NOTE: As you may have detected, The Network Revenant gets more fragmented this far in. Assume there may be parts missing in between posted nodes; parts that haven't been written yet or parts that are undergoing reworking. They'll be put into place when they're ready. - tc

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Tourette’s was closed for business. The ‘Drome had never closed before. Mikare and Farnham stood in front of the bar with Tourette looming behind them, arms crossed and an expression of unhappiness about the situation that made his famously ugly face look even more frightening pasted onto his frame.

The bar itself was filled with Flashrunners. Every runner who had seen the Face in Entryhedron, or heard about it from sources they trusted - in other words, another Flashrunner - was there. The bar was crowded. Clipping was off, and other than a clearing around Mikare and Farnham, the available space was a miasma of texels.

Mikare jumped up and back onto the bar. “Listen up.”

There was a murmur, quickly stifled by the ‘Drome’s internal hush routines, but movement stilled also. Mikare gave the room a tight grin. “I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve asked you here today.” Somebody threw a beer mug in eloquent commentary; Mikare bowed as the ‘Drome derezzed the mug. Throwing a mug in the ‘Drome was considered heartfelt, since the thrower implied that he or she was risking pageout. “We have a serious problem.”

And he explained.

It would have been harder without Tourette’s control of the soundspace. It would have been impossible had his audience not come prepared for something worldshaking. One of the few unchanging features of the universe had shaken, that day; one of their own had claimed acquaintance with the Powers That Be and proven, if maybe not exactly that, something that couldn’t be shaken off.

Mikare laid it out. End times. Armageddon in a hash function. Downtime in a math paper.

They listened.

When he was finished, Tourette pointed at the first Flashrunner who resorted to the calm expedient of raising his hand. Mikare nodded at him, recognized him. “Sourceror?”

“Mik, you’re an infantile showoff bastard, but I”ll take your word on this because you don’t bullshit.” Mikare genuflected with minimal irony. “However, I will presume you asked us here because you have a plan and you couldn’t resist presenting it before the crowd and looking both pretty and smart.”

There was tittering. Mikare grinned. “I am pretty.”

Stipulated. Can we get on with it?”

“That’s why we’re here, yes.” Mikare drew in a deep breath. “We have to take down a tile.”

There was the expected silence. He looked at them all, avatars of every size and form crowded into the bar as they looked back at him. Very few of them looked at each other; fewer than he’d expected. He looked at Sourceror, one of the oldest of the Flashrunners, one of the first to Run regularly with him and Clotho. The other gazed back at him for a few moments, his head cocked.

Then he shrugged. “Figures.” He peered at Mikare suspiciously. “What do we do once we’ve taken down the tile?”

So Mikare told them about the new ‘Verse code, and about Clotho sitting under her hill somewhere in New Mass with the fruits of the Founders’ work teasing at its secrets, and they listened and nodded and somewhat to his surprise they seemed to accept this as only natural. Sourceror continued, asking the questions the group muttered amongst themselves. “So we take down the tile, and replace the VM with this new image if Clotho and you guys audit it as good? And we trust you to do that?”

Farnham stirred and pushed himself off the bar. “Do you trust us to do that?”

“I don’t know, Farnham. Should we?”

“You seem to trust us enough to take down a tile. How much of a step is it to put something up in its place?”

There was some more murmuring. “What we’re putting up will propagate. Once it’s there, it’s not going away.”

Mikare broke back in. “That’s true. Pick two or three reps. Give me their keys. They can piggyback Clotho; if not during the teardown, she’ll give them a full walkthrough, no holds, when she’s finished and satisfied. They can compare checksums on the final image before we load it. Good enough?”

Sourceror considered, nodded. “Good enough.”

“Okay.” Mikare thought a moment. “One more thing. This run is different. There are people in the Real trying to take this run down. We talked about that. We’ve seen it, though. They’ve come after us. They’re going to be trying to breach the Second Line of Code, and trying hard. Don’t assume. Stay alert. When we finish here, stay off the line until we go to the phone trees, all right? Coordinate only using the trees.” Avatars nodded, looking thoughtful. The phone trees covered their entire paranoiac repertoire of off-network and hidden communications links. “We don’t even know who all the players are at this point, so-”

There was an enormous CRACK and the Pageout bell began to gong, slowly and regularly. Tourette turned to look at it. Mikare broke off and turned to look at Tourette. “Tour?”

The big bot turned back to look at him. “Pageout hizzy in the table on the lives for we can’t explain,” said Tourette, his expression unchanged, but Mikare felt a chill. Before he could speak again, there was a smaller but more insistent noise as his phonetone sounded. The number of people that could reach his phonetools in here was severely limited, so despite the situation he answered. “What.”

“Mik? It’s Clo. Whatever you do, don’t leave and don’t derezi. Don’t let anybody leave.”

Without thinking about it, he shouted at the bar. “NOBODY LEAVE AND NOBODY DISCONNECT.” The buzz of conversation that had been starting to rise faded abruptly and faces turned back to him. The steady gonging of the Pageout warning continued behind him. Mikare raised one hand for attention and hunched to one side, flaring his datastruct to show he was linked via phone. “Clo, what the fuck is going on?”

“The ‘Drome’s under attack. Do. Not. Disconnect.”

“Why not? We can just- oh.” He figured it out as she continued.

“Yes. They’re watching the cluster the ‘Drome’s using. If you all drop at once, they’ll just correlate and figure out which connections are you, and you’re exposed. I’m trying to figure out which tile the ‘Drome is hijacking at the moment; if I can, you can all flashrun to that Tile’s infrastructure and zone to private servers, and they won’t be able to separate you from the other users.”

“Okay. Let me explain this to everyone.” Mikare muted and turned back to the bar. “Listen up, everybody. It’s Clotho. The ‘Drome’s been isolated and located by parties unknown. They’re watching the cluster the 'Drome’s floating in now and they have the connections to that cluster lined. If we discon or derez, they’ll know who we are by process of elimination. Clotho’s trying to figure out what cluster the 'Drome’s in right now; when she figures it out, she’s going to tell us, and we can Run to that Tile in ones and twos, then zone or disconnect from there and they won’t be able to tell which we are.”

There were nods and mutterings from around the floor. The visual noise went up several degrees as various avatars jacked up into Flashrun mode, flickerjack code waking up and manifesting in myriad visual cues of wayward physics. Neon colors, hazy glowfields, areas of preternaturally high resolution, mirrored surfaces, sudden motion; it was a dream of freedom and a nightmare of physics.

“Mik? I think I’ve got it. You’re in Lightpath. Go. Go go go go go!”

Mikare clicked off and pointed at Sourceror. “Lightpath. Five at a time. Go!”

Sourceror nodded, pointed at five others near him and waved. Five Flashrunners turned and zipped for the door, dove through it, and vanished. Sourceror turned back to Mikare with a question on his face, but before he could ask, Mikare yelled “Ten second intervals!” Sourceror spun again and pointed at another five and sent them out the door. Flashrunners, used to this drill, started lining up in groups. Brightly colored teams dashed out of the bar in rigid time, and the bar started to empty. Mikare clicked back into phone.

“Clo? Are we still holding?”

“Yes. Still in Lightpath. The numbers look good, I don’t see any large changes, how many left?”

“Maybe forty.”

“You’re good. Get everybody out and then tell Tour to open up for normal biz.”

“On it.” Five more dashed out the door. Mikare juiced his flickerjack somewhere in the Real, felt the routines dance up his form in defiance of physics. He looked at Farnham, who nodded. “Farnham, Paul’s.”

“Okay.”

Another five avatars reached the doorpane and vanished, accelerated forms jumping into velocities too high to visually track as they reached public space outside in order to deny any watchers the ability to follow. The Pageout bell continued to gong slowly. Mikare turned to Tourette, watching with his usual stolid expression. “Tour, when we’re gone, biz as usual.”

“Okay, Mik, give ‘em shit in the shinola shingle.”

“Will do, Tour.”

“My fucking HOME, Mik.”

“Damn right it is, Tour.”

The big bot picked up a glass and started to polish it. Fifteen avatars left, waiting their turn at the doorpane. Sourceror nodded to Mikare from his position at the front of the line and vaulted into neon wonderland.

“Time to go, Mik.” Farnham took up his place at the end of the queue. Mikare looked around and joined him. “What’re you thinking?”

Mikare answered slowly. “Fuckers better not have run us out of our bar.”

“They won’t have,” said Farnham grimly.

Mikare adjusted his balance as the group of five directly in front of them bolted into the eternal brightly-lit night outside the bar. “They better not have,” he said quietly to himself. “Wasn’t fucking personal until now. Wasn’t.”

Then he and Farnham looked at each other, counted down the seconds and sneered at Physics as they rode their Code out into the unreality to do battle.

* * *

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