“What is it this time?” she asked, gliding through the data structures. Varrow had been running in the 'net for as long as she could remember. She much preferred the direct interface of today's world to the clunky Hosaka & Gibson boards that she had learned on, with their electrode halos and keyboards. She was glad technology had advanced to the point where a 'runner could have her rig completely internal, the only limitation was the speed at which she could think and react.
“I think I'm lost ... again,” a young male voice said sheepishly.
“Dammit Bobby, how many times have I shown you how to navigate the 'net? Where are you?”
“I don't like that name,” he said quietly, wishing in that moment he'd been apprenticing for someone, anyone else. It wasn't that Varrow was a bad teacher, quite the opposite, but he always felt like a kid around her.
“Fine. Zero. Where are you?”
“I was skirting the ice on Teledyne, just kinda poking around, you know? Just seeing what was there s'all... “
“Bobby! What was the first thing I told you when you came to me?”
“Uh ... that ice, especially corp ice, can seriously mess a runner up?”
“Before that.” Varrow was nearing the edge of her patience with her young charge.
“Basics ... what we typically call 'ice' is sorta like an upgraded firewall from twenty years ago ... “
“And ice stands for Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics, and it's proactive ... Most ice knows when you're lookin at it.”
“Good. Sounds like my teachings are getting through, somewhat. What did I tell you about corp ice?”
“Since the corps are more paranoid about data theft--”
“With good reason” Varrow interrupted.
“With reason, their hackers and runners style the ice to do more than watch and assess observers ... If a runner even looks at a slice of corp ice wrong, he better hope he's got some good defenses of his own.” Zero seemed proud of his answers thus far.
“Good enough. Go on with your story. I can't help you until I know more.”
“Okay. Well, there was this weird flash of light ... only it wasn't light. More like dark.”
“So you were blinded by a flash of darkness?”
“Yeah, weird, huh? Next thing I know I'm somewhere out in the wastes. Nothing around as far as the eye can see.”
“So ... pick a dest point and go? It's not like it'll take any time ...”
“That's the thing though. Every address I put in comes up invalid. I had a helluva time even contacting you.”
Varrow grinned. “I've taught you better than I thought, kid. Sounds like you've been isolated. You've got to watch what you're doing around the big corps. They take their security very seriously. Lucky it just isolated you instead of sending a spike to fry your brain.”
“What can I say? I learned from the best,” Bobby chuckled, realizing that for once his teacher was actually complimenting him. “So, what's the plan, boss? How do I get out of here?”
“It'd be pretty easy from this side, especially since you've already gotten a carrier signal out to me. I'll start a slow hack that'll get you out in two days, but I'll mark a fail for you if you haven't gotten yourself out by then. See if you can contact anyone else and have them take care of your meat, otherwise you'll feel like absolute shit when you get out. I'll check back if I haven't heard from you in a day.”
“That's it? No hints on how to get out?” Bobby asked, frustrated and confused.
“Nope. Find your own way out, or wait for the slow hack. Your choice.”
Now, what was I doing? Varrow asked herself, ignoring anything further from Bobby and setting up the the slow hack. A flash of Darkness ... why does that sound familiar? She decided to take a look at Teledyne, to see if she could figure it out. She approached the massive pyramid slowly, cautiously, the ebony representation towering into the ether. To be on the extra safe side, she fired up the camouflage program she wrote last month, masking her virtual presence to look like any other stream of data, so long as no one looked too close.
By unspoken agreement, the 'net was represented as a network of the major cities in the physical world, each corporation represented by structures and objects, located in the same cities in which they were headquartered. There was no other reason for the net to occur this way except that most runners just found it easier to cope with something familiar, so a consensual hallucination became the de facto representation of the electronic world. Sometimes Varrow would hover above a “city” and watch the data packets flowing from one location to another, across the vast highways traversing the wastes between cities. This was one of those times. She floated above the Teledyne pyramid, careful to stay well away from the ice around the building, out of reach of their countermeasures, just observing.
She was stirred from her observations when her phone rang. Logging out of the net, she answered. “Hello?”
“Varrow? It's Em. I need your help.”
Varrow sighed softly, still a bit groggy from waking into the real world from the electronic. “My help? With what?”
“I can't say over this line. Meet me at Joe's as soon as you can.”
“Uh... okay? I'll be there in ten minutes.”
“Want me to order anything for you?”
“Sure,” she smiled, excited by the prospect of food. “A cup of coffee and,” she paused to think for a moment, “two eggs, over easy, hash browns and a short stack. I feel like I haven't eaten for a week!” It was closer to a day and a half. She would rather have stayed in the net, but a free meal is a free meal, and Em wasn't bad company
“Aye. See you soon,” Em said.
“See you then,” Varrow said, hanging up as she stretched out her tired body on the bed in prelude to beginning the day.