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The Dark Net

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Last Build Date: Mon, 05 Mar 2018 16:28:04 +0000


Computing with Heat

Thu, 18 Oct 2007 16:18:00 +0000

(image) Is this a hot cup of tea? Or the power supply for the computer of the future?

Researchers in Singapore have shown, in principle at least, that it will soon be possible to create thermal logic gates, including AND, OR, and NOT gates. Once you have all those pieces, you've got the basic ingredients of a computer that runs directly on heat, with no need for electricity at all.

Lei Wang and Baowen Li of the National University of Singapore propose that their logic gates could soon be built of recently developed thermal transistors or related designs, which control heat flow in the same way that conventional transistors control electricity.

A thermal transistor turns on or off depending on whether the temperature at its input gate is above or below a critical temperature. Constant temperature heat baths would take the place of power supplies in operating the thermal transistors and logic gates. In theory, any heat source could be used to run a thermal computer - sunlight, the heat from a campfire, etc.

In addition to proving that thermal gates can perform all the basic functions of electronic gates, the authors of the research soon to be published in the journal Physical Review Letters point out that the work may also help us to understand the complex heat flow in biological cells and systems in terms of thermal logic.

To get a look at the research before it's officially published, you can download a preprint of paper from the online science archives.(image)

Cyber Attack Blows Up Generator

Thu, 27 Sep 2007 22:43:00 +0000

CNN is reporting that the Department of Homeland Security managed to blow up an electrical generator in a simulated cyber attack. It's a vivid demonstration of how the growing dependence on networked control systems links virtual world actions with real world effects.This shouldn't really surprise anyone. Power grids are already too complex and interconnected to be controlled in any way other than by remote networked systems. Heck, pilots don't really fly jets much anymore - they just use the stick to tell the computer to take the plane in a particular direction. In fact, I doubt planes will even have pilots in 50 years, they'll be just like the automated trams that already haul people around on the ground at airports.I can currently monitor my home through a web cam, and it won't be long before I have the ability to turn on the lights remotely and crank the air conditioning or heat from the office so things will be nice an comfy when I get home. Someday, I imagine someone could hack my house and do all sorts of annoying things. And if someone were to hack a plane, train, hydroelectric plant, or a nuclear power plant, things could get bad pretty quick.The experts in the CNN story say that "a lot of the risk has already been taken off the table, " by finding ways to prevent the transformer hacks, but that it could take months to fix them all. That means our power grids are suffering from a classic zero day vulnerability. That is, the powers-that-be have publicly pointed out the flaw and announced fix, but anyone with the motivation has plenty of time to find unprotected systems to attack.An expert interviewed on CNN claims that shutting down power to 1/3 of the country would have the economic and social devastation comparable to the nation being simultaneously hit by 40-50 major hurricanes.Will there be an attack? Probably not. On the other hand, this is just one vulnerability. No doubt every networked machine or system, just like every networked computer, will eventually face similar threats.-Buzz [...]

Target Practice Widget Game

Tue, 25 Sep 2007 21:36:00 +0000

In Chapter 26 of the Dark Net blog, I wrote about Max and Joel practicing with various weapons as they prepared to make an attack on one particular corner of the online world.They were armed with fork bombs, zip bombs, denial of service attacks, and something I call a Ctrl-Alt-Del grenade. Max and Joel took turns wreaking havoc on a bunch of characters based on the Office Assistants from Microsoft Office. The victims included Microsoft Bob and Clippit, that annoying paper clip thing that always wants to know if it can help you write a letter, edit a resume, etc.I decided make use of my recent obsession with Yahoo Widget programming to make a game out of Chapter 26. I call it Dark Net Target Practice. You can download it from the Yahoo Widget gallery.If you've never used a widget, but want to try out mine or one of the many other cool widgets, you can learn everything you need to know on the widgets info page. The goal of the Dark Net Target Practice widget is to shoot all the characters except the little penguin. You Linux folks ought to recognize the little fella.Clippy in particular is worth double points for a kill. I hate that guy.As your score goes up, the characters move faster.Send me a screen shot of your score, if you manage to get really good at it.Have fun.-Buzz [...]

The Dark Net on

Mon, 17 Sep 2007 06:05:00 +0000

The Dark Net is now available on Amazon for only $14.95 $10.17 (a 32% discount over the retail price)!


Check out the Amazon page and please leave a review if you've read the book.

You can preview The Dark Net in it's entirety on Lulu, in case you'd like to review it but don't want to buy a copy at the moment.(image)

Dark Net Turns Deadly in Japan

Fri, 14 Sep 2007 14:53:00 +0000

The Japanese news site Daily Yomiuri is reporting that a woman was murdered in a robbery concocted with the aid of dark Web sites set up to help criminals find accomplices.

Kenji Kawagishi, and unemployed 40 year-old man in Aichi Prefecture, sent messages from his cell phone to the "Dark Employment Security Web," which hooked him up with two other men who were also hard-up for cash. Tsukasa Kanda, a 36 year-old sales agent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, and Yoshitomo Hori, an unemployed man of 32, joined with Kawagishi in kidnapping Rie Isogai while she was on her way home from work. The men robbed her of 70,000 yen (about $600), murdered her and dumper her in the woods of Mizunami, Gifu Prefecture.

The Dark Employment Security Web has been closed, but the Japanese authorities say there's no way to know how many more are out there. Although the police shut them down as soon as they learn of the criminal equivalents of MySpace, new sites replace the deleted ones almost immediately.

The Nerdiest Clock Ever

Fri, 14 Sep 2007 11:34:00 +0000

(image) It's amazing what I have time for, now that I finished The Dark Net, at least until I start on my next book.

In the meantime, I've updated a clock for your desktop that tells time by displaying resistor color codes. Each color represents a number. In the image above, it reads 0740 06, or 6 seconds past 7:40 AM.

You can download the clock by clicking here.

(image) Don't worry if you don't have the colors memorized -- if you right-click the clock and select 'about' you will see a chart to help you learn them.

To run the widget, you'll have to install the Yahoo Widgets engine, which is available for free on the Yahoo Widgets page. While you're there, check out all the other cool widgets people have made. Like the Resistor Clock, they're all made by amateurs and distributed for free. But lots of them are impressively sophisticated.

NSF's DarkWeb: Life imitates Art

Mon, 10 Sep 2007 20:40:00 +0000

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the University of Arizona in developing a project they call the Dark Web to track down terrorists on the net.

When I read the NSF press release that my friend Randy A. pointed out to me, I could have sworn some of it was describing chapters of The Dark Net.

Here's an excerpt from the release that reminds me of Chapter 6. The Maelstrom

"They can put booby-traps in their Web forums," Chen explains, "and the spider can bring back viruses to our machines." This online cat-and-mouse game means Dark Web must be constantly vigilant against these and other counter-measures deployed by the terrorists.

And this sounds like it has something to do with Chapter 11. AOD HQ

Dark Web's capabilities are also being used to study the online presence of extremist groups and other social movement organizations. Chen sees applications for this Web mining approach for other academic fields.

"What we are doing is using this to study societal change," Chen says. "Evidence of this change is appearing online, and computational science can help other disciplines better understand this change."

Freaky, isn't it.


Chapter 35. After the Crash

Mon, 20 Aug 2007 23:27:00 +0000

***Note to readers: This is the final chapter of The Dark Net blognovel.Download the entire book from, or email me at BuzzSkyline at and I can send you the PDF (280 pages).***Max piloted the motorcycle-and-sidecar rig up an embankment and onto the dirt maintenance road that ran along the superhighway. Linda giggled and clapped her hands. It always made her laugh when the rig heeled over precariously. He had to smile at her infantile joy, despite the sweat rolling down his spine as he wrestled with the handlebars to prevent the overloaded rig from tumbling down the hill and onto the roadway strewn with immobile vehicles.Listen to the Chapter 35 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.The motorcycle was archaic, a motorized dinosaur from before the days of GPS, stability control, and basic safety equipment. But at least it worked, chugging along slowly and relentlessly, unlike the millions of modern vehicles that had depended on their networked processors for everything from climate control to automated guidance, and which now sat moldering on the roads.He’d found the machine meticulously preserved in an abandoned tourist-trap museum outside of York that had been dedicated to World War II relics. It had taken him a few weeks to get the engine back in running order and adjusted to handle the ethanol he’d gotten from a moonshiner in exchange for the last of the Freedom Club’s medical supplies. The trade had been a tough call – drugs and medical instruments were valuable commodities now that nearly all commerce had shut down. If you couldn’t make something, or get it from a neighbor, you simply had to learn to do without it, and folk medicine was a lost art to nearly everyone but the Amish.Linda was coming along well. After ten months, she’d learned several dozen words, mostly having to do with food, toys, animals and the need to defecate and urinate. Joel had been less fortunate, despite Dr. Murray’s attempts to resuscitate him. A life-support system might have kept him going for a while, but because his basic motor functions had been scrambled, he wouldn’t have lasted long. Besides, like the cars, planes, and countless appliances that were now no more than piles of inert machinery, any modern life-support devices would not have functioned after the massive network failure. When the Freedom Club residents packed up their farm implements and animals, they simply left Joel behind and dispersed into the hills as they had planned.Linda would have died as well, an infant deserted in the wilderness, if Max hadn’t stayed with her. He attributed her rapid progress – crawling after a few weeks and taking her first tottering steps only days later – to the fact that the neural connections in her brain were intact, even though her memories and experiences had been thoroughly erased.It wouldn’t be long, Max guessed, before she would develop to the intellectual level of a kindergartener, and would begin asking the questions that naturally occur to any curious child. He wondered what he should tell her when she finally raised the issue of her origins and the reasons for the technological ruins all around them, particularly because he only barely understood everything himself. In the days before the Freedom Club finally disbanded, Dr. Murray had attempted to explain it. The confetti-filled cube, he’d said, represented minuscule bits of data that did not disrupt PCs and servers directly as most previous viruses had, but instead triggered suicide code embedded in machines and systems over the course of decades. The Freedom Club, beginning with their founder Ted, had distributed the code with conventional Trojans and worms, but because it was meaningless and benign on its own, it had not come to the attention of network security experts. It was designed to appear to be the programming equivalent of junk DNA, the inert[...]

The Dark Net download

Sun, 19 Aug 2007 09:18:00 +0000

The story is almost over. I'll post the final chapter Monday evening.

In the meantime, you can download the whole novel (including the final chapter) from at The Dark Net for a paltry $1.25, or email me at "buzzskyline at" and I'll send you the PDF for free.

The PDF is extensively copy edited and corrected, but not perfect yet. It's a lot better than the blog entries though, which are really rough drafts.

If you want a hard copy, you can get that from Lulu as well for the exorbitant price of $16.95, but I would recommend waiting a while. I need to make a few more typographical corrections. In a few weeks, you should be able to get it on at a discounted price anyway.

Thanks to all of you who provided encouragement as I wrote The Dark Net, especially Nilla and Adrian who posted multiple comments that kept me going just when I was starting to think no one was interested.


Chapter 34. Bitter Reward

Fri, 17 Aug 2007 14:37:00 +0000

“Very disappointing,” said Neumann as he knelt down and sprinkled a handful of sand onto Linus. “A draw is so anticlimactic.”Max flexed his injured leg. The fact that the blow from Minus’ chain had not sparked the seizure that should have kicked him out of the virtual world worried him.Listen to the Chapter 34 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.“I’m still alive. According to your rules,” said Max, “I win.”“No. Minus resigned.”Max shrugged. “I don’t see a difference.”“The difference is that you were to amuse me. Of the two of you, Minus did a much better job. If anyone deserves the prize, it’s him.”Neumann picked up Linus and cradled him in his arms like a baby.“In fact, I should punish you for what happened to my little backgammon buddy.”“I did all I could to save him. If anyone had the opportunity to intervene, it was you.”Neumann stroked the glossy feathers of the penguin’s head. “It was your fight. I chose not to break my own rules.”“Exactly,” said Max., struggling to keep the nervous tremble out of his voice. “And according to your rules, I get Betty and you turn us free.”Neumann’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be clever, little flea. I promised you Betty. That’s all. I haven’t decided what comes next.” He set Linus down gently. “Don’t risk annoying me more.”It was clear to Max that Neumann either didn’t know about his epileptic escape plan, or that the plan itself was flawed. But there was nothing he could do about it at the moment.“I don’t mean any disrespect,” said Max. “I only ask for my just reward.”“Ah, justice,” Neumann smiled. “You’ll certainly get what you deserve. Come,” he said, holding out his hand, “see if you’re happy with your prize.”Max hesitantly reached for Neumann’s hand. The instant they touched, the mournful voices of the crowd filled his head. The cacophony was mercifully brief, as the two of them seemed to sail into the sky and the arena dropped away below. It didn’t feel to Max like flying so much as simply zooming out to view more of the terrain. The landscape opened up, but even from the immense height, the town extended as far as he could see.They paused for a moment. The network of streets and buildings shifted. After another pause, the view zoomed in with a disorienting rush, centered on a modest house at the end of a cul-de-sac. Max suddenly found himself standing next to Neumann in front of the little house, as Betty 3.5 rocked gently back and forth in a porch swing. She was oddly out of place, with her severely spiked short hair, tight leather pants and jacket, and heavy black boots.She sneered at them. It was the very expression he recalled from the first time Betty burst into Herman’s environment, on a day so long ago that Max had begun to doubt that it ever happened.“There it is,” said Neumann, “you’re reward.”“What do you two pricks want?” said Betty.Neumann walked up the steps onto the porch.“Hey boy,” Betty said to Neumann, “you should put on some clothes.” Neumann beckoned to Max to follow, paying no attention to Betty’s remark. “Now, do what you came here for.”Betty spat at Neumann. “If either of you touches me, I’ll rip your balls off.”“What I came here for?” said Max. “What are you talking about?”Neumann grabbed Betty by the wrist and with one swift motion, flung her out of her seat and onto the white wooden porch floor. “You know what you want,” said Neumann. “Take her.”“No, no. . .” Max stammered. “I don’t know what you thought.”Betty scrambled to her feet and Neumann struck her across the face with the back of his hand, sending her halfway over the porch rail. He wrenched one of her arms behind her and pushed the back of her head until she was bent nearly double.“Do you pr[...]

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Chapter 33. A Mortal Game

Wed, 15 Aug 2007 16:25:00 +0000

The tiered seating of the amphitheater was packed with people, to the point that they flowed out onto the steps that led down to the floor of the arena below. It was a challenge for Max to follow Perske without touching any of the audience members, which was something he wanted to avoid for fear that the visions that he would inevitably experience with even a brief contact would distract him from his mission.Listen to the Chapter 33 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Rows of tables filled the center of the arena where he had first met Neumann. Pairs of people sat at each table concentrating intently on chess boards. Based on the crowd, Max assumed it was a major tournament of some kind, although the patrons didn’t appear to be paying much attention to the competition, or anything else for that matter. They were as blithely distracted as the people he and Linda had encountered on their way to the courtyard where she had met her violent end.Perske led him past the competitors to a roped off section that comprised the front row and six or sevens rows back. Unlike the rest of the audience, the people in the VIP section were intently focused on the tournament -- taking notes and talking among themselves in whispers and occasional animated exchanges. Max stopped at the arena’s edge while Perske climbed up a step to one of two empty spaces in the front row.“I understand that you want to make a trade,” she said.“That’s right.” He held out his hand and let the pendant dangle from his wrist. “It’s too late for Linda, but there’s something else I want from you.”She motioned for him to continue.“Here’s the deal,” he said, his voice cracking despite the fact that he had rehearsed the words to himself over and over in his final hours at the Freedom Club. “I want you to leave me alone. I’m quitting the university and going away where you won’t hear from me again. I’ve had enough.”“I see,” said Perske.“And another thing,” he let his hand drop to his side. “I want Betty back.”Perske smiled in a way that looked more sad and pitying than anything else.“All that,” she said, “in exchange for a piece of costume jewelry.”Max shook his head. “It’s no doomsday device, but it’s a lot more than a necklace. I’ve seen it in action.”“You’re wrong. That thing is junk.”She pointed to the distance and Max turned to see Spencer carrying Linus under one arm and dragging a robed figure across the arena floor with the other. He instantly recognized the aluminum skull cap.“Joel?”Spencer deposited the lunatic unceremoniously at Max’s feet, and continued by to take the seat beside Perske. He leaned over and set Linus on the ground where the penguin fluttered his stubby wings and preened his belly.“Max Caine, I presume,” said Joel, lifting himself onto his hands and knees. “Funny meeting you here.”Max’s head swam as he tried to put all the pieces together. He thrust the pendant in Joel’s face.“Tell them what this thing can do.”Joel sat back on his heels and inspected the jewel as though he were appraising its resale value for a pawn shop.“Not much really, other than broadcast its IP address every few milliseconds.”“What?”“It’s just a tracking device.”Spencer stood up, sneering as he displayed a necklace and pendant that was virtually identical to the one in Max’s hand.“I presume this is the one you were thinking of,” he said. “I took it off of our mutual friend Joel there.”A lump rose in Max’s throat. His one bargaining chip was lost.“Linda lied to me?”Joel shook his head. “She didn’t know about the switch. I told her you were conning us, but she didn’t believe me. It appears,” said Joel as he pushed his cap back on his head, “that her intuition was wrong.”Ma[...]

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Chapter 32. The Bargain

Thu, 09 Aug 2007 10:52:00 +0000

Linda stirred slightly, to Max’s relief. For a moment he thought he might have killed her despite the fact that his rifle had been set to pause. He slipped her weapon out of her hand and placed it behind him so that it would be out of her reach should she come around suddenly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Spencer take a tentative step forward.“Against the wall,” he said firmly. Spencer backed up and readjusted his glasses.Listen to the Chapter 32 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Max rolled Linda onto her back and unhooked the latch on the chain of her pendant. As he wrapped the necklace around his fist he saw a subtle ripple approaching in the grass a few yards off. He leapt to his feet.“Call them off Spencer.”“Them? Them who?”Max flicked the setting on his rifle to kill and fired a shot into the wall a few feet to Spencer’s left. Chips erupted from the stone, leaving a ragged divot behind.“Call them off.”“Oh them,” Spencer yelped. “Eddie! Bob! Back away.”The ripple halted, and then reversed direction for a few meters. It began to grow, like a bubble of turf rising out of the ground. It transformed into a humanoid shape and lifted one foot after the other with moist pops as they separated from the grass. A shifty glance from Spencer caused Max to look over his shoulder to see another human shape separating itself from one of the trees behind him.“Over there,” said Max, waving his rifle in Spencer’s direction. The tree man blinked his little knothole eyes and plodded over to take his place.“You too,” Max said to the turf man, who was inspecting his torso and occasionally picking out what appeared to be bits of dandelion weeds on his chest. “Hmm? Oh sure,” said the turf man before obediently taking his place with Spencer and the tree man. Max took a deep breath. It was good to have the upper hand over Spencer for a change. He wanted to take a few moments to enjoy it, but he wasn’t sure how long it would last. He’d have to get the deal done fast, before reinforcements arrived or Linda came to her senses. He didn’t want to hit her again in the event that it might do permanent damage.“Are you surprised to see me?” he asked Spencer.“A bit, at least under these circumstances. Frankly, we had planned to get you back one way or another.”Max nodded. “I thought as much.”“Nice of you to save us the trouble. What brings you here?”“I’ve got something for you. It’s not what you’re after, but it’s the best I can do.” Max held up his hand and let the iridescent pendant dangle. “There's no such thing as a doomsday device you know.”Spencer shrugged. “So some people say.”“Everyone who isn’t a paranoid nut bag,” said Max. “This is pretty effective though, at least at short range. It’s yours, under a few conditions.”Spencer raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”“First, you set Linda here free. She doesn’t know the way out on her own so she’ll need some help.”Spencer nodded thoughtfully.“Bob,” he said to the turf man, “is that something you can handle?”“Yes,” replied the tree man curtly, apparently miffed at the misidentification. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”“What's second?” asked Spencer.“I want to see Perske.”“Now that’s a bit trickier. She has a pretty full calendar.”Max aimed the rifle at Spencer’s belly.Spencer swallowed hard. “I imagine we can squeeze you in.”“Great,” said Max. Linda groaned and Max realized it wouldn’t be long before she was fully alert, and likely very peeved.“Bob?” he said to the tree man, who raised a wooden hand in acknowledgment. “You’d better get her now or we’ll have some trouble.”Bob made his lumbering way to Linda, gently lifted her from the ground like a [...]

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Chapter 31. Hostage

Tue, 07 Aug 2007 02:27:00 +0000

The gates to the courtyard were literally crawling with security. At least that was the function they guessed the multi-legged robots served. Max counted over a dozen, each a meter or so long and low in profile, with a small turret mounted at the front that swiveled to point a tube that seemed to be a weapon of some kind. They were like enormous mechanical cockroaches, which made them creepy enough in Max’s mind. The fact that they were armed moved them into nightmare territory.Listen to the Chapter 31 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Some of the roboroaches clung to the iron bars that fenced the courtyard off from the street. A few patrolled the sidewalk outside the enclosure, while others prowled about a narrow clearing between the gate and a free standing wall that hid the distant courtyard from view. When tourists strayed by the fence or passed the gate, the nearest robots would rise up on their tiny front legs and swivel their turrets to keep a bead on the potential threats. Although the roaches were perpetually vigilant, the people they targeted seemed oblivious to the danger.Linda checked the setting on her rifle. She motioned to Max to do the same. “Are you sure this it the place?” she said.Max assured her it was. At least, he had seen them there a few minutes before, thanks to the transcendent vision they’d experienced with the redheaded girl and the crowd on the steps.Linda sketched out a brief plan of attack. It was simple and straightforward – just the way Max liked it.“On three,” she said. They each pushed their root kit buttons as she reached the end of the count. Linda faded from view. Only a faint distortion, like ripples rising from a sun baked highway, indicated her movements as she slipped across the street and took up her position beside the gate.Max removed the fork bomb from his belt, snapped off the tab and tossed it a few meters down the sidewalk where it rolled to a stop just beside the iron fence. There was a muted thud, and sticky gelatinous globules began spewing from the canister, forming a growing mound that spilled onto the sidewalk, into the street, and through the fence. The nearest roboroaches scampered to the fork bomb and swiveled their turrets frantically as they tracked the blobs and fired round after round. Although their weapons were small, they seemed to work well at vaporizing the blobs. But it was clear that they couldn’t keep up. Blobs rolled off the mound, and after a moment split into two with a pop. Each of the daughter blobs split again and again. The mound turned into a flood that overwhelmed the robots and flowed around the feet of the nearest pedestrians. Some stuck to the ankles of passersby and continued to multiply. The previously oblivious tourists began to panic. Those closest to the mound were quickly enveloped in blobs and collapsed to the ground under the gelatinous mass. Others farther from ground zero ran a few steps before the sticky globules bound their legs and they too fell and were enveloped. As the situation escalated, more and more of the roboroaches joined their compatriots in the struggle. Several of those closest to the mound were lost among the blobs. The rest pulled back, firing as they retreated. The ones clinging to the fence near the gate abandoned their posts to join the fight. The gate opened and Max raced across the street, preparing the zip bomb as he ran. He slipped through the opening and heaved the bomb as close as he could to the largest group of roboroaches, immobilizing them in the face of the fork flood. A series of rapid-fire shots rang out from a spot a few meters to Max’s left, vaporizing several of the robots that were beyond the range of the zip bomb. Linda was picking them off with stunni[...]

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Chapter 30. Tourists

Sat, 04 Aug 2007 11:31:00 +0000

Linda and Max walked the cobbled streets in silence. The town was essentially as Max recalled it, with stone buildings on either side that were vaguely reminiscent of a classical ancient city, like a schoolbook rendering of the Roman forum during it’s heyday, or an artist’s reconstruction of the courtyards of Pompei before Vesuvius smothered it in ash. The streets, however, were no longer empty.Listen to the Chapter 30 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.People meandered aimlessly and milled about on corners lost in conversation. They were clearly tourists, dressed in everyday clothes that clashed with the classic architecture. They were everywhere. Arched doorways opened through bright white walls to reveal them seated at long wooden tables with their arms draped over each others shoulders like long lost brothers and sisters at a family reunion. A little farther along, groups of them lounged on a wide flight of marble stairs that rose up from the street to an obelisk perched high at the top. Snatches of guitar music drifted down from a musician who, even from this great distance, looked out of place in a red and white Hawaiian shirt as he sat on the uppermost step and lazily strummed a guitar to an attentive audience of young lovers.Linda stopped and cupped her ear to listen to the tune for a moment.She dropped her hand to her side, and tilted her head as she scanned the scene. “Who are these people?” she asked.“I have no idea.”There was nothing particularly remarkable about them. They looked like any collection of people out to enjoy a lazy afternoon in the sun {{Pause=0.25}} – some in shorts and tee shirts, some in skirts. Others were wearing business suits, or jeans, or slacks. A few were clad in uniforms, as though they had just stepped away from their jobs as police officers, crossing guards, or sales clerks. If there was anything unusual about them, it was that there were no children, and no infants. People who go out on beautiful days such as this sometimes bring children. There were none here, or anywhere else on the street for that matter, as far as Max could see now or recall from their walk.“Do you notice anything strange?” she asked. “About the music?” said Max. “No.” “Look at them up there,” she said, waving her hand broadly at the people on the steps. “Everyone is touching someone else.”Considering the setting, it didn’t seem unusual to Max. It was perhaps a bit too idyllic, but no different than a spring day in the streets of Paris, Rome, or Atlanta.“It’s all part of the sugar-coated illusion, I guess.”“No it’s not just couples holding hands. They are all connected.”Linda was right. It was hard to discern at first, but like someone pointing out a subtle pattern on a tiled wall or a lifelike shape in a cloud, it suddenly became obvious. Groups sat crowded together. Pairs of entwined lovers reached out to touch other pairs. Here and there, it was no more than one casually placed ankle against another, or an extended hand resting on an arm. In other places a woman’s head might lay on one man’s shoulder while her legs rested on someone else’s lap. Tight groups were connected by long chains of people brushing hair, massaging calves, or leaning back to back. It was an orgy of semi-intimate contact. The chains broke from time-to-time when someone stood and wandered off, sometimes up the stairs and sometimes down. Inevitably, the gap was closed as people on the steps turned and stretched, or another person shuffled in to fill the space. But as a rule, it was all one broad and connected web, from the musician high above to a girl with long red hair at the very bottom of the stairs who leaned back against the shins [...]

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Chapter 29. The Spat

Fri, 03 Aug 2007 11:05:00 +0000

“Hey Bob,” said the gravely voice beneath the granite floor of the building atop the acropolis.“Yes Eddie?” replied the pillar in the back corner.“Should we follow them?”“What do you think Eddie?”“Yes, we should.”“Good thinkin’ Eddie”Listen to the Chapter 29 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.The side of the talking pillar broke away, leaving a human-sized chunk behind. Bob took a few cautious steps to get the feel of his latest incarnation. Pillar marble was much more comfortable than he would have imagined - substantial and cool, and surprisingly flexible at the elbows and knees, thanks to hinged joints with glassy marble sliding over glassy marble. The pinkish hue was a bit lively for his taste, but understated enough to get away with in a pinch.Bob rolled his head to get the kink out of his marble neck. He looked down at his marble toes and hummed his waiting-for-Eddie tune. The song was tantalizingly close to one he had heard ages ago, but couldn’t quite get right, which pissed him off even more than waiting for Eddie. “Dammit man,” Bob said, clicking his pinkish marble foot on the granite.The floor heaved. Eddie surged forward to his feet and stepped out of the hole he left in the floor. His broad granite chest was smooth and polished, as were the front of his legs and his forehead, all portions that had previously been part of the floor surface. His rounded sides and back were raw jagged rock. His eyes were tiny black specks set deep into craters below his flat forehead.“Sorry Bob. I was just enjoying the ceiling for a moment.” He pointed upward with his arm of granite, which made a squeaking and grinding noise, like beach pebbles squeezed together in a child’s palm. “I don’t get the allegory there.”“Oh geez Eddie.”“I'm serious Bob. Look at the lower left part of the triptych. Everybody’s hanging out in paradise, and there’s that dragon peeking out from behind a bush bearing an absurd medley of fruit.” Eddie put his granite hand to his brow. “I mean, holy crap, what kind of bush produces apples, berries, bananas, and scrolls tied up with ribbon?”“Dude,"said Bob, "let it go.”Eddie persisted in his analysis of the artwork. “Then on the lower right," he said, "there’s a battle. The bush is dead and the fruit are rotting, and the dragon is kicking butt, slaying soldiers like flies – what with the flames and the pointy tail and all. And finally at the top, some naked guy with a helmet and a sword has the dragon on a leash, and there are little bitty bushes growing everywhere.”“Dammit,” said Bob, his massive shoulders sagging in frustration.“How’s a naked guy gonna capture a dragon anyway," asked Eddie. "What’s he gonna do with it now? And even if he could . . . Ow!”A shard of granite skittered across the floor. Bob was relieved to find from his backhand swipe to Eddie’s head that marble was the stronger of the two stones. “Oh, man.” Eddie rubbed the jagged notch over his left eye. “Look what you’ve done. Now I’m all lopsided.”“You were never very well balanced to begin with.”Eddie’s beady eyes glistened as he moved with sad grinding footsteps to retrieve the bit of granite skull. Bob could be so snippy now and then. He slipped the shard back in its place above his eye, where it fit like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then he walked in grumpy silence to the stairs. Bob followed behind, rolling his pink marble eyes skyward in their pink marble sockets. It’s going to be tough to make up for this one, he thought. The shard shifted a bit as Eddie started down the steps. He held it tight with a thick stony finger to keep the piece from falling off du[...]

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Are you enjoying The Dark Net blognovel?

Wed, 01 Aug 2007 08:42:00 +0000


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Chapter 28. In Country

Wed, 01 Aug 2007 08:11:00 +0000

A tingling numbness started in Max’s his scalp and spread downward to meet up with the fuzzy burn that radiated from the toy car in his hands. Suddenly, both the sensations and the little car were gone. Linda too had disappeared. Otherwise, the room was exactly the same as it had been a moment before.He walked around to the desk chair, slipped the rifle off of his shoulder and sat down. It would take a few moments for Linda to follow him, assuming that she would even end up in the same place. He swung his feet up on the desk.Listen to the Chapter 28 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.It was possible that the little car had taken her somewhere else, or to a different incarnation of the same place – perhaps a copy of the room without Max in it. A moan from the other side of the desk confirmed she had made it through. She called his name in a trembling voice.“I’m here,” he replied without rising from his seat. Assuming that the beetle affected her in the same way that it affected him, she should be fine soon. Everything had at least started according to plan.“That was freaky,” said Linda, apparently still on the floor. “Like wrestling with a paint mixer.”Max stood up and leaned over the desk to see her sitting cross-legged on the floor, her hair mussed but otherwise looking well enough. “It feels more like an electric shock to me.”“I guess,” she said as she massaged one of her hands. “I’ve never been shocked. Not with an electric current anyway.”Linda grasped the edge of the desk and lifted herself up. “What now?”“I guess," said Max, "we do what I did last time.”He thought back to the first Beetle episode, trying to recall each of the steps he had gone through before.“Exit environment,” he called. The room transformed into the cluttered lab. He held out his hand. “Come on.”He led Linda to the heavy metal door that opened from the lab to the outer office. The scene outside was familiar; Stephen’s desk, the gray waste basket, the cinder block walls covered in glossy gray paint. There was a subtle shimmer to the room and the items in it, as if at any moment they could suddenly change into something else. He kicked the trashcan. It tumbled over with a clang that was very much, but not quite, like the sound he would have expected. The route to the exit that opened on the darkened parking lot was shorter than he remembered, and when they stepped into the night, his was the only car in the lot. It was parked under the bright spot of a street lamp.He grasped the handle. A muted click and a beep indicated that it recognized his touch and that the doors had unlocked. Max nodded to Linda. She walked around to the passenger side and climbed in. He handed his rifle to her as he settled into the driver’s seat. The seatbelt secured itself across his lap and over his shoulder as the engine purred to life. “Home please,” he ordered the auto-chauffeur program. The car glided out of the parking space toward the street.“Nice car,” said Linda, waving her hand at the dashboard.“I guess, for an econo-box. I don’t really keep it this clean.”Linda nodded soberly. “A little light on the details?”“So it seems.”The streets of the campus were uncharacteristically empty, and the route felt to Max to be distinctly abbreviated. He realized that enough details were missing from the road and landscape that he might have had a tough time finding his way home, if it weren’t for the automated guidance. Clearly, whoever had programmed the environment had left the reality turned down a bit too low. That must have been what made the trip home feel so odd the las[...]

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Chapter 27. Zero Day

Mon, 30 Jul 2007 15:31:00 +0000

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?”He nodded.“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[...]

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Chapter 26. Target Practice

Fri, 20 Jul 2007 12:02:00 +0000

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.Listen to the 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 c[...]

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Chapter 25. Weatherman

Fri, 06 Jul 2007 11:00:00 +0000

The hottest part of the day was past, but the evening breeze that alternately lifted the plain white curtains and pressed them flat against the screens in Linda’s cabin was still too warm to be of any comfort.Listen to the Chapter 25 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Max sat on the edge of the small bed, stripped to his underwear and t-shirt, sweating and waiting for the dinner bell. After dinner, he imagined, he would lie here and wait for breakfast. Then lunch, and then dinner again. Eventually he would become nothing more than a great, fat, sweating lump, venturing out only to eat.Joel was right – if you’re going to drop out you have to commit to it. This was about as out as he could get. Although Linda had promised to explain everything to him, the information she’d offered was vague and minimal. She and her compatriots at the Freedom Club, she said, had been keeping an eye on Herman Grunding, as well as Perske and a think tank that Linda called the Jasons. How a bunch of granola munching Luddites in the Pennsylvania Mountains managed that was not something she was willing to go into, just yet anyway. Max had only come to their attention when he’d logged in as Herman and started raising red flags by lumbering around and asking lots of questions that Herman would surely have known the answers to.The door opened and the curtains snapped tight against the screens. Linda stepped into the room, leaving the door open behind her.“Here you are,” she said. “Is everything all right?”“Sure. Just doing my part. Staying low, dropping out.”“Had enough of hornworms?”“Yep,” said Max. “It’s not much of a hobby. The tomatoes are as good as dead anyway. I figure Joel can collect them himself, if he’s hungry.”Linda shrugged and stood quietly for a while, apparently in search of a reply. When she didn’t find one, she made her way to the bathroom. The water ran briefly in the sink, then she stepped out as she dried her hands on the rough hand towel from the hook next to the bathroom mirror.“You know,” said Max, “it’s not as exciting being on the lam as I might have imagined.”“It never is.” She tossed the towel into the bathroom where it landed soundlessly on the tile. “There are,” she said as she crossed the room to sit beside him on the bed, “ways to pass the time.”“Checkers?”She placed her hand lightly on his thigh.“Not board games.”Max blinked. “It’s very hot, you know.”Linda plucked at the leg of his boxers.“It would be cooler without these.”He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze.“Thanks, but I don’t think so.”“Don’t you like me?”“It’s not that. I have,” he said slowly, “a problem. It’s the drugs, mostly.”She slid closer to him, pressing her leg against his.“Are you sure? Have you tried?”“Of course,” said Max. He stood and stepped away from the bed.“Would you like to just lie down for a while? Until dinner.”She pulled her shirt over her head, unbuttoned her shorts and pushed them down to the floor, then stretched out naked on the bed. “Please?”Max climbed onto the bed and she snuggled against his side.“I’m sorry – about your problem,” she whispered.“So am I.”He stared at the ceiling as sweat trickled off his brow to the pillow behind his head. When the bell finally rang in the distance he took a shower, dressed in a fresh shirt and overalls, and walked with Linda down to the tent to eat.*** {{Pause=0.5}} “Attention, brothers and sisters,” called a man standing by the fire pit where the [...]

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Chapter 24. In the Garden

Wed, 27 Jun 2007 11:30:00 +0000

Max squatted among the rows of tomato plants, turning over leaves one by one in search of hornworms. When he plucked them off the plants, they would squirm and twist in a sort of slow motion panic, as peristaltic ripples flowed from one end of their bodies to the other. The largest of the hornworms were about the length and thickness of his pinky. There were plenty of the pests to find munching on the pesticide-free plants in the Freedom Club gardens. After only an hour of searching, he had already collected enough to cover the bottom of the rusty coffee canister resting on the dirt by his knee. They weren’t really worms at all, but a fleshy type of caterpillar with rich, emerald green skin and a menacing though apparently harmless horn at the tail.Listen to the Chapter 24 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta. As a rule, Linda had told him, everyone staying at the Freedom Club compound was assigned chores. Although in Max’s case it wasn’t required, considering the circumstances of his arrival. He did essentially nothing for his first three days in the compound except breathe deeply of the manure scented air, eat mounds of organic food, and wander about observing the rest of the residents hard at work planting, harvesting, and tending to animals. It wasn’t long before boredom and a twinge of guilt at his privileged leisure inspired him to volunteer for work. Lacking any other identifiable skills, he’d been assigned to the vegetable gardens. He’d never had much luck at gardening in the past, but given the choice between working with plants or the commune’s collection of pigs, sheep, and goats, picking vegetables and clearing hornworms off of tomato vines seemed the best option for a soft, son of the suburbs. When Joel first led him out to the garden, Max cringed at the thought of picking hornworms by hand, and gagged when Joel picked a juicy one from a leaf, pinched off its head and tossed the squirming remains into his mouth. “Best way to make sure they won’t be comin’ back,” Joel said. He grinned to reveal bits of emerald hornworm skin on his yellowing teeth. “Or you can do it the sissy way and put ‘em in a bucket.”Max had opted for the bucket.When he reached the end of the row of tomato plants, Max tucked the captive hornworms into the shade under the vines and stood, pressing one hand against his lower back to ease the crick that had resulted from squatting in the garden. He was, at best, a quarter of the way through. Considering the density of hornworms and lack of viable tomatoes, there seemed little chance that the plot would ever be very productive, unless the goal was to harvest the hornworms rather than the fruit.He arched his lower back until the muscles spasmed in protest, and listened for the telltale clatter of cooking pots and utensils that would have indicated that the communal lunch was near. For the moment, he could make out only an occasional hammer blow, along with the mews and brays of farm animals and the syncopated cough of the archaic engine that ran the camp’s generator. Although there was a promising sign in the wisp of gray smoke that snaked from the stovepipe poking out of the long, low tent that served as a dining hall.The Freedom Club compound was tucked in the Amish hills of Pennsylvania. Buggies, scythes, and horse-drawn ploughs littered the outdoor spaces. Of the several dozen people in the camp, most dressed like Max in denim overalls, t-shirts, and work boots. Every article of clothing as far as Max could tell had a ragged pat[...]

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Chapter 23. Welcome to the Freedom Club

Mon, 04 Jun 2007 11:59:00 +0000

The old van struggled along the hilly roads, coughing and sputtering as it labored up toward each crest and revving frantically in a motorized scream as it careened down from the heights. To Max, it felt less like a trip in a panel van than a ride in a creaky trawler that was climbing the petrified waves of an ancient storm, frozen in time and encrusted with ribbons of asphault.Listen to the Chapter 23 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Max had only a vague notion of where they were headed. But the angle of the shadows on the road ahead indicated that they were traveling north. Considering they had been en route for several hours, that placed them somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. The rocky, tree-covered hillsides seemed to confirm his guess. The asthmatic engine relaxed a bit as their travels took them to slower secondary routes, and soon was drowned out by the rattling spray of gravel against the wheel wells and jarring rhythms of washboard dirt roads. At last, Joel stabbed the break pedal and killed the engine. The van ground to a halt. Linda slid open the side door and Max followed her out. He stretched his aching legs and scanned a hodgepodge of cabins nestled into groves at the edges of a tiny valley that was ringed with tree-lined hilltops. The largest building in sight was a clapboard house at the far end of an oval-shaped expanse of severely mowed grass. It was two stories tall and painted in pristine white with black tar roofing and a screened veranda that extended the full length of the first floor. The building was brightly illuminated by the sun, which was on the verge of sinking behind the hills. A pair of gables poked up through the rooftop. In combination with the veranda and jet black door at the very center of the structure, the gables created the impression of a squinting, angular head, as if some wooden giant was buried up to his chin. Max couldn’t decide if the behemoth was rising out of the ground or being sucked down in. Either way, the expression seemed an indication of his irritation at the glaring sunshine blinding him as he strained against the earth.The brilliant white farmhouse was in such glaring contrast to the rest of the shadowy valley that it took a few moments for Max to make out the figures on the veranda and strolling about near the other buildings. There were perhaps a few dozen people. It was impossible to guess their genders, partly because of the distance and partly because they all seemed to be dressed as Max was, in denim overalls and white t-shirts.Joel leapt from the driver’s seat and waved his hand in an attempt at a grand flourish. “Welcome to the Freedom Club, our Shambhala of the Poconos.” He dropped to his hands and knees to kiss the dirt. “Shit,” he said, wiping grit off of his lips. “It don’t taste like paradise.”He sprang back to his feet, but stepped on the hem of his robe in the process, which prevented him from standing fully erect. “Unless,” said Joel, contorting his bent body so that he could grin at Max, “paradise is supposed to taste like crap.” He tugged at his robe with both hands, tearing the hem. “It sure smells like crap. In case you hadn’t noticed.”Max had noticed indeed. It was an amplified version of the fragrance - if so delicate a word can be applied to such an odor - that Joel had been emitting the first time they met at the café back home. Out here, Max guessed, the smell was probably due to nearby stables and animal pens of some kind. Joel may ha[...]

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Chapter 22. Roadtrip

Thu, 31 May 2007 02:36:00 +0000

Max fingered the buckle on one strap of the stiff denim overalls as he shuffled to the restroom at the highway convenience plaza, where Joel had parked the van so that Max could pee. The plaza was a bustling collection of hydrogen recharge points, a few gas pumps for older combustion-engine cars and farm vehicles, fast food joints, and convenience shop counters where travelers in a rush could pick up gum, coffee, newspapers or condoms. Joel hadn’t wanted to stop, but when the girl, whose name Max had learned was Linda, threatened to let Max have another swing at him, Joel had given in and pulled off the road.Listen to the Chapter 22 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Max passed up the rows of urinals that lined the ceramic-tiled walls, and chose one of the larger stalls designed to accommodate the handicapped. He was going to need extra room to maneuver the overalls. They were dark blue and stiff, with creases at the calf, thigh, waist and chest from where they had been folded when Linda pulled them out from under a pile of blankets in the van. She had also given him a stretchy, white cotton shirt with long sleeves, and a pair of workman’s boots that were a few sizes too large. All the garments were brand new, as though they had just come off the shelves of a department store, except that the places where the tags would have been, - at the back of the shirt collar, the bib of the overalls, and the uppers on the boots, - had ragged tears where the manufacturer information had been cut out.Just in case anyone cared to glance at his feet under the wall that surrounded the stall, Max undid the second strap and pushed the overalls to his knees to pretend to urinate. He didn’t really have to go. He just needed a few minutes away from his two companions.Joel had driven north toward Pennsylvania after they had whisked Max away from the mob, muttering and ranting the whole way. The lunatic act, it seemed, hadn’t been an act altogether. Linda was constantly on guard; ready to snap at Joel to keep him focused on the road. To make matters worse, the van’s heads-up display was out and the avoidance collision system was apparently malfunctioning, allowing Joel to take the van screaming up on other cars from behind, which would force him to pump the brake and holler obscenities at innocent drivers. Then he would pass, swerving across oncoming lanes to the left, or onto the shoulder to the right. Fortunately, the collision avoidance systems in all the other vehicles they encountered were working well enough to deal with even Joel’s erratic driving.For the first half hour or so, Max had sat silently, wrapped in a blanket and wedged against the wall of the van as it rocked and jerked along the road. Linda watched him patiently, when she wasn’t chastising Joel, and occasionally raised her eyebrows or cocked her head in gestures that invited Max to speak up and ask the obvious questions.The shock of the assault in the parking lot kept him quiet. When he finally spoke, he only mentioned the need to relieve himself. While Linda dug out the clothes and boots for him, Max decided to simply walk away once the van stopped. But as he stood in the urinal with his pants around his knees, he didn’t feel that he had the strength to take off by himself, in the middle of nowhere with no car, no plan, and no drugs.He hitched up the overalls and opened the stall door. It closed automatically behind him. Water rushed in the self-flushing toilet, and th[...]

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Chapter 21. Flashmob

Mon, 28 May 2007 15:11:00 +0000

The lunch crowd was just starting to trickle into the cafe as Max waited for his muffin. He had hoped to avoid the rush, but it was beginning earlier than he'd expected. It was just past eleven and the tables on the sidewalk were rapidly filling. The crowd was young, primarily college age kids and a few professionals, and even some kids who looked as though they should be in high school.Listen to the Chapter 21 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.Max lowered his head and studied the wadded bills on the table to keep from catching anyone's eye, in the unlikely event that any of the arriving patrons knew him from campus. He picked the bills apart slowly and spread them flat on the checkered tablecloth. It had been so long since he had used paper money that Max almost didn't recognize the currency. All four were ten-dollar bills. They were old, worn, and crinkled. Someone had written on the least crumpled bill. The handwriting was jagged and juvenile, and he was having a hard time making out what it said. He could feel the numbers of the patrons swelling around him. He recognized the sound of one-sided conversations that meant many of them were chattering on cell phones. He glanced up briefly to see that others were gathered in small groups. There was an excited buzz in the air. Max had the impression that there was more to the activity than hungry people in search of lunch. As he turned back to the writing on the bill, a skinny kid engaged in an animated phone conversation bumped roughly against Max's table. He mouthed an apology and continued into the throng surrounding the cafe.Every seat was taken at the outdoor tables, and more people were on the way, strolling down along the sidewalk or dropped off at the curb by cars on auto pilot. The flow of customers had turned from a trickle to a flood, and was still building. This was definitely not a normal lunch crowd. Max dropped the wad of bills the lunatic had given him on the table and began rapping his fingers lightly on his thigh. The crush of bodies was making it hard to breathe. Max tried not to think about it, but he was continuously being jostled as more and more people arrived. He placed his hands open on the table and pushed down as if, at any moment, it might fly away and carry him with it. He stared at the bill in front of him, and struggled to stay calm until his muffin arrived. Someone, probably the lunatic, had written a across the president’s face. , "U r 6e1ng w4+ch3d." It was clearly a novice attempt at shorthand for "You are being watched." It was just the sort of thing he would have expected to find on money carried by a guy who wore a metal hat. On the other hand, thought Max, it was possible that the note was meant for him."Nonsense," he said to himself, while glancing up at the wall of bodies that surrounded his table and slopped over into the parking lot. It seemed the lunatic’s paranoia was contagious. Surely the note wasn't for him. On the other hand, the man had insisted that he count the money, perhaps to get him to notice the message. Still, why should he worry about paranoid missives from a deranged fruitcake?He covered the bill with his hand to hide it from anyone looking over his shoulder. After a few calming breaths, he lifted his palm enough to peek at the message again. A shudder ran through him when he found that the writing had changed. It read "\/\/3'r3 h3r3 2 h31p.” Max snatched up the bill. It looked like plain o[...]

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Chapter 20. The Cafe

Sun, 27 May 2007 03:27:00 +0000

Max propped up the pillow on the mattress he had dragged out of his bedroom to replace the couch. He leaned his head against the wall as he watched the yellow glow of the morning sun gradually erase the blue-black night that leaked in through the slats in his blinds. The couch, the TV, and the piles of laundry that once cluttered his apartment were long gone. He’d laboriously hauled everything out the front door three weeks earlier and down the steps to the parking lot, where he left them in a heap - to the thorough annoyance of the building superintendent. After a few days pounding on his door and threatening to evict him, the super slipped an envelope through the mail slot. Max hadn’t bothered to open it, and instead tossed it onto the growing stack of pizza delivery boxes on the breakfast table in his kitchen.Listen to the Chapter 20 podcast with roboreader Sangeeta.A spot of sunlight crawled down Max’s chest as the usual morning concert of slamming doors and pounding footsteps grew. The staccato rhythm above his ceiling meant the yellow Lab upstairs was prancing in anticipation of its morning walk. A piercing series of beeps, like the warning of a delivery truck backing up, leaked through the wall from the apartment next door. It was followed by the loud blathering of shock Dee Jays, which meant he would soon hear the hiss of a shower, a pell-mell rush down the stairs, and the sputtering of a scooter coming to life and buzzing off up the street.Max never heard the woman across the hall leave in the morning or return in the afternoon. He guessed that she wore the soft-soled shoes of a nurse or a librarian or bank clerk - something that required her to be on her feet all day. Other than the whispers of her television in the evening, or the occasional hallway conversation with a delivery boy, there was little evidence that anyone lived there at all.In all the years that he had rented his apartment, Max had never bothered to learn much about his neighbors. When he bumped into them in the hall, or the trash room, or even at the annual get-acquainted cook out in the courtyard out back, he barely listened when they told him their names. And when he did catch a name here or there, he generally did his best to forget it as soon as possible.But after three weeks holed up in his apartment, Max yearned to deduce as much about the people who surrounded him as he could, from the sounds they made throughout the day, the distorted glimpses of them in the fish eye view through the peephole in his door, and stolen glances through the slats of his lowered shades. There was the old man with the yellow lab, who left each day at ten with his dog on a leash and an umbrella under his arm - regardless of the weather, the young dark-haired kid with the scooter; and finally the light-footed woman across the hall. There were others as well, but they lived in apartments too far away for Max to gather anything about them other than their schedules.As the day's cavalcade of sound died down, he knew there would be little to look forward to until the afternoon, when the procession would reverse itself and his neighbors would come back to roost in their nests and watch TV or talk on the phone. Even the wrinkled, olive skinned old man who vacuumed the stairs and dusted the railings wouldn’t come by today. He apparently only attended to Max’s building twice each week, and he had taken care of his [...]