No spoilers here! Enjoy this portion of chapter one.
Max had study hall sixth period, which she normally spent in the student union. The S.U. was a pretty cool place for a high school, with big couches and overstuffed chairs everywhere. There were a dozen school computers scattered around, for homework, games, whatever, and of course the entire area was a free Wi-Fi zone. No wireless blocking in here. The student union had a New York-style pizza stand, soda and juice machines, and even an honor cart they packed with fresh fruit every day. “Take an apple, leave a dollar. Take an orange, leave a dollar.” It never ceased to amaze Max how few kids boosted fruit. Maybe there was something to that honor thing after all.
A few years back, after checking out some of the better examples on college campuses, a group of local guidance counselors had sold the San Diego school district on the idea of a student union. If they could make high school interesting enough, they reasoned, kids would rather stay on campus than leave school grounds during their breaks. It worked in college, and it seemed to be working at Wilson. Teachers left the kids alone in the student union, other than making sure that no fights broke out and that nobody was smoking. Wilson High was the test school for the program, and it was working so well that three nearby schools were planning their own student unions.
The Wilson student union was a living map of cliques and tribes, constantly playing out the latest evolutions of social memes that probably existed in the first school back when the courses were Basic Flint Sharpening, Intro to Fire, A.P. Grunting and Elements of Nut and Berry Picking.
Everyone had a tribe, their friends, and everyone belonged to a clique, their home on the social map. Sometimes you hung with your tribe, and sometimes you hung with your clique. There was no guarantee that your tribe would get along with your clique, or the other way around. But it was still better than the old ways that Max’s folks told her about. The old groupings that had been so divisive and even violent – religions, race, gender, sexual preference, use of drugs – just didn’t matter anymore, at least not to Max’s generation.
Max nodded as she walked past The Wrecking Crew, the kids at Wilson who played WOW2020. She used to be tight with all of them; hell, she’d kicked each of their butts more than once and saved their lives more than that, but that was all history since she’d reached The Alley.
Max couldn’t hang with them now – if they knew she was the same Spirit who was running in The Alley, they’d spill her secret. Besides, now that she was Alley Trash, she had less in common with them than before. They were still steeped in the ongoing narrative thread of their world, living and dying and lusting after and fighting for the same things. They were still a team.
Alley Trash like Max were solitary stars, burning bright but alone.
Max cut through the gap in the low semi-circular walls surrounding the indoor fountain area. She could almost feel the super-cooled air wafting off of the clique sitting on and against the walls. They were the Trenders, kids who were on contract to any number of megacorps and ad agencies. They got paid pretty good cred for their taste, much better money than the Lawnmower Men or the Babysitter’s Clubbettes, and all they had to do was live their lives. Some kids, the more jealous ones, dissed them by referring to them as U12BMEs. Then again, if someone wasn’t dissing your clique, it probably wasn’t worth being in anyway.
Then there were the Gabbers. They were under contract too, only not for what they did, but who they knew and how good they were at spreading the word. Gabbers were the friends who always had the latest flash on the coolest club, the hottest shoes, and the best bands. They lived in a weird, symbiotic dance with the Trenders. The Trenders lived it, and then, a few days, weeks or months later, the Gabbers spread it. Again, their detractors had a name for them: The Talking Heads. They were bought and paid for and happy to be that way, collecting bounty on everyone they spread the word to. Most of them were lensed, so that their corporate handlers could play back the interactions to measure interest, engagement and viral spread, but they didn’t mind that either, since that was how they got paid: by how many eyeballs they interfaced with. A gabber named Dave told Max that the term eyeballs had been around forever in advertising, and that it had nothing to do with the lenses, but she didn’t know whether he was just messing with her or not.
On the other side of the union were the BTs – Beta Testers. Uber geeks, but not the socially challenged, broken-glasses-patched-with-a-Band-Aid, pocket-protector-wearing old cliché that Max’s dad had been in high school. Back then, he and his computer club pals were outcasts, uncool, unclean. But this year’s models were the real earners. Stars. Most were in it for a piece of the IP they blasted. Flak was one of them, when he wasn’t hacking. BTs had a tell that was pretty cool, too – you could always spot one of them if they wanted to be spotted. Usually, BTs wore some form of clothing branded with the project they were working on. Threads so rare, even the Trenders couldn’t get their hands on them. Pure status. When they were done, they made big bucks selling them to Trenders, who were spotted wearing them by the Gabbers, and before you knew it, everyone was wearing knockoffs, which always seemed to hit the market just as the actual game or program was going on sale to the General P.
As Max headed towards the couch where her tribe hung, she passed the Threaders, fashionistas who rode the season’s big waves; the Jobbees, who worked the malls and big boxes of the world; the Jocks, that age-old traditional, team-based clique that had never relinquished its particular power or appeal; the Poms, cheerleader satellites that orbited the Jocks, also grouped by sport; and the Druggees, who beta tested “approved” teen-targeted pharma and otc, turning their bodies themselves into moneymakers.
Some cliques were based on who you were, and some were based on what you did, and really, what’s the diff anyway?
Now a tribe, that was something special. A tribe was cross-clique. A tribe was more like an extended family, whereas a clique was more like a guild or a union. Most tribes had deep roots. You bonded with a kid when neither of you had any other friends in kindergarten, or when you were the last two picked for soccer but neither of you cared because you’d both rather be playing the virtual kind sitting on the sidelines. You stayed friends all through school, and by the time you hit Wilson, they were your tribe, and you were theirs. Max figured tribes could last your whole life, and she was testing that theory realtime every day.
Max’s tribe hung out on this big, overstuffed red leather couch. As she wound her way between the semi-permanent zones of control exerted by the various cliques and tribes, a smile forced itself onto her face: Lisa and Sakura were calling to her from the couch as if she didn’t know exactly where they’d be at this particular moment on any given day. The couch was right next to Max’s favorite computer, and her friends would usually hang out and cheer her on while she wasted some unfortunate chump or console her if she lost. Her tribe was the only people who knew her secret.
Lisa, Sakura and Max had all shared a study hall last semester and liked it so much they fixed their schedules so they could do it again this year. Sixth period was Lisa’s lunch, so the student union was perfect for her: Lisa lived on pizza. Max wasn’t above a slice every once in a while, when her zits weren’t totally out of control.
Max walked over to the couch, past a tribe of freshmen in their flashy Swatch Locators. More and more kids wore them every year. It’s so childish, Max thought. Why didn’t their parents just strap a big old bell around their kid’s necks? But the freshmen were so naive they couldn’t even see how juvenile they looked.
“Do you believe how brainwashed those kids are, wearing their Locators like they were high fashion or something?”
“What’s so bad about Locators, Max?” Lisa looked annoyed. “My dad said before they invented Locators, there were so many missing kids they put their pictures on milk cartons.”
“Yeah, well, my dad told me the idea came from this gismo called LoJack, a homing device they put into a car that helped find it if it was stolen. That was before voice print ignitions, of course.”
“I thought Swatch invented Locators,” Sakura piped in.
“Not really. Swatch just stole the idea, put it into these neon-colored watches, and parents just sucked them up. Then some kid got her hand chopped off by her sicko kidnapper, so Swatch started making hidden Locators: belt buckles, bracelets, necklaces, rings. It was just some big marketing scam playing on paranoid parents.” Max thought the whole idea was beneath her and had thrown a fit when her dad had tried to make her wear one. He lost that idea real fast.
“You know Max, if parents are concerned about their kids, and they want to be able to find them in an emergency, what’s so bad about that?” Sakura was normally down on her parents – she’d never forgiven them for giving her a cutesy name that meant Cherry Blossom – so this sudden sympathy piqued Max’s curiosity.
“You wouldn’t be wearing a Locator by any chance, would you, Sakura?”
“Well, actually, um, yeah, I am.”
Lisa spoke up. “So am I. My anklet, the one you liked, it’s a Timex.”
“The gold one? With the hearts? No shit?”
“Mine’s my watch, that adorable pink Casio BabyG you said you’d ‘give your little finger to own.’ So maybe it’s not so bad, huh Max?”
“It’s not about how they look. I mean, it’s a given you two would have better taste than those freshman dweebs over there. You hang out with me, after all. But don’t you hate the idea of your parents having a leash on you?”
“Hey, I like the fact my parents know I’m alive,” Lisa said, and then added quickly, “not that your dad doesn’t care about you. It’s just, they were so cute when they gave it to me, like they were totally scared I’d explode all over them. I thought about it, too, but then I figured, hey, it could be worse. Right?”
“It was never even a question with my folks,” said Sakura. “My mom took me shopping one day, and we walked over to the electronic accessories counter at Bloomingdale’s and she said, ‘Your father and I are buying you a locator watch. You can pick out any one you want.’ And she had that look, you know, and I figured, I could fight now, and use up most of my “I’m not gonna do it points” or I could save them for something really important, like when they don’t like the first guy I bring home.”
“Always thinking ahead, Sakura.”
“Hey, you guys don’t have Japanese parents. And besides, you know we Japanese always think long-term. ‘You gaijin are just too short-term for your own good’,” Sakura said, imitating her dad’s cigarette-hoarse voice before giggling. Her dad was a corporate bigwig in some Japanese zaibatsu, and he was always lecturing her about the bad habits she must avoid picking up in America. Sakura did an excellent impression of her old man.
“So, like, is pizza too short-term for you guys, or what?” Lisa was on her feet and homing in on the smell of pepperoni before the others could even answer.