A State of Flux

1. Distortion

Ever since the 'Sugar Rush King Turbo Bug Event' as he liked – no not actually liked, more along the lines of 'forced by the will of the crowd because that name has now unfortunately stuck' – to call it, Surge Protector's job had become a lot more unpleasant.

At times he was tempted to say it had also become a lot harder, but that wouldn't be the complete truth. He wasn't doing anything hugely different or undertaking anything particularly challenging now. He was simply doing similar things he had always done, except he was now doing a lot more of them a lot more often.

And, as such, as he was being hated a lot more often by an increased number of them.

After the… incident, characters were visiting other games a lot more frequently. This increased volume of traffic wasn't anything his compressors couldn't absorb, but what did put a strain on his pathway circuits was the result of characters visiting games they'd barely even heard of before.

Emboldened by the Arcade's strengthening acceptance of bad guys and the growing trend for inter-game cooperation characters would, without even doing the most basic of background checks, launch themselves into whatever game they fancied the look of. These game environments were, at best, strange and unsettling to them and, at worst, and in actual fact most cases, critically dangerous to them. Of course any character not in their own game could be deleted permanently, but a minority of sensible characters minimised any lethal risks: they planned their route, consulted with established inhabitants and put themselves into the necessary mind set of respectful caution for their trip.

But then there were the ones who were convinced that they would never come to any real and serious harm, because why would they? If everyone could survive the Sugar Rush King Turbo Bug Event (how that ridiculous name managed to worm its way into the collective code he'd never know) there was no way they'd get hurt by taking a pleasant and well deserved midnight stroll through Hero's Duty, was there? Soothed by ignorance and self-confidence they'd go wherever they pleased, with the comforting certainty that everything would be all fine and dandy with nothing to worry about.

If Surge hadn't increased security checks and imposed tighter restrictions on travel, most of them would be dead by now, he was certain of it. No-one enjoyed seeing his solemn face pop up in the middle of a raucous race to put an end to it, or at the start of what looked set to be a promising 'pretend' fight to remind them of the new rules and precautions they must follow for their own safety. No-one liked hearing his monotonous voice wearily detail what they could and couldn't do, and as such their tolerance of him decreased and their dislike of him rose.

But, and here's what he really loved, if he did let everyone do what they wanted and people began glitching or started to get themselves killed, they'd only despise him more. Whether he did his job perfectly or neglected it completely, the sum result was the same: he was the most unpopular person in their world. He was more and more tempted to just outright ban travel to other games completely, let alone restrict it, for what was the worst that could happen?

Everyone would hate him? Already happening.

An Anti-Surge group would start an uprising against him and pull his plug? Would never be more than an empty threat.

If that did ever happen then they'd be completely exposed to any power surge and, without him shielding them - without him absorbing and re-directing any dangerous waves of electricity - they'd be overwhelmed and powerless in the face of almost certain disaster.

The amount of times Surge had responded to a desperate cry of 'but why do we get permanently killed if we die outside of our game?' now required a dedicated circuit board of RAM to calculate and filter. In exasperation he'd once yelled at a young woman from Dance Dance Revolution to go and ask Fix-It Felix Junior to solve that minor problem, since such an amazingly original request was clearly far too complex for him of all people to work out. The dancer was unfortunately not experienced enough with sarcasm to respond with a yell back or to simply ignore him, and had excitedly told her friends that Felix could fix it and then actually rushed off to ask him.

Being bombarded with impossible requests from hyper-active and intensely upset dancers had buckled even Felix's composure for a while, and the Handyman had tried but failed to keep his voice low and pleasant when he'd asked Surge for a quick word in private. Having the nicest person in the Arcade look at you with a flash (and it really was just a flash, since Felix wasn't programmed for anything longer) of disgusted impatience had short-circuited one of his conductive pathways. The resulting electrical drain had caused random lights and help booths throughout Game Central Station to flicker and blur for a few long seconds. When they had stabilised he was sure that they hadn't returned to full strength – that they were just a shade short of perfection – and with a dull ache knew their illumination would be forever dulled.

Not that anyone had ever noticed of course.

Today was yet another day when no-one had noticed these things, and had instead chosen to gush out of their respective games upon the Arcade's closing to go and visit friends or to see if they could make some. Naturally Surge logged every character entering and exiting a game and monitored them constantly, and could focus in on anyone he chose. When a character was just about to pass through a game's tunnel the near translucent screen of data always in his sight would pulse, and a soft red dot would begin to glow amidst the constantly scrolling rows and columns of pale green numbers and letters.

Just such a dot had begun to glow now and, with barely the beginning of a hint of a thought towards it, Surge instantly knew who it was, where they'd been and how long they'd been there for.

If he'd been required to breathe he would have taken a long slow breath in and let it out in a quiet groan.

It was Wreck-It Ralph.

Wreck-It Ralph. He'd been the one to start the Sugar Rush King Turbo Bug Event (such a stupid description that no-one ever seemed to question) simply because he'd become fed up of doing his job. He'd become tired of not only being taken for granted for doing it, but for being actively disliked for doing it. Couldn't he see any similarities between the two of them? Any at all? No of course he couldn't; he was far too wrapped up in his own problems to see what a self-pitying hypocrite he was.

Wreck-It Ralph had only been shunned in his game and by the characters too new or too small or too stupid to realise that they wouldn't drop down dead if they saw him in Grand Central Station, whereas he on the other hand was hated by the whole Arcade. The whole Arcade! Still! Except unlike Wreck-It Ralph he performed his duties and respected his code all day every day, not once bending the circuits or pushing against the grid or causing near annihilation in the pursuit of stolen property.

Well, he wasn't pushing against them anymore. And certainly not bending anything again. Except for that time last week…and this morning when he couldn't help but-

Argh, it was frustrating. And boring. And time consuming and thankless and-

…and lonely. It was horrible and lonely and whenever these thoughts crept up on him he'd halt them immediately; he'd put a well-used barrier up and force them to be channelled elsewhere, so that they didn't consume him. He was a very effective surge compressor in more ways than one after all. Not that anyone ever noticed. Not that anyone even knew that a surge protector and a surge compressor were one and the same thing!

He sighed and positioned himself accordingly in preparation for a zip through the cables to meet Wreck-It Ralph leaving Sugar Rush: clipboard and pen in hand, shirt tucked in, glasses straight and head bowed.

His 'random security' checks on Wreck-It Ralph were nothing of the sort, not any more, for nothing he ever did was truly random. Not that he'd ever admit that to anyone - it had taken long enough to admit that fact to himself after all - and was one of the reasons why he'd never made eye contact with the Wrecker. And the way things were going, he evaluated dejectedly, he never would.

Surge swallowed and began to close his eyes, as the familiar warm tingle started to pool around his feet before leaking upwards. Every part of him began to vibrate, one atom at a time, before increasing in strength and frequency in less than a fraction of a second. Still within this time scale the energy stored in his capacitors contracted, focused and then exploded, his electrical field expanding to breathtaking proportions to accommodate his sudden flash through the Arcade. He could move almost instantaneously from one position to another, and was often at two different places at the same time. Working such double or triple jobs was becoming a miserable reality these days.

The red lattice that covered the tunnel into Sugar Rush glowed and buzzed as Surge materialised to intercept its most frequent visitor.

'Ah man not again!' Ralph exclaimed, throwing both arms upwards in defeat.

Yes, defeat, Surge thought bitterly, as he waited for Ralph to regain his composure and look at him. As if the Wrecker had just lost a vital battle the Protector had unfairly plunged him into and expected, against all the odds, to win.

'Where have you come from and where are you going?' Surge asked, hoping but already knowing that Ralph wouldn't appreciate being asked the two questions at once to save him some time.

Ralph sighed heavily. 'Super Mario Brothers to Final Fantasy 87.'

Fine then, Surge thought with irritation, as his eyes bored what could have been a hole through the clipboard held tightly in his hand if he had such powers. Actually if he ever had any super powers, that's not the one he'd have chosen. If he ever did become a super hero he'd have to see about getting a more imposing physique for starters. And then a uniform obviously, since your clothes say a lot about you. This uniform would radiate power and courage and devotion, the colours of which changed constantly in his mind, since he'd never had a colour other than the blue-grey shimmer he was encased in and the selection available in this life to choose from was intoxicating. And when he was split into four different copies of himself all over the Arcade and this fantasy was occurring in more than one head, the colours and details of the uniform would blur and superimpose themselves over each other and jostle for attention and prominence so that he-

'Only when you've got a minute Surge! Just take your time buddy; if you're still all cuckoo in a few minutes I'll jump back in and get ya a chocolate pop. So full of sugar you'll be like lightening on the ceiling.'

Chocolate pop! He wanted to bark out what could happen if food from one game mixed into another, but he held his tongue.

He knew that Ralph had smuggled in fruit after his first trip to Pac Man. Even without the automatic grid warning their removal had triggered, the cherries had glowed a darker and brighter red on Surge's monitoring screen and had been watched bobbing along next to the dot that was Ralph. In truth Surge had felt sorry for him. He suspected that Ralph didn't eat very well in his game, what with living in a dump and all. He also knew the man had never even had a slice of cake, so a couple of cherries would have seemed like a tempting dream made real.

He'd purposefully never made eye contact as he questioned Ralph after he exited Pac Man, and had hoped that the latest member of Bad Anon would realise his smuggling had been noticed but allowed. Surge had longed for Ralph to understand that he was really doing him a favour by pretending not to scan and search him and bring attention to his rule breaking. But of course he hadn't. All Ralph had done was insult him and amble away to munch his stolen fruit.

As soon as he'd reached his own game Surge had re-appeared to question him again just for the sheer petty hell of it.

As if Surge couldn't register the presence of all objects that passed in and out of games! He questioned everyone about smuggling things in and out in the pathetic hope that they'd nervously admit to doing just that, which would give him the chance to reluctantly forgive them and declare that no charges would be brought against them if they promised never to do it again. Then they'd smile in disbelieving relief, and he'd smile back – or wink or punch their shoulder – and the secret they'd share would be the first tenuous bond in a new friendship.

But that had never happened. Once, for almost a week, with his eyes closed, he'd interrogated everyone he knew to be smuggling something in or out by just demanding that they hand over their contraband. Instead of being slightly unsettled and even more than slightly impressed that he knew such things with his eyes closed, the stream of insults against him had only increased, and so he'd put an end to that experiment.

'Hope you ain't gone and blown a circuit there Surge. Without you I might, I dunno, have to get back to my game without being asked my name and if that doesn't happen then I'm locked out for the night and will have to spend it with you until I learn it. Felix's rules, not mine.'

With a crack Surge's attention realigned to the present and he felt his face flush. With a twitch he diverted that stream of superheating electrons away and raised another well-worn barrier against them before they could permeate any deeper.

He was stupid to think that Wreck-It Ralph had changed to the extent he wanted him to have done. Had hoped he had done. Of all the characters in the Arcade, he wanted a kind word and maybe just a hint of positive acknowledgement from Ralph more so than anyone. It wasn't just that Ralph had shot up the popularity ranks in record time; not just that a decade's old overlooked Arcade inhabitant could gain respectability and adoration from almost everyone after such a long time. It was in the hope – the increasingly stretched and fading hope – that Ralph would realise how lucky he was compared to others who were still in his old situation. Ralph would then promise, half out of embarrassment it had taken him so long and half out of pure compassion, to do everything he could to change that.

At the same time as craving Ralph's approval Surge dreaded receiving it, for what if things turned out the same way again? What if Ralph hurt him – what if he corrupted and betrayed him – like he had done? The first one. The first and only one that Surge had wanted to connect with and actually succeeding in doing so. It was too much of a risk to take of course, far too risky. And besides, he didn't really need the reassurance of someone like that again. No, best to forget it and put a stop to all this right now.

Best to forget how it had felt to be wanted and needed and entrusted with something so incredible that no-one else had suspected it was even possible, let alone conceive of the idea that he alone had the power and the skill to make it a reality. Yes, definitely for the best to forget it.

Surge finally raised his head to look at Ralph and the eye contact made him twitch but, before he could open his mouth to say something, his attention was diverted. His monitoring screen had beeped once, twice and then three times in quick succession before tripping his secondary warning alarm. Three more characters were about to exit Sugar Rush.

Not a problem in itself, but these dots were burning pin-points of scorching white onto his screen and travelling at a dangerous speed.

They were furious and focused and he knew that it was all his fault.