ASH: ASH #108 - The Office Part 2: Hump Day

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Thu Sep 16 15:05:03 PDT 2010

     [The cover shows Sal Napier, crammed into "business casual" clothing but
still wearing his Centurion helmet, hunched over a too-small cubicle desk and
typing away in what appears to be a hunt-and-peck manner.]

 '|`  /|(`| |        The Office Part 2 of 3 - Hump Day
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2010 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   ASSIGNMENT
--------       ---------                ------                   ----------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        AMERICA
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Meteor         Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed               AMERICA
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              CANADA
Centurion      Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   MEXICO
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        MEXICO
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      DIPLOMATIC
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              DIPLOMATIC
Essay          Sara Ana Henderson       Gadgeteer                VENUS
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           VENUS
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             VENUS
Geode          Unknown                  Living Crystal           VENUS
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         TRANSIT

[September 30, 2026 - The Pentagon, Federal Sector]

     "I feel underdressed and overdressed at the same time," Scorch plucked
at the cuff of his "dress uniform".  It was made of fairly durable materials,
just in case, but it was still essentially a cross between a military dress
uniform and the core design of his blue and gray armor, with a sort of buff
coat providing a modicum of protection while still looking sharp.  He, Solar
Max, Lightfoot, Centurion and Breaker all wore similar outfits, rather than
their field outfits.  Lightfoot at least wore his "Safsuit" under his dress
uniform, but Scorch's heatproof weave undersuit was too bulky to put on under
the dress uniform.  Well, he could still move, but it looked stupid, like a
kid bundled up in a snowsuit by mommy before being allowed to go outside.
     "In theory, this could end up a diplomatic mission," Solar Max pointed
out.  "Hence Tina's inclusion.  And from what we do know about the Office,
any threats will be more along the lines of metaphysical or even
metaphorical, so we shouldn't need to be ready to fight a physical battle."
     "And at least you have the right colors," Sal gestured at his own green
and brown outfit.  "My new one in red and tan is still held up at the
tailor's for some reason."
     "I should look into a new costume myself, if only to feel less like a
cruise ship purser in my dress uniform," Tom smirked.  "White and silver on
this pattern's a little bland."
     "If we're done with the fashion show, people, it's time we took the
plunge," Solar Max put on his game face.  "It's unlikely we'll find any
physical threats behind the door, but beyond that we really can't be sure
WHAT will be there.  It might look like just another office cubicle farm.  It
might be some sort of over the top parody, like what Tom once wrote about.
It could be something straight out of that old Terry Gilliam movie that
Lightfoot likes so much.  But whatever it is, it hasn't had contact with our
reality since 1998, so it's had a generation to..." he paused.
     "Fester?" Scorch suggested.
     "I was trying to avoid that word," Solar Max frowned.  "Anyway, all
reasonable precautions are in place," he nodded to the pair of DSHA Anchors
who stood ready to "lock" the door if necessary, "so let's get in there."
     He opened the door, which appeared to simply lead to a small reception
room.  No one was behind the desk, and there was a single door next to the
desk that read "Authorized Persons Only" in English, French and Spanish.
     "If we're not authorized, this will be very short and anticlimactic,"
Centurion pointed out.
     Once all five were in the reception area, they closed the outer door.
There had been a lot of discussion on the matter, but it was eventually
decided that in the event the inner office was a hostile environment it was
best to keep that environment out of the Pentagon.  Scorch had also joked it
would be a good idea to keep the Pentagon out of that environment.
     "If we're not authorized, we at least know it's not trivial to get in,"
Breaker replied.  "And part of the mission is to make sure the Office can't
be used to bypass Pentagon security.  Or planetary security, for that
matter.  It's a *multiversal* office building, after all, it would make a
handy invasion route if there's no safeguards."
     "There's no cardswipe or scanner," Scorch frowned.  "I guess that means
that the door just somehow knows if we're allowed in?"
     Before the words were even out of his mouth, a handprint scanner grew
out of the wall next to the door.  
     "Okay, creepy.  I guess it didn't grow a card scanner because we didn't
all bring cards?" Lightfoot shuddered.
     Solar Max pulled off his right glove and placed his hand on the
scanner.  It glowed briefly, then there was an audible click inside the
door.  He pulled it open with his gloved hand and gestured the others
     "You were saying something about creepy?" Centurion whistled as he led
the group into the room beyond the door.  "It's like...any floor of any
active office building after hours.  No one's in the cubicles, and while the
doors along the side walls are closed I'd bet there's no one in the offices
either.  It smells like it's just been cleaned."
     "All the cubicles look ready to use, too," Lightfoot peered into one as
the group spread out a little bit from the door.  "Zero personality, of
course, but they all have terminals, office supplies, and a few totally bland
bits of decoration.  Like they hired someone to furnish the cubicles like a
furnished apartment."
     Solar Max pulled his glove back on as he let the door close behind him.
"Breadcrumbs are operational," he held up his handcomp to show a status
screen.  One of STRAFE's Tesla Branch boffins had been playing with microbots
lately, and the "breadcrumbs" had been one of his ideas for exploration
missions, inspired by the Omega-class synthetics produced by the alien
Scytharian Corporation.  Tiny robots, about the size of dust mites, who
formed a sort of hive mind that let them spread out and examine an area.
They had limited mobility, so the idea was to disperse them along your path.
Not only could they analyze the area while you continued onward, they
provided a way to find your way out afterwards.  And unlike a physical trail,
they had enough signal range to plot you a shorter path back if you did a lot
of meandering on the way out.  It was possible, of course, that the Office
would nullify the breadcrumbs, but it could also nullify any other means of
finding their way out if it had a reason to.  So they simply went with the
best tool available without worrying about its ultimate reliability.
     "I wonder if breadcrumbs can interface with the computer terminals
here?" Breaker asked, sitting down at one of the chairs and examining the
setup more closely.  "Huh, that's weird.  And by weird, I mean possibly bad
weird.  Does anyone else feel a sudden urge to start writing up a formal
report of this expedition?"
     There was a general shaking of heads, but Lightfoot said, "No, but let
me try something."  He stepped into one of the cubicles and paused.  "Hmm,"
was all he said, then sat down in the chair.  "Okay, yeah.  I feel it now.
You might want to get out of the cubicle now," he added, stepping out
     "The natural laws of this dimension," Lightfoot explained.  "They give
you a literal hunger for doing paperwork and otherwise performing
bureaucratic tasks.  If you're stuck being the only schlub in the office at
the time, it can become almost like starvation.  You don't want food or
water, and in fact don't really need starve for paperwork.  If the
reports I read back in '93 can be believed, anyway.  I may have gone a little
over the top in working that into my stories, but it feels like the basic
idea was correct."
     "So, the longer we stay here, the more hungry we'll be for sitting down
and getting some work done?" Green Knight asked.
     "Exactly," Lightfoot nodded.  "But the effect gets stronger if we
willingly put ourselves into a context where the work would be done, so we
should probably stay out of the cubicles for now.  And definitely shouldn't
turn on any computers ourselves if the breadcrumbs can't get anything out of
     "Sounds like a good idea," Solar Max looked around.  "Okay, let's start
looking for people.  Or at least something that can give us some answers
without leaving us chained to a desk."
     Everyone nodded, but no one could quite shake the feeling that if only
they could risk a few minutes working at one of the terminals, everything
would make perfect sense....

               *              *              *              *

[September 30, 2026 - Somewhere on the Mediterranean Shore]

     "...and finally, according to the taps that my mistress placed in
various governmental systems have confirmed that the Multiversal Office has
manifested on schedule," Cronyx spoke from his place in Matrioshka's open
palm.  The small hologram purported to be an artificial intelligence that
acted as Matrioshka's assistant, but in many ways he was simply a sort of
sock puppet through which the silent Russian expressed herself.  Never's own
copy of the Cronyx program certainly didn't show as much personality and
initiative as Matrioshka's.  "For all of the changes to the timeline,
apparently none of them were sufficient to alter that.  Whatever factors
control the emergence of entryways to that dimension were apparently beyond
our ability to influence.  Possibly a simple matter of waiting for the
Barrier to fade to a particular level, possibly a measure of worldwide levels
of bureaucracy, it is difficult to be sure."
     "Thank you," Never nodded.  "Do you have anything else to tell me?"
     Cronyx paused, reflecting the uncertainty that Matrioshka herself would
never show.  "No," it finally admitted, "but my mistress does have a
question.  Why Monaco?"
     If Never was taken aback by the apparent non-sequitur, she didn't let it
show.  "As I told you all at the time, recreating Milwaukee's disappearance
precisely would not be possible, as we arrived too late in this era.  So any
convenient moderately large city would be sufficient to the ritual," Never
shrugged, imperturbable and unreadable by any of the psychometric sensors
built into Matrioshka's armor.  The Russian inventor may never show human
emotion, but she clearly understood it well enough to find ways to use it
against others.
     The little holographic daemon tsked impatiently.  "Yes, but that only
answers 'Why not Milwaukee?' not why Monaco in particular.  My mistress has
had me assembling possible hierarchical rankings as a background task for the
past several months, based on the assumption that the choice of Monaco was
not a mere whim, chosen among all the other cities near to our hidden base of
operations at random.  And in none of the hierarchies I have assembled has
Monaco even been in the top three.  For instance, were the goal to eliminate
future rivals without derailing the timeline irreparably, Berlin would be the
best choice, even if the particular threats from that city are still in
diapers.  In fact, Monaco was in some respects a dangerous choice, as the
removal of too many of the assembled personages there in April would have
caused significant problems."
     "Let me ask you a question in turn, Matrioshka," Never addressed the
chinadoll-like armored figure directly, deciding that it was best to stop
playing along with the young woman's conceit of an intermediary.  "Jesterling
and Nereid are far from the most powerful members of our Conclave in 2052.
Any one of you four could defeat either of them in single combat, although
Anhydra and Nereid might end up in a stalemate.  Why, then, do they lead the
CSV?  Why not one of the survivors of the previous generation, perhaps using
one of the more powerful children as a proxy?"
     Matrioshka wasn't going to give up her emotional distance so easily, and
let Cronyx continue to speak for her.  "The two of them are exceptional
leaders and politicians.  They have managed to...will have managed to play
factions against each other in such a way as to be the keystones of the power
structure.  But...they were not in Monaco itself at the time of our action
there, and the mistress clearly recalls your orders they not be harmed, as
their deaths could prevent our future from coming to pass."
     "They had to live," Never nodded.  "And they had to be a part of the CSV
in 2052.  But they didn't need to be *quite* so skilled at the game of
politics.  By removing Princess Ursula from the equation...for she was
guaranteed to be in Monaco on that day, no matter what other butterfly wing
flaps might have resulted from Timeslip's meddling...the Radner twins would
lose an essential tutor in the ways of politics.  Their father is no fool in
that regard himself, of course, but Ursula was one of the last members of the
old European aristocracy both alive and willing to pass on her inherited
wisdom to the Radners.  My feeling was that, with this small wrinkle made in
the timeline, we could return to a CSV just vulnerable enough that I could
guide you four to leadership positions in the place of the twins.  Well,
Chiaroscuro and Anhydra would likely be the obvious leaders, as they prefer
the limelight, while you and I would be eminence gris.  Obviously, that plan
will no longer work, but I still hope to shape you four into rulers of the
     "With you as the hand behind the throne," Cronyx nodded.  "Your
motivations are satisfactory to my mistress, and she can see why you did not
lay them out in the first place.  The others have some fondness for the
Princess, and might not have appreciated her being a specific target rather
than collateral damage."
     "Oh, I doubt any of them would have been terribly reluctant to carry out
the plan had they known the full truth.  But they can be...unsubtle, yes?
They might have revealed too much.  And while I know you are more discreet, I
decided there were fewer opportunities for Murphy's Law to kick in if I
simply kept my own counsel," Never shrugged.  "I could see ways in which
telling you all could have hurt, and no way in which it would have helped, so
the choice was fairly obvious.  It's part of being gray."
     "And eminent," Cronyx bowed.  "Very well, we will take our leave."
     As Matrioshka left, Never allowed herself to feel...but not show...a
small sense of relief.  That layer of the cover story had been enough to
mollify the only member of the Impossible Five who'd shown any indication of
caring about the matter, so the deeper truth was likely safe.
     Everything Never had told her was true, but it wasn't the real reason
Monaco had been chosen.  The real reason she'd sought to eject the city-state
from the timestream.  No, it was because of HIM.  The one person who'd hurt
her the most, who'd contributed the most to her becoming a member of the CSV.
Who had hurt her in ways even Mr. Strings had been unable to manage, who was
the reason she had no child of her own in 2052 to rescue and bring back to
2026.  HE had been in Monaco as well that day, and had survived.  Perhaps she
had changed enough of the world, though, as her younger self's life had been
significantly diverged already, and she might never come into HIS sights.
     But if it looked like that bit of her history was about to repeat
itself, this version of Lana Smith would have to take whatever steps were
necessary to make sure it never did....

               *              *              *              *

[September 30, 2026 - The Multiversal Office, Pentagon Level]

     "Looks like we've exhausted the 'safe' options on this floor, so that
leaves the elevators," Solar Max gestured at the trio of elevator doors.
     "Anyone else think this level was a little small to be managing much of
anything?" Scorch asked.  "I mean, I suppose it might grow as people are
added, and this is just a starter kit, but still."
     Centurion pointed at a placard opposite the elevators.  "North American
Combine: Pentagon Level," he read it aloud.  "That answers that, I think.
The Combine has other levels, probably each with their own door out into our
world.  And then other countries have their own set of levels.  And other
planets, et cetera."
     "I bet it's a loooong elevator tide to Santar," Lightfoot whistled.
     "World's first FTL elevator, I expect," Scorch smirked.  "I wonder why
there's no emergency stairs, though?  Other than the whole 'it would take
forever to walk down enough flights to get to Santar' thing?"
     "The elevators are part of the fabric of reality," Solar Max pointed
out.  "They're not going to break down.  If there's a fire, assuming there
*could* be one, everyone would just evacuate to the exit on their level.  In
a way, it's all ground floor real estate.  I expect if we really wanted
stairs, they'd appear somewhere and connect the Combine levels to each other,
but there's not really any need for them.  Sometimes mindless bureaucracies
actually do things that make sense, if only to confuse you."
     "Do we split up?" Centurion asked.  "Leave someone here just in case?"
     Solar Max shook his head.  "Let's keep working on the assumption that
the Office is set up to try to facilitate the performance of bureaucratic
duties, which means no weird traps.  Other than the pitcher plant aspects of
those cubicles," he suppressed the urge to file a preliminary report.  It was
like being a bit hungry in mid-morning, although oddly he wasn't feeling
physical hunger like he suspected he would have been in the outside world.
"If we lose contact with the breadcrumbs, we can just come back out of the
elevator on this floor and report back before committing to exploring more
     The others nodded and they all entered the middle elevator once the door
     "Okay, that's interesting," Scorch pointed at the buttons.  It was a
modern touchscreen rather than physical buttons, and there were nearly twenty
locations listed, plus a scrollbar.  "One for each of the Major State
capitals, plus Chicago.  I don't think anyone found a Chicago door yet from
the outside, did they?"
     "I wonder if the Minors are left out simply because they *are* Minor
States, or simply because they haven't reached a critical level of
bureaucracy yet?" Green Knight asked.
     "Bejing's button has an Out Of Order label under it," Breaker noticed.  
     "Pretty thoroughly out of order," Scorch allowed himself a dark
chuckle.  The city had been destroyed in an atomic detonation a few years
     "Hong Kong, Tai Pei and Chang'an are still in order, though," Breaker
gestured.  "I'm a little surprised China doesn't have more buttons, given
their traditionally high level of bureaucracy."
     Solar Max tried pushing the Hong Kong button, but it wouldn't respond.
Then he tried Chicago, and they felt the elevator start to move.  "Okay, it
looks like the elevator knows who's allowed to go where, at least.  So even
if an invading army is willing to go," he looked up at the MAXIMUM OCCUPANCY
sign, "twelve at a time, they can't go anywhere unauthorized.  We'll
definitely have to mention in our report that it'd be a good idea to figure
out what constitutes 'authorized' so we don't accidentally give Radner the
keys to our back yard, though."
     The doors slid open, revealing a cubicle farm identical to the one they
had just left.  Breaker even thought she could see the same sets of posters
and knickknacks at the desks, only a few pieces of signage betrayed the fact
that it was indeed a different level.
     "Breadcrumbs from the Pentagon level are still reporting back,
apparently there's a LAN here that they can piggyback on.  I'm not getting
any direct signals from them, though, so the levels may not be in actual
physical proximity," Solar Max pointed out.  "Go see if you can tell where
the exit lets out, Lightfoot."
     The speedster nodded and was gone in an eyeblink.  "I've got the door
open, taking a sec to let my comm get a fix," his voice came over Solar Max's
handcomp.  "I think we're somewhere under Daley Plaza."
     "Okay.  Send a burst message of our recordings so far and get back
here," Solar Max ordered.  He shuddered slightly as he realized how
*satisfied* he felt having done something like filing a report.  It was like
having that mid-morning snack he'd been metaphorically craving.
     "Done," Lightfoot said, standing in the elevator once more.  Lightfoot
had the same sort of relieved-yet-worried expression that Solar Max suspected
was on his own face.
     "Let me try something," Breaker said as the doors closed.
     "Go for it," Solar Max nodded.
     Breaker pressed the Hong Kong button, but nothing happened.  She nodded,
as if expecting that.  Then she pressed the Chang'an button, and the elevator
went into motion.
     "Looks like Niu never officially revoked my status when he told me to
leave," Breaker smiled.  "I'm still a cog in the bureaucratic machine of the
People's Republic of China...."

               *              *              *              *

[September 30, 2026 - Malindi, Eastern Africa]

     "Next," the bored-looking recruiting clerk called out in heavily
accented English.  Ahmed expected that most of the people the clerk saw on
the graveyard shift were just off a boat, or just out of a bar, and there was
a certain monotonous sameness to them.  It was just a fact of life that most
of the people looking to sign on with President Adoko's military were active
mainly at night if they could help it, sleeping it off during daylight hours,
so the office kept hours that a "respectable" business would scoff at.  It
also meant that the clerk probably couldn't be out doing anything *worth*
sleeping off when he was on night shift.  Hence, he was bored.
     His boredom started shifting to suspicion as Ahmed stepped up to the
counter of the recruiting station.  "You look a little young.  You thinkin'
t'be runnin' 'way from home t'be a glam'rus soldier, mtumishi?"
     "Ran away, yeah.  But no home.  I know soldiering isn't 'glam'rus,'
mister, but it's gotta beat being a beggar," Ahmed replied, making no attempt
to hide his Khadamite accent.  He'd actually learned to fake a number of
accents on the boat ride from Algiers, but decided that he didn't need to get
fancy here.  He'd picked Malindi because it was just recovered enough to let
him start a "paper trail" for a new identity, but still savage enough that
few people in power really cared about who you really were.  Plus, unlike
some other parts of Africa, it still used one of the languages Ahmed knew as
its common tongue.  Some places had reverted completely to Swahili, or
Afrikaans.  Pretty much anyone who wanted to be a successful beggar in Khadam
had to know at least a little English, German, French and Santari.
Understanding untranslated Pranir was also a plus, although human mouths
couldn't really speak it properly.  Thanks to his own genetic gifts and some
of Bluthundin's tutoring, Ahmed was fluent and literate in the four common
Khadamite tongues, but he'd only picked up a few phrases in Swahili so far.
     Like most of Africa, Kenya had been hit hard by its "investment" in the
Godmarket, its larger cities like Mombasa and Nairobi were still crumbling
ghost towns, burned out in the rioting that followed the vanishing of so many
people.  Rumors persisted in many parts of Africa that some cities had seen
the rise of cannibalism as infrastructure broke down entirely, and even if
they weren't true, it was certain that the more advanced cities had been hit
the worst by the aftermath of July 6th.  Ironically, it was the more backward
and backwater towns where infrastructure had never really been up to "modern"
standards that survived the best, because they already functioned without
most of the things that had been temporarily lost.  Malindi was a bit of an
oddity, thanks to its heavy tourist industry it had more modern
infrastructure, but it was small enough to avoid the worst of the rioting.
That made it a good place to build a recovery around.  
     As an added bonus, from Ahmed's point of view, Kenya was just outside of
the zone that had fallen under de facto Khadamite rule, making it a common
stop for people trying to get out of Khadam.  And unlike similarly
"independent" Algiers, it was far enough from Khadam proper that it wasn't
swarming with people who might have recognized Ahmed.  Most of the local
warlords had some affiliation with the Moslem Coalition, although Adoko had
been making noises about trying to get admitted to the Eurasian Union, and he
was having to bolster his army with outside mercenaries just in case the
Coalition decided they didn't like that idea.  Ahmed stood out some among the
much darker-skinned locals, but he was hardly the only German/Arab mix on the
streets.  Or even in the recruiting office.
     "Why not sign up for a construction brigade, then?  Y'll have t'wait for
morning, they keep sane hours, but it's better'n beggin' too, safer'n
soldierin'," the recruiter countered.  Clearly, the man had no trouble
meeting his quotas, or perhaps there were penalties for sending along
unqualified recruits.  Maybe the man simply had some human decency left and
didn't like the idea of putting a kid into what amounted to a mercenary
     "I've already heard things about the monsters in Nairobi.  If I'm gonna
go near there, I want a gun, not a shovel."  Actually, Ahmed was guessing
quite a bit.  But what he'd picked up already in the city suggested that
"President Francois Etienne Adoko of the Republic of Kenya" was eager to
rebuild Nairobi and use it to bolster his claims of legitimacy, and that was
the other reason so many foreigners flooded into the area looking for work.
The ones who didn't pick up a gun would pick up a shovel.  Really, Adoko was
just another warlord, operating out of small lake town of Magadi and holding
territory that included roughly the southern third of old Kenya and a few
bits of adjoining former nations like Tanzania.  There were enough monsters
roaming various parts of Africa that it was safe to assume wherever a
construction brigade was headed, Nairobi or elsewhere in Adoko's territory,
fears of them would seem reasonable.
     "I think you'll find all th' monsters have guns," the recruiter
shrugged.  "But if y'really want t'be a soldier, here's th' forms," he handed
over a battered clipboard with a pencil stub attached to it by a piece of
string just barely long enough to let the user write with it.  Several sheets
were on the clipboard.  "Y'can write?  In English?"
     Ahmed nodded.  "Enough."
     The clerk looked dubious.  "Go over there and see what'cha can fill
out.  Put your mark on the line at the bottom of the last sheet, then get
back in line.  Next!"
     Ahmed sat at one of the benches and propped the clipboard on his knees,
skimming over the forms.  Quite a lot more paperwork than he'd expected,
based on what he'd learned from a few mercenary soldiers on the boat and back
in Khadam...and on their average level of illiteracy.  Probably part of
Adoko's attempts to look like a legitimate President, though.
     The good news was that this would simplify things somewhat.  He already
had a cover identity in mind he wanted to establish, and this would let him
get most of it into the system all at once.  He just had to be careful to
pretend to be literate enough to get the information onto the form without
seeming too literate to be a former street urchin.  
     If pressed, though, and none of his other lies worked, he could
"reluctantly" tell a questioner all about the foreign man with a taste for
boys who had taken him in and taught him to read and write before starting to
ask return.  And then imply, but not actually admit, that
he had fled Khadam after violently (fatally) spurning the foreign man's
advances.  A man who might have friends in Khadam, friends who made it
dangerous for Ahmed to stay there even if the man himself was no longer in a
position to do anything.
     It covered a number of oddities about Ahmed's education and level of
health, and would be believed, but he'd rather avoid using the lie if he
could.  He was still a child in many ways, but he was enough of an adult to
know that having that sort of reputation while working among soldiers could
cause more problems than he wanted, even if it would be less trouble for him
than the truth.  After all, the truth would likely get him shot out of hand.
     There had been a lot of time on the boat ride to Kenya to spin lies
about his past, and plenty of reason to do so.  If his real life had only
lasted a couple of years, the sum of his false lives already added up to more
years than any mortal man could live....

               *              *              *              *

[September 30, 2026 - The Multiversal Office, Chang'an Level]

     "Hello?  Is someone there?" a voice called out from somewhere in the
cubicles, in modern Chinese.
     "We have contact," Solar Max whispered.  "Breaker?"
     "Definitely the official PROC dialect," she nodded.  "You still getting
breadcrumb signals?"
     Solar Max looked at his handcomp.  "Yes, but," he stepped out of the
elevator, "now I'm not.  Rather, I'm just getting signals from the ones we're
dropping here.  Looks like the LAN on this level isn't accessible to the
breadcrumbs on the Combine levels."
     "Hello?" the voice called out again, plaintively.  
     Solar Max nodded to Breaker, who then replied, "We are by the elevators.
Can you find us?"  No one was particularly eager to wander far on this level,
given that their trail had effectively been cut off.  Not to mention, while
Breaker was authorized to enter the level, no one was quite certain whether
the rest of them could move freely without triggering some sort of
bureaucratic "immune response" from the Office.
     "No!  I am trapped at this desk!  Help me!"
     "Careful, it could be a trap," Solar Max said as he led the group
towards the sound of the voice.
     It took only moments to find the right cubicle, as it was the only one
     "I am Shih Ho," Breaker introduced herself by the name of the trigram
incorporated into her uniform.  "Breaker" was simply one possible English
translation of it.
     "I am Li Fan 8410," the man replied, almost looking surprised as he
finished the sentence.  "I mean, I am just called Li Fan 8410 now."
     "My companions and I are from the North American Combine," Breaker said,
noticing Li Fan's growing frustration.  "We entered this complex from our
territory and are exploring.  Are you physically bound to the chair?" she
eyed the office furniture.
     "I can stand," Li Fan 8410 demonstrated, then sat again and started
typing.  "But I cannot make myself leave."
     Breaker translated this for the others, who knew some basic Chinese at
this point, but were having trouble following the dialect.
     "We think it is a mind trap," Solar Max said in stiffly formal
Mandarin.  "We have felt it ourselves."
     "My companions are Solar Max, Lightfoot, Scorch and the Green Knight,"
Breaker felt compelled to make the formal introduction.  For each name, she
used English, although she was uncomfortable with not trying to translate
them into Chinese.  Something about the Office was definitely working its
ways on her as well, she realized.
     "Um, I am no longer called the Green Knight," the Green Knight
interrupted, "I am now called the Green Kn...wait."
     "See?  SEE?" Li Fan 8410 threw up his hands.  "I am just Li Fan 8410.
No number!  Number no longer required!  But I can't stop saying it!"
     "Oh crap," Scorch said in English, although Li Fan 8410 didn't need a
translation.  "His name must still be on the books with the number, and the
Office is making him play by the book, even if unofficially the Chinese are
starting to drop the numbers."  In the early part of the century, in the name
of simplifying recordkeeping, all people with the same name in the People's
Republic of China had been assigned a numerical suffix that rendered their
name unique.  Some lucky few only had a single digit.  Others, those with
very common and traditional names, might have four or even five digits
appended.  But Premiere Niu had moved to suppress the use of the numbers in
everyday contexts, although the numbers remained as a national ID code.
     "And you've been having some trouble with your official identity,
haven't you, Centurion?" Lightfoot asked.  
     "I think we need to leave.  Soon," the Green Knight nodded.
     "That way?" Scorch pointed at the local exit.  "We could drop Li Fan
8410 off, I bet we can get him to the door before he goes into too much
paperwork withdrawal."
     Breaker shook his head.  "Too much chance for a nasty diplomatic
incident if we go out that way.  But we can't really take Li Fan 8410 with us
to the Combine either, so I think we should push him through the local door
and then head back home.  I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a REALLY
strong urge to edit some propaganda posters," she said, referring to the job
she'd held as part of her cover identity in Chang'an.
     "It's not so bad for me," Solar Max said, "but probably because I'm
'visiting another department' as it were."
     Lightfoot flickered away and moments later came back.  "Bad news.  I
can't make the outer door open.  It must be keyed to the same authorization
system as the elevators.  And I checked the elevators too, by the way...they
won't respond either."
     "So Breaker has to open all our doors now," Solar Max nodded.  "We'll do
this as a group.  Green Knight, grab Li Fan 8410 and try to keep him from
hurting himself, we're making a run for the door to get him out, then back to
the elevators."
     "Just one more form!" Li Fan 8410 protested when the Green Knight hefted
him as if he were no heavier than a binder of expense reports.  "Please, I
must keep working!"
     "Now that's a dysfunctional work ethic," Scorch muttered as the group
headed for the doorway a few dozen meters away.
     "Ugh," Centurion nearly dropped Li Fan 8410.  "Something's wrong," the
Green Knight grunted. 
     "Reaction to removing Li Fan 8410?" Solar Max asked. 
     "No, it's...."
     And with that, the Green Knight flickered out of existence, leaving Li
Fan 8410 to drop to the carpeted floor in a jumble.


Next Issue:

     Has Centurion literally fallen through the cracks of bureaucracy?  And
if he can be rescued, will it merely serve to take the others deeper into the
metaphorical pitcher plant that is the Multiversal Office Building?  Tune in
for "The Office Part 3 - TGIF" to find out!


Author's Notes:

     For the cover, if you picture Mr. Incredible at his day job at the
insurance company in The Incredibles, you won't be too far off.

     The dress uniforms are not quite the same as the one seen in this
kitbash:  The coats were added
recently, but the general pattern on Solar Max's coat would be the same as
seen on the kitbash, a simplified version of his costume's iconography.  Buff
coats are derived from leather jackets worn under armor in the 1600s or
thereabouts, but the style was later adapted to be worn on its own in
Colonial times.  The ASH uniforms use a slightly more modern variant of the
Colonial buff coat, for a very-retro fashion statement.  One advantage of the
buff coat design is that because it started life as a piece of armor, it
doesn't need any complicated adjustments to accomodate stiffer ballistic
cloth or fireproof material.  It hangs correctly even when armored.  My
STRAFE kitbashes (like are a bit
closer to what the shape of the ASH dress uniform is.

     By now, you should have noticed that the "errors" in which Sal is
referred to as the Green Knight were intentional.  In the original notes for
this issue, everyone went in wearing their costumes rather than dress
uniforms, and Sal would occasionally flicker from his Centurion costume to
his Green Knight costume, but I decided to go with a more subtle hint that
something was wrong.

     While things like the "breadcrumbs" have many antecedents, I'm being
most directly inspired by the Fairy Dust nanotech in the Bemmie books by
Flint and Spoor (_Boundary_ and _Threshold_ so far).  The Omega-class
Scytharians were introduced by Matt Rossi III in the Warden series, and
involved a swarm of small robots that created and maintained a solid energy
construct.  They're pretty much on the bleeding edge of Santari normaltech,
and they're more showy than practical.  Self-sustaining energy matrices were
also developed by the Scytharians, but they had a distressing tendency to
develop minds of their own, and were abandoned despite being more durable and
powerful than the Omegas.  After all, if something's likely to go rogue on
you, being more durable and powerful is not exactly an asset anymore.

     The Never scene was mainly written in order to plug a lingering plot
hole from the "Four To Never" crossover.  Tony and I knew why we wanted to
use Monaco in terms of nifty set pieces and character availability, but we
didn't really worry about why it was the target in-story.  Someone asked
about it a while back, though, so I figured out an explanation and ran it
past Tony.  We tossed ideas back and forth a bit, and settled on what's
presented here.  Of course, there's more to it than I've revealed this issue.
:)  I also decided it was high time to at least let the readers know Never's
true identity, although I expect a few people guessed it from how the
Impossible Five had orders to treat Lana with kid gloves back "Four To

     I have no idea if I've even come close to what a southern Kenyan's
transliterated accent should look like.  If I'm too far off, and you do know
better, just assume the clerk isn't a local, and the accent is correctly
transliterated for wherever he's from.  ;)


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and more, go to !

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