By Charles Swanson
A voice came to him. It was a legitimate question: Was he Rex? He certainly exhibited a strong response toward the name. He had memories of being Rex. But there was something that was bothering him, something he couldn't quite place. Meanwhile, whoever asked the question was waiting for a response.
"Possibly" he said. Considering his ability to speak intelligibly through his mouth, he revised his estimate. "Probably"
Probably-Rex simultaneously opened his eyes and queried for neurological implants. The latter returned only error codes. The former returned an image that he tried very hard to process. It appeared to be a hospital room, from the vantage of a hospital bed, surrounded by people. It was a very clean hospital room. It also contained equipment more advanced than Rex's current era, yet exhibiting evidence of mass-production. Odd.
The people elicited a strong response from Probably-Rex also. He knew them. His roommates? They were all there... All except for the Atomic Girl. But they all looked... different? Clearly now was the time to devote his resources to asking them for information rather than deducing what he could from the concerned looks on their faces.
"So... ah... what's up guys?" he said.
His assistant... no, his ex-assistant, it took him a little time to remember... His ex-assistant threw her arms around him. "It is you! Rex, you're back!"
Cooler heads prevailed. Dr. Polski put a hand on her shoulder and guided her from his side for a moment. "Rex, we have some things to discuss about your current situation, specifically the current year and the body you wear."
Rex could have then guessed the year, gotten very close, and impressed everyone present. He then could have also let them know that he'd suspected he was being implemented on other hardware, further impressing them all. However, this was not the fastest way of getting the correct information out of them, and they all must certainly remember how very impressive he was, anyway.
"Go on" he said instead.
Polski began with characteristic information density. "The backup that constitutes you is now twenty years old. The world has changed a fair amount in that time. For example, for the last nineteen years it has been under the solid grip of one man, a dictator who ruled with an iron fist, so to speak. More functionally it means he solely decides the uses and fates of all terrestrial resources. I'm sure we all agree that was wrong."
Rex nodded, but made a note to update his opinion when more data was available. He also noted the confused tense with which Dr. Polski referred to the dictator.
Polski went on. "We restored you for the purpose of removing him from power, which had certain difficulties."
Rex parsed this over-vague sentence and bade him continue.
"You may have noticed that you weren't restored to the body that was scanned along with your brain twenty years ago. There's a good reason for that. You may also notice, for some of the more abstract definitions of 'notice', that you are not a more recent backup. There's a reason for that, too." Rex sped his thought for a moment to decide what it meant to notice that you are not someone else. The Doctor continued, "Before I tell you these things, though, you need to know the specific difficulties inherent in removing this person from power. Well, it's more one difficulty, really. He was hooked up to a failsafe that served as a deterrent to anyone trying to do what we did. His death or significant alteration would result in... well... doomsday. The world's supply of nuclear and special weapons were wired into one of his implants."
At this point Rex had a fairly detailed hypothesis distribution going. He attributed the highest probability to his most recent backups being corrupted or unusable for some reason, but his body having some vital ability, possibly an implant that the rest could not figure out, that in some way facilitated resolution to their little problem.
What Dr. Polski said next turned his world on its head in a way that very little could. "So we captured him, no small task I might add, and implemented on his hardware the friendliest software that wouldn't cause his failsafe to trip. You."
Rex was... the dictator. He wrapped his head, or rather an evil despotic overlord's head, around that. They couldn't kill the guy, but had to neutralize him as a threat. In total, he supposed it was an elegant solution to a difficult problem, and as an added bonus the world could always use more Rex Riptide.
"Ugh," said Rex, feeling ill. "That wasn't even in my hypothesis distribution. How could I have overlooked that?"
He noticed surprise on some faces. Gil Eggars spoke for the first time that day: "So... you are ok with the situation, Rex? No further counseling necessary?" Accompanying surprise on Gil's face was distrust and just a bit of disgust. Obviously Gil had not changed that much in twenty years.
On that subject, not many of them had changed in twenty years, as far as his eyes could see. The oldest of them, Gil, might have even looked better than Rex's memory of him. Clearly medical technology had improved more than Rex had anticipated.
"No, Gil. The only thing I need now is access to a history database and a thorough rundown of what not to think to avoid activating the failsafe." In truth, the squishy part of Rex's brain was a little more disturbed than he let on, but it was nothing that his friends needed to know about.
Gil and NASA Lass left, apparently satisfied that it hadn't all gone terribly wrong, and betraying obvious relief that they no longer had to interact with the monstrosity that had been their friend. Rex understood that. When they looked into his eyes, they looked into the eyes of the despotic leader of a planet, one who according to the connotations of Polski's little speech had kept them down quite a bit over the past nineteen years. Rex had expected more of them, it was true, but he'd missed a lot of formative time and his personal models were bound to be a bit off.
Dr. Polski said nothing more, just actuated some control or another and allowed a display to flicker to life within reach of Rex. Then he, too, left.
Rex was alone with his ex-assistant. This was a little more than awkward, as the last interaction he remembered having with her was a rather personally unpleasant one that involved her affections bodily ripping themselves from him and transplanting into Gil. He couldn't imagine why she was so comfortable displaying obvious interest in him, especially now that she was doing so to the husk of the person who had kept the world on its knees before him for two decades. But hey, maybe that's what turned her on.
His mental model of her slapped him in the face for thinking that thought. His mental model of a perfect rational agent assured him that that meant he was not shying away from unpleasant thoughts, which was unambiguously a good thing.
"Um..." he said. It had sounded more eloquent in his head. He gave it another go. "I do appreciate the gesture you are making by being here with me at what you can only assume is a troubling time in my life (my life?), but I can assure you that the best thing for me would be to leave me to what I am now assuming is the interface to a historical database." He motioned to the display that the Doctor had activated.
Completely ignoring his obvious plea to be left alone, she once again flung her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. Odd, that felt familiar. When he'd modeled being implemented in another body before, he'd identified many more problems than he was currently experiencing. Inability to process tactile sensation, significant personality change, frequent seizures and other neurological symptoms... Perhaps the Atomic Girl and Dr. Polski had corrected for them. After all, there was no reason to believe that he was the first attempt.
In the meantime, however, there were imminent emotional problems. There was no reason for his ex-assistant to be as comfortable around him as she was. Even if, best-case scenario, she had gotten back together with Rex after Gil, she should still have remembered that they were apart upon completion of the backup, and the fact that Rex didn't look like Rex in the slightest but instead looked like this time's equivalent of Big Brother should have had at least some effect on how she related to him.
Actually, Rex didn't know what he looked like.
"Pardon me, but may I have a mirror?" he asked to the form currently trying to bring as much surface area as possible in contact with him.
She froze. "No" she said. No explanation, no apology, just fact. No.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Don't change the subject" she said. "We were just getting into how you're back, you're really back Rex," she said in an intentionally ironic deadpan.
He hadn't changed the subject. He knew she knew he hadn't changed the subject. She knew this also. She was counting on his not caring enough to pursue. Well, it wasn't like it was difficult to find a mirror later, without her help.
Two could play at the inane and obviously false claims game. "Sorry, dear, but I appear to be emotionally distraught at the prospect of living the rest of my life in another person's body, in a future I had no part in shaping. I would like to be alone now."
She scowled, but it seemed to be just as sincere as the anomalous half-smile that she'd been wearing ever since he'd opened his eyes. Rex beheld, in one glance, her entire opinion of how silly he was being, and how righteous she was to humor him by leaving.
Rex was alone. Finally. He could get to important things.
He drew the display toward him. It was mounted on a flexible cable that retained its shape when he stopped guiding it with his hand. Ok, that was interesting materials science, but nothing had really wowed him yet.
The display showed amazing depth of color and resolution. The interface had no lag he could detect. But these were uninteresting advances, what he'd expect from entertainment industry developments no matter what the research climate.
The user interface itself was the most alien aspect of his experience so far. In twenty years, a lot could change about how people view computers and their relationship to humanity. Eventually, though, via a process he called 'playing with it extensively', he put together a model of incremental changes, each of which could be plausibly seen as an improvement in human-machine interaction, that brought the state-of-the-art from the whole windows-and-fingerswipes of Rex's era to the equally abstracted yet presumably publicly intuitive interface of this display.
It was also possible that he was getting the baby version. He'd expected significant advances in computer interfaces in the next twenty years, most of which had involved some alteration on the non-computer side. If his dictator had had those installed, then they were certainly deactivated by Dr. Polski before Rex was installed. It was perfectly plausible to imagine a future of people with neurological implants, communicating with a computer as with another part of their sensory, or even cognitive, apparatus.
Rex went through the history. Notable was the lack of atrocities, the free speech and press that characterized the empire that had simply termed itself 'Earth'. Notable also was the remarkable foresight with which the ruler of Earth had led in the early years. He was clearly a formidable mind. Notable was the lack of harsh and public punishment for the inevitable resistance that sprang up at intervals. In every way it seemed that this ruler was fair and just, ruling by power but ruling with the good of the people in mind.
He'd apportioned research funding much as Rex would have. He'd given the most funds to the phenomenon that killed the most people, then when it was gone he'd done it again. Virtually gone was hunger. Cancers of many varieties were cured, those that weren't were sustainable for decades. Telomeres were no longer managed by a system optimized for living just long enough to let your children have children.
Notable in Rex's history database were also omissions. The name of the dictator was never mentioned, and sentences often became quite contrived in their structure where it was difficult to omit it, as if a program had gone through and imperfectly warped grammar around the need to mention him by name. There was also no mention of age, race, place of birth, or any other personal details. Only the pronoun used gave indication that he was male.
There were but two aspects of the Earth empire that made Rex cringe. One was the lack of self-government. Polski had mentioned that. The dictator had sometimes held elections (more often, polls) but the decision of the people was sometimes overruled. The other was more difficult to define succinctly. He often put his own definition of wellbeing above personal choice. It was exemplified in the forced adoption of information technology in much of the world. Rex wasn't sure he agreed with that. No groups, religious or not, were allowed to educate their children in a way counter to the dictator's society. Rex was fairly sure he didn't agree with that.
He'd read enough. When Polski came back he'd ask for the full version, and in doing would at least get a better idea of why he'd been deprived of one. For now he'd look in the mirror.
His hospital room was large enough for a patient, one or two life-sustaining machines, and visitors. It probably wasn't possible to give every patient a room this large; it must have been a private room for VIPs. The door to a bathroom on the wall to the right of the hallway. From this he concluded that the next room over had a bathroom on the wall to the left of the hallway and farther back such that all space between his room and the next was used.
The bathroom was designed for use by people who needed either attendants or machines by them at all times. The hygiene features were spaced 0.5 meters or so from each other to accommodate them. There was no mirror. No attempts had been made to hide the screw-holes where one had been removed. That would have been insulting.
Rex updated his hypothesis distribution: more weight on the theory that his friends were concerned about his mental wellbeing during this traumatic time in his life.
A few days passed. During this time, Dr. Polski had come in with a timeline: For Rex's own mental health, he would get more and more complete databases over the period of a month, at the end of which he'd get to look in a mirror. Rex thought this just a bit over-cautious. The reasoning that Polski presented was that Rex would feel connected to the history by the body he was inhabiting, and would stress unduly upon learning some things.
Rex's ex-assistant was equally annoying to Rex, carrying on in a manner that seemed almost designed to get him to notice that she was confident that he'd eventually warm up to her. He hadn't warmed to her yet, and seemed to himself to be unlikely to do so. Still, it gave him a data point for what the details that were being kept from him were. They obviously had something to do with his ex-assistant. Perhaps they were together? But then why would Polski and the others be so comfortable around her when they were so uncomfortable around Rex?
Rex was not big on existential crises.
Gil had visited him a day or so into his 'rehabilitation'. He'd asked "So who are you now? Don't you feel just a bit out of place? You are the despotic ruler of an entire planet, just running different software."
Rex sighed. It seemed just yesterday that'd he'd been discussing the meaning of 'identity' with Gil, when even to his own subjective time it had been months. "No, Gil. In order to formalize a definition of 'identity' that has all of the characteristics the naïve schema has, it's got to be software. In every way that makes a difference, I am Rex Riptide. I make the choices and decisions that Rex would, I remember what Rex does, I relate to people the same way that Rex does, and I refer to myself as Rex. Just as the very first restore-from-backup after the accident was me, this is me. The hardware matters less than you'd think."
Gil got the same look on his face whenever anyone mentioned 'hardware' and 'software' referring to brain and mind separately. Rex questioned him on it.
"Oh, that," said Gil, "it's just that it's so basic to the public knowledge now that the analogy is flawed. Children today grow up knowing that the brain's structure itself, not just patterns of activity, is deeply involved in the character of cognition."
Rex was not expecting this. Maybe some half-assed touchy-feely view that people were not computers, but not this. A grin broke onto his face. "Interesting..." he said. "Tell me more!" Clearly Gil had changed more than he'd thought.
"No, Rex. Don't change the subject. The fact of the matter is that people will look at you and see the dictator. They'll see the oppressor."
A cogent analysis. Rex wasn't expecting that, either. "You asked me who I was, not as whom people will view me. If they see the dictator, they are mistaken. It is an inefficiency in interpersonal relation that appearance matters so much."
Gil wasn't enjoying the debates the way he had twenty years ago. He was looking instead for a window to leave, not a window into deeper conversation. But something he'd said before sparked something in Rex. "Wait a second, where is Rex of this time?"
Gil blinked. He cleared his throat to stall. "What do you mean?"
"I was restored from a twenty year old backup. At time of backup, was there a Rex Riptide who had lived those twenty years the natural way? Why not use a more current backup, perhaps one negligibly old?"
But Gil had gotten his thoughts together during Rex's question. "He wasn't available. I believe the reason is part of Polski's curriculum for the month." With that he left.
Rex called after him. "If he's dead, that's ok! Really, I won't be damaged by it!"
It was profoundly annoying to have Rex's closest friends constantly underestimating his psychological health.
Rex broke security of his little baby history display two weeks into his course. He didn't find a feed to the outside world. He didn't even find a little note from Polski saying 'haha I knew you'd do it' as they'd often do. He just found each successive chapter in his month-long course.
Somewhere, though, someone must have noticed, as within a few minutes there were running footsteps outside Rex's door. They skidded to a halt, just overshooting the doorway, and two weeks late, Rex got his first glimpse of how citizens of Earth would treat him.
A large man in a hospital security uniform opened the door. The uniform was just futuristic enough to make Rex believe his predicament. The only emotion besides the completely understandable worry that Rex's little security breach caused was awe. Interesting.
"Pardon me, Mr. Riptide sir, but I have to take a look at your terminal." He said as he moved to Rex's bed's side. He did so cautiously, as if expecting Rex to pull something startling on him. But he'd called him 'Mr. Riptide'. Surely this guard had been briefed on Rex's predicament. Why the awe?
Wait a second... the display was ripped from his fingers, and the guard started saying something very serious to Rex. Then the guard started saying something very serious to someone via a personal communication link. Rex would have found the latter method of communication fascinating if he hadn't read the first line of his final course before the display was pulled out of reach. He would have 'ooh'ed and 'ah'ed over how simple the concept, how inevitable the development. He would have been concerned that he'd been caught red-handed breaking what turned out to be a rather important security measure. He would have been concerned by the shouting of the guard.
But no. Because he'd managed to read one line too many before the guard took away the display. He'd seen the name of the dictator who had held the world in his iron grip for twenty years. A Mr. "Rex Riptide".
Now that he thought about it, he really should have seen it coming. It was fairly obvious, after all. Why did his mind work so well on the dictator's body? It was really his body. Where was future-Rex while all this was going on? Right there, playing host to past-Rex's mind. Why hadn't they given him a mirror? They really would have broken his brain. Why did Rex's ex-assistant seem so comfortable around him? He still hadn't worked that one out, actually.
Oh dear. Rex wasn't feeling very good. He wished people would stop coming into his hospital room and trying to speak to him. It wasn't beneficial right now. He just wanted to sort out some things. Another part of him knew that it had already sorted out those things. It just wanted a little reprieve before it tackled a rather unpleasant truth.
Rex had taken over the world. His then-assistant had been right all along. None of Rex's careful studies of how one like himself could not end up ruling the world had worked. None of his assertions to his peers that he wasn't the slightest bit interested in taking over the world had truth behind them. Apparently, Rex was that kind of genius. The kind that built death rays just because they were death rays. The kind that held the world at ransom with a doomsday device. Ok, well, maybe not that bad. But close.
Rex had learned something about himself. He'd learned that he was everything he'd hated. That's not something that anyone can just walk off.
It presently came to him that the person trying to talk to him was Dr. Polski. "...which is why we didn't want to do it all at once, you know? You were always a trusting type; how did it come to this? And why did you have to break the security on your later courses? I just don't..."
Rex took all this as a compliment. Unless his sense of time had gone completely wonky, the Doctor had been there for a good five hundred seconds, and had been watching for perhaps twice that before beginning. He didn't often spend that much time on anything. Rex must have seriously bothered him.
Rex cut him off. "I want the full history now."
"Yes, Rex. Of course."
The doctor was mercifully silent as he unlocked Rex's display and swiveled it back toward him. Rex read one last time.
Apparently, twenty years ago, he'd developed what he'd called a nootropic. It made people smarter. Not more knowledgeable, that was rather difficult to do chemically. It just enhanced their attention spans, their memories, their reaction times, their baseline mental activities, and their tendencies to apply their brains to their everyday activities. In short, it made them think better, about more aspects of their lives. He'd wanted to use it on everyone, right away, without giving them a choice.
His ex-assistant said that was immoral and people should always get a choice.
Rex had said that the immoral thing was to allow people to continue their lives unexamined. He said that if he could introduce it into every major water supply, he would.
She said that, in this little hypothetical scenario they were dreaming up, she would stop him at all costs.
He introduced it into the City water supply. It was a slippery slope.
Rex felt pretty much as bad as he'd ever felt. He felt so very low that his thinking was impaired. If he had his full retinue of implants, he'd simply adjust himself to be functional again. But that wasn't possible this time.
Error messages. Error messages. Error messages. Rex had a constellation of implants in his head feeding him error messages. That made him feel even worse.
Rex was not big on existential crises, so he only had a little one. If he hadn't known himself well enough to prevent himself from taking over the world, who was he to talk about identity? He obviously wasn't who he thought he was. Not to mention his malfunctioning implants. Effective-Rex consisted of his squishy brain and those tools he used to make decisions, mostly his implants. Just as the actual capabilities of engineers went up as slide rules became supercomputers, the actual capabilities of the implant-Rex system went up as he'd augmented himself. So who was he to say, in his certain, cocky way, 'I am Rex'?
In fact, Rex couldn't imagine how things could be worse.
Then suddenly, Rex felt a lot better. His reasoning was as follows: He couldn't imagine how things could be worse. He had a very good imagination. Therefore he was very near the bottom of how bad things could possibly get, or one might say the optimally bad scenario. This scenario had an incredibly small prior possibility of coming about. But Rex was susceptible to phenomena that cause the probability that one is actually experiencing the optimally bad scenario, and not being simulated experiencing the optimally bad scenario, rather less than what you'd expect. Rex had tangled with such phenomena before.
In short, Rex began to suspect that his mind had been eaten by Cthulhu. Not Lovecraft's Cthulhu; there existed no spirits, of destruction or otherwise, in the real world. Rex had taken the term to describe a particularly unpleasant class of algorithms, those that assimilate a mind and torture it to death over and over again.
Rex? Take over the world? Pah. He'd put countermeasures in place to prevent that sort of thing after one too many conversations with his then-assistant. He wasn't being implemented in his own aged body, he was being implemented in a computer, in his own time, running the Order of Magnitude Cthulhu Algorithm Hack (OMCAH). The fact that he hadn't taken over the world, that he really was as great a guy as he'd suspected, made him happy. The fact that he was being simulated by the OMCAH, which finds the maximally abhorrent scenario for every mind it simulates, made him...
Despair. Oh, dear. There wasn't an obvious way out of this one. As much as a hell existed in this material world of ours, he was in it. It was only a matter of (subjective) time before Cthulhu's big guns came out. Agony and hellfire didn't really hold a candle to a process that optimized one's experience for horror.
It also explained the error codes his implants were giving him. The OMCAH defined the mind in such a way as to include implants. The stimulus presented to him by the OMCAH would not be at the interface between brain and computer, it would be at the interface between brain-computer and outside world. As a final check he queried one specific device that, in the physical world, was nestled into the back of his sinuses. It was the fine-structure sensor, a miniaturized apparatus that stressed the same phenomenon that drove ninjas' brains inert. Error code 057, corresponding to improperly calibrated universe granularity. The world on which Rex was simulated was being run at worse-than-perfect resolution.
His hypothesis distribution was all but uniform now. Cthulhu had gotten to him.
His new problem, quite literally being in hell, was a different variety of problem from having taken over the world: it was actionable. He could face it. Step one: define solution space. This encompassed many scenarios, from destroying the hardware running the OMCAH to converting it to a more pleasant simulation. Step two: permute solution-space backward through time. What could he do to cause these outcomes?
The OMCAH's simulation of Dr. Polski blathered on in the background. Why hadn't it dissolved in a puff of 'my simulation has found out it's a simulation' syndrome? Surely the scenario in which Rex knew he was in hell was less abhorrent than that in which he didn't...? Actually, he couldn't really compete with the OMCAH on this front. It was a process that was entirely devoted to his pain and misery. It knew him much better than he knew himself when it came to his own personal hell. That the simulation hadn't ended only told him that the OMCAH could get more horror out of him if he knew he was being simulated.
What resources were at his disposal? Obviously his mind, simulated on whatever hardware was running it. It was likely, too, that the OMCAH could get to his body. After all, it had at some point scanned his brain. He didn't remember this, so he could only assume he was incapacitated at the time. If he was incapacitated, then odds were the OMCAH still held his brain, which now composed some of its computational resources.
His brain was very good at simulating his mind. Because of this, the most abomination-efficient use the OMCAH could get from it would be to run the optimized nightmare through it as if it were simply that - a dream. Somewhere in the physical world, Rex was hooked up to a computer via some means, while dreaming the maximally terrible dream over and over again.
Unless he could stop it. A long time ago, Rex had realized the prevalence of dream-based supervillains in the City, and devised the means of maintaining the ability to neutralize the threat even if he was compromised himself. He would simply flush out the paralytic that the brain releases during REM. He had yet to actually use it, but the basic plan went as follows: Rex is caught unawares by said supervillain. Rex falls into a dream-like state, unable to help while the supervillain robs a bank/embassy/lab. Rex enters REM. Rex's brain, to prevent him physically living out his dream, releases a paralytic. Rex realized his predicament and consciously causes the release of the antagonist to this chemical, allowing his mind to once again control his body. Rex stumbles about, unsure of what is dream and what is reality, and in some way prevents the supervillains scheme.
Granted, the later phases of the plan could use some work, but it was still better than being helpless. And it allowed him the ability to free himself from what otherwise would be enduring torture for eternity. Probably several eternities, if the hardware the OMCAH infected was any good.
It wasn't a perfect plan, of course. Even if he succeeded, the OMCAH would still be running his mind. But it got him into a position to stop it, if necessary by forcing crowbars through its vital components
At that precise proper time, there was one of Rex's mind in his own head, dreaming in realtime, and many more of Rex's own mind a few feet from Rex's head, dreaming at a much faster rate. How many more and how much faster will be revealed at a later time.
At that precise subjective time, there was one of Rex's mind, a tiny measure of which was about to free itself and destroy the computer running the rest. The vast majority of its measure, however, was about to be sorely disappointed. The subjective sequence of events was as follows: 100% of his measure thought a command to the implant that released its neurotransmitter antagonist. 100% of his measure reached its arms up to the back of his neck, the most likely place for the connection to the OMCAH. 100% minus epsilon, where epsilon is very small, felt nothing, and so despaired more deeply than they otherwise would have, were they given no hope. So Cthulhu was satisfied.
Epsilon of Rex's measure, however, felt a cable plug into a rather unfamiliar port on the back of his neck. He released the catch and opened his eyes on reality.
The Rex in his head opened his eyes. The Rexes in the computer screamed over and over.
Rex saw that he was in his lab. When did he get there? He looked around. The Atomic Girl was to his right. Gil, NASA Lass, his ex-assistant, and Dr. Polski were to his left. They were all plugged into something out of his field of vision.
Here were five of the people he respected and liked the most, and they were all being put through torture unimaginable even by an insane mind. Rex turned around to see into what they were plugged. This was the largest negative utility, the most unpleasant thing, that Rex had ever beheld in his interesting and varied life.
They were running on a computer. He turned around, hoping against hope that it was one of the weaker processing clusters in the lab; a skitter designed to fetch drinks, perhaps.
But no. Here behind his friends was the new largest negative utility that Rex had ever beheld in his interesting and varied life. It so thoroughly overshadowed anything previously that he had seen that it was larger than the Sun compared to an atom. Larger than the galaxy compared to a nucleus. The number of orders of magnitude by which the unpleasantness of what he now saw eclipsed what he'd ever seen in his life was not a number he'd ever seen applied to orders of magnitude.
Dr. Polski's strangeling universe was an oddity, even among the oddities of the lab. Rex was planning to give it a thorough analysis and experimentation run when he could, because it was the only physical phenomenon of which Rex knew that could cram more computational complexity than was in the rest of the observable universe into a disk about a meter in radius. And his friends were plugged into it. In the milliseconds it took Rex to react, more of his friends died more times than there are stars in the sky. A significant factor more.
As for the tiny measure of their beings that were still implemented in physical brain tissue, Rex unplugged them, as fast as he could go. Not as fast as he could reasonably go without damaging himself, literally as fast as he could make his body move. After 5e-3 seconds, he collapsed, sprawling out in front of his friends with a sickly thud.
Dr. Polski recovered first, having been assimilated by the OMCAH last. "What just happened? Where are we?"
Then Rex's ex-assistant covered his words with hers. "Wait, wasn't I just in a lecture?"
NASA Lass recovered during this speech, saying, "It was all a dream? Thank God, oh thank God!"
Gil started crying.
They all looked to the Atomic Girl. She didn't look at them. She looked past Rex, not even noticing the room. She screamed. It was sickening, the scream of someone who couldn't feel the damage they were doing to their vocal cords. She flamed on, atomic fire sheathing her entire body. Blinding white light seared the eyes of everyone present. Suddenly, her ionized envelope was streaming down, melting a hole in the floor even as it forced her upwards. With crazed acceleration she forced herself higher, burning ever brighter, climbing ever faster. By the time she was at ground level, she had left an inverted cone of molten slag through the upper floors of the lab. Every part of the house was propelled away from every other part by her passage, and the flying debris burned as only part of a charming little house can. Those in Rex's group who were fit to look upwards and understand what they were seeing could trace her passage by the trail of fire she left, fading into the sky with a slight curve to the west as the Coriolis force began to make itself known. A sonic boom wafted down to them.
As much as anyone was 'gone', she was gone.
Gil stopped crying and raised his head. "Hey, what's Rex doing on the floor. Is he ok?"
NASA Lass and Dr. Polski ran to him and turned him over. He coughed wetly. He spent exactly zero time wondering why he was lying at the point of an enormous, inverted cone of destruction where his house used to be. "Doctor," he spoke, "Work up some ways of destroying your strangelings without destroying the Earth. Priority level..." he thought of a nice big number "... ten to the ten to the ten. To the ten."