The bleary digits on Stef’s screen informed her that it was two in the morning again.
Across the room, three of her fellow code moneys had given up on the task at hand, instead deciding to form their own little LAN party. A quiet LAN party wouldn’t have been a problem. There was nothing distracting about a bunch of gamers quietly questing toward a reward. Loud rounds of Counterstrike, on the other hand, complete with shouted insults at their fellows and cries of anguish when their soldier was completed pwned, was more of a distraction. She cranked up all of the sound settings, preferring the shake and reverb of headphones working over-spec to the hurled insults of FPS gamers.
Everyone else had given up hours ago. Some were in bed; some were watching movies on the prize television. It was beginning to become a whispered theory that the code couldn’t possibly work, and that the job was instead some form of social experiment.
She had considered it, but dismissed it. This kind of social experiment didn’t have screams of pain that were hurriedly covered up, nor men using the names of immortal characters without drawing attention to it. She was still fairly certain that she was the only code monkey that knew his surname. A name like Dorian Gray, had this been a social experiment, would have been used to plant seeds in their minds: of doubt, of conspiracy, perhaps even of fear. But there were no such seeds. It was an anomaly, one that she hadn’t figured out yet.
She was, however, keeping an eye out for portraits since he had never denied being the real Dorian Gray.
His name, combined with what he had said of the code’s possibly-inhuman origin had kept her going, and had spawned more ideas than she would have had if she’d believed the code to be entirely human. Different circumstances, different solutions.
Being insane sometimes had its advantages.
She stared at the screen until it got fuzzy. The fuzziness turned into little fuzzy animals and invited her into the monitor. Having nothing better to do, she decided to follow them. She brought her face close the screen, and snapped awake when she found that flesh couldn’t travel through glass.
‘Code Steffie get up, get coffee,’ she muttered and pushed herself back from the desk.
It took a minute for her legs to cooperate, then she stood.
The coffee pot was empty.
It stared at her and bared its lack of liquid life without shame. Grasping it by the handle, she lifted it and hurled it across the room at those that had emptied it. They shouted back, but she didn’t bother to listen to them. A cruel thought hoped that they cut themselves on the glass as they cleaned it up. If they cleaned it up.
She swore in binary, and headed down the hall to her room. A lack of coffee was definitely a sign to give up for the day. It wasn’t like she could remember the last time she slept in a bed anyway.
The door to her assigned room was ajar. Wishing she hadn’t thrown the coffee pot, she grasped for a small vase on the table next to the door and lifted it. The vase wouldn’t serve as much more than a distraction but there weren’t heavier things in the room to throw.
The intruders weren’t thieves. Nor were they a threat to anyone. Except perhaps decency. She stood traumatised for a moment while her mind quickly edited what she was seeing.
‘Room five is mine,’ she announced to the mid-coitus couple occupying her bed.
It took them a minute to stop. Her expression didn’t change when the top half – Dorian – turned to look at her.
‘Er…’ he said eloquently.
The bottom half, the pair of breasts, now minus the tight red shirt, gave her a dismissive look, then stared at the ceiling.
She reached down to Dorian’s discarded pants and lifted the key chain from the pocket. ‘I’ll take your room for the night. We will never speak of this.’
‘Yes,’ she said tersely, ‘I’ll lock the damn door.’
‘Thank you Spyder,’ Dorian mumbled as he turned away.
She locked the door, replaced the vase, and made it five feet down the hall before giggling. There was no blame to be had. All of the rooms were identical, and in the dark, even more so. Dorian himself had warned her of the fact when he’d shown her to her room.
Dorian’s room was down the end of a long, lonely hall, lit only by the light coming through the picture windows. The night was quiet, lit by a gibbous moon and a few brave stars that managed to shine through the light pollution. She stopped to watch for a moment. There was a high wind, clouds appeared from nowhere and disappeared almost as quickly. Some of the clouds looked like… She turned away from the window and rubbed her eyes.
God, I need sleep.
After a few false starts, she found the right key, and opened the door to his room.
A silk covered boudoir wouldn’t have surprised her. A four poster bed was almost expected. A large portrait hidden under a heavy cloth wouldn’t have been a stretch.
A dark staircase surprised her a little.
She sighed, muttered the binary for a question mark and felt for a light switch. Since this secret passage hadn’t skipped the twentieth century, the bulbs easily flicked to life. A self-mocking laugh escaped her as she ascended the stairs. Things like this were supposed to happen to frail blonde girls in inappropriately see-through nightdresses, not insomniac hackers who were still wearing their sneakers.
The staircase was leading up to the third floor. Her heart caught in her throat for a moment – wondering if she should go back, kick them out of her room and…
He’s not following you, Spyder.
The third floor had been on her mind since she’d arrived. It was understandable that they didn’t want unwashed hackers infiltrating every part of the house, but to say nothing of it and expect them just to deal was a little unusual. And then there had been the screams. The screams had turned every spare though to the third floor.
It hadn’t been the old man. There was no doctor on staff, nor had an ambulance come and although Dorian struck her as the kind to play doctors and nurses, she doubted that he would have managed to keep the title of “doctor” secret. It was always possible that they’d schlepped out a body in the dead of night, but something so humdrum ruined her fantasies a little, so she had decided against it.
She closed the doors, closing off the only way back so that she would have to continue forward. She bit her lip and started on the staircase.
She laughed at how wrong the situation was. In situations like this, it was normal to be afraid and say “Oh my” over and over until you ran around and broke your ankle. No, not broke, sprained – just enough to be ineffectual. You weren’t supposed to climb the secret stair in a crumpled purple shirt while noting the energy efficient light bulbs and the lingering smell of fresh paint.
There was a doorway at the top of the stairs. Light streamed around the edges, adding just a little more surrealism to the situation. She lifted the key and pushed it into the lock – it fit – and turned it.
A monster stared at her as she opened the door, towering, hairy, hunchbacked, with a sunken, barely human face and oddly luminescent eyes.
Unable to do anything, she merely stared at it. After a moment, she blinked. It hissed at her, lunged, then roared in her face. She not-so-secretly hoped that the teeth, the sharp, numerous and bloody teeth, weren’t “all the better to eat hackers with”.
She stood her ground. There was literally no point in being afraid. She would leave the room, or she wouldn’t. She was smart enough to know when she wasn’t in control of a situation.
‘Dorian gave me the key. He’s busy shagging in my bed. Needed somewhere to sleep.’
She looked up to meet the monster’s eyes.
‘And it’s nice to meet you, boss.’
The monster snarled and retreated behind a huge desk.
‘I didn’t expect Dorian to be my downfall. I may as well have called the angels for help and ended this sooner.’ His – well, the voice sounded male – accent was strange. She couldn’t place it.
She crinkled her nose and chided herself – she was staring at a monster. There was no chance that the man in front of her was human – and she was thinking about his accent.
This, Spyder, is why you almost get hit every time you cross the road. Over analysis of a situation.
I don’t over analyse. I notice.
Keep telling yourself that.
Oh, right.
‘If you haven’t noticed, I’m not screaming. I’m not going to run down stairs and tell the others we’re working for G’Mork. Staying up here is your prerogative. Appearing eccentric seems to have worked so far.’
He snorted and turned to her.
‘Why aren’t you screaming?’ He thumped a hairy fist on the desk, dragging one arm over the top, cutting deep ruts into the old oak. ‘You were warned not to come up here. I’m hungry. You should be afraid.’
‘I didn’t think you were a tame lion,’ she muttered. ‘If you’re going to hurt me, there’s nothing I can do. The only good exit is a staircase, which you could push me down. I’m not screaming, because I’m not an idiot. I’m insane, not an idiot.’
He stared silently at her.
The monster snorted again, then lifted a clawed finger and pointed down an adjacent hall.
‘Dorian’s room is down there.’
She took a step, but stopped. There was one very important question that she needed to ask.
‘What’s her name?’
‘Why does it matter?’
‘The data is degrading.’
Just as the memory of a pilot would.
‘I’m not the only one who has noticed. If it’s changing and degrading, it’s dynamic. If it’s dynamic and degrading, there’s a deadline. If you’re looking for someone, and there’s a deadline, there’s only one possible way it could end well. I don’t care for the Romeo and Juliet aspect – I don’t believe in that crap,’ she caught herself, not wanting to insult a monster that could easily snap her up as a post-midnight snack. ‘This is a lot more… this is a lot bigger than anything I’ve ever done before.’
A cold breeze blew in through the window, and she was happy not to be a blonde stereotype in a thin nightdress.
The monster sniffed the wind, swung itself back and forth as if trying to catch a scent, then stared at her. It moved away from the desk, and came toward her. Its mouth dropped open, taking deep breaths, and its nose twitched. Suddenly, she was very glad that she hadn’t had anything to drink recently.
Panic when it starts eating you. Just stay still.
I really don’t…
It raised a clawed hand, and the bright points of light caught on its claws were the only thing that she could look at. It would be so easy for those claws to gut her, to leave her a bloody wreck on the floor.
The world spun, and she concentrated on staying vertical.
‘You smell like the void. You know what comes next. You know that there’s nothing.’
‘Just because you came back doesn’t mean she will.’
Please tell me this is one of those moments where you’re imagining things.
Shut up, I’m hiding in this corner over here.
He’s a monster, they lie.
No, that’s trickster gods.
Do you know he’s not one of those?
Then shut up.
He snorted, but didn’t retreat.
‘I cannot rely on chance. I can only rely on choice.’
She took a step back and shook her head, focusing on the matter at hand.
‘My ten fingers, my genius brain and my keyboard are going to do their best. Now tell me her damn name.’
‘Her name is Mela.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, but didn’t make a move toward the door.
He retreated behind the desk again, giving her permission to leave, and space enough to pass. She wanted to run, but forced herself to walk. However much a man the beast was, she didn’t feel like tempting his monster half.
She pressed the key into the lock of the room at the end of the hall and walked in. It was exactly what she’d expected: a large room containing very little furniture, a huge bed as the centrepiece. There were more pillows on it than she could count. She knocked all but three onto the floor. She pulled open the curtains and she looked down onto the same garden. The grounds were well-maintained, if a little boring. There was no secret garden, no maze, no crazy collection of kooky garden gnomes that rearranged themselves on a daily basis.
Most gardens, however, didn’t contain ghosts.
Her weirdness meter already broken for the day, the ghost failed to surprise her. She squinted harder, but then all she could see was her reflection, a pale ghost itself. She took another look and the ghost was gone. If it had ever been there in the first place. She pressed her face against the glass, looking for any sign of it. Nothing. Just a quiet garden.
You do know it’s possible that you’ve lost your mind.
I’m tired. Are you trying to be ironic?
She turned back to the bed, kicked off her old sneakers and crawled under the sheets. The bed was huge, and a lot softer than the one in the room she’d been assigned.
Why exactly…
Worry about it in the morning, go to sleep.
Thoughts of monsters, ghosts and possibly-alien code swimming in her head, she snuggled into the pillow and went to sleep.