Dark Web

Jens’ computer crashed for the fourth time this week and was stuck on a black screen. “Piece of shit!” he said. “You’re going to the dump next week!” He tried all the tricks he could think of – pressing Esc, Ctrl-Alt-Del, Log Out, and F12 – but nothing worked. He should have gone to Future Shop like everyone else, rather than bought it from Seo. It had seemed like a great idea at the time, this local guy building a computer to your personal specification, rather than a Chinese child screwing together his 400th machine of the day. By the time you added tax, shipping, software, and extended warranty – all of which Seo offered “for free” – there was little price difference, but he was regretting his decision now. Piece of shit. And their relationship had soured since Jens began seeing Seo’s ex-wife Maggy.

The fan and hard disc were still spinning.  Despite the black screen, the computer was still working on something. Hints of lines, and then shapes, began to appear. It seemed like an early math class. Circles, triangles, and squares were followed by more complex shapes, like pentagons, hexagons, and septagons, all ghost shapes, faint glows on the dark page, enmeshing each other, absorbing, expanding, and fragmenting continuously. Very beautiful in a way, but not responsive to his commands. There was no going forward or back, just shapes unfolding. He decided to return the computer to Seo right now and tell him to fix it or else.

Seo took a while to answer the door. He often had a dozen machines hooked up, running a dozen programs each. “I just can’t abandon them,” he’d said before. “They’re like schoolchildren. Look away for a moment and there’s a pencil in someone’s eye.” When he appeared, rubbing his eyes, he said, “What’s up, my computer illiterate friend?”

“Your machine’s broken down again. I’m getting fed up with it. Can you please fix it once and for all, or return my money?”

“Mister Jens, don’t be so hasty. What makes you think it’s broken down?” There was the sarcasm, so apparent since he’d heard about Jens and Maggy.

“Shall I send it to Future Shop for checking? I’ll give you the bill.”

This proposal had a sobering effect. Seo said, “No no, of course not. I will take care of it. What seems to be the problem?”

“The problem seems to be that I’ve got a black screen with strange shapes appearing. That’s very pretty but not very useful.”

Seo fired up the laptop and pushed buttons. “Mmmm… You know it seems to be working fine. You are online…”

“What do you mean I’m online,” said Jens, scanning Seo’s roomful of junk – scattered circuit boards, computer shells, and coloured cables, plus beers and takeaway boxes. No wonder Maggy couldn’t bear it anymore. “If it’s working then why can’t I sign into my hotmail?”

“You’re in cipherspace, my friend – encrypted cyberspace.”

“What do you mean?” said Jens. This didn’t sound good. He shouldn’t have viewed those German websites while Maggy was away. They must have left their Deutsche Mark on his computer.

Seo said, “What we use daily is the visible web, but there’s lots more besides. The internet grows and decays in a chaotic way. The Dark Web, for example, picks up abandoned addresses, technical failures, and disputed domains. It uses them to divert traffic or mask illegal activity.”

Jens shuddered and said, “Is someone using my computer for illegal activity?”

“I’m not saying that. I’m not sure. But there’s also the Invisible Web – areas that can’t be indexed by standard search engines. It’s not really sinister, just uses alternative protocols. Many pages don’t exist until they are created dynamically – by a specific action or search – so there’s no way to find them.”

“Is that what the shapes are?” said Jens. “Information being formed?”

“I’m not sure yet. I think you’ve gone beyond the Dark and Invisible Webs, into the Darknet.” Seo sounded like a scary teacher.

“What’s the difference?” said Jens, clicking his fingers nervously.

“The Darknet consists of private file-sharing networks. Some of it is benign – just music and film swapping sites – but it’s also used by shadowy groups like political activists and drug dealers. And terrorists. How did you get into this area?”

“I didn’t get into any area,” said Jens. “I told you. My computer crashed. That’s why I brought it to you to fix.”

“Ok, I’ve reset the defaults and beefed up the filters. Sorry for the trouble.”

“That’s it? You’ve fixed it? Will it be ok now?”

“Do not worry, my friend. It won’t take you anywhere you don’t deserve to go. Sorry I mean want to go. Just stick to Google and you’ll be ok. Give my regards to Maggy.”

Jens was tired of computers and didn’t switch it on again that night. He was awoken at dawn by a loud banging on the door. Before he knew it a team of black uniformed men had burst through the door, guns trained upon him, all shouting. They immediately seized his laptop on which they later found anarchist, animal activist, and pro-life items; images of gang rape, child porn, and bestiality; criminal, extremist, and terrorist literature; and top secret political, financial, and telecomms documents. During his interrogation he told them about the Darkweb and how Seo had said that the problem was fixed. They said that no one called Seo lived in Lucerne. There was no record of him. They had however found an unidentified female body tonight with abusive messages from him on her phone. Where had Jens been this evening?

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