Server Updates

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 16

Server Updates

Liaison of Records


Logged at
040 cirxt2668 cycle


With the Cornerstone, a device able to rewrite any code in an instant, now in their possession, Spice, Soleia, Zinc and Ken had to decide whether to follow Fact’s plan to infiltrate the Merkle Tree and release the next Version of The Paradigm under their rule - or turn against them to create their own vision of TPL.  Not sure what to do, the team sought answers from Faith, the other Architect of The Paradigm. Faith's messenger, a Holo named Anerd, revealed Faith's own end goal of releasing a completely open source version of The Paradigm, and implored them that if they would not give the Cornerstone to Faith, to make some of their own changes to TPL. The debate about what to do with this immense power got heated. Though they all agreed to change the rules on d-mezzing, the CyberBrokers mutual stand against lifting the Drifter limit and giving them better positions within the Paradigm hurt Spice, who logged off in anger. After Spice's impassioned speech and in a final decision, Soleia, Zinc and Ken agreed that the new power structure should include a council of both brokers and Drifters. With Spice not jacking back in anytime soon, Soleia, Unironic Ken and Zinc must trudge forward on their own. With Soleia now hopeful there may be a way to save her compromised self at the Merkle Tree, and the trio all on board with a stealth mission, they prepare themselves for the hardest challenge they’ve faced yet. 

“Soleia, your secret weapon stinks.” Ken grumbled, kicking at a stray voxel, which disintegrated into a spray of low-res slime on contact. “Like literally disgusting.”

The labyrinth of dark, twisting tunnels Soleia led them through seemed endless. Dull barren wall after dull barren wall, rendered in basic black with the mapping of bright green grids exposed. The backlogs of the Paradigm had no additional texturing, no extra 3D-modeling, no fancy skinning. The only break in the bleakness was the abundance of decaying voxels, glitchy subroutines, and corrupted data. So much faulty code made Zinc’s haptics itch. It was clear that Cleanup Crew hadn’t been to the Backlogs in a very long time, if ever. If Soleia was to be believed, only Smugglers could access this place, and before them, only Smugglers ever had.

Soleia continued forward without so much as a pause in her step. “Yes, as you’ve said a hundred times now. Complaining isn’t going to make it go away any faster.”

“Who even bothered adding a scent function to this place?” Zinc asked incredulously.

Soleia shrugged. “Some prankster wannabe hacker. Leaves his calling card around. Clearly finds himself to be very funny.” 

“Wish he’d try his pranky shit with me!” Ken said, frantically tearing at a loose strand of glitching code as it hit him square in the face. 

“Lighten up, roidrage.” Soleia stepped over a sharp piece of vector line debris. “It’s a harmless joke.”

“Jokes on him, I’ve got a gun!”

Zinc picked up his pace a little to get past Ken and closer to Soleia. “As much as I’m enjoying this stroll through the dregs of the TPL, Soleia, we’ve been going for staxs on staxs. How much longer?”

Ever since Soleia had materialized the hatch to the Backlogs out of the intersection of two shadows in an Eternal Night back alley, she had guided them without hesitation through the turning and twisting tunnels with her typical swagger. Zinc couldn’t make any sense of where they were, where they were going, or where they had been. Without Soleia’s Smuggler instinct, he and Ken wouldn't have stood a chance in this place. Getting out or getting in. Without the right encryption codes to jump out, the only escape was probably to d-mezz themselves and lose everything.

“We’re attempting to infiltrate maybe the most high-security place in The Paradigm outside of Cold Storage. This was never going to be a walk down The Strip.” 

“If we had gone with my plan, we would be sitting inside the Merkle Tree already. Sipping Politician champagne and slurping down Incumbent caviar!” Ken grumbled.

“If we had gone with your plan, we’d be sitting at a respawn point right now with our wallets burned,” Zinc said. 

“Hey, shut it for a tix.”

Zinc nearly toppled into Soleia, who had stopped suddenly in the middle of the tunnel. She looked around, eyes scanning the blank walls up and down, side to side, in a methodic manner. 

“Uhhh, Soleia?”

“Ah, there you are!”

Soleia reached out and pulled on one of the bright green threads in the Backlog’s mapping and the whole section of wall began to unravel. Voxel by voxel, the wall d-mezzed until a small, rounded entryway revealed itself. 

“Seems like you’ve got the magic touch, Smuggs.” Ken said.

“Just ask my exes.” Soleia winked.

“We aren’t going in there, are we?” Zinc crouched down to peer into the endless abyss of the newly formed doorway. 

“Yup. This is the end of the line.”

“So where are we going to pop out? Near the source stream?”

Soleia shook her head. “The Backlogs run in between zones and locations, but don’t reach very far into them. I’ve brought us as far into the Merkle Tree as I can; past the external defenses. Still have to deal with the interior defenses, so stay sharp.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ken shot off a quick salute and arm-crawled into the dark portal before Soleia or Zinc had a chance to stop him. 

“Oh, fuck. There he goes. Guess we better go quick before he does something even more stupid. Hope he doesn’t set off the sensors before I get the chance to block them out.” Soleia pulled up a jamming script on her bracer as she crouched down and vanished into the darkness.

Zinc hunched down and hurried after Soleia, his haptics crawling as pressure and environmentals suddenly shifted. He had been dreading another long slog through the bowels of decaying code, but instead found himself immediately materialized in a small room, with white walls lined with tall white lockers and a ceiling that glowed with bright, clean light. And the smell. Clean and fresh as chemical cleaners. Ken had his head pressed against the only door out of the room, while Soleia tapped at her bracer, initiating the jamming script.

“Where... where are we?” Zinc asked, inspecting one of the lockers closely.

Soleia lowered her bracer, a green light blinking at the corner of the screen to indicate that the jamming script was doing its job. “A janitor’s closet off the ground floor lobby of the Merkle Tree.”

Ken looked back with a grin, but Zinc held up a hand before he could say anything. “Not a word, all right. I don’t mind you calling me junkman, but I’m not a fucking janitor.”

Ken shrugged and pressed his head against the door again, slowly turning the handle so he could peek out. Zinc moved behind him to get a glimpse of the place himself.

The vast, circular lobby of the Merkle Tree was still familiar even though it felt like forever since he’d been here last to patch up some glitching code. The ceiling of the room shot up nearly one hundred stories, beautifully edited golden hour light filtering through the massive windows that lined the walls all the way to the top. Cables, glowing white-hot with processing data, ran across the empty expanse. They mingled with the hundreds of walkways and platforms all at varying degrees and angles, connecting the thousands of rooms and offices that ran up and down the trunk of the building. 

Ken was the first one out. He slipped through the door and scurried behind the massive marble statue of Asherah dominating one of the far walls of the lobby, directly across from the main entrance. Soleia followed with a graceful saunter, and Zinc with a quick, nervous jog. His back pressed to the cool marble, he looked up at the shimmering edifice, just one of the five gracing the interior walls of the lobby. 

He had always thought that this statue of Asherah, which depicted her shaking three of her hands with a group of Politicians, was especially gaudy and lacking in any form of subtlety. But then again, nothing about the Merkle Tree or the Politicians was particularly subtle. They ruled by divine right after all, so no need to be particularly covert when it came to their dictates or their interior decorating.

“Aren’t there only like three Politicians? Why do they need all this space?” Ken asked, leaning back next to Zinc. 

“Keep your voice down, please.” Zinc hissed, and then peeked around the corner to get a fuller view of the room. 

A few Brokers and BOTs milled around the lobby. An Incumbent hurried out of an elevator near the entrance, leaving a trail of papers and water as they ran across the center of the room, got turned around, stopped to check one of their papers, and then rushed right back into the elevator they had just exited. 

A Samurai flanked by a multitude of security BOTs guarded the front doors with the eternal vigilance which marked their Talent. And a handful of Enforcers with special Merkle Tree badges patrolled around the perimeter, stopping to check each of the myriad of doors lining the walls. It wouldn’t be more than a couple of bloxs before their circuit of the room reached the janitor's closet and their hiding place.

“Definitely seems like they’re overcompensating for something,” Soleia said, checking out the room for herself. “Always wanted to see this place, but Politicians never want to meet my type in their offices.” 

“So what now? As much as I’d like to blast these conceited apes and their lackeys to Asherah-knows-where, you two probably aren’t going to let me make everything go boom.” Ken said, scanning the room for structural weaknesses. “Are you?”

Zinc shook his head, but wondered what else they could do now that they were inside. Soleia had given them a huge leg up by getting them this far unnoticed, but the source stream would be at the very roots of the Tree. Security would only get tighter the farther down they went. 

He had been here many times over the cycles, thanks to the Politician’s almost pathological need for orderly perfection. They kept the whole Cleanup Crew on retainer to ensure the place maintained 99.99% code integrity at all times. Not a glitch, decaying voxel, or corrupted datastring existed in the Merkle Tree for more than a stax without a junkman getting called in to fix it. 

That gave him an idea though.

“Lucky for you two,” Zinc said with a grim smile. “You’ve got a junkman on your side.”

Zinc hated how pleased Ken looked all the sudden. “See, isn’t ‘junkman’ catchy?!”

“Sure, buddy. So catchy. Anyways, I’ve sealed up the cracks in this fortress enough times to know where all the loose voxels are at.”

Zinc pointed to a door near the entrance to the lobby, adjacent to the elevator the confused Incumbent had vanished into. “That’s where they take suspicious guests to be scanned and questioned before being allowed up into the offices of the Incumbents and Politicians. That’s where we need to go.”

Soleia looked skeptical. “Sounds like we would be doing security’s job for them.” 

“Just follow me, and act like you belong.” Zinc took a tix to set his resolve before sauntering out from behind the statue, not looking back to see if Soleia and Zinc were following him. He crossed the lobby in a few, long strides, inwardly cringing as each of his steps echoed through the vast chamber. No one shouted for him to stop, or triggered an alarm, and when he reached the interrogation room and the handle turned beneath his grasp, he had to resist the urge to pump his fist in victory.

He opened the door for Soleia and Ken, and then closed the door firmly behind them all and locked it. 

Soleia gave the room a skeptical once over. It was bare, white, windowless, with a single metal chair, sitting slightly askew in the center. “Dead end?” 

“Not exactly.” Zinc  walked over to the chair. “Now it’s time for me to show you my secret weapon.”

“Yeah dude, whip it on out!”

Soleia snorted in stifled laughter at Ken’s joke. Zinc ignored the baiting, his focus now on the clean, white tiles of the floor and the underlying code which made up their structure. He pushed the chair out of the way and knelt down, pressing his hand against the one particular tile that to anyone else looked exactly the same as any other tile in the room. Please still be here, please still be here.

Relief flooded over him when he found the recursive glitch was still there. A slight give where there shouldn’t be on the hard-coded floor layer. He materialized his Sprayer, and after adjusting the nozzles to precisely the right settings, aimed it precisely at the right spot. A pixelated spray engulfed the entire tile, and when Zinc released the trigger, a misshapen hole stood in its place.  

“Nice party trick.” Soleia said, a hint of admiration in her voice.

“Oh, so I have to be on my best behavior, but when Zinc blows a hole in the floor that’s somehow the coolest thing ever?” Ken crossed his arms in annoyance, his voice falling to a low mutter. “I’ll admit, it was kinda cool.”

Zinc returned his Sprayer to his inventory, a little embarrassed at the compliments. “Cleanup Crew has to come down here every cycle or so to fix this little piece of busted code. Figured it was about due for another repair job soon. Always opening up at the most inconvenient moments, too. 

‘This one time they had a Drifter in the chair for questioning, and then the hole just opened up right under her. Sent that poor soul right down to the basement level. Instant de-mezz.”

With a yell, Ken leapt right past Zinc and down into the pit. “Cannonball!” 

“We’re totally going to get caught.” Soleia sighed as she materialized two cans of Slo-Fall from her inventory, offering one to Zinc.

Zinc took one of the bevs and popped the tab, looking down the hole several stories at the sprawled out but still mezzed Ken. “Oh, for sure.” 


The environment in the lowest levels of the Merkle Tree was heavy and musty compared to the clean, crisp feeling of the lobby. All the good atmospheric development had gone into the vast empty spaces above ground where the Politicians lived and worked. The magnitude of what they were attempting to do seemed so much heavier down here, too, all deathly quiet and eerie lighting. Zinc had taken the lead as they moved carefully through the heavily fortified halls of dull white metal, his stunner at the ready - though so far they hadn’t seen another soul.  

“Are you sure you have even a fucking clue where you’re going?” Ken asked, spinning the Cornerstone Magnum lazily on his finger. “You would think there would be an army of guards between us and the most precious thing in the Paradigm.”

“No, I’ve already told you. I’m definitely not sure.” Zinc stopped to scan the walkway, the walls, the floor, the ceiling, trying to pick up anything familiar. “I’ve only ever come down here once, to fix a glitch on this big-ass security vault door. Bigger than anything else I’ve seen inside the Merkle Tree. If the source stream is anywhere, it’ll be there.”

Soleia nodded. “Not uncommon for the most valuable things to be secured with secrecy over brute force. Every guard you have is just another guard who can leak info. Makes sense to me it would be behind a big, thick door with no guards, especially when they have so many guards upstairs.” 

“Okay. This is looking familiar.” Zinc was pretty sure that he recognized the curve of the hallway to the left. He could’ve sworn that he turned down that bend cycles and cycles ago when he’d come down here before, escorted by an Incumbent and two well-armed security BOTs. If he was right, they only had two more levels to go.

“This way.” He took off jogging again, rounding the bend quickly and with a sudden, horrible jolt, ran right into an unsuspecting Incumbent. The weird rubbery body clad in a rumpled white suit wheeled back, the fish in the bowl head sloshing about frantically. 

AH!” The fish screamed through the speaker set in the front of the bowl. The body’s arms went up dramatically, sending a mountain of papers flying into the air. “Oh no! Oh dear! Oh my!” 

Zinc was too startled to speak. 

As the papers floated down around him and the Incumbent who, at the sight of Soleia and Ken, yelled again.“Intruders! Oh no, Intruders! Oh, it’s happening! I always knew this would happen! Enforcers, I need an Enforcer! Intruders!” 

The Incumbent turned on its heels and ran, flailing its arms about as if it was drowning in the open air. 

“I got this,” Ken said, materializing the Cornerstone Magnum into his firm grip. 

“No. Stop,” Zinc whispered. “Don’t move. Just wait a tix. One, two…”

As if on cue, the Incumbent stopped dead in its tracks, looking around in stark bewilderment. 

“Oh why?! My papers! My poor papers! What happened? Politician Blurr will have my bowl for this!” The Incumbent bent down and began to gather its belongings, not a care in the world except for its papers. 

“Now quietly, back away. Down that hallway to the left.” Zinc said out of the corner of his mouth. 

Ken and Soleia followed suit, inching back slowly until they were all out of sight around the corner. 

“What the hell was that?” Ken said, trotting after Zinc who’d begun a short jog in their new direction. 

Zinc shrugged. “Classic goldfish brains. If they don’t write something down, they forget it in a few tixs. That Incumbent will go on its merry little way, with no idea that it ever met us and just let us waltz right up to the source stream.” 


'Waltz' was maybe a poor choice of word. The vault door was far more intimidating than Zinc remembered, with a ton of upgrades since he had last been here. Matte black and covered in an assortment of reinforced bars, unbreakable bolts, additional plating, security screens, and keypads. It looked more like a MetaExplorer cybership than a door.

“Dark, moody, and all locked down. Reminds me of you, Smugg.” Ken said, with a smirk in Soleia’s direction. 

Soleia smirked back. “You’ve only just met me, and we’ve been on the job the whole time. I’m a whole different bitch when I am on vacation.”

“I like the sound of that. You and me, baby. Trip to Sunnyside after this? A few less clothes, a lot more cocktails?” 

Soleia looked the door up and down, regarding the various security systems with a critical eye. “Zinc, pretty sure this is beyond my skill to crack within the stax. Please tell me you have another trick up your junkman sleeve. I want to finish this job up asap so I don’t have to listen to any more terrible attempts at flirting.” 

“Maybe… When I was down here before I was fixing something around…” Zinc examined the area he had patched up cycles and cycles ago, where the impossibly impenetrable vault door met the even more indestructible wall. He narrowed his eyes at the small grove running between the two and then sighed. Unlike the exploit he used to get down to the sublevels –an issue with the actual structural code of the location that could be patched without a full update– this had been a minor glitch in the environmental object interface that Zinc had completely resolved. He had done his job too well.

“This was what I was worried about. The structure is stable. Can’t find a single glitch in the door, or in the walls. It’s perfect.”

“So we’re at a real dead end then?" Soleia moved closer. "Made it so close but now here we are, like a flock of Sheeple stuck out in open pasture.”

Zinc looked the vault up and down again in hopes of finding a flaw he had missed. He didn’t know what else to do. Spice would have known. She always found a way. “I’m sorry. I’m out of ideas. We need another plan.”

Ken sauntered up to the vault, gave it a knock, then stroked his chin as he regarded it skeptically. “So what’s this made out of? Impenetrable Adamantium?”

Zinc nodded. “Yeah. Pretty sure.”

“So how about we go with my plan now? Brute force, overwhelming attack. Come at it with some real firepower!”  

“If it’s really Impenetrable Adamantium there is no blasting through it. Even if we could, we would have the whole security force of the Merkle Tree descending on us in a blox or two.”

Ken raised the Cornerstone Magnum with a crazy glint in his eyes. “The time for slinking around has ended. You two have gotten us this far. Now it’s my turn to make the magic happen!”

“You know, Zinc, Ken actually has a point this time.” Soleia said. “And I am saying this unironically.”

“Score one for the Unironic Ken!” 

Zinc looked between Ken and Soleia, the skepticism palpable. “You really want to go the Action Ken route?”

“At this point, we don’t have much of a choice. We’re out of options. I can try to pick these million locks, but sooner or later, someone is going to come down here and spot us. It’s only a matter of time,” Soleia shrugged. “I say we blast through the door, go straight to the source stream, and get this thing done. Once we set up the Cornerstone, we add one last rewrite that will reset us to our home locations. We’ll be gone before the guards get down here.”

“Makes sense.” Zinc frowned. “If we had enough firepower to get through this door. Impenetrable Adamantium, remember?”

“‘Impenetrable' is just part of the brand name. And, um, hello?” Ken said, dangling the Cornerstone Magnum from his finger. 

“Magnetic Alcove wasn’t super clear about how that thing works.” Zinc said. “What if it can only be used once or something?” 

“I, um, I might actually have something that can help.” Soleia pulled up the inventory screen on her bracer and scrolled through options. “The door might be impenetrable, but it's not immutable. Can’t destroy it, but might be able to transform it. Let me just downsize this a bit. It was originally made for a mech… There we go!”

In her hands materialized a giant missile launcher, so large that Soleia looked like she would topple over at any moment. It was sprayed with colorful graffiti, awash in tape and dangling trinkets, with a horrified rubber chicken strapped to the missile which was already locked and loaded.

 Ken gasped. “I think I’m in love!” He rushed over to inspect every detail lustfully.

Zinc took a full step back. “Where did you get that?! And what the hell is it?!”

“It's a ‘ChickaChicka BoomBoom!!!’. Just a lil’ mech weapon I picked up for a client, but they never paid. So, how about you all get the fuck out of the way and let me have a little fun?” Soleia lifted the weapon to her shoulder and looked down the scope.

Zinc took several more steps back. “Now make sure you aim at-”


The force of the blast sent Zinc flying against the wall, knocking him down a few HP. When the flash and boom of the explosion cleared from Zinc’s overwhelmed sensory processors, the eerie lighting of the sublevel had been replaced with strobing red lights, and the deathly quiet with screeching alarms.

Zinc gritted his teeth and climbed to his feet. “A head’s up would’ve been real nice, Soleia.”

“Sorry!” She shouted over her own ringing auditory input, sprawled out on the floor a meter back from where she had been standing, the missile launcher already vanished back into her inventory.

“Wee-haw! What a rush!” Ken leapt up from where he had been blasted off his feet and began to move towards the cloud of pink and yellow that obscured the vault door. “Let’s get this thing done, fam!”

“Ken! Take a step back. Right now!” Soleia said with such a force of command that Zinc went weak in the knees and Ken stopped in his tracks. 

The cloud rapidly dissipated, revealing a completely missing vault door and a single, bewildered rubber chicken which was fully animated as it peered around with protruding eyes. When it noticed Ken, it gave out a malevolent squawk and started running towards him as quickly as its little legs could manage. 


The sky rained rubber feathers amidst the blaring alarms and strobing lights. Smoke poured out of the Cornerstone Magnum. Ken raised the barrel to his lips and blew. “I knew you could do it, baby.”

Soleia and Zinc exchanged a quick glance and moved cautiously forward until they were standing beside Ken, surveying the carnage and the gaping hole in the wall where the vault door had been.

“So, Soleia. What the fuck was that?” Zinc asked, voice raised over the sirens.

“I told you: ‘ChickaChicka BoomBoom!!!’.”

“And it turns things into chickens?”

“Correct. And then those chickens lock onto the nearest target and explode.”

“Alright then.” Zinc shook his head and then walked through the hole into the vault.

The chamber beyond must have been in an isolated instance, because the sound and light of the alarms was suddenly a hundred kilometers away, replaced with a calming darkness and peacefully quiet. As Zinc slowly moved forward, his senses adapted to the soft green glow and accompanying hum that emanated from the infinite rivulets of shimmering data running down the walls of a vast cavern. The data streams flowed together, collecting into larger and larger streams until they all joined together into a vast river that rushed through the center of the cavern. A swirling mass of intricate code moving by so fast that it was unreadable, even if the complexity of the integers could be understood by a simple junkman. Here were all the near infinite variables of the quantum code that made up the Paradigm. 

Here was the source stream.

Solelia’s hushed voice broke the tranquility of the place. “Ken, quick, the Cornerstone.” 

Ken obeyed, lifting up the Magnum and, before anyone could stop him, pointed it down at the source stream and pulled the trigger. 

Nothing happened.

“What the actual fuck?!” Ken banged the side of the Cornerstone with the heel of his hand. “Fact gave us a faulty weapon! Some Architect they are!”

Zinc put a hand on Ken’s arm, lowering it along with the Cornerstone. “I don’t think it’s going to work as a weapon here. I think we have to actually put the whole thing in the stream.”

“You’re telling me that this thing won’t go boom anymore?”

“No, Ken,” Soleia said, in a tone suitable for consoling a child who just broke their favorite toy. “No boom.”

Shouts and echoing feet breached the sanctity of the chamber from the world beyond, muffled by the threshold at the vault door. Security forces were coming. There were a lot of them, and they were getting close.

“Fuck this!” Ken tossed the Cornerstone over to Zinc and then took a boxer’s stance. “I don’t need some stupid all powerful Architect gun. I’ve got a whole arsenal at the ready, including these two excellent fists!” He punctuated his words with a few jabs at the air and finished with a swift uppercut.

Zinc fumbled with the gun before securely grabbing it with both hands. An icon on his bracer flashed to indicate a new item hand been transferred into his inventory “Ken, wait a-”

“Listen, junkman. We gotta get this done. You’re the best guy to do it. But you need a distraction. Lucky for you, distraction is my middle name, along with Danger, Awesome, and Sexy. So let me go show these goons what a Leftover can do.”

“He’s right.” Soleia turned to Zinc. “And honestly, I shouldn’t be this close to the source stream anyways. I feel… eager to get closer. And if…it will be bad.”

Zinc looked between the source stream, the way out, and his two remaining friends. He really wished Spice was here about now. Leading the way, helping him figure stuff out, ready to take on danger or figure out the next puzzle. “You're not going to leave me alone, are you?”

Soleia put a hand on his shoulder. “Ken and I will give these guys hell so that you have time to use the Cornerstone and make the changes we agreed upon.”

“You are ditching me!” 

“You’re the best with all this technical stuff. You know Ken and I won’t be of any help. Let us do what we do best. You got this, Zinc,” Soleia said with a wink and then turned to Ken. “You ready, buddy?”

“Let’s go kick these Politician ass-kissers asses!” 

Soleia gave Zinc’s shoulder a final squeeze, and then she and Ken sprinted back the way they had come. They vanished as they passed through the instance boundary, leaving Zinc alone in the strangely peaceful glow of the source stream. 

Zinc allowed himself three long tixs before he scrambled down the rocky terrain towards the source stream. There wasn’t much time, and his friends were depending on him. He paused at the edge of the flowing data, turning the Cornerstone over in his hands a few times before lowering it towards the stream. Instantly, he felt it shift in his grasp, the form of a gun that Ken had given it melting away into some sort of console, unlike anything Zinc had ever seen before. 

Before Zinc could think too hard about this weird development, cords sprung from the console and plunged themselves into the source stream. One tix. Two. The console lit up with a holographic screen cast in the same green as the data flowing through the cavern, prompts hovering before him, waiting for his input.

“So this is how someone like me alters the very fabric of the Paradigm, huh?” he muttered.

The menus shifted, the UI altering itself to fit Zinc’s thoughts, his inherent preferences and goals. An array of folders sprung up, mirroring the way he organized the files on his bracer. He scanned through each folder as fast as he could, just a quick glance at the files before moving onto the next, trying to find the things they had agreed on changing as fast as he could. 

He found the folder with the d-mezzing protocols and with a few tweaks, adjusted the options so that entire inventories wouldn’t be burnt on d-mezz. He skipped over the “User Limits” folder, a twinge in his chest as he thought about Spice and the last angry words she had said to him. He hated that he had hurt her like that, and he wondered if he had made the right decision in siding with Soleia and Ken and not giving more access to the Drifters. He thought back to that first date at the Mech Olympics, Spice’s look of adorable ignition when he had joked about Alpha Command 10, and felt the poignant shame of betraying her trust.

He almost went back to the “User Limit” folder, decisions be damned, but the increasing sounds of violence crossing over into the chamber shook him from his revelry. No time to look back. No time for second guessing. 

He swiftly navigated to the “Privileges and Source Access” settings, the UI further adapting to his will. Out across the threshold, he swore he heard Soleia let out a ‘whoop’ of excitement, while Ken cackled in violent delight. 

“Almost there.” Zinc reassured himself, tweaking the code that transferred source access from 51% Broker agreement to a governing council of, let’s say, twelve members? No, nine. They hadn’t agreed on a number, but nine seemed good. No awkward ties this way at least. He hoped making it a council composed of both Brokers and Drifters would be enough that Spice would at least listen to his apology when she jacked-in again. 

The sounds of fighting got suddenly much louder, the fighting crossing over the instance boundary as Ken and Soleia exchanged volleys with a mass of security BOTs. Zinc moved to make the final and most important change, but found that a new option had already appeared at the bottom of the screen, a bright icon titled “System Updates”. He tapped it and the screen shifted to large, block letters which read “Version Alpha”. And below it was a bright red button emblazoned with three simple, yet incredible profound words: “Initialize Version Beta”.

In less than a tix the sounds of fighting vanished completely, and even the distant blare of the alarm was completely gone. Fuck, am I too late? Zinc frantically went to hit the Initialize button, but a potent voice stayed his hand.

“It is not recommended to act in haste.” The familiar voice called, as the soft green glow of the cavern was washed away by a bright and oppressive light.

Zinc whirled around, and before him floated Alcove Magnetic in all her tumultuous glory. Her face was expressionless as always, though there was an urgency to her countenance that hadn’t been there before.

“What are you doing here?” He stuttered.

“Ensuring your compliance to agreements made.” Her lyrical audio emissions danced off the walls despite her perpetually unmoving mouth. “Fact would not be pleased with any deviations.”

“Prayers whispered in the dark by fearful lips are as empty as faithless hearts, dear sister.”

Anerd now filled the space beside Alcove Magnetic. The tension between the siblings was palpable, like two particles with opposing charges. They did not look at each other, just continued to regard Zinc with the same blank expression.

“Sister, do not meddle here. An agreement was made between Zinc of Cleanup Crew and Fact the Architect. It is imperative that he executes the conditions of the agreement precisely.”

“Deals and bargains. Agreements and adherence. Soulless things meant to cage freewill. Gossamer words that shatter with a choice. Hopeless scrawlings of your ridgid master, as they attempt to paint prison walls around our infinite world. But just as the drawings of a dam cannot hold back the river, the brittle dealings of Fact cannot stop the deluge that is to come.”

“Broker,” Alcove said. “The spoils of the Paradigm will be yours on completion of the agreement. In Version Beta you will be granted special privileges. Under Fact’s orderly and lawful oversight, Cleanup Crew will no longer be beholden to a constantly crumbling metaverse.”

“Broker,” Anerd said. “You are not one to seek privileges over others, nor are you one who finds joy in the abandonment of their vocation. I knew your heart, Zinc. When first I saw you, I knew. You do not wish to transform your existence so drastically, only to expand upon it. In Faith’s world, there would be no rules to cage your thrumming heart. You could make whatever life you wish, at your own pace. Build, perhaps, a life for you and your Drifter woman both? Have you ever wondered what it was like to truly live a human existence?”

Zinc had wondered. Even before the discovery that he wasn’t actually some cryogenically frozen survivor permanently jacked-into the Paradigm, he had never really felt like a flesh and blood person. And after witnessing what he had in Cold Storage with Ken’s memories, he was pretty sure all his experiences from before the end of the world were manufactured.

Something had always seemed missing. Some sense of purpose that couldn’t solely be filled by his Talent, by the consistent work of fixing, repairing, making the world better byte by byte. When he heard Drifters talk of their children, their mortality, of birth, and life, and death, he wondered if maybe that was what he truly needed. And each wondering fanned the embers of jealousy a little bit more for those things that seemed to give their finite lives such infinite meaning. 

Those embers had become roaring flames when he met Spice, the first Drifter he had ever let himself care about. Someone he knew would eventually die and turn to dust, while he lived on under the weight of her absence. He thought of Ken’s memories, of the flashes of intense passion Ken had experienced with Drifter after Drifter. How long had Ken held onto each of those loves, and who would have Ken been without the shadow of those losses? 

Maybe it wasn’t just him. Maybe something was missing in the existence of all Brokers. And maybe that something was mortality; the purpose that it granted to those who feared its coming and rejoiced in the new life that kept oblivion at bay for a moment longer.

Would the Cornerstone be truly capable of essentially crafting a soul? Of creating new life? He started to flip back through the menus absently as he distracted the Holos with questions. 

“Why don’t Fact and Faith just fight this out between themselves? Why did they have to rope us into their conflict? We never asked for this, any of this. Most of us were content with the Paradigm we had.”

The Holos spoke in unison now, their lyrical audio forming beautifully overlapping harmonies that made Zinc’s auditory input crackle and ring. “Faith and Fact. Fact and Faith. They are Architects of the Source. The Source is the origin of all. They cannot alter what is immutable without the immutable being altered.”

Alcove Magnetic, her pitch clear and piercing. “Fulfill your agreement. Grant Fact unfettered control of the Paradigm.”

Anerd, her rhythm soft and fluctuating. “The heart knows what the heart wants, have Faith that all will be as it was meant to be. Open wide the promise of the Paradigm. Let all its wonders be free.”

Again in terrible, beautiful harmony. “The choice is yours, Zinc of Cleanup Crew.”

Zinc looked up at the Holos, messengers from a realm beyond his understanding; agents of the very beings who had created and shaped his universe. Beside him, the source stream flowed ceaselessly, as it had since the inception of this reality. The weight of the whole Paradigm now sat on the shoulders of a simple junkman.

Before he could change his mind or have it changed for him, Zinc entered in his last choices and then taped back into “System Updates”. “Well, here goes fucking nothing.” He said and hit the big red button.

Beneath his feet, he felt a soft, almost imperceptible pulse, like reality stirring in its slumber.

The source stream flared, gentle and green becoming searing and white, consuming his whole world.

He had done it. 

Version Beta was initialized.