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“WHAT IS THE SILENCE OF SIX, AND WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”
These are the last words uttered by 17-year-old Max Stein’s best friend Evan just moments before he kills himself after hacking into the live-streaming Presidential debate at their high school.
Haunted by the unforgettable image of Evan’s death, Max’s entire world is upended as he suddenly finds himself the target of a corporate-government witch-hunt. Fearing for his life and fighting for his own innocence, Max goes on the run with no one to trust and too many unanswered questions.
Max must dust off his own hacking skills and maneuver through the dangerous labyrinth of underground hacktivist networks, ever-shifting alliances and virtual identities – all the while hoping to find the truth behind the “Silence of Six” before it’s too late.
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CHAPTER: Max Stein bounced on the balls of his feet.
The line was moving way?. . . too?. . . slowly. He should have been at afternoon soccer practice or running around the track, not zombie-shambling down this hallway to the school auditorium. But since hosting a presidential debate was such an honor for Granville High, attendance was mandatory.
'Man, this blows,' Isaac Ramirez said in front of Max.
Max scratched his right wrist where the sleeve of his wool blazer kept itching. He was always uncomfortable in a jacket and tie; he felt less like himself. His black Chucks were a small act of rebellion against tonight's draconian dress code.
'‘Don't you think it's exciting to see our political system at work firsthand? We're participating in history.'' Max quoted his girlfriend Courtney. 'And so on and so forth.' He followed Isaac as they shifted another foot toward their destination.
'You don't want to be here any more than I do,' Isaac said.
'Guilty. Just don't tell Cort.'
The Commission on Presidential Debates had decided to bring one of the events to a high school because internet regulations and education were both major topics in this year's election. Courtney Garcia's essay about her digital detox efforts and her recent suspension for criticizing the school's 'no use' policy for mobile devices had won the national competition for Granville.
It was ironic that, as a result, students were being encouraged to use their cell phones in school tonight to post live on Panjea, the debate's biggest sponsor.
Two men in black suits flanked the doors to the auditorium, hands clasped in front of them. The small stars pinned to their lapels and the coiled earpieces winding behind their left ears marked them as United States Secret Service.
'Hey! It's the S.S.,' Isaac said. One of them flicked his eyes at Isaac then continued gazing straight ahead.
'I'm sure they love it when people call them that,' Max said.
A female agent was running a wand over students before allowing them into the auditorium, which seemed excessive since there were already metal detectors at each of the building's entrances. When his turn came up, Max palmed his cell phone in his right hand, his keys in his left, and spread his arms.
He wondered what the life of a Secret Service agent was like. Max was athletic. He had a knack for assessing situations quickly (at least on the soccer field), and he had a freakishly good memory, which his best friend Evan Baxter called his superpower. On the other hand, he had problems with authority, and he wouldn't want the government looking into his past too closely. He had just been a kid having what he'd considered harmless fun, but he knew they would love to make an example out of him now.
The agent waved Max through. He passed between the silent sentries guarding the doors and joined Isaac inside.
'Wow,' Max said.
The debate's public relations team had transformed the auditorium in only a week. The shabby old curtains along the walls and on the stage had been replaced with red velvet drapery. A large projector screen now stretched across the stage, with two walnut-grain podiums situated on either side of it. There were enough cameras, floodlights, cables, and speakers to make it resemble a movie set.
Mr. Kelley ushered Max and Isaac into a row. 'File in. All the way to the end.'
'Axe! Ram! Down here!' Walt Smith called them down to the third row, where he was holding two seats. Max tensed up as the Secret Service agents stationed around the auditorium focused in on Walt and murmured into their earpieces.
Mr. Kelley sighed and let them join their teammate. 'Just get settled quickly, will you? And no more shouting, huh?'
They made their way down to the front. Max grabbed the seat on the aisle; he hated being boxed in.
Isaac gave Walt a fist bump. 'Good looking out.'
'This is great, Walt. Thanks,' Max said.
They were close enough to the front to see everything, even the laptop screens on the moderator's table below the stage—all except for Courtney's. The privacy filter he'd bought her for their one-month anniversary blacked out the screen at this angle.
Max texted her. Look behind you.
Courtney picked up her phone from the table, read the message, and then turned around. She smiled and waved when she spotted him.
Isaac whistled. 'That outfit really shows off her rack.'
'Come on.' Max forced a cheerful tone to hide how pissed off he was. But he had to admit: Courtney was stunning in a gray striped pantsuit. Her honey-brown hair was twisted into a business-like bun that made her look older.
'I still can't believe you scored Full Cort,' Isaac said.
'Don't call her that,' Max snapped.
Guys had started chanting 'Full Cort!' at basketball games whenever Courtney appeared, because of the way she filled her cheerleading uniform.
'You used to call her that too,' Isaac said quietly.
'Yeah, but—' I was just trying to fit in, Max wanted to say. He'd just been pretending to be one of the guys, because that's what you did to be popular. Just as Courtney had pretended the nickname didn't bother her.
Eventually she quit the squad and joined the school newspaper, where she quickly developed a reputation as a tough reporter. After a brutal interview with a teacher about the Common Core, a reader commented that she had given the interviewee 'the Full Cort Press,' and the less offensive meaning soon stuck. Courtney had even taken the name for her personal blog.
Max's cell phone vibrated with a text from Courtney: I'm so nervous!
Max typed back. You'll be great!
I've got butterflies in my stomach. Or maybe one giant butterfly.
If it escapes your chest Aliens-style, you'll steal the show, Max wrote.
Courtney laughed then covered her mouth. Ew, she wrote.
I thought you'd be in the gym, he typed. The gym had been designated the 'Spin Room', as it was the only space large enough to accommodate all the reporters covering the debate. Max didn't see the point, considering the internet would decide the winner almost instantaneously.
I couldn't turn down the best seat in the house. I'm going to liveblog the whole night and record video for my blog post, Courtney typed.
Good luck! he wrote. He added: BTW, you look amazing. ;)
We're about to start!!! See you after?
Max started to put his phone away when it buzzed again.
It wasn't from Courtney this time. The text message was encrypted, which meant it could only be from Evan.
Max scanned the crowded auditorium. He didn't see Evan's trademark red hoodie anywhere. A dress code wouldn't have prevented him from wearing it; he would happily play the autism card if someone raised a fuss.
Max swiped his finger from right to left across the phone's screen and a password field popped up—Evan's handiwork. Concerned about telecom companies storing the communications of their customers, he had created an app called LemonJuice for secure SMS texting. If Evan had sold the app, he'd be raking in money, but instead he had offered it for free as open-source software.
Max shielded his phone and tapped in his encryption key, then pressed his palm against the screen for three seconds.
The text message faded in.
hey, bud stop i need your help with this stop i know you'll figure out what to do with it stop good luck stop
Hairs rose on the back of Max's neck.
The ominous message was followed by a string of jumbled letters, numbers, and symbols.
'Hey. Have you guys seen Evan?' Max asked.
'Who?' Isaac asked.
'Does that dork even still go here?' Walt asked. 'I thought he had Asperger's or something.'
'He can still attend school. He's just in different classes this year,' Max said.
The diagnosis had changed more than Evan's class schedule, though. The meds that helped control his anxiety and paranoia also made him slower and more withdrawn.
Maybe he had decided to stay home to watch the debate on his computer, while doing ten other things simultaneously. But Max now realized he hadn't seen Evan around much at all lately. Which didn't necessarily mean he hadn't been coming to school—Max could have missed him because he hadn't been looking for him until now. Max had barely spoken to Evan since school started, but in the old days, whenever they weren't hanging out in real life, they were communicating with each other online.
Max typed back: What? Where are you???
The lights over the audience dimmed as the stage lit up. The entrances and exits around the auditorium were closed, each guarded by Secret Service agents.
Max checked the time on his phone. 4:59. Still no response from Evan.
A woman dressed all in black beside one of the cameras raised a hand. She spoke into a headset.
'We are live in ten, nine, eight, seven, six. . .' She finished the countdown silently on her fingers: five, four, three, two, one.
The red light above the cameras blinked on and a sign mounted above the stage displayed 'On the Air.'
A graphic of the billowing 'Presidential Debate' banner and the CNN and Panjea logos blossomed on the giant video screen. It was then replaced by a shot of the dark school auditorium, students' faces lit eerily by the glow of their phones and tablets.
'Good evening from Granville High School in Granville, California. I'm Bennett Avery of the CNN Newsroom.' Over the speakers, Avery's rumbling baritone sounded like the voice of God, if God had a southern twang. The screen transitioned to a shot of the desk, making him look fifteen feet tall. 'I welcome you to our second presidential debate between the Republican nominee, Senator Clancy Tooms, Jr. of Utah, and the Democratic nominee, Governor Angela S. Lovett of Tennessee. Panjea is the sponsor of this event.'
Avery quickly explained the debate format. The candidates would be fielding questions from pre-screened web videos submitted through Panjea. They would have two minutes to respond to questions, then have the opportunity to address each other and answer follow-up questions from the moderator.
'The audience in this auditorium has promised to remain silent throughout the evening. No applause, no cheering, no ringing cell phones. The one exception is right now: Please join me in welcoming Senator Tooms and Governor Lovett.'
Avery rose and began clapping as Senator Tooms entered from stage left and Governor Lovett from stage right. Max joined in the applause and stood with his classmates. He was finally feeling some of the excitement that he'd been resisting until now. Max had never been this close to a celebrity before, and one of the people only one hundred feet away from him was going to become the next President of the United States.
Tooms and Lovett met in the center of the stage and shook hands as camera bulbs flashed around them. They paused and spoke briefly to each other while more photos were taken. The microphone didn't catch what they said, but they were acting more like old friends than opponents.
Tooms was about Max's height, six feet tall, and built like a football player, with close-cropped, silver hair. The fifty-one-year-old Senator was a striking contrast to Lovett's slim, five-foot-one-inch figure and auburn hair in a trendy style. Courtney was Lovett's biggest fan, but she often complained about the Governor's outfits getting more attention in the news than her views on the issues.
Sure enough, the Panjea commentary scrolling on the bottom of the screen with the hashtag #webdeb was now almost entirely focused on her 'smoky blue' business suit, her makeup, her new haircut, and her 'chic' glasses.
Despite Max's lack of enthusiasm for the debate itself, the issues under discussion tonight mattered to him. Everyone who cared about net neutrality knew that Senator Tooms, the GOP nominee, was all for limiting the government's role in regulating the internet. Although he supported the 'defensive' use of computer viruses and malware to spy on other countries, he was strongly opposed to monitoring American citizens.
Even though Lovett had once headed the government's top spy agency, she had pledged to end surveillance of the American public. However, she also supported more government regulation of the internet. She claimed that it would help protect everyone's privacy because it would be easier to identify security flaws in software and share them with businesses and users before they could be exploited.
The candidates separated. Lovett paused on the way to her side of the stage to take a picture of the audience with her phone. She typed on it as she walked, and by the time she reached her podium, a note was scrolling across the screen. AngelaLovett: Hello, Granville HS! :) #webdeb
Max checked Lovett's feed on his phone. The image she had just taken already had over three thousand Amps—and as more users shared it, it was getting even more Amplified. Front and center in the photo, Courtney grinned ear to ear.
Lovett was making great use of Panjea to connect with voters and raise campaign funds. She had more than thirty million Peers on her Panjea profile, where she ran weekly chats and shared video messages. Most of that online success was attributed to her senior strategist and media advisor, Kevin Sharpe.
Avery briefly introduced Courtney and the assembled students immediately broke the debate's rule about staying quiet. But how could they not cheer for their own classmate? As the official representative for Granville High, she would ask the last question of the night. Max knew that she was planning to ask how Panjea could be considered an impartial supporter of the debates when its CEO, Vic Ignacio, was Lovett's biggest donor.
The lights brightened and the camera panned across the audience, beaming their images out into the world. Max smiled and tried to look thoughtful and engaged.
'Candidates, are you ready?' Avery asked.
Tooms flashed a thumbs-up and Lovett nodded.
Avery consulted his laptop screen. 'Our first question comes from Kennedy Richards of Bangor, Maine.'
A pixelated video speckled with a lot of low-light noise showed a teenage girl in a white tank top, her black hair in a braid draped in front of her right shoulder. A silver stud in her right nostril glinted in the white glow from her computer screen. Kennedy's name and location were listed in the graphic under her image.
'Hot,' Isaac breathed. 'I'd like to Bang-or.'
Max forced a short laugh.
Kennedy's voice boomed from the speakers. 'I would like to know, if you're voted into office, how are you going to adress climate change?'
'First response to you, Senator Tooms. You have two minutes,' Avery said.
'I'm glad we're starting off with an easy topic,' Tooms said.
The audience laughed.
Tooms looked straight into the camera. 'First of all, I'd like to thank Principal Zimmerman and the faculty, staff, and students of Granville High School for inviting us and hosting this event. You all know education is an important part of my campaign, and it bothers me as much as I'm sure it bothers you that you had to give up a day of classes to prepare for our visit.'
More laughter and some clapping.
'But I hope we'll all learn from each other tonight.' Tooms smiled. 'Thank you for the question, Kennedy.'
Then he launched into a carefully phrased, party-approved response that cleverly avoided acknowledging that climate change was an actual threat.
Lovett was up. 'I had the opportunity to tour Granville this afternoon, and it's a lovely city. In many ways it reminds me of where I grew up, in the small town of Alexandria, Tennessee. It feels like home here?. . . the kind of American town we used to see on television when I was growing up.
'I know Granville is also one of the oldest cities in California, dating back to 1850—at least according to Wikipedia.' Laughter rippled through the audience.
Lovett told them Granville was a vibrant part of the nation's history, and it would be a shame if it weren't part of its future because of rising sea levels.
'Climate change is real, it's happening now, and it affects all of us,' she said.
And so it went. Questions about foreign policy, internet regulation, nuclear power, national debt. Several questions touched on education and student loans. And sprinkled among these heavy topics were 'fun' questions, such as: Did the candidates prefer cats or dogs? Lovett said she'd always wanted a potbellied pig.
The ninety minutes flew by. In no time, Avery said, 'Our last video question comes from Samir Gupta in Bakersfield, California.'
Pixels danced in the video box onscreen.
'I'm sorry. We're having some technical—' Avery had one finger pressed to the earpiece in his left ear. Then the distorted pattern of blocks resolved into a face. 'Oh, here we are.'
But the face wasn't human: It was a sinister mask.
A bright light gave its bone-white surface a ghostly glow and plunged the background into shadows. It had a grotesque expression, with demonic eyes, a furrowed brow, and a horrible grimace.
Kids around Max gasped and murmured. Several students said the words that were also running through Max's head: Dramatis Personai. The mask was reminiscent of the ones worn by members of the well-known hacker group when they addressed the public.
Avery turned to the technicians working in the wings. 'That's the wrong video,' he hissed off-mike.
'Hello?' the figure said. The voice was as unsettling as the mask, digitally altered to be flat and low-pitched.
The figure turned to the right and stared into the darkness for a moment. It wore a red-hooded sweatshirt, the hood drawn over the head.
Max's heart beat faster and his palms prickled with anxiety.
The figure turned back to face the camera and took a deep breath. 'My name is STOP.'
STOP was Evan's online handle.
STOP leaned closer to the camera and Max instinctively leaned closer too, trying to get a better look at him. There were twin glints behind the large, dark eyeholes of the mask, like light reflecting off lenses. Evan was practically blind without glasses.
It couldn't be.
'What's going on?' Avery asked in an exasperated voice.
'Do you really want to know?' STOP asked.
Evan, what are you doing?
'He answered me! Is this video live?' Avery looked at the screen with his hand cupped over his mike. 'What do you mean, you don't know where it's comingfrom?'
'Just listen,' STOP said. Even through the audio filter, there was no mistaking the urgency and desperation in his voice. 'Please listen.'
Three loud tones punctuated the audio. Max and his classmates flinched.
'I have a question.' STOP took a deep breath and looked straight into the camera. Max shivered. From where he was sitting, it was as if STOP was looking straight at him.
'What is the silence of six, and what are you going to do about it?' STOP pushed his hood back. Evan's usually wispy brown hair was greasy and dull, matted against his head.
He reached off screen with his right hand and used his left to slowly lift his mask enough to reveal his nose and mouth. He had a few days' growth of stubble and his pale skin glistened with sweat.
Max gripped the armrests of his seat. What the hell was he doing?
In his own undisguised voice, Evan mumbled. 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry?...'
Light from the desk lamp flashed against something dark. It took Max a moment longer to figure out what Evan was holding in his right hand. It didn't register immediately because it didn't belong there. It didn't belong in Evan's mouth.
Shit, that's a gun, Max thought.
The sharp pop of a gunshot tore through the quiet. The video jumped as Evan's body jerked and fell backward into the shadows with a sickening, wet thud. Blood speckled the camera lens and the light turned red.
The audience gasped then fell quiet.