Stef stared at the code in front of her, and made some notes on the already-full piece of paper to her right. The algorithm cycled in her mind, failed, spontaneously blew up, then laughed at her. Dutifully, she crossed out her last few notes, then searched for a new piece of paper. Finding none, she stood and walked over to the printer, pulled out the tray and extracted a few pieces of A4 paper.
She lifted the fresh paper to her nose and breathed in the smell, the faint scent of toner, the lingering smell of electronics, the cleaning chemicals that had leaked through. They were all comforting, familiar smells. With fresh paper in her hands, fresh ideas began to form. Not that she was anywhere near exhausting her current batch, but many were immediately shot down by her fellow colleagues.
A scream flushed all ideas from her mind.
She gripped the paper in her hands, and braced for the next scream. The halls were dark, filled only with the eclectic artifacts. All of the staff had long since gone home or retired to their quarters, the only people awake were the ones in the room with her.
There was a third scream, and suddenly its source became all too clear: the third floor.
Creepy mansion, creepy scream… Concentrate, Spyder.
She looked around the room at the other code monkeys, keeping her reaction undecided until she could gauge what they were doing. It was possible that the house was haunted, and that this was perfectly normal. The majority looked worried, and a few looked as though they suspected that they’d fallen from their dreams and into a nightmare.
The room held its collective breath, waiting for a fourth scream, or the revelation of its source. No more screams came, none like the first in any case. Screaming music came again, backed by drums and wailing guitars. Dorian materialised in the doorway, or at least appeared to do so, coming out of the shadows in dark clothes, the dim light failing to chase away all the shadows.
‘I do apologise,’ he said, his voice strained, his hands in his pockets. ‘I was sent some new music. Japanese screamo. I didn’t realise that the speakers were turned up.’
‘It sounded real,’ one of her fellow code monkeys said. ‘I’m jealous of your sound system.’
She fought the urge to groan, to berate them for so readily accepting a lie. Whatever the sound had been, it was not something that had come from speakers, no matter how good the system was. The boys around her, however, seemed content with the explanation, and she had no wish to burst their little bubble worlds.
‘The man who owns this house has good resources,’ Dorian said, ‘I’m not sure he’ll share the name of his supplier. He, however, has allowed me to offer an incentive.’
He grabbed an empty bowl from the food cart and threw a dozen slips of paper into it.
‘These are all of your names, whoever I pull out-’
‘Ain’t it a bit late to be doing this?’ one of her fellows asked, ‘I mean, some people are asleep.’
‘…shall win an LCD television. It’s just a little thank-you, something to inspire more great work.’
He turned to look at her.
‘Do you want to pick it, Spyder?’
She looked at the hand proffering the bowl, walked toward him, turned her back to the rest of the code monkeys, and made a great play of mixing the slips of paper around.
‘There’s blood on your sleeve,’ she observed, ‘and under your nails.’
His grip tightened on the bowl.
‘Do you want the TV?’ he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
‘You severely underestimate me,’ she said as she latched onto one of the pieces of paper.
Fate was a cruel being, she realised as she unfolded the piece of paper, only to have her own name stare back at her. She looked around the room and pointed at the boy who sat opposite her.
‘You win. Grats’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, a huge, sleep-deprived grin on his face, ‘I’ll buy the popcorn.’
She pushed the bowl back at Dorian, and turned to her colleagues.
‘Night,’ she said unceremoniously, and walked from the room.
Dorian, predictably, followed her.
She held up a hand to quiet him until they reached her room.
‘That scream,’ she said as she leaned against the heavy wooden door, ‘didn’t come from a sound system. I know this, don’t argue with me. I know it came from the third floor. Don’t bother to refute that either. Whoever was screaming was injured, hence the blood. The TV was a distraction, and a good one: expensive. It did the trick. Congratulations, you placated a bunch of idiots with a shiny prize.’
She caught his expression.
‘And right now,’ she said, ‘you’re thinking “there’s something not quite right about this girl” and you’d be right. But so am I, aren’t I?’
‘At this point, I wouldn’t insult you by lying to you.’
She grasped the doorknob. ‘Go back to whoever needs your help. You’ve got nothing to fear down here.’
‘What do I…?’
‘What you don’t do is underestimate me,’ she said. ‘Goodnight Dorian.’
‘And to you, Spyder,’ he said before striding down the hall and around the corner, toward his room.
She walked into the small room she’d been allocated, instinctively locked the door and collapsed onto the bed. She stared at the plastered ceiling, allowing the familiar passive mask to slip from her face, allowing all the confusion and fear to play across it.
She awkwardly kicked off her dirty sneakers, pulled the blanket up, and attempted to sleep.
Ten minutes later, wider awake than she had been the hour before, she pulled Frankie from the cupboard and caught up on her web browsing. Two hours later, she blinked – her world had been centred by familiar websites, and she was ready to work again.
She made her way back out to the main room, woke her assigned computer from its sleep mode and booted up the code and the manipulator programs.
Hours after that, the world decided to tend towards daytime again. The floor-to-ceiling windows gave her a brilliant view of the gray pre-dawn world outside the mansion. Everything seemed to be so real, even if it was cast in an almost silver light. She just wondered where the dancing marshmallows fit into it, she blinked and they disappeared, confirming that they were just a product of her insomnia.
She called up the calendar on the computer and realised that it had been more than two days since she’d really slept; catnaps on the keyboard didn’t count. Sleep wasn’t important though. When her body needed it, she was sure that she would fall unconscious. It was good at looking after itself in that way.
On the monitor in front of her, the code cycled, testing out algorithms that she’d only written hours earlier. None of them worked. Not that the failure surprised her. She couldn’t read the code, she had no idea what it said, what it meant, or what it would do, should they finally decipher it and reconstruct it.
She sincerely hoped that it wasn’t going to end the world.
A few keystrokes removed the UI and the code was allowed to cycle, unfettered by any means to manipulate it. It looked better that way. Her mind drowned in the overflow of data, and it felt good.
She picked up her coffee cup and huffed the leftover smell. The jug was only twenty feet away, but she was almost certain that her legs couldn’t be trusted to carry her that far. As a compromise, she reached over to the computer beside her – whose operator was safely asleep down the hall – and snagged a block of chocolate. She’d replace it if she remembered, and if not, there were plenty of other snacks that he could make do with.
The sugar helped to rouse her a little. She would have preferred caffeine, but that was a permanent preference, and she sated herself with the knowledge that getting what you wanted wasn’t something that could always happen, even if the object of her desire was only twenty feet away.
She turned and looked at the coffee pot, and realised that she was being watched. For a moment, she thought he was a ghost, he was so frail, gray and thin, but when the old man took a step forward and his cane tapped on the wood, she knew it was the pre-dawn light casting aspersions on the hyper-reality that it was creating. For a moment, she wondered if he was the one who had been bleeding and screaming, but decided against it. The cane was being used due to age, not injury.
‘So… so beautiful,’ he mumbled as he came toward her. ‘I never knew…’
A smile tugged at her lips – she’d had the same reaction when she’d first begun to play with the code – it was broken, but so was the Venus de Milo. She stamped the pins and needles from her feet and stood, extending her hand.
‘It’s a pleasure to…’
He laughed an odd, croaky laugh and lightly batted away her hand with his cane. ‘You’re not doing this for me, child, I’m just letting him use the house.’
‘So, it’s for your son then?’ she guessed.
‘Never had one of them,’ he rasped. ‘Just a beautiful daughter, but she’s long gone, just like the rest of my family.’
Had she not slobbered all over it, she would have offered him some of the chocolate, so she settled for standing awkwardly and waiting for the subject to change.
‘Outliving all of your family isn’t something I recommend. To stand over so many graves, it’s a terrible thing.’
His head wobbled for a moment.
‘He’s lost so much. I just want to help him find her.’
She looked back at the code, unsure as to how it was going to help locate someone. Unbidden, her eyes circled the room, and the prize money floated in her mind.
So much trouble, all to just…
‘…Find someone?’
‘She’s his love, it would be… I can’t say inhuman, but it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t help him find her. I had so many help me find my love.’ He slapped his chest and coughed, then clumsily sat on the chair beside her. ‘In the war…’
‘Which one?’ she asked on autopilot.
‘…I made love to this beautiful girl. We were both terrified, I was injured, she was helping the nurses. The bombs were dropping and we thought the sky was going to fall on our heads. We gave each other that small comfort, and the bombs missed us. After that… I had to go back, to fight, to win.’
He looked away, his eyes focused on the past instead of the present.
‘I knew… I knew I’d left a child in her. When the fighting stopped, I went looking for her. I found her, I married her, we had our little princess, and for a little time, we lived and were happy.’
She looked back at the code. It was her frame of reference. Love, romance and war stories meant nothing to her. They were outside her experience, outside of her interest.
‘How will this help?’
He stabbed a bony finger toward the code. ‘Think of it as all the telemetry of a journey, along with the memories of the pilot who flew the trip.’
‘…Google Earth would be simpler.’
‘Anyone who accepted Mr Gray’s invitation was not after simple.’ He smiled. ‘Goodnight.’
He patted her on the head, and she fought an urge to bark. He tottered off, leaving her alone once again.
Only once alone, she realised what he’d said.
She reached down to the desk, blindly groped for the chocolate then chewed on it while staring at the early morning light. Once she began to chew on foil, she sat and started to type again.
Dawn came and went and the dutiful cooks brought in trays of food once the others began to rise. They stood by as the eggs and bacon were ignored for waffles and pancakes. She snagged a lonely-looking piece of bacon and added it to her short stack. She would have felt sorry for the cooks, but if there was one thing she’d learned in her youth, it was that in a house this size, food never went astray. The uneaten breakfast foods wouldn’t stay that way, neither would the pate and occasional tray of caviar or other delicacy. The amounts of caviar and pate had in fact, seemed to have increased once the staff had grasped the concept that hackers had no wish to eat fish eggs or a mixture made of parts of the animal they couldn’t identify.
She went back to her computer determined this time not to spill maple syrup on the keyboard. It was terrible to work with delicate code only to have the letter “j” stick and turn the whole thing into nothing but a mess.
There was a wolf-whistle from one of the tables across from her. Currently being the only female residing the mansion, and obviously not the one the whistle was aimed at, she turned to look at the double doors leading into the room.
Dorian was escorting a pair of breasts wrapped in a tight red blouse and a bum wrapped in even tighter black jeans. Perfectly permed hair fell across the face belonging to the breasts in that “messy, but not too messy” way. Several of the code monkeys fell over themselves getting up to walk over and greet the new member.
‘Harvard graduate,’ she heard Dorian say over the rush of greetings. ‘Currently working for… sorry, classified, let’s just say she’s on loan from Silicon Valley.’
She spat pancake all over her monitor and dissolved into giggles, desperately tried to cover up by faking a coughing fit. A passing code monkey slapped her on the back before joining the crowd around the new arrival.
A glass of water was passed to her.
‘Don’t want you choking Spyder,’ Dorian said, his expression telling her that he wasn’t buying the story.
She shrugged and sucked maple syrup from her finger.
‘You know, Spyder, most women can make that look sexy.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘What’s sexy about sucking something sticky off your finger?’
He stared at her, apparently struck dumb by her statement. She looked back at her plate and picked up another pancake and slowly chewed on it until his brain reset.
‘They’re real, by the way,’ he said, picking up his train of thought.
‘I don’t even…’
‘Had enough experience to tell.’ He looked over her shoulder at the screen. ‘Any luck? I have the feeling that a pretty girl was all that they needed to take them away from not achieving anything.’
‘I’ve only been here…’
‘So, no progress?’
She didn’t like the disappointment in his voice, so she decided to throw him the only bone she had. The crazy path she’d been following since the old man’s visit.
‘If I were sane, I’d be afraid to say this but… I’d stake someone else’s fortune that it wasn’t…’
‘Say it,’ he said, sliding into the seat beside her.
‘Not…’ she shook her head and turned back to her pancakes.
‘Not human,’ she said, a blush rising over her face. ‘Looking at it, it’s old, but it can’t be, it’s so much more complex than the new stuff I try and crack. Yeah, there’s probably Nazi tech that the CERN guys still can’t decipher, but if it’s as old as I think, then it can’t be human.’
‘Keep going with that line of thinking.’
She grinned at him. ‘Was this salvaged at Roswell?’
‘Oh come on Spyder, no one believes in Roswell.’
‘I wasn’t…’
He held up a finger and shushed her. ‘You were on the right track. Don’t go off onto a tangent.’
‘How can it be?’
‘Don’t ask “how” just keep it as a mindset.’
He had his secrets, but at least she knew one of them.
‘Well, I guess I should listen to what Dorian Gray says…’
She smirked as he raised his eyebrows, then winked at her. He held a finger to his lips and made a shushing noise. She gave him a slight nod. It was something to be kept a secret,not that she’d had any intention of sharing it with the other code monkeys.
Dorian winked and went back to the pair of breasts. She chewed on the pancake and watched the code attempt to compile in front of her.
‘So,’ she mumbled to the code, ‘should I try and give you a cold?’