Joel was recovering well after two days. Both his eyes were still blackened from the blow to his face, but Max had restrained himself enough that he hadn’t actually broken Joel’s nose after all. The lunatic had Linda to thank for the last minute mercy. If she hadn’t asked Max to go easy, Joel would have been in much worse shape. Nevertheless, he wore his protective foil cap down low on his brow and kept his distance as Linda and Dr. Murray prepared Max for the trip back to Perske’s corner of the dark net.
Listen to the Chapter 27 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.
Max stretched out in the lounge chair and Linda placed a pair of headphones over his ears. She swung around a set of goggles mounted at the end of a jointed boom, and positioned them in front of his face. The contraption looked like it had been kluged together with parts scavenged from a dental drill, an optometrist’s testing station, and the guts of a microwave oven.
“If that thing slips,” said Max, “you’ll crush me.”
Linda winked at him and continued about her business, twisting the positioning knobs and lining up the eyepieces. She beckoned Joel to help her. He approached hesitantly, careful to keep Linda between himself and Max.
“Can you see the test pattern?”
Max focused on the image in the lenses.
“Yep, there are the cross hairs. The focus looks about right.”
“And you can still hear me?”
“It’s a little muffled.”
When everything was set, she stepped back to survey the set up, and then climbed into the twin lounge chair nearby.
“Wait,” said Max, “I thought I was going with Joel.”
“No, it’ll just be you and Linda,” said Dr. Murray as he began arranging Linda’s equipment. “May Ted guide and protect the both of you.”
Max lifted the headphones off of his ears.
“I’d really prefer it if he came along instead.”
“You and Linda will make a more cohesive team,” said Dr. Murray. “He’s going to work on finding a vulnerability for us to get you in. That’s really more in keeping with his talents.”
“We’ve worked things out haven’t we Joel? Come on, it’ll be fun”
Joel shook his head in a silent but vigorous negative reply before busying himself at the keyboard and monitor across the room.
Max pushed the goggles to the side.
“What’s the matter?” Linda asked. “Don’t you trust me? Or is it because I’m a girl?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“I’m a much better shot that Joel. Much better than you too, as I’ve heard.”
Max stammered, “This isn’t the way I thought it would go down.”
“What did you have in mind?”
“I don’t know. It’s just not what I expected. That’s all.”
After a moment, he pulled his goggles back in place.
“I’ll try to adapt.”
Joel made himself small at the terminal. Linda fiddled needlessly with the equipment mounted to her lounge chair.
Dr. Murray broke the awkward silence by describing the zero day exploit. Joel, he explained, was scanning the recent security bulletins for high priority patches and the flaws that they addressed. The inevitable delay between the announcement of a vulnerability and the installation of patches by sysadmins, he said, means that there is almost always a window of opportunity for a fast moving hacker to take advantage of a security flaw. Places like the University, where staff were likely to be less attentive on the weekends, are particularly vulnerable to flaws announced in bulletins released late in the day, at the end of the week, and over holiday breaks.
“In the summer,” said Murray, “they might as well hand us the keys during happy hour on basically any Thursday or Friday you like, Ted willing.” He checked his watch. “It’s five thirty Joel. Anything promising?”
“There are a few possibilities,” Joel mumbled.
“Lets get started,” said Linda. “We’ll hang out on the inside until you find an exploit.”
Dr. Murray placed a hand on each of their shoulders and blessed them and their mission in Ted’s name. He stepped back, flicked the switches on a pair of small vacuum pumps resting by each of their chairs, then opened the valve at the top of an insulated liquid nitrogen canister. Max recognized the hum of a large power supply, but the sound of a rustling wind quickly drowned it out.
He found himself standing at the prow of a large boat, with the deck rocking lazily under his feat and the distant horizon rising and falling with the rhythm of the long, low swells.
Linda squatted nearby, rummaging through an equipment locker.
“What are we doing here?” he asked.
“Just waiting,” said Linda. She lifted a rifle from the locker and tossed it to him, then pulled out a weapons belt like the one Joel had demonstrated. “You said something the other day about going on a cruise. I thought that this was the least we could do.”
She strapped the belt around her waist before reaching in the locker for another and handing it to Max. She tapped her belt’s root kit button and faded to a vague outline. Although he could still make her out as a translucent distortion against the background, she was nearly invisible other than a ripple that became more distinct when she moved. She reappeared after a few seconds with her hand in the act of falling away from the belt, where she had apparently toggled the setting back off.
He located the button on his belt and pushed it. Although he felt no change, and his extremities looked to him to be as visible as ever, Linda nodded in approval.
He clicked the button again.
“Excellent,” she said. “Should we go over the plan again?”
Max shrugged. “It seems simple enough. I show you the way in and cover you if we get in a pinch. Once we get close to Perske and the Jasons, you’ll take care of the rest. Then it’s back out in a hurry.”
He leaned over and peered into the empty locker. “Where’s that little fire cracker Joel showed me?”
Linda pulled at the collar of her plain white t-shirt to reveal the pendant on a chain around her neck.
“Do I get one?”
“No,” said Linda. “If we get close enough to set it off, we won’t have time for a second try. One’s enough.”
“Sounds exciting," said Max. "Incidentally, thanks to Joel’s little demo session, I know how to bail out in an emergency. What about your escape plan?”
Linda shook her head. “I get out the same way we go in, or I don’t get out. At least not in the same shape I’m in now.”
“What happens if you don’t make it?”
“Based on what we’ve seen in the past, short term dementia is the best possible outcome.”
“Really?" said Max. "So we’re not the first from the Freedom Club to give it a shot?”
“We haven’t sent many in, but there have been a few, and it’s never turned out well.” She rested her rifle barrel against the railing. “Joel was probably the luckiest. He was catatonic for a few days. The first week was touch-and-go; teaching him to swallow, then to chew. He’s not what you’d call normal yet, but at least he can wipe himself.”
Max whistled softly. Joel’s aluminum foil cap didn’t seem so outrageous in light of what he must have been through.
“It’s a risk you’re still willing to take?” he asked.
Linda slung her rifle on her back and tightened her belt, but said nothing.
“Alright then,” said Max, “I guess we’ll have to make sure everything goes off as planned.”
She pointed at a dark smudge on the horizon beyond the ship’s bow.
“It looks like they found us a way in.”
Max shouldered his rifle as the smudge spread across the sky like ink soaking into a cloth. When all the sky was at last dark, the deck of the ship bucked, sending Max and Linda stumbling toward the railing. He extended his arm to steady himself and found his hand resting on a warm, smooth surface.
It was the desk in his home environment on the University system. Everything was in its place, just as he remembered it. After weeks of trauma and struggle to adapt to the primitive conditions of the Freedom Club, it was a comfort to find himself in a place so familiar, so perfectly tailored for his needs.
Linda studied the walnut desk, the ceiling fan and the ancient filing cabinet.
“Welcome home Sam Spade.” She lifted the telephone receiver and tested its weight. “Where to now?”
Max scratched his chin. “I guess I need to find the message from Perske with the attachment she sent me the last time.”
He opened the filing cabinet drawer that held his email and flipped through a few of the recent files.
“I never had a very good organizational system. Hold on a moment. It’s better if I have Betty handle it.”
“Who?” said Linda.
Max called for his virtual assistant. The door on the wall across from his desk opened immediately and Betty entered. She was dressed in her usual mob moll garb with the diving cleavage, heavy black high heels and tight skirt that stopped just above her knees.
“Betty, could you find the last message that I opened from Dr. Perske? The one with the attachment please.”
She sauntered to the cabinet and reached into the drawer to select a sheet of paper and the box that went with it. She handed them both to Max, perched herself on the edge of the desk, and pulled a nail file from her frilly sleeve.
“Thank you Betty. That will be all for now.”
“Interesting,” said Linda as Betty slipped off the desk and exited.
“Isn’t she though?”
He set the email on his desk and lifted the toy car out of the box.
“This might be a tad disturbing, but it’s how we get in, I think.” He flipped the car over and found the small switch on the bottom that set the toy lights blinking and the horn beeping. “Just follow my lead and you should be fine.”
He turned the car around and stared into the stroboscopic headlights. The fuzzy caterpillar sensation erupted in his forearm. The room began to spin. He felt his eyes roll upward.
Here we go again, thought Max.
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