Today Freya Akselsen was going to set a new record. Three hundred thousand people watched her live stream, and the number kept climbing as the stream progressed to questions and answers.
If the viewers reached four hundred thousand, it would be a world record for the coaching industry as a whole.
No one had ever done this before Freya. Even the famous and obscenely wealthy Rony Tobbins had had three hundred ninety at his peak—after decades on the market with his world-renowned face! And now, Freya had a chance to beat that record and ensure her fame for years to come. And if it all seemed like pure chance to someone, Freya knew—the luck only favors prepared minds and ready hands.
It had started off just decently. An hour was spent on a lecture on how to achieve one's goals—the most enjoyable part of her job, but only one hundred thousand viewers came. Predictable, but not the level Freya deserved with her four million followers on Instagram and twelve more on TikTok. Freya disliked the latter for its lack of a serious audience, but algorithms had decided otherwise—and no one rejects what the algorithm giveth, as it taketh back.
Another hour went for questions like "what's the best age to launch a startup" and "how to get up and start just-doing-it," which fans submitted through a form before the stream. The answers came in well and pulled the online count up to two hundred thousand.
But this was still not it. Two hundred thousand people was a plateau, which was getting harder for Freya to surpass each time.
And then Freya went all in, as New York traders liked to say. In twenty minutes right during the stream, her assistants wired up a donation form and posted it on social media. And the surprise part of the broadcast began—fan questions for donations. Unmoderated, but on Freya's terms.
The human wave surged forward. SMM's posts spread like hotcakes – it was prime-time, just before the end of the workday – and two hundred thousand count pushed to two hundred fifty. The bots of online magazines that thrived at hype picked up the event, and began reprinting the news on the provocative stream of "the most groundbreaking business coach of our generation." A woman!
Now Freya was watched, applauded, cheered, and asked questions for real dollars by three hundred fifty thousand people from all around the world. Three hundred sixty. Three hundred seventy. Freya gasped with every thousand. Then it was time for her answers.
The trick was not to turn the communication with subscribers into a collective date from Tinder.
"Do you have children?" Asked a stranger, "How do you achieve success if you have four?"
Freya wanted to say: "You don't". But first, mothers on maternity leave accounted for 48% of Freya's audience, because Freya had all they couldn't, so the question was kicking. And secondly, you can't answer like this to your subscriber who probably cut these fifty bucks from the pocket money of her children. So Freya used a polite pre-written answer.
"Everyone determines for themselves what success is for them," she said, "If you always wanted to be a mother or father, then the children are your capital. The main thing is to follow an investment strategy and never invest in unchecked funds. And don't forget to diversify."
Her assistants giggled in the chat.
"Are you married?" Someone asked, donating a bare minimum of five dollars.
Such questions Freya left unanswered. Fortunately, the stream of questions more interesting—and expensive!—flushed away all cheap provocations.
"Do you ever miss a strong masculine shoulder?" Rebecca223 asked for a hundred dollars. "Would you give up your business if you found the love of your life?"
Frey thought for a moment before answering.
"Business isn't a replacement for a man, and a man isn't a replacement for the pursuit of a lifetime. Let business not need to be appeased like a lover, and the right business will always stand for you," Frey smiled here, "which, I agree, is a great advantage over men."
The chatroom exploded; Twitter and Instagram feeds burst like fireworks on the side screens. The feminist community lit up with a hundred voices, their avatars a colorful blossom like an exotic garden. Now Freya's fans, not her mods and assistants, were reporting and trolling the trolls who crawled at the light of her stream from the anonymous forums for losers.
It was always tough with the trolls. But three hundred and eighty thousand… no, three hundred and ninety thousand viewers online were three hundred and ninety thousand. No matter how they smelled.
The trolls tried to raid the stream with a volley of questions like "Do you give oral?" and "Try shaving your legs," but the chatroom moderators stepped in before things got out of hand. Freya smiled and answered the questions she cherry-picked, giving side-eye at the assistants' chat. As always, their comments from fan accounts in disguise set the tone, and moderators sniped the nastiest trolls with bans. But this time, mods didn't need to step in.
Trolls lived on a five-dollar lunch allowance from their moms. Thus, they were met with an onslaught and reduced to dust by the core of Freya's audience, summoned from fan groups. They were moms at home, manicurists, freelance newbies, and students from the depths of the suburbs. Freya's heavy cavalry were homemakers who had replaced their chefs with shovel-sized smartphones in response to the trumpet call of the economy, and now dug hard for success. And the men who yearned for the attention of all the aforesaid women. They groomed Freya's fans without noticing how much they were spending on Freya — as much as twenty dollars a month per male specimen, according to analytics.
Not the best audience if you're a serious woman sharing the secrets of a serious business, but a loyal one. And loyalty matters a lot in the real world.
In Freya's eyes, the troll messages dissipated: the chat was flooded by twenty-five and fifty-dollar missives of "Freya, go forward!", "Freya, we love you!", and "#Akselsexuals." The stakes were rising swiftly, and now donations under ten dollars weren't even showing up on the screen. And finally, Freya smiled sincerely.
Yet the viewers barely reached three-hundred ninety thousand—and then online count began to backpedal. These were trolls, defeated, fleeing the battlefield, spilling shaved-legs nonsense as they retreated.
Suddenly, Katy, the PR assistant, wrote: "Show them your legs, now! It'll be a hit!"
It wasn't like Freya usually did this, but today was special. There was no time to doubt, even if she was wearing a business suit. No time to doubt for those who were born to change the world.
Freya took the microphone from the stand as a gesture and held it in her hands.
"Well," she said, "if unshaven legs are the final argument in a fight between weak men and strong women, then we have already won."
Freya leaned back in her designer chair so that her smooth, lithe, and shimmering legs got in sight. They emerged from beneath a strict business skirt but were finished off with comfortable white sneakers. Freya flirtatiously kicked her feet in the air, spun around in the chair, and settled back in.
The result was ambiguous but powerful. Freya was pleased. But when she returned to her display, she got to a completely different stream.
The chat rooms were abuzz. Following her stream, left- and right-leaning outlets unholstered their machine guns of article generators and began spraying them across the news feeds. "Business coach affixes toxic masculinity with her exquisite legs," wrote the leftists. "Freya Akselsen, 29, has shown that female power has nothing to do with hairy legs," reluctantly conceded the right.
And as radical feminists started to log off, they were the minority. Freya's online sphere was bubbling, whirling with new people. The viewers' count tipped over three hundred thousand ninety and was inching towards four. Assistants cheered: the streaming platform sent Freya a partnership contract. They were only a few thousand away from an absolute record. Freya's head spun.
Then, it happened.
A sudden firework's boom filled her screen, and a huge message worth ten thousand dollars flashed across.
"SUCCESS TIP REVEALED! FREYA AKSELSEN GIVES HEAD AND ASS FOR MONEY," it screamed in bright orange text. Below it was an unclickable, partially cut-off link to Porntub.
What an idiot. Freya laughed.
"Very generous, dear hater," she said, "Too bad I can't refund it so you can see a psychiatrist. Therapy is expensive, you know."
Twenty seconds was how long the ten thousand-dollar message was supposed to last on the screen. It popped up in the middle of the frame, obscuring Freya's face, and she had to shift to the right in her chair.
"Ah, the flip side of success." The woman chuckled. "All I can wish for these generous haters is to see a doctor. And remember not to click on suspicious links—there can be malware."
It took a lot of effort to keep track of what was happening in the chat. Everyone was outraged at how far the haters would go to cause harm. Freya sent a query to her assistants, but they could only shrug—the message couldn't be taken down, so they could only wait it off. Women and girls from the #Akselsexuals activated, urging people not to click on unknown links. Many had their credit cards stolen, and ten bags of rice were ordered to Africa at their cost.
The wave of emojis and exclamations in the chat that followed was deafening.
"It's a real video!" someone wrote. "My Goodness, it's Freya."
"Three hundred bucks!" RobertDestroyer2 exclaimed.
"Guys, is there really no virus?" Tanisha1999 asked.
"Freya, how do you comment on this?"
A wave of eggplant emojis followed the message. Someone captioned each one with "cucumber."
And just as the pop-up disappeared, the screen exploded with notifications. Ten, twenty, thirty dollars yelled that the footage was real. Hundreds of dollars came with messages of "300 b u c k s", "C u c u m b e r," and simply laughing emojis. The messages were surrounded by eggplant emojis and a pink feminist fist from Freya's custom emoji pack.
Freya shifted her gaze to the second monitor. Twitter was scrolling as fast as a conveyor belt. Instagram had already locked her feed, but Twitter was more democratic. Now her "Replies" were flooded with screenshots.
Many of them were blurred out, but they were easily legible. Somewhere Freya was tasting a pink something in her mouth with delight, and it was certainly not a sorbet. Somewhere Twitter tactfully blurred out her exposed breasts. But people weren't interested in that: the feed was bursting with thick green cucumbers that a male hand was squeezing on the screenshot.
"Say it's a deep fake!" Freya's assistants yelled in the chat. "Say it's a DEEPFAKE, Freya, you are frozen BLUSHED RED ONLINE!!!"
Freya silently reached for the mouse and ended the stream.
She saw her own reddened, lifeless face before the screen went dark, and then—numbers. Half a million people had tuned in to her stream today. Half a million witnesses.
She had to shake herself out of her stupor. Get in control. Take a breath and exhale in a lotus pose.
Freya exhaled, grabbed her laptop, and threw it against the wall.
It didn't get any easier. Frey felt her pulse quicken. A ringing sound struck her ears. It felt like she was about to pass out. All she wanted at that moment was to pass out. But fate had other plans.
So Freya took it upon herself to save her. She couldn't turn back time, but she could erase the past.
She had to find the notebook.
The phone number of her handler at the CIA, Mister K., couldn't be stored on any electronic device. The iPhone would forget it immediately after a call, and the MacBook would freeze if his number ever appeared on the screen. So, like in the old days, the number was written down several times on different paper carriers—just in case one was lost.
It wasn't because Freya often resorted to the CIA's help—Freya never lost her notebooks, to begin with. When you work for the Deep State, the circumstances will be the most incredible. Like now.
So Freya's foresight came in handy. She couldn't find her address book in the kitchen cabinet. The notebook from the dresser drawer had been lost, and Freya upturned the drawer onto the floor. And only the sheet hidden in the tea jar remained intact.
The woman immediately snatched the sheet, struggled with trembling fingers, and dialed the handler's number.
She didn't have to wait long—Mister K. immediately picked up the phone.
"This is a catastrophe," Freya said as soon as the handler said "hello," "I need you to delete everything."
"It's all under control, Freya," Mister K. replied gently. "Give me five minutes, and everything will be sorted. Be ready to receive my call."
And he hung up.
Frey exhaled, feeling like a real superagent. To complete the impression, she reached for her iPad to monitor the disappearance of any evidence of her disgrace in real-time.
Jason, her ex-fiancé and a sick jerk, would be surprised to see her come out dry from this situation. It must have been his shenanigans, for sure, and he would pay hard for daring to hurt her again.
Frey glanced at her broken MacBook regretfully–rage is never the answer–and grabbed her tablet from the drawer. She typed her name into the search bar, and Google dutifully served the first result–Freya's Wikipedia article, with a photo of her at the New Faces in Business conference.
In the photo, Freya smiled confidently in her signature suit and sneakers combo. This block occupied half the screen. At first glance, everything looked as it used to–neat, clean, and polished by her SEO assistants buying the backlinks and burying the criticism in the search results, fine-tuning Google to Freya's liking.
Then Freya noticed something new. In the second position, it was not her website, TikTok, or Instagram, but a news card block. She scrolled down, and the cards unfurled across the entire screen.
Meanwhile, three minutes of the five promised by the handler had passed. The censorship machine was slow.
"Deepfake video leaked live: who hit Freya Akselsen?" – CNN wrote.
"Deepfake threat to national security: the FBI announced a foreign intervention in the stream of the successful businesswoman. Original video found on anonymous forums," – Fox News said.
"Russian hackers tracked the digital trail of the notorious video fake: the traces lead to crypto farms in Wuhan," – The Wired wrote. Google supplied a snippet of the text: "First, Wuhan took national health. Will they take the nation's conscience too?"
And the democratic Huffington Post, whose female editorial team was the best at getting the clues, concluded: "Chinese against feminism: the mysterious leak of Freya Akselsen has a trace in the misogynistic country. Yale's University believes this to be an attempt to undermine the US economic recovery after the epidemic and the war in Ukraine by decreasing the independence of women".
And on each and every card, there was a screenshot from the video–the one where Freya, naked, looked straight into the camera, kneeling. The frame was cropped at her neck, and a photoshopped Chinese flag was at her back.
Freya slammed the tablet onto the table and grabbed her phone. This time, she spoke up before Mister K. had the chance to say anything.
"You disposed of me!"
"No, I didn't. Neither the original video nor the uncensored screenshots will ever see the light of mainstream," the handler retorted. "Now take a deep breath and calm down, Freya. You need to make a statement to settle the Narrative, and it needs to be clear..."
Listening to Mister K. was excruciating, and Freya cut him off.
"What the heck is the Narrative? We have an agreement!"
That came out rather harsh — one shouldn't anger a person who had a figurative gun pointed at their career — so Freya quickly shifted gears and tried to make amends.
"Mister K., I've worked on our project for so long!" she exclaimed. "What would be the point of dumping me? Just hit the button and delete it all!"
The handler on the other end of the wire sighed heavily.
"The video's been viewed by millions. There's no going back in time, even for the Deep State. I'm using a highly narratively-expensive unity of the FBI and Russian hackers to get you out, Freya; it's a carte blanche. All because of my personal sympathy for you."
Freya, who had been listening to Mister K and nodding along to his words, suddenly steamed up like a boiling teapot.
"Sympathies? What the hell do you mean, sympathies?!" she screamed into the phone. "You sure as hell can turn back time! When that alien appeared in the city center, the damn fish-man with gills, thousands saw him too! But you blatantly erased everything right before people's eyes, and it worked!"
Damn it! Freya quickly pinched herself and held the phone tighter.
"I demand that no leaks happen. Screw the Chinese and feminism. This is my life, and it won't be your Narrative."
And taking a deep breath, Freya added.
"Take it or lose me and my sixteen million."
It seemed the iPhone creaked under Frey's fingers. Mister K. did not answer immediately. But when he spoke, his voice had lost all paternal softness, becoming stiff and dry.
"Your failures, Freya, are not on the State's agenda. And don't talk about classified incidents on the phone if you want to remain on the agenda yourself." He paused. "Your sixteen million doesn't exist, only you and I..."
Frey didn't wait to listen and hung up.
Freya could tell that Mister Kunt was bluffing. If her achievements had been negligible and sixteen million followers were a sham, there would be no need for Deep State confidants like her. Now Freya could see the desperation in the handler's attempts to diminish her accomplishments.
She would not agree. There would be no show, no lawsuits with advertisers. They wouldn't dare. But Mister K. didn't leave her to her thoughts.
Suddenly Freya's own television switched on, revealing a man in horn-rimmed glasses and a business suit seated in a dimly lit office. He had black hair with a streak of gray, dark eyebrows, and an expressive nose.
The room was lit so that only the man, his mahogany desk, and his chair were visible on the screen. The American eagle, its eyes bound shut, was on the flag behind the man.
This was Mister K., and he stared sternly at the tiny Freya from her widescreen.
Freya was familiar with such tricks. He was flexing his muscles: backdoor access to phones and tech, CIA-gender male privilege. He was trying to intimidate her.
Freya's stereo system crackled to life with Mister K.'s voice.
"We haven't finished. If you don't release a statement within a half hour, I'll release the truth. This home video with Jason will be confirmed as authentic. They'll acknowledge that you took drugs, too, Freya."
He was trying to intimidate her! But he had no weapons to wield against her but fear. So Freya looked straight into his giant face on the television and laughed boldly.
"Narrative is built on lies! But you know what's true? You made the wrong bet. You don't have to delete anything. I will take Jason to court, and I will win. You can ban me from Instagram, but you won't steal people's attention."
Freya cocked her head, shrugging nonchalantly, and continued with a smirk.
"Sixteen million Akselsexuals will slip through your fingers like sand... And surely, someone among those millions will figure out what really happened."
Mister K sighed as he slumped his elbows onto the table. Freya heard the mahogany wood creaking under the CIA handler's weight through the stereo system.
"If the State hadn't created the Narrative, you wouldn't have had the attention of even ten people, Freya," Mister K. said with a sour smile. "You aren't naive enough to believe we'd let you get the attention of millions just like that, are you?"
Ah, Just like that?!
Frey's iPhone screeched again beneath her fingers. The screech awoke Freya, and with a furious yell, she threw the iPhone at Mister K's face, and it ricocheted across the room, and the giant screen was suddenly filled with a shattered rainbow before going dark.
But Frey knew the Hydra of the CIA was not to be taken down so easily. She lunged for the television and yanked the power cord from the wall to ensure the handler couldn't reach her.
Freya stood for a moment, breathed, brushed a lock of hair from her forehead, and surveyed the wreckage of her apartment. An iPad lay broken on the coffee table, and the keycaps of her MacBook were scattered across the living room. The TV's diagonal was now a cracked, jagged lattice, like the first November frost on a puddle.
"I'll earn a new one," Frey decided. And with that, she began to search for the phone that had been hurled from the screen.
Mister K. was right—she had to stop being naive. It did not mean succumbing to the State's threats, though. First, Frey would call her lawyer and demand an immediate filing. She knew Jason had stolen the video, and she could prove it. He'd be arrested and not allowed to leave New York State.
Well, Mister K. would have to explain why the FBI, hackers, and the Communist Party were wrong. Frey had already seen how the Narrative had crashed with Ronald Thrump's departure in the early twentieth.
Ronald, the old rich freak, had become President of America and caused so much trouble that the Deep State had to intervene in the open. So openly, in fact, that the very idea of the Deep State had reached the masses before the chick-yellow head of Thrump drowned in the dark waters of the Narrative.
So, the Washington jerk who liked to intrude into other people's TVs would have a hard time. Because Freya was not going to give up as quickly as Ronald had. And Ronald fought until the prison bench.
Freya was set to avenge. She'd call her lawyer, and she'd make sure Mister K. was held accountable for his actions. And she'd make sure the Deep State regretted the day they messed with her.
Suddenly, a bright light flashed in the kitchen. The screen of Freya's large fridge, which took up half the cupboard, had lit up. The list of expiring groceries, Freya's pledge to the environment, was gone instantly.
In its place emerged the face of the handler, stretched and pixelated. Now, Mister K looked less presentable, but he still glared at Freya menacingly.
Freya decided to ignore the handler. After all, there were no speakers in the fridge. Let him peck away at the Morse code, using that tiny speaker that squeaks to remind shutting the fridge door, CIA-style. She had to find her abandoned iPhone quickly to call the lawyer. Where had this rascal gone off to?
But Mister K. spoke anyway. From somewhere inside the smart kettle, he said a loud, crackling voice.
"You don't feel sorry for yourself, Freya; this is your choice. Neither did MacAffy. But if you keep resisting orders, Freya, your parents will be killed," he thundered.
The world in Freya's eyes went black.
Of course. Parents.
Freya had been so careful to keep her parents out of sight—no interviews, no photos from home visits, no Facebook posts. Not because she was embarrassed—let a farmer family from Texas was not the kind of place where business ladies come from. But to protect them from the burden that comes with fame—which Freya was ready to carry, but not her parents.
Foolishly, she thought she had hidden them from the Deep State, too. Of course, Mister K had been counting on this all along.
In a fleeting moment, she thought that her parents, people rigorous in religion, would have seen it as Providence. She, Freya, had sinned too much, and today was the day of reckoning.
Freya opened her mouth to speak and felt her lips go dry and cracked like the desert earth. She quickly licked them and looked at the curator in his soulless eyes.
That's how, almost without resistance, she lost.
"I want you to know," Freya said softly, "I'm doing this only for my parents, Mister K. But after this, I will ask the CIA for another curator..."
But Mister K. did not hear her out. He suddenly froze on the screen, and a ripple passed over his face. The refrigerator burst into light and turned off.
Then, the light in the apartment went out completely, leaving the woman in darkness. A chill ran down her spine.
The enormous, panoramic windows that usually allowed sunlight to flood the living room were void—like dark mirrors. A cold, white light crept in through them, like the searchlight beam or the bright light of a full moon.
But on the 66th floor, the searchlights never reached. And the watch on Freya's wrist said it was only 3 PM. Even in November in New York, a city so often overcast and windy, it was too early to get that dark.
With her head empty of thoughts, Freya stepped away from the refrigerator, rounded the bar counter, and approached the window.
Outside, the moon hung, huge and blue, like in a movie. It rose above the city between wispy clouds while the wind tore them apart, making a place for the light and stars—stars dense, bright, and many-colored. Freya had never seen a night like this in the city.
But Freya wasn't looking at the moon or the sky. To the north, past the park, a thick beam of light shot upward into the dome of the heavens. Above the horizon was a large crown of light around a black spot, like an eye. For a moment, Freya felt that that eye was looking at her.
Then it was gone, with a bright flash of light.
The darkness had descended quickly, but now Manhattan was fighting back. Windows of buildings lit up, but the power grid was overwhelmed: the windows glowed and sparkled like broken Christmas lights, then went dark. Cars flooded the streets, their headlights like golden beads of a snake winding between dark skyscrapers…
Frey lunged from the window and reached back towards the kitchen island, grasping the cracked iPhone. An "Emergency Alert" had come through, popping up over all her notifications so she couldn't miss it. The alert screamed:
"EMERGENCY ALERT. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. BALLISTIC MISSILES ARE NOT INBOUND FOR NEW YORK. EVACUATE IMMEDIATELY AND FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS!!!"
Frey took the phone again and tried to refresh her Instagram feed. Nothing. Facebook wouldn't even open. She went to her phone's menu and dialed Kate, her assistant-in-chief, but the call dropped. Then she called her parents.
Silence. No internet, no network, nothing. And despite all this, Freya suddenly felt tremendous relief.
"Oh Lord," she said aloud, leaning against the bar. "What am I supposed to do now?"
The Lord, as usual, didn't answer. Frey sat in the quiet for a minute and then rushed to pack up.