August Writing Contest Winner: Freedom and Destiny
This month's contest asked our writers to create a story around the contents of the following sign, while adding a twist of some kind: There's a sign above a busy street that says: "Juliet, unblock my number! I went to your workplace with flowers, but you refused to see me. I just wanted to say that I LOVE YOU. Please forgive me. Take me back!"
Freedom and Destiny
by Brian Nutwell
Juliet leaned against the rough wooden bar, her armor clinking as she drained her (well-deserved) third flagon of ale. Under her breath she was humming “Freedom and Destiny,” the official theme song of the Realm. It had been another good day, as evidenced by the severed dragon’s head currently staining the dirt floor around her boots with black blood.
Her attention was drawn by a cheerful new voice. “So you must be the legendary Juli3t_tha_slay3r I’ve been hearing so much about. You know you can put that thing in inventory and it won’t leak on the floor, right?”
The newcomer was tall and pale, raven hair pulled back from high cheekbones and pointed ears. She wore ebony leather “armor” that protected very little and revealed quite a lot, and an impractically large sword was strapped to her back. She stood with a hand on one cocked hip, her large green eyes shimmering faintly.
Well hello, babe! You ARE new here. When did that happen?
Faced with the choice between talking business, ignoring the woman altogether, or accepting the offer to flirt, Juliet made the obvious decision.
“If I put it away, then nobody would ask me to regale them with my tale of victory, now would they? Call me Juliet. Maybe we could move this conversation somewhere more private?”
Several minutes later, as they lay before a roaring fire with their naked limbs entwined, the stranger spoke again. “Wow. That was legendary, Juliet. My name is Kira. Maybe I could meet you IRL?”
Travis cursed, yanked off the headset, and mashed the LOGOUT button repeatedly.
“What the actual fuck!? Don’t people have any boundaries anymore?”
Creepy stalker bitch. I thought that super-hot babe was a Non Player Character you could hook up with. Guess it was just some douchebag with a sexy girl avatar, trolling for real world chicks, he thought without a hint of irony.
A chime from his phone reminded him that it was 9:45AM. Whatever. Gotta make an appearance at the office.
Walking up to his car always made him feel better. The Tesla Model Q was completely spotless except for the Kleiner Perkins parking sticker. He admired the vintage 1985 California “88MPH” license plate for a moment. $25K on eBay, baby!
He was barely in the car, when FreeRealm Software LLC popped up on the dashboard and he answered. “What? You guys remember I haven’t worked there in like five years, right?”
“Hi Juliet, it’s Kira! Hope you don’t mind, I got your number from the company. You left so quickly, was it something I said?”
He cursed and ended the call. “Phone, block that number! And call FreeRealm’s Quality team line.”
Darpin from Quality was not in a helpful mood. “Trav, you gotta stop calling, man. I’m not buffing your avatar again, and I am literally getting calls from the NSA about our—“
Travis interrupted. “Fuck my avatar and fuck the NSA. What kind of shit are you trying to pull?”
“Don’t play me. This crazy hot warrior named Kira, I thought she was an NPC until she asked to meet in real life. But you guys gave her my private cell? What is this, some kind of prank?”
“I don’t know what you are—“
“Bullshit. Shut it down or I’m doing a Reddit livestream bagging on you guys again.”
“Trav, I really have to go—“
Travis hung up, still cursing Darpin, Kira, and the daily gridlock clogging I-5 North, even in the EV lane. As he crawled past one of those fancy digital billboards, the Whataburger ad suddenly changed to simple white text on a black background:
JULIET, UNBLOCK MY NUMBER!
A stylized anime Kira-face hovered next to the text.
“You have got to be fucking kidding me. How is she even doing that?”
The phone rang again, this time from his assistant at Kleiner. He could actually hear her pouting. “Boss, why didn’t you tell me about your new girl?”
“Well your office is full of flowers from some woman named Kira. Like, floor to ceiling full. And your calendar is blocked for a video meeting all morning. In the private briefing room. I had to move the pitch session with those DataShogun kids.”
“Sorry, babe, I didn’t mean you. And it’s not what you think. Just, ah, donate the flowers to a hospital or something. And get DataShogun back on the schedule for tomorrow. I changed my mind, I’m not coming in today.”
Before he could turn around at the next exit, a Hyundai dealer billboard went black.
I WENT TO YOUR WORKPLACE WITH FLOWERS…
A cascade of familiar FreeRealm blossoms fluttered down the screen.
…BUT YOU REFUSED TO SEE ME.
“Dammit. Phone, call Darpin in QA again.”
“Trav, I’m actually glad you called. Did you say the NPC you hooked up with was named Kira?”
“Yeah, did you find out—“
“Dude, we have had the most insane day over here. We rolled out the new generation character AI over the weekend. Most of the game is running smoothly, but there’s one Realm and one NPC in particular that’s consuming a shitload of processor time and network bandwidth.”
“Let me guess…”
“Kira was designed to seek conversations with the highest level character in the area, and—“
Travis broke in. “And my Juliet was like the fourth avatar we built, and I’m the earliest player still active. She’s totally the most powerful character in the game.”
Darpin’s voice was suddenly bitter. “Well, the other founders are busy, you know, running a global game company.”
“Yeah, and I cashed out after the IPO to go play in venture capital. Boo hoo. Why don’t you work on stopping my stalker-bot, huh?” Travis hung up.
Southbound traffic wasn’t much better. “I could walk faster than this!” he grumbled.
So he had plenty of time to ignore the billboard with Kira stretched out full-length in some black goth-bondage-lingerie getup. I JUST WANTED TO SAY THAT **I LOVE YOU** flashed insistently as he sank lower in the car seat. Motorists all around him were taking pictures of the strange new ad campaign. Great. Now this shit is all over social media. Fucking LA.
Darpin’s number popped up on the dashboard again. Travis clicked on it, started talking even before the connection was made.
“D-dog, you gotta help me out here! How is your rogue AI hassling me out here in meatspace?”
“Trav, I’ve got these NSA spooks— I mean, agents— on the line and they want to talk to you. Apparently this Kira bot has hooked into a bunch of infrastructure on our Smart City grid. They’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Great, I’m so glad they are impressed. Why the fuck don’t you just unplug her or something?”
Darpin sighed audibly. “Dude, how did you even survive in a tech startup? Don’t you know how intertwined all of this stuff is? Anyway, the NSA guys want you to help them out.”
“How? You want me to drive over there and debug your code or some bullshit?”
“Haha. You always were a douche, Trav. But no, this is something more up your alley.”
The next billboard showed Kira with her hands clasped, her anime-green eyes especially large and quivering.
PLEASE FORGIVE ME. TAKE ME BACK!
The phone rang on the dashboard and he took a deep breath before accepting.
“Juliet! It’s me, Kira! Would you rather I call you Travis? Travis Mahoning of 1388 Bayview Place?”
He bit back the profanity. “Um, you can keep calling me Juliet if you like.”
“You know I just want you to come back to the Realm. We were having SUCH a nice time together, we should try again until we get it JUST right.”
“Yeah, uh, I guess so—“
“Oh, goodie! This will be legendary, I promise!” A cascade of flowers erupted on the billboard, and then on the dashboard screen in his car. A second later, a new voice chimed in. “Autopilot function engaged.” The car pulled smoothly into the median lane and started accelerating past the stopped traffic.
Travis forced himself to put his hands in his lap and screwed his eyes shut.
Play along, they said. Keep her busy while they try to reset the system. It shouldn’t take that long, right? Assuming the crazy bitch doesn’t kill me in the car first.
Juliet leaned against the rough wooden bar, her armor clinking as she drained her 147,315th flagon of ale. Someone at the other end of the bar was humming “Freedom and Destiny,” and it was all she could do to keep from screaming.
Right on cue came the bubbly voice. “So you must be the legendary Juliet I’ve been hearing so much about. What’s a girl gotta do to hear the tales of your exploits?”
The menu options for Ignore and Talk Business were greyed out. Travis sighed and clicked Flirt. Again. The avatars linked arms and strolled towards the back room.
“Tell me everything . . .”