display | more...

NOTE: This is *an* ending to The Network Revenant. I'm writing it for Last Chapter of a Novel: An Everything Quest in an attempt to jumpstart my writing again and give me a less herculean-looking task when it comes to finishing that story - after all, if I've already written the ending, I just have to get there, right? Anyway, here you go - I reserve the right for this to change like mad if/when I actually write the intervening bits, of course. :-)

Final warning: If you haven't read The Network Revenant, maybe go read that first - this is (a) LAST CHAPTER, and there *are* huge chunks of the book that come before it!

Network Reincarnate

Wreckage of agents was strewn around the floor of the Drome. The part-AIs had tried to hide from the 4LC countermeasure flood, and a few of them had made it back to the Drome only to lose cohesion from viral or latent attack code after making it inside. Mikare and Clotho stood at the center of the long bar with Tourette behind them, arms crossed in his traditional pissed-off pose.

Mikare listened to the reports coming in on his comstruct for a few minutes. Flashrunners were spreading out over the ‘verse like oil; with the Run over, they were heading for high-traffic zones from which to disconnect or for favored private server zonepoints to escape surveillance. Outside the Drome, the gathered security trolls from 4LC waited, two avatars at their head. He nodded to Tourette. “Let them in.”

The Pageout bell gonged once, and the doorpane flipped to allow zoning. Mikare was amused to note that the security team entered the bar as if they were entering a real space, spreading out from side to side and looking for fields of view.

Mikare shook his head. “Habit?”

Clotho shrugged. “Who cares. Tour, I need a drink.”

“Sure fucking thing.” The enormous bot busied himself behind the counter and came up with a cocktail. Clotho took it with a grateful nod and sipped as the four of them watched the two avatars at the lead zone into the bar. One strode up to their group and stopped, an expression of rage on its face. “You bitch.”

Clotho waved her fingers. “Hello there, Alexsov. Diddle any little girls today?”

Alexsov clenched his fists but held his position, recognizing that there was little he could do. “Joke all you want. You’ve lost the game, all of you. The tile is down and frozen, but you can’t get to your sandbox to load the new image.”

Mikare pushed himself off the bar. “Alexsov, what do you want?”

The taller avatar turned to face him. “You know what I want.”

“Maybe I do, but I hate these fucking ‘you-know-I-know’ games. Tell me straight out. Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“It’s not what I want. It’s what I’ll have. You are going to turn control of the agent framework over to me. If you do that, you can all walk away.”

“And you and your friends, I assume, have your own image you’d like to load onto the tile?”

“Of course.”

Mikare nodded. “Right. Now we get to the fun part. Why should we? Are you threatening us in the ‘Verse?”

“Of course not.” Alexsov waved the other avatar forward. The other stopped just behind him, features behind a blurfield, and handed him a comstruct. “Here.” Alexsov proffered the comstruct to Mikare, who looked at it disdainfully.

“I’m not touching code you hand me. Have a little respect.”

Alexsov laughed, his tension dropping away slightly. “Of course. My mistake.” Touching the comstruct, he placed it in midair between the two groups. It widened to a standard infopane and an image appeared in it. It was a picture of the guardshack outside the Commons Area, which was surrounded by heavy armored flitters. Several security types were standing around with visible weapons. Alexsov gestured at it. “For the moment, Ms. dos Santos, your front door is under my control. Although the Commons Area has impressive security, we have the area secure enough to take our time getting through it. Mr. Eckhardt is currently isolated in a secure New Coast security facility, under the control of our friends in ESCHER. Although we may not have your friend Farnham located, we certainly know where you are - and you have the agent framework under your control.”

Clotho looked at Mikare, who looked back at her silently and shook his head very very slightly. She raised an eyebrow before putting her drink down on a nearby table and turning back to Alexsov. “Fuck you.”

“Are you sure? We can be inside that bunker inside an hour; less if we don’t pay attention to breakage on the way in. We can have pretty much whatever we want done to Mr. Eckhardt, essentially in realtime.”

“You have the New Coast gov covering you, Alex?” Mikare asked.

“No. They’ve been made to understand that this is a Federal priority operation involving critical infrastructure threats. They’re not involved in the operation, but they’re not going to interfere.”

Mikare looked at him. Then he looked at Clotho. He could tell from her very lack of expression that Clotho was worried. “What if we upped the ante?”

Alexsov looked at him and laughed once, harshly. “How? Do you have any idea where I am?”

“Yes, actually. You’re at the Cedar City 4LC net routing pool facility, along with the rest of the goons operating these cheapshit secdrones.” Mikare waved at the line of avatars at the bar’s edge.

“Very good. If you know where I am, you know there’s no way you can get in here. We’re inside the U.S. Military Ringbolt defenses. You can’t even get a microdrone through here, much less one big enough to hurt us.” He gestured at Mikare. “I know all about your guncode. You can’t get in here with it, and even if you could, you don’t have access to your support stack, because it's been disconnected from the net and I have ten men sitting in your living room right now watching it.”

Mikare nodded at the avatar behind Alexsov. “Who’s the blurhead, Alexsov?”

Alexsov turned slightly, with feigned surprise. “Oh! You don’t know? My apologies. I was about to tell you the reason that Ms. dos Santos isn’t nearly as safe as you think.”

Mikare felt the weight he’d been hoping to avoid settle crushingly on his shoulders. He addressed the blur. “Hi, Paul. You can come out now.”

Clotho stared at Mikare, then at the blurred avatar, which shrank as the blurfield vanished. Epaulette looked from one Flashrunner to the next, settling on Mikare. “Hello, dear boy.”

“Why, Paul?”

“The usual reasons, son. Money. Power. Things like that.” She extracted a thin cigarette from her jumpsuit and ipm-ed it into life. Mikare’s chest contracted slightly in anger at the sight of the routine. “Fia, you really should give this arrogant rude man what he wants. As you have no doubt guessed, I can simply pass them through the Commons Area security with my codes.”

Clotho’s voice was hard. “You don’t own nearly as much of the security systems in here as you think you do. Not anymore.”

Alexsov waved a hand. “But that doesn’t matter. As I said, the New Coast will sit and watch if we’re forced to reduce the facility, with you in it. That won’t help you.”

Clotho spat, the unexpected action confusing her link just enough to jitter her avatar, a sign of her anxiety. “Fuck the both of you. I’m not handing over the agents unless Mik tells me to.” She looked at him, and the look hurt. If you say no, make sure it’s worth it, the look said.

Mikare shook his head. “Paul, are you with Alexsov?”

“Yes. He offered me a truly impressive guest suite. I wish you could see it.” She exhaled fractal smoke and laughed. “The netlink in here is to die for.”

“I’m sorry, Paul.”

“For what?” She flicked the cigarette away. “Unless you mean about the Commons Area? Oh, don’t worry, there’s more infrastructure where that came from.” She nodded at Alexsov. “His company has a great deal of it. They’ve offered me a large chunk.”

Mikare moved forward slightly, hooked a foot into a chair near the bar table that rested there and sat, looking down at the tabletop. “Well.”

“Well.” Alexsov sat opposite him. “You’re going to be reasonable then?”

“I think so.” Mikare grinned at him, suddenly, but the grin was exhausted, even in the lower half of it that was visible beneath his visor. He reached up and the visor dissolved, my eyes emerging from behind it as the code I'd put in at Epaulette's request detected the change. Clotho stared.

“Mik, what are you doing?”

“Don’t worry, Clo.” I turned to face Alexsov and rezzed a comstruct of my own, which I placed above the table. It, also, paned out to a three-by-one meter screen and floated off to my right to park itself in the air where all could see it. The left half flickered with static for a moment, then it, too, showed an image of the Commons Area guard shack, from a different angle. Alexsov’s eyes narrowed as his gaze moved between his own feed and that on my pane.

“You have observers there? I’m not surprised. As a gesture of good faith, they won’t be touched.”

“They’re not observers. And they’re not mine.”

“You-” but there wasn’t time for anything else. Alexsov chopped off and swung to his screen, shouting into a comstruct of his own. Epaulette looked from him to Mikare.

“What on earth are you doing, Mikare?”

“I’m sorry, Paul. I tried to keep the whole thing lightweight.” There was a commotion on the screens, security personnel milling around. Several had their hands to their ears, some were sprinting for their vehicles. I waved a hand and the bar was assaulted with the hard crackle of static, then an audio feed of the scene. Flitter engines were spooling up, and shouting was rising from various places around the shack.

Clotho reached a hand towards me. “Mik, what do I do?”

“Just hang on, Clo.”

There was a rising noise from the screen. Alexsov was shouting something into his own com, apparently talking to the commander on the scene. There was a flare of light; one of the flitters in the picture vanished, to be replaced by a pale orange and white fireball as its mix tanks deflagrated. People were throwing themselves flat; the flickering lights of gunfire were visible as they fired outwards from the now-beleagured perimeter. Another flitter made it off the ground, then staggered as an unseen weapon stitched a row of gashes along its flank, and fell abruptly back to the earth, shattering rather than detonating.

I watched the chaos, my face immobile. Without looking at the others in the room, I said “I didn’t want this.”

Alexsov had given up trying to communicate with his troops on the scene. “What do you think this accomplishes? All you’re doing is validating everything we’ve told the New Coast government about you and your friends. You’re terrorists, now, in fact as well as in our name.”

I shook my head. “I’d be worried about that, yeah, if that was my people doing that.”

Another of Alexsov’s security avatars approached him, and they held a quick shielded conference. When it ended, he was staring at the Flashrunners. “How can this help you? ESCHER has no love for you. I don’t understand how you managed to convince them to engage my men, but it can only end badly for you.”

“That’s probably true. As I said, I didn’t convince them. They came on their own.”

Clotho was looking at me with something akin to worry on her face, now. “The Bent? They’re the ones up there?” There was a particularly bright flash from the screen, and Clotho winced and looked incongruously towards the ceiling, Fia’s reaction leaking through.

I sighed. “Nobody ever believes me. I didn’t do it.”

The battle on the screens was slowing as the so-far-unseen attackers subdued the 4LC security teams. Alexsov turned back to them. “Fine.” He waved at his screen. “I’d hoped not to use this, but that wasn’t our only ongoing operation.” The picture stabilized again, into a list of faces and names. “These are the names of several hundred of your friends. You give me the framework or I brand them terrorists as well. Even if neither government goes after them immediately, I’m sure you can imagine the effects of their names showing up on all the standard lists. You three are on it, at the top. You might as well live in those stupid suits, because you won’t be able to walk ten meters in the Real.”

I cocked my head. “You’d do that, wouldn’t you. Ruin hundreds of people’s lives to get hold of the Ouroverse.”

“Of course I fucking well would. You of all people know what’s at stake.”

On the screen, the fighting had died down. Troops in black were corralling the 4LC personnel into small seated groups. A command team were visible, clustered around a newly-landed flitter which had ESCHER stencilled on it. One of the team was donning a standard imaging rig.

Tourette spoke up, startling everyone. “Mik, somebody tried to kick me in the nuts and is pretending I was the reason they’re at the entry last night.”

Alexsov looked confused, but I nodded. “Let ‘em in, Tour.”

The doorpane admitted a razor-sharp avatar as Tourette permitted the direct connection, since the tile outside was frozen. The avatar came and sat at the table across from the comstruct screen and between the two groups. “Hello everyone.”

I laughed. “Hi, Arkadios. Is that you by the command flitter?”

“Yes.” The figure at the table waved, as did the image in the comstruct wearing the rig. “So. Here we all are. I have with me-” he gestured to two of the people standing in his group, causing his avatar to wave vaguely at a corner of the bar- “representatives of the New Coast security establishment. They are, let us say, interested observers.”

"Their organization is currently holding Eckhardt," Alexsov countered.

"Thank you for bringing that up," Arkadios responded. "In point of fact, I was curious to note that I hadn't issued orders to apprehend Mr. Eckhardt. I was curious to note that I had not issued orders to apprehend Ms. dos Santos, either. Yet to my surprise, Lt. Fandling had gone ahead and done both of those things."

"It sounds like you have a problem, then, Arkadios," Alexsov said dismissively, waving a hand. "I have more immediate concerns."

"You do, in fact," Arkadios replied. "Lt. Fandling has confessed to me that he has been transacting in information and direct action with a department of your organization for the past year and a half. I'm not happy about this."

"Arkadios, quit playing the heavy here," Alexsov snorted. "I have at least six inroads into your command structure, all above you, on speed dial. Are you planning on making an issue of this with me right now?"

Arkadios regarded him coldly for a few moments. "No, I am not."

"Then shut up and we'll talk later." Alexsov turned away from the solitary avatar, back to Clotho and myself. "Eckhardt, I'm offering you a last chance to walk away clean, here."

I shook my head. “You’re trying to take control of the infrastructure that runs our homes.”

Alexsov’s laugh was short. “Your homes? These are virtual environments. Nobody lives there. This isn’t land.”

“We do. We live there. We’re telling you we live there.”

Arkadios leaned forward. “I fail to see why I should change my business simply because you and others like you have delusions about what’s real and what’s not.”

I sat back, maintaining the conversational distance. “What’s real.”

“Yes, what’s real. Money is real. Power is real. Land is real. The ‘Verse? It’s not real. It’s a shared hallucination.”

I reached up and removed Mikare's helmet entirely. My avatar flickered, morphing slowly into a decent representation of me, dressed in normal working Op T-shirt and jeans.

Alexsov laughed. "Eckhardt. Finally done hiding?"

I shook my head, ignoring Clotho's expressionlessly worried stare. "No. You're still not getting it, Alexsov. I'm not hiding behind Mikare. Mikare's not hiding behind me. Mikare's real, and he has options. I have options. Together, we're done with you." Mikare was whispering in my ear via my flickerjack, trickled information of position and potentials. “Alexsov, I’m asking you to reconsider.”

“Who are you to ask that?”

“I’m a citizen of the Ouroverse.”

“Given that 'the Ouroverse' not only isn't real but wields no power, why should I care?”

“Ah, that's where you're wrong. I wield power. Mikarecursore wields power. We’re telling you, you’re infringing on our territory and sovereign rights with this intrusion, and you need to stop or we’ll be forced to consider you hostile.”

There was a moment of silence. Alexsov eyed his screen, a look of both disbelief and calculation on his face. “Eckhardt, you’re bullshitting me. There’s no such thing as a government in the ‘Verse. That’s one of your own tenets.”

“Regardless of the presence of governments, there's force.” I laid my hands flat on the table, looked down at them. I didn’t want this. "Alexsov, Paul - last chance. You tried to take away our home. You had Clotho harrassed. You may have had Farnham killed, I still don't know what happened to him. Paul, you betrayed our trust. Right now, though, I'm willing to drop it all if you walk away. As you said, Alexsov, we can walk away clean if you give up the hijack of this tile and walk away. We hacked it, you took it, but you can't get your image loaded into it without Clotho's keys to access the shunt framework. We can't access it without you releasing control of the network between us and the agents running the framework. You might think you have all the time in the world to break those keys, but even if that wasn't going to take you months even with your resources, I'm telling you you don't have hours. You have minutes. Make up your mind."

Paul's eyes narrowed. "Mikare, you are a clever little bastard, I will be the first to admit that. But there is no way you've got any kind of access into here. I know how you work. I know your past runs. I'm hooked into this facility, and I'm saying you're not in here."

I shrugged. "So?"

"So you're bluffing." She took a drag on her cigarette. "You do do that on occasion."

I grinned at her. "So I'm bluffing. Call me."

"No. You seem eager to get us to call off the operation. But you're not giving me any reason why I should. If this whole thing gets hostile, now, you're going to wonder (if you're still able to wonder) whether you should have given us a better chance to back out."

I considered this for a moment. Clotho looked at me in disbelief. "Mik, I don't even know what you're planning, but why the hell would you tell them? If you can stop them, stop them already!"

"Clo, we're sitting here with an ESCHER commander." I nodded at Arkadios, who nodded back. "Even if I can do something, here, do you think I should do it in front of him?"

"They threatened to come in here with force, Mik!"

"But they can't, anymore. Arkadios has the Commons Area. You're safe."

"What about from him??" she shot back, glancing over at Arkadios, who didn't seem offended.

"I trust him, in this, Clo." I, too, looked over and got a nod. "I'm asking you to trust me."

Clotho threw up her hands. "You know I trust you! I just don't understand this!"

Alexsov raised a hand with incongruous politeness. "Hello? Monologuing villain would like to get a word in?"

I salaamed ironically. "At least you have the roles right."

"Eleanor is quite correct. If you don't give me a good reason I should listen to you, I'm just going to disconnect and work on attacking Clotho's keypairs. If she won't give them to me, I don't need either of you, I just need time, and I have that."

Mikare whispered to me again, telling me of places and of energies and of times. I nodded. "Okay, okay. You're defended there, right?"

"You know we are." Alexsov frowned. "I'm in a secure room in an unmapped building inside two defense perimeters. Eleanor is guaranteeing us against electronic intrusion."

"Yeah. But Eleanor's there with you."

Alexsov shook his head. "Divide and conquer won't work, Eckhardt. She and I don't have to trust each other; our interests coincide. If you and yours had managed to complete the hack, she would have stood to at most retain her position. I offer her a chance to significantly improve it. I've tested her several times and given her chances to betray me. She hasn't." He nodded to Paul, who nodded back, also slightly sarcastically. "So why does it matter?"

I turned to Arkadios. "Colonel, I want you to know that whatever happens, this does not concern the United States Government. You and I have our issues, but we've worked through them before and we can again."

Arkadios looked me over carefully before speaking. "I have no authority to offer any kind of assistance or amnesty. You know that."

"I know. But I also want to make it clear that Clotho has nothing to do with this, since she's inside the Commons Area which you're presently taking control of."

"That's not for me to say, but I'll take you at your word for now."

"Fair enough." I turned back to Alexsov. "Anyway, the reason I care about Epaulette being with you is this." I reached above the table and bloomed a small infopane. There was a text terminal on it. The pane was taken up by a long scroll of identical text messages, scrolling up the screen every second.

"What the hell is that?" Alexsov said, trying to read the messages.

"It's a 'Verse beacon. In fact, it's just a message queue with a 'Verse representation. But it's also being routed across a jacked HotBird downlink I've had waiting for this."

"What's it showing?"

I turned my head slightly away from him and rezzed another comstruct, one that only I could see. In it, a still shot of a stylized anime figure - the recipient's wallpaper - was visible at relatively low rez, but a voice issued from it, hashed slightly by static and interference. "Top?"

"Yeah, I'm here."

"Call it."

I looked at Alexsov. "Last chance." Epaulette was staring fixedly at the infopane showing the message queue. I saw her get it; her eyes widened and she spun wildly, her avatar betraying her panicked response in the real.

"Aleksov! Aleksov, that's - those are GPS coordinates!"

"So?" Aleksov glanced at her spinning avatar in irritation, then looked back at me. "Coordinates of what?"

"Us! Here!"

"Who cares-" I saw Alexsov get it, too. His face distorted and turned away from me.

I addressed the comstruct, speaking clearly. "Go. Go go go."

"Wilco." The voice was gleeful. I flipped another infopane up, Clotho staring at me in confusion. The new pane showed a relatively peaceful picture of a modern suburb from an apparent altitude of perhaps a couple thousand meters, courtesy of another compromised HotBird surveillance feed. The lights of groundcar traffic moved along several major highways, and the lights of flitter traffic moved across the picture. To the left side, an office complex surrounded by brilliant fields of light was visible, the flitters visibly detouring around its perimeter by a couple of miles.

Alexsov was shouting something indistinct to someone at his end. Neither he nor Epaulette had disconnected; their avatars were spinning and distorting slightly as they did whatever they were doing. I watched the infopane as several even more brilliant cones of light flickered on, moving to sweep the outskirts of the buildings, and shook my head. "Wrong guess, Alesov."

His face turned back to mine, focused. "There are three miles of EMP-beam defenses here, you idiot. No flitter can get within a klick of the outer edge of that. I have drones up in case someone tries to lob something in here. I have DEW turrets in case you or some other asshole tries to lob ordnance in here. All you're going to get is splashed."

I shrugged. "Maybe." Then I looked at him, and grinned again, deliberately. "If I was using flitters or mortars." There was a disturbance on one side of the infopane, moving quickly from right to left, towards the buildings. As I turned to look, small lights blossomed from the disturbance and spread out in a cone in front of it. Bright pocks and boils started blooming around the edge of the complex. I watched Alexsov's avatar flicker. "So much for your defense line, Alexsov."

"You-" he turned away again, but I didn't care. There wasn't any joy in the confrontation. I felt my stomach hollowing, and shook my head, repeating "I didn't want this."

Clotho approached me. I looked up at her. "Didn't want what? What's happening, Mik?"

I gestured to the infopane. Arkadios was watching it with an expression of interest. "That. I put a tracking server in the mission update I gave Paul. It's been broadcasting her exact location for the past couple of hours."

"What's on the screen, Mik?" Clo asked quietly.

The disturbance had moved approximately halfway from the edge of the infopane to the complex, and as I watched, it turned northwards, towards the top of the screen. Small flickering lights showed the furious countermeasure fight happening in the nearby airspace. "The 'Verse has force, Clo. It does now. I made sure of it."

Alexsov's face firmed up again. "That was your try, Eckhardt? Four flitters that couldn't get past the main DEW emplacements? They're turning away already. You lost."

"I didn't lose, Alexsov. They're not flitters."

"They're-" his face changed. The comstruct near me blinked three times and the tinny voice in it said "Splash, Top! Splash!" and finished with a wild-sounding laugh. "We're a little busy here, talk to you later!" and with another manic cackle, Riis' voice cut off with a click. On the screen, I could see the disturbance speeding up as the four F-16 Falcons lit afterburners, lighter now, and pushed for supersonic. I knew they were sinking to nap of the earth, and as soon as they were clear of pursuit they would change course to head back for the desolate spot on the Utah salt pan where their freight containers and small ground crew awaited them, there to be picked up by one of Sully's cargolifters and to become just another anonymous freight flight.

Alexsov was screaming something, maybe at me, maybe at someone at his end, but I never heard what it was. Right around then, he and Paul's avatars flickered and vanished into LINK LOST icons, and another bright light bloomed on the side of one of the buildings visible in the infopane. As I watched, the other seven Mk. 84 2,000-lb bombs, their hacked navigation systems listening to the repeated messages from the HotBird and pulling them into the center of the building where Paul and Alexsov had been standing, flew into the bright cloud, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. By the seventh, the building itself pretty much wasn't there anymore.

Clotho was staring at the infopane. "Dios, Mik, what have you done?"

I looked at Arkadios, whose face was grim. "I pushed back."

He looked at me, his eyes leaving the infopane. "You realize that you just made yourself guilty of everything Alexsov was going to accuse you of."

"Not really, Arkadios. I didn't do it personally. I may have advertised some numbers, is all. But I think you should get those New Coast people rezzed up, and like right now."

Arkadios turned his head. On the first infopane, I saw him wave; small figures began handing the two waiting next to him gear, and after a few seconds, two new avatars rezzed up, generic ESCHER models. "This is Security Secretary Bannister and Defense Secretary Alonso, New Coast Government." Both avatars nodded. "They've been following on monitors. So let me ask you, Eckhardt, why this shouldn't be seen as an act of terrorism on your part?"

I sighed. "Because the aircraft that carried out that strike are New Coast aircraft. They were provided by the New Coast Guard program, and are piloted by New Coast volunteer militia. They're on their way to an airstrip, oh, somewhere, from where they'll be removed from sight and eventually from your territory. I'm sure you're tracking them, and probably moving to intercept. If you can find them. They have pretty good stealth gear on them, the best we could steal or build, and your internal defense systems are optimized for looking for flitters."

"Are you trying to start a war?" Arkadios' voice was still calm. The two New Coast avatars looked shaken and might have been trying to say something, but it looked like the ESCHER systems weren't letting them talk.

"Nope. I strongly suggest that you consider that entire action an allied military operation against a domestic security target."

"That's ridiculous."

"Is it? Look, I don't care what story you use. I'm telling you that it's too late, and we're not done here. You can either deal with this, and don't tell me you weren't after Alexsov yourself, or we can continue on and when we replace the 'Verse, we can just decide not to let you play."

As I finished talking, four avatars faded into visibility where they had been standing, translucent, in the shadows behind the bar. They walked around the bar, Tourette watching them interestedly with his arms still crossed, and approached to stand behind Clotho and I. Arkadios looked from one to the other, and despite everything managed to look amused. "The illustrious Founders appear."

Jayanta nodded. "Hello, Colonel. You know my friends." Ibri, He Yinan and Deveraux nodded in turn; Arkadios inclined his head to each. "So here we are."

"What happens now?" Arkadios asked, looking from Jayanta to me. I gestured to the Founder.

"Now, Colonel," said Jayanta, "We save the world."

"Be serious," said Arkadios. "I'm not in the mood."

"I'm being perfectly serious," retorted Jayanta. "You know what's at stake here, because you've been briefed. Your entire unit exists to do one thing - preserve the security of the network and transactions over it, doesn't it? If we don't act, now, the network falls. It becomes a tool of people like Alexsov and Paulette. Your job becomes protecting the corrupt while they assume the same imbalance of power that they had in politics and economics before Downtime, and that they do now, although some would argue the 'Verse corrected it somewhat."

"Walk me through what you're suggesting," Arkadios said.

"We complete our run. Mikare here and his friends finish their run. We install a new Ouroverse Image into the tile that they've frozen."

Arkadios said, looking intently at Jayanta, "What happens to the registrars? The registrar system is based on your key signatures."

"I know." Jayanta rezzed a comstruct and punched a single pane on it, which blinked red. A few moments later, the pageout bell gonged again. I nodded at Tourette, and the doorpane flipped once more. Sixteen avatars filed in. "These are representatives from the sixteen level one 'Verse registrars," Jayanta said, waving at them. "You can verify their identities if you'd like."

Arkadios smiled tightly and then turned to the newcomers and raised his hand. A glow rose around it, understated and deliberately vague ESCHER code. He waved it in their direction, making sure his palm faced each of them, eyes intent on the back of his hand. Although we couldn't see what it displayed, he lowered it, the glow fading, and nodded. "They are authorized."

"Then we all get what we want," said Jayanta. He turned to me and Clotho. "Are you sure you're willing to do this?"

"Do...what?" Clotho looked from him to me, angry now. "What the hell did you sign me up for, you asshole?"

"Clo..." I didn't know what to say, and the exhaustion was rising now. "Clo, I'm sorry. Someone has to be the base of the tree. Someone has to replace these four as the founding keys in the Ouroverse."

"That means we'll be them, you idiot! We'll have to run! We'll have to go underground like they-"

Jayanta was nodding, and Clotho ran down, sputtering. "You will, Clotho. I'm sorry. I'm sure Arkadios would be willing to work out an arrangement for your protection, but that will be a choice each of you will have to make, and I wouldn't advise you what to do. But there will need to be four of you."

"Well," I said, wincing, "That's a problem. Farnham dropped out of contact when I got snatched. I haven't heard from him since."

Jayanta smiled and waved a hand. "Farnham was a bit difficult to track down. He was busily doing damage to the local ESCHER organization, and it took us several hours to find him. But we did find him. He's safe." He punched another button on his comstruct and Farnham walked through the doorpane. Just looking at him, the Drome blurred, tears or relief in my eyes screwing up the goggles' lasertracking, and I squeezed them tightly before opening them again.

"Farnham, where the fuck have you been?"

"Could ask you the same thing, Mik." The drawl was as I remembered it. "I've been out making inquiries about your whereabouts."

Jayanta interjected, "He had, so far, disabled seventeen ESCHER personnel, three flitters, and torched an office. I got to him as he was planning, I think, to cross the New Coast Border into the Federal Territories to continue his inquiries there."

"Well you did," said Arkadios, his voice dryer than I'd heard it yet. Farnham nodded to him and looked back challengingly. "Mr. Farnham, understand, I have the corrupted ESCHER units in custody. Your friend Mikare has had no permanent damage done. We're willing ot call it even if you are, as I have been informed that none of my personnel have suffered permanent damage."

I looked at Farnham, jaw dropping a little. "Seventeen?"

He shrugged. "They wouldn't answer me. Protecting you is my job. Jayanta convinced me that you and Arkadios had made arrangements for your safety, so I gave him an hour to prove it. He just did."

Clotho laughed, the high laugh of tension release. "If only I found a boy that cared for me like that, hey, Mik?"

I swung a glare at her. "Don't. Start."

Jayanta coughed. "We're up to three, then. We need one more actor and base signing key."

I thought about it. "Well, Sourceror, maybe...or one of the other guys..."

Jayanta was shaking his head. "We have already recruited the fourth, Top." He nodded at - no, past me, and I spun, staring. Tourette had uncrossed his arms and was nodding back.


"Yes, Mik." The voice was the same, but the words certainly weren't. I stared, still reeling from Farnham's reappearance. "The Founders approached me months ago."

"Tour- you're...you're..." I didn't finish, because Clotho and Farnham interrupted me.

"TALKING! What the fuck, hombre-"

Jayanta held up his hand. "We can talk about this later. But Tourette is eminently satisfactory. He will, of course, be extremely hard to coerce in the Real as he doesn't live there. His key is valid, and we trust his discretion. I have to ask all four of you, then - do you trust the sixteen representatives before you to handle Ouroverse virtual estate transactions and to delegate them onward, knowing that you will be able and required to override their decisions if you consider them to have strayed?"

The wording sounded suspiciously formal, and the three of us looked at each other, then at Tour. Clotho and Farnham nodded, although Clotho still looked unhappy. "Look at it this way, Clo," I said, "My name is out, now, but yours isn't."

"ESCHER is willing to work to hunt down any recordings of the incident," Arkadios said. "I know, of course. I've been filtering the feed to our New Coast representatives; they don't have your face, your name or your voice. Farnham's identity remains unknown even to us, and ESCHER will not divulge Clotho's identity."

"And what good was that guarantee the last time-" Clotho started, hotly.

"I understand, ma'am," said Arkadios, still carefully correct. "I can tell you with assurance that the only two personnel who knew your identity will be unable to recall or divulge it. I retain that knowledge, but I you will have to trust me."

She smoldered at him for a few moments, then nodded grudgingly. "But listen, Arkadios, I haven't come after you people. If you spin my name, understand-"

"I understand."

"That leaves me," I said. "I'm okay with Arkadios knowing who Mik is, but the same conditions apply - if I find that information leaking, I will take action." I glanced at Arkadios, who shrugged. "I'm not specifying what kind."

One of the New Coast representatives spoke, his voice fuzzed through a 'changer. "We can't divulge what we don't know. But I'm concerned about the fact that a New Coast military unit has apparently taken part in an attack on the Federal Territories. What is going to happen as a result of that?"

Arkadios turned to face him. "Officially, it didn't. I'll think of something. As Mikare here said, the aircraft are no longer being tracked, and so long as they do not reappear-" he looked at me for emphasis- "I'd imagine they would be quite difficult to identify, given how many countermeasures were in use."

Jayanta clapped his hands. "Then let's begin."

We all looked at each other.

The process was almost anticlimactic - Clotho brought out the keychain of the frozen, waiting Image, and the four Founders signed it, their keys expressing their approval of those to come. Clotho, Farnham, and I signed it, and then we all turned to Tourette, who reached forward and placed his hand on the infopane. It glowed green, accepting a valid key. Then Clotho rezzed a codestruct representing the image and pressed the keychain into it with a brief soft flash of blue. "I still can't get through to the image. 4LC's routing pool going down has caused all kinds of hell. But the routes are clearing, and as soon as I can get through to the node holding the Drome, I'll swap it in."

Finally, the four of us signed the infopanes the registrars presented, indicating our approval and delegation of authority, and the sixteen of them turned and filed out of the bar. The New Coast reprsentatives winked out. Arkadios, the Founders, Tourette and the three of us were left. Jayanta turned to us and said "You already have the zonekeys for the Park. It's yours, now. We still have access, and perhaps we'll come if you call us and we're able - we've left some code in there for you."

The thought sank in. I saw Clotho and I get it at the same time, the knowledge that we would be hunted as soon as Clotho released the image and the Ouroverse began to shake itself back into operation, under new management. I wondered what would happen when Arkadios realized what the new Image was capable of, and thought that that was yet another reason to be unfindable. I could feel my shoulders hunching, the weight of my vulnerability settling onto them as I had somehow known it would when Jayanta first turned up in my loft. I was just turning to talk to Clotho and Farnham, when Jayanta, Ibri, Deveraux and He Yinan stepped forward. Surprised, I turned to them, and reflexively took the codestruct Jayanta passed me. Ibri handed one to Clotho, He Yinan to Farnham, and Deveraux to Tourette. The codestruct flowered into my tempspace, and I stared at the icon that it bloomed onto my dashboard.

--American Express / Bank of New Arcadia / Credit Lyonnaise / Sumitomo / Deutschbank--

"This isn't mad money," Jayanta said soberly. If you're to survive, you'll need this. We did. Use it carefully. Listen to Farnham. He knows what to do. Tourette will be fine, I'm sure, but the three of you...well. You've given up a great deal. I hope you find something to replace the freedom you just lost."

On that note, the Founders all waved and de-rezzed.

Arkadios had vanished.

The four of us looked at each other. A vast buzzing was all that was filling my head.

Clotho laughed, tightly, once, and tossed the codestruct into the air. I watched it flower abover her head, brightening and then fading as the code settled into the world, and then the Pageout bell gonged. There was a moment of disorientation, and then-

Then everything was back. But nothing was the same.


Written for Last Chapter of a Novel: An Everything Quest!