The world around Stef had ceased to exist. The only things still tangible in the smoky limbo were her screen and her keyboard. The latter was less real, existing only as an abstract, a tool through which algorithms and codes took shape.
From somewhere in the smoke, a beep reminded her to breathe. Stef took a breath but didn’t dare to blink, lest the fragile connection she had to her task be lost. Losing concentration would mean losing the battle with consciousness, and she’d only been awake for twenty-three hours.
‘I’m awake,’ she said, unconvinced. ‘I am awake.’
A knock from somewhere out in the smoke made her hands slip from the keyboard. She swore, shook them, and began to type again, her gaze never leaving the screen. She was satisfied with the change on the screen. Her hands left the keyboard again, that time of her own accord, one to grab the drink to her left, one to click the mouse three times. After that small pause, she began to type again.
There was another knock, louder that time.
Her nostrils flared, but she made no move to greet the visitor. Whatever they wanted couldn’t have been as important as the task at hand. The firewalls were closing in around her, blocking further access, keeping her from her goal.
Stef looked back to her computer. It wasn’t a difficult hack, but it was a trial of a new methodology and a lot of untested code, and the closest to an adventure she could have without booting up WoW.
There was a third knock.
Knock, knock, Spyder. Go get the door.
But I’m busy.
Go get the door.
She shook her head and saved the new algorithms. With a few clicks, she killed the connection and the hack, then alt-tabbed to the desktop just in case someone was watching. She pushed herself back from the desk, rolling down the sleeves of her shirt to hide her monitor-bleached skin – lest her landlord give her another pseudo-lecture on how unhealthy she looked – and shook her legs in the effort to help them remember how to stand. She spun on her chair and stood on still-uneasy legs, letting the wall provide her with balance as she made her way to the front door.
She crossed the small apartment and groped for the keys on the small entry cupboard.
‘I already put the rent in your box, Mr Jenkins,’ she said as she pulled the door open.
The man standing before her wasn’t her landlord or anyone else she recognised.
A tall, blond man stared down at her. ‘I’m not after the rent.’ He gave her a small smile. ‘Two minutes, thirty-two seconds – most people don’t leave me standing on their doorstep so long. My name is Dorian; may I come in?’
For the eighty-third time since moving into the flat, she silently cursed that the peephole was out of her easy reach.
She stared at the man for a moment, watched him spin a silver pocket watch on a long, tarnished chain, then reached for the door, ready to slam it shut.
‘I wouldn’t do that, Spyder,’ he said as he put a hand near hers. ‘I did come this far to see you, after all.
Stef tried to slam the door shut. Power levels taxed by insomnia were no match for a firm hand on the frame and a doorstop made of foot and expensive leather shoe.
Door close now, plz!
Kick his foot.
She kicked his foot, and he swore. ‘Spyder, you really shouldn’t–’
‘Who the fsck are you?’
‘We went over this; my name is Dorian.’
‘Yeah? So? Who are you?’
A piece of paper was pushed through the shoe-wide crack. It flipped and landed face down on the floor near her feet – she grabbed the corner of it with a socked foot and turned it over.
She let go of the door.
‘Does that mean I can come in?’
She looked back to him, possibilities spinning in her mind. ‘Do I need to invite you in?’
He pushed on the door and stepped over the threshold. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I was just being polite.’
This is not one of your brightest ideas.
All the best stories and all the worst stories start with inviting a strange man into your house.
Which is this?
Don’t know yet. Probably neither.
I don’t like this.
Dorian closed the door behind him, but quickly lifted his hand away, showing that he hadn’t locked it. She bent, picked up the piece of paper, and walked through to the lounge room. She sat in the single armchair and made a vague motion towards the couch.
She knew what the code was: it had been a coding challenge in a rubber duck coding group. A place where people posted problematic code to try and get it work when even explaining it out loud to their coworkers and collaborator duckies couldn’t help.
This one had been different from the beginning. The post hadn’t been by a frustrated coder, instead of someone calling themselves a project manager – though not pretentious enough to capitalise the position within the post.
Gallingly, the code itself hadn’t even been in one of the accepted attachment formats, or even a Pastebin link – instead, it was just a screenshot of what had, at first glance, seemed like complete nonsense.
Nonsense that she had just known, somewhere deep in her coder instincts, was real and not just the result of someone rolling a cat across a keyboard.
And now, weeks later, that same project manager was in her apartment.
Dorian, apparently tired of waiting, sighed and pushed at the pile of old game guidebooks until there was enough room to sit on her stained couch.
All desire to sleep had fled. ‘I thought this was– This was weeks ago; I thought you’d already hired someone to work with it.’
‘I had,’ he said, straightening his expensive suit. ‘You’re by no means first string. I’ve brought forty-two people on board so far; all but six have left. Some lasted a day; some lasted a week. It’s a bit of a challenge.’
Stef crumpled the paper at its edges, anything to keep her hands moving. It was beautiful, but the same beauty she’d already seen. ‘I’m up for it…presuming that there’s more than just this. I can’t do anything with the same one page of code.’
‘We do have the complete program. That’s the point: We need to get it working.’
She nodded, her mind spinning in a dozen different directions, half-formed questions waiting their turn. ‘What’s the pay?’
‘You don’t care about the money,’ he said with a smile. ‘Your response was one of the more verbose, and not once did you ask about the money.’
‘Yeah, you’re right, but I do have rent to pay.’
‘It’s living expenses for now,’ he said. ‘Because of the nature of the work, you’ll need to be sequestered.’ He lifted his briefcase and pulled out a slim folder. ‘Standard non-disclosure agreement.’
‘What am I not disclosing?’
‘I can’t tell you that until you sign the form.’
‘This is beginning to sound like the Manhattan Project 2.0.’
‘Is there something about constant exposure to the internet that makes coders paranoid, or have I just been fortunate?’
‘Just – just for reference,’ she said as she fixed her eyes on a stain on the opposite wall. ‘This isn’t some missile defence code thing or to open a secret vault of…evil stuff?’ She gave a self-conscious smile. ‘If this is global domination, I need to know the philosophy before signing up.’ He could be a villain; he could very possibly be a villain. He certainly had the accent for it.
‘Nothing so childish, Spyder,’ he said. ‘We need to get the rest of the program that section of code belonged to working again. All of the original programmers are…incommunicado, and it’s time sensitive.’
‘Does “incommunicado” mean “dead”?’
‘Yes, Spyder, it does.’
‘You aren’t inspiring confidence, here.’
‘I’m here, aren’t I? That means something.’
‘It means you should hire some professionals,’ she said. ‘If it’s that important, why are you bothering with this…routine? This whole thing as a hiring pitch for a long-time job, I can buy – but not if you’re working with a limited window.’
‘Professionals won’t give me what I need.’
She looked just to the left of his face. ‘And what do you need?’
‘To sound like some people I don’t like very much, we need new perspectives, and I don’t want professionals. They will ask questions that I’m not willing to answer. I need people willing to do a job and walk away.’
She shrugged. ‘Yeah. Pass.’
He leaned forward and pulled another folder from his briefcase, then extracted one sheet from the slim file and held it up. Another page of code. More of that beautiful, intricate language that she hadn’t seen yet.
She stared at it.
She pushed herself out of the armchair and grabbed for the sheet, but he drew it back from her reach. ‘NDA first, Spyder.’
‘Then give me a fucking pen.’ He gave her a pen, and she scrawled out something that barely resembled her signature and pushed it back at him. ‘Gimme!’ she demanded, and she pulled the sheet from him as soon as he offered it.
‘Well?’ he prompted.
She tore her eyes away from the new sheet of code and ran back to her bedroom.
Two clicks had her desktop shutting down while she pulled her laptop bag from the bottom drawer. She retrieved Frankie from his usual place under her pillow, paused briefly to make sure that she had not left him on by accident again, then slid him into the fraying brown bag.
She pulled a heavily vandalised overnight bag from her wardrobe and tossed the first six items of clothing that came into her hands into the open bag – five T-shirts, one pair of pants. She caught sight of her rumpled top in the mirrored door, then wriggled out of her pyjama pants, leaving them with the pile of clothes on the floor.
One more piece of dirty laundry on the floor made no difference at this point. The pants would help to keep the other clothes company. The rest of the laundry had been on the floor for long enough to gain sentience and begin the planning stages of a coup – it would welcome fresh blood, new ideas, or at least another piece of cannon fodder in the soap wars that were to come.
The stench of her stained shirt was inexplicably bad as she pulled it over her head. She gave it a suspicious glance and wondered if that was a sign of a gas leak. There was no reason for it to smell so badly, no reason at all, after all–
I showered on Tuesday…
It’s Tuesday again, Spyder.
The shirt joined the pants on the floor.
Stef reached for the closest clean shirt in the wardrobe – something that had started as a black shirt with white writing, but the writing had faded so badly that it was now just a modern art study in flecks and spots. She tossed the shirt behind her and onto the bed as she rummaged for a pair of pants.
She closed the mirrored door and stared for a moment at the moving shape it contained. She looked up and tried to focus on the odd shape – if it was even there at all, and not some figment of her very active imagination. The form in the mirror moved, and it became clear, became a man.
Her hands went sweaty against the mirrored door of the wardrobe as hot prickles crawled up her exposed spine. Dorian was looking at her there was no way that he was not looking at her.
I should have closed the door; I should have closed the door; I should have closed the door–
Stop it; settle down.
She wrapped her arms around herself and turned halfway so that she could look at him. Instructions to get out, to turn away, to leave her the hell alone died somewhere in her throat and lodged in the solid lump of fear there.
Get out! Get out! Get out!
‘I was going to say,’ Dorian said, ‘that there’s no rush; it’s a private car, not a cab.’
He took a few steps into the room, and she felt dizzy.
All thoughts froze as he came closer, and she quickly wrapped her arms more tightly around herself, in an effort to hide her shame. Hot prickles ran up, and down her spine, the heat dried her mouth and made her head spin.
She fought the urge to rip the wardrobe door open, to push herself through the clothes and escape through the back of the wardrobe – whether it be to the flat next door or–
Dorian lifted her shirt from the bed and came closer. He extended his hand and stopped when he came in range. His freaky grey eyes stared at her, and she pulled her left hand away from her body to grab the shirt. She clutched the old shirt to her chest and felt some of the blood return to her head, and some of the breath to her body.
He retreated across the room but did not leave. ‘Take your time,’ he said. ‘But one observation, if I may?’
She made a vaguely affirmative noise, her throat still not ready to push out words.
‘Most people,’ he said, ‘would have covered their breasts, not their scars.’
She stared at the floor, gave a one-shouldered shrug, and waited for him to leave. The door closed, sealed her in, alone and safe, her sanctuary restored. She sank to the carpet, the musty smell familiar, comforting, normal – so very normal in comparison to the last five minutes.
One quick count to ten in binary later, she stood, gave the door a suspicious look, then slowly got dressed.
So, have you decided yet?
Well, I haven’t been axe-murdered yet.
Clothes in place, she dropped a few more items in her overnight bag – USB memory sticks full of pieces of code, little programs, music to code by, codecs that made life easier, and some games in case there were periods of boredom. She zipped up the bag, threw the laptop bag containing Frankie and his accessories over her shoulder, then left the bedroom, dragging the heavier-than-anticipated bag behind her.
Dorian lay on the couch, head on the left arm, feet propped up on the right, left hand holding a cigarette, right hand tapping out something on his phone.
‘Got everything you need?’ he asked, not looking up from his phone. ‘If there’s anything more you need, we’ve probably got it already, or we can get the car to bring you back.’
‘I really don’t need that much.’
He slipped the phone into his pocket, stood, and reached for the overnight bag. He tugged it from her hand even while she protested. ‘Let me be a gentleman, Spyder,’ he said as he lifted it.
She grabbed her wallet as she walked past the entryway table, slipped it into her pocket, and pulled the door closed as she followed him. They walked past the adjacent flats, then down the wide internal staircase to the open lobby. The building had once been a hotel, catering to short stays, but the owner had tired of the upkeep and just taken on long-term occupants, charging a small fraction of what the size of the flats and the location warranted.
Mister Jenkins – who always insisted on the “mister” part and had no first name so far as she knew, had the only ground floor flat, the door of which was open as usual and blaring noises from his television, usually shows from the eighties.
If Dorian’s arrival were a case of the worst of stories, then at least he would not have any problem renting the flat, and the sale of the computer equipment would more than cover the cleaning costs. The cost of fighting the rampaging laundry, however, would probably be out-of-pocket on his part.
Dorian pushed open the door, and she stepped out onto the street, the light nearly blinding her. She cursed the sun, natural enemy, to hacker and geek alike, and blinked until her eyes adjusted. The temporary blindness served one purpose though: It informed her that she was indeed in reality. Terrible, bright, sleep-deprived reality.
The chauffeur of the dark blue town car stepped forwards and took the bag from Dorian, then held out a hand for her laptop bag. She slid it from her shoulder and watched him pack them gently in the boot. The driver opened the door, and Dorian slid in first, then offered a hand to her.
You are allowed to turn back.
I think I’m going to find out if it’s a worst of stories first.
By then it’ll be too late.
She joined Dorian and pulled the door shut so that the chauffeur had one less menial task to do. She put on her seatbelt as the driver climbed into the car, raising the tinted privacy window.
Dorian laid the folder on her lap and pulled his phone from his pocket again. ‘This is only casual business,’ he said as he gave the phone a slight shake. The car pulled off and into traffic. ‘I’m interested as to your first impressions.’
She pulled out the page she had scribbled all over. ‘It’s not a language I’ve seen before. Some of this almost looks familiar, but it doesn’t do what I’d expect, so I think that’s a coincidence unless coincidences don’t exist, in which case it’s just a thing. Other bits, like here’ – she stabbed a finger at the sheet of paper – ‘that’s just…nothing. I have no idea what that bit is doing there. Or that. Or that.’
‘Have fun,’ he said as he looked down at his phone.
She swallowed. ‘I think I have to ask the obvious question of what your stake in all this is.’
‘I’m doing this for the story.’ He caught her expression. ‘Don’t look at me like that, Spyder. I don’t mean it in the way you think. Not a report. Not a news story. Nothing so…tabloid. Literally, for the story. So many lives these days are pedestrian, carbon copies and attempts at copies, emulation, and cliché. The want to be a picture in a magazine. It sickens me.’ He stared at her. ‘It’s a rare chance to be a part of something truly worthwhile. That’s what I get out of this. And I know the financier; I’m doing this as a favour to him.’
She gave him another shrug and went back to the pages of code, scribbling notes in the margins and circling the lines of code that boggled her the most.
Five pages of annotated code later, the car stopped. ‘We’re here,’ Dorian said.
She rolled down the window and stared out at a mansion. The large iron gate rolled open without a sound, and they drove up the circular driveway, giving her barely enough time to take in the grounds and the outlying regions of the huge property.
The driver opened her door, and she stuffed all of the loose printouts back into the folder and stepped out. The mansion rose up in front of her, old – but not too old – and immaculately kept – no chips in the brickwork and no faded paint. The boring kind of big, old house. Big, old houses were only interesting when they contained dust, must, ghosts, secrets, and mysteries that could be solved on a rainy afternoon.
‘The others are on the second floor,’ Dorian said as the heavy front door was pulled open for them. ‘You should have no need of the first floor, as all meals are brought up. If you need something at a non-designated meal time, there should be refreshments lying around, or you can call down to the kitchen.’ He stopped and turned to look at her. ‘And stay off the third floor.’
She gave him a deadpan look. ‘Why, is there a rose in a glass case?’
‘Close,’ he said with a smile. ‘Antique items that we’d rather not have any more exposure than necessary. That and your financier stays up there. He’s a very private man, and he’s rather unwell, so he’d prefer not to be bothered. ’
‘Yeah, okay. I can deal with that.’
‘The others will introduce themselves,’ he said. ‘Some are choosing to operate under pseudonyms adopted especially for this project. You can, too. That’s your prerogative, though I don’t think you have enough of a reputation to tarnish should you fail.’
She opened her mouth to protest, but he was halfway up the stairs before she could think of anything witty to say. ‘You’re in room five,’ he said. ‘Up this way, Spyder.’
Black-and-white photos stared at her from silver frames, but there was no time to focus on them as he urged her up the stairs. The room was small – barely enough room for the single bed, wardrobe, and desk – but it was a comfortable kind of small.
She lifted her laptop bag from the floor as Dorian handed her the key.
‘All the rooms look pretty much the same, so be careful you don’t fall asleep in the wrong bed.’
‘I’ll have everything brought to you, printout and digital copy; there’s stationery in the desk; dinner is at seven. Is there anything else you need?’
‘Coffee,’ she said as she turned Frankie on, the fans whirring to life. ‘Lots of it. Something for a headache. Something to eat – nothing heavy, though.’
‘It’ll be sent up in a little while. For what it’s worth, good luck.’
She gave him a little smile, locked the door after he left, then sat on the bed and stared across at Frankie as the desktop loaded.
Two minutes – two minutes, then I’ll get back up and deal with this.
You really don’t need to bother lying to me.
She put her head on the pillow.
Fine. A subjective two minutes then.
She yawned, closed her eyes, and let sleep finally win.