| The Network Revenant
When the Ouroverse was first booted - that is, when Downtown 0:0 was first brought up by the Founders those long years ago - the first thing that showed up on the several Street clients that were running on the private network on which it instantiated was the Entryhedron. This is an article of faith. So goes the story.
Like most stories involving faith, it's probably not true. In point of fact, when the currently running Ouroverse was first booted, it wasn't booted on a private network but on a publicly visible cloud of preseeded server images; otherwise the whole scam would never have worked. There's no way to know what the various client programs around the world looking at it were set to display when the cloud first began accepting connections to the virtual space; that was up to their users, as per the First Line of Code: The User Shall Decide to See. There were members of the Ouroverse Instantiation Committee all over the planet at that point - rumor had it there were a couple off the planet as well, operating at different ends of the successors to Vint Cerf and company's InterplaNet. Most likely not much further than Earth orbit, but, still. The point is that it's highly unlikely that every client, in the one hour period of Instantiation before Physics, was looking at the Entryhedron.
It makes the story more impressive, though.
The Entryhedron is what everyone sees, now, when logging on to the Ouroverse for the first time; it's what everyone sees if they log on to the Ouroverse directly, without connecting from a running private server which is connected to the cloud and which passes their avatar across a registered Doorplane into the Street. It's the dial tone of the Ouroverse, writ huge in Neo-Egyptian geek architecture of first person shooters and public works projects; scaled to remind one of the Three Gorges Dam, or the Millau Viaduct. A simple cube the size of several city blocks, and in a nod to the impossible, it is set on one corner, which is sunk into the surface. The faces on its underside are softly luminescent; those above are mirrored. When a new avatar instantiates, or rezzes, it bursts from a random spot on those upper mirror-polished surfaces, flying outward in an arc. The Entryhedron is set inside a dome of low gravity, meaning that the user is given several seconds during which they can do nothing but look around and take stock of the visual violence of Downtown 0:0 as their avatar gracefully soars towards the surface.
Twenty-four hours a day, every day of the week, the surfaces of the Entryhedron are a cacophony of visual riot, figures and shapes and colors moiling in fireworks, individual avatars not even resolvable to the observer for several tens of meters outwards, at which point the slight differences in the avatars' velocities, also random, begins to separate the solid mass of interpenetrated graphics (avatars do not clip - collide with each other - in public space) into shapes and forms. It has become trendy at various times to code macros of ballet, of disco, of stripteases, of swan dives; all these and more can be seen alongside the always-most-common simple frozen stares of wonder as thousands of humans ride their dopplegangers of light and data down to a nonexistent Earth.
Mikare and Epaulette were sitting at a cafe table on the side of a gridscraper some two hundred stories up above the Downtown 0:0 tile. The Entryhedron loomed over the single block of structures that lay between their vantage and its location; by zoning rules, the first set of grid squares around it was limited to half its height to maximize the effect. Although no longer the single commerce point of the Ouroverse that it had been in the beginning, Downtown 0:0 still had the most expensive unreal estate prices in the 'verse if you averaged over the entire Square. While other plots elsewhere in the 'Verse were more expensive, Downtown - leaving off the coordinate indicated the 0:0 square in common use - retained its value, mostly due to the Entryhedron.
Long before, in the days of the Internet, traffic had been measured in views of flatform pages - difficult to measure and bill for, but industries had sprung up nonetheless, creating and marketing consumer attention to increasingly hungry entertainment and retail economies. The Ouroverse had boostrapped itself off that model, and the Entryhedron was the touchstone - that several seconds of helpless drifting as unaffiliated avatars drifted to the surface meant that whatever was in Downtown was guaranteed to be the first thing a new user saw. Moreover, it was the easiest to get to, once Physics happened, being closest. The Founders had been careful to include among their number urban planning and architectural contributors, as well as straight computer scientists, and as a result, Downtown had a high percentage of public space, increasing the value of what commercial space there was even further.
Topher would have paid a month's wage for the luncheon/GMT seating at the table at which Mikare and Epaulette sat. Epaulette had been waved through the hazy plane of privacy fields by an incredibly expensive-looking avatar who had beamed at her, bowed elaborately, and greeted Mikare by name with just enough reserved respect to convince him that he wasn't entirely there on her sufferance.
Somewhere in the Loft, I drank from a Martini mixed in a smartglass paired with my flickerjack.
Mikare looked at her across the crystal table surface planted in the air between them, picked up his drink and took a sip. She looked back at him with an air of controlled amusement and impatience, ignored her own drink, and leaned back slightly in her chair. "Mik."
"What's it all about, then?"
"What's what all about, Paul?"
"Dear." Epaulette sighed. Her sighs were famous, deep, mysterious and fractal. Entire volumes of disapproval and commentary could be and were encoded into their depths; sarcasm and explanation and gentle rebuke wafting out from her on turbulent whorls of unvoiced breath. Mik had a sudden image of sarcasm crossing her alveoli and permeating the air in her lungs. "Mikare. Cursore."
He sipped again. "Cursory? Was that an insult?"
"If you choose. Are you really going to force me to explain to you what it is that I want an explanation for? That's just so damn tedious."
"Oh, come on, Paul. I love hearing you wax critical."
"You're a sweet child, Mik." Her smile was probably, Mikare reflected, the surest indicator of her age that survived the translation to her avatar. No one younger than maybe half a century could possibly have acquired that lethal a range of facial weaponry. "But I'm becoming bored as well as curious."
"Okay, okay." Mik sighed and replaced his drink. "There's a run."
"There's always a run, Mik. That's why your little club exists, I had thought."
"This one's different." Mikare waved one hand in an almost-embarrassed waggle, appearing to search for words, but at the end of the gesture a haziness surrounded their hands and lower faces. Epaulette raised an eyebrow, unmarked by the hushfield, and he grimaced visibly despite the blurring. "Sorry. You were the one who wanted to meet here," he finished, indicating the balcony's several other occupied tables with a wave.
"Fair." Epaulette winced at the buzzing in her voice, probably an artifact of whatever encoding Mik had just dropped on their connection. "Go on, then."
"This one is a reverse run. We need to take down a tile."
Epaulette's eyebrows both rose in shock. "What?"
"I know, I know. I haven't switched off on you. I had a really, really disturbing visitor the other day. He told me a story about the 'Verse, and about how it works, and he told me something else - that there's a problem. There's a problem that has to get fixed. But the only way to fix it is to change the code."
"We can't change the code."
"Yes we can. If we drop a tile."
"Mik, the entire point of the Flashrunners is to make sure nobody can drop a tile. It's too dangerous for people to even know it can be done, to hell with actually letting them get away with it."
"I know. That makes it harder. We have to drop a tile without anyone knowing we've done it."
"This isn't getting any better," Epaulette said, looking at Mikare's face closely. "You know, Mik, I always fucking hated that mirror of yours."
"I'm not done yet, Paul. It gets worse. We have to defend the takedown from everybody else while this goes on, because there are at least two players who will know what we're up to."
Epaulette drank, once, and then turned to look out over the view towards the Entryhedron. She absently turned her audio filter down a couple notches and a wall of noise beat in on her; advertisements, sound effects from passing vehicles, voices from nearby tables, ambient effects generated by the cafe to simulate wind blowing around their aerie. She watched the horizontal snowstorm of avatars erupt from the Entryhedron for a pair of minutes while Mikare drank patiently and watched her, then upped her filters again and turned to him in the sudden silence.
"A couple of others. You don't need to know."
"You'll have to get me a shopping list and a schedule, Mik. I'll need notice for this."
"You'll have it."
Mikare looked out over the empty air. "Same as usual. Anonymity Saves."
"Not this time, Mik."
He turned back to look at her. "Be specific."
Epaulette leaned forward and placed her right hand on the table, palm down. Mikare perforce leaned forward as well to listen to her. "This isn't a game, Mik. You keep talking about players and gigs, but it's not a game."
"I know that, Paul," he said, a bit stiffly.
"No." She said it evenly, looking at him. "You don't. Open the mask."
"I see your eyes, Mik. Right now. Or I walk."
Mikare jerked in his seat slightly. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Epaulette moved her left hand to rest next to her right. "I'm trying to get your attention, Mikarecursore. I am explaining to you that what you are proposing to do is not funny, it is not a game, and it will require you to think about the consequences of your actions, preferably in advance. You will need to think about security both 'Verse and physical, this time, because these players you keep mentioning are the types that will have no compunction about shattering the Second Line of Code all to hell and gone. I don't even know if they'll know what it means, or care. If I am to be involved, I refuse to take the risks unless I know those I am working with are also aware of the field on which they have chosen to participate, and that means our relationship has just changed. I see your eyes, now, or I walk." She sat back slightly in her seat, crossed her arms, and stared at the center of the mirrored visor on Mikare's face.
He looked at her for a second, then raised one hand. "Before I do, I need you to listen for one moment, agreed?"
"I can't show you my eyes-" he broke off as she started to stand, and spread his arms, "-no, please Paul. Not won't, can't. There's no code. There's no code for that."
She sat back down slowly. "Very well. Are you telling me that your avatar has never displayed your features?"
"Yes, exactly." Mik's voice was relieved. "If you give me five minutes here, I can patch code in to do that. I wouldn't trust it in the open, but I trust you not to try to ID me, so all it needs to do is display and I can use standard routines."
Epaulette smiled slightly. "I have time, Mikare. I'll have another drink."
He nodded. "Be right back." With that, he slumped slightly in his chair, one arm at his side, the other resting lightly on the table in front of him, looking like an inflatable mannequin with five percent of its pressure gone somehow. Occasional flickers around his head began, intermittently; Epaulette threw up a privacy shield around the table.
But only after ordering another drink.
It took seven minutes, but she hadn't finished her drink yet, and was inclined to give him the time. When Mikare raised his head again, his visor was still there; he looked around himself and nodded, seeing the privacy field. "Back."
"I see that." Epaulette raised her glass to him, then set it down, put her hands back on the table and looked at him intently. "Do you know what you're getting into, Mikare?"
He matched her pose. Without a flicker, but with a half-second fade, his visor vanished leaving her with a view of a narrow band of his face across his eyes. They were fixed on her own, expressive, lashes trimmed, pupils wide in the dimness of the privacy field. "Yes, Epaulette. I do. I understand. And I have to do it."
She sat back. His visor faded quickly back into mirrored existence. Still looking at him, she picked up her drink.
"Then I think we'd better get started."
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