Linda stirred slightly, to Max’s relief. For a moment he thought he might have killed her despite the fact that his rifle had been set to pause. He slipped her weapon out of her hand and placed it behind him so that it would be out of her reach should she come around suddenly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Spencer take a tentative step forward.
“Against the wall,” he said firmly. Spencer backed up and readjusted his glasses.
Listen to the Chapter 32 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
Max rolled Linda onto her back and unhooked the latch on the chain of her pendant. As he wrapped the necklace around his fist he saw a subtle ripple approaching in the grass a few yards off. He leapt to his feet.
“Call them off Spencer.”
“Them? Them who?”
Max flicked the setting on his rifle to kill and fired a shot into the wall a few feet to Spencer’s left. Chips erupted from the stone, leaving a ragged divot behind.
“Call them off.”
“Oh them,” Spencer yelped. “Eddie! Bob! Back away.”
The ripple halted, and then reversed direction for a few meters. It began to grow, like a bubble of turf rising out of the ground. It transformed into a humanoid shape and lifted one foot after the other with moist pops as they separated from the grass. A shifty glance from Spencer caused Max to look over his shoulder to see another human shape separating itself from one of the trees behind him.
“Over there,” said Max, waving his rifle in Spencer’s direction. The tree man blinked his little knothole eyes and plodded over to take his place.
“You too,” Max said to the turf man, who was inspecting his torso and occasionally picking out what appeared to be bits of dandelion weeds on his chest.
“Hmm? Oh sure,” said the turf man before obediently taking his place with Spencer and the tree man.
Max took a deep breath. It was good to have the upper hand over Spencer for a change. He wanted to take a few moments to enjoy it, but he wasn’t sure how long it would last. He’d have to get the deal done fast, before reinforcements arrived or Linda came to her senses. He didn’t want to hit her again in the event that it might do permanent damage.
“Are you surprised to see me?” he asked Spencer.
“A bit, at least under these circumstances. Frankly, we had planned to get you back one way or another.”
Max nodded. “I thought as much.”
“Nice of you to save us the trouble. What brings you here?”
“I’ve got something for you. It’s not what you’re after, but it’s the best I can do.” Max held up his hand and let the iridescent pendant dangle. “There's no such thing as a doomsday device you know.”
Spencer shrugged. “So some people say.”
“Everyone who isn’t a paranoid nut bag,” said Max. “This is pretty effective though, at least at short range. It’s yours, under a few conditions.”
Spencer raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”
“First, you set Linda here free. She doesn’t know the way out on her own so she’ll need some help.”
Spencer nodded thoughtfully.
“Bob,” he said to the turf man, “is that something you can handle?”
“Yes,” replied the tree man curtly, apparently miffed at the misidentification. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
“What's second?” asked Spencer.
“I want to see Perske.”
“Now that’s a bit trickier. She has a pretty full calendar.”
Max aimed the rifle at Spencer’s belly.
Spencer swallowed hard. “I imagine we can squeeze you in.”
“Great,” said Max.
Linda groaned and Max realized it wouldn’t be long before she was fully alert, and likely very peeved.
“Bob?” he said to the tree man, who raised a wooden hand in acknowledgment. “You’d better get her now or we’ll have some trouble.”
Bob made his lumbering way to Linda, gently lifted her from the ground like a wooden Frankenstein monster carrying off the maiden in an old horror film, and headed toward the courtyard gates.
“That way is blocked,” said Max. “Denial of service.”
“Not a problem,” said Bob over his shoulder. “Those don’t last long.”
Max turned back to Spencer. “So, I guess we better go talk to Perske and explain the deal.”
Spencer and Eddie stepped away from the wall and followed after Bob. The tree man was nearing the edge of the pool when Linda began to struggle.
“Max!” she called out. “You bastard!”
She twisted in Bob’s wooden arms and Max saw the panic on her face. She clawed at the tree man’s arm and twisted until she slipped to the ground. Bob had a firm grip on her wrist, despite her kicking his gnarled legs and pounding his chest with her free hand.
“Linda, it’s OK,” called Max. “He’s taking you back.”
She froze and stared at Max. Even from a distance of twenty meters or so, he could see a look of shock on her face. In a few moments it was replaced with anger, and finally resolute sadness.
“Joel always said we shouldn’t trust you.”
Max was tempted to tell her that Joel was very wise for a madman, but decided there would be no use in aggravating her further.
She looked down at her feet for several long seconds. Just when it seemed she had given up hope, Linda wrenched her wrist from Bob’s grasp and sprinted toward Max. As she ran, she fumbled at her belt. She pushed a button in mid stride and the belt glowed a warning orange. A few more steps and it turned angry red. Max raised his rifle and groped for the settings in hopes of stunning her before she got too close, but Eddie had lunged forward to intercept her and had blocked the shot. The turf monster sprinted a few steps and spread his great green arms to wrap Linda up. Max turned and hit the ground just as the suicide belt detonated. The impact of the shockwave knocked the breath out of him. He gasped for air and rolled to his knees, ears ringing as the courtyard spun around his head.
In the distance someone wailed. As Max came to his senses, he saw that Bob the tree man was the source of the cry, kneeling at the edge of a smoking crater with his wooden hands raised skyward.
Bob continued to wail as he rose slowly to his feet and turned toward Max. A murderous rage burned in the deep knotholes that were his eyes. He took one deliberate step, then another, and another. Max groped for his rifle.
The first shot splintered Bob’s shoulder, halting his forward progress. The second blasted a deep hole in his chest.
“What kind of a monster are you?” asked Bob, a trickle of sap oozing down his gnarled cheek. He stood rigidly still for a moment, as a real tree would, then tipped backwards and fell to the ground with a heavy thump.
Max’s head throbbed. He sat on the grass and rubbed his temples, gauging his senses to detect any sign that the shock and pain of the explosion might be enough to trigger an epileptic episode that would eject him from the virtual world. So far, there was nothing out of the ordinary other than the ringing in his ears and the tightness in his chest that lingered after he’d regained his breath.
Linda and the turf monster had been obliterated. There were no identifiable pieces nearby, although he’d had enough experience blowing up balsawood planes and plastic cars as a boy to know that nothing is totally destroyed in an explosion, and that the rain of charred bits that fell in the moments after Linda set off her belt surely included a gruesome piece or two. He had hoped to get her sent back, disappointed and angry perhaps, but unharmed. At least it was quick. After all, the chances were good that Spencer would not have kept his word anyway.
He shook the remaining fuzziness from his head and looked at the fat man lying immobile on his back. Spencer had been about the same distance from the detonation as Max, although unless he too had had the presence of mind to hit the ground before it went off it was likely that he had taken a bigger hit.
Max jammed the butt of his rifle on the ground and used it to steady himself as he climbed to his feet and made his way over to Spencer. The man’s glasses were missing and his hair was singed on the left side of his head. Half of his face was raw and pink, and his shirt was burned through in patches here and there. His breath rasped though his thick, moist lips.
“Get up,” said Max. Spencer remained still. Max leaned on the rifle and kicked him in the ribs, eliciting a flinch and a groan.
Spencer rolled to his side. Max reached down,hooked his hand inside the fat man’s collar, and heaved. Spencer sat up with a whine of pain.
“Come on Spencer.”
A few more tugs and pokes with the rifle barrel and they were on their way, both limping from the trauma.
The card table still lay on its side beneath the willows, but there was no sign of Linus.
They rounded the pool and proceeded through the door in the wall to the gate. Bob had been right, the denial of service attack had collapsed. Now only a waist high mound of paper remained piled up against the outside of the gate.
Spencer stopped, his hands hanging listlessly by his side.
“Open it,” said Max.
Spencer sighed and slid the bolt. He pushed weakly against the gate. The mound of paper compressed slightly and the gate only opened a few inches before Spencer gave up.
“Push,” said Max. “Harder.”
Spencer leaned into it. It opened another fraction. Max jabbed him in the kidney with the rifle barrel. Spencer yelped and fell against the gate. His weight was enough to move the paper mound a foot or so, which was sufficient for them to squeeze out and wade through the trash pile.
The fork bomb globules were mostly cleared up as well, dissolved into puddles of slick liquid. A few remained in the gutters, shrunken and glistening like gelatin melting in the sun. The lethargic pedestrians had resumed their strolling. Groups parted for the ragged pair, but instead of ignoring them and going about their business, all eyes were on Max and Spencer. People stepped off of the sidewalk to get out of their way, with doe-like glances of apprehension.
Spencer led the way slowly down the street for a few blocks, eventually turning into a narrow passage and a steep flight of stone steps. At the top of the stairs was a small, rough-hewn door studded with iron nail heads and fitted with an iron knocker. Spencer reached up to lift the knocker and let it drop. The door swung open.
The room that greeted them on the other side was large and airy, with bright white walls, a skylight far overhead, and large windows at either side with the shutters thrown wide. The furniture included a plush couch, several chairs, and a tiny writing desk tucked in the corner. A pair of tall French doors stood in the middle of the far wall. Although the cut glass pains distorted the view, Max could make out a long corridor lined with baroque painted walls and lit by gilded chandeliers.
Spencer shuffled to the middle of the room. He hung his head and stood still, breathing heavily.
“Where’s Perske?” asked Max.
Spencer mumbled something that Max didn’t catch. He poked Spencer with the rifle.
“Through there,” he rolled his head in the direction of the French doors.
“OK. Let’s go.”
Spencer turned toward the doors and bumped against the couch, stumbling forward a few steps before catching onto the gilded door handle to steady himself. With one swift movement, he snatched open the doors and slipped through, slamming them shut behind him.
Despite the distorting glass, it was clear that Spencer was grinning that slimy grin. Max contemplated blowing a hole in the Spencer’s fat head.
He lifted the rifle and steadied it at Spencer’s face with one hand as he reached for the handle with the other. He was sure it would be locked; in which case, he planned to blast both the door and Spencer at the same time. To his surprise the handle turned easily.
Spencer’s distorted grin grew broader. Max whipped open the door. Instead of that round face and sagging belly, he discovered a svelte woman in high heels, skin tight shorts, and a half shirt that barely covered her breasts.
“Hi,” she said, “I’m Cheryl. Don’t be lonesome tonight. My friends and I are waiting for you at www dot sexkittens. . .”
He shut the door and Cheryl was gone. Through the tiny window, he could make out the fat man rounding a corner far down the corridor.
He opened the door again.
Cheryl instantly reappeared and stepped in to the room still speaking where she left off. “. . . dot com. It’s safe and completely confidential . . .”
He moved to the side as Cheryl strutted in, rattling on about sex parties and randy coeds. He made an attempt to slip by and follow after Spencer, but his way was blocked once more.
“Earn while you learn,” said a young man holding a laptop at his side. “I did, now I’m a certified graphic designer and my life has never been better. There are plenty of other careers to choose from. In three weeks, you can complete classes that will qualify you to work as a nursing assistant, long haul trucker, lawnmower repairman, electrical tech, and dozens of other great jobs. Or get your GED without going back to school. It’s easy. All you need is . . .”
Max lunged for the opening. Before he could dive through he was forced backward by a stream of people touting cheap travel, easy credit repair, real estate opportunities, revolutionary mattresses, and penis enlargement creams.
“Have you been injured on the job?” asked a man in a navy blue, three-piece suit who rested his hand on Max’s shoulder reassuringly. “Smith, Bitterman and Smith can help. Call one eight-hundred . . .”
Max rammed him in the gut with the rifle butt. The man took a step back, blinked, and straightened his tie. He cleared his throat, and asked again, “Have you been injured on the job? Smith, Betterman and Smith can help. Be sure to ask for me – Jerald Smith.”
Max fired a shot into the lawyer, who melted to a navy blue puddle that swirled on the floor. A fellow in a Hawaiian shirt stepped into the lawyer puddle and held up a colorful brochure featuring photographs of an island paradise. The rifle bucked against Max’s hip, taking out the travel agent. The credit guy, the plumber, and the skin cream girl fell in rapid succession, all turning to slime on the floor.
He was slowly clearing the room. Although still more advertising agents flowed in, they were no match for the speed of his trigger finger. He worked his way toward the French doors steadily clearing a path upstream. It was slow going and nerve racking at first, but when he found he was making headway he began to enjoy popping off the spokespeople in rapid succession like rabbits in a carnival shooting gallery. Even the persistent tap on his shoulder was not enough to distract him from his task, until he heard the stereo voices behind him.
“Have you been injured on the job?”
Max turned to see two men in blue, three-piece suits. “Call one eight-hundred three four five. . .”
In addition to the twin lawyers, there were twin travel agents and credit guys. A dual geyser of goop shot upward from one of the puddles, and suddenly there were two Cheryls inviting him back to the sex club. More geysers spouted, spawning still more copies of ad agents intent on selling him products and services.
He blasted one of the lawyers again out of frustration, knowing that it meant he would have three of them to deal with in a moment. There was only one solution -- shut down the whole damn room.
He slung the rifle on his back, leapt up onto the couch to catch his breath, and lunged toward the heavy wooden door that he and Spencer had entered through a few minutes earlier. He stiff-armed a car salesman who blocked his way, checked a discount stockbroker with his shoulder, and threw an elbow into the throat of one of the porn site Cheryls before he made it to his destination. He wrenched open the door and pulled two CtrlAltDel grenades from his belt, simultaneously pressing the detonation plungers. The warning whistles began to shriek and he tossed a grenade to each end of the room.
As he pulled on the door to close it behind him, a spectacled man in a white lab coat blocked it with his foot. “Ever wished you could go all night? I bet she does.”
Max head-butted the faux pharmacist in the face, slammed the door, and raced down the steps.
Two explosions buckled the heavy door, splitting it down the middle and spewing a jet of smoke into the air. After the rumbles died away he strained to hear any hint of ad gibberish, but all was quite. After a moment the door shook, scraped open a few inches, and fell inward, releasing a wall of smoke that rolled down the stairs and obscured his view. He waved his arms to clear the air, succeeding only in stirring up countless gray spirals. When at last the cloud settled, a female shape emerged and stood on the uppermost step. For a moment he feared one of the Cheryls was back.
“You’re very persistent,” said Perske.
“Actually,” he said, coughing out a lungful of smoke, “I was just getting started.”