Thursday, October 18, 2007

Computing with Heat

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.
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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cyber Attack Blows Up Generator

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


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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Target Practice Widget Game

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

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Monday, September 17, 2007

The Dark Net on Amazon.com

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.
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Friday, September 14, 2007

Dark Net Turns Deadly in Japan

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.

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The Nerdiest Clock Ever

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.

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.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

NSF's DarkWeb: Life imitates Art

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.



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Monday, August 20, 2007

Chapter 35. After the Crash

***
Note to readers: This is the final chapter of The Dark Net blognovel.

Download the entire book from Lulu.com,

or email me at BuzzSkyline at gmail.com 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 filler in living genomes. Only when the equally inscrutable data Herman had hidden inside Betty was released did the parts come together to disrupt infected systems, fulfilling Ted’s vision of using technological attacks to destroy the technology that he believed enslaved humanity.

As clever as the two-part virus was, it would have done little damage if Neumann had not existed. Networks like the Internet are very robust against most attacks. Destroying a random set of servers is no more destructive than snipping a portion out of a spider web – there are always intact paths to follow around the damage. But Neumann existed in information traveling between machines throughout the Internet. He was, in effect, everywhere at once. Infecting him was the same as infecting the entire network simultaneously.

When the Internet shut down, so did systems controlling power grids, fly-by-wire planes and vehicles, sewage and water services, household appliances, and any other networked devices, which meant just about everything in the ultra-connected modern world. Like Joel’s brain, total disruption of basic functions, even briefly, caused the entire infrastructure to rapidly collapse. And no one had ever thought to build a life-support system for the Internet, or worried about the risks of relying too heavily on networked technology.

The irony of it, as far as Max was concerned, was that the destruction of the computational network had forced people to rebuild their personal connections. The small world of the Internet, with essentially instant connections across continents, had been replaced with a network of nearest living neighbors. This was how people must have lived before the net, phone lines, and even the pony express. Messages, goods, and just about everything else were transferred hand to hand. It was, Max imagined, like living in the Stone Age.

In fact, it was the social network that had kept the two of them going during the first challenging months. They had spent the fall and winter living off the generosity of local farmers, in addition to meager supplies Max scavenged from a truck stop he’d found over the hills from the Freedom Club compound. Once Linda was mobile, he brought her with him when he went to work in the nearby fields. Although she had the mentality of a child, her size and strength made it too dangerous to leave her with the children of the families that employed him. Instead, he would sit her down nearby and sing songs or recite half-remembered stories as he cleared brush, mended fences or shoveled manure.

When he was finally sure that she understood enough to stay seated in the sidecar, Max loaded up the rig with food, water, cans of ethanol, clothes and blankets. He kept a small bag dangling from the handlebars filled with bitter valerian roots, which he chewed periodically to prevent his seizures.

An Amish woman at one of the farms had taught him to recognize the plant’s fragrant white flowers. Once he knew what to look for, he saw them everywhere. He made a mental note to collect a reserve supply before they stopped blooming in September.

Max doubted the rumors of roving gangs of hoodlums robbing travelers and pillaging towns. He had seen no indication yet that the crumbling of the country’s infrastructure had done anything more than revive the frontiersman ethic of aiding those in need. Nevertheless, he kept a small-caliber rifle strapped beneath the sidecar where it would be out of sight, and yet within easy reach in the event that they stumbled into any trouble. It would also come in handy if they ran short of food and he had to resort to hunting the deer that occasionally crossed the highway in front of them, sprinting between the cars that, in the past, would have meant their instant doom, but now posed no threat other than leaking poisonous but temptingly sweet antifreeze and other toxic fluids.

The trip back to the university in Maryland would have taken only a few hours, back in the day. With the rig’s modest top speed, even on open ground, in addition to weaving through the surreal traffic jam and frequent stops to let Linda work off her energy playing among the trees, they were lucky to cover fifty miles before it was time to set up camp each evening.

They pulled into the supermarket parking lot down the street from his old apartment on the morning of the fourth day of their trip. Orderly rows of vendors’ tents crowded the parking spaces near the vacant storefronts, where autopiloted cars had once come and gone in rapid succession. A steady stream of foot traffic flowed across the walkway beneath the darkened traffic lights. There was no need of the crosswalk signals, even if they had still worked, now that the only vehicles in sight were handcarts and occasional horse-drawn wagons loaded with produce.

Linda waved joyously at the pedestrians who stopped and stared at the curious sight of the chugging rig before stepping aside as Max slowly negotiated his way to a stall packed with an assortment of hand tools, books, and second-hand clothing. He put the motorcycle in neutral and shut off the engine.

“Whatcha got there?” said a grizzled man sitting on a stool behind the table. “That an old Beemer?”

“Don’t think so,” said Max, helping Linda out of the sidecar. “As best I can tell from the markings, it’s Soviet, probably Ukrainian.”

“Look at that, Miranda,” the old man called over his shoulder. “They don’t make them like that anymore. Looks bulletproof to me.”

“That so?” said a woman who appeared to be in her thirties and was sorting through a box on the table.

“Where’s Ukraine exactly, Miranda?”

The woman snorted impatiently. “Google it yourself, idiot.”

“I can’t,” the old man snapped at her. “I traded the Britannica for your wedding dress this morning.” He sat forward on his stool and whispered conspiratorially to Max. “I’m not losing a daughter, so much as gaining a little peace.”

The woman threw a handful of silverware into the box, snatched up a yellowing world atlas and slapped it down on the table, then returned to her work.

“Never mind,” said the man. “I can look it up later. It’s not like you have to know the answer to everything just his moment. Tends to stifle polite conversation, IMHO. Where y’all headed in that fine piece of communist iron?”

“Oh,” said Max, “just stopping by the University, then going down to the shore, I think.”

The old man pondered Linda for a moment. “Taking her in for rehab? They have a fine program at the University. Not much else just now. But classes should be starting up soon.”

“No. I think I can handle it myself. Linda’s doing all right, all things considered.”
The old man clucked his tongue softly. “That’s good. Plenty turned up worse than her after the crash. But those that made it through at the beginning seem to come along pretty quick. She your wife or something?”

“A friend.”

“Well, that’s awfully good of you then. Damned ’puters. My grandma always said they’d rot your brains. Too bad she wasn’t around long enough to see how right she was. Have you heard? The government is trying to get them running again.”

“That so?” said Max absently.

“Yup. My future son-in-law tells me they’ve already got a server and some old laptops going down there in Arlington. DARPA, I think he said, is working on it. Damned fools, should leave well enough alone. Some folks never learn.”

“I’m sure they have their reasons. It’s hard to know sometimes,” said Max as he picked through a box of tools, “what’s the best thing to do. You can’t always tell how things will turn out.”

The old man harrumphed cynically. “They didn’t turn out so good last time, now did they? That’s what separates us from the animals, and machines like your bike there or my lobotomized Civic. The ability to learn from our mistakes.”

Max turned his attention to the items spread out on the table, in part to derail the conversation. He eventually traded a leather jacket he’d picked up at the same museum where he’d come across the motorcycle and sidecar rig for a nearly complete set of metric wrenches and some juice for Linda. He shooed away the children who had gathered around the sidecar to beg for rides, and gave a few pointers to a group of men interested in converting an antique gas tractor to ethanol, before he and Linda continued on their way.

The old man was right; the University was quieter than Max ever remembered it. Even during summer break, there had always been a fair amount of activity in the old days.

The Institute where he’d worked for so long was entirely deserted. One of the double doors at the front entrance was missing. The other stood wide open. He took Linda’s hand and led her up the steps. He waited a moment to let his eyes adjust to the shadows, and then followed the familiar twists of the central hall to his old lab. He gathered up some papers from a pile in the hall, wrapped them into a tight tube, and lit the improvised torch with the lighter he kept in his pocket.

His office had been thoroughly ransacked, but whoever had gone through it clearly saw no reason to make off with the memory cards that at one time had been neatly cataloged on the gray metal bookshelf. Instead, they had simply scattered the gigabytes of backup data on the floor. He sifted through the pile until he found the card he needed, and then guided Linda back out to the bright daylight.

He helped her into the sidecar. As he checked that Linda was secure in her seat, she reached for the card in his hand.

“See?” she said.

He held out the card and let her touch it.

“Mine?”

“Not now,” said Max. “Later.”

“Mine,” she insisted.

He bent over and pointed to the words he’d written on it years ago.

“This says, ‘Linus and Minus, source code and training data, session number one.’”

Linda inspected the writing without showing any recognition of the meaning. It would be a long time before she’d understand the connection between text and spoken words.

“Have it?” she asked.

“Someday, maybe,” said Max as he slipped the card into his pocket. “But first we’re going to go find a boat. Do you remember the boats we saw on the river?”

Her face lit up.

“Boat!”

“Then, who knows,” he shouted over the puttering engine, “maybe I’ll teach you to play backgammon.”

Max turned the sidecar rig around, headed out of the University, and turned east. They’d make it to the shore in a few days. All he’d need to do is trade the bike for the biggest fishing boat he could wrangle. It wouldn’t be a pleasure cruise exactly, but it would do.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Dark Net download

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 Lulu.com at The Dark Net for a paltry $1.25, or email me at "buzzskyline at gmail.com" 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 Amazon.com 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.

-Buzz
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Friday, August 17, 2007

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?” said Neumann as he grinded his hips against her buttocks. Betty reached back and raked at his face and neck with the nails of her free hand, snarling like an animal.

“Or are you more traditional?”

He spun her around, jammed her back against the rail, and pinned her arms to her side.

“Get off of me boy!” she shrieked.

“Stop it,” said Max, hobbling up the steps. “That’s not at all what I want.”

Neumann ripped open Betty’s jacket and pushed it down, immobilizing her arms, then turned her to face Max. He reached around her waist and unzipped her pants.

“Be honest. This is every man’s desire,” said Neumann. “I see them. That’s why half those people are here – to fulfill their secret fantasies.”

“Not this. Not me.”

Neumann laughed maniacally. “Oh, I see how it is. You’re one of those who likes to watch. Well watch this then.”

He slammed Betty down and pulled her pants to her ankles, then fell on top of her.

Max leapt forward and pushed at Neumann’s shoulder. The effort was futile. Instead of knocking the rapist away, Max was entangled in the attack. He lost his autonomy and became simultaneously witness, vicious perpetrator and victim of the rape, sharing in both Neumann’s assault and Betty’s agony. His sense of self was enveloped in a swirling vortex of fury and pain, like a scrap of paper in a tornado.

Somewhere at the center of the tempest, there was a calm spot, a dim and peaceful haven. It was not clear what lay there, but Max knew instinctively that it was his one hope to end the assault. He concentrated his effort and reached desperately for the refuge among the chaos of anger and anguish. He envisioned a tiny black cube hovering in the eye of the storm.

The cube grew more distinct as Max focused on it. The storm swirled around him as he found the object within his mental grasp. One side popped open, like the lid of a child’s music box, spilling a cloud of tiny specks that flowed out and were caught up in the tempest.

The vortex instantly broke apart into countless tiny swirls that spun away and evaporated like so many smoke rings.

Max found himself back in the arena. There was a great rumbling. The amphitheater was crumbling around them, as Neumann stood stunned before him.

“What have you done?” said Neumann. A series of cracks raced across Neumann’s skin.

He lifted his hands. The fingers began to disintegrate into dust.

“I don’t know,” said Max as a rift opened up in the ground between them. “I was only trying to stop you.”

The arena shook and heaved. Portions of the surrounding structure collapsed. The previously apathetic audience members cried out as they were crushed in the rubble.

If he was going to make his escape, the time had come – it was now or never. The injury to his leg hadn’t been enough to initiate the seizure. He needed something more severe. Max snatched up the sword beside him and braced the hilt on the ground. He placed the point against his belly just below the ribs, took a final breath, and flung himself down on the blade.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

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 at Joel. All that was left was to go down in a flurry of destruction. First Joel, then Spencer, then Perske and anyone else he could take out before they stopped him.

He wrapped his finger over the trigger. But the futility of the situation overwhelmed him. He threw the rifle at Perske’s feet.

“You win. You have what you want,” he shouted. “Now let me go!”

Spencer stepped down and retrieved the weapon, handing it to Perske. He walked forward, holding out the pendant.

“What are you talking about? This little thing?”

He tugged on the jewel and threw it past Max over the arena floor. It burst in mid air, incinerating the bulk of the gathered chess players, and leaving the glowing mini sun hovering in place.

“That’s what you thought you brought us?”

The fireball grew. Max raised his arms to protect his face from the searing heat and tripped backward to the ground. Spencer strode unflinching toward the circle of destruction. His clothes and hair began to smolder. When he stopped and turned, the skin on his face had a glossy sheen, like wax running down a hot candle.

“It’s very pretty,” he shouted over the fireball’s angry sizzle and crackle.

Spencer raised his hand. His arm burst into flames that instantly spread, enveloping his entire body. When the smoke and fire cleared, Spencer’s chubby form was gone and a naked youth with curly blond hair stood in his place, completely unscathed by the flaming orb. He snapped his fingers and the miniature sun was extinguished.

“Do you remember me Fishman? Dr. Perske calls me Neumann.”

Max leaned back against the arena wall in stunned silence.

The naked youth approached and sat down beside him. Max felt a gentle tugging at the collar of his shirt. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Linus’s shiny black head and yellow beak at his shoulder.

“Your buddy recognizes you,” said Neumann, “don’t ya, little guy?”

“Now Max,” Neumann sighed, “I’m going to give you a little lesson. You know these people sitting behind us. They’re the Jasons. Smart folks, all of them. I like to think of them as my parents in a way. They built the Internet, or at least got it started.”

He leaned over to look Max in the face.

“But I bet you already knew that. Didn’t you?”

Max shook his head.

“Well they did. In any case, I’m sure you don’t know why.”

Neumann reached back and lifted Linus, gently placing him between them.

“The Internet is something special. It’s designed to maintain its integrity in the event of massive destruction. You could wipe out huge portions of it and the rest will continue working just fine. It’s damn near indestructible.”

He patted Linus’s head.

“Do you know what you are to me Max?”

“No,” Max whispered.

Neumann squeezed his shoulder. With the contact, Max’s self awareness was swamped by the presence of countless trapped and tormented beings struggling to free themselves from an unfathomable purgatory. They were, Max now knew, the people who loitered throughout the town that Perske and the Jasons had built. The details were hazy, but somehow the technology that had transported him and Linda here had been adapted to capture them as they logged into PCs, accessed ATMs, played video games, or interacted with any other networked device. Some arrived and others departed, each contributing a tiny portion of the capacity of the networks that were their minds to the megalomaniacal creature personified by Neumann. They were droplets in an enormous and growing computational sea.

“You’re insignificant,” Neumann said as he released his grip on Max. “Less than nothing. A frivolous little speck.”

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” asked Max. “Just let me be.”

Neumann laughed. “I would, but Perske and her friends are cautious types. They thought poor Herman passed you something truly dangerous before his unfortunate accident. She was mistaken, wasn’t she?”

Max nodded.

“So I have a choice now. I could turn you loose to join my devoted people,” said Neumann gesturing grandly at the crowd in the arena stands, “or I could make you entertain me. And you know what?”

“No,” said Max, “I don’t know.”

Neumann leapt to his feet. “I choose entertainment.”

He hopped over the wall to the seat beside Perske and placed an arm around her shoulder.

“What do you say doc? Shall we have a show?”

Perske smiled blankly, while the Jasons in the rows behind them looked on with rapt attention.

Neumann flicked his wrist and the scorched arena floor shimmered, then changed into a smooth sand-covered oval. In the very middle, a long pike stood jammed into the ground next to a glinting sword. A gaping hole opened in the far wall.

“You get to play a game with an old friend.”

“A game?” Said Max. “What kind of game?”

“The rules are simple. If you win, you live. And if you lose, you die.”

Max looked up at Perske.

“Don’t I get a reward?” he asked.

Neumann laughed. “You’re a greedy one. The terms were good enough for Spencer, although the outcome was not the one he preferred.”

“A little reward always helps,” said Max, “doesn’t it Elizabeth?”

“Yes,” said Perske, with the voice of a person waking from a deep sleep. “Reputable research has confirmed the effect.”

“Alright,” said Neumann, “just for added incentive. What is your request?”

“Betty,” said Max. “I want her back.”

Neumann pondered the proposal with mock seriousness.

“Done, brave gladiator. Now behold your opponent.”

A clanking noise erupted from the distant opening in the arena wall. A great, dark form gradually emerged. Max raced to gather the weapons just as Minus’ glowing eyes set upon him. If anything, the penguin was larger and more menacing than the last time Max had seen him. The chain on his ankle was larger as well, like an anchor mooring from some lost ship. Crimson blood flowed between the dark stains that discolored his chest feathers.

Minus stood his ground for a moment and scanned the arena. Max retreated slowly, hefting the pike in his right hand and the sword in his left. The bird let out a rumbling call, lowered his head, and barreled across the sand with the chain whipping and clattering behind him in wide arcs.

Just when Minus was nearly on him, Max dodged left and planted the hilt of the pike in the ground. The barbed tip buried itself in the penguin’s side as Minus’ momentum carried him past. Max’s quickness saved him from the charge, but the flailing chain was less predictable. Although he leapt clear of the chain itself, the spike at the end caught his foot and sent him spinning to the ground.

Pain shot up though his leg, and when he hit the ground he felt the nausea and light-headedness that preceded his seizures begin to rise. He rolled to his side clutching his ankle, expecting Minus to fall upon him at any moment.

The bird did not turn. Instead, it continued across the arena toward the roped off section where Perske, Neumann and the Jasons sat. As Max groped at his injury, he saw Joel leap clumsily out of Minus’ way to clamber into the stands. The monstrous bird halted at the very edge of the arena, his massive back arched and his head hanging over the first row of seats. The pike's shaft dangled from his side, swaying back and forth with the giant penguin’s every move.

Minus turned and Max groped for the sword in preparation for the next pass. It never came. Instead the bird stood facing him. He held something in his beak that Max could only make out as a shapeless, dark form. Minus stretched his neck skyward, then whipped his head down, slamming the object to the ground. The impact sent a spray of sand into the air and Max heard a panicked squawk. It was Linus, fluttering desperately on the ground in the face of Minus’ fury.

“Minus,” Max bellowed. “Stop!”

The enraged beast struck at Linus with his beak as the little penguin frantically dodged the mighty blows.

“Perske,” Max shouted, lurching forward, “call him off!” His wounded leg failed him and he collapsed.

Minus pinned Linus to the ground with the claw of one enormous, webbed foot. He glared briefly at Max, as if daring him to intervene, then plunged his beak into his immobilized victim. Linus ceased his struggles.

Max struggled to balance on his good leg and held the sword outstretched as Minus approached with laborious, agonized lurches. When the bird was at last only a few meters away, he opened his beak and dropped Linus’s mangled body to the sand, then collapsed to stretch shuddering on the ground beside his tiny twin. The fury had faded from his eyes, replaced with an expression approaching serenity.

Max hobbled forward with the sword extended before him, until he stood over Linus and held the blade pressed against Minus’ throat. The gigantic adversary gazed up at him calmly. Max grasped the hilt with both hands. One thrust and it would be over. In the distance, he heard Neumann shouting.

His knuckles were white with strain, his forearms tensed in preparation for the kill.

“Are you done?” he asked.

Minus lay still, showing no sign that there was any fight or spirit left in him. Nor was there the terrified anguish that he had once displayed in response to the riding crop that Max had tormented him with after chess and backgammon games back at the University. He displayed only resolute acceptance.

“Finish him,” called Neumann from across the arena.

Max recalled the hours of suffering Minus had endured during training, when Linus was collecting herring and praise.

“You really hated your little brother,” he said. He removed the sword from the prone bird’s neck and let it hang at his side. “I guess that’s my fault.”

He painfully made his way to the pike embedded in Minus’ side, dropped the sword, and heaved on the shaft. The barbed tip ripped away and blood oozed out from among the black feathers.

“Now go,” he said.

Minus’ breathing slowed slightly, but otherwise he didn’t stir. Max thumped him with the pike handle.

“Get!”

A tremor rippled through the bird’s huge torso as he slowly lifted himself up. Max pointed at the gap in the arena wall. Minus swung his head to the side and peered at Max, then at Linus’s tiny corpse. With one tottering step after another, the tormented giant lurched across the sandy expanse and disappeared into the dark tunnel.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

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.



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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 film, and headed toward the courtyard gates.

“That way is blocked,” said Max. “Denial of service.”

“Not a problem,” said Bob over his shoulder. “Those don’t last long.”

Max turned back to Spencer. “So, I guess we better go talk to Perske and explain the deal.”

Spencer and Eddie stepped away from the wall and followed after Bob. The tree man was nearing the edge of the pool when Linda began to struggle.

“Max!” she called out. “You bastard!”

She twisted in Bob’s wooden arms and Max saw the panic on her face. She clawed at the tree man’s arm and twisted until she slipped to the ground. Bob had a firm grip on her wrist, despite her kicking his gnarled legs and pounding his chest with her free hand.

“Linda, it’s OK,” called Max. “He’s taking you back.”

She froze and stared at Max. Even from a distance of twenty meters or so, he could see a look of shock on her face. In a few moments it was replaced with anger, and finally resolute sadness.

“Joel always said we shouldn’t trust you.”

Max was tempted to tell her that Joel was very wise for a madman, but decided there would be no use in aggravating her further.

“I’m sorry.”

She looked down at her feet for several long seconds. Just when it seemed she had given up hope, Linda wrenched her wrist from Bob’s grasp and sprinted toward Max. As she ran, she fumbled at her belt. She pushed a button in mid stride and the belt glowed a warning orange. A few more steps and it turned angry red. Max raised his rifle and groped for the settings in hopes of stunning her before she got too close, but Eddie had lunged forward to intercept her and had blocked the shot. The turf monster sprinted a few steps and spread his great green arms to wrap Linda up. Max turned and hit the ground just as the suicide belt detonated. The impact of the shockwave knocked the breath out of him. He gasped for air and rolled to his knees, ears ringing as the courtyard spun around his head.

In the distance someone wailed. As Max came to his senses, he saw that Bob the tree man was the source of the cry, kneeling at the edge of a smoking crater with his wooden hands raised skyward.

Bob continued to wail as he rose slowly to his feet and turned toward Max. A murderous rage burned in the deep knotholes that were his eyes. He took one deliberate step, then another, and another. Max groped for his rifle.

The first shot splintered Bob’s shoulder, halting his forward progress. The second blasted a deep hole in his chest.

“What kind of a monster are you?” asked Bob, a trickle of sap oozing down his gnarled cheek. He stood rigidly still for a moment, as a real tree would, then tipped backwards and fell to the ground with a heavy thump.

Max’s head throbbed. He sat on the grass and rubbed his temples, gauging his senses to detect any sign that the shock and pain of the explosion might be enough to trigger an epileptic episode that would eject him from the virtual world. So far, there was nothing out of the ordinary other than the ringing in his ears and the tightness in his chest that lingered after he’d regained his breath.

Linda and the turf monster had been obliterated. There were no identifiable pieces nearby, although he’d had enough experience blowing up balsawood planes and plastic cars as a boy to know that nothing is totally destroyed in an explosion, and that the rain of charred bits that fell in the moments after Linda set off her belt surely included a gruesome piece or two. He had hoped to get her sent back, disappointed and angry perhaps, but unharmed. At least it was quick. After all, the chances were good that Spencer would not have kept his word anyway.

He shook the remaining fuzziness from his head and looked at the fat man lying immobile on his back. Spencer had been about the same distance from the detonation as Max, although unless he too had had the presence of mind to hit the ground before it went off it was likely that he had taken a bigger hit.

Max jammed the butt of his rifle on the ground and used it to steady himself as he climbed to his feet and made his way over to Spencer. The man’s glasses were missing and his hair was singed on the left side of his head. Half of his face was raw and pink, and his shirt was burned through in patches here and there. His breath rasped though his thick, moist lips.

“Get up,” said Max. Spencer remained still. Max leaned on the rifle and kicked him in the ribs, eliciting a flinch and a groan.

“Get up!”

Spencer rolled to his side. Max reached down,hooked his hand inside the fat man’s collar, and heaved. Spencer sat up with a whine of pain.

“Come on Spencer.”

A few more tugs and pokes with the rifle barrel and they were on their way, both limping from the trauma.

The card table still lay on its side beneath the willows, but there was no sign of Linus.

They rounded the pool and proceeded through the door in the wall to the gate. Bob had been right, the denial of service attack had collapsed. Now only a waist high mound of paper remained piled up against the outside of the gate.

Spencer stopped, his hands hanging listlessly by his side.

“Open it,” said Max.

Spencer sighed and slid the bolt. He pushed weakly against the gate. The mound of paper compressed slightly and the gate only opened a few inches before Spencer gave up.

“Push,” said Max. “Harder.”

Spencer leaned into it. It opened another fraction. Max jabbed him in the kidney with the rifle barrel. Spencer yelped and fell against the gate. His weight was enough to move the paper mound a foot or so, which was sufficient for them to squeeze out and wade through the trash pile.

The fork bomb globules were mostly cleared up as well, dissolved into puddles of slick liquid. A few remained in the gutters, shrunken and glistening like gelatin melting in the sun. The lethargic pedestrians had resumed their strolling. Groups parted for the ragged pair, but instead of ignoring them and going about their business, all eyes were on Max and Spencer. People stepped off of the sidewalk to get out of their way, with doe-like glances of apprehension.

Spencer led the way slowly down the street for a few blocks, eventually turning into a narrow passage and a steep flight of stone steps. At the top of the stairs was a small, rough-hewn door studded with iron nail heads and fitted with an iron knocker. Spencer reached up to lift the knocker and let it drop. The door swung open.

The room that greeted them on the other side was large and airy, with bright white walls, a skylight far overhead, and large windows at either side with the shutters thrown wide. The furniture included a plush couch, several chairs, and a tiny writing desk tucked in the corner. A pair of tall French doors stood in the middle of the far wall. Although the cut glass pains distorted the view, Max could make out a long corridor lined with baroque painted walls and lit by gilded chandeliers.

Spencer shuffled to the middle of the room. He hung his head and stood still, breathing heavily.

“Where’s Perske?” asked Max.

Spencer mumbled something that Max didn’t catch. He poked Spencer with the rifle.

“Come again?”

“Through there,” he rolled his head in the direction of the French doors.

“OK. Let’s go.”

Spencer turned toward the doors and bumped against the couch, stumbling forward a few steps before catching onto the gilded door handle to steady himself. With one swift movement, he snatched open the doors and slipped through, slamming them shut behind him.

Despite the distorting glass, it was clear that Spencer was grinning that slimy grin. Max contemplated blowing a hole in the Spencer’s fat head.

“Freakin’ bastard.”

He lifted the rifle and steadied it at Spencer’s face with one hand as he reached for the handle with the other. He was sure it would be locked; in which case, he planned to blast both the door and Spencer at the same time. To his surprise the handle turned easily.

Spencer’s distorted grin grew broader. Max whipped open the door. Instead of that round face and sagging belly, he discovered a svelte woman in high heels, skin tight shorts, and a half shirt that barely covered her breasts.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Cheryl. Don’t be lonesome tonight. My friends and I are waiting for you at www dot sexkittens. . .”

He shut the door and Cheryl was gone. Through the tiny window, he could make out the fat man rounding a corner far down the corridor.

He opened the door again.

Cheryl instantly reappeared and stepped in to the room still speaking where she left off. “. . . dot com. It’s safe and completely confidential . . .”

He moved to the side as Cheryl strutted in, rattling on about sex parties and randy coeds. He made an attempt to slip by and follow after Spencer, but his way was blocked once more.

“Earn while you learn,” said a young man holding a laptop at his side. “I did, now I’m a certified graphic designer and my life has never been better. There are plenty of other careers to choose from. In three weeks, you can complete classes that will qualify you to work as a nursing assistant, long haul trucker, lawnmower repairman, electrical tech, and dozens of other great jobs. Or get your GED without going back to school. It’s easy. All you need is . . .”

Max lunged for the opening. Before he could dive through he was forced backward by a stream of people touting cheap travel, easy credit repair, real estate opportunities, revolutionary mattresses, and penis enlargement creams.

“Have you been injured on the job?” asked a man in a navy blue, three-piece suit who rested his hand on Max’s shoulder reassuringly. “Smith, Bitterman and Smith can help. Call one eight-hundred . . .”

Max rammed him in the gut with the rifle butt. The man took a step back, blinked, and straightened his tie. He cleared his throat, and asked again, “Have you been injured on the job? Smith, Betterman and Smith can help. Be sure to ask for me – Jerald Smith.”

Max fired a shot into the lawyer, who melted to a navy blue puddle that swirled on the floor. A fellow in a Hawaiian shirt stepped into the lawyer puddle and held up a colorful brochure featuring photographs of an island paradise. The rifle bucked against Max’s hip, taking out the travel agent. The credit guy, the plumber, and the skin cream girl fell in rapid succession, all turning to slime on the floor.

He was slowly clearing the room. Although still more advertising agents flowed in, they were no match for the speed of his trigger finger. He worked his way toward the French doors steadily clearing a path upstream. It was slow going and nerve racking at first, but when he found he was making headway he began to enjoy popping off the spokespeople in rapid succession like rabbits in a carnival shooting gallery. Even the persistent tap on his shoulder was not enough to distract him from his task, until he heard the stereo voices behind him.

“Have you been injured on the job?”

Max turned to see two men in blue, three-piece suits. “Call one eight-hundred three four five. . .”

In addition to the twin lawyers, there were twin travel agents and credit guys. A dual geyser of goop shot upward from one of the puddles, and suddenly there were two Cheryls inviting him back to the sex club. More geysers spouted, spawning still more copies of ad agents intent on selling him products and services.

He blasted one of the lawyers again out of frustration, knowing that it meant he would have three of them to deal with in a moment. There was only one solution -- shut down the whole damn room.

He slung the rifle on his back, leapt up onto the couch to catch his breath, and lunged toward the heavy wooden door that he and Spencer had entered through a few minutes earlier. He stiff-armed a car salesman who blocked his way, checked a discount stockbroker with his shoulder, and threw an elbow into the throat of one of the porn site Cheryls before he made it to his destination. He wrenched open the door and pulled two CtrlAltDel grenades from his belt, simultaneously pressing the detonation plungers. The warning whistles began to shriek and he tossed a grenade to each end of the room.

As he pulled on the door to close it behind him, a spectacled man in a white lab coat blocked it with his foot. “Ever wished you could go all night? I bet she does.”

Max head-butted the faux pharmacist in the face, slammed the door, and raced down the steps.

Two explosions buckled the heavy door, splitting it down the middle and spewing a jet of smoke into the air. After the rumbles died away he strained to hear any hint of ad gibberish, but all was quite. After a moment the door shook, scraped open a few inches, and fell inward, releasing a wall of smoke that rolled down the stairs and obscured his view. He waved his arms to clear the air, succeeding only in stirring up countless gray spirals. When at last the cloud settled, a female shape emerged and stood on the uppermost step. For a moment he feared one of the Cheryls was back.

“You’re very persistent,” said Perske.

“Actually,” he said, coughing out a lungful of smoke, “I was just getting started.”

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Monday, August 06, 2007

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.



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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 succession of shots.

“Hold on a second,” Linda said. She finished off the reinforcements who were still mobile, then trained her fire on the roboraoches immobilized by the zip bomb.

Max slipped his rifle from his shoulder to help out. His aim wasn’t bad, but he was pulling off shots at a fraction of Linda’s pace, often firing at a target a fraction of a second after she had already taken it out.

“OK,” she said, “now.”

Max set the fuse and slipped it through the bars. A series of warning tones was followed by a fluttering sound, like a flock of pigeons taking flight. The mechanism fired out a stream of paper packets that sailed up into the air. Moments later, similar packets began raining down from all directions, plastering themselves against the gates. All the spaces between the bars were rapidly jammed as the paper packets accumulated layer upon layer. The courtyard entrance was soon blockaded behind a rapidly growing mound. No one was going in or out of the gates, at least for a while.

“Service denied,” said Linda. Max turned to find that she had shut off her root kit. “Can’t watch each other’s backs if we can’t see them.”

“Good point.”

He pushed the button on his belt.

“This way,” he said, leading her from the gate and through an opening in the courtyard wall.

The scene spread out before them matched the vision he’d had when they’d connected with the crowd on the steps. There was a rectangular pool at the center, with a fountain at the opposite end and a polished marble patio running around its perimeter. On the far side were three large weeping trees arranged in a perfect triangle, and a card table set up in their midst. Unlike his vision, the table was tipped over on its side with four empty chairs scattered around it, as if the players had left in a great hurry, no doubt in an attempt to escape the commotion that he and Linda had caused at the gate.

There were no more roboroaches in view. Between the fork bomb and their initial assault, it appeared that Max and Linda had taken care of them all, for the moment. There was no obvious sign of anyone else either

“Did they get away?” asked Linda.

“Possibly.”

A movement behind the upset card table caught his eye. It was just a fleeting hint of a shadow.

“Hold on,” he whispered, “looks like we may still have one.”

He waved his hand to direct Linda around the right side of the pool, while he circled around to the left, his rifle up. He flicked the lever on the barrel to stun.

As they rounded the end of the pool and closed on the table, Max saw a sliver of a black form hiding behind, then a hint of white.

“Wait!” he cried to Linda at almost the same moment that the crack of her rifle pierced the air. The force of the shot spun the table aside exposing Linus fluttering on the ground. Max raced to the penguin’s side as Linda steadily approached with her rifle at her shoulder ready for another round.

“Was it set to pause, or to disrupt?” Max called frantically as he rested a hand on Linus’s convulsing belly.

She glanced at her rifle's setting. “Disrupt.”

Max realized that the table must have taken the brunt of the impact. Linus was in bad shape, but not as bad as he would have been from a direct shot.

“We need hostages at the moment,” he snapped at her, “not corpses,

“Sorry,” she said, adjusting her weapon.

Linus gradually ceased his twitching.

“Friend of yours?” she asked.

Max ignored the question.

“He’s no good to us as a hostage anyway. Come on, let’s keep going.”

They split up again, rounding the trees cautiously looking for anyone hiding behind them. All three were clear. Only two more hiding places remained; a pair of statues standing at the back corners of the courtyard. They were large, classical marble carvings, one reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, and the other of a woman carrying an urn on her head, as her toga-like wrap slipped from her shoulder.

He silently indicated to Linda to take the David and he headed toward the urn bearer. An expanse of open ground separated them from their targets. Max sprinted quickly across the grass and rolled past the sculpture, ready to pepper anyone tucked behind. His finger tickled the trigger, but the statue was hiding nothing other than empty space.

Linda had better luck.

“Freeze,” he heard her call out.

Max braced himself against the stone wall behind the statue and swung his rifle around. Linda was standing with her feet spread apart and her knees bent as she pointed her weapon at someone hiding low behind the faux-David.

“Step out, now!”

She pulled the rifle firmly against her shoulder, emphasizing the seriousness of her intentions. Max could not see the captive behind the statue. There was a tense pause, and he feared that Linda would have to resort to shooting whoever it was so that they could drag their prisoner into the open.

She took a step back, and lowered the rifle a bit while still keeping it at the ready. There was a glint of light off of glasses as a pudgy figure squeezed from the hiding place. Max’s heart leapt. It was the very person he was hoping to find, short of capturing Perske herself.

He stood and sprinted across the courtyard as Linda directed Spencer to back up against the wall. Max felt a wave of revulsion wash over him at the sight of those tiny, piggy eyes behind the great thick glasses. Even at this distinct disadvantage, Spencer’s moist quivering lips showed a hint of a smarmy grin.

“Hello Max,” he said. “I’m glad to see you’re doing well.” He moved as if to take a step away from the wall, and Linda tensed threateningly. “You always seem to travel with such charming, and if I may say so, lovely company.”

Linda made a sound on the verge of a growl.

“Shall we have a latte and chat like civilized folk?” Spencer adjusted his glasses with trembling fingers that belied his casual confidence.

Max’s chest heaved. It was now or never. He raised his rifle as nausea and light-headedness rolled over him.

“What are you doing?” asked Linda through clenched teeth. “We need a hostage.”

“Yes,” Spencer spurted out. “A hostage. Of course you need a hostage.”

The nasty little grin drained away, along with the color in Spencer’s formerly pink cheeks.

Max steadied himself and Spencer let out a little squeak of fear.

“Please," he said. "Please don’t.”

“Come on Max,” said Linda without shifting her gaze from her prisoner. “Stick with the plan.”

“You know,” said Max, trembling almost as much as Spencer, “I have my own plans. He swung the rifle around, pulled the trigger, and Linda dropped to the ground in a heap.

Spencer blinked deliberately and removed his glasses.

“Now that,” he said as he wiped the lenses pointlessly on his sweaty shirt, “is something.”

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

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.



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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 upright fetal position as she gazed at the sky.

“Yuck,” Max grimaced. “They’ve lost their sense of personal space.”

“It’s not very American of them.”

Max nodded absently. “Maybe they’re Italians.”

The people walking the streets as well appeared inclined to keep in contact with their companions, though not quite as closely or extensively as the crowds on the steps. The street people mostly stood in small bunches with arms linked or hands on shoulders. Others walked in two's and threes, holding hands as they drifted from corners to benches to cafes, always ending up literally in touch with one group or another. Now and then, a small cluster would make their way up the steps to blend into the lounging audience.

Linda asked, “What do you suppose they’re doing?”

Max recalled the mind-opening experience he’d had when Neumann held his hand.

“I think I know, but I’m not sure how to explain it. I’m guessing they’re communing. That’s probably the best way to put it.”

Linda approached the red haired girl. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”

“Hi,” she said as she stood over the girl.

She smiled slightly in response. Linda sat cross-legged next to her and reached toward the girl’s crooked leg with the kind of caution she might have shown in trying to pet a stray kitten. When the tips of her fingers made contact with the girl’s knee, Linda tilted her head as though she were listening to an unfamiliar sound, and then smiled in much the same way the girl had.

“Are you OK?” asked Max.

Linda pursed her lips and nodded.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Very . . .” she crinkled her nose as she grasped for an adjective, “It’s very broadening.”

Yes, thought Max, broadening is a good word, and deepening and elevating {{Pause=0.25}} – and above all, seductive. As Max recalled, it was also informative.

He squatted down in front of Linda. She looked through him with peaceful blankness. Her pupils were dilated and the muscles in her face were slack.

“Are you in control?” he asked. “Can you let go?”

“Yes, I could,” she said as the slightest frown flickered across her lips, “I think. But I’m not sure I want to. Not yet.” Her eyelids fluttered.

Max reached out and grasped her free hand. In a rush, the thoughts and sensations of all the hundreds of people on the steps flowed through him. His thoughts and sensations flowed through them as well.

He was whisked away, like a raindrop that had fallen into a pond, losing itself to become a small part of a much greater whole. Although he sat only inches from Linda, in this swirling cauldron of experience she seemed both miles away and intimately entwined in his mind along with everyone else in the tortuous chains of contact.

When he’d held Neumann's hand, he had shared the thoughts and a reasonably defined point of view with a single entity. Now, linked to so many people, there was no central focus, only a liquid multiplicity of existence. It was an omni-dimensional panorama that embraced the collected being of the crowd.

The guitar music caught his attention. He listened to it with the composite hearing of all the people on the steps. He focused on how it sounded to the young man who sat just below the musician’s feet, then listened from the perspective of the musician himself, and finally from the point of view of the redheaded girl next to Linda.

Max marveled that he could experience so much without losing his mind. He wasn’t overwhelmed so much as empowered. It was like concentrating on the sensation of his big toe pressed against the inside of his shoe, then thinking about the slickness of the enamel as he ran his tongue across the backs of his teeth. Only now he could focus on the toe of the old man seated twenty steps up, or the teeth of the woman cuddled against the musician’s leg, or any part of anyone else in the assortment of humanity spread before him.

He sensed that there was something more to this conglomeration than simply artificial nirvana. He pushed the thought aside. There were more important things to worry about.

Max scanned the city through the shared eyes of all the people on the steps. They had to be here somewhere {{Pause=0.25}} – the boy, Perske, Linus, and Spencer. It was startling how far he could see, and with such extraordinary resolution. Dust specks on benches and roofing tiles on distant houses all came into focus simultaneously.

A pair of ripples traveled with steady determination along a sidewalk back up the street. The disturbances would surely have been imperceptible to his normal vision. Now he could see them, and somehow know that they had traced the path he and Linda had taken from the acropolis. The collective vision, it seemed, included a collective memory as well. He had no idea what the ripples could be, but it was clear from the path that the ripples were following them - that they were stalkers of some kind. He was not surprised; it would have been inconceivable that he and Linda could have made it this far un-observed.

That’s the place, he thought as he peered at a walled courtyard just beyond the amphitheater where he had played chess with Neumann and where Minus had skewered his thigh.

He stood without letting go of Linda’s hand, watching himself through dozens of eyes. His clothes hung on him more loosely than he remembered.

I’ve lost weight, he thought.

He pulled Linda away from the red headed girl. Her fingertips slipped off the girl’s leg, and the communal perspective snapped shut with the suddenness of a psychic mousetrap. Max teetered on his feet from the abrupt transition. Linda lurched onto her side, wrapping her arms over her ears, pulling her knees to her stomach and groaning.

“Linda, we have to go.” His voice sounded so large and booming inside his head, as if there was less space inside his own skull than there should have been.

“Are you all right?” he asked, wincing at the volume of his words.

She lifted herself gingerly to lean against the bottom step, careful to avoid touching the girl. “The exit was kind of abrupt.”

“Sorry.”

“I could really learn to like that,” she said, jerking her thumb at the people on the stairs behind her. She propped her elbows on her thighs and buried her face in her hands.

A minuscule tremor disturbed the stones beneath Max’s feet.

“We have to go,” he said softly. “They’re on to us.”

“Anything that feels that good has got to be bad,” said Linda. She straightened up and fondled the pendant on her necklace. “Let’s do what we came here for.”

“Yes,” said Max, “let’s.”

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Friday, August 03, 2007

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”



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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 trudged down the steps for a while in bitter silence.

Halfway down, Bob said, “Look Eddie.”

Eddie stopped, turned around and sighed. “Yes Bob?”

“No I don’t mean ‘Look Eddie.’” Bob thrust his arm toward the field. "I mean look over there."

Eddie craned his granite neck to see where Bob was pointing. The man and the woman were nearing the hedge in the distance.

“Oh. Yes, of course.”

Eddie swung around and continued to the bottom stair at the edge of the field and waited. Bob joined him and they stood side by side for a moment.

“Look Eddie.”

“I’m on it Bob,” Eddie snapped as he prepared to step onto the grass.

“No I mean - look Eddie, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sure you are,” said Eddie.

“It’s just . . . ” said Bob.

Eddie swung around to glare at his marble companion. The step was small and there was hardly enough space for them to stand face to face.

After a few moments searching for the right words, Bob gave up. “Forget it Eddie,” he said.

“It’s not that simple Bob.”

Eddie stepped backward onto the grass and dissolved into a pile of granite pebbles. First one, then another of the pebbles skittered off the pile and bounced back up the steps. Soon a stream of granite pebbles flowed up to the temple atop the acropolis. The only sign of Eddie was a slight lump in the ground that scooted across the field like a cat under a bed sheet. Bob shook his head.

“I’m going to hear about this later,” he said as he followed Eddie’s lead and crumbled into marble pebbles on the grass.

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