The Batter’s Story
My name is Jackie, and damn does it feel good to be alive.
Side note: Everything is going to hell.
I guess I should, like, at least start from where all this happened.
They left me overnight. Maybe they were trying to grill me, get my anxiety up. I don’t know. All I know is that they left me sitting in my cell until I passed out on the floor.
It sucked. That floor gets cold overnight.
When Security does come for me they don’t even bother being polite. Instead they yank me off the ground like a toothpick and toss me out the door. These guys are lining the outside like I’m a violent convict, and they’re not playing around. I get that they’re not supposed to exactly treat me nicely, since I’m a prisoner, but damn. Doesn’t mean they have to rough me up the way they do. I’m on my way to get a shot to the brain, so the least these jerkfaces could do is treat me like a lady.
Which is apparently too hard to ask. Whatevs.
Anyway, so, we get to the room. I recognize it because this is where I saw that prisoner get his injection. For the first time I’m on ground level, so I can actually see outside into the rest of the lab. I mean, nobody’s there, but I do get to see lots of tubes filled with pulsing growths. Creep.
I don’t have time to think about this long, since my ‘escorts’ take about a minute to get me locked in. Wrists, ankles, I don’t care that they‘re strapping me into the chair so much as it bothers me that they put that strap around my mouth. God. It puts a chill in my spine. I can’t talk, and pretty soon I won’t be able to think for myself. It’s like my whole life of questioning everything around me has led to this.
Like curiosity really does kill the cat.
Anyway, I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that they don’t cover my eyes, because the last thing I’d like to see before they mess with my head is the sight of some creep doctor injecting me full of Creep juice. Speaking of which, it takes him about five seconds to follow behind Security. They’ve literally just finished taping down my mouth when he gets here. The worst part? Dude’s acting like it’s just another day at the office. Yeah, whatever man, just get over here and finish the job.
He stops to chat with the Security guy, like he enjoys stretching this out. I almost want him to hurry just so I can stop hearing him yap. Anyway, he whips out a recorder from his pocket, only it’s way nicer than mine. Makes me kinda’ jealous, actually. He sets it on the table and starts talking.
“Begin recording. Doctor Rivera, Tower Date 515.14.22,” he begins. “I am currently receiving a patient into custody to begin Reinforcement. The patient is from Floor 4 and has been tried and found guilty of violations in the thought code. Recording pause.” He turns around and looks at me, picking up a massive needle from the table. You could practically cut through armor with it. “Young woman, your actions are a travesty. You have to be mildly insane to get thrown into Reinforcement when you’re from a floor as high as 4. Do you know the kind of privilege you’ve thrown away?”
What does he want me to do? Answer from behind this mouth strap?
He continues. “I’m aware of who you are. Doctor Coleman’s daughter.”
I just keep looking at him. There’s really nothing much else I can do. Still, he’s got my attention. The doctor keeps talking. “Doctor Coleman’s a genius, you know. I suppose that it’s not entirely surprising that his daughter would be inquisitive. Still, he should have taught you some discipline. Now we’re going to have to put some Creep in you, and after that, well, I don’t think you’ll be quite as curious as you are now.”
I can’t say anything, but one thing’s for sure: This guy’s a certifiable creep.
Rivera walks away, moving toward the wall. I know what’s coming next. He taps at the wall for and steps back as the panel slides open and a tray of the Creep slides out. For a moment he hovers over it with the needle in his hand when the Security dude suddenly says something.
“Doctor,” the big guy says, “Does it look agitated to you?”
“What could possibly agitate it? It’s too small of a sample to respond significantly to emotional stimuli.”
“Have you ever actually been in the Creep?”
The doctor takes a step back and stares at the guard. “Of course not. I wasn’t born for that line of work. That’s your job.”
“Right, and I’m just saying that I’ve been in the Creep enough to know when it’s agitated. Maybe we should get another sample.”
Rivera looks like he’s about to blow the top of his head off, but he slams the panel and that disgusting piece of muscle vanishes back into the wall. He taps at the wall and for a second you hear something like a vacuum sound. In a second, more Creep slides out. The doctor takes a step back, gesturing at the tray. “Is this good enough for you?”
The Security guard shakes his head as he steps away from the door. “I’m telling you doctor, there’s something wrong with these samples. This one looks agitated too.”
“Well I can’t very well go through every sample in the entire facility! Maybe you’d like me to play some music and make it happy? Or what do you think is going to satisfy the samples?”
I’ll tell you what will satisfy the sample.
The Creep lashes out from the tray and grabs the doctor, whipping around his wrist and yanking him toward the tray. Rivera screams as it happens and Security doesn’t waste any time. He whips out a knife but believe me – this is the most awesome knife of all time. He flicks a button on the side and suddenly it lights up orange, like it’s burning, and he jabs downward into the Creep. The stuff screams as he does this, thrashing and quivering like jelly before it suddenly deflates into this ashy black heap. Doctor Rivera collapse to the ground, panting like a tired dog, while the Security guard reaches down to help him.
He does this just as the room becomes bathed in red light. It flashes over and over, lighting up the entire laboratory. The worst part is the siren. It just keeps wailing and wailing, so loud that my teeth bite down onto the strap in front of my mouth while I brace against the pain. It’s so loud I can feel it bouncing around between my ears, rattling my brain. Rivera looks outside then back at the guard and asks, “What’s going on?”
Security hesitates a second as he looks outside, then yanks the doctor to his feet. “Creep Incident. Must be.”
“Here?” the doctor asks, the color in his face shriveling away. “On Floor 1?”
“We need to get you somewhere safe,” Security replies as he shoves the doctor by the shoulder, ushering him outside. I watch as they walk toward the far exit of the laboratory and vanish into the outside hall. The entire time I’m left sitting there, and all I can wonder is:
What about me?
Through the windows I watch as the Creep floating around in those tanks start to bubble and stretch, their tendrils lashing to the surface of the glass. They begin to ‘breathe’, expanding and contracting every few seconds, then quivering as they stretch to fill the tanks they’re in. I watch as one tank bursts open, flesh and muscle spilling out and down the side of the tank. I look down to my wrists, trying to figure out some way to get them free. The straps are built into the chair though, and no matter how much I struggle, I can’t slip free. I rock back and forth, trying to do whatever the hell I can possibly do to just get out. But the whole time I’m looking outside and watching as the Creep starts growing, spreading along the wall and moving toward the glass. Somehow it knows I’m in here. It’s coming for me.
The door to the lab flies open and a Security member steps in, and he’s rocking this huge tank across his back. The rifle in his hand is dripping fire and the only thing I can think of?
This. Is. Awesome.
This guy just opens up with it. Half the room is just engulfed by fire. He stands back, swiping his gun back and forth, and just douses the entire right wall. I don’t know who this guy is but even if I’m just getting one more day to live, I’ll take it. It’s not until I start panting that I realize I’ve been holding practically for a minute, and this guy, whoever he is, is coming straight to the lab. He stands outside the glass for a minute, tapping at some controls I can’t see. Only thing about this guy is, for Security, he’s kinda’, I dunno ‘, short. Especially compared to all the guys I’ve seen on Floor 1.
The door on my right slides open and now this Security guy is inside. I’m really starting to pick up on the fact that he’s a pretty scrawny dude at this point but, hey, beggars can’t be choosers. He doesn’t bother with anything else in the room. It’s kind of a relief to be prioritized once in a while. Anyway, he undoes the straps holding me to the chair and I practically fly into his arms.
“Oh my God,” I sigh, practically saying all my words in one breath. “Thank you so much.”
Guy laughs. I can hear it through his mask. Then he steps back, adjusting the strap and sliding the helmet off. Still, the moment his light brown skin comes into view, I already know who it is.
“Dad!” I scream as I launch into him again, and he laughs, but only for a second. He’s already motioning me to the door.
“Come on kid,” he says, heading to the exit. “We don’t have time to waste. We got to go.”
“Yeah, sure,” I agree, moving with him. He’s already outside when I pause, looking over my shoulder. Doctor Rivera forgot something. Finder’s keepers, right?
If you’re guessing that I stole his recorder… well, I prefer the word borrowed.
Dad shakes his head at me as I catch up, then slaps his mask back on. We’re out and in the hall and everything, everything is different. The white halls are bathed in red, all the doors are shuttered just like any other floor, and the floating screens that used to show commercials are keep scrolling the word LOCKDOWN over and over again. I’ve barely got time to process it as we move forward. At an intersection in the distance I see a crowd of Security just run by, rifles in their hands, shields on their arms, and a few of them wearing tanks like my dad’s got. He spots them too, and shoves me down a different hallway. I don’t know where we’re going but soon he’s got me in what I think is a Clean Up closet.
I look at him and ask him the only question anyone would ask. “Dad… what the hell is going on?”
He sighs as he takes off his mask again. “Nobody knows. The Creep’s been more agitated than normal, just nobody can say why. It started a few days ago when we started having power fluctuations throughout the tower. That wasn’t bad enough to start an incident but something happened overnight that got the Creep really just out of control. All we know for sure is that it started deep and it exploded overnight. We went from minimum Creep activity at midnight last night to a full blown incident within six hours. We’ve never an incident spread this fast. It’s even faster than the Stockholm Incident.”
“Your 16th birthday.”
My mouth drops. “Wait. So, that really was as bad as I thought?”
“It was the most intense and quickest Creep infestation we’d ever experienced. Until today. We got the Stockholm Incident under control by Floor 4 and it took almost all day for the infection to reach that high. This? Less than six hours and the Creep’s gone from below Floor 21 to Floor 1. It’s unheard of.”
“Dad… were you just going to let them shoot me full of that stuff?”
“Are you kidding me?” He chuckles. “I was already on my way to the lab when the alarms started going off. The only reason they kept you overnight was because I was arguing for your pardon. I kept telling them that the only reason you were so curious was because you were so smart. When all that fell through, well, sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. Authority doesn’t always make all the right decisions. They’re a system. They don’t know what it’s like to bend for exceptions.”
“Okay but, just so you know, they were literally about to inject me when the alarms went off.”
“Hey, everything worked out, didn’t it?”
I shake my head. Dad loves me, but he’s always played it kinda’ loose. “Yeah. Guess it did.”
“Anyway, how are you feeling? Are you ready to get out of here?”
“Where exactly are we supposed to go if the Creep’s everywhere?”
“I… don’t know, exactly. We can’t stay on Floor 1. They’ll come back for you once they’re done pushing back the Creep, and then they’re going to get on with the process. We have to move you deep. For now we just need to get you off this floor.”
“That sounds good and everything, but how?”
“Jackie, we’re in a Clean Up closet. At least a kind of one.”
So, dad’s a pretty smart guy, and it takes me up until now to realize that there’s a reason he’s hauled me over here. Taking a look over my shoulder I see that the grate here’s already been popped open. Still, there is a Creep infestation happening. I look from the grate back to him. “Uh, do you really think that it’s safe to go down that way?”
“We know the route the Creep is taking. It’s coming straight up the primary staircase and more than a few old elevator shafts. No sign of intrusion through the vents though. So far what we’ve been able to determine is that something broke down the old blockades on stairwell access so the Creep’s got free run through those.”
“Dad… Dad I don’t know about this.”
He stares at me for a second, then back to the door. “We can’t go into those halls, Jackie. It’s the only way. If you see anything suspicious, just come right back. As long as you don’t panic if you do see the Creep, it shouldn’t react to you immediately. It’s psychoreactive.”
“Psychoreactive. It reacts to the psychological state of a person, primarily negative emotions. Fear, sadness, panic, those sorts of things can produce incredibly strong reactions. If you do see anything, just back away slowly and retrace your steps. I promise you, it’ll be okay.”
I mean, he’s probably right. There’s no way to go through those halls. Security’ll get me for sure. At the same time I just don’t want to be stuck in a tube that could flood up with living tissue at any moment. Kinda’, you know, just one of my peeves. No freaky muscle goop on Jackie. Anyway, he sees I’m hesitating, so he holds up a hand and says, “Okay, wait. I’ve got it. I’ll go to one of the security lockers and get a flame gun. That way, if you do see any Creep, you can at least push it back. How does that sound?”
It sounds like a big hell yeah. What I actually say is “Yeah. Okay. Thanks dad.”
He takes off through the closet and I have a few minutes to get myself psyched up. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I think it’s working. Talking on this recorder’s helped.
Hold on. Someone’s at the door.
If I get through this day, I’ll be happy.
Dad was right. The vents weren’t infested. Floor 4, on the other hand, was a completely different situation.
I popped out into a Clean Up closet on a far end of my wing I normally don’t go to which, you know, wouldn’t have been such a problem except for the Creep dripping from the ceilings. My floor looks nothing like what it normally does. Instead it looks a lot more like Floor 16 or worse. All the doors are sealed up and, for the first time, I’m asking myself how the heck dad is ever going to get down here. Also, I haven’t really had time to think about it but, how is he supposed to meet me down here?
Actually, thinking about dad brings up another question.
Does mom even know what’s going on?
I mean, right? She’s always so out of it.
Trying to get back to my room is like working your way through a minefield, except all the mines are made of child size growth of muscle and tissue. As I dance between all the growth, trying to make my way to my room, I suddenly slip. Something grabs my leg and yanks me toward the wall. I turn to see a Creep tendril tightening around my ankle until I feel like screaming. Instead I douse it with fire. The thing screeches back, that terrible scream that I find it hard confessing that I’m getting used to. I’ve heard it enough, though, and really, it’s my life or theirs. Or its.
I keep sprinting for home. So, this is how you know just how bad it is. As I’m running back I accidentally head first into someone from Security. He looks me up and down, says nothing, like he doesn’t even tell me to go to my room, and just runs off. Something big’s going down. Anyway, I know I’m at least safe for the moment. At least, safe from Security. The Creep’s another story.
At least with all the distractions I’m able to find my room. Even with the shutters down outside, my keycard works on the outside access and I stumble inside. Sometimes you’re just grateful for the small things. Like, you know, your life.
Anyway, mom’s there, and for once she doesn’t look either depressed or super insane happy. Actually, she looks kind of worried as she moves over to me. She warps me up in her arms and I’m actually bit, I dunno’, concerned. The one thing mom isn’t is affectionate. Still, I’m just glad to see her, so the least I can do is hug her back. She pulls away after a second and looks me over.
“Jackie,” she says, shaking her head, “Jackie you had me so worried.”
I honestly don’t know what to say. It’s my mom. What do you say to your mom? “Sorry,” is the best I can get out. “You knew what happened?”
“What do you think I am? Of course I knew. Do you think I’m oblivious?”
I shrug because… yeah. “Well, lots of times you act like , I duno’, like your… weird. Like on drugs or something. It really throws me off.”
She holds up a finger to her lips and steps away, moving to the tablets on our counter. She hands up one and starts typing something on hers. It takes just a second and then she turns it around, showing the screen to me. It reads, “They listen to this apartment.”
I kinda’ stare at her for a second, then I look down at my tablet. I get it. I look down and type back on my tablet before turning it to her. Mine says, “Why? Are you guys important? I thought dad worked on solar panels.”
She replies, “Yes, as part of his common job. The truth though is that he is the head scientist in charge of researching the Creep. I’m one of the lead chemists that works on Voluptas. Your father spends so much time away from home to avoid monitoring. We don’t talk much because we write to each other. And I act a certain way to make them think I’m high. Because that’s better than being too smart.”
This is like, totally blowing my mind. “Wow.”
“I’m sorry life is like this for you.”
“It’s O K. But what do we do now?”
“I don’t know. Your father wants to take you to the lower levels. There are people there that run away from Tower Authority. But right now it’s overrun.”
Life in the lower levels? When would I see my parents? “How is dad supposed to get down here?”
“He’s dressed like Security. He’ll sneak through with them. Your father is very smart.”
“Yeah I’m sorta’ figuring that out.”
We both glanced away as a sound caught our attention. Before I could even turn I saw Security rushing in from the corner of my eye. I whipped the flame gun dad had given me and turned it at him, tightening my finger on the trigger. “Hold it jerkface!” I screamed as I pointed it in his direction. The guy jumped backward, raising his hands up and cowering against the door.
He whipped his helmet off and I felt terrible. Dad. Of course. I was about to barbeque my own father. He held up his finger and pointed to the ceiling. I nodded and turned to mom, who passed us the tablets. He quickly tapped away on his and flipped it toward me.
“Security is focusing on the lowest floors,” it said. “Get something to defend yourself with against the Creep. We leave in twenty minutes.”
“Got it.” I sprinted into my room and looked around. I already knew I didn’t have much to protect myself with, but that didn’t mean I was entirely defenseless. I had the shin and forearm guards I used, not to mention the knee and elbow guards. Hey, when you’re young you take whatever defense you can get in the middle of a creepy ‘living muscle emergency’ scenario. There was a catcher‘s mask from when I played baseball but it scared me to think that I’d be limiting my vision. Instead I just tucked on my baseball cap and grabbed my bat. It’s the best I could ask for.
I thought it’d be the last time to record before… I dunno’. Before really bad things started happening, either because of Security or the Creep. So, future self, or anyone else listening, please excuse the really loud music blaring in the background.
I just don’t like it when people listen in on me without my permission.
A Creep growth pops like an overgrown zit when you hit it with a bat.
It. Is. Awesome.
Dad led the way as we charged down the hall, his flamethrower igniting everything in its path. Every hall we turned we could see Security just lighting up with those things, that or firing with their guns into overgrown growths that were piling up in the halls. I know we have a lot of Security to take care of the tower but it was becoming pretty obvious that, in a situation like this, they were too busy worrying about their own necks to think about a girl like me. Especially since my dad looked like a Security guy himself, just out escorting a girl home. Uh, well, an escort through incredibly violent biomass growths.
But hey, who doesn’t go through that situation at least once in their lives?
The stairwell itself was nothing like I’d imagined. The inside was just… gross. The Creep had been scoured clean but had left this gross, ashy puddy all over the place. The gritty goop slid down the stairs and I nearly slipped a few times as we rushed down. Can you imagine falling into that gunk?
Three showers for me, thanks.
He waved me on, leading me through the stairwell as he talked. “They’ve got men from Floor 17 down just swarming the place. Nobody knows for sure where the infestation is concentrated but so far everyone’s stretched thin. They’ve deployed I don’t know how many Security to the lower floors and they’ve completely sealed off Floor 1.”
Dad stopped, turning to me. “Final Resort Protocol. In case of total tower infestation, deploy the majority of Security to the lower floors to regain control. As a final measure, seal off all vents, elevator shafts, and doorways leading into Floor 1.”
“Jackie, Floor 1’s got its own gardens and power source. It doesn’t need the rest of the tower. They can survive indefinitely as long as they can clear the floor of Creep, which they have.”
My cheeks started to burn. “They’re abandoning the rest of the tower?”
“No. They’re telling Security to try and retake the tower. If they succeed, well, I’m sure Tower Authority will reopen Floor 1. If Security fails… then, okay, Floor 1 stays sealed and Tower Authority endures. Just, with a lot less people.”
“Dad, this isn’t a joke. This is the human race! “
“Well, we don’t know that,” he said with a huff. “But that’s a discussion for another time.
“Dad?” He was already sprinting down the stairs again. “Dad, we have to do something.”
“What can we do Jackie?”
“I don’t know! Try and help? Try and stop the Creep?”
He waved me off as he continued racing downward. “It could be anywhere, Jackie.”
“Dad, stop.” He kept going and finally I had to scream. “STOP!”
He paused and heaved, but barely turned to look at me. “Yes?”
“You’re not stupid. Mom told me you’re, like, the Creep expert. I know you know where the source of this is coming from.”
“Jackie it’s the largest single invasion of Creep. I have ideas but I’m not about to get you involved with them.”
“Fine,” I agreed, shrugging my shoulders. “Then I’m not moving. I’m sitting right here until the Creep gets me. How you like them apples?”
He tried to grab for me but I raised my bat. Of course I wasn’t going to hit him. Duh. I just had to, you know, show I was serious. “Dad,” I told him, “I’m not going anywhere. We have to fix this.”
For a minute he looked at me, then back down the stairs, then back at me. Even behind his mask I could tell he’d given up. “What’s happening right now is what we call an Emotional Resonance Cascade. The Creep feeds on human emotions, like I told you. Exceptionally powerful human emotions, though, can ‘resonate’ through the Creep. That causes a cascade in which, as one part of the Creep gets agitated, another part gets agitated. Normally it wears itself out. This one isn’t.”
“Why? We solve that, we save the world. Or, at least the tower. But that’s basically the world, am I right?”
He just shook his head. “The reason this cascade isn’t failing is because someone is keeping it going. Someone is causing it to continue. Someone in a lot of pain.”
“A person? Like, a human? One of us?”
“Well, sort of. They used to be.”
“Wait.” I looked past him, down the stairs, then back up the hall. “Dad, where’s the source of the cascade coming from now?”
“Want to take a guess?”
“No.” I sighed. Of course. Of course. This is my life. “Floor 16?”
“I thought… Dad, you told me she was just a bad story parents told their kids.”
“Would you have really been able to sleep well at night if I’d told you that Creep can infest living people under the right circumstances, and that for over a century we’ve isolated the north wing specifically because she can consciously control the Creep?”
“Daaaamn it,” I cried as I dropped my head. “She can do what?”
“Well, she’s awake now, so that means she can consciously interact with the Creep. Normally people absorbed into the Creep die, you know that. When they come into general contact with the Creep, it has psychological effects on them. In rare cases, it grows on them and they become a single being in a symbiotic relationship. Sally’s a little different. She’s still consciously aware of herself and her surroundings, sort of. As long as she doesn’t get emotionally agitated, she’s fine. Once she does, though, you can have to get her under control.”
“And how do we do that?”
“Last time it took a hundred men and a lot of firepower. This time, I just need to get this into her,” he said, reaching into a pouch in his tactical vest and removing a needle. The fluid inside seemed to glow slightly as he waved it around before putting it back in place. “We’ve been working on this a long time. When introduced into the Creep it has a pretty significant effect. Unfortunately we don’t have the chemicals to make much of it, so we can only produce slight doses. This will be enough to put down Sally though.”
“So when Sally goes down, so will the infestation?”
He nodded. “She’s the only reason that it’s still going.”
I took in a deep breath, then tapped the gun still hanging at my waist. “Guess I’ll need this too.”
“As much as I’ll need this,” he replied, hefting his flamethrower. He paused for a second when he did, then lowered it. “Actually kid,” he continued as he pulled out the needle again, “You better take this.”
“Because I’m the one carrying the heavy duty weapon. I can keep her down with this, but someone’s going to need that needle.”
“You… you want me to inject her?”
Jerkface. That’s all he needed to say. “No,” I replied, scooping the needle from him and shoving it into the satchel at my side. “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”
See, now, the plan was all set. We were good. Really. We got to Floor 16, everything’s fine, and then we open the door onto the hallway.
Nothing but guns everywhere.
We just see nothing but Security, a whole row of them aiming at us. Then, in the middle, is a guy dressed in this blue skintight uniform. It’s kinda’ like the ones the people on Floor 1 wear, just a different color. Thing is, I recognize him.
My dad does too. “Judas Abbott,” he says through his mask.
“Doctor Coleman,” he says with that smug look of his. His bone white hair is really in fine form today, like he made sure to put extra conditioner in it. “We knew you’d be heading this way.”
Dad slips off his mask. “You knew we’d come this direction. How?”
“As much as I hate to admit it, we’re not equipped to deal with the Creep without you. You are, of course, the only researcher with your level of knowledge on the subject. Be that as it may, we’re not idiots. We analyzed your files and decoded your suspicions about where the Emotional Resonance Cascade might be stemming from.”
“And you want my help.”
“What about my daughter?”
Abbott pushes his fingers to his face, squeezing at the bridge of his nose. “Authority is prepared to rehear her case.”
“I want her declared innocent, Abbott, or you can deal with Sally yourself.” For the first time in my life, dad’s acting really cool. Too bad it has to come at the apocalypse.
“You know I have no say in her verdict.”
“I know Authority is listening to us right now. Or aren’t you wearing a Listener?”
Abbott looks really annoyed by this and he taps at his eardrum, as if he’s listening in on a different conversation. After a second he looks back up at us, faking that gross creeper smile our way. “Congratulations, doctor. Authority will withdraw the accusation of Violation of Thought.”
“And the others accusations?”
“Doctor, they were accusations of the lower order. Surely this suffices.”
I look up at my dad. “What does that mean?”
He smiles. “They can’t afford to let you go without some form of punishment. If they did, Authority wouldn’t be Authority. They have to live by their code. But you can only be sentenced to Reinforcement for a violation of a higher order.”
“Wait. I remember when Danny was reinforced. Why did he…?”
Dad looks at me at takes a knee, wrapping an arm around me. “Your trial was broadcast throughout Floor 1. They all are. Everyone gets a sentence of a higher order because they always find a way. It makes for good entertainment.”
“Now that Authority’s declared that you can go free, they can market it on Floor 1 as showing their great mercy. Believe me, it works out for them too.”
I want to say, this is completely screwed up. Instead I just nod. “Okay.”
Dad gets back up to face a clearly bored Abbot and says, “I concede.”
“Fantastic,” he says with a nod as he beckons toward his Security team. They circle around us and push us forward, dad leading the way as he guides us all deep into the maze the is the north wing of Floor 16. He replaces his mask back on his head as we go, his weapon clutched in his hand. As we go, large clusters of the Creep are visibly breaking break through the floor or walls. Security fans out to drive it back, igniting huge patches of growth in fire.
Dad points from one to the other. “This is all being broadcast. Abbott’s wearing a Listener, which does more than just listen. It records everything visual, too.”
“What? We have the technology for that? Why don’t the Scavengers wear them?”
“Who says they don’t,” he replies with a heavy breath. “They just don’t know it. We get constant feeds of the Scavenging. You know how everyone on the lower floors gets to play the games and do the tallies? How they celebrate when the Scavengers are out there?”
“Floor 1 has a different way of doing it. Each person on a Scavenging team has a Listener, they just don’t know it. Secretly, Authority enjoys it when a few Scavengers die. It keeps people invested in it, gives it high stakes. So they don’t necessarily give the teams all the best technology to survive with. Everything is divided in this tower though, Jackie. The video feeds go through a central planner. He decides what looks like scientific material and what looks like good entertainment. If it’s scientific it gets sent to me. If it’s entertaining it gets sent to editors that cut it and make it look good for the broadcasts. After that he forgets whatever he saw by stuffing himself with Voluptas.”
“Because this tower survives by forgetting the past, Jackie. That’s just how it is. People on the lower levels don’t have to care about it so much because they’re kept ignorant. On Floor 1, though, people are exposed to a lot of sensitive information. That information even filters down all the way to Floor 4, to people like me or the Morale officers. That’s why we have access to Voluptas. Your mom pretends to take it so that Authority will assume she doesn’t know anything. If you know too much, you’re a threat.”
“I don’t get it, dad. Why do we have to forget?”
He just shakes his head. “I don’t know, Jackie. The reason why was forgotten long before I entered Science. All I know is that something happened a long time ago that got us here, and Authority is dead set on making sure we don’t get too curious about what’s in the Darkness. Because they truly believe that one day, we’re going to get saved from the skies. Just like the verse says, ‘They will be taken out of Darkness and into the light.’”
“That’s literally the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
He laughs. “Yeah well… I’m not going to argue that.”
It’s pretty obvious we’re getting into some far out sections of the tower. All the doors are lit red, which means that nobody’s living here. I mean, just the fact that the shutters aren’t working should tell you that it’s been a while since anyone has done maintenance in this wing.
It’d be a lie if I said that’s the worst part though.
I look up as we’re walking and catch sight of a big Creep growth. At first I just shrug. It’s Creep, big deal right? That’s sorta’ what Floor 16 does. Creep.
Then I take a good look inside.
It’s a guy. Well, a skeleton, and it’s pretty clear he’s covered in what used to be Security gear. I mean, the helmet’s halfway evaporated and the clothing’s all ripped up, but it’s obviously Security gear. It almost makes me gag before I can look away, and dad grabs my shoulder to brace me.
“Hold on there kid,” he says, squeezing me with his hand. “That’s just a natural effect of the Creep absorbing nutrients.”
“God, it’s like it’s feeding.”
“Well. It kind of is.”
That doesn’t help and I’m about to wretch again when we all stumble forward. The floor shakes and sends us tripping but, apparently, I should give Abbot more credit, since he manages to be the only person that stays on his feet.
I mean, he can’t be a Scavenger commander just because he’s a total ass.
Everyone recovers quick enough to see a flood of Creep rush into the upcoming intersection. The stuff’s like a living wall and it slows and recedes until the figure of a person is all that’s left. She’s got long hair, like, down to her knees. It does this creepy bangs thing where it covers the upper part of her face, down over her eyes before flooding backward along her back. The girl’s skinny, too.
Whatever skin she has looks like living Creep and it’s pulled so tight that you can make out the bones in her chest and hands.
This is what happens when you take a diet too far, kids.
And I’m not sure what she’s wearing but it looks like some sort of sundress. I don’t know how it’s kept any color but it’s still a faded pink. The thing that really stands out about her though? That smile. She just keeps grinning at us with this smile that stretches too far across her face, like she’s tearing the skin at the edges of her mouth from smiling too wide. It gives us a sight of her teeth and they are like dull light bulbs, just this dingy yellow color.
It gives me the creeps. “I can’t believe she’s alive,” I say.
Dad shakes her head. “She’s not. Not the way we think of living.”
The wall next to us suddenly explodes as a wall detonates, Creep lashing at us. One of the guards gets trapped against the wall, the stuff washing over him until he’s buried. Dad turns along with some of the other guards and they let loose just a wave of fire. Long streaks of flame spew across the twitchy muscle and it releases this howl that shakes the ground underneath me. It ignites in orange flames and pulls away, ashy gray globs of it falling to the ground as it releases its prey. The Security guy that got hit stumbles back to his feet, and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not that he survived. Creepy Sally starts walking toward us and tendrils of muscle are start flying at us from the ground, whipping at the team’s legs.
I just get away as one of the men gets caught. The guy’s just about to get pulled off when Abbott unsheathes this long sword. His thumb flips a switch on its hilt and the thing ignites in orange and red, like it’s made of pure fire. Abbott moves faster than even the Creep can and he slices the tendril in half before it can snatch its prey. Without realizing it I backpedal, kinda’ just gasping at the sight of it. I get it now.
That is why he’s a Scavenger commander.
There’s a sudden crack along the wall and I dance away just before it bursts open with a long Creep stalk that cuts the air where my head used to be. As I stumble back I hit the ground, pain shooting up my back as I do.
Dad turns to me, rushing to grab me. “Jackie!” he screams, but as he turns a hole bursts open from the rooftop. A long fleshy stalk whips downward and grabs him by the arm, hauling backward on him. His rifle his the ground as he wrestles with it, screaming as he tries to keep himself from getting pulled into the ceiling. I don’t have time to think as I grab the bat at my side and fly into the air, the hard edge of my weapon slamming against the muscle and tissue that makes up the Creep. The thing shudders at the impact and I go rolling along the ground, sliding to a stop but watching my dad collapse to the ground. He’s free, and he grabs for his weapon. Not hesitating either, he lifts it up and spews a torrent of fire into the air behind me.
I roll toward him and turn to watch as a wall of Creep behind me ignites into fire, its pink skin turning black under the heat. The thing shudders before collapsing to the ground, exploding into a hundred disgusting chunks. Dad hauls me to my feet and we rush toward the Security team, which is just lighting up the hallway. Abbott’s there in the center, trying to cut his way through wave after wave of living tissue, but Sally doesn’t seem to have a limit to how much she can summon.
Dad squeezes my arm and glances down at me. “You’ve still got the injection right? “
“Yeah dad,” I nod, tapping the bag on my hip. “I’m ready.”
“You’ve got to stick close and don’t worry about me when we go in. I’ll get you close to Sally.”
I nod, and he yanks me forward, bringing up his flamethrower as we run. We cross by Abbott, who’s busy swinging that sword of his, and leap over a huge tendril of Creep that bursts from the wall and swipes at our feet. Dad squeezes the trigger as we come within feet of her but she counters with an endless wave of twitching muscle that meets us halfway. Flame and flesh battle each other for a second, and then I notice the roof above me and the walls at my side lighting up in an inferno. The rest of the Security team is dousing the hallway, and the entire area is lighting up like a scene from hell.
Dad shouts at me, “Go Jackie!” and I nod. Creepy Sally seems as if she’s distracted for the first time since we’ve got here. Maybe even she can’t deal with this much firepower. I duck beneath the thin stalks that she’s weaving across the hall in an attempt to create a wall of Creep between herself and the team, then leap at her. She doesn’t even see me.
I’m inches from her when I’m caught around the waist. I can’t hold back the squeal I let out as I feel my body suddenly collapsing beneath the pressure of a meaty limb that’s burst out of the floor. She holds me just outside of arm’s distance, too far away for me to inject her.
But not too far for my bat.
I rear back and swing with every bit of power my muscles can give me, and absolutely crush the side of her skull. Her head rocks backward and she drops me, her hand going to her face. It’s the first time I’ve seen her in pain.
And she starts crying.
More like screaming and wailing, but her defenses are down. I start to rush her.
Then the floor beneath us gives out, and everyone falls. Fire, ash and smoke plunge downward along with burning muscle and skin. I hit the ground hard, the breath escaping my lungs as I do. Everything goes blurry while the corners of my eyes seem to fill with blackness. For moment I’m too weak to get up.
Dad’s voice comes out of the haze of black smoke filling the air. “Jackie!” he calls. I see him leaping through the black clouds pouring off the ground, only to see his body flail backward as a tendril strikes him in the shoulder. He screams as it cuts right through him, pinning him to the wall. Blood bursts from his upper arm as he struggles to pull the Creep from his body.
A silhouette pops into view from the wall of flames raging hard to my right. It staggers forward, weak limbs carrying it step after step along the ground. The crying though. The sobbing. She won’t stop. She stops near my dad and looks at him, then raises her hand. She puts it to his chest and Creep just starts to pour out of it, like she can create it from herself. It starts to cover his body, molding over his chest and creeping down his legs.
I reach out. I try to do anything. I can’t. I can barely scream.
Sally’s head tilts up and she looks off to the side, her lips quivering. Then she looks back at me, her eyes hidden behind those bangs of hers. She stares at me, struggling to speak. Then she says the one word I’ve heard from her so far.
Her mouth explodes into a wail as her arm erupts into ash and fire, a solid blame of flame cutting through it. Abbot’s sword separates her from dad, but as she falls to the ground she manages to create a solid limb from the floor that slaps the sword, and him, flying like a toy into the fire. Off balance and screaming she collapses groundward, the back of her head hitting the floor next to me.
She’s breathing hard. So, she does get tired. She obviously feels pain. She cries.
What kills me is that she remembers. At the very end, she remembers her daddy.
And yet there’s nothing else that we can do. The family she had died over a hundred years ago. The only reason she’s still alive is because of the Creep.
So I do the only thing that can be done.
I turn and plunge the needle right into her neck. She kinda’ jolts for a second when it hits, but she doesn’t scream. Actually she just looks at me. Then she smiles.
And then she’s gone.
Recording Forty.Real quick: Abbot survived. Of course he did.
Things move real quick after Sally goes down. First off, the Creep. I mean, what the heck? One minute we’re covered in it and the next it’s gone. It’s like someone pulled the plug on a bathtub drain and it all just recedes away. Whatever power Sally had, dad was right about her keeping the infestation going. Once she went down the entire floor settled down. Lockdown’ll keep going for a few hours while they do some patrols ‘cause, you know, that’s just sort of Security’s thing. Still, everyone’s obviously a lot more relaxed once we’re not ankle deep in muscle tissue.
Which, you know, makes sense.
Anyway, I’m not out of trouble. It doesn’t take Security more than a few minutes to clean up the area around Floor 16 and 17 that we were on, and then it takes them just a couple seconds more to grab and haul us back up the stairwell. It’s a forced march that’s just killer on my knees. Like we didn’t just fall through a hellish inferno onto the lower floor. Oh well, I’m young and strong right? Guess I can take it! At least that’s how they’re acting.
I’m not surprised when I see the door to Floor 1, although I can’t hold back a smirk. This is the first time I’m being let in through the front door. Thing is though, now, seeing it for what it is, I’m not nearly impressed. A floor full of psychos taking drugs to keep them happy? At least happy enough that they don’t talk to each other about what’s going on in this tower?
I’d rather live in the Creep.
Sure I’d go hungry but, I mean, at least I’d still be me. Are you really ‘you’ when you’re always taking drugs to forget yourself?
See, I think about this stuff. I’m not just, like, curious for the sake of being curious. I can get philosophical.
Of course, I don’t really have much time to ponder the meaning of existence as they drag me along down the halls. Dad’s with me the whole way, so that’s nice, but it’s so weird being escorted by Security while those cheery commercials shout at us from the air that “A daily will do you”, which by this time translates to some freaking terrifying behavior.
But, you know, I’m still me. I’m still curious. I might not want to live up here, but I do want to know everything I can about this place we call our home. Because I don’t know if what we’ve got going on in this tower can last forever.
Anyway, soon we enter a long hall. I know something’s different, ‘cause there aren’t any doors. Well, none except the sing pair of doors at the very end at the hall.
Yeah. That looks like it might be, you know, important.
Abbott and Security hold back my dad, but he gives me a push. I kinda’ want to tear his arm off for touching me, but I hold back my incredible strength. Heh. I look over at dad, and he nods, so… I guess it’s cool for me to go?
I start to march, and the hallway seems to just stretch on forever. There are a few potted plants and a couple of soft looking couches, but no windows or anything like that.
You know what it does have though? Paintings. Lots of them.
I wish… I wish I knew who painted them. What they’re about. They were important enough to keep, right? Why though? Does anyone even remember?
One’s of some guy. Military looking dude with a weird white wig on. I’ll admit it though, he looks freakin’ sweet. Guy’s got a cape on, some crazy hat, and there’s this flag behind him in the boat he’s riding. It’s got these red and white stripes, and a bunch of stars on a blue background.
This next one… I dunno’, it kinda’ sucks. It’s just a woman smiling at you. I don’t get that one.
Another one I spot is weird ‘cause I actually recognize the guy in it. He’s the dude that was on that cross in the Reception Hall. Uh, he looks like he’s in a lot less pain now. I dunno’, it looks like he’s at a dinner or something. He’s got like twelve of his friends with him.
This last one though… it’s weird.
It’s got two guys. One of them’s almost naked. Glad he’s got his legs crossed. Anyway, he’s reaching out to this other, older guy. Their fingers are almost touching, just not quite. The old guy’s got all these… I guess they’re babies?... babies around him.
Actually, the old dude, if you look at him from a certain angle, kinda’ looks like he’s sitting in a human brain.
My mind must be playing tricks on me.
Anyway, what gets me is that nobody in this tower even knows what these are about anymore. Still, I guess that doesn’t matter anymore. I’m at the doorway. I take a look back down hall, and dad and the rest of the group are like specs in the distance. Damn, I didn’t realize it was this long a walk.
Too busy appreciating ‘art’, I guess.
So, I suck in a deep breathe, grab the handles, and push the doors in.
For a moment, I’m blinded by light.
And then I hear the doors close behind me.
“Your name is Jackie,” he says. “My name is Edward.”
He laughs, then throws his hands in the air. “You can call me whatever you like, actually. It’s been so long since anyone remembered what my real name is. They haven’t used it since I was 18.”
I look around and I’m just like… whoah.
His office is huge and it just stretches on, lined with bookshelves on either side. Not, like, those crappy pieces of garbage we have that are falling apart.
They’re new. Brand new.
He sees my mouth hanging and laughs again. “Jackie,” he says, “Come here. Come on.”
I nod, but I don’t want fast. I can’t walk fast. The view behind him… it stretches from floor to ceiling and… and it’s so blue. The sun is shining over the clouds, and there’s a line of mountains that are covered in snow. I know they’re not real but, damn, I wish they were. It takes me a sec before I catch him waving me on to the desk, but I feel like I’m plowing through water. It’s so beautiful I almost want to cry. Then I remember the last time I had this feeling, the first time I came to Floor 1, and I suck it in. I’m not going to get lied to again. So, I take a seat in front of his desk.
The floor is white. The long rug leading to his desk is white. The shelves are white. The desk is white. His suite is white.
I look up at him. “Did I like, die and not realize it? Is this the afterlife?”
The guy smiles. He’s handsome, for an old dude. Sharp face, this trimmed grey goatee. Can’t hate on those silver eyes, either. Eyes I quickly recognize from the commercials going on throughout Floor 1. Anyway, he says “No, you’re not dead. You’re quite alive, actually, despite all odds. I’m quite impressed.”
“You saw it?”
“Yes, Abbott broadcast it all. Quite a heroic attempt to destroy that creature of Floor 16, I must say. I didn’t realize that level of courage was still to be found on the upper levels.”
I’m listening to him but my chest is just hurting. I feel like trying to shove its way up my throat? “What’s going on?” I can hear my voice crack when I start talking. Dammit. “Please, I have to know.”
“Where would you like me to start?”
I glance around, looking from the bookshelves, to the window and back to him. “What is this place? Who are you? Why did you bring me here?”
He holds up a hand and laughs. “One at a time, please. We can tackle the obvious. This is Authority Central, the office of the tower director. I am he and he is I. Director Edward Pygmalion, at your service. And the tower you have lived in your entire life is properly termed Tower Pisa. But I get the feeling you’re more interested in why you’re here.”
“Well, it was just yesterday that I was getting sentence… to Reinforcement.”
“Ah, yes, an unpleasant process that. I have to see it here, you know, along with most of what happens in Pisa.”
“You have a television too?”
He chuckles. “A television?” He lifts his head upward like he’s going to talk into the wind. “Screens on.”
Suddenly the bookshelves that were there a minute ago are gone. I mean, I’m not absolutely sure they were ever there in the first place. It’s hard to say. What I know is that dozens of screens flip on and cover the walls where the bookshelves used to be and stretch all the way back to the doorway. Even the window behind him suddenly lights up, showing a view of the gardens on the Rooftop. The black clouds replace the white and the grey skies remove the blue, and again I’m staring at the reality of the world I live in.
He looks at me. “I see everything Jackie. At least, as much as a single human being can see. It is my job, and I am the only person in the tower that is given this responsibility. Only a person assigned to the position of director is given access to this much knowledge, much like your father is the only person allowed so much knowledge of the Creep. Every man and woman to their task, and none other. The left hand cannot know what the right hand is doing.”
“Because too much knowledge makes the people discontent,” he continues. “You already see it on Floor 1. Who seems happier to you, Jackie? The people on Floor 1, that live their daily lives consuming Voluptus, or the people on Floors 10 or 11 that can honestly celebrate the Scavenging?”
My teeth squeeze down on my lower lip as I try to figure this out. “The more you know, the less happier you are?”
“Jackie, I am the least happy of all the people in Tower Pisa, because I alone carry the burden of knowing there is no leaving this place. All we can do is keep the Creep at bay. Now, imagine everyone that lives here knew the truth? That the stories they clung to were false? What then?”
“They’d…. they’d…” I know what he’s saying. I don’t completely believe the Book of the Tower and that’s already depressing. “They’d get desperate.”
“Exactly. As of now the lower levels believe that Floor 1 is securing the future for them. The Scavenging gives them hope and brings new and exciting times to their lives. They believe that the technology we acquire will help battle the Creep. It might not be enough to make them happy, but it’s enough to keep them content. Meanwhile, those on Floor 1 know that everything we do is futile. You’ve already seen it, their condition. Why they need the Voluptas.” He chuckles as he folds his hands on the desk. “Now imagine with me. What if the people of Floor 1 stopped taking Voluptas?”
“They’d get… sad. Depressed.”
“What if they stopped doing their jobs?”
“Then the tower would stop functioning.”
“And what would the people of the lower levels do?”
I look down, shrugging. “I dunno’. Get desperate.”
“More desperate than they already are. And what happens when 25,000 people, all at once suddenly get depressed and desperate? How do you think the Creep would react?”
My eyes shoot up to his. “Oh my God.”
He leans back in his chair, his folded hands resting on his chest. “Which is why I alone am given access to so much knowledge. So it was decreed, long ago, by the Builders?”
“Who were they?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are we here? Why did they build this tower?”
“I don’t know.”
My fist slams the table. “Why not!?”
The director leans forward, smiling, but he looks sad at the same time. “Because memory is painful. I’m not sure even I want to know why we’re here. What caused us to be here? It’s hard to discern the truth in your stories, but one constant lies in every part of the Book of the Tower: That, once, we brought the Darkness upon ourselves.”
He gestures around. “If a man is not remembered, did he ever exist?”
“Well, yeah, he did. Right?”
“How would you be able to tell?”
“He leaves something behind. Something he owned or thought was important.”
Director Pygmalion’s lips curve slightly. “And when those are gone? Did he ever, really, exist?”
I don’t know what to say. He can tell, so he continues. “A society, on the other hand, isn’t quite the same. With so many people, something gets left behind.” He points to the ground beneath us. “The tower is a perfect example. But why was it built? What was its purpose? You can’t destroy every bit of the past, but you wipe out the reasons it was constructed.”
“But why are we wiping those out?”
“Is a man guilty of something he does not remember?”
For a minute I’m just staring at this guy because I have no idea what he’s trying to tell me. “I don’t get it. What do you mean?”
“Take ten people in a room. One person kills another. Everyone know who the culprit. Then, their memory of the killing is erased and the murder weapon removed. Is the man guilty?”
“Of course he is!”
“According to who? Who will accuse him?”
I’m stuck. I’m for real stuck, I got no way of answering this guy. “I… Someone!”
“No. He’s not. He’s not answerable to himself, or to the people around him. Neither will they expect him to answer. Now what if all those people were guilty of the murder?”
“How can everyone be guilty for one murder?”
“What if they all took knives to to the victim?”
“Well, I mean, then everyone’s guilty of it.”
“And will everyone feel guilty?”
“Maybe not everyone. But most of them would. I think.”
Pygmalion lifts his finger. “Exactly. Now you’ve got them all trapped in a room they can’t escape, you’ve got people feeling terrible about murdering an innocent man, a few that don’t, and you ask them to stay together for a few days. Perhaps a few weeks. What happens when those that can’t take the guilt demand that justice be done? What happens when they demand accountability?”
I say, “I don’t…”
“What happens when you take away their food and water and tell them only one side can have any?”
I stutter, “I just…”
“What happens when those feel comfortable with murder decide they’re unwilling to share food and worse, are willing to hide the truth?”
I stammer, “It’s not that simple…”
“What happens, Jackie, when you put that much pressure on a people?”
I drop my head. “Things go bad.”
Pygmalion snaps his fingers, and a few screens magnify to large sizes. He waves at one. “Behold,” he says, getting up and staring at it. “A husband and wife, both wealthy by any standards of the tower. The woman, a doctor charged with cultivating the Creep for use in Reinforcement. The man, an athletic instructor that secretly despises the use of that practice.” He turns toward me. “He can’t admit it of course but, I see it, in his face. Each time it’s broadcast, I see the small strokes of his face, the cringes he makes. Should his wife tell him she’s in charge of creating that same substance?”
My mouth dropped. “What? They don’t… they don’t talk to each other? About what she does?”
“No one in Science is allowed to talk about the specific of what they do,” he says, leaning in at me. “You know that though.”
“Precisely. You know he and your mother chose to live on Level 4. Because of the sensitivity of their work they would have been first choice for Level 1, but your father always was a bit of an unusual one. We knew that from the start, but he always complied with the rules so we had no reason to ever intervene in his life. His first violation of any tower rule was, indeed, his rescue attempt of you.” Pygmalion smiles, folding his hand behind his back. “A man, a society, we are only what we know. Even marriages are built on a single thing: knowledge. Interrupt the balance of a person or an institution and it can come crumbling. We are the only people of our species, Jackie. This institution, this tower, cannot crumble.”
He walks back toward the desk and sits down, heaving a heavy breath. “I’ve had many years to think about that.”
“And you can live with those answers?” I ask. I can feel my face burning as I listen to him.
“Can I live with them?” He looks away, to the wall. “I have. For years. After all, it was due to that ability that I was chosen by the last director. While jobs are chosen almost entirely by the council, there is one, single job outside their jurisdiction. Only the director can choose his successor. Only we have the knowledge necessary to make the decision.”
By this point my hands are shaking. I can feel them trembling on my knees and I look down, trying to stop them. I can’ t. “This is so sick. You’re just up here living in this luxury getting anything you want, and you… you just watch these things! These Reinforcements. These people dying on the Scavenging. You never try and stop it.”
“Throw the tower out of balance, and the tower falls,” he says. “I am a prisoner of another sort. I cannot usually intervene in the actions of the tower. That’s why there is a council. They perform the Reinfocements for the people of Level 1, they run the Scavenging to entertain the tower, and so on. They come to me for council with novel situations. That is my purpose, my function, in this tower. Everyone’s knowledge is limited as much as possible to their circumstances. I am the only one whose knowledge is broad and so, when circumstances are new or unique, they send me a request.” He taps the desk in front of him and a keyboard appears, shining with light through the white surface. “They don’t even bother to come see me. They simply send a request by mail. During the last Category 1 Incident, they asked me how to contain it. During this one, they again came to me. I recommended working with you.”
He pauses, laughing. “When Abbott didn’t know whether to concede to your father’s demands, they allowed me to make the call. As you can see, I’m quite the novelty piece. You are, in fact, my first physical visitor in many years. I am known only to a few, and even they view me with suspicion and fear. They especially fear me when I decide to intervene, and that fear is so great it could easily tip the balance on Floor 1. Yet they know it is their role to bend to me.”
“Fine, I get it. You’re some super secret observer that has to act like a backup because everyone else is so stuck in their own roles or work that can’t figure out how to react to new circumstances. So why am I really here then? Why did you call me up? What, are you choosing me as the new director or something?”
“You?” He laughs really loud at the thought. Insultingly loud. “Do you really think you could keep all this a secret?”
He’s got me there. “Well, no. I might be able to do it for… I dunno’. A year?”
“I doubt even that, Jackie. No, what you are here for is something else. You are here because we’ve had two Category 1 Incidents almost a year apart from each other. They’re becoming more frequent.” He stops and looks down at the desk, his eyes dancing around for a second. “No. That’s a lie. That’s an excuse I’m telling myself, and you.”
“Okay. Well, what then? You just want someone to talk to or something ?”
“Not at all.” His words are coming slowly. Seriously, I think he’s about to tell me he’s going to die. “The reason you’re here is because I’m going to grant your request.” His eyes crawl back up to mine. “I’ve chosen you to be a Scavenger.”
“What?” In my head the words echo around like they’re being blasted through a megaphone. “You want me to do what…?”
“I saw you fighting, Jackie. For someone with no training your natural skill is exceptional. Your mind is incredibly sharp and can potentially rival your father’s. The Scavengers need that.” His hand lifts up and he sighs. “Things will have to change. The Scavenging will have to change. I’ll sell that to the council, though. I’ll tell them that the reason we’re changing the Scavenging is because we need new ways of entertaining the population. We’re going to shift its focus from reclaiming material from the lower floors to exploration. To going as deep down Tower Pisa as possible.”
For a minute I just sit there, looking at this guy. I mean, what am I supposed to say? He’s just freaking me out now. So, I’m sounding like a broken record, but what else am I supposed to ask?
“Why are you doing this?” is about all I can manage at first. Like I’m an idiot. “I just, I can’t… You just got done telling me all this bunk stuff about how you can’t tip the balance, can’t destroy the institution, this tower shall not fall blah blah blah. Now you’re completely changing the direction!”
Pygmalion smiles, pointing to me. “I also told you that memories make us. Memories are the most powerful form of knowledge. And that, in the end, there will be those who are unbothered for the sins they are guilty, and those who are.”
“So the man that I used to be was content with holding the bloody knife. The man I have become, and his many years of knowledge, is not.”
I just stare at him from across the table, and there’s just this tiny… and I mean miniscule… part of me starts to feel bad for him. “What you’ve learned changed who you are.”
“And what I’ve seen.” He laughs. “I’ve spent decades watching the world. Now before the end, I want to impact it, even if that impact is small. The director I choose to follow me may learn from what I have done. The memories of my actions may help mold him into a different man. A man with a bit more boldness that I lack.”
“So what is it you want me to do?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Pygmalion gets this devlish smile on his face. “I want you to get out. It’s the only way I know of that could change the tower without destroying it. If we knew we could escape.”
“And if we can’t?” I ask, thinking back on how hard it was to take Sally down.
“Then I suppose we’ll just continue on like we always have.”
There’s no easy way to react to this. He’s offering me something I’ve wanted my entire life, but that was before I knew it was just entertainment for a bunch of snot nosed rich jerks on Floor 1. Plus, how do I even know I can trust this guy?
Thing is, I know there’s only one answer.
“Fine,” I say, looking up at the ceiling and hoping I’m not nuts for agreeing. “I’ll do it. “
“I knew you would,” he says, bowing his head. “Although, there was always a slight doubt.”
“So what now?”
“Now? Now you and your father go home. Now I have the audio listeners removed from your room. And tomorrow, you start getting ready. You start getting ready for the Scavenging.”
There’s something about that. Something about how he says it. I just… I have to smile. “Yeah… yeah okay. This is… this is great.”
“Is there anything else before you go?”
“Actually, yeah,” I say, my mind racing as I think about what’s coming next. “You don’t happen to know what happened to a guy named Mike, do you? He was part of the last Scavenging.”
“I am aware of him. Unfortunately, even as great as my knowledge is, it’s not infinite. All contact with the team was lost following an incident deep below the tower. I could not tell you whether he’s alive or not.”
“Oh.” That sucks. “Okay, that’s… that’s okay. Is it alright if I make part of the exploration a search for them? For Mike and his team?”
“Hm. A rescue story? That would certainly please viewers. Yes, I think that would work. The council would be even more willing to approve that. We’ll call it The Second Scavenging.” He shakes his head, tapping on the desk. “A wonderful idea. Yes, Jackie. I’ll make sure it’s all approved. And believe me, as callous as I may sound, I do hope with all my heart that you find your friend.”
I’m biting my lip as I nod, and then I just kinda’ get up to go. I don’t have anything else to say as I wander off, heading back down the hallway, images broadcasting at me from throughout Tower Pisa. Huh. Tower Pisa. For the first time in my life I know what this place is called.
My hand goes to the door and it opens quietly. I’m already a foot outside when I hesitate, looking back inside. Pygmalion seems to already be working at something on his desk when I interrupt him with a final call. “Director? Edward?”
He looks up from his work, a bit startled that I’m still here. “Oh? Yes, Jackie?”
For a second I don’t know whether to ask it, but I have to. “I’m just… I was just wondering. You’ve got eyes all over the tower. So, what are the Angels?”
Pygmalion laughs and looks back down at his work as he says, “Jackie. You should know better.
Angels don’t exist.”
It took exactly one day for the Morale officers to have flyers pasted up and down every floor proclaiming “The Second Scavenging”, starring the first girl from Floor 4 to ever go on a mission. Better? It was a daring rescue into the bowels of the tower to find the last Scavenging Team.
But… I kinda’ liked it.
Don’t get me wrong. Mom and dad aren’t thrilled… but I think they kinda’ knew, somehow, that it’d always turn out weird with me. I have a pair of weirdos for parents in the first place, so of course I turned out the same way. Dad’s a little less worried than mom. He says my batting skills are gonna’ come in handy.
I don’t know about all that.
Funny thing though. I decided I really am going to take that bat. I named it Lil’ Slugger just because I’m a cheeseball like that.
Jokes aside… it’s pretty freakin’ serious business. I’m about to go into a two week training course. They say they’re gonna’ build on everything I learned in basic combat I trained in, so, who knows, I may turn out to be a real beast. Maybe even tougher than Janet Amato.
I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I don’t know.
I do know that in a little over two weeks we’re expected to head down. I’ll be going with Abbott, that… well I shouldn’t insult him since he’s gonna’ be my commander. But, that’s cool. I’ll put up with it. I’m heading in with a bunch of vets, plus a few rookies, if I understand it all. They say they’re not too worried about the psychological aspect with me.
Remember, I’m the girl that would go down into the lower levels for fun, not to mention batted the head almost clean off of Creepy Sally. I got some guts.
It’s weird. It was just a few weeks I was recording these things to keep my sanity. Now… I dunno’. What you leave behind is important. It reminds you what you are, or were. It helps you know who you are, or want to be. And you never know, maybe someone else comes along one day and learn from you.
Psh. That’s way too deep.
I’ve got more important things to think about right now than philosophy. Like, I need to get my hair braided. It’s a bit too natural for my liking right now. Not to mention having it all kinky isn’t going to work in the Deep Creep. Never know when something’s going to grab at you, right? Then after that I feel like, I dunno’, spend time with Allison. I know I can’t really tell her anything… but damn. Maybe I really should just, you know, have one more dance party with her.
I mean, I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again once I go.
Man. I kinda’ feel… I dunno’. Scared. Depressed. Something.
Change can be scary.
But this is it. I’ve been asking for it, one chance to see what’s out there. If we’re the only ones. Now it’s coming true and I can’t stop thinking about my life here.
Life’s funny like that.
Anyway, I don’t know if I’ll be able to record much anymore. I mean, I’m going to be training, then there’s the whole situation of being dozens of stories down inside of living muscle tissue. Not exactly lots of time to record, I’d guess.
Not that I know for sure.
What I do know is that this is it.
I’m a Scavenger.
So, if you’re out there, I’m coming for you Mike. It’s my turn to save you.
Then we find out what’s out there.
Way past Floor 21.