Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chapter 16. Sacrifice

Max’s head hurt. It was making it difficult to think. He closed his eyes, pressed his hand against his brow, and tried to make sense of it all. From the moment the laundry monster and the couch creature had stuffed him into the oven, things had moved so quickly that he hadn’t had a chance to stop and figure it all out.



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Here was Betty, sliced open like a cadaver in an anatomy class, still breathing, heart beating, and occasionally speaking. Of course, he thought to himself, this has to be a virtual environment - or a dream. After all, Betty could only exist as a computer program or as a figment of his imagination.

He raised his hand and looked at the scalpel that rested in his naked palm. In the environment of the lab, he couldn’t have felt the presence of something like the scalpel without the interface of the virtual reality gloves. And yet, here was a piece of metal, with weight and texture. He closed his fist around the handle and rested his thumb against the blade. If it was virtual, it couldn’t hurt him. He closed his eyes. He pressed on the razor edge.

It’s not real, he thought. As long as Betty is here, it can’t be real. He pressed harder, but he couldn’t bring himself to attempt the ultimate test of running his thumb down the blade.

“Dammit.”

He dropped the scalpel onto the table next to Betty’s head and bent down to grasp the chain clamped to his ankle. He jerked at the restraint and felt the sharp pain where the shackle pinched his skin. The links were heavy and cold, and absolutely unyielding. With a howl of frustration, he jammed the chain into his mouth and bit down. The crunch of teeth against metal, and the tangy electric steel taste felt undeniably real.

Max fell to his haunches, panting and slamming his fist into the turf. He rolled onto his hands and knees and crawled away from the table until he reached the end of the chain. With eyes closed and jaw clenched, he pulled until the pain in his ankle was too much to bear. He tore at the ground, pulling out fistfuls of grass and heaving it into the air.

The tantrum soon exhausted him, and Max collapsed onto his belly. With his face resting on the soft grass, he glared at the distant hedgerow. It clearly lacked the hyper-reality of a virtual hedge. If this was some sort of virtual environment, which it must be if Betty was on the table, it was far more advanced than anything Max had ever experienced before.

He clambered weakly to his feet and turned back toward the table that held the mangled body of Herman’s virtual assistant.

“Betty,” he said as he approached the table. Her eyes moved in jerks beneath the closed lids. "Betty. Are you in pain?”

“Yes,” she said in a whisper so soft that Max could barely hear anything more than a breath.

“How can I help you?”

She swallowed and said, “Give them the Doomsday device.”

Max studied her pained and pleading face.

“I don’t have it.”

Betty spoke again, but Max couldn’t make it out.

“What did you say?”

She licked her lips. “Then end it. Terminate me.”

“I can’t. I tried.”

“Yes," she said, "yes you can.”

Max looked at the scalpel next to Betty’s head.

“With this?” He picked up the scalpel and held it in a trembling hand.

“Yes. Please.”

He turned the blade point down and slowly inserted its tip between the ribs over Betty’s heart. It was close enough that it nearly touched the muscle with each feeble beat. He almost asked her if she really wanted to die, if there was something else he could do. But laid open as she was, he knew that there was no other choice. She was as good as dead anyway.

Max thrust the blade into Betty’s heart. There was a brief resistance before it plunged in and his hand struck her rib cage. She arched under him, as if she was pushing back to force the scalpel deeper. Her heart convulsed, then shuddered, and a gush of hot, thick blood enveloped his hand. She dropped back and lay still.

Blood was spattered on his hand up to the wrist. It was running from Betty’s chest and down amongst the exposed lower organs. Her face was frozen, with eyes wide as if in shock, but at least the grimace of pain was gone. Max staggered back to the end of the chain, blood dripping from his hand.

Whether she was virtual or not, he could hardly bear the thought of being trapped here, chained beside the staring corpse of Betty3.5. He snatched up the sheet that Spencer had pulled off of Betty earlier. Max frantically wiped the blood from his hand. He lunged forward and tossed the sheet over Betty. It was better than nothing, but now that he knew what was underneath, it was nearly impossible to look at the bloody shroud without envisioning Betty's corpse.

He wanted to scream. It’s not real. It can’t be real. Betty and the blood, and the chain, and the courtyard, and the beautiful blue sky. It’s all an illusion!

He kicked at the chain. Then he hurled himself toward the rack of surgical instruments and heaved it over, spilling the clanking, stainless steel pieces onto the grass. He wanted to do the same to the table that held Betty. But even through the haze of rage, he couldn’t stand the thought of seeing that horror again. Instead, he snatched up a metal syringe from the pile of instruments, and threw it over the nearby bushes. He did the same with a pair of scissors, a retractor, and a clamp. He tried to pick up the instrument table itself, but it was too heavy.

Panting with fury, he turned and sprinted to the end of the chain. The shackle bit into his ankle, and Max slammed to the ground in a sobbing heap.

If it was an illusion, it was one he was going to have to live with, at least for now.

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