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One of the immutable truths of the Ouroverse was the Voluntary Wall. Nothing in the Ouroverse could affect a Verse user without his or her consent; nothing would even appear to exist without their approval - implicit if not explicit. The concept of the 'friends list' from turn of the century instant messaging systems extended to cover the entire virtual world to prevent its citizens from being disturbed. Reality filters descended from spam blocking ensured they could avoid exposure to anything that might offend them, if they wished. There were practical considerations as well; since avatars did not clip - block each other - without special circumstances, crowded locales literally became increasingly opaque and difficult to see through unless aggressive filtering was easy to employ.

The corollary to this cocoon of pull technology was the rock-solid confidence on the part of all of its users that nothing in the Ouroverse could affect them or their systems without their consent. This wasn't to say that there was no malware; on the contrary, there was a great deal of it floating around. However, in order for an avatar to communicate with (or even see in any detail, therefore) another avatar, both users needed to have a minimum level of peer communication enabled in their Ouroverse clients. Although the basic fact of each others' existence and basic appearance could be gleaned from the Ouroverse servers themselves, any more detailed communication would require the clients to communicate directly - which would require them both to allow it.

Most people who had been in the Verse longer than a few days quickly learned to set their default filtering fairly high.

The other reason for complacency was the fact that because of this arrangement, although the Ouroverse used the Revenet for communication, it sat atop it. Attacks through the network were still common, but 'location' in the Ouroverse and 'location' in the Revenet were completely separate concepts - and since the Ouroverse infrastructure was a closed layer, that wasn't about to change.

There were exceptions, of course. The Flashrunners and their opponents fought battles over the very nature of that separation. Groups attempting to subvert server clusters would, in essence, attempt to breach the barrier between Revenet machine location and Ouroverse location in order to target their attacks. There were numerous techniques for doing so. Most involved signals analysis of varying levels of complexity. Small pieces of agent code would be disseminated throughout the 'Verse as widely as possible, and then machines known to be running Ouroverse server VMs would be attacked or disturbed on the Revenet. Eventually, careful observation by the vast webs of agent bots could produce correlations between known attacks at the network level and observed abnormal server behavior at the Verse level. If the attacker was very lucky and very good, could do so fast enough to identify all the machines serving a particular tile before the normal Ouroverse operations caused the running image of that tile to either expand to additional servers or simply rotate to a new cluster.

Once that list of machines was available, the attack began in earnest. Once the attack began, the Flashrunners would have hopefully noticed.

It was their self-appointed mission to prevent these coordinated attacks from succeeding. Luckily for them, all they had to do was work within the system. Since the only clusters which were practical to attack were those serving very low-traffic, out of the way tiles, all that had to be done to disrupt an attack that might have taken days or months to gather a machine list for was to have enough avatars move into the affected tile to force the running cluster to migrate the tile's image to a larger machine cluster somewhere else around the Revenet - and the attacker would have to start all over again.

The catch, of course, was that the Ouroverse operated under a fairly strict set of physics rules concerning travel in the common spaces in order to preserve the illusion of reality. That meant that getting to these remote squares quickly was a matter of no little skill, and required a fair amount of knowledge of precisely how the Ouroverse was put together - both in terms of virtuography and in terms of infrastructure. The really good Flashrunners cheated everywhere they could. To be a Flashrunner was to be an obsessive computer-gaming Parkour fanatic with a computer cracking fetish and a fascination with networking technology - and the ability and willingness to synthesize all that just because it was cool.

Naturally, there were a fair few of them. Mikarecursore was recognized as one of the very best.

Although everyone knew him as one of the fastest, best-coded, most knowledgeable Flashrunner avatars in the Verse, there was something about him that no-one else in the Verse knew.

He wasn't the only avatar who carried a gun. But his was the only one that actually worked.

* * *

Mikare had been inverse for more than six hours, which wasn't a very long time to be upnet. He'd been on the move the entire time, however, which was an awfully long time to be fully engaged in his peculiar profession of speed and maneuver, and he was beginning to tire. His reactions were slowing as fatigue toxins robbed his neurotransmitters of a clear path. Without looking behind him, he dodged between the Monorail track and a NewsLINK kiosk, juked sideways to put three or four pieces of structural iconography between him and his backtrail, and continued without a pause behind the Gridscraper that he'd brushed past before circling around it to his right and reversing his track.

Despite the speed with which he'd performed the switchback, his pursuer was nowhere in sight by the time he came back around in view of the Monorail again. Without pausing, he looked both ways before bolting across the 'vard, but there was no sign of a bullet on the rails in either direction. He passed back under the Monorail track and headed towards the Virgin Datastore he'd come out of twelve seconds prior, flickerjack stuttering out its smearing song of interstitials to the server as it tried to grab at his bootsteps. The Virgin doorway phased him through obediently (Virgin had never spent the CPU cycles on livedoors, leaving blank rendered closed doors that didn't bother to open) and ignored the few avatars looking up at his entrance to duck for the select booth at the back. In, listen as his flickerjack ups the string, hex digits chanting across his link, wait for the slight resolution shift (shadow suggestion of block rendering, flickering back up to realrez) and then out of the booth again and across the street.

Mikare jumped a bench, grabbed at the top slat of the bench back as he cleared it and swung himself around behind it. A touch of his 'jack caused his shiftskin to fade to the neutral grass texture of the parkland plat on which the bench rested. Lying flat, he turned his head to the right and locked his slitted eyes on the Virgin doorway, closed and still.

There was no official way to track a select transport through a megacorp datastore unless the corp itself was the one after you; there certainly wasn't supposed to be a way to do it in realtime unless the pursuer was intimately connected with the corp's private server inrastructure. Mikare had picked the Virgin store at random; it was unlikely that the avatar which had been trailing him for three hours and flat out pursuing him for twenty minutes - since he'd given up the game and bolted - was working with or for Virgin.

Nevertheless, he came out of the Virgin doorway eight seconds later, heading directly for the bench. Mik swore to himself somewhere off in the hazy memory of meatspace. The other, a fairly non-descript but obviously expensive human realrender or perhaps 3scan, wasn't looking at the ground behind the bench but was looking directly past the bench itself. He was holding his left hand in a peculiar manner, too...Mik considered bolting, but the unknown thought held him. A moment later, he knew why when his pursuer raised his flattened left hand and glanced into the palm as if reading something there and then turned to look back into the Virgin shop before turning back to look at the bench, a frown coming across his face.

Damn it. He's got a trace on me.

Mikare felt a strange calm wash down. It's not paranoia if they really are out to get you. This was what it was for. He didn't' know what the pursuer wanted, but he knew it wasn't good; Mikare was famously skittish and avoided contact with those he didn't know, which meant that anyone this determined to get close to him anyway couldn't have his comfort in mind. The only question was whether or not the pursuers had already linked Mikare back into realtime. If they had, then this was going to be a bad idea.

If they hadn't, yet, though, and this was the start of an attempt to, then this was exactly why he'd gone to all the trouble.

Mikare sighed and stood up. The other froze in place as his shiftskin trickled back down to its habitual black, and Mikare grinned sardonically at him. They stood there for a moment, then Mikare cocked a hip and ever so jauntily gave the other avatar the finger.

Then he turned and ran away.

He didn't have to look back to know the other was in pursuit, but that didn't matter; he didn't want to get away, anymore.

Besides, he was Mikarecursore, and this was now a straight speed run. He felt the flickerjack stretch itself out and really go to work; the Gridscrapers on both sides began to smear backwards. He kept dead down the center of the 'vard as he ran, meters jumping beneath his bootheels. He was forced to dial back a bit to allow his pursuer to stay in range, now that he didn't care about ducking out of sight - avatars were pointing him out as he went by.

Four squares later, he turned left, then right, then right again, then jumped over a recessed artwork and found himself in a stylized grotto. Trees, lovingly duplicated from a long-lost video game, rose from a shallow sea with walkways connecting their tops. He wove between the bases, moving deeper and slowing; finally, in the center of the grove, he stopped and turned. As he expected, the other was not far behind, and as Mikare stopped, the other came up short perhaps five meters away and brought up his left hand again, looking at his palm.

Mikare felt something nibble at his outer defenses, somewhere beneath his flickerjack. The shock was palpable. The anger followed directly on its heels, and with a quick prayer to the sleepless nights he ripped the gun from his right hip and brought it up.

Not for any good reason, he'd practiced this. It didn't make a difference in how things went, but it made a difference in how they looked - and in the Ouroverse, that was what it all came down to. Among Flashrunners, that's all that there was. Mikarecursore carried a small, flat handgun at his side. This was well-known. No-one had ever seen him draw it; it was scenery, just like the winglets on his temples and his ankles. Thousands of avatars carried weapons; some of them worked in the context of voluntary games that only those with the proper code could 'see' when they were played. Most of them were just props. Some made elaborate light shows.

Flashrunners tended not to have their props produce fake effects. It broke the illusion, and was tacky.

Mikare brought the gun up and watched the others' face show startlement and then wary amusement. The left hand was still bladed, and the feeling of wrongness increased as some unknown code started to intently examine his flickerjack's external network interfaces.

Mik pulled the trigger cleanly.

Somewhere in Boston, a floor-to-ceiling metaframe of nanobuilt logic spun to life. Somewhere on the Revenet, a torrent of traffic spun out from a nondescript restoration building in the Boston area. Somewhere in the world, a single Ouroverse server which at the moment was serving packets to Mikarecursore's Ouroverse client performed the equivalent of an electronic hiccup of surprise, and then replied in confusion.

Two thousand and some odd kilometers away in Realtime, an influx of Revenet traffic blitzed into a small nondescript office building next to a ring road in a thoroughly forgettable suburb. Prepared programs from the metaframe flooded into a particular network segment, spread out, opened electronic claws, screamed once, and began to hunt.

The entire building dropped off the Revenet. Inside the building, every piece of nanoblock logic that had been connected to the network began to slowly overheat itself as torturecode slammed it to maximum load. Much of the nanologic in the buiding survived the experience. A great deal did not.

In the Ouroverse, the avatar had time for one brief expression of utter surprise, jerking its head to look around itself, and then it derezzed into the standard 'LINK LOST' icon. Mikare remained where he was for a moment, gun leveled at the floating lightning bolt, and then straightened. Somewhere in Boston, the metastack withdrew its electronic tentacles and primly shut itself down.

Mikare lifted the gun to his lips, blew once, and spun it before returning it to his side, where it stuck fast.

A single puff of incredibly wastefully rendered smoke shredded itself in the nonexistent air. Mikare looked around at the empty grove, sauntered out into the main 'vard, caught a monorail bullet and headed off to the Drome for a drink.

* * *

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