Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Chapter 28. In Country

A tingling numbness started in Max’s his scalp and spread downward to meet up with the fuzzy burn that radiated from the toy car in his hands. Suddenly, both the sensations and the little car were gone. Linda too had disappeared. Otherwise, the room was exactly the same as it had been a moment before.

He walked around to the desk chair, slipped the rifle off of his shoulder and sat down. It would take a few moments for Linda to follow him, assuming that she would even end up in the same place. He swung his feet up on the desk.



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It was possible that the little car had taken her somewhere else, or to a different incarnation of the same place – perhaps a copy of the room without Max in it.

A moan from the other side of the desk confirmed she had made it through. She called his name in a trembling voice.

“I’m here,” he replied without rising from his seat. Assuming that the beetle affected her in the same way that it affected him, she should be fine soon. Everything had at least started according to plan.

“That was freaky,” said Linda, apparently still on the floor. “Like wrestling with a paint mixer.”

Max stood up and leaned over the desk to see her sitting cross-legged on the floor, her hair mussed but otherwise looking well enough.

“It feels more like an electric shock to me.”

“I guess,” she said as she massaged one of her hands. “I’ve never been shocked. Not with an electric current anyway.”

Linda grasped the edge of the desk and lifted herself up.

“What now?”

“I guess," said Max, "we do what I did last time.”

He thought back to the first Beetle episode, trying to recall each of the steps he had gone through before.

“Exit environment,” he called. The room transformed into the cluttered lab. He held out his hand. “Come on.”

He led Linda to the heavy metal door that opened from the lab to the outer office. The scene outside was familiar; Stephen’s desk, the gray waste basket, the cinder block walls covered in glossy gray paint. There was a subtle shimmer to the room and the items in it, as if at any moment they could suddenly change into something else. He kicked the trashcan. It tumbled over with a clang that was very much, but not quite, like the sound he would have expected.

The route to the exit that opened on the darkened parking lot was shorter than he remembered, and when they stepped into the night, his was the only car in the lot. It was parked under the bright spot of a street lamp.

He grasped the handle. A muted click and a beep indicated that it recognized his touch and that the doors had unlocked. Max nodded to Linda. She walked around to the passenger side and climbed in.

He handed his rifle to her as he settled into the driver’s seat. The seatbelt secured itself across his lap and over his shoulder as the engine purred to life.

“Home please,” he ordered the auto-chauffeur program. The car glided out of the parking space toward the street.

“Nice car,” said Linda, waving her hand at the dashboard.

“I guess, for an econo-box. I don’t really keep it this clean.”

Linda nodded soberly. “A little light on the details?”

“So it seems.”

The streets of the campus were uncharacteristically empty, and the route felt to Max to be distinctly abbreviated. He realized that enough details were missing from the road and landscape that he might have had a tough time finding his way home, if it weren’t for the automated guidance. Clearly, whoever had programmed the environment had left the reality turned down a bit too low. That must have been what made the trip home feel so odd the last time he’d been here, although it had been good enough that it hadn’t registered as anything more than mild disorientation at the time.

His car pulled up in front of the awning that sheltered the steps leading into his apartment. They stepped out and Max led Linda up the stairs. He stopped and turned to watch his car park itself in his reserved space. As at work, the lot was empty save his lone car. It was an absurd omission, considering that nearly all the residents should surely have been home in the evening.

They made their way up the steps to the second floor landing. Max turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door with the rifle-butt and found the apartment in the exact condition he remembered from the day of his abduction. The furniture and laundry piles, the television and his laptop, everything was just as before. A prickly cold chill swept over him as he eyed the floral print sofa and the princess phone on the floor in front of it.

“Are you OK?” Linda asked.

“Sure,” said Max. “I’m fine.”

“You look pale.”

He steadied his rifle and turned to peer into the kitchen. The oven was closed, but lacking the crisscrossing layers of duct tape he’d used to seal it during his weeks of seclusion.

“It’s just that this part was a bit rough the last go ‘round.”

Linda moved in close behind him and put a hand on his arm. “Can you handle it?”

“I think so.” He noted, as much to assure himself as anything, that Spencer and Perske weren’t likely to be expecting them, and would not have sent the abductors that assaulted him the last time he was in his virtual apartment.

Linda walked around him into the kitchen. She braced her rifle against her hip, pointing it at the oven door.

“So,” she said, “this is the way in.”

Max nodded.

“What are we waiting for?”

“I’m ready if you are.”

She lifted the pendant off her chest and pressed it against her lips, like an athlete kissing a crucifix before a match.

“All set.”

Max stepped in front of her and grasped the oven door handle. He took a deep breath and pulled, letting the door drop. It bounced briefly as it revealed the gaping maw of darkness. His heart raced. The trip hadn’t really been so bad the last time, but he hadn’t had a choice either. It was one thing to be shoved into the void screaming and struggling, and another to dive in of his own volition.

He rocked back on his heals.

“You know Linda, you don’t have to go.”

She tapped the pendant.

“I’ve got this.”

Max shrugged. “Well, just give it to me. I’ll take care of it.”

“You're sweet,” she said, brushing his cheek with the back of her hand. “But I’m going. If you like, I’ll go alone and you can stay behind.”

Max shook his head. That wouldn’t work.

“Alright then,” she said, “it’s settled. Now, who first?”

“Me, I suppose.” He knelt in front of the open oven and braced himself on the door. He stuck his head and shoulders into the pitch black darkness, careful to guide the rifle in alongside. The silence was deafening. A lump rose in his throat. He swallowed hard, pushed against the kitchen floor, and inched his torso through the gap. Only the pressure of his free hand against the oven wall stopped him from tumbling in. He took a deep breath of the emptiness, leaned forward, and slipped into the void.

Max could see nothing at all. The darkness was so complete that he couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or shut. He blinked deliberately, but detected no change.

He extended his arm, searching for any point of reference. He reached, and reached, and reached. There seemed no limit to how far his arm could stretch. It was as if he were reaching out to the whole dark world {{Pause=0.25}} – to the great, empty universe. He pointed his toes and his legs too stretched out forever. His entire body was expanding, until it felt as though the tip of his nose was miles from the back of his head.

He tried to make a fist. He could feel that the muscles were willing, but the response was incredibly slow in coming, as if his nerve impulses were ripples traveling through molasses. His breathing slowed in his enormous lungs, his swelling heart thudded ever more ponderously with every beat.

He wondered, with thoughts that were as slow and deliberate as his pulse, if he would eventually dissolve into the cosmos, like a smoke ring blown into the air, expanding and fading to a shadow, then to only a memory of the ring that it once was.

He hovered for a time in the void like a cloud in a pitch-black night.

The expansion reversed itself. It was a gradual collapse at first, almost undetectable. His extremities began to pull back from the endless expanse. As they did, he could feel his body regaining its substance. His breathing and pulse increased. The contraction steadily accelerated until he was not simply solidifying, but imploding. He bellowed soundlessly. Would it stop? Would he be restored to his original form, or crushed, like a dying star collapsing into a black hole?

The contraction sped still further until there was a sudden snap, like the release of a rubber band. He was lying face down, with his nose crushed against a cold, hard floor. Max flopped onto his back gasping and struggling to regain his bearings.

He was back on the acropolis where Spencer and his goons had met him and dragged him down to see Betty’s mangled form.

He lifted himself onto his elbows, still panting and shaky. Linda hadn’t arrived yet. Max rocked forward and climbed to his feet. He scanned the horizon beyond the soaring marble columns and wandered a half dozen yards across the marble floor to the steps that led down to the field with its manicured hedgerow.

He surveyed the town, paused for a moment, then dropped to the floor onto his belly. He reached forward, hooked his fingers on the edge of the top step, and pulled himself along the smooth stone until he could just peek over. There was motion on the streets beyond the field. Dozens of people meandered about like ants living in a colony of marble houses and cobblestone streets. Some disappeared into the white stone buildings while others emerged. They were walking, jogging, and riding bicycles. Groups gathered here and there, perhaps to chat under the clear blue sky.

The town had grown since the last time Max had visited the place, and a network of roads spread cobbled fingers off to the horizon. At the town’s farthest reaches, the structures had a hazy, glittery quality to them.

There was a sudden pop and a whoosh of air. Max ducked instinctively and hid his head under his arm. A tense moment of anticipation followed, but there were no rough hands under his armpits, and no squeaky, fat man voice welcoming him to Wonderland.

He rolled onto his side and saw Linda sprawled on the floor, just as he had been when he first arrived. She stayed perfectly still for several seconds, then her chest heaved with a deep breath. She turned her head and laid her cheek on the floor. Her hair spilled across her face, obscuring her eyes.

“Linda?” said Max.

She nodded almost imperceptibly. Max squirmed around on the floor and scrambled to her on his belly, staying low to keep out of sight of the people milling about below. He reached out to her shoulder, but stopped short of touching her. Instead, he crossed his arms on the ground and rested his head on his elbow to wait for her to recover.

“That was,” Linda croaked. She cleared her throat. “That was wild.”

She slid her hand to her face and pushed her hair aside.

“Do you think that’s what email goes through when you hit send?” She let her hair drop back over her eyes and spread her arms and legs across the floor.

She pulled her limbs in tight and lifted her chest off the floor.

Max inched closer and placed a hand firmly on her back. “Stay down.”

“Why? What’s the matter?”

He crawled back across the floor to the top of the steps, beckoned to her with a flick of his wrist and whispered, “Come here.”

“What?”

“Come here,” he said more loudly.

Linda started to rise to her feet.

“Stay down,” Max hissed, and she dropped back to her hands and knees. Linda set off crawling across the floor.

“OK, cowboy,” she said when she was finally beside him. “What’s up?”

Max pointed to the city.

“Wow, busy place,” said Linda. “Who are those folks?”

“I have no idea. They weren’t here last time.”

“They don’t look very dangerous," said Linda. "In fact, the whole thing seems kind of Utopian”

Max agreed with Linda’s assessment. Compared to the grimy Freedom Club compound, this place was paradise, or so it seemed from a distance.

“Too bad we’re going to have to make such a mess of it,” she said. “What now?”

Max shrugged. “I’m not sure. We can wait for Spencer to find us, which I’m sure he will, eventually.”

“Or we can go find them. Either way, the end result is the same.” She pointed toward the amphitheater in the center of town. “That’s where you last saw the boy.”

Max nodded.

“We should get as close to him as possible,” she said, touching the pendant on her neck. “Any suggestion about how we deal with them?”

Max sat up and swung his feet over the top step. “Nope.”

“OK then. I guess there’s no point in hiding up here." She stood, slipped her rifle off her shoulder, and checked its settings. "I'm ready. Let’s go.”

“They’re growing, you know,” he said.

Linda looked out at the town. “What do you mean? They're getting larger?”

“No, they’re building up.”

The indistinct look of the far edges of the town, Max guessed, resulted from the fact that those structures were actively under construction. It reminded him of an image he’d once seen of bacteria in a Petri dish. Instead of microbes and slime on gelatin, housing construction was creeping along the fractal fingers of roadways radiating out from the amphitheater at the center.

“That’s not good,” said Linda. “I’m not sure what it means, but it can’t be good.”

She set off down the stairs. Max followed.

“I imagine not,” he said.

***

All was still atop the acropolis. Only a subtle grinding under the polished stone disturbed the silence – until a pillar, in the back corner farthest from the stairs, erupted with a thunderous sneeze.

"Bless you," said a gravelly voice from beneath the floor.

"Shut up Eddie," the pillar replied.

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