Since visiting a Gene Editor in order to restore her memories, Soleia has struggled to recall much beyond the Hubur key and a cold place, let alone the reasons or meaning behind them. After she brings the key back to Spice and Zinc, the group attempts to decide what they should do next. As they relax in the safety of her garage, Spice tells the brokers about life outside the Paradigm. Speaking of the ice and snow triggers something in Soleia, and another memory comes to the forefront. The name of the place she was taken to: Cold Storage.
CHAPTER TWELVE - LEGWORK
The Enforcer’s stoic image glared back at them from the giant terminal screen. His eyes hidden behind his yellow glasses. The cigarette dangling from his lips gave him a menacing yet casual appearance. After looking at him for a full half-block, as if staring might help them decipher something, Spice turned to Soleia. She was met with the same expression the Smuggler had maintained since recovering from her memory retrieval: cold and blank.
“I’m sure,” Soleia said slowly. “He was there. He was one of the guards at Cold Storage.”
“Mason from Silent,” Zinc said out loud, as if testing the name for clues.
“Is there anything public about him?” Spice asked.
Zinc leaned forward over the keyboard again and began typing. The Enforcer disappeared, replaced by the results of his rapid searching.
Spice glanced at Soleia. The Smuggler stared into space. Spice worried about her, and not just because they’d decided she should keep the Key in her privacy wallet rather than a multisig in order to avoid detection. So far Soleia had given them valuable information, helped them in the triple d-mezzing, and brought her and Zinc the Hubur key despite ShaDAO agents chasing her, yet she hadn’t even hinted at asking for payment of any kind. It was becoming obvious that she had her own reasons for doing all this, and Spice could only hope that it wouldn’t clash with her plan to get Ken back.
“Nothing here jumps out at me,” Zinc said, drawing her attention. “He works a lot: Over twenty jobs in the past few cycles alone. Era Novum policing, politician security, a bouncer at a music festival in Chroma, protection for some travelers to the outer regions, and the list just goes on. He’s got location tracking off, and no public records that I can find.”
Spice frowned. “There’s got to be something.”
“He’s an Enforcer–I’m sure his everyday life is an adventure. Negotiating bribes, beating people down, diving in front of bullets. But you won’t find out about any of it. Enforcers look after each other. You know what they say-“
“’Enforcers make others do the talking’,” answered Soleia. The age-old adage.
Zinc smiled at her and nodded
“You sure you don’t remember a Degen from back at this Cold Storage place? If you did, getting the info we need would be a simple matter of saying the word ‘roadmap’ enough times. This guy,” Zinc turned to hit a key that brought Mason from Silent back to the screen, “is a problem. Even if we somehow find him, getting him to tell us anything will be impossible.”
“Still…” Spice swung her legs from the couch, stood up, and pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “It’s a lead. Let’s find him first and worry about making him talk later.”
“Where we going?” Zinc asked.
“I’m going to the Ethereal Node to see if I can get some information. You and Soleia should stay here where it’s safe. We don’t want anything happening to the key before we even know what it’s for.”
Soleia jumped out of her chair. “No way I’m sitting here eating cold pizza waiting for you to give me permission to leave.”
Spice shook her head. “It makes sense that I should be the one to go. Alpha Command has my back. Plus I’m a drifter. ShaDAO can’t spirit me away like they did with Ken.”
“How do you know that?” Soleia retorted.
“Spice is right,” Zinc said, standing up. He thumbed back over his shoulder at the screen. “If you remember this guy then he probably remembers you, too. That’s gonna make it harder to find him and get him to talk.”
“Exactly,” Spice said. “Good thinking.”
“Yeah,” Zinc replied, “which is why I should go with you while Soleia stays here.”
Spice winced. After seeing how Soleia’s memory recollection had gone, she didn’t want to leave her alone. And after losing Unironic Ken, she was starting to feel a little more protective about Zinc, too.
“I’m the best Smuggler in the city,” Soleia said, matter-of-factly. “Protecting myself and the things I’m carrying is what I do.”
The three of them stood there, staring at each other, waiting for someone or something to break the stand-off.
A loud notification from the terminal disrupted the deadlock. They looked and found that Mason’s image had been replaced by a rapidly expanding file of garbled data. At the top of the file was a distinctive logo.
“OnlyCams?” Zinc read aloud, turning to Spice.
She darted towards the terminal.
“Hey,” Soleia said, “I know we’re all stressed right now, but it’s kind of an inappropriate time to catch up on your-“
“I don’t know what the hell this is,” Spice said, as the data extraction ended, leaving only a gigantic file of indecipherable text.
“Spam?” Zinc suggested.
“That’s not spam.” Soleia moved beside Spice to take a closer look. “I recognize the encrypted byte pattern, it’s common on the data blackmarket – the expensive stuff.”
“It must have come from the Moderator. Do you know how to decrypt it?”
Soleia sat at the terminal and searched the file a little.
“Usually you just need to know some of the information you’re buying already. A few words or numbers at least. Makes it so the information is catered to the buyer and pointless for most people to intercept.”
“Try Mason from Silent,” Zinc suggested quickly.
They stared at the screen as Soleia entered the words into the pattern-seeker, then watched the computer scan the mangled file. Within less than a block, the jumbled characters formed words, neatly arranged in columns.
“Looks like a transaction list for usernames,” Spice said.
“It’s a dox for a bunch of OnlyCams users.” Soleia scrolled the file.
“And what do you know,” Zinc pointed at one name. “There’s our guy, Mason from Silent. Otherwise known as BigVector.”
“He’s got a bunch of transactions going to someone called BadGlitch,” Spice said. “That has to be a Cammer, but there’s no real name beside the alias.”
Soleia minimized the file and began searching for BadGlitch, but her enthusiasm quickly melted to anger at the screen when it didn’t turn up anything.
“How are you a Cammer with no online presence?” Soleia blurted out, as if the Cammer were in front of her.
“Often Cammers use alternate identities for the different services they offer,” Zinc said. “Sometimes guys like a more personal touch. They don’t always want to be reminded that a bunch of other people are seeing the same thing they’re seeing, so Cammers cover their tracks to make it feel more private for the clients.” Soleia and Spice slowly turned their gazes towards him. Zinc shrugged and smiled bashfully. “That’s what I heard, anyway.”
“So we’ve got an Enforcer we can’t find,” Soleia said, “and a Cammer with no searchable name.”
“This is good.” Spice smiled slowly.
“Good?” Zinc said.
“We’re here worrying about how to get the Enforcer to talk, but now we don’t have to actually do it ourselves.”
It took a tick for the realization to hit Zinc and Soleia. When it did, they both grinned, too.
“The Cammer,” Zinc said, thinking out loud. “They’re probably more persuasive than we could ever be.”
“First, we’ve got to find them,” Soleia crossed her arms. “And without a name, there’s only one place I can think to start looking.”
All over the Bunny District, a sensory assault of pink and blue light refracted in an exponential cascade through clouds of glitter and across mirrored surfaces. A psychedelic sensory overload contained within a dense network of sidestreets, tucked away in a lawless corner of Era Novum. A world of glamor and sensuality, where the body took precedence. Beneath the glowing signs and mesmerizing billboards, proud Cammers strutted, sashayed, and stalked in the neon afterglows and echoing music of an eternal night. Each club and hotel entrance beckoned with promises of a portal to absolute decadence and unrestricted indulgence.
Spice, Zinc, and Soleia walked slowly, soaking in the dreamlike atmosphere and mesmerizing effect of the beautiful bodies around them.
BadGlitch, Spice reminded herself. Where could you be?
Stockpile Quotidian demurely crossed her long legs, drawing attention to her artificial left knee. Wearing flaws with defiant pride was typical of Cammers. Her wings twitched across the plush red sofa of the hotel room, and she didn’t peel her eyes from the three of them as she took a sip of her chem.
“How did you find me?” she asked in a deep, musical voice.
“We asked a lot of questions,” Spice said, from where she was sitting on the purple bed.
“Bribed a few people,” Zinc said, from the large window that looked out through a kaleidoscope of neon.
“Threatened a few others,” Soleia added, while scribbling across the notepad on the desk.
“Impressive.” Stockpile sounded anything but. “Unfortunately, I’m not interested in group shows. My forte is a more personal experience.”
“We know,” Spice said. “We’re not looking for a show. We’re looking for information one of your clients might have about a place called Cold Storage.”
“One of my clients?” Stockpile said, innocently.
“Mason from Silent,” Soleia continued her casual scribbling on the notepad. “An Enforcer.”
“You know him as BigVector,” Zinc added.
Despite being outnumbered, and surprised with information they had no right to know, Stockpile Quotidian’s presence still commanded the room. Every small gesture, slight adjustment of her body, or flick of her eyes, exhibited an artful, cinematic intensity. Though the others watched her for a tell, they all felt like they were the ones being swayed somehow.
She smiled wryly, and it felt like a spotlight had been turned on in the room.
“I get asked to extract information from my clients all the time. You’re not even the first to ask this cycle. The real question is what you’re offering in return. It had better be more interesting than a shitcoin.”
Soleia and Zinc swapped doubtful looks. Spice took a breath, then tried to match the Cammer’s formidably detached gaze.
“You’ve got a soul,” Spice began, her tone soft, imploring. “I’m guessing you were just as angry as the rest of us about the revelation.”
Stockpile’s wings twitched a little. “Of course I was. Right there at the Merkle Tree.”
“Well, the broker who organized and led that protest is being held in the location we need information on. He was taken there by people trying to shut us up. We don’t know what they’re doing to him,” Spice glanced at Soleia. “But it probably isn’t good. We’re trying to get him back, and you’re the only chance we have.”
For the first time since meeting her, Stockpile Quotidian shifted her eyes in a way that seemed a little less practiced. A crack in her perfectly seductive visage. It dissolved as quickly as it had appeared, and then she ran her eyes across each of them again, assessing. After a few ticks, she finished her chem and placed it delicately on the table beside the couch.
“Cold Storage, huh,” she repeated. “I’ll arrange a meeting with him tonight.”
Spice ran back through the halls of the compound, unbuttoning her coat as she went, already preparing to log back into TPL. A promise is a promise, she told herself for the hundredth time. The extra shifts she’d taken from Sybil were exhausting her. She never envied brokers more than when she had to log out to sleep. Not that she had slept with so much on her mind.
As soon as she entered her coffin, she kicked the door shut and didn’t even bother hanging up her coat, tossing it aside as she moved to strap into her rig. For a split second, as she lay there on the bed, she realized just how deep her fatigue went. Her muscles ached from exertions in the cold, and her head spun in exhaustive circles of vertigo. But as the cozy color of her garage nook spun into place around her, accompanied by the sound of pinging notifications on her bracer, the limitations of her real-world self became easy to forget.
I’m coming, she texted in response to multiple messages from Soleia and Zinc.
Fifteen blocks later, she stepped out of a monocycle onto an airborne plaza surrounded by glass skyscrapers. Navigating the crowd, she eventually caught sight of Zinc sitting on a bench, Soleia perched on the backrest, her feet on the seat.
“What did I miss?” Spice said, as she approached them.
“Nothing much,” Soleia answered. “Just a morning spent in fascinating conversation with one of the greatest minds in the Paradigm.”
Spice shot her, then Zinc, a confused look, but Zinc only nodded. “Huh?”
“Stockpile Quotidian came through,” Zinc said. “Last night she managed to get the node address for Cold Storage out of Mason and sent it to us.”
“But it was just a node address,” Soleia continued, “so we found the best Astronomer we could to scan it. A really cool guy called Thamas.”
“He’s one of only twelve brokers who aced the PMAT.”
“And he was hand-picked to lead expeditions to all these weird alien worlds.”
“Did you know there are places where they grow their buildings?”
“And that in some places there are artificial intelligences so powerful they think themselves to death right after they’re born – too quickly to even do anything!”
“Thamas has seen it all.”
“He’s so cool.”
“What a guy. You should have been there Spice.”
Spice watched them gush, only able to think of what she’d been doing in the meantime.
“Well has Thamas ever cleaned and rearranged the netting on a solar collector so well that it’s improved a compound’s power by nearly a quarter of a percent?” she asked with a flourish of her hand.
Zinc and Soleia looked blankly at each other, and then at Spice. Then they shrugged.
“Whatever,” Spice waved them off. “What did Thamas say about the node?”
“From what he said, it’s the kind of place few people go to, and the ones that do are either dragged there kicking and screaming, or doing the dragging. To get into the node we’ll need authorization. Thamas said there was some weird, ancient-looking code embedded in the data.”
“That must have something to do with the Hubur key,” Spice said.
Zinc said, “Thamas also told us that ShaDAO occupies a massive building there.”
“Like a castle, he said,” Soleia added.
“Or a fortress. Seems like a no-brainer that it’s where they took Unironic Ken, but the place is specifically designed not to let people out.”
“And keep others from getting in. Which is why we’re here,” Soleia nodded at a skyscraper to the side, a gigantic, curved, spear of mirrored glass. “Thamas told us the name of the Puzzlemaster who designed ShaDAO’s fortress: Selena Nebulous. We made an appointment to see her.” She checked her bracer and jumped off the bench. “Which we’ll be late for if we don’t get going now.”
As they stepped from the plaza onto a large bridge, around which airborne traffic whizzed, Spice took a moment to think over everything they’d told her.
“Wait a tick,” she slowed down. “What exactly are we going to say? ‘Hey Selena, do you mind telling us how to break into and bust our friend out of this fortress you designed specifically not to be broken into and busted out of?’”
“We were just discussing that before you arrived,” Zinc said.
“Our best shot is to pretend that we’re superfans of hers,” said Soleia. “Selena Nebulous is one of the biggest designers around–and apparently, she’s got the ego to match. If we suck up to her enough she might let her guard down and give us something.”
Spice stopped in front of the tower’s vast entrance and shot them a skeptical look.
“You sure?” she asked.
“You got any better ideas?” Zinc said.
Spice sighed and stepped through into a lobby with a vaulted ceiling of veined marble. A large fountain formed the centerpiece, though the walls were equally lavish, decorated with busts and classical paintings. Soleia told the receptionist at the desk about their appointment, and they were allowed through security to enter one of the elevators behind it.
After stepping inside and hitting the button for the fiftieth floor, they gazed out through the glass elevator at the city of Era Novum as it sank beneath them.
Zinc turned to Soleia, “You know, once this is all over, we should hit Thamas up again and hang out.”
“Oh yeah, definitely,” Soleia agreed eagerly. Then, after a pause, “Although he did tell us never to contact him with such ‘trivial nonsense’ again.”
“He was joking! That’s just his sense of humor.” Zinc began laughing but stopped abruptly. “Right?”
Soleia frowned. “He did sigh a lot when he was talking to us… Do you think he thinks we’re stupid?”
“He did call us ‘nescient’ a couple of times. That’s a good thing though, isn’t it? He was talking about other brokers when he went on that rant about ‘arid intellects’, I’m sure of it. To be honest, I didn’t even understand half the things he was saying.”
“Me neither. All I know is that he’s awesome.”
“Yeah. Such a great guy.”
Spice pretended not to hear them, keeping her eyes on the doors until they opened. The elevator placed them directly into Selena Nebulous’ offices, a vast space occupying an entire floor of the skyscraper.
Immediately, it was apparent that the space was that of someone who took their work very seriously. Drawing boards, blueprints, tables full of building materials were scattered among various screens full of complex schematics and mathematics. The place was so dense with Selena’s work that they didn’t even notice her until she spoke.
“You’ve got ten blocks.” They turned to where the voice had come from and saw her frowning down at a miniature model of a race track. “I’ve got a busy day ahead of me.”
Spice looked at Soleia, who shrugged and nudged Zinc. He looked helplessly back at them before resigning himself and stepping forward.
“Uh, Selena, Ms. Nebulous. We’re big fans. Big, big fans of your work.”
“Oh yeah?” She didn’t look up from the model.
“Yeah, totally,” Soleia chimed in. “That maze in Jadell you designed, it’s incredible. I had to smuggle a weapon through it once and it was a real pain in the–I mean, I challenged myself to it and just found myself genuinely appreciating it.”
Selena finally glanced up to raise an eyebrow at them, before quickly returning to placing elements of her model. “Not many people appreciated that maze’s difficulty.”
“Oh, I appreciated it,” Soleia sounded more ironic than convincing. “Believe me.”
Zinc interrupted, “And that exchange you built in the Beyett–wow! I’m Cleanup Crew, I know how many flaws crop up in those kinds of places, but yours is as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen.”
Selena stood upright to direct all of her attention at them. She smiled. “Thank you. That’s nice to hear.” For a few ticks, it seemed like their idea would work even better than expected. “But I’ve got a lot of fans,” she continued, “some even more zealous than you. If I started taking time out of my day to speak to all of them, I’d never get any work done.”
Before Selena could fully turn back to her model, Spice stepped forward and firmly said, “I doubt you have bigger fans than us.”
Selena paused. “Oh?”
“We’ve tackled and admired everything that you’ve ever made, but of course, we know there are things that even we don’t know you’ve done. There are rumors that you designed a large structure, like a castle or fortress, that’s apparently impenetrable, one of the toughest puzzles you’ve ever built. We know it has to be incredible, and we’d do anything for just a glimpse at it.”
Selena Nebulous folded her arms and stared at them with newfound interest through squinted eyes. “I didn’t think anybody knew about that. They were a particularly private client.”
“I don’t think anyone does, Ms. Nebulous.” Zinc smiled. “But like I said, we’re big, big fans. We’ve done our research.”
The Puzzlemaster studied them for a few more ticks before sighing gently. “I’m not in the business of revealing my secrets, but I’ve got a problem of my own. And if you’re such big fans of mine, you might be able to help. So let’s make a deal.”
“Sure!” Soleia almost shrieked.
“Whatever you want,” Zinc added keenly. “We’d do anything to help you.”
“So you want the blueprints to that fortress. I’ll give them to you. In exchange, all you have to do is turn up to a competition, a branded game which I designed, taking place tonight, and win.”
Zinc grunted and pumped his fist, Soleia clapped and hopped, only Spice remained still, staring back at Selena.
“What’s the catch?” she asked.
Selena’s smile grew a little larger. She pointed a finger at Spice. “So, you’re the smart one. The catch is that you won’t win.”
Zinc and Soleia halted their celebrations abruptly.
“Wait, what?” Zinc said.
“The game is a promotional thing for Fukutsu’s new line of mech legs. People are going crazy for mech parts these days,” Selena explained. “One of–if not the best– puzzle-solving team has just registered for it. My concern is that everyone who has already registered will now bow out or not really try, because it’s almost certain that they will take the prize.”
Spice raised a brow. “So, you want us to participate just to keep this team on its toes and make the game entertaining.”
“I’d like my work to be appreciated, yes.”
“And you’ll give us the blueprints if we win?” Soleia asked.
“You have my word. An appropriately absurd prize for an appropriately absurd outcome.”
“Let’s go get registered then.” Soleia turned to leave.
Zinc half-turned to join her, but paused to look back at Selena. “What’s the name of this team, by the way?”
Selena’s smile brought a bright twinkle to her eyes.
An atmosphere of tense excitement wafted among the people gathered in the lobby of Fukutsu Tower. Eleven teams–less than expected–each comprising three members, stood around as they all waited for the event to begin. While some seemed friendly and excited, others were silently intense with focus, and a few looked crestfallen, like they’d already lost. Team FOMO looked like something else entirely.
Soleia returned to Spice and Zinc, having mingled with a few of the other teams.
“That’s them over there.” She nodded towards three people lounging in the corner, looking more like they were about to go enjoy a movie than compete in a difficult challenge. Spice noticed that the other teams kept their distance, as if afraid to even get close. “Ember, Damp, and Nikita Plain.”
“What did you find out about them?” Spice asked.
“They win every competition they enter,” she sighed.
“Man,” Zinc grumbled. “Why don’t we just go over there and get in their heads a little?”
“No,” Spice said. “We don’t need tricks. So far we’ve gotten Soleia’s memories back, d-mezzed a multisig, and found the location of Cold Storage. This is nothing. We can do this.” Spice put her hand between them. “Team Ken.”
“Team Ken,” Soleia repeated, putting her hand over Spice’s.
“I still think ‘Team Zinc’ sounds better,” Zinc said, adding his hand to theirs before reluctantly adding, “Team Ken.”
“Thank you all for coming!” A representative called out from across the room. “If everyone is ready, we’ll be loading you into the parcel right now. Have fun!”
The lobby aliased around them, downsampling into vast pixels which formed an abstract place. In less than a few ticks, new forms took their place, as the game world resolved around them. It seemed to be a district, built to resemble some of the style and tone of Era Novum, but not quite an exact imitation. The teams stood at a street intersection, the district stretched out in front of them, big and detailed. Almost dauntingly so.
The biggest surprise, however, was that they, and the world around them, were 16-bit.
“Welcome players,” boomed a voice across the district, accompanied by a gigantic text box above their heads, over a chiptune version of the Fukutsu jingle, “to CacheQuest! An experience designed by the innovative and award-winning Selena Nebulous to celebrate the latest generation of Fukutsu’s equally exceptional line of mech legs! You’re faster with Fukutsu!”
Spice, Zinc, and Soleia looked at each other’s sprites, their shocked expressions accompanied by sudden, digitized, pluck sounds.
“The rules of the game are simple! Hidden within this district are three of the intelligently-designed, immaculately-engineered, and expertly-manufactured components that go into producing Fukutsu’s sector-leading mech legs. The first team to find these quality components and bring them back to this starting location, wins!
“Teams in the lead will be announced as they change, and team rankings will be visible on this floating scoreboard. Good luck, game on, and remember: You’re faster with Fukutsu!”
A loud chime rang out, and the teams scattered in all directions, afraid of wasting even a single tick, each of them obviously having prepared a plan for tackling the quest. Team Ken were left alone at the starting point, looking at each other for a cue. Spice began walking, looking around and trying not to look as confused as she actually felt.
“So what’s the plan?” Zinc asked, after they’d spent the first fifteen blocks pacing streets, occasionally catching sight of other teams running around with an almost professional focus.
“Let’s just stay observant and not rush,” Spice said.
A victory jingle rang out across the district. Spice looked up to the floating text box there.
“Team FOMO takes the lead!”
“Seriously?” Zinc exclaimed.
“Already?” Soleia added. “They’ve got to be cheating!”
Spice shook her head. “Cheating’s impossible in a game like this.”
“You know, I didn’t hear a rule about incapacitating other players,” Zinc said. “The announcer didn’t say anything about not tying opposing team members up, or knocking them out and taking the components from them.”
“Zinc,” Spice turned to him. “If they can find a piece that quickly, then we can too. We just need to keep-“
“Hey!” Soleia called out to them. “Over here.”
They turned to find her standing at what looked like an ordinary factory entrance, though Soleia seemed ecstatic to find it. Before they could say anything, Soleia entered, disappearing into the void there. Ticks later, Spice and Zinc also entered, finding themselves in a network of utility corridors.
Hurrying through, it wasn’t long before they found a wall covered in a complex arrangement of water pipes and valves, too complex to be practical.
“This has to be it,” Spice said.
“It is,” Soleia said, stepping towards the pipes to study something glowing there. “There’s an orb in here. You can see it through these transparent windows. Has to be a component.”
Zinc spotted a small sign and moved close enough to engage it. A small text box popped up for them to read.
The flow of water
is a mighty force
To retrieve the orb
one must change its course
“A pipe puzzle. That seems simple enough.”
Soleia and Zinc began turning valves to change the water flows of the various pipes, pushing the orb around them in an attempt to get it to drop out of an open one to the far side.
Spice stepped back to figure out the general layout, and gave instructions to the others as they turned valves. After a few blocks, their enthusiasm turned into grim determination. After a few more, they were starting to get frustrated.
“I don’t get it,” Zinc stepped away from the pipes to stand by Spice and scratch his head. “Feels like we tried everything.”
Soleia angrily turned a valve and grew even angrier when it only sent the orb even further away from the opening. She kicked a pipe, jolting the glowing orb further back down one of the pipes, and then stalked off down the tunnel gritting her teeth.
Spice went to the sign and opened the text box again, sighing heavily.
“’A mighty force… Change its course’,” she said out loud. “If there’s a clue here I don’t see it.”
Zinc looked around at the tunnel around him. “This would be a great spot for an ambush. We know at least one of Team FOMO has to come here to get a component, and when they do, we could- Hey!” Zinc spun around. Soleia had returned and snatched his plasma gun from his hip. “What are you doing?”
Within a few ticks, Soleia had dismantled the weapon expertly, allowing its various parts to drop to the floor until she was left with nothing but the discharge coil.
“Read the riddle again.” She twisted the coil and approached the pipes. “It doesn’t mean changing the water’s course. We’re supposed to change the component’s.”
“An electro-magnet!” Spice exclaimed. Zinc rushed to the valves and began turning them, guiding the orb towards the spot where Soleia held the magnet.
“That’s it,” Soleia said. “Right here at the spot we were having trouble with.”
Spice shrieked, Soleia yelled, and Zinc sobbed with the relief of watching the orb switch pipes and rush through towards the opening before tumbling onto the ground, revealing the shock absorber inside it. Zinc dashed to pick it up, and the moment he did, they heard the victory chime.
“Team Ken tie Team FOMO for first place!”
“Piece of cake,” Soleia grinned proudly, tossing the discharge coil aside.
“Let’s go get the rest,” Spice said, her hope restored.
Zinc stood there a moment, looking forlornly at the pieces of his weapon scattered on the floor, before running off to join them.
Emerging from the tunnel, they immediately noticed the rush of other teams towards the center of the map. Something had been found. They followed it until they found what had caused the fuss: An entrance. They didn’t hesitate to step through, and immediately found themselves whisked away to what looked like...
“Sewer level,” Soleia grinning back at them, as she began to move forward. “Game designers can never resist a sewer level.”
Some of the teams were huddling nearby, deep in analytical conversation. Others stood around a console in the center.
“A number pad,” Zinc said, having peered at the console before returning to the others. Someone from another team engaged a sign beside it, and they read the text box that popped up.
Five as they’re hidden
Neither the lowest nor the least
It’s out here in the drums
Directing the orb to be released
“Another riddle,” Zinc sighed.
“Released… Maybe it means the orb is locked up somewhere?” Soleia wondered aloud.
“Team Poly joins Team FOMO and Team Ken in the lead!” the announcer chimed above them.
Spice grabbed them with either hand and pulled them in close.
“The drums,” she said as they huddled.
“There are drums around the map,” Spice explained.
“Drums?” Soleia said with a grin. “Time to show one of my other great talents.”
“Not musical drums,” Soleia said. “Container drums.”
“Something about them seemed off to me. This riddle must have something to do with them.”
“You sure?” Soleia asked.
“Trust me. I spend my waking life staring at concrete walls, storage containers, and lighting fixtures. I could write a book on boring architectural features.”
“What’s so weird about the drums?” asked Zinc.
“For starters, usually you store drums together per safety regulations, but these are all randomly placed around the map and their hazard decal seems to be deliberately pointed in different directions. That might be a subtle game cue, but everything else is so well-realized and thought-out. I’ll go inspect the drums to the north. Zinc, you go East. Soleia, west and… Lo… West…” Spice stopped, as if stunned by her own words.
Slowly, she looked up from the huddle towards the riddle’s text box, as someone opened it again. Her face brightened. “Count them!” she exclaimed. “The amount that each is facing is the number – and the order is in the riddle! Five-as-there. Lo-west. Nor-the. L-east. It’s-out-here. East, West, North, East, South. Hurry!”
They scattered in different directions, and within a block, Zinc and Spice were checking every drum they could find. The other teams remained in intense conversation, some escalating to heated anger.. A few had even made attempts on the number. Ember from Team FOMO arrived in the sewers, though Spice ignored the piercing look her opponent gave her.
Soleia was gasping as she approached Spice and Zinc.
“Nine facing East. Eight facing south,” the Smuggler gasped.
As if being tagged, Spice dashed towards the number pad and began hitting buttons.
“Nine. Five. Six. Nine. Eight.”
The number pad buzzed. An abrasive cluster of notes that indicated a wrong answer. She looked back. Soleia and Zinc’s faces looked pained. A few other teams looked on with curiosity and amusement.
Spice put the numbers in again. Once again, it buzzed.
“Five as they’re hidden. Neither the lowest nor the least,” Spice muttered to herself. Feeling desperate, she hammered another number in, continuing to mumble. “Removing the lowest number leaves… Nine. Six. Nine. Eight.
The orb appeared above the number pad. Spice grabbed it and noticed it contained an armor plating for a mech leg.
“Wow! Team Ken takes the lead with two components!”
“We’re gonna do it!” Zinc shouted. Soleia hugged him, and they bounced up and down with excitement.
“Nice one, Spice!”
“Team FOMO ties Team Ken in first place! What a thriller!”
They immediately stopped dancing. Spice turned back to see Team FOMO walking away from the number pad. Nikita Plain looked back at her and winked.
“Asherah!” Zinc groaned.
“Come on Zinc.” Spice patted his shoulder. “It’s not over yet.”
For the next twenty blocks, they scoured the main city district until it seemed small and simple compared to their initial impressions. Several times, they were led down dead ends by red herrings, strange signs, and intriguing interiors. Anxiously checking the scoreboard, they noticed most of the teams had now found a component, though they and Team FOMO were still in the lead with two each.
Eventually, they found another riddle:
I’m a trickster of sorts
with something to hide.
So seek me out
and find the orb inside.
Desperate and disagreeing about the interpretation, they split up for a while. Thinking that the riddle referred to one of the many shopfronts or bars, Spice decided to investigate them. Soleia went back into the utility corridors. It was Zinc, however, who found something first: Cavities in certain fake walls, something his keen eye was trained to spot as Cleanup Crew.
Once he noticed them, Team Ken began searching the back alleys for anything that looked out of place, textures, patterns, colliders. But each time they reached through one of these hidden cavities, all they received was the now-annoying musical sting of buzzing failure. It wasn’t long before this began to feel like just another red herring.
“We’ve checked every single wall in every single back alley,” Soleia sighed.
“Maybe we’re missing one? Could it be really high, or really low?” Spice said.
Zinc didn’t answer. He had become a 16-bit bundle of frustration and grim determination, groping every surface of the alley they occupied in search of another cavity.
“There’s one here!” he shouted, his vexation interrupted for a brief tick by hope. “One we haven’t found yet. It has to be this one!”
They watched, utterly captivated by the glimmer of faith, as Zinc reached inside the cavity. The 16-bit failure jingle seemed even louder and more abrasive after hearing it for the fiftieth time.
“This game sucks!” he growled.
“Don’t ragequit yet,” Spice said, struggling to sound optimistic herself. “Team FOMO haven’t found a third eith-“
“Team FOMO races into the lead after finding the third component!”
Spice couldn’t even bear to look at the others. Somewhere nearby they heard happy, victorious shouts. She stepped out of the alleyway to see Ember, Damp, and Nikita Plain casually walk along the street in front of her. Damp nonchalantly tossed the shock absorber in her hand, as if it were nothing but an empty can. Nikita Plain bunny hopped. An annoyingly playful jump-sound rang out with each bounce.
Ember noticed Spice and grinned at her. “Thanks for playing!” she called out amid the laughter of her teammates.
“There go our blueprints,” Soleia glowered at the team, as they walked with taunting slowness back to the starting location.
“Man, screw this.” Zinc grabbed a broken brick from the alley and angled to throw it. He had just enough sense to decide against throwing it at Team FOMO at the last tick, and instead hurled it at a large JumpNode poster with ShaDAO’s logo in the corner and “Jump on Through to Another Node” written in large letters.
The brick collided with the poster, and to their surprise, emitted the chiptune jingle of success, while leaving behind a perfectly circular cavity. A bright glow drew all of their attention.
Zinc acted fast, reached inside and grabbed the orb: A delicate servo motor. Soleia was already sprinting out into the street with Spice not far behind. They all knew the rules: The winner was the first team back to the starting location with all three component orbs. They also knew that they weren’t going to keep this a secret.
“Team Ken ties Team FOMO with three components! But who will bring them back first? Amazing!”
The announcer had barely finished the sentence when Team FOMO realized that Spice, Soleia, and Zinc had run past them. Their triumphant, mocking attitude destroyed in a tick, they sprang forward into a sprint, but it was too late. Team Ken had gained a headstart.
Team Ken reached the starting location, and the victory chime rang out like the best music they’d heard in cycles.
“Team Ken are the winners of Selena Nebulous’ CacheQuest. Well done! You were certainly faster with Fukutsu today!”
Soleia and Spice high-fived jubilantly, while Zinc grinned at Team FOMO arriving at the starting point, looking confused and ready to argue with each other.
“Game over, man!” Zinc cried out to them. “Game over!”
Selena Nebulous had kept her word, and the glow of victory from the game had put them all on a high, but one look at the blueprints had made their quest to save Unironic Ken seem impossible all over again.
The fortress was huge, dense, and loaded at every angle with security features. Turrets, towers, traps, and tricks, the place was designed to withstand infiltration from even the most sophisticated drones, and fend off attacks from entire militias. After taking a long look at the blueprints, Spice, Zinc, and Soleia had decided to take a day to form their own plans, then present them to each other before deciding which one stood the best chance of working–or at least, the lowest chance of failing spectacularly.
In the corner of Spice’s garage, she had set a hologram terminal up on a table. It projected a multicolored model of the fortress, derived from the blueprints.
“I’ll go first,” Soleia said, sounding confident. Zinc gestured and Spice nodded for her to continue. “I call my plan: Operation Party Crasher. It’s simple, really. I get inside through here,” She pointed at one of the main entrances, “and then make the short trip over here to the security station where I only need to intercept a few circuits. That will let you guys enter via the roof.”
Spice frowned, and Zinc grunted.
“’Getting inside’ is the whole problem. How is that a plan?”
Soleia smiled knowingly. “I’ve got something pretty cool for that. I don’t use it a lot. Just keep it for special occasions. I think this qualifies, don’t you?”
Soleia reached into her tech vest and touched something there. Within a few ticks, her features and clothes altered with only the gentle glitching making it apparent that it was a hologram. Soon, it was no longer Soleia looking back at the others, but Selena Nebulous. Then it was Stanton. Then Stockpile Quotidian.
“A holographic emitter,” Spice mumbled incredulously.
“Where did you get something like that?” Zinc asked.
Stockpile tapped her nose.
“Never you mind, my pretty,” she said, in a terrible attempt at mimicking the Cammer’s husky, musical voice. She reached back into her tech vest and turned it off. “It’s not perfect. I know that. I have to mimic someone with the same height and physique. And you’d be surprised how distinctive the way people move is. Plus, there are glitches. Get caught in the wrong lighting and someone can tell. But I’m good at using it. The best, perhaps.”
“It’s good,” Spice said, impressed. “Not sure it’s good enough, though. What about passwords and passes? You might look like an employee or visitor, but you won’t have any of the documentation. They could easily sniff you out.”
“So what’s your plan?” Zinc asked.
“Operation Key to the Keep. We watch the guards and employees for a while until we find the weakest link. Maybe someone who’s new on the job, maybe someone with a moral compass, maybe just someone who’ll crack under pressure. Then we either kidnap them or get in contact. Best case scenario, we get an inside man. Even in the worst case, we’ll at least pull a few security passes.”
“An inside man?” Soleia said. “That sounds unlikely to me.”
“Mason from Silent let the node address slip. We d-mezzed three ShaDAO agents. They might be the most powerful force in the Paradigm, but there are still weaknesses in their individuals. We just need to pick the right one.”
“You’re both trying to be too clever here,” Zinc said.
Soleia chuckled. “Let me guess, you think we should get violent.”
“Violent and clever. Look, Ken and I got lucky breaking into that ShaDAO factory – well, I got lucky. They weren’t expecting it, and they still brought numbers. We were close to getting caught out multiple times, and even with the Moderator’s help, I only got out because Ken gave himself up.”
Spice cocked her head. “So what’s your suggestion exactly?”
“Operation Bring the Boom. There aren’t any weak points to this place,” Zinc spun the hologram around between them. “But if we attack one end of the fortress, they’ll redirect guards and drones, weakening other parts, and we can use that to our advantage.”
“How would we attack one side while entering another?”
“We set timed explosions here, at this courtyard to the east. They’ll presume somebody is attacking. They’ll probably reinforce the area with guards from the north and south sides. Wherever they sacrifice forces, we have a better chance of getting through.”
Soleia frowned at the hologram and shook her head. “But they’d know someone was trying to get inside. Once they realize we’re not at the explosions, they’ll start looking elsewhere. We won’t have much time.”
“To be fair,” Spice said, “none of these plans give us time. None of them are perfect. All we can do right now is pick our poison.”
“Just look at this thing,” Spice said, gesturing at the hologram of the fortress. “Both of your plans get us inside - but that’s only the beginning. The place is huge. We could spend days running around it without finding anything, and there will be security for every section of it. We don’t even know where they’re keeping Unironic Ken.” Zinc sighed and looked over at Soleia.
“She’s right.” Soleia bit her lip as she thought it over. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Converting an agent, getting them to talk, I just don’t see how we’d do it.”
“Leave that to me,” Spice said.
Soleia raised her eyes and Spice could see the reluctance in them. The Smuggler obviously wasn’t used to trusting others, working with others, or doing things anything but her own way. Still, Spice could tell how much Soleia wanted to get into that fortress – for her own reasons. She hoped Soleia would understand this was the best way to do that.
“Ok,” Soleia said, the word sounding like released tension. “Let’s go with Operation Key to the Keep.”