When we last left Spice, she had just finished her grueling work day. Her job was to maintain the solar panels outside of her compound on the frozen tundra that was now Earth. Surrounded by frigid winds and bitter cold, her only solace in this new world was deep in the virtual bowels of her TPL headgear and vest. It's in the electric pink and purple glows of a neon-colored Metaverse where her friend, Ken, had eagerly awaited her return. Where he will always have to eagerly await her return because he's a CyberBroker, one of the inhabitants of the Metaverse, forever locked inside because of an accident in the early days of building TPL. No one knows if or when the CyberBrokers will be freed, but what Spice does know is that the Metaverse never disappoints in delivering adventure.
CHAPTER TWO - COWBOY UP
Unironic Ken flopped into the co-pilot seat.
"So, where to first?"
"Let's hit the DAO votes. They're probably the most urgent."
"I dunno. This one looks like a routine Alpha Command vote declaring support for some State-backed AI initiative. The other is the Naight Dance Academy wanting to greenlight a collaboration."
"A dance collaboration could be fun. Who's it with?"
Ken squinted at his Bracer's screen, "Um. It looks like hot dogs of some sort?"
Ken shrugged, "Maybe we can go watch some Cool Cats battle for pinks instead?"
"Deal. Let's do it." Spice winked, popped open a panel, and glanced to Ken, "Got an extra fast-travel code for this month?"
He rolled his eyes and nodded to the viewscreen. "You can afford storage and upkeep on this metal monster, but can't afford a fast-travel subscription?"
Spice slapped her hand on the console board, "The only way I can afford this baby is by not spending all my crypto on a fast-travel sub. Have you seen how much they cost lately?"
Sighing, Ken muttered, "Fine." His seat creaked as he leaned over to punch in his fastcode, "No peeking."
The familiar knocking sound of a new notification arrived, stopping him before he finished. He glanced down at his wrist Bracer again, "Uh oh."
"What is it?"
"It's a message from Altair. He wants to meet with us."
"Altair? As in, Politician Altair?"
Meeting Spice's eyes, "Yeah."
"Well then," she said.
Politicians were members of the Founders, the oldest and most influential group of CyberBrokers. And, even considering the rest of Founders, they were arguably the most powerful.
Back when the U.S. Government began experimenting with early concepts for TPL Rigs, they started at wiring the headgear directly into the brain of a group of chimpanzees. These early Rigs were already deemed unsafe for humans, but it was only afterward that a team of biologists discovered the chimps' harnesses had destroyed the neurotransmitters associated with empathy.
The chimps which had somehow survived came to be known as Politicians, the most ruthless and cunning denizens in all the Metaverse. If they rang your number, you were expected to take the call.
"And, he wants us to meet him at some backwater parcel." Ken's brows drew tight. "Dammit. It's going to cost four fastcodes to get there in time."
"It's okay. I was only kidding. I'll buy the codes."
"No, no. It's fine," he said. "You just have to pick up the tab for the fast-travel when we hit the hot dog recital."
Spice grinned, "Absolutely."
Ken punched in the fastcode. Her dash lights flashed to green, and she hit the portal jump.
The giant mech transitioned space, bridging across to a separate, isolated node. The hulking mech no longer loomed over a busy urban street, but now appeared in the middle of a bleak desert. Its two passengers left staring through their viewscreen at a welcome sign for the deserted town. A town seemingly plucked straight from the historical old west.
The sign read, "Tombstone - Heart of the Wild West".
Spice and Ken shared a look.
Spice gestured to the sign, "They could have at least changed the name of the default template. Maybe called it 'Demons and Donkeys' or something. Anything, really."
Ken held out his arm, gliding it across the landscape, like one of those gorgeous models drawing your attention to a luxurious piece of technology, "Welcome to the Ninth Circle of Hee-Haw."
Ken shrugged, and Spice cast about for the saloon. Because, of course that's where their meeting would be.
She stationed her mech behind the building, near the small barn meant for visitors' horses. She figured her Lupis Model L07 was as close to a horse as was going to visit today.
She and Ken each grabbed their firmware keys, headed down to the ground, mounted the wooden steps, and pushed through the swinging doors.
The saloon was silent. The long, slick bartop littered with dirty glasses. An empty poker table. Scattered stools and chairs. A ragged staircase leading upstairs to the overnight rooms. It was an empty space waiting for people to come play.
There was no sign of Politician Altair.
Walking up to the bar, Spice turned and leaned back on her elbows, "This DAO vote we're doing later, what was it about? AI?"
The poker stool screeched as Unironic Ken pulled it out and plopped down at the table. He grabbed a deck of cards. "Yeah, I guess they're trying to install more AI to run everything. Instead of us. I'm not sure, though."
Spice nodded. "Doing less work sounds pretty good."
Both she and Ken whipped around in time to see a tall, lean chimpanzee in a tightly-tailored suit stride through the doorway, each door held open for him by a henchman.
And, Spice realized, one of those henchmen was cute. Not tall. Not short. Fashionably dressed in hard urban gear and layered silk. She even liked his liberal use of coral pink. Hopefully he wasn't an asshole.
Ken nodded to the ape. "Founder."
"Hello, Ken." Altair's lips pulled back, showing enormous, stark teeth. "It's been too long."
Ken touched Spice's elbow. "This is Mech Pilot Spice. She's the DAO delegate for Alpha Command 10."
"It's a pleasure meeting you, Mech Pilot Spice." Altair reached out and shook her hand.
"Please. Call me 'Spice'."
"Of course. I am Founder Altair, but it would make me most happy if you just called me Altair." Again, that broad smile. "One of my wealthy friends owns this parcel, so it should be private enough for our needs."
Spice and Ken shared a glance, and she mouthed the word, "Speculator".
Altair continued, unaware, "As such, I assume that was your Lupis towering over the corral?"
Snapping back to his words, "Yes, sir. Her name is 'Judgment'. She's a sturdy girl."
"Fitting. I like it." The chimp straightened and met both of their eyes in-turn. Cute boy and the other henchmen, who had a face like an ironing board, flowed over to flank the Politician. "I appreciate your time, so I will try to be brief."
Spice and Ken nodded. Brief was good. They had some dancing hot dogs to check out, and this was already beginning to smell like work.
He flashed another smile, "The other Founders and I would love to count on the 10's support in defeating this AI DAO proposal."
They waited. Quiet, expectant, alert.
The smile slid from his face and Altair went on, "Obviously, the Government considers this an efficiency play. AI can work at three times the efficiency of a Broker and ten times that of a Drifter."
Spice and Ken nodded. She'd heard that. There was an idea that AI could take over all of the power generation, synchronize and optimally populate the grid. It didn't matter much to her back home. At least, not until an AI could brush off snow and grease sprockets.
"However, as we all know, AI tend to be heavy-handed and unreasonable. The last thing we want is for them to let the entire human race freeze to death just to build a better paper clip."
"Not to mention that for most of us, a catastrophic loss of power means wearing a coat indoors for a little while." Altair's face clouded for a moment, his mind far away. "However, others might not be so lucky."
Spice whipped around to face Ken. Ken's eyes, blown wide, told her he'd realized the same thing.
"But, our bodies," the CyberBroker stuttered. "If there's catastrophic power failure, what happens to us?"
"It's not just power failure, Ken. I'm sure every precaution would be taken for that eventuality. It affects everyone. But personally, I'd much rather have a bunch of humans in charge of whether or not it's efficient enough to run my cryochamber." Altair nodded to a worried Ken, "Yes, I would definitely prefer real people deciding whether my existence in this world is more valuable than some incremental efficiency boost in productivity for a mountain tribe if they could just have their lights on a little longer."
Everything went dark.
The lights in the saloon had all winked out simultaneously, and a long, loud rending sound tore through the street outside. Followed by a series of explosions.
"What the hell?" Spice tapped on her Bracer, started the bootup sequence for Judgment, and brought up the metadata for the parcel. The screen flashed a PVP Zone warning.
"Get behind the bar," she bellowed, shoving Ken in the same direction the two henchmen were dragging Politician Altair.
"They must have been monitoring the parcel for logins," yelled Ken as he dove behind the bar. "Probably flipped the switch when we arrived."
The mercantile shop across the dirt street exploded. The blowback carried through the saloon doors, slamming them wide. Chairs toppled and cards scattered to the floor.
"It had to be something. Because it sure as hell wasn't a PVP Zone when we portaled." Spice barreled for the still-swinging doors, loading up her .30 caliber Barrage Rifle as she ran. "Stay put. I'll be right back."
The last thing she heard as her boots hit the wood planking outside was Cute Boy asking Ken if she'd be okay. "Awww. He wasn't an asshole."
She raced around to the back of the saloon, bringing her rifle up to her shoulder. Four quick shots rocked the sentry they'd placed on Judgment, and he dematerialized. She hadn't even seen his face. She was moving fast now, and solely on instinct.
Five seconds later she was inside, mounting her pilot chair to the sound of explosions nearby. Her hands hit the control stick, and the Lupis leaped into action, servos whining at the hot start, and the mech dodged left.
The corral erupted in fire, the concussion buffeting her around the inside of the mech. Spinning, she engaged Judgment's forearm cannons and strafed the oncoming figure in the alley, ripping their heavy power suit to shreds as they struggled to load a second rocket. That fool also instantly d-mez'd.
Whoever these people were, they were shit in real combat.
Short range comms lit up, and she heard a male voice, "Buck? Juggernaut? Are you guys there?"
No response. So, there were only three of them?
Spice fired the jump boosters and shot 80 meters into the air. She scanned the small town, eyes following the trail of destruction, and homed in on another figure in a power suit. It must have been the voice she'd heard over comms.
She angled Judgment into a controlled fall, and landed on top of him. She'd meant to crush his entire torso, but his suit was fast. But, she'd trapped his right arm under the enormous robot boot, crushing it.
Her comms lit up again, pegging to red as he shrieked in pain.
"You might want to turn off PVP, kid." She was sure he was one of those teenage jerks, out for a destruction-filled joyride. These damn adolescents.
His screaming came under control, then quit altogether. He must have flipped the zone back to Safe.
"There. It's off," he huffed. "Why are you still standing on me? What's happening? PVP is off!"
Usually, once PVP was shut off, all combatants were healed and immediately separated. However, that didn't apply to Alpha Command members. She couldn't dematerialize anyone in a Safe Zone, but she had the contract-granted ability to detain suspects as she saw fit.
Being detained by a giant robot while it was standing on your arm sucked, but it was better than being logged out and having your daily driver wallet burned along with everything in it. Detention sucked, but starting over because you've been dematerialized really sucked.
"Want to explain what you're doing out here, kid?" she asked.
"Why should I? Who the hell are you?"
"Mech Pilot Spice, Alpha Command 10."
"Yeah. Pretty much."
"If I tell you, will you let me go?"
The kid groaned. His power suit was depleted of energy, and she was losing patience. "On the count of three, I'm going to crush your suit with you in it."
It didn't actually work like that, but this guy didn't seem to know the difference.
"Wait!" he cried. "We phished this whale today. He gave us the keys. We thought it would be fun to just shoot the place up. We didn't know you were going to be here, honest!"
"Give me the keys."
He beamed her the keys. She loaded them to a detachable drive port in the cockpit.
"Now, erase them from your systems. Tell me when you're done, and I'll scan to make sure you were successful." She couldn't actually do that either, but again, this kid didn't know that.
A moment later, "Okay. I'm done. They're gone. I promise."
Spice leaned back in the chair, rubbed her eyes, and took a long breath. She needed to get back and check on Ken. Getting dematerialized as a CyberBroker wasn't quiet as bad, but was still inconvenient. They tended to work in groups with multisigs, so their keys couldn't be burned unless all of the sigs simultaneously d-mez'd together.
"Good," she said after what seemed like a reasonable amount of time. "I've now marked your ENS. I don't want to see you out here again. Goodbye."
She hooked a giant steel boot under his suit, flipped him into the air, cartwheeled around in a completely unnecessary rocket-powered roundhouse kick, and connected, blasting him out on a trajectory to land several kilometers away. PVP wasn't enabled anymore, so it wouldn't hurt him at all, but he'd hopefully have a miserable walk all the way back to town before he could portal out.
She was idling in the mech, giggling about his walk, when her comms flared yet again. "Ahem."
She spun around and aimed the massive head at the ground where four tiny figures had arrayed themselves in a semi-circle out on the dusty street.
"Oh hi, guys." She waved the big mech hand. She didn't know what else to do.
"May we finish our business and be out of here, Mech Pilot?" asked Altair.
"Oh, yes," she stammered, leaping out of her seat, through the cockpit door, and down to the ground.
Spice jogged up to the group, and Cutie said, "Nice shootin', Tex."
"What?" She stared at him.
"What?" Unironic Ken glared at him.
"I figured I needed to say something after that badass roundhouse. And it was either that, or 'Ride 'em, Cowboy'."
Spice cocked her head, and pursed her lips.
Cutie henchman blushed. "I mean, it might as well be something cringe in honor of this default cow town template, right?"
She smiled and nodded, slowly. He did the same. And, again in unison, they both mumbled, "Fucking speculators."
"Whoa." Ken stepped between them, a hand up in either direction, "Can I ask what is even happening right now?"
"Indeed. I would ask the same question," said Altair.
Eager to change the subject, Spice pulled the portable drive out of her pocket, and tossed it to Unironic Ken. He almost dropped it, his frown was so deep.
"It's the account keys to this parcel." She turned to Altair, "That group of kids phished it from your friend."
Ken turned the key over in his hand, "Hmm."
"Can you get it back to the owner, Ken? And, tell him to put it in a Gnosis Safe next time? The unlock password is, 'speculator'."
"No need. Zinc here is Cleanup Crew. He'll handle it."
Spice glanced at Zinc out of the corner of her eye. So that was Cutie's name. Zinc.
"Sir, I'm sure Ken is more than...," Zinc began.
"No. I do not want those keys lost. And, I would prefer you did it rather than a Leftover."
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir," both Ken and Zinc blurted, while simultaneously lurching toward each other, and nearly colliding. Ken, eyes wide, shoved the key at Zinc.
Zinc, grimmacing, whispered, "I'm sorry."
Ken, looking like he was in the grips of an enema, whispered back, "Please, just take it and go away."
"Anyway," said Spice as she pushed through the two CyberBrokers. "I think I'm convinced. This AI proposal should probably die."
"Yes," replied Altair. "Yes, it should."