| The Network Revenant
We were five slices into an eight-slice pizza when my pager went off. I palmed it off my belt while stuffing the remainder of my pepperoni and garlic into my mouth past a mumbled apology and looked down. The foggy LCD's backlight was dead, but the digits were still legible.
"Top, is that your phone?" Markus craned his neck to look into my lap, and I hurriedly stuffed the pager into my jacket while sliding of the booth, nodding to Arjen and Sly. They nodded back almost wearily. It's Topher's game.
"Nah, Mark," said Sly, pinching a swig of Markus' root beer while he wasn't looking. "Didn't you know?"
I was out of the booth and leaving the pizzeria, but could still hear the FNG asking warily "Didn't I know what?"
"That's Top's Bat-signal."
The glass door, fogged with the grease of unknown palms, was cold against my hand. Sly's answer, fading into the chatter of the lunchtime crowd, held just enough respect underneath the derision to delay my exit long enough to hear it.
"Top, man. He ain't just your sysadmin." Arjen's voice joined him for the coda, and despite myself, I grinned as I slapped the door open to their singsong, laughing punchline.
"HE'S A GODDAMN SUPERHERO!"
Although the pay was shitty, one of the main perqs of the job was an honest-to-God parking place. I slid into the Toyota and locked the doors. Tabbing the car on, I slid back the seat, reached under the center console and flicked the rough toggle switch mounted there. The windows opaqued as the seat reclined, and I debated turning on the heat before deciding not to. I didn't know how much juice I had, the run would need a fair bit and I didn't want to fire up the fans. First things first; Clotho had pinged me, and the signal had to go on.
The Toyota was on the roof of the parking structure, a prime spot since it didn't require maneuvering on the ground after touchdown. It was ideal for my purpose as well; the unobstructed sky rose over the windshield and canopy. I dropped the antique pager into a docking clip on the dashboard of the car and watched with half an eye as the base lit green. Somewhere under the skin of the Toyota, electronics sniffed the sky, looking for an aircraft or airship or anything off which they could bounce their time-sensitive chain-letter- but it wasn't my problem anymore.
The goggles were in their clip on the roof; sliding over my face, they cut off vision until the gloves were on and fingers made contact with the pads. The car shook its electronic self, reached up from the cracked concrete roof of the parking structure to the nearest tower with fingers of microwave sideband, which brought the processors online -
and Mikarecursore flexed his hands, rippled his fingers, opened his eyes and saw.
* * *
Immediately before him, on the skyline, was a great silver pyramid looming above various brightly colored structures. He stood up from the bench on which he sat, ignoring the varicolored chaos of the Street as it flowed past him, and looked at his wrist. The pager had dumped; he grinned tightly at the coordinates there. Not close. Not close at all.
This would be a fun one.
The first part was easy, as always. Jumping straight up, Mikare performed a perfect backflip to land standing behind the bench, spun on one foot, and ran straight into the doorway that waited there. With a momentary disorientation, coupled with the awareness somewhere of fingers dancing on touchpads, his vision cleared and he ran out another doorway - onto a different street in the consensual hallucination that was the Street. Behind him, a voice cheerily thanked him for trying the ambience at the Verse's Favorite Coffeeshop - but too late, because he was in motion.
Running in a virtual world isn't as easy as it sounds. That didn't stop dozens of people within his field of view from doing it for one reason or another. A couple of them looked like they were learning to do it. Six or eight appeared to be playing some kind of tag - maybe with weapons, although he didn't have the code loaded, and couldn't see them if there were such, just the avatars running, laughing, occasionally ducking and dodging. Two or three people appeared to be actually in a hurry, which almost guaranteed that they were Literals; new users of the Street, or people who just couldn't make the adjustment. The physics of the Street varied from place to place, but in public areas (with some notable exceptions) running was alway capped at human scale. There were faster ways to get around - one of which Mikare was headed for at the moment - but just running wasn't terribly effective.
His vision blurred for a second as he zipped through a crowd of avatars clustered around a kiosk, his goggles trying and failing to keep up with the translucency problems, then he was through them and headed down the walkway at around the peak speed for an avatar of his height - running the equivalent of a four-and-a-half minute mile, or thereabouts. Time to go to work.
The flickerjack was what made a flashrunner. It was named for what it looked like in action; although how it worked depended on how it had been written, what it did was relatively standard. Mikare began to blink off and on as he ran; between each step he began to jump first meters, then several meters. Avatars along the walkway began to turn and look at him as he blinked past, a stop-motion Edgerton montage of telepresence arrhythmia. Somewhere else, I grinned again.
Although I didn't wear a stimbox, and my rig wouldn't try to simulate environmental conditions, I was past familiar with the ways and workings of the Street. So familiar, in fact, that when the errorcode started trying to intercept Mikare, I began to feel it; drag, painful, syrupy, pulling at his feet as the blinkjumps started to shorten. Three meters each, then down to two and a half. Back in his car, hands began to type frantically, blindly, inside the gloves; using preset commands, I finetuned the flickerjack, adjusting the lag and phase of the packets the client was spitting out of the car and up the electronic spigot into the network. The errorcode saw the change, was fooled into thinking it had done its job, and the drag lessened; Mikare's steps lengthened again.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
An avatar raising an arm caught his vision, enough to turn his head, to see an unfamiliar face and expensive rendering above the finger pointed in his direction. A laugh whose delight penetrated even his stopmotion passage spoke of custom code. By reflex he sketched a quick salute, grinning back, jumped two cars and an advertising kiosk in completely needless exhibitionism and lanced off into the distance at approximately a hundred and seventy-five scale kph.
Here. Her voice was tense, focused; she was Running too.
I'm inbound. ETA two minutes twelve seconds to boundary edge at current Tile size.
Got it. I'm one point five out, I think. Pause. We should have enough.
Mikare dodged around a series of artistically placed curves in the 'roadway' designed to foster the illusion of a town square, shattered the image further for the avatars sitting on benches nearby by phasing directly through three trees and two lampposts. His flickerjack determined were they soft scenery and declipped before he reached them, adjusting his jumps to pass him directly through their locations, ignoring the effect this geometry might have on the confused rendering code of any client that might be watching. He blasted out the other end of the Square and sped on, moving directly away from the Monorail tracks. Structures were sparse, here, and there were no standard bizboxes he could trip to save time; here it was all straight speed and cheating physics.
Off to his right, Mikare caught a glimpse of something stuttering, moving over a sculpted hill set apart from the few houses that lay about. Contact.
He and the other flashrunner slowly converged, indicating that their destination lay ahead; as they moved towards one another, the landscape cleared, structures flashing past less and less frequently as they moved farther from the preferred unreal estate of the Monorail and Downtown. They were still in Tilespace,though; the land had structure and texture, modeled on some form of prairie where there was no other form to it.
Coming over a rise, he saw them.
The flashrunners had gathered on the Tile boundary, a coruscating line of figures in impossible finery. Colors flashing, bodies winking, they stood/watched/danced/sat/sang as their fellows tore into view from across the trackless electronic wastes. A huge set of numerals hung above the center of the group, counting backwards as figures crossed the boundary; Mikare saw it flicker down through 23 and then he flew over the line himself, unjacking to a painfully sharp halt to spin in place on one heel, grinning with the rush. His eyes sought out the coordinator, the flashrunner not watching the others Run in but bent over and watching the numbers flicker in the space between her hands.
"Clotho, how we doing?"
She didn't look up. "We're almost there. They haven't got primary lock on more than half the servers yet."
"Good." Mikare turned back to look out across the darkened hillside he'd just come running down. Another four 'runners were pelting down it in the stroboscopic trails of full-jack motion.
"They have point-six-five. They're tailing off." Clotho was calling in reports from bits of code scattered throughout the Tile. Mikare could see four or five small animalforms from where he stood, squirrels and birds, and guessed they were her agents reporting in. Somewhere in the Revenet, the distributed cluster of random machines that contributed their resources to run this particular spot on the Street was under attack; sixty-five percent of the machines running this particular piece of space had been compromised.
A hundred was Apocalypse.
But they only needed another eight flashrunners.
As he watched, six more danced in; two turned cartwheels over the Boundary into the cheering crowd. Mikare grinned. Clotho nodded, looking satisfied. "Point six eight."
The last two were coming now; one after the other. The last, Mikare noticed, knew he was the last; he was lagging just a bit, holding back to make a grand entrance? As the woman in front of him bounced over the line, he planted both feet, jumped ten meters straight up and went into a triple forward flip and turn, directly over the Boundary into the contested Tile. Yep. We can't resist.
Clotho's voice pulled him away from the gymnast's landing and resultant cheers. "We got it. Phasing now."
There was a slight, almost imperceptible wobble in the world.
Then Clotho dropped her hands and sighed softly, before clapping once sharply. Every head turned to her. She nodded once, and the shout went up.
Back in Realtime, I felt the grin stretch my face.
* * *
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