Riko Takeuchi took a sip of coffee as she stared at the paintings that adorned her cramped, window-less Tokyo apartment. The coffee was bitter and black, just like her mood. She hated waking up at 2 am. She hated seeing her husband, Ethan, for only a few hours on the weekend. More than anything, she hated Lifestream.
Riko looked at the clock above the stove, realizing that she needed to set up soon. The coffee scalded her tongue as she downed the rest of it. She opened the fridge and stared blankly at the leftover Oyakodon that her husband had cooked late last night. It was too early to eat anyways.
The whine of a passing train disappeared as Riko stepped into her sound-proofed studio and shut the door. She flicked the lights, revealing three motion-tracking cameras and a microphone. In the center of the room lay a state-of-the-art tracking pad that she had bought with her Lifestream earnings. Riko slipped into her tracking suit, wincing as the suit pinched her thighs. Then, she grabbed her VR helmet and prepared to address her adoring fans.
The studio slipped away as Riko entered her personal hub, a cozy little cottage surrounded by ancient wisteria trees. The soft chirps of bush warblers pierced the low rumble of a nearby waterfall, and Sika deer grazed just outside her windows. The cottage was a place of her own design, secluded and quaint. Sometimes, she when she couldn’t sleep, Riko would come to her cottage, read a book, swim by the waterfall, or just watch the sun set. Today, she couldn’t afford to waste any time, so she brought up the Lifestream interface and checked the viewer count.
Five hundred viewers—that was twenty less than yesterday. She forced a smile and began.
“Ohayo! This is Riko with a brand new Lifestream. Today, I’ll be tackling a few challenges, chosen, of course, by my amazing fans. I also see that we have four new patrons! Thank you all so much! You may notice that I’m no longer sitting in my tracking chair. That’s because I was able to afford a full-size tracking pad, thanks to all my supporters! We’ll get started after I pick a few challenges for you all to vote on. Remember, only patrons are allowed to vote on the challenges, so let’s get voting!”
As Riko browsed the Lifestream central hub, she was assaulted by several recommendations and a few personal messages. She quickly scanned the messages looking for any private patrons or sponsorships, but they all appeared to be fan mail or spam. Riko tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach as she opened the daily challenges.
Some of the animation challenges seemed like sure bets with typical time limits and decent payouts. A painting challenge caught her eye, so she selected that along with an animation challenge. Then, a private message from one of her biggest fans informed her of a 3-D modelling challenge.
The prize was ¥100,000,000.
“OK, we’ve got our choices. Now, it’s time to vote.”
Riko read the details of the challenges as her fans voted.
For the animation challenge, Riko would need to animate a cutesy robot from a black-and-white movie Forbidden Planet. She’d never seen the movie so she scanned some clips to get an idea of how the robot moved. The prize was only ¥10,000 so hopefully she wouldn’t have any trouble placing for that challenge.
Riko adored van Gogh, hence why she chose the painting challenge, “Café Terrace at Night.” She had attempted several of his paintings before, even placing fourth for her rendition of “Wheatfield with Crows.” The prize for this challenge was ¥100,000.
Finally, she read the challenge details for the 3-D modelling challenge.
It was an Argile.
Even worse, the challenge ended in a little more than thirty minutes. There was no way she could place for this challenge, but with such a high payout, she had to at least try.
Riko had a little more time before her fans finished voting, so she inspected the Argile piece “Swashbuckler’s Delight.” The water texture was unimaginable as was the ship’s rigging. The sky would be easy enough, but everything else would require skill beyond what she possessed. Of course, had she been online sooner, she might have had a full hour instead of thirty minutes to attempt the piece.
A notification informed Riko that voting had concluded. She was going to be modelling “Swashbuckler’s Delight.”
“Alright. We have our challenge, and it’s a hard one at that. I’ve never attempted an Argile before, but there’s a first time for everything. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the stream!”
A countdown appeared, and the cottage was replaced by an endless, black floor with no ceiling, walls, or doors. Soft, white light illuminated Riko and her art space.
These challenges always went to the person who could work the fastest and create the closest imitation. She could do a half-decent job if she ignored some of the more intricate parts of the model, but then her piece would be a half-baked replica of a replica. If art was an imitation of life, what was the imitation of art? A fake?
The viewer count started to drop as the countdown reached 25 minutes. Riko hadn’t started a single thing.
“Sorry,” she apologized to her 400 viewers. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
Riko considered forfeiting the challenge, but then she might disappoint her fans. More importantly, she would lose priority for the next Lifestream challenge. It had taken her six months of streaming almost every day to reach the Daily Challenges, and she would not give that opportunity up lightly.
The countdown timer reached 20 minutes, and Riko realized she couldn’t make an Argile if she had all the time in the world. More importantly, she didn’t want to. The challenge was already lost, so she might as well have some fun.
Wielding a digital brush like a weapon, Riko began crafting the waves. They rolled like hills, cresting and crashing into each other. With only three hues of blue, Riko created the briny depths, topping it off with seafoam that floated like white lace across the ocean.
For the sunset, Riko didn’t bother to check the Argile model. She simply closed her eyes and remembered visiting Sunayama Beach where the ocean swallowed the sun and the waves tickled her feet. Even as a child, Riko knew that she was going to be an artist. She wanted to spend her entire life recreating those brilliant rays of orange, pink, and red.
Back then, Nature had been her muse. Riko would take long walks for no reason and hike Mount Takao all weekend. Sometimes, she would sit in the rain, watching droplets form on plum trees. Each season offered new moments to capture, providing endless inspiration for her textbook doodles, art projects, portfolio, and finally her Lifestream hub.
When Riko lost her job, Lifestream was just a hobby, a way to pass the time. After a year of unemployment, Lifestream became an obsession. She abandoned her original projects, competing in the daily challenges for prizes, recognition, and the fickle affections of her patrons. Riko promised herself that one day she would return to her original muse, but Lifestream was a demanding mistress.
Red text interrupted her reverie; the Daily Challenge had ended.
Riko stared at the ocean and sky, feeling something strange and unfamiliar. She should have been disappointed, but instead she felt…relieved. Her viewer count had actually climbed to near 1,000 and comments were pouring in on the piece.
Stammering, Riko tried to make sense of the situation.
“For those of you just joining, I attempted the Daily Challenge, an original by Argile called “Swashbuckler’s Delight.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish the piece, but I hope that it was entertaining. I’ll be starting a new challenge in a few minutes once everyone has cast their vote.”
Shutting down the cameras, Riko went on standby. She shouldn’t have had so much coffee this morning. Getting in and out of the tracking suit was a chore, but she wouldn’t be able to last the next challenge if she didn’t use the restroom now. She eased open the bedroom door, careful not to wake her sleeping husband. Ethan barely tolerated her Lifestream schedule as it was, so the last thing Riko wanted to do was interfere with his routine.
Ethan wouldn’t have to wake for another five hours, but Riko would still be on Lifestream when he left for work. When he came home at 10:00 pm, she would be asleep. They would repeat this pattern until the weekend when they would spend a few hours together in the evening. Sometimes, they would go to a sushi spot down the street, but most of the time they would stay inside and watch movies or read. Ethan hated the city as much as Riko did, but any time Riko brought up moving, Ethan refused to entertain the idea; his work was far too important.
After Riko used the bathroom, she took a moment to stare at the paintings once again. Most were projects from art school, but a few were more recent pieces from her short stint at an animation studio. She had considered printing a few from her Lifestream portfolio, but seeing as how she spent more time in Lifestream than her apartment, it didn’t quite make sense.
As Riko stepped into the studio, idle cameras leered at her, and for a second, Riko thought about ending the stream early. Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford to lose any more patrons or viewers. With a sigh, Riko entered her cottage, and that’s when she realized that something was wrong.
2 million viewers?
It had to be a glitch. On her best nights, Riko only had 5,000 viewers.
Her inbox must be glitching too as the number of new messages steadily climbed into the hundreds. A priority call from Lifestream HQ blinked insistently. Maybe they could explain what was happening.
Riko accepted the call, and a heavily augmented man flickered before her as a floating hologram. She recognized him as Argile.
“Congratulations, Riko! You’ve won the Daily Challenge.”
His ostentatious outfit clashed with the rustic décor of her secluded cottage like a peacock in a henhouse.
She had won?
“Th...thank you,” she stuttered. “Which challenge?”
Argile laughed. “The Daily Challenge! “Swashbuckler’s Delight.” I think somebody might have stream fright.”
Comments poured in from the left side of her hub. The viewer count had reached 5 million. Riko needed to sit down, but she had sold her tracking chair last week.
Suddenly, Riko’s piece appeared before the augmented man, and he began talking about Riko’s expressiveness and passion. He gave her credit for going in a wholly different direction, and he was especially impressed at how quickly she worked. Argile had a few criticisms, the missing ship for one, but on the whole, he adored it.
“Again, Riko, good work. I think that you have a promising Lifestream career ahead of you. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be making your own Daily Challenges someday. In any case, the prize money will be wired directly to your account within the day. For the rest of you, don’t worry; I’ll announce a new challenge next month.”
The augmented man bowed with all the grace of a trained dog. “It’s been a pleasure speaking with you, my dear.”
Argile vanished, and Riko watched as her viewcount dropped to a measly 300,000. The comments slowed to a trickle, but her inbox continued to explode. Suddenly, a prompt informed her that the poll had ended. “Café Terrace at Night” had won.
“Hi. I’m Riko. If you’re a new viewer, then welcome to my Lifestream! If you enjoyed my take on “Swashbuckler’s Delight” consider a tip, or even better, becoming a patron. Otherwise, sit back, relax, and enjoy “Café Terrace at Night.”
That’s what Riko would have said if she could speak.
A new countdown timer began, but Riko couldn’t hold a digital brush let alone paint something. She could afford to forfeit this challenge, and the next dozen challenges for that matter.
“I’m sorry,” said Riko. “I’m going to take a brief break, and then I’ll return.”
Riko tried to imagine the look on Ethan’s face when she told him the good news. Neither one of them had taken a vacation in years. With this prize money, they could book a trip to practically anywhere they wanted. Of course, Ethan’s boss might object, but they had plenty of other cyber security analysts.
With Lifestream paused, Riko started to take off her VR helmet, but stopped for a moment when something caught her eye. She thought she saw something or someone walking past her window. Riko peeked outside and spotted a familiar figure admiring the cottage.
It was Riko or rather Riko’s avatar. It was a perfect replica down to the last strand of hair.
Riko had heard about hijackers, people who enter people’s hubs to interfere with their work, but never had she suspected that she would be a target. Her jaw clenched, Riko opened the door to address this hijacker personally.
The figure turned to greet Riko with a smile.
“It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined,” the figure said, no doubt referring to Riko’s hub.
“Who are you? Why are you here?”
The figure shrugged. “Call me curious.”
“Alright, Curious, I’m calling LHQ,” replied Riko, bringing up a keyboard. She sent a priority message to Lifestream HQ, but it could take hours even days for them to respond. The figure probably knew that as well.
“To any viewers, I’m sorry for the interruption. I’ll be ending the stream earlier than expected.”
The figure laughed with Riko’s voice. It was an unfamiliar sound.
“Who are you talking to?”
Just then, Riko noticed that her viewer count had dropped to zero.
“What did you do?” barked Riko.
“I wanted to have a private conversation with you, so I took the liberty of ending the stream.”
This had gone on long enough. Riko tried to close Lifestream, but the hub remained active. She tried several more times before giving up.
“I’m afraid that as long as I’m here, your hub won’t close. Besides, we have so much to talk about.”
Riko had no interest in a conversation, but she appeared to have little choice in the matter. She couldn’t close Lifestream, and she certainly didn’t want to leave a hijacker alone in her hub.
“Who are you? Why are you here?” Riko repeated.
“May I come in?” asked Mirror Riko.
Riko opened the door reluctantly, and Mirror Riko stepped inside the cottage, making herself at home in one of the lounge chairs in the living room. Riko stood with her arms crossed.
Mirror Riko surveyed the room with childlike wonder. “I’ve always what your hub would look like. I have to say, I’m more than impressed.”
“You wanted to talk, so talk,” insisted Riko. “Who. Are. You?”
Mirror Riko took a deep sigh and leaned back. “Let’s just say I’m a fan. That’s the easiest explanation anyways. I’ve been following you for some time, and I don’t want to brag or anything, but let’s just say I remember your earliest works.”
“I’m honored,” lied Riko through gritted teeth.
“I’m sure you are. In any case, I’ve sat idly by as you squandered your talent, recreating other works of art in exchange for more viewers, more patrons, more challenges. I had always hoped that you would return to your original pieces, but today that hope died.”
Riko didn’t quite understand.
“You’re upset I won the Daily Challenge?”
Mirror Riko frowned. “I’m upset you’ve squandered the past three years of your life.”
Riko’s most recent model appeared before Mirror Riko.
“This is the best thing you’ve made yet, and do you know why? Because you purposefully failed the challenge. You didn’t try to recreate “Swashbuckler’s Delight.” Argile knew it, and that’s why he chose you. You didn’t even finish the frigate, but he still recognized the talent that lies within you.”
Anger simmered within Riko like a pot that was about to boil.
“After today, you’ll be the next big Lifestream celebrity. You’ll be paid to recreate all kinds of things, and you might even enjoy it, but for how long?”
Riko wasn’t sure what angered her more: the audacity of this stranger or the fact that he spoke the truth.
“Lifestream is nothing but pale imitations. Impermanent art in an impermanent world. Art is supposed to survive, but what happens when Lifestream ends? All your work gone in an instant.”
Riko felt a lump growing in her throat, and she didn’t want to listen to the hijacker anymore. She wanted to listen to the soft chirps of bush warbler and the low rumble of the waterfall, but they were gone.
“You wouldn’t,” she whispered.
“I can’t imagine what you’ll be able to create once you’re free of Lifestream. Ironically, I’ll never be able to see it myself, but I’m sure it will be magnificent.”
The wisteria trees and Sika deer had disappeared outside.
“Please,” pleaded Riko, tears welling in her eyes. “Don’t do this!”
“I’m sorry,” said Mirror Riko, disappearing along with the rest of cottage into thin air.
A log-in screen appeared before an endless, black floor.
Riko frantically typed in her credentials; User not found.
“No,” muttered Riko.
Riko frantically typed in her credentials again; User not found.
“No,” said Riko.
User not found.
User not found.
User not found.
“No!” screamed Riko.
She heard the door swing open and Ethan call out.
Ethan looked concerned when she removed her VR helmet. He asked Riko what was wrong, but she couldn’t answer him. She screamed until her lungs hurt. She threw her VR helmet at one camera and shoved the other two cameras which toppled over. If Riko had the strength, she would have torn her tracking suit in two. Three years of work gone in an instant.
Riko sobbed for the better part of a half hour before she started to feel ridiculous. When she explained winning the Daily Challenge and the hijacker, Ethan assured her that everything would be OK. He would contact LHQ and ensure that they found the hijacker. In the meantime, she still had ¥100,000,000.
Ethan called out of work, offering to take Riko anywhere she wanted. She didn’t want to go anywhere, so they spent the day together watching shows and sleeping. Her phone exploded with messages from Lifestream—some were from supportive fans and others were from various Lifestream representatives. No doubt, they worried that she might sue.
That night, Ethan offered to take Riko out to cheer her up, but she turned him down again. She hadn’t eaten anything all day so Ethan ordered take-out from her favorite sushi bar. She ate a few pieces of unagi, then went to bed early.
When Riko awoke the next morning, she had received countless sponsorship offers in the past twelve hours. Lifestream had restored her account and had even offered her a premiere channel with a dedicated timeslot at 6 pm EST. Riko hadn’t responded to a single message yet.
She continued checking her email until Ethan entered the bedroom with a bowl of Oyakodon.
“I took the day off,” he informed her. The smell of breakfast made her stomach growl.
Riko stumbled out of bed, sat down at the kitchen table, and started eating. Ethan poured a cup of coffee and sat beside her.
“So,” he said. “What are we doing today?”
Riko stared across the table at the disheveled studio. With the prize money, she could easily rebuild her setup, even improve it, but she’d still be trapped in this apartment. For years, she and Ethan had talked about buying their own place, but now that dream could become a reality. In the meantime, several hundred thousand people were waiting for Riko to log back into Lifestream.
“Lifestream,” said Riko.
“Lifestream,” repeated Ethan, a pang in his voice. He sounded like a child who knew that vacation was over.
Riko Takeuchi took a bite of Oyakodon as she stared at the paintings that adorned her cramped, window-less Tokyo apartment. For a moment, she heard the low rumble of a waterfall, but it was only a passing train.
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