Monday, November 20, 2006

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?”

“Mine?”

“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.

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