| The Network Revenant
I sat at the kitchen table with the ruins of a lunch, doodling on a tablet and listening to the sound of rain on the roof and on the nearby domes. Riis was out with her crew working the farm. Chit had gone along with her, volunteering his outdoor-boy skills in the service of agriculture. Theo, the local girl Riis had hired as a housekeeper, was in the kitchen making efficient-sounding clattering noises. Left to my own devices for the afternoon, I tried to work out what to do next.
By force of habit I wandered back upstairs to my room and sat at the too-small desk. We’d have to convince the Flashrunners that we were not only serious, but that we did in fact have the support of the Founders in order to convince them not to Run the tile we would be taking down. Ideally, they’d help us, but I wasn’t sure if even what I could tell them would convince enough of them. Flashrunners had always been notoriously diverse in their motives.
The Farm was connected to the Revenet at several points. I powered up my portable before sliding an encryption tunnel out through the workers’ barracks uplink. Following it out towards St. Johnsbury, I found the routing pool at the town end, still familiar despite the years, and grabbed control of the hardware. When I was sure that I was the only person with administrative control over the pool, I turned off logging and allowed my encryption tunnel to spear out into the Revenet towards a 4LC server farm in Atlanta that I had several compromised hosts in, bouncing the tunnel through six or seven intermediate pools and freezing their logging as I went.
The first host I touched in the 4LC farm let me in through the portal I’d left but was heavily loaded, apparently running something for its actual owner. I tiptoed back out and moved to my secondary relay. It, too, let me in - this time to the cool haze of idle logic, most of its processing nodes frozen while it waited for someone to give it something to do.
I used it to try to ping Clotho at the drop point we’d agreed on. There was no response, which didn’t really surprise me - when Clo started working on a Run, she didn’t usually come out of her shell and talk to anyone until she was finished with the task at hand.
I dithered for a bit, unsure of what to do, then idly flipped through my recent log. The coordinates for the Park caught my eye, their symmetrical low values standing out in a chain of fringe locations we’d been using while wandering in the MOG. Why not? I tapped the string, and there was a brief disorientation as the connection was made. My view darkened for a moment, and then cleared to show the base of the elevator into the Park itself, benches and trees quiet in the half-light.
Looking around, I didn’t see anyone, but I didn’t figure my arrival had gone unnoticed. I set off towards a group of benches that was visible in the near distance, clustered around a lamppost. By the time I was halfway there, I became aware of two figures standing in the cluster; when I reached them, ipm and Jayanta were seated, watching me. I sat, each of us on our own bench, and nodded. “Hello.”
“Hello, Top.” Jayanta’s voice was calm. “Welcome back.”
“How are things proceeding?”
“They’re going. Slowly. Clotho’s still busy with the sandbox. Farnham and I-”
ipm lit a a cigarette, snapping his lighter closed. “Yes. We heard about your exciting flight north.”
I looked at him. “Did you, now.”
He nodded, drawing on the cigarette and exhaling to produce a cloud of smoke which faded quickly. I wondered again, idly, if the cigarette routine was paired with anything in reality, as Clotho, Farnham and I usually did with our drinks. “We did.”
Jayanta leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “What do you want to ask, Top?”
I didn’t know where to start. “This isn’t just about the Ouroverse.”
Jayanta shook his head. “No, as we told you. It’s about more than that. Should the Ouroverse become compromised-”
“No.” I cut him off. “Enough. What the hell else is going on?”
“What else?” He looked at me quizzically.
I could feel the anger rising. “Oh, come on. I’ve been chased by lawcraft for reasons I'm still not sure about, shot at by unknowns in flitters, chased a couple hundred miles, had my house broken into at least twice if we include you guys, and you’re going to tell me this is all over a potential ‘Verse hack?”
“As we said, the economic damage of the Ouroverse going down would be-”
I waved a hand. Jayanta stopped. “Look, I get that. I know it would be bad, capital B and everything. But let’s be honest, here. Unless whoever is after us are complete nihilists, there’s no reason for anyone to be trying to stop us until we’ve started the run - ideally, not until they know they can take control of the hacked, new Tile and substitute their own VM code. Who the hell is after us? Someone in New Coast government has to be involved, given the number of heavily armed participants. The Bent are definitely involved with this whole craziness involving Clo and Alexsov, and either they have an agenda or someone’s running them. For that matter, what the hell is Alexsov’s involvement? I can’t believe you guys don’t know this stuff, which just means - to me - that you’re not telling me. And that is really starting to piss me off.”
I leaned back, waiting. Jayanta sat back as well and looked at me. Ibri finally broke the silence. “How many licensed coders are there in the USA?”
I shrugged, thrown by the apparent non sequitur. “I have no idea. Why are you only counting licensed coders?”
“Because it’s important. I’ll tell you. There are something like sixty thousand licensed GLORYNet developers, and seventy-five thousand licensed Ouroverse developers inside the Federal borders who can generate Federally-approved code with appropriate tags. Likely there’s an awful lot of overlap there.”
“That sounds plausible.”
“Okay.” Ibri paused to drag on his cigarette, then jabbed it at me. “In the New Coast and in California, there are something like a three hundred and fifty thousand people with the skillsets to be licensed network or ‘verse devs. Of course, in the New Coast, they don’t have to register, but that’s a fairly accurate survey. A hundred of those are in California. Do I need to tell you about California’s relationship with Washington?”
I shook my head. California hadn’t split with the New Coast states after the emergency measures of Downtime, but it maintained a very aloof relationship with the Capitol and pointedly friendly relations with the New Coast states, with the California Congressional delegation serving as unofficial but recognized proxy for all legislation and motions initiated by the non-voting New Coast Delegates.
Ibri continued. “So work it out. Are there enough coders out there to cover just the U.S. dev work that you’re aware of?”
I thought about that. The answer startled me. “No. There aren’t. Outsourcing?”
Jayanta shook his head. “Some of it, but most of it is done by underground work from within the Federal U.S. because the network connections are better. There are a lot of coders out there who won’t register but who won’t, or can’t, relocate to the coasts. They do their work for companies who are, for the most part, registered on the coasts and are represented in the ‘Verse. They use the ‘Verse to coordinate their work, and they rely on the anonymity and security of a face-to-face ‘Verse connection to keep them safe from Integrity Sweeps by ESCHER or the other Federal agencies.”
“Okay. Fourth Line of Code. You are what you choose. They can’t trace you through the Verse.”
Ibri nodded. “That is part of the problem. The panopticon drops when you cross the line and rez up, and there are those to whom that is unacceptable. In the Federal US, ESCHER and others are empowered to go after targets in the Verse or on the Net for violating the registry regs, but they can’t do anything about traffic once it goes into a Verse server tile.”
Jayanta picked up the thread. “You see why, of course, Top.”
I waved a hand irritably. “BCM/Satchel, yeah. They can’t track traffic routing because it’s inside the VMs, and they can’t get to the VMs. The only thing they can do is rez up and watch like everybody else.”
“Of course, that leaves them just as subject to fuzz and spoofing, not to mention completely normal anonymity, as anyone else in the Verse, because they don’t control it.” Jayanta sat back.
“Who are they, though?” I looked back and forth between the two of them. Ibri answered me, exhaling smoke through the local vicinity.
“There is definitely an ESCHER faction involved. 4LC is involved and has been at the behest of the Federal government; they push too much light to not be involved in something like this. Presumably they’ve been offered a carrot as well as the stick for their cooperation; they’re a big enough player that it would be difficult to simply coerce them, especially given how much of their operations are overseas or in the New Coast.”
“So ESCHER through 4LC. That’s it? How did I end up with New Coast lawcraft on me?”
“ESCHER still cooperates with local law enforcement in the New Coast, Top. They are strictly limited as to the investigations they can pursue, but all they need to do is come up with a plausible story.”
“Like what? What would I be doing that New Coast cares about? I don’t fuck around with NC Gov systems.”
“No? Well. There are a myriad other things you could be accused of. The Interdiction Towers are accessible via network links, and are the key to the New Coast separation policy. They’ll go to any length to ensure the safety of those systems.”
I snorted. “And they’d believe ESCHER if the Bent wandered up and said ‘hey, there’s a threat to the systems that keep us from coming in there?’”
“It was only an example, Top, but think about it.”
I sat back. “Okay, yeah, intrusion involving big honking weapons, bad. Right.”
“We’re not saying that’s what their story was. We don’t know what the NC Gov or ESCHER are currently up to, in fact. That will pose problems during your run.”
“Yeah.” I looked around the Park. It was quiet, no other avatars visible. The stuttering riot of rezzing avatars just outside the skywalls was eerie in its silence, the sky boiling in constant whorls of color and texture just past the calm gray slabs. “About the run. I need your help with something.”
Jayanta raised his eyebrows. “With what?”
“I need to arrange a demo for the Flashrunners. I’m a really charismatic guy, but if I’m going to call a club meeting and tell them they need to own-goal a Run, I’m going to need some convincing proof that the Founders exist and are on my side.”
The other two looked at each other for a moment. Ibri nodded very slightly. Jayanta turned back to me. “That makes sense, Top. What did you have in mind?”
I hunched forward a little. “Tell me about the Park.”
* * *
I left the Park and the Founders with an access key that they had been unhappy to give me. I had it encrypted in my flickerjack, banked against need.
Tourette’s was open and there was a small crowd outside. Hopefuls trying to hack the doorpane, a few ‘Verse paparazzi, and some curious tourists, it looked like. Mikare forward somersaulted over the boulevard and the heads of the crowd, clipping through a tourist bus (bad form) and landed lightly just at the doorpane, taking a single step through and rezzing inside.
The bar was perhaps half full. Mikare waved once to Tourette on his way in, who nodded. This time, he stopped at several tables on the way to the bar, checking with various of the bar’s occupants. As a result, his martini was waiting when he reached Tourette.
“Sure and thanks is the thing that makes us sober.”
“Right.” Taking a drink, Mikare catalogued the bar again, and headed for a table in the corner occupied by three Flashrunners. They looked up at his approach. One raised a glass in sardonic welcome.
“If it isn’t our famous leader.”
Mikare nodded. “Sourceror. May I sit?”
Mik folded into the fourth seat with the liquid grace of subroutine. “Good to see you.”
“And you, Mik. Some odd rumors about you lately.”
“Really. What sort?”
“Oh, the usual.” Sourceror paused, drinking. “That you’d sold out to the corpies. That you’d quit the game. You know.”
“What, nothing about the Founders? Come on. Every good rumor in the ‘Verse involves the Founders, somehow.”
“They showed up,” said the figure opposite. “One version says they’re the ones that bought you.” There was a pause.
“How long have you known me?” Mikare asked reasonably.
“Long time, Mik,” said Sourceror, “but you’re not around as much, recently, and then you start moving in strange circles. There’s another rumor you actually did something to tweak off ESCHER in the real, and that they’re making noise about finally finding you.”
Mikare took a deep breath. “Yes, well.”
The others looked at him sharply. The third, who hadn’t spoken until then, let out a gusty breath. “Shit. That’s true? You really poked the Bent?”
“Yeah. I think I did.”
“What the hell did you do?” Sourceror had put down his drink, and looked fascinated. “Don’t tell me you humped one of their daughters or something.”
“No.” Mikare reached down, detached the Hexgun from his side and laid it on the table, then took another drink. The other three looked at each other.
“Oh, Christ. You hexed the Bent?” Sourceror looked as if he wasn’t sure whether to be awed, furious or terrified.
“I didn’t have a choice. He tracked me for over an hour. He was good, really really good. He was in an immersion setup. I couldn’t drop without letting him see my dropghost. He was that close.”
“So what did you do?” The second avatar asked, looking from Sourceror to Mikare and the hexgun and then back again. “What happened?”
Sourceror laughed. It had a bitter edge. “Mikare, this is 0xCart.” He waved at the second avatar, then the third. “And Rangelion.”
Mikare shrugged. “Pleased to meet you. Sourceror’s your sponsor?” Both the other two nodded. “You’re good, then.” He and Sourceror exchanged ironic nods. “In answer, I hit him with this.” He patted the Hexgun. “It’s a targeting agent for a full-spectrum intrusive dumphack.”
Rangelion shook his head. “I didn’t think dumphacks were possible.”
Sourceror laughed again. “They’re possible. They take a crapload of cycles and some very elegantly nasty code, both of which our friend Mikarecursore can come up with on very little notice.”
0xCart leaned in. “What happened to the mark?”
Mikare swirled the remains of his martini, absently noting the slight framerate drop as the physics engine of the object stole cycles. “Did that rumor about the Bent buying me come about because I was talking to one in here?”
“Well, that was the mark’s boss. He was a little upset at the bill for the facility. He claimed the tracker had dumpshock, still, some three hours after I hit him. I don’t know if he was telling the truth.”
There was a small silence. Rangelion broke it. “Oh.”
“Yes, Oh.” Mikare grinned at him, flashing perfect unreal teeth. “Sourceror, I need your help.”
“Don’t you always?”
“This is different.”
“How so?” Sourceror asked. He looked interested rather than offended.
“I need to get as many Flashrunners as possible to meet with Farnham, Clotho and myself, here. I need to call a Run.”
“So call the Run.”
“No. Not a normal run. People aren’t going to buy into this without some backup.”
The other looked carefully at Mikare’s visor. “How is it different?”
“Well,” Mikare paused, then continued. “We need to take down a tile.”
There was silence at this. Rangelion and 0xCart looked at each other. Sourceror continued to study Mikare, swirling his own drink. “Take down a tile.”
“I do believe you’re right, Mikare,” Sourceror said. “I do think this is going to take explaining. And our club isn’t the most patient group.”
“Why will they listen to you?”
Mikare put his drink down. “The rumors aren’t enough? Curiosity isn’t enough?”
Sourceror just looked at him, a mixure of sarcasm and patience on his face.
“No, okay. That’s why I need your help. I just want to get the message out that they should be Downtown Zero at tile noon tomorrow. You’re my tree contact, let’s just pretend this is a normal notification.”
“If I told you,” Mikare said with his face split in a wide grin underneath his visor again, “it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
<--Back | The Network Revenant | Forward-->