1. Jax Jax
It’s a regular Tuesday morning.
My mama is crocheting, my zaza is washing zucchini from the garden, my sister, Ava, is writing in her journal, and I’m trying to figure out where this QR code clue leads so my team can win this week’s cryptology puzzle and stay at the top of the Vault leaderboard.
My fingers fly across my phone keyboard under the table as I stare absentmindedly into my almond-milk oatmeal with raisins and pepitas.
ME: I’ve looked at everything. Code might be a dead end.
At least I hope that’s what I typed. Autocorrect gods, take pity on me. Phones aren’t allowed at the table, or in the morning before school, but I have a clue to find.
Just as I’m about to let go of my phone, I feel four distinct buzzes in my hand. My phone only buzzes when I get a text in all caps, and the team only texts me in all caps when they’ve got a lead.
I have to look.
“So, Ava-bear,” says Mama, setting her crochet project down and leaning her elbows on the table. “How’s journaling going?”
Ava sighs and runs a hand through her long dark hair, pulling it all to one side and twisting it around itself. She’s only older than me by a couple of years, but she has the cynicism of someone twice her age.
“I mean, it’s going,” she says, her voice a low early-morning croak. “I’m doing affirmations right now. None have come true, but they’re making me more optimistic, I think.”
“Good.” Mama smiles, tucking a loose strand of hair behind Ava’s ear. Mama reaches into the tiny satchel at her hip, and I wonder if I have time to glance at my phone, but she’s too fast. She pulls a roller ball out of her bag, takes Ava’s wrist in her hand, and rolls the oil gently over her veins.
“Lavender for calm,” Mama says, still smiling, “and…” She pulls a crystal on a string out of her bag and slips it over Ava’s head. “Blue tourmaline for tranquility.”
The concentration grooves between Ava’s eyebrows melt away, and a smile spreads across her face. “Thanks, Mama,” she says.
“I know you don’t think they work,” says Mama, pulling out another crystal on a string and turning to me, “and you probably won’t until you really need it. But even if it only works as a visual reminder of what it represents, it works.”
The string goes over my head, and I look down at the pointy purple crystal sitting in the middle of my chest.
“Amethyst today,” says Mama, “for protection.”
That’s a new one.
“Why do you think I’ll need protection today?” I ask. She shrugs and scratches around a bandage taped to the inside of her forearm, covering a new tattoo.
“Just a feeling,” she says, leaning in and kissing my forehead. “There are a lot of protests going on downtown today—okay, Juju-bean? Be careful.”
My phone buzzes again.
My heart skips.
I glance at the clock.
Too early to leave for school.
I open my mouth to make an excuse to leave the table besides the fact that I want to go look at my phone. Maybe I forgot my backpack upstairs. Shit, it’s on the floor next to me. My phone? Nah. As soon as I stand up, everyone will be able to see its imprint through my sweatshirt pocket. Maybe I need to pee? Nah, Mama knows that one well.
Before I can think of an excuse that will work, the conversation continues.
“She’s right,” says Zaza, glancing over at all of us at the table and setting a colander full of zucchini on the kitchen counter. “Lots of protests. Everyone’s angry right now.”
“People are always angry,” Ava mutters, shutting her journal and taking a sip of her breakfast tea. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
“Well, today the protests involve the garden,” says Mama, “so even I’m a little angry. We’ve had refineries in Puget Sound, but never one smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. And certainly never one that’s wiped out a community garden.”
Never mind. The puzzle can wait.
Mama’s forehead is furrowed, and her fingers whip the yarn around the needle lightning-fast. I clutch the crystal around my neck and wish there was something I could give her to make her feel better through all of this. But all I have are my words.
“I don’t think it’ll go through, Mama,” I say.
“It is going through, Jax,” Ava insists with a finality that sours my stomach. “The city has officially submitted a notice of intention to repurpose the land.”
“But we’re in the middle of Beacon Hill,” I argue, as if fighting Ava is fighting what’s inevitably going to happen to our garden. “Why would they put an oil refinery here?”
“Likely because we’re by an airport,” she grumbles. “How much do you wanna bet Roundworld has a deal with King County International to supply their fuel?”
“We’re also in the not-so-expensive part of Beacon Hill, Jax,” says Zaza, carrying the colander to the kitchen table. Before they sit, they lean down and give Mama’s lips a quick kiss good morning. Zaza pulls out a kitchen chair and settles into it, peeler in hand, and soon peels begin falling into a bowl in their lap as they continue, “And the garden is a community space. State-provided. Land isn’t cheap in Puget Sound like it used to be, so it’s fair game for them to take back and repurpose whenever they want.”
I can feel my blood warming with rage. How the hell is this legal? Matter of fact, how the hell hasn’t someone stepped in to stop this? Some rich company must have a bunch of money to throw at this for environmentalism clout. Maybe one will buy Roundworld out of the land? Protests are great and all, but how has no one from the bottom tunneled in from the inside? Actually, why hasn’t the Order gotten wind of this shit? They were there to rat out social media accounts after the Capitol invasion, and after the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Not that Mama’s garden is anywhere near the same scale of importance in the world, but…
It is in my world.
I remember when I was little—maybe seven or eight—walking down the rows with Zaza’s hand in mine, planting little yellow and red corn kernels. It was freezing cold that day, and Mama had a big batch of her coconut-milk hot chocolate waiting for us when we finished. We’ve been to the garden every weekend ever since. Ava will sit with a book among the flowers or do yoga in the community yard. I usually sit at the picnic table with my phone and piece together cryptography clues.
My phone buzzes again, four times. But now I’m distracted. And pissed.
How can the state just take back the garden whenever they want? We’ve been using it for years to feed our community in ways the state only wishes their public service programs could, and they haven’t been interested in it this whole time. Why now? I know why now.
Because now, money is talking.
“I don’t see why they don’t start taxing these corporations for more money,” I say, anger boiling up in me at the idea of losing Mama’s garden. Well, it’s not really her garden. It’s all of ours—the Rainiers’, the Browns’, the Hansens’, and dozens more. We all plant. We all grow. We all harvest. But Mama started it. Before Ava and I were born. When she and Zaza had only just met. I guess that makes the garden kind of like her first baby.
It’s where we get most of our food. I look up at our counter, stacked cabinet-high with fresh cucumbers, zucchini, butternut squash, and miniature pumpkins. I can’t imagine living without it. We’d have to go to the grocery store instead, where the produce is way smaller and way more expensive, especially for the organic stuff, and where families like the Rainiers, the Browns, and the Hansens aren’t there.
I look at Mama, who’s turned her focus back to her crocheting, her fingers whipping the yarn around the needle faster and faster, doing a shoddy job at masking her distress.
I swallow the lump in my throat and rest my hand on the table in front of her.
“I want to protest, Mama,” I say.
Zaza puts down the peeler. Ava looks up at me across the table. Mama sets her needle down.
I do. I want to march out there, bandana over my face, holding a sign up that says Keep your oil out of our gardens, defending everything my family holds dear, with my middle finger waving in the establishment’s face.
“No,” she says. “Absolutely not.”
“Come on,” I argue. “I’ve got my amethyst on and everything.”
“Amethyst isn’t a bulletproof vest,” says Zaza, soft even though their words are sharp. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Besides, you’re needed here,” Mama says with a smile, running her fingers gently along my chin where there’s the faintest bit of stubble growing in, not nearly fast enough. “The best way you can help is by voting when you turn eighteen, and by ‘being the change’ in the meantime.”
“I hate that phrase,” mutters Ava. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Ava,” grunts Zaza.
“It’s true!” she snaps. “Nobody knows what ‘be the change’ means. It’s just a platitude beloved by people who don’t want actual systemic change enacted. Prove me wrong.”
“You can only be proven wrong if you believe you can ever be wrong,” says Zaza in the brightest, airiest voice possible. I can’t help but grin.
“Zaza has a point,” I say. Ava rolls her eyes and scrapes the last of her oatmeal from the sides of her bowl. Once the spoon’s in her mouth, she’s out of her chair with her backpack on her shoulder and headed for the door.
“Well, on that note,” Ava says, “you’re all coming tonight, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” says Mama.
Ava’s captain of her debate team, and we always go, but I secretly hate it. It’s the most boring shit ever. Nobody really wins in the end anyway. Everyone just argues about abstract political and philosophical topics that have no real answer. What’s the point?
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
All right, I can’t take this anticipation anymore.
I have to know what’s up.
Mama gets up to join Zaza in giving Ava a hug goodbye, and I sneak a peek at my phone.
SPIDER: IT’S A 12-DIGIT NUMBER.
My eyes light up, and my heart starts to race. Twelve digits… Phone numbers are only nine digits here in the US, but… could it be an international one? That would explain it! The QR code embedded in the image we found pulled up a phone number!
ME: TRY CALLING IT. SPIDER, YOU HAVE AN INTERNATIONAL PLAN, RIGHT?
Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt. Bzzzzt.
SPIDER: YOU MIND CALLING? BAD WIFI, NO DATA.
I’m outta data too, but I can call from my laptop via email for free. I look at the clock. 8:01.
My bus arrives at the corner at 8:10 sharp. If I’m not on it, I’ll automatically be twenty minutes late waiting for the next one, and since I’ll already be late picking up this clue downtown, I don’t have another minute to spare.
I glance up and find Mama standing at the window to watch Ava walk down the front steps, and Zaza shutting the front door after her. I shovel the last bit of oatmeal into my mouth, snatch my bowl off the table, run some water over it in the sink, nestle it in the dishwasher, and dart for the stairs, wiping my hands off on my shirt as I bound all the way up, two at a time.
I dive for my computer, almost falling off the stool that doubles as my computer chair, and scribble my fingers desperately over the trackpad.
The screen finally flashes to life, and I mess up my own password twice trying to log in too fast. Finally I’m in. I click to open the browser. That spinning icon rotates in the middle of my screen. And rotates. And rotates. And spins. And spins. And freezes. And spins some more.
Come on, come on!
While I wait, I look at my desktop, with the black wallpaper behind the icons, and that single white eye in the center, a cat eye–shaped pupil in the middle, and three eyelashes fanning out from the top. The symbol of the Order.
Someone has to tell them what’s happening here. They have to know. But how would one even reach them? It’s not like they have a “Contact us” page or even a website. Their whole deal is “If you need us, we’ll find you.”
I sigh, and then I notice that stupid icon is still spinning.
Damn this slow Wi-Fi! Who else is using it right now anyway? Ava just left, Zaza is peeling zucchini, and Mama is probably still crocheting. I growl and jump out of my seat, realizing I’m going to have to reset the modem downstairs. I race for the stairs and fly down to the kitchen again, where Mama and Zaza are waiting for me with confusion written all over their faces.
“Jax, you okay?” asks Mama.
“Yeah! I just forgot something—be right back!” I say, whipping around the corner so fast, I almost forget about the glass cabinet in the hallway—the antique that came from my granny’s house across town “before I was even a thought,” as Mama says. I dodge the cabinet and make for Zaza’s office, where I find the modem. I flick off the switch and count—probably too fast—to thirty, while the internet resets itself. I can’t wait to go to college. Even community colleges probably have Wi-Fi more reliable than this.
The switch is back on, and I’m back in the kitchen, rushing past Zaza and hurling myself around the corner and back up the stairs.
“Jax, is this about a puzzle?” hollers Zaza. Well, they don’t really holler. I can’t imagine Zaza raising their voice to anyone. Wouldn’t hurt a fly. Literally. We had one trapped under a jar in the kitchen once, and they actually slipped a piece of paper underneath it and took it outside. But they do call after me, and I feel bad slamming my door with such a short answer.
But I have a case to solve and a number to dial.
I race to my laptop and sit down a little too hard on the step stool, wincing as I feel the sudden pinch between my legs. If I sit on my own balls one more time on this goddamn stool, I’m going to huck it out the window and sit on the floor.
I open the chat window and find Spider’s messages, and type furiously.
ME: AYO IM ON, WHAT’S THE NUMBER?
SPIDER: 1239-7657-29 AND THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO HAVE ASKED TO JOIN JERICHO.
I smirk. He’s speaking in code, in case anyone’s “supervising” our texts.
Yup. Fifty-seven people have asked to join our team. Only the original four have stayed in. Me, Spider, Yas, and Han. The fabulous four. The quintessential quad. Whenever a new person asks to join, we ask what skills they bring, and if they can’t offer something we don’t already have, it’s a no. Not their fault, though. We’re already unstoppable. Don’t really need any new skills. Spider’s our tech wiz with mad connections, Yas is the parkour master who can climb up anything and into anything, Han has a map of Puget Sound locked in his head and knowledge of its history and evolution, and me? I’m the cryptologist—my expertise is piecing clues together. Dialing phone numbers, scanning QR codes, flipping photos upside down to see things from a different angle, unscrambling letters and untangling riddles.
I live for that shit.
Now, if my slow-ass tech would just cooperate and let me be great…
I open my email and dial, and in the other window, I notice I have a few missed texts from the master group chat. I open it and read while the call rings.
SPIDER: Can anyone dial?
YAS: I’m outta data and the Wi-Fi at the store is too slow for calls. You?
SPIDER: Nah, I’m already downtown with no data. Han?
HAN: Just hung up. Phone number has voicemail message that says “PAC north side, chromedome. Clean up them thoughts.”
I hang up my own call, which is still ringing, lean back in my chair, and rest my hands behind my head. I shut my eyes. I think. PAC, huh? Like a political PAC? What does that mean? This is supposed to take us to the final answer—the endgame of this week’s puzzle. If we win, we’ll have kept up our streak, maintaining our #1 spot on the leaderboard.
HAN: Give up?
My fingers fly back to the keyboard, and my heart thunders. How the hell did Han figure it out first? I’m the cryptologist! Must be a physical location. That’s Han’s forte—geography.
ME: Wait, you know?? Tell me!
YAS: I’ve got the first part, headed there now. Over and out.
I’m getting mad now. It’s already a given that Team JERICHO is in the lead. We’re so good, we compete against each other to get to clues first. Our only competition now is each other, and they’re about to leave me in the dust.
Because of this slow-ass Wi-Fi.
SPIDER: Nah-uh, Jax—what ya payin?
ME: Spider, so help me, what do you want?
That’s how it goes here. You want a clue from the team? You gotta haggle a bit.
SPIDER: Download Pokémon Go and play with me?
I suck my teeth and roll my eyes.
ME: You know you’re the only person under 40 who plays that shit anymore, right?
SPIDER: You speak lies! And you better stop insulting the person you need something from.
ME: Fine. Name another price.
SPIDER: I’ll settle for summa that sweet garden bounty.
A laugh bursts out of me. Mama’s garden is famous around Beacon Hill for being full of fresh produce all year round—produce and nuts and mushrooms. It’s kinda cool. People can just go in and grab what they need, free of charge, as long as they’re on the email list.
ME: You want some zucchini?
SPIDER: 5 of ’em
ME: They’re huge! I can barely carry 3!
SPIDER: Fine, 3. Ok—answer to the first part is this: I think PAC stands for Post Alley Court.
I suck my teeth again. Of course it does. Obvious answer, if I hadn’t been so distracted. Post Alley Court is in Pike Place Market, so I’m out of my seat, backpack slung over my shoulder, feet hopping chaotically into my slip-on shoes, and out the window to the roof—the quickest way out of here—before I take a minute to reply via text.
I jump and I’m off, sprinting around the side of the house to the front.
“Bye, Mama!” I holler to the front door.
“Jax, did you go out the window again?” asks Zaza, who surprises me by walking out from the other side of the house straining under the weight of a basket full of something else heavy, which reminds me about my deal.
“Hey, Zaza, can I bring three zucchinis to school?”
“Only if you promise you’ll remember the plural of zucchini is zucchini,” they say, grinning. They wink a brown eye at me and pull a folded reusable grocery bag from their pocket. “Go grab ’em off the counter.”
“Thanks.” I grin, bolting back through the front door to find Mama sitting at the table, crocheting again.
“Jax!” she says, jumping at my sudden burst into the room.
“Sorry, Mama,” I say, darting to the kitchen counter and stuffing three zucchini into my canvas bag. “Gotta bring these to Spider for a clue trade.”
Mama stands and folds her arms, which are covered from wrist to elbow in tattoo sleeves, and smiles at me.
“Tell Spider hi for me. You sure you don’t want to take some cucumbers, too? We just picked some out back—”
“You’re really bad at negotiating, Mama.”
She shakes her head and steps forward, resting a hand gently at the back of my head and pulling me into a warm embrace.
“Negotiation isn’t everything, Juju,” she says. “Life isn’t give and take. It’s give and give.”
“Yeah, you right,” I say with a nod. “Can I go to school now?”
“Sure, school, right. You’re this excited for ‘school,’?” she chuckles. “Just make sure wherever you’re headed this morning, you make it to class on time, okay?”
“Okay,” I say, a little pang of guilt finding its way into my throat, knowing I’m lying to Mama’s face. I’m already guaranteed to be late, whether I make this bus or not. The question is, how late. I turn back to the door.
“And say goodbye to your zaza before you go, okay? They missed your goodbye yesterday and it ruined their whole day.”
“Not my fault they were taking a piss when I left!” I laugh.
“Juju!” she says, throwing a nearby dish towel at me.
“Fine.” I grin and toss it back. “But I gotta go!”
“All right,” she says, and once I’ve darted back out onto the porch: “I love you!”
“Love you too, Mama! Bye! Bye, Zaza!”
Zaza is bending down to water the herb pots on the porch, but extends a hand up to wave goodbye.
“Love you, Juju!” they say, wiping their beard with the scarf around their neck.
I turn and focus on trying to run with this zucchini bouncing at my hip. The E bus to school comes every ten minutes, but the C bus, which drops off right around the corner from Post Alley Court, comes every twenty, and it’s parked at the corner. I hear the hiss of it kneeling as a passenger in a wheelchair rolls through the back door, and the hiss of it standing again.
“Hold the bus!” I holler. I have to make it to Post Alley first. If Han figured out the abbreviation from the voicemail—as much of a genius as he is—others may have found it too, and how am I supposed to let a bunch of people beat me—Jax Michael—captain of Team JERICHO—lead admin of the Vault Cryptology Forum—in an amateur puzzle like this one?
The bus’s hazard lights shut off just as I reach the door. I grab the handrail and swing myself up through the door and it slams closed behind me.
My lungs are on fire, and I lean against the wall to catch my breath for a minute.
“You got two twenty-five?” demands the driver. I open my eyes and look at her. Her eyes are flashing at me like I definitely don’t have it, and that I’m trying to ride the bus for free, and that I’m costing them tax dollars. I roll my eyes.
“Yeah, I got it,” I say, feeling around in my pockets for my wallet, and then gasp as I realize I left it at my desk. I can picture it, next to my mouse.
We’re stopped at the light.
“I, uh…,” I say, “I swear I have an ORCA card in my wallet at home with thirty dollars on it, I just—”
“You know the rules, son, g’on.”
The doors hiss open. I glance over my shoulder at the passengers. The bus is mostly empty except for three: a tired-looking mom in a beanie, breastfeeding a baby and keeping her eyes on the window to avoid conversation, and two men sitting in the front rows across the aisle from each other, both typing away furiously on laptops. All refuse to look at me, so I look back at the driver.
“Please, ma’am, can I pay twice next time? I swear—”
“Off!” she snaps. “Light’s green, I gotta go!”
“Hey!” hollers a familiar voice from behind me, and a figure bursts through the door, caramel-colored arm outstretched holding… my wallet!
I grab it before I notice who’s on the other end, and I’m suddenly staring into the warm eyes of my zaza.
“That makes twice this month, Jax. Keep it up and I won’t need a gym membership,” they say, giving me another wink and stepping off the bottom step onto the sidewalk again.
“Thanks, Zaza,” I say, breathing a sigh of relief. What would I do without them? Without Mama loading my card before I even remember I’m about to run out? “Thanks a million.”
Zaza is too out of breath to reply, but their smile says enough as they wave and the doors close. The bus hisses as it moves, back on the road to downtown. I swipe my ORCA card and find a seat toward the front, in the row behind one of the businessmen—techies. They’ve each got a blue badge dangling at their hip, so they probably work in South Lake Union. They’re both so glued to their laptop screens—working before they get to work—they didn’t even look at me when I walked past them. Probably thought I’d ask them for a handout or something.
I roll my eyes, slide my wallet into my pocket, and lean my head against the window.
And then I notice it.
A sticker clinging to the top left corner of the window with a picture of an eye. Not just any eye. I’d know that eye anywhere. It’s the same symbol as the one on my desktop. It’s the symbol of the Order.
My heart flutters, and I can’t help but smile. Anytime I see that eye, it reminds me that justice exists. That equity is possible. Why? Because the Order has power. No one knows who they are, or why they do what they do. But they first appeared several years ago, just a few years before I started the Vault.
Everything the Vault is, everything the Vault stands for, is modeled after the Order.
The rules of the Vault? Exactly the rules of the Order.
The law must be obeyed, especially by those in power.
Rules must be followed, especially by those in power.
Fellow humans must be respected, especially by those in power.
The Order are the OG cryptologists. They’ll hack into anything for any cause they deem worthy. My little corner of the internet could only dream of measuring up.
My phone buzzes in my pocket.
YAS: Race ya
Dammit. Of course, the parkour master herself is going to race me to this last clue.
ME: You’re on
I try to be a good sport when I’m about to lose, especially when it’s to a friend, especially Yas.
YAS: Too easy. You on the E line? I’ll meet you downtown after I win.
ME: Nah, I’ll meet you at school after I win.
I lean my head against the seat and sigh, staring at the ceiling the whole way there, willing this bus to move faster.