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Authors: Michael Conn

Maxwell Huxley's Demon

BOOK: Maxwell Huxley's Demon
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Maxwell Huxley’s Demon


Maxwell Huxley’s Demon by Michael Conn




Maxwell Huxley’s Demon


Huxley woke as a hand was placed over his mouth.
Whoever it is , she’s strong and quiet . . . s trong enough to hold me in place with one hand . . . q uiet enough to get this close before waking me .
He didn’t feel scared, he felt annoyed that he wouldn’t have time to work on his escape plan tonight.
As his mind accelerate d , he smelled a familiar scent.

Her hands held him still . She kept her f ace very close to his ear and smelled him in return . Max well saw dark eyeliner and a flash of matted blonde hair .
ust like in the stories we tell after the lights go out .

“I can’t help you if you stay here . . . ” she paused as she let him go . “
. . .
get to Chicago.”
She disappeared with speed and grace through a door that should be locked .
He lay there and continued his plan to escape the only home he had ever known. A school he called a prison.


One week after her visit, Maxwell looked up into the moonlight and saw rain swirling over and running down the massive security wall of the school .
Despite this being the twenty-first century, t he rock and concrete wall had a distinctly medieval look to it , and he half expected to see a dragon ’
s tail curl over the top.

Maxwell stood at the base of the wall with two other nine-year-old kids. He didn’t like tonight’s plan , but he also had to stay with Walker and Virginia. He didn’t think he could manage here without them.

Walker and V
irginia counted down from three. T
heir crossbows fired simultaneously. Two hooks streaked upward, trailing rope, and caught over the top edge of a twenty—
metre wall. Walker and Virginia climbed. Maxwell , not strong enough to climb, stayed on the ground and watched them ascend.

Walker had a ballista strapped to his back.
He and Max had been working on the tubular titanium and aluminum construction for the past few weeks , and the result was a small, powerful, and light ballista. Light, but right now it looked awkward for Walker. Virginia carried the tripod mount.

Maxwell , already cold, hunkered out of t he rain at the base of the wall, and held the end of the rope that Walker climbed.

Over the top of the wall , Walker tugged on his rope.
That was Maxwell’s signal to harness himself to the rope . Walker and Virginia pulled him up. As Maxwell neared the top, an alarm sounded , and search lights came on. The harsh glare of the lights found the m and shouts echoed from below.

Maxwell looked beyond the wall. He saw the forest. He saw freedom. The force of the wind coming over the wall surprised him.

Walker fitted the ballista to its tripod mount and attached it firmly to the wall. A door burst open near a lookout tower at the corner of the wall , and four guards spilled out.
He aimed and fired. Thin aviation cable rolled off a spool , following a weighted arrow toward the forest. The arrow head drove into a tree on the other side of a small lake. Walker ensured the cable would hold them by cranking the cable tighter with a win ch at the back of the ballista.

The line angled down and away from them, and swung in the breeze. Maxwell could barely make out the far end through the rain. He looked down off the wall and then back at the guards, neither view helped his confi dence in this plan. He hesitated . Virginia c lipped him in , pushed him off the wall and followed c lose behind.

Guards drew guns. “Lower you r weapons,” Pirelli said. He walked up to the zip line that held the kids, looked down the line , and judged how close they were to the lake. “This is gonna be cold kids.” Then he severed the zip line with bolt cutters.

The kids fell down and forward.
Max well felt Virgin ia grab him and pull him to her. S
he wrapped herself around him. Then they slammed into the shockingly cold glacier fed lake.

The force of hitting the water knocked the breath out of Maxwell. He surfaced and tried to get his bearings. The freezing water made it hard to think, let alone think clearly. He took shallow , rapid breaths, feeling the water suck the energy out of his body. H
is muscles rapidly slowed and became weak. He went under the water again.

Pulled above the surface by Walker, Maxwell felt Virginia unclip him from the zip line. Even though the shoreline looked impossibly far away to Max, the three of them tried to swim for it. Violent shivering prevented any of them from speaking. Virginia stopped, pulled both of the boys to her, and gave up on swimming. They became a tightly wrapped little ball of kids drifting in icy water, seeking each other’s heat.

To Maxwell, Virginia and Walker looked blue , and Max well guessed he looked as frightened as they did. They held Maxwell up, but he could tell, they would all go under soon.
They taught us . . .
should have listened . . .

A small aluminum boat pulled up near them.
“Need a ride?

a voice called.

Virginia spluttered something.

“What? What did you say? I can’t hear you?”

Ppppleeeeassse , ” Walker managed.

“Oh well, he did say please boys.” The boat spun in a tight , fast circle , which brought one rail close to the kids and doused them with one last frigid wave.

Men pulled the kids into the boat and covered them in blankets. “This had to be your idea Walker, really, a ballista? I’m impressed with the workmanship though. It’s a credit to you that you made all that, two crossbows, and a winched ballista, light enough to haul up the wall but strong enoug h to pull cable across the lake. W
ell done.” Spray soaked the man, as the boat rocketed o ff choppy waves. “You’ll get lo tsa bonus marks from Dr.
Ravenor in Weaponology , but you also get three days in solitary confinem ent from me.”



Three weeks later, Max well gets out of bed before dawn.

He fires up his tablet and types.
If I’
d been assigned a different bed or been on a different floor or in a different building or even if the bed was a few inches higher, lower, or to one side, then I wouldn’t be doing any of this.
I wouldn’t have looked.
I wouldn’t have found the one thing.
But as it is , if I lie with my head in just the right spot and look out the only window across the room, past the girls’
residence , over the courtyard, and beyond the wall, then I can see a small sliver of b lue, blue-green really, but it’
s enough to catch my attention every night when I lie down and every morning before I get up.
It’s a river or a lake , I can’t tell .
It’s far from the school walls, not like the freezing lake I was pull ed from weeks ago.
One day , I’
ll put my feet in the water.

Near him, Walker rolls over in his bed and interrupts Maxwell’s train of thought, bringing his focus back inside the residence .
The room is a large square with twenty—
four bunk beds down each of the walls and a common area in the middl e , nearly two hundred boys in this room alone .

Maxwell places his palm on the window , melting frost on the outside .
Maxwell watches a moth, on the ledge outside the window, open its wings, pleading for the sun’s warmth to activate its ability to fly.

The moth tak es flight.
Maxwell whispers a bit of arithmetic. “
Six residence rooms on each floor, that’s 576
beds per floor. Three floors of boys ’
rooms. Four floors of girls ’
beds, zero parents, and a lot of doctors.

How many of the other two hundred boys on this floor are awake right now, and how many are also planning escape?

Turning his back on the window, Maxwell pads barefoot across the residence room and gets back into bed.

Maxwell puts his tablet away and pulls his book reader out from under his pillow and opens his current book.
Before he reads a few pages , h is gaze is drawn back to the water . . .
he falls asleep in the early dawn and dream s of swimming with his mother.


From his bed, Walker watches Maxwell.
I can’t really help him. I can try, but I can’t fix him. He creates things, and I sit still long enough to finish them. I don’t know what else to do but wo rk with him.

I have to pass too.


Virginia lies awake in bed , then suddenly and violently throws her blankets onto the floor , scaring the little girl in the next bed.

Some other girls are awake and in the bathroom already. Virginia watches them talk and get ready for the day.
They’ve no worries. No stress. I guess you can be that way when you’re not nine yet. Life was easy then.
Then she looks at a large map of the world that has always hung on the wall near her bed. She concentrates on an island that appears small from this angle.
Japan . . .
somewhere on that island is my home .

Virginia stands , ties back her hair, changes into leggings and a t-shirt, rolls out a mat, and begins her morning work out . She thinks best during exercise.
During exercise she can release the anger and convince herself that she made the right choice.


Across the room from Virginia, Naomi closes her eyes and lets the feelings of other girls sweep over her.
Frustration, contentment, malice, humour, fear.
She stands at a small dresser beside her bed, holding onto the drawer knobs to steady herself.
Too many strong e motions push past her , making her become dizzy and take a step backward .

She turns, opens her eyes, picks out one girl, and concentrates on her. Closing her eyes again, she can see a colour, a colour that matches that one girl. Madison is mauve today, calm and happy.
She switches to Virginia.
Virginia is a deep burgundy, anger mixed with frustration. Occasionally, if the atmosphere is just right, Naomi can hear thoughts flitting past her. “. . . he has to . . . it’s not fair . . . where is he . . . hard to choose . . . does she feel the same way . . . when will I win . . .” She catches only the strongest feelings as thoughts. The rest are lost in chaos.

If I ever see my sister again, I’ll have to ask her what colour I am.


from the rest of the kids , in solitary confinement, hidden deep under the south wing, a boy does chin—
ups in a small room while he contemplates his own latest failed escape.

Attack .
Is there something new I can use?
Maybe this guard will miss something or even help me ..
Never stop trying.
I’m better than everyone else he re. Smarter, faster . . .
better in every way .
ach time I try , I get closer and yet they still teach me new techniques .
I get out of solitary , and the school put s me straight into martial arts class, then strength training, then theoretical math as it applies to system intrusion techniques . Then I use what I’ve learned and break out. Then I end up here.
And around and around it goes. They say they don’t want me to try to break out, but I wonder why my keepers put up with repeated escape attempts. If they really didn’t want to endure it , they’d just P
rocess me, right?

Work this out . . .
e stronger .
Make weapons.
The boy stops at fifty chin—
ups , changing to performing back and front flips off the bed instead .


Later in the morning, Maxwell stands to the one side of the school yard watching some kids play tag. A light dusting of snow swirl s around their feet.
Regardless of the weather, t hey’re happy to be outside playing games.
Individuals are difficult to recognize i n their uniforms.

My world. Four fields , 250 acres, and a building in the shape of a cross surrounded by vertical walls and locked metal doors.
It reminds me of a poem I read about a p anther in a cage .
he p anther paces endl essly. I t knows something is wrong , but it doesn’t know what that something is.

The kids play tag, Red Rover, the usual, a loud continuo us wave of noise and movement.

A tall boy with short black hair comes up and bumps his shoulder. “Hey Max .

Max keep s watching the kids.
“Hey Walker . . . You know what, I don’t want to play with our keepers anymore .
That ballista was the last bad plan , the worst idea yet . I want to be serious.” Max gestures around the playground. “
Walker, w hat’s wrong with this picture ?”

Too much snow for August ?

Walker says .

I’m serious , Walker . T
his whole place is wrong. C
an’t you feel it?
I can, but I just can’t quite see it.
When I lie in bed and stare at the outside world.
When I watch the TV shows they let us watch.
When I ’m on the restricted bit of Internet they let us connect to , I can feel the taint of something wrong and twisted.

Uhm . . .
feeling a bit dark today?

Walker smirks.

I’m working on a real plan, no more rocket cars and catapults .
We ’ll use what they taught us.
ill you help me ?”

Of course .”

I’ve had enough of the Doctors and Guards. Enough wondering why all the kids here disappear when they turn ten.

Max walks toward the north wing . Walker follows .

While you were in solitary , I was working on a software framework, a new intrusion platform.
I started it when I was six , but now I need your help.
Can you make me electrons?

“What ?

“I need you to create electrons in code.”

Walker places his hand on a palm scanner to open the main door into the school.

. . .
what do they do ?”

Max steps aside to let a guard pass through the doors first . He catches eye s with the guard, recognizing him as the driver from that night on the boat .
Max feels cold just thinking about it .
Pirelli, the latest person to put one of my friends in solitary.

After they move away from the guard, Max continues.
“They act like electrons but in code, ” Max explains as they walk down a hallway .
he first building blocks of something bigger .”

ut what do they do?”

“Nothing yet , but later we’
ll merge them into the platform, and th en we’
ll use them to attack , to help us escape , ” Max says.

Max places his palm on the scanner to gain access to the secure wing.
The display flashes red and the door remains locked.
“Please report to Dr. Concilian’s office,” a female voice announces.

“See ya later , Walker .

“Hmm , ”
Walker grunts in return.

“Hey Walker ,” Max says over his shoulder. “W
rite that code and only think electrons.

Maxwell walks to Dr. Concilian’s office while Walker goes to class .
Crap, another talk session.
He presses his palm to the door scanner and waits.

The office door opens .


Agent Pirel li wades through children.
hey part around him as they pour into the school. While h e moves toward the security entrance in the west wall, his mind wanders to thoughts of the boy that came up in the security briefing this morning .
He’s a frail little thing with curly brown hair and brown eyes to match.
How could he be a threat?
He looks . . . cuddly and cute. How could th at little guy have them worried?
No, not worried , frightened.

Pirelli reaches the access door and scans in.
It opens , and he steps inside the wall.
There are s tairs on his right and an elevator on his left. He takes the stairs, running up to th e top of the twenty -
metre wall.

Like he does every morning , Pirelli jogs the perimeter of the wall , doing his rounds . It’s not just part of his job, it’s his favourite place in the entire complex .
Quiet, fresh, bright, and with a commanding view of mountains in all directions.
But today he doesn’t notice the mountains; he’s distracted by thoughts of Maxwell Huxley.


I’ve noticed something, Maxwell.” Dr. Concilian g ets comfortable in his armchair, l etting the thought hang in the air before proceeding. “Y
ou ’re not playing chess anymore.”

As usual the table in front of Max holds nothing but his performance file.
“It’s boring ,” Max responds.
Max puts his reader down on the table between them, perched over the edge, tempting gravity to pull it off the corner .
Max notices how Dr. Concilian lo oks at his reader.
Max can tell it has invaded the perfection of Dr. Concilian’s table .

How is it boring?”

I think you mean, why do I find it boring . . .
to answer your question, e very move is obvious .

Dr. Conci lian sits up.
“Obvious in what way?”

Just make the best move every time.”
Max tries to ignore the ticking clock .
Tries to stop his mind from throwing more and more thoughts into the spaces between ticks.

“But isn’t that what makes the game interesting , figuring out the best move?”

Yes that’
s the game . T
his is the problem right here , I have to explain th e concept of ‘Obvious.’
There is only one best move; there’
s nothing to figure o ut.
When I look at a chess board and I see one move, the best one.
I stopped playing because w hite always wins. You’ve seen the game stats.
Connor and I tied at the top of the ladder; 1000
-plus wins each, always playing white.”

“If you’
re not playing chess then what are you spending your time on?”
Dr. Concilian opens the performance file and skips to the last page.

Your score s are all slipping; you’re do wn into the 8
th percentile.
It’s im portant to keep your scores up.
You haven’t been playing any sports at all, ” Dr. Concilian pause s and looks over his glasses at Max, “
although that is understandable.

BOOK: Maxwell Huxley's Demon
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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