Spice and Zinc visited Magnetic to follow up on a lead regarding ShaDAO, who have captured Unironic Ken. Though the lead has gone cold, The Moderator contacts them once again with a name: Soleia. They meet with her and discover that she is a Smuggler who lost some of her memories from long ago. Employing the help of a Gene Editor to retrieve fragments of these memories, they learn that Soleia had been taken to a ‘cold place’, as well as the importance of the Hubur key. Figuring that Unironic Ken must also have been taken there, they decide to retrieve the key by each d-mezzing the three brokers who hold it in their multi-sig wallet - a difficult and complex operation. They succeed, and it is Soleia who ends up taking the key.
CHAPTER TEN - LEAP OF FAITH
Soleia had smuggled a lot of things in her 200-odd cycles as a broker: Corporate technologies responsible for collapsing whole industries, runtime exploits with the power to erase entire cities, even a data stick so dangerous to a certain Politician that three Samurai and a Skull had chased her for two circuits. But this was different, and not just because it was a relic.
She gazed through the window of the hovertaxi. Safe mode had been reinstated in most of Era Novum. The skyline sprouted various heavy maintenance vehicles and scaffolding across the damaged buildings and wreckages caused by the riots. The city was healing, though Soleia doubted most brokers were. The anger had just been decentralized.
Soleia dropped her eyes to her lap, the Hubur key clenched tight in one hand. It was small and light, but there was something about it that seemed to pull at her. A nuance in the tactiling, beyond the obvious senses. A strange resonance.
“So you’re the cause of my problems,” she muttered.
Being a good Smuggler meant being good at hiding things. It meant saying one thing while knowing differently. Feigning ignorance. Controlling your responses. Nobody knew how much those lost memories had tortured Soleia over the cycles. No one realized how unsettling it was to have lost a part of her life. Nobody saw the anguish and confusion she felt over the lack of recollection of what they had done to her. She had never let anyone find out. Soleia had smuggled a lot of things in 200 cycles, but nothing quite as difficult as her feelings.
Now this tiny little thing, and the two random strangers who had contacted her, promised the one thing she had tried, yet failed, to give up on for so long: answers.
A sudden, sharp concern pierced her introspection. Instinct screamed that something about her current situation was immediately wrong. She shoved the key back into her tech vest and looked up. Her cab had stopped, trapped in a viscous stream of traffic, six lanes wide, three deep, and 300 meters in the air. Dense clusters of skyscrapers on either side blocked the traffic in. Soleia watched a couple of drivers take manual control of their hovercars and break out of the gridlock, the lines behind them lurching eagerly into those spaces. Her cab didn’t offer manual control though, so she was stuck. She checked out the rest of the captive audience–bored people in other cabs, brokers too busy watching shows and playing video games to take control of their vehicles, and even a few who seemed to prefer getting angry at the automated lanes to driving themselves.
Up ahead, beyond the stacked lanes of traffic, Soleia made out the problem. A spaceship-sized, beaten-up construction vehicle was blocking the space between two skyscrapers, while several arms extended from its brutalist body to work on the geometry of one building. Below it, two billboards narrowed the space, funneling the few manual drivers into their own line of traffic. Above it, the gnarled, damaged framework of one skyscraper curved dangerously overhead like a tree branch. No way through.
Soleia tensed. She continued to study the scene carefully. To anyone else, it would seem perfectly normal. A repair vehicle, a few drones buzzing about, an Enforcer hovercar arriving to manage the situation. Just a regular delay in a big city with mesh collisions enabled. A few blocks and the construction vehicle would clear the way for her and the other hundred-odd vehicles to pass. But Soleia wasn’t anyone else, she was a Smuggler.
The choke point was a little too perfect. And the drones–regular surveying tools for the construction crew–swept a little too widely, and a little too slowly. The Enforcer vehicle started moving back along the traffic towards her, seemingly unconcerned with the blockage. Soleia checked her bracer. Safe mode is off. She frowned. Normal for a construction site, sure, but this was starting to feel like something else.
Her instinct squealed like a dissonant chord, sharpening her senses, and leaving no room for reflection. She knew this feeling all too well, it had saved Soleia many times before.
She figured she had two options: One, use a scrambler on the cab to blow the drive code, causing it to fall to the ground with her inside, frantically trying to figure out her next move. Or two, something even more insane.
She chose option two.
“I always wondered what these were for,” she said, as she flipped open the cover to the emergency button on the door. She hit it with her fist and the window slammed open. Soleia swung herself out of the window and onto the roof of the hovertaxi.
This high up, the wind whistled in her ears. The chaotic sound of hovercar drives and construction surrounded her, echoing thinly. The city sprawled out around her, the ground so distant, it was barely visible. What felt comfortably detached from the safe environment of her hovertaxi now seemed immediately dangerous when crouching precariously on top of it. Soleia suddenly realized that her idea was not just crazy, it was practically suicidal.
Ahead, the Enforcer was still roughly 20 cars away and hadn’t seemed to notice her crouching low on the roof. She looked back at the traffic behind her. The gridlock stretched a long way back, and for once she was glad to see it.
Shaking off some of her tension, Soleia breathed, focused, then took as much of a run-up as she could along the small roof of the taxi, before leaping onto the muscle car behind it. The blacked-out windows hid whatever the passenger thought of having a Smuggler slam onto their hood 300 meters in the sky. Her feet slipped a little. She had glimpsed how much emptiness there was beneath her during the jump, but it still wasn’t enough to dispel the fear of getting caught. She scrambled across the muscle car and leapt onto the next car. Then again and again.
“Just a fun little platforming game,” she said aloud after the fourth leap, ignoring the shouts and horns around her, pretending not to notice the unnatural distance between her and the ground below. “That’s all.” She composed herself for the next leap. “Just a game.”
It became a mantra, keeping her from acknowledging the absurdity of her plan. That thought could make her hesitate, maybe even freeze up, causing her instinctive and purposeful movement to become fearful scrambling. Falling wasn’t an option, not when she had the key. So she shoved the possibility aside and repeated the mantra again.
Another leap. Then another. Then a bevy of telltale sounds behind her–the whistle of accelerating drones and the distinct, amplified speaker of the Enforcer vehicle–she definitely couldn’t ignore.
“Stop right there, Soleia!”
She couldn’t help but smile when she heard her name. They were specifically looking for her.
“At least I know I’m not doing this for no reason.” She jumped again and landed neatly on the next vehicle, allowing her time to glance back. Sure enough, they were gaining on her fast, but even worse, the construction vehicle was slowly lumbering upwards, clearing the path. In a few ticks, the traffic would start moving again, and her platforming would get a whole lot tougher.
The sound of a hovercar’s drive powering up to move under manual control caught Soleia’s attention. She looked back across the sea of vehicles. About five cars away, a purple car descended beneath the gridlock. She ran towards it, jumping sideways across the cars, guessing where it would be beneath the gridlock at each tick. That’s all it would be–a guess, a risk, a shot in the dark–but still the best odds she had for getting out of this without getting de-mezzed and losing the key the same way she’d taken it.
Please work, Soleia whispered. She caught another glimpse of the purple vehicle moving below the traffic during her next jump. Estimating where it would be, she rolled across a hovertaxi’s hood and dropped into space. Despite herself, she closed her eyes. Please.
She landed on the roof of the purple luxe sedan with a thud, face pressed against a non-tinted windscreen. She opened her eyes and found herself staring back into the shocked, upside-down face of a Cammer. Surprised, the Cammer reflexively sped the hovercar up. Gripping the sides of the roof tightly, Soleia laughed. Clinging to a speeding hovercar felt almost fun compared to playing hopscotch over traffic while a set of drones and an Enforcer gave chase.
“Why do you look so frightened?” she said to the Cammer, not that he could hear her behind the glass. So focused on her, he almost missed an oncoming vehicle and swerved dangerously. One of Soleia’s hands slipped, but the shock of panic tightened her grip with the other, and she steadied herself.
“Calm down!” She gestured at the Cammer, who nodded quickly but didn’t actually slow down.
Soleia took a moment to look above and behind them. The Enforcer had been left far behind, just now finding a spot to descend beneath the stacks of traffic, with little chance of finding her. Especially with a terrified Cammer at the wheel.
Fortunately, they were heading out of the corporate district. The Cammer probably wanted open space. A perfect spot to disembark. She looked down at the Cammer and tapped the glass, even though he was still staring at her more than the air traffic. She gestured for him to head left. He nodded quickly again, and then yanked the wheel. Prepared this time, Soleia braced herself as the sedan jerked and swerved in that direction.
A few ticks later, the car emerged from the skyscraper maze to soar over the winding river providing a pleasant view for the corporate suites and penthouse apartments of downtown Era Novum. Soleia would have liked more time to prepare her jump elegantly, but the Cammer had decided to take advantage of all the space and jerked the car into a jackknife turn. She found herself flung off, spinning chaotically in the air. She twisted desperately and struggled to hit the water at an angle that wouldn’t blast her to pixels on impact.
She managed to enter the water face-first, but angled to her left side. The impact of the water clenched her body, strangling her whole being.
For two ticks drifting in the cold shock, she convulsed and kicked vigorously. Soleia pushed her way up toward the light while her lungs fought against the lack of digital air. Breaking through the surface, relief washed over her. Soleia rolled over to float on her back and let the gentle current carry her.
A couple of blocks later, Soleia pulled herself out of the river, dripping wet, exhausted and relieved. Two drifters standing around a motorcycle in the nearby parking lot stared at her incredulously. She smiled back at them before turning away and searching her vest. The key was there. That was all that mattered.
“Guess I’m walking then.”
Spice and Zinc were already at the meeting spot, the massive garage that housed her mech, Judgment. Soleia stepped up to the side door and pressed the buzzer. An almost instant response revealed their anxiety.
“Who is it?” came a deep and digitized voice.
“I am the gatekeeper. Have you seen the keymaster?”
A heavy click told Soleia the door had been unlocked.
A crackle, a heavy sigh, and a response, “Come on in, Gozerian.”
Inside, only a few wall lights illuminated the large space, casting stark shadows across the mech’s hard lines. Soleia noticed the new left arm and clean panels indicative of a recent repair. Spice and Zinc sat on stools at the worktable.
“Cool mech,” Soleia said. “I stole a similar one once.”
“Did you get it?” Zinc said, unable to hide the concern in his voice.
Soleia looked at both of them, eyes wide.
“Wait, you two didn’t?”
Spice winced as if in pain, as Zinc slammed the worktable.
Soleia finally laughed.
“Relax.” She pulled out the key and handed it to Spice. “Of course I got it. Good thing it was me. ShaDAO already knows they lost it. They’re pulling out the stops to get it back.”
Spice passed the key to Zinc and looked back at Soleia, worried. “They chased you?”
Soleia shrugged. “Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
Zinc handed the key back to her. “We should figure our next move out quickly, then.”
“Yeah,” Spice agreed. “This… cold place. Whatever it is. We need to find it and figure out how it relates to this key.”
Even at the mention of the ‘cold place’, Soleia felt the profound terror punch her. The weight of those abstract, partial memories she had recently been given back. Frustratingly vague, a volcano of emotions unattached to anything tangible, yet still so painful. The cold place… Home of the ghosts which haunted her, and perhaps the truth that would either give her final peace, or break her completely.
“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever.”