Today's Reading

The room was your classic large lecture hall: three hundred wooden seats divided into three downward-sloping sections. Squinting a bit under the sudden illumination of fluorescent lights, Alien saw almost half the seats were already occupied by other curious, clueless freshmen. Meanwhile, twenty older students—twelve guys, eight women, all wearing the same black T-shirts—patrolled the aisles, communicating urgently about Important and Secret matters. Some even had two-way radios to talk to Silver Hair, Safety Goggles, and others outside the room. Obviously they were not to be interrupted by impertinent questions from the likes of her.

Taking a seat in the last occupied row, Alien feigned unconcern and studied a cute redheaded guy with a dimpled chin in front of her. Her very sweet high school boyfriend, Micah, was also an incoming in the Boston area, but it was time to start fresh, she felt, so she had broken things off. Convenient, because now, after what seemed an eternity, the redhead turned and noticed her smoothing her newly colored hair.

"What did I miss?" she asked him.

"I can't tell you," he said. "Punishment for being late."

"I'm not late," Alien said. "I was just doing something else more interesting."

"Really?" His eyebrow rose at the boast. But he smiled and said, "Invite me next time."

"What's your name?" asked Alien.

"Cal," he said. On the back of his own bright orange invitation, he scribbled his new username—CDaniels—so that she could email him.

"Mine's Alien," she told him, satisfied that he looked impressed.

The older students must have decided that Alien would be the last of their guests this evening, for they finally quieted their radios, and a big bearded guy strode to the front of the room, boosted himself atop the wide wooden lecturer's desk, and stood to speak, casting shadows behind him on sliding blackboards that held the chalky remnants of four decades of erased physics equations.

"Greetings," he boomed. "I'm Jack. By a remarkable coincidence, all my colleagues here tonight"—he gestured to the other organizers in black—"are also named Jack. We are here to help you understand your new home and experience certain sights that you might otherwise miss.

"This tour is not officially sanctioned by MIT. In fact"—he grinned—"you could say it doesn't exist. If participating in something that doesn't exist makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to leave." He paused, looking up and down the room, as did Alien. There were murmurs, and a few of the freshmen shifted uneasily in their seats, but none took him up on the offer. And how could they? Alien thought. They were special now—part of something secret. They had to see what happened next.

"All right, then." Jack cleared his throat. "Just because this tour doesn't exist doesn't mean it doesn't have rules. Like this one." He raised his hand. People murmured. Then they stared. Then, after maybe half a minute had passed, they shut up.

"Exactly," Jack said. "A hand up means total silence. We are out tonight to see—not to be seen. And not being seen begins with not being heard."

The tutorial continued for another half hour. Walk single file. Follow the footsteps of the person in front of you. If you see an obstacle en route, don't speak, but point it out clearly to the person behind you. Don't step on glass ceilings—they break. Don't touch hot steam pipes—they burn. Crouch below the walls of any roof so you stay unseen. Don't take anything. Don't drop anything. And where they were going tonight, the freshmen should never go back to alone.

"Above all, exercise common sense," Jack said. "We'd rather have you safe and sound on the ground, staring up, saying, Oh shit, I should have gone on the roof, than have you up on a roof, staring down, saying, Oh shit, I should have stayed on the ground."

The room responded with nervous laughter. Good luck with that, Alien thought. No freshman would want to be the one to chicken out and miss the adventure.

"One more thing," Jack wrapped up. "We are not alone tonight. The men in blue suits are looking for us." Everyone understood that he meant the CPs, or campus police. "They do not want to arrest you. They want you not to exist. Satisfy that desire. If you hear someone coming, change floors. If you can't change floors, walk in the opposite direction. If you can't walk in the opposite direction, don't talk to them. If you have to talk to them, be friendly and polite. Have an excuse ready, like you're lost, or a question to ask, like Where's the bathroom?"

Jack's eyes twinkled. "If we can be invisible, you should be able to be invisible," he concluded, acknowledging his stature and the not exactly discreet appearance of many of his colleagues. "It's amazing what you can get away with if you don't look like you're getting away with anything."

This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.

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