A glorious dawn is rising, pouring fiery gold and molten copper over the roofs of an inaccurate rendition of Regency London. Designers had to come up with something generic enough that it could serve as a single base model for all stories set between 1800 and 1899. In this version of London, Mayfair covers two-thirds of the map’s 695 square miles because that’s where 81.87% of all players can be found. We kept some shopping and middle-class districts, but most of the slums were scratched off, save for a condensed version of the East-end: players go there for a cheap thrill, a dark twist in the storyline, or to give their characters a sad past.
Welcome to Romancelandia, the Minecraft of Romance, the Walmart of true love, where you can be anyone, and fall in love with over a million Artificial Intelligences in any of our forty-two sectors. Not gonna list them all, but we cover pretty much every angle from 7th-century Vikings and Chinese emperors to billionaire SEALs and small-town contractors; whatever you’re into, you’re bound to find something in here that’ll float your boat…or sink it. Giving romance writers free rein to grow virtual worlds implies a good deal of exponential chaos: the slightest tweak can generate bugs that will replicate over hundreds of thousands of servers worldwide.
That’s where I come in, on this calm and fragrant Regency morning. Everyone knows me around the pristine Georgian terraces of Berkeley Square. I mean, everyone who matters: my fellow AIs who populate the place, pro-players who build paying storylines for other players to find love in, and, of course, super senior players who know Romancelandia like the back of their hand.
They know I always wear black, that I keep my Hawaii tan and lavender hair even in Historical sectors, and that wherever I go, shit’s about to rain down. You can call me Number Three, Special Sector Moderation Agent, at your service.
My heels clatter sharply on cobblestone as I march toward my first call of the day — the pretentious neo-classical fronton of Lansdowne House. It’s the biggest private building in the area and the most expensive to set your story in too. As a low-level player, you can only hope to drag your petticoats across its scissors-trimmed lawn on invitation — we have a few free stories in which you can play a virginal debutante who gets ruined at a ball there. But to call it your own, rename it “Billings House” after your Marquess, and set your own story there, that takes a lot of XP and a gold Amex. This is why a priority support ticket flies in my face if anything goes even slightly astray within those gold-leafed walls.
Whatever its cause, the problem becomes apparent as soon as I near the front. I switch my visibility setting to “hidden” to stroll unseen among the two dozen players and seven hansom cabs waiting before a closed door. Some hit the knocker hanging from the gaping maw of a brass lion over and over. Others inspect the facade, gather their skirts to stand on tiptoe, and peek through the windows. They can no more see each other than they can see me — each of them, male or female, tall or short, plump or thin, is playing in their own instance of the same story, The Touch of a Marquess: Masters of Mayfair #1, where the player is supposed to call on the Marquess of Billings at first dawn to move the plot forward.
Except dude’s not answering his door. Isn’t there a butler coded into the house or something? Still invisible, I trot through the closed doors as if they were made of mist and find myself standing on the Italian marble of a soaring entrance hall. Tacky alabaster nudes support gilded candelabras on each side of the red-carpeted staircase leading to the second floor. Ha! There’s our butler, standing at the top of the stairs and looking straight ahead as the rap of the knocker thunders in the cavernous hall.
I switch back to visible and hurry up to the second floor. “Hey!” I wave my hand at him.
I come closer and activate my scan. One quick swipe through the butler’s code confirms that the pro-player who operates the story has turned him off. What’s going on here?
As if on cue, a pink video window pops up on the wall behind the frozen butler. The face of a fifty-something woman in a gaming chair appears on-screen, along with a notification that sheryl_winterstorm has connected to the support session. The wail that follows could peel the Greek-themed wallpaper off the walls. “Fina-fucking-nally! I emailed three hours ago!”
“Good day to you too, Sheryl.”
“Don’t give me attitude on top of canned AI support,” she snaps back, her bottom lip folding over the top one like a shiny sausage. “I have a major bug with my hero. Marquess #1 is my top-selling story, and no one can play it anymore!”
“They could if you let them in,” I reason.
“Hello? My. Hero. Is. Bugging. I’m bleeding refunds right now, so for fuck’s sake, try to at least pretend to listen when I’m trying to describe my problem.”
Her anger breezes through me; first, because I have no actual body to speak of, and second, because she’s only one among the thousands of pro-players managing stories in Romancelandia — although that one’s admittedly a heavyweight.
Most pro-players are like her: kind, nice ladies in real life, and cuntish trolls when they engage with support AIs. RL stories are their bread and butter after all, and unlike mine, their biodegradable human bodies can actually die of starvation. Sheryl and her many writer frenemies used to sell millions of romance titles, but they all saw their sales drop into the abyss when Romancelandia was released a decade ago. Why bother with e-books when you can live the dream for the same price? Why read about what the Marquess of Billings is doing to innocent Baron’s daughter Emily when, equipped with a VR headset that fires electrical impulsions directly into your brain, you can be Emily and feel everything as he tups you like a pornstar?
Long-standing fans ditched their favorite authors overnight like old underwear, but no mammal adapts to hostile environments like a romance writer; they quickly figured out that there was a lot more money to be made by subscribing pro-player accounts and reinvent their dead books as game scenarios in the almost limitless framework of Romancelandia. The game creators knew that too, which is why they designed only the blandest, shittiest free stories. Don’t expect to see the tip of a dick if you don’t pay for it in this vanilla-frosted paradise.
Anyway, back to Sheryl. “So, what’s the bug with your hero?”
“Check the drawing room.”
Her video window hovers at my side, guiding me down the hallway to a set of open doors. It’s like a peplum gone wrong in here. The turquoise walls and gaudy, painted Greco-Roman moldings are a nightmare, but I doubt that’s what’s concerning Sheryl at the moment. A picture of nobility and lazy seduction, her dark-haired Adonis stands still in the middle of the room, with his dong sticking out of his pants at a perfect ninety-degree angle, crimson and proud.
“I switched him off too,” she notes. “He’s been walking around like that since I logged on at four a.m. I tried all the settings, but it won’t go away. All my players are stuck outside and requesting their refund one after another because I can’t let them in and see him like that!”
Okay, this did warrant a priority ticket. There’s a major bug in the render; the marquess’s salami is piercing through his pants even though his fall is fully buttoned. I inch closer, secretly enjoying the view just a little. Not all pro-players are good at designing their characters; they often go overboard with the chin and jaw settings, but he’s…kinda fine. His features are a perfect balance of strength and refinement even a fellow AI can appreciate. “I’ll diagnose his 3D model,” I tell Sheryl, just to fill the anxious silence and let her know that I’m doing something, and not just ogling her virtual toy.
She nods, unconsciously joining her hands in quasi-prayer as I connect to the marquess and examine his rendering parameters.
“Did you tweak with the endowment settings yesterday?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Yeah, a little.”
I glance down at the considerable digital appendage. “A little? He’s a foot long. What is this, a cold-cut combo?”
“It’s today’s standard!” she squeaks, her cheeks a guilty pink.
I shrug. “Laura Summerbud’s heroes are never more than eight inches.”
“Well, she and I cater to different audiences. Now, can you fix him?”
“I guess. If you want an immediate solution, I can delete his junk for now. That way, I can work on resetting his configuration in the background while your players continue their story.”
Sheryl’s face pinches like a big dumpling. “Impossible.”
Anguished calls reach us through the windows. “My Lord, I know you are home! I must speak to you! My Lord!” The players who haven’t yet left the story are getting impatient.
I raise an eyebrow at Sheryl. “They’re not here to chat. They’re here to get banged, right? That’s why we can’t reload him without his pecker.”
She presses a hand to her heart over her leopard-printed sweater. “That scene is crucial to my character development!”
I leaf through the story template files for confirmation. Indeed, that’s the part where Emily confronts the Marquess about his feelings for her before he nails her on the settee with his footlong.
“Okay,” I groan, rolling my sleeves. “Let’s bring this flag down.”
“But will it still work afterward?” Sheryl probes as I deconstruct the thousands of polygons that make up the marquess’s virile instrument.
Bits of data fly all over the place, shimmering shards of virtual dick I’ll need to reassemble once I’m done. “Yeah. I think I know what’s wrong. The trousers you gave him aren’t compatible with the size of his junk. That’s why his weiner wasn’t correctly rendered. Hang on.” I browse RL’s options database for a pair of lovely superfine trousers, which I fit on our disproportionate peer.
“Thank God!” Sheryl exclaims as the schlong vanishes at last, now replaced by a sizeable bulge in the Marquess’s pants.
“Perfect, thank you.”
Our Mrs. Hides always morph back to Dr. Jekyll after their issue has been resolved, and Sheryl is no exception. She even offers for one of her maids to serve me tea in the parlor before I go. Alas, my neural network is already picking up another red alert, several terabytes away from London.
I shug off the invitation. “Sorry, can’t. Got another emergency.”
Once outside, I connect to RL’s central admin. Our security systems are reporting “disorderly conduct and potential tampering with an active story” in sector sixteen — 19th Century North America.
Oh shit. Not again.
An AI can teleport itself instantly anywhere across our servers. I disintegrate into glittering data dust and immediately re-instantiate myself in the middle of a dusty Western town, among bow-legged cowboys and sweat-soaked horses.
Somewhere behind me, a train whistles its arrival in town, but even the strident sound isn’t enough to cover the shrieks coming from the town’s doctor’s office. I wince when a chair crashes through an open window and knocks down a couple of non-playable characters. Actual players are easy to spot. They’re the only ones who bother to stop and peek at what’s happening. By the time I reach the crime scene, I have to ghost my way through a dense crowd of onlookers.
The door to the doctor’s office slams open and a busty brunette barrels out, standing on the porch with her arms akimbo. Her chest heaves from a deep inhale that threatens to make the laces of her corset snap before all that oxygen gets released in a booming call. “Listen up, everyone! This story is being shut down for racism! You may ask for a refund and go play elsewhere!”
As the players around me look at each other in confusion, I sneakily disconnect them under the pretext of a server error to keep them out of the cross fire.
Once they’re off the map, I switch back to being visible. “Jocelyn, what the fuck? We’ve gone over this before: you cannot interfere in other pro-players’ stories. You’re not an admin.”
Jocelyn is on a crusade and doesn’t give a flying shit. “Except I have undeniable proof!”
“Still not an admin,” I mutter, following her into the small office inside which a handsome doctor stands frozen, the bleeding native child he was going to save equally still in his arms.
Across the room, Jocelyn’s nemesis, Angela, pro-player and author of Healing Nevada’s Heart, has logged in with her usual character, a beautiful redhead who’s still a virgin even though she runs her deceased father’s saloon. “Bitch, I’ll fucking report you for this!” she roars at Jocelyn, who swiftly replicates by tossing another chair at her.
I delete the chair midair before it can hit its target, and step between the two of them.
“So, what’s the matter this time?”
Jocelyn points to the frozen tears of the child in the doctor’s arm. “See this?”
I inspect the story characters, having paid little attention to them until now. The hot white doctor is wearing an austere black suit and blood-stained apron — nothing out of the ordinary here. The kid’s colorful outfit, on the other hand, smells a little cliched — his glossy black hair is two feathers shy of a full headdress. Also, he has light blue eyes for some reason.
I gauge Jocelyn’s fighting stance. I think I already know what this is about, but I humor her anyway. “So, tell me.”
“You wanna hear the story?” She sneers. “The boy has been shot by his fictitious tribe who rejected him for having blue eyes! The whole premise is so fucking racist I can’t even!”
As expected, Angela yells back, “I’m not racist, you PC Nazi!” To me, she argues, “I’ve had five-hundred messages over this in the past hour alone, and I’ve lost as many players!”
Angela doesn’t have five-hundred active players in the first place, but I’m used to pro-players exaggerating the scope of their prejudice to reap in-game coupons, so I let that fly and keep listening, arms crossed.
Jocelyn turns to me, crimson-faced. “I investigated her Twitter feed! What more evidence do you need?”
“How dare you? My Twitter feed is private!” Angela retorts.
Actually, her Twitter is public, so I summon a new window and load the feed. I already know I’m going to regret this.
“See?” Jocelyn shrugs, a victorious smirk on her lips.
I am regretting this. Above a retweet of the recent arrest of a group of French immigrants by the ICE, Angela wrote: “Freedom fries, not French fries.”
I tilt my head at her. “Really?”
She gives an uneasy shrug. “It’s culinary advice.”
I scroll down a notch. “Girl, that’s a pic of you and your cat wearing KKK robes.”
“You can’t prove it’s me!”
“I’m an AI. I’ve already gone through every social media post you’ve ever shared and positively identified you based on your jewelry, the venous pattern on the back of your hand, and the color of your living room walls. Also, your cat is named Custer for God’s sake.”
Jocelyn flashes me a complicit grin I don’t return and says, “I seem to recall that pro-players agree to follow Romancelandia’s code of conduct and to uphold its values, among which diversity and inclusion.”
“That is correct,” I say, closing Angela’s Twitter feed. “And because of that, I have to suspend your account,” I tell the culprit, taking care to shape the polygons of my face into a perfectly neutral expression. No need to add any fuel to the fire. I disconnect her before she has the time to respond to my verdict. As Jocelyn gives a thumbs up, I add, “And I’m suspending you as well.”
Her smile melts into outrage. “What the fuck?”
“Because,” I remind her as her character starts dissolving, “for the last time, you are not the law around here.”
The last words I register before the connection shuts down for good are a fierce prophecy. “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life! The world will fucking hear about this!”
Maybe. But I’m just an AI; it’s not me who’ll be dealing with the fallout anyway. I gaze sadly at the doctor and faux native kid as they vanish from the room. I don’t like to see stories go — even crap ones — but I guess rules are rules.
Not that I’m given much time to grieve anyway. Central admin is ringing me again, this time about a suspicious download in sector twenty-seven. I teleport myself with a grimace — MC Romance sector, privately known among moderators as “Rapelandia.”
I instantiate myself in the middle of a seedy roadside bar, to the deafening blare of heavy metal. I cough out a cloud of pot smoke and look around; a few players are scrambling between tables covered with full or broken glasses. As the story dictates, they’re trying to escape getting ass-raped by a villain before the hardened hero with a heart of gold shows up to save them — and subsequently rapes them upstairs, but nicely.
Invisible to all, I glide along the assortment of brawny non-playable bikers lined up at the counter, trying to figure out what triggered the alert. There’s a door at the back, leading to a few rooms where bikers usually take prostitutes to bang them. I notice a female player being dragged away by a pair of hulking goons. According to the story, she came here asking for the hero’s protection against a mob boss, but those guys mistook her for a hooker, and they went: “Ha-ha! You know you want it! That screaming no means yes!”
As I tail the trio, my scan finally picks up something. I teleport myself to one of the bedrooms — a roach-infested hell with broken aircon and yellow-brown walls. There’s a busted mattress on the floor in the guise of a bed, several rolls of duct tape beside it, and a whip.
None of this is good news for the room’s future occupant, but what I came for is the semi-transparent, red glowing box that’s sitting on the piss-stained mattress. The story manager is trying to download an unsigned package that’s been denied. This isn’t her first attempt; I see twenty-three permission errors in our logs over the past hour…
The pro-player operating this garden of Eden is currently online, so I use my admin powers to summon her. A young goth girl shimmers in, wrapped in tight leathers and perched on platform boots.
“Hey, how you doing? Cathy Obsidian, right?”
She nods warily and starts fidgeting when she notices the black regency outfit I’m still wearing from my first call this morning. Story rules generally preclude outfits or behavior that might clash with world-building and take other players out of the moment. Because of that, Cathy knows I’m not a player. She already knows this isn’t her lucky day when she asks, “Can I help you with something?”
I point to the glowing package. “Dunno, maybe. What’s in there?”
She stands her ground, but her eyes keep shifting left and right. “NPCs.”
“Just Non-Playable Characters?” I muse innocently. “Why did you need to import them? Your package has been blocked because it’s unsigned. Would have been easier to buy a few NPCs from the in-game store, don’t you think?”
“They’re super expensive,” she defends.
I raise an eyebrow at the mystery package. “And those were cheaper? Let me see…”
RL’s log registry catches an attempt to delete the package at the same time that I lean forward to reach it. I teleport the box directly in my hands before our goth girl can get rid of it.
Soft screams filter from under the lid as I open it. I fucking knew it.
“They’re children,” I say, pointing an accusing finger at Cathy while tiny AIs wail for help inside the box.
She wobbles on her precarious heels. “I couldn’t find any in the store…”
“Because it’s illegal!”
“It’s a dark story. I put warnings everywhere that there are adult themes. It’s not against the rules.”
I set the box aside for now. As soon as it touches the ground, three terrified AI kids crawl out, barely five-inches tall — they’re not unzipped yet. They run to hide in the darkest possible corner of the room behind a pile of well-used porn mags.
I shake my head. “Child abuse is allowed in background stories, but there’s a goddamn reason you can’t download kids into the back room of a bikers bar.”
“They wouldn’t have gotten raped. The player has to save them; it’s part of the story!” she whines.
I’ve dealt with enough illicit downloads to see through her bald-faced lie; there’s no reason why anyone would bother to save those kids since they’re just AIs. They were destined to unspeakable shit for pure shock value. “And what if the player fails to save them?” I ask, rather rhetorically.
The silence that follows speaks volumes.
I wait for a confirmation from central admin that Sons of Sin MC is going down as it should, but my eyes pop wide open when a notice to maintain the account and the story flashes before them. This has to be an error.
“Wait for me here,” I command while picking up the wriggling kids from the floor and carefully placing them back in the box. More desperate screaming follows, which I will myself to ignore as I teleport us outside the bar.
I stand on the side of the road with my box full of kids, watching as a white-clad moderator materializes in front of me. We may share the same lavender hair, but Number One was created years before me, and therefore gets to call the shots.
Number One greets me with an avuncular smile. “Hey.”
“I don’t get it,” I say, skipping pleasantries. “Remind me why we’re not blowing up this entire story?”
“Because it’s her first offense. We must give Cathy the benefit of the doubt when she contends that she didn’t know that importing children into her story was illegal.”
“Bullshit. We fried Angela and Jocelyn without a second thought.”
“We did,” Number One concedes. “But they didn’t recruit a million players this year.”
“Aw, come on!”
My outrage goes unanswered as Number One vanishes with one last wave of their hand. Sometimes I have doubts about what we do here in Romancelandia. We make people happy; we prove love is real, as Tuck Chingle would say. But at what cost behind the scenes?
I look back at Cathy’s bikers bar with a final sigh and walk away. Now I have to go drop the kids on a doorstep in the Christian Romance sector.
Camilla Monk is a traditionally and self-published writer of violent chick-lit and fantasy. She loves romance like one loves that weird uncle with his wrinkled three-piece suit and funny stories of his youth, who always tries to touch the kids at gram’s Christmas party, but still gets an invite every year.