Liminality #4

Zach rode his bike into an alley in Little Seoul, where he found Cindy’s bike already locked up. The bike rack was overcrowded, so he locked his to hers, removed his helmet, clipped it onto the strap for his bag, and tried to make his hair dignified. Once in front of the alley, he spent ten seconds checking that he hadn’t been followed (FCC-EAD pre-mission field rule #7.a), confirmed that he had reception on no less than three devices (#7.b), and then proceeded into the doorway marked by a sun-scorched plastic sign that said “The Liquid Ambassador” and featured a drawing of something resembling a martini glass.

He rounded a corner and went down the stairs. Once belowground, he confirmed that he had no reception on any devices except for the emergency beacons (rule #7.b said nothing about reception once a mission started), and he entered the establishment proper. Passing by the bar, he ordered his usual, an Upper Illinois IPA, and joined Cindy, with her usual accompaniment of something-clear-on-the-rocks, at their usual booth in the corner.

The television sets on the walls played Ajeossi, a Korean revenge drama from the golden age of their cinema that Zach remembered seeing a few years back. The original title meant ‘Uncle’, and had been curiously translated into English as ‘The Man from Nowhere’. There was a particularly memorable standoff happening on the screens right now, by an empty swimming pool in a mansion-turned-slum. It would soon be followed by a bloodbath. It held Zach’s attention for a moment, and he mouthed a note, picked up by his earpiece, reminding him to watch it again some time.

Nearby, a half-dozen occupied karaoke booths leaked what amounted to a resounding wall of white and pink noise that obscured their conversation better than any auditory countermeasures they could have brought. The haze of cigarette and pot smoke emanating from the barstools formed a surprisingly effective barrier to lip-reading or even seeing very far, and the stateside variant of cash-stakes Pai-Gow taking place throughout the room would serve to distract any lesser law enforcement that might wander in.

These were, of course, rationalizations—a meeting room at the FCC-EAD would offer better protections. But, you see, The Liquid Ambassado had beer.

Zach sipped his. Too cold and flavorless. He took a glass from the stack on the table and poured it in, then tried again. Better.

“So, Zimmerman,” Zach said, “thoughts?”

“Well.” Cindy pulled her FCC-EAD tablet out of her bag and laid it open on the table. “There is one thing that does stand make this one stand out from a lot of the others.”

She tapped her finger on the text and highlighted a phrase. “Forty thousand requests per second? I think a few minutes of that would be enough to crash one of our servers.”

Zach sipped and thought. “Can’t they just close the port?”

Cindy, halfway through a sip of her own, shook her head. “I think Healthwire would have to reprogram all of the other hardware in their little experiment to go somewhere else, and this is a Defense grant, so who knows what kind of numbers they’re dealing with.”

“Hell, with that kind of money flying around, I’d be surprised if Healthwire knows what kind of numbers they’re dealing with.”

They shared a sad chuckle at that.

“This request rate has me a little worried, Zach. I think this one might actually be credible.”

Zach thought for a moment and realized he’d been holding the beer the whole time. He shook the moisture off his hands and rubbed them together to recover feeling. “I guss it explains the Deputy Director’s level of concern. Probably not the usual cover-your-ass job… Where the hell do we start?” He opened his tablet and scrolled through the file. “I mean, you can’t just waltz into a Comcast node. They might as well have armed guards.”

“They do,” Cindy said.

“Sure, but, like, they might as well have dogs and stuff too, I dunno. Any other avenues of inquiry we can try first, try to get a warrant? What about…” Zach trailed off.

For a while, they just read and drank, Cindy her something-on-the-rocks, Zach his IPA.

A waitress brought kim-chi pretzels. Zach tried a few and found them… flavorful. He tried to give them a chance every time he was at the Ambassador, always to no avail.

Cindy, for her part, almost always finished the bowl.

“Mm!” Zach said, and then failed to stealthily spit a half-chewed pretzel into a napkin.

Cindy looked up. Zach wiped his mouth and the table, stashed the balled-up napkin in the corner, and took a drink of beer. “We should look up what happened in town at 5:06 last night that might’ve triggered this anomaly. Power surge, fire, uh, rabbit attack…”

“Rabbit attack?”

“Quiet, I’m brainstorming. …accidental nanobot release, uh, escaped augmented horse?”

Cindy tapped her glass. “Disgruntled employees, I’ll check for firings or disciplinary violations… building demolitions, openings…”

“Remodelings…” Zach tried another pretzel. Nope.

Cindy swallowed some pretzels she’d been working on and washed them down with something-on-the-rocks. “I think we’ve got enough to go on here, Graves. Been a pleasure. Let’s regroup when we’ve got—”

“—at least three credible possibilities that all point to the same ISP node,” they said in unison, grinning stupidly, “pursuant with the 2025 DISA amendments, § 302.b.iv, regarding the warrant authority extended to the Department of External Anomalies, Federal Communications Commission Charter 15.255!” They clinked their glasses together and finished their traditional avant-mission beverages, then left at least four minutes apart as a deterrence against tails (pursuant FCC-EAD at-all-times field rule #2.d, waiveable in case of emergency without explicit permission of a supervisor).

* * *

Zach and Cindy entered one of the glass-walled conference rooms that lined the third story’s main corridor, affectionately known as the fishtanks. The transparent walls went smoky as soon as they entered, and mounted panels were populated with the relevant documents, which in this case was just the initial report, plus the standard map and timeline of the investigating agents’ locations and actions.

Zack stopped, surprised. He’d read about these upgrades, but he hadn’t been listed as active on an eyes-only, priority one anomaly for, what, a year? The fishtanks really gave you the royal treatment on these. He whistled appreciatively. “Snazzy,” he said. “Wonder where we got the money?”

Cindy had already sat down and started connecting her laptop to one of the wall panels.

She shrugged. “You know how it goes, gotta spend the money or it won’t be in next year’s budget.”

“Fair enough.” He sat down and tried to connect his own laptop. “Uh, how does this even work?”

Cindy looked up. “You should be authorized to bluetooth onto any of these screens.”

“Yeah, it’s not discovering anything.”

“It’s working for me.” Cindy indicated the reflection of desktop up on the wall. “Do we need to call IT?”

Zach shook his head. “It’s fine, we’ll survive. I’ll just switch one of these to whiteboard mode…” He walked towards an unused panel. “Which is, uh—“

“Button in the bottom middle brings up the menu, touchscreen from there,” Cindy said with a sigh.

“…Got it. Cool. So.” He wrote Healthwire on the screen with his finger, underlined it, and then wrote 5:06pm? below. “I can start with the incident reports—fire, police, animal control—“

Cindy laughed. “Seriously, Graves, it’s not going to be a rabbit attack.”

“A good investigator never rules anything out,” Zach said, an index finger raised.

“That is so not true. For instance, I can rule out ghosts right now.”

“OK, fine, we can rule out ghosts. But as Holmes said—“

“Do you have to treat every case like it’s your first, and your only experience is from watching crime procedurals?”

“Can’t argue with results, Zimmerman. My office has a window.”


Zach sat back down and started pulling up the municipal search engines. “Hey, if you throw a rock at it, it’ll break just like any other.”

“Well, I guess I’ll just have to test that some time. Anyway. You search incident reports, I’ll look for construction activity and see if anybody interesting has some new bad reviews on LinkedIn.”

Liminality #3



ZACH GRAVES is: Authorized to Read and Edit

Filed 05-09-02039 09:41 AM

By HEALTHWIRE (#a83f025)


If it had been printed, there would have been a page break at that point.



We believe our Research & Development server has been compromised. At 19:06 CST yesterday (05-08-02039), an unknown device began attempting to connect over a proprietary API approximately 40000 times per second. An internal audit has determined that this is the result of a third party.

This API is currently being used in the testing of sensitive personal medical devices on a grant from the Department of Defense, and as such it is of the utmost importance that we locate and stop the individual or individuals responsible for this likely attack.


Another virtual page break.


The device in question is being developed to measure adrenaline and cortisol levels in soldiers during combat situations, with the goal of lorem ipsum dolor sit amit in order to improve lorem ipsum dolor in potential future conflicts in the sit fasdfeamit Theater.

Any tampering by third parties is unacceptable and could pose a dire security risk. We’ve been unable to glean specific information on the origin(s) of the requests, but have been able to identify that they are coming through a Comcast connection located downstream from the node in Fallen Oak, IL. Or, at any rate, they appear to be.


At least they finally got rid of that This Page Intentionally Left Blank nonsense, Zach thought, as he scrolled past yet another page break. The next section contained information on the IP Addresses being used (many) and the nature of the requests (all identical handshake initiations, it would appear).

Zach was taking notes when Cindy called back, her face materializing in front of his eye. “Well, Zimmerman, it would appear that something is indeed on fire,” she said.

“A matter of urgent national security, no less,” he said with an arched eyebrow and a hint of over-seriousness.

“For the good of this glorious nation, we must track down these evildoers,” Cindy said in the same manner.

“Shall we begin at the usual spot?”

“I’ll meet you there in twenty.” Cindy’s picture winked out of existence again.

These cases rarely amounted to much of anything, and this one seemed like another instance of an overly paranoid cover-your-ass manager assuming malice when shoddy engineering was a much more likely possibility. But, well, that’s defense contractors for you. And a certain kind of sysadmin. The kind you find in enterprise companies. Not the good kind.

Zach picked his messenger bag up from the floor and put his External Anomalies Division tablet inside, along with a bottle of water, a brownie, and a can of coffee from the refrigerated drawer in his desk. He checked that his Division-stamped .38 was in proper working condition, with full ammunition and a full battery, and then put it in his shoulder strap holster.

Zach Graves had everything he needed to do some investigating. He took his blazer off the back of the chair and put it on, then headed out the door to meet Cindy, snatching his bicycle helmet & lock from the hooks on the wall as he exited.

Liminality #2

From the outside, the headquarters of the Fallen Oak, IL Branch Regional Headquarters of the Department of External Anomalies, Federal Communications Commission Charter 15.255, looked like it sounded, which is to say, linear, deliberate, and far too large than seemed necessary at first glance. As almost all of the many agents, researchers, librarians, secretaries, hackers, and interns who worked there would tell you, it looked like that from the inside as well.

Zach Graves, Probationary Investigatory Agent III.a, was no exception.

Each floor, at least on the floors Zach had clearance for (one through five, excepting four), was laid out in a rather intentional fractal scheme, with a large central corridor branching left, right, up, and down at regular intervals, each subsequent hallway smaller than the last. It reminded him of some sort of Platonic ideal of the inside of a bird’s bones.

When Zach had started a few years ago, his office had been off one of the hallways that barely fit two people going crossways; now, he had a room off one of the coveted tertiary hallways, only two nodes away from the central corridor on the second floor. It wasn’t a corner office, exactly—indeed, the building’s design shunned the very idea of corners—but Zach did have a window for the first time in his working life.

Granted, the window looked out directly onto a disused portion of the southern face of the courthouse next door, which had been bricked in to keep the homeless out, but still, one had to measure career progress somehow.

On this particular day, Zach was busy with a Division tournament of hearts when the phone rang. He tapped his earpiece. “Yes, sir?”

“Hey, Zach. Whatever you’re working on, I’m going to need you to stop soon.”

“Well,” Zach said, typing gotta go, pick up where we left off again?, “Sure, give me a few minutes? I just need to wrap up this report.”

The other three players voiced their frustrations, not that they hadn’t all done the same rapid-fire cancellation at some point in the past. Zach empathized. The tournament was only in its second bracket, and it had already been four months.

“Call me when you’re done, OK?”

“Will do, sir,” Zach said. “Appreciate the flexibility.”

Zach waved his hand and the hearts game vanished, replaced on the monitor with the other desktop he used for actual work. He located the report and pulled it up in the editor. “In conclusion, further study is required,” he typed, and then saved it.

He skimmed the report for typos, and it looked like the autocorrect had taken care of everything he missed. And with that, he submitted An Examination of Common Causes of Wearable Climate Hardware Malfunction: FCC-EAD It would be reviewed and sent back with recommendations in 2-3 business days before finalization and publication, at which point Zach would be tasked with selecting a colleague to draft the abstract. Finally, at the end of the month, the piece would go out with the External Anomalies Division’s monthly report, and the glorious cycle of bureaucracy would begin again.

The thoughts ran through Zach’s head in the regimented language that every bureaucrat found themselves thinking in, sooner or later.

No biggie. Time to call the boss. He tapped his earpiece again. “Jeffrey Tsao,” he said, and the line started to ring.

“Zach. Thanks for getting back to me so soon.”

“No problem. What’s going on?”

“Seems we’ve got a priority-one anomaly report coming in from Healthwire. Deputy Director Freeman said it’s our number one priority, in fact. I told him I’d put my best agent on it. Called you anyway.”

Cute. “I’ll get right on it, sir. Should I give Zimmerman a ring? We usually work well together.”

There was a pause. “That would probably be best, yes. You two have done some good work lately.”

“Thank you, sir. Anything I need to know that won’t be in the file?”

“Figuring out what’s not in the file is your job, Graves.”

“Touché, sir. Well, I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Please do. And try to stay within the usual budget this time. I’ll talk to you later.”

Get stuck in New Atlantic City one time, Zach thought, and you never hear the end of it.

The connection closed. He tapped his earpiece twice. “Cindy Zimmerman. Video.” The plastic rectangle in front of his right eye came to life with a semi-transparent “Connecting…” flashing gently. After a moment, Cindy’s face appeared, behind her an office much like his own.

“What’s on fire this time, Graves?”

“I don’t know, but Freeman would like it dealt with quickly. At a good stopping point in whatever you’re doing?”

Cindy’s eyes refocused as she looked past the screen, through the image to whatever she was doing, and then refocused on Zach.

“God, yes. I’m doing quota work.”

“Great. Let’s both give this file a read and then re-connect?”

“Sounds good. Zimmerman out.”

Zach refocused his own eyes as the image faded out and the screen turned back into the minor irritant in front of his eye that it was most of the time. He turned to his workstation and opened his assigned case files with a practiced gesture, selected the blinking red one, and started reading it.

Liminality #1




adjective (technical)

  1. of or relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
  2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.




Tien wound his ATV between the short trees that dotted Superior Crater. It was dark out, and no lights shone from the ruined city ahead. Rather peaceful, really, save for the occasional small mammal that he would swerve to avoid (or at least try to). There wasn’t a human in sight, or so the trackers told him. He let himself relax. It was nice to be out of the office.

He hadn’t seen the crater first-hand before. It was pretty, just like people said, if a bit… brownish. But brown grass was better than no grass.

The vehicle chirped and he looked at the dash. Fuel heat nominal; no threats or surveillance detected; no messages… ah. He’d entered the demilitarized zone between Canada and the US. This was, of course, expected, but the lack of markings meant that he had to rely on the equipment. Tien snapped out of his daydream, stopped the vehicle, and exited. He opened one of the hatches in the rear and pulled out the checklist and a pen. He would fill most of it out on his sleevetop later–best to do the paper part of the paperwork while things were quiet, since it took longer.

With the graceless efficiency of a seasoned public servant at the Ministry of Corrections, he began filling out the tedious form. Most of the legwork had been done by the computer, but for accountability’s sake he still had to check off all the right boxes, and then sign, date, and scan it for later filing. Not like it would matter much for him, where he was going, but it was quite important for future such experiments, and a duty was a duty.

About halfway through he reached back into the hatch and pulled out a black plastic briefcase. Opening it, he set aside some paperwork and pulled out a parcel of clothing–some nondescript suit, the kind you’d see on an extra in old movies–then stripped out of his Ministry jumpsuit and into the vintage design.

Back to the clipboard. Check. Check, check… he removed a device from the hatch and unfolded it onto the ground. Check. He turned it on, check, check… it activated with a whirring sound, and his sleevetop blinked green under the suitcoat to indicate it was the right kind of sound. Check.

After putting his old clothes and all the packaging and other detritus he’d managed to produce into the hatch, he checked one last box on the form, then signed it three times, dated it, closed the hatch, and fed it into the dashboard scanner. He detached a small rod from the vehicle and put it in his breast pocket with a practiced move, then stepped onto the device he’d unfolded. Finally he plugged the device into a socket on the side of the ATV, double-checked his footing, and pushed the only button on it he hadn’t already pressed. The whirring sped up, he gripped the pair of handles that stuck up from the middle, and vanished. A moment later, when the checklist had finished scanning, an antenna rotated briefly; one more moment and the ATV began flashing and then exploded with a cold, quiet spark, leaving a vaguely ATV-shaped scar in the dormant grass.