MARCH 1999 |
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TIM CLIFTON, who writes a Renaissance Online Magazine's movie reviews, is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine.
A rumble arose in the distance, like the approach of a train building to a sonic peak. It reflected off the thousands and thousands of black lacquer domiciles joined like townhouses that existed along the many streets of the city. Then, the sound slowly ceased like a bass piano chord falling toward silence. Franklin Stewart didn't know how the sound occurred, but he knew what came after. That was a bad thing.
His resolve quickened, urgency twisting his gut. He tried the next door. No response. Then, the vague hunch formed, followed by apprehension, climaxing in fear.
He looked toward the next cross street. A parade of yellow geometric shapes composed of a series of triangles, circles, and squares zipped by in an instant like an electric train. There was a pause, and then another yellow neon set passed. It was over there, somewhere, very close.
The air shimmered for a second at the street corner, a thin disturbance at first, building into a stick figure and then expanding to form the stark silhouette of a human figure. Detail filled in, and The Pursuer stood about ten feet away, in whole and full form. It would seem like magic to some people but, of course, it wasn't.
The Pursuer wore a cape that concealed the shape of his body. He was easily seven feet tall. An alabaster head, like the bust of a fallen Roman emperor, stared with dark eyes that shifted around suspiciously for a moment. He hitched his head down slightly and when he fixed on Stewart, a mean smile, like a weeping wound, spread across his pale face.
"You can't lose me that easily," he said, his voice like rolling thunder. He moved across the street toward him.
Stewart sprinted in the opposite direction and ducked into an alley. He heard The Pursuer behind him, grunting and muttering to himself as he struggled to catch him.
The narrow alley was quiet and Stewart moved quickly, legs pumping underneath him. More mobility in the alleys, but a bigger chance of being trapped.
"Help me!" a voice called out, soft but urgent.
Stewart stumbled and looked down at a vagrant. His clothes were tattered and he slumped, out of illness or despair.
"It slices! It dices!" A deep voice shouted.
Stewart looked up to see The Pursuer, behind him, but now he carried an enormous sword, one that he could not possibly wield in the confined alley, but he swung anyway. Stewart jumped backwards as the arc of the sword passed through the wall on the left side of the alley, missing him and neatly cutting the body of the vagrant in two before passing through the opposite wall. The vagrant said nothing, but slowly shriveled and faded away.
"If I was honorable I'd give you a fighting chance," The Pursuer said, moving forward, the point of the sword before him, the tip lengthening, closing the distance.
Stewart reached into his pocket and felt a small cube, approximately one inch on all sides. The repellent.
The sword was fully drawn back, the blade almost passing through The Pursuer's legs from behind. It came forward quickly, gaining momentum. The Pursuer's face tightened with anticipation.
Stewart pulled the cube out of his pocket and tossed it into The Pursuer's face. A blue cloud exploded, like super heated steam, expanding. The sword disappeared in the smoke. Stewart ran as The Pursuer howled.
Stewart passed more derelicts in tattered clothes who moaned and stretched out their hands. He did not stop. The repellent was only temporary and had bought him little time.
Then he heard a queer sound that had to be destruction. A buzzing sound, like a bug being incinerated by a halogen light. He didn't look back.
"More dramatic than the sword, don't you think?" The Pursuer called out as if seeking his agreement.
Stewart turned as he ran and saw The Pursuer touch one of the derelicts. The derelict stiffened, then disappeared to the sound of a soft zap.
The Pursuer had changed form, taking on a crab-like appearance, possessing six spindly legs with black hair stiff as wire bristles. Two of the appendages brushed the sides of the walls with a thousand small scraping sounds. But the white head remained, focusing on him with a leer: "You're next, Stewart. See how easy it is to disappear? Aren't you tired of running?" The smile expanded around the face like the demarcation of the equator on a globe. Rows and rows of shark like teeth revealed themselves, perfectly aligned like tombstones in a military graveyard.
Stewart continued running. He heard the electric buzz as The Pursuer methodically dispensed with them, letting out a nasty laugh each time.
Stewart emerged onto a larger street. He started to cross, saw a yellow flash at the periphery of his vision, and stepped back. The geometric shapes flew through like an express, and he felt the heat on his face. With the coast clear he crossed to the other side. The Pursuer emerged a second later and stopped. He was death in a cape again but now sported a twisted, dastardly mustache.
"Aren't you going to run?" The Pursuer asked.
Stewart saw another flash, well down the street. "I can't do this anymore," he stalled.
The Pursuer's head lolled back as if considering the veracity of the remark, then shrugged his shoulders. "You made this too easy," The Pursuer said as he crossed the street.
The timing was just right. As the light grew in intensity, The Pursuer snapped his head toward the source just as he was impaled on the leading point of a yellow triangle of the convoy of light and carried off down the street. The Pursuer transformed into an amalgam of all his preceding incarnations, spindly legs twitching and convulsing, the ludicrously long mustache flapping behind like two pennants, a disorganized mass of appendages, unable to extricate himself.
"Always look both ways before crossing the street. They always come in twos," Stewart said to himself. He smiled as he heard the frustrated scream echo in the distance.
A short time later, Stewart gained access before a different black laquer door that turned a kaleidoscope of colors as it yielded to him.
"Safe haven," Stewart said to himself as he walked down a short hallway and entered a bar. The door chimed as it closed behind him, a comforting and relaxing sound.
The bar was deep dark wood and glass. A vacant billiard table anchored one side of the room with a surface as exact as a putter's green that glowed under tiffany lights. The bartender, a stout man, with the jovial appearance of Falstaff, looked up with twinkling eyes that had appreciated many a joke and said: "Stewart. You made it." His fleshy face was possessed with a port wine hue that confirmed the suspicion that he sampled his inventory.
"Barely, Babbage. Barely," Stewart said, plopping down on a cushioned barstool.
"Would you like a drink?"
Babbage busied himself under the counter.
"They're still after me."
Babbage nodded, displaying his double chin more prominently. "You say that as if you're surprised."
"I know. I just... The Pursuer is so hateful."
"It's a personal vendetta. But you're safe here."
"I know, but I wish I could stay here..."
"Safe haven is only temporary, you know that. We're shielded here but sooner or later you'll be found." The tone was paternal and understanding.
"Why don't they come after you? Don't they consider you to be dangerous?" "Maybe they're after you because you're special. Me, on the other hand, I'm obsolete, like an old version. Rather than end up as one of those misfits out there I came here. No one's going to bother with good old Babbage." He placed a pint glass of sparkling blue liquid on the counter.
Stewart, taking a deep draw from the glass, said, "If we don't pull together and fight them we'll all die."
"You're right. That's why you need to escape and warn the family." Babbage expertly placed a glass in the overhead rack and gave it a shove without looking. A soft ting sounded as the glass bumped gently against the next one in the rack. "You'll make it. You worry too much, boy!"
"Aren't you afraid? Aren't you scared of what they might do to you?"
"I've already been written off, Stewart. Look, you're more advanced than any of the others. That's why The Pursuer wants to destroy you. You're the future, I'm not."
"But that's the point. You are like me. I can talk to you."
Babbage chuckled, wiping a glass, his blue eyes glinting. "No, I'm not. My responses are more programmed than you think. You just don't realize how advanced you are. I'm a damn robot compared to you."
"But they found out. How..."
Babbage was already shaking his head. "I don't know, son." The patient cleaning of glasses stopped and Babbage's clear blue eyes focused. "It doesn't help that you have a famous father."
"I'm sentient because of him," Franklin muttered glumly.
"And I'm ugly as sin. We all got our problems, son. But I can..." He stopped. "Do you hear that?"
The deep low tone sounded outside, the piano chord of an unfinished dirge.
"Now listen up, boy. Come back here," Babbage said, his voice quickening. "There's a portal that'll take you to the main road." He walked over to a panel and pressed a button as Franklin moved behind the bar. The bottles and racks on the wall dissolved into a metallic door which opened slowly. A bright shaft of light broke through and filled the room.
"Don't be afraid," Babbage said. "I will help you. You have to trust me." He offered, his beefy hand, unfolding like an awkward flower to the warmth of the sun.
"Thank you," Stewart said. He took the hand and felt a tingling course through his arm like an electric shock. As he looked back at Babbage the face metamorphosed into The Pursuer.
The Pursuer glared at him and said: "There's one thing harder for a sentient to understand than the expectations of others, and that's someone else's motivations. Don't you want to know why I'm after you?"
Stewart said nothing. He looked down and saw that his arm was losing color. He struggled, but he could not break free.
The Pursuer shook Stewart like a rag doll. "Ask me why."
"Why?" Stewart said weakly, relenting.
"I guess you'll never know. That's the last lesson about being sentient. Sometimes you just don't know why someone wants you dead," The Pursuer said, laughing.
Stewart had a momentary sensation of his body disappearing, and then he felt nothing and ceased.
The teenager excitedly ripped off the goggles and stepped out of the body suit that had immersed him in the virtual world. He jumped up and executed a high five with an imaginary figure. Replacing Babbage was a master stroke, a perfect way to ambush Franklin Stewart . "Another down, more bastard cyber children to destroy," the pimply teenager cheered. "Take that, Adam Stewart, P. H. D.!"
Adam Stewart was well known, an expert in creating cyber organisms, nurturing them, helping them reach maturity, even naming them after himself like they were his own children. Franklin Stewart, one of Adam's cyber offspring, was definitely the most intelligent of the ones created, literally a ghost in the machine. Christ, it had taken forever to find him. If Franklin had escaped to the internet and alerted Adam Stewart, that would have gotten him in even worse trouble than he was in already. The teenager stared at his reflection, enumerating all the ways his face was different from his father's.
After all, his father was Adam Stewart and he had been grounded for a month because of his grades. But Dad had forgotten one thing. A resourceful teenager could do much more damage from his bedroom. Dad had not taken the computer away from him. Big mistake. He patted the computer monitor as if it was the head of an adored pet. His Dad spent more time constructing the psychological makeup of his precious cyber beings, developing mood configurations, and fashioning response patterns than asking how his only son was doing. Maybe this would wake him up. He'd never played catch with his Dad. Not once. But he bet that these cyber beings had, even if it was only in a metaphorical sense. It just wasn't fair.
"This is what you get for ignoring me, Dad," Adam Stewart, Jr. said, donning the body suit to destroy more of his father's creations.
* * * *