ASH/HCC: STRAFE #18 - "Necktie"

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Sat Jan 12 15:20:13 PST 2013

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         Superhuman Tactical Resources and Affiliated-Field Experts
                    original concept by Dave Van Domelen
              development by Marc Singer and Terrone Carpenter

                           Issue #18 - "Necktie"
                     copyright 2013 by Dave Van Domelen


     [Cover shows a younger Dan Tracey at a desk in a large office.
      His is the only neatly organized one, the eye in a hurricane of
      chaos.  And he looks like he's about to snap.]


[STRAFE Headquarters, McLean, Virginia Sector - November 18, 2026]

     Karl Oyono placed another sealed folder on Dan Tracey's desk.  "Ah,
autumn in the government district, when the paperwork flutters gently from
the trees."
     "Let's see if this one actually needed to be printed out and couriered,"
Dan sighed.  
     In theory, the only paperwork that had to be literal paperwork was
material considered too sensitive to trust to even the ultra-paranoid
governmental networks.  But with the increasing numbers of both rogue
Khadamite Artificial Consciousnesses and the rumors (largely true) of a
growing micro-nation of not-rogue-but-not-actually-loyal-to-anyone-else ACs,
mid-level functionaries were starting to commit more and more material to
unhackable paper.  Grind estimated that it would be another three months
before both friendly and unfriendly nations got their human intelligence
operations spun up and ready to start intercepting couriers, at which point
the pendulum would swing back towards electronic transmissions.  He wasn't a
spy per se, more of a commando, but there was a lot of overlap in the
     "More TerraStar fallout?" Karl asked.  Obviously, if the folder had
really merited the hardcopy treatment, Dan's adjutant might not have been
cleared to know.  But the eidetic paranormal had guessed right, and was
certainly cleared to see yet another bureaucrat demanding action over Polla's
"violation" of the terms of her parole.  Never mind that she'd been careful
to stick to the letter of the agreement.
     "Yes.  This one is from the Oceania branch of DSHA, and has the stench
of 'I need to look decisive' all over it," Dan tossed it aside.  He'd have to
reply to it at some point, but it was hardly urgent.  "You know, when I was
in training they told me that I'd eventually hit a rank where I'd spend more
time managing files than fighting the bad guys, but I hadn't expected it to
be so soon."
     "Lucky man, you still get to go out and be shot at on occasion," Karl
grinned, his teeth jumping out against his deep brown skin.  "I've known I
was doomed to management since my powers manifested.  I can merely bask in
your reflected glory and try to weasel juicy tidbits out of you that don't
make it into the official reports."
     Dan chuckled.  Karl had been made his adjutant as soon as he could be
rushed through the basic STRAFE training, once it became clear that none of
the human aides could keep up with Dan's paranormally-efficient brain.  Karl,
if anything, could think circles around least, in certain areas.  He
wasn't a scientist or a detective or a creative type, but his memory was as
flawless as Dan's and better organized.  Karl was a super-bureaucrat, and
there was talk of actually giving him a field mission into the Multiversal
Office to see if he could wrangle something out of it.  So far, though, the
consensus was that there was too much risk the Office would co-opt the young
     "Still, I can definitely understand the almost unholy glee with which
Hendrick gave me my first undercover assignment," Dan picked up the folder
again and started to skim it.  Even a normal could carry on a conversation
while reading something as predictable as the Oceania functionary's missive.  
     "Oh, really?" Karl's eyebrows shot up.  "I haven't heard that story
yet.  And that didn't feel like one of your five-jump chain of reasoning
shifts, so how did your first undercover assignment tie into paperwork?"
     "Pretty much how you'd expect.  Hendrick decided he wanted me out from
underfoot while STRAFE moved here from the temporary camp in Cuba, so he gave
me an 'easy' covert insertion assignment.  I had to hold down a day job...."

               *              *              *              *

[February 13, 2023 - Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania Sector]

     "...any questions, Mr. Danson?"
     "Jerry Danson" shook his head.  "All seems pretty clear.  Once the
biometrics clear, I can get to work."  And if they didn't clear, he thought,
it was unlikely anyone in the building could keep him from making good his
escape.  Then he'd get to bawl out whichever STRAFE techie dropped the ball
and failed to correctly build the fake identity.  Assuming that the whole
thing wasn't supposed to blow up in his face as a test...that would fit what
he'd experienced so far, working with Colonel Hendrick.
     "Good.  I know you're just a temp, but if things work out, we're always
willing to hire an ABD on as a long-term employee once the degree comes
through."  A lot of students Dan's age picked up their parents' "wage slave"
habits and managed to finish all their classroom work before the end of their
final semester of school, but most colleges hadn't caught up to the trend yet
and still only handed out degrees at the end of term.  These "All But Degree"
students tried to get into the workforce before the awarding of their
diplomas, usually as temps or interns.  This made it a good cover for Dan
Tracey, since there wouldn't be a need to forge as many documents to make
Jerry Danson's paperwork plausible.  
     Also, the manager was lying.  Companies rarely hired their own ABD
temps, for reasons tied up in labor laws, office politics and a somewhat
old-fashioned sentiment on the part of upper management that people who are
too eager to jump ship on college will be job-hoppers in general.  So far,
the statistics didn't support that, but it'd still be a while before
corporate culture caught up.  At least they were a few years ahead of the
colleges on the trend.
     "I'll leave you to it, then, the workload should be on your screen as
soon as the system recognizes you," the management drone nodded, gestured at
the desk, then walked off to manage someone else.
     Dan Tracey schooled himself against the expected boredom and got to
work.  According to his mission brief, the odds were very low that this
company was actually involved in anything shady, which was why he was there
on what amounted to a training mission.  But, as Hendrick said, "No business
makes it big without having a few skeletons in the break room.  Find some."

                         *                             *

[February 14, 2023]

     So far, the only wrongdoing he'd uncovered was the five married women
(three of which clearly thought they were fooling him into thinking they were
single, and one of whom was probably on her way to a divorce in the next
three months) slipping him Valentines of varying levels of subtlety.  The
least subtle one probably also counted as workplace sexual harassment, but he
doubted he could turn that one over to Hendrick as something actionable.
     "They do realize I'm a temp, right?" he asked Zeke, one of his coworkers
in the break room.  Normally he wasn't much for small talk, but he was trying
to learn how to establish a cover identity, and that meant faking a lot of
things that didn't come naturally to him.  He doubted he'd ever be a top pick
for this sort of operation, but he had to at least develop competence at it.
     "Oh, that's half the charm," Zeke smirked.  "First, it's a race to see
who can bang the new meat first.  And then waiting out the awkwardness until
you move on.  And you're a lot more chase-worthy than most of the temps we
get," he added with a wink.  Dan hoped he looked appropriately uncomfortable
and moderately shocked, although he'd pegged the man as gay on the first day,
and knew Zeke was also fiercely loyal to his boyfriend.  No particular
worries from that direction.  Carla O'Neal, on the other hand, kept finding
reasons to hang around his desk and "accidentally" run into him in the
hallways, which was already making it harder to dig for skeletons.
     Speak, or think, of the devil and she shall appear.
     "I hope you don't swing that way, handsome," Carla sashayed into the
break room.  "Zeke's taken, you'd only be disappointed."  
     Zeke, for his part, merely rolled his eyes.
     Dan suppressed the urge to "do a Sherlock" on Carla, keeping the Jerry
mask on.  "I'm not on the prowl, I'm an ABD," he said, trying to put an edge
of "Back, off, lady" into his voice without sounding totally like a freaked
out teenager.  Which, come to think of it, he felt like.  It's not like he
wasn't used to women coming after him, but Carla was a different class from
the college girls he was used to.  They were puppies, Carla was a wolf.
     "Oh, you don't think the company will hire you on after you graduate?"
Carla leaned over the table.  She was wearing a high-collared sweater, but
the sway of her breasts communicated as much as obvious cleavage would have.
Subtle as a battleship.  And her guns were pointed in his direction.
     "I suppose it could happen," Dan admitted.  "And the university could
also decide to spontaneously award me an MBA based on my time here."
     "Ouch," Zeke winced.  "So young to be so cynical."
     "Am I wrong?" Dan asked.
     "No," the other two chorused.

                         *                             *

[February 15, 2023]

     "Please don't make a scene, Mr. Smithfield," the security guard loomed
over a nearby desk.  Dan was on edge, not because his erstwhile coworker's
firing bothered him, but because the security guard moved like someone with a
lot more training than the job called for.  He estimated he could still drop
the man in five moves, but "show the incompetent idiot the door" guards were
usually in the one-shot zone for Dan.
     "I gave this company the past five years of my life!" Smithfield was
clearly intent on making a scene.  "I'm not going to be pinkslipped like a
fast food worker," he gestured at his computer screen, which presumably held
a notice of termination.  "I demand a meeting with the board to explain why
I'm being tossed aside!"
     Dan schooled his expression to what he hoped was one of vaguely
embarrassed "some people don't know when it's time to go away"-ness, but his
hackles were all the way up.  Maybe Smithfield was just given to excessive
drama, but nothing about the man's position or work the past few days had
given any indication that he could reasonably expect the board of directors
to take a personal interest in his employment.
     "My orders are to escort you from the building, Mr. Smithfield.  I would
prefer that to be a literal escort, and not the polite fiction in which I
carry your unconcious body out the door and call it an escort," the security
guard rumbled.
     Smithfield fumed for a moment, then adopted a "you haven't heard the
last of me" expression and started to angrily pick things up off his desk and
shove them into his briefcase.
     "Leave the phone," the guard warned as Smithfield started to pick up the
unassuming-looking mobile device.
     "Fine, you take it," Smithfield shoved it into the guard's hands.
     Dan almost blew his cover and leapt to shove the guard aside,
recognizing the model of phone as a particularly nasty variety of black-cel.
Most of the quasi-legal devices simply used implanted chips to ensure that
only the owner could use them, that even a biometric fake of the sort Khadam
was rumored to be working on couldn't access them.  But this particular model
not only failed to work for anyone but the owner, it could stun unauthorized
users into unconsciousness.  It went past quasi-legal and into fully illegal
territory, and the fact the company had issued one to an employee meant this
was not as safe an infiltration job as Dan had expected.  Or perhaps his
standards for "clean company" were too high and this sort of thing happened
all the time.
     The guard spasmed and went down, sending the office into a panic.
Fighting every one of his instincts, Dan let himself join the pandemonium as
Smithfield looked around wildly for a way out.  His little act of defiance
had set the bridge on fire while he was still standing on it, and he was now
a very desperate man slowly coming to the conclusion that he had made a fatal
error.  And that made him extremely dangerous...with the only security guard
in the room currently in a twitching heap on the floor.
     Dan froze.
     Afterwards, he tried to tell himself that it was a plausible thing for
a noncombatant like Jerry Danson to do, but in truth it was no cover.  Every
one of his instincts screamed at him to do something about Smithfield, but
his brain fought back just as hard.  Jerry wasn't a fighter, and there were
at least three security cameras looking at Smithfield's part of the room.
The odds of video analysis blowing his cover were too great.  Even something
sneaky or deliberately clumsy would....
     Smithfield solved the dilemma for Dan by running from the room.

                         *                        *

[February 17, 2023]

     "Thank God it's Friday," Zeke sighed.  "What a week."
     "Tell me about it.  Do people melt down like that every week here?" Dan
asked.  The last two days had been very dull, but strained.  No one would
talk about Smithfield, and security had been ramped up to the point where
even when Dan could shake Carla's amorous attentions, he couldn't get at
anything interesting.  So that left him nothing but to do Jerry's job, which
could have been performed adequately by one of Radner's first attempts at
artificial consciousness.  Dan had segued into imagining Radner being forced
to do brain-dead paperwork in prison, which helped make it a little more
     "Hmmm, only around performance review time," Zeke replied, his humor
brittle.  "Good thing you'll be out of here before those roll around."
     Zeke seemed clean, as far as Dan could tell, as did most of the
coworkers Dan had spent time around.  So, whatever the problem was here, it
wasn't a case of an entire organization hiding in plain sight and just
cycling in the occasional temp to keep from being obvious.  Any rot was
hidden pretty well amidst the perfectly innocent (the term being used in a
legal sense, in Carla's case) workers.  Dan had managed to get a coded
message off to his handlers about Smithfield, but part of maintaining cover
had meant not just running off to report in at the end of the workday.  He
hoped to get some information back over the weekend, but he was largely on
his own until he got the signal to pull out.
     "If poor performance reviews involve getting tased, I think I'll pass on
any offer to stay on," Dan joked back, equally uncomfortably. 
     "They let me off with some light waterboarding last time," Zeke winked.
"ALWAYS fill out your TPS reports fully.  With coversheets."

                         *                        *

[February 20, 2023]

     Nothing all weekend.  He'd managed to beg off one offer of socializing
by claiming he needed to work on his college paperwork, and he'd firmly
established himself as intimidated by Carla so just dodged her offers without
making up a plausible excuse.
     But there'd been nothing in the various real and virtual dead drops
Hendrick had arranged for him.  His own digging on Smithfield (perfectly
reasonable within the bounds of his cover ID) had turned up some interesting
data.  The man had been a traveling rep for the company, lately doing a lot
of work with companies in South America.  He was more important than his desk
out in cubeland would have indicated, since he was really just using a pool
desk to get some work done between trips.
     His work abroad could explain the souped up black-cel, either issued
because of the dangerous places he was expected to go, or acquired there.
The company didn't have an official branch in South America, but there could
have been a few layers of shells if they did have some properties there.
And, of course, the looser legal structures down south made even the more
above-board South American companies attractive partners for those in the
Combine proper. 
     That was one of those inevitable skeletons Hendrick had been talking
about, though.  It was hard to find a large company without some questionable
business dealings outside the Combine, although most were scrambling to
either sever their ties or get their partners "up to code" as relations with
the hard-hit continent slowly normalized.
     There was probably something there, though, and Dan needed to keep his
nose clean and his work record spotless long enough to find it.

                         *                        *

[February 21, 2023]

     "Must not strangle co-workers.  Must not strangle co-workers.  While in
an area covered by security cameras."

                         *                        *

[February 23, 2023]

     "If one more person points out that it's two-twenty-three-twenty-
twenty-three, I may have to do a Smithfield," Dan confided to Zeke.
     "Ugh.  At least you weren't here a year and a day ago," Zeke rolled his
     "Oh, God.  It was bad enough in school that day," Dan shook his head.

                         *                        *

[February 24, 2023]

     Tensions had finally eased enough that Dan felt comfortable doing a
little sneaking around into places he wasn't strictly supposed to be.  And
Carla seemed to have moved on to new meat.
     One of the keys to getting into places you're not supposed to be is to
NOT sneak.  Act like you belong, like someone sent you there, and people
rarely question you.  And as a temp, he could always use the excuse that he'd
messed up the instructions somehow and gone to the wrong place.
     Now he was in a part of the building inside connection range of the
secure wireless network that was off-limits to regular employees, but not so
deep into it that he couldn't explain his presence.  An intrusion program
built into the heel of his shoe by Tesla Branch was grabbing as much data as
it could while he walked around looking like he was going somewhere.  He
figured he had another minute before he needed to actually get someplace he
should be and get back to his deadly dull cover job.  He could analyze the
stolen data when he got back to Jerry's apartment.

     "You sure you don't want to come along to the bar?" Zeke asked as they
headed for the door at the end of the day.
     "I'm pretty sure we don't like the same kind of bar," Dan smirked.
     "Hey, you could get free drinks all night, you don't have to go home
with anyone...unless you decide to give the other side a try," Zeke winked.
He'd been ribbing Dan about the subject almost from the start, it already
felt like a hoary old running gag.
     "I feel like I need to go home and take up opera singing or something or
the right side of my brain will shrivel up and die," Dan demurred.  "Or the
entire thing.  I think today's work just cost me half my sophomore year."
     "Hopefully not the good half," Zeke waved.  "See you Monday!"

     Dan only barely had to fake the tired trudge to the bus stop, but it
wasn't opera he planned on learning once he got back to the apartment.  If
there was something juicy enough on the shoe, he could turn it in and get out
of Form Shuffling Hell.
     Something made him pause at the door.  None of the sensors had been
tripped, but there was a bad vibe he couldn't consciously explain.  It was
certainly possible someone could have broken in despite the security Tesla
Branch had installed, but looked no better than what a college
student could afford, but it was pretty good under the shell.  That just
meant that if someone had gotten in, they were good.
     Before his pause could be taken as a sign he'd been spooked, he decided
that his best bet was to keep to the cover for a little longer, rather than
burst in fighting.  So he jangled his keys as if he'd fumbled to get them out
(explaining the slight pause) and unlocked the door.
     Once he was fully inside, a voice came from the blind spot he'd have
chosen for an ambush.  "Shut the door, and give me the skimmer."
     "Hello, Carla."
     Of course, because it *was* the spot he'd have chosen for an ambush, it
had an extra little security measure he'd whipped up with some odds and ends
of "spy stuff" and a six-pack of beer picked up at the convenience store down
the block.  It amounted to a squib attached to a full bottle of beer sitting
on top of the minifridge, and pressing a button on his keychain made it
detonate.  It was just enough of a distraction that he had Carla disarmed and
on the floor without her weapon discharging.
     "You are in so much trouble, mister," Carla snarled.
     "What, no innuendo-laden banter?" Dan deadpanned.  "I'm disappointed.
I'll admit it, I didn't think you were corporate counter-espionage, you did a
pretty good job on your cover."
     "Corp...ha!" Carla barked a laugh.  "You're not dealing with some
rent-a-spy, Mr. Danson, or whatever your real name is.  You just assaulted a
CBI agent...and unless you want to get in a lot deeper trouble, you'll let me
up and..."
     "That son of a bitch," Dan stood and offered Carla a hand up. 
               *              *              *              *

[STRAFE Headquarters, McLean, Virginia Sector - November 18, 2026]

     "Colonel Hendrick claimed afterwards that he had no idea the CBI was
running an investigation at the same time, but once I got higher security
access I was able to do a little digging.  The CBI agent in charge of the
investigation that 'Carla' was running was an old buddy of Colonel
Hendrick's, Hendrick was apparently getting back at the guy for screwing up a
SPIRIT operation in '21.  A little 'harmless fun' of the interagency rivalry
sort," Dan explained.
     "Not so harmless to agent Carla," Karl frowned.
     "Yes and no.  The company was pretty clean, but Carla's boss would've
kept her on it for months just in case she could catch someone trying to spy
on IT, hence her habit of attaching herself to any new employees.  Since any
one of them could be a spy for some other company.  He was one of those kind
of ultra-thorough guys."
     "Can't say I know ANYONE like that," Karl rolled his eyes.
     "Hush, you.  Anyway, Carla had been careful enough that her cover didn't
get blown, the data I'd skimmed managed to satisfy her boss that there wasn't
enough there to keep her in place.  She got to move on after a few more
weeks.  My own departure was explained by having Jerry's after-work efforts
succeeding in getting an early diploma issued, but I think the office
scuttlebutt had me and Carla..."
     "...blowing each other's covers?"
     Dan finished writing a reply in the confidential folder, sealed it and
handed it to Karl.  "Something like that.  Now off with you, get this in the
delivery queue."
     "Does it have the proper cover sheet?"
     "I know ten ways to cripple you without getting out of this chair, you


Author's Notes:

     Written for High Concept Challenge #34, "A Working Class Hero."  I'm
kinda pushing the bounds of the challenge specifics, but I tried to get the
spirit of having a job that got in the way of being a hero.  I actually came
up with this idea shortly after the challenge was announced, but since I'm
NOT employed at the moment I've been finding it harder to write.  It turns
out that without something to unwind from, the creative juices are harder to
get flowing.  So my writing has been more focused on reviews of toys or
online games, with job applications being about as close as I got to fiction
for several months.  But with the deadline looming, I decided to turn off
Lord of the Rings Online for the rest of the night and put in a three hour
writing stint on the first draft of this.

     Yes, this is the first issue of STRAFE to come out in over a decade, and
the first not written by Marc Singer.  I considered making this story a
standalone like the HCC27 "Element of Surprise" story I set around the same
time, but I decided early on that it would probably be long enough to merit
being a proper issue.  And hey, a way to revive a dormant title, symbolic of
something or other.

     I would have had Dan draw a direct comparison between the manager in his
first flashback scene and the manager in Office Space, but Office Space was
in theaters in 1999 and therefore never came out in the ASH Universe.  But
people like that character certainly exist in the ASH Universe,

     Here's some info on Karl Oyono I couldn't find a graceful way (or even a
clumsy way) to work into the story, but wanted to write down lest I forget
it.  His parents were in America on student visas in 1998, both were Cameroon
natives who met after getting to America (dad started college in 1996, mom in
1997, but same school and same sponsoring program).  By the time things had
settled down enough to try returning home, there wasn't much home left...the
economic instability of the 1990s had left Cameroon particularly vulnerable
to the blandishments of the Godmarket.  He is at best distantly related to
Ferdinand Oyono, noted author, but he likes to see if he can string people
along into believing he's Ferdinand's great-grandson, demonstrating how
easily people can be fooled.


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