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.
Listen to the Chapter 12 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“You owe me a penguin right?”
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.
“Come on, man.”
“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.