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When we got within two blocks of my loft, Chit stopped me. "What do you know about sneaking up on people?"

"What?"

"Just what I said. You ever sneaked up on people holding lethal weapons?"

"What people?"

He gave me a look which indicated expenditure of finite patience. I swallowed. "Sorry. Uh, I don't know anything about it."

The look changed to faint approval. "Right answer. You gonna wait here, or be stupid?"

This wasn't at all how I had thought this whole thing was going to play out. Unformed but well-felt heroics died in my head, trumpets fading into groans and then breathy sobs before silence. I shriveled against the brick wall nearest where I was standing. "I'm going to wait here."

Chit's face registered a slight uptick in estimation. "Mik, I always thought you were a smart guy. I'll be back."

"When?"

Decrement of disappointment. "If I knew that, I'd know how many, and where they were, and what I was gonna do about it, and-"

"Right." I cut him off to prevent the embarrassed flush from creeping further up my face. "Sorry. I'll just be here. What should I do if somebody shows up?"

"Do whatever you have to. If you get out, I'll meet you back at the bench we were on."

"Okay."

Chit reached up to his head, took off his bright white Stetson and accurately sailed it the meter and a half between us. It dropped onto my noggin at a rakish angle. "Don't lose that. Or I hunt you down." Then he turned and sauntered off around the corner, my house keys in his pocket and posture relaxed.

I edged back into a bricked-up doorway in the old warehouse building against which I stood and tried hard to be invisible before realizing that it was pretty damn near impossible while wearing Chit's ridiculous hat. Then it came to me that one thing I sure didn't look like was me while wearing it, and my shoulders relaxed a bit. I stuck my hands in my pockets and thought loitering-like thoughts and tried not to look like I was listening hard to everything going on around me.

Flitters whined by in the near distances, although none passed me close by. I was only two blocks from the waterfront and the high-speed corridors over the harbor, which meant only very local traffic was likely to be using inland streets here. Once or twice the booming snarl of boosting transcons out of Logan filled the air over the water; once, a cloudbank over the other side of the harbor flared with sullen white radiance as the staging transcon was swallowed by its underbelly. Liftships floated past high up, near the horizon and settling down at Wonderland, lifeblood of commerce passing into and over the New Coast into the Federal United States under the watchful guntowers.

Twenty-five minutes or so passed.

Nobody came by on foot. Nothing happened, which pretty much guaranteed that by the end of the twenty-five minutes I was a sweaty nervous wreck. Then my portable phonetone sounded and I almost lost control of my knees in reaction.

It was Chit. "Hey. Come home."

"Uh, is everything okay?"

"Oh. Yeah, we should have set up duress codes. Huh. You want me to come get you?"

"Put Mikare on."

There was silence as Chit digested that request. I gave him five seconds and then said "I don't think you're stupid either, Farnham."

Then there was a few seconds of confused noises as he moved around with the phonelink open, and I heard voices in the background followed by the bleep of a shortlink pairing up, then the phone said in my voice "Hi Top."

"Hi Mik. How's things?"

"There were some problems with the laundry and with the appliances, but it appears your friend has gotten everything straightened out."

"Okay. Tell him I'm coming in." I snapped off the portable and jogged the two blocks to the ground floor entrance to my loft. I almost never used it, preferring to use the roof pad; I was actually having trouble remembering how long it had been since I'd come in via the front door. Since I didn't have my keys, I just stood before the smoked glass armorplate and said "Top's Floor please."

A pause, and the door swung open. I took the elevator up. Chit had the door open when I got out. Entering the Loft, everything looked all right. Chit was waiting for me. He nodded. "Chit, who was here?"

"Trespassers W."

"What?"

"Hm, I don't actually know if any of them were named Will, much less William, but they are west of here, so in true Zork grammar, 'trespassers W' is a descriptive statement...'

I ignored him and pushed into the dining room at the west end of the lower floor. It looked normal save for the three figures slumped in a loose triskele in the entryway, back to back to back.

I stopped and looked at Chit. He raised an eyebrow. "What?"

"Who are these guys?"

"I dunno. But they were in your house. I figured you should get to ask 'em." He looked absolutely guileless. I looked at him for a second in unease.

"What did you do to them?"

"Asked 'em to sit on the floor."

"Chit-"

"What do you think I did with 'em? One of 'em was downstairs. The other two were patrolling around the upstairs; one was on the roof pad with a pair of lightscopes and the other was inside trying to fuck with your stack."

"The stack?" I ran up the stairs to the loft space, Chit in tow, ignoring his resigned sigh. There were tools scattered at one end of the machine area, a portable terminal set up and patched into the metastack. I looked at it carefully. "Oh. Okay."

"Okay how?"

"It's plugged into a decoy port."

"Decoy port how?"

"There's an entire substack in there doing nothing but pretending to be the metastack. That's its whole job, and that's what they connected to. There isn't actually an external connector to the real logic anywhere on the real 'stackframe."

Chit grinned at me. "You're a sick man, Top. I approve of that."

I spoke to the air. "Mik, are you okay?"

"Yes, Top. No intrusion registered."

"Authenticate please."

"Authenticating." A holopane appeared in the air before me, displaying a waveform. "Please read the following text for voiceprint identification." The screen printed When Tweetle Beetles fight it's called a Tweetle Beetle Battle. I ignored it, reached into the holopane and touched three of the visible peaks in the comparison waveform at the bottom of the screen, then tapped the graph's X axis twice. The screen blinked three times and vanished. "Authenticated. Prepared for checksum."

Chit was looking on, interested. I removed the portable from my belt, called up a wallet and selected my current key, then paired the portable with the metastack. The holopane relit with the word "Scanning" and a status bar beneath it. I laid the portable on the desk surface and turned to survey the rest of the room, which looked superficially undisturbed. Chit was still watching me. "What?"

He cocked his head. "You really are a seriously paranoid motherfucker."

"So?"

"So we might have a chance, man."

"I'm so touched in your confidence," I said dryly. "D'you think it's safe to use the booze?"

"Let me check it." He moved off. I watched the status bar scroll across the holopane while listening to him pad around the bar area for a bit, then the clink of glass. "It looks okay. There's dust on the bottles and it looks undisturbed, except one of these guys was drinking some of your Scotch."

"Fucker."

"Yeah, well, he had a tumbler of it on the roof, and it's the only bottle that looks disturbed."

"I'll risk it."

"Okay." Chit came back with two whiskys, one Scotch and one Kentucky for himself, then sat on an ottoman. The scan was almost complete. "What's that gonna tell us?"

"That my system's uncorrupted, and I can trust the stuff in it, including Mik's codebase."

"We can't stay here, Top."

"I know that much. I need another half hour, maybe."

"I think we have that. They weren't wearing com, so unless they have it built-in, they're expecting to get calls on external gear or receive visitors. Or, of course, they're expecting to call in; but if that's the case, someone's gotta miss them and then decide to come over here."

The Metastack zeeped. I jumped up, ran over to a rack of storage bins and pulled out the highest power portable I presently owned and a spare scap pack for it, remembering at the last minute to find a charger. I juiced it and hardlined it into the loft's network. "Mik, I need you to come over into the portable and bring everything private with you."

"Okay, Top." There was a silence, then the holopane vanished and my flatscreens shut down on the desk. The portable's loadmeter flickered up into the yellow. I fumbled the headset on. "Mik, you okay?"

"I am functional." It didn't sound like he was okay.

"Just functional?"

"I am refactoring for portable operation. Estimated time to completion is twenty-six minutes." Well, shit.

"Okay, Chit, let me get some cashcards I have stashed, a better toolkit, and my ohshit pack and we're gone."

"If you're not gonna ask them who they are, I'm gonna have a word with your guests while you pack." Chit turned to look at the stairs.

"Do I want to be around for this?"

"Probably not, no."

* * *

We ended up back on the T, on the Red line this time. Chit was anxious to put some klicks between us and the loft. I was redistributing everything I'd grabbed to better fit in the ohshit pack, a comfortably-worn carrybag with a zillion pockets that looked like almost every other professional's carry-on. I was relieved to note that the backup keysponder for the Toyota had working batteries in it. Chit frowned on seeing that.

"Can that be tripped remotely?"

"No. I burnt out the locator circuit. Sucks, I lost the last one and couldn't find it. Had to get new ones."

"Okay."

"Did my guests say anything useful?"

"No."

"Let me rephrase that. Did you find anything useful?"

"Couple things."

I waited a few beats. "Are you going to tell me about them?"

"Might. When it's needful."

I threw up my hands. "Okay, Laconic McTerse. Suit your fucking self."

Chit nodded, ignoring the sarcasm. "Always do."

There was a groaning boom around us. The T had crossed the Charles river and was diving back underground, the tunnel slamming back the ancient sound of its passage with familiar salute.

* * *

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