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I looked across the darkened space of the MOG's cargo area. Chit was lying on a battered hardcase, to all appearances at ease. Fia was sitting cross-legged on the deck with her eyes closed but her fingers twitching in their spidermesh and, when I looked closely, her eyes moving behind her lids. Signs of the ride. I spoke softly so as not to break her concentration. "Are we set?"

Her voice was steady, controlled, somewhat absent. "Yes. I've got secure bandwidth for all three of us. Let your 'ware handle it."

Chit lifted a pair of oversize sunglasses to his eyes and tilted his white Stetson hat down over his head. Lifting one knee completed the external pose of a cowboy at ease, at odds with the slight tension in his voice. "Mik, where are we going?"

"I don't know, Farnham." He shrugged almost imperceptibly but uncrossed his arms long enough to give me a thumbs up, then reached around to stuff a crumpled sweatshirt under his head and settle back down. I listened carefully for a few moments. Nothing. The MOG was quiet, the storage space locked around us. I hadn't asked Fia where she'd gotten the bandwidth she was holding open for our uplink, and I probably didn't want to know. I was nervous enough as it was. I'd stated flatly that after this rez, we were switching locations, no arguments.

Somewhat to my private surprise, neither of them had disagreed. That had caused a bit of a flutter, since it could only mean that either they'd decided to trust me or that that they were as worried as I was. Neither was particularly reassuring. I closed my eyes and leaned back in the camp chair against the side of the MOG, feeling canvas and aluminum against my back. With my right hand I stroked the roughened square on my portable, imagining the soft white scripple glow as it responded; behind my closed eyes, I didn't have to imagine. The purples and golds of phosphenes gave way to hard-edged primaries of my portable's test pattern, nudged from my optic nerve by electromagnetics in my 'ware's interface set, and then without a delay I was standing in grey fog with Clotho and Farnham next to me.

Farnham was wearing his usual faded outdoors gear and his Stetson, which wasn't white (and never had been, in the virtual). He nodded once behind his sunglasses, here a more practical sort that one might use to keep sunlight from one's eyes out on the range. Clotho-

Clotho was clad in black and silver, in what I could only describe as armor. Completely unlike her normal understated gear, she looked back at me with reflective silver pupils in her avatar's eyes. "What?"

"Clo-"

"Not now, Mik."

I shrugged and gave up. "Okay."

Farnham scratched under his hat, pure affectation to break the mood, and said "Let's do it, man."

I reached into my portable's storage and extracted a sealed token. I'd taken it from the catcard that Jayanta had handed me the last time I'd seen him. "I have no idea where we're gonna end up."

"Yeah, we figured."

"Okay. Link." They did, slaving their nav to me. I broke the seal on the token and fed it the private key that it requested. There was a moment while it chuckled to itself, then the small piece of code decided that I was who it needed me to be and released a string of Verse coordinates into my portable along with an entry key. I didn't bother looking at them, but told my ware to commit.

The grey fog froze in place for a fraction of second, and then vanished.

In its place was a silver grey room, perhaps five by five meters. We were standing in the same relative positions we had been before, in a rough triangle facing each other. The room was a pyramid, four sides sloping to a point some three meters above our heads; in the middle of the floor, between the three of us, was a greenish white glowing circle. The whole thing was somewhat devoid of detail, looking a bit like a retro gaming map.

"Any ideas?" Clotho was looking around.

I shook my head. "Could be anywhere. It's codelocked; my portable ran through seven transaction layers getting here."

"What are the coordinates?"

I called up a status datastruct and frowned. "Um..."

Farnham answered for me. "They don't display."

Clotho called up a cursor of her own. I watched her eyes flicker through it. "That's crap. We have to be somewhere. We're in the Ouroverse, that's for sure."

"Are you sure? This isn't private space?"

She shook her head. "No. There was a standard link. I watched it. We're linked to a tile cluster, somewhere in Downtown."

I shrugged. "Okay, so the cluster is fuzzing nav. That's not impossible."

Clotho looked a little grim. "No, but it shouldn't be possible that my ware couldn't keep track of the transitions."

Farnham laughed. She turned to him, and for the first time in the 'verse I thought her avatar looked irritated. "What?"

"Clo, it's the damn Founders, if Mik's telling us the truth, and I think he is. So do you. If these are the folks that wrote the damn 'verse, then I have no trouble believing that their private hangout can do things that even the 'Drome can't."

Her frown eased a bit. "Okay. Okay. I just hate it when things..."

"I know." I cut in. "You hate it when things happen that you can't explain." She glared at me. I raised my hands. "Look, I'm just saying. I know how I hate it when I'm not the coolest guy in the room, and you're a better Rider than me."

"Mik, did you just admit that you're not the biggest cock in the Tile?"

"I think he did." Farnham's voice was definitely amused. "Quick, record that."

"Can we go now?" I asked.

"Go where?"

In answer, I stepped forward onto the green circle. It flared slowly, three times. "Get on." They did so, and we began to descend through the floor.

* * *

One of the things that the 'Verse lacks, to a degree, is greenery. It exists, of course, but it's mostly an ostentation. Despite better and better fractal modeling techniques, the cycles required to produce really realistic foliage of sufficient variety and imperfection to fool the human eye at close range are expensive to maintain - and given the Line of Code which dictates that the work of maintaining the illusion of the 'verse is pushed outward, all those cycles would have to come from the client's hardware. This is by no means impossible or even unlikely, but it does mean that the quality of the illusion becomes highly dependent on the level of performance that the user brings to the table - and that's something that most infoarchitects hate to rely on.

As a result, when there is greenery in the 'verse, it's usually restricted to areas where there is a cycle budget for its maintenance, and hence the experience can be guaranteed. This makes it expensive. Thus, it's relatively rare.

We descended into an enormous open space, the continuation of the pyramid that we'd appeared in. Far below us, there was a ground level; we were riding down in a beam of greenish white light, floating towards the surface. That surface was shadowed by trees. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, of all sizes and shapes; from our vantage point some hundreds of meters up, I could see at least ten different types of tree without looking, and lower greenery as well in open areas between them. Ponds were visible, as well, with greensward and rocky shores surrounding them. As we floated downwards, we spun slowly, offering us a complete view of the area beneath us.

"Holy shit," breathed Farnham. I just nodded. Clotho didn't say anything, but I could tell she was communing with her 'ware.

The light was dimmer than full daylight, somewhere between twilight and early evening, and came from the walls of the pyramid, which were doing their level best to imitate a late summer sky. Lampposts were visible below us, already winking into life, scattered throughout the woods and paths of the improbable park, for park it was; tended lawns and paths, with benches alongside them and placed near the ponds left little doubt.

"Why aren't we lagging?" I asked Clotho quietly, trying to imagine the computational load of modelling the number of surfaces that were visible. She shook her head.

"It's not locally rendering. It's being rendered on the server."

"What?" I looked at her. "How many cycles is that?"

"I don't know. A lot."

"That's got to limit where we could be. This has to be a private server. Physics?"

"High quality."

"Man." I thought about that as we dropped another few dozen meters. While it wasn't hard to produce a simulation of this resolution, it wouldn't be cheap to do so for one of this size, especially if the servers were rendering it for multiple points of view - and at the moment, they appeared to be rendering it for at least three.

"Heads up, Mik." Farnham nodded towards the ground, getting closer. Three or four avatars had appeared, waiting near a small dais on which our elevator beam terminated. As I watched, another rezzed in, rendering in midstride halfway across the open clearing towards the others. I recognized Jayanta waiting at the base of the beam with two others.

"That's Jayanta B." I pointed to him. "He was at my place." The others nodded. Ten meters up. "I don't know the others."

"We can make guesses." Clotho cocked her head at me. I shrugged. The Founders' names were fairly well known, but other than that, not much else was available - and if what Jayanta had told me was true, that was by design.

We grounded, and the lift beam shut off. I became aware of its slight humming as it vanished, leaving the subtle but audible sounds of woodlands - wind in grasses, birds, the occasional cricket. Jayanta stepped forward, his hand out. I looked at it, then at him, and shrugged and took it.

It clipped. Our hands met and clasped. More processing power. "Hello, Mikare."

"Hi, Jayanta."

"Would you introduce me?"

"Sorry." I turned. "Clotho, Farnham, this is Jayanta Bharatmakhesh." They nodded to him. He half-bowed in return, then waved to the three others who had come up behind him.

"These are my friends," he said. "This," indicating a dark-haired avatar with Asian features, "is Ibri. With him are He Yinan and Chretien Deveraux." The latter two were a small woman wearing jeans and a loose shirt, her greying hair done up in a tight bun, and a taller man with blond hair and almost anonymously generic features save for his eyes, which glowed green. They both nodded.

We stepped off the flat dais onto grass. I looked up but was unable to see the point where we'd entered the space without the beam to follow. "Where the hell are we?"

Jayanta grinned. "What, you haven't figured it out?"

I glowered at him. He raised his hands. "This is the Park. We call it that. It's our equivalent of Tourette's place. It's really the only place we can be in the 'verse as ourselves, given that we have to remain anonymous." He turned and waved out across the trees. I noticed for the first time that the dais was actually on a slight hill, allowing us to see most of the area from where we stood. "We call it Park Ethereal. Or Sanctuary. It was the first environment we stood up when we were building the Ouroverse, and we've been tinkering with it ever since."

Farnam turned once around, surveying, before addressing the Founders standing before us. "If you're living in hiding, and all, where do the machines live to produce the cycles for this kind of thing? Isn't it kind of a risk to be tied to server infrastructure for a private environment this big?"

Ibri answered, his voice even with a slight British enunciation. "You're making an error. Think about it. Think carefully."

Farnham frowned at him. "Okay. If I'm making an error, then let's say my assumptions are wrong. I'm not conceding that it's not dangerous to be tied to something that traceable, so..." he thought for a second, then looked at Clotho, who shrugged and nodded. "So this isn't a private space?"

Ibri nodded, once. "It is not."

I butted in. "Then where the hell are we? I don't want to say I know the 'verse as well as you, but I'd like to think I know the public map pretty well. It's what I do. And I would certainly know about a space this big that had been around that long. I mean, it's got to be almost the size of a full Downtown Tile."

Jayanta nodded. "It is, in fact, roughly the size of the original Tile. Here, it's easier to just show you." He waved a hand. The sky vanished.

The light changed. It wasn't blue and steady. It was flickering and dim, and it came from a riot of color boiling outside the now-transparent walls of the pyramid. I felt my mouth drop open, and I looked carefully at the madness of overloaded rendering for a few seconds, trying to be sure of what I saw. I'd never seen it from this side. As far as I had known until a few seconds ago, nobody had. Nobody could. "Those are-"

Clotho continued. She was staring hard. "Those are avatars. Rezzing. Which means we're..."

It was left to Farnham to finish. "Holy shit. We're inside Entryhedron."

* * *

We gathered in a clearing among dogwoods underneath the angled planar sky. Benches facing each other somewhat haphazardly held all of us; Clotho, Farnham and I on one, several Founders on the others. A few more had arrived while we strolled over to the meeting area.

Farnham pulled out a cigarette. Without pausing, Ibri leaned forward and a lighter materialized from somewhere; not code, he'd just pulled it from a pocket. I had a hunch it would have been that smooth in the real as well. With a practiced flip, he ignited it, and Farnham's cigarette glowed. Ibri leaned back and made the lighter vanish. Farnham took the cigarette from his mouth and looked at the other man in sudden realization. "Ibri. Ibri what?"

"Ibri Philip Morelands."

"Ha. I knew it. ipm. You're ipm?" The other shrugged. "You wrote the routines for that?"

"Yes. Long ago."

"Well." Farham took another drag. "Thanks."

Ibri smiled, once, quickly. It was tight but visible. "You're welcome." He lit himself a cigarette, a long, thin dark cylinder, with a practiced flip of hands that was almost too fast to see. He and Farnham exchanged the nodded salute of the smoker.

Jayanta had been counting noses. "All right. I think we should start. We don't have a lot of time."

I looked up. "Why not?"

He waved at the surroundings and at the various avatars seated around us. "We don't often meet in large groups. It leaves us more vulnerable if we're logged on as ourselves, even if only in the Park."

"Oh." That made sense. "It's your meeting."

"I presume you've told your friends about why we're here." Clotho and Farnham nodded. "Good. Then we need to discuss how you plan to go about the undertaking."

We looked at each other. I nodded to Clotho, who turned to face the others. "We need to know what the hell is going on."

Jayanta frowned. "I told Mikare. Surely he told you."

"Oh, he told us about the collision. He told us about the attack on the 'verse servers, yes. Technically, we understand all that. But that's not all that's going on."

"It never is. There's always-"

"No." Clotho cut him off. "Look, okay, we're dazzled. You guys are impressive. You're the Founders. The Park is cool, it's a surprise, and no, we had no clue there was anything in here. But let's be up front about this. Something else is going on in the Real. At the moment, both I and Mikare are being pursued by the Virtuales for reasons that we can't quite fathom - and it seems far too convenient to simply be a coincidence. Farnham isn't, as far as we know, but we don't know he's not, either. He's outside his usual stomping grounds, so we wouldn't know anyway. What the hell's going on?"

The Founders looked at each other. I sighed. "See, if you were really practiced conspirators, you wouldn't have looked at each other without having a better story ready. So either you tell us what the hell is happening, or so help me God, we walk, right now, and go deal with our problems with the Bent on our own as separate from the Run."

The tall avatar, Deveraux, spoke up for the first time. "That wouldn't help you."

Farnham turned to him, a grin of rage on his face. "Fucking try me."

Jayanta raised his hands. "Peace, peace. We don't know what's happening-" he raised his hands higher at my look of disbelief- "-not yet. Help us. Tell us what has occurred. What we know, we'll tell you, help you work out. Remember, we're cut off from events too." We all looked at each other for a few moments. Farnham took another drag on his cigarette. Ibri did the same, looking at him.

"All right." I told them about the rally, and being chased by the lawcraft south from New Hampshire. Then I nodded to Farnham, who told them about our return to my loft. When he'd finished, I gestured to Clotho. She told her story, which took longer; although we weren't sure whether it was related, she too had had dealings with ESCHER, which made it relevant as far as we were concerned.

Nobody interrupted us. After we were done, Jayanta sat there, thinking. Ibri leaned forward. "Who was the target in the ESCHER investigation?"

Clotho shrugged. "A paedophile. He's head of legal for 4LC. Stanford Alexsov Zhivko."

Ibri looked at Jayanta, who nodded. Ibri turned back to us. "This is a problem."

I waved at him. "Hello? Sitting right here? What the hell is going on?"

Deveraux leaned forward on his bench. "Alexsov is known to us. He was an early backer of the Ouroverse project. It's how he ended up a heavy player in 4LC." He sighed. "Liquid Light, LLC was born of the bandwidth boom that the Revenet, then still the Global Reconnection Network, experienced when the Ouroverse protocol first became widely used. Are you aware of its history?"

Clotho, Farnham and I looked at each other. Clotho shook her head. Farnham shrugged. "No," I said.

"It's involved. Let us summarize by saying that 4LC has a slightly different vision for the future of the 'verse than did we, and this remains true to this day. Alexsov isn't fully technical, but he is savvy enough that he was generally successful in shepherding his preferred vision of technical standards through the court systems. He's a lawyer. He's technical enough to handle consulting technical specialists during court proceedings, live testimony. He's a fairly smart man."

"But he's a pervert." Clotho was angry. I could tell. Her voice was very low.

Deveraux shrugged. "I don't know. It's possible, I suppose. It's not something we ever knew about him, but none of us knew him very well personally, just as a business contact. In any case, he was one of the early backers of the project, as I said. But it became clear that his idea of how the 'verse should be structured differed in a few key points from ours, and there was a bit of a dustup in how the project was organized. He got blindsided by a technical maneuver, and ended up in charge of a purely infrastructural part of the project which got quietly dead-ended and superseded. 4LC makes its money, in some part, because of his early knowledge of how the 'verse server clusters allocate bandwidth - that's the fruit of that project. So, in a sense, he was bought off. But we managed to shuffle him away from what we considered to be the critical pieces that he disagreed with us about."

I looked from Jayanta back to Deveraux. "So what was the disagreement?"

Jayanta answered. "Stanford felt very strongly that corporate entities should be able to control public space in the 'verse."

I shook my head. "Oh, great. He's a corpie?"

"No, not precisely. He doesn't - or didn't - think that corporations should just own the space, but he did feel that there should be a defined path to corporate and individual control of public tiles."

"That's stupid. They're public tiles, by definition."

"Mikare, you'll forgive me, but you're young. When we were young, still working on the Internet, this very battle was playing out. There were those who, with considerable evidence on their side, were of the opinion that public governance of the network was a failure, and that the spam floods, squatting and general insanity was not the result of unfettered capitalism but the result of the inability of the commons-built Internet to rein in its excesses. It was thought that perhaps having privatized networks, with clearly defined incentive structures, would allow for the prevention of such problems. Also, there was a massive distrust of government at the time due to significant intrusion and surveillance, and it was thought that perhaps private control of the network would prove less susceptible to sub rosa misuse - at least private entities could be successfully sued in government courts."

"You sound like you agree with him."

"No, I don't. I'm not saying that his views didn't - and don't - have some support among our number." Ibri snorted, but Jayanta ignored him. "However, he was successfully marginalized. Then. He has always, however, borne a bit of a grudge. Or if not a grudge, at least a desire to tilt the scales somewhat more in his design's favor."

"And how is this related? He was the target of Clo's misadventure."

Jayanta frowned. "Yes. But his involvement does not seem likely to be random. I understand that Clotho was brought into the picture by the young girl he had apparently harmed, but still, the timing is odd."

Clotho spoke up suddenly. "But that's not quite true. I was brought into the picture by you, Mikare." She turned to me.

"Me?"

"Yes. You told Brisida to come to me. When she found you in the 'verse."

"Clotho, don't take this wrong, but I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Brisida. She found you. In the network booth I was using. She called it the church. Anyway, she rezzed up, and found you, and you told her to come see-" Clotho broke off, and looked at me. I shook my head.

Ibri spoke up. "Well. Apparently, it wasn't a coincidence."

* * *

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