Man in the Arena
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds… Who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Today Kurt’s out strafing, which his stream loves, but which takes a lot of effort. Girl on the left, red jacket, half a block away. He focuses his eyes on her and his viZor immediately starts filling with insults, pick-up lines, nonsensical keyboard-mashing, and whatever else the schizophrenic hivemind of his viewers feels like generating. As the votes pour in the lines are shuffling around too fast for him to read, but that’s okay, she’s still twenty meters away. Ten meters, and it’s stabilized, one of them has clicked into top place; five meters, and he’s figured out just the right intonation. “Hey bitch”, then a pause—gotta get the pause just right, so she has enough time to realize he’s talking to her and look up, but not quite enough to process that anyone who’s calling her a bitch in the middle of the street is not someone she wants to be listening to—“You got a license to be this ugly in public?”
Boom! Perfect timing—he actually manages to get the shocked little o of her open mouth on camera, before she ducks her head away and hurries past him. The next line is popping up in his viZor, and he almost yells it out after her, but when you land a good first hit it’s easy to ruin it with a subpar follow-up. Patience is what separates the best from the rest, he always tells people. So with a swipe of his fingers he replays the clip to his stream instead. “See?” he says. “For the new subs: that’s what it looks like when you’re really fucking good at what you do.” Were those tears in her eyes? Doesn’t matter, let’s roll with it. He subvocalizes a command and his viZor enhances that section, zooming in and adding a slight sheen to the corners of her eyes. It’s a trick he figured out a while back—the livestream is only HD not ultraHD, so as long as you go back and edit before uploading the full video, you can get away with all sorts of stuff.
He gloats for another block, then starts looking for another target. There’s a big guy in the distance, but they’re tricky, you never want to take the chance that they get physical. A waiter standing outside a cafe, taking a couple’s order—oh, perfect. “Go to town”, he says, and his followers do their thing. The first few lines are terrible, but he slows down a bit, and eventually someone comes up with a banger about the three of them being served as his three-course meal. Along with the line, he does a little dance and then a hip-thrust in the woman’s direction. And the stream. Goes. Fucking. Wild.
He’s so busy celebrating that one that he doesn’t even notice the girl with a viZor of her own until she’s only half a block in front of him. Shit. He’d dodge her if he could, but it’s too late, everyone can tell he’s seen her now. Shit. This one could be hard: she might be strafing too, or at least have a proximity sensor up to warn her that she’s about to get streamed. If she starts hitting him, his viewers aren’t gonna be quick enough to generate comebacks; he’s on his own. That’s okay, though. That’s why they pay him the big bucks. He quickly pulls up a couple of his own lines that he’s prepped for this type of situation. Nothing jumps out about her appearance: short, dark hair, slender build. So he goes with a standard line, and starts subvocalizing the intonation, just to make sure he gets it right.
But then she stops, a whole ten meters in front of him, which totally throws off his timing. And she’s already talking, even though he can’t even hear her properly yet. His steps stutter, but he keeps moving forward, raises his voice to project his opening line: “Got a lighter?” Pause. Now he’s close enough to hear what she’s saying: “-second year strafing, you can tell he’s a little nervous, honestly his lines are pretty average-”
He opens his mouth for his next line just as he realizes she’s started walking backwards, still staring intently at him, and that throws him off again, and he's half-raised his hands in preparation for the dirty gestures he was gonna make, but now he hasn't said anything so he just looks like an idiot, and she’s still talking in the same calm tone “-watch how he hunches over more the more nervous he gets-" and he can't deliver his punchline if she'll just keep narrating him afterwards, but what's he meant to do, jog past her? So some part of his brain thinks "fuck it" and veers him towards the street, away from her stare, barely remembering to awkwardly sling his punchline back over his shoulder: “...cos I’d smoke you like a chimney…” He's half-scared she'll follow him but instead he just catches a last snatch of her commentary "-once you’re inside their uda loop they get so confused-" before he gets to the other pavement and only now does he realize how humiliating it looks to cross the street to escape a girl who managed to steamroll him like it was his first time strafing. What the fuck?
He runs the stream for another hour, then cuts it off, even though he’d been planning to go until mid-afternoon. Of course he saves face afterwards making cracks at her expense. Dumb bitch doesn’t even know how to strafe. A little nervous? Like she’s gonna be in his bed, right? After she’s done some of his “pretty average” lines off the bathroom counter, he snarks, and gets some supportive jeers from the stream. Half an hour afterward he even hits a new record—a few thousand people joined after they heard he got rattled, and stayed to watch him burn off his annoyance with more and more aggressive strafing. No such thing as bad publicity—he knew that, but it’s different to know it, you know? He could have spun the stream out much longer, maybe worked a couple more endorsements in, but he could tell he was getting tired, and he didn’t want to slip up again. Patience is what separates the best from the rest, he tells himself.
Back at home he looks her up, of course. Her name’s Jemima, no surname listed—ambitious, then. She’s pretty new, only a few dozen videos, but they’re fascinating. She reminds him of an apex predator: she does her research, identifies all the strafers operating in the city, and spends her time systematically hunting them down, narrating all the while. A lot of her hits are like the one with him, where she throws people off their game and watches them slink away. Sometimes people try to confront her instead, or psych her out. But here’s the thing: they always lose. Nobody ever wins a staredown with her, because she just keeps analyzing them like she’s got a microscope looking into their souls, and they can’t take it. If they try to talk over her she just stops and looks at them, and suddenly they’re on the spot, trying to keep a stream of consciousness going, which of course they can’t, not with pressure like that. No matter what they say, no matter what insults they hurl at her—she outlasts them all, then goes back to dissecting them like nothing happened. It’s fucking genius, is what it is.
He can’t do it himself, though. When someone starts bashing him, he can’t just stand there and take it—that’d make him look weak for sure. Maybe the weird blank look is sexy on girls, but that’s a death knell for guys. He’s sure that there’s a new meta in here somewhere, but he’s gonna have to figure out the right angle on it. Maybe if he started in one style, then switched? Or… huh, what if they teamed up? That could be sick. Impulsively, he dials her in, and taps his fingers impatiently as he waits for her avatar to pop up. No point preparing too much, they can always rerecord it later if they hash out a good deal.
Six months later, they’re killing it: top of the city leaderboards, close to breaking into the top ten nationally. The endorsement deals are streaming in, and they’re even in negotiations for a Netflix show. Jemima is an absolute monster; joining up with her was the best decision he’s ever made.
They have a few different shticks they’ve worked out by now. The core idea is simple, though. Nobody can handle Jemima’s blank face or impassive monologue. But there’s a limit to how worked up she can get people—usually they dismiss her and walk away after a few seconds, like he did. That’s no fun. So his job is to be the troublemaker, the rabble-rouser. He does whatever it takes to keep people engaging with her until they lose their cool and start sounding off at her. And then she’s in her element; that’s when she tears them to shreds.
They spend a lot of time together, of course, reviewing old hits or planning new ones. Jemima’s quiet when she’s off-stream—a little shy, he’d think, if he hadn’t seen her ripping into grown men until they literally started crying. Not to mention what she does to the girls—blonde hair or a designer bag and you’d better be fucking praying you don’t run into her. Guess one of them stepped on her in a past life, or something? A lot of his fans joke that she’s just taking out the competition—and to be fair, he’d be lying if said he hadn’t thought about the ratings boost a romance subplot would give them. Jemima even suggested it one time, after their growth had plateaued for a few days. And it’s not like she’s ugly—actually, she’s pretty cute, especially with the viZor off.
It doesn’t quite feel right, though. For one thing, he couldn’t keep doing all their standard material if they were known to be dating. One of their most popular shticks is a kind of role reversal: if someone’s hesitating to hit back at Jemima’s taunts, he starts in on her himself. A few jabs at first to build a little camaraderie—maybe a dig at her hair, or the way she just stands there so still, like an alien. But the more vicious he is, the more it unlocks other people. Often it’s like something in them just tears loose: they switch from hunching over defensively to hurling insults at her in a matter of seconds. She always just stands there impassively until they start repeating themselves or stumbling over their words. And that’s when she strikes—each tiny observation somehow cutting like a surgeon, in exactly the right place; every sentence twisting the scalpel.
Once or twice he actually has to physically pull women off Jemima after she says something that hits too close to home. Their viewers love that, they’re buzzing for days; and even though Jemima is a little subdued afterwards he counts coup for her in abundance. He even buys her a nice dinner once they get off-stream, which cheers her right up again. But obviously it would all hit real different if people thought she was his girlfriend—he’d have to step in way earlier, before it got all dramatic, and he couldn’t say half the shit he says on most streams. Maybe in a year or two, perhaps, but for now they’ve got to keep grinding their way up. Patience is what separates the best from the rest.
You know where this is going by now, right? You know the part where their successes pile up, and they’re getting calls from the biggest names in the industry, and after they hang up they can’t stop grinning at each other. You know the part where they’re on the road, a new hotel room every night, the thrill of being on top of the world. You know the part where they hook up. You know how good it is. You know how she confesses her feelings for him the next day; and you know the pang of caution or conscience or cowardice that makes him turn away.
You know the part where they try to pretend it never happened. You know the part where their rankings start slipping, and how frantic he gets to fix it. You know the part where he first mentions her confession on-stream, and you know how big a spike in views they get afterwards. You know the part where she almost starts crying when he slags her off in the next stream, before he covers for her; and you know, because she’s Jemima, that it never happens again.
So we can skip all that, and just jump to their streams instead—not quite as highly-ranked as they used to be, but still on the front page, at least when the West Coast streamers haven’t woken up yet. There they are, in a parking lot somewhere. There’s a girl, maybe twenty-two, twenty-four. She’s blonde, slightly shorter than him. She just spat at Jemima’s feet, and she’s about to turn away. Jemima’s not looking at her, though; she’s looking at him. Her face is impossible to read.
Kurt takes a breath. It feels a little heavier than usual, like the air is leaning in toward him, poised for one long pregnant moment. But then it passes. He knows what he’s going to say, like he always does. And he knows that, just like usual, the stream is about to go absolutely. Fucking. Wild.