by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
I met Shi on Lala Online Meet&Chat. She outwitted me with her fast talk. Her profile showed her long, black hair cascading over her shoulders and a wide smile, so different from my short, spiky hair and thin lips. Unlike many of the other cosmopolitan bachelorettes on Lala, she didn’t cake her face over with layers of makeup. In a lot of her photos, she wore jeans and permutations of dinosaur shirts. I thought she looked “counterculture” to my “unstylish,” and “down-to-earth” to my “aloof,” and was surprised when she pinged me.
Three months of messages and video chatting and she was pinging me again, flooding me with a series of emoticons: Christmas trees, presents, Santa Claus faces, and stegosauruses dressed up as elves. We promised to exchange couple gifts and she also sent me a box of apples last night on Christmas Eve, one of these new customs for the holiday, a play on words of Ping’an Ye (Christmas Eve) where the ping is homophonous to apple. I really felt like a couple, like we were really dating, not simply virtual dating. When I mentioned that, she laughed and assured me we were, as I long as I was okay with it.
Today, Christmas Day, she sent me another present.
SHI: C’mon, open it.
PENG: I can’t. I’m too nervous. My hands are shaking and sweating all at once.
SHI: Don’t make me come over and open it for you.
PENG: Could you, really?
SHI: Get on a plane right now from Shanghai to Hebei? I wish.
PENG: I’m pulling off the ribbon… Oh, wow, it’s a… bird!
SHI: Not a bird, it’s Caihong Juji.
PENG: The Rainbow Dinosaur…
SHI: Yes, and with moving parts.
PENG: Oh, very cool! I should’ve guessed. [T-Rex emoji]
PENG: [Sent “Photo of the opened bot-toy in my hand”]
PENG: It’s got a battery pack.
SHI: Flash batt-charge it, will you? I don’t think they prep it in the warehouse.
I flashed the FillRay at the battery and it fully charged in seconds. I stuck the battery in the compartment under Caihong’s clawed feet and it came to life. Its crimson, lime, yellow and azure blue quills shone in radiance as the LEDs switched on, accentuating the plumage that gave the creature its “rainbow” name. It moved pretty smoothly for a toy that size, flapping its wings and tail.
“It’s perfect,” I typed back. I felt my heart ache, thinking of Shi, choosing Caihong for me.
I felt a nudge at my fingers. The Caihong robot, flashing its emblem of colors, was trying to crawl towards my scrolling orb. I moved the dinosaur toy to the top of my head, where it started stomping, messing up my hair.
Shi knew that my parents named me Jingwei, the mythological bird that arose from a drowned daughter and dropped twigs into the sea. I thought that was a bit too tragic, and called myself Peng, for the fabulous creature that turned from fish to bird, even if it was a guy’s name. I thought it was a better upgrade, all about transformation and being reborn, jettisoning the seas for the skies.
SHI: You know, I always thought a Caihong was a better fit for you than Peng. Though, obviously you call yourself whatever you want and I respect that.
PENG: Why do you think Caihong’s better?
SHI: Well, the rainbow dinosaur iridescent feathers on its neck and chest. You always have a bit of garish flair to you.
PENG: I guess…? I hope that’s a good thing.
SHI: Don’t worry, I love it. All those tie-dyed bandanas?
SHI: Plus, she’s from Hebei.
PENG: [Sent “Caihong climbing up my screen” video]
SHI: Caihong. Yeah, she’s totally into you, too. I can see it from the way she’s fussing with your hair, the way I’d do if I were there. She’s deep learning fast. Making all those connections in her black box.
I coaxed Shi to open my gift.
SHI: An open ticket to Hebei.
PENG: It’s not very subtle.
SHI: I’d definitely visit. Once things start slowing down over here.
PENG: Do they ever slow down in Shanghai?
SHI: Well, maybe not, but I’ll make the time off, I promise…
We wished each other Merry Christmas, whispered sweet nothings. Shi texted a narrated account of a short striptease, which made me laugh, and we signed off.
That night the Lala app disappeared and with it, so did all her contact info that I never moved off the app.
It was like magic, one day Shi was there, an entity in my life, meaning in my existence, and the next, not. Shut down without a trace. Her profile, my own, along with five million other users—not to mention all our history. Poof.
I frantically searched for her. I even talked to Caihong Juji.
“Come on, Cai, did you at least grab a screenshot of her phone number or something?”
I couldn’t believe after all this time, I had not a scrap of info about Shi. The packaging of the box just showed the same P.O. Box address in Shanghai. That P.O. Box came up with nothing in the searches. It still bothered me that I didn’t save anything, but why would’ve I done that? We kept everything on their server, why would we even bother when it was so easily accessible?
I felt numb. Our lines were cut. Nothing, not even messaging history to reminisce with.
For days, I sat around before the New Year, calling off from work, dazed and dejected, watching Caihong learn on her own. I was supposed to help her. Teach her tricks and such. But, even watching her fetch a stick, that she had learned on her own, made me dejected. It reminded me of the name I left behind, Jingwei, relegated to tossing twigs into the sea.
On New Year’s Eve, Caihong walked into the room in her usual strut. I saw her mechanical legs leap from the windowsill and she would flap, flap, flap in wild movements until she tumbled onto the ground.
“Cai, you’re not meant to fly. You’re 161 million years old, with wings too rudimentary to work. Like your ancestral counterpart, your toy self isn’t made to get airborne.”
Cai bounced onto the floor again. She came over to my feet and nudged me with her paravian theropod snout, made of chrome. She bit my pants sleeve and tugged.
“What? What? I’m busy.” I continued to lie on the ground, staring at the ceiling. Something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. Her iridescent quills flashed in alarming patterns of light, zipping through the ROYGBIV spectrum and back. This was urgent.
I’d never seen her do that before.
I got up and she hopped away, perching on her claws every few hops to make sure I was following.
She led me to a line for a bus. It was one of those commercial ones, heading a bit further than the regular city bus.
I asked one of the bus passengers where we were heading, before paying the fare. Cai crawled into my bandana, camouflaging with the tie-dye.
“Why, the special exhibition at dinosaur egg museum of course,” said the old lady, giving me a strange look of surprise.
The landscape unfolded before us in the expanse of the mountainside. It did remind me a bit of Jurassic Park, Shi’s favorite movie.
I thought of her and I wanted to crawl back into bed. Did she even try to get in touch with me?
Cai hopped excitedly on my collarbone under my bandana. I shushed her. They led us into the craggy facility and down winding steps that led us to a dark room, lit only dimly in the center. It revealed a landscape like a giant chocolate bar spread out before me with oversized peanuts, ovoid forms trapped in petrified dirt.
“These dinosaur eggs are 80 million years old,” the tour guide said into the mic. The museumgoers oohed, stepping closer to the rail.
I didn’t know if the echo of that broadcasted voice bothered her, but Cai went into a frenzy, scratching me with her claws, until I loosened my bandana, cursing under my breath. She alighted, using her feathers to slow her fall and jumped into the pit.
“No,” I yelled. She leaped onto eggs, just sitting there, as if trying to incubate them.
“Caihong?” A familiar voice made my heart thump. It was so soft I didn’t dare believe… did I imagine it?
The voice continued. “Wait, if Caihong’s here, then… that means… Peng? Are you here, Peng?”
I turned around. In the darkness of the building, I hadn’t seen her. But here she was. Shi. Wearing professional clothes, with her hair tied in a bun.
We embraced. I held onto her, smelling lilac.
“What are you doing here?”
“I applied to intern here. They were looking for someone in Hebei. I snatched the opportunity, worrying you would slip away from me. It was right after I got your ticket.”
“I couldn’t find you because of—”
“Yeah, the app went down. That’s why I had to come here. I had to find you. I searched day and night and couldn’t get a clue from you. I posted a lot of messages on forums, hoping to catch your eye.”
“I’ve been… not in the best of moods.” I smiled at her. “But it’s getting better.”
We leaned against the rail and Caihong must have decided to give up on incubation. She flew up towards where we stood above the artifacts.
“I can’t believe she can do that,” said Shi.
“No, fly! It’s not in her specs.”
“Neither is combing the forums. Who knew she could hook up with the internet like that?”
Shi grinned, giving me a sly look, as if to say, Maybe I did.
Cai landed on my hand and nudged me, then Shi.
I put my hand over Shi’s, feeling her warmth and said, “Specs don’t define her.”
“Or me and you,” said Shi, her voice soft. “No matter what those standard dating algorithms say. We transcend our specs, our out-of-the-box state.”
Shi squeezed my hand as Cai took off again, leaving a ghost trail of bright hues.
© 2020 by D.A. Xiaolin Spires
March 27th, 2020
D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears or is forthcoming in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Grievous Angel, Fireside, Galaxy’s Edge, StarShipSofa, Andromeda Spaceways (Year’s Best Issue), Diabolical Plots, Factor Four, Pantheon, Outlook Springs, ROBOT DINOSAURS, Mithila Review, LONTAR, Reckoning, Issues in Earth Science, Liminality, Star*Line, Polu Texni, Argot, Eye to the Telescope, Liquid Imagination, Gathering Storm Magazine, Little Blue Marble, Story Seed Vault, and anthologies of the strange and beautiful: Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Future Visions, Deep Signal, Battling in All Her Finery, and Broad Knowledge. She can be found on Twitter @spireswriter and on her website at daxiaolinspires.wordpress.com.
This story’s illustration is by Kosmic Arts!