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.
Listen to the Chapter 19 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
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.
“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.
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.