Special Delivery

Current Phase: C-002
Phase Type: Chapter

Version Alpha

The Story of TPL

The earth is frozen. Locked in a modern ice age. The world governments had come together with a plan to save humanity by moving everyone into the metaverse. It had been called "The Paradigm Shift". The first ten thousand volunteers, ready to light the way, were called CyberBrokers. Everything went wrong. Two centuries later, a complacent human race copes with a great awakening.

This is the story of The Paradigm Lost.

Version AlphaThe Story of TPL

Chapter 14

Special Delivery

Liaison of Records


Logged at
028 cirxt2669 cycle


Spice, Zinc, and Soleia use the Hubur Key to jump into Cold Storage and quickly discover that it is a brutally cold and harsh environment–not unlike Spice's reality. After guiding the overwhelmed brokers through a blizzard, Spice sets about executing her plan. Through reconnaissance, they identify Koda Trundle Xander as a suitable candidate. They hijack the newly-employed Chemist and his Snowspeeder of valuable chemicals, using his fear of the Hubur Key to get him to comply.

Part 1

Spice motioned Zinc over the moment he arrived back to the stop point and clamored out of the Snowspeeder. Though he tried to look disgruntled, she could tell by the glint of his eyes and the upturned corner of his mouth that he was happy to see her.

“Sorry for the change of plans,” Spice said, glancing back at Soleia and Koda. They were already unloading some containers of chems from the back of the Snowspeeder, while the Chemist explained to Soleia which of the contents he was willing to sacrifice.

“Koda’s going to drive us right into the heart of the fortress, crammed into empty chem drums.”

Zinc raised one incredulous eyebrow.

“So that’s why you had me bring the Snowspeeder all the way back? After I had just gotten it all stashed and hidden away? The whole time worried I was going to get spotted and blasted to nothing? Just so I could come get crammed into a barrel of toxic fumes and driven into the most frightening place I have ever seen?”

“Yep that is pretty much it. I knew you could do it, errand boy.”

Spice punched his shoulder lightly in the most patronizing way she could muster.

Zinc took the punch and jest with grace, then looked back at the Snowspeeder, shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief as the discussion between Koda and Soleia about which containers they should empty had become a heated argument. "Can't believe that even with the threat of the Hubur Key hanging over his head, this guy still cares this much about his precious chems."

Spice shrugged, pulled out her equipment item by item to double check that everything was at max durability.

"At this point I don't really care what he cares about, as long as it gets him to follow the plan and get us inside so we can save Ken."

A frown flashed over his face at the mention of Ken, and he began to shuffle his feet anxiously.

"Do you really trust that he will do that? We'll be crammed into chem barrels, blind and helpless if he decides to double-cross us." 

Zinc's nervous energy was starting to get to her, but Spice hid her annoyance by very carefully adjusting the mods on her gun for the eighth time.

"I don't trust him, but I trust Soleia hiding right behind him with one hand pressing a gun to the back of his seat, and the other gripping the Key. Anyways, he was pretty forthcoming about what the layout of the fortress was. Doubt he would do that if he was preparing to rat us out."

"Really? That's exactly what I would have done."

Zinc began to pace as he exposited, stirring up the light powder that had infiltrated the thin cover of the stop point.

"I would have told you all about the access tunnels under the fortress, about all the special projects going on in there that all need their own frequent deliveries, even about where I think Ken is being held. Then when you trust me just enough, and let your guard down; when two of my captors are STUCK IN BARRELS, that’s when I would give some subtle hint to my security buddies at the checkpoint and they would de-mez you in an instant."

Spice smirked, slipping her gun into the fastdraw holster.

"Well, let's hope Koda isn't as cunning and duplicitous as you are, Zinc." She patted his handsome face, then started towards the Snowspeeder, not giving the bewildered Broker a chance to come up with a retort in his own defense. "All set, Soleia?"

“Just about. Koda finally relented to dump two drums of his least important chems. He’s just loading the empties now.”

The Chemist popped his head out the back of the Snowspeeder, where the transparent plastic dome kept the crates and barrels sheltered from the snow and wind. “Least important maybe, but no less vital to the success of the project. This will set us back several cycles, at least.”

“That sounds like all upside to me.” Spice said. “You got your story straight?”

“Yes, of course.” Koda glanced at Soleia, then looked away quickly, licking his lips. “When I am stopped by the guards, I’ll simply explain that I was delayed by the realization that there is a potential error in our measurements of sub-micronic compounds and that this would lead to a less than 100% probability that they will satisfy the testing parameters for the use of those compounds as extraction elements for digital-chemical engrams. Something I actually realized days ago but naively felt it was better to defer to my superiors, as I was new to the job and the project. Yet now have come forth with this vital information, along with new chems for replacement sub-micronic compounds using the proper measurements, so that we might avoid the potential massive losses of inventory should the error not be-”

“Alright. Okay. I got it.” Soleia interrupted. “Say all that to the guards and I guarantee they will enter permanent sleep mode like I almost did.” She stepped close to Koda, smiling a little too eagerly. “And just remember, I’m very curious about what this Key can do, and very willing to experiment on Chemists who talk too much.”

Koda’s shiver had nothing to do with the cold. He tried to stammer out something, but failing that he fumbled with his gasmask as he slipped it over his face and walked quickly towards the front of the Snowcrawler.

“Enough with terrifying the help, Soleia. Let’s get going!” Spice said as she climbed into the cargo compartment in the back of the Snowspeeder. Zinc was already inside, staring grimly at one of the empty chem drums. Soleia clambered in after, and shut the back hatch as the vehicle's engine roared to life.

“Ready for me to tuck you in?" Soleia said, giving Zinc a wink as she rapped the side of one of the empty chem drums that seemed just a little too small to fit anyone comfortably. 

Zinc leaned back against the wall to steady himself as the Snowspeeder leaped forward, the containers bouncing and bobbing against their restraint straps.

"I'm not getting into that thing until I absolutely have to.”

They traveled a while in silence after that, being jostled among the containers lost in their own thoughts about the dangers and challenges to come. Soleia broke the silence, a rueful smile flashing across her face.

“You know,” she began, “I could be looking at quite a bounty here if I played my cards right. Once you two are stuck in these barrels, I toss them out the back, de-mez Koda, and gate myself and the Snowspeeder out of here. These chemicals are very valuable after all.” Her face smoothed into a cold, calculating mask, with just a hint of something twinkling in her eyes. “The address to Cold Storage, now that would fetch an even higher price on data markets. Then there are the blueprints for the fortress; an ancient relic that gives you the power of the Paradigm’s creator. Bet I could get my own private island in Magnetic for all of that. Maybe even two.”

The mask slipped away as Soleia broke out in forced laughter. Zinc frowned, shifting his feet and Spice couldn’t help but give him a sympathetic smile. While she knew that provocation was simply how Soleia handled her nerves, same as when Zinc asked lots of questions to handle his, she wasn’t sure that he appreciated the teasing.

They fell into another long bout of silence, until they rounded a large outcropping, the menacing black fortress appearing out of the white flurries beyond the glass canopy of the Snowspeeder. Soleia's expression hardened as she got up and started wrenching the lid off of one of the red drums.

"Alright Zinc, you first. You should be able to push the lids off if something happens. I’ll knock five times on the canopy when it's safe to come out. Koda said it will take six or seven bloxs from the entry point to the drop-off zone closest to where Ken is being held.”

Spice slipped inside the other drum, squirming around in the vain attempt to get comfortable in a cold metal coffin that smelled like a protein pack that was 6 months bad. Soleia pressed the lid down on Zinc’s drum, and then moved over to do the same for Spice. Spice could see the apprehension building up at the corner of her friend’s eyes. They were about to enter a place where Soleia had been before, where terrible things she could barely remember happened, where they could happen again.

“Soleia, we’re going to find out what happened to you in there. I promise.”

Soleia looked down at Spice blankly for a moment, finally gathering her unease into coherent words.

“I’m not sure finding out will be a good thing.”

There was a tix of understanding between them, and then Soleia put the lid on the drum, plunging Spice into cramped darkness. 

Spice had never really experienced claustrophobia before. Living in tight spaces was a part of her everyday life, and in the Paradigm she could always log out if she got into a tight situation. But in this place, in this now, there was no escape. If things went wrong, she could be trapped unmoving until someone IRL found her and manually deactivated her rig. She gave it a 50/50 spread on if she would still be alive by the time that happened. She could hear her heart pounding, her every breath roaring in the tight confines. Every sensation was amplified. Each bump pressed the lid down on her head, while even the slightest turn pressed the metal walls closer. The thrum of the engines grew to a pulsing dirge, and the whirl of the tracks in the snow became an overwhelming cacophony. Spice considered turning down her sound and tactile settings; try to make it all feel a little less like she was buried alive. But even if she could turn them down in this strange place that broke all the rules, she couldn’t do it and risk missing something. She had to be at peak performance now. For Ken’s sake.  

With a sputtering cough of the engine and a few stuttering breaks, the Snowspeeder slowed down and then stopped completely. Spice kept her eyes locked on inky black above her, wishing she had drawn her pistol before she wedged herself into this crapped hellhole. She could probably still reach it if she wormed around enough, but that would risk making a noise the guards might hear. So instead she just took deep breath after deep breath and played the scenarios over in her head.

Scenario one. Koda actually did decide to do something stupid. In that case they were probably looking at a straight shootout, though she might be able to use the value of the chems - and Koda himself - to her advantage. In a gunfight, the best cover was something your enemies cared about. Scenario two. The guards insisted on checking all the containers. If that happened her best hope lay with Koda talking them out of opening the drums, or with Soleia coming up with a distraction. Zinc might be a problem. He was wound up enough that he might not be able to sit patiently without cracking. Scenario three. Something else went horribly wrong and Soleia was forced to use the Hubur Key. Spice couldn’t put together much of a strategy based on that scenario. They didn’t even really know what the Hubur Key did beyond getting them in and out of Cold Storage. It was all just theories and myths at this point, and it began to worry her how little she actually knew about this ancient digital relic that she was pinning all her hopes on.

As she contemplated what the Hubur Key could do to a traitorous Chemist and a bunch of ShaDAO guards, the Snowspeeder’s engine thrummed alive again as it crept carefully forward. Then her stomach dropped at a sharp, unexpected descent, the drums rocking violently and clanging into each other. She thought she heard Zinc curse from his nearby confinement, but before she could answer back they leveled out and began to pick up speed, the loud click of the tracks on snow packed over metal flooring drowning out anything she could have said.  

As they sped forward, Spice twisted her arm in front of her and pulled up the blueprints of the fortress on her bracer. She tried in vain to keep track of where they were in the sprawling labyrinth of service tunnels as the Snowspeeder took one uncomfortably sharp turn after another. She finally gave up, and just stared at the unmarked room where Ken was supposed to be, her thoughts drifting back to them hanging out in his apartment, laughing and joking as they watched old movies and ate authentically stale theater popcorn. He was so close she could almost feel him. The anticipation overwhelmed even the burning and aching in her limbs as the haptic feedback poured tension into her physical body. Her brain flooded with adrenaline that had no proper outlet. 

Don’t worry, Ken, I’m coming for you.

Her revelry broke when the Snowspeeder stopped suddenly, almost knocking her drum over but leaving her feeling bruised all the same. With a grunt and wince of pain she managed to reach her holster and pull out her pistol. It might be that they had reached their destination, but they could have also ran into a patrol or crashed into something and she wasn’t going to be caught without a weapon in hand. Ken was depending on her. She didn’t realize she had been holding her breath until she heard five sharp knocks on the canopy. Soleia’s all clear signal. Spice let out a long breath and shoved the lid off the top of the drum and pulled herself up, gun still at the ready. Zinc was already out, looking a little paler than usual as he stumbled through the rear hatch where Soleia waited for them. Spice followed close behind, and as soon as her feet hit the frost rimmed corrugated steel that made up the floor here, the Snowspeeder revved its engine and sped away, the hatch still hanging wide open.

“Not even a goodbye. It’s like we weren’t even friends,” Soleia said, trying not to wince as pins and needles ran up and down her legs.

“Are you absolutely sure we can trust him to keep his mouth shut?” Zinc asked, watching Koda and his precious chemicals disappear into the distance.

“Not one bit," Spice said. "But at least he got us inside first. We just need to get to Ken before the ShaDAO cavalry comes charging in after us. Then Soleia can use the Key to get us all out of this frozen hellscape. So let’s get moving. Find a way up to Ken.”

The tunnel they were in was huge, large enough for three broad lanes and raised walkways along each side. Giant turbines mounted to the ceiling churned the air, pouring out heat that was almost completely lost by the time it reached the floor. Forward and back, shadow drenched steel and concrete stretched into darkness that glittered as radiance from the paneled lights hit patches of ice. Despite it being a frozen hellscape, someone had gone all out on the environmental and lightning effects. Spice was impressed. 

“Stay close to me.” Soleia said, heading down a small side-tunnel that Spice hadn’t even noticed at first glance. 

Soleia didn’t wait to see if they followed, her eyes flicking between her bracer and the surrounding walls.

“They’ve gone all out on security. Level 100 visual sensors. Full spectrum motion detectors. Avatar recognition hooked directly to the Paradigm user database. They even have sourcecode scanners and remote access blockers. That might have been what was stopping you from logging out, Spice. I’m sending constant reset signals to the closest security node, so they shouldn’t have detected us yet. But they will eventually, so we gotta move fast!”

They emerged from the cramped tunnel into a vast loading and storage bay. Automated waldoes lined the walls, in constant motion as they loaded and unloaded crates and drums from hover platforms, stacking everything almost to the ceiling. This gave them plenty of cover from any watchful eyes, but it wouldn’t be that many bloxs before the more advanced security measures clocked them. 

Zinc let out a low whistle of appreciation as he slunk between the stacks, glancing at the digital labels as he passed in hopes that he might make something out of the weird flowing code.

“This place didn’t seem this big from the outside.”

Spice ignored him, keeping close to Soleia and trying to pull up the blueprints on her bracer but getting only holostatic. “Which way now?”

“Not sure, but I feel…something…either my tactiles are real messed, or Ken is somewhere this direction.” Soleia said, pointing down one of the aisles. 

“Not sure about your feeling, but I’m pretty sure I know where we need to go next.” Zinc said as he materialized a crowbar from his inventory and flipped it into the air before catching it deftly. 

“What are you doing!?” Soleia hissed.

“Didn’t you say we needed to go up?” Zinc replied. Without waiting for an answer, he took several long strides down the aisle over to a pair of doors set into the wall and stabbed his crowbar between them. With a vicious yank he pulled the doors open, revealing an empty elevator shaft which rose up into the yellow glow of safety lights.

“Open sesame!” 

Zinc grinned in pride, earning him a smirk from Spice but a glare from Soleia which wiped the grin clean off his face as quickly as it had come.

“You’re no fun.”

With a hurt look, he swung himself into the shaft and onto the service ladder.

“This is supposed to be a stealth mission, you know. Covert ops, not smash and grab.”

Zinc just started climbing, pretending he hadn’t heard Soleia. “How far up are we going?” he  asked as the two women followed after. 

“Should be the next floor up. So when you reach a door, stop.” Spice said, frowning at her still flickering bracer as she put hand over hand up the ladder’s rungs. Bracers were supposed to be failsafe, as they were required for navigation, inventory management, messaging, and so much more in the TPL. Being cut off from her bracer only added to the unease of the place. 

“Whoa. Wait. Hold up a tix,” Soleia said from below her.

 “What is it?” Spice asked, hooking an arm through a ladder rung and looking down at her.

Soleia didn’t answer immediately, furrowing her brow as she looked around with narrowed eyes. “I don’t know… something… tactiles could just be glitching.”

“I don’t feel anything,” Zinc checked his bracer. “My bracer is messing up though. Keeps flickering and spouting off more of that strange code.”

Spice held her bracer out for both to see. “Mine too. Pretty sure it's the same code that we saw when we jumped in here. Could mean that we are getting close. Anyone see anything?”

“Oh yeah! Got a door just a few meters up.” Zinc covered the last few rungs quickly before he swung off the ladder and onto the ledge beside the elevator doors. Spice joined him on the other side, while Soleia hung on the ladder, her eyes staring off into a distance that the other two couldn’t see. After a slow count to three, Zinc leaned over and stabbed the crowbar hard between the doors. Spice clung to the cables running along the wall and kicked it hard, wrenching the doors open a meter or so and knocking the crowbar loose. It clattered loudly as it fell down the shaft. 

“Damnit, Spice. That was my favorite crowbar.”

Before Spice could answer, a shout of alarm issued from the other side of the doors, sending the next few tixs into a blur of adrenaline and instinct.

Zinc pushed through the opening first, dashing towards a woman wearing a work apron loaded with chem vials, who tried to swat at him the two mechanical arms extending from her back. He deftly dodged to the side of one of the arms and ducked under the other as it sought to impale him with the giant needle attached to its tip. Before the woman could reposition herself to put the arms back in reach of Zinc, he jabbed the metal tip of his stunner into her gut, sending her crumpling to the floor in a tangle of twitching limbs. 

Spice swung in directly after, sending three well-aimed shots into a bare chested man with a glass sphere encasing his head as he fumbled with his bracer, panicked fingers hesitating between activating weapons, defenses, or an emergency alert. He exploded into a shower of pixelated planets and stars before he had the chance to decide, which dissipated into the quiet hum of the now peaceful corridor.

The adrenaline faded and Spice let out a long controlled breath. “That was certainly sudden.” 

Soleia didn’t respond to Spice or the recent violence, she just jumped from the ladder into the corridor and started walking down the left passage, stepping over the stunned woman and her writhing mechanical arms. Spice and Zinc fell in behind her, alert and weapons at the ready. Before long, the corridor opened up into a beautifully sculpted control room. It was all smooth white curves, glittering lights and humming meters behind slick black panels, and a wide observation window that took up the whole front of the room.

“Is this it?” Spice whispered as she looked around at the white walls and sleek paneling. The bright, smooth pureness of the room striking a stark contrast to the oppressive steel, concrete, and ice they’d traversed to get here. Score two for whoever had designed this zone. Horror and beauty all tangled up together.

“Pretty sure it’s something.” Zinc said, eyes flickering around the room as he gripped his stunner tight and took hesitant steps towards the viewing window. “Something feels very off here.”

Spice looked back at Soleia, who stood behind them, her face pale, uncertain, lost in a parallel reality.

“You ok?”

Soleia took a tix to answer.

“Yeah. Just a little… I don’t know how to even describe it. It's getting pretty bad. Like pain that doesn’t hurt. Like a pressure in my head that’s pushing in as hard as it's pushing out. Like a deafening scream that’s just barely out of frequency to hear.”

“It’s the Hubur Key. It has to be.” Spice stepped closer and laid a hand on her shoulder. “It’s connected to this place. Leading you to where you want to go.”

Zinc spat a whisper so harsh it drew both of their attention.

“I think you’re right about that.”

They moved to where he stood at the window to see what had inspired his reaction and immediately understood. Through the glass there was a vast chamber, filled with hundreds of sleek, teardrop-shaped pods. Each pod was rigged with a complex set of modular terminals which spewed forth constant streams of that strange code. Most appeared to be empty, their canopies open, but some held vague figures within, obscured by layers of ice that had built up on the inside of the glass. 

Zinc stared down, eyes wide. “I knew ShaDAO was into some fucked up shit; but what is this place?!”

Spice didn’t even hear the question. She was already charging the door that led from the control room down into the vast chamber beyond. Running towards Ken, who was trapped all alone in one of those horrible pods. She activated a quick density mod and slammed into the door but it didn’t even budge. Soleia yelled something, but Spice had already switched her pistol to autofire and unloaded into the door, reducing it to molten slag. She leapt through the smoldering wreckage, hitting the reload by pure habit as she bounded down the stairs and raced into the clusters of pods, searching for Ken’s face.

Zinc and Soleia quickly followed, splitting up to cover more ground as they searched among the pods for their friend. 

After several bloxs of frantically peering through frosted glass and mounting frustration as she tried to make any sense of the readouts of bizarre code, Spice heard Zinc’s voice echo through the chamber. “Over here!”

Spice didn’t waste any time rushing over to him, while Soleia moved a little slower, still disoriented by the place. 

“Ken!” Spice slammed her hands on the glass at the top of his pod. She looked down at his static body and the helpless, sleeping expression on his face with a mixture of hope, rage, and despair. 

“Nothing but that wacked code,” Zinc said as he studied the equipment hooked up to the pod. “Where’s the ‘wake up’ button?”

Spice moved to Zinc’s side and found herself just as confused. When they looked back up, Soleia stood on the other side of the pod with a dazed-but-placid gaze as she stared down at Ken. She reached out and touched the glass gently. “Here,” she said, her voice uncharacteristically monotone. “I’m starting to understand what I have been feeling, seeing, hearing. It’s the Hubur Key. It’s communicating. Telling me that we can use it here. That we can use it to save Ken.”

They stood there in silence for a long moment before Spice grabbed Soleia’s shoulders and shook her with frantic excitement. “Don’t just stand there. How do we do it? How do we save Ken?!” 

“Get off me!” Soleia pushed Spice away and took a few steps back, her eyes more focused than they had been since entering the fortress. “I don’t know, okay. Not exactly. Something to do with the Key.” She took another step back and then turned around, studying the readouts spewing forth from one of the other occupied pods. “Look around. There has to be something.”

While Soleia wandered off, Spice and Zinc both turned their attention to the terminals beside Ken’s pod, as they cascaded with the strange code. Some of it looked similar enough to system info, networking protocols, or status readouts. Spice was sure if she stared at it long enough, she would begin to understand what it all meant.

Zinc pressed up next to her, peering at the same screen. “Some of this is almost recognizable as Paradigm source code, but it’s all riddled with this weird programming language. I can’t make heads or tails of it.”

She shifted away from Zinc, pressing her face against the glass so she could see Ken better through the frost and mist that filled the interior. Parts of his skull had been removed, leaving gaps for thick cables to emerge, snaking their way to nodes inside the machine. It was unsettling to see him so placid, almost peaceful, despite the obvious trauma. She couldn’t let him stay here like this. She had to find a way to break him out of here intact.

She turned back to the console, watching the alien code change from one unknown string of symbols to another. For once, she didn’t know what to do. No clever plan, no sudden moment of inspiration, no leap of logic. Just hard code and security protocols. “Programming was never really my thing.” 

“Me neither,” Zinc said. “But I don’t think that matters here.” He stopped scrolling through the screens and pointed to a small symbol half hidden amidst the code. A key with what could be a skull forming its handle. “Remind you of anything?”

Her breath caught in her throat, as realization washed over her like a subtemp gust. Soleia had only shown her the Hubur Key briefly, but it looked exactly like the icon Zinc was pointing to now. She hesitated for only a tix before reaching out to press the icon. The screen flashed once, and a small opening appeared on the side of the console. It looked so out of place, an old keyhole somehow installed into a highly advanced technological marvel. This had to be it. 

“Soleia!” she shouted into the chamber. “Get over here! Now! I need the Key!”

A few endless tixs later, Soleia came shuffling back down the criss-cross pathway between the pod clusters in a trance-like state. Without a word, she opened her hand and the Hubur Key appeared, floating just above her palm. It was as gray as a gravestone in a black and white movie, except for three golden prongs sticking out from the handle and a bronze grinning skull that seemed somehow alive despite its static nature.

Zinc moved backwards across the walkway, while Spice only took one step back, watching closely as Soleia stretched out her hand towards the lock. The Key found its place on its own accord, as if hungry to fulfill its purpose. It clicked into place, and the code on the screens froze, glitched with a thousand distortions, and then resolved back into something that Spice could actually understand. 

“Analysis. Extraction. Implantation. Management. Observation. Resolution. Restoration. Withdrawal,” Zinc read out loud. “‘Extraction’. That has to be the one.”

He looked to Spice for confirmation, and at her nod, he tapped the “Extraction” option. The screen flashed, and bold red text scrolled across it.

Warning: Extracting at current memory sequence can cause significant loss of future data

A cold shiver ran down Spice’s spine at the words. “That doesn’t look good.”

“Loss of data?” Zinc growled. “What does that even mean?”

A quiet, resigned sadness flowed with Soleia’s words as she spoke. “It’s Ken’s memories. That’s the data. They are extracting his memories.”

“Oh shit, extraction doesn’t mean extracting him from the pod. I almost made things so much worse.” Zinc flashed an apologetic smile to Spice.

Soleia continued on with the same tone, deep with sadness. “Correct. The current process needs to be resolved before the subject can be removed.”

Spice observed her friend, the blank stare, the strange voice. She didn’t know who it was speaking out of Soleia’s mouth, but it wasn’t the Smuggler. But whoever it was, they were useful, so Spice let it be for the moment. “Alright, so do we hit “Resolution” then?”


Spice glanced down at Ken, at his fragile and placid state, then hit the button.

“It’s either that or leave him here,” she said.

The screen flickered through a stream of abstract, distorted images, until it finally stopped on a mass of throbbing bodies gathered around a colossal statue. A green rain lashed against the huge marble physique and the jostling crowd as they jumped and danced. The sky was scorched with colored streaks left by aerial vehicles, and many participants were activating vibrant, harmless explosions in time with the music. The shapes and colors melted, blended, and flowed, as the dimensions distorted, full of fuzzy edges and murky overlaps.

“This looks strangely familiar.” Spice whispered quietly.

“You sure?” Zinc said. “It looks like a dream to me.”

“It’s one of his memories.” Soleia said solemnly. 

After half a blox of watching the strange scene, realization slammed into Spice. “I remember this! It’s the Ivelle concert we went to right after we met! We both really let loose. Wow… must have been about twenty years ago. But why is it showing this?”

The scene slowed down again until it was a static image, catching Spice’s avatar smiling broadly, rain dripping down her hair. 

“We got dials now, people.” Zinc returned his attention back to the control panel. He reached out and turned one slightly to the right. The image moved again, darkening to a purple tint, the crowd becoming ominous shadows, tilting and blending as if tripping. The smile on the memory version of Spice melting into a frown, and then a disgusted scowl. 

Spice’s scowl matched that of her alter ego. “I think this was the rave where Ken got friendly with a Tripper and hit the chems hard. Had kind of a bad trip.”

Zinc moved the dial back to the center, the image returning to its prior state. Hesitantly, he turned it to the left slightly, and the image grew brighter. Suddenly Ken was raised above the crowd, arms lifting him up into the air as color exploded all around him.

"This looks much nicer. Everything’s all clear and bright. And hey, looks like Ken is going crowd surfing." Soleia said, her voice familiar again.

Zinc returned the dial to the center again. “Looks like we can change Ken’s memories with this thing.”

“That’s what they’re doing here.” Soleia nodded. “Messing with memories. The Hubur Key has been explaining it all to me, helping me remember what happened to me here.”

Spice advanced on Soleia, one hand curled into a fist. “Did that damn Key tell you how to get Ken out? How to fix him? Did it?”

Soleia shook the last of the haze from her mind and wrapped her arms around Spice, hugging her close. “It did. But it isn’t going to be easy. We could get Ken out totally intact, or he could come out different, or maybe not at all.”

Spice refused to let the tears come, as she leaned into Soleia for a tix before pulling away. “Then I guess we have some tough choices to make. What do we do, Soleia? How do we get our Ken back?”




Spice, Zinc and Soleia found Unironic Ken, but it wasn't as simple as waking him up. Carefully, the team began the process of extracting Ken, knowing that the choices they made during extraction may have forever altered Ken’s memories and his personality. Questers had to journey through Ken's mind, sorting through a series of memories until they reached the end of the mind map. The path that the most Questers chose resulted in the state of the Ken who was extracted. The most popular choice of the four possible Kens that could have been extracted was Damaged Ken. Damaged Ken is filled with rage about what ShaDAO has done to him, and his time in the pod in Cold Storage has made him overly aggressive and angry.

Part 2

Click. A young boy holds his mother's hand on the way to the arcade, eager to eat pizza and play Galactic Invaders. Click. A room with black walls where a man’s hand smears rainbow light across walls the color and texture of deep space. Click. Hanging from a bridge as a giant mech thunders past. 

Spice continued to turn the dial click by damnable click, living her friend’s life memory by fractured memory. Some she tried to preserve as best she could, while others she couldn’t help but adjust, especially knowing that some had already been altered by ShaDAO to turn Ken into their puppet. Maybe if she was careful enough, discerning enough, she could fix what they had done to his memories. Return him to the man she knew, and not some mindless drone or sinister sleeper agent. She found herself tweaking any memories that involved ShaDAO, or authority in general, to be a bit more aggressive. Hopefully it would be enough to counteract any control implanted deep within his mind.

Zinc cleared his throat uncomfortably as Spice cranked up the anger meters on a memory of Ken dealing with a nosy enforcer, changing Ken’s meek mediation into a physical struggle. 

“Okay, okay. Maybe that’s a step too far.” She adjusted the dial down to Ken giving an anti-authoritarian rant before walking off instead. 

“You sure we should be changing so much?” Soleia asked, eyeing the Hubur Key still locked within the console as it pulsed slightly with each turn of the dial.

“We have to save Ken, and since I don’t know which memories they altered to make him a pawn in their game, I am making sure he is as willful and independent as possible.” Another click of the dial, another choice made, another memory altered. She couldn't stop now. She’d promised Ken, and it was a promise she intended to keep. No matter what.

Another set of memories showed Ken in a relationship, first with a handsome purple eyed man and then with a gorgeous red-haired woman. She didn’t recognize either of them. Drifters long dead at this point, probably. It was all a reminder that Ken had lived a long life before he had met her. That he had secrets that he had never shared with her. She glanced away, blindly turning the dial through those intimate moments until the dial suddenly stopped turning altogether. She blinked several times and then looked back at the console.

“‘Extraction Complete.” Soleia said, reading off the screen. “Is that it then?” 

As if summoned by her question, the entire room flashed red and klaxons blared. The whole process had been so awkwardly fascinating that Spice had completely forgotten that they were in the heart of a ShaDAO fortress, surrounded by enemies who wanted nothing more than to stick them into memory altering pods.

“No. But that definitely is it!” Zinc shouted above the alarms, manifesting his stunner in one hand and a green Veritas bolter pistol in the other. “Would love to get out of here before the cavalry arrives.”

Spice drew her gun and ran for the open door that led into the observation room above them. She skidded to a halt and ran back into the thicket of pods, as several figures in glossy black armor filled the huge observation window. “Too late. The cavalry's here. ShaDAO Black Ops droids from the looks of it. At least 30 of them. We need to get Ken up, like now!”

Soleia frantically tapped on the console while she twisted the Hubur Key. “I’m trying!”

The thundering of boots on the stairs down from the observation room almost masked the dull thud of hands pounding on frosted glass. 


Spice rushed to the pod and wrenched at the lid, wishing she hadn’t lost Zinc’s favorite crowbar “He’s awake! Ken! Can you hear me?”

Zinc moved to the other side of the pod to help and must’ve had the same thought. “Sure wish you hadn’t tossed my crowbar down the elevator shaft.”

“So not the time, Zinc.” Spice hissed, desperately trying to get leverage as she watched Ken struggle to awareness. He thrashed hard against the glass in confusion, before he switched to ripping wires out of his head. She could almost feel his health meter running down as digital blood dripped from the holes left by the wires for a few tixs before closing up. She slapped her hand against the glass, holding back the tightness in her chest, the tingling rising up through her sinuses. “Ken! Hold on! We are getting you out!” 

Droids poured down the stairs into the room, fanning out in groups of four to form a ring around the perimeter. They would be tightening the noose soon. There wasn’t much time left.

“Got it!” Soleia yelled, yanking the Hubur Key from its socket in triumph. Instantly the pod’s glass canopy sprang open with the sharp hiss of released air. Unironic Ken limberly swung himself out of the pod and landed in the tense but loose stance of someone ready and eager for violence, his eyes eagerly looking for a fight.

“Ken!” Spice stepped forward, her arms ready to wrap around him so she could hide her tears in his shoulder. “You’re ok!”

He stepped back, wary, confused, and angry. This was not the Ken she knew. 

“Ok?” he growled, then recognition creeped into his eyes. “I’m far from ok. Spice. I got shoved into this… thing. Trapped in my own head for endless moments, reliving my dull life over and over and over again. I know what it is to suffer eternity, and those who did this to me are going to feel every moment of my pain.” With a final glare, he pushed past Spice and marched towards the drones, heedless of the danger he was putting them all in. 

Zinc stopped him with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Easy, cowboy,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a ShaDAO fortress, surrounded by Black Ops Droids. We’re going with the live another day plan, not the die in a blaze of glory plan.”

You,” Ken snarled and shoved Zinc back hard. “You left me!” 

Soleia caught Zinc before he fell back against one of the empty pods, while Spice stood between the two men, her palms out in the universal sign for “Calm the fuck down.” Ken didn’t try to get past, he just glared at Zinc, muttering under his breath.

Zinc glared back. “What are you talking about, dude? I was going to go into the security room before you stopped me. You insisted on going yourself.”

Confusion clouded Ken’s face for a moment, before white hot anger returned clarity. “Who do you work for, Zinc? Who are you really? When did they get to you?” Ken’s hands curled into fists. 

Spice could see him considering what it would take to get through her and apply those fists to Zinc. So she got into his face and barked out the words she hoped would break through whatever temporary psychosis was inflicting her friend. “Ken! Stop! This isn’t you! They’re on our team! We need to go before ShaDAO d-mezzes us all and we never escape this horrid hellhole!”

As if on cue, the room erupted in a cacophony of blaster fire. Energy discharge scorched the pods around them as they all dove for cover and ducked low. Spice tried to catch sight of the enemy, return a few shots, but could only see fleeting black shapes between the pods towards the edges of the room. “Soleia, you really really need to use the Key and gate us out of here. I don’t see any other way out of this.”

With her back to a pod as the firepower intensified, Soleia gripped the Hubur Key tightly, feeling the numbing sensation flowing back over her tactiles. Hearing the distant, discordant whispers leak into her consciousness once again. Sensing the pull as something ancient and powerful took notice of her. She looked between the Key and the dozens of pods filling the room, still occupied by stolen Brokers. “What about them? We can’t just leave all these people in here. Not when we have the means to get them out.”

Unironic Ken nodded in agreement, noticing Soleia for the first time with a mixture of confusion and appreciation.

“Hi. I’m Soleia, by the way. Proper intros when we get out of here.”

“You promise?” Ken smiled hungerly for a tix before Zinc interrupted the moment with a gasp as an energy blast took him in the thigh.

“Shit!” Zinc clutched his leg. “That was like half my meter! They aren’t playing around, folks!” 

“Spice,” Ken growled, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched in murderous determination. “Transfer your gun over to me. I’ll take care of ShaDAO. You get the other Brokers out of here.”

Spice looked down at the pistol in her hands and then back up to the eager, violent face of her best friend. She was torn between wanting to believe that this new Ken could take out 30 Black Ops droids and knowing that if it was true, her Ken was probably lost to her forever. After a long tix, she turned to Soleia. “As much as I would love to see Ken kick some ass, we don’t have time. Soleia, jump us. Now.”

The air began to vibrate, the world distorting into a wash of pixels. Spice thought for a moment that she was d-mezzing. She saw Ken slowly blossom with rage, struggling against the implacable energies twisting around them. She saw Zinc dive for the floor as a volley of shots burnt through the space he had just occupied. She saw Soleia’s confusion, staring down at the Key in her hand as it glowed like the Sun reflected against a mountain slope of fresh powder. Then all was light, and noise, and numbness.