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03 - Conversations in the Night
Stef stared at the code in front of her, and made some notes on the already-full piece of paper to her right. The algorithm cycled in her mind, failed, spontaneously blew up, then laughed at her. Dutifully, she crossed out her last few notes, then searched for a new piece of paper.
Finding none, she stood and walked over to the printer, pulled out the tray and extracted a few pieces of A4 paper.
She lifted the fresh paper to her nose and breathed in the smell, the faint scent of toner, the lingering smell of electronics, the cleaning chemicals that had leaked through. They were all comforting, familiar smells. With fresh paper in her hands, fresh ideas began to form. Not that she was anywhere near exhausting her current batch, but many were immediately shot down by her fellow colleagues-
A scream flushed all ideas from her mind.
She gripped the paper in her hands, and braced for the next scream. The halls were dark, filled only with the eclectic artefacts. All of the staff had long since gone home or retired to their quarters, the only people awake were the ones in the room with her.
Creepy mansion, creepy scream…
There was a third scream, and suddenly its source was all too probable – the third floor.
So...maybe not a rose in a glass case then, but that sounds like a beast.
She looked around carefully, appraising each of the exits in turn, just in case the need to escape came.
She looked around the room at the other code monkeys, keeping her reaction undecided until she could gauge what they were doing. It was possible that the house was haunted, and that this was a perfectly normal occurrence. The reactions, however, didn’t align with that theory – the majority looked worried, and a few looked as though they suspected that they’d fallen from their dreams and into a nightmare.
The room held its collective breath, waiting for a fourth scream, or the revelation of its source. No more screams came, none like the first in any case. Screaming music came again, backed by drums and wailing guitars. Dorian materialised in the doorway, coming out of the shadows in dark clothes.
‘I do apologise,’ he said, his voice strained, his hands in his pockets. ‘I was sent some new music. Japanese screamo. I didn’t realise that the speakers were turned up.’
‘It sounded real,’ one of her fellow code monkeys said. ‘I’m jealous of your sound system.’
She fought the urge to groan, to berate them for so readily accepting a lie. Whatever the sound had been, it was not something that had come from speakers, no matter how good the system was. The boys around her, however, seemed content with the explanation, and she had no wish to burst their little bubble worlds.
‘Our financier has allowed me to offer an incentive,’ Dorian said. He grabbed an empty bowl from the food cart and threw a dozen slips of paper into it.
‘These are all of your names, whoever I pull out-’
‘Ain’t it a bit late to be doing this?’ one of her fellows asked, ‘I mean, some people are asleep.’
‘-shall win a new television,’ he said without pausing. ‘It’s just a little thank-you, something to inspire more great work.’
He turned to look at her.
‘Would you do it, Spyder?’
She looked at the hand proffering the bowl, walked toward him, turned her back to the rest of the code monkeys, and made a great play of mixing the slips of paper around.
‘There’s blood on your sleeve,’ she observed, a forced smile on her her face, ‘and under your nails.’
His grip tightened on the bowl.
‘Do you want the TV?’ he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
‘You severely underestimate me,’ she said as she latched onto one of the pieces of paper. She looked around at the other coders, trying to match the name with one of the faces she’d barely paid any attention to.
You’re taking too long.
She pointed at the boy who sat opposite her. ‘You win. Grats’ She lowered her hand, folded the paper, and slipped it into her pocket.
He gave a victorious whoop, and grinned as the people around him gave him congratulatory pats on the back, or jealous slaps on the back.
‘Night,’ she said unceremoniously, and walked from the room.
Dorian, predictably, followed her.
She held up a hand to quiet him until they reached her room.
‘That scream,’ she said as she leaned against the heavy wooden door, ‘didn’t come from a sound system. I know this, don’t argue with me. I know it came from the third floor. Don’t bother to refute that either. Whoever was screaming was injured, hence the blood. The TV was a distraction, and a good one: expensive. It did the trick. Congratulations, you placated a bunch of idiots with a shiny prize.’
She caught his expression.
‘And right now,’ she said, ‘you’re thinking “there’s something not quite right about this girl” and you’d be right. But so am I, aren’t I?’
‘At this point, I wouldn’t insult you by lying to you.’
She grasped the doorknob. ‘Go back to whoever needs your help. You’ve got nothing to fear down here.’
‘What do I-?’
‘What you don’t do is underestimate me,’ she said. ‘Goodnight, Dorian.’
‘And to you, Spyder,’ he said before striding down the hall and around the corner, toward his room.
She walked into the small room she’d been allocated, instinctively locked the door and collapsed onto the bed. She stared at the plastered ceiling, dropping the passive mask, and listening for more sounds from the third floor.
After hearing nothing but the faint echo of some footsteps, she awkwardly kicked off her dirty sneakers, pulled the blanket up, and attempted to sleep.
It’s not a monster. How could it be a monster. It’s just-
Pack your stuff and leave.
It- It doesn’t feel dangerous though.
He admitted all of the original programmers are dead.
She pulled a sheet of code from under her pillow and stared at it.
I have to know what this is.
She folded the page into quarters, and closed her eyes.
The crumpling of paper woke her up. She opened her eyes,and saw the sheet of code under her eyes. She sat, pushed it back under the pillow, and swung her legs over the edge of the skinny bed. She stumbled towards the small desk, and pushed at Frankie’s buttons until she saw the faint glow of a computer waking up.
She leaned against the cool wall for a moment, unlocked her door, then sneaked back towards the main room, her socks easily letting her ninja across the polished floors. One coffee pot stood half-full and warm on the element, and she lifted it and a cup, then ninja’d back to her room and Frankie’s comforting glow.
She pulled a flash drive from her pocket and loaded code from earlier in the day – not what she had been working on before the screams, but small sections she had snipped for later investigation. Pieces that a lot of her fellows had dismissed as unrecoverable pieces of corruption.
The comment had birthed several well-crafted, cutting, truly witty insults...four hours after the conversation. Corrupted, sure. Unrecoverable, sure. Irrelevant, never. Nothing was irrelevant when it came to a language no one had seen before.
Especially when it was structured like a language. The piece of corruption read more like notes hidden in a file than code itself. It needed a linguist, or a cryptographer, but Dorian had declined both – not from expense, but from the want to keep the project quiet.
Quiet and unsuccessful.
Random internet searches on some of the words had revealed nothing, nor had running them through translators trying everything possible.
Some words were repeated throughout, sometimes breaking in on pieces of code, sometimes repeated a hundred times over with no break. It looked like corruption, undoubtedly, but-
Her RSS feed pinged, and she set aside the code for the familiarity of the internet.
Eight random videos, fourteen pages of kittehs, an hour of flash games and a lurking whilst a heated worst-comic-artist argument took place, she clicked back into the code.
The corruption meant nothing. Nothing they’d ever work out, anyway. It was a romantic wish of the sleep deprived. She stared at it for a few minutes more, begging under her breath for the meaning to become clear, repeating the nonsense words under her breath in case they were the keys to a spell.
She pressed her mug to her nose and huffed the last vestiges of the coffee smell.
On the monitor in front of her, the code cycled, testing out algorithms that she’d already rejected. All failed the second time as surely as the first time, allowing the program to keep its secrets to itself.
All the programmers were dead, and someone had been hurt. She stared at the code and hoped that it wasn’t going to end the world.
When the smell disappeared, she stood on tired legs and walked back through to the main room.
The floor-to-ceiling windows gave her a brilliant view of the grey pre-dawn world outside the mansion. Everything seemed to be so real and so unreal, the silver light casting aspersions on the realness of reality.
She woke the code monkey computer she hadn’t bothered to name, loaded the code, and looked for sustenance. All of the coffee pots were empty, so she turned and padded towards the kitchens. One new pot of coffee later, she returned to the main room.
A ghost stood at her computer.
That’s not a ghost, Spyder.
An old man, as thin and frail as a ghost, stood at her computer. For a moment, she wondered if he was the one who had been bleeding and screaming, but decided against it. The cane was being used due to age, not injury.
‘So...so beautiful,’ he mumbled as she came toward him. ‘I never knew...’
A smile tugged at her lips – she’d had the same reaction when she’d first begun to play with the code – it was broken, but so was the Venus de Milo.
‘It’s a pleasure to-’ she started to say.
He laughed an odd, croaky laugh and lightly batted away her hand with his cane. ‘You’re not doing this for me, child, I’m just letting him use the house.’
So you’re the financier then?
‘Why are you paying for this?’ she asked. ‘I mean-’
‘He’s lost so much. I just want to help him find her.’
She looked back at the code, unsure as to how it was going to help locate someone. Unbidden, her eyes circled the room, the cost of the set up, the living wage and the prize money floated in her mind.
So much trouble, all just to-
‘She’s his love, it would be...I can’t say inhuman, but it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t help him find her. I had so many help me find my love.’ He slapped his chest and coughed, then clumsily sat on the chair beside her. ‘In the war-’
‘Which one?’ she asked on autopilot.
‘I made love to this beautiful girl. We were both terrified, I was injured, she was helping the nurses. The bombs were dropping and we thought the sky was going to fall on our heads. We gave each other that small comfort, and the bombs missed us. After that...I had to go back, to fight, to win.’
He looked away, his eyes focused on the past instead of the present.
‘When the fighting stopped, I went looking for her. I found her, I married her, and for a little time, we lived and were happy.’
She looked back at the code. It was her frame of reference. Love, romance and war stories meant nothing to her. They were outside her experience, outside of her interest.
‘How will this help? I don’t even know what the hell it is.’
‘A black box, in a fashion.’ He stabbed a bony finger toward the code. ‘Think of it as all the telemetry of a journey, along with the memories of the pilot who flew the trip.’
‘Satellites would be simpler.’
‘Anyone who accepted Mr Gray’s invitation was not after simple.’ He smiled. ‘Good morning.’
He patted her on the head, and she fought an urge to bark. He tottered off, leaving her alone once again.
Only once alone, she realised what he’d said. ‘Dorian??’
She reached down to the desk, blindly groped for chocolate then chewed on it while staring at the early morning light. Once she began to chew on foil, she sat and started to type again.
Dawn came and went and the dutiful cooks brought in trays of food once the others began to rise.
They stood by as the eggs and toast were ignored for waffles and bacon. She would have felt sorry for the cooks, but if there was one thing she’d learned in her youth, it was that in a house this size, food never went astray.
The uneaten breakfast foods wouldn’t stay that way, neither would the pate and occasional tray of caviar or other delicacy. The amounts of caviar and pate had in fact, seemed to have increased once the staff had grasped the concept that hackers had no wish to eat fish eggs or a mixture made of parts of the animal they couldn’t identify.
She went back to her computer determined this time not to spill maple syrup on the keyboard. It was terrible to work with delicate code only to have the letter “j” stick and turn the whole thing into nothing but a mess. Again.
There was a wolf-whistle from one of the tables across from her. Obviously not the one the whistle was aimed at, she turned to look at the double doors leading into the room.
Dorian was escorting a pair of breasts wrapped in a tight red blouse and a bum wrapped in even tighter black jeans. Perfectly permed hair fell across the face belonging to the breasts in that “messy, but not too messy” way. Several of the code monkeys fell over themselves getting up to walk over and greet the new member.
‘Harvard graduate,’ she heard Dorian say over the rush of greetings. ‘Currently working for- Sorry, classified, let’s just say she’s on loan from Silicon Valley.’
She spat pancake all over her monitor and dissolved into giggles, desperately tried to cover up by faking a coughing fit. A passing code monkey slapped her on the back before joining the crowd around the new arrival.
A glass of water was passed to her.
‘Don’t want you choking Spyder,’ Dorian said, his expression telling her that he wasn’t buying the story.
She shrugged and sucked maple syrup from her finger.
‘You know, Spyder, most women can make that look sexy.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘What’s sexy about it?’
He stared at her, apparently struck dumb by her statement. She looked back at her plate and picked up another pancake and slowly chewed on it until his brain reset.
‘They’re real, by the way,’ he said, picking up his train of thought.
‘I don’t even care.’
‘Had enough experience to tell.’ He looked over her shoulder at the screen. ‘Any luck? I have the feeling that a pretty girl was all that they needed to take them away from not achieving anything.’
‘I’ve only been here-’
‘So, no progress?’
She didn’t like the disappointment in his voice, so she decided to throw him the only bone she had.
The crazy path she’d been following since the old man’s visit.
‘If I were sane, I’d be afraid to say this but...I’d stake someone else’s fortune that it wasn’t...’
‘Say it,’ he said, sliding into the seat beside her.
‘Not-’ she shook her head and turned back to her pancakes. ‘Not human,’ she said, a blush rising over her face. ‘Looking at it, it’s old, but it can’t be, it’s so much more complex than the new stuff I try and crack. Yeah, there’s probably Nazi tech that the CERN guys still can’t decipher, but if it’s as old as I think, then it can’t be human.’
‘Keep going with that line of thinking.’
She grinned at him. ‘Was this salvaged at Roswell?’
‘Oh come on Spyder, no one believes in Roswell.’
He held up a finger and shushed her. ‘You were on the right track. Don’t go off onto a tangent.’
‘How can it be?’
‘Don’t ask “how” just keep it as a mindset.’
He had his secrets, but at least she knew one of them. She paused for a moment, then raised her eyebrows slightly. ‘Well, I guess I should listen to what Dorian Gray says...’
She smirked as he gave her an expression of shock, then winked at her. He held a finger to his lips and made a shushing noise. She gave him a slight nod.
It was something to be kept a secret, not that she’d had any intention of sharing it with the other code monkeys.
Dorian winked and went back to the pair of breasts. She chewed on the pancake and watched the code attempt to compile in front of her.
Roswell or not...
She tapped on the monitor with a still-sticky finger. ‘Do you need to phone home?’