Content warning: brief mention of suicide ideation
There were skips and there were strats. Luckless didn’t have a head for strats, so he focused on finding skips. He found Ohio Truck Skip: an armored car left unlocked while the driver stopped for a pastry. Pull up, pop the back, grab a bag, peel off—easy $350K starter cash, accessible in the first days of the game. The RNG on that driver behavior was pretty good, and the pastry shop was in Zanesville, right off I-70, which made Ohio Truck Skip a favorite stop for midwest-spawned players headed east to run Wall Street strats.
Sometimes those players sent him tips, and Luckless could splurge on malt liquor from the corner bodega or a sushi-burrito delivered from across town. Not exactly five-star filet mignon, like he ate late in his runs, but a nice change from ramen packets and chocolate protein powder, a nice bit of income his student loan creditors hadn’t yet figured out how to garnish.
A lot of skips were like Truck Skip: money you could grab quick and get away with. On Economic Victory runs, the quicker you got out of the prole stage, got some real investment capital, the quicker you could start amassing actual wealth, work your way up to being the richest person in the world. Most of the best EV Any% players didn’t bother to start with wage jobs or uni at all. They just strung together a bunch of early skips, laundered the cash, bought a fully credentialed identity, and then got on with the real game. That’s where the timesave was—when you made more money in a day than proles made in a year or a lifetime.
Skips also helped players make real runs out of more of their spawns. Luckless got a lot of cred for finding skips that helped you get-rich-quick even if you started the game way off the beaten path. He found Kawaihae Timeshare Skip: a remote Hawaiian beach house that could be looted in the off-season for $170K worth of paintings and rugs. He found Chihuahua Tell Skip: a drunk drug lord who would give $100K to a tourist willing to balance a melon on their head for shooting practice; risky, but Luckless only died a third of the time. He even found Lonely Lubbock Lady Skip: a dying spinster in a Texas hospice who would make you heir to her $50mil wind farm business if you read 1980s erotica to her during her final ten days—though naysayers on the forums argued that liquidating the farm was onerous enough that this should really be considered more of a starter play for a clean energy strat.
“You find the best, most boring-ass shit, my dude,” his friend Articumyo35 said after Luckless logged Toronto Tree Skip.
“Let’s goooo,” Luckless said in thanks, and he spammed RetroKappa faces into their chat.
Privately, Luckless disagreed with Articumyo’s characterization. He didn’t think his skips were boring. After all, wandering the world freely, finding pockets of easy money—that was exactly the kind of thing he didn’t get to do IRL. In real life, his on-shift movements through the warehouse were so closely monitored that he’d be docked for taking more than two steps off the optimal path. In real life, he got off shift too deep-bone tired to go out with his coworker Hector—always sounding him out, trying to see how he felt about their algo bosses—too fried to do anything but trudge home and live a half dozen runs before sleep. That was boring-ass shit. The secrets he found in AnyLife were magic.
Take Toronto Tree Skip: a tin of rare coins found nestled under knotted maple roots in Ontario’s Goodwood Conservation Area. Hawked to the right local collector, they seeded Toronto-spawns with a guaranteed $87K. But the find was so random, Luckless half-suspected he’d stumbled on a dev box, hidden by AnyLife‘s developers to help playtesters jump ahead to later stages of the game. Maybe if you took the coins to some unmarked side door in the Swiss banking district, the Illuminati would give you $20 billion, no questions asked.
Used to be lots of rumors like that on the forums—trillion-dollar poker games, a gas station that on Leap Day only sold winning lotto tickets. Dev skips were rare, though, and they always got patched out as soon as they were logged. Luckless dreamed of one day finding such a single-use skip that would catapult him onto the Any% leaderboard. Some secret shortcut to Economic Victory. But if the coin collection held such game-breaking potential, he’d yet to figure it out. Toronto Tree Skip sat quietly on Luckless’s community contributions page, ticking up stars from players trying Canadian fracking strats.
When he wasn’t scouting, Luckless was running. Here’s what that looked like: you slather on the electroconductive gel, hook up the halo that reroutes your nervous system, press and hold START, and boom—it’s midnight on your 18th birthday, in a different body, a different identity, a new clutch of memories swirling in your simulated hippocampus.
If you’re a roleplayer or a 100%er, maybe you’d go along with whatever motivations came with that life. But if you’re a speedrunner like Luckless, you’d forget all that and head for a skip. Long days on the road bouncing from secret cache to fence to easy score to money laundry, until you have enough cash to buy and borrow and bribe your way into real capital. Then long years playing the markets or playing the board rooms, running pump-and-dumps or bear hugs or asset strips until, for at least a second, no one on the planet had more than you. After that, you lived out your years in luxury, or else you suicided out to get on with the next run.
The current Economic Victory Any% record was held by JammyDeeBasterd, the best EV speedrunner in the world. Luckless’s best time didn’t even crack the top thousand.
One night Luckless was watching Jammy do replay commentary on stream, and Jammy flipped to a DroPro and gave a tour of his ‘crib.’ He led the hovering camera through a mansion maze of candy kitchens, home theaters, and mini-finity pools.
“Main advice I have for speedrunners is, get your IRL life just like what you wanna achieve in-game. You can’t just want the EV, you gotta know you deserve the EV. Gotta feel that blue in your blood. Gotta spend your time out the halo with people who are grinding to be the top of their industries, top of the world. I learned half my secret strats from my dad and his business partners. You gotta grind to get your company correct if you’re gonna play your runs correctly.”
Bile ran slick and acid up Luckless’s throat. “Fuck this guy,” he spat. All of a sudden he wanted to stomp on Jammy’s pale, thin throat, burn his massive house down. He wanted to take everything from this rich twerp who had it so easy in this world that he sought out whole other lives to win in.
Of course, Jammy lived a thousand miles away, no doubt with security that would treat Luckless just like an invasive NPC. Luckless had been rich enough times to know how impossible it was to meaningfully hurt someone with as much money as Jammy.
But there was one thing Luckless could take: Jammy’s spot on the leaderboard. He didn’t know how—Luckless’s times had never come close—but he decided then and there to quit dabbling and focus up.
In his best run, Jammy had become the richest person in the world in eleven years, three months, eleven days, and twenty-three hours (in-game timer)—a bizarre wunderkind story in the game. No one had ever done it faster. That night, grinding his cavities, staring in the dark at the blue-light portal of his phone screen, Luckless swore that one day soon he’d get on the leaderboard with sub-ten.
Articumyo was on the leaderboard. So were Hexian and Noodle, who also frequented the Powercord server Luckless was on.
“You wanna post a real run, stop dinking around in the woods and focus on your fundamentals—mergers, takeovers, and takedowns,” Noodle said.
“Read real life biz books,” Articumyo agreed. “Not just run write-ups. It’s different, hearing strats from people who don’t just do this as a game.”
“Like who?” Luckless asked.
“Bez, Buff, Walton, Saud, Zuck, Ma. Or, I dunno, whoever you work for, right? They gotta know more than you, to be at exec-plus.”
“Shit, I tried to read Lenin once,” Hexian said. “Wanted to get into the proles’ heads for better Tower Defense.”
“Who’s Lenin?” Luckless flashed a stub-armed thinky-rex emoji.
“Ancient Russian folk hero,” Noodle said.
Tower Defense was a minigame that sometimes happened late in the exec stage or early in the plute. Prole NPCs surrounded your HQ to protest your strats. Depending on world metrics, they might even besiege the building, try to force their way up to your C Suite, and you’d have to either mobilize your guards effectively or call in mercs or cops to mow the proles down. Unlike a lot of players—including Noodle, Hexian, and Articumyo—Luckless didn’t really enjoy this minigame. But he also didn’t do so many deep EV runs that it came up that often. Which, his friends always pointed out, was why he’d never posted a sub-40 year time.
Occasionally he did go drink forties with Hector, out on the old train tracks after shift, and once he told Hector about a Tower Defense run he’d done the previous night.
“So in this life I had a head of security named Vincey, who had been like a badass DroneSOC guy in Guat.”
“I know the type,” Hector said, and squirted a quarter-mouthful of booze out the gap of a missing front tooth.
“Right? Weird hire. But I delegate to him, figure he’d task some of those police-style dogbots, the K-99s. But Vincey, I remember, he gets this crazy look in his eyes, and then out come like two hundred forklifts, just like we use on the floor. They walk out of the loading dock and just stomp all over the proles, scatter them. Wild to see, you know, the junk we work on every day out smashing skulls.”
“That’s fucked up, man,” Hector said.
“They’re just NPCs.” Luckless shrugged. “What, you play pacifist runs or something?”
“Don’t play much at all. But nah, not a pacifist. Just couldn’t bring myself to violate a picket line, even in a fake life.”
“It’s not fake,” Luckless bristled. “It’s a game. There’s a difference.”
Luckless didn’t get defensive because he was particularly good at AnyLife. He knew he wasn’t, yet. He wasn’t even some genius at finding skips; he just played more scout runs than most. It was a coping mechanism. When Luckless was feeling anxious, or bored, when his mom asked him for drinking money or his landlord nosed around or the companies he did deliveries for on weekends ratcheted down his tip share another notch—well, he’d hole up in his microstudio and drop an evening on four or five lazy, no-goal lives. Cheaper than self-medicating with weed or over-the-counter antidepressants. He’d grab an easy skip, invest the money conservatively, and just while away the years hiking remote forests with a metal detector or observing NPC behavior from some café window. That’s how he found Toronto Tree Skip. Ohio Truck Skip too. And there was a lot to those lives, Luckless thought sometimes. Exploring the world, finding little secrets. The relationships he built with neighbors, his spawn-family. Not having to work. The quiet moments he found in the woods.
That’s why most people played AnyLife, the most comprehensive neurodigital simulated reality game ever made. Halo up and a whole human lifetime whooshes through your brain in twenty-five minutes. Spawn at 18 to live new glory years, go to college if you want, sleep around if you want, travel, try things you were too afraid or too poor to do IRL, make art, start a family, grow old.
They had the whole world in there, kind of. AnyLife‘s version of Earth was patched together from satellite photos, architectural models, all the video footage and Internet data AnyCorp devs could get their hands on. They ran this sketch of the planet through a quantum computer, which worked with your brain to fill in the details, playing off each other until it all made sense.
Luckless figured there was probably a lot more to it, but he was a gamer, not a techie. All he knew was that when the credits rolled at the end of a life, and he unhooked the halo, wiped off the gel, it all still felt as real as anything. The triumphs and hardships, the pain, the wonder, the monotony, the fear, the love, even, he presumed, the death. Not that he could remember all of it. The brain can’t even keep track of one life, let alone the hundreds or thousands that dedicated AnyLife players went through. But with a little practice he could memorize the highlights, the strats that worked, the skips he found, then look them up on the replay, log his time, and post on the forums.
The tricky part for Luckless was finding the time. Nine and a half hours on the clock at the warehouse, four days a week, plus unpaid breaks. An hour commute each way, ninety minutes if traffic snarled nasty. He used to carpool with his aunt’s friend Lenore, and four others, but Lenore quit the warehouse. The bus was two and a half hours each way, so Luckless got a car to save time, give him enough hours at home to do more than just a couple warm-up runs. To afford the car, he started driving deliveries and rideshares on weekends. This cut a lot into his gaming time, but he justified it by getting his friends on Powercord to tell him it was better to play some every day than long stretches just on weekends.
“It’s like yoga,” Noodle confirmed. “You go once a week, you get a once-a-week practice. You go every day, that’s when you start doing upside down splits and shit.”
The thing about AnyLife was—even though Luckless sometimes played it to escape—it wasn’t really escapist. It still felt like, well, life. You still had to pay your bills. You still had to get eight in-game hours of sleep a night if you didn’t want to feel like shit. You still had to shower every day if you didn’t want to smell, figure out breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, take a dump every day. Sure, you could technically do things without facing the consequences in your ‘real life,’ but the consequences in the game felt real enough while you were playing to usually act as a deterrent. There were other simulated reality games with lower fidelity that let you be an action hero or go on a rampage, turn into a tiger or a bacterium or a god. AnyLife was for gamers who wanted the unparalleled, solitary challenge of successfully navigating life as a mortal human being.
This challenge got old after the first dozen lives, so hardcore gamers set themselves additional goals beyond just getting through the years and competed to see how quick they could achieve them. AnyLife developers, in their infinite marketing wisdom, had made this easy to track. For instance, becoming the world’s richest person in a life put a gold-and-diamond EV achievement badge on your player profile, along with your time: how many in-game years it took you to build a fortune, play the markets, buy an empire, grow your profits, outcompete your rivals, claw to the top of the fucking ladder.
There were a few different victory condition achievements—Presidential Victory, Nobel Victory, EGOT Victory, Pope Victory—but Economic Victory was the most popular to speedrun. Within the EV community, there were a couple different philosophies. 100%ers thought the real challenge was working your way up from nothing, role-playing the whole journey from prole or petty rank up to exec, titan and plute. They had rules about how long you had to stay in the top spot and how much damage you could do to the planet and the NPC populations as you rose to power. 100%-complete EV runs were rare, and forums were full of litigation about whether run submissions had used out-of-character knowledge to cheat. Any%ers didn’t give a shit about all that. Use whatever glitchy skips you found, whatever broken strats you memorized, just get that achievement unlock fast enough and you too could be an AnyLife legend.
Luckless was going to be such a legend, he’d decided, so he started gaming for real. He stopped hanging out with Hector and the other warehouse workers, stopped swiping listlessly through dating apps, stopped taking calls from his mom. He listened to strategy podcasts on his commute home, played AnyLife all evening, went to bed watching speedrun streams. He dreamed of other lives, lived and unlived, which he supposed was what all dreams were, but these were different, full of aching-yearning-taking moments in the dark, and of standing on the mountain surveying the world, a devil whispering offerings in his ear. He’d wake up sore and sweating, but he always put the halo back on for a few practice lives before work.
“Damn our boy’s got a firecracker up his ass now,” Hexian said, after Luckless posted his third new personal best in a row.
“Let’s goooo!” Luckless replied, with a flex gif that stacked up poggy-reacts. “Gunning for that throne.”
“Gotta put in more centuries if you want a shot of that,” Noodle said.
“How I do that? Don’t have the tips to quit my job.”
“Fuck you think how?” Articumyo said. “Drugs.”
So Luckless stopped splurging on booze and burritos, saved up for an order of the neuronutriceutical supplements that let simulated reality gamers run ten lives in an hour instead of two. The pills left him blinky, shaky, brain overclocked beyond IRL usefulness. They kept him up at night so he got less sleep and did more runs. At work, he started making mistakes, missing task cues and tripping over bots. So he got some other pills to keep him awake and steady on the job. He felt himself fraying, but his PB was steadily creeping down.
Every few days, Luckless checked in on JammyDeeBasterd. Jammy always looked rested and spa-fresh. He pushed the luxurious gear his sponsors gave him: the best halo and gel, a meal-prep subscription service, a plush, sensor-laden body-care recliner. Luckless could afford exactly none of that stuff, but seeing it, seeing Jammy’s smug perfect teeth and zebra hair, it kept Luckless motivated. It hurt, but just enough to wake him up, like little hooks of jealousy dragging him out of thick fog.
The rules of an official EV Any% speedrun were simple:
- Start on your 18th birthday. This was the minimum age on AnyLife, to comply with child pornography and trafficking laws.
- No plute family starts. No getting born into the richest family, killing your dad, logging the achievement. No simply respawning until you started the game already the world’s richest.
- Randomize your character. Your gender, race, appearance, physique, and so on were all to be decided by AnyLife‘s Random Number Generator.
- Randomize your spawn. Your starting location, community and family relations—these too were left up to the RNG gods.
- Randomize the world. Much of AnyLife was set and baked, but economic metrics—which stocks were trending up or down, unemployment numbers, trade imbalances, the arbitrary prices of the Dow-STAR, the NASDAQ+, the SNP 5000—were all reshuffled every run.
These rules were as close as Luckless could imagine to the world being fair.
The fourth rule was the roughest. You never knew where in the world you’d begin your run. You might be a Parisian socialite or a Mongolian reindeer herder, an Israeli settler or an Amazonian hunter-gatherer, a Sudanese refugee or a Chinese princeling.
As long as you spawned more or less middle class in a wealthy, industrialized country, you could make a run at it. With the right skips, it didn’t make much difference if you were from Akron, Ohio or Noe Valley, San Francisco. There was always a small timesave being born to the upper class, but a middling birth needn’t make or break a run.
Even with skips, however, rule four meant you played a lot of runs that really had no chance of ever getting rich. Used to be Luckless would play these lives out, just vibing, living, keeping an eye out for skips. Now if a run wasn’t working out, spawned in the wrong place or with the wrong demographics, he’d rip it. Sometimes that meant trying to grab a risky but profitable skip: a coyote crossing or a bank robbery or both. When he was spawned too remote to have a shot at some free money, ripping meant a quick jump off a cliff, if one was available. Or a bottle of pesticide, a slit wrist, a wild charge at soldiers or police. Luckless got really good at killing himself.
More than once he woke up in the morning, or in the night, with a disorienting impulse to rip his own life. Everything around him screamed “spawned all wrong,” this wasn’t going anywhere, he’d be better off logging out and running it back. In a kind of digital-mental-muscle-memory-twitch, he’d start thinking about if there was drain cleaner under his sink or if he could steal painkillers from his mom, how hard it would be to get ahold of a gun.
“Lmao yeah I’ve had that,” Noodle said, when Luckless jokingly mentioned his suicidal ideation. “IRL sucks hard. But then I remember, I can live whatever lives I want.”
“Maybe you wanna take a break, though,” Articumyo said. “Get some brain rest or at least take some chiller runs. Scout out some skips in the woods like you used to.”
“Jammy doesn’t take breaks,” Luckless objected. “Jammy doesn’t scout skips in the woods.”
“Yeah, but Jammy wakes up next to, like, models and shit,” Hexian said. “Has a personal trainer to keep his stamina up and neurochemistry right. You gotta play your real life to win, too.”
But in real life, the warehouse algo had started docking mistakes from Luckless’s pay, and between that and the expensive supplements, he overdrafted his bank account and got behind on rent. Pretty soon he came home to eviction papers stapled to his door.
“Just vanlife it, dude,” Noodle advised. “You could be like the wardrivers of old, gaming on the open road.”
“I don’t have a van, though,” Luckless said. “Carlife doesn’t sound so glam.”
Hector was more sympathetic.
“Brother, we’re trying to fight the algo, but it’s like organizing in quicksand,” Hector said. “Retention is too low, intershop churn is too high. Policies adapt too fast to get a group grievance going, and the Feds are totally hostile to us right now. But, come to a meeting. We can pass the hat around, maybe help you make rent somewhere.”
Luckless was tempted and torn. He knew he needed help, but he felt a huge whelm of shame and anger at the idea of taking charity from strangers—not when he spent most every night as a tycoon, a mogul, a jetsetting titan. He told Hector yes, but then didn’t show.
Instead, Luckless tried staying at his mom’s place. After a few days, though, he caught her walking out with his AnyLife halo tucked under her arm, a CraigsPawn buyer already on the phone. In the scramble to get his gear back from her, she started screaming, “you didn’t wanna be born so bad, fine, disappear, get your fuck-fantasy-suicide-game shit out my house!” So carlife it was.
Luckless had a hope that living in his car would be simpler. He’d sleep in the warehouse parking lot, wake up and walk right into work. After, he could skip the commute and do AnyLife runs in his car, tapped into the very edge of the facility’s wifi. Technically he could get fired for stealing bandwidth like this. He wasn’t the only one who camped out in the parking lot, however, so he figured the company lowkey didn’t care. With no rent to pay, he’d have more money and could stop driving on weekends, get more runs in, grind his way to the top.
Reality proved more complicated. The extra money he thought he’d have evaporated into fast food and gym passes to take the occasional shower. His back started to ache from the awkward way he slept half-curled in his backseat. He thought about buying a tent to lay out long, but one evening he came out of AnyLife to find a pair of homeless guys tugging at his car’s door handles. Though they wandered off when he laid on the horn, he felt glad for the metal and glass that had protected him, and he scrapped the tent idea.
In many ways this was the worst time of his life, but it was hard to feel too sorry for himself when he’d finally cracked the top100 leaderboard.
“Inspired!” Articumyo called it, after Luckless gave the chat his recap.
“Fuckin’ gottem,” Noodle agreed.
“Our little pogbaby is all grown up into a big strong chaddaddy,” Hexian pronounced.
The run had been mostly luck: born into a wealthy Italian aluminum mining family, he (though, in this life, she) had gotten in early on the third-gen vehicular battery boom, parlayed that into successful concerns in diverse energy storage. From there she bet big and hit on algae-based jet fuels, plus a risky portfolio of cryptocompanies that she hyped up on social media. It was a dangerous, aggressive strat, but she bribed off the SEC and ESMA attack dogs just long enough for her net worth to top US$4 trillion—bigger than any other plute NPC in the game at that time.
The rest of that life was full of scandal and ruin, seasick fugitive years avoiding wire fraud prosecution on a yacht, three months of prison time, then decades begging for loans from old money friends, dying alone in a crumbling beach house in Naples. But AnyLife logged that twirling EV achievement icon at 18 years, 11 months, and 15 days. Worth it.
Luckless was sure this represented a big level up for him. He’d hit EV plenty of times before, but mostly through long years of painstaking investment, cultivating a profitable conglomerate, followed by a few targeted assassinations of rivals. Now he realized that those conservative strats would never get him close to JammyDeeBasterd’s time, or sub-ten.
So he cranked it up a notch. He stopped caring about the stability of his brief, imaginary finances—that was tedious 100%er shit. Stopped having relationships or children, unless they upped his fortune. Stopped splurging on food or vacations or any luxuries that didn’t appreciate in value.
His average times got better, but he struggled to top that wondrous, manic, Italian PB.
He stopped caring about laws, except to the extent that he could change them to favor his business, get regulations out of the way of his accumulation. As a plute, he could buy out the mercs of most any enemy. Governments, however, with their nationalism and monopoly on violence, still had loyal enforcers who could arrest him or haul him off to testify before Congress or Parliament, which was a real drag. So he did everything he could to undermine and destroy nationstates and the middle classes that gave them power.
He PBed again, by about seven months, this time as a prodigious Qatari oil baron, whose spies and botnets suppressed global climate talks just long enough for his toxic fossil assets to spike on skittish markets.
He stopped paying taxes. He nearly stopped paying his employees. Jammy might have IRL experience with the upper crust, but Luckless knew all about how bosses and algos could control workers, manipulate workers, overclock workers, steal from workers. He got really good at Tower Defense, crushing strikers with drones and mercs, sending infiltrating agents to sow discord.
Still, even though he sometimes inched up the leaderboard, he never got close to Jammy’s miraculous 11 year time. For that he didn’t just have to be ruthless and reckless and play his strats perfectly, he had to be insanely lucky too—and luck, of course, was never something he’d been able to count on.
It took something out of Luckless, going to work every day and being that cruel every night. He knew it was just a game, but a part of him felt like he was betraying some bond with his coworkers. Not quite the in-joke-filled friendship with his Powercord buddies, nor the bad-but-thick blood with his mom—but rather a sense that, no matter how many lives he lived off the clock, on the clock he and they shared a common fate.
Sometimes he would stand atop his HQ tower, watching the proles clash with his security, and he would see his coworkers’ faces in the mob. Jennette, shaking her hand-scrawled protest sign. Bix, their eyes red with tear gas. Lenore, kettled by the cops. Hector, his ribs crushed by a headless dogbot.
“You okay, brother?” Hector asked. Luckless found himself lying on his back in the middle of the warehouse floor. No halo was on his head, but somehow he felt like he’d been someone else, living some other life. He desperately wished he still was.
Hector’s rough hand gripped his arm, hauled him up. For a second Luckless wanted to tell Hector everything, but what was there to tell? That no matter how he tried, he couldn’t get rich enough fast enough? Join the fuckin’ club, Hector would probably say. That he could dominate the whole world, just not quite as quick as this other guy? All that was just a game. The display of his work goggles flashed with insistent tasks, the algo ticking down the seconds until it docked his pay. Luckless shook off Hector’s hand and stumbled back to work.
The next morning, a manager he’d never seen before, perhaps some agent contracted by the algo, called him off the floor.
“Funny, I never thought someone who lived in the parking lot could be late for work so often. Yet here we are.”
The manager smiled through big, perfect teeth. Teeth like Jammy’s, Luckless thought, or almost. Teeth that wanted to be like Jammy’s.
“We understand that our associates will occasionally go through personal difficulties, especially in uncertain times. But when those difficulties impact floor performance and safety, they become bigger than one person.”
Luckless wondered what it was like to be middle management. With skips, he’d rarely had to spend much time there. A demoralizing station, he thought, helping control the proles on behalf of execs, yet getting mere crumbs of capital in return.
“Your metrics are in bad shape. You are very close to losing your hours and getting put on a no-renew list. Understand?”
Luckless nodded, disassociating hard. A corner of his mind churned through the impacts losing the warehouse job would have on his speedrunning. He could drive deliveries again to pay for food, but for that he’d have to clean his car, rent a storage locker for the suitcases that contained the possessions his mother hadn’t managed to pawn. And he’d need to find bandwidth powerful enough to handle simulated reality.
“But there’s a way you can help yourself. We’re willing to give you another chance and a clean slate, reset your metrics. Interested?”
“Okay,” Luckless said. Anything to get him out of this little room, back to the safety and sanctuary of AnyLife.
“We know you’ve been approached by Hector Lopez,” the manager said, still smiling, teeth unblinking. “Next time he offers, we’d like you to take him up on the meeting.”
A shiver of warning began to tug Luckless’s attention back to reality.
“Just go and listen. Try to take note of who attends. Then you and I will have a conversation after about how it went. Could you do that?”
Luckless didn’t answer. The company wanted him to be a spy. He’d done plenty of corporate espionage in his runs, but this was different. The request sank like a stone to the bottom of his gut, pulling him down.
“It’s important for us to be able to understand and anticipate anything that might impact future workflows. Like if associates have grievances they aren’t taking through the proper channels, or if they are trying to involve outside actors in company business. You can understand how disruptive that would be, for everyone, right?”
Luckless nodded. He knew he needed to nod to keep his job, his life, afloat.
“So what do you say? Can you be a team player?”
Luckless hesitated, then nodded a third time. “Okay.”
The rest of the day ticked by slow, the hours on the clock feeling longer than any simulated life he’d ever lived. He moved boxes from bot to shelf and shelf to bot. He sat, ass-numb, in the forklift, carrying pallets with shuddering steps. He kept his head down, avoiding Hector’s eye, and the worried gazes of his coworkers.
After his shift was done, he crawled into his car and chewed a protein bar. He couldn’t think what he’d do with his life if he didn’t play turncoat and lost his job. But he didn’t know if he could live with himself if he did.
Mechanically, the way he did whenever he needed to escape the bleakness of IRL, Luckless daubed gel onto his temples, closed his eyes, and held START. When he opened them, her small, brown hands were stocking cans on grocery shelves. It was her birthday, of course, but she was mostly worried about when she’d find time to study for her GED, how late the buses were running after midnight, whether her mother had been sober enough to feed baby Diwa before bed. The algo in her earbuds beeped at her to pick up the pace.
Normally, Luckless would drop the can, shed the earbuds, steal a car, and head to the nearest skip he could remember. Tonight she was in Columbus, so Ohio Truck Skip wasn’t far. From there it would be routine to buy her way into the underworld, get a new identity that could make money moves, never have to do manual labor or think about where she came from ever again.
In her back, her feet, her arms, she felt that deep-bone tired. The same tired Luckless felt every day of that one, unskippable life.
She finished work and rode the bus home, nursed her baby, and slept. The next morning she got out early, went to the diner across from the grocery, where a few of her coworkers were gathering to talk about organizing a union.
Years passed for Luckless in a different kind of power struggle. Instead of stealing, trading, gambling, and killing to get to the top, she spent a lot of time in meetings. She dissected how the boss’s algos stole their time and made them unsafe, and she discussed what they’d want to change. She learned the rules and rigors of workplace democracy—all while stocking shelves every night, raising little Diwa every day. She signed an authorization card, got a few others to do the same. She voted yes in the shop election. They lost. The company had flooded workers’ earbuds with anti-union threats and propaganda. She was fired. She got another job, another grocery, found others to organize with, started over again. This time they moved faster, more carefully. They won. They demanded a contract. The bosses ignored them, set the algos to be more cruel. They voted to strike. She brought Diwa to the picket line, held her and two other babies, chanted and sang in the blazing sun, ate pizza sent by Teamsters, caught a black eye from a scab and gave one in return. But she didn’t have the money to not work forever—none of them did. Like a sagging mattress, their strike collapsed. She went back to work, then was laid off. She found new, worse work. She tried again, failed again. She grew old, had a heart attack, survived, stopped working, moved into Diwa’s tiny apartment. She taught her grandchildren Tagalog and told them to respect a picket line. She had another heart attack and died in her bed.
Luckless came out of the game flushed and out of breath. It had been an exhausting life, no spa days or yacht dives or cocaine. But then, he’d done no nihilistic economic violence, no murder, he’d barely even lied. He didn’t bother to take the halo off and regel. He just popped a nutraceutical and jammed START again.
This time Luckless was white and almost middle class. He went to college, became a teacher, paid out of pocket to ship his students art supplies. His union was strong, but the plutes were swiftly dismantling public education. He marched on Washington, but the bill they demanded never passed. He quit teaching and went to grad school, joined a nonprofit, spent a decade chasing grants and reporting pyrrhic progress. In many ways this felt worse than being the grocery worker. He drove home drunk and wrapped his car around a telephone pole.
Next he was a Spanish dockworker, next a Nigerian miner. He led strikes and caught a merc’s bullet to the head. He was a Louisianan postal worker, a Canadian nurse, a Brazilian farm laborer. He ran for office, lost, ran again, lost, ran again, won, was arrested by the junta and died in prison. He was a Korean programmer, a Swedish lawyer, a Caribbean bank teller. He leaked data about the plutes’ tax avoidance, then was taken out by balaclava-clad men waiting in the dark of his flat.
Each time he came to in his car, it was a little later, his body and brain a little more tired and wired. He was taking twice as many pills as normal, and the hours were draining away toward dawn. But he kept going back in, living out every life he was given, never taking a skip or a shortcut. He wasn’t trying to get rich—he was trying to change things.
Sometimes he succeeded, in small but meaningful ways. Most of the time he didn’t, he lost hard, or he simply surfed the churn of class war, giving and receiving solidarity, serving and toiling, filling his lives with a kind of meaning that came not from triumph in competition but from being one with a great mass of people all struggling for a better day.
When it happened, Luckless never knew if it was something he did, or some quirk of RNG. There was just something in the air this time around, the world on a precipice. He was still so young when the general strike was called—an organizing feat so massive and dangerous that in most lives it had seemed impossible. He hopped a turnstile and rode the train to Manhattan, met with his union brothers and sisters, and other comrades, thousands and thousands of them. Among them were NPCs of all ages, many of whom had never walked a picket before but nonetheless knew, from instinct or experience, that the rich kept getting richer by immiserating the poor. It was an incredible crowd, all of whom, to one degree or another, through work or talk or books or social media, had come to something resembling class consciousness.
They surrounded the towers where the plutes ran the world, and Luckless looked up at the high windows and knew what was coming. Cops in black and blue marched up the avenues—class traitors all fearful and ashamed and hungry for blood. Mercs guarded the tower doors. Drones swarmed overhead. Bestial bots massed in uncanny stillness. Everything was against them, Luckless knew: all the money and all the violence it could buy. Standing against that was so much harder than making the money or ordering the violence or becoming the richest, cruelest plute in the world.
But just this once, the proles had the numbers. There were so many of them. Some proles fought the cops and bots and fell. Some sat in peaceful resistance and were struck down too. More proles saw this and joined them, more workers shed their earbuds and goggles and added their bodies to the crowd.
They deployed shifting tactics, improvised weapons: lasers, umbrellas, signal jammers, hashtags, live streams, molotovs, bricks and phalanxes. They held back the cops and broke through the mercs, entered the tower and occupied it floor by floor. Luckless felt an ecstasy like he’d never experienced before, in all his lives, felt freshly born, felt a kind of high communion, a great throbbing kinship with all those who produced and harvested, who delivered and maintained, who taught and cared and made the world prosper, and who were now striking all at once in their billions.
Of course, that was not the end of it. There were weeks of occupation, months of struggle, all of which seemed so much longer and richer than a dozen centuries of shallow, speedrun lives. Luckless was not special in this life, not a leader. He didn’t try to be. But he was elected, nonetheless, to attend the New International, to draw up treaties and wipe away borders, to figure out how they could take the great wealth of the world and give it to all people, all at once.
He lived a long life as a worker and a politician, both at the same time, as an artist and a scholar and a teacher and a parent. He died surrounded by family and comrades, old and satisfied but still wishing he could have more, for his life had been dignified and full.
The sun was shining when he took off the halo. He stared out his car window, sore and empty. Out of habit, he checked his run stats. There in the achievements, a spinning diamond on his phone screen, was the Economic Victory emblem, and a log time: nine years, five months, and one day.
In a daze, Luckless posted the run, saw his name jump to the top of the EV Any% leaderboard. Ahead of Noodle and Hexian and Articumyo. Ahead of JammyDeeBasterd, and everyone else who had ever played the game.
He didn’t know if this was an easter egg put in by seditious game devs, some quirk or glitch of AnyLife‘s scoring, or something else, something transcendent. But it felt true. With no skips, no shortcuts, he had been, in that one revolutionary life, along with every other prole and peasant, the richest person in the world.
Someone rapped on his passenger-side window. Luckless rolled it down, too tired to be embarrassed at the mess of wires and bedsheets, the stink of food wrappers and dirty clothes.
Hector looked him over, concern filling his face. “You okay, brother? Bad night on your game?”
“I dunno,” Luckless said. “No. It’s just a game.”
Hector nodded, unconvinced. “You look rough, though. I know meetings aren’t your thing, but I’m getting together with some people before shift starts. A couple nurses will be there. One of them could look you over.”
Luckless rubbed his sleepless, tired eyes. He remembered the manager’s directive. He looked at Hector’s hands, calloused like his own and like so many hands he’d worn before.
“Okay,” Luckless said. “Let’s go.”
Copyright 2023 Andrew Dana Hudson
About the Author
Andrew Dana Hudson is the author of Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, as well as numerous stories appearing in Slate Future Tense, Lightspeed, Terraform, and many more. His nonfiction has appeared in Slate and Jacobin. He attended the 2022 Clarion Workshop. Follow his work at www.andrewdanahudson.com.