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I blinked my eyes open and forced my brain to accept visual input from my retinas, just slightly different in focus from the induced imagery of ware. Fia was still sitting on the MOG's bed. Chit had come up to a sitting position and was touching his toes, stretching. I yawned forcibly and made myself stand up, joints and muscles protesting. "Fuck, I'm old."

"You look it, too." Chit was finished stretching and had lain back again, the gibe drifting out from underneath the ever-present hat brim.

"Your horse is lonely, cowboy," I groaned, leaning backwards and listening to my spine bitch.

"Now what?" Fia had opened her eyes but hadn't moved.

"Now we move." I looked at Chit meaningfully. Despite not moving his hat or his head, he nodded at me and stood gracefully, heading for the cab of the beast. "We've got things to do, and I don't want to be on public bandwidth when we do them."

"Namely?" Fia came to her feet as well and we followed Chit. I was limping. Damn, I needed to get in shape.

"I need to talk to Paul, see if our stack is ready. We need to talk to the Flashrunners. And Clo, you have probably the most critical job of all." We both got in to the cab, Fia in the middle seat, as Chit finished opening the door to the storage area and climbed into the driver's side.

"What am I going to be doing?" Chit, seeing Fia searching for a seatbelt, pulled a harness buckle from behind her head and offered it to her. She looked at him with silent comment on the MOG but took it and buckled it around her midsection. I was already buckled in, having had recent prior experience with Chit's notion of safety equipment - typically underengineered and overcapable.

Reaching down to the portable still strapped to my side, I popped a cardslot and slid a catcard out of it. Bouncing it in my hand a couple of times, I looked at Fia. "Here." I handed her the catcard.

"Is this it?"

"Yeah. That's the only copy I have. Don't lose it."

She shook her head, even her normal derisive amusement at my habits in abeyance, and took the catcard, sliding it into one of the slender modules of her beltpack ware. "I'm going to hold it?"

"No. As soon as we find Paul, you're going to take that damn thing and sandbox it. You're going to beat on it every way you can think of and more."

"Do you really think we need to loadtest a verse server that the original coders wrote?"

Chit laughed as the MOG grunted into life and began to back out of the storage area. "Clo, were you paying attention in there? Some of them wrote it. We don't know which agenda's version won out. Maybe they don't know either."

"Which one do you think this is?"

I raised a hand, palm up. "That's your job. Sandbox the damn code. Figure out what it does. You know more about how the verse infrastructure works than any other Runner I know, Clo. Assume if there's something in it-"

"I know." She sighed. "Assume it doesn't want to be found. Assume it might take forever to manifest. Just find it. Just what you always say."

Chit grinned, horsing the MOG into forward motion down the two-lane road outside the storage facility. "Hey, think of it like this, Clo. You've got one big plus this time around."

She put her head in her hands. "I have to ask."

"This time, he's right here. You can just turn and punch him." He avoided my glare by ostentatiously checking his rear view mirror, waiting for a flitter to blast past us on the left and above before signaling and turning back towards the Pike.

Fia considered for a second, taking her face from her hands and propping her chin on her fists to look out the windshield. Then she turned with deliberation and punched me in the left arm.

Hard.

* * *

We pulled up after about an hour in front of an anonymous strip mall. Fia had been giving Chit directions for twenty minutes, leading us to this parking lot. It was half full of ground vehicles and was surrounded by typical low-rent fast food and cheap retail stores. Chit locked down the MOG and frowned at the light towers in the corners of the lot. "How long are we going to be here?"

I waved at Fia, who said "Just long enough to contact Paul. Why?"

Chit nodded at the light towers. "There're cams on the light towers. Probably light security for the parking lot, but if anyone's got any information on me this thing is really easy to spot using basic image proc routines."

I thought about that. "They might know about Farnham. How secure is Farnham?"

"Before this week, I would have said completely. Now-" Chit broke off and just looked out the windows again, eyes flickering towards dark corners of the parking area.

"We're here because this abuts that office park behind us," Fia chimed in, waving at it looming behind the main mall body. "They have weak wireless security. I've used their pathing before. We should get some delay factor from the fact that it's in the next zip code, and because they landscaped the back of it so heavily that the Navteq sat image and aerial shots of the region don't show this parking lot because of the angle. Anyone backtracking our ride will have to first realize we're not in the buildings, then have to actually eyeball the cartography and figure out that this is a public parking area. On the commercial stuff, it's not; that mall is new. It shows up as private land, fairly well secured, if the data is older than maybe eight months."

Chit and I raised eyebrows at each other. He poked Fia in the arm. "Clo, I've spent all this time tryin' to convince you there might be people out to get you and you just shook your head at me like I was crazy."

"So?"

"So here you are, a good old black helicopter watcher."

She treated Chit to a withering stare. I'd seen that stare in the 'verse and it had been intimidating there; in the real it was nearly lethal. "I'm not paranoid, Farnham. I'm just not stupid."

"That's what I've been tryin' to tell you about myself all along, Clo."

I cleared my throat. "Can we get the mutual admiration society tabled for a bit? Thanks. I don't think we all need to rez up, unless you guys don't trust me to talk to Paul without you present."

Chit drew a sunshade across the windshield. "Nah. Just give us an audio feed so you don't have to explain it to us again later."

I nodded and paired my portable with his car deck while Fia tickled channels out of the looming white monument to mediocrity in business.

I rezzed up inside Epaulette's club, its neat Victorian interior disconcerting after my recent days of paranoia among modern architecture. I sighed and stepped out of the foyer into the sitting room. Perhaps half the wingback chairs were occupied, the conversational nooks full; some avatars sat alone with the defocused look of those reading from datapanes only they could see. Paul disapproved of this habit but didn't ban it outright; still, several others lounged about holding the newspapers that were her preferred construct for the club. I glanced about the room but didn't see her anywhere.

"Mikare?" I turned to face the voice, spinning on my right foot. Although I swore at myself for being jumpy, I realized at the same moment that Mikare always moved that way, and relaxed. The form behind me wasn't an avatar but the concierge, a bot that Paul maintained to provide service to those members who didn't wish to interact with people. Takes all kinds. Especially if they have lots of money, I've come to realize.

"Yes." I knew from past experience that the bot wasn't very bright; simple answers were best.

"Please come with me. You have an appointment."

"Thanks." It nodded its iconic British flunky head and glided across the room towards a discreet serving entrance at the rear. I followed, trying to keep Mikare's usual flashy progress muted down to a more anonymous stroll. Paul's clientele didn't disappoint me; they were either too unimpressed by Mikare's presence or too serious about not being caught celebrity watching to look up as we moved past.

I'd only been into the service areas of Epaulette's a couple of times, both while doing code maintenance for Paul. The service door opened and closed smoothly behind us, leaving us in a swatch of hallway painted in neutral cream with a service rail midway up the wall to prevent carts from mussing the paintwork. However, some two or three meters from the door - past where it could be seen by any observer sitting in the parlor - the hallway switched abruptly over to a simple wireframe, all texture and elaboration vanishing. The concierge turned left, towards Paul's office; I followed him, examining the angled line of hallway where the illusion of upper-class London slid into its neon train wreck of an engineer's diagram.

The bot left me at Paul's door with a little bow and derezzed. I knocked once on the door, which opened before me, and went in. Paul sat behind her massive claw-foot wooden desk, windows bright with sunshine from the Street outside. The wireframe outer surface of the door swung closed behind me, leaving a perfectly rendered wooden panel in its place. The interior of the office was, if anything, even more finely detailed than the public areas.

"Hi Paul."

"Mikare." She smiled, very briefly, then waved. "Sit."

I sat in a small and spindly-looking wooden chair that probably would have folded under me in the Real. There are advantages to the Verse. "I'm having a really interesting day."

"I'm sure. I've heard about some of it."

"Have you." I frowned at her and waited.

She laughed, turning her chair (a modern office chair) to one side and leaning back. "Of course. I heard you were rezzed up this morning, but the interesting thing is that no-one seems to know precisely where you were. You were registered in public space, but you weren't locatable."

Damn. I hadn't realized we were logged as in public space while in the Park. I resolved to ask - no, strike that - to find out why the hell the Founders left that huge a backdoor open. "Someone wasn't looking hard enough."

"They were, in fact, searching quite diligently. I know, I paid them enough."

"Paul, are you spying on me? I'm really insulted." I grinned, with teeth.

"Protecting my involvement and my investment, dear boy."

"Then you should be happy you couldn't find me. After all, if you couldn't, then-" I let it trail off.

"That is true, of course. Still, why register the connection at all, then? Especially in such a way as to guarantee interest?"

Damn. My question exactly. "Mikare's a show-off," I replied, trying to sound off-hand. "Who knows what he's doing?"

Epaulette cocked her head at me for a few seconds. "Yes."

"Can we get on with this, Paul?"

She nodded, her attitude becoming brisker. "I have a sandbox set up for you. You'll need physical access to use it, since it's isolated from the net entirely, which I presume was your intention."

"Yeah. I don't know what's going to be running in it."

"Prudent. Will you be using it?"

"No. Clotho will."

"Also prudent. She's better than you are."

"Thanks a lot, Paul."

"It wasn't an insult. Wise to know your limits and strengths."

"What's my strength?"

She laughed again. "You tell me. What will you be doing while Clotho is playing in the sandbox?"

I leaned back in the spindly chair. "I have to talk to the Flashrunners. I need to get them on board, at least enough to prevent them from interfering with the run, or this whole thing is pointless."

"How will you convince them that you have, in fact, been contacted by a Founder and that this whole thing is genuine? Are you that certain of your personal charisma?"

I snorted. "No. I'm still working on that. But I think I can pull it off."

"You see? There is your strength."

"What?"

Epaulette stood up behind her desk. "Self-confidence bordering on arrogance, showmanship, and beneath it all an actually perceptive intelligence."

I stared at her for a few seconds before rising myself. "I think I've been insulted. But I'm not sure."

"Again, wise." She handed me a catcard. "You'll need this, or rather Clotho will."

"Thanks, Paul."

"Don't thank me. Listen to Farnham. He has something to tell you."

"What?"

"He'll know."

With that, the Concierge appeared behind me again, and I nodded to her and followed the 'bot back to the foyer of the club. Paul considered derezzing anywhere except the foyer near the doorpane the height of bad manners.

I looked around to make sure no-one was coming through the foyer, then jumped up, grabbed the rafter and swung myself into the portal near the ceiling. My view went black, and I heard a brief echoing drone of derez before my vision cleared and I was standing in the gray fog behind the Drome's mirrors. I disconnected before manifesting in the Drome and blinked three times to clear my sight, closing my eyes against the sudden light of afternoon sun leaking through the seams of the chemical-smelling canvas cover of the MOG.

Farnham spoke from my left, where he was lying on the hardcase again. "I think she likes you, Top."

"Fuck you, Chit."

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