[Author's note: this story is part of the on-going Space Surfers storyline.]
It's another boring and empty Tuesday at the office.
Everyone except for Joe is working from home, and has been for the past three years, even before COVID offered the opportunity.
Joe walks back into the cement two story building, a brutalist structure from the 70s when it was poured and lovingly dedicated to a dead mayor.
The office building shares a parking lot with a small strip mall, the only other building around here, and Joe is carrying a white paper bag with a logo of the burger joint next door.
The whole complex sits on Route 240, an east-west route that connects far-off places no one goes to in the midwest.
On the north side of the route is a corn field, green and ten feel tall at this point in the season.
The office building and the strip mall are on the south side of the road, in a small concrete patch that is carved out of an empty field.
A lone green Civic sits in the parking lot in front of the office building, Joe's old beat-up car.
From inside the office, Joe pushes the Lock button on his remote key fob and the car beeps once.
Just a regular day.
Twenty minutes later, a bright red Lamborghini, no longer gleaming due to the dust that covers its every shapely corner, pulls into the lot.
A vision in a well-cut black suit unfolds herself out of the low driver's seat and goes into the office building.
There is no one at reception and the visitor has to wait for Joe to notice her.
She does not call out or tap her expensively manicured nails while waiting, just glances around the small reception area and the bit of the back office that's visible from the entrance.
After a minute Joe finally notices the visitor and heads to reception to welcome her.
"Hey, sorry about the wait, what can I-"
Joe freezes mid-sentence and his eyes practically pop out of their sockets.
The visitor doesn't bother to hide her smile.
"Umm, how can I help you, Miss Wayne?"
"Elle, please," she gives a smile and a small bow and suddenly the pressure seems to melt away and Joe's heart stops its jack-hammer emulation.
"And you are Joe."
"Good, just the man I need to see.
Can we chat inside?"
Joe looks down and for the first time notices that there's a large reception desk between him and Elle.
"Of course, of course, come on in," he ushers her through the security door and leads her to a glass-walled but otherwise spartan conference room.
Elle doesn't seem to mind its simplicity, she strides to the head of the table and faces Joe.
"Long story short, Joe: I'd like you to come and work for me."
"You need a tax accountant?"
Joe tries to sound serious as he asks his ridiculous question.
"No, we have plenty of those.
Actually, I have in mind a spot with the WayneTech Research Group."
She waits and listens to the low hum of central air as Joe's jaw drops.
"Umm, ma'am, there's got to be a mistake, I'm just an accountant."
"Right, and I'm just an adrenaline-junkie socialite.
I've talked with your various managers and everyone says that you're the best in your field.
And that's exactly who I'm looking for."
"What would I be doing at WayneTech?"
I'm fascinated by your work on the Northwood Corp case, how you found the long-term embezzlements, traced back entire genealogies.
And your time at the Smithsonian, the sheer number of new species you identified through existing fossil records!
I would love for you to help out our researchers, dive deep into the data we have."
"Well, as flattering as that offer is, I'm working on a project for the state right now, and it's going to be a while..."
Joe trails off as he notices a sly smile on Elle's face.
"It's already done, right?
Another department that the state is outsourcing to WayneTech?"
"Quite right," Elle smiles and Joe can feel a warmth spread through his soul.
"You've already been reassigned, and this is more of... our first one on one meeting.
We'll have plenty of these, in the coming years."
She's really putting on the charm, Joe thinks.
He winces and pouts, telegraphs his intent to turn down even this amazing offer, but Elle reads him like an open book and interjects: "Joe, please tell me about your research into the Shadow Hand."
Joe blinks but otherwise doesn't react to the name.
"Oh come on, Joe.
Who do you suppose watches the watchers?
I've observed you work, with my own eyes.
You've tried to disguise your research, spoof your internet presence and so on, but you know all too well that nothing stops a determined and well-funded adversary."
Joe leads them down to the basement, through an inconspicuous but locked "Janitor's Closet" door on the first floor of the office building.
Then down a tunnel with differently textured walls and bundles of cables running along the wall, and through multiple increasingly-beefier looking security doors.
They walk a long distance, certainly far beyond the building's above-ground footprint.
Joe doesn't talk, just leads them onward and forward.
He seems very familiar with this area, this routine to get to their destination.
They eventually pass through a security door and emerge into a room with a blue ceiling.
The room's walls are covered in print-outs, maps, photographs that are obviously newspaper clippings, and other tell-tale signs of a paranoid's obsession.
Elle circumnavigates the room and takes in the research, slowing down here and there to read a document or examine a photograph.
She pauses at one side of the room where the "wallpaper" is a series of blue-tinted documents.
She waves a hand at these.
"Is this from the Chicago Nuclear Zone?"
Joe nods, a smile of appreciation on his face.
"Joe, how in the hell did you get these?"
"Long story short, Elle?
With a lead-lined hermetically-sealed suit, and a death-car."
She nods, keeps walking and looking.
Then stops and faces him.
"Joe, tell me what you have learned about the Shadow Hand."
"There's an invisible force that's been enacting its own agenda and pushing humanity in various ways for the past nine hundred years."
"Good elevator pitch!"
"I've got the data from the big ones: US, UK, Soviets, South American, Shanxi, Nipponese, Lunar, and Old World.
I've got all of their records, and countless more from less-well documented bureaucracies around the globe.
Combing through all of these, it's easy to see a very clear pattern of influence.
Someone, something, has been controlling and molding humanity.
Pushing at us at odd times, along strange avenues, often into calamity, frequently regressing our multiple civilizations, all for its own purposes.
I've noticed targeted assassinations of entire families that were carried out with military precision over a span of decades.
There is clear evidence of patience."
"This is an impressive job, Joe.
Your organization, the dots you've been able to connect, working on this in secret and after hours.
Such limited resources, like boxing with one hand tied behind your back.
I am in awe, simply put.
But I look and wonder what you will be able to learn with WayneTech resources behind you.
Hurricanes, floods, plagues, droughts, cancers, viruses, I want you to dive deep into them all and pull back the curtain.
Show me, show the world, how intricately we are all connected!"
Her energy is fierce and infectious.
Joe stands in awe of the third richest person in the world.
"If I join the WayneTech Research Group," he confirms.
Yes, she nods and her brilliant smile threatens to blind Joe.
"There are a million projects that I want your input on!
You'd have your own department within the RG!"
"Would I need to stop my research on the Shadow Hand?"
Joe scratches the back of his neck and looks pained.
"You wouldn't miss it, Joe.
There'd be so much more fascinating research at hand.
You'll probably never come back to the Chicago files.
Probably even safer this way, you'd certainly face less radiation!"
Are you threatening me?"
"Sorry, Joe, that was just my poor attempt at humor.
One of the so-called benefits of a classical education.
But what if you were the head of the Research Group, and we focused a whole group on the Shadow Hand?
We can put more bodies on it!"
"Elle, we both know...
I will be mired in paperwork, and you will destroy all of my work.
You want me to stop the Shadow Hand research.
His eyes snap onto and bore into Elle's soul.
Two can play at this game, I've also got the Impact Implants.
"It's... difficult to explain, Joe."
She actually looks pained and uncomfortable, Joe thinks.
"Let me help you, Elle: your family, the Waynes, are actually the Shadow Hand.
You have been, for the past nine centuries, the force that regressed and guided our development."
The truth, finally.
Her face is set and she speaks without moving, she is a statue.
"Name your price, Joe.
How much to keep our name out of the papers?
Want me to fund your next thousand research projects?"
"You know what else I learned in my Shadow Hand research?"
Joe asks and makes his way around the room, toward a board full of satellite imagery of ruins.
"I learned of biblical levels of destruction from the heavens.
I've seen the stone from those cities, and it glistens in the light, because it was blasted by other-worldly heat.
I've got technical readouts on the Sodom and Gomorrah Incident, right here," he taps a sheet.
A loud alarm goes off, a blinking red light floods the space and casts sharp shadows, and a set of windows open up in the wall.
"What the fuck is going on?"
A small black weapon occupies the short distance between Elle's palm and Joe's forehead.
Elle looks through the foot-thick glass and sees the office building and the strip mall, the parking lot with the green Civic and the red Lamborghini.
Tall corn is in the background.
A black flash falls from the sky and brown dirt flies up to meet it.
"That was a probe," Joe explains, slowly, as he backs away from the gun.
"It sped here on Stream tech, slightly faster than light, all the way from Jupiter, because it detected a particular electromagnetic signature.
The fact that it crashed in the corn fields, in that region, tells me that we have less than a minute."
Joe walks over to a whiteboard, one that's setup to rotate around its long axis, and flips it over to its back side.
The white board contains a message in tall black letters:
BUCKLE UP ELLE
Red text pops up on the wall next to the window and reads 59 seconds.
"I think your boss just fired you, Elle.
Or, rather, is about to fire you, in fifty seconds or so."
"Joe, what do you think is going on?"
Elle looks around and shifts her body, orients herself slightly and subtly toward the exit.
I think you know a lot about Shadow Hand, but you don't truly believe in It.
You think It is a fable, a fairy tale that your family has carried into this century.
You, Elle, are not a true believer.
You've never questioned it, because it has brought you power and money, but you've never truly believed in It.
That won't be true for long.
And don't worry, we're in no danger, this bunker is specifically designed to withstand Gomorrah-class events.
I hear you've got a place just like this under your mansion."
Elle glances at Joe in wonder.
"That's where I got the idea.
The red clock by the window counts down, in the end shifting to showing a blur of milliseconds, and just as it reaches 0, an infinite sky-scraper of red manifests on top of the office and the strip mall and Joe's green Civic and Elle's red Lamborghini.
The infinite red sky-scraper is only present for the shortest fraction of a second, and then it is gone.
And with it, the office and the strip mall and the green Civic and the red Lamborghini.
They are dust in the wind.
"What can I say, Miss Wayne?
At this orientation of the planetary orbits, it takes light 48 minutes to get from Jupiter to Earth.
Which means that your boss decided to kill you almost an hour ago.
And you've only been here twenty minutes, Elle."
Elle Wayne is dumbfounded and sits down heavily in a leather and brown molded-plywood Eames chair.
"The stories..." she mumbles to herself and trails off, her eyes no longer of this world, they are unfocused.
She is trying to wrap her head about this new reality, where her family is treated as disposable fodder by an other-worldly force.
Joe pours two glasses of whisky from a dusty bottle and offers one to Elle.
"Mr Banks, what can I tell you about Jupiter?", she asks and accepts the glass of whisky from Joe.