“MISSING DIGIT”

Someone was watching Sarah Mason. The latest package, if nothing else, established that much. She thumbed through the latest set of photographs while sitting on her hotel room sofa, but she was unsure what she was supposed to be seeing. This was the third time in a week she received a similar delivery but was still to make any sense of them. The first set was waiting at the front desk for her when she first checked in but could only be considered benign. They had to be publicity shots that needed approval or maybe cancelled ones that were sent to her by mistake, she reasoned. The second envelope was stuffed with photographs of Sarah Mason as well, but these were no longer canned poses. These were snapshots of her in public, candid shots of the young actress on location, stepping into a café, buying roses from the corner stand, petting a stray cat, scratching her wrist while she waited for cab. The work of local paparazzi, she told herself.

She reminded herself that it was far from a secret that she was staying there. Someone tracking her down was no reason for any immediate concern. It wasn’t anything the cast and crew looked forward to but they had come to expect set-crashers. Sarah spotted a green cardigan she was wearing in one of the pictures that she liked. She didn’t remember bringing with her, let alone owning it. She was rapping the stack of images against her knee wondering if the sweater was something lying around set that she could ‘borrow’ when a slip of paper fell out from between the photographs.

A phrase was scrawled across the torn scrap of paper.  “Make her listen.” She ran her fingers over the back of the paper where the author had all but scratched through in their crude urgency. Was it a reminder for the courier that delivered the package? Were they supposed to have left something more behind? She picked through the rest of the photos but found only more reflections captured in time and space. 

She considered calling her agent, but at best the protracted dialogue would result in his half-hearted attempt to hire a bodyguard. Not that she would have taken him up on the offer. The thought of someone following her every step, watching her ever motion was the last thing she needed. Instead, she took to triple-checking her locks and walking around her hotel room with an empty bottle of cabernet, just in case.

Curious mailings or not, she was going to have to leave for work soon, especially if she wanted to visit with Abby at the University. Before their reunion earlier this week it had seven years since the friends had last seen one another. The pair that was inseparable in high school discovered life had diverging plans for them not long after graduation. Sarah entered into acting with the same affable disinterest she glided through the early half of her life with, but for Abbey it was different. She had all the determination for the two of them. She was always dead set on her objectives, whatever they were, and obsessive until they were realized. Sarah once joked Abby would be terrifying if she wasn’t so damn boring.

              Sarah could tell the intervening years had been good to Abby. She was still her bookish, gray self but now she brimmed with an assured fulfillment that her estranged friend admired. Academics were clearly her calling, not that Sarah could pretend to understand a fraction of the studies Abby described over coffee, but she smiled and nodded through the conversation, just happy her friend had found her place in the world.

Abby leaned forward after Sarah told her about the confusing packages. She was hardwired to interpret everything as an equation to solve. Plug in enough factors and the strangest of scenarios suddenly begins to provide their own answers. At least, that’s what Abby told her when Sarah tried changing conversation to the weather. “Where did they come from?” she asked.

              Sarah shrugged. “I don’t know. No return address. I asked the receptionist but they haven’t noticed anyone, not that I knew what to ask them to look for.”

“What do you think it means?”

“Couldn’t say,” Sarah downplayed the event, feeling silly mentioning it in the first place. “Maybe nothing. People are weird.”

Abby placed her hand on Renee’s. “People are also creepy, Ren. There’s a difference. Can’t you, I don’t know, call the cops, or something?”

“Not really. It’s not a crime to leave mail for someone. It’s not like there was any actual threats of violence or any mention of anything illegal.”

“Yeah, but these are not regular press photos or fan pics. These are personal.” Abby picked out a snapshot from the stack Sarah brought with her. “This one is of you walking into your hotel. The thought that at any time there could be someone out there, watching us, looking right at us. It’s just awful. I know you’re just in town for a few more days, but have you thought about changing hotels just in case?”

Sarah suddenly became very aware of their presence in the center of the campus courtyard. She felt exposed, vulnerable, even with her friend. The others walking past, standing in the distance, where were their wayward glances going? Were they watching her right now? Was it one of them? She would never be able to tell. “I should probably get going. I have to get back to the set.”

“You could stay with me, if you like. It’s not every day we get bona fide movie stars crashing with us, after all.”

“I’m a glorified extra, Abs. I just stand in for the actual movie star while they’re blocking the shots and setting up for the real thing.” She realized she hadn’t answered her question and felt her cheeks flush red. “And, no. Thanks, but no. I’ll be fine.”

Abby walked with her to the parking lot and waited until her cab came. She could tell the mailings were troubling Sarah no matter how aloof she tried to play it. “Listen, I’m sure it’s nothing. Like you said, people are weird. You should come by later tonight. We’ll get take out and watching dumb movies or something.”

“Maybe. My ride’s here. I’ll see you around.”

Work was tediously present for Sarah the rest of the day. The bulk of her time was spent standing within shouting range of the assistant camera director while they positioned and repositioned lighting for several hours. After returning to the hotel she held her breath while passing the front desk receptionist but there were no packages this time. She could exhale. Sarah took a long shower and slipped into her sweats eager just to relax in sequestered anonymity for a change. She would text Abby in a bit, thanking her for the movie night invitation but saying she got held up on set. It was sympathy. She could see it on her face when she first made the offer. She was concerned, just being nice. It’s what friends were supposed to do for one another but it left Sarah uneasy. Abby was the practical one. That much had stayed the same since their time apart. If she thought there was something to worry about then that made it real.

 She was settling in for a marathon of competitive cooking shows when a knock at the door froze her in place. She waited for a beat, then another, and another. Nothing. Room service, she told herself. Besides, the packages had been left with the front desk. They knew the hotel she was staying, but they didn’t know which room, right?

              She took the empty wine bottle from the stand and let the door swing open. She was alone. Down both ends of the hall she saw no one and took relief it was just room service or maybe a guest who had the wrong door number. She felt silly that she let her imagination run away with her until she saw the photograph taped to the other side of her door. There was no package this time. There was only one photo. It was another image of Sarah Mason, but something had happened. She was the same, but different. Her hair was bone white and much longer than she had ever grown hers. She turned the sheet over. This time in red marker and underlined—

“HETONTBREKENDECIJFER

Make her listen.”

They were here, she thought in a swelling panic. They were right on the other side of the door while I was showering. She tossed her phone in her bag, took the keys off the counter and rushed from the room. He didn’t know what her next step would be but knew that she could no longer remain there. She was peeling around the corner of her floor trying to remember Renee’s address when she crashed into someone heading the opposite direction. The jolt toppled her backward. When she looked up Abby was reaching out her hand. Her hair was a mess. There was dirt on her face and dried blood smeared along the back her arm. Fire had burned a hole through the shoulder of her jacket which now draped over her bandaged shoulder.

“Jesus, Abby, what happened?”

She was stammering, fending off shock through sheer force of will. “I-I-I- didn’t know where to go. My lab. They attacked. Burned it to the ground. Tried to do me. Burn me too. It all happened so fast, but I was moving so slow. I was watching everything, but I couldn’t do anything.”

Sarah got her feet and wrapped her arms around Abby. “My god, Abs. Are you okay?”

Abby’s attention had already drifted, studying the overturned photograph lying at their feet.  “Het ontbrekende cijfer. They were here.”

She followed her eyes back to the photograph. “What are you saying, Abby? Who was here?”

Abby pulled away from their embrace and looked her old friend in the eyes, fighting against her better judgment before relenting. “Renee, there’s something I need to show you.”

The facility was at the far end of the industry park away from the rest of the world. The windowless one-room building was efficient and utterly unremarkable. Its immediate secrets revealed nothing more than ordinary research materials and dusted over laboratory equipment. Abby locked the door behind them after they entered. The florescent lights were still flickering to life as she pulled up a chair to a computer console.

“I thought you said they trashed your place?”

“They did,” she answered. “This is a backup location. I set it up a few months ago for situations like tonight. The incidents are escalating, but if they knew how close I actually am then they wouldn’t have quit until they stopped me permanently.”

Renee’s head was spinning. The photographs were bad enough, but Abby was supposed to be her constant. “Abby, please, you have to slow down. I don’t understand. You said you had something to show me?”

By way of explanation, Abby crouched down to pull away the rug in the center of the floor. A hatch door which sat flush with the concrete had been hiding underneath. There was no door handle and the hinges sat in recessed channels carved out of the ground. Abby slipped a pry bar between the frame and wooden door until she could slip in a single finger, then her hand, to pull it open. Inside, metal scaffolding served as a worker’s stairwell that spiraled out of sight.

Intuition told Sarah to leave, that she should not have come here. A part of her knew she should have just turned around and gone back to the hotel, back to her unfulfilling job standing in for other people, go back to the pissy production assistant who only ever called her ‘that one’ and act like none of this was happening. Maybe then she could return to a time before her best friend had that manic glint to her unblinking stare, back to before the marking on her door and Abby waiting right around the corner, back before she dragged her here, alone together.

“Abby. What is this?”

Even swept in her passions, Abby could read Renee. She had to give her more. Finally, she relented. “The message on the back of that photo- it’s not HETONTBREKENDECIJFER. It’s ‘Het ontbrekende cijfer. It’s Dutch. It means ‘the missing digit.’”

Dutch? How would you know that?”

Another set of switches along the wall activated a string of track lights that guided commuters deeper into the awaiting unknown. Abby took the first steps into the basement and held her hand out for Sarah to follow. “That’s part of the reason we’re here. I’m asking you to trust me, Renee.”

Whether she did or not, they were still friends. What choice did she have in the matter? After the first few unsteady steps down the metal scaffolding she was able to balance herself and risk a glimpse at the world she was entering. There should have been a level between the two stories but the floor just beneath the lab was missing. Instead the support beams ran deeper, into an unfinished subbasement. Aside from its depth and lack of access, Sarah didn’t notice much immediate difference from the floor above. The walls were unfinished bedrock with planks of thin plywood laid across a dirt floor. Instead of the random assortment of consoles and laptops like the previous room, this floor housed a single machine, one large computer bolted in the place to the subterranean earth.

Sarah was still taking in her new surroundings as Abby strode to a power cable grafted onto a collection of car batteries. After connecting the current she ran to other side of the room to kick start the gas generator. An engine whirred to life and a globe of pink and gold light materialized, throbbing a meter above a white porcelain platform on the other end of the chamber. The light’s power was redoubling on itself by the instant and was soon blinding even in periphery. Abby had come to expect the brilliance and was already wearing heavily tinted glasses. She handed Sarah a pair and warned her not to get too close.

“You asked where I picked up Dutch. Geneva really is a beautiful in the springtime. I studied there for quite a while. I was working there for three years until I had to come back here. ‘Misappropriation of funds.’ ” She spat the accusation from her mouth. “If they even had a fraction of the sense of what we were going to discover if they let me push a little further. If they weren’t all so damned frightened of the future all the time we could finally get there.”

“What exactly do you study, Abs?” Sarah asked while keeping the rungs along the scaffolding back to the first floor in sight.  

 “I can’t get into specifics, for both our safety. Suffice to say, I’m on the verge of something groundbreaking and there are people who are trying to stop me.”

“Stop you from what?”

Abby punched in lines of code and the console clicked and chirped in response. The pink and gold light hummed at her side like a house broken ball of lightning. “This machine computes chronal-spatial relationships and reintegrates the assets into practical applications. At least, that’s the idea.”

“English, Abby. What is all that supposed to mean?”

She declared in victory, “Time and space. I’ve cracked them both. I’ve figured out ways to reinterpret their interactions on a quantum level. And before you start, need I remind you: Everything is impossible until someone does it. Admittedly, I would like to run the data a little while longer before we fire live tests but if the attack at my lab was any indication we’re out of time.” She embraced Renee, unchecked ambition leaping from her pores. “Everything is going to be okay. It only has to run once and then we’ll show them I’m right, that my numbers are sound.”

“Numbers?”

Abby went back to her keyboard, anxiously hammering home the final lines of code. “Hmm? Numbers? Yes, of course. It’s not exactly long division, but it’s a living.”

There was a single, intimate moment of reflection that overcame Renee. She understood the message. It wasn’t about her at all, it was to her. It was a command, a request, a desperate plea. One last warning. She shouted over the whine of the gas generator.  “Wait! The packages, the attack, the missing digit, everything, all of it leads to this.”

Abby wasn’t listening. Not now, not after she had already gone so far, not when they were so close. A few more keystrokes and it would all be over.

Sarah tried wrenching her away from the console. “You have to stop this. Whatever you’re doing, it’s wrong. Something’s gone wrong, or will go wrong, or I don’t know, but you have to listen, damn it.”

“You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“None whatsoever,” she agreed. “But that doesn’t change anything.  The missing digit. It’s in your math. It’s in the machine. Somewhere in this byzantine labyrinth a brick was laid out of sorts and now the whole thing is going to topple.”

She shook her head, refusing to hear the warning. “Impossible. I’ve been writing these algorithms for the past three years. It’s all I’ve thought of. You’re not going to take that away from me. No one is going to take this away from me.”

The two fought for control of the console. Sarah snagged Abby’s hand again, refusing to let it go. “You asked me to trust you. Now you need to trust me.”

The cold calculation of hard science cut across Abby’s face just before she swept Renee’s legs out from under her. “There’s not enough time.”

Sarah was falling backward, her arms flailing as she tried gain her balance. Abby extended her hand, this time to shove her backwards onto the porcelain dais where the light was still shining. Everything was happening so fast for her. She expected the light to burn, some effect of electricity or radiation. Instead, a prickly chill swelled at her heels before rushing up her spine to the ends of the hair on her head.

Sarah shrieked over the howls of beast gearing up around her.  “Something’s wrong in the numbers, you missed something. The missing digit! You have to listen. Abby, please. This is it.”

“You can’t possibly know that, Renee. Neither of us can until one of us tries.”

Sarah shot an arm free of the neutralizing light that was ensconcing her. She was desperate to make it to her wayward friend. If she could just reach her, a hand, a single finger even.

Abby exhaled and allowed herself a silent prayer before throwing the switch. That’s when the wall of light rose up. Sarah Mason was on one side, Abby and her missing digit on the other.

It became brighter, whiter, until she could hear it, taste it, feel it filling her every cell. Then the light began to fade and the world fell back into place, but the pieces were all wrong. It was the fire she saw first; smoldering in on itself, impossibly falling and rising at the same time. The figure of Abby’s body stood amid the inferno, at first no more than a black outline after reintegrating from a flurry of spent cinders.  A moment later, her face returned. It was screaming, wailing in pain. “.thgir erew uoY”

A hole was taken out of the side of Abby’s body and then the explosion that caused it followed afterward. A cloud of fire and wild arcing sparks of electricity shrunk, retreating away from Abby’s face and back into the side of the machine from where it erupted. The images were coming faster now, becoming part of the light fuzzing in around the corners of her sight. A few more faces flickered past. Snatches of conversation and smells of places she had forgotten she had ever been flowed back at her. She was being suspended for pulling that fire alarm all over again. Paul McCartney was talking about LSD. Genghis Khan was eating a goat leg. A giant lizard howled in charnel death throes before the first final light swelled and took them all.

Someone was watching Sarah Mason. The latest package, if nothing else, established that much. She thumbed through the latest set of photographs while sitting on her hotel room sofa, but she was unsure what she was supposed to be seeing. This was the second time in a week she received a similar delivery but was still to make any sense of them. Candid shots of the young actress on location, stepping into a café, buying roses from the corner stand, petting a stray cat, scratching her wrist while she waited for cab; the work of local paparazzi, she told herself.

Three stories below her, a woman in a green cardigan and bone white hair was stepping from the lobby of the hotel out onto the street. The other remainders would be waiting for her to return. They were always short on time. There were real hopes they had gotten through in their latest attempt, that they could finally put this behind them. It was the closest they had come, but still just as short.

They would try again. They had to. If they could just get through to her, if they could just get her to listen before she throws that switch and leaves them to less than nothing all over again. She had to hold out hope on herself to see this to its end, not that she was in short supply at this point. She stepped to the curb and waved down a cab as the world sped on around her, never accounting for a woman with a missing digit.

Someone was watching Sarah Mason…

                            Someone was watching Sarah Mason…

Someone was watching Sarah Mason…

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