(One of the joys of SimLit is collaborating with creators who specialize in different areas: some people make gorgeous custom content, others could get an honorary degree in interior design with their Build Mode experience, others master a half-dozen trade programs to set up stunning photographs, others can whip up a character in CAS with a vague prompt like “feminist indie band,” and others still are trying to revive interest in the genre by highlighting its academic, artistic, and emotional merits. People in the last category have a hard time finding their crowd, but it doesn’t stop us from appreciating what everyone else can do! So here’s Catastrophe Theory’s (CT’s) take on that. It was this or a “bachelor” challenge with Shu where he just sleeps with everyone on the first date and no one gets eliminated. Sim credits at the end of the chapter; forum post with character blurbs here.)
(Splitting yet another chapter into two parts because my research is actually going somewhere, and I can only really focus on this side story when that’s not the case. Copy editing on the fly like usual. Thank you for your patience.)
“Listen up! Listen up!” The woman who said this was standing in front of the entrance to the community center and clapping her hands. Her clapping caused the conversational murmur nearest her to decrescendo, the newly created silence echoing through the packed hallway until her voice reached the sims in the back. “Everyone who is here for the Venus in Retrograde auditions—everyone here for the Venus in Retrograde auditions, we have an important announcement. We have an important announcement. Everybody! Listen up!”
Sims in the back rows of couches leaned closer to listen. The woman at the front of the community center appeared put-together, the ringlets escaping her blown-out sloppy bun clearly intentional, and her authoritative tone shot right to the back of the room even though her voice was barely raised. A couple auditionees took note of her trendy white hand tattoos: the ones on the fingers were hard to heal and had the texture of cauliflower for the first couple days, some knew. It would be inappropriate to ask whether the tattoos being white made them even more cauliflower-esque before healing. She locked eyes with everyone in the room, practically daring them to see what would happen if they made a peep during her important announcement. One clockwise lap of eye contact was satisfactory. She inhaled sharply.
“Okay, well, first things first, my name is Neala Avery. She/her. I’m the band’s manager. “
“And I’m River Indigo. They/them. Hey, everyone.”
Conversational murmurs started up again—speculative ones: are they really here? Is it really them?—like they somehow wouldn’t be. Like there was some possibility of River hiring a body double or Sixam-engineered holographic projector to take their place during auditions. The hallway-dwellers weren’t interested in actually testing this hypothesis; rather, they were hoping to bond through a common interest instead of avoiding eye contact in silence before their name was called and they were free of the community-center-hallway circle of asocial hell.
“EVERYONE. STOP,” Neala shrieked. Her voice cascaded over the disorderly mumbling and slammed into the back wall.
River took a couple beats post-shriek for Neala to perform another round of threat-glaring. “As you know, I’m starting this project so we can have the opportunity to all learn from each other as artists. We’re also gonna ask some questions to figure out who’s a good fit. What matters is,” they glanced around the room rotating in the opposite direction as Neala had done, like the two were taking turns stirring a pot, “what matters is the spirit you bring to the table. Improvement. Learning. Compassion. Openness. The three of us are the existing team behind Venus in Retrograde: Neala Avery, Rhiannon Avery, and myself. Rhiannon’s to my left here.” They gestured toward a woman who was clearly either going to, coming from, or planning Coachella. “Rhiannon? You wanna introduce yourself?”
“Cheers, everyone!” Rhiannon clasped her hands together, leaning into her right hip as she tilted her head and smiled. She tilted her head to one side when she smiled, which displayed her neck against a background of espresso-brown curls. “She/her. I’ll be handling graphic design, web design, basically making sure everyone looks good.” She tilted to the opposite side and smiled again. Even from the back row of couches, her dimples were visible.
A couple sims had shown up fifteen minutes early, as the online post had requested repeatedly, and another dozen moseyed in before the designated audition start time of 10 A.M. to fill up the beige couches that smelled of urinal cakes and eco-friendly castile soap. Those who’d shown up early had first pick of the identical beige couches. Two men near the front had picked out some of the quirkier community-awareness fliers from the magazine stand—Cowplant Safety and Alien Sighting Protocol—and their critique of said fliers was interrupted when Neala started clapping her hands at 10 A.M. exactly.
Rhiannon could have cycled indefinitely through cutesy poses, no sweat, but was cut short by Neala stretching herself in front of the other two at such a steep angle it was a small miracle she kept her balance. “Remember, you must fill out your name, instrument, and PGP on the sign-in sheet in order to get an audition.” This was also stated on the online post. Twice, actually. In fact, one couldn’t get the link to the sign-in sheet without first checking the online post, as Neala explained.
There were practice rooms near the back of the community center. Sims closer to the back could tell they were occupied even though the inoffensive chevron carpet and the bodies of Venus in Retrograde hopefuls were doing a heroic job of absorbing the occasional deviant sound wave. Neala mumbled something to River about also having to check the practice rooms before she plowed through the hallway at a speed rivaling those waves. A young-looking sim had shown up even earlier than the T-minus-fifteen recommendation, and was using their time, it seemed, to catalog every inch of the hallway until it felt like an old friend. They didn’t choose a couch until the hallway approached SRO, and even then were one of the last people Neala passed.
“Damn, I’d be shooting for world domination of I had that kind of energy.” An angular woman from the front had made that comment. It must have taken bulletproof gonads to utter something so trivial during the Important Announcement—several heads snapped toward her in secondhand mortification—but no amount of public shaming could have killed this woman’s smirk. Next to her, a much younger woman, probably a decade younger, drummed restlessly on her thighs. Having so many eyes in her general direction amplified her unease, the very unease tapping was supposed to help release. Mesh tops were in. Neala scurried back to the front of the room and spun on the ball of her foot to face her audience.
“Alright, well, we’re going to start now. I’m sure we all have busy schedules today and we’ll do our best to end on time.” Placing one hand on the doorknob, Rhiannon raised an eyebrow at her sister—how are we gonna start on time if you keep talking, Neala? The manager, unimpressed, interrupted her monologue to swat her hand in response: no need for you to wait, just make it through the door. “Please have your résumé ready. Instruments will be provided.”
River placed a hand on the center of the door before it could close. “I guess we’ll see you in there. Good luck, everyone,” they said, making one last round of eye contact. The thumbs-up they gave had a bit of bounce to it.
“Remember to sign up on the sheet,” Neala pleaded. She’d almost made it into the room; only her head was visible for most of the hallway’s occupants. “Name, instrument, PGP. You have five minutes.”
Stepping into the audition room, to Juliet, felt like stepping into a blank canvas. The full-coverage overhead lights washed the room in an aura that swallowed any trace of shadow; an excess of colorful posters tried to define a boundary but on first glance appeared to be floating in midair. You had to look at the floor to convince yourself the place even had corners. Go toward the light was a phrase that popped into her head. Even the instruments blocking a quarter of the room’s square footage looked like props; Juliet had to convince herself they weren’t just there to distract her from the fact she’d just left a government-funded hallway to face off with a limitless void.
Now anyone could look menacing on a shadow-cast throne, as Juliet knew from basically every gritty media empire. But how these three organizers managed to appear looming from their community center folding chairs, under lights you could actually feel the heat from if you were standing up, was beyond her. There was a blank finality to their expectant stares as they watched Juliet. The girl couldn’t help but imagine her own facial expression: she was probably playing her hand, wide-eyed and unsteady, unlike the figures seated at the judge’s table.
Neala ultimately had to break the illusion, of course. “Juliet Harrison? She/her?” Correct. “Alright, Juliet, tell us a bit about yourself.”
“Well—” Juliet started to reclaim her voice as she settled in, “—I’m not normally like this, I swear I’m not normally like this. I swear I actually like talking to people and all, it’s just that I graduated from high school like, last week, and I know that this is what I want to do with my life, and this is my first real audition.”
“So you’re a little nervous?” Rhiannon asked. “That’s okay.”
“I mean, yeah—I’ve been in front of a mic before—I won first place in my school talent show, and all, so this isn’t exactly new to me, but I just want to work with other people who want to do good in this world so bad, and I think this is what I can do best so I’m going to try my best even though this is my first real audition. My dad said I had a voice like a waterfall.”
“I’ve seen you ’round.” River leaned forward to rest their chin on their clasped hands. “You’re a Spice District local, right?”
“Yeah, I live there with my dad. I lived there my whole life—I went to a private school, on scholarship you know, ’cause I had the grades for it—anyway school was kinda scary at first. You know I had this friend—I bounce around social circles, kinda, but there are a few people who really ‘get’ me, and this friend is one of those people—and she’s trans—so, maybe you guessed this already, but a lot of people at school weren’t really nice to her. They were all calling her by the wrong pronouns, saying these nasty things I don’t want to repeat…”
River shook their head. “Rude.”
“Right?!” Yes, Juliet was aware of how much she was talking. She could have passed it off as pre-audition jitters, but really her brain refused to idle. Speaking at top gear allowed her to keep up with her overflow of ideas, barely. “Anyway this friend and I, we started hanging out at each other’s houses, doing a lot of karaoke, and that’s how I discovered how much I loved singing. We called ourselves the Spice Girls ’cause we live in Spice Market. So, like I said, I won the talent show, but what’s really important is I owe it to my friend. And everyone else who was bullied for stupid reasons. So I’m really excited about this audition in particular because ideas are power, and music is power—and also music is ideas and vice versa, I guess—and if I gotta do anything it’s use what I have to make the world a better place.” She paused. The judges weren’t sure if she was done, leaving a couple beats where no one said anything. “And that’s what’s important to me. That’s why I’m here.”
“And what are you going to sing for us today?” Neala’s coffee mug had a little mustache. It didn’t look like she had one when she brought it up to her lip—it still looked like it was on the mug—but you could pretend she had one roughly where the mug’s mustache would be in that position.
Juliet didn’t meet Neala’s eye, but cracked a smile at no one in particular. It was the smile of someone about to share a secret. “I’ll be performing ‘Cuz I Love You.'”
“A woman of taste,” Rhiannon remarked. “Lizzo’s like the perfect human.”
Neala touched everything on her desk at once, it seemed, until a rather short cable emerged in her left hand. “Do you have a backing track prepared? We have a speaker back there. You can Bluetooth to it, but if you’re worried about delay, or the connection is being finicky, I have this backup cable.”
“Oh, thanks. Let me try the Bluetooth first.” Juliet thumbed her phone. “Is it SX-5413?”
“That’s the one.”
“And… got it. Okay.” Juliet’s hovering thumb threatened to press ‘Play’ on the instrumental track she found online. Now when she was rehearsing for the talent show, she had to become part of that stage. The searing lights seemed to rip her out of her body; she was a spectator, waiting in anticipation for her own performance. There was no pain on that stage. There was no happiness. There was only the same blankness she felt in this room, the same pristine canvas that begged for the vibrant arc of her voice. She closed her eyes and let nothingness swallow the three judges as easily as it had the hundreds of unseen spectators that night. She knew that the longer she lingered above that button, the harder it would be to detach her thoughts from her singular desire. To create. The judges could see her mouthing two, three, four. She pressed the button. Do.
No sound came from the speakers. But as Neala reached for her own phone to troubleshoot the Bluetooth, Juliet started belting a note as raw as it was rich with so little warning it may as well have been a smack across the face. Juliet had chosen this song for its a cappella passages. By the time she reached the second word, it didn’t matter what she was saying anymore. She’d gotten the message across. And no wizard or grandmaster vampire could replicate the heartbreak in her chorus, nor could a spell send chills of empathy down the judges’ spines.
The speaker went from playing its futile non-instrumental backing track to vibrating off its base with a shock wave meant to replicate a wall of trumpets. Juliet had practiced timing her entrance so that the horns came in at the precise right moment. She bobbed her head with the same springy drag as the brass—the judges, having had a moment to recover, exchanged wide-eyed looks. As the stereo quieted to a simmer, Lizzo’s characteristic sparse bounce taking the place of the trumpet wall, Juliet settled into the verse. Now she’d cooled down enough to be a bit playful; you could do telenovela levels of acting on this song without outplaying the vocal drama, of course Juliet knew. A psychologist in the room might have recognized how many facial expressions she invented in the relatively-untapped category of positive sass.
Even Neala yelled “Yeah!” as Juliet admitted she didn’t know what she was gonna do. Opening her eyes, Juliet realized all three judges were smiling at her and couldn’t help but smile back. She hadn’t been able to see the audience react before. Just as quickly, she snapped back into the chorus, twisting the note she’d demolished with her opening into a fierce growl.
At the end of the second chorus, Juliet pulled out a flute and started improvising over the vamp she’d added in. Nearly missing a strategically deployed blue note, Rhiannon and River checked the sign-up sheet, finding that the ‘Instrument’ column of Juliet’s entry read “voice, flute.” Neala raised an eyebrow over her right shoulder. That’s what happens when you don’t check the sign-up sheet. Surprise jazz flute.
Rhiannon couldn’t help but clap politely as Juliet finished the solo and launched promptly into the last chorus, and all three judges started whooping as she drew out the transcendent high note. Juliet had to suppress her smile to hit her next entrance. The stereo cut out and her audition ended like it began, with only her voice shining through the blank expanse. She drew out this last note for longer than necessary, performing such a thorough decrescendo that you could be standing next to her and still not be able to pick out exactly when it ended. It took an expectant look from Juliet for the judges to realize the song was over and they were supposed to clap.
“Thank you.” Now that she’d settled in, Juliet’s voice had the effortless cascade of a liquid, confirming that her father’s waterfall comment was supposed to be about smoothness, not a dig for talking too much, mind you.
“Astounding,” Rhiannon said. “I think I speak for everyone when I say we’re super pumped.”
“And it’s nice to have a wind player on the roster.” River said this as they were scrolling through a dozen each of guitarists and pianists on the sign-up sheet. “Do you have a lot of jazz training?”
“I wouldn’t say a lot, but I practice improvisation every day.”
“And I think that’s all the questions we have.” River looked to their co-judges, who were silent in agreement. “You’d have blown anyone away. You should be proud of finishing your first audition.”
Juliet thanked the judges for their time. She was free to wander San Myshuno; she was in the mood to check out the gentrification outside of her home neighborhood. After some time onstage she wouldn’t mind the summer heat. Maybe check out that place in Fashion District where the baristas could do latte art animals and the customers wore oversized scarves and stared at you when you weren’t looking. She deserved an iced coffee.
“I gotta be honest here, this is the most cuss words I’ve ever heard in a demo.” River admitted. “And I’m a rapper.”
“Good. That’s how it’s supposed to be.” Thora Shinigami (she/her) set up so many speakers it looked like she was in front of a firing squad. And she was standing like she wouldn’t care if there were an actual firing squad behind her. The sheer length of Thora’s portfolio convinced River that in this hypothetical firing-squad scenario, they had to be the judge, since only the judge would be responsible for tackling this much literature. Then there was Thora’s résumé and cover letter: the résumé read like a menu at a zombie-owned restaurant, and the cover letter was a piece of paper blank except for the word “hi.” All lowercase, like that.
“‘Orc Queen’?” Neala asked. She elected to read through the portfolio beforehand. “‘Shinigami’—like the Japanese death gods?”
“Look, I’ve been at this since I was a little girl.” Thora kept her firing-squad demeanor: she, like many interesting people, was used to answering the same questions every time she was introduced. “You do that, you start recording at fourteen, you’re going to accumulate a lot of nicknames. Who likes the same stuff they did when they were fourteen, anyway?”
Rhiannon felt the need to point out that some people do hold on to some tastes from their teen years, and everyone agreed as a group that different people are different and some tastes persisted but others didn’t. Rhiannon personally admitted to nostalgia for Britney; she wasn’t a snob and Toxic is a good song anyway.
“Let’s get back on track,” said Neala—who else? “Thora, I have to ask the obvious question: why would a black metal artist want to join a group that mostly does alternative hip-hop?”
“Well,” this wasn’t one of the usual five questions Thora had to answer, “it looks fun. I don’t know, I’m sure I can learn something by branching out, and I definitely bring something to the table. Plus I can still work on my own stuff. A little variety helps me avoid burnout.”
River was still getting lost in that novella of a portfolio. “And what, in your words, do you bring to the table?”
“It hit me when I read your interview,” Thora admitted. “You want power? You try being a fourteen-year-old black metal artist: my whole career is about shouting from the rooftops. I got that. You want diversity? What’s more diverse than bringing in artists with different areas of expertise? You want a unique sound, why not try splicing together genres that don’t usually mix? And if you want controversy, well,” she scoffed, “I come with a lifetime supply.”
Neala narrowed her eyes. “Why, exactly?”
“Graphic depictions of violence. Really, a bunch of prudes who like pretending violence never happens outside their little bubbles and hate when anyone draws attention to it.” Thora gazed upward, remembering with a wistful sigh all the times the cops showed up in the middle of a concert. Someone threw pig’s blood at her once, but she couldn’t tell whether that was a protester or a fan. Climbing onto the stage was also common for both groups. “If you’re okay buying from companies that send child slaves to work in the cobalt mines but you’re screaming at someone with a guitar for pointing out that things like this are happening all the time, your priorities are outta whack anyway. I’m not the monster they make me out to be. I’m a person. I have a cat and everything.”
“Uh-huh. Why do you keep playing if you get so much pushback?” River asked.
“Because it’s hella funny.” It is; try taking the subway holding a suspicious instrument case and covered in pig’s blood. “Besides, I enjoy the complexity of black metal—it’s for the art, you know. I’m clearly in it for the long run.”
“And what will you be playing?” Again, of course, Neala, moving things along.
“Have any of you heard of Peccatum? Their song ‘The Change’?” Nope across the board. Thora tethered her guitar to the amp wall and was now tuning at a reasonable volume. “Haha. Great. Brace yourselves.”
Thora didn’t actually give the judges enough time to brace themselves before her amp wall shook with the sound of John Henry hammering railroad spikes after chugging three cases of Red Bull. This was shredding at its most literal; if she didn’t have the pick, her fingertips would’ve gone the way of a polished stone, all identifying whorls and divots having been erased by white-hot friction. River had only just noticed their plastic water cup vibrating at its resonance frequency. Neala was already gripping her own cup, plus her coffee mug, like a white-knuckled fighter pilot three yards above a cornfield. And the woman playing, she didn’t seem to care she was implying a whole dinosaur stampede. Notice, maybe. But not care. Mid-headbang, her thin hair stayed in suspension just long enough for Rhinannon to notice a telltale bit of medical-yellow foam plugging her ear canal.
The song changed just as Rhiannon was beginning to get used to it. People who have never been to hell occasionally theorize that eternal torment doesn’t make sense—the great thing about sims, y’see, is that they’re adaptable, so it’s just a matter of time before any kind of torture, no matter how terrible, fades into the background—not realizing change, which people who are more comfortable with aphorisms than calculus refer to as the One Constant, is all the devil has to do to keep the screams fresh. Which is relevant, because the way the song changed is that Thora had pulled the mic up and was scream-growling in a language that might have been Proto-Indo-European for all the judges could make of it. Were the protesters all majoring in dead languages? That was the only explanation River could think of, because a concertgoer ill-versed in Heavy Metal might be lead to think the central message was one long compound vowel.
There was a point where the judges’ brains stopped being able to process the barrage of notes coming from Thora’s amp wall, let alone imagine playing them, let alone playing them onstage. Let alone playing them in front of a crowd that was screaming or throwing animal entrails independently of how much they liked you. Clearly the woman was a stage veteran. Perhaps there was a smirk at the cup thing, but that’s as far as she went displaying-emotions-wise.
The next few sections she flew through were so divergent, they may as well have been from different songs. It was a good strategy for someone with her strengths, she’d realized: if you’re technically versatile, you only get one song, and your entire deal is rulebreaking, why not pick something jarring in a high-effort way, right, like with that damn-it-she’s-a-loose-cannon-but-gets-things-done vibe. She was nearly crossing her eyes in an opera viking impression, voice a mixture of angel and demon. The accompaniment, now that River thought about it, wasn’t quite like hammering railroad spikes, more like a blender with a railroad spike in it.
Thora expelled a wail that felt like snakes could pour out of her mouth at any moment. Her finger-breaking tempo somehow held steady. Suddenly, abruptly, in what felt like the middle of a phrase, the wail and the guitar stopped.
And then, silence.
Neala let go of her cups, shaking her hands to let the blood flow back in. The music had stopped, the pilot had crash-landed, and she had to let her eyes return to a normal size before surveying the wreckage.
“Wow.” Which was all River, or anyone else, could say. They didn’t say ‘interesting,’ which Thora knew was code for totally and completely hating it.
“Wow.” That was Rhiannon. She had almost recovered from her auditory journey, thanks for asking.
“Wow.” Neala thumbed through Shinigami’s portfolio-book, certain she’d found the only thing missing. The portfolio was in a 1.5” binder with pages of plastic CD sleeves. It was meant to force the reader to look at her album art. Thora got a kick out of it, her protesters didn’t, and she wouldn’t work with anyone who lost their lunch at a bit of ink and imagination. “So you’ve clearly got the chops, but I have to ask: why haven’t you worked with anyone else yet?”
“No particular reason, I just forgot.”
“You forgot to work with other people.”
“Alright, well, it’s like—” she put her guitar down to focus on the words. Thora couldn’t focus on much else with an instrument in her hands, which is precisely what she was trying to say. “You know how when you practice a lot, you get in The Zone? I spend so much time in The Zone it’s practically where I live. And when I start a project, it’s hard to focus on anything else until it gets done.” Neala nodded in commiseration. “And I’m constantly starting projects. And other than that—nothing, it’s nothing.”
“Well, you’re clearly a very hard worker—and so talented!—but we also want to make sure everyone gets along.” Neala said this to interrupt Rhiannon, whose eyes widened at ‘nothing.’ Rhiannon loved secrets, but only when she knew them.
“I don’t start stuff, if that’s what you’re asking. Protesters try to, but I honestly don’t care what they think. They’re usually just—” she flicked her fingers and lowered her voice to a whisper, “—projecting.”
“So your stage persona is a damn force of nature, but secretly inside you’re chill.” River leaned back in their chair, clasping their hands and stretching both arms overhead.
“Exactly.” Thora had completely left The Zone, and could start to read the faces in front of her. Neala had the wrong number of ringlets escaping from her bun and was fixing that with a pencil while idly flipping through the binder with her free hand. River looked distant, like they did in their modeling gigs and promos and also most of real life. Rhiannon was covering half of her face with her hands, wide-eyed and begging for the rest of the story. “Is there anything else you need from me?”
“No,” River looked left and right to confirm, “I think we’re good.”
“Then I’ll be off. Thanks for listening. I’d like to work with you guys, I think it’d be a good fit.” She placed the amp wall in her inventory before skipping through the door like she hadn’t trashed the place with said wall. Her skirt had pockets; in one of the pockets was a matchbook in case she had to light anything on fire during the audition, which she hadn’t this time.
Neala turned to her sister, whose help she needed to re-straighten the wall adornments before the next person came in.
SIM CREDITS (and the relevant forum discussion):
Neala and Rhiannon Avery — IrishSong
Juliet Harrison — CitySimmer
Thora Shinigami (and her cat Lemmy) — VanPelt81
Jazz Deon/Jenny Trevalyn — Cathy Tea (Jazz has their own story here; I guess this is parallel-universe Jazz)
Gorman and Aries Bellingham — also VanPelt81
Chantel Lucas and River Indigo — some jerk who goes by Dolly Llama
Thanks to everyone who contributed a character!
ALSO: A couple chapters back, I asked readers to guess which rapper inspired River Indigo’s character. Here’s the answer: River is loosely inspired by Angel Haze. Words cannot express my appreciation for Angel Haze. ‘Deep Sea Diver,’ above, is one of their songs: I also want to mention ‘Black Synagogue,’ which I had to show to a friend because the central ideas are very similar to her PhD thesis; and ‘Castle on a Cloud,’ one of the realest, heaviest rap songs hands down.
One person guessed correctly, and it is because they know me in real life, and have talked to me for over 20 minutes, which is the maximum time I can spend in conversation without bringing up Angel Haze. That is all.