Monday, August 06, 2007

Chapter 31. Hostage

The gates to the courtyard were literally crawling with security. At least that was the function they guessed the multi-legged robots served. Max counted over a dozen, each a meter or so long and low in profile, with a small turret mounted at the front that swiveled to point a tube that seemed to be a weapon of some kind. They were like enormous mechanical cockroaches, which made them creepy enough in Max’s mind. The fact that they were armed moved them into nightmare territory.



Listen to the
Chapter 31 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.

Some of the roboroaches clung to the iron bars that fenced the courtyard off from the street. A few patrolled the sidewalk outside the enclosure, while others prowled about a narrow clearing between the gate and a free standing wall that hid the distant courtyard from view. When tourists strayed by the fence or passed the gate, the nearest robots would rise up on their tiny front legs and swivel their turrets to keep a bead on the potential threats. Although the roaches were perpetually vigilant, the people they targeted seemed oblivious to the danger.

Linda checked the setting on her rifle. She motioned to Max to do the same.

“Are you sure this it the place?” she said.

Max assured her it was. At least, he had seen them there a few minutes before, thanks to the transcendent vision they’d experienced with the redheaded girl and the crowd on the steps.

Linda sketched out a brief plan of attack. It was simple and straightforward – just the way Max liked it.

“On three,” she said.

They each pushed their root kit buttons as she reached the end of the count. Linda faded from view. Only a faint distortion, like ripples rising from a sun baked highway, indicated her movements as she slipped across the street and took up her position beside the gate.

Max removed the fork bomb from his belt, snapped off the tab and tossed it a few meters down the sidewalk where it rolled to a stop just beside the iron fence. There was a muted thud, and sticky gelatinous globules began spewing from the canister, forming a growing mound that spilled onto the sidewalk, into the street, and through the fence.

The nearest roboroaches scampered to the fork bomb and swiveled their turrets frantically as they tracked the blobs and fired round after round. Although their weapons were small, they seemed to work well at vaporizing the blobs. But it was clear that they couldn’t keep up. Blobs rolled off the mound, and after a moment split into two with a pop. Each of the daughter blobs split again and again. The mound turned into a flood that overwhelmed the robots and flowed around the feet of the nearest pedestrians. Some stuck to the ankles of passersby and continued to multiply.

The previously oblivious tourists began to panic. Those closest to the mound were quickly enveloped in blobs and collapsed to the ground under the gelatinous mass. Others farther from ground zero ran a few steps before the sticky globules bound their legs and they too fell and were enveloped.

As the situation escalated, more and more of the roboroaches joined their compatriots in the struggle. Several of those closest to the mound were lost among the blobs. The rest pulled back, firing as they retreated. The ones clinging to the fence near the gate abandoned their posts to join the fight.

The gate opened and Max raced across the street, preparing the zip bomb as he ran. He slipped through the opening and heaved the bomb as close as he could to the largest group of roboroaches, immobilizing them in the face of the fork flood. A series of rapid-fire shots rang out from a spot a few meters to Max’s left, vaporizing several of the robots that were beyond the range of the zip bomb. Linda was picking them off with stunning precision.

Max pulled the gate shut and armed the Denial of Service mechanism.

“Now?” he asked.

There was a quick succession of shots.

“Hold on a second,” Linda said. She finished off the reinforcements who were still mobile, then trained her fire on the roboraoches immobilized by the zip bomb.

Max slipped his rifle from his shoulder to help out. His aim wasn’t bad, but he was pulling off shots at a fraction of Linda’s pace, often firing at a target a fraction of a second after she had already taken it out.

“OK,” she said, “now.”

Max set the fuse and slipped it through the bars. A series of warning tones was followed by a fluttering sound, like a flock of pigeons taking flight. The mechanism fired out a stream of paper packets that sailed up into the air. Moments later, similar packets began raining down from all directions, plastering themselves against the gates. All the spaces between the bars were rapidly jammed as the paper packets accumulated layer upon layer. The courtyard entrance was soon blockaded behind a rapidly growing mound. No one was going in or out of the gates, at least for a while.

“Service denied,” said Linda. Max turned to find that she had shut off her root kit. “Can’t watch each other’s backs if we can’t see them.”

“Good point.”

He pushed the button on his belt.

“This way,” he said, leading her from the gate and through an opening in the courtyard wall.

The scene spread out before them matched the vision he’d had when they’d connected with the crowd on the steps. There was a rectangular pool at the center, with a fountain at the opposite end and a polished marble patio running around its perimeter. On the far side were three large weeping trees arranged in a perfect triangle, and a card table set up in their midst. Unlike his vision, the table was tipped over on its side with four empty chairs scattered around it, as if the players had left in a great hurry, no doubt in an attempt to escape the commotion that he and Linda had caused at the gate.

There were no more roboroaches in view. Between the fork bomb and their initial assault, it appeared that Max and Linda had taken care of them all, for the moment. There was no obvious sign of anyone else either

“Did they get away?” asked Linda.

“Possibly.”

A movement behind the upset card table caught his eye. It was just a fleeting hint of a shadow.

“Hold on,” he whispered, “looks like we may still have one.”

He waved his hand to direct Linda around the right side of the pool, while he circled around to the left, his rifle up. He flicked the lever on the barrel to stun.

As they rounded the end of the pool and closed on the table, Max saw a sliver of a black form hiding behind, then a hint of white.

“Wait!” he cried to Linda at almost the same moment that the crack of her rifle pierced the air. The force of the shot spun the table aside exposing Linus fluttering on the ground. Max raced to the penguin’s side as Linda steadily approached with her rifle at her shoulder ready for another round.

“Was it set to pause, or to disrupt?” Max called frantically as he rested a hand on Linus’s convulsing belly.

She glanced at her rifle's setting. “Disrupt.”

Max realized that the table must have taken the brunt of the impact. Linus was in bad shape, but not as bad as he would have been from a direct shot.

“We need hostages at the moment,” he snapped at her, “not corpses,

“Sorry,” she said, adjusting her weapon.

Linus gradually ceased his twitching.

“Friend of yours?” she asked.

Max ignored the question.

“He’s no good to us as a hostage anyway. Come on, let’s keep going.”

They split up again, rounding the trees cautiously looking for anyone hiding behind them. All three were clear. Only two more hiding places remained; a pair of statues standing at the back corners of the courtyard. They were large, classical marble carvings, one reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, and the other of a woman carrying an urn on her head, as her toga-like wrap slipped from her shoulder.

He silently indicated to Linda to take the David and he headed toward the urn bearer. An expanse of open ground separated them from their targets. Max sprinted quickly across the grass and rolled past the sculpture, ready to pepper anyone tucked behind. His finger tickled the trigger, but the statue was hiding nothing other than empty space.

Linda had better luck.

“Freeze,” he heard her call out.

Max braced himself against the stone wall behind the statue and swung his rifle around. Linda was standing with her feet spread apart and her knees bent as she pointed her weapon at someone hiding low behind the faux-David.

“Step out, now!”

She pulled the rifle firmly against her shoulder, emphasizing the seriousness of her intentions. Max could not see the captive behind the statue. There was a tense pause, and he feared that Linda would have to resort to shooting whoever it was so that they could drag their prisoner into the open.

She took a step back, and lowered the rifle a bit while still keeping it at the ready. There was a glint of light off of glasses as a pudgy figure squeezed from the hiding place. Max’s heart leapt. It was the very person he was hoping to find, short of capturing Perske herself.

He stood and sprinted across the courtyard as Linda directed Spencer to back up against the wall. Max felt a wave of revulsion wash over him at the sight of those tiny, piggy eyes behind the great thick glasses. Even at this distinct disadvantage, Spencer’s moist quivering lips showed a hint of a smarmy grin.

“Hello Max,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well.” He moved as if to take a step away from the wall, and Linda tensed threateningly. “You always seem to travel with such charming, and if I may say so, lovely company.”

Linda made a sound on the verge of a growl.

“Shall we have a latte and chat like civilized folk?” Spencer adjusted his glasses with trembling fingers that belied his casual confidence.

Max’s chest heaved. It was now or never. He raised his rifle as nausea and light-headedness rolled over him.

“What are you doing?” asked Linda through clenched teeth. “We need a hostage.”

“Yes,” Spencer spurted out. “A hostage. Of course you need a hostage.”

The nasty little grin drained away, along with the color in Spencer’s formerly pink cheeks.

Max steadied himself and Spencer let out a little squeak of fear.

“Please," he said. "Please don’t.”

“Come on Max,” said Linda without shifting her gaze from her prisoner. “Stick with the plan.”

“You know,” said Max, trembling almost as much as Spencer, “I have my own plans. He swung the rifle around, pulled the trigger, and Linda dropped to the ground in a heap.

Spencer blinked deliberately and removed his glasses.

“Now that,” he said as he wiped the lenses pointlessly on his sweaty shirt, “is something.”

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