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The Bent were crawling all over Fia's office when she returned to work the next day. Severna caught her as she came into the cubicle area, still with her sweater on, and wanted to talk about it in hushed-yet-excited tones; Fia thought it likely that it was the most exciting thing the poor woman had had happen to her all year. Pleading that she was overwarm, she escaped to her desk and shed her sweater and carrybag, the sweater draped over her chair back and the carrybag in its usual spot against the cubicle wall where the carpet was worn shiny from its presence.

Her desk was completely bare, as she'd left it. From her bag, Fia took a small photo of a young girl and placed it in the middle of the surface, then settled herself into her modchair and closed her eyes. She shook her head once, twice to loosen her neck muscles, listening to the rattle of her chips striking the plastic of the modchair's back, then relaxed deliberately.

Around her waist, the modules booted themselves at the touch of the Bank's systems. Fia felt the base of her spine warm slightly as the interface powered. There was a slight crackle of static in her ears, almost imperceptible; a flicker in the lighting of her cube, and then she opened her eyes again to look at her desk.

The picture was gone.

She got up from the modchair and went off down the hall to the conference area for the morning staff meeting.

* * *

Manager Atkins was late for the meeting. This had never happened before. A slight buzz of conversation arose all at once, as inside twenty-plus heads identical clocks ticked over to 0900 and the modchair at the head of the table remained empty. Fia looked around with everyone else, shrugging when people looked her way; she saw Severna in hushed conversation with two co-workers across the table and mentally shook her head. She tried not to think about the coffee she hadn't had yet.

At 0904, the door opened and Atkins came in. He wasn't alone. There was another man with him, in a dark plain suit. They both sat at the head of the table. Atkins' face showed...nervousness? This was new enough to pique the interest of everyone in the room; with a slight shifting of stance that would have done credit to a group of sharks, the employees of Search Division Gamma leaned forward slightly in their chairs to catch his morning brief.

"Good morning, everyone. I apologize for the delay." Atkins stopped and looked once at the man sitting impassively next to him, making it perfectly clear whose fault that delay had been. Fia examined the newcomer; there wasn't much to go on, except that he was obviously one of the Bent. He was extremely clear, with shades covering his eyes. His suit had the flat black matte coloring which spoke of chameleonware, despite its close resemblance to a business cut. He wore no rings, watch, or moduleware of any kind that she could see. He was sitting upright but relaxed, hands folded on the table in front of him. He didn't return Atkins' quick glance.

"Yes. Well." Twenty-plus pairs of eyes swiveled back to their manager. "As you're all aware, we're hosting a small task force from ESCHER this morning-" there was a snicker or two at his choice of verbs. Atkins glared around the room before continuing. "As I was saying. Officers from ESCHER will be conducting an investigation within our department, and we are instructed to give them every consideration. Every consideration." The emphasis was not subtle.

"This is Colonel Arkadios. He is the senior ESCHER officer present; at this time, he'd like to say a few words." Atkins nodded and sat back.

"Ladies and gentlemen." The voice was flat, extremely so; Fia suspected waveform manipulation. "Thank you for your assistance, and please accept our apologies for any disruption of your workplace. I'm here to tell you what I can about what's happening, so that we can avoid repeating the questions later. My unit is involved in investigating an incident that occurred yesterday involving your firm's computing infrastructure. At this time, we are unsure if your firm's machines were simply a relay node for the intrusion, or if data within your grid was compromised. That's partially what we're here to find out. Officers may approach you throughout the day with requests for assistance. Please accept that their needs have priority over your regular work, as Mr. Atkins has assured me."

He paused. The shades moved, facing each side of the table in turn. "At this time, we cannot give you any more information that this. If you are given information in the course of the investigation, you may be required to sign Free Speech Waivers. If you cannot in good conscience sign such a document, you of course can decline to participate and speak with your manager." He indicated Atkins, who managed to convey that such an action would be In Very Poor Taste Indeed and Likely Reflect Badly Come Review Time.

"That will be all for the moment. Thank you." He, too, sat back.

"Well then." Atkins seemed unsure where to go with the meeting once it had been handed back to him. "Assignments will be available within a half-hour in the usual queue. Please plan on starting dives at 1000; we're going to push lunch back a half-hour in order to allow for delays induced by the investigation in the morning. That's all."

Fia stood with the rest and filed back out, down the hall, and into her cube. 0917. Probably the shortest staff meeting on record. It also meant nearly three-quarters of an hour before actual work started, which meant free time alone with the Bank systems.

She snorted to herself. ESCHER was certainly being unsubtle. The invitation to go play - to cover traces, to send messages, to panic in any way, shape or form - was unmistakeable. Sorry to disappoint you.

An office worker with nothing to do due to government agency interference, Fia called up 'A Brief History of ESCHER' on her ware and began to read, sitting in her modchair inside the impossibly high Gridscraper of the Bank at the corner of Downtown while outside, the Ouroverse hummed and sparked around her.

* * *

Fia had never given much thought to ESCHER. Known in various parts of the Ouroverse by such diverse sobriquets as the Virtuales, the Devil's Fork, the time-honored the Feds and, most widely, the contemptuous 'the Bent' - ESCHER occupied a peculiar place in the Ouroverse. When Downtime began to settle down around the world, the U.S. Government did what governments do best in moments like that - panic with malicious intent. The blaze of junked satcom that came to be known as Hot Hail was one such example of paranoid contingency plans taken live, as some heretofore unknown agenda for total U.S. military dominance of the near orbitals found a raison d'etre and expressed itself in a storm of charged particles, KKVs and killersats.

On the law enforcement side, one of the few things that most people agreed on was the need to figure out How It All Started and Who To Punish. For that, an organization dedicated to electronic warfare and forensics was required. In time of crisis, the military was the familiar place to look for such a cadre, and it was found in Burlington, Massachusetts.

The U.S. Air Force had maintained the establishment of Hanscom Air Force Base long past its use as an actual working airfield for the purpose of headquartering Electronic Systems Command. Originally intended to oversee the development and research of the myriad of black boxes being designed in ever-more furious numbers for aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s, ESC had through its long-time civilian contractors long since been in the business of investigating and securing U.S. military computer crimes.

There, the recorded stories stop.

A special flying squad, it is said, existed - one whose job was to secure compromised systems as soon as possible after a detected intrusion. Not to block off access, necessarily - but to ensure that the intruder was backtracked and caught, if possible with the assistance of law enforcement.

If that wasn't possible, then with the assistance of other agencies.

The team was small, when Downtime began; no more than ten or twelve. It was based at Hanscom itself in order to deal with the command's own machines, but with permanently assigned transport and C4I links into a wide variety of systems. It had attracted some of the best, quirkiest and most effective countermeasures specialists and forensic Ops the U.S. military had been able to entice.

They were called the HQ Emergency Response Squad.

Electronic Systems Command, Headquarters Emergency Response. Downtime wasn't more than a month old before their ranks had grown to an astonishing but classified number - the result of 'emergency preplanned personnel transfers' - and their authority to 'handle' suspected computer crime seemed boundless.

No-one was sure when they adopted their quite recognizable unit insignia, and no-one ever knew if its selection was a mistake or deliberate commentary. The impossible three-tined Devil's Fork figure from every childhood mathematics or drawing techniques book did, in fact, conjure the name of M.C. Escher in the minds of those who saw it. Those who knew it, however, knew it hadn't been drawn by Escher in the first place.

That left two explanations. One was that in typical U.S. Military enthusiasm, they'd selected a popular icon that made them feel clever.

This was the safe explanation.

Some, however, subscribed to another - that the selection was deliberate. The Devil's Fork was associated with the study of ambiguous connectivity. That might have simply been meant to reflect the state of the networks when the unit stood up.

However, some thought it represented a statement about the unit's relationship to the government - and, indeed, polity - that had spawned it.

* * *

Fia wasn't sure where she stood on the matter herself. She hadn't thought about it in much detail. In her experience, the Bent almost never concerned themselves with matters in the Ouroverse - they were concerned with the layers beneath the construct, on which data and transactions travelled. In her few conversations with Mikare, he'd mostly shrugged.

Farnham had grimaced and said something under his breath about fighting the last war.

She wasn't sure which attitude made her more nervous, sitting here in the virtual representation of her office with the Bent walking quietly around past her cubicle doorway.

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