Short Story – The Last Tour
I haven’t been writing anything for a few weeks. Just kind of hit a wall.
Sometimes, though, you need to just do something. And writing is something I just needed to do.
This week, I have a short story that inhabits a world I’d really like to flesh out a little more. The idea here was to create a world beyond the edges of the story. A world that made you go “whoa – what’s going on?”
The basic concept was a 40’s or 50’s elevator operator at the Empire State Building and the woman who operated the souvenir stand on the observation platform. It grew from there.
If you’ve been reading my blog and have noticed I’ve been gone for a month – sorry about that. Sometimes we all need a break. I hope you enjoy!
The last day was much like the first. Marty was much better at polishing the buttons on his uniform jacket and ironing his trousers but age had slowed him in the last forty years so he spent almost the same amount of time preparing his uniform for work.
He buffed his shoes until they reflected the light of the candles that lit the apartment in the pre-dawn darkness, remembering how every day of those forty years had been different, but also the same. The buttons on his jacket were the only piece of his uniform that were original. The rest had worn away over time but he would always remove the buttons and sew them onto the new jacket.
The new buttons were cheap aluminum. They lacked weight and dented easily. Marty had preserved the original buttons from every old coat as his colleagues had retired or quit or passed away. When a new kid had proven worthy of good buttons, he would present them with a set. He’d even sew them on himself.
He was clear, though. The buttons were not a gift. They belonged to Marty and when someone left the job, he got them back.
An old shoe box held ten sets of original buttons now. The only set still on a jacket was the set on the jacket he was wearing. He emptied the buttons into a plastic bag and shoved that bag into the rolling suitcase he used to carry his lunch and other work supplies like a toothbrush, razor, and some clean underwear.
He still walked to work every morning though lately it was more by necessity than it had once been. There were enormous piles of garbage that made the use of sidewalks impossible. Gas rations made it nearly impossible to drive refuse to the dump as dictated by law and the dwindling supply of law enforcement officers meant no-one was around to enforce the law.
Walking in the street wasn’t very dangerous since the public bus no longer even ran on a schedule if it ran at all. Besides, hardly anyone was left to go to work.
The lift building could be seen from anywhere in town even before most of the power had been turned off. It is hard to miss the tallest structure in the world. It is harder still when that structure is the only one still lit.
Jack, the security guard, waved him through when he arrived. The times when he would have to show his ID at multiple check points was long gone. The people waiting for him on the platform had been well vetted and so had he. Required security personnel required had been moved off world with the last tour. Jack was retiring anyway so he chose to stay behind and deal with the challenges Marty new the few remaining would face for as long as they could survive.
Marty stepped in front of his tour group with a smile. There were exactly thirty of them. Most of them were the last members of the government who had remained to supervise the shutdown. A few still had family members with them. A few were stragglers from the scientific community. There was even a last, lucky civilian or two.
“Good morning,” he beamed, projecting his voice enough so all could hear him.
“Good morning,” they mumbled back.
He’d led this tour hundreds of times and he put his hands on his hips in mock frustration.
“I think you can all do better than that,” he encouraged them, “Good morning!”
“Good morning,” they responded with slightly more energy than before. It would have to do.
“My name is Marty Beaumont and I’ll be your guide for the next one and a half days aboard the Cassleton space elevator. Your destination, as you well know, is the Tsoilkovsky platform in geosynchronous orbit almost 22,0000 miles above the surface of the Earth. We have a long time to spend with one another but I can assure you it will be a journey none of you will ever forget. Before we board the elevator, however, I have to give a brief safety demonstration.”
Most of the demonstration was a waste of time at this point. If there was an emergency, there were no crews to fix it. If the elevator machinery gave out halfway through the trip, oxygen masks would serve no useful purpose.
But this was the last time Marty would tell anyone how the oxygen masks worked and he felt he did it well so he wasn’t going to give it up.
Once the passengers had been loaded and their luggage secured, Doris loaded the concession cart. It had a selection of snacks available should the passengers run out of the food rations they had been warned they would need as well as some souvenirs like T-shirts, coffee mugs, shot glasses, and hollow metal models of the Einstein Platform made from the same cheap metal they used to make the new uniform buttons.
Marty hated those models. They had no weight to them. If you stepped on one, it would flatten without resistance. Worse than that, they weren’t to scale. Which was just lazy.
Doris always arrived about an hour before Marty to set up the cart. Like him, she wore a burgundy coat with shiny, gold buttons and gold stripes around the cuffs. Her gray hair was tied up in a headscarf to reflect a housewife from days long past. She wore a sleek, burgundy skirt with gold on the hem and insisted on high heels to complete the look.
Doris gave Marty a thumbs up to indicate the cart was secure and he pressed the button to close the doors and begin the pressurization procedure. Over the next five minutes, he watched as several lights toggled from red to green. When the sequence was completed, he turned to the passengers smiled once again, and turned on his microphone.
“It’s time for our ride to begin! Now I have to tell you that I’ve been a lift operator for forty years…”
And here he paused. After a moment he had long since judged to be the perfect amount of time, he spoke again.
“I know I don’t look that old. I’d like to thank you all for thinking it.”
Hi audience gave him the expected polite chuckle.
“But you know,” he continued, “even after forty years, they don’t trust me to start up this journey on my own so I’m going to need some help. Young lady, would you like to help me?”
A little girl in the front row who was holding onto a doll and eating potato chips nodded silently but with great excitement.
“OK, good,” Marty said, “take this.”
He handed her a box topped with a green button that was unlit. When she pressed the button, the green light would turn on. That was the entirety of the box’s function.
“Now,” Marty continued, “when I count to three, I need you to press that button at the exact same time I press my button. If we don’t press it together, the elevator won’t start, OK?”
She nodded solemnly and held her thumb over the button.
“OK – here we go! One. Two. Thr….wait!”
The little girl instinctively pressed the button and then looked shocked and ashamed. The green light flashed on for a moment and then she pulled her thumb away in an attempt to pretend she had never touched it in the first place. The rest of the passengers chuckled a little more.
“I forgot to tell you that I’m going to say One, two, three, NOW! You press the button when I say, now, OK?”
“I think I pressed it,” she admitted.
“I don’t think you did,” Marty assured her, “because if you had, the elevator would have shut down!”
Doris rolled her eyes. She’d seen this routine so many times, she could have done it herself. But not half as good as Marty.
“I’m sorry – what’s your name?”
“Good! So Missy, we are going to do it right this time and when we do, the elevator will start and everyone here will give you a huge round of applause. Does that sound exciting!”
“Is everyone here ready to give Missy a big round of applause?”
The passengers smiled and nodded agreement.
“OK, Missy, here we go! One. Two. Three. NOW!”
Missy pressed the button on the box and it light bright green. At the same time, Marty pressed the go button and the elevator began to slowly move upward.
The passengers all gave Missy a huge round of applause and she beamed with pride.
As always, he had them. On little box with a light and one excited little boy or girl and the 36 hour journey just got a lot more fun for everyone.
“We’re underway! Now as we slowly accelerate to our cruising velocity, I’m going to remind you Doris has snacks, drinks, and souvenirs available for purchase throughout our trip. Once we reach cruising velocity, I’ll also turn off the seat belt signs so you can walk around and look out the windows. Sunrise is in fifteen minutes and the views should be fantastic! I hope you brought your cameras! I’ll be back to share some interesting facts and figures about the construction and operation of the Casselton Space Elevator and Tsoilkovsky platform in just a few minutes!”
He turned to Doris and grinned impishly.
“Same old speech you’ve been giving forever,” she shook her head.
“You love it, though.”
“Nah. I just love it when you do it. None of the others could ever do this as well as you.”
Doris slipped her hand into his behind the cart so no-one would see. She wasn’t crazy about letting the passengers know her private business.
“You sure they’ll let us on the shuttle?” she whispered. “We aren’t rich, young, or important.”
“No,” Marty shrugged,”but we’ll make them smile getting there. I have to believe that’ll be enough. Besides, they know there isn’t power enough to get us back down.”
He squeezed her hand. “Trust me.”
She beamed at him. “I always have.”
Then her face turned to a frown.
“What?” he asked.
“You brought the damn buttons, didn’t you?”