The protests erupted into violence at the Merkle Tree when the Samurai held their ground and the protestors fought back. When it became apparent that safe mode has been disabled in Era Novum, the city descended into anarchy. Almost robbed by a wily gambler on her way to find Zinc, Spice managed to outwit him before getting back on the road. Once reconciled, she and Zinc discussed the clash at the Merkle Tree and wondered where Unironic Ken might be. Just as they were about to decide what to do next, Spice was violently torn out of the Paradigm.
CHAPTER SEVEN - FAILSAFE ALPHA
Spice struggled to pull the thought together in the infinite and profound void.
No. I’m breathing. I can still hear echoes of sounds. I’m still here. I’m not nowhere. I feel cold. And wet. And I see sunspots.
Spice yanked off the headgear. Sweat drenched her hair and tech vest.. And it was cold. As cold as the compound ever got, anyway. The familiar smell of ammonia and steel, the harsh-lit grayness of her coffin. The claustrophobia. It seeped into her senses in slow waves, like her mind was reloading, byte by byte.
She rubbed her eyes. “I got kicked?”
Ticks ago, she’d been in a shadowy doorway, pressed up against a cute guy as the city burned around them. Blocks ago, she’d been cutting down the highway at ridiculous speeds atop a snarling engine. Now she was back in the tiny, suffocating coffin that was her room. She shook her head and pushed the thought away. She’d read that lingering too long on the transition could turn the opaque splices joining the various realities into neuroses. Not interested in adding to the ones I already have. Instead, she focused on her surroundings, starting with the status of her rig.
The linklight wasn’t green – hell, it wasn’t even red. Sound assaulted her ears. At first, she’d assumed they were latent TPL echoes, but after a moment, it became clear the compound’s sirens were screaming amid shouts and running footsteps beyond her door. What was happening out there? Still disoriented, Spice fumbled with the latches of her tech vest, hastily stripping it off. She pulled on a hoodie and opened her door.
The cacophony of noises spiked, adding to her concern and mixed with the confusion of getting kicked to create an anxiety-ridden cocktail. Life in the compound was, traditionally, monotonous. The Paradigm might be plunged into chaos, but out here, an item being removed from the menu was enough to traumatize IRL denizens.
She went to her door and yanked it open. Half the compound’s 300 occupants seemed to be running through the tunnel outside. Some barked questions, some panicked, while others shuffled about with the dazed look of someone forcibly unplugged. But all of them were dressed in haphazard combinations of duty clothes.
Spice watched a woman trying to keep a group of the compound’s few children in an orderly line.
“You were just in the Paradigm, too, right?” A familiar voice asked from behind her.
She turned as Sybil approached. The thick layers she normally wore when cleaning solar drives gathered awkwardly around her waist as she tied her sweaty hair back into a ponytail. “How can they kick us like that? Don’t they realize killing rigs that fast can mess up your mind? It’s like they’ve learned nothing.”
Spice blinked and shook her head. “What happened?”
Sybil spun Spice around, pushed her back into her coffin, and closed the door behind them. “Get dressed. We’re going outside.”
Still too bewildered to argue, Spice pulled out her snow-clothes and did as the other woman instructed.
“Failsafe Alpha.” Sybil leaned against the door. “The highest state of alarm. You don’t remember the drill we did for it about six, or maybe seven, years ago?”
Spice gestured toward the door. “This isn’t a drill.”
“Oh, I know. Life support is the only system online, and that’s been dropped to half-capacity.”
Spice stopped with one arm in her parka. That didn’t make any sense. “Why?” She sat down and tugged on a boot.
“From what I can tell, nobody knows yet. Systems seemed fine earlier. No drones on radar. Probably a false alarm, but everyone’s supposed to head to their stations and make sure. That means you and I are heading out there to clear the collectors.”
She nodded at the open door, as Spice Finished tying her second boot.
A thought struck her, and Spice stopped at the door. “We haven’t had an actual Failsafe Alpha in over eighty years.”
Sybil laid her hand on top of Spice’s head and nudged her forward, into the rushing stream of people, before following into the crowd. Spice hurried along ahead of her. “Don’t you think that’s weird? Eighty years, and now we’re having one, and no one knows why?”
“Maybe getting kicked like that fried your brain a little.” Sybil glanced at Spice from the corner of her eye.
“I’m serious.” She grabbed Sybil’s arm. “The protests, the clashes, half the city burning down—and suddenly we all get kicked?”
Sybil pulled out of her grasp. “Pfft. Who spends their rig time in the cities anymore? If you want to stare at granite and steel, just look around you.”
Spice opened her mouth to protest, but the look on Sybil’s face said she wasn’t in the mood to be convinced. “Fine.”
They made their way to the compound exit in silence, but the gears in her head churned, trying to fit the pieces together. What was she missing? Chaos at the exit soon loomed. All the patrol teams had amassed into a disorganized mob as they grabbed supplies from the storage cabinets before heading out.
Sybil walked up to the foreman. “We’re the collector-cleaners.”
The big guy, clipboard in-hand, glanced at them. “Only two of you?”
“There were three, but you know, he died out there. Come to think of it, why are there supposed to be only three people on the cleaner team? It’s a tough job. Given the danger, we need more than a week or two break between shifts. With over three hundred people in the compound, you can’t even give us a team of-“
He finally cut her off. “Above my pay grade, ladies. Take it up with administration.” The foreman cleared his throat and glanced at the crowd forming behind the two women. “For now, why don’t you just grab a weapon and your marking poles, and get out of here?”
“Whatever.” Sybil sighed and obliged. Spice did the same. They slung rifles over their shoulders, pocketed their devices, and then stepped outside.
He didn’t log us out, Spice noted. That was as far as she followed the thought as the brutal, unrelenting cold engulfed her. The wind howled and bit like a vicious animal with a thousand tiny teeth. Each lurching step was a full-bodied fight against the deep snow and angry gales. She’d taken point with Sybil behind her, taking full advantage of following in her tracks. Spice’s goggles slipped, and a chill cut across her cheek, pulling wind-laced tears like an icicle. She paused long enough to wipe it away with the back of her glove, adjusted her goggles, and pushed on.
Another small bit of progress, another marker stabbed into the snowpack. All the while, she sorted through the whirlwind of thoughts racing in her head. She couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t just a false alarm. Something real was happening, something wrong. The thought held on, as insistent and difficult as the cold currently bearing down on her. She turned around and Sybil almost collided with her. When her colleague caught her balance again, Spice raised her voice over the howl of the wind.
“I have to go!”
Sybil shook her head. “What? Where?”
“Postbox.” Spice pointed in the opposite direction of the solar drives.
Sybil stepped close enough to be heard above the wind and grabbed the other woman’s shoulders. “Don’t get snowcrazy on me, Spice. I know it's jarring to get kicked that hard and then come out here, but–”
Spice pushed Sybil’s hands off. “Not snowcrazy, there’s a POST over there.” P. O. S. T. stood for Paradigm Offline Signal Transmitter. It was a small lunchbox-sized thing. Plastic case. Brushed metal panel inside. It was a hardline comms link into TPL. In theory.
“I have to send a message to the Paradigm. It’s the only way.”
“No, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sybil shook her head. “Nobody’s seen the POST in eighty years. Not since The Storm.”
“A few months ago I got pushed off-course a little. Somewhere in that direction.” Spice gestured again. “I saw something in the snow. I’m sure of it. A bunker. An outpost. I don’t know. But it might be there.” She pulled out her small, antique radar and aimed it. “Triangulate.”
“What about me?” Sybil jabbed a mitt into Spice’s back. “I can’t go to the solar drives alone. What if this is a bandit attack? Or something worse?”
How can I explain this without sounding crazier? She shook her head and laid one mitt on Sybil’s shoulder. “It isn’t. Trust me. You’ll be fine. Cover for me when you get back.”
Sybil looked around as if something or someone might pop up out of the snow to support her before giving up and turning back. “You owe me.”
Spice dropped her hand to her side and smiled beneath her mask. “I’ll take your next shift. I promise.”
“The next two.” Sybil glared at her.
She winced before nodding. “Fine, two. Be safe.”
Spice turned away, and Sybil walked past her toward the solar collectors. She began the calibrations on her radar and shuffled out into the infinite expanse of white snowscape.
“Hello, Unironic Ken.”
They growled the words from a distance, but in the still space of the empty, prohibition-style basement bar, the only other sound was the squeaking of the bartender polishing glassware as a ballad spilled from the tired jukebox at the back of the room. Ken approached the booth where Zinc sat, watching the door, and slid across the opposite faded leather bench.
Zinc downed the remainder of his neon blue drink, and waved the empty glass at the bartender. Without taking his eyes off the other man, Unironic Ken held up two fingers.
After a long pause, Zinc spoke first, an undercurrent of tension to the words. “I’m not looking for a fight.”
Ken grunted in disbelief. “Who said anything about a fight?”
Zinc rolled the bottom of his glass in a tight circle on the table. “I don’t know. Maybe the same guy who didn’t say anything about leading a charge into the city’s Samurai either.”
“We’ll charge them again and again until people like you finally grok it.“ Two drinks slammed on the table between them. The brutish bartender stood over them a moment, eyeing both of them, wary and annoyed.
They nodded, and he grumbled as he turned away. Zinc used the moment to breath deep and force down his nerves with a clenched fist on the table. “Look, I pinged you to tell you that Spice was kicked.”
“She was kicked while she was with you?”
“Seriously? Stop – she said she’d pinged you a bunch of times. You were probably too busy sticking it to the man.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It wasn’t a normal kind of kick, though. It was sudden. It was severe. I’m worried.”
Unironic Ken opened his mouth, then closed it. Exhaling, he took a long, slow sip of his drink. “She messaged me.”
Zinc lifted his eyebrow, Shaking his head, he muttered, “That’s what I just said.”
“No.” Ken lay his forearm, wrapped in a bracer, on the table between them. “After she got kicked. From outside TPL.”
Zinc leaned over and tilted his head to look at the message on the bracer.
compound kicked failsafe alpha suspicious timing help me
He glared at the message for a whole block, like it was written in a foreign language. “How do you know that’s her?”
Unironic Ken shrugged. “I had a feeling and checked the signature. Now,with you telling me she was kicked, I’m pretty sure it’s her.”
Zinc stared at the message again. “Seems like she had a kind of word or character limit on the message.”
“Right. And the fact she asked us for help must mean her compound is compromised. I looked up what a ‘Failsafe Alpha’ is. It’s IRL knowledge so I couldn’t find much, but some drifters mentioned on the boards how it’s a high state of alarm which causes all superfluous power draws - like TPL rigs - to get cut.”
Zinc sighed and leaned back, sipping his drink and staring into space. Ken’s bracer pinged, his arm still on the table. “Who’s that?”
Ken frowned at his bracer. “I don’t know. It’s an audio message. Encrypted.”
He set it to play, and a crackling, morphed voice, like a bundle of dying electronics, emerged.
“I can help you. Meet me at the Ethereal Node now.”
The message repeated. After it played a second time, Zinc slammed back his drink and stood up.
Ken cocked his head to the side. “Where are you going?”.
“Where do you think?”
Ken tapped his bracer. “We don’t know anything about this message, much less who sent it. Could be a trap.”
Zinc shrugged. “It’s the only lead we have, Ken. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Getting d-mezzed?” He rapped his knuckles on the table for luck. “You don’t have to come along” He nodded to the bartender and started toward the door.
Ken watched the bartender finish swirling his rag inside a different glass before swallowing the last of his own drink, then followed Zinc out of the bar.
The Ethereal Node existed only fifteen blocks away, but it felt longer today. Each of them followed the route their own way. Unironic Ken stuck to the side of the streets, skulking through the shadows, tensing up whenever a vehicle sped past or he heard a noise nearby. Zinc walked casually, like he was on the way to his own apartment, his face a slightly amused mask, as he watched the other man.
Unlike a lot of clubs in the city, the Ethereal Node bustled with light and noise, still open for business. For many, the large, neon-lit building loomed familiar, the place with the best music, the most diverse people, and the most exciting atmosphere.
To others, it was a second home, a place to work, or even a place to be avoided. The Ethereal Node was where contacts were made, deals negotiated, and plans assembled. If you wanted to buy a chem, a killer, or even a good time - and you didn’t know where else to look - you came here. The Merkle Tree might be where power resided, but the Ethereal Node was where it was transferred. Which meant the Ethereal Node didn’t need security. Even with the city in chaos, an unspoken rule existed that nobody hit the place. Its clientele hit back.
Ken entered the club first, calling out greetings as he passed through the crowd hanging out at the edges of the main crowd. Zinc paused for a moment to scan the place, searching for people who might be looking for them. The club was jumping, as always. Neon lights cutting beautiful shapes from the bodies on the dance floor. The music was so rhythmic, it cleared the mind, so loud it hummed through the soul. A dreamer in the corner opened viewports into far away paradises for a thrumming audience.
“Come over here,” Ken called out to Zinc, before dismissing the waitress he’d caught in conversation. Zinc slid sideways through the busy crowd and followed him to an empty booth in one of the Ethereal Nodes' many corners.
“Why are you sitting down?” Zinc asked. “We should find the contact.”
Unironic Ken glared at him. “Relax, junkman.” Ken gestured for Zinc to sit down. “The waitress told me someone left a message for us to ‘meet Squeakers’ in this booth.”
“A message? From who?” Zinc slid into the bench seat, tapping his fingers on the table.
“She says she didn’t see anyone. She just found a note on this table.”
“Great,” Zinc frowned. “We’re probably dealing with one of those puzzle masters.” After a pause, he turned to Ken. “Also, don’t call me ‘junkman’.”
“Why not? That’s your job, isn’t it? Cleanup Crew?”
“Right: Cleanup Crew. Not junkman..”
Ken laughed. “No need to get touchy, friend.”
“I’m not getting touchy.”
“You sound like the very definition of ‘touchy’ right now.”
“At least I don’t have a complex about being a-” Zinc began, then stopped himself and looked out across the crowd. “Forget it.”
“No. Go on.” Ken crossed his arms, all humor gone.
“I said forget it.”
“‘A ‘Leftover’. That’s what you were gonna say, wasn’t it?”
Zinc focused back on Unironic Ken’s glare.
“Look,” Zinc kept his tone even and passive. “I don’t have any problem with it. I don’t think anyone’s worth more or less than anyone else. But I know some of you get all caught up in ‘not having a proper talent’ thing.”
“A proper talent? What, like scrubbing pixels and changing textures in backwater zones?”
“See what I’m saying? It’s a complex.”
“It’s not a complex, junkman.”
“Who’s touchy now? You got everyone burning down Era Novum just because-”
Both of them stopped, immediately distracted by the rat which had jumped on their table.They stared at it in confused surprise as it nibbled and stared back, black eyes glistening in the shifting pink lights of the dance floor.
“Ethereal Node allows pets now?” Zinc muttered.
A dramatic break in the music isolated the mouse’s high-pitched chatter.
“Squeakers!” Ken laughed triumphantly, pointing.
“This is who we’re supposed to ‘meet’?”
Zinc shook his head and groaned. “You know what?” He shifted in his seat. “Thanks for the sparkling conversation, but I’m out of here.” He paused, however, catching sight of a rolled up document attached to the rat’s leg. He settled back in his seat and reached out, pulling at it cautiously, ready for the rat to bite. It didn’t, and eventually he managed to take the tiny slip of paper out.
“What is it?” Ken asked.
“A note.” Zinc unfolded it. “‘Say ShaDAO to your buddy.’”
Unironic Ken repeated the words slowly to himself. “Spice?”
Zinc shrugged “Is that what it means by ‘your buddy’?”
“How would we? She’s kicked. The person who sent us here knows that.” Ken studied Zinc’s face for a moment, then shook his head. “No. You’re not even a buddy.” He looked around the club, through the dancers and the drinkers, and then his face brightened. “The Ad Buddy!” He bounced out of his seat. Zinc glared at the note skeptically. “Come on.”
With a sigh, Zinc got up, and they pushed their way through the dance floor to the other side of the club, where an Ad Buddy was looking for drinkers to entertain. Seeing their interest, it spun around to face them with all five of its screens displaying a happy, welcoming face.
“You were right, Ken.” Zinc stopped in front of it. “This is feeling like some trap, or some Script Kitty making fools of us.”
“I don’t normally do this, but I want to help,” the Ad Buddy said. “You seem like a nice person, and I want-“
“Shut up,” Ken told it, snatching the paper note from Zinc’s hand. “We’re here now – and it was your idea to come in the first place. What was that password again? ‘Say ShaDAO to your buddy,’” Ken read out aloud. “It’s got to be the Ad Buddy.”
“Do you even know what ShaDAO is?” Zinc shot glances around the club suspiciously. “They run the jump stations. What’s a transport company got to do with any of this?”
“Be quiet,” Ken didn’t look up, concentrating on his bracer. “I’m connecting to the Buddy.”
Suddenly, the Ad Buddy’s face blinked out along with the rest of its screens. Reams of code cascading in their place. Ken’s bracer rang out with the tones for receiving multiple points of information.
“What did you get?” Zinc leaned over his shoulder. “Ten percent off your next wild goose chase?”
Ken responded by spinning around and dashing for the rear exit of the Ethereal Node, shoving multiple patrons, his eyes fixed upon his bracer. He slammed through the door into the dark alley behind the club and continued quickly past a blinking, boosted drifter.
“Hey!” Zinc called as he emerged from the door, catching up with Ken. “What does it say?”
“We’ve got 100 blocks.”
“100 blocks for what?”
“To get Spice back into TPL,” Ken slowed a little to show Zinc the info on his bracer. “It says that the Failsafe Alpha of her compound is being tripped from a device in a heavily guarded building in the industrial district. The building’s owned by a shell company, apparently, for ShaDao. You still think they’re just a ‘transport company’? Anyway, the defense systems for the device are down for the next 100 blocks, so if we can get to it in time…”
Zinc snorted, but Ken was moving too fast to notice.
“So you’re just going to run into this ‘heavily guarded’ building based on intel from a rat and an Ad Buddy?”
“What’s the worst that can happen?” Ken paused to show Zinc his sarcastic smile. “Getting d-mezzed?”