The transition back to real life was always jarring. One second, he was falling down a bottomless tunnel, the next, standing upright in Krim’s welcome area. He staggered, then caught his balance. He was back in his real body and all the aches and pains and mysterious itches he’d accumulated since the last time he’d died were all gone.
Of all the ways to die on Krim, falling down a trash chute was the easiest.
Ellison thought back to the words he heard as he kicked off his boot. The memory was already fading. Krim didn’t want its users to remember their deaths. If they did, they’d never come back again.
What did the guy say? “Vlad isn’t going to like this?” Or, maybe, “Glad isn’t going to like this?”
Ellison didn’t know anyone named Vlad. There was Glad the torturer, though. Glad the Impaler.
Maybe the attacker was saying something else entirely. Ellison tried to hold on to the memory, but it was gone. “Glad. Vlad. Glad. Vlad,” he repeated to himself as he teleported to FacePage. “Glad. Vlad.”
As usual, Facepage dropped him in front of his favorite restaurant, the Potato Palace.
“Avexa,” he subvocalized after he landed. “Make a note. Attackers mentioned Vlad. Or Glad. Maybe Bad?” He tried to think back but all he had left was a vague memory of trash flying in the attacker’s face and then his lunch for the trash chute. At least he had their faces. “Avexa?” He had turned his assistant off last time he was here. He’d also turned off the friends and family feature. Everyone else around him on Facepage’s Main Street was a total stranger, at least three connections away from him. He liked seeing people around him, but didn’t like it when people knew who he was.
He waved his hand to bring up his personal controls menu, then changed his mind. If he turned his assistant back on, he’d be flooded with urgent messages. There was nothing in there he wanted to see. If anyone really needed him, they could find him on Krim.
He went into the restaurant itself. The Potato Palace operated on a freemium business model. Most of the meals were free. But every week, the restaurant had new signature dishes and specials that they charged for. Oh, and they also had ads that you could make go away once you spent a certain amount each month, or signed up for a premium subscription.
Before he’d died, gone to prison, and then was forced to live on Krim, Ellison felt the same as everyone else did about the advertising. It was evil, and had no redeeming qualities. But now, the ads felt like the warm embrace of civilization. Some company out there thought that he was a good prospect to take a vacation on Mars. That he might want to rent a physical body from Air and Body Works and hug small children. That he might want to go back to school and start a new career in asteroid mining. That he might want to take a quick trip to Mermaid Lagoon and have sex with mermaids.
Hold on. Ellison pointed at the ad to pause it. Mermaid Cove was back? Last he’d heard, Elea Carlyle had purchased it and shut it down, eliminating the only leverage he ever had on her.
He picked up his bag of curly fries and walked across the street to Crewe Investigations, sprinted past the dragon while hiding the fries with his body, and checked in with his brother.
A network graph analysis had brought up hundreds of potential connections between Royal Season employees, partners, contractors and kidnapping victims, and thousands more when it was extended to include anyone mentioned in the Nightingale columns.
“But I don’t see how any of it means anything,” said Jerald. “Any progress on your end?”
“We think two of the Armforge guards might be involved,” said Ellison. “I’ll run checks on them now. And I’ve got a name — Vlad, or Glad — that might mean something. I don’t know what, though. Also, something is hinky with Matilda.”
“No. Well, kind of. I think she knows something she’s not telling me.”
Ellison went into his new office. This time, he was expecting a wave of alerts to pop up, and shut it down before it flooded every wall and most of the air space inside the room.
He said down in his swivel chair and spun around to look out his window. Unlike his brother, who went in for epic scenery, Ellison just had it set to the view of the Facepage street outside. The geometry didn’t quite work out — the view was of the street out front and his office was at the back of the building. But geography held little meaning in most of the metaverse.
He could see the Potato Palace front door
He spun back and waved his hands to bring up his display screens. He decided to start with the guards first. Right after he got more potatoes.
Back when he died, around six years ago now, Ellison didn’t have an easy transition. His brother Jerald died of a sudden brain aneurysm and pretty much carried on his life like nothing had happened. He was already spending most of his work days online, and his friends had all moved away so socializing was all online as well. The only real difference was that his virtual apartment was nicer than his real one and he needed less sleep.
That wasn’t the case for Ellison. The explosion that cost him his life also cost him his work, his friends, and his freedom. The corruption at the Civinos hosting company wasn’t his fault, but he hadn’t been able to convince the courts, the public, or even those people closest to him.
But it did give him one thing. Five years to learn how to use his synesthesia to identify people by their auras, the quantum field patterns generated by brain waves. These patterns were also the basis of identification prints.
While in prison, Ellison had ample opportunity to compare the auras that he saw with the ID prints on other prisoners’ badges. He developed a personal set of archetypes that he saw in the auras. The whorls, loops, arches, deltas, lines and spirals, just like the ones fingerprint analysts had in the old days.
He started with his two attackers. Both had fallen off the grid seven years earlier. No work histories, no social mentions — a clear sign that they’d been spending all their time on private worlds. It was impossible to tell which world, exactly, without a court order. But based on their previous social media history, it looked like they went in for medieval and fantasy themes. There were no signs of a connection to either the Royal Season or Elea Carlyle’s foundation. Maybe they were upset about something else he’d done.
He changed his mind when he pulled up the personal histories of the two Armforge guards, Benjamin Goldberg and Griffin the Squint. Their real names were completely different, which was no surprise. What was a surprise was that both dropped off the radar at the same time as his two attackers did, and had previously been fans of some of the same medieval worlds. Krim wasn’t one of those worlds.
Finally, he pulled up Matilda’s personal records. Her public history went up until three years ago, when a cousin disappeared. He recognized the cousin’s name. Finnbogi Sturluson was the Royal Season participant who’d vanished on Krim three years ago. He had filed a restraining order against Matilda a couple of months earlier. He looked it up — it was still in effect.
No wonder she wouldn’t tell him what she was doing.