Thursday, April 26, 2007

Chapter 17. The First Cut

The surgical instruments that he had gathered from the grass were piled up to Max’s side as he leaned back against the shrouded table that held Betty’s mutilated corpse. Several of the instruments were broken from his feeble attempts to pick the lock on the shackles. He had worked his way through them one at a time with no luck. Only some clamps, a heavy pair of scissors, and a bone saw remained intact. Of the three, the bone saw seemed most promising.



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The tiny teeth on the saw were viciously sharp. Max pulled to tighten the chain that bound him, and drew the saw across one of the links. It left only a barely detectable scratch. It was clear that the blade would wear out long before he could do any damage to the heavy chain.

He rested the blade on his ankle. The points of the saw made small white spots where they touched his skin. He took a deep breath, drew the saw back in a quick, light stroke, and grimaced at the sting of the cut. It was a shallow wound, and for a moment, it didn’t even bleed. Soon a crimson line erupted along the blade’s path. A droplet of blood at one end of the cut slid lazily down toward his sock.

Max had once heard of a lone hiker who had gotten his foot trapped in shifting rubble while walking in the desert. Given the choice between life and his limb, the hiker had cut off his leg at the knee with a pocketknife, and somehow traveled miles to safety. He had been forced to amputate at the knee because there was no way he could have cut through his leg bones with a small knife. Max, on the other hand, had the relative luxury of a surgical saw designed precisely for hacking through bone.

He lined up the blade along the bloody cut and winced at the pain that came from even gently touching the steel to the wound.

“Come on,” he said to himself, “you can do it.” The bloody sheet that he could see out of the corner of his eye was a reminder that there were worse fates in store for him if he couldn’t saw off his leg and find some escape route.

This next cut, he thought, has got to be deeper. Max closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as he prepared for a second stroke. He breathed fast in an attempt to hyperventilate, and perhaps ease the impending pain a bit. He clenched the saw handle with his right hand, squeezed his ankle with his left, and pushed the saw teeth into his flesh. He leaned forward, took a final, deep breath, and let out a wail. "Oh please God!”

Just as he started to pull on the saw for a second cut, something snatched his wrist and wrenched the saw from his hand.

“Getting a jump on us are you, Alice?”

Spencer stood grinning down at him and smacking the bone saw against his chubby thigh.

“No fair going out of turn,” said Spencer.

Max made a lunge at the saw in Spencer’s hand, but the laundry monster reached out with a swaddled arm and blocked his way.

Spencer laughed. “So, what’s the good word? Is he being straight with us?”

The question made no sense. “What?” said Max.

He heard the hiss of the sheet sliding off the table behind him.

”He’s telling the truth. I think,” said a voice that sounded almost, but not quite, like Betty3.5.

Max craned his neck to peer over his shoulder at the table. Instead of Betty’s mangled torso, he saw Perske perched on the table edge.

“He doesn’t know anything,” she said.

Perske hopped down to the grass and walked over to stand next to Spencer.

“Sorry, Max. We had to be careful.”

“But what about,” Max stammered. “What happened to . . .”

“Betty,” said Spencer.

“She’s fine,” said Perske. “You can see her later.”

“But why did you do that?”

Perske glanced at one of Spencer’s lackeys and nodded down at Max’s leg. The couch creature unlocked the shackle. Perske bent down, reached for Max’s hand, and helped him to his feet.

“Let’s go for a walk and I’ll explain it all to you. But first,” she said, pointing at the scrape on Max’s ankle. “Let me put something on that.” She took the bone saw from Spencer, lifted a corner of the sheet that had previously covered the table, and used the sharp teeth to start a tear near one corner. She dropped the saw to the grass and ripped off a strip of cloth, then knelt and wrapped it over Max’s cut.

Perske stood up and placed a hand on each of his shoulders. “You deserve an explanation,” she said. “Come with me, and you’ll get one.”

She stepped forward and wrapped her arm around Max’s waist. She led him gently but firmly past Spencer and his lackeys toward the gap in the hedge.

“Everything’s going to be fine,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

“Thank you, Dr. Perske.”

“Call me Elizabeth,” she said with a gentle smile.

“Yes of course," said Max, "sorry. Elizabeth.”

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Chapter 16. Sacrifice

Max’s head hurt. It was making it difficult to think. He closed his eyes, pressed his hand against his brow, and tried to make sense of it all. From the moment the laundry monster and the couch creature had stuffed him into the oven, things had moved so quickly that he hadn’t had a chance to stop and figure it all out.



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Here was Betty, sliced open like a cadaver in an anatomy class, still breathing, heart beating, and occasionally speaking. Of course, he thought to himself, this has to be a virtual environment - or a dream. After all, Betty could only exist as a computer program or as a figment of his imagination.

He raised his hand and looked at the scalpel that rested in his naked palm. In the environment of the lab, he couldn’t have felt the presence of something like the scalpel without the interface of the virtual reality gloves. And yet, here was a piece of metal, with weight and texture. He closed his fist around the handle and rested his thumb against the blade. If it was virtual, it couldn’t hurt him. He closed his eyes. He pressed on the razor edge.

It’s not real, he thought. As long as Betty is here, it can’t be real. He pressed harder, but he couldn’t bring himself to attempt the ultimate test of running his thumb down the blade.

“Dammit.”

He dropped the scalpel onto the table next to Betty’s head and bent down to grasp the chain clamped to his ankle. He jerked at the restraint and felt the sharp pain where the shackle pinched his skin. The links were heavy and cold, and absolutely unyielding. With a howl of frustration, he jammed the chain into his mouth and bit down. The crunch of teeth against metal, and the tangy electric steel taste felt undeniably real.

Max fell to his haunches, panting and slamming his fist into the turf. He rolled onto his hands and knees and crawled away from the table until he reached the end of the chain. With eyes closed and jaw clenched, he pulled until the pain in his ankle was too much to bear. He tore at the ground, pulling out fistfuls of grass and heaving it into the air.

The tantrum soon exhausted him, and Max collapsed onto his belly. With his face resting on the soft grass, he glared at the distant hedgerow. It clearly lacked the hyper-reality of a virtual hedge. If this was some sort of virtual environment, which it must be if Betty was on the table, it was far more advanced than anything Max had ever experienced before.

He clambered weakly to his feet and turned back toward the table that held the mangled body of Herman’s virtual assistant.

“Betty,” he said as he approached the table. Her eyes moved in jerks beneath the closed lids. "Betty. Are you in pain?”

“Yes,” she said in a whisper so soft that Max could barely hear anything more than a breath.

“How can I help you?”

She swallowed and said, “Give them the Doomsday device.”

Max studied her pained and pleading face.

“I don’t have it.”

Betty spoke again, but Max couldn’t make it out.

“What did you say?”

She licked her lips. “Then end it. Terminate me.”

“I can’t. I tried.”

“Yes," she said, "yes you can.”

Max looked at the scalpel next to Betty’s head.

“With this?” He picked up the scalpel and held it in a trembling hand.

“Yes. Please.”

He turned the blade point down and slowly inserted its tip between the ribs over Betty’s heart. It was close enough that it nearly touched the muscle with each feeble beat. He almost asked her if she really wanted to die, if there was something else he could do. But laid open as she was, he knew that there was no other choice. She was as good as dead anyway.

Max thrust the blade into Betty’s heart. There was a brief resistance before it plunged in and his hand struck her rib cage. She arched under him, as if she was pushing back to force the scalpel deeper. Her heart convulsed, then shuddered, and a gush of hot, thick blood enveloped his hand. She dropped back and lay still.

Blood was spattered on his hand up to the wrist. It was running from Betty’s chest and down amongst the exposed lower organs. Her face was frozen, with eyes wide as if in shock, but at least the grimace of pain was gone. Max staggered back to the end of the chain, blood dripping from his hand.

Whether she was virtual or not, he could hardly bear the thought of being trapped here, chained beside the staring corpse of Betty3.5. He snatched up the sheet that Spencer had pulled off of Betty earlier. Max frantically wiped the blood from his hand. He lunged forward and tossed the sheet over Betty. It was better than nothing, but now that he knew what was underneath, it was nearly impossible to look at the bloody shroud without envisioning Betty's corpse.

He wanted to scream. It’s not real. It can’t be real. Betty and the blood, and the chain, and the courtyard, and the beautiful blue sky. It’s all an illusion!

He kicked at the chain. Then he hurled himself toward the rack of surgical instruments and heaved it over, spilling the clanking, stainless steel pieces onto the grass. He wanted to do the same to the table that held Betty. But even through the haze of rage, he couldn’t stand the thought of seeing that horror again. Instead, he snatched up a metal syringe from the pile of instruments, and threw it over the nearby bushes. He did the same with a pair of scissors, a retractor, and a clamp. He tried to pick up the instrument table itself, but it was too heavy.

Panting with fury, he turned and sprinted to the end of the chain. The shackle bit into his ankle, and Max slammed to the ground in a sobbing heap.

If it was an illusion, it was one he was going to have to live with, at least for now.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

The DarkNet Widget

Click the image to download The DarkNet widget. It keeps you up to date on the five most recent DarkNet chapters.



If you've never used a Yahoo Widget, and you'd like to give it a try, download the Yahoo Widget 4 engine.

It should work on Mac OS X as well.

Check out the other widgets in the Yahoo widget gallery when you have a chance. Most are written by regular folks. Only a fraction seem to come from the Yahoo staff.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Chapter 15. A Reunion, of Sorts

Max was literally going to pieces.

He’d been OK for a few moments after the laundry monster and couch creature shoved him into the hole where his oven should have been. There was no frame of reference to give him any indication of what was going on. He’d anticipated a screaming descent, tumbling through the void with turbulent wind battering his ears and face, ending with a violent thud on some invisible plane.



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Instead, it had begun with nothing. No sound beyond the pounding pulse in his ears. No visible feature to focus his eyes. No indication of up or down. After the struggle at the apartment, it was actually a relief.

He knew it couldn’t last of course. Realistically, they wouldn’t have shoved him in here (or was it out here?) for his own good. Perhaps it was to be a sensory depravation torture. In a little while, he thought, the disconnection should drive him mad.

He might as well try to simply be in the moment. It was a little bit of peace before old man Insanity would knock at the door of his mind, and Max would obligingly let him in.

That was when Max started falling apart. He caught sight of something whizzing away into the distance. The object was too bright to identify, shining vividly against the jet black darkness. It was like a tiny meteor zipping away with a trajectory that seemed to indicate that it had either passed though, or originated from, the vicinity of Max’s left nipple. He was still firmly bound in laundry, but in his peripheral vision he could see other bright sparks zipping off just like the first. There was no question about it, they all radiated from Max.

Suddenly the tip of his nose began to glow. He closed one eye and squinted down at it with the other as best he could. Although he couldn’t focus at such short range, he could see what appeared to be phosphorescent dust accumulating at the very end. It built up like iron filings adhering to a magnet, except for the fact that iron filings are dull black rather than glowing specks. Just as the light grew to the point that it’s brightness was too much to look at any longer, the end of his nose simply snapped off and jetted away.

Max shuddered and waited for the pain that should accompany the violent removal of his nose. It never came. There was not even really the feeling that his nose was missing. But it clearly wasn’t there. He tried to scrunch it up as he would if he were suppressing a sneeze. Although he saw nothing, he had the sensation that the tip of his nose was dutifully wriggling in response somewhere far far away.

The sparks emanated from him at an ever-increasing pace. With one final flash, Max exploded into countless gleaming pieces. He felt as though he was no longer a single being, but millions of tiny packets all moving in loose harmony, like a swarm of bees or a giant school of fish. Some portions lagged behind, then raced to catch up. Others swirled from the inside of his expanded incarnation to the out, rolling and seething, and becoming hopelessly mixed up.

There was no way that Max could imagine, in his swirling billowy thoughts, that there was any way he could ever be put back in the proper order. For a time, he seemed to fill the entire sterile expanse. He was one with the universe, as he now knew it.

Then the bits began to contract, returning from their outer reaches in an implosion that mirrored his earlier disintegration, until Max reassembled into a solid whole that was now disappointingly small and insignificant.

He was wrapped again in the cocoon of laundry and lying face down with his cheek pressed against a cold, hard surface. Just beyond his nose, which had returned to its appropriate place on the front of his face, Max could see the mottled pink of what appeared to be a polished marble floor.

“Welcome to wonder land Alice. Did you have a nice trip?” said a voice above him. He recognized Spencer's squeaky tones.

Max’s cheeks puffed beneath the sock gag, but only a muffled rasp escaped.

“Pardon me,” said Spencer, “it must be tough to talk through that thing. Here, let me help.”

Max felt the sock loosen.

“Exit environment!” he shrieked.

“I’m afraid that isn’t going to work now,” said Spencer.

“Exit environment! Halt Program! System reboot!”

Max’s screams were stifled again as the sock tighten across his mouth. There was a rough jerk as he was rolled over onto his back. He peered at the arched ceiling far above, which was decorated with images of cherubs and angels, antiquated armies of foot soldiers, and lounging figures draped in flowing bolts of cloth. An upside-down face suddenly obscured his view. It was so close that Max could barely make out the glasses and the pudgy cheeks.

“It’s useless my friend,” said Spencer. “You’re on the inside now. You don’t have permission to shut down the system from here. You’re just going to have to relax.”

The sock loosened.

“Exit environment! Emergency shut down! Terminate program!”
Spencer clamped a pudgy hand on Max’s mouth, then he pinched his nostrils shut with the other hand. Max began to squirm. His eyes bulged and veins throbbed on his forehead.

“Why don’t you try, kill process," asked Spencer, "or ‘control alt delete’?”

Spencer lifted his hands from Max’s face.

He took a rattling breath. “F-user.”

Spencer grasped Max’s throat with a powerful grip.

“I can leave you here to scream all day, if you like. It’s not going to work.”

Max’s eyes filled with tears of pain as Spencer squeezed.

“Do you understand?” said Spencer.

Max nodded feebly. Spencer relaxed his grip. He leaned in so close that their noses nearly touched. “Now shut up and I’ll get you out if this stuff. Alright?”

Max nodded again.

Spencer stood up, and beckoned. The wrappings loosened, and then were gone. Max spread his aching arms and legs in relief, but he lacked the strength to do anything more for the moment.

“Take your time,” said Spencer, “I’m in no hurry.”

Max let his head loll to one side. He saw the laundry monster and couch creature waiting for Spencer’s orders. The dirty clothes that previously bound him stood in a pile beside them.

Beyond his captors, a series of stone pillars rose to support the outer edge of the arched ceiling. A cloudless sky showed through in the spaces between the pillars. Max rolled his head to the right. More pillars, and more sky. He heaved his left arm across his body and struggled to rise to his knees.

“Help him up,” said Spencer.

Max felt firm hands beneath his shoulders as the henchmen lifted him to his feet. He turned to peer at the couch creature, but could discern nothing from the paisley button eyes. The strain was too great for the exhausted muscles in his neck, and Max’s head dropped until his chin rested on his chest.

“Let’s go.” Spencer marched off across the marble floor, and the couch creature and laundry monster dragged Max after him. His head bounced with each step as they neared the soaring pillars, periodically giving him a view of rolling hills that spread below. The stone structure where Spencer had collected him was a sort of acropolis, on a hill rising above a village constructed of small, neatly ordered buildings that appeared to be made of limestone or marble. A courtyard bordered with bushy hedges opened up at the bottom of the stairs. His feet bounced against the stone steps as Spencer’s lackeys lugged him down to the courtyard. He was gradually regaining strength in his neck, although with each step his head threatened to flop first forward, then back.

They reached the bottom step, and continued onto the soft grass toward the far side of the courtyard, where a coffin-sized structure draped in a white shroud stood. The cloth covered an array of lumpy shapes that, to Max, resembled a work of art in progress, like modeling clay that a sculptor had left in the very early stages of creation. A shiny steel table to one side held an array of instruments that looked as though they might have been at home in a dentist’s office or a surgical theater.

Spencer approached the shrouded structure, and turned to wait for Max and the lackeys.

“Let him go,” said Spencer.

They released Max’s arms, and he fell to his knees.

Spencer pushed his black-rimmed glasses higher up on his bulbous nose.

“Can you guess what, or more precisely who, I have here?”

Max let his head drop, then swung it to one side to look at Spencer with eyes heavy from exhaustion.

“Reunions are always so moving,” said Spencer dryly. He reached out and pinched the shroud daintily. “This is a little project that I call ‘Deconstructing Betty.” He slowly pulled the cloth away, revealing a surgical table and much of Betty 3.5. “It’s sort of reverse software engineering. We’re really finding out what makes this young lady tick.”

Betty’s legs were missing, as were her arms. She was lying on her back with her head and face intact, but even from his vantage point on his knees Max could see that her torso was shredded. He choked down the bile that rose in his throat and turned away.

“Oh come on, she’s just code.," said Spencer. "There’s nothing I can do to her that has any real meaning.”

Max fell forward onto his hands and started to crawl backwards toward the acropolis.

“Bring him here,” said Spencer. The henchmen snatched up Max by the arms and carried him to the table. He tried to turn his face away, but Spencer grabbed a fistful of the hair on the top of his head and forced him to look.

Betty had been sliced down the front, from the nape of her neck to her pubis. Her skin was pulled back and clamped to the table like the wings of some exotic and gruesome butterfly, revealing her rib cage, organs, and intestines. Her lungs quivered beneath the ribs, and her heart was still beating.

“Say hello Betty,” said Spencer.

Her eyes fluttered slightly at the sound of her name, and opened just a bit.

“Herman,” she whispered. Max strained to turn away, but Spencer held him fast by the hair.

“No no, Betty,” said Spencer, “Herman is no more. This is our friend Max. He’s here to help you.”

Her eyes closed, and her mouth soundlessly formed the shape of Herman’s name.

“We’ve poked around just about everywhere, to make sure there’s nothing suspicious hidden inside,” said Spencer as he waved his hand toward Betty’s vivisected torso. “There’s only one more place to look.” He tapped Betty’s forehead. “But we thought we’d give you a few minutes with her first.”

Max gritted his teeth. The breath whistled through his nostrils as he glared at Spencer out of the corner of his eyes. Code or not, there was only so much suffering he could handle. He lunged for the table of surgical instruments, but he was no match for the henchmen and Spencer’s iron grip on his hair.

“Not yet, my friend.” Spencer’s grin faded. His eyes narrowed into a malicious glare. “You’ll have your turn at those momentarily, if you like.”

He released Max’s head and walked around to the other side of the table.

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me?” asked Spencer. “Anything that might encourage me to put her out of her misery?”

“I told you,” said Max through his teeth. “I don’t have the device.”

Spencer studied Max for a moment.

“OK,” he said. “I’m gonna leave you here with Betty for a while so you can think things over.” He nodded to the couch creature who in turn reached under the table. He pulled out a manacled chain that was hidden beneath and clamped it to Max’s ankle. The other end was fastened to one of the table legs.

“Visit for a while,” said Spencer. “If you feel like it,” he nodded at the surgical instruments, “put her down yourself.”

Spencer turned and headed toward the hedge that bordered the courtyard. The laundry monster and couch creature followed, leaving Max staring after them.

“I’ll be back shortly,” said Spencer over his shoulder as they disappeared through a gap in the bushes.

Max tugged at the chain around his ankle as he studied Betty’s beating heart.

“Terminate Betty3.5,” he said. The heart continued beating.

“Exit environment.” Still nothing.

He took a step toward the instrument table, picked up a scalpel, then moved back and held the blade over Betty’s chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he took aim.

“Herman?” whispered Betty.

“I’m not Herman.”

She opened her eyes slightly.

“You’re a shit head.”

Max pulled the scalpel away and dropped his hand to his side.

“I know.”

Read the rest of the post . . .

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Chapter 14. Slash

Max often left the lab late at night. It was a short, ten-minute drive home, but he preferred to avoid the crush of traffic that packed the streets around campus when classes let out. Although he liked driving, even the scant distance home, he usually left the car in auto chauffeur mode in the evenings. It was easier and safer to let the car take over after dark.



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Many nights, the trip was so uneventful as to hardly register in Max’s mind. Tonight was one of those nights. In fact, this time he could hardly recall even starting his car. One moment he was walking out of the lab, and the next he was stumbling through the front door of his studio apartment and collapsing onto the stained floral-print couch.

“Drugs,” he mumbled and lifted himself back to his feet. “Gotta have the drugs.”

He stepped over the perennial mound of dirty laundry in the hall and made his way to the bathroom. The medicine cabinet was crammed with empty pill bottles that bore testimony to the countless refills that he had accumulated with years of epilepsy medication. They were like his children, growing larger over time as his tolerance for Phenobarbital increased. He’d had two seizures already this month, and one the month before. At this pace, he’d have to bump up the dose again, which meant more pills, or larger tablets. Eventually his tolerance would get to the point that he’d have to switch to something else. Unfortunately, most other anticonvulsives tended to be more toxic to the liver than Phenobarbital, and his doctor recommended against changing medication until it was absolutely necessary. Epilepsy itself probably wouldn’t kill him, but the drugs to control it surely would, someday.

He scanned the cabinet and took down the one bottle that wasn’t empty. He placed four pills in the envelope in his wallet and cupped another two in his hand. He popped the pills in his mouth, stuck his head under the faucet, and washed them down with tap water.

He shuffled back to the living room, kicked off his shoes, and plopped onto the couch. He tried not to think about the events of the last few days. Betty, Linus, the cyber swinger, the chat room, and the broken down Army of Darkness headquarters were all just part of the virtual world. Although virtual reality was a huge part of his work, he tried to always keep it in perspective. This was real - his stinky little apartment, his shoddy old TV with basic fiber service, the filthy plates that threatened to overflow the sink in the kitchen, and the German cockroach infestation in his pantry that he could never quite seem to get under control. This was life.

He had known escapists who wallowed in virtual games and online communities. Max, however, preferred gritty reality. In part, his dislike of virtual environments was a reaction to the fact that he had no choice but to spend hours in them everyday at the lab. But mostly it was a result of his basic philosophy of life. In his mind, pain, hunger, loneliness, and filth were the things that put everything else in perspective and gave life meaning. Without them, how could anyone truly experience the good things? Virtual reality escapists fill in the voids and paint over the ugly parts of their existences with role-playing games and cyber sex. But eliminating the lows makes it impossible to recognize the highs, as few and far between as they might be.

That was why it was Max’s custom to put work out of his mind as much as possible when he was at home. The grimy apartment was his sanctuary from the virtual world at the lab.

Max felt for the remote in the gritty crevices between the couch cushions. He flicked on the TV, and ran through the channels in search of something to occupy his mind until the medicine kicked in. And yet, his thoughts kept drifting back to the puzzles that had confronted him at work. He ticked them off with each click of the remote.

Click, channel 106.

What was the device Spencer was after?

Click, channel 107.

Is there really a Doomsday Virus as Perske had claimed?

Click, 108.

If so, is it related to the device Spencer wanted?

Click, 109.

Where was Betty?

Click, 110.

Could he help her?

Click, 111.

Why was the login name ‘Patriot’ so annoyingly familiar?

Click, 112.

Since when could his TV get channels higher than 110?

He sat up on the couch and held down the channel button. 113, 114, 115. There was something on every station. Nature documentaries, home improvement, car repair, self help, religious programming, politics, sports, cartoons, porn, and more porn. By the time he’d reached 160, just about every channel was dedicated to porn. Max stopped for a moment to watch a slithering, slimy mound of mating flesh on channel 201. He tried entering a channel manually. 1111. Sure enough, it was porn, and the reception was great. 11111111. At last, something different; classic Star Trek.

The episode looked familiar. Spock and Kirk were locked in mortal combat, wielding absurdly impractical weapons that, even on TV, looked like cardboard and rubber props decorated with metallic paint.

Kirk managed to disarm Spock. Predictably, Kirk threw his own weapon away in a macho show of fair play. The fight entered the hand-to-hand combat portion as Spock and Kirk took turns throwing each other around on the dusty sound stage in a 1960’s interpretation of futuristic Judo.

Max watched as the actors beat each other into mock exhaustion, and then collapsed with arms entwined. They caressed each other, and kissed.

“Holy crap,” said Max as Spock stood and Kirk climbed slowly to his knees. This was not the episode that Max remembered. Clearly, it was some sort of perverse adaptation. Still, whoever had produced it had done an excellent job finding actors who bore stunning resemblances to the original screen stars.

Max was so horrified and riveted by the depraved take-off that he barely heard the phone ringing on the floor next to the couch. When the sound finally registered, he tore his eyes away from the scene on the TV, dropped the remote and fumbled for the phone.

“Hello,” Max rasped.

“So, you’re a fan of slash, are you?” asked the voice on the other end.

“What?”

“Slash, as in Kirk-Spock erotica.”

It was the squeaky voice Max had first heard in the Dark Net.

“Spencer?”

“No shit.”

Max wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer to the questions that were on the tip of his tongue, but he had to ask. “Why are you calling me? And how do you know what’s on my TV?”

“Your TV, my TV. Does anyone really own a television? You might say they own us.”

Whatever Spencer was trying to say, Max wasn’t getting it. “Why,” he asked again, “are you calling me?”

“We have some catching up to do. Don’t you remember Max?” said Spencer wryly. “Should I call you Max? Or would you prefer Herman? That's how Betty here knows you.”

"Listen Spencer. I don’t have whatever it is you’re after. And Betty’s just code. There’s nothing you can do to her that has any meaning.”

“Maybe we should do something to you then.”

Max whipped the phone away from his ear. He was on the verge of slamming it back into its cradle when the image of Kirk and Spock making love on the screen caught his attention. If Spencer knew who he was, and even knew what he was watching on TV, then the threats just might be serious. Max slowly lifted the phone back to his ear.

“What do you want from me?”

“You know what I want.”

Max nearly screamed, “I don’t have the device, don’t know where it is, and don’t even know what it is. So get off my back!”

“Hey, Max,” said Spencer, “I believe you. I’m just that kind of guy, you know, trusting. But I have a friend who is a bit more skeptical. So you’re going to have to prove it to him yourself.”

“What the Hell do you want me to do?”

“Talk," said Spencer, " just talk. Only I’d prefer that we do it face to face. So, I’m sending over a few fellows to pick you up.”

“I’m calling the cops,” bellowed Max. “And if anyone else shows up here, they’d better watch it, ‘cause,” Max lied, “I’ve got a gun.”

“See you soon, my friend.”

The line went dead.

Max pounded the phone on the cradle, and then put it back to his ear. There was no dial tone. He tried again. Still nothing.

“Dammit.”

He jumped from the couch and raced to the closet where he piled things he had no use for but didn’t want to throw away. He pulled over the stack of boxes at the front to get to the junk that had accumulated behind. He didn’t have a gun, of course., but somewhere in here was a bat. At least he thought there was one. Max waded past sweats, running shoes, a deflated volleyball, and an empty toolbox. No bat. The closest he got was a dry-rotted baseball glove.

“Shit,” he snapped. Then he noticed something long and slender under his faded trench coat in back. He snatched the coat out of the closet and tossed it to the floor behind him. Still no bat. The shape was only the careworn Gibson electric guitar he picked up at a pawnshop and never learned to play.

It would have to do.

“I’ll put a Pete Townsend hurt on their asses,” snarled Max. He hefted the guitar by it’s slender neck, backed away from the closet, and took a few practice swings. For the first time, he understood why some rockers call guitars axes; they have good balance for hacking.

Max headed for the front door, wielding the guitar like a mace. He checked the dead bolt and locked the knob, then peered through the peephole. Nothing. But what about the windows? Max shook his head. All the windows were locked, he was certain of it. Not only did he keep them latched, but the one time he’d tried to open them, he’d found that they were sealed with several layers of paint. If anyone was coming through a window, they were going to have to smash it in. That gave Max an advantage. The windows were small, and an intruder entering through one would have to squirm in headfirst. If he heard a window break, Max could meet the bastards as they were crawling through, and take them out one at a time with the Gibson.

Counting the window in the kitchen, the ones in the living room, and the tiny bathroom window, he had four altogether. What if they came in more than one at a time? His best bet, he figured, was to get to the center of the apartment and be ready to sprint at the first sound of breaking glass. They’d have to be very lucky to synchronize themselves well enough to get multiple people in different windows simultaneously. Max was sure he had the upper hand.

He ran back to the living room, and made a mental estimate of the most central point relative to the apartment windows. With his back against the living room wall, in the same place he had soiled the carpet during the taping of his seizure, he was less than a half dozen steps from each window. Almost as important, he could see three of the windows from this spot. Only the tiny bathroom window was obscured by a jog in the hallway, and that one was a long shot for an intruder, considering its small size.

He crouched by the wall with the guitar at the ready, like a batter looking for a fastball. As he waited, he planned his attack for each window. The kitchen was a straight shot to his left. If they came in through either of the living room windows, he’d have to go over the couch. As long as he didn’t trip on the way, launching off the couch back might even be helpful. He could get some altitude, and bring the guitar down like a sledgehammer. The bathroom would be trickier, both because he wouldn’t be able to size up his opponent until the last moment, and because there would be little room to maneuver in the cramped space. Guitars, he thought, are weapons best built for battle on open ground.

Max’s heart was pounding hard enough that he could feel it in the seething pulse in his neck and face. There was a roaring in his ears. But now that he was prepared to defend himself, there was little to do other than wait.

The pause gave him time to wonder if what he was doing made sense. Should he stand here and let them make the first move? Or should he try to make a break for it out the front door? Maybe he should have left the moment he realized the phone wasn’t working. If he could have made it to his car, he might have been able to get to a police station, or at least to a public spot where he would have been able to avoid abduction. The guitar grew heavy as the doubts crept in. His arms began to tremble under the strain.

“What an idiot,” he said. Max let the Gibson drop, and rested its heavy body on the floor. “I should have left when I had the chance.” For all he knew, the moments he’d spent dashing around the apartment had given them time to set up. He chewed at his knuckle and listened for any sounds coming from outside the apartment. He could hear nothing, other than the struggles of Kirk and Spock making rough masculine love on the TV. Max wished he had turned it off earlier. Now that he was parked against the wall, he didn’t want to risk the few steps it would take to reach the remote. Fortunately, he couldn’t see the screen from where he was standing.

Max waited. For what seemed like an eternity. He looked at his watch. It still red twelve past ten, just as it had when he’d checked it at the lab. It must be dead, he thought.

The action on the TV reached a crescendo, then died down into post-coital murmurs which were, in a way, more disturbing than the previous throes of passion.

He took a deep breath. Maybe Spencer had lied when he said he was sending people to get him. His pounding heart quieted some. Maybe it was just an idle threat.

He leaned against the wall, tilted his head back toward the ceiling, and ran his hand through his hair. He covered his eyes with his forearm. “It’s all a lie,” he reassured himself. “It’s just a sick joke.”

That’s when he heard the noise. Max snatched up the guitar and scanned the windows. “Who’s there?” he blurted. All was still, except for the cooing on the TV. It had sounded like something had moved. Not outside the windows or door, but inside the apartment. In the jumble of furniture and scattered articles of clothing, it was impossible to tell what, if anything, had shifted.

There it was again. A soft rustling. Max looked down the hall past the pile of laundry toward the bathroom. Something was definitely there. He couldn’t move. This was the part where he was supposed to charge to the bathroom and clobber the intruder with the guitar. But he was frozen in place with fear.

He heard the rustling again. It was right there, in the hall. As Max watched with wide-eyed terror, the laundry pile began to seethe. The sound hadn’t come from the bathroom after all. The pile rose up in a pillar of dirty socks, shirts, and towels, and took on a vaguely humanoid form. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the cushions tumble off the couch. He jerked his head around in time to discover another figure surging from beneath the cloth couch backing. With a heave, it ripped away from the couch, leaving a layer of yellowed and pitted foam behind.

The monsters closed in, one a walking mound of laundry and the other a ghoul wrapped in the stained floral print of the couch fabric. Max heaved the guitar and it landed squarely on the laundry monster with a silent, harmless thud. The creatures enveloped him in an embrace of fabric. The guitar was wrenched from his grip. His arms were pinned to his side, and a grimy sweat sock wrapped itself across his face, gagging him with the humid stench of his own feet. The brutes moved back and Max fell to the floor with a thump, bound in a cocoon of dirty clothing. His struggles were useless. Every twitch and jerk only tightened the cloth around him. The laundry monster and the couch creature bent down and lifted Max, then carried him into the kitchen in the same way that two men might carry a rolled up carpet.

Max tried to scream, but the sock muffled the sounds of his agony.

The couch creature, who held Max around the upper torso with one floral-print arm, reached out with the other arm and flipped open the oven. Instead of the grimy racks and greasy oven walls that should have been inside, there was just a gaping black hole. Max realized what they planned to do. His eyes bulged as the beasts aimed him head-first at the oven. He strained to kick and twist, but he was so firmly bound that he could barely manage even the most meager twitch. The beasts advanced, and slid Max into the hole like cordwood into a potbelly stove. The couch creature stepped aside. The laundry monster gave Max’s wrapped feet a shove, and Max sailed into the Dark Net void with a final, stifled shriek.

****

Once Max disappeared into the oven, the couch creature bent forward and was on the verge of diving in after him when the laundry monster turned back toward the living room.

It raised one swaddled arm and pointed ominously toward the television.

“Hey,” it said with a voice that was muffled by mounds of dirty cloth. “Check it out. Vintage slash.”

The couch creature straightened up and leaned back to look at the TV. “What?”

“It’s Kirk-Spock slash,” said the laundry monster as it strode into Max’s living room and plopped onto the floor.

“You’re into that?” asked the couch creature from the kitchen.

“Come on Bob. It’s classic. Kirk-Spock is the slash that started it all.”

The couch creature shuffled to the kitchen doorway, leaned against the door frame, and crossed it’s fabric arms over it’s chest. “Eddie, come on. Let’s go.”

“Hold on a sec. You see, Spock has to mate every ten years, or else he’ll die. But Kirk and Spock are trapped on this deserted planet, I can’t remember why just now. Anyway, Spock is history unless Kirk helps him out. Which he does, if you know what I mean, reluctantly. Only he finds out that it’s not so bad after all, and he saves Spock’s life to boot.”

The couch creature sighed. “This stuff is sick.”

“No, listen. So the Enterprise comes back and picks them up, but now Kirk has these issues he needs to deal with. And Spock isn’t the most demonstrative guy, but he eventually learns to express himself.”

“Jeez Eddie,” said the couch creature in exasperation. “You are such a freak.”

There didn’t seem much chance he could get Eddie the laundry monster going until the episode was over, so Bob the couch creature slid down the door jam onto his haunches to wait. He idly pondered the cloth on his arm. “You know,” he said to himself, “this is really a pretty nice pattern.”








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Friday, April 06, 2007

Chapter 13. Beware of Attachments

A few blocks away from the imploding chat room, Max and Linus caught a cab back to the university system. When they entered Herman’s room, Max collapsed in the lawn chair as Linus ambled around the carpet, occasionally stopping to peck at a desk leg or taste a scrap of paper.



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Patriot, he thought as he mulled over the last words Cathy spoke before she was snatched away by the chain around her neck. Where had he seen that login before?

Perhaps it had been the login to the Dark Net entrance to the NSA storeroom that Spencer had given them. He couldn’t recall if Spencer ever mentioned it aloud. Damn it, if only he had looked at the note Spencer had written he might know for sure.

Max chewed his nails and wondered what to do next.

“Load Betty 2.0,” he said.

After the standard confirmation chime, Betty entered dressed in the same tight skirt she’d worn the last time she assisted him. Max cringed. “If you don’t mind Betty, could you change into a different outfit?” She didn’t mind, of course, but the vague command had no meaning for her, and Betty stood waiting for an order she could act on.

“Why don’t you put on some sweat pants and a sweat shirt? Large ones.” She obligingly stepped out of the room and returned almost instantly, dressed in loose fitting sweats. That was better.

“Betty, please scan Herman’s files for the word ‘Patriot.”

If Herman was a former Army of Darkness member, thought Max, it was possible that he had the NSA login and password somewhere. Drawer by drawer, Betty ran her fingers through the remaining files.

“There are no instances of Patriot,” she reported.

Max ordered her to expand the search to include hidden files.

Again, she found nothing. It wasn’t too surprising. Max had disposed of many files already, and he guessed that there was at least a fifty-fifty chance, if Herman had saved an unencrypted copy of the password, that it was now permanently deleted.

“Damn,” Max said, kneading his brow. It would have been too easy anyway, had Herman left the password lying around.

He looked at the opening to the Dark Net behind Herman’s filing cabinet. Somewhere out there was the route to Spencer’s black market porn site, and the NSA storeroom. He shook his head. There was no way he would be able to find his way to either place without Herman’s Betty to show him the way. He would literally be poking around in the dark.

That was it then. He might as well finish the job Perske had sent him to do.

He looked at his watch. He had been gone for nearly four hours.

“Betty, did I get any email while I was out?”

Betty stepped through the door to Max’s home environment and returned with his mail. It was, as always, mostly junk, except for a note from Perske and a small box.

“Speak of the Devil,” he said, “What does old Elizabeth want?”

“Dr. Perske requests an update on the status of Herman Grunding’s account.”

“I imagine she does,” said Max. After all, four hours should have been plenty of time to clear everything out. He was late again.

“There’s an attachment to the message,” said Betty tapping the box. “Should I open it?”

Max glanced at the package. Perske rarely included attachments with her messages, usually preferring to hand him any materials she had for him in person.

“No thanks Betty. Just give it to me and compose a reply to sender.” Betty handed him the box, pulled a notepad and pen from the waistband of her sweat suit, and sat at the desk.

“Dr. Perske,” he began as he studied the box, “No delete that . . . Elizabeth.” Betty crossed out the salutation and started anew. Perske had asked him to treat her less formally, but it didn’t feel right. “Change the salutation back to ‘Dr. Perske’.” Betty dutifully made the correction. Max turned the box around. It had the standard warning against opening attachments from unknown sources printed in red letters across it.

Max dictated as he ripped the tape from the box. “I have cleared out approximately half of Herman’s account. I anticipate finishing this afternoon, and will subsequently remove the account, as requested.”

Max contemplated explaining why it had taken so long to fulfill Perske’s request, but it seemed too involved to get into in an email message, and he wasn’t sure what she would think of his adventures anyway. On the other hand, Perske might like to know that at least one former AOD member believed that the Doomsday Virus, which Perske speculated had attacked Herman, was no more than a myth.

“No,” he said aloud, “it’s too complicated.”

Betty wrote on the notepad.

“Hold it,” said Max, “Don’t include that last part.”

Betty scratched out a line.

Max shook his head. It was sometimes tough dictating to a mindless virtual assistant.

“Read the message back to me as it stands now.”

Betty put down her pen. “Reply to sender P 8 3 8, alias E. Perske,” said Betty. “Dr. Perske, I have cleared out approximately half of Herman’s account. I anticipate finishing this afternoon, and will subsequently delete the account, as requested.”

Max composed the next line in his head as he folded back the box flaps and lifted out a toy car. It was a miniature Volkswagen Beetle about the size of Max’s fist.

“Stop for a moment Betty.”

She put down the pen. Max turned the toy car over and flipped the switch on the bottom. The wheels began to spin and the headlights flashed. He set the toy on the carpet and it zoomed off, tracing circles and figure eights around the room, occasionally ramming into a piece of furniture, backing up, and racing off again. It was, to say the least, an oddly whimsical attachment, coming as it did from the cold hearted director herself.

“Read the header to me one more time.”

Betty recited from the notepad, “Reply to sender P838, alias E. Perske.”

“P838,” Max echoed. The toy car whizzed toward Linus, who tumbled backwards to avoid it and squawked in dismay. After the car passed, Linus hopped up and waddled frantically to the lawn chair. He squeezed between Max’s calves and peered out as the Beetle popped a wheelie and spun in place. It dropped back onto all four wheels and headed full tilt toward the lawn chair. Just as it was about to ram into Max’s foot, it turned hard and flipped onto its side, with its horn tooting and lights flashing. Linus hunkered down between Max’s legs, and Max reached out to pick up the toy.

“P838,” mused Max, peering at the flashing headlights. They were flickering frantically, and the car let out a series of high-pitched beeps. Max felt the muscles in his forearm twitch. The spasm in his arm reminded him of the time he’d inadvertently slipped his finger into an electrical socket while changing the bulb in his kitchen, only without the hot, fuzzy electric caterpillar that had crawled to his elbow. His grip tightened on the little car. He couldn’t look away from the lights.

“P8 . . . 38,” said Max as his eyes rolled back in their sockets. He slipped off the chair, tumbled to the carpet, and passed out.

***
He lay face up on the floor, eyes fluttering sporadically, when the dream began. Two clouds floated in the open door of the browser. They hovered over him. One of them drifted down toward his face and hummed. It reminded Max of the sound a barber’s electric razor makes when trimming the hair above his ears. The other cloud hummed as well, but the sound was more distant, and higher pitched. Every now and then the humming was interspersed with something like an intelligible word.

The clouds were becoming more defined. The one closest to him took the shape of a huge soft balloon with painted-on eyes. When it hummed it let out a hot blast of moist, foul air.

The bulbous balloon drifted away, and the other one floated down. It was more elongated than the first. It too hummed at him and drifted off.

Then everything went black.
***

Spencer leaned against Herman’s desk and sneered at Max’s prone, unconscious form. Perske, with her hands on her hips, also pondered the insensible technician.

“How long will he be out?” Spencer asked with a growl that sent Linus scampering under the desk. Betty sat in her chair, calmly inspecting her manicure.

“I don’t know,” said Perske, “minutes, hours, days even.”

“If he moves," said Spencer, "kick him in the head.”

“We don’t want to leave any evidence behind. And particularly not signs of physical abuse.” Perske bent over and pried the Beetle from Max’s fingers. “Anyway, it won’t be necessary,” she said holding up the toy car. “If he stirs, we can just hit him with this again.”

“Won’t that leave a mark?”

“I didn’t mean it literally.”

“Oh,” said Spencer glancing at Max’s inert form, “too bad.”

Perske knelt down next to Max and searched his pockets. Spencer turned to the filing cabinet. “How do we know what to look for?”

“Anything from text instructions to unusual, probably small, applications.”

Spencer peeked in the empty top drawer, then closed it and moved onto the second one down. “Wouldn’t it be encrypted?”

“It’s possible, but I doubt it.”

“Why?”

“For one thing, because of this.” Perske held out the technical note cover sheet that Max had picked up at the Army of Darkness site.

Spencer reached over and took the slick, blue sheet from her.

“If Max found it in here,” said Perske, “it’s unlikely that Herman went to any great lengths to disguise the rest. He was relying on the guard to keep it safe.”

“So where do you suppose it is?”

Perske shrugged. “My guess is it’s either still lying around somewhere, or Max destroyed it with the other documents he was deleting.”

“And if he did delete it, what then?”

Perske rocked back on her heels. “Good enough. At least it’s gone.”

“I’d much rather destroy it with my own hands. Then we’d know for certain.”

“In either case, we have to be thorough.”

Spencer returned to the cabinet and pulled the drawer out to its full extent. “So we have to sift through all this.”

Perske nodded and stood up. “Let’s get started.”

“What about those two?” asked Spencer, jerking his head to indicate Max’s Betty and the cowering penguin under the desk.

“I’m guessing they’re clean,” said Perske. She squatted down beside the desk and pulled out Linus by one orange foot, and lifted him into the air. ”But I’ll run a scan on them just in case.”

“That’ll do I suppose,” replied Spencer, as he turned back to the file drawer.

***
Max felt an oppressive weight on his stomach. An acid lump was rising in his throat. Velvety blackness obscured his vision and he had the sensation that his ears were stuffed with cotton. He briefly wondered if he’d had another seizure. If he had, it felt different than the ones he experienced in the past. For one thing, he wasn’t particularly hungry or tired, and he had never before recalled a dream after a seizure. This time, he distinctly remembered humming clouds and balloons with painted on eyes.

The weight on his stomach bounced, forcing him to exhale with a rasp. Something hard thumped against his forehead. Max winced.

The weight slid off of him. But a few moments later, it was back. Again something small and hard hit him in the face.

“Dammit.”

Max’s vision began to clear. He was staring up at the disco ball hanging from Herman’s ceiling.

He lifted his head to look down toward his feet, and saw Linus perched on his stomach.

“Get off me,” said Max as he heaved upward, flopping Linus onto the carpet. The penguin scampered out the door leading to the adjacent Antarctic environment. Max propped himself up on his elbow and peered around intently. There was no sign of the buzzing balloons, if they even existed, or of the flashing and beeping toy car. Two backgammon pieces, one brown and one white, were on the carpet next to the place where his head had been a moment before. A ruckus near the door caused him to look up to see Linus struggling to drag the backgammon board across the black carpet, trailing backgammon pieces as he went.

“Jesus, you little monster,” sighed Max. “You’ve got a one track mind.”

Max checked his watch. It red just past ten o’clock, but the second hand was frozen. He lifted the watch to his ear. Nothing. “Betty, what time is it?”

“Ten twelve,” she said without looking up from her nails.

“PM?”

“Yes.”

He lifted himself to his knees and pulled his wallet from his pocket. It was well past the time to take his drugs. He normally took two half-grain pills each morning and night. There was only one left in the package in his wallet. Max recalled that he had taken an extra from his stash a few days ago and hadn’t replaced it. If he was going to keep his pheno-barb levels up, he would have to get home soon to the supply in his bathroom medicine cabinet. Max climbed wearily to his feet. Perske would have to wait one more day for him to finish emptying Herman’s account.

“That’s all for today folks,” said Max to Betty and Linus. “Save environment. Exit.”

Herman’s room disappeared and the lab rematerialized. Max patted his shorts pockets. “Now, where the hell are my keys?”







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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Chapter 12. All in the Game

Linus wasn’t too fond of the Green Hornet, based on the way he pecked vigorously at the superhero's shiny emerald green shoes. The scowl on the Hornet’s face made it clear that the scuffmarks on the patent leather weren’t winning any points for Max and Linus either.

Max’s attempt to butter up the Hornet by complimenting him on his choice of such a sharp dressing character only made matters worse, particularly because his job at the Funny Pages Multi-User Game seemed to be simply doorman. Eventually, the Hornet let them through, but not before submitting Linus to a multi-pass virus scan and including a detailed description of the penguin’s code in Max’s profile.



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Once inside, Max had to stop at an antechamber where roles were assigned. A woman behind the desk asked him what character he wanted to take on for the game.

“What’s available?” asked Max.

“Beetle Bailey, Nancy, and Garfield,” said the woman, who was dressed as Olive Oil.

“Do I have to be a character? I’ve never been here before, and I’m really just looking around.”

“If you’re only going to observe,” said Olive, “you can wear this.” She handed Max a simple black mask that covered the upper half of his face, but left his mouth and chin exposed. “You’ll have to wear a name tag too, so that they’ll know what to call you.”

“Fine,” said Max.

Olive pulled a sheet of white paper stickers out of the drawer in her desk. “And who shall I say we are today?”

Max contemplated using his real name, but thought better of it. If he was going to try to track down some old AOD members, perhaps they’d recognize Herman’s name.

“Just write Grunding.”

“You wanna spell that?”

Max did, and Olive filled out the tag.

“Put it on, read the disclaimer,” she pointed to a sign on the wall next to the desk, “and go on in.”

He stuck the tag to his shirt and pretended to study the notice on the wall. “Come on Linus,” he said and headed to the frosted glass doors that led to the game.

“That’s a cute sidekick you got there,” called Olive as Max reached for the door. “Is he listed in your profile?”

Max said he was, and Olive let them go.

They entered the arena to find a raised platform that extended into the depths of the warehouse. It was surrounded by a curving glass wall. A handful of characters in the midst of play were scattered across the platform. Others lounged in chairs gathered around tables that were arranged in the space that ringed the playing field. Most of the tables were unoccupied. It was clear that the game was designed to accommodate many more players than were present. A group of characters were gathered around one table chatting and bickering.

The PA system announced, “Grunding has entered the arena.”

“Grunding?” said a young man at the crowded table, looking at Max and Linus. The man was dressed in a short sleeve checkered shirt, narrow cut jeans, and tennis shoes. A camera hung on a strap around his neck. “I’ve never heard of Grunding. Solomon Grundy, sure, but not Grunding.”

Max wondered who the young man was impersonating. He wasn’t wearing a bow tie, so it couldn’t be Clark Kent’s little buddy Jimmy Olsen.

“We’ve already got an Opus,” said a man dressed as Dilbert, nodding at the playing field. Max saw a pudgy black and white figure sitting in a patch of clover.

“His name,” said Max, reaching down to tap the penguin on the head, “is Linus, He’s with me.”

“Look Grunding,”said the checker-shirted fellow, “this ain’t no graphic novel. You gotta pick a comic strip character.”

The sole woman at the table reached up and touched the young man’s arm. “Leave him alone Peter,” she said.

Of course, thought Max, Peter Parker; Spider Man’s alter ego.

“He’s obviously a newbie,” added the woman. “Let him watch.”

Parker shook his head and fiddled with the settings on his camera. “I hate newbies.”

The woman stood up and approached Max. “Come on Grunding.” She waved a stapled sheaf of papers at him. “I’ll fill you in on the story.”

“No thanks,” said Max, “I’ll just watch for a while.”

"Oh, come on. You’ll enjoy it more if you know the plot.”

“Forget about him Cathy,” said Parker. “He’s clueless.”

Cathy ignored him. “Let’s talk Herman,” she whispered, and then winked, “It is Herman, right?”

Max studied Cathy for a moment. “Yah, sure, let’s talk.”

She led Max out of earshot of the group and sat down at a small round table. Max took the seat opposite her as Linus wobbled along after them.

She smiled and said in a voice that was suddenly masculine and baritone, entirely at odds with her Cathy costume, “You’re not Grunding.”

Max was startled by the rough male voice coming from the feminine form. “And you’re not a woman.”

“Nope.”

Max looked back at the crowded table. “Do they know?”

“Some of them. Dilbert does, I’m sure, but not Parker, Ranger Rick, or Sarge. I don’t think the Boy Wonder knows, but it probably wouldn’t matter to him anyway.”

Max nodded wisely.

“But I know you’re not Herman Grunding.”

“How?” asked Max.

“Well, for one thing, Grunding would never come in here using his real name. And,” she said in a gruff whisper, “for another thing, Grunding’s dead.”

“How did you know?”

“Word gets around.”

“Do you know how he died?”

Cathy shrugged. “I might.”

“Wanna talk about it?” said Max.

“Nothing’s free my friend.”

Max scratched his chin. He could think of nothing to offer the comic strip transvestite.

Cathy grinned. “I might make a deal for that,” she nodded at Linus, who had pushed some chairs into a bunch and found himself trapped among the legs.

“You want Linus?”

She nodded. “He’s a nifty little bit of code.”

Linus jammed his head into a narrow space between two of the chair legs and fluttered his stubby wings in minor panic until he managed to pull his head back and plop gracelessly onto the floor.

“Sure,” said Max, “pretty nifty alright.”

“Is it a deal?”

Max pondered Linus. “If you’ll take a copy of his raw code, it’s a deal.”

Cathy shrugged. “I’d prefer the fully trained version, but that’ll do, I suppose.” She pushed back her chair and said in the feminine voice, “We can’t talk here. Let’s go for a walk.”

She stood, went back to the crowded table, and whispered something that Max couldn’t make out. Parker didn’t seem too happy about it. “Hey newbie,” he sneered at Max, “Nice of you to drop by. Don’t do it again.”

Max waved nonchalantly to Parker, who responded by flipping the bird. It was a gesture that seemed completely wrong for the Peter Parker that Max remembered from the comics.
Max followed Cathy out of the arena to the street, dropping his mask at the desk on the way. Linus tripped over the threshold, then popped up and rambled after them.

“I was just wondering . . .”, Max began as they approached the curb.

Cathy shook her head and shushed him. She hurried across the street to a chat room with a flashing neon sign that promised online romance to 30-somethings. Max sprinted after her, and Linus waddled along as fast as his stubby legs could carry him.

The room they entered was noisy and packed primarily with men who gathered in groups around the few women who had dared to venture in. A bar ran the length of the wall to the right, and booths lined the wall to the left. People were crowded at small round tables, only slightly larger than serving trays, that were scattered around the chat room. A single couple swayed on the minuscule parquet dance floor near the back. Here and there, he caught snatches of lewd comments and poorly disguised innuendo. It reminded Max of one of those public television programs about the mating habits of beetles, or lizards, or any of countless other creatures who are driven by their hormones to mindlessly compete for mates. Max wondered how many of the women were, like Cathy, men in disguise.

As they wended their way through the throngs, men beckoned to Cathy in hopes of drawing her into conversation. A man dressed in a silk shirt unbuttoned to his navel, tight silk pants that revealed the outline of his obscenely large genitals, and tasteless gold chains around his neck, blocked Cathy’s progress and invited her to join him in something that sounded like a ‘Catherine the Great.’

“Back off,” said Cathy in her undisguised baritone.
“Shit,” said the silk shirt swinger, “what a creep show.” He retreated a step, and then stopped and said, “Hey, you know, I’m into it if you are.”

Cathy brushed past him, careful to avoid the bulging crotch, and led Max and Linus to a row of doors at the back of the chat room. “We can talk in here.”

She closed the door behind them, locked it, and reclined on a paisley print chaise. In front of the chaise was a low, oblong coffee table, and on the other side of the table stood a squat, overstuffed love seat with cloth that matched the paisley chaise. Max lowered himself onto the love seat. Linus scooted under the coffee table.

“So, what are you looking for Herman? Should I call you Herman, or do you have a real name?”

“You can call me Max.”

“And you can call me Cathy.”

Max shrugged. “If you like.” Although Max would have preferred a name that matched the gender revealed by Cathy’s gruff voice. Something like Chuck, or Frank.

”I’m looking for someone,” Max began.

“You got a screen name or something you could tell me?”

“She's Betty.”

“I know a few Betty Boops I could introduce you to. A couple of them are even women.”

“No, no. It’s not a real person. She’s a virtual interface to a neural network, like Linus.”

“A virtual babe? Plenty of guys have one. Why don’t you just copy someone else’s?”

“I’m not trying to get her back, so much as shut her down.”

Cathy raised an eyebrow. “Why bother? If someone hijacked your code, I mean it sucks I guess, but what do you care? Just install a new copy and start over. Surely you have a backup somewhere.”

“It’s more complicated than that. The last time I saw her, some people were doing pretty nasty stuff to her.”

Cathy smiled. “Shit, you’re one of those bleeding heart types, aren’t you? Look pal, it’s just code. Move on.”

“I have other reasons.” Max put his hand in his pocket and felt the folded piece of paper he’d discovered at the decrepit Army of Darkness site.

“It’s your call. As long as you follow through with your end of the bargain, I don’t care what you have in mind. Any idea who lifted her?”

“The AOD, I think.”

Cathy adjusted her cleavage and tugged her skirt down over her knees. “Haven’t you heard? There is no AOD anymore. We lost.”

“We?”

“Hey," said Cathy, "I admit it. I was a member of the AOD. So was Herman. The Feds rounded us up with everyone else. I did my time, and now it’s over. Half the guys went legit and joined net security companies.” She stretched out on the chaise. “But I’m no sell out, so I just keep to myself.”

“You said you knew about Herman, about what happened to him.”

Cathy shrugged, “I’ve heard stuff.”

“Such as?”

“You owe me a penguin right?”

“Sure.”

She stood up and checked the lock on the door, and then returned to the chaise. “You’re gonna say I’m some kind of conspiracy freak, but I hear someone with a grudge hit him with Melissa2.”

“What's that?”

“The virus. Look, it’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s even possible. Yet.”

“That a computer virus can kill a human.”

“Yep. Have you ever heard of the original Melissa virus?”

Max shook his head.

“Come on,” said Cathy, “sure you have. Melissa was a computer virus that made headlines about a decade ago. It infected thousands of machines and slowed the Internet to a crawl for a few hours.”

Max recalled the incident vaguely, and nodded.

“That was an AOD project,” said Cathy.

“So listen,” she continued, “back in the nineties there was this TV cartoon with flashing lights in Japan. It sent a bunch of kids into convulsions.”

Max nodded again.

“Well, Melissa2, according to the rumors, was a modified version of the original Melissa virus that was inspired in part by that cartoon. It was designed to induce seizures in computer users when it hit, through modulations in screen images. In theory, it would seem like nothing but a screen flicker until it whacked you out. Supposedly, Melissa2 was part of a covert program to develop cyber weapons twenty-some years ago.”

“The government?”

“Good lord you’re simple. Never even heard of the Jasons, I bet. The NSA, CIA, Department of Defense, their all just tools of the Jasons. But they had a problem. Bio-weapons were outlawed, and they had to find something else to focus their brilliant minds on.”

“So it wasn’t the AOD that hit Herman?” asked Max

“I told you there is no AOD anymore. But there are former members in the government, or at least with ties to it. Folks who could get their hands on prototype cyber weapons. Word is, Herman was spilling his guts to the Feds. And I think maybe someone was covering his ass before Herman rolled over on him.”

Cathy squinted at the door. Some sort of commotion had started in the chat room outside. Linus crawled out from under the coffee table. The penguin cocked his head and nervously rocked side to side on his rump.

Max rubbed his face with both hands. “Is it possible that this had something to do with the Doomsday Virus.”

Cathy laughed in her deep, masculine guffaw until she nearly choked. “Holy shit buddy. The Doomsday Virus? No way. As if Melissa2 isn’t far out enough.” Cathy shook her head. “There is no Doomsday Virus. And if there was, do you think it would just kill Herman? That’s the whole point of the Doomsday Virus myth. Turn it loose and wham, it’s the stone age baby. Everything from the Net to the power grid to GPS comes down.”

“That so?” Max pulled the folded sheet out of his pocket. “What do you think about this?”

He handed Cathy the paper. She read it and shook her head.

“This means nothing. There were a lot of nuts in the AOD who dreamed about stuff like this. But look at the title, ‘System Independent Network Weaknesses,’ there’s no such thing. A flaw in DOS won’t affect a Unix machine, and a Unix weakness won’t turn up in a Mac. Besides,” she said as she sat up, “even if it were possible, which it isn’t, the AOD is probably the last group in the world who would release such a thing. Man, we lived to be online. The Doomsday Virus would ruin all our fun.”

“I thought the AOD was constantly attacking networks.”

“Oh yeah, absolutely. The one way to get us to take a system down was to publicly claim it can’t be done. But what happened after we did? They’d bring it back up, build in another layer of security, and if they were stupid, start bragging again. In the long run, anything we did to attack the Net ended up making it stronger. That’s just the way it worked. It was a challenge to us.” She handed the paper back to Max. “And, frankly, I miss it.”

The noise in the chat room was growing, and Linus began inching backwards toward the coffee table.

Cathy looked at the nervous bird. “Now what about your end of the bargain?”

“In a minute,” said Max. The commotion in the room outside the door had developed into a rumble. Max raised his voice so that Cathy could hear him over the ruckus. “Do you know a guy by the name of Spencer? I think he’s a former AOD member.”

Cathy frowned, “I might.”

“Can you tell me where to find him?”

“Probably not.”

The noise on the other side of the door was building. Shouts and occasional screams were mixed with sounds of breaking glass and overturning tables.

Max pressed her. “Why not?”

Cathy stood up and went to listen by the door. “I think we better get out of here.”

Max had no intention of leaving just yet. “Why can’t you tell me where to find Spencer?”

“Look,” Cathy hollered over the noise that leaked through the door, “he was one of the first to get busted in oh 1. Last I heard, he was working with the NSA. Come on man. We have to split.” Cathy turned the knob a fraction and the door burst open, knocked wide by a flying chair. “Crap!”she shouted.

Max slammed the door shut, “Tell me how to get into the NSA to find Spencer.”

“There’s not much time,” said Cathy. She tried to squeeze past Max to the door, but he wasn’t budging.

“Tell me.”

“Come on, man.”

“Tell me!”

“All right,” she bellowed, “Listen, There used to be a back door into the NSA system. I don’t know the password, but the login was ‘Patriot.’ That’s all I can say. I swear.”

A crack raced across the ceiling over their heads. The room was splitting in half.

"OK,” said Max. He opened the door. “Let’s go.”

Cathy stepped into the doorway and looked for an escape route, but before she could move a chain whipped out of the chaos, wrapped around her neck, and jerked her out of sight.

“Fuck,” said Max, snatching up Linus. He crouched down and raced around the door jamb and along the wall. A table lobbed out of the darkened corner of the room just missed them as he dashed behind the bar and ran toward the exit. Shards of glass from the mirror on the wall above the bar exploded as they struck the floor and a chair crashed down. When he reached the end of the bar, Max peeked out.

A hulking figure thrashed among the screaming patrons at the far end of the bar, near the private room he had just fled.

“What in hell?” Max ducked and sprinted to the front door.

He could barely keep his grip on Linus as they squeezed through the crowd that packed the doorway. Patrons streamed out onto the sidewalk. Cathy was nowhere to be seen. Max loped across the street and turned around in time to see the building that housed the chat room implode, sending up an enormous cloud of dust.

Someone behind Max muttered, “Damn.”

He turned to find the silk-shirted swinger from the chat room standing at his elbow. “Firewall musta failed,” said the swinger soberly. “You gotta hate seeing all those profiles corrupted. That’s a lot of CPU time down the drain.”

A flash lit up the swinger’s face and Max glanced over his shoulder in time to see chunks of the chat room sail skyward. He wheeled around and ran down the street with Linus still tucked under his arm as debris rained onto the street behind them.

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