Code for Life
Michael B Fletcher
I was on my stomach, the floor hard stone.
The air was soft and warm, no strong odours, no discernible scents. A vague
breeze rustled quietly.
I lifted my head
with difficulty to look in the direction I was pointing. A corridor led into
the distance: light and dark; light and dark merging so far ahead I had
I attempted to
roll over but something held me down. I struggled fruitlessly until I realised
that a neck collar fixed me securely to the surface, one arm free, the other
held by an armlet shackled into the stone floor in front of me. My yells echoed,
giving me the feeling of emptiness in a vast space, until I had the ominous
thought that I might attract the attention of something undesirable. I stopped
Last thing I
recalled was walking in the town late at night, thinking I was ready for my
hotel bed. I had been to the mathematics conference and then to the supper. I
had endured the small talk of a number of people, most
talking through their heads about formulae and numbers they had no real concept
of. For the most part I had kept quiet, nodded at the appropriate time and not locked horns with any of the idiots there.
There were few I
regarded as my intellectual equal and fortunately I was astute enough not to
let them know what I thought. That is until Finlayson began to pontificate.
I’d known him in
the department for a number of years and fortunately
our paths seldom crossed. He was one of those individuals you instinctively
disliked. Nose slightly in the air, always ready with a comment and making sure
he knew the right people. Yes, someone to avoid.
But, blame it on
the particularly strong local drink, the Milk of Lions. Seemed innocuous enough
but packed a punch and there was plenty on hand. I had one or two more than I
should have, which lowered my natural caution. It made me counter Finlayson’s
latest formula, something about the secure use of numbers in a way that was
almost impossible to decode. I ridiculed his idea and didn’t notice when he
showed his anger at my over-riding of his comments. Even when he slipped away I
rattled on, confident in my argument and emboldened by the drink.
Outside, the air
made me regret I had drunk so much and I looked forward to sleep.
I listened for a sound, any sound to give
me a clue of where I was. The corridor looked well-used, old but the light and
dark sections made me think it was daylight, sun and
shade. I struggled again, but to no avail, so I slumped back to the floor.
The scrape of a
shoe behind me broke the silence, but I couldn’t see who it was. A searing pain
hit my side and I screamed, the echoes blasting the empty space. Again! The
pain was white-hot.
‘Mr High And Mighty!’
a recognisable voice hissed. ‘Not so cock-sure now, eh?’
‘Why are you doing
this? Let me loose.’
‘No, because you
deserve to be.’
no-one, ridicules me. Superior intellect, hah.’
‘Let me go.
‘Please, now? Last
night you were so sure of yourself, your superior knowledge of mathematics. Too
smart for the rest of us.’
‘What do you
‘What I want is
for you to pit your wits against me. Use your so-called abilities to solve a
small puzzle. Set by me, your intellectual inferior. If you solve it you will
be freed. If you fail, well, no-one will find you. Few people come here but
someone will, in a month or so. Too late for you, though.’
‘You can’t do
this. I’ll be missed. They’ll come looking.’ I wriggled against my bonds,
trying to get a glimpse of my tormenter, but all I could see was a black boot
ready to deliver another blow.
fabulous mathematician. You can free yourself. After all, you have the means
and the clues lie ahead of you.’
Another lecture on. One that I, in my meagre capacity, am to deliver.’
I heard the scuff
of his boots as he turned away.
‘Wait. What clues?
What do I have to do?’
Enter the correct numbers into the armlet and your bonds will release. Fail and
the band will tighten.’
numbers? What do you mean?’
‘Ah, it lies ahead
of you. Goodbye.’
‘Wait!’ I yelled
as the sound of his footsteps faded away.
I banged my head
on the stone in frustration.
My head throbbed
and my throat dried up. Was he serious?
Did he mean me to lie here until I either solved the puzzle or died? What
screamed to the silence. I craned a look down the long corridor. The light and
dark was mesmerising. Maybe he meant a
combination of numbers such as my room number and hotel address. Yes.
I tapped in room
327 and the street address of 304 Arcadian Way. The armlet screen glowed
red: invalid password. A tingle throbbed in the collar banded around my neck. I
tried again, reversing the numbers. Invalid password. And again the band tingled. I thought of
entering the number of conference delegates. Again, invalid password. This time I thought I noticed a slight
tightening of the band.
Why was Finlayson so smug? What mathematical problem
could he think of to fool me? I went through numerous formulas and any
potential mathematical combination I could think of. Invalid password. All I achieved was more of a sore
neck, the band tight around my throat.
I had a raging
thirst, too. I noticed the light dying away. Night had come.
At some point I
must have fallen asleep, exhausted. I awoke to silence, throat sore as hell and
still shackled to the floor. The corridor ahead was its usual patterning of
light and dark, no-one around and no clue how to break my bonds. I thought I’d
kill Finlayson when I saw him as I lay there in a wallow of self-pity.
The patterning of
light and dark struck a chord. It was the same as the day before. Same hues. Could there be numbers there? After all, it
lay ahead of me, if Finlayson’s clue was to be believed.
I tried several
random series of numbers. Again, invalid password flashing in red. But this time additional words filled me with
horror; system will lock after three more attempts.
Finlayson!’ I swore as the tight band around my throat only allowed me to yell.
While I lay there
trying not to think of my raging thirst and choking throat a startling
revelation came. What could he do that
could outsmart me? Something about the place and the patterning, “ahead of me”?
If he could think of it, then I could
solve it. I racked my brain trying to remember Finlayson’s formula from the
became obvious, even showing a modicum of craftiness. I peered down the long
‘Yes!’ The light
and dark portions were regular, having a pattern, one that came to me in a
blinding flash. A bloody barcode; numbers in variations between the light and
dark. I thought back to the mathematics, recalling that each number from zero
to nine was represented by different light and dark segments in blocks of
seven. But what were they?
‘Fuck,’ I breathed through my constricted airway, my body
cramping as I lay there. Dying was a great incentive to solving the puzzle.
The light down the
corridor gave the clues. I allowed my mathematical brain to work through the
‘Ah!’ I rasped. ‘Five,
three, seven.’ I edged my free hand to the armlet and punched in the numbers.
Two entries remain.
‘Christ!’ The band
around my neck tightened so I drew air in with difficulty.
Surely the patterns represent the numbers I’d punched
in? Wait, I mustn’t have seen the final number due to the unevenness of the
I tried the new
numbers, ‘five, three, eight.’
The armlet screen
flashed red. Invalid password. One entry remaining.
The band tightened
further, pulling my head to the floor. What
mistake had I made? Why didn’t it work? After all I was smarter than Finlayson.
The idiot couldn’t beat me.
I peered down the
corridor with difficulty. ‘Shit!’ I thought,
realising the light entering the corridor was changing, afternoon coming on
making the barcodes harder to see, harder to decipher. I had little option but
to go for it. What had I done wrong?
Then I saw it,
another shadow making a number seem to be a three rather than a six, obvious
when you looked at it. Yes, that was it.
They were the numbers to save my life and give me my freedom.
I took a difficult
breath and entered the numbers. Five, three, six.
I pressed the last
number. A figure moved silently from the shadows at the end of the corridor.
The patterns shifted with his movement. The last number changed.
tightened, cutting off my airway. Finlayson’s laughter echoed down the
corridor. I didn’t need to see the words to know my fate.