Chapter 1

In the saccharine dazzle of the arcade, no one recognized a weapon when they saw it. Bobby had walked into J’s with a killing machine pinned between arms and shoulders, but all those around him carried on with their play like he was toting a game peripheral.

Not that they could be blamed. Japanese legends gave data on swordsmen slaughtering rival samurai—samurai armored from topknot to toenails, knives for teeth, legions of ninjas flying out of their butts—with wooden training swords just like Bobby’s. The kid had counted himself among the Seven Samurai, clad in the flowing robes of Yōjinbō, hack-’n’-slashing his way down a dusty feudal road packed with corrupt teachers and hypocrite parents.

But not with this thing. Months of saving up money, months more waiting for the sword’s completion, biting his tongue hoping for an update as he bought snacks and comics at Asia World Mart . . . all to book it across town after school and pick up this forty-inch popsicle stick. The sword was custom-made, the old man had said. Designed with Bobby in mind.

What did that say about Bobby?

In entering the arcade, the towering teenager had knocked the head of some kid drawing triangles into the breath-fogged front window. Now, after almost hitting another, he unhooked his arms and pointed the sword toward the floor. He made his way through the concentric rings of networked games to the hallway containing the restrooms, junk rooms, and J’s office.

Bobby gave the office door two knocks, paused, added another. A voice mumbled from the other side, and he entered.

Feet were hard pressed to find purchase in the office with a mini-fridge, a busted Galaxian cabinet, and a large plane of wood supported by two aluminum filing drawers (referred to by the euphemism of “desk”) all sharing the floor with assorted bits of kit and refuse. It was cramped further still since J had allowed Graeme to store his survival pack in here, but that bundled heap was just the thing to conceal the sword till the big reveal.

The man at the ad hoc desk finished his call with the vending machine guy, then gave the automator screen a tap to disconnect. “Konbanwa,” said Bobby with some reservation.

J peered up at the slivers of sky through the baked plastic blinds above him. “Is not night,” he said with stylized confusion.

Bobby stretched out a sound to fill the silence as his brain buffered, then: “Konnichiwa.”

“Ah,” J said with a grin, “konnichiwa, my best student!” He laughed and raised himself from his chair, his gelled hair hitting its height at Bobby’s eyeline, his demure posture completing the appearance of a man who had never finished growing. This countenance contrasted with his antenna-thin mustache and bulging eyelids, the lone visual evidence that Junichirō Wakimoto was a man on the other side of forty.

The two mismatched friends exchanged greetings and jokes, then J produced a small paper envelope. He pulled out the cash, counted in Japanese, then handed the reassembled package to his occasional employee.

Bobby showed his gratitude with a few too many bows, then fell into conversation about the arcade itself—how business seemed nice and steady, the ongoing problem with the lag on the Ring 2 network, whether or not Junichirō should invest in another transmission cable to smooth data flow. But Bobby hadn’t trekked out here to exchange social niceties, nor was he on the clock. Not the arcade’s clock, anyway.

He pulled the training sword from behind Graeme’s pack and displayed it for J. J folded his arms behind him and leaned over the stick with cartoonish interest. “Ooh, a bokken,” he said. “Very nice, little bro.”

Bobby beamed and offered the weapon for a hands-on inspection, then pulled the sword back, disappointed. J hadn’t held one in decades, he said, but was still learned enough to know that this bokken was well made, class k. “Do you like it?” Junichirō asked.

Bobby gave the thing a thoughtful glance, if only for his friend’s benefit. The training sword was just a shaft of wood, ruddy and streaked with black. One end of the stick tapered to a blunted point, and that was somehow supposed to be a blade. “The old guy said it was snakewood,” Bobby said. “I dunno, I kinda feel like I just bought some bloated sea oat that somebody—”

“Who made this?” J asked. “Tomo-sama? Asia World Mart?”

Bobby confirmed the name, and J’s attention drifted around the room, beyond the room. Bobby pursued it. “The guy’s got some pretty decent-looking stuff in there, too,” he said. “All handmade. And then I get this stick. Hey, he said the wood was gonna shed. Do you know anything about that?”

“Tomo-sama is a good man,” said Junichirō, “like an elder. He was ancient when I was young, and now I’m no more young, but he’s still ancient. He does not make many things by request so often, and never bokken. This is a good sword. Trust him.”

“So what am I supposed to do with it now?” Bobby asked, and the cadence of challenge couldn’t have gone unnoticed.

“Do you know kenjutsu?” J asked. “Sword fighting?”

“Do I know how to sword fight?”

“No, no . . . mm, sword training.”

“I mean, I’ve seen it done a million times,” Bobby countered and, with a brow so stern it would shame Toshirō Mifune, performed a downward cross-body slash that ended with a painful clang. His follow-through had been a little too thorough, and the sword had careened into one of J’s filing cabinets. The man’s face contorted into shock and worry way too sincere for him.

J grabbed the far end of the stick and examined a dent between the center and the tip. The man berated the kid to take care of this Tomo-original bokken, one of a kind, made special, all that noise. “He did not give you a sleeve for your bokken?” Bobby offered a nod, his teeth grinding behind taut lips. J never spoke to him like this . . . not even when Bobby was on the clock. The kid unfurled a slip of linen from his backpack, dumped in the bokken, and yanked the drawstring with both hands.

“Did you hear?” J asked with a conciliatory air. “Yellow Magic Orchestra will play new songs tonight on a music show. Maybe you can roll-record when it plays?”

“Yeah, maybe, we’ll see,” Bobby said as he left and shut the door behind him. His next thoughts were ones of regret.

The sun was beaming through the high windows of the side walls. It must have been close to four in the afternoon. If he left now, Bobby would get home by 4:25. That would give him just five and a half hours to eat, do his history report, shower, maybe squeeze in a game before hitting the sack.

If Graeme’s pack was in J’s office, then Graeme himself was around here somewhere. His friend hadn’t been on the networked floor, so Bobby set his eyes—deep and almond and trapped behind lung-shaped corrective lenses—searching the stand-alone games in the far corner. A surprising crowd of prospective players chittered around a cabinet in Galaxian’s old spot. In that undulating torrent of feathered hair and Jheri curls, Bobby spied a sandy Hokusai wave crashing onto a pale, freckled face.

Graeme stood almost a full head shorter than Bobby, headfones lost in his ginger mane. He was decked in what appeared to be every article of clothing he owned (which may well have been the case, considering he didn’t have a closet to put anything in), plus a couple of blankets besides. Good armor for the cutting breeze outside, but in the arcade that was like wearing a hyperbaric sauna.

Bobby waded over to Graeme, but he received no response when he called his friend’s name. Graeme’s attention was soldered to a Game-N-Go, rapt in the thrill of pixelated conflict. Bobby dropped the tip of the training stick on the boot that lacked a steel toe. Graeme glanced up in consternation, then gave half a smile and a quarter of a nod and played on. A tug at the headfone cord earned Bobby more attention.

“Whatcha listening to?” Bobby asked.

“‘Anarchist Individualism in the Social Revolution,’” Graeme said. “It’s this old essay. Kinda weird so far, but it’s short, so . . .”

“Fits you like a unitard then,” Bobby chuckled.

Graeme stuck his tongue out and wagged his head a bit.

“So what’s this new stand-alone?” Bobby asked.

“Dunno, but Jamal won’t shut up about it. And Butthead Jed is over at the network rings, and I just can’t stand losing to that guy. He just changed his user image to him pulling down his eyelids with his middle fingers. You wanna skip in?”

“You can only skip if there’s an actual line. This is more like a mosh pit. And anyway, if I’m gonna spend money on a game I’m gonna do it in the network.”

“I dunno man,” Graeme said, glancing about at the amorphous queue. “Looks like stand-alones are comin’ back in style.”

Bobby shrugged, shook his head, glanced out the window at the sinking sun. “Besides—” he began.

“You gotta go,” Graeme finished for him. “I know what it means when you’re checking your personal city-wide sundial.”

“Yeah,” Bobby said, “we did a field trip into Coddington Village today and now we have to present on the majestic history of our fair Bethasher. So I gotta go ahead and get to it.”

“You’re turning into a real company man, Mr. Rosier.”

“Are you jealous of my homework?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. Besides, your grades are so good, even you’re blood type is A-plus. You can afford to hang out with your friends now and again, especially since you weren’t around at all last week, either. Speaking of, where’s Jamal, anyway? This is his prime gaming time. It’s his personal law.”

“Looks like your anarchy’s rubbin’ off on him.”

“Remind me again what anarchism means.” It was a rhetorical challenge, but one that still put Bobby on the defensive. Any answer he gave would be contradicted by Graeme’s pedantry. Bobby took a page from J’s playbook, navigating the conversation to a more agreeable plain by hovering over the Game-N-Go in Graeme’s hands.

“Ah, yes,” said Graeme. “Does anyone remember laughter?”

“I still don’t know what that’s supposed to mean, man. Oh nice, you got Pleiads already?” Graeme sang out an affirmative, and Bobby admired the gameplay. Pleiads had already hit the shelves in eastern Asia, but its American street date was way out in September.

But street dates didn’t apply to everyone.

Graeme, like their mutual acquaintance Jamal, made a game out of breaking open automated devices and the networks attached to them, regardless of what the owners of those networks thought about it. They asked no permission, and they offered no apologies. They, and others like them, learned how these systems worked, how to reassemble them, and if they could be reprogrammed in ways the designers had never intended. And gaming companies had never intended for kids in late-release territories to lift their products from early-release networks via the globe-spanning, document-sharing etherlib.

“Just lifted it today from some kid in New Zealand,” Graeme said. “I’d send it to you, but y’know, you’ve still got a freelock on your machine. ’Bout halfway through now.”

“The joys of dropping out of school,” said Bobby.

“No, the joys of emancipating myself and knowing how to manage my time. I’ve got a schedule to keep too, y’know. Just ’cuz nobody tells me where to go doesn’t mean I don’t have places to go.”

“Alright alright, cheezy creezy. And I don’t have the freelock on anymore, remember? The feds’ll never know if—”

“Ooh, look out guys,” cooed a voice from a passing claque of college kids. “It’s a coupla breakers! They’re gonna open up your automators and tell everybody what restaurants you like!” The group laughed and walked on.

“Watch out, man,” said Graeme, much louder than was necessary, “it’s a collective of typical Americans. They’re gonna mock things they don’t understand to quiet the sinking realization that they’re heading for the same meaningless lives they watch their parents endure every day.”

The group halted, turned, and a muttonchopped dude jutted his chin at Graeme. “And where’re you heading in life, you stupid hippie? Besides prison? Taking off your Freedom Lock is illegal, if you hadn’t heard.”

“Hey man, privacy ain’t a four-letter word.”

“I can count, thanks.”

“I’ve watched a whole documentary on this,” said another college guy. “The only people actually against national security are the ones who’re trying to hide something. Face!”

“It’s not secrecy, man, it’s actual security,” Graeme said, stepping between Bobby and the college kids. “Face to you!”

“It’s not security,” the muttonchopped guy broke in, “if you’re leaving the etherlib open for the Soviets, you little idiot. And if NATO monitoring lib traffic keeps us safe—and it does—then how is that a bad thing, again?”

“It’s the NDA violating our civil liberties, not NATO. You’d’a been a great addition to the Nazi Party.”

“And you sound like a friggin’ communist!”

Famous last words when debating with Graeme Gregory Goff.

The boy launched a lecture at his elders on how the Cold War was a controlled conflict, how the real war was being waged against Americans by their own government, under the pretext of national security, mainstream media propaganda, something about the fourth amendment. It was when Graeme started throwing out phrases like “Hegelian Dialectic” that Bobby knew that he had nothing to add to the conversation. And if those other guys grew tired of Graeme and walked off, the kid would make a soapbox of these game cabinets so the entire arcade could hear him.

Besides, Bobby wasn’t an etherlib breaker like Graeme—he only messed with hardware out here in the annex of the real world, not the NATO-sanctioned pages of the software-based Ethereal Library.

Shouts and laughter caught everyone’s attention: a boy on the far side of the new cabinet was leaning against the wall, a river of soup flowing from his mouth. That meant Junichirō would soon be out on the floor, and with Nix not yet here, the boss man would be asking Bobby for help with the cleanup.

Bobby patted his friend’s shoulder and gave a farewell. Graeme’s hand waved goodbye in auto-response as his mouth continued the lecture.

 

The mid-March winds played with Bobby’s glossy hair, flipping the locks like sheets of ink-smothered newsprint. A jealous winter was making the most of its final week in Bethasher, chill winds moving the clouds against each other and out of town. The sedentary life of a sweet-toothed engineering hobbyist had Bobby’s body better insulation than the rest of his friends (though, to his simultaneous credit and chagrin, that was a limited sample set). This allowed him to tolerate the cold better than most, though, which factored into whether he would be hopping a bus home.

Bethasher Area Transit would cost money, and now that he had J’s under-the-table payout, his mind flooded with priority purchases (Vera needed a new backpack, for starters). It was the eternal toss-up: save money or save time. They both had value, but only one could be traded for school supplies.

As he tucked the sheathed bokken between his belt and his waistband, his shoulder bumped a leather safari jacket—some ponytailed princess thinking she owned the sidewalk, didn’t even offer an apology. He slid his Sneakerboy over his ears, pressed play, and kept step with the synthetic art rock of Electric Light Orchestra.

Twelve minutes later, and the blocks power-walked between Seventh and Washington had not been kind. Bobby slowed his pace, nursing a stitch in his ribs as he passed secondhand stores and screen-littered pawn shops, storefronts all flashing news news news . . .

On one screen, the economy was dipping back into the recession that had forced his mother toward the higher pay of the night shift, leaving her absent or asleep or exhausted while her kids were home . . . on another automator, the infamous breaker Mister Privs (whose real name, it turned out, was Vernon Harris) had been arrested after a four-month hunt by a joint FBI–NDA task force . . . rumors of the East German Stasi experimenting with predictive analytics, hoping to implement the algorithms into their surveillance systems . . . the Diana lunar settlement preparing to host the United Kingdom’s Royal Wedding (which happened to feature a bride named Diana) . . . also on the Orbital Front, Reagan’s first big policy push as president was to take the RIP turrets full-auto, an effort to prevent any human error that could lead to the obliteration of life on Earth. The soundtrack for this existential dread was the din of Top 40 pop on every other screen.

Back at the apartment, Bobby’s mother was nowhere to be found. A peek into Vera’s room showed that she was gone as well. Nadezhda Rosier must have been hunting for dinner, bringing her dark-eyed daughter to engineer sympathy from the best cooks in the local Russian-speaking community.

Bobby’s bedroom was flush as ever with the hum and heat of machines. He tossed his backpack to one side, the bokken to the other, and plopped himself into a fabric-upholstered chair. His automator whined on the desk before him, LONE WOLF Sharpied across its eggshell casing. Two additional displays flanked the one imbedded in the machine.

Scattered across the desk and occupying the hutch were complementary peripherals and boyhood debris: a secondhand printer, a spare lightpen (in case his Digidex crashed during something crucial), headfones, pencil shavings, extra RAM, sequence carts, a plastic bag of cracked konpeitō. The setup was haloed by notes, band posters, small wedge speakers, magazine adverts for coveted kit.

He flicked on the three glass screens of his ever-running machine, then fielded the confirmation panes that popped up as he logged in . . . as he reloaded his word processing sequence . . . as he reloaded his sound sequence . . . PanUT was a great developer (Bobby had modeled the arcade’s networking protocol after their own), but the amount of confirmations their sequence network required for every little process could be a real pain.

Yellow Magic Orchestra pumped through the speakers, picking up where it had left off last night. The room flooded with funky bass hooks, carnival melodies, and vocals tortured over a class k synthkit. Bobby hummed along, beating his lightpen against the drum of his desk. Soon, his history project was lighting up the glass as notes of what little he remembered from the field trip.

The sun was sliding off the sky when a door opened and shut down the hall. The sound of cheeseglass containers hitting the kitchen counter, plastic bags being set on the floor. His mother’s incomprehensible voice, then Vera responding in the affirmative. “Privyet, Ilyusha!” came his mother’s voice again. This time addressed to him.

“Hey, Mom.” Nice, conversational English. Closed-ended. Move on.

Kak dela, Sinok?

Damn. “Good. Working on this big project. Due tomorrow.”

Ko kayo!

“Love you, too.” He grabbed his bokken and pushed closed the bedroom door. Back to work.

He used his school account to supplement his notes with research from the media center’s encyclopedias. Colonists, colonies, colonial homes. The native Pokanokets, King Philip’s War, knock knock at his door, then his mother entered before he could have possibly responded. She brought with her a steaming paper plate of refried boiled potatoes, topped with caramelized onions and a slab of unknown meat part. His share of the haul from tonight’s expedition into the apartments of Weekes Park.

He accepted the plate and fork without looking at her, her pale swollen fingers brushing his dark hand. She stayed there in his periphery, offering her pathetic smile, expecting something in return. To make eye contact would be to accept the invitation to a dialogue in which neither party spoke the other’s language.

“Thanks,” he said to her left shoulder. “Well, I have to get back to my homework, so,” and he gestured toward the screen. His mother nodded, retreated. Door closed. Back to work.

. . . but these distractions were wearing away at his resolve, and surely he couldn’t concentrate while shoveling grub down his gullet.

He grabbed the Digidex lightpen, accessed the etherlib on one of the screens, then pulled up a glasslit news portal. In less time than it took to acknowledge the action, the news portal read the eddress unique to Bobby’s automator, searched his etherlib reading history, and presented his favorite feeds. He browsed gaming, music, and tech headlines, opened some of the articles. No surprise announcements, though, nothing new to flip over. And now that his dinner was gone: no excuses. Back to work.

As Bobby moved to tap closed the news, an update from Yellow Magic Orchestra’s page put him on pause: the band had just finished debuting three new songs on the Ars Exuvia show. Ars Exuvia had the stated goal of “shedding the Anglo-American cultural hegemony in the UK.” This was accomplished, apparently, by giving airtime to non-Brit and non-American acts looking to penetrate the Western market. Bobby would be hard-pressed to find any other English-language show that would even mention YMO, let alone have them as a guest. But Ars Exuvia, just as everything in the UK, was outside of Bobby’s etherlib privileges territory.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for an etherlib breaker . . .

Initiating a call with Graeme was impossible (he was the one who got in touch with you). There was always Sat (but Bobby hadn’t heard from him in a while now). That just left Jamal, Bobby’s friend-of-a-friend. But their link had become more tenuous since Graeme dropped out, as had Bobby’s friendship with Graeme itself. Graeme had forsaken school and family, the two biggest things in Bobby’s life. Games and girls weren’t enough to bond over. They needed real, shared experiences.

Which made Jamal the perfect person to call now. They could totally be friends, they just needed that shared experience to connect them directly (that thing with the jocks last year didn’t count). Bobby opened the fone sequence and tapped Jamal’s eddress, let it ring ring ring . . .

No response. Dead end. Too bad. Pursuing this any further would gobble up his evening, and this report was due tomorrow. Back to—

But why couldn’t Bobby get the music himself? Make the jump? Go etherlib kiddie?

The questions should have been rhetorical, but the answer had already been programmed into Bobby’s decision-making sequence. Becoming an etherlib breaker would be change. Change upset the balance, disturbed the predictability of the future. Change took things out of Bobby’s control.

When the sword is shed . . .

Bobby glanced over at the training stick, reclining between his bed and his dresser. He had asked for a handmade sword, dangerous and cool-looking, but this thing was stuck on the default setting. Tomo had explained in his broken English about his thoughtful selection from Bethasher’s lumberyards, followed by hours and hours of planing. “You know the wood?” the old man had asked. “Snakewood. Snake”—and here Tomo had waved his hands over his arms—“change skin. Grow. You do this. When the sword is shed, you shed.”

After a full-day field trip and an acute attack of buyer’s remorse, Bobby had had only exhausted ambivalence for the old man’s cryptic forecast. But now, with an actual goal in front of him . . . if the change could help him maintain control, mend his relationship with Junichirō, build a real one with Jamal . . .

When breakers needed to talk with each other—whether it be for instruction, swaps, lib maps, or big fish stories—they went to the chatterblocks. The chatterblocks were the iconic symptom of a social plague: breakers invaded remote machines, setting up camp on the digital floorspace that hosted legitimate etherlib pages. They swapped subversive media and plotted against the very society that had given them their freedoms.

Not that Bobby knew anything of the chatterblocks firsthand. But Graeme and Jamal had once instructed him on how to access these forbidden zones. If a novice etherlib breaker was going to nab a copy of that Ars Exuvia set, he would start in the chatterblocks.

Bobby dug about in a heap on the floor, shifting aside external keyboards, cables, unframed Certificates for Outstanding Achievement in Gardner High School’s Mathematics Department, then pulled out his freshman yearbook. On the inside of the back cover was a collage of scrawl, arrows, letters, various asymmetrical shapes—the visual remnants of his friends’ lecture.

But removed from the context of that informal lesson, Bobby could not identify a coherent process. He hadn’t bothered following along back then, either. Who needed illicit chatterblocks and precarious breaking with guys like Graeme and Jamal around? But they weren’t around now, he had no one else to turn to, and the clock ticked on.

The few useful scratches of graphite were scribblings about “OTP,” “ALPHAMERICO,” ten-digit lines distributed in groups of two beneath each day of the week. The lines of digits could be anything . . . but they were identical to eddresses. Bobby typed the first eddress under “MONDAY” into his etherlib reader, then let his finger hover over the Enter key.

Maybe the NDA could track him anyway, freelock or no. Maybe he would end up in a windowless room somewhere like Mister Privs, assuming they weren’t just quietly offing breakers altogether. Maybe Bobby would never make another friend besides Graeme. Maybe Bobby would die alone full of regrets about roads less traveled by. The kid inhaled, hit the Enter key . . . and navigated straight into a pair of cut-foam shoulder pads on a Sears catalog. Ralph Lauren. Velcro fasteners. Polyply technology for on-the-go compression control. Bobby cursed at the ceiling.

Oh well. Too bad. Back—

But Graeme had given him these eddresses for a reason. There must have been something.

Anything.

Nothing. Nothing but useless crap, useless user comments (the very top one all glitched to Hell). Bobby’s first-ever comment on a business page had ended the same way. He’d spent his most precious resource—time—crafting that opus of an opinion, only to tap SUBMIT and watch it glitch out, then get auto-purged. He had yet to try again.

Purge limits must have changed since then, though—the shoulder pads comment was over five hours old, yet still sitting prim on the top of the stack.

Bobby referred back to his notes. The second eddress for Monday began with the same digits, and would thus request a similar page, but he continued anyway. As anticipated, another Sears offering: a Rubik’s Cube. He scoured this page same as the last, wearing out what hope he still held to. No hidden hypertext, no suspicious phrases. Just another stupid, useless, noised-up page with a glitched-out comment on the top of the stack.

Another glitched-out comment . . .

Bobby opened a second lib reader (burying his history project) and navigated to the shoulder pads again. The glitches themselves weren’t identical, but they had been posted within a few minutes of each other. And they were both older than the comments below them . . . which was not the order in which comments appeared.

Bobby crapped out some kudos for the Rubik’s Cube—“super brain teaser” blah blah blah—then tapped SUBMIT. He salvaged crumbs from his dinner plate while the comment rolled through moderation, then requested the page again. There sat his comment, accompanied by the date and time and “Ilya R. Rosier” (pulled from his eddress without his consent, but the lib was a prick like that) . . . all beneath the glitched comment. Impossible.

Bobby smiled and cracked his knuckles.

The shoulder pads glitch was thirty-something letters and integers with a few slashes thrown in:

 

SEGQBWQWEY2/21G1/25E10/11/19BTZSIKOL

 

The Rubik’s Cube glitch was longer, made to look like the comment auto-dating had wigged out:

 

15/25/3/8/22/20/9/18/26/21/19/23/4/10/13/27/5/6/17/1/16/24/12/7/2/14/11

 

He combed them over (and over and over) for some pattern. Then he combed his brain for ciphers and codes. “ALPHAMERICO” . . . “OTP” . . .

Shoulder pads. Pads. OTP. One-time pad cipher! So, one of these batches of text was actually ciphertext—a message in which each letter had been shifted forward to another letter. The other glitch would have to be the shift string: the amounts by which each letter had been shifted, and thus needed to be shifted back in order to restore the message to its understandable, plaintext state.

The Rubik’s Cube glitch was longer, all integers separated into values . . . had to be the shift string. Every value in that string corresponded to a character in the ciphertext—the first value to the first character, the second to the second, and so on.

Bobby could mess around with this ciphertext all night like a kitten with a bottle cap, deciphering it longhand or, if he felt like playing on Challenge Mode, attacking it with mental arithmetic. No time. This was why automators had been invented in the first place: to automate the thinking process.

He slid a sequence cartridge from the vinyl binder on his hutch, let it join the other cartridges on the face of the automator. The carts were plugged in like the fuses in his dad’s Datsun 260z (which, if there was any justice on Earth, had rolled off a cliff by now). A howl from LONE WOLF, then the sequence appeared on the glass: a grey pane of input fields, drop-down lists, and two wide buttons—ENCRYPT and DECRYPT. With his Digidex, he penned the cipher sequence to the third, unused screen, then went to work.

He chose ONE-TIME PAD from a drop-down list, then the input fields blinked and became SHIFT STRING, CIPHERTEXT, PLAINTEXT. He ran the lightpen over the Rubik’s Cube glitch, tapped COPY from the command list that haloed the pen’s nib, then pasted the text into the SHIFT STRING field. He repeated this protocol with the ciphertext of the shoulder pads glitch.

The fone tone buzzed in the speakers. The call ident read Jamal Cooke. Too late, Jamal. Bobby had this. And how much better a shared experience would this make, rather than just getting advice. Sorry I couldn’t answer your call last night, I was too busy becoming a breaker! He muted the fone, triple-checked his work, then tapped DECRYPT. The sequence blinked again, and the PLAINTEXT field revealed the translation:

 

DFDIFCHEED-17.-2C-9.12D5.5.2.ADBGBIAA

 

He wrote this inscrutable noise on the yearbook cover, hoping a manual recitation would incite some epiphany. Then he wrote the noise again, backwards. Maybe if it was upside down. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. If he wanted to solve this puzzle, he’d need to go back to the beginning, because this was game over.

But that was fine. He’d wasted too much time on this, anyway. This was never more than a mental exercise. A dalliance. It wasn’t meant to be.

The fone toned through his speakers again, and again it was Jamal Cooke. Answering that call, explaining why Bobby had called in the first place, would (knowing how enthusiastic Jamal could be) put Bobby on an uncontrollable rail toward breakerhood, stealing away his time, triggering a chain of change. . . and all for a few songs that would be available later in the year anyway. Bobby silenced the fone again.

Sorry, Mr. Tomo, but change wasn’t happening tonight. Bobby forbade it. Back to work.

 

Sitting in Mrs. Andrews’s American History class that Tuesday was like being chosen at random to be executed. Bobby oozed cold sweat whenever a student’s presentation was over—there was no knowing who Andrews would call on next. He had worked last night till he conked out, yet the report remained unfinished. His punishment for dabbling in the ways of the breaker while the Angel of Deadlines circled overhead.

Then the classroom’s speakers cut on, and Bobby grabbed his backpack for a nice, long fire drill. But Il Principia (as Graeme had called the principal) spoke up instead, droning “Attention Gardner High School students” in that same prison camp drawl. But the voice had a new hesitancy, a solemnity. Then it came: “It’s with a heavy heart that I must inform you that one of our friends, Jamal Cooke, passed away last night.”