Saturday, March 31, 2007

Chapter 11. AOD HQ

Max stood on the curb and soaked in the visual chaos that surrounded him. The broad thoroughfare was lined with gaudy shop fronts. He turned up the street and strolled along past music stores, bookshops, bargain basement clothes warehouses, and luxurious department stores. The roadway extended before him as far as he could see.



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A Rolls Royce dealership offered virtual rides in the lap of luxury, and a plastic surgery clinic next door promised to make over customers so that they would look like they belonged in the Rolls.

The sky overhead was an unbelievably vivid shade of azure. Max was always reminded, when he entered the Web, of the moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy stepped out of the gray tones of the farmhouse and into the surreal, Technicolor brilliance of Munchkin land.

He raised his hand and whistled. A yellow search engine cab whipped around a corner and screeched to a halt in front of him. For the most part, it was a classic cab with rounded fenders and bulbous balloon tires. An absurdly huge hood scoop, red flames over the wheel wells, and a throaty rumble suggested that it was a particularly fast search engine. Max sneered - he’d seen this sort of ploy plenty of times. Chances were that it was all show. Just about any search engine would have done anyway.

The driver slid across the seat and popped open the back door from the inside.

“Hop in, buddy,” said the cabby. His hair was slicked back and black, like a 50’s greaser, and he wore a leather jacket that squeaked against the seat when he leaned over to catch Max’s eye.

Max climbed in the back and pulled the door shut.

“What about your friend?” the cabby asked.

Max peered out the window. Other than a storefront covered in flashing neon signs listing cheap airfares, he saw nothing. The cabby nodded downward at the sidewalk. Max leaned toward the door and discovered Linus, with his head tilted to one side, eyeing the side of the cab.

“What the Hell,” said Max opening the taxi door, “Linus, what are you doing here?” The penguin hopped forward, and struggled to climb onto the seat.

“You little pecker head.”

Max sat back and Linus lunged into the cab and over Max’s lap, sliding across the seat on his belly. “And where do you think you’re going?” he asked as Linus wriggled to his feet and spryly studied his new surroundings.

The cabby looked over his shoulder. “Where to, fellas?”

Max pondered Linus for a while, and then pulled the cab door shut. “I’m not sure yet. Just drive around a bit.”

“You’re the boss,” said the cabby as he accelerated the taxi away from the curb. “There are a couple new chat rooms we can swing by, if you like.” Officially, cabbies didn’t charge fares for hauling people around the Web. They earned their keep by directing their passengers to sponsored sites; chat rooms, department stores, bookshops, and music stores.

“If it’s girls your after, you can pick something from the menu.” The cabby’s jacket squeaked again as he reached back and tapped a screen mounted on the seat back. It displayed a scrolling list of porn sites.

“No thanks,” said Max. “Maybe next time.”

“Hit the button at the top if you’d rather see twinks or tranny’s,” said the cabby.

“Thanks. I’ll pass.”

Linus plucked at the seat back with his beak until he noticed the dynamically updated ad pasted to the inside of the cab door. Every few seconds, it flashed a different pitch for some Web business or other, from financial services to online degree programs. Linus was riveted by the constantly changing colors and patterns. He arched his neck to one side, as if the images might make more sense to him viewed sideways. He tried flopping onto his back and studying them upside down and rolled off the seat to the floorboard where he flapped his wings in excited agitation, and then struggled back up to start the process over again. Max watched Linus fall from the seat three times. “Brilliant,” he said, and turned to watch the storefronts passing by outside the window of the speeding taxi.

The cab slowed occasionally at random sites selected from the cab company’s sponsors. Each time Max declined to visit, the cabby would zoom off to another.

“Tell you what,” said Max, “take me to the Army of Darkness web site.”

“Army of Darkness,” echoed the cabby. “There are forty-three cult film sites referencing the Army of Darkness, seven hundred and nine sites mentioning the words ‘Army’ and ‘Darkness’ include lists of veteran’s groups, twelve mention hacker groups, six have references to . . .”

“Take me to the top-listed Army of Darkness hacker site.”

“It’s old. Hasn’t been updated in a couple years, and most of the links are dead.”

“That’s fine,” said Max. The cab sped up until he could make out nothing through the window other than a stretched taffy blur of color.

The cab squealed to a halt in front of a stone building with a crumbling gothic facade. A torn paper banner fluttered across the building’s arched entryway, which housed massive wooden doors that looked to be twelve feet tall at least. At one time they must have been imposing and even a bit frightening, but now the doors were weather beaten and splintered. Max stepped out of the cab and Linus hopped after him. “Wait here,” Max called to the cabby, and climbed the cracked granite steps leading to the doors.

He pulled down the remains of the banner. It read “The Army of Darkness Rises Again.” Judging from the banner’s rips and smudges, Max suspected the Army had fallen again shortly after the banner was put in place.

He pushed against one of the heavy doors. It swung open, revealing a dim hallway lined with doorways and cluttered with heaps of trash. Many of the doors were open and some were barely hanging on their hinges. Linus squeezed past Max’s calf and hopped down the hall, stopping here and there to probe trash piles with his beak. “Hello?” said Max, but the echo of his voice was all that came back to him.

Max gingerly made his way into the littered hall. The first door on the right was labeled “Phreaks” in plain white letters He opened it and saw nothing but a blank section of moldy plaster wall. He continued down the passage, opening doors as he went. They were all like the first; obscurely labeled doors to nowhere. Only the final door at the end of the hall, which was marked “Message Board,” opened into a room. Max felt the wall just inside the entrance and flicked the light switch. A bare bulb hanging from a wire in the center of the ceiling glowed to life. The room was cramped, only a few meters on a side. Thousands of paper scraps obscured the floor. The walls were lined with cork boards riddled with pin holes, and in a few places thumb tacks still secured scraps to the boards. The pinned messages that remained were arranged in branching patterns, beginning from points near the ceiling and spreading out in multiplying paths as they extended down toward the floor.

Linus dived into a scrap pile as if it were a mound of freshly fallen snow, and poked his head out the other side to look expectantly at Max with one twinkling black eye. Max gathered an armful of the messages from the floor and dumped them on the penguin’s head. Linus let out a squawk and squirmed deeper into the mound.

Max turned to the wall beside the door and squinted at the longest continuous message trail left on the boards. He stood on his toes and plucked the topmost message off its tack.

“Feds Bust Key AOD Figures,” it read, “From the Sunday Post, October 29, 2001: The FBI netted twenty-three senior members of the infamous Army of Darkness computer hacker group in an international sting on Friday, according to Bureau officials. The loosely knit computer crime gang is alleged to be responsible for software thefts and malicious Internet-based attacks leading to losses that could total in the tens of millions of dollars. “We’ve been on the trail of these outlaws for over two years now,’ said FBI agent David O’Brien in a press conference today at Bureau headquarters in Washington, DC. . .”

Max pinned the message to a blank spot on the cork, then ran his fingers down the wall, following the main thread in the message trail. Most of the messages were comprised of lists of cryptic names like ‘CmasterJ’ and ‘b3atnick’. A few included snatches of text bemoaning the capture or conviction of more AOD members. Max bent down and ripped the last message off the wall. All it said was “It’s over. The AOD is dead. Long live the haxr5. See you guys in the Funny Pages.”

Max stood up, crumpled the note, and dropped it onto the floor. If the AOD is dead, thought Max, someone should tell Spencer about it.

“Come on Linus, let’s get out of here.”

He walked into the hallway and Linus poked his head out of a scrap pile. When Max reached the front door, Linus raced down the hall and launched himself onto his belly, sliding a few feet in the paper and plowing up a mound of trash in front of him. Max bent over and lifted Linus to his feet, then picked up a handful of the papers and rifled through them. Most were rants about civil rights on the Internet. A few claimed to detail techniques for disrupting phone service or cracking copy protection software. And one or two outlined schemes for breaking into credit card databases.

“Alright, that’s enough playing around,” Max said and he stood to go. As he did, he noticed a shiny booklet pinned beneath the penguin’s rump. He knelt down to peer at the booklet, then pulled it out from under Linus, sending the bird sprawling. “Sorry, buddy.” Linus rolled over on his belly and scooted across the floor.

The cover was glossy and thick. Max held it up to the light shining through the open door behind him to inspect it.

“AOD Technical Journal,” he read to himself. “Tech note 11: Oak Toabark’s Blue Box Telephone Tone Generator.”

He rifled through the pages, which were filled with electronic schematics and component lists. Max flipped to the first page. A short introduction explained that the Blue Box referred to in the title was designed to produce tones that could manipulate telephone systems - to place free long distance calls, evade telephone surveillance, and crash phone banks.

He squinted into the darkness and saw a jumbled pile of booklets with similar blue covers. There were hundreds, some intact but mostly crumpled and torn. Max waded through the trash to the pile. He picked up a handful, reading each title in turn and tossing them to the side. It seemed that they had been the source of much of the paper bits on the floor, with titles that revealed a compendium of hacker techniques and tips. Most appeared to be relatively benign instruction manuals, but a few - like the Blue Box booklet - outlined methods for identity theft and high tech fraud.

Max pushed over the tallest stack, sending the booklets sliding across the hall. There had to be a quicker way to search through them than looking at the covers one at a time. He turned back toward the hallway entrance, and peered at the wall beside the massive doors.

There were buttons with labels that read “Links,” “Contact Us,” “Search the Site,” and “About the AOD.” The “Contact Us” button was dark, but the others glowed red. He pushed the search button and a small doorway opened at the base of the wall near his feet. It reminded Max of the pet entryway his grandmother had in the back door of her house to let her cats come and go by themselves. Instead of a cat, a small robot rolled out on clanky tank treads. It was a box about a foot on a side that sprouted a pair of long, jointed limbs with delicate pincers at the ends. There was a keyboard on the front of the robot, and a small screen that flashed the message “Enter Search Term.” Max started to bend down to reach the keys just as the keyboard and screen rose up on a telescoping pillar. He stood back to wait. There was a grinding noise as the pillar rose, and it froze when the keyboard and screen were at the height of Max’s thigh. It was an awkward height - too low to type while standing and too high to use sitting down. He knelt on the floor, which put the keys at the height of his chin, and rested his fingers on the keys.

He paused for a moment to think, then typed “Doomsday Virus” and hit the enter key. The keyboard dropped into place. The robot turned and shot off down the hall, at a surprisingly brisk pace for the creaky tank treads, sending a flurry of paper bits into the air behind it. Hardly an instant passed before it was back. The pincers were empty, and the screen message read “0 documents found. Search on another term, or choose Advanced Search options.”

The telescoping keyboard complained again as it rose once more.

“Hmm,” said Max. He typed “DOS, Unix, Mac, Linux, virus, universal.” This time, when he hit the enter key, the robot whipped down the hall and rammed against the blank walls behind several of the doors Max had opened. It paused for a moment and squealed at one point, and Max had the impression that the robot had broken down entirely. Then it turned and headed back, snatching a blue sheet out of the pile of booklets on its way.

“One document found (incomplete, cached), out of 4312 searched,” blinked the message screen.

The sheet was only a front cover to one of the tech note booklets. It read “Tech note 113: Exploiting System Independent Network Weaknesses in Cross-Platform Virus Design.”

Max whistled tonelessly. “So maybe Perske was right.” It didn’t say “Doomsday Virus” explicitly, but that’s essentially what he guessed a cross-platform virus would be.

He carried the paper out of the building and read the title over again. He looked back into the darkened doorway and contemplated going back to search for the rest of the document, but there was too much trash and it was unlikely that Max could do a better job at finding it than the local-search robot had. He folded the stiff paper and slid it into his pocket.

“Come on, Linus,” he called and walked down the steps to the waiting cab. There was a ruckus in the hall behind him. After a moment Linus shot through the door, tumbled over the steps, and rolled against the side of the cab with a thump. As Max helped the penguin up he heard what sounded like a brief clanking emanating from deep inside the Army of Darkness headquarters. He looked at the building’s open doorway and saw only papers rustling in a slight breeze, nothing more. It was probably just the robot returning to its home behind the pet door. He shook his head, pulled open the cab door, and ushered Linus inside.

As they settled into the back seat, the cabby asked, “Where to now?”

Max chewed his lip in thought. He recalled the final note on the AOD message board. ‘Try ‘Funny Pages.’”

‘There are more than ten-thousand sites that come up in a search on ‘Funny’ and ‘Pages,” said the cabby.

‘Try a search on the exact phrase.”

“Still more than ten-thousand ‘Funny Pages’ sites, mostly with links to comics.”

He tried to picture the kinds of people who would have been members of the AOD - the hackers Perske had described - and what sorts of things they did to pass the time online.

“How about,” said Max, “‘Funny Pages’, exact phrase, and ‘chat’?”

“Nothing.”

Max slouched in his seat. He recalled that a few of the grad students were obsessed with online roll-playing communities.

“Try ‘Funny Pages’, exact phrase,” said Max after a few moments, “and ‘Multi User Game’, exact phrase.”

“Four sites. Three are dead, but one’s still up.”

“Take me there,” said Max, and the cab sped off.

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Chapter 10. The Worm

Stephen was sitting at the desk outside the lab hunched over a newspaper when Max arrived Thursday morning.

“Where you been, dude?” asked Stephen without looking up from his Sudoku puzzle. He slid a greeting card across the desk. “Here, sign this.”



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Max presumed it was a condolence card for Herman’s family.

“Later,” said Max, striding past Stephen toward the lab door

Stephen shrugged his bony shoulders and jotted a number on the puzzle.

Max slammed and locked the lab door behind him, then sat in the lawn chair. Although Perske had asked him to delete Herman’s account first thing when he returned to work, he was in no mood to deal with it at the moment.

I’ll get to it when I get to it, he thought to himself as he slipped on the gloves draped across the lawn chair arm.

“Open new backgammon training session,” he called to the processor and the room transformed itself into the Antarctic environment.

“Load Linus.” As requested, the penguin appeared at Max’s feet, and began to waddle about cheerfully. “Load Minus.” The second penguin materialized, anchored to his usual spot on the ice.

Max opened that backgammon case that had arrived along with the riding crop and herring bucket when he’d loaded the penguins. He placed the board within Minus’ reach, then picked up the crop with one hand and pulled a herring out of the bucket with the other. He tossed the herring to Linus and brandished the crop at Minus.

“OK boys, I’ve got work to do, so let’s get this game underway.”

Linus gulped down the herring and eagerly made his way to the game board. Minus cowered at the end of his chain.

Max laid out the pieces in their starting positions.

“You both know the rules. Roll to see who starts.”

Linus picked up a die and tossed it onto the board, but Minus hesitated. When Max raised the riding crop, Minus snatched up the other die and rolled it across the board. Max inspected the dice.

“Minus wins the toss.” He nodded to the chained penguin. “You go first.”

As the play commenced, Max leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and placed his forehead on his hands. There wasn’t really anything for him to do while the penguins battled it out. His only function when they played each other was to dispense the appropriate punishments and rewards once the game was over.

The penguins were well matched, and when Max looked up after a time he saw neither bird had made much progress, despite some evidence of heated action. It was still anyone’s game, but Minus frantically plucked at his chest feathers anyway as he scanned the board. Linus, on the other hand, gleefully rolled the dice when his turn came up, and occasionally squawked with joy at the result.

Max sighed to himself, “It’s going to be a long day.”

He stood up, placed the fish bucket on the lawn chair to keep it out of Linus’ reach, and stretched his back.

“Open a new window,” he said to the processor as he turned away from the birds. He opened Herman’s account and peered in at the mess in the dead student’s room. After his adventure two days ago, he was disinclined to log into the environment as Herman, and chose to open a door instead so that he could enter the room under his own screen name. The door, like the levitating window, was out of place in the icy terrain, and in conjunction with the lawn chair and the penguins playing backgammon, it gave the environment the appearance of some absurd, surreal artwork.

“Eat your heart out, Salvador Dali,” he said as he surveyed his surroundings.

“I’ll be right back,” he said to the penguins embroiled in their game. Linus glanced at the herring bucket on the chair. “You,” Max warned, “keep your mind on the game, and your nose out of the bucket.” Linus cocked his head to peer at Max with one shiny eye, then picked up the dice in his beak and pitched them onto the board. Minus tugged absently at the chain attached to his leg, but remained riveted to the game.

Max turned to open the door and entered Herman’s room, leaving the penguins to their own devices.

Nothing had changed since Max’s last visit. The guard dog was still an inert heap on the dark carpet, the message light on the phone was still blinking, and the piles of papers and mini-DVD’s still threatened to slide off the desk in an avalanche of garbage. He eyed the mess and contemplated loading Betty - his version, not Herman’s - to help him clean out the account. He shook his head. “I’ve had enough of you ladies for a while,” he said to himself.

“Empty trash,” he commanded the processor, and the garbage in the overflowing trash bin disappeared. He picked up the empty bin, held it next to the desk, and swept an armful of papers and discs into it. When it was full, he ordered the processor to permanently delete all items in the trash, and then he swept in another armful. After he finished with the desk, Max turned to the filing cabinet. He closed the partially open middle drawer and started at the top. He dropped handfuls of files into the bin, periodically emptying the trash as he went. When he’d finished with the top drawer, he put his hands on his hips and took a breath. “Man you had a lot of junk in here, Herman.”

Just as he was turning his attention to the middle cabinet drawer, Max caught sight of a file lying on the floor next to the defunct guard dog. He shuffled over to pick it up. It was the file labeled “Betty3.5". He smacked it against his open palm. “Betty, Betty, Betty,” he said, “it’s been fun.” He turned to toss the file into the trash can, then stopped. He pondered the file a moment, opened it, and studied Betty’s sulking image. “Fun, I guess, isn’t the right word.”

Max closed the file, dangled it over the trash bin, and let it drop. When it fluttered into the bin, Max ordered the processor to empty the trash. The file lay at the bottom of the bin, but did not disappear as ordered. A blinking, green cursor appeared in the air above the trash. A line of text scrolled out as the cursor flickered. “Error,” it read, “Cannot delete active application.”

Max’s brow wrinkled. “Active application,” he whispered. Betty3.5 was still running.

He rubbed his fingertips on his stubbly chin. “Active application,” he said again and bent to retrieve Betty’s file from the trash. He held it at arms length. “Terminate application: Betty3.5,” he called out to the processor. Another cursor appeared, this time in the cover of the file itself. “Permission denied,” scrolled the text, “Cannot terminate application active in remote environment.”

He set the file on the empty desktop and backed away toward the open door. He wasn’t sure what to do. He couldn’t delete Betty’s file without retrieving her from the Dark Net, and he was fairly certain he could never find his way back to the NSA storeroom through the labyrinth of passages, assuming that she was even still there. Max grimaced at the thought of Betty lying on the storeroom floor, spouting blood from her mangled hand as the AOD goon brandished his shears. Max gnawed his lower lip. She was just an illusion, just an interface to a neural net. She wasn’t even his virtual assistant. She had belonged to Herman.

God dammit, he thought to himself, it’s not my problem. In Max’s mind, the whole episode with Spencer and the AOD had been staged for Herman’s benefit, not his. Besides, torturing a virtual assistant was absurd. It was like someone kidnapping a word processing program and threatening to disable the code bit by bit. There are always other copies of the program. Who cares if one copy is destroyed? No matter how gruesome the process appeared to be.

Max decided to wash his hands of the whole thing. Perske would have to deal with this herself, or bring in the system administrators, for all Max cared.

He looked over his shoulder at the penguins in the Antarctic training environment.

“I don’t have time for this crap,” he muttered as he turned and headed back through the door and onto the ice. He lifted the herring bucket off the lawn chair, placed it on the ice, and sat down.

He squinted at the backgammon board. All of Linus’ pieces were neatly nestled away, and a few of Minus’ pieces remained on the field of play. Minus had lost, but just barely.

“All right fellas, now for the moment of truth.” He glanced at the open door leading to Herman’s room. He could see the corner of Herman’s desk, but Betty’s file was out of sight. With some effort, he turned his eyes away from the scene next door.

Max struggled to pull himself together. “Let’s see,” he said, “Where were we? Linus, you win so here’s your payoff.” The penguin danced in giddy anticipation as Max reached into the bucket and grabbed a handful of herring. He tossed the fish onto the ice, and turned to Minus. “As for you,” said Max as he picked up the riding crop lying on the ice next to his chair, “I believe that means you get five strokes.” Minus strained against his chain, eyes wide in fear. When Max stood to approach him, Minus fell backwards and swatted at the ice with his tiny wings desperately trying to escape the blows he was doomed to receive. Max straddled the thrashing bird, pinned its neck against the ice, and raised the crop above his head. When the first stroke fell, Minus whimpered and arched his back in pain.

“That’s one,” he said, and he raised the crop again. Minus snapped at his gloved hand. “Stop struggling,” said Max through his clenched teeth, “You’ll only make it worse.” The bird froze, closed its eyes, and quivered as it waited for the next blow. Max hesitated, and then reared the whip back further. His arm trembled. He couldn’t do it. It was too cruel. Neural net or not, Minus was in agony. Or at least appeared to be in agony, whatever the hell that might mean for an algorithm.

“Shit,” said Max. He released the penguin and threw down the riding crop. He straightened up and returned to his chair. Minus lay immobile for a moment before picking himself up off the ice.

Max leaned forward and rubbed his eyes. “This job sucks,” he said. He looked up at Minus, who was swaying slightly and still shaking. Max reached into the herring bucket and pulled out a fish. He tossed it toward Minus. It fell at the penguin’s feet, but Minus made no attempt to eat it.

“Don’t you want it?”

Minus flinched at the sound of Max’s voice, but still didn’t acknowledge the herring. Eventually, Linus waddled over, picked up the snack and gulped it down, and then waddled away again.

Max picked another herring out of the bucket and stood up to hand it to Minus directly. The penguin cowered. “I’m trying to be nice, you little nitwit.” He held the limp fish under Minus’ beak, but the bird twisted away. Max grabbed the penguin’s head with one hand and thrust the fish at him with the other. Minus craned his neck to avoid the herring. He snapped his beak at Max’s hand. “Dammit,” said Max, lurching back. The bird had only clipped the tip of Max’s gloved finger. There was no way for a virtual penguin to injure him, but he had been startled nevertheless.

“You freakin’ lunatic.”

He knew it wasn’t really the penguin’s fault. The creature had been tormented day after day since the moment it had been created. For months, Minus had suffered as much as Linus had been pampered. Now he was a neurotic mess. This, thought Max, is how you make the neural net equivalent of a psychopath.

“It would be better for everyone if we put you out of your misery,” said Max. “Mostly, it would be better for you.”

And it would be better for Betty if she where put out of her misery. The thought startled him. He sat back in the chair staring at Minus, and wondered if Betty was still suffering at the hands of the AOD thugs. “Crap,” said Max. He picked up the bucket and scattered its contents on the ice in front of Minus. At the sound of the fish smacking the ground, Linus peeked around from behind the lawn chair where he had been amusing himself by poking at the vinyl webbing.

Max stood up and headed through the door to Herman’s room. “Knock yourselves out, guys,” he said to the penguins without looking back.

When he reached Herman’s desk, Max stared at Betty’s file.

“I don’t even know where you are,” he whispered. But maybe, he thought, I can find someone who does. “Open a browser,” said Max, and an arched doorway appeared in the middle of the far wall. The door was built of silvery metal inlayed with gold filigree. An etched crystal globe served as a knob. Elaborate script written across the door read “Welcome to Phoenix Version 7.2 - Your Doorway to the World Wide Web.”

Max crossed the room, reached for the knob, and opened the door. It revealed a broad thoroughfare lined with libraries, museums, shops, and cyber cafĂ©’s. He blinked at the virtual festival of color and noise. It always took him a few moments to get his bearings when he set out to browse the Web.

Max had no idea how to begin his search for Betty, and wasn’t even entirely certain that he wanted to find her, or what he would do if he succeeded in tracking her down. Oh well, he thought, sometimes the best plan is to have no plan. He squared his shoulders and walked out onto the Web, failing to notice the chubby little penguin who plodded along after him.

***

It hadn’t taken Linus long to finish off the herring Max had scattered on the ice, even without the help of Minus, who viewed the fish with the same wide eyed terror that just about everything inspired in him.

Naturally, Linus followed him because Max was, after all, the source of all that was good in the penguin’s virtual world. Which is to say: fish.

Minus alone was left on the ice.

Comfort was an alien sensation to Minus, but solitude at least brought him respite from the games and the whip. He tugged at the chain attached to his ankle. Minus had long ago learned that the chain was indestructible, and he had no hope of ever breaking free, but he had developed a habit of moving as far away from the spike as possible and stretching the chain out to its full length of about a meter or so. He lived perpetually at the very edge of his miserable little world.

Minus stood quietly and took no interest in his surroundings. He flinched only slightly at the soft creak of the filing cabinet drawer in Herman’s room. It was not a sound he associated with Max, his tormentor. But the soft thud that followed caused Minus to pluck at the feathers on his breast. And when the worm inched its way onto the ice, Minus began to pull frantically on the chain.

Although the worm was blind, it sensed the subtle vibrations of Minus’ struggles. It slithered across the ice, probed briefly at the anchored spike, and made its way along the chain to Minus’ foot. It slowly curled around the terrified penguin’s ankle, inching upward and wrapping itself around his torso in a rigid spiral, much as a python envelopes its prey. When it reached for Minus’ head, instead of devouring him as a snake might, the worm prodded the bird’s beak. Minus let out a squawk, and the worm plunged its narrow tip down his throat. Minus’ eyes bulged as the worm forced its way into his belly.

When the worm had entirely disappeared down his throat, Minus began to twitch, then tremble, then thrash about at the end of his chain. The fury of his spasms ripped loose the spike, and the chain whipped through the air, scattering backgammon pieces and sending the empty herring bucket spinning away.

Minus lay gasping on the ice. After a time, his breathing quieted. He stood up, and limped to Herman’s room, across the carpet, and through the browser door, dragging the rattling chain and spike behind him.

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Chapter 9. Turing's Test

There were often times at the Institute holiday parties and such that the theorists would have too much to drink. Generally, the combination of alcohol and pseudo-intellect was enough to cause them to delve into the deeper questions underlying their work on artificial intelligence. One subject that inevitably arose involved the Turing test.



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Many decades before, when computers as powerful as hand calculators filled galleries the size of Max’s entire lab, the mathematician Alan Turing had proposed that the true test of artificial intelligence would be an experiment in which a person conversed with either human or a computer. If the computer program was sufficiently sophisticated that it could not be distinguished from a human, then the test would show that true artificial intelligence had been achieved.

These days, the theorists argued, it appeared that the science of neural nets had reached, or would soon reach, the point of passing Dr. Turing’s test. Inevitably, one of the drunker theorists would follow up on the Turing test question by asking, now that we have learned to build truly sentient machines, what does that make us? Gods?

Max usually listened to these sorts of debates in silence, choosing instead to drink to excess and keep his opinion of the theories and the theorists to himself. Max was a quiet drunk, as a rule.

Although it was his job to help train neural nets, he was convinced that no computerized system could ever pass the Turing test if he were asking the questions. How could a machine duplicate a lifetime of experiences? If anything, neural nets learn slower than humans. Even the best program would need decades to develop the equivalent of a few years of human sophistication. He was pretty certain he could trip up any artificial intelligence system.

Sure, Linus, was an intricate creation for a computer program. But he was a pale shadow of a real penguin, and could never fool another penguin. And the same must also be true of Betty, even Herman’s Betty - surely she couldn’t pass for a human in a Turing test.

And yet, Max was racked with guilt for running out and leaving her with Spencer and the AOD. At one level he realized that the pain she displayed when her fingers were severed was just part of her programming. What on Earth could pain mean to a neural net? Computers and programs only simulate sensations, and affection, and anger. But in the past hours, Max had found that a simulation, when intricate enough, certainly gave him the impression of the real thing. That’s what virtual reality done well is all about - fooling the senses.

In the light of day, he might have dismissed the whole thing. Standing in the darkened lab with the image of Betty’s prostrate form still fresh in his mind, he couldn’t shake the sense of responsibility he had for the suffering he had witnessed, virtual or not.

OK, thought Max, they weren’t out to damage Betty so much as they wanted something from him or, more precisely, from Herman.

The device. That was what they were interested in. And unless they were simple sadists, exiting the environment was probably the best thing he could have done for Betty at that moment. After all, he was truthful at the time when he told Spencer that if he had the device, or knew where to find it, he would have gladly handed it over.

Now that he had exited the environment, he knew that it must also be what Dr. Perske was after. There had to be something Perske could tell him to help understand exactly why it was so important.

Max looked at his watch. It was nearing six in the morning. He had spent the entire night skulking through the Dark Net with Betty. He was suddenly exhausted, and realized that he had better take his drugs before he collapsed altogether. He shuffled to the lawn chair and dropped into the seat. He reached for his wallet and took out two pills. Max worked up as much saliva as he could and popped the pills into his mouth.

Dr. Perske generally started her day early, but even she wouldn’t be in before sunrise. He removed his gloves, and kneaded his temples. As the Phenobarbital began to kick in, the adrenalin that had surged through him during Betty’s torture subsided. He needed to rest until he could talk to Perske. She was expecting to get Max’s report on the contents of Herman’s environment today.

“You’re the one who’s going to have to answer some questions, Perske,” Max muttered, as he closed his eyes, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

***


Max was shivering when he awoke. He slipped on a lab coat that hung by the door to warm his stiff muscles.

“Processor,” he ordered, “finger Perske.”

A line of text appeared in the middle of the room. It read. “User P838, E. Perske, logged in at 07:27 hours.”

She was online, probably at the computer on her desk.

The halls were empty as he plodded to Perske’s office. The grad students and postdocs in the Institute were late risers, but a light shown through the gap of Perske’s partially open door. As usual she was one of the first researchers at work in the morning. Max pushed the door far enough to see her hunched over her keyboard and squinting at her monitor.

“Max,” she said when she looked up, “You’re in early.”

“I worked late.”

“All night?”

“Essentially.”

“Well, what do you want?” she asked, leaning back in her chair.

“That’s what I hoped to ask you.”

She squinted at him “How so?”

“What did you want me to find for you in Herman’s account?”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “Anything unusual, anything out of place.”

“Uh huh. That describes just about everything in Herman’s account. Everything is out of place, and a shit load of it is damned unusual.”

Other than raising one eyebrow slightly, Perske seemed inclined to ignore the coarse language. “Sit down and tell me about it.”

As he made his way to the chair in front of Perske’s desk, he thought back to the struggle with the tentacle thing that had pursued Betty, the hole behind the cabinet, and the cloaks on the coat stand. He imagined that any one of them would qualify as something Perske might want to know about. For now, he decided to keep them to himself.

“Well,” Max replied. “Our boy was awfully security conscious.”

“What makes you say so?”

“His guard dog.”

“His guard dog,” Perske echoed.

“It’s a security device that . . .”

Perske cut him off. “I know what a guard dog is. Tell me about his. What’s it like?”

“It’s broken, actually.”

She pushed the keyboard away and rested her hands on the desk. “Really?”

“I, uh, I guess I broke it?”

“Why would you do that?”

Max shrugged, “It was a mistake. I fiddled with it a bit and broke it.”

“I see.”

The blood rose into his cheeks in embarrassment at the confession of his clumsiness. “I don’t know why a kid like him would need such a thing anyway, or where he would get it . . . other than stealing it from the National Security Agency.”

Max had hoped mentioning the NSA would get a reaction out of Perske, perhaps indicating that she knew more about what went on in Herman’s environment than she was letting on. She did nothing more than lean back in her chair and purse her lips slightly. It was an expression that reminded him of Betty3.5 as she had been perusing the shelves in the NSA warehouse. The grad students had done a good job capturing Perske’s facial character when they built the virtual assistant.

“There’s a good chance it was stolen,” said Perske. “Look, Max, do you know why Herman was here?”

Max thought he did. Herman was just another undergrad grunt helping out around the lab.

“Herman,” Perske continued, “was here as the result of a plea bargain.”

“A plea bargain?”

“Yes,” said Perske. “It was part work release and part protective custody. Have you ever heard of the Army of Darkness or a group called Drink or Die?”

Max recalled Betty’s severed fingers. “I know a thing or two about the AOD.”

“They’re loosely organized groups of hackers, the bad kind, black hats. The AOD, Drink or Die, and others like them traffic in black market software and stolen credit card information. They’ve been known to attack phone systems, including 911 emergency banks, and release viruses, that sort of thing. Herman was one of the last AOD members to be caught in an FBI sting called Operation Buccaneer. You may have read about it in the news a few years back.”

“I don’t keep up with the news much.”

“Herman turned state’s evidence to avoid jail time. He was working off his probation here. You know that he was part of the Continuously Connected Human project?”

“Sure,” said Max, “He wouldn’t shut up about it, if you ever made the mistake of mentioning it.”

“It’s a legitimate research program, but it was also a good way for the FBI to keep tabs on him. As long as he was connected, they knew where he was, and at least generally what he was up to. You could think of it as a kind of cyber house arrest.”

Sure, thought Max, and Herman was an obliging captive, except that he had found a back door that the Feds probably weren’t aware of.

“I was hoping that he had given up hacking entirely.” She shook her head and frowned. “I guess I was wrong.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter much now. Herman’s not going to be hacking anymore.”

“It’s not that simple. One of the things Herman told the government about during the investigation was some sort of super virus he was working on when he was part of the AOD, he called it the Doomsday virus, and I’m afraid that there might be a copy of it in Herman’s account.”

“So why didn’t you tell me about it? I could have just run a virus scan and found it.”

“Not likely,” said Perske. She stood up and turned away from Max to face the window. “It’s never been detected in the wild, and no virus scan is likely to find it. It was designed to bring the entire nation’s communication network down. The phone system, the power grid, air traffic control systems. Everything from emergency response systems to the nuclear defense grid would malfunction.”

“So why ask me to look for it? Why not tell the FBI?”

“For one thing, I don’t know if it’s there. And if it is, the last thing we should do is let the word get out. The AOD is very secretive. Even the FBI only knows of a tiny fraction of the members, and most of them only by their aliases. But they do know that there are members scattered everywhere. There are believed to be a few on countless college campuses worldwide, and even some in the FBI, the CIA, and even the NSA.”

The NSA, thought Max, that’s probably why we got in so easily. “That still doesn’t explain why you would pick me to find it.”

“Well,” said Perske slowly, “one thing about these hackers is they tend to be young, intelligent, computer aficionados. Basically, they fit the profile of the typical computer whiz system administrator. I couldn’t afford to let one of them find the virus before we did.”

“So you’re saying you chose me because I’m not too bright, and . . .”

“Hold on,” Perske tried to interrupt.

“. . . and so I couldn’t be a hacker. I’m too old and stupid to fit the profile.”

“Not too old.”

“I see,” Max snorted.

“Don’t take it personally. I know you’re bright, just not in that way. But this is important. I think it might have had something to do with Herman’s death.”

“You said that was an accident.”

“It probably was. But there’s a possibility the virus may have infected him, and ultimately killed him.”

“A computer virus?”

“Yes.”

Max’s head was beginning to throb. “How can something that attacks a computer and, at worst, crashes your hard drive, possibly injure someone?”

Perske turned to face him, and bit her lower lip as she pondered her response. “OK listen, our brains are neural networks, only much more complex than the ones you work on in the lab. The virus is designed to disrupt networks of all sorts. As part of the Continuously Connected Human project, Herman was perpetually exposed to the virus, if it was in his account, and I think it might have found a way to disrupt his neural net. Which is to say, his brain.”

“So you put me at risk by sending me in there.”

“No, no,” said Perske, “Herman was connected all the time, and you would only be exposed for a short while. Besides, the virus couldn’t have killed him. Not directly. It might have disrupted his neurons, disoriented him enough that he tripped down the stairs. It’s unlikely that it would have affected you at all. The human brain has much better inherent safeguards than a computer network.”

“So,” said Max, “it was an acceptable level of risk. Thanks for the consideration.”

“Look, I’m sorry. I think it’s best if we just delete his account and leave the rest to the authorities.”

He slumped in the chair.

“Can you do that for me?” Perske asked.

“Yes,” grumbled Max.

“Thank you.”

“So it’s back to penguin backgammon, then?”

“If you don’t mind,” she said in a way that made it clear that she couldn’t care less whether Max minded or not.

Max stared at Perske and thought about telling her everything he had been through the previous night. But he wasn’t sure if it would be wise to let on that he had, among other things, gone poking around in an NSA storage site. He’d have to mull it over before he said anything further, and he was both too tired and too angry to ponder it at the moment.

“Linus and Minus will have to wait until tomorrow,” he said dryly, “I’m going home to sleep. I’m not feeling well.”

Perske made an attempt at a sympathetic smile. “Yes, do that. Take some personal time. You deserve it.”

“You bet I do,” said Max as he stood up, turned his back to Perske, and walked out. He was halfway down the hall before he heard the click of Perske gently closing her door.

“Maybe I’ll take two days,” he grumbled, and stomped his way back to the lab to look for his keys.

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