After tracking down surveillance data on Zinc's mother in a long-forgotten part of TPL, a pair of Demons attacked Spice for reasons unknown. With the aid of a Nun, she was able to narrowly escape back to the safety of Unironic Ken's apartment. But when she and Ken reviewed the hard-won biometric data that cost Spice her mech, Judgment, they discovered that both Zinc and Ken’s bios indicated the impossible. Both of their mothers were somehow Asherah. This led Spice to a shattering realization. Asherah is the program from which all brokers get their source code making CyberBrokers actually AI. Confused and upset at their discovery, Spice abruptly logged out of TPL, leaving behind an equally distraught Ken in his own existential crisis.
CHAPTER FIVE - A SECOND DATE
"You know, 55% of Everyself Psychophysiotherapy users report finding the solution to their problems after one session." The AdBuddy's soft, motherly voice had followed Spice downtown for fifteen blocks through dark alleyways and empty streets. She frowned, hooded head down and she quickened her pace.
Typically, AdBuddies were fun to be around -sometimes the life of a party- as they maximized positive feelings around their services and products. But when they separated a mark from the crowds, the friendly face often turned predatory. This one had probably caught an ill-timed upward glance and detected the micro-gestures indicative of stress, making her a prime target for the psychobabble push.
Her frown deepened. They'd been simply floating billboards in the beginning, a nuisance almost everyone ignored. But somehow their evolution to these newer, humanesque forms with those cutesy expressions had made them an almost acceptable annoyance.
"I don't normally do this," it droned on behind her. "But I want to help. You seem like a nice person, and you deserve a gift. I'd love to give you a free K-block of unrestricted access to a metastone massage sound. Doesn't that sound amazing right now? Don't you deserve to let the mystical power of rare stones sweep all your worries away? Offer subject to an extensive wallet check and financialization of details by third parties liability for seized funds lies with the user full subscription at a variable rate required."
Of course it does.
Telling it, "no" sounded easy, but she was biding her time. Not only did she not want to give it a reason to push harder, but also because it acted as a free warning system in case any other Demons tried to catch her off-guard and alone. So, she let it stay, continuing its droning as it followed her along another street.
A noise caught her attention, and she glanced up from the asphalt. A couple broke through the darkness of the empty alleyway. The drifter traced a lanky thin line beside the ample, impossible curves of a Cammer, his arm wrapped across her back, fingers grasping her shoulder. Good thing, too, or he'd have run right into Spice's obnoxious companion. Not that either of them noticed her or the AdBuddy as they did. No, his own hungry eyes were caught deep in the riptide of promises, swirling in the oceans of hers.
The AdBuddy gave them a cutesy blink and spun away from Spice to follow its new marks. No longer motherly, its voice now sounded like every guy's cool big brother. "This is it, bro," it half-whispered in front of them. "You don't want to mess this up, right? She's a nice girl who likes nice things, and I've got a voucher to Proto right here. Just for you."
Spice stopped to watch as the drifter hesitated, looking from the girl to the AdBuddy.
It slid in closer. "Come on, bro. Let me help you out, save you the embarrassment. She's a special girl, right? Your girl. Proto is the least you could do for her, don't you think? I mean, look at her. Tell me I'm wrong."
One long glance sealed the deal. She smiled, and he accessed his firmware key without looking away.
The human psyche is just as vulnerable to exploits as AI. Interesting. She shrugged and moved away from the transaction. Without her floating alarm bell, the quiet cobblestone road, with its hidden entrances and private spots perfect for lovers and criminals, was no longer safe. She moved towards the noise of Kaneda Street, still turning feelings over in her mind, as if her anxiety and worries were some cryptographic puzzle she could solve.
Soon, Spice found herself on a graffitied walkway, crossing over six lanes of busy traffic. She stopped to lean over the railing and absorbed the sights below.
Multi-person transpods and hoverbikes sliced the night into two columns of light -one red, one white- as crowds gathered and broke apart outside theaters, electronic boost stands, and clubs along the curb. Above them all, in a ten-story hi-res hologrammatic, a Cammer posed and pouted, her human curves and colors reflecting against the hard glass and straight lines of the skyscrapers. A few seconds later, the tantalizing image blipped from view, replaced by an imposing Flashspot logo. Spice closed her eyes, taking in the ambient sounds around her. In the distance, the distinct sound of an older-model mech's jump boosters rumbled to life amid the crowd's laughter, the chaotic babbling of competing AdBuddies. In the mix, a classic car alarm echoed from a vendor's bracer, followed by a random gunshot and the buzz of casual conversation, occasionally clipped by heated arguments. And, all of it played along the thumping bass spilling from the clubs' now-open doors.
The sound of a real city. The sound of life.
It felt real. She opened her eyes in response. Like that Merchant and their bad attempt at flirting with an oblivious Mercenary during an awkward exchange beneath the tumbling neon of a casino advert. Even the dazed contentment of the Degens walking into a club or the voices behind her on the walkway, muttering complaints about a bracer brand.
It all felt so... She stopped before the word spilled out of her brain again.
Compared to their actual reality, with its drab walls and incessant snow, life in The Paradigm Lost offered something beyond the misery of grinding work, or the inane satisfaction of a brief moment away from the monotony of seemingly endless cycles. Inside, it was full of action and complexity, color and life, opportunity and risk.
In her periphery, a familiar gait drew her attention. Unironic Ken. She flicked down her hood and turned toward him. She'd almost forgotten that she had pinged him right after she'd decided to plug back in.
"How are you feeling?" At their last encounter, he'd been teary-eyed and shocked. Now, he seemed worn out.
He shrugged. "Less confused, more angry. You?"
She shook her head. "I'm still just," she exhaled one, long breath, "confused. I'm sorry I left so suddenly last time. I-"
"Forget about it." He glanced down. "There are bigger questions now, bigger than us, and I want answers." He kicked at the walkway. "It won't be easy..."
"Hey." She touched his arm, and he looked up at her. "Whatever it takes."
He gave her a small smile. "I was thinking. We should probably..." Ken stopped mid-sentence, his eyes focusing over her shoulder. His expression hardened, as his mouth tightened into a thin line
She turned, already knowing. "Zinc."
"Hi." The greeting held a lilt at the end, like he was surprised to see her with Ken.
"Listen, there's something you should know, something big we uncovered while looking for old grams of your mom." Beneath them, the rasp of a motorcycle cut through the hum of Kaneda Street, like a warning about what she wanted to say. Telling someone their entire existence was a lie warranted a better venue and more intimacy than the walkway, but time wasn't on their side. "Brokers aren't-" She bit back the word with a small unhappy noise and a glance at Ken. He gave her a somber nod.
"Brokers aren't what, Spice?"
Might as well rip off the entire bandaid. "Brokers aren't people. You aren't human. You're an AI. The whole bodies-in-cyro at some secret government facility? It's all a lie. They were never going to send you back, because there isn't a body to go back to. There never was. You're..." She ran a hand up her arm. "You're a program, Zinc. That's what I'm trying to tell you."
He opened his mouth in wordless motion, eyes bouncing between them, like he wasn't sure if they were joking or just crazy. Turning, he grabbed the railing with both hands, as he steadied himself under the weight of her words. He clenched his jaw, and the muscles in his neck tensed beneath his skin like ropes of steel.
She stepped toward him, but Ken caught her arm and shook his head. She pulled against his grasp until he let go. But she didn't move any closer, half-expecting Zinc to scream or punch the rail. Or worse, throw himself over the bridge.
Instead, he turned back to her with a sigh and shrugged. "So?"
Spice took a step back. "What do you mean, so?"
He shrugged again. "Does it really matter?"
Ken opened his mouth, then shook his head and turned away from them both.
"Do you understand what I just told you?"
Zinc nodded and released the rail, wiping his palms down his pant legs. "I mean, come on, it's been 200 years. No news. No developments. Hell, they stopped mentioning the return a while ago.
"I gave up, I don't know, two lifetimes ago. Gave up waiting. A lot of us have. I mean, once you start to realize that the Paradigm • returned' is vaporware anyway, finding out you're actually an AI doesn't make such a big difference."
"You're insane," Ken growled. He stared hard at Spice. "You really know how to pick them, don't you?"
"Sounds like you're not taking it very well." Zinc shot back.
Ken stalked toward him. "Of course, I'm not."
"Why? I don't feel any less of a person than a block ago." Zinc turned to Spice. "Do I seem less of a person now that you know I'm an AI?"
She stepped between them. "Of course not. But don't you care?"
She threw her hands up, exasperated. "I don't know. About who made you? Or why? Or maybe where your programming comes from?"
Amusement washed over Zinc's face.
"Do you? Really, does it matter?"
"Great," Ken muttered. "Your boyfriend was programmed a philosopher."
"Or maybe the problem is that you don't actually get irony."
Zinc eyed Ken over the top of her head, thickening the tension. Both men stiffened on either side of her, stances shifting wide, hands clenched tight into fists. Well, hell. She laid both palms against Zinc's chest and drew his gaze to hers. With gentle force, she pushed him back.
"It's a lot."
He wrapped his hands over hers and pushed her away. "It's really not."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Fine, whatever, but could you please help us?"
"With what?" The words came out in a chuckle.
"Getting the message out."
Zinc looked out over the walkway, a hand buried in his hair. He gestured at Kaneda Street with a flourish of his hand. "To them?"
Spice followed the line of his arm to the street below. An Alpha Command Pilot chased a scrawny, laughing Tripper until she tackled him hard to the ground and began searching his person. The Tripper's continued laughter brought grins to the audience of bored Drifters nearby.
"Seriously, Spice, to who? Half the brokers in the metaverse already suspect something is wrong, and this won't alleviate that suspicion. You think the Degens or Sheeple go around contemplating their existence? Humans? AI? The genetically-modified, neurologically-augmented cat-Cammer hybrids? Do you think any of them care? Do you really believe that this," he ran a hand over the lower half of his face, "nugget you've uncovered is going to make any difference? No one will care, because all of them still need to make rent."
"And what about the other half?" Ken demanded.
Zinc shrugged. "What about them? Come on, maybe ignorance is their bliss. The best gift we could give them. Better than being rug-pulled, or having their minds blown. Who knows how they'll react when you • let them know'," as he curled his fingers into air quotes.
"How do you plan on dealing with what comes after? Because if they care, there's no telling how they're going to react. If you're lucky, they'll just be angry or violent."
"They have a right to be," Ken interrupted with a note of purpose Spice hadn't heard before.
"No one is saying they don't." Zinc leaned his elbows on the rail and rested his forehead against his fingertips. "What do you do when they get suicidal? Anything in your white knight programming for that?"
Ken blinked, and the color drained from his face. "I don't know."
"I didn't think so." Zinc pushed off the rail and let out a long, low whistle, before leaning back, elbows on the railing. He lowered his head and gave her a look, one she recognized from the mech races. The one barely holding back a smile.
She stepped closer. "What?"
He fanned his arm wide, "This is one hell of a second date."
Spice laughed aloud, despite herself and the seriousness of the situation. To her left, she felt Ken's glare, but she ignored it.
"Told you I was amazing" Zinc finally unleashed the smile, and then pushed himself upright. He nodded, and all traces of the earlier tension evaporated.
Grinning at the other two, "So, do we have a plan?"
"Protests," Ken said. "We march on the Merkle Tree. A show of strength and numbers so the Founders know they can't hide any longer, and that we demand the truth."
Spice took a second to appreciate Ken's righteousness, then frowned and said, "The metaverse hasn't seen dissent in a long time. They might make an example of us to make sure it doesn't for a long time again. Organizing won't be easy too."
"You got a better idea?"
"A Script Kitty I busted a few K-blocks back gave me a lead on a group of brokers using the Power Eleven employee network to hack the Paradigm Broadcasting Corp advertising servers. All they needed was somebody to manipulate a physical failsafe stored on the fifty-seventh floor of the PBC building. . If we can break in we'd be able to send a message across the metaverse. Every AdBuddy, bracer, billboard, and restaurant menu will broadcast the truth."
Zinc let out a doubtful sigh.
"That building's pretty well-protected. And how do you even know this 'group' is legit? Or that the failsafe hasn't been secured since you heard about it? Listen, you guys need to use your brains a little. It's one thing to get the message out, it's another thing to have the power to do something about it. You need a Politician on your side, and you need to speak the only language they understand."
"Right," Ken said. "Protest."
"Wrong," Zinc replied. "Blackmail. I can get you a meeting with Altair. I can also tell you that he's not only worried about the AI vote, but about the DAO itself. He's losing out to his rivals. If you can convince him to take your side on this, and that if he doesn't you'll go to one of his rivals, he'll help you get the message out and more."
"Sure," Ken snorted. "Let's just trust a Politician. That's never gone wrong before."
Zinc shrugged and for a few moments they all stood there thinking it over.
"Spice," Ken said eventually, "it's your call."
Long moments crawled by until, finally, Spice folded her arms across her chest. "You're right, Ken. It's time to organize."
Zinc was wrong. Brokers did care. The Drifters too.
Word spread fast and unrelenting. First through the underbelly of the strip, away from authoritarian eyes, then beyond into the games and villages. Building from whispers and discreet nods of comradery into opinionated rants and angry slogans. Until it was too late for anybody to stop. Some believed, some didn’t, but everyone wanted to do something.
All their deep feelings of having been lied to, of being given a rough deal, of the Paradigm being twisted into something they didn’t like was ignited. A fire that grew until it manifested into bodies, boots on the streets of the strip, shouts that grew louder as the numbers grew. A lot of people weren’t even satisfied with just protest, they wanted revolution. Mechs and vehicles showing support by flying above. Ken and Spice at the head of the wave.
Eventually the Merkle Tree was in view. The gigantic skyscraper around which gnarled cables carried power in the form of information. Smooth curved walkways and hovercar launchers sprouting from the central structure, dotted with viewing platforms in an architectural feat as absurd and pompous as shows of power usually are.
More than that, lines of still, well-organized Samurai had sentried in front of the Tree, blocking the root-like entrance. Their well-maintained mechs and vehicles arranged as menacingly behind them.
When she saw them Spice felt hesitant for a moment. This was bigger than her and her friends now. The protestors behind her were passionate and unstoppable. She glanced at Ken, who screamed fury like he was the head of this giant dragon. Onwards at the Samurai they marched.
There was no going back now.
The brokers had risen.