So I rode my bike through the gritty, slushy snow to the warehouse with my stomach full of angry butterflies and met the guys from the Group and they all stared at me, holding limp slices of pizza and bottles of beer like statues until one of them said “Oh my god. You’re Shad.” And they were all freaked out, not because I was black or only fifteen and not cool, but because it had apparently never occurred to them that girls could code.
It was warm inside the tent-like place, thanks to an electric space heater that was humming away. I took off my winter gear and shook out my damp hair like a dog shakes off water, which always makes my hair look even crazier, but I didn’t care anymore. I took a slice of pizza. I also pulled a bottle of beer out of a case, and that made them exchange glances, like “should we say something? Isn’t she too young?” But they didn’t, which is good because I was on the edge of getting really angry.
I didn’t realize it until I thought about it later, but I was giving them a test, taking that bottle of beer. If they said they could drink beer but I couldn’t, that would have told me I would always be a kid to them, and worse yet, a girl. Girls don’t code. Girls don’t drink beer, but if they do, they’re probably sluts, even though fifteen-year-old boys who drink beer are cool. Pretty girls might be allowed in the clubhouse, just for special occasions, but they can’t be members, not for real. Also, any black girl who codes and drinks beer is probably a lesbo freak who has no friends and is too weird to hang out with because her weirdness might be contagious.
But they didn’t say anything and didn’t stop me and I only drank a single swallow because beer tastes disgusting.
They introduced themselves, and though I knew who they were in the Group, it took me a while to connect who they were online with who they were in person.
The one with the fancy glasses named Tyler was Kadabra. Jason was Gargle, who I had always imagined would look like a furry blue Muppet, but he actually was over six feet tall, with a shaved head and nice abs but absolutely no blue fur or googly eyes. I had expected Call me Cheese to look like a straight-laced English teacher with a bow tie and suspenders because he was always correcting people’s grammar, but he wore paint-spattered jeans and tennis shoes patched with duct tape. (Okay, so my first impression that they all wore expensive clothes was wrong. It must have been the stress.) His name was Geoff, and he made sure I knew how to spell it, because he hated it when people spelled it with a J, which was just plain wrong.
Ferret, the cryptoarcheologist, was the oldest and had a lot of wrinkles that doubled whenever he smiled. He had wire-rim glasses and wore jeans with a tweedy jacket but no tie. He looked like he was disguised as a college professor, which it turned out he was, teaching computational biology at MIT when he wasn’t excavating software off of old hard drives.
Fa1staff was closer to what I imagined – a wiry little guy named Zeke with shaggy hair that he must have cut himself with those scissors little kids use, the ones that have round ends and aren’t very sharp. He had thick dark eyebrows, a big nose, and a wild look in his eyes. The only surprise was that he was a lot younger than the others, the only one remotely close to my age, though I noticed he had more empty beer bottles next to his chair than anyone else.
“So Shad,” ferret, I mean Ian, said. “What do we call you?”
I didn’t answer right away and he started to say, “It’s okay. You don’t have to—”
But I did. They already knew I wasn’t the person they thought I was. Might as well finish the job. “Zenobia. It was my grandmother’s name. Don’t laugh.”
Zeke did, or rather he spluttered because he made a thing out of trying to cover his mouth up with both hands. He made such a big deal out of it that he practically fell out of his chair.
“That’s a great name,” Call Me Cheese, or rather Geoff, said, sounding like a scolding schoolteacher. “In history, Zenobia was a badass woman warrior who led a rebellion against the Romans.”
“And conquered Egypt, too.” I knew all that because Monica gave me an early history lesson, trying to make me proud of a name that everyone at school thought was one of those weirdo African American names. “You can call me Zen for short.” That made Zeke sputter even more, his face getting red like he was under pressure and getting ready to explode. I glared at him. “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing, little grasshopper.” Jason punched his shoulder. “Ow. It’s just you’re not, you know, all serenity and shit. No offense.”
“Don’t pay attention to him,” Ian said. “He was raised by wolves.”
“What is this place, anyway?” I asked. “Is it safe to meet here?”
“I happen to know a guy who recently bought it,” said Jason (who I’d always known as Gargle). “He plans to convert it into a community makerspace. He didn’t mind us borrowing it for an evening of trouble-making.” He tugged at the nearest piece of tent fabric. “This stuff? It blocks radio waves and cell signals. Portable security for sensitive communications. We’re demoing it at the security conference.”
“Cool. So basically we’re in a big Faraday cage?”
It made me feel weirdly proud. I knew about Faraday cages because I made my backpack into one using layers of duct tape and foil. It’s a good way to avoid electromagnetic pulses frying your electronics. Better yet, it keeps cell phone signals blocked when you need to avoid being monitored.
“So, about your brother,” Ian said. “What we know so far is the identity of the crook who was recruited as an informant. We uncovered the FBI agent running the sting. We also know he doesn’t seem to have anything embarrassing in his past—”
“That tenth grade yearbook photo was totally embarrassing,” Zeke said.
“Anything that would discredit him. And we know there’s one person still on the run.”
“Yeah, Wheeze,” I sad. “He’s sent me a few texts. Don’t worry,” I added as several of them started to speak. “We’re both running Convo.”
“Hey, that’s mine!” Zeke was pleased. “Are you using the latest update? There was a problem with the kernel on some devices. Got reports of bricking. So I figured out—“
I cut him off. “We’re running current versions.” Duh. Security 101.
“Are you pissed off?” He seemed genuinely puzzled.
“See? Raised by wolves,” Ian joked.
“Bullshit. I was raised in Brookline by totally normal people.” Zeke turned to me. “Seriously. Why are you mad?”
“You act like I’m ignorant. I know enough to keep systems updated.”
Jason cleared his throat. “Moving on . . . it’s going to be awfully hard for your friend to stay off the radar. How much does he know about surveillance?”
“He’s pretty informed,” I said. “He stays off social media, disables GPS on his apps, takes his battery out of his phone when he isn’t using it, and he encrypts. When I explained how PGP works, he got it right away, and he didn’t mind messing around with keys.” Unlike Wilson, who kept asking why you would need both a private and public key, and thought it was all way too much work when you could just use Gmail. “I haven’t heard from him in a while. I’m kind of worried.” Actually, a whole lot worried. It suddenly felt as if some valve had been opened and hot, thick anxiety started flowing through me.
It must have showed because Ian patted my shoulder and looked at Jason. “Can you pull any strings?”
“I can try.” He explained, “My company has a lot of law enforcement contracts. I know some people who know some people who might be able to let me know if he’s been picked up. No guarantees, but . . . can you give me a full name?”
“Lawrence Delancy.” He made me spell it. “White, five ten or so, brown eyes, brown hair, if that helps. I don’t know his exact birthdate, but he’s seventeen.”
“That makes it trickier. What’s his family situation?”
“Lousy. He hasn’t been in touch with his parents for a long time. Why is it trickier?”
“Easier to keep juvenile proceedings under wraps.”
“Not this time. If they pick him up, it’ll be all over the news media,” Tyler said. “They’ll want to play it up, even if they don’t give out his name. That’s what these stings are for, to convince people that all that money we’re spending on the war on terror is worth it, that mass surveillance is effective, even if it fails to prevent lone wolf attacks or loses track of real terrorists in the haystack of data. What we need is a counter-narrative. It would be great to hear about his life on the run. If we could set up a site and get his story online, obviously without any details that would give away his location—”
“I’ll check with Fabi,” Zeke said. “He can use his server in Brazil. Evandur can mirror it in Iceland. It’s be up and running before the conference starts.”
“Great. But we need content.”
“Wheeze hasn’t been responding to my texts,” I said, sounding angry, though I wasn’t sure who I was angry with.
Geoff said, “Until we hear from him, we can summarize the situation and link to similar cases. That crazy Sears Tower plot, those kids arrested at the NATO thing in Chicago. Have some stats on how often these terrorism cases are fabricated.”
“Boring,” Zeke said, reaching for another beer. “Let’s expose Terhune and his informant. That’ll get their attention.”
“Too soon,” Tyler said. “Too easy to discredit. Besides, the underdog POV is a more compelling story.”
“Oh, right. Your specialty is PR, lying for dollars, I forgot.”
“And you’re in it for the lulz. Why don’t you go play with your little friends on 4Chan?”
“Yeah? Why don’t you—“
“People,” Ian interrupted, which reminded me how ferret was the one who stepped in when members of the Group started to fight. “Let’s get the infrastructure in place. Zeke, your offshore idea is smart. Geoff, you want to pull together some info on related cases?”
“Then, for the counter narrative . . .” There was a pause while everyone seemed to stall out at the next step. A weird idea started to form in my head.
“What would be cool,” I said in the silence, and realized it felt good to have the guys all turn to me, as if I actually knew what I was talking about. Also scary, because I hadn’t figured my idea out yet and it might turn out to be stupid. “What if we could lure someone from Terhune’s team into a situation where they set up another fake terrorist threat like they did with Wilson? But we secretly recorded the whole process so we can show the world exactly how they operate.”
“Turn the tables and surveille them,” Zeke said, saluting me with his beer bottle. “Sweet.”
Tyler was nodding. “A documentary approach. Which makes me think . . .”
“Sara?” Geoff murmured.
“She’d totally love this. I’ll ping her and see if she’d be interested.”
“Who’s Sara?” I asked.
“Sorry. Sara Esfahani.” He said it as if I should know her name. “The filmmaker? She makes those political documentaries and releases them in serial form? Basically invented blitzdocs. If we could get film of an FBI informant orchestrating one of these manufactured terrorist threats, she could turn it into something amazing. And she has a ton of followers. It would go viral in no time.”
“We’re releasing a new wearable that produces top-quality film,” Jason said. “Great storage capacity, incredible resolution. I brought a couple of prototypes to the conference. I’ll donate one to the cause.”
“Your boss will be okay with that?” Ian asked.
“If it gets an endorsement from Sara Esfahani? Hell, I might get a raise.”
“But it would take too long,” I realized. “I mean, Zip spent months working up to this bust.”
“It might not take long at all,” Jason said. “There’s an army of informants out there – ten times the number that J. Edgar Hoover had back in the day. The FBI gets billions of dollars appropriated for terrorist investigations every year. They spread it around to local law enforcement and everyone is under pressure to show that spending all that money pays off. I should know. We make a crapload out of government contracts. If we go fishing, we might get a bite.”
“So we fix somebody up with one of those cameras,” Zeke said, all excited, acting as if it was his idea. “They say radical shit to attract an informant, the informant says ‘hey, want some dynamite?’ and boom. Everyone sees Sara’s blitzdoc about it.”
“Except that whoever was wearing the camera could be in serious jeopardy,” Jason said.
Zeke raised a hand. “I volunteer.”
“It’s not that simple. The FBI follows a playbook.”
“Great. It’s probably online. I’ll memorize it.”
Jason shook his head. “To make a conviction, they have to get a target to do something that shows they are willing to act. That’s what gives them grounds for an arrest.”
“But first I’d be on film saying I’m just kidding. So.”
“So, you’d still be in the slammer while they built a case against you. A case they might win.”
“Wait,” I said so loudly my voice echoed. It suddenly felt like my synapses were firing all at once, a zinging feeling as they lit up and connected and I glimpsed a whole, beautiful plan that took care of everything. I took a gulp from my bottle, forgetting it was beer and setting off a coughing fit. Geoff patted me on the back. “What if we start with our own informant,” I said. “A concerned citizen who sees something and says something? Because I know the perfect pseudo-terrorist he can report to the feds. Then all we have to do is give the concerned citizen a camera to document it all as the feds set up a bust.”
They all stared at me and I couldn’t help laughing, pleased with how it all clicked into place. I knew who could play the role of concerned citizen, and I knew someone who would brag about his activist credentials and talk about committing a violent act with a little encouragement. The best thing about it was that the pseudo-terrorist I had in mind totally deserved to be locked up.
~ ~ ~
I wanted to explain and bask in my own brilliance, but I instantly realized I couldn’t tell them the details. First of all, I didn’t know them yet. Second, it would be best if the number of people who knew them was limited. The Group had my back, but what they didn’t know couldn’t get them in trouble. And if things didn’t go well, there would be plenty of trouble to go around.
“Are you sure about this plan?” Ian asked. “Is it safe?”
“What’s safe these days?” That made the wrinkles between his eyebrows deeper. “I won’t take unnecessary risks, if that’s what you’re asking.”
He still looked worried, but we quickly put together a plan for the next few days in the usual Group way. Trusted volunteers would gather and analyze intel on every member of the Minneapolis Joint Terrorist Task Force, storing all of the information they turned up in a secure drop that Jason would build. Zeke would work with his connections to set up a website in Brazil and a mirror site in Iceland in case the other one got taken down. Tyler would talk to Sara Esfahani (who apparently was a world-famous filmmaker, even though I’d never heard of her) and see if she would be interested in making my brother’s case the subject of one of her award-winning documentaries. Ian said he would rewrite his conference talk to focus on my brother’s situation as an example of the security state gone wrong, and he’d tip off contacts he had at Wired and TechCrunch in advance so they’d give it coverage, which would mean it would be all over the internet in no time.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” he said, turning to me, suddenly concerned. “You’re going to be under a microscope.”
“I already am. We had cops at the door first thing this morning.”
“They didn’t have a warrant, so we told them to go away, and they did.”
“Zenobia, badass woman warrior,” Zeke said with a sneer. Or maybe that was just how his face was shaped. It was hard to tell.
“If this goes viral, you’ll have both the cops and the media after you,” Ian said. “You won’t have much chance to think. You won’t have any privacy.”
That could make things difficult. “Your talk is on Tuesday, right?” I chewed my lip as I thought through what I would have to get done.
“I don’t plan to bring your name into it—”
Zeke snorted. “Zenobia,” he said in a squeaky voice.
Ian ignored him. “But if it catches on, journalists will be looking for comments. They’ll find you. They’ll find your friends and relatives and some kid you went to school with years ago whose name you don’t remember but who will pretend to be your BFF. People will make stuff up or twist it to make you look bad. It’s not fun, being in the spotlight.”
“So? It’s not exactly fun being in jail, either. I have to do what I can to get my brother out.”
They all exchanged glances, except for Zeke who was opening another beer. Those meaningful grown-up glances that seemed to be asking “should we tell her there’s no Santa Claus?”
“Look, I know this might not work,” I said angrily. “But so what? I have to try.”
Ian frowned at me as if I was some complicated equation he needed to solve. Then he nodded, and suddenly I thought maybe I really could pull it off.