Work Header

#170 The Spinoff

Work Text:

ALEX: Welcome to Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.

PJ: And I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX: And this is Super Tech Support.


[Super Tech Support Music plays]



PJ: Alex.

ALEX: A month or so ago, a listener named Mackenzie reached out to us about a problem involving fanfiction. She was part of an annual fanfiction exchange where you offer to write stories in unusual fandoms, and you get matched with someone who wants to receive a story in one of the fandoms you chose.

PJ: So I’m like, I really want to write a story about this one weird band that only I listen to, and then you request a story about them, and I get matched to write for you.

ALEX: Right. So Mackenzie signs up, she gets matched, and then she calls her friend Caitlin, who isn’t part of the exchange, to tell her about the assignment. This is Mackenzie.

MACKENZIE: So I tell her what fandom I got, and she’s like wait, what?? And I’m like, what, it’s just [static].

PJ: The name of the fandom comes out static?

ALEX: The name of the fandom comes out static.

PJ: Whoa.

ALEX: And it’s not just, like, a bad Stone of Farspeech connection. Everything else Mackenzie says comes through crystal clear. It’s just when she tries to say the name of her fandom that things get weird.

PJ: Did she get cursed?

ALEX: Maybe. But Mackenzie had a different idea.

ALEX: Do you have any theories about what’s happening?

MACKENZIE: Okay, this is going to sound ridiculous. But you know, like, the Voidfish? From the whole Story and Song thing? I kind of wondered if it might be that.

PJ: The Voidfish is like, the alien jellyfish that ate ideas.

ALEX: Right. So Mackenzie thinks maybe it ate the name of her fandom.

PJ: Okay, but wait. If the Voidfish ate the name of Mackenzie’s fandom, how does Mackenzie still remember it?

ALEX: Uh-huh. And how did her recipient request it?

PJ: Or, hang on. Is it definitely the same fandom? Like, did her recipient request one thing that got staticked out, and Mackenzie offered her fandom, and the mods were like, oh good, it’s a match, you both like static?

ALEX: I actually wondered about that. We know Mackenzie got matched with someone who did request her fandom, but it wasn’t clear if that would happen for all signups the mods couldn’t read. I got in touch with one of the mods, whose name is Adams, and they tried to explain how matching worked. As best I understand it, people send scrolls with their signups to this one central mailbox, and then the matching is handled by... some kind of spell involving a ghost? I tried to ask Adams if they’d seen any signups that might have been erased by the Voidfish, but we didn’t get very far.

ALEX: So, when you were matching up people’s fandoms, did you ever see anyone request anything weird?

ADAMS: I mean, it’s fantasy Yuletide, so every request is a little weird.

ALEX: Right. But was there every any fandom that, like, you looked at the name and you couldn’t even begin to comprehend it?

ADAMS: Hmm. Fantasy Costco “Lose Your Head for a Deal” Commercial RPF?

ALEX: It sort of continues like that.

PJ: You’re like, did you notice anything weird, and they’re like, it’s fandom, everything’s weird.

ALEX: Right. And part of the problem is, I don’t exactly know what to tell them to look for. We know what it sounds like when you hear the name of the fandom, but what happens when you see it written?

PJ: Oh right, like, does it look blurry, or do your eyes just slide past it or what.

ALEX: I wanted to talk to someone who knew how the Voidfish worked, and I found someone I thought could help. Do you know who Angus McDonald is?

PJ: The boy detective?

ALEX: The boy detective who worked extremely closely with the Voidfish.

PJ: Wait wait wait. You called the world’s greatest detective, and you were like, I’ll handle the detecting, you just tell me how the jellyfish works?

ALEX: He’s one of the people who knows the most about the Voidfish.

PJ: Uh-huh. So what did he tell you?

ALEX: Well, he agreed that Mackenzie’s situation sounded like Voidfish activity. But he said there was no set pattern to what happens when someone looks at something that’s been erased.

ANGUS: It’s a little confusing, sir. Sometimes it just looks like scribbles, but sometimes it doesn’t look like anything. Just thinking about it makes my head tingle.

ALEX: So there’s no way to be sure what the mods would see when they looked at Mackenzie’s signup?

ANGUS: I’m afraid not, sir.

ALEX: Angus did tell me one positive thing. He said people were almost certainly matched correctly. Adams mentioned that a ghost was involved in matching, and Angus said that was good news for anyone whose fandom might have been erased.

ANGUS: You see, sir, most people who know about things the Voidfish erased know them from getting inoculated, which means drinking the water the Voidfish was swimming in. But someone who’s dead, like a ghost, would also be immune to Voidfish magic.

PJ: So if a ghost does the matching, the ghost can read the fandom name even if the mods can’t.

ALEX: Right.

PJ: Is... is Mackenzie a ghost?

ALEX: I actually asked her that.

PJ: [laughs] You asked her? Like, hey, Mackenzie, by the way, are you dead?

ALEX: You just asked me the same thing!

PJ: That’s different.

ALEX: How is it different?

PJ: Because I’m talking behind her back like a civilized person. Look, we don’t have to get into my broken social ethics right now. You asked Mackenzie if she was dead, and what did she say?

ALEX: Well, I told her what Angus told me, that if you know about something the Voidfish erased, then either you’re dead or you’ve been inoculated. She said as far as she knew, she wasn’t dead. But as far as she knew, she also hadn’t been inoculated.

PJ: Huh.

ALEX: So, I asked if I could pay her a visit. For one thing, I wanted to get a look at what happened when she wrote down the name of the fandom.

PJ: And? What did it look like?

ALEX: I’ll get to that. But when I went to visit Mackenzie, I actually found out something much bigger.

PJ: What was that?

ALEX: I found out what her fandom is.

PJ: What!?

ALEX: Yup.

PJ: Wait, are you dead?

ALEX: [laughs] I’m not dead. And I’ll tell you what I found out and how I got there after the break.

[ad music plays]

[ads play]

[musical sting plays]

PJ: So, you know what Mackenzie’s fandom is.

ALEX: I do.

PJ: What is it?

ALEX: I can’t tell you.

PJ: Why not?

ALEX: Because it’s just going to sound like static to you.

PJ: Say it anyway.

ALEX: So you can make fun of me for making static sounds?

PJ: I’m not going to make fun of you.

ALEX: You are one hundred percent going to make fun of me.

PJ: Fine. Don’t tell me.

ALEX: Actually, I’ve been thinking about how to tell you about it without static getting in the way, and I think I have an idea how to do it.

PJ: Okay.

ALEX: You know when there’s a big entertainment franchise, and they take a character from that franchise and give that character their own story?

PJ: Like a spinoff.

ALEX: Right. So this fandom is a spinoff.

PJ: I feel like we’re playing the nerdiest game of charades right now.

ALEX: The entertainment franchise it’s based off of is a series of books.

PJ: Okay, book, how many words?

ALEX: [laughs] It’s a series of books for teenagers.

PJ: How many words?

ALEX: In the title? Come on, I’ve got this whole plan for working around static. Why do you want to record audio of me playing bad charades?

PJ: You could play good charades.

ALEX: PJ, how long have we known each other? Do I look like someone who could play good charades?

PJ: You look like someone who could try.

ALEX: It’s Caleb Cleveland, Kid Cop.

PJ: [laughs]

ALEX: What?

PJ: Was that your plan?

ALEX: Was what my plan?

PJ: To say the name of the fandom? Oh. It actually wasn’t staticked out for me.

ALEX: That’s because Caleb Cleveland isn’t the name of the fandom. Caleb Cleveland is the fandom that Mackenzie’s fandom spun off from.

PJ: Okay, but... whoa.

ALEX: What?

PJ: That’s so trippy. I can think about the concept of a spinoff, and I can think about Ca—whoa. I can think about... Mike... Cincinnati... Child Police?

ALEX: [laughs]

PJ: And it’s like, I know I have a question about those two things, together, but when I go to ask the question, it’s somehow... not there.

ALEX: Sounds like Voidfish stuff.

PJ: It does sound like Voidfish stuff. Wait, so you’re still not going to say what the fandom is?

ALEX: [sighs] It’s [static].

PJ: [laughs] Oh my god, you sound like a fantasy Roomba that just ate a box of nails.

ALEX: I knew you were going to make fun of me.

PJ: [laughs] So, what happened? How did you break the static code?

ALEX: Okay, so like I said, I went to see Mackenzie in person. She lives in a town called Greenkeep, a little ways outside of Rockport.

ALEX: Hey, Mackenzie.


ALEX: How’s your story coming?

MACKENZIE: Ughhh. So on the one hand, total writer’s block. But on the other hand, who’s going to read it anyway when it all looks like gibberish? Unless you’ve figured out what’s up? How’s your story going? Wait, do you want some tea? Or muffins? I made muffins.

PJ: She sounds really nice.

ALEX: She is really nice.

PJ: Or like she wants to poison you.

ALEX: She doesn’t want to poison me!

PJ: Ooh, Alex Goldman, I made you muffins.

ALEX: How does that say poison to you?

PJ: I mean, it probably doesn’t.

ALEX: How do you do that?

PJ: Do what?

ALEX: How do you hear that someone baked something for you, and your first thought is maybe they want to murder you?

PJ: I’m a very suspicious person.

ALEX: I can see that.

PJ: So, did you eat the muffins?

ALEX: I did. But first, I asked Mackenzie to write down the fandom name.

ALEX: So what am I looking at here?

MACKENZIE: That’s my fandom. I mean, it’s a scroll where I wrote the name of the fandom I’m writing fic for.

ALEX: God, that’s weird.

PJ: Is it gibberish?

ALEX: Kind of? It’s like... you know when you see a sign that’s written in a language you don’t speak, with a totally different alphabet, and your eyes just move past it? Like, intellectually, you know those are words, but they aren’t words your brain is going to understand, so you don’t even register what the letters look like?

PJ: Yeah, like you don’t even process it as language.

ALEX: It’s like that. At least at first.

PJ: And then?

ALEX: And then we eat muffins. And something weird happens.

PJ: [laughs] Wait, seriously?

ALEX: Uh-huh.

PJ: So they were poisoned.

ALEX: They weren’t poisoned. But we’re sitting there with our muffins, and our tea, and all of a sudden it’s like... you know that feeling where you’ve just remembered a dream?

PJ: Yeah, and you’re like, wait a second, I think I saw fantasy Patrick Swayze last night, and I think he was a T-Rex?

ALEX: [laughs] I had that feeling, and I looked back at the scroll, and I could read the words.

ALEX: Hey, Mackenzie? Is your fandom [static]?

MACKENZIE: What? Whoa, how did you know? Can you read what I wrote?

ALEX: I think so?

MACKENZIE: Oh my god. It’s called [static] and the main character is [static] and [extended static]

ALEX: Yep. [static]

PJ: This still sounds like Roomba talk.

ALEX: That’s because you haven’t been inoculated.

PJ: The muffins inoculated you.

ALEX: I think the tea did.

PJ: I have so many questions.

ALEX: Such as?

PJ: What made you think it was the tea? Was the tea made of Voidfish water? Why would Mackenzie have Voidfish water just hanging out in her teakettle?

ALEX: These are good questions. And, it seemed like there was a pretty systematic way of answering them. I could just take the scroll, find someone who couldn’t read it, give them some of Mackenzie’s tea, and see what happened.

PJ: That’s so sketchy.

ALEX: What?

PJ: You just go up to strangers, show them a scroll, and then tell them to drink something?

ALEX: Well, here’s the thing. I tried showing the scroll to people in Greenkeep, but almost all of them could read it already.

PJ: Whoa, like they’d already been inoculated.

ALEX: Right. Which made me think it might not just be Mackenzie’s tea that could inoculate people. It might be something about Greenkeep in general.

PJ: Right, like maybe Mackenzie had Voidfish water in her teakettle because all the water in town was Voidfish water.

ALEX: Exactly. And I actually found a way to prove this. Have you ever heard of Zing seltzer?

PJ: That sounds familiar. It’s like, a mid-tier seltzer that you’d see in the drink cooler at, like, fantasy Walgreen’s?

ALEX: Right. And it’s bottled in Greenkeep.

PJ: Ohhhh, so maybe Zing seltzer is full of Voidfish water.

ALEX: Uh-huh. So, I called Phia, I said the name of the fandom, which she couldn’t understand, and then I asked her to go buy a Zing, drink it, and call me back.

PJ: And?

ALEX: And it worked.

PJ: What the... okay. So the town of Greenkeep just has Voidfish water like, in its water supply.

ALEX: It sure looks that way.

PJ: Okay, why? How did it get there?

ALEX: That’s the one thing I couldn’t really answer. Here’s what we know. The Voidfish’s water used to be in this one big tank where the Voidfish lived. There was a climactic battle, the tank was broken, and the water went kind of everywhere. The Bureau of Balance—the Bureau of Benevolence now—is pretty secretive. No one outside the Bureau really knows how they manage their wastewater. Maybe they dumped it. Maybe the moon creates its own weather systems, and some of the Voidfish water became rain that fell over Greenkeep. I asked Angus McDonald if he had any ideas, but he said he didn’t know much about the civil engineering side of things. I reached out to the Bureau for comment, but they didn’t want to talk to me.

PJ: Ugh. I know it’s just marketing, but I want to live in a world where someone who calls themselves the Bureau of Benevolence is like, yes, the public deserves to know what we do with our waste.

ALEX: I know.

PJ: Also, I was hoping you’d have more answers.

ALEX: Well, I did get one more question answered. Which is this: why would the Voidfish have eaten a Caleb Cleveland spinoff to begin with?

PJ: Oh. Right.

ALEX: The thing is, there’s kind of an obvious source of information. Angus McDonald is famously a Caleb Cleveland superfan.

PJ: Oh, right!

ALEX: But when I first asked Angus about it, he said he didn’t remember ever hearing about a Caleb Cleveland spinoff.

PJ: Oh. Oh, but of course he didn’t, if it got Voidfished.

ALEX: Exactly. So I asked Angus if he’d be willing to get himself a Zing seltzer and then let me ask him a few more questions.

PJ: Oh my god, now you’re the poisoner.

ALEX: It’s a bottled seltzer brand!

PJ: Yeah, but you’re like, here, drink this and then let me ask you things.

ALEX: Which he does. I say the name of the fandom, and it’s like he has a revelation.

ANGUS: Oh my goodness, sir! I do know about the spinoff. It’s about [extended static].

ALEX: Okay, this part is still going to sound like static to you. What you need to know is that once Angus has been inoculated, he not only remembers he’s heard of the spinoff, but he knows the whole plot, front to back. He gives me a detailed summary of the premise, and then he actually says that if I want to find out what happens, I have to read the book.

PJ: Oh my god, what a lovable dork.

ALEX: And once he’s remembered the book, I ask him if he has any idea why it would have been erased. Turns out he does.

ANGUS: Oh no, sir. This is all my fault. Back when I was on the moon base, I tried to write a mystery story based on [static], only it wasn’t nearly so good as the real book, so then I gave it to the Voidfish so no one would read it. I guess the whole book got erased. I’m so sorry, sir.

PJ: So Angus writes some fanfiction, he’s embarrassed by it, and he feeds it to the Voidfish so no one will see it.

ALEX: Yup.

PJ: And now the book is just gone from the world, unless you live in Greenkeep or you drink this one kind of seltzer.

ALEX: Pretty much.

PJ: Where does that leave Mackenzie?

ALEX: Good question. When I first talked to Mackenzie, she had just tried to tell her friend Caitlin about her fandom.

PJ: Right, and that’s how she figured out that for some people, the fandom had been staticked out.

ALEX: So I called Mackenzie back, and I asked her to get Caitlin on the line.

ALEX: Hey, Mackenzie.

MACKENZIE: Hey, Alex. I finally got unstuck on my fic! Also, Caitlin’s here. She’s got a Zing but I told her not to drink any yet.

ALEX: Hi, Caitlin.

CAITLIN: Hey, Alex.

ALEX: So, do you know why we’ve asked you on this call?

CAITLIN: Because you’ve got a side hustle as a seltzer shill? Nah, just kidding. It’s about the static thing.

ALEX: It is about the static thing. Mackenzie, do you want to say the name of your fandom for Caitlin again?

MACKENZIE: [static]

CAITLIN: Yeah, that still sounds effed up.

MACKENZIE: Okay, you can drink the Zing now. She can drink the Zing now, right?

ALEX: Yeah, go for it.

CAITLIN: [opens a fizzy drink and drinks some] Okay, I drank some, say the thing again.

MACKENZIE: [static]

CAITLIN: Whoa, yeah, heard it that time. That book’s rad, what’s your fic about? [static]

ALEX: So, they spend a while talking about Mackenzie’s story, and finally Caitlin is like, wow, Mackenzie, it’s kind of a bummer that you’re writing this cool fanfic and all these people won’t even know it’s there. But Mackenzie says she’s okay with that. First of all, her recipient was able to request the fandom, so that person will definitely be able to read it. Second, she said she already reached out to someone on the mod team, and they’re going to make an announcement telling people that if they want to be able to read all the stories that get posted this fantasy Yuletide, they should drink some water from Greenkeep, or just drink a Zing.

PJ: You do sound like a seltzer shill.

ALEX: I know. She said one more thing too. She said I should tell Angus that if he still remembers that story he tried to erase, he should post it for fantasy Yuletide.

PJ: And did you tell him?

ALEX: Yeah. He said he’d think about it. Speaking of seltzer, though. PJ, you still can’t hear the fandom name, right?

PJ: Right.

ALEX: Do you want to?

PJ: Are you going to tell me to drink a Zing seltzer?

ALEX: That is how you get inoculated.

PJ: Then no, I’m good.

ALEX: You’re not even a little bit curious?

PJ: It’s a young adult book. I’m sure it’s great. But not great enough to make me drink some weird thing you told me to drink.

ALEX: I’m not trying to poison you!

PJ: You can’t be too careful.

ALEX: [sighs] Okay. Well if anyone who’s listening wants to read Mackenzie’s story this fantasy Yuletide, you can go visit the town of Greenkeep, find a Zing seltzer to drink, or just be like PJ and live forever in ignorance.

[best hold music in the world plays]

[Alex and PJ bicker indistinctly as the audio fades out]