Friday, August 17, 2007

Chapter 34. Bitter Reward

“Very disappointing,” said Neumann as he knelt down and sprinkled a handful of sand onto Linus. “A draw is so anticlimactic.”

Max flexed his injured leg. The fact that the blow from Minus’ chain had not sparked the seizure that should have kicked him out of the virtual world worried him.

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“I’m still alive. According to your rules,” said Max, “I win.”

“No. Minus resigned.”

Max shrugged. “I don’t see a difference.”

“The difference is that you were to amuse me. Of the two of you, Minus did a much better job. If anyone deserves the prize, it’s him.”

Neumann picked up Linus and cradled him in his arms like a baby.

“In fact, I should punish you for what happened to my little backgammon buddy.”

“I did all I could to save him. If anyone had the opportunity to intervene, it was you.”

Neumann stroked the glossy feathers of the penguin’s head.

“It was your fight. I chose not to break my own rules.”

“Exactly,” said Max., struggling to keep the nervous tremble out of his voice. “And according to your rules, I get Betty and you turn us free.”

Neumann’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be clever, little flea. I promised you Betty. That’s all. I haven’t decided what comes next.” He set Linus down gently. “Don’t risk annoying me more.”

It was clear to Max that Neumann either didn’t know about his epileptic escape plan, or that the plan itself was flawed. But there was nothing he could do about it at the moment.

“I don’t mean any disrespect,” said Max. “I only ask for my just reward.”

“Ah, justice,” Neumann smiled. “You’ll certainly get what you deserve. Come,” he said, holding out his hand, “see if you’re happy with your prize.”

Max hesitantly reached for Neumann’s hand. The instant they touched, the mournful voices of the crowd filled his head. The cacophony was mercifully brief, as the two of them seemed to sail into the sky and the arena dropped away below. It didn’t feel to Max like flying so much as simply zooming out to view more of the terrain. The landscape opened up, but even from the immense height, the town extended as far as he could see.

They paused for a moment. The network of streets and buildings shifted. After another pause, the view zoomed in with a disorienting rush, centered on a modest house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Max suddenly found himself standing next to Neumann in front of the little house, as Betty 3.5 rocked gently back and forth in a porch swing. She was oddly out of place, with her severely spiked short hair, tight leather pants and jacket, and heavy black boots.

She sneered at them. It was the very expression he recalled from the first time Betty burst into Herman’s environment, on a day so long ago that Max had begun to doubt that it ever happened.

“There it is,” said Neumann, “you’re reward.”

“What do you two pricks want?” said Betty.

Neumann walked up the steps onto the porch.

“Hey boy,” Betty said to Neumann, “you should put on some clothes.”

Neumann beckoned to Max to follow, paying no attention to Betty’s remark.

“Now, do what you came here for.”

Betty spat at Neumann. “If either of you touches me, I’ll rip your balls off.”

“What I came here for?” said Max. “What are you talking about?”

Neumann grabbed Betty by the wrist and with one swift motion, flung her out of her seat and onto the white wooden porch floor.

“You know what you want,” said Neumann. “Take her.”

“No, no. . .” Max stammered. “I don’t know what you thought.”

Betty scrambled to her feet and Neumann struck her across the face with the back of his hand, sending her halfway over the porch rail. He wrenched one of her arms behind her and pushed the back of her head until she was bent nearly double.

“Do you prefer it like this?” said Neumann as he grinded his hips against her buttocks. Betty reached back and raked at his face and neck with the nails of her free hand, snarling like an animal.

“Or are you more traditional?”

He spun her around, jammed her back against the rail, and pinned her arms to her side.

“Get off of me boy!” she shrieked.

“Stop it,” said Max, hobbling up the steps. “That’s not at all what I want.”

Neumann ripped open Betty’s jacket and pushed it down, immobilizing her arms, then turned her to face Max. He reached around her waist and unzipped her pants.

“Be honest. This is every man’s desire,” said Neumann. “I see them. That’s why half those people are here – to fulfill their secret fantasies.”

“Not this. Not me.”

Neumann laughed maniacally. “Oh, I see how it is. You’re one of those who likes to watch. Well watch this then.”

He slammed Betty down and pulled her pants to her ankles, then fell on top of her.

Max leapt forward and pushed at Neumann’s shoulder. The effort was futile. Instead of knocking the rapist away, Max was entangled in the attack. He lost his autonomy and became simultaneously witness, vicious perpetrator and victim of the rape, sharing in both Neumann’s assault and Betty’s agony. His sense of self was enveloped in a swirling vortex of fury and pain, like a scrap of paper in a tornado.

Somewhere at the center of the tempest, there was a calm spot, a dim and peaceful haven. It was not clear what lay there, but Max knew instinctively that it was his one hope to end the assault. He concentrated his effort and reached desperately for the refuge among the chaos of anger and anguish. He envisioned a tiny black cube hovering in the eye of the storm.

The cube grew more distinct as Max focused on it. The storm swirled around him as he found the object within his mental grasp. One side popped open, like the lid of a child’s music box, spilling a cloud of tiny specks that flowed out and were caught up in the tempest.

The vortex instantly broke apart into countless tiny swirls that spun away and evaporated like so many smoke rings.

Max found himself back in the arena. There was a great rumbling. The amphitheater was crumbling around them, as Neumann stood stunned before him.

“What have you done?” said Neumann. A series of cracks raced across Neumann’s skin.

He lifted his hands. The fingers began to disintegrate into dust.

“I don’t know,” said Max as a rift opened up in the ground between them. “I was only trying to stop you.”

The arena shook and heaved. Portions of the surrounding structure collapsed. The previously apathetic audience members cried out as they were crushed in the rubble.

If he was going to make his escape, the time had come – it was now or never. The injury to his leg hadn’t been enough to initiate the seizure. He needed something more severe. Max snatched up the sword beside him and braced the hilt on the ground. He placed the point against his belly just below the ribs, took a final breath, and flung himself down on the blade.

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