Sync or swim

Sync or swim

Part 22 of our serial

June 29, 2012
June 22, 2012
June 15, 2012
June 08, 2012
June 01, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 25, 2012
May 18, 2012
May 11, 2012
May 04, 2012

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Sync or swim_L
Illustration: Lau Ka-kuen/SCMP
Without slackening his pace, Ethan wrenched his mobile from his pocket, jabbed the unlock keys and ... groaned. As so often, the battery was dead.

He slowed, cursing his luck, before a bellowed "Stop!" sent him darting down an empty side street.

"Don't run," Ethan told himself, at the sound of footsteps echoing behind him. "Don't let him know you're afraid."

But as a man's voice called, "Heh! Heh!", all pretence was gone. Ethan broke into a sprint and raced towards the road ahead of him.

He heard the screech of brakes a nanosecond before he crashed into the passenger door of a passing car.

As the driver motored off, gesticulating angrily, Ethan, dazed but otherwise unhurt, felt a hand on his shoulder.

Slowly, he turned to find ... not a malevolent stalker but a genial, though breathless, security guard. With a look of concern on his face, the man dangled a set of keys in front of Ethan. "You dropped these."

Embarrassed and apologetic, Ethan reassured him he was ok.

Then, with his heart still racing, Ethan began to wonder if there ever had been any hooded pursuer.

What he did know he hadn't imagined, however, was the hacking of the website or the attacks on his grandad's shop.

"Yeah? Great," Ethan muttered in a voice drained of emotion.

Sam and Jenny stared at him, surprised and underwhelmed in equal measures.

"Shall we try that again?" Sam's sister asked. "Obviously what you intended to say was 'Hallelujah, thank you, Jenny. You're a genius: my saviour'."

Ethan forced an apologetic smile. Of course he was delighted Jenny had found and removed the hacker's code from the shamefacebook site. But the adrenaline that had flooded his system on the way to his friends' house had only just seeped from his system, taking most of his energy with it. "You're right. And you've saved not only me, but my family, too."

Jenny, however, waved this aside, just wanting a chance to show off her technical savvy. "Actually, once I'd spotted they were using the default command processor it was easy to ..."

Ethan, with conspiracy theories still filling his head, interrupted. "But do you know who the hackers are?" he asked more forcefully than intended.

Jenny looked at him askance. "Hackers don't exactly leave fingerprints, you know."

"Of course - and it doesn't matter anyway."

Now regaining his composure, Ethan didn't want to freak his friends out.

"And," Jenny continued, "we're up and running again."

"Fantastic," Ethan replied, as he casually clicked down the new updates listed on Jenny's laptop. "Good work."

He couldn't help himself. He had to see if Maya had replied to the apology Kieran had posted.

She had.

Ethan's heart sank. It would be ironic, to put it mildly, if, in creating shamefacebook, he had provided the means to get them back together again.

On Monday, Maya arrived late to class and at break, and she was out the door before Ethan could get a chance to talk to her. At lunchtime she was equally elusive. But as he scoured the school, Ethan did run into Kieran O'Shea, and it didn't ease his state of mind to see his rival avoid catching his eye.

Troubled, but determined, Ethan was at the gates as school ended. "Maya ..." he began as she hurried towards him, her arm raised.

Yet with a warm smile and a "Sorry, got to go", she was past him and gone. Her greeting had clearly been for her father, waiting in one of the gleaming, top-of-the-range cars that jammed the access road.

"Are you avoiding me?" read the text Ethan had sent to Maya the previous night. But as he arrived at school on Tuesday, he still hadn't received a reply.

Eyes glued once more to the unresponsive screen of his mobile, Ethan was oblivious to the giggling huddles that crammed the corridors.

But, just as he was about to open his locker, his phone finally beeped. "You think I'm avoiding you? Ha!" came the reply.

What did she mean, he mused, as he unlocked the cupboard door, sending an envelope tumbling to the floor. Puzzled, he picked it up, only to discover it was a hand-made Valentine's card.

Two thoughts followed, one swiftly on the other's heels. Fantastic, she hasn't given up on me. And ... for god's sake, it's February 14th, and I haven't got her anything!

Throughout the rest of the day, Ethan was as elusive as Maya had been on Monday. But that afternoon, to the great amusement of Year Three, his absence was explained when Maya found her locker wreathed in flowers.

Ethan smiled as he recalled her gobsmacked reaction. He was on his way to his grandad's shop clutching a batch of contracts.

Advertisers were now flocking back to shamefacebook and Grandad was the one person on the "team" old enough to have the legal authority to sign off on deals.

But, when Ethan arrived, he found a note reading "Back in 30 minutes" taped to the closed and locked shutters.

As he prepared himself for a wait that experience told him could be much longer, Ethan heard groans coming from the building that housed the shop. Inside, lying at the foot of the stairwell, Ethan found grandad's neighbour, Mr Wong, semi-conscious and bleeding from a head wound.

"It might have just been an accident," Ethan told his grandad as they watched Mr Wong stretchered to the ambulance.

"Puh," Grandad replied. "After everything else that's happened here?"

As Ethan turned away to hide his own lack of conviction, something caught his eye.

There at the back of the crowd of onlookers was an all-too-familiar figure, a camera obscuring any part of the face not shrouded by the equally familiar hooded jacket. To his grandfather's surprise, Ethan began to thrust his way through the sympathetic throng. But before he could reach his target, a flash from the camera momentarily blinded him.

And, by the time Ethan could see clearly again, the sinister photographer was gone.

To be continued next week

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