One Last Game
The three by three grid of raised stone squares was mocking me at this point. It was clearly a puzzle, as there were dozens of other identical puzzles scattered throughout Neoquest III. But with those other puzzles there was usually a cipher, or a scroll with a hint, or something that would help you figure out the answer. I had scoured the entire area looking for anything that could tell me the answer to the puzzle, but to no avail. The puzzle itself seemed to be an afterthought by the developers. It was in an empty room off of a random hallway in the coliseum level.
An ear piercing shriek interrupted my thoughts. I turned around just in time to see a Giant Frost Weewoo come flying at me, its deadly talons raised. I unsheathed my sword but it was faster, and it pummeled me to the ground. My Virtual Reality Suit was well-worn and cheap to begin with, so I only felt a dull pressure on my stomach as my avatar was repeatedly slammed into the stone floor and raked with scythe-like talons. I turned down the volume on my headset so I could think past the constant ear-piercing shrieks of the Weewoo. I had dropped my sword when the Weewoo tackled me, so I just wildly flailed until I scored a hit on it.
A blinking neon “9999” raised above the Weewoo as it went through its defeat animations. That’s what I hated about Neoquest III. Sure, the battles were cinematic and exciting when you first went through the game, but I was max level and now the random battles were just annoying.
I turned back to the tile puzzle that was actually important to me. I was beginning to think that it was just an unfinished bit of code that the developers had forgotten to remove. I had tried every random answer I could think of: Dr. Sloth’s birthday, the release date for the original Neoquest, the average price of a Slorg, but nothing had worked. I checked the time, 6:50 AM, work would start in ten minutes, and due to the microchips the Virtupets Space Station secretly implanted in all of their workers, my supervisor would know if I was lying about being late because my hallway was destroyed by escaped, marauding petpets or something of that nature.
On a whim, I stepped on the stone squares in the order of my lucky number “100295”. The stone squares rumbled down into the floor and the far wall crumbled, revealing a dark passageway. I literally jumped for joy, almost pulling my virtual reality gloves and helmet out of their outlets in the process. Maybe I was a little too excited over solving a puzzle in a game, but oh well.
“WORKER ZYGY-A12! REPORT TO HALL XY-DELTA FOR WORK DETAIL,” blared the intercom above my head.
The intrusive intercom was the one bad thing about working for the space station. Well, that and the secret microchips they implanted in all of our brains, the horrible living quarters, the dangerous work conditions, the contracts that forced you to work for them for a minimum of four lifetimes before there was a chance of a pay raise, and, worst of all, the snacks in the vending machines were both stale and over-priced. But other than that it was a pretty good job. ***
Usually, a work detail involved hours of drudgery as I crawled through narrow vents and in between walls attempting to fix the stations decaying wiring. The station’s engines constant thrumming made the work into a steambath, but I had been able too busy focusing on the puzzle to realize how hot it was.
After my shift at work, I had immediately gone back to Neoquest III in order to find out what was in the dark hallway the puzzle had revealed. Inside was only a scroll that said “GO back to the beginning, were all the world came from”. I had spent hours looking through the beginning of the game. Then I combed through the end of the game just in case.
After a week of fruitless searching, it occurred to me that I might have been thinking about the riddle in the wrong way. It was possible that the developers of Neoquest III had put in the original tile puzzle, but the more I thought about it, the more likely it seemed that it had been added in by a third party, a hacker or someone of that nature. It was also possible that the answer I had put in was correct at random. The same person who put in the puzzle had also picked the answer at random, or had hidden the clues so deep in the game I had no hope of finding them, but it was more likely that it was chosen specifically. There was only one person I knew of who had access to the game and the know how to manipulate the code enough to add an entire set o puzzles to it.
Dormitory 14-AZ had been the station’s biggest project a few years ago. Designed to show Neopia that the station actually cared about its Grundo work force, Dormitory 14-AZ featured apartments larger than the size of a decent closet, hallways that you could actually walk through, and plumbing that didn’t backfire every other day. Now it was just another abandoned hallway; neglected due to the constant downsizing that had plagued the station for years.
I pulled my hood down and made my way to apartment 114. The keypad was badly rusted, and I was able to pop the casing off easily. I fiddled with the wires inside it until the door shuttered open with a screech. A low moan echoed through the hall, and I hurried into the room. Apparently Dormitory 14-AZ was not completely abandoned.
Marian had always been an organized Grundo, but years of hull fractures and neglect had left her room in a disastrous state. The piles of code and work orders that had once stood in orderly pillars had scattered to the ground. A thick layer of greasy dust covered the room, and the flickering light from the ceiling panels gave every object an elongated shadow. I clenched my three-fingered hands and thrust them into my pockets. I had worked in the darkest corners of the station, and it wasn’t the filth and decay that bothered me, but the picture on the wall that had somehow remained hanging through the years. In it were a Blue and Pink Grundo in spotless station uniforms. Written beneath the picture was the caption “First Day On The Job! Zygy and Marian. 100295”.
I began clearing out the endless piles of paperwork and accumulated garbage from where her bed should have been. Eventually I cleared a small hole and felt beneath the bed until I pulled out a battered case for Neoquest III. It was stained and Marian had doodled all over it and had drawn Grundo antennae on all of the characters. She had bought it for me for my first anniversary of working on the station. Communications with Neopia had been cut at that point, but she had scoured the station until she found one tucked away in storage, apparently forgotten. It made my antennae ooze to think of the memory.
Written on the back was the haiku “In the end there is/ A final answer to your/ quest dishwasher vacuum” Marion was a genius programmer, good enough to mess with the code in Neoquest III and put in a room without breaking the game entirely, Dr. Sloth was even rumored to have tried to hire her at one point, but a poet she was not.
A crash came from the hallway. I tried to write it off as one of the many mysterious rumblings that occurred throughout the station. Probably something as harmless as an evil experiment gone wrong, but I knew that management only scheduled evil experiments on the weekends.
The door to the hallway screeched as two giant, three-fingered hands pried it apart. Okay, the dormitory was definitely not abandoned. I jammed the Neoquest III case into one of my pockets and ducked into the access panel by the bed. It was a tight fit, and I squirmed as fast as I could as I heard the creature crash into the room.
Crashing noises and grunting echoed up through the ventilation. I thought for a moment as I waited for a giant hand to reach into the vent and pull me out. The only neopet with three-fingered hands that large was a Mutant Grundo, but they had all been shipped off of the station years ago to fight for Dr. Sloth. There was still Gargarox, but word was he had left the Grundo Cafe to pursue his Gormball career.
I had to see it. Besides, I was safe, it was likely too large to fit in the vent to chase after me. The Mutant Grundo standing in Marian’s room was a solid green, and stood at least three times as tall as any normal Grundo I had seen. It lumbered around the room slowly, as if it was disappointed in not finding anyone there. It leafed through the endless piles of code and paperwork that covered the room, as if confused. It sat on the edge of the trash covered bed and sighed. Its antennae drooped, and I saw that it was a sickly looking thing, too big to be aware of its body. I made my way back through the vent and into the network of tunnels that eventually led to my room. I don’t know what I had expected, but I felt a vague disappointment. ***
It looked like a mixture of Space Fungus and the giant lasers they used to weld new parts to the Space Station. Admiral Throwl leered down at me with its single giant eye, perched on its mechanical spider-like legs. As it prepared to launch into its opening monologue, the first of four it delivered throughout its battle, I focused on the slightly off colour tile behind its rear right leg.
As it launched into the exposition of how it was the mastermind behind every seemingly disparate event that had led me here and how I, SOON, would be metaphorically crushed beneath its incredible intellect and, also, literally crushed by its giant metal spider legs, I walked into the off-coloured tile until my feet started clipping into the geometry of where it met the floor. I sheathed my sword and emptied my inventory, leaving only my shield and armor on. I wasn’t sure what Marian’s rationalization for this was. maybe something about leaving weapons behind to see the true ending or something, I don’t know. Maybe it was just some random bit of code that didn’t work properly.
I closed my eyes (this wasn’t necessary, but it kept me from vomiting during the next phase), and felt my body shift through the geometry and into the physics-less void of the undefined game space. Virtual Reality isn’t perfect, even with the full-body suit I felt only an odd rippling pressure as I phased into the small room Marion had built.
It was cozy log-cabin esque room. Snow fell gently outside, stacking up on the outside of the single window in the room. A gently roaring fire kept the chill out of the room. A single wooden chest sat by the fire. Throughout the room were scattered moments of my journey through the game. The sword the player’s mother hands out at the beginning of the game, a shield proclaiming that you are a knight of Meridell, a witch’s brew that was used to transform into a petpet and sneak into a giant’s lair, and a few others.
I had seen them all before.
I swallowed my nervousness and looked at the other mementos. The ones I had not been able to bring myself to look at the many times I had been here. A picture of Marian and I in front of the still inhabited Dormitory 114-AZ, the two of us with a giant plate of Cherries Jubalee at the Grundo’s Cafe; the last picture showed the two of inside a small personal shuttle. The coordinates were specified for the dock at Mystery Island, and we were both smiling like nothing bad could ever happen to us. I got off the shuttle a few minutes later and left Marion. A dozen other pictures showing the two of us and our intertwined lives.
When I had looked at all of them and the memories they held, I opened the chest in the center of the room. It opened not with a creak that all other wooden chests did, but with a hydraulic swish of sliding bay doors on the Station. Inside was a note from Marion in her broad, confident handwriting.
I know you’re bummed about me leaving for Mystery Island for my new position, but I have good news! I’ve been saving up and I was able to get you a ticket too and it should get to you by next week! I know its expensive, but hey, programmers get paid more than you worker drones :P. I’m kidding! But seriously, I even talked to your manager and he said he would give you any week off to come visit me.
Anyway, I hope these puzzles kept you occupied until the ticket gets there, I know you’re sad when I’m not there and you’re an even bigger dummy when you’re sad so don’t waste any time getting here!
I miss you,
I don’t know why I didn’t leave sooner. Fear, I guess. Fear of leaving the Station and the comforting regularity of my horrible job. Long hours of crawling through cramped tunnels in humid heat through festering garbage, only to connect wires that I’d have to come back and rewire a week later; never thought I’d miss it. Maybe even horrible things can be comfortable if they are the only thing you have.
I picked up my bag though I really could have left it behind. It held all of my worldly possessions: three changes of clothes, my copy of Neoquest III (now placed in its graffitied case), a half-eaten box of Neocrisps, and 567 neopoints. I had left the virtual reality suit at home. I doubted they had the proper outlets on Mystery Island.
I held the crumpled ticket to the pilot of our small shuttle. He was small, even for a Buzz, but he handled the ship with confidence. I had found the ticket half buried under empty food containers and a half-disintegrated work uniform. I had had to clean it in order to get the digits to show up correctly, but the pilot accepted it and I made my way back to my seat.
No one else sat on the shuttle. I guess they were like I used to be, and didn’t see the point of leaving the station. As the shuttle’s engines roared and we left the station’s docks, I saw the grey blob of Neopia come into view through my window. The sun came up over the horizon of the planet, and I could barely see past the blinding corona of light. I never felt happier.