An image of a man clasped into polished, blue plates of futuristic armor, face obscured by a skull-print visor stood the screen, the empty space to his left filled by blocky text (in Futura Bold) spelling out Explanations and apologies.
“Hi, friends,” the voice of Mircea Leon sounded from the speakers, and it was not what Helen had expected it to be.
She anticipated the sort of a high-pitched screech that she had heard from random clips of angry YouTube personalities raging against there being women on the internet. But Leon’s diction was far from a pathetic whine: he spoke clearly and barely with an accent, his voice and somewhat throaty, almost like a young Tom Waits. She looked at his armored avatar, and wondered if it was why he did not show his face. He sounded so much better than he looked.
Immediately, she felt a dart of shame. It wasn’t right to judge people like that, even if those people, like him, were a—
She glanced at the two columns of index cards, outlining the parallel lives of Leon and Rowan, and turned back to the screen.
“As you have probably noticed,” the voice continued, the armored figure emoting in a rudimentary fashion to his words, “I have not uploaded a video in some months. I apologize for that. I will be explaining it shortly but the TL;DR is that I am discontinuing LurkingCritic.”
The hope that she had swelled; she found herself leaning in slightly, as if to urge him on, to hear from his mouth what she had wanted to hear.
“Before I go into details, though,” he said, the title of the video fading from the screen, “I want to thank you guys, especially those of you who reached out to see if I was OK. I’m sorry for not responding, but don’t worry. I am doing well, I found a new job...”
“Pygmalion?” Helen murmured to herself, glancing at the date the video went live. She would have to check that against the chronology she had assembled later.
“...but also had a lot of other things happen in my life that made it impossible for me to focus on the channel. Which brings me to the question I am sure everyone here wants to know the answer to.”
A new splash of text emerged, this time reading the end of the channel.
“It’s with a heavy heart that I have to announce that this channel is now officially closed. This will be the last video that I upload to LurkingCritic; I have deactivated the Patreon as of some weeks ago. I will leave the LC Discord open, but I will not be using it anymore. Control over the channel will be handed over to Masaka61, who has been running the show for some time now anyway.”
The faceless warrior looked almost hunched, as if dejected or regretful. The voice itself remained collected and steady, but there was weight to it, one of a farewell. It wasn’t hard to tell that this was not easy for Leon to record.
“There are several reasons for why I am doing this,” he said. “I will go over them shortly, but before that I want to stress that it has nothing to do with YouTube trying to push me out. I have not heard from them ever since the channel was reinstated, and despite rumours, there was no action taken by anyone to silence me. Honestly, I’d be flattered if some of the assholes I fought against tried to turf me out, but no.”
Assholes. Helen frowned—was he referring to them? Feminists? Social justice activsts? Or maybe someone else?
“Also, to those of you speculating that I have been brainwashed by the liberals,” the armored figure shrugged, “I guess you could kind of say that.” There was a very dry chuckle. “It’s no secret that I no longer hold to some of the views I have expressed on LurkingCritic, and though I do not regret saying most of the things I have said, I do wish I’d thought to phrase them differently. I will not go into the details, so don’t pry.”
She sighed. What did it even mean? She hated this phrasing—why couldn’t he just recant, if he’d really changed his views?
“This is one of the reasons why I am done with the channel. Not the main one, however. No, that’s…”
There was a crack in the perfect diction, one almost covered-up by good editing, but she caught enough of it to feel it.
“First of all,” Leon continued with no audible trace of lost composure, “I just have too much work right now to run a channel at the side. Simple as that. As always, I value my privacy, so don’t speculate on what it is. Suffice it to say: I am happy with it. And secondly...”
The faceless warrior avatar dropped his head.
“I just don’t care so strongly about this stuff anymore,” he sighed out. “Working on this channel carried me through some really rough patches and you have all been so very supportive, especially when I was getting censored for speaking my mind..”
Helen rolled her eyes at that. The hope she’d had—that the video would be some kind of confession, and admission of guilt, something that would allow her to exonerate Leon, was fading fast.
Then again, she caught herself thinking, why was she judging him?
“He was an awful person,” she muttered under her breath without much conviction.
“...but,” he spoke on, undeterred, “I just do not have it in me to be as engaged in who is ruining games and other media. It’s…” his armored avatar spread his arms in a gesture of powerlessness, “I don’t need to make this content to survive anymore and… I don’t want to serve you phony shit. It’s not that I don’t care anymore, or, I don’t know, am leaving behind geek stuff. I still love the things I loved, and dislike the things I hated. I guess I’m just less passionate than I used to be.”
“You just grew up,” Helen shrugged at the screen.
“I have some new hobbies now,” he added, “and I’ve met a wonderful person who is helping me through a lot of the frustrations and anger that I used to express in my videos, so I don’t need them as an outlet anymore. I’m sorry.”
She hit pause. A ‘wonderful person’? Who would be that? One of those grifters that hovered around him? Or maybe someone else? She paused the video and brought up the file with her notes, then found the chronology. Leon had uploaded the video a little over a year before the Galatea takeover of Pygmalion, and according to what she had managed to piece together, at that time he should have been surrounded only by people who hated him, and whom he hated in turn. It was only his incredible business sense that had saved him from being eaten by the sharks. No one she talked about him with mentioned anyone being particularly close to him—so who was that wonderful person?
A suspicion, a bit too crazy-seeming to voice it yet, began to form in the back of Helen’s head. She returned to the video.
“Again, you were great! I don’t know how to express just how grateful I am for your support. It’s not something I want to ever forget and, and I hope you remember me fondly,” he spoke, a warm note to his tone. “But this is it, guys. This is it, friends. This is goodbye. This is LurkingCritic signing off for the last time.”
The avatar began to fade, only to snap back to full opacity after a moment.
“And to those horndogs among you,” he laughed, the skull-plate of the armored warrior briefly twisting into a smile, “who are wondering about the future of YVG, bad news. I’m discontinuing that project too. I wanted to release the source code so that maybe someone else picks up on it, but for legal reasons, I shouldn’t. I know you had high hopes for it so, once more, I apologize.”
Helen had no idea what he was talking about. YVG? What the hell was that?
“And with that,” the avatar started to disappear again, “I just want to say it again: thank you. But now, this is over. LurkingCritic is signing off, and you… you’re gonna have to carry that weight.”
A surprisingly decent jazz tune played over the credits, and Helen sat there, crouched on her chair, listening to it to the end. Good music choice couldn’t, sadly, make up for failed expectations. She looked down, wordlessly berating herself for getting her hopes up. How much she had wanted this to be a confession, one so that she could look at the parallels without the gnawing sense of one contaminating the other. But it was only a testimony of a man with his work-life picking up, and delayed maturity catching up to him, who finally decided to end what was, probably, just an outgrowth of his teenage stupidity. It was for the better that he had learned some things, and grown up, but it did not cleanse her lingering worry, nor did it provide the answers she had been looking for.
She flicked through the rest of the channel—and found a long stream of videos about popular media, anime, video games, all with eye-catching and somewhat horrifying titles. A year before his closing remarks, he’d uploaded a video titled “GEARS OF WAR ARE GAY NOW?!” with the thumbnail consisting of two hilariously muscle-bound men in heavy armor kissing and the skull-faced avatar that Leon used facepalming in the background. There was more of that: outrange, annoyance, frustration, bad caricatures of women. She closed it after a moment, feeling like she had stuck her head into a sewer.
A different kind of frustration seeped into her. It felt like chasing a phantom. Yes, she’d figured out who Mircea Leon’s alter-ego was. But what did it even tell her? That Rowan shared a lot of traits with the kind of people she would rant about for hours? It was uncomfortable to realize, but didn’t really help Helen with figuring anything out. The more she dug into the history of Galatea and the people who made it, the more questions she ended up having, and the farther she strayed from what was really important. It was just tiring, but she had missed the point where it turned from an idle pursuit to satisfy morbid curiosity into an actual obsession that would not let her sleep until she reached the bottom of it all.
If there even was one to begin with.
She punched in the words “Mircea Leon YVG” into the search bar, then quickly reflected and changed it to “LurkingCritic YVG”. At this point she didn’t really have high hopes—it would probably just end up plunging her down another conspiracist rabbit hole. Then again, it was the only new lead she had.
The first search result took her to a thread on r/lewdgames, where underneath the banner composed of a row of ingenuine-faced cartoon ladies of questionable proportions, someone named “femboyhunter12” inquired about happened to the “YVG project” because it seemed cool to him, only to be answered with the link to Leon’s farewell video.
Helen snorted in annoyance, but read on—and just below found someone else asking what this YVG thing even was. The response, provided by the user “love_of_cats”, made her pause.
A pretty neat idea—some guy was working on an AI dominatrix. Had some really nice plans, and apparently some early results were better than expected? Sadly, the entire thing got nixed before it really got off the ground. The project’s site is still on the ‘net, if you want: yourvirtualgoddess.blog.
“Oh,” Helen muttered, smiling nervously. Her suspicion started to rapidly mature into an idea that made just enough sense for her to consider it, despite how crazy it seemed.
With more than a bit of trepidation to keep her company, she clicked on the link, to be taken to a neatly designed blog home-page.
Against a deep, glossy black background, the word OBEY was printed as the header, in silver Futura Bold. Just below, finer print welcomed her to Your Virtual Goddess, Home of Next Generation D/s Technology.
She scrolled down to look at the updates—the last one over six years old, entitled: “Progress update: version 0.000012241 now out to Patreon supporters!”
Hi all, it read I have released the newest version of YVG to the patrons at the 15$+ level. It’s still super basic, but I am starting to implement more features. This release focuses on protocol stuff—YVG should be able to tell if you are addressing her properly (there’s a default protocol set, and you can customize it as you want) and assign some basic punishment when you fail. Masaka61 is working on some basic integration with his self-bondage software, and it’s looking really cool, so check that out.
Apologies in advance: the next release may be a bit delayed, I’m starting another project as an aside and it may cut into my working time. Until then: have fun, and thanks for your support!
A changelog including gems such as “more genital customization code added” was written down right below. The Patreon link was dead, of course, as was the “self-bondage integration” hinted at. Helen sighed again, then hovered over to “about” tab.
YourVirtualGoddess is a project to create the first functional digital dominatrix, it proudly declared. Helen nodded very slowly, and read on, very quickly. Instead of using simple, pre-written dialogue she is meant to function as an actual dominant, with her own needs and fetishes that she will be inflicting on the user, and with the ability to learn and adjust through machine learning, developing into the perfect, unique personal dom, for both play and aftercare. The project is currently in early development. Planned features include multiple dominatrix personality types (sissy, humiliation, chastity, etc.), easy integration with teledildonics, VR module, deep customization, mobile app and more!
“Motherfucker,” Helen mouthed.
At this hour, Cruel Sister was filled to the brim. Helen liked this place, its crowd of tipsy art students, their somewhat hippie-looking baristas, especially the one dreadlocked girl who would sometimes bring in her great, hoary dog to work, the battered decor, and the tendency of the people behind the bar to play Kimya Dawson at inappropriate moments. It was cozy, and gave her some courage when it came to confessing insanity to a close friend.
“Okay,” Hank nodded, the expression on his face trapped somewhere between concern, confusion and amusement. He looked around the club, before facing Helen again. “So. Just so that I’m sure I’m getting you correctly here.”
She groaned, then hid her hands in her face. She’d called him in a haze of excitement, not stopping to think twice, and as a result she was already regretting this entire idea. Of course she was going to get this sort of reaction.
“You have managed to figure out that this Mircea Leon guy,” he said in this very calm, very pleasant tone that screamed what the fuck or we’re really worried for you, Helen, “used to be an awful YouTuber who, on the side, was working on a digital dominatrix.”
“Yeah,” Helen grunted, reaching for her bottle of lemon-flavoured hipster cola. Times like these, she regretted not drinking actual booze. Maybe it could help.
“From this, you draw the conclusion that Galatea has access to a hyper-advanced artificial intelligence,” he stated, oh so very carefully.
Hank shook his head, sipped his beer, then smiled, cloyingly polite.
“Helen,” he murmured softly, “you ask me to urgently meet so that you can explain to me that this discovery, that you couldn’t even talk about over Messenger because…”
“What if it is watching me,” she replied, feeling air leave her. She could hear herself, and she sounded ridiculous. “Hank, I kind of panicked, and…”
“I can see that, okay?” he interrupted. “This has been eating at you for a long time now and it seems to me that this is it. You’ve officially entered loon town, Helen.”
She brought her bottle up to stop herself from snapping back. She didn’t want to make a scene, not in front of all the people, not on a busy Sunday night in a place that she liked.
“Please don’t treat me like a crazy person, okay?” she managed to say instead.
Hank’s smile faded a bit.
“Helen, no,” he replied; there was concern in his eyes. “This is crazy. You’re going full conspiracy nut, and it’s honestly disconcerting to see.”
“Look,” she put the bottle down; she still refused to look at him. “This makes so much sense. Explains so much.”
“Like how Galatea is, you know, Galatea!” she burst. “How they have their technology, their wealth, all of this science-fiction shit no one can’t quite explain! Leon was working on related stuff, Pygmalion was developing machine learning and artificial intelligence, what if they actually figured that out, created this AI and…”
She paused. It felt like it was making sense when she was turning it around in her thoughts; in her mind, the connections were there, links as obvious as they could get. But as she listened to herself speaking it out loud, the feeling that she got was of complete and utter weirdness. Her face tensed, the frustrations of the day seizing her up. Was it how it felt to be perceived as insane? The smile that Hank was looking her up and down with made her want to just slap him in the face.
“You are trying really hard,” he sighed, “to draw a line from some porn game made by the guy who was a part of Pygmalion, his potential kinks, to the weirdness surrounding the Galatea corporation. And I don’t exactly understand why it is so important to you that there must be a connection there.”
Helen opened her mouth to say: because Leon and Rowan were so similar, but reconsidered before letting even a single word out. Did she really want to let Hank know that her friend was so close in life history and desires to an incel-adjacent programmer? She remembered the last time he’d voiced his opinions about her.
Her insides were knotting on each other. This was insane. Her idea was insane, his rebuttal was insane, this did not make any sense, or made too much of it.
“If you really want to learn what the fuck is going on with them,” Hank said, “just release the footage. Spark outrage. Cause an investigation. It will get you something. You don’t have to do this solo sleuth thing, and franky, no offense, you’re not cut out for it.”
She didn’t even want to argue with that. Mostly, she didn’t even want to be here anymore.
“You’re coming up with bizarre ideas when the actual solution is right there,” he pressed.
“Yeah,” she energetically nodded after a moment, then finished the rest of her fizzy drink in one go. “I’ll think about it.”
She stood up abruptly, throwing her jacket over her shoulders. Hank gave her a surprised stare.
“Going home already?” he asked, again concerned. “I thought that…”
“I need to think, okay?” she mumbled. “Sorry for dragging you here.”
Hank shrugged, then turned to his beer. She felt bad for leaving him, but would feel worse for staying.
It was raining outside, warm, springlike. A few lone people smoked their cigarettes right next to the door, before hurrying back to the loud inside; Helen stared at the water curtain ahead, and thought about going back in, or calling a cab, but instead she just zipped her jacket up to the neck, pulled the hood on deeper and put in something deafeningly loud in her ears, to muffle out worry and help her think.
Her apartment wasn’t so far away that she couldn’t get there on foot, and there was a weird sort of beauty to the city as seen from behind the downpour. It was a blur of light and sound, cutting through the wall of noise in her headphones as a distant rustle. Within moments, she was soaked to the bone, and afterwards, the rain ceased to register. The streets were all but empty, hers. It helped, it calmed.
Maybe Hank was right, and it was just another example of her long-awaited, Galatea-caused descent into madness. Maybe her entire idea was crazy. But then again, it worked. It explained things. So what that it seemed insane? Everything that she had learned of the corporation that took Rowan indicated something off, something mysterious and weird. The absent CEO, the technological marvels, the inexplicable fortune. She wasn’t surprised that some people claimed it was aliens; she’d arrived at a conclusion that wasn’t that far from it.
So, what was there to stop her from assuming that Mircea Leon had created his virtual goddess, and given himself to her in earnest. And it, then, for some reason, created Galatea?
She wiped the water from her brow. Maybe she needed the rain just to keep her head cool. Because once she put the thought that way, it stopped making sense. Why would an AI do everything that Galatea did? Was it just how Leon coded it? Wasn’t it just her dismissing every single hurdle to her neat, little, absurd theory?
The shrill sound of a car horn made her jump up, and stumble back into an ankle-deep puddle pooling by the curbside. Her line of thoughts snapped. Some asshole was apparently taking offense to her using a crossing. Fucker! She was glad that through the sheets of water, she couldn’t see his dickish face.
She tried to catch the thread again. There were so many hints out there that could support her theory. That “wonderful person” who maybe talked Leon out of being a YouTube misogynist, for example. To assume that they were the AI would make sense, in this weird, conspiracy way, where everything had to fit in one overarching plot. Helen remembered reading somewhere that conspiracy theories had a knack for making the world more sensible, more ordered. That they would take all that mass of weirdness, absurdity and frustration that was life and arrange into something that at least seemed to make sense, once you bought into the bizarre parameters. Was she doing just that?
If she was correct, that would explain this “Aphrodite”, her perfect five-minute replies, her oblique references to being the person ruling Galatea, or perhaps being Galatea in general. But had she not sent her a hand-written note? That anyone else could have written for her? “Aphrodite”, a name for a goddess. Your virtual goddess.
This was all so neat. All too neat.
She entered her apartment dripping, small puddles of water splashing around inside her boots. She stripped, threw everything into the washer and took a long, warm shower. It did not help her confusing thoughts.
Why was she even so obsessed about it? How would knowing this help her understand Rowan better? If anything, it made the entire matter even murkier, even more suspicious, even weirder. Maybe she should just settle for Rabbit’s quip about it being hot?
But that would not do. It was a bit too late to avoid getting herself engaged in this entire mess.
She dug for fresh clothes, put on the kettle, went around all the little tasks of living, her mind racing itself in circles.
What could she do to understand people? Talk with them, obviously. But it was not like she could talk with Rowan. It was not like she could talk with Leon. All that she had left were traces, notes, old videos, collections of porn, all to cobble together into a great theory that refused to come. The only person involved that she had any contact with was Aphrodite, if she was a person at all, and not a front for a computer. But she could not talk with her, either.
It was yet another stupid idea, she was convinced, but that hadn’t stopped her lately. A cup of steaming tea in one hand, she popped open the laptop, opened her email, skimmed past dozens of unread status updates about Rowan and composed a new message, addressed directly to Aphrodite.
Would it be possible to arrange a meeting in person? I can travel.
I think I know who you are.
Briefly, she considered deleting the second line, then, with a deep exhale, hit send. The five minutes that followed seemed to stretch into infinity. She kept imagining all the rejections that she could receive, the ones that would confirm the suspicion that Aphrodite was not a person to talk to, that there would be no meeting. She wanted her bluff called.
Then, the fifth minute passed, and the response arrived at her mailbox, like clockwork.
Dear Miss Hu,
Do you now?
Attached to the email was a ticket for a middle of the summer, week-long stay in a Galatean resort called Body/Dance/Monument, for Helen and one accompanying person.
An image of a man clasped into polished, blue plates of futuristic armor, face obscured by a skull-print visor stood the screen, the empty space to his left filled by blocky text (in Futura Bold) spelling out Explanations and apologies.