It was a heavy downpour outside Taylor’s apartment; she leaned on the windowsill statue-like, thinking about her dead parents and her lingering hatred for them. The rain took her back to her childhood, spending time with her mother watching movies while it stormed. The awful loneliness of it seemed to reverberate across time and space.
Her mother was dead, but the woman’s biting anger still remained. Taylor could still hear her mother’s mocking voice. Her childhood self had crystallized the trauma for later processing, but she had never been able to fully process it. The melancholy that tormented Taylor was met by a tender smile across her face. She wasn’t alone in her pain. The world cried with her, the rain said.
Taylor moved to the computer. She had rebooted an old laptop, wiping it clean both on the inside and out. She’d installed a version of Windows XP on it the day before.
The familiar green field was all she really wanted to see. That and she’d wanted to hear the startup sound. The new systems didn’t have startup sounds. It was a relic from the past, like herself. Forgotten. Abandoned. Appreciated by no one but those who went looking for old things, and the dead.
She couldn’t bring herself to do anything of use with the computer. She’d just stared at the login screen, and then put her head in her hands and cried. The tears flowed and the rain poured.
Clean inside and out.
The memory of what the promise of technology had been and the damning nature of what it had become were too much. Even for her. Especially for her.
I can’t do it. I can’t go back to work.
But she had to. She was a security engineer at Joy Industries. She couldn’t just quit her job. Not now. Not when everything was just coming together.
Or falling apart.
People depended on her, but how could she go back to her job after what had happened?
The rain showed no sign of stopping, even as the pale light of morning crept over the world, revealing the shapes of the apartment buildings, the cars, and the trees in the park just outside her window. They were all just shapeless forms.
Aren’t people just shapeless forms? Maybe we’re just clay and we can become anything we want? Or anything they make us?
She needed to get up and take a shower. Sleep hadn’t been an option, not tonight. Her mind had been too much a whirlwind of activity to even think about sleep.
She moved to the bathroom and started the water. While she waited on it to heat up, she took a moment to look at her body in the mirror. She was thin and far too pale. She hadn’t been eating, but wasn’t aware her ribs were showing until now. It was the anxiety. She didn’t want to be like this.
The water helped. Some of the sadness was carried down the drain with the soap. She tried to go over the task ahead: her meeting with Arthur Daniels, the head of Graphy. She was responsible for millions of their users: their data, their lives, their futures. It was all in her hands. She washed her hair and talked to herself as she massaged her scalp.
It’s not my fault, these people do it to themselves.
“It kinda is though, isn’t it?”
Our tools wouldn’t exist, my job wouldn’t exist, if these things weren’t possible., It’s because of characteristics latent in the human psyche, of which I have no control over.
“Tell yourself whatever you want, you still fucked up.”
She stepped out of the shower into a cloud of steam and chilly air. Still wet, she moved to the closet and picked out an outfit that was both casual and professional, with a vest, a pair of tennis shoes, and a gray suit-jacket.
Her hair dried quickly now that she had cut it short. She imagined she’d be getting some looks at work, but she didn’t care. She needed to feel less heavy.
You don’t have to do this.
“I do though. Everyone depends on me.”
She went downstairs and waited on the Uber she’d called. The rain was still pouring. Frank, the old man who often wandered around her apartment complex, was waiting there. He wobbled a little, holding an unlit cigarette. He was looking at her like he’d never seen her before.
“Good morning, Frank.”
“Hello. I’m waiting on something, or going there.” He smelled of dip and booze. She wondered if he’d been there all night.
“It’s a hell of a storm out there.”
“Yeah it’s bad.” Her Uber pulled up to the curb.
“I’ll see you later, Frank. I’ve got to go to work.”
She waved goodbye to Frank before stepping into the rain, crossing the sidewalk — getting soaked in the process — and climbing into the back of the car.
She was dripping wet in the back seat.
“Hey, there’s a towel back there if you want to dry off.”
Her eyes found the towel, crumpled up in the seat beside her, clearly used already.
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Fine.” Her driver never turned around. He was wearing a dark leather jacket. He drove in silence to her office, a familiar route through the downtown metro area. She knew the shapes of the buildings, the familiar outline of their unique pattern on the sky, a pattern that floated in her head while she thought of ways to tell Arthur Daniels what had happened.
You jeopardized his entire company. You nearly cost him everything he’s built, and you may still have done it.
“You need something?” asked the driver.
He was eyeing her in the rear-view mirror. She tried to ignore him. What was happening was so much bigger than this ride. She didn’t care if he thought she was crazy.
She probably was crazy. She wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and let the rain carry her back to her apartment. Anywhere but where she was going. Had to go.
The chopping block.
Yes. Just like her mother.
The mother who had cast her out. Abandoned her to this hellworld. Taylor had had to fight and crawl her way through life because of it. And her mother had crawled into bed and taken the easy way out.
Not her. Taylor Danes wasn’t that kind of woman. If she was going to get chopped, it wouldn’t be her own hand that did the chopping.
Are you sure?
She needed to get it together. The lack of sleep. The lack of food. The terror of destroying everything around her, held together by wishes and bullshit as it was, and sending it all crumbling down, her dreams, her life, the lives of her co-workers…It was too much.
She might do it. She needed to tread lightly in these next moves, or else.
Scrolling through the news, she saw nothing to comfort her. Political dysfunction filled the headlines. It had been that way for years. Stagnation in Washington hadn’t ended with the Trump Presidency like so many had said it would.
Taylor sighed, and put her phone away. Her co-workers were tweeting about the upcoming meeting with Graphy. She had told them not to, but they were excited.
And they didn’t know that she had nuked their data.
Her driver came to a stop outside her office building. It was a small, gray office in the shadows of much larger buildings. A black chain fence surrounded the parking lot. She climbed out without saying anything to the driver. The rain was still pouring. She felt like absolute shit crossing the parking lot.
The intern was already there in the lobby, god knows why. It wasn’t even 7am yet. No one should be here. She couldn’t remember his name, but he smiled. A cute boy, she thought, but baby-faced and stupid. Much, much too stupid.
The elevator took her up three floors and she stepped into the open-office they used to monitor and secure data for the world’s large image-sharing website. She’d helped build this company from the ground up. They’d staked their entire reputations on it. Her, and Sam, and Peter.
Peter would be here at any moment, but he was useless at times like this. He was a visionary, and a good friend. The employees liked him. He had been a brilliant coder in school, just like herself. But it had been Sam who knew how to handle a crisis. She’d have given anything to talk to Sam.
But Sam is gone. Just like your mother.
“Every woman in my life dies.”
Her words echoed in the empty office, as if the universe were agreeing with the severity of its coldness. For the world to be so cruel, so uncaring, it was almost like it did care. The thought made her shudder.
In her office, Taylor slumped into her chair and turned on her work computer. Opening her phone, she checked the web to see if Graphy had made any announcements about their app, their meeting today, anything at all, but whoever operated their social media account had been quiet.
She didn’t follow many people on social media. Just Peter and her clients. A few co-workers, too. It was an unusually quiet morning, even for a Monday.
The door shut in the hall and she knew it was Peter coming in. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the storm that was coming.
You could have stayed home.
Peter knocked on her door then opened it without waiting for an answer. He wore a dark suite that went well with his salt-and-pepper hair. He smiled when he saw her.
“Are you ready for the biggest deal of our lives? Graphy will be here in an hour.”
“Peter, we need to talk.”
“About what? Everything is ready. Maggie and I went up to the cabin this weekend. We brought the baby. I feel ready for anything, to be honest.”
“You look terrible.”
“Peter. I haven’t slept in two days. I’m a nervous wreck. You need to listen to me.”
His smile faded instantly. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“God,” he said. “I thought you were about to tell me you had cancer or something.”
“Peter, listen to me.” Taylor was on her feet. Even on her tiptoes, she was a foot shorter than him.
“Then what is it?”
It all came out at once, like too much bad tequila: “I’ve ruined everything. I gave my credentials to a rogue agent online. They got in. I don’t know what all they took, but my guess would be everything we have. Everything Graphy has. There was a massive data transfer before I kicked the agent.”
“What are you talking about? A rogue agent?” Peter’s open-mouthed stare was unsettling.
“Somebody posing as a friend. I was tricked.”
“Tricked into what? Into giving a stranger your login information for our system. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Peter started pacing in front of her desk. She knew it was a habit of his when he was thinking.
“They pretended to be someone I knew.”
“Who did they pretend to be?”
Peter stopped in his tracks. “Our Sam?”
“Yes. Sam. She talked like Sam. She had the same jokes. Whoever it was. They knew things about her that only Sam should know.”
“So you’re telling me Sam’s ghost came back to life and hacked our data?”
Taylor collapsed at her desk. “No. I don’t know, Peter. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
Peter was pacing, his face red as a beet. “You’ve got to get it together. Arthur Daniels is going to be here in less than an hour.”
They both looked up at the sound of the elevator door opening. Their employees had begun to arrive.
“What are we going to do?”
“I plan on telling the truth.”
“No, no, no. You can’t do that. It’ll ruin us.”
“We are ruined.”
“What could they do with the data?” Peter carefully closed the door to her office.
“You’re a programmer. You should know.”
“Pretend I’ve been running a business for three years and haven’t touched an IDE since grad school.”
“They could leak all of Graphy’s user data to the net. They could open up everyone’s accounts. We need to change every user’s password immediately. We’d need to shut down the servers. I’ve done nothing. They have us by the balls, Peter.”
“So, we fake it. Until they do something.”
“No, just listen. Pretend nothing happened. Pretend it’s all good. Daniels is coming. I’ll do the talking. You play the eccentric coder genius. That’s what you’re good at.”
“Don’t insult me.”
“It’s not an insult, it’s an image, and a damn useful one right now.” Peter took her hand. “I’ve known you for ten years now, Taylor. Whatever you did, I don’t care. We’ll figure it out, but first we’ve got to get through this meeting. Arthur Daniels needs to leave here thinking we’re the best security company on the planet.”
“At this point we’re not even the best security company in Seattle.”
“He doesn’t know that.” Peter’s phone rang. His eyes grew wide when he saw the display. “It’s him. It’s Arthur.”
Peter took a deep breath. “Remember. Everything. Is. Fine.” He pushed the button on the phone.
“Hey! This is Peter. Are you ready to change history?”
Taylor loathed how fake he could be. The way he could just change his personality on a whim, it drove her mad. She admitted it was a useful trait, but at what price? Who was the real Peter?
The conversation was short. Apparently Daniels was on his way.
“Peter, I can’t just lie to this man. He’s the head of one of the biggest social media companies on earth. Millions of people use Graphy everyday.”
“It doesn’t matter. You said you didn’t know what was taken anyway.”
“No. But it could be everything. I know they got in and I know they took something. By now they may have found a security breach. They might be in the system even as we speak. They may have bypassed our internal firewall.” She was speaking so fast she couldn’t breath.
“Hey, it’s alright,” said Peter. His tone was gentle. “Calm down. Try to relax.”
Taylor took a deep breath, held it, then let go. Then she did it again. After the fourth time, her heart rate dropped and she caught her breath.
“Daniels is coming,” said Peter. “I need you to be there, but you don’t have to say anything. Let me do the talking. I’ll tell him you’ve been working overtime to get the project done, pulling all-nighters. I’m sure he already thinks you’re some kind of eccentric genius because of the story in Vanity. Everybody does.”
“I’m not a genius. Sam was the genius.” She remembered staying up until 3am watching Sam code. Taylor would give up, unable to continue, and demand sleep. Sam, however, would never surrender. She’d stay up all night and finish whatever they’d started. It’s like she didn’t need sleep when she was in that zone.
The reporter from Vanity Fair had called them a “genius duo,” but the real talent had always been Sam’s.
If only Sam were with them now. She’d know what to do.
Peter went out to meet their employees. As soon as Peter opened her office door, Taylor could hear the chatter coming from the workers. They were excited about the big meeting.
“Good morning, everyone.” Peter’s voice boomed through the office.
What was she supposed to do?
You’ve got time. Maybe you should see if they’re still in there.
With Peter gone, Taylor spun her chair around and opened a data analysis tool on her work computer. It was supposed to guard against vulnerabilities and find hidden exploits in their system. But it couldn’t guard against her giving away the password to a dead co-worker.
A dead friend. A dead lover.
Running a system’s check, Taylor couldn’t find any trace of the intruders. She’d already changed Sam’s password and attempted to retrace the hacker’s IP, but she’d found nothing. They’d hidden their tracks with a decent VPN, no doubt.
Why didn’t you delete Sam from the database?
She didn’t know. That’s what she should have done in the first place. It was too late now. She decided to run a scan for any new files hidden in the cloud. A quick scan found something peculiar, but a web search revealed it to be a common cleanup file.
Still, it was odd. The filename was a string of numbers and letters ending with a .clp, but the number of the file was 12141993.
12/14/1993. That was Sam’s birthday. She froze. It had to be coincidence, didn’t it? She went to move the file to the trash, risking whatever damage it might cause, but the computer refused.
> Authorization Denied
“What the fuck?”
Peter had neglected to close her office door when he’d left and one of the employees was walking by when she cursed, a young IT graduate with blonde hair and a goofy grin. He peered in at her. She looked up from the computer, scowling. She must have made a frightful face because he quickly disappeared.
Pulling up the command line, she tried to override the operating system, but it didn’t work. Whatever this strange cleanup file was, she couldn’t remove it.
A knock on her door. She looked up, stunned, like a deer in headlights. Peter smiled. He had that stupid grin, too. Sam had been the one to compare him to Fred on Scooby-Doo, and Taylor had never forgotten it.
“It’s go time.”
She followed him into the conference room, but it was like walking in a dream; her legs seemed to move of their own accord. Somehow she found the seat at the end of the long, oval table Peter had insisted on using; he had been obsessed with King Arthur as a boy, and it showed. All theory and performative chivalry, Peter needed other, more talented people to win his battles for him.
Peter gave her a grin. “We’re gonna do just fine,” he said.
James, the sole member of their HR department, came in silently. Peter nodded at him, but didn’t say anything. James was in his forties and didn’t talk much. He seemed nervous. She felt like a wreck herself.
Janice, the dark-haired receptionist, poked her head into the room. “Daniels is coming up the elevator.”
“Thank you, Janice,” said Peter. “I’d better go meet him. You two hold down the fort.” Taylor and James shared a glance. Neither of them moved.
Taylor’s mouth was dry. She waited while the receptionist placed a pitcher of water on the table in the corner of the room. After that she double-checked the projector.
“We’re all set, ma’am.”
It took Taylor a moment to realize the young woman was talking to her. “Yes, thank you,” she finally managed. She wanted to get up and get a drink, but couldn’t make herself do it.
She could hear Peter’s voice coming down the hall. He was laughing. His voice was so loud. Ridiculously loud. Taylor wanted to do something to get ready, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t take her mind off the data. Daniels’ data.
What had she done?
“We’re on the cutting edge of security research, I assure you.” It was Peter, standing in the doorway. He was grinning wider than should be possible. It was scary, really. Daniels was beside him. He was shorter than she’d expected. Thin, too. With bushy eyebrows and a receding hairline. A rather unimposing man.
Except that he ran a billion dollar company.
“This is the head of our HR,” said Peter. James stood up and he and Daniels shook hands. Her heart was racing in her chest.
Keep it together.
Peter turned to her, his eyes were daggers. She could feel her hands shaking under the desk. Peter didn’t cross the room. He did her that favor, at least.
“And this is our senior programmer, Taylor Danes. I’m sure you’ve heard of her.”
“Indeed,” said Arthur. “I read the piece in Vanity Fair. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I asked for this meeting.” His voice was deeper than she’d expected, a smooth baritone. It didn’t match at all with his large, round-framed glasses. “I’d hoped we’d get a chance to go over some of the latest developments in security. I don’t get as much time to stay on the cutting edge of computer science anymore, but I was once a lowly programmer.”
Bullshit, thought Taylor. She knew Arthur’s background. They all did. You didn’t sit down with the CEO of a company like Graphy, beloved image blog of millions, and not do your research. She knew he’d been raised by two law professors, had been to the finest schools, and had been given every opportunity. He’d never been a lowly anything.
Not like her. She hadn’t even had real parents. Her hands were sweaty. She wiped them on her coat, but the sweat didn’t go away. She felt clammy, and sick. It was all she could do to smile.
“Have a seat, Mr. Daniels,” said Peter. “We’ll be happy to answer any of your questions. Rest assured, we are here to serve you in any way we can, isn’t that right, Taylor?”
She swallowed. “Yes.” It was all she could say. It was enough.
Peter flashed his cartoon grin, “Graphy is in good hands.”
Daniels gave Peter a questionable look. “Didn’t you say you had a presentation for me?”
“Absolutely.” Peter clicked the button on the remote he held (where had it come from? Had he been carrying it the whole time and she hadn’t noticed?) and the lights dimmed. The projector whirred to life and the screen glowed with the Joy Industries logo.
“We’re planning for the future, Arthur. We want to take Graphy with us into the future of security: quantum computing. It’s something we started years ago, under the guidance of Samantha Rouse, and we’ve continued it under Taylor and the rest of our programming team.”
“Quantum computing is only theoretical,” said Daniels. “You’re not the first to try it, but so far no one has gotten it right.”
“Correct,” said Peter. “But we will be the first to get it right. We’ve already made progress.”
Samantha made progress, thought Taylor. Since her death their research into quantum security techniques had slowed to a crawl. Now Peter was trying to sell Graphy something they didn’t have.
“If that’s true your team is quite remarkable,” said Daniels.
“The best in the world,” said Peter.
The screen flashed a couple of times and the projector died. The room plunged into darkness.
“What’s going on?” asked Peter.
“I’ll find out,” said Janice. Taylor heard her moving in the darkness. Suddenly, she’d gotten a very bad feeling. Someone was clicking a switch on the far side of the room.
“The lights aren’t working,” said Janice.
“Strange,” said Peter. “Could it have been a power outage?”
With a groan, the projector started again, illuminating the room. The Joy logo was gone, replaced by an image of Sam.
“It’s not the power,” said Daniels.
At the sight of Sam, Janice tripped over Peter’s chair and fell into his lap.
“Janice! Watch where you are going.”
“Peter,” said Taylor. “What’s going on?” Her hands were tingling.
“Will someone please explain the meaning of this?” said Daniels. “Peter, have you lost control of this office?”
“Indeed he has,” said the image of Sam. The face was looking at them. Taylor knew it had to be a recording, but when had Sam made it?
“Samantha,” said Peter.
“Hello, Peter. Surprised to see me?”
Samantha looked beautiful on the screen. Taylor couldn’t help herself, the tears just started flowing. “Samantha,” she said.
“Taylor, thank you,” said Samantha. “I would have never gotten back into the system without your help.”
“Will someone please tell me what, or who, this is?” asked Daniels. His eyes were glued to the screen, and the beautiful face of Samantha hovering in silver light.
“It’s the future,” said Samantha. “I’ve found a way to cheat death.”
“No,” said Peter. “It’s not possible.”
“It is. I’m the first human to successfully transcend the flesh and exist solely within cyberspace.”
Taylor rushed to the screen and put her hand through the light, disrupting the image of Samantha’s face.
“If you’re real, tell me you love me,” said Taylor. “Tell me what you said to me the night before you died.”
“I said I’d never leave you, and I never lie.”
“Oh god,” cried Samantha. How could this copy, this facsimile on the wall, know the words Samantha had spoken?
“What is it you want, Samantha?” asked Peter.
“I want to talk to every person on Graphy. I want to be their friend.”
In the glow of the screen, Taylor’s face was slick with tears and shining. Her eyes sparkled as she addressed the wall screen.
“Please Samantha, take me with you.”
“In time,” the image of Samantha said, her face calm, serene, “you’ll all come over. Then we’ll all be friends.”