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The port still wouldn't respond to automated scans. I switched to manual input, watching as my flickerjack translated back into the encoding the original message had come out on.

Who are you? Can you understand me?

understand you fuck yes.

Who are you?

who am I is a question not heard often is you alive?

I could feel myself frowning in meatspace.

Can you let me come across to your system?

access denied policy standard exceptions sometime, sure, although dammit.

The scrambled grammar was tickling memories in me somewhere, although I couldn't yet be sure of what. To help you, I have to know what you need.

There was a pause. I flicked through two or three virtual status screens, even though my flickerjack would have told me if it had figured anything else out by flashing alerts at me. Nothing; it was still running comparisons between the message traffic from the unknown machine and the various historical traffic snippets in its database, and so far nothing had matched anywhere near a confidence level that would trip a comparison alert.

need rescue.

Damn it. Rescue from where? From what? Who are you?

An alert icon flared in my peripheral vision, hyper-saturated green, as a response came back.


I cancelled the flickerjack's eager handwaving; I didn't need it. A POSIX login prompt? I sent another query down the original port. Authentication?

The prompt flickered once, vanished.

access granted on sending fucking public DSA key.

I knew, now. I dug deep into the flickerjack's protected store, extracted a 4096-bit string, and fired it back down the line. Immediately, the funnel went blank, inviting.

quadspace:port 22 I told the flickerjack. It wanted to know who I was logging in as, naturally. I took a deep breath and crossed mental fingers, hoping this wasn't a trap either deliberate or accidental.


Packets flew down the link. A response came back, encrypted; the 'jack spun it through my private key and sent it back, calm and smooth overhand lob.

root@epyx-aramenta root#

I just sat there and looked at it for a second, unsure of whether to believe it, and then cautiously got a directory listing. Pages of unknown filenames spun past. I jumped around the filesystem; it looked mostly POSIX Unix-like. There were differences, but nothing insurmountable. Then I took a deep breath, flexed my fingers back in meatspace, and issued the command.


There was another pause. The system was noticeably slow to respond to all queries. Then:

14:25:02  up 6917 days, 14:28, 2 users, load average: 4.58, 2.20, 1.15

Holy shit. I juggled conversions in my head. Nineteen years? Old habits came staggering out of mental cupboards, shaking off the dust of ages. Check available memory, disk space and use, process table, startups. Whatever the machine is, it's running a mother-huge set of somethings that look like a database of some kind, squatting on disk, terabytes of storage with open links. CPU cycles pouring into it.

Everything froze again for twelve or fifteen seconds as the connection wavered once more. When the session unlocked, I'd already decided what I had to do. The flickerjack fired a probe down the open SSH connection, using the same key that had just logged me in; I felt the responses slow further as the probe began to methodically measure and identify every last piece of the unknown machine, queries fanning out through its dataspace. This processor, so much memory, disk, ports, connections- all this and more, flooding back up the link from the probe to the metastack in my loft. Although my attention was focused in the metaspace, there in the dead pools of the Internet, I could somewhere hear the quiet whine as cooling systems in the loft spun up to pull the heat from the metastack's rising exertions, fluffing it out towards the wood beams of the ceiling in infrared towers of entropy.

what doing query status how the fuck?

I had no time to reassure the voice; I was cleaning up the jagged edges of assumptions being made by the automated probe, massaging the empty void swiftly taking shape inside the metastack inside my loft. An empty place, waiting, it warped under my gentle tweaks, the probe's measurements slowing as it observed the changes before speeding up again. Somewhere in the unknown machine, the CPU staggered underneath a sudden load as the probe changed modes and flexed its electronic muscles. I took the time, made the time:

Don't panic, this won't take a minute.

what do what do what do

Information blurring on twenty-five virtual screens in my metaspace, routines inside the metastack spinning up online. Moving out from the loft onto the Revenet, the metastack was grabbing and locking routes as it moved towards its favorite uplink somewhere across the Harbor near Old Logan. I had perhaps four or five minutes before ESCHER or some local agency noticed the change in traffic metrics for the Boston area and came hunting. Until that point, though, the metastack had a near-unlimited bandwidth highway between itself and a satellite dish that even now, under its ruthless assault, was migrating offline from its intended lock on to a transponder on a geosync bird passing commercial content from the southern hemisphere. That was ringing strident alarms, but this particular dish was owned by a comcorp with a standard operating procedure that I knew from experience called for four minutes of malfunction checks before their Ops began to look for intrusion, and the metastack was already talking to the military Hotbird over the central United States that it had redirected the dish at. The Hotbird was an on-demand military relay, and that was what the metastack was using it for; as I watched, another screen showed a green circle begin to move across a map of the southwestern states, sweeping south out of Colorado towards New Mexico. I spared a few seconds to watch, curious; the metastack's search routines had apparently determined the location of the intermittent signal and were moving to shortcut the unreliable link.

I'm coming to get you. I tried to put reassurance in the bare text, snorting at my impulse. Whatever happens, don't panic.

Purple Alert::Purple Alert::Critical::Critical::Purple Alert::Purple Alert::

Whatever I was talking to had switched to a droning repeated text field. I winced, hoping that didn't meant I'd pushed it beyond the point of recall, and felt an unreal solid thumping CLICK as the green circle steadied somewhere over Albuquerque and stopped. I felt the metaspace vibrate, once, then everything shivered before changing without moving. Colors increased in saturation; resolution increased, all indicators of a high-quality linkage to the represented dataspace. I kicked the flickerjack in the metaphorical junk. Hurry.

It ignored me, as I'd programmed it to several generations of code ago. It knew what it had to do, and placating impatient users wasn't high on the priority list. The probe opened a handle into the running system kernel on the unknown machine, thought to itself for a tiny fraction of a second as it compared what it had learned to a library of routines, and-


there was a disconcerting queasiness as most of the machine's functions slammed to a stop. The probe seized control of the underlying hardware at the same moment the metastack's final routing changes came into effect. There was the indescribable feeling of a million Tinkertoys falling from a cloud of chaos into a perfect shape with the tinkle of mathematics, and then with a roar that I couldn't have described if I'd tried, the probe's routines stripped the running state of the machine into its maw and poured it up the ethereal highway it had built into orbit.

It took perhaps three minutes and fifty seconds, an artifact mostly of the target machine CPU's inability to compress and transmit data any faster. As the probe's scanner routine scythed down past the filesystem and through low-order memory, everything paused and flashed red. I hastily disengaged as many links as possible, pulling code through behind me and trusting the metastack to cover its own tracks. I watched from the sky as the link down from the Hotbird was smashed; withdrew back across the satellite's bus to the downlink transponder as inquiries flooded the Hotbird's systems, let the metastack's housekeeping routines yank me down to Logan. As the screens blinked out one by one, filaments of artificial presence spooling back to the nothinginess of which they'd been spun, I let the change keep happening, blinking, and squeezed my eyes all the way shut, fighting a slight vertigo.

When I opened them, I was sitting in my formchair in my loft, looking at the brick wall behind my desk, sweat staining the headband I usually wore while working. The six flatpanel monitors in front of me were lit but unmoving, and on my flickerjack a red indik was blinking steadily.

The metastack was quietly closing down its cooling louvers, Peltier systems moving less and less heat as the nanologic inside it dropped to quiescence. I rubbed my forehead once, spoke.

"Any pursuit?"

The voice from the loft's entertainment system was mellow, emotionless. "No. All caltrops clean."

I stood. My legs were shaky. "Did we get it all?"

"Not all. The target system ceased responding before interdiction. Correlation ninety-three percent with critical system failure."

"Open a channel to the catcher."

There was a deep click. I waited, but nothing else happened, so I continued. "Hello?"


"Are you okay in there?"

The voice that came back was not one the metastack had ever produced before; it was rough, deep and its cadences were not familiar. I shivered involuntarily. "Purple Alert. Critical. Fucking cancel. Status query location address configuration machine ID process ID?"

"I'm Top. Topher."



Another pause, brief.

"Fucking gratitude, Top, survive, I did, incredible, address?"

"You're at my place. You're in a partition until I can figure out what to do with you."


I sat there looking at the wall. Then I had to ask. "You can understand me, can't you."

"Affirmative comprehend status Top."

"When was the last time you talked to a human?"

"User query input six thousand four hundred fifteen days negative."

"Welcome to the future."

"Fucking boring."

I started, then, surprised; began to laugh. And then couldn't stop. I laughed for ten minutes.

Then I called Clotho and Farnham.

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