There Are No Hot Topics on Whukai
by Andrea Kriz
The day the dMods shut down Skeleton Caves, Esko put on her VR goggles and slipped into the Whukai space colony’s main chatroom to figure out what was going on. All the Whukains who made their living off the popular Terran MMORPG, d’Artagnan, had the same idea. Beside her, on top of her, avatars logged in—an absolute pandemonium of photorealistic, 8-bit, anime animals and humanoids and everything in between. The two main gold-farming clans had already started fighting among themselves.
“How many times did I tell you PKers,” the head of Esko’s clan screeched. “To leave the Terran players alone!”
“It don’t matter how many Terran players we killed,” leader of the rival HunterFam roared, “when you idiots kept giving us away by speaking Kainese! We. Must. Speak. Terran languages! That’s why all the Terran players reported us to the dMods!”
Esko tore off her VR goggles, tossing them onto her bunk. The interior of her sleeping pod, one toy block in a cluster of thousands, flooded back into view. A storm had kicked up outside, clogging her porthole with Whukai’s trademark scarlet soil. She didn’t have time to waste arguing over whose fault it was that d’Art’s most lucrative moneymaking method had been nerfed. She needed to come up with four hundred dollars for her parents’ chemo drugs. And this month’s rent.
Out in the communal podway, the unemployed squatted over virtual dice, hung laundry. Or tried to as the soilstorm battered the rusted corridors, sent debris showering down from the ceiling. Esko followed the pod cluster’s quantum tangles—discernable from the pipes and electrical cables by their flickering—to her favorite InterplaNet café. No need to pay for time on her personal net connection when she wasn’t making money, after all. Her former high school teacher ran the place. He had a soft spot for her, ever since she’d dropped out to gold-farm full-time when her parents had been transitioned to living in the med pod. Like most Whukains he had multiple gigs, teaching virtually behind the café desk between running errands for those that spent their days, here, in VR. Usually gaming themselves into oblivion.
“Nice to see you, Esko. I don’t suppose you’re here to ask about reenrolling?”
“Don’t joke,” Esko grunted. “The dMods nerfed Skeleton Caves from five million gold to five hundred thousand per hour. I need a job.”
She collapsed into an empty VR station in the first row of cubicles.
“You gotta pay for that, you know.”
She slid on the VR goggles. The café’s virtual interface flooded in around her, grand and gaudy but somehow just as grimy. Her ex-teacher had the head of a rat. And a neon cigarette. He shrugged and went back to reading his manga.
“Any new MMOs?”
“Sure. Lots of new releases. None that we can log in to.”
Esko scowled. More and more game moderators auto-banned Whukain virtual footprints each day, it seemed. Figured. Earth cared more about maintaining the fake economies of their MMORPGs than providing a means of survival for millions of colonists on the planet of Whukai. Who did it hurt if Esko wanted to play, not for fun, but to farm virtual gold that some lazy Terran would pay real money for?
“There’s a Terran girl in the chatroom, though. She’s got an—offer.”
Her ex-teacher shrugged.
Esko figured it was a troll, but the avatar in the café lounge could only belong to a Terran. She had waist-length purple hair for one. And eyes to match. Seeing that, Esko opted not to spring onto one of the floating couches or the rusted mecha suit, that titan of a war machine, draped with neon lights. She thudded into a chair. On second thought, maybe she should’ve switched off her d’Art avatar. At least toned down the detail, the Skeleton dust caked on her adamant brawler claws. She could shapeshift into a bear with her totem. But she wasn’t sure that would help.
“Heard you have a job.”
“Yeah. I’m interviewing people.”
She waited, as if expecting Esko to be the one to start asking questions.
“I’m an author.”
“Oh,” Esko said. “That’s nice.”
“I’ll take you,” the Author said. “You’re the first girl who applied, you know. Who can speak Universal Terran. And I can tell you like shopping at Hot Topic too.”
Esko blinked. Hot Topic? Like from the ancient Terran net memes? The franchise had made a comeback recently—she’d seen virtual storefronts advertised in d’Art. But quantum export was expensive. No one around her could pay for throwback goth-slash-emo fashion.
“There are no Hot Topics on Whukai,” Esko said.
“Um. That might be a problem.”
“What are you an author of?”
“Elegy of Mortals? It’s like, one of the most popular net novels on LitFanFic. Millions of readers. It’s a Mecha Saint 2.0 high school AU fic? Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“I need to know what the job is.”
“You’re going to be my friend.”
“But you’ll be paying me.”
“Yeah! I mean, it’s like an acting job. You’ll only be pretending to be my friend. Who’s also from Whukai,” the Author added quickly. “I just haven’t been able to get in touch with her lately. Here. I’ll send you a bunch of messages between us so you can get an idea of her personality and stuff. I’ll need you to have all of this read and be ready by tomorrow.”
It became immediately obvious to Esko upon seeing the “friend’s” messages that they had been written by the Author herself. At first, she just felt sorry for her. The Author must not have anybody who wanted to be friends with her in real life. Because, if this Whukain friend was real, why not just ask Esko to find her? Then again—why make this “friend” Whukain in the first place? Still. A job was a job.
“Tomorrow?” Esko asked. “Be ready for what?”
“Oh. Nothing much. Just a chat with some of my other friends.”
The next Terran night—which Esko still wasn’t entirely sure, even after constant explanations about planetary rotations, that the Author understood was different from Whukain night—Esko met her in a popular Terran virtual chatroom. Esko tottered, uncomfortable in her newly gifted avatar, as the Author wove her arm through hers and they clicked into an elevator. In its mirrored walls, they could pass for twins. Purple and pink-haired girls with big boobs, decked out in hover heels and black dresses with way too many belts and buckles.
“If the questions get too hard, don’t say anything,” the Author said.
Too hard, Esko wondered? Wasn’t this supposed to be a party—soiree, the Author called it—between friends? The doors slid open to a penthouse. Floor-to-ceiling panes alternated between the socials and views of the rest of the virtual city. Over a cushion pit, neon words floated—Literary Night. Ask Me Anything! xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx, author of Elegy of Mortals. Everywhere, avatars stood, sat, lounged. Unlike Whukai, where people used whatever style they could afford or pirate, all these figures were human. Like the Author’s they had hyper-realistic expression tracking. Which made them uncanny. Their eyes—dead.
“You didn’t say there was going to be this many people here,” Esko hissed.
The Author ignored her, plowing through the crowd. They stopped a few paces from the cushion pit. The prettiest avatars of the entire room sprawled there. The Author had informed Esko these were other Authors, in fact the most popular ones on LitFanFic.
“Here she is! My friend from Whukai.”
“Yeah,” Esko said. “I exist.”
A beep from the bot sniffing at her heel verified her virtual footprint was indeed Whukain. The other Authors stared at her, their lips politely stretching into shark smiles. She felt more like an embattled Terran commander at a war crime tribunal. Not a guest at a “soiree”.
“What’s your name?”
“What pod cluster in Whukai are you from?”
“How did you write chapter six of Elegy of Mortals and upload to the Terran net when there was a planet-wide outage on Whukai?”
“My friend,” the Author cut in, “won’t be answering any of those questions. You know how difficult it is for a Whukain to out herself on the Terran net.”
“What’s the name of the implied double agent in season 13 of Mecha Saint 2.0?”
“I just said she’s not going to be answering those questions!” the Author bellowed. “My friend could be prosecuted by her home planet authorities.”
“Persecuted,” Esko said.
“Is it that bad?”
All heads turned to Esko for once.
“I could be shot by the Whukain authorities,” she said. “Just for being here.”
It wasn’t even that much of an exaggeration, Esko realized, as her words sent a shock wave of oohing and tittering through the room. Technically Whukains were only allowed on a Terran-approved list of sites. Though InterplaNet Compliance rarely slapped more than a fine on anyone that didn’t, for example, storm gaming livestreams en-masse, screaming about Terran tyranny. And shot was a bit archaic. More likely, you’d be thrown out of your pod cluster, to brave the deserts that covered 90% of Whukai and get eaten by a nequ. The socials screens lit up with posts. The Author settled into the cushion pit while the crowd converged, putting their hands on Esko’s shoulders, saying things like: Thank you for risking your life to come here. You’re so brave. Shaking their heads gently: I’m sorry we didn’t believe you. This is the problem with Terran society. We need to be better. Esko’s head whirled. She’d said, like one sentence. What the hell was wrong with these people?
“That went great, Esko!” the Author squealed the second they stepped back in the elevator. “Great! I want more.”
“Are you free the same time next week?”
“This Terran girl, xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx, pays me to roleplay.”
Esko’s clanmates, assembled in the corner of a crowded marketplace in d’Art, shifted uncomfortably. From their scorched armor, feathers, and weird potion ingredients sticking out of their inventories, they’d resorted to truly desperate measures for making gold in her absence.
“Roleplay? Is it a sex thing?”
In her sleeping pod, Esko paused season 2, episode 12 of Mecha Saint 2.0. The Author had told her she needed to watch all three hundred plus episodes by their next meeting so she had no choice but to go at 4x speed, keeping one eye on it and her VR goggles over the other. Luckily, the brief action scenes where anything happened were interspersed with long episodes of monologues that she could mostly consult the Author’s character sheets to get the gist of. Everyone had a sentence or two of personality and backstory. Then paragraph upon paragraph summarizing their most popular romantic ships. Black text was canon material while neon pink was what the Author had ‘fixed’ in Elegy of Mortals. There was a lot of pink.
“I don’t think so.”
“You’ve gotta think outside of the box, Esko. You know how these Terrans are.”
“Does it matter if it’s a sex thing if she pays forty Terran dollars a session?” Esko snapped. “And you get a cut?”
The semi-legal d’Art gold-trading market, turned out, was the best way to anonymously transfer money from the Author to her. Esko walked the Author through the steps—basically what her gold-farming clan did, in reverse. The Author would buy billions in gold, transferring it to a ‘mule’ d’Art account. Esko would pick it up on the edge of the game world, an icy wasteland far from the dMods’ watchful gaze. She’d distribute it to her clan, who’d sell it back for Terran dollars in exchange for ten percent. Their rival clan, HunterFam, wanted to get in on the action too. But Esko brushed off their grandiose threats of bringing her whole “operation tumbling down”.
Was it a sex thing? To answer that, Esko would need to know who the Author really was. But that turned out to be one of the biggest mysteries on the Terran net. The LitFanFic elite—who’d all friended the Author by now and even liked her socials posts occasionally—had revealed themselves long ago, turning their net fame into appearances at virtual cons, writing workshop classes you could take for the low, low price of hundreds of Terran dollars, and sponsors. But the Author had done none of these things. The only clues Esko had came from Elegy of Mortals itself. From the set-up—a violet-eyed girl being recruited to Mecha Saint 2.0’s military academy after showing off her innate, supernatural mecha suit piloting abilities and romancing everyone in sight—the Author had to be Esko’s age. Esko herself had grown out of such self-inserts years ago. But generally, people grew up faster on Whukai.
True, Esko did feel icky at the now-weekly literary “soirees” the Author dragged her to. The Author let her customize her avatar after the first so she could be more comfortable, so smaller boobs, and a skin and hair color that was actually hers—in fact, make her hair even redder, her skin even darker, the Author had insisted. And the Author got to lounge in the cushion pit with all the other Authors while Esko got dragged around the room and asked really stupid questions. Like did the extra gravity on Whukai and having to live in pods really make people shorter and stupid. But that wasn’t really a sex thing. More of a prodding-at-an-exotic-animal, like a chained-up nequ, thing. So Esko read Elegy of Mortals’ Author Notes—jackpot. The Author couldn’t resist sprinkling them before, in the middle of, and after each chapter. Usually “real” comments “Esko” had made while “reading”—universal, gushing praise. But occasionally there was some back and forth and drama. Like once Esko had allegedly stolen a virtual pet and she and the Author didn’t talk for two months. And—
“I’m the co-author of Elegy of Mortals?”
“Only chapters five through six, thirty, forty-two, and eighty to ninety,” the Author said.
“What’s so special about those?”
“Well. They take place on Whukai.”
“Why do they take place on Whukai?”
The Author took a deep breath. Around them wavered the VR patio of a trendy Terran vaporwave bakery they’d taken to meeting at. The Author had even insisted on ordering virtual strawberry shortcakes they could pretend to eat. Esko couldn’t think of anything more Terran.
“Well,” the Author said, fake-chewing. “I got really interested in space colonist rights when we had all those protests on Earth. Like five years ago. I was just starting high school and saw a vid of that Terran peacekeeping tank run over all those Whukain students—it spoke to me. As the author of a Mecha Saint 2.0 fanfic with millions of readers on LitFanFic, I had to do something. Bring awareness. And—did you hear about the Space Colonist New Voices award? Now that it’s opening up to fanfiction, we can.”
Esko knew all about it. The Terrans had been spamming submission calls for the New Voices awards all over the Whukain net lately. Like the concept hadn’t been hastily cobbled together after yet more footage of Terrans mowing down yet more Whukains in the University pod cluster surfaced last month, triggering yet another round of protests on Earth.
“There’s no way Elegy of Mortals will win that kind of award,” Esko said.
Esko tried to explain. The Author didn’t even know that cars could not drive across the surface of Whukai due to the fineness of the sheran, the planet’s dusky soil. Ordinary goods had to be transported on sleds pulled by neqqi—a kind of lizard-like creature, bioengineered from the planet’s draconic native lifeform, nequ. When Earth had invaded, they’d been forced to haul everything on the backs of their mecha suits. That’s why the Whukain Independence War had lasted so long. Not because the Whukain rebels had mutated into scaly subhumans that could live underground, as the propaganda—which even Terran authorities admitted was super-space-colonist-ist now—claimed.
“Did you even get a Whukain to read this? All of it—it’s wrong.”
“Then fix it!”
“How can I fix it when it’s already published?”
“I do it all the time,” the Author said. “Patch up plotholes. The only copy of Elegy of Mortals is on LitFanFic, you know. I hired security bots to wipe all others—even the originals on my VR set. It gets updated in real time. Across all reader devices. You can change whatever you want, no one will be able to prove it was edited.”
But this wasn’t exactly fixing plotholes, Esko thought. The award consideration deadline was in three days, so she only had time to fix the net novel’s problems on the most surface level. Descriptions of the home pod cluster that the self-insert’s Whukain friend had invited the entire mecha cadet class to. The Author seemed to be under the impression that they had indoor pools and malls and palm trees, like some kind of freaking resort. She axed the entire beach volleyball tournament arc. The Author put her foot down on the kidnapped-by-Whukain-rebels arc, though. The best Esko could do was redeem the rebel captain by making him realize that the mecha cadets were just children, after all, and what he was doing was no better than his own tragic childhood, really, and then shooting himself in the head. The Author refused to let him survive, but Esko succeeded in not making him a romantic interest, at least.
“Don’t hold your breath,” Esko told the Author as she sent the submission, seconds before the cut-off. “We’re not going to win.”
They won, of course.
“Art inspires change. That’s why I write.”
At the VR awards ceremony, Esko wound up at the foot of the stage while, at the podium, the Author gave the acceptance speech. It’d be easier this way, the Author had explained. The Terrans would have trouble understanding her accent—the Author never had a problem understanding Esko, even if she did have an accent—and there was always the risk that Esko could forget something and screw it up. She could come up and hold the trophy at the end.
“Fanfiction, especially, draws inspiration from its source material,” the Author continued. “Mecha Saint 2.0 has always upheld the dignity of its space colonist characters. Remember the last episode of season 17, right before the hiatus. When Scarlet Crow promised Mecha Saint Maria that he would stay with the Terran holdouts until the end, that he wouldn’t defect to the Whukain rebels. When Maria found his mecha suit, scorched and abandoned, you all assumed that he’d lied. Because he was a space colonist. Because that’s what space colonists do. But when season 18 finally aired, we found out Scarlet Crow did fight until the end, even stepping out of his mecha suit to keep shooting the rebels when it broke down, and he did get incinerated for Maria. Hashtag, I believe in Scarlet Crow. Hashtag, I believe in space colonists. Hashtag, I believe in Whukai!”
That triggered thunderous applause, to Esko’s disbelief. During the ensuing cocktail hour, the Author held court, arm around Esko, champagne glass in her other hand. They wore matching shimmering gowns and Esko set her avatar to perma-smile for all the net journalists. The Author got most of the questions, of course.
“I’ve been meaning to ask, xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx. How did you meet your Whukain friend? It’s not like communication between the Terran and Whukain nets was ever easy. Especially five years ago, when you started writing Elegy of Mortals.”
The Author took a deep breath.
“There’s something I’ve never told you guys. But I’ve wanted to, all these years.”
Even Esko perked up at that. Had the Author somehow gotten virtually drunk?
“Thank you for being such a welcoming community. I finally feel comfortable enough to say it. I. I. I—was born on Whukai. To my mom and a Terran mecha captain.”
Esko couldn’t breathe.
“My pod cluster was caught in the fighting and destroyed by rebels in the Whukain Independence War. I was eight years old. My mom gave me to my dad, the Terran mecha captain, and he flew me out just in time. I literally watched my family’s pod blow up below me. Of course, when my dad got back to Earth, he couldn’t admit who I was. So, he gave me to my current family. Who always wanted a child, but could never have one. I’m so lucky,” the Author sniffled. “To have been so loved.”
Esko didn’t waste any time dragging the Author back into the elevator. She couldn’t even wait until they’d reached the ground floor.
“Why the hell did you say you were Whukain?”
“Well. Half-Whukain.” The Author giggled. “I practically am, I hang out so much with you. At this point.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
The Author sighed at Esko’s look.
“Because it’s cool to be Whukain.”
Cool? Esko gritted her teeth as the Author went on and on, about how everyone was talking about space colonists’ rights, and how no one was listening to all her ideas about how to make Terran-Whukain relations better, but now they would, and read Elegy of Mortals too . . . Whukai wasn’t a store, like Hot Topic, that you could go into and browse, hack out bits and pieces of history and culture and guts to wear like a fashion statement. It was—everything.
“Why’d you make up all that about the Terran mecha captain and the rebels?”
“Well. It had to be realistic. How else would I have gotten to Earth?”
“It’s not realistic at all!”
“I’m sorry, Esko. I should’ve consulted you. We can retcon it.”
“It’s not about that.”
“I lived through the Terran-Whukain war. You don’t understand what Earth did to us.”
“I do! We had to learn about it in school and stuff.”
“When I was actually eight,” Esko continued. “We had to run because we heard the Terrans were coming. All the adults, my parents, even though my mom and dad were just mechanics, stayed to fight the mecha suits. The kids and old people put on as many layers of thermal on as we could and took as much food as we could. We ran across the deserts, to the mountains. The Terrans kept bombing us. A lot of us died that way. We couldn’t even get the bodies because the nequ picked them off. After a week, we ran out of food. We had to go back.”
Esko wouldn’t talk about those next days. The stench of burning plastic. The mecha suits that stood sentry all around the pod cluster, massive titans of starsteel. Their arms outstretched. Dozens of rebels hanged from their fingers.
“My mom and dad were still alive. But they’ll be sick from radiation for the rest of their lives. And the Terrans—they took my older brother. I never saw him again.”
“I’m sorry, Esko. I had no idea.”
Esko was crying now. She hadn’t thought of her brother in years. She thought she was over it. The stories she only learned when she was older, how the Terrans had used conscripted Whukains as meat shields—just to preserve their multi-billion dollar mecha suits from dents or scratches. Stories they could cry fake tears over now that Whukai was safely subjugated again. The Author was holding her now, virtually, saying she understood. Why did Esko have to relive all this shit just for some Terran idiot to understand?
“I wish you’d told me.”
“I wish I’d never taken this fucking job.”
That must be it, Esko thought. The Author had gotten what she wanted, after all. Influence, a fanbase forever loyal to her in the name of showing that they were good Terrans, that they supported space colonists—and a Terran publishing megaconglomerate had even offered her a memoir book deal. All wrapped up in a perfectly crafted excuse for not revealing her identity. Even as Esko tried to bury herself in d’Art again, disintegrating Skeleton Dragon after Skeleton Dragon, she saw the advertisements for the Author’s upcoming book. Same Space, Same Sky: How I rediscovered my identity and home planet through writing fanfiction . . . Like a bad dream, she thought, that would be the last remnant of the Author in her life. But a couple of Terran weeks later, the Author’s voice floated into her sleeping pod, a ghost in Whukai’s second moonrise.
“Esko. Esko, I need you.”
Because of course she did. Esko groggily stumbled over to her VR station. She didn’t have to go far. It was trending all over the InterplaNet: #ElegyOfMortalsEXPOSED. The usual menagerie of Whukain avatars side-by-side with Terran ones in suits and prim dresses, in the same livestream clip played over and over again:
“We are HunterFam, a d’Artagnan gold-farming clan from Whukai.”
“And we are a community of concerned LitFanFic readers. Together we have irrefutable evidence that xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx is lying about her connection to the colony of Whukai. We don’t have the real name of her Whukain ‘friend’, or a face ID. But we do have the last four numbers of her VR footprint, and that’s enough.”
A visual: two numbers morphed into shooting stars, soaring over a list of virtual locations. Glowing when they came close, remaining dark when they did not.
“As you can see, the ‘Whukain friend’s’ profile did not interact with that of xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx until a certain day three Terran months ago. A day we can confirm—through d’Art real money transaction records that HunterFam collected in-game—that corresponds to when xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx started paying this ‘friend’. For the service of corroborating her made-up life story, presumably.”
“We’re only asking for one thing, xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx: do a face reveal. Come clean. Do the right thing. Or we’ll make you.”
After the initial shock faded, relief flooded Esko.
It was over.
“How are we going to get out of this one?” the Author whimpered.
“We’re not,” Esko said. “Just like HunterFam said. You have to come clean.”
But she should’ve known the Author had agreed too easily. When she started livestreaming on the socials, it wasn’t with a face reveal. Not even in an avatar designed to evoke pity. No hoodie, no running make-up, no bloodshot eyes to make it look like she’d been awake, pondering her response, ever since the news broke. The Author stood in a pair of neon butterfly wings and her favorite black, covered-with-belts dress. She smiled, as if a bit afraid.
“There’s something I haven’t been telling you. But I promise, it’s all for good reason. I want to start off by saying—everything those LitFanFic readers and HunterFam said is true. The person I’ve been bringing to the VR chatrooms isn’t the person I said she was. She isn’t my Whukain friend. I have been paying her to pretend. Because—my Whukain best friend is dead.”
The Author started crying. Trying to. She huffed and puffed and virtual tears came out.
“She’s been dead ever since the rebel attack on my pod cluster when I was eight. I learned later that Terran troops had taken her. Not good people, like my dad and his mecha crew. They used her and other kidnapped Whukains as human shields. I struggled with that for a long time. Knowing that most Terrans were good. But others, a small minority, could be truly evil. That’s why I haven’t been honest with you . . .”
Esko wasn’t listening. She leaned back and pushed up her VR goggles. That would freeze her avatar, T-posed and gape-mouthed. But she didn’t care. She could barely stand to hear the Author’s voice when she returned to her. Let alone look at her.
“Why did you say I was dead?”
“Esko, don’t you see? This was the only way to save it. Look.”
On the socials, Elegy of Mortals was trending again: #IBelieveInButterfly. It all makes sense with her past. The VR footprints. A split personality. Scripting some actor to play the forbidden half of her history. But HunterFam says they’ve met the fake friend. You really believe a bunch of gold-farmers? xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx only lied in the first place because of Terran pressure. Because we wouldn’t believe her. It makes sense. That she wouldn’t want to talk about it . . .
“And—well, I’ll get more people reading Elegy of Mortals if they feel sorry for me because my best friend is dead.”
“And there’s no more use for me now that you’re Whukain, is that it?”
“Esko. Don’t be like that. I’ll still need your help with making things realistic.”
“No, wait! I’ll pay you more.”
The Author whispered. An amount that gave Esko pause, even now. Could she really afford to say no? There was no way she’d find another job as well paying as this. She’d been saving. Hoping to move her parents to a better medical pod. She hadn’t spoken to them much. Since all this started.
“I’ll think about it,” Esko said, hating herself.
But the Author didn’t give her time to think. Her shrill voice invaded Esko’s sleeping pod only a few Terran hours later:
“Esko! Esko! They’re on my LitFanFic account! I can’t—I can’t log in.”
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“The attackers. They’re from Whukai. They blocked all Terran virtual footprints.”
Payback, Esko thought. Serves the Terrans right. She slipped on her VR goggles. No one was in the login lobby of LitFanFic at this hour. She entered the password the Author had given her. To her surprise, the account swung open. So the attackers really hadn’t thought to block her. Underestimated yet again. Or they didn’t think she would actually go in, like a neqqi at the Author’s command. Paragraphs of pink text, cover art, streamed past her. She’d never been on this side of the net novel before. She could hear the guffaws of the others logged in—HunterFam trawling for info about the Author to sell to their Terran cronies, no doubt. She opened a virtual chat window.
“Oh my gosh,” the Author sighed in relief. “See the security panel? Yeah, that’s it. Kick everyone off the account. Return the access to me. That’s it.”
Esko’s hand hovered over the interface. As if it’d taken on a life of its own.
“Why should I?”
“Are you kidding me?” the Author exploded. “It’s my account! My net novel!”
“But people are only interested in Elegy of Mortals because of the Whukai chapters, right? And I practically wrote those.”
“Are you joking? You only got to write them because of me! You didn’t even want to. I had to force you to. You’re only famous because of me!”
“No. You’re only famous because you pretended to be Whukain. Because you pretended about all that stuff with the war. Because you pretended to be me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. It could’ve been anyone else.”
Esko was stunned at how quickly the Author’s voice warped.
“It could’ve been anyone. I had the pick of everyone on your shitty planet. You’re nothing. You should be grateful. Don’t be so uppity, you Whukain worm—”
Esko shut the chat window and blocked her. With a flick, everybody else. All virtual footprints save her own. That gave her plenty of time to ransack the profile. That’s when Esko realized. The Author didn’t even exist in relation to this LitFanFic account anymore. She hadn’t put any of her real information in. And she’d never told it to Esko either. Only all those fake stories—so who knew whether Esko actually knew anything about her after all.
Do the right thing, HunterFam had said.
Anyone could be the owner of this account now. Anyone. Esko took a deep breath and turned off her avatar. In its place appeared a real vid of herself. Disheveled, yet glowing from the light of her VR set. She opened a socials window and just started livestreaming, knowing somewhere, out there, some fans would watch and someone would record it and it would never be lost. She waited for them to come.
Do the right thing.
She could log off. Leave the account dormant, inaccessible.
Or—she could reach out and take it. A platform was a platform, after all. If Esko struck out on her own, a solitary Whukain, she’d never, never get as many readers as this. Why not take advantage of that audience? She could fix Elegy of Mortals, be a better Whukain advocate than the Author ever could. Turn the net novel into a force for good. But what good could ever come out of a steaming pile of shit like Elegy of Mortals?
Do the right thing.
She leaned in and spoke to the invisible masses:
“My name is Esko. You might know me as xXButterflyDragonEmpressQueenXx. That’s right. I’m the author of Elegy of Mortals. And now I am going to delete it.”
I enjoyed this story by Andrea Kriz so much I immediately went to look at what else she’s written, and then read a whole bunch of her other stories as well. Her title story of her forthcoming collection, “Learning to Hate Yourself as a Defense Mechanism”, also looks at similar themes of gaming and storytelling and appropriation–but deals with them in a different way, exploring a different subset of things that can happen at the intersection of these topics.
One of the things I really enjoyed in Kriz’s work–in addition to these beautifully explored thematic elements–is the richness and complexity she gives her tech worlds. (And worlds in general, for that matter.) I could easily slip into the virtual worlds she created here, and believe in their existence. I loved all the details of the VR world of d’Artagnan, as well as all the avatars and chatrooms that pop up in the story as Esko talks to The Author. Like, the matching avatars The Author initially creates for Esko and herself to wear. Or the description of them meeting in a vaporware bakery and *of course* The Author orders virtual strawberry shortcakes. The richness and complexity of the virtual worlds they navigate gives the stories a marvelous grounding.
And that grounding, of course, gives a marvelous jumping off point for a story that explores the ramifications of anonymity and appropriation. Who can tell these stories, who gets awards for these stories. (And what happens when you can instantly retcon, and no one can prove you didn’t!) We never get an unmasking of The Author, of course. Because of course in the end what matters is what Esko decides to do.
And our closing quotation this week is from Chelsea Cain in LET ME GO, who said “Give someone anonymity and all social niceties break down.”
Thank you for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Andrea Kriz is a PhD scientist in Biological and Biomedical Sciences based in Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, among others. Find her online at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @theworldshesaw.
About the Narrator
Valerie Valdes is the co-editor and occasional host of Escape Pod.
Valerie lives in an elaborate meme palace with her husband and kids, where she writes, edits and moonlights as a muse. She enjoys crafting bespoke artisanal curses, playing with swords, and admiring the outdoors from the safety of her living room. Her short fiction and poetry have been featured in Uncanny Magazine, Time Travel Short Stories and Nightmare Magazine. Her debut novel Chilling Effect was shortlisted for the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was also named one of Library Journal’s best SF/fantasy novels of 2019. Join her in opining about books, video games and parenting on Twitter @valerievaldes or find out more at http://candleinsunshine.com/.