A story of Krim. The first of, hopefully, a long series.

1

Once upon a time, there was a virtual world that was almost, but not quite, completely unlike 1500s England.

The assassin peered out from the window overlooking Leadenhall Street. It was mid-day, and there were plenty of targets. Local residents, mostly, but also a fair number of tourists and would-be adventurers looking for quests. The tourists drew the eye. The colorful, impractical period clothing still mostly unstained by city filth, drew the eye. It was tempting.

But the assassin was waiting for someone else.

◆◆◆

Murder and robbery were not, as such, against the grid’s terms of service. Neither were torture, cannibalism, or open warfare.

That made the job of law enforcement a lot easier.

Marshal Henderson Trask, security chief for the Krim Chamber of Commerce, had a very narrow area of authority, and he liked it that way.

Grid administrators handled serious offenses like griefing and violations of the Krim terms of service. Outside city limits, disputes between residents were usually settled by local kings, bandit leaders, and other local bigwigs. Disputes between kings were settled on the battlefield. Private disputes between residents inside city limits were taken care of with beatings or murders.

Trask only got involved when a problem threatened to affect city commerce. More specifically, the business interests of chamber members.

It was an important job.

Visitors came to the grid for the quests and other role playing opportunities, but the city is where they spent their money. They bought the weapons they needed for the quests, their clothing, and the provisions for their trips. This is where they came to raise armies for their campaigns. This is where they sold the produce they grew, or the goods they crafted. And this is where they rented their homes and workshops.

The big battles that took place outside the city, and the weird sex cults that flourished in the hinterlands, those were all appealing, and prominently featured in the grid’s marketing materials. But it was Krim’s central business district that actually brought in the money and helped keep the lights on.

The Barley Mow Inn on Leadenhall Street was one of constable Marshal Henderson Trask’s favorite places to eat.

The walk from the Chamber was less than half a mile, with no hills. And the menu was full of carbohydrates and fats. No potatoes, but you couldn’t get them anywhere on the grid.

Skirrets are what the grid’s residents had to eat instead of potatoes. They were more historically accurate, but also nasty and thin. After you peeled them, there was hardly anything left. But add some salt, deep fry them in lard, and you almost had french fries.

“I’ll have the day’s special,” Trask told Quimby, owner and head cook. “Extra salt on the fries.”

“The skirrett delivery hasn’t come in today,” said Quimby. “Lots of delays everywhere because of the sniper. You getting close to catching him?”

“We are, we are,” Trask assured him.

Then he thought — what sniper? Where? Today? Here? He glanced out the window, but didn’t see anything unusual. Just regular pedestrian and wagon traffic. Though now that he thought about it, maybe a little less than usual.

He pulled out a notepad.

“We’ve got all hands on deck,” he added. “Believe me, it’s our top priority. Now tell me what you’ve seen.”

“Nothing, I haven’t seen anything.” Quimby slapped his towel against his leg. “Do you know who it is?”

“Certainly,” said Trask. “We have several suspects.”

But the only suspect Trask could think of was Larry the Lifter, who wasn’t so much in the sniping business and more into picking pockets.

Quimby took the rest of Trask’s order and stomped back to the kitchen.

While he was gone, Trask waved at the other occupants of the dining room, a trio of dice players at the central table.

“Any of you boys seen anything?”

For a second, he considered getting up and investigating, but immediately dismissed the idea. It would require too much exercise. He drank his ale.

Quimby returned and dropped a plate of web suckets in front of Trask with a thud, almost knocking over the tankard. Quimby accompanied the food with a loud “harrumph” and stomped back to the kitchen.

Trask had a policy of not asking people what was bothering them, on the off chance that it might cause them to start telling him about their problems. Worse yet, the problems were often Trask’s fault.

Instead, he tucked a corner of a large, dirty cloth handkerchief into his collar, in an effort to protect the front of his shirt and doublet from food stains, and dug in.

In his personal style, Trask modeled himself after King Henry VIII. Not only was this somewhat appropriate to the grid’s setting, but it also allowed him to look even larger than he was.

However, without an army of servants to help him with clothing, keeping it even somewhat clean was a challenge. This was a significant concern of his life on Krim. When he was inside, spilled food and drink were a constant threat. Outside, he had to contend with mud and manure and refuse of all kinds — and chamber pots thrown out of the second-story windows that jutted out over the thoroughfares.

Trask was twice as wide as his chair, only some of that due to his own physical flesh. The rest of the width came from his box coat, stuffed with historically accurate straw for added volume, with puffy upper sleeves and a fur lining.

“Hey, dalcop!” yelled one of the regulars swilling strong ale at the central table in the room. “That cutpurse is back!”

“Dalcop?” asked one of his mates. “Did you get that from your word of the day calendar?”

Trask glanced out the window. Larry the Lifter half-hiding behind a cart piled high with skirrets.

Skirrets. Thank God.

It was a major point of contention between the grid’s residents and its owners. Why allow coffee but no potatoes? Why have cigarettes but no guns? Why did the grid’s residents have to suffer from colds, lice, and risk of gangrene but not something really fun and interesting, like the black plague?

There were all mysteries that nobody, not even the grid’s owners, could satisfactorily explain.

“He’s going into my report.” Trask began writing.

“This is why the grid is going downhill,” said the regular. “Even the cops don’t care about anything. What good is a report going to do?”

“Pretty soon everyone will be gone,” said another. “Did you hear that Vlad the Inhaler got his head chopped off last week? Word is, he’s not coming back. Says he’s going to back to real life, to spend time with family.”

“That’s a lie. Nobody wants to spend time with family. He’s probably going to sneak back in when his two weeks are up, with a new character, and get back at everyone.”

“I should probably watch my back then,” said the third. “I threw rotten eggs at him when he was in the stocks.”

“Well, you know what they say,” said the first. “If you can’t handle the torture and the beheadings, stay out of Krim.”

The three men raised their tankards, banged them together, and drank, then went back to their dice game.

Quimby returned from the kitchen with goodinycakes and a shield of cold brawn with mustard.

“You know, we don’t pay you to just sit around and stuff yourself,” he told Trask. “Crime’s up in all the trade areas. If you can’t be bothered, the Chamber should find someone else.”

“You should file a report, Quimby!” said one of the dice players.

“I’m going to take care of it,” said Trask. “Trust me.”

“The sniper’s just the latest thing, I’ve been hearing about a lot of bad stuff happening,” said Quimby. “All the merchants are getting harrassed. Just last night, someone killed one of my customers. Choked him to death with her breasts.”

The door opened.

The man who walked in was covered head to toe with leather and metal armor.

“Welcome, my good sir, and good morrow,” said Quimby. “Thou art a strapping young figure of a lad. Prithee, won’t thou partaketh of our fine establishment? A mighty fine repast awaits thee.”

“I’m not a tourist,” said the visitor. “I’m looking for the newspaper building.”

“Next block over,” said Quimby. “But Seymour won’t get in for at least a couple of hours, and he’ll stop by here first. Feel free to wait here.” Quinby gestured at the open tables. “Sit anywhere you like.”

“It’s been quite a hike,” the visitor said. He put a leather briefcase on the table, sat down and pulled off his helmet. “Got any tea?”

“Sorry, no tea.”

“Isn’t this supposed to be England?”

“Tea didn’t come to England until the mid-1600s,” said Quimby. “We’re set roughly in the 1500s.”

The dice players looked up from their dice with enthusiasm.

“Strictly speaking,” one began.

“Krim is not a historically accurate representation of 1500s England,” interrupted another.

“Tea was, in fact, available in 1500, throughout Asia and along the Silk Road,” said the first. “There is no reason why it couldn’t have been brought to England earlier.”

“We should also be allowed to have potatoes.”

“And indoor plumbing.”

“If the grid admins knew what they were doing…”

Trask looker the newcomer.

He said he wasn’t a tourist, but didn’t know about tea. So a newcomer of some kind. Seemed comfortable enough in his armor, but slow. So focused on defense, not offense.

“So, Quimby,” said one of the dice players. “You said someone died here last night. Anyone we know?

“Some adventurer,” he said. “His friends stopped by later and took the body.”

“And it was a woman who did him in, you said? With her breasts? That’s how I’d want to go.”

“We don’t get many women on Krim,” said another player. “Why is that?”

“Well, there’s Tattie Lovell next door. The seamstress.”

“And the ladies down at the Liberties.”

“And a couple in the assassins guild.”

“I hear there’s a sex cult goddess somewhere up north.”

“Really? Sex cult? That might make me want to go out there and so some adventuring.”

“Sure, I’ll go with you. In fact, I hear they’re recruiting at the halls now for some big battle.”

“We’d have to get some warmer clothes. I hear they’re heading up north.”

“It can get pretty cold up there.”

Trask knew they wouldn’t go. It was too unpleasant outside the city limits. Sure, inside the city, you could get kicked by a horse, or run over by a cart, but if you weren’t dead, you could at least drag yourself to a gate. On a campaign trail, you could be days, or weeks, away from a gate. If you got hurt, you might die exceeding slowly and painfully.

It was all spelled out in the grid’s terms of service.

On the other hand, there was a lot more crime in the city. The population density was higher, for one thing.

Crime wasn’t technically illegal on Krim. At least, not the usual crimes like murder or robbery. There were plenty of things that were violations of the grid’s terms of service, like attempting to evade import and export restrictions and fees. Or counterfeiting official grid documents.

Otherwise, crime was just part of the fun. Knowing that you could get bashed on the head at any time added that little extra spice that made Krim so memorable. The grid owners didn’t seem to care, and were happy to let most residents settle disputes on their own.

People who made their living on the grid tended to be pretty pragmatic about the whole thing. Merchants and content creators made sure that their wills were up to date and on file. If they got killed, they just took their two-week vacation off-world, then came back with a new character.

If anything, death was good for the grid, since it forced users to buy complete new outfits and convert more cash to in-world currency.

But death was also painful and inconvenient. Residents who died too many times tended to just throw in the towel and move somewhere else. Or remember that they had real life obligations to attend to.

Lately, it seemed that crime was on the rise, especially crime targeting the most economically important residents, who had most to lose when they died — the merchants, the crafters, and various other business people.

And more and more often, justice was delivered by the mob, and was swift and gruesome. In fact, the violence seemed to be breeding more violence, as the crime and its punishments drew in the most blood-thirsty. Casual tourists enjoyed seeing the occasional head on a stake, but when the violence got too close and personal, it hurt traffic.

Trask finished his meal and leaned back in his chair. He should be getting back to his headquarters, he thought, and check in.

There was a commotion outside.

“Thief! Thief!” someone yelled.

2

The assassin watched his target get closer. When the target was 50 yards away, he pulled the curtain away enough to get the crossbow into position, and waited for the right moment.

◆◆◆

“Stop, thief!”

Trask looked out the window. Larry was wriggling his way through the crowd, trying to put some distance between him and some guy who was on the ground, getting covered in manure and swearing loudly.

“I think that’s Seymour,” said Quimby.

It was. Larry the Lifter must have bumped into Gellhorn as cover for a quick grab at his valuables, Trask thought, but misjudged and knocked him to the ground. Or maybe Seymour tripped or slipped on something. Like an inconveniently located pile of manure.

“You say that’s Seymour Gellhorn, the newspaper guy?” piped up the armored newcomer.

Trask knew Seymour Gellhorn well. Or, to be more exact, he vaguely recognized Seymour, and knew his newspaper well. The newspaper had noted the recent increase in crime, and had unaccountably decided that Trask was at fault. Trask had once considered becoming a restaurant critic for the newspaper, and now was glad that he didn’t, since it turned out that the AviNewz was just a low-end, rumor-mongering trash tabloid.

Seymour tried to stand. He got halfway up, but slipped again on whatever he had slipped the first time. While he was flailing, trying to catch himself, an arrow flew through the air where his head had just been.

It smacked into the heavy timber wall.

Trask looked to see where the arrow came from.

The most likely source was an open window on the second floor of the building directly across the street, where someone in a dark cloak was notching a second arrow. Trask felt a sharp pain in his stomach, possibly from realizing that he was he one the newspaper was going to blame. Or maybe because of eating too much.

A second arrow flew, but missed again, and went through the eye of a pedestrian in a default avatar outfit. An innocent noob. A tourist. Trask recognized the outfit. It was “the comely wench,” very popular.

It took Trask a couple of tries to push himself up from the table and by the time he was outside, the tourist was dead, and the assassin was gone from the window.

Trask lurched across the street towards the dress shop, dodging mules, horses and carts, glancing up at the open window frequently in case there was an arrow aimed at him. It never came.

Trask looked back for a second. Seymour was on his feet, and starting to follow him. People were mostly edging back, outside the line of fire. Trask caught of glimpse of Larry working his way around the outer edges of the crowd.

A random sniper could cause panic in the city. And if it sniping became a thing, tourists would stop coming, merchants would close up shop and move on to other grids, property values would fall, and the grid would go into a death spiral. It wasn’t like some guy getting killed in a bar. That happened. It was expected, really. And you only had yourself to blame.

But tourists preferred to avoid areas where they themselves could die at any second. Tourists brought in money. And some of them stayed, becoming residents, and kept on bring in money to pay rent, to buy food, and to cover all the other expenses of life on a grid.

With the tourist tap shut off, without new blood to replace population losses due to normal attrition, the grid would slowly start to die.

It didn’t take much to kill a grid, and once it was gone, it was gone. All the relationships, the history, everything, like it never existed, leaving nothing behind but a copy of the design in an archive somewhere.

Grids went out of business all the time. Trask didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if he was back in the real world again.

He turned his back on the crowd and stepped into the dress shop.

3

The assassin estimated that he had a few seconds to decide whether he should call it a day, or try to get away. But if he died now, he would lose his weapon. That would be a pity.

He removed the windlass and hung both it and the crossbow on his back, under his cloak. Then he left the room, crossed to the back of the building, and opened the window overlooking the back alley. It wasn’t that far a drop, especially if he climbed over the windowsill and hung down by his fingertips. He looked out the window, down to the stones below, then to the side. On the left, a pipe came down from the rain cistern on the roof, anchored to the wall by large iron bolts. He grabbed the pipe, and used the bolts as toe holds to climb down the pipe.

◆◆◆

Shop owner Tottie Lovell came out of a back room.

“How do I get upstairs?” asked Trask.

She pointed at a doorway behind the counter, covered by a curtain.

Trask went through.

There was a hallway that led to the back of the store, and possibly outside. But just to the right, there was a steep flight of stairs.

If the assassin had already run out the back, Trask thought, he probably wouldn’t be able to catch him. But if he was still upstairs, he’d be cornered.

The stairway was narrow enough that Trask’s box coat brushed each side of the stairwell. The only light came from the top of the stairs, where another doorway led to the front balcony.

“Nobody’s been upstairs all day,” the shopkeeper called after them. “But I’ve been helping a customer, so someone might have snuck past.”

Like the other buildings on the street, the shop had upper floors that stuck out from the edge of the building. Useful for, say, pouring boiling oil down on attackers, Trask supposed.

There was in fact a chair there, and curtains, positioned so that the shooter could see out while being mostly hidden from view.

The windows shutters were open, swinging slightly.

“Must have just missed him,” Trask said. The guy must have run out the back way.

Clues were mostly useless on Krim, but a lifetime of watching cop shows made it difficult for him not to look for footprints, cigarette stubs, matchbooks, or fingerprint-covered drinking glasses. There was nothing there, except extra bolts of fabric and a couple of dressmakers dummies.

“This is where the guy was hiding?” asked Seymour Gellhorn, who had followed Trask in.

“Probably,” said Trask. “Good ambush site. But if he was waiting for you, he had to know that you were coming. Did you tell anyone?”

“Well, actually, I’m meeting a couple of people at the Barley Inn,” said Seymour. “So they would know I was coming. Do you think I was the target?”

“At this point in the investigation, it’s too early to tell,” said Trask. “But believe me, I’ll get to the bottom of this. It’s my top priority.”

He looked around for clues, like footprints, or dropped cigarette butts. Maybe a business card, or a monogrammed quiver. It didn’t look like the killer had left anything behind.

Trask wished he had a camera, a fingerprint kit, and a whole forensics team.

There was a clanging on the stairs, then the armored man from the restaurant stuck his head into the doorway.

“Seymour Gellhorn?” he asked. “I’ve got something for you.”

The man felt around under his brigandine, and seemed surprised to discover that it didn’t have any inside pockets.

“Ah, right,” he said, “It’s in my briefcase.”

Trask couldn’t see a briefcase.

“Did I leave it in the restaurant?” the man asked. “No, I distinctly remember bringing it outside with me — I must have been robbed!”

The newcomer went to the window and pulled back the curtain. “It must have happened when I was distracted by the shooting,” he said. “I wasn’t paying attention. Hey, look, there’s someone running away.”

It was Larry, carrying a briefcase and a handful of purses. He was already too far away to catch, and getting further all the time.

“He’s got my briefcase!”

Then, in the opposite direction, Trask saw a black-cloaked figure at the end of the block.

“Is that the guy who was shooting?” the newcomer asked. “There, going around the corner.”

The assassin’s cloak was awkwardly bunched it in the back, as if it was draped over a crossbow. The figure turned for a second to look back, and Trask saw a familiar face. Then the assassin was around the corner and gone.

Trask looked back at the dead tourist, flat on his back, arrow sticking up out of his eye. His stomach lurched and he pulled back from the window and let the curtain drop.

“I think I might have seen him before,” said the newcomer.

“Yes, it’s a familiar face,” said Trask. “Half the noobs have it.”

“No, no, not that. There was something else…” He shook his head. “But anyway. Mr. Gellhorn, I’m going to have to catch you at another time.” He turned to leave.

“Wait,” said Seymour. “Are you the guy applying for the editing job? We can still have a chat.”

“No, that’s okay. I really need my briefcase. I’ve got to go.”

“I don’t need to see your resume,” Seymour said. “Come downstairs with me. I’ll buy you coffee, I’ll tell you all about the paper, you’ll love it.”

“No, no, I’ve got to go.” And he left.

“Darn it,” said Seymour. “I really need a new editor.”

He looked at Trask. “You know anyone? My last guy disappeared three days ago.”

“If I think of anyone, I’ll let you know,” said Trask. “I promise.”

“It’s almost as if someone is out to get me,” said Seymour. “First Cyril. Then someone tries to pick my pocket. Then someone tries to kill me. You know, it’s hard enough staying in business on this grid. Nobody wants to pay for ads, you can’t hire any decent help, the distribution’s always late. I’m this close to pulling the plug.”

“I read every issue,” Trask said. “Believe me, if I had anything to advertise, you’d be the first one I’d call.”

“You get it,” said Seymour. “But there’s a lot of folks who want me gone.”

“Who?”

“Lots of people,” said Seymour. “I’m a pretty important person on this grid. Everybody knows me. There are a few advertising circulars around, but I’m the only one who really keeps the public informed about grid news. A lot of people depend on me. Did you see the article last week about Baron de Mowbray?”

“Yes, I saw it, it was on the front page,” said Trask, who had just been reading it that morning, in the privy, which is where he normally got his news. “I found it … a little scratchy. So you think he wants you dead?”

“Maybe. He took that article pretty hard.”

Trask thought back. “Wasn’t it about some party he threw? Some kind of fundraiser last summer?”

“He objected strongly to the fashion coverage,” said Seymour.

“Enough to kill over?”

“He kills people for fun, so probably more than enough. But he also has men at arms, guards. In fact, he’s raising an army right now, so there’s probably no shortage of murderers at his disposal.”

“Anybody else you can think of?”

“Not off the top of my head,” said Seymour. “We have a box of hate mail you can go through. I don’t read any of it myself. Trying to stay above it all.”

He turned to go. “If you need me, I’ll be at the newspaper.”

As he was leaving, he had to squeeze by Tottie Lovell. She came in and looked around to see if anything was out of place.

“It doesn’t look like he did any damage in here,” she said. “Outside, different thing. A sniper is just awful for business. Who wants to go get a fitting if they could be shot by a random arrow at any second?”

She poked Trask in the chest with a bony finger. “This is just the kind of thing you were hired to prevent.”

“I know,” he said. “We’re going to give this all we’ve got. I promise.”

4

The assassin ducked into an alley. There was shouting on the street behind him, and if he followed the alley to its end, he would come right back out on Leadenhall Street.

He looked around. He could try to climb up another drainage pipe. He looked up. Even if he had the strength to make it up three stories, which he didn’t, there was the roof overhang to climb over. Maybe he should have gone to those thieving classes, he thought.

But there was something almost as good. He climbed up onto the lid of a closed trash chute. The pipe went slightly behind a window shutter, creating just enough room to wedge the crossbow between the pipe and the window itself in such a way that it was mostly hidden by the shutter. The general gloom and shadows in the alley would help. He looked around for someplace to stash the windlass, then finally dropped down to the ground and tossed the windlass down the garbage chute.

Then he pulled out his knife.

Larry the pickpocket, looking much thinner than he did just minutes before entered the alley at the same end as the assassin, but from the opposite direction. He saw the same drain pipe, but, unlike some people, he did attend the thieving classes, and had, in fact, later taught some of the sessions. He ignored the dead body and went up the pipe easily, pausing only for a second to grab the crossbow. Weapons usually had good resale value, he thought, and this one was particularly nice.

◆◆◆

By the time Marshal Henderson Trask made it downstairs and out to the street, the local merchants had organized themselves to clearn up the the site of the attack and remove the body.

Trask was a little irritated, but decided that there wasn’t much to be learned, anyway.

So he went back to the Barley Mow Inn, where he sent a message to the chamber asking for reinforcements. Specifically, for Joe Steelstrikes Phantomblade, his chief — and only — lieutenant.

While he waited for Joe to arrive, he took the opportunity to have a second lunch.

Joe finally came, with a message from the Chamber. He was a big guy, muscular. His leather armor looked natural on him and well worn. But in creating the avatar, Joe clearly put all his points towards strength and dexterity, and skimped on other areas, like brain power.

“We’ve had five other incidents this morning where someone shot at tourists,” Joe said. “Two deaths, two injuries, and one near miss. People are panicking.”

“How long ago was the last attack?” Trask asked.

“About three hours ago,” said Joe.

“So there was time for the guy to get over here.”

“Is that important?”

“It could mean that we’re only dealing with one griefer, not a gang.”

“That’s smart,” said Joe. “I didn’t think of that.”

Trask finished up his meal and led Joe on a search of the surrounding area.

He walked deliberately, one solid step at a time, careful about where he placed his feet. Joe zig zagged around him, peering into alleys, checking wagons, sticking his head into open doorways.

Trask led the way, heading in the direction he saw the assassin vanish.

They didn’t find any clues along the street, then turned the corner and walked to the end of the block, Joe checking entrances and alleyways as they walked along. Joe was the one who found a pile of abandoned purses and a briefcase just inside the entrance to an alley.

Any money the bags may have contained was gone, but the rest of the belongings seemed to be there. Trask was not shocked to find out that grid residents carried a wide variety of weapons in addition to the usual flotsam, but was surprised that the thief didn’t take it all with him. Maybe he took everything he could carry, Trask thought, and this was what was left.

The briefcase was more interesting. It contained subpoenas, stamped and official, from off-world. The kind that, if ignored, could lead to an appearance order that would require the grid to pull an avatar out of the grid.

Trask looked through the names. Was his name on the list?

“What happens when you get one of those?” asked Joe. “It’s not like you can send email or teleport out.”

“You usually have a couple of days to go off-world respond,” said Trask. “Or, at least, send a message.”

“And if you don’t?”

“You’d have a heart attack, fall into a coma, and get kicked to the welcome area.”

Is that what was going to happen to him? Trask wondered. Did he gain enough weight, or could a process server still recognize him by his gait? He’d have to walk more slowly, maybe get a heavier coat.

“Then what happens? Do you lose your character?”

“Then what happens?” asked Joe. “After you’re off the grid? Do you lose your character?”

“Yes, if you can’t get back fast enough, you’d probably die from lack of water. Unless you get killed by something else first.”

Trask thought about the consequences if that happened to him, and felt a bitter taste rise up at the back of the throat. He swallowed and scanned the last page. His name wasn’t there.

Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Just because this particular process server wasn’t after him, didn’t mean that there wasn’t someone else.

“That would suck,” said Joe. “I spent a lot of time and money on getting my outfit just right.”

Then he cheered up.

“Lucky for me, nobody wants to sue me!”

Trask looked through the subpoenas again. One was addressed to Seymour Gellhorn.

“Guess Seymour isn’t as lucky,” he said, and showed the subpoena to Joe.

The process server’s name was listed as Jerald Rex Crewe. He wasn’t a job applicant at all, Trask thought. He was a process server, not an editor. That’s why he was so heavily armored — people probably try to kill him on a regular basis.

“I don’t recognize any of the other names,” Trask said.

“Is this a clue?” Joe asked.

“No,” said Trask. “Probably not. Think about it. If there’s a process server out after Seymour, he’s not out for murder. He just wants to deliver some papers. Seymour might want to knock him off, but it was Seymour himself who was the target. It’s not rocket science, believe me. Let’s grab the bags, we’ve got more ground to cover.”

Trask put the subpoenas back into the briefcase, and Joe gathered up the bags and tied them together with their own straps, then slung the whole pile over his shoulder. Trask held on to the process server’s briefcase and the two men returned to their search.

In the next alley over, they found the assassin himself with his throat slit, bloody knife next to him.

“That’s the guy,” Trask said. “I saw him running away.”

“He’s a noob,” said Joe. “That’s the default assassin avatar. I even recognize the knife, it’s part of the matching assassin knife set. Nobody who knows what they’re doing would use it.”

“So either he was killed with his own knife, or whoever killed him had one just like it,” said Trask. “Maybe whoever hired him killed him so that he wouldn’t talk. Or because he’d failed.”

“It’s a real mystery,” said Joe. “But where’s the crossbow?” He ran up and down the alley, looking in all the dark corners.

“I don’t see it anywhere,” he yelled back. “His murderer must have taken it.”

He walked back to the body. “What do we do with him?”

“I’ll make a report,” said Trask. “With the griefer being dead, and off the grid for at least two weeks, we should be back to normal. And two weeks from now, he’ll probably have forgotten all about whatever set him off in the first place. I promise, this is over.”

“We’re not going to investigate who killed him?”

“Why? To thank them? They’ll probably show up soon enough and claim credit, believe me.”

“What about the body? Should we do something?”

“You mean, like take it to the lost and found?” Trask laughed. “No, let’s just drop it down the nearest chute so it doesn’t stink up the place.”

“Right,” Joe said. He dropped the stolen bags by the wall and considered the body. “Well, I’m not going to carry him. There’s blood and other gross stuff all over him.”

Joe dragged the body by the arms to the middle of the alley, where a garbage chute was located for use by the surrounding buildings, next to the outhouse. Joe stuffed the body into the chute, and it disappeared down into the darkness, where it vanished off the grid entirely.

Joe then came back and picked up the bags and the two men continued on. In the next alley down, Joe found the broken crossbow.

“Maybe the griefer had a fight in this alley with someone, hit him on the head with the crossbow, ran, and the guy caught up with him further down and killed him,” said Trask.

“Or the griefer threw it away,” said Joe.

“He threw it all the way over the top of the building?” Trask laughed. “That would be some arm.”

“No, I mean, he was running, and he threw the crossbow down the alley to avoid being caught with it.”

They look back to the entrance of the alley. “Maybe.”

“Or maybe he was escaping over the rooftops,” said Joe. “Like a ninja. He’s jumping over from that building, and drops the bow. Then, he runs to the other side of the roof, falls off and lands on his knife. We could go up there and look for clues.”

They looked up at the roof and thought about how they would get up there.

“I don’t think we’ve got the time,” said Trask.

They didn’t find anything else, and went to City Hall, otherwise known as the grid’s administrative offices, communication center, and central bank.

For Trask, the briefcase he was carrying grew heavier with each step and the absence of his UI felt like the pain of a missing limb. Back out in the real world, he had a fully personalized, responsive user interface. He could just gesture and the briefcase would float in the air next to him as he walked. Or he could just hide it away into his personal inventory as he floated to his destination. Or he could just teleport it — and himself — to wherever he wanted to go.

This was the real reason people were leaving the grid, he thought. It wasn’t the gruesome deaths. It was the constant day-to-day inconveniences. The basic bio interface was exciting at first, but then just wore you down.

Step by step, blister by blister.

It was even more annoying that Joe didn’t seem at all bothered by pile of bags he was carrying, plus his armor, plus all those heavy muscles.

Trask had Joe drop off the bags at the lost and found while Trask himself continued on to the Chamber.

Chamber coordinator Osgar Cerdic Sigeweard was in a meeting with the assistant grid manager. Weldon Layton. Weldon was a short bald man, in a gray wool suit. Osgar was dressed more appropriately for the grid, in traditional Tudor-style merchant garb.

Trask tapped on the doorway. Osgar glanced up and lifted a single finger. “One second,” he mouthed and turned his attention back to Weldon.

“I already told you that there’s nothing more I can do,” Weldon was saying. “They refuse to break privacy without a court order. And even with a court order, all we can do is get the identities of the people who were there, and these were all crowded locations. Most of the people are innocent bystanders.”

Osgar wasn’t having it. “There are griefers shooting at tourists! There are laws! We’re losing business.” He banged on his desk. “If we go down, so does the grid. How many people does he have to kill?”

“Hundreds of people die on the grid every day,” said Weldon. “It’s all part of the role play. What we need is like you said — expanded no-pushing areas.”

Osgar sighed and sank back into his chair. “Is there any progress?” he asked.

“I’m trying,” said Weldon. “But expanding the safety zones requires a lot of coding work. All this is is legacy software,” he said, waiving his hands around. “It’s a couple of decades old. Spaghetti code. A major rewrite will cost a lot of money, and the grid doesn’t have those kinds of funds. If we rip and replace, we lose our grandfathered status. And we’re one of the few grids left not run by AI.”

“No, we can’t lose that,” said Osgar. “That’s why most of us are here.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Weldon. “Maybe there are other options.”

“Come in, Trask,” said Osgar, and waved him in. “Any news? Weldon, this Trask, our head of security.”

“We’ve met,” said Trask. “You were at the last Chamber meeting.”

Weldon nodded. “Just doing my job.”

“We’ve got good news,” Trask said. “The griefer has been killed. Joe and I disposed of the body.”

“You sure?”

“I saw him running away,” said Trask. “It’s the right guy.”

“I’m glad its over,” said Osgar. “Griefing attacks can really hit the grid’s bottom line. Tourists stop spending money, content creators all leave.”

They were shaking hands and saying goodbye when Joe ran in. “There were more attacks!”

“When?” asked Osgar.

“An hour ago.”

“That’s after we found the body,” said Trask.

“There’s a second griefer,” said Osgar. “So we’re back at square one.”

“We’ll get him, I promise.”

“How?” asked Weldon.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Osgar. “We should post a bounty on the griefers. The Chamber’s got some discretionary funds. Can the grid contribute to the pot?”

“I’ll check,” said Weldon. “But I expect they’ll say yes. We’ll probably be able to match whatever the Chamber puts up. Let me know the details and I’ll take care of the printing.”

“We can call it a quest, get everyone excited about it,” said Osgar. “Meanwhile, Trask, I’ve hired you more staff. She should be around her somewhere. Once the posters come in, send her and Joe out to hang them up. Hit all the recruitment stops. Don’t forget to tell them it’s a quest.”

Trask nodded.

“Until then, Trask, can you and your team go around the main tourist areas? And I’ll see if I can get some of the merchants and creators to volunteer as guards. Weldon, can you guys help out with the personnel?”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Trask and Joe went back out to the entry way, where they found the new hire.

“Matilda Scarletstrike,” she said. “Adventurer. Quester. Swordfighter.”

Trask gave her an official Chamber shield to hang around her neck and they were standing over a map of the city center, planning their patrol, when Weldon came through.

“You!” Weldon, stopping in front of Matilda and pointing his finger at her.

“Yeah, what?” she asked. “You got a problem?”

She towered over Weldon by at least a foot and he quickly backed away.

“No, I thought I recognized you,” he said. “Never mind.” And scurried away.

“That dude does look a little familiar,” she said. “Not around the face, but in the fidgeting area.”

In the evening, Trask sent Joe and Matilda to hang out at the two main commercial districts, and he headed back to Leadenhall Street.

He was back at the Barley Mow Inn just in time for a late dinner. The dice players were still there. They looked as if they hadn’t moved all day.

Trask ordered a large meal, to make up for all the walking he’d done that day.

As he was finishing up, he saw Seymour walking past and instinctively glanced up at the window across the street. There was no sign of the an assassin and Trask reminded himself that that particular guy was dead.

Then he saw Jerald Rex Crewe catch up to Seymour, hand him a piece of paper, say something and quickly back away.

Seymour took it, glanced down, then lunged at Crewe. The process server wasn’t quick enough to get away, slowed down by his armor.

Seymour then dragged the process server into the Inn.

The dice players looked up.

“He’s a rotten process server,” Seymour yelled and threw Crewe to the ground. “Anyone got any rope? I’ve got to tie this guy up for a while.”

The dice players stood up as one and rushed at Crewe, pinning him down.

“Thanks. All I need is a little time to clear some things up.”

“Let me go!” yelled Crewe. “I’m just doing my job!”

Quimby went to the kitchen and came back with rope.

“We don’t want no stinking process servers around here,” said a dice player.

“Yeah, we’ve all got execs,” said another.

“And former landlords,” said the third.

“And old business partners,” add the first. “We just want to be left alone in peace, without people like you coming around and stirring up trouble.”

Crewe saw Trask.

“Help me!” he said. “I’m being kidnapped!”

“What? I don’t see anything,” said Trask.

“I’ve got information! I saw the assassin.”

“We all did. And he was killed six hours ago.”

“No, I saw him an hour ago. He was in disguise but it’s my job to recognize people. I’ll tell you where if you let me go.”

“Don’t believe him, he’s lying,” said Seymour.

“I know,” Trask assured him. “I saw the assassin’s body myself. He’s gone for at least two weeks. There might be another griefer out there, but your guy is gone.”

“No, he isn’t,” insisted Crewe. “I saw him just an hour ago, at the central grid administration building. I was getting new subpoena forms to replace the ones someone stole from me. It was a short guy. Bald. Wearing a gray suit.”

Seymour kicked him in the side.

“I’ll testify!” said Crewe.

“You’re an idiot,” said Trask. “And we’re not letting you go, believe me.”

“There’s a storage room I can keep him in, out back, for a little while,” said Quimby.

“Just kill him and have it done with,” said one of the dice players.

“No!” said Seymour. “You can’t! The minute he’s off the grid, he’ll make his report. Just give me a couple of days. Trask, can’t you arrest him for something? Keep him in a dungeon for a while?”

“Leave him with me,” said Quimby. “I know someone who knows someone who can keep him on ice. I’ll take care of it.”

“That’s pretty generous of you,” said Seymour. “I’ll give you free advertising for the rest of the year. Full page, color — anything you want.”

“Just doing my bit for the grid,” said Quimby. “I’m a public-spirited citizen.”

They both looked at Trask.

“I’m okay with it,” said Trask. “Process servers are bad for business, and bad for the grid. Lock him up.”

Crewe began screaming.

“I’ll get something to gag him with,” said Quimby. “Or he’s going to give me a headache.”

The area around the Barley Mow Inn stayed quiet the rest of the night, not counting the muffled screams from the room behind the inn’s kitchen.

Eventually, Trask got tired of keeping watch on the neighborhood, and was about to head left, back to the Chamber when he had an urge to go the other way. Did he hear something? Smell something?

Hard to tell over the normal stink of the grid, but something seemed off. He looked around, sniffed, then walked to the right, past a carriage yard, past a fortune telling shop, past the Church of Religious Intolerance, past Ye Old Curiosity Shoppe, towards the newspaper building. As he got closer, he finally recognized the smell — it was fire.

The smoke was also a giveaway, as was Seymour running out, screaming “fire!”

Trask put together the clues. Something was burning, he thought.

5

If the griefers had decided to move on from shooting people to setting fires, that was a real problem.

Fires were almost as bad as snipers on Krim. Maybe even worse.

Dead people were easy to replace. And tourists were warned, multiple times, that they could be tortured and killed if they entered the grid.

Burned buildings were more difficult to replace. Most dated back to when the grid was first launched, or when new lands opened up for exploration. After that, other than shutting down a region, wiping it, and rezzing it from scratch, new construction required manual labor. Lots of manual labor. And that’s something the grid was always short of.

If there were more fires, then grid administrators would definitely have to pay attention, Trask thought. Maybe expand some of those safety zones that Osgar and Weldon were talking about. And some people were going to be perma-banned. Trask hoped he would be the one to find them and get them kicked out. But then again, that could mean running around. Maybe it would be better if the award money inspired someone else to do the running and the catching.

In front of the newspaper building, there was an unattended mule and a cart full of paper. It was a bad idea to have uncovered paper outside at night, since the rain was scheduled to start at midnight. But that wasn’t Trask’s problem.

He liked the rain, because it usually happened after he was in bed, with a full stomach. And in the morning, when he went out for his breakfast, the streets would temporarily be clean and the air smelled fresh. It was the best time to be on the grid.

Without the rain, garbage and manure would pile up on the streets of Krim even more than it did, and the stench would definitely drive all the tourists away, as well as most of the residents. As it is, the city was just barely tolerable. Tourists bought handkerchiefs soaked in rose attar to hold under their noses in an attempt to cover up the smells of the city.

Seymour was running down the street, banging on one door then another, and people were already pouring out to help. The neighborhood took fires seriously. Within minutes, there were bells clanging up and down the street and a brigade of locals organized a bucket line.

Within a few minutes, the fire wagon arrived. Fire fighters jumped out and attached a hose to the outlet of a pipe that came down the side of the house from the rain cistern on the roof, and dragged the other end of the hose inside.

That was enough water to put the fire out, and the firefighters walked out, giving each other historically inappropriate high-fives.

The fire chief arrived shortly thereafter and conferred with the first responders.

“It looks like the source of the fire is out,” the chief told Trask. “We’ll check to make sure there isn’t anything still smoldering anywhere, here or in surrounding buildings. The rain will come soon, and that will help, too. I think we’ve got it under control. Can you wait while we look and see if it was deliberate or an accident?”

“Take your time,” said Trask. “I’ll be down at the Barley Mow.”

All the excitement had made him hungry again.

But Trask got barely a few steps away before one of the fire fighters ran out and grabbed him.

“The chief wants you,” he said. “There’s a body downstairs.”

“Is it Seymour Gellhorn?” asked Trask. “The publisher? No, I just saw him outside…”

Trask turned away and followed the firefighter into the newspaper building, through the smoke-filled front office, and down the stairs to the basement.

“This wasn’t any accident,” the chief said, holding up a lantern.

Trask peered around him, and saw the badly burned body of a small woman tied to a chair.

“She mostly likely died of smoke inhalation,” the chief said. “But you can see the ropes. This was deliberate. And there’s the pile of papers that started it.”

Trask could see the shriveled, burned edges of newsprint, charred notebooks, and single sheets of lined notepaper.

“She might have been delivering the paper,” said Trask. “The cart’s out front. If she comes back, I can ask who killed her. But that won’t be for two weeks, at least.”

“Can’t you track her down off-world?” asked the chief.

“No, not for something like this. It’s an in-world crime, there’s privacy laws involved, plus the no spoiler laws. We might never find out who did this. But I’ll do everything we can, I promise.”

“Could be a griefer,” said the chief. “Or maybe something personal.”

“We’ve been having problems with griefers all day today,” said Trask. “In fact, you might see more fires tonight.”

“We’ll warn people to be careful,” said the chief. “And I’ll bring some more volunteers in, just in case.”

Trask promised the chief that he’d have his people out as well, then turned around and went back up the stairs. This was a big day for stairs. He’d have to eat a second dinner, or maybe even a third, to make up for all that exercise.

Outside, Seymour was waiting for him.

“What happened?” Seymour asked. “Was there a lot of damage? Can I go back in?”

“Looks like your paper deliverer was tied up in your basement and set on fire,” Trask said. “Otherwise, things look okay. You’ll probably want to air it out. And replace your shelves.”

“She’s dead? You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“It could have been me! It’s that process server. He’s trying to get me off the grid.”

“He’s been tied up in Quimby’s back room for the past two hours.”

“Maybe he set the fire on a delayed fuse,” said Seymour. “I was at the scriptorium, dropping off copy. He must have gotten tired of waiting for me.”

“Copy of what?”

“News copy. We get stories from writers, ads from advertisers, columns and editorials, that kind of thing. It’s all hand-written. The editor decides approximately where it all goes, and takes it to the scriptorium. The scribes them write it up all nice and neat, get it duplicated off-world, then it’s sent off for distribution.”

“I wondered why you didn’t have a printing press,” said Trask.

“It’s easier and cheaper to have it printed off-world,” said Seymour. “The problem is finding labor. At the scriptorium, the scribes think of themselves as artisans, practicing their calligraphy. So you can get people to do it. Students, mostly, though they don’t last long. Some hobbyists. If we had a printing press, we’d need people to run it, and that’s nor a particularly pleasant job. Not much of an art to it. Building it, sure, we could probably find craftsmen who are into recreating old printing presses. But keeping it going would be a challenge.”

“So where are your writers and editors?”

“The writers are all freelance. They stop by, drop off copy, and leave. I’ve got just one editor, Cyril Booker, but he disappeared three days ago. Haven’t heard from him since. He could at least have sent a message, let me know not to expect him. I made a bad decision in hiring him. He was not a trustworthy guy.”

“You can put the paper out without him?”

“Sure, this issue at least. We had some feature stories in the can. There’s still a couple of left we’ll be running this week. Then there’s some press releases. And the usual filler. More stuff about Baron de Mowbray. If the process server isn’t behind this, I bet it’s the baron.”

“I promise you we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“He’s upset about our fashion coverage,” Seymour said. “He’s wearing a freebie avatar, and we ran a ‘who wore it best’ feature. Not my fault he’s so cheap. Makes you wonder about how much money he actually has.”

“You think that’s he’s upset enough to kill people over this?”

“There’s also some political stuff. Zoning. You know.” Seymour rubbed his fingers together.

“Follow the money. Got it. I’m all over it.”

“You can read all about it the day after tomorrow, on the front page.”

Seymour turned away and went back to the smoke-damaged building.

“Yes, I have fire insurance,” Trask heard him telling the fire fighters. “When can I get your report?”

Trask walked back towards the inn, but decided to skip his second dinner and go straight home.

As he passed the alleys between houses, there was a moment of fear each time. Is there going to be a body there? Or another assassin? In the dark, he couldn’t even see, and it was getting darker.

Trask knew that there’s a chance he’d get killed on Krim, and he signed all the required releases before creating his account, but somehow it hadn’t really sunk in before.

Trask’s big secret was that he had never died before.

Well, technically, there was that heart attack years ago that ended his biological existence. Unless he ever decided to go back to bio, anyway. But that was sudden, and he couldn’t remember anything about it, just waking up again in the virtual version of his body the next day and going on with his life like nothing had happened. That’s what life insurance was for, after all.

Trask realized that he couldn’t remember the last time he was scared for his life. He wondered what death would feel like. The knife slipping in between his ribs. Or maybe a garrote around his throat, cutting into his skin, chocking off his air.

He couldn’t get home fast enough.

6

In the morning, Marshal Henderson Trask woke up alive and full of energy. He had a big breakfast, then went to his Chamber office. He expected it to be busy, with all the volunteers from throughout the merchant community who came to sign up to be temporary guards.

What he didn’t expect was the crowd outside the front entrance.

The plan to offer a reward had backfired. Several adventurers had showed up, each waving a severed head.

“I got the griefer!”

“No, I’ve got the real griefer!”

“That’s not the griefer, that’s the guy you cheated at cards last night!”

“No, you cheated!”

Trask rushed inside as two of the adventurers started swinging the heads around by the hair, trying to hit each other.

“It’s a nightmare,” said chamber director Osgar Cerdic Sigeweard. “Word’s going around that one of the griefers was dressed in a default assassin outfits. They’re going after all the noobs. We’ll have to take down the bounty posters.”

Trask peered back outside.

“They’re getting angrier.”

Osgar stepped outside. Joe and Maltida came out and stood next to him, spears out to keep the crowd away.

“We will not be paying out any bounties unless you have independent witnesses to the griefing! Please go home!”

Some of the adventurers had impaled their severed heads on spikes.

There was stomping, and chanting. The crowd was getting larger.

Osgar and the enforcers came back inside, and Joe shut the door just as one of the heads was thrown at it.

Trask heard it bounce off.

“Tell me you’ve got something,” Osgar said.

“Maybe,” said Trask. “I’ve got a lead on a guy who might be behind the whole thing. I’ll have to take Joe and Matilda with me. And if can spare anyone else…”

“No, we can’t spare anyone else,” said Osgar. “What’s the lead?”

“There’s this baron,” said Trask. “He’s mad about some fashion thing?”

It didn’t sound convincing to Trask when he said it, but Osgar’s face immediately lit up. “De Mowbray! Of course! The freebie avie — and the whole zoning thing. It makes total sense.”

“He’s probably still at his castle,” said Joe. “He likes to sleep in his own bed, when he’s not out on campaigns. But he’s got an army.”

“Just a few regulars,” said Osgar, waving it off. “Nothing to worry about. Plus, they’re all in the city, anyway. There’s a big battle brewing. Our merchants are doing great business outfitting everybody. I’m surprised you haven’t heard.”

“Oh, I heard,” said Joe. “I’ve got friends joining up. I’m sitting this one out though, though. I’ve been on his campaigns. The Baron’s lousy at logistics. I had to eat my own leg once.”

The others looked down at his legs, which looked perfectly intact and extremely shapely, almost bursting through his tight leather pants.

“I got better,” Joe said.

There was a pause.

“Fine, fine, we’re heading off,” said Trask. “We’ll arrest the Baron under the authority of the Chamber of Commerce while his army is away, and bring him back. I promise. No trouble at all.”

“Just be careful. The Baron’s a friend of Krim, so if Gully gets involved….”

Wilson Courtney Gully was the owner and founder of Krim, and a capricious son of a mongrel dog.

If he wanted to, he could kick Trask off the grid in a second and perma-ban him to boot.

“If the Baron’s a griefer, it doesn’t matter,” said Trask. “I’m not afraid of getting banned, believe me. I’ll stand up to him.”

Now, the question was, how was he going to get out of this? Maybe it was time to quit his job, look for something a little quieter. Trask thought he might like to be a cook. Or a food columnist. Would Seymour have a job for him?

“Just hurry,” said Osgar. “Before Gully gets back.”

Trask and his lieutenants fought their way back out through the crowd, were some of the heads were now on fire.

It smelled like barbecue.

As they walked to the carriage house where they planned to hire a horse and drive on the Chamber’s account, Matilda asked Joe, “So what does your leg taste like?”

“It tastes like chicken.”

It took two hours to get out of the city and through the Liberties, then another hour before they were at the baron’s castle.

“Open up! Chamber of Commerce peace enforcement!” Trask yelled up at a guard sitting in the gatehouse.

“Make us!” the guard yelled back.

“We’re looking for a griefer!”

“Oh, in that case,” the guard pulled back the iron bars that held the gate shut and let them in, after carefully checking their badges.

“Where’s the Baron?”

“He’s around here somewhere.” The guard turned around and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Baron!”

There was no answer.

“He must be in the basement with the prisoners,” the guard said. “Why don’t you guys just go in. See that blue door on the left? Go down the hallway, and take the stairs down to the dungeon. It’s just me here right now, and I’ve got to stay out by the gate. We’ve got a big battle coming up, and you never know if someone decides to cheat with a spot of assassination.”

“No servants?”

“Hiring servants is tough these days,” said the guard. “Everyone wants to go into battle, nobody wants to scrub the privies. The baron had a wife for a while, but she got tired living out here in the middle of nowhere. A castle is nice and all, but pretty grim if you don’t have any servants.”

“Almost makes you want to move to a magic grid, doesn’t it?” asked Trask.

“It would be nice to just wave your hand and the fleas would disappear,” said the guard. “But, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel very real when you’re in a place like that. It feels like cheating. Like it’s a kid’s game. And if I really wanted to get away from smell, I could just go back to my real life.”

The Baron was, at advertised, in the dungeon with the prisoners. The Baron was a muscular man, in a linen shirt and pants, splattered with blood. He stood next to a man tied to a rack. The prisoner was bare above his waist, lines of red welts criss-crossing his chest.

Trask didn’t recognize him at first, due to the black eye, swollen nose, and a three-day-old bear.

“Cyril? Cyril Booker? The AviNewz editor?”

“Oh my god, I’m glad to see you,” croaked the prisoner. “Can you save me?”

“I really don’t want to get involved,” Trask said.

But then there was a muffled moan from a dark corner. Trask turned around.

It was the process server. Tied up, but disappointingly not as damaged as Cyril.

If anyone could use a bit of torture, it was someone coming to the grid, violating people’s privacy, bringing in real world issues to a place that was supposed to a be a safe refuge from modern life.

The man turned imploring eyes up at Trask, moaned through the gag, and struggled against the ropes tied around his legs and arms.

He wasn’t worth worrying about.

Trask turned back to the baron. “We’ve had some attacks against merchants in town, and at least one fire. We’re thinking there might be a griefer out there. We’ve got a few questions for you. Do you mind accompanying us back to the city?”

“I do mind,” said the Baron. “I’m busy.” He gestured expansively at the two prisoners.

“Plus, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, being a city slicker and all, but there’s a battle coming up. Gully’s waiting for me. Ademar’s bringing the new recruits up tomorrow, and we’re heading out.”

“Margrave Ademar,” Joe said. “Head of the baron’s army. Famous war hero.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty good. Can really motivate folks. Good guy to have on your side. And so’s Gully. You don’t want to get on Gully’s bad side.”

“Right, right,” said Trask. “But I’ve got orders…”

“Plus, I’ve been here all week,” the Baron said. “Whatever it is you think I’m doing, I wasn’t there for it. He can vouch for me.” He gestured at the prisoner on the rack.

“He’s been torturing me for the past three days,” Cyril said. “Non stop. Day and night.” He moaned. “Please get me out of here.”

Trask pointed at the moaning prisoner. “What did he do to you?”

“He wrote a very unpleasant review.”

“I just said he was using a freebie avatar,” said Cyril.

“You lie!” The baron hit the prisoner with a whip. “It’s a custom job.” Whip. “You’re blind if you can’t see that.”

“Then you were ripped off,” said Cyril, after he was done screaming. “It’s a freebie. The skin is seven years old, the body type is open source, the hair is from the Linda Kellie collection.”

“Take it back!”

The baron whipped the prisoner again.

“How long are you going to keep him here?” asked Trask.

“Until he admits he was wrong.”

“Never!” said Cyril. “Do your worst. But if you want to rescue me,” he added to Trask, “I wouldn’t mind too much.”

“We might not have room,” said Trask.

“And there’s the zoning board of appeals,” began the prisoner, but before he could finish the thought, the baron slit his throat.

The baron moved fast — Trask didn’t even see him swap the whip for the knife. Trask wiped away the warm blood spatter from his eyes, slightly queasy.

The baron stared at Trask while wiping the knife on a muscular thigh.

Trask stepped back.

The baron slipped the knife back onto his belt. Then, with his hands still covered in the editor’s blood, he picked his whip up again.

“That’s my favorite part of the day,” said the baron. “Never fails to lift my spirits. You folks in a killing mood today?”

Trask wasn’t so much in a killing mood, as in a staying alive mood. And avoiding getting on the bad side of the owner of the grid mood.

“I see you’re busy, we’ll just see ourselves out,” said Trask, and hurried out of the dungeon. Joe and Matilda looked at each other. “Hold on!” Joe said, running after him.

“Aren’t we supposed to bring him in?” said Joe, running up the stairs.

“I could take him,” added Matilda, following behind.

“It’s three against two,” said Joe. “We can do this. Let’s go back and arrest him.”

But Trask was already up the stairs and heading down the hallway.

“Wait, wait,” said Joe, and Trask finally stopped.

“It’s no good,” Trask told them. “He’s got an alibi. He hasn’t been in the city for three days. He’s been here torturing people. Your heard the prisoner.”

“We could talk to the other prisoner,” said Matilda. “Get confirmation.”

“That won’t do any good either,” said Trask. “I recognized him. He was in the city last night. Someone must have come out here and dropped him off to keep him out of the way.”

Trask wasn’t certain that it was Quimby who brought up Crewe. But it was pretty likely, he thought. In which case, Quimby — or whoever he got to come out here — would be another witness to the Baron being at the castle while the griefers were at work.

“The Baron’s doing a good thing for the grid keeping that guy here,” Trask added, and resumed walking. To his relief, Joe and Matilda followed.

Then Matilda spoke up again. “Hold on, hold on,” she said, and Trask paused outside the blue door that led back to the entrance to the castle. Or, in this particular instance, to the exit.

“The Baron doesn’t have to be a griefer himself,” she said. “He could have hired people to do it, to get back at the newspaper, to stir up trouble, to drive property values down, to mess up the zoning plans. There’s a lot going on.”

“I know, the zoning, it’s the economy … the district,” Trask said. “I know all about it.”

“The zoning thing could have a big financial impact,” Matilda said. “It’s worth killing over. The Baron killed the prisoner right when he was about to say something important.”

Trask searched his mind for another reason not to go back downstairs and fight the baron and then fight the guard on the way out while carrying the Baron. He didn’t want to look like a coward, but he also didn’t want to get stabbed, or hit with a whip, or have his throat sliced.

Reprieve came in the form of a trumpet blast.

“God’s teeth!” swore Joe. “The Baron’s army’s here.”

Trask drew himself up.

“You’re absolutely right!” he told Matilda. “Alibi or not, the Baron could still be behind it all. And we mustn’t forget about the zoning! Let’s get him, and drag him back to the city.”

He turned as if to go back.

“We can’t take on an army, or even a squad,” said Joe.

“We’ll have to take this to grid administration,” said Matilda. “Get them to do something official.”

“We have a job to do,” said Trask, but finally allowed himself to be convinced.

He waved good bye at the guard at the gate, said “Hello, boys! Have a nice war!” to the men at arms gathering outside the gate, then “Hurry! Get us out of here!” to the half-asleep carriage driver.

7

Chamber director Osgar Cerdic Sigeweard was sweeping up severed heads when Trask returned with Joe and Matilda, but without the Baron.

“We almost got him,” said Trask. “But his army showed up. We were outnumbered. But he’s definitely the guy. He had the newspaper editor right there, and killed him right in front of us.”

“The land barons think they run this grid,” Osgar said. “That they can get away with anything they want. This is intolerable. All they do is jack up land prices while they get special treatment.”

He thrust the broom at Joe. “You two, finish cleaning up.”

He strode across the street to the grid administration building and barged in to Weldon Layton’s office, Trask following.

“We need the grid to do something about that Baron de Mowbray,” said Osgar. “The griefers are still out there, on his orders. It got to stop.”

“Why are you so sure it’s him?” asked Weldon.

“He’s got a grudge against the newspaper. He kidnapped the editor and killed him — Trask here saw him do it. He tried to have the publisher assassinated, had someone try to burn down the newspaper building. Killed a paper deliverer.”

“And the heads,” said Trask.

“Right. People started showing up at the Chamber to throw severed heads at us.”

“What? Why?”

“We think the Baron’s behind it. He’s been recruiting for his army, and probably encouraged people to go out and randomly kill people and claim they were griefers.”

“I recognized some of the faces when I was at the Baron’s castle earlier today,” added Trask.

“The minute they start moving their troops out of the city, it’s calmed down,” said Osgar. “It’s obvious that his men are behind all this. His top guy, Margrave Ademar, probably organizing it all. Or maybe he’s the griefer himself.”

Osgar spotted something on the wall behind Weldon.

“That’s him right there,” he said, pointing at a framed picture cut out of the newspaper, one of about a dozen featuring Weldon in various places around the grid. “That’s Ademar right there, holding the shooting trophy.”

Weldon turned around and frowned. “That was last spring’s Bow-a-palooza. Ademar took first, but it was mostly luck.”

“The griefer used a crossbow,” Trask said. “It could be him. It’s not that common a skill.”

“It’s not that rare, either,” said Weldon. “There’s a class almost every night of the week, even during the summer warring season.”

“Well, I don’t know how to shoot a crossbow,” Osgar said. “Trask? You?”

Trask shook his head. A crossbow wasn’t a particularly useful weapon in his line of work. Now, a whip, on the other hand, like the Baron had… Trask could see one coming in useful.

He imagined himself in the middle of a mob scene, cracking a whip. Everyone would stop and look at him. He’d crack the whip again, and the end of the whip would wrap around the suspect’s waist. Then he’d pull the whip back and the suspect would spin around and fall right into the stocks.

Trask wondered how many years of practice that would take.

“The baron is stirring up trouble in the city,” Osgar said. “He’s destroying the grid, and doesn’t even care.”

“So if that’s the case, once he goes off to their battle, this should all be over,” said Weldon.

“Maybe,” said Osgar. “But there’s been another griefer attack. I think the griefer stayed behind, in the city.”

“I didn’t see Ademar at the castle,” said Trask. “It could be him.”

Weldon shook his head.

“We have to be careful with the land barons,” he said. “If we ban de Mowbray, that could really anger the rest of them, and they control a lot of the land on the grid. Half our land revenues through the land barons.”

“Only because you let them,” said Osgar. “And you give them favorable treatment and lower land rates. It’s unfair to the rest of us, especially to the merchants. We have to pay sky-high rents because the land barons jack all the prices up. It’s hard enough to turn a profit anyway.”

“Well, unfortunately, that’s above my pay grade,” said Weldon. “And you know where I stand on the land price issue. But there’s a bigger problem.”

“Gunny,” said Osgar.

“You got it. If I go to the grid manager and ask for a warrant, and Gunny hears about it, I’ll be perma-banned. We might all be.”

He looked at Osgar and Trask.

“You guys are going to have to fix this some other way.”

“We don’t have any leverage,” said Osgar. “And we’re out of ideas.”

“And he has an army,” added Trask.

Weldon shook his head. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”

“So we’ll just post the bounty posters again?” Osgar said.

“No, no, the grid is already getting too many complaints about people having to sit out the start of the battle because they’ve been killed by their pals.”

“So we just sit back and hope the griefer gets bored and goes away?” Osgar said.

“Well, one of them is already dead,” said Weldon. “I don’t know how many people they can get who are willing to kill tourists and don’t mind missing the battle. Maybe we can round up some volunteers for patrols, have them keep an eye out for any noobs carrying crossbows.”

Trask could just see it. Groups of vigilantes going after every tourist buying weapons. That would be as bad for the grid as the griefer shooting at them.

If the grid closed down, Trask’s new life would be over. But if the grid owner had him perma-banned, his life would be over, too. Or if the Baron killed him.

On the other hand, Gunny wasn’t due back from the battle for weeks — maybe months, even.

“I’ll go talk to the grid manager,” Trask said. “Is he here?”

“Binkie? No, he works from the main office. That’s off-world.”

Oops.

He couldn’t leave the grid. He’d have to quit his job instead, Trask thought. All he needed was a couple more years of peace. Was that too much to ask? Maybe a decade or two. Just until things blew over.

“Trask’s right,” said Osgar. “We need to talk to the grid manager. If Trask is willing to put his career on the line, so am I. You have a gate in this building, don’t you?”

“That’s only for official grid business,” said Weldon.

“That’s okay, we’ll take the main gate.”

Trask froze. The main gate?

“No, no, no,” Weldon said. “You don’t have to do that. I’ll talk to him. You’re absolutely right. I haven’t pushed for it enough. I’ll go request disciplinary action. We have to do something before things get worse.”

He stood up. “Wait here, I’ll be back. Don’t go anywhere, please.”

He ran out and disappeared into the bowels of the administration building. Somewhere in there, there was a gate to the grid’s real world control room, where tech admins managed the grid’s expert systems and computing infrastructure.

“I think we got through to him,” said Osgar.

“I was about to offer my resignation,” said Trask.

“You know, I didn’t think you were that committed to protecting the grid,” said Osgar. “I guess I was wrong. I’m glad you’ve got my back. Thank you.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, then they both looked away.

There were lots of pictures of Weldon to look at. Weldon cutting ribbons. Weldon giving out medals. Weldon giving speeches. Weldon showing dignitaries around the grid. Weldon got around.

Eventually, Weldon came back, waving a piece of paper over his head.

“I got it,” he said. “It took some doing, but I convinced Binkie that it was urgent, and he gave me an order of appearance for de Mowbray.”

Within an hour, a delegation was ready to set off. Weldon had rounded up three grid staffers, dressed for battle.

Osgar ordered Joe and Matilda to go along with Trask.

But it turned out that the show of strength wasn’t needed, which is a good thing, since the baron had a whole army camped out around the castle. The presentation of the order was enough, so Trask, Joe and Matilda didn’t have to do anything except stand there and look grim. Neither the baron nor any his men wanted to get into a fight with the grid admins and get perma-banned, especially with a war brewing and the grid owner not around to intercede.

“I’ll straighten things out and be back here tonight,” he told his men.

The baron was saddled up and following Weldon and the other grid admins away from the castle when Joe and Matilda appeared dragging an unconscious process server between them. “Look who we found,” Joe said. “Our witness. He saw the baron kill the newspaper guy.”

“And maybe he’s heard something more,” added Maltilda.

Trask had his doubts about whether the process server would be any use and wasn’t enthusiastic about him being let loose. It wasn’t good for the grid to have him running around, reminding people of their real world obligations.

But he couldn’t think of a reason not to bring Crewe back to the city with them.

They bundled him into their carriage and set off for the city.

They had a grid hearing to get to.

8

The hearing was conducted in the grid’s resident relations meeting hall. The front rows of the seats were filled with witnesses, and the rest of the audience was angry merchants, frightened residents, and mildly curious tourists. Word had spread fast.

The grid manager himself, Gilbert “Binkie” Dickson, was present, and the he had managed to scrounge up an independent mediator on short notice to act as an impartial party.

If the mediator found cause, the privacy veil could be lifted enough to find out who the baron had been in contact with over the last few days, and if he’d have any discussions with anyone relating to the griefing.

Newspaper publisher Seymour Gellhorn testified that there had been an attempt on his life, that a fire had been set in the newspaper building, and than an innocent bystander had been killed.

“He’s also kidnapped my editor,” said Seymour. “It’s almost impossible to get any good help.”

“Where’s the editor now?” asked the mediator.

“I got a letter from him his morning. After Baron de Mowbray viciously tortured him, then killed him in front of three witnesses, he decided not to come back to the grid. He said he’s starting his own newspaper, on Clem Brana.”

There was a murmur from the audience. Clem Brana was a competing medieval-themed world, much despised by Krim’s residents.

Trask, Joe, and Matilda gave their account of the editor’s murder.

Cyril Booker himself wasn’t available, and neither were his notes.

“They burned up in the fire,” said Seymour. “Conveniently burned up in the fire,” he added.

The Baron readily admitted that he tortured and killed the editor, and that he had a beef with the newspaper.

“The paper is biased against land barons,” he said. “And they’ve got a particular grudge against me. All their coverage is negative. There’s nothing wrong with setting the record straight with a little torture. It’s in the terms of service. I did what anyone would do. If he didn’t want to be tortured and killed, he shouldn’t have spread lies about my outfit. But I didn’t have anything to do with the newspaper building burning down. I’m happy with the torture. I just got some new implements in, and it was nice to give them a good workout.”

“Anyway,” he added. “I wasn’t even in the city the last few days.”

“What about …” Osgar pointed dramatically at the man standing next to the baron. “… Margrave Ademar!”

Ademar started. “What?”

“You are a champion with the crossbow.”

Ademar shrugged. “You mean my first place at the Bow-a-palooza? It’s not hard to shoot straight when you don’t have an army trying to kill you. Now, you get into the middle of a battle, that’s when…”

Trask saw Osgar nod at him, and knew it was his cue. He picked up the leather bag he brought with him, walked over to the table in the center of the room, and dropped the bag on it.

Ademar paused and looked at him.

Trask wait for a couple of dramatic seconds, then pulled open the bag. It was the broken crossbow that had been used by the assassin.

Someone gasped, but Ademar just looked it in bewilderment.

“Am I supposed to recognize it?” he finally asked.

“Is that not your bow?” asked Osgar. “Marshall Trask found it. It belonged to the griefer who died yesterday.”

“No, that’s an arbalest. It takes a windlass. I shoot with a latchet crossbow. Takes more strength, but it’s faster.”

The men around him nodded. “A windlass is for wimps,” said one.

“Might as well use a cranequin,” said another, and they all laughed.

Trask glanced up at the grid manager, who was smiling.

Weldon looked mad. Trask wondered why.

“Anyway, I’ve been busy last few days,” said Ademar. “Ask anyone. Plus, I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m not dead. So I’m not your griefer guy.”

There were no other questions, and Ademar and the other men around the Baron stepped back.

“Is torturing journalists against the grid’s terms of service?” asked the moderator.

“No,” said the grid manager. “In fact, we normally encourage it. Keeps them honest.”

“So it doesn’t rise to the level of griefing. In that case, why are we here?”

“It’s about the zoning,” said Osgar. “The merchants support expanded safety zones to increase commercial activity. The Baron is very much on the opposing side. He’s been hiring griefers to disrupt the process, no matter how it affects the grid.”

“Is that correct?” the mediator asked the grid manager.

“Yes, we’re in the process of expanding the no-pushing areas,” said Binkie. “There seems to be a misunderstanding of how it works. Once that’s cleared up, there shouldn’t be any problems. The expanded safety zone will help us bring in a new group of users who will contribute substantially to the economic well-being of the grid. Everyone will benefit, including the merchants and land owners.”

“I know that,” said the Baron. “I’ve been in favor of it from the start. It’s the merchants who are opposed, for their own stupid reasons.”

“We’re not opposed!” said Osgar. “The land barons are opposed!”

“Talk to anyone,” said the baron. “I’m not trying to stop the zoning. First, I support it. Second, I’ve been doing other things.”

One after the another, his lieutenants stood up and confirmed that the Baron has been busy getting ready for the battle. And when he wasn’t dealing with battle plans, he was torturing people in his dungeon.

“I was just getting in the right mood for the battle,” the baron said. “Get the old blood flowing.”

“So why did people stop bringing us heads?” asked Osgar. “Admit it — you called people off.”

“What?” said the Baron. “What heads?”

“There were wanted posters up everywhere, with a reward for the griefer,” said Ademar. “The men were bored, waiting for the muster, and went out hunting. We didn’t do anything to encourage them. Or discourage them. As long as they showed up on time, we didn’t really care what they did.”

“So why did they stop?” asked Osgar.

“Because we were getting ready to muster,” said Ademar. “It’s not like we put out an order to go out and hunt for griefers, or to stop hunting griefers. We’re focused on other things.”

“Also, you told everyone that you weren’t going to be paying out the bounty without witnesses,” one of the fighters told Osgar. “And they had to be trustworthy witnesses. Who decides who’s trustworthy? Everyone could see that the whole reward thing was just a scam.”

The fighters muttered.

“Money sucking leeches,” Trask heard one of them say.

The process server was called up to testify, though he had to be supported as he stood up.

“I never heard him talk about zoning or about griefers,” Crewe said. “Just the battle coming up. And the torturing. He kept asking that other guy how he liked his outfit now.”

“What about during the trip to the castle?” Osgar asked. “Did his men say anything then?”

“No, but it wasn’t his men who brought me up. It was the same guy who shot at the publisher yesterday.”

Quimby must have talked someone into taking Crewe to the Baron’s castle to keep him on ice for a while, Trask thought.

“It was that guy there.” Crewe pointed at Weldon Layton. “That guy.”

“That’s crazy,” said Weldon.

“It wasn’t him, it was just some noob,” said Baron de Mowbray. “Said he was on a quest for the innkeeper. Now, that was a guy with a freebie avatar.” He glared at Seymour. “Some of us know what a freebie avatar does and doesn’t look like.”

Would the mediator believe Crewe, or everyone else, thought Trask. Come to think of it, who did he believe? He hated the process server on sight, but the guy’s job was all about being able to spot people wearing different bodies.

“It certainly wasn’t Weldon here,” said the Baron. “Weldon’s been nothing but helpful through the whole thing. He really understands what the grid is about.”

“Weldon does know what the grid is about,” said Osgar. “And he knows that the merchants and the content creators who drive the economy.”

“Weldon understands that the land sales are what really matter to the grid’s bottom line,” said the baron.

“I try to be supportive of everyone,” Weldon told the moderator. “There is so much tension on this grid. I try to do my best to calm things down, but sometimes my best just isn’t good enough. And I’m certainly not going around pretending to be a noob.”

No, thought Trask. Weldon didn’t have to pretend. He was a grid admin. He could become anyone he wanted. The rule about alts didn’t apply to him.

Was there any proof, anywhere, he wondered?

“I’ve got a battle to fight,” said de Bowbray. “And then, you know what, I’m out of here, I’m done with Krim. I bring in hundreds, probably thousands, of users to this grid. Maybe even tens of thousands. And I give them a place to stay, and land to fight on. The grid wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for me and people like me. And I’m done. I heard Clem Brana treats its land owners right.”

He sat down and crossed his arms, ignoring the hubbub from the audience behind him. His lieutenants all sat down next to him and crossed their arms, as well.

“If the fighters go, and the tourists are driven off, us merchants won’t be here for much longer,” said Osgar. The rumbling from the audience got louder.

Trask tried to think of something he could do, but drew a blank.

“If there’s nothing more,” the moderator said, and waited. But nobody had anything else to add. So she called the hearing to a close and left.

The audience piled out, discussing the evening’s events. Trask heard several people mention Clem Brana.

He felt sick.

The Baron and his men left for their battle. “I’m going to see what I can do, maybe I can talk some sense into them,” said Weldon and hurried out after them.

“If I can’t get any help around here, I might as well close up the paper,” said Seymour. “If the grid isn’t going to do anything when they try to kill me, to burn down my building — why should I keep trying? When they torture and kill my staff? It’s not worth it.”

He left as well.

Trask put the crossbow back in the bag.

“We tried,” said Osgar.

The grid manager approached them.

“This is a nightmare,” Binkie said. “The merchants are going to be leaving too, aren’t they?”

“Well, not right away,” said Osgar. “We’ve got a lot of inventory tied up on Krim. We’re probably most committed to the grid out of everyone.”

“But eventually,” said Binkie.

“Probably,” said Osgar. “Traffic has been down for a while. It’s getting hard to cover rent. You can lower land prices,” he told the grid manager. “Maybe the tariffs.”

“We can’t lower prices,” said Binkie. “And we can’t lower import or export tariffs. If we do, we won’t be able to cover expenses. If anything, with lower traffic, we’ll have to raise rates.”

That’s the start of a grid death spiral, thought Trask. Prices go up, traffic drops. Traffic drops, they have fewer users to pay the costs, and prices go up. Prices go up, traffic drops further. There’s usually only one outcome.

“And this is the worst possible time for this to happen,” said Binkie. “We’re in negotiations to bring a big new group of users in. That’s part of the reasons we’re expanding the safety zones. It would mean big changes, but also bring a lot of new life in. I’m not supposed to say anything, but it’s a moot point now anyway. I don’t think our grid is going to make their short list now.”

“So what happens next?” asked Trask.

“Well, we’ve got some financial reserves, we’ll do okay for a while. We’ll probably lay off a few people, and maybe come up with some other plan. If the griefing stops. If the griefing doesn’t stop, we’ll close, or get bought out by some niche special purpose group.”

“What I don’t understand,” Trask said, “is if the baron didn’t try to burn down the newspaper, then who did? Why would anyone else care?”

“Maybe there’s something in tomorrow’s issue?” asked Osgar. “Like a clue?”

It was a slender straw, but Trask grasped at it.

“We’ve got to get to the scriptorium, right now,” he said. “Before anything happens to tomorrow’s copy. It might be our only chance to find out who’s behind this.”

He looked around for Joe and Matilda, but they were gone, taking Crewe to the grid gate.

Trask was tired. It had been a very long day. But the scriptorium was only three streets away.

“I’ll go,” he said.

He handed the bag with the crossbow to Osgar and was on his way to the door when a scribe ran into the hall. “The scriptorium’s on fire! Send the fire squad!”

9

It was dark outside, but the full moon was out. In fact, due to the lack of artificial lighting on the grid, the moon was usually out.

Some people thought it was inaccurate and broke the immersion, but Trask was all for it.

He ran down the stone street towards the fire. As he got closer, he could see that the fire brigade was already out. But the scriptorium was mostly paper — would they be able to put the fire out?

Trask wondered if his running was doing any good, or if it would just give him a heart attack.

It would be so ironic if he died right now.

He regretted making the carriage driver stop to pick up picnic lunches at the market on their first trip out to the castle? And why did he order six lunches, and eat four of them?

He developed a cramp in his side.

Then he thought of the one remaining clue burning up, taking with it all the hope for the future of the grid.

There had to be something important in tomorrow’s newspaper. There just had to be.

He picked up the pace, and when he got to the scriptorium, he ran right up the stairs and into the main hall.

When he came out again fifteen minutes later, he was coughing and covered in soot, holding a stack of half-burned papers.

Osgar was waiting for him.

“Did you find anything?”

“No,” said Trask. “We’re too late.”

He dropped the papers on the ground.

“It just ad pages,” he said. “Nothing but ads. All the articles are gone.”

“Hey, maybe there’s something in the ads,” said Osgar and picked up a couple of pieces of paper.

“I couldn’t see anything,” said Trask, and sat down on the curb, breathing hard. “It’s all lost.”

“What were you looking for?” asked one of the scribes.

“Tomorrow’s news stories,” said Trask. “But they told me it’s all gone. I couldn’t find anything.”

“You mean, the originals?” asked the scribe. “We sent them back to the newspaper. We just keep the ads that we’re going to run again in the next issue.”

Trask stood up. “How long ago?”

“I don’t know… maybe half an hour?”

Trask drew a deep breath and started running again, this time in the direction of the newspaper building.

A block later, he could barely put one foot in front of the other, and when he tripped and fell, he didn’t have any energy to try to break his fall.

It would have been painful, but he landed on something soft. It was the soft, cushy body of someone who sat behind a desk and wrote for a living. Another scribe.

Trask called out for help, and for a light.

He looked around while the other scribes came for the body. But whatever the dead scribe had been carrying was gone.

“It’s gone for good,” said Trask. “We’ll never find out what happened.”

“What’s gone for good?” asked one of the scribes.

“The stories in tomorrow’s paper,” said Trask.

“You really have to have the originals? Is there some sentimental value or something?”

“There might be a clue in there about the griefer,” said Trask. “It was our last hope.”

“Why can’t you just read it in the paper?”

“Because. It. Just. Burned. Up.”

Trask clenched his jaw and willed himself not to start yelling. Or crying. He was a 140-year-old man, not a child. He was just very, very tired, and very frustrated.

“Dude,” said one of the scribes, and patted him on the shoulder. “Get some rest. We sent the paper off for duplication a couple of hours ago. You can read it in the morning.”

“Or you can read it now,” said another, and pointed to a horse-drawn wagon down the street.

The wagon was coming from the direction of the gate, and rolled passed the scriptorium and towards Trask.

“They’ll drop off a few stacks at the paper building, then to the delivery service, hopefully before the rain starts. Then someone will take them to the distribution points early tomorrow. Bars, inns. They’ve already dropped off copies at the gate and at the market.”

Trask copies of the paper as the wagon rolled past him and looked them over.

“Anything?” asked Osgar.

Trask started. “I don’t know,” he said. “You look.”

He handed over one of the papers, then borrowed a lantern from one of the scribes.

Then the two men started walking back to City Hall.

“There’s a piece on zoning here,” said Trask. “But it doesn’t mention the baron at all. Or Weldon.”

“Why Weldon?”

“I don’t like the fact that the process server said he recognized him.”

“That guy’s nuts. You said it was some noob. You saw him yourself.”

“He’s a process server who finds people on grids for a living,” said Trask. “He probably notices things like the way people walk. Or their gestures. Or, I don’t know, their facial expressions. Things that you can’t hide even if you use an alt.”

“There aren’t any alts on Krim,” said Osgar.

“There aren’t any alts for regular users. Grid admins aren’t regular users.”

“So you think it’s not a regular user who’s behind this.”

“No,” said Trask. “Plus, regular users have a two week break when they die.”

“So maybe there was more than one griefer.”

“Or maybe just one, but he didn’t have to follow the rules.”

Trask continued to examine the paper as they walked.

“I found his name,” he finally said. “Here it is. Weldon Layton, at some party.”

“Really? He went to a party? What was he wearing?” asked Osgar sarcastically.

“It says, custom-made suit from Sun Made Fashions,” said Trask. “Hold on. Here it is. It’s a quote. He’s welcoming some visitors to the grid. He says, he hopes they’ll like the grid enough to stay.”

“So?”

“So there’s more.”

They came back to the grid administration building. The meeting hall was empty, but they could hear voices coming from Weldon’s office.

They found Weldon Layton, and his boss, Gilbert “Binkie” Dickson, trying to salvage something from the evening’s events and failing.

“We think we might have something,” Osgar told Binkie in a low voice. “We need to talk to you in private. Has Weldon been here this whole time?”

Weldon heard his name and looked up, and saw the newspapers Trask was carrying.

“I don’t know,” said the grid manager. “I’ve been busy. Why?”

Weldon lunged for the newspapers, but Trask lifted them over his head.

“What’s going on?” said Binkie.

“It’s nothing,” said Weldon, and jumped up to try to reach the newspaper.

Osgar handed his copy to Binkie.

“Look on page two, near the bottom,” said Trask. “There’s a party. The delegation from the Humanist League just got a tour of the grid, and liked it very much.”

“They’re trying to buy the grid,” said Binkie. “They’ve visited before.”

“But this time, Weldon is introducing them, says he hopes that they’ll stay.”

“I was being polite,” said Weldon.

“Then, right after that, they say that with an attitude like that, he’ll be running the grid pretty soon.”

“They were being polite,” said Weldon.

“And then they say that they love the grid so much they’d like to buy it, but they’re waiting for the price to drop. I think they’re talking about the price of the whole grid. I think they’re expecting a fire sale.”

He paused.

“A literal fire sale, in this case,” he added. “You know, because the grid is going up in flames.”

“I don’t even know how to shoot a crossbow,” Weldon protested.

Trask pushed him aside and walked behind his desk. “Look.” He pointed at the Bow-a-palooze picture. Next to Margrave Ademar holding the first place trophy, there was Weldon, glowering. Trask squinted and looked closer. “Third place,” he said.

They looked at Weldon, who suddenly broke for the exit.

“It’s all fake news!” he yelled on his way out.

10

The next morning, Trask walked into the Barley Mow Inn for his usual breakfast.

utside, the street was busy again with the normal hustle of the grid.

Inside, the dice players were already at their table, drinking ale.

“I heard you caught the griefer,” said Quimby.

“It was Weldon Layton.” Trask laughed. “Would you believe it — he tried to escape from the city on horseback.”

“You chased him down?”

“God no,” said Trask. “I’ve done enough running for a while. No, Binkie went back to the grid office and yanked his avatar. Weldon’s an employee. He’s got no player privacy rights.”

“What was he trying to do, outrun the grid servers on a grid horse?”

“You’d be surprised what people can convince themselves of,” said Trask. “He should have known how easy it is to check if one of the grid employees was using alts.”

“I heard that he was that close to getting away with it,” said Quimby. “Nobody suspected him. We could all have been moving out to Clem Brana next week.”

Trask thought about that with horror. Clem Brana was the worst.

“So how are the skirrets today?”

“They’re here, and there’s plenty of them,” said Quimby.

— The end —

The dice rolled.

“Yahtzee!”

— The end end. —


Terry Anders

Terry Anders is a science fiction novelist based in New England.

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