The Dark Net, the upcoming techno-thriller from comic book writer and novelist Benjamin Percy, features an unlikely squad of characters trying to protect the real world from the unsavory underbelly of the internet and the malevolent forces it conceals. EW has an exclusive excerpt from the novel, out Aug. 1. Read below.
Used to be, to open a door, you rolled aside a stone. Centuries later, you lifted a latch. Then you fitted a key, turned a knob. Now you can open a door with a phone or a fingerprint or a voice command. Times change. The ways of entry change. But you still have to open the door. On this October 31st—Samhain, All Saint’s Eve, All Hallow’s Eve, Halloween, the fall climax, when the division between this world and the other frails—they open the door.
For the past few years Undertown has been busy harvesting information. Eighty million accounts from Anthem and seventy million from Target. Fifty-six million from Home Depot. Seventy-six million from JP Morgan Chase. Ashley Madison, AOL, British Airways, Living Social, Adobe. UPS and Ebay and Blizzard and Dominoes. And more. So many more. Amassing information for a cyberwar. Every time news broke about a data hack, people panicked, worrying over their credit cards and bank accounts especially. But when nothing happened—when no mysterious charges appeared, when no one applied for a credit card or a loan in their name—they forgot.
They only worried about money, as though money were the only thing worth stealing. But Undertown wanted usernames and passcodes, the more subtle but severely damaging information. Because that is the way in; the ciphered connection between your fingertips and keyboard jimmies open the lock between the physical and digital. This is what everyone should be worried about. Not their accounts, but their identity. Snowden leaks the NSA files. Hackers leak the Sony emails. Facebook and Google track your browsing habits, your buying habits, your location, your race, gender, religion, age, orientation, and custom-fit their ads accordingly. DNA has been replaced by streams of data integrated into databases. And it has become dangerously clear how your digital footprint can come back to haunt you, with so much of your life online. Just like that—you can be erased, possessed.
For now Portland is the target. Portland is the focus group. Portland is the door.
A trucker named Theo Ayala keys the ignition to his semi and pulls away from the loading zone at a bar. He thumbs open Google maps to call up the directions for his next delivery. His trailer is full of Budweiser that will never be drunk. The screen of his phone streams with red code that finds a reflection in his eyes. He drops the phone and its screen spiderwebs with fissures. His right hand falls to his custom-made, silver-skulled gearshift. He cranks the truck from second to third and then fourth gear as he swings the wrong way onto an entry ramp and merges onto I-5. At first the oncoming traffic zippers out of his way, wailing their horns, swinging onto the shoulder, crashing into the meridian, but then the cars come thick enough that they cannot escape him. His grill cleaves a Prius in two. A Harley gets eaten up beneath his tires. And then comes a fast, steel-screeching, glass-shattering series of impacts, sedans and station wagons and trucks and SUVs knocked aside. Tires pop. Horns honk. Hoods crumple. Sparks light up the night. Their screaming faces are lit by the wash of his headlights.
In the living room of their seventh-floor apartment, Stephen Vos and Jackie Eastman kick back on the couch and call up Netflix on their tablet. They’re getting married in a few months—a New Year’s wedding—and the coffee table is littered with seating charts, a DJ playlist, catering requests. They’re sick of arguing over where to seat pervy Uncle Milton and whether they should order flower centerpieces for every table, so they take a break. A bottle of red, a scary movie on Netflix, and then—maybe, probably, since they can’t seem to get enough of each other these days—they’ll peel off each other’s clothes. But something happens when Stephen logs in. The screen streams red. At first they believe it some glitch—some pixilated version of the Netflix home screen—and then their mouths go slack and they stand from the couch and walk into the kitchen and slide steak knives from the drawer and methodically work their way from apartment to apartment. Everyone opens their door with a bowl of candy and a smile that doesn’t last.
At the Portland International Airport, people cluster before the monitors for arrivals, departures, baggage claim, all of the screens streaming red. A backpack sags to the floor. Then a purse. A satchel. Nothing matters anymore—not their pills or their money or their passports—because who they are has been flouted, hacked, raped. A Starbucks barista hurls scalding water into the face of a customer waiting for an Americano. A girl with pigtails bites the neck of a man snoozing on a bench. A Port Authority policeman unholsters his pistol and opens fire on a group of passengers lined up to board their flight. While out on the tarmac, a jet rolls suddenly off course and picks up speed as it bullets toward the airport. The atrium is like a glass cathedral, high-ceilinged and busy with potted plants and padded chairs. People flip through novels and gulp bottled water and poke at their phones. They don’t see the jet coming, but when it noses through the vast window, they all stand suddenly. The fuselage sends up a wave of sparks and the tile buckles. Thousands of shards of glass sparkle the air and skitter the floor and jaggedly pierce skin. One man looks like a plate-backed dinosaur from the glass stabbing his spine. Another is blinded with two icicle-sized slivers jutting from his eyes. “Help,” people cry. “Help!” But no one answers. There is only more screaming, a different threat in every direction.
There are no stars over Portland. There never are. The light pollution is too severe, thrown by the millions of streetlamps, headlights, stadium lights, porch lights, storefronts that glow even when closed. No one ever looks up anymore and feels awed and dwarfed by the infinite, aware only of the globe of light they are trapped in, where the only star is the red star of the Texaco station.
The moths are out, battering the overhead fluorescents at the gas island. A man with a black goatee and a pitchfork tattoo on his forearm moves among the pumps, filling tanks with unleaded, super unleaded, diesel, running credit cards, handing back receipts, saying, “Have a good one, have a good one.”
Halloween, he deals with a lot of drunks, like this white Jeep Grand Cherokee that pulls up, the windows down, the stereo blasting hip-hop. Four white boys, late teens, early twenties, with gelled hair, polo shirts with the collars popped, their faces painted to look like skeletons. Probably from Lake Oswego, downtown to hit the bars. The driver—a pouty-faced kid with a cigarette dangling the corner of his mouth—kills the engine and the stereo dies.
“Fill it?” the attendant asks and the driver says, “Yeah, with super.” Smoke and beer in his breath. He fumbles with his wallet, hands over a black AmEx.
The attendant doesn’t see many of these, and he taps it in his palm a moment before running the card, twisting off the cap, nosing the nozzle into the tank. The line shudders with fuel and the numbers start to twirl.
Then the stereo starts up again, blasting so loudly, it hurts. His marrow shudders. His ears feel ready to burst and bleed. There are two other cars getting fueled up, and a few people walking in and out of the store. All of them are staring with annoyance at the white Jeep.
“You mind turning that down?” the attendant says and the skeleton says, “Actually, I do.” He blows a cloud of smoke and cranks the knob higher. The attendant shakes his head and walks away to check on another vehicle and the driver and his friends laugh, give each other knuckles, nod along to the thumping bass.
“Check out this guy,” one of the skeletons says, nodding at the figure lurching down the sidewalk, toward the station. About a block away, he appears in the pool of a streetlamp, then disappears to shadow, then flashes into existence again, getting closer, closer. He has a tromping gait, stooping forward, his arms dangling at his sides. He’s a heavy guy, his big body crushed into a rabbit costume splashed with what looks like blood. “What do you think? Psycho Killer Easter Bunny?”
The man seems intent on his destination, staring straight ahead and driving his floppy feet down forcefully—until the driver leans out the window and calls out to him. “Hey, fattie—I’m pretty sure I know where you hid all the chocolate eggs!”
The man in the rabbit costume stops and slowly swivels his head toward them. The ears make his shadow appear horned. He starts toward them and the skeletons in the Jeep giggle nervously. “Oh shit, this guy is messed up,” they say. “Roll up the windows, Todd.”
Todd, the driver, fumbles with the keys and they clatter to the floor. He doesn’t bother going after them, because the man in the rabbit costume is already here, only a few feet away from his open window, studying him with a dead expression. His eyes appear red-laced. What must be fake blood matts his costume and speckles his blank face.
“What the hell happened to you, bro? Get off on the wrong holiday?” Todd smiles, sucks hard on his cigarette, flicks the ash, blows some smoke that swirls around the man in the rabbit costume before ghosting away. “You kill Santa Claus or what?”
More giggles from the backseat. The music thumps like an angry heartbeat between them.
At that moment the gas tank fills and the pump chunks off and man in the rabbit costume’s attention turns away from Todd. He walks to the rear of the Jeep, reaching for the nozzle.
“Put up the windows, Todd—put up the windows!”
Todd ducks down for the keys, fumbling around, hooking the ring with his finger. He tries mashing them into the ignition, but it’s too late. The man in the rabbit costume rips the nozzle from the tank and clicks the trigger and restarts the pump. Gas splatters the ground, then the rear of the vehicle. He holds out his arm as if firing a pistol, splashing their faces. They shield their eyes with their hands and sputter, “Oh shit, shit, shit!”
Then the man in the rabbit costume trains the hose on the front seat, at Todd’s face, at the red tip of his cigarette. The gas ignites with the thump of a dropped crate, of misplaced air. It goes blue first, like pooling water, and then brightens to a blinding orange. The boys are screaming, their skin melting off them.
Their screams and the music give way to an ear-splitting boom as the Jeep explodes, leaping up and forward to crunch its grill into the pavement. And then the pumps explode, one after the other, hurling sheets of metal. And then the underground tanks erupt, the pavement buckling and crackling to make room for the volcanic spurt of flame that will shatter windows and melt the Texaco star from its sign.
The man in the rabbit costume has been knocked twenty yards by the blast, his skin scorched and his fur smoldering, but he doesn’t seem to notice. He sits up, and then stands unsteadily, before marching away.
All throughout Portland, the wind blows and the trees seethe, their leaves torched with color. Pumpkins shudder with candlelight. And screens glow with streaming red code. People look at their phones and then tear off their masks to reveal something scarier beneath. People checking scores, stocks, the weather, email, text messages, social media. Who to hook up with, who to meet up with, where to go for drinks, how to get there. Everyone minutes a way from watching something, checking something, their devices like a part of their mind that needs constant access, a prosthetic cerebrum. Hold on a sec, they say, let me take a photo of this. Hold on a sec, they say, I want to show you this funny video. Hold on a sec, they say, I gotta send this text. And when they look up again, their eyes burn as if pocketed with embers.
A club surges with bodies until someone opens Tinder and swipes right and five minutes later people are shoving their way out the exits, screaming and painted with blood. Trick-or-treaters roam the streets hungry for more than suckers and candy bars. A window shatters, a body flung from it. A car smashes through a fence and into a backyard party lit with strings of jack-o-lantern lights. The digital veins of the city course with the contagion.
Around midnight a private jet drops from the sky and circles the city as if to survey it before landing at the Portland airport. It does not hail control. No ground crew comes to meet it. A fire burns in the terminal and the flames shimmer across the fuselage. The tarmac is empty when its wheels screech and it rolls slowly to a stop. The door opens and a man appears in it. A man named Cloven who takes a deep breath of the smoke-scented air as if it were purifying.
The fall climax is a time of reaping harvest, of accounting. The sun and the night end their tug-of-war as the long death of winter emerges the victor. Tonight, darkness wins.