Stef stood in front of her assigned dorm room, looking at her wonky reflection in the brass number five that adorned the door.
Go inside. Going inside was probably the thing to do.
She fumbled with the handle, walked inside, and locked the door behind her. The lock was small, nothing that would withstand more than a solid kick from the average person, but the illusion of safety comforted her.
And comfort was what she needed.
‘He said- He said-’
Inside voice, Spyder.
‘Why, no one can-’
He said magic was real. Well, may as well have said it. He’s- And-
She stared at the wall. Nothing was anything without proof. Proof that wasn’t something could be accomplished by smoke and mirrors, or talented sleight of hand illusion.
You still want to believe.
She pitched forward and pulled the pillow under her head. Belief was already pooling in her chest, like a video game rumour she was desperate to believe, something she could spin her entire life on, at least for a moment.
And it wasn’t as though she hadn’t always believed anyway. In the low-key way many people did, looking for magic portals, stepping in puddles, waiting for animals to speak. It wasn’t trying to learn magic from a website built in the Geocities era; it was just the hope that there was more to the world.
But she had to be careful. So careful. More careful than she had been about following Dorian in the first place. That had been cavalier, stupid, and…yet had worked out. And if it hadn’t, nothing of value would have been lost.
You had to care about living to worry about the concept of death. And if she’d been less of a coward, then-
She exhaled and tried not to taste the ghost of vinegar, puke and sleeping tablets.
‘Most people don’t consider dying to be mundane, Spyder.’
Dorian’s words had been shocking, had been the last thing she’d ever expected anyone to say, but- But once they had landed, they just felt as true as knowing her own name.
There was a need for caution, as smart as she was, she knew she wasn’t always wise. And crazy was easy to take advantage of – especially crazy that was already constantly hallucinating.
The audio stuff she could deal with – needed; she needed the audio stuff, needed her sensible side to have a voice loud enough to shout at her.
Visual stuff, on the other hand, ran the gamut from mundane to terrifying. Visual stuff didn’t happen all that often, and that made it harder to get used to. It was a useful – if grating – sign she was on the bad end of some spiral or other, and a huge warning light she needed to be careful. But other people go warning signs that weren’t screaming severed heads in their toilets.
As annoying as the head had been, the mundane slips scared her more. The momentary illusion that the crosswalk light was green; or-
Dorian didn’t know she was crazy. Probably didn’t know she was crazy. She’d tried to keep her interactions with him limited to when she could maintain a professional-ish mask; the same with the contact she’d had with the other code monkeys. It was easier to hide in a crowd, easy to stay at the back during a pizza night or sushi-and-debug session.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t interacted with the others, but it was so much easier to let the code sing by herself.
But now she had to deal with whatever Dorian had dropped on her, and a pizza party all in one day, and there was a limit to what a little hacker could deal with.
Stef rolled onto her back lifted the pillow high above her head and dropped it like a nurse testing for responsiveness.
‘Ow,’ she said mildly, then wrapped her arms over it and pulled it close, the sensation smothering and comforting at the same time.
‘Most people don’t consider dying to be mundane, Spyder.’
The drowning dream had been there was long as she could remember – a recurring dream before she’d known the term for it. Sinking and darkness; a flash of red that made her think of Alexandria, then blue and safety.
She reached to the end of the bed with her foot and drew her shoulder bag towards her. A quick rummage found her phone, and she flicked through to the galley – which was now frontloaded with notes on the code that hadn’t made it to one of the shared cloud drives yet.
At the end of the gallery were a few pictures of Alexandria, it had seemed silly at the time – part of her had justified the photos as needing to test the camera; the rest of her had scoffed at the justification and just accepted that she wanted to be able to always carry her favourite toy with her.
A doll that she’d never been able to bring herself to part with. It wasn’t just sentimentality; the doll had either been a present from a father who didn’t love her or a mother who loved only the parts of her daughter that agreed with her worldview. It wasn’t that Alexandria had gone on magical and wonderful adventures with her – it had usually been her mutilated fashion dolls and teddy bears that starred in the theatre of childhood.
Alexandria was somehow more important than any of that. Was so important. Felt like peace when she held her.
And time had proven the photos to be a good idea – in them, Alexandria was whole; in her room at home, Alexandria’s head was caved in.
Even if magic was real, it didn’t mean her dreams would make sense. It didn’t mean anything would change. Not everyone got to go to Hogwarts, not everyone-
Her phone buzzed – an alert in the group chat, announcing that pizza was only half an hour away and that everyone should start gathering.
Okay, that’s half an hour to get ready to pretend to be normal.
It’s just pizza.
I’m not even hungry. I just ate.
Stef sighed, got up, walked over to the desk and flicked on the electric kettle. That had been an ask – Dorian had pointed out that there were two kitchens in short walking distance. She had maintained that if he didn’t provide one, she’d order one and have it delivered.
Coffee close was always better than coffee far.
She pulled a paper cup from the desk drawer, and dumped in imprecise quantities of instant coffee and too-much-sugar, then filled it up as soon as the water had boiled.
Coffee always helped in dealing with people.
One and a half cups of help later, she grabbed her most presentable notes and headed down to the common room, where some of the desks had been shoved aside to make a space for chairs in impromptu-seminar seating, facing a wall that currently had a projector’s logo screensaver bouncing around.
Two of her code monkeys stood near the door handing out pizzas to a loose line of hungry, hungry hackers – each box had a name, or a description scrawled on it in marker. ‘BBQ chicken or whatever,’ the blond called, and the pizza was claimed a moment later. ‘Kevin McAllister’s cheese pizza.’ A girl with blue hair giggled and stepped forward to claim the pizza. ‘If you ordered “I dunno”, step to the right, you’re getting meatlovers.’ A few more pizzas were handed out. ‘Garlic prawn, thank god, an actual order.’ The pizza was passed over her head. ‘Pepperoni and/or shit?’
‘Um, me, I think.’
The pizza-master didn’t hear her, so she stepped forward and pulled it from his hands with a mumbled apology, before heading to the back row of the seminar seating.
Everyone was eating.
I look out of place.
Carefully, she opened the pizza box, folded the lid over, and took two random slices out and threw them under the desk beside her – it was a bit cruel to the cleaning staff, but it at least gave her the surface impression of fitting in.
And surface level integration was all she could hope for.
After everyone was seated, someone took control of the projector and started to show before-and-after screenshots of some of the recovered functions, and several attempts at building a variable library.
Halfway through a summary explanation of why Scott’s hexadecimal orange UI interface was important, someone at the front of the seminar chairs vomited.
‘Hey, shit, you okay?’ the blue-haired girl asked, springing to her feet, presumably to look for something to wipe up the mess. She took two stutter-steps, then doubled over, leaning on an empty chair, and vomiting herself.
It was a cascade, a wave of people standing, trying to move, and coughing or throwing up or collapsing back into their chair and shuddering.
‘What the fuck?’ Stef breathed, even as her gaze dropped to look at the pizza in her lap.
Everyone had pizza. Everyone was throwing up.
Over by the door, calm as the world during winter, drinking from red cups, were the two pizza-masters. The room had twenty or so sick, screaming and puking nerds, and they didn’t care.
They expected this.
She wasn’t sick; she hadn’t eaten pizza. And if she didn’t- If she didn’t seem to be one of the sick people, then she’d be an immediate target. Blending in was the only way to go, whatever this was – and it seemed to be attempted mass murder – being the odd duck out wasn’t the way to go.
One of the taller hackers stepped toward the pizza-masters, one hand held to his bleached surfer curls. ‘Hey, you fucks, what’s going-’
There was a loud sound, and the tall hacker fell.
The entire room fell silent for a moment, except for one enthusiastic puker in the middle of the seminar group.
Her brain was- She couldn’t make sense- Time was taffy and- Loud noise. A tree cracking in winter. A-
‘Gun!’ The shout, from someone at the front, was enough to make the entire room scatter. The group seethed and rushed, some people heading for the doors, others for the windows, someone started throwing something that shattered – a cup or two.
There was another gunshot.
Stef spun, her feet automatically aiming her for the door that would take her towards the dorm rooms.
There was wetness on her back, and behind her, someone fell.
The hallways were a mess. Someone had pulled an alarm. Someone was screaming for the police to be called.
And she ran, her entire body turning into a stitch as she did, physical effort being the furthest thing from normal.
She wasn’t the only one who had thought of going to the dorms – ahead of her, someone slammed the door to their room, with heavy noises following sounding like the bed being dragged against it. A defence that could be broken by a few shoulder shoves.
She tried to breathe.
It was one idea. But-
Stef stepped over the threshold of her room, head spinning. It was one idea, but not the best idea. A closed door, one that could only be locked from the inside, was a sure sign that someone was inside.
As soon as the pizza-masters came to the closed and locked dorm room door, they’d make every attempt to get in, to get at the hacker prize at the bottom of the cereal box.
She stepped away from her door, leaving it half-closed. Half-closed. A casual look. Anyone running from guns would have closed their door. Locked it. Put furniture in front of it. Done everything they could to prevent ingress.
There was no time for redundancy, but there was time for cleverness.
On her third night in the mansion, the world had been just too much to handle. Too many thoughts, too many ideas. She’d been so close to running, to wanting to leave and go back to where everything was boring, but made sense.
Escape had been the goal, but with the code too fascinating to leave in the midst of a panic attack, she’d crawled into the wardrobe. Two minutes with a tiny screwdriver had allowed her to lock it from the inside, and a forgotten blanket at the bottom had provided enough softness to let her sleep.
And now, the wardrobe was going to provide escape again.
Carefully measuring her steps to create the least amount of sound, she hooked her shoulder bag on the window’s latch, as if it could have gotten caught there, had she fled that way, then opened the wardrobe door.
The door creaked as it opened, and she felt her heart curl up and die in her chest, sick panic spreading to every extremity.
She pushed the few hanging clothes aside, hoping for one moment that there might be a forest to escape into hiding in the back of the wardrobe. No forest. No snow. No lamp post.
She stepped inside, pulled the door closed, and slid the lock’s bolt home, so that anyone who decided to rattle the door would assume it had been locked from the outside, and not investigate the world’s second stupidest hiding place.
As quietly as she could, she slid to the floor of the old wardrobe, back against the inside of the right wall.
Now just be quiet.
Her phone was in the shoulder bag hanging from the window – a deliberate choice. Whatever was happening was happening right now, and however quick a response could be mustered, it wouldn’t be immediate, and it wouldn’t help anyone in the next five minutes.
And if there wasn’t help in the next five minutes, then it wouldn’t matter if they weren’t there for an hour, so a phone call could wait.
There was also the small-but-significant point that the wardrobe wasn’t airtight – so however dim the light from her phone was, anyone looking into the room might be able to recognise clearly artificial light coming from within what was supposed to be an empty wardrobe.
Stay quiet. Stay still. Don’t move no matter what.
Stef wiped her eyes, finally able to process that she was crying, then buried her face in her hands, and took the quietest deep breaths that she could manage.
There was another gunshot, and she jolted.
I don’t want to die. Not like this.
She leaned her head against the back of the wardrobe and begged it to open, to be a secret passage, to be magic, to be any way out of danger.
The back of the wardrobe stayed obstinately wooden, refusing to give way to a real escape. She doubted that there was a way to charge her electronics in Cair Paravel or even in the den of some friendly beavers, but she didn’t care.
Please. I can’t die here.
Stef wished that she could sink into the wood, to be an interesting hacker-shaped stain on the grain, for her consciousness to suffuse into the wood, share its memories, and have the pleasure of a simple duty of containing coats and lamp posts.
But she’d died once already, if Dorian could be trusted. If stupid dreams could be extensions of memory she couldn’t really remember. And if she’d died once, maybe it wouldn’t be so scary the second time around. Maybe-
There was the sound of heavy-booted footsteps – not quite in her room, in the hall probably – loud enough that whomever they belonged to was surely stomping for effect, to inspire terror, and-
‘No! Fuck no!’ A shout, then a gunshot.
She drew her knees to her chest, leaned forward, wrapped her arms around her legs, and tried to concentrate on becoming still. Tiny breaths, tiny measured breaths, so that the sound wouldn’t give her away.
The stompy boots came into her room.
The stompy boots walked right past the wardrobe, and there was the squeal-static of someone operating a walkie-talkie. ‘Another one got into the grounds. Eastern side.’
There was a huge sound – probably the bed being lifted and dropped.
He’s still checking.
Be still. He’ll come here next.
Stef pinched her nose, willing to die of oxygen deprivation if it meant not getting shot, and waited for the inevitable. The inevitable came three seconds later, a half-hearted pull on the wardrobe door, then another squeal-static of radio noise. ‘Room five clear. Moving to six.’
There were no sounds for a moment, then there was the chk-chk of a lighter, and an exhalation of breath before the stompy boots finally left the room.
Carefully, in a way that hopefully would antagonise the universe, Stef released her nose and started to breathe freely again.
In movies, people tended to immediately leave whatever safety they had as soon as the first, obvious danger/monster/guard had passed on by, with little regard for even average human hearing. If she opened the wardrobe door, the squeak would attract someone; her footsteps would alert one of the people with guns, even the sound of snot and/or tears hitting the ground would bring death down on her head.
Small sounds – somehow especially small sounds – were capable of generating a lot of attention. There had been one night she’d been unable to sleep, disturbed by an unusual squeaking – after a far-too-long search, and shining a torch down into the alley beside her apartment building, the source had been a rat on a dumpster, seemingly singing at the full moon. Probably a mating call – but one stupid rat had managed to get her attention from two floors up and at the far end of her apartment.
If a rat could draw attention, so could a Spyder.
She adjusted herself slightly, to stop her bum from falling asleep, bowed her head and tried to listen to what was going on in the rest of the house.
Some people – probably a lot of people – would be praying in her position, but prayer had never been a fixture of her childhood – her parents were Easter-and-Christmas-mass Church of England attendees, and even those events were more for the look of the thing than for the content.
Given the givens, maybe a prayer to Death might be appropriate, even if it was just asking for a quick and painless passing.
She counted to one hundred in binary, while her fingers traced circles on her knees. Numbers, systems, things she knew, things she loved.
There were still noises outside; there were still people in the mansion – shouting voices and calls, but so far-
The floorboards in her room creaked.
This wasn’t the return of stompy-boot-man unless he had suddenly decided to walk normally.
Her hand went quietly back to her face and pinched her nose, and she went back into breathe-as-little-as-possible mode. Stompy-boots had been survived; she could survive quiet-shoes.
‘I’ll give you until the count of five to come out,’ a steady voice said, distorted slightly by the wardrobe door. ‘Slowly. No sudden movements.’
She started to cry again.
I was so quiet! I was so quiet!
‘I’m addressing the individual in the cupboard,’ the voice said, killing any hope that this was a ploy that she could ignore.
Please make it quick.
The door was pulled open – but thanks to the gloom of the dark room outside the wardrobe, the man was barely more than a layers of shadow. One thing was unfortunately clear though – the gun, two feet from her head.
There’d been no hesitation killing anyone else, so-
‘Out,’ he ordered, his voice still level.
‘Why-’ her voice shook. ‘Why are you- You shot everyone else. If you’re gonna- Just-’ She couldn’t bring herself to say “just do it”. ‘You killed everyone else.’
He reached forward, locked his hand around her upper arm and pulled her out of the wardrobe. She stumbled back, her hip knocking into the bedpost, the pain knocking yet more tears loose. ‘We give your people the chance at surrender. If you fight-’
‘How much fight can people puking their guts out have?’ she asked, asking the question of her shoes, unable to look at the man who was probably going to kill her.
God, these shoes are really dirty. I should have-
The light flickered on.
He didn’t touch the light switch.
Like that’s important right now.
Of course it’s important. It’s data.
You’re the half that’s going to get us killed.
No, that would be the scary guy with the gun.
‘Who are you working for?’ he asked, a little of the harshness gone from his voice.
‘Dorian,’ she said, still addressing her shoes. ‘I’m working for- Dorian. Like all the other dead people.’
She managed to look up at him. With the lights on, he wasn’t as scary. Still scary. But not as scary. Not as scary and- And blue. He wore a vest and tie that were a very familiar shade of blue. A- The blue that meant safety. The blue from the drowning dream.
Black jacket. Blue vest. Blue tie. Brown hair. Memories stirred but refused to break through the surface.
The blue had always been connected to someone. That knowledge had always been there, but- But the foreground was always so much more important. Like the person and the face had been out of frame. An out of focus guardian angel.
‘You weren’t among Mr Gray’s personnel photos.’
The face wasn’t familiar, but the voice. Now that he wasn’t yelling. Now that he wasn’t threatening. The voice was familiar. A lullaby you only remembered when looking at an old toy.
She jumped at the sound of her name. ‘I- Uh- Yeah- Dorian kept bugging me for a selfie but I never sent it to him. I-’ She pressed her hands into her cheeks, then tried to meet his gaze. ‘Um.’
It was stupid. It was crazy. It was exactly as stupid and crazy as she was. And if she had five seconds left to live, she had to say it.
‘I remember you.’
Next: 05 – The Third Path