“So you gave her your personal passwords, your credit card number, and your Social Security number even though you’d only just met?” said Officer Carruthers incredulously.

“You don’t understand!” wailed the quivering lump of pale manflesh in the precinct office. “She had dyed hair…she was so vibrant and quirky, I just…I just felt a connection!”

“Even so, Mr. Daniels, surely you must have had some idea that things weren’t on the level,” added Chief Strong, trying and failing to sound sympathetic rather than annoyed.

“She said she wanted to grind for loot for me in Dungeons of Krull,” blubbered Daniels, “and she wanted to register so we could play together!”

“Gentlemen I believe I may be of some assistance here.” At the sound of that familiar voice, both Carruthers and Strong recoiled. “Not again.”

“Yes, gentlemen, it is I: Sherwood Greg. Collector, scholar, dungeon master, level 25 elven sorceress, head of the Council of Twelve, and overall coordinator for Nerdicon.” The rotund form of Sherman Gregward, as he was known to the state, waddled into the office. If nothing else, he made Daniels look svelte by comparison.

“What is it, Gregward?” snapped Chief Strong. “Can’t you see that we’re in the middle of something? How’d you get in here, anyway?”

“I heard the cry of a kindred spirit in need, echoing throughout the blogisphere,” said Sherwood Greg grandly. “And it just so happens that your man at the front desk is a fan of Glowworm, and now has a complimentary ticket to the cast and crew panel at this year’s Nerdicon.”

The officers exchanged looks of intense annoyance. “Well, we’ve got a fairly straightforward case of identity theft here, Gregward,” said Officer Carruthers. “So I don’t know what help you can be.”

“On the contrary, our mutual friend Mr. Daniels–AKA Armageddetron82–has fallen victim to a recent trend that I like to call the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl Scam.’ Namely, a savvy con artist aping the two-dimensional wish-fulfillment female characters so prevalent in entertainment for the purposes of cutting-edge fraud and social engineering.”

“I think we had figured that part out,” said Chief Strong. “What can you do that we can’t?”

“I can offer myself up as bait, of course,” said Sherwood Greg. “For I assure you that seeing the con artist who has been ravaging the local nerdgeek and geeknerd community brought to justice is foremost on my mind, and I am a far more tempting target than either of you could ever hope to be.”

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It was kind of a love-hate thing, really. People saw it on his resume or on the internet that Simon Mullins had worked on Megabot 3, the third and best-received in the long running Megabot series, and they invited him to conferences and other events, often with an honorarium. It was tough for someone who only made web design money to turn the offer down, even if the same thing inevitably happened.

Someone would ask a specific question about Megabot 3: “Did you know about the endless hitbox bug when using Seabot’s Salt Trident on Professor Wild’s third boss robot?”

Simon would answer: “Well, I worked on the PC version of the game.”

“There was a PC version?” That was the most common response. If anyone had actually heard of it–which, thanks to the internet, an increasing number did–the comments were usually along the line of “The PC version sucked.”

And that was it. The actual designers of Megabot 3 lived in Japan and spoke no English (in addition to using pseudonyms like “Pan Pan” or “Nobuo-Kun’s Daddy” in the credits). So there was no chance they’d ever show up at Nerdicon. And the PC version of the game was notorious for its perceived low quality, if anyone had even heard of or played it.

No one ever asked or wanted to hear about how Simon had wrangled the Megabot license out of Kapcami Ltd by spending half a day on a long distance phone call to Honshu and sending a cashier’s check for ¥49,065 (about 500 bucks). No one wanted to know how he had carefully, and legally, copied assets from a frame-by-frame study of a Megabot 3 cartridge. No one wanted to know how he painstakingly coded–by himself–an engine that would produce a comparable effect to a console game, with original levels and Botmasters that would work on DOS-based machines.

In that era before multiple platform releases and emulators, the Mullins Laboratories Megabot 3 had been the only thing close to a Megabot game on the PC. It had even reaped about $10,000 in profits, enough to pay off one of Mullins’ student loans. But that wasn’t enough to keep him from being tarred as the “guy behind the crappy PC port.”

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Dale’s Remote Piloted Drone loomed large on Cam’s viewscreen, attached to one of the many pieces of icy debris that made up planet HD 11765d’s ring.

“Cam and Ev,” Dale’s voice said. “I wouldn’t have figured you two to be the ones to find me.” His transmission was a nightmare of static and interference, with no video link. With a start, Cam realized that he was transmitting from his RPD to theirs rather than simply linking to their pilot stations on Earth, which was a lot more reliable and less expensive.

“Switch to a earthbound link, will you?” Ev said. Her image on the left of Cam’s screen was scowling. “I can barely hear you.”

“No,” Dale cried. “I’m totally off the grid here, at least as much as that’s possible. I’ve hacked my RPD to pieces to keep their prying eyes away, and I’m not letting them listen in on an earthbound link.”

“Who’s ‘them,’ Dale?” said Cam. “The government that set up the remote relay network? The company that you leased your RPD from? The people buying the mineral and colonization rights you’re charting and selling? This whole thing has always been about listening in. It’s the only way to cash in.”

“Wrong!” Dale cried. “Wrong. I’m on the cusp of something big, Cam. Really big. If they knew…knew for sure…they’d disconnect me.”

“Big whoop,” Ev said. “You’d lose your RPD and have to get a job on Earth instead of sitting in your apartment hooked up all the time.”

“No…that’s not it at all,” Dale said. “If what I’ve found is true, they can erase me as surely and completely as you trashing a bad song. If what I’ve found is true…there isn’t an Earth to go back to, at least not one we’ll ever be able to reach.”

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Officer Caruthers rubbed the back of his head. “Chief Strong has brought in an…outside advisor.”

Detective Gorrister sighed. “Strong and his outside advisors. This isn’t another radio psychic, is it?”

The apartment door nudged open, and a large man waddled in. He was dressed in Lincoln Green, and his greasy dark hair was thin in front and long and flowing in back, as if it were being grown out for a comb-over. “Hardly,” the man said. “Like any expert, I am here because of my overwhelming knowledge of and appreciation for the applicable lore.”

“Sherman Gregward,” Caruthers said. “He helped us out with that hostage situation a few months ago.”

“Please address me by my true name, Sherwood Greg, if you please,” intoned the man. “Collector, scholar, dungeon master, level 24 elven sorceress, head of the Council of Twelve, and overall coordinator for Nerdicon. Pre-registration for Nerdicon ’13 begins next week, and I’ve got plenty of plus ones if anyone’s interested.”

Gorrister gripped the bridge of her nose. “And what, exactly, do you bring to the table, Maid Marion?”

Sherwood Greg walked to a nearby end table and slapped down a thick deck of worn cards. “That’s what I bring to the table,” he said.

“A deck of Magick: Battle of Warlocks cards?” Corruthers snapped. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“You tell me, detective.” The corpulent collector cut the deck and revealed a card called The Multiphase Fleshwalker. It depicted a beautiful woman with one leg and one arm denuded of flesh, drawn in a quasi-realistic fantasy style, with the following text beneath it:

Strength 6/Defense 6
Costs three cornfields to activate
Restore one life to casting warlock
Protect casting warlock from life damage for one turn when rotated
Once rotated, may not be used unless caster rotates an additional six cornfields
“They restore one’s flesh at the cost of their own, and are always looking for a lifeforce to drain to restore the beauty they so desperately crave but never attain.”

“Holy shit,” said Caruthers. “It’s just like the murder.”

Sherwood Greg nodded toward the mutilated corpse behind the two officers. “Looks like someone is desperate to restore their life points,” he said.

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