Prologue: Power Rising, part 1

"Hey, John! You gonna fiddle with that shot all day?"

John Wilson looked up from his Mac as he favored his cubicle-neighbor with a confident smile. "Perfection, Chuck, is in the eye of the beholder. And when twenty million people are going to behold our work, it’s my job to make them see perfection."

Chuck laughed. "Talented and modest. No wonder you’re the darling of the computer effects department."

John returned the laugh. "There’s only one person on this earth I want calling me ‘darling,’ Mr. Matthews. You ain’t her." He turned back to his computer with a contented smile on his face. Chuck sighed.

"I hate you," he said, his voice almost light. "Why can’t you be pudgy and geeky like the rest of us?"

John shrugged. "I am. I’m just not as pudgy, and Heather doesn’t mind my geek side. You know, swimming is just about the easiest sport to take up for losing weight."

"Yeah, if you don’t mind wearing nothing but shorts in front of dozens of total strangers, mister five-foot-nine, 170 pounds, black hair, blue eyes, deep tan, jaw like a—" Chuck ranted in mock-outrage.

"It’s not a tan," Wilson interjected. When Chuck’s eyes bulged at the interruption, however, John raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, I give," he chuckled. Looking at the picture the animator had of himself with Heather at the beach, he thought Chuck was exaggerating, but considering his friend had been dateless for almost a year now, John wasn’t about to twist the knife. Sure, he was in decent shape; swimming at least twice a week will do that. He also had a bit of a paunch and had washed out somewhat, at least compared to what he was used to. Working in a computer lab at least forty hours a week took care of that. "Look, you’re right — I’m just about done here, so why don’t we visit the miniatures department? I’ve been looking forward to seeing how they duplicate my green fog for the death scene."

"Ah, you’re just trying to change the subject," John’s partner replied. "And there’s no way I’m asking Suzie out yet."

"Whoa, hey, I just like watching their old-school tech at work," the animator insisted. "Those models and chemicals are seriously cool, in a retro way." His smile returned in a more ironic incarnation. "Besides, wouldn’t it be cool if I got struck by light—"

"Can we just hit Mega-Burger now, please?" Chuck begged, motioning at the door. "You’ve got to have noticed that we’re the only people here."

John sighed and stood. Looking around, he could see several empty pastel-green cubicles. Most of the lights were dim, and the computer screens he could see were only running screensavers. Boring ones, for the most part — fish tanks and scrolling text were popular choices, apparently. Not, he noted wryly, that there’s a large pool to base observations on. WonderMedia Effects was still a small company, and the computer effects department was a relatively new addition. "Just give me a few minutes, Chuck. I’ve almost got the rendering on this bit perfect. Besides," John added, looking at his friend’s midsection, "you were just implying yourself that you could survive a little longer without a double mega-burger."

The disgusted look Chuck leveled at John forced the smaller man to choke back a laugh. Again, John thought Chuck was being unfair to himself — sure, he was a big guy, a little taller than John and almost twice as wide — but Chuck was the sort of guy who was built big. It fit him. "Look, John — oh, no," Chuck said suddenly, looking at the office door.

John turned and looked over the cubicle wall. A ruddy face and flat, dead-looking hair bobbed towards them. The face bore a sickeningly satisfied smile. A few seconds later, he was too close to believably ignore. God, it’s the only person in the world who’d be better off with a toupee, John thought wryly.

"Hello, Duane," the two friends said in deadpan unison. Duane smiled thinly back at them.

Duane Slater, John thought in disgust. Just what I needed to make my day complete. Slater was in charge of second unit computer effects, and believed that this gave him authority over the entire department. The actual department heads had corrected this misconception several times, but the lesson never seemed to stick. He always wore a suit in spite of the complete lack of a dress code (unless "get dressed" counted), with the sole concession to heat being his grudging willingness to remove his suit jacket. It wasn’t nearly that hot, allowing Duane to be his most officious. In spite of being six feet tall and thin enough to make himself seem even taller, he wore elevator shoes. Chuck had joked more than once that he did it to try and tower over John, though John could have cared less.

"Gentlemen," Slater replied in his mockery of a friendly tone. "Now what has two such free spirits inside on such a beautiful evening?"

"I figured you were outside," John said in as casual a tone as he could manage. Chuck’s entire face bulged, presumably due to his effort not to burst out laughing. Duane’s smile evaporated. "Besides, I’m almost done with this fight sequence, and the last time I checked, ‘quitting time’ was a suggestion, not holy writ."

"You’d better watch yourself, Mr. Wilson," Duane retorted sharply. "Less trusting co-workers might think you had a more questionable reason for finding an excuse to be here all alone."

Both programmers stared flatly at Slater. "Yeah, Duane, we were planning to browse ILM’s want ads from the company server," Chuck said.

"We were going to send them your resume," John added lightly, pausing a beat as Duane arched one dubious eyebrow. "They’re nice folks, though, so we changed our minds."

Slater’s entire face twitched. "Getting bold, are we?"

John’s face darkened in response. "Shouldn’t you be out terrorizing a small town or something, Duane? Or have you forgotten—" the programmer stood slowly as he spoke, and in spite of the height difference all three men could feel the two staring eye-to-eye, "—that you have absolutely no authority in First Unit graphics?"

Chuck carefully stepped back a pace.

"Arrogant flake," Duane snapped. His normally reddish face went almost completely pale. "One word from me, and you really would be looking through want ads."

"That BS won’t work any more, Duane," Wilson replied. A part of him was amazed at how cold his voice could get. "Ms. Henderson called a bunch of us in the other day specifically to let us know that we had her permission to tell you where you could stick it. You remember Ms. Henderson, right? She just owns the company, as you may recall."

Duane’s furious expression vanished, replaced by one that reminded John of nothing so much as a mouse that found out the hard way that the cheese was in a trap. The artists stared in astonishment as Duane nearly gibbered. "She…she…told you…" Duane stopped, swallowed, took a deep breath, and composed himself as the two programmers looked at each other, then back. "Good bye, Mr. Wilson." And with that, Duane turned and walked out.

The moment the office door closed behind Slater, Chuck let out a long breath and sagged against the low cubicle wall. "God, John. You did it. I can’t believe you actually did that."

John merely stared at the door Duane had just gone through with a disgusted expression. "She’d already talked with him, Chuck. Come on, every department head’s talked with that officious jerk at least once. I can’t believe he still has a job."

"I think he’s somebody’s cousin or something," Chuck said, staggering back upright and smoothing out his Hawaiian print shirt. "But I mean, come on, just because he can’t do anything official doesn’t mean he can’t mess you up. Remember that time a whole scene just vanished from Lucy’s computer?"

"Yeah, and Slater ‘just happened’ to have a back-up copy," John replied, his voice still lowering the room temperature by several degrees. "If that idiot can hack into my system, I deserve whatever he can throw at me."

The larger artist put one hand on John’s shoulder, genuine concern on his face. "You think that’s all he can do? I’ve never known anyone as vindictive as that creep. I hope you’ve got road hazard on your tires, and that’s just for starters."

John smiled thinly. "You think it’s just coincidence that cameras showed up in the parking lot last month?" After a moment of staring at one another, they both laughed. "Look," John said, clapping Chuck on the shoulder in return, "whatever that moron tries to come up with, I doubt it’ll be in the next five minutes, and there’s no way I’m finishing my sequence now. Let’s go down to miniatures and see what they’re up to, okay?"

There was a long pause. Finally, Chuck breathed out and nodded. "Yeah, okay."

"And then you can ask Susan for a date," John added innocently.

"John…" Chuck began as they walked out.

* * *

Duane Slater watched from a storage closet as the friends left the office and headed down the hall. So I can’t think of anything in the next five minutes, eh, he thought as John and Chuck rounded a corner. I have a feeling your trip to miniatures is going to be a memorable one.

NEXT: Power Rising, part 2

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