After picking up the Hubur key, Soleia finds herself face-to-face with her long and closely-held fears about her lost memories. As she ruminates on the weight of keeping her anguish hidden all this time, she makes her way to the meeting spot. But a suspicious hovercar delay turns out to be a ploy to ensnare her. With some quick-thinking and brave acrobatics among the skyborne traffic of Era Novum, Soleia manages to escape. Eventually she finds her way to a mech garage, where Spice and Zinc are waiting for her, eager to decide what to do next.
CHAPTER ELEVEN - RECOLLECTIONS
“His name’s Ken. Unironic Ken.”
Spice set her bracer to project a hologram of the Leftover above them. It moved in a brief animation, Ken pulling a face and pointing a finger gun on repeat.
Soleia tried to ignore the weird sensation from her tactiling. Here was someone going through exactly what she had, who would understand the things she couldn’t even explain properly to herself. Someone who would understand the depths of her fear.
She saw something in the way his eyes used to be, in his easy smile. He looked so open and direct. Like a guy with nothing to hide. “He looks…nice.” Unironic. She wondered if he’d be able to smile like that now, when - if - they ever got him out. It made just looking at him feel strangely familiar, an odd intimacy. Soleia looked away, pretending to concentrate on taking another bite from her slice of pizza.
“Yeah. He is,” Spice said, sadness coloring the words.
They were sitting around the worktables in the corner of her mech garage, Soleia on an old recliner, Spice on a couch in front of a coffee table. Boxes and cabinets, filled with spare parts and maintenance tools, surrounded them. At the desk there was a large terminal, where Zinc sat at the keyboard, frowning at the giant screen as he searched for information. He’d long forgotten about the Satoshi’s pizza they’d ordered, an open pizza box and chems sprawled across the mess on either side of him.
Soleia had toured the garage shortly after her arrival.
Over the cycles spent tuning and optimizing her mech, Spice had turned this corner of the garage into a cozy little space. She explained how it had saved her the token for renting an apartment. Posters for bands and movies covered the walls. She had also stored all the bits and pieces she’d gathered from her travels around the Paradigm. The spinning blue hologram trophy she’d won in an unofficial mech race sat among some circuit boards on a shelf. An arcade cabinet Ken had given her played its demo screen, casting dancing multi-colored lights against the dimness.
After she ended the trip around the garage back at her sitting area, Spice explained about a nice rug she’d picked up from a trip to Chroma, where she’d tracked a Smuggler for days, Soleia thought she recognized it. The place was a mess, but the garage was so big it seemed insignificant.
Besides, Spice apparently liked it that way. “My coffin-room at the compound is so small, and I own so little, that clutter feels like a luxury.”
Soleia leaned back in her recliner, feet up on a speaker. On the stereo system, a tune clicked off, interrupted by DJ chatter. When she looked back up from her pizza, Spice had put Ken’s image away. Above the couch Spice sat on, Soleia only saw Judgment looming in the darkness, so still and large that it seemed almost proud.
“So he got captured by ShaDAO?” she asked.
“He was trying to save me,” Zinc said, without looking away from the screen.
“A real hero,” Soleia said, sounding sarcastic without meaning it.
“Ken always puts others before himself,” Spice said. “The protests were pretty much his idea. When he found out that brokers were AI, he really took it hard. Being lied to like that.”
“Is that why they took him?”
Spice shook her head. “Well, first they went for me. They had some device that stopped my whole compound from logging into TPL. When Zinc and Ken disabled that device, they grabbed him. I don’t think he’s one of their favorite people, considering how he led a lot of the protests.”
“Why would ShaDAO care about the protests?”
“They’re planning something,” Spice explained. “According to the Moderator–the same one that brought us in contact with you–they’re close to 51% control of the Paradigm. When Zinc and Ken broke into one of their facilities, they found that ShaDAO was putting together enough mechs to form an army. Best guess is that they’re going to use them soon, but the protests delayed them.”
Soleia burned with questions. All those cycles and she suddenly had a name to put on the people who’d taken her. But those questions remained uncomfortable to think about, and she was still afraid of the answers.
“Asherah!” Zinc slammed his hand on the worktable so hard the scattered tools and bottles rattled like some overcomplicated percussive instrument. He spun his chair around from the screen, his face twisted with disgust. “You’d think in TPL there wouldn’t be any secrets, but I can’t find anything, no matter what I try to look for. Missing memories, cold regions, what the Hubur key is for–I can’t find anything useful on any of it.”
“Isn’t that ShaDAO’s whole thing?” Soleia asked. “Keeping things secret?”
Spice tapped a finger against her chin. “Maybe we need some help. A MetaExplorer? Astronomer? A Hacker or Miner perhaps?”
Zinc finally grabbed another slice of pizza as the three of them fell into silence again. The DJ chatter faded into a slow, aimless tune that mirrored their mood. He chewed slowly, staring down at the rug, as if mesmerized by the pattern on it.
“A cold place…” He whispered the words like an incantation.
Soleia tossed her crust into the open box on the coffee table and brushed her hands together loudly. She reached down beside her recliner and grabbed her HP Restore chem bottle, sipping on it through a straw. She wanted to change the subject before the next barrage of questions about her memories.
“You know, I never really had a drifter friend–like, not a close, close one,” she said.
Spice laughed gently. “We’re not that different from you.”
“I don’t believe that,” Soleia replied. “I mean, you’re only here part time. And I have no idea what most of you get up to outside the Paradigm.”
Zinc broke his trance and turned to Soleia with a suspicious gaze.
Talking about the lives drifters led outside was considered something of a taboo, since most of them entered Paradigm to forget it. Certainly, nobody asked about it as bluntly and casually as Soleia had. Fortunately for her, Spice didn’t seem to take offense.
“Not much to tell, really. It’s not that interesting.” Spice said, casting a brief smile at Zinc, as if to show she didn’t mind the question. “You wake up, you go to the canteen to pick from three different kinds of tasteless muck, you do your duties, canteen again, and if you have some free time, you log into TPL. That’s about it. I think the reason some drifters don’t like talking about it–apart from security concerns–is how boring it actually comes across.”
“Come on,” Soleia said, still probing to deflect any attention from herself, “it can’t be that bad. You’ve got all these other people there to talk to and do stuff with.”
“Talk about what?” Spice responded. Zinc hung on her every word now, his concern about Soleia’s nosiness replaced by his own. “We all grew up together, looking at the same walls, doing the same things, with hardly any privacy.” Spice stopped to laugh again for a moment. “It’s not like everyone in the compound leads interesting, diverse lives. If anything, talking with others reminds you how drab life is outside TPL.”
“Man,” Zinc whispered, shaking his head.
“Actually, the only thing we ever talk about is what we get up to in the Paradigm. It’s kind of like the only way we can develop or be a full person. If that makes sense.”
Another long, heavy pause filled the space between them. Zinc seemed like he wanted to ask something, but was too afraid to actually ask.
“It can’t be that bad,” Soleia said.
Spice laughed again, but this time it sounded hollow and forced, mixed with an undercurrent of sadness and exhaustion.
“I don’t think you really understand how bad it can get.” Spice sat up on the couch and leaned forward, like she was about to reveal a long-kept secret. “Imagine a cell the size of this rug. Just enough space for a single bed, a rig, and a locker that can fit three outfits. No windows. Hot, steamy air. We call them ‘coffins’ because they barely qualify as rooms. And spending your time there feels like being dead.”
“But you can go outside, right?” Zinc asked.
Spice turned to him. “That might be even worse. It’s so cold you stop feeling anything but numbness and pain. Every step is exhausting. No tactiler would be cruel enough to give you the sensation of being tired, frozen, desperate, and lost as intensely as being out there. And we have to take marking sticks, because you can barely see more than a few steps in front of you. It feels more like…like drowning than being outside. And when-”
“Agh!” Soleia screamed, dropping her chem bottle to crash on the floor before curling over, both hands tight on the sides of her head as she tumbled out of the recliner. She collapsed on the speaker, and then rolled off and writhed on the ground. Fingers clawed at her head as her continued screams reverberated against the vast garage walls.
“Soleia!” Zinc and Spice rushed to her side.
She felt Spice put a calming hand on her, trying to turn the Smuggler’s face, but the pain was overwhelming and neither of her new friends could get a good look at her
“What’s wrong with her?” Zinc shouted over Soleia’s moans.
“I-I don’t know!”
They sat beside her until the screaming stopped.
“Soleia…” Spice said softly, gently placing a hand on her shoulder.
There were a few moments of tense silence before the Smuggler moved. Spice let out a breath of relief.
Slowly, Soleia managed to sit up, her face contorted in an expression of deep pain. Her head still in her hands, she kept her eyes closed, her breaths rapid and shallow. She tried to speak, but the words came out in difficult, breathy whispers.
Spice and Zinc leaned in to hear her properly.
“I remember…I remember the place… where I was… I know where we have to go… Cold Storage.”