Stef chewed on her pancake, watching the new guy and his flawless infiltration of the code monkeys. He was slick, nowhere near Dorian’s level, but smooth all the same – each name he was given, he seemed to immediately commit to memory – a worrying trait in and of itself.
She pushed the lump of pancake to the roof of her mouth, the syrup making it stick there for a moment, the strange sensation distracting her from the paranoid urge to run from the room. He was personable enough, easily mistaken for just another affable blond boy, but her imaginary Spyder-sense was making her tend towards panic.
New people were trouble…though she suspected that they must have felt the same way when she’d first shown up.
The code sat static in front of her, she hadn’t made one alteration to it since coming down from the Englishman’s room. No one, aside from Dorian, seemed interested in her progress. No one had asked her to collaborate on an idea for a days. No one had asked her what she’d thought of an algorithm.
She sighed and swallowed the lump of pancake. Even if they’d asked her opinion, they wouldn’t believe her. She wasn’t sure that she believed her. She wasn’t sure of anything. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and not one she was used to when it came to dealing with code. Code was usually the one thing that made sense. People never made sense, as they always acted counter to how you predicted. Life always threw curve balls, ones you couldn’t catch, even if you were prepared. Code was ordered. Code was sensible. It was a good frame of reference for the world. Code could be improved upon, life couldn’t.
Dorian swanned into the room, the breasts-in-red on his arm. She looked up at them, half-expecting paparazzi to leap from the very walls to take photos, to give the couple a smush name that would undoubtedly be the key in making the new media darlings. No photographers jumped from the walls, and the only flash was the angry look that the breasts-in-red gave her as she passed.
She sipped at her coffee, and vaguely wondered if she should chance dunking the pancake in – to create some sort of abomination that would rise up and-
A reflection in her monitor pulled her from her B-movie thoughts. ‘Can I help you?’ she asked the newbie.
He grinned widely, despite her done. ‘We haven’t been introduced yet.’
‘I said “hi” already,’ she said as she reached for her headphones. He grasped the headphones, and she yanked back her hand rather than let it make contact with his. ‘Did you want something in particular?’
‘No one here knows your name.’ Another wide smile. ‘Why is that?’
‘Probably because they don’t remember it. I was introduced when I got here. Now, you’ve got work to do, newbie.’
The smile didn’t disappear, though it faded a little. ‘Don’t you?’
She took a huge mouthful of pancake, chewing it open-mouthed in the hope that she could disgust him away. ‘I’m not the newbie,’ she replied, ‘you can’t be here if you’re not useful.’
‘What’s your name?’
The coffee in front of her was too cold to scald him. The pancake would only annoy, not injure. She’d never mastered stabbing someone with a fork, though she didn’t doubt that she could make him bleed. Weapon resources low, she acquiesced. ‘Spyder.’
‘And is that what’s on your birth certificate?’
‘No,’ she snapped, ‘I changed it by deed poll, what the fsck does it matter?’
‘People who hide behind an alias have something to hide, or they’re afraid of something.’
‘If you haven’t noticed,’ she snapped, ‘you’re in a room of people, all of whom have done some pretty questionable things.’
‘Do you know about the power of names?’
‘You’ll know about the power of a keyboard to the head unless you leave me alone.’
‘It’s said…by some, at least, that if you know someone’s real name, then you have power over them. It’s superstitious. It’s stupid.’
‘And you have no power over me,’ she whispered, though the man in front of her was the furthest thing from a king of goblins. ‘And what’s your real name, you’re asking enough questions to make people think that you’re a cop.’ She scanned the room for Dorian, hoping that the man made of stories hadn’t been lying when he’d spoke of the legal nature of the work.
He backed away a little. ‘I meant no offense, it simply interests me.’
She snatched the headphones up and slammed them down on her head. She fixed her gaze on the monitor and listened to the music that wasn’t even playing yet as her hand reached for the mouse to set the playlist in motion. The newbie said a few words more, but she blocked each and every one of them, not wanting to waste anymore time on him. Especially not when she was-
Real music overtook the imagined notes, and she let her mind drown in it. The monitor filled her vision and the world around it went fuzzy, the other code monkeys disappeared and the bright light from streaming in through the windows became nothing more than a background light.
Grounding herself in reality, she felt her hands sliding over the keyboard, touching each of the keys for the beginning of Maestro’s Sequence, though not typing any of the keys, lest it make a mess of the code in front of her. It wasn’t code…it was art.
It was a thing of beauty.
The sequence circled her mind, numbers, letters and symbols twisting and turning in some sort of alphanumeric interpretive dance. She pushed the headphones off and stood, the wheels of her chair squeaking as the chair was pushed back. ‘You idiots,’ she said, addressing the room, ‘have used Maestro’s Sequence, right?’ They all stared at her, the room falling as silent as an Alliance bar just before a Browncoat-initated brawl began. ‘My god…’ She slumped back into her chair, opened a new window, and began to type out the sequence from memory.
‘Maestro was a fraud,’ the newbie said.
‘Like you would know.’ She said as she looked over the monitor. ‘You were brought here to help, you haven’t even touched a keyboard yet.’
‘Doesn’t change the fact,’ the newbie said as he crossed the room, ‘that Maestro was a fraud.’
‘Maestro,’ she said through gritted teeth, unfamiliar emotions stirring, ‘may as well have been The One. He was amazing. His sequence belongs in the Louvre. How can you call a man like that a fraud?’
‘You don’t know him as well as you think. He was a cheat.’
A ringtone by Wagner interupted the argument. ‘Excuse me,’ Dorian said as he walked over to the windows.
She settled back down into her chair – dead or alive, wherever he was, her hero didn’t need someone like her defending him. Dead, his memory was beyond tarnishing, and his legacy was alive and well on the web. Alive…well, he was either beyond frail gestures, or felt him to be so far above them that they wouldn’t mean anything anyway.
‘It seems,’ Dorian said, ‘that we have more visitors.’ He looked to the newbie. ‘They said to ask for you.’
‘I hope it’s all right, I was told you needed all the help you could get. I don’t need a million dollars all to myself, and my friends are quite talented. Better than what you’ve got here.’
The Englishman faltered for a moment. ‘I won’t turn away help,’ he said, but I need to vet any other friends you might wish to bring.’
‘We understand security procedures,’ the newbie said, his ever-wide smile in place. ‘Some of us are in the industry.’
She looked away from the men, and tapped in the rest of the sequence. Code made more sense than people, and she didn’t intend to devote anymore of her mental processing power to the newbie.
The screen, and the code it displayed absorbed her, sucking her away from the world. She was dimly aware of the newbie’s friends coming in and setting up, that they were introducing themselves, that they were noisy and very unhelpful. A few greetings were made in her general direction, but she ignored them, instead following the trails through the code. The random words. The random strings.
The not so random words. The not so random strings.
The alien words in the alien code.
A hand touched her shoulder, and she fought an urge to bite it. ‘Spyder,’ Dorian said, ‘Can you help me with something?’
‘No, it can’t. Besides,’ he said, his voice louder, ‘you’re not getting anywhere, so it’s not like I’m wasting your time.’
The words were a pitch-perfect pseudo-insult, but she read through them. ‘Let me guess,’ she said as she casually dropped the headphones to the desk. ‘You want me to climb all those stairs again.’
‘It might help to work off the pancakes,’ he said before exiting the room without her.
She slipped her USB drive into her pocket and followed him through the old mansion, and up the main stairs. A stray thought made her wonder if the secret stairs were only there at night, but a rational though vetoed it.
Wordlessly, she followed him up the stairs, down the hall and into his bedroom. He locked the door with an ornate key, and ushered her to the other side of the room, away from any possible prying ears.
‘They’re Solstice,’ he whispered, ‘they’re all bloody Solstice.’
‘Your colleague’s friend, and the ones he brought with him, they’re all Solstice.’ This was a different Dorian to the one she’d seen the rest of her stay at the mansion – his composure was gone, his confidence seemed shattered – he was scared. He was – probably – an immortal, and he was scared.
‘What’s a Solstice?’
‘How can one who has died know so little about the world?’
He shook himself. ‘Sorry, but I feel it’s a fair question. You’ve been there, to the grey land, you’ve seen Death, and you’ve come back. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you learn to spot the signs. You must have been young…’ He stepped back, his grey eyes looking her up and down. ‘Very young, given that you seem to have no idea what I’m talking about.’
‘I’m gonna go now…’
His arm shot out and grabbed her. ‘No. Don’t. Too many people leave at once,
and they’ll get suspicious.’
She pulled away from him. ‘What’s going on, Mister Gray?’
‘That means nothing to me! What does that even mean?’
‘The Solstice are…Would you take it at face value if I said “evil”?’
‘Qualify your statement, and I might.’
‘That’s not taking it at face value.’ He scratched his chin for a moment. ‘You saw a monster last night, yes or no?’
‘And you know I’m something more than a good-looking Londoner?’
She went to argue the narcissistic half of his question, but bit her lip and nodded – this wasn’t a time for glib remarks. A scared immortal was an immortal afraid of something that was likely a lot more dangerous to little hacker girls.
‘Would you take a lead pipe to Astrin and beat him into pulp?
She shook her head.
‘Would you chain me and put a meat hook through my heart?’ Her eyes drifted to his chest – she hadn’t remembered any scars, though maybe they- ‘Spyder?’
‘Of course I wouldn’t,’ she said, her voice sounding small and timid to her ears.
‘Would you cut the throat of a child because one of their parents could turn into a tree?’
He reached for her hand, his thumb sliding onto her wrist again. ‘This time,’ he said, ‘you’re as scared as you need to be. This is what the Solstice do. They see the fantastic, and they crush it. They see magic, and they wipe it out. They execute fey. They torture demons. They hunt angels. They hurt anyone whose life has just that little bit of wonder in it.’ He dropped her hand. ‘Now, I’m going to take my son far away from here, so that they can’t hurt him. I will inform Astrin, and make sure that he gets away. They’ll leave after they get what they want, and all of this will be over in a few days.’
A dozen questions danced in her mind, not least of all was the word “son”. ‘So this whole thing’s a bust then? The Beast doesn’t get his Belle?’
‘That depends,’ he said, ‘on whether or not you work out that code. Do it before they do, and-’
‘If he’s gone, I’ll have no-one to give it to.’
‘If you work it out, go home, I left my card on your coffee table.’
‘You’re only telling me, aren’t you? The others don’t know, wouldn’t believe. Why tell me?’
‘So that you keep your ears open, and your mouth shut. Don’t provoke them. I’d tell you to run, but two people leaving is suspicious enough. Leave it until tomorrow at the least. Everyone here is human, not their concern.’
‘So just go back downstairs and act normal?’
He managed a smile. ‘Go back downstairs and do whatever it is that you do that approximates normal.’
She stared at him for a moment more, then nearly ran back down the stairs.
A man stood at her computer, going through her data, and not for the first time, she was grateful for her paranoia. ‘Can I help you?’
The man turned, and for a moment he looked familiar, the sensation faded as he smiled. ‘Ah, Miss Noname, isn’t it?’
He had the look of a professor who’d been gone too long in the jungle, wild eyes sat in an otherwise calm face, salt-and-pepper hair styled just neatly enough to indicate that he thought himself to be above the rest of the code monkey rabble.
‘Stephanie,’ she said, the whole version of her name sounding alien in her mouth, but it would help her to keep on edge. ‘Just cause I don’t like giving my name to pushy pretty-boys doesn’t mean I’m one of those puzzle-wrapped enigmas.’ She attempted a smile, but aborted it when she felt it tend towards manic.
‘You’ve, ah, got some interesting ideas when it comes to this code.’
‘Not really,’ she said, attempting to sound sorry for herself, ‘I ran out of of ideas three days ago. Since then, I’ve been reterofitting bits of old video games in while scarfing the free food. It’s hard to eat….well, much other than ramen on my budget.’
This seemed to disappoint him. ‘Some of your-’ he began.
‘I’ve got nothing. I’ve over my head here. I wanna keep at it, cause I know one of these guys is going to solve it, and I want to see what the hell it is, but it’s not gonna be me who figures it out.’
‘I’d rather fail on my own, thanks,’ she said as she pushed past him and slipped into her chair. ‘And actually, I really want to see what happens when I put the code for Pong into this.’
This made him leave.
Dorian and Jonowoi left soon after, the man-who-appeared-older being pushed in a wheelchair by the man-who-was-older. Lunch came soon after that. Numerous flash games amused her for a while, before she excused herself from the room – she needed to be able to work on the code without a dozen eyes watching her, but she made a promise to come back into the main room later, or at least show up for dinner, as to not arouse their suspicion.