Author note on Australian English:
(some also applies to British English)

American/Canadian convention: spell out numbers below 100, numerals for 100 and above

Australian convention: spell out numbers below 10, numerals for 10 and above

The latter is also the convention my voice recognition software follows, so I will stick with this to avoid endless verbal correction.

Either double quotation marks ( " ) or single quotation marks ( ' ) are acceptable for dialogue. Published books here will more often use the latter.

Avoiding the passive voice is also something that is emphasised more in American English. It is not considered wrong in and of itself in Australian English, unless it is overly verbose or inappropriate for the context.

There are also some general spelling differences like the U in colour and similar words, the O in foetus etc

lift = elevator

Chapter 1

A surface so sleek you could slip right off. Silken slivers snaked through her hair-straightener at 6 AM. Her sharp-edged suit carved the air like a light sabre, leaving a vacuum in its wake.

Cindy hoped that shaping her outward appearance into a mask of unshakeable control might afford her a modicum of respect in the eyes of her boss. If she could force every hair on her head to stand to order, then she could become a force worth reckoning with.

Deep down she knew this to be a fantasy, and the only way he was going to respect her was if she grew a pair of balls, aged 20 years and dropped 40 IQ points - intelligence was a threat, not an asset, in this world.

Her meticulous morning routine took two hours. She planned the shade of her suit jacket to correspond precisely with the mood she forecast for the boss that day.

After her image routine, she only had time to grab a banana and pour her coffee into the thermos to consume on the train. This part only varied from day to day in the type of fruit and flavour of coffee.

Cindy had planned so definitively to not have time for a leisurely breakfast that she stored a plastic bag in her handbag to ensure nothing spilled on her perfectly crisp suit. She carried a spare pair of pantyhose and tube of lipstick to cover any image control emergencies.

After getting off the train at Charles Street, she ducked into the train-station toilets to check her face in the mirror, clean her teeth, reapply her lipstick, and re-comb her hair. She replaced her pantyhose and stowed the old pair in the plastic bag.

From a card kept in her wallet, she read positive affirmations: 'I am powerful. I am in control. I am Chief of my Dominion. I refuse to be subordinated. Cindy Shepherd ain't nothing to mess with!'

Her cheeks turned scarlet when somebody walked in and overheard the last bit, but she breathed a sigh of relief when they looked down awkwardly and scurried into a cubicle.

Cindy climbed the stairs, and opened her rented train-station locker, in which she stored her thermos and plastic bag with spare pantyhose. She would remove them on her way home, ready to replace the next day, as with every day.

She left the station to a white shaft of light that became the outside world. After a few blocks in heels her calf muscles ached, and she stared up at the shiny skyscraper that contained her office, dizzied by its height. The reflection shimmied about in the morning sunlight, invoking images in Cindy's mind's eye. Strange beasts, distant lands, fantastical flights of fancy. While aware that this was the product of her vivid imagination, Cindy got a funny feeling something extraordinary was brewing in that glass cage.

8:26 AM.

After entering the elevator, she pressed number 24, and could hardly breathe for the first eight floors until the majority of people had left. The last person got off on floor 21, which gave her three more floors to repeat her affirmations.

The lift doors opened with a satisfying bing! Cindy walked with a confident air towards her desk.

'Hi Bob.' She gave a small wave as she tilted her head to the side.

'Hi Cindy. You look hot this morning.' Bob was counting down the days to retirement and as a result no longer bothered pretending to be professional.

As per usual for the past few months, Bob was wearing sneakers and tracksuit pants with a T-shirt that read: I don't even pretend to give a crap. The T-shirt slogan changed each day, and grew ever more impertinent.

The only reason he was in so early today was that the eBay auction he was bidding on ended in seven minutes and 32 seconds, and he was determined to complete his box set of Buffy before he retired. He was not prepared to pay for home internet access until he could no longer use it at work. He left his wife of 42 years last April, and now had nothing left to lose.

'The offer is still on if you want a little something on the side,' Bob yelled out to Cindy as she walked past. She pretended she didn't hear him. Nothing was allowed to chip away at her Teflon exterior.

'Morning Ashwin, how is your wife?' Cindy asked.

He began to answer: 'Um, well, she...' by which time she had already passed his desk.

'Good morning Beverly,' she beamed as she walked past her desk. Beverly nodded before returning to her newspaper. Beverly had a thick forest of frizzy mouse-brown hair, and an unhealthy obsession with cats. Cats were more reliable than people, and would remain your friend no matter what you did to them.

Cindy's greatest fear was to turn out like Beverly, a crazy cat lady. This would have given her reason alone to straighten her hair each morning. Cindy, of course, had dyed blonde hair. Cindy, of course, did not tell a soul that it was dyed. Franco, her hairdresser, could be trusted to keep a secret, but just to be sure, she tipped him as well as he tipped her hair.

And of course, no office would be complete without the geeky yet somehow attractive and charming cynic: 'Hey Jesus. What up dawg?'

Of course Jesus was not his real name, but it helped her to flirt. She was a sucker for Latinos, and what better way to flirt than through stereotypical names like Jesus (pronounced hesoos).

Jesus received a great degree more of her attention than Ashwin did. This was a shame, because Jesus had absolutely nothing to say that day, while Ashwin could have told her that his wife was terminally ill, and that his son was booked in for a sex change operation next Thursday, and had chosen out the name Shalini for his new persona... her new persona.

Finally, she passed by the butt kissing assistant Gerald-with-the-bad-haircut, and could only muster a raised eyebrow in his direction before taking a seat at her desk outside the manager's office.

She turned on her computer, typed her password, clicked okay, and went to get a coffee and a glass of water from the kitchen while she waited for the slow and tedious start-up process before checking her e-mail.

Her coffee mug had the word Mondayitis printed across it. Her attempts at glib office humour was another meticulously planned strategy for fitting in to the office culture - a culture in which she felt like an alien invader.

After placing the mug under the nozzle, she pressed the coffee button. It was fortunate indeed that the very substance which made one's mind able to operate complicated machinery could be produced by pressing a single button emblazoned by the name of this substance - coffee. It was also fortunate that this was not one of those unfortunate days in which said machine, instead of producing the brown sludge of capitalism, replies back with empty filter, add coffee beans, or worse still error 5b - consult manual.

Cindy returned to her computer, and before she dared take on her e-mail, her calendar brashly reminded her that she had a team meeting at 9:30 AM. By the time she had completed her morning routine of carefully planned chitchat and coffee making, it was already 9:05 AM. There were five new e-mails in her inbox, and 29 new e-mails automatically redirected to her personal e-mails folder.

Phew. Cindy was relieved to immediately discover that the five work-related e-mails were all unimportant trivia that did not require any action on her part. She printed out the meeting agenda from one e-mail, and immediately deleted the e-mail about Gerald's birthday morning tea - March madness theme.

In an infinitely tedious office environment, people would go to incomprehensible lengths to try to derive interest and fabricate an air of chaos and craziness to infuse personality into the decaying cubicle farm.

The third e-mail enclosed an invitation to a seminar about strategic thinking. She would only go to that if she was desperate to get out of the office, or if they included a free lunch.

The fourth was asking people to nominate themselves for a role on the planning committee for the Christmas party. The fifth was from the manager asking her to file the attached document. It would have been quicker for him to file it himself than to attach and e-mail it to her with a long explanation of where to file it, so she thought this was a deliberate strategy to reinforce her subordinate position in a misogynist hierarchy. Technically, her position was not subordinate to most of the others, but in reality it was.

Then her attention was diverted. In her spam folder was an e-mail from 'Crote Inda Weed' which simply read: 'Cindy, Help us!' Afraid it was a virus, she did not open the e-mail and only viewed it as a preview before deleting.

9:25 AM.

She grabbed her things and walked to meeting room 24.07, opened the door, placed her carefully selected assortment of doughnuts on plates around the table, and sat down waiting for the rest of the team. She always liked to be early and organised, and glaze her reputation with doughnuts.