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I gentled the Toyota down through the damp sky. My roof flared into welcome as always, which meant that the security systems in the loft hadn't seen anything they didn't approve of since my departure that morning. I told the carcomp to land us, deciding that I didn't need another noise complaint or airspace warning tag - the main attraction of my loft was its private roof pad and approach lane over the choppy waters of Boston Harbor. Another couple of citations for manual landings and I'd lose access privileges, watch AirCon stuff me back into the lemming pack of a subway commuter existence. No family, no real expenses save the house and the ruinous credit that went into the Toyota and its never-ending hunger; I couldn't see a reason to risk it.

The carcomp landed with barely a kiss, as it always did. The fans feathered to neutral as the hub stators nulled, speeding up momentarily before beginning the long spin down to silence. I grimaced and rubbed my eyes in the evening glow of the Boston Downtown skyline, pushing its way into the car through a myriad highways of water vapor as the fog sent tendrils over the edge of the roof.

Cracking the door, I remembered to bring my briefcase and handheld before palming the lockpad on the car and trudging across the roof to the metal door securing the staircase. It relaxed to the approach of my handheld, inside my jacket, but it still took the old metal Medeco key on my neck chain to coax it finally open.

I've never been mugged inside my apartment, and I've lived in this city over fifteen years.

Of course, a lot of people say that they've never been mugged in their apartments either, and they don't bother with anything like the systems my pad has. I always shrug and mumble something about better to have and not need and they decide it's not worth ribbing me about. My private paranoia isn't their problem.

The metastack in the middle of the loft space would be, if many of them knew it existed. It consisted almost entirely of custom nanobuilt logicblocks, with Peltier channels grooved throughout it. It has probably a fiftieth the computing power of Citibank, but don't tell them that - things like that make them nervous as all hell. It's got all kinds of pop art on the outside to try to make it look like a structural column that I couldn't remove when the loft was renovated; if you aren't in the metaware trade it might fool you. As long as it's not on a Run, that is; when it is, hot air cycles out ducts from the top out the roof of the pad and flumes into the night air in columns of infrared treason.

Mikarecursore was born in there.

I have a permit for a high-cap nanostack, ostensibly for making flitter fuel. I have one, too - it's in the corner, and it's maybe a quarter the size of the one my permit says I can have. Also, I tend to feed it distilled water, not the mixed pollutants that you can feed an industrial nanostack - that reduces the power load and heat load when it's on. The extra expense of the quality inputs means that the power output of the metastack can be explained away as a nanostack laboring through the night to crack benzenes and monoxides into beaded molecular hydrogen, rather than the much lower-cost transition from pure water.

At the moment, the top of the metastack was flaring blue to green and back in a slow pulse along a ring perhaps a centimeter tall. I slung the bags onto a chair, opened the fridge and pulled out something with caffeine and pollutants in it to drink before heading over for my Desk.

Mikare wanted to talk to me.

This wasn't really Mik, of course - but it would be difficult for anyone who didn't know Mikare intimately to figure that out, which was the point. What I did when linked, as Mikarecursore, was technically legal - at least when I Flashrun. But Mik could, and did, do other things from time to time - and like any superhero, as Arjen and Sly had called me, there might come a time when it would be worth more than any thing to be demonstrably here while Mikare was there. So, daily, I talked to the heuristics. Daily, they sounded more and more like 'me.' They still couldn't fool Clotho, or Farnham, or any of the other core 'runners, but to someone who was looking for Mikare based on a description or recorded encounters, they'd do fairly well. Every conversation I had thickened the safety net.

"Mik, it's me."

Hey Top. The voice was baritone, extremely level, just like Mikare's on the few occasions he spoke. Here it came from every direction at once as Mikare stole channels to the pad's ambient systems.

"What's going on?" I cracked the top of the soda and felt it chill.

There's a problem, Top. I think your dinner is going to be late.

I didn't choke on the soda, but it was hard.

The pad had two floors. The top, just below the roof, was one gigantic space which held the metastack and various other tools and gear for both Net work and for the Toyota's occasional forays into the mud and water (salt and fresh) of the SCCA rally circuit. Below that was a four-room space of the same size and shape, connected by an industrial metal staircase in one corner; the staircase opened into a parlor that I never used since I rarely entered by my front door. Off the parlor was a bathroom, a living room with dusty but more formal furniture, a full kitchen instead of the kitchenette corner the top floor had, and a dining room.

Mikare had just told me the dining room was occupied.

Worse yet, the security systems hadn't said a damn thing.

"Well, that sucks." I determinedly took a swig of the soda. "Is it gonna be cold when it gets here, or still hot?"

I think it'll be cold, but probably still edible.

Well, at least whoever it was didn't look like they were waiting to jump me.

"Okay. Thanks. Um, look, can you preheat something for me then, and give me a few minutes? I'll want to eat pretty quickly." This was not in my admittedly highly paranoid security routines, and I sweated behind the soda can while I waited for Mik - what there was of him at the moment - to try to figure out what I meant. No problem. You're paranoid. He's paranoid, then. Gotta be.

I'll warm up something Japanese. Is that okay? As several muscles relaxed in my gut from relief, I heard a slight rising sound from above. The Toyota's fans had stopped coasting and were whining under power as they spun back up to lift speed. He'd figured it out.

"Thanks Mik." I strolled over to the armchair I'd ditched my bags in. I picked up my workbag in my right hand, pretending to fumble in the outer pocket with my left, and turned away from the chair. I was heading roughly in the direction of the roof stairs as I cursed and rummaged inside the bag, looking up only when I had to in order to navigate the steps. Somewhere above me, the Toyota was moving from a whine to a quiet snarl as the fan blades twisted. I heard the slight creak as its weight lifted off the pad's hardpoint above me and the roof restressed, but at that moment I had to look up in order to bolt up the stairs without tripping.

There was a man standing on the steps.

That was my first thought. The second was that he was really, really, really big. The third, as I stumbled backwards on my way towards falling flat on my ass, was that he was wearing what looked like high fashion body armor.

The final thought before my tailbone hit the floor with a painful jolt was that we weren't alone on the floor. The voice from the top of the stairway leading to the lower floor sent a bucket of ice down my spine just because I'd known the stairs were empty, just like I'd known the door to the roof was unblocked.

"Sit down, Christopher. It's okay. We just want to talk."

Shit.

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