The Conversion Bureau: Setting Things Right

by kildeez

Chapter 1: Chapter I: Old Wounds

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0945 HOURS

As the American liaison to the UNCDI regional headquarters for all of Western Europe, one would think David Preston's life would be a little more exciting. Well, maybe that was a poor choice of words. He knew when he got the job he'd probably never get to use the firearms training provided to him by his dear old Uncle Sam, and that more likely than not, he would wind up sitting at a desk in a non-descript office building somewhere with a decent view of the Thames. And he'd been mostly right: if he leaned his chair back far enough and craned his neck a little, he could see the Thames flowing in the bay window at the end of the little row of cubicles he called home. Not only that, but if he did a one-eighty in his seat, he could see the Eagle’s Eye through the massive bay window on the front of the building, along with an eagle’s eye view of a couple piers sticking out into the Thames. So he got the view part right, at least. The thing was, he just thought there'd be more to do.

Oh sure, he'd been asked to do all the right things to maintain appearances for the good ol' U-S-of-A. He was still considered a diplomat, after all, even though the US embassy was technically a couple of blocks over. He'd gone to all the right parties, dressed in the fancy-ass threads that cost more than some people's mortgage payments back home, even got to say a few words to the press (all pre-scripted for him, of course), but that was it. That was the extent of his responsibilities! The parties and the statements to the press and the occasional appearance at Parliament or Buckingham Palace were the most work he ever got. Other than that, there was just sitting at his desk, googling his own name, practicing his dart-throwing skills with the target tacked to the south wall (the one with the eagle’s eye view), and this: standing at the urinal, trying desperately to tell his body it had to pee.

He grimaced as he zipped himself up and headed over to the sinks, the automatic sensor flushing the urinal, despite its water still being as clear as it had been when he'd walked in. Too much time on his hands: that was the problem. Not any of that "overactive bladder" shit the drug companies kept trying to make people believe they needed pills for. Just too much time sitting in his high-end office chair, staring at his computer, being perfectly aware of every one of his body's needs because there simply wasn't anything else going on to distract him. Oh sure, it was nice that the vast majority of the diplomat stuff was still handled back at the Embassy, but couldn't they throw something his way!? Surely, they didn't think he was too incompetent to handle an Excel spreadsheet!

Running the water and working up a good lather of suds, he thought back to the small two-bedroom house in Michigan he'd left for this job. It wasn't much, but it'd had enough space in the living room for both a decent-sized TV cabinet and an office desk with chair. The kitchen would never have been featured in Better Homes and Gardening either, but it had been everything he’d needed. A stove, a fridge, even a breakfast nook! Not much by anyone's standards all told, but more than enough for a bachelor straight out of college with a degree in world history. Sure, the apartment in Westminster was nice, and even came with a 62" plasma-screen TV that put the 32" analog he'd left in the States to shame, but there was something about owning your own land, having an entire building you could call "mine," that had always appealed to him, even if said building could comfortably fit in his new apartment.

Snapping back to reality, he looked down and realized he'd had the water running over his hands the entire time he'd been lost in thought. The lather was long gone, the skin on his hands now a deep red from the heat. Sighing, he pulled out some paper towel and used it to switch the faucet off. The heels of his well-polished Italian shoes tapping on the tiled floor, he waltzed back into the main office, where he and his fellow "diplomats" did all of their nothing. There were eight cubes in all, just sitting in the middle of the room. One each for the permanent member states of the new United Nations Security Council, including the UK for reasons that were beyond him. Not that he was complaining: Ms. Townshend, like everyone else in their little group, was young, perky, and if she didn’t mind him saying, not too bad on the eyes either. Not that he’d ever go after her, hell no! The scandal of two diplomats in a newly-formed global organization having romantic interests? The Chinese and the Russkies would have a field day! Hell, they might even pull their diplomats out, which would be a damn shame. Anton and Liu were two of the best drinking buddies he’d ever had.

As David walked out of the bathroom and turned the corner, he fully expected the usual setting to greet him as he walked back to his desk. Francis would have his feet kicked up, the heels carefully placed as far away from the German flag decal posted to one wall of his cubicle as he could manage. He would be arguing with Andre about some niggling thing, the Frenchman switching between French, German, and English with a fluidity to make David’s head spin, the passion in his voice such that a few blonde curls might drop over his sky-blue eyes.

Next to them would be lovely little Lisa Townshend (shit, alliteration? He should’ve been a writer). She’d be occupied with her smart phone, her fantastic legs folded to serve as a platform for her hands as they tapped away on her knees, her gaze only looking up to encourage the German and the Frenchman to “kiss and make up already,” a statement that would make both men turn to her and stammer hopelessly, their faces growing deeper and deeper shades of red as they talked and blubbered where mere minutes ago they had been switching between three languages with the kind of ease that only came with a lifetime of practice. Again, why she was here in the Brits’ own embassy was anyone’s guess, but he wasn’t gonna complain. If the Limeys wanted to pay a diplomat to serve on their own soil, then hey, good for her for landing the best job ever, and good for them for snagging a girl that looked like she belonged in a Revlon commercial, sans a few gallons of makeup.

Felipe would be typing away at his desk, trying his level best to ignore the arguing and smart-assed quips while working on whatever he thought would make his homeland proud. The poor thing: he probably believed he could do anything for his beloved Brazil from his forgotten little desk half a planet away. At least, that’s what everyone assumed. Nobody spoke Portuguese, so for all they knew the documents he spent hours quietly typing up could be spy reports on NATO military positions in Northern Europe. They probably weren't, but the way he worked on them you'd think they held the cure for cancer, only decipherable after a few dozen pages of Portuguese had been typed up, zipped up, and sent to his home in Brasilia.

Next came Anton, the senior member of the group, though he was barely out of his thirties. The Russian would have his tattered old Orioles baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, snoring away, his lips pursing out above the fuzz of his thick goatee with each exhale. That is, if he wasn’t heartily debating the virtues of Vodka against Sake with Liu, the Chinese diplomat who was almost as young as Felipe, yet had drunken each and every one of the group under the table at some point during their stay here. David had tried his level best to keep up with the kid at a few points, but in the end Anton was the only one who ever managed to remain conscious with him through an entire night. A fact that had immediately forged a deep camaraderie between the men only surpassed by soldiers in war.

That just left Akshat: the Sikh Indian who David could always – always - tell was coming in. Thanks to the angle he sat at and the wall divider that only served to cut off his view of the doorway, the tip of the Indian’s turban was just barely visible as he walked in, allowing the American to shoot a pre-emptive greeting Akshat’s way. Everyone else, meanwhile, was completely covered and only visible in the split second after they opened the door to walk in, and so received a generic "Morning" when he saw the plain oak door open and slowly shut. David probably could have gotten away with this little secret for a few more months, if it wasn’t for the day Andre came in a few minutes early and wound up walking in right next to his Indian counterpart. If David had just looked – if he’d just gotten off his lazy ass and prairie-dogged over the divider like every other office man on the face of the planet – he might have noticed the racial faux pas coming and been able to dodge. Instead he looked up, saw the upper knot of that turban bobbing up and down, and as was custom muttered “Hey, Akshat,” without even acknowledging the Frenchman.

Now that he thought about it, part of it was Andre’s fault too. If the guy had just shrugged his shoulders and trotted to his desk, the entire incident would have passed like any other day at the office. Instead, he just had to crack a grin and say something along the lines of: “What? No greeting for the froggy?” That inevitably led to a bit of back and forth which, in turn, led to David being forced to confess his little trick for knowing when the Indian was walking in ahead of time, and that led to David being accused of being a typical, racist-ass American by everyone present.

“But it’s true! He’s the only one you can see over my wall!” He’d cried defensively.

“You sure we towel-heads don’t just all look alike to you, you fucking prick!?” Akshat had cried, his teeth bared, his jaw clenched in rage.

“Okay, goddammit, before you go ripping on the big, evil American, why don’t we just let someone else see if I’m right?”

Either out of good luck or bad, Lisa had been out that day with the sniffles, and when she showed up to work bright and early the next morning, she found Dave in her usual spot. After he'd told her he just wanted to switch spots for the day to “mix things up,” she’d shrugged her shoulders and slumped into his desk, too exhausted from her still-visible cold symptoms to argue. Then, seeing her in the right position, Akshat and Andre had walked in, side-by-side, just as they had the day before. Her reaction, served while digging into the pockets of her suit jacket for another wad of tissues, was both the absolutely perfect and the absolutely worst possible thing she could have said:

“Oh, hey Akshat, did I miss anything?”

Akshat didn’t say much for a few weeks after that. It took a very nice chocolate cake emblazoned with the words “From the racist shitheads you put up with” in pink frosting letters for him to even start talking to them again, and even then it was another week before he started responding to Dave’s bored attempts at conversation.

Other than that bit of drama, life in the nondescript office building proceeded without any ceremony. It didn’t help that all the budget sunken into the building seemed to have gone to the cubicles, with a bit leftover for the bathrooms. The “lounge” consisted of a Coke machine and a few beat up chairs in one corner, and the walls were devoid of even that cheap wall art or those inspirational posters which lined the walls of every other office building in the northern hemisphere. Then you had the cubes: high-end office chairs, oak desks, and a top-of-the-line desktop with an Outlook account they never used, constantly whirring away next to a big red phone that never rang. The phone, in turn, had the name of their nation’s respective capitol printed on it in big, white lettering. Besides that, there was the bathrooms, the dartboard they had tacked up on the rear wall, and the view.

David fully expected to spend his few remaining hours of the day staring at his computer screen, the map of the world he used as his wallpaper staring back at him until it was seared into his retinas, his eyes occasionally drifting to the big, white “WASHINGTON” stenciled to the phone near his elbow. So imagine his surprise when he found his seven counterparts gathered in front of one screen, their eyes transfixed on the glowing image before them.

“Hey guys, what’s up?” He asked snidely, taking note that it was Akshat’s desk they were all gathered in front of, the Indian himself sitting in the one swivel chair there was room for. “Somebody post another cat video on…”

“SHH!” Lisa turned around just long enough to shush him, immediately turning back to the screen.

David arched an eyebrow at that. In the half-second he’d had to study Lisa’s features, he could have sworn he saw fear in her eyes. Not just fear like you might feel walking past that one darkened alleyway on your way home at the end of the day, either. This was the kind of terror you saw confronting an old, childhood fear, like the dog that but a few bite marks in your arm at age five or the tone your Dad used when he was a few whiskeys past caring about whether or not you went to school with a black eye. “Lisa,” he repeated, desperate to see her face again, just to confirm what he saw.

She turned on him, brow hunched in frustration. “What, David, what do you want!?” She barked. Her tone was impatient, but behind that was the same fear he thought had been there, and his stomach clenched at the sight.

“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s wrong?” He asked, his mind racing through a few of the things online that could have confident Miss Lisa Townshend so scared: a huge terrorist attack in Trafalgar Square, or an outbreak of Ebola in Shropshire. Or wait. Oh God, there was also that, but that was impossible! That couldn’t possibly happen again in…

“It’s happening again, David,” Anton grumbled, his voice like a four-by-four pickup going over loose gravel. “You’re not going to fucking believe this, but E-Day is happening again.”

David felt the tips of his fingers go cold as his fists clenched. The color drained from his face, and the cautious apprehension he’d felt on seeing Lisa’s expression threatened to explode into full-blown terror. “God, no…” he mumbled. “Where?”

"The North Sea! Just south of the Shetland coast!" Liu barked, waving his hand dismissively for the American to quiet down.

"The North Sea..." he trailed off. His legs quivered, and for a second he thought his knees would buckle and send him crashing to the linoleum, but by sheer luck and that old belief that fainting was unmanly, he managed to stay on his feet. His mind wondered back to the glowing map on his screen. He could point to the spot if he wanted to, but somewhere behind the panic and disbelief just starting to settle in his mind, he knew the most that would accomplish would be a nice, greasy fingerprint in the middle of his monitor. "Jesus H - that's in our backyard!"

“Who’s handling this?” Liu asked, tearing his eyes away from the screen long enough to look at the people around him. A bunch of blank stares answered him. “Well, c’mon! It’s on the news! Someone must be handling this!”

“They are,” Lisa again, except now she was back at her own desk, staring at a few open browser windows. Apparently, while the men had all remained staring at the single computer screen like a bunch of slack-jawed idiots, she had returned to her desk to actually ‘handle this.’

Behold: humanity’s best defense in Western Europe, tasked with keeping one of the most industrialized and heavily-populated regions on the planet from falling to the enemy, Dave mused with a grimace.

“The SAS has a platoon in the area on maneuvers,” she continued. “They’re diverting to the emergence zone now. ETA ten minutes.”

Anton was the first to finally shake off his shock and return to being the highly-paid professional they were all supposed to be. “That’s good, but we’re supposed to be monitoring the international response. We need the support of NATO, and we need the rest of the Security Council convening now.”

“I’ll…check on the American response,” David added, his voice shaky and timid, and he honestly couldn’t say if or when it would be cool or confident or even just normal again. “I’m sure we’ve got something in the North Atlantic we can send over.”

“Good, that’s good,” Anton grimaced, and David could swear there was a touch more gray in his beard than there had been that morning. “Monitoring is all we can do right now, at least until…”

No sooner did he say this when a loud, shrill noise filled the office. Every eye went to the big, red phone on the next desk over, labeled “BERLIN” as it buzzed again, the shrill chime acting as an alarm to announce an end to the slow, safe, boring world they had all come to know and love. Moving slowly, like a man ordering his own execution, Francis returned to his desk, picked up the receiver and pressed it to his ear. "Jawohl?" He asked, somehow keeping the nervous shaking that racked the rest of his body from entering his voice.

What followed could only be called an auditory bombardment, courtesy of some politician in the Bundstag back home. The fact that a few, encrypted satellite transmitters were capable of delivering such an absolute onslaught directly into the German's ear was a testament to modern technology. Through it all, Francis just kept nodding, eventually sinking into his chair with the look of shock on his face anyone gets when they've just seen a school shooting announced on the local news.

Then the ringing filled the air again. NEW DELHI this time, the little phone sitting in the middle of the impromptu gathering now sounding in everyone's ears. Akshat blanched white, his beard drooping to his chest as he slowly scooped up the receiver. A half-second later, LONDON joined in, then MOSCOW, WASHINGTON, BRASILIA...

The calls came in rapid-fire, people all over the world needing to know what other nations were doing, how they were doing it, did they need any extra manpower, were the Tachyon Inhibitors ready for a counterattack, and on, and on, and on. David finally snapped out of his trance with the others, turning on one heel and nearly tripping over his own feet to get moving. He had to resist the urge to throw Liu out of the way, the young diplomat nearly knocking him over in the rush to get back to his own desk. Then David rounded the corner, twisting himself to aim back towards his desk, once again almost tripping over a few chair legs before hitting his desk like an all-star baseball player sliding into home.

"Yes!?" He gasped, followed quickly by: "Yes sir...no sir...no, sir, so far there haven't been any incursions made by the anomaly...what was that?...yes sir, that would probably be..."

"Da, da, everyone!" Anton yelled over the clamor erupting in the office. "The Mudderland has a few fleets readying in the Karelian Peninsula! They should be at sea by the end of the day, along with the Finns! They’re gonna blockade Scandinavia!"

"We've got German reinforcements setting sail for Scotland!" Francis yelled. "They say the Spanish are right behind them!"

"Merde, the French are militarizing ze English Channel! They're letting immigrants and refugees over for now, but they're already stretched to ze limit! They might close the border!"

"We should setup a map...we gotta keep track of all this..." Lisa said absently, distracted with the entire council of ministers screaming into her earpiece.

"No time! The Brazilian President just asked if he should declare a state of emergency, and I have no idea what to tell him!" Felipe groaned.

"US Air Force units are in the air over Wales!" David screamed over the growing chaos, a finger plugged into one ear, the other wishing it was plugged against the screaming politician on the other end of the line. "Every single one of their bases in Europe is going on Full-Alert status, and I’ve got cross-chatter debating whether or not to shut down commercial flights over North America!"

"Jesus, it's the Collision Wars all over again!"

"Stay strong, people," Anton barked, somehow writing down orders from the Russian President at the same time, his free hand still cradling the phone. "This is what we're here for! This is the whole reason the UN trusted us with this job!"

"Hey, who the hell isn't answering their phone!? Dat ringing is driving me nuts!"

A loud thump punched through the room, shocking everything into stillness. Seven sets of eyes turned to the dartboard, where the gang spent many a drunken, merry old time "mocking the old bitch." Liu, the quiet little diplomat from China with the uncanny ability to swallow any kind of alcohol with hardly a buzz to show for it, grasped the dart where he had plunged it into the picture, tearing it out of the plaster so hard one of the thumbtacks holding the picture up popped out. Now, the picture sat askew on the wall, supported only by the dart pinning it in place, which in turn was supported by the diplomat’s ironclad grip. He clenched his fist until his knuckles turned white. "Never again," he hissed, then he finally took a few steps back, looking at his handiwork. He surveyed the picture tacked up on the wall, the one covered in pockmarks from a thousand nights’ worth of drunken attempts at making the exact shot he’d just landed, then turned back to the group. "Never again."

The stunned quiet continued for only a few more minutes, and then Lisa nodded in agreement. "Never again."

"Never again," David heard himself say.

"Never again," Anton.

"Never again," Francis.

"Never again," Felipe.

"On my life and honor as a Frenchman, never again," Andre.

"Show-off dick," Francis muttered, and then everyone returned to their duties, Liu jogging back to his desk to gasp a few scattered apologies in Chinese to his phone. The office fell right back into the strange, organized chaos that would almost certainly be the norm from this point forward, all except for David, who stole a quick look over his shoulder at the picture tacked to the wall, now only held in place by the dart embedded into the wall. Princess Celestia's smiling visage greeted him, a picture downloaded off Deviantart in the days before the Collision Wars. Her one eye, once filled with that little sparkle it always seemed to have in the cartoon, now only filled with a few inches of metal from where his colleague had stabbed her. The background behind her sparkled a neat pink, as if she were charging up some pretty little spell on behalf of her pretty little ponies. Her mane drifted in some unseen wind, suspended by more of that whimsical magic which had seemed so pretty and wonderful just a few years ago, but now summoned a wave of mild nausea from the pit of the American’s stomach.

"Never again, you evil cunt," he hissed under his breath before hitting the button to respond to the next caller waiting in line.

Next Chapter: Chapter II: Understanding Estimated time remaining: 11 Hours, 11 Minutes
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