It takes an AI to catch an AI in Chaos on CatNet, the follow-up to Naomi Kritzer’s award-winning near future YA thriller, Catfishing on CatNet.
When a mysterious entity starts hacking into social networks and chat rooms to instigate paranoia and violence in the real world, it’s up to Steph and her new friend, Nell, to find a way to stop it—with the help of their benevolent AI friend, CheshireCat.
Chaos on CatNet will be available on April 27th, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
[dropcap type=”circle”]I[/dropcap]’m on my way in for my intake appointment at the Coya Knutson charter high school when CheshireCat sends me an emergency page. I installed the “yes, you can eavesdrop on me” app months ago, and I tend to just forget that I’ve even turned it on, unless my girlfriend, Rachel, reminds me to shut it off for a while, but a few weeks ago, CheshireCat added a “page” feature in case they need us in some sort of emergency.
It makes my phone vibrate in the “shave and a haircut, two bits” rhythm.
“I have to pee,” I tell my mother.
“What, now?” she says, exasperated. “We have an appointment.”
I have never, in my life, at least that I recall, had an appointment to register for school. Every other time, and I’ve gone to eighty-four schools altogether if you count all the elementary schools that my mother pulled me out of because I’d punched someone, we just showed up with a folder full of records and my birth certificate. (The birth certificate that turned out to be fake.) But things are different now. We are no longer on the run. I’m registering under my real name. We’re living in Minneapolis, instead of hiding in small towns and paying rent in cash. And we make appointments.
I pull out my phone and pretend I’m checking the time instead of CheshireCat’s message. “Five minutes,” I say, and flash a grin at my mom as I duck into the bathroom.
I sit down on the toilet to read the whole message. “I think I heard from the other AI,” CheshireCat says.
“Tell me more,” I type. “I don’t have much time.”
“It said, ‘I know who and what you are. Do you know me?’” “Are you sure it’s the other AI and not just some human who’s figured it out?”
“The message was truly anonymous. No data at all on how it got to me.”
“What do you need from me right now?” I ask. “Advice. Should I write back or stall?”
Why does CheshireCat think I’ll have the answer to this? “Stall, I guess,” I say. “You definitely don’t have to write back this exact second. I have an appointment I have to get to. I’ll think about this more when I have some free time.”
My mother is waiting for me impatiently, but we’re not actually late. I’d thought we were just meeting with the guidance counselor, but another woman also pulls up a chair and introduces herself as the principal. “After your phone call, I thought I’d come sit in,” she says to my mother in this careful, cheerful tone. “Could you just start at the beginning and tell us both a little about Steph’s education up to now?”
My mother has been going to therapy, and it’s definitely helping, but only up to a point. One look at her face and I know (a) she said something that completely freaked them out and (b) she’s about to clam up, which will probably freak them out even more. So I jump in. I explain that my father was physically abusive and we spent years on the run. I lay out the transcripts for all the high schools where I finished out a semester. And I wrap up with a brief explanation of how my father found me last fall, and things were pretty scary, but he’s been arrested and is being held without bail.
I can see both the adults relax at the phrase held without bail and wonder what exactly got spilled in that phone call from my mother. I am honestly not sure if she will ever be normal, no matter how much therapy she gets. Then again, I think there’s a real possibility that she didn’t start out normal.
The guidance counselor and principal bend their heads over my transcripts and sort out my schedule. Knutson has a lot of guided-independent-study options, which is why my mother wanted to send me here. They get kids who failed half their classes at a normal high school; they also get kids whose educations have just been weird for whatever reason. Like me.
When they’re done, I have a schedule: classes in the morning, and some sort of supervised independent study in the afternoon that they call Tutorial. They decide I’ll spend the rest of the day at Knutson and learn my way around. Mom funds my lunch account from the change at the bottom of her purse (because some things never change) and heads out.
The guidance counselor walks me around the school. This is the first school I’ve ever attended that’s not mostly white kids: when Mom was moving me constantly, we hopped from small town to small town, and she picked small towns where we wouldn’t stand out. Knutson is a lot more diverse.
Tutorial turns out to be a place as well as a time of day—a library and computer lab with a bunch of students working at tables. One of the adults gives the guidance counselor an urgent little wave as we step in. “Nell’s finished her math placement test, and I think she could use a break,” the teacher says in an undertone. She gestures at a girl with her head down on her arms.
The guidance counselor approaches the other girl a bit hesitantly. “Nell, would you like to come to lunch with us?” she asks. “This is Steph, who’s also starting today.”
Nell raises her head; for a moment, her face looks almost blank except for this vibrating twitch I can see at the edge of one of her slightly-too-wide eyes. Then she draws in a breath and pastes on the fakest cheery smile I think I’ve ever seen. “How nice to meet you, Steph,” she says. “Yes, I’ll come to lunch.”
Nell is skinny, white, and pale, with the longest hair I’ve ever seen—light brown, in two thick braids that come most of the way down her back. She has a few freckles scattered across her nose, and she’s short. I wonder if she’s younger than I am, but she flicks a look at me from the corner of her eye that’s so wary I’m hesitant to ask her any questions.
The guidance counselor hands each of us a tray with lunch and a carton of milk and then gets pulled away by someone who apparently needs to reconstruct her entire schedule . . . and there we are, in the cafeteria, the two new kids, like someone planned it this way. I sit down, and Nell sits down across from me.
“What grade are you in?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Nell says. “My mom homeschooled me. We didn’t do grades, exactly. I’m sixteen.” She lifts a forkful of food, then sighs and puts it down, opening her milk carton and taking a sip of that instead. “How about you?”
“I’m in eleventh grade,” I say.
“And how did you wind up at Prodigals Academy or whatever this school is called?”
Coya Knutson, and Nell is kind of echoing my own thoughts when I found out my mother didn’t want to send me to any of the big, regular high schools. “It’s not for losers,” she assured me, “it’s artsy.” I’m not convinced those two things are mutually exclusive, but whatever. “My mother and I moved around a lot,” I say. “So, I don’t have enough science credits, and I have American literature on my transcript three times and other weird stuff like that.”
“I hate Minneapolis,” Nell says with what sounds like some actual sympathy for my plight. “I’m from Lake Sadie, which is up near Brainerd. Where’d you move from?”
“New Coburg, Wisconsin.” I skip the rest of the list. “Why’d you move here?”
“My mother . . .” She swallows hard as her voice gets unsteady. “My mother is missing.”
“Missing?” I ask. This is the sort of revelation that makes me instantly super curious while also not sure how many follow-up questions I can ask without being a jerk.
Nell makes herself take a deep breath and says, “Brother Daniel thinks she was taken by the infernal rabble. My grandmother thinks she just took off. All we know for sure is, she didn’t come home on New Year’s Eve and when the police found her car, she wasn’t in it.”
The infernal what? I am trying to frame a question that would turn what she said into something that makes sense, and what comes out is, “Does your brother go to Coya Knutson, too?”
For a second, she stares back at me with the same utter bafflement I’m feeling and then says, “Brother Daniel isn’t my actual brother. He’s one of the pastors of the Abiding Remnant, along with Brother Malachi and the Elder.”
“Is the Abiding Remnant a church?” I ask, still trying to make sense out of what she’s saying.
“Of course it’s a church,” she says. “The infernal rabble call us a cult because they refuse to listen to the truth.”
I feel like she’s answering a question I wasn’t asking, which is even more confusing. “What are the infernal rabble?”
“Enemies of the Remnant and the rest of the true church.”
I try to go back to the part of the conversation that made more sense to me. “What happened on New Year’s Eve?”
“My mother went with some of her church sisters to a New Year’s Eve prayer meeting, and they all left a little after midnight. Everyone else made it home. My mother’s car was found on a road leading out of town, but she wasn’t in it. It snowed overnight, so there weren’t any footprints.”
“That’s really weird,” I say.
“Yes. Really weird. It wasn’t the road back to the house, for one thing. But if she just took off, like the police think, then why didn’t she take the car with her?” Nell lets out a shaky breath and takes a drink of her milk. A strand of hair has worked itself loose from Nell’s braid, and she tucks it back behind her ear. “Anyway. My grandmother has never liked the Remnant. She says it’s a cult. So she called my father and told him to come get me. I don’t know him very well. I hadn’t seen him since he left when I was ten.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That sucks.”
“She said it was just to let him know in case he saw my mother, you know, but then on Saturday, he and my stepmother showed up with a car.” She drinks some more of her milk and eyes me. “When we got back to Minneapolis, I found out they share a house with my father’s girlfriend and also my stepmother’s girlfriend.”
One of the many things we’ve discussed in the Clowder is polyamory: excellent relationship model or inevitable drama-fest? Firestar likes to point out that plenty of monogamous relationships are drama-fests. I think that whatever works for you is fine, but polyamory sounds like a lot of work. From the tone of Nell’s voice, I think she thinks the whole idea is completely disgusting. This is probably not surprising, given that everything about her cult—church—whatever—makes me think they’re probably really conservative.
The more urgently relevant question for me, specifically, is whether her disgust here is because the stepmother has a girlfriend. I have a girlfriend, even if she’s currently 145 miles away, and I don’t think I want to bond with the other new girl if she’s just going to turn around and reject me for being gay. I have plenty of experience with rejection and decided a long time ago that it’s less unpleasant if you get it out of the way as quickly as possible. It ought to feel higher stakes now, since Mom has promised that we’re staying here. If things go as planned, I will graduate from this high school. It’s hard to take that promise seriously, though, especially given the “if things go as planned” caveat.
“The worst thing about leaving New Coburg was leaving my girlfriend behind,” I say.
Nell’s response is not quite what I expected—her eyes go wide, but rather than drawing away from me, she leans in and whispers, “Me, too.”
“The sort I kiss,” I say, just to be absolutely sure we’re on the same page. “I don’t just mean a friend who’s a girl.”
Nell nods. “I get it,” she whispers, swallows hard, and leans back in her chair. “Our parents just think we’re friends. The Abiding Remnant—they’re not, I mean. It’s not.” She gets sort of tongue-tied and finally takes a bite of her food, maybe so she has an excuse not to talk while she’s eating. I’m pretty sure I got the gist, anyway.
“That sounds hard,” I say.
Nell swallows and leans forward again like she’s going to tell me some other secret. “The Abiding Remnant make women sit in the back just in case one of us speaks accidentally, since women aren’t supposed to speak in church.”
“That sounds terrible,” I say.
She pulls back and in a slightly unsteady voice quotes something with a wherefore and be ye in it that I’m still trying to parse out when her voice goes squeaky and she says, “I haven’t heard from her since I left Lake Sadie, and I don’t know why. I think it’s because I’m here, and not there, so maybe to all of them I’m part of the infernal rabble now, even though I didn’t leave, my mother was taken away from me.” I start to tell her again that I’m sorry and she waves me off and clears her throat. “So tell me how you wound up here. Why did you move so much?”
“We were on the run from my father.”
This at least temporarily diverts her from her own troubles. “What, really? Why?”
I tell her the version of the story that leaves in the kidnapping. I explain the trip to Boston with my girlfriend as the two of us were looking for a friend of my mother’s to help keep us safe. Now that my father is in jail awaiting trial, I have a phone, I’m attending school under my real name, and Mom’s hired a lawyer to straighten out all the paperwork. Including the part where she technically committed kidnapping when she took off with me.
I leave out the sentient AI, of course. I wonder if CheshireCat is ever going to be a secret I don’t have to keep. I haven’t even told Julie, my childhood best friend I reconnected with last fall, that part of the story.
Nell’s out of the question, obviously. I don’t know her at all. I finish off with, “And now we’re both in therapy. Mom is getting treated for PTSD, and we’re in family therapy, plus I have my own therapist.”
Nell looks at me bleakly and says, “My father wants to put me in therapy, but he can’t, because my mom still has full legal custody.”
“But she’s missing! What if you have to go to the doctor?” “That’s what Thing Two said. My dad said he’ll call a lawyer sometime this week for sure. Thing One doesn’t seem to trust him to actually do it, though.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I say. How is so much that comes out of Nell’s mouth so confusing? This time, I’m not sure I even heard right. “Who is it that doesn’t trust him?”
“Thing One is my stepmother, Thing Two is my father’s girlfriend, and Thing Three is my stepmother’s girlfriend. It’s in order of distance from me.” She furrows her brow. “Did you ever read the Dr. Seuss book with Thing One and Thing Two?”
That may be the first cultural reference point we actually have in common. “Oh, yeah,” I say. “The Cat in the Hat. I get it.”
She looks relieved that I understand this one for real, and her voice warms to something like actual cheer. “To their faces, I call them Mrs. Reinhardt, Ms. Hands-Renwick, and Miss Garcia, though. It would be disrespectful to call them things to their faces. But there are four adults who all live in the same house and all think they get a say in my life. It’s a whole thing.”
I’m glancing around, wondering where I’m supposed to go next, when a chipper girl in a bright yellow vintage jacket slides in next to me, a phone in one hand and an out-of-season Christmas mug in the other. I can smell the tea she’s brewing in the mug. “Hi, new people,” she says in a buoyant tone that reminds me a little of Firestar. “I’m Amelie. I need to connect with two new comrades on Mischief Elves—do you play?”
I shake my head automatically even as I curl my hand around my phone. For most of my life, phone games were one of those things that everyone else did that I couldn’t do. I am torn between that excited sense of I could do this now and fear that this will be like typing with my thumbs, that everyone else learned key basic skills when they were six and I’m going to be hopelessly behind forever.
“Even better,” Amelie says. “I get superlative bonus points if I recruit a new player!”
Okay. Why not. I unlock my phone and bump it against hers to sign up for whatever this is. “How about you?” Amelie says to Nell. Nell nods slowly and holds out her phone. “Don’t look so grim!” Amelie says. “This is a game. It’s fun, you’ll see!” She looks down at her own phone and winces. “I’m going to be late for biology. It was great to meet you, see you around!”
“Did she ask our names?” Nell asks in a faintly judgmental tone.
“Maybe she’ll get them from the game,” I say. Nell glares down at her phone. “Hmm.”
Nell needs therapy so much more than I need therapy. But she also needs a friend, and having a queer friend seems like it could help her. I’m still a little worried that she’s going to turn on me, but I like her, and I feel a weird kinship with her—we’re both dislocated small-town girls suddenly moved to the city, even if Nell only lived in one small town and I’ve lived in probably a hundred of them.
At all my past schools, I needed someone to befriend me if I was going to have any friends at all. But here . . . there’s another new kid.
Anyway. Straightening out legal messes, never mind solving disappearances, is usually outside the scope of what CheshireCat can interfere in, but I’ll ask later if they have any ideas.