2019 Short Stories,  Screen Saver

02 – Screen Saver

As tempting as it was to just head home from the new office, management was always less suspicious of her actions when they saw her at least a few times a day. She’d successfully managed to not do any work for three days, simply by walking past Manager Tom’s office a few times a day with a LAN cable around her neck.

She called for a rideshare as she packed her laptop and accessories, then headed for the lift, functional, but still covered in plastic as befitted the work-in-progress building.

The car pulled into the side street at the same time as she left the service exit, and she waved at the driver, who smiled back, then stepped out to help her get her bags into the boot.

The drive back to the office was spent scratching down her itinerary for the rest of the day, which was mostly checking to make sure her temps had done their jobs. None of their tasks had been particularly difficult – routine virus scans; and swap out the last of the old-model phones, so that when the office moved, they would finally all be using the same model.

The car pulled up at the old office, and she dragged all of her equipment through the front door. One more hour or so, and she could head home, and either spend a glorious evening in – pizza and decompressing from the week; or head to her cousin Rush’s standing invitation for “family Friday”.

Family Fridays were usually a good time – primarily it was attended by a bunch of her generation of cousins, and it was mostly spent drinking cheap booze and bitching about their jobs.

The card reader to access the room the held the lifts took three goes to recognise her card, almost as if to give her a chance to reconsider the ride ahead.

They were the worst she’d ever seen – little, mildew-laden death traps that had to be a health hazard that rattled so much that they made her doubt all of the redundant safety systems.

A bribe of a key to the building’s trash room had barely been sufficient to get a city hob to bless the lifts. The blessings were meaningless, almost meaningless, more ritual than actual magic, but it had made her feel better. And it was better than nothing, as she hadn’t been able to get one of the mechanical members of her family to see to them.

Family was family, but the members of her family with actual powers were harder to bribe or book, as they were too busy making actual money with their talents.

The power differential between the generations was a drop off unlike any other species anyone knew of – she was third-generation, and practically human. Fae blood seemed to last forever, with minor characteristics following some families down the centuries.

Even agent blood lasted longer – not the teleportation and conjuration that only worked when they were connected to their special wifi, but strength, smarts and longevity were gifts that lasted longer than any Domain blood she’d seen.

Her third-generation cousins, those with kids, were reporting children that were mostly powerless, except in the most minor or coincidental ways. Powers that were almost just more “skill” than actual magic.

By the time they had kids, that would probably be the end of their magic.

It was sad, but at least her family had been allowed to live.

And that was a morbid fucking thought for a Friday afternoon.

She hit the button for the eighth floor and held her breath as the lift slowly ascended, hoping with each second that this trip up wasn’t going to be the time she met Death.

It was still better than eight goddamn flights of stairs.

She stopped in the ill-stocked breakroom, and dumped all of her equipment, except for her laptop bag, and headed for the office via the storage hall.

As soon as she drew level with the maze of shelves, she stopped dead.

Something was wrong.

Any office space was a collection of a hundred little sounds – conversations, calls, phones, printers, keyboards, machines – the humdrum symphony that was unnoticed background noise.

A background noise you only noticed when it was gone.

She pulled her laptop bag to her front and pressed it to her body, keeping it from making a sound.

Silence sucked at her ears, and she envied the agents their ability to teleport.

A thread of paranoia crept up her spine. It was a dumb action movie cliché, but it was too quiet.

Silence in an office didn’t happen for no reason – if there were a fire or some other evacuation, there would have been a sign of people milling about outside; sirens still going, or a floor warden directing people to evacuate.

It wasn’t the day before the Christmas shutdown – the only day of the year where getting out early was guaranteed.

Therefore, something bad was happening.

She took another step, trying to convince herself that she was just misreading the situation.

A short scream assured her that she wasn’t.

She stepped left before she realised she had done so, and moved carefully through the first row of shelves – they were on rails, allowing you to slide the heavy sections open to whatever you needed to access, but since no one ever really organised them, they were left haphazard, with multiple shelves exposed.

There was a thin space between the two rows of sliding shelves, so if the sections were exactly right, you could hide in the second row without being seen from the outside – something she’d done once at a function when her fairy girlfriend at the time had required a…private moment.

She squeezed through the aisle, an aisle that had not been designed for fat techs carrying thick laptop bags, and slipped in the last row, as far back out of sight as she could be without going through the wall.

She wedged herself into the same spot where she’d finger fucked her ex and slid quietly to the floor, her laptop bag on her lap, and twisted her head to every angle, ensuring that her hiding place was truly hidden – which, for the moment, it was.

Someone else screamed, and this scream was followed by a series of disconcerting thumps, then breaking glass, then silence.

Fear thundered in her chest, actual, real, call-the-fucking-agents fear. Depending on the situation, the cops might have been the better option, considering that almost all of her colleagues were human, but cops couldn’t shift. Cops would take more time, agents could swoop in within seconds of being contacted.

Inch by inch, she unzipped her laptop bag and opened it up.

She touched the lid of the laptop and closed her eyes, and willed it to be quiet, imagining the symbol for muted sound in her mind’s eye until it became something she could actually see and waited until she felt that her power had done its thing.

After a second of hesitation, she opened her laptop. She could call the cops, but that would mean talking, would mean sound, and sound was the enemy right now.

At least with the Agency, you could text them, and it was far easier to control the volume of a conversation where – if necessary – she could make the words appear in the chat box if she thought hard enough.

But first, information. The Agency would need to know what kind of response to send – one situation might require a negotiator, another might require three Agency tanks to break down the door and come in guns blazing.

She logged into the network – invisibly, just as an extra precaution – and accessed the piss poor security system that they had installed to just barely pass an audit. Half a dozen low-resolution webcams that only showed the main office and call centre area.

Four of the six – the four that sat in prominent locations had been taken out – either destroyed or unplugged, it didn’t matter, they were no longer connected to the network, and therefore there was nothing she could do with them.

There were two slightly hidden cameras – one sat at the back of a bookcase, the other sat on the receptionist’s desk amongst the collection of dolls and toys that had accumulated there.

The bookcase camera was useless – it had been tipped over, and now faced the back of the bookcase, with something heavy keeping it on an angle.

The one on the reception desk showed nothing but red – a folder or piece of cloth had been pushed up against it. At least it was still upright, at least it just needed…a little coercion.

She pictured the camera in her mind, thought of its curves, it’s installation program, everything she had done to bring it online. It was a shitty, cheap camera but at the moment, it could mean salvation for a couple of dozen people.

Almost unconsciously, she touched her laptop keyboard and felt the fuzzy tickle of the wifi against the pads of her fingers.

The camera became a clear object, something that she could really see, not just imagine, and she begged it to move. She opened her eyes, and the image stayed, overlaid on reality like she was wearing VR goggles, or using an AR app.

Micron by micron, it did, moving – even though it hadn’t been designed to do so. Blood dripped onto her hand as she leaned forward, and the red folder slipped away from the camera.

With the view of the office clear, she released her grasp on the network, and let her powers retreat, to rest and recharge.

Her blood impersonated the body temperature of a Frost Jack for a moment as she looked at the low-resolution feed. The population of the office sat on the floor, guarded by a group of fae.

A group of fae that were making no attempt to hide that they were fae.

That meant only bad things.

The masquerade was in a lot of ways bullshit – there wasn’t anyone she knew that didn’t wonder what would happen if or when the humans found out – but as far as she knew, it was the fae who had asked to be kept safe from the humans.

Because of this – and because of the nature of people, fae or human, just wanted to live uncomplicated lives, they avoided bringing attention to themselves.
A group of fae like this-

Footsteps approached, and she stilled herself. They passed by the shelving units and moved into the small tea room, either after a cuppa or-

There was an ugly, screeching grinding sound as the security gate. A woman laughed, and the boots walked back past the shelves and stopped as soon as they reached the carpeted area.

The immediate issue dealt with, she focused on making a list of the fae. Three fairies, their wings visible – though a detail that would have been lost on the humans was the shine of metal – replacement pieces where parts of their wings had been damaged.

Two wombats stood near the far wall, bulky like the bigger kind of football players, both in overalls.

And even bigger than the wombats was a man leaning against a desk that looked was buckling from the pressure of his weight. He was too tall, too- Oversized, like he was built to a scale way above what was normal.

When he turned, she saw the crags and recognised him for what he was – a concrete troll, a halfbreed at least. The full trolls were large enough to snack on buses – this guy was still short enough to fit in an office building.

It complicated things though, as, like hobs, concrete trolls could read any concrete they were touching – so she made sure she wasn’t touching the wall. If he was concentrating, the troll could probably still detect her, like a distant ripple on a spider web, but hopefully, it had more to think about than for looking for hidden interlopers.

Fairies, wombat, a troll and-

There was a gunshot, and she squeaked; her arms flying out and against the shelves. She bit down on her lip and hoped that the sound of her surprise hadn’t carried into the office.

It hadn’t been any of the obvious hostages – and none of the visible fae were holding a smoking gun. She looked over the webcam image again, trying to figure out-

The door to Manager Tom’s office opened, and a man walked out, a gun held in his swinging left arm, the barrel tapping against his thigh. Peter Turnhill.

The image fuzzed for a moment, and she hoped it wasn’t interference from her brain.

She calmed herself and waited for the image to clear.

Definitely Peter. A man that usually had a headset or a cold coffee in his hand. Not a gun. Not a gun that had probably just killed their manager. An ineffective, callous manager, but not a man that deserved to get shot on a Friday afternoon.

He was a quarter-fairy; something she hadn’t even noticed until she’d caught him with a bag from Famous Fry’s – and had bargained for some of his brikini. He’d assumed she was part fairy too, and she hadn’t argued, it was the lie most of her family presented to the world. There were dangers in identifying to the world as a Domain, even when your powers were as weak as piss.

She had information, now she needed the Agency.

She brought up Spiral, and navigated to her Local Court home page, and clicked on the icon to contact the Agency. The pre-chat form was efficient, asking for a location, and whether or not it was an emergency.

One click submitted the form, and the blue chat window appeared, an automatic message asking her to define her emergency.

She wrote out her building’s address, tried to breathe, and wished she was someone else. Or somewhere else.

{Fae with guns. One or more dead. HELP!!!!!!!!!}

A little icon appeared, indicating a response was being formed.

{I’m Agent Jones. Are you in immediate danger?}

She looked around and hunkered down closer to the floor. {No. I’m hiding.}

{What’s your name?}


{Thank you for your location. I can’t get a fix on you.}

She rubbed her eyes with her left hand. {This block is on top of some fairy stairs, it’s always kind of been shit for you guys.}

{Confirming blackout conditions, I can’t shift you out, or anyone else. What’s the situation?}

{Sec.} She clicked the option to screen-share with the chat and sized the windows so that only the chat and the security camera feed filled the screen.

Peter was walking around the room, shouting at the hostages as his fae friends checked the zip ties that bound the hostages.

{The shouty guy just got fired.}

{This is an extreme reaction.} The agent replied, winning the understatement of the year contest.

Peter and his goons began to circle again – this time, they were tying collars around the necks of the hostages. From a distance, they looked like simple elastic chokers – the truth was far less straightforward.

{Do you recognise those?} The agent asked, pulling her eyes away from the camera feed.

Her fingers were slow to type out a response in the affirmative. Silence collars. Three tiny needles punched into the skin and inhibited the voice box.

Safety courses were a part of Fairyland schooling – they started young with basic stranger danger; then as you grew older, they exposed you to more and more of the dangers of the world. They would bring examples of various devices that could incapacitate or transport you; so she’d seen deactivated silence collars, clap jackets, and examples of a dozen ways your drink could be fucked with.

Silence collars – the safety teacher had insisted – would be something they would likely never see. They were the purview of kidnappers and slavers.

And now, the simple black straps were being fitted on everyone she worked with.

She pulled out her phone, and pulled up the group text she had with her parents, and typed out a short message, telling them that she loved them.

Right now, she was safe, and the Agency would come and save them, but- But there were a hundred ways things could go sideways, and she didn’t want the last message she’d sent her parents to be a picture of a lumpy carrot that had “legs”.

Peter had shot their manager. His friends were being openly fae. He wasn’t on the phone negotiating with anyone. This wasn’t a situation he wanted a solution to – his solution was to take his co-workers and-

She looked down at the computer and hated that her fingers had started to shake. {This is a meat market sale, isn’t it?}

The agent’s reply was immediate. {It looks like it. Stay hidden.}

Faerie, like Earth, had its dark corners. Humans being initiated to the world thought of children’s’ stories; of beautiful pixies sitting atop picture-perfect red-and-white toadstools. Humans, new to the world, never thought of sentient trafficking, or just how common it might be.

Then again, most residents of Earth made a point not to think about human trafficking.

Fae children were warned not to wander off; lest they never be heard from again. Parents giving the warnings did so in veiled terms, in ways that wouldn’t scar their children before bedtime.

You had to wait until you were in your teens to really understand that there were places where people were bought and sold, that warehouses would be set up like farmers markets – but instead of each stand holding lovingly cultivated carrots and peas, you could buy a whole human, or pieces of a goblin.

You found out that some fae were still wild in the worst ways; that some still had diets that consisted primarily of other thinking, reasoning creatures.

She’d been fifteen, nearly half her life ago, and she still remembered how dark her room had been, lit only by her laptop screen, and a living, luminescent mushroom. Remembered how the chat window among her classmates had been exploding. It was one thing to fear being snatched and never being seen again, it was another thing entirely to have a friend screaming into chat that their brother had been recovered – alive, but barely. A brother that was missing limbs and organs, who had seen sections of his own arm fried up and served to patrons.

No one who had been in that chat had gone to school the next day or the next.

Her friend had dropped entirely, transferring to online learning instead. Her brother had…the family liked to say “mostly recovered”, but that was a nicety that they had to say. Had to believe themselves.

And now, people she saw every day, people who bribed IT with chocolate, or shouted her coffee on payday were being tied and silenced, with her coworker ready to sell off his colleagues by the pound.

She pressed her hands to her mouth and whispered a prayer of protection that a goblin babysitter had taught her once.

{Agent. Are your people coming?}

The chat window blinked, and an incoming video stream appeared, allowing her to see the agent for the first time. Even as bad as the situation was, she smiled – everything about the agent screamed “nerd”, and that somehow put her at ease.

He wore glasses – he had chosen to wear glasses – agents didn’t get bad eyesight, so it was an aesthetic affectation – something that was common among the brainer classes of agent, or older ones who wanted that “distinguished old man” look going on.

Since the agent in front of her looked young – somewhere in this thirties – she had to assume he was a specialist or technician or whatever the brain trust agents called themselves.

The glasses told her his class; the enamel pin of a d20 told her he was a nerd. His hair was long and messy, and she was sure she owned the same shirt he was wearing under his lab coat.

He spoke, and as he did, the words appeared in the chat box like automatic subtitles. {I’m going to help you, everything is going to be ok.}


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