Tuesday’s tuna sandwich was pretty bloody meagre; a scant serving of pulped, anaemic meat pressed between two slices of bread which better resembled sheets of foam, crushed by the tight vacuum of its plastic packet. She inched forward on the wheels of her chair and checked the counter on the right-hand side of her screen. SHANNON: 257. How was lunch over already? She’d skipped the actual ‘break’ part, and still only half of her daily target reached with just four hours to go. Fuck. She should have ignored that hunger. She refreshed the programme and let a new batch of tasks fill the screen, too many to count and impossible to know where to begin. On her induction day they told Shannon that nearly 200 Facebook posts are reported every minute, and all of them apparently channelled to her personal computer, sorted into neat little rows with words which shrunk from bold to narrow when she selected them, her stats and the stats of her colleagues ticking away down the right-hand side of the screen like a bomb preparing to blow. NAILA: 296, JOSH: 268, HATEM: 374. Even the numbers seemed smug. Threehundredandfuckingsix at 1PM? Tossers. Shannon crushed the corner of the sandwich into her mouth with two outstretched fingers and selected a task at random. Up popped a video. A familiar view: an anonymous street at night-time. Could be anywhere, the pavement’s just a smear of blurred pixels; the only activity a muffled sound bustling away from view until anonymous figures entered the frame, dragging someone across the ground and filling the frame until it wasn’t clear where one man ended and another began. She could tell they were men from their arched backs and the way their gloved hands gripped onto that little smear of a man as they dumped him on the floor, voices cracked and muted by fabric as they flipped him on the floor and started yanking his clothes off, exposing a scrawny little stomach and scrawny little legs, boxers hanging pointlessly off his skinny waist and his underfed stomach taut as he yelped and fought like a little trapped rodent and the other men yanked the rest of his clothes off him completely, mercenary and quiet; he didn’t stand a chance really, four of them holding him by his legs and arms and one other, the biggest of the five, hulking over him. There must have been six in all, the last of them filming on what must have been a knackered old wreck of a phone, broken shards of video crashing against each other and the audio slipping in and out as the man filming blocked and unblocked the microphone with his thumb, probably trying to keep his hands warm: from the breath of the man being pressed naked into the floor, it looked to be a bitterly cold night. The poor bastard was completely stripped now, a dark patch of pubic hair covering his shrivelled-up cock and a tattoo in Spanish stretched tight across his chest as he was pulled tight by the four men. There were some hushed words, also in Spanish, and the man with his back to the camera pulled a big kitchen knife out of the front pocket of his hoodie and started to stab the man on the ground with it, the dull metal briefly catching alight with the reflection of the street lamps each time it plunged into the tight skin of the man’s stomach, between his ribs and the centre of his chest, right through the tattoo, and the stabbed man was howling, his eyes bright white and flared, until he stopped fighting and the shuffling feet of the men who held him were the only things making a sound. At the end of the video the man held out the bloody knife towards the camera shouting words in Spanish in a tone of voice which suggested he’d proven his point good and proper, until he gestured with his forearm and the video ended as the camera dipped to the ground. She scrolled down to the drop-down menu below the pop-up and clicked the option with the little exclamation mark beside it which read “Remove Post”, and then selected from a series of options: “Reason: Graphic Violence”. With a click the post was gone. She dusted the crumbs from her sandwich off the keyboard and sipped at a peppermint tea. Clicking back to launch page, she selected another task, dragging up a short clip of two American teenagers dangling a plastic bag in the air, and through the plastic and the low resolution Shannon could make out that the black mass inside was a snake, lashing and contorting itself in fifteen directions, hissing so frantically it sounded like a howl, and above it all the two kids laughed and passed the bag between each other, presenting it to the camera and jeering “this is fucking insane bro” as the energy drained from the creature and the plastic sunk suddenly like a balloon deflated. She removed the post and repeated the same thirty times in the next ten minutes. The selection of tasks presented was eclectic and indiscriminate: a man in Manchester sharing a viral post about the danger of vaccines; a video of a CGI frog dancing before the Belarusian flag; a photo from a car wreck with a body hanging limply from the heap, pressed between the driver’s door and the ground, with a pool of blood on the floor and smeared across the metal which was bright red like sweeties. The sun was out and the office was lit brightly, with a crisp breeze coming in off the street and the distant sound of car horns drifting in over the clatter of keyboards and mouse clicks. She tensed in her chair and flexed her legs within her tight back jeans, sore from the bike ride she took every day to get in before 8.30am which was her favourite part of the day because the canal was beautiful in the autumn and it made her feel better about the personal trainer who had made her stand flat against the wall and pointed out the three exact places where her spine was folding in on itself from being sat hunched over a desk for eight hours straight, receiving daily reminders in her inbox about the Essential Value of her Work for the company’s integrity, global mission and democracy itself, and the little signs around the office which shouted “always remember to never forget to take a break” in an aggressively chipper font, in a kitchen which smelt only of whatever someone had reheated for lunch that day, often accompanied by the sound of some poor new-starter quietly sobbing by the fridge. Task 298 was porn, and porn was like wallpaper to her now, the clip shared in some horny group which she actually admired the stubborn tenacity of as they posted their favourite scenes daily surely knowing that they would disappear by her hand the very same day, and sometimes she just wished she worked for one of the sites where you could just let it be and mark it Not Safe For Work rather than have to sit there in her desk feeling herself start to sweat as time and time again she deleted snippets of some sweaty porn star with a gut fucking some nineteen year old senseless and watch with jealousy as the girl had a sweaty orgasm with her hair smeared across her bright red face, clenched like a fist as she came in what appeared to be an entirely genuine way and Shannon would writhe a little in her seat because the last person she’d had actual sex with was Hani who hardly knew what he was doing and whose dick was half the size of these pumped-up jocks and who never fucked her in any way other than flat on her back, but did make her cum with his tongue and that was certainly better than the no-sex she’d had in the fifteen months since, almost the exact duration of their relationship and fourteen months longer than Hani had taken to move on from their brief but really quite fun University relationship, after which Shannon was left self-consciously posting the smiliest, most-glowing pictures of herself to her own social media, flaunting just how much she’d moved on with a little niggling voice at the back of her head imaging him looking at every one of those pictures because she’d refused to block him in the way her mates had blocked their exes because she wasn’t that type, she was a Bigger Person who stayed friends with their ex, except Hani wasn’t really her friend, he was a fucking tapeworm she couldn’t flush and the more she tried to appear happy without him the more he got fat in the pit of her stomach. Her office was surely the only office outside of Wall Street where at any time you could look across the room and see some pasty guy getting his ass pummelled by a man so muscular his skin was stretched across his limbs like cellophane. Plenty of her colleagues let off the steam from all that porn in the toilet cubicles and storage closets, leaving the fishy stench of their fucking in the bathrooms when she went to piss, which made her hornier still, or at least it did until the thought of actually having sex with any of those creeps in those perfumed stalls crossed her mind for a moment. It made her proud that they were less able than her to control the same lust which left her with wet thighs in the seat of her chair, or perhaps they were just desperately trying to shake the sheer indifference which she felt when she saw a dick and a vagina these days. One woman’s screaming orgasm was her sip of coffee. File the removal notice and move on. If it wasn’t the smell of shagging it was the stench of weed which was the de facto odour of the building, lingering as it was when she pulled up in the morning and when she left at night, and she knew who was doing it – Hatem, Marsha and Josh – staring at their tasks with red eyes and blank faces, and she didn’t blame them, she’d do the same if it didn’t make her cough and feel like a pussy every time she tried it, better that than end up the way of Sharla who left the job in an air of mystery last month when they found out that she was keeping a taser in her desk draw because she was terrified of leaving the office full-stop once the days got shorter, dreading every passing stranger out of fear of what everyone knows happens to some people, out there in the night-time, but nobody else has to see what they do – day in, day out – and there was so much of it you ended up thinking that half of those anonymous strangers you see going about their lives must being doing it too, trusting the foreigners least of all because it was always them posting the most messed-up shit to their feeds so she knew for sure what they were capable of, and made Shannon think despite herself that even though she knew that the Daily Mail was a fucking rag, there had to be something to it because she’d seen too many hours of rape in her five months to be oblivious to the fact that over there it was just horrific and, say what you want about here, but you wouldn’t want it to become like there. She’d still never even see a dead body in real life, not even her Nana because when she passed away Shannon was an uni and they knew she was sick but she wasn’t that sick, but then the next morning she was gone, and yet here was Shannon spending her days watching how a knife could sink into skin like butter and seeing grainy photographs of heads cut clean off with all that tight pink flesh cut cleanly in a way she never expected it to look, and so at night she went straight home, curled up in her room watching TV shows and clips of TV shows on her phone and she didn’t see her mates anymore because they only wanted to go out and get smashed or meet for a catch up, but even that was down the pub and she’d seen what can happen when you’re blacked out drunk and the sad, pitiful state of people on drugs where you can see their brains literally melting but it wasn’t that bad because she still messaged them and video-called, so she knew what the girls were up to. She didn’t even visit home much these days because when she did her Mum would just pester her, knocking on the door saying “surely you don’t want to lie there on your phone all night sweetheart”, when actually she’d love to spend the evening with her Mum, but all she does is stare at her own screen: the 40 inch plasma she brought as a treat when the money from her Dad came in, and yes her Mum loved The King & I and Romancing The Stone but she would also never miss those primetime dramas which always started with some poor skinny girl being stalked at night and tossed into the canal, only on television they showed you her family first or her precious little love life and she wasn’t just some smear on the screen, she was up there in High fucking Definition, so no, she preferred to just catch up on some YouTube or pictures of her mates on the bridges in Amsterdam and yes, she was completely aware that it’s all just fake anyway which is why she’d only posted one picture since she’d joined the centre, which was on her birthday posing with her Mum and Carlton. She loved that day because while he did the washing up her Mum put the stereo on in the living room and they bent over backwards laughing as they danced together to Jackie Wilson, Carla Thomas and Otis; Mum’s picks but she secretly loved it (her Mum had great taste) and they played her favourite Sam Cooke song, “That’s Where Its At”, the one where he sings “lights turned way down low, and music plays soft and slow, with someone you love so, that’s where it’s at”, and isn’t that just perfect, exactly as she felt with her head on her Mum’s dress, slow dancing on the lino. Carlton and her Mum were the only family she saw on her birthday, the only two who didn’t speak to her like a pariah because she left town, went to university and moved to bloody London while they stayed put and worked real jobs in factories or cleaning the streets, with her Aunt sat there bleating “there are still problems in the world just because you live in London you know”, as if Shannon wasn’t very well aware of that and was hardly dying to go and live in that claustrophobic shit-hole anyway, where all of the people were fucking rude and she couldn’t walk down the street with her phone out at night even though she had no clue where she was going still, and she didn’t know exactly what they imagined London to be like because none of them had ever been, but her Mum at least understood that that’s where the good jobs were, although she’d never seen her Mum as offended as when her brother’s wife said that she was middle class now just because she was a manager: to see her reaction from the other side of the room, anyone would have thought she’d called her poor. When Shannon could steal a few days away from the centre to visit – which wasn’t exactly easy when they seem to consider annual leave to be a treat rather than a fucking human right – she regretted it instantly as they sat there cooing and teasing about an English literature degree which she actually agreed was a waste of time and money and how it was no wonder she was sat there now staring at a screen for ten pounds an hour after three years of reading books and coming to a conclusion she already had in her head when she first read it herself and, yes, maybe she could articulate her thoughts better after four seminars and a 3000-word essay but she knew nothing beyond the essential, unpretentious truth of what the author was getting at when she read it the first bloody time, just like her sixth form English teacher had warned her: Mrs Joplin who had them read Canterbury Tales with that part which went “at the wyndow out she pitte hir hole and Absolon hym fil no bet ne wers but with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers” which had the whole class pissing themselves because they couldn’t believe some dusty old text written on a scroll had a story where a man planted a kiss on someone’s arsehole, which she thought about now and then wherever an arse popped up on her screen, belonging to some homeless guy staggering down the high street drinking out of a carrier bag with his crack hanging out as some teenager filmed him, cackling and slapping his mates on the back, or the video she saw of some poor nineteen year old in a bathtub shitting herself as a promise to someone blackmailing her over some naked pictures, only for that clip to end up all over the internet too. Carlton liked to tease her a lot, not just about her new London friends (she had none), but also about the articles she used to share on her own Facebook feed about Libya, food banks and the World Trade Organisation in a time when she felt so indignant and like the first person in the world to hear about all of this, but it all felt pretty thankless when he would sit there with a knowing smirk and joke to her Mum that she was going the same way as her, all that “power to the people, that’s it isn’t it Shannon”, throwing up a fist and laughing as he chugged back an instant coffee. She didn’t pay all that much attention anymore, because if there was one thing consistent about the politics which came shrink-wrapped in the posts flagged and assorted on her screen, between the memes and the conspiracy theories, was that finding something to be indigent about hardly felt possible anymore, because as soon as she felt convinced by something, someone else was declaring the exact opposite down a phone camera from the front seat of his car and it was almost impossible to discern what was true and what wasn’t to the extent that she didn’t even really read the news anymore; the only time she was aware when something really big had happened in the world was when swathes of posts about it popped up in her launch page in a wave: that was when you knew something had really taken hold. Shannon thanked her lucky stars that she started after the time of ISIS when all those slick little execution tapes must have clogged up task boxes like a high tide, not shared from Syria or Iraq but reposted from the sofa by Steve in Sheffield or Redcar; videos of people being decapitated or drowned which the prime minister watched once out of a sense of duty but Mala, the fine arts graduate, once watched fifty times in one day. Shannon moved the cursor across the cold blue light of the screen and clicked on the next flagged post: a video of a bearded man speaking passionately, looking straight out of the screen, the circles of his pupils made concentric by the little red flashing light of the camera reflecting off the wetness between his crusty pink eyelids; a red which matched the popped veins of his neck as he spoke in spit from his 2560 x 1440 box. As he gesticulated towards the screen Shannon shifted uncomfortably, rocking back and forth on the wheels of her chair as his thick hands thrust closer and closer to the lens of the camera, pieces of spittle flying from his mouth and sticking in his beard. His body inched forward until he dominated the frame, his hands just a blur in the foreground until his skin hit the lens and pressed against the surface of her computer screen. The thin gloss of the display swelled and warped around the tips of his fingers until he wore the numbers and letters of the screen like a glove; a glove which split across his hands like the skin of hot custard until they broke through entirely and were suddenly right there before Shannon, two thick, clammy mans hands with thumbs twice the width of her own and a black crust around his cuticles, straining in mid-air. Her breath shortened, blood dropping from her head to her heart as his hands inched towards her, his fingers wrapping like vines around her neck, his grip asserting a firm hold before beginning to raise her, her jeans gliding out of the seat of the chair, her body straightening as she rose. His hands began to pull back into the gossamer display, back within the borders of the video as she left her seat behind her, his hands less dragging her than guiding her up and out, her legs dangling loosely above her foot stool as, like a ribbon of fabric, she was led into the screen. The man was still ranting furiously but his face became blurred as Shannon was dragged closer and her perspective was distorted, the lines of his face becoming assorted into little rows of red, green and blue pixels, which grew from microscopic dots into a mosaic, and then a vast expanse of floating cubes, and as the air of the moderately ventilated office ended and the surface of her computer began, she began to feel the warm glow of the cubes on the surface of her skin. The hands and the man vanished completely as her body became languorous and she let herself glide between the technicolour rows as if she was being taken by the current of a stream. Shannon’s skin acquired a bright aura as she sank deeper into the pristine lattice of radiant light, her world hued in intermittent shades of red, green and blue, sweeping like spotlights around her and gaining in speed. As soon as her feet arrived inside completely, the blocks of colour started shooting past at greater speed; waves of euphoria washed over her body and every one of her hairs stood on end, filled with fibrous energy. She looked down beyond the tunnel as she propelled forward and became aware of the vast chasm which loomed beneath her, with more blackness than entrance but occupied by the same columns of light, wafting like coral and creating ripples in the air whose current carried her downwards, away from the highway of light and into the weeds. Their arms stroked her as she drifted through them, a low hum vibrating her eardrums and the scent of a damp forest animating the atmosphere. She felt herself slow as she sunk into thicker air, air which acted like sand, halting the fast progress of her body. The steep columns of light which once shimmered as pinpricks beneath her now towering like sequoia trees above her head, stretching gracefully. The highway of light was just a smear in a black sky now, scratching an empty horizon. Shannon struggled to push her body upright; her muscles felt weak and her limbs stubborn, impossible to tell where the thick air ended and her blood began. The space below her was devoid of colour, a shade of black she felt in her stomach, which ate up light with a vociferous hunger. In the silence she could hear the wading of another person, approaching with a determined stride. She would have recognised the hands of that man anywhere, his gut spilling over the waistline of his denim jeans as he leant over and took hold of her again, this time taking the back of her skull. He began to press her into the swamp below, her limp body sucked by the puckered lips of a vacuum further down, except there was no space there, the darkness encased her in a suffocating embrace, forcing her body into a space she knew it couldn’t fit. A brick-like heaviness luxuriated on her spine as her eyelids began to flutter and the air rushed out of her lungs, her mouth stuffed full with thick air until there was no longer an end to the blackness.
Of all the people around her dealing with the unending stream of child pornography, political propaganda, violence and death which filled their screens daily, the person who unsettled Shannon most was called John. He sat behind her, one seat to the left, and was a little older than she was, always wearing polo shirts and boating shoes, with sock-less feet squeezed into them in a way which made his skin look like supermarket tenderloin. She glanced at him as he clicked his way through his tasks, headphones broadcasting the tinny hum of D&B across the room. The sight of him made Shannon feel queasy; the normality of him, still somehow tedious amongst all of this. Unnerving not because he was so unlike her, but because he was like all of them, and she grew more and more like him by the day: increasingly, and thoroughly, undisturbed. She picked up the second sandwich from the packet and took another bite.