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"You've got to be shitting me." I stared at Jayanta with equal parts horror, shock and disbelief.

"I assure you I am not. There is no other way that we have been able to identify, and our window - now that the collision has been discovered - has begun to close."

"Why me?"

"Several reasons. One, you are a respected member of the Flashrunner community, and have a good chance of convincing enough members of that famously individualist group to cooperate. Two, in additional to being an experienced Flashrunner, you are also a Revenet Op and as far as we have been able to verify a skilled waverider."

"I'm just a professional Op." The words were automatic.

"Of course you are a professional Op. Our very lack of success at conclusively identifying evidence of any other Darknet activity on your part leads us to believe that, in fact, you are better at waveriding than you would have us or any others know. A cautious stance, and one which speaks well of your sensibilities."

"Or would, if any of that was true."

"As you say."

My mind was starting to catch up with the situation. The ramifications it was helpfully tapping me on the shoulder to display weren't pleasant. "Do you realize what will happen to me if I so much as even admit I met you?"

Jayanta shrugged. "Of course. I live as me all day, every day."

I grimaced, looked away. "Sorry, stupid question."

"None needed. We have put you in an awkward position."

"How so? I mean, I can always turn you down." I swung my gaze back to look at him, suspicion growing leaden in my midriff. "I can always turn you down, right?"

He had the grace to look uncomfortable. "You can, of course, turn us down. However, I have already given you the new Ouroverse code. Even if you destroy it immediately, it would be difficult for you to prove that fact, should knowledge of the transfer get out."

"You'd..."

"No, not deliberately, Top. But things are starting to happen; as Mr. Holmes is famously quoted as saying, 'the game's afoot.' We have no idea where the gavotte will lead us all."

I just stared at him as my oft-laughed-at paranoia cackled and rushed in from the darkness of the loft's edge spaces to fill my skull. "Henry V said that first. At the walls of Harfleur. And it wasn't nearly as light an occasion as the one which Holmes used it on."

"Very good, Top, and very true. I'm not asking you to storm a wall of pikemen, though, and besides," he continued with a flashing smile, "you can't tell me you've never wanted to save the world."

"I wanted to volunteer."

"Does it make a difference? When a world needs saving, is anyone truly a volunteer?"

"Don't play word games with me about this. You just walked into my house uninvited and shot my entire life to shit."

Jayanta frowned. "I did walk into your home uninvited, Top. However, if this threat is not met, everything that both sides of your life rely on - both Mikare and you - will collapse. The Ouroverse will collapse, and there is a strong possibility that the Revenet itself will suffer greatly in the process. The financial and social underpinnings of the world, stressed to breaking during Downtime and still not fully recovered, may take a shock large enough to bring down systems that we take for granted. In sum, it will not be pleasant at all."

He looked at his hands, clasped across one knee, and continued. "I am here because I and my colleagues think- no, we believe that you may be able to avert much of the damage, even if you cannot stop all the changes. You and your friends have an opportunity to preserve what you hold dear, and beyond that, an opportunity to perhaps in some small or larger way shape at least one world in which you live. For if you do not cycle the 'Verse, then it will surely fall."

I looked at him. He returned my gaze calmly, but with no attempt to hide the worry in his face. "What you're telling me is that if I do nothing, I suffer along with everybody else, and I'll have chickened out of a chance to prevent us all from going down."

"No. I have not said the latter. You have. I am merely telling you that you may choose to await what may come, knowing that what may come will be in no way the result of anything you have done, or you may choose to take up the struggle and perhaps change the course of events to one which may suit you better. Any impact on the rest of the world is, one might say, a bonus."

"I'm not completely fucking narcissistic. Telling me I'm clear to behave like I am is not an approved way to get my help."

"I apologize. I merely meant to ensure that you understood that what will happen if you do nothing is not your fault, according to me."

"Sure." I was angry again, but didn't have enough information to let it loose. Besides, Things One to N were still loose somewhere. "Sure, you didn't browbeat me. It's not my fault. You're clean. None of this is your fault, not even the fucking moral vise you just dropped me into."

Jayanta looked troubled. He stood and put his hands in his pockets in order to pace back and forth, remaining within a few meters of the bugstomper. "Top, I had no wish for this to become acrimonious. Let me be as plain as I can. We - the Founders, and as far as we can determine, the Ouroverse - have a problem. We think you can help. We're asking you to help."

"What happens to me if I say yes?"

"I suspect you know that very well. As soon as the attack on BCM/Satchel becomes public knowledge - and it will, very soon - there will be a rush to discover a workable exploit. We have no way of knowing how long that process will take, although we remain fairly confident it is unlikely to result in code which can crack an Ouroverse VM in less than approximately thirty days of work by a dedicated team."

"How do you know?"

Jayanta's teeth flashed again. "Because that's how long it took us."

"Oh." I subsided. "What did you-"

"We did not finish the process. We judged that the existence of an actual attack vector was too dangerous to risk, even if we held it closely to ourselves. Only two or three people know the mathematics and algorithms required to implement even the pieces we did manage to construct. We retained enough of our efforts to be able to watch for attack signatures which indicate that they are directed at the Ouroverse Key using a method related to the one we discovered."

"So we'd have to take down the tile the hard way."

"Yes. That makes it more difficult, but the additional time and difficulty was judged to be less of a risk than actually creating a working attack."

I thought about that for a second, then realized with a cold shudder that I was thinking about it. I looked up to see Jayanta looking at me, and was grateful that he wasn't smiling or looking triumphant. Rather, he looked as soberly concerned as I felt.

"I'm going to need help."

"Of course."

"They're not going to believe me, though."

"Who will you tell?"

The answer was as obvious as the question. "Farnham. He's been with me the longest. Clotho, probably, because she's probably a better waverider than I am and the actual attack run is going to be almost pure net layer, not 'Verse at all. I'll probably need to bring in support, for the infrastructure, but that's my problem. If I have Farnham and Clotho, we can convince the other Runners. But they're going to need to know the whole story."

He considered. "Sensible." Reaching into a pocket, Jayanta withdrew a catcard and handed it to me. I took it. "Bring them when you're ready. We'll tell you the rest of it."

"Oh, fuck me. There's more?"

He grinned again, stood up and folded the bugstomper, handing it to me. "Isn't there always?" And with that, and a nod to Thing One, who wafted out after him, the Founder was gone. I sat in my living room and looked at the status lights flickering on my metastack, the catcard in one hand and the bugstomper in the other, and carefully thought of every obscenity I could ever remember uttering.

* * *

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