In The Motherboard, several ints were contently enjoying their break. Some were eating, most were talking, and others enjoyed a game of virtual billiards. Paula, owner of the joint, was trying to fix the reception on the television at the bar, thinking of how much easier this would be if the computer had a cable modem. Besides the reception, think of the channels she could be getting. Right now, the only channel that even broadcast to her bar was Channel 56-KCOM.
When she did get reception, however, Paula found that the station was airing an emergency news bulletin.
“Quiet down, everybody,” she yelled to the crowd, “I want to hear this!”
Gradually, people quieted down, and when they overheard what the reporter was saying, they quickly crowded around the bar, trying to see for themselves what was happening.
The reporter’s message was very plainly spoken: “We bring you a report right now of an emergency situation in the Minesweeper department of the Compaq. Apparently the work of long-known Rogue Int, Fatal Error, the game has not only frozen while in operation, but some very strange things have been sighted as well.
“Take, for instance, that Arrow, pet mouse of the monitor, seems to be stuck on top of the smiley face on the game board. And moments ago, reports came in of an int-like creature, quite possibly Fatal Error himself, walking on the board and squeezing between the cracks to some unknown location… Authorities say that if anybody sees Fatal Error, they are to consider him unarmed, but dangerous, and to contact Sergeant McAfee immediately. Here is Fatal’s file photo.”
A picture of Gus’s “blown-up” face showed on the television, eyes in Xs and everything.
“Sorry, we appear to be having some technical difficulty with retrieving the picture, which may or may not be yet another example of Fatal’s work.” He paused and said, “We now go live to a press conference where the sergeant is said to have the latest information, and will hopefully answer some of our questions.”
The screen changes to show the press conference, where McAfee is already answering reporters. And since there’s really only one station in the entire PC, you can imagine he is rather fed up with answering the same one over and over again.
McAfee: Okay, does anybody have any questions at this time?
Interviewer: (jumping up and down) Ooh, Sergeant McAfee, pick me! Pick me! I have a question!
McAfee: (sigh) Seeing as you’re the only one here, I’ll start with you.
Interviewer: How sure are we that Fatal Error is behind this?
McAfee: We’re confident it’s him. Even the Human seems to know it by now.
Interviewer: How do you know that?
McAfee: Because he has opened up Microsoft Word, wherein he is writing what we think is a fan-fiction article about Fatal’s exploits and how dumb my soldiers and I are not to be able to catch him. Okay, does anybody else have a question?
Interviewer: Ooh! I do! Pick me again!
McAfee: (under his breath) God, this is pointless. (aloud) What is it?
Interviewer: So, would you agree with the Human’s statements that you are indeed “dumb?”
McAfee: (grimacing) No further questions, please. Any and all other information will be handled in the briefing, with only the other reporters present.
Interviewer: But there are no other reporters.
McAfee: Exactly. Now, pardon me, but I must be getting to work.
Angus and Brenda looked about them in amazement at the Monitor world. Arrow had been a good mouse to let the ints ride on his back on the way up there.
“Wow,” said Brenda, “It’s so spacious! Nothing like the crowded streets back home.”
“Shh!” said Angus suddenly, causing Arrow to stop in this tracks, “I think I hear something up ahead.”
Indeed there was a noise coming from behind a set of wires. And because there was an echo in the monitor cavity, the three could make out the sound of an int’s voice, often followed by the cheering of a mob. Angus and Brenda strained their ears to hear what was being said.
“Today we embark on a great mission of destruction,” said the int-voice, “and you’re just the bombs for the job.”
A cheer went up.
“No longer will you suffer the agony of not having to explode! No longer will you be safe from harm! No longer will you sit quietly in your spaces living in peace!”
The crowd cheered again.
“Who are those people?” asked Brenda.
Angus shrugged and answered, “I don’t know, but they’re all crazy.”
“Let’s go in for a closer look.”
At this suggestion by Brenda, the three cautiously moved in the direction of the sound. When they were close enough to see the speaker and the crowd, and while they crouched and hid behind a large clump of wiring, Arrow immediately recognized the speaker. The mouse lightly tapped his foot on the floor, with Angus listening.
“What’s he saying?” said Brenda in a whisper, not wanting to get caught.
“He says that the speaker is the int that kidnapped him. You know, the guy in the trench coat.”
“Oh my goodness!” said Brenda in surprise, accidentally not heeding the need to keep quiet. “Oops,” she said, covering her mouth.
But it was too late. In a second, Fatal Error was standing over them, ninety-nine angry-looking land mines standing behind him.
Four-star General Herman Flag rounded up his troops for battle. They were the few, the proud, the members of the Expert Game Board Flag Squadron. Their job? To stand their ground and de-mine the entire board under the direction of Arrow the mouse’s “right-click” foot, thus pleasing the great Lord Gus Yellow, who smiled down on them so long as they did their job correctly. It was General Herman’s job to see to it that all of his squadron’s flags were in order for the day.
By now, the general was becoming impatient with the lack of commands coming from Arrow the mouse. But he and his flags could not do anything about it, nor could they see the current state of the game board. This is because all flags have to stay behind the board in hiding until they are called on one by one. Still, the general knew his duty was to stay and await command, and so he did this, using the extra time allotted him to do a thorough check of his troops. He walked among the ranks, shouting such things as, “You there! Stand up straighter!” and “Hey, you! Raise that fabric, mister!”
Then the general came across one particularly red-faced flag. It hiccupped at the same moment Herman approached it.
“State your name, private.”
“Name’s Bottleneck, sir,” came the reply, with a stench that almost caused the two flags next to him to lose their color and faint.
“Private Bottleneck!” the general yelled, “Do you know what squadron of flags you’re in?”
The drunken flag considered this question a second and said, “No, but I bet it’s a good one, right?”
“This is the Expert Game Board Flag Squadron! Here we do not tolerate drunkards!”
“Well, maybe I should just leave and go to a squadron that does.” Thinking this was good logic, Bottleneck gave General Herman an ear-to-ear—er, that is to say, a corner-to-corner grin.
The general was furious at this remark. He screwed up his face, evidently trying to turn it red with anger, but because it was already red, well, this was a pointless task.
“TAKE THIS FLAG AWAY AND PUT HIM ON THE BEGINNER BOARD!”
The nearby flags followed this order immediately and carried Bottleneck off. Bottleneck yelled “Thank you!” back at the general, but Herman was no longer paying attention.
Instead, the general turned to the troops carrying the flag off and said, “Bring me back a worthy flag from the Beginner Squadron to take his place.”
Back in the inthole, another military leader had his share of problems. Sergeant McAfee escaped from the press conference to go and meet up with his chief intelligence officials at the CIA (Central Intel Agency) to decide what steps to take against Fatal Error.
He walked straight through the agency’s corridors to the switchboard room, where her highness Queen Pentium III and several others had been waiting for him.
The “several others” included representatives from every department of the inthole that was currently active. Bob Letterman was head of the Microsoft Word department. Clyde Eightspace was head of Minesweeper. And George Palladian was head of Windows.
“Greetings, Your Majesty, gentlemen,” said the sergeant as he sat down, “I see everybody’s here except the sanitation department. Should we wait for Mr. DeFrag to show up?”
George Palladian fielded this question. “We are currently searching for him. He will come, I assume, as soon as he gets the call. In the mean time, I move that we start the session without him.”
The queen sighed and said, “Very well, although I don’t like facing Fatal Error without the sanitation department’s help. And Angus DeFrag is the best int I know of when it comes to cleaning and repairing a damaged system.”
“I assure you, Your Highness,” said McAfee, “we will brief Mr. DeFrag thoroughly in due time. Right now, I agree it is important that we get started. First, Mr. Letterman, what’s the latest news about the Human’s activities?”
“He’s still writing that fanfiction article, sir. He’s on chapter seven.”
McAfee was astonished. “How can he be on chapter seven? We’re not even on chapter seven yet!”
The queen interrupted, “But does he appear to be ready to save and quit, or even restart the computer?”
Palladian answered, “To be honest, your highness, we really have no way of knowing that. What I can tell you is that he hasn’t done it yet, and it has been a long while since the Minesweeper incident first happened.”
“Long enough for the Human to write seven chapters,” said McAfee.
“He’s pretty good with a keyboard, the Human is, to be operating Word without the aid of his mouse,” said Eightspace, thinking aloud.
Letterman shrugged. “It’s not that hard; all he really has to do is press the right buttons on the board in the right order, and he’s got a document.”
“Say,” said Queen Pentium, getting an idea, “is there a set of buttons he could press that would possibly correct the error on the screen?”
McAfee answered her, “Quite possibly, yes. He could command us to run Scandisk or Defrag, and that might do the trick. The problem is that even if we did that, Fatal Error himself would still be running free. And besides, there’s no way to tell the Human to run those programs.”
Eightspace had something to say here. “We might not be able to tell him to open a program, but maybe we could get him to close it. Mr. Palladian, would it be possible to run a message across the monitor screen that reads ‘This program has performed an illegal function and must be shut down?’ Then at least we could get this Minesweeper thing done with, and concentrate on Fatal Error later.”
Letterman agreed. The “illegal function” ploy had worked for his own program several times before.”
McAfee and Palladian both nodded to the idea, and all four of the ints looked at Queen Pentium to get the final “okay.” She looked back at them and said, “Alright, then. Let’s get going.”
Two ints walk along the Inter-hardware highway cable from the computer to the monitor. Int A is carrying a sign flung over his back that reads “This program has performed an illegal function, etc.” Int B is now eating another sandwich.
Int A: Say, Joey.
Int B: (munching) Yeah, what?
Int A: Do you ever wonder if the Human even knows we ints exist?
Int B: That’s a silly question. Everybody knows it was one of the Human’s own kind that created us in the first place.
Int A: Yeah, but y’know, I’ve been thinking about that. And I think to myself, did he create us only so we can do his will, or did he mean for us to be free and think for ourselves now and then?
Int B: I dunno. But he gives us a whole lot of orders, so I’d think the answer would be closer to the first idea than the second.
Int A: Now, see, that’s interesting. Because while the Human gives us orders, did he not also give us the power to govern ourselves to an extent?
Int B: (finishing the sandwich) I suppose. So what’s your point?
Int A: Well, if we were to find a balance and unity between the free will and the fate, perhaps we would discover a perfect harmony of life. And from there, we might find the meaning of life.
Int B: (licking his fingers) Wow, man. That’s deep.
The two ints stopped where they were on the silicon roadway for a few seconds to contemplate this. Then, they started again, carrying that all-important message up to the monitor screen.
Fatal Error marched at the head of his army, boldly making his way down the inter-hardware highway cable that led to the computer. Bored of the silence, he decided to make a marching tune. It went something like this:
Fatal: I don’t know what I’ve been told!
Land Mines (in unison): I don’t know what I’ve been told!
Fatal: But we’re gonna win a war today!
Land Mines: Hey, that doesn’t rhyme!
Fatal stopped his song and replaced it with a simpler “Left, left, left right left.” At the same time, he tried to think of words that rhyme with “told.” Let’s see, there’s “bold” and “sold” and “cold” and “mold…” not to mention “old…”
The land mine next to Fatal tried to help him out.
“Um, sir, maybe I can think of a marching tune,” it said. Then it sang, “I don’t know why I’ve been orange!”
Fatal closed his eyes, slapped his forehead, and yelled “HALT!” so loudly that his cigarette fell from his mouth. Turning to the mine, he began to lose his temper.
“ORANGE? There is no word that rhymes with orange! And even if there were, that song doesn’t make any sense! Are you stupid or something?”
The bomb started to whimper, then sob. In a few seconds, it broke down completely. Another land mine patted it on the back and looked at Fatal scornfully.
“Now look what you’ve done. You made Bubba cry.”
Fatal couldn’t believe this. Really, he was beginning to question just how well he had planned this attack in the first place. He tried to regain his complacency as he lit another cigarette.
“Alright,” said Fatal, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, Bubba. But from now on, you only talk when I tell you to talk, and obey my orders! This is a strong army for strong land mines, and I don’t like sissies. Remember, all I’m trying to do is help everyone here out. You don’t want to go back to the Minesweeper board, do you?”
All of the mines shook their heads.
“Good.” Satisfied, Fatal was about to push forward when he heard two voices coming from the other direction. It was a pair of ints, and they were moving toward the monitor.
One was saying, “Hey, Joey, do you think there’s something going on in the computer that we don’t know about?”
“What do you mean?” asked the other voice.
“I mean, why do we have to carry this sign up to the monitor? I think the queen might be trying to hide something from us, Joey.”
“Like this guy Fatal Error. Why, I heard that Error guy’s a real basket case. Legend has it he’s an int, but he doesn’t like ints at all.”
“Oh, yeah. I heard about that… he went insane when everybody he asked out to the prom turned him down flat.”
“And then there was that girl who ditched him. I still remember her last words to him: ‘Geez, everything about you is byte-sized, isn’t it?’”
The two ints started laughing hysterically. But as they looked straight ahead of them, suddenly the joke wasn’t so funny anymore. Ninety-nine land mines were frowning and blocking their way. In front, one mine was in the midst of patting a sobbing int in a trench coat on the back.
“Look what you did,” said the mine, who the rest of us know as Bubba, “You made Fatal Error cry.”
Fatal raised his head from his hands, pointed at the ints, and said in a weak, un-Fatal-like voice, “Charge!”
Ints A and B looked at each other with widened eyes, simultaneously said “Uh oh,” dropped the sign, and ran as fast as they could back down the cable. The ninety-nine bombs, who had all been briefed on the battle plan, hurried after them. But their leader, Fatal Error, stayed behind. He took a moment to stop his crying, and then he turned back to march up to the monitor. His bombs would take care of the computer, but in order to detonate them, remember, there must be a person to step on a land mine on the minesweeper board.
Again, Fatal Error exercised that habit of his which we fanfiction authors find very convenient for getting into characters’ thoughts: he started talking to himself.
“Alright, everything is going according to plan… or close enough, anyway. All I have to do is go back to the Minesweeper board and step on the square in the top left corner—that’s the square where I met that bomb earlier. But now the land mine isn’t under the tile; he’s in the computer! And when I blow up the computer, there’ll be nobody left to run it but me! Any survivors will become my slaves. Not even the Human can stop me now!”
Oh, is that a challenge, Mr. Error?
“What? Who’s saying that?”
Do you really think I’m going to let you win?
“Who ARE you? What’s going on?”
For your information, Fatal, this is a literary technique known as divine intervention. All I’m saying is, do you really think you can beat the author of this story?
“Ha! Nobody can beat me! Nobody, ya hear?”
Okay, Fatal, have it your way. But when I end this story by chapter 10, don’t come complaining to me that I didn’t warn you.
With that said, Fatal went on his way, unaware that the undoing of his plot had already begun.
Angus DeFrag and Brenda Presario were in high spirits, happy to see that such nice people—if one could call them people—had set them free.
“Thank you so much,” said Angus, when he had gotten the gag off his mouth.
The flag in front of him did its best to bow politely, though it soon found that it was stuck standing up straight, no matter how hard it tried to bend.
“Well, I’m glad I could help you two out,” the flag said, “here in the Beginner Flag Squadron, we don’t get too many visitors. The Human usually plays on the Expert level. He rarely wins, but one has to give him credit for trying, heh heh.”
Brenda looked about her. There were ten flags, including the one talking to them now, all looking at them with a fixed gaze of curiosity. Then she realized something.
“Hey, wait a minute, where’s Arrow?” she asked.
“Pardon?” said the flag.
“You know, Arrow the mouse. He was taken prisoner the same time we were. Where is he?”
“Oh, yes, the mouse,” the flag remembered, “He didn’t belong here, so we sent him to a better place.” The flag looked up to indicate the sky.
“WHAT?” the ints both shouted.
“He’s back on the monitor screen above us, running around and clicking as usual.”
The ints sighed with relief.
Then Angus thought to himself for a minute, and then asked, “Oh no, he’s not playing Minesweeper, is he?”
“I don’t know,” said the flag.
“Listen, Mr. Flag—“
“Name’s Bottleneck. I used to be on the Expert Squadron, but I pretended to be drunk to get away from their squadron leader, General Herman.” Bottleneck shuddered. “That guy gives me the creeps.”
“Mr. Bottleneck, we can’t let the Human play Minesweeper. If he steps on even one land mine, the entire inthole will explode! Fatal Error has been up to some bad tricks, and we have to stop him.”
Bottleneck was confused. “You have to stop Fatal Error, or do you have to stop the Human, or do you have to stop Arrow?”
“All three,” Angus answered.
Bottleneck and the nine other flags huddled together and spoke in an inaudible whisper. When they came out of the huddle, Bottleneck seemed resolved.
“Okay, we think we know how to do it, but we would need some help from an intelligence official in the computer, or the inthole, as you call it.”
Angus was excited at this statement. “Okay, I think I can set up a line of communication. Do you have a message center somewhere in the monitor?”
“Sure. It’s upstairs, second door to the right. Or, in int terms, take the green wire up to the second chip to the right.”
“Thanks,” said Angus, “and Brenda, I want you to stay here for now. Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon enough.”
Angus ran up the green monitor wire as the flags and the int stayed behind, below.
Brenda looked on hopefully. “Good luck, Angus,” she said.