The Man from the Juniper Tree
This week’s terribleminds flash fiction challenge was to rewrite a fairytale—one we chose ourselves. We had one thousand words to do it in, and one catch. We had to rewrite the fairytale in a randomly rolled genre. Well, I love randomness, so I let the fairytale choose itself. I opened up Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, running with the story on that page. In this case, The Juniper Tree. I had to rewrite it in the spy thriller genre, which I’ve read, but never written. It was pretty hard with the main components being, a miracle child, a step-mother’s betrayal, cannibalism, a step-sister’s rescue, a magical transformation and the gathering and giving of gifts. Well, this retelling is close, but I don’t think it wins a cigar: I missed the gift gathering and blurred the gift giving, the miraculous birth isn’t obvious, and I missed the rule of three, and the song. I did manage the transformation, but I’m not sure I entirely captured the spy thriller genre. I hope you enjoy it none-the-less.
Cassidy stared at the gleeful smile on the Burman’s face, tried to lift a hand and break the connection between his head and the mainframe. Failed. He looked to Marlena for help, but the girl stood silent, tears streaming down her face. Her eyes flicked between his entrapment and Burman, helpless in light of the gun pressed up hard under her diaphragm.
“Cass,” she whispered, her voice helpless and awash with grief.
Cassidy heard her, but felt the deadly lethargy spreading through his limbs. Where he had felt shocked into immobility, he now found he was numb, his body a leaden weight pinning him to the chair. There was a picture on the wall above the desk, one taken on the open day at a foreign embassy.
It gave nothing of the embassy away, but framed the juniper tree perfectly, reminding him of the day he’d first encountered the agency. The chief had found him, standing in the juniper tree’s shadow trying to keep a dark-clad woman on her feet, weeping as he held her tight to his side—his boss’s partner. He’d pleaded with her not to die, but his pleas had been in vain, and the boss had dragged them both out before the security guards could reach them.
Cassidy fought to bring his mind back to the present, but the desk swam before his eyes and his memory pulled him through the years of training and living under the chief’s roof, the missions, the funeral, his adopted father’s ever-present sadness.
“You’re just like her,” Hillier had said at the graveside. “Same fire.”
Fire Burman was now putting to good use. Cassidy could feel it drawing the life out of him, could see only the Burman’s malicious smile as she shifted the pistol down and put a bullet through the top of Marlena’s thigh. Cassidy didn’t see her leave the office, but he heard the door close, heard Marlena sobbing as she dragged herself over to the chair.
Cass wanted to tell her it would be all right, that he’d hacked his way from one system to another, raiding drug-supported corporations, weapon-smuggling front companies and taken on service deniers and info-nappers. He wanted to say this system would be no different, that the company interface was his friend, but the paralysis that stopped him moving wouldn’t let him. It held his jaw locked tight.
Dammit! Should have seen this coming. Should have… Cassidy’s mind wandered back over the project’s progress reports, and remembered he could join the data-stream. He wondered if he could save himself, and wished he’d managed to get the treacherous Burman to tell him how it was done, wished he’d asked more questions about how the computer tapped the excess energy produced by each person hooked into it—just a little, she’d said. Yeah, right.
“Where’s Cassidy?” The sound of the chief’s voice made Cassidy jump, jolting him out of the exploration he’d been making of the interface, making him remember Burman’s promise. She’d make his adopted father kill him, cause the head of the agency to drain every last drop of life from his protégé so that she could rise, and Marlena’s place in the succession was assured. Marlena had protested too soon to save him.
Thinking of Marlena reminded Cassidy of the female agent’s presence. He became aware of the pressure on the arm of the chair, of Marlena’s scrabbling attempts to reach the jack plugged into his head, became aware of her expletive, just before she seized the chair with both hands and toppled it and him to the floor.
“Sshh, sshh, sshh,” she whispered, as though she wasn’t the one who had cried out in pain and caused the crash. “Sshh.”
Cassidy noted the way he’d caught his feet under the lip of the desk, and felt ridiculously relieved they’d stopped his rag-doll legs banging his knees into his face. He tried to re-focus on the interface, only to have the chief’s voice pull him back to his predicament.
“What’s this?” Hillier asked.
“The latest from the labs,” Burman responded.
Cassidy heard the scrape of something being pushed across a table.
“The laptop,” whimpered Marlena. “Got to be quick. Quick. Quick.”
Cassidy wished she’d shut up.
“Why don’t you try it out?” Burman suggested. It’s got the latest software. There’s even a mission simulation.”
“I have a report to write.”
“No problems, just log in from here. Come on, Jon, give it a go.”
“Anything for an iota of peace,” Hillier grumbled, and there was a click. “Nice.”
Cassidy felt a pull at his insides, a sudden tiring tug.
“No, no, no,” Marlena said, her voice tearful. She patted Cassidy’s cheek. “It’s wireless, Cass. Wireless. You’ve just gotta get into the mainframe. Please…”
Wireless. Which means… Cassidy found the port and leapt for it. Why does she want me in the mainframe?
“Holy Hell! Cass is going to love this!” It was the highest compliment Hillier could pay, but Cassidy doubted Burman would appreciate it. Truth was, he did love the new system. He flipped and swirled and wondered how he could save himself. Tried to think like a hacker instead of a man whose mind was trapped in a machine. He didn’t need to find the datalink to his body to know it was growing weaker by the minute.
Cassidy studied the data-stream, noted the security cameras’ feed, dived in, found the alarms, alerted the guards. Twisting, he fed the image to the laptop, bringing Hillier at the run. He shut the laptop down.
The chief took one look at Marlena and dialled the ambulance. Cassidy flashed the interface telltale, catching Burman’s attention. He had a surprise for her, was relieved when her fingers seized the connection.
Rummaging through the databanks, he’d found the power commands. Laughing, he tweaked them, feeding the mainframe’s power-feed into Burman’s fingers, frying her from fingertip to toe. Laughing, he returned to his head in a wireless leap, hoping the medics made it on time.
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