Chapter 39: Stop the Centipede!

In which Stephanie must conquer much more than the centipede!

Stephanie became her own cheerleader. You can do it, Stephie! She stopped at that because she couldn’t think of a rhyme. Maybe she should call herself Julia, as her brother had done. Stephanie was tired and wanted to go to bed, but Julia was a hard-hitting reporter with a story to nefariously print on the front page—and here Stephanie’s tired, cynical voice broke in—of the tiny, irrelevant, grassroots Albuquerque Daily. And yet, Julia’s voice told her, SportSlut hadn’t found Mark’s article too irrelevant to steal. They wouldn’t find her Emmett the halftime clown article irrelevant, either, as it would be forced on them.

She glanced at her watch. After moving the spread around for tomorrow’s Daily edition, she might not have time to drive all the way to Gilly’s and have him help her work it to the front page of SportSlut. Perhaps she could text him the article through his messaging account on the Shadow net, and he could do the rest.

Stephanie lived in Southeast Albuquerque in the old Warren apartments, not that far from her brother’s place off Zuni. The newspaper office was located in the Northeast. Albuquerque proper was not that large. However, when she pulled her car from its usual parking spot, she could see it was going to be a hell of a long trip. Protestors were marching through the streets. There were always protestors, rabble-rousers, people looking for a good night’s carousing—but marching through the streets? That was some serious business. For a few minutes, while she stood at a standstill at the entrance to Louisiana, she racked her brain trying to figure out what they were protesting.

Then she remembered: Tomi Corp’s retro robot release. Good God, she had things to do. She didn’t have time for this. She turned on the car’s riot voice. Make way! Make way! With her horn bleeping, and the riot voice on full, she shot out into the street, forcing the protestors to back away or be struck down. They shouted and pounded on her car. When she spied a man swinging a hammer at her window, she gunned her engine and drove like a maniac, weaving around the clumps of people all the way to the Albuquerque Daily building.

What a surprise—more protestors there. Make way! Make way! It was getting late, but these riotous sounds were so common in the city that nary a person would complain. Car riot settings, bullhorns, shouting—these were noises akin to fire and police sirens. Sometimes, it was a wonder anybody slept. Only the rich could afford riot-proof homes.

Thankfully, the area directly around the Daily building was clear, and the protestors there seemed to have gone back to their usual rantings against JOI papers. The situation regarding Mark had been subdued, at least for the present. Above the entrance to the newspaper office hung a giant back-lit banner that read Mark Anderson is no longer employed with the Albuquerque Daily.

Stephanie gazed up at the words in distaste. Was this her fault? She had told Mr. Mast to announce Mark’s disemployment from the paper. Her stomach turned over at the thought. But then, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten anything except Gilly’s crackers and milk. It was therefore natural for her stomach to roil; it didn’t mean she was responsible for the banner. Except that she was, in her heart of hearts. She had wanted Mark to apologize. She had wanted him to grovel. She hated her treacherous self.

Pitying herself, which she was mollified enough to do, wouldn’t solve the problem. She spread her arms wide and raised her chest to the sky. She was capable and competent, and she had a plan to carry out! Already, she felt better.

Just as she was about to enter the building with her keycard, the managing editor exited. He did a double take when he saw her.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. He sounded a little worried. “Don’t tell me you’ve brought changes. Because everything’s done, and it’s already gone to press. I had to do all Mark’s work because the stupid dolt quit. No changes, please, no changes.”

She thought about her position with the managing editor. She’d never given him cause to dislike her, as she’d always turned in her stories on time and done her own editing. It might be helpful to bring him in to help her; he could expedite the process of moving stories around, not to mention stopping the printing press with its hundred arms. She swallowed back her fear when she pondered stopping it, which was necessary for her mission.

“I have a new front page lead story,” she said. “Mr. Mast wants to get rid of the GM aphid article.”

“No way. No new front page articles. Mr. Mast must be insane if he thinks I want to stay here all night. It’ll have to run another time.”

“It’s an interview with Emmett the halftime clown defending Mark Anderson’s honor.” Stephanie looked pointedly up at the banner.

The managing editor looked up at it, too. The man had been Mark’s friend, even if just of the office mate variety. He scratched his head as if contemplating a late night. “I can see why Mr. Mast would want to run that. But still, no deal. If Mr. Mast wants it in, he can do it himself. I have a girlfriend, you know. Dinner plans. That sort of thing.”

“What about Mark?” she asked, annoyed. “Fine, I’ll do it myself.”

“Stephanie, I know you’ve helped with layout before, but you’ve never touched the press as far as I know. You aren’t approved to do this. I’ll have to call Mr. Mast. This is highly irregular.”

“No, don’t call him. If we work together, we can get it done quickly. Mr. Mast doesn’t like to be disturbed at home.”

“Neither do I.” The man’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Mast didn’t approve this, did he? This is all you. You’re a little saboteur, and you want to bring me in on your crimes. No deal.”

“Go home, then. I care about Mark. In fact, I’m getting rid of the stupid banner, too.”

She jumped up, but was too short to reach it. She jumped up again, grabbed an edge, and yanked. As it was a hastily created paper banner, it tore down the middle. She grabbed both sides, pulled them down, crumpled them up, and threw them at the protesting crowd, which booed at her. She flipped them off. It felt juvenile and freeing at the same time.

“I care about Mark, but not that much. You’re inviting trouble. Look around you. This city is coming unglued.”

“So are you going to stop me from using my keycard and going in there and making the changes?”

With a panicked gleam in his eyes, he stared at the protestors who had been a dull din up until Stephanie had pulled the banner down. Now the din was growing, the crowd moving forward. “Do what you want. I’m going home where I have bars over my windows. I’d advise you to do the same.”

“Thanks, but I only take advice from my granddad and Mark. They’re the only men I trust.” And Gilly, she reminded herself. She trusted her Uncle Gilly to be a misanthropic revenge artist. Knowing she had so many great men at her back, she stood up straight again, turned her back on the managing editor, and swiped her keycard.

“Hey!” he said. She paused and turned back around. He held up his wristwatch, which had his scan drive open. “Scan me. Then you won’t have to hack my password once you’re in. Cuz at this point, yours is going to be on lock-out.”

That was worrisome. How could she be on lock-out? “Why?”

“Oh, nothing personal, I lock-out all passwords except mine after deadline. I had problems with writers going in and re-editing their stories after deadline. You’ve never tried to re-edit, or you would know my dirty little secret.”

She nodded and opened her wristwatch scan device; their wrists and eyes met. There was a ping as the document loaded.

“You stop the presses by putting in this key.” He handed her what looked like an antique relic from a windup toy. “And the password #NoosKrawl! Along with my ID, which is my birthday backwards. Don’t touch the actual machine. It will reset itself when you go to press again. Got that, Stephanie? Don’t touch the centipede.”

“I’m terrified of the centipede.”

He nodded, as if satisfied. “I admire what you’re doing, but I’m not putting my job or life on the line for Mark.”

She slid in her keycard again and finally slipped inside, allowing the door to lock behind her, against the forward moving mass of protestors. She didn’t pause to allow any other considerations, even though Mark’s sudden dislike of her was a shadow that attempted to seep around the barriers she had put up against it. She also didn’t pause to pay attention to the protestors who were now banging against the glass. Let them bang. Surely they wouldn’t smash the windows. Nobody ever did that during a riot.

She shuddered and quickly made her way to the back bowels of the building, where the centipede’s arms were swiftly moving along the next day’s papers. Fears could be placed into irrational or rational boxes, she reminded herself. Fear of a machine that had no intent to harm her, and with a protocol for usage, could safely be placed in the irrational box. With that in mind, she urged herself forward, put the key in the marked key console, which then prompted her to make a choice: what did she want to do? Stop the press. It reminded her that she needed to have permission which was given by means of the managing editor’s ID and password. Here, she came to a full stop. She knew his birthday. They’d just had an office party for him on February 28th; he was born on the 29th, and everybody had made jokes about how he was a quarter of his actual age. What she didn’t know was the year, but being that he was supposedly twelve, then he was actually forty-eight. She subtracted, put in the year, and waited for the machine to respond.

Press stopped!

Next up—she was on to the bigger job of changing the front page layout. From the managing editor’s own computer, she opened up the layout files and deleted the aphid article. No harm done. The aphid article was ostensibly written by one Dorothy Alonzo, who had quit two years ago, and had since become the purview of Stephanie. Being Dorothy, she didn’t care about hurting her own pride for nixing the silliest front page story she’d ever written. Then she remembered she needed this to happen concurrently with the SportSlut hack.

“Call Uncle Gilly,” she commanded her phone.

“What do you want?” he said.

“Uncle Gilly, I’m stuck at the Albuquerque Daily office. I’m going to send you my story. Will you get it on the front page of SportSlut for me?”

“Can you give me a more difficult challenge, girlie?” he said.

“Um, sure, maybe later, but can you do this for me right now? I don’t have a long of time to talk. I’ve got to hurry.” She looked worriedly at the front windows, and then toward the front door, where it seemed people were banging to get inside, as if she would open up for them to do—? She wasn’t quite sure what they had in mind.

“What’s that confounded ruckus?”

“The protestors are banging on the windows. I think they’ve got a bunch of Minäs with them. You know, it’s not just Mark and the JOI any longer. A bunch of people have come to Albuquerque for the release of the retro droids.” She tried to keep her voice from shaking, but it didn’t quite work.

“Are you there alone?”

“Yes, that’s why I have to hurry, Uncle Gilly. Before they break in. I don’t know what they want to do in the first place. I’m scared to find out.”

“If they’re Minäs, they don’t even know. They’ll just smash the place apart before the SWAT team comes and hauls them off to be disengaged.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s why I’ve got to go now,” she said in her best happy-go-lucky sing-songy voice.

“Call that boyfriend of yours to rescue you. I’m too old to do it.”

“Uncle Gilly, I’m not asking you to…never mind. I’ll call him, but he’s still not talking to me. I doubt he’ll answer. Gotta go!”

She heard him harrumphing as she disconnected the call.

Mr. Mast and the managing editor were going to hate her because she was about to make a mess of their front page. She didn’t have time to finesse it. She jammed in the interview with Emmett the halftime clown, which was about twice the length of the aphid article. Quickly, she moved the rest of the front page spread to other pages, deleting photos and ads she considered to be not worth newspaper space. There was a lawyer, for example, who extorted the ad lady for free ad space. His ad was the first to go.

Now all she had to do was give it a quick glimpse and save it all, before sending it to the centipede’s numerous arms to print and stack into piles for the vans to pick up and deliver. That is, they would deliver if the protestors made way for the delivery vans.

She was on her feet, hitting save and the rather more time-consuming go to press, ready to dash for the back exit, when somebody finally went from pounding to smashing. It was a young man, probably a Minä, judging by the goofy grin on his face. As others joined him in the fun, there was shortly no longer any glass in the window.

On the way to the back exit, she darted into Mr. Mast’s office and peered out at the parking lot. This time, not only were there Minäs jumping up and down on her car, but somebody had punctured her tires and smashed out her car windows. Okay, she would have to slip through back alleys on foot, leaving the protestors to break into the Daily office, unaware of what they were really after. She wasn’t a target; Mark and the JOI were targets. Why would they chase her? She wouldn’t be a target until her article, under her real name, appeared on SportSlut.

It was a good thing Minäs were easy to fool. It was the fully functioning people who had given way to their reptilian brain stems that she feared. She could feel her carotid artery pulsing as she gently pushed open the back door. Of course, stealth wasn’t an option when the back door triggered the fire alarm. A dark shadowy arm reached in with a piece of rebar and slammed her on the head with it. She reached above her head, grabbed the bar and yanked, but the man on the other end yanked back. When he’d pulled it completely out of the way, she slammed the door shut and backed away. She bit her lip to keep herself from screaming.

“Call Mark!” her voice, trembling from adrenaline, shouted at her phone. When he didn’t answer, she left him as desperate a message as she could manage: “Mark, help me. I’m trapped at the Albuquerque Daily, and they’re coming in through the windows. They have rocks and sticks and rebar.”

If he didn’t bother to listen to the message, she’d have to fend for herself. Even if he did listen, she’d have to fend for herself. It might take him an inordinate amount of time to get there, depending on how aggressively he drove to her rescue. That was assuming he would come at all. Her gut roiled over with emptiness and anxiety.

She searched the area for a weapon and picked up a paperweight. What a silly weapon. But what else was there? This was an office—it had computers and printers. The only thing remotely dangerous was the horrifying centipede, which would shortly be printing tomorrow’s paper. After rummaging on Mr. Mast’s desktop, she found an engraved letter opener. It wasn’t the sharpest tool out there, but it might get her by.

Armed with a paperweight and a letter opener, she ducked into the darkness behind Mark’s desk—Mark’s ex-desk. One desk drawer hung open to reveal an empty cavity. Either he’d cleaned out his desk, or somebody had done it for him.

At least the people and/or Minäs hadn’t made it this far in the back, in that place where sports editors dwelt because they didn’t want to join in the office banter, and where the odor eater vacuum bot couldn’t quite reach to rid the corner of acrid deadline sweat. It still smelled like Mark back here, and she almost whimpered in her desperation for him. The protestors seemed to be busy at the front of the Albuquerque Daily, ransacking the receptionist’s desk and upturning the poor old woman’s potted plants. One of them had decided that smashing an old-school monitor would stick it those bastards of the JOI.

Stephanie’s phone buzzed. A quick check flooded her with relief: Mark. Instead of answering, she texted him another plea for help. She didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

He texted back, “I need help, too. Can’t leave apartment. Doxxed. People keep coming up fire escape. Keep hitting them back with bat.”

First a soccer ball, and now a bat. She was floored. She wished she had such a handy weapon. “Bat????”

“Bought it at that defunct firearms store, Central. Been practicing.”

“I stole Mast’s letter opener. Am hiding behind your desk. They’re smashing computers and desks up front.”

“Maybe I should flee on fire escape, beat them down. Have advantage. Make a run for it. Been practicing running.”

“Please? I could use your bat.”

“You wouldn’t know what to do with it. Sit tight.”

She had actually meant she could use him while he wielded said bat, but the details weren’t important at that point. He was coming for her, and somehow, she had to sit tight as the whoop-whooping and smashing breached the spaces around Mark’s desk.


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