Friday, July 20, 2007

Chapter 26. Target Practice

Read about the Dark Net Target Practice game inspired by this chapter.

At first glance, the rolling green hills, brilliant blue sky and puffy clouds looked reasonably convincing. But the illusion didn’t hold up well under close scrutiny. Everything had the shoddy artificialness of a low budget virtual environment, like an old fashioned sound stage in some epic film from the glory days of Technicolor Hollywood. Max imagined if he were to climb the nearest hill, he would find that the distant horizon where the earth met the sky was nothing more than paint on a rippling canvas backdrop.

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Chapter 26 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.

The half dozen creatures frolicking on the artificial turf a few dozen yards away weren’t rendered any better. There was a cat that was apparently made of scraps of paper swept up from the floor of an artist’s studio, a cartoonish dog walking on his hind legs and wearing a red cape, a bearded man with an Elizabethan collar that Max assumed was supposed to evoke Shakespeare, a levitating UFO about the size of a basketball, and a claymation Albert Einstein. The final creature was the most animated of the bunch – it was a twisting, cavorting, spastic paperclip with googly eyes that Max recognized as the annoying office assistant from some ancient word processor program.

“Ready for target practice?” Joel asked as he hefted a rifle to his shoulder and took a bead on the dancing paperclip flitting through a patch of yellow flowers. He squeezed the trigger and fired off a shot that froze the creature in mid frolic.

“That just hangs the process,” said Joel. He tilted the rifle and twisted a knob on the stock. “You can adjust how long you want it to halt with this. Watch him. He’ll get going again in a second.”

After a few moments, the frozen paperclip jerked back into motion just as Joel had predicted.

He flipped the rifle over and pointed to a switch just in front of the trigger guard. “This lets you set it to corrupt the bugger all together. Wanna try it?”

Max shook his head. “After you.”

Joel aimed again and shouted, “Hey dude, it looks like I’m writing an obituary.”

The paperclip bounced spastically. “Would you like help?” it screeched.

“I think I know how to compose this one.”

Joel fired a shot. The grinning paperclip melted into a blob of gray goo that seeped into the grass.

Joel thrust the weapon into Max’s hands.

“Give it a go. It’s fun.”

The faux wood stock was warm and smooth. The rifle had a comfortable heft.

Max set the switch back to the pause position and pointed the gun up to the sky at a cloud that was unconvincingly drifting by. The butt bucked lightly against his shoulder and a jagged portion of the cloud stopped in its place, while the remainder continued on its way. He lowered the rifle toward the ground and pulled the trigger again. A spot on the shimmering grass dimmed a bit.

Finally, he aimed at the claymation Einstein. The first shot went wide right, and the second was too low. The third was dead on, freezing Einstein in place.

“If we’re going in there armed with these,” he said, “I hope you’re not counting on my marksmanship.”

Max turned as he spoke, and Joel leapt back clumsily stumbling on his robes.

“Watch it,” he squeaked. “Don’t point that at me.”

Max lowered the muzzle.

“Excuse me. Is it dangerous to humans?”

“Indeedy,” said Joel. “They tried it on me once. It was only set on pause of course. Have you ever been wrapped in a wet rubber sheet?”

Max admitted that it was not a pleasure he had ever experienced.

“You can imagine what it feels like. Anyway, we’re not relying on your aim. Linda’s a crack shot. She’s the one who popped me. I can tell you, I wasn’t standing still for it. She hit me at fifty meters and a full run.”

The image brought an involuntary smile to Max’s face.

“Besides,” said Joel, “you don’t have to aim very well with these.”

He lifted a portion of his robe to reveal a belt with a collection of canisters hanging from it. One was marked with the red letters FB, another bore the marking DOS, a third was labeled ZB, and the final canister read Ctrl-Alt-Del.

“This,” said Joel as he removed the first canister from his belt, “is a fork bomb. I like to call it a wabbit, ‘cause it breeds processes like mad.”

He pulled a tab at the top of the canister and heaved it into the field near the scrap-paper cat. After a moment, a series of translucent blobs about the size of softballs erupted from the canister and rolled in lazy trajectories on the grass. Several of them stuck to the cat, which was soon enveloped in a mound of the jelly blobs.

“The zip bomb,” he said as he launched a second canister into the midst of the animated characters, “hogs memory and slows all local processes to a crawl.”

The canister went off with a muted thud. The walking dog and the Elizabethan poet, although still animated, moved with fits and starts, like characters in a movie recorded on a scratched DVD.

“This one,” said Joel holding out the DOS labeled can, “is a Denial of Service beacon. It won’t work here because this system is isolated. There has to be at least some network connection for it to have any effect. It’s handy if you need to block a portal and shut off network traffic for a while.”

He replaced the beacon and pointed to the final canister.

"Control-Alt-Delete grenade - it's old fashioned, but it'll do the trick if you need to stop a lot of local processes in a hurry. I'm sure you can figure that one out on your own."

Max nodded. “That’s quite an arsenal. It looks like you’re all set to make real nuisances of yourselves. What do you need me for?”

Joel cinched the belt tighter around his waist. “Someone has to show us the way around. You’re the only person who’s ever been in and made it back out intact. Don’t get me wrong. Finding your way in is easy enough. It’s taking care of business and getting back out that’s tough, at least with all your wits about you.”

From what Max knew of Joel, it seemed he had little to fear when it came to losing his wits.

“Is there anything else?”

Joel tapped the belt at his waist and pointed toward a small red button.

“This enables a root kit. It’ll give you some stealthiness in most systems, but it’s not fool proof, just helpful. And then there’s this.”

He lifted a pendant on a chain around his neck. It was a black fob about the size of a peach pit and similar in shape.

“It’ll compromise just about any program in range, as well as mangle data and corrupt executable code. You just activate it like this.” He jerked the pendant off the chain and held it between his thumb and index finger. It glowed a menacing red and flashed, slowly at first and then gradually faster.

“Count to three and chuck it.”

He lobbed the pendant. It exploded with a brilliant flash, instantly incinerating the cluster of animated creatures and leaving a charred scar on the ground. At the point where the jewel had detonated, a small fireball hovered like a tiny sun. Max grimaced at the destruction and held up a hand to shield his eyes from the brilliance of the fireball that pulsed and swelled.

A circle of seared grass slowly expanded as shining blades curled, blackened and erupted in smoke like hair in a match flame. Max and Joel stepped backward in response to the increasing heat.

“Now what?” shouted Max through his clenched teeth.

“I’m going to run like hell,” said Joel, “but you can take a shortcut.”


Joel reached out and grasped Max with one hand on each shoulder. He simultaneously pulled down and lunged forward, slamming his forehead into Max’s face. The grinding crunch of his breaking nose sent Max reeling back onto the ground.

Over the roar in his ears that came from a combination of the flaming fireball and the agony in his face, Max heard Joel holler, “Now we’re even. See you back at camp.”


Max returned to consciousness with a start. The pain was gone, but the throbbing memory of it was still vivid. He whipped his head around in search of Joel, but only the empty lounge chair stood where the bastard had been hooked up to the Freedom Club’s crude virtual environment interface.

He lurched forward and tried to stand. A firm but gentle pressure pulled him down from behind.

“Your OK. Take it easy.”

It was Linda’s voice.

“My god,” Max choked. “He broke my nose.”

“I know. He told me.”

Linda stepped in front of his chair, still holding him with one outstretched hand.

“He wasn’t supposed to do it that way. But he made the point.”

“What the fuck point was that?”

“Shush, you’re alright now,” she said. “The point is that you can get out at any time, provided something triggers a seizure. Pain is the quickest way.”

Max’s chest heaved. He touched his nose gingerly. It was intact and painless.

“How convenient,” he said, “all I need is for Joel to assault me and I’m out.”

Linda shook her head. “No, anything painful enough will do. I suggested breaking your arm. Dr. Murray thinks a dislocated finger would do it. Joel did this on his own.”

“I’m gonna kick his ass.”

“Maybe you should,” Linda said. “But you might want to change your pants first.”

Max looked at the wet spot that extended from his crotch and down his right thigh.

“I don’t want anything to do with you lunatics. I thought Joel was the only madman. You’re all crazy.”

“It’s up to you," said Linda, "although I don’t know where you’re going to go. They’d find you if you set foot anywhere near your apartment.”

“Somewhere else then.”

“OK,” said Linda, “any ideas?”

“I don’t know,” he snarled, “anywhere. Maybe a cruise. I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise.”

Linda shrugged. “It’ll cost you. And even if you have money, you remember what happened when you bought the soda back at the fuel station.”

Max grumbled wordlessly.

“I’ll set you up with supplies, if you want to take off on your own. But the minute you resurface, you’ll be in trouble. The way I see it, you can help us take them down, in which case you’re clear and we’re on our way to liberating everyone else.”

Max wanted to be angry, but her calm tone dampened his fury.

“So you’re out to destroy them and the whole Web? That’s a tough job.”

She walked over to Joel’s lounge chair and sat on the arm.

“Constant struggle. That’s what revolutions are all about.”

“If you succeed,” said Max, “then what?”

“We put the skills we’re learning to the test. Live like we’re living now, the way nature intended.”

“Like cave men?”

“Like natives. Humans. Not slaves to the machine they call the Internet. You can help us, or you can go your own way. I’d prefer it,” she said softly, “if you helped.”

Max slipped off the chair and stood. He pinched the leg of his pants and pulled the damp cloth away from his thigh.

“When are you planning to go in?”

“Soon. Probably on a weekend. We’re waiting for a zero-day vulnerability we can exploit.”

Max shook his head. The term was lost on him.

“Think about what you want to do and I’ll explain it to you if you decide to join us.”

“First,” said Max, “I’m going to find Joel and exploit his vulnerability for a while. Then I’ll let you know.”

“Good enough.” Linda led the way to the door that opened onto the stairs to the landing at the front of the farmhouse.

“After you change,” she said when Max was halfway down the steps, “you might try looking for Joel in the north barn. That’s where he hides when he knows he’s in trouble.”

Max rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Thanks,” he said as he reached for the doorknob. “I’ll change after I check out the barn. No point in washing up now just to have to clean his blood off later.”

“Max, don’t be too rough on him.”

“Goodnight Linda.”

He walked across the porch, flexed his hand, and imagined how good it was going to feel breaking Joel’s nose for real.

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