3. Back from the dead

One benefit of dying, Ellison thought, was that he got a fresh new avatar.

A washed avatar.

An avatar wearing new, clean clothes.

Krim was full of people who liked to drink and to fight and people who liked to dress up in old-time clothes. But it didn’t have too many folks who wanted to role play at doing laundry.

He adjusted his collar as he walked into the Barley Mow. It was fresh and crisp and felt almost pleasant against his skin. Nothing on Krim ever felt completely pleasant. Everything came with minor little annoyances. Die-hard residents said this added to the appeal of the place.

To Ellison, it was a constant reminder that he needed to get out, back to his real life. He could get a nice civilized apartment on Facepage. They were free, if you didn’t mind a few ads. But if he had a job, he could find someplace nice.

A real job, that is. Not the penny-ante process serving he was doing now.

He was about to order when his best friend on the grid walked in. Matilda Scarletstrike. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a short haircut that did well in hand-to-hand battles. There was nothing for the enemy to grab onto. Matilda was in a lto of hand-to-hand battles, and tended to win most of them. Of course, she started most of them, too.

She walked up to his table, mumbled something, and slapped the table’s surface hard enough for the inn-owner, Quimby, to look up in a panic from his spot at the front desk. When he saw that it was Matilda, he decided to stay right there, safely behind it.

Ellison thought about joining him.

Matilda followed Ellison’s eyes to the front desk, then stepped to block his view and slapped the table again.

“What did I do now?” Ellison asked.

She cleared her throat, then spit a wad of phlegm on the door. The city air was full of pollution. Smoke and wood ash. Aerosolized manure. Dust. Dirt. It all ended up in the lungs. People thought that London in the year 1500 was a natural environment, but judging by the air of Krim City, it must have been anything but.

“You’ve cost me work,” she said, then dropped into the chair across from him. It creaked under her weight, which was mostly muscle. What wasn’t muscle was armor and weapons. “Because of you, Lifeworks doesn’t trust me with returnees anymore.”

Lifeworks was a company that brought dead people back to life. Well, to virtual life. It was one of several such companies, but the only one with a presence on Krim.

All the other companies thought that Lifeworks was crazy. Krim was just about the most dangerous and unpleasant world around. But it turned out that people who’d been alive in the old day were used to things being dangerous and unpleasant and had a hard time acclimating to the modern world. They all hated Krim, but they all understood it. They didn’t understand Facepage or any of the other worlds that modern people lived on. The way that people teleported around, changed shape on a whim, soared into the air whenever they felt like it — that all freaked them out and caused them to doubt the reality of their existence. And then — poof — they were gone. Back to the quantum ether from which Lifeworks originally pulled them.

On Krim, the worst that would happen was a nasty stabbing. Though Lifeworks was lobbying the Krim administrators to add some protection features for its returnees.

Anyway, despite all the nastiness on Krim, or maybe because of it, returnees survived. In fact, they thrived. Lifeworks hoped that eventually they would adapt well enough to their new virtual lives that they could leave Krim and safely live in the rest of the modern world. Or, at least, its online areas. And, down the road, they might even be ready to start trying to print new physical bodies for the returnees.

“Why don’t they trust you? You helped bring Alfred back after his granddaughter killed him.”

“Great-granddaughter. But I also helped you sneak Alfred out after hours and got him beaten up.”

“Well, I think she would have tried to kill him either way. How’s Alfred doing now?”

Ellison liked Alfred. He was a crotchety old man. Well, old by historical standards. He was in his early sixties when he’d died. Ellison was ten years older, but looked half his age. Part of that was due to modern medicine, and the rest to the fact that he’d lost his physical body in an explosion five years ago and now lived online free of all biological constraints.

But Ellison didn’t like Alfred because of his age. He liked him because he owned a cane and wasn’t afraid to use it. Only recently, he’d used it on Elea Carlyle.

“Alfred’s fine. He’s still looking around for a place to put his shop. He got a nice settlement from Lifeworks for not protecting him well enough, and he’s using it to start his tailoring business.”

“I’ll have to stop by. I need a new suit.” He pulled at his jacket. “I hate wearing this default outfit.”

Ellison was wearing assassin garb, the closest thing Krim had to a business suit in its starting avatar selection. Today, he was wearing black pants and a black jacket over a dark red silk shirt.

“So buy something else,” Matilda said. “Go to the market.”

“Everything else they sell here is even worse.”

She reached for her sword.

“I mean, it’s fine if you’re in the murder and mayhap business, but I’m looking for something a little bit more…”

“Corporate?”

Ellison nodded. Even his clothes were telling him that he needed to go back to civilization.

She tapped her fingers on the table and sighed. “So why aren’t you jumping on Rodge Bannister’s gig? It’s real money.”

“It’s worse than that,” Ellison said. “Some friends from my old life dropped by for a business meeting with Elea Carlyle. Rodge is her friend, and they want me to help him out. They’re working on some business deal, and a good word from Rodge can give them the edge.”

“So?”

“So if Rodge vouches for me, and Elea vouches for me, and they vouch for me, I might be able to get my old job back.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“There was some unpleasantness five years ago.” Ellison didn’t explain that the unpleasantness led to his death and a five-year prison term. It was a long, boring story. “But I’m not taking the gig. I don’t want Rodge vouching for me, and I certainly don’t want anything from Elea. She’s a psychopath.”

“Then she picked the right place to settle down,” said Matilda. “But seriously, if you don’t do it for your career, do it for the money. And I want in. You find the thieves, I’ll bash their heads in, and we’ll both get paid.”

She stood up and grabbed him by his jacket collar. “Let’s go.”

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