Friday, December 07, 2012


Freaky (Fiction) Friday

Wow, it's a good thing I took the precaution of writing a book before taking this new job, otherwise I'd feel really guilty about not posting anything.

The job goes well, thanks for asking. After a long year of being the editorial equivalent of a traffic cop for a wide variety of print and digital products (and it's a dire sign indeed when your editorial job description calls the stuff you work on "product"), I am back where I belong, somewhere on the masthead of a magazine. This may seem like a strange thing to admit on a blog, but God, I love magazines, be they print or digital editions. I'm starting from scratch with a brand-new crew of immensely talented folks (plus me). There's a steep learning curve ahead, and I'm racing to get my head around my new responsibilities (and also to finish hiring some open positions). Yeah, my days are full, but so is my heart.

And before I sink us all into a diabetic coma, let's see what Ben Bridge has been up to since last we left him...

(Previous chapter)
(Next chapter)

Chapter 3
On the Road to Sherrinford

The rest of the school year—there were only three weeks—passed with agonizing slowness. For all the good the newspaper and online stories about his case had done him, they did him no favors in the hallways or classes of Rockaway Junior High. Ben was the subject of much finger-pointing and derision. Of course, he had been before—he had never had many friends at school—but this was different. Everyone knew him as the weird, nosy boy detective, but now he was the weird, nosy boy detective who'd been caught burglarizing the school. Some wise-crackers started calling him "B&E Bridge": "B&E" of course being slang for "breaking and entering," but the initials also happened to be the first two in his name (Benjamin Ernest). He was notorious.

But not notorious in a cool way. Not like, say, the Whiz, another young criminal who had been in the news that year. Earlier, through the winter and spring, news channels had been abuzz about a computer hacker who went by the handle of the Whiz. He (or she) was an online sensation, supposedly hacking into bank networks and transferring millions in cash from giant corporations to the accounts of people who had almost no money, a Robin Hood of the digital age. Ben had followed the case in the news for a few reasons—first, because the FBI cyber-crime division revealed that they thought the Whiz was young—under 18 anyway (although how they knew that, they never said).

Second, because even though he kind of admired the Whiz's exploits—especially the one where he had paid off the mortgages of 50 families facing foreclosure from a notorious bank—Ben couldn't help but indulge a private fantasy in which he got involved in the case. It seemed like a Sherlock Holmes/Professor Moriarty kind of match-up—the youngest detective against the youngest criminal genius. But unfortunately, his parents had had to sell their computers and cancel their Internet in order to pay the rent and keep food on the table, so Ben could only follow the case using the clunky old computers at the school or in the public library.

But then, about a month before Ben's own midnight escapade at school, the nightly news blared the bulletin that the Whiz had been caught. He (or she) was indeed a minor, so the FBI didn't reveal his (or her) name (and apparently no one got to interview the Whiz's parents, he thought ruefully). Ben was kind of sorry to see the Whiz go away. In his daydreams, Ben wanted to be the one to take the Whiz down.

But now, with school winding down, Ben's opportunities to use the school computers were also coming to a close, and he used all his free time online to find out all he could about Sherrinford, not to catch up on the Whiz, who was fast becoming old news anyway. The last report he'd read stated simply that the unnamed kid had pleaded guilty to his (or her) crimes and federal prosecutors were deciding what to do with him (or her). Ben wondered if somewhere there was a camp for wayward hackers, just as there was apparently one for wayward sleuths.

Although he'd never heard of it, back east, it seemed that everyone—well, everyone who was rich or well-connected—knew about the Sherrinford School. Like Hawksmoor said, it had started out as an upstate New York prep school, but after the stock market crash in the late 1920s, the well-to-do bankers who'd sent their kids there had to pull them out because they could no longer afford tuition. The school limped along throughout the Great Depression, but by World War II, the school itself appeared to have fallen on hard times. It was abandoned and derelict for a few years, there on Mount Sherrinford in the Catskills.

But by the early 1950s, the school and all the land around it—which basically included the entire north half of a mountain, complete with a natural spring-fed lake—was bought by Oscar Reston, the famous mystery novelist, whose twin sons, Jack and Jake, were amateur detectives, just like Ben. Except that, unlike Ben, the Reston twins actually had some success in their chosen endeavor. They caught a gang of notorious counterfeiters single-handedly, and their father turned their story into a best-selling book. The public demanded more, so Oscar fed that demand by writing a dozen or so mystery novels loosely based (how loosely was never specified) on the Reston Twins' real-life adventures. For nearly a decade, the Reston Twins were more popular than Lassie and Davy Crockett put together. Kids (kids who were now grandparents, Ben realized) flocked to join the Reston Twins Junior Detective Brigade.

And it was at the peak of their popularity that old Oscar bought up the grounds—buildings, lake, mountainside and all—of the Sherrinford school and ran it as a summer camp for all those junior detectives. The crazy thing was, the school thrived—for a little while anyway—after the popularity of the Reston Twins waned (the last mention Ben could find of Jack or Jake was when one of them had been arrested at a college protest march of some kind). But that was because the school ran one of the most aggressive and ambitious summer programs of its kind.

Like the judge said, the school offered classes on law and ethics, but also on the art of observation and deduction. Apparently, enough well-to-do kids went there that, when they grew up and had families of their own, they sent their kids there. It was the sort of extracurricular activity—summer at Sherrinford—that Ivy League schools looked for on college applications.

This was all news to Ben, and he spent hours both at the Sherrinford School's Web site (pretty clunky and outdated, although he did like the school's crest: an eye peering through a keyhole above a Latin motto—Quaerite et Invenietis—whatever that meant) and in various searches of stories about the school, including a recent news item about the school's new joint operation with the Department of Justice. In it, he read a brief interview with Oscar Reston III, grandson of the original and now head of the school. "We see too many young men and women turning to crime earlier and earlier, we see the rise of a juvenile justice system that is improperly equipped to deal with some of these children," Reston told the interviewer. "Some of these young men and women show great promise, and we will seek them out, offer them a place here at the school in a special program, where they can hone their skills and learn to serve the public good."

The story didn't explain much more about what that program offered, however. From there, the writer talked about how Sherrinford needed the money that a federal program would provide, how attendance had been dropping just like Mr. Hawksmoor had said, how some of the buildings on campus were falling into disrepair. Ben scanned the rest of the story, but in a distracted way. He was still thinking about that last quote of Oscar Reston III. Was that why he was offered the chance to go? Had the Reston family seen some potential in him that people like Azoline—and even his own parents—saw as a nuisance?

It was a thought that buoyed him up in the difficult weeks that followed, weeks of avoiding the Veep and the less-than-kind remarks of his classmates. Even his old pal, the Narrator, had been silent in his head, too ashamed to recount Ben's life in his usual over-the-top fashion.

But finally, the first week of June arrived, and Ben found himself waking up early one Saturday with more than a little excitement. In a few hours, he'd be on the bus to Sherrinford. Families were responsible for transportation to and from the school. It was a long trip, but there was no way his parents could afford a flight or even a train, so the bus it was. But first, he'd had to return to the police station where he had spent the worst night of his life. The excitement he felt vanished for a time, replaced by shame and apprehension.

On this visit, Ben was not led to a jail cell, but to a room where his parole officer and a man who identified himself only as "the technician," fitted Ben with the device he'd been filled with both curiosity and dread to see: his house arrest bracelet.

"It's actually called a Variable Area Personal Monitoring Device," the technician said. He grabbed a handheld barcode scanner off the table and ran it over the side of the device. A second later, the laptop on the table beeped. "There, it's logged into the system."

He held the device up for Ben and his parents to inspect. It looked to Ben like a very large wristwatch. It was a dark plastic strap attach to a black box slightly smaller than a deck of cards. "It's completely waterproof, so you can wear it in the rain, in the shower, wherever," he said, gesturing to Ben to lift his pant leg. Although Ben would often refer to it later as "the ankle bracelet," the technician actually cinched the strap around Ben's shin, high enough that the black box wouldn't chafe his ankle. Once Ben confirmed that it was comfortable on him—well, as comfortable as you expect a plastic strap you had to wear at all times—the technician pointed to the box, which had a little speaker on it and a couple of blinking lights.

"There's a GPS unit in there, and it relays your position to the central monitoring system at all times," he said. He pointed to a laptop sitting on the desk nearby. "The school will have access to the monitoring system, which is programmed with a map of the grounds." The technician made a couple of adjustments to the black box with a very small screwdriver, then went to his laptop.

"As long as you stay within the school grounds," Ben's parole officer explained, "you'll be fine. But if you go outside the boundaries marked in the program, the monitoring device will know it, and will automatically send an alert to the system." He nodded to the technician, who tapped a few keys on his laptop.

The blinking green light on Ben's ankle bracelet suddenly shifted from green to a flashing yellow. A slow beeping sound filled the room. "That's a warning tone," the technician said. "It's a signal that you're at the edge of the preset boundaries in the system. And if you go outside the boundaries…" then the technician hit another button. The green light vanished and a red light flashed on the monitor, accompanied by a loud and insistent beep.

"That means you're in violation of your parole," his parole officer said. "The violation will be logged into the system, and I'll get a message about it. So will the local police and officials at the school. Unless we get a follow-up message from the school that it's an error, or they've authorized you to leave the grounds because of an emergency or something, then you'll be considered a fugitive and we'll send local police the signal for this monitor and they'll be able to track you down. You understand?"

Ben nodded. The bracelet was beginning to look more like a ball and chain than a cool piece of technology.

The technician hit a few more buttons and the alarm ceased, the red light vanishing in place of the green. "You're in roaming mode now, and will be for the next 18 hours—long enough to get to the school, where an official there will log you into the local system and confirm you're on the premises. When you get there, you'll get more information about the bracelet, like the Curfew Mode," the technician smiled as he said this, but not in a mean way. "It's really a pretty amazing system."

The parole officer gripped Ben by the shoulder, wanting his full attention. "The monitor box is tamper-sensitive, Ben. If you try to remove it, you'll set off an alarm and be in violation of parole. If you try to cut or stretch the bracelet and slip out of it, a sensor in the bracelet will trigger an alert and you'll be—"

"—in violation of parole, I got it," he said miserably.

"If you accidentally damage the bracelet or it goes off for no reason, report to the head of the school or one of the instructors immediately," the technician added. "They're the only ones who can let us know it's a false alarm. Got it?"

Ben got it. He felt like a dog wearing a shock collar.

On the ride to the bus station, Ben was uncomfortably aware of the weight of his new fashion accessory. Every time he shifted position in the car, he could feel the bracelet shifting between his pant leg and his skin. He didn't think he'd ever get used to it.

But he did forget about it, at least briefly, when he got to the bus station and quickly found himself sitting in a sprung and slightly odorous seat near the back of the bus.

He looked out the window at his parents, who waved vigorously enough, but their smiles were at kind of half-mast. His parents were relieved to see him go, he knew. It's not that they wouldn't miss him or weren't sorry he was leaving. But they were glad that he wasn't going off to juvie hall or some awful boot camp in the desert. "You caught a very lucky break indeed," his dad had said, after hugging him goodbye. "This is your last chance, Benjy. Please don't blow it."

Ben was duly cowed by this farewell, and his guilt at letting his parents down felt 10 times heavier and more uncomfortable than the bracelet on his leg. But as the bus roared off out of town, he couldn't help but feel a growing sense of excitement.

And so our hero headed into the east, his heart beating in growing anticipation as he faced a new horizon, filled with the promise of new adventures, new mysteries to solve, the Narrator intoned in his head, a voice he hadn't heard in weeks. It heartened Ben, and with the voice still echoing in his head, he dozed off.

He woke, sweaty and groggy, several hours later, when the bus jerked to an abrupt stop outside a gas station. The sun was shining hotly through the windows of the bus where Ben had been sleeping. He stretched in his seat and ran his fingers through his hair. Then he looked on the seat next to him and panicked—his backpack was gone.

His fear was short-lived—the pack had only slid down onto the sticky, gum-strewn floor of the bus. Ben clutched it to himself like it was a teddy bear, then unzipped it and carefully checked its contents while the driver made announcements to the passengers, which he didn't bother to listen to.

Everything Ben really cared about in the world was in that pack, even if one of the items he'd packed was with a certain pang of guilt: his PerfaPick, which the police had miraculously overlooked when they arrested him. He was stunned to see it slide out of the envelope along with his wallet, house keys and other personal effects given back to him after his arrest. But then, the cops had never realized that he'd picked a lock to get into the Veep's office (and he never bothered to set them straight, having shared that fact only with David Hawksmoor), and the pick did look uncannily like a pen, right down to the ballpoint-like clicker on top and the clip on the side for slipping into one's shirt pocket. Ben didn't really have any intention of ever using it again, but he was glad to have it back. It reminded him of his Grandpa, who had thought everything his grandson did was brilliant, and who would have been proud that Ben was going to Sherrinford, no matter what he'd done to get there.

At the bottom of the bag, Ben found his Gamehound, the handheld video game unit that pretty much every kid his age had or longed to have. This had been a gift on his last birthday and he had been stunned to see it when he unwrapped the present. His birthday came not long after they'd lost the house and he remembered sitting in the dingy apartment that was now their home, his mom and dad smiling at him. The Gamehound had been the only present that year, he remembered his parents apologizing for that, and his face burned at the memory. Gamehounds weren't cheap, after all.

When Ben protested to that effect, his dad insisted that he'd got a good deal on it—had won it in an online auction, so it was second-hand. And Ben couldn't help but notice that it was a bit scuffed, and last year's model to boot, but he didn't care. He felt lucky to have it. More than once, when he'd seen his parents' faces, usually as they were looking over some new bill that they couldn't pay, Ben had asked them to sell the gaming unit, but they always refused, instantly and adamantly.

"Times are tough, Benjy," his dad had said, "but not so tough that we'd ever make you sell your toys."

Ben was clutching the game unit and staring down at it when a heavy hand fell on his shoulder and he looked up, startled.

It was the bus driver. "Didn't ya hear me, kid? End of the line. Where you headed?"

"Um, the Sherrinford School, up on—"

"Mount Sherrinford, I know. You gotta wait here," he said, pointing outside to a bench next to the gas station. "The school sends a shuttle that makes the rounds to the airport and the train station. It'll come on through here in an hour or two. Come on, now. I gotta get this bus back to the garage."

Ben stumbled off the bus and found himself on a dusty stretch of ground between the gas station and the state highway. It was late in the afternoon, and the gas station was abuzz with activity as the bus's other passengers greeted those who had come to meet them, or else used the pay phone nearby to call a cab. Ben's duffel bag was sitting next to the bus, the only piece of baggage as yet unclaimed, so he grabbed it and dragged it over to a rickety wooden bench near a battered vending machine next to the station's service garage.

He realized he would be sharing the bench, judging by the enormous suitcase propped up against the vending machine. He'd never seen luggage so large—it looked almost the size of a steamer trunk. Ben sat down on the bench, stuffing his duffel under the seat and stared at this monstrosity of a suitcase. As he did, he began to play the Game, a mental exercise he'd read about in the Steel Sterling novels. Steel was always looking at something—like this bag—and try to deduce as much as possible about the owner.

Ben stared hard at the suitcase for a moment, then noticed a number of torn tags still hanging by an elastic band around the handle. A traveler, he thought. Someone who was on planes a lot, judging by all the luggage tags, many indicating destinations in Europe, Japan, even Afghanistan. Big guy, very strong, judging by the strength needed to haul a bag like that. Maybe a former soldier, if he'd been to Afghanistan. Older, too, set in his ways. Likes to bring his creature comforts with him. Maybe a bit of a clotheshorse, likes to take his wardrobe along.

That was as far as Ben got, when he heard the door to the gas station's rest room slap open and shut behind him and heard footsteps on the gravel. He immediately began rummaging through his backpack, minding his own business. A shadow passed him and then he heard someone sit on the opposite end of the bench. He looked up, and his heart sank: He couldn't have been more wrong in his deductions. Steel Sterling, if he'd been real, would have been laughing in his ear.

The owner of the bag was a kid, like himself, although quite a bit taller and skinnier (How does he haul that suitcase? Ben wondered). He had a shock of curly black hair that needed cutting and his general appearance was certainly not that of a clotheshorse. He wore a ripped t-shirt over faded, torn blue jeans, really not much different from Ben's attire. He had bright, intelligent blue eyes, which seemed to stand out even more in stark contrast to his extremely pale skin. He looked almost ghostlike. Guess he doesn't like the sun very much, Ben thought.

The young man nodded at Ben, giving him a once-over with those piercing blue eyes. Ben nodded back, then lifted a chin toward the suitcase. "You've been to Afghanistan?" he asked, pointing to the tags. The boy smirked as though he thought Ben was making a joke, but said nothing. Ben tried again. "Big bag to lug around," he remarked.

"It's got wheels," was all the boy said, then he stood up, fished in his pocket for some change and began to review his selection of beverages at the soda machine.

The bus driver said the shuttle would be along in an hour or two, which struck him as maddeningly imprecise, but either way he figured he had some time, so he fished his Gamehound out of his bag and inserted the one game cartridge he owned, which was a collection of various board games. Ben picked chess and began to play.

After a moment or two, he became aware of those sharp blue eyes on him. He paused his game and looked up. The boy was staring, not at Ben, but at the game in his hand. It was a look he'd seen before, and it meant one of two things: it was either a stare of envy from a kid who didn't have a Gamehound (in which case, he'd follow up his staring by pointing to the unit and saying, "Is that a Gamehound? Can I try it?") or it was a look of smug dismissal and the person staring would shortly reveal that he had the latest model, which was far sleeker than the old unit Ben owned.

But the boy with the bright blue eyes simply continued staring. Finally, he said, "Is that a Version 1 or a 1.7?"

"Uh, I don't know," Ben said, surprised to find the boy had found a third option he hadn't considered. "It's not new. I mean, I got it online, secondhand."

The boy didn't ask to see the game unit, just held out his hand, rather imperiously. The gesture annoyed Ben. But what annoyed him even more was how quickly he handed his prized game unit over.

The boy turned the Gamehound over, scrutinizing the metal label affixed to the bottom. Then he smiled, a sly grin that Ben liked instantly. "Huh—it IS a 1.7 You've got a wireless data card on this," he said.

Ben shook his head. "I wish," he said. Everyone knew the newer unit had wireless data capability to play games with other Gamehound or smartphone owners, or link to the Web and trade messages and set up matches with users around the world. "This is the older unit. It didn't come with—"

"Version 1 didn't," the boy cut him off, as he flipped the screen open and began pushing buttons. "But Version 1.7 DOES have wireless functions built in. These are made in Japan, you know. Over there, the 1.7s were the first units to have it. But you need a special kind of FCC clearance to have it in the States, and the company didn't have the license when they imported 1.7s over here, not til Version 2 came out. They had to kill wireless on these units, but the chip is in there. Look."

He handed the unit back to Ben and he saw that the boy had called up some kind of system menu that revealed all sorts of information about the unit—processor speed, memory, that sort of thing. At the bottom of the list, Ben was astounded to see a listing that simply said: "Wireless: Disabled."

Ben fiddled with the buttons, trying to get back to the regular gaming screen. "So?" he said. He looked up at the boy, who was unzipping a bulging front pouch on his massive suitcase. He pulled out a sleek silver Gamehound that looked like the slimmer, faster, better, newer unit. And then some.

"Is that the new one?" he asked.

"Actually, it's version 2.5. Really superior to the earlier versions. Models like yours are really susceptible to magnetic fields, for example. The new ones are shielded. Got it directly from the manufacturer. They won't be in the States til Christmas," the boy said, with just a little hint of smugness.

"What? Did you fly to Japan to get it?" Ben asked, pointing to the luggage tags again. The boy looked around, saw what Ben was pointing to.

"You're obsessed with the tags," he murmured. "This bag belonged to one of my brothers. Does a lot of traveling for his job, that's all." Then the boy seemed to hunch down and look around. After a moment, he fished out what Ben thought at first glance was a necklace of some kind: a long silver chain with assorted bulky charms on it. Then he squinted and saw that the chain was actually a cable and the charms were actually a series of USB flash drives, all connected to one another. The boy plugged one end of the necklace into the USB port in the back of the gaming unit. The lights on the various flash drives began flickering.

Ben couldn't help himself and began edging closer to the boy. On the gaming screen, the boy had pulled up a keyboard—the kind you use to enter your initials when you hit a high score on a game. Only this keyboard was different somehow—there was space on the screen for typing more than initials.

"What's with the USB necklace?" he asked.

The boy smirked but didn't take his eyes off the screen of his Gamehound. "It's a little homemade hard drive. I hardwired about a dozen flash drives together on one cable and they work as a single unit. I keep a few things stored on there, like this keyboard, which I modified to work with the Web browser."

"Version 2.5 has a Web browser?" Ben asked.

The boy looked up, his blue eyes glittering. "Mine does." He went back to the screen. "There's hardly any cellular coverage up here—no service at all up in the mountains, according to the coverage maps I looked at. And I have no idea what kind of Wi-Fi network they've got where I'm going, so I'm looking for a signal here to see if I can access the company's support site in Japan. There we are—" As Ben watched, the screen filled with Japanese symbols.

"You read Japanese?" he asked.

"A little," the boy answered, not looking up, "Enough to find my way around the support site and—oh, wait, there it is. Give me your Gamehound."

Ben held onto his unit, which looked decidedly scuffed and clunky next to this boy's sleek Gamehound. "What are you going to do?"

Now the boy did look up. "Do you want that wireless card working on your Gamehound or not? You've already got the hardware built-in. I'm just going to download the firmware that will tell your unit to turn the chip on."

Ben was too impressed to do anything but hand the unit over. The boy plugged Ben's game into the other end of the USB necklace and continued punching buttons on his unit. "This might take a few minutes," was all the boy said, so Ben decided to stretch his legs. He'd been on the bus a long time and his limbs felt achy and heavy, especially the one wearing the ankle bracelet.

He walked into the gas station, where he saw a state map and learned he was in the town of Ambler Mills, more than 20 miles south of the eminence noted on the map as Mount Sherrinford. He asked the attendant if he knew when the shuttle to Sherrinford would be coming by.

"Oh, no schedule for that," the attendant said. "They only run the shuttle at the start and end of a session. They did the run to the airport and train station this morning. They come back up through here late in the afternoon. Your best bet is to look for a white van with the Sherrinford name on it, and flag 'em down. But usually they stop. Usually," the man said.

Ben wasn't exactly heartened by this news, but he was excited to come out of the store and see his Gamehound sitting on the bench a few feet away from the pale boy with the blue eyes, who now seemed totally engrossed in his own game.

Ben picked up his scuffed old Gamehound and opened the lid to reveal the two screens on the unit, the viewing screen and the touchscreen. The viewing screen was blank, but the touchscreen now had that same modified keyboard he'd seen on the boy's newer unit. Ben tentatively poked a button on the touchscreen and the viewing screen came to life.

"Ready for chat." The screen said. Near the bottom, he saw a little icon of a satellite dish with radio waves blinking in front of it. "Wireless Mode On" read a legend next to it.

Just then the "ready for chat" message vanished and was replaced by a new one.

"U like?" was all it said.

Ben looked up. The boy, it seemed to him, was deliberately not looking at him, his fingers poised over his own gaming unit.

"Yes. Thanks." He typed back, somewhat clumsily. "I'm Ben Bridge. Who R U?"

There was a brief pause, then the reply. "Oswald Goldrick. Pls just call me Oz."

"OK Oz" he wrote back. Then he wrote. "What else did u do?"

There was a brief pause, then a list flashed on his screen. It read:

"U can: surf Web, play remote games, IM. Also put in WP."

Ben wrote back: "What is WP?"

"Word processor."

Finally, Ben couldn't stand to do any more messaging to the boy sitting two feet from him. "How did you do all this stuff?"

Oz looked up. "It's my hobby. Gamehound homebrew. People write their own apps to run on the gaming unit. My brothers showed me how. I wrote a word processor, a basic operating system, and one or two other things."

Ben felt his jaw drop. "And it all runs on this thing?" he said, holding his Gamehound. "But, how?"

Oz shrugged. "On the first home computers, you could write letters, do spreadsheets, and play games on unit that had a max memory of 16k. Even an old Gamehound has about a hundred times that capacity. Plus it has two processors—one to run the viewscreen, one to run the touchscreen—so it has more than enough power to run the programs. And anything I write that's too big for the game, well," he shook his flickering USB necklace. "That's what this is for."

"So, basically," Ben said, hefting his gaming unit with new respect. "You just upgraded me to a little home computer."

"Well, more like a smartphone than a computer, but yeah," Oz said, smiling. Then he frowned, as though he just remembered something important. "But listen, don't tell anyone, okay?"

Ben shrugged. He thought this guy was brilliance itself. Why would he want to hide the fact? "Ok, if you say so."

"Thanks. I just don't want every kid at Sherrinford hitting me up for free upgrades."

"Sure," Ben nodded, then he froze. "How did you know I was going to Sherrinford?"

Oz smiled. "My luggage isn't the only thing with tags on it," he said, pointing at Ben's pant leg. Ben looked down and saw that his pant leg had ridden up a little, exposing the bottom edge of the monitoring unit and its pulsing lights. Ben tugged the cuff of his pants down, feeling as strangely embarrassed as if someone had pointed out that his fly was open. But Oz was ignorant of his shame, and simply turned the screen of his gaming unit so Ben could read it. In the few seconds since he'd messaged his name to Oz, the boy had entered it into a Web search engine and pulled up one of those news stories about his arrest. "This filled in the blanks," he added.

Ben felt his face turn red and looked down. "I, uh—"

Oz smirked, and all of a sudden Ben wasn't sure whether he liked this boy or not. "No sweat, Ben. You're not the only discipline case going to Sherrinford this year."

Ben looked up at that. "You mean you—?"

Oz met his gaze for a second, then looked down, nodding toward his own legs, and Ben saw the telltale bulge by the boy's ankle—Oz had a monitoring device of his own. Ben could have kicked himself for not noticing sooner.

"Pretty amazing piece of tech," Oz said, not seeming anywhere near as humiliated as Ben was to be wearing it. "The company that makes them uses a proprietary system to transmit and receive signals from the GPS satellite system. It's encrypted and very hard to crack."

Ben had no answer for this—indeed, he'd barely understood what Oz had just said. He decided to change the subject. "So, what did you do to—?"

"Hacked into my school's computer to protest unfair grading practices—"

"You mean you changed your grades?"

"Not mine, no. Just everyone else's. I was trying to make a point. Never mind. The real point is, I got caught. It was stupid. My parents wigged. Didn't want me turning out like that other kid, you know, the one in the news a while back—"

"The Whiz," Ben said, nodding

"Yeah. They thought a summer at Sherrinford would straighten me out. No more computer or Internet access without adult supervision. And supposedly they teach a whole ethics course that includes cyber-crime."

Ben relaxed at that. "Oh. So what—?" he began, but Oz cut him off.

"Hey, Ben, let's swap criminal histories another time." He waggled his Gamehound. "You feel like playing against me? Check your directory—I downloaded some new games for you."

Ben looked at his screen and discovered about a dozen new games. He and Oz spent the next hour engaged in wandering around a tiny virtual dungeon, shooting trolls and minotaurs. Ben was so enthralled by the features his new friend had given him that he was willing to let Oz's abrupt change of subject go. For now. Still, it bothered him that Oz had an advantage. Ben's story was pretty much a matter of public record, but he knew nothing about Oz. He decided that before the summer was out, he was going to learn everything he could.

Cool. Now I know I'll have something excellent to look forward to every Friday. Printing it out for savoring!
Gonna make me go all girl-detective on the name of the new magazine?! (Yay for the story, btw.)
Ooh. That used to be my favorite magazine. Might have to check it out again. ;)
Good stuff, MM! Keep it coming.
Love it!
I'm loving this story! Can't wait for the next chapter.
This stuff is great, MM. I mean that, most sincerely. I devoured the chapter and immediately wanted the next.
It's getting better and better! I can see why Thomas was so enthralled. LOVE IT! :)
Love it! I must have misunderstood~ I looked at Amazon and could not find it : ( I guess I'll just have to wait till next Friday : )
My 11 year-old daughter is now interested in reading this, too. And the magazine. LOL
It was my favorite magazine growing up too. :-) Best of luck!
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