03 – Keeping Time, Losing Time

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Three Weeks Later

‘You should come out of your room.’

‘Huh?’ Stef looked up at Dorian, playing the part of doorway lurker again, for the umpteenth million time since her arrival at the mansion. She looked back down at the pages of code spread in a messy, haphazard circle on the floor around her. ‘No thanks.’

‘The rest of the team think you’re entirely more mysterious and interesting than they are.’

‘I’m always a disappointment,’ she said as she circled a large section of gibberish with a red marker. ‘Let them live with the mystery for a while.’

‘You’re reusing ideas they’ve already rejected,’ he said as he took a step into the room. ‘It’s inefficient.’

She scooted across the floor toward him and rescued a piece of paper from under his expensive leather shoes. ‘I don’t play well with others, if you want me working here, then-‘

‘Fine, I’ll have the staff bring your food here again.’

She looked back to the code, and let her mind spin.

‘Spyder, you really should come out.’

‘We just had this conversation, Dorian,’ she said as she piled another piece of paper onto the discard pile.

‘No, we had this conversation three days ago,’ he said.

‘More like three seconds.’

‘Spyder-’

She looked up. He was wearing a different shirt; his hair was different, he had a newspaper under his arm.

‘Three days?’

He gave a nod.

She looked back to her floor pile. There was a sandwich sitting beside the discard pile. ‘I don’t remember that sandwich; it looks like it was a good sandwich. Poor sandwich.’

Her stomach growled. ‘Okay. Um. Maybe I need food.’ She closed Frankie’s lid, he likely needed as much of a break as she did, and awkwardly planted her hands on the floor, got to her knees, then used the edge of the bed to pull herself up.

Dorian took a half step back. ‘I’ll make you a deal, take a shower – you need it, trust me; then meet me in the kitchen, I haven’t eaten yet today either, and we can discuss your working situation.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head. ‘Your colleagues are about as social as you, but you’d at least have the benefit of their…attempts at success, so you avoid reworking.’  

‘Yeah, yeah, learn from their fail. None of the others are having any luck?’

‘I’ll give them credit in that they are still working at it – we’ve had people quit within three days, assuming that this is some sort of joke or-’

‘Social experiment. Don’t worry; the idea crossed my mind too. Especially after I found our your surname, Mr Gray.’ Dorian Gray. Unlikely to be part of a part of an experiment, unless it was to make some weird point of technology versus the classics, but as there had been nothing to indicate that, she’d dismissed it.

More likely, and in a way that Oscar would approve it, Dorian had simply changed his name for the aesthetic.

She pulled at a lock of hair and wound it around her finger until the top joint was red and puffy. ‘There’s- There’s no gain, and if it’s a hoax, it’s of Voynich quality, there’s rhyme, there’s rhythm, this is a real language, busted as it may be, it’s real, but it’s not based on anything I’ve seen before, I have to work from scratch.’

‘As are they, you could be of benefit-’

‘I’m not interested in doing their work for them.’

‘It’s all the same work, Spyder.’

‘Yeah, but I like to get credit for my contributions.’

‘I’m not sure how much credit you’ll get for this.’ He pressed two fingers to his forehead. ‘I’ll see you for lunch in a few minutes then.’

‘Ye-yeah,’ she said, then turned towards the wardrobe, and moved to get her shower bag as Dorian’s footsteps disappeared down the hall.

The converted servants quarters were comfortable, for what they were – the size was similar to the private room she’d had at school – and like that room, there was a small attached toilet, but no shower or bath.

She opened the pocket on the end of the overnight bag and retrieved the small bag – old shampoo and soap, something that would need to be replaced after this…job, experience, social experiment, whatever it was.

Bag retrieved, she gathered some clean clothes from the pile of clean laundry near the door and headed down the hall to the shared facilities. The hallway was empty, but sounds of life filtered through from the house, loud voices from the large room that had been set up for the coders, a delivery truck pulling up, and all of the creaks and cracks that an old house made.

Stef stepped over the threshold into a bathroom, though while modern, had been made to fit in with the aesthetic of the rest of the house. She pulled her phone from her pocket and connected it to the Bluetooth speaker, and set it to play all of her half-lucid notes that she had recorded when she’d been too tired to type or write them out.

She stripped, found the laundry bag assigned to her room, and dumped the clothes inside. Her recorded voice, full of sleep, started to read out sections of code.

The water was warm, and nothing made sense.

The code was a complete scramble. It was a whole program – or near enough to one, but it was as though someone had taken the entire thing and thrown it into a tumble dryer. There were some intact functions, but calling them had been next to impossible.

There were patches of interface that were mixed in with the seemingly infinite conditionals, an interface, that while simple, wasn’t laid out like anything she’d ever seen before. And it was orange – that was one of the pieces of information she had gleaned in the small patches of time she had spent around the team.

One of the other coders – who had gone on at length about his frustration in dealing with any of the meaningful pieces of code, had dedicated himself to working out the colour variables, which, whilst hexadecimal, either didn’t conform to the standard hex colour chart, or had been designed by someone with outstandingly lousy taste.

With some work – which Scott was happy to expound upon – he had tweaked at it until he’d come up with a formula to rework the interface colours until they seemed to work. And thus: an orange interface.

It wasn’t much, but it was more progress than the rest of the team had been willing to state publicly.

Her body at least nominally clean, she stepped out, lazily towelled herself somewhat dry and dressed, her t-shirt clinging to her damp skin.

She disconnected her phone from the speaker and walked back down the hall, grabbed a sheaf of code from the pile on the small desk, sat on her bed and stared at it, begging it to make sense.

There was a strange knock.

She looked up and saw an old man, pale enough to be a ghost, knocking against her door with a cane. ‘Dorian said you were joining us for lunch.’

Stef dropped the papers from her hands. ‘Yeah. Sorry. I’ll be there in a-’

‘You are hours too late, my dear, it’s well into dinner service now.’

Stef looked to her right, and the window there – what had been the bright light of lunchtime was now the pinks and oranges of a dying sunset. ‘Oh.’

Dissociation is a hell of a drug.

The old man stepped into the room and picked up some of the annotated code sheets from the desk. ‘So…so beautiful,’ he mumbled as he ran his fingers over her notes. ‘Before this, I never knew…’ He looked to her, his eyes bright. ‘This was my father’s code, but I was too young to ever learn how- And now it is corrupt and- And if we are able to-’

Stef rubbed at her eyes. ‘I’m going to need to you to stop, back up, and finish every one of those sentences.’

He gave her a sad smile. ‘I’m not sure I’m allowed to give you the answers you need.’

‘Dorian said that all the original programmers are dead,’ she said, then winced, knowing how blunt the statement had been. ‘But context is so important in knowing what the fuck I’m working with. I-I-I mean, I’ll credit this with not being some operation to resurrect some unknown form of Pac-Man, but-’

The old man lifted his cane, and she silenced herself. ‘My father did he- Did my- My Son, Dorian. Yes-’ the cane shook as he put it down. ‘Did Dorian ask you what you think of fairy tales yet?’

‘Did he what?’

The old man shook his head like she’d failed a test, then beckoned with a hand. ‘Come on; it’s roast beef. It’s my favourite because, after all this time, it’s still the closest thing I’ve found to my favourite meal as a child.’

That’s a weird thing to say.

Stef sighed, grabbed the closest armful of pages, roughly folded them in half, then followed the old man through to the stone-walled kitchen. This kitchen was the smaller of the two – the one that had food available at any time, snacks in the fridges, and an ever-present coffee pot.

It served a dual purpose as somewhere to eat, with a long wooden table in front of a semi-circular window. Dorian sat, back to them as they approached, staring out the window.

The old man – who still hadn’t given his name – sat at the head of the table, and Stef took the seat that backed against the window. After a moment, she put the pages of code down, out of the way of where a server would put her plate, and felt slightly out of place, just like at every meal she’d ever had with her parents.

‘Spyder, have I asked your opinion on fairy tales yet?’

‘Your dad just did,’ she said as she lifted a carafe and poured a glass of water. ‘I don’t think I passed whatever test it’s supposed to be.’

‘A call-and-response maybe, not a test, not exactly.’ He lifted his head and put his phone down. ‘You do seem like the kind of person who would pass, the fact that you don’t confuses me.’

‘If it’s an old school tie thing, then-’

‘It’s got nothing to do with your wealth,’ Dorian said dismissively.

‘I’m not-’ she started.

‘But you’re used to it,’ he said sharply, ‘nothing about the size of this house, of how to treat the serving staff, the household staff, you aren’t out of step at all.’

He’s got you there.

She stared down at her water glass. ‘My family. But it’s nothing I’m connected to anymore.’

‘Ask your questions,’ Dorian said. ‘Your NDA is in place. Understand I might not be able to tell you everything, but for now…consider this a more open forum than your colleagues have received. A patch of four-leaf clover,’ he said, carefully enunciating the last word.

‘I don’t feel lucky,’ she said, ‘I feel like I’m smashing my head into a brick wall.’ She reached for the sheets of code and started to flick through them. ‘What is it?’ she asked, putting all of her stress into the question. ‘What are we trying to do or fix or- Whatever you can tell me-’

‘A black box,’ the old man said. ‘In as much as I can give you a description, that’s what it is. There’s data from one trip in there and…let’s…’ he looked to Dorian. ‘Father, I’ve told you couching the explanations makes this difficult.’

Stef reshuffled her pages of code, carefully ignoring reacting to the fact that the old man had just referred to Dorian as his father – perhaps for the second time. A common enough slip with dementia, but-

‘It looks for particular types of atmospheric information,’ Dorian said. ‘And if we could get it running again, the information it would provide would be priceless.’

‘Wouldn’t that need like a satellite or-’

‘The machine this came from does that side of things. It works, or at least appears to, but- With the interface corrupt, there’s no way of actually interpreting what it’s telling us.’

There’s a machine? There’s a fucking machine? I thought this had been pulled off old supercomputer tapes or-

You never asked.

Stef laid down her annotated pages and smoothed them out. ‘And I assume there’s no kind of factory reset you can pull, nothing that will just purge the shit data and-’

Dorian sipped his drink like it had wronged him. ‘I wouldn’t have spent a half a million so far if that was the case.’

‘Fuck, if you’re that loose with money, I need to negotiate for a better rate.’

‘Solve it, and I’ll write you a cheque that will make you very happy.’

‘I need to know what I’m doing,’ Stef said. ‘Please. Context is key.’

‘It’s that feeling in your bones when you know a storm is coming,’ the old man said, staring at the head of his cane.

‘Jon,’ Dorian said quietly.

‘It’s like that. Truth, as solid as a mountain. I know it’s coming. And-’

‘Jon.’

The old man looked away, the expression on his face one of a child chided by a parent. ‘I apologise.’ Jon turned to look at her. ‘Never grow old, it’s a curse.’ He tilted his head towards Dorian. ‘I do not wear it as well as Dorian does.’

Okay, that’s one too many veiled comments.

Dorian sighed, then reached out to gently touch Jon’s face, the gesture somehow more paternal than comfort coming from a child. But that only made sense if-

Do I even need to point out that you’re insane?

Stef dabbed at her mouth with the expensive napkin, feeling the thread count with her fingers before placing it beside her plate and looking towards Dorian, unable to quite meet his eyes. ‘Is this the point where you tell me you’re the real Dorian Gray?’

Dorian moved his head to catch her gaze. ‘And if I was, Spyder?’

Her heart spiked and jumped. Hot sweat beaded on the back of her neck. ‘Then I- Then I guess you’d actually be able to tell me what’s going on and I’d be able to do my freaking job?’

‘I was the inspiration; I am not fiction come to life. I have no grotesque portrait hiding beneath a sheet.’ He sipped his drink. ‘And if we are laying our cards on the table, what is your story? I’m surely not your first glimpse beyond the mundane?’

‘I don’t know if you’re trying to flatter me, but I’m a muggle so far as I know.’

‘Most people don’t consider dying to be mundane, Spyder.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

He made a vague gesture towards her. ‘You’ve died. You’ve seen Limbo. It’s something I can see about a person. Not an aura, I’m no young hippie with crystals, more like…gaydar. Something in the eyes, usually. I’ve been wrong. That, or you were very young, and if you were, that raises a lot of other questions, such as-’

‘It’s grey, isn’t it?’ the question slipped out, unbidden. ‘I dream about drowning sometimes. And there’s grey and blue and-’

‘Grey as if you had stepped into an old Hollywood picture, there’s no colour but that which you bring with you.’ He drained his drink. ‘Gods, you must have been young. Your family might be in on the reality of the world or…’ He hesitated for a moment. ‘Well, a lot more people believe they can see Death when the reality of a dead loved one is in front of them, even after, they do not necessarily know about Faerie.’

‘Faerie? Like- Like-’

‘Yes, but far different than even you could possibly imagine.’ His expression softened a little. ‘Forgive me, Spyder, but I don’t like playing Morpheus to those fresh to the world. I’m too old and too tired to take that kind of responsibility. When you finish up here, I’ll point you in the right direction, but for now, can we focus?’

Thoughts, each one as real and as far away as stars in the sky, swirled. Death. Faerie. She had died. Magic – he’d said everything but the word itself – was real. And he expected her to- To sit and eat roast beef.

She’d died.

Cold. Dark. So very cold. So very dark.

Someone was holding her. Keeping her safe from the dark. Keeping her safe from the cold. Blue. Blue meant safety.

The dream was always unpleasant, the sensation of sinking in darkness, something she’d always interpreted as drowning. But- But it always had a happy ending, but someone stopped her from falling to the bottom of the endless ocean.

‘Jon is my adopted son,’ Dorian said, breaking into her thoughts. ‘In the simplest way I can put it to you, his world died, and his parents built an escape pod.’ He held up a hand to stop her. ‘No Superman references, please, have some dignity. His parents perished in the journey, as the escape from a dying world is not easy or kind. He fell into the Blitz and was evacuated with other confused children, to a house in the country where I was recuperating from an injury. I recognised him for what he was immediately, and took him under my wing.’

There was one comment she couldn’t hold back. ‘He looks human.’

‘The journey extracts a toll. In this case, his parents were the fee. If you survive, the universe sees it fit to grant you language and breath, and in the rare instances where it is kind, a new form.’

‘He said- He said he can feel it coming.’ There was a cold feeling in her stomach. ‘Does that mean the world’s ending?’

Dorian shook his head. ‘Not ours. When a world dies, its heart is ejected out into void and falls onto another world. It’s powerful and worth the effort of finding. We’re hoping to use the escape pod code to anticipate where it will land.’

‘Ye-yeah,’ she said. ‘I think I can- I think I can use this to fill in some of the holes. It at least gives me a direction.’

‘If you’ve got any questions that pertain to the project, I could answer those, but otherwise-’

‘I think- I think I just need to process this for a bit,’ she said, stood, walked into the kitchen island, then half-stumbled out into the hall, and straight into a man holding a clipboard.

‘Hey,’ he said, and she vaguely recognised him as one of the newer team members. ‘We’re doing pizza later, and we’re gonna go over what we’ve collectively learned so far. What can I put you down for?’

She shrugged. ‘I dunno, pepperoni or some shit?’

He smiled broadly. ‘Pepperoni and shit, done.’

‘Um, yeah,’ she said, and walked past him, back towards her room, head spinning with death, fairies and magic.

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02 - The Best of Stories, The Worst of Stories

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