Friday, November 24, 2006

Chapter 7. Spencer's Lair

Betty's hand was cool and her fingers, though strong, were slender and delicate. But as the tunnel narrowed Max was forced to let her hand slip from his. He slowed briefly and allowed Betty to move ahead a bit in the tight space.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 7 by robo-reader Audrey.

He squinted in passing into a cramped passageway that branched off the main tunnel. Like many of the forks and detours they passed, there was a dim glow far off in the side passage. Faint muffled sounds emerged from others. They were, Max suspected, the comings and goings of other prowlers in the Dark Net - slipping through the myriad back doors scattered about the legitimate Internet.

He occasionally heard a bit of hubbub as a distant door opened onto the Web proper. Now and then, he caught a glimpse of a shady figure crossing the tunnel ahead of them. He increasingly had the feeling that they were being watched from the recesses they passed.

Max hoped they would not meet anyone up close, and he suspected that other travelers in the Dark Net felt the same about them.

Betty turned into a narrow recess.

"We're here," she said.

Max stepped in close behind her. She pointed to the faint outline of a doorway. An unintelligible hieroglyph marked the center of the door. Betty tapped softly. After a moment, a slot at eye level shot open.

Who is it," a voice squeaked through the opening.

"Open up Agatha," said Betty.

"Let me see your faces."

Betty pushed back her hood and Max followed her lead.

"Grunding?" asked the squeaky voice. "Herman Grunding."

"Yes," Max lied.

"You're looking well - I'd heard you had gotten into a bit of trouble.”

"Nothing I couldn't handle."

"I can see that. What do you want?"

"We need some merchandise," said Betty. "Open up."

The slot snapped shut. After several moments the door creaked open a scant few inches. Betty squeezed through and Max followed.

Agatha was a genteel woman, perhaps fifty or sixty, wearing a light blue dress with lacy white cuffs and a high lace collar. Her sweet smile crinkled the faint crow's feet at the sides of her twinkling blue eyes. She stood next to a plush paisley rocker set up beside a black velvet curtain.

"It's nice of you two young folks to stop by," she said, laying a hand softly on Betty's wrist. "We're not really open for business of course, so you know the rules. It's cash and carry. No receipts." She scrunched her nose in matronly impishness. "And no guarantees, expressed or implied, regardless of what anyone tells you. Just between you and me Herman, there's a special on phishing supplies at booth five - a free key stroke recorder with all purchases over a hundred dollars. It's just the thing for collecting those lovely little passwords, very discrete."

"Thanks Agatha," said Max.

The old woman drew the curtain aside and ushered them through with the same sort of gentle insistence that a grandmother might employ in herding children into her kitchen for afternoon cookies. Instead of a painted tin, table heaped with fresh-baked treats, they found themselves at the end of a narrow walkway lined with booths. Each booth was jammed with merchandise.

Betty set off down the aisle, paying no attention to the vendors she passed. Max tagged along behind, but fell further and further back as displays on one side or the other caught his eye. It looked at first glance as if all the booths were stocked with essentially the same things; stacks of diskettes, PC hardware, and colorful software boxes. Most of the items were slightly ragged around the edges, which Max suspected meant that the merchandise consisted primarily of used, stolen, or overstock items. Upon closer inspection he discovered that although the wares from booth to booth were superficially identical, each vendor appeared to have at least one or two distinguishing items.

One merchant displayed a kiosk for assembling false identification from a selection of stolen birth certificates and driver's licenses. Anotheroffered kits for creating educational credentials complete with diplomas and transcripts that could be uploaded to legitimate university databases, which meant that they were truly as valuable as the real thing. There were vendors specializing in network sniffers, penny stock investment scams, and firmware codes for hacking embedded processors in everything from microwaves to commercial aircraft.

In just about every booth, it seemed, a brooding attendant perched on a stool while waiting for the opportunity to relieve customers of the burden of their cash in exchange for one hot item or another. The clerks were all cut from the same cloth; pale-skinned fellows with powdery white skin. Perhaps, thought Max, they were even cut from the same bolt. They were either close cousins - a possibility that was numerically unlikely - or they were slightly customized versions of a single virtual clerk.

Max caught up with Betty at a particularly cluttered booth that featured stacked copies of the Anarchist's Cookbook, leaning precariously over bins piled high with wires, computer chips, nuts, bolts and collections of tubing in various diameters and lengths. She exchanged some quiet words with the pasty attendant, who listlessly waved her toward the back of the booth.

Max followed as she picked her way over the junk to a set of swinging doors hung on the back wall. She pushed them open and they entered a room cluttered with piles of boxes overflowing with CDs, DVDs, and memory sticks. Even from across the room, Max could see that many of the discs featured nude figures on their covers, and that most of the figures were engaged in obscene acts with other people, objects, or in some cases, animals. He turned away from the perverse images, embarrassed in part by the subjects depicted, and in part by the fact that he'd seen, and enjoyed, these types of movies on some of his previous trips through the Internet.

An armless chair faced the room's sole window, which apparently opened onto the Web, judging from the colorful chaos Max could see beyond it. A short, fat man with a round face and thick glasses stood nervously with one hand resting on the chair back. The man glanced at them with a look of exaggerated surprise that suggested to Max that the man was not at all surprised to see him.

"Herman," said the fat man, "How are you my friend?"

"I'm good," Max replied. "And you?"

The man was holding a note pad in his free hand, and he kept glancing at the window behind him.

To one side of the room was a stack of boxes, built of something that resembled plexiglass. Each was roughly a third of a meter on a side, and many of them contained unidentifiable creatures. Some were fuzzy and legless, like mutant hamsters, others looked like varieties of odd reptiles. Inside one box was a crab robot much like the ones Max and Betty had dealt with in the cavern.

"I'm not bad," said the man. "Not bad at all."

"I'm fine too, Spencer," Betty snapped.

The squat man looked her up and down lasciviously.

"Hey Herman, you're still dragging that pretty little bit of code around?" the man said in a voice that was suddenly oily and perverse. "Care to sell it? I can make you a decent offer."

Max glanced at Betty. "I think I'll keep her for now. Thanks."

Betty sneered.

"It's your call," Spencer said with a shrug.

Spencer caught site of someone near the other side of the window. He turned and sat in the chair, pencil at the ready. A young man, in his late teens or early twenties, was making some kind of a purchase. It occurred to Max that the window must have been a one-way portal because the young man appeared not to notice that he was being watched. He pulled out a credit card and Spencer began scribbling on the pad.

"What can I do for you Herman?" he asked as he wrote.

"We need a guard dog," said Betty.

"I don't deal in hot products anymore. Strictly legit, licensed entertainment, and of course," he said, nodding at the oblivious young man in front of the window, "a little hustle here and there."

He turned and winked at Herman, "Software sales have been a bit, well, soft lately."

Max smiled weakly in response and turned to mull over the boxes of bizarre animals.

"My petting zoo has gotten larger lately," said Spencer. "I can't distribute them anymore, it's too risky. Now I'm stuck with the overstock."

Max tapped on the box that held the crab. It reared up and clicked its claws at him.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Spencer.

"Dangerous, is he?"

"He can be," said Spencer, "if he gets loose. Know what I mean?"

Max nodded, and couldn't help but glance at the torn hem of Betty's cloak.

Spencer sat back down in the chair, keeping an eye on the window the entire time. The young man had moved on now, and Spencer was lying in wait for his next victim.

"As I was saying, I can get you a reliable firewall, if you like, or videos featuring the youngest girls on the net, and just about any freeware, shareware, or commercial software available, but I'm not carrying the black market Government stuff anymore. So if it's a military spec package you're after, I can't help."

"Look, you smut peddler," Betty snarled, "We don't have time for your crap. We need a guard dog, and you're going to get one for us."

"Hey, Herman," said Spencer dryly, "You want to turn the volume down on that thing? I don't care for its tone."

"Settle down Betty," said Max. "Come on Spencer, you know me." Judging from Spencer's familiar tone, Max guessed that he and Herman had made a deal or two in the past. "I'm not going to say anything to anyone about it. Surely we can work something out."

"I don't know." Spencer scratched his ample belly. He leered toward Betty. "I might be able to arrange for a trade. With a little touch up, she could be a lively feature on an interactive porn site I know of."

Betty cringed and took a few menacing steps toward Spencer when Max waved his hand to stop her. "No deal."

"Well," said Spencer. "What else have you got?"

Max was at a loss. "Nothing."

"Alright then, that's what you're gonna get. Nothing."

Max wandered over to the stack of animal cages. He tapped on the one holding the crab, sending it racing about the tight enclosure. "We can get you more of these if you like."

Spencer let out a snide laugh. "No thanks. One's enough. You only need so many of those in one room."

Max lingered in front of the box. He undid the latch, but held the lid shut with his hand. The crab slammed upwards straining to escape.

"Hey," Spencer warned. "Watch it."

Max pushed down on the lid to keep the creature in check, letting the box open just enough for one needle sharp limb to protrude through the gap.

"It would be a shame for a nasty mother like him to get out," said Max. "He could make a real mess of this cozy little place."

"Cut it out Herman," Spencer stood up and took a step toward Max, who allowed the lid to open a bit more. Spencer stopped in his tracks. It was clear to both of them there was no way he could make it across the room in time if Max chose to release the crab. "You don't know what you're messing with."

"Oh I think I do."

Max let the top ease open still more. Three limbs now rattled through the gap as the crab struggled to slip its body out of the box.

"OK, OK," shouted Spencer. "I swear I can't get a guard dog for you myself, but I can tell you where to find one." He took another step toward Max.

"Hold it right there," said Max. "Write it down and give it to Betty."

Spencer grimaced. He flipped his notepad to a clean page, scribbled something before tearing out the paper and holding it out toward Betty.

"Is that going to help us?" asked Max.

Betty took the page from Spencer with a look of distaste at getting so close to Spencer's pudgy little fingers. She inspected the paper and nodded.

"Close the box man."

"One more thing," said Max, "apologize to Betty."

"What? Are you kidding?"

Max release the lid another centimeter and one of the crab's claws stuck out and clattered against the side of the box.

"OK, jeez, I'm sorry."

Max corrected him. "I'm sorry – Betty."

"OK. I'm sorry Betty," Spencer muttered.

Max rapped the side of the box with his free hand, sending the crab into a renewed frenzy. It sped down the side and smacked into the wall in pursuit of Max's finger. He snapped the lid closed and fastened the latch.

"Thanks," he said to Spencer. "You're a true gentleman."

"Yeah sure, whatever." Spencer returned to his chair by the window. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm a little busy right at the moment."

"Let's go, Betty." Max turned on his heal and headed for the door. "Nice doing business with you Spence."

Spencer's lips curled in an unconvincing smile. "It was a pleasure, as always Herman. Shut the door behind you. Thanks."

Spencer slouched down in his chair as Max and Betty made their way out..

When the door closed behind them, Spencer stood up and walked over to stare at the crab in its plexiglass box. He reached out, popped open the latch, and flipped back the lid. The crab scampered out and sprang to the center of the floor, rising up menacingly at Spencer's feet. He waved the notepad and the crab inched toward the inviting sound of the rustling papers.

Spencer kicked out his stubby leg and pinned the crab to the floor with one foot. He reached down, grasped it from behind, beyond the range of the snapping claws, and picked it up, pinching its gleaming silver body between his thumb and fingers. He made a swipe at the crab with his free hand, and it spread its claws wide in self-defense.

"You're not so scary really," he said to the crab. He turned toward the group of cages with the legless hamster creatures in them. "Let's see. Who's hungry?"

Spencer opened the top of one of the cages. The fuzzy animal inside rocked slightly and emitted a sound reminiscent of a cat's purr. Spencer dropped the crab into the box and slammed the lid shut. There was a blur of motion as the crab was ripped to bits. A dismembered leg hit the lid with such force that it nearly knocked it open despite the weight of Spencer's hand on the top.

"Whoa baby. Don't wolf your food," he said as he fastened the latch.

When the fury in the box died down, only the fuzzy blob remained. Not a scrap of the crab was to be seen anywhere, and the hamster-like thing rumbled with satisfaction.

"No, Herman my friend," he said to himself, "you don't know what you're messing with."

Spencer pursed his lips in thought. He walked to the doorway, peeked out, and headed into the darkness, locking the door behind him.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Dark Net on iTunes

The Dark Net has just been added to the iTunes store! (It's still free though.)

Click this chicklet or go to the iTunes store and search for The Dark Net.
Read the rest of the post . . .

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Chapter 6. The Maelstrom

The tunnel behind Herman's cabinet was a cramped labyrinth with twists and turns and dim side passages around every corner. Betty plowed ahead with sure footed determination, as Max followed along desperately trying to memorize their path. It wasn't long before he realized that there was essentially no hope that he would ever be able to find a route back to Herman's room without her guidance.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 6 by robo-reader Audrey.

In his time, Max had spent thousands of hours surfing the web, both at a keyboard and in the cave. But the tunnel Betty led him into was an entirely new experience. Through a cave, the Web was an online bazaar with endless sites and shops and cyber cafes - every trip was a liberating, exhilarating experience with limitless online resources and potential distractions that could be both a blessing and a mind numbing curse. It was nothing like this.

“I hope you know where you are going,” he muttered to the dim form gliding along ahead of him.

Betty's only reply to his comment was a slight quickening of her pace. Max sprinted a few steps to get closer on Betty's heels, and nearly smashed into her when she came to an abrupt halt.

“Holy Shit!” he said. Betty raised her hand to silence him. They had stopped at a point where the narrow passage intersected a cavernous opening. Max leaned forward to peer over Betty's shoulder. As he did, a bit of paper crinkled beneath his foot. Betty whipped around and chased him backward a step into the passage. She put a finger to her lips and shushed him with a hiss. When she turn back toward the cavern, Max looked down and found that the passage floor was littered with paper scraps inscribed with snatches of unintelligible text. The floor of the cavern beyond, however, was spotless - not a shred of paper or debris was visible in the dark expanse.

Betty raised a hand and motioned Max to stand still. She bent to pick up a few bits of paper, leaned forward, and tossed them into the cavern. As the papers wafted to the floor, the walls of the cavern erupted with activity. Dozens of silvery crab-shaped creatures scrabbled down from niches along the cavern walls and raced towards the pieces of paper. A few of them snatched scraps in their pincers and raced back up the walls. Others fought over the pieces that remained, wrestling and tumbling in balls of flailing metal legs.

Soon the melee was over and the cavern floor was again spotless as the last of the crabs nestled in their hiding places.

“Should we head back,” Max rasped.

Betty held up her hand, palm open, and signaled for him to wait, then turned back to the cavern. Max looked up along the passage in the direction from which they had come, but he knew he would either have to stick with Betty to find his way out, or shut the program down altogether.

Just as he reached out to tap her shoulder, hoping to convince her to return home, a mild rumble in the floor tickled the bottoms of his feet. Betty braced herself against the wall of the passage. The rumble intensified. A distant roar was building somewhere far off in the cavern. He followed Betty's example and wedged his hands against either wall of the narrow passage.

Whatever it was, it sounded enormous, and it was coming fast. As the noise rose, Betty finally spoke. “Get ready,” she shouted and reached back for his hand.

“Ready for what?” Max said, but his words were swallowed up in the racket.

Seconds later, the cavern was filled with a rushing blur of motion. A stream, then a river, then a tidal wave of papers and string-bound packets careened through the cavern ahead of them. The crabs raced from their niches, raised their pincers, and groped at the rushing mass. Some of them snatched fragments out of the maniacal paper current. Others were caught up and whisked away in the torrent. The roar was deafening, drowning out Max's shouts as a turbulent wind pulled them toward the cavern. In seconds, the blur was gone. Hundreds of drifting and swirling bits of paper remained scattered in the air like the aftermath of a chaotic ticker tape parade.

“Now!” shouted Betty as she dragged him by the hand into the cavern. The crabs scurried about the floor snatching at fluttering paper scraps, and taking no notice of the shrouded figures dashing through their midst.

The cavern, Max realized, was really an enormous tunnel. He could spare only quick glances to his left and right, as he dodged the frantically engaged crabs, but he could see enough to tell that the tunnel disappeared far off to either side.

Betty was sprinting toward the blank expanse of the far wall, and Max could only hope that they would find another passage at the other side before the crabs ran out of debris to distract them.

As they neared the opposite wall, one of the crabs snatched at the hem of Betty's cloak. The creature was light enough that it slowed her only slightly and was dragged clattering along on the floor. Betty stopped for an instant and kicked at the crab. There was the sound of tearing cloth, and the creature sailed through the air, landing among a knot of crabs fighting over one of the larger scraps. Few bits of paper remained now, and Max imagined it wouldn't be long before they would attract the hordes' attention. Betty urged him to hurry as she redoubled her pace.

When they reached the far wall, Betty groped about in search of an exit. In the darkened tunnel, it was nearly impossible to make out features on the wall. Max followed panting along behind her. When Betty changed direction and began feeling along the other way, Max looked over his shoulder. The paper scraps were all but gone and a wave of crab robots was beginning to advance on the two of them trapped against the wall.

Max turned toward the mechanical hoard. “Betty,” he said as the crabs closed in. One of them lunged within a meter of Max's feet. He hunched down in preparation to fend off the creatures as best he could. The crab at his feet sprang upward towards Max's face. He reared back to knock it out of the air, but before he could strike, Betty grabbed his hand and pulled him backward. Max collapsed in a heap in the entranceway of a passage indistinguishable from the one they had left at the other side of the tunnel. He lifted his head and saw the crabs racing toward him with pincers outstretched. He lurched back, and the nearest crab halted just beyond the passage opening. The hoard paused. After a moment, the crabs turned away and dispersed, meandering back to their countless hiding places on the tunnel wall.

When Max's breath returned, he peered into the passage behind him and saw Betty sitting hunched against one side.

“That was close,” he said.

Betty nodded beneath her hood.

“What would have happened if they caught us?”

“I never thought to try to find out.” She lifted the hem of her cloak and inspected the rip where the crab had latched on.

“You're bleeding,” Max noted, nodding at a tear in her pant leg and the moist red streak it revealed.

Betty touched the cut with a fingertip and winced. She stuck the bloody finger in her mouth.

“It's nothing,” she mumbled. “Let's get going.”

“Hold on a sec,” said Max, as he reached for the cigarette pack in the pocket beneath his cloak. He pulled out a cigarette, but it was crumpled and useless. He tore open the pack and found that all of the cigarettes had been thoroughly mangled. “Damn,” he grumbled as he looked at the broken stubs spilling tobacco on the floor. He wadded up a scrap of paper from the ground beside him and pitched it into the cavernous tunnel. A crab raced from the shadows, snatched the wad in one of its claws, and scrabbled out of sight.

“Bastard!” Max shouted after the crab, “You ruined my smokes.” He crouched down in the passage to sulk.

Max couldn't see Betty's eyes as she sat with her back against the passage wall, but he could tell from the tilt of her head that she was watching him.

He propped an elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his hand. He was grumpy about the loss of his cigarettes, and was tiring of the tedious trip through the tunnel. He just wanted to go home. He considered simply exiting the program and shutting down the cave, but after their tortuous trip and the episode with the paper scavenging crabs, such an abrupt departure seemed, at the very least, anticlimactic. One thing was certain; he'd happily take the easy way out before he'd face the crabs again. And as far as he could tell, that was likely to be the only way back.

“Where are we?” asked Max.

“In the Dark Net,” Betty replied tersely.

“What do you mean, 'in the Dark Net'?”

“You know as well as I do.”

He didn't, but Herman would have. He considered asking Betty to explain further, but he suspected it would be fruitless, and he didn't want to do anything to give away the fact that he was only posing as Herman.

“Betty,” he said, “go to sleep.”

Her head slumped listlessly forward. Despite her all-too-human spunk, she was just a program after all.

“Line command,” Max called out to the operating system, and a flashing cursor appeared in the air in front of him.

“Man page, Dark Net.”

A paragraph of text scrolled out in the air before him. It red,

Dark Net, slang. Portions of the Internet with restricted access. Secure governmental and private commercial systems make up the bulk of the Dark Net. Erroneously configured servers, contract disputes among service providers, and illicit activities may also lead to addresses only accessible to entry from a limited number of entry points. As much as five percent of the conventional Internet is “dark” at any given time. Various attacks, such as Denial of Service hacks, may temporarily darken portions of the Internet. Sudden bursts of activity on the Dark Net have been associated with coordinated assaults on Internet resources by terrorist groups and malicious hackers including the Legion of Doom (L O D) and the Masters of Destiny (MOD). See also: Internet vulnerabilities, Denial of Service, SYN attack.

The hole in the wall in Herman's room, Max realized, was an entry point to the Dark Net. That must have been why Herman had the kludged guard dog in place; to secure the system while at the same time allowing himself free access to the Dark Net without alerting the administrators to the security flaw.

“Betty,” said Max, “Wake up.”

Betty lifted her head.

“Where are we now?” asked Max.

“It's hard to explain.”

“Well,” he persisted, “where are we going?”

“That way,” Betty nodded to indicate the direction further down the tunnel.

Sure thought Max, that clears everything up.

He said out loud, “We're going that way to get a new guard dog?”

“Yes you dimwit. Have you been paying any attention at all?”

“You don't have to be so rude. I'm just trying to understand, that's all.”

Betty whipped off her hood. “Well understand this. You hopelessly misconfigured the guard dog. We need a new one before anyone catches on. Not some lousy Microsoft download. And we need it now.”

“What are you so afraid of? Are we in danger?”

“Not we, me.”

Max wasn't sure how to respond. He wanted to comfort Betty, but he had no idea how to soothe a neural net algorithm. “Don't worry,” he said tentatively, “I'll protect you.” In truth, he couldn't imagine what he was to protect her from.

“Herman,” Betty rasped, “you're no match for the Army. All we can do is hide.”

“From the Army?" asked Max. "The US Army.”

“You can't cross the Army of Darkness and expect to get a way with it. They have a long memory, and they aren't very likely to be forgiving when someone rats them out. There's not much they can do to you, but there's a hell of a lot they can do to me.”

Max imagined there was quite a lot indeed that they could do to Betty, whoever they were. After all, he had done some pretty horrible things to Minus over the years, in the name of research of course.

“All right. I'm sorry,” he said, turning away from Betty's desperate gaze. He stood up. “We need a guard dog, so let's go get one.”

Quiet relief spread across Betty's face. She lifted her hood and rose to her feet. “OK then,” she said, with only a slight trembling remaining in her voice. “This way.”

Max held out his hand. After a moment, Betty took it, and they continued their journey into the Dark Net.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dark Net Podcast Listings

Find The Dark Net on

Podcast Alley
My Podcast Alley feed! {pca-5a15aa6e77d02af13ce03114dc60e9fe}

and Odeo
My Odeo Channel (odeo/bc30151defc21978)
Read the rest of the post . . .

Chapter 5. Into the Darkness.

A shot of nicotine always helped Max think, but he knew that even the slightest hint of smoke would send researchers and students screaming to the building administrator, so he stuck a cigarette between his lips and let it hang impotently pointing at the floor.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, chapter 5 by robo-reader Audrey.

There were at least half a dozen things about the final seconds he had spent in Herman's environment that Max didn't understand - the purple light behind the door where his own environment should have been; the curious resistance of the door itself as he tried to push it closed; and the thing that had groped menacingly at the knob. And then there was Betty 3.5. Clearly she was much more sophisticated, and distinctly more fouled mouthed, than his own virtual Betty.

Although computer clock speeds were climbing all the time, there was no getting around the fact that neural nets had to be trained. And training them, much like training the real brains of mice and dogs and college students, could only go so fast.

It was clear that Herman had spent an awful lot of time training Betty 3.5.

Max figured that Herman's version of the virtual assistant may have been what Perske had in mind when she told him to look for anything odd in Herman's account. Then again, the tentacle-tongue thing and the purple light were pretty weird too. Max had half a mind to skip out to tell Perske what he'd seen, and leave the whole thing up to her. On the other hand, he thought it was worth another look at the situation to satisfy his own curiosity about Herman's Betty and the other virtual weirdness going on in the kid's account. Perske was going to want details anyway.

He slipped the cigarette back into the pack, opened a window, and fired up Herman's account. Through the window he could see Herman's Betty sitting crossed legged on the carpet, tinkering with the machine in the middle of the room. Several obscure mechanical pieces were scattered about to one side. Some of them were twisted out of shape, and a few were snapped into ragged bits. The machine was running now, although its movements were jerky and rough, and it appeared to threaten to lock up at any moment. Max heard a muffled curse through the glass and saw Herman's Betty heave a mangled chunk of metal at the wall.

“You've got quite a little temper,” said Max softly to himself. He punched the maximize button and in half an instant he was standing a few feet behind Betty in Herman's room.

“Fixed it have you?” asked Max.

Betty looked up, without a hint of surprise at Max's sudden arrival, and glared. “What were you thinking? Are you trying to get me killed!”

“You seem upset,” he said. The comment was less an attempt at sympathy than an exploration of her emotional sophistication.

“Damn right I'm upset! How long did you think it would take for them to find us if you turned the guard dog off?”

“Them,” said Max.

“Don't play stupid Herman.”

Max was on the verge of explaining, once again, that he wasn't Herman, but he resisted the urge. As long as he was logged in to Herman's account he was, for all practical purposes, Herman.

“Which 'them' are you referring to, specifically?”

“The spoofs the hacks the worms the A O D, all of them you doofus!”

“Sure,” Max said, trying his best to keep his bemusement to himself, “them. I was just trying to clarify things. That's all.”

“Look,” sighed Betty, “I've got the guard dog running, but it's in bad shape. It won't be long until someone finds us if we don't fix it properly.”

“Guard dog,” he mused. The term was lost on him. It was not particularly surprising, considering that Max never bothered staying abreast of the latest techno jargon. He guessed it was some new variety of firewall.

“What would you suggest we do now?” asked Max, stunned at himself for asking a virtual assistant for any suggestions at all.

“We're going to have to get instructions from a security site. I'm not even sure we can fix it. We'll probably have to start from scratch with a new package. It'll be a miracle if we finish in time.”

“Before 'they' find us,” Max said helpfully.

Betty's shoulders drooped in exasperation. “Try to keep up will you Herman?”

She turned her attention back to the machine. The movements of the guard dog slowed to a crawl as she turned an adjustment screw. Betty tried to slide a loosely hanging spring into place between cycles of a pumping push rod. Just as she almost had it in place, her finger slipped and the spring shot away, whizzing past Max's ear. The machine made a clattering sound and froze up entirely.

Betty leaned her elbows on her knees and sighed loudly. “That's it, it's hopeless.”

Max stuffed his hands deep into his pockets. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“You can hand me my cloak,” Betty said without looking up, “We're going to have to go out and get a replacement.”

Max glanced up and saw a rack tucked next to the filing cabinet. Sure enough, two shimmering black garments hung from it. Sheepishly, he walked over to the rack and took down a cloak. The strange role reversal had him disconcerted. His own Betty existed solely to assist him. And yet, here he was, obediently following the orders of Herman's Betty. She stood as he handed her the cloak. She slipped it over her shoulders and stared at him with annoyed impatience.

“What?” asked Max innocently.

“Well,” Betty snapped, “what about yours?”


“Your cloak. You can't go out dressed like that.”

“Go out?” said Max. “Dressed like this?”

Max looked down at his shorts. He wasn't sure what was wrong with the way he was dressed or, for that matter, just what Betty meant by 'go out.'

Betty stomped to the coat rack and tossed him the other cloak. “Look, we can't afford being made, and we have to get the guard dog up fast.”

“Why do we have to go anywhere? Can't we download it from here?” he asked.

“These aren't the kind of guys you send perfume scented notes to.” Betty tapped her foot in irritation as Max donned the cloak.

“Let's go,” said Betty once he was dressed.

Max glanced around in bewilderment, then headed toward the only door in the room, the one leading to his home environment.

“Where are you going?” Betty growled. “You don't just go trotting through any old door to get to the Dark Net.”

Betty strode to the filing cabinet and leaned on the side. It swung to the left, revealing a jagged hole in the wall leading to a dim, cramped passage. She raised her hood, covering her head. Her face was hidden with the exception of the barest hint of her lips and angular chin. “Come on,” she said as she turned, bent slightly, and disappeared into the passage.

“The Dark Net,” he said with a resigned breath, lowering his head and following after Herman's Betty.

“Virtual assistant my ass,” he grumbled as he plunged into the inky darkness.


The footsteps died away down the tunnel and all was still in Herman's room save the rapidly blinking red light on the desk phone.

Minutes passed in silence.

A moist draft whispered from the hole in the wall, rifling the papers on the desk. From deep inside the tunnel arose a liquid slithering. The tip of a tentacle, much like the one that Betty had battled when she burst in to the room earlier, protruded slowly out of the tunnel and eased its way around the corner of the filing cabinet. It was over a meter long and the diameter of a woman's forearm.

It prodded at the closed lower drawer and rose up the front of the cabinet, leaving behind a glistening trail of mucous as it climbed toward the partially open second drawer. Other than the red tongue-like texture of its surface, it was a featureless worm with no hint of eyes, mouth, or external structure of any kind.

The worm poked one end into the open drawer and slithered in amongst the files, where it fell to the drawer bottom with a heavy wet thud. It rustled about briefly, and finally lay quiet to wait.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Chapter 4. Betty3.5

After his meeting with Dr. Perske, Max meandered through the halls and out the rear exit by the loading docks where tangled brush crowded the chain link fence at the back of the parking lot. He reached into a hole in one of the cinder blocks in the building's foundation to pull out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and some matches he'd stashed there a few days before. Perske's window was on the second floor, just above him to the right. It was set far enough back into the building that he knew she couldn't see him loafing. He tapped a cigarette out of the pack, lit it, and took a long drag before stuffing the pack and the matches into his pocket.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 4 by robo-reader Audrey

If there was one thing Max had learned in his years at the University, it was not to work too hard. There was, after all, no clear connection between job performance and pay raises at the state-funded school. Work your fingers to the bone, thought Max, and what to you get? Bony fingers.

In a way, it made him invincible. Nobody in the lab was ever fired for anything short of an overt physical assault. And although he sometimes wished he could grab a wrench and crush the skull of one of those conceited smart-ass doctoral candidates, he instead took solace in smoking and slacking off behind the lab.

The woods beyond the fence were dense and green. The moist Maryland summers turned the forest into mushy swampland that bred snakes, possums and ground hogs that were rumored to grow as large as a Beagle. Max sometimes squeezed through a hole in the fence and slogged around in search of the enormous orange slugs oozing amongst the foliage. When he found one, he would scoop it up on a leaf and take it back to the lab, where he would freeze it with liquid nitrogen and toss it to one of the novice grad students. The frozen slugs were so cold that the victim would instinctively drop it. The slug would shatter into countless, tiny pieces that thawed into gooey chunks of slug offal on the floor. It was Max's way of setting the tone for their future working relationships. They generally got the message.

He took a final puff of the cigarette and flicked the butt onto the gravel, then picked up a rock and heaved it over the fence. It made a satisfying thunk when it hit a tree. That helped a bit. Perske could push him around all she wanted, and he would pass it along to the trees, the slugs and the grad students. It was her fault that the rest of them would suffer because she was making him miserable. But invincible or not, he wasn't going to cross Perske, at least not blatantly. That was why he gave in so easily when she asked him to poke around in Herman's account. He hadn't even thought to ask her what she hoped he might find.

Herman, like a lot of the kids working at the lab, would have had access to many of the projects under development. Maybe he had been working with a project that Perske hoped to keep under wraps. Secrecy was much less of an issue at the University than it is in most commercial labs, but Perske's various groups were on the cutting edge of a handful of technologies, ranging from virtual environments to teleoperated robots to networked computing farms, and it was for the best that they keep it all quite until they were ready to publish.

The virtual environment that Max worked in, for example, was far ahead of most commercial virtual reality systems, but it was already outdated relative to some of the systems down the hall from his lab. And it was nothing compared too the latest military environments. Max figured that someday everyone would do away with their keyboards and monitors, and spend their online time in virtual environments - caves, as they were known in the business. It was definitely a more comfortable and versatile computer interface than poking at keys and clawing at a mouse while squinting at a screen.

The neural nets he was training on the other hand, were truly cutting-edge stuff, although he only had a rudimentary understanding of how they worked. He'd once sat in on a lecture Perske gave to a crowd of government funding agents, and learned a little about neural networks.

At one time, she'd explained, neural networks were primarily built of hardware, which consisted of transistor-filled layers stacked like a deck of cards. The transistors were linked together to form a three-dimensional grid that functioned much like a living brain. The transistors acted as neurons, and the links between them played the part of interconnecting axons. The strength of the connections determined what virtual thoughts the nets could have. Training them meant checking their responses to various queries, then readjusting connections to improve their answers. Modern neural nets were simply software emulations of transistor networks. That was pretty much where Max lost the drift of the lecture. He gathered that Perske's Dynamically Distributed Memory, which was the subject commemorated on the Wired magazine cover mounted on Perske's office wall, was an important leap in neural network technology. But he'd never really understood DDM.

Eventually, Perske had told the funding agents, neural nets would change the world. Just when that might happen, wasn't so clear. In the meantime, patents and copyrights were money in the bank for whoever managed to build a useful application first.

That must be it, he concluded, Perske was worried that there's some proprietary data in Herman's account, and she needed it cleaned up before the system administrators got a peek at it. He wasn't sure why she would burden him with the task, but there was probably no one else she could turn to on such short notice. It seemed he was always cleaning up someone's mess.

He headed back to the lab by way of the vending machines, where he picked up a cinnamon bun. Stephen, as usual, was away from his desk, probably screwing around in the electronics lab or shooting hoops with some of the other technicians. Then again, maybe he was out picking up a card for Herman's family. For once, Max thought, he hadn't drawn the shortest straw in the bunch. He'd much rather be in the cave than browsing the condolence racks at Hallmark.

He flicked on the lights in the lab, plopped down in the lawn chair, and tore at the plastic wrap on the cinnamon bun with his teeth. Once he'd settled in, he called out, “Login, Max 1.”

A hazy smudge appeared in the center of the room. After a moment, his eyes adjusted to the virtual environment, and the smudge jumped into focus. “Password,” it read.

“Algernon,” said Max. A tone confirming the password sounded, and his default settings loaded. Everything was in order, as usual. A writing desk with a few papers scattered on it stood to the left. The call light was dark on the heavy black rotary phone near the back of the desk, indicating that no urgent messages awaited him. Next to the desk was a wooden filing cabinet. The wire trash bin on the floor beside the cabinet contained only a few crumpled items in need of disposal.

Max liked depression-era decor in his home environment; sturdy plaster walls, a dark and slightly threadbare oriental carpet, and a simple wooden ceiling fan with a bulbous etched glass lamp hanging from its center gave the room the feel of a B-movie private detective's office.

“Load Betty 2.0,” said Max. A confirmation tone sounded. “Betty, please check my messages.” A shadow appeared behind the smoked glass panel of the door on the right hand wall. The handle rattled briefly and the door opened, revealing Betty in heavy black pumps, a skirt that stopped just above her delicate knees, and a white, button-down blouse with puffy shoulders and frills at the cuffs.

Betty strode to the desk and rifled through the papers filling the in-box.

“You have three emails offering risk-free investment opportunities with former Nigeria officials, and two messages promising guaranteed virility-enhancing drugs without a doctor's prescription. They look like spam. Should I dispose of them?”

“Yes please,” he said, eyeing the tantalizing slit in Betty's skirt that revealed the barest hint of her thigh as she leaned over to place the pages in the trash. “Anything that seems important in the rest?”

“Your time card is overdue, this is the third notice. And there's a note from Stephen saying he'll be out the rest of the afternoon at Dr. Perske's request.”

“File the time card notice for me, will you? And let me take a look at Stephen's message”

Betty slid open a cabinet drawer and placed one page in a folder. She walked over and held out the other sheet. Max put on the gloves that lay beside the lawn chair and took the paper from her hand. Her fingers brushed his slightly in the exchange.

There was a time that Max had marveled at the realism that the gloves added to the cave. The fact that something as subtle as the merest touch of a finger tip, or the minuscule sensation that comes with handling a piece of paper could be conveyed by the tiny actuators in the glove's fabric was one of the lab's greatest achievements. Like all innovations, it had soon become routine and Max took no particular notice of it anymore.

Betty sat at the chair in front of the writing desk, crossed her legs, and waited while Max read the message. As he'd suspected, Stephen was off in search of a sympathy card to circulate around the lab on Herman's behalf. When he finished reading, he crumpled the paper and tossed it toward the trash bin. It sailed with unswerving precision into the bin.

“Empty the trash,” said Max.

“Would you like me to permanently remove the deleted items?” Betty asked.

“Yes,” said Max. Betty reached down and tapped the trash bin with the tip of a finger and the papers swirled away in a vortex of confetti.

“Thank you,” he said.

Max took a bite of the cinnamon bun. As he chewed, he gazed at Betty, who sat by the desk with her left leg crossed over her right. After a while, she disentangled her legs, then crossed them the other way, right over left. Max counted silently to himself, “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three --” When he got to one thousand and ten, Betty reached for a small clutch purse on the desk, pulled out an Emory board, and started tending to her manicure.

“Betty,” said Max.

“Yes?” She said as she replaced the Emory board and uncrossed her legs.

“Nothing,” said Max.

She waited for a moment, then crossed her legs again, left over right. A short while later she crossed her legs the other way. Once more, Max counted to himself. After ten seconds, Betty reached into the purse for the Emory board, and returned to tending her nails.

I'm going to have to add some random variables to her programming, thought Max as he finished off his snack. He stuffed the bun wrapper into his pocket, leaned back in the lawn chair, and closed his eyes. He put his hands behind his head and knitted his fingers together.

“Betty, sit on the desk please.”

Her chair squeaked and Max heard a soft rustling.

“Un-button your blouse.” He waited a moment. “Hike up your skirt.”

When he opened his eyes, Max saw Betty perched on his desk as he had seen her dozens of times before. Her blouse hung open, revealing the inner curve of each breast, and a narrow swath of smooth pale skin that ran from her collarbone to her navel. The black triangle of her panties peeked out below the rumpled skirt, which Betty held in place with her hands.

“That's nice.”

Max felt a slight promising stirring in his crotch.

“Come here.”

Betty let her skirt fall as she slipped off of the desk. She walked toward him showing no more emotion than she had when she first entered the room. The flat expression on her face threatened to dampen the eroticism. Max struggled to concentrate on the subtle jiggle of her breasts that accompanied each step, and the barely perceptible swish of her stocking-covered thighs brushing against each other.

She stopped in font of his chair, her arms dangling by her side. Max beckoned with his finger, and Betty bent forward to lean over him. She propped herself on the arms of the lawn chair, which allowed her shirt to fall open and create a tent draped over her slender torso. Her breasts dangled inches from Max's face. The programmers had done an excellent job capturing the physics of the female breast. With every breath, they swayed minutely in a way that seemed to perfectly mimic the real thing, at least as far as Max could recall.

It was a good illusion, this half naked woman hovering over him. Good, but incomplete. Not that it would have stopped him in his younger days, when he was free of the epilepsy drugs. There was a time that he couldn't help but respond to a pornographic photo, a passage of literary erotica, or even a sexy billboard ad. Betty was much more realistic than any of that. But the things she lacked, the details that were missing, nagged at him. There was the sound of her breathing next to his cheek, but no hint of the breath caressing his skin, the delicate curve of her shoulder that flowed along her breast and under her arm, but no musky pheromones emanating from secret recesses hidden there. When Max weighed her breasts in the palms of his gloved hands and explored their contours with his thumbs, he could feel the transition from smooth skin to velvety areola to resilient nipple - but as he pinched and caressed, there was no sudden gasp or shudder from Betty to indicate any reaction to Max's exploration.

He let his hands drop into his crotch. Nothing. The stirring he had felt moments before was gone. He reached up and gently pushed Betty's shoulder.

“Enough,” he said as she stood. “Thank you Betty. That's enough.”

He had once attempted to program her reactions himself; a moan in response to this touch and a cry in response to that. The experiment resulted in something shy of low budget porn, with unimaginative snatches of sexual choreography elicited by a short list of predictable cues. If anything, the experience had been anti-erotic, like making love to a video game console. And when it ended with masturbation, as it had to, Max was left feeling physically satiated but empty, alone, and a little bit ashamed.

Still, this was worse. He told himself that it was only apathy - the result of missing details in the simulation. No matter how he tried to convince himself that it was the fault of the drugs or the simulation, it felt like impotence.

He looked down at his hands lying limply in his lap and said to Betty, “Straighten yourself out. Button up.”

As she dressed, Max pondered the shape of her calves and ankles. He could still appreciate her virtual beauty. But it reminded him of an art history class he'd taken once. The instructor went in to great depth analyzing brush strokes and technique, and speaking of nudes in dry academic terms. It ensured that any hint of visceral response was wiped out.

Looking at Betty, he knew there should be some animal urge, some arousal. Instead he found himself wondering what equation the computer used to calculate the arc of her thighs straining periodically against the skirt.

Max kneaded his eyes with his fists.

“Open a new window,” he said. Betty sauntered away to the wall next to the door. She placed her hand on the smooth plaster and pushed aside a previously invisible panel, revealing a plate glass window framed with dark, polished wood that matched his environment's theme. It opened onto a featureless expanse of brilliant blue. Betty returned to her seat as Max lifted himself out of the lawn chair and headed for the window.

“Switch user to Herman Grunding,” said Max to the window. A room materialized on the other side of the glass. Max looked in, shook his head, and muttered, “How juvenile.”

The room beyond the window was cluttered with game consoles, stacks of papers, and DVDs. Like Max's room it had a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet, and a trash can. Unlike Max's room, the furniture was fashioned of sleek, black leather and chrome, and both trashcan and filing cabinet were overflowing with papers. A disco ball hung in the place of the ceiling fan, and the walls were decorated with movie posters and pictures of women in various states of undress. The red light on Herman's phone blinked frantically, indicating numerous unanswered messages, and an odd machine consisting of a hodgepodge of gears, wires, and levers was grinding away in the middle of the plush, black, wall-to-wall carpet.

He pushed the maximize button on the lower right corner of the window sill and the window grew rapidly. He experienced a brief instant of vertigo as the cave turned inside out and he found himself on the other side of the glass, standing on the carpet in Herman's room. He glanced over his shoulder through the window, which was now behind him, and saw Betty sitting unperturbed at the desk, filing away at her nails. He turned his attention to the mess in Herman's home environment.

He wandered over to the machine in the middle of the room, knelt down, and inspected the whirring gears. He reached out and tweaked a small knob that protruded from the side. The machine squealed sharply and one of the bobbing levers snapped off. There was a grinding noise, and the machine lurched to a halt. “Oops,” said Max as he stood up and backed away a step. “Looks like I broke that.”

He doubted that the miniature Rube Goldberg contraption was what Perske wanted him to look for. It was probably some pointless gadget Herman had put together for fun, or perhaps an assignment for one of his classes. In any case, it seemed much too childish and pointless to be of any real importance.

Max turned his attention to the papers, books, and DVDs on the desk. A heap of short paper slips was piled high beside a device that resembled an archaic ticker tape. He picked up a handful and looked at a few. They had short fragmentary sentences typed on them. It was only an instant message interface. Max tossed the strips back onto the desk. He put his hands on his hips and sighed in exasperation at the mounds of garbage.

He glanced at the window and called to Betty, who was still sitting at the desk. When she looked up, Max beckoned her. She slipped the Emory board into her clutch purse, stood up and disappeared from view. A moment later the door next to the window opened and Betty walked in.

“I'm gonna need some help here,” he said. Betty waited in silence. “Look, could you organize the files by modification date, starting with the most recent?”

Betty glanced at the overflowing filing cabinet and nodded.

Max turned toward the lawn chair, which had taken up residence in Herman's room when the environment focus had changed. “Bring me the dozen latest files.”

As he took his seat on the chair's tacky vinyl straps, he could hear Betty rustling through the paperwork. By the time he'd settled in and glanced up, the filing cabinet was in perfect order and Betty was on her way over with a short stack of files. She handed them to Max. Most of the files appeared to be homework assignments, Internet searches, and multiuser games in various stages of play. Nothing critical. He handed the stack back to Betty who returned them to the cabinet and retrieved a fresh bundle.

The next stack seemed to be more of the same useless junk. But just as he was finishing leafing through the bunch, Max noticed a file labeled Betty 3.5.

Herman, apparently, had a virtual Betty as well. Most of the folks in the lab had a Betty to help them out when they were logged on, or in some cases a virtual Bill, depending on their taste. The fact that Herman's virtual assistant was version 3.5 meant that Herman had a more recent edition than Max's. He placed the file on the stack and was on the verge of handing it to his own Betty when curiosity got the better of him.

Max slipped the virtual assistant file off the stack and handed the rest back to Betty. She replaced the files in the cabinet.

"Thank you Betty. I won't be needing you for a while. You're dismissed.”

She nodded obediently, turned on her heel and abruptly exited through the door to Max's home environment. For a second, he had the impression that Betty was irked by the dismissal, but of course he knew that was nothing more than illusion. She had about as much emotion as the average department store manikin.

Max opened the file and looked at the image of Herman's Betty. As he might have guessed, the kid's virtual assistant was much more exotic than his own Betty. She had short spiky black hair, with a single shock of white on the left side of her head. She wore black lipstick with a thin outline of blood red. Her eyelids were painted with black eye shadow, and a spider web tattoo adorned one cheek. She was clothed in a tight black body suit that appeared to be made of shiny leather, and on her feet was a pair of heavy, patent leather boots.

“Terminate Betty 2.0,” said Max. A brief tone sounded, indicating that the program had shut down cleanly. “Load Betty 3.5.” Another tone sounded.

Max eyed the door and called out, “Betty, could you come in here, please.”

Nothing happened.

He tried again, “Betty, come here.”

Still nothing.

He dropped the file on the carpet, lifted himself out of the lawn chair, and walked to the door. Just as he reached for the knob, the door burst open. A gust of wind raced through the room, stirring papers and knocking stacks of DVDs to the floor.

A voice cried, “Look out, Herman!”

The leather-clad Betty lunged into the room and spun around to slam the door behind her. She leaned into it, but the door stopped just short of closing. The wind or something else, was holding it open.

“For God's sake you idiot, help me,” Betty shouted above the rushing roar. Max was too stunned to react. The door opened a fraction more despite Betty's struggles. Through the opening, where Max's room should have been, there was a swirling purple light. “Help me Herman!”

A blood red tentacle shot in through the narrow gap and groped for the knob with a moist slapping sound. As it flopped against the door, Max had the horrific impression that it was actually a sort of grotesquely long tongue. Fear of whatever might be attached to the other end jolted Max out of his temporary paralysis and he joined Betty in pushing against the door. The tentacle, or tongue, or whatever it was, flailed about as the door squeezed against it. It quivered with what looked like a spasm of pain and withdrew with a jerk. The door slammed shut, shuddered briefly, and all was quiet.

Herman's Betty turned her back to the door. She slid to the floor in a panting heap and rested her head on her knees. “Christ Herman,” she said between breaths, “Where the hell have you been?”

“I'm not Herman.”

Betty glared up at him. “You're a shithead,” she sneered.

Max stared back in shock. It was all simply too much to take in. “Exit shell.”

The room turned inside out, and Max was left standing in his home environment. He trudged to the leather office chair and sat down heavily.

“What on Earth have you been up to, Herman?”

Read the rest of the post . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Chapter 3 Perske

The lights were bright and hazy as Max stepped out of the darkened lab into the cramped office he shared with Stephen. His pupils were still dilated from the waning seizure, and although he knew that the fuzzy lump at the desk to the right was his slacker of an office mate, he could make out no detail in Stephen's form.

Max concentrated on making his way across the few meters that separated him from the door to the hallway. The thump of his foot against flimsy metal, and the hollow clang that followed, alerted him to the fact that he had strayed from his path and upset the trash can.

Listen to the podcast with robo-reader Audrey

Max groped toward the door like a blind man.

“You all right dude?” Stephen asked.

“Yeah yeah. I'm fine. Need some air,” said Max as he collided with the door and felt for the knob.

Stephen said something more, but Max was too busy squeezing into the hall to pay attention. The spring-loaded office door slammed behind him and he leaned back against the cold cinder block wall to catch his breath. Thankfully the halls were empty of students and researchers.

Unlike most university building hallways, which are perpetually cluttered with surplus cabinets and equipment, the passages in the Institute were devoid of any debris. Perske ran a tight ship. She had been appointed director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute five years earlier, and had made tidiness in all public spaces mandatory. On her Monday visits to the various Institute labs, she would make a show of ordering anything that lay unattended in the bleak, gray passages hauled immediately to the dumpsters at the back of the gravel parking lot out back. Max couldn't recall how many times he'd sent students to retrieve vital equipment from the trash. And even the Federal Express drivers had learned not to deliver anything until Tuesday, in order to avoid the risk of any packages left outside office doors getting chucked before they reached their intended recipients.

As he tottered along the hall, dragging his right shoulder against the wall for balance, Max was grateful for the Institute's tidiness. It meant that there was a good chance he could make his way to vending machines and out to the steps in back without tripping.

He was gradually gaining his composure on the way to the coke machines, counting the paces as he went. It was twelve steps to the first right turn, then sixteen more and another right. By the time he had to cross the hall to turn left toward the vending machines, he was stable enough to support himself without the aid of the wall.

Once he reached his destination, he removed his wallet and extracted a cellophane package of tiny white tablets. He aligned his shaky thumb over the debit sensor and selected classic coke from the drop-down list on the vending machine's screen.

He popped one of the phenobarb tablets, and gulped the coke to wash it down. The carbonated bubbles burned in his throat. He grimaced and rubbed his forehead to clear the ache that came from drinking the cold soda too fast. He bought a second drink and slipped it into his shorts pocket before turning to find his way to the building's back staircase.

After the cokes and the drugs, and a few minutes resting on the steps, Max was feeling almost normal, other than being just a bit tired. His tolerance for phenobarbital increased a little every day, but he could still feel its mild dulling effect. The drug slurred his speech slightly and slowed his reactions some. Fortunately, it wasn't something Perske was likely to notice or, thought Max, care about.

Dr. Perske's door was closed when Max arrived, but he could hear the muffled sounds of her speaking on the phone. He leaned heavily against the wall outside her office to wait and plucked absently at the screw-mounted nameplate that read Elizabeth J. Perske, Director.

If he had been a better student in his days as college student, Max would have been proud to study under her. But his mediocre transcript kept him out of graduate school. And so here he was; a technician in the lab, cleaning up after thoughtless post docs and grad students, and running endless neural net training programs in a second rate virtual environment.

All things considered, it wasn't such a bad gig, and the benefits were great. But the pay sucked, and there was no room for advancement in an academic environment where anyone short of a Ph.D. was treated like the downstairs help. Maybe the grad students had it worse, but they were on the road to doctorates and were just paying their dues. Max, on the other hand was at a dead end at the University, from a career point of view.

He traced the letters carved into Perske's nameplate and wondered what she would think of Betty 2.0. The grad students had built the virtual assistant in a rough approximation of Perske herself. Like Perske, Betty was tall and slender with a husky voice that reminded Max of a mob moll in some old film noir movie. The virtual version, however, was a woman in her early twenties, more than two decades younger than Perske. And the guys had given Betty a sexiness that was entirely at odds with Perske's sexless efficiency.

Max was on the verge of heading back to the lab and asking Betty for his mail when he realized that Perske's phone call had ended. He rapped on the door with a knuckle.

“Come in,” called Perske.

Max opened the door and found her turned away, apparently lost in thought and peering out the window at the back of the office. Hers was one of the few offices in the Institute with any windows at all, although the view of the gravel parking lot in back of the lab and the swampy forest beyond was nothing to write home about.

Perske's desk was devoid of anything other than a phone, a keyboard, and a flat-screen monitor. She apparently had no need of either a filing cabinet or a bookshelf, and the only decoration adorning the walls were two, unframed images; a cover of Wired magazine cut directly from a newsstand issue, and a mug shot. Both pictures were of Perske. The mug shot depicted Perske as a wide-eyed youth, seemingly startled to be posing for the cops. She had the same narrow face, the same high, angular cheek bones, and the same thin, slightly hooked nose that Max was familiar with in the older woman, except that the youthful image lacked Perske's typical severe glare and the pinched wrinkles above the bridge of her nose. The magazine cover also featured Perske, at about the same age as in the mug shot, grinning and apparently juggling an absurd number of balls marked with ones and zeroes. The headline on the magazine read, “E.J. Perske's Distributed Dynamic Memory Revolution: is the end of hard drives at hand?”

Max sat in the chair in front of Perske's desk. He pondered the back of the researcher's head and close cropped salt-and-pepper hair that extended down to a feathery fringe at the top of her long thin neck.

“Stephen said you wanted to see me,” he said.

“Yes, Max. Sit down.”

Max squirmed in his seat so that the chair would squeak enough to let her know he had settled in.

“How did the backgammon training go?”

“I finished up with Linus,” said Max. “But I was just starting on Minus when Stephen called me. I'll have them play each other in a day or two.”

“You were supposed to have finished that yesterday,” said Perske in a clipped tone that Max knew, even though he couldn't see her face, meant she had that familiar tight-lipped look of disapproval.

“Well yeah,” he started to sputter, “but first I had to run over to physical plant to get the back up power supplies. Then someone scavenged the server we were using to run one of the games.”

“Fine,” Perske interrupted. “I need you to do something else first. You can finish with Minus later.”

Perske continued without turning around. “You know about Herman, of course.”

“Herman Grunding? Sure, he's the kid I had cleaning out the electronics cabinets.”

“I'm not asking if you know him,” said Perske as she wheeled her chair around. “I asked if you know about him. About what happened to him.”

Max was tempted to make a joke about Herman electrocuting himself while showering with his computer vest on. But Perske's dour expression stopped him. “No, what about him?”

“He's had an accident.”

“Is he all right?”

“He's gone,” said Perske hesitantly. “He's gone to a better place.”

“The University of Delaware?” asked Max.

Perske blinked at the remark.

“He's dead.” She placed her hands on the desk, and looked at them as if she wasn't sure how they'd arrived there or why. “He fell down some stairs in a lecture hall.”

Max was stunned. He'd liked the kid enough. And on a college campus, surrounded by students in their youthful prime, death seemed entirely out of place.

“It was just an accident,” Perske mumbled. “He tripped.”

“I'm sorry.”

"It's not your fault.”

“I know -- I mean, of course not,” said Max. Perske had a way of literally interpreting things that made even simple conversations a chore, and this little chat seemed on the verge of becoming insufferable. “I'm sorry he's dead -- sorry he had an accident that is.” Max paused for a moment to choose his words more carefully. “Is there something I can do? Do you want me to circulate a card, or take up a collection for some flowers or something?”

“No. I'll have Stephen handle that.” Perske hesitated, then looked up. “Herman had an account on the lab server, didn't he?”

“Sure, all the lab employees do -- did-- I mean--”

“Could you do me a favor and check to see what programs he was running? Anything at all, games, applications, anything.”

“Isn't that a job for the system guys?”

“You have administrator privileges don't you?” said Perske.

“I do. I'll put together a list and get back to you in a day or two.”

“Get it to me tomorrow,” snapped Perske, then more gently. “Please.”

“Sure thing Dr. Perske.” Max fidgeted in his seat, then stood up to go. “So, I guess if that's all, I'll go on back.”

“Max,” said Perske when he reached for the doorknob. “You don't have to call me Dr. Perske you know.”

“Oh sure,” stammered Max at the sudden informality. “It's just that I think of you as Dr. Perske.” He fumbled with the knob. “Sure, if you like, Betty.”

“Elizabeth,” she corrected.

“Oh, of course." Max blinked. "Yeah. Elizabeth.”

Perske nodded rigidly then turned back to the window, and Max slipped quietly out the door.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Friday, November 17, 2006

Chapter 2. The Brain Storm

Max never had any lasting memory of his seizures. Only the moments leading up to them lived on. He had once stopped his medication intentionally and set up a video camera to catch the whole thing on tape. There was no way to know precisely when it would happen, but without his regular doses of Phenobarbital, a seizure was inevitable. It took a day and a half, and he had to rewind the tape five times, but like a nature photographer on assignment in the jungle, his patience paid off and he had finally captured the beast, Epileptic Max, in its natural environment.

Listen to the podcast with robo-reader Audrey

He had only watched the tape once. That was all he could take.

The episode began mildly enough, with Max sitting cross legged on the carpet and leaning back against his living room wall. In the video he was dressed in his typical around-the-house style; an aged white t-shirt, boxer shorts, and old tennis shoes - sans socks. A book, something by Kafka, lay open on the floor to his right, and a short stack of towels stood in a pile on the floor to his left.

As the tape rolled just before the critical moments, Max had watched himself reach off camera and retrieve a bottle of water. He'd lifted the bottle to drink, but before it touched his lips, it slipped from his hand and bounced off his knee to the carpet. The water spilled out, and the taped Max began his transformation.

His eyes had begun to bug out, as if in terror of something beyond the camera. His lips pealed back into an expression half maniacal grin, and half sneer. The creature - it was no longer the person Max knew from the mirror in his bathroom - tipped slowly along the wall to its right. The shot was tight enough that by the time the creature was prone on the carpet, the grinning bug-eyed face was off screen. For a moment, the monster appeared to be only sleeping. Then the convulsions began. Arms flailed and slashed at the floor. Legs kicked and bashed the wall, leaving smudges where the tennis shoes struck. Ripples raced up and down the creature's abdomen as if a demon was struggling to escape from beneath the t-shirt. The violence lasted only minutes, but it seemed much longer to the Max who watched the tape.

The flailing gradually subsided and the beast lay still at last, but the terror was not yet over. A trembling rigidity spread over the creature, and its fingers curled into vicious claws. The abdomen that had heaved breathlessly moments before was now distended and taught, like a balloon on the verge of bursting. Then the true horror began; a dark stain slowly grew on the front of the creature's shorts, spreading downward toward the floor. The elusive Epileptic Max had wet himself, and although the tape didn't capture it, Max knew that the beast had also released its bowels.

It had been a grand mal seizure, and the only one Max had ever seen. He had forced himself to watch it to the end because he hoped never to see another. The spent and delirious Epileptic Max finally crawled away, leaving behind the towels, the bottle, and the twin dark smudges of urine and water soaked into the carpet.

Few of Max's seizures were so violent. He could probably avoid them altogether, given enough medication, but he didn't like being that drugged up. Phenobarbital made him ravenously hungry, and although it hadn't been an issue for years, the drug also sapped his libido. Max kept his dose as low as possible in order to minimize the side effects. It meant that he could expect a minor seizure, like the one he was currently experiencing in the lawn chair, roughly once a month. He was particularly prone to them when he skipped a meal and his blood sugar was low. Stress could also cause a seizure at the drug levels he was taking, and pain, like the time he jammed his finger while shooting hoops, would set him off almost instantly.

The seizure subsided. Max's hands relaxed on the armrests, and his head drooped. When his vision finally returned he squinted down at his crotch. Thankfully, there was no hint of the awful urine stain.

He had no sense of time during his episodes, but things looked about the same as they had been before the whole thing started. Minus was still cowering at the end of his chain and the pieces were still scattered on the open backgammon board where Max had dropped them.

A voice rang out from the horizon to the rear of the lawn chair. Max wondered how long the garbled voice had been calling to him.

“What,” he asked.

“Spanking your penguin again?” called the voice.

It was a tired joke and Max was in no mood for jokes. All he wanted after his seizures was a cold coke and a nap.

“Yeah whatever,” said Max. “What's the matter Stephen?”

“Perske wants to see you.”

Max grimaced at Minus.

“You're a lucky schmuck today. We'll finish later.”

Minus dropped back onto his rump and hung his head in relief.

“You know” said Max, “you don't really have it so bad.” He stood up on legs that were still weak and trembling.

“Save program" he said. "Exit.”

The ice melted away, taking the penguin, the sky, and the riding crop with it. Max, the data tablet, and the lawn chair remained on the chipped tile floor at the center of a dimly lit room with stark gray concrete walls. Except for the barren ten-foot square portion of the floor where Max trained Linus and Minus, the room was cluttered with lab benches and electronics carts sprouting cables that linked various instrumentation boxes together. His purple shirt and orange shorts clashed with the cluttered laboratory almost as much as they had with the crystalline Antarctic landscape.

He took a deep breath and tottered toward the gray metal door.

“Here I come Dr. Perske” Max muttered to himself, and switched off the lights.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Chapter 1. Linus, Minus, and Max

Linus liked chess and loved herring. That's why he was pretending to sleep, standing on the ice, with his beak tucked under his tiny vestigial wing. He always earned plenty of herring when he played chess, but today Max was trying to teach him backgammon instead, and the contrary little penguin wasn't cooperating.

Listen to the podcast with robo-reader Audrey

Max wasn't in much of a mood to fight. Instead, he lounged back in the lime green lawn chair he'd parked out on the ice and gazed at the turquoise sky. Far above, a single ribbon of a cloud draped itself across the pristine expanse. A mountainous iceberg crept almost imperceptibly along the sea on the distant horizon.

Maybe, Max thought, I should take a vacation.

He hadn't really ever traveled for pleasure. And as he studied the lone cloud above, he wondered if he might enjoy a cruise. Maybe one of those trips for singles in search of a life partner. He was still in decent shape, despite his ambivalence toward exercise. The paunch that he had begun to develop when he crossed the threshold into his thirties wasn't too bad yet, and his hair was still thick and dark with no sign of the bald patch that cursed the men on his mother's side of the family.

Cash was tight, as always, but he could probably swing the price of a ticket. Then again, he'd need to factor in the cost of revamping his wardrobe if he was going to make an effort to socialize. He had consciously avoided developing a decent fashion sense over the years, but even he knew that the plaid orange Bermuda shorts, and purple Hawaiian shirt he was wearing at the moment were rough on the retina. Max didn't care what other people thought about his clothes most of the time. But if he were going to take a cruise he'd have to pick up some new garb, not to mention tiny travel shampoos and soaps, a folding toothbrush, swim trunks, and a beach towel.

And luggage. He'd need to buy luggage. At least one of those little rolling electric jobs that seemed like mandatory traveler hardware, puttering behind their owners' heels as they dashed to the security lines, and dutifully opening up for inspection before trundling down the loading ramps. Max had so far avoided ever acquiring one, relying instead on his ancient suitcase with a pop-out handle and screeching wheels , to the perpetual annoyance of airline security, luggage wranglers, and fellow passengers.

He'd also have to put in for vacation at least a month in advance, pick a cruise package, update his vaccinations, track down his passport, and apply to Homeland Security for a background check and traveler's clearance, all for the privilege of riding a boat to nowhere surrounded by strangers who were probably just as miserable and lonely as he was.

"Screw it," Max muttered, caving into inertia, "I'll just stay home."

He peered at the sleeping penguin.

"Wake up Linus," said Max. "Come on. Wake up or you'll get nothing at all."

Linus fluffed his slick black feathers a bit, but otherwise remained motionless.

Max reached into a bucket standing next to the lawn chair and pulled out a single flaccid herring.

"I'll tell you what." He leaned forward and dangled the limp fish in front of the bird. "How about one now, and five if you win the match?"

Linus' beady eyes popped open and he wriggled the toes on his webbed orange feet, which protruded slightly out onto the ice from under his chubby bowling pin of a body. Still, he kept his beak tucked away in protest.

"Alright -- one now, half of the rest if you lose, and the whole bucket if you win."

It was good enough. Linus pulled his beak from beneath his wing, scrunched his head down into his feathers, then stretched it out straight up toward the sky and let out a squawk. He opened his mouth and waited for his first installment. Max tossed the herring and Linus snatched it out of the air.

"OK now, pay attention," said Max as he opened the leather briefcase leaning against his lawn chair, revealing the alternating black and white triangles of a backgammon board. "It's a game of luck and skill." He laid the pieces out in their starting positions as he explained the ancient rules of backgammon to the attentive penguin at his feet.

"Have you got it?" he asked.

Linus opened his beak and clapped it loudly.

"OK, best three out of five games. High roll goes first."

Linus picked up a die in his beak and tossed it onto the backgammon board.

"Three," noted Max.

He rolled the other die.

"I got a six, so I start."

The penguin cocked his head to the side and patiently waited his turn.

Linus soundly lost the first game, as Max expected, and did nearly as badly on the second. Although the penguin picked up enough strategy to pull through on the third, Max had been forced to make a few intentionally poor moves to keep Linus from losing interest. In the fourth game, Linus set up a blockade that trapped Max on the bar. It was a shortsighted scheme, but pretty good for a penguin who had just learned to play. Of course that meant it wouldn't take long before Linus would be beating the pants off Max at backgammon, just like he always did at chess.

Linus ultimately lost the fifth game and the match. Max stretched his legs and leaned back in the lawn chair as he watched the penguin devour the consolation prize scattered on the ice, gulping down each herring whole.

The penguin waddled to the herring bucket and poked at it with his beak.

"Pause," Max said, as he pitched a bonus herring toward Linus. It halted in mid air. Linus also instantly froze, with one sparkling eye trained on the motionless herring. "Save program."

Max pondered the creature bitterly. Linus was a silly little thing, cartoonish in proportions and coloring. The choice of a penguin as the interface to Persky's artificial intelligence program was arbitrary. There was, in fact, no real reason for a graphical interface to the program at all. It would have made little difference to the neural network he was training whether he interacted through a virtual penguin, or a dog, or even, God forbid, a keyboard. The penguin, the herring and the landscape were nothing more than visual mnemonics that Persky claimed would help Max maintain a reasonable consistency in the training. Privately he suspected it was all some silly inside joke. And as he sat there day in and day out playing games with virtual penguins, he was pretty sure the joke was on him.

As far as Max was concerned, he was little more than a penguin babysitter. And the damnable part of it was, he usually felt as though the penguin was too smart for him, at least at chess, and no doubt at backgammon soon enough. It was like being a nursemaid to an idiot sah-vant in a tuxedo.

He briefly toyed with the idea of checking his messages with Betty 2.0, a mildly erotic virtual assistant interface that some of the grad students had built. Max had found that a little soft-core porn was just the thing to liven up email from time to time. But he was too far behind at the moment as it was. He resisted the urge to call up Betty and instead reached for a tablet stashed beneath the lawn chair, recorded his impressions of the match, and reloaded the page.

"Open aversion training twelve," Max called out. A ripple crawled across the landscape. The lumbering iceberg leapt backward a few degrees on the horizon, and the penguin was once again standing motionless before him. Although the bird was an exact replica of Linus, this one was called Minus to distinguish it from the penguin in the reward-based training program. A chain stretched from under Minus where it was clamped to one of his legs hidden beneath his row-tund abdomen. The chain was anchored at the other end to a spike driven into the ice.

"Let's get to it Minus."

Max picked up a riding crop that had replaced the herring bucket when the program was reset. He reached out and swatted the penguin across its chubby belly. Minus snapped to attention.

"Today we play backgammon," he said as he smacked the crop against the palm of his hand. Minus tugged at the chain, his head sinking down into the feathers around his neck.

"Pay attention. It's a game of luck and skill. Five lashes if you lose," said Max, "and two if you win."

Minus cowered at the end of the chain. Max swatted him again.

"And seven if you choose not to play."

Spare the rod and spoil the penguin, he thought.

It would have been a sadistic exercise, if Minus had been anything other than a computer algorithm. But the research project was specifically designed to compare the relative merits of reward and punishment in the training of neural networks. Each had its benefits, in theory. While pain often seemed to be a more efficient method, it was Persky's thesis that the rigid discipline it instilled would limit creative problem solving. Max suspected a combination of punishment and reward would likely lead to the optimum approach. Still, he could see that it was more straightforward to study the simplified models separately.

Minus craned his neck toward the board in a desperate attempt to absorb every detail, as Max laid out the pieces and explained the rules once again.

"Best three out of five games," said Max, "High roll goes first." Minus frantically snatched up a die in his beak and pitched it at the backgammon board. "Three," Max said as he rolled the other die. The penguin's tar black eyes were wide with anxious anticipation. "I got a six, so I start." Minus dropped his head to his chest and gloomily waited his turn.

The first game went badly for the penguin, but not as badly as it had in the reward scenario with Linus. Minus took every chance he had to put Max on the bar, desperately attempting to disrupt the play even though he had little understanding of backgammon strategy. Between turns Minus plucked absently at the white down that coated his chest, without ever taking his attention from the board.

Even after it was clear that he was doomed Minus played with an intensity that suggested he was hoping for some backgammon miracle to rescue him. But it was not to be, and Minus ultimately lost.

Just as Max was setting up the pieces for the second game, a wave of nausea passed over him.

"Oh shit," he said.

He dropped a backgammon piece onto the board and collapsed into the lawn chair, clenching the armrests until his knuckles turned white with strain. He struggled to remember if he had taken his medication with breakfast as his legs began to tremble and the tunnel vision closed in. Not that it would make any difference now; the epileptic storm was already raging in his brain, and there was nothing he could do but ride it out.

Read the rest of the post . . .

Youtube Videos Featuring Jonathan Coulton's Music