2019 Short Stories,  Screen Saver

05 – Screen Saver

Someone kicked her.

She moaned.

‘Get up!’

She could still taste blood and plastic.

‘Get up!’

Screen brought her hands up and felt disgusted when she found her face semi-glued to the carpet with blood. She hadn’t been out – if she’d been out at all, she could remember the passage of time, even though it was fuzzy – for long.

‘Your turn next, you’ve got to get up!’ A fairy shouted at her as he dragged her to her feet. She immediately went to the wall for balance, her head leaning against the window.

The room was half empty, and her headache was three sizes too large.

Redness filled her vision. Vision damage, or-

The redness disappeared, then reappeared. She blinked a few times and focussed through the window, rather than on the pane of glass next to her face.

In the building across, a half dozen people in black SWAT-type outfits swarmed behind the windows. The red light was coming from a laser pen being held by a woman with a gorgeous undercut.

The laser pen disappeared from the woman’s hand, and she stabbed a finger down. Screen smiled at her, worried that a nod might alert the kidnappers to the fact that something was happening.

The woman held up three fingers, and mouthed the word “go”, before lowering the first finger.

Screen moaned loudly and swooned to the floor, doing her best to fall in a way that would at least partially protect Leanne.

‘Close your eyes,’ she whispered urgently and squeezed her own closed tight.

Even with her eyes closed, the world went white and bright. There was a whoompf as the windows blew in, glass and wood smashing into every part of the office. Leanne screamed, and she grabbed onto the woman. ‘Stay still. It’s the good guys.’

Multiple pairs of heavy boots landed on the floor, and she tried to stay still, to avoid being crushed by the cavalry.

The Agency shouted commands at the would-be slavers, shouted at the hostages that they were there to help, and within seconds, seemed to take control of the situation.

‘Here,’ a woman’s voice said, ‘I’ll get those.’

Someone dragged on her wrists, and she forced herself to open her eyes – everything was still blurry from the flashbang or miniature sun or whatever it was that had blasted through the room – but she could see enough to see the woman standing over her.

It was the same woman from the window – white hair styled in an undercut; blood on her tan cheek; and whilst she wore the same pants as everyone else, her upper half seemed to be covered in something better described as a tactical corset – matte black, with thick shoulder straps, and fashionable as fuck.

The woman bent and cut the zip tie around Screen’s hands, then stood, tall and powerful. An Amazon warrior framed in fluorescence and particulate debris.

It took every bit of restraint she had to stop herself from asking the woman to step on her.

The recruit – agents were rarely this gorgeous – wiped the back of her hand across her face, smearing her black lipstick, but getting rid of the blood splatter.

‘You did good,’ the woman said as she tossed the cut restraints behind herself. She winked, then moved onto the next set of hostages.

‘Come on,’ Screen said to Leanne as she first got to her feet, then helped the sobbing woman stand.

She took a proper look around the office – glass was everywhere, and pretty much the entire wall was gone – it had definitely been more than a flashbang. Two recruits stood near the empty space where the windows had been, helping people step across onto scaffolding they’d rigged between the buildings as a makeshift bridge.

It was a good move – it gave them a clean area to do triage and arrange for further medical assistance if needed – and cleared the people from a place they were going to think of as “traumatising” for a good long while.

She helped Leanne to the windows, and one of the recruits walked the woman over to the opposite building. When he returned, he offered a hand.

‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’m kind of shit at heights.’

In the building across, three recruits in normal Agency uniforms – suits rather than SWAT – were helping people to chairs, giving them silver emergency blankets, and alternatively handing out water or small styrofoam cups.

She walked up to the recruit pulling bottles of water from a case and leaned in. ‘Can you require me a phone, my friend needs to call home, and no one has their purse.’

‘Yeah,’ the recruit said, ‘sure thing.’ He put the water down and held his hand out, a generic-looking phone appearing there. ‘It’s on a twenty-four dismiss timer, don’t worry about handing it back.’

She nodded, grabbed a bottle of water, and went to Leanne. ‘Here,’ she said as she handed the phone over. ‘Call your husband, hear his voice, you’ll feel better.’

‘Th-thank you, sweetie,’ Leanne said as she took the phone.

A recruit touched her on the shoulder and motioned to a chair a few feet away. ‘You’re bleeding, let me clean that up.’

She allowed the recruit to clean the blood from her face – the blood had stopped flowing, which was good, but it would probably be a good idea to avoid using her power for a few days – or weeks – just to be on the safe side.

After the recruit announced that she was as good as could be under the circumstances, he gave her another bottle of water and suggested that she drink it all, before leaving to deal with the next casualty – someone with a marketing lanyard, who had several pieces of glass lodged in their face.

After about fifteen minutes, the woman in the tactical corset, followed by a man who had the build to be a professional wrestler, came across the scaffolding and into the building. The woman beckoned at her with two fingers, and Screen gladly went to her.

She followed the two of them to a part of the floor without any of her coworkers – away from human ears. The man stood with his back up against the wall, and the woman sat on a desk, feet propped on its chair.

‘You’ll be happy to know,’ the woman said without preamble, ‘that the man who was shot is in surgery now, and expected to be fine.’

‘Good, and-’

‘You’re the only fae,’ the man said, his voice a grumble.

He hadn’t asked it like a question, but she felt the need to say something anyway. ‘Besides the ringleader, yeah. You’ll need to do the costumes-and-masks bullshit cover story, or just muddle everyone’s minds and claim roofies. Honestly, the second’s probably kinder, but you know what you’re doing. So-’ She focussed on the woman, who, unlike her partner, seemed to be actually capable of moving her face. ‘Thank you for the rescue. If- I mean- I don’t think Drew would have been the only one to try something if it had gone on too much longer.’

The man growled. ‘Scholar.’

‘Jones was afraid of bloodshed if they didn’t try a diplomatic solution first. He still needs to be debriefed about any details he might be missing if you’re up to it.’

‘Yeah, sure, anything I can do to help,’ she said.

The world blurred, and she threw her hands forward, expecting to hit the ground again. Instead, after a moment, everything settled – but the scenery had changed, and Agent Jones stood in front of her.

He looked surprised, and she imagined that his expression matched hers.

‘I’m guessing,’ Jones said as he put down his tablet. ‘That dear Agent Taylor didn’t say anything before shifting you?’

‘Uh- No, not really.’

‘I apologise,’ Jones said. ‘He’s rather rude like that.’ Jones held out his hand. ‘It’s nice to meet you in meatspace. I know what you went through was awful, but I’m glad you’re okay.’

She took his hand and shook it, then stepped forward and gave him a quick hug. ‘Thank you, Agent. Really. Thank you.’

Jones returned the hug, then placed his hands on her shoulders and gave her an apologetic look. ‘I’m sorry that the diplomatic route didn’t pan out.’

‘But Plan B did.’

Jones walked around the other side of the bench in the centre of the room and slid a tablet in her direction. ‘That was something I wanted to talk to you about.’ On the tablet was the chat window and her last message. ‘You weren’t at your computer when this came through.’ He hesitated, then waved a hand near his temple. ‘What, precisely, are you? You’re some variety of non-human, to be sure, but my HUD keeps glitching out to read you as an inanimate object.’

She hesitated for a moment – her family tended to keep a reasonably low profile, not hiding who they were, but not advertising it to the whole world. Part of it was simplicity, there as a lot to explain if the person asking hadn’t heard of your people – there wasn’t really a simple explanation that you could boil down in a couple of sentences. Whatever short description you gave left something out, so people always prodded for more information.

Sitting around the table after a game of Catan had turned into a fist fight, she and three of her cousins had tried to come up with the official-unofficial concise description of their family. And failed. And had gone back to drinking, while watching Larry try to play dominoes with Hanabi tiles and crying when he couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working.

The closest they had come up with was: you know how the gods created agents to keep law and order like their own cadre of magic cops? Someone got bored and thought it would be fun to make something similar but to monitor random shit. I come from a family of gods of small, stupid things. Whatever we were supposed to do, it failed, so they just set us loose in the world to live like regular-ass people.

The first generation had tried to get themselves integrated with the agency – as they were the race they felt the closest to – they’d been artificially created, but something closer to true life had been breathed into them – they had no software, and they weren’t reliant or any system or special wifi like the agents were.

Some had been taken on as recruits, but as a whole, the Agency had been unsure as to what to do with them – they were less and more all at the same, so it was confusing. More, because they had been directly created by a god, when whatever entity had created the Agency hadn’t been in touch since the inception of the concept millennia ago. Less, because without an equivalent of the Agency system, they were as vulnerable as regular humans, or the less hardy fae.

Even as relatively powerful as the first generation had been, with how little the Agency had recruited back then, it had been simpler for the Agency just to pass on the whole idea.

And what could have been a great partnership had been lost.

The Agency was safe – there was a reason she had called on them, but when you were used to using obfuscation, there was always that moment of hesitation. It was like the same panic-danger-thin-slicing you went through when deciding whether or not it was safe to admit to being queer in a new situation, or with new people.

Jones seemed safe, even though he had eyes so green it was possible his mother had been a computer monitor in the eighties, he seemed safe.

‘I’m a Domain. Well, third-generation, but still.’

‘Well, I guess I owe one of my kids twenty bucks. Sacha laid a wager you were from that line, he’s always had an interest in the weirder parts of the world.’ Jones smiled. ‘I’m impressed, I’ve not actually met someone from your- Family?’ he guessed. ‘And at some future point, I’d love if you indulged me in roughly eight hundred questions.’

She grinned at him. ‘Have you got access to the Agency’s discretionary funds?’

‘I do indeed.’

‘Then we might be able to work something out.’

He winked. ‘I may. For now, let’s get on with the debrief so I can prepare a report about this.’

She nodded and told him the whole story.

With the last of the notes taken, Jones drummed his fingers on the bench. ‘All this does lead me to one rather important question. Do you think you’ll continue to work for that company? I imagine the disarray today has caused will mean a shutdown of at least a few weeks.’ He adjusted his glasses, then folded his arms. ‘I was very impressed with you, and I’d like to invite you to be part of this Agency.’

‘What role do you see me filling, Agent?’

He gave her a wry smile. ‘You’re a geek, and you’re half computer, you’ll fit in, and we’ll figure it out. I’m not one of those agents that demands a resume or a group interview before recruiting. My department is as much as attitude as it is ability. The position comes with board, of course, no pay as such, but you can require almost anything that you could ever need, and-’

‘Just give me a minute to process. I’d have to break my lease, formally quit, shuffle some appointments-’ She turned the concept over and over in her mind. ‘What’s the life expectancy?’ She laid her hands on the table. ‘I survived today, but that’s not something I want to be doing every week.’

He nodded. ‘As a tech, you’ve got very little to worry about. Any and all field duty you’d have would be at an acceptable safety risk – i.e., as close to none as we can manage – and it’s voluntary. Unless there’s an emergency situation, but in an emergency, within these walls may not be the safest place to be.’

‘I’ll think about it.’ She rubbed at the back at her neck. ‘Maybe give me a day?’

‘Of course. But please, for tonight, allow us to host you. You can get a look at the amenities, you can pamper yourself with some limited requiring access. Think of it as a hotel stay as a palette cleanser after the awfulness.’

‘Jonesy does like to bribe recruits. It’s a pretty cushy job if you take it. Lots of perks.’

Screen swung her head around and saw the tactical corset – and the woman it contained – standing in the door. ‘Sorry for barging in,’ she said lightly, ‘but I found this.’ She held up a familiar-looking phone. ‘And it’s been buzzing like a sex toy ever since I picked it up.’


Screen jumped out of her chair and ran to the door, and accepted her phone from her gorgeous saviour. ‘My parents,’ she said as she looked back at Jones, ‘can I?’

Jones nodded, and she stepped out into the hall. She looked down at the phone, and swiped to unlock it – but was stopped as an incoming call appeared – her mother’s mobile phone.

‘Hey mum,’ she said as she put her phone to her ear. ‘I’m okay. I’m okay. Before you ask anything. I’m okay.’

There was a gasp from the other side, and she heard her mother start to cry. There was a fumble, and her father came on the line. ‘Neen,’ he said, using the childhood nickname he only used in the worst of circumstances. ‘Are you okay?’

‘I wasn’t there,’ she said, the lie coming out in a rush. ‘I was at the new office. But I’ve been on the phone with people – I had to help get floor plans and stuff. I’m so sorry I didn’t call, but- I’m okay.’

‘Do you need us to come get you? Do you want to stay the night?’

She looked back into Jones’ office-slash-lab and saw Jones bickering with the tall woman. ‘I still need to give a few statements, then I’m gonna crash. Can we do lunch tomorrow? I just- I just need some time to process everything.’

‘Whatever you need, but give us a call later, please. If you can. I need- We love you, Neen.’

‘Love you too. Bye.’

She ended the call, lifted the collar of her shirt, and slid the phone into her bra.

There was a tap on her shoulder, and the woman walked out into the hall to join her. ‘You’re a natural. White lies to protect the outside. You could have claimed all the glory for yourself.’

‘My parents,’ she said. ‘If I- If I’d told them what really happened – well, I’ll tell them what happened, but if I’d told them I was there, it would scare the shit out of them for the rest of their lives. Every time they see me, it’ll be all they can think about.’

‘Even though you orchestrated the rescue with a laptop and a chat window?’

‘All they’ll see is the danger I was in. I don’t want that.’

‘Come on,’ the recruit said, ‘Jones has dismissed you for now,’ she waved a keycard. ‘And I get to take you to the premium suite.’

Screen nodded and fell into step beside her.

‘I haven’t seen Jones so excited about a potential new recruit in a long time,’ the recruit said as they headed for the elevator. ‘And you didn’t give an immediate answer – I kind of admire that. A lot of people get won over really quickly.’

‘Humans get more starry-eyed I’d guess,’ she said. ‘When you grow up just thinking of the Agency as another public service organisation, it’s a little different.’

‘Are you leaning one way or the other?’ the recruit asked as she scratched at the short hair of her undercut. ‘You handled yourself really well today. I wouldn’t mind if you stuck around.’ The recruit’s smile was almost – no, definitely – flirty. ‘We could use some more competent people around here.’

‘You haven’t told me your name yet, hero,’ Screen said as she followed the recruit into the lift.

‘Magnolia,’ the recruit said as she punched the button for the next floor. ‘Mags if I like you.’ She held out her hand. ‘So I’m Mags to you. I think we’re going to be good friends.’

Screen took and held the woman’s hand for a moment longer than was necessary. ‘I’m on the fence about the position,’ she said. ‘But if you’re flirting with me, Recruit, it’s going to make me lean a little more towards putting on a suit and tie.’

Magnolia moved to thread their fingers together. ‘Disappointing, here I was thinking about you taking your clothes off, not having you put more on.’

She leaned closer to the recruit. ‘I like your train of thought.’

Magnolia’s black eyes glittered. ‘So make a move, nerd.’

Screen snaked her left arm around Magnolia’s back, and buried her right hand in her shaggy white hair, the very tips of her fingers scratching at the buzzed undercut. ‘I think you’re right Mags,’ she said as she dipped the taller woman. ‘I think we’re going to be very good friends.’

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Alexander Hollins


I know you're thinking something, Recruit...x