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Carl Bussjaeger

I've been accused of writing about an unrealistic, utopian future.
I think that's because you've only seen the good parts up to now.
Here's what's happening back on Earth.

The four bangers circled around the black sheathed figure, laughing in the dark. Above them faces briefly appeared in apartment windows, then vanished. The lights extinguished.

"Yo, Mon," the banger boss spoke, pushing lightly at the strangely dressed victim-to-be. "What're ya sposed ta be? Some kina space man?" He shoved again. His companions laughed louder and moved in.

The dark shape remained silent, but settled into a comfortable crouch. It raised one steel encased hand and beckoned the tribal leader forward.

The boss laughed again. "Wha'? Ya wan' me? Come on, den." Something clicked and he brought up his right hand, showing his blade. He stepped forward and began a slashing move.

Instantly his target leaped nearly vertically, and swung a leg in a roundhouse kick. A heel connected with the banger's temple. The tough dropped like a poleaxed steer.

The remaining three hoodlums attacked only to meet steel. The shadowy figure side-kicked one in the chest, knocking the breath out of him and sending him staggering back. At the same time he punched and slashed out to either side with artificial claws. One banger fell to his knees while trying to hold his throat together. He failed, and collapsed. The fourth stood wavering, looking down at his shredded chest. He turned to run, and received a final metallic punch to the base of his skull. The killer turned back to the last banger. Still struggling to breathe easy, the thug stood several paces away and fumbled inside his jacket. As the gun began to clear the confining jacket, the dark form raised his left hand. Fire flashed, and thunder echoed in the alley. The last fighter fell dead.

"Game over," the figure said quietly, then faded into the shadows.

Mycroft "Mike" Maudell watched the PD crime scene team work the alley. They had two sets of sealed video cams running, and a uniform wandering about with a still-cam. Masked and gloved officers drifted around with baggies gathering up anything that vaguely resembled evidence. Mike smiled wryly and walked up to the sergeant directing the action. "Hey, Columbo!" he called.

The cop turned and spied him. "Sherlock!" he answered. Mike winced. The sergeant continued, "So whuzzup? Somebody hire you to investigate this?" He gestured towards the gore, and gave Mike a look of disbelief.

"Nah," Mike replied. "Not exactly. I'm running another homicide. But this looks to tie in. Anybody hire an investigator for these bangers?"

The cop, Bob Schumick, sarcastic nicknames aside, laughed. "You kidding? These're just a buncha street thugs. Guess they had a little argument with someone over jurisdiction." He shrugged. "I imagine their gang'll handle it themselves."

"Probably," Mike concurred.

"So what's this tie-in?" Schumick asked curiously.

"I heard on CrimeNET that one of these guys had his throat clawed out."

"Sure enough," Schumick nodded. "And another got slashed, and his spinal cord ripped out. Real messy." He eyed the detective curiously. "What's the deal?"

"I'm looking into the murder of Jack Petty, about 10 days ago." Mike nodded towards the bloody figures on the ground. "He suffered multiple blunt instrument traumas, and was finished off with something like a giant steel claw. That, or the perp made multiple carefully spaced knife slashes." He looked at the sergeant. "That sound like what you have here?"

"Well," Schumick began slowly; "maybe a bit. They weren't all done in that way. But the full bill of evidence will be available on the Retail Board in a few days..." He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

"Yeah, yeah. I don't want to wait a week for your forensics buddies to muck up the data." He slid a hand out of his pocket and passed something to the cop. "So how 'bout I get a look at the scene fresh?"

"Just don't get in the way," the sergeant drawled. "You'll be wanting some of the graphics, too?"

"That'd be good," Mike called back from where he was already bending over one body. "Hmmph. Somebody stove in the side of this guy's head." He straightened up and walked over to another prone figure. Gunshot; nothing else immediately obvious. He returned to Schumick who handed him a ROMcard with the scene graphics. "Thanks," he said quietly. "Tell you what, though. I'm going to go official on this one." He pulled his wallet out and fished out a credit card. "I'll pay a retainer. I want the forensics on the slash wounds and the head. Metallic traces, spacing, depth, the works. With comparisons to the Petty wounds. And I'll betcha the head injury was done with a foot."

"Don't want much do you?" the cop inquired sarcastically. He took Mike's card and ran it through the reader on his comp. then he tapped at the keys. "That was Petty, Jack, age 23, died 7-12-15?"


"Hmm. You want the ballistics on the gunshot?"

"Might as well. And see if it crosses to any other cases."

"Can do." Schumick fiddled a bit more. "Okay, that's gonna be three hunnerd seventeen for now. Rest payable on delivery, not to exceed twenty two hunnerd. Sign here." He spun the computer around to face Mike, who tapped in a verification code to allow his account to be billed for the police service. "Must be nice to be a rich detective," Schumick joked. "One of these days I'm gonna get outa civil service and law enforcement and get into investigations, myself."

"If you wanted to solve crimes, why'd you join the police department?" Mike asked.

"Seemed like the way to go, at the time. I've been in a while. How was I to know the city would go broke and privatize investigations?"

"Live and learn."

With the financial business out of the way, Mike stared at the crime scene in growing light of dawn. "Looks like a slaughter house."

"No... You know what it looks like?"


"Looks like the comp screen for half my kid's video games. Like SyberWarrior or Day of Doom, or something like that." The cop's shiver went unnoticed unnoticed by the detective.

"What? We got a crazed gamer on the loose?" Mike shook his head and smiled. "Next you'll be telling me that TV drove him over the edge." Both men laughed. Then Mike excused himself and left.

A few hours later Mike was stepping through the doors of Master Sang P. Choi's Taekwondo center. Almost immediately he was greeted by a small oriental man of of middle years.

"May I help you, sir?" he asked Mike politely, with just a hint of a bow in his demeanor.

"I hope so," Mike replied. "I'm Mycroft Maudell, criminal investigator. I'm looking for some professional advice concerning a case."

"Ah. An assault, I suppose. I hear of such things periodically, I'm afraid."

"Murder this time around. You are... ?" Mike prompted.

"I am Master Sang P. Choi." Then he grinned, and his eyes twinkled. "But please, call me Pete." He gestured towards an open office door. "Please, come in and sit down. And tell me how I may help you. Surely I am not not under investigation."

Mike smiled and followed, speaking, "And I'm Mike. And to tell the truth, I don't know who I'm after. I'm hoping you can give me some hints."

Inside the office, Choi waved Mike down into a chair. He seated himself at a desk. "What sort of hints, please?"

Mike opened his jacket and removed a bundle of photographs. "These were taken at two murder scenes," he explained as he handed them over. "In the first incident, one man was killed. And it looked like the work of simple crazy." Choi began flipping through the pictures. "But last night, four men were apparently killed by the same person. The few folks who'll talk at at all say it was one guy. And it only took a minute or so."

Choi finished with the pictures. He laid them flat on the desk and slid them back to Mike. "And you wish what from me?"

"I don't really know," Mike admitted sheepishly. "I just got to thinking that somebody who could do that might be into some kinda martial arts. Maybe you could guess at what forms or techniques he's using or where he might've learned..."

Choi interrupted gently. "Please, Mr.. Mike. The movies have given 'martial arts' a mystique that may go beyond what is deserved. I cannot look at photographs and say that this is the work of so-and-so who studied in the school of whatchamacallit." He smiled again. "Besides, if that were on a computer screen rather than asphalt streets, I would think it the arena of a neo-ninja."

Mike blinked. "A what? Aren't ninjas mythical..."

"Not exactly. But I speak of neo-ninja, cyber-fighters."

With a look of skepticism Mike asked, "And what, pray tell, are neo-ninjas?"

Choi sat back in his chair and folded his hands. "Neo-ninja are today's pinball wizards. Super video game jocks." He paused, and Mike jumped in.

"Pinball wizards?" he asked. "I don't follow you."

"Sorry. A classical reference. No doubt, you are quite familiar with the wide variety of computer games which stress some sort of combat..."

"Sure. Like SyberWarrior. In fact, somebody at the scene this morning was joking about that. But..."

"But, Mike; those games are very basic, children's toys. Even the elaborate VR booths some folk have installed in their homes do not go all the way. But some hardcore gamers have."


"The most advanced games aren't sold in any stores. They run on anonymous servers on the Net. They support the most advanced virtual reality sims you'll find outside of a military simulator. Anyone can log in, for a fee. You can merely watch on a standard monitor, or you may sit in the audience in a virtual arena if you own a simbooth. But to compete... You need a simbooth, a holohood for additional visual overlays, and a full feedback controller suit. It's all quite expensive. And the bandwidth requirements are horrendous. But to the gladiators in the arena it is as close to real as one can get." Choi closed his eyes momentarily. "I am told that sometimes the experience becomes so real that a neo-ninja suffers psychosomatic equivalents of his injuries. There are rumors of deaths, though none have been substantiated."

"Good gods," Mike spoke, stunned. "But why? I suppose I can see the attraction of excitement without real risk; but the expense... This doesn't sound cheap."

"It isn't," Choi agreed. "It is very expensive. Several thousand marks, let alone dollars. And the best ninja are programmers, as well. What they lack in physical skills, they can sometimes patch around with software. They give their virtual selves improved reflexes and strength. There is even a fad for 'magical' weaponry; fireballs and such." He sighed. "But there is also much money to be made. There are prize purses built up from entry fees. And gambling on the side. In theory, a cyber-fighter can become rich. And it is legal."

Mike looked Choi over appraisingly. "You seem to know quite a bit about all this."

"Mr. Maudell, every few months I have a student drop out of the course because he's become convinced that Taekwondo is going to give him the needed edge in the VR arena. It hurt my pride that a computer could give my students what I could not. So I learned. And what I learned was that the weakness was in those students, and not myself."

Mike breathed deeply and sighed. "Then you think this is the work of a neo-ninja?"

"Oh, no. This is something real. The neo-ninja are essentially cowards. They can only deal with imaginary combat. Real risk, such as a fight in the streets," he pointed at the stack of pictures, "frighten them. If they wished real risk there are non-virtual arenas in which the spilled blood is all too real." Again he sighed. "No, Mike, I do not believe I can help you."

Mike stood and offered the Master his hand. "Directly, perhaps not. But you've given me valuable information and a clue as to where to look next. Thank you." The men said their farewells, and Mike went on his way.

More specifically, he went home; where he logged onto the Net. He accessed his main infoserver and ran some keyword searches for sites. And met with immediate success. Arena, neo-ninja, and game gave him VRP:Gladiator.com/gate. He dove in and hit the site. The homepage gave him the skinny on the routine. /gate got him to the main menu from which he could access the gaming statistics for free, or purchase admission to the games. Admission was billed at several rates for spectators, dependant upon their viewing mode. Flat video was nearly free, while at the other end of the spectrum was full sim booth "bleachers" participation for three marks per minute.

Admission for the cyber-fighters, or Gladiators as the management called them, was higher. A lot higher; max bandwidth full sensory-feedback participation ran nearly twenty five marks per minute. Mike was flabbergasted until he saw the draw. If he could last at least three minutes, even the loser could earn a share of the overall pot, which was based on the cover charge. A big name competitor with a large following stood to win thousands from the official pot alone. Mike considered the offpage betting possibilities, and whistled. This was serious business, and the ninja had to be sharp to stay ahead of their competition.

As he studied the site pages an idea that had started to form as Choi spoke jelled. Mike decided there were at least two reasons for a cyber-fighter to hit the streets. A warrior might have completely lost touch with homepage and no longer differentiated between the computer arena and the alleys. Or... Mike considered Choi's assertion that the ninja were cowards. Or maybe one thought he was hot enough that gangbangers were no real threat.

Maybe they were practice dummies.

Mike decided he needed to see these neo-ninja for himself. He checked the schedule on the homepage, and found a big billing tag team match coming up in a few hours. Good enough. He logged off and considered. "VR. Definitely," he mumbled to himself. "Might as well go all out. Be able to wander around while I'm 'investigating' this stuff." Mike frowned. "Now where the devil did I stick the hood and gloves?" He got up and searched his apartment. He finally found the desired interface hardware on a closet shelf. He spent the next few minutes plugging everything in. Then he configured his surfer to accept the VR driver data.

The VR display hood and controller gloves were years obsolete. But since he never played games or visited the imaginary worlds in the Net, Mike had not bothered to upgrade to even a sensor pad, much less a simbooth. With an internal projection screen in the hood, and no tactile feedback in the gloves, his gear was little better than that available at the turn of the century. But it would serve so long as he was a simple spectator.

He had just completed the setup when his phone warbled shrilly. He tapped accept and the comp screen lit again. "Maudell here," he directed to the phone display.

"Hey, Sherlock," Sergeant Schumick spoke from the screen.

Mike shook his head, smiling. "How many times do I have to explain that it's Mycroft; Sherlock's smarter brother?" He chuckled. "So what's up, Sarge?"

"Forensics lab ran your evidence right off, since you're prepaid. And we got some stuff for ya."


"Well, nothing," Schumick chided. "Fee's two thousand eighty five dollars. Run your card, and I'll zap the data to you."

"Sheesh," Mike muttered. "And people think I'm mercenary." He grinned and typed an access command. The comp transmitted his account data to the police department's accounting computer.

Onscreen, Schumick glanced down. "Got it. And here's yours."

A window open on Mike screen and told him he was receiving several megs of data."All right. So what did your guys come up with?"

Schumick glanced at a set of notes. "You'll find the details in the dump; but these're the high points. Slash wounds were inflicted with carbon steel blades. Consistent spacing indicates two sets of rigidly connected blades, three edges to a set. Spectro exam says the same blades did your client as did the bangers."

Mike nodded. "Good. I think I have a lead there. What else?"

Schumick checked his notes again, and went on. "You were right about the head wound. Looks like a boot heel. Again, consistent with the blunt trauma on your guy. Bullet... Would you believe .38 Special?"

"Huh. A traditionalist. A nice trait in a homicidal maniac, I suppose."

"And that links to another case, too. 'Bout five months ago somebody blew away another banger. Isolated, close range shooting. We figured some would-be muggee bagged a mugger. No big deal. His gang... " The cop looked down again and frowned. "...The Sacred Saints of Solicitude... jeez, the names they come up with... put up a nominal reward for bagging the shooter." He looked back up grinning. "Anyway, the caliber and rifling match in both shootings. So you stand to collect on two cases, if you nab this psycho."

Mike laughed. "Yeah, right. I can see strolling down the alleys asking for the Sacred Saints to cough up money." He paused and thought. "Anything in there on the original shooting? Any cuts or thumps on that guy?"

The sergeant shook his head. "Nothing on file. Didn't get much attention, being just another banger banged. And the corpse is long torched. So no joy there."

"Ah, well. Just a thought. Thanks for the quick work up on this." Mike checked his watch. "I gotta go. I've got a lead to check this evening, and I want to sort through your data first.

Catch ya later, Columbo."

"Later, Holmes." The screen blanked.

Mike got up and walked into his kitchen. He figured now was as good a time as any to get dinner. He could eat and read. A quick perusal of the refrigerator and cabinets showed little but sandwich makings. "Wunnerful," he muttered. "Peanut butter again." He looked in the cooler again. "And one beer. About time to go shopping again."

Short minutes later Mike eased back down into the chair at his comp, peanut butter sandwich and beer in hand. He sipped the beer, bit into the sandwich, and set them down on a pile of old hardcopy. He chased his mouse around the desk and called up BeatBrowser, a database search tool for reading standard PD report formats.

An hour later, the sandwich was stale, the beer was gone, and Mike was convinced that the perp was a neo-ninja. One banger had been killed with a single well placed high kick to the temple. Another had been killed with a single slash of that weird steel claw. The gunshot victim at that scene had also received a single kick to the sternum; half his ribs had been broken. It was a wonder that he had been able to draw the pistol the cops found clutched in his fingers. Unless it was out first; which was even more suggestive of a very aggressive predator, given that he had died without firing a shot.

The report on his own client had shown similar results. Both knees smashed by apparent kicks, and a single finishing slash to the throat. "Damn. And he was a pretty decent athlete, too. Pro boxer and all." Mike thought about that. Petty had been a sort of gladiator, and on his way up according to his manager who had hired him. Maybe the perp figured that made him fair game, or a worthy, if unarmed, opponent. Mike picked up the sandwich, then grimaced and tossed it into the waste basket. He was wondering if he should bother with another when his computer began chirping at him. He checked the time; the ninja match would begin soon.

He cleared BeatBrowser, and hit the Net. In a few minutes, he was at the Arena gates. He made his viewing selection and settled the old VR hood onto his head. With the display still flipped up, he pulled the gloves onto his hands. "What a damned clumsy clunker," he told himself. "Maybe I should go ahead and at least get a scanner pad and a new display. This sucks." He wiggled his fingers clumsily in the thick gloves, then swung the display down. He snapped his fingers...

...And was sitting in a small, crowded stadium. He stared about at the surrounding people and wondered if they were all actually logged in; or if they were just sims, part of the experience he was buying.

A voice boomed out, "Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to tonight's warm up match. I know you're all looking forward to Fireblade, but we think you'll like this." Mike turned back to the arena floor, where two garishly clad men had appeared. The announcer continued, "Tonight, Sergeant Dread..." A large man in camouflage pants and a blood red t-shirt raised two wooden swords... Bokken? Mike wondered. ... over his head and accepted the crowd's cheers. Again, the announcer went on with the introductions. "...battles Pasha, the Russki Menace!" This clown was dressed in what might have been an old-fashioned KGB uniform, as executed in Lycra, and carried a length of heavy chain. No doubt meant to be flashy and intimidating, Mike thought it was even sillier than Sergeant Dread's ensemble. "Gentleman! Make ready!" A pause as the combatants faced off and hefted their weapons. "Lay on!"

Quickly the display changed from silly to grotesque, as Mike watched two psychopaths batter each other to bloody pulp. He decided this was above and beyond the call of duty and not completely necessary to his investigation. He shut down the virtual arena, and considered what he had seen. If those two morons are representative of the field, the ninja are certainly crazy enough and violent enough to be my killer. But which ninja?

"Okay, 'Holmes'," Mike muttered to himself. "How do you connected one of these VR killers to the real killer?" He opened a notepad window onscreen and occasionally typed a few characters as he mused. Three sets of killings over a five month period; the killer isn't just going out for kicks every weekend. If he is practicing, is he practicing for specific events? "Cool. Maybe I can correlate fight dates to murder dates. It's a start. But..." He frowned for a moment. "Ah! They bet on these things, so..." He trailed off as he reestablished a link to Gladiator.com.

Mike worked his way through menus until he found what he wanted: fight history. "Darned right. How else could they handicap this garbage?" He copied a list of fight records starting six months back into BeatBrowser, and told it to match dates with the murders.

Obviously, with fights every night, there would be matches. By themselves, they meant nothing but... The search engine kicked back the expected matches. "So what else is common to..." Mike studied the fight cards. "Don't see a blessed thing." He frowned.

"Whoa, I'm going about this wrong." If he's in the ring the night of the fight, he ain't on the street killing people. He'd practice in advance." Mike went back and told the search engine to correlate murder dates with fights the day before the killings. More listings. The detective pored over the cards. " Bingo!" One particular combatant's name appeared every night. "Fireblade. Now why does that sound familiar?" He concentrated. "Heck, that announcer mentioned him. He fought tonight." So close.

Now what?

Mike called Schumick at the station early the next morning.

Schumick looked about half dead himself. "Whaddaya want already, Holmes?" His image dragged a coffee cup into view.

"Not a morning person, are you, Bob?" Mike snickered. The cop flipped him off, and sucked down caffeine. "It's about the Petty case I'm working, and those hacked up bangers," Mike explained.

"Yeah, I remember. What about 'em?" Schumick looked as though the coffee might be starting to work.

"Remember your crack about computer games?" Schumick nodded. "Well, I think you were right, sorta." Mike elaborated, "There's a sick bunch of SOBs on the Net who do virtual reality gladiator games. I think the killer is one of them, and is actually practicing for big matches by killing people."

Dubious only began to describe Schumick's expression. "Why do you have to screw with me so early in the morning,Sherlock?" More coffee. "Where the hell do you get these weird ideas?" he wondered.

"Okay, I know it sounds weird; but listen," Mike defended. "I checked fight history at a couple of these VR fight sites. Did a correlation with murder dates. Found one guy who always had a match the day after one of the killings." He paused and grinned as he watched the cop's face. "And get this: The bookies keep track of stats, techniques, stuff like that, of course. This Fireblade freak has always been one of the better rated fighters; but for the last five months, he's been undefeated." Schumick was still unconvinced, so Mike continued. "And his primary weapons in the arena are a pair of gauntlets with razor knife blades sticking out of them."

"What? Like claws?" The cop still did not make the connection.

"Yeah, like claws. Remember the slashed up victims?" Mike asked. "All those parallel cuts and slashes?"

Schumick blinked. "Oh my god." His eyes widened. "You're serious?" Mike nodded. "Well, where is this guy?" the cop demanded.

Mike shook his head. "I don't know yet. The fight sites all run major league privacy. But I've got some ideas." He frowned. "And one of them is pretty nasty. If this Fireblade really is practicing... Well, he has another big match on the thirtieth."

Schumick was definitely awake now. "So you think he's going to kill someone else on the twenty-ninth?"


"And you still don't know how to find him, or who he'll be after?"

Mike rubbed his temples, then looked back at his screen. "His target will be semi-random; but I figure he wants what he sees as worthy adversaries. Two outa three times, it's been gangbangers, and Petty was a prize fighter himself." He looked depressed. "Thing is, I might be able to trace him; but it won't be until his match on the thirtieth." He looked glum.

Schumick's expression matched Mike's. "After he's killed someone else."

"Yeah." The detective sighed "Anyway, I gotta go. I just wanted to give you a heads up about the twenty-ninth."

"Well, thanks, I think," Schumick replied. "I hope you know what you're doing."

With business out of the way, the two made their excuses and goodbyes. Mike broke the connection.

For the next few days, Mike started his morning by checking CrimeNET for any killings in Columbus. It was almost a record breaking week for the town; not a single homicide.

Until he checked in on the morning of the thirtieth. Two dead bangers, no witnesses. One dead by gunshot, .38 caliber. The other had a broken jaw and three evenly spaced punctures in his forehead. Hs brain had been shredded. Apparently Forensics had decided this was a hot case. Mike checked the Gladiator.com fight schedule, and set an alarm for that evening.

Come showtime, Mike was bundled up in his minimal VR gear, and logged into the arena. The warm up bout was over already; the detective had elected not to stress his guts anymore than necessary. The announcer was starting the intros for the main event.

"Our reigning tag team champions... Thrasher! ...and Mugwump!"

Sheesh, what names , Mike thought to himself. The two combatants seemed to be dressed in parti-colored tights and silly armor straight out of some low budget post-apocalypse movie.

The announcer continued, "...will do combat with their challengers... Lord Death!" Another man in some sort of spiked and studded red bodystocking blinked into view. "...and his partner, who is well known to us all as the reigning single combat champion and is for the first time ever teaming up with a partner... Fireblade!" The crowd went nuts. The screaming and cheering were loud enough that Mike reached up to drop the audio gain.

The object of the crowd's adoration was, for this venue, remarkably unassuming. Where the other ninja seemed to be editing their virtual selves to appear huge, Fireblade seemed to be of average height; maybe five foot ten inches, and around a hundred and sixty pounds. His clothing was more restrained, as well. He was garbed in old black BDU pants, combat boots, and a black turtleneck pullover. Also unlike the others, his face was concealed by a black ski mask. Almost normal, except for the gauntlets. Fireblade's hands were settled into large metallic gauntlets which reached nearly to his elbows. Six inch blades extended from the knuckles like talons; no doubt providing that part of the cyber-warrior's nom de plume. The incendiary aspect was not immediately evident.

Again the announcer bellowed. "Our honored gladiators tonight are competing for one of the larger purses we've offered. The survivors will share in a prize of ten thousand marks!" Mike whistled. At today's exchange rates that certainly was not chump change.

"Warriors! Make ready!" Below on the combat floor, each team conferred. Finally, one of the parti-colored barbarians stepped out to the ring center where he was joined by Fireblade.

Fireblade bowed slightly to his opponent, and was answered by a wave of the man's... A short sword? Mike realized, dumbfounded. The remaining combatants withdrew to opposite sides of the ring. The announcer called out, "Ave Caesar Imperatur! Morituri te salutant!" Somebody hadn't done his homework, Mike decided. That should have been said by the gladiators. "Begin!"

Below, Fireblade settled into a slight crouch, arms held up in something resembling a boxers stance. The other... Mugwump? ...took a deep breath... then raised his sword and charged. The range closed almost instantly. The barbarian swept the gleaming blade down diagonally in an attack intended to rip the black figure's ribcage apart. Fireblade threw up his left arm, bracing with his right and blocked the sword on his gauntleted forearm. Mugwump seemed numbed by the impact, and paused. 'Blade punched up with his talons and caught the sword between his own set of knives. He twisted and the sword flew out of Mugwump's deadened fingers. The crowd ooohed in happy horror. Fireblade executed a snap kick to his disarmed foe's chin. The neo-barbarian dropped to the floor. The man in black knelt on one knee and punched, sinking his claws into Mugwump's forehead.

"Jeezus Keerist!" Mike realized what he was seeing and suddenly flipped his visor up. Cursing the clumsy VR gloves he pounded at his keyboard. His comp began recording all the action, and dumped buffer of the first kill to a permanent file. .He swung the visor down again.

Mugwump's violated body had vanished. Fireblade stood alone in the ring, beckoning to Thrasher, who was holding back at the boundary. The black clad man waved again, and Thrasher stepped forward He seemed to be shouting something at Fireblade but the roar of the audience drowned it out. The cheerfully dressed barbarian drew TWO swords. The crowd's ambient noise level crept up. Mike cranked his gain down another notch. Thrasher walked towards his opponent, swords flashing in a showy display. At one point the blades crossed slightly. Fireblade reached out with a steel-encased hand and grabbed Mugwump's violated body had vanished. Fireblade stood alone in the ring, beckoning to Thrasher, who was holding back at the boundary. The black clad man waved again, and Thrasher stepped forward He seemed to be shouting something at Fireblade but the roar of the audience drowned it out. The cheerfully dressed barbarian drew TWO swords. The crowd's ambient noise level crept up. Mike cranked his gain down another notch. Thrasher walked towards his opponent, swords flashing in a showy display. At one point the blades crossed slightly. Fireblade reached out with a steel-encased hand and grabbed the top blade. He forced both swords down. Thrasher's eyes bugged out as he watched 'Blade's other hand sweep in from the side. The talons tore his throat out. The backhand return almost took his head off. Mike felt something rising and realized it was his gorge. He flipped the hood display and breathed deeply, hands propped on the desk. "Gods! These people are all crazy!" He turned to the monitor, leaving the hood display out of the way. The more complete experience of VR was more than he wanted to deal with.

Onscreen, A befuddled Lord Death was joining his partner in the ring. A scantily clad beauty also appeared and clasped their hands as the announcer boomed again. "Ladies and Gentlemen. The Victors..."

"Wait!" Fireblade had spoken. He shook his hand free of the girl's grasp. "Not yet."

"Excuse me?" boomed a surprised announcer.

Fireblade waved the girl back. Baffled and a little scared, she complied. Fireblade's left arm swung up and pointed at his partner. A softball-sized ball of fire erupted from his gauntlet and struck Lord Death, who collapsed to the floor. He lay there, his chest a smoking ruin, then vanished. The remaining neo-ninja looked towards the imaginary ceiling and spoke. "Now. You were saying?"

Mike disconnected. "He's nuts! He's a freaking psychopath!" Mike stared at the blessedly blank screen in horror. "His buggerin' MO is his bloody arena technique!" Then, "Oh Jeez..." His hands flew across the keyboard, and he swung the hood down.

Yes. Fireblade was still present, basking in the adulation of his admiring public.

Ghouls , Mike thought. This time Mike had paid premium rates to get a simulated presence right at the edge of the ring. He pushed forward, and called to the ninja, "Fireblade! I'd like to talk about your technique! Yo! Scissorhands!"

That got his attention. Fireblade's masked face spun towards Mike. "Who're you?" he demanded. He stepped forward menacingly.

"Mike Maudell, criminal investigator in Colum..."

"Sh... Disco!" Fireblade shouted, making a chopping gesture with one hand. And abruptly blinked out of sight.

"Dammit!" Mike flipped the hood back again and disconnected himself. "That was freaking brilliant, 'Sherlock'," he yelled at himself. "Get rattled by a sick show and give yourself away why not?" He slammed his fist into the desktop. He ripped off the stupid gloves and hood and tossed them to one side. Once more he rapped at the keyboard, hitting the arena site yet again. Connected, he requested a telecon with customer service. And waited.

It took ten minutes, but he got a human. "Yes, sir; what can I do to help you?" inquired the rather gawky-geeky young man on the screen.

My gods, Mike thought A stereotypical computer nerd is running this sick garbage. Aloud, he said, "Hi, I'm a new fan of Fireblade's. Just saw him for the first time tonight."

"Oh, yes! Wasn't that a fine display he put on," enthused the bespectacled young man.

"It certainly made an impression on me," Mike endorsed honestly enough. "And I'd really like to tell him so myself. Could you possibly give me his Net address or even a phone number?" Mike asked hopefully.

"I'm afraid that just isn't possible..."

"I realize you must get a lot of requests like this," Mike interrupted. "But I'd really appreciate it ever so much. And I could reimburse you for your time, of course," he hinted.

"I really am sorry. But I can't. It isn't that I don't want to be of service, but we never have any of the Gladiators' personal data. I have no idea who Fireblade might be in the real world."

Mike feigned disappointment. "Really?"

"Really. We operate on total anonymity," the service rep explained. "Fireblade pays his entry fees with online secure cash. It's untraceable. And all our prizes are paid out through guaranteed exchange deposits through an online bank in Honduras." The rep shrugged. "Due to the nature of our... entertainment, many competitors and spectators alike are more comfortable with this private arrangement."

"Damn. Is there no way at all of reaching him?" Mike pleaded. Is he going to buy this corny act? "Please? I really am willing to make it worth your while." He held up his credit card.

The young man stared nervously. He licked his lips and pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, and steeled himself. "Well... there is ONE thing you could try," he admitted.


"Do you know much about how the Net operates? Technically?"

"Not really," Mike confessed in complete honesty.

"Well, it's what we call a packet switched system. It's an old-fashioned sort of system in some ways, but the open architecture is wonderful for allowing almost indefinite expansion and access. Now, it isn't the best security oriented system because..."

Mike interrupted by clearing his throat rather obviously. The rep blinked, then, "Anyway, when a competitor hooks in, he isn't wired directly. The data to and from him goes in bursts... packets. For most applications this isn't a problem, but a cyber-ninja needs a lot of feedback to fight well. Back in the old days, say IPv6 and IPv7, that was it. Everyone's packets competed with everyone else's. Sometimes we got congestion." Mike hurrumphed again. "It matters," the technogeek assured the detective. "By IPv8, we tried something else. Big commercial loved the connectivity of the Net, but they wanted their bandwidth, and they wanted it now. So they combined asynchronous transfer mode's high bandwidth permanent virtual circuits with Internet Protocol's expansion and connectivity."

"There is a point to this?" Mike wondered aloud.

"Sure," Geek answered. "See, the virtual gladiator need max bandwidth, too. So they establish... temporary PVCs... ...there's an oxymoron.... from their machines to our servers. Gives them the guaranteed bits that they need for full feedback."

"So?" the investigator asked with a strong hint of impatience.

"So in the old days, a server or router didn't have to keep track of connection data once a connection was broken. They just somewhat passively passed packets." The Geek paused for air, then jumped in again. "But this newer system shot the shi... heck out of the old peering arrangements between backbone providers. They had to start charging each other for the high bandwidth PVCs dedicated to single users. So now we have to keep records for the provider to provider connections for billing purposes."

"You realize that none of that means a bloody thing to me?" Mike asked. "Can you just tell me how to find him?" He waved his credit card again. This seemed to focus the Geek, and he smiled apologetically.

"That means we have the IP address of Fireblade's Net provider, so we know who to bill. And they could get you Fireblade's address, maybe his phone number and real world name. If you're as generous with them as me." He grinned.

"So... How generous should I be with you?" Mike asked warily.

The Geek examined Mike appraisingly. "Say... One hundred marks?"

Mike winced internally. "Okay, then. One hundred marks for Fireblade's Net provider," he agreed. "Here's my account data... now." He tapped the confirming sequence, and one hundred marks worth of dollars sped invisibly around... the world? "Say," Mike asked, "Where are you guys located, anyway?"

"Transfer confirmed," the Geek reported. Then he looked back up. "We're in Alamogordo, New Mexico." His hands seemed busy at some unseen task.

"Is this going to take long?" Mike asked impatiently.

"Not at all. It should... There it is. Now write this down and don't lose it," Geek directed. "His service provider is NetIXComm in Columbus, Ohio."Bingo! Confirmation already! Geek tapped keys, then faced Mike once again. "You can do a name search and contact them via the Net."

Mike finished scribbling. Grinning, he replied, "That shouldn't be any problem at all. Thank you ever so much for your help." He smiled sweetly and disconnected. "Bleah. Sicko."

Mike considered what he had. Witnesses statements of a solitary, dark clad perp, modus operendi consistent with a demonstrated technique, suspect located in the right town, the video he had recorded from the death match. "Yeah, if I bundle it up right I should be able to get a warrant to crack the net server." He eyed his watch. Yeah, plenty of time. He set to work. He should have the warrant application ready to turn in to the Court Clerk first thing in the morning. And still have time to watch TV. Maybe something cheerful, like a dizney.

Privatization of investigations in Columbus had required a few changes in legal procedure. And a bit of streamlining. By lunchtime, Mike had his warrant to crack the customers database at NetIXComm. The paper also empowered him to act as a limited officer of the court; rather like a twentieth century bounty hunter. The situations were actually very close parallels.

Court documents safely in pocket, Mike decided not to fight traffic or search out a new parking space. The Net server was located in a nearby office highrise. He could walk there in fifteen minutes. And across the street was a fast food joint of acceptable quality. So, lunch first; then beard the dragon in its lair. Mike marched forth.

An hour later, fortified with flash food of a surprising degree of edibleness, Mike challenged the secretary at NetIXComm. He swung the glass door open and moved in swiftly. He walked directly to the secretary's desk saying, "Good afternoon! I'm Mycroft Maudell, an officer of the courts of Columbus." He extended the warrant, which the secretary accepted automatically.

"Good day, sir," the befuddled man said cheerfully. "What can I do to..."

Mike pointed at the warrant. "That is a warrant issued by the city court for access to your databases."

"Sir?" The secretary's mouth hung open. He reached a hand out to the intercom.

"Good idea," Mike noted. "I'll be needing to talk to the boss." He gestured for the worker to continue. He did.

"Ms. Askew," the man spoke into the intercom.

"Yes," returned a tinny voice.

"There's an officer of the court here to serve a warrant. I think you need to talk to him." The only response was a click.

Very shortly, a trim brunette with a professional aspect stepped into the reception area. I'm Mandy Askew, she introduced herself. "Is there some problem?"

"I certainly hope not," smiled Mike. "I'm Mike Maudell, a criminal investigator..." Askew's eyebrows rose. "No, ma'am; I'm not investigating you or NetIXComm," he reassured.

"Then what precisely are you investigating, Mr. Maudell?" she asked politely enough. The secretary handed her the warrant.

"A series of murders," Mike began. Askew and the secretary both started in surprise.

"Murder? Involving us?" the woman inquired. She broke the seal on the documents and began skimming over them.

"Yes ma'am, I'm afraid so. The suspect is a computer gamer, a neo-ninja. I've traced him as far as your Net server. But I need your help to finish tracking him down." He waited.

She looked up from the court papers. "Well, they seem to be in order. But would you mind waiting while I verify this with the courthouse?"

"Not at all. I'll have a seat out here." He planted himself in an easy chair facing the secretary. Askew retreated to her office.

While he waited, Mike amused himself by acquiring sales literature in quantity from the lobby display while the secretary's back was turned. It looked interesting enough, and one never knew when it could be handy to look like a comm service sales weenie. Fifteen minutes later, Mike was scratching his head over a magazine description of datacomm protocols when he heard the tinny output of the intercom again. "Thomas, please bring Mr. Maudell to my office." Mike got up and bowed towards the secretary.

"Lead on," Mike directed. Thomas lead.

As Mike stepped into Askew' office he looked around. She had eschewed the more common corporate somber opulence of woodgrain and brass for cheerful pastels. "Nice. But it needs a window," he observed.

"A window would only show dirt and concrete, I'm afraid," Askew replied. "You forget that we're in the subbasement. The price to pay for easy access to our buried cables," she explained.

"Ah. Yes, I suppose so." Mike sighed. "So, can we get started?"

"Everything checks out, so I believe we can. I've read the documents; but suppose you explain in nonlegal terms what you're looking for. Then I can figure out how best to come up with it."

"Sounds good," Mike answered, relieved that things seemed to be going smoothly. "I think what I want is simple enough. The suspect I'm after was logged into the Net last night; roughly from 7:30 p.m. local to 8:10. He had a high bandwidth..." he paused while he groped for the term. "...PVC, connected to a particular server. I've got that that machine's IP address."

"Yes, it's in your documents. Do I want to know how you got all that?"

"Why, through a standard traceroute, of course," Mike replied innocently, then grinned. "All quite legal, oddly enough."

"Hmmph." Askew grinned back. "So you want to know which of my customers was on that PVC, right?"

"If at all possible."

"It's a lot easier than you may think. That's standard data, used for billing. And we're mostly a residential provider; we have very few customers with more than fractional T3s. And only a couple with PVC options. Shouldn't take long at all."

"Excellent! I don't know as much about Net workings as I might wish; I was afraid this was something that would take all night."

"Nope. It's really quite standard procedure," Askew explained. "The only irregularity is passing the information to a third party. And your warrant takes care of that."

"Cool!" He smiled.

Askew turned to her terminal and tapped away. "It'll only be a minute," she said. "Lessee... dot 145... ...six would be..." She watched her screen. "Here's the basic account info," she offered. "I recognize this name. Guy's paying serious money for a burstable OC12. Weird."

"Why's that weird?" Mike asked. He accepted the sheet she proffered.

"He's paying a couple of grand a month for a wideband fiber optic line. That's a lot of bandwidth for a home user, even today. But he doesn't want it all the time. Usually it's just a trickle; he hardly runs more than a couple of megabits per second. Then for a couple of hours every week or two... Wham! Maxes the pipe at around 540 megabits. Hardly seems cost effective, for how rarely he uses the full OC12.

"540 meg." Mike shook his head. "I remember when I was a kid; thirty-three six kay modems were hot stuff. Unless you went all the way to ISDN. Sheesh." He read the second sheet. "Aaron Jacobus. Hmm. I love his billing history, too."

"Yes," Askew agreed. "That's the other reason I remembered the account. He falls way behind, then suddenly pays in full including penalty charges. By certified transfer."

"That's probably when he wins a big match," Mike mentioned. Askew shot him an inquisitive look. "Aaron-boy's a neo-ninja, a gladiator, play for pay. He fights VR duels for high stakes," he explained.

"I've heard about that stuff." She grimaced. "supposed to be very realistic, very gory. And extremely sick."

"It is. I darned near lost my dinner watching this guy's bout last night. Surprised I didn't have nightmares about it."

"And you want him for real murder, too? What's he doing; practicing in gangland..." She stopped suddenly, and paled. "Those gang member killings in the alley the other day... Was that him?"

Mike nodded. "We think so. And three more that we know of."

"My god. But why?" she whispered. "Why kill in the real world?"

"I don't know," Mike replied gravely. "I may not ever understand. But I think he is practicing."

"Practicing for a video game?"Askew looked horrified. "That's sick."

"No kidding. I think he's using the streets as a training simulator for his game."

Askew stared in horror.

Mike spent the better part of that night parked down the street from Aaron Jacobus' house. It was a small, unassuming place on the southeast side of town. And fairly close to Main Street and the Interstate. Easy access to his practice dummies, Mike speculated. He was staying at home tonight, though. Only killing computerized ghosts, I hope. Mike had wanted to make the bust immediately. But by the time he gotten out of NetIXComm's offices and had the new warrant application prepared, there was only enough of the business day left to file it. And before issuing a private officer an arrest warrant, the judge would no doubt spend hours going over the package. "Should count myself lucky, I guess. In the nineties we never would have got this psycho." Mike reached over to the passenger seat and grabbed his thermos of coffee. "Won't this clown ever go to bed?"

Inside, Aaron Jacobus was still trying to evaluate threat levels. What did that cop in the Arena want? If he wants me for my Columbus kills, why contact me through the Net? If they know enough about me to know my Warrior persona, why not bust me in person? Heck, maybe it's even a coincidence. I can't believe I panicked and disco'd without spoofing the guy. Hey! Maybe he's a real fan. I've heard that some cops are in it 'cause they like being manhunters. I'll bet that's it. Heck, if they were after me, I'd know by now; it's been over thirty hours since the cop showed. I always heard that when they ID you they move real fast. Yeah, he probably wanted my autograph or some such. I'm still clean. Certainly I never left any evidence on the practice fields. Fireblade smiled, having reassured himself. In the real world and the True World, he was still the best. And besides, the simulations were expendables, violent nonentities. They didn't matter. And the cops would probably thank him if they understood the stakes. Finally satisfied, Fireblade killed the lights and lay down to sleep.

By noon the next day, the police team was in place. With the footwork done, the case moved out of the privatized investigations realm and into enforcement. The uniforms put away the evidence bags and donned ballistic jackets. Having been responsible for the investigation, Mike was still named as the responsible court officer in the arrest warrant. Here the modern criminal investigator's role merged with that of the old bounty hunter. The difference being that he would have police support for the bust.

"Remember," Mike had told his PD support team. "This guy is both psycho and very skilled at ripping people apart. Don't challenge him. Don't let him close on you. If he tries, shoot him. You've seen the video. He's dangerous. Be careful."

So it was that Mike was leading a ten man tacteam to bust one guy. Two officers held back by the police vehicles out of sight of the perp's house. The other eight cops were infiltrating Jacobus' yard and covering all possible exits. The one man not in uniform, Mike sat in his car across the street from them house and waited. When the concealed officers checked in on their comms, and Mike saw that his two entry backups were in place on the front porch, he got out of the car. Feigning calm, he walked up to the door. He drew his pistol and settled flat against the wall to the side of the door. Pistol held ready, he rapped on the door with a foot, and shouted,"Aaron Jacobus! I have a warrant for your arrest! Come out with your hands on top of your head..." Inside, he heard a muffled obscenity and frantic scurrying. "Damn. We're going in!" He spun and kicked the door. The cheap hollowcore construction gave way immediately. It swung in, hanging loosely from one hinge. Mike followed, shouting, "Police! You're under arrest!"

The front den was clear. Noises came from down the short hallway to the rear. One of the backup uniforms keyed hi comm and called, "Move in! Suspect in rear! Officers in front proceeding to rear!" He followed as Mike lead the way back.

Mike reached the rear bedroom. A slender stood with his back to the door, leaning over the bed. "Jacobus! Freeze! You're under arrest!"

The figure spun blindingly fast, hurling an object. With a solid thunk a crude replica of Fireblade's taloned gauntlet sank its blades into the door frame. Mike blinked, and called again, "You're under arrest, Fireblade!"

"No!" Jacobus screamed. His left arm shot out clutching an old fashioned revolver. He fired.

Mike felt the slug slam into his ballistic vest, and jerked back in pained reaction. Jacobus extended his right arm, encased in the mate to the hurled gauntlet; he crouched to leap.

And Mike fired. Double-tap to center mass. Jacobus stood still, silent in the sudden quiet following the shots. He looked down at his bloody chest in shock. "But... I... ...won," he croaked in disbelief. Then he fell forward, and lay unmoving on the floor.

Mike moved into the room, the two uniforms following, covering. He heard the rest of the tacteam moving. He stood over Fireblade's form. He nudged the head with a toe. "Game over."


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