“For the last time, Charlie, I’m not taking that post down,” Arianna said, as she was facing away from him, looking at the calm waters of the sea as they gently fell on the rocks flanking the tan-sanded beach. Sixteen months ago, he had visited her to demand that she delete a scathing In Memoriam she’d written in lieu of an obituary for Paige “Lady of Lórien” Mirabeau, and she’d told him in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t going to. Ever since then, he’d kept trying by sending her dozens of IMs, hoping she’d change her mind -t and every time he tried, he got shot down in flames by an increasingly unyielding Arianna.
Arianna had a rather rough day at her work in real life and all she wanted that afternoon was to relax at her beach, listening to some soothing music. Then, she hoped to hop over to the annual Cyber Expo, which she hadn’t visited in six years. Yet, there she was, going around in circles with Charles, set to waste another hour or two. This scene made her remember the first time he came to her. She’d been angered and insulted. By the third time, she’d wanted to block and ban him.
“I should have blocked and banned him long ago,” she thought. In her viewer window, she could see him: toweringly tall, tuxedo-clad, muscle-bound, with the obligatory cliché hipster hairdo and beard, fidgeting about at a three-metre distance behind her. She didn’t bother to turn and face him.
He didn’t know if she was actually doing anything; even if she was, only the effects of her actions would give the game away. Being extremely private, she had disabled all of the viewer’s signs that she was editing something or pointing at something, or looking at a particular avatar.
“Why?” he asked, exasperated. “Can’t you see it’s bad form? It only makes you look like a bitter, jilted lover.”
“Since when do you care about how I come across?” Arianna replied, stopping him in his tracks. “She introduced me to you nine years ago,” she continued. “Since then, although I reached out to you a bunch of times, all you ever gave me was a single ‘hi, I’m good’, and that was five years ago. How can this make me believe you care anything about me? Also, yes, I am bitter and jilted. And not just as a lover. Oh, and thanks for pointing out what she never admitted.”
“That I was, even briefly, her lover.”
“Why, was there ever any doubt about that?” he asked.
“OK,” he said, “I think I know where you’re getting at.”
“No, you don’t,” she replied coldly. “You don’t know where I’m getting at, where I’m coming from, and, say what you will, you never cared about me.”
Arianna wanted to put an end to these repeated exchanges with Charles. They were clearly leading nowhere, and his insistence infuriated her. She kept wondering what part of “no” was so baffling to him. Then again, she thought, perhaps he hoped he’d eventually wear her down and make her do what he wanted just so he’d stop bugging her.
On the other hand, this whole situation had taken Charles out of his comfort zone: he just wasn’t used to being denied favours or requests like this. His creation, Lórien, was celebrated by most of MetaMondo’s community and had earned him fame, recognition, media coverage, even reverence among the community.
It was also obvious to everyone that he was seriously rich in RL; to run, decorate, and regularly update just one sim was quite expensive, but he had enough time on his hands to manage all of those sims practically full-time, without ever seeking to make any profit out of it – he had never bothered putting up tip jars anywhere. For many, he was a textbook member of MM’s Inner Sanctum, the perceived “elite” group of highly influential and well-connected users whose writings, in-world creations, businesses, and choices in matters of social mingling shaped the image and perception of the platform and its community.
Yet, there he was, staring at Arianna’s back, unable to break her intransigence and indifference. For all his fame, he was completely insignificant to her. Whenever others spoke to, and of, him, they did so with reverence and awe. Arianna, however, had stopped bothering to dignify him even with little displays of courtesy such as turning to face him. Suddenly, she turned around, but, rather than staying there, she swiftly walked past him and proceeded to a stepped path leading to a gazebo placed atop a rocky hill to the west, among a patch of Mediterranean pines.
Not that turning towards him would have mattered anyway. As usual, she was covered from head to toe in impeccably-polished black latex that shone like a mirror and reflected everything around her. Her sleek, ovoid hood concealed her face completely, so he couldn’t see her mouth or her eyes. This hood was adorned only by four features: a large, dark red aperture in lieu of a mouth, shut by a plug connected to her collar via a chain attached to a D-ring at the plug’s centre; a set of straps leading to the padlock on the back of her hood, and a small, approximately three centimetres in diameter, black dome on the upper part of her forehead. The rest of her body appeared to be completely nude; so tightly did the latex fit to it. Her bizarre outfit was completed by her extraordinarily tight corset, a posture collar, and her thigh-high ballet boots.
In a different context, he might have found her look intriguing, if not fascinating. But at that moment, it was downright disturbing and unsettling for him – and it wasn’t just that he was seeing her like this outside the “natural” environment for such attire. Since he couldn’t see any expression on her face, he had a lot more trouble sizing her up. Then again, even if she had shown her face, she could still have thrown him off by using her HUD to trigger facial expressions entirely unrelated to the tone and content of their conversation.
So, instead of her face and its expressions, all she showed him was her angry keystroke dynamics: rapid, machine gun-like bursts of text – some short, some longer, some coming in waves – attacking his IM window without letting him breathe. Such was her anger and her determination to say what she wanted to say, no matter what, that she never paused to think about what she was about to type.
“You never bothered to ask me how I was doing, yet you’ve spent the past sixteen months, wasting my time with your demands as to what I write in my blog.” If they were talking in voice, or face-to-face in real life, she’d have absolutely growled these last words.
He didn’t respond – he didn’t even offer so much as a “brb”. He stood there, completely silent, for sixteen minutes. All this time, Arianna didn’t poke him for a response; she didn’t eject him from her land, either.
“Yes, what I meant is that I understand why you don’t believe me,” he finally said, and walked up to her. “I love what you’ve done with this place, by the way.”
“Seriously now? You stayed silent for so long, only to give me such a hackneyed answer? Is that the best you can come up with, Charlie?”
“Look, you’re being very difficult here,” he said.
“Why, thank you,” she replied. “I’ve earned it. And I’m not being difficult; I’m being impossible.”
“For God’s sake, I’m here trying to be courteous. I’m just asking you to take that piece of bile down. It’s…”
“What? Bad form?”
“Oh really?” she answered angrily. “You’re a fine one to talk about ‘bad form’ and ‘being courteous’, Charlie. Who came here spewing empty threats about banning me from his estate if I didn’t do his bidding? Who approached every art gallery curator, event organiser, and most major MM bloggers, trying to get them to ban and boycott me for ‘defaming’ Paige, after I said ‘no’?”
“Wait, I never did any of that!” he protested.
“So you’re telling me Jennifer Avon of the Apollo Gallery is lying? What about Mark Shergood, the director of the VirtuaKunst Art Fund? Or Lavinia Quixote, the editor of the Metaverse News blog? And there are many others who came forward and told me what you’ve been doing behind my back.” He didn’t reply. Arianna waited for two minutes for his response, and then hit him again.
“What’s the matter, Charlie? Cat got your tongue? Speak up!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re making it all up.”
“So, you didn’t do any of the things I’m accusing you of, eh?”
“No, I didn’t!” he tried to defend himself, but he knew it was no use. She was on to him.
“Are you calling me a liar, Charlie?” she asked. He got stumped.
“No, I never…”
“OK then. If I’m not a liar, then someone else is. Let’s suppose the three people I mentioned are lying. Maybe we should ask Marianne Octavia, the travel blogger? Or George Myers? Or Herbert Kronfeld? Or Hikaru Fujita?”
“I don’t know what these people have been telling you, I never asked anyone to ban or boycott you!” he protested.
“Then is everyone lying? What reason would they have to lie against you? Never mind me, you could say I have a motive to lie, because of my history with Paige and because you’re pissing me off with your constant badgering. Why would they lie against you?”
“I DON’T KNOW!” Behind his keyboard, he was trembling with anger, fear, and anxiety. Arianna’s stubbornness angered him, but now he became even angrier at her for finding out about what he’d done, and because he knew she could go public, or semi-public, about it; above all, though, he was angry at all those people who hadn’t kept his request a secret from her. He couldn’t believe they’d chosen to side with her, a complete nobody, and not with him.
“How about Verity McNeill? Is she lying too?”
“I said I don’t know!”
“Fine then. Remember the first time you came to me, throwing around your weight and your authority, like some sort of Samuel Goldenberg from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition? What the hell were you thinking?”
“I was never like that!”
“God, you’re so fucking pathetic,” she said, disgusted. “You came here, believing you had some kind of authority over me. You really thought you could just bully me into censoring myself. I told you I wasn’t going to do it and that you were free to ban me from your sodding sims.”
“Yes, I remember, you don’t have to recap.”
“I do, because you seem to forget easily. Anyway, I’m doing it once again now, like so many times before in these sixteen months: go ahead and ban me, see if I give a toss. Spoiler alert: I don’t.”
“Listen, I came here to offer an olive branch and…” he started, only to be cut off again.
“Oh really? An olive branch? After all the shit you pulled behind my back, just like Paige did, and after numerous IMs, in which you were trying to tell me how to run my blog?”
“No, I wasn’t trying to do that!”
“That’s exactly what you’ve been trying to do. When was the last time I came to tell you how to run your sims, how to decorate them, or who should be allowed to visit them?”
“Never,” he admitted.
“Good. So, there’s your answer.”
“Oh, come on now, Arianna, you see it’s…” he wrote and hit “Enter”, leaving his phrase like that, as he didn’t know how to finish it. He knew he’d never hear the end of it if he used the term “bad form” again.
“It’s… What, Charlie?” she said impatiently. “Bad form? You’re the last person on Earth who can talk to me about ‘bad form’.”
“Well, yes, I guess I overreacted a bit then,” he grudgingly admitted.
“So, you’re admitting one of the things you did was try to get me banned from others’ places and events.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “Look, Charlie. There are some harsh realities you need to come to terms with. The first is I never broke any of your fucking sims’ rules and you know it, so you can only ban me because you simply don’t like me. That’s fine by me. You know what? Even if you do, and even if you manage to get me banned from the most important places and events in MM, I can guarantee that I won’t run out of things to write about.”
“I never said you’d run out of things to write about. I just didn’t want to be part of this whole thing,” he said, in an attempt to look like he was seeking some sort of compromise.
“Then stick to what you said back then. If it was none of your business then, it’s none of your business now. And here comes the second harsh reality you must swallow – what I write on my blog about someone else who isn’t you or a member of your team is none of your sodding business. I’ve told you so many times before, what’s so hard for you to understand?”
“Yes, but you’re referring to her by a title I’d given her.”
“Oh, get over yourself! You merely gave her a group tag to kiss her ass for the publicity she gave you and she bragged about it to anyone who’d listen – or pretend to listen.”
“No, that’s not true!”
“What isn’t true? That the title you gave her was a mere group tag like the ones we can all make and that you’ve assigned it to others? Or that she was bragging about it left, right, and centre?” Charles got stumped.
“I’ll get to the bragging part later. But do tell me, was she lying about how you created her Lady of Lórien?”
“She never said that!” he exclaimed.
“You’re either desperate to protect Paige’s posthumous reputation, or you lie so much you believe yourself, Charlie, and you suck at lying. Here, let me freshen up your memory,” she said, and gave him the link to Paige’s post.
“What’s this?” he said.
“Read it. It’s right there, in high-resolution black and white. She wrote, and I quote, ‘…and have swapped my old sailboat, the Tigress, for an Aristocraft Riviera Mk. IV, which I’ve named Lady of Lórien after Charles and Edward bestowed that honorific upon me at their New Year’s Ball, a gesture that touched me very deeply – I was truly humbled.’ It’s right there, Charlie. And the post’s got ‘likes’ by both you and Edward, besides all the usual suspects. What do you have to say now?”
“That doesn’t prove anything!” he cried out.
“Fine, I’ll play along. If it’s not something you came up with especially for her, how many other members of your estate’s group have it?” Just as he started to type his answer, she added, “don’t bother: only Paige held that title. I’m still in your estate’s group, remember? I just checked. So much for it being ‘just a title you give to anybody,’ Charlie.”
“OK, neither I nor Edward had assigned that title to anyone else,” he admitted after pausing for a bit to check his group’s member roles.
“Tell me something I didn’t already know. You know what, if it’s just a group tag that doesn’t mean anything, I’ll make one for myself right now. Does ‘Queen of Lórien’ sound good?”
“No! Stop it!”
“Why?” she asked mockingly. “You’re making such a huge fuss out of a stupid group tag. I’m just showing you any schmuck can make something just as important-sounding. So, is this why you got your knickers in a twist, Charlie? Or is it that I’m knocking her down from her pedestal?”
“Can you please stop being so rude and disrespectful?”
“No,” she responded almost as soon as he hit “Enter”.
“OK, I get it. You two broke up, she didn’t treat you well, she hurt you, you’re bitter, but why do you have to throw my group tag in there?”
“Your group tag?” she asked incredulously. “It stopped being ‘yours’ ever since she made it part of her in-world persona and behaviour. It’s hers. Stop acting like I infringed upon some super-precious trademark of yours. After all, if anyone can claim ownership of the word ‘Lórien’, it’s Tolkien’s descendants. At any rate, it’s the last time I’m telling you: if you want to ban me from your estate, go ahead. I don’t care. I’m not censoring myself for you, or for any of her friends. End of story.”
“Are you sure that’s how you want it to be?”
“Absolutely. And drill this into your head: if you keep this shit up, it’s gonna mean war – and, unlike you Inner Sanctum lot, when I say something, I mean it.”
Charles sighed, defeated yet again, and remained silent for a while. He had run out of things to say. Neither pleas nor threats worked on her; she didn’t care about them, and she had seen from the start that his threats were hollow – something he had inadvertently confirmed. So, he had no power over her. But how did she know he hadn’t followed up on his threats?
“All right,” he said eventually, “All right. But how are you so sure I didn’t mean it when I said I’d ban you?” he asked. He couldn’t believe someone wouldn’t care about being banished from the legendary Lórien, and he suspected that Arianna had surreptitiously visited his estate at some point to check if she’d been banned.
“Oh, that’s easy,” she said.
“What, you visited my sims?”
“Don’t be silly!” she responded, dismissing his question. “If you had banned me, you’d have left me alone. You didn’t. Instead, you kept coming back, almost every day you saw I was in-world. That was a dead giveaway. Besides, your tone changed over time; you went from outright aggressive to passive-aggressive, then to whining, and now you’ve reduced yourself to grovelling.” She paused for a moment to let her words sink in, and added, “Isn’t it ironic? You, who are wealthy enough to run so many sims and pay staff to manage and promote them, came here to beg me, a complete outsider in this travesty of a community, to take down a simple post that’s been read by less than two hundred people, out of a shrinking user base that’s the butt of every joke in the gaming community.”
“I suppose this situation makes you happy,” he said, in an attempt at a comeback.
“No, she replied. “Your behaviour is rude, obnoxious, and even creepy. But I must say If ind it a bit amusing, because it proves you need me and you know it.”
“How so?” he asked.
“It’s simple, Charlie,” she responded candidly. “You used to be sort-of a big deal around here, with your numerous sims that were inspired by famous RL and fantasy places. You were celebrated for your events: 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, Mardis Gras, St. Patrick’s. All the popular blogs wrote regularly about you, your sims, your events, even your smallest landscape changes: the MetaNewser, the MM Picayune, Josh Trotter, Horatio Chang, Paige – to name but a few.”
“And,” she responded, “things have changed now. Most long-form MM bloggers, like yours truly, have either died or moved on. Most of those who are active nowadays are employed by the fashion industry. They just slap a picture on their Flickr and their blogs, post style credits, and that’s it. Good luck finding travelogues, opinion pieces, reviews, reportage etc. about MM.”
“Yes, it’s true,” he agreed.
“You know, just because it took me years to get back on my feet and resume blogging doesn’t mean I stopped watching the MM blogging scene. Ten years ago, there were thirty popular bloggers. Fourteen of them covered your projects, and guess how many of them were still active when Paige died?”
“I don’t know.”
“Eight. And of these, only three still bothered to write anything about Lórien: Josh, Horatio, and Paige. And Paige died over a year ago.”
“It’s OK, I have my official blog, and three official bloggers,” he countered.
“Yes, but you’re nowhere to be seen on Flickr, DeviantArt, or what have you. Your regions’ traffic is no longer what it used to be.”
“And does this make you necessary to me?” he asked.
“As I said, if you truly thought I weren’t, you’d have banned me long ago and you’d never have spoken to me again. You didn’t. Because you need regular coverage and publicity. By an actual real blogger. And you know it.”
There was truth in everything she said. He needed her. Or someone like her. Someone who actively participated in the promotion and improvement of the platform, and virtual reality in general, without coming across as an uncritical groupie or an evangelist. She ticked all the boxes – and he knew it, but didn’t want to admit it.
“Come on now, Arianna,” he said, “your blog is nowhere near as popular as it used to be!”
That was true. Arianna’s public humiliation by Paige, which came on top of the twenty-six months of pain she had to endure in her attempt to remain close to her, proved too much for her. She’d lost every incentive to do anything creative in MM. Even looking at her own avatar had become unbearable, as she had associated the kinks, fetishes, and desires that influenced the way she had designed it with Paige.
It took her four years to pull herself back together and start blogging again, and a full year before she managed to rebuild some sort of momentum and readership. Still, many of her former readers had left MM, and others flocked to Josh, Horatio, and Paige. As if that wasn’t enough, some bloggers that linked to her chose to drop her in favour of Paige, with whom they were friends for a long time before Arianna came along.
“So what?” she asked, completely unfazed. “I can always grow my readership back. But what are your options besides me, now that Paige is dead? Josh and Horatio. Horatio won’t do anything if he can’t turn it into a clickbaity shitfest with a flame war in the comments driving his views up or if you don’t pay him. As for Josh, his photographic skills are non-existent, so good luck getting traffic from him.”
“I guess you have a point,” he said.
“Of course I do, Charlie. I’m the only decent option you’re left with, and you know it. You need me; I don’t.”
He fell silent again. Was he away from keyboard? Was he pretending to be? Arianna didn’t really care. She’d already made up her mind about the whole situation. Twelve minutes passed. She couldn’t bother to poke him for an answer, so she got back to doing other things while he loitered there.
He thought and thought and thought, but there were really no good answers. His remark about her blog’s readership seemed like a good idea when he made it, but she deflected it without even thinking. It didn’t help his case at all; all it did was anger her more. She was indeed right when she said he needed her, but he’d brought himself into a bind. It was obvious that he couldn’t pester her about her send-off for Paige anymore; it would only anger her further. He couldn’t apologise to her, either – she was just an outsider. Besides, even if he did, there was no guarantee she’d ever bother to blog about Lórien.
“I must leave,” he said eventually, and teleported out of there.
“How can you be so pathetic?” she asked him after she noticed he was no longer there; he didn’t reply. Instead, he logged off, and never spoke to her about her post or Paige again.
– – –
The featured photograph was taken at Nefeli Island, on the Serena Port Antonio sim (rated: Moderate) – a blog post about this region will come soon.
Many thanks to Huckleberry Hax for kindly and generously offering me invaluable insights, input, advice and feedback while I was writing this story.