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The Dark Net is a serialized science fiction blognovel and podcast. Follow Max, Betty and their penguin buddy Linus as they explore the hidden recesses of the Internet.

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The Dark Net is a serialized science fiction blognovel and podcast. Follow Max, Betty and their penguin buddy Linus as they explore the hidden recesses of the Internet.

    Chapter 34. Bitter Reward

    Chapter 34. Bitter Reward

    “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 prefer it like this?

    Chapter 33. A Mortal Game

    Chapter 33. A Mortal Game

    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.” Max’s nostrils flared as he pointed the rifle

    Chapter 32. The Bargain

    Chapter 32. The Bargain

    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 wooden Frankenstein monster carrying off the maiden in an old horror fi

    Chapter 31. Hostage

    Chapter 31. Hostage

    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 stunning precision. Max pulled the gate shut and armed the Denial of Service mechanism. “Now?” he asked. There was a quick suc

    Chapter 30. Tourists

    Chapter 30. Tourists

    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 of the boy on the step behind her. She wore a white blouse and tight blue jeans on her slender legs, which she hugged to her chest in a kind of up

    Chapter 29. The Spat

    Chapter 29. The Spat

    “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 during his descent. He didn’t really care about the damage that much, but he wanted to make a show of how absurd Bob’s thoughtless swipe had made him feel. They tr

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