There was a strange noise.
Stef looked up from her laptop, taking a moment to process the sound – it wasn’t the same noise of a squib that movies and violent television had made her familiar with…but the screams of her colleagues down the hall confirmed that it had been a gunshot. Another quickly followed it, then two more.
The Solstice in the main room began to shout, and she heard the code monkeys go crazy. The heavy doors were slammed shut, but the shouts continued. She released a long, slow breath and closed Frankie’s lid and sat up, slowly sliding her legs off the bed. She stood, and was thankful that the old house was in good repair – no squeaky floorboards betrayed her movements as she moved toward the door.
There were more shots, and thoughts of running ran through her head, but her sensible side pointed out that as a hacker, her physical condition was not one made for running away from men with guns. Or women with guns. Or horses with guns. I’m only going to tell you this once. Concentrate.
More bullets shattered the silence of the mansion, and the silence it left behind was worse than the one it had replaced – the silence of a murder. She swallowed a scream, and fought the urge the throw up. She swung the door half-closed, her heart skipping a beat as its hinges squeaked. She stared at the door as her hand drifted toward it to slam it shut, it would do nothing but reveal her location to the world, and to the horses with guns, but at least it would be better than the passive nightmare she’d found herself in.
She forced her hand away from the door and looked away from it – not being able to run through the house was severely limiting her options. She looked to the window, crossed to it and pushed it open – there was a garden below, but jumping down to it would at least result in a broken leg or two, and that was if she fell straight, and didn’t manage to catch onto any of the sharp edges of the house, or land on her head.
The bed was too low to the ground to hide under, there weren’t enough sheets to make an escape rope, and she had no intention of leaving herself out in the open for the problems – shooty problems – of other people.
The small desk was of no use – if she used it to bar the door, then someone would definitely know that she was in there. She held Frankie close, having no intention of running without him and looked around the room. The only other thing in the room was the wardrobe. The old wardrobe in the old mansion with the old man.
The sudden knowledge of exactly what she needed to do calmed her, and she felt her heart slow a little.
She pulled the wardrobe open – pleased that unlike the hinges on the door, these had been oiled. She pushed the few hanging coats aside, hoping for one moment that there might be forest to escape into hiding in the back of the wardrobe, alas there was no forest nor an out-of-place lamppost. Magical escape or not, she hoped it would be good enough. She pulled on the inside of the lock and pulled the door closed – because as everyone knows, it is a very good idea to lock yourself in a wardrobe.
She brought her knees up, and rested Frankie against them, his warmth serving to comfort her a little – and she was glad that he was in a powered-down mode, as his old, loud fans would likely do a lot to betray her.
There was the sound of footsteps and the sound of the squeaky door being pushed open. She raised a hand to cover her mouth, then froze. The footsteps rounded the room, then left. She exhaled a long breath, settled against the wall of the wardrobe, and opened up her laptop. What the hell are you doing, Spyder? Stop it, just lie still until the cops get here. No. This is all about- I’m the one that keeps you alive, listen to me, just stop. It’s not worth it. It’s all about the code, it’s got to be, and I’m so close. It isn’t worth your life.
She tapped on Frankie’s keyboard to wake him. ‘Come on Prometheus, dazzle me,’ she said in the softest of voices. ‘We can do this.’ It seemed that the code’s program loaded slowly, but that was likely the fear – it had a habit of changing the flow of time. There was the time that was measured, and the time that was experienced – and she had never believed them to be the same thing.
The code and her nearly complete algorithm stared at her, offering her two choices; the choice to lie dead and wait for the world to tell her what was next, and the choice to do what she’d been hired to do. The beast was gone, so he wouldn’t be able to use the code. The old man and his much older friend were gone, so there’d be no payment.
There was just the code. Just the code that had seduced her in the first place – the payment had been of secondary importance, and she scarcely cared for the love story. There was just the code.
A second stilling decision came over her, and she began to type.
A few lines of code in, there was a sound of thunder. She looked up from the screen – the sky had been clear the last time she’d looked at it, and- The sound came again – it wasn’t thunder, it was the sound of a dozen hackers suddenly being silenced.
The urge to lie still, and wait for the…whoever to find her came again – it was worse than finding the beast, at least then, she could have fought, run or screamed; there had also been someone to blame – Dorian. Here, there was nothing to do but wait – making any noise would only lead them to finding her. Here, there was no one to blame but herself.
She wished that she could sink into the wood, to just be an interesting hacker-shaped stain on the grain, for her consciousness to suffuse into the wood, to share its memories, and to have the pleasure of a simple duty.
The back of the wardrobe strayed obstinately wooden, refusing to give way to a real escape. She doubted that there was a way to charge her laptop in Cair Paravel or even the den of some friendly beavers. She wouldn’t have her laptop, and for the first time ever, she didn’t care. The will to finish with the code dimmed a little as she pressed a hand to the back of the wardrobe. Please.. Nothing happened. Please…I can’t die here. I don’t belong here. I belong-
There was another shot, and it rocked her back from the edge of fantasy. She focused on the laptop, there was no lamppost in her future, no free escape from the humdrum around her.
Her hands flew across the keyboard – finding cheap shortcuts, abusing her ability to copy and paste and doing all she could do to get it finished. It had to get finished, there was no real reason why, but if it was important enough to kill over, then it was a job worth finishing.
‘Compile,’ she whispered to the laptop. ‘Compile.’ The program chugged and retched the code back at her – it was almost done, but her rush had made small errors. Errors that would only take a moment to fix.
A moment that she didn’t have, she realised as she heard the floor outside the wardrobe creaking.
She let go of her caught breath, and began to type again, killing each and every error that the compile had spat at her.
After a moment, the wardrobe door was pulled open. The comforting image of the shining Eastern Ocean and the wonders beyond flooded her mind as she waited for the bullet. It didn’t come, and she typed a few more keystrokes.
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the man – standing ready with a gun. She couldn’t turn to face him, she wasn’t sure she could handle what would happen – or what she’d see. From what little she could see, he seemed human enough, but with what she’d seen, what she knew, and what she’d heard, there was no guarantee, and she wasn’t sure she could handle any more surprises.
He moved a little closer, and blocked out all the light – leaving her only with the comforting light of Frankie’s electronic glow. The gun moved a little, and part of her died. Part of her flew over the always-winter-never-Christmas world; part of her ran toward the Jolly Roger as it prepared to leave port, her Captain ready and waiting; part of her-
There was a shot.
A thin trail of burnt air was all she saw as the bullet passed before her eyes, the heat scorching her face. There was a second loud sound as the bullet slammed into the back of the wardrobe. The bullets throughout the mansion had been loud enough, up close, the sound was so unlike that portrayed on television that she vowed to never watch it again.
Her hand seized up, unable to type anything more. There was no way that it he could have missed – it had been a warning shot; a warning of things to come. The man moved, just a little, and pushed the gun up to the side of her head, the hot barrel searing her temple. ‘Yes,’ she said as she turned her head a little to look at him, ‘you have my attention.’
It was Astrin all over again, but a hundred times worse – she’d been too sleep-deprived to truly be afraid of the beast, here and now, every second was borrowed, and more real than anything that she could recall. She wasn’t in control, she wasn’t the one who got to decide whether she lived or died.
The bedroom was dark, and she couldn’t see the man very well, but with what she could see, it was obvious he was a narc, a narc that looked no worse the wear for killing an entire mansion fill of people. ‘Four more keystrokes and I’ve done what I came to do, just let me do that, then you can pull the trigger.’
If only she had consumed more coffee, then she would have already pressed the keys. If she had consumed less, her hands wouldn’t have been shaking as hard as they were. Or maybe that’s the fear. She stared straight ahead at the screen, staring at her reflection and that of the gun. Yeah…it’s probably the fear, Spyder.
She kept her eyes on the reflection of the gun, flexed her fingers and reached for the next key.
The gun was jammed further against her head, pushing it into the back wall of the wardrobe, the sharp splinters from the first shot digging into her cheek. She fought a grimace and extended her index finger toward the next key.
The narc’s other hand reached in and pushed her laptop closed. Crap. She slumped as best as she could, her head still effectively pinned to the back of the wardrobe. ‘Fine. Whatever. I’m not going to run.’
‘You brought this on yourself.’
She snorted derisively. ‘A legal job ends my life, there isn’t enough irony in the world for that.’ I’m not supposed to die, I’m supposed to hack something big and make a name and get hired to do securities in a job with- You have very little chance of making it through the next five minutes, will you fscking concentrate? She closed her eyes and waited for him to pull the trigger.
He made a disapproving noise. ‘Working for the Solstice is hardly…’
Her eyes flew open. ‘Wait! What? WAIT! No!’ she struggled to get to her feet, but he pushed her back down. ‘Me not one of them!’ she managed as she struggled to sit back up – the cramped space of the cupboard didn’t assist in this. ‘I…I’m not one of them! I’m not!’
The gun retreated a little. ‘Why are you here then?’
‘For the job. Working with the code. That’s all. That’s all.’
His left hand reached into the wardrobe and yanked her out, she stumbled, but managed to catch herself before falling – appearing clumsy wouldn’t help her case. She clutched her laptop to her chest, but didn’t dare open it. Her eyes had adjusted enough to make out some of the narc’s details – he was younger than his voice betrayed – somewhere in his thirties. Everything from the three-piece suit to the gun indicated she had very little chance of walking out of the room alive. Especially with the gunshots she’s heard – corpses were probably less paperwork than prisoners.
‘Speak,’ he ordered.
‘Woof!’ she barked on impulse. A shot flew past her ear and slammed into the wall behind her. ‘Scare tactics are not going to work.’ If it could have, her nose would have grown an inch.
‘Keep in mind that there is very little you can do to convince me that you are not a member of the Solstice.’
Her eyes narrowed, and she swallowed – the reality of the moment was finally starting to set in. ‘If there isn’t anything I can do to convince you, then why bother talking to me?’
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.
‘Very little,’ he clarified, ‘not nothing.’
She’d already said her piece, she had nothing else to say. She clutched her laptop tight, holding it as a child would a security blanket, or a doll.
All she could do was stare at him, there was something off about him, something familiar, except not. Then again, that could be the fear. Black jacket. Blue vest. Blue tie. Brown hair. Memories stirred, but refused to break through the surface. Doll, doll, doll… Run, you stupid bitch. There’s a garden below the window, jump. Can’t…legs aren’t taking instructions. Say something!
He echoed her unspoken sentiment. ‘Speak!’ he demanded again.
She struggled to say anything – but she kept drawing blanks. He leveled the gun at her. ‘You brought this on yourself.’
Doll. Doll. Why the fsck is he- Because he looks like every narc in every movie ever! Now be a good girl and make a deal. I know him- No you- He took a step closer – not that it mattered , it wasn’t like she could dodge at this range – and she fought a shudder. There’s money in your bank, you could- I’m trying to think! You’re going to get us killed. Shut up!
The memory broke through.
She swallowed and looked up at him. ‘I remember you.’
There was a strange noise.