Episode 2: Abnormal Solution
[Time to impact: 00:57:30]
Whiteness flooded TOM's mind and vision to the point that it seemed he would be isolated forever in a blank, featureless void. But just as the thought entered his head, there was a rush, and the white color scheme faded like polarized glass to reveal the solid environment of the cyberverse all around him. The ground was a blue-gray surface inlaid with a light, electric-blue grid. High above, the sky, if that's what it could be called, was a matte-black abyss with silvery clouds drifting through its depths. Thousands of multicolored lights zipped through it in all directions, following the lines of a cubic grid network that couldn't be seen.
"Whoa ... I'm gettin' some serious ReBoot vibes here." He glanced down at his avatar and found it to be an exact copy of his real body back on the ship. Finished his self-examination, he directed his attention to what he'd come for: the Absolution's stabilization systems.
Visually, the server that contained them was represented in this cybernetic world by what looked like a small sports arena. The system towers themselves were something else entirely. They varied in sizes and hovered up in the air at different heights. But the most noticeable thing about them was that each one was an exact visual replica of Sara with the addition of a slender body. TOM spent a moment looking over them; it wasn't very often he got to see Sara like this. Actually, he never had.
There was damage to be observed as well, though. Under normal circumstances, this server would be filled with scintillating activity. Now, however, the Sara-shaped towers' languid movements were mechanical, like marionettes, and their usually soft white eyes were dark. He eyed the nasty-looking growth that had spread among them like a jagged, metallic fungus. Its fingers were wrapped around and strung in between them, and were just now starting to worm their way into cracks they had created in the Saras' bodies. Their normal blue luminescence was fading slightly as the virus's angry red glow slowly overtook them.
"It's a good thing we prepared for this kinda thing," TOM said, activating the one and only weapon he would be able to use here. "Well ... good thing Sara did, anyway."
On the back of his left hand, a concentric series of multicolored neon rings cycled into existence and burst with a flash, leaving a frisbee-like disc fixed to the casing of his hand. He plucked it off. It was a personalized extension of his cybernetic avatar. While navigating the cyberverse, he could use it to interface with any systems he encountered or adapt it to counteract and destroy hostile programs. Because of its direct link to the user's own AI matrix, Sara had referred to it as an "iDisc". An apt name, TOM thought.
Fixing his gaze on the infection, he flipped the disc in his hand to get a finer grip on it, drew back, and threw it. The weapon soared from his hand like a comet and sank into the infection, causing its ugly tendrils to shrivel and lose their consistency. Without much difficulty, the iDisc quickly annihilated it, leaving the stabilization systems clean and untainted. Lifelike cybernetic activity quickly returned to the server.
"Ultimate anti-virus program ..." TOM said, holding his hand aloft as the iDisc sailed back and slapped into his palm, "... for the win. That was easy enough." But as he returned the disc to the knuckles of his left hand, he glanced down and saw a network of fracturesthe same texture and color as the infectionracing across the ground like cracks spider-webbing through glass. Only these cracks had a mind of their own, as they were guiding themselves toward where he was standing. "Should've held off on that one-liner," he said, backing up.
Before he could get far, the infection's fingers jumped forward and embedded themselves in his feet. Vicious needles of pain penetrated and paralyzed him. "Aaagh! Okay, now I'm freaked out!" Struggling through splintering agony, he reached down with his big hands and desperately began swiping at the tendrils. It was to no effect: they were physically splitting his shell apart. Grunting frantically, he snatched the iDisc and raised it overhead, but was startled when the giant red face of the virus himself materialized in the air before him.
"Mwahahaha! Experiencing some technical difficulties?" he snarled while his infection overtook TOM's knees. "No system in the universe can resist Swayzak forever! Your ship is already mine."
Despite the fact that the virus's dialog could have sent Shakespeare spinning in his grave, TOM decided that being shouted at by a glowing, satanic head the size of an SUV was pretty scary regardless. It was almost as scary as the infection crawling up through his cybernetic body was painful. "Y'know, for a three-dimensional avatar, you're a pretty two-dimensional villain." He thrust the iDisc into the ground, severing the tendrils from their source. They fell from his legs, allowing TOM to fall to his knees in relief.
That's what I need to do for the stabilizers, too, he realized. I can't just destroy the infected part, I need to cut it off where it's entering the server. Duh.
He got up and charged forward, plucking the iDisc out of the ground and knocking the virus's holographic head out of the way with his free hand, an action that sent it into a spin. Ignoring the out-of-control head's indignant curses, he spotted a single arm of viral mass stretching down from the ceiling overhead. It was regenerating from his first attack, reaching back down to reclaim the stabilization systems. He took a stance and let loose just as the virus's head came to a halt and saw what was happening.
The iDisc curled upward, skimming along the trunk-like tendril until it intercepted the growth at its source. Burying itself into the tendril's roots, it soaked the entire thing with blue code and broke it apart.
TOM turned to face the virus's furious visage. Tilting his head to one side, he caught the returning iDisc over his shoulder like a quarterback receiving a boomerang. He brought his left hand up to his chest and slapped the disc home, underhand this time. "Didn't even break a sweat," he gloated.
The virus's mouth grate lit up with intense heat as he snarled, "Your ridiculous efforts are absolutely futile! Things won't be so easy next time."
"Please, the worst thing you're gonna do is give me arthritis or a headache. And that's" He was interrupted as the entire world was enveloped by a thundering crash, accompanied by a sharp pain in his head. "Ow! The heck?" Well, he's got the headache down. Another jolt came, followed by more in quick succession. It didn't take long to realize that the blows were coming from outside: a hard object striking him in the real world. Was someone trying to beat him to death while he lay helpless on the floor of his ship? If that were so, it could only be Clyde.
Better wake up and see what the little bastard wants, he grumbled. No effort was required to make a transition from the cyberverse to the Absolution. As it turned out, a light beating was all it took to wake him up.
An insistent Clyde hovered over TOM's motionless form, utilizing its own body in an attempt to bring the bigger robot back to consciousness. There was an emergency on board, and that was something Clydes were not equipped to deal with. The Toonami Operations Module was needed. Smashing itself repeatedly into his head seemed like the best way to get the job done.
When TOM finally returned to consciousness, he was fully prepared to analyze the situation and deal with whatever emergency he'd been summoned for. But the first step had to be getting Clyde to stop hitting him. Failing to hear TOM's annoyed grunts at first, the smaller robot kept up the ramming. "Ow! Ow! Okay, jeez, I'mow!awake!" He finally got the savage beating to stop.
Holding a hand up to calm the ringing in his head, TOM pushed himself off the floor. He was relieved to find it was completely steady. A quaking ship would not have helped his throbbing cranium just now. Same story with the lingering sting in his legs. They shook a little before he finally got them to remain steady. "Well at least I got the stabilizers working," he said with satisfaction. "But we're still spinning out of control, and we're gonna crash if I can't get everything else up soon." He made an accusing gesture at the "helper" robot. "Why'd you wake me, Clyde?"
Clyde bleated in response and indicated one of the six holographic screens. On it was a schematic of the entire ship with at least a dozen sections flashing red.
"Fires on six levels," TOM groaned. "We're pushing the ship too hard." Leaning over the computer hub's console, he set to work. "They're all pressurized, obviously, so I can put most of'em out with the vacuum of space. But a few of those systems are kinda delicate. They'll have to be put out with fire controls. I gotta seal those ones off before I vent everything else." He glanced at Clyde while he worked. "If I could just put everything out the same way, I would, but the computer isn't set up for that. I don't think anyone ever expected there to be so much damage done to this ship. So now I gotta do this manually ... without Sara." His hands pawed over the controls, categorizing the compromised compartments that were delicate so as to be put out by fire control systems. Eventually becoming frustrated, he muttered to Clyde, "If only there was a single button I could push to take care of everything."
Clyde chirped in agreement.
"There, done." TOM stepped back from the hub as all levels flashed safe. "That takes care of it. Let's"
He was interrupted by the virus's sudden appearance on the hub's screens, guffawing as if he had just told a wicked joke that TOM hadn't heard. TOM waited for his low, villainous laugh to die away before he spoke up. "What's so funny now?"
"Nothing at all. Just how ridiculous your efforts at beating me are! Simply because you have the stabilizers back online doesn't mean you have a chance in hell! Yours is only one of thousands of systems I've invaded! Think about it."
"We'll be the system that beats you," TOM responded in earnest, one hand making a fist while the other pointed directly between the virus's eyes. "Sara's stronger than you think. And I'm no pushover either."
The virus tilted back his head and laughed maniacally. "Good luck ... 'hero'," he sneered back with more than enough sarcasm to convey what he thought of TOM. The screen returned to normal again.
"Man, that guy's a pain," TOM said once the virus was gone. "You think he bought my 'not a pushover' line?" Clyde whined. "Yeah, me neither."
Crouching back down in front of the computer hub, he said, "I'm gonna try and go for the nav systems this time. Wake me if anything happens." As an afterthought, he added, "Oh, and if you have to wake me again, try not to crack my head open. Okay?"
Clyde responded with random noises while TOM reached forth and, grateful he didn't have to struggle against a quaking ship to plug the cable in this time, returned to the cyberverse.