Chapter 18: Never use the holodeck
[Note from the author: I apologize for the delay; life intervened. Don't worry; I suspect I'll have this thing written by 2099.]
The first thing that told Chiyo that something had gone horribly wrong was the hole in the universe.
It was a jagged rip in the night sky that seemed to have been hacked from the space-time continuum with safety scissors. Ringed with crackling auroras and the buzz of electric bees, it offered a tantalizing glimpse into a realm of flickering polygons, hexadecimal tendrils and COBOL coils.
The second was the throbbing migraine that threatened to split her head. Oh dear, she thought, did I mix up ethanol and isopropanol again?(1) It would explain why she couldn't remember the last 20 minutes, and the hallucinations.
The third, of course, was the big flashing dialogue box that read, "Something has gone horribly wrong; Abort, Retry, Whale?"
Chiyo rubbed her eyes and took a second look. "Eh? 'Whale'?"
Bloop. The box became a humpback, sang a little whale-song, and vanished in a puff of pixels.
Oh, she thought. That makes sense. "No, wait a minute, that makes no sense at all! What's going on!"
"I dunno," said Kagura, hanging upside down from some sort of fractal, glowing tree, "but I want the number of that truck that hit us."
"Miss Kagura! You look...different?"
"I'll say," she said, looking herself over. "I don't remember my blood being electric blue."
Kagura was apparently clothed in some sort of silk-smooth bodysuit crisscrossed with a network of glowing blue lines. The tree, Chiyo noticed, was much the same (except black and green). Close examination revealed binary in its bark and ASCII in its leaves.
"Y'know," said Kagura, "this seems kind of familiar for some reason."
"You mean hanging from a tree?"
"Well, yeah, that, but —"
Tomo burst from a pile of .TXT files. "FRICKITTY FRACK! WE'RE IN TRON!"
"Yeah! That's it. Also, AAAAGH!"
"God damn it," snapped Yomi, "would you two shut up!" She pushed aside some branches and joined them. "You're giving me a digi-headache." Sakaki was right behind her.
Chiyo greeted them. "Are you all right? Has anyone seen Miss Osaka?"
The girl in question jogged by, in blissful pursuit of an 8-bit butterfly. Sakaki collared her. "Aw," whined Osaka. " not found..."
"Thank goodness you're all safe," said Chiyo. "Er, well, as safe as can be, considering the circumstances."
Everyone, it seemed, had been dressed up in the same Daft-Punk-techno style as Kagura: monotone white skin, neon circuit-board highlights and glowing hair. Each had their own colour scheme — pink for Chiyo, black for Sakaki, red for Yomi, yellow for Tomo, and some sort of Pantone nightmare for Osaka — and each had their names floating over their heads, followed by the extension "EXE."
"What's happened to us?" asked Sakaki. "Did we fall asleep?"
"Nah," replied Tomo. "If this were a dream, Yomi wouldn't feel me pinchin' her cheek like this."
"You're supposed to pinch yourself, idiot," Yomi snapped, slapping her hand away. "But she's right. This feels...real, for whatever reason."
"It's obvious, ain't it?" said a still upside-down Kagura. "We're inside a computer."
"That's ridiculous," said Yomi. "Computers don't work that way."
"Yeah," said Kagura, "but we were at Chiyo's place, remember? We're probably inside one of those Xbox Three-Trillions she's got lyin' around."
"Yeah!" said Tomo. "So let's fire up Robotron already and kick some ASCII!"
"This is gonna be awesome!" said Kagura.
"Heck yeah!" said Tomo, high-fiving her.
Yomi leaned against a glowing trunk and rubbed her temples. "Okay, fine. Assuming you're right, the next question is why?"
Sakaki perked up. "Weren't we in a fight."
Tomo's shrill cry rang out across the raging battlefield. "Avengers ah-SEM-BAAAAAL!"
"We're already here, dumbass!" snapped Kagura, swinging a stop sign. "Stop shoutin' and start fightin'!"
The Pugnacious Pickler was back in town to unleash his acidic acts of archvillainy upon the hapless citizens of downtown Tokyo. He'd lead a contingent of Ghurkha-Gherkins to the steps of city hall and laid siege to it with his dreaded Dill-Inger disruptors, dousing friend and foe alike in the marinated mayhem. The girls had leapt into action, but were overwhelmed by their opponent's numbers and soon found themselves in a bit of a — well, you know.
"I am fighting!" said Tomo. "I'm, uh, evaluating the situation from the back lines like Cap!"
"Cap's always on the front line," she replied, as she took a swing at the horde of cucumber commandoes that surrounded them. "You haven't thrown a punch yet!"
"I'm keeping myself in reserve! Besides, they're pickles. How tough can they —" She took a Vini-Bolt to the face. "AUGH! MY EYES! That's it! Feel the wrath of Tomo, evildoers!" Blinded, she sent a thundering right cross into a wall. "Augh! My knuckles! I need those!"
A road-rattling roar from a prehistoric time shook the sky. Kagura looked up from her bout of pickled pugilism to see a 600-foot-tall shambling mound of Nazi cabbage blotting out the sun and stomping down the street towards her. "Aw nuts. It's the Sauerkraut Supreme. Yomi! Can you —"
Yomi grunted, grabbed a Honda Civic and hurled it at the titanic (and nutritious) terror. It promptly swatted it back at her. "Ow," she said from beneath the wreckage.
Kagura cursed as she took out a Gherkin with an overhead chop, laying into her opponents with abandon. "Sakaki! What are you standing around for! Get flying and start frying!"
Sakaki, who against all reasonable expectations was not ablaze with the power of a million suns, jabbed her fingers uselessly in the abomination's general direction. "I'm trying! My powers aren't working!"
"Well, try harder!"
"Right!" She grit her teeth, and threw her whole body into a beam-throwing motion. Muscles strained, and sweat trickled down her brow. "Come out, please!" she whispered. "Come out!"
Three Gherkins flanked Kagura and tackled her to the ground. "Sakaki! Help!"
The power surged forth like an atomic blast. Light seared Kagura's retinas an instant before the shockwave, which cracked pavement and literally shattered the dill-things upon her. A pencil-thin laser cracked from Sakaki's outstretched hands, sliced through space and smote the sinister sauerkraut.
Said cabbage, in complete defiance of all giant kaiju regulations, did not then immediately topple over and explode in a shower of cheap pyrotechnics. Instead, it froze in place, cracked, and shattered into a million twinkling polygonal pieces, leaving a black void in its place.
Kagura blinked, and, once she'd determined that she wasn't hallucinating, blinked again. And then a mad grin split her face. "Oh my gawd, that was AWESOME! What the heck was that?"
Sakaki, now looking her typically stellar self, seemed at a loss. "I'm not sure," she said, regarding her outstretched hands as one would an old musket after it decided to leap off the mantelpiece and perforate the cat. "It felt like I was pushing with all my might against something, and then, all of a sudden, it just sort of...broke."
"Well, whatever it was, I'm just glad it worked. Ugh, I'm never eating kimchi again." She got to her feet and picked some sour cabbage from her hair. "So, you can fix the whole black hole in space thing, right?"
Kagura's ears perked up at a sound not unlike the crackle under an arrogant explorer's feet about half a block out on Lake Thin Ice. Dark, dangerous cracks were lancing out from the cabbage-shaped hole in reality, spreading stutter-step through stone, earth, and, somehow, the sky itself.
She gulped. "Because if you can, now would be a good time to start."
Sakaki gasped and staggered back from the apparent disintegration of the space-time continuum. The universe crumpled and crumbled behind her, leaving a crackling void of nothingness behind it.
As Kagura's mind tried to grasp the horror of what she was beholding, her legs (which were always the most sensible part of her) decided to sprint for their lives — too late. The ground snapped, the sky split, and she was falling, falling, falling...
"I can still taste the vinegar," said Kagura, suppressing a shudder. "But how'd we get from Chiyo's to downtown? And where'd the Pickler come from?"
Chiyo snapped her fingers. "Now I remember! The tests! We'd all gone down into my mother's laboratory to run some tests!"
It'd been a decent idea, she remembered, despite the risk of letting Miss Tomo anywhere near multi-million-dollar lab equipment. She'd need a full-spectrum analysis of her friends' powers in action, so a trip to the Multipurpose Monitoring and Simulation Chamber (AKA the Rather Dangerous Room) seemed in order.
"Let's see," she murmured, "we'd stepped into the squiggly-lined room,(2) and I was just about to activate the comprehensive sensory and analysis suite when..."
"Ooh, what's this button do?"
"Aah! Miss Tomo! Don't touch that! That's —"
"...the button for the Nth-Dimensional Quantum Hyper-Reality Simulator Matrix!" She whirled on Tomo. "The one with 'Do not press under absolutely any circumstances' written on it! Oh why, why did you push that terrible, terrible button, Miss Tomo!"
"It was a button!" Tomo said. "What did you expect me to do?"
Chiyo twitched. "Not! Push! It!"
"Okay, okay, calm down everyone," said Yomi, as Osaka moved to separate Chiyo and Tomo. "We can all beat up Tomo later. What's this nth-dimensional whatchamacallit have to do with this mess we're in?"
"Well, I'm not sure how it works, but Mother told me it was meant to simulate reality with an unprecedented degree of accuracy.(3) It puts a quantum duplicate of the user's mind inside the simulation, creating a direct link between the user and the program. The program is real to the duplicate, so it's also real to the user."
"Why does that sound like an incredibly bad idea?"
"Well, since the user experiences everything that the duplicate does, if the duplicate dies..." She trailed off, helplessly.
Osaka, incredibly, got it first. "Oh man! Game over, man! Game over!"
"Why would you put us in something so dangerous, you little fool?" cried Tomo.
"You pushed the button!" she screamed.
Yomi thumped her head against a tree. "Assuming we get out of this alive, Chiyo, remind me to force-feed your mother every Star Trek episode involving the holodeck."(4)
"So that was the simulation we were in earlier, right?" asked Sakaki, as Osaka tried to break up Chiyo and Tomo's sissy-fight. "What happened to it?"
"Eh?" said Chiyo. "Ack!"
"Ha!" said Tomo, having smote her with a wild swing. "Victory is mine!"
"Well," Chiyo continued, as Kagura put Tomo in an upside-down chokehold, "it was designed to give us an environment where we could safely use our powers for analysis. I think it must have crashed when it tried to simulate your abilities, Miss Sakaki — although I can't fathom why — dropping us into the server's general memory."
"And it has enough space to hold all of us? Amazing."
Chiyo waved that aside. "Human consciousness only takes up about 12.7 kilobytes of memory, according to Mother's calculations.(5) Our selves should have transferred over intact, meaning we should have remembered we were in a simulation during that incident. So why didn't we?"
She ran down the possibilities. "I know I didn't click the 'localized amnesia' option, and I'm positive that The Pickler wasn't in my specifications. That means there was either a glitch of some sort or..."
She nodded. "The question is, by whom?"
Robotic laughter shook the digital forest. "You fool, Mihama! There is no escaping my world of murder!"
Chiyo squealed and cowered behind Sakaki. "What? Who! Where?"
"There!" said the tall one, pointing skyward.
Ringed with a nimbus of fractal sparks and flickering artefacts was what looked like the love-child of Sinistar and Alfred E. Neuman. The pixelated monstrosity had a head of flaming orange hair, a hideous polka-dot bow tie, and a smile that said, "Hi! How would you like to be murdered today?"
"Yes," continued the face, "it is I, the magnificent Arcade! I don't know how you escaped my virtual unreality trap, but as soon as this Trojan program finds you, it's back into the stockade — there, to spend the rest of your miserable life! Whilst your real body withers away into nothingness, your mind shall remain here — a permanent addition to my carnival of horrors! That'll teach you for making fun of my tie! Ah ha ha ha! MESSAGE ENDS. BEEP."
It was Tomo that first broke the girls' shocked silence. "So," she asked, casually, "can we kill Chiyo now?" Kagura cuffed her on the head. "And would you get out of your tree already?"
"I swear I had nothing to do with this!" said the small one. "I've never even met this Arcade person!" She huffed. "This was obviously a trap set for one or both of my parents that they didn't know about." Or didn't bother with, she added, mentally. Yet another fine mess for me to clean up.
"Can't we just say 'Computer, end program' or something?" asked Yomi. "I guess not," she added, as an error message popped into being before her. "What's with the 'whale' option? Hmm...Osaka? Can you magic us out?"
Osaka mumbled some mantras and made some tentative sweeps through the air. "S'no good," she sighed. "Ah can feel somethin' like magic in th' air, but I can't get a hold of it without a fetish."
Tomo perked up at the word. "A fetish? Why don't you use Yomi?"
"What are you on about now?" asked Yomi, already dreading her response.
Tomo shrugged. "Well, y'know...glasses, schoolgirl, jelly-rolls — DOOF!"
"She means a magical focus, moron," she replied, "like a staff or a wand, right?" Osaka nodded. "Right. Although I'm a little surprised to hear about magic inside a computer system."
"Well, y'know what they say 'bout sufficiently advanced technology," said Osaka.
"It's indistinguishable from magic?"
"Oh, is that what they say? Thanks, that was buggin' me."
Yomi's left eye developed a dangerous twitch. "Okay. Ignoring you now. Anyone else have any bright ideas?"
Kagura swung upright and peered above the canopy. "Well, it looks like we're in a park in the middle of some sort of big glowing city," she said. "We could ask for directions?"
"Why is there a city inside a computer?" Sakaki wondered.
"It's probably some sort of metaphorical construct assembled by our collective subconscious as a way for us to interact with the computer's data structures," said Kagura.
The others gaped.
She blushed. "What? I watched Ghost in the Shell."(7)
Tomo gave her the eyeball. "You're a Cylon, aren't you?"
Chiyo nodded. "I think you're right, Miss Kagura. This must be how our minds are interpreting the digital environment. If we can find some sort of command program or escape terminal in here, we should be able to escape."
"And if there ain't," said Kagura, "we'll jack a light-cycle, kick reason to the curb and burn pixel back to the real world!"
"I'm driving!" added Tomo.
"No!" said the others.
1. Best. Rum balls. Ever.
2. "Polygons suck!" Mrs. Mihama had said, when designing the layout for the holo-emitters.
3. "Mwah ha ha ha ha!" she added.
4. Actually, Mrs. Mihama was an inverterate Trekker and, upon seeing the episode "A Fistful of Datas," had said, "Brilliant!" and hacked all the safety protocols out of her simulator matrix. "Because it's not SCIENCE until someone loses an eye!"
5. There's actually a fascinating explanation for this. You see, it [MESSAGE REDACTED. THE COMPUTER IS YOUR FRIEND.]
6. A touching documentary about the adventures of a cybernetic snail amongst the wilds of Moncton, Ontario.