The Quantum Leap meets Captain N story of a gamer literally sucked into videogames.
(To catch up with the story and read previous editions of “Quantum Geek,” click here.)
“NEED MORE VESPENE GAS.”
“Goddammit, Alli, will you STOP SAYING THAT ALREADY!” Tom shouted.
Alli snickered across the communication link at Tom’s frustration. Still, the stage had been set; the gears were in motion. Emmi had been able to load up StarCraft, and was even able to select a map that tactically favored their side; they had each spawned in areas with plenty of resources and with canyons that limited enemy entry into their territory. Best of all, Emmi’s tinkering had also allowed Tom and Alli to play as their preferred species, Terran and Zerg, respectively, leaving Emmi to play as Protoss in order to, as she put it, “maintain the strategic balance.” Each of them had slowly but steadily built up their forces, expanding out to new resources while being careful not to crowd out the expansive capabilities of the other two. Admittedly, Alli did need occasional reminding on this particular point, but quickly fell into line when she recalled that weak allies would be easily defeated, and then their opponent could turn all of its resources against her.
Things had been going pretty smoothly so far. The Enemy, which was the name they had taken to calling I.D.E.A.S.’ rogue A.I., was playing a combination of Zerg and Terran forces. It would occasionally send small raiding parties against them, but these were put down pretty easily. At this point, Emmi noted, the rogue A.I. was still treating this as a normal game of StarCraft; its resources were occupied in other areas and it was letting the local game A.I. run the battle with minimal intervention. Apparently, this was how it tended to run most games, only interceding when player actions threatened to disrupt the flow of play (such as when Tom or Alli deliberately took too long to complete a task).
When called into action to respond to a direct challenge, however, the Enemy exhibited something of a sadistic streak. Steve, a.k.a. Alli’s (ex-)boyfriend, had raised the ire of the Enemy during a game of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time when, instead of fleeing (as Tom had), Steve had attempted to face the A.I. head on, with disastrous results. Though Steve had fought hard, and had actually defeated many of the waves of enemies sent against him, the Enemy refused to relent, and soon Steve was exhausted and unable to continue. Though the Enemy had gathered more than enough of its beloved gameplay data, Emmi explained, it had allowed Steve no quarter and so pressed on until the hacker expired. Tom noticed that Alli was very quiet during this explanation, but if she felt any remorse for her former beau, she did not show it.
Since StarCraft games tended to run long, they had a lot of time to muster their forces before the A.I. detected that something was amiss. In this they were fortunate: the element of surprise seemed to be on their side. None of the allies had tried to push far into the Enemy’s territory yet: they were saving their strength for the extra forces the Enemy would undoubtedly employ. Unfortunately, this also meant that they did not have a lot of information about enemy resources, troops, or tactics. Scouts sent on reconnaissance missions had been quickly discovered and destroyed, leaving Alli, Tom, and Emmi with little knowledge about the Enemy’s plans. Fortunately, it did not seem to recognize that the forces around it were working in concert…at least, not yet.
While Tom, Alli, and Emmi were preparing for their battle, Rick was preparing for his. He knew the attack could come at any time; and when it began he knew he would have to closely monitor the system for his chance to strike. If he started too soon, the Enemy might notice and turn his attention away from his friends to Rick, thereby ending their chance to defeat it and possibly growing wise to such attempts in the future. Too late, and he might not be able to stop it in time to save all of his friends. Rick wasn’t sure what the worst outcome would be, and he certainly didn’t want to find out, so he was determined to get everything absolutely right.
An hour had passed since the beginning of the match, and Tom, Alli, and Emmi’s forces were about as strong as they were going to get. Their opponent had been sending out larger and larger raiding groups to try and provoke them into attacking; but they continued to play defense in the hope of goading the Enemy into showing itself. The temptation to counterattack was almost overwhelming, especially for Alli, who had always delighted in drowning her enemies in a sea of alien xenomorphs, but even her enthusiasm was dampened by the seriousness of the matter at hand.
“Emmi?” Tom asked over the comm link.
“Yes, Tom?” it replied.
“We’ve seen a lot of enemy groups come at us, but how are we going to know when it’s for real?”
“Well as you’ve seen, the Enemy likes to employ overly aggressive units with physical features that betray their true nature.”
“Right, I remember. Red eyes, screaming ‘TEST’ at me, the works.”
“I guess it’s too much to hope that it would just announce it this time, huh?” said Alli.
“Probably,” lamented Tom. “Rick, you still ready to go?”
“Ready and waiting,” Rick replied. “I’ve got a whole bunch of energy drinks lined up here, too, just in case.”
“All right, just be careful with those. We don’t need you crashing right in the middle of this.”
“Trust me, that’s NOT going to happen.”
Another half hour passed, and the attacks grew stronger and more frequent, but Tom, Alli, and Emmi’s defenses continued to hold, and they had enough resources to quickly replenish any lost forces. Tom knew the Enemy would be intervening soon, and scanned every incoming enemy troop for a sign that the time had come. Finally, he saw it: red eyes. The eyes of the alien troops were normally slightly red, but now they glowed a fiery crimson.
“Guys, I’ve got the red eyes over here.”
“As do I,” affirmed Emmi.
“Same here,” said Alli. “Ugh, that is so damn cliché.”
“Alli, maybe we could save the one-liners for later?” Tom asked.
“Fine, fine. FYI, I’ve got some real zingers for when we take this guy down, though.”
Finally, the Enemy descended. Advanced troops of all types crashed upon their defenses like waves on the shore. Nevertheless, despite taking heavy losses, Tom’s team held its ground. The plan so far was working. They had an incredible defensive network, with each outpost reinforced by the best troops of all three species; but they did nothing when it came to offense. They knew that by doing this they would tempt the Enemy into a scenario into it couldn’t back out of. Soon, it would start sending wave after wave of troops at them, only to discover that its opponents were working in such a way that it was impossible to attack one without attacking them all. At some point, the hope was, it would get so bogged down in fighting their staggering defenses that Rick could slip past its own defenses and shut it down.
“How’s it going on your end, Emmi?” asked Tom.
“We are losing troops but replacing them at an even rate. Your Siege Tanks stationed around our perimeter are doing an excellent job of stalling our opponent.”
“Fun fact: exploding an infected Terran in a group full of bad guys is a BLAST. Get it? Because they explode.”
Before Tom could respond, a roar suddenly echoed across the battlefield. Then another. And yet another. Each distinct, each terrifying. From the center of the map emerged three Tarrasques. These were the ultimate Zerg unit. Normally they could only be used one at a time, and they weren’t even available to regular players. And yet here they were, each aimed at one of the bases. Worse yet, Tom remembered these monsters were just about impossible to get rid of. As soon as one was killed, another would respawn back at the enemy camp.
“Son of a—”