Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chapter 33. A Mortal Game

The tiered seating of the amphitheater was packed with people, to the point that they flowed out onto the steps that led down to the floor of the arena below. It was a challenge for Max to follow Perske without touching any of the audience members, which was something he wanted to avoid for fear that the visions that he would inevitably experience with even a brief contact would distract him from his mission.



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Rows of tables filled the center of the arena where he had first met Neumann. Pairs of people sat at each table concentrating intently on chess boards. Based on the crowd, Max assumed it was a major tournament of some kind, although the patrons didn’t appear to be paying much attention to the competition, or anything else for that matter. They were as blithely distracted as the people he and Linda had encountered on their way to the courtyard where she had met her violent end.

Perske led him past the competitors to a roped off section that comprised the front row and six or sevens rows back. Unlike the rest of the audience, the people in the VIP section were intently focused on the tournament -- taking notes and talking among themselves in whispers and occasional animated exchanges.

Max stopped at the arena’s edge while Perske climbed up a step to one of two empty spaces in the front row.

“I understand that you want to make a trade,” she said.

“That’s right.” He held out his hand and let the pendant dangle from his wrist. “It’s too late for Linda, but there’s something else I want from you.”

She motioned for him to continue.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, his voice cracking despite the fact that he had rehearsed the words to himself over and over in his final hours at the Freedom Club. “I want you to leave me alone. I’m quitting the university and going away where you won’t hear from me again. I’ve had enough.”

“I see,” said Perske.

“And another thing,” he let his hand drop to his side. “I want Betty back.”

Perske smiled in a way that looked more sad and pitying than anything else.

“All that,” she said, “in exchange for a piece of costume jewelry.”

Max shook his head. “It’s no doomsday device, but it’s a lot more than a necklace. I’ve seen it in action.”

“You’re wrong. That thing is junk.”

She pointed to the distance and Max turned to see Spencer carrying Linus under one arm and dragging a robed figure across the arena floor with the other. He instantly recognized the aluminum skull cap.

“Joel?”

Spencer deposited the lunatic unceremoniously at Max’s feet, and continued by to take the seat beside Perske. He leaned over and set Linus on the ground where the penguin fluttered his stubby wings and preened his belly.

“Max Caine, I presume,” said Joel, lifting himself onto his hands and knees. “Funny meeting you here.”

Max’s head swam as he tried to put all the pieces together. He thrust the pendant in Joel’s face.

“Tell them what this thing can do.”

Joel sat back on his heels and inspected the jewel as though he were appraising its resale value for a pawn shop.

“Not much really, other than broadcast its IP address every few milliseconds.”

“What?”

“It’s just a tracking device.”

Spencer stood up, sneering as he displayed a necklace and pendant that was virtually identical to the one in Max’s hand.

“I presume this is the one you were thinking of,” he said. “I took it off of our mutual friend Joel there.”

A lump rose in Max’s throat. His one bargaining chip was lost.

“Linda lied to me?”

Joel shook his head. “She didn’t know about the switch. I told her you were conning us, but she didn’t believe me. It appears,” said Joel as he pushed his cap back on his head, “that her intuition was wrong.”

Max’s nostrils flared as he pointed the rifle at Joel. All that was left was to go down in a flurry of destruction. First Joel, then Spencer, then Perske and anyone else he could take out before they stopped him.

He wrapped his finger over the trigger. But the futility of the situation overwhelmed him. He threw the rifle at Perske’s feet.

“You win. You have what you want,” he shouted. “Now let me go!”

Spencer stepped down and retrieved the weapon, handing it to Perske. He walked forward, holding out the pendant.

“What are you talking about? This little thing?”

He tugged on the jewel and threw it past Max over the arena floor. It burst in mid air, incinerating the bulk of the gathered chess players, and leaving the glowing mini sun hovering in place.

“That’s what you thought you brought us?”

The fireball grew. Max raised his arms to protect his face from the searing heat and tripped backward to the ground. Spencer strode unflinching toward the circle of destruction. His clothes and hair began to smolder. When he stopped and turned, the skin on his face had a glossy sheen, like wax running down a hot candle.

“It’s very pretty,” he shouted over the fireball’s angry sizzle and crackle.

Spencer raised his hand. His arm burst into flames that instantly spread, enveloping his entire body. When the smoke and fire cleared, Spencer’s chubby form was gone and a naked youth with curly blond hair stood in his place, completely unscathed by the flaming orb. He snapped his fingers and the miniature sun was extinguished.

“Do you remember me Fishman? Dr. Perske calls me Neumann.”

Max leaned back against the arena wall in stunned silence.

The naked youth approached and sat down beside him. Max felt a gentle tugging at the collar of his shirt. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Linus’s shiny black head and yellow beak at his shoulder.

“Your buddy recognizes you,” said Neumann, “don’t ya, little guy?”

“Now Max,” Neumann sighed, “I’m going to give you a little lesson. You know these people sitting behind us. They’re the Jasons. Smart folks, all of them. I like to think of them as my parents in a way. They built the Internet, or at least got it started.”

He leaned over to look Max in the face.

“But I bet you already knew that. Didn’t you?”

Max shook his head.

“Well they did. In any case, I’m sure you don’t know why.”

Neumann reached back and lifted Linus, gently placing him between them.

“The Internet is something special. It’s designed to maintain its integrity in the event of massive destruction. You could wipe out huge portions of it and the rest will continue working just fine. It’s damn near indestructible.”

He patted Linus’s head.

“Do you know what you are to me Max?”

“No,” Max whispered.

Neumann squeezed his shoulder. With the contact, Max’s self awareness was swamped by the presence of countless trapped and tormented beings struggling to free themselves from an unfathomable purgatory. They were, Max now knew, the people who loitered throughout the town that Perske and the Jasons had built. The details were hazy, but somehow the technology that had transported him and Linda here had been adapted to capture them as they logged into PCs, accessed ATMs, played video games, or interacted with any other networked device. Some arrived and others departed, each contributing a tiny portion of the capacity of the networks that were their minds to the megalomaniacal creature personified by Neumann. They were droplets in an enormous and growing computational sea.

“You’re insignificant,” Neumann said as he released his grip on Max. “Less than nothing. A frivolous little speck.”

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” asked Max. “Just let me be.”

Neumann laughed. “I would, but Perske and her friends are cautious types. They thought poor Herman passed you something truly dangerous before his unfortunate accident. She was mistaken, wasn’t she?”

Max nodded.

“So I have a choice now. I could turn you loose to join my devoted people,” said Neumann gesturing grandly at the crowd in the arena stands, “or I could make you entertain me. And you know what?”

“No,” said Max, “I don’t know.”

Neumann leapt to his feet. “I choose entertainment.”

He hopped over the wall to the seat beside Perske and placed an arm around her shoulder.

“What do you say doc? Shall we have a show?”

Perske smiled blankly, while the Jasons in the rows behind them looked on with rapt attention.

Neumann flicked his wrist and the scorched arena floor shimmered, then changed into a smooth sand-covered oval. In the very middle, a long pike stood jammed into the ground next to a glinting sword. A gaping hole opened in the far wall.

“You get to play a game with an old friend.”

“A game?” Said Max. “What kind of game?”

“The rules are simple. If you win, you live. And if you lose, you die.”

Max looked up at Perske.

“Don’t I get a reward?” he asked.

Neumann laughed. “You’re a greedy one. The terms were good enough for Spencer, although the outcome was not the one he preferred.”

“A little reward always helps,” said Max, “doesn’t it Elizabeth?”

“Yes,” said Perske, with the voice of a person waking from a deep sleep. “Reputable research has confirmed the effect.”

“Alright,” said Neumann, “just for added incentive. What is your request?”

“Betty,” said Max. “I want her back.”

Neumann pondered the proposal with mock seriousness.

“Done, brave gladiator. Now behold your opponent.”

A clanking noise erupted from the distant opening in the arena wall. A great, dark form gradually emerged. Max raced to gather the weapons just as Minus’ glowing eyes set upon him. If anything, the penguin was larger and more menacing than the last time Max had seen him. The chain on his ankle was larger as well, like an anchor mooring from some lost ship. Crimson blood flowed between the dark stains that discolored his chest feathers.

Minus stood his ground for a moment and scanned the arena. Max retreated slowly, hefting the pike in his right hand and the sword in his left. The bird let out a rumbling call, lowered his head, and barreled across the sand with the chain whipping and clattering behind him in wide arcs.

Just when Minus was nearly on him, Max dodged left and planted the hilt of the pike in the ground. The barbed tip buried itself in the penguin’s side as Minus’ momentum carried him past. Max’s quickness saved him from the charge, but the flailing chain was less predictable. Although he leapt clear of the chain itself, the spike at the end caught his foot and sent him spinning to the ground.

Pain shot up though his leg, and when he hit the ground he felt the nausea and light-headedness that preceded his seizures begin to rise. He rolled to his side clutching his ankle, expecting Minus to fall upon him at any moment.

The bird did not turn. Instead, it continued across the arena toward the roped off section where Perske, Neumann and the Jasons sat. As Max groped at his injury, he saw Joel leap clumsily out of Minus’ way to clamber into the stands. The monstrous bird halted at the very edge of the arena, his massive back arched and his head hanging over the first row of seats. The pike's shaft dangled from his side, swaying back and forth with the giant penguin’s every move.

Minus turned and Max groped for the sword in preparation for the next pass. It never came. Instead the bird stood facing him. He held something in his beak that Max could only make out as a shapeless, dark form. Minus stretched his neck skyward, then whipped his head down, slamming the object to the ground. The impact sent a spray of sand into the air and Max heard a panicked squawk. It was Linus, fluttering desperately on the ground in the face of Minus’ fury.

“Minus,” Max bellowed. “Stop!”

The enraged beast struck at Linus with his beak as the little penguin frantically dodged the mighty blows.

“Perske,” Max shouted, lurching forward, “call him off!” His wounded leg failed him and he collapsed.

Minus pinned Linus to the ground with the claw of one enormous, webbed foot. He glared briefly at Max, as if daring him to intervene, then plunged his beak into his immobilized victim. Linus ceased his struggles.

Max struggled to balance on his good leg and held the sword outstretched as Minus approached with laborious, agonized lurches. When the bird was at last only a few meters away, he opened his beak and dropped Linus’s mangled body to the sand, then collapsed to stretch shuddering on the ground beside his tiny twin. The fury had faded from his eyes, replaced with an expression approaching serenity.

Max hobbled forward with the sword extended before him, until he stood over Linus and held the blade pressed against Minus’ throat. The gigantic adversary gazed up at him calmly. Max grasped the hilt with both hands. One thrust and it would be over. In the distance, he heard Neumann shouting.

His knuckles were white with strain, his forearms tensed in preparation for the kill.

“Are you done?” he asked.

Minus lay still, showing no sign that there was any fight or spirit left in him. Nor was there the terrified anguish that he had once displayed in response to the riding crop that Max had tormented him with after chess and backgammon games back at the University. He displayed only resolute acceptance.

“Finish him,” called Neumann from across the arena.

Max recalled the hours of suffering Minus had endured during training, when Linus was collecting herring and praise.

“You really hated your little brother,” he said. He removed the sword from the prone bird’s neck and let it hang at his side. “I guess that’s my fault.”

He painfully made his way to the pike embedded in Minus’ side, dropped the sword, and heaved on the shaft. The barbed tip ripped away and blood oozed out from among the black feathers.

“Now go,” he said.

Minus’ breathing slowed slightly, but otherwise he didn’t stir. Max thumped him with the pike handle.

“Get!”

A tremor rippled through the bird’s huge torso as he slowly lifted himself up. Max pointed at the gap in the arena wall. Minus swung his head to the side and peered at Max, then at Linus’s tiny corpse. With one tottering step after another, the tormented giant lurched across the sandy expanse and disappeared into the dark tunnel.

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