Spice and Unironic Ken had learned about a DAO proposal to shift much of the day-to-day maintenance to be run by AI instead of CyberBrokers. Drifters (the majority population of The Paradigm Lost who log in for a few hours each day, drifting in and out of the Metaverse) would not be much affected, but if an AI ran TPL, it might calculate that the energy preserving the bodies of a mere 10,001 CyberBrokers would be better used in some other way. While CyberBrokers can safely dematerialize in TPL, if the plug gets pulled on their physical bodies, they'll d-mez forever.
CHAPTER THREE - VALENTINE'S DAY
The cascade of particles flowed over the edge and crashed to the ground in a neon burst of emissive material. As digital hadrons splashed into a pool of pixelated flotsam, Moss Falls attracted hordes of TPL explorers eager to slip behind the curtain.
The falls were visible for kilometers all around, existing far off the trail, the segmented peak laddered high into the sky in defiance of classical physics. At its base, behind the maelstrom of falling particles, of course, there existed a secret cave.
"Why are you having me look in the cave behind Moss Falls?"
Spice, geared in her less-conspicuous power armor instead of piloting Judgment, rested her hands on her hips. "That'd be the dumbest place to secretly fence phished coin. Hundreds of explorers hunt in there every day, armed to the helm, waiting on the next moss spawn."
"No, not that cave," Unironic Ken chuckled over comms. "There's a secret pocket cave, on a higher platform, about 800 meters up. You can't see it because it's behind the upper particles."
"Really? A second secret, secret waterfall cave?" Spice craned her helmeted head and squinted upward.
"Apparently," said Ken. "I found out about it from a Spectre friend of mine."
Spice jerked her head around and focused back in the direction where she'd left him, just outside the PVP zone. "Wait, you're friends with a Spectre?"
"Well. Maybe the word 'friend' is a little strong."
"Well, then. I guess I'll just try not to get myself d-mezzed."
Ken snorted and said, "Good plan."
Spice approached the base of Moss Falls and bounded over the roiling pool of liquid synesthesia, bursting through the sparkling curtain.
The boots of her power suit crunched against the ground inside as she landed behind the falls. Standing around were half a dozen toons, similarly armored up, and nervously waiting for the next MOB spawn.
"Just out of curiosity, Ken, how long before the next spawn blocktime?" Spice ignored the group of Brokers and Drifters and scanned the roof of the cavern for grips.
"In the next ten blocks or so. Why? There a bunch of campers in there?"
"Yep." She moved closer to the mouth of the cave, and zoomed her optics to a slightly disjointed outcropping. It looked out of place, almost like a grip or some other handhold, extruded in such a way as to be nearly invisible in the poor light.
The sound of exploding crystals pierced the closeness of the cave, and an enormous Drifter came bounding in through the falling particles to land two meters away from Spice. The giant straightened and glared an unvoiced challenge to everyone standing around.
"Three blocks remaining to spawn time," came Ken's voice over the comms.
Satisfied the handhold in the ceiling was her target, Spice shot a look over her shoulder. As soon as the moss spawned this place was going to overflow with violence, giving her the perfect opportunity to disappear.
"So, I was thinking," she started.
A flash, and a lush pile of living moss popped into existence atop the pillar in the center of the cave, and the place erupted in action.
The giant, moving faster than anyone expected, looped a flaming plasma axe around, in a long arc, d-mezzing the Drifter in front of him who'd been sprinting to the pillar. The sound of rocketboots flared and what looked like an Astronomer vaulted toward the moss. Gunfire cracked and a second Drifter went down in a splintering of neon as they, too, d-mezzed.
Someone flung a glowing blade at Spice, and she smoothly ducked beneath the weapon.
"Anyway, as I was saying, do you remember Altair's guy, Zinc? I think I want to ping him."
Spice leaped onto the back of the giant and used his sudden, surprised lurching motion to catapult herself up to the grip. Her hand punctured the outer geometry like it was an illusion, and her fingers wrapped around a solid rung hidden beneath. She smiled.
"What do you mean, ping him? Why?" Ken's voice wavered.
A masked Gunter lined up Spice in their rifle sights, but she flipped her legs up, and caught the lip of the next outcropping on the upper opening of the cave. A bolt of energy sizzled through the air where her waist and legs had just hung.
"I think I want to go out on date with him."
The Gunter shifted and lined up a second rifle blast, completely ignoring the spawn camping melee around them. Instead, they chose to focus on Spice.
"But, you can't date a Broker," squeaked Unironic Ken.
Spice frowned and, while hanging upside down by her left boot, pivoted her .30 caliber out of its quick release holster and fired from her hip. The shot struck the Gunter ten centimeters beneath their beret, d-mezzing them instantly.
"Good riddance, jerk," she muttered.
"Oh, not you, Ken." She re-holstered her weapon. "Sorry."
Spice flipped up, and twisted to grab at the outer wall where she guessed the next handhold would be. Her hand found a small crevice, still hidden from sight, but above the mouth of the moss cave. She pulled and began her swift, suit-powered climb up the backside of the particle falls.
"So, you're saying you'd actually consider dating a Broker?"
"Sure, why not?" If the Spectre had been right, she had around another 200 meters and a separate platform yet to traverse.
"Well, we'll outlive you, for one."
"Sure, but you're still a person. With feelings, right? Why shouldn't you get to experience a little romance?"
Silence oozed from the comm-link.
"Sorry. I was just looking at the map. You should see a fifteen meter gap off to your left. The second cave will be right there."
Spice hit the top of her climb, and pulled herself up over the ledge. A separate, large section of Moss Falls, floating free from any physical constraints, loomed 15 meters away, angled back toward the main tower.
"Do you have eyes on it?"
"Sure do," she replied. A trail of handholds led up the side the cliff, and wound over to what looked like a potential ledge a couple hundred meters further up on the wall.
She was pretty sure she could make that jump.
Powered legs stormed toward the gap, and she sprung out into open space, soaring to cross the distance, and slammed into the wall. Spice scrabbled for the handholds, slipped, and scrabbled some more. She wedged one of her boots into a crack, stopped her slide, and hoisted herself to the next stable handhold.
"Too easy," she mumbled around a long exhale.
Spice looked over her shoulder, down into empty, yawning space below, and then back upward. From her angle, she could confirm that the path of carved handholds indeed led to a second, secret cave behind the falls.
"I made the jump. I can even see our target location from this part of the wall."
"Affirmative," came Ken's monotone reply.
Great. She hated when he got like this. He wasn't going to be any fun until the next time she logged in. Of all people, she thought he'd understand how a person's background didn't affect how she felt about them. To her, it didn't matter if someone was a Broker or a Drifter. He'd known her long enough by now, he ought to have realized that. Ken shouldn't be mad or surprised.
"Moving in," she growled. Again, silence was the reply.
Spice refocused and started moving up the wall. The last few meters fell away faster as she further familiarized herself with the grip pattern of the climb. She hoisted herself up over the final edge, and was met by half a dozen Drifters. Not a Broker in sight.
They bounced to their feet and reached for weapons. It was the group of coin thieves she was looking for. She recognized the leader from his 'gram in the mission file.
"Let me guess, you were expecting a Gunter," she said.
A look of confusion passed between several of the Drifters, a couple of them nodded.
"What are you doing here?" said the leader.
Her eyebrows drew tight together. She slipped her Barrage rifle from its holster and whispered, "Unfortunately for you, penance."
The obstacle course lay before them in a two kilometer loop, littered with broken mech remains, each mangled by various flame gouts, blades, and crushing blocks. The go-light at the gate flicked to yellow as the next heat lined up to tackle the track.
The Mech Pilot Olympics was one of Spice's guilty pleasures. Most of pleasant society frowned on the brutality and spectacle. Whales tended to love their competitions with fewer explosions and higher speeds.
But, Spice? She loved the raw appeal to the everyman. That, and she occasionally picked up a trick or two to replicate in her Alpha Command work.
"Thanks for pinging me." Zinc fidgeted in his seat next to her. She guessed he spent more time with Altair and his highbrow Brokers and less time down here in the pits with all the Drifters.
"Of course," she replied, gesturing at his Leftover gear. "I'm just glad to see you out of your suit."
Zinc chuckled, "Well, as long as you don't mind me being distracted by all the mixed-res textures out there. This place is mismatched resolution stacked on top of mismatched resolution, and it's making me twitch."
Zinc's talent was Cleanup Crew. Primarily they were employed to repair and upgrade older bits of TPL's simulation assets to newer, more modern standards. Since the world was constantly in motion with new drops, it was a neverending job.
Good thing, as a Broker, he was available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The starting horn blared, and three giant mechs blasted out of the gate. One of the racers, a Behemoth-450H, while slower than its opponents, was reinforced with hard-armor shielding, sacrificing speed for the ability to mostly ignore any fire or slashing obstacles. Spice usually wagered on Behemoth class mechs to win. She usually lost.
"What do you think?" Spiced waved at the giant hydraulic crusher on the course near their seats.
"It's great. A bit violent, and," Zinc nodded to the Drifters sitting a row away, "not my usual crowd."
"I appreciate you slumming down here with me."
Zinc winked back. "At least I'm not worried for my safety."
A huge grin split her face, "I wonder why that is."
"Well, obviously it's because you fight pretty good."
Smiling, she nodded and turned back to the race. The Behemoth was falling behind.
"I mean, for a girl, anyway," Zinc coughed behind his hand.
Spice flicked her eyes back from the struggling mech. "I'm sorry?"
"About two thirds of the mechs in my Company are piloted by 'girls'."
Face impassive, Zinc shrugged again.
Spice narrowed her eyes.
Finally, he said, "I mean, it's the 10th Command, right? Not the first?"
Spice leaned forward.
Zinc's mouth, a hard line, suddenly twitched. The twitch moved up to his eyes, like he was struggling with an internal battle. The corners of his frown bounced, fighting a desire to break into a smile. His eyes resisting a twinkle.
The dam broke, and Zinc threw his head back, nearly falling out of his chair in a fit of self-induced laughter.
Spice punched him in the arm. Harder than she should have.
He tumbled out of his chair, and clattered to the ground, knees up over his shoulders. The other spectators nearby all craned their heads to see if he'd d-mezzed. Satisfied he wasn't going anywhere, they returned to watching the explosions on the track.
"Ow. That hurt." He didn't move to get up, just laid there, sprawled out. But, his giggling fits slowed dramatically. "I was just kidding, you know."
Spice nodded down at him, "Uh huh."
Rubbing his arm, he finally climbed back up, "Man, I think I just lost 10 HP."
"Closer to 25."
"Completely worth it, though."
Spice raised an eyebrow.
"The look on your face. I thought you were about to run out there, grab that mech, and stomp me into a puddle." He nodded to the Behemoth lumbering across the finish line, far behind the others, having somehow lost an arm since she'd last looked.
"Then I guess you're lucky I was feeling generous with your health."
"Wow. Both generous and the most amazing woman I've ever met. I'm a lucky man." He rubbed his arm again. "Lucky as long as I don't tease you too much, it seems."
Frowning, Spice replied, "There's no way I'm the most amazing woman you've ever met."
"Have you seen who I hang out with? The Founders? They're all rats and monkeys and whatnot. Hardly women, much less amazing." He leaned in close, "Just don't tell them I said that."
"You're saying I'm more amazing than a rat?"
Zinc's grin widened even more.
Spice chuckled. "Whatever. I'm sure your mom was amazing."
Zinc's smile faded. "Actually, I don't really know."
"Oh no, I'm sorry." Spice covered her mouth with her hands. "It's so easy to forget you're a Broker."
"No, it's okay. I meant that I don't really have any memory of her."
"I suppose your memory could have faded over all this time."
"Maybe," he replied. "I do have a 'gram of her. She has a kind face, but other than that, I don't recall anything about her personality. Neither good, nor bad."
"Still, I'm sorry for bringing it up. Especially the part about forgetting your body's been stuck in a metal tube for a couple hundred years."
He winked at her again. "Think nothing of it. Maybe someday, I'll see something around here, and it'll trigger a memory. Maybe the more time I spend with an incredible woman, the more opportunities I'll have to recall the memory of an incredible mother."
"I think I'd like that."
"Me, too," he said.
At that moment, Spice knew three things.
One, there was no way she was going to allow that AI DAO proposal to pass. Risking Zinc's life for potential efficiency gains was not going to happen. Nope.
Two, she was going to use some of her and Ken's connections to locate information about Zinc's mother. At the very least, they should be able to find a handful of additional 'grams. She might even package them up as a gift for him.
Finally, she was through betting on Behemoths. Those big bastards were just too damn slow.