Taylor fell backwards on his bunkbed, too amp'd up to be tired. He wanted to jump on his computer and start looking around, but his mind reeled. Taylor wasn't sure what he needed to look for, only he had to find it, whatever it was. He replayed what he had seen earlier, replaying what he had done. Though it was pointless he walked through all his steps on each computer at Willow Prep, checked his work, made sure he hadn't missed anything, forgotten something, left any traces, he was certain he hadn't. It was very difficult to collect his thoughts, however. He kept hearing the sound of sneakers streaking across glass and the blinking off of an LED light.
The door slammed in the living room, snapped him out of his trance of squeaks and lights, alerted him to his mother and William coming home. William bounded in the room, his excited chatter about the movie and dinner washed over Taylor. The lights were off and soon William breathed the heavy cadence of sleep, but Taylor couldn't sleep. His mind still raced, trying to put all the pieces together, working hard to push away the flashing LED and sneaker squeak. At times feelings of both empowerment and impotence came to him and they felt anew, fresh. Finally, realizing he wasn't going to sleep anytime soon, he got up and went to his computer, logged on to Facebook, and updated his status. He noticed something odd. A message, and a friend request. It was only his second friend request, ever. As a hacker he had knew innately Facebook was a terrible place if one wanted to remain anonymous.
Taylor stared at the request for some time before clicking on it, more for who the request had come from than from the request itself.
It was from Isadore Chatham.
Shaking his head in wonder, Taylor accepted. That added Isadore to Winston as Taylor's only two friends. He read the message. It was from Izzy.
“I didn't know your email address, or which one you actually use, so I thought I'd contact you here. I know we haven't met really, but I would like to invite you to a small party at my house next week. Just a few friends. Informal dress. Please let me know if you will come.
Taylor read the message several times.
She knows I have several email addresses.
Only one was discoverable anywhere on the web from sites like Facebook, at least. He used another for sites like Undermine.net and he had others no one knew of, but could Izzy have known that? How? It was troubling, but he dismissed it. She was probably just saying she didn't know his email, nothing more. Then it really hit him. She had invited me to a party! If he hadn't been so freaked out he would be dancing. His nerves hit.
What can I wear?
Everything he had was old.
Who is going to be there? She's Parker's girlfriend, does that mean he will be there?
Taylor only was a freshmen, Izzy a junior. All of the people he saw around her were juniors or seniors. He hadn't gone anywhere yet and already Taylor felt caged, like people were staring at him.
What is she playing at?
I can't fit in with her friends.
But another voice in his head said, “Who cares? Can't be any worse than what you have now.“ And he had to agree.
Besides, maybe something had happened between her and Parker, or was going to happen.. but then He pushed those thoughts away. She was beautiful, but she would never be interested in him and he had to just accept that. Hope is a many-feathered thing.... But friends? That could happen. Maybe.
The next Monday at school, Taylor hesitantly expected it to be quiet, normal. He had responded affirmatively to Izzy's message. She had sent back another, lightning quick, saying she was happy he would attend, that she knew he would have an interesting time. School at first was staid as ever: students milled about, blazers looking sharp, faces bored and haughty. Taylor wove through the mini-crowds, talked to no one, replayed his Friday night trip through the same halls for the thousandth time, enjoyed it, reveled it. He no longer felt powerless at all, only the feeling of empowerment remained. That and the distressing memory of sounds and lights he couldn't reconcile. He smiled and looked down at his feet, but not really there, focused on his memories, and he ran dead smack into Parker, fell backwards to the floor.
“Watch were you're going, Pleb.“ Parker nearly spat at him, but he made no other move to harass him. Which Taylor was thankful for. Of course, he remembered having been saved by that strange girl, Lou, and heat flushed his cheeks with embarrassment. Had she said something to Parker, something to keep him from trying to fight me again? Then maybe I should say something to her? Parker had apparently seen the flush of embarrassment in Taylor's face, recognized it and now sneered down at him as Taylor picked himself up off the floor. Seeing Parker recognize his embarrassment only made Taylor flustered more. But Parker's attention immediately moved on to something else.
It was only then Taylor picked up on the mood of the kids around him: something was going on; the mini-crowds whispered furtively, leaned into each other and looked around as if being watched.
Taylor moved past Parker, who gossiped with Lil J and a few other boys Taylor didn't know. He had just passed them when one of them said, "Look!“ Taylor set his feet to run, thinking they were about to do something to him, but he looked down the hallway.
“That's them!“ a girl said.
The rush of teenagers parted and three adults strode through the press of schoolkids. Each adult wore black slacks, a white button down shirt and a crisp blazer. Taylor's jaw dropped. Could it have happened this quickly? He shuddered.
Murmurs were everywhere as Headmaster Ballard trundled in behind the agents, Tate in tow like a fat, flaky baby duckling.
“I heard someone broke into the school.“ a voice said and a cold bead of sweat ran down Taylor's spine.
“I heard there's a bomb on campus!“ another said, giving Taylor instant relief. They were just dishing nonsense.
“Well, I heard they think Ballard and Tate have been stealing from the school's Charitable Fund!“ Yet another voice said.
Oblivious to it all, the agents swept past the few kids still between them and Tate's classroom.
Ballard. turned to the students and said, "You kids go to class. Those of you in Mr. Tate's first hour, please go to your workstations, but do not turn them on.“ He sounded stressed, stretched, and harassed. Looked unkempt and harried. Ballard, Tate and two of the agents disappeared into Tate's office, shut the door behind them. The third agent stood outside Tate's door, stink-eyeing the students at their workstations. Taylor swallowed hard, hovered just outside the classroom, unwilling to enter. NSA agents. At Willow Prep. In Tate's classroom. He thought he might be sick.
There was no way it was a coincidence. His head swam and for he a moment Taylor was going to blow chunks over everyone and everything around him. But a hand grabbed him on the upper arm and pulled him backwards away from the crowd and the door to the Crypto classroom. Most of the other students had followed Ballard's command and gone off to class, the hallway was almost empty.
“What's going on, T? “ A snide laugh. “Weird morning huh?“ it took a few seconds for Taylor register who spoke. Winston. The other boy's smile was bright and a maybe little snide. But not directed at himself, Taylor knew. Winston hated law enforcement for some reason.
“We should get inside.“ Taylor finally managed to say.
Winston looked confused but he nodded, still smiling. Inside the Crypto classroom everything was dead quiet, everyone sitting down, except for Winston and Taylor, most tried to look like the wallpaper, to avoid the steady, sweeping gaze of the observing agent. Do they know what he is? Only Philomena and Phaedra looked entirely untroubled. They whispered and chuckled to each other. Parker and Lil J both tried something similar, though neither boy pulled it off like the Behrstable twins.
“Are you OK, T?“ Winston asked. “You look like you're going to ralph.“
Taylor gulped and shook his head. “I'm all right. Just had too much breakfast.“
“Can you believe it, T? NSA agents here!“ Winston whispered, "They think they're slick, but it's so obvious. I wonder if someone really did break-in here last night?“ Winston seemed very amused by the prospect. “What could they have been after? It's a Prep School, not a corporate headquarters or a military base. What could possibly be hidden here?“ He sounded both like he really wanted to find out, and like he was sharing a joke with Taylor. An inside joke.
Taylor slumped in his seat, worked hard to calm his nerves.
Winston elbowed him and smiled wickedly, "Buck up, T! It's going to be...“ but his voice trailed off as his head turned towards the door to Tate's office opened. Winston's jaw had dropped, though somehow he still smiled.
“Look at her, T!“ Winston stared open-mouthed at the female NSA agent: a tall, willowy woman, with very short brown hair, a heart shaped face, and blazingly intense blue eyes. She was pretty, in a very hard, austere manner: she wore no makeup, and looked like she could chew nails. she stared so hard at everything around her. She did not look happy at all.
“What about her?“ Taylor said, his chest tightening in fear, his heart racing.
“She is the most beautiful women I've ever seen!“ Winston said, breathless. The handsome teen looked at his reflection in the glass of his LED monitor, shaped his hair and practiced a devastatingly charming smile.
“Do I look alright, T?“ Winston asked through his frozen charm smile.
“Um. Yeah. Sure.“ Taylor responded but Winston was already lost staring at the female agent again. The others had issued from the office as well and none of them looked happy. Ballard looked like someone had just kicked him in the balls. Tate, didn't look angry, but rather fidgety and unsure. The other NSA agents had faces of stone.
Has everyone figured out what they are yet?
“Quiet down, class.“ Ballard said, though he needn't have. No one was talking. “I'm sure you are all wondering who these people are, and why they are here today. I will let them explain, but I want you all to know: none of you are in trouble and none of you need answer any questions, unless you wish to do so.“ Ballard stressed this, though he looked nervous doing so. He took another angry glance at Tate and a furtive one for the female agent then all but fled the classroom.
Ballard is trying to protect us. But he's mad at Tate for something and afraid of that woman. Why?
Taylor's thoughts were interrupted when the female agent stepped forward and spoke. Tate smiled in her direction, though he still fidgeted.
“My name is Agent Alexander, of the National Security Agency. I am here today because someone from this class has been accessing secured United States government servers. We intended to interview you all, but your Headmaster and teacher have objected, and you all do have the right to an attorney...” Tate coughed. Agent Alexander's face went rigid, she sucked her cheeks in and continued. “We cannot compel any of you to speak with us without your parent or guardian present, yet, but I want to be utterly clear. If any of you,“ she stared around the room, her eyes like augers, “have been engaging in hacking“ she salted the term with disdain and mockery. Taylor winced before he could stop himself. Her head whipped around, “I would strongly advise you to turn yourself in now. We cannot help you unless you choose to help yourself. Understand! When we catch you, you will go to prison.“
The other agents nodded, but Tate yawned, noticeably. Alexander sucked her cheeks again, looked around the room one last time and strode, along with the other two into Tate's office, leaving the door open. Tate spoke.
“You all may turn on your workstations now. But do not login to the system until I give you permission.” He sat down at his desk and shuffled papers around, uncaring of the agents in his office.
“She's... amazing!“ Winston mumbled excitedly. Taylor couldn't help himself, he turned to gawk at Winston. The woman has to be at least thirty-five! You're sixteen! Winston still stared, moon-eyed at the spot where Alexander had been standing. Murmurs raced around the room.
Tate looked up from the desk and said, “This is not a joke, kids. I...“ he looked around at them, he didn't seem nervous, only concerned. “I want you all to understand that you really don't have to speak with them. But if you don't they will simply get warrants and the speaking will be... harder. Still, I am certain none of you have done anything to worry about.“ Tate's eyes landed on Taylor. Taylor stared back. Don't look guilty. Don't look guilty! Unable to clear his mind, he recalled all the had seen the night before and he wondered exactly who Tate was. He's definitely former NSA, but still, former is former. What is the man involved in?
Looking over at the Behrstables, Taylor was not surprised to see neither of them looked nervous or concerned, still. Even when Tate's discerning eyes landed on them. Parker and Lil J looked at ease as well. When Parker caught Taylor looking at him the older boy's eyes narrowed and he grinned evilly. Parker tapped Lil J and inclined his head towards Taylor.
Both boys laughed silently for a moment, as if just looking at Taylor was funny. Taylor's face suffused with heat, went crimson. He sighed and looked away.
“What is it, T?” Winston asked.
“Nothing. This is really strange, right?“ Taylor said, but what he was thinking was: I need to get out of here. Taylor knew he needed to make sense of what was going on or his head might explode. All of the strange noises and lights Taylor had experienced rushed back and the anxiety of it all began to overwhelm. Like the ceiling was slowly coming down on him. Sounds of sneakers on glass floated into his ears, a ghost of snicker haunted the edges of a dark room, LED flashlights blinkered on and off. Adrenaline had allowed him to move past those sounds at the time, but now it seemed maybe someone else really had been there. Maybe they even saw him, had shadowed him. The thought had Taylor's head whipping around in a slow, building paranoia. Winston put a hand on Taylor's shoulder and Taylor jumped.
“T. Seriously. What is going on with you?“ Winston asked, he sounded concerned but there was his persistent smile. Right then it was so weirdly out of place, like the smile of an evil clown; even though Taylor felt he could trust Winston, it was too much. The room started to spin and Taylor knew he was going to be hurl. Just before he fell out of his seat retching on the floor, Taylor saw both the Behrstables looking at him. They, too, seemed as surreal and out of place as Winston's smile. For a brief moment Taylor thought he saw something in Philomena's eyes: a glint of knowledge, like she knew everything Taylor was thinking, like cogs had just spun in her mind and landed on exactly the winning combination.
Taylor's eyes rolled up into the back of his head.