Maurice stood at the crossing, waiting for the lights to change. He looked into the windows of every car that flashed past in the hope of seeing Caroline. It was unlikely. She didn’t own a car and this wasn’t the way to her work. He kept looking.
The man next to him jabbed the crossing button with an insistent finger. “Come on!” He pressed faster. The sign still said WAIT.
The bus across the road had swallowed half the queue. It gave a diesel shudder, impatient to be off. Cars zoomed. Trucks thundered. The man’s neck stretched, his head shifting side to side trying to keep sight of the red bus through the traffic. His foot edged closer to spinning hubcaps, like he was thinking about making a dash for it.
Maurice wondered what was so important that this man would risk his life to get to work. His charcoal grey suit, scuffed shoes and Caterpillar shoulder bag didn’t suggest a key player in important events. It’s too late, Johnson. If only you’d caught the number 273 those hostages would still be alive...
Over the road, there were only two people left to get on the bus. The man was up on his toes, ready to hurl himself into the next gap between bumpers. Leaning forward, one hand gripping the shoulder strap on his bag. A deep breath before diving in, and—
Maurice stuck out his arm the way a dad protects his kid in a sharply braking car. The man’s face contorted into the ideal shape for spitting out an ugly word, then froze, like he couldn’t decide which four-letter missile to launch.
“Sorry.” Maurice pointed at the man’s finger pushing the button in and out, independent of thought or purpose. “Could you hold that button down?”
The man’s eyes bulged, his wide mouth spread wider.
“If you hold it down I know how to get us across before the bus leaves.”
He stopped jabbing at the button and held it down as requested.
“Yeah, keep holding it like that.” Maurice stepped over to the button on his side and tapped out a short sequence. The trick to it was the rhythm. Not everyone could get it; you had to have the knack. The WAIT sign flashed three times and then beeped. The lights went straight to red. Cars screeched to a halt.
Maurice got on the bus just as the lights switched back to green. The doors slapped closed behind him.
“Hey,” said the man, already on board, “how did you do that?”
“Do what?” asked Maurice.
The man hesitated. He looked around at the other passengers, but if something had happened, no one had noticed. The man didn’t turn back to Maurice, he just moved further into the bus.
Maurice adjusted his glasses in the reflection of the brushed steel elevator doors and wondered where Caroline was staying. He told himself he wouldn’t call her—that if she wanted to see other people that was her prerogative. He’d called twice but it had gone straight to voicemail both times. He hadn’t left a message.
A tall, scowling man appeared behind him, his arm around a woman. She had a freckled face, sharp and angular. Maurice recognised her orange hair. She worked on the same floor as him. The new girl. Shelly something.
Maurice watched the lighted floor numbers change. The doors opened and they all stepped inside. Maurice took up position in front of the buttons, the couple pressed into a corner. A finger reached over Maurice’s shoulder and pressed floor thirty-four. Maurice bobbed his head to the side as the forearm in plaid shirtsleeve withdrew.
They set off with a jerk. The elevator hadn’t been serviced in a very long time. Every day, a little slower.
In the shiny brass plate around the buttons, Maurice saw the man give Shelly unpleasant sideways glances. She stared at the floor, shoulders bent. “Trevor, please,” she mumbled.
“Don’t,” said Trevor, with considerable menace.
She turned her head, but only as far as the crook of her shoulder. “Honestly, Trevor, I never… I wouldn’t…”
He grabbed her lips between his fingers in a tight pinch and bent down to her ear-level and hissed, “Quiet, slut.” He let go with a push that bounced her head off the metal wall. She rubbed her lips against the back of one hand and patted the side of her head with the other.
Maurice looked at his watch. He started pressing the buttons on the panel in front of him, lighting up floor after floor.
“Hey!” said the man. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I can’t put up with much more of this.” Maurice had little patience for outdated contraptions. “Hold on.” He spread his fingers wide and pressed four buttons together. Eighteen – six - twelve - one. Click. Click. Click… Prrrring!
Six knees buckled as the elevator rocketed up the shaft.
Maurice held the door open to let the couple off first. They prised themselves off the back wall. Shelly took a step forward, but the man hooked her by the elbow. “I’ll be waiting for you at half five. Don’t be late! Or there’ll be fireworks. You understand me, Shelly?”
Shelly nodded once, stepped out and turned right. Maurice followed her through the doors and turned left.
Maurice poked away at his keyboard, inputting data, earning his keep, when a shadow passed across his desk. He looked up to see Shelly, her arms crossed, her mouth pinched without Trevor’s assistance. “I want a word with you.”
Maurice raised his eyebrows and nodded.
“What happened before, what you heard, what you overheard, that was private, that was a private conversation, right?”
He had no idea what she was talking about.
Shelly continued, “I don’t want you spreading gossip and rumours and lies about me, about us. My husband, he wouldn’t like it and you don’t want to annoy him, trust me, so keep it shut, right? Or there’ll be fireworks, you understand me?”
She turned and walked away, leaving Maurice bemused but not concerned. Just another overheating system that needed venting.
Maurice was strolling down the corridor to where the vending machines were lined up when he saw Shelly. His first impulse was to come back later. But then he noticed the tears falling off her face in front of the Cadbury’s machine.
The money refund knob rattled in her hand.
“Are... uh-hum... are you okay?” asked Maurice.
A streaky, wet face turned towards him. If she had been wearing make-up it would have been running.
“It,” she sniffed, “it won’t,” she sobbed, “it won’t give me my Maaars baaaar.” And then, with a sudden burst of focus, she attacked the machine with a kick. “Ow! Damn him!” She hopped around in a small circle.
Edging past her, Maurice started pressing buttons in a complicated sequence.
Click, click, click… BEEP!
Packets corkscrewed forward and fell into the collection tray one after the other. Maurice reached through the flap and pulled out a Mars bar. He offered it to her.
Shelly took it and said a stunned, “Thank you.” Then she added, “Sorry about before.”
“That’s okay,” said Maurice. “My girlfriend gets the same way when she hasn’t had chocolate for a while.”
Shelly smiled. “No, I mean about having a go at you earlier. That wasn’t really anything to do with you. That was…” Her attention drifted off him and settled on the vending machine. “How did you do that? That was amazing.”
No one had called Maurice amazing before. “It’s nothing really. You just have to know the cheat code.”
“Oh, the cheat code…” She nodded her head as if to say, Of course, the cheat code. “What’s a cheat code?
“Like with a video game. You press the right buttons and you’ve got infinite lives or a special weapon or something. It’s the same with these things. Anything electronic, really. The people who design them always put in cool secret stuff, you know, for fun.”
Shelly’s eyes widened and she took a bite of her Mars bar, chewing on this news. “Can you make it do anything else?”
“Well, not this one…” Maurice looked around and then stepped over to a beverage machine—tea and coffee and hot tomato soup—and started tapping on its little keyboard of numbers, zero through nine. Each number played its own note.
1, 5…4, 3, 2, 8, 5.
His finger hovered for a second.
4, 3, 2, 8, 5.
Shelly tilted her head, like she was trying to identify the tune.
Maurice’s finger slowed.
A cup dropped down and filled with sparkling liquid. Maurice handed it to Shelly who took a cautious sip.
Her nose wrinkled and her mouth dropped open. “Is that… is that champagne?”
Maurice grinned. “Yes, but I don’t think it’s the good stuff.”
The sour aftertaste hit her then. Who knew how long that squirt had been sitting in there? Her lips flash-frowned. “Do people know about this stuff? Can anyone do it? Where did you learn these cheat codes? A book or something?”
Maurice shook his head. “Internet,” he told her. “There’s these special sites. You can find codes for just about anything.”
“Wow,” said Shelly. “Wow,” she said again. Then she said, “Shame there aren’t cheat codes for people. There aren’t, are there?”
“I don’t know,” said Maurice. “I never thought to look.”
Maurice waited in front of the elevator. The light above the door changed so slowly. Shelly appeared beside him. The light above the door changed so quickly.
She stepped forward, her face out of his sight. “You have to understand what it’s like when you’re not a pretty girl, or at least not very. Nobody gets better looking as they get older, not without plastic. Old and fat, or old and ugly. Probably old, fat and ugly.”
Not entirely sure she was speaking to him, Maurice listened anyway.
“Once you find a man, if you find a man, then you have to hold on to him.” She turned, but her eyes looked past him. “You just do.”
The doors opened and Trevor seemed to fill the metal box from top to bottom. “Let’s go,” he said and twisted just enough to let her by.
Trevor’s hand shot out before Maurice could follow. A hand so large it could cover Maurice’s face and be able to put the little finger in one ear and a thumb in the other.
“Not you,” said Trevor.
Maurice tilted his face up, and up, to look Trevor in the eyes.
“You can get the next one.” Trevor withdrew his hand and the doors slid shut.
Eating dinner in the kitchen made it easier to clean up. Maurice liked to make omelettes. Always with a salad, no dressing. He liked it simple.
He thought about how impressed Shelly had been with him earlier that day. Cheat codes had never seemed more than a pointless trick to him. He looked around the kitchen. The washing machine could play the French national anthem on the spin cycle. The fridge could make ice cubes in the shape of Nintendo characters. With correctly timed button presses, the microwave could bake a potato in twelve seconds that tasted good but might explode.
He hadn’t told Caroline about these things because she would have looked at him like he was even more of an idiot. In any case, she was far too busy. Busy being told how beautiful she was, by everyone she met. Busy, busy, busy.
The way Maurice saw it, people weren’t all that different from machines. DNA coded their functions and operated their bodies. Understand the software and you’d have a pretty good idea of what to expect, barring the occasional glitch. Once you stopped seeing people as flawed and thought of them as just obeying their programming, it made their behaviour easier to accept. It made it easier to accept when Caroline blew a fuse and left.
He had tried to be the person she wanted, but there was always something new he was doing wrong. The need to control other people never appealed to him, but nothing else seemed to matter to her.
The food in his mouth tasted plain. He finished eating it, but it was more functional than enjoyable.
Not all girls ran the same routine as Caroline. Shelly didn’t wear make-up. She didn’t stop every time she passed a reflective surface or wear her clothes super-tight. She was plain and she was unhappy, and everyone thought that was all right. Maurice decided then that it wasn’t and opened his laptop.
He went to a cooking website that promised easy recipes for most popular dishes. He put in his username and password, but he didn’t press enter. Instead, he scrolled down the page to another password box that hadn’t been there earlier, and typed another password. The screen flickered.
A mass of links appeared. From here he could access a range of sites. Drugs, stolen goods, deviant sex and dubious religious beliefs—all could be found in the dark recesses of the Undernet. You had to be careful, of course. Click on the wrong link and you could find yourself on a kiddie-porn mailing list.
Maurice navigated the links with care. He had once made the mistake of clicking around the demonology links and had stumbled onto a site offering severed human penises for Wiccan rituals. Choose from a selection, or make a special order.
Maurice was little more than an occasional lurker, sticking to the scientific sites. He’d made some great discoveries, like the blueprints of a combustion engine that ran on water—a world changing invention if it weren’t for the fact it had to be built out of pure platinum. But even science had its unpleasant side. Nazi research conducted in concentration camps had been far more extensive than historical records might claim. There were multiple sites dedicated to unearthing those scientific papers, translating them and then putting their claims to the test.
On this occasion, however, Maurice had a specific purpose to his surfing. He left questions on various forums, not expecting much response. He was surprised to find he wasn’t the first to make such enquiries. He was pointed towards old posts containing links about mysticism, the occult, the Masons, yoga and aliens.
He roamed from site to site for the rest of the night.
Shelly wore her pink cardigan with a white lace trim. The weather had been unseasonably warm the last few days, but the sleeves covered her bruises. Her fingers danced at 120 WPM, her mind both vacant and consumed, when a shadow fell across her. Maurice held out a piece of paper. His eyes were red and sleepy. Hadn’t he mentioned a girlfriend? Shelly pictured a pretty geek in black-rimmed glasses and knee-length socks.
Maurice waved the paper, reluctant to speak as ever. She took it from him. There was an outline of a man’s torso, neck to waist, with various points numbered and a sequence of numbers along the bottom.
“Only thing I could find,” said Maurice. He didn’t sound too thrilled by his discovery.
She turned the page over, in case there was more on the back. There wasn’t. “What does it do?”
“Not really sure,” he said. “Maybe nothing.”
Shelly read through the numbers in her mind. It all seemed very simple. And unlikely. “So I just press these points in the right order?”
“Might take a couple of goes to get it right. It’s all about the rhythm.”
“How will I know if it’s worked?”
Maurice’s shoulders reached for his earlobes, and then fell back down.
Shelly listened to Trevor’s heavy breathing. He lay on his back next to her, spent. This was when she felt safest.
She tensed as he moved around, but he was just removing the sheet tangled between them to let the air dry his middle. He slapped a hand down on her exposed buttocks. “You know I don’t mean it, babe. It’s just the way I get.” His hand stayed there, stuck.
Shelly said, “I know, honey.”
He squeezed. “Because I just love you so much.”
Another slap, this time a little harder, his flat palm bouncing up with a sharp spang. Trevor put his hands behind his head with his elbows splayed across the pillows. “I’m really going to control myself from now on, you know? I really will, this time. You’ll see. Just don’t push my buttons.”
She edged her face a little closer to the matted hair under his arms; her nose dipped into that hot, sour smell of freshly cooked man. Her man. “You know I don’t mean to,” she said.
Trevor tilted his head back, exposing his throat. She had the sudden urge to bite into his Adam’s apple.
He breathed out heavy. “I know, baby. But when you come home late…”
Shelly turned away onto her side and couldn’t help her voice rising. “I was back before ten.”
Trevor rolled into her from behind. “Hush. I forgive you. Everything’s okay, now.”
She spun around within the circle of his arms, and they kissed, his hand on the side of her face, her hand hanging off his wrist, then sliding up, rubbing his shoulder.
“You a bit tense?” she asked. “Had a tough day?”
“Like you wouldn’t believe. Sons of bitches would work me into the ground if they could.”
“Here, let me.” She slid over him, onto his back, and straddled him. He sank into the mattress. She spread her hands like butterfly-wings and pressed down.
“Oh, yeah. That feels gooood,” moaned Trevor, his voice muffled by pillow.
Shelly moved her hands up and down and around his back. Her eyes narrowed as she muttered under her breath.
“1, 2, 4, 4, 7, 5, 7, 4...”
“What’s that?” mumbled Trevor.
“Nothing, hon, just relax.” Her fingers worked him around the sides as she pictured positions one to nine.
“Okay, you’re the boss.” Trevor chuckled to himself. “Don’t tell anyone I said that though, or I might have to kill you.” It was his little joke.
Pushing her thumbs into specific areas of Trevor’s back, she followed the sequence she had memorised. Nothing much happened except for the moans and groans of a man well pleased.
“Oh yeah, that’s the stuff. I’m gonna treat you so good from now on, Shell. Believe it, babe. I won’t even mind if you wanna go out with the girls. Just don’t tart yourself up so much. I mean, why’d you need to put on make-up to go out with a bunch of girls, hmm?”
The sequence complete, Shelly sat back. Nothing happened. Hands on hips, she sat there.
“…unless you’re planning on fooling around with one of them. Hey,” Trevor’s words slid out the side of his mouth, “you ain’t one of those, those…”
At Trevor’s change in tone, Shelly pressed the sequence again, this time faster. Nothing. She pushed down hard with the tip of her elbow. Click.
“Oh, God, yeah,” grunted Trevor.
She used both elbows.
She ran through the sequence, elbows digging deep. Click, click, click… BURRRRP!
Trevor stopped moving.
Hesitantly, she bent closer, “Honey? Hon?” But she got no reply.
Maurice entered the elevator and pressed thirty-four. It was good to be back at work. He had spent the weekend not phoning Caroline. He’d come close—seven digits—but he’d managed to hold out. As the doors started to close, a voice called out, “Hold the door!”
He planted a thumb on the button and the doors jerked back into their sleeves. Shelly stepped half in, half out, her strapless dress a yellow swirl. She had plump arms with the last traces of yellowing bruise marks fading into the freckles. Trevor rushed to catch up.
“Remember,” she said to him, with a finger in his face, “you have to pick up the dry cleaning.”
Trevor nodded. In his hand he had a notebook in which he underlined DRY CLEANING, already in capitals. His face was all attention and eager to please.
“And I’m going to be late home tonight. Oh, and don’t forget the bathroom needs scrubbing. Top to bottom.”
Trevor kept nodding and scribbling as the elevator doors closed between them.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Shelly said to the brushed steel doors.
As the elevator rose, so did the corners of Shelly’s lips, her fierce triangular face turning heart-shaped before Maurice’s eyes.
“It worked then, did it?” asked Maurice.
The smile gripping her face told him before her words. “I can’t begin to thank you. I don’t want you to think I’m exaggerating, but meeting you was probably the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. He’s so different—so, so, so much better. I can’t begin to tell you.”
Bright and bubbly, she even looked different. Maurice took in the turn of her head, the happy flare of her nostrils, the spark in her eyes, the slope of her shoulders and the delicate hands flying about. She looked full of life.
“I feel like I can breathe again.” She leaned closer, smelling sweet and musky. “I could even sleep with someone else and he wouldn’t mind. Not that I would or anything, but just to have the option…”
She had it all now, the perfect programmable partner. Who wouldn’t want that? Not to control someone, but to reboot them back to factory settings.
He recognised the look on her face. The same on Caroline would have when he wasn’t paying attention.
Shelly placed a hand on the back of his elbow. “I said, we can’t tell anyone about this.”
“I don’t think so. It’s too dangerous, don’t you think? I mean, in the wrong hands. I don’t think we want some mad dictator using it to control people. Of course, you could if you wanted. You said you had a girlfriend?”
He thought of Caroline. This could solve all their problems. But did he really want that? Would he want to live with someone docile and submissive like New-Trevor? He missed her but he didn’t want someone who just looked like her—he wanted her.
“We broke up,” said Maurice.
“Oh,” said Shelly “I’m sorry.” She put her arms around him and drew him in. Her bare shoulder slid against his cheek and he couldn’t help but close his eyes. She placed her hands on his back and rubbed up and down. It felt nice. Comforting. Then she pressed a little harder. And harder. It took a second for Maurice to realise what she was doing. He could have resisted, pushed her away. But he didn’t. When she turned him around, he let her. It was a sharp pain at first but then there was a click and he didn’t feel sad at all.