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Following Epaulette’s encrypted instructions, we drove roughly north and east to a ring road around the Boston area. After negotiating a badly-decayed bridge over the old Interstate, Chit wrestled the MOG to a stop before what looked to be a really nice piece of landscaping. A gentle hill rose to one side of a lake, scrub trees mixed with what appeared to be hedge plantings gone completely wild. The local road meandered past the hill off to the west, between it and the water, leaving an unpaved driveway the task of approaching a dusty shack at the base of the hill itself. The MOG’s dust cloud settled back down onto a roughly circular clearing, and we looked around.

Chit spoke first. “Well, they’re here.”

“Where?” I was still looking around, having the other side window.

“Everywhere.” He waved generally about, keeping his hand below the level of the window, the other still on the steering wheel.

“I don’t see anything,” I muttered, aware of how petulant it sounded. Fia shook her head.

“I know you don’t, Top,” Chit muttered back. “You’re not supposed to. It’s my job anyway, calm down. We’re okay, nobody’s aiming guns at us.” I felt marginally better until he added reflectively, “Yet.”

After a few more moments of dust dropping from the air, a guard stepped out of the shack. He was wearing typical rental security armor and what looked like a decidedly nonlethal stunner at his side, and he was carrying an honest to God clipboard. With paper on it. We waited as he approached Chit’s side window and leaned on the frame.

“Afternoon, sirs, ma’am.” We nodded back. “Can I help you?”

The other two looked at me. I sighed. “I hope so. I was told to ask for admission to the Commons.” I handed over a catcard with Paul’s token stored on it. He took it and clipped it onto the clipboard.

“Wait here, please.”

With that, he ambled back into the shack, which couldn’t have been more than the size of a medium camper van and resembled one in more than a few ways. “Does anyone else here feel underwhelmed?” I asked.

“Nope,” said Chit. “But that’s ‘cause I can see what’s pointed at us.”

I looked up at him, startled. So did Fia. “Hey, wait a minute. I thought you said they weren’t aiming guns at us.”

“Aiming a gun is a matter of intent. Pointing one is a matter of direction. I don’t think they’re aiming ‘em at us, but there’s a whole bunch of ‘em pointed at us, that’s for sure.”

I swallowed. “Chit, you’re fucking weird.”

He laughed. “Aw, don’t worry about it. Lots of ‘em are automatic systems.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“Sure. Less likely somebody gets nervous, or just gets an itch on their ass and ruins your day by mistake. Also, it means that this clearing is supposed to have guns pointed at it, which means that this isn’t anything personal. I’d prefer this isn’t personal, that it’s just normal business for where we are, wouldn’t you?”

I thought about it. Fia answered before I could. “I suppose it’s better than some other possibilities, but it’s not an ideal.”

“Nope. Never said it was.”

The guard emerged from the shack again and returned to the MOG, this time approaching my window. I rolled it down. “Good afternoon, Mr. Eckhardt. Welcome to the Commons. Please bring your guests in to sign in.” He handed me another catcard, not the one I’d handed him, with a badge clip on it. I took it.

“Thanks.” Swinging out of the truck, I put the badge on and waited for the other two to emerge. We grouped around the guard.

“What about my truck?” Chit asked him.

“We’ll watch it.”

“Thanks.” Chit nodded at me at the use of we. We followed the guard - whose name tag, I could see once out of the truck, read Steven - into the shack. The inside was about what I expected, a couple of desks with terminals on them occupying most of the space and a toilet cubicle off the back. Until Steven opened what looked like a coat closet and gestured.

“In.”

We looked at each other, then I shrugged and stepped into the small space. Chit and Fia squeezed in after me, and Steven closed the door behind us. As soon as it shut, a lightpanel brightened on the ceiling and the cubicle began to sink below the trailer.

“This is getting to be a habit,” Fia murmured. “I’m not going to be able to walk anywhere without thinking about it. What’s a word for ‘fear of what’s underneath?’”

We pondered that for a bit as the elevator descended.

It opened up into a familiar (to me at least) scene. A security desk lurked behind armorglass with an unfamiliar logo set into the wall above it. On our side of the barrier was nothing except the elevator and an armored door leading off to the right, currently very closed. I approached the desk with my best Customer’s Smile. “Hi.”

The armorglass was tinted quite dark, but there were two shapes visible behind it. A voice came from some invisible corner of the room. “Afternoon. Put your badge in the drawer, please. Do your guests have identification?”

That was a bit of a stopper. “No.”

There was a pause as security considered this, or maybe conferred. Then a drawer slammed open. I put the badge card into it and it slammed shut again.

“Top?”

“Yeah, Chit.”

“What the hell?”

“It looks like a colo.”

“A what?”

“Hosted infrastructure. Just...really secure. I don’t know whose. But the whole security desk and man-trap routine happens at every hosting facility I’ve been to.”

“Okay.”

The armorglass cleared suddenly and we were looking into a somewhat prosaic office space. Two security types were seated on the other side, looking at datapanes. One looked up. “Your friend will need to leave his weapons with us.” I looked at Chit. So did Fia. He grimaced, and nodded. “Okay, come on through. Use the scanner, please, Mr. Eckhardt.”

“My name’s Top, damn it,” I said, but to myself. Fia kicked me anyway. I turned to the door to the right and put my right hand against the scanplate. It lit behind my palm for a moment or two, then the door sank back a few centimeters and slid aside. We stepped through. Security was waiting on the other side, three of them, with guns. Two were holding what looked like machine pistols of some sort or other.

The third, apparently unarmed, held open another door in the spare anteroom into which we’d stepped, and gestured to Chit. “This way, please, sir.”

Chit shrugged. “Be right back.” He walked through the door, followed by all three security. I looked around and located a row of functional if uncomfortable-looking chairs along one wall and settled down into one. It was turning into a long day. Fia looked around for a few minutes and then sat down one chair over from me.

It took longer than I expected, but Chit was still unruffled when he emerged from the door again. I thought the two armed security guys looked a bit pale, but maybe that was just me. The unarmed one followed Chit over to us. “Thanks. If you’ll follow me, we’ll get you set up.”

“Chit?” I asked in a low voice. He gave me a nod. We headed out through a third door in the wall opposite the armored portal we’d come in through.

Past that door, everything changed. The furnishings got really nice, and there was a smell in the air, redolent of ozone and light machine oil, that was intimately familiar to me from years in colo facilities. There was hot logic in here, and a lot of it. We reached a small conference room and were ushered inside by our guide. We’d ditched the SWAT team at the outer doors. Once inside, we spread out around the small table and took seats.

“Sorry for the routine. My name is Allan.”

I answered for the three of us. “Okay. Where are we?”

“This is the Commons Area. You were sent here by Epaulette.”

“Yeah.”

“Ms. Paulette is a member of our consortium. She is one of our largest service brokers. The facility you’re in is maintained for the exclusive use of consortium members and their affiliates.”

“What’s in here? That you can tell us about, I mean.”

Allan waved generally at the wall behind us. “Servers. Lots of them. This was a colocation facility before Downtime, and it survived relatively intact. It was bought outright by early members of the Commons Area in the systems crash years, and has been upgraded and moved to private use over the years intervening.”

I had been thinking about it. “This is infrastructure for Ouroverse server use?”

“Partially.”

“Public or private?”

“Both. Commons members have partitioned resources here for private use, and where necessary, public area cycle taxes for their installations are provided by common resource pools maintained here.”

Fia was nodding. Chit just looked stolid. I looked at Fia. “Do you know this place?”

She smiled at me very briefly. “Not from this side of the Real.”

I grinned back. “Ah.”

Allan looked at her. “Which of you will be remaining at the facility?”

I had already figured that part out. “She will.” I pointed at Fia. “Epaulette left us a sandbox, correct?”

“Yes. There is a private simulation pool set up for your use.”

“Okay. Can you give us a minute?”

“Sure. I’ll be outside.” He nodded to us all and withdrew. I turned to Fia.

“This is what you need to do, now.”

“I know.” She looked a bit grim. “I have the code image. First thing I need to do is make sure I can talk to you two from in here.”

“Second thing,” said Chit.

“Second?” Fia asked him. He sat forward, easing back into the conversation.

“First thing is to make sure that nobody here can see what you’re doing.”

“Oh.” Fia thought about that. “That’s not going to be easy.”

“But you can do it, right?” I asked her.

“We’ll know soon enough.”

“Okay. We’ll wait to hear from you. If we don’t get a message from you with T, we’ll come looking for you. How long do you think this will take?”

She thought about it, her eyes defocusing slightly. “I don’t know. Several days, at least, to set up a decent sim.”

I looked at Chit. “Then Chit and I have an errand to run while you’re working. For one thing, it’ll divert any attention from you being here that didn’t follow us here just now.”

“And for the other?” Chit asked me.

I grinned at him, teeth bared. “I want my fucking car back.”

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