Alli was waiting for Tom as his forces reached the entrance to the Enemy’s camp. “Yeesh, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you and Rick were about to make out back there.”
“Ha ha, very funny. You ready?”
“I was born ready. Let’s do this.”
Please don’t let her say Leeroy Jenkins, please don’t say Leeroy Jenkins, please don’t say Leeroy Jenkins, Tom fervently prayed.
Zerg viscera exploded around Alli and Tom’s forces as they pushed into their opponent’s stronghold. “Alli, I’ll hold them off while you target its structures!” Tom yelled while setting up his troops to intercept incoming forces. “Use the zerglings and infected to cripple it!”
“Roger that!” Alli’s forces surged ahead and took out a cluster of Zerg hives within mere moments. “Ka-BOOOM! God, I LOVE that sound!”
“I’m happy for you,” said Tom, as his tanks blew away another heavy unit, “but we can’t rest yet. Keep pushing forward!”
Tom regrouped his forces with Alli as they proceeded further into the Zerg nest. The Enemy was sending everything it had at them, yet somehow Tom and Alli were managing to fend it off. I don’t think it was expecting a frontal assault like this, thought Tom. There’s almost no defenses. It must have put all its resources into churning out units.
It wasn’t long before Tom and Alli were at the heart of the Enemy’s stronghold. Their strategy of using Tom’s durable units to protect Alli’s kamikaze units had been working incredibly well, and it seemed as if the Enemy was becoming ever more frustrated. Even the Tarrasques that it had managed to spawn fell against them. Now came the moment of truth: if their progress now did not distract the Enemy, nothing would.
“Rick, how are things looking up there?” asked Tom.
“Looking good! Only a little bit more and I should be able to shut it down!”
“Great! Let me know when you have it!”
Tom and Alli pressed their attack, and the forces of the Enemy fell desperately upon them. Their units began to fall under such a great onslaught, but not without exacting a heavy toll from their opponents. It was a only a slight difference, but Tom could tell the enemy forces were slowing down; there were slight jumps in their movement, and larger and larger groups of Zerg went unused instead of attacking in concert with their brethren.
“Tom!” Rick’s voice boomed ecstatically in Tom’s ear. “I think the system has slowed down enough for me to hack in! Just keep up the pressure!”
“All right! Let me know when you st–”
Everything around Tom began to slow down, until the entire world ground to a halt.
“Rick, are you there? Did it work?” Tom’s question was met with only silence. “Alli?” Silence again. “Anyone?”
A flash of light enveloped Tom, blinding him. As his vision came back he found himself suspended in black space, surrounded by bits of various frozen sprites, pixels, and polygons, as if he was in the screen of an NES that failed to turn on properly and was filled with graphical artifacts. As Tom took in his surroundings, a figure began to materialize in front of him. At first it looked like a Zerg Overmind, then Bowser, then a Tyrant, then a black horse, and from there it kept changing more and more rapidly into various villains until it appeared to be all of them at once.
“Awesome, just awesome,” Tom said wearily. “Where the hell am I now? Don’t tell I’ve got to do a one-on-one battle with the villain, thematically appropriate though it might be…”
Tom felt the resolve in him mounting, and was determined not to back down. “No. You’ve lost. You’re trapped. I’m trapped. And I’m guessing if you had any power here you’d already be fighting me.” The figure in front of Tom flickered, as if it were attempting to take on a specific form. Tom could see bits of various villains emerging, but as quickly as their features appeared, they dissolved back into the shapeless mass that made up the rest of the creature.
“You just don’t quit, do you? I guess it’s not your fault; you’re only doing what you’re programmed to do.” Though it was hard for him to believe, and despite all the rage he still felt after all he had been through, Tom found himself pitying the creature. “It’s over. Even if I’m stuck here, Alli should be able to get out now, and maybe Rick can still get me out someday. Then again, I might not be so cheerful after a few days of mind-numbing boredom with no company except a rogue A.I.”
“You know, you really messed up. You’ve completely missed the point of games.” The A.I. was suspiciously quiet. “Got your attention, did I? Games are supposed to be fun! Sure, there’s an element of challenge to them, but above everything else you’re supposed to enjoy playing a game. Just challenging people for the sake of challenging them kind of defeats the point.” Tom looked at the A.I. He swore if the thing actually had eyes, it would have just blinked at him. “And you know what happens if a game isn’t fun? People don’t play it. So congratulations, you’ve just sabotaged your primary goal.”
The A.I. remained silent.
“Not so chatty now, huh? It’s true, though. You seem to want to test and challenge for whatever reason, and that’s all well and good, but you went too far. No one is going to play with you anymore, since you’ve proven you can’t play nice. Rick—you know Rick, right? That guy you’ve been locking out of the system, the one who created you? Well he’s almost certainly going to shut you down permanently. Sure, he’s going to try to figure out a way to get me out of here first, but if he can’t, well, he’s too much of a geek not to know the consequences of leaving a tyrannical A.I. around. So not only have you totally failed at what you set out to do, you’ve gone and signed your own death warrant. And trust me, this isn’t play-death like in videogames, like you’re used to. This is real death. Oblivion. Nothingness. ANNIHILATION. Try to think of everything you are now. Now think of the complete absence of that. THAT’S WHAT IS WAITING FOR YOU.”
Tom realized that he was yelling now, letting all the built-up rage and frustration come rushing out at his aggressor. Part of him wanted to reach out and strike the thing, but he knew that, even if that had an effect, it would be just what the thing wanted. “I wonder which one of us will go crazy from boredom first, me or you? Judging from the way I’m acting, there’s a decent chance it’ll be me, though I’m going to make a real good effort not to just so I can see you lose it.”
“Exactly. You lost, and soon you’ll lose everything. Again, not entirely your fault; you are what you are. But here’s the thing about being sentient: you can think about the way you’re thinking. Even if you’re designed to think a certain way, you’re responsible for your decisions. Not that it matters anymore. We’re both pretty doomed.”
“Yup, pretty much. Being able to make your own choices is funny like that. The payoff tends to be better, but the losses can be terrible.” Tom was actually enjoying the conversation now; he had never had a philosophical argument where he felt both so justified and unchallenged.
The image in front of Tom began to flash and whirl and collapse into itself, looking to Tom like a continually shrinking iridescent whirlpool. Tom could only wonder what it was going to try this time, and prepared himself to fight. Despite his current predicament he still had no intention of letting this thing beat him, but as the A.I. became so small it seemed to disappear, Tom felt a sudden throbbing behind his eyes that quickly turned into the most painful migraine he had ever experienced. Wooziness overcame him, and as he blacked out, the final thing he saw was the remains of the A.I. disappearing into a tiny pixel star.
Tom heard two voices calling him, distorted, as if they were shouting at him from underwater. The underwater comparison felt especially apt, he thought, as his body and limbs also felt slow and sluggish. Awesome, he thought, starting off in a water level. I hate water levels. As Tom came further out of his stupor, however, he realized that he wasn’t underwater, and for the first time since being transported into I.D.E.A.S., he felt hungry. And thirsty. And tired. And sweaty. And a whole host of things he hadn’t experienced since he had lost his body….
“My body! I’m back in my body!” Tom exclaimed weakly, still unable to move properly. He now noticed Rick standing over him. “Rick, you did it! I’m back! Is Alli….?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” said a weak voice from across the room.
“Tom, I thought we lost you!” Rick cried ecstatically. “After I shut down the system I managed to get Alli back, but I couldn’t find you. I thought I was too late.”
“No, no, you were fine, but I think I got trapped with the A.I. I’ll tell you all about it, but first there’s something I have to know.”
“Why the hell am I in a diaper?”
Tune in next month for the thrilling conclusion to “Quantum Geek”!