LORE

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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.

The Story of TPL

Chapter One - Project Paradigm

Chapter Two - Cowboy Up

Chapter Three - Valentine's Day

Chapter Four - Gimme a Hand

Chapter Five - A Second Date

Chapter Six - Catching a Ride

Chapter Seven - Failsafe Alpha

Chapter Eight - Bruises

Chapter Nine - Three of a Kind

Chapter Ten - Leap of Faith

Chapter Eleven - Recollections

Chapter Twelve - Legwork


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Credits

CyberBrokers Core Team

  • Josie Bellini
  • cybourgoisie | Benjamin Heidorn
  • m3mnoch | Christopher D. Chapman
  • CyberBrooker | Brooke Walter
  • ladydiamondhand | Brianna Woodward

Cyphage

  • JTobcat | Justin Tobin
  • ziot | Brett Buerhaus
  • motive
  • mattm
  • LeFevre

Circuit Creative Director

  • m3mnoch | Christopher D. Chapman

Lead Writer

  • Juoni

Editor

  • Daeshii | CL Roberts-Huth

Plot Development Decisions

  • The CyberBrokers Community

Writer's Room Lore Authors

  • two.one | Chadwick from Waring
  • cbgb
  • dot_the_bot
  • LoLoGramz | Graceful Cryer
  • Little | LikeLong (@Little20211130)
  • Mags (@Procrastin4tor)
  • Samalot
  • Venus | N. Guerrero
  • W1ngman
  • Merk
  • JTobcat | Justin Tobin
  • ladydiamondhand

Mods

  • Charlie Sandor
  • BallisticBanana
RECAP
Zinc and Ken successfully destroyed the Failsafe Alpha-triggering device keeping Spice out of TPL. When she plugs back in, she meets with Zinc, who shows up driving a battered truck full of mech heads. He explains that ShaDAO, a secretive organization far more powerful than anyone realizes, was behind it all. Their goal seems to be 51% control of the Paradigm. Zinc also breaks more bad news to Spice: ShaDAO captured Ken. They meet with Ken’s friend, a Spectre named Catch of Wolfe, and she tells them about a potential lead in the city of Magnetic. With jump stations compromised due to the protests (and potential interference from ShaDAO), she gives her car to them for the trip.

CHAPTER NINE - THREE OF A KIND

PART ONE

On the horizon, at the end of the long road, the city of Magnetic materialized. A skyline unlike any other in the Paradigm, skyscrapers here were not hard-lined and functional but sprouted from the earth with an alien, sensual beauty. Organic forms cast in the most expensive materials, pearlescent and sleek against a clear sky, each one a monument as much as it was a building. In Magnetic, one could afford to prioritize form over function.

And yet the city itself was the least impressive part of Magnetic. More remarkable were the strange halos framing it. Dozens of vast floating islands, known as ‘moats’, each one containing an opulent mansion or a high-tech villa. Private, cryptographically secure homes for whales, for those who had made it, or for those who had everything else. Utterly isolated but within full view of the mob below—just the way they liked it.

But Magnetic was more than just a playground for the prosperous. In the Paradigm, wealth and information went hand-in-hand. Half of Magnetic had become rich through information asymmetry, and the other half had built their wealth then erased all traces of how they managed it. A city of paradoxes. Of the best security one could afford. But also of the information leaks that brought Spectres and Script Kitties from all around. Social-climbing and privacy intricately laced together with extreme luxury and incessant paranoia.

Spice pushed her foot down, squeezing more speed out of the Velocista, urging it towards her target even faster now she had it in sight. The acceleration threw Zinc back, smacking his head on the headrest. She glanced over.

“Sorry,” she said. “You fell asleep?”

“Just zoned out a little.”

“How are you feeling?”

Zinc rubbed his eyes. “Fine. Not hurting too bad anymore. Just a little stiff.”

He stretched in his seat, then took in their surroundings. The road had widened out now with more vehicles than earlier along the long, lonely stretch they had just traversed. Magnetic was a coastal town, and the road followed the gentle curve of the picturesque Kalon Sea. Zinc scanned the yachts bobbing on sparkling, sapphire-blue water. “Man, even the water looks expensive here.”

“I heard they had fourteen the usual number of tactilers working on that water.”

“No wonder it feels like a melodic whisper lapping at a light breeze.”

“Just like that, eh?” Spice raised an eyebrow. She’d always admired how tactilers were able to work through the AI founders’ requirements for scenery sensations, while still satisfying the Paradigm population's desire for reality. She almost wished she had the time to pull over and stroll with Zinc along the water’s edge.

“You know,” she said, “you don’t have to follow me in this. It’s probably going to get dangerous, and I wouldn’t blame you for bailing.”

Zinc raised an eyebrow and smiled at her. “You serious?”

“I mean, I’m doing this for Ken,” Spice shrugged. “And I know you two don’t get along.”

“We don’t.” Zinc dropped an arm out of the window. “He’s difficult, goofy, and wanted to turn Era Novum into rubble.”

“But?”

Zinc groaned, reluctant. “But when it came down to it, he had my back. He walked the walk. We’d both still be back at that facility if it weren’t for him. I can’t not respect that. I owe him.”

Spice nodded, as she eased the car onto a long, beautiful bridge spanning an inlet, Magnetic just on the other side.

“Yeah, that’s Unironic Ken,” she said. “He has a habit of rubbing people the wrong way sometimes, but when it comes down to it, there’s not a single broker I’d rather have beside me when it counts.”

Zinc looked out the window a while, the peaceful beauty radiating from the water and lulling a calm silence. Like a salve assuaging the subtle dig.

“Did you two ever…” he asked eventually, trailing off before finishing.

“What?” Spice asked, half of her concentration focused on the signs indicating where the end of the bridge was and the other half on where his question was going.

“Nothing. Never mind.”

Spice slowed the car as they joined the stream of ground vehicles moving through Magnetic, all of them just as stylish and expensive as the one Catch had given them. She and Zinc pressed on into the heart of the city, where magnificent concert halls and luxury restaurants loomed over them with a mixture of modern sophistication and old-world composure.

“Well, here we are,” Spice said, once they were done gawping.

“Yes, indeed. You know Magnetic at all?”

“I’ve only passed through a couple times. There’s a casino here somewhere called The Walled Garden. I know a lot of action goes down there. I just have to find the place again.”

“The downside of a vehicle with no tracking,” Zinc mused.

“Speaking of which,” Spice said as she flung the car into a tight turn. “This ‘Moderator’ person. They just messaged you and Ken out of the blue? They didn’t say how they found you?”

Zinc shrugged as he studied a vast, well-kept park they were passing.

“They reached out to Ken. I figure they’re more interested in you than either of us, though. That message you sent from P.O.S.T. must have drawn their attention.”

“Would be useful if we could contact them.”

“Try it,” Zinc said. “Post something public. If I’m right about them watching you, they might just get in touch.”

“Yeah, maybe—Oh! There it is!”

She pointed someway up ahead at a palatial, French-style gothic building, its large ornamental windows and balconies layering up into the evening sky with aristocratic grandeur. Most striking of all was the absence of all colors except black, white, and red. Even the hedges that lined the vast iron gates were monochrome but for the red roses.

Spice eased the car up the driveway. As she watched, the interior, Zinc’s face, her clothes, all of it desaturated to match the stark building palette of the casino. The world around them went monochrome, leaving only the shocking neon red of the cursive sign they drove under, ‘The Walled Garden’.

PART TWO

“Soleia,” Spice whispered.

It was a nice name. Easy to track, too. The Moderator had come through with it after Spice had made a cryptic public message. At least, she hoped it was The Moderator. The message containing Soleia’s name had been devoid of any metadata. But Zinc insisted that the garbled, noise-like audio matched what Ken had received. That’s all it was, a name. But it was a start.

Zinc raised his arm, and Spice turned first to him, then to where he was looking.

A Smuggler, easily identifiable by the signature Plunder mask, even presented in black-and-white. She weaved through the tables towards them with a youthful swagger and the stoic expression of someone who didn’t scare easily.

At the table, she pulled off her mask, allowing it to dangle from one ear. “I’m Soleia.”

“Spice.”

“Zinc.”

“So,” she said, rapping her fingers on the table. “What’s the job?”

“Actually,” Spice paused delicately, “we’re looking for information you might already have.”

Soleia’s eyes narrowed. For a few ticks she looked confused, then she rolled her eyes and dropped her shoulders. “Ugh,” she groaned into the table, before looking back up at them in frustration. “Are you kidding me? What is it this time? You’re from the Ledger, right? Reporters?”

“We’re not–“

“Did Buzzy tip you off? I’ll bet it was him.”

Spice blinked in confusion. “Buzzy? No, we were-“

“Here’s a bit of information for you: Never date a Gunter, once they find something they can’t explain, they get completely fixated.”

Spice and Zinc swapped another look, then turned back to Soleia.

“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Zinc assured her. “We just know that you’re connected to something big.”

“Why don’t you tell us what it is you think we’re after first?” Spice said.

Soleia slouched, slinging an arm over the back of her chair, visibly giving up any hopes she’d had about this new job. “There’s nothing to tell, really.” Soleia sighed. “That’s kind of the point. It happened a long time ago. Basically, I remember nothing, neither where I was, nor what I did, for about three circuits.”

Spice leaned forward. “You lost your memory?”

“I don't know if there even were memories to be lost," Soleia confirmed. “I remember everything up to a certain point, and then everything after a later point. But in between? It’s all gone. Nothing. I guess the strangest part is that there’s no record of me doing anything in the Paradigm during that time either. No location logs, no transactions, none of my friends even saw or heard from me. Asherah! I can’t believe that’s why you called me out here.”

“Aren’t you curious to find out what happened to you?” Zinc asked.

Soleia shrugged, so uninterested in the question that her gaze wandered around the bar to rest at a poker table, where a Gambler brought up a Behemoth-class mech hologram on her bracer, about to add it to the pot.

“Not anymore,” she said, still watching the poker game. “Like I said, it was a long time ago. My ex–the Gunter–got obsessed with trying to figure it out. To the point where he stopped even paying any attention to me. He was good though. But if he couldn’t figure it out, then I doubt anyone else can.”

Zinc turned to look at Spice, expecting to find her looking as troubled as he felt. Whatever had happened to Soleia would probably happen to Unironic Ken. Completely disappearing from the Paradigm was unheard of for a broker, as was memory loss. The blockchain wasn’t supposed to let things slip.

Instead, Spice watched Soleia with a half-smile.

“Even good Gunters can miss what’s right in front of them.” Spice got up from the table. “Let’s get out of the garden. You should come with us, Soleia. This job isn’t over yet.”

The offices of Intoxicating the Average occupied an entire floor on a higher level in one of Magnetic’s most beautiful buildings. Spice, Zinc, and Soleia stepped out of the elevator into a minimalist, white-walled reception area. Delicate, mint-blue accents on the angular furniture, walls, and reception desk gave everything a tastefully expensive look. A subtle reminder that the best way to show off wealth was not to show off at all.

“Spice!” a familiar voice called.

She looked up to find Intoxicating the Average walking towards her, the other woman hastily retying one of her buns.

“Tox!” Spice dashed forward into a hug, the Gene Editor’s mechanical extensions coiled behind her. “It’s been a long time.”

“Sure has,” Intoxicating said

Her large corner office was framed in by a curved glass wall that offered a dizzying view of the outside: the city , the coast, and even the bridge they had traversed to get there. But inside the glass, everything was messier. The desk held stacks of papers and parts. Research tables and bookshelves lined the two interior walls, and a fully equipped splicing chair occupied an entire corner.

Intoxicating led them all into the room then spun around to sit on the edge of her desk.“So, what did you need?”

There was a tense pause and a shared glance between the trio before Spice answered.

“Memories,” she said finally, then flipped her thumb toward Soleia. “Hers, specifically.”

Intoxicating pursed her lips, waving Soleia to the chair. “What exactly am I looking for?”

“She lost a few circuits’ worth of memories a while ago. No trace of her in the Paradigm either during that time,” Spice explained as they moved to surround the chair. Spice and Zinc watched as Intoxicating worked with both her arms and her extensions, like a mechanical arachnid weaving a web. Soleia’s eyes closed, all the tension and swagger melting from her body.

“Oh wow,” Intoxicating whispered to herself after a while.

“What? What is it?” Zinc asked.

She shook her head. “A memory dam. I’ve never seen one before in real life. Up until this point, I thought all the work on them was completely theoretical. Whoever made this had a lot of money, a lot of skill, and a lot of time.” She turned away from the screen to face them. “It’s a bio-mechanical part that has to be hand-crafted for the particular person who it’s used on. One of those things that’s conceptually simple, but way too expensive and difficult to do in practice. Do you know who made this?”

“Yes, but it’s better if you don’t,” Spice said. “Can you remove it?”

Intoxicating sucked breath through her teeth.

“The good news is that I can, without doing any damage to your friend here. The bad news is that, even in the best-case scenario, she’s only going to get a few memories back, and they’ll probably be disjointed. I can try a computational erosion process that might give her access to more in future, but like I said, this is all theoretical stuff. I can’t guarantee anything.”

“Please, do it.”

Intoxicating sighed and shrugged, sauntering over to her desk and pressed a button. “Shoreline, cancel all my afternoon appointments.”

Roughly 100 blocks later, Intoxicating the Average called them back over to the splicing chair. Zinc got up from her desk, where he had been toying with one of Intoxicating’s spare ‘helpful hands’. Spice turned from the window, where she had been pacing, and paused to watch the traffic on the bridge below.

“Is it done?” Zinc asked.

Intoxicating nodded. “She’s coming around now.”

Soleia trembled a little between them. “Hubur… Cold… The key… Gets you to… And out of…”

They waited until her eyes softened and looked back at them with fatigued recognition.

“You ok?” Spice asked.

Soleia sat up and nodded.

“Can you remember anything?” Intoxicating asked. “Don’t force it, just let whatever it is come back to your mind.”

Soleia squinted into the distance, as if she could see the memories somewhere far off.

“The Hubur Key. I remember that I have to get it. Because I was in a place. A really cold place and–” Soleia stopped to wince as if in pain. “It’s not a nice place… It’s hell.”

“Hubur Key?” Spice repeated. Where had she heard that name before?

"Asherah's Keys," Intoxicating whispered, then continued for everyone to hear, "You've probably seen the key on the statue at the Temples of Asherah. It's a Paradigm fairy tale. The story goes that Asherah had seven keys, each with their own special abilities. The Hubur Key is supposed to be the scariest of them all. Associated with imprisonment."

“This cold place. There’s a reason the Moderator gave us her name,” Zinc looked at the disoriented Soleia. “If they took Ken to wherever she was, then we might be able to get him out with the key.”

Intoxicating laughed as she started shutting down her screens and cleaning her equipment. “Good luck with that. Asherah’s keys aren’t exactly sitting around in museums. We don’t even know if they actually exist!”

“They do exist,” Soleia said, staring ahead with a new, cold determination in her eyes. “And I know where the Hubur Key is. I remember. Three brokers are securing it in their multisig wallets. And I know exactly who they are.”

“How do you know them?” Spice asked.

Soleia shrugged. “Because they couldn’t help but yammer on about it. The lame joke about not throwing away the key, guess it was too much for them not to tell.”

“Three brokers in a multisig,” Zinc said, thinking out loud. “So we can’t just d-mezz one of them and take it.”

Silence settled among them as they considered the problem. When a broker d-mezzed, everything they owned in their wallet burned, and the broker would respawn with nothing in a random safe zone 20 blocks later. But a relic, like the Hubur Key must have been, dropped as loot at the spot where they d-mezzed. Right where anyone could grab it. Items in a shared multisig wallet, however, were neither burned nor dropped. Not as long as at least one owner stayed active, that is.

“No,” Spice said. “But if we d-mezz all of them at the same time, within the 20-block window, the multisig wallet will burn, and the key will drop for us since all the owners are respawning at once.”

The idea hung in the air between them like a dangerous animal nobody dared to touch. They all knew the risks of a multisig assassination. Killing three people within that small of a time frame was impractical and dangerous to the point of outright stupidity. Even hardened assassins wouldn’t take such jobs. It required a lot of trust, coordination, and planning. One target in a safe zone would wreck the entire plan. And in this case, they were dealing with ShaDAO agents who would not let them fail without retaliating.

Spice waited for Zinc or Intoxicating to say something cautious, but Soleia spoke first.

“Let’s do it.”

Zinc nodded. “Now, let's figure out who the lucky bastards are and which one of us is taking them out. Are we drawing straws?”

PART THREE

Mercenary hangouts existed all over the Paradigm, but they were like worlds of their own. Small, self-governing cloisters with their own rules. Spice had tracked her target, Fay from Acidic, down to Hauberk Station in a disused subway line beneath the city of Dunn.

Fortunately for Spice, Mercenary hangouts didn’t bother with safe modes–no merc liked playing by the rules. Unfortunately, the only law mercs did adhere to in a hangout was murder. D-mezzing Fay wouldn’t be hard, but getting out alive would be.

Spice sat at a food stand and pretended to enjoy a bowl of terrible barbecued shrimp, slouching over the counter so that she could glance further down the tunnel at Fay. Through the busy crowd, Spice caught glimpses of her target perusing stolen mech parts beside a sarcastic poster on the stall that read ‘You wouldn’t download a Nexus mech’.

She chewed her shrimp as the proprietor showed Fay a box of flat, square discs. Bootleg, read-only schematic files for mech parts with illegal mod integrations. The kind of thing that could make a mech illegal to use in the Olympics, though Spice didn’t think anybody here cared much about legality. Pushing the sale, he pulled out one disc and plugged it into a small drive. A hologram of a mech’s arm projected above it. The proprietor spun it around, pointing out maneuverability upgrades at the joints. Fay glared at him, unimpressed, then walked on.

Spice washed down the bad shrimp taste with an only slightly worse-tasting drink before glancing back through the shuffling crowd. Fay had moved on now, picking up weapons from another stand a little further down the tunnel. She judged their weight and quality. These small gestures showed that Fay knew her craft. She carried herself well through the vendors. An experienced eye, self-aware, and precise.

Spice checked her bracer: Block 7199. By the time she looked back up she had almost missed Fay. The Mercenary stepped through the weapons stall carrying a rifle half as big as she was. The owner gestured towards a door marked ‘Range’. Spice felt her heart thump and leapt off the stool, heading for the stall.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” the owner of the gun stall responded dryly.

“You got something small, quiet, and strong? I don’t need much range or accuracy, I just want to make sure what I hit gets hit hard.”

The stall owner laughed as he looked around at his own wares.

“Everyone thinks they’re a great shot.” He grabbed a couple of pistols and showed them to Spice. She took the first, unfamiliar pistol and stared down the sight, handed it back and did the same with the next one. A little K35-SHORT.

“Perfect,” she nodded at the door behind him. “Mind if I try out this K35?”

The owner handed her a magazine and swept his arm toward the door.

“Thanks.” Spice loaded the weapon as she went in.

The shooting range was expansive and loud. Twenty booths in a row, half of them occupied with killers of every shape and size firing at moving dummies and cheap, low-poly targets. The thunderous sound of different calibers echoed against the heavy underground walls, reverberating with a sound so dense she could feel it back in IRL. A couple of Leftovers hung back from the stalls, nerding out and affixing jagged bayonets.

She saw Fay in one stall and stepped past her, pretending not to notice. The Mercenary fired clean and even, testing the rifle much more than her skill. Spice took the empty booth beside her and saw the heads of several dummies ahead disappear instantly. She looked down at the pistol in her hand and took a deep breath. Now or never.

###

Zinc leaned against the brick wall of the dark alley, listening to the sound of Nucleus, the hottest restaurant in Nightfall, vibrating through the wall behind him. Down at the end of the alley, beyond the steam drifting from a manhole, he watched men in high-end suits and women in glittery haute couture stepping in and out of luxury cars, laughing and joyous as they entered.

The back door of the kitchen opened, and Zinc slunk a little deeper into the darkness, hiding in the shadows as a Leftover came out to tag a drag from a cigarette. The pixelated smoke wouldn’t bother anyone inside, but the look on her face said she needed an excuse to get out of the restaurant. Zinc didn’t blame her. If her boss was anything like the rumors claimed, he’d want a smoke break, too. Zinc checked the time: Block 7199. He didn’t know whether to feel lucky, or as if he’d drawn the short straw.

Luther Radioactive was Zinc’s target. A Chef–but not any Chef, he was known as ‘The Butcher of Nightfall’. Practically a mob boss in one of the most dangerous cities in the Paradigm. But this fight would go down differently, on Zinc’s terms. One thing Zinc knew better than anyone else was glitches, bugs, broken parts of the Paradigm, and at Nucleus he’d hit the jackpot.

He’d found a missing texture alignment variable in the kitchen. Nobody would notice it, situated as it was behind a counter, but to Cleanup Crew, it was a big problem–one that could be exploited. Luther clearly hadn’t let any Cleanup Crew near his kitchen for a long time. With the right refresh-check and the right tools, a bug like that could be manipulated to affect everything around it. Zinc had set it up so that halfway through block 7200, the check would happen, and the entire kitchen would become a maelstrom of texture-distortions, pop-in, malformed tessellations, and broken aliasing. Completely disorienting and practically impossible to navigate for anyone.

Except a junkman.

Zinc pushed himself off the wall and moved to the kitchen door, checking the time. “If I pull this off, Ken,” he muttered, “you never get to call me that again.”

###

Soleia had watched the Leftover for a few days now, and she had to admit Stanton was smart. By day, she ran a museum with fully operational replicas of classic sci-fi ships and devices. By night, the museum became a workshop for the sophisticated and deadly electronics she built. Rumors suggested she had even moved on to modifying her own body with synthetic elements. It was no wonder she was one of the brokers in the multisig protecting the key.

Her intelligence didn’t quell Soleia’s hatred any less. The museum was closed, which was good for Soleia, since Stanton turned safe mode off, so that she could fully test what she built without alerting Alpha Command to a weapon discharge in a non-PVP zone. Soleia sat in the cargo bay of a famous spaceship–smuggling herself for once–and waited for the right moment to emerge. Block 7199.

Her target had built an odd security system to defend herself and the museum. Four robotic dragonflies hung from a post by the cabin where she worked, which she could be triggered at will. Mean little things that moved fast and struck faster with tails like daggers. Most people just went with lasers.

Tonight, Stanton worked outside the cabin at a worktable. Soleia approached with caution, glancing over at the dragonfly post. One night prior, she had smuggled one out and had a friend reprogram it to chase after Stanton herself. All the Smuggler could hope for now was that the other woman hadn’t discovered the change. Or more importantly, that the dragonfly was still programmed to help Soleia. If it wasn’t, if Stanton knew, this next part would be impossible, instead of almost impossible.

“Hey!” Stanton shouted, noticing her finally. “Museum’s closed!”

“I’m not here for the exhibits.”

Stanton’s body stiffened. “Oh, yeah?” Her mechanic’s helmet blocked the view of any facial expression, but one gloved hand reached for the button tucked in the hem of her shirt that would trigger the dragonflies. “Why are you here then?”

Soleia exhaled one long breath and braced herself for the hard part. “The Hubur Key.”

Stanton’s finger moved, and the dragonflies whirled into life with sharp, raspy sounds. Soleia turned and sprinted, getting a head start, while they calibrated to recognize her as the enemy. It wasn’t long before the buzzing began to follow her.

As she ran, she reached into her shawl and pulled out the overload pylon. She flicked it outwards, extending it to its full height before jabbing the pylon into the ground mid-stride. A tick later, the sound of overcharged electronics exploding behind her, and Soleia hurried back to the cabin.

Stanton no longer stood beside the table. Soleia assumed the broker had d-mezzed and moved closer. There it was. The Hubur Key. It lay on the ground where Stanton had dropped it. Soleia pocketed it, and the key registered itself in her wallet.

A deep sinking feeling grew inside her now she’d succeeded. It was obvious she’d end up back in that hell. But she didn’t have time to dwell on that thought. She needed to get out of the museum now, before Stanton respawned in the next 20 blocks.

CYBERBROKERS

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