“—the house. We try again tomorrow.”
Cyril Therren sat up in his bed and rubbed his tired eyes after hearing the broken, fragmented sentence in his head. A voice. Female. Unfamiliar. Must have been his imagination. A dream, maybe.
The bedroom slowly started to appear into focus. The open bathroom door, the family photos on the wall, the dark purple bedsheets and locked clothes cabinet opposite. Cyril yawned, his long sleep having done little to ease his fatigue, and stood. His toes touched the thick, woolly carpet, a pleasant feeling which helped his dulled senses kick back into gear. Cyril reached behind him onto his bedside table and felt along the top for his glasses. He found them and put them on over his wrinkled, dark brown eyes.
A shower would be nice. Later. Coffee was the only thing on Cyril’s mind right now. Nothing else mattered.
Lisa must already be up. Cyril could hear the kettle from here, rattling and hissing in the kitchen downstairs. It sounded like an alarm clock rattling around in his head.
He shuffled down to the dining room, almost zombie-like in his movement. Lisa was in the kitchen with her back to him, concentrating on something in front of her on the kitchen counter. When she heard her husband enter the room, she turned around with two fresh cups of coffee, steaming hot, one black with no sugar, the other white with two. Cyril was lactose intolerant.
“Morning sleepyhead,” she said as she gave Cyril a quick kiss while passing him. She placed the black coffee in front of his chair on the dining room table and sat down with hers opposite him.
Cyril slumped into his chair and picked up his favourite red mug. He took a long sip of coffee, the sudden burst of heat and caffeine jolting him back into reality. He still looked far from a hundred percent, but Lisa noted he looked a hell of a lot better than he did when he first sat down.
“Morning honey. Up early?”
Lisa drank deep from her coffee and brushed a long strand of blonde hair away from her eyes, tucking it back behind her ear.
“Yeah, didn’t get much sleep last night. Was on a call with Warren, he was pretty persistent. Really wants to wrap up that business with our client before the end of this week. Might have to call him again later today to finalize everything. Don’t worry, I got it all under control. But enough about my problems. What are you gonna do today? More debugging? Or are you gonna push forward for now?”
Cyril glanced up from his mug. “I told you where I was at with my project?”
He didn’t recall discussing his progress with Lisa. Their jobs were in completely different fields; Cyril developed programs and utilities for the government and other important clients, while Lisa was an attorney specializing in criminal law. They rarely talked to each other in detail about their work. Lisa knew nothing about computers, it was a miracle she could even work her phone. Cyril had little interest in law, so they both kept the specifics of their occupations to themselves.
But apparently, he had told Lisa about Utilitaria, his answer to the problem of monitoring and adjusting many utilities and services at once across the country. With this software, governments could alter water flow, electricity output and more from a single centralized terminal in times of natural disaster or war. There were already many interested parties. Even the U.S. Army had contacted him concerning the software’s potential military and combat applications.
Cyril had refused them, of course. He objected to people using his work to harm others, directly or indirectly. He would never forgive himself if a war-torn country were to have their water supply cut off via remote control, its residents left to die of thirst, regardless of whether they were enemies or not. It was unethical. Wrong. And Cyril would have nothing to do with it.
“You did, don’t you remember?” Lisa asked, leaning forward. “The other day? You told me you ran into some difficulties with the user interface, something about getting it to dynamically adjust itself depending on the terminal layout?”
Cyril’s eyebrows rose. He didn’t remember the last time he had ever heard Lisa refer to anything technological with such clarity. The limit of her knowledge was the names of the devices themselves; phones, computers, televisions. Nothing more than that. Especially not words such as interface or terminal. Explaining anything like that to her would be like trying to teach the English language to a house cat.
“But I didn’t…” Cyril pursed his lips, deep in thought. He tried to remember the last time he had spoken to his wife in detail about anything to do with Utilitaria.
Nothing came to mind.
Lisa finished her coffee and set her mug down on the table. She moved her chair around the table, closer to Cyril.
He watched her closely. This wasn’t like her at all.
“Are you feeling okay, honey?” Cyril asked. “Since when have you wanted to know anything about my work?”
Lisa smiled, the sides of her mouth almost reaching her ears.
“I’m fine. Really! It’s just…” She rubbed the back of her neck as she tried to find the words. “It feels like we haven’t done anything together in ages, you know? Haven’t gone out for dinner, haven’t seen any movies, nothing like that in, what, years? I think it would be nice if I watched you work for once. Could be fun, you know? Who knows, I might even learn something.”
Cyril chuckled. “Uh, I’m not sure if you’d find programming particularly entertaining, to be honest. You’re basically gonna watch me tap keys for hours on end. Actually, you know what, I remember you have watched me working before, when we first started dating. You fell asleep at my desk after fifteen minutes of watching me debug. I don’t think you’re up to it, to be honest.”
Lisa closed her eyes and sighed. To Cyril, it seemed she was somehow irritated by this conversation, inconvenienced even.
She had probably yawned. It was still early.
“Sure I am!” Lisa said, chipper as ever. “I was pretty burned out that day, don’t think I had slept well the previous night either if I recall. I’m feeling up to it now, though. Come on, whaddya think? It’ll be fun!”
She smiled, waiting for Cyril’s answer. He hesitated, not sure how to take Lisa’s renewed enthusiasm towards his work. After what felt like an hour, he nodded.
“I guess I can show you a few things. Don’t think you’ll understand a lot of it but…okay.”
Lisa clapped playfully, reminding Cyril of the young woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago. She still looked exactly the same as she had in that café. Short blonde hair which seemed to always want to fall over her bright green eyes, compact build, roughly the same height as Cyril and the same childish glee she had exhibited on their first date.
Cyril smiled to himself as he recounted the pleasant memory. But still, why was Lisa so eager to bond over something as mundane as pouring through lines of code all day?
She’ll be asleep in ten minutes, guaranteed.
Breakfast came soon after their morning chat, with Lisa serving up two stacks of near dinner plate-sized pancakes. Cyril didn’t remember the last time she had made such a great batch; usually they ended up rather small, burned and chunky. Today, they were stacked in perfect towers on each plate, drenched with generous lashes of maple syrup and butter. Cyril stared at his plate as Lisa sat back down with hers and dug into the stack with a fork.
“When did you learn to cook?” he joked as he sawed into his pancakes with a knife.
Lisa let out a single bark of sarcastic laughter.
“Ha. You’re a funny one, aren’t you?” She returned to her pancakes.
The two sat in silence until their plates was empty, with only dribbles of excess syrup remaining.
Cyril stood up, stretching his arms high above his head. “Alright, I guess I’ll go get started. Last chance to change your mind. It’s not too late.”
Lisa gave him the finger as she walked out of the room to go get changed. He shook his head and trudged along to his work station, set up on the opposite side of the house. Cyril had converted an unused guest bedroom into what was essentially his second home. His computer sat on an old oak desk, connected to more than enough storage and servers to hold his completed work and in-progress projects. Stacks of old CD-ROMS sat scattered around the room, on the floor and on any spare space available on his tables, all containing software which would have been considered ancient ten years ago.
“Tell you what,” Lisa said, entering the room. “Twenty bucks says I won’t fall asleep this time. Deal?”
Cyril grinned. “Big mistake. Easiest money I’ll ever make.”
“Shut up!” Lisa playfully punched Cyril on the shoulder as she pulled up a chair and sat in it beside Cyril.
Every single piece of media on Cyril’s workstation had been passed through one of his most well-known—or infamous, depending on how you looked at it—programs, a secure encryption software suite he called Lock and Key. Yet another one of his creations the U.S. Army, and even the NSA had shown extreme interest in, almost to the point of obsession. Of course, Cyril had refused both groups outright, preferring to keep the software for his own personal use. Cyril’s email inbox was loaded with messages from government organizations, private security firms and even a few prolific hacker groups all but begging him for access to a copy of the suite. One party even offered to settle for a significantly hobbled version with only a fraction of the functionality.
Cyril had changed the password to the account years ago and hadn’t checked or even opened it since.
The servers and hard drives whirred and beeped as his computer booted up, almost like a pet excited to greet its master. It was music to Cyril’s ears. He loved this work, despite the…occupational hazards it tended to bring up. Some people did not know when to quit, or take no for an answer. Utilitaria was a program intended to help governments in times of disaster or equipment malfunction. The Army and the rest of that lot acted as if it was the answer to the meaning of life. It was sad, really.
Once Cyril logged in with his secure password and landed on his desktop screen, Lisa stood and jogged out of the room with a purpose.
“Hold on! Don’t start without me! I’m just gonna have a shower! Won’t be long, promise!” she shouted.
Well, Lisa’s certainly eager to learn, Cyril thought.
Not like her at all.
“Alright, I guess,” he called back, but Lisa was already halfway upstairs by now. He returned to his monitor and stared at his cluttered desktop. The entire screen was covered in countless icons, most of them links to webpages and online resources, Jpegs and all kinds of other junk files and executables. Cleaning it all up was too big a task for a man as busy as Cyril, so he just memorized every icon’s location and worked with it.
Once everything was set up and ready to go, Cyril searched his messy tables for his work glasses, tinted to prevent eye strain from long periods of staring at the harsh, artificial glow of his monitor. He rummaged around for some time, lifting piles of paper and CDs and books, turning up nothing.
They weren’t in here. Where the hell did I leave the damn things?
Hold on. Cyril froze, thinking back. That was it. He had worn them while on his laptop in bed, working late into the night while Lisa slept soundly beside him. They would most likely be in the drawer on his bedside table.
He slipped outside and walked the distance across the house back upstairs to their bedroom. Lisa was probably still in the shower. That girl loved her showers. Cyril already knew she would be in there forever, despite promising otherwise. Hell, maybe she hadn’t even got in yet. When Cyril reached their bedroom door, it was closed. He couldn’t hear any water running.
Lisa was shuffling around inside the bedroom, trying to find clean clothes. Cyril went to knock on the door, but before his knuckles could connect with the wooden frame, he heard her speak. It sounded distant and muffled from this side.
Strange. Lisa rarely used her cell phone unless she was away at work; all her work-related conversations at home went through their landline.
Intrigued, Cyril pulled his hand away from the door and placed his ear against it. Normally, he wasn’t one to eavesdrop on his wife’s conversations, but she had wanted to know more about his work. What was the harm in wanting to know more about hers?
It was difficult to hear through the door. Lisa spoke in a hushed voice, but Cyril could still more or less hear what she was saying.
“Yes, I…no, not yet. Soon. We’re about to start. Yes, I know that. I know. Look, sir, with all due respect, I know how this works. Let me do my job, and I guarantee I’ll have everything you need by the end of the day.” A pause as Lisa listened to whoever was on the other end of the line. “Come on, have a little faith in me General; you pay me too much to doubt my methods. Everything is in place, he’ll slip up this time. Alright? Alright. We’ll speak again soon, sir.”
Cyril frowned. What was she talking about? It almost sounded as if Lisa was having a conversation about him. It didn’t sound like something an attorney would be saying to a client. And who was this General?
Cyril pulled himself away from the door as Lisa hung up, and headed back to his work station, mind racing. Were they talking about me? He thought back to yesterday, trying to recall any similar strange calls, something, anything related to what just happened.
Nothing came to mind. It was as if yesterday never happened.
All this, coupled with Lisa’s strange behaviour, her actually wanting to watch him work, the sudden jump in cooking skills and her rapid gain of technological know-how…none of it made sense.
A rogue thought slipped into Cyril’s mind, a thought which had no reason to exist.
Was this really Lisa?
She sounded and looked exactly like the woman he had fallen in love with all those years ago, but whoever this was, it wasn’t her. Couldn’t be her.
Maybe it was his paranoia talking. Lisa had had a few stressful days at work, as far as Cyril could remember. And even he had to admit he had an overactive imagination. It was basically a requirement of working in this field.
It could be nothing.
Cyril sat back down in his office chair, and as if on que, Lisa walked back in with wet hair and wearing clean jeans and a black shirt a size too big for her.
Well, she certainly still looks like Lisa, Cyril thought.
“Sorry I took so long, the steam helps me wake up,” she said as she sat back down in her chair. Cyril nodded, not looking away from the screen.
Something was still not right. If the call had been work related, Lisa would have at least mentioned it to him. The realization crept up on him, sending a shiver down his spine.
I wasn’t meant to hear it.
“Well, alright then, let’s go, I’m ready to learn,” Lisa said as she edged the chair closer to Cyril and to the monitor.
Cyril moved his mouse cursor to an icon on the desktop labelled Lock and Key. Lisa watched as if this was the single most interesting thing to ever happen in her life. Cyril double clicked the icon, and almost straight away, a window appeared on the screen. Lines of code poured down the window like a waterfall, too fast to read with any accuracy. Cyril’s encryption protocols hard at work.
After twenty seconds or so, the window disappeared and another series of windows appeared, all styled to look like a series of padlocks. The advantage of Lock and Key over other encryption/decryption software. If you weren’t aware of how to interact with the program’s unique interface, there was very little chance you could brute force your way into Cyril’s protected files. Unlike most programs which gave the user three chances to gain access, Lock and Key was set to lock itself down after a single failed attempt. If this happened, Cyril himself would have to override the lockdown using a password hard-coded into the software, which only he knew. There was a reason Lock and Key was his pride and joy.
“Ooh, what’s that?” Lisa asked in almost child-like wonder. “Is this what you’re working on?”
Cyril paused before he opened his mouth. He had to be careful with what he said to Lisa. Something still felt off about all this.
“No, this is what I made when you were asleep last time. It protects my files from unauthorized access.”
“Fancy. How does it work?”
“I don’t think there’s enough hours in a day to explain. It took me years to perfect it, and even now it’s still not quite finished, but it works.”
“And what you’re working on now is protected by this thingy?” Lisa asked, still seemingly interested to know more.
“Uh huh. Every single one of my files is protected by Lock and Key. It keeps hackers from stealing my data, something I’ve had trouble with in the past. You’d be surprised how easy it is for someone with enough time and determination to steal your files. Lock and Key puts a stop to that completely.”
“Neat.” Lisa shuffled even closer to the desk, her stomach touching the edge of the old scratched oak. “So, if it keeps all those guys out, how do you get in?”
Again, Cyril stopped himself before blurting out the inner workings of Lock and Key to his wife. Partially to avoid confusing her with the technical jargon, but mostly because he was still unsure what was going on with her.
“See these padlocks on the screen here? Each one needs a password before I can access my encrypted files. Impossible to crack with conventional means. You would need a supercomputer running all day, every single day for nearly eighty thousand years. The length of the password is irrelevant. Lock and Key’s encryption ensures any password cracker will be chasing its tail for millennia before it finds what it’s looking for.
Lisa looked impressed. “So how do you get in?” she repeated.
Cyril stared at the padlocks scattered across the screen. He had an idea. If this really was Lisa, she had to know the answers to the very personal questions required to get through the encryption.
“Each lock is opened by typing the correct answer to the question I have associated with that particular lock. Think of it as a sort of pop quiz of our lives, I guess,” Cyril said, keeping his poker face on.
“Okay…seems simple enough,” Lisa said. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “Fire away.”
Cyril clocked on the first lock, zooming in on it and revealing a password screen. There were no hints anywhere to be seen, an extra security feature to prevent possible password guesses from an unauthorized user.
“The first one is pretty easy: a date. The date of our wedding. Day, month and year, in numerical format. Shouldn’t have any problems remembering that one.”
Lisa laughed. “Ahh…that was the fourth of September, 1999, in that nice little church in Denver. The damn driver almost crashed on the way there, was shaking like an idiot as I walked down the aisle. So that wold be…09-04-1999?”
“Cyril nodded. “Yep, that’s it. Easy one, right?” He typed the numbers and dashes into the password field and hit the Enter key. A metallic click played through the computer’s speakers as the padlock unlocked itself and faded away into nothing. Cyril selected another padlock and brought it into focus.
“Okay, next one. The day I finished my first program after meeting you. Numerical format again. You’ll probably remember this one too, I wouldn’t shut up about it all day.”
“11-08-2002,” Lisa answered straight away. “You were cheering for an hour non-stop, I swear. Can’t remember what the big deal was, but I guess it was pretty significant.”
Cyril sighed. Maybe he was imagining things. Maybe Lisa was genuinely curious about his work for once. This was all the result of a tired, overactive imagination on his part. Cyril cringed a little thinking about how idiotic he must look to his wife, who only wanted to know more about something which had been his life for the past twenty-five years.
But her phone call to some kind of general…he hadn’t imagined that. Had he?
There was one other thing he could try. If nothing came of it, he would drop the whole conspiracy theorist act and go on with his day as normal. Cyril swivelled around in his chair and peered at Lisa, who still looked chipper, wide awake and very invested in the ongoing tech lessons.
Cyril spoke as he typed in the second password. “Okay, next one is the day we got back from our honeymoon in—”
“Bermuda,” Lisa said. “A huge plane flew over the hotel, I thought the building was about to fall down on top of us.”
“Heh, yeah. Good times. Remember when we tried to check in? That guy at the reception just wouldn’t shut up about their breakfast menu. He went on and on about it while we were trying to get away from him and head up to our room.”
Lisa thought for a moment, then snickered. “Yeah, he was a bit of a nut, wasn’t he?”
Cyril’s hear sank. He moved his hands away from the keyboard and turned to face the woman in the seat next to him.
Lisa wouldn’t have forgotten probably the most eventful thing to happen during their dull honeymoon weekend. There was no doubt.
This wasn’t Lisa.
“Who are you?” Cyril asked, his tone flat and serious. He gazed into his supposed wife’s eyes. Lisa frowned for a split second, right before feigning a look of confusion. Cyril could see past all the bullshit now. She had a lot of explaining to do.
“What? Cyril, it’s me. Lisa. Your wife? Is this a trick question or something?”
Cyril stood and pulled Lisa up out of her chair by her shoulders. He glared at her, their noses almost touching.
“Lisa wouldn’t forget that it was a woman at the counter of that shithole hotel droning on and on about their dinner menu. I’m going to ask you again, who the fuck are you?” He shoved Lisa back into her chair, where she sat in stunned silence, eyes wide with shock.
“She isn’t interested at all in my work, she never was, she can barely use her phone for Christ’s sake. I heard you on the phone with some general when you said you were in the shower.” Cyril raised his voice. “Stop lying to me! Who are you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cyril! It’s me! Can’t you see that? I’m right here! What’s wrong with you?” Lisa sobbed, her eyes starting to tear up.
Cyril didn’t react at all. Instead, he placed his hands around Lisa’s neck and began to squeeze.
“What have you done with Lisa? Who do you work for? What do you want from me? Fucking talk!”
Lisa tried to wrench Cyril’s hands off of her throat, but he had too good of a grip. She abandoned that idea and instead batted at Cyril’s face with open palms. He stared through the slaps, tightening his grasp by the second.
“Tell me the truth, goddammit! I don’t want to kill you, but I will, I swear I will!”
“Please…don’t…” Lisa spluttered, gasping for air between words. “Stop…truth…I’ll tell…truth.”
Cyril growled and shoved Lisa away from him. She coughed into her hands and took several deep breaths. Red marks on her neck began to blossom, along with a few light bruises.
“Who are you? I won’t ask again,” Cyril demanded.
Lisa struggled to contain her sobbing. This wasn’t part of her contract. She didn’t have to work under these conditions.
“My name is Isabelle Prosse. I’m an imitator. You just made a huge fucking mistake putting your hands on me, you know that?”
Cyril’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell are you talking about? What’s an imitator?”
Lisa—Isabelle—stood up. With her thumb and forefinger, she grabbed hold of a small fold of skin on her neck and pulled up. The face Cyril had known for twenty-five years disappeared in a single motion, parting away to reveal the face of a stern woman of Asian descent, who looked less than impressed with her current predicament.
Cyril couldn’t breathe. “What the fuck is going on? Where’s Lisa? What have you done with her?”
“Lisa is with us. We had to rough her up a little to get the information we needed, but she is alive. If you tell us what we want to know, she need not suffer any more than she has to.”
Cyril gritted his teeth. Everything this Isabelle knew about him, Lisa, their history together…they must have beaten her to within an inch of her life to give up this much information. And for what?
“Why are you doing this to us?” Cyril asked, unable to contain the emotion in his voice.
Isabelle crossed her arms and sighed. “You know why. Your software has many interested parties, yet you refuse time and time again to make it available to those who clearly require use of it. One such party hired me to get past the encryption protecting what they want. And who else is more suited to convince you than a loved one?”
Cyril couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Whoever these bastards were, they hired someone to pretend to be his wife to get past Lock and Key. The concept alone stunned Cyril into silence.
“Save us all a lot of trouble and time, and tell me the passwords. I’ll get them soon enough, whether you cooperate with me or not. So how about it, Cyril? Do we have a deal?”
Isabelle leaned against the nearby wall as she waited for a reply. Cyril looked like he was seriously considering her offer. If he talked, it would save her hours, maybe even days of work out here. This job had already taken up enough of her time. Her employers were paying her well, but there was more work to be done other than swindling this pathetic man. Much better paying work. And less irritating people to imitate.
When Cyril stood up and exhaled, Isabelle knew she had won him over. It rarely happened, but if a target did somehow figure out their loved one wasn’t really who they thought he or she was, they would surrender the information Isabelle was after out of fear for the safety of their spouse, sibling or close friend.
But not Cyril.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said. He threw a sudden punch at Isabelle, striking her in the face and knocking her onto the ground with a surprised shout. Her cell phone clattered out of her jeans pocket out onto the grimy carpet, which Cyril swiped up as he made a run for the door.
Isabelle cursed and lifted her wristwatch up to her lips. “He’s running, dammit! Take him down! Now!”
Cyril bolted through the house to the front door. If he could make it outside and onto the street, maybe he could make it far enough away to call the police, to tell them of this insanity. Before he could even catch a glimpse outside, he saw there were others already inside the house.
Two burly men stood in front of the doorway, each gripping a massive pistol. They stormed forward and toppled Cyril as if he were no heavier than a shoe and kept him down at gunpoint.
Their muscular builds, along with the professional manner in which they handled their weapons screamed military to Cyril, despite being dressed in civilian attire. He didn’t have to guess who was funding the theft of his software now.
From the next room over, Isabelle entered, clutching a broken, bloodied nose. She reached into another pocket and pulled out a long, clear medical syringe.
“Hold him down, please,” she asked the two soldiers, who complied without a word. Cyril had no time to fight back, as no sooner had the men pinned him, Isabelle slid the needle into the back of his neck. A sudden wave of peaceful bliss flowed through his spine, spreading throughout the rest of his body. His vision blurred as he started to slip into unconsciousness.
Isabelle stood and went to a nearby table and threw a vase onto the floor next to Cyril, shouting in rage. As Cyril’s grip on reality disappeared, he could hear her talking to the soldiers.
“Call General Heywan and tell him we’re going to need another few days to get the software. I’ll take this stubborn son of a bitch back to his bed. The erasure serum should kick in any second now.”
“Ma’am, General Heywan already believes this operation is taking far longer than you originally said it would. You were supposed to deliver Utilitaria a week ago. Another few days is out of the question.”
“It’s not my fault the guy is so overprotective of his shit! I’ve never seen someone so paranoid! He notices the slightest change to his routine. He saw the carpet in his room wasn’t the right shade on our first attempt and I had to wipe him. He saw the wrong brand of butter in the fridge, knew I wasn’t really his wife, had to wipe him. Just now, he figured it out when I got some goddamn detail of their honeymoon wrong. I still find it hard believe he has never been exposed to an imitator before, the way he picks out mistakes. Un-fucking-believable.”
Isabelle wiped a smear of blood from her nose as she watched the two soldiers carry the limp, lifeless Cyril upstairs to his bedroom.
“Make sure this place is perfect for tomorrow. Nothing out of place. And go pay another visit to Miss Therren in the basement. Remember, I need specifics in order for this to work, understand? Clean up the house, we try again tomorrow.”