Max was literally going to pieces.
He’d been OK for a few moments after the laundry monster and couch creature shoved him into the hole where his oven should have been. There was no frame of reference to give him any indication of what was going on. He’d anticipated a screaming descent, tumbling through the void with turbulent wind battering his ears and face, ending with a violent thud on some invisible plane.
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Instead, it had begun with nothing. No sound beyond the pounding pulse in his ears. No visible feature to focus his eyes. No indication of up or down. After the struggle at the apartment, it was actually a relief.
He knew it couldn’t last of course. Realistically, they wouldn’t have shoved him in here (or was it out here?) for his own good. Perhaps it was to be a sensory depravation torture. In a little while, he thought, the disconnection should drive him mad.
He might as well try to simply be in the moment. It was a little bit of peace before old man Insanity would knock at the door of his mind, and Max would obligingly let him in.
That was when Max started falling apart. He caught sight of something whizzing away into the distance. The object was too bright to identify, shining vividly against the jet black darkness. It was like a tiny meteor zipping away with a trajectory that seemed to indicate that it had either passed though, or originated from, the vicinity of Max’s left nipple. He was still firmly bound in laundry, but in his peripheral vision he could see other bright sparks zipping off just like the first. There was no question about it, they all radiated from Max.
Suddenly the tip of his nose began to glow. He closed one eye and squinted down at it with the other as best he could. Although he couldn’t focus at such short range, he could see what appeared to be phosphorescent dust accumulating at the very end. It built up like iron filings adhering to a magnet, except for the fact that iron filings are dull black rather than glowing specks. Just as the light grew to the point that it’s brightness was too much to look at any longer, the end of his nose simply snapped off and jetted away.
Max shuddered and waited for the pain that should accompany the violent removal of his nose. It never came. There was not even really the feeling that his nose was missing. But it clearly wasn’t there. He tried to scrunch it up as he would if he were suppressing a sneeze. Although he saw nothing, he had the sensation that the tip of his nose was dutifully wriggling in response somewhere far far away.
The sparks emanated from him at an ever-increasing pace. With one final flash, Max exploded into countless gleaming pieces. He felt as though he was no longer a single being, but millions of tiny packets all moving in loose harmony, like a swarm of bees or a giant school of fish. Some portions lagged behind, then raced to catch up. Others swirled from the inside of his expanded incarnation to the out, rolling and seething, and becoming hopelessly mixed up.
There was no way that Max could imagine, in his swirling billowy thoughts, that there was any way he could ever be put back in the proper order. For a time, he seemed to fill the entire sterile expanse. He was one with the universe, as he now knew it.
Then the bits began to contract, returning from their outer reaches in an implosion that mirrored his earlier disintegration, until Max reassembled into a solid whole that was now disappointingly small and insignificant.
He was wrapped again in the cocoon of laundry and lying face down with his cheek pressed against a cold, hard surface. Just beyond his nose, which had returned to its appropriate place on the front of his face, Max could see the mottled pink of what appeared to be a polished marble floor.
“Welcome to wonder land Alice. Did you have a nice trip?” said a voice above him. He recognized Spencer's squeaky tones.
Max’s cheeks puffed beneath the sock gag, but only a muffled rasp escaped.
“Pardon me,” said Spencer, “it must be tough to talk through that thing. Here, let me help.”
Max felt the sock loosen.
“Exit environment!” he shrieked.
“I’m afraid that isn’t going to work now,” said Spencer.
“Exit environment! Halt Program! System reboot!”
Max’s screams were stifled again as the sock tighten across his mouth. There was a rough jerk as he was rolled over onto his back. He peered at the arched ceiling far above, which was decorated with images of cherubs and angels, antiquated armies of foot soldiers, and lounging figures draped in flowing bolts of cloth. An upside-down face suddenly obscured his view. It was so close that Max could barely make out the glasses and the pudgy cheeks.
“It’s useless my friend,” said Spencer. “You’re on the inside now. You don’t have permission to shut down the system from here. You’re just going to have to relax.”
The sock loosened.
“Exit environment! Emergency shut down! Terminate program!”
Spencer clamped a pudgy hand on Max’s mouth, then he pinched his nostrils shut with the other hand. Max began to squirm. His eyes bulged and veins throbbed on his forehead.
“Why don’t you try, kill process," asked Spencer, "or ‘control alt delete’?”
Spencer lifted his hands from Max’s face.
He took a rattling breath. “F-user.”
Spencer grasped Max’s throat with a powerful grip.
“I can leave you here to scream all day, if you like. It’s not going to work.”
Max’s eyes filled with tears of pain as Spencer squeezed.
“Do you understand?” said Spencer.
Max nodded feebly. Spencer relaxed his grip. He leaned in so close that their noses nearly touched. “Now shut up and I’ll get you out if this stuff. Alright?”
Max nodded again.
Spencer stood up, and beckoned. The wrappings loosened, and then were gone. Max spread his aching arms and legs in relief, but he lacked the strength to do anything more for the moment.
“Take your time,” said Spencer, “I’m in no hurry.”
Max let his head loll to one side. He saw the laundry monster and couch creature waiting for Spencer’s orders. The dirty clothes that previously bound him stood in a pile beside them.
Beyond his captors, a series of stone pillars rose to support the outer edge of the arched ceiling. A cloudless sky showed through in the spaces between the pillars. Max rolled his head to the right. More pillars, and more sky. He heaved his left arm across his body and struggled to rise to his knees.
“Help him up,” said Spencer.
Max felt firm hands beneath his shoulders as the henchmen lifted him to his feet. He turned to peer at the couch creature, but could discern nothing from the paisley button eyes. The strain was too great for the exhausted muscles in his neck, and Max’s head dropped until his chin rested on his chest.
“Let’s go.” Spencer marched off across the marble floor, and the couch creature and laundry monster dragged Max after him. His head bounced with each step as they neared the soaring pillars, periodically giving him a view of rolling hills that spread below. The stone structure where Spencer had collected him was a sort of acropolis, on a hill rising above a village constructed of small, neatly ordered buildings that appeared to be made of limestone or marble. A courtyard bordered with bushy hedges opened up at the bottom of the stairs. His feet bounced against the stone steps as Spencer’s lackeys lugged him down to the courtyard. He was gradually regaining strength in his neck, although with each step his head threatened to flop first forward, then back.
They reached the bottom step, and continued onto the soft grass toward the far side of the courtyard, where a coffin-sized structure draped in a white shroud stood. The cloth covered an array of lumpy shapes that, to Max, resembled a work of art in progress, like modeling clay that a sculptor had left in the very early stages of creation. A shiny steel table to one side held an array of instruments that looked as though they might have been at home in a dentist’s office or a surgical theater.
Spencer approached the shrouded structure, and turned to wait for Max and the lackeys.
“Let him go,” said Spencer.
They released Max’s arms, and he fell to his knees.
Spencer pushed his black-rimmed glasses higher up on his bulbous nose.
“Can you guess what, or more precisely who, I have here?”
Max let his head drop, then swung it to one side to look at Spencer with eyes heavy from exhaustion.
“Reunions are always so moving,” said Spencer dryly. He reached out and pinched the shroud daintily. “This is a little project that I call ‘Deconstructing Betty.” He slowly pulled the cloth away, revealing a surgical table and much of Betty 3.5. “It’s sort of reverse software engineering. We’re really finding out what makes this young lady tick.”
Betty’s legs were missing, as were her arms. She was lying on her back with her head and face intact, but even from his vantage point on his knees Max could see that her torso was shredded. He choked down the bile that rose in his throat and turned away.
“Oh come on, she’s just code.," said Spencer. "There’s nothing I can do to her that has any real meaning.”
Max fell forward onto his hands and started to crawl backwards toward the acropolis.
“Bring him here,” said Spencer. The henchmen snatched up Max by the arms and carried him to the table. He tried to turn his face away, but Spencer grabbed a fistful of the hair on the top of his head and forced him to look.
Betty had been sliced down the front, from the nape of her neck to her pubis. Her skin was pulled back and clamped to the table like the wings of some exotic and gruesome butterfly, revealing her rib cage, organs, and intestines. Her lungs quivered beneath the ribs, and her heart was still beating.
“Say hello Betty,” said Spencer.
Her eyes fluttered slightly at the sound of her name, and opened just a bit.
“Herman,” she whispered. Max strained to turn away, but Spencer held him fast by the hair.
“No no, Betty,” said Spencer, “Herman is no more. This is our friend Max. He’s here to help you.”
Her eyes closed, and her mouth soundlessly formed the shape of Herman’s name.
“We’ve poked around just about everywhere, to make sure there’s nothing suspicious hidden inside,” said Spencer as he waved his hand toward Betty’s vivisected torso. “There’s only one more place to look.” He tapped Betty’s forehead. “But we thought we’d give you a few minutes with her first.”
Max gritted his teeth. The breath whistled through his nostrils as he glared at Spencer out of the corner of his eyes. Code or not, there was only so much suffering he could handle. He lunged for the table of surgical instruments, but he was no match for the henchmen and Spencer’s iron grip on his hair.
“Not yet, my friend.” Spencer’s grin faded. His eyes narrowed into a malicious glare. “You’ll have your turn at those momentarily, if you like.”
He released Max’s head and walked around to the other side of the table.
“Is there anything you’d like to tell me?” asked Spencer. “Anything that might encourage me to put her out of her misery?”
“I told you,” said Max through his teeth. “I don’t have the device.”
Spencer studied Max for a moment.
“OK,” he said. “I’m gonna leave you here with Betty for a while so you can think things over.” He nodded to the couch creature who in turn reached under the table. He pulled out a manacled chain that was hidden beneath and clamped it to Max’s ankle. The other end was fastened to one of the table legs.
“Visit for a while,” said Spencer. “If you feel like it,” he nodded at the surgical instruments, “put her down yourself.”
Spencer turned and headed toward the hedge that bordered the courtyard. The laundry monster and couch creature followed, leaving Max staring after them.
“I’ll be back shortly,” said Spencer over his shoulder as they disappeared through a gap in the bushes.
Max tugged at the chain around his ankle as he studied Betty’s beating heart.
“Terminate Betty3.5,” he said. The heart continued beating.
“Exit environment.” Still nothing.
He took a step toward the instrument table, picked up a scalpel, then moved back and held the blade over Betty’s chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he took aim.
“Herman?” whispered Betty.
“I’m not Herman.”
She opened her eyes slightly.
“You’re a shit head.”
Max pulled the scalpel away and dropped his hand to his side.