| The Network Revenant
Unlike nearly every other private server space on the Street which lived atop the Revenet, Tourette's Sin Drome was dark and simple. It was not the deliberate simple geometry of a 'design statement' - rather, it was the simplicity of a shortage of processors, a legacy of the 'Drome's origins. It looked like a bar should look, with a serving area along one wall and a seating space along the other; tables, stools, all the myriad bits of model that told a man he had come to the right place to quaff. They were just, somehow, wrong. They were low-rez, some of them; others were off-scale. Here, a table was perfect except that its top was just wide enough for two drinks. There, a counter tacked to the outer wall looked fine save that it was only a meter or so off the floor.
People in the 'Drome, though, paid it no mind. They'd paid their dues for the zonekey to be here, and they were none of them about to betray their hard-earned cred by sneering at the wrong thing, at the wrong time. Mikare thought it was funny, himself; he'd been a regular here since it had opened (having helped the 'Drome come into existence) and he thought everything in it was hilarious. If it weren't for the fact that he considered it an extreme abuse of Cool to laugh when everyone else was too worried to do so, he'd be in stitches most of the time. He knew Tourette wouldn't give a shit.
Making his way through the crowded space, he headed for the bar. Clipping was off, as it usually was, so the bar was a haze of overlapping grafx and 'runners showing off. It was impossible to see anyone in the sea of pixels, so he had his 'jack filter to his friends list. The bar cleared suddenly, indistinct shapes sliding down to full transparency and leaving thirty or forty shapes in various places and positions around the interior. Some of them were nodding at him, and he lifted a hand to them all in general before placing both hands flat on the bar's top.
It was his signal. Tourette came down the bar towards him, abandoning whoever he'd been serving at the time. The 'tender was a massive avatar, towering over Mikare by a good half meter. His face was lovingly crafted to be as ugly as possible; lopsided, oft-broken and generally as scary as fuck. Twice as hellish when he smiled, which he was doing now on seeing Mik.
"Mikare...good to know...they don't come easy though the Russians might if you ever wanted a fucking riot in the shitter where'd we end up?"
"Hi Tourette. The usual please."
"Sure Mik. The usual is as the usual doesn't anyone care where the cunt's been all these years underneath the fucking bridge burnt behind them."
Tourette put a high-rendered martini down on the bar. Mikare succumbed to vanity enough to lower his filter again, saw avatars staring at his drink and faces turned to him around the room. Tourette was famously stingy with his CPU cycles, but the Martini was dewy with condensation, fractal modeled frost on the glass's stem roiling mist down its sides. The liquid within it moved just slowly enough to be near-frozen gin. The amount of rendering Tourette's was doing to keep his drink aligned with his hand, sloshing properly and draining as he sipped at it was causing a noticeable degradation in the lightmapping in the back corners of the bar. He raised the drink to Tourette in salute.
"Snorp pees in the ancient fu lan gon region of Tibet." Ignoring Mikare's choked-off snort of laughter, the bartender bowed his head and moved away. Mikare took another sip, wishing he'd had the foresight to mix a Martini faraway in Realtime; the drink was so convincing it was making him thirsty back Outside. He looked around. Most of the faces that had turned to him ducked away, embarrassed, and he upped his filter again. Everybody was back to their own concerns, except one figure, which was shaking her green hair ruefully across the room. He raised the glass to her to see if she was filtered too, and she pushed off the wall to come over and sit next to him.
"Clotho. Good to see you."
"Mik. You're a fucking showoff."
"I know." He laughed. "But it's so much fun."
"You know the rest of us peons suffer everytime Tour goes through that little routine with you?"
"Hell, C, he wouldn't do it if he didn't want to."
She looked owlishly at him from underneath dark brows. "Bullshit. He's code, Mik. You know damn well he's going to do it every time you come in and greet him that way."
"So you admit you're deliberately letting us all suffer lag so you can play the hero?"
Mik staggered, clapped a hand to his chest. "Wounded! I am wounded, I say. A hit, a..."
Clotho laughed. "Okay, okay, shut up." She looked at him for a second. "Are you on call tonight?"
"Yeah." His face went serious. "My pager's up. Are you my anchor?"
"Yes. Farnham said to tell you he'd cover the new grid south of the tram."
"Farnham scares me."
"But he's good."
"Yeah, he is. Okay, thanks. I'll be on. I trust you'll beep grid if a run comes up. Does anyone know I'm on?"
She laughed again. "Fame getting to you?"
Mikare grimaced. "It's just harder to do a run with tourists peeping. I'm not in it for that. Faster, faster, faster..."
"-until the thrill of speed, yes, I know." She finished for him. "No, I just told people I had my on-call roster. Nobody knows who's on it."
"No problem, Mik."
Mikare drained his Martini and set it back on the bar. He reached out a hand to Clotho, and she laid hers atop it; he heard a faint click as credentials swapped, and she nodded. He nodded back, and without a backward glance he stepped out of the 'Drome, leapt up the side of the neighboring gridbox, jumped over the Street beyond it, and vanished into a Virgin Datastore.
* * *
Mikare had met Tourette inside an unnamed system in the fringes of the Revenet. It had a quadspace address and archaic protocols. Most of its responses were gibberish, they were so old; his flickerjack simply didn't have the templates to offer reasonable explanations for the hex that it spat back in answer to probing queries. Contact with it was intermittent, fluctuating across the damaged links of the time.
Mikare hadn't been a trusting soul, either. He'd been burned too many times by things he'd run across in long-dead systems, still wired into unknown parts of the 'net, dropped back online by suddden restoration of some part of the fabric in some far-off part of the world. This one was no different than some hundreds of others he'd trolled in his passion for archaeology, looking for routines and code to scavenge from the almost-forgotten boxen that the Sysadmins had left running in a prayer for tomorrow when the Net went down those years before. There weren't many left.
He'd found responses on a little-used port, though. One that didn't sound like negotiation or firewall brusqueness. Responses that didn't sound repetitive, even.
They sounded desperate.
It had taken ten days and the help of the three other runners he trusted at the time to make entry. What they found surprised them; shocked him, the oldest (so far as he knew) of them all. An actual flat logic machine, still running; no nanoform logic in it. They couldn't for the life of them figure out where it was in Realtime; it was connected to the Revenet through an intermittent wireless connection and from there to a satcom link that covered a three-hundred square mile circle of old Albuquerque. They weren't even sure if the footprint covered the machine or covered its uplink. But that didn't matter much compared to what was on it and calling for help.
Tourette had been slow and crippled when they found him. He'd been running on hardware that hadn't been designed to hold him, short of both storage and processing power. That wasn't through design, so much as through accretion; he'd probably been fine when coded but simply hadn't been turned off in the years since his machine and operators had been forgotten, and he'd done his job. He sat and monitored conversations. He talked to people in false associative babble, miming talk, Markov chain association parroting designed for both amusement and task control.
For whatever reason, he hadn't crashed. He'd just grown. His hackers had mated his relatively simple front end with a fiendishly clever seventh-gen holographic database algorithm, which had continued to stuff chains of conversation into its own little data/space/time distortion through the long quiet years.
Somewhere along the line, he'd tried to perform some housekeeping task which required him to communicate with another machine that was no longer reachable.
Somewhere, that triggered a goal-seeking routine.
And somehow, years later when the Flashrunners came dancing past, the Markov-chain bot rattled the bars of its cage and whispered help me, please.
* * *
Mikare had thought of the bar. Clotho had given him the name. It was perfect. Most of his conversations contained obscenity, and talking to Tourette was an exercise in hilarity control. It took knowing him very, very well to realize that underneath the inanity was in fact directed conversation. Was it thought? Mikare and Clotho declined to get metaphysical. But as Mik pointed out, Tourette had 'grown up' listening to people and running a chatroom, so why not get him a bar? The Flashrunners though it was hilarious, and once the idea was passed around, the realization came that the only way to Do It Right was, of course, to steal it - and from someone to whom the new owner's speech patterns would be worthy of an instant coronary.
The 'Drome was originally a Bear Stearns accounting department. That's what its Street Spatial Registration Key read. The accounting unit in question had been assigned to a U.S. Federal government auditing division, and been put up next to the dataspace of said division - and then, one Monday, the civil servants showed up to work on the Street and found that instead of their consultants next door, there was a tacky-looking bar populated by smirking Characters who resisted all attempts to identify them, much less get rid of them.
Being civil servants, they shrugged and went on with business, and the Sin Drome was careful not to bother them overmuch. Bear Stearns occasionally wondered what had happened to its unreal estate, but whenever they did strange things tended to happen to their auditing systems and nothing ever came of it.
In the meantime, the Sin Drome was the most famous social scene on the Street. If you had a zonekey to get in, you were guaranteed to see the most famous Flashrunners of the age in there, any given night. But those keys weren't easy to get.
And Tourette was a cranky bastard.
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