So we were on the road, but not without having an argument first.
I called Monica and gave her a line about how I wanted to take a break and had a chance to stay overnight with a friend from school whose family had a lake cottage in Sibley County. “She says there’s a wood stove so it will be plenty warm enough and we won’t party or anything. It’s just me and her and her dog. He’s a good watchdog, so it will be totally safe.”
It took her a while to respond. I hoped she was thinking about how someone from the Joint Terrorism Task Force could be listening in before she made a decision. Besides, I’d planted clues. We both thought there were way too many monuments and places named after Henry Hastings Sibley, so I chose that county deliberately. I might have been a little heavy-handed when I added the watchdog stuff, but if she picked up on my Sibley clue, she probably also realized I was doing something risky, and I needed a way to tell her I would be careful.
“That sound nice,” she said at last, as if it didn’t sound nice at all.
“I know it’s kind of unplanned, but I really want to hang out with my friend. Is it okay?”
“I guess so. Call if you need anything.”
“Okay. Say hi to Dieter for me.”
“How did you know . . . she says hi,” she mumbled off to the side and I heard a cheerful Cherman voice call out “Hello, Zen” in the background.
“Take care of yourself,” Monica said. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” I replied, wondering if I’d ever said that to her out loud before.
Meanwhile Nikko was trying to get hold of his parents, but he hung up twice without leaving messages and looked frustrated. Then something dawned. His face is like a billboard sometimes, only not so big and ugly. “So, my dad’s in court today, and I forgot my mom’s out of town on a business trip. But I have a better idea. I know someone with a car we can use.”
“You think he’ll let you borrow his car?”
“And share the driving. It’s a long trip.”
“It’s a she, actually. I’d trust her with my life.”
“Maybe you would, but I don’t know her.” Then I realized who it was. “It’s that purple-haired girl.”
“Her name is Bree.”
“You realize you’d be putting her at risk, right? Are you sure you want to do that?”
“She’d totally be up for it. She was talking about how unfair those arrests were before I even heard about it.”
“I didn’t see her at the protest.”
“Maybe you just weren’t paying attention.”
“She was there?”
“Yes, she was there, tabling for the Solidarity Committee. “
“Oh great, those people who decided to own the cause. They just want to get on television.”
“You’re not being very rational about this.”
If there’s one thing that makes me see red, it’s a man telling me I’m not being rational. If he was going to add a stupid crack about PMS I would deck him, I thought, my fists already clenched. But of course he didn’t, because Nikko isn’t a sexist jerk, and he quickly backpedaled.
“I shouldn’t have said that. Look, Bree thinks the FBI’s anti-terrorist program has put a lot of innocent people in prison. That’s why she went to the protest. She has a car and can help with the driving. Oh, and she took a first aid course last year. How perfect is that?”
“The more people who know about this, the more risky it is.”
“One more person. Who I vouch for.”
“One more person who might get arrested, get her life pushed completely off course.”
“That worries me, sure, but I don’t know who else to ask who I would trust like I trust her.”
“You only met her two weeks ago, right? Maybe she got close to you for a reason.”
“Like, she’s working for the FBI? Why would they pick me? I’m not politically active. I didn’t know any of those people they arrested. It wouldn’t make sense.”
“Yeah. I guess,” I grumbled.
“Do you know anyone else we can ask? I’m open to other suggestions.”
I couldn’t think of any, but the thought of spending a long car ride with the purple-haired girl pissed me off. “No, I don’t know anybody else,” I finally said, which made me feel even worse. Monica was always on my case about getting out more, having a social life. I had always felt like I had enough friends in the Group without having to try to fit in with people who didn’t bother to try to fit in with me. But it sucked to realize that the only IRL friends I had were Nikko and Wheeze.
Nikko asked for his phone. I started to get it out of my backpack, then said “Don’t ask her to help us pick up a fugitive.”
“Hello, I’m not stupid,” Nikko said, but he looked a little embarrassed, like I had stopped him just before he made a big mistake. “What do you think I should say, since you’re the expert?”
“Ask if she can get together. Pick a place where you typically go. Someplace where you can talk like normal but without being overheard and without getting sucked up into something else, like a rehearsal that she really wants to do and you can’t explain why you need her to risk her whole future instead.”
He gave me one of those irritatingly patient looks, one that basically said “you’re being a jerk, and we both know it, but I’ll be nice to you anyway.” Then I gave him his phone and he made the call and she answered right away (which was also annoying, that she right there, waiting to hear his voice, even though it was good that she was). He made it sound casual but also slightly mysterious. If she knew him at all, if she had any brains under that purple hair, she’d know something was up, but nobody else listening in would.
He left after I made him check to make sure he still had the phone I’d given him so we could connect after he talked to Bree. I packed up my laptop, gathered up the books, put them on a book cart, and left to find a place that served really strong coffee.
~ ~ ~
Bree was smart and charming and being really super nice to me on top of being cute. It was enough to make you sick.
We got under way quickly. Nikko Convo’d me within twenty minutes to say they were ready to roll. I told him I’d be at a spot on Minnehaha that I knew was free of surveillance cameras. I did the same thing as before with my bike, acting as if it had a problem (which, to be honest, was hardly unusual), and he pulled up and acted as if he just happened to notice me there and would give me a ride. I stowed the bike in the trunk of Bree’s car, and climbed into the back seat that was cluttered with textbooks, crumpled papers, and empty kombucha bottles. Girl drank a lot of kombucha.
Nikko introduced us. I acted glad to see her and then said “Hey, I like your phone case. Can I see it for a minute?”
She looked confused and exchanged glances with Nikko, then dug into her bag. She had the latest model iPhone. I powered it off and dropped it into my backpack. Then I gestured to Nikko, who surrendered his phone, too.
“We need to keep your phones switched off and in my backpack. It’s hard to take the battery out of an iPhone, which is the only other way we could be secure.”
“Oh,” Bree said. “You’re worried about our phones being used as transmitters.” Nikko gave her a skeptical look. “Seriously. The FBI has done it before. They can make your phone pick up and transmit everything you say, even if it’s powered off.”
“That’s creepy,” Nikko said.
“Super creepy.” She pulled away from the curb. “I thought we’d just shoot straight down I-35 unless you think we should take some back roads, Zen. I take I-35 all the time. My mom lives in Northfield, so it shouldn’t look suspicious.”
“Whatever,” I said. Nikko gave me a look. “Sounds fine,” I added, but I couldn’t help it, I still sounded grumpy.
Bree turned to glance at me over her shoulder while we waited for a light to change. “Do you have a Faraday pouch in there?”
“I made my backpack into one. It’s not that hard.”
“I’d love to know how you did that.”
“Just Google it.”
“Actually, I use DuckDuckGo. I don’t want to support Google’s monopsony.”
I almost asked what that meant and how to spell it but I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing vocabulary words that I didn’t, on top of correcting me about using an ethical search engine.
“Monopoly, you mean,” Nikko said while I looked out the window, pretending I wasn’t even listening.
“No, monopsony. It’s kind of like an inside-out monopoly. It’s when there’s one buyer for a lot of suppliers. So, like Amazon and Walmart get powerful because so many people shop there that they can dictate their terms to suppliers and everybody pretty much has to say ‘okay, whatever’ because they’re huge and control so much of the market.”
“Google isn’t a buyer. It’s a search engine.”
She smacked him on the arm playfully. “You know better than that. If it’s free, you’re the product. They suck up your personal information so they can dominate the advertising industry and build crazy-detailed algorithms about everybody and everything. Google is a virtual monopsony. At least that’s the argument I’m going to make in my macro econ paper. Knowing the prof, I’ll probably get an F.” She seemed proud of that possibility.
“Remind me to never sign up for that course,” Nikko said.
“He’s such a capitalist tool. I’m only taking it to get a gen ed out of the way. Everything else was full or offered at, like, eight in the morning. I’m so not a morning person,” she said to me, being nice.
“Me either,” I mumbled.
“Nikko tells me you code. What kind of stuff do you do?”
“I’m still in high school, so mostly I do stupid homework.”
“God, I hated high school,” she said.
“I knew you two would hit it off. You have so much in common,” Nikko said. Then he rubbed the back of his neck, as if he could feel the heat of my laser-like glare.
We drove out of town and down the highway. Nikko warned Bree not to go so fast, and she argued it would look suspicious if we were traveling way slower than everyone else. They negotiated a settlement, no more than ten miles over the speed limit. Then they squabbled over what music to play, joking about each other’s terrible taste. It was adorable. I felt like barfing.
“I just remembered.” Bree said suddenly. “I heard this interview with the head of one of the automobile manufacturers? He said cars have trackers that can tell all kinds of information about drivers.”
“Great,” Nikko said. “So we’re leaving a trail no matter what we do?”
“You don’t have OnStar, do you?” I said, sitting up to look at the dashboard.
“No way. My dad has it. I think he did it so I wouldn’t ask to borrow his car.”
“Lojack or any other antitheft thing?”
“What year is this car?”
“I think it’s . . . 2003? It has serious rust problems.”
“We should be okay,” I said. “It probably just has an EDR. That’s a black box that records information if you crash. They’ve been standard in cars since for years.” I decided not to mention the automated license plate readers that feed information about cars’ locations into massive databases. It would just freak them out, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.
“I have the perfect solution for getting around this privacy problem,” Nikko said. “Don’t crash the car.” They did some more play-fighting, slapping at each other.
I sat back and moved some of the textbooks around so I could get comfortable. “Sorry about the mess,” Bree said. “Just throw all that junk on the floor.”
“How many classes are you going to miss tomorrow?” Nikko asked her.
“Who gives a shit?”
We drove on. I was bored and picked through the books. Most of them looked awful, Introduction to Boring Stuff You Didn’t Even Want to Take in the First Place, but one of the books had a Guy Fawkes mask on the cover. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. On the back it claimed to be the definitive book about Anonymous. I wasn’t sure there would ever be such a thing, since nobody could define what Anonymous was, which was kind of the point, but I tipped the book to catch the last of the light fading from the sky.
“That’s for my sociology course. I haven’t read it yet,” Bree said. “Have you?”
“No.” I put it down.
“It’s the one assigned text I actually want to read. Help yourself.”
“It’s too dark to read,” I said, which was almost true. Nikko shot me another one of those looks. Don’t be a jerk. I stacked the books on the floor of the car, pulled up my hood and curled up with my head on my backpack as if I was going to get some sleep even though I was too nervous, thinking about Wheeze, thinking about Wilson, thinking about how annoying it was to see Bree and Nikko together. In spite of that I eventually drifted off until the rhythm of the car changed, everything swung sideways, and I sat up. Bree was pulling off at an exit to get gas.
“I’ll get this,” Nikko said, standing up to stretch and pulling a credit card from his wallet.
“No way,” Bree said. “You want to leave a record that you were here, seriously?”
“Oh, right. This privacy stuff is a serious pain.” He peered into his wallet. “Damn. I’m kind of short on cash.”
“I only have twenty-four dollars,” I said, rifling my pockets. “And sixty-two cents.”
“And I have zip. It goes on my card, then.” Bree swiped it and started to fill the tank.
“Sorry. I should have thought of that,” I said. It wasn’t easy to apologize, but it was a stupid oversight.
“I’ll just write it off on my taxes as charitable giving,” she said. “That’s a joke,” she added when nobody laughed.
“What about your record?” Nikko said.
“If it comes up, I have a high school friend who goes to college near Davenport. She’d back me up if she had to. Hey, if somebody stops us? Sees three kids in the car? We can say I’m visiting my friend and you guys are doing college visits.” She sounded proud of herself. Bree, master problem-solver.
“I have to go to the john,” I said.
Nikko watched as I pulled one of my boots off and threw my loose change inside before putting it back on. “Making sure your money is safe?”
“Nope.” I kept my hood up and my head down while I walked into the gas station. There were cameras all over the place. There was no way to hide the fact that I was short and not skinny and not white, but I could make facial recognition harder by ducking my head, and I had learned from reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother that you can fool gait recognition software by putting a pebble in your shoe. People tend to walk a certain, recognizable way that you can measure with algorithms. I hoped coins would work as well as a pebble, since I didn’t have a pebble. At least it wasn’t as painful.
There were two stalls in the women’s room. Bree must have followed me in; I could see her boots from under the barrier. They were expensive boots, and they looked good on her. Of course they did. I finished first and went to the sink, hoping to avoid her, but she came out just as I turned on the faucet. I could tell she was smiling at me in the mirror. “I love your hair.” I glared up at her reflection and her smile disappeared. “What?”
“Usually when people say crap like that, they don’t mean it.”
“Well, I guess I’m stupid, then, because I didn’t know that. I really did mean it.”
I scrubbed my hands and shook them out, then ripped some paper from the dispenser, a lot of paper just to see if she’d give me grief over being environmentally insensitive.
“Look, it’s not my fault if Nikko is a dumbshit and doesn’t know how you feel,” she said.
“What are you talking about? We’re just friends.”
She gave herself a wry smile in the mirror. Yeah, right. Just friends. But she changed the subject. “Putting stuff in your shoe, did you get that from Little Brother? I love that book. I keep meaning to install Paranoid Linux on my laptop.”
“It doesn’t exist.”
“You’re kidding. Doctorow made it up?”
“Well, it was in development for a while, but it never went anywhere. Do you use Linux?”
“No. I just bought a cheap Windows laptop. I keep meaning to learn how to install a different operating system.”
“You can always run TAILS from a USB drive. It processes everything on RAM so nothing gets onto your hard drive, and it uses Tor so there’s no central server log.”
“That sounds sweet. You just download it?”
“Yeah. It’s T-A-I-L-S. Just DuckDuckGo it.”
She gave me a gotcha grin, letting me know she caught my sarcasm. “Sounds good. Say, have you heard of PSEO?”
“That thing where you can go to college while you’re in high school?”
“Great way to earn a lot of credits for free. You should apply.”
“You have to be sixteen. They won’t take me until after my next birthday.”
“Oh, I thought you were older. Watch out for deadlines, anyway. You have to apply, like, months and months before the semester starts. I could have gone in my junior year, but I didn’t find out about it until it was too late.”
“Say, would you buy some stuff for me?” I dug the wad of cash out of my pocket.
“Cigarettes?” She looked like she was trying to find a way to say no without pissing me off.
“Food. For Wheeze. He’ll be hungry and once we find him, if we find him, it’ll be too risky to stop.”
“We’ll find him,” she said, like she was powerful enough to make a promise that I knew she couldn’t keep.
“Also, some of that sports drink with electrolytes. I’d do it, but there are cameras at the checkout.”
Somebody else came into the bathroom, so I left and climbed into the backseat. Nikko took the driver’s seat.
“Might want to top off the tank when we get near Davenport so we don’t have to stop again,” I said to him. “We’ll be sheltering a fugitive.”
Bree came out with two bulging bags. “Provisions,” she said, grinning at me. “Let’s go.”