Phil and Maxine and The Orb


“It's like I'm holding the Death Star, that's what it feels like.”

“Is it heavy?”

“No, that's another weird thing about it. It looks like it should be, but it's very light. Not hollow, just light.”
Phil rolled the small metal sphere in his palms, holding the phone receiver to his face with his shoulder. “You gotta see it. If it's what I suspect it is, we're in for a little mystery.”

“You know I'm a sucker for mysteries,” Maxine told him on the other end of the line. “Bring it when you pick me up. What's this movie we're seeing again?”

“Alien”, he told her, for probably the tenth time during their conversation. “It's part of the sci-fi festival. I can't believe you've never seen it.”

“You computer nerds are all alike. Spaceships and creatures from Mars, gimme a break.”

He carefully placed the sphere on his desk next to his computer. Reni jumped onto his lap and licked his face, almost knocking the boy out of his chair from the impact.

“I can hear the little scoundrel all over you!” Maxine laughed. “He sounds like he's tearing the place apart.”

“He is!” Phil shouted, trying to be heard over his friend's mayhem. The small Dalmatian finally jumped off the boy's lap, and back onto the bed where he usually sat. “Before we go to this festival,” he said, restarting the topic, “make sure you want to go. It sounds like you don't.”

“Well, I'm not a space nut, but all-you-can-watch movies for three bucks is a bargain, and I do love that theater. It's one-of-a-kind.” She leaned against the wall, sitting on her bed, twisting the phone cord around her fingers. Her room looked similar to Phil's, with its skin of posters and paintings, untidy but not messy. Good friends have the same tastes, she always thought. “I'll see you when you get here.”

“I'm gonna be a few minutes late. There's something I wanna try. Something with the orb.”

“What? What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I'm gonna hook it up to my computer. I think I know what it is.”

“You find something half-buried in the park, with worms and maggots on it, and you're going to put it in your computer? I hope you have the money to buy a new Mac.” Maxine was startled by a sudden knocking at her bedroom door. “I gotta go! That's Rhonda!”

“Alright. I'll be over soon.”

Maxine quickly hung up, and sat quietly on her bed. Her room seemed different without Phil's voice coming out of the phone. It seemed less colorful, as though the pictures on the wall disappeared.

In his cluttered room, Phil placed the orb into a bowl-shaped device that looked homemade. With a flip of a few switches, his powerful computer whirred on, and the orb began to light up.

*****

“Oh God, it was so gross when that baby thing came out of his stomach!” Maxine shrieked, shuddering at the recollection of the scene.

“I told you it was a classic,” Phil said. “That's the famous scene. Totally freaked me out when I saw it last year.”

“How did you get into that movie last year? Didn't they bust you?”

“Sneaked in, of course,” he answered in a boastful manner. “I look old enough, anyway.”

From across the street, two men in dark suits sat in an old black sedan, watching the young couple walk along the downtown sidewalk. The street lights stretched their shadows against the old brick buildings, making it easier to keep them in sight.

“So, what exactly are you doing with that thing you found?” Maxine asked. “What does your computer have to do with it?”

“Everything evolves, including machines. Heck, especially machines. First there were vinyl records, you know, LPs.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Then there were spools of tape, followed by 8-tracks, cassettes. The next thing is supposed to be like a small, laser. A 'compact disc'. Well, the same goes with computer software. First there's magnetic tape. Floppy disks. Hard disks. I think the orb is the next step.”

“Are you saying that steel baseball is a video game or something?”

“I don't know what's on it, but I doubt it's Pac Man,” Phil told her, quite serious in tone. “I read about these things in magazines, how they're supposed to work. I figured out a cheap way to read what's on it, using my Mac. The stuff is compatible, the orb is designed to mesh with any hardware, but the download will take forever. My hard drive is ancient.”

“Is that what it's doing now? Downloading?”

“Yup. That's why I was a little late to pick you up. That, and Reni needed a bath, so I...” As they reached his car, Phil heard something, a sound that fueled his gnawing caution. He looked about before opening Maxine's door for her. Quickly, he ran around and got in the driver's seat.

“The guys in the suits?” Maxine whispered. She was no less paranoid than her friend.

“Yes. Did you see them, too?”

“Just start the car. Let's go.”

“They were in the theater, weren't they?”

“Just start the car,” she repeated, in the same robotic tone of fear.

“I was spooked by them, staring at us all the time, but I thought it was all in my head.”

“It was in my head, too.”

Phil drove his Ford Falcon away from the curb, slowly, watching the stalkers through his mirrors. As he turned the corner, they followed with perfect telemetry. Speeding down the street, Phil swerved onto the next block.

“Damn it, Phillip! Now they know that we know!”

“Who cares, as long as we're alive.”

Phil raced down dozens of streets and alleys, all the while being tailed closely by the men in the black sedan. Nothing Phil did could shake them. They followed so near that they slammed against Phil's rear bumper at one point. It was that act that escalated the panic as well as confirmed the intentions of the hunters.

“We've passed my building a dozen times!” Maxine screamed out as the car almost flipped onto its side maneuvering a curve. “What are you trying to do?”

“When I get the chance, I'm going to pull over and let you out in front of your place. Go upstairs and get Rhonda. She'll know what to do.” Phil breathed heavy, a sickly, muddy deepness to it.

“Just drive to the nearest police station. Stop trying to be a hero!”

“Then I'll never know what's on the orb! The cops will never let me finish the download. Who knows what could be written on that little piece of metal? Defense plans. Espionage. The cure for diseases. The cure for diseases, yes, that's what's on it.”

Around a corner that he navigated several times, Phil looked into his mirror and saw the absence of his stalkers for the first time. It was his chance to let Maxine out, but it would have to be fast. He floored the brake, the car coming to a painful stop.

“Get out, now!” he told her. “Get Rhonda, tell her what's going on!”

Maxine jumped out of the car and ran into her building. Immediately, Phil sped away.

After hours of driving through the city and its outskirts, the gas gauge told Phil to head for home. There, he would call Maxine to see if she was okay. He was confident that the men in the sedan were gone, and that the download was nearly finished, if not already completed.

A few blocks from his brownstone building, he parked the car behind a colony of Oleanders. Their leaves, and the dark of the foggy night, made the automobile next to invisible. He crept in the shadows of everything between his Falcon and the brownstone, and clinched his teeth at the slightest sound.

Quietly shutting the door to his apartment, locking it, he glanced at his computer screen. The screen saver was activated; little tropical fish dancing with each other. This meant that activity was past its final mark. The download was nearly complete.

He grabbed the phone and punched in Maxine's two-digit phone number. He sweated in wait for her to pick up the line. It seemed like a great length to wait.

“Hello, Phil?” she said into the phone.

“Max, are you okay? Are those guys anywhere around?”

“We're right here,” said a voice from Phil's closet. Out stepped the two men wearing dark suits. Every bit of their clothing was dark, black, like their ominous sedan. “You've almost finished the load,” the same man said, “I assume your printer works.”

“What's on the orb?” Phil asked the two men, who were approaching slowly, carefully. “What's on it?”

“The download is about to end. You will print it.”

“Phil?” Maxine shouted over the phone, worrying more. “Phil, what's going on?”

“Max, get Rhonda, like I told you! Hurry!”

Phil made a break for the door, only to be stopped by one of the men. The suited figure swung at Phil, sending him flying violently against the computer. Slamming down onto the keyboard, the download was aborted halfway through printout, exposing only a fragment of the data. Phil screamed in pain.

“Phil!” Maxine could hear everything. Through the phone, she heard a struggle take place. She heard Reni bark, things breaking against the walls, and then the final thud of someone falling to the floor. She could only hope it wasn't her friend, though she knew the truth, as she did all along.

In his room, Phil was sprawled across the floor in a contorted, unnatural position. Helpless, frozen, he watched the two men in the dark suits remove the orb from the makeshift scanner, scooting aside the unconscious, faithful Dalmatian lying on the floor.

“You bastards,” he murmured at them. It was all he could do to form the words. “How could you do this to me?”

“Had to be someone,” one of the men said coldly.

“Why me?” Phil turned his head around, almost blinding himself with his own drool. “Why?” The once-colorful walls grew more white, more blank. Generic. “Everything will be good,” he said to himself repeatedly. “Maxine will bring Rhonda. Everything will be fine.”

“Phil! I’m here!” Maxine suddenly shouted through the door.

“Max? Help me, please.”

“What will we do with the girl?” one of the suited men asked the other.

“We'll have to kill her next,” his comrade answered flat.

“Phil, open the door!” called out a familiar voice. It was Rhonda. “The door is locked, open it!”

“Don't come in,” whispered Phil as he drifted off. “They'll get you, too.”

The two men stood poised, ready with their guns, prepared to kill whatever made it through the door. With a sharp crack and a loud slam, the door flung open. Rhonda and Maxine stood in the doorway, shocked at what they saw.

Phil laid on the floor of the empty room, unconscious, his head next to a puddle of bloody vomit. The posters were gone. The computer was gone. The men in the dark suits were gone. All that remained was a shoebox, and the frail body of the sick little boy it belonged to.

“Maxy, what happened?” Rhonda asked Maxine. “Have you been on the in house phones again? I told you two, those are only for doctors and nurses, like me.” She poked her head out into the busy hallway, looking left and right for help. “I need Dr. Benson! Prep a cart for ICU, now! We have a grandmal in here!”

Medical staff rushed in and connected the boy to an armada of machines.

“Will he be alright?” Maxine asked, twirling one of her pigtails around her fingers. “We were just pretending.”

Rhonda ignored the girl, her attention taken by more urgent matters. “Let's go, get him to ICU. Where's Benson?”

“It was just pretend,” Maxine said again, much quieter. As she watched the staff take away her only friend, she bent down and picked up his shoebox. Hesitant to open it, she merely hugged it, wedged herself into the nearest corner, and thought about Phil.

*****

“Are you alright?” Rhonda gently asked. “You can cry if you want to. It's good to cry.”

“I don't feel like crying,” Maxine said, staring at the blank walls, the shoebox still in her hands. “I'm still playing pretend.”
“What are you pretending, sweetheart?” Maxine did not answer. “I'm sorry, honey, it was God's choice. And if God made the choice, it had to have been for a good reason. Everyone in this wing of the hospital, including you, is going to be chosen soon. There's no changing that, there's no cure. But it's the way things are.” Rhonda noticed the shoebox, remembering when it was laying next to Phil's head hours earlier. “Maxy?” she said politely. “Max, can I see what's inside the box?”

“Yes,” Maxine said, as she handed the box to the nurse, not taking her eyes from the clean white walls.

Rhonda opened the box, looked inside, and was puzzled for a moment. “So, this was Phillip's? You guys played together a lot, and this was all you had?”

Maxine nodded yes, still playing pretend. She was trying very hard.

“I think he'd want you to have it,” Rhonda said to her.

Inside the box was a glass snowball with a wooden base. Rhonda rolled the pretty sphere in her palms, making the snow inside it whirl around a ceramic Dalmatian puppy. Crudely carved on the side of the base were the words “Phil and Maxine are best pals forev...”

Though the scripture was poor and incomplete, one could clearly see that it took the boy a lot of patience, and quite a long time, to write.

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