Time had lost any sort of meaning in this place. Albert’s only method for determining how long he had been in this sandy shithole was counting the number of fights he’d been forced into since his virtual self “woke” up here. Sixteen fights since then, sixteen opponents he had somehow bested by improvisation, tenacity and dumb luck. Between the fights, Albert could only remember pain followed by drinking binge style blackouts full of merciful darkness. The pain, as intense as any he’d ever experienced, wasn’t exactly physical pain. His GlobalNet avatar could transmit pain to his brain, of course – that ‘feature’ was part and parcel of the full-sensory experience of the crèche connection. His brain knew somewhere deep, in some primal animal place that this avatar’s body was not his own, which muted the pain but providing no opportunity to soothe it with normal physical reactions, such as rubbing a bruise, or scratching at an itch.

His avatar had lost arms twice, and his left leg below the knee once, and the mental pain had been indescribable. The soothing darkness had swallowed him and upon waking the limb had been regrown. His screaming mind had told him the limb did not, could not, exist, and it had taken what felt like hours to calm his thoughts enough to use the new virtual limb. No sooner had he regained his mental balance than he’d been thrust into battle once again by his captors. 

No stranger to GlobalNet arena battles, Albert had enjoyed the adulation of the crowds, the rush of virtual danger made more real by the pseudo-pain, and most importantly, he’d enjoyed the winnings from side bets he’d place on himself. Though his freelance hacking paid the rent and kept him in a crèche, the cut from his arena battles covered the luxuries on and offline. The underground GlobalNet arena scene thrived despite violating the GlobalNet terms of service in every net-connected country. Albert knew enough to avoid the scummiest arenas, the places where real-life physical damage and even death were not only possible, they were frequent. He flitted through various standalone arenas and the gladiator scene of many of the multiplayer virtual worlds run by commercial enterprises and private enthusiasts. From Ars-Perthnia to RealerLife, from Carnivore to the Mountains of Mars, Albert’s gladiatorial pseudonym Mu had become known as a fierce competitor. Like a long-lost memory of someone else’s life, he recalled his last victory in the Silverine Caverns of Demonia. He had stood swaying unsteadily as the crowds cheered his triumph over the Bastard Twins, a pair of chimerical conjoined monster twins with two heads on one mythical body. His foot pressed against the stilled lion-like chest of the beast, the crowd wild with bloodlust. His virtual vision had derezzed to blackness.

Dusty light had filtered down through the bars of the arena entrance as he woke, causing him to blink and cough even though his virtual body drew no real breath. Every sensation he might have normally felt on the GlobalNet was amplified, as if the input feed on his connection had been boosted exponentially. Virtual life had never felt so real. The heavy chains on his arms caused his back to bend, and it ached with the weight. His hands were mangled nightmares, bloody stumps with blades sewn into the wrists. His normal avatar, a wiry muscular humanoid body with the dexterity of a dancer and the power of a martial artist, had been replaced with the bulk of a giant, a beast of barely human strength. When his mind had finally become adjusted to the enhanced sensory overload, he had noticed her standing behind him, clad in all six foot two inches of leather. Her mysterious, vaguely Asian good looks were completely destroyed by the detached cruelty in her eyes. She had prodded him in the back with something that felt like electric fire, forcing him out the door and into the bloodiest arena battle he had ever seen. The victory had taken forever, and it had hurt more than any battle he’d ever faced. After every victory, every defeat, no matter the location, no matter the arena, she had been there, prodding him forward into battle.

Today, she woke him with the prod, searing him to life with angry fire. “Wake up, Albert,” she said with a hint of a Cantonese accent, a singsong nature to her words that would have been endearing were it not on the end of a cattle prod. “You have fighting to do.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m awake, Angela,” Albert had been trying name after name on her, to see if any seemed to fit, but none had. “And don’t call me Albert. You’re gonna treat me like a fucking slave, at least call me by my gladiator name.”