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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