Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Chapter 22. Roadtrip

Max fingered the buckle on one strap of the stiff denim overalls as he shuffled to the restroom at the highway convenience plaza, where Joel had parked the van so that Max could pee. The plaza was a bustling collection of hydrogen recharge points, a few gas pumps for older combustion-engine cars and farm vehicles, fast food joints, and convenience shop counters where travelers in a rush could pick up gum, coffee, newspapers or condoms.

Joel hadn’t wanted to stop, but when the girl, whose name Max had learned was Linda, threatened to let Max have another swing at him, Joel had given in and pulled off the road.



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Max passed up the rows of urinals that lined the ceramic-tiled walls, and chose one of the larger stalls designed to accommodate the handicapped. He was going to need extra room to maneuver the overalls. They were dark blue and stiff, with creases at the calf, thigh, waist and chest from where they had been folded when Linda pulled them out from under a pile of blankets in the van. She had also given him a stretchy, white cotton shirt with long sleeves, and a pair of workman’s boots that were a few sizes too large. All the garments were brand new, as though they had just come off the shelves of a department store, except that the places where the tags would have been, - at the back of the shirt collar, the bib of the overalls, and the uppers on the boots, - had ragged tears where the manufacturer information had been cut out.

Just in case anyone cared to glance at his feet under the wall that surrounded the stall, Max undid the second strap and pushed the overalls to his knees to pretend to urinate. He didn’t really have to go. He just needed a few minutes away from his two companions.

Joel had driven north toward Pennsylvania after they had whisked Max away from the mob, muttering and ranting the whole way. The lunatic act, it seemed, hadn’t been an act altogether. Linda was constantly on guard; ready to snap at Joel to keep him focused on the road. To make matters worse, the van’s heads-up display was out and the avoidance collision system was apparently malfunctioning, allowing Joel to take the van screaming up on other cars from behind, which would force him to pump the brake and holler obscenities at innocent drivers. Then he would pass, swerving across oncoming lanes to the left, or onto the shoulder to the right. Fortunately, the collision avoidance systems in all the other vehicles they encountered were working well enough to deal with even Joel’s erratic driving.

For the first half hour or so, Max had sat silently, wrapped in a blanket and wedged against the wall of the van as it rocked and jerked along the road. Linda watched him patiently, when she wasn’t chastising Joel, and occasionally raised her eyebrows or cocked her head in gestures that invited Max to speak up and ask the obvious questions.

The shock of the assault in the parking lot kept him quiet. When he finally spoke, he only mentioned the need to relieve himself. While Linda dug out the clothes and boots for him, Max decided to simply walk away once the van stopped. But as he stood in the urinal with his pants around his knees, he didn’t feel that he had the strength to take off by himself, in the middle of nowhere with no car, no plan, and no drugs.

He hitched up the overalls and opened the stall door. It closed automatically behind him. Water rushed in the self-flushing toilet, and the disinfectant spray hissed briefly before the stall door reopened to await the next patron. He passed his hands under the faucet to keep up appearances in front of another man who was entering the bathroom as Max was finishing up. He tried unsuccessfully to avoid looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He had aged a lot in the past few weeks. His eyes were bloodshot, and the bags underneath were deep and dark. There were creases around his mouth and across his brow that he couldn’t remember having seen before, and his hair was getting long and jagged around the edges where it was starting to grow down over the tops of his ears. The white shirt and overalls made him look more like a day laborer than a lab technician, except that he was too pale for a person who worked in the sun.

As he walked out of the restroom he found Linda and Joel sitting at a picnic table in the grassy stretch between the fuel station and the convenience store. He stuffed his hands into the deep, crisp pockets and wandered over to join them.

“Everything work out okay?” Linda asked.

“Yes,” said Max, “thanks.”

As Max approached, Joel stood and gathered the hem of his linen robe, revealing skinny hairless calves and filthy, sandaled feet.

“Alright then,” he said, “let’s go.”

“Hold on,” said Max, taking a seat at the picnic table bench. “First I want to know where we’re going. Where,” he corrected himself, “you’re taking me.”

“You wanna go dark, don’t you?” said Joel.

“Shut up and sit down,” said Linda to the lunatic. She turned to Max, “You were in danger, we’re trying to help you get away.”

“In danger? From who?” said Max. “Away from what?”

“From everything,” said Joel. “From everyone. That’s how you go dark, newbie.”

“Shut your trap.” Linda smacked Joel across the shoulder. “Look, Max, you closed yourself off in your apartment. . . .”

Max interrupted. “How do you know my name anyway?”

“I’ll get to that. You shut yourself off, dropped out, right in the middle of the town. We know a little about what you’ve been through, what you’re trying to get away from. But if you are going to do it for real, you’ll need our help.”

“Who are you, exactly?”

“That’ll take some explaining.”

Max shook his head. “I don’t care. I just want to go home.”

“No you don’t newbie,” muttered the lunatic.

“Joel,” said Linda, “shush. We’ll take you home, if you like. But you’re not safe there.”

“I’m safer riding around in a broken down van with you two?”

“Believe it or not,” said Linda, glancing quickly at Joel. “Yes.”

She had a look of sincerity and concern in her big, brown eyes that Max thought might have been intensified by her lenses. He wondered what she might look like without the glasses. Her brown hair, which almost exactly matched the color of her eyes, was straight and hung down just to the line of her jaw. Her skin was smooth and lightly tanned, and her lips were pouty and full with no sign of lipstick. Max guessed that she was in her late twenties at the oldest. She reminded him of the activist hippy vegetarians he had met occasionally when he was in school. If it had only been her, Max figured he would probably give in. But there was also Joel.

The lunatic even had trouble sitting still at the table. Every few moments he would open his mouth on the verge of speaking, and then shake his head as though some voice only he could hear advised him not to.

He traced the graffiti carved into the picnic table with his filthy thumbnail, and occasionally blinked at some small revelation he seemed to discover there. Twitchy Joel was more than Max could stand.

“I want to go home,” he said.

Linda pursed her lips and nodded soberly.

“Well now it’s my turn to pee,” she said. “Joel, start the van. I’ll be right back.” She stood and headed toward the restroom.

Joel hopped up and grumbled something under his breath, then tripped spastically toward the parking lot.

Max watched as Joel climbed into the van, which soon produced a puff of blue smoke and roared to life. I can’t believe that guy is driving, he thought to himself. He lifted himself off the bench. Rather than spending time alone with Joel in the van, he made his way to the convenience store to buy a soda, with the hope that it might help calm his stomach on the rough ride home. The clerk, a pudgy, pimply teen, sneered at Max as he perused the bottles in the refrigerated case. He chose a drink and avoided the clerk by heading to the self-service checkout at the front. He pressed his thumb on the biometric screen of the checkout counter. A computerized woman’s voice thanked him for the purchase and noted the debit to his account. Max declined a paper receipt and slipped the soda into a pocket of his overalls.

He wandered slowly to the van, hoping Linda was already inside. When he slid open the side door and found that she wasn’t, he leaned against the fender and waited. He could feel the van bounce slightly on occasion, no doubt due to Joel’s restless twitching.

When Linda finally appeared at the restroom doors, her hair was pulled up away from her cheeks, which were shiny and slightly pink. Max thought she must have washed her face and dried it a bit too roughly.

She smiled at him and winked before she climbed into the van. He almost bumped into her as he climbed in behind. The near touch gave him a minor, disquieting thrill. For a moment, he reconsidered going home, if for no other reason than to spend more time with her. He shook his head and took his place amid the blankets. He wasn’t her type anyway; too old, too nerdy, too tired. Although there was just the smallest hint in her gentle smile as she nestled in behind Joel’s seat that maybe he was her type after all.

Max could feel the blood rise into his cheeks at the thought. He was probably just misinterpreting her desire to help him, if she really was out to help. He reached over and slid the door shut. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the comparative darkness in the van. He hoped Linda couldn’t see him blushing in the dim interior.

She thumped the back of Joel’s seat and told him to turn back. Although Max couldn’t see where they were going, he felt the pressure of the blankets against his back as the van carved around what must have been a cloverleaf, taking them back to the highway heading south. He had a sudden urge to engage Linda in idle conversation. It wouldn’t be long before they got him home, and he wanted to make the most of his time with her, with anyone really.

“What?” asked Linda, when Max made a feeble attempt to speak.

“Nothing.” He cringed and wondered if he was starting to look a bit like spastic Joel.

“Are you thirsty?” he asked.

“No,” she said, resting her head against the back of the passenger seat.

“Okay,” he said, nodding and trying to smile. It felt more like a grimace. He fumbled for the drink in his pocket. The stiff denim made maneuvering difficult. He had to struggle to insert his hand. In the cramped space, he couldn’t straighten his leg enough to extract the bottle. Linda’s brow wrinkled quizzically as Max tugged. He had the sudden embarrassing revelation that it might look like he was groping himself.

“Sorry, it’s stuck.”

“Stuck? What’s stuck.”

“Hold on,” he kicked his leg out, and leaned back.

“Can I help you with something?”

“No, no. Just a second.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I mean, no.”

After a heave, he managed to free the bottle and held it up to show that there was nothing unseemly about his efforts.

“Just a drink.”

He had hoped that the sight of the bottle would relieve her, proving that the awkward acrobatics were innocent. It had the opposite effect. She leaned forward, her brow knitted in alarm.

“Where did you get that?”

“At the convenience store.”

“I hope you stole it.”

Max was aghast. “No. I paid for it.”

“How?”

“With the checkout ATM.”

Linda rocked forward onto her knees. “A biometric ATM?”

“Yes.”

“Thumb print?”

“Yes.”

“Give it to me.” Linda thrust out her arm. “Now!”

Max blinked and handed her the bottle. She grabbed the handle of the side door and threw it open. The rush of the wind was deafening at highway speeds, and the light of day blinding.

“What are you doing?” shouted Max over the noise.

She leaned precariously out of the opening and scanned the highway. “Slow down Joel!”

She appeared as though she might tumble out at any moment, and Max clutched at her ankle. As Joel slowed, a stream of traffic passed by. She peered at each vehicle in turn, until one that Max couldn’t see caught her eye. She leaned out still further, and tossed the bottle. It arced through the air and landed in the bed of a passing pickup truck. She hauled herself back into the van and pulled at the door. It was heavy and, with the wind rushing by, she couldn’t budge it. Max put his hand on top of hers and pushed. The door slid shut with a thud.

She scrambled to the front passenger seat.

“What the hell was that about?” asked Max, following her forward and wedging himself between the high-backed seats.

She ignored him, glaring at the pickup truck that was steadily pulling away from them.

Max persisted, “Tell me what’s going on.”

She let out a loud breath. “The UPC symbol.”

“What?”

“The bottle had a UPC symbol on it - a radio ID tracking label.”

“So what? Everything does.”

“Unless you take them off.”

Max didn't follow her drift. “So?”

“You’ve given yourself away,” she snapped at him

“What are you talking about?”

She nodded at the distant pickup truck. “You bought that with a thumb print access to your bank account. The system knows it was you, where you were, and what you bought.”

“So what?”

“If the system knows, then they know. So, now all they have to do is find the bottle.”

“They? Who are they?”

A speeding black sedan flew past the van on the right, tossing up a cloud of dust as its tires hung off onto the shoulder.

“Them.”

Max watched over Linda’s shoulder as the sedan closed on the truck. It swerved into the left lane, then back to the right, catching the tail end of the pickup, and sending it into a screeching slide. The truck careened left, overcorrected, and swerved back. It caught a guard rail, flipped into the air, and tumbled into a ditch, throwing up a cloud of debris and gravel.

The intervening traffic slowed and Joel slammed the brakes.

“Holy shit dude,” said Joel.

By the time they approached the accident, two men in brown pants and short-sleeved pastel Oxford shirts were standing at the guardrail, with their hands on their hips, studying the mangled pickup. The van inched by with the other cars that crawled past the scene. Max was stunned to see how threatening a pair of men in Hush Puppy footwear could be.

“Do you still want to go home?” Linda whispered.

Max swallowed hard. “Not just yet, I suppose.”

“Turn it around," she said to Joel. "Take the back roads”

At the next exit, the madman flicked on the turn signal and headed off the highway onto a rolling, vacant country road.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Chapter 21. Flashmob

The lunch crowd was just starting to trickle into the cafe as Max waited for his muffin. He had hoped to avoid the rush, but it was beginning earlier than he'd expected. It was just past eleven and the tables on the sidewalk were rapidly filling. The crowd was young, primarily college age kids and a few professionals, and even some kids who looked as though they should be in high school.



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Max lowered his head and studied the wadded bills on the table to keep from catching anyone's eye, in the unlikely event that any of the arriving patrons knew him from campus. He picked the bills apart slowly and spread them flat on the checkered tablecloth. It had been so long since he had used paper money that Max almost didn't recognize the currency. All four were ten-dollar bills. They were old, worn, and crinkled. Someone had written on the least crumpled bill. The handwriting was jagged and juvenile, and he was having a hard time making out what it said.

He could feel the numbers of the patrons swelling around him. He recognized the sound of one-sided conversations that meant many of them were chattering on cell phones. He glanced up briefly to see that others were gathered in small groups. There was an excited buzz in the air. Max had the impression that there was more to the activity than hungry people in search of lunch. As he turned back to the writing on the bill, a skinny kid engaged in an animated phone conversation bumped roughly against Max's table. He mouthed an apology and continued into the throng surrounding the cafe.

Every seat was taken at the outdoor tables, and more people were on the way, strolling down along the sidewalk or dropped off at the curb by cars on auto pilot. The flow of customers had turned from a trickle to a flood, and was still building. This was definitely not a normal lunch crowd. Max dropped the wad of bills the lunatic had given him on the table and began rapping his fingers lightly on his thigh. The crush of bodies was making it hard to breathe. Max tried not to think about it, but he was continuously being jostled as more and more people arrived. He placed his hands open on the table and pushed down as if, at any moment, it might fly away and carry him with it.

He stared at the bill in front of him, and struggled to stay calm until his muffin arrived. Someone, probably the lunatic, had written a across the president’s face. , "U r 6e1ng w4+ch3d." It was clearly a novice attempt at shorthand for "You are being watched."

It was just the sort of thing he would have expected to find on money carried by a guy who wore a metal hat. On the other hand, thought Max, it was possible that the note was meant for him.

"Nonsense," he said to himself, while glancing up at the wall of bodies that surrounded his table and slopped over into the parking lot. It seemed the lunatic’s paranoia was contagious. Surely the note wasn't for him. On the other hand, the man had insisted that he count the money, perhaps to get him to notice the message. Still, why should he worry about paranoid missives from a deranged fruitcake?

He covered the bill with his hand to hide it from anyone looking over his shoulder. After a few calming breaths, he lifted his palm enough to peek at the message again. A shudder ran through him when he found that the writing had changed. It read "\/\/3'r3 h3r3 2 h31p.”

Max snatched up the bill. It looked like plain old-fashioned money, as far as he could tell. But paper money didn't have shape-shifting messages on it. He was still trying to make out the new message when it shifted again. The writing, still in that childish hand now read "d0n+ f34r +h3 fl45hm06."

Max blinked and slowly translated the script. "Don't fear the flash mob."

He frantically scanned the wall of bodies that surrounded his table. Flash mob? What the hell is that? Somewhere in the noise of the crowd, amid the laughter and shouts, he imagined the waiter trying to make his way back with a muffin and coffee in a paper cup.

Forget the damn muffin, he thought.

The crowd's seething was pushing him ever harder against the edge of the table. It was getting dangerous to sit. He squeezed out of his chair and stood. Instantly, there were warm bodies on all sides of him. Only the expanse of the small table beside him remained clear.

A thumping noise was gradually rising in somewhere in the depths of the cafe. The rhythm grew more complex, syncopated. All around him, people began swaying and bouncing in time with the beat. Music erupted, and the mass of humanity gyrated to a frantic tune constructed of whistles, hoots, and squealing guitars.

Although he had no intention of joining in the dance, Max could not fight the collective motions of the masses that enveloped him. Hips, thighs, chests grinded against him, and he had no choice but to grind back. Other than those immediately in front of him, he couldn't even determine which of the bodies bumping against him were male and which were female. Briefly, a pretty young woman, with deep green eyes, dark hair, and glasses was pressed against him, almost nose to nose. She smiled and mouthed something that he couldn’t make out over the music and the noise of the crowd. The woman seemed on the verge of kissing him when the flow of bodies swept her away. She was replaced by a slender, androgynous person whose back was toward Max. He tilted his head back and concentrated on the awning above in an attempt to put the grinding of the androgynous buttocks against his groin out of his mind. While he was mildly disturbed by the intimate contact, it had at least erased the rising claustrophobia he had been suffering from a few moments before. It occurred to him that his own buttocks were similarly grinding against the anonymous stranger behind him. Max decided it was best not to think about it and instead just ride out the madness with the dancing mob.

The base line pounded, a lead singer wailed. Occasionally, the mob shouted unintelligibly in response to some equally unintelligible line from the song. The music was punctuated from time to time with a blast from an air horn. In the distance, a police siren screamed. Coordination in the crowd began to crumble as the siren’s volume rose. The mob seethed, and pitched to Max's left. If he hadn't been so firmly entrenched, he would have toppled over, but here there was no room to fall. The mob surged again, inching toward the parking lot. It, and Max, gathered speed. Soon they were walking as the mob shouted and hooted. Then they were jogging, and finally running. There were multiple police sirens now. The wails threatened to drown out the music as Max and the mob exploded into the parking lot.

They were racing through the rows of cars in the lot when Max was abruptly slammed against the side of a parked pickup truck. He felt a tug on his shirt collar. There was a rough jerk and the shirt was ripped from his back. He spun to spot the culprit, but couldn’t pick anyone out in the fleeing mob. Two athletic young men with silvery sun glasses leapt out of the masses and lunged toward him. One rammed him against the truck. The other reached for the waste band of Max’s sweats and pulled. Time stood still briefly as Max stared wide-eyed at his distorted image in the mirrored glasses of the man pinning him against the truck. Max saw a flash of metal. The other man had a knife.

“Please don’t,” Max begged.

The man pressing Max against the truck grinned broadly, revealing gleaming white teeth. Max twisted his face away to look at the other man and saw the knife swing down toward his belly. The tension in his waste band increased, and suddenly was gone. A ripping sound followed as Max’s sweats and underwear were torn from his body. The two men turned and dived into the crowd, with the ragged sweat pants fluttering behind them. With the exception of his shoes, Max was naked.

He dropped onto his heels to cover himself. Someone running with the mob collided with Max’s shoulder and sent him sprawling onto his back on the rough asphault. He rolled under the truck and peered out at the countless thundering feet. A wailing police siren deafened him, and he saw the tires of the passing police car roll slowly by, briefly stemming the flow of the mob. Then it was gone.

Max cowered under the truck. “Come back,” he pleaded to the police car. “Come back.”

A pair of bright red tennis shoes appeared beside the truck, inches from his face. The person in the tennis shoes dropped to their knees. There was a hand on the ground. Then there was a face. It was the dark-haired girl from the mob at the café.

“Max,” she said. “Come on. Let’s go.”

“What?” he tried to ask, “Where?” But the best he could do was a guttural croak.

“Come on!”

She reached under the truck and her fingers brushed Max’s arm. He flinched at the touch, and squirmed farther under the chassis.

“We’re here to help,” said the girl.

He twisted away to the other side of the truck, scraping his back against the rough ground and raking his belly on the dangling truck hardware. Pebbles dug into his knees as he struggled to his feet. The girl had made her way around the truck and approached him with arms outstretched and palms held upward.

“It’s going to be OK,” she said gently. “I promise.”

Max turned to run, but a battered white panel van pulled up and blocked his way. He was trapped between the girl and the van. The van’s sliding door shot open revealing piles of blankets and rusted walls with peeling white paint.

“It’s going to be OK,” the girl repeated. “Just get in and we’ll help you.”

Max looked back at the open van. Its interior, though dingey, offered a darkened haven from the madness of the flash mob that still rampaged all around him. It was a place to hide his nakedness.

The girl stepped closer. Her eyes pleaded with him. He nodded and turned to head for the open van.

“Wait,” called the girl. He felt her hand on his shoulder. “You can’t go like that.”

Max stopped and looked down at his naked belly with his genitals peeking out below. He covered his groin with his hands and turned back to the girl.

“Take off your shoes,” she said.

He shook his head in bewilderment. “What is wrong with you people?” he shouted at her.

“Just do it. I’ll explain later.”

“Dammit,” he snarled, kicking off his shoes and diving into the van. He clutched at one of the old blankets and wrapped it around himself. The van rocked slightly as the girl followed him and slid the door closed behind her.

The driver leaned over in his seat and asked, “All set?”

It was the lunatic with the aluminum foil hat.

Max stared blankly at the girl, and then rolled toward the front of the van, balled up his fist, and slugged the madman in the mouth. The lunatic’s head snapped back. He covered his mouth with his hand and stared at Max with wide-eyed shock. A trickle of blood oozed between his fingers.

“Man,” he said behind his hand, “that hurt.”

The girl crawled over a pile of blankets and inserted herself between Max and the lunatic. “Drive Joel.”

The lunatic straightened up in his seat, wrenched the steering wheel with his free hand, and punched the gas. “I told you,” he said through his fingers covering his mouth, “I want to be called ‘Chalk Warrior’ from now on.”

The girl reached back and smacked the lunatic’s shoulder. “Joel, Just drive.” She winked at Max, who pulled the coarse blanket tight. The engine revved and the van weaved though the lot, and the chaos of the mob slowly died away.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Chapter 20. The Cafe

Max propped up the pillow on the mattress he had dragged out of his bedroom to replace the couch. He leaned his head against the wall as he watched the yellow glow of the morning sun gradually erase the blue-black night that leaked in through the slats in his blinds. The couch, the TV, and the piles of laundry that once cluttered his apartment were long gone. He’d laboriously hauled everything out the front door three weeks earlier and down the steps to the parking lot, where he left them in a heap - to the thorough annoyance of the building superintendent. After a few days pounding on his door and threatening to evict him, the super slipped an envelope through the mail slot. Max hadn’t bothered to open it, and instead tossed it onto the growing stack of pizza delivery boxes on the breakfast table in his kitchen.



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A spot of sunlight crawled down Max’s chest as the usual morning concert of slamming doors and pounding footsteps grew. The staccato rhythm above his ceiling meant the yellow Lab upstairs was prancing in anticipation of its morning walk. A piercing series of beeps, like the warning of a delivery truck backing up, leaked through the wall from the apartment next door. It was followed by the loud blathering of shock Dee Jays, which meant he would soon hear the hiss of a shower, a pell-mell rush down the stairs, and the sputtering of a scooter coming to life and buzzing off up the street.

Max never heard the woman across the hall leave in the morning or return in the afternoon. He guessed that she wore the soft-soled shoes of a nurse or a librarian or bank clerk - something that required her to be on her feet all day. Other than the whispers of her television in the evening, or the occasional hallway conversation with a delivery boy, there was little evidence that anyone lived there at all.

In all the years that he had rented his apartment, Max had never bothered to learn much about his neighbors. When he bumped into them in the hall, or the trash room, or even at the annual get-acquainted cook out in the courtyard out back, he barely listened when they told him their names. And when he did catch a name here or there, he generally did his best to forget it as soon as possible.

But after three weeks holed up in his apartment, Max yearned to deduce as much about the people who surrounded him as he could, from the sounds they made throughout the day, the distorted glimpses of them in the fish eye view through the peephole in his door, and stolen glances through the slats of his lowered shades.

There was the old man with the yellow lab, who left each day at ten with his dog on a leash and an umbrella under his arm - regardless of the weather, the young dark-haired kid with the scooter; and finally the light-footed woman across the hall. There were others as well, but they lived in apartments too far away for Max to gather anything about them other than their schedules.

As the day's cavalcade of sound died down, he knew there would be little to look forward to until the afternoon, when the procession would reverse itself and his neighbors would come back to roost in their nests and watch TV or talk on the phone. Even the wrinkled, olive skinned old man who vacuumed the stairs and dusted the railings wouldn’t come by today. He apparently only attended to Max’s building twice each week, and he had taken care of his duties the day before. Traffic noise and the clatter of the mailman filling the boxes at the bottom of the stairs were all that was likely to interrupt the hours of solitude ahead of him.

Max rolled off the mattress, dressed in pin stripe boxer shorts and a white t-shirt, and headed to the kitchen. It was his custom recently to start the day with a bowl of cereal, but only after tugging at the oven door, which he had sealed with criss-crossing lengths of duct tape. It seemed tight enough, but he wished he had more tape just to make sure.

He took a bowl down from his cabinet and filled it to the brim with dull brown flakes, then opened the refrigerator and lifted out the plastic milk jug. It was nearly empty, just enough to cover his cereal. He would have to drink his coffee black this morning. He tossed the empty jug into the sink, spooned some instant coffee into a cup of hot tap water, and sat at the table to eat. He stared absently at the duct-taped oven as he shoveled cereal into his mouth.

He was going to have to pick up some milk. Otherwise, he would be eating dry cereal with his tepid black coffee tomorrow. On top of that, it was coming up to the point that he needed to refill his prescription. He had increased his dose since he went into seclusion, both to avoid any risk of a seizure and to take the edge off his loneliness.

Max scooped out the last of the cereal and poured the remaining milk into his coffee. Bits of cereal flakes floated on the surface, turning the brown liquid nauseatingly chunky. For a moment, he wished he hadn’t tossed out his laptop with his TV and couch. He could probably have found a grocery delivery service online to bring his supplies to him. The regret, however, was short lived. He’d had enough online excitement for a long, long while.

He put the bowl in the sink, swigged the last of his coffee, and went in search of something clean to wear for his first day outside in a week. There wasn’t much to choose from. Most of his wardrobe had gone out on the curb with his furniture. In the bedroom, he found a pair of sweats that were only a bit dirty at the knees, and a threadbare flannel shirt. He stopped in the bathroom for his daily dose of drugs. When he closed the medicine cabinet, he peered at his red-rimmed eyes, pale cheeks and forehead, and the grey-flecked stubble. He ran a hand over his chin and briefly contemplated shaving and showering. Why bother, he thought, if he was going to be a hermit, he might as well look the part. He raised and arm and sniffed his armpit, then wrinkled his nose at the musky stench. He certainly smelled like a hermit anyway.

He walked into the living room and slipped his feet into his tennis shoes, without bothering to tie the laces. Max suppressed the urge to giggle. The thought of stepping outside made him light-headed with nervousness and excitement, like a child about to walk on stage in a school play. As he placed his hand on the doorknob, he wondered what he would say if he ran into one of his neighbors or someone from the university. He convinced himself that the odds of meeting anyone at this time of day were slim, and he proceeded out the door and down the steps.

The street in front of Max’s apartment was lined with fruitless pear trees in full bloom. The pear tree flowers emitted a bitter fragrance that was a harsh contrast to their delicate white petals. Initially he had been startled to find that the trees did not have perfume to match their blossoms. Considering the fact that few people ever walked this street, Max supposed it made sense for the city managers to choose to plant trees that looked nice even if they smelled badly. These roads were built for cars, not pedestrians. It was a fact that was made even more apparent when he reached the intersection at the end of the street.

There was a button on the corner lamppost that was installed, according to the faded sign above the button, to facilitate the passage of bikers and pedestrians. As far as Max could tell, it didn’t do anything, regardless of how many times he pushed it. The lights would occasionally flash the signal indicating that it was time to cross, with no correlation to how hard or often he pushed the button, but the cycle was far to brief to make it to the other side even at a sprint. Fortunately, cars included detectors to avoid collisions, both with other vehicles and with humans foolish enough to stray into traffic. Once Max stepped off the curb, he knew he would make it across safely, although he would have to suffer the blaring cacophony of car horns and the crossing light’s prerecorded rebuke for lingering too long in the intersection.

“Screw you,” shouted Max to the bleating cars as he jogged to the other side of the street and into the shopping center parking lot. The lot itself was not much friendlier to foot traffic than the intersection. Driverless cars arrived and departed in rapid succession, with the arrivals having deposited their passengers immediately in front of whatever store they chose to visit first, and departing cars zipping off to pick up their owners, who stood with packages in hand at the curb.

With his head up and hands in his pockets, Max meandered toward the supermarket. Noise restrictions in the lot limited cars to muted beeps whenever Max got in the way of one coming or going, but they inevitably released a fury of alarms if he even brushed a fender in passing, which he did from time to time just for fun.

He stepped up onto the curb and joined the flow of customers trickling into the grocery store. He paused long enough to make sure he didn’t recognize any of the nearby shoppers, then touched the thumb-print scanner on the handle of one of the shopping carts in the corral just inside the door. The cart’s display screen indicated that Max had been identified and flashed the balance in his checking account. He pondered his remaining cash and did some mental calculations. He could probably last another few weeks before he would run out of money. Then he would have to return to work, if he hadn’t already been fired for taking unauthorized leave, or start living on credit. Better still, he could find a new job - one that allowed him to work with his hands instead of a computer. For now, all he really needed was milk, drugs, duct tape, and a few other supplies.

He started off down the first aisle. The cart glided out and followed along behind him, muttering about sales and specials as it went. Max paused long enough to punch the cart’s mute button and headed toward the pharmacy counter at the back of the store. The auto-pharmacist scanned his retina, confirmed that Max was due for a refill on his prescription, and sounded a tone to let him know his pill bottle was ready behind the dispenser door next to the scanner. The shopping cart screen briefly noted the debit for the purchase. He turned and headed for the dairy aisle for a gallon of milk, then picked up a box of cereal, toilet paper, the duct tape, and some new razors. He contemplated buying more supplies, but the thought of dragging everything up the hill to his apartment discouraged him. At some point, he would have to break down and drive his car to the store. For now, he’d make do with the bare necessities.

The cart followed Max to the exit. On the sidewalk outside, the cart’s screen flashed a message indicating its gratitude for being of service, and tumbled the items Max had purchased into a plastic bag at the front. He lifted out his groceries. The cart whipped around and puttered back inside to await another customer.

Max stood on the curb for a moment and soaked in the spring sunshine. He had intended to shop and head straight home to his dreary apartment. But the walk had given him a taste for the outdoors. He looked up the sidewalk toward the cafe with tables scattered out front. A cup of real coffee and a muffin would be a nice change of pace from his diet of pizza and cereal. And even better, it might be nice to speak to someone for a moment, even if it was only to place an order with the waiter.

He hefted his groceries and headed for the café. The outdoor tables were deserted. It was the slow time of day; after the breakfast rush and before lunch.

Max settled in at a seat with his back to the café door, leaving him with a clear view of the parking lot. He placed his elbow on the arm of the chair and rested his chin on his knuckles to watch the cars rolling into place on the grid of parking spaces. Eventually, a pimply-faced waiter in a green apron appeared at his shoulder with a menu tablet in hand.

“Good morning,” said the waiter. “Care to hear today’s specials?”

Max only wanted a blueberry muffin and an iced coffee, but he nodded anyway. The sound of a human voice was refreshing. As the waiter rattled off the list of drink choices and pastry options, a disturbance erupted through the café door. The waiter paused and Max glanced over his shoulder as a man with an aluminum-foil scull cap, dark sunglasses, and a robe of dirty linen stumbled out of the café waving a fist-full of dollar bills.

“It’s called cash, you tools,” shouted the lunatic. “Remember money?”

“We take credit and we take debit,” a voice shouted back from inside the café. “Order whatever you want, but no cash.”

The lunatic stuffed the bills into his robe, stomped past Max’s table, and turned to stand on the curb. His face was red with fury, and veins stood out on his neck and forehead

“All I have is cash.”

The waiter shrugged at Max in a “What can you do?” sort of way.

“You want I should starve?” the lunatic shrieked at the waiter.

Then he turned on Max

“How about you?” said the lunatic. “You think my money is no good?”

“I’m sure it’s fine,” said Max in as calming and even a tone as he could muster. “It’s just a bit old fashioned.”

“It’s legal tender.” The madman lunged halfway across the table to hold a bill in front of Max’s nose. “See, says so right there.”

“It might be legal, but you’re not likely to find a cash register anywhere around here. They can’t make change.”

“I don’t need change. I just want something to eat.”

Max blinked at the crazed man. He was gaunt and the skin on his arms, neck, and face was sunburned a deep red. He certainly looked like he could use a meal.

“Tell you what,” said Max, “I’ll put it on my tab. Place your order and you can give me the cash.”

The lunatic clenched his jaw and appeared for a moment as if he was going to spit. He lifted his sun glasses and squinted briefly at Max with piercing blue eyes. His rage seemed to ebb a bit. He pulled out the chair on the other side of the tiny table and dropped to his seat with a thump.

“I’ll take a bear claw, two plain bagels, a large coffee, and water.” He reached into his robe and slapped a crumpled wad of bills on the table.

“Should I make that to go?” the waiter asked Max, raising an eyebrow suggestively.

Max tilted his chair back on two legs. He didn’t mind having company, but this wasn’t really what he was hoping for.

“Yes, please,” he said. “That would be great.”

Max added his coffee and a blueberry muffin to the order, and the waiter escaped into the café. The lunatic adjusted his robe and apparently crossed his legs, although under the layers of cloth it wasn’t exactly clear if that was what was going on. He pushed his foil cap back on his head a bit, revealing bushy black eyebrows and a tan line across his forehead that evidently came from wearing the metal hat for long hours in the sun.

“So,” said Max, tapping the table. “Come here often?”

“Are you trying to be funny?”

“No not at all,” said Max, attempting a weak smile.

The lunatic rubbed his grimy hands together and winked conspiratorially.

"Do me a favor. Act like you think I’m crazy.”

Before Max could respond, the lunatic sucked in some air through his teeth as if he were trying to loosen a bit of food that might have been trapped there.

"Go ahead and ask.”

“Ask what?”

“Go ahead and ask why I’m dressed this way.”

“O K,” said Max slowly, “why are you dressed like that?”

The lunatic tilted his head and cupped his ear. “What?”

“I’m sorry,” said Max. "I thought you wanted me to. . . "

The lunatic leaned forward, still cupping his ear, and said in a stage whisper, “What did you say?”

“I said why are you dressed that way?”

“Come again.”

Great, thought Max, he’s hard of hearing as well as crazy. He cleared his throat. “Why,” he said,” louder this time, “are you dressed that way.”

“One more time. Didn’t quite get it.”

“I said,” Max shouted as the waiter appeared with a muffin and coffee on a tray in one hand and a paper bag in the other, “why are you dressed that way?”

The lunatic slammed his open hands onto the table and pushed himself to his feet. He screamed at the top of his lungs, “None of your goddamned business! That’s why!”

The waiter stopped so abruptly at the commotion that Max’s coffee sloshed onto the tray, and the muffin tumbled to the table.

“Sir?” the wide-eyed waiter said to Max, “Should I call security?”

The lunatic reached out and snatched the bag from the waiter’s hand. “Call the cops. Call the army. Call your mommy while you’re at it. Just tell me what I owe this man.”

“Sir?” said the waiter, blinking at Max.

“Yes, please. Tell me what he owes.”

“Thirty-three thirty-four, plus tip.”

The lunatic advanced on the waiter. “Thirty-three dollars and thirty-four cents? For a bear claw, two bagels, coffee, and water?”

“Yes. Plus tip.”

“Plus what?” screamed the lunatic inches from the waiter’s face.

“Forget it. I mean the tip. Forget the tip.”

The lunatic stuffed the bag under his arm and smacked his hand down on the wad of cash on the table. He picked up the money and counted out four, wrinkled bills.

"There’s forty. Keep the change or give it to him.” He jerked a thumb at the waiter. A dark spot began to form at the bottom of the bag. It seemed the lunatic had upset his coffee.

“Well?” said the lunatic to Max.

“Well what?”

“Count it. Aren’t you going to count it?”

Max looked at the bills and then back at the lunatic, wondering to himself how much damage he could do if he hit the man with the bag of groceries at his side.

“No. That’s all right. I trust you.”

“You should count it.” The lunatic wheeled around and strode to the curb, while clutching at his robe to keep from stepping on the hem. “I’d count it if I were you. You never know who to trust these days.” The bag peed brown liquid as the lunatic dashed maniacally into the parking lot.

“Thanks,” muttered Max, taking a deep breath and rolling his eyes at the stunned waiter. “I’ll do that.” He crushed the bills in his fist.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the waiter, on the verge of tears. “I dropped your muffin.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll get you another,” mumbled the waiter, “on the house.”

Max decided he’d gotten his fill of human contact for one day.

“Make it to go,” he said as he pushed his chair back from the table and reached for his grocery bag.

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Chapter 19. Training

The boy was too absorbed in the strange game he was playing with the colorful geometric solids to notice Max and Perske descending the steps to the arena. The people in the crowd gathered at the rope were too occupied with watching the child’s every move to care about anything else.

Max guessed that they were researchers like Perske, some even looked vaguely familiar, probably occasional visitors to the lab or people Max had seen at one conference or another.



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Linus was the only one to acknowledge them as they crossed the grass, with Perske leading the way and Max trudging behind in his socks. Linus tilted his head and chattered his beak. He waddled over in excitement and nuzzled Max’s hand.

“Hey buddy," said Max. "Good to see you.”

They rounded one of the roped off corners of the area where the boy played, and joined the fringes of the researchers, who were whispering solemnly among themselves as Neumann rolled a yellow sphere from the far corner. None of them cared in the slightest about Max or his shoeless feet and bloody sock.

The boy returned from his mission with the sphere and stood patiently on the other side of the velvet rope separating him from the scientists. A youngish researcher wearing a vintage bowling shirt leaned forward to address the child.

“Neumann, please pick up a big red block.”

“OK,” said the child, who turned and found the block nearby.

“Grasp the pyramid,” said the bowling shirt man.

The boy, still holding the block, looked around for a moment with a puzzled expression and said, “I don't understand which pyramid you mean.”

Max frowned at the contrast between the toddler's voice and his mature grammar. It struck him as a poor interface design.

Nevertheless, an appreciative whisper rippled through the group of researchers in response to the child’s statement, and the bowling shirt man nodded wisely.

“Find a block which is taller than the one you are holding and put it into the box.”

“By, ‘it’,” said the child, “I assume you mean the block which is taller than the one I am holding. OK.”

The boy completed the request and waited for further instructions.

“What does the box contain?” asked the bowling shirt man.

“The blue pyramid and the blue block,” said Neumann.

The man continued, “What is the pyramid supported by?”

“The box,” said the boy.

“How many blocks are not in the box?”

“Four of them.”

“Is at least one of them narrower than the one which I told you to pick up?”

“Yes. The red cube. May I play chess now?”

The question startled the bowling shirt man, who sputtered briefly. “I suppose. Dr. Perske, what do you think?”

Max squatted down and patted Linus on the head. “Fascinating, isn’t it buddy?”

“Actually,” said Perske, “it is quite fascinating.” She waved dismissively to the researchers. “Take a break.”

A few among the crowd grumbled about the interruption as they drifted off in two's and threes to argue over what they had just observed.

The boy ducked under the low rope and scampered to a chessboard resting on the low wall bordering the oval arena.
Linus followed after and hopped up onto the wall to study the chess pieces.

“Neumann,” said Perske as she beckoned Max to come along, “I want you to meet someone.”

The boy remained intently focused on the board and only raised a pudgy hand in response to Perske.

He slid a bishop across the board and captured one of Linus’s knights, and then turned away from the game with the knight still clutched in his tiny hand. The child had large blue eyes and pink cheeks that were round with baby fat.

“Hello fish man,” said Neumann.

“What?”

“Hello fish man.”

Max raised an eyebrow. “Why do you call me that?”

“Linus says you’re the fish man. He says you’re very smart. You taught him chess. But you’re nice because you let him win and you give him lots of fish. You’re the fish man.”

“Linus doesn’t know how to talk,” said Max.

Neuman shook his head. “He says you don’t know how to listen.”

“Well tell Linus, I don’t let him win.”

Linus rattled his beak.

“He says you’re still nice,” said the boy.

“Well,” said Max slowly, “tell him thanks.”

“He can hear you.”

Max studied the penguin, and wondered what other things Linus had heard him say over the past months of training.

“Neumann,” said Perske, “the fish man’s name is Max.”

“Hello Max,” said the boy. “Do you want to play with us?” He held out his chubby hand.

Max sighed. He wasn’t particularly fond of children in general. He suspected he was even less likely to be fond of this precocious little algorithm child. He gritted his teeth. What the hell, he thought, might as well get it over with.

He took Neumann’s hand. There was something comforting in the grasp of the child’s tiny fingers. For a moment, Max almost forgot his desire to escape the virtual world.

“You can help me,” said Neumann.

“I’ll just watch, if you don’t mind,” he said as the boy sat cross-legged at the board, still holding Max’s hand. Max kneeled next to him on the grass.

“You’re turn Linus,” said Neumann.

The penguin delicately moved a pawn with his beak.

“What should we do now?” asked Neumann.

“I don’t know. . .” Max started to say. But suddenly, he did know. Linus clearly was too focused on the right side of the board. It made sense. He had boxed in Neumann’s bishop and queen, leaving the king
vulnerable to attacks from the side. But the aggressive strategy left him comparatively defenseless in his backfield.

Sacrifice the queen, thought Max, and in eight moves Linus will resign.

“That’s right,” said Neumann. He looked up at Linus. “Want to play again?”

Max squeezed the boy’s hand lightly. “Shouldn’t we finish this one?”

“It’s over,” said Neumann as Linus tipped over his king and resigned.

Max was stunned at the clarity with which he was able to see the outcome of the game. He had never before been able to think more than a few moves ahead. The boy and the penguin were right; there was no point in playing the game out. They all knew how it would end.

“O K, “ said Max. “One more.”

He watched with a distracted gaze as Neumann and Linus set up the board again. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“You can be white again,” Neumann said to the penguin. For a moment, Max had the distinct impression that Linus had answered, “O K.”

He squinted at the penguin, who was pondering his first move.

A wave of clarity washed over Max. Although he was looking at Linus, he was seeing much more. Opening chess sequences flashed through his mind. Even as Linus reached for his knight with his beak, Max had formulated half a dozen strategies, some of which he somehow knew were distinctly unconventional. How he knew such a thing was a mystery.

He gradually developed the sensation that he was floating above the chessboard, looking down on the boy, the bird, and himself hunched over the chess pieces. He could see, in his mind’s eye, Perske standing behind him proudly watching the events on the board unfold. Max’s perception gradually expanded. He was aware of every blade of grass in the arena, every stone and every step in the amphitheater. His view expanded still further, like a ripple spreading outward from a pebble dropped into a pond. Time slowed to a crawl as the horizon of his mind opened up to grasp the sky, the cobbles in the street beyond the amphitheater walls, the hedged courtyard, and the platform atop the acropolis.

Past the acropolis lay a glittering neighborhood of houses clustered around cul-de-sacs at the ends of arcing drives, which sprouted off of larger lanes in an artificially organic suburban style. If it weren’t for the fact that the houses were all made of gleaming white stone, Max could have mistaken it for any of countless bedroom communities across the country or around the world.

One house stood out in the vast sea of sameness. Unlike its companions, it featured a covered porch and a swing lazily rocking back and forth. He focused his mind and zoomed in on the anomaly.

There she was, sitting in the porch swing, intact and as brooding as always with her knees pulled tight up against her chest.

Is it really her this time, he wondered.

“Is it who?”

For a moment, Max thought the question had emanated from some distant corner of his mind. Then he realized that it was the boy. Neumann had brought him this vision, or at least allowed him to have it. It seemed that they must be having it together.

“Betty,” he thought at the boy.

“Are you going to marry her?”

What on earth, Max wondered, are they teaching this little monkey? Apparently it wasn’t all spheres and cubes, or pawns and bishops.

“What is a monkey?” Neumann asked.

Never mind, thought Max at the boy. He tried to clear his head. This kid overheard everything. He let the focus on Betty slip and made a conscious effort to take in the whole expanse.

The suburban sprawl jutted into an endless, featureless brown wasteland, like fingers of mold spreading across a piece of old bread. If this was Perske’s plan, to build a virtual middle class paradise to raise Neumann, she certainly had plenty of room to expand. Other than Betty on her porch swing, however, no one seemed to occupy any of the other houses. It was a ghost town.

But it wasn’t completely still. Something was moving. There, on the acropolis. Max concentrated and zoomed in again. A dark shadow swirled on the floor where he had first arrived in the virtual wonderland. It flowed down the steps, and Max followed it in his mind, to the courtyard where it lingered near the surgical table, then surged through the gap in the hedge and down the street toward the amphitheater.

He struggled to bring himself back. He pulled his hand from Neumann’s, and the eye in his mind snapped shut.

“We have to go. Something is coming.”

“I know,” said the boy.

“What?” said Perske from behind Max. “What are you talking about?”

Max stood and pointed toward the arched entranceway. “It’s up there.”

Perske turned just as the hulking figure emerged at the top of the steps. It was tall and rotund; a bulbous figure that was almost too large to fit through the entrance to the amphitheater. It had the same sleek black color as Linus’s feathers, and a white streak on its chest that was stained with splotches of muddy brown. Even from across the arena, Max could see that its eyes glowed bright red.

“What have you done?” cried Perske to Max as she snatched up Neumann and raced past the chess board, scattering pieces on the grass.

“Me? Nothing.”

The giant creature reeled menacingly down the steps toward the arena floor, dragging a clanking chain attached to one foot. Three researchers who had made the mistake of gathering on the steps to talk were crushed under the monster’s bulk and lay still with their limbs bent at unnatural angles. Others stood frozen in shock or fled into the amphitheater seating.

“Minus?” said Max, standing helplessly stunned next to the chessboard. He felt Linus cowering against the back of his legs.

The creature roared across the arena and was nearly upon him before Max gathered his senses enough to turn, grab Linus, and run after Perske. There was an opening straight ahead of him at the bottom of the arena seating. He had only taken a few steps when he was halted by the searing agony of Minus’s beak burying itself into his thigh. Max wailed in pain and fell forward, spilling Linus across the grass. Hot blood spewed from his leg in pulses onto the ground. Max felt a wave of nausea wash over him. He rolled over clutching his leg. Minus reared back for another strike.

As Max cringed in horror at Minus’s glowing eyes, he felt his grip on consciousness begin to slip away. The world closed in. Is this, he wondered, what it’s like to die?

###

Max woke up screaming on the floor. He groped at his thigh, feeling for the ragged wound left by Minus’s beak. There was nothing; only smooth, unbroken skin.

He lurched to his feet and frantically scanned the room. There was no monstrous penguin, no chessboard, no arena. He was back in Herman’s home environment, with the chrome furniture and the sparkling disco ball above him. Linus was nowhere to be seen, but Betty, his Betty, was sitting at the desk tending to her nails. He saw the toy car on the carpet, still frantically flashing its headlights.

As he stood panting and shaky in the middle of the room, he could feel a warm dampness in the crotch of his shorts. For a moment, he feared it was blood, but when he saw the shiny trickle running down his knee, and the amber droplets spattered on his shoes, he knew it was only urine.

“Exit environment,” he said.

Herman’s room slipped away, and Max shuffled out of the lab to the restroom for some paper towels.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chapter 18. Neumann

The opening in the hedge led to a narrow cobbled street, lined with pale stone buildings. Perske let her arm drop from Max’s waist and started off down the street. Max hesitated, and then turned back to look at the bushes. He plucked a leaf, pinched it between his fingers, and held it to his nose. It had a spicy fragrance of boxwood that reminded him of the smell of his grandmother’s yard, after a spring rain.



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He felt the touch of Perske’s hand on his arm.

“It feels . . . so believable,” said Max.

He looked over his shoulder to see Perske smiling. He could not recall having seen such an expression cross her face back at the Institute. She was usually so stern.

“I’m very proud of it,” she said. “You’re lucky. Not too many people have experienced an environment like this.”

Max shrugged. “Unless you count life.”

Perske laughed.

“In a way,” she said, “what you’re experiencing here is more real than anything you might know in the so-called real world.”

Max blinked. “What on Earth are you talking about.”

She tugged at his arm and took a few steps down the cobbled street.

“Come on. We’ll talk while we walk.”

After a moment, Max followed, cupping the bruised boxwood leaf in his hand. They walked in silence for a while. The lumpy cobble stones hurt Max’s feet. Only Perske’s footsteps and the songs of what Max assumed must be virtual birds, disturbed the cool, still air.

“All experiences are transmitted to your brain through nerves connected to sensory organs," said Perske, "But nerves and sensory organs are not perfect. We have skipped past all that. In the supposed real world, you are lying on the floor of the lab, and the virtual reality you are experiencing is being directly fed into your brain.”

“Excuse me?” Said Max

“We have found a way to couple signals to the brain through the shortest route possible, other than sticking wires through the skull. We get in through the optical nerves. Your brain in turn produces signals that are detected with a technology called terahertz imaging. All of it is wrapped up into a package, which you may recall in the cave, resembling a small toy car with flashing lights.”

The Beetle, thought Max, that had whizzed around Herman’s room and frightened Linus.

“And all of this is an illusion,” he said, waving his arm at the street, the tidy stone buildings and the amphitheater up ahead, which loomed ever larger as they walked.

“It’s as real as the nerve impulses going to your brain,” said Perske. "No more, no less. I could say the same about anything your brain interprets as real. Only here, your imperfect senses don’t get in the way. This is as close to reality as you could ever hope to be; with signals transmitted as directly to your brain as possible, and no flawed sensory system to get in the way. What difference does it make whether the signals are generated by what you call the real world or by a computer system?”

Perske smacked her hand against the wall of the amphitheater. “This stone is hard and cold. That leaf is green. And the cut on your ankle caused you real pain.”

“But I’m going to wake from this dream sometime.”

Perske turned and walked through the entrance of the amphitheater and down the steps leading to the tiered seating.

“Perhaps,” she said over her shoulder. “Or perhaps not.”

Max crumpled the tiny leaf into a ball and tossed it at the wall inside the entranceway. It bounced off, leaving a small green smudge behind, and rolled into a crevice between the cobble stones. He squinted at the spot on the wall, and smeared it with his thumb. Perske was right, the wall was cold and hard. He wondered, assuming she was telling the truth, what his body was doing in the lab as his virtual self moved about in the virtual world. Not much, he imagined, picturing himself prostrate on the lab floor, still gripping the toy car.

Perske had taken a seat on the stone tiers that lay ahead in the amphitheater, and Max meandered down to sit behind her. At the far end of the arena, he could see a cluster of figures at the edge of a roped off section of grass. A dozen or so geometric objects were scattered around the roped area. There were cones, cubes, spheres, and shapes with names Max couldn’t recall, each decorated in one or another primary color. It appeared that the objects were placed there for the amusement of a small child, only a toddler really, who wandered among the objects.

On the far side of the roped area, Max saw a familiar bowling pin-shaped creature of black and white.

“Is that Linus?”

“Yes,” said Perske. “I brought him along to amuse Neumann.”

“The child?”

“Yes. He’s very good at chess.”

Max leaned forward to peer at the distant figures.

“You mean Linus is good at chess? Or the child?”

“Both actually.”

“Who, or what, is Neumann?”

Perske smiled bashfully. “That’s just his nickname. He’s a Dynamic Distributed Memory Hyper Organism, a D D M H Oh. He’s the reason we had to be so careful.”

“He’s a virtual assistant?”

“Virtual? Yes. Assistant? Hardly.”

Although it was impossible to make out exactly what was going on at the distant end of the arena, Max could see that the cluster of people were carefully observing the child. From time to time, one of the people in the small group leaned over the rope and seemed to give the child some instructions. After a moment or two, Neumann would wander off to tip a cube or move a sphere, and then toddle back again.

Max placed his elbows on his knees, knitted his fingers together, and rested his chin on his knuckles, as he watched. A bitter lump rose in his throat. It hardly seemed worth the trauma he had suffered since his kidnapping, to protect a computer program, regardless of how hard Perske might have worked on it.

“What’s so important about him?” said Max dryly.

Perske swiveled around on the stone bench in front of him. “Potential,” she said. “He has nearly unlimited potential to learn, to grow.” Perske’s eyes sparkled. She was beaming. “He has potential to live, as no other neural net algorithm ever has before.”


“So what?" said max. " Linus gets a little smarter everyday. And Betty3.5, as I imagine you know, is pretty damned sophisticated.”

“Yes," she conceded, "but Linus and Betty are limited by the power of the computer systems they run on. Neumann is different. He effectively has no limits.”

Max had a feeling he was treading on subjects far beyond his ability to understand. He doubted he would be able to grasp the answer to his next question, but he asked anyway.

“How so?”

Perske smiled demurely. “Do you know what DDM is?”

“Dynamic something, I think.”

“Dynamic distributed memory," Perske corrected him. "It’s a way of storing information in a network without using conventional memory chips, disks, or dedicated hardware of any kind.”

Max immediately regretted raising the issue. “It means nothing to me. I’ve never actually understood DDM.”

“It’s simple really,” she said as she crossed her arms.

He recognized the phrase. It was the way Perske often prefaced answers to questions posed by her graduate students. It was a semantic signal that usually sent Max scrambling to escape the lecture that was sure to follow.

“Imagine,” said Perske, “if you were to mail a letter that you had addressed with a nonexistent destination. What would happen?”

Max played along gamely for the moment. “The mailman would eventually return it.”

“Exactly. Now suppose you put some important information in the letter, and every time it returned to you, you sent it out again with another meaningless address. The information would be effectively stored in a letter perpetually sent out and returned to you.”

Max rubbed his forehead. “I guess, but it would cost a fortune in stamps, and it seems pretty pointless.”

“But," said Perske, "if you didn’t have to pay for the postage, you now have a way to save space in your file drawer by storing information in the network that is the US postal system.”

If there was a connection to the golden-haired boy in the distance, Max didn’t see it.

“If you put everything from your home filing cabinet into letters bouncing around in the mail system," said Perske, "you could do without a filing cabinet at all. In effect you have a filing system that is as large as the storage capacity of every mailbag and sorting facility in the country, and the world, if you include international mail. That’s much more than you could ever hope to store in a filing cabinet, or your whole house for that matter.”

“It sounds like more trouble than it’s worth,” said Max.

Perske rubbed her hands together. It was the sign that she was about to get to the heart of the matter.

“If you do the same thing with digital information transmitted through the Internet, you can store as much information as the entire global network can hold, on all the servers and fiber cables and microwave transmission systems in the world.”

“How much is that?” asked Max.

“Exabytes. Billions of times the storage capacity of the typical computer hard drive, and it’s growing everyday”

“O K.,” Max blinked.

“Listen," said Perske, "Linus is a neural network algorithm stored in a computer. Specifically, stored on a server at the university. The memory available to run him is limited by, among other things, the physical size of the memory in the server. Neumann’s algorithm is stored in DDM, which is limited by the size of the network he runs in.”

“So," said Max, "he’s got a brain the size of the Internet.”

Perske laughed. “It’s not that simple. Some algorithms run in computers. We can make them better by linking more of them together, but it’s still limited by the computers themselves. Neumann isn’t in the computers. He’s in the spaces between them, the connections that link them together. He’s not limited by the speed and power of the computers, he’s only limited by the speed of light in the cables and the ever-growing number of links.”

Max’s head was starting to hurt.

“The internet and the web that runs inside it are growing so fast,” said Perske, “that they essentially comprise a living thing. A super-organism. The Internet is the brain, and the Web is the mind. Neumann lives on top of all that. He’s a hyperorganism. The Internet grows as we add servers. The web grows much faster, as people add sites and data. Neumann grows faster still, as the links between sites and servers multiply.”

“I get it,” Max fibbed, in order to put a stop to the lecture. “He’s a bright kid.”

“Yes, of course,” said Perske, indicating that she realized she had said more than Max cared to know. “It’s a passion of mine. I get carried away.”

Max nodded at the boy. “You must be passionate about him, to have done such awful things to me. And,” he said, “to Herman.”

“I told you; what happened to Herman was an accident.”

Max shook his head. “But the accident was your fault.”

“We . . . I . . . " she stammered, "Yes, the virus that led to the accident was released intentionally. But it should have hit him in the lab. It was supposed to incapacitate him. He would have been here instead of you, if everything had gone as planned. I’m truly sorry.”

Max wasn't going to let her off so easily.

“Your little ruse on the operating table back there was no accident.” He reached down to touch the bandage on his ankle. “Neither is this.”

Perske avoided his gaze. “We had reason to believe that Herman had access to a device that could devastate a network, potentially bringing down the Internet.”

“And possibly," said Max, "destroying all your work on your Diddy Moe.”

Perske turned to look at the golden haired boy. “Neumann. That’s right. Believe me, I had no alternative.”

“There’s got to be an alternative to homicide and torture.”

Perske looked down at her hands resting in her lap. “I said I’m sorry. What more do you want from me?”

“I want out. Out of here and out of the lab.”

“Of course," She said. "I can arrange that.”

Max stood up. “Then do it.”

“Wait,” said Perske softly. “Come meet him first.”

“Who?”

“Neumann.”

“The boy?”

“Please,” she said.

Max stared at Perske. He had no desire to prolong the adventure any more than absolutely necessary. But he’d had ample evidence that he was out of his element and at Perske’s mercy if she decided to do something rash. It seemed safest to humor her.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

Perske brightened. “Thanks. It’ll all be over soon.”

Max stepped into the aisle that led down toward the grassy arena below.

“After you, Elizabeth.”

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

The DarkNet FireFly Toy

Chapter 18 of The DarkNet is coming soon. In the meantime, I've built a toy to amuse readers who have a little time on their hands. (Click the image to the left if you want to download it.)

It's a widget toy I call FireFly. It's designed to demonstrate the emergence of complex behavior that sometimes results when groups of simple objects interact through a few basic rules. (You may not see the connection to the storyline in The DarkNet, but I hope you will soon.)

The toy consists of a 25 by 25 grid of artificial fireflies. A set of controls lets you adjust the average firefly flashing rate, the coupling that determines how the fireflies react to each other, and the amount of randomness in the toy that adds a touch of realism to the game.

I built this widget after reading about studies of fireflies that have been observed to synchronize their flashes. Heart cells synchronize in similar ways. Neurons in our nervous systems fire based on input from their neighbors, and epileptic attacks may arise when too many of them synchronize their firing.

If you want to try out the toy, but have never used a Yahoo Widget before, you'll first have to download and install the Yahoo Widgets 4 engine.

When you run FireFly, it loads with all the fireflies flashing at random times. Then you can start fiddling with the settings to search for interesting behavior. Here's a summary of the controls.



Note: I improved the controls a bit. The changes are incorporated into the following information

Flash Period - The up and down arrows increase or decrease the rate that the fireflies flash.

Coupling - Coupling is set to zero when the toy loads. That means the fireflies don't care what their neighbors are doing. Turning up the coupling causes each firefly to try to flash at the same time as its nearest neighbors. You can also decrease the coupling until it's negative - that means the fireflies will try to avoid flashing at the same time as their nearest neighbors.

Random Noise - In the real world, fireflies, heart cells and neurons don't flash at perfectly regular intervals. The random noise setting lets you turn up the reality by adding random jitter to the flashing rates of the fireflies.

Reset button - Sets all the fireflies to their live status with their flashing rate initially synchronized.

Random button - This button randomly sets the timing of all the live fireflies. A firefly is live if it's flashing. Between flashes, it is dull yellow. A dead firefly is grey and does not flash.

Synch button - Synchronizes all the live fireflies to the same timing. (if you have coupling or random noise set to non-zero values, the fireflies will probably desynchronize quickly)

Clear button - This lets you turn off all the fireflies (they all turn grey). Then you can click individual fireflies to turn them on. This way you can make patterns that sometimes do pretty unusual stuff. Clicking a flashing firefly shuts it off.

Play and Stop icons - These should be obvious.

Data Bar - The settings, along with a generations counter that shows how long the toy has been running in a given configuration, are displayed at the top of the widget.



That's all there is to it.

So far, I've found settings that create endlessly changing symmetrical designs, strings of fireflies that flash in patterns that seem to orbit around loops of various shapes, and signs of a sort of memory that scientists call hysteresis.

Drop me an email if you play with it and happen to find anything cool.

I adapted this widget from one built by Lawrence Levinson. He made the best version of John Conway's Game of Life that I've found in widget form. If you've never played with the Game of Life, you should check it out.

Thanks Lawrence, I hope you don't mind me riding on your coat tails.

By the same token, if you want to modify my widget to make it better or completely different, feel free. But be sure to send it to me so I can play with your widget too.

-Buzz
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Youtube Videos Featuring Jonathan Coulton's Music

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