Short Story – Office Work
It’s been over a month since my last story. The holidays and vacation kind of got me a little bit behind on my writing. A New Year always provides a good opportunity for a reset button to be pressed and that means it’s time for my first short story of 2017!
The world I worked on here is pretty crazy and I can see myself finding opportunities to create other stories using the same basic conceptual landscape. There are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the way society ended up where they are as this story begins.
Going in deeper on this world will have to wait. For now, I just wrote a stand alone tale.
As always, please like, share, comment, or ignore!
The stairs creak and shake with each step. I know they’re dangerous but the lower levels were cleared out years ago. If you want to score anything worthwhile, you have to take a risk and climb.
I couldn’t tell you how many years it’s been since the few survivors abandoned the cities to live in the few places that could still sustain human life. My parents don’t remember. Their parents didn’t either.
I don’t mind living in our camp. We have several solar cells that keep us warm in the winter and even allow for a few minor conveniences like watching old movies if someone can get a DVD player to work. The crumbling skyline on the horizon, though, is hard to resist.
Neither is the trade value of the stuff you can find in those buildings if you are willing to risk the stairs.
“Cara, I think thirty floors is high enough!”
I love Heather. She’s great at her job. Sometimes, though, she can be exhausting. All she does is complain. You gotta follow the rules, though, or they won’t even let you into the city. If you don’t have a Pillar, you don’t climb.
I get it, I guess. I mean, if one of these stairs gave way, I’d be hanging by a rope with no-one to help me down. Sure – someone might find me. Eventually.
“I’ve been up to thirty in this one,” I shout down to her perch on the 25th, “practically nothing left. Got to get to fifty to make this trip worth it!”
“Fifty? Are you out of your mind?”
I keep climbing the stairs. They are old but they don’t move show signs of weakening under my weight. Being small is an advantage in this game. Especially when you’re carrying an extra fifty pounds of equipment on the way up and maybe another fifty pounds of salvage on the way down.
At the forty third floor, the walls are crumbling and occasionally I can see straight through to the offices on the other side. You can tell a couple of climbers have been here but not too many. It helps that the floors are partially gone. I’ll bet Casey has been here. She’s the reason you have to keep climbing if you want anything more than the occasional score of an unopened ream of paper or an electric pencil sharpener.
Electric pencil sharpener. What a waste.
“Come on, Cara! If you go too much higher, there won’t be a rescue team that can get us down if something goes wrong!”
“If you’ve got a problem with it, Heather, you can go back down to the tenth floor. Maybe you can find a couple of paper clips under the carpet.”
She stays. I think she just likes to talk. I admit the company is nice. Even if she’s ten stories below me anchoring a line that keeps me alive unless a piece of shattered glass or rusted metal cuts right through it. Why is she here again?
There are fewer stairs remaining now. I have to make a couple of risky jumps with Heather on belay. Oh, right. That’s why she’s here.
I reach fifty and think about going higher. This one is only fifty two stories high and there could be something amazing at the top. That’s where the richest people hung out.
Everyone knows that, though. It means those few of us who are willing to go this high just keep going to the top. I might find something better two stories down.
“I’m at fifty,” I shout down, “let’s see what I can find!”
I’m about to walk onto a floor that is decaying and partially open to the floors below. There is a small but not insignificant chance that I could find a live mine left behind in the wake of the corporate wars that destroyed the cities generations ago. The windows are mostly missing and the crosswinds make keeping my balance difficult to say the least.
And she tells me to be careful.
“OK,” I shout back.
The wind is gusting pretty hard today and I strap a couple of magnets onto my shoes. They aren’t strong enough to keep me from falling if they have to hold my full weight but they can help me keep my balance on the exposed girders. In many places I can look through the floor at least three or four stories below. It’s a good thing I’m not afraid of heights.
Most of the corpses are long gone, even their bones having eroded away by years of exposure to the elements. I look for signs of where a body might have been, though. If you can find a belt buckle or some shoes, you might be able to find some earrings or a necklace. It’s the first stuff a scavenger looks for up here. No matter the state of society, everyone wants gold.
Nothing close to the entrance. That’s no surprise. I know I’m going to have to go further in to scavenge anything really impressive. I promise myself that if I find two staplers, I’m going to keep one this time.
About twenty feet away, I can see the door to an office that is surprisingly intact and closed. If someone had made it into that room already, they probably wouldn’t have closed the door. I figure it’s a good place to start.
Not enough slack in the line though. I go back to the door and shout to Heather.
“I need about thirty more feet!”
“I can’t give it to you without going up another floor and the climbing is too dicey for me to do it on my own!”
“Yeah, OK. I’m cutting loose.”
“You can’t do that! They….”
I’m not listening any more. You don’t succeed in this business if you’re timid. You are supposed to keep a line to your Pillar at all times. But up here, nobody is keeping track.
I unhook the line from my belt and attach it to the wall near the stairs. Between me and the door is an old hallway. At least it was a hallway. Now the floors are gone and there’s about six inches of a girder sicking out from what’s left of the wall and a row of cubicles on the other side. If I want to get to the door, I’m going to have to use that girder.
I drop my pack. The less weight the better. I keep a sack to hold anything I might find and I put a rebreather into my mouth. I don’t see any evidence this floor was gassed but if that office has any residue, I wouldn’t know until it was way too late.
I put my foot on the girder and test my to see if it’s solid. I’m a five-foot-two sixteen-year-old girl so I don’t expect my weight is going to have much of an effect. You never know, though. It isn’t as if anyone is testing these buildings for structural integrity these days. I wouldn’t be the first scavenger to ride one to the ground.
The girder doesn’t move at all. If I’m going to knock this skyscraper down, it won’t be here.
I move slower than I would like to because of the magnets. You have to really think about picking up your foot and decide where you are going to put it down. If you don’t like your footing, it takes more than a split second to re-position.
Sometimes safety is really inconvenient.
The wind is cold and keeps pushing me against the wall. I don’t mind the cold. Climbing around a crumbling remnant of history is hot work.
I do mind getting pushed against the wall. You never know if the currents will pull you the other way and a wall doesn’t provide a lot in the way of hand holds. Where there are holes, there are a lot of sharp edges.
When I’m about halfway there, I feel a backdraft that pulls me away from the wall. I can feel myself twisting and falling so I reach for the cubicle wall on the other side. With any luck, the cubes are still stable enough to hold me instead of crashing to, and possibly through, the floor.
The wall holds.
I’m now balanced with my feet on a six inch girder and my hands on the cubicle wall. I look down through the missing floor to see a mine was set off just below me many long years gone by. If I let go, It is at least five floors before I’ll land on a pile of debris that would appear to have enough sharpened pieces of metal to ensure anything but a soft landing.
So that’s not an option.
My feet feel pretty firm. I just have to figure out how to stand up again.
“What the hell are you doing!”
For some stupid reason, Heather is standing at the stairway door. She said she couldn’t make it. Why on Earth did she climb up here?
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I reply. “I’m checking out the view.”
At least that’s what I try to say. I have a rebreather in my mouth and all I can do is make a couple of gestures with one hand.
“I told you to be careful!”
“I was careful. If I hadn’t been careful, I would have fallen.”
Again, it’s just hand gestures. She’d be laughing her ass off if she knew what I was saying.
“Come back right now!”
This time I only need one finger for my response and I’m pretty sure she understands my meaning.
The only way I can figure out to get out of this bind is to step across the hallway and slide along the cubicle wall. It’s a lot more dangerous as the cubicles are probably made from aluminum and that means they aren’t magnetic. Trying to push myself back the other way, though, doesn’t feel much easier.
I step across the gap and pull myself flat against the wall. My toes are have only about an inch of space to work with. Heather is about to say something and I just hold up a finger – a different one this time – to let her know that commentary isn’t helpful right now.
Inching along the cubicle side now, I’m reaching ahead to make sure nothing will give way. Everything holds and I’m finally across from my goal. I carefully turn myself around so my heels rest on the edge and I reach across to open the door.
OK. I’m ready for this. I straddle the hallway with one foot on the girder, holding a little firmer because of the magnets. I use the other foot for balance. It all looks a lot more treacherous than it really is. if there wasn’t a fifty foot drop below, this would be simple.
I pull my picks out of my pocket and go to work on the lock. Getting the lock open isn’t the challenge. It’s doing a good enough job that I don’t trigger any booby traps that might still be connected. The tumblers click into place and I allow myself a moment to give Heather a thumb’s up.
I pull open the door and nothing explodes. It’s gonna be a good day.
I have no idea why I do it this way, but I swing my second leg across and step into the room with both feet. Now I’m leaning awkwardly with one hand still on the cubicle wall and the other one holding onto the door handle. I shift the hand on the cubicle wall just a bit so I can push off and I feel a click.
Clicks are bad.
I’ve just put my finger on a pressure plate and a mine has been armed. If I’d chosen a less awkward way to get across, I probably would have seen the plate. I blame Heather. If she wasn’t watching, I wouldn’t have been showing off.
I look back at her and I can’t say anything because the rebreather is still in my mouth. She can tell I’m trying to say something but she can’t even guess what it might be.
Finally, I just spit the thing out. My survival is dependent on a really stupid maneuver that probably won’t work. If there is gas in the office, I’ll probably have time for some medical countermeasures. There are no countermeasures for the bomb.
“Heather, my hand is on a pressure plate.”
“Oh god. I’ll come help you!”
“Shut up. No you won’t. I’ve got an idea.”
She looks at me awkwardly straddling the gap and I’m pretty sure she’s figured out what I have in mind.
“No,” she shakes her head, “that isn’t going to work. I can defuse it! You know I can defuse it!”
“Yeah. I know. I also know there is no way you have the skills to get here. I can do this. You have to trust me.”
She shakes her head again.
“Heather, listen, when it goes off, you can’t be standing there.”
I could tell the tears were coming but the time for arguing was over.
“Damn it, Heather! I don’t have time! You have to get back in the stairwell and get as far away from the doorway as possible. You’ve got until the count of ten! One! Two! Three!”
I don’t look to see what she does. I just trust she’ll move as fast as she can. Once my hand comes off the trigger, I had at least a second and at most forvever. These mines are old. It might not even go off. If it does go off, these old timing triggers were usually set at a second. I don’t know why they weren’t instantaneous. Maybe it was to give friendly combatants time to take cover. Maybe it was just…standard or something.
Anyway, I have a second. Or more. But I’m assuming a second.
On ten, I let go of the trigger and swing myself on the door handle. If I have my balance right, I’ll swing into the room and pull the door closed behind me. If my balance is off, the door won’t close. Or it will partially close and whatever body part is outside will be in bad shape.
If everything happens perfectly, the door should provide me with enough to shield the blast.
I hear the blast and felt feel door crash down on my body. I think I must have lost consciousness for a moment or two. I open my eyes and every part of my body hurts. It’s not a bad pain. I mean it isn’t an “I’m fucked” pain. Doesn’t feel like I broke anything but there are going to be a lot of nasty bruises. My ears still ring from the sound. For a little bit, the ringing is all I can hear.
Then I hear Heather calling for me.
“…Cara? Cara? Come on, Cara, answer me!”
I try to say something but I just cough.
“Shit, Cara, is that you? Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I croak through the dust. Then I clear my throat and say it a little clearer and louder.
“Yeah! I’m good!”
“I want to see you.”
“Well give me a second to get this door off of me!”
I push the door off. It’s heavy and my arms still don’t want to work right. Finally, I poke my head out the now empty doorway and wave at Heather. She’s covered in a little dust but it doesn’t look like the blast did any other damage.
“That was really stupid.”
I laugh, “it’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”
She smiles a little smile.
“What’s in there?”
“Well I didn’t have much time to look what with you insisting I talk to you first.”
“Shut up. Look now.”
I look around the room for the first time and it’s nothing short of incredible. The skeleton was probably intact and lying across the desk before the blast blew off the door. Now he’s on the floor and mostly broken into pieces. You can’t miss the nice ring on the left hand, though.
If that was all I found, it would be a good day. But there’s office supplies, a computer that might even still work if I can hook it up to a power source and a mini fridge stocked with tiny bottles of alcohol.
This guy also stockpiled staplers. There’s three of them.
I call for Heather.
“Anything good?” she asks.
“You have no idea. If we can get half of this stuff out, we’ll never need to go scavenging again.”
“We still will, though, won’t we?”
“Hell yeah. By the way, after that blast, there’s no way I can get back to the stairs. Once I gather as much as I can get, I’m going to have to climb down to the 45th floor.”
“Of course you are.”
“Meet me there! Oh, and Heather?”
“You’re going to have to carry the fridge.”