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In this page-turning contemporary thriller, National Book Award Finalist, Printz Award winner, and New York Times bestselling author Paolo Bacigalupi explores the timely issue of how public information is distorted for monetary gain, and how those who exploit it must be stopped.
Everything Alix knows about her life is a lie. At least that’s what a mysterious young man who’s stalking her keeps saying. But then she begins investigating the disturbing claims he makes against her father. Could her dad really be at the helm of a firm that distorts the truth and covers up wrongdoing by hugely profitable corporations that have allowed innocent victims to die? Is it possible that her father is the bad guy, and that the undeniably alluring criminal who calls himself Moses–and his radical band of teen activists–is right? Alix has to make a choice, and time is running out, but can she truly risk everything and blow the whistle on the man who loves her and raised her?
Table of Contents
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ALIX WAS SITTING IN AP CHEM when she saw him.
She'd been gazing out the window, letting her eyes wander over the perfectly manicured grounds of Seitz Academy's academic quad, and as soon as she saw him standing outside, she had the feeling she knew him.
That was how she put it later, talking to the cops. He'd seemed familiar. Like someone's older brother, the one you only glimpsed when he was back from college. Or else the sib whom Seitz wouldn't let in because of "behavioral match issues." The one who didn't attend the school but showed up with Mommy and Daddy at the Seitz Annual Auction anyway because sis was Seitz Material even though he wasn't. The resentful lone wolf who leaned against the back wall, texting his friends about how fucked up it was that he was stuck killing the night watching his parents get sloppy drunk while they bid on vacations to Saint Martin and find-yourself-in-middle-age pottery classes at Lena Chisolm's studio/gallery.
Like her tongue running the line of her teeth. Never seen, but still, known.
He was standing outside, staring up at the science building.
Ms. Liss (never Mrs. and definitely not Miss—Ms. with the z, right?) was passing back AP Chem lab reports. Easy A's. Even when Liss was putting on the pressure, she never pushed hard enough, so Alix had let the activity of the class fade into the background: students in their lab coats beside their personal sinks and burners, the rustle of papers, Ms. Liss droning on about top-tier colleges (which was code for the Ivy Leagues) and how no one was getting anywhere if they didn't challenge themselves—and Alix thinking that no one was getting anywhere anytime soon.
Suspended animation was how she thought of it sometimes. She was just another student in a cohort of students being groomed and sculpted and prepped for the future. She sometimes imagined them all floating in liquid suspension, rows and rows in holding tanks, all of them drifting. Seitz-approved skirts and blazers billowing. School ties drifting with the currents. Hair tangling across blank faces, bubbles rising from silent lips. Tangles and bubbles. Waiting for someone to say that they were finished.
Other times, she thought of it as being prepped for a race that they were never quite allowed to run. Each Seitz student set up and poised, runners on their starting blocks, ready to take over the world—as soon as their control-freak parents decided to let them get their hands on their trust funds. But no one ever gave them the gun, so they all waited and partied and studied and tested and added extracurriculars like volunteering at the battered women's shelter in Hartford so they could have "meaningful" material for their college-entrance essays.
And then she caught sight of him—that loner marooned on Seitz's emerald lawns—and everything changed.
For a second, when she first spied him, Alix was almost convinced that she'd conjured him. He was so weirdly recognizable to her that it seemed like he could only have emerged from her own mind. A good-looking black guy in a trench coat. Short little dreadlocks, or maybe cornrows—it was hard to tell from this distance—but cool-looking whatever it was. A little bit gangsta… and he was so unsettlingly familiar to her. Like some kind of music star, some guy out of the Black Eyed Peas who looked better than Will.i.am. Not an Akon, not a Kanye. They were too clean-cut.… But still, somebody famous.
The more Alix studied him, the more he appeared out of place. He was just standing there, staring up at the science building. Maybe he was lost? Like his sister had been kidnapped and dragged to one of the whitest schools on the East Coast, and he was here to break her out.
Well, the school wasn't all white, but pretty close. Alix could think of maybe six kids who were actually black, and two of them were adopted. Of course, there was a solid helping of Asians and Indians because there were so many Wall Street quants who sent their kids to the school, but they were, as one of Alix's friends put it, "the other white meat." Which said all you really needed to know about Seitz. If you were Ivy-bound, and headed for money and power, Seitz Academy found that it could hit its diversity targets easily.
But there was that black guy standing outside, looking in. Cool. Old-school aviator shades. Army jacket kind of trench. Looking like he could stand out on the grass all day long, watching Alix and her classmates.
Was he a new student? It was hard to guess his age from this distance, but she thought he could be the right age for a senior.
Just then, Mr. Mulroy came into view, striding with purpose.
From the man's attitude, Alix could tell the Seitz headmaster didn't think the black guy belonged on his lawn. Mulroy moved into the stranger's space. Alix could see the man's lips moving, telling the stranger he wasn't at the right school.
Mulroy pointed off campus, his body language loaded with authority—arm out and rigid, finger pointing—ordering the intruder back wherever he'd come from, back to wherever black kids came from when they weren't here on a scholarship or given a pass via Nigerian oil money into Seitz's manicured world.
Mulroy made another sharp gesture of authority. Alix had seen him do the same with new students who he nailed smoking. She'd watched them cringe and gather up their backpacks as the headmaster herded them into Weller House's admin offices for their sentencing. Mulroy was used to making rebellious rich kids believe he was in charge. He was good at it.
The black guy was still staring up at the school, nodding as if he were paying attention to the headmaster's words. But he wasn't moving to go at all. Mulroy said something else.
The stranger glanced over, taking in the man for the first time. Tall, Alix realized. He was at least as tall as the headmaster—
The stranger buried a fist into Mulroy's gut.
Mulroy doubled over.
Alix pressed against the glass, staring, trying to make sense of what she'd just witnessed. Had she really just seen Mulroy get punched? It had been so fast, and yet there the headmaster was, clutching his gut and gagging, looking like he was trying to throw up. The black guy was bracing him up now, patting the headmaster on the back. Patting him like a baby. Soothing.
The headmaster sank to his knees. The stranger gently let the headmaster down and laid the man on the grass.
Mulroy rolled onto his back, still clutching his belly. The stranger crouched beside him, seeming to say something as he laid his hand on the older man's chest.
"Holy shit," Alix whispered. Gaining her senses, she turned to the rest of the class. "Someone just beat the shit out of Mr. Mulroy!"
Everyone rushed for the windows. The intruder had straightened. He looked up at them as everyone crowded against the glass for a view. A strange, isolated figure standing over the laid-out body of his victim. They all stared down at him, and he stared back. A frozen moment, everyone taking stock of one another—and then the guy smiled, and his smile was radiant.
He didn't seem bothered at all that the headmaster was sprawled at his feet, nor that he had the entire class as witnesses. He looked completely at home.
Still smiling, the stranger gave them a lazy salute and strode off. He didn't even bother to run.
Mulroy was trying to get up, but he was having a hard time of it. Alix was dimly aware of Ms. Liss calling security, using the hotline number they were supposed to use if there was ever a campus shooter. Her voice kept cracking.
"We should help him!" someone said, and everyone made a rush for the door. But Liss shouted at them all to get back to their seats, and then she was back on the phone, trying to give instructions to security. "He's right outside Widener Hall!" she was saying over and over again.
The guy who had hit Mulroy had already ambled out of sight. All that was left were Mulroy lying in the grass and Alix trying to make sense of what she'd witnessed.
It had been utterly unlike any school fight she'd ever seen. Nothing like the silly strutting matches where two dudebros started shouting at each other, and then maybe pushed each other a little, and then maybe danced around playing as if they were serious—with neither of them doing much—until maybe, finally, the shame and gathering spectator pressure forced them to throw an actual punch.
Those fights almost immediately ended up as a tangle on the floor, with a couple of red-faced guys squirming and grunting and swearing, tearing at each other's clothes and trying out their wrestling holds and not doing much damage one way or the other, except that the school ended up having discussions about conflict resolution for a week.
This had been different, though. No warnings and no threats. The black guy had just turned and put his fist into Mulroy's gut, and Mulroy was done. No second round, nothing. The boy—the more she thought about it, the more Alix thought he really was student age—had just destroyed Mulroy.
Ms. Liss was still speaking urgently into the phone, but now Alix spied the school's security team dashing across the quad from Weller House. Too late, of course. They'd probably been eating doughnuts and watching South Park reruns behind their desks when Liss's call came in.
Cynthia Yang was leaning over Alix's shoulder, watching the slow-moving campus cops.
"If there's ever a school shooting, we're toast." Cynthia snorted. "Look at that reaction time."
"Seriously," Emil chimed in. "My dad's security could get here faster, and they're across town."
Emil's dad was some kind of diplomat. He was always reminding people how important his dad was, which was seriously annoying, but Alix had to admit Emil was right. She'd seen that security detail once when they'd partied at Emil's summer house in the Hamptons, and those guys had definitely been more on top of it than Seitz Academy's rent-a-cops.
The campus cops finally made it to Mulroy. He was on his feet now, though bent over and gasping, and he shook off their help. Alix didn't need to hear the words to know what Mulroy was saying as he pointed off campus. "Go get the guy who beat the hell out of me!" Or something like that.
From where Alix was standing, she knew they'd fail. The puncher was long gone.
A few hours later Alix heard from Cynthia that, sure enough, they hadn't found the guy. He'd just evaporated.
"Poof!" Cynthia said. "Like smoke."
"Like smoke," Alix echoed.
"I heard he was from the low-income housing over on the east side," Sophie said.
"I heard he's an escaped convict," Tyler said, plopping down beside them. "Some kind of ax murderer."
They all kept chattering and speculating, but Alix wasn't paying attention. She couldn't stop playing the incident over in her head. A shattering of Seitz's model perfection that wasn't supposed to happen, like a bum crapping in the reflecting pool near her father's offices in DC, or a runway model with lipstick smeared across her face in a jagged red slash.
As soon as the rent-a-cops had started questioning the students, descriptions of the intruder had started falling apart: He was tall, he was short, he had dreads, he had braids. Someone said he had a rainbow knitted Rasta beret, someone else said he had a gold-and-diamond grill—it quickly turned into a strange jumble of conflicting stereotypes that had nothing to do with the guy Alix had seen.
For Alix, he remained fixed in her mind, unchanged by the shifting stories of her peers. He stayed with her through Honors English and then followed her out to the track. And even though she ran until her lungs were fire and her legs were rubber, she couldn't shake the image of him.
She could play the entire event back in her mind as if in slow motion. She could still see the stranger's green army trench billowing around him as he squatted beside the headmaster. She could still see the guy laying his hand on Mulroy's chest, soothing him.
She could see him looking up at the class. She could see him smile.
And the memory of his smile started her running again, pushing against her pounding heart and her ragged breath and her aching legs. Pushing against the memory of the stranger, because she could swear that when he looked up, he hadn't cared about all the AP Chem students crowding around and staring from the windows. He hadn't been looking at any of them.
He'd been staring directly at her.
He'd been smiling at her.
And she still couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen him before. Familiar and frightening at the same time. Like the smell of an electrical storm looming on the horizon, ozone and moisture and winds and promise, swirling down after a long time dry.
AT DINNER, ALIX'S YOUNGER BROTHER, Jonah, wouldn't quit talking about the strange event. "He completely pounded Mulroy. It was like some kind of MMA takedown."
"You weren't even there," Alix said. "He just hit him, and Mulroy keeled over."
"One hit, though, right?" Jonah mimed a punch that almost knocked his water glass off the table. He caught it just in time. "Epic!"
"Jonah," Mom said. "Please?"
Mom had put candles on the table and laid out a tablecloth. Dinner was supposed to be a family ritual, the entire Banks clan gathered and undistracted for a whole half hour, instead of grabbing something out of the fridge and separating into different rooms to play on iPads and computers or watch TV.
Mom had been on a kick for family time lately, but she was fighting an uphill battle. Dad had once again brought his tablet to the table, just to reply to one quick emergency e-mail, he said, and so everyone was engaged in the conversation while he claimed to listen: Alix, Jonah, their mother, and half of Mr. Banks, workaholic extraordinaire.
For Mom, it counted as a win; Alix's mother took what she could get, when she could get it.
Alix's friend Cynthia was always asking what made the relationship work considering that Alix's father was never paying attention and her mother always seemed a little isolated in the project of raising her family. Alix had never really thought about it until that moment. It was just the way things were. Dad worked in public relations and made the money for the family. Mom did Pilates and book clubs and fund-raisers, and tried to gather everyone together for meals. They mostly got along. It wasn't like in Sophie's house, where you could practically hear her mom and dad chewing glass every time they said anything to each other.
"Nobody caught the guy," Alix said. "He just walked away. They called security, and the police and Mr. Mulroy went out looking for him." She took a bite of Caesar salad. "Nothing."
"I don't like the town around there," her mother said. "They should have security at the gates."
"The town around there?" Alix rolled her eyes. "Why don't you just say you don't trust those people, Mom?"
"That's not what I said," Mom said. "Strangers shouldn't just be able to wander onto campus. They should have a guard at the gate, at least."
"Fortress Seitz," Jonah said, pushing a crouton onto his fork with a finger. "Maybe we can put in gun turrets, too. Then we can feel really secure. Put up some barbwire, right? Fifty cals and barbwire. Oh wait, don't we call that prison?"
Mom gave him a sharp look. "Don't be smart. That's not what we're talking about. Seitz is hardly a prison, no matter how much you pretend."
"You only say that because you don't have to go," Jonah said.
Mom gave him an exasperated look. "Someone just walked onto campus and assaulted the headmaster. I'd think even you'd admit there's a problem. What if that had been a student? Don't you think that's a problem, at least?"
"I'm definitely bummed I missed it," Jonah said. "I'd pay money to see Mulroy take one in the gut."
Alix stifled a laugh. Doctors described Jonah as having poor impulse control, which basically meant that Jonah's entire world was a series of decisions that balanced precariously on the razor's edge of clever vs. stupid.
Stupid normally won out.
Which meant that since he started attending Seitz, it was Alix's job to keep an eye on him. When she'd protested that playing nursemaid for her younger brother wasn't her idea of a good time, Mom hadn't even yelled; she'd just sighed in resignation.
"I know it's not fair, Alix, but we can't always be there… and Jonah…" She sighed. "It's not his fault."
"Yeah, yeah. It's his nature, just like the scorpion and the frog."
Alix's nature was just the opposite. She knew the difference between clever and stupid, and didn't feel any need to dive across the line. So, as long as Mom was doing Pilates and fund-raisers and book clubs, and Dad was down in the city or seeing clients in DC, Alix was in charge of keeping an eye on the little nutball.
"We could punch him for charity," Jonah was saying. "Like those old-time dunk tanks. Big fund-raising thing. Thousand dollars a pop." He mimed punches. "Bam! Bam! Bam! Slug Mulroy and feed the homeless. I bet even Alix would donate to that," he said. "It would make her early-decision application look good."
"There aren't any homeless in Haverport," Alix said. "We put them on a bus to New York."
"So save the whales! Who cares, as long as we get to punch Mulroy."
"I don't think assault is a joke," Mom said.
They went back and forth like they always did, with Mom taking it seriously, trying to persuade Jonah to stop being "troublesome," and Jonah taking the opportunity to poke at her, saying just the right thing to annoy her again and again.
Alix tuned them out. When she played the attack back in her own mind, it made her feel a little nauseated. It had been a completely normal, boring day. She could still see Mulroy walking over to the guy, thinking that he was in charge, thinking he knew what was up. Mulroy and Alix had been fooled by the spring sunshine. They'd been living inside a bubble that they'd thought was real.
And then this guy turned up at school, and the bubble popped.
"It was weird," Alix said. "Right after he punched Mulroy, the guy held Mulroy up so he didn't fall over. He was gentle about it. It almost looked tender, the way he laid him in the grass."
"Tender?" her mother said, her voice rising. "A tender assault?"
Alix rolled her eyes. "Cut it out, Mom. I'm not Jonah. I'm just saying it was weird."
But it really had looked tender, in the end. So slow and careful and gentle as he laid the man down. Tender. Alix knew the power of words. Dad had drilled it into her enough as a kid. Words were specific, with fine shadings and colors. You chose them to paint exactly the picture you wanted in another person's mind.
She hadn't chosen the word accidentally. The only other word she could think of that might have described the moment was apologetic. Like the stranger had actually been sorry he'd beaten Mulroy up. But that didn't match with what had happened. No one accidentally shoved a fist into another person's stomach.
Oh, gee, sorry about that. I didn't see your belly there.…
Dad had been reading on his tablet, half listening, half working. Now he broke in as he kept tapping on his tablet. "The school is going to hire an extra security detail. They have the young man's face from the security cameras—"
"They probably got a thousand pics," Jonah said.
Dad went on undeterred. "—police have him identified. He should be found soon."
"He's identified?" Alix asked, interested. "They already know who he is? Is he famous or something? Is he from around here?" He looked so familiar.
"Hardly," her father said. "He's just a vandal they've been looking for."
"How'd you find that out?"
"I called the school," her father said, barely looking up. "Mr. Mulroy, despite his terrible skills at self-defense, is a very efficient administrator."
"I'll bet he's getting a lot of calls right now," Mom said. "I wouldn't be surprised if some parents pull their children."
"There's extra security?" Alix asked. "Do they think he'll come back?"
"It seems unlikely." Dad finished his salad and set it aside. "But better safe than sorry."
"Yeah," said Jonah. "If we aren't careful, we'll come into school and the whole place will be tagged."
"I didn't say he was a spray-painter," Dad said. "I said he was a vandal."
"Like he breaks windows and things?"
"Don't get any ideas," Mom interjected.
"What did I do?" Jonah looked wounded.
"You sounded like you wanted to start a fan club," Alix said.
"You know, sometimes a question is just an innocent question," Jonah groused.
"Not with your track record, young man," Mom said as she cleared the salad dishes.
Dad was ignoring the interplay, still tapping out e-mails on his tablet.
"Mr. Mulroy didn't know what other things the young man had been up to. All he knew was that he'd been associated with extensive vandalism incidents."
"So does the vandal have a name?" Alix asked.
Dad looked up at her, frowning, suddenly serious.
Alix stopped short, surprised. It was the first time he'd really looked at her all night. Normally, Dad was Mr. Multitasker, thinking about other things, working out puzzles with his job, only half there. It was a joke among all of them that you sometimes had to ask him a question three times before he even heard you. But now he was looking at Alix full force.
When Dad focused, he really focused.
"What?" Alix asked, feeling defensive. "What did I say?"
"No, he doesn't have a name."
"Nice. Ghost in the machine," Jonah said, as usual completely unaware of the way the energy in the dining room had changed. "The man with no name." He made a funny ghost noise to go with it. "Woooo."
Dad didn't even look over at Jonah. He was still looking at her, and she felt suddenly as if she was picking her way through a conversation that had become more important than she'd expected. Like the time Jonah had joked about seeing Kala Spelling's mom having coffee with Mr. Underwood, the European History teacher.
"So…" Alix hesitated. "If they don't know his name… then how do they know who they're looking for? I thought you said he was identified."
"He has a track record," Dad said.
"But you don't know his name?"
"He has a nickname," Dad said finally. "Something he marks his work with."
"That's my GPA!" Jonah said.
"In your dreams," Alix retorted. To her father, she said, "What's the name supposed to mean?"
"If anyone knew, I'm sure they would have caught him already."
Alix couldn't sleep. The strange day and conversations hung with her. Finally she got up and turned on her computer. Jonah wasn't allowed to have a computer in his room, but Mom and Dad trusted her not to do "anything inappropriate," as Mom put it, without actually meeting Alix's eyes when she said it. So Sophie and Denise had spent a year jokingly warning her not to do "Anything Inappropriate" with her computer in her room.
She opened a browser and ran a search for 2.0.
She found Wikipedia entries. A lot of entries for Web 2.0, Health 2.0, Creative Commons, and the Apache Software Foundation came up. There were fistfuls of computer listings, actually. Software companies released new versions all the time, tracked by their release numbers: .09 beta, 1.2 release, 2.0. The Chrome browser she was using now had a release number, too, except it was something like 33.0.
She tried image searching and scrolled idly through the pictures that came back. Lots of corporate logos, antiseptic and staid, even as they tried to claim that they were doing something new. Gov 2.0, City 2.0, and—seriously?—even a Dad 2.0. Apparently everything was 2.0. Even Dad could get a new version. Alix tried to imagine what a "Dad 2.0" would look like, but all that came to mind were paunchy old dudes wearing hipster plaids and skinny jeans while swaggering around in Snuglis—
An image caught Alix's eye. She scrolled back up. She'd almost missed it, but it was different from the others.
A spray-paint tag on the side of a smokestack. Instead of the carefully designed corporate brands with 2.0s affixed as an afterthought, this was 2.0 as red scrawl spray. From the image, it looked like it was maybe at an oil refinery. And the graffiti was high up, almost impossibly high. The image was a little blurry, shot with someone's phone, but the 2.0 was starkly legible. In the foreground, dark and sooty pipes ran this way and that, linking grimy holding tanks in an industrial tangle. Against that dark foreground, the number was like a beacon, rising high above the pipes and steam.
2.0. Bright and red and defiant.
Alix clicked through to the site, hoping for more images or an explanation, but the site the image came from was just a website for street graffiti from around the world. Random people uploading their random exploits. Among all the other art, the one that she'd found wasn't particularly compelling. It wasn't complex or wildly colorful. It wasn't clever or strange or thought-provoking. Except for its location, it was an unremarkable tag. Not like a Banksy, for example. Over the winter, Cynthia had become obsessed with Banksy because he'd been in the news again. She'd persuaded Alix to catch the train down to the city for the day to go on a treasure hunt for the guerrilla street art. They'd spent the day canvassing New York, digging up every instance they could find where the street artist had left his mark.
Alix kept scanning images, focused in the way she normally focused on Calc prep. Half an hour later she found one more picture with the 2.0 tag, this time on the side of what looked like a metal-sided warehouse. The picture looked like it had been snapped from beyond barbwire, but when she clicked through, there wasn't any information on this one, either. Just a big metal building in some place that looked like it might have been a desert, judging from the yellow dirt around it.
A new version of… something.
* "[A] provocative thriller.... Fans of Cory Doctorow's work should love this book."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A suspenseful, page-turning yarn.... Bound to provoke thought."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 14, 2014
- Page Count
- 496 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers