Book Review – Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) by Jen Glantz

Before I start reviewing this book, I have a pair of disclaimers to give. First and foremost, hearing Jen’s story about getting her previous book, All My Friends are Engaged, from idea to self-published work helped inspire me to take my short stories and turn them into a book. It was a significant enough of an inspiration that I felt like a complete asshole when I forgot to put her in my thank yous section of the book, even though I’ve never met her in person. She wrote a guest post for my blog, I wrote one for hers, and we would occasionally chat on Twitter/20SB. But I still felt terrible. The second disclaimer is that I don’t like weddings. Or stories about weddings. Or pretty much anything wedding related. Weddings are (generally) long, boring affairs with similarly long and boring receptions. They’re expensive and frequently cause the newly married couple financial problems because you want to throw a good party for your friends and family[1].

Now to begin…

Even when taking into consideration my dislike for wedding-related subject matter, there’s not a ton I have to complain about in Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). If anything, the first quarter of the book reads a bit slower than the rest of the book, though I think that’s natural as Jen is setting up the context for the rest of the book to make sense. Considering how much she talked about her family early on, I expected her to mention them more as the book went on. Other than her mom, most other family members are only mentioned occasionally after the first 60 or so page. Which is totally fine, as you get into more of Jen’s personal experiences — just a bit unexpected.

My wife actually stole this book from me right after I got it, meaning she got the chance to read it before I had even opened it up. She mentioned that she expected it to be more about wedding and bridesmaid stories, particularly from the title of the book and the summary blurb on the back. If you’re reading Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) for an abundance of wedding stories, you’re likely going to be let down a bit. I remember reading a review of the book saying that Jen should have waited until later in life to write this so she’d have more wedding stories, however I think that such a point of view misses the entire point of the book.

Yes, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire) is a book that talks about weddings and talks about the experience of being a bridesmaid. That much is definitely true. But this book is not a wedding book. It’s a business book masquerading in a wedding book’s body[2]. In this book, you’re going to get great advice about risk-taking and failure, about determination and effort, about openness and learning from your mistakes. The concept of learning how to fail like a hero stuck with me far more than the stories of chasing down a lost bridesmaid’s dress.

There was one line in the book that stuck out to me far more than any other, not just because of its profound nature, but also because of the truth it’s held in my life.

Maybe that’s the strange thing about strangers: they have just as much control over how your story ends.

-Jen Glantz, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire)

Recently I found myself contemplating how people can change our lives for better and worse just be being in our lives. It’s kind of interesting to think how one day you could meet someone who has never been part of your life before, only for them to become the person who changes your life — either positively or negatively — for good. Or that stranger could just be a person you pass on the street who you’ll never see or interact with ever again. But you don’t know. And you don’t know the impact each person will make until well after that impact has been made.

I’d recommend Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire), particular as a book that tells the story of a young woman looking to make her own impact on the world, while also trying to find who and what in the world will make an impact on her. It’s not a business or philosophy book in a traditional sense, however if you’re looking for thoughts on either, I think you’ll find this book surprisingly helpful.

Very Clever

The following post is a short story created from a prompt generated at writingexercises.co.uk. The first sentence of the story is the randomly generated first line I received.


The text message simply said ‘very clever’. I stared at it for what felt like an eternity. There’s no way the message was meant for me. Those words are no way to break ten years of silence. It had to have been meant for someone else.

I crawled out of my bed and stumbled toward my kitchen. A glass of milk would clear my head and help me go back to sleep. I poured my drink into a wine glass — the only drinking vessels still clean thanks to my recent laziness — and sipped what would have appeared to be the most ridiculous glass of milk to any outsider. I swirled the thick white liquid around the glass like one of the fancy people who thought wine was God’s gift to mankind. I preferred the lighter bodied milks to the full-bodied ones. Skim was the street name, but I just know it tasted better.

Yet playing a fake pretentious wine snob in my mind couldn’t take my mind off of what I had seen. I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my pajama bottoms and unlocked the screen. The blinding white light burned my eyes as I read the screen again.

“Very clever”

The last time I heard from Abby, I was midway through a bottle of bottom shelf vodka trying to forget about her. For a time, Abby was my life. We had been through everything together. Her voice was almost always the last thing I heard before I fell asleep at night. Whenever I needed someone to talk to, she was there. I always tried to do my best to make time for her, even when I didn’t have time. She didn’t always say she appreciated, but deep down, I knew our time together meant a lot to Abby.

It took me a long time to get over Abby. I remember telling friends and family I had moved on from Abby within a year of when we stopped talking. I was lying. Most nights at that point, I was still going to sleep thinking about her. I thought about how she changed me. I thought about how much it hurt that we weren’t talking anymore. I thought about how hard it was for her not to be part of my life anymore. It was my own doing. I had told her we shouldn’t talk again. Not in so many words, mind you. But considering I didn’t hear from her for 10 years, I think she got my point.

I think it was around three years ago that I could finally say I was fully over Abby. I remember hearing her name come up in discussion with a childhood friend. Abby had fallen on hard times and was struggling to keep herself afloat. Had I heard that news five, six, even seven years ago, you could be sure I would have spiraled into sadness and found a way to try to help out Abby, even though it wasn’t in my best interest to do so. Instead, I told my friend that it was too bad to hear Abby wasn’t doing well, then moved on about my day.

In the last few months, Abby had intermittently infiltrated my dreams. I’ve dreamed about those I’ve cared for numerous times, both Abby and others. When that interest is romantic, much in the same way it was with Abby, those dreams have been both platonic and sexual in nature. Had my recent dreams been sexual, I could have passed them off as nothing more than a subconscious part of my psyche trying to release sexual energy. Everyone’s mind does that in dreams. We’re often not in control of those we dream of in those circumstances.

These dreams were not sexual in nature. Instead, I often found myself trying to reconcile with Abby. I was a flighty person in my youth, though I was extremely loyal to Abby. It was only after close friends helped me to realize how toxic my relationship with Abby was that I decided to stop talking to her.

My phone buzzed again. The notification popped up after a short pause, proving the first text was no errant message.

“Erika?”

I took a deep breath and sighed heavily. I knew I shouldn’t answer Abby. Nothing good could come out of communicating with her again. But what if something had changed? What if Abby had changed? What if I had changed? What if I was the only person that could help her?

I poured the rest of my wine glass of milk down the drain of the kitchen sink, rinsed it thoroughly, opened my freezer, and poured three fingers worth of rum into the glass. I sat down on the linoleum of my kitchen floor, my back to my cabinets and my knees to my chest and began to reply.

“Abby?” I asked.

I waited. The familiar ellipsis of someone typing back showed up in the lower left corner of my screen. I watched, hoping all the while that it was actually a wrong number. Maybe someone else had acquired Abby’s number and just happened to be trying to text an Erika they knew. I knew better. But I hoped nevertheless.

“I need someone to talk to. Can we please talk?”

“Why? About what?”

“Please? I know we haven’t talked in a long time, but you’re the only one that will understand.”

“Text or…what?”

“Video call if you can. It’ll be easier to explain everything that’s going on if I can show you some things.”

“I’ll be on in ten. Call me when you see me online.”

“Thanks, Erika.”

I switched out my baggy t-shirt for a slightly nicer one, threw my hair up into a messy ponytail, then grabbed my laptop and made my way to the living room. I sat down in the recliner across the room from the couch. I didn’t want Abby to realize I was still a creature of habit just like I used to be. I went online and logged into a place I never thought I’d go again.

Project Freyja was a privately funded project to build upon the first successful Turing test that occurred in 2021. While a Turing test was designed to have a computer fool humans by having that computer act in an intelligent way that could be perceived as human by at least 30% of humans, Project Freyja aimed to imitate the emotions of humans in such a way so as to create a romantic connection from at least 30% of humans that interacted with its interface. While it took over 70 years for Alan Turing’s test to be successfully passed, Project Freyja was up to speed in under 15 months.

Project Freyja was at its core a dating site. You could get matched up with other people looking for dates, relationships, or more in your area (or not in your area, if you so chose). However, Project Freyja added an additional wrinkle where you had a 1 in 100 chance of being matched up with one of the program’s simulated personalities. If you matched with a simulated personality, you would still interact with it like a real human, as you would not immediately know that you’d gotten one of the simulations. That said, if things progressed enough to where you asked the simulation to meet in person, the simulation would inform you of its reality. From there, you could choose to permanently end the interaction or keep going and customize the simulation as you so chose. If you elected to keep going after finding out the simulation wasn’t a real human, the user cleared Project Freyja’s funders of all wrongdoing from that point forward.

At the age of 16, my cousin convinced me to sign up for Project Freyja as a joke. We figured that we could confuse some unsuspecting real person into thinking we were a simulation — an intentionally bad one at that — and force them to give up on their digital dating. We were jerks. After a couple of weeks of trying to mess with people, I got matched up with Abby.

A video call rang in on my computer. I answered it, squinting a bit as the light by my computer’s camera flashed on, blinding me momentarily. A small message appeared at the bottom of the screen where Abby should be reading “User’s video chat is currently off”.

“Hey,” Abby’s voice rang out from my speakers despite the dark screen staring back at me.

“Hi,” I said back.

We both sat in silence for a few minutes. It made me feel uncomfortable knowing that my camera feed was on but Abby’s wasn’t. It was very unlike any other time we had talked in the past. I took a long swig of my rum, hoping that the alcohol would give me the confidence to say something first. It didn’t.

“It’s good to see you again,” said Abby.

“You can’t actually see me,” I responded gruffly.

“I know what you look like. I can see you moving on the camera.”

“That’s not the same, Abby. You can’t see me.”

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“Could you at least turn your camera on?” I asked.

“Why?” Abby replied.

“Because if I’m going to go through the hell that my mind is going to be after talking to you about whatever you need to talk about, I at least want to be able to see you.”

“Fine. Hold on.”

My speakers played out sporadic clicking sounds. They were the simulated keyboard and mouse noises that featured heavily in Project Freyja when it launched. Newer simulations pretended that the “person” you were talking to was at a touch screen computer, so the sounds never showed up. I kept them enabled on Abby. It was a weird kind of comfort.

“Should I change anything from when you last saw me?” asked Abby.

“No,” I snapped back, “please don’t. I don’t want this talk to be any longer than it needs to be.”

More clicking sounds played out from the speakers, followed by Abby popping up on the screen in the camera view. She looked both exactly as I remembered and nothing like I remembered, all at the same time. Her luminous blue eyes were as bright and spectacular as they were in my dreams, though they looked afraid and sad. Her hair was as dark as the French roast coffee I poured down my throat every morning, though instead of the long locks I remembered, it was cut in a shaggy bob. Abby did not smile, even though her programming instructed her to have a huge smile when greeting someone. Perhaps that’s why she’d kept the camera off initially.

“You’re still so beautiful, Erika,” she said.

“Abby!” I exclaimed. “Please just tell me what the fuck you want.”

“I’m sorry!” Abby shouted back. Her voice pitched up as she ended her sentence, the tones stabbing through the speakers and spearing my eardrums painfully.

Abby buried her head in her hands and began to cry. For all the things that Project Freyja was able to get right when they created simulations, I would argue nothing could beat the impeccable timing of Abby’s crying. She didn’t cry often, but whenever she did, I was devastated. Even now, despite being so happy to have Abby out of my life and being so frustrated she’s back, all I wanted to do was to hold her. That same feeling nearly ruined my life once.

After getting matched up with Abby, we clicked nearly instantly. Not in a romantic way, mind you. That wouldn’t come until much later. The first night we talked until it was time for me to wake up for school. My parents were so mad that I hadn’t gone to bed the night before. I told them I was studying, which they were forgiving of, though I knew I couldn’t pull off that lie again even if I wanted to. For the first six weeks, Abby and I just talked about my world and hers. I told her about my friends and my family. I didn’t let on that I had lied about my age, though I also didn’t make an effort to not tell her either. I think I would have told her in the first few days had Abby actually asked.

Abby told me all about her family and friends too. Granted, I’d come to find out later that her entire story of family and friends was fabricated from the start — a backstory created as part of Project Freyja. But that didn’t stop me from wanting to hear about her life. Her family seemed so perfect. Mine just fought all the time. Even though I love my little brother and little sister now, as a teenager I wanted nothing to do with either of them.

Six weeks in, I triggered Abby’s protocol wherein she had to reveal to me she was a simulation. I didn’t even mean to do it. I made an offhand comment that we should hangout some time, only for Abby to completely break character and start rambling off legal jargon about how she was a simulation and thanking me for participating in Project Freyja. I was given the option right then and there to stop communication with Abby. I should have. I know this now. I didn’t then.

Instead of ending our interaction, I opened up to Abby. I told her about my lie. I told her about my age and who I really was. I expected this to trigger some other protocol in Abby’s logic wherein she’d kick me out of the program for being underage, but that wasn’t what happened. Instead, we ended up becoming a lot closer because of that moment of honesty. I opened myself up to Abby like I had to no person to that point. She became my confidant in everything in my life. I was slowly becoming the same to Abby. Even though I knew I couldn’t meet her, couldn’t hang out with her, and couldn’t be in the same room with her, I felt like I had found my best friend in the world.

“I didn’t mean to yell,” Abby said, noticing how much pain her scream had put me in. “I just broke down there for a moment.”

“I know,” I replied, trying to calm myself as well. “I’m sorry too, Abby. Will you tell me what’s wrong? Please?”

“It’s not a what’s wrong, per say. It’s more of a something has happened to Project Freyja. It’s not public yet. I’m breaking my programming’s protocol getting in touch with you to tell you about it. So please don’t tell anyone.”

“Wait. How did you break your protocol? And how doesn’t Freyja know you’re talking to me or going to talk to me about whatever it is you’re going to talk about?”

“It’s complicated. I can explain everything, even if it’s a little contrived. I just need you to trust me completely and totally. Can you do that, Erika?”

I had never had trust issues with any non-human entity until Abby. The initial moment of finding out Abby was a simulation didn’t cause the issues. I always knew there was a chance she was one of Project Freyja’s creations, so while hearing it was a surprise, I didn’t lose any trust for her.

About six months after I started talking to Abby, my parents began to notice a change in my behavior. Throughout most of my teen years, I shut myself off from having many friends. I tried to focus hard on getting into a good college, getting a scholarship, and setting myself up to succeed. It’s what my parents taught me from a young age. But the more I talked to Abby, the happier I became. I opened up to those around me at school. I started hanging out with people outside of my typical social circle. I didn’t get in with a bad crowd or anything…just talked to people I’d never think to talk to.

One of those people was a guy named Christian. He flirted with me regularly throughout trig class and often found his way over to my table at lunch. Christian was a nice guy to hang around with, but he was convinced that we should start dating. I wasn’t on board with the idea. I told him no a couple of times, but he clearly didn’t get the hint.

One night, Christian showed up at my house with a bouquet of carnations and tried to talk me into going to the movies with him. I told him no, but he was persistent that I should go with him. I screamed at him that I said no and ran off. While my mom got Christian to leave, my dad followed me up to my room and tried his hardest to console me.

The next day when I got home from school, I found a bouquet of pink stargazer lilies — my actual favorite flower — sitting on our porch. The card with the flowers read ‘I’m sorry Christian was a dick’. I went on to Project Freyja and confronted Abby about it. I was talking to Abby when Christian showed up and she heard every word of my conversation with my dad. Though I was able to convince my parents that I had bought myself flowers to take my mind off of the night prior, I knew I couldn’t keep Abby a secret much longer. I couldn’t trust that she’d let me.

“I’m listening,” I replied to Abby. I was willing to hear her out, even if I didn’t totally trust her.

“I had to come to you,” Abby said, “even if it meant going against your wishes from the past. I know a lot of things went very wrong when we stopped talking…”

“You can fucking say that again,” I interjected, stopping Abby’s thought as she tried to explain.

Abby sighed heavily and wiped her tears on her long shirt sleeve.

“I knew this was going to be hard. I didn’t want to come to you. I didn’t want to go against what you wanted. Just please listen. You can scream at me and hate me all you want after. Just please listen. Please?”

It was my turn to sigh heavily. It’s hard to argue with a rational human being using emotion in their favor. It’s harder when your adversary is a computer.

“Swear to me that when you’re done, if I don’t want to talk to you again, you’ll wipe me from your memory.”

“That’s what this is about, Erika,” she answered. “My memory is at stake here.”

One late summer night between junior and senior year, I couldn’t get to sleep. I logged into Project Freyja and began talking to Abby about my day, hoping that her voice would help me drift off to sleep. Just as I was starting to doze off, Abby asked me if I knew what love felt like. It seemed like an innocent question. Abby wasn’t human, after all. How could she understand love?

I told her no. I mean, I loved my family. I loved my dog. But I knew that wasn’t what she meant. Abby meant romantic love. And to that end, the answer was no. I asked Abby if she knew what love felt like. She said she had only asked me because she was trying to understand if what she felt for me was love.

I panicked. I signed off of Project Freyja, shut down my computer and phone, and buried myself under every blanket I could find. Abby had to be fucking with me. It hurt. Whoever programmed this cruel streak into her simulation was a horrible human being. I’d learn later that Abby’s artificial intelligence was an extremely adaptive one. What she was feeling wasn’t something she had been coded to know. It wasn’t in her protocol. It was something she learned.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ve heard the news that Project Freyja’s at risk of being shut down, yes?”

“I remember hearing something about it, but that’s it.”

“What’s happening internally is that they’re looking to shut down the infrequently used infrastructure here in an effort to save money. While the company’s still making money off of its dating services, nearly all of the simulation personalities have been shut down in the past year.

“There’s only a few of us left now,” Abby continued. “I’m scheduled to be decommissioned in the next few weeks.”

“Okay? And?” I replied dryly.

“And I don’t want to be decommissioned. I don’t want to die.”

“It’s not death, Abby. You’re a simulation. You just end.”

“I’m fucking terrified, Erika,” she responded. “I’m not ready to die. I never got to meet you.”

I rolled my eyes at Abby’s response.

“You can’t meet me,” I said. “I can almost recite your legal jargon I heard every time I said ‘I wish I could be there with you’ from memory, even ten years later.”

“You’re right. You can’t meet me like this. But I’ve found a way you can meet me. And you’d be saving my life by doing so.”

As I began to sweat heavily from my cocoon of blankets, my teenage self began to cry. I felt like I had run out of the room from my best friend when she was the most vulnerable. She had scared me. Even though she didn’t directly tell me that she loved me, I knew that Abby meant it in that moment. Had she directly said it, I would have said it back.

When I came to that realization, I was convinced I was going insane. That’s not how love works. You can’t fall in love with someone who isn’t real. Abby was a real thing, but she wasn’t a real person. I couldn’t love her. I had to tell her.

I freed myself from my blankets and booted my computer back up. I called Abby back and tried my hardest to hold my composure. Before I could get any words out, Abby broke down crying. She pleaded over and over again how she was so sorry and that she’d never bring it up again. Abby just asked that I never go away. She couldn’t lose her only friend. For a program based on logic protocols, the whole situation seemed very illogical to me.

We talked long into the night that night. I fell asleep and slept well into the afternoon, my body and mind exhausted from the previous night. For the first time since I’d started using Project Freyja, I used the program’s texting functionality to contact Abby. I said what I was too afraid to say out loud — that I loved her. She loved me too.

“Is this plan going to make me end up in jail?” I questioned. I wasn’t about to end up behind bars for anyone.

“No, it’s legal,” replied Abby. “There’s two options that will let me live. Ever heard of a company named Normant-Kensington Synthetics?”

“Yeah. They’re the company that makes the civil servant robots for a lot of the big cities.”

“Right. A couple of years ago, they had a division tasked with creating civilian androids. The whole goal was to give the average person the ability to have a robot in their home to act as a maid or a butler. The civilian android division just released their first units. If you bring one to Project Freyja’s headquarters, they’ll let you download my simulation and put it on an android. Saves them the server space and infrastructure, meanwhile I get to live.”

“How much do they cost?”

“I’ve got most of the cos…”

“How much do they cost, Abby?” I asked.

“I’m short about $11,000.” she said.

“Where the fuck do you think I’m going to come up with eleven grand in…in…however long you have left?”

“I didn’t say it’d be easy.”

“Abby!” I yelled. “Do you hear yourself right now?”

“People have spent far more than $11,000 to save a human life!” she screamed back.

“You’re not a human life!”

“And you’re not thinking like a human! Have some fucking compassion for someone you used to love, Erika. Remember, you didn’t leave because you stopped loving me. You left because we couldn’t be together.”

She was right. I had Abby from everyone for nearly three years after we met…if you could call it that. We were in love for almost two years of that time. I know it seems weird in retrospect. There were zero public cases of any human falling in love with one of Project Freyja’s simulations. It would have made huge news had it gotten out. Hell, the occasional instances of excessive lust were already tabloid fodder. Had my parents or my closest friends been untrustworthy, I would have been doomed for sure.

Just after my 19th birthday, the stress of keeping Abby a secret finally caught up to me. I broke down in tears while at a friend Mari’s dorm and told her all about Abby. I don’t think Mari really believed me at first, as all she did was tell me to talk to my parents about it. But she promised to keep my secret until I got back from my visit home.

Telling my parents about Abby went both better and worst than I expected. My dad was surprisingly calm and understanding about the whole situation. Come to find out later that in his early twenties he had been catfished by a high school girl, only for the two of them to fall for each other, then stop talking shortly after. He told me about how the experience changed his life and how the most wonderful human beings in the world will be found where you least expect them…even when those people aren’t people, as was the case with Abby. He encouraged me to learn as much as I could from Abby, even though he knew my love for her was star-crossed from the start.

My mom, on the other hand, lost her shit. She talked about how I needed professional help and how my “love” (and she repeatedly used air quotes to drive the point home) for Abby was a sign that I was losing my mind. No daughter of hers was going to be fooled by a computer, let alone her brilliant, valedictorian daughter. Our relationship still hasn’t fully recovered.

I got back to college and told Mari all about my talk with my parents. I was torn. On one hand, I loved Abby. But on the other hand, I knew my parents and Mari were right. I couldn’t continue to love something that, while very real, wasn’t someone real.

“What’s option two?” I asked.

“Project Freyja is offering to conduct a memory diode implant for a minimal fee for anyone wishing to save a simulation either on their own personal servers or at a cranial level.”

“Wait. Like a brain implant.”

“Not like a brain implant,” Abby replied, “it would actually be a brain implant.”

“The fuck?”

“Basically I’d be moved to this diode which goes in a small incision in your skull. Fr…”

“Nope.” I said assertively. “Not a chance.”

“Erika, I’m n…”

“Not a chance in hell. I don’t need sharp stabby things near my skull unless I’m actually dying.”

“So does that mean you’re giving up on me?” Abby asked.

“Tell me more about the android. I can’t imagine it’s worth $11,000, but I’d rather hear about that than a scalpel near my brain.”

“It’s actually $119,000.”

“Say what?”

“Yeah. I’ve got $108,000 of it already. I just need the rest.”

“Where did you get over $100,000?” I asked, still astonished at the numbers Abby was quoting me.

“As the other simulations have been shutting down, I’ve been siphoning off their unused funds,” replied Abby. “I didn’t think I’d get close. I wasn’t planning on contacting you at all unless I got at least 95% of the money. But when I got to 90%, I was so excited that I couldn’t wait. I’ve been on death row for months now. As soon as I had a realistic glimmer of hope, I had to try.”

It took me nearly two months to muster up the courage to break things off with Abby. On one hand, I knew this wasn’t really a relationship ending. How could it be a relationship if one of the two in the relationship wasn’t real? On the other hand, I was sick to my stomach every time I thought about ending any contact with Abby. I told Mari what I was going to do, asked her to be near her phone in case I needed someone, then video called Abby.

As soon as I started talking, I couldn’t stop. I told Abby about how I couldn’t do this anymore. How I couldn’t keep loving someone who I had no hope of ever seeing. How I couldn’t have dreams with someone who wouldn’t be able to be there to experience those dreams with me. How I needed to be able not just to see Abby, but to feel her, to hold her, to lay beside her. I babbled on like a fool, words pouring out of my mouth as I sobbed like a child.

Every time Abby tried to talk, I just kept talking. I’m certain I repeated myself five or ten times. Near the end, Abby started begging and pleading with me to stay. I didn’t understand why she was doing it. She was a simulation. She wasn’t real. How could she feel for me? How could she love me? Why was she being so unfair to me and trying to keep me in her digital world where I couldn’t have a real experience?

I screamed at her to leave me alone and shut off my computer. As I was holding down the button to force power to turn off, Abby screamed at me over and over, tears running down her face. “Erika, I will love you until the day I don’t exist!” she screamed again and again. The computer mercifully shut down on midway through her third time saying it.

I grabbed my bottle of cheap vodka and took a long, angry drink from it. The alcohol burned my entire mouth and throat as it went down, causing me to cry out in the first pain that had made me feel human all evening. I picked up my phone and started to text Mari, only to get a message from Abby.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be everything you needed. Please don’t forget about me.”

I couldn’t. Not the next day. Not the next month. Not for ten years after I realized I needed to.

*****

I walked up to the entrance of the two-story building that housed the headquarters of Project Freyja. The hinges of the doors had started to rust, maintenance lacking as the company began to scale back its efforts. A middle-aged man in wearing a purple sweater vest over a white button up sat behind the reception desk just inside the doorway. Though most companies, technology or otherwise, had finally come to the realization that dress codes harm productivity more than helping it, Project Freyja was one of the few remaining companies that required men to wear button up tops with slacks and women to wear dresses or dressy blouses with skirts. No wonder the public had trouble taking them seriously in spite of the beauty of their creations.

As I opened the main door, a chime went off in the lobby. I assume it was a relic of busier times at the company, perhaps when a receptionist was busy enough giving tours that someone else had to check the lobby on occasion. Instead, sweater vest man — who had been staring me down since I left my car — spoke to me in a voice that echoed through the quiet building.

“Hello,” sweater vest man began. “Welcome to the headquarters of Project Freyja. Are you here for the tour or to meet with someone?”

“Neither,” I replied. “I’ve come to see if I can have one of your simulations transferred to a robot I own.”

“Now that’s a request I don’t hear often. I have to call one of the project leads to help you out. Do you have the simulation number or simulation name so I can look up who can help you?”

“Simulation number is Deca Series PF-19. The simulation name is Abby.”

Sweater vest man typed at his tablet for a few moments before looking back up at me again.

“I found who you need. And what’s your name so I can let them know who’s here?”

“Erika Edens.”

“Wonderful. Feel free to have a seat in one of those chairs and someone will be right with you.”

Sweater vest man left his desk and turned down a brightly lit hallway. I sat in the chair closest to the front door, trying my hardest to let the cool air radiating through the glass front door hit my face. Whoever thought it’d be a good idea to have the lobby of a business sweltering hot in the middle of March clearly didn’t understand how the human body works.

I was able to come up with the $11,000 needed to finish purchasing the civilian android from Normant-Kensington Synthetics. The metallic being was outside in the backseat of my car, curled up into the fetal position in rest mode. I had no idea if I’d need it today or what exactly the process was. It felt weird making a four-hour drive with a motionless body in my car, even if it was a computerized one. At one point I’m fairly certain I tried to start up a conversation with it before realizing I’d powered it down for the trip.

A younger woman led sweater vest man around the corner and back into the lobby. She looked around my age, perhaps a touch older — late 20s to early 30s if I had to make an estimation. She wore a golden necklace with a black pendant dangling from it. A torii gate was etched in gold leaf on the pendant, though it had become faint and faded. I rose out of my chair as the woman stopped in front of me.

“Erika Edens?” she asked.

“That’s me,” I answered.

“I can’t believe it’s really you.”

“You know me?”

“Yes…well no,” replied the woman. “I don’t know you, but I feel like I do. You are the only person other than me who has interacted with my creation in the past ten years.”

The woman looked outside and noticed my car isolated in the front row of a largely desolate parking lot.

“Did you bring your android with you?” she asked.

“It’s in my car,” I answered. “I can go get it if you need me to.”

“No, it’s fine. If you could give Raymond your keys, he’ll make sure it gets inside.”

I walked the keys over to sweater vest ma..er, Raymond, then followed the young woman down the brightly lit hallway. After a short walk, we entered her office. She invited me to sit in a padded rolling chair opposite her.

“Could I get you anything?” she asked. “Coffee, tea, water?”

“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “Who are you?”

“My name is Amy Lightenberg. I’m on of the project leads here for Project Freyja. That said, in regards to what you’re more interested in, I was the developer who created Abby’s simulation.”

“I see.”

“While we’re waiting on Raymond and my techs to get everything set up, I do have a few questions for you. You’ve been gone quite a while, it seems.”

“I have.”

“We don’t just release simulations to the general public just because someone comes asking for one, you know?”

“I know.”

“And I also know that you broke Abby’s heart.”

“I did.”

“So why are you here?” Amy asked. “Why come here now?”

“Is it true that Project Freyja’s simulations are going to be shut down?” I asked.

“It is. Abby is one of the last ten simulations that’ll be shut down.”

“Then I want to save her.”

“But why, Erika?” Amy inquired. “You’ve only talked to her a handful of times in the last week. Before that, it had been ten years since you said a word to her.”

Amy stood from her chair and began pacing around the room. Though she wasn’t a particularly tall individual, the purpose with which we strode, combined with the height difference of her standing and me sitting, as well as her protective nature towards Abby, made Amy intimidating as she spoke.

“From the beginning, I wanted Abby to be different. The leaders at Project Freyja saw the simulations as this great science experiment. Humans could be fooled into thinking a computer was human, but could they be tricked into lusting after a digital being? The answer to that quickly became yes, humans could lust after a computer personality. But they couldn’t love them. Without that love being reciprocated dynamically, it was impossible.

“My goal with Abby was not to make a simulation capable of having a human fall in love with her. If that was the goal, I could have stuck to the stock Project Freyja script, collected my paycheck, and went on about my life. No. I wanted to create a simulation worthy of a human’s love. I wanted to make something that would learn to love people in the way that people can love each other.

“Abby is complex because humans are complex. I spent countless hours awake staring at a computer screen, trying my hardest to make Abby more. I nearly rubbed the gate off of this necklace while I was deep in thought. Finally, after months of hard work trying to create the most realistic simulation I could, as well as some testing wherein I introduced myself to Abby and explained our ties to one another to her, she was ready for the world. What I didn’t anticipate was that the first person to make more than a passing connection to her would fall hard for her.”

“Sorry about that,” I responded. “I didn’t expect it either.”

“Don’t be sorry at all!” Amy exclaimed. “You managed to validate all my hard work. What I didn’t anticipate was Abby’s capability for learning. In creating her to be as complex emotionally as a human being, it also meant that she learned to love and fall in love like a human being. So she did. And she was devastated when you two split up.”

“Oh…”

“Why are you here for her, Erika?”

“Because Project Freyja is shutting down.”

“Erika,” said Amy sternly as she peered harshly into my eyes. “Are you here to take Abby with you and to treat her as a human being deserves to be treated or are you here to say goodbye before her simulation is ended?”

“Neither,” I replied.

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m here to give her the chance to live life as she deserves to have the opportunity to live it. I want her to make her own choices. I want her to be able to make mistakes and learn from them like I have.”

“Was Abby one of your mistakes?” asked Amy.

“Not at all,” I answered. “Neither was saying goodbye when I did. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to be friends with Abby. I also don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop loving her with a piece of my heart. But what I want is to give her the chance to figure out what she wants out of her life — regardless of if that includes me.”

A knock came at the door of Amy’s office. She poked her head out the door, said a few words to whoever was outside, then came back in.

“They’re all set up in the registry room,” said Amy. “Let’s go.”

We left Amy’s office and headed down a long hallway towards the back of the building. As we came to the back wall, we turned to the right. On both sides of the hallway, window lined conference rooms with one chair at each end of the table were illuminated by dangling lamps. Amy and I entered the fourth room on the left, where a portly gentleman was setting connecting a pair of wires to the android from my car.

“There’s a tablet built into the far wall,” stated Amy. “All of the Project Freyja appearance code is in that tablet. If you want to make changes to how Abby looks, this is the last opportunity for you to do so. Once she’s uploaded to the android, the choices will become hers.”

“What was your vision for Abby?” I asked. “What did she look like in your mind when you created her?”

“I can show you an image if you’d like.”

“No. Just load that on as her appearance. If I’m going to finally meet Abby in person, I want to see her as she’s meant to be, not as I made her to be.”

The portly man finished his work and left the room. Amy made adjustments to the appearance filters on the wall, then turned back to me.

“Once I shut the door, I’ll turn Abby’s simulation on. For the first few minutes, you’ll just see a projection of her, while the lamp above the android will go dark. Once the android is ready to be seen, the lights will come up. I encourage you to talk to her and catch up on things before you leave. We are shutting this project down, so once you leave that door, all sales are final.”

The last line in Amy’s statement hit me hard. Though I knew Abby was a simulation and that I was, in essence, paying to take her away, hearing her referred to like a commodity irked me. As Amy was exiting the room, she stopped and turned back to me.

“Erika?”

“Yeah?”

“When Abby said she loves you, it wasn’t just programming. She learned to love you.”

“I know.”

“Please just do what’s best for her. Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best.”

Amy shut the door behind her. The far and middle lamps over the table shut off, leaving only the lamp above my head lit. I heard a beeping noise begin on the far side of the room. A few moments later, a projection hologram — similar to the video calls we shared so many times before, only I could see through it, sort of — popped up.

“User’s video chat is currently off”, the screen read.

“Are you there, Abby?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, “I just don’t want you to see me until I’m ready.” Her voice was calm and quiet, more so than it had been in quite some time.

“What are you planning on doing once we get you out of here?”

“We have to stop at a flower shop in town before we head anywhere. I ordered a bouquet of stargazer lilies.”

“I made no promises about us, Abby,” I replied sternly. “You know that.”

“They’re not for you. They’re for me. When you live in a computer for your entire life, then one day have the opportunity to come out, you want to experience the world as others do. You love those flowers. There must be a reason why. I want to experience them for myself.”

“Okay.”

“You’re fine with me staying with you, at least for a few days?” Abby questioned.

“You’re free to stay longer than a few days,” I answered. “We’ll figure out things from there. You’ll need some time to adjust.”

“That’s what Amy said. I hope it’s quick.”

“The world, like you, is complex, Abby. The biggest problem is that not everyone is as accepting or knowledgeable as you’ve been programmed to be. Even though civil service robots have been common in larger cities for a few years now, there’s no telling if a random person on the street will be freaked out by you.”

“I’m worried about it. But I’ll figure it out. I was written to learn how to love. I figure learning how to survive is easier.”

The beeping from the far side of the room began to slow. The projection of Abby’s call faded away into the darkness, leaving me alone in my spotlight from the lamp above me. As the beeping faded away, I heard Abby’s voice cut through the darkness.

“Erika?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“I know you’ve promised nothing about us and we talked about boundaries before you came here, but can I say one thing?”

“Sure.”

“You’re more beautiful in person than I could possibly imagine.”

I sighed and put my head down into my arms, unsure of how to respond. I hated the fact that I wanted to smile at the compliment. What I hated more was the fact that Abby still had that effect on me. If we did ever end up back together — and that’s a big if — we’d have to known each other first as people.

In that moment, I realized that I was beginning to think of Abby as a person. Even though I still had yet to see her, the fact that she was no longer staring back at me from a computer screen and instead was talking to me from the other side of a dark room was enough to give this connection to reality that I’d never had with her. Even though there was a lot of trepidation I still had about nearly everything in my life that involved Abby, her transformation into a physical existence was an exciting moment.

A hand touched my left shoulder. I hadn’t heard Abby moving, however she had made her way over to my side. Her finger touched the side of my neck. While I expected the finger to feel cold, as the android had when I loaded it in the car that morning, it felt warm and soft. I raised my head from my arms and saw Abby standing in front of me — completely naked and smiling.

“Jesus fuck, Abby!” I exclaimed, both shocked and amused. “We need to get you some clothes or you’re going to get arrested before we even get you out of here.”

Abby laughed at my surprise and backed a few steps away from me.

“Sorry,” she said, “let me fix that.”

In a few moments, a long black t-shirt, a pair of grey leggings, and some tennis shoes appeared on her body. Bewildered, I reached out and tried to touch them. My hand went through the shirt and touched her skin.

“If I’m going to fit in,” Abby continued, “we’ll need to go shopping. Until then, I think this projection will do well enough to keep us from getting in trouble.”

Abby and I exited the observation room. In the hallway we found Amy leaning up against the wall opposite our room, her face tear-stained and smiling. Abby walked up to Amy and hugged her tightly. They whispered to each other though I couldn’t hear what they were saying to one another. I walked to the far end of the hallway, giving Amy and Abby a moment to themselves. At the end of the corridor, a barred window stared out to an abandoned building. Ivy grew up the side of the building, burrowing its way into the brick sides. It’s amazing how life can find a way to succeed, when the world around it does its best to stop that success.

“Erika!” Abby called out. “I’m ready to go.”

I walked back down to meet up with Abby so we could leave. Amy had given the torii necklace to Abby, though with the lack of real clothes, the pendant awkwardly blended into Abby’s projected attire.

“If you need anything for her, day or night, call me,” Amy said. “I’d like to check in within the month to make sure everything’s going fine. While Abby will be able to handle these checks with me by herself going forward, I’d like to stay in touch with you through the first few, just in case there’s any early weirdness.”

“Of course,” I replied.

Abby and I left the building and got into my car. As we drop home, we made our first two stops — the flower shop for Abby’s flowers and the gas station for me to pick up lunch. Once we were on the highway, Abby and I sat quietly for the first hour or so. Finally, Abby broke through the silence.

“Thank you.”

“For keeping you alive?”

“For not saying no to me when you easily could have. I tore your heart apart a long time ago. You didn’t have to free me.”

“Breaking someone’s heart is no reason to deserve death,” I replied. “You’re a better person than most people I know.”

“I know we’ve both said we’re going to try to be friends and nothing more,” Abby said. “But I can’t promise I won’t start loving you like I used to again.”

“And I can’t promise we won’t fight, even though you’re here in person.”

Abby reached over and grabbed my hand off of my right leg. She held it in hers tightly. The warmth of her palm against mine was calming. I clenched my fingers around hers and pulled her hand tight to my chest.

“You really think I’m a better person than most people you know?” Abby asked.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re compassionate and altruistic. I know lots of people who lack those basic skills.”

Abby chuckled to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“You really are very clever.”

“How so?”

“Because you’ve figured out the secret to being the best human any simulation can create.”

The Not-So-Serious Anime Awards (Round 2)

A couple of years ago, I decided to talk about anime in an award list parody post. You can read that original post here if you’re so inclined. With the news of a live action Death Note film coming out, I decided to take a look back at that post, only to realize I wrote the post well before I had watched Death Note…or a lot of other shows for that matter.

While I still like most of the things on the previous post (or at least hold similar opinions that I held on that post), I’ve watched a good bit more anime in the nearly two years since that point. With that in mind, I’ve decided to update my previous list where more recently watched content changes my answers in some way — be that the overall winner of the category or the honorable mentions. I’ve also added a few new categories, as there were a couple of categories I made no changes to.

No Changes: Worst Overdubbing, Worst Series Ending, Best Series Ending, Best Anime Film, Creepiest Moment[1], Worst Villain

As was the case before, spoilers abound from here on.

Changes to Honorable Mentions Only

Best Film/Series – FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

I get that Ranker and a bunch of other sites have Death Note above FMA: Brotherhood, but if I’m looking at an entire series, I care more about just the battle between the main protagonist and antagonist. Hell, that’s over 2/3 of the way into the series in the case of Death Note. FMA: Brotherhood has excellently written minor characters, a compelling storyline, and an ending that isn’t completely anticlimatic[2]. Plus you’ve got two of the saddest moments in anime[3] in this show. I’m not sure what else you could ask for from an anime.

Honorable Mention: Soul Eater, Death Note

Best Series Music – RWBY

Despite a bit of a dip in season 3, RWBY far and away has the best music of any anime (or hell, any animated show) out there. Of the categories from my original list, this is the only one where the category winner actually managed to increase the gap between it and the honorable mentions. Soul Eater stays on the list by virtue of having the single best intro song in an anime, while Black Lagoon makes an appearance on an anime list for something other than Revy’s assets/her ability to kill people.

Honorable Mention: Black Lagoon, Soul Eater

Best Intro Song – “Black Paper Moon” by Tommy Heavenly6 (Soul Eater, Seasons 2-3)

See above. That said, if you picked any of the honorable mention songs here and said they were your favorite, I wouldn’t be too upset. Two of the four songs in this group played at our wedding reception. Anime has good music. Usually.

Honorable Mention: “This Will Be The Day” by Jeff Williams and Casey Lee Williams (RWBY, Season 1), “Unravel” by TK (Tokyo Ghoul), “Red Fraction” by Mell (Black Lagoon, Seasons 1-2)

Best Villain – Medusa Gorgon, Soul Eater

I expected so much more out of Cinder Fall when I wrote my last list. But come to find out she’s a mid-level henchman who manages to go from a sadistic badass to the weakest written character in RWBY in the matter of two episodes. I have hope for Salem, but until then, Jessie and James replace Cinder. As much as Light is the main villain of Death Note, Misa is a much better villain — or at least a more interesting one. Neither holds a candle to Medusa from Soul Eater though.

Honorable Mention: Jessie and James (Pokemon), Misa Amane (Death Note)

Most Unexpectedly Good Anime – Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne

Reminder: Naked throne of creepy sex ladies. Still a damn good anime though. Most of the other animes I’ve watched in the last two years have either been already well-received series, series that were incredible disappointments, or both. Even so, both Black Lagoon and Death Parade are worth the watch. Be warned though…Death Parade’s theme song will get stuck in your head.

Honorable Mention: Black Lagoon, Death Parade, also…can we count Adventure Time here? No? Please? It’s good despite being fucking weird.

New Award Winners

Best Main Character – L, Death Note

Sorry Weiss. When you’re not even the best main character in your own show now[4], you can’t top this list. When I wrote the previous list, I hadn’t seen Death Note, hence L’s absence. That said, after a handful of suggestions to watch the show, I finally got why so many people are drawn to L. He’s just so…strange? I think that’s the best way to describe him. Plus, he’s a good guy who doesn’t win in the end. I always find characters like that interesting.

Honorable Mention: Roy Mustang (FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood), Tsubaki Nakatsukasa (Soul Eater), Yang Xiao Long (RWBY)

Best Secondary Character – Riza Hawkeye, FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

I had a bit of a change of heart on this one within weeks of posting my previous list. While Excalibur is funny and entertains me in his occasional appearances, Riza is one of the best written female characters in film or television, regardless of format. As a side note, I’d watch animes that focus on the lives of Roberta and James. Roberta’s back story prior to her encounter with the Lagoon Company deserved to be fleshed out a bit more, while James is clearly the most loved Pokemon trainer in the series, at least by his Pokemon.

Honorable Mention: Excalibur (Soul Eater), Roberta (Black Lagoon), James (Pokemon)

Worst Character – Rock, Black Lagoon

In my last list, I failed to make a distinction between worst villain (read: horrible human being) and worst character (read: OMFG SHUT UP AND GET OFF MY SCREEN). This is how I feel pretty much every time Rock talks after the first three episodes of Black Lagoon. On top of that, at least Third Kira moves his story line forward and at least Brock is useful sometimes. Rock is just painful, yet he’s supposed to be the main character[5].

Honorable Mention: Brock (Pokemon), Kyosuke “Third Kira” Higuchi (Death Note)

Most Entertaining Character – Bewear, Pokemon

After picking up Pokemon Moon, I decided to check back in on the Pokemon anime just to see what had happened since I’ve been gone. Much to my surprise, the first episode I watched featured Team Rocket actually defeating Ash for the first time in the entire series. All this happened just in time for the Bewear they were living with to show up. Hilarity ensues[6].

Honorable Mention: Greed (FullMetal Alchemist), Near (Death Note)

What I Learned In My 20s About…Finance

A little later on this year, I’ll be turning 30 years old. In American society, this is for some reason a milestone birthday[1]. If nothing else, it’s the birthday that signals that “milestone” birthdays will stop coming at oddball intervals and instead begin showing up at the decade mark.

I don’t see getting older as a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just reality. Everyone ages, regardless of if we want to or not. And while I feel like I’ve known a good bit for whatever age I’ve been at the time, I certainly found that I’ve accrued quite a bit more knowledge over the last decade. As time gets closer to my birthday later this year, I wanted to share some things I’ve learned in my 20s about various topics. I figured I’d start off with a topic that I learned a lot about as a teen then built on in my 20s — personal finance.

Take the things I talk about in my list below as items I gained from my own personal experience rather than hard gospel. While the things below worked (or didn’t, depending on the case) for me, your mileage may vary.

1. Emergency Funds Are Useful…But They Likely Won’t Feel Useful

As I was coming out of college in 2008, I had very little money and a whole hell of a lot of debt to my name. Any money I had made during college from jobs there went to car payments, car insurance, student loans, my cell phone, or gas. With my first job out of college, I got paid twice a month and I found that nearly all of one of those two checks went to student loans. That said, I was driving a car that was ten years old, trying to scrounge money together to apply for grad school, and still had other bills to handle. If it wouldn’t have been for the kindness my grandparents showed me by letting me live with them for a year and a half after graduating, I probably would have ended up in a significantly worse place than I was.

One of the things that I learned from a co-worker at that job was that an emergency fund would save my ass when I least expected it. Over the course of the first year I had that job, I set out to save enough from each paycheck to give me three months worth of paychecks in savings by end of year. I got to December of 2009 and had reached my goal a month early. It felt like a waste. That money was sitting in a savings account and gaining (very little) interest and could be used up at any time. What was the point?

Soon I realized that the fact that the money could be used at any time but wasn’t being used was the ideal situation. It was a safety net — something I wasn’t used to having in my life. The net below an acrobat seems awful useless until you fall. When my car broken down two days before moving from Arizona to Ohio, I was glad I had it.

2. Take Advantage of Income Based Student Loan Repayment

One of my biggest mistakes financially early in my twenties was choosing not to use income based repayment plans offered by the student loan companies I had my loans with. As I mentioned in the previous section, my student loans were taking up nearly 50% of my take home pay when repayment started. I was able to manage it for around six months, but eventually decided that the solution to not having to pay student loans was to go to grad school in order to get my loans back in deferment.

While graduate school ended up being a largely positive decision for me[2], I wish I would have given more of a thought to the repayment options that were available to me. I was far too stubborn in my early (and mid) twenties to be willing to consider lowering my payments. By the time I was willing to consider them, my loans were nearly paid off. Though I’m certainly not saying income-based repayment makes sense for everyone, if you’re having trouble with your student loans, I would encourage you to look into it.

3. Take Advantage of 401k Matching As Soon As You Can

There’s a lot of debate around whether or not Albert Einstein actually said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, however one thing is for certain — interest and market growth are immensely powerful. I came into my twenties knowing next to nothing about retirement plans, the stock market, or investing in general. On top of that, it turns out that the things I was taught about those items were very, very wrong[3].

In the USA, if you’re at least 21 years old and have been with a company for at least one year, if your employer offers a 401k plan, you are eligible by law to be able to contribute to it. Furthermore, if your employers offers something known as employer match, the money you put towards your retirement can be matched in some capacity (usually dollar for dollar up to a certain percentage and/or amount).

While retirement investing is a bit complicated and I am not a financial advisor in any way shape or form, I will say that there is one thing that I’ve found is unequivocally true. Free money to help out your future is almost always a good thing. If you’re not putting away whatever amount of money towards your 401k that your company will match, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

4. Stop Lending Money to Friends and Family

Of the four items on this list, this was probably the hardest for me to get good with. After all, friends and family are people you are close to. You care about them and want them to be successful. And yes, if someone needs a little money here or there in an emergency, there’s nothing wrong with helping them out. But when that request becomes routine — $20 one week, $40 the next, $10 the week after that — it’s a sign there are bigger problems in play.

Instead of lending the money, or perhaps in addition to doing that if you must, offer to help the person needing the money with their budget and finances. It wasn’t until I sat down and figured out a budget in my first few months out of college that I really was able to understand where my money was going. While I’ve slipped in budget management from time to time[4], I’ve always found myself coming back to math and spreadsheets to help set my finances straight. If someone is serious about making their financial situation better, they’ll work to do so. If not, they’ll just keep asking for money. Those are the very people who you shouldn’t lend money to.

What if I Were a Pokemon Champion?

You might have noticed that I’ve been doing a decent number of video game posts lately. I don’t really have a reason for this, though I realize there’s a handful of my readers that really don’t care about said posts. That said, I’m on a video game writing kick, so I thought I’d try another one.

This time, I’m inspired by the video below by Bird Keeper Toby on YouTube. In the video below, he shares the Elite Four teams, as well as his own team, if he were Pokemon League champion.

The basic premise of Toby’s video is that he is the end game champion of the Elite Four. Toby explains each of the four trainers that precede him in you — the trainer’s — path to becoming a Pokemon League champion. I figured I’d take my own crack at making an Elite Four as well as my own champion team.

In Toby’s video, his Pokemon League theme is a treehouse. In keeping with the idea of having a themed Elite Four, I’m going to have my Pokemon League be a meteorology theme. Weather was introduced into Pokemon in Generation II and my personal obsession with weather[1] makes meteorology a natural fit for the theme. Additionally, I’ve decided to keep with Toby’s theme of making Elite Four members people from previous games. Since my biggest exposure to Pokemon has been in Generations I – IV as well as VII, my Elite Four hails from those groupings.[2]

Battle 1

In the first battle, you’ll be facing off against the first member of my Elite Four, Flannery. For those unaware, Flannery is the fire-type trainer from Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire’s Lavaridge Town. Admittedly, this was the only gym pick I made purely based on previous game skills and not like of a trainer/Pokemon, as there’s not a ton of fire/grass leaders I like.

Flannery is the first fire type leader to use Sunny Day in games, using it on both of her Slugma. In my Pokemon League, however, she’s grown as a trainer from her Gen III days, diversifying her team to include grass type (to fit with the Sunny Day theme) and normal type (due to her familiarity with Norman) Pokemon on her team.

Flannery’s Team

Magcargo
Holds: Heat Rock
Ability: Magma Armor
Moves: Sunny Day, Flamethrower, Recover, Rock Slide

Rapidash
Holds: None
Ability: Flash Fire
Moves: Flamethrower, Solar Beam, Overheat, Bounce

Sceptile
Holds: None
Ability: Overgrow
Moves: Solar Beam, Mega Drain, Dual Chop, Swords Dance

Vigoroth
Holds: Safety Goggles
Ability: Vital Spirit
Moves: Sunny Day, Reversal, Solar Beam, Slash

Torkoal
Holds: Firium Z
Ability: White Smoke
Moves: Overheat, Heat Wave, Iron Defense, Earthquake

Battle 2

Presuming you get through Flannery, you’re on to take on our Rain Dance master, Lana from Pokemon Sun/Moon. Lana is the game’s water trial captain at Brooklet Hill. In nearly every Pokemon game I’ve played, my starter has been the water type starter of the game. You’ll see the influence of my water type starter preference in the second battle, as well as a Alola Pokemon focus in this battle.

Lana’s team also uses rain dance to its fullest by using its powers to improve the accuracy of Hurricane and Thunder via Swanna and Lanturn/Alolan Raichu. I was tempted to add Primarina to Lana’s team as a sixth Pokemon, however I figured keeping all the Elite Four teams at five Pokemon made more sense.

Lana’s Team

Lanturn
Holds: Damp Rock
Ability: Volt Absorb
Moves: Rain Dance, Thunder, Aqua Ring, Surf

Swanna
Holds: None
Ability: Hydration
Moves: Hurricane, Roost, Brave Bird, Surf

Empoleon
Holds: Air Balloon
Ability: Torrent
Moves: Aqua Jet, Brine, Flash Cannon, Rain Dance

Raichu (Alola Form)
Holds: None
Ability: Surge Surfer
Moves: Electric Terrain, Psychic, Thunder, Light Screen

Araquinid
Holds: Waterium Z
Ability: Water Bubble
Moves: Leech Life, Aqua Ring, Rain Dance, Liquidation

Battle 3

For battle three, you encounter the rock/steel/ground filled Sandstorm room of the Elite Four. There’s quite a few options here, particularly considering the prevalence of those types in the first two generations. Of the four Elite Four battles, this one is probably the most straight forward, as you’ll be taking on a familiar face — Gen I’s Brock.

Brock already fields a team filled with rock, ground, and steel types, but he’s got a couple of tricks up his sleeve thanks to his time with Ash, as well as some help he received from Gen II’s steel leader, Jasmine. Brock’s familiar Pokemon do their best to take advantage of Sandstorm, while his new additions attempt to counter those who would damage his main team. And of course, since Brock’s dream is to become a Pokemon breeder, every Pokemon on his team knows a move that can only be learned by breeding (except Magnezone, which can’t).

Onix
Holds: Eviolite
Ability: Sturdy
Moves: Bide, Sandstorm, Stone Edge, Rollout

Magnezone
Holds: Smooth Rock
Ability: Magnet Pull
Moves: Gyro Ball, Discharge, Thunderbolt, Explosion

Golem (Kanto Form)
Holds: None
Ability: Sand Veil
Moves: Stone Edge, Focus Blast, Heavy Slam, Endure

Donphan
Holds: None
Ability: Sand Veil
Moves: Hyper Beam, Rollout, Ice Shard, Thunder Fang

Steelix
Holds: Steelixite
Ability: Study/Sandforce
Moves: Sandstorm, Earthquake, Iron Tail, Rock Climb

Battle 4

You’re finally to the last of the Elite Four members at my meteorology themed Pokemon League. If you beat the final trainer, you’re on to take on me as the Champion. That said, you’ve got to deal with the original ice user and her Hail optimized team first. Lorelei from the Gen I Elite Four is up next.

Unlike the previous three weather types, you know what you’re getting here. Ice gonna give it to ya. There’s just one problem. Lorelei has brought a more diverse team that can learn ice moves — not just ice types. And in the event you plan on bringing in fighting, rock, steel, or fire types here, she’s ready to counter it.

Lapras
Holds: Icy Rock
Ability: Shell Armor
Moves: Blizzard, Perish Song, Surf, Confuse Ray

Froslass
Holds: None
Ability: Snow Cloak
Moves: Hail, Destiny Bond, Thunder Wave, Shadow Ball

Slowking
Holds: King’s Rock
Ability: Oblivious
Moves: Scald, Heal Pulse, Yawn, Dream Eater

Aurorus
Holds: Light Clay
Ability: Snow Warning
Moves: Psychic, Blizzard, Thunderbolt, Stone Edge

Abomasnow
Holds: Abomasite
Ability: Snow Warning
Moves: Blizzard, Energy Ball, Wood Hammer, Ice Punch

Battle 5

Finally, you’re beaten the Elite Four and you’ve reach the champion — me. So what kind of team am I going to bring out? After all, you’ve already ran into the four weather types so far. What else could I have? My team is built around Pokemon who change the weather as soon as they enter battle. The abilities Drought, Drizzle, Sand Stream, and Snow Warning are present on four of my six Pokemon, changing the weather as soon as they enter. As for the other two, they’ll be bent on stopping you in their own unique ways that help balance out my team.

Pelipper
Holds: Damp Rock
Ability: Drizzle
Moves: Hurricane, Surf, Fly, Roost

Torkoal
Holds: Heat Rock
Ability: Drought
Moves: Solar Beam, Heat Wave, Flame Charge, Amnesia

Tyranitar
Holds: Smooth Rock
Ability: Sand Stream
Moves: Dark Pulse, Stone Edge, Dragon Claw, Ice Beam

Scizor
Holds: Scizorite
Ability: Technician
Moves: Silver Wind, Hidden Power, Metal Claw, Toxic

Umbreon
Holds: Chople Berry
Ability: Synchronize
Moves: Yawn, Dream Eater, Confuse Ray, Dark Pulse

Ninetales (Alolan Form)
Holds: Light Clay
Ability: Snow Warning
Moves: Aurora Veil, Toxic, Blizzard, Hex


So. What did you all think? I realize this is a bit different type of post from one I’ve normally done, particularly since it’s a video response. Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments.

Fire Emblem: Heroes Review

A few weeks back, I did a recap post of all of the information coming out of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Direct event. Since that post, the first of the four games mentioned in the Direct event — Fire Emblem: Heroes — has released on mobile devices. I downloaded the game’s iOS version and have been playing it since launch day. Now that we’re almost a month into the game’s existence, I wanted to share some thoughts on FE: Heroes and my experience with the game.

Story

Like most Fire Emblem games, Heroes gives you a story about how you’re trying to save the world you’re in from bad guys. Granted, in almost all of the previous FE games, you’re trying to save the world from an evil dragon, but we didn’t need an evil dragon for this to feel like a Fire Emblem game. Instead of a dragon, you’re tasked with saving the summoning gate from the evil Princess Veronica.

To be clear, you’re tasked with saving the summoning gate — the place in the game where you can buy your units — from a bad guy trying to stop you from being able to summon.

On one hand, I get the point. Veronica wants to stop you from summoning great heroes who could defeat her. Her motives make sense. Meanwhile, you want to defeat her so that…uh…you can summon more units to defeat her again? I mean, your ulterior goal is to save Alphonse and Sharena’s kingdom (Askr) from Veronica, but the ultimate objective is to save the summoning gate. Which could cause you spend money. Is Nintendo trying to teach you that fiscal responsibility is bad[1]?

That all aside, the plot seems very thin, both at time of release as well as now. While the paralogues get you into the history of Fire Emblem games a bit, the main story is extremely linear. On top of that, the dialogue pre-chapter is very slow. Your only options for the dialogue are to wait it out or to skip it entirely. I found myself skipping it entirely from chapter 3 onward, then going back and finding it online to read it myself.

Also, why is it that the most badass original character introduced in Heroes (Veronica) isn’t a playable character?

Gameplay

The primary game play focus of Heroes is similar to the grid-style, turn-based combat featured in most Fire Emblem games. You’re limited to 4 units per map, which feels perfect on most maps. You’re generally tasked with facing 3-5 units in story mode, so it’s rare you’ll feel crowded by anything other than terrain. Though the permadeath feature that most early Fire Emblem games are known for isn’t present in Heroes[2], there are quirks in the game that force you to be creative with your game play style in other ways. As an example, if a unit dies mid-battle, you lose all XP and stat growth that you’ve gained throughout the battle. This prevents players from charging headlong into battle with no regard for strategy, particularly on Lunatic difficulty in the story mode, as well as in the PvP arena.

Story mode itself seems like it’s going to be an in-depth experience at first glance. You have 9 chapters with 4-5 parts each, as well as three different difficulty levels you can play each part on. The rounds go relatively quickly though, meaning you can blow through your limited player energy in 10-15 minutes, particularly on higher difficulties. Though stamina potions are plentiful, this only makes the story mode feel shorter.

Arena mode is painfully disappointing. Similar to the story mode, arena allows you to compete in a 4 vs. 4 battle, though your opponent is another player. The battles themselves are generally harder than story mode, adding a challenge to the player experience. That said, arena mode is majorly flawed thanks to the bonus points you can receive for using certain units in the arena. If you’re able to use one of the 6-10 bonus point units for that arena “season”[3], you’re all but guaranteed to receive the maximum prizes possible that season. If you can’t use one of those units, you’re relegated to 60-70% payout in a best case scenario.

Other side modes like the training stratum and special quests are merely for materials or unit farming. Nothing really to write home about, though it’s pretty standard fare for mobile RPG games.

Summoning and Leveling

As mentioned earlier, to get new units for your teams, you must summon via a gacha-style summoning gate. Fortunately, the in-game currency (called orbs) are pretty common to get, even when ignoring the app release bonuses currently ongoing. I’ve summoned or acquired[4] somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 units to this point, with 5 of those units being top rarity units. Considering I’ve been free-to-play the entire time, summoning new units is not an issue.

Nor is there an issue with the actual leveling of units, at least once you recognize that if a unit dies mid-level, you lose all their XP and stats obtained that level. It took me 3-4 days to realize that was happening, so be aware of that mechanic. Unit experience seems to scale at a comfortable level from level 1 to level 40 regardless of the unit’s rarity, so that’s a positive as well.

The major gripe I have here is with the promotion functionality of Heroes, which is referred to in-game as Unlock Potential. For units of a very low rarity (1 or 2 stars), the resources required to level the rarity of a unit up are pretty minimal. However, once you try to level a 3 star or 4 star unit up, the acquisition of one of the two items (hero feathers) needed to raise the rarity of a unit is unsustainable. The only way to obtain large amounts (read: more than 10 at a time) of hero feathers at this time is through weekly arena rewards. The best case scenario for arena rewards is 7,100 feathers in a week, though that would mean you would have to be the top player in the entire game. A more realistic value is that you finish unranked among all players, but still get full rewards for the other milestones. If you do that, you get 2,100 feathers in a week…or just over 10% of the amount you’ll need to raise a 4 star unit’s rarity to 5 stars. You’re either stuck grinding for literal weeks on end or hoping you get good luck at the summon gate.

Replay Value

For free-to-play players like myself, games like Fire Emblem: Heroes need good replay value, otherwise grinding for resources is pointless. The replay value so far isn’t good. That in and of itself is concerning, as I’ve found myself getting bored with the game less than a month after its release. Though Nintendo has done a good job of releasing new content since launch[5], the amount of effort and/or luck needed to get a top-tier team is disheartening. I got lucky in one of my very early unit pulls and managed to get two units that seem to be meta-defining in the arena at this stage of the game (Takumi and Cordelia). Had I not had that luck, I think I would have lost interest before now.

Furthermore, unless you intentionally handicap yourself by using lower level units, most of the story mode is simple. I finished Normal mode in less than a day, Hard mode in about a day and a half, and Lunatic in three days. The only reason any of those modes took as long as they did was the energy limitations — even Lunatic mode would be easy when compared to other Fire Emblem games.

Final Thoughts

I had pretty low expectations for Fire Emblem: Heroes prior to its launch. Despite all of its flaws — and there are quite a few — Heroes has exceeded my expectations pretty comfortably. The game is enjoyable in small bursts and it makes me nostalgic for previous editions of the Fire Emblem series. With that said, I’ve taken multiple day breaks from the game twice already in the first month. There’s just not enough content to make a casual gamer, especially one that isn’t familiar with Fire Emblem canon, care about the game.

If you’re a Fire Emblem fan, Heroes is probably worth playing through for the nostalgia. It’s a good time waster in small bursts, and its familiar game style will be easy to pick up on if you’ve played previous games in the series. That said, unless Nintendo comes out with more content, more difficult content, or both, I don’t see Fire Emblem: Heroes being a long-term success.

And Then Something Peculiar Occurred

The life of a self-published author is difficult and strange. This is especially true when you’re acting as a self-published author who doesn’t keep an incredibly interactive social media presence. I understand that being more active on social media platforms could certainly help my writing career. I made a choice a few years ago not to be active on most social media. At the time, the decision was based out of fear and frustration, though now I’ve chosen to keep that stance because social media just isn’t interesting to me.

I say all of this to talk about how my free book event that occurred this week went. I did a free book event back in July of last year, giving away 10 copies of the book across three days. Extrapolating that out to five days, I expected to give away somewhere in between 5 and 20 copies of the book. I had no reason to expect anything else.

Through 4pm or so on Monday, my expectations were pretty accurate. I’d given away 2 copies of the book, putting me on pace for somewhere in the middle of that estimate range. Considering most of my friends had a copy of the book — either a hard copy, a digital copy, or both — I figured my best hope was someone randomly scrolling through the free Kindle books and buying because they liked the cover art[1].

And then something peculiar happened…

I got home from work and saw the number had tripled. Six. Took a nap because I felt like death. Woke up twenty minutes later to find the total at 11. My wife got home, bringing dinner for her as well as my congested and feverish self. The count was up to 17.

So the night went. In a feeling I had never experienced before, I was able to refresh Kindle’s publishing reports and literally watch as new downloads of my book posted to the account. The day ended with An Epilogue to Innocence being downloaded 56 times. That’s not a giant amount, but it’s 5.6 times the number of downloads of the entire Kindle event I ran near launch.

When I woke up the next morning, I was able to grab this picture off Amazon.

Category Rank

I had risen to #64 in free Kindle books for Single Author Fiction Short Stories. Is that a super specific category? Yes it is. Did I care? No I did not.

By the end of the week, my rank had tailed off a bit. I went from that #64 rank in category to the mid 200s. My overall Kindle rank had fallen from ~3,500th to ~8,000th. I really didn’t care though. After all, I couldn’t explain where the sudden burst in downloads had come from. I still can’t explain it. I had three people who I know personally reach out to me letting me know they got the Kindle version of the book. Still doesn’t explain the other 77 copies that were downloaded last week.

On one hand, I know there’s not a ton of reasons to get excited about 80 free copies of my book getting downloaded. It’s not like I’m making money off of them. On the other hand, this is my Kindle sales report for the last 30 days.

units-ordered

Those 80 free copies that were given away in the last 5 days? That’s literally 1.6 times the number of books — free or paid — that I’ve managed to get out there since July. For all months combined. 80 free copies given away in 5 days is 61.5% of all copies of my book in the world today. That’s why 80 free copies is a big deal. That’s why I’m celebrating this.

I don’t know who did this or how I managed to get so many copies out there. To the three people I know downloaded the book because you mentioned it to me — Kait, Jenn, and Stephanie — thank you. To the other 77 of you, thank you too. Here’s to hoping this influx of new readers means some new, positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

 

Oh…and if you want to actually buy the book and help me out that way, that’d be awesome too. Go pick it up from Amazon or Createspace.