Spice and Ken reveal the truth of the Paradigm to Zinc. He reacts nonchalantly to the reveal that brokers are AI and not, in fact, humans unable to return to their cryogenically-frozen bodies. To him, it’s irrelevant. As the only ones who seem to know the truth, they argue over what should be done. Zinc prefers diplomacy, Spice wants to broadcast the news direct to everyone, but it is Ken's suggestion which wins out. Covertly, they organize mass protests which culminate in thousands of brokers and drifters marching on the Merkle Tree - the center of power in Era Novum. With protestors growing increasingly passionate, and Politicians deploying fearsome Samurai to protect themselves, a violent clash seems inevitable.
CHAPTER SIX - CATCHING A RIDE
Spice stopped running. The bright flash of a flare unfurled in front of her as the telltale pop of a smoke grenade filled the street with thick, gray clouds, half-obscuring a nearby neon bar sign. The flare’s plumes glowed neon red and blue against the black night sky. Torn placards and glass from smashed streetlights lay defeated in the road. Distant sirens and gunshots sounded like echoes from the past. Two Looters called to each other, as they darted mischievously into a dark alley, both struggling with heavy boxes of rare mech parts. A couple kissed against the postered wall on the other side of the street, the printed images of Buskers and Dreamers around them dotted with bullet holes.
Spice scanned the otherwise-empty street while she caught her breath. A moment of calm in the chaos.
But only a moment.
A flash cut through the gray smoke, drawing Spice’s eye just before a hovercar descended at speed, shattering the neon sign on its way towards hard tarmac. She recognized the long chassis and sleek contours of a pearlescent white luxury vehicle. Then it was gone, slashing by her, the hard impact with the unyielding road producing a scarred, forty foot surface, leaving a trail of broken metal and plasma before rocking to a stop – nothing remaining but more of the same unrecognizable, burning wreck already littered throughout Era Novum.
The hovercar debris had barely settled before a motorcycle emerged from the smoke, exhaust fumes curling in the vehicle’s wake like a curtain flourish. The bike was going too fast, and its Courier pilot registered the wreck too late. She swerved, but it only saved the bike. The rider flipped forward in a long, graceful arc until she hit the on-ramp sign hard and d-mezzed instantly. The bike slid on its side further down the road, wheels spinning helplessly.
As if the sound and vibration of the crashes were some kind of signal, Spice heard shouts and boots echoing louder, closer. More vexed Samurai? Opportunist Mercenaries? The few drifters excited by the chaos of this unplanned PvP? Perhaps just another mob of Sheeple doing what everyone else was – tearing tracts of destruction through the whole city.
I’m not sticking around to find out. She ran for the fallen bike. It was a long, sleek, mean-looking thing with yellow and blue accents across its angular black chassis. Impractical and dangerous, though not surprising to anyone who’d ever known a Courier. Spice stood the bike up, straddled it, and checked her bracer for the location Zinc had just pinged to her.
She spun 180 degrees, tire-smoke engulfing her, and pointed the bike at the on-ramp. One last look back at the mob stomping through the smoke, and the couple still kissing like the world around them wasn’t on fire, then she was gone.
Because Courier bikes.
The highway curled up and through the city, between corporate towers and advertising screens, through cavernous tunnels and the flicker of a thousand lights. Spice leaned her new ride into the start of a long curve, then hunkered over the handlebars, and powered out the other end. Fires and colored flares spiked the skyline beyond the highway barrier, as if the city had been punctured, releasing angry colors from open wounds. Spotlights roamed, hunting through the city as vehicles of authority prowled the night. Occasionally, the whole sky flashed to the rhythm of an automatic rifle or a mech’s pulse gun. In her periphery, a building in the industrial district exploded, followed by the distinctive ribbon trails of two mechs engaged in a ballistic duel above the collapsing rubble.
The bike growled beneath her, rumbling like a predator bearing down on its prey. Spice spied a dark spot stretched across the road ahead and throttled back, causing her ride to grunt in disappointment. A couple of smashed vehicles blocked most of the tarmac. Filling the sliver of an opening where she might have slipped through, a broker waved his arms at her.
She slid the bike to a stop in front of him, the engine impatiently rumbling and popping. A Gambler. He looked desperate and frightened.
“You need a ride?” she asked, one eyebrow lifting.
The Gambler stepped into the single headlight of the motorcycle – and his whole facade changed. No longer desperate and frightened, he whipped out a pistol from beneath his coat and pointed it at her, the chrome glinting with a familiar menace as it danced at the edges of the light.
He grinned. “I just found one.”
Spice quickly put up her hands, noticing the PvP warning light flashing on her bracer in the process. Unarmed and in the killzone along a dead patch of highway, cornered by this idiot. She knew only the thinnest thread of luck would keep him from d-mezzing her.
She glanced over his shoulder and worked the wreck behind him like scattered panels from a comic book page. How had she not seen it sooner? A vintage Trans-Am – typical Gambler’s vehicle – near a nondescript van flipped on its side. Its blacked-out windows and reinforced chassis screamed gangsters. They’d probably intercepted each other on the highway, using the impromptu PvP to collect on some debts, or work out an old grudge. Either way, the Gambler seemed to be the only survivor. That meant he was dangerous.
“Please don’t shoot.” She kept the words soft, the undercurrent of her tone vulnerable.
His grin widened, as his eyes flowed over his new ride. He swaggered around it and gestured for her to get off using a couple jerks of the gun.
“You drifters get all the nicest toys,” he cooed. “A little advice for you: Should have logged out once Era Novum went PvP. Not exactly the place for a young lady right now.”
“Please, just don’t shoot me.” She pretended to fumble nervously as she stepped off the bike. “Just… just take it.”
“Gladly.” He smiled again, but it wasn’t for her. He holstered his pistol and swung his leg over the bike. He laughed as he rocked the throttle.
Boys and their toys. Spice shook her head, refocusing. She needed to time it right.
“No offense, ma’am.” The Gambler dipped his hat in a gentlemanly nod and ripped the throttle again.
She fixed her eyes on his hand as he let go of the clutch, darted forward, and hooked her arm around the front of his neck. The bike’s back wheel barked on the tarmac, the front wheel lifting off its suspension, and the machine lurched forward – without the Gambler. She leaned against his forward momentum and spun him, gripped tight, to thud face-down on the ground beneath her.
She pulled his weapon from a twisted holster and tossed it aside. Pinning his arms, she fished in his pockets. “Spice. Alpha Command. I should take your firmware keys right now, but I figure getting chumped by a drifter has got to be painful enough, right?”
The Gambler coughed and groaned, slowly realizing what had happened and what Spice was currently doing.
“Hey... Hey!” He struggled, but she had already latched the cuffs. “What are you doing? You can’t leave me out here!”
Tightening the restraints until he winced, she stood up and dusted her hands off on her pants.
“You’re a Gambler – maybe you’ll get lucky.” She turned toward the discarded bike. “And if you can’t be lucky, maybe try being nice next time.”
“Hey! Drifter! Come back! Let’s make a deal!”
If he’d said anything else, she couldn’t hear it over the sound of the bike’s thundering roar as she accelerated away.
Spice pushed the bike hard, the needle on the tach throbbing among the high numbers, and hoped to make up for lost time. The altercation had reminded her how dangerous Era Novum was right now. She hoped Zinc was all right. Though, if she was honest, hoping wasn’t enough. She needed to find him. Spice stole glances at her bracer as she rode, checking for the right exit. Finally, his blip appeared and she slowed down, steering the bike down the off-ramp.
She soon found Zinc jogging down the middle of a dark street, his head pivoting left and right in search of potential danger. Killing the engine, she coasted the bike to a stop in front of him. He froze for a brief moment, paralyzed as he assessed the new danger, then relaxed and sprinted towards her.
She swallowed her earlier anxiety. “Hey, Zinc.” She stepped off the bike and gathered her wind-frazzled hair in a fist. “You running from something?”
“No.” He shook his head. “But I did see a couple of Samurai slice a whole mob of Leftovers into particle effects, so there’s that.” He nodded at the bike. “Nice wheels.”
“They’re alright. Not Judgment, but a girl has to do what a girl has to do, right?.” She feigned a frown. “The jump stations are down, and the fastcodes don’t seem reliable right now either.”
Zinc nodded, but his gaze shifted back over her shoulder as he chewed on his bottom lip. He grasped Spice’s arm and gently led her away from the road to stand in the shadow of a doorway.
After one last glance around at their surroundings, he exhaled and met her eyes. “What happened back there?”
Spice shook her head and pushed out a long exhale, trying to sort the chaos in her head into something verbally tangible. “It was all pretty, well, brutal. When we reached the Merkle Tree, the protesters were pumped up, and the Samurai were…” She shrugged. “They must’ve realized something was going down, and they weren’t having it. So, they started slashing through the crowd, d-mezzing anyone–brokers, drifters, anyone–who gave any indication they were headed to The Tree.
“Pretty sure there were plants among the protestors, too. And once the blades came out, it was a free-for-all.” In the distance, a strange, whizzing noise crescendoed, then blasted into a loud explosion, followed by the unmistakable buzz of recharging plasma swords and guns. “I guess it still is.”
“So I bolted.” She drug her gaze back to his. “And now I’m here.”
Zinc scratched his head, fingers digging through his hair in anxious sweeps. She had never seen him so shaken.
“How did all this happen?” he muttered, more to himself than her, and kicked at the ground. “The whole city’s PvP.”
“Samurai have always had PK-abilities, and it’s easier to hack the safe mode than you think. Thousands of angry brokers? You got to figure some of them wanted to turn it off. Or maybe Politicians did it to send a message. I don’t know.”
“This is bad.” He paced along the thin line of concrete marking the front of the doorway. “This is really, really bad.”
She wanted to comfort him, to say that it would be all right in the end, but that was a lie. They both knew it. And she was a terrible liar, so she swallowed the sentiment and replaced it with a question. “Where were you, anyway? How did you end up all the way out here?”
He stopped pacing. “I lost you guys somewhere around Satoshi Drive. Figured I’d catch up later since we were all headed to the same place, right? Somehow, I ended up with a group intent on storming The Strip. Before I realized they weren’t heading for The Merkle Tree, things got heavy. Once everyone realized safe mode was flagged off, all hell broke loose, and I jumped right out of there.”
Spice leaned against the door jamb. “But why here?”
“I’ve got broker friends here who aren’t so good at dealing with this kind of thing.” He gestured toward another bright explosion a few streets away. “They have no place to stay, so I let a bunch of them into my apartment to make sure they were safe.” Shoulders slumping, Zinc raised his eyes to meet hers, his lips a thin line against a stoic mask. . “Speaking of friends, where’s yours? The guy behind this big idea, Unironic Ken?”
Spice glanced at her bracer and frowned. Still nothing.
“I have no idea. I’ve pinged him twenty times now but no answer. I don’t think he’s been d-mezzed – he’d have a public notification set up – but I don’t know. People are getting dematerialized all over. I can’t imagine how many wallets have been flushed. It’s going to be an artificial bear market after all this.”
“Forget the bear!” He threw a hand out, gesturing to the fires in the distance. “All of Era Novum’s res’ing down!”
A gentle smile creeping across her face, “Oh yeah. I forgot you’re Cleanup Crew.”
The corners of his mouth twitched, but before he could return her smile, the whine of several drones and the sharp commands of one Samurai to another cut through their conversation. Zinc extended a protective arm, but Spice moved faster, slamming his body back against the doorway with her own, and pushed her face close to his. She stole a glance over one shoulder, as the threatening entourage passed by, ignoring them in their search for some other target.
She turned back to look at Zinc, still pinned between her and the door.
“So,” his mouth a breath from hers, he muttered, “what now?”
Zinc’s face shattered into a jagged collage of neon artifacting.
A horizontal split in existence de-synchronized and drove a synesthesia of screeching static and ice shards into her back. Every nerve ending in Spice’s physical reality immolated in a wash of technical garbage – balance, weight, vision, sound. The world blasted away, leaving her consciousness flailing as it spun into the depths of oblivion.
“Spice?” Zinc shouted from beyond the electronic buzz. He screamed her name again but those five letters squelched in a long, high-pitched, rhythmic juddering.
The void swallowed her whole and pitched into absolute nothingness.