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WHISPER

A Short Story Series Created by Steffon Thomas

Episode 3

The Mighty Michelangelo

Written By Tünde Csobán

Illustration by Maggie McToon

          As one of the most admired people on Earth and beyond in her time – being a royal and a Whisperer – Princess Victriana of Britannia felt more like an exhibition piece than a 13-year-old girl most of the time. There were ceremonies and parties and gatherings and events to which she was required to appear, and during most of these instances her job was to just sit there and be gazed upon by her parents’s subjects. It did not help that stories of her confrontation with the dragon at her birthday party had spread throughout the kingdom. Her schedule was usually full of obligations, and now she was being asked to make even more appearances. It was exhausting and annoying. However, there were days where she received a reprieve from her royal duties. This was one of those days.

          The Sun had just tipped over its daily peek and light was beginning to sneak through the wall-high, west-facing window when the Princess lazily turned over in her bed and opened her eyes. She slowly blinked to get her eyes to focus on the hologram of her clock, next to a huge plateful of steaming brunch. Sunday, 1:27 pm, read the blinking display. “Ugh, so early…” she thought and closed her eyes again, but the artificial intelligent breakfast plate sensed she was awake and deactivated the airtight bubble around her food. Within seconds the delicious aromas drifted over to her nose and her stomach responded with a loud rumble. With a sigh, she sat up and pushed a button on one of her bedposts. Immediately, the tray of food hovered over to her lap and sat itself down.

          She had grown up surrounded by the world’s most advanced technology, so she’d never had the chance to appreciate the luxury it provided her with. To her, gadgets, weapons, pieces of tableware and all kinds of everyday objects flying, appearing and disappearing at her command was commonplace. Her breakfast remaining warm and fresh next to her bed, even though it had been there since 6 am, was just a way of life. The comfort and safety of the metal and glass structure of the vast family castle was all she knew. It was only within the previous year that she’d realized not everyone in the world had as easy a life as she’d had.

          She mindlessly gazed over to the paper-thin screen hovering just at the right height in front of her bed, which automatically switched on as if it was reading her mind. “Good morning Vickylicious, did you sleep well? You have 211 notifications and 15 new messages. Do you want me to read them to you?” a voice said as the screen lit up. It was soft and soothing, not at all mechanic, with a hint of an accent Vicky couldn’t place –  perhaps it was from the Visher Isles; or maybe the The Southern Capes. Either way, the voice provided her with a comfort she coveted.

          “Oh God, no,” she replied. Being a Princess had many advantages, but was definitely not without its disadvantages – one of which included being a subject in every single social event that took place throughout the kingdom, whether she attended or not. People would tag and mention her in absolutely everything online in the hopes of being noticed. It had its moments – Vicky enjoyed making people happy – but dealing with all of those notifications first thing after waking up was definitely not what she would consider an enjoyable way to begin the day.

          “Do I have any messages from ‘The Royal Group’?”

          “You have a schedule reminder from your assistant, good morning messages from mama and papa and 3 messages from ‘The Mighty Michelangelo’. Would you like me to read these messages to you?”

          Vicky sat up a bit straighter, her eyes twinkling with excitement. “No, just open my conversation with MJ!”

          “As you wish,” the voice chimed and a chat window popped up on the big screen.

MJ: Hiya m’lady – 8:30am
MJ: Wow, you’re still not up yet? Gosh, how can you sleep so much? – 11:17am
MJ: Anyways, happy friendaversary! – 11:20am
MJ is away – 12:37pm

          She quickly activated her virtual keyboard and typed “happy friendaversary to you too!! :D,” and eagerly waited for a response. But after a while MJ’s “away” indicator switched to “offline” and she knew she probably wouldn’t be seeing him for quite a few hours. He was only offline when his family had no electricity and it usually took him a while to get it sorted. She still didn’t know that much about her friend; he was quite secretive. She knew he was a bit older than her, he lived outside of Britannia and he didn’t go out very much, apart from the few occasions when his home lost power and he and others “needed to take care of it”, whatever that meant. She had never seen what he looked like – not in person or even in a picture, and she’d only heard his voice on a few occasions. That was everything she knew about him. Well, there was one other thing she knew and it was the key to how they met online in the first place: he was incredibly skilled in technology. 
The day they first chatted was one of her fondest memories.

****

2 Years Earlier

          The 11-year-old Princess had been in her bedroom for most of the afternoon. She was sitting cross-legged on the luxurious carpet, only absentmindedly listening to the sounds of the videos playing on the floating screen next to her, while toying with her digital companion. She felt lonely, throwing the virtual ball to a virtual hand across the room. Hours earlier, she had been in the courtyard watching some of the other castle kids play. She wanted to join them, and she knew they wouldn’t have turned her away, but on that day it just didn’t feel right. 

          Being a Wyvern Whisperer and a Princess made everything overly formal, even childish activities. Everyone was always so gentle with her and respectful, as if they were handling pure gold. When she played, games were easy and she usually won because the other kids knew that her guards and protectors were always watching from the shadows, and no one wanted to get in trouble for injuring the Princess. Everyone was just too nice. So instead she chose to watch them from afar on most days, living a carefree life vicariously through others. Usually it was enough, but on that day it left a sour taste in her mouth. And so she had announced to her parents that she was retiring to her room. 

          She was just about to shut down her virtual assistant and take a nap when suddenly she heard a ping, and a new window popped up on her screen with a short message. It wasn’t like any of the social media apps she’d ever seen, the most popular of which usually presented as decorative blue chat boxes with hundreds of font choices, thousands of emojis and other customizable features. Instead, this chat box was srtipped down; gray with plain white text and a few weird symbols and characters that she didn’t recognize. At a glance it could have been mistaken for programing code.

MJ: hi

          was all it said. She knew she was supposed to report strange messages to the Royal Guards immediately, but she let her curious nature get the best of her and she replied.

User2: hi, do I know you?

          She instinctively started searching for a settings icon so she could change her username to something more to her liking, but whatever this chat was, that didn’t seem to be an option. There were no icons or options on her side of the screen, just a thin border around a grey square – not even an option to minimize or close the window – and the words that appeared at the top as she typed. She couldn’t change or do anything apart from type, it was as if a rectangle of her colourful screen was cut out and she was looking at words carved on the bare bones behind it.

MJ: it’s unlikely, but not impossible… Depends on who you are
User2: how can you not know who I am? You messaged me
MJ: it’s a bit complicated. I know where I messaged, but I don’t know whom
User2: I don’t understand
MJ: I know I’m on Britannia Castle’s system, but I just messaged the first active user I could find
MJ: so I have no idea who you are
MJ: all I know is what the screen tells me, User2, it’s not like I can see you
User2: …can you?
MJ: no, no! Look, I swear I’m not a creep
MJ: just a lonely kid trying to make friends
User2: virtually breaking into someone’s bedroom is a strange way to make friends
MJ: oh, sorry
MJ: didn’t know this was a bedroom computer
MJ: how fancy… I’ve never been in a castle bedroom
MJ: is it comfy in there?
User2: are you sure you’re not a creep?
MJ: pinky promise
MJ: I’m just very good at sounding like one
User2: I can see that
MJ: wait… how do I know YOU’RE not a creep?

          Victriana froze for a moment. She wondered if her curiosity and eagerness to interact with someone who didn’t walk on eggshells when dealing with her had pushed her to ignore better judgement. All the red flags were there. Whoever she was chatting with was clearly a hacker. And the fact that the hacker had been snooping around on the castle’s server for several minutes without being detected by the royal cyber security team suggested a set of skills that could not only be very dangerous to her well-being but could compromise the castle overall. From the time she was old enough to have access to the worldwide network she’d been trained in what to do if contacted by a stranger. This was textbook ‘Code Teal.’ 

          But Vicky had a good feeling about the stranger. There was something about the way this ‘MJ’ talked that made her want to trust whoever it turned out to be. She instinctively looked around the room to see if anyone was watching her, momentarily forgetting that she was the only one there. Another ping drew her attention back to the screen.

MJ: hello? r u still there?
User2: still here
User2: just worried you discovered my deep dark creeper past…
User2: but don’t worry, those days are behind me
MJ: phew
MJ: you were creeping me out there for a second… I was almost scared
User2: oh you should be, I mean, you can never know, maybe the royal army is watching you👀

          She smiled to herself, enjoying the back and forth with this mysterious person. But after about a minute of no response her smile faded.  Had she scared her new chat partner away? Did her joke hit a little too close to home? Had she offended him? The prospect of losing this new exciting connection was more dreadful than the idea that this connection could be dangerous. After a few more seconds, she hastily typed ‘lol’ – an idiom that was somewhat out of character for her – in an attempt to lighten the mood and show that she was just kidding. Still, no response. She sighed heavily. “I guess they’re gone,” she thought to herself.

          Then PING! Her face lit up as a new message appeared on her screen. 

MJ: so my dear User2… that’s a lovely name by the way, do you have a nickname too?
MJ: Like “The Big U”?
MJ: “Us-Us”? 
MJ: “U-Seri”?

          She was happy her chat buddy was still there, although it seemed strange the response seemed to ignore her ‘royal army’ quip. She decided not to follow up on it. However, she still wanted to play it cool, and instead levied another burn, this one not as sick.

User2: do you always talk this much?
MJ: only when the royal army is chasing me 😛

          Vicky nearly snorted from the burst of laughter that emerged from her gut. Then quickly typed:

User2: my name is Victriana
User2: Vicky for short
MJ changed your name to Vicky for short
Vicky for short: very funny
MJ: I aim to please, m’lady
Vicky for short: I hate when people call me that… 
MJ: Apologies. Would you prefer “fancy castle dweller”?
Vicky for short: don’t even try…
MJ: okay, okay, how about this?
MJ changed your name to Vicky
Vicky: much better, thanks

          Vicky was crossing all her fingers and hoping she wasn’t making a horrendous mistake. She felt at ease in the conversation, and the cheeky playfulness of MJ made her want to keep talking and soak in every second of this “normality” as much as she could. She didn’t even think about how much trouble she would be in if this went wrong.

MJ: hey, hang on…I thought Victriana was a very rare name
MJ: like, super rare
MJ: like, only-one-in-the-entire-world rare
Vicky: yeah, that’s what I’ve been told too
MJ: oh
MJ: so… you’re the princess?

          She hesitated as her heart began to race. She’d already told the stranger her name, and as they both noted it was impossible for her to claim she was a different Victriana, for there were no other Victriana’s. Her ‘stranger danger’ training instantly filled her mind. She’d been told countless times not to reveal her identity online, she was used to using meaningless usernames. She would still try to use something that represented her in some sense, she was just careful to make sure it wasn’t easy to connect to her. Additionally, outside of her official royal social media feeds, she’d created a number of aliases online which allowed her to interact with other users. She’d successfully avoided giving out her real name to any of the dozens of people she’d chatted with. But then again, none of them had been even half as interesting and engaging as this MJ. She decided to ignore her training and messaged…

Vicky: maybe…
MJ: well then
MJ: maybe-Princess Victriana
MJ: you may call me
MJ: The Mighty Michelangelo!

****

          Two years later, it proved to be one of the best decisions she had ever made. MJ had been her best friend ever since, and though they never met they had already been through quite a lot together. It didn’t matter that most of the time he was just words on a screen. They were words that suggested he knew her better than anyone else, and could always put a smile on her face. 

          She missed him at moments like this, when he disappeared. Sometimes he would be back in minutes, sometimes it would take him hours, and on a few occasions it could even be days. Not having electricity, even for only a few minutes, was something very difficult for her to comprehend, and she could still barely wrap her head around the fact that he could survive without it for such long periods of time. All she knew was that she couldn’t wait for him to be back and on this day she was sorely disappointed that she had missed an opportunity to chat. 

          She grabbed her brunch and began to eat, but between each bite she checked her screen to see if a message had come through. She finished her meal and checked again. She was beginning to worry  and decided her best option was to find a way to distract herself. She got out of bed, put on some gear and headed for the castle grounds to do some extra training.

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