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*

Los Angeles in the year Twenty Something Something (carefully mumbled so as to still sound futuristic) was predominantly soot-black whatever the time of day and whatever the season. If you paid enough money you might have been able to afford to live in an apartment far enough up a megascraper to be above the smog layer; then, you might be treated to a dull yellow and orange glow during daylight hours. But you'd still need vitamin D tablets, and none of that would alter the deep neutron star colour that the building was painted. It soaked up heat and used it for power. At night the interior of the building blazed with fluorescent blue-white light but the architecture prevented much of it from escaping, like a huge iron termite mound lit from within. Were you painting the skyline, you'd start with a black canvas.

It was just coming up to 1am and Loki von Shad - who picked his name for the day at pseudorandom, just like every day (it was a social thing) - was hanging from a spider wire on the exterior of the Montserrat Building. If anybody asked, he had been told to say that he was cleaning the windows, and then use the ensuing confusion to kill whoever asked. He looked nothing like a window cleaner. No soapy water, no bucket, no window-cleaning gantry. He wasn't wearing cleaner's overalls, but a ludicrously expensive and advanced camouflage-capable armour suit which could protect him from a fall of anything up to fifty kilometres (he was two thousand metres up at this point). Also, it was Twenty Something Something and windows on the Montserrat Building were hyper-advanced enough to clean themselves.

The wall of the building wasn't totally vertical but an incredibly steep incline. Loki almost ran across its south face, navigating crenellations and neo-gothic buttress-like formations as easily as a free runner jumping short walls and cars. His hands and feet were full of electric glue which kept him attached.

It was 00:59:50am. 00:59:51am. Augmented reality goggles showed him a glowing rectangle two floors down - a bay window as big as a garage door.

00:59:59am. There was a skrash and the window exploded outwards and tumbled into the smoke layer. The window was shatterproof, bulletproof and bombproof; to break it, it had to have been physically forced out of its frame, taking substantial chunks of building superstructure with it. Then something else jumped out of the hole.

*

This something closely resembled what you would call a human baby in adult size, but the tentacles coming from its head suggested otherwise. Loki had heard about these beings, but had never actually seen one. The thought of being in the direct vicinity of it was startling, so much so that he was hit by flying pieces of concrete (which normally would not happen to a person like him). Legend had it that these creatures used to be actual human beings, mutated by a strange strand of bacteria that rejuvinated all biological matter it came into contact with. Unfortunately, scraps of the foreign DNA were then integrated into the mitochondria of those renovated cells.

Before he realized it, one of the creature's tentacles grabbed his right leg and ripped his electic glue shoe off, exposing bare skin.

*

Shaken by the explosion, partially blinded by a spray of concrete dust, and not-unreasonably distracted by the slimy grasp on his ankle, Loki should already have been tumbling from the Montserrat. But his suit was designed for rather more than strolls in the park, and responded to the adrenaline spike with extra power to the glue gloves, involuntarily locking his grasp to the side of the structure. A safety feature; but with the creature applying similarly inhuman grip to his leg, Loki might have preferred they both fall in the hope that only he (or at least, the suit) would survive the impact.

Weight-compensators whined with the extra load and the suit camouflage swirled in confusion at it tried hopelessly to blend with both the anonymous Supercorporation Black™ of the building and the lurid purple shades of the tentacles now working up the legs. Loki tried to focus on the inch-by-inch traverse to the recently-vacated window, trying but failing to smear against the pane below now slickened by the juices oozing from the creature, apparently wounded by the blast.

By the time he'd reached the ledge, the tentacles had found their way to his waist, but this could only help the suit's next party piece. With an arm looped reassuringly over the window frame, Loki could power down the gloves and reroute the juice to the camo system: over-riding the pattern matching, the suit dumped a good proportion of the backup power to an intense blast of white light - and heat.

With a shriek and an aroma faintly reminiscent of chicken, the tentacles - and their owner - were scorched off of Loki's body and placed entirely in the unforgiving care of gravity. Loki hauled himself up into the building, wincing as his un-protected foot found purchase first on glass, then more critter-juice. It hadn't been the subtle entrance he'd hoped for - the defensive flare probably visible even to those unfortunate to live below the smog layer - but the creature's presence confirmed the intel was good: this was certainly the lab his new employers were so interested in exploring.

*

Deep within the bowels of the building, relays were snicking open and shut with increasing levels of concern. Not only had the building suffered more damage in an instant than throughout its entire previous history (despite having been dramatically overspecced structurally, given its publically stated purpose of apartments and office space), but the surveillance cameras on the 513th floor were reporting something extremely odd. The AI was used to extremely odd things on that floor by now, but neither violent explosions nor bloodied disembodied feet hopping around were on the approved list. Worse, it was supposed to retain a visual lock on all specimens at all times, and iteration 256 was not just out of sight but outright missing, which the sophisticated situational awareness heuristics classified as a Bad Thing. Under normal circumstances, of course, when an AI had lost control of a situation, it was to notify the nearest responsible human. However, floor 513 was something special, and under no circumstances were humans to be involved. If the AI had had fingers, it would have crossed them at this point, and it silently activated a solitary, recently-added relay in a locked janitor's closet.

01:13:23 AM. Loki limped along. There was not much he could do about the uncamouflaged foot, other that wince and hope to finish his task rapidly before the surveillance systems tumbled to what the strange sight must mean. The collection of microcameras spread over his suit meant he didn't really have to do much except penetrate as deeply as possible and then get the hell out of Dodge without getting caught or killed, but he was painfully aware he was on borrowed time now. As he hobbled through darkened offices and dimly lit corridors, he was struck by the seeming ordinaryness of it all - no bizarre equipment, no portals to different dimensions, no room-sized cloning vats or banks of blinking lights - just boring desks with slightly outdated consoles and wheeled office chairs (did office furniture ever change?). Something extremely peculiar was going on here - which was to say nothing peculiar was going on here, considering a tentacled monster hell-bent on destruction had just exploded out of a horrifically reinforced window. Despite the apparent mundanity, he was still extremely cautious not to touch anything except the floor.

Making his way deeper and deeper into the building, his sense of unease began to grow. Fights and hostility he was completely prepared for, physically and psychologically - the tension of being on-edge for a quarter of an hour with nothing at all happening, on the other hand, was deeply unnerving. Surely, after all that commotion, someone would have noticed? Cared? Responded? A tiny voice in the back of his head was gaining traction, and the voice was saying one word: "trap". As he carefully threaded his way between a pair of cubicles, he caught sight of a sheaf of papers on one of the desks. The typeface was quite small, and he leaned in for a closer look. It read:

IMPORTANT BUSINESS DOCUMENT

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum...

Oh shit. Shit shit shit. That probably meant...

*

Loki sped up, the graphene endoweb of the suit couldn't reach his bare foot but it was still capable of massaging some life into his fatiguing leg muscles. The office must be a fake, but the lorem ipsum paper suggested that it was not truly supposed to be believed. It was a set, a stage that would serve as a background for whatever was actually going on here. If he was going to earn his pay, he would have to go behind the scenes. He thought for a moment: If this was just an artificial environment, there would be a service hatch somewhere, but it would be disguised. A mental nudge activated a sonar density scanner, overlaying the room with a blue-to-green field. He glanced around, looking for a tell-tale green patch that would indicate a hidden trapdoor. Nothing obvious, but wait, a cupboard to the side of the office that he had taken to be a janitor's closet seemed a bit closer to the turquoise than he would have expected. He came to a stop in front of it.

Up close, the fake cupboard was not that convincing. For an apparently flimsy cabinet designed to hold mops and buckets, a high powered surgical laser on the iris-scanner was a significant overkill. In fact an iris-scanner was overkill but Loki had met some paranoid janitors in his time. As with the business document, the lack of more than cursory camouflaging was rather more unsettling than if the owners of this site had done a half-way competent job.

As far as he could tell, Loki had three options. He could turn around and leave, but his employers might have questions about what happened to his suit and why they should pay for it to be refitted when all he had obtained for them was some imagery of office furniture. Alternatively, he could use the mimicking abilities of his goggles to try and get past the iris scanner and see what was in the cupboard, but there was no absolute guarantee the patterns his employers had given him would work and having his eyeballs disabled for life with surgical precision would not do his future career any good. Option three had the benefit of simplicity. It probably wouldn't work but it was unlikely to result in more than bruises. He stepped back, focussed himself and charged shoulder first at the closet door.

He felt a momentary snag of resistance as the building's camouflage tried to add more physical presence to the cupboard but adaptive systems had never reacted well to sudden brute-force attacks. He reset his vision to the normal spectrum and looked around him. He was in a small room, hardly bigger than the closet it had pretended to be. There was enough space however for an out-dated vision desk and a beige comms handset. Hesitantly, he took off his left glove and, holding it with his right, whipped it down wrist first. There was a satisfying smack as it connected. He examined the glove. The wrist was the same colour as the handset. Real then. Well, he had come this far. Loki replaced his glove, reached out and lifted the handset to his cheek.

The hindward sensor on his goggles registered a flash from the window and he felt rather than heard a low-frequency rumble transmitted through the building. An explosion, outside? Though he couldn't think of why, Loki had the distinct impression that its correlation with him lifting the handset was not entirely coincidental. A synthesised voice spoke in his ear.

"What happened to your shoe?"

*

"I lost it. It's a long story."

"There was a bomb in that shoe."

"I guess I know that now." The explosion must have taken care of the mitochondrial monster. That wrapped that up.

"You were supposed to blow up this whole floor. I've got a real problem here."

"Are you the guy who hired me or the building AI?"

"Sure."

"...'Sure'?" While speaking, Loki hurriedly removed his other shoe and hurled it down the nearest corridor. Because frankly, what the hell?

"There are... anomalies on this floor. Let's say... problems. In waiting. Homemade. Oozing. In bulk. Also, I'm strictly not supposed to involve humans in this. Living humans."

The building AI switched off the camouflage alternate reality layer.

"Oh!" cried Loki, relieved. "Portals to different dimensions, room-sized cloning vats and banks of blinking lights. Great!"

"Okay", said the AI. "I guess I have to be more creative. I liked that camo-suit trick you did earlier..."

"Camo-suit trick," repeated Loki, deadpan.

His entire suit turned beige, the same colour as the comms handset. Then the whole floor - furniture, walls, lights - turned beige. Then everything turned a bright red and began pulsing spasmodically.

"Ah, THAT camo-suit trick," said Loki. He turned to run, discovering the hard way that his left glove was now electroglued to the handset which was inexplicably electroglued to the wall. "Shit!"

He wrenched his hand out of the glove and bolted back the way he came, crashing into a wall. His breastplate gelled with the wall, trapping him like a fly-- he flailed for the two release belts and wriggled down and out of it. The whole world was blatantly about to explode-- some sort of EMP or sterilising ultraviolet bug zapper procedure. Harmful to living things.

He got back within eyeshot of the window just as a police spinner was ascending to level with it, fluorescent spotlights picking him out. He ran towards it, blinded, and leapt into space. One electrogel patch left. As he connected with the spinner's front right down-turbine, the 513th floor heated, overheated and then exploded like a microwave dinner.

"Smells like chicken."

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