Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chapter 10. The Worm

Stephen was sitting at the desk outside the lab hunched over a newspaper when Max arrived Thursday morning.

“Where you been, dude?” asked Stephen without looking up from his Sudoku puzzle. He slid a greeting card across the desk. “Here, sign this.”



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Max presumed it was a condolence card for Herman’s family.

“Later,” said Max, striding past Stephen toward the lab door

Stephen shrugged his bony shoulders and jotted a number on the puzzle.

Max slammed and locked the lab door behind him, then sat in the lawn chair. Although Perske had asked him to delete Herman’s account first thing when he returned to work, he was in no mood to deal with it at the moment.

I’ll get to it when I get to it, he thought to himself as he slipped on the gloves draped across the lawn chair arm.

“Open new backgammon training session,” he called to the processor and the room transformed itself into the Antarctic environment.

“Load Linus.” As requested, the penguin appeared at Max’s feet, and began to waddle about cheerfully. “Load Minus.” The second penguin materialized, anchored to his usual spot on the ice.

Max opened that backgammon case that had arrived along with the riding crop and herring bucket when he’d loaded the penguins. He placed the board within Minus’ reach, then picked up the crop with one hand and pulled a herring out of the bucket with the other. He tossed the herring to Linus and brandished the crop at Minus.

“OK boys, I’ve got work to do, so let’s get this game underway.”

Linus gulped down the herring and eagerly made his way to the game board. Minus cowered at the end of his chain.

Max laid out the pieces in their starting positions.

“You both know the rules. Roll to see who starts.”

Linus picked up a die and tossed it onto the board, but Minus hesitated. When Max raised the riding crop, Minus snatched up the other die and rolled it across the board. Max inspected the dice.

“Minus wins the toss.” He nodded to the chained penguin. “You go first.”

As the play commenced, Max leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and placed his forehead on his hands. There wasn’t really anything for him to do while the penguins battled it out. His only function when they played each other was to dispense the appropriate punishments and rewards once the game was over.

The penguins were well matched, and when Max looked up after a time he saw neither bird had made much progress, despite some evidence of heated action. It was still anyone’s game, but Minus frantically plucked at his chest feathers anyway as he scanned the board. Linus, on the other hand, gleefully rolled the dice when his turn came up, and occasionally squawked with joy at the result.

Max sighed to himself, “It’s going to be a long day.”

He stood up, placed the fish bucket on the lawn chair to keep it out of Linus’ reach, and stretched his back.

“Open a new window,” he said to the processor as he turned away from the birds. He opened Herman’s account and peered in at the mess in the dead student’s room. After his adventure two days ago, he was disinclined to log into the environment as Herman, and chose to open a door instead so that he could enter the room under his own screen name. The door, like the levitating window, was out of place in the icy terrain, and in conjunction with the lawn chair and the penguins playing backgammon, it gave the environment the appearance of some absurd, surreal artwork.

“Eat your heart out, Salvador Dali,” he said as he surveyed his surroundings.

“I’ll be right back,” he said to the penguins embroiled in their game. Linus glanced at the herring bucket on the chair. “You,” Max warned, “keep your mind on the game, and your nose out of the bucket.” Linus cocked his head to peer at Max with one shiny eye, then picked up the dice in his beak and pitched them onto the board. Minus tugged absently at the chain attached to his leg, but remained riveted to the game.

Max turned to open the door and entered Herman’s room, leaving the penguins to their own devices.

Nothing had changed since Max’s last visit. The guard dog was still an inert heap on the dark carpet, the message light on the phone was still blinking, and the piles of papers and mini-DVD’s still threatened to slide off the desk in an avalanche of garbage. He eyed the mess and contemplated loading Betty - his version, not Herman’s - to help him clean out the account. He shook his head. “I’ve had enough of you ladies for a while,” he said to himself.

“Empty trash,” he commanded the processor, and the garbage in the overflowing trash bin disappeared. He picked up the empty bin, held it next to the desk, and swept an armful of papers and discs into it. When it was full, he ordered the processor to permanently delete all items in the trash, and then he swept in another armful. After he finished with the desk, Max turned to the filing cabinet. He closed the partially open middle drawer and started at the top. He dropped handfuls of files into the bin, periodically emptying the trash as he went. When he’d finished with the top drawer, he put his hands on his hips and took a breath. “Man you had a lot of junk in here, Herman.”

Just as he was turning his attention to the middle cabinet drawer, Max caught sight of a file lying on the floor next to the defunct guard dog. He shuffled over to pick it up. It was the file labeled “Betty3.5". He smacked it against his open palm. “Betty, Betty, Betty,” he said, “it’s been fun.” He turned to toss the file into the trash can, then stopped. He pondered the file a moment, opened it, and studied Betty’s sulking image. “Fun, I guess, isn’t the right word.”

Max closed the file, dangled it over the trash bin, and let it drop. When it fluttered into the bin, Max ordered the processor to empty the trash. The file lay at the bottom of the bin, but did not disappear as ordered. A blinking, green cursor appeared in the air above the trash. A line of text scrolled out as the cursor flickered. “Error,” it read, “Cannot delete active application.”

Max’s brow wrinkled. “Active application,” he whispered. Betty3.5 was still running.

He rubbed his fingertips on his stubbly chin. “Active application,” he said again and bent to retrieve Betty’s file from the trash. He held it at arms length. “Terminate application: Betty3.5,” he called out to the processor. Another cursor appeared, this time in the cover of the file itself. “Permission denied,” scrolled the text, “Cannot terminate application active in remote environment.”

He set the file on the empty desktop and backed away toward the open door. He wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t delete Betty’s file without retrieving her from the Dark Net, and he was fairly certain he could never find his way back to the NSA storeroom through the labyrinth of passages, assuming that she was even still there. Max grimaced at the thought of Betty lying on the storeroom floor, spouting blood from her mangled hand as the AOD goon brandished his shears. Max gnawed his lower lip. She was just an illusion, just an interface to a neural net. She wasn’t even his virtual assistant. She had belonged to Herman.

God dammit, he thought to himself, it’s not my problem. In Max’s mind, the whole episode with Spencer and the AOD had been staged for Herman’s benefit, not his. Besides, torturing a virtual assistant was absurd. It was like someone kidnapping a word processing program and threatening to disable the code bit by bit. There are always other copies of the program. Who cares if one copy is destroyed? No matter how gruesome the process appeared to be.

Max decided to wash his hands of the whole thing. Perske would have to deal with this herself, or bring in the system administrators, for all Max cared.

He looked over his shoulder at the penguins in the Antarctic training environment.

“I don’t have time for this crap,” he muttered as he turned and headed back through the door and onto the ice. He lifted the herring bucket off the lawn chair, placed it on the ice, and sat down.

He squinted at the backgammon board. All of Linus’ pieces were neatly nestled away, and a few of Minus’ pieces remained on the field of play. Minus had lost, but just barely.

“All right fellas, now for the moment of truth.” He glanced at the open door leading to Herman’s room. He could see the corner of Herman’s desk, but Betty’s file was out of sight. With some effort, he turned his eyes away from the scene next door.

Max struggled to pull himself together. “Let’s see,” he said, “Where were we? Linus, you win so here’s your payoff.” The penguin danced in giddy anticipation as Max reached into the bucket and grabbed a handful of herring. He tossed the fish onto the ice, and turned to Minus. “As for you,” said Max as he picked up the riding crop lying on the ice next to his chair, “I believe that means you get five strokes.” Minus strained against his chain, eyes wide in fear. When Max stood to approach him, Minus fell backwards and swatted at the ice with his tiny wings desperately trying to escape the blows he was doomed to receive. Max straddled the thrashing bird, pinned its neck against the ice, and raised the crop above his head. When the first stroke fell, Minus whimpered and arched his back in pain.

“That’s one,” he said, and he raised the crop again. Minus snapped at his gloved hand. “Stop struggling,” said Max through his clenched teeth, “You’ll only make it worse.” The bird froze, closed its eyes, and quivered as it waited for the next blow. Max hesitated, and then reared the whip back further. His arm trembled. He couldn’t do it. It was too cruel. Neural net or not, Minus was in agony. Or at least appeared to be in agony, whatever the hell that might mean for an algorithm.

“Shit,” said Max. He released the penguin and threw down the riding crop. He straightened up and returned to his chair. Minus lay immobile for a moment before picking himself up off the ice.

Max leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. “This job sucks,” he said. He looked up at Minus, who was swaying slightly and still shaking. Max reached into the herring bucket and pulled out a fish. He tossed it toward Minus. It fell at the penguin’s feet, but Minus made no attempt to eat it.

“Don’t you want it?”

Minus flinched at the sound of Max’s voice, but still didn’t acknowledge the herring. Eventually, Linus waddled over, picked up the snack and gulped it down, and then waddled away again.

Max picked another herring out of the bucket and stood up to hand it to Minus directly. The penguin cowered. “I’m trying to be nice, you little nitwit.” He held the limp fish under Minus’ beak, but the bird twisted away. Max grabbed the penguin’s head with one hand and thrust the fish at him with the other. Minus craned his neck to avoid the herring. He snapped his beak at Max’s hand. “Dammit,” said Max, lurching back. The bird had only clipped the tip of Max’s gloved finger. There was no way for a virtual penguin to injure him, but he had been startled nevertheless.

“You freakin’ lunatic.”

He knew it wasn’t really the penguin’s fault. The creature had been tormented day after day since the moment it had been created. For months, Minus had suffered as much as Linus had been pampered. Now he was a neurotic mess. This, thought Max, is how you make the neural net equivalent of a psychopath.

“It would be better for everyone if we put you out of your misery,” said Max. “Mostly, it would be better for you.”

And it would be better for Betty if she where put out of her misery. The thought startled him. He sat back in the chair staring at Minus, and wondered if Betty was still suffering at the hands of the AOD thugs. “Crap,” said Max. He picked up the bucket and scattered its contents on the ice in front of Minus. At the sound of the fish smacking the ground, Linus peeked around from behind the lawn chair where he had been amusing himself by poking at the vinyl webbing.

Max stood up and headed through the door to Herman’s room. “Knock yourselves out, guys,” he said to the penguins without looking back.

When he reached Herman’s desk, Max stared at Betty’s file.

“I don’t even know where you are,” he whispered. But maybe, he thought, I can find someone who does. “Open a browser,” said Max, and an arched doorway appeared in the middle of the far wall. The door was built of silvery metal inlayed with gold filigree. An etched crystal globe served as a knob. Elaborate script written across the door read “Welcome to Phoenix Version 7.2 - Your Doorway to the World Wide Web.”

Max crossed the room, reached for the knob, and opened the door. It revealed a broad thoroughfare lined with libraries, museums, shops, and cyber café’s. He blinked at the virtual festival of color and noise. It always took him a few moments to get his bearings when he set out to browse the Web.

Max had no idea how to begin his search for Betty, and wasn’t even entirely certain that he wanted to find her, or what he would do if he succeeded in tracking her down. Oh well, he thought, sometimes the best plan is to have no plan. He squared his shoulders and walked out onto the Web, failing to notice the chubby little penguin who plodded along after him.

***

It hadn’t taken Linus long to finish off the herring Max had scattered on the ice, even without the help of Minus, who viewed the fish with the same wide eyed terror that just about everything inspired in him.

Naturally, Linus followed him because Max was, after all, the source of all that was good in the penguin’s virtual world. Which is to say: fish.

Minus alone was left on the ice.

Comfort was an alien sensation to Minus, but solitude at least brought him respite from the games and the whip. He tugged at the chain attached to his ankle. Minus had long ago learned that the chain was indestructible, and he had no hope of ever breaking free, but he had developed a habit of moving as far away from the spike as possible and stretching the chain out to its full length of about a meter or so. He lived perpetually at the very edge of his miserable little world.

Minus stood quietly and took no interest in his surroundings. He flinched only slightly at the soft creak of the filing cabinet drawer in Herman’s room. It was not a sound he associated with Max, his tormentor. But the soft thud that followed caused Minus to pluck at the feathers on his breast. And when the worm inched its way onto the ice, Minus began to pull frantically on the chain.

Although the worm was blind, it sensed the subtle vibrations of Minus’ struggles. It slithered across the ice, probed briefly at the anchored spike, and made its way along the chain to Minus’ foot. It slowly curled around the terrified penguin’s ankle, inching upward and wrapping itself around his torso in a rigid spiral, much as a python envelopes its prey. When it reached for Minus’ head, instead of devouring him as a snake might, the worm prodded the bird’s beak. Minus let out a squawk, and the worm plunged its narrow tip down his throat. Minus’ eyes bulged as the worm forced its way into his belly.

When the worm had entirely disappeared down his throat, Minus began to twitch, then tremble, then thrash about at the end of his chain. The fury of his spasms ripped loose the spike, and the chain whipped through the air, scattering backgammon pieces and sending the empty herring bucket spinning away.

Minus lay gasping on the ice. After a time, his breathing quieted. He stood up, and limped to Herman’s room, across the carpet, and through the browser door, dragging the rattling chain and spike behind him.

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