The following post is a submission for Later Levels Question of the Month. This month, Nathan of Hurricane Thought Process asked us to choose three video game characters to help us survive an apocalypse, the nature of which would be random based on our date of birth. My apocalypse is a Plague, and my enemy a Sentient AI. I took that concept and ran a little wild with it. As a result, this post is rated T for Teen due to fantasy violence and frightening imagery. Stay away, kids, this isn’t your normal Adventure Rules story.
A foul wind blew across the valley, carrying with it the acrid stench of chemical-polished metal. Above, a pair of ships screamed through the air, their passage tearing the dark fabric of the starless sky and leaving behind a crackling violet aurora. The sands upon the earth swirled in the iron wind, mixing with flying bits of scrap and nanobots into a deadly storm of shrapnel. A lone figure stood in the midst of the wastes. Despite the harsh surroundings his white cloak seemed untouched and pure. His features were obscured by a turban and balaclava, leaving only a pair of piercing eyes that stared unblinking into the distance.
As he stood, another man arose from the base of the sand hill and came to stand beside him. This young man was unremarkable, with brown hair and eyes of the same color hidden behind a pair of black-rim glasses. He wore a black button-down shirt beneath a red cardigan, although not much remained of the sweater’s color after being battered by the elements. The man breathed heavily, obviously not accustomed to hard travel or the conditions outside. His companion, the figure in white, gave him an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Feeling alright, Mr. Shepard?” the man in white asked. “We can stop if we must, though I would prefer to keep on.”
“We keep going,” said the younger man between labored breaths. He reached into his pocket and removed a device, something akin to a smartphone but bulky and strange. “The map shows that the next town should be nearby. The people there will be worse off than I am, I can manage. Thank you though, Minwu. For watching out for me.”
Minwu, the man in white, seemed expressionless, his mask obscuring any hint of his true feelings about the matter. The strange events which now left the earth ravaged had also opened the way for Minwu to return to the world of the living, and with him he brought fey thaumaturgy from a time long past. It was only because of this power to heal any ailment that his younger companion now lived at all. If he felt anything was owed him for the service, he did not speak it.
Mr. Shepard, or Ian as he preferred to be called, gave a sigh and kept moving. He felt wholly unqualified for this whole ordeal. Shifting sands, sharp steel, spacecraft, and the mysterious plague which now left him with violet metal grafted into various parts of his flesh – he’d asked for none of this. Yet survive it he must, and the only boon granted him were three stalwart companions torn from space and time. Minwu was one such ally, and Ian had chosen him for his ability to heal the survivors of the terrible plague which afflicted them.
The two pressed forward against the blasts of bladed wind, Minwu sending aside a wave of shrapnel with a muttered word. Where his power worked a faint phosphorous glow hovered in the air, electric blue against the ochre sands and violet sky. Ian shook his head in awe and tried to stay close behind. Their destination loomed on the horizon – what was once a farming community in the southern United States now looked like a desert metropolis. Jagged skyscrapers pierced the heavens, their surface inlaid with complex ciphers that flashed in bright neon colors. Mechanical wildlife moved erratically along the surface of buildings and glided against the currents in the air. One such automaton appeared to notice the pair of men and began scuttling towards them.
“One approaches,” Minwu noted. “I trust you planned for this eventuality?” Ian gave a quick nod.
“Our third friend should be on their way.”
The pair kept trudging through the sand even as the mechanical monstrosity charged towards their position. Carried on five legs that tapered to jagged points, the automaton glistened brightly in shades of red, orange, and violet. Every step it took threw more sand into the air, and as it came closer it unleashed a horrible shriek that pierced the night air. Like a blend of static, scraping metal, and a fax machine, the noise sent a shiver down Ian’s spine. Minwu seemed unshaken – although he did stop moving. The automaton was only a few yards away now, and at any moment it would crash into them and tear them to pieces with its bladed limbs.
Just as the automaton loomed over them, a ship suddenly descended upon the group from the sky above. Unlike the other ships which left artificial tears in the atmosphere, this one was quiet and subtle. The appearance of the ship gave the automaton pause – and that moment became its undoing. A woman garbed in jagged metal descended from the ship, firing glowing spheres of laser energy into the automaton’s metal flesh. Each blow sent the beast reeling, metal tearing as the hideous multilayered voice of the monstrosity cried out in apparent agony. The blasts had torn an opening in the automaton’s armor, exposing thick masses of wire and glowing neon chips and panels. The cannon on the woman’s arm changed shape. She braced her cannon with her free hand to steady her aim and fired a rocket into the monstrosity’s opened chest, setting off a grand explosion of steel and light that left Ian temporarily blinded.
“Alright,” Minwu said, nodding. “I’m impressed.” The woman in the orange armor – called Samus – said nothing. A series of digits and strange ciphers danced along her visor; it seemed that she was scanning the automaton. Ian gave a half-smile, his heart still beating against his chest from how close the beast had come to them. He’d chosen Samus as their muscle, their main line of defense against the monstrosities that populated this plague-infested cyberworld. Her ability to change weapon types and analyze enemy technology would be invaluable to their survival.
“While I am confident in my ability to handle our opposition,” Samus said, “I prefer not to fight unless it’s necessary. I suppose you have a plan to get us into the city unseen?”
Ian looked toward Minwu, who nodded. The thaumaturg kneeled onto one knee and muttered a few words under his breath. Power crackled around him and the sand began to lift unbidden from earth, small chunks of metal left behind by the automaton spinning in the air as they hovered just above the ground. Ian felt a strange static sensation that made all of his hairs stand on in as power washed over him. After covering him in a thin veneer, the energy tore away and stood idle in the space in front of him. A hologram perfectly recreating his image flashed like a dying light, and then solidified into a shimmering blue phantom. Afterimages of Samus and Minwu floated beside them as well, and with a concerted nod the three holograms rushed towards the city, static crackling around them as they went. The monstrosities prowling the city limits took notice of the holograms and began to give chase, clearing a path for the three heroes to venture beyond the city’s outskirts.
“That’s one way to do that,” Ian said with a smile. “I’m glad I brought you along, Minwu.” Though her face was obscured by her visor, Ian could almost hear the frown on Samus’s face.
“No time for jokes. We need to move quickly.”
While the city looked bleak from outside, standing in the thick of it made things even worse. Once-suburban homes had pieces of heavy machinery and complex technology grafted onto them as if altered in twisted surgery. What little plant life remained glowed with a sickly green, irradiated beyond recognition. Streetlights hummed loudly and gave off a pulsing red light, the only interruption to the violet phosphorous coming from the rifts in the sky. In spite of all this, the worst visage of all was that of the city’s residents.
They were humans once, before the plague. But now like their homes and gardens, their bodies were infected with errant bits of machinery. One woman had bionic eyes grafted into her arms and she lay in a catatonic stupor on the ground, her mind broken by sensory overload. An old man and his adult son were attached at the face by a thick mass of wires that seemed to transfer fluids from one body to the other. A little girl absentmindedly wandered the outside of her home on spidery legs, her still-living body hanging limp, her wide eyes scanning the surroundings as she muttered to herself in binary. Ian turned to his companion in white.
“Are they too far gone?”
Minwu said nothing. Instead, he stepped forward to the woman on the ground, kneeling next to her still body. Her many mechanical eyes looked upon him and narrowed. Her mouth suddenly opened and gave an ugly wail like a modem booting up. The other infected residents began to scuttle over. Samus raised her weapon, not ready to fire but simply warning the others to stay back. They obeyed.
Minwu laid his hands upon the woman and seemed to lose control of his faculties. His hands wandered unbidden over her shoulders and down her arms, hovering for a moment over each cybernetic eyeball. All at once he jerked his hands upward with a sharp command, and the woman wailed as all of the devices erupted from her flesh in a spray of oil and sparks. Samus shot each eye out of the air as it fell, obliterating them into iron dust as Minwu quickly spoke hushed words over the woman’s wounds. The blood that sought to escape her veins through these newly torn openings stayed within her and continued its natural flow. She would live forever with the mechanical bases where the eyes were once installed, with circuitry running through her flesh. But she would live, and that was more than she could say when the plague still afflicted her.
“Three to go,” Ian said. Now seeing that Minwu sought to help them, the infected humans came willingly and quietly to sit beside him. With the threat of violence gone for the moment, Samus brought her free hand to her helmet and began to look about the area, scanning for something. She seemed to find what she was looking for and gestured towards the center of the city.
“The source is that way,” she said. “Whatever it is that’s causing the plague and commanding the machines, it’s in the middle of town.” Ian sighed and put a hand in his pocket, taking comfort from the device within.
“Then that’s where we need to go. Once we’re there, you’ll be able to protect me, right?” Samus gave a laugh.
“I told you earlier, no jokes.”
Leaving Minwu to care for the citizens ravaged by the cyberplague, Samus led Ian to the source her sensors had detected. As they approached the center of the city, the previous landscape became more and more obscured by machinery and cybertechnica. Blocky neon lines ran across the surface of each building like a spreading infection, artificial in their symmetry and perfection. Swarms of nanites flew about like gnats over a fresh corpse, occasionally descending on a device to integrate with it and irreversibly change its function. Cars began to pour fluid onto the ground that was lapped up by machine wildlife, televisions in shop windows began to display unrecognizable ciphers – as the plague spread, it took everything biological and artificial and twisted it into its own image.
The source that Samus detected in the center of the city was a mighty behemoth. Once an elephant – likely from the zoo of a nearby city – the plague had infected the creature and twisted it almost beyond recognition. Each leg was a series of pistons firmly rooted to the ground; the trunk a cord inserted into a power line and funneling energy into the monster; each tusk a mounted cybercannon with glowing neon laser-bayonets pulsing quietly in rhythm with the elephant’s heartbeat. The once majestic animal’s thick flesh was riddled with cavernous holes like barnacles, out of which protruded jagged spires glowing neon and shrieking in an indecipherable language.
“There it is,” Samus said, her voice barely a whisper. “I am prepared to do my job. Are you ready for yours?” Ian swallowed hard and then tried to give a disarming smile. What came out looked more like a terrified grimace.
“I just keep telling myself that my part is easier than yours.” Samus sighed and pressed a few buttons on her arm cannon, the setting changing so that lines of freezing liquid flowed freely to the chamber.
“Easier, perhaps, but far more important. Don’t mess it up.”
With that, Samus jumped forth and opened fire on the behemoth. Blasts of frigid energy slammed into one of the spires jutting out of the elephant’s flesh, ice creeping into the metalwork and disrupting the circuitry. Sparks flew as something critical broke and smoke poured from the machine limb. The behemoth roared with rage, a terrifying blend of an elephant’s cry and a chorus of one thousand wails from the victims of the plague.
The beast detached its trunk from the power line and turned upon Samus. The cannon tusks opened fire, sending streams of crackling lightning that barely missed the bounty hunter. She’d shifted into morph ball form and rolled right up by one of the elephant’s legs, planting a series of glowing spheres of pulsing blue energy around the base of the leg. All at once, they exploded in a flash of light and sand, creating a cloud underneath the elephant that obscured Samus from the vision of its now-grasping trunk.
Meanwhile, Ian made his way to another of the elephant’s legs, this one positioned in the back furthest from where Samus was concentrating her attack. Defeating this creature would not end the plague nor shut down the other monstrosities – the source would simply move itself to another machine. No, the only way to stop the cyberplague would be to dismantle the sentient AI that commanded it. And that was a job for Ian’s final chosen companion.
Now standing next to the behemoth’s leg, Ian looked at the control panel. None of the images made sense to him – the whole screen was an eclectic mix of binary and futuristic ciphers. It didn’t matter. Ian took the device from his pocket and grabbed hold of a male plug extending from the upper edge. He rolled out the cord and plugged it into the compatible port on the leg. The screen flashed a few times as Ian’s device and the elephant’s cybermatrix interacted. The machine attempted to reject the device but after a few moments, a person appeared on the screen.
“Hey boss! Is it my turn now?”
“Sure is, MegaMan,” Ian replied. “Go get him.”
This was it, Ian’s ultimate weapon against the sinister AI. MegaMan.EXE was a program from the far-flung future, the only technology sufficiently advanced enough to destroy the AI at the source. While Samus kept the body at bay, MegaMan would defeat the rogue intelligence that spawned the plague and filled the world with monsters. Only then would humanity be able to recover and rebuild from these horrid events.
While MegaMan traversed the cybernetwork of the machine, Samus struggled valiantly against its current body. She stayed for a time beneath the elephant’s body – it could not crush her underneath due to the machines bonded to its legs, and from this position only the trunk could locate and attack her. She changed her weapon to a photon cannon and fired brilliant beams of light that kept the trunk’s visual sensors scrambled, allowing her to move somewhat undetected beneath the behemoth.
Meanwhile, Ian served as MegaMan’s operator, making keystrokes on his device whenever necessary and uploading specific chips when requested. Beams of energy fired from the behemoth’s trunk narrowly whizzed by as Ian worked, creating a field of static that caused his hair to stand on end and the metal on his body to twist as if it had a mind of its own. He felt confident that things were going as planned – with the citizens healed and the behemoth distracted, it was only a matter of time before MegaMan succeeded in his mission.
Suddenly, the ground beneath their feet began to rumble. Ian turned to look and gasped as he saw in the distance an army of machine wildlife rushing towards them. Writhing wire tentacles stretched forward to drag heavy steel bodies along the ground, iron wings beat in time with the pulsing of the streetlights, feet of fur and metal pounded the sand and sent up clouds of dust – there were far too many creatures to count, and definitely too many to fight. Ian felt his heart drop into his stomach as he watched the horde approach – and in the next moment, Samus was in front of him.
Her cannon began to glow and morph as all of the power from her suit was diverted into the weapon systems. The barrel expanded wider and a ring of light and power formed around her arm cannon as she took aim at the massive horde of creatures. Her weapon charged, she unleashed a wave of energy that tore across the city and smashed into the horde of machines. The red-and-violet light of the city was overwhelmed by the white-blue light of Samus’s blast, and Ian watched in awe as each creature caught within it was completely atomized. With the blast completed, Samus’s suit was drained completely of its power. Her armor fell away, leaving only the protective flightsuit underneath.
“Uh, Ian?” said a voice. “I think I found what we’re looking for.”
Ian remembered then that MegaMan needed his assistance and turned his attention back to the monitor. On the screen before him was everything that MegaMan “saw” in the cybernetwork. A vast expanse of blue stretched out before him, with digital squares floating idly in the empty space. MegaMan stood on the edge of a glowing neon platform standing face-to-face with the source of the plague, the source of all the suffering inflicted on the planet. However, while MegaMan had a virtual body to boast of, the AI entity before him was formless.
There was no way to harm it.
The AI’s constant stream of consciousness was overwhelming and hard-to-follow for Ian, and to make matters worse, MegaMan seemed to suddenly be paralyzed, unable to act. Ian checked the screen on his personal terminal but could find nothing but static. No button pressed helped things along. As Ian tried desperately to understand what was happening, the AI still continued speaking. It spoke with innumerable voices in all languages at once, yet somehow English came to the forefront so that Ian could understand.
As the being spoke, MegaMan began to cry out in pain. He writhed as his body slowly floated out into the empty virtual space and began to flood with the AI’s data. MegaMan blipped in and out of existence, his body racked by spasms as his code was rewritten to integrate the desires of the AI. His coloration changed as everything about him was corrupted to become part of the whole, infected with the same plague that had torn through humanity.
“Foolish humans,” the dark Mega snarled. “Now you, too, will become a part of me.”
In the real world, one of the machine spires broke off of the behemoth’s body and tumbled towards the ground. As it fell, the pieces of Samus’s armor flew upwards towards it. The machine began to integrate the armor into itself, corrupting and changing the suit into an automaton subject to the will of the AI. Samus grimaced and backed up towards Ian, readying her laser pistol but very aware that they were now at a huge disadvantage.
“It seems our trust in MegaMan’s abilities were misplaced,” Samus sighed.
“We can’t give up yet,” Ian replied. “MegaMan isn’t just a computer program, he’s a human person. That AI might have overwritten his code, but maybe we can still appeal to his humanity.” A laugh erupted as MegaMan’s corrupted voice emerged from the suit’s comms.
“I’d love to see you try.”
The dark suit opened fire, Samus throwing Ian to the side and only narrowly dodging the laser blasts herself. Ian fell to the ground and rolled through the sand, trying to resist the urge to groan with pain. Meanwhile, Samus battled against her own power suit, dodging laser beams of all different types as she fired her paralyzer pistol to little effect. The suit’s comms continued to transmit the dark Mega’s monologue, occasionally interrupted by bouts of laughter.
“MegaMan, I know you’re still in there somewhere!” Ian shouted. “This isn’t you. You’ve always believed that it was your job to help humanity, right? You have to hold onto that now!”
“Fool,” said the dark Mega. “Your precious friend is nothing more than a string of ones and zeroes that can be corrupted and changes to anyone’s purpose. And MY purpose is to integrate all life – both biological and mechanical – into myself. Together we shall become as a god, and coexist for eternity in glorious hybridity.”
Samus changed the mode on her paralyzer to form a whip of crackling energy, wrapping it around the suit’s leg and pulling it over onto the ground. With no person inside to feel the pain of the fall, the suit seemed unphased. It continued to fire upon Samus, who narrowly managed to duck beneath a stream of dark matter. The suit yanked on the whipcord and pulled Samus to the ground, creating an opening to fire a killshot right into her brain.
“No!” Ian shouted.
The next few moments seemed to pass in slow motion. A burst of dark matter exploded from the barrel of the suit’s arm cannon. Samus did not cry out but instead gritted her teeth and stared forward, as if prepared for the eventuality of her own death. The blast approached her face – and then suddenly dissipated in a burst of colored prisms. A series of shimmering blue walls formed around Ian, placing him in a protective barrier where he could freely operate the personal terminal and try to get through to MegaMan. Samus turned to face their savior and gave him a wry smile.
“Took you long enough, Minwu.” The man in white’s expression could not be seen beneath his balaclava, but the fabric shifted so that Ian could have sworn he saw a grin. Ian motioned for Minwu to come and aid him, the thaumaturg entering the barrier he’d created while Samus continued to protect them from the corrupted suit.
“You were able to cure me of the plague,” Ian said, “and all of those people too. Your power can separate man from the machine corruption. Do you think you could do the same thing with an artificial intelligence?” Minwu shook his head.
“Do you mean to say, a spirit?” he asked. “I do not fully understand the enemies we face, nor how completely my power can interact with them.”
“I need you to try and heal our friend,” Ian replied. “He’s…inside of this.” He gestured to the personal terminal. Minwu put his hands on the device and gave an audible sigh.
“I will do my best,” Minwu said. He placed his hands on the terminal and began to speak.
While Minwu worked on MegaMan, Samus continued the battle against her power suit. Her whip danced around her in beautiful swirls of golden light, her lithe form gliding between bullets and narrowly evading rocket after rocket. The trunk of the behemoth which once served as the host body for the source lay idle, now, and as Samus battled its new body she made her way towards it. She flipped over a blast of frigid air from the suit’s cannon and landed right beside the trunk, lifting it off of the ground. She took aim at the power suit and grabbed a random lever of the trunk’s machinery. Giving the lever a firm pull, she was rewarded with a beam of violet energy that blasted into the suit and sent it flying backward. Ian watched in awe, but a voice pulled him back to reality.
“I cannot free him,” Minwu said. His disappointment showed clearly in his narrow eyes. “I do not know how to influence this creature. But if I understand you rightly, then we will lose if our third companion fails. There must be something else we can try.” Minwu stepped aside and allowed Ian to take hold of the terminal again. Ian took a deep breath and spoke once more.
“MegaMan, I know you can hear me. And I know that there’s a part of you fighting against the orders you’ve been given. When I chose you as a companion, I didn’t just pick you because you’re a program capable of deleting others. I chose you because you’re a human, too. I know the story of how you were made. How you carry within you the DNA of a child, the child of the man who invented all of the programs like you. It is that part of you, the human person, that makes you more powerful than any technology could ever be on its own. Without humanity, machine has no purpose, no guidance. You can do something that no device is capable of – you can make choices for yourself. So do that now. Fight against this monstrous AI and use your power to save humanity.”
Suddenly, the image of the dark Mega on the screen began to shudder. Sparks crackled around it and it began to scream, a thousand languages roaring out of all the speakers in the city. From the chest of the dark Mega, a figure began to emerge. slowly at first but gaining speed and ferocity. After a few moments there were two MegaMan programs standing in the cybernetwork – one the dark Mega, and one the hero that Ian had brought from the future to save them.
“You called me back,” MegaMan said. “Now let’s end the apocalypse!”
The two Megas clashed swords, a blade of red and a blade of blue crackling with energy as they met. The dark Mega fought ferociously while his blue counterpart seemed to be playing with him, casually deflecting each blow and laughing as they battled. This angered the AI, who lashed out wildly and left a glowing red scar in the cybernetwork. MegaMan took the opening and plunged his sword clean through the dark Mega’s chest.
“That’s your problem,” MegaMan said. “You think because you infect everything that you can be everything. But that’s not how life works. You can’t simply take things and declare that they belong to you. You can’t force people to assimilate or be like you. As long as you try to force your will on others, they will always rise up to stop you. You’re a plague, and humans – we’re the cure.”
The dark Mega, for the first time since the group met him, said nothing. He simply evaporated into raw data and dissipated into the cybernetwork, totally erased by MegaMan. Ian breathed a sigh of relief. Minwu stood still, seemingly contemplating the exchange between the plague AI and MegaMan. Meanwhile, Samus began walking away from the group.
“Sorry boys, this became a bit too much of an afterschool special for me. See you around. Or not.”
“Samus!” Ian shouted. The bounty hunter looked over her shoulder at him. “Thank you. We can begin putting things back together because of you.” Samus shook her head.
“Like I said, afterschool special. See you, kid. Try not to die.”
Ian turned to Minwu and looked down at MegaMan. He then scanned the city, looking out at the massive skyscrapers that still glowed neon as energy and information danced across their surfaces. Even with the cyberplague cured and the source eradicated, the world was changed irrevocably. Yet somehow, with the help of a few heroes, humanity had survived the apocalypse. The next step, the healing step – that would come later. For now, they were all simply happy to be alive beneath the violet sky.