Authors: N. K. Traver
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For Collin, who is everything I aspire to be
For my father, who taught me the value of hard work
And for my mother, who taught me to dream
IT FIGURES THAT
between the two of us, my laptop is the first to grow a conscience.
“You had no problem yanking credit cards last week,” I remind it, tapping my finger on the desk as I glare at the words on the screen. Words that should say
as my newest hacking bot cracks BankPueblo.com's security layer. Words that should say
as the bot downloads two hundred fresh account numbers to my thumb drive.
Words that should
GET SOME SUNSHINE, LOSER.
I must've typed the wrong name for the bot. My laptop's full of old code I keep telling myself I'll clean out and I must've triggered one of my old insult programs. I hit the shortcut keys to close everything, then reopen the console window and type the name of the bot, again.
ONLY COWARDS STEAL FROM THOSE WHO CAN'T FIGHT BACK
, says this good-for-nothing piece of metal that dares call itself my computer.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I mutter, but I'm not feeling so sure about this anymore. That's not an insult I would've coded into my own work. And if what's happening now isn't something I wroteÂ â¦ that means it came from somewhere else.
Which is, I remind myself, impossible.
I set my jaw and type the name of the bot. Again. All but the last letter: “zoomfis.” Then I hit the H key and the Enter as fast as I can, but somehow, somehow in that millisecond between keystrokes “zoomfish” changes to
PLAY A SPORT IF YOU WANT EXERCISE
and I slam my fist on the desk.
How? How the hell would anyoneâ
My computer starts typing.
YOU SHOULD FIND A DIFFERENT HOBBY.
I didn't touch the keys. I didn't type anything that should trigger an insult, not “zoomfish,” not “you freaking traitor,” not anything, but there are the words on my screen, white as ice.
And my heart comes to life in my chest, because I know what this means but I want to keep thinking it's impossible.
I need to reboot. Now, before the virus digs into my hard drive and downloads my hacking bots or my passwords for the hacker forums or the list of sites I'm planning to hit after I clean out Bank Pueblo. I jab the power key to restart, but it ignores me. Ignores me and says,
YOU WEREN'T VERY NICE TO EMMA.
My blood changes direction. My fingers sting from the death grip I have on the desk, but I can't let go, can't stop shaking my head
no no no
because it can't know about that. It
. That happened fifteen minutes ago, maybe twenty, and it would take longer than that to hack through the firewalls on my computer.
Which means this is more than a virus someone planted and forgot about.
Someone has a live feed to my room.
I eye the camera lens on my laptop and jerk open the desk drawer to find something to cover it. I wish I hadn't smashed the overhead light after Emma stormed out, because that leaves only my lava lamp to see by, and its useless glow is just making more shadows. My fingers find a stack of Post-its. I rip the top note off and stick it over the lens.
There are new words on the screen. Words I want to unread the second I read them.
I THINK YOU REGRET WHAT YOU SAID TO HER.
My heart thumps
Do you? Do you? Do you?
and my grip on the desk slips from sweat. Emma is none of his business. How I feel about it is none of his business. If she hadn't ruined everything telling me how she wantsÂ â¦
for us, I wouldn't have had to break her heart.
That weird ache starts in my gut again, the same one I almost got rid of by running zoomfish.
I don't regret things.
AFRAID OF CARING FOR SOMEONE BESIDES YOURSELF?
I'm done with this guilt trip. He's clever, I'll give him that, psyching me out while he's probably corrupted half my hard drive, and I do what I should have done to begin with and switch off the wireless. That'll kill his sicko webcam and anything he's downloading. It's going to be a pain getting the virus off my system, butâ
YOU THINK IT'S THAT EASY?
I think I actually squeak.
, like a little kid afraid of his own shadow, not someone used to living in them. I don't remember getting up but I'm five feet away from the desk now, my chair overturned in a pile of printer paper. The breath I'm holding chokes free.
He can't. He can't keep typing if I'm not connected to the Internet.
I paw for anything behind me I can use as a weapon, and I come up withâI squint in the darkâthe long tube of cardboard my newest Metallica posters arrived in. Great. If something leaps out of my computer, I can amuse it to death. It'll have to do. I wait in the corner, tube poised like a bat. My laptop glows, innocent.
I inch forward.
No new messages.
I inch forward again.
The cursor blinks on and off, on and off, not typing anything. I right my chair and reach for the laptop's power cord.
YOU KNOW WHY THIS IS STILL WORKING, RIGHT?
“How the hell are you doing this?” I snarl. The tube crumples when I clench it and I chuck it aside. Nothing's going to jump out, nothing's even really happened except he's rigged the virus to type a different set of phrases after the wireless turns off. Obviously that's it. It can't be that hard to do. I'll figure out how after I dig his virus up and break it to pieces.
Then I'll find
THAT'S THE IDEA.
Did he just read myâ¦?
HERE'S THE GAME, HACKER. I'M DONE WATCHING YOU RUIN PEOPLE'S LIVES.
HEARD THE PHRASE “YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY”?
YOU'RE ABOUT TO LIVE IT.
Something in me wakes up. Common sense, maybe, because I slam the laptop closed, rip out the power cord and eject the battery, and that's what I have in my hand when I see movement to my side. I don't care if it's a moth, if he's somehow in my room I'm going to get the first move, and I chuck the battery at whatever it is and glass shatters and I duck and I realizeâ
I'm an idiot.
The remaining shards of my now-broken closet mirror wink at me, then drop to the floor in tattletale chimes.
I stand there a minute, breathing deep, my heart beating crazy in my ears. Something in the back of my head whispers
seven years bad luck
and something else says
that's a load of crap
and I suck a piercing in my lip, because louder than that, like the virus guy's hissing in my ear, are the words
here's the game, hacker
He couldn't have read my mind.
I pace so I can breathe. I kick torn textbook pages and shredded posters out of the way as I go, flexing my hand, plucking splinters out of my knuckles as I glance at the fist-shaped dent in my dresser.
I remind myself I don't regret things.
I'd usually leave this mess for Mom to remind her I'm still alive, but I can't sit here waiting for my laptop to turn itself on or blow up or who knows what, so I stoop for a piece of plastic that used to be the case for an old Manson CD.
My hand is shaking and all I can do is look at it.
Because who found me? Who cares enough to find me? Can't be a cop, because he'd cut to the chase and knock on my door with a warrant, not play cat-and-mouse on my laptop. Can't be a bot because he knows personal details about me. Like what happened with Emma. But I can't think of anyone, even super hackers who get their thrills hunting other hackers, who would care what I say or do offline. Emma's not the kind of girl who'd have connections like that and she's not the kind of girl who'd get revenge, either.
Dammit, it doesn't matter what kind of girl she is. I don't need her. I don't need anyoneâ
Something on my floor glints. A piece of the mirror, though I can't imagine what it's reflecting since I haven't moved. The puckish gleam of my lava lamp isn't near bright enough to cause a flash. I glance at the ceiling, at the wooden blinds half covering the window, and decide it must've been something outside. I'm tossing pieces of chapter six from my Spanish book into the trash when the shard winks again.
This time I'm focused enough to know nothing outside made that light. I pluck the glass off the floor and turn it, trying to recreate the flashing, but I get nothing. I wouldn't care except that freaking hacker guy said he wanted me to find him, didn't he? And how am I supposed to know if he means online orÂ â¦ or here? That makes me freeze and squint out the bottom of my window, but no one's shining a flashlight in, no one's standing on the street below.
I hate this.
supposed to be the kid they warn you about in those “online safety” classes. I'm supposed to be the monster, not this jerk. I'm Brandon Eriks, I like to break things, I'm good at breaking things, and if this guy's itching for a fight, he's found one. If he wants to meet, let's meet. There's a reason the kids at school stay away from me. There's a reason the Feds can't trace my hack jobs.
I just have to figure out his riddle. “Your own worst enemy. You're about to live it.” They must be codes. I start working out an algorithm in my head as I pick up the rest of the shards and carry them with me to the bathroom. The phrases sound familiar, but I don't know if that's because I keep thinking them over and over or because I've seen them someplace.
I flip on the bathroom light, toss the shards into the seashell trashcan, andâand do a double take at the mirror.
It's because I'm jumpy over that whole
seven years bad luck
thing. That has to be it. I move my hand across the counter, and back. Across, back. The mirror moves with me, like a mirror should.