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My eyes were burning from staring at a monitor all day. The non-interlaced lines of code being burned into my retinas. My mind numb, my face frozen into a look of obedience. I could never forget I had a monitor in front of me. I was being monitored. I went home just long enough to log in. Send some emails, create an electronic trail. Whoever cared would know that I was home. Then I left. Left for

When you want to jack in, the place to go is AC. But since you want to go there, you can’ t just go there. You have to go into the zone. The zone is corporate, no surprise there, everything is corporate. It is a place for games, to relax and have fun. The corps don’t go there to have fun, they go to watch you have fun. Watch you relax, see what you do when you think it isn’t for real. I know it’s all for real.

I log in with an account. Not one of my important ones. Not one traceable to me. Always slip in first with something you can lose, in case you can’t slip back out. I got in, and I got out. Simple as that. It’s always simple when it works.

I go back in. Not deep. Just skimming the surface. Idle chatter. There is news. It seems there was old research on mages, ways to make them tougher, stronger, better protected. It sounded like military hardware. Not cutting edge anymore but better then anything civilians could dig up. Of course I became interested. Being a mage meant wielding power, power it took a lifetime to learn - or a simple training
program like I had dug up. But being a mage required wielding that power. Without it a mage was just a target. This armor sounded like just the thing. Not so I could relax, I could never relax. Just a back up, you could never have enough of those.

When you need to know, there was only one person to see - Maggie. She called herself the jackcat, but nobody else did. It reminded me faintly of an ancient song about a girl everyone called Nancy. I must have heard it in a commercial somewhere. I remember that
once there were songs that weren’t commercials, but I’m not that old.

You don’t see Maggie in AC. There is a portal to jackcat, but I was sure it was a trap. They knew about her but they didn’t know how to stop her.

I tabbed out and surfed to her site on the web. It looks pretty enough, culture, hobbies, typical tourist glitz and garbage. But those who knew how could dig past that, find the real info. Why she put it there I didn’t know. I often wondered if it was there to distract us, keep us from digging for the better information. But what she had always seemed complete, and it was always accurate.

There was a man I needed to see, Spertat the Ursuin Hunter. He would sell me a book about the armor, for a price. And it seemed he didn’t keep a fixed address. I didn’t blame him. But I would find him.

Back in AC I set up my search program and entered his name. The ursuin hunter had become the hunted. He was said to be in the north. I looked. I didn’t see him. My night was over and I was no closer to my goal then I had been when I started.

Another day of droning at work and I was back in AC. I had to find Spertat and I couldn’t take the time it seemed to require. There was an option. Now most of what I do is on the edge. It isn’t right, but it isn’t strictly illegal. This was. It had been banned and users along with it. But I needed the edge. I needed the speed. I needed Gear.

In a few minutes it was up and I was running. It was like the wind was at my back, or I was the wind. I flew across the north from mountain to valley. Drudge, servant, I saw them all. But no Spertat.

“Excuse me.”

I looked to see a man keeping pace, his blue dot flashing. It was an admin. I was busted. He remained polite as he told me my rights. I had none. He knew about the Gear. I was banned.

Or, rather, that account was banned. I had others growing around AC. I could pick one from Serac or maybe the DoC. But that would be for another night. I needed more information and it looked like Spertat wasn’t going to give it to me.

I did my searching the next day at lunchtime. No need for a fancy system, an internet café worked fine. I used fake ID, paid cash, and was in and out in before the police could reach me. I had saved the text files to disk. Sneakernet may be slower then the internet, but it was also harder to trace.

What I had was information in its rawest form, the rantings of Lum. Some say he was driven mad trying to decipher the workings of the Great Machine. Others say he had to have been mad to try. The only thing certain was that he was made, a few lines of his ranting was
enough to convince anyone. I did not like to read it. Not because it made no sense, but because sometimes to my horror it did. I live on the edge, but I am not always sure which side of it I am on.

I ran a search on the only word I knew, heiromancer. And there it was, heiromancer armor. The key to finding it was a man called Zairente Ra-Yao. No fixed address for him of course.

No point in wasting a valuable avatar. I picked a weak one I had few resources invested in. It was slow and weak. Until I activated Gear. With Gear, skill did not matter. It was pure speed. Turn on the tracer program and I was ready. I was ready for the admin. Three
clones were banned. Probably their IP addresses as well, which was too bad for whoever lived there. My IP address was well hidden.

I found Zairente Ra-Yao. He was not a player, all he wanted was money. He gave me the key, so encrusted it was scarcely recognizable. The only way to clean it was acid. And acid meant grievvers.

It may surprise you that I have a patron. But while you can survive in AC without a patron you cannot truly live without one. I contacted mine and told him a little of what I was up to. I needed a meatshield, I hoped he could provide one. As luck would have it he had one in mind. A twinked brawler who needed some outdoor time. He arranged a time for us to meet.

We couldn’t meet for a day. I was tempted to hunt grievvers on my own but patience is the key to success. The day was better spent checking my various accounts, tending the avatars as they grew in their various camps. I started a half dozen more as I had lost several already on this quest and might need more fodder for the admins. A productive day but not a fun day.

The next day we met by the drunken madman. The brawler was a she. Chiseled face, piercing eyes, no random genetics, she was chosen to look beautiful and dangerous. The kind of face that said she was looking for trouble, which means she could not be very smart. She was not. She talked a lot to impress me with her skills, which after I buffed her were quite impressive. But they were technical skills only. She could fight like someone who had been trained all her life but never actually been in a fight. No sense of her surroundings, no sense of movement. She was a perfect meatshield.

There were rumors of grievvers by Stonehold. I was tempted to go someplace else just on principle, but hunting grievvers was not illegal. Sometimes secrecy is worthwhile, sometimes it is just making things harder on yourself. With her fighting and me keeping her alive we made a pretty good team. A lot of grievvers fell before I found enough acid to clean the key. But the task was done. Now I just had to find the door.

There was risk now. The key was tied to this avatar so I could not risk getting him banned. I had to find the portal the old-fashioned way. I booted up all six boxes, dual logged on five of them, and had a macro search the dires. While they were searching I found a
game of Quake on the net. My hacks were out of date so I didn’t do very well.

When the portal was found I logged out the other macros, leaving only the one to hold the portal in place. Then I went there with the key. The key fit and I was transported before a shimmering gem on a spire above the dires. I found a smaller gem there as well and used it.

That’s how I ended up here. The rest you know. I know you aren’t government or even corporate. If you were I would be gone already. So open up and let me in. I’m ready for the tests.

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