This month’s stories — by authors Nibedita Sen, Yoon Ha Lee, Marie Brennan, and Benjamin C. Kinney — are free to read, but it’s our paying subscribers who allow us to keep publishing great stories week after week. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up
For the second free-to-read story of the year, Yoon Ha Lee shares a moment of extraordinary connection. ~ Julian and Fran, January 14, 2024
by Yoon Ha Lee
Niss swanned into the bookstore, shaking off the attention of the bodyguard/escort. “I’ll be fine, Hayes,” she said.
Hayes shook his head, then glided back a couple steps, which was all the concession Niss would get. He wasn’t especially expressive, but he’d never been able to hide his feelings from her.
People stared as she strutted to the presentation area. Today she flaunted a sleek ombre dress that flattered her long limbs and made the most of the fact that she was as curvy as cuneiform, as she kept telling Stoneson. Over that, Niss wore a pullover with frayed seams. She’d specified that detail: “We want sexy, but not too sexy,” she’d said. “Relatable librarian chic. We want the readers to imagine they could afford this outfit if they’d budgeted better.”
Poor readers. She couldn’t afford this outfit, even with her salary. Not bleeding-edge fashion tailored by the Company’s best, handsewn, all-organic sustainable fabric. (Faked certifications, but it still cost.) It was strictly for show, owned by the Company and auctioned off afterward so the bids could be donated to a “charity” vetted by the PR department.
She’d left herself fifteen minutes to review the briefing before the author event started, trusted Hayes to head off any overeager fans. Hayes was good with kids. While the books with their steamy scenes were not for kids, a lot of the readers were parents, and a lot of those parents brought their kids.
In the early days, Niss had been diligent about her homework. Memorized every synopsis and talking point, prepared to answer hardball questions about each character and the inspirations for every scene. Smiled as she talked about her writing process.
Her favorite tea: in reality, she hated tea, and naturally she got illegal smuggled extinct teas as gifts from rich fans. (She regifted them to Hayes, who adored the stuff.) She beamed as she discussed the cat figurine she kept in memory of her childhood cat; some enterprising intern had found the figurine in a thrift store. The fountain pens, at least, were real. The Company rewarded her for a job well done with the occasional gift: a rounding error to their budget.
Niss reached into her clutch. Rummaged. Rummaged some more.
Her heart clenched. She’d left the briefing at home! The Company was so paranoid, someone produced it by manual typewriter and then confiscated it afterward. Her boss, Stoneson, cautioned her over and over about hackers and industrial espionage, not that Niss herself knew anything about the Company’s software. “If you don’t care about either of those,” she had said to Niss, “at least worry about the stalkers.”
Breathe, Niss. You can do this.
Besides, wasn’t this what Stoneson liked about her? “The woman who always knows what to say,” Stoneson had called her once, with that almost-a-smile of approval that Niss refused to admit was so attractive.
“Hello, I’m Nisaba Sheng, Niss for short!” she said, dipping her head and glancing at the audience through her eyelashes. She’d practiced this with the deportment coaches, had the move down cold. The audience loved the intimation of shyness combined with the what if you got to know me smile. “I’m so glad you’ve come to hear about my latest book. . . .”
Niss had been doing this for the last five years, a meteoric rise, bestsellers and awards, what passed for affection from the Company; and she hated every fucking second of this farce.
Nisaba wasn’t her real name.
She knew why she’d landed the gig. It had nothing to do with her writing sample, her understanding of when to use a semicolon (“As little as possible,” Mom #1 said), familiarity with the terms widow and orphan in the context of book layout rather than kinship. It didn’t involve the fact that, during the preliminary chitchat with the admin while waiting for the job interview, she’d known that 西遊記, aka Journey to the West, wasn’t a travel brochure, that Moby-Dickwasn’t a scrimshaw dildo, and that Epic of Gilgamesh was Sumerian.
KulabaScribe, the Company’s proprietary narrative generator, disregarded such picayune concerns. The Company had AI copy editors to smooth everything into house style, and hired freelancers at cut rates to deal with the remaining infelicities. The freelancers would have taken less time if they had been handed the job to begin with, and paid decently, and done a better job, so they said; but the Company (all the Companies) held the high cards.
“You may enter now,” the admin said to Niss, and indicated the door.
Niss smiled, because it never paid to antagonize the staff, and did.
The interviewer’s office featured a desk of glass and black metal in the hypermodernist style, chairs and fixtures to match. A floating shelf featured the Company’s latest bestsellers.
The anomaly was the single book resting on the corner of the desk. Coptic stitch binding, a cover the hue of dried reeds, pages browned and curling at the edges. The one old thing amid all the new ones.
Niss couldn’t help herself. She leaned over to read the title. No luck: it was in some language she didn’t recognize, all spikes and wedges.
The interviewer herself was sheathed in a pantsuit worth more money than Niss was likely to see in ten years. She lifted an eyebrow, waiting for Niss’s attention, although Niss sensed she wasn’t displeased. “They were right,” she said assessingly. “You’re perfect.”
I am? But Niss knew better than to question a lucky break. Especially with her share of the rent overdue, and three roommates she cleaned up after because that way she didn’t have to chip in for utilities.
“Ms. Stoneson,” Niss said in the polite-bordering-on-servile cadences she’d perfected over three years of shitty jobs after college, “I’m prepared to take the copyediting exam.”
She wondered why they wanted her to take it in person. Standard operating procedure: people took it online, from the comfort of their own homes, with biometric security measures. Candidates pretended the measures worked, and Companies pretended the candidates didn’t cheat.
On the other hand, a rare in-person interview gave her the opportunity to show off how decorative she was, even if she was running out of ways to hide the repair work she’d done at the cuffs and elbows of her suit. Copy editors worked remotely, but some people cared about aesthetics even over video.
Stoneson rose and offered her hand. Niss shook it: not too firm, not too weak. “Yes, about that,” Stoneson said with a sharkish smile that Niss memorized in case she needed to imitate it the next time Roommate #2 got handsy. “What if I had a better opportunity for your particular skill set?”
Is she hitting on me? Not her favorite way to pay the bills, but depending on the side benefits . . . if she could move out of her shitty apartment and away from Roommate #2 . . . if all Stoneson wanted was for her to cosplay as some webtoon character and spank her . . .
Besides, Stoneson had presence. Allure. Attractive in its own right.
Strangely, what made Niss decide she’d say yes to cosplay or spanking, if asked, was the Coptic stitch. No one who treasured a hand-bound book could be all bad. “What kinds of skills?”
Stoneson’s smile widened. “You’re aware of the debut that’s scheduled for an October release.”
Niss had done her homework. “I am. Wrecked and Overripe, Nisaba Sheng.” She sucked down her envy, knowing it would suppurate. The Company played coy about the size of its advances, but she could read between the lines. What did it take to be one of the few human authors who struck it rich like that—
Her heart thumped so loudly, she could almost hear it crashing open the doors of her dreams. Did Stoneson want her as a ghost? She’d heard ghostwriting sucked, but it couldn’t suck worse than copyediting.
Her weird stubbornness in writing her own essays throughout undergrad might pay off after all. Even the composition classes spent most of their time on how to fine-tune prompts for the generators, smooth the prose, fact-check the results. Ironically, online databases and reference sites were so badly infested with nonsense (hippogriffs first appeared in Sherlock Holmes; the Battle of Trafalgar was won by Captain Nemo’s antimatter zeppelin) that the last required grueling hours in the library with paper books.
“You need to dream bigger. Our starting salary for this position—” Stoneson gestured at the wall. A screen lit up. A number glowed.
Niss’s jaw dropped. She closed her mouth with a snap.
“We need you to be Nisaba Sheng.”
Niss blinked. “She’s sick?” She realized the stupidity of the question immediately.
“Only in a manner of speaking. Our market analysis indicates that this book’s earning potential is best served if it has a human author from the right demographic. Who can project the right image in person as well as on video.”
“You want me to play the part,” Niss said.
The in-person interview finally made sense. Niss hadn’t included a headshot. On the other hand, she had a unique moniker, no thanks to Mom #1 giving her the Asian family name. And Mom #2 had shelled out for slightly illegal genetic tweaks to “optimize your health.” It wasn’t until Niss had committed the sin of getting a cut on her face in kindergarten (scissors accident) that she had figured out that Mom #2 meant make you irresistibly attractive so you can succeed in life. It wouldn’t have been difficult to find some photos in a search, even if the results were peppered with scammer-generated avatars.
“You are the part,” Stoneson said. The slight twist of her mouth betrayed a human emotion for the first time during this interview, as opposed to practiced impersonal charm.
Niss had never stopped to consider what executives at a Company might think about their business. But Stoneson was swimming in enough money to drown a lifetime of qualms, enough money to afford retro curios like the book on her desk.
“You understand, for security reasons, your contact with family and former associates will be highly limited. But your mothers will be provided for.”
“You did your homework, didn’t you.” What else did the Company know about her? Did they know about the slightly illegal genetic tweaks, too? Was she being blackmailed?
“We all have family, one way or another,” Stoneson said, producing a tablet. “Will you sign?”
Niss breathed in, breathed out. “I’m in,” she said. “Do you have a stylus?”
Niss did remember the title of “her” book, two copies of which stood on the table: Plastered and Mastered. She’d proposed the title to Stoneson, half-joking. It gave her a weird sense of ownership even though she hadn’t written any of it. Stoneson had approved it, surprisingly.
To Niss’s aggravation, the back cover didn’t contain anything about the plot. It was covered with vague but glowing blurbs from other bestselling “authors.” Stoneson had let slip that Companies had reciprocal agreements allowing them to generate whatever quotes would sell books.
Hayes’s brow creased as Niss reached for a copy so she could reexamine the cover art. Niss took care to smile sheepishly at the audience, except she wasn’t feigning her nerves.
NISABA SHENG in a giant font across the top of the cover, the title rather smaller. The only image was a whip coiled around a wine bottle.
Niss could play the tease and hope that the audience would take any inaccuracies as jokes. She replaced the book, fussing over its position so her fans wouldn’t realize what was going on.
She cast an eye over the crowd, looking for what Hayes termed targets of opportunity. That woman in the front row, brow creased above designer glasses, clutching a limited-edition hardcover of Medium Rare Lover by Niss’s biggest rival, Suzie Staker. More accurately, the Company’s biggest rival. Niss suspected “Staker” existed only to promote a chain of you could almost mistake this for real Kobe beef steakhouses.
An amateur would go for the softest target. A fan cross-dressing in the last outfit she’d posted to social media, complete with bronze-and-blue stilettos. That freckled lady who kept trying to make eye contact. The cluster of older folks in matching book club T-shirts.
Niss, however, knew that she made a bigger impression winning over skeptics. Face it, a fan of Staker flaunting herself here wanted to be won over. Staker’s last book had come out five years ago, an eternity in modern publishing, and it ended on a cliff-hanger. (Niss had to pirate a copy because Stonehouse tracked her purchases. She’d stayed up all night reading it.)
“I had writer’s block for the first time,” Niss said, leaning forward, just slightly breathless. Like she was confessing to something embarrassing. Her gaze lingered on the Stakerite for just a moment; she tipped up the corner of her mouth when the Stakerite looked at her. Niss, wry and confiding; the Stakerite, torn between wariness and sympathy.
“You know me and my tea,” Niss went on. “But I needed to get out of my rut. And I don’t mean that kind of rut—until I realized that was exactly it.” She could blush on command, a useful skill. “There was this ex I’ve never talked about.” Nice thing about being imaginary: infinite room to invent a backstory. “I dumped him for being a domineering asshole, but those eyes. And he’d left behind this bottle of wine I never returned to sender, which gave my opening scene . . .”
The rest passed in a blur. When Niss remembered to glance at the clock, she’d gone twenty minutes over. Yet her bookstore contact, herding the people who wanted Niss to sign their purchases, gave her a thumbs-up. And first in line was the Stakerite.
Too bad Stoneson didn’t see this in person.
Afterward, Hayes hustled her out, fending off a crowd even more enthusiastic than usual. Niss smiled up at him, wishing he would break his reserve, or that she dared make a move—but Hayes, like Stoneson, was a professional. Niss wouldn’t jeopardize his job like that.
“Well,” Niss said as she settled in the back seat of the car with her stash of barley snacks. “That was a change of pace.”
“Yes,” Hayes said, “quite a feat of storytelling. You have a gift.” Despite his near monotone, the corner of his mouth twitched upward in what passed for a smile.
Niss looked out the window at the firefly swarm of lights rather than answering. She’d enjoyed that. Had always enjoyed telling anecdotes to warm up a crowd. In the beginning, she’d been provided with stories about her favorite teas, her childhood cat’s antics, wielding the power of STET. Then Stoneson acknowledged that she excelled at improvisation, and loosened the reins. Yet she’d forgotten about that rush . . . until now.
She still wasn’t sure what Plastered and Mastered was really about . . . but now she wanted to write her version of the story. The one she’d told in there.
Niss pulled out her phone and started pecking her story into the note-taking app.
Her first day as a board member, Mingxia didn’t expect to be bent over her desk, unable to tell if she was being pounded by the CEO himself or a bottle of his most expensive cabernet sauvignon. It had better not be the cheap booze. She had standards. . . .
Niss’s condo was much nicer than the one she’d shared with the shitty roommates a mere five years ago. Owned by the Company down to the furnishings. She made herself a cocktail, flopped down on the white couch (seriously, white?), and kept typing. She’d produced an astonishing five thousand words by the time she passed out.
The next morning, Niss woke to a text from Stoneson. It was not the congratulatory kind, or even the drunken booty call kind, as much as Niss sometimes dreamed about it.
Come to my office ASAP. Stoneson had sent it three times.
Fuck. This couldn’t be about the book event . . . could it?
Niss scrambled off the couch, discovering in the process that the briefing for Plastered and Mastered had been crumpled under her ass, and got dressed.
Twenty-three minutes later Niss walked into Stoneson’s office.
Stoneson was pacing, an unusual sign of agitation. “I don’t have a choice, Yuyong. We’re letting you go.”
Niss hadn’t heard her real name for so long that she didn’t recognize it even though Stoneson said it correctly down to the tones. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m sorry, too,” Stoneson said. “The NDA. Your contract.”
Niss blinked. “I didn’t talk to anyone!” Surely she hadn’t said anything incriminating, even to Hayes?
Stoneson’s lips compressed, then: “Not as such. But it turns out someone hacked your phone. Found the . . . material you wrote. Posted it, claiming it was a preview of Nisaba Sheng’s real book. The material doesn’t conform with editorial’s standards. Especially the part with the male lead’s enhancements.”
“Show me,” Niss croaked. Had she really put that in? She must have been more drunk than she’d realized.
Stoneson tapped her own phone, then passed it silently to Niss.
A familiar face smirked at her. One she’d noticed right away at the bookstore, if not the significance.
The Stakerite had been the hacker.
“As per the terms of your contract,” Stoneson was saying, “we offer a generous severance package, but you may not discuss . . .”
Niss walked out.
Six months later Niss had finally saved up enough money to buy a laptop, since her own had died long ago and the last one she’d used had belonged to the Company. She was hoping it would enable her to resume writing until the money from that contract came through. Typing with her thumbs had proved unsustainable, especially when RSI took her out for six weeks and her income tanked.
(Why did she still think of herself as Niss? Habit, perhaps, or stubbornness. She didn’t examine the impulse too strongly.)
She’d had closets larger than her efficiency on the tenth floor, but she’d sworn off roommates. She could have called her moms, but then she’d have to explain why she’d gone radio silent.
Besides, writing had given her a way to survive, however precarious. She posted chapters of her saucy opus under a similarly saucy pseudonym, received money in exchange. Glorified sex work, but she was doing the glorified sex work, not a piece of software . . . and she enjoyed it.
Someone knocked on the door. If it had been the landlord’s pounding, Niss would have pretended not to be home. But the knock was so decorous that it piqued her curiosity. No one in this neighborhood knocked nicely.
Niss opened the door— “Hayes?” she asked, astonished.
Hayes inclined his head. Stoneson came into view as well, immaculate as ever.
“You made yourself difficult to find,” Stoneson said. “Fortunately, Mr. Hayes is persistent, and he figured out where you buy your barley snacks.”
Niss couldn’t hide her bitterness. “You made it clear you didn’t have any further use for me.”
“Let me clarify something,” Stoneson said, her voice soft yet intent. “I am not here in an official capacity. I am here because of your writing.”
Niss had just figured that Stoneson’s not here in an official capacity was corporate speak for being here could get me in trouble when the next sentence penetrated. “I’m sorry, what writing?”
“Don’t play naive,” Stoneson said. “You’re the author of the serialized novel Courtesans and Catastrophes, are you not? The one that’s being made into a video game? Talks for a movie?”
Niss considered running for it, except Hayes was three times her size, and jumping out the window from the tenth floor seemed slightly lethal, and it would suck to die without apologizing to her moms.
“Yuyong,” Stoneson said.
Niss almost bolted anyway.
That brought her up short.
“I came,” Stoneson said, “because there was something I needed to know. For myself.”
Niss caught herself dipping her head and glancing at Stoneson through her eyelashes. Stopped. This wasn’t aboutperformance. Not anymore.
“Do you write the chapters yourself? Or do you use a narrative generator?”
Should she tell the truth? Had Stoneson lied about this being a personal matter? Was this a Company fact-finding mission, or a threat? Were they going to disappear her?
Then Niss looked instead at Hayes. Niss had always found Stoneson difficult to read, but Hayes—
Hayes gave her a tiny nod.
She breathed in, breathed out. Squared her shoulders. “I write them myself,” Niss said. “Every typo, every tentacle cock, every fucking deus ex machina that my readers bitch about. You gave me my start, I’m not ungrateful, I’m sorry I disappointed you, but—”
Stoneson kissed her.
For once in her life, Niss was speechless. But she knew what to do. She tilted her head in Hayes’s direction, asking them both, wordlessly. Hayes’s eyes were intent on the two of them; Stoneson’s lips curved in a yes. Niss reached out to draw Hayes in, a three-way embrace.
“Sometimes it’s not just the story,” Stoneson said much later. “Sometimes it’s the storyteller, even if—especially if—she’s as curvy as cuneiform.”
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Yoon Ha Lee’s debut, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards. His middle grade space opera, Dragon Pearl, won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature and the Locus Award for best YA novel, and was a New York Times bestseller. His YA mecha adventure, Moonstorm, is coming in June. Yoon has a B.A. in math from Cornell University, and tutored both math and writing at the time. He lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy catten, and has not yet been eaten by gators.
“Cuneiform,” © Yoon Ha Lee, 2024.
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