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 made 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 the other code monkeys 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 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 curveballs, 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 pretty woman 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 smirk that the woman gave her as she passed.
She sipped at her coffee and idly 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 harshly.
The new guy grinned widely, despite her tone. ‘We haven’t been introduced yet.’
‘I said “Hi” already,’ she said as she reached for her headphones. He grasped them first, 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, newb.’
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 new guy,’ 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, 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 spoken of the legal nature of the work.
He backed away a little, releasing her headphones. ‘I meant no offence; it simply interests me.’
She snatched the headphones 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 any more time on him. Especially not when she was–
‘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 new guy 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 any more of her mental processing power to the invader.
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?’
‘Can it wait?’
‘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 fix your phone again.’
‘Hurry up,’ he said before exiting the room without her.
She slipped her flash 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 thought vetoed it.
Wordlessly, she followed him 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 from 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?’
He grabbed her. ‘How can one who has died know so little about the world?’
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 believe me when I say I’m something more than a good-looking Londoner?’
She wanted to argue the narcissistic half of his question but bit her lip and nodded – it 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?’
‘This is what the Solstice do. They see the fantastic, and they crush it. They see magic, and they wipe it out. They execute fae. They hunt angels. They hurt anyone whose life has just that little bit of wonder in it.’ He looked away. ‘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. ‘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 Dorian 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 No-name, isn’t it?’
He had the look of a professor who’d been gone too long in the jungle: wild eyes set 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.
‘Alexandria,’ she said, her doll’s name alien in her mouth. A name close enough to her heart that she’d react when called, but one that would keep her on edge, remind her not to trust these people. ‘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 she 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 ideas three days ago. Since then, I’ve been retrofitting bits of old video games in while nomming the free food. It’s hard to eat….well, much other than ramen, on my budget.’
That seemed to disappoint him. ‘Some of your–’ he began.
‘I’ve got nothing. I’m in 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.’
That 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. They left with very little fuss, and just a few offhand comments about visiting the doctor.
Lunch came soon after that. Numerous flash games amused her for a while, while she worked on the code in small copy-pasted sections so she wouldn’t arouse suspicion.
She almost heard a click in her mind as the code finally started to make sense. The language finally parsed, and even if it was going to take time, it was fixable.
The flash drive securely hidden in her pocket, she sat for another half hour, letting the Solstice circling the room – in a far less subtle fashion than they probably thought they were doing – see her play games and browse blogs, before she rose and excused herself, grabbing a platter of tiny sandwiches before leaving the room.
She took the long path back to her room, pausing to look at the small treasures that littered every shelf and hook – and at where the Solstice had positioned themselves. It would have been paranoid to think they were blocking all of the exits…if they hadn’t been blocking all of the exits.
It was at least more subtle than the men circling the code monkeys like vultures, but the man having a smoke break on the front stairs, the one fixing the van near the service entrance – they were guards, all the same – or lookouts, at least.
There was no need to arouse suspicion. There was no need to arouse suspicion. There was no need to arouse suspicion. There was no need to arouse suspicion.
She slowly walked back to her room, gripping the silver platter of sandwiches so tightly, the designs had pressed into her skin.
She woke Frankie from his sleep and loaded the code from her flash drive. She went to the window for a moment and saw another Solstice wandering through the garden, a mobile phone pressed to his ear.
Escape was impossible, at least for now.
She locked the door and piled her bags in front of it. She then pulled on her headphones, stared at the code, and began to type.
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