Zak Skinner is a pretty unremarkable guy in many ways. He’s bright enough, for sure – that’s why he is studying engineering at the University of Chicago. Why he moved there from NYU, we’re not sure at first, but we suspect that he lacks the essential ingredient of ‘stickability’. Or maybe he is running away from something? He and his old school buddy Riley room together, and Riley is most things that Zak is not. Like steady, reliable, unimaginative and not prone to destructive self analysis.
Zak is slightly in awe of a fellow who lives on the same landing – David Wade is preppy, confident, glib and has an air of natural authority. When Wade takes him off campus to the house of a man called Jane (surname – so no gender crisis) Zak’s nightmare begins. Never one to turn down a toke of anything that might be mind altering he imbibes a concoction made, apparently from several rare species of South American tree bark. Over the next few hours Zak is unsure whether he is on some strange trip, or actually walking around the streets of Chicago with a mysterious woman. What does seems to be real, however, is that he has bought a notebook from an artisan craft store, and has the receipt in his back pocket.
When he finally returns to reality and shuffles back to his accommodation to share his apparent adventures with Riley things begin to go pear-shaped. First, a fellow student mistakenly takes delivery of a pizza ordered by Riley and Zak – and becomes seriously ill; then, Wade disappears, and Zak is hauled in by the campus cops as he was the last person to be seen with him; thirdly – and most bizarrely, someone seems to be in desperate need of the receipt that is sitting harmlessly in Zak’s back pocket.
Long story short – Zak takes the receipt to an obscure department of the university where specialist mathematicians ponder the intricate relationships between series of numbers. When the receipt is placed under a highly refined scanner, it reveals a sequence of numbers invisible to the human eye. Stavros, the head of this arcane department is then involved in a drive-to-kill incident, but Zak escapes the wreckage, but realises he is being followed by a group of sharp-suited men who clearly work for some big corporation.
We learn – via Zak being snatched and taken into what appears to be an alternative world beneath Chicago’s streets – that the heavies work for System D. This organisation operates on the university campus by snaring students – via drugs – into committing crimes, the videos of which are used to blackmail the victims – who are, ipso facto, highly intelligent and capable people – into working for the corporation. System D’s mission statement seems to involve using crypto currencies to arm-twist big pharma companies into providing better healthcare for the vulnerable people in society, but Zak suspects that the true aim of the organisation is something much more sinister.
Lisa Towles has an MBA in Information Technology, and has a ‘day job’ in the tech industry, so the fast paced narrative of Ninety-Five goes from one complex techno concept to the next with sometimes bewildering speed. Towles never allows this journey into the Dark Web to obscure the human element, however, and towards the end of the book she reveals Zak Skinner’s tragic family history and thus we learn, for the first time, just what the young man might have been running away from.
Ninety-Five travels, one might say, at 95 mph, and Lisa Towles breaks up the narrative into sixty seven short chapters, so the pace is relentless. The novel is a dazzling trip into a dystopian techno-nightmare – a place where Alice Through the Looking Glass meets The Matrix, with more than a touch of Twin Peaks. Published by Indies United Publishing House, Ninety Five will be available on 24th November.