Chapter 33 – Blocks

"Are you very sure nothing's arrived for me?"

The guy who sorted out all the mail at port control – a cadaverous man named Gulag, of all things - merely gave me a bored look and shook his head. "Nope. Nothing, nada, zilch. Now shoo off so I can sort out the rest of the mail, would you?"

Letting out an exasperated sigh, I left the mail room and headed back to the reception desk. It seemed that while General Harding had approved of my request for a transfer, the powers that be were certainly taking their sweet time to get the whole transfer process going. The other possibility was that there simply wasn't a demand for someone with a water affinity out there, but most of the people here at port control agreed that due to the affinity's rarity, getting transfers to waterside installations was supposed to be relatively easy.

"Morning, sweetie!" called Mary the receptionist, before getting a look at my disheartened expression. "I take it that the letter hasn't arrived yet?"

"And you would be right, Miss Mary," I said, stopping at her desk and leaning against it. "Does it usually take this long for transfers to get approved?"

She shook her head. "Definitely not, my boy! If there's one thing the digimon were good for, it was eliminating the bureaucratic Hell we used to call a government. Sure, we've still got a lot of paperwork to settle, but they move it along rather quickly."

"Bummer, then," I said, frowning a little. "Alright then. See you around, Miss."

"Take care of yourself and those overgrown kids, then."

As I walked up the stairs to the third floor, I realised that something was possibly amiss. If the people in charge of approving transfers were indeed as efficient as Miss Mary claimed them to be, a lack of a response for such a period of time – more than a month – probably implied a letter that was lost in transit. Should that be the case, then a quick call down to their office would straighten things out in a short while.

Instead of going up to the third floor, I continued on up to the fourth floor, which was Canalave port control's very own version of a paperwork Hell. Sure enough, when I opened the door and entered the domain of our clerks, accountants, and other office personnel, I saw that life on the fourth floor was going on as it always did; silently, frantically, and continuously. The maze of cubicles seemed empty as ever, but the soft sounds of fingers on keyboards, papers being shuffled, and even the hum of a Photostatting machine filled the air like an overhanging sense of industriousness.

I made my way to the crude, hand-written sign written on the back of an office circular that had been taped to the outside of a cubicle next to the toilets, for the benefit of visitors to the fourth floor. The sign was actually a map of sorts which gave directions to the various departments within the cubicle labyrinth, usually by specifying the number of turnings you needed to make or pass before you found what you were looking for. Squinting a little to read the absolutely atrocious handwriting on the sign, I eventually found what I was looking for, and headed to the maze's unofficial main entrance of sorts, or the gap in the walls right in front of the toilets.

Mentally cursing whoever it was that had designed those cubicles with their six-foot tall walls, I walked down the dimly-lit pathway between two cubicles, heading right towards the heart of the fourth floor, where administrative coordination took place.

xxx

It took a few tries, but I eventually found my way to the centre of the cubicles without any untoward incidents. The few staff members that I actually saw were so engrossed in their work that they probably didn't even notice me passing them, but some did give me the impression that they knew a stranger had entered their domain. Every now and then, I would come to a small clearing in the midst of the cubicles, where a water cooler, Photostatting machine, or other types of office equipment too bulky to fit in a cubicle would be found, looking somewhat as if they had been abandoned there.

And there it was, as indicated by the clear corridor surrounding the core group of cubicles; the human resources department.

Walking around the cubicles of port control's HR staff, I took a peek into each one, until I found the one which I had first visited just over a month ago, when I had put in my request for a transfer. Sure enough, he was still there, frowning at a document that was reading, even while his left hand toyed with a ballpoint pen. He was dressed in what appeared to be the same, faded blue shirt he had been wearing when I first met him, and his tie was lying in a messy ball next to his coffee mug.

"Excuse me?" I called out to the spindly-looking HR guy. "Mr. Parker?"

"It's Peter, you idiots! Enough with the Spider-man jokes, already," he grumbled, looking up from the document and spinning about on his chair to face me. "Oh, it's you. And what brings you to here to Hell in Canalave?"

"Could you check if the transfer request I put in about a month ago has even left the building?" I asked, causing him to look mildly curious. "It seems to have been... held up, I think."

"That transfer?" he echoed, pushing his glasses up a little. "Jeez, that was ages ago. Haven't you gotten a response yet?"

"Gulag says nothing's arrived," I shook my head, as I leaned against the side of his cubicle.

He turned back to face his computer, and pulled out a wireless keyboard from somewhere underneath his desk. "That's highly unusual, really. We typically get transfers done in under... two weeks? And you were the one with the water affinity, weren't you?"

"Correct."

Peter tapped at several keys, and brought up the files containing the transfer information. "That makes everything even stranger if they rejected the application. Water affinities are rare enough that every coastal city wants one... hmm, one moment, please.

"Hmm, it looks like it did leave the building. Arukenimon and Mummymon signed-off on it just three days after you filed it, so it's somewhere out there. Give me a moment to call them up, would you?"

Nodding and feeling a little lost due to the speed at which he was working, I just watched as he opened up a video link between his computer and someone else's. The video call remained unanswered for a few seconds, before it got put through to a woman with bushy hair and large, wire-rimmed glasses.

"Hello?" she said dreamily. "Wait... Canalave, is it?"

"Canalave port control here," Peter replied, nodding in affirmation. "Could you please run a check on a transfer application for me?

The woman nodded, and remained silent, fingers hovering expectantly over her own keyboard.

"Serial number is... R-021. Romeo-zero-two-one. It was filed about a month ago, and our records show that it's somewhere at your end."

"One moment..." the woman muttered as she typed away, wherever she was. "Hmm, I've got it. Apparently, it's been approved and mailed out. They just need confirmation from the applicant and his department head."

Peter frowned at that, clicking away at his ballpoint pen. "So are you telling me that it's been lost in transit?"

"Given the recent chaos, it could most certainly have been misplaced," she shrugged. "Best I could do is to flag it as a lost letter and send you another copy, though. May take a week to arrive at your end, since they'll need to re-approve it."

"Would appreciate it if you did that, then," Peter said, as he waved at her. "Thanks!"

The video call was stopped, and he spun about on his chair to face me again. "So, I take it you heard everything that you needed to hear?"

"I suppose," I replied. "Thanks, anyway. Looks like I'll just have to wait for that corpse named Gulag to notify me of fresh mail."

"Go easy on that old bastard, would you?" Peter murmured, as he got back to reading the document he had been frowning at earlier. "He's not entirely an asshole, really. You just need to get to know him better or whatever. Now, I got work to do, so scoot."

With that, it was back into the cubicle maze for me. After a few wrong turns and ending up hopelessly lost, I had to ask a confused-looking lady in a rumpled outfit for help, and so she ended up leading me out of there.

I swear, the fourth floor was horrible, and it wasn't even as big as the archives! At least Persiamon kept her department easy to navigate.

xxx

"Any luck on that missing transfer letter, kid?" General Harding asked me, as he dusted his bookshelf. "You did ask for another copy, right?"

"That I did," I replied, as I threw open his office window and allowed some fresh air into the room. "It should be here soon, I suppose. The woman at... well, wherever she was claimed it would take a week to get here."

"Bureaucracy and its hassles," he shrugged, taking a deep breath of ocean-scented air. "Ah, there's nothing quite like the smell of the sea, is there? Except maybe the smell of rain, but that's almost like pirated ocean scent, anyway."

"Rain smells salty?" I asked him, causing him to flip me off.

"Bah, you whore! Always spoiling my analogies and comparisons!" he said dramatically, holding a hand to his forehead and acting as if he had just witnessed an atrocity of some sort. "Keep the perfect grammar in the toilet, would you? The graffiti needs it."

"How does grammar factor into this, and since when is there graffiti in our toilets?" I said, smiling a little despite myself. "Unless you're implying that the government doesn't have surveillance in the toilets, in which case the terrorists should all conspire while taking a crap."

General Harding assumed a cowering pose and gave me a wide-eyed expression of mock-horror. "You mean those bastards have cameras in the toilet? Hot damn, do those sick perverts have a scat fetish or something?"

Just as I thought he would drop the whole act right there and then, he continued, "Next time, point the cameras out to me so I can flash them. It may just make the day of that depraved degenerate that they undoubtedly hire to monitor the loo cameras!"

I almost choked over the sudden burst of laughter that left me at that, and wound up going teary-eyed and giggling feebly as General Harding slapped me on the back.

"Should I be concerned that you're finding my usual crass behaviour this amusing?" he mused, smirking a little. "A year... nah, even a few months ago, I suppose this would've scandalised you horribly."

"For the record," I said, standing up a little straighter and narrowing my eyes at him, "I still think that you are a horrible, crude, lecherous bastard."

"And I'm awesome like that, aren't I?" he said airily, as he plopped down into his chair. "Bet you still keep that episode with me and Fen as spank bank material."

"Sir!" I all but squeaked, going bright red in the face. "I do not... I don't masturbate to fantasies of you and General Fen, thank you very much!"

General Harding leaned back in his seat and offered me a cocky smirk. "What can I say? I'm a first-class magnificent bastard."

Insufferable he might have been, and he did tend to get the last word over me, but if there was one thing that was for sure, it was that I would miss him once I got out of Canalave. Zachary Harding, for all his eccentricities and insanely perverted sense of humour, was not too bad as far as commanding officers went. So I suppose that it would only be fair to admit that I'd remember him with fondness and perhaps more than just a touch of incredulity.

Well, maybe just a little fondness, and more of the incredulity.

xxx

"Anything for me?"

"Nope. Nothing, nada, zilch."

"You need to get out more, Gulag."

"I get around a lot, with your mother."

"Oh yeah? Well, your mother's face!"

"... Now that's just plain disturbing."

"I'll bet. Anyone who could pop you out must look disturbing. I'm not even going to speculate on how your father looks like if you're supposed to be a diluted version of his genes."

"Very funny. Don't worry, I'll get a spinarak to send it up if it does arrive, alright?"

"Much appreciated, Gulag."

"Fuck off."

xxx

As things at Canalave port control tended to work out, the transfer letter arrived when I least expected it to. That is to say, it arrived when I was halfway through a shower after a round of my thrice-weekly physical training sessions.

"Wait, so this is the transfer letter?" I asked the spinarak, which chirped and nodded its tiny head. "And you couldn't wait till after I got out of the shower?"

"And miss my chance to see one of Canalave's human porn stars in his natural environment?" the little spider asked me, sounding vaguely amused. "I'll leave it with your uniform, then."

"Thanks," I called out after its retreating back. "And for fuck's sake, I'm not a porn star!"

"That's what they all say!" sang the impudent arachnid as it scurried away towards the locker room.

"I'm telling your father about this!" Ford the ariados was apparently the sire of most of our messenger bugs here at port control, though just who the mother was remained a mystery to me.

"As if he gives a shit!"

Shaking my head out of disbelief at the spinarak's language, which seemed to be almost a competitor for Silas' – and also getting the water out of it at the same time – I started drying off my hair and headed into the locker room, making sure to keep my towel on at all times, in the event that those voyeuristic idiots were going at it with the hidden cameras again. At least the spinarak was good at doing its job – there was an envelope placed neatly on top of my folded uniform.

I picked up the envelope and read the return address on it – yup, it was from the big people, all right. There were the usual stamps marking it as private and confidential, to return it to the senders if received with a broken seal, and so on, which pretty much distinguished it as an official document. Putting it aside, I started to get dressed, still moving around carefully in case I ended up being Private Darkie again – don't ask me why they chose that name for me, of all things.

Just to be careful, I switched off the lights in the locker room. Private Darkie, indeed.

xxx

Back at my dorm room, I let Silas out of his pokeball, and showed him the letter. He didn't seem to get it at first, but after a short while, he caught on quickly. Smart, as always.

"Trainer, is that..." his voice trailed off.

"Yes it is, Silas!" I beamed at him. "This here is my ticket out of here. Once General Harding and I sign this stupid little piece of paper, we'll just need to forward it back to those blithering idiots at the return address, and we'll be out of here in a few days!"

Silas eyed the envelope with suspicion. "Looks a little thick for a single piece of paper, don't you think?"

"What are you talking about?" I asked him, raising an eyebrow, only to catch sight of the envelope itself. "Oh... Oh my."

"Indeed, Trainer," Silas whistled, "that is one thick bundle of paperwork for you to read through tonight."

That still couldn't stop me from smirking at him, though. "As annoying as paperwork usually is, for this, I'm willing to make an exception."

"That's the spirit!" he chirped, sticking his tongue out and waving it about. "Just go easy on Harding when you guide him through it, though."

Now, that was. "Oh, dear."

As quick as his mind worked, General Harding was indeed a complete klutz at paperwork. He was one of the few generals at port control to have an assistant, partially because there were just that many aquatic pokemon within close proximity of the place, but also because he was usually assigned a lot of paperwork, which he was completely hopeless at. Just who decided on it, how, and why he ended up basically manning a desk despite his natural talents – aside from being a sexual dynamo, it seemed he did have a few nifty tricks up his sleeves – was beyond me.

Oh, and look! The stack of documents for the transfer to be approved was, mercifully, only eight pages long. In Zachary-speak, that probably could equate to nearly twenty minutes of confusion, which was already a good deal, considering.

Nonetheless, I decided that I would suck it in and take the whole ordeal like a man. "I'll deal with it tomorrow at the office. Do you have a pen, Silas?"

He blew a raspberry at me, looking torn between amusement and bewilderment. "Where the fuck would I keep a pen?"

xxx

As Silas had reminded me and effectively predicted, General Harding was totally befuddled by the transfer paperwork. It didn't help that earlier on the day, he'd had to work his way through a stack of documents literally as thick as a the fat end of a baseball bat. While I did help him through the mass of paperwork, it still threw him for a spin, it did.

"So I need to sign this here?" he asked wearily. "Really, kid, can't this wait till tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow morning you'll probably be hung-over thanks to the drinks you'll be having after this, thanks to that huge shitload of paperwork from just now," I reminded him. "And it being a Saturday, you'd most probably end up either sleeping in the office or with General Fen to weather the hangover. So... I suppose if I want to mail these out by Monday, I'll need to get you done with today."

He blinked at me noctowlishly. "Say what say where say when?"

I laughed at his confused expression. "Alright, I'll help you through the documents. But could we hurry it up? It is Friday, and my folks are expecting me back for dinner."

"Friday?" he said, sounding alarmed, before turning around to check the calendar on the wall. "So it is! Fuck me, it's Friday already?"

"That paperwork must have really been horrible for you," I remarked, as I flipped through the eight pages of paperwork. "It'll be quick work for you to settle these, unless you want me to brief you on what the documents actually say."

He looked a little guilty at that. "Rookie, you know that I hate signing stuff I don't read first, right? So thanks for the offer, but if you want them done tonight, I'll have to take it a little slowly.

"I could get my jellicent to Shadow Sneak you to Jubilife once we're done, though. At least, it'll shorten the trip, so you might just be a little late for dinner. How's that sound?"

Quickly, I did the numbers in my head. Using a Shadow Sneak and not having to take the train meant cutting an hour of commuting time from the trip, which would indeed allow me to get back to Jubilife about on time for dinner. And since this seemed to be one of the rare instances when General Harding had his jellicent on him outside of field work, it would be easy for me to find a cooperative ghost.

I glanced at the clock mounted on the wall, and saw that it was just about a quarter to seven in the evening – the time just went to show how bad the documents earlier had been on my boss. Given that we usually sat down for dinner at around eight... well, it was all workable.

"Alright, then," I nodded, getting up and patting him on the shoulder. "Why don't you try to make some headway through reading them first, and I'll call my folks to let them know I might be held up?"

"Thanks, kid," General Harding said, pinching the bridge of his nose and scrunching his eyes shut. "You're a lifesaver, you are. Now, where do I start?"

I pointed out the first page to him, and left the room to call my parents.

xxx

"No, this means that by signing this, you agree that you cannot take any legal action against me for any unfinished business I've left behind," I sighed, as General Harding squinted suspiciously at the fine print. "Of course, I'll wrap everything up here before I leave, so it's just a formality."

"If you say so, kid," he yawned, as he finished reading the text and nodded. "Sounds about right, so I'll just sign it here. Anything else?"

I flipped the document. "Just the last page, then. Now, this means-"

A loud, rumbling sound cut me off halfway. Thinking that it was the grandfather clock upstairs acting up again, I took a second to check the time, and saw that it was indeed eight at night. As for just why they kept a grandfather clock in the cubicle maze... well, they needed something that could tell everyone the time, so the loud noises of that antique clock seemed to fit the bill.

"And we're done!" General Harding said, sounding immensely relieved. "I trust that you of all people wouldn't attempt to make me sell my soul, so I just skimmed through and signed that last page, anyway. Now, I do believe we have a jellicent to take to Jubilife?"

"Thanks, sir!" I said, feeling like a deflating balloon as the stress of guiding him through the paperwork left me. He may have tried his best, but something made me feel as if he was being slower than he usually was as we went through the transfer documents. Maybe it was the monstrous letters from the afternoon? "I appreciate you staying back to do this, a lot."

He stood up and stretched slowly, his spine letting out several audible popping sounds as it straightened out. "Thanks for being so patient with me, hah! I know that I'm about as handy with paperwork as a one-armed hooker in an orgy, so yeah..."

"Didn't need that mental image, sir," I told him, as I slipped the documents back into their envelope and sealed it. "How do you come up with these things, anyway?"

"I'm just a right bastard," he replied, sounding tired. "Anyway, let's leave the building before using the Shadow Sneak, shall we? Last time I used it indoors was... messy."

Before I could say anything, there was another rumbling noise, much louder than the one I'd heard earlier. It seemed to have come from somewhere in the distance, and based on his facial expression, General Harding had heard it, too.

"What was that?" I asked him, as we headed towards the stairs. Standard rules; when things may be going wrong, always take the stairs. "Sir?"

"I don't know," he said warily. "Now let's get outside and see if anyone out there has any idea what's going on."

We rapidly descended the stairs, and walked out into the completely deserted reception area. There wasn't anyone else in sight, which made me wonder if we were the last to leave that day. For once, the silence in the building felt stifling rather than soothing.

Through port control's glassy front walls, we could see the guards outside staring at something in the distance. Following their direction of gaze, I saw that they were looking at the sky.

Specifically, they were looking at a patch of sky that appeared to be a dull, smoky orange colour.

"Sir, that's..." I couldn't finish speaking as I recalled the last time I'd seen a sky with that exact shade. Memories of a train car being teleported out of a station and being used to bomb a tower came to my mind, even as I realised just what had caused the rumbling sounds, and in where we were looking towards.

Jubilife had been attacked.