"What the hell are you talking about?" Maggie looked up at the man in an expensive-looking suit and tie standing next to her table. He looked awkwardly out of place among the casually dressed students in the university cafeteria.
"Your name is Maggie, is it not?" the stranger repeated.
The man sighed. "Look, this is a bit odd, but this is you, isn't it?" He pulled out a folded piece of paper from his jacket, unfolded it and put it down on the table next to Maggie's half-finished sandwich. It was a pencil sketch of her.
"Damn, that's you," Christopher said. He was sitting across the table from Maggie.
Maggie had to admit that the sketch looked remarkably like her. "OK," she said, "that's me. And if you have a modelling offer or something like that, take a hike."
Christopher was still looking at the sketch. "This is really good," he said. "When did you pose for it?"
"She didn't," the stranger said drily. "This sketch is more than twenty years old."
"Okay," Maggie said cautiously, "I'm interested. Keep going."
The stranger sat down. "I suppose introductions are in order. My name is Rhett Moreau and I work for the law firm of Mathers & Mayhew."
"So you're a lawyer?" Mr Moreau nodded. "And...?" Maggie made a beckoning gesture.
"Our firm mostly handle estate law. And, if you pass certain tests, you may be the heir to the remaining estate of Dr Charlie Stefanova."
"But what has that got to do with a twenty year old sketch of me?"
Mr Moreau adjusted his tie before continuing. "Dr Stefanova's will included strict instructions that we were to wait until this year before trying to find you. All we had to work with was this sketch and your first name. Well, that and the control questions."
Maggie was confused. "I don't know anybody called Charlie Stefanova. I've never even heard of the guy."
"Dr. Stefanova was a woman. She insisted on Charlie although her given name was Charlotte."
"Charlotte?!?" Maggie's head snapped up. "Do you have a picture of her?" she asked urgently.
"Certainly," Mr Moreau said. He fiddled with his phone for a few moments before handing it to Maggie. On the screen was a picture of a woman in her late sixties. Her grey hair would have made Albert Einstein's hair look neat.
"Do you have a picture of her when she was younger? Like in her twenties or thirties?"
"Sorry, no," Mr Moreau said.
"No worries," Christopher said, his phone already out. "Stefanova with an f or a ph?"
"Google to the rescue," he announced and showed Maggie. The woman in the picture was without a doubt the same Charlotte Maggie had met only a couple of weeks earlier, albeit dressed quite differently. She was wearing a white lab coat and seemed to be giving some kind of lecture.
"It worked," Maggie whispered. "You made it."
"Excuse me?" Mr Moreau looked at her.
"Oh, nothing," Maggie said. "You said something about additional tests?"
"Well, they're more like control questions given to us by Dr Stefanova. Bear in mind that she was quite eccentric and the questions don't really make any sense, but her will states quite clearly that unless you answer them correctly you get nothing."
"So no pressure then," Maggie quipped. Mr Moreau just stared at her with a blank expression. "Never mind. What are the questions?"
"Like I said, these questions doesn't really make any sense." Mr Moreau tapped his phone a few times. "OK, Dr Stefanova's first question is: What colour was the dress I wore when you last saw me?"
"Pale yellow," Maggie said quickly.
Mr Moreau raised an eyebrow, but continued. "Number two: Which flower will I never draw again?"
Maggie had a mental flash of the stack of Charlotte's drawings she had found. She shook her head to clear it. "Bluebells."
"Interesting," Mr Moreau said cryptically. "And last: Who did we leave behind?"
Maggie swallowed. "Maria and Jacob," she said quietly. Leaving them behind when Charlotte, Tommy and herself had weighed heavily on her.
Mr Moreau rose and put away his phone. "I have to check your answers with the sealed documents we have from Dr Stefanova, but if they're correct, you'll be hearing from us." He turned and left before Maggie had a chance to say anything.
"Well that was weird," Christopher said when Mr Moreau was gone. "So how do you know her?"
"I don't. Not really anyway. Look, it's complicated." Maggie didn't really want to tell Christopher about how she had met Charlotte. Partly because it had led her to need diapers at night for almost a week, but also because saying it out loud would make it sound even more insane than it already seemed in her mind.
"So what did you find out about her?" Maggie pointed to Christopher's phone.
"Let's see," he said and he scrolled down. "Born in 1947. Three Ph.D's: Physics, biomechanical engineering and computer engineering. She was one of those annoying child prodigies who is good at almost everything. Finished high school at eleven. Apparently she had some kind of mental breakdown at Woodstock in '69 when she was 22. It says something about severe mental regression due to a bad acid trip. Apparently it took her years to recover. After that, she worked mostly on some of the more out-there things."
"What do you mean 'out-there'?"
"Science-fictioney, quantum physics stuff like parallel universes, time travel and artificial intelligence. Obviously she didn't make any front-page advances."
"When did she die?" Maggie felt a strange mix of feelings. Relief that Charlotte and probably also Tommy got back to their place in time, but also guilt and shame at having left Maria and Jacob behind when they escaped.
"It doesn't say. She just disappeared in 2010."
"That's what it says here." Christopher pointed to the screen of his phone. "I guess she must have been declared dead. I mean, if they're looking up people in her will."
"I guess," Maggie said absent-mindedly.
"So how did you end up in her will? No way it's some kind of scholarship. Not with your grades."
"Look who's talking. Your grades are even worse than mine."
"Yeah, and that's why you love me," he said with a grin. "But seriously, why would you be in the will of a mad scientist"
Maggie sighed. "It's kinda-"
"Complicated. Yeah you keep saying that."
"Look, can't this wait until I actually know if I inherit anything. The guy said he had to check to see if the answers were right."
"Oh come on, you didn't sound like you were guessing. You knew the answers."
"I said I didn't want to talk about it," Maggie snapped, suddenly feeling very annoyed with Christopher's curiosity.
"Fine, fine." Christopher held up his hands. "Jeez, I was just curious."
The rest of the lunch passed in an awkward silence.
It was almost two weeks before Maggie heard back from the lawyers. She came home after a particularly hectic day to find an official-looking envelope in her mailbox. Despite the temptation to rip it open right there, Maggie left the envelope on the kitchen table while she made dinner. While the soup simmered, Maggie could no longer resist. She ripped the envelope open and extracted the single sheet of paper within. Despite the legalese, the letter was fairly straightforward. The lawyers said that her answers to the control questions were correct and that they wanted to meet with her to finalise matters. Maggie set a reminder on her phone to call them the next day before returning her attention to the soup.
The meeting was more of a formality than anything else. The lawyers had Maggie sign some papers and then handed her a set of keys and a sealed envelope. They told her that Charlotte had left Maggie her house on the outskirts of town 'with all its contents'. Maggie wondered what they meant by that phrase and really hoped it didn't mean that it looked like the houses on those reality shows about compulsive hoarders. That thought almost made her miss the condition that Charlotte had set down. If Maggie wanted the house, she had to live there. Charlotte had also left her some money. Not a fortune, but enough for Maggie to finish her education with only one extra job.
"The house," Maggie asked the bored-looking lawyer she was meeting with, "has it just been left all these years?"
"Well, Dr Stefanova's estate covered a cleaning and maintenance service and the basic utilities are up and running so you could theoretically move in already tomorrow. Of course, things like cable and internet have been disconnected so those might take a couple of days to get reactivated. The will stipulated you have to move in within one month and you have to live there for at least one year."
Maggie nodded. "Anything else I should know?"
"Not really. Dr Stefanova may have left you more information in that letter." The lawyer nodded towards the envelope. "We will be checking that you in compliance with the conditions of the will. But unless you have any other questions, our business is concluded."
"Just one thing: Would it be possible for you guys to get the internet connection reconnected?"
"Thanks. I'm not very good at handling all those hoops they want you to jump through to start a new contract. I imagine reactivating an old one would be easier." Maggie rose.
The lawyer handed her the envelope. "We have your details so we'll be in touch."
Maggie's first stop after leaving the law firm was a small diner. She ordered some coffee and found a quiet table. Opening the envelope, Maggie found a single sheet of paper.
"Dear Maggie. I bet you didn't see this coming." Maggie smiled and sipped her coffee. "By now, you should have a set of keys. The blue one is for a safe deposit box that I haven't told the lawyers about. The contents should help explain things." The note was signed 'Charlotte'. On the back was the address to a bank and the safe deposit box number. Maggie checked her phone. The address was across town so she finished her coffee and headed for the nearest bus stop.
I guess you sending me on a treasure hunt is only fair. After all, we dragged you along on one.
Getting to the bank took the better part of an hour and she arrived just half an hour before closing time. It took another fifteen minutes to find a flustered-looking clerk who could take Maggie downstairs to the vault. Maggie held her breath when she inserted the key in the lock, fearing that this could all be an elaborate prank, but the lock turned smoothly and clicked open. The clerk pulled the long metal box out and placed it on the table in the middle of the room before leaving the room, glancing at the clock above the door as an obvious signal for Maggie to be quick.
As soon as the door was closed, Maggie opened the box. It was empty except for two small thumb drives taped to the bottom of the box. Maggie peeled off the tape and put the thumb drives in her pocket. Then she closed the box and left the bank with five minutes to spare.
The whole way home, Maggie could almost feel the thumb drives burning a hole in her pocket. She got off the bus and nearly ran home. Her backpack was left by the door and her jacket ended up on the floor as she found her laptop and switched it on. While it booted up, Maggie pulled out the two thumb drives and examined them. There wasn't anything out of the ordinary about them except a small tape label with 'I' and 'II'.
Once the computer was up and running, Maggie plugged in the first drive. The suspense was almost killing Maggie while the virus scanner checked it. After what felt like far too long, it went 'ding' and informed her that everything was OK. Maggie quickly opened the drive to see that it contained a single video file. She double-clicked it and leaned closer.
Sixty-year-old Charlotte's face filled the screen. "OK, this feels a little weird," she said. "But if you're watching this, I've been declared dead. I'm guessing you have quite a few questions so I'll try to give you some answers. First of all: How did I find you. Well, in 1996 I managed to track down Tommy. He was taken in 1990, by the way." Charlotte held up a photo. Despite the sickly appearance of the man in the picture, Maggie recognised Tommy. "By the time I tracked him down, he was already terminally ill. He passed away a year later. But he knew enough that we could figure out you were from 2016 or 17. That, combined with your name and picture," Charlotte held up the sketch Mr Moreau had shown Maggie, "was obviously enough to find you."
The image of Charlotte went unfocused as she leaned closer. When the camera had refocused, she held up the two thumb drives that Maggie now had. "Now, what I want you to do is to leave the second flash drive alone for now. When you're settled in in your new house go down to the basement." The camera shifted to show a freezer in a dimly lit room. "Under the floorboards next to the freezer is my laptop. You need to plug the second drive into that. That should give you all the answers you need." The screen went blank.
Maggie stared at the screen. She replayed the file, looking for hidden clues: Nothing. Maggie pulled out the flash drive and inserted the other one, but all she got was an error message saying that the drive had an unknown file system and couldn't be read. She closed the laptop and looked around her tiny flat. Doing a quick inventory, she figured she would only need a couple of big boxes in addition to her suitcase to pack up all her belongings. If the house really was OK, she could easily move in before the end of the month.
The following weekend, Maggie enlisted Christopher's help and headed for the house. It took them more than an hour to get there.
"When they said it was on the outskirts of town, they forgot to mention that it was in the middle of the fucking forest," Christopher said as they finally turned off from the main road and drove down a gravel road between the trees.
"At least it'll be nice and quiet," Maggie said.
"Yeah. Nobody'll hear you scream when the insane axe-murderer comes over. The nearest neighbour is what, half a kilometre away? Perfect for a mad scientist."
"Charlotte wasn't mad," Maggie said defensively.
"How do you know? You said you didn't know her."
"I..." Maggie hesitated. "Look, she just wouldn't be."
As they reached the two-storey house at the end of the road, a couple of floodlights snapped on and turned to shine directly on the car, following it the last few metres as it stopped.
"Yeah, 'cause that's not creepy at all." Christopher turned off the engine. "I bet there's a lab with body parts in jars in the basement." Maggie just punched him in the arm before getting out of the car and marching up the stairs to the front door.
The front door opened without the creaking hinges that Maggie half expected. Inside was a narrow hallway with stairs up on the right. The air smelled faintly of soap. Maggie stepped inside and switched on the lights.
"So, any mechanical horrors?" Maggie jumped as Christopher came up behind her. She looked around. To her right, at the bottom of the stairs, was what looked like a closet, while on her left was a door with a small, red and white painted heart. She peeked inside and saw a small bathroom.
"Oh, you have to see this," Christopher called from further down the hallway. Maggie walked past what had to be the basement door to find Christopher in the kitchen. It was huge. There was a massive, steel fridge in one corner, a big gas stove, dishwasher and enough cupboards and counter space to make a small restaurant feel jealous. Christopher was sitting on the edge of a dining table made from thick, smooth planks. It looked completely out of place in the otherwise high-tech kitchen.
"Can you believe the size of this place? It's almost as big as your entire apartment."
"Mm-hmm," Maggie said, running her hand over the smooth wood. The table seemed eerily familiar, but she couldn't place it.
Next, they checked out the living room next to the kitchen. The walls were almost entirely covered with book shelves. The books were everything from dense tomes on advanced physics to science fiction paperbacks. There were even a couple of comic books here and there. The only other furniture was a big, slightly worn sofa in one corner and a couple of easy chairs next to a small coffee table.
Christopher opened a pair of cabinet doors, almost causing a small avalanche. "Well, she didn't just read books. Here's a fat-screen TV." He stepped aside to reveal an old TV set and a DVD-player inside the cabinet. Maggie groaned at his pun and walked back out to the hallway.
There was only two bedrooms and a large bathroom upstairs. They were all as mundane as the ground floor.
"You know how they always say 'he seemed so normal' when they catch a serial killer with soup bowls made of skulls and bags of human jerky in their pantry?" Christopher said as he opened the door under the stairs. "Ready to descend into madness and see what kind of horror show you've inherited?" Maggie blew a raspberry at him and walked down the stairs.
"Oh my god," Maggie exclaimed when she reached the bottom of the stairs.
"What?!?" Christopher came running down the stairs.
"You're such a sucker," Maggie said and shook her head. The basement seemed perfectly normal too. There were shelves holding dusty cardboard boxes, a work bench and some tools along one of the walls and a big freezer under the stairs. In one corner was a pair of skis. Through an open door, Maggie could see the laundry room with a washing machine and a dryer. She had to stop herself from getting Charlotte's laptop right away. Finding the answers she wanted would just lead to more questions from Christopher. She needed to figure out how much of the truth she could tell him.
Maggie walked across the room and looked nonchalantly through the door to the laundry room. "Yeah, Chris... I don't think there's a hidden sex dungeon here."
"Fine, but it's still creepy," he said defensively.
"I don't know; I like it. I mean, it's nice and quiet."
"Nice and quiet? More like completely isolated. You're going to end up with stacks of papers all saying 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.' over and over."
"Pfft." Maggie walked past Christopher and up the stairs.
"Please don't tell me you're seriously considering moving here," Christopher called after her.
"It's either that of lose it. I have to move in within a month and stay here for a year. It was in the will."
"OK, but how are you going to get to school? I mean, it's not like there's a lot of buses here; and there's no way I'm picking you up every day."
"You could stay here too," Maggie suggested. "I don't mean we move in together. There are two bedrooms here, after all," she quickly added.
"You're kidding, right? I like you and all, but there isn't a pizza place for miles."
Maggie knew that pizza wasn't Christopher's problem. Living this far away from the city would severely cramp his dating style. And having Maggie as a not-quite roommate probably wouldn't help.
"Yeah, I guess," she conceded. They walked outside and Maggie locked the front door.
"At least you're not going to have to worry about buses," Christopher shouted. He was standing in the doorway of the shed next to the driveway. Maggie walked over and looked inside.
It was a car; at least technically. It looked like the unholy offspring of a quad-bike and a Mini Cooper. And it was Granny Smith apple green.
"At least you won't get any tickets in that thing," Christopher said. "The cops'll be too busy laughing to stop you. I can see why they thought Dr. Stefanova was nuts."
"Oh shut up." For some reason, Maggie still felt she had to protect Charlotte even if it was almost fifty years since she had been the scared little kid Maggie had met. Even so, she had to admit it was an ugly car.
After making sure the car started, they checked out the garden behind the house. To be honest, it was less of a garden and more of a tiny, mossy lawn with a single row of strawberry plants along the wall of the house.
Satisfied that she had checked out the house and that it was liveable, Maggie and Christopher got back in the car and headed back to the city.
"You're moving already?!?" Christopher looked at Maggie as if she had grown an extra head. "What about your place?"
"One word: Sublet." Maggie grinned. She would actually make money on that arrangement. "Look, you don't have to help. Anita and that creepy, aryan-looking boyfriend of hers, what's-his-name..."
"Maximilian," Christopher helped.
"Yeah, Max. Anita borrowed a van from work so we can get everything moved in one go." Maggie knew that that would get him on board. She knew Christopher was convinced that Max wanted to get Maggie to join him and Anita in a threesome, and he was not going to let that happen.
"Of course," Maggie continued, "it's not like we're a couple, so if you have other plans..."
"Oh come on, what kind of friend would I be if I didn't help?" Christopher said.
Three days later, Maggie's meagre belongings were all packed into five big boxes in the back of Anita's van. Max, looking disturbingly like a grown-up version of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies, leaned against the side of the van, watching as Maggie and Christopher struggled with Maggie's big suitcase. It was too big to fit anywhere except in the back seat of Christopher's tiny car.
"Stop staring!" Max got a backhanded slap on his arm from Anita and reluctantly turned to get in the car. Then they were off.
A few hours later they were all gathered around the coffee table in Maggie's new living room, eating the traditional we-helped-you-move-so-now-we-get-pizza pizza. Max raised his beer bottle.
"Here's to Doctor Charlie for leaving such a nice little place to you Maggie."
"Complete with serial killer neighbours," Christopher added.
"And a mutant lunchbox of a car," Anita chimed in and took a sip.
"And let's not forget the unstable electricity," Max concluded.
"Huh?" The other three looked at him quizzically.
"Come on. Why else would there be that big generator-looking thing in the 'garage'?" Max made air quotes and almost dropped his bottle.
The others thought about it for a moment before nodding. "To shitty electricity!"
The toasts grew progressively sillier and stranger as the evening went on, and before long they had toasted the Gulf Stream and its contribution to the climate of northern Europe, maple syrup, Dumbledore's glorious beard (Maggie insisted that Richard Harris' Dumbledore was far superior to Michael Gambon's), the fall of the Roman empire and last, but according to Christopher not least, the butt of the new psychology professor.
The boys' competetive instincts quickly led them to trying to drink each other under the table and eventually they both lost. Anita and Maggie didn't waste any time posing the two boys in what looked like a passionate embrace on the sofa and then taking several pictures.
"For science, of course," Anita insisted. She squeezed in next to Maggie in the oversized chair on the opposite side of the coffee table. She swung her legs across Maggie's lap and giggled.
"Oh, Chris is going to so be pissed," Maggie said with a chuckle.
"But they look so cute," Anita said, a slight slur revealing how drunk she really was. "The only thing missing is a dress."
"Huh?" Maggie looked at Anita.
"OK, shhh." Anita put her finger to her lips in a drunkenly exaggerated display of telling Maggie to be quiet. "You can't tell anybody this. OK? Not anybody. Promise?"
"Sure," Maggie agreed.
"I mean it. It's like super duper secret," Anita said emphatically. "This is like one of those non-disqualify thingies."
Maggie raised her hand. "Scout's honor," she said seriously.
"Aaaww. You were a girl scout?"
"Not really," Maggie admitted. "But I buy their cookies."
"Ooohh, I want cookies now. Do you have cookies?" Anita looked towards the kitchen. When Maggie shook her head, she pouted theatrically.
"What was it you wanted to tell me? Something about a dress?" Maggie reminded her.
"Oh yeah. Now you can't tell anybody this," Anita repeated.
"Yeah, yeah. I promise," Maggie said impatiently.
Leaning closer, Anita whispered: "If Max is really annoying, I make him wear a dress."
"Really?!?" Maggie looked at Anita, then at Max and the back at Anita again.
"Yeah," she said with a snicker. "And I call him Maxine."
"Aaawww, that's so sweet." Maggie giggled and drank the final sip of beer from her bottle.
"And then I fuck him senseless."
Maggie coughed and her last swallow of beer came out her nose. She wheezed and hiccuped as she fought for breath. Anita patted her back.
"You what?!?" she finally managed to say as she tried to dry the beer and snot off Anita's legs.
"First," Anita waved her hands around mimicking... something, "I tie him up. And then," she nodded firmly. "Then I fuck him senseless."
Maggie just stared at Anita, suddenly seeing her friend in a whole new light.
"But you can't tell anyone," she said with a drunken seriousness and wagging her finger at Maggie. "You promised."
Anita snuggled closer. "Now you have to tell me what you and Chris do," she murmured conspiratorially. "It's like mutshually ashured deshriction." Anita's drunken slur making the last words almost incomprehensible.
No way I'm telling her about the diapers.
Maggie smiled awkwardly. "But we don't do anything... like that," she finally said.
"Really?" Anita sounded surprised and almost disappointed.
"Aww. Don't be sorry." Anita stroked Maggie's cheek, her eyes quickly going more unfocused. "You're real pretty," she slurred. "If you were a guy, I'd put you in a dress and fuck you senseless too."
Maggie smiled and took Anita's hand. "And if you weren't so drunk," she whispered soothingly, "I just might let you."
"I'm not drunk," Anita mumbled near-incomprehensibly in protest.
"Shhh. Of course you're not." Maggie gently stroked Anita's hair. Soon she was slumped against Maggie's shoulder, snoring softly.
What a bunch of lightweights.
Maggie slowly wriggled her way out from under Anita. She looked around the room at her sleeping friends before picking up the pizza boxes and a few of the empty bottles before unsteadily making her way to the kitchen.
As she cleaned up, Maggie couldn't help thinking about the laptop that Charlotte had said was hidden under the floorboards in the basement. Her drunken buzz silenced the more sensible voice in the back of her mind that told her to wait until she was alone. Maggie silently sneaked towards the door to the basement and opened it. She cast a quick glance to the living room, but everybody there were still asleep. Then she flicked on the lights and went down the stairs.
The basement smelled like dust and old books. Maggie looked at the floor next to the freezer, but couldn't see any secret hatch. Picking up a flashlight, she looked more closely, poking and prodding the floorboards until she found a small piece that was loose. Removing it revealed a finger-sized hole in the wood underneath. Maggie put a finger into the hole and easily lifted a small section of the floor up.
In the small space underneath was a dusty nylon laptop bag. Maggie lifted it out and put it on the floor next to the hole before leaning down to see if there was anything else hidden under the floorboards. She found nothing but dust.
At least there aren't any skeletons hidden under there.
Maggie put the piece of floor back and brushed the dust off the laptop bag before carrying it up the stairs to the kitchen. She spread an old newspaper on the kitchen table before placing the laptop bag on top and unzipping it. Maggie wasn't quite sure what she expected from a seven-year-old laptop, but what she found was definitely not it.
It was a small, cheap-looking laptop. The dark blue plastic casing had an unfamiliar silver logo and a strip of tape with "C.S." written on it. Maggie opened it and saw nothing out of the ordinary. It had a small keyboard and a touchpad, just as expected. The only odd thing was the row of three usb ports just above the keyboard. Maggie held her breath, feeling almost like a kid on an adventure, and pressed the power button.
Nothing happened. She pressed it again, but the screen remained dark and none of the indicator lights lit up. Maggie pressed several random buttons, hoping for a reaction, but the computer still did nothing. Then she realised that after seven years, the battery was probably dead. She looked in the bag and brought out a charging cable and was about to plug it into the wall next to the table when she hesitated.
If I leave it here to charge, the others might find it when they wake up.
Maggie picked up the bag, charger and laptop and tiptoed upstairs. She plugged the computer into the wall next to the bed in the bedroom. A small red indicator started blinking. Maggie sat down in front of the laptop and tried turning it on again. The screen only said "Charging: 0.0%. Est. 5h 21min left". There were no signs of the computer booting up. As she watched the "0.0%" changed to "0.1%".
OK, this is going to take a while.
Maggie closed the lid and sat down on the bed. She couldn't quite decide whether this was anti-climactic, or if it made her even more curious. Or maybe just tired. Maggie yawned and pulled a blanket around herself while she stared at the hypnotically blinking light.
Maggie wasn't sure how long she sat before falling asleep, but when she woke up, it was light outside. The clouds were dark grey and looked heavy with rain. She could hear somebody moving around downstairs and stood. Still wrapped in the blanket she walked down the stairs to see who else was awake.
Anita was sitting by the kitchen table, nursing a big, steaming mug of coffee. She looked up when she heard Maggie and nodded weakly.
"You look like shit," Maggie said as she picked her favourite mug out of the cardboard box on the kitchen counter.
"I feel like shit," Anita said, taking another sip of coffee. Remind me to never mix that stuff with beer again." She pointed at the empty bottle of tequila on the kitchen counter.
Maggie filled her mug with coffee and sat down next to Anita. For a while they just sat there silently, drinking their coffee.
"Did I do something stupid last night?" Anita uneasily. "I think I might have, but I'm not sure. It's all kinda hazy."
Maggie couldn't help smiling. "Welllll... You did say that you would have slept with me if I were a guy."
"Oh god," Anita groaned.
Maggie's grin widened. "I think your exact words were that you would 'fuck me senseless'."
Anita cringed and looked like she wanted to crawl inside her coffee cup and hide. Just as she took another sip, Maggie decided to go for the kill.
"...just like Maxine," she added.
That got her the reaction she was expecting. Luckily, most of the sprayed coffee hit the newspaper still spread out on the table. Anita coughed and sputtered. "What...How...Wh..." She was red-faced and teary-eyed.
"Oh don't worry." Maggie patted her hand. "Your secret's safe with me." She winked conspiratorially and rose. "And the next time you're staying over, just let me know if you need to borrow some extra rope." Anita just hid her furiously blushing face in her arms as Maggie started making breakfast.
While Maggie made breakfast, the boys woke up. Christopher came to the kitchen and sat down at the table, bleary-eyed and quiet. Max just shuffled past the kitchen to the bathroom. Maggie wasn't sure, but she thought she could hear retching sounds almost being drowned out by the sound of the fan over the stove.
"Good morning," she said cheerfully as she cracked some eggs into the frying pan. "Did you two sleep well?"
Christopher just gave Maggie a withering look in reply.
"Oh come on," she teased. "You looked so adorable there on the sofa. I'll show you the pictures later."
Maggie just grinned and Christopher let his head fall forward until his forehead rested against the table.
"Oh, go get cleaned up. I'm making you guys a proper breakfast."
Anita left her mug on the table and slowly made her way up the stairs. A minute or two later, Maggie and Christopher could hear the shower start.
"You know, it's not funny," Christopher complained as Maggie looked through the cupboards for plates and putting them on the table.
"It's a little bit funny," Maggie replied and wrinkled her nose. "Especially now," she added quetly.
"What?" Christopher looked up from the cup of coffee Maggie put in front of him.
After breakfast, and the appropriate amount of teasing and embarrassing photos, Anita, Max and Christopher left. Maggie finished her coffee and then she retrieved the laptop from her bedroom. She put it on the kitchen table and pressed the power button. The screen lit up with what looked like a bunch of system checks. One by one they finished and when the final one flashed a green "OK", the words "Insert key to continue" appeared.
"I guess that's the thumb drive," Maggie said to the empty room. She pulled the two thumb drives out of a pocket on her backpack and plugged the second one into the computer. There was a beep and words on the screen changed to "Reading..." and then to "Connecting..."
Connecting to what?
The screen flickered and the text was replaced with the image of a room with filled with book shelves. The floor was covered by a deep red carpet and in a corner was an unlit fireplace. Sitting in one of the old-fashioned wing chairs was a young Charlotte wearing a baggy track suit and reading a book.
Cool screensaver. I wonder where it is.
Just then, Charlotte put down the book and looked right at the camera.
"Well, it certainly took you long enough," she said.
Maggie just stared at the screen, waiting for whatever would come next. Finally, Charlotte rose from the chair and walked towards the camera.
"Jeez," she said. "I thought I had the volume fixed." She held up a finger and bent down towards something below the camera. Next she held up a piece of paper saying "Turn up the volume!" Charlotte mimed talking and waving her hands between her mouth and ears. "Stupid volume controls," she grumbled. "I know I should have fixed them myself."
"Oh, so you can hear me?" Charlotte asked suddenly, startling Maggie a little. "Well, don't just sit there like an idiot.
"Hell-lo!" Charlotte tapped a finger on the lens. "You know it's really rude to just ignore me like that."
After a few moments of hesitation, Charlotte sighed. "Fine. Baby steps it is." She took a few steps away from the camera until she was standing in the middle of the room.
"This," Charlotte gestured around herself, "is not a recording. It's live. Just as live as you sitting in my kitchen... well, yours now; wearing a t-shirt with a... Move your arms. I can't see properly." Without thinking about it, Maggie moved her arms. "Thanks. With a Superman logo on."
"Supergirl," Maggie corrected without thinking about it.
"Fine, Supergirl logo then," Charlotte said.
"Wait, what? How can you see that?"
"Duh." Charlotte rolled her eyes. "Webcam."
"I mean, this isn't a video?"
"Finally it sinks in." Charlotte sighed exasperatedly. "No. Like I said. This isn't a video. It's live. Well, sort of."
"But they said you were, you know, dead?" Maggie's head reeled and had trouble finding the right words.
"Yeah. And old too. Although I don't look too bad for a seventy-year-old, do I?"
"Look, it's easier to show you. Bring the laptop downstairs to the basement."
Maggie picked up the computer and carried it down the stairs. "Now what?" she asked, looking around.
"Press shift, alt and home at the same time, then type in 6-6-3," Carlotte said.
Maggie put the computer on top of the freezer and pressed the buttons. A small window opened on the screen and she entered the numbers. There was a loud thunk and the freezer rose a little and swiveled to the side to reveal a metal hatch in the floor. As Maggie watched, it silently opened and lights flickered on, illuminating a narrow metal staircase going down.
"And down we go," Charlotte said cheerfully.
Maggie made her way down the stairs. At the bottom, she could see two doors. One of them silently slid open.
"Go on, you're going to get a kick out of this."
The room on the other side of the door was warm and when the lights flickered on, Maggie saw a white, tiled floor and plain white walls. There was a waist-high platform covered with the same tiles as the floor in one corner and in the middle of the room a softly glowing sphere the size of a tennis ball hung in mid-air.
Maggie reached out to touch the ball. It was a bizarre sensation. She could feel her fingers hitting... something, but she couldn't feel any surface or temperature or anything else. It was like the ball both was, and wasn't there at the same time.
"What the hell is it?" Maggie backed away from the sphere.
"I honestly don't know. I know what it does though."
"And that is?"
"In layman's terms, it bends the laws of physics."
"What do you mean?"
"It makes things that shouldn't normally be possible, possible. It sort of... sucks up the normal around it. It seriously skews the odds in your favour. Roll a die and it'll roll a six one sixth of the time. Not here. I tried it. I got thirty-seven sixes in a row. Twice. Do you know the odds of that happening?"
"Exactly. So the old transhumanist pipe dream of uploading a brain to a computer... It actually worked."
"OK, so your brain is in this computer?" Maggie tapped the laptop.
"Don't be silly," Charlotte replied and laughed. "There's a mainframe in the other room down here. The laptop is just to make it easier to talk to you."
Maggie backed out of the room. "This is Nobel-prize level stuff," she said. "Why hide it?"
Charlotte shrugged. "Several reasons. First: I'm just an old crackpot. Second: It's impossible to measure this thing. Every instrument I've tried insists that it's not there. And third: Would you trust the governments of the world with this?" She raised her eyebrows.
"I see your point," Maggie admitted. "So, what's this all about?"
Charlotte looked around her virtual library awkwardly.
"Yeah, about that... I was kind of hoping you'd go along with something a little, well... strange."
"Stranger than having a brain trapped in a computer in a hidden basement under my freezer?" Maggie asked with a smirk.
"Ok, that's a fair point," Charlotte admitted. "Anyway, I was hoping you wouldn't mind having a roommate."
"Other than you living in a computer in the basement, you mean?"
"Kind of. You'd be able to see me and talk to me without the laptop."
"And how do we do that? Do I have to wear like those big VR-goggles?"
"Not quite. All you have to do is take a pill."
"Look over on the table." Charlotte said
On the platform was a small, white plastic box that Maggie hadn't noticed before. She put the laptop down and opened the box. Inside was a red pill and a blue pill. Maggie rolled her eyes.
"You saw The Matrix, didn't you."
On the screen, Charlotte grinned impishly. "Come on, can you blame me?" she said.
"So let me guess. You want me to take the red pill."
"Yep." Charlotte snapped her fingers and a pair of mirrored sunglasses appeared. "You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
"You know what nanobots are, right?"
"Oh yeah, They're like transformers that turn into little insects"
"Precisely, and they-" Charlotte stopped abruptly as Maggie's answer registered. "Nonononono! They're not transformers. They're microscopic robots that-"
"I'm kidding," Maggie interrupted. "I know what nanites are. I read science fiction."
Charlotte sighed. "Anyway, it contains a bunch of nanites that basically tweak your sensory system so it can pick up signals from the little transmitters all over the house."
"So I'll see you even if you're not really there? Sounds a bit weird."
Maggie picked up the blue pill and examined it. "And this one?"
"Charlotte took off the sunglasses again. "It reverses the effect of the red pill."
"And this is all safe, right?"
"Perfectly safe. Anywhere else, it probably wouldn't even work, but the normal-sucker..."
Maggie nodded. Throwing caution to the wind, Maggie popped the red pill in her mouth and swallowed.
"Oh, the pill also contains an extremely fast-acting sedative so you probably want to lie down."
"We're re-writing your sensory system. Being unconscious is probably a good idea."
"Good point," Maggie said. The world was already beginning to to go a little fuzzy along the edges and her knees felt a little wobbly. She crawled onto the platform and closed her eyes.
The first thing Maggie noticed when she woke up, was the sound of rain. It reminded her of autumn days when she she was a girl. She would hide under her desk in her little fortress to read or play video games. The next thing she noticed was not quite as pleasant as those memories: She had wet herself. And it wasn't just a little slip-up; it was a first-night-back-after-Eliza's complete flooding.
"Damnit," Maggie groaned. She tried to sit up, but her entire body felt like it was made of lead.
"Don't try to get up."
Maggie turned towards the voice and saw it was coming from the laptop.
"I'm wet," Maggie whispered, feeling a rush of shame at her loss of control.
"Yes, I know." Charlotte looked everywhere except the camera.
"Why? It's been weeks since..."
"Yeah, about that. The nanites didn't work." Charlotte gave an embarrassed chuckle. "I guess thirty-eight sixes was just one too many. But don't worry. It should be easily fixable."
"So it's not because of..." Maggie paused. "Eliza?"
Charlotte shook her head. "I doubt it. You weren't there long enough to have any long-term effects."
"I needed diapers at night for more than a week afterwards," Maggie pointed out.
Charlotte leaned closer to the camera and whispered: "24/7, for forty-one years."
"So you can fix this?"
"Oh yeah." Charlotte waved her hand dismissively. "It'll just take me a little time to reprogram the little buggers. I guess we're going to have to use goggles. At least for now."
"Do you have any lying around?"
Charlotte shook her head. "No, but I ordered some online while you were out. They should be here the day after tomorrow." Charlotte sat back down in her chair. "In the meantime, you should probably get changed."
"Yeah." Maggie scooted to the edge of the platform and carefully slid off, standing on wobbly legs. "What about the mess here?" she asked and nodded towards the small puddle on the platform.
"Don't worry about it. I have a couple of souped-up Roombas that handle cleaning down here. They're way more thorough than I ever was."
Maggie picked up the laptop and walked bowlegged up the stairs. When she arrived in her bedroom, and put the laptop down, she was a little startled to see that the library had changed into a copy of her bedroom complete with a transluscent copy of herself holding the laptop.
"What..." Maggie started.
"I said there were transmitters and cameras all over the house," she explained.
"OK, but if this is going to work, we need to have some ground rules." Maggie bent down to rummage through the box where she had what was left of the package of diapers she had had to buy after returning from Eliza's house. "First, this is my room. You can't just be in here uninvited." Maggie found what she was looking for and pulled a diaper out of the plastic bag before putting the rest next to her bed. "And that includes peeking." Maggie could have sworn that Charlotte looked disappointed that she remembered that.
"Oh, and that goes for the bathroom too," Maggie added before closing the lid of the laptop.
After a quick shower, Maggie put on the diaper and wrapped herself in a bathrobe before walking back down to the basement to put her clothes in the washing machine. The machine was easy enough to figure out, so Maggie threw in some extra laundry to fill it up and turned it on. Going back upstairs, she opened the laptop again and found Charlotte lounging on the living room sofa reading a book.
"Feel better?" Charlotte asked.
"I guess," Maggie said. She sat down at the other end of the sofa and jumped a little at the unfamiliar sensation of extra padding on her butt. It took her a little extra fidgeting before she was comfortable. She looked a the screen and then at the empty seat on the sofa that wasn't empty on the screen.
"OK, considering I have a brain in a computer and a normal-sucker in a hidden lab under my freezer, and my entire house is more or less going to be the holodeck from Star Trek, I just have to ask: The car. What's up with the car?"
"My little, green Isetta? Nice, isn't it?" Charlotte smiled.
"Is it a flying car? Please tell me it flies."
"Sorry. But it does get great mileage."
Maggie sighed with disappointment. Then she felt a sudden rush of worry as she thought she had wet herself again, but after discreetly checking she found that it was a false alarm.
"So, any more rules?" Charlotte asked when she saw she had Maggie's attention again.
"I'm guessing you can control things like lights and stuff like that, right?" Charlotte nodded. "OK, no messing with any guests I might have. So no playing ghost."
"Unless you say it's OK?" Charlotte smiled mischievously.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Well, that all sounds reasonable, so I guess we have a deal." Charlotte lay down, her head on Maggie's lap. "Now, I know you said that your bedroom was private, but what if Mr Bear has a nightmare?" A worn teddybear appeared in Charlotte's hands. "Can we come sleep in your bed with you then?" Charlotte turned to look at the camera with big puppy-eyes and for a moment, Maggie saw the scared little girl she had met at Eliza's house.
Oh man, that place really fucked her up.
She wanted to pull Charlotte onto her lap, wrap her arms around her and comfort her. "Of course Charlie."
"Thank you," Charlotte whispered and snuggled closer to the virtual Maggie
Maggie smiled and tried to make her copy stroke Charlotte's hair. She thought she could almost feel the weight of Charlotte's head on her lap.
Well, this is going to be interesting...