Authors: Tracy Alexander
‘Great at building suspense and tension, this is a real page-turner of a book’
Brill Book Blog
‘A clever, interesting and refreshing read, prepare for your thoughts to be thoroughly provoked … The author shows how easy it can be to step onto the wrong path and just how difficult it is to try to right a wrong … A compelling read’
‘From script kiddies to the dark net, Tracy Alexander knows her stuff …
should be compulsory reading for all teenage computer geeks, many adult computer geeks and all parents of teenage geeks. Read it. Pass it on. Make sure it’s in all the libraries in all the schools’
Dark Matter Zine
Thanks to Nadia the astute, Behzad the wary, Chloe for the gen on Leeds and pithy Jackie.
Newswire – 4 Sept 21:46 UTC
IBB, YEMEN – The CIA has declined to comment on reports of a drone strike in the Ibb province of Yemen. Several missiles were fired, killing two members of the same family who were working in the fields of a remote village. A local source said, ‘Yesterday’s victims were a grandmother and her granddaughter – they were picking okra. We are simple farmers. The only thing people here know about America is that it kills our people. American drone strikes do not fight terrorism, they fuel it.’
Despite President Obama’s announcement that no strikes would be authorised unless there is ‘near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured’, this is the eleventh confirmed drone strike in Yemen this year. Civilian deaths as a result are estimated at between 17 and 33, including 3 children.
I got to school to find Lucy rummaging through her locker like it was a lucky dip.
‘What have you lost this time, Lucy?’
‘That chemistry sheet. Chambers’ll kill me.’
‘You’ll be all right,’ I said. ‘He’s in a good mood today.’
‘How d’you know?’
‘I read his horoscope.’
‘Did you read mine?’
‘Yep. You’re going to lose your chemistry homework.’
The usual banter.
I dumped my books, got what I needed for the morning’s lessons and went into our classroom, followed by Lucy. Chambers came in a few minutes later.
‘Good morning, 11.2.’
A few people grunted.
‘Any forms for the Spanish trip on my desk, please. My chemistry class – your sheet on electrolysis is due in
.’ He pushed his floppy fringe out of the way. ‘Right. Registration.’
He raced through our names, just managing to get
to the end – Wilks – as the bell went for first period. There was the usual crush as thirty people tried to squeeze out of the door at once – some people can’t learn.
waited for Lucy.
‘Mr Chambers, I’m sorry, I left my homework at home,’ she said.
‘Did the dog eat it?’
‘He hadn’t when I left,’ said Lucy.
‘Tomorrow, without fail. Understood?’
‘Yes, Mr Chambers.’
‘Told you,’ I said as we fought our way along the corridor.
Lucy jokes that I’m telepathic. I’m not, obviously. I pay attention, that’s all.
Chambers always has a kink near the bottom of his right trouser leg when he cycles to school because he wears a clip. That only happens on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays – he must need a car on the other days, or maybe his wife needs his bike. He never cycles if it’s wet or windy. If he arrives by bike he is noticeably more cheerful, at least to start with. It was a still, sunny Monday at the end of September. Not magic, logic.
It’s a habit now, being aware of everyone and everything, but wasn’t always.
When I was small, Mum used to say I lived in a world of my own, because I’d spend hours making up
stories with my dolls and Build-A-Bears. Before I went to school she had an attack of conscience and a trail of kids came round to play with me, but I either ignored them or told them off for touching my toys. If that made Mum worry that I’d find it hard to mix, she needn’t have. At school it was too noisy to think, so I joined in like everyone else – but I didn’t care who I played with. It was the games that were fun.
That changed when Lucy and I got thrown together. We were the most frequent visitors to the library, because we’d both read all the books in the classroom. On our journeys across the playground she’d update me on the story she was writing about a robot girl. I was Impressed, capital I. When she asked me round after school, I asked Mum to plait my enormously long hair – the eight-year-old’s version of making an effort.
At home, I ate my tea in front of the telly – except on Sundays when Mum cooked a roast. But at Lucy’s it was all laid out with serving dishes and a water jug, and her mum sat at the table with us. I was carefully winding my spaghetti round my fork, listening to Lucy’s two older brothers joshing, when she asked, ‘So … where does your father come from, Samiya?’
‘Yemen,’ I said.
‘I’m never quite certain where that is,’ she said.
‘Under Saudi Arabia,’ I replied, remembering Dad pointing it out before one of the trips he made there every few years.
‘But my mum’s from Wales,’ I said, as though it might help.
‘How on earth did they meet?’ she asked, as though it was the marriage of an alien and a mushroom.
I wanted to say, ‘Not telling you, you nosy cow,’ but I didn’t. I told her that they met at Amir and Diana’s wedding.
Even though my face was the only coffee in a class full of vanilla milkshake, no one had ever made a big deal about it. But Lucy’s mum was on a roll. Her interrogation covered dress, food, alcohol and praying. I felt more foreign with every answer, despite the fact that we watched
, ate egg and chips and only prayed when the lottery numbers were drawn. Lucy was swapping looks with her brothers that I couldn’t decipher, which made me even more uncomfortable. I remember bolting the chocolate pudding, desperate to get back to the solar system we’d made and show Lucy that inside I was just like her – but Mum arrived and whisked me off home.
Lying in bed, my logical brain decided that if being different was a problem, I wouldn’t be different.
Making sure I blended in wasn’t rocket science –
like what they like
laugh at the same things
don’t have falafel in your lunchbox
get a haircut.
And the results were pretty remarkable –
Lucy and I became inseparable
party invitations began to arrive in my book bag on a regular basis. For the first time ever I was in the thick of things. So I carried on.
By the time I moved up to secondary school I’d learnt more than any SAT paper could measure. I scrutinised everything from conversations and body language to tics and accents. I noticed the way people used their hands and how often they mirrored each other. Posture, swallowing, sweatiness – you name it, I logged it. It was a game of sorts. I knew when my history teacher had been in the gym from the way she walked, and was the only one not surprised when the IT guy started going out with Miss Hicks. The constant vigilance was exhausting, but worth the rewards.
I’d discovered a way of dealing with the world, which, in the end, turned out to be a way of changing it.
After October half-term, Chambers’ class got two new additions – twins, called Hugo and Juliette. They were white-blond and perfectly polished, like albino Persian cats.
I studied them that first morning, delighted they were in my maths set.
looked less than delighted, hardly acknowledging the rest of the class. That should have made me dislike them, but it did the opposite. They fascinated me.
I jostled my way through the crowd to get next to them in the lunch queue, armed with the opening line of my campaign to make them love me. There was no point trying to be the same – the twins were unique. So …
‘Are you in witness protection?’ I asked, with a serious face. There had to be a flipping good reason for pitching up halfway through GCSEs.
There was silence … and then Hugo laughed.
‘I wish we were. What do you think we witnessed?’ He paused. ‘Or do you think
the criminals, snitching on our unsavoury chums?’
‘Criminals, definitely,’ I said. ‘I’m guessing protection racket.’
‘Because we look so menacing?’ he said, looking anything but.
‘Why are lies always so much better than the truth?’
‘Because they’re not true,’ I said.
‘Tell me a lie about you.’ He stared at me with his watery-blue eyes. It was intoxicating.
‘This is my third life,’ I said. ‘I remember all my previous reincarnations.’
It was the start of a surreal conversation that only ended because the dinner ladies ushered us out.
‘We like you,’ said Hugo. ‘Don’t we, Juliette?’
Juliette tucked a strand of her razor-sharp bobbed hair behind her ear.
That was it – I attached myself to them, like a barnacle.
They’d been at school about a month when the Head randomly banned charity wristbands, saying they were ‘a breach of the uniform policy’. Hugo was outraged, even though he didn’t own one. In our library period he pulled out his iPad Air and announced, ‘Samiya, we’re going on strike.’
‘Like the miners?’
‘Is that the extent of your knowledge?’
I got a discourse on the right to strike while he set up a Facebook event called ‘United We Bargain’.
‘What does that mean?’
‘That together we’re strong, and the Head has to negotiate with us. It’s borrowed from the trade union movement.’
‘It’s weird that you know all that stuff.’
, you dim girl. It’s what made us.’
That week, Hugo spent every break time lobbying – Year 7s, prefects, the kids who smoked over by the far hedge. I trailed around after him, translating his spin into plain English. On Friday, instead of going to assembly, a third of the school gathered outside in the freezing cold to listen to him.
‘… wearing the wristbands not only benefits the individual charity but prompts discussion, which helps develop well-balanced and thoughtful pupils.’
It was like being addressed by a Nordic superhero, complete with perfect Tintin quiff. The Head had no choice but to cave.
The kids lower down the school idolised Hugo, but to our year he was Marmite. I could see why – he didn’t care what he said or who he upset and was far too full of himself. But he was also gorgeous. And I was drawn to him like a magnet. The closer we got, the less time I wasted analysing what he said and did. He wasn’t interested in flattery, didn’t care if we disagreed. He didn’t even mind if we were silent. We were yin and yang.
The downside to our friendship was that the twins lived miles away, near Twyford, so I only saw them at school. Lucy said they were vampires, tucked away in farming country so they could feed on the cattle. I told Hugo and he said she was right, but they preferred pigs – ideally pot-bellied.
When our GCSEs finished in June, the summer seemed full of opportunity. The twins could come over. I could go there … Hell, I’d have oiled the chain and adjusted the gears on my ancient bike if it meant I could see where they lived! But that didn’t happen.
Five days into the holidays, Dad plonked a printed-out itinerary on the breakfast table.
‘The holiday of a lifetime,’ he said, beaming.
Mum took his hand.
‘We’re going to Yemen, to see your dad’s side of the family.’
There’d been almost comic signs that they were up to something – abruptly ending hushed conversations and tilting the family laptop so the screen was obscured – but I didn’t expect to be teleported to the desert.
‘It’s a special chance, Samiya,’ said Dad. ‘A whole month together.’
The idea made me instantly claustrophobic.
‘It’s not exactly Florida!’ I said. Dad took the crumpled photo of his mum out of his wallet. She looked like she’d been was cut out of a
– dressed in black, with really wrinkled skin, and more gaps in her smile than teeth.
‘At last, you’ll meet your grandmother.’
I carried on eating my Weetabix.
As soon as Dad left for work, Mum had a go at me.
‘You did a good job of putting a damper on things, Samiya.’
‘Do we really have to go for so long?’ Moody voice. ‘Only I’ve made plans with Lucy … and the twins.’
‘The twins you’re so friendly with that
never met them?’
Mum’s logic was flawed. In sixteen years,
never met my Yemeni relatives, but
were suddenly so important I had to spend my whole summer with them.
‘I just think you and Dad could have asked me first.’
The visas had come the day before. The flights were booked for Saturday. It was a coup. That three’s a crowd was certainly true in our house.
As we boarded the plane, I said my goodbyes on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat … and nothing was ever the same again.