Team Player by Biff Mitchell

EXTRACT FOR
Team Player

(Biff Mitchell)


Introduction

Everything in this novel is absolutely true. Dates have been omitted from e-mail messages to protect the innocent.
Straight ... to the top.
dPisano, President, ErectSoft INC

Chapter 1

Bonanno Mando Monday Morning

Trouble In The King's Basement

There was trouble in the King's Basement. It sniffed through the shadowy rows of shelves and racks of journals and dog-eared periodicals; it scratched at the metal filing cabinets and wooden storage cases; it gnashed between the yellowing sheets of documents and papers, correspondence and court orders. Trouble was on the prowl and it bristled like static-charged soil in that instant just before the lightning strikes.

***

Now, the King's Basement was really the basement of the Family Court Building but it was commonly referred to as the King's Basement because it was told that a chauffeur-driven limousine had skidded to a stop in the summer of late1930-something, and out popped none other than King George of England himself (who was en route to the Capital on a highly secret whirlwind tour to drum up support for the approaching war). His Hurried Highness scurried up the stairs and ducked into the Family Court Building, ran downstairs to the building's only toilet and established his Royal Territorial Rights "down there in the basement where they keep all them files," said Lucas Barton, the town's oldest living senior with a memory. "Peed the same color's the rest of us accordin' to Gail Bright, the cleanin' lady who washed the toilet that night and said His Highness was the only man who used the john there in probably a month. An' he was none too good a shot."
And now, over half a century later, the quietude of this solemn place was peed away again by a gasp, a breathless silence, several quick heartbeats, and a cluck of astonishment.
Elsie Delaney stared semi-wide-eyed at the open file in her shaking hands as two lazy ceiling fans nudged particles of air floating around in the dust. In all her years in the Family Court Building, she'd never seen anything quite like this, never. From somewhere outside the barred window at the end of the aisle, a car horn honked twice, then twice more. Elsie's cheeks were flushed and brilliant crimson against the background of a high and wide shock of white hair.
"Oh my goodness." Her voice was almost a whisper, a whisper that threatened to scream in disbelief and turn His Majesty's Quietude on its Devine Butt. "Oh my."
She laid the file on top of a bounded set of legal journals, rust red and dust-caked since God knows when, and she rummaged through the papers in the file. Her fingers and palms moistened with tension as her shoulders stiffened under her chocolate brown cardigan. "This is strange. This is very strange, indeed."
And when she finished checking every paper in the file, she rechecked, and then checked them again, held each up to an electric light over her head and rubbed them between thumb and forefinger to make sure nothing was stuck together.
"Oh my goodness. That poor man." Elsie picked the file up off the learned volumes and closed it. "How am I going to tell him?" File in hand, she hobbled between the towering stacks to the door.
"I certainly hope he hasn't remarried."

Chapter 2

Rogue Neutrinos Of The Milky Way

The fake foliage rustled in a fan-generated breeze by his ear. With his eyes closed and his nostrils teased by stray wisps of pine incense, he could almost believe that he was in a wooded area, even if the smell didn't quite match the tree. But then, the tree wasn't really a tree and the wooded area was just an arrangement of piezoelectric boughs and branches and polymer twigs and leaves in a corner of his office.
There was no color in his face, the blood having been flushed from his veins and replaced with something in an off white, a slow-flowing fluid that stuck like mashed rice to the walls of his blood vessels.
His eyelids quivered under mangy brows. His ponderous lower lip twitched over a worry-pinched chin. His flat nose quaked around the nostrils. His long black pony tail, being composed of mostly dead matter, flowed with relative calm from the back of his relatively hair free head.
A string of microchips embedded in the tree emitted a series of creaks and a groans as he shifted his weight on the bough.
Some people put rock climbing configurations on their office walls to practice climbing in their free time. Malcolm Gray (aka Mal) put a sprawling section of synthetic maple tree in his office for those moments when nothing would do the trick but sitting in a tree, and this was one of those moments.
"There's no way you're divorced," she'd said, her voice so sympathetic and grandmotherly. The words so horrifying. "There's no way you're divorced." The soft-spoken woman from the Family Court had left no outs, no room for hope: "I'm really very terribly sorry, Mr. Gray, but there are just no divorce papers. There's only the custody and support papers. Nothing else. You're not divorced. There was never any divorce. You're still legally married."
Four years of thinking he was single, of constructing his life around the basic premise of his wife having assumed the identity of ex-wife and he, the identity of ex-husband. All that now down the proverbial shitter. It clamored in his brain and wrung his stomach into a twisted rag of nausea. "There's no way you're divorced."
No way. He crouched in his tree at the sound of a light knock on his door.

***

"Come in, Sylvie." The words limped out of his mouth like three overweight joggers crossing the finish line of their first twenty-yard marathon.
The door opened and Sylvie O'Neil, Mal's Administrative Services Specialist, strode in, red hair splashing off her shoulders like liquid fire. Under a bright red sundress with bouncy yellow flowers, sun-browned skin wrapped itself tightly around a well-tuned five and a half foot frame. A few dozen freckles grazed quietly on her cheeks.
She touched her pen into a thick black scheduler. "Caitlin called a few minutes ago to confirm the nine o'clock in the Barnyard." She looked up at Mal perched four feet off the floor on a gnarled bough of artificial tree with his arms grasped tightly around his legs and his knees tucked under his chin. She closed the scheduler and crossed her arms, resting her chin on two fingers. She studied Mal closely. "No. I'm afraid the fetal look just doesn't suit you."
Mal glared at her. "Go ahead and laugh, Sylvie, but I've just had the serene core of my being, my happy place, fried into oblivion."
"I love it when you talk dirty, Mal," said Sylvie, straight-faced. "But, when I see my boss sitting in a tree in his office, the last thing I'm doing is laughing." She opened the scheduler. "Shall I confirm the meeting and request alternate seating? Maybe something in redwood? A palm frond?"
"I'm married, Sylvie."
Sylvie's left eye raised. She closed the scheduler and tapped her pen once, lightly, on the cover. "But I thought you were ... "
"Divorced? So did I. But somehow the divorce was overlooked during the custody battle. I was so wrapped up in keeping the dogs that I missed the main thing, the divorce!"
Sylvie considered this a moment and then shrugged. "Look at the bright side."
Mal sighed and rolled his eyes, hugged his legs tighter. "I'm still married, Sylvie! What could possibly be bright about living a lie for four years?"
Laugh lines on either side of Sylvie's pug nose crinkled as she said: "You didn't remarry."

***

What was complicated was now simple. What was awry was now straightened. The essence of Malcolm Gray's problem had been dissected, catalogued and filed away in some place not unlike the King's Basement under the label: Monogamist; the contents of the file being: This is the bright side.
Sylvie fixed her eyes on Mal's eyes. "Now, get out of the tree and get back to your usual I-don't-give-a-damn self or I'll transfer to another department and tell everyone you sit in trees on weekends." Mal wasn't sure if she was serious or joking. His eyes swept around his office which was mostly shades of gray except for a dozen or so drawings on the walls, all of them depicting trees rendered in black ink and floating in space on islands composed of tiny gold leaf bubbles. Some were as big as three square feet, some as small as three square inches. In tiny neat letters on the lower right of each drawing was the artist's signature: mal

Mal's eyes settled on a large drawing of maples and oaks floating in empty white space atop a glistening stand of golden bubbles. The tension in his abdomen loosened. The fear in his eyes withered into loose threads of apprehension and then dissolved into a few scattered puffs of doubt that winked into nothingness. He let his legs dangle over the side of the bough.
"That's more like it," said Sylvie. "You'll need to be on the ball this morning."
Mal slipped off the bough and landed surprisingly feather-light for a man approaching two hundred pounds. "Why's that?" he said, standing a few feet from Sylvie.
"Paul Dubois called the meeting."
"Shit."
"Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor. The meeting's to kick off a new marketing venture."
"Sylvie, every meeting I go to is for some marketing venture or other. I spend eighty percent of my days on marketing ventures, sometimes the whole day. I have to work evenings and weekends on my real work and I still fall behind. We're the biggest developer of custom corporate software in the world, but it seems that we do nothing but marketing!"
"Everyone in the company is on the marketing team, Mal. It's in your employee handbook. We're all team players in projecting our corporate image, in providing ... "
"OK. OK. I give up. I'll go to the damn meeting. I'll ... "
And that's when it happened.
It was like a swift pointy burn lasting a fraction of a millisecond as it shot needle-like right through the center of Mal's brain.

***

What Mal felt whipping like a hot piano wire through his awareness was, in fact, a band of rogue neutrinos streaking through the cosmos and raising hell.
Neutrinos, as you know, are particles of matter so small that they don't have mass, so small that almost as soon as they begin to exist, they begin to cease to exist; so small that they pass right through solid objects.
Each day the sun spits out trillions of these mass-wannabes and they pass right through the earth and everything living on it, just zip right between our atoms and we don't even know that they've just stepped into our bodies and then stepped back out. Talk about your perfect houseguests.
Now, in the cosmic scheme of things, these particular neutrinos had their beginnings just an instant ago over at the other side of the Milky Way - on the side opposite the earth. A gang of about a zillion of them, fed up and thoroughly cheesed, had congregated in the subzero nothingness of space to express their innermost feelings, an expression which was summed up as: "It really sucks to be us!"
And while all this hubbub was going on, two good old neutrinos, Leroy and Billy, happened on the heated horde. "Check it out, Leroy," said Billy. "About a zillion neutrinos. Might be a good place to pick up women."
"Hell, no," said Leroy, not showing any particular physical expression due to lack of mass. "Looks like trouble to me."
Cries of "Chaos forever!" and "Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!" foamed out of the roiling non-mass of small stuff.
"Hear that?" said Billy. "Party! Let's check it out." Whereupon, Billy whizzed off in the direction of the gathering.
"Oh, hell," grumbled Leroy, and followed Billy toward the mini-malcontents. "Nothing good's gonna come of this. I just know it."
By the time Leroy and Billy got to the surly group, the neutrinos were pretty riled up, nudging each other (as only neutrinos can), and shouting things like: "We've been ignored too long!" and "I'm tired of being faceless!"
Zipping around in the pissed off horde of subatomic attitude, Billy called out to Leroy: "Jeez, Leroy ... there's no women! Let's check outta here!"
Relieved, Leroy shot back: "I'm with ya, good buddy! Nothing but trouble makers here."
And just in the nick of time, Leroy and Billy jumped out of the band of agitated micro-motes and backed off to a safe distance (about half an inch) just as the particle swarm streaked off towards the other end of the Milky Way galaxy shouting: "Death to order! Anarchy forever! "Embrace chaos!"
"What a bunch of assholes," said Billy.
"You got that right," said Leroy. "They're gonna cause one heap of grief for somebody out there."

***

And sure enough, in their peckish flight from one end of the galaxy to the other, Malcolm Gray was the only sentient life form in their path. And of all places to pass through Malcolm Gray, they shot through his brain, primary repository of an entity even more formless than any band of mass-challenged particles - the human consciousness. They were there for only a fraction of a second, a time so short that it was almost a step back in time, but as they passed through Mal's cranium filler they burned a path of havoc, raking up an unholy mess in Mal's head. And in that cosmic instant, one very strange brain cell was seriously seared and left smoldering, its secret contents bubbling out like drool from a baby's mouth.

***

After passing through Mal's head, the neutrinos continued their stampede across the cosmos screaming obscenities that nobody and nothing would every hear. But they never reached the other end of the galaxy. Just a few light years past the other side of the earth, the motley horde, because neutrinos tend to decay fast, died off neutrino by neutrino, each flicking out with a whimpering "Shit!" until all that was left was ... well ... nothing.
And, of course, order returned to the universe. Or, so it seemed.

***

In other parts of the universe, something unlike anything in creation snorted angrily. After all its efforts to rile up the neutrinos and guide them through Mal's head, the strange cell, though damaged, was still a threat.

***

Mal shook his head as a shiver passed through his body and a cloud passed over the whites of his dark eyes, turning them as gray as the walls and carpet of his office.
"Mal, are you OK?" Sylvie's eyes narrowed with concern. "You look weird."
"Thanks, Sylvie." He shook his head again. "You really know how to bolster a man before an important meeting."
Sylvie studied Mal closely, noticed the quiver at the corners of his nostrils, his shaking hands. "I'm having second thoughts about you going to the meeting. I'm thinking that maybe you should go home, or maybe to a park, find a nice cozy maple to sit in. Get used to not being divorced."
"I'm OK for the meeting. The divorce thing will settle in." Mal took a deep breath. This seemed to calm his nostrils and hands.
Sylvie managed a smile. "Well, I guess there really is an adorable little team player under the bark." She opened her scheduler. "And you have an eleven o'clock in the CityNight, something about customer satisfaction."
"Another marketing meeting?"
Sylvie shrugged and turned toward the door, then stopped. "Oh, by the way, wasn't that awful about Tara Cunningham?"
"Tara Cunningham?"
"You haven't heard? It's in your email with Serious Matter in the heading bar."
"Any hints?"
"Read your email." With four strides, she was out of the office and the door was closed.
Damn, thought Mal, this is going to be one hell of a day.
On that point, Malcolm Gray was right on the money. For on this day, the fate of the universe would hinge on a man who sat in trees and botched divorces.

Team Player by Biff Mitchell

EXTRACT FOR
Team Player

(Biff Mitchell)


Introduction

Everything in this novel is absolutely true. Dates have been omitted from e-mail messages to protect the innocent.
Straight ... to the top.
dPisano, President, ErectSoft INC

Chapter 1

Bonanno Mando Monday Morning

Trouble In The King's Basement

There was trouble in the King's Basement. It sniffed through the shadowy rows of shelves and racks of journals and dog-eared periodicals; it scratched at the metal filing cabinets and wooden storage cases; it gnashed between the yellowing sheets of documents and papers, correspondence and court orders. Trouble was on the prowl and it bristled like static-charged soil in that instant just before the lightning strikes.

***

Now, the King's Basement was really the basement of the Family Court Building but it was commonly referred to as the King's Basement because it was told that a chauffeur-driven limousine had skidded to a stop in the summer of late1930-something, and out popped none other than King George of England himself (who was en route to the Capital on a highly secret whirlwind tour to drum up support for the approaching war). His Hurried Highness scurried up the stairs and ducked into the Family Court Building, ran downstairs to the building's only toilet and established his Royal Territorial Rights "down there in the basement where they keep all them files," said Lucas Barton, the town's oldest living senior with a memory. "Peed the same color's the rest of us accordin' to Gail Bright, the cleanin' lady who washed the toilet that night and said His Highness was the only man who used the john there in probably a month. An' he was none too good a shot."
And now, over half a century later, the quietude of this solemn place was peed away again by a gasp, a breathless silence, several quick heartbeats, and a cluck of astonishment.
Elsie Delaney stared semi-wide-eyed at the open file in her shaking hands as two lazy ceiling fans nudged particles of air floating around in the dust. In all her years in the Family Court Building, she'd never seen anything quite like this, never. From somewhere outside the barred window at the end of the aisle, a car horn honked twice, then twice more. Elsie's cheeks were flushed and brilliant crimson against the background of a high and wide shock of white hair.
"Oh my goodness." Her voice was almost a whisper, a whisper that threatened to scream in disbelief and turn His Majesty's Quietude on its Devine Butt. "Oh my."
She laid the file on top of a bounded set of legal journals, rust red and dust-caked since God knows when, and she rummaged through the papers in the file. Her fingers and palms moistened with tension as her shoulders stiffened under her chocolate brown cardigan. "This is strange. This is very strange, indeed."
And when she finished checking every paper in the file, she rechecked, and then checked them again, held each up to an electric light over her head and rubbed them between thumb and forefinger to make sure nothing was stuck together.
"Oh my goodness. That poor man." Elsie picked the file up off the learned volumes and closed it. "How am I going to tell him?" File in hand, she hobbled between the towering stacks to the door.
"I certainly hope he hasn't remarried."

Chapter 2

Rogue Neutrinos Of The Milky Way

The fake foliage rustled in a fan-generated breeze by his ear. With his eyes closed and his nostrils teased by stray wisps of pine incense, he could almost believe that he was in a wooded area, even if the smell didn't quite match the tree. But then, the tree wasn't really a tree and the wooded area was just an arrangement of piezoelectric boughs and branches and polymer twigs and leaves in a corner of his office.
There was no color in his face, the blood having been flushed from his veins and replaced with something in an off white, a slow-flowing fluid that stuck like mashed rice to the walls of his blood vessels.
His eyelids quivered under mangy brows. His ponderous lower lip twitched over a worry-pinched chin. His flat nose quaked around the nostrils. His long black pony tail, being composed of mostly dead matter, flowed with relative calm from the back of his relatively hair free head.
A string of microchips embedded in the tree emitted a series of creaks and a groans as he shifted his weight on the bough.
Some people put rock climbing configurations on their office walls to practice climbing in their free time. Malcolm Gray (aka Mal) put a sprawling section of synthetic maple tree in his office for those moments when nothing would do the trick but sitting in a tree, and this was one of those moments.
"There's no way you're divorced," she'd said, her voice so sympathetic and grandmotherly. The words so horrifying. "There's no way you're divorced." The soft-spoken woman from the Family Court had left no outs, no room for hope: "I'm really very terribly sorry, Mr. Gray, but there are just no divorce papers. There's only the custody and support papers. Nothing else. You're not divorced. There was never any divorce. You're still legally married."
Four years of thinking he was single, of constructing his life around the basic premise of his wife having assumed the identity of ex-wife and he, the identity of ex-husband. All that now down the proverbial shitter. It clamored in his brain and wrung his stomach into a twisted rag of nausea. "There's no way you're divorced."
No way. He crouched in his tree at the sound of a light knock on his door.

***

"Come in, Sylvie." The words limped out of his mouth like three overweight joggers crossing the finish line of their first twenty-yard marathon.
The door opened and Sylvie O'Neil, Mal's Administrative Services Specialist, strode in, red hair splashing off her shoulders like liquid fire. Under a bright red sundress with bouncy yellow flowers, sun-browned skin wrapped itself tightly around a well-tuned five and a half foot frame. A few dozen freckles grazed quietly on her cheeks.
She touched her pen into a thick black scheduler. "Caitlin called a few minutes ago to confirm the nine o'clock in the Barnyard." She looked up at Mal perched four feet off the floor on a gnarled bough of artificial tree with his arms grasped tightly around his legs and his knees tucked under his chin. She closed the scheduler and crossed her arms, resting her chin on two fingers. She studied Mal closely. "No. I'm afraid the fetal look just doesn't suit you."
Mal glared at her. "Go ahead and laugh, Sylvie, but I've just had the serene core of my being, my happy place, fried into oblivion."
"I love it when you talk dirty, Mal," said Sylvie, straight-faced. "But, when I see my boss sitting in a tree in his office, the last thing I'm doing is laughing." She opened the scheduler. "Shall I confirm the meeting and request alternate seating? Maybe something in redwood? A palm frond?"
"I'm married, Sylvie."
Sylvie's left eye raised. She closed the scheduler and tapped her pen once, lightly, on the cover. "But I thought you were ... "
"Divorced? So did I. But somehow the divorce was overlooked during the custody battle. I was so wrapped up in keeping the dogs that I missed the main thing, the divorce!"
Sylvie considered this a moment and then shrugged. "Look at the bright side."
Mal sighed and rolled his eyes, hugged his legs tighter. "I'm still married, Sylvie! What could possibly be bright about living a lie for four years?"
Laugh lines on either side of Sylvie's pug nose crinkled as she said: "You didn't remarry."

***

What was complicated was now simple. What was awry was now straightened. The essence of Malcolm Gray's problem had been dissected, catalogued and filed away in some place not unlike the King's Basement under the label: Monogamist; the contents of the file being: This is the bright side.
Sylvie fixed her eyes on Mal's eyes. "Now, get out of the tree and get back to your usual I-don't-give-a-damn self or I'll transfer to another department and tell everyone you sit in trees on weekends." Mal wasn't sure if she was serious or joking. His eyes swept around his office which was mostly shades of gray except for a dozen or so drawings on the walls, all of them depicting trees rendered in black ink and floating in space on islands composed of tiny gold leaf bubbles. Some were as big as three square feet, some as small as three square inches. In tiny neat letters on the lower right of each drawing was the artist's signature: mal

Mal's eyes settled on a large drawing of maples and oaks floating in empty white space atop a glistening stand of golden bubbles. The tension in his abdomen loosened. The fear in his eyes withered into loose threads of apprehension and then dissolved into a few scattered puffs of doubt that winked into nothingness. He let his legs dangle over the side of the bough.
"That's more like it," said Sylvie. "You'll need to be on the ball this morning."
Mal slipped off the bough and landed surprisingly feather-light for a man approaching two hundred pounds. "Why's that?" he said, standing a few feet from Sylvie.
"Paul Dubois called the meeting."
"Shit."
"Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor. The meeting's to kick off a new marketing venture."
"Sylvie, every meeting I go to is for some marketing venture or other. I spend eighty percent of my days on marketing ventures, sometimes the whole day. I have to work evenings and weekends on my real work and I still fall behind. We're the biggest developer of custom corporate software in the world, but it seems that we do nothing but marketing!"
"Everyone in the company is on the marketing team, Mal. It's in your employee handbook. We're all team players in projecting our corporate image, in providing ... "
"OK. OK. I give up. I'll go to the damn meeting. I'll ... "
And that's when it happened.
It was like a swift pointy burn lasting a fraction of a millisecond as it shot needle-like right through the center of Mal's brain.

***

What Mal felt whipping like a hot piano wire through his awareness was, in fact, a band of rogue neutrinos streaking through the cosmos and raising hell.
Neutrinos, as you know, are particles of matter so small that they don't have mass, so small that almost as soon as they begin to exist, they begin to cease to exist; so small that they pass right through solid objects.
Each day the sun spits out trillions of these mass-wannabes and they pass right through the earth and everything living on it, just zip right between our atoms and we don't even know that they've just stepped into our bodies and then stepped back out. Talk about your perfect houseguests.
Now, in the cosmic scheme of things, these particular neutrinos had their beginnings just an instant ago over at the other side of the Milky Way - on the side opposite the earth. A gang of about a zillion of them, fed up and thoroughly cheesed, had congregated in the subzero nothingness of space to express their innermost feelings, an expression which was summed up as: "It really sucks to be us!"
And while all this hubbub was going on, two good old neutrinos, Leroy and Billy, happened on the heated horde. "Check it out, Leroy," said Billy. "About a zillion neutrinos. Might be a good place to pick up women."
"Hell, no," said Leroy, not showing any particular physical expression due to lack of mass. "Looks like trouble to me."
Cries of "Chaos forever!" and "Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!" foamed out of the roiling non-mass of small stuff.
"Hear that?" said Billy. "Party! Let's check it out." Whereupon, Billy whizzed off in the direction of the gathering.
"Oh, hell," grumbled Leroy, and followed Billy toward the mini-malcontents. "Nothing good's gonna come of this. I just know it."
By the time Leroy and Billy got to the surly group, the neutrinos were pretty riled up, nudging each other (as only neutrinos can), and shouting things like: "We've been ignored too long!" and "I'm tired of being faceless!"
Zipping around in the pissed off horde of subatomic attitude, Billy called out to Leroy: "Jeez, Leroy ... there's no women! Let's check outta here!"
Relieved, Leroy shot back: "I'm with ya, good buddy! Nothing but trouble makers here."
And just in the nick of time, Leroy and Billy jumped out of the band of agitated micro-motes and backed off to a safe distance (about half an inch) just as the particle swarm streaked off towards the other end of the Milky Way galaxy shouting: "Death to order! Anarchy forever! "Embrace chaos!"
"What a bunch of assholes," said Billy.
"You got that right," said Leroy. "They're gonna cause one heap of grief for somebody out there."

***

And sure enough, in their peckish flight from one end of the galaxy to the other, Malcolm Gray was the only sentient life form in their path. And of all places to pass through Malcolm Gray, they shot through his brain, primary repository of an entity even more formless than any band of mass-challenged particles - the human consciousness. They were there for only a fraction of a second, a time so short that it was almost a step back in time, but as they passed through Mal's cranium filler they burned a path of havoc, raking up an unholy mess in Mal's head. And in that cosmic instant, one very strange brain cell was seriously seared and left smoldering, its secret contents bubbling out like drool from a baby's mouth.

***

After passing through Mal's head, the neutrinos continued their stampede across the cosmos screaming obscenities that nobody and nothing would every hear. But they never reached the other end of the galaxy. Just a few light years past the other side of the earth, the motley horde, because neutrinos tend to decay fast, died off neutrino by neutrino, each flicking out with a whimpering "Shit!" until all that was left was ... well ... nothing.
And, of course, order returned to the universe. Or, so it seemed.

***

In other parts of the universe, something unlike anything in creation snorted angrily. After all its efforts to rile up the neutrinos and guide them through Mal's head, the strange cell, though damaged, was still a threat.

***

Mal shook his head as a shiver passed through his body and a cloud passed over the whites of his dark eyes, turning them as gray as the walls and carpet of his office.
"Mal, are you OK?" Sylvie's eyes narrowed with concern. "You look weird."
"Thanks, Sylvie." He shook his head again. "You really know how to bolster a man before an important meeting."
Sylvie studied Mal closely, noticed the quiver at the corners of his nostrils, his shaking hands. "I'm having second thoughts about you going to the meeting. I'm thinking that maybe you should go home, or maybe to a park, find a nice cozy maple to sit in. Get used to not being divorced."
"I'm OK for the meeting. The divorce thing will settle in." Mal took a deep breath. This seemed to calm his nostrils and hands.
Sylvie managed a smile. "Well, I guess there really is an adorable little team player under the bark." She opened her scheduler. "And you have an eleven o'clock in the CityNight, something about customer satisfaction."
"Another marketing meeting?"
Sylvie shrugged and turned toward the door, then stopped. "Oh, by the way, wasn't that awful about Tara Cunningham?"
"Tara Cunningham?"
"You haven't heard? It's in your email with Serious Matter in the heading bar."
"Any hints?"
"Read your email." With four strides, she was out of the office and the door was closed.
Damn, thought Mal, this is going to be one hell of a day.
On that point, Malcolm Gray was right on the money. For on this day, the fate of the universe would hinge on a man who sat in trees and botched divorces.

EXTRACT FOR
Team Player

(Biff Mitchell)


Introduction

Everything in this novel is absolutely true. Dates have been omitted from e-mail messages to protect the innocent.
Straight ... to the top.
dPisano, President, ErectSoft INC

Chapter 1

Bonanno Mando Monday Morning

Trouble In The King's Basement

There was trouble in the King's Basement. It sniffed through the shadowy rows of shelves and racks of journals and dog-eared periodicals; it scratched at the metal filing cabinets and wooden storage cases; it gnashed between the yellowing sheets of documents and papers, correspondence and court orders. Trouble was on the prowl and it bristled like static-charged soil in that instant just before the lightning strikes.

***

Now, the King's Basement was really the basement of the Family Court Building but it was commonly referred to as the King's Basement because it was told that a chauffeur-driven limousine had skidded to a stop in the summer of late1930-something, and out popped none other than King George of England himself (who was en route to the Capital on a highly secret whirlwind tour to drum up support for the approaching war). His Hurried Highness scurried up the stairs and ducked into the Family Court Building, ran downstairs to the building's only toilet and established his Royal Territorial Rights "down there in the basement where they keep all them files," said Lucas Barton, the town's oldest living senior with a memory. "Peed the same color's the rest of us accordin' to Gail Bright, the cleanin' lady who washed the toilet that night and said His Highness was the only man who used the john there in probably a month. An' he was none too good a shot."
And now, over half a century later, the quietude of this solemn place was peed away again by a gasp, a breathless silence, several quick heartbeats, and a cluck of astonishment.
Elsie Delaney stared semi-wide-eyed at the open file in her shaking hands as two lazy ceiling fans nudged particles of air floating around in the dust. In all her years in the Family Court Building, she'd never seen anything quite like this, never. From somewhere outside the barred window at the end of the aisle, a car horn honked twice, then twice more. Elsie's cheeks were flushed and brilliant crimson against the background of a high and wide shock of white hair.
"Oh my goodness." Her voice was almost a whisper, a whisper that threatened to scream in disbelief and turn His Majesty's Quietude on its Devine Butt. "Oh my."
She laid the file on top of a bounded set of legal journals, rust red and dust-caked since God knows when, and she rummaged through the papers in the file. Her fingers and palms moistened with tension as her shoulders stiffened under her chocolate brown cardigan. "This is strange. This is very strange, indeed."
And when she finished checking every paper in the file, she rechecked, and then checked them again, held each up to an electric light over her head and rubbed them between thumb and forefinger to make sure nothing was stuck together.
"Oh my goodness. That poor man." Elsie picked the file up off the learned volumes and closed it. "How am I going to tell him?" File in hand, she hobbled between the towering stacks to the door.
"I certainly hope he hasn't remarried."

Chapter 2

Rogue Neutrinos Of The Milky Way

The fake foliage rustled in a fan-generated breeze by his ear. With his eyes closed and his nostrils teased by stray wisps of pine incense, he could almost believe that he was in a wooded area, even if the smell didn't quite match the tree. But then, the tree wasn't really a tree and the wooded area was just an arrangement of piezoelectric boughs and branches and polymer twigs and leaves in a corner of his office.
There was no color in his face, the blood having been flushed from his veins and replaced with something in an off white, a slow-flowing fluid that stuck like mashed rice to the walls of his blood vessels.
His eyelids quivered under mangy brows. His ponderous lower lip twitched over a worry-pinched chin. His flat nose quaked around the nostrils. His long black pony tail, being composed of mostly dead matter, flowed with relative calm from the back of his relatively hair free head.
A string of microchips embedded in the tree emitted a series of creaks and a groans as he shifted his weight on the bough.
Some people put rock climbing configurations on their office walls to practice climbing in their free time. Malcolm Gray (aka Mal) put a sprawling section of synthetic maple tree in his office for those moments when nothing would do the trick but sitting in a tree, and this was one of those moments.
"There's no way you're divorced," she'd said, her voice so sympathetic and grandmotherly. The words so horrifying. "There's no way you're divorced." The soft-spoken woman from the Family Court had left no outs, no room for hope: "I'm really very terribly sorry, Mr. Gray, but there are just no divorce papers. There's only the custody and support papers. Nothing else. You're not divorced. There was never any divorce. You're still legally married."
Four years of thinking he was single, of constructing his life around the basic premise of his wife having assumed the identity of ex-wife and he, the identity of ex-husband. All that now down the proverbial shitter. It clamored in his brain and wrung his stomach into a twisted rag of nausea. "There's no way you're divorced."
No way. He crouched in his tree at the sound of a light knock on his door.

***

"Come in, Sylvie." The words limped out of his mouth like three overweight joggers crossing the finish line of their first twenty-yard marathon.
The door opened and Sylvie O'Neil, Mal's Administrative Services Specialist, strode in, red hair splashing off her shoulders like liquid fire. Under a bright red sundress with bouncy yellow flowers, sun-browned skin wrapped itself tightly around a well-tuned five and a half foot frame. A few dozen freckles grazed quietly on her cheeks.
She touched her pen into a thick black scheduler. "Caitlin called a few minutes ago to confirm the nine o'clock in the Barnyard." She looked up at Mal perched four feet off the floor on a gnarled bough of artificial tree with his arms grasped tightly around his legs and his knees tucked under his chin. She closed the scheduler and crossed her arms, resting her chin on two fingers. She studied Mal closely. "No. I'm afraid the fetal look just doesn't suit you."
Mal glared at her. "Go ahead and laugh, Sylvie, but I've just had the serene core of my being, my happy place, fried into oblivion."
"I love it when you talk dirty, Mal," said Sylvie, straight-faced. "But, when I see my boss sitting in a tree in his office, the last thing I'm doing is laughing." She opened the scheduler. "Shall I confirm the meeting and request alternate seating? Maybe something in redwood? A palm frond?"
"I'm married, Sylvie."
Sylvie's left eye raised. She closed the scheduler and tapped her pen once, lightly, on the cover. "But I thought you were ... "
"Divorced? So did I. But somehow the divorce was overlooked during the custody battle. I was so wrapped up in keeping the dogs that I missed the main thing, the divorce!"
Sylvie considered this a moment and then shrugged. "Look at the bright side."
Mal sighed and rolled his eyes, hugged his legs tighter. "I'm still married, Sylvie! What could possibly be bright about living a lie for four years?"
Laugh lines on either side of Sylvie's pug nose crinkled as she said: "You didn't remarry."

***

What was complicated was now simple. What was awry was now straightened. The essence of Malcolm Gray's problem had been dissected, catalogued and filed away in some place not unlike the King's Basement under the label: Monogamist; the contents of the file being: This is the bright side.
Sylvie fixed her eyes on Mal's eyes. "Now, get out of the tree and get back to your usual I-don't-give-a-damn self or I'll transfer to another department and tell everyone you sit in trees on weekends." Mal wasn't sure if she was serious or joking. His eyes swept around his office which was mostly shades of gray except for a dozen or so drawings on the walls, all of them depicting trees rendered in black ink and floating in space on islands composed of tiny gold leaf bubbles. Some were as big as three square feet, some as small as three square inches. In tiny neat letters on the lower right of each drawing was the artist's signature: mal

Mal's eyes settled on a large drawing of maples and oaks floating in empty white space atop a glistening stand of golden bubbles. The tension in his abdomen loosened. The fear in his eyes withered into loose threads of apprehension and then dissolved into a few scattered puffs of doubt that winked into nothingness. He let his legs dangle over the side of the bough.
"That's more like it," said Sylvie. "You'll need to be on the ball this morning."
Mal slipped off the bough and landed surprisingly feather-light for a man approaching two hundred pounds. "Why's that?" he said, standing a few feet from Sylvie.
"Paul Dubois called the meeting."
"Shit."
"Nice to see you haven't lost your sense of humor. The meeting's to kick off a new marketing venture."
"Sylvie, every meeting I go to is for some marketing venture or other. I spend eighty percent of my days on marketing ventures, sometimes the whole day. I have to work evenings and weekends on my real work and I still fall behind. We're the biggest developer of custom corporate software in the world, but it seems that we do nothing but marketing!"
"Everyone in the company is on the marketing team, Mal. It's in your employee handbook. We're all team players in projecting our corporate image, in providing ... "
"OK. OK. I give up. I'll go to the damn meeting. I'll ... "
And that's when it happened.
It was like a swift pointy burn lasting a fraction of a millisecond as it shot needle-like right through the center of Mal's brain.

***

What Mal felt whipping like a hot piano wire through his awareness was, in fact, a band of rogue neutrinos streaking through the cosmos and raising hell.
Neutrinos, as you know, are particles of matter so small that they don't have mass, so small that almost as soon as they begin to exist, they begin to cease to exist; so small that they pass right through solid objects.
Each day the sun spits out trillions of these mass-wannabes and they pass right through the earth and everything living on it, just zip right between our atoms and we don't even know that they've just stepped into our bodies and then stepped back out. Talk about your perfect houseguests.
Now, in the cosmic scheme of things, these particular neutrinos had their beginnings just an instant ago over at the other side of the Milky Way - on the side opposite the earth. A gang of about a zillion of them, fed up and thoroughly cheesed, had congregated in the subzero nothingness of space to express their innermost feelings, an expression which was summed up as: "It really sucks to be us!"
And while all this hubbub was going on, two good old neutrinos, Leroy and Billy, happened on the heated horde. "Check it out, Leroy," said Billy. "About a zillion neutrinos. Might be a good place to pick up women."
"Hell, no," said Leroy, not showing any particular physical expression due to lack of mass. "Looks like trouble to me."
Cries of "Chaos forever!" and "Anarchy! Anarchy! Anarchy!" foamed out of the roiling non-mass of small stuff.
"Hear that?" said Billy. "Party! Let's check it out." Whereupon, Billy whizzed off in the direction of the gathering.
"Oh, hell," grumbled Leroy, and followed Billy toward the mini-malcontents. "Nothing good's gonna come of this. I just know it."
By the time Leroy and Billy got to the surly group, the neutrinos were pretty riled up, nudging each other (as only neutrinos can), and shouting things like: "We've been ignored too long!" and "I'm tired of being faceless!"
Zipping around in the pissed off horde of subatomic attitude, Billy called out to Leroy: "Jeez, Leroy ... there's no women! Let's check outta here!"
Relieved, Leroy shot back: "I'm with ya, good buddy! Nothing but trouble makers here."
And just in the nick of time, Leroy and Billy jumped out of the band of agitated micro-motes and backed off to a safe distance (about half an inch) just as the particle swarm streaked off towards the other end of the Milky Way galaxy shouting: "Death to order! Anarchy forever! "Embrace chaos!"
"What a bunch of assholes," said Billy.
"You got that right," said Leroy. "They're gonna cause one heap of grief for somebody out there."

***

And sure enough, in their peckish flight from one end of the galaxy to the other, Malcolm Gray was the only sentient life form in their path. And of all places to pass through Malcolm Gray, they shot through his brain, primary repository of an entity even more formless than any band of mass-challenged particles - the human consciousness. They were there for only a fraction of a second, a time so short that it was almost a step back in time, but as they passed through Mal's cranium filler they burned a path of havoc, raking up an unholy mess in Mal's head. And in that cosmic instant, one very strange brain cell was seriously seared and left smoldering, its secret contents bubbling out like drool from a baby's mouth.

***

After passing through Mal's head, the neutrinos continued their stampede across the cosmos screaming obscenities that nobody and nothing would every hear. But they never reached the other end of the galaxy. Just a few light years past the other side of the earth, the motley horde, because neutrinos tend to decay fast, died off neutrino by neutrino, each flicking out with a whimpering "Shit!" until all that was left was ... well ... nothing.
And, of course, order returned to the universe. Or, so it seemed.

***

In other parts of the universe, something unlike anything in creation snorted angrily. After all its efforts to rile up the neutrinos and guide them through Mal's head, the strange cell, though damaged, was still a threat.

***

Mal shook his head as a shiver passed through his body and a cloud passed over the whites of his dark eyes, turning them as gray as the walls and carpet of his office.
"Mal, are you OK?" Sylvie's eyes narrowed with concern. "You look weird."
"Thanks, Sylvie." He shook his head again. "You really know how to bolster a man before an important meeting."
Sylvie studied Mal closely, noticed the quiver at the corners of his nostrils, his shaking hands. "I'm having second thoughts about you going to the meeting. I'm thinking that maybe you should go home, or maybe to a park, find a nice cozy maple to sit in. Get used to not being divorced."
"I'm OK for the meeting. The divorce thing will settle in." Mal took a deep breath. This seemed to calm his nostrils and hands.
Sylvie managed a smile. "Well, I guess there really is an adorable little team player under the bark." She opened her scheduler. "And you have an eleven o'clock in the CityNight, something about customer satisfaction."
"Another marketing meeting?"
Sylvie shrugged and turned toward the door, then stopped. "Oh, by the way, wasn't that awful about Tara Cunningham?"
"Tara Cunningham?"
"You haven't heard? It's in your email with Serious Matter in the heading bar."
"Any hints?"
"Read your email." With four strides, she was out of the office and the door was closed.
Damn, thought Mal, this is going to be one hell of a day.
On that point, Malcolm Gray was right on the money. For on this day, the fate of the universe would hinge on a man who sat in trees and botched divorces.