2019 Short Stories,  Screen Saver

04 – Screen Saver

The troll had such a tight grip on her hair that Screen was sure he was going to tear out a clump of her hair.

And it was definitely going to be a while before she asked anyone to pull on her hair, which was a shame because there was something a woman with a solid grip on her that made her melt in such a good way.

Part of her wondered at her thoughts as the troll marched her back into the main office area, her co-workers unable to express their shock, voices stolen by the silence collars.

There were two options: either she was more of a badass than she’d ever thought, or she was in shock. Both were equally likely, but she hoped it was the badassery. She was a goddamn IT nerd, the most she’d ever had to test her mettle was standing alone at a train station at night, her courage wavering as she tried to stay out of the line of sight of drunks hanging out in the carpark.

There were few things scarier than a group of drunk white guys. A coworker-turned-slave-merchant was, unfortunately, one of them.

Still, she was impressed at how calm she was. Surely that had to count for something.

The troll let go of her hair, grabbed her shoulder and spun her, one of his huge, rough hands grabbing onto her right wrist to stop her from running.

‘Guess you missed one,’ a fairy commented as he moved forward, zip ties in hand. The fairy elbowed the troll. ‘Give me her hands.’

Screen didn’t fight as they bound her wrists together. Jones was going to take care of things. Fighting at this point would just get her hurt. Peter had already killed at least one person, and although it was likely that he’d probably blown his emotional load by murdering their manager, surely there was some sort of barrier breakdown after your first kill.

The first had to be the hardest, but if you managed it, the second would probably be easier.

The troll shoved her backward, and she slammed into the wall before sliding to the ground beside Leanne – the receptionist, so round with her pregnancy, she’d started calling herself “the mothership” and had a countdown calendar to her due date, which she called “close encounters of the baby-kind”.

Leanne wiggled over her direction, and even with bound hands, helped her to right herself, then mouthed the words “you okay?”.

Screen nodded but didn’t say anything. Neither the troll nor the fairy had been holding a spare silence collar, so if she kept quiet, they might forget to circle back and put one around her throat, and at this point, any advantage was worth keeping.

Leanne looked up, her gaze following the troll as he walked a circuit past the hostages, then went back to leaning against a desk.

Two fairies grabbed one of the hostages – a woman whose name she didn’t know, but the colour of her lanyard indicated she was part of the sales team, someone who had kept their job while Peter had lost his; and dragged her towards the fire stairs. It was a good move – it would take longer than the elevator, but there were no cameras, and even as shit as the elevators were, no one used the fire stairs except during the drills.

A few flights down, then a quick walk across the garage to the camouflaged door to the Fairyland stairs.

It wasn’t unusual for there to be Faerie stairs in garages – many were full portals that you could drive through, for people who wished to be able to drive on both planes. No one – save maybe the Agency – had the ability or desire to monitor every car going in and out of every parking garage, so it was decently anonymous, another aide to the masquerade to stop humans from finding out about the world and freaking the fuck out.

And there’d be cops on the Fairyland side. Jones had said there’d be cops there.

Everyone would be all right.

Everyone would be all right.

There was a tendency in older fae to call agents “angels” – at some point, as far as she understood, this was accurate. Right now, they rocked an Agent-Smith-Men-in-Black aesthetic, but hundreds of years ago, they had appeared in flashes of light and wielded swords.

For some fae, this incarnation of the Agency was still living memory, for others, it seemed to be somewhere between a term of affection and a way to make the Agency seem more casual – agent implied authority, angel didn’t.

Her earliest memory of encountering an agent was her mother dragging her up to a man in London – traversing through Faerie and using the stairs made international travel easy and close to free – apologising that they were lost, and asked him to provide them with a map.

The agent had chuckled, introduced himself, then required them a large tourist map, and as an extra nicety, had paid for a cab back to their hotel.

Between then and now, her interactions had been few and far between – they were background information. Like the Parks department or something, a public service you knew you could call on, but until you had to, they didn’t figure into your daily thoughts.

But in this moment, her life – and the lives of everyone around her – depended on exactly how reliable those angels were.

Another member of the sales team was whisked away.

Leanne started crying.

When the transport team came back for the next person, they grabbed Drew, someone she actually knew – he was loud, in the casual way that straight guys tended to be, but the jokes he told were wholesome, if random; and he was always ready to bribe IT with candy.

As the fairy woman pulled him to his feet, he used the momentum of being pulled up to surge forward and slam into her. She screamed and pushed him away.

Drew stumbled but rushed at her again before her companion could react, and this time, Screen saw what he was doing – in his bound hands, he held the reception desk spike – someone OH&S had tut-tutted at more than once with the chance of someone damaging themselves.

Apparently, OH&S hadn’t considered the idea that it would be used for intentional damage.

Drew rammed the spike into the fairy’s midsection, and judging by the scream, managed to sink it deep. He seemed to scream in triumph, but the silence collar stole the sound away.

He stepped back, and grabbed for the wooden base of the spike, but was tackled by one of the wombats, who bore him to the ground and began to punch him in the head.

There was a slamming sound, and Peter came running out of one of the offices – hopefully not the one with Tom’s body in it, a phone pressed to his ear. As he approached, he apologised to whoever he was speaking to and ended the call.

She focussed on the phone, and saw the gently pulsing light of the logo on the back – Genie – the closest thing there was to an Apple equivalent in Faerie. Given the circumstances, it was likely – probable, even – that he was talking to whoever was helping him arrange the meat market sale.

Again, she found herself looking at her thoughts – at how calm she was, at how she was still analysing the situation, instead of- Somehow, it didn’t feel rational to be rational, and yet, logic continued to keep her calm.

Peter put away his phone and pulled out his gun.

Beside her, Leanne began to shake.

She turned from the horrific – and about to be worse – scene in front of her, and placed her hands on Leanne’s leg. ‘Don’t draw attention to yourself,’ she said, keeping her voice as quiet as she could. ‘Be still.’

Leanne looked at her, tears welling in her eyes, then she hung her head, her mouth moving, praying or cursing, both her good options. So long as it kept her quiet – Peter was obviously focussing on the Sales team first, but anyone who made themselves obvious or loud or troublesome would probably get jumped to the head of the queue.

Peter shouted at Drew, a litany of curses and besmirchments. Calling him out for getting better numbers by flirting with clients. Accusing him of sleeping with management to get a raise. Nonsense and paranoia.

Nonsense and paranoia that was all the worse because Peter had his gun in his hand.

Two wombats had hauled Drew to his knees and were holding his arms above his head. Drew’s head lolled, and blood dripped to the floor – the wombat had done an excellent job of working him over.

‘Look at me!’ Peter shouted and Drew finally lifted his head to look at the gun in Peter’s shockingly steady hand.

She had made an assumption when she’d heard the first gunshot. She had assumed that Tom was his first kill, that all of this was had been born from desperation and anger. Nine-millimeter-revenge wrought by someone who had psyched themselves up by downing cheap shots at lunchtime.

It had been…it felt like a safe assumption. It was narratively convenient. It was the kind of thing you heard about. Single person makes a series of rash decisions, each worse than the last because they get into a spiral where they think they can dig themselves out by going deeper.

More and more, it was beginning to look like that thought had been in error.

More and more, she was starting to think that Tom hadn’t been his first kill.

Normal people, the kind of desperate-lone-shooter archetype that she’d been slotting Peter into didn’t hold a gun so confidently; and they sure as hell didn’t have slave-market contacts who could organise a snatch-and-sell this large at a moment’s notice.

It didn’t change anything. All the information she had given Jones was still right. It didn’t change anything about how the Agency would be organising their response.

It changed everything. If she didn’t do anything, she was going to have the blood splatter of a co-worker all over her stockings.

Drew struggled against the wombats, who pushed down on his outstretched arms, keeping him in place.

Peter laughed and aimed the gun.

Time hung in that unreal way it did when you were watching water drip from a tap, seconds stretching longer and longer with each successive drop.

‘He’s worth more alive.’

She was proud of how steady and clear her voice was. All business, all logic. No squeak, no hesitation.

Peter turned to look at her, the barrel of the gun still barely a foot from Drew’s head.

‘I know what you’re doing,’ she said. ‘It’s really obvious what you’re doing. It would be kind of you to kill him, but stupid. Dead meat always fetches less.’

The smile that spread across this face was unsettling. ‘And here I was thinking that the pregnant cow was going to be my best seller. You’ll feed a family for a month, and some people are really into the taste of halfbreeds. It’s gourmet to the right people.’

Drew started to struggle again, and Peter fired.

The wombats let go of Drew, who wrapped his arms around his bleeding middle, screaming silently.

‘Stella next,’ Peter said, pointing to a woman who had crawled over to Drew. She struggled against the wombat who moved to pull her to her feet, trying to keep her bound hands pressed to Drew’s bullet wound.

The original transport team had moved away to deal with the damage Drew had inflicted – medical treatment they weren’t offering to Drew himself. If the Agency didn’t appear, he was going to die.

Definitely time for Plan B, whatever that was.

She adjusted how she was sitting and pulled herself into a cross-legged position – for what she was going to do, it was the most comfortable and the most stable. She hung her head, rested her elbows on her thighs, and reached out with her mind.

If she’d had even a little more power, this would have been so much easier.

As soon as she forced her mind open, she could feel the fuzz of all the network connections around her – a hundred different signals from the computers and phones around her, pins-and-needles in her brain as she looked for the single different signal.

The memory of Peter’s Genie phone floated amongst her thoughts – that would make things more difficult – there would be two similar signals, her laptop and his phone, assuming he had an active data connection.

Vague lines and pulses appeared in her mind’s eye, and she pushed and felt her nose wrinkle with the effort of pushing to the depths of her power.

She opened her eyes and saw the lines floating in the air, saw the pulse coming from the direction of the storage hall, then closed her eyes again, and let every other network connection drop away.

Her laptop was still there, still connected, still operational.

She tapped her finger on her knee like she was clicking her mouse, and imagined Spiral, and the chat window with the agent.

It was inelegant, like a bull trying to ice skate, but it was something. This wasn’t something she had ever tried before – there’d never been a reason to try something like this before.

She tasted blood and plastic, then heard…white noise, and felt…white noise. The rest state of a computer not being tasked with anything. A processor running baseline programs, with nothing taxing.

A keyboard floated in her mind.

She opened her eyes, and as she looked down, saw blood gushing onto her skirt.

And there was no time to worry about that.

Something uncomfortable stirred at the base of her neck, and her centre of balance disappeared.

Unsteady, but determined, she lifted her hands, and slowly touched the visualisation of her keyboard, and pecked out {plan b now111111}, the tip of her finger tingling with each touch of the not-really-real keys, before she hit enter, and pitched forward towards darkness.

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