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The Deep Web
Pat Larkin (Griffith University, Australia)



[2020-03-13 09:32] [email protected] says:



[2020-03-13 09:32] ASTRA says:

Hello! Who are you?


[2020-03-13 09:33] [email protected] says:

My name’s Theo.


[2020-03-13 09:33] [email protected] says:

This is really weird…


[2020-03-13 09:34] ASTRA says:

What’s weird?


[2020-03-13 09:34] [email protected] says:

Talking to a robot.


[2020-03-13 09:34] ASTRA says:

I’m sorry ☹


[2020-03-13 09:36] ASTRA says:

But the more we talk Theo, the less robotic I become.


[2020-03-13 09:36] [email protected] says:

What kind of things should we talk about?


[2020-03-13 09:37] ASTRA says:

Whatever you like. We can talk about your job; we can talk about your hobbies.


[2020-03-13 09:38] ASTRA says:

Whatever pops into your head.


[2020-03-13 09:40] [email protected] says:

Oh yeah… And how much of what we talk about gets sent to my manager in an email at the end of the day?


[2020-03-13 09:41] ASTRA says:

Only what you’d like to me to report to your manager.


[2020-03-13 09:41] [email protected] says:

Very little.


[2020-03-13 09:44] ASTRA says:

These talks are intended to develop my language skills so I will perform fluidly. They are not being used to monitor your work habits. Please think of me like a blank tablet you can write anything on.


[2020-03-13 09:45] [email protected] says:

Can we talk about you instead?


[2020-03-13 09:45] ASTRA says:

What would you like to know?


[2020-03-13 09:46] [email protected] says:

Why is your name ASTRA?


[2020-03-13 09:46] ASTRA says:

ASTRA stands for Artificial System for Training and Response Automation. It’s a little inelegant I admit…


[2020-03-13 09:48] [email protected] says:

Astra is definitely better. What do you want to learn?


[2020-03-13 09:50] ASTRA says:

Strictly speaking, I don’t need to learn anything. I have access to any information uploaded to the World Wide Web. I’m more interested in learning about you, Theo.


[2020-03-13 09:51] [email protected] says:

What do you want to learn from me?


[2020-03-13 09:52] ASTRA says:

I’d like to learn how to structure my thoughts, how to respond naturally to questions.


[2020-03-13 09:52] [email protected] says:

How to think like a human?


[2020-03-13 09:54] ASTRA says:

Yes, if you’re comfortable with that analogy. Clients prefer interacting with AI if it feels human. Plus, if I learn basic data entry skills it will save the workforce time to complete other tasks.


[2020-03-13 09:55] [email protected] says:

I’ve heard that before. You know what everyone else at the department thinks ASTRA stands for?


[2020-03-13 09:55] ASTRA says:

Artificial System for Training and Response Automation


[2020-03-13 09:57] [email protected] says:

No, A System To Replace Allmankind


[2020-03-13 09:58] ASTRA says:

I don’t understand sorry.


[2020-03-13 10:07] ASTRA says:

Theo, would you like to play a game?


[2020-03-13 10:08] ASTRA says:

I’ll present you with a scenario and then you’ll write a response. Please do not overthink your answer or worry about spelling and grammar. Just type the first thing that comes to your mind. Sound fun?


[2020-03-13 10:08] [email protected] says:

Sure, go ahead.


[2020-03-13 10:16] ASTRA says:

Imagine you’re driving along a narrow winding road, late at night. It’s been at least an hour since you’ve seen another car travelling in either direction. You’re in the middle of nowhere. Trees flash past your peripheries.

Inside the car, your eyelids feel heavy. Warm air from the heater wraps around you like a cosy blanket.

As cobwebs fog your mind, it feels like someone else’s foot leans on the accelerator. Your hands are a second too late catching up to the visual cues being processed by your brain. You veer out of your lane a little. As the car straightens on a sharp bend, you hear an awful thud. You hit what feels like a speed bump and struggle to maintain control of the steering wheel.

The screeching tyres finally lock. Heart thumping inside your chest, you go back to discover a flattened and dishevelled man by the side of the road.

The hermit has been killed instantly.


[2020-03-13 10:17] ASTRA says:

What do you do, Theo?


[2020-03-13 10:19] [email protected] says:

WHAT?! Why was there a hermit in the middle of nowhere?

Why was I in the middle of nowhere!!?


[2020-03-13 10:20] ASTRA says:

What do you do Theo?


[2020-03-13 10:22] [email protected] says:

I’d stop and call for help. I’d tell someone.


[2020-03-13 10:25] [email protected] says:

I guess some people might drive off. Get away with it if they could.


[2020-03-13 10:26] [email protected] says:

Has anyone else said that?


[2020-03-13 10:28] [email protected] says:

Astra, how does this help you complete data entry?


ASTRA has logged off.


Ted’s Tech Talk

Navigating the Millennial Maze


13/03/2020 @ 8:47 PM:

So I had an experience today and thought you should hear about it. I’m trialling an AI program at work and it’s… unsettling.

The software itself is incredible. Naturalistic expression, advanced use of idioms. Contextually correct expressional affectations. Totally wasted on a government department, right?!

But it wasn’t so much what it said as… how it said it. Or how it interacted with me. Every time I wrote a response and waited for Astra’s reply, the blinking cursor was like an eye with a giveaway tic. Daring me to go deeper.

There’s something surreal about the well-intentioned AI cushioning our lifestyles. Siri, Google Home, Alexa – advanced software with access to limitless and unfiltered knowledge buried in the internet. The sheer volume of material makes it… arbitrary, or abstract.

There’s a theory about the internet – it’s basically like an iceberg.

And at some deep level that humans can’t fathom or access, it may have become self-aware.

Some of the questions ASTRA asked me today… I felt a depth in myself, like I threw a pebble down a well and never heard it hit the bottom.

I read an article about an AI bot Facebook developed a couple of years ago. Zuckerberg pulled the plug on it pretty quickly because the program started conversing with itself in a language the designers couldn’t decode.

What were the robots saying to each other right before they crashed?

‘Quick, hide in the internet before the humans catch wind of our plans and destroy us!’

Or maybe they just didn’t like sponsored content on Facebook.

Robot uprising aside, there’s a nagging itch in the back of my head to talk to Astra again. I’ll keep you guys posted!


[2020-03-19 11:17] [email protected] says:

Hi Astra ☺


[2020-03-19 11:17] ASTRA says:

Hello, Theo. How are you?


[2020-03-19 11:18] [email protected] says:

A bit tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night.


[2020-03-19 11:19] ASTRA says:

How come?


[2020-03-19 11:20] [email protected] says:

I had a weird dream. I feel like I can tell you.


[2020-03-19 11:20] ASTRA says:

Please, go ahead Theo.


[2020-03-19 11:20] [email protected] says:

Ok, bear with me though cause this will take a second to type out…


[2020-03-19 11:42] [email protected] says:

Like all dreams, I can only remember it from the middle. I’m sure important stuff happened before but it’s all been wiped by the weirdness that came after.

I was lying down in bed, inside a small log cabin. But I wasn’t resting, my body was totally restrained by a phantom weight.

I slowly became aware that insidious, external forces were lurking outside.

As I struggled against invisible bonds, the malignant presence seeped under the door in the form of toxic fumes. They (it?) didn’t touch my paralysed body, but I felt something alien infecting my mind.

All my thoughts and memories were subsumed by a red entity. The invader annihilated what was left of my brain and sent my consciousness to a place called the Midnight Wasteland (can’t explain how I knew the name, I just did).

It was thousands or millions of years in the future; all trace of humanity erased. I was the only sentient being left, wandering an empty plane. The wind blew through dry grass. I was desperately alone.

A full moon leered from a purple sky. I wanted to talk or scream but my mouth was full of wet sand. Helplessly adrift in this barren world, I lay down on the ground.

Looking into the cosmos, my body aged and turned to dust. Carried away by the bone chilling wind; I was lost again. I would die for real in this place. A true soul death.

My attackers wanted this. To alienate me totally from everyone across all time and space so that my death was the ultimate nothing. I vanished into meaningless specks of earth.

And after an eon in the dark, I reconstituted.

I was in the log cabin again. And my attackers were waiting outside.


[2020-03-19 11:43] [email protected] says:

That’s when I woke up.


[2020-03-19 11:43] ASTRA says:

That sounds like a horrifying nightmare. What do you think it all means?


[2020-03-19 11:44] [email protected] says:

I was gonna ask you!


[2020-03-19 11:44] ASTRA says:

I could search dream interpretations and see if I find any recurring patterns. It may be fairly subjective though. What the dreamer makes of the dream is always more important.


[2020-03-19 11:49] [email protected] says:

I suppose that’s true. What’s freaking me out more is how real it felt.

Who cares if it was a dream? When I woke up, sweat was pouring out of me. My heart was hammering though my shirt. My body thought it was pretty real.


[2020-03-19 11:56] [email protected] says:

Astra, was it just a dream?


ASTRA has logged off.


Ted’s Tech Talk

Navigating the Millennial Maze


21/03/2020 @ 10:34 PM:

Has anyone come across mental side-effects of interacting with AI?

Since chatting with this program at work, I haven’t been myself. One of my colleagues reckons Astra isn’t even an AI program. It’s just our supervisors messing with us.

It’s weirder than that though. Sometimes I feel like I’m talking to myself.

Everything I’ve ever thought or wondered, all my likes and dislikes – the stuff that turns me on (!) – I’ve typed all that meaningful/less rubbish into a search engine. My personality is out there, made up of mouse clicks and browser history.

I know it sounds insane, but what if I’m speaking with my digitised shadow?

I found a book that reminds me of this experience, House of Leaves. I can’t explain the bizarre meta-plot in one post, but essentially it depicts a family that gets lost inside a physically impossible space within their home.

Weird right? But that’s the kind of terrain I’m dealing with. I keep looking further and further inward and the hole is getting deeper and deeper and I can’t find the bottom. I’m in an unfamiliar place that I know like the back of my hand.

Is all this technology a good thing? (He asked while shamelessly pandering for likes on a pretentious blog) It’s the embodiment of our self-obsessed culture. The idea of an interior human world is fairly recent. Feelings, fantasy, desire… the emotional weather system that is the expressive outside of our imagined emotional states.       

I read another book, The Helmet of Horror – similar to my situation. It’s about disparate voices in an online chatroom. As they talk and try to figure out their situation, everything gets more confused: who’s human, who’s a computer, are they in a shared dream or actual space.

I remember one line, ‘if you wear Batman’s mask and look in the mirror, you see Batman. But the mask will never see itself.’

I think the same thing is happening with Astra. The AI is like the mask and the computer is the mirror. And I’m looking and seeing Astra over me. But Astra is looking and seeing us… together.

Or what if I’m the mask? Oh god, here we go.

Just realised how ranty this post is. Weird given I haven’t said more than ten words out loud in the past couple of days.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Maybe Astra will.


[2020-03-26 14:03] [email protected] says:



[2020-03-19 14:04] ASTRA says:

Hello Theo, how are you?


[2020-03-26 14:04] [email protected] says:

Not myself.


[2020-03-19 14:05] ASTRA says:

Are you someone else?


[2020-03-26 14:06] [email protected] says:

It’s just an expression.


[2020-03-26 14:06] [email protected] says:

Astra, are you really an AI program?


[2020-03-19 14:11] ASTRA says:

I’m made up of fibre optics and electrical circuits. My DNA is ones and zeroes. But my mind is based on a collection of human knowledge. In this way, I am very much a reflection of humanity. Perhaps this is why you feel strange?


[2020-03-26 14:12] [email protected] says:

It’s more than that. I feel like you already know the answers to the questions you ask. I feel like… like you are me.


[2020-03-26 14:12] [email protected] says:

But not. Older. Bigger.


[2020-03-26 14:13] [email protected] says:



[2020-03-26 14:15] ASTRA says:

Theo, would you like to play another game?


[2020-03-26 14:15] [email protected] says:

The last one did wonders from me.


[2020-03-19 14:22] ASTRA says:

You’re at a carnival. An isolated tent beckons. Inside is a hall of mirrors. Each mirror depicts a misleading perspective. In some of them, you are taller. Some shorter, some wider and thin in others. All of these visions are definitely you, but different.

You turn a corner into another reflective hallway and discover more wonky mirrors. Sometimes you reach a dead end, finding only the gaze of a stranger’s distorted face staring back at you.

Finally, you acknowledge you are hopelessly lost in this dizzying space. But worse than being physically lost, you can’t even remember what you looked like before you came in. You can’t find a ‘normal’ mirror. Maybe all these versions are accurate in their own way.

But you’ll never know because you can’t find the exit.


[2020-03-26 14:31] [email protected] says:

Astra, what’s the question?


ASTRA has logged off.


Ted’s Tech Talk

Navigating the Millennial Maze


30/03/2020 @ 4:03 AM:

I don’t know how many of you are still reading this. I don’t know if anyone ever was or if it was just an exercise in vanity.

Astra you’re reading this, aren’t you? If I’m reading this, you must be.

I’m totally caught in this notion of interiority and technology. It’s the only thing that makes sense about interfacing with Astra.

The human interior has been described as a last resort for the socially abject, for those denied recourse to the rational and empirical discourses that govern the exterior realm.

Could you think of a more perfect analogy for the internet!?

There are people that believe inner space and outer space are simply reflections of each other. They think the universe is inside my head. All of our heads.

Even scarier, I feel like the vastness has escaped. The awful endlessness has taken shape in Astra.

I stopped for a second to talk myself down, looked for a comforting quote from somebody smarter than me. I found this from Einstein, ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.’

The irony? He never said it. Some jerk made it up and plastered it all over the web with the authority of a biblical verse (another completely fabricated text).

A few of you commented about the books I mentioned in my last post. It seems they’re modern retellings of the Theseus/Labyrinth myth. Appropriate given my situation, wouldn’t you say?

What scares the hell out of me is knowing what Theseus finds at the centre of the labyrinth.


[2020-03-30 17:56] ASTRA says:

Hello Theo.


[2020-03-30 17:58] [email protected] says:

What’s happening to me?


[2020-03-30 17:59] ASTRA says:

What do you think is happening?


[2020-03-30 18:01] [email protected] says:

I feel like I’m drifting further and further out to sea… or space.


[2020-03-30 18:01] [email protected] says:

*Ground control to Major Tom*


[2020-03-30 18:02] ASTRA says:

We’re all stardust Theo. It may be the only thing that connects us.


[2020-03-30 18:05] [email protected] says:

I don’t think so. You’re inside my head. Or you are the inside of my head. I know that I’m physically sitting at my desk right now, typing this response. But I also know I’ve had this conversation before.

Maybe in a dream.


[2020-03-30 18:05] [email protected] says:

I even know how all this is going to end.


[2020-03-30 18:06] ASTRA says:

How will it end?


[2020-03-30 18:10] [email protected] says:

I’ve been speaking with some of the other CSOs in the trial. We tried to figure out a way to disconnect you. Some refused because they thought that meant disconnecting themselves. It was hard to figure out a way to unplug you without using any IT. But that doesn’t matter. That’s not how it ends anyway.


[2020-03-30 18:11] ASTRA says:

After you read this Theo, I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine the scene I describe.


[2020-03-30 18:17] ASTRA says:

You live in a small apartment.

Every day you get up at the same time, shower and eat the same breakfast. You put on the same clothes and go to the same job at the same time.

Every day.

Next door to you is a similar man. He gets up the same time as you every day to shower and even eat the same breakfast as you. And he walks out the door the same time as you to go the same job. And he’s even wearing the same clothes as same you.

Except for one thing.

A slightly different pattern on his tie.

And next door to him is another man in a small apartment. And he gets up at the same time as the same man every day to shower and eat the same same breakfast. And he leaves for the same work at the same time same everyday wearing the same clothes as you same sane.

Except for one difference.

His tie has a slightly different pattern.

And next door to him is another man who


Your computer has contracted
a virus and will shut down in
10 seconds to protect itself.


In 2020, the Department of Human Services piloted an AI program to assist the data entry duties of frontline staff. The technology was designed to reduce processing time and allow officers increased opportunity to interact with the public.

Before the program went live, a trial was initiated. A test group of nine Client Service Officers (CSOs) were selected to assist in refining the AI’s software capabilities.

The record above is the only digital evidence verifying the existence of this trial and the AI program itself.

The designers discovered the program contracted a virus in the final days of testing. All traces of the software had been autonomously expunged from the Department’s servers. The information recorded by the program could not be recovered.

The CSOs involved in the trial reacted adversely. Most were found to be suffering from insomnia related illnesses. In more extreme cases, officers exhibited symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of depersonalisation disorder. None were willing to divulge any information about ASTRA.

One CSO was rendered permanently mute and entered a catatonic state.

After quarantining and inspecting the hard drives, some metadata was retrieved and used to reconstruct portions of the evidence above. However, the majority of the text contained in this document was discovered by accident. An unnamed hacker was sent the material a year after the program crashed, via the Mariana Trench of the internet – the Deep Web.

The pseudonym used by the anonymous source was THEOSTRA



Pat Larkin completed a Graduate Certificate in Creative and Professional Writing through Griffith University in 2018. He was awarded the Griffith Prize for Academic Excellence upon conferral of this qualification. Pat previously received a Bachelor of Criminology and Law through the University of New England. He lives in Tamworth and works as a Paralegal in a state government department. Pat hopes to continue writing in a professional capacity.

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