By Cory Doctorow
Public Domain Books
Lucy wasn’t the ranking Fahrenheit on the scene, but she was the designated general. One of the gamers up from Fahrenheit Island brought a team flag for her to carry, a long spear with the magical standard snapping proudly from it as the troops formed up behind her.
“On my signal,” Lucy said. The voice chat was like a wind-tunnel from all the unmuted breathing voices, hundreds of girls in hundreds of bedrooms like Anda’s, all over the world, some sitting down before breakfast, some just coming home from school, some roused from sleep by their ringing game-sponsored mobiles. “GO GO GO!”
They went, roaring, and Anda roared too, heedless of her parents downstairs in front of the blaring telly, heedless of her throat-lining, a Fahrenheit in berzerker rage, sword swinging. She made straight for the BFG10K – a siege engine that could level a town wall, and it would be hers, captured by her for the Fahrenheits if she could do it. She spelled the merc who was cranking it into insensibility, rolled and rolled again to dodge arrows and spells, healed herself when an arrow found her leg and sent her tumbling, springing to her feet before another arrow could strike home, watching her hit points and experience points move in opposite directions.
HERS! She vaulted the BFG10K and snicker-snacked her sword through two mercs’ heads. Two more appeared – they had the thing primed and aimed at the main body of Fahrenheit fighters, and they could turn the battle’s tide just by firing it – and she killed them, slamming her keypad, howling, barely conscious of the answering howls in her headset.
Now she had the BFG10K, though more mercs were closing on her. She disarmed it quickly and spelled at the nearest bunch of mercs, then had to take evasive action against the hail of incoming arrows and spells. It was all she could do to cast healing spells fast enough to avoid losing consciousness.
“LUCY!” she called into her headset. “LUCY, OVER BY THE BFG10K!”
Lucy snapped out orders and the opposition before Anda began to thin as Fahrenheits fell on them from behind. The flood was stemmed, and now the Fahrenheits’ greater numbers and discipline showed. In short order, every merc was butchered or run off.
Anda waited by the BFG10K while Lucy paid off the Fahrenheits and saw them on their way. “Now we take the cottage,” Lucy said.
“Right,” Anda said. She set her character off for the doorway. Lucy brushed past her.
“I’ll be glad when we’re done with this – that was bugfuck nutso.” She opened the door and her character disappeared in a fireball that erupted from directly overhead. A door-curse, a serious one, one that cooked her in her armour in seconds.
“SHIT!” Lucy said in her headset.
Anda giggled. “Teach you to go rushing into things,” she said. She used up a couple scrying scrolls making sure that there was nothing else in the cottage save for millions of shirts and thousands of unarmed noob avatars that she’d have to mow down like grass to finish out the mission.
She descended upon them like a reaper, swinging her sword heedlessly, taking five or six out with each swing. When she’d been a noob in the game, she’d had to endure endless fighting practice, “grappling” with piles of leaves and other nonlethal targets, just to get enough experience points to have a chance of hitting anything. This was every bit as dull.
Her wrists were getting tired, and her chest heaved and her hated podge wobbled as she worked the keypad.
> Wait, please, don’t – I’d like to speak with you
It was a noob avatar, just like the others, but not just like it after all, for it moved with purpose, backing away from her sword. And it spoke English.
> nothing personal
> just a job
> There are many here to kill – take me last at least. I need to talk to you.
> talk, then
she typed. Meeting players who moved well and spoke English was hardly unusual in gamespace, but here in the cleanup phase, it felt out of place. It felt wrong.
> My name is Raymond, and I live in Tijuana. I am a labor organizer in the factories here. What is your name?
> i don’t give out my name in-game
> What can I call you?
It was a name she liked to use in-game: Kali, Destroyer of Worlds, like the Hindu goddess.
> Are you in India?
> You are Indian?
> naw im a whitey
She was halfway through the room, mowing down the noobs in twos and threes. She was hungry and bored and this Raymond was weirding her out.
> Do you know who these people are that you’re killing?
She didn’t answer, but she had an idea. She killed four more and shook out her wrists.
> They’re working for less than a dollar a day. The shirts they make are traded for gold and the gold is sold on eBay. Once their avatars have leveled up, they too are sold off on eBay. They’re mostly young girls supporting their families. They’re the lucky ones: the unlucky ones work as prostitutes.
Her wrists really ached. She slaughtered half a dozen more.
> The bosses used to use bots, but the game has countermeasures against them. Hiring children to click the mouse is cheaper than hiring programmers to circumvent the rules. I’ve been trying to unionize them because they’ve got a very high rate of injury. They have to play for 18-hour shifts with only one short toilet break. Some of them can’t hold it in and they soil themselves where they sit.
she typed, exasperated.
> it’s none of my lookout, is it. the world’s like that. lots of people with no money. im just a kid, theres nothing i can do about it.
> When you kill them, they don’t get paid.
no porfa necesito mi plata
> When you kill them, they lose their day’s wages. Do you know who is paying you to do these killings?
She thought of Saudis, rich Japanese, Russian mobsters.
> not a clue
> I’ve been trying to find that out myself, Kali.
They were all dead now. Raymond stood alone amongst the piled corpses.
> Go ahead
> I will see you again, I’m sure.
She cut his head off. Her wrists hurt. She was hungry. She was alone there in the enormous woodland cottage, and she still had to haul the BFG10K back to Fahrenheit Island.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m almost back there, hang on. I respawned in the ass end of nowhere.”
“Lucy, do you know who’s in the cottage? Those noobs that we kill?”
“What? Hell no. Noobs. Someone’s butler. I dunno. Jesus, that spawn gate –”
“Girls. Little girls in Mexico. Getting paid a dollar a day to craft shirts. Except they don’t get their dollar when we kill them. They don’t get anything.”
“Oh, for chrissakes, is that what one of them told you? Do you believe everything someone tells you in-game? Christ. English girls are so naive.”
“You don’t think it’s true?”
“Naw, I don’t.”
“I just don’t, OK? I’m almost there, keep your panties on.”
“I’ve got to go, Lucy,” she said. Her wrists hurt, and her podge overlapped the waistband of her trousers, making her feel a bit like she was drowning.
“What, now? Shit, just hang on.”
“My mom’s calling me to supper. You’re almost here, right?”
“Yeah, but –”
She reached down and shut off her PC.
Anda’s Da and Mum were watching the telly again with a bowl of crisps between them. She walked past them like she was dreaming and stepped out the door onto the terrace. It was nighttime, 11 o’clock, and the chavs in front of the council flats across the square were kicking a football around and swilling lager and making rude noises. They were skinny and rawboned, wearing shorts and string vests with strong, muscular limbs flashing in the streetlights.
“Are you all right?” Her mum’s fat fingers caressed the back of her neck.
“Yes, Mum. Just needed some air is all.”
“You’re very clammy,” her mum said. She licked a finger and scrubbed it across Anda’s neck. “Gosh, you’re dirty – how did you get to be such a mucky puppy?”
“Owww!” she said. Her mum was scrubbing so hard it felt like she’d take her skin off.
“No whingeing,” her mum said sternly. “Behind your ears, too! You are filthy.“
Her mum dragged her up to the bathroom and went at her with a flannel and a bar of soap and hot water until she felt boiled and raw.
“What is this mess?” her mum said.
“Lilian, leave off,” her dad said, quietly. “Come out into the hall for a moment, please.”
The conversation was too quiet to hear and Anda didn’t want to, anyway: she was concentrating too hard on not crying – her ears hurt.
Her mum enfolded her shoulders in her soft hands again. “Oh, darling, I’m sorry. It’s a skin condition, your father tells me, Acanthosis Nigricans – he saw it in a TV special. We’ll see the doctor about it tomorrow after school. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, twisting to see if she could see the “dirt” on the back of her neck in the mirror. It was hard because it was an awkward placement – but also because she didn’t like to look at her face and her soft extra chin, and she kept catching sight of it.
She went back to her room to google Acanthosis Nigricans.
> A condition involving darkened, thickened skin. Found in the folds of skin at the base of the back of the neck, under the arms, inside the elbow and at the waistline. Often precedes a diagnosis of type-2 diabetes, especially in children. If found in children, immediate steps must be taken to prevent diabetes, including exercise and nutrition as a means of lowering insulin levels and increasing insulin-sensitivity.
Obesity-related diabetes. They had lectures on this every term in health class – the fastest-growing ailment among British teens, accompanied by photos of orca-fat sacks of lard sat up in bed surrounded by an ocean of rubbery, flowing podge. Anda prodded her belly and watched it jiggle.
It jiggled. Her thighs jiggled. Her chins wobbled. Her arms sagged.
She grabbed a handful of her belly and squeezed it, pinched it hard as she could, until she had to let go or cry out. She’d left livid red fingerprints in the rolls of fat and she was crying now, from the pain and the shame and oh, God, she was a fat girl with diabetes –