Read Terry’s latest story!

Cover image credit: Mikayla MacManus

Leigh’s Monday started as normal. She rolled out of bed, wheeled herself to her desk, and settled in front of her monitor with a bowl of cereal while the Liu family ate breakfast.

‘So, what’s on for today, kiddo?’ James Liu asked. The camera Leigh was watching through panned up from his bowl and across the table as he spoke from behind its field of view.

‘Nothing much,’ answered Han, his daughter. She was sitting to her father’s left, her fingers tap-dancing across her phone as she chewed through a piece of toast.

Leigh snorted through a mouthful of milk and sugared wheat. ‘Yeah, right.’ She waved a hand over an empty portion of her desk, opening another monitor there. She tapped through her custom menus until it became a mirror of the teenager’s phone screen. It hadn’t been easy patching into Han’s phone—technically, by the terms of her contract, Leigh wasn’t supposed to interfere with any tech beyond Mr Liu’s implant, lest it be traced back to her—but it had been worth it.

Soon.

How long it take to eat breakfast? Lol

Lol, shut up you’re such a dick

Yeah I am. Show you later. ;-P

‘Oh shit, Jim, you gotta watch that boy,’ Leigh told her empty room with a grin.

In front of her, Jim simply stared into his cereal bowl, poking at the rapidly-sogging wheat with his spoon.

‘Well, you still going to practice tonight?’

‘Dunno.’

‘You should,’ Jim said. ‘You need to—we need to get back into routine, you know?’

Leigh nearly dropped her bowl as she sat bolt upright. ‘Jim, you idiot!’ On the screen in front of her, Han shoved back from the table, tossing her half-eaten scrap of toast onto her plate.

‘I’ve gotta go. See you tonight.’

The camera wobbled and elevated as Jim also stood. His hand stretched into Leigh’s field of view as he reached towards his daughter.

‘Hey, I didn’t mean—’

‘Don’t touch me,’ she said, backing away faster.

Leigh’s view shook as Jim followed her from the kitchen to the hallway. 

‘Hey, just hold up a minute,’ he said, clutching her shoulder and turning her around. ‘I’m trying, okay? It’s hard, you know, I—’

‘Oh, is it?’ Han shouted, pulling her arm from his with a jerk. Her elbow flew backwards into a framed photo that was sitting on the hall table beside her. It fell to the floorboards with the tinkle of breaking glass. Han didn’t seem to notice, but Jim—and Leigh—tracked every centimetre of its fall.

‘It’s so hard for you, huh? Sitting in this house all day with your new eye and the wad of cash ATC paid out after the accident? That must be so much harder than going out there every day and having people staring at you, whispering behind your back about how broken you must be. About how you could possibly live in this house with the guy who killed your mum.’

‘I didn’t . . .’ Jim rasped, his voice catching with emotion. His eyes never left the fallen photo. Leigh was transfixed by the scene, the half-suspended spoonful of cereal by her lips utterly forgotten.

‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ he said. ‘That car came out of nowhere, Han. I didn’t have time to . . . there was no way I could have—’

‘Yeah. I’ve heard it.’ Han’s lip curled. ‘Why did you even come back, Dad? Mum and I were fine on our own. It only took you, what, three months to get her killed?’ She shook her head as though banishing all thoughts of her father from within. She snatched a set of house keys from the hall stand, and the door slammed behind her as she left Jim staring at the shattered photograph.

‘Well damn.’ Leigh sighed as she watched Jim reach for the broken memory. She leaned back in her chair, the fabric creaking against its frame. She tapped her spoon against her lower lip while he turned the photo over in his hands, then the screen went dark as he squeezed his eyes shut. Leigh toggled her view to the hall camera, and watched as he slumped forwards on his knees, bent sobbing over the photograph. She half-turned to give the man some privacy and swallowed hard against the rising lump in her own throat.

She leaned forwards and dropped her bowl on her desk, waving her hand over the space behind it and opening a new monitor. She tapped the single name in her contact list and a moment later, their face appeared.

‘Leigh,’ the man said, running a hand across his tired-looking eyes. ‘This had better be important.’

‘Hey Luke,’ she said, toggling up the sound of Jim sobbing in the background. ‘When are we going to stop snooping on this guy?’

Luke sighed. ‘When the Adeon Transhumanism Corporation is fully satisfied, Leigh. How many times we gotta go over this?’

‘I don’t know; the guy’s just sitting alone in his house, crying over his dead wife. I guess I’m tired of just sitting around too. How long till you believe me this guy’s innocent?’

‘I don’t care if he’s innocent, Leigh. I care what ATC tells us to do. They say watch him; we watch, okay?’

‘I just don’t see the point, Luke. It’s been eight months, what are they waiting—hang on.’ Looking back at her monitor, she saw Luke had opened his eyes and was now poking a finger inside the frame he held. ‘He’s doing something weird.’

‘Leigh?’ Luke asked.

She isolated a section of the video feed and zoomed her view. She watched as Jim pulled a small, white, micro-storage device out from his dead wife’s smile and inspected it for damage.

‘Huh,’ she said. ‘There’s some sorta data drive hidden in the photo.’

‘Really?’ Luke asked, leaning forwards to loom in her field of view. ‘Interesting—send me a copy of the video. I’ll pass it along to ATC and see what they say.’

Leigh tapped through her screens as Jim, apparently satisfied by what he saw, replaced the data drive and returned the family photo to the hall table, rearranging the spiderwebbed glass as best he could.

‘Sent,’ Leigh confirmed as she packaged the data for Luke. ‘Wonder what it is?’

‘Who knows,’ Luke said. ‘It could be anything from his full plan on killing his wife for her insurance to kiddie porn.’

‘Ew,’ Leigh said. ‘I’m telling you, Luke, he’s a good guy. It won’t be that.’

‘Yeah, well good guys don’t just up and leave their family for twelve years without so much as a birthday card,’ Luke said, looking off-camera as he received the video. ‘Keep watching him; I’ll check in later, okay?’

‘Righto,’ Leigh said as Luke closed the call from his end. Through her monitor, the image moved to the kitchen and she watched Jim prepare a cup of tea with still-shaking hands.

The rest of the day passed the same as it always did. She sat and watched as he fiddled around the house, repeating the same chores in the same order. She logged them meticulously; seven minutes sorting the laundry, twenty-six minutes loading the dishwasher (and being distracted watching videos on his phone), two minutes on the toilet, and nearly two hours working his way through his latest romance novel—this time, a story about a divorced librarian by Belinda Missen. His slow pace of reading frustrated Leigh to no end; they’d been reading it for three days now and the story was getting good. She sighed when he returned his reader to the charger, still unfinished. 

Jim even spent an hour in the afternoon attending to the pathetic scramble of weeds he jokingly called the ‘jungle out back’. They’d had some rain in the last few days—some actual rain—and he’d adorably descended into a fantasy of a future featuring rows of pumpkins and silverbeet which Han, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t care less about.

‘Oh Jim, you’ve got a browner thumb than I do.’ Leigh shook her head as she watched him uproot a struggling peach sapling beneath the kitchen window, apparently thinking it was a weed. He hummed while he worked, and it wasn’t long before Leigh was humming along too, offering a counterpoint her duet partner would never hear.

Her eyes flicked to the time. ‘Soccer practice starting soon, Jimbo,’ she said to herself. ‘You better get moving, dude.’

Jim dusted down his pants and sighed at the muddy red-brown mess. She could just about feel the cogs whirring behind the camera as he weighed the time it would take to shower against his desire to be there the moment his daughter stepped on the field.

‘If she’s not too busy with lover boy to get there today.’ Leigh smirked, checking the GPS marker on her second monitor. Han and her beau were still at the mall down the street; third floor—food court. Her fingers danced over her displays, breaking through the mall’s security net and patching into their cameras. The young lovers were sharing a bowl of wedges, thick with salsa and sour cream, apparently in no rush to finish.

Jim must have decided that being dirty was preferable to being late. She watched as he threw on a jumper and a hat and headed out the door. 

It would take Jim about twenty minutes to walk to the soccer park—since the accident, the replacement car ATC had provided remained unused in the garage. Leigh wheeled herself away from the computer and headed to her room’s small kitchenette. She prepared herself a pot of tea, taking full advantage of Jim’s predictable, well-documented schedule and enjoyed the simple act of steeping the leaves in hot water. Inspired by the fragrance, she retrieved a packet of matches and a stick of incense, arranging them and her teapot on a small ornamental tray. She wheeled her chair around to face back in the right direction and reached to move the tray to her lap.

The unmistakable crack of a pistol retort exploded in the tiny apartment. She jumped, instinctively looking around as her adrenaline spiked, but the sound had come from her monitor. Her head whipped back to her screens as another three sharp cracks sounded in quick succession, and the camera angle pitched to the side, crashing against the dirt path. A pair of boots stepped into the field of view, and the image turned a sickly shade of red. 

Another final crack sounded as the tea tray slipped from Leigh’s shock-stiffened fingers and shattered on the cold tile floor below.

***

Leigh!’

She blinked, wrenching her focus from the distant monitor and the blinking lights of the emergency vehicles. She rubbed her eyes, wincing at the stiffness of her limbs and suddenly aware of the coldness of the room. Her legs ached.

‘Leigh, where the hell are you?’ Luke shouted from her monitor again. She checked the time, then rechecked it in disbelief. How was it ten o’clock at night?

‘Leigh!’

‘Luke,’ she called back. ‘Luke, something terrible’s happened. Jim—’

‘Where the fuck have you been? I’ve been calling you all damn day!’

‘There was . . . Jim’s been—’

‘Yeah, he’s dead. Ask me how I know. Go on, ask me.’

‘How . . .’ Leigh licked her lips. Her voice croaked with dryness—what had happened to her tea? ‘How do you know?’

‘Because I saw it on the fucking news, Leigh. And I’m curious as to why the first I heard of this was on the internet, instead of from the fucking employee I had watching the motherfucker twenty-four hours a day. Can you help me figure that one out, Leigh?’

‘Fuck off, Luke!’ Leigh exploded, grabbing the sides of her chair and wheeling herself to her monitor. ‘You want to know what happened?’ Leigh’s voice caught as she choked back a sob. ‘I just had to sit here. I had to sit here and watch as he bled out and died, Luke. I couldn’t even do anything.’

‘Ah shit, Leigh—you look like hell,’ he said, and for a moment his voice went soft. ‘How much did you see?’

She sniffled, rubbing the back of her sleeve across her dripping nose. ‘Nothing. They shot him from behind. I just had to watch him die, alone on that shortcut through the park he always takes.’

‘Okay, I get it—it’s hard,’ Luke said. ‘But you need to take a deep breath, and move on like a damned professional so we can get you on to another target, okay?’

This was finally enough to snap her out of her horrible focus on the monitor. 

‘What do you mean another target?’

‘Your contract was for a year, Leigh. This doesn’t change that.’

She gripped the sides of her chair in useless frustration. ‘You can’t expect me to . . . to leave him. What about Han? Who’s going to—’

‘He’s dead, Leigh, and you know ATC doesn’t care about the kid. Look, I’m not expecting you to just drop things immediately. I’m expecting you to close out your damned files and send them to me. Today. Get it done, and I might even forget to note this whole colossal fuck-up in your file. Or don’t—I don’t really care; these are your legs we’re talking about. Do what you want.’ The sound of his voice cut short as he severed the connection before he’d even finished speaking.

On her main monitor, the screen went dark—the paramedics had finally pulled the zipper of Jim’s body bag closed and cut off the only source of light in the room. 

In the darkness, Leigh opened the blinking folder Luke had sent her earlier that day. The moment she did so, the program contained therein auto-executed, collecting her files and her backups and compressing them into a secured folder, deleting them from her local system as it did.

‘What you so shitty about, if your AI was just going to do the whole job anyway?’ she muttered to herself. A dialogue box opened in front of her with a series of pre-generated questions about Jim’s daily routines, the logs that she’d kept, and her self-evaluation of their quality.

She felt a strangely profound sense of sadness as she worked her way through the form. There were a dozen questions about the chores that made up his daily routine, but nowhere for her to note the same four tunes he’d whistle while he did them. There were pages on the peaks and troughs in his blood sugar levels and how that correlated to his eating habits, but nowhere to note how he kept a bag of treats hidden in the laundry drawer so he didn’t have to share. And there was question after question trying to quantify the way his relationship with Han had developed since the accident, with no place to note Leigh’s concern how his death might impact her after their morning fight.

Oh God, Leigh thought, does she even know?

She waved the unfinished form aside and toggled her monitor’s view from Jim’s eye back to the hidden network of cameras in the house; hall, bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen. Han didn’t appear to be home. She pulled up Han’s phone tracker and saw that it was present in the house. A moment later, she saw it—on the hallway table. So, she’d been home—where was she now?

Leigh felt a cold panic rise inside her. She pulled up a new screen, a portal to Yuko’s phone that she’d established a few months back; she’d been sure Han was making a terrible mistake with the dude when they’d first met and, well, someone had to see if he checked out. The empty space below Leigh’s knees tingled. She knew something about bad decisions, after all.

Thankfully, Yuko’s phone led her to Han. They were sitting in his car, a little way down the road. Through the phone’s audio, she could hear Han’s muffled wails as she cried. She bridged her connection through Yuko’s phone and into his car, accessing his internal cameras. The kids were huddled in the backseat, Han folded into his embrace as she, in turn, clutched the broken family photo from the hall. Leigh breathed a sigh of relief, even as her heart broke for the kid.

There must be something she could do to help.

She chewed her lip, thinking on the problem. In the background, a chime sounded as Luke’s AI finished compiling her last eight months of reports and recordings. It was strange to think that all of Jim’s experiences, the entire sum of everything he’d done since the accident that had cost him his eye and his wife, was recorded here—right up to his final moments. Her breath caught in her chest. She hadn’t been looking at the screen until the first shots were fired. What if Jim had walked past his attacker first? Might he have seen their face?

She drew a deep breath and tapped over to the file.

ACCESS DENIED.

Frowning, she tapped the icon again.

ACCESS DENIED.

‘You’ve gotta be . . .’ she muttered as she inspected the file’s metadata. It was locked; specifically, Luke’s AI had encoded it to deny her—any queries sourced from her connection, her login, or patterned to her retinal scans.

Why?

In the corner of her screen, movement flickered in her live feeds of the house. Her brow furrowed as she checked the location of Yuko’s phone—his car hadn’t moved.

She watched from the hall camera as the front door swung halfway open. Then, the image stuttered and the door was back to being closed. She blinked at the screen, confused. 

Her still-open window recording Han’s phone movement also flickered. She looked to see that its recorded location had shifted eight centimetres to the east.

She looked back at the live video from the hall. Han’s phone wasn’t on the table—but the photo of the family was.

‘What’s going on?’ she said, although a sudden and certain fear settled in her gut. She cycled through the house’s camera feeds until she came to the kitchen. And, sure enough, there they were—outside the window, tapping gently against the glass. The spindly branches of the peach sapling Jim had mistakenly uprooted that afternoon.

This wasn’t a live feed of the house. This was an old recording, looped through a system that only she had access to.

To mask the fact that someone was inside.

***

Her first thought was to call Luke, but even as the idea coalesced, she realised the stupidity of it. The locked files. The pointlessly long questionnaire to distract her. Jim’s murder mere hours after she’d noted the storage device hidden in the photo.

She choked back a sob as another piece of the puzzle fell into place—Jim, murdered on the route she had logged so meticulously every Monday for the past three months, killed at the only place not covered by external security cameras.

This was her fault—it had been the entire reason for the whole setup. It had never been an investigation into Jim. It had been to get that storage device.

She covered her face with her hands and screamed into it. It wasn’t fair. She’d watched Jim’s every step, every breath and every movement for most of the past year. How could she have done this to him? How could she have left Han with no-one?

At the thought of the teenager, her gaze wandered over to the screen showing Yuko’s car cam. To her horror, she saw that the pair were buckled up and in transit. She scrabbled through her menus, and her gut turned to ice when she saw the GPS on Yuko’s phone bringing them down Jim’s street.

And into the driveway.

Leigh rocked in her chair, gripping the sides of her head. She looked back at the monitors showing the interior of the house, but there was nobody there—nobody she could see, at least. 

Han and Yuko lingered in the car, talking in low tones while he fumbled his way through a sequence of sympathetic platitudes. She sat staring dully forwards, clutching the small photo frame before her in a tight embrace. If Leigh knew Han—and she did—the girl would have enough of Yuko’s empty words any moment now and would storm back into the house. Straight into the clutches of whoever lurked there.

There was nothing she could do. She was too far away, too helpless. All she could do was sit there and watch it all play out. Again.

No.

‘NO!’ She screamed at her monitors, slamming her fists into the sides of her hated chair. ‘I’m not going to let this happen. I’m not going to let it!’

Breathing heavily, she reached forwards.

And though his phone, she gave herself access to Yuko’s car speakers.

‘Han, don’t go back in the house. Drive. Far away; anywhere—you have to get away, do you understand?’

She watched on the monitor in front of her as Han and Yuko just about jumped out of their skins when her voice thundered through the car speakers.

‘What the hell is this?’ Yuko asked, fiddling with the car’s sound system.

‘Han, the person who killed your father is inside the house. Turn around and drive, now.’

Through the video feed, Leigh saw Han stiffen, clutching at the edges of her photo frame. ‘What the shit?’ Yuko asked, visibly paling.

‘Who are you? What do you want?’ Han asked warily, moving to grab the door handle. Leigh felt a strange swell of pride at the girl’s caution.

‘I’m . . . someone who’s been watching you and your dad. Since the accident.’

Han’s eyes narrowed. ‘You work for ATC.’

‘Kinda. But you can trust me. Please—’ Leigh’s final words were choked as she fought to hold back her desperation. ‘Please don’t go in the house.’

‘The fuck you up to, Leigh?’ Luke’s voice crackled from the monitor beside her.

The icy feeling in her gut spiked towards her heart as she jumped in her chair.

‘Luke! What . . . how are you doing?’ she said.

‘I’m confused, Leigh. It seems like every time we talk, it’s because you’re keeping something from me and honestly, I’m sick of it.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked. How much did he know?

‘What’s going on?’ Han said. Quickly, Leigh cut the car’s audio and collapsed the visual feed to the surface of her desk. She turned back to the monitor which showed a very irate-looking Luke.

He was broadcasting from the front lounge of the Liu house. Behind him, through the drawn lace curtains, Leigh could see the silhouette of Yuko’s car in the driveway.

‘Wave for the cameras, Leigh,’ Luke sneered, holding a small modular tablet into the frame of his call. Leigh stared back at herself from inside that tiny screen, reflected in shocked relief exactly as she would appear from her own monitor’s perspective. Her eyes drifted down to the tiny series of camera lenses scattered across her desk. None of them had a blinking light to indicate they were recording but, she realised with a shock—so long as Luke’s AI was running in the background of her computer, they wouldn’t necessarily have to.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked in a horrified whisper.

‘I’m doing my job, Leigh. Like a damned professional. The question is: what do you think you’re doing?’

‘I’m just—’

‘I made it so damned easy for you, Leigh. All you had to do was sit there. Your part of the job was done. Now you’ve gone and dragged your crippled arse back into it.’ He took a deep breath. ‘I need that storage drive. Get her back inside the house.’

Leigh’s mouth was dry. ‘No,’ she said. Her heart felt like it was about to escape her chest.

‘Do it, and I’ll void the remaining months of your contract. You’ll get your new legs tomorrow. No more waiting—you could be back rowing down the Murray by the weekend.’

The space below Leigh’s knees throbbed in sudden, sympathetic hope. But the ball of ice freezing her gut sent chilled tendrils through her veins.

‘I never told you I used to row,’ she whispered.

He was silent, staring at her intently. Out of his sight, the silent video of the car showed Han and Yuko were in the middle of a heated argument, apparently over Yuko’s phone.

‘No,’ she finally repeated. ‘No, I won’t do it.’

Luke narrowed his eyes at her. ‘Leigh, if that car leaves, this offer goes with it—and I don’t have to tell you that extra time can be added to your contract for noncompliance. A lot of extra time.’

‘Don’t you dare!’ Leigh spat back at him, fear and outrage lending her sudden fire. ‘I’ve done everything I was supposed to!’

‘You just called one of the damn targets!’ Luke yelled, the tendons in his neck pulsing visibly in the image. In the video feed from the car, Leigh saw Han and Yuko’s heads snap up in response. 

‘This is what I don’t get about you, Leigh,’ Luke continued. ‘You’re smart, but you act like everyone else around you is a fucking idiot. You think I don’t know how far you’ve gone off-script? You think I don’t know about the spyware you’ve got on Han’s phone, or the camera feeds you keep hacking into to follow her around? Do you think the Federal AIs wouldn’t have noticed that bullshit if mine didn’t keep stepping in? Do you even realise how much of a damn headache you are?’

Leigh bristled, despite herself. ‘You never complained before.’

‘Because you were getting results, Leigh—but that cash is now spent.’

‘What’s on the drive?’ Leigh asked.

‘Oh c’mon,’ he said, shaking his head at the obvious bait. ‘All you need to know is that it’s important—you think ATC’d just hand out an eye to this guy if it weren’t? Do you have any idea how infinitely more complicated that tech is compared to your stupid legs? How much more expensive? You’ve gotta get Han back in here. If it matters to you, I promise she’ll be safe.’

‘You’re right. She will,’ Leigh said. Luke must have heard the satisfaction in her voice. His head whipped around to look back through the living room window. The shadow of the car in the driveway was gone; it had silently pulled out while Luke talked. He turned back to her, lip curled in a snarl.

‘Big mistake, gimpy,’ he said, and cut the call.

Leigh gripped the wheels of her chair, knuckles whitening as she breathed rapidly in the silence of her room.

‘Shit,’ she whispered to herself. She had to get out.

She wheeled over to the bed, grabbing what fresh clothes she could and stuffing them into the small bag she’d brought with her when she’d moved into the tiny company apartment nearly a year ago.

She wheeled herself back to the door and waved her hand across the accessibility panel.

It flashed red, and nothing happened. Frowning, she tried again. Still nothing.

In the corner of her dark room, her desk monitors glowed like a beacon.

‘Lights,’ she said for the room’s Virtual Assistant. 

Nothing.

On her monitor, the glowing symbol that indicated Luke’s AI was still integrated with her system blinked in the lower right-hand corner.

Well, shit.

She raced back to her desk. ‘Damned if I’m going to let you keep me here,’ she muttered to the AI as she set herself in front of the keyboard and lowered her hands to the holographic display—just as the input winked out of existence.

She slapped the now-empty desk. ‘C’mon!’ she shouted at the program. She waved her hand at the monitors, as though taking a swing at the machine itself, and they closed, plunging the shuttered room into darkness. Not that it mattered—this was an ATC apartment, after all. Luke’s AI probably had thermal sensors trained on her right now—the same sort she had used to track Jim’s movements in his house at night. And so long as it controlled her network, nothing in the apartment was going to work for her.

Something about the thought of the thermal sensors niggled at the back of her brain, and a truly awful idea began to coalesce. She wheeled herself over to the kitchenette, until she heard the clank of her broken tea set under her wheels. She leaned down and felt around until her hand closed on the box of matches she’d dropped hours earlier.

She turned and wheeled the short distance to her bed. With a sigh, she unzipped her bag and dumped her hastily packed clothes in a pile. Then, she took a wad of matches, lit them, and held them against the clothing.

They erupted into a warm column of orange light—for about three seconds.

Hardwired to the building and separate from Leigh’s internal network, the room’s fire prevention system kicked into high gear, spraying the room with fire-retardant foam and, crucially, overriding the lock on the door.

She made a break for it, throwing the door open and racing to the elevators. Like before, she slapped her hand against the accessibility panel the moment she got near.

And like before, the panel flashed red.

LIFT UNDER MAINTENANCE

‘Yeah, right,’ Leigh growled. How far through the building’s systems had Luke’s AI spread?

Feeling the pressure of the minutes since he’d severed their call, she sped down the hall, searching for the stairs. The Liu house wasn’t that far from here, and whatever window she might have had for escape was rapidly closing.

Like most of the mid-century apartments that had sprung up in the outer ring of the city, the emergency fire stairs were positively Neolithic. They weren’t connected to the network that ran the rest of the building, which could all too easily fail. No, the emergency exits were, for safety, entirely manual.

She chewed her bottom lip as she considered the narrow concrete steps. Going down those in her chair would be tantamount to suicide.

She sighed, but for the first time since Luke’s call she felt a measure of control returning. He’d shut her in her room because he’d thought she wasn’t capable of getting out. He’d shut down the elevators because he thought that would trap her. But all it trapped up here was her chair. 

She was not her chair.

She rolled to the iron banister and used it to lift herself out. She flexed her arms, testing their strength while she felt out the pressure of her legs against the unforgiving concrete stairs. She looked down the shaft of the stairwell, then up at the number painted on the landing beside her.

Twenty-six.

‘Well,’ she said to no-one. ‘A bit of exercise might even feel good.’

***

She was almost at the bottom when the door slammed open high above.

‘Ha!’ Luke shouted in triumph. A clattering sound like her chair being kicked down the stairs echoed in the narrow concrete shaft. ‘You’d better hope you’re not still here.’

She paused her descent, chest heaving under her sweat-stained top, and ran a slick forearm over her equally soaked forehead. She chanced a look back up the shaft, and saw Luke staring back at her from twenty-something floors higher.

‘Jesus, you’re really gonna make me come all the way down there, huh?’

She whipped her head back under the protection of the stairwell and swallowed amidst her body’s desperate panting. She lurched forwards, hauling her exhausted body towards the end.

‘This is just pissing me off, Leigh,’ Luke called. Did his voice sound closer? Her hands and knees slapped against the concrete as she half-crawled, half-fell forwards, sobbing with fear and pain.

Finally, she reached the bottom of the stairwell—and what was left of her breath caught in her chest.

The emergency exit’s handle was so. Damned. High. 

She reached for it, quivering fingers grasping, but stumbled and smacked against the door. The sound echoed up the stairwell.

‘Don’t you fucking dare.’ Luke’s voice drifted back to her—to her panicked mind, he sounded almost on top of her. ‘Just fucking wait for a minute, would you?’

Leigh didn’t have the energy to even form words. She dragged air into her lungs just so she could release it in a shuddering sob as she flailed uselessly at the handle above her. It wasn’t even that high. But she was so, so tired.

‘Leigh! You’ve got it all wrong.’

You’ve got it all wrong.

Hearing Luke echo back Jim’s last words to his daughter awoke something primal in Leigh. She screamed, reaching for the handle again in a fit of bleary-eyed rage.

Her palm smacked into the wide horizontal bar and she collapsed her weight on to it, swinging the door open and tumbling into the alleyway beyond.

Where she almost fell onto Han.

It was hard to say who was more shocked: Leigh, seeing the kid for the first time with her own eyes, or Han, seeing the wild-eyed legless and sweaty woman lunging out of seemingly nowhere.

Han yelped and quickly stepped backwards, clutching her phone—no, Yuko’s phone—to her chest. She turned as if to run.

‘No! Han, please. Please don’t leave me,’ Leigh croaked as she struggled to raise herself upright.

Han stopped dead. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ She turned the phone, and Leigh saw the teenager had set the map software to track a network address—the one Leigh had used when she’d hacked into Yuko’s phone in the car. It had brought her right to Leigh’s apartment building.

‘You’re the voice.’

‘Yes,’ Leigh sobbed.

‘Who are you?’ Han demanded.

‘Please,’ Leigh said, reaching forwards. ‘Please, he’s right behind me. Help me, and I’ll tell you everything.’

‘The man who killed my father?’

‘Yes.’

‘What does he want with you—with me?’ Han asked.

‘I think your father discovered something; something about ATC. That’s why he came back to you and your mum. I don’t know what it is,’ she said quickly, as Han opened her mouth to speak. Leigh looked to the end of the alleyway. Yuko’s car was there, idling in what they had no doubt thought was an inconspicuous place to stake out the building’s main entrance. She thought of the broken photo that must still be sitting inside, and the storage device hidden therein. ‘But I know how to find out.’

‘I know a way to find out, too,’ Han said. She stared at the door, chewing the side of her lip. Leigh knew that look.

‘You can’t,’ she said. 

‘Why not? If we’re quick, the two of us can—’

‘Han, please. You don’t know what he’s like. He’s . . . I can’t . . .’ It was finally too much for Leigh. She broke down, folding into herself and wailing as the horror of the last few hours poured out of her. ‘I can’t lose you too,’ Leigh sobbed. ‘Please. I don’t have anyone else.’

Han looked at the broken woman with glistening eyes.

‘Neither do I.’ She bent and scooped Leigh into her arms, then turned towards Yuko’s car. 

By the time Luke stepped through the door, the alleyway was empty—save for one thing. 

By the alley’s entrance, next to a set of fresh tire tracks, the broken remains of an empty photo frame lay abandoned on the filth-lined street.

*****

Thank you for reading The Watcher! by Terence MacManus. This is the Standard version, which does not include the author’s reflection on the piece. You can unlock the Premium version of the publication for FREE by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction using the link here.

Subscribers not only get access to the author’s reflection—where I describe how my archaeological approach to fiction writing influenced the choices I made in this story, and just how the Venn diagram for ‘rabbit holes’ crosses between archaeology and writing—but also get access to an .epub version of the story for easy offline reading, and access to the full back catalogue of short stories published to the site throughout 2019.

This story takes place in the Silicone Universe, the overarching world where the majority of my science fiction takes place. It is set roughly twenty years before the events of In the soft, fragile place between being, the story which premiered to the Terry Talks Fiction website in March 2019.

Special thanks to Harper Collins UK author Belinda Missen for her permission to cameo in this story – you can get the very same book that Jim is reading on Amazon.

Finally, extra special thanks to my extremely talented wife Mikayla for her excellent photography on the front cover. You can see more of her work on her Instagram page.