Tuesday, 21 July 2015
The 82nd Floor
Howells had been trying to reach the 82nd floor since the previous afternoon. As usual, he woke shortly after five in the morning just as the first shafts of sunlight began to stream through the tinted glass windows. He absently wiped the drool from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and yawned. Other workers were beginning to stir at the desks around him, their newly awaken faces as blank as creatures of the Proterozoic.
Howells retrieved his notepad from the inside pocket of his jacket and reminded himself of his location. He'd made it to the seventy-fourth floor before sleep took him last night. Eight floors now lay between him and his meeting at 10 o’clock on the 82nd. He quickly flicked through his emails, trying to ignore the urge to delete the lot. Checking his diary for the day, he skipped over his 9 o’clock on the 27th floor, focusing on his 10 am and engagements following that. He saw he’d organised a corridor meeting with Jones by the water-cooler on the 83rd at midday, followed by a one o’clock on the 17th and a three o’clock training course at the learning tree on 30. Ambitious. After a while he was gripped by an overwhelming urge to piss, and he closed the diary. Phone and charger stowed safely back in his pockets, Howells pushed his chair back from the desk and made his way across to the corridor where the flow of workers was beginning to increase.
Howells fought through the traffic to the bathroom the other side of the thoroughfare. After queuing for a urinal and relieving himself at length, he queued again for a wash basin and tried to revive himself, splashing water on his face and smoothing down his hair which stuck up in a clump on the left hand side. He massaged his left temple, which had the impression of a letter R on it from where he had slept on the keyboard. Running his tongue over the back of his bottom teeth and feeling the furred gaps between his incisors, he spent a minute running his thumbnail along the joins trying to scrape out a little of the plaque which had gathered there and then set to straightening his tie and tucking in his shirt. Two basins over Carter was performing the same ritual.
"How's the family Howells."
"Good last I heard. I had a postcard last week. Jack's starting school next month..."
"Ah - exciting times ahead then! Coming to the canteen?”
“Nope. No time” Howell’s lightly fingered the sandwich he’d saved for breakfast stowed in his jacket’s inside pocket. “I’m heading straight off. On my way up to the 84th for a 10 o’clock”
“Haven’t got a chance in hell of making that on your own Howells. After three weeks here you should know that. Come with me. A quick stop for a bite in the canteen then together we can make for the lift.”
At this, the man in between us began sniggering to himself”
Carter gave him a shove “Is something funny?”
“Lift!” the worker scoffed “That’s a good one! Don’t you read company policies? There’s no central shaft. Lifts which only link certain floors together rather than running through the whole building prevent overcrowding and increase productivity by encouraging worker exercise. Unless you know which lift links what you’re wasting your time!”
“Prevent overcrowding!” Carter cried. “Did you hear that?”
Howells retreated from his basin, leaving the two men to their argument over the varying merits of single-shaft lift systems. He shouldered his way into the growing crowd to find a place in the surge of bodies. Swept along by the tide of workers he passed office after office, some still with workers slumped over the desks. He was heading reasonably smoothly for the stairs at the corridor’s end when a tidal flow caught him unaware. He nearly lost his footing and stumbled forward, the bodies pressing behind him knocking the air out of his lungs. He wasn’t a large man, but he managed to regain his composure and gather enough strength to force his way out of the side of the surge to the left where he picked up the current forward again. The man squashed next to him turned and, face far too close for comfort, especially given their shared plaque problems, spoke;
“Nearly lost you there partner.”
“Yeah - tell me about it. What was that about?”
“Coffee Machine’s been installed just over by the window. Damn thing’s been causing surges ever since.”
Avoiding any further major incidents Howell’s made it to the stairwell of the 75th floor, and left the stream of workers hurrying to their destinations. He hunkered down in the gap beneath the rising staircase and unwrapped his breakfast sandwich. He was just about to take a bite when a voice rose from behind him.
“I tell you. Management here I come.”
A second voice sounded just to Howell’s side
“I’m just not sure. It sounds like a reasonable system, but the company doesn't always…”
“Reasonable! Think of the time saved. No introductions at the start of every meeting. No pauses for latecomers to introduce themselves. VIS is the future.”
Startled, and aware of how precious his hidden snack might be, Howell’s hid his sandwich back where it came from. Now unwrapped, the eggy mayonnaise began to slide from between the slices of bread into the cloth pocket. He coughed.
“Ah… Hello there Sir” Through the dull light Howell’s caught a glimpse of a man. His hair was ragged and long, his face bristling with a dirty beard. The man clearly hadn't washed for several weeks.
“Err… Yes. The V…I…S…?”
“Visual Identification System Man!” The man’s eyes were aglow with passion. "Every worker is allocated a tag which they pin to themselves. They can then be identified because the tag..." He paused for effect “…is printed with their name.”
“I’m telling you Seymour, it might not meet with company approval. Just think of the printing costs” The other man was cowering from the feet of the passing workers. Similarly bearded, his head was badly balding, strips of mottled hair wisped lonely from patches on the sides and back of his scalp. He was sweating profusely.
“How long have you two been here” Howells asked, his mouth half full of the remains of the sandwich he’d now retrieved and stuffed in his mouth whole.
“I’d say around 3 weeks now” said the second man. “We were on our way to the Managing Time seminar on level 36, and realised we weren’t going to make it, so we popped in here so Seymour could tell me about his idea. He’s quite brilliant you know…”
Before he was waylaid any further, Howells mumbled his goodbyes and rejoined the crowds. By 8 o’clock he’d made the 79th floor. He rose the last few stairs and emerged on the lobby to find a vast green forest. Workers were slowing their commute to stare wide-eyed at the foreign world.
"...trialing this on the 79th before rolling it out across more levels..."
“Just when you thought they were out of ideas, the company excel themselves. Amazing ingenuity...”
“...I've heard that being this close to nature will make workers more relaxed and so increase creativity and productivity...."
“...closer to man’s natural self, ridding our layers of guilt and repression built up through the human artifice..."
The forest was a eclectic mix of flora and fauna. Vines stretched up here and there, reaching for the ceiling, desperate to escape their confines. In places they were beginning to creep up into the edges of the air-conditioning vents. Small pacts seemed to be made between plants - glossy Hederchium and Dahlia Imperialis flourished side by side. In other places a struggle was going on - in the centre of the plantation a large body of lupins grew tall, a floral city moated by other smaller plants. In places at the edge of the crop though, these other plants had begun to sabotage their rise. Here a rampaging Mentha Spicata was overwhelming the smaller lupins, over there a snarled lupin lay trapped by knotweed it's stem dangerously close to snapping, it's head pointing to the floor.
Either side of this jungle, the streams of workers flowed unabated, sprinklers soaking their shirts to their skins, some seemingly unaware of the water or the change in the building's environment. As he was bustled along, Howells noticed rogue workers in the undergrowth. Ties cast aside, their trousers and shirts stained with chlorophyll and dirt. Howells watched one woman as she stalked underneath a giant foxglove. Her gaze was wild, her bloodshot eyes met Howell's unflinchingly full of a kind of intense confusion. A return to the primitive culture of Homo Sapiens perhaps. Deep within himself Howells sensed a instinctive recognition of something in her stare that he couldn't place. A return to an age before language? A prehistoric urge to mate?
Their shared moment was soon broken by Howells forward motion and the growing crowds soon lost interest in the synthesized boscage and his progress sped up again.
He'd made the 80th floor by ten past nine, and his jacket was almost dry. As more and more commuters joined the throngs however, congestion became a bigger problem and frequently all movement would stop for a few minutes at a time. Chances of making the start of his meeting faded and then died. However all was not quite lost, he was nearing the stairs to the 81st floor by 10.25, and allowed himself a slight feeling of elation. He might make the end of the meeting. Better late than never eh?
Just as his hopes rose though, cries came from behind him, and an almighty surge swept him off his feet. Howells managed to regain his footing just as a second surge hit. In front of him, the queues were in disarray. Workers lay in piles, limbs protruding from the carnage at unlikely angles. He was caught up in a third surge as workers stampeded forwards, rushing over the crowded piles of bodies. Howells looked down at one man’s bloodied face, his jowls torn in places, his forehead swollen purple from lack of oxygen. He cried out for someone to help the man but there was no way he could be heard above the relentless sound of marching feet. He looked away as the man’s eyes turned glassy and he was propelled forwards again. Surges were hitting the crowds from all angles now as workers began to panic. Howells found himself thrown to one side where he lay on top of a pile of bodies with still more on top of him. He closed his eyes and must have briefly lost consciousness because when he opened them again the main body of the crowd had passed by.
Howells rose, shrugging off the bodies above him and emerged to survey the destruction. Workers - some alive, some dead - lay all around in bizarre unnatural poses. A strange bell sounded and he turned away from the scene to find that just 10 feet away from him lay an open lift. Climbing over the bodies, Howells managed to get inside the elevator just as the doors closed. Howells looked around him for a button. Up one floor to the 82nd, and despite everything he might make the final moments of the meeting. But no matter where he looked, Howells could find no sign of any buttons. The lift was sheer and polished on all four sides. In desperation he called out “Eighty Two” over and over, his voice rising hysterically until it died in a whimper. Howells sat on the floor of the lift and began to weep. After a while his tears dried and he began to take longer breaths. Now pull yourself together he thought. Maybe the lift is moving after all. Perhaps the feeling of desperation is for nothing. He rose to his feet and pressed his ears against the doors. Could he hear a slight noise of the mechanism or was it just his imagination? No there was definitely a noise, a slight whirring sound. The contraption was moving, albeit at a minuscule pace. He sat and waited.
After what seemed like a lifetime, the bell sounded again and Howells hurried back to his feet. As the doors swung open though a familiar sight greeted him. A miasma of roots and vines stretched before him, rows of lupins and delphiniums lined his vision. Howells loosened his tie, threw off his jacket and crawled into the damp depths of the jungle, a maniacal smile across on his face, his wide bloodshot eyes wild.