CHAPTER ONE - PROJECT PARADIGM
"I hate my job."
Spice sighed and lifted her eyes from the ground to the pile of gray ice and frozen sleet blocking her way. It was her week to clear the snow off the solar drives outside the compound. And, as usual, it seemed like the worst storm had waited until it was her turn.
"Why didn't the snows ever come around during Sybil's week?" Resigned and eager to get back to her rig, Spice snatched up a broom, gripping it like a spear in her mitten-wrapped hands, and jabbed the plastic end at the packed snow blocking the doorway. Even having their entrance sheltered beneath a low overhang never seemed to help much with the drifts. Especially after a bad storm.
Chunks chipped away with each stab, and soon a hole large enough to crawl through manifested. Bright sunshine poured in from the opening accompanied by the whistle of bitter cold. After tossing the broom outside, Spice pulled herself out through the dark tunnel, and into the crisp morning air.
Damn, it was cold.
A frigid wind screamed across the ice dunes, swirling whatever it found into clouds of frozen debris. Heavy drifts of white, reflective slopes greeted her from every direction. But, thankfully, it wasn't snowing.
Spice pulled her parka tight and secured her goggles against the howling wind. She jabbed the long pole she carried down into the snowpack. Her people used them to mark the compound entrance while trekking out beyond the safety of its tunnels. Ever since Ricardo left to clean the panels and hadn't returned, it became mandatory for all sweepers to pack out the marking poles with them. Storms could move fast, hurtling down from the mountains of what was once northeast New Mexico.
Using the broom for balance, Spice crunched her way up the hill to where the solar drives met the skyline.
Nothing shown visible against the jagged white cliffs. However, even as the landscape constantly changed, she knew she was in the right place. She'd regularly made this hike for almost twenty years now.
The large machines came into view as Spice crested the ridge. The solar drives rested deep in the snow beneath the tangle of the winter cloaking net. White and gray camouflage strips making up the netting partially blocked the sun, dropping the solar power production to about 70%. However, 70% efficiency was a lot better than 100% efficiency but coupled with the chance of a hostile scanning drone from a distant tribe potentially spotting them from the sky.
Firebombed solar drives blown into scattered fragments tended to have a 0% production rate.
A quick glance to the sky and Spice crawled beneath one of the cloaking nets. Now, she too was shielded from both heat and optical scanners. It was safe to start work.
Visual inspection of the area revealed what she'd expected. No one had been out here since the snowstorm last night. Satisfied, she broomed off the solar array and the massive tank-like treads of the drive, cleaned and oiled the sprocket assemblies, and checked the terminals connecting the thick power cables running toward the exhaust ports of the compound.
With this T-6849 Solar Drive checking out complete, she had "only" 13 more to go before she could head back. Spice needed to move fast and get the rest cleaned off before peak solar collection hours. Not to mention she needed to finish before she was allowed to scuttle home to the warmth of the tunnels and strap into her TPL rig.
She checked her parka ties again and slipped out from under the netting.
Almost four hours later, she trudged, physically exhausted and half-frozen, back down the slope toward her marker. Hopefully, it wouldn't snow again tonight, and tomorrow would only need to be a 45-minute excursion.
Spice slid back through the ice hole and slammed the outer door shut, sticking her tongue out in the process, taunting the cold and misery beyond. She was done with physical work for the day, and it was time to power up some fun.
Sweat dripped from her forehead as she stripped off the heavy parka and goggles. Spice hung the cold weather gear on a peg in the dressing room. Floor grates clanged, shaking condensation free, as she stomped across. The snow slid from her boots and drained out, collecting somewhere below as more raw material for the electrolysis engines powering the compound's life support systems.
Spice wrestled open the heavy door securing the damp corridors of stone and steel. Her footsteps echoed off the slate-colored walls as she walked, the sound punctuated by the occasional plop of condensed vapor. She had stripped down to her usual wicking tank-top and shorts, but it was still warm and sticky.
Come to find out, running all of the collective electronic equipment inside narrow, confined spaces produced a lot of heat. Heat that did a pretty solid job of melting snow. They vented the excess steam occasionally through those upper exhaust ports. Every hour or so, a crisp blast of icy air washed through the compound, refreshing the staleness and working to cool their internal systems at the same time.
Spice rounded a sharp corner and tugged open the door to her coffin. In this world of chaos, this was her small chunk of calm. No bigger than four square meters, her room was sparsely decorated. But, its austere appearance didn't matter. When you spent most of your time in TPL, it didn't really matter what your physical room looked like.
After closing and barring her door, she reached under her cot and pulled out her harness. The hardware wired to her TPL rig nearly filled the entire space beneath her bed. Grinning, she slid into her sweat-stained tech vest and strapped on the headgear. Every time, even all these years later, she felt like the hero from one of those old movies. The ones where the good guy gears up right before wading through unspeakable odds to save the day.
Spice laid down on her cot, closed her eyes, and punched the power button. The linklight on her rig flashed from red to green. Her gray, steam-slick room vanished from her senses. Connection was made.
When Spice opened her eyes again, she flinched. Darkness somehow still surrounded her.
A tense moment passed, and she remembered where she had last logged off. Relieved, Spice keyed a couple relays, and the power grids fired up, casting an eerie green glow across her command screens. Another switch flipped, and a massive door crawled up, coiling into the 30 meter high ceiling. She grabbed two sticks on the console, and set hundreds of servos into motion.
Her giant mech, 25 meters of speed and wrath, stepped out of a massive garage and into the bright lights of The Strip.
Splayed out before her, glittering with light, noise, and activity was her real home. The metaverse. Pink and purple neon lanced across electronic billboards and translucent holograms. Hovercars raced alongside glitch-white ghosts. Every street corner shilled a secret quest, puzzle, or bundled stimpack. To her left, two kaiju battled in the middle of Marvel Park. To her right, the entire Foster Building fired its rocket boosters and launched into space.
She may have been a nobody back in the physical world, huddled in dark, sweaty tunnels, but here among the madness, she was Mech Pilot Spice, Alpha Command 10. And, she was a badass.
Normally, she didn't log out of TPL from her pilot seat, but last session, well, she'd been in a hurry. Now that she was logged in again, she needed to catch up with Unironic Ken. Find out what she'd missed.
Her comms flashed. Ken's voice came through over the speaker.
"Hey, Spice! Where'd you go?"
"Sorry. I had to cut out. The power cells at the compound were in negative accumulation."
"Oh. That sounds bad."
Spice shrugged, looking out the screens and spotting him on the street below. "Just needed a little snow patrol."
Unironic Ken didn't have to worry about issues in the physical world. He was a CyberBroker. One of ten thousand poor souls permanently severed from their human bodies and stuck, wandering the metaverse forever.
A couple centuries ago, after the arctic shelves collapsed and triggered the first modern ice age, the world governments came together with a plan to save humanity by moving everyone into the metaverse. It had been called "The Paradigm Shift". The first ten thousand volunteers who logged into the experimental Paradigm rigs, intent on permanently colonizing cyberspace, instead met with disaster.
As we discovered, there are limits to how much neurological dissonance the human psyche could handle.
Like his fellow CyberBrokers, Unironic Ken's body was somewhere in a government facility, cryogenically frozen while they waited for technology to advance enough to restore them to their bodies.
That was two hundred years ago.
Instead, humanity had been applying its vast, combined intellect toward making and selling more efficient JPEGs. It was kind of depressing, really.
"What have I missed?" Spice didn't like to dwell on the physical world too much with Ken.
"Oh, my spicy little meatball, you missed everything."
"Really?" Had he been anyone else, she'd have stomped him to bytes with a steel-reinforced mech boot. No one called her Meatball anymore.
"Yes! The Apes and Cats are at war again, you have a couple DAO votes to cast, and four airdrops to claim."
"Wow. Busy night."
One of the best parts of being friends with a CyberBroker was that they were into everything. They went everywhere. They knew everyone. Decking for a few generations of humans will have that affect.
"A broker never stops." He winked up at the giant robot. "You gonna let me in?"
Spice toggled the ground hatch release, and Unironic Ken climbed aboard. They had some fun to find. Especially in this world. That failed experiment we all call TPL -- The Paradigm Lost.