room. “Good. Now what are some things we could do to help our friend Steve?”

Ramón looked down at his Likki-zunge candy. “Free candy?”, he asked casually.

“We need something that will improve his health”, said Kevin. “I propose we petition a group to look for a cure.”

Richie, sitting to Ramón’s left, started crying. “My friend’s dying”, he whined. “Dying!”

“As a Christian . . .”, began Jocasta, “I believe I have to get Steve into Heaven, you know? Steve’s an agnostic, right?”

“Right”, said Kevin. “But at least he doesn’t believe that gays are burning in Hell like our good friend Luann.”

Jocasta giggled. “True, but I’m worried about Steve getting into Heaven versus Hell if he dies. I mean, he’s dying, and we want him to have a happy afterlife, right? I think we can all agree on that. Even you, Adrian?”

“Well, Jo girl, I’m a Buddhist”, said Adrian. “I believe in Nirvana. Being free from all your earthly wants.”

“What other religions do we have represented here?”, asked Kevin. “I, for one, am Rastafarian, and my boyfriend Kio here is Islamic.”

“Right, Kevin”, said Kio. Kiomars Tehrani had black hair that stuck up like a flame and a black beard. He wore sunglasses, a black T-shirt, cargo shorts and black skateboarding shoes, and had a nose ring. “I agree with Jocasta . . . we need to get your friend into Heaven.”

“Does that mean he can’t eat ham sandwiches anymore or something, Kio boy?”, asked Adrian.

“Ummmm . . .”

“And you Muslims aren’t allowed to drink beer! I don’t know where I’d be without booze!”

“Beer”, said Kevin. “At least it’s not cocaine!”

“I’m new-age”, said Greg. “I’d like to help Steve’s spirit make the transition into the next dimension. But I want Steve to be at peace with himself first. Maybe some music could put him into peace.”

“Cool music!”, said Peter. “Some techno!”

Peter was listening to the lyrics from the videogram:

Hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo Hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo Hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo hippo Fun-kay, fun-kay, snap that monkey! Fun-kay, fun-kay, snap that monkey! *Ptscha*

“We gotta play all the coolest bands!”, said Peter’s girlfriend Tenisha, who was sitting next to him. Tenisha Coleman had frizzy black hair in a ponytail and was wearing a polka-dotted blouse, a brown suede jacket, a triangular pink skirt and jellies. “Plasma! Purple Kohlrabi! Thirst! Jenée!”

Avery’s girlfriend Tae-yeon Park chimed in. Tae-yeon had a ponytail, a zebra-print top with spaghetti straps, a red velvet skirt and black platform shoes. She was wearing sunglasses with a pink frame. “All at Once are the best band!”

The meetinggoers groaned. “I’m not a fan of boy bands myself”, said Kevin.

“Naah, Tae girl”, said Adrian, “Sulfur Pie can eat All at Once for breakfast!”

“I bet Steve will like All at Once!”, shouted Tae-yeon.

“Boys don’t listen to boy bands”, said Kevin. “Not even gay boys like myself. And Steve’s straight.”

Tae-yeon put her headphones on and turned to the fifth track on All at Once’s latest album, Listen to This! The fifth track was titled “How Sweet You Are”. Tae-yeon closed her eyes and sang along:

“Of all the beautiful girls In this beautiful world There is no girl, how near or how far, Who quite touches me through Like a pole like you do Don’t you realize just how sweet you are? Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

As Tae-yeon sang the “yeah”s, she bobbed her head around. She then opened her eyes to see the entire room cringing at the lyrics and melody.

“‘How Sweet You Are’ was their absolute worst cut, Tae girl”, said Adrian. “Feel the Brace could eat All at Once for dinner.”

“But Adrian”, objected Kevin. “If Sulfur Pie had already had them for breakfast, there wouldn’t be any All at Once left for Feel the Brace to enjoy once dinner came around.”

“Well, you see, Kev boy”, explained Adrian”, “All at Once are so disgusting that after Sulfur Pie swallowed them, they’d puke All at Once back up! Then Feel the Brace could have them.”

“Touché!”

Just as it seemed the conversation would dissolve hopelessly into arguing over music, Tae-yeon pulled out her telepaper and remote control and turned on the television. The remote control had the numbers 0 through F, in hexadecimal, on it. Tae-yeon looked at the telepaper that had arrived at her door that day, with 16 different photos, each for a new story. She looked at photo 2, the third photo, which showed an automated employee, and clicked the number 2 on her remote control, aiming it right at the telepaper.

Immediately the television in the room turned on and brown-haired, ponytailed, brown-eyed fortysomething anchor Jessica Vartanian appeared. “Welcome to King TV”, she said, “I’m Jessica Vartanian.”

Jeff King smiled proudly to see the news network he had invented being used by Tae-yeon at Sharon’s house.

Jessica Vartanian continued, standing in a retail store: “In this Target, you see all sort of automated employees handling the apple juice, scanning the scrunchies, and bagging the All at Once CD’s. U.S. President Rutherford LeGrand is at the center of a heated dispute over what protestors claim is his failure to address the issue of automated employees. Union leader Miguel Ortiz says the proliferation of automated employees is taking away jobs from less skilled workers. ”

As Jessica Vartanian spoke, the eSpeak discourse ran on the screen. People who were watching or had watched this went to the website espeak.com and their names and comments were streamed.

This comment appeared on the right of the screen:

#24Apr2028Story2 %Eric Tamayo: @Hercules, CA !I’ve been out of job for 4 months after some jerk at the convenience store in Rodeo, CA laid me off from introducing some mechanical dummy. Now I have to eat ramen for two meals a day and I still struggle to make ends meet.

Then this comment streamed:

#24Apr2028Story2 %Tara Condon: @Nacogdoches, TX !Give jobs to REAL people again. Plz.

Jessica Vartanian continued: “Across the twelveties, more and more convenience stores have been moving to automated employees, and doors are closing for those willing to work there. But what does President LeGrand say?”

It then showed a press conference with President LeGrand. Rutherford LeGrand was a man in his fifties, with a grey businessman haircut, brown eyes, a grey suit and a pot belly. “Let us not forget”, said LeGrand, “That the U.S. was founded on the sacred principle of capitalism and free enterprise. We must not pedestalize the rights of people at the forgetting of the rights of businesses! Businesses HAVE A RIGHT to use automated employees, just as you have a right to say the president is stupid. If a shopkeeper wants to use automated employees, let him use automated employees! Having to hire fewer humans will improve the economy. Isn’t a great economy something we all want? Tell me, isn’t it?” President LeGrand then smirked.

“How you feel about this, Adrian?”, asked Sharon. “I know you work at the Open-mart.”

“Yeah, I do, Shar girl”, said Adrian. “Glad they haven’t fallen in to the cap-trap.”

Sharon laughed at this trendy clipping of “capitalist trap” coming out of Adrian’s mouth.

“Shar girl, you got a laptop on you?”, Adrian asked.

“Sure!”, said Sharon, and directed Adrian to her laptop.

Adrian went onto espeak.com and signed in. He clicked on Story 2 for today and typed in: “Dude! I work at the Open-mart! This is the last convenience store in Los Caballos not to use autoids. They haven’t fallen into the cap-trap like the other shussy convenience stores around here. LeGrand is a damn NIM!” He then pressed Submit.

The meetinggoers watched as Jessica Vartanian spoke: “A Gallup poll taken April 19-21 shows a 14-point dip in LeGrand’s popularity since the beginning of 2028. 34% of Americans say they approve of LeGrand’s job as president, down from 48% on January 1. 61% disapproved. This poll sampled 5,024 American adults 16 and over via UnivPoll.”

Jessica Vartanian continued: “Now, I’d like to have an in-depth talk with 34-year-old New Mexico union leader Miguel Ortiz.” It showed Miguel Ortiz, who had messy black hair and a goatee, wearing a grey button-down shirt and blue jeans. Miguel Ortiz sat down next to Jessica Vartanian. “Miguel, how do you think the president’s pro-autoid policy will affect the job market?”, the anchor asked.

“Well, Jessica,” said Miguel Ortiz”, “LeGrand’s claim that automated employees will improve the economy is patently false. Those of us who didn’t go to college, whether we’re 34 or 16, and are looking for jobs, will find it hard to get a job and contribute to America and our ever-more-connected world. That’s less money . . .”

As the anchor and union leader spoke, Steve’s friends watched the video and commented on it.

“I want to see Adrian’s ecomment come on!”, said Jocasta.

“Agreed”, said Sharon. The group waited around for Adrian’s comment to stream.

As they chatted, Kevin intently watched Miguel Ortiz’ lips move. “Every era brings its own changes, and with those changes new problems are created that need to be fixed”, Miguel Ortiz said. Kevin took in the meaning of those words.

“Fighting words”, said Jeff.

The group continued to watch. Then Jocasta shouted: “Oh my word, it’s Adrian!”

The following ecomment streamed:

#24Apr2028Story2 %Adrian Kerekes: @Los Caballos, CA !Dude! I work at the Open-mart! This is the last convenience store in Los Caballos not to use autoids. They haven’t fallen into the cap-trap like the other shussy convenience stores around here. LeGrand is a damn NIM!

Everyone in the room clapped.

When the story was over, everyone looked at the pictures. Peter saw picture 3, which showed an AALL card and thumbprint. “Pick 3!”

Tae-yeon pressed 3, and a different news story came on. “Welcome to King TV”, an anchor said, “I’m Trevor Ho.” Trevor Ho was a 23-year-old boy with unkempt hair and glasses. “AALL cards are a very useful invention of the twelveties. We use them for buying sapodilla wine, to travel to Argentina, or to show medical information in case we need our spleen removed. But they can also make trouble if someone else gets their hands on them.”

“You said it!”, said Sharon as the group watched.

“Frank Precioso, member of an AALL card theft band in California, has been apprehended in Nevada. Nevada attorney general Harry O’Day says Precioso will be prosecuted to the full extent of Nevada law, as if he had pulled off this crime in Nevada instead of California . . .”

Sharon’s face beamed. “They got him!”

“Watch the stream!”, said Peter, jumping up and down.

Trevor Ho continued. “For three months, Precioso, 44, was involved in an identity theft ring with fellow California men Lee Wayne Sutherland, Jeffrey ‘Switcher’ Hess, and John Jones. A total of 134 stolen AALL cards were found on Precioso when he was arrested.”

Jocasta was jumping for joy. “Now when they gonda get the other three?”

“Precioso took the Fifth when asked what this massive pile of AALL cards were being used for”, Trevor Ho said. The screen showed 134 AALL cards, each with its own unique thumbprint.

But the group was watching the stream from eSpeak. Eventually this ecomment came up:

#24Apr2028Story3 %Peter Stouffer: @Los Caballos, CA !Just want to say I was the one who photoed that stiffer. Without Steve and I photoing him, those jerks might still be nicking cards today! Just hope they get ALL, or should that be AALL, of those bastards.

The group cheered.

“Peter, your work is workin’!”, said Rochelle.

“On MY network!”, said Jeff. “I couldn’t be prouder!”

“That’s really grilling, Peter”, said Tae-yeon.

“I’m so relieved we’re fin’lly making headway”, said Stephanie.

“Jeff, I know what to do with this King TV”, said Richie.

“I’m all ears”, said Jeff, his back turned to the video game console and his face turned to Richie.

“Please do a feature on DZD with my friend Steve in it. Talk all about it. Show Steve – how miserable he is. If more people know about it, they might – just might – start working on a cure. And if they test it, Steve will be . . . he’ll be the most famous guy to have it.”

“Brilliant idea, Richie!”, said Jeff.

“Now, I’d definitely watch that!”, said Tae-yeon.

“Now, that’s a smart idea, Richie”, said Rochelle. “They could save my Steve! In fact, I’ll even buy a King remote and subscribe to King TV from now on!”

“And that will make Jeff . . .”, began Kevin. $55 richer!”