While chasing down a group of coin thieves at the top of Moss Falls, Spice decided she'd like to spend a little more leisure time with the Zinc, the Clean-up Crew Broker. Unironic Ken wasn't quite sure what he thought about the whole thing and turned a bit sour on the whole thing. Spice brought Zinc down with her to watch the Mech Pilot Olympics where she made an interesting discovery – Zinc had no real memories of his mother. From there, she started on a simple quest, aided by a group of friends, to dig a little deeper into the reasons why and maybe dig up a memory or two for him.
CHAPTER FOUR - GIMME A HAND
Water sluiced off the roof, through the darkness, and spattered at the edges of a shallow street puddle. A glitch. A slash of discordant color, and the wetness collected throughout the rain-slick alley vanished. The timer on the thunderstorm event had expired.
In this older area of town where posterized bands of blackness met along the jagged edges of ill-fitted displacement maps, the hammer of massive steel plates crunched, echoing off alley walls. Judgment, Spice's Alpha Command Mech, crashed through the stark white ring of light projected from the streetlamp.
At least, part of Judgment did.
Its left arm gouged a path in the digital asphalt, flashing from darkness to brightness to darkness again as it tumbled by the light pole. Finally, it smashed to a stop against a rundown storage building door, and Spice's voice flared over the short range comms channel.
"Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit."
Off-balance and dodging its own arm, the Alpha Command Mech stumbled forward, and toppled into a heap. Spice needed to swap to something more elusive yet still fast if she was going to escape d-mez'ing. Punching the eject button, the viewscreen evaporated, and she was hurtled to the wrecked walkway below.
Spice leaped up and bolted, hitting full stride while flicking the toggle on her Bracer. A power suit snapped into existence and wrapped her entire body, mid-sprint, protecting her from the falling debris as the mech-smashed warehouse started to collapse behind her.
She was in trouble.
"Ken! Come in, Ken," she shrieked into her comms.
"What the hell is happening?" came his panicked response.
"What? How? Nevermind, just portal out of there!"
"I can't. They've locked down the instance somehow. Jumpcodes are disabled." Fear drove her faster through the maze of abandoned back-alley streets. Spice's latest lead on Zinc's mother had dragged her all the way out here, to some of the oldest parts of TPL. It had made sense since she was tracking down one of its earliest denizens.
Wing-beats pounded overhead, and she muttered, "I'm starting to regret my decisions, Ken. Hurry!"
Spice ran as Unironic Ken switched to broad comms and shouted a distress signal, "If you can hear me, send help! A member of Alpha Command is trapped in Old Burngate and needs immediate assistance. Demons detected in the instance. Hurry!"
A large chunk of debris, the size of an elephant, caromed past her head, skittering through the the intersection. She ducked and spun down the left side alley to avoid the dusty explosion, and rolled up to the nearest wall. Alive, but trapped in a dead end.
She realized the massive chunk of wall hadn't fallen, it had been torn off and thrown.
"I repeat, a member of Alpha Command is being attacked by Demons in Old Burngate. Send help!"
Examining the wall behind her, the geometry was old, and sparsely tesselated, so she'd have to punch her own handholds as she climbed. And, she'd have to do it fast.
She could do fast.
She slammed her power suit's gauntlet into the old brick, digging in. Spice lifted her gaze, searching for the next hold, and spotted a balled-up silhouette at the top of the building. The black shape unfurled, and opened into a wide, sharply tapered wingspan. In the center, the angular face, lit from above by a green halo, glared down at her.
"Hello, little mouse." Its voice ground out like pitted iron across stone.
Mustering as much courage as she could, Spice yelled, "You don't want to d-mez a member of Alpha Command."
"Oh, there are worse things than dematerialization, Commander Spice."
That, she knew. Anyone who'd ever run into a Snowcrashed knew. She'd hoped if she mentioned a d-mez, the demon would fixate on that, blast her, and she'd only have to worry about the loss of the contents of her hot wallet. Time for Plan B.
Or, if she was honest with herself, she was already down to Plan F, for "Fucked".
Commander Spice? This thing knew her?
The dark slash of a shadow streaked from the intersection as a second winged figure stepped out from around the alley corner. It seemed the Demon who had been following her had now caught up, firmly blocking Spice's escape from the dead end.
She'd obviously pissed someone off today.
"Ken," she said. "I need help. Now."
The Demon guarding the street exit appeared female. Or, at least based on the parts she could see that weren't horns, fangs, and the thick snakes making their way around her lithe figure.
Spice edged her power suit nearer the corner where two featureless brick walls of the alley joined. Not even so much as a window to jump through.
Wind beat down, and the male Demon with the green halo alighted in the street five meters from her. From this close, she could see red eyes glittering beneath its bald head. Could smell the brimstone.
"Let's talk, shall we?" Again, that grating voice.
Spice heard, more than saw, a dark shape strike the ground in between her and the bald Demon. Like a black lightning bolt.
A woman rose from a crouch, the crushed gravel where she'd landed still smoldering, with an easy lilt in her voice, "Oh, did you already get tired of talking to me?"
"Holy shit," whispered Spice.
"Well, half right," came the soft reply.
The male demon shrieked, flicked out its claws, and lunged forward.
"Not so fast, Zippy." The Nun held up a single finger, and gestured back to the mouth of the alley.
A massive feline shape, a huge black panther, stalked back and forth, herding the snake-wearing Demon back towards the streetlight. A holy symbol dangled from its corded throat. The beast opened its mouth, and a long, soul-sheering roar rocked off the brickwork walls, echoing beyond the alley like a call to arms.
The Nun glanced over her shoulder, back toward Spice, "Run, girl."
Still staring at the panther, Spice closed her mouth. Then, opened it again, and stuttered, "But, the jumpcodes aren't ...."
Snatching her holy symbol, the Nun flicked her wrist wide and the object sparked, snapping out, suddenly enormous in her hand. The horizontal bar shot out to become an ornate cross guard and she gripped the top while it sprouted into a two-handed hilt. The bottom length blasted into an enormous, golden, glowing plasma sword, screeching as it carved a burning furrow along the pavement.
The four-meter long sword hung in the air, buzzing. Dripping hot plasma. Then she slowly brought it around to rest between herself and the Demon.
"The jumpcodes are fine." The Nun shifted her footing. "Go!"
Not needing to be told a third time, Spice punched her Bracer commit switch and watched the alley swirl as she bridged away.
"No. Way." Ken's eyes were the size of solar collectors.
They were back at Ken's apartment, quiet, and in a safe zone. Spice had only visited a couple times. And, it appeared exactly how she remembered it the last time she'd been there – A row of simulated stand-up arcade machines, a half-full trophy case, an animated, voxel dragon in the corner playing on a loop, and a table laid out for a TTRPG session that's never been touched. Small, simple, and very unironic.
"Yes, way," Spice nodded, tearing her eyes from the neatly arrayed table. "She pulled out the Crusader. I watched her. I'm pretty sure that Demon would have fused my meat synapses."
"When I was calling for help, I didn't think Nuns would show up." Ken shook his head and plopped down on the couch next to her. "I was just smashing every button I could find, hoping to kite in another Alpha Command team or something. Anything."
"Good work, friend." Spice touched her hand to his shoulder. "You saved me."
Unironic Ken exhaled, then met her eyes. "It's what friends do, right?"
"We sure do, don't we?" She smiled.
The quiet moment sprawled, like it was searching for the right inspiration, but couldn't quite find it.
Ken broke the silence, "Why do you think they were following you?"
"I don't really know." Her brow creased. "The only things it could be are my votes to shut down the AI proposal, or this search for Zinc's mom."
Ken stretched back on the couch, laced his fingers behind his head, and stared at the ceiling. "Well, since even Demons hate the thought of being unplugged by AI, I supposed it has to be Zinc's mother."
"I guess." Spice crossed her arms. "I really don't understand. The woman's like a ghost."
"Maybe she's a Demon."
Spice chuckled. "Wouldn't that be funny?"
Ken leaned forward, silent.
"Oh, you were serious?"
"This has gotten dangerous, Spice." He scrubbed his hands through his hair. "There are worse things than d-mez'ing."
"So I've been told."
"You like him this much?" He tilted his head, and asked, "Enough to get Crashed?"
Spice looked down at the space between her feet and breathed, "I don't know."
A notification sound trilled.
No one moved.
It trilled again, and Ken tapped the virtual keypad on his Bracer, and a recorded 'gram of some biometric data phased in with a note attached. The returned bio sequence floated above the coffee table, a response from her transmission looking for help in piecing together surveillance data of Zinc's mother.
Spice squinted. "Asherah? His mother is Asherah?"
Ken shrugged, deflated. "I guess that explains the Demons."
"But his mother can't be Asherah." Spice shook her head. "He showed me an old 'gram of her. That's definitely not her."
Ken sighed, and flopped back on the couch, "Whatever."
Spice frowned at the floating data, pensive, then bolted upright, "Oh my god."
"Yeah, I guess he's famous now."
"Oh my God." Spice stood up. "Oh my God."
Ken winced, "Really? That's what impresses you?"
Slowly, she twisted around, and stared at Ken. "What do you remember about your mother?"
"Seriously, what do you remember?"
"Figments, really. She was sweet. Died when I was young. Flashes of my father missing her terribly. It was a long time ago." He shrugged, "Again, why?"
"Let's compare your bios with these from Asherah."
"But that's Asherah. She's not my mother."
"She's not Zinc's mother either."
Grumbling, Ken sat up, and pulled his biometric data. It took a moment to process, but as log lines poured across the screen, the results were clear.
"Asherah is my mother, too?" He glanced at Spice. "I don't get it. Are you saying Zinc and I are brothers?"
"That'd be really strange." He started the process of pulling his biometric data again. "I must have had Zinc's data cached and loaded it by mistake. I'll pull a fresh batch."
"It's the right data, Ken."
He started to protest.
"There's only one answer." Spice took a step backwards. "Asherah is a program, Ken. She's the source code all Brokers inherit theirs from."
"You're a program, Ken. All of you Brokers are AI. That's why I'm being hunted. This changes everything."
"You're code. Running on a computer somewhere. You're not plugged in at some government facility. Your body's not in cryo. That's why they can't ever seem to find enough technology to revive all of you. That's why nobody's memories match the data. It's because CyberBrokers were programmed by software engineers, not birthed from a mother."
"That can't be right. Everyone knows AI is terrible and cold and unreasonable. We aren't like that."
Spice took another step backwards.
"No. I refuse to believe it." Ken climbed up from the couch. "No, I am not AI. I can't be."
But, the data proving otherwise was right there, floating between them.
"I have to go, Ken." Spice reached for her Bracer.
Ken, tears brimming, pleaded with her, "I can prove it. I know I'm not AI because if I was, I wouldn't be in ...."
Spice logged out.
The world seemed to swirl in blackness for a moment.
She opened her eyes, jerked up, and threw the TPL headgear across her cramped, steamy room. Crawling to the corner, Spice peeled her vest off and kicked it from the bed.
"It's not real."
She pulled her knees up to her chest and huddled on her bed. The tight walls of her coffin seemed to close in around her.
"If the Brokers aren't real, are the other Drifters real? Is any of it real?"
Her thoughts went to any possible time she'd had interactions with people from her own village. Had she ever spent time with them in the metaverse? Could she ever remember seeing them in TPL?
Definitely not since she'd elected to sign up for Alpha Command when she was a kid. TPL is so large, and there aren't very many of them, so she just assumed the other members of her village were exploring other areas, going on other adventures. Doing something else.
"Is it just a big game? Is anyone real except me?"
Spice rocked back and forth, still clutching her knees.