Max often left the lab late at night. It was a short, ten-minute drive home, but he preferred to avoid the crush of traffic that packed the streets around campus when classes let out. Although he liked driving, even the scant distance home, he usually left the car in auto chauffeur mode in the evenings. It was easier and safer to let the car take over after dark.
Listen to the Chapter 14 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
Many nights, the trip was so uneventful as to hardly register in Max’s mind. Tonight was one of those nights. In fact, this time he could hardly recall even starting his car. One moment he was walking out of the lab, and the next he was stumbling through the front door of his studio apartment and collapsing onto the stained floral-print couch.
“Drugs,” he mumbled and lifted himself back to his feet. “Gotta have the drugs.”
He stepped over the perennial mound of dirty laundry in the hall and made his way to the bathroom. The medicine cabinet was crammed with empty pill bottles that bore testimony to the countless refills that he had accumulated with years of epilepsy medication. They were like his children, growing larger over time as his tolerance for Phenobarbital increased. He’d had two seizures already this month, and one the month before. At this pace, he’d have to bump up the dose again, which meant more pills, or larger tablets. Eventually his tolerance would get to the point that he’d have to switch to something else. Unfortunately, most other anticonvulsives tended to be more toxic to the liver than Phenobarbital, and his doctor recommended against changing medication until it was absolutely necessary. Epilepsy itself probably wouldn’t kill him, but the drugs to control it surely would, someday.
He scanned the cabinet and took down the one bottle that wasn’t empty. He placed four pills in the envelope in his wallet and cupped another two in his hand. He popped the pills in his mouth, stuck his head under the faucet, and washed them down with tap water.
He shuffled back to the living room, kicked off his shoes, and plopped onto the couch. He tried not to think about the events of the last few days. Betty, Linus, the cyber swinger, the chat room, and the broken down Army of Darkness headquarters were all just part of the virtual world. Although virtual reality was a huge part of his work, he tried to always keep it in perspective. This was real - his stinky little apartment, his shoddy old TV with basic fiber service, the filthy plates that threatened to overflow the sink in the kitchen, and the German cockroach infestation in his pantry that he could never quite seem to get under control. This was life.
He had known escapists who wallowed in virtual games and online communities. Max, however, preferred gritty reality. In part, his dislike of virtual environments was a reaction to the fact that he had no choice but to spend hours in them everyday at the lab. But mostly it was a result of his basic philosophy of life. In his mind, pain, hunger, loneliness, and filth were the things that put everything else in perspective and gave life meaning. Without them, how could anyone truly experience the good things? Virtual reality escapists fill in the voids and paint over the ugly parts of their existences with role-playing games and cyber sex. But eliminating the lows makes it impossible to recognize the highs, as few and far between as they might be.
That was why it was Max’s custom to put work out of his mind as much as possible when he was at home. The grimy apartment was his sanctuary from the virtual world at the lab.
Max felt for the remote in the gritty crevices between the couch cushions. He flicked on the TV, and ran through the channels in search of something to occupy his mind until the medicine kicked in. And yet, his thoughts kept drifting back to the puzzles that had confronted him at work. He ticked them off with each click of the remote.
Click, channel 106.
What was the device Spencer was after?
Click, channel 107.
Is there really a Doomsday Virus as Perske had claimed?
If so, is it related to the device Spencer wanted?
Where was Betty?
Could he help her?
Why was the login name ‘Patriot’ so annoyingly familiar?
Since when could his TV get channels higher than 110?
He sat up on the couch and held down the channel button. 113, 114, 115. There was something on every station. Nature documentaries, home improvement, car repair, self help, religious programming, politics, sports, cartoons, porn, and more porn. By the time he’d reached 160, just about every channel was dedicated to porn. Max stopped for a moment to watch a slithering, slimy mound of mating flesh on channel 201. He tried entering a channel manually. 1111. Sure enough, it was porn, and the reception was great. 11111111. At last, something different; classic Star Trek.
The episode looked familiar. Spock and Kirk were locked in mortal combat, wielding absurdly impractical weapons that, even on TV, looked like cardboard and rubber props decorated with metallic paint.
Kirk managed to disarm Spock. Predictably, Kirk threw his own weapon away in a macho show of fair play. The fight entered the hand-to-hand combat portion as Spock and Kirk took turns throwing each other around on the dusty sound stage in a 1960’s interpretation of futuristic Judo.
Max watched as the actors beat each other into mock exhaustion, and then collapsed with arms entwined. They caressed each other, and kissed.
“Holy crap,” said Max as Spock stood and Kirk climbed slowly to his knees. This was not the episode that Max remembered. Clearly, it was some sort of perverse adaptation. Still, whoever had produced it had done an excellent job finding actors who bore stunning resemblances to the original screen stars.
Max was so horrified and riveted by the depraved take-off that he barely heard the phone ringing on the floor next to the couch. When the sound finally registered, he tore his eyes away from the scene on the TV, dropped the remote and fumbled for the phone.
“Hello,” Max rasped.
“So, you’re a fan of slash, are you?” asked the voice on the other end.
“Slash, as in Kirk-Spock erotica.”
It was the squeaky voice Max had first heard in the Dark Net.
Max wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer to the questions that were on the tip of his tongue, but he had to ask. “Why are you calling me? And how do you know what’s on my TV?”
“Your TV, my TV. Does anyone really own a television? You might say they own us.”
Whatever Spencer was trying to say, Max wasn’t getting it. “Why,” he asked again, “are you calling me?”
“We have some catching up to do. Don’t you remember Max?” said Spencer wryly. “Should I call you Max? Or would you prefer Herman? That's how Betty here knows you.”
"Listen Spencer. I don’t have whatever it is you’re after. And Betty’s just code. There’s nothing you can do to her that has any meaning.”
“Maybe we should do something to you then.”
Max whipped the phone away from his ear. He was on the verge of slamming it back into its cradle when the image of Kirk and Spock making love on the screen caught his attention. If Spencer knew who he was, and even knew what he was watching on TV, then the threats just might be serious. Max slowly lifted the phone back to his ear.
“What do you want from me?”
“You know what I want.”
Max nearly screamed, “I don’t have the device, don’t know where it is, and don’t even know what it is. So get off my back!”
“Hey, Max,” said Spencer, “I believe you. I’m just that kind of guy, you know, trusting. But I have a friend who is a bit more skeptical. So you’re going to have to prove it to him yourself.”
“What the Hell do you want me to do?”
“Talk," said Spencer, " just talk. Only I’d prefer that we do it face to face. So, I’m sending over a few fellows to pick you up.”
“I’m calling the cops,” bellowed Max. “And if anyone else shows up here, they’d better watch it, ‘cause,” Max lied, “I’ve got a gun.”
“See you soon, my friend.”
The line went dead.
Max pounded the phone on the cradle, and then put it back to his ear. There was no dial tone. He tried again. Still nothing.
He jumped from the couch and raced to the closet where he piled things he had no use for but didn’t want to throw away. He pulled over the stack of boxes at the front to get to the junk that had accumulated behind. He didn’t have a gun, of course., but somewhere in here was a bat. At least he thought there was one. Max waded past sweats, running shoes, a deflated volleyball, and an empty toolbox. No bat. The closest he got was a dry-rotted baseball glove.
“Shit,” he snapped. Then he noticed something long and slender under his faded trench coat in back. He snatched the coat out of the closet and tossed it to the floor behind him. Still no bat. The shape was only the careworn Gibson electric guitar he picked up at a pawnshop and never learned to play.
It would have to do.
“I’ll put a Pete Townsend hurt on their asses,” snarled Max. He hefted the guitar by it’s slender neck, backed away from the closet, and took a few practice swings. For the first time, he understood why some rockers call guitars axes; they have good balance for hacking.
Max headed for the front door, wielding the guitar like a mace. He checked the dead bolt and locked the knob, then peered through the peephole. Nothing. But what about the windows? Max shook his head. All the windows were locked, he was certain of it. Not only did he keep them latched, but the one time he’d tried to open them, he’d found that they were sealed with several layers of paint. If anyone was coming through a window, they were going to have to smash it in. That gave Max an advantage. The windows were small, and an intruder entering through one would have to squirm in headfirst. If he heard a window break, Max could meet the bastards as they were crawling through, and take them out one at a time with the Gibson.
Counting the window in the kitchen, the ones in the living room, and the tiny bathroom window, he had four altogether. What if they came in more than one at a time? His best bet, he figured, was to get to the center of the apartment and be ready to sprint at the first sound of breaking glass. They’d have to be very lucky to synchronize themselves well enough to get multiple people in different windows simultaneously. Max was sure he had the upper hand.
He ran back to the living room, and made a mental estimate of the most central point relative to the apartment windows. With his back against the living room wall, in the same place he had soiled the carpet during the taping of his seizure, he was less than a half dozen steps from each window. Almost as important, he could see three of the windows from this spot. Only the tiny bathroom window was obscured by a jog in the hallway, and that one was a long shot for an intruder, considering its small size.
He crouched by the wall with the guitar at the ready, like a batter looking for a fastball. As he waited, he planned his attack for each window. The kitchen was a straight shot to his left. If they came in through either of the living room windows, he’d have to go over the couch. As long as he didn’t trip on the way, launching off the couch back might even be helpful. He could get some altitude, and bring the guitar down like a sledgehammer. The bathroom would be trickier, both because he wouldn’t be able to size up his opponent until the last moment, and because there would be little room to maneuver in the cramped space. Guitars, he thought, are weapons best built for battle on open ground.
Max’s heart was pounding hard enough that he could feel it in the seething pulse in his neck and face. There was a roaring in his ears. But now that he was prepared to defend himself, there was little to do other than wait.
The pause gave him time to wonder if what he was doing made sense. Should he stand here and let them make the first move? Or should he try to make a break for it out the front door? Maybe he should have left the moment he realized the phone wasn’t working. If he could have made it to his car, he might have been able to get to a police station, or at least to a public spot where he would have been able to avoid abduction. The guitar grew heavy as the doubts crept in. His arms began to tremble under the strain.
“What an idiot,” he said. Max let the Gibson drop, and rested its heavy body on the floor. “I should have left when I had the chance.” For all he knew, the moments he’d spent dashing around the apartment had given them time to set up. He chewed at his knuckle and listened for any sounds coming from outside the apartment. He could hear nothing, other than the struggles of Kirk and Spock making rough masculine love on the TV. Max wished he had turned it off earlier. Now that he was parked against the wall, he didn’t want to risk the few steps it would take to reach the remote. Fortunately, he couldn’t see the screen from where he was standing.
Max waited. For what seemed like an eternity. He looked at his watch. It still red twelve past ten, just as it had when he’d checked it at the lab. It must be dead, he thought.
The action on the TV reached a crescendo, then died down into post-coital murmurs which were, in a way, more disturbing than the previous throes of passion.
He took a deep breath. Maybe Spencer had lied when he said he was sending people to get him. His pounding heart quieted some. Maybe it was just an idle threat.
He leaned against the wall, tilted his head back toward the ceiling, and ran his hand through his hair. He covered his eyes with his forearm. “It’s all a lie,” he reassured himself. “It’s just a sick joke.”
That’s when he heard the noise. Max snatched up the guitar and scanned the windows. “Who’s there?” he blurted. All was still, except for the cooing on the TV. It had sounded like something had moved. Not outside the windows or door, but inside the apartment. In the jumble of furniture and scattered articles of clothing, it was impossible to tell what, if anything, had shifted.
There it was again. A soft rustling. Max looked down the hall past the pile of laundry toward the bathroom. Something was definitely there. He couldn’t move. This was the part where he was supposed to charge to the bathroom and clobber the intruder with the guitar. But he was frozen in place with fear.
He heard the rustling again. It was right there, in the hall. As Max watched with wide-eyed terror, the laundry pile began to seethe. The sound hadn’t come from the bathroom after all. The pile rose up in a pillar of dirty socks, shirts, and towels, and took on a vaguely humanoid form. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cushions tumble off the couch. He jerked his head around in time to discover another figure surging from beneath the cloth couch backing. With a heave, it ripped away from the couch, leaving a layer of yellowed and pitted foam behind.
The monsters closed in, one a walking mound of laundry and the other a ghoul wrapped in the stained floral print of the couch fabric. Max heaved the guitar and it landed squarely on the laundry monster with a silent, harmless thud. The creatures enveloped him in an embrace of fabric. The guitar was wrenched from his grip. His arms were pinned to his side, and a grimy sweat sock wrapped itself across his face, gagging him with the humid stench of his own feet. The brutes moved back and Max fell to the floor with a thump, bound in a cocoon of dirty clothing. His struggles were useless. Every twitch and jerk only tightened the cloth around him. The laundry monster and the couch creature bent down and lifted Max, then carried him into the kitchen in the same way that two men might carry a rolled up carpet.
Max tried to scream, but the sock muffled the sounds of his agony.
The couch creature, who held Max around the upper torso with one floral-print arm, reached out with the other arm and flipped open the oven. Instead of the grimy racks and greasy oven walls that should have been inside, there was just a gaping black hole. Max realized what they planned to do. His eyes bulged as the beasts aimed him head-first at the oven. He strained to kick and twist, but he was so firmly bound that he could barely manage even the most meager twitch. The beasts advanced, and slid Max into the hole like cordwood into a potbelly stove. The couch creature stepped aside. The laundry monster gave Max’s wrapped feet a shove, and Max sailed into the Dark Net void with a final, stifled shriek.
Once Max disappeared into the oven, the couch creature bent forward and was on the verge of diving in after him when the laundry monster turned back toward the living room.
It raised one swaddled arm and pointed ominously toward the television.
“Hey,” it said with a voice that was muffled by mounds of dirty cloth. “Check it out. Vintage slash.”
The couch creature straightened up and leaned back to look at the TV. “What?”
“It’s Kirk-Spock slash,” said the laundry monster as it strode into Max’s living room and plopped onto the floor.
“You’re into that?” asked the couch creature from the kitchen.
“Come on Bob. It’s classic. Kirk-Spock is the slash that started it all.”
The couch creature shuffled to the kitchen doorway, leaned against the door frame, and crossed it’s fabric arms over it’s chest. “Eddie, come on. Let’s go.”
“Hold on a sec. You see, Spock has to mate every ten years, or else he’ll die. But Kirk and Spock are trapped on this deserted planet, I can’t remember why just now. Anyway, Spock is history unless Kirk helps him out. Which he does, if you know what I mean, reluctantly. Only he finds out that it’s not so bad after all, and he saves Spock’s life to boot.”
The couch creature sighed. “This stuff is sick.”
“No, listen. So the Enterprise comes back and picks them up, but now Kirk has these issues he needs to deal with. And Spock isn’t the most demonstrative guy, but he eventually learns to express himself.”
“Jeez Eddie,” said the couch creature in exasperation. “You are such a freak.”
There didn’t seem much chance he could get Eddie the laundry monster going until the episode was over, so Bob the couch creature slid down the door jam onto his haunches to wait. He idly pondered the cloth on his arm. “You know,” he said to himself, “this is really a pretty nice pattern.”