The world around Stef Mimosa had ceased to exist. The only things that were still tangible in the smoky limbo were her screen and her keyboard. The latter was less real, existing only as an abstract, a tool through which her algorithms and codes were inserted. From somewhere in the smoke there was a beep, reminding her to breathe. She took a breath, but didn’t dare to blink, lest the fragile connection she had to her task be lost.
A knock from somewhere out in the smoke made her hands slip from the keyboard. She swore, shook them and began to type again, her eyes never leaving the screen. She was satisfied with the change on the screen. Her hands left the keyboard again, this time of her own accord, one to grab the drink to her left, one to click the mouse three times. After this small pause, she began to type again.
There was another knock, louder this time.
Her nostrils flared, but she made no move to greet the visitor. Whatever they wanted couldn’t be as important as the task at hand. The firewalls were closing in around her, blocking further access, keeping her from her goal.
There was a third knock.
She swore, this time in binary, the steady stream of digits serving only to focus her more.
After a few frantic moments, the last firewall collapsed and booted her from the system.
‘Fsck,’ she swore, pulling the power cord on her modem, insurance against a trace. Like her, it needed a rest. She pushed herself back from the desk, rolling down the sleeves of her shirt, the light purple dark in comparison to her monitor-bleached skin, and shook her legs in an effort to help them remember how to stand.
She crossed the small apartment and groped for the keys on the small entry cupboard.
‘I already put the rent in your box, Mr Jenkins,’ she said as she pulled the door open. The man standing before her wasn’t her landlord, or anyone else she recognised.
‘I’m not after the rent,’ said the man beyond her door.
He was English – his voice gave that much away – tall, blond and probably good-looking according to whatever flimsy standards were being used that month, but she was no judge. A silver pocketwatch, which hung from his hand on an old chain, spun in lazy circles, its hypnotic movement taking more of his attention than she was. Frustration replaced confusion, and she opened her mouth to ask if he had the right flat.
‘Two minutes, thirty-two seconds, Spyder. You nearly missed out.’ Her mouth stayed open, and he grinned. ‘My name is Dorian.’
All she could do was stare at him. He matched the rumours, such as they were, but all the same, he was…
‘Well?’ he prompted.
Her hand slipped from the door and she fled back to her bedroom. There was no time for superfluous questions, no time to be amazed – if you were too slow, you missed out. That was one thing that the rumours stated explicitly.
She tore off crumpled pyjamas pants and left them in a pile on the floor.They would keep the other laundry company while she was gone. The rest had been there so long already that it was already gaining sentience. If she was gone long enough, it would probably rebel and destroy her when she returned.
She pulled off her top, inadvertently smelling it as she did, the smell was…
But I showered on Tuesday.
It’s Tuesday again, Spyder.
She turned to the wardrobe and pulled open the doors, yanked out the closest two items of clothing and tossed them onto the bed, praying that they matched, or at least, didn’t clash too horribly, though given the state of her fashion sense, the odds weren’t in her favour.
A reflection in the mirror made her freeze.
‘A strange man,’ Dorian said as he entered the room, making her acutely aware that she was very nearly naked, ‘appears at your door, and you immediately run into your bedroom and begin stripping.’ Gray eyes surveyed her for a reaction, and she shivered. ‘I wonder what could be said about that?’
All thoughts froze as he came closer, and she quickly wrapped her arms around herself, in an effort to hide her shame. Hot prickles ran up and down her spine, the heat dried her mouth and made her head spin.
The plastic cup on her desk wasn’t much of a weapon, nor were the honey-covered chopsticks. The window was too high to jump from, and he was effectively blocking the door.
He lifted the shirt from her bed.
‘And then,’ he said as he held it out to her, carefully keeping his distance, ‘you choose to cover your scars instead of your breasts.’
‘Out!’ she screamed, the word finally forcing itself hoarsely from her throat, but he remained.
She snatched the shirt from his hands and pressed it to her chest.
‘The rumours say,’ she said, trying to regain her control, ‘that you don’t wait.’
‘At the door, no,’ he said, ‘you only get three minutes. But after that, ample time to prepare is allowed. Unless of course, you aren’t interested.’
‘Of course I’m interested!’ she cried, trying to figure out how to get dressed without exposing herself again.
‘I’ll wait outside then, shall I?’
‘Please,’ she said, relief obvious in her voice.
He turned and exited the bedroom, closing the door behind him. She released a long breath and sat on the bed, staring at her reflection for a moment, trying to process what had just happened.
She began to get dressed on autopilot, mechanically pulling the shirt over her head and shuffling into the pants. She pulled the cord on her desktop and lifted her beloved laptop, Frankie, and stowed him in his bag. Disks and flash drives joined him in the bag. Anything that she thought could help.
The wardrobe stared at her as she moved toward the door, laptop bag over her shoulder. She looked down at herself and realised that although one set of clothes could easily last her ten days, it likely wouldn’t impress her new employer or their… talent scout. She pulled a dusty bag from under her bed and piled some clothes into it without care, then zipped it up, hoping that it would be enough.
Dorian was waiting on her couch, luxuriating like the male model he likely moonlighted as.
‘That was quick,’ he commented, ‘it’s private car, not a cab. The meter isn’t running.’
‘I have what I need,’ she said.
‘Well then,’ he said as he stood.
He smoothed his silk shirt, flattening imaginary creases before he held out his hand for one of the bags, but she simply hefted them and raised an eyebrow.
‘As you wish, Spyder.’
She grabbed her wallet from the table and slammed the door shut as they left the apartment. She dawdled behind him as he confidently strode down the hall, then down the stairs. She half-expected that she was dreaming, things like this weren’t supposed to happen.
She stepped out onto the street, the sun blinding her. She cursed the sun, natural enemy to hacker and geek alike, and blinked until her eyes adjusted. The temporary blindness served one purpose though, it informed her that she was indeed in reality. Heroines didn’t get blinded by the sun in stories. Blinded by the beauty of a prince, perhaps, but that was far more a mental ailment.
The chauffeur of the dark blue town car stepped forward and took her bags as Dorian climbed into the backseat. She joined him, closing the door herself, saving one menial task for the chauffeur, and waited as they pulled out into the traffic.
She looked out through the tinted windows.
‘This part wasn’t mentioned in the rumours.’
‘There was a lot I left out of the rumours,’ he said as he placed a manila folder on her lap.
He caught her neutral expression.
‘You could,’ he said, ‘at least pretend to be surprised.’
‘The most effective rumours are the ones that you start and maintain yourself,’ she said with a shrug. ‘Something this complicated… the right amount of vaguery and precision, it just smelt manufactured.’
‘And you weren’t worried that it was a trap?’
She flipped the folder open, immediately becoming enthralled with the page of code that met her eyes. She flipped through the pages, reading the equations that had been scrawled into the margins and the retrofit sequences that seemed to be trying to express something far more complicated.
‘What is this?’ she asked.
‘That’s the project,’ he said. ‘What do you make of it?’
She stared at it for a few moments, not wanting to jump to any hasty conclusions.
‘No idea,’ she said honestly, ‘and that’s exciting, because I know a hell of a lot and if I can’t make heads or tails of it, then I want in, no matter what.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘One thing that’s missing from the rumours… the goal. What’s the goal?’
‘To get the code working,’ he said, daring her to dig deeper. ‘It’s old, piecemeal and possibly corrupt. We need it in working order.’
‘Just for reference, it’s not some sort of missile defense code thing, or the code to a secret vault of… evil stuff… that’s going to be used to take over the world, is it?’ She took a good look at him and no trouble imagining him as a villain – he already had the accent for it – but she wasn’t ready to play the henchman. She wasn’t a sidekick.
‘Nothing so childish. And you need not worry, it’s entirely legal.’
Her eyes lost focus as she dredged through her memories. ‘One year, five months, seventeen days.’
The Englishman gave her a confused look and turned up the air-conditioning. ‘I prefer to have context for dates.’
‘It’s been that long since I’ve done something above reproach.’
He shook his head, and pulled a bottle of champagne from a chilled compartment.
‘Above reproach according to whose rules, Spyder? If there’s one thing that’s more certain than death, it’s that no matter what you do, you will have broken someone’s rules, or tread on someone’s toes. You may break good form, commit a faux pas, or simply wander into unfamiliar waters and unfamiliar rules. You may not even know that you’re breaking them.’
‘But it’s still legal?’ she asked, not straying from the point.
Her chosen profession was one of breaking the rules on a daily basis, but there was no harm in knowing what she was in for. There was, after all, a difference between breaking the rules for yourself, and breaking the rules for someone else.
‘It won’t get you tossed in jail,’ he said.
Somehow the words weren’t a comfort. He was being honest, she could tell that much, but it didn’t seem like the whole truth. She looked at the code again, and the tiny thrill that she felt told her that it was worth the risk.
‘You didn’t ask what’s in it for you,’ he said. ‘Or did you know that from the rumours?’
‘It’s a million, right?’ she asked as she looked out the window. ‘I’m not in it for the money.’
‘Not many would sneeze at a million,’ he said as he poured some of the expensive champagne.
‘If you break it down,’ she said as she declined the proffered glass, ‘it’s only seven digits, that’s nothing. I’m not in it for the money.’
He sipped the drink with an appreciative noise. ‘We would come to some arrangement, if it’s you we have to compensate.’
‘Working on the code,’ she said as she ran a hand over one of the sheets of code, ‘is the reward. Anything else is a frivolity.’
She watched him pour another glass for himself.
‘You’re the talent scout, right? Are you in it for the fifteen percent?’
‘I’m doing it,’ he said, ‘for the story.’
Her paranoia rose. She’d always believed herself to be good at judging traps, lies and deceit, but if this job was… He shook his head.
‘Don’t look at me like that, Spyder, I don’t mean it in the way you think.’
‘I don’t want my name anywhere. Not a report. Not a news story. Not a tell-all book. Nothing so… tabloid. Literally, for the story. So many lives these days are pedestrian, carbon-copies and attempts at copies, emulation and cliché. The want to be a picture in a magazine… it sickens me.’ He stared at her. ‘It’s a rare chance to be a part of something truly worthwhile. That’s what I get out of this.’
There was something about the way he said it that made her believe it, but the cynic in her couldn’t let it pass.
‘Then sell it for your own shiny million to some publisher?’
‘Perhaps,’ he admitted, ‘it has worked for me in the past. Even if I change the names, the places and the story a little, the truth will remain, and that’s the important thing. In any case, some people find more truth in fiction than they do in reality.’
They finally broke free of the traffic congestion, and drove along much quieter roads until they reached the gates of a mansion. The driver pulled up, leaned out the window and swiped a pass. After a long minute, the large iron gates swung open.
Although she was rarely a fan of the people inside them, she loved large, old houses. There were always small rooms that were unused, or had been blocked off, unseen places and secrets, all the more fun when everything was covered in dust. Notes and clues could be written in dust, carrying messages through the years. She cut herself off from the thoughts. With the monetary amount being thrown around, she imagined a full staff of servants keeping the mansion immaculate, pristine and shining. Boring.
‘The others are on the second floor,’ Dorian said as the door was opened. ‘You’ll have no need of the first, the food is brought up from the kitchens.’ He paused for a moment, ‘And stay off the third floor.’
She gave him a deadpan look. ‘Why, is there a rose in a glass case?’
‘Close,’ he said with a grin. ‘It’s part of the agreement in any case.’
‘I didn’t sign anything,’ she said quickly.
‘Your employer mostly stays up there, don’t expect to meet him. He’s a very private man.’
‘If this is important to him,’ she said as she climbed out of the car, ‘shouldn’t he…’
‘Nothing is more important to him than the project’s success.’
‘The others will introduce themselves,’ he said, changing the subject. ‘Some are choosing to operate under pseudonyms adopted especially for this project. You can too. That’s your prerogative, though I don’t think you have enough of a reputation to tarnish should you fail.’
She opened her mouth to protest, but he turned to the chauffeur. ‘Room five,’ he said as the man walked past with her bags.
She silently followed them into the house. It was amazing. Dark wood and stained-glass windows sheltered a museum of artefacts, art and knick-knacks. A black and white postcard from New York sat in a frame on a table next to a tribal knife.
He quickly snatched the photo from her hand and carefully placed it back on the table.
‘Come Spyder, there’s more to be seen than old memories.’