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Authors: Romily Bernard

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BOOK: Trust Me
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Because the boys are finishing some project, Alex and I eat breakfast alone the next morning. Mrs. Bascombe—a soft-spoken woman from South Africa who takes off as soon as we come in—has left us oatmeal, pancakes, and enough coffee to keep me going for days.

Which is probably just as well because the study guides for my upcoming classes are already waiting for me and they're crazy thick.

I heft the history guide onto the table next to my oatmeal. “I thought online studying was supposed to reduce paper waste.”

Alex shrugs. “Wait until you see the homework assignments. If you're even a couple hours late, they email Norcut.”

I groan and reach for the coffee, pour one for Alex and one for me. She dumps a metric ton of creamer into hers
and downs half of it in a few swallows. I can't really blame her. I don't think either of us slept last night. From two a.m. to dawn, her breathing was as shallow as mine.

“Is it always this quiet?” I ask, and pop two of my pain pills.

“Nah. Most of the time it's noisy as hell, but no one's a huge fan of breakfast around here. We keep late hours.”

Suits me. I pick at my oatmeal while Alex chugs more coffee and stares at the street below. I should say “tries to stare.” The clouds curled closer during the night. I doubt she can see a thing, but it doesn't seem to stop her from trying.

“You ready?” Alex asks at last.


We go climb one floor and push through the glass doors just like we did yesterday, and just like yesterday, the boys are already there, leaning against their desks in a way that's probably supposed to look nonchalant, but fails miserably. Connor's eyes are too bright when we walk in. Something's up.

“She's kind of hot,” Connor says, leaning down to study Kent's screen. I can't tell what they're looking at, but a few steps later, I see the video. Porn. Lovely.

“Looks like a girl I knew freshman year of college,” Jake says. “She used to shake her can of pepper spray every time we passed.”

“You went to college?” Kent tilts his chair from side to side. “That's so lame.”

“Seriously?” Alex waves Jake and Connor to the side
and thumps Kent's chair. “
what you're objecting to?”

The guys turn to glare at her and notice me. Kent studies my hair for a long moment, sucking on his lower lip. “What's with the hair?” he asks finally. “You think it makes you look like a superhero?”

“I dunno. Do those mirrors help you groom your Muppet eyebrows?” I motion to Kent's desk, where he has two mirrors on either side of his cubicle walls. Most people like to personalize their cubes. I mean, Connor and Jake have the typical crap lying around—action figures, candy wrappers, Mountain Dew cans—but Kent's cube is immaculate, just a sweating, plastic Big Gulp by the keyboard and the two mirrors hanging on either side of his monitors.

Odds are, they're for seeing whoever's walking around behind him, but judging from how many times he checks himself in the glass, Kent enjoys his reflection. He likes to watch himself work.

“Shut it, you guys,” Alex says. “She has to do her skill assessment test this morning.”

Kent snorts. “So?”

“So she doesn't need your crap too.”

Kent takes his time looking me up and down. “If she can't cut it, we need to know.”

The glass doors scrape open behind us and Kent minimizes his screen, replacing the window with an administrator dashboard instead.

“Gentlemen, ladies.” Norcut passes Connor a tablet. “Your calculus teacher emailed me. He says your last
homework assignment is late. I hope you have a very good reason.”

Connor goes bright red and scurries to his computer station. Norcut turns to us. “You know what you're supposed to be doing, so let's get to it.” She looks at me, looks at my hair, then points to the setup on my right. “We're going to put you here for now.”

I nod and drop into the chair, scoping the system. It's way nice.

“This is a timed test,” Norcut says, pulling another chair close. She sits and passes me a sheet of paper with a printed web address. “Log on to this laptop, and once you're in, use the laptop to scan for all wireless devices within the area.”

Norcut leans closer and points to a twelve-digit alphanumeric serial number below the address. “When you find this device, tell me.”

I take the paper and turn to my computer. “Then what?”

“Then you will turn it off and on at my command. Can you do that?”

Yeah . . . but
? What's the point? I want to ask. I bite my tongue instead. Then bite it harder.

They have to see what I can do, and I agreed to be honest. To do my best. To

To not ask questions.

Okay, maybe not so much the last one, but questions draw everything to the surface. They make you look like you aren't a team player and Looking Glass is all about the
team and I'm all about graduating so—“Sure,” I say. “I can do that.”

Then I grin like I'm Susie Freaking Sunshine and get to work. The web address takes me to a password log-in page. Considering this is a timed test, I have to assume this computer has the same VNC password as the laptop and punch in “command: vncserver:1” followed by “vncpasswd” into the Linux box.

Wait for it . . . wait for—I'm in.

There are about three dozen devices within range of the remote laptop, and after a bit of hunting, I find one device that matches the serial number Norcut gave me. I hijack it and start running commands, looking for vulnerabilities in the device.

“Are you in?” Norcut asks.

I nod and she stands, takes a cell from her blazer's pocket, and punches in a number. She waits, eyes on me. “Are you ready?”

“One second.” Something's a little weird here. Well, not weird.
. There's an open port within the remote authentication, and immediately I start fuzzing—basically throwing variable inputs at the device until I can exploit a weakness. And it's that weakness that catches my attention. Whatever I'm accessing isn't properly secured. It's not a phone, tablet, or even a laptop because those would be better updated. This is something different.

“We're at the two-minute mark, Wick.”

“I—” I've got it. There. There's an easily exploitable
heap overflow. Now I just need a quick script.

I start typing code from memory, praying I get it right. If I do, the exploit will run as a privileged service, giving me total control of the device.


“Yeah . . . yeah, I'm ready.” I fold both hands in my lap and take a deep breath, looking at Norcut.

“Do you have confirmation?” she asks into her phone. There's a pause, then Norcut nods to me. “Turn it off, Wick.”

I blink, sudden nerves drying up my breath. Is there some other Looking Glass employee standing by the other computer? Is this how they're checking my work?

“It's okay, Wick.” Norcut sounds softer than I have ever heard her. “Just turn it off.”

I do. Nothing happens. I mean, on our end, nothing happens. On their end, obviously, everything's just ground to a total halt.

Seconds later, Norcut asks me to turn it back on, and I type the command prompts, nodding at her when I'm finished.

Norcut's eyes go a little blank as she listens to whoever's on the other end of her phone, then she looks at me. “Off.”

It's easier the second time. The pause stretches much longer though. The boys are supposed to be working on their own thing, but I know Kent's watching us. I keep seeing his eyes following Norcut in those damn mirrors.

“On,” Norcut says.

I do, and when I'm finished, I sneak a glance at Alex.
She grins and I give her a lopsided smile. I am trying. I am trying. I am trying.

Across from us, Norcut paces the length of the room, waiting, listening. The entire room is overstuffed with breathing and silence.

She stops. “Off.”

We repeat the cycle four more times. Each time, the pause is longer, and each time, I get faster. Start. Stop. Start. Stop. Whoever's on the other end is getting a good idea of what I can do.

What I
do. Playing along is getting easier. At some point, Hart comes in. He leans against an empty desk, watching me, watching Norcut. Every time our gazes meet, his mouth twitches like we're in on the same joke.

“We're finished.” Norcut eyes the phone, putting it in her pocket. “Good job. That was nicely done.”

“She still took four minutes longer than I did.” Kent thumps a fist against the top of his desk. “I still hold the record.”

“Indeed you do,” Norcut says, attention still on me.

“So did I pass or whatever?” I ask.

“Of course. Did you doubt you would? The test is only a formality, Wick. We know you belong.”

Kent makes a disgusted noise like he disagrees. “I'm ready for you to look at this,” he says to Norcut. She walks to Kent's side, stands next to his workstation to view his computer screen.

I'm glad for the space. I can't settle. There's something
really wonderful about being able to do this in the
and yet I can't make my smiles genuine. I can't bring myself to really laugh. It's like suspicion has tunneled through me—so deeply and for so long—that there's nothing left but hollows.

“Alex,” Hart says. “Do you think you could show Wick those accounts you were working on?”

Alex gets up from her workstation and joins me at mine. Hart studies both of us as she walks me through the network, showing me the files I'll need.

“These are a few of our newer clients,” Hart says. “I'd like you to take a closer look—”

“Mr. Hart?” Norcut lifts one slim hand, motioning to him. “Can you come here?”

“One second,” he says to us and joins the huddle at Kent's computer.

“Alex.” I nudge my knee against hers. “What did I just do?”

Her face scrunches. “Um, shouldn't you know this? You interrupted a wireless computer.”


“Why not?”

I pause, trying to force my head around her answer. “That's not enough.”

Alex shrugs. “Sometimes it is. Are you okay?”

I start to say yes. “No.”

“You need to be okay, Wick.” Alex flicks my knee, and for the first time I realize I was bouncing it. I press myself still. “You need to
okay with this.”

Our eyes meet and a sickening pang reaches all the way to my toes. “You don't believe. You think there's something off here too.”

Alex pauses. “I don't
believe. I've seen people graduate. I know they go on.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “I know they go on and we can too. Hart and Norcut found us because we're special, and if we play by the rules, we're safe, and whatever's out there is way worse than whatever they're doing in here.”

She's probably right. But I can't stop thinking about all the wiggle room you can fit into “special.” Alex believes she's going to get a better life from this. I've been told I'll get a better life from this. But the best lies are the ones that people
to believe.

Is that what this is? Or am I searching for cracks again? It's happened so many times before. I have screwed up so many times. How can I trust myself to see what's right anymore?

I force a smile and Alex's grip tightens. “It's fine,” she whispers.

Fine enough for me to get to call my sister? Somehow I doubt it. I smile wider, but over Alex's shoulder I see Hart. I'm not sure when he finished with Norcut and Kent, but he's done now and he's watching us.

I push that smile even wider and Hart instantly smiles back—not before his eyes narrow though.

I'm playing the game, but I don't believe.

And Hart knows it.


We eat lunch at our desks. This kind of bothers me because I don't like crumbs on my keyboard, but no one else seems to mind. Kent's pumping metal music through the overhead sound system and every time the bass thumps, Jake juts his chin forward, front teeth firmly clamped on his lower lip. Geek dancing. Gotta love it.

Or not, because Alex has noise-canceling headphones on, and every time Jake starts rocking out, she glares at him. It just makes him jam harder and then she laughs.

I half expect Hart to pull me aside, but he doesn't. He just watches me and smiles. I can't decide if it means anything.

Or if I'm just driving myself crazy.

In the end, Norcut announces she has client meetings and leaves all of us with homework, of sorts. Mine is
disassembling and decrypting a series of viruses. Most of them aren't bad. One's definitely vicious—it wants to overwrite data on the host PC, rendering it inoperable. But the last one? The last one's just bloated code. More than I've ever seen on anything before and it does
. Whatever though. It makes my life easier. I delete it and move on, running checks against the others until the music suddenly cuts off.

I glance up and realize Alex is gone. Actually—I roll my chair around for a better look—everyone's gone except for Kent.

I roll back to my desk and check the time on the lower corner of my screen. It's after seven. I've been working for almost twelve hours now, but I don't feel exhausted . . . more like my head's finally evened out, like it's finally quieted. It's a weird relief, one I didn't know I needed.

Does that mean Norcut's right?

I push the idea around, poke at it until I realize it's mine. It's
. I just didn't know it was me. Apparently I do enjoy the work, and admitting it somehow feels like missing a step in the dark. There was a horrible breath where my insides scooped low.

And then I found my footing again. I'm okay.

Maybe this is who I am.

I log out of my system and push to my feet, spine popping. Something else I need? A hot shower and probably another cup of coffee. And I'm halfway to the double doors when Kent appears, rolling his chair almost onto my toes.

“What?” I ask.

“Ever since you got here, someone's been hitting my firewall.”

“Your firewall?”

His lips thin. “Looking Glass's.”

I shrug. “Isn't that kind of what happens around here?”

“Not like this. It's not just Looking Glass either. They're focused on hitting your personal computer's firewall too.” The hacker's eyes crawl along my face like he can sense how my heart rate's suddenly quickened.

“You're checking my stuff?” I ask, and I sound good. I'm all light and unimpressed even though my insides are splintering. I was so careful. I was always looking over my shoulder.

“Hart told me to check on everything. You understand, of course?” Kent's smile is animal white. “Safety
a virtue.”

“So's bathing. You should make a note.”

I start to move around him and he kicks his chair in front of me again. “It's like they know where to look. You have a partner?”


“Liar. You have to. How else would they know where to look?”

“They're just lucky, I guess.” There's a humming in my ears now and I have to push each breath through my nose. Regrettable since I can smell Kent even better now. “If you don't believe me, talk to Hart. I work alone. It's in my file. Whatever you're seeing . . . it has to be someone random.
Or maybe it's the people I'm hiding from. I'm popular. Ask anybody.”

“I don't believe you. Whoever it is—they had to know what you were doing before Hart picked you up.” Spit flicks past Kent's lips. He's getting more and more agitated, and strangely, it makes me calmer. He isn't rude to me because I'm a girl. He's rude to me because I'm a threat.

And maybe also because I'm a girl.

“You'll get in trouble for not being honest with Dr. Norcut.” He's grinning now. “I'll make sure of it.”

“Good to know. Are we done here?”

“You think you're so tough, but—”

“Yeah, we're done.” I walk around him and shove through the doors like my legs aren't shaking. I want to stop, lean against the wall, and catch my breath and I can't.

I watch the security camera from the corner of my eye and wait for the elevator as my insides try to climb outside. Because it isn't a “they” at all. Someone who's familiar with my code? Someone who attacks firewalls?

It's Griff.

I can't concentrate
during dinner. I can't stop thinking about everyone who might hunt me down—Milo, Carson, even some of my dad's thugs—but none of them know firewalls as well as Griff.

How does he even know I'm here? Did someone tell him? And why's he searching for me? Why now? We haven't spoken in weeks. The last thing he said to me was that he
couldn't touch me. Not even once, because if he did, he'd have to touch me again.

And he wasn't going to let himself do that.

In Griff's defense, I deserved it. I lied. To him, to Bren, to Lily.

But mostly to myself.

I haven't spoken to Griff in two months now. It hurts and it has no right to hurt. It's not like I've been spending all my time away from him alone. I have Milo.

Had Milo. It's stupid for me to worry about him. He's way better at hiding than I am and yet I can't seem to shake the anxiety that he's going to get caught. Looking Glass and Hart and Norcut have cracked me and what-ifs are seeping through.

After dinner, we have group therapy in the common room. Norcut leads, Hart watches, and a woman in a wrinkled suit sits in the corner and takes notes.

“She's from some government agency,” Alex whispers as we find seats in the semicircle. “She stops by every month or so to check on the program. I think it's for licensing or something.”

Or something. The armchairs have been pulled away from the television and I pick the farthest one from the official. Thing is, out of everyone here, she seems the most legit. I've been around social workers enough to spot the type: bloodshot eyes from long hours, tote bag swollen with case files.

Group therapy is also familiar. I'm expected to share
more since I'm the newest arrival and I hit all the high notes: Mom died. Dad in jail. I enjoy computers, chocolate, and long walks on beaches.

Norcut's fingers tighten around her pen just like they used to. “And what do you want to work on during your time with us? What personal goal would you like to achieve?”

I'd like to stay alive. I'd like to know why Griff's searching for me. I'd like my old life back.

No, scratch that. I don't want to go back to that life. I want parts of it, but not all of it anymore. So that means . . . what?

I have no idea.

And by this time, I've taken so long to answer, Norcut gives me a little smile. “Is there anything you'd like to do over? Any mistakes you've made that you want to make sure you never make again?”

Thousands. I shrug. I get what she's doing, but this is why therapy can be so damn pointless: They think you can distill everything you do into one or two character flaws. I have way more faults than that.

And way more mistakes . . . still . . . “Trust,” I say at last. “I need to work on trusting people.”

Norcut beams and tells me what a good job I'm doing. Then she has the group tell me what a good job I'm doing. This is a therapist's version of passing out treats because I sat on command. Or rolled over. Take your pick.

Norcut wants to talk to all of us about boundaries now. People have them. We shouldn't cross them—especially
when those boundaries are set by the government and are there for people's privacy.

I love this part, but for all the wrong reasons. Boundaries? Seriously? I just hijacked someone's wireless device. The irony is effing hilarious, but Norcut looks serious, Alex looks serious, the Bookends—Connor and Jake—look
serious, and Kent? Kent looks like he's sleeping with his eyes open.

“We haven't heard much from you, Kent,” Norcut says, recrossing her legs and tugging down the hem of her navy skirt. “What do you enjoy most about working with systems and computers?”

“Computers are their own world and that world has no choice but to adore me.”

The agency woman scribbles more in her notebook, but Norcut seems pleased. “You're living up to your potential here, aren't you?”

Kent nods, smiles.

Alex kicks my ankle and I almost giggle. The weird feeling from earlier is gone, replaced with something that . . . honestly? Something that feels
. And it can't possibly
normal. None of this is remotely normal. We're a bunch of computer nerds locked in an office building. It's either the start of the world's geekiest horror flick or the world's geekiest X-Men movie.

But everyone else seems chill about it so that makes me . . . the crazy one?

After therapy, I follow Alex to our room. Once inside,
she kicks off her tennis shoes and climbs—fully clothed—into bed.

“Talk to me.” I stand between Alex's bed and her dresser. “Please? You know there's more going on here than they're telling us.”

She groans. “If you want to go off the deep end trying to figure this place out, go ahead, but you're not taking me.”

“Give me some credit here,” I say, watching Alex arrange her physics notes into neat, little piles. “I'm not planning a protest march. I just want to know what's going on.”

“I already told you: Play the game and you're in. You'll have a degree. You'll have a new life.”

“I've heard those lines before. It never works like you think it will. Or like you want it to.” I played the game with my dad, with Joe, with Carson. I kept thinking if I did this one last thing, if I pushed just a little bit harder, it would all be okay.

It very rarely was, and in the end, it wasn't okay at all.

I take a step toward Alex. “Why would they let us go if we're doing what they want? What are they getting from this?”

The pause is so long I think she isn't going to answer.

“Don't care,” Alex says at last and touches her fingertips to the first pile of notes and then the second. “I know I'm getting three meals a day and safety. You want the truth? You go get it. But I'm not helping. I know men like Hart. They all carry themselves the same way—that's how you spot them.”

I study her. We really are alike. I know exactly what Alex means. “They do, don't they?”

She nods, eyes inching over me. If Alex is going along with this maybe I should too. Down the hallway, the elevator dings and both of us stiffen, turn toward our bedroom door.

“You hear that?” Alex asks. “Someone's coming up from the garage.”

She pushes off the bed and cracks our door open, leaning close to the wall to see better. “That's weird.”

“Oh good. Something else is weird.”

Alex smiles. “You're really,
going to want to see this. He's

Later, I'd tell myself it was the way her voice tilted low that told me who was in the hallway. I've heard it before after all. When it comes to him, girls can't help it.

I can't help it.

I nudge Alex to the side and peek through the crack between the glass door and the jamb. Hart's standing in the hallway, back to us. One hand pinned to a taller boy's shoulder. Hart's holding on to him like he's afraid he'll run.

Or bite.

“I thought they only caught you,” Alex says, and I turn. Our eyes meet. “You know him?” she asks.

I don't answer. Actually, I'm not sure I can. Of course I know him.

It's Milo.

BOOK: Trust Me
13.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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