Stef stared, bleary-eyed, trying to interpret the meaning of the symbols. They were numbers for sure – the position on the screen told her that they were the time. She wiped at her eyes, and a two slowly came into focus. Two in the morning, again; nothing achieved, again.
Across the room, three of her fellow code monkeys 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 towards a reward.
Loud rounds of Counterstruck Gears of Whatever, on the other hand, complete with shouted insults at their fellows and cries of anguish when their soldiers were completely pwned, was more of a distraction. She cranked up all of the computer’s 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. A whispered theory had begun that the code couldn’t possibly work, and that the job was instead some form of social experiment.
Had their situation been a social experiment, a name like Dorian Gray 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, ideas that she wouldn’t have had if she’d believed the code to be entirely human. Different circumstances, different solutions.
Being insane had its advantages.
She stared at the screen until it got fuzzy. ‘Code Steffie: Get up; get coffee,’ she muttered, and she pushed herself back from the desk.
It took a minute for her legs to cooperate, then she stood and walked across to the sideboard that held the drinks and snacks.
The coffee pot was empty.
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. Moreover, they probably expected her to use the bed at least sometimes, instead of catnapping on her keyboard.
The door to her assigned room was ajar.
A look to the left and a look to the right confirmed the adjacent rooms as four and six. She pressed a hand to the wood to push it open, but she paused as she heard noises. 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 wasn’t anything closer and heavier.
She took a step back and kicked the door.
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 redhead – now minus the tight red shirt – smirked, rolled her eyes, then stared at the ceiling.
Stef reached down to Dorian’s discarded pants and lifted the keychain 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.
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 and muttered the binary for a question mark. She reached out, groping in the low light and felt for a light switch. Since the 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 that were supposed to happen to frail blonde girls in inappropriately see-though 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 should she go back, kick them out of her room and–
He’s not following you, Spyder.
The third floor hadn’t seemed like anything to think about. Rooms and precious things they didn’t want smelly hackers near – that was perfectly reasonable. The screams, though – those had changed everything.
The screams had given the third floor mystery and intrigue. They were more than enough reason to run away and forget everything. They were more than enough reason to stay and see the project through.
The code was so broken, it was benign by default. Even if all the programmers were dead, even if someone had been screaming and bleeding–
She took another step and pushed the screams and the blood from her mind.
She laughed at how wrong the situation was. In situations like hers, 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 secret stairs in crumpled pyjamas 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.
She opened the door and was stared at by a monster: towering, hairy, hunchbacked, with a sunken face, barely human, and oddly luminescent eyes.
She stared, her feet locked into place as though they were part of the floor. It was a dream. She’d fallen asleep at her computer or on her bed and it was a dream and it was a dream and–
It hissed, lunged, then roared in her face.
Her legs went slack, and she fell back against the door frame, catching herself before she fell down the stairs.
‘What are you doing here?!’ it demanded.
Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me. Please don’t eat me.
It roared again, saliva dripping off its uneven teeth. She not-so-secretly hoped that the teeth – the sharp, numerous and bloody teeth – weren’t “all the better to eat hackers with”.
‘Do – Dorian gave me the key,’ she said, trying not to stumble over her words. ‘He’s busy shagging in my bed. Needed somewhere to sleep.’ The monster was the secret of the third floor: He wasn’t human, and neither was the code. 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 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. Overanalysis of a situation.
I don’t overanalyse.
Keep telling yourself that.
‘If you haven’t noticed, I’m not screaming. I’m not going to run downstairs 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 hand 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 am 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– One shove, and I’m dead anyway. I’m not screaming, because I’m not an idiot. I’m insane, not an idiot.’
He stared silently at her.
Then the monster snorted again. He lifted a clawed finger and pointed down an adjacent hall. ‘Dorian’s room is down there.’
She took a step that way 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 towards 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.
Shit – shit – shit – shit–
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.
The monster 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, focussing 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.’
Stop antagonising the fucking monster!
‘Her name is Mela.’
That’s one of the repeating words.
I knew they weren’t nothing!
‘Thank you,’ she said, but she didn’t make a move towards the door.
He retreated behind the desk again and gave her space enough to pass. She wanted to run, but she forced herself to walk. Sudden movements could be a bad idea, and however much of 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, with a huge bed as the centrepiece. There were more pillows on it than she could count, and she knocked all but three onto the floor.
She pulled open the curtains, and she looked down onto the garden. The grounds were well maintained, if a little boring. 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 weird-shit-o-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.
She pulled the blanket up to her chin and stared at the fancy designs in the ceiling plaster. There was a monster down the hall, and she had to sleep as though there was nothing unusual. As if everything hadn’t just changed.
There had been no wires, no smoke and mirrors. No seams in the costume.
It hadn’t been a fake. He hadn’t been a fake.
Monster. Real monster. Real monster, and she had to sleep so she’d be functional. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
Reality disappoints, yet again.
It was his code – had to be his code. He wasn’t human, that was for sure, so that just left the question of what kind of monster he was. Mutant, alien, troll – all had possibilities. All required a different genre to be savvy in. All required being very careful to avoid becoming monster food.
A good avoidance strategy had to start with clearing a sleep debt.
With thoughts of monsters, ghosts, and possibly-alien code swimming in her head, she snuggled into the pillow and went to sleep.
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