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.

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