Friday, December 01, 2006

Chapter 8. The Warehouse

If Betty was impressed with the way Max had handled the fat porn dealer, she showed absolutely no sign of it.

“Hey," he said while she read over the instructions jotted on the slip of paper Spencer had given them, "you know that was pretty clever, the trick with the crab. Don't you think?”

“Sure,” Betty replied absently.

Listen to the podcast of The Dark Net, Chapter 8 by robo-reader Audrey.

“I thought of it 'cause, you know he had all that stuff lying around and I figured . . .”

“Uh huh,” she said.

“I figured if it got loose see, it would go tearing around and probably . . .”

Betty turned to face the blank wall at the end of the tunnel.

“You know,” Max stammered, “make a mess.”

Betty ran her hand along the wall. “You have a talent for making messes.”

Max stammered, “If you . . . if you mean the guard dog, it wasn't really my fault.”

“And so," said Betty as she peered up at the low tunnel ceiling, "who's fault was it then?”

“OK, I broke it. But it was like this. I was thinking . . . ”

Before he could finish, she found the spot she was looking for and gave a shove. The wall ahead melted away and Betty strode forward into a large gray room that opened up beyond the doorway.

She turned to face him and flipped back her hood. “You were saying?”

“Forget it.”

He shuffled through the doorway after her.

Metal racks extended in parallel rows tens of meters long. Boxes and bins were neatly arranged on shelves along the racks, which rose up to a featureless grey ceiling that must have been three times as high as Max was tall. A yellow stripe ran the length of the floor between the racks. He peered at the nearest boxes, but there was nothing to identify their contents other than bar codes that held no meaning for him.

“What is this place?” he asked.

Betty had marched off down the aisle, running her fingers along the rack shelves as she went.

“It's an NSA storage facility.”

“NSA," asked Max, "as in National Security Agency?”

“That's right,” she called back over her shoulder. “Don't touch anything.”

“Are we really supposed to be here?”

“We're not really supposed to be anywhere in the Dark Net. That's why it's dark.”

Max sprinted to catch up as she rounded a corner.

“What if we get caught?”

“If you don't make a mess," she said dryly, "then maybe we won't.”

By the time he got to the end of the aisle, she had disappeared.

“Betty?” There was no reply. “Hey Betty!”

“Shush. Over here.”

He peeked around the next row and found her mulling over a collection of gadgets, some of which were mildly similar to the machine that Max had broken in Herman's room.

“Guard dogs,” he said.

“Brilliant.”

For the most part, they were in better shape than Herman's, with knobs of bright red, yellow, blue, and black plastic. Levers here and there gleamed in shining chrome, where Herman's had been pitted and scratched. One of them was even decorated with baroque, curving scrollwork and gleaming brass knobs that clearly were designed with art, as well as function in mind.

Max reached out for one of the levers.

“Don't,” Betty snatched his wrist, “don't touch.”

She released him, and he dropped his hand to his side. “Sorry.”

“We need to be careful. One of them could be a honeypot.”

“A what?” said Max.

“A honeypot. A booby trap set to catch intruders like us.”

Max squinted at the row of guard dogs. “How can you tell which one might be a trap?”

“I can't, but I'm guessing it could be that one.” She pointed to one of the gadgets made of a metal with an irridescent sheen that shifted from purple to green to yellow and back, whenever Max moved his head. It was a little under a third of a meter tall and shaped like a bullet. It had no mechanical levers or buttons - only portions that changed color, slightly out of sync with the rest of the metal, hinting at controls rather than displaying them outright.

“If something looks too good to be true," said Betty, "it probably is.”

She inspected a model that resembled an old, mechanical typewriter, except that it had about half as many keys as it should, and sprouted return levers in a dozen places. Like Herman's guard dog, it appeared as though it could have spent time kicking around a back alley thrift shop.

“I like this one.” She poked it hesitantly with her finger. Nothing happened. She hefted it off the shelf with a grunt and tilted her head expectantly. Still nothing. “This is the one. Let's go.”

Max contemplated offering to carry the guard dog for her. He dismissed the idea almost immediately - he'd already caught plenty of flack for breaking the other one. He thought he might as well let her take the risk with this one. Besides, she didn't seem to be having any trouble, even though he would have guessed that it weighed ten or fifteen kilos.

He turned away from her to head back down the aisle, and nearly ran smack into a boxy robot that was passing the intersection at the end of the next row.


"Look out!” he shouted and lurched back toward Betty, who in turn juggled the awkward guard dog.

“Dammit,” Betty growled at him. The robot continued by without pausing. “It's just taking inventory.”

The robot, which to Max looked like an air conditioner unit on wheels, rumbled on, following the yellow line that he now realized snaked up and down the rows in one continuous path. It tottered slightly side-to-side, almost as if whoever built it had intended to add a touch of comedy to its wanderings. Or perhaps, thought Max, its wobbling was the machine equivalent of a warehouse clerk humming to himself to ease the tedium of an endless chore. His cheeks burned in embarrassment at the fact that he had nearly panicked at the encounter with the ludicrous box.

They were about to set off again when Max stuck out his arm to block Betty's way.

“Put it back,” he said.

“Why?” she rasped at him.

“Judging from the path it's following," Max explained, "it'll pass this way in a moment.”

He pointed at the yellow line on the floor. “I'm guessing it will set off some sort of alarm when it finds that one is missing. If we're going to snatch it, we should wait until our buddy here finishes checking this row. That'll give us the most possible time to get out.”

Betty closed her eyes for a moment and Max could see the venomous anger well up in her face. She contained herself and glared at him for a moment.

"Good point.”

She returned to the spot where she had taken the guard dog and hoisted it back onto the shelf. They moved to the end of the aisle where the robot had just passed and slipped into the shadows to wait. Sure enough, the robot rounded the far corner and ambled down the row, aiming an array of lasers at the bar codes on the various items that lined the racks.

“Saved us again, didn't I?”

Betty was silent.

“A little gratitude would be nice.”

“Thanks,” she muttered.

“See, that wasn't so bad.”

“Now shut up.” She leaned back against the wall, and Max smiled to himself.

The robot was halfway down the row when something wiped the grin off of his face. A shadow flitted past the other end of the row.

“What was that?” he asked, reaching for Betty's hand.

“What?”

“Someone's here.”

He looked to his right, and caught the motion of another shadow in the corner of his eye.

“There it is again.”

“Fuckin' Spencer.” She clutched his hand and pulled Max into the aisle. “Let's get out of here.”

“What about the guard dog?”

“Forget it. Let's split.”

They sprinted to the main aisle that led back the way they had originally come. As they turned the corner, Betty skidded to a halt and Max pulled up short behind her. An enormous figure blocked their way. Max and Betty turned to run the other direction, and another gargantuan figure stepped out of the shadows, cutting off their retreat.

“NSA?” asked Max.

“Worse,” Betty said as she squeezed his hand, “the Army of Darkness.”

A voice from the distance called out, “You're a tough man to keep down Herman my friend.”

Max recognized the squeaky tone. “Spencer,” he said, struggling to hide the tremble in his voice, “how you doin'?”

“Better than you I'm afraid.” The figure in front of them stepped aside, revealing Spencer's stubby frame.

“We need to talk.”

“I'm in a bit of a rush, if you don't mind Spence. So Betty and I will just grab a guard dog and be on our way. Maybe you and I can hook up in a chat room some time for a little heart to heart.”

“Oh I think we can catch up right now.” Spencer smiled humorlessly. “Gentleman,” he ordered the figures near him, “the lady.”

One of the ghouls stepped forward and pealed Betty away from Max.

“You have something we want,” said Spencer.

“Sure, anything,” replied Max as he watched Betty struggle with the ghouls. “Anything for you buddy.”

“We want the device.”

“The guard dog? It's back on the shelf where it belongs.”

Spencer nodded to the figure holding Betty. He grabbed the hood of her cloak and pulled down, ripping the garment off her with a violent jerk. He spun her around so that her back was to Max, and twisted her arm behind her. The other one stepped forward and lifted his sleeve to reveal a vicious pair of shears where his hand should have been. They looked like a kitchen tool Max had seen a chef on the cooking channel use to snip the bones of chickens.

“It's just around the corner. I'll show you where it is,” said Max.

“I'm not talking about the guard dog, Herman.”

“Well just say it, and whatever you want, it's yours.”

“Really?” asked Spencer slyly.

“Sure Spence. Like I said, anything.”

Spencer's eyes narrowed. “Where is it?”

“Well now, Spencer, that's where you're going to have to be a wee bit more specific.”

Spencer flicked a pudgy finger toward Betty, and the figure armed with the shears reached out, grabbed her hand, and snipped off her pinky. She fell to her knees with a shriek. Blood spurted from the stub, in pulses.

“Oh my God!” cried Max. “Are you insane?”

“Please,” moaned Betty between agonized sobs, “Herman. Help me.”

Spencer sauntered toward Max. “No more games my friend. Are you going to work with us?”

“Of course,” Max croaked. He felt his legs weaken and did his best to retain control. “All I need you to do,” he said, “is tell me exactly what device you're talking about.”

Spencer nodded at the figure with the shears, who in turn lifted Betty's ring finger.

“I told you Herman. No more games.”

“Herman please!” Betty cried. She screamed as the shears snapped shut a second time.

“For God's sake,” Max sobbed when her finger hit the floor, “I'm not Herman!”

“Take the rest,” Spencer ordered.

The figure with the shears leaned over Betty, who was now flat on her stomach on the ground. Max buried his face in his hands and called out in desperation, “Exit environment!” The warehouse, Betty, Spencer, and the cloaked thugs melted away.

Max peered through the slits between his trembling fingers at the familiar jumble of equipment in the lab.

“She was only an algorithm anyway,” he said as he feebly groped in his pocket for the cigarettes that were no longer there.

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