When Victor came to, he was on his hands and knees next to his office desk. He heard screaming and crying in the distance, but as he pulled himself to his feet, the sound grew in both volume and proximity. The floor felt unsteady, as if he stood on the deck of a large lumbering ship instead of the 97th floor of an office building. Just a moment ago he had answered an IM from Hayley in Accounts Payable -- Yes, I'd love to join you for a coffee. Be down in a minute. Then came the impact. An explosion. Something. The minute he inhabited now had no resemblance to the one just before. Hayley might as well have IMed from China.
Victor's office was actually just a large room separated in to various pods of spacious desks and ergonomically pleasing workstations. Windows stretched almost to the floor on the south and east walls. That, combined with the height itself gave the initial visitor a sense of vertigo. An office in the sky.
Now, however, smoke streamed up the windows of the south wall. Looking at the smoke gave the illusion of falling, a dizzying amusement park ride. Whether it was that or the chaos, Victor couldn't tell. He turned his head. The windows of the east wall, in counterpoint, embraced the cloudless morning -- a clear blue eye unblinking in the reality it saw.
The floor shook again. Whatever had not been dislodged from the walls in the initial blast now crashed to the floor. Desks shifted from their careful locations. Curses and cries sprang with greater force and volume. Four coworkers knelt near the curtain of smoke, heads bowed.
"Vic, help me."
Victor saw his friend Ben, a thick-bodied former shotputter, pushing against one of the doors to the main hallway.
"Fuck, this one's stuck too," Ben said.
"You tried the other doors?"
"Same. All jammed."
"I think so. What the fuck happened?"
Victor looked across the office. A few others had joined the prayer group. Some franticly tried land lines and cell phones, stabbing the buttons as if the force alone would connect them. The building seemed to sway. Tendrils of smoke began to creep on to the east walls.
"C'mon," Ben said. "Help me."
They moved two of the desks close to the door. Ben climbed on to them and placed a foot on each one then squeezed his shoulder under the door frame. Victor gripped the door knob. Fire alarms and cries and the deep erratic resonance of shifting metal forced them to shout at each other. Victor noticed the flashing siren light of the fire alarm cast spastic shadows on all walls of the office, and he turned and saw the eastern eye half consumed by the whirling smoke.
Ben pushed up with his legs, back, shoulder, trying to lift the 13 floors above them off the crumpled frame. Victor leaned and pushed against the door, ready to take advantage of any ground Ben could gain. He noticed red spots on his yellow shirt and khaki pants. Looking up, he saw a stream of blood pooling in Ben's hands, streaming down his arm, dripping from his elbow; he gave the door a final push.
It swung open halfway and stopped against a mass of framing and plaster and ductwork that had ceased forever to become recognizable as anything of use or comfort. Smoke billowed in to the room. Victor pulled his shirt over his nose and looked down the hallway in both directions. Blueprints of chaos blocked each way, the throbbing of fire reaching him through the tangle and smoke.
"Holy shit," Ben said.
"There's got to be a way out." He thought for a moment of Hayley and the coffee and knew that any promise of such a meeting now resided in another life and were he to see her or anyone outside this burning office, meeting for coffee would carry the weight of ritual, of sacrament.
The building groaned and swayed. They steadied themselves against the desks. Ben left to try another door.
"Gotta be a way out," Victor said to himself.
He heard a soft voice behind him say, "There isn't."
Victor turned and saw a man, younger than he, perhaps even a teenager, dark hair swept low across his forehead. Along with a black t-shirt, blue jeans and a leather jacket, well creased and travelled, he wore a tired, amused smirk. Victor had never seen him before in his life, let alone in the office. "What?" he said.
"There is no way out of here." He said the words calmly, almost whispering, as if he was soothing a frightened cat.
"Who are you? How did you get here?"
"That's all you can think of now?" He chuckled and shook his head. "My name is Jake. Look, Victor, you have a choice to make."
"In two minutes and forty-seven seconds, this building is going to collapse. Even if it were not on fire, the bombs planted every ten floors are on a redundant system so they go off no matter what. You still would not make it out in time to save yourself. A simple fact. It can not be otherwise. So you have a choice. A moment ago, you and your friend Ben were trying to open this door behind you not only to save yourself, but to save your coworkers and
anybody else. Correct?"
"Of course. Yes."
The building leaned and twisted again, its failing physics blowing out the row of windows on the east wall. The eye broken, gouged with smoke. Screams.
"You will not be able to save them from here."
"How then? Where?"
"There is not time to explain, only to choose."
"Choose what? What do I have to choose?"
Jake stared at Victor for a moment. Looking through him, Victor thought, to another part of the room or building or world.
"Come with me," Jake said.
Victor followed, walking slightly uphill to the east wall. Jake walked maddeningly slowly, hands clasped, eyes down. "Look around you," he said.
At tortured desks and along walls and windows and doors that would never again open, where his friends and coworkers gathered in vain acts of escape, he saw others like Jake -- an ochre-robed woman with a shaved head, an old man in a tweed jacket smoking a pipe, a boy with a puppy on a leash, an old woman with a can of Coke in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other -- speaking to groups and individuals. Some either did not hear or refused to listen to these newcomers. They fell to the floor in hysteria or ran through the single open door to be swallowed by smoke and fire and debris. Others still came to the east windows, stepped on to the broken sills and jumped.
Jake and Victor stopped at the window. "You may do as you have just seen and remain consumed by fear and anger," Jake said. "Or you may come with us and help the others who will need your help very shortly. This is your choice."
Victor saw the newcomers slowly leading people, some by the hand, some with their arms around them, to the windows. To his left, he saw Ben nodding to the woman with the Coke and Lucky Strike. To his right, he saw the others with more newcomers, readying themselves for something.
"Will I live?" Victor said.
"In a way."
Victor turned to look at those not along the windows -- screaming and cursing, disappearing in to the teeth of the hallway, huddled fetally. He began to call to them, but
Jake stopped him with a light touch on his shoulder.
"They've made their decision," Jake said. "Have you?"
Victor felt explosions roll the floor, one after the other, evenly spaced in both time and distance. Jake stepped behind Victor, brought his arms under his and gripped his hands just below his sternum. "Relax," Jake said. "Let go of this place."
More explosions. Closer. Victor felt the floor slip from his feet as steel and glass screamed from the nightmare behind him. The building drifted away, pulling the curtain of smoke across him and leaving him suspended in the crystalline sky. He felt his body sag against Jake's grip. The clamor vanished. He heard a distant seagull cry and felt cool ocean air brush across his face. Around him, the others seemed to float the same way, either held as he was or several linked together, hand in hand. They began to fall.
Victor sped through the ejection clouds, vaguely feeling the concussive blasts from the building. The cataclysmic roar of it pancaking sounded mundane, like the sound of traffic. The ground rushed at him, but he would not clear the final floors. These had been constructed to be wider than the tower itself. He could make out the patches of splattered matter that used to be bodies scattered along the roof. In moments he would hit between a large HVAC unit and an access door. He braced for impact.
"Let go," Jake said. Jake spun them so that Victor looked up at the sky, blue and cloudless, the smoke and dust from the building merely a shimmer at the edges of his vision. His body went limp against Jake.
Then Victor felt his body explode.
"Who is it?"
"It's me. Victor."
"Oh my God Victor oh my God. Where am I? I can't move. I can't see. What happened? Where are you?"
"I'm right here. The building fell and you're trapped. I'm getting you out."
"I'm scared, Victor."
"Don't be, Hayley. Help is coming."
She felt his hand hold hers. She heard his shouts and the answering shouts of men and the sound of rubble being pushed aside. Dust clouded her eyes, and plaster fell against her face. Something big pressed against her. The sounds faded. Her body felt different, and all she
wanted to do was sleep. They could wake her when they found her.
She felt Victor tug her hand.
"I just want to sleep."
"So you really did need that coffee, huh?"
"I think I need a little more than coffee right now."
"Tell me what you were going to order."
"Oh, I don't know. I didn't really care. One of those frappy things. I just wanted to see you and I know how you love your coffee."
"You wanted to see me? Really?"
"Really. I wish I could see you now."
"I want to sleep."
"Not yet. They're working to get you out. You can sleep later."
"I know, Hayley. Stay awake for now, sweetheart. Stay awake."
She felt Victor rub her palm with his thumb, in the
soft pad between her thumb and forefinger -- how did he know I love that? Sound from the people above traveled down to her, like marbles dropped in a twisting elevator shaft, and she knew she was far down in something by the muffled echoes that reached her. There was movement -- big slabs of something shifting. Light, finally. Stretched cones of it barely illuminated her cave. Trapped dust swirled in it, disappeared in the dark, swirled again. Something wet dripped on her from above. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that it was blood and that more blood, hers or other's, covered most of her. The hand Victor held was trapped under some iron. She wiggled her fingers against his hand. He gripped her hand gently but firmly.
"Don't freak. You're almost out."
"Are you on the other side there? Are you OK?"
"Yes. And I'm OK."
"Where are you, Victor?"
The men lifted another slab and the cave disappeared. Hayley blinked her eyes against the sunlight. Despite her squinting, she had never seen a sky so blue. A man came down in to the hole, lowered by a rope. He knelt next to her and spoke and then there was another man and their voices seemed far away and she only felt Victor holding her hand tighter and whispering to her not to fall asleep. She then heard him speaking to the men, telling them which mass of debris to move before the other, telling them which of her bones were broken and organs damaged, telling them they had to move quickly. They did as they were told.
Hayley held Victor's hand as they pulled her out of the hole and ran her over to a waiting ambulance. She looked at him, jogging beside her.
"You're going to be fine now, Hayley," Victor said. "They're taking you to the hospital."
"You've got blood on your shirt."
"I'm OK. It's not mine."
They reached the ambulance, and the men lifted her in. "Can you come with me?"
"I'm going to see if I can help here."
"I owe you a coffee, Victor."
"I'll be waiting."
Two paramedics hopped in after her. The doors shut, and the ambulance sped away.
The paramedics worked quickly to stabilize her. "I can't believe he was there," she said. "I can't believe it."
"Who was that, Miss," said one of the EMTs, trying to keep her conscious.
"He talked to me while I was down there. He was in the building too. He helped you bring me up. He was in the yellow shirt with blood on it and held my hand the whole way. Didn't you see him?"
The paramedics looked at each other and paused for a beat. They would have noticed a man with a blood-stained yellow shirt holding the hand of this girl who shouldn't be alive.
Victor watched the ambulance until it disappeared in a fog of hanging dust. He knew she would never see him again.
He turned and saw Jake waving him over. "There are more," Jake said. "We do not have much time."
Walking across the rubble, he saw Ben shoving iron aside so that an Asian man in disfigured chef's whites could breathe while the lady with the cigarette and Coke ushered a team of rescuers toward him. He saw the boy pulling another man by the hand toward his puppy, digging furiously. Then he saw the others scattered among the newcomers, all of them translucent forms calmly yet urgently guiding the frantic humans. Beacons signalling for those still clinging.
Victor sensed the fragile geometry of the pile and heard a cry deep within it. He ran to it, shouting in a language he did not know until that moment. Men with shovels and rope followed him immediately.