It’s crazy how big office buildings have become.
When I was a kid, I thought anywhere with an elevator that went up to ‘ten’ must practically be scraping the edge of Heaven.
These days, that’s considered small; just a little hump in the city skyline, hunched between buildings easily four times that height. And that child enchanted by the idea of an elevator that traveled nine floors from the ground is long gone; waiting for them to arrive and depart so you can reach your much more distant floor is now just a mundane and annoying part of life.
Perhaps it’s ironic, then, that my story begins in one such ordinary elevator.
I’d been down on level twelve, catching up with a colleague. When I stepped into the elevator to head back to my floor, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary – just three other passengers already in the car, all dressed in business casual, just as I was. There was a tall woman wearing cat-eye glasses and a scarlet blouse under a smart jacket, her bright lipstick matching her top. The other two were standard shirt-tie-and-pants guys like myself, nondescript and virtually clones of each other, but for variations in height and shoe size.
“Hi,” I said to the woman as I got in.
She ignored me and continued tapping at her smartphone, her pale features a mask of feigned concentration.
As the elevator climbed, the awkward silence continued, and I regretted saying anything at all. Then, with a juddering, sickening lurch, we began to fall.
One of the other men yelled in alarm. I grabbed the rail and held on for dear life as the car plunged down the shaft. The woman dropped her phone, then crouched on the shaking floor, shrieking in fear.
Then, as abruptly as it started, it stopped, and the elevator ground to a jerky halt. One of the men started hammering buttons to get the door open, while the rest of us gathered our wits.
“Door is stuck, emergency call isn’t working,” said the button-masher, the taller of the two.
“Can we get it open?” asked the woman, her British accent thick and unfamiliar.
“With four of us? Sure we can,” I offered, curling the tips of my fingers into the gap between the doors.
With much grunting and heaving, we managed to lever the door ajar enough for all of us to squeeze out, onto what appeared to be a random floor full of office cubicles.
In that shared-experience sort of way, we joked about our close call for a few moments, before taller guy jabbed the button for another elevator in the row of four.
“I’m not sure this panel has power,” he called, “nor this one, or this one.”
He was right. We all punched the call buttons on the elevators repeatedly, to no avail.
The woman and I exchanged glances, and with an eerie frisson of simultaneous realisation, we turned to properly view the cubicles behind us.
Whilst we could hear the faint emanations of familiar office sounds – distant chatter, keyboards clicking and muted phone ringtones – there were no people here. The cubicle farm was utterly deserted.
“Which floor are we on?” she asked.
“Not sure,” the smaller guy responded, wiping sweat from his upper lip, “but this looks abandoned.”
Taller guy paced up to the nearest desk, “Maybe there was a fire drill? Could have been why the lifts failed?”
He picked up the receiver of the desk phone, listened for a moment, then put it down again.
“Just a recorded message. Some woman saying they apologise for any inconvenience, yadayada.”
“I left my phone on my desk,” I confessed.
“Same,” said shorter guy, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
“No bars,” declared taller guy, thumbing his device open, “and no free wifi networks. That’s weird.”
I remembered the woman’s phone – that she’d dropped it during the initial fall.
“Bollocks,” she swore, as she ripped off the back cover, then re-inserted the battery. The front screen was clearly cracked and the device refused to power up. “Completely dead. Must’ve broken it in that bloody lift.”
“Surely there must be a working phone somewhere,” shorter guy reasoned, walking a few steps further into the maze of cubicles.
“Or we could just take the stairs?” I pointed out.
Taller guy emerged from the side of the elevator well.
“Locked. Swipe card access only. And mine doesn’t work.”
Of course, none of ours did.
Taller guy introduced himself as John, a property manager, and his shorter lookalike turned out to be a Gary, which oddly suited the nervous accountant. The woman in red called herself “Sam, short for Samantha,” and she was a legal secretary.
We spread out through the cubicles and tried every phone, and we all got the same message; a woman with a transatlantic accent saying ‘All our lines are busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us. Please try again later’.
I registered how strange it was that the voice kicked in immediately, as soon as we lifted the receivers.
“Where the hell are all the people?” Sam asked. Her business jacket was now tied around her waist, her blouse stained wet at the armpits. She wasn’t the only one sweating, we all were – the heating was turned up far too high on this floor.
“I can still hear people.” I pointed in the direction of a faint phone warble. John had loosened his tie and undone two buttons, his white shirt now transparent with perspiration.
“People, or just office noises?”
We kept walking, looking for something, any clues. All of the computers were locked, and we were not surprised that none of our own login credentials worked. We were so far from the elevators now, I had no idea which direction they were in.
“This place is wrong. It’s too big,” moaned Gary. His eyes rolled feverishly. His tie was completely gone and his shirt was open to the waist, exposing a healthy rug of chest hair and a nascent beer belly.
He was right. The floor was too big. Far too big. I’d worked here long enough to have a feel for the rough dimensions of this building, and we surely should have hit a wall or window by now.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Sam breathed in frustration, hitting the speaker button on yet another desk phone.
‘All our lines are busy at the moment. Your call is very important to us. Please try again later’.
Was it just my imagination, or did the voice sound slightly agitated now?
Subtly different from when we first started picking up the phones?
“We could be going in circles,” John countered feebly, “we could just be lost.” Sam snorted and dropped the receiver.
“Oh come on. This place is set out like a grid. It’s an office, not a bloody forest. How could we go in circles?”
We couldn’t find the elevators anymore.
And as we kept walking, things were definitely starting to get stranger.
Some cubicles remained neat and tidy – perfect little office spaces. Others were overflowing with paper, stacks of it spilling out into the aisles. One was piled up with smashed computer equipment, and another was populated entirely by backless office chairs, stacked higgledy-piggledy into the small space.
“This is fucked,” hissed John, voicing what all of us were thinking.
Sam jerked her hand abruptly to her left, eyes wide, “Over there!”
We tracked her gesture and collectively almost wept with relief. There was a man coming towards us, the bright orange of his high-visibility jacket a welcome splash of colour in the drab greyness of the cubicle farm.
But something was wrong. He was walking too slowly, erratically. His face was puffy, red, and shiny with sweat.
And when he saw us, he began to run, lurching in our direction. His babbling was incomprehensible at first, but Sam put her arm around his shoulders and soothed him until he got his frantic breathing under control.
“Thank God,” he said, “I thought I was alone in here.”
As we listened, he explained he was an elevator tech, and that like us, he’d been trapped on this floor when the car he’d been working on had dropped several flights.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve been in here for at least two days, maybe even three,” he told us, “I’ve had nothing to eat or drink, and it’s so goddamn hot.”
He was shaking as he spoke, chapped lips pale against his florid face. I could see he was telling the truth.
“I saw a kitchenette just back there,” Sam soothed the poor technician, “we’ll get you some water from the tap – I think there was a vending machine, too.”
But no matter how much we jiggled the faucets, no water came out.
Gary poked his balding head under the sink, then came up, his giggling nervous, on the very edge of hysterical.
“It’s not even plumbed. There aren’t even any pipes.”
The vending machine also turned out to be purely decorative. John put an office chair through the glass front, but all the packages inside were empty. The shrink-wrapped fruit was made of shiny, hard plastic. ‘Display’ food.
“What the hell is this place?” I whispered.
Nobody answered me.
We strung out in a line, keeping each other in sight as we walked in one direction.
“We have to hit a window,” John reasoned, “if we walk far enough, in a straight enough line. Laws of fucking physics!”
I tried to make small talk with Sam, but she was starting to lose it, too. Gary had a pronounced facial tic that was growing progressively worse. The technician, Roy, was weak with thirst and hunger and had trouble keeping up.
By the time we saw the glimmer of glass ahead of us, we realised we had lost him completely. And nobody volunteered to go back and find him.
As we approached the window, a profound sense of relief started to wash over me; I could see blue sky, tall buildings, fuzzy clouds and the familiar hills behind the city. But something felt wrong.
“Parallax,” Sam hiccupped. She was crying intermittently now. Her heels were gone, her jacket abandoned in some distant cubicle.
“What?” Gary slurred.
“Parallax,” she said again, too forcefully, “that’s just a painting, it’s not real. There’s no parallax.”
She was right. As we got closer, the view didn’t change. I should have been able to see more sky, more ground. But the image was static.
John reached the glass first.
“It’s a fake,” he snarled.
The glass was real enough – the windows stretched out in a line along this wall. But roughly six feet outside, the ‘cityscape’ had been painted artfully onto what was probably a concrete wall. Below, the wall quickly dropped into darkness, the lights of our floor illuminating only that painted swathe of false hope.
“What is this place?” I asked again. I didn’t expect an answer anymore. It just felt good to say something.
Gary fell to his knees and started screaming hoarsely for help, over and over until his voice trailed off into something cracked and broken. Sam yelled at him to stop it, just stop it, and then began to cry again. John, his attention abruptly distracted by something, started to run back into the cubicle farm.
In the direction he was running, I could see a blonde head, bobbing up and down, trying to get away from him.
We finally caught her near the endless wall of windows, John and I cutting her off before she could escape.
It was a young woman, thin to the point of emaciation. She blubbered and begged us not to hurt her.
Dark stains spattered her white blouse.
“Who are you?” John demanded.
“You can’t get away from it,” she babbled, pinned to the ground by John’s firm hands, “he’ll call for you eventually.”
“Who?” John bellowed, “Who the fuck will call? Can something around here please start making sense already?”
The woman squirmed in his grip, feebly battering at his wrists.
“The Manager,” she crooned, the obvious instability of her mental state saturating every syllable.
A phone shrilled in the cubicle beside us, the ringing setting my teeth on edge.
The woman whimpered.
“Answer it!” John barked at me.
I pressed the speaker button, and we listened, as ragged, rabid breathing cut through the crackling phone static. After several seconds, a thick, heavy voice rasped down the line, “You have a meeting in ten minutes. Don’t be late.”
There was a yelp from John as the woman bit into his wrist. He jerked his hand back, and we watched as she scrambled to her feet and ran – straight for the windows.
She rebounded on contact, but the glass grew a massive, jagged spiderweb of cracks from the impact. She got to her feet, warbling triumphantly, then tried again.
This time she smashed through. She fell into the darkness, her trailing cry of terror and peculiar glee continuing for ten long seconds before it ended abruptly.
Another phone rang.
Sam picked it up reflexively with a trembling hand, and the same voice answered, gravid with suppressed violence, “You have a meeting in nine minutes. Don’t be late.”
We hurried away from the windows, not knowing where to go.
Phones rang around us. We didn’t pick them up.
We knew what they would say.
When they stopped ringing, we all paused.
Sam turned to regard the rest of us, her eyes huge, dilated with fear, “What happens now?”
As if in answer, a rumbling began, washing over the cubicle farm.
It sounded for all the world like a charging rhino was smashing its way through thousands of dollars of office equipment to get to us.
“RUN!” John screamed.
We ran like fleeing chickens. None of us went in the same direction, but we all ran away from the sound. It was close now, smashing and tearing through the cubicles like a tornado with a dust cloud made of paper whirling in the air around it.
There was a piercing female scream and a bestial roar of triumph.
I could still hear the sound of Sam’s bones snapping, and her gurgling screams, as I sprinted headlong away down another aisle.
Hours later, I found the mad blonde woman who had jumped from the window, lying in the main concourse. Her legs were bent at impossible angles, but the skin wasn’t broken. Her head was lumpy, misshapen. She dragged herself along the grey office carpet, still trying to find an exit – still trying to escape.
When she saw me, she stopped and propped herself up on her elbows.
“It’s a dream,” she managed, her voice cracked with dehydration.
“I wish it was,” I said, “but it isn’t. This is real.”
She shook her head,
“No, not your dream, silly. This is its dream.”
“The dream of that thing that came for us?”
“Stupid. You’re really stupid. This isn’t The Manager’s dream. He’s just a part of the dream.”
Her voice lost inflection as she continued, almost chanting now. “This is the dream of corporate corruption. This is the dream that mankind created when he built these monstrosities of grey glass and steel. When he filled them with mindless drones, daydreaming at their desks while they grind their lives away in sterile banality.”
“How do I get out?”
She laughed, a horrific, broken sound.
“Oh, you can’t. You can never get out. Once you’re part of the machine, you can only climb over others, backstab, sell them out, try to claw your way up to the top. Only those at the top call the shots.”
A phone shrieked in the cubicle next to us.
I found John, wandering, jumping like he was being electrocuted every time a phone rang nearby. “Gary is gone,” he whispered, “and I think we both heard what happened to Sam.”
“I think I’ve found a way out,” I told him.
“What? You do? Well, what the fuck is it, man?”
“It’s over there,” I said, pointing past his shoulder, out into the farm.
As he turned to view what I was pointing at, I picked up the desk printer beside us, and brought it down with all my strength on the back of his neck.
His legs went out from under him immediately.
The computer cables were adequate for tying up his ankles and wrists – I didn’t want him to get away from me now, not when I was so close to getting out.
When the phone rang, I picked it up immediately.
“You have a meeting in five minutes. Don’t be late,” The Manager said.
Holding the receiver in my shaking fist, I tried to keep my voice as level as possible, “See you in five. I’ve arranged catering.”
I heard him approaching, his massive, heavy feet slamming into the floor of the office with unbridled violence. He wasn’t chasing me; he knew I was waiting for him.
He knew that I was willing and prepared.
The wall of the cubicle I stood in was abruptly ripped away, and I beheld The Manager.
Perhaps he’d been human once. Now he resembled a shaved bear, the rags of a business suit still clinging to his wrists, waist, neck, and ankles. He towered over us, his slavering jowls wobbling as his huge nose sniffed my offering.
Backed against a set of filing cabinets, I watched in fascinated terror as The Manager fell upon John’s unconscious body and began to tear him to pieces.
As The Manager gorged upon the flesh of the man, shoveling it into his gaping, impossibly huge maw, I heard the innocuously cheerful ding of an elevator to my right.
The door slid open smoothly, and The Manager turned his mottled, fleshy head and regarded me with deep-set, piggish eyes,
“Congratulations. You’ve been promoted.”