The Dark Net is real. An anonymous and often criminal arena that exists in the secret, far reaches of the Web, some use it to manage Bitcoins, pirate movies and music, or traffic in drugs and stolen goods. And now, an ancient darkness is gathering there as well. These demons are threatening to spread virally into the real world unless they can be stopped by members of a ragtag crew:
Twelve-year-old Hannah, who has been fitted with the Mirage, a high-tech visual prosthetic to combat her blindness, wonders why she sees shadows surrounding some people. A technophobic journalist named Lela has stumbled upon a story nobody wants her to uncover. Mike Juniper—a one-time child evangelist who suffers from personal and literal demons—has an arsenal of weapons stored in the basement of the homeless shelter he runs. And Derek, a hacker with a cause, believes himself a soldier of the Internet, part of a cyber army akin to Anonymous.
They have no idea what the Dark Net really contains.
Hell on earth is only one click of a mouse away in acclaimed writer Benjamin Percy’s terrifying new horror novel The Dark Net—available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Cheston’s apartment—on Lovejoy, at the edge of the Pearl—looks out on other apartments, other offices, all of them walled with windows. He lives on the top floor, the tenth of his building. He owns a telescope, a Celestron Astromaster on a tripod, and when he isn’t working, he’s watching.
He’s watching a woman now. She skids around a corner and hammers along the sidewalk at a full sprint. A ginger-colored braid swings wildly with every step. She clutches an enormous canvas purse. A block away, she rips open the door to her car, an ancient Volvo jeweled with guano, and vanishes inside. A few seconds later the station wagon grinds into gear and lurches into the street and cuts off a delivery truck that lays on its horn. She speeds away, trailing a cloud of black exhaust.
Cheston whirls the telescope back to the corner where she first appeared. One man—soon joined by three others—stands there, breathing heavily. The telescope brings them close enough to see the whites of their eyes. They watch her car retreat and then say something to one another before returning back the way they came.
It is only 4:00, but this is October and the dark is coming. Cheston prefers the dark. That’s one of the reasons he loves Portland, where it rains 170 days a year and where it is gray-skied more often than that. Sunlight burns his eyes, forks a migraine up his forehead. Sometimes he keeps a forty-watt lamp burning in the corner, but otherwise his office is lit by the underwater glow of his computers. He wears sunglasses when hunched over his desk, staring at the bank of screens.
He keeps it dark, too, so that people can’t see him. But he can see them. Through his telescope. Mostly people sit. They sit and eat their Chipotle burritos. They sit and read their celebrity gossip magazines. They sit and stream shows on Netflix. They sit and check to see if anybody liked their shit on Facebook. But every now and then, something terrible or wonderful happens. He has seen people arguing— couples slamming doors, gesturing wildly, hurling books at each other—and he has seen people making up—in bed, on the couch, at the table, one time pressed up against the window and smearing their bodies pinkly through the fog of their sex.
They all have their secrets, and that is what he is hunting for, secrets. His telescope scans the buildings—honeycombed with light—hovering in one place, swinging to the next, all of their apartments the same even as the bodies inside them swirl and change shape. Spying gives him such satisfaction, makes him feel powerful, knowing the things he shouldn’t know, the things people prefer to keep hidden. The way the wife eats a grape that has fallen to the floor, the way the husband picks his nose vigorously and browses porn websites and sometimes puts a knife to his wrist and bows his head for a good long minute before sliding it back into the block. They lure him. How can he not watch?
He feels a similar energy when at his desk. He rents out seven blade servers for other users to host their sites. He is a landlord of sorts. He owns digital real estate. He loans it to others to use as they will. The servers are arranged on a metal chassis next to his desk and wired into several network routers to shuttle the data around and plug into the net. Their lights blink. Their components tick and pop. Their fans and heatsinks hum and stir the air with warmth he tries to battle back with air conditioning he keeps year-round at a cool sixty degrees. He bleeds electricity. He imagines his apartment as a gaping drain with white energy swirling constantly down it, which is why he loves this two-bedroom unit so much, since utilities are included in the rent.
Most of his payments come from Undertown, Inc., and they pay in bitcoins. Over a year ago, an instant message appeared from a user named Cloven, requesting a private chat. He accepted—not knowing what to expect, maybe some file requests, maybe some dirty talk—and when asked if he might be interested in working for Undertown, he accepted that too. He was a sophomore at Reed College then, on academic probation, not showering, not shaving, not really sleeping, all of his time spent coding and popping Adderall and eating Oreos and drinking those big plastic bullets of 5-Hour Energy. He had stopped going to classes after testifying before the faculty senate about distributing pirated movies and music through the college Ethernet. He figured it was only a matter of time before they kicked him out.
They never got the chance. He dropped out to run his own business, a legitimate business, the kind that affords him the best kicks, the best equipment, the best apartment, all the Thai takeout in the world. Like his neighbors, he has his secrets. Two of his servers operate as respectable hosts, legitimizing him in the eyes of his ISP for the high-volume traffic. The other five belong to the Dark Net. He has a bribed contact at CenturyLink who regularly and silently expunges those logs.
Undertown is pleased with his services so far. Cloven calls sometimes—always on the Blackphone, always through Skype and always via a TOR network to avoid a trace—his voice deep and rasping and mysteriously accented. Somehow it hurts to listen to, as if it is penetrating him. Cheston has been promised more work, more responsibility. What this might entail, he cannot imagine, but he has told Cloven he’s ready for whatever, whenever. Zero Day is a term Cloven has mentioned more than once. They are preparing for Zero Day, which is assumedly some kind of launch. Cheston doesn’t ask. It’s better, he’s found, to simply do as he’s told.
Thousands of lives stream through his blade servers, and he feels charged by them, as if his mind is a circuit board and his veins cables that course with electricity and information. On any of his three monitors, as their host, he sometimes likes to look. He knows he shouldn’t—he knows he might feel safer, nobler otherwise—but he cannot resist. He keeps his desks arranged in an L shape, with three HD LCD monitors atop them. His is a homebrewed workstation, an amalgamation of parts mostly bought off Newegg and running on Linux. AMD 4.0 GHz eight-core processors on a gigabyte motherboard with 32GB RAM and an EVGA GeForce graphics card supporting the monitors. The cases are windowed, decked out with blue LED lights. In the other room, his bedroom, he has a netbook from ZaReason and a Nexus 9 rooted Android tablet stuffed with all sorts of hacking apps. He uses them the way a watchman might in a casino or prison, to study through a fisheye lens what sort of trouble people might be getting into on his property. There he sees things most cannot imagine.
It is only 4:30 and already the streets look like shadowed canyons. The streetlamps buzz to life and throw pools of light. Apartments glow. He tucks his hair behind his ears—its color orange, parted down the middle—and leans into his telescope, scanning one of his favorite addresses: across the road, third floor, corner apartment, a young woman. Her name is Carrie Wunderlich. He knows this because he has followed her, studied her, for months now. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 7 a.m., she spins at the Y. She showers and dresses and leaves with her hair still wet, on her way to Hotspur Chiropractic Health, where she works as a receptionist and massage therapist. When she goes out for lunch, at least once a week, she orders soup and salad. She shops at the co-op. He has stood so close to her, he has smelled her perfume, a puff of spiced apricot. At home she wears yoga pants and a too-big OSU sweatshirt. Every night she drinks one glass of white Zinfandel, poured from a box in the fridge, and plops on the couch to watch reality television. Above her gas fireplace hangs an oversize print of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and that’s a little how he thinks of her, as his slim-stalked yellow sunflower bobbing across the way.
She has come home today with a man. The same man who picked her up last Saturday and drove away in a silver Jetta. Cheston keeps watching as if something will happen, but nothing happens. They sit there, on opposite ends of the sofa, drinking her pink wine, moving their mouths in conversation.
Lightning leaps from a cloud. Thunder mutters. Rain spots and then drums the window, smearing the image of them. They approach the window to watch the storm, and the man puts his arm around her waist and draws her close. Cheston strangles the telescope. The image of them trembles.
When lightning strikes again, it is closer, and then closer still. Thunder shakes the window. He pulls away from the telescope in time to see the outage before it arrives. Off in the distance the buildings go black, block by block, black black black, rolling toward him, a landslide of darkness.
He feels a sudden emptiness when the blackout strikes his building. The air conditioner sighs off. The room instantly warms. His computers and servers continue to glow, now powered by backup batteries that can only last so long. Undertown demands uninterrupted service, and for now, they have it.
He leans into the telescope again. The building across the street is unlit and gives nothing back. He doesn’t like to think about what might be happening over there, what secrets he might miss out on. He closes his eyes and counts to a hundred. The computer and server fans moan. Sweat beads on his forehead.
He opens his eyes and still the city remains dark, as if a black blanket were tossed over it, and he counts to one hundred again. Lightning webs the sky, strobing his view of downtown. It makes sparkling nests on the roofs of the two highest buildings, Wells Fargo and Big Pink, the U.S. Bancorp Tower. The thunder is continuous now, a muttering and booming, like some furious conversation heard through a wall.
Lightning strikes the Broadway Bridge and outlines it blue. And then, as if some spark has taken hold and flared into fire, the city erupts with light. The grid-work pattern of the streets illuminates like circuit boards. The air conditioner sputters to life again, and he sighs his relief along with it.
Then the power returns all over the city. A spike. The lights in the buildings all around him flicker and blaze hot. A few apartments flame out, go dark. A streetlamp explodes with a sparking rain.
He can hear the surge muscling its way through his system. There is a flare. One of the servers spits and flashes and smokes, and when he goes to investigate it a moment later, he discovers the drive destroyed.
Excerpted from The Dark Net, copyright © 2017 by Benjamin Percy.