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Marcus Yallow is skipping school with his friends Vanessa (Van), Jolu, and Darryl to play Harajuku Fun Madness, their favorite ARG (Alternative Reality Game). It's another day in the life—buddies and gaming are always preferable to high-schooling.
And then the unthinkable happens.
A terrorist attack has blown up the San Francisco Bay Bridge. As they're trying to get help for Darryl after he's been stabbed (yikes) in a panicked crowd, the four are taken by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to a secret prison where they're questioned for days.
In his head Marcus calls the lead questioner "severe haircut lady" because he never learns her name. This ain't no vacation—unless your idea of vacation involves interrogation and super-restricted privileges.
When they're finally released, Marcus, Van, and Jolu discover that everything's changed in their City-By-The-Bay. They don't know where Darryl is (or if he's even still alive) and they can't tell anyone what happened…because they're still being watched. All. The. Time.
Marcus's parental units (Lillian and Drew) are glad Marcus's alive. But even at home, nothing's like it used to be. The laptop Marcus made himself is now bugged: eerie. At school there are cameras in every classroom. In the streets people are stopped for having "unusual" ride activity on public transportation.
It's all incredibly creepy, and so Marcus has vowed to get even with DHS for what they did to him…and for the sake of Darryl, who's still missing.
But how can a seventeen-year-old high school senior battle a government? And why does he care so much about American rights and freedoms, anyway? Read on, dear reader.
Marcus uses his tech skills to find a way to make a private internet network, and within two weeks people all over the city are calling it Xnet. But there's more to be done. Inspired by Van, Marcus and Jolu figure out a way to change the normal amount of encrypted internet traffic people generate. This will definitely confuzzle the eyes in the sky.
Van's angry (even though it was her idea, she thinks they're being stupid and reckless) and says she can't watch them destroy themselves. Are their days as best friends over? No, not quite. But their days as best-friends-who-aren't-being-surveilled-by-the-government are definitely donezo.
Marcus posts how to make an arphid cloner on his Xnet blog under his new alias M1k3y. (Wait, what? Well, an arphid (or RFID) is a radio frequency ID tag—think of a barcode that prevents an item of clothing from being shoplifted from a store.) People in the Bay Area start "jamming," which entails mixing up arphid tags for things like people's IDs and transportation cards. Total pandemonium ensues—and Marcus and his pops clash about the line between privacy and security
Jolu and Marcus decide to throw a party at Sutro Baths to create a secret "web of trust" that the DHS can't hack into. There, Marcus meets Ange (this geeky hacker chick seems really into privacy, and is definitely interested in Marcus). Marcus has a good time with Ange and the others, but he also learns that Jolu won't be helping with the Xnet cause much longer because he's afraid of getting caught. Bummer.
Ange and Marcus flirt, then go to an illegal open air concert in Dolores Park the next Saturday. Its theme is "Don't trust anyone over 25" and there are some great bands, including Trudy Doo's Speedwhores. Trudy runs the ISP where Jolu works, and she's also totally into privacy.
But the police and DHS come break up the concert with pepper spray (yowch), and the next day the media refers to the concert as a "youth riot."
Meanwhile, back at school: Marcus's social studies teacher, Ms. Galvez (who'd taught lessons about resistance movements like the Freedom Riders and Women's Suffrage), has been replaced with a pro-government mouthpiece. Ange tells Marcus to throw an online press conference (as M1k3y) to tell their side of the story. The Xnet press conference is well attended by virtual avatars inside an online game, but again, the journalists don't quite get why this group of mostly teens cares so much about privacy.
A guy name Zeb—who was imprisoned with Darryl—runs into Marcus right outside his school and gives him a note. The note outlines what's happened to Darryl, and inspires Marcus tells his parents, Darryl's dad, and Barbara Stratford (an investigative reporter), all that's happened to him since the bridge bombing. Barbara starts investigating the story of "Gitmo-by-the-Bay," the secret prison that's still holding Darryl.
Marcus finds out his web of trust has been breached by a DHS spy, Masha, who wanted to help fight terrorists but is now sick of spying on people. She says she wants out, and that she'll help Marcus disappear too (because the DHS is getting closer to finding him). He just needs to make an Xnet distraction for cover.
He and Ange organize VampMob, but, when escaping with Masha, Marcus realizes that he needs to stay and fight…not run away. With the help of some Xnetters, Marcus reconnects with Zeb. Van comes through to help get information to Barbara. Everything looks like it's going to work out…
…and then Marcus's captured by the DHS. He's taken back to the secret prison and water boarded by "severe haircut lady" and a few others. Thankfully, he's saved in a prison raid by California Highway Patrol troopers and Barbara.
The next day Marcus's released on bail and he's ultimately only convicted of stealing a phone. But the fight for preserving American rights continues on, even if relationships have changed and nothing is quite the same as it was before.