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Late Afternoon in the Office Suite

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Imagine, if you will, one corner of a single floor of a nondescript office building in an unspecified city.

An office suite, if you will.

Perhaps it has row upon row of cubicles, with little beige name tags at the door openings indicating the inmates who occupy each particular cell. Perhaps it is a section of an open-plan setup, that modern hellscape of uninterrupted interruptions. Imagine that it has a conference room, home to a wooden table topped with a slab of scratched plexiglass and a half-dozen mismatched chairs that are simultaneously overstuffed and sagging in the middle. Imagine the tile-block carpeting throughout, worn in spots around the photocopier and at the entrance to the break room, dotted here and there with unspecified stains of dubious origin. Imagine the potted plants, almost certainly artificial, that function more as dust collection surfaces than decorations.

It might be the home of an investment bank or an insurance office, a small government agency or a Fortune 500 company, a well-regarded charitable foundation or a shell corporation registered so far offshore that its official address might as well read hic sunt dracones. It might have a healthy balance sheet, or be very much in danger of not making payroll this month. Regardless, those who work in this particular office suite have their own hopes and dreams, their own frustrations with the day-to-day aspects of their jobs, their longing to leave everything behind at the end of the day. They are people, just like you and me.

...for a given value of people, shall we say.

* * * *

'I'm gonna quit and go work in a coffee shop.'

Microsoft Word let out a gusty sigh, and fell forward across his keyboard in a sprawl. The paperclip pinning his forelock into place went askew, poking out at an odd angle down around his eyebrows.

Microsoft Excel, who was more than familiar with his coworker's late-afternoon fits of despair, did not turn his head or pause his typing for a second. 'You can't even keep track of half of the tasks you're supposed to do at this job,' he said. 'What makes you think that you'd be better off in a coffee shop?'

Word rolled half onto his side, peering over at Excel through the hair falling in his face. 'But this file is so looooong and boooooooring,' he moaned. 'There's charts and tables and graphics all over the place -- I can't even get past the first page without crashing!'

'You were the one who said you could finish processing everything tonight.' As his right hand flew over his keyboard's number pad, Excel used the tip of one finger of his left hand to resettle his glasses on the bridge of his nose. 'If you're the reason why the deliverable isn't in the client's hands by tomorrow morning at 9, I won't be responsible for what happens.'

Word writhed in his seat. 'Can't you help me just a little bit, Excel?'

'I've got five more sheets to update and pass over to Access before I clock off.' In a flurry of keyboard shortcuts, Excel finished the sheet he was working on and moved on to the next workbook. 'I'm not going to miss my Thursday game night because you can't handle setting up a couple of basic two-column tables that aren't even linked to the original source files.'

'But Exce-eee-el....'

For the first time, Excel's hands stopped moving. Some days, Word would shut up and get back to work if Excel simply stopped responding to his litany of whining, but this was turning into one of those days when it might be better to foist him off onto someone else in their cohort. Thursday game night was at stake, after all.

He exhaled quietly. 'Why don't you get OneNote to help you for once? Or Publisher? He at least knows how those files should look in layout. And his work's a hell of a lot cleaner than yours, most of the time.'

Before Word could respond, a head topped with a blue hat popped around the door to their work area. 'Publisher's not in this afternoon.'

Both Word and Excel startled at the interruption. 'Outlook!' Word exclaimed, perking up.

Excel glared at the new arrival. 'Don't you ever knock?'

Smirking faintly at Excel's sour greeting, Microsoft Outlook focused his attention on Word. 'He sent his last email two hours and twenty-six minutes ago. His calendar has a meeting blocked off in Conference Room A, Floor 4, until 1630; his Out of Office notification concludes at 1700; and his message reads -- '

'Okay, okay, enough with all that,' Excel snapped, looking more than a little uncomfortable at the torrent of details. 'Aren't you supposed to keep that sort of thing private, anyway?'

'The information I conveyed is all on his shared calendar,' Outlook said placidly. 'I suspect exhibitionist tendencies.'

'Outlook, could you help me with this project?' Word asked, with his most hopeful, winning smile. 'It really won't take -- '

Just as Word could launch into an elaborate lie about the amount of work he still had left to do, a notification chime made Outlook's hat vibrate. 'Ah, five minutes before my next stand-up meeting,' he said, and reached up to slap his hat more firmly onto his head and silence his internal alarm. 'Check my calendar and send me an invite. Shouldn't be a problem to slot you in at some point tomorrow.' Then, as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.

Word slumped over, deflating. 'I'm never gonna get this done in time.'

'You've wasted five minutes already just complaining about it,' Excel pointed out.

'I know!' World bolted upright again. 'I'm gonna go get a snack. I can't think when I'm hungry.'

Considering that Word's desktop was littered with crumpled bags of Memory Crisps and his recycling bin was on the verge of overflowing with empty PowerThirst energy drink cans, Excel judiciously refrained from commenting, and returned to the worksheet he had opened earlier. But right as Word was about to make a break for it and run off to procrastinate somewhere else, he all but crashed into another application who had just rounded the corner to enter their work area.

'Whoa, whoa, where's the critical error?' the newcomer said, laughing a little as Word staggered and wobbled from the shock of their near-collision. His neatly pressed, fire-engine-red blazer was a stark contrast to Word's rumpled appearance.

Word winced. 'Oh, sorry, PowerPoint!'

PowerPoint wrinkled his nose. 'Dubs, you gotta start calling me PP. PowerPoint's my dad's name.' Looking past Word, he caught sight of Excel, who was doing his best to look as busy as possible and ignore PowerPoint entirely. 'X-Maaaaaan! How's it hanging?'

'Don't call me X-Man,' Excel said flatly, staring at his screen.

PowerPoint grinned, showing perfectly white teeth. 'No need to be shy about it -- I bet you're a left justified kinda guy, huh, X-Man?' He elbowed Word in the ribs, hard enough to force a soft oof! out of Word's mouth. 'Dubs here knows what I'm talking about.'

If the perplexed look on Word's face was any indication, he had absolutely no clue what PowerPoint was talking about, but he did have one overarching priority. 'PowerPoint -- er, I mean, PP -- could you help me with this -- '

PowerPoint's eyes lit up with a manic glee. 'Is it a presentation?'

Taken aback by PowerPoint's sudden enthusiasm, Word wasn't quite ready to respond in kind. 'Well, uh, it's going to be part of a -- '

Excel cut in to save them all time and trouble. 'It's an eighty-page report, with nineteen tables and five figures, most of which were compiled by people who actively dislike each other.' He turned his head, regarding PowerPoint over the top of his glasses. 'It's not your usual three bullet points and a clock-wipe transition.'

PowerPoint held up his hands in a defensive gesture. 'Geez, someone needs a reboot this afternoon.'

Word could see that his chance of finding aid was starting to slip through his fingers, so he redoubled his efforts. 'I mean, I know it's not really your specialty, but Excel's kinda busy and Publisher's not around -- '

'Publisher's still out?' PowerPoint glanced at the clock on the office wall. When he saw what time it was, his eyes widened, then narrowed, and a sly smile began to spread across his face. 'Well, I'll be damned,' he murmured, half to himself, 'the little bastard's actually going for it.' He sounded almost admiring.

Word blinked. 'Going for it?' he said. Even Excel tilted his head, trying to ascertain the reason for PowerPoint's sudden shift in tone.

PowerPoint darted a look around, then beckoned both Word and Excel to lean in closer, forming a conspiratorial huddle. 'So he's at a meeting, right?' he said, keeping his voice low. 'You know who's running that meeting? The Creative Cloud. By which I mean, Adobe InDesign herself.'

Word clapped his hands over his mouth to stifle a squeak. 'Ms...Ms InDesign's at that meeting?'

PowerPoint nodded sagely. 'Yep. Must be some pretty high-flying project to get her involved.' He glanced around again, and gestured to them to bend in even further, until he and Excel and Word were almost touching foreheads. 'But that's not the big deal. I'm talking about the real reason why he isn't back yet.' He grinned, and a little of the manic gleam returned to his eyes. 'He's planning to ask her out.'

Excel's glasses slipped down his nose again; this time, he didn't bother to push them back. 'Publisher?' he said incredulously. 'Ask InDesign out?'

'Yep.' PowerPoint preened with the importance of conveying such delicious, exclusive gossip. 'He came to me the other day, asking me for some, y'know...presentation tips.' A little wiggle of his hand was all the emphasis he needed.

Excel snorted and sat back, folding his arms across his chest. 'Did you give him your default template?'

PowerPoint rolled his eyes to the heavens, and pressed a hand to his chest. 'X-Man, you wound me,' he said soberly. 'Publisher's my bro. I just told him to keep it short and say what he had to say. Like, four slides max.'

'Four slides max, you told him?' Shaking his head, Excel let out a long, low whistle. 'Great job, PowerPoint. They'll be scraping what's left of his source code off the ceiling by the time she's done with him.'

PowerPoint bristled. 'Hey, just because some applications like to stay at home all evening, double-clicking their own macros -- ' he began heatedly, but before the situation could escalate the sound of running feet and a shouting voice distracted him from further personal insults.

' -- Point! PowerPoint!' A blur of green and white skidded to a stop in front of Word and Excel's work area, and suddenly Microsoft Publisher was clinging to the lapels of PowerPoint's blazer, head down and wheezing hard as he tried to catch his breath.

'Hey there, Pubski!' PowerPoint wavered on his feet, arms lifted awkwardly in the air, looking like he couldn't decide whether to slap Publisher bro-fully across the back in greeting or attempt to disentangle himself from his fellow application's death grip first. He tried a breezy greeting regardless. 'So how'd it -- '

Publisher's head shot up, fixing PowerPoint with a wild-eyed, desperate stare. 'ShesaidyesbutIneedadoubledate.'

PowerPoint visibly blenched. 'A what?'

The audible keyboard smash of words had been hard for Publisher to get out, and his second attempt was punctuated with heavy gasps. 'She...yes but...need....' Finally, he inhaled deeply and held his breath for a moment, before letting it out with a forceful huff and trying yet again. 'She'll go out with me...tomorrow night...if I can bring along a double-date with her and...and....' He drew another breath, and held it -- but this time, he seemed to be hesitating, rather than making an effort to breathe normally.

'And who?' PowerPoint said, when Publisher didn't respond immediately. Word, meanwhile, was on tenterhooks, his gaze flickering from PowerPoint to Publisher and back again. Even Excel seemed curious in a trying-too-hard-to-look-disinterested sort of way.

Publisher couldn't hold his breath any longer, and his words came out in a rush along with it. 'And Dreamweaver.'

The reaction from his colleagues was immediate. 'Pass,' PowerPoint declared, firmly removing Publisher's hands from his coat and proceeding to smooth his lapels back into place.

'Hard pass,' Excel said, and turned back to his computer without another word.

'What?' Publisher clasped his hands together, fingers entwined. 'No, c'mon, guys, you gotta -- ' When neither PowerPoint nor Excel seemed likely to bend, he whirled around and stalked towards Word, all but backing him up against the wall. 'Word, you'll go with me, right?' he pleaded. 'You will, won't you?'

Word managed a wavery smile. 'I mean, Dreamweaver's really nice and all, and I know she works really hard,' he began, 'but isn't she know....?'

Publisher's cap was slipping off his head, and he had just enough presence of mind left to reach up and settle mostly back into place. 'Look, I know she can seem a little bit flighty, but I swear -- '

'Pubski, my man, it's Dreamweaver,' PowerPoint remarked, surprisingly business-like. 'What you see is what you get. And what you get is a space cadet.'

Publisher buried his face in his hands. 'InDesign won't go out with me unless I can find someone else for a double-date with her. I can't let this chance go by!' he wailed. 'I've been trying to get up the nerve to ask her out since -- '

'Thursday, October 3, 11:21 AM.' In the overall commotion, Outlook's sudden and silent reappearance at the edge of the work area had gone unnoticed, but the sound of his voice made all of them jump. 'When you replied to OneNote, copying Access, that you couldn't find the file they were looking for. Actually, you said that you couldn't find teh file they were loking for. And then you asked, in one of the most awkward paragraph transitions I've ever seen, if either of them knew whether InDesign was seeing anyone at the moment.'

Excel glowered at Outlook. 'You seriously have to stop doing that.'

'For internal security purposes, all of your communications are subject to routine monitoring, interception, and search.' Outlook pursed his lips primly. 'You'll thank me the next time someone tries to spear-phish you into revealing proprietary corporate data.'

Outlook's reply was met with a beat of awkward silence, but before everyone could start talking all at once, yet another member of their office suite sidled up to the group, evidently curious as to what could have sent the afternoon's productivity grinding to a complete halt.

'Hey, guys, what's up?' Microsoft OneNote shifted his overstuffed tabbed binder, in its usual vibrant purple, from the crook of his right arm to that of his left.

'OneNote!' Seizing his chance, Publisher all but flung Word to one side in his haste to capture his colleague's attention and interest. 'Are you free tomorrow night? Do you want to go on a date?'

OneNote blinked at him. 'Wait, what?' Some papers threatened to spill out of his binder. Reflexively, he used one gloved hand to shove them back into place. 'A date?'

'Pubski needs some extra processing power,' PowerPoint said, with a decided lack of tact. 'By which I mean that Adobe InDesign won't start it up with him unless he brings someone to dual-boot with her and Dreamweaver.'

'Dreamweaver?' OneNote looked thoughtful. 'I think I met her once, at some client meeting or other. She's into content management, right?'

'Yes, content management, yes,' Publisher said immediately, nodding so fast that it looked as if his head were about to come loose on his neck. 'She's all about, uh, user-focused collaboration.'

'Kinky,' PowerPoint said to no one in particular, though his face was the picture of innocence when both Excel and Outlook gave him disgusted looks.

If OneNote heard PowerPoint's remark, it rolled right past him all the same. 'I think I'm free tomorrow,' he said to Publisher. 'I mean, I do have the last two episodes of This Old Information Architecture queued up to watch at home, but I'd be up for going out for some good old-fashioned bonding over metadata -- '

'You all have seven minutes to shut up, shut down, and get your asses out that door before I log off and hand the keys over to the last app standing.'

All six applications turned to look at the newest arrival, with a level of surprise usually reserved for unexpected program errors. Like most database managers, Microsoft Access seldom emerged from his workspace for anything short of a network crash, but there he was, hands on hips, scowling at all of them from under his jacket hood with enough no-nonsense sternness to make even PowerPoint shift uneasily from foot to foot.

'You heard me,' Access said, when none of his colleagues made so much as a peep. 'You know what happens if you're around here after-hours, when it appears.' One eyebrow went up, an ominous sign, as he intoned a phrase guaranteed to strike fear into the core of any member of their office suite. 'Do you need help with that?'

The words had the same galvanizing effect as an antivirus alarm going off. PowerPoint was the first to bolt, vanishing in what appeared to be a sloppily inserted glitter transition animation that followed him like sparkles as he ran. Publisher and OneNote, less showy but no less swift, were hot on his heels, with OneNote leaving a trail of papers in his wake. Outlook maintained a little more dignity in his departure, though even he stumbled over his own feet as he stepped into Excel's mostly empty recycling bin and disappeared, taking a few discarded documents with him. Word flew to his desk, and Excel hunched over his keyboard, frantically scanning the document on the screen in front of him to see if he could finish it in time.

Satisfied, Access started to turn away, but paused before he could leave Word and Excel's area. 'Excel, are we getting dinner before gaming?'

'Yeah, sure, whatever,' Excel mumbled, preoccupied with a column that simply wasn't selecting properly. 'Be there in a few.'

As Access headed back to his desk, he considered the whole thing a job well done. Judging by the sweat that had started to bead on Word's forehead, right where his forelock veered off to the side, there was almost no way for Word to finish his project within Access's seven-minute deadline. Only a true database manager would be enough of a taskmaster to even suggest such a thing, let alone enforce it. However, tonight might well be the perfect opportunity to give Word sufficient impetus to really push his word processing limits.

Perhaps a certain perpetually helpful office assistant could give him the support he needed to get the job done.