Harlan, operating intuitively and all the while having no idea he was doing so, figured out how to get his way with Ms. Aldhouse. He became aware of how different she was from any teacher he had known, with the possible exception of Mr. Glendenning.
What these two science teachers had in common was that they were not intimidated by Harlan’s mind. His other Hout teachers often deferred to him behind elaborate displays of authority. But Glendenning had used his lack of intimidation around Harlan to form a bond, to find common ground with him. Aldhouse took another approach: to wield power, to use her clout with subjective grading to break his resistance and drain from him his assumption of superiority over her.
All this Harlan sensed long before he would figure it out with his reasoning.
Then he set about plotting how to get her out of his way. Ms. Aldhouse was a troublesome impediment. He could not remove her, but he could get around her. A small part of him was nourished by this thought: I will, in the end, show her who is the smartest one in the room; I will use her for the higher goals of the FOSOA. This was nourishment he seemed to need as much as his growing bones needed calcium.
When it came time to pick partners for a project to be done in the computer lab, and no one had picked the geeky, poorly-groomed newcomer Tristan, Harlan raised his hand vigorously and said that he wanted to work with Evelyn Trask, the most attractive girl in the class. She had not been picked because she was smart and pretty and that combination intimidated the other students.
Ms. Aldhouse drew up stern, in the way Harlan had learned he could predict from her when he did not express himself with humility. Every time he seemed eager to demonstrate his power, her face scrunched into its Kali mask. Now from this mask she intoned, “No. You be quiet there. I will decide who works with whom.”
Then she gave a look of sympathy from her tilted head to as-yet-to-be-accepted Tristan Boggs. “No, Harlan, you will work with Tristan.”
Ms. Aldhouse had not known that Harlan and Ward had already spoken several times with poor, marginalized newcomer Tristan Boggs.
“OK,” said Harlan with a resignation that seemed to demonstrate enough obedience that Aldhouse felt she had finally gained the upper hand against the recalcitrant kid.
Harlan and Tristan spent much of their time in the computer lab confirming what they both had suspected during their earlier encounters on the Hout campus. That is, that they were kindred beings, brilliant, hard-working students with an itch to defy the authority they had once so willingly abided by.
Both brainy young guys who respected the process of education, they strained against the traces that would happily yoke them to an economic system that, they were learning from the news all around them, could be a very cruel mistress. Though they were rational in most approaches to life, they arrived at this verdict out of a vague feeling that a form of benign imprisonment was their lot if they did not act now to prevent it.
From then on, Harlan, Ward and Tristan ate lunch as a group and spent a fair amount of their free time on the Hout campus together. At their corner of the table in the Bistro, the three bright boys fed one another’s impulses to plug their learning into activities that were not “Hout-Approved Extracurricular.”
Harlan and Ward were as tuned into hierarchies as are most adolescents who yearn for a significant niche to nestle into, or, failing to find that, condemn the whole notion with a sneer.
Tristan Boggs would have a place in their sense of hierarchy. But they had to figure it out. They knew it had something to do with his family’s money, far more plenteous than that of either of their families. But this was, in the minds of the two Hout-based FOSOA, but one small dimension, one factor of several that would contribute to defining Tristan’s place on their spectrum of worth.
While the money was not trivial, there were other factors, some far more important for their efforts with the FOSOA, as well as their own vigilance over their alphahood among the science students at Hout.
At the top of these factors was Tristan’s talent with computers.
Harlan and Ward could yield up some of their power to Code Man, El Hacker, T-Boggs, as they variously referred to him. But they were both reluctant to over-praise him. They had, since their freshman year, smoothed out the main points of discomfort in their own comparative value. We have alluded to the symbiosis they discovered and how they competed and distinguished themselves, each from the other, and how they also modeled behavior for one another. This worked well for them.
There were many unknowns with Tristan’s candidacy as a FOSOA. Is he going to be full of himself? He knows code, really well. He has hacked! He must trust us, to tell us this. And he could snitch on us, now, too, knowing about the rocket launcher and the counterfeit page in the Hout website.
One day after school Harlan and Tristan worked on their project in the computer lab till Mr. Murphy finally kicked them out so he could lock up and go home. While walking to the bus, they passed a pizzeria that sold slices. They went in and sat and ate and talked.
Harlan felt the time was right to see how Tristan could handle a double serving of praise. He permitted himself to gush with admiration for T-Boggs, as they mostly called their new friend now, like a nickname for an athlete. T-Boggs knew how to sneak into cyberworld like a cat burglar, and make mischief from the inside.
There followed the Interview.
Harlan and Ward had talked about this. There was no precise plan for when or how the interview would take place. But it had to happen. They wanted T-Boggs to join the FOSOA but they had to figure out if he was going to fit.
The alpha piece was crucial. Would he try to take over? If so, unacceptable. Would he expect them to lead him? Harlan, in particular, did have a more forceful, outwardly confident personality. Equally unacceptable. Could T-Boggs be trusted with secrets? Probably. But what if he had moods and got weird and ran his mouth? What if the temptation to open a vein on Facebook got hold of him? They had to assess him.
The pizzeria would work for the interview room. It was long after lunch and still a while before dinner. The place was nearly empty.
Harlan discovered quickly that Tristan was not too impressed with himself. It seemed that Harlan and Ward were more impressed with him than he was. His modesty looked real.
The next point on the interview agenda was how Tristan would regard the FOSOA. He seemed impressed when they first told him about the Summer of Cool-Ass Experiments. But Harlan needed to get from him a deeper reaction.
Think about it: here was a kid who had broken into systems supposedly configured to prevent this very thing from happening. He likely had the chops to bring some commercial or governmental operation to a standstill, at the very least for a few hours. He had hinted that he had made some files available to WikiLeaks.
What did the FOSOA have by comparison? Self-inflicted wounds from a broken-down black powder experiment. Would these results not look like the work of preschool kids when set against his bold incursions? Harlan needed to flush out any such condescension from T-Boggs before they could offer him membership.
Harlan told his new friend the details of the experiments they had previously sketched out to him. Ingenuous and free of fake praise, Tristan asked the right questions. He had not known the recipe for black powder and he asked Harlan how hard it was to make. He lit up when the success stories came out. He grinned with conspiratorial camaraderie when the failed experiment was described.
“Lucky no one was killed or badly burned,” he said, the words carrying a gravity that the mischievous smile refused to own. Then he expressed some real-sounding envy at the danger of the projects. He told Harlan that there was not much danger in sitting in front of a computer and hacking, other than an e-headache.
“But now, maybe I’ll make some black powder and blow up my stepmother.”
Harlan hung on these words for a moment, then realized that T-Boggs was mostly joking. Mostly.
Then Harlan corrected him: “What you do is hella dangerous, dude! What if you get caught?”
“Not much will happen, I guess. I’m not too worried about it. My parents wouldn’t notice unless maybe my face were put on a national magazine. Then maybe my old man would see me while he’s rushing through an airport trying to catch a plane.”
T-Boggs looked strangely sad when he said this. Then, without losing the sad face, he laughed. It struck Harlan as quite strange, as the laughter seemed real, unlike most laughter that sounds phony and hollow when it comes out of a sad face. But Tristan’s laughter was throaty, dislodging phlegm with the sincere, gravelly outburst. It was funny, this laughter, as was the comment, because they were diss-based. Harlan would have thought “self-deprecatory,” had he known this word.
If he could have taken a still of Tristan and put a caption under it or a cartoon balloon above it, the phrase would be something like, Nothing really matters, so go ahead, screw me over. Then watch me prank your systems while I give a whole bunch of people several rotten work days. And then ask me if I care.
And Tristan never played video games. This both unsettled and impressed Harlan.
“The world’s my video game. More complex, harder to win, with real outlaw stakes. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
But, though the words were arrogant, Tristan’s face remained sad and tired, as if he were as resigned to capitulation to his mission as he would be to an employer or a school administrator who had assigned him a task upon threat of termination. Yet it was not an assignment. It was his choice, his will power, that drove his outlaw rebellion against a system he suspected had harmed him.
Harlan also learned that Tristan’s twin sister Mona, likely now the hottest looking girl at Hout, had talked her twin out of taking the family camping gear to the Occupy San Francisco demonstration at Justin Herman Plaza.
“Yeah? Why’d you listen to her?” asked Harlan. He had a growing curiosity about the movement. At times he wished he could put aside his school commitments and head down there to see what it was about.
“I had to do what she said.”
“Why? Is she, like, your boss?”
“No. Because Mona was right. I take the tent there and I probably lose it to the cops, or some homeless family that needs it more than me. And maybe I get arrested. Then I am known. Maybe I’m watched. I can do a lot more if I look like some geeky kid who’s always done what he’s told.”
Harlan composed a text message in his mind to send to Ward: New FOSOA T-Boggs, da MAN. We ask him in asap. Yes?
But he reined his urge to pull out his phone and send it. Harlan knew the interview was not over, though he hoped he already had his answer.
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