It wasn't a particularly exciting homecoming. When Kate's train arrived in New York, her mother was out at a lecture, Phreak had already told her he'd be busy until ten and Dade was still in Boston for a final. Cereal, well, she hadn't called him because she'd figured he would be at Cyberdelia or at Nikon's place. But he wasn't. Cyberdelia was full of regulars and some new kids, but no one she wanted to spend any time with. And no one was at Nikon's place. She'd gone there first, calling, then banging on the door, then calling again. But no luck. Nikon's phone went straight to a machine that told her it was full and couldn't take more messages. She left a voicemail at his cellular phone number. She considered calling Cereal's place, but he still technically lived with his folks and they had no idea where he was on a good day and last she'd heard while he'd gotten himself a phone, he'd also lost it five times. So Kate did what she'd wanted to avoid: She called Joey.
"Yeah, Mom, I've got it, it's for me! Yeah! It's Kate, Mom. Yeah, I'll ask her. Yeah! Mom, I promise, I'll ask! Mom, come on!"
Kate put her feet up on the table at Cyberdelia to discourage any would-be crashers and inspected her nails while she waited for Joey's mother to stop pestering him about whatever it was she wanted him to ask. It was almost another full minute before Joey's mother's voice faded on the other end and she heard Joey's muttered string of profanities as he picked up the receiver.
"Kate! Hey, um, what's up? Are you like, back in town? Cause I swear, I need to get out of here, like, yesterday. Oh, and my mom wants me to ask you about MIT."
"Of course she does. Tell her I'll tell you whatever you need to know. But before that, have you seen Nikon or Cereal?"
"Mom! I asked, okay?" Joey's voice was muffled and then he returned his attention to Kate. "Nikon got some gig in Jersey for the weekend. Cereal was crashing at his place while he was gone. Dude, did you call him? You've got a cellular phone now!"
"No one's answering," Kate told him, watching as someone down on the game floor tried to beat the high scores - still hers and Dade's even now. "I called Nikon's place and no one answered. Went over there and no one's home. I'm at the club now and the guys out front said Cereal hasn't been around for four days. I talked to Phreak this morning and he didn't say a word."
Neither of them said anything for a minute or two. The kid playing the game failed to even get his name on the leaderboard and Kate could hear Joey's mom come back into the room and start talking at him. Joey didn't even react. Cereal took off every so often. They were used to that. But he usually told someone where he was going, and he was never gone more than a day or two.
"Listen, Joey? Get your ass down here. We'll figure it out."
"Right. Yeah. Yeah. Right. Okay." Joey hung up and Kate shook her head. He was still hopeless in a lot of ways, but at least she could count on him to be around. While she waited for him to get out of his apartment and down to the club she called Phreak.
"Burn, I love you and all, like a sister. I swear I do. But this had better be important."
"Why? Are you on a date?" Kate asked him. "Hey!" she yelled into the phone. "He's got important shit to do! Bone later!"
"I hate you like a sister too," Phreak informed her mildly. "And I will call you back in five."
It was more like two. Kate made Phreak wait before she answered.
"Wow, that was fast. Can't have been too satisfying."
"Shut up. Anticipation's a good thing. So what's the deal? I know you must not be calling for kicks. Tell me you're not calling for kicks so I don't have to kill you."
"You know me better than that," Kate said. And he did. They'd been friends since their middle school computer club had closed ranks, leaving Kate and Phreak to bodge together their own toys.
"Yeah, so, what's up?"
"Have you heard from Cereal?"
Kate could hear noise in the background and realized Phreak was outside now, walking down a busy street.
"Yeah, sort of. I mean, it was Cereal, so it was incoherent, but I figured he was just on a Jolt binge. Why?"
"Well, it's been too long and he's not around. I paged him and he hasn't called back. Joey said he's crashing with Nikon but Nikon's out of town."
"You at the club?"
"Yeah." Kate was immediately suspicious as she heard music on Phreak's end. She looked over at the door and saw him stroll in. Normally he'd have meandered over, stopping to greet half the people there. Kate knew whatever Cereal had said must have been serious when Phreak came right over, sliding into a seat across from her and leaning in close.
"So okay, last time I talked to Cereal? He was totally bugging out. Like, you know how he gets when he's excited? He stops using words and reverts back to toddlerhood?"
Kate nodded. Cereal did often express himself through performance art and sound effects.
"Okay. So I think he was saying someone wanted to work with him on something and it sounded kind of sketchy. You don't think he got, like, arrested, do you?"
Phreak glanced around as he spoke, keeping his voice low. Kate frowned and leaned in a little too.
"Maybe?" she said. "But he'd have called one of us. We'd know."
"Yeah, well, maybe he used his one call to order pizza," Phreak commented as Joey hurried over and dropped into the seat between them.
"Hey! Phreak! Did you hear? What's going on?"
Phreak rolled his eyes. "You have got to learn to keep your mouth shut, Joey."
Kate watched them bicker, then kicked the table to get their attention.
"Look, Oscar and Felix? Can we get back to the important stuff here? Cereal's still MIA and I would really like to know why."
Phreak and Joey stared at her, then both nodded at the same time, which would normally have been hilarious, but Kate wasn't exactly in the mood to appreciate it.
"We need to reach Nikon. Find out if he knows where Cereal is, or who the hell he's been talking to. Hey, Phreak? Think you can get to Cereal's email? And maybe Nikon's messages? He'll forgive us when he knows why we did it. And we wouldn't have to if he'd answer his damn phone."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Phreak said, waving her off. "But not here. I don't trust the network here. Too many script kiddies hanging out, looking for kicks."
Kate looked around the club. Yeah, the old regulars were all well and good, and there were plenty of people around who didn't give a shit about computers but liked the atmosphere. But up and coming hackers loved going after the elite, thinking if they cracked someone like Acid Burn they'd be hot shit. Un-fucking-likely, but it would be a pain in the ass.
"Let's go. We'll use my place. My mom won't be back until at least midnight."
Kate led them out of the club, Phreak at her side and Joey close behind.
Just as Kate had predicted, her mother was not at home. This allowed them to raid the kitchen with impunity before settling down in Kate's room to crack Cereal's passwords and Nikon's answering service. They'd never tried to break into each other's stuff before. Not seriously anyhow. Not beyond testing each other's security and passwords when asked. But that was just looking out for each other, making sure no one else could get the jump on them. This? This was different.
"I'm starting to think it'd be easier to just break into Nikon's place and see if Cereal left a note," Phreak muttered, flopping back onto Kate's bed and picking up her phone to try Nikon's pager again. After punching in their usual code for a hacker emergency, Phreak called Nikon's phone and left him yet another message.
He'd just hung up when the phone rang in his hand. "Spooky," he muttered before answering. "Libby residence, the queen is in."
Kate didn't even bother shaking her head. Most people who called her private line had learned long ago that Phreak was as likely to answer as she was. Kate got up to take the phone but Phreak shook his head at her, grabbing a pen and jotting something down on a scrap of paper.
When he hung up he handed her the phone and the paper.
"So, that wasn't creepy or anything," he said. Written on the paper was a series of numbers. "Yo, I think that call was automated."
Kate looked at the numbers, then dialed Nikon's number and punched them in. She put the phone on speaker so they all heard when Nikon's answering machine started replaying its messages to them.
Most of the messages were nothing interesting. An old woman chatted at the machine for two minutes before realizing no one was listening and hung up. Two people called offering wall-to-wall carpeting. A couple of Nikon's friends had left messages about gigs for New Year's and one guy left a message for someone whose name didn't even come close to sounding like Nikon or Paul Cook. But in amongst all of that and before they got to the messages Kate herself had left, they heard Cereal's voice.
"Hey, if you got locked out, the key is under the mat."
Kate played through the rest of the messages but there wasn't anything else interesting, just another call from the bill collector and her messages. She hung up and put the phone back on its cradle.
"Okay, let's get over to Nikon's place."
"He didn't really leave a key under the mat, did he?" Joey asked. Neither Kate nor Phreak even bothered to answer that. Which of course only made Joey ask again. "I mean, in his building? Does he even have a welcome mat? I don't remember ever seeing a welcome mat."
And no, Lord Nikon did not have a welcome mat in front of his door. But his neighbor did, and when they arrived it was still there, duct taped to the floor in defiance of anyone who might want to steal something pointless. Kate peeled it up and looked underneath. Written on the underside was the address to an ftp server. Kate wrote it down and re-taped the mat to the floor.
"What was that?" Joey asked. "Was that the key? The key to what? Not his apartment, right? I mean, it couldn't be."
Kate's phone rang, saving her from having to educate Joey.
"Aced it," Dade said by way of greeting. "Catching an early train."
"Good. Get your ass here as fast as possible," Kate snapped. "Cereal's missing, Nikon's DJing somewhere and won't answer his phone and we're on some fucked up treasure hunt."
"Wait, what?" She could hear Dade stop short on the sidewalk. "Since when has he been missing? Did you call the police?"
"We can't just go to the police. This is Cereal we're talking about. He's probably got like, an outstanding warrant for jaywalking," Kate said. She was hurrying out of Nikon's building, not bothering to make sure Phreak and Joey were behind her. They were or they were left behind. Simple. "I guess it's been a couple of days. Phreak says Cereal might have been working with some sketchy guys."
"Handy," Dade muttered. "Okay, so I'll be in the city in a few hours. Call me."
They hung up at the same time and Kate glanced behind her. Phreak gave her an expectant look.
"He's on his way, okay? Look, we dealt with plenty of stuff before Mr. Zero Override showed up. We can spend the night going through the files on this server and see what Cereal got himself into at least."
Joey sighed. "Look, guys, I need to get home or my mom'll freak out. You know how she is."
"We know," Phreak and Kate said in sync. Joey peeled off for home after promising them he'd meet them in the morning.
Back at Kate's place her mother was home and made a brief appearance to give Kate a hug and an update on the status of her current book. Kate smiled and nodded and said the things her mother expected. And it wasn't that she wasn't interested. She was. Her mother's books weren't all self-help stuff. She was doing a women in technology retrospective right now and under other circumstances Kate would have been ranting right with her in the middle of the living room. But at the moment all she wanted was her mother to go shut herself in her office and keep working. Which was eventually what she did, leaving Kate and Phreak to the more pressing matter of Cereal's whereabouts.
The first thing they did was make sure the network was secure. The second thing they did was get into the ftp server and start grabbing files.
Kate opened the first one and stared. "Shit, Phreak. Look at this."
Phreak peered over her shoulder. "You have got to be kidding me."
On the screen in front of her Kate read through an enormous spreadsheet of people's personal information. Names, addresses, birthdates, social security numbers, credit card numbers, mothers' maiden names. It went on and on.
"Burn, delete that crap right now," Phreak muttered. But Kate was already deleting the file and ejecting the floppy she'd loaded it onto, taking it over to the big magnet she kept for erasing just this sort of bullshit.
"Why the hell would Cereal have those files?" Kate asked as she started working on covering her tracks, getting rid of any trace that she'd ever downloaded anything. She paged through the other files. They were all the same size and around the same format. Except one. It was a simple text file, so she grabbed it and opened it. There were only three short sentences: "Info is power. Power corrupts. Corrupt their info."
"We really need Nikon for this," Phreak muttered. "Like, you're a badass, Burn? And I'm no slouch, but this isn't a two person job. Three if we count Joey, which we can't right now cause he ditched us under pains of being grounded. Again. Nikon, you, me, Dade. We could do it. Whoever Cereal fell in with, if they're swiping people's information they're not doing it for charity. He must want us to do something about it."
"But where is he?" Kate pointed out. "He didn't exactly give us a map."
"Maybe he's hiding out?" Phreak suggested. "I know I would if I pissed these folks off."
"Great," Kate sighed. "Look, you get some sleep. I'll keep working. See if I can get to Cereal's voicemail or get Nikon to answer his phone."
"Wake me up in an hour," Phreak said, leaning back in his chair and falling asleep almost immediately.
Kate stayed up long into the night, making herself some horrible instant coffee. She woke Phreak up around two and hadn't made any significant progress to show him. They drank their vile coffee and checked every corner of the internet they could think of for traces of Cereal. Kate thought she might have found something when she came across a bulletin board Cereal had been posting on, but it didn't really sound like him in the posts, so it was entirely possible the poster was an imposter.
She even tried calling a couple of local police stations, just in case. She'd always been pretty good at convincing authorities to give her more information than she could possibly have the right to, but even still, no one had heard of Emmanuel Goldstein and they didn't have anyone matching his description in custody and no, they didn't seem to be looking for him. One very helpful sergeant suggested she file a missing persons report and Kate was almost tempted. She might have done it, just to cover her bases, but her other phone rang just as she was hanging up.
Phreak got to it before she did, almost spilling his coffee in the process. Not that it would have been much of a loss, aside from the caffeine.
"Nikon! Man, you have no idea how glad I am to hear from you."
Kate got up and went to sit closer so she could hear Nikon. She missed what he'd been just saying but it was obvious from Phreak's reply that he didn't know what was going on.
"Yeah, so, get this: Cereal's missing and he's left us, like, clues? And something's up cause he sent us all these files full of people's information. Like, social security numbers and shit."
"You got rid of that, right?" Nikon said quickly. "I mean, it's one thing to mess with someone who's messing with us, but…"
"Of course!" Phreak interrupted. "You're talking to me and Burn, right? Not Joey."
"Yeah, good. So what's the plan?"
"Think you can help us from where you are?" Phreak asked. "Cause right now? We're thinking we've got to track the files to their source and torch the whole thing. And then find Cereal."
Kate and Phreak listened closely as Nikon thought about it. "Yeah, I can help. But you know torching the whole thing, they might suspect Cereal. Especially if he's dropped off the grid."
"So what do we do?" Phreak asked.
A slow grin spread on Kate's face. "We don't torch it. Cereal told us what to do. We corrupt it. We corrupt the whole thing."
Nikon laughed. "And anything new they add."
"We just need to find the right place to stick it," Phreak said. "Call us when you get in," he told Nikon.
Neither Kate nor Phreak slept any more that night. They were too busy tracking down the source of the files Cereal had sent them. When Kate's doorbell rang around six in the morning they'd located what looked like the right servers and Kate was well on her way to writing the virus they needed. It had to be disguised. It had to be discreet. And it had to fuck up every single piece of information they put into their files and do it so they wouldn't know until it was too late.
By the time Dade walked into her bedroom, Kate was wishing she could have gotten course credit for the damn thing.
"We know where we're stashing this thing?" he said, looking at what she was working on.
Kate didn't pause. She just kept typing. They'd be lucky if they had time to even test it.
"Yeah," Phreak cut in. "Nikon's gonna help. He finally got back to us. I swear, he needs to stay the hell out of Jersey."
Dade set up his laptop and was soon helping Phreak dig around in the files they'd found, hopefully looking for traces of Cereal that would let them tell him they'd done what he needed. Joey showed up an hour later bearing cookies from his mother. They all gave him some shit for it but ate the cookies all the same. His mom made really good cookies, after all.
"Got it!" Dade shouted around half past ten in the morning. "I've got it! Emmanuel Goldstein! He's in this file!"
Joey leaned in to look. "That's not his address," he said, pointing to the address line in the spreadsheet. "Isn't that like, school?"
Kate had been listening and half paying attention. The boys could be trusted to do some of the work, after all, and it sounded like they'd been making progress with the help of Nikon over the phone and online. But Joey's comment caught her and she turned to look.
"Yeah," she said, checking the address. "It is. And it says he's on the sixth floor."
She looked at Dade. Dade looked at her.
"Pool on the roof," they said at the same time.
After that it was just a matter of checking the virus she'd made, sending it into the servers they'd cracked and remotely adding a couple of people to the files. A quick check of the files later showed that it was working like a charm.
Really, the most time consuming part was making sure they'd cleaned up after themselves so no one could trace them after the fact. They'd been careful going in, yes, but it was always worth being doubly cautious. When they were sure none of them could be linked back to the virus or to any of the poking around they'd done, they paged Nikon with their destination and headed to their old school.
It would have been hard to get in, with it being winter break and all. But one of the custodians remembered Kate, who'd always tried to make friends with the folks who kept the keys to the building.
"I swear, we won't be long," she promised him. "It's just been a whole semester. We miss it already."
He'd smiled and let them go on their way, supposedly to reminisce and tease Joey about how he had a whole year and a half more before he graduated. Truly, they did tease him. Quite a lot. But they did so on their way up to the roof of the building.
Dade made sure to put a wedge in the door so they wouldn't get locked out up there and Kate allowed herself a smirk at him. He smirked right back, which was probably why she kept him around. No grudge there, but he'd never let her forget how they'd first met.
"Cereal?" Kate called. "It's all done!"
They walked around the roof, which was full of vents and pipes but not much shelter. Until they found what looked like a shed. When they opened the door, there he was. Passed out in a sleeping bag on a cot in what looked like it was supposed to be a supply shed for the janitors. Somehow he'd managed to patch a space heater in, and a hot plate.
Phreak shook him awake and Cereal shoved him.
"I was sleeping!" he complained, still mostly asleep.
"Yeah, we know," Phreak said. "Come on, Princess. Beauty sleep's over."
"Aww, tell me I'm pretty!" Cereal said, finally opening his eyes and sitting up. "So, did you do it? Was I right? Cause man, those dudes? They were bad business and I did not want them having all that stuff. You don't know what they'd do with it! I mean, they could do anything! They could sell it or they could spy on you or they could be you!"
Kate held up a hand. "Cereal? Stop. Let's get out of here and you can explain it all."
"Oh man, yeah, hey, can we stop off and get burgers or something? I never thought I'd be sick of ramen but dude, I am so fuckin' sick of ramen! Did you even know you could get sick of ramen?"
"You can?" Joey asked after a couple of moments of silence.
At Cyberdelia an hour later, having stuffed Cereal full of fries and burgers and enough chicken nuggets to choke a horse, they all questioned him about how he'd gotten involved in an identity theft scam in the first place.
"Okay, so these guys, they saw me during that whole thing last year? You know, when I was on every TV in New York?"
As if they didn't remember. As a group they rolled their eyes and motioned for Cereal to continue.
"Right, so I was totally famous for a little while there! And you know what I learned? Fame is like one of those double sided things? I mean, I don't mind people knowing who I am, cause I'm awesome and all? But I think maybe being unknown for a little while would be cool too. So anyhow, these guys called me up and they were all 'you should come give us a hand, we really liked what we saw, you're elite!' and I said sure, no problem. I'm just a nice guy like that. And then when I saw what they were doing? I was all 'no way' and I told them I had this big secret job I was working on and I'd be in touch."
"But why move into that janitor's shed on the roof?" Dade asked. "I don't get it."
"They knew about Nikon's place, man. They knew! And I didn't want to talk to them, so I camped out. No big deal. Used to do it all the time at school. Never late when you're living in the building!"
"Or on top of it," Kate muttered. Trying to reason through Cereal's sometimes paranoid and always labyrinthine logic didn't really bear thinking about just then. Sleep was far more interesting and so long as no one was going to come after them, she was finding it hard to care.
"So we're safe, right? They're not going to come looking for us? Or try and hack us? Cause, Cereal? That would be a major pain in my ass, and I could share that pain with you real easy." Phreak was sitting next to Cereal and reached over to steal some of his fries.
"No way. That's why I had to be so sneaky about it. If they think it was me, man, I've got no credit! I am like the wind!"
Cereal grinned at all of them and grabbed a handful of fries. No one at the table could really refute what he'd said. The guy was pretty much the embodiment of a whirlwind, that was for damn sure.
After Joey had begged off because of his mom and Nikon had shown up to drag Cereal back to his place to crash on an actual real pull-out bed instead of a cot on the roof, Kate put her feet up on Dade's lap and leaned back.
"So. That was an auspicious start to the holidays," Dade said somberly, steadfastly ignoring the heels of Kate's boots digging into his thigh. "What else do you think will happen? Blackmail? Espionage? Mass hysteria?"
"Definitely mass hysteria," Kate said, nodding. "We'll start it ourselves."
"Oh yeah?" Dade said. "That could be very interesting. Mind if I check out that virus you wrote first? Cause that was a fancy bit of code if I do say so myself."
"Oh do you?"
Kate laughed and swung her legs down, then stood. "Come on. I think I can postpone the hysteria, but not to look over my code." She held out her hand, hauling Dade up and pulling him in close.
"Right," Dade said. "Yeah, the code can probably wait."
Smirking, Kate nodded and led him out of the club. With any luck, their friends would stay out of trouble at least until the next morning.