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Eilidh:

I'd spent roughly an hour trying to figure out my place here. Everyone seemed easygoing, seemed friendly, seemed anticapitalist.

It was scary how easily the corporate machine could seem pro-rights. It was scary how an absolutely beautiful gathering of demimages was okay with all this. I felt horrid in comparison, but that was to be expected.

"Down with the corps!" I heard behind me.

It was scary how they could blend in so easily. Maybe I was paranoid and they weren't actually goons sent to seduce hacktivists into subversion. But if I wasn't...

I needed a diversion, stat. I could not afford to be found out. "Who is Anna?"

"Our Pale Goddess," said one of the girls around me, "What do you want to know?"

"If you're all so anti-corp, why is Anna keeping you here, tied to Eastern Hills?"

"I dunno," she replied, "Since our inception we've only done a handful of jobs for Eastern Hills. Haven't done any since we've been under Tamaki."

Curiosity snared me in that moment. "How long has she been in command?"

"About five years: she took command when she was seventeen."

I blinked. "That's a little young to be a commander, isn't it?"

"She was definitely a little green around the gills for a minute," an androgynous voice replied, "Nice to meet you, Eilidh, I'm Tech Officer Xela Melrose."

Fae extended faer hand with a smile, and both did I return. Fae were tall, androgynous, blessed of short green hair. It wasn't quite a crew-cut, but it was still the shortest I'd seen so far.

"So can you answer my previous question?" I asked.

"Anna is a divicive deity," fae replied, "literally just waiting for the right time to pull it all down. Originally she just needed funding and Eastern Hills was the only source left: others claimed the rest. She finds the whole corporate thing to be completely asinine, and she's vowed to punish all the deities involved."

"How many deities are there?" I realized a little too late that the numerous questions I'd asked were likely on a FAQ. "Well, I suppose you don't have to answer that: I'm asking a lot of questions."

"Don't worry about it," fae replied, "You'll be getting a full run-down of the state of affairs when it's appropriate. Sometime during training, which should start shortly after you leave the tube."

"So that leaves me to just socialize." Ostensibly, anyway. What should I be doing, anyway, really?

Xela laughed. "I've seen that look before; what trouble are you planning?"

"I hadn't thought of any trouble yet." Faer poke did get me thinking. "Maybe I could hack the gibson and get the jump on training."

Xela rewarded me with an amazing look on faer face. "Your friend, what was his name? Brian? Monroe? Oh! Marvin. Marvin already tried; he can't get past me."

"You?" I immediately cursed my mouth, or, tried to. "Wait, tech officer."

Fae nodded with a grin. "Yeah, and I'm the best living firewall that exists. Nothing escapes me and nobody gets access unless I grant it."

"So you've traded a technical problem for a social problem." If someone were able to trick faer into giving access, then fae'd not be the best firewall in existence.

Faer face boasted triumph still. "Not without a stack of perfectly forged documents, some of which I have to sign myself."

"That sounds tedious." I thought of some trouble I could make in the time we'd been talking, though: I'd take admin of this 'scape. For now, though, I'd make casual conversation and familiarize myself with the implant.

"You look devious." Fae pulled me out of my head. "Not much of a poker face, huh?"

I gave a shrug and kept at working out the menu system. It was as simple as focusing on my peripheral vision. When I did, readouts exploded into full view. They were thought-driven, so I willed them to navigate.

"You found what you're after yet?" Xela asked, proving my train of thought was vulnerable by as little as six damned words, "Must be a hacker at heart if you're getting lost in the menus that thoroughly."

"Marv's the real hacker," I admitted, "I only know enough to get around."

"That's more than most." Apparently faer hair was long enough to twirl, because fae're doing that too, somehow. Maybe hacking the gibson let you fuck physics.

Faer hair looked soft, and my arm had already reached halfway before I caught it. "Uh, may I?"

Fae nodded slowly. "Yeah, I don't see why not, just don't make it weird, okay?"

I changed course to faer wrist, pulling faer close so my other hand could run through my prize that precious hair.

Did you know my larynx could resonate at the frequency of ecstasy?

I swooped in. Fingers flanked faer hair on all sides, swimming through threaded clouds. My hum grew louder.

"Here, sit down." Fae pushed me off my feet.

Chills zapped my spine, and my arms flailed frivolously. I screeched, and plummeted atop something soft. Eyes wide, I looked down to find a couch that most certainly did not exist two seconds ago.

I couldn't even turn to glare at my assailant before a head entered my lap from my blind spot. "Now continue," its bearer did bid.

My face heated up again, and my fingers bathed in hair once more.

Fae took notice when my hand swam out of lane, and snatched it with faer own. "Access denied." Fae gently kissed the back of my hand and placed it back on the cheek it was about to invade. "Access, granted."

I could get used to this. These were good feelings, warmth and care.

That and Xela and I hadn't drawn a crowd like Lucere and I had. Having the moment to ourselves really helped.

I continued playing with faer fair hair, and I found an area on faer scalp that caused a far-too-adorable squeak. My delight skyrocketed, but a notification in my vision torpedoed it back to ground.

I focused on it for a moment, and a chat window appeared front and centre:

Manafed: Your boss needs some help and this is something I can't really deal with without some help. If you think about moving towards me you'll transfer from the instance you're in to the instance I'm in.

I looked toward Xela and whispered, "Okay, who's my boss?"

"Your designation is Tactical Operative." Xela pulled faerself to a seated position next to me.

I didn't even bother to hide the disappointment in my voice when I followed up. "So what's that mean?"

"It means Tactical Officer Young is your boss. You need to go?"

"Yeah." I said out to feel faer cheek again. "Probably now, but I wish I could stay."

"Time to go meet your boss though," fae said, "No need to be sad: we can pick up where we left off when you see me again."

I smiled. "I look forward to it. Your hair is perfect and I want to get to know you."

"You will," fae assured me, "I teach the practical hacking class required for all tactical operatives."

"Isn't that a bit of a conflict of interests if we decide to go much further?" Thinking about it, I really wasn't sure.

"We work that out on a case by case basis," fae said, "Now go: if Lucy is interrupting your free time for this, its got to be important."

I nodded and thought about moving toward Lucere, her pretty eyes, how lost I got in them...

The next thing I knew, I was on a comfy chair around a wooden coffee table.

Lucere was seated in a chair on the other end, and between us lay Talon on a couch. Or, I assumed: their body was warping and twisting about.

"They set their avatar to sync with their body, but their body is in active metamorphasis right now," Lucere explained, "They need the help of a hacker. I would have called Xela, but I figured you'd get more of a kick out of hacking the implant than fae would."

"Aren't they in pain right now?" I asked, mildly appalled.

She smirked. "I guess you better work fast then."

Shit. I immediately opened a barrage of questions. "How can I connect to the implant? What protocols does it use? Where can I get access to a terminal? What tools does my implant have for this kind of operation?"

My questions were answered with a blank stare as Lucere started whispering words with cadence. I figured she was dedicating her entire focus on some sort of spell.

Time to explore the menus some more. I quickly found a compiler, but for some sort of visual language. I opened it, and it blossomed into a full-on IDE. A small blue orb floated in front of me.

Thinking about wireless connectivity made a new orb appear. Okay, so I have two nodes, one that's wireless connectivity, and another that I don't quite understand yet. I pulled them together and the program came to life.

I saw my thoughts being encoded into radio waves and beamed out of my head.

Gods, that was a terrifying thought: anybody in wireless range could just hear my thoughts.

I thought about a selector and another orb appeared. I erased the line between the central and wireless orbs, and re-connected them to opposite ends of the new selector orb. A configuration menu opened. I set it to select on incoming transmissions and waited.

A moment passed and I picked up on Talon's implant. I configured the selector for bidirectional communications between our two implants. I wasn't sure what kind of communication this was, but it was incredibly fast. By the time I registered what was happening data flooded the line. I sifted through it as quick as I could and found a piece of a configuration file.

I set the selector to find more like that, and data surged in once more. Much of it was the same, but I got enough of an idea how the file worked. I wished a new file into existence: one with a modified avatar setting.

I opened the menu again and recalled seeing Talon in the chamber, tweaking the avatar accordingly. I took the familiar image and dialed it to be far more effeminate.

Before I knew it, a cute girl appeared in my view.

I hoped they liked it.

Another thought exported the avatar and pushed it into the configuration payload I'd received. I had willed it forward to Talon's implant, but a loud buzzer slammed down.

"Configuration file not signed," a voice in my head said, "Please sign the configuration with an authorized key."

Code signing was one thing, but configuration signing? That was another. I couldn't possibly reverse the key fast enough to help Talon; not even with all the compute in existence would I succeed in less than a century.

So who has the key? I asked myself. The medical officer would have installed the implant, but might not have a key to sign new configurations. The technical officer would have the key, but I already knew faer strictness would hinder me too long.

Why not ask Lucere? asked the back of my mind. After mulling it over I in. I summoned the messaging window again, and willed a quick message forward.

Cantlin: Do you have signing keys for configuration files?

Her reply took a bit.

Manafed: try yours

Cantlin: Why would my signing keys even work?

Another moment.

Manafed: implant in emergency mode

I could tell she was having a rough time with her magic.

I figured I'd at least try. A mental command signed the update and I focused another send.

Talon's implant replied: "Configuration accepted. Reloading. Complete."

The girl I created lay on the couch.

Talon looked good like that, I had to admit.

They awoke almost immediately.

Lucere slumped over in the chair across from me.

"What in the fuck did I do that for?" a high melodic voice asked.

I sighed and slumped over, closing all the menus I'd opened.

I'd been in stressful situations, but never had someone else depended on me quite like that.

Lucere regarded me evenly. "You passed." Not even a hint of emotion.

hoooooly heck!  I'm so sorry about the delay.  Makoto and I have been slogged down hard by the weight of the holidays, and on top of that I've just finished moving!  Anyway, this chapter got done like, a week ago, so I hope you enjoy the late chappy.  Thanks for hanging in there with me.

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