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Concrete patches spread across the darker stretches of tarmac, harder fillings wearing rutted edges up out of the softer roadway. The nearly-disused surface was wavy, icemelt and rain eroding the roadbed beneath into an infinite stretch of gravel washboard overlain by the gray taffy of the bitumen as it stretched eastward towards the horizon.

Chit swore at it.

No more than eighty or ninety klicks over this surface, if that. Omaha was taking forever, just as long as he'd feared. Overhead, scattered throughout the graying overcast sky, flitters ghosted past him headed east and westbound, along with those few crossing the flow even higher at odd directions; the main flow of traffic content to follow the directional transponders set in towers in the old Interstate median. Several hundred kph, they moved at, up there; the rich and lucky ones. Chit hadn't seen another groundpounder for at least two or three hours, since passing an antiquated Land Rover Defender as it roared past on the opposite roadbed heading west. The driver had waved to him, out the window; the hardy ones of the open road, cameraderie in outmoded transport. He had waved back, unwilling to make himself noticed despite his frustration.

Too fucking broke to move himself any other way.

The UNIMOG had been ancient when it came to these shores. A surplus Czech military vehicle, it had seen better days when some older relative of his had gotten hold of it and modded it to take hydrogen binder. It burned its tank faster, but it was much easier to find flittermix than gasoline or diesel, these days. Catstacks could make either easily enough, but it took longer and took more power, and it still polluted more than hydrogen, so few folks bothered to 'stack real gas anymore. The MOG didn't carry a 'stack of its own, so it was easier to find flittermix on the road.

Chit had never really been this far from home with it before, though. Wyoming a good stack of hours in the past, and his destination God knew how far in the future, no matter what the bright lie of his nav system was telling him. The distance was easily readable in kilometers, not so easily known in boundaries both political and personal.

At least as far as Chicago, though, he just had to worry about the damn roadway, and his navsystem said the road was crappy but passable to ground traffic as far as Indiana. At that point, it got dicey. Best guess, he had four or five days to go, assuming no trouble at the New US Border.

Maybe time to call ahead.

Maybe next fuel stop.

* * *

Chit Kyi Sein had been born just outside of Billings, Montana to a first-generation immigrant couple from Myanmar. They had moved to Jackson's Hole, Wyoming following tourist riches before he was born. The money never came; Downtime did - but they stayed anyway. Raised in Wyoming, Chit never knew much about his parents' homeland, but he came to think an awful lot about his own. He got a job in high school working land for a local dude ranch, and from there grew both a disdain for urbanites and an identification with local values that stood him in good stead in avoiding friction - Chit was a local boy, no question.

* * *

The flitterplex was built on the remains of an interstate truckstop; the old fuel plaza was still visible as rusty traceries around the perimeter of the flitterpads. Chit drove onto a pad and swung down from the MOG's cab, unlocked the tank and mated the fuel line to it, authorizing credit. The fueling system, incurious at this strange apparition, disgorged flittermix into the MOG's waiting tank, and Chit headed inside for a snack.

Inside was a diner, likely unchanged in decor for several decades. He ordered a burger plate but headed for the back of the diner at the sight of several neon-bright booths crowded into the service area. Sliding into an empty one, Chit slid a hand down to his beltpack, hesitated, then mentally shrugged and tabbed the pack's power online before pulling a compact goggle set from its outer pocket and donning it, slipping a thin pair of gloves on. The pack eeled up and down the booth's available frequencies as he did so, and was primly informed that there were two ranges allowed for customer interfacing. Ignoring the booth's ware, the pack held open the diagnostic bandwidth of the booth as well as all six paid frequency ranges, kicking off two other users in the diner who stared in surprise at their LINK LOST icons, and froze the open channels into the pack's systems as the metaware inside it warmed to optemp. Chit settled the last of the interface onto his head, and Farnham stretched his arms out, stood up and danced.

* * *

Farnham instantiated where he'd derezzed, sitting in a booth at the back of Tourette's. He wasn't in the same booth, but that didn't surprise him; that was just Tourette's place, after all. If you were Flash enough to have Tourette's zonekey, you didn't let shit like that bother you. He unfolded to his not-inconsiderable height and stretched, straight up, finishing the motion by lifting the plain truncated Stetson hat from his head, twirling it once and replacing it on his white hair. A few avatars around the bar applauded, some sarcastically. Farnham ignored them and checked his List. Neither Mik nor Fia was in the bar, but...ah. The new kid was sitting at a table across the room. Farnham dodged a couple of tables and what appeared to be a Japanese dining pit given its somewhat incorrect height and fetched up at a small round one set against the wall. A fairly restrained avatar done in shades of green was sitting there watching him approach over an iconic tumbler of green liquor. Farnham nodded. "Verdure."

"Farnham?" The other was a bit wary, which wasn't at all surprising. Farnham didn't usually go to the trouble of being friendly.

"Yep. Got a minute?"

"Um, sure. Have a chair."

Points for politeness, Farnham thought, waving at Tourette and sliding onto one of the two other stools. "Thanks. Wanted to ask you a question, but also to ask how you're getting on."

"Getting on?"

"Been on a run yet?"

"Oh! Yeah. Um, yes, I have, two, in fact."

"Didja make Line?"

"The first one. Not the second one." Verdure's expression changed slightly as he admitted it, but his masked face continued to hold Farnham's eyes.

Spunk, too. "Ha. Not to worry. I missed the first four. You're doin' better than me, kid." Farnham paused as Tourette approached to place a mug of beer on the table in front of him. "Thanks, Tourette."

"No shit Shinola ape-man. Think that's not a God-given right to alcohol in the hereafter? Sheeee-it." Tourette grinned fearsomely, slapped Farnham on the shoulder, causing his avatar to rock forward, and moved away. Both Farnham and Verdure laughed. Farnham paused to take a drink of beer.

"That's better, kid. Lighten up. We're all just dipshits, really."

"Thanks, Farnham. I know you're just doing this to make me feel better. I don't actually believe you're a personable guy." Verdure grinned at him. Farnham snorted.

"Good thing you're smart, too."

"What did you want to ask me?" Verdure cocked his head, but at that moment, there was a deep gonging noise from a bell behind the bar. Farnham, along with most of the other patrons, quickly lifted their drinks from the table and raised them high. Verdure looked at him in confusion. Farnham looked back, imperturbably, as the gonging continued for a few seconds, and then-

DISCONTINUITY

-Farnham was sitting at the bar, his glass raised. Everyone had shifted places in the bar. The gonging had stopped; people got up from their chairs and stools, looking around, and began to move off towards prior (or new) drinking partners. There were fewer avatars than there had been a moment ago; here and there the fuzzy stroboscopics of deadlink iconography flickered out of existence.

A green form faded back into solidity at a table near the door and began looking about itself. Farnham moved over and sat back down at the table across from Verdure, who was still looking confused as well as searching for his drink with a wary expression which indicated he hadn't decided it wasn't all Farnham's fault. "What happened?"

Farnham swigged. "Pageout."

"What?"

"Nobody told you about the pageout?"

"If they had," Verdure said with commendable patience, "I wouldn't have said 'what,' now, would I?"

"Fair point," conceded Farnham. "Pageout happens because Tourette's isn't your standard 'Verse Tile or private server. Do you know how it operates?"

"No."

"Tourette! Verdure lost his drink!"

The 'tender waved at them without looking. From the line at the bar, so had several other patrons. Farnham continued.

"Okay, not to get pedantic, but this is Flash Ed stuff, okay?" He waited for Verdure to nod. "So Tourette's isn't a normal Tile. It's 'jacked space. It's actually a floating image. It's not running on a standard 'verse cluster; rather, it's a single image running on a single random 'verse server somewhere in the cloud. It's not supported by redundancy; rather, it has a whole bunch of really, really evil countermeasures code in it and a bunch of active migration stuff so in the event the image thinks Bad Things are happening, like it's running low on resources or something's crimping the server it's jacking space on, it migrates to another one. The problem is, since there's no redundancy, that causes a period of noticeable latency and discontinuity inside the 'Drome, which we call 'Pageout.' If the ware has time to warn us, it rings that bell behind the bar."

Verdure looked at him suspiciously for a second. "What's the deal with the drinks?"

Chit looked at him. "This is Tourette's place. He serves us drinks. He doesn't give a shit about you or me, generally, but he cares that his handiwork migrates properly. And doesn't get dropped and broken by people not paying attention."

The green face tilted slightly, then Verdure looked under the table - which caused Chit to jump slightly, since rather than just tilting his head or torso, Verdure drew his legs up onto his seat, liquidly moving into what Chit recognized as a standard combat crouch. After peeking under the table, another framejacked sequence blurred past and Verdure was seated again. He looked at Chit. "My drink is under there. Why did it - and me - move?"

"Oh, that - well, it doesn't usually waste time on internal housekeeping. The bar seats are datastructure slots inside this server image, and so long as everyone who was inside the bar is still inside the bar, it doesn't care so much that everyone is in the same place. If you're holding your drink, by 'verse physics, it subtends the drink object to your avatar object tree, and your avatar goes with the drink. Otherwise, it-"

"-gets disconnected when the drink migrates and the drink falls, or whatever, okay." Verdure looked mollified. "So it wasn't a hazing trick?"

"As to that," Farnham said with a slightly evil smile, "I could have warned you, sure. We like laughing at everybody who sits there looking confused."

Verdure gave him a dirty look. "Okay. As I was saying, though, what did you want to ask me?"

"Ah, yeah, thanks. I was wondering if you'd seen Mik recently."

Verdure's face lightened. "He was here, but he went over to Epaulette's to, well..."

"Show off?"

The green mask glinted slightly, creasing in what was an unmistakable grin. "Yeah."

Farnham tilted up the beer mug, causing it to empty. "Thanks a lot, kid. Keep at it."

"Thanks for the explanation, Farnham."

Farnham tossed his beer mug at Tourette, who caught it without looking, and strode out of the 'Drome.

He paused in the Street outside, ignoring the several looks which his Stetson and distinctive height and build drew, considering. Epaulette's wasn't but a hop and a skip, but still. He shook his head, turned, and crossed the livewall back into the 'Drome, crossing the crowded space quickly to stand at the bar. Tourette noticed him and drifted over. "Ey, Farnham. Just left I figured you had the fucking guts for it in the corn boat down in Kansas."

"Tourette," said Farnham, placing both palms on the bar carefully, "flash priority." Tourette froze for a tiny portion of a second, then reanimated, his gaze fixed on Farnham's eyes, and nodded slightly. Farnham waited for the nod, then said quietly, "Mikare, you're a stupid fucking cunt, you know that, right?"

Tourette blinked once, slowly.

"And that thing with my sister is complete bullshit, too."

Another blink.

Farnham lifted his hands from the bar. Tourette blinked twice but continued looking at him, waiting. He continued. "I need to talk to you. Find me here or in the big blue. Soon as you can. It's about the big gig. You know who."

Tourette waited a few seconds after Farnham stopped speaking, then nodded once. Farnham nodded back, and Tourette moved off down the bar to the next customer. A couple avatars were looking curiously at him and Farnham, but Farnham ignored them - while Tourette was listening to a message, the 'Drome stopped relaying audio from both him and the sender, and both avatars appeared to be still as stone - the 'Drome hijacking relay of their rendering for the duration and secreting their motions. Onlookers saw only Tourette and his conversant standing still, looking at each other for however long it took the message to be handed off.

But the fact that it had happened was worth noticing. There were only fifteen or sixteen people in the Ouroverse that Tourette would Listen to, and one of them had just left the bar. Faces turned to follow, those that didn't know who it was asking their table mates. Some knew, and told; some didn't, and tried to pretend, and those that actually knew Farnham either shook their heads wearily or just raised their eyebrows and moved the conversation along.

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