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How do you know what’s real and what’s not?
Rachel Borden—aka Access—is done with foster care. Now that she has escaped that life, she has to finish the code the hacker Panther hired her to write for a wild amount of cash. The chocolate malts at Burgers N’ Malts will keep her focused while she works. Once she hands Panther the code and gets paid, all her problems will be solved.
Or are they?
When a hacker she only knows by the handle Blizzard slides into the seat across from her and tells her Panther will use her code to launch an EMP attack and cripple the electrical grid, she can’t believe him. Then he informs her that she has to migrate her consciousness out of the virtual test environment she’s in and onto the Internet to stop the attack if she wants to live. Um…okay? Too bad she has no idea how to do any of that. And that’s before she teams up with a mysterious child named Kit and a teenager named Circuit. The clock is ticking—can she save her friends, the world and, oh, herself before time runs out?
Is that milkshake…smiling at me?
It is. Thrusting up out of the fog like a spotlight is a ten-foot-tall rotating chocolate milkshake. The red cherry sitting on top of a mountain of whipped cream twinkles as it passes behind the two peppermint-swirled straws jutting out at opposing angles as the giant glass slowly spins. Flickering chocolate shavings are piled on top of the whipped cream. As the whole thing turns on a peppermint-striped pole, the smiley face comes back into view and a giant eye—the right one—winks.
Well that’s not something you see every day. I don’t…think?
The silence registers, eerie and absolute except for the steady beat of my pulse in my ears. The milkshake notwithstanding, a thick white fog obscures everything here.
Wait—where is here? Where am I?
The haze recedes with an almost audible snap, bringing the world into sharp focus. Oh! It’s not just a smiling milkshake, it’s Marty the Malt, the mascot of the Burgers N’ Malts restaurant—and the happiest malt in the world.
Yes! Beneath Marty, there’s a Burgers N’ Malts glowing like an oasis in the dark. Welcome! Malts 2-for-1 during Happy Hour! a sign on front door proclaims in the restaurant’s trademark red and white swirl.
All the chain diners are identical—same bright peppermint font, fake-retro red-and-white booths, red-and-white straws—still paper, not plastic—in glass containers on the tabletops and, most importantly, the same ridiculous twirling malt.
I wasn’t sure I’d get this far but now I did and it’s…
Marty rotates with another saucy wink, happy to see me.
“Hey, Marty.” I swipe at my eyes, which is silly. Who gets teary over giant mechanical malts? “We made it, didn’t we?” But even that has me choking up.
We made it. Something about that bothers me. I started this trip because I’m supposed to do something—but when I try to latch onto that something, it slips away.
Man, I’m tired. Like, I’ve never been this exhausted before. Need food. And a chocolate malt.
But I can’t look away from Marty. Behind him, the night sky is clear and bright with stars twinkling overhead.
Oh my God, stars. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them before—not like this, anyway. The night sky around Chicago was always this weird pale reddish color. Light pollution, I think. Too bright for anything but planes to break through.
But out here? The sky is a vivid black speckled with a million points of light washing over me, small and delicate and huge and unknowable all at the same time. Staring up into the vastness of it all, it makes me want to jump into the unknown, see what no one else has ever seen. Ride the light far, far away from this miserable little rock in the middle of the cosmos. Man, wouldn’t that be a trip?
Marty winks again. “Yeah, yeah,” I tell him. “You see this every night. But it’s new to me. It’s…”
When I finally tear my gaze away from the infinity of the heavens, I look around the parking lot again. My duct-taped backpack is at my feet, the rectangular outline of my laptop straining the tape at the seams. The rest of the lot is empty. Even stranger, no one’s sitting in any of the booths inside.
Weird. Burgers N’ Malts famously never close. Even in the middle of the night at the Burgers N’ Malts that was a few blocks over from Delores’ house in Arlington Heights, there were always people around. Always. Usually me, before I got busted.
According to my LeafIt phone, it’s past three thirty in the morning, which means I must’ve been driving for a solid five hours without a break. I need to pee, eat, and then get out of Illinois before Delores notices I’m gone or Heather starts to panic.
Feels like forever since I had a malt and I’m starving.
I can’t believe how much I’ve missed this place. The red neon Open sign feels like…like a homecoming. Which is silly. Foster kids with records don’t have homes, they have stops along the way. But this place…
I scrub at my wet cheeks again. Gah, this is my life, I guess. Pathetic.
I know what’ll help—a chocolate malt with whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and a cherry on top. That’s happiness in a tall glass. If the waitress is feeling generous, she’ll bring me extra leftover malt, like Gracie always did.
Gracie… Suddenly it’s hard to breathe. But I can’t go back for her. Only forward.
Into the restaurant. But when I pull on the door, it doesn’t budge. Come on—the lights are on and from where I’m standing, I can see someone at the counter now!
Then I notice it, right below the Welcome and Happy Hour signage but above a small round indent, in bold four-inch letters—Exit Only Please Use Other Door.
Brilliant. Freaking great. Going to need a pot of coffee to chase that chocolate malt before I get back behind the wheel.
The entrance is the door on the other side of the little Y-shaped alcove. I don’t know why all Burgers N’ Malts have this complicated double-door system to get into their restaurants—both doors end up shuttling people through the exact same four square feet of floor space—but they do.
Thankfully, the right door opens smoothly when I push on it. Chimes jingle, which is usually a cheerful, happy sound but right now comes off as menacing at best.
Please Wait To Be Seated, the sign hilariously proclaims, because there are only two other people—the cook and the waitress huddled together at the far end of the counter. He’s on one side with the grill behind him, wearing a peppermint-striped apron around his waist stained with grease and a matching paper hat. She’s on the other side, white dress with red rickrack edging on the sleeves and her striped apron. Their heads are bent close together like they’re watching a video on a phone or something.
Neither of them moves.
There’s an odd little pop that makes me jump. Did the door lock behind me? Nervously, I tug the ragged edges of my denim shirt closed over my boobs and then make sure it’s pulled down over my butt as much as possible. These leggings are solid black but this ratty old concert tee for some band called Poison that I found at a thrift store is practically see-through and suddenly that makes me nervous. I can’t afford anything new or fashionable but suddenly I feel extremely…exposed.
The cook moves first. He’s young, under thirty, maybe, and probably Latino—dark hair, brown skin, average height. That’s as much as I get before he faces me.
“Oh my God!” I slap my hands over my mouth as if that could keep the words inside—because where are his eyes?
There’s nothing there, just flat, grey…mirrors, almost.
Jesus, this is like a horror movie and I want out. Clutching my backpack in front of me like a shield, I back into the door.
It does not open.
That’s when the waitress shoves off the stool with an odd sort of gait, like she doesn’t remember how to walk. Oh jeez, oh jeez—she’s not going to drop to all fours and crawl like a bug or something, is she? Because this isn’t right, nothing here is right, and I’m going to die in a Burgers N’ Malts. Without having that last malt.
I never even told Heather that she wasn’t irritating all the time.
But the waitress’s gait evens out and by the time she’s standing in front of me, picking up a menu and a rolled napkin of silverware, she looks normal. “You here to eat?” she asks in a voice that’s almost…mechanical?
That voice doesn’t match the way she looks because she’s black and pretty, with a little white cap pinned over her braided hair. Blue streaks weave in and out of her braids. She sounds like she’s eighty but she looks like she’s twenty, tops. Her nametag—bordered with that peppermint swirl of red and white, of course—reads “Luna.”
I glance at the cook without eyes again, but he’s scraping down the grill.
I’m seeing things, that’s all. Delores has bad arthritis and she hobbles like she’s a hundred years old for the first twenty minutes of any given day. So this waitress just has a bum knee or something? And the cook’s eyes—that was just…an optical illusion or something. Rimless glasses, maybe. Nothing scary.
Perhaps two pots of coffee are in order. I can almost hear Heather’s chirpy voice saying, “Or maybe you need more sleep, Rachel!”
Not going to miss her obnoxious perkiness or her attempts to force sisterhood upon me. Just because we fostered together does not make us family.
Well, she’ll get the hint soon enough. I’m gone, baby, gone, and I’m going to block her number. Ghosting, thy name is Rachel.
Except…knowing her, Heather will absolutely lose her mind with worry. Just because she’s irritating doesn’t mean she deserves to be tortured.
Fine. I’ll send one more text letting her know I’m okay, then block her.
“You here to eat?” the waitress repeats and nope, it doesn’t sound any less weird.
As if I’d be doing anything else in the national-chain version of an all-night diner. Tightening my grip on my tattered backpack, I give her my best please don’t kill me smile, which has never been very good. “Yeah, I could eat.”
There’s all that charm Delores so frequently despaired of.
Seriously, there’s something…off about this place and it’d be nice if I could not antagonize any potential serial killers. So I put a little more charm into the smile. Feels like snarling but whatever.
Something flashes across her eyes, a little sheen of light? I glance over my shoulder but the lot is still totally empty. Not even a car on the roads.
Too bad. Normally I want to be left alone but right now, I’d give my right arm for someone else to show up so it feels more like a familiar restaurant and less like the opening act of a horror flick.
I am the Final Girl. I’m getting out of this alive, one way or another.
“Pick where you want to go,” she says in that gravelly voice.
“Here by the window—” or the doors— “is fine.” That’s the first thing I did in any new foster home—learn where the exits were in case of emergency. Or in case I needed a malt in the middle of the night, which definitely counted as an emergency.
“You want a burger?” the cook calls over his shoulder, making me jump.
I swear he didn’t have eyes when he looked at me but from behind…he seems okay. “Bacon cheeseburger. And a double order of fries,” I call back. My standard order both because bacon is great and also because at a Burgers N’ Malts, the whole meal only costs four bucks and I could lift that out of a wallet without attracting too much attention.
Until, of course, I did and it all blew up in my face.
The waitress heaves a mighty sigh. “It’s like I’m not even here,” she grumbles, which is strangely reassuring because it’s so danged normal.
“Ah, but I also want a chocolate malt and coffee.” My face starts to ache from all this nicey-nicey smiling. “Oh, and I’ll need the wifi password.”
The waitress pauses in the middle of setting the large laminated menu down on the table. “Wifi? Honey, this is Springfield,” she says, as if I’d just asked for a Gucci runway show and a diamond-encrusted straw to go with my malt.
The smile cracks off my face. “You don’t have Internet access?”
But hey, I made it to Springfield! That’s only, what—four or five hours south of Chicago? Less if I drove fast, which surely I did, right? And it’s the freaking state capital of Illinois! Chalk that one up to paying attention in class.
But Springfield should have the Internet. This isn’t a one-stoplight town, right? I drove through a few lights on my way here, didn’t I?
Wait, if I drove here…where’s the car?
Luna interrupts, saying, “You can get onto the Internet from here. You have to figure out how to access it to do the job.”
“Delightful.” I manage not to sneer, so that’s something. I dig out my phone—No Service. Great. I’ll just have to block Heather later, I guess.
The Internet is a must at this point. I need it. Because…uh…
Fog rolls through my mind. Panic building, I dig my laptop out of my backpack. A rush of relief hits me hard enough that my eyes start to leak a little. I scrub at them furiously. God, I’m a mess tonight.
My laptop isn’t anything special—just a basic BranchIt model. Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn overlap a Batman sticker while the Slytherin crest hides the Leaf logo in between Loki and Nebula. Maleficent’s battle with Ursula takes up a whole corner. The other one is occupied by Jack and Sally from The Nightmare before Christmas.
Subtle, right? Once Heather tried to sneak a unicorn sticker on here. That’s when I knew that she wasn’t ever going to let us being a ‘family’ go.
Heather has to wait. First things first and the very first thing is I need to get online and do something. I have a job to finish.
I was working on…a code, right? But when I try to focus on that memory, it slips through my fingers like trying to hold onto a cloud.
“Nice computer,” Luna says from across the restaurant, interrupting my train of thought again. So many interruptions but I’m not sure I mind this one. “You going to use it to do your job?”
What a freaking weird thing to say. “Um, yes?”
“Where’d you get it?”
Oh, thank God—this memory is all there. The panic dials back several notches. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
No one ever believes me that one of the richest billionaires in the world just waltzed into school one day and handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars of computers to a bunch of snot-nosed fifth graders.
But that’s exactly what Hugh D’Arcy did.
Luna shakes her head, but doesn’t press.
Man, D’Arcy. His face is so clear in my mind, like I saw it yesterday. His ridiculous man-bun—dark brown with white streaks—looked like a burned cinnamon roll on his head. Combined with enormous round eyeglasses and the scarf tied around his neck over his plain white v-neck tee, he seemed more like a theater kid that had raided his grandmother’s closet than a billionaire tech genius whose smart Leaf stuff had revolutionized phones, TV—hell, everything.
He’d handed out six hundred BranchIt laptops that day at school after this big talk about how kids should learn computers’ languages. It’d all sounded nice, in that never-gonna-happen way. Like me being adopted.
The BranchIt, though—that went way beyond nice. I’d never had a present so new, so expensive, so just for me. When the joyous hysteria had died down he’d said, “Someone in this room will use these tools to change the world,” in that vaguely British accent of his and he’d looked right at me.
After that, I was sold. I know it’s the wishful thinking of an eleven year old, but I really did feel like I was exactly where I was meant to be.
I never claimed to be a good student. Hell, I’m barely a student. But C++, Ruby and Python—those coding languages weren’t like someone had handed me a book in a language I didn’t speak and demanded an accurate translation. It was more like…
Like I’d come home. And since then? I’m only doing what D’Arcy told me to.
No network connections found.
Or…I would be, if I could get online.
The code. I was working on a code. For…
I glance back at the waitress and the cook. They’re making my food and everything seems normal. This is fine. It has to be fine.
Then I open my laptop and the fog clears out of my mind.
I’m a hacker. I have a job to do. One that pays.
I’m never going to drop planes or hijack critical services, not for fun like Spiral does and definitely not for profit, like Vulture. Those black-hat hackers aren’t my style. Although I’m the first to admit, I’m not as selflessly into saving the world as the white-hat hackers like Blizzard and his little fanboys are, living out their digital 007 dreams.
But I look great in a light grey. As Access, no firewall can keep me out. Changing grades for cash or doing people’s computer science homework kept me in malts for a few years, but it left me feeling a little greasy. Breaking into online games to steal valuable items to resell was easy. Hacking games to rig them is a fun challenge and paid fairly well, but what was the point? Yeah, I’d do it and yeah, I’d get paid for it but so could anyone else. It didn’t make me special. It didn’t make me a part of anything bigger. And, it turns out, game developers take that sort of thing super-duper legally seriously.
But other jobs? Like scrubbing revenge porn and then destroying the OP’s digital life? Or helping someone escape abuse? I’ve even cracked a bank’s security system to transfer funds from a violent guy to his family so they could run.
Sometimes you have to do bad things for good reasons. That’s the space where Access lives—thrives. Plus, no one ever sees me coming. Who would? I’m nobody.
Except for Panther.
Out of the blue a few weeks ago, Panther hired me to write a piece of code—an on-switch, basically. One of the first things they wrote to me was, “When we’re together, we’re often most alone and when we’re alone, we can work to be more together. Let’s work together to make the world less alone.”
Which, sure, that’s complete B.S. It sounds like something Heather would spout off. But Panther backed it up. Yeah, they stole a billion-with-a-B dollars from Bark, the social media platform Leaf launched in 2016, and it seemed like Panther was going to be another Vulture copycat. But then Panther gave it away. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars just randomly appeared in the accounts of food banks and after-school programs and…
And foster care toy drives.
So yeah, Panther got me good because robbing the faceless corporations to help kids? That’s the kind of moral grayness I’m super comfortable with.
But this job? Until it’s done, asking Panther if they can help me—assuming I can get service somewhere—that’s a great way to find myself short a job and a paycheck.
My heart rate slows as it all clicks back into place. Panther’s program is still there in the test environment. I’ll recaffeinate, burn through some code and then get out of the state. I can’t be that far from Missouri, right? Pretty sure Missouri has connectivity.
I wasn’t going to bail until Panther paid me, right? Because with the hundred grand—a banana-pants huge number—Panther was going to pay me, I was going to escape from Delores and DCFS and everything that was Rachel Borden—including Heather. From that point on, I’d be Access.
That’s the plan. Everything rests on this job. Except…
Hands shaking, I dig through my bag—candy, candy wrappers, power banks, cords, pens, pencils, hair ties, a few little trinkets I’ve kept. My lucky rabbit’s foot. No idea where it came from, but I’ve held onto it through every move. Same for the four-leaf-clover key chain that Gracie got me for my sixteenth birthday that has also not proven to be terribly lucky so far.
I pull out a thin wad of cash. Twenties, fives and ones, mostly, bundled together with a rubber band. Without counting it, I know exactly how much this is—$734 and some loose change.
Oh, crap. Maybe Panther paid me in crypto currency? Frantically I scroll through my computer, but there’s nothing.
This can’t be happening. Without Panther’s payment, I have enough to run, but no much else. No comfortable place, no new clothes, no cuddly pets. That’s barely enough to keep me in malts on this trip.
And the parking lot is still disturbingly empty. I didn’t walk here, did I? That seems like the sort of thing I’d remember. Or at least my feet would.
How did I get here? When I try to remember, a stabbing pain hits me right between my eyes, making everything cloud over.
“Chocolate malt and coffee,” Luna the waitress says, slamming the cups down on the table and making me jump. “Any luck?”
She didn’t bring the leftover malt in the mixing cup.
The wave of homesickness for Gracie catches me off guard. While I plugged into the wifi, she’d always bring me my usual and ask, “Rachel, sweetie, you behaving?” It wasn’t the same way she spoke to the other night crawlers. With them, she was polite—working for tips. That’s the job, right?
But with me?
With me, she was different. She was real. Even more, she was proud of me. Of me! “You’ve got a bright future, sweetie,” she always said. She’d even remembered my birthday—the four-leaf-clover key chain was my only present. “You just need a little luck,” she’d explained as I’d hugged her. “You’re going to be something, I know it.”
Heather was the only other person who remembered my birthday and she was so obnoxious. No one needs fifteen—fifteen!—voicemails of terrible off-key singing. Heather tried her best to ruin my birthday. Gracie made it special.
Because I ran before I finished the code and had cash in hand—I’ll never see Gracie again. Never get the chance to thank her for being there for me. Never tell her…
Luna clears her throat, waiting. It takes me a moment to remember what she asked. Oh! The Internet! “Not yet.”
With a stiff nod, Luna returns to her place at the counter. The exact same place she was at when I walked in.
I drop my head in my hands, feeling hopeless. How many ways have I screwed up? Maybe I can fix this? It’s barely four in the morning. No way to get back to Delores’ house before she gets up and…
None of this makes sense. I’m in a strange restaurant in a strange place, almost by magic. I have no way to contact anyone who could help me. I need money. Serious money. And the only way I know how to get some is to code.
Panther won’t wait forever.