He spent the night under his desk, what he now thought of as his desk. He had picked a new one that night, one against the windows that looked westward, over the new water. The overhead surface gave him the illusion of cover, he could pretend he was camping as he stared up at the raw particleboard bottom of the desk. Heavy rain sheeted against the double-paned windows. Gusts of wind would buffet the tower, imparting a low vibration to the structure.
He had walked the perimeter of the ground floor last night, over and over, watching spray pound against the glass. He watched tower workers exit the elevators, walk to the front doors, and then stand there. A clot of workers would develop around the doors, draped in their raincoats, until a consensus was reached, and they would return to the elevators to ascend back into the tower. In his looping circuit of the ground floor, John watched wave after wave crash against the base of the building. Eventually, building management had "Caution Wet Floor!" cones placed in front of the lobby doors, along with a security guard.
Finally, calm. Dawn rose beneath a lifting ceiling of clouds. A green sea rippled into the distance, a low regular swell predominated out of the rising sun. The East. What one would assume is the east under the previous ruleset. With the full light of day and clearing visibility, John could see much further than the previous evening, but the results were the same. Open sea in all directions, unbroken by land or other features.
The lights were still on. Banks had a lot of enterprise-critical computers, this was a bank tower, maybe they had generators? Still, it seemed unlikely that they had sufficient capacity to energize the entire building. Of course, the transposition of the tower into the center of an ocean, or the appearance of the ocean around the tower was also unlikely. It called a number of assumptions into question. He poured himself a glass of water. The water still worked, for now. The water was fresh, potable. How much was left in the system? He rummaged around the kitchen cabinets, until he found a plastic cooler in a supply closet. Something used for company picnics maybe? It was going to be heavy once he filled it with drinking water. Back in the supply truck he found a hand truck - perfect. Using the dish sprayer hose, he filled up the cooler with drinking water. It took a while. He wheeled the cooler over to his new desk, along with a plastic cup. Now he could just lift the lid and dip out a cup if he needed to.
He took the stairs down to the food court. Wearing yesterday's clothes, workers were eating breakfast sandwiches around the tables, drinking coffee. John walked over to get a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
"That's $5.50" The sandwich lady wore a plastic film cap on her head.
"You gonna to have to pay $5.50 for your sandwich and coffee." John could see the display on the register. It had two buttons - SANDWICH and COFFEE.
"I thought we were in some kind of emergency here."
"When this emergency is over, my manager is going to want to know what happened to all these breakfast sandwiches, and what am I going to tell him?"
"That it was an emergency?"
"You lucky I'm not marking them up and pocketing the difference."
"Yeah, I'm very fortunate."
"People are waiting in line, honey."
John walked over to the ATM machine and pulled out twenty dollars. The ATM worked, and his account balance showed that last week's temp work check had been direct deposited into the account. The better to buy his sandwich with. He got back in line and bought his breakfast.
Emily was waiting for him when he walked back into Firedrake Consulting.
"Mr. Firedrake has a new job for you."
"Mr. Firedrake is here?" asked John.
"No, he faxed it in." said Emily.
"I didn"t think the phones worked."
"Well, working or not, Mr. Firedrake sent in this fax, and he has a new job for you." Emily picked up the fax from her desk, entering it into evidence.
"Hold on. Did Mr. Firedrake make any mention of what's happened here in the fax?"
"What do you mean?" said Emily.
John paused a moment. He felt an adrenal flush of anger by way of panic, then waited for it to pass. It would feel good to scream and know that the insides of his lungs had not been replaced by macaroni and cheese, or that his endocrine system had not been transposited to some far-off mountain peak, dangling from the guyline of some alpine expedition tent like a cartilaginous prayer flag. A screaming, wall punching fit of rage would be gratifying, familiar. But more reassuring - control. To downclock the internal debate, and switch to something simpler, cleaner. Observe. Evaluate. Adapt. The best solace available - define the problem and work it. John took a deep breath.
"I was going to express my curiosity. Over the fact that this office tower is in the middle of a large body of water."
Emily looked nervous.
"I wouldn't know anything about that."
"Doesn't it concern you that the office building is in the middle of the fucking ocean?"
"First off, Mr. Trashman, that kind of language is totally inappropriate in an office. We're not working down at the warehouse."
John thought. Thought about punching the wall, or maybe the soft nose in the middle of Emily's face. No. Time to downclock, run silent run deep, "I.. I'm very sorry."
"John, you're only a temp here. I don't understand everything that happens in this office, OK? But what I do know is that when Mr. Firedrake sends these faxes, he means for them to carried out. Ok? The very last thing I need to do is disappoint Mr. Firedrake."
"Ok, Emily. Lead the way."
John followed Emily back to the far side of the office space. She moved very very slowly, and since he was following, he was faced with the difficult choice of either walking in a kind of geisha "three-little-maids-from-school-are-we" shuffle, or taking a regular size step, waiting a few moments, and then taking another. It occurred that while John had seen Emily move, it had all been out of the corner of his eye, a peripheral event. John alternated between the shuffle and the standard step, converting the walk into unflattering dance step.
Emily unlocked a heavy, solid core commercial security door. There was a medium sized windowless room, dimly lit, lined with utility shelving on the other side, floored with linoleum tile, otherwise empty.
Another heavy door. Emily waited a moment, a short pause with her hand laid against the door surface, an intuitive check of its continued solidity. Then she unlocked and opened it.
Door swung wide, impelled by a spill of brightly colored plastic cubes. The room was big, brilliantly lit by industrial lighting overhead. It was filled to chest height with a random jumble of perfect cubes - red, blue, green. They were about five centimeters on a side, a tumble of primary color debris. John bent and picked one up. It was smooth to the touch, with the hand feel and density of plastic, maybe with some metal inside. It was unornamented, as simple as could be, a geometric solid.
"What the hell are these?" John turned a red cube in his hand. A quick visual of the room indicated that the red cubes were the most common. But maybe that was just a layer on top. Maybe there was a stratigraphy to the cubes, like sedimentary rock.
"They're software, Mr. Hothead."
"They're software. Mr. Firedrake calls them software."
"So this is some kind of storage medium?"
"Don't ask me, Mr. Computer Man. I'm not the Computer Man."
"But why are there so many of them? Like this?" John pointed into the room. Store coal like this? Yes. Store grain? Yes. Multicolored plastic cubes of indiscernible purpose? The jury was still out.
"There were mistakes. With the duplication equipment." Emily just looked into the room.
"Where is the duplication equipment?"
"At the back of this room."
"Back there?" The back of the room was an easy fifty feet away. Fifty times fifty times four - 10,000 cubic feet of… cubes.
"Yes, the equipment is back there."
"Mr. Firedrake didn't bring me in, did he, Emily? You did. You were supposed to shut off the machines."
"I wouldn't know anything about that - but these need to get sorted into the shipping boxes and taken down to storage."
"Between the lobby and P1."
"That could be underwater, you know."
"I wouldn't know anything about that. These need to be sorted by color and taken to storage. It would also be nice if you could figure out how to turn off the machines, but I wouldn't know anything about that. I've got to get back to my desk." Emily left with a burst of speed, and shut the outer door behind her. It was John and the cubes.
With a hunched, stomping motion, John made his way back into the room. The cubes were shifting under his feet. At times, it seemed like they were moving, actively shifting. There were structures buried under the surface, long rods and angle brackets of cubes linked together. It was like crawling through a landfill for discarded science fair models of DNA. The inanimate stirring action was giving him the willies, a sinking feeling in his testicles. His nuts were telegraphing their desire to climb back into this abdominal cavity and get as far away from the cubefill as possible.
Back wall. Three big stainless steel cabinets protruded from the smoothness of the wall. The top of each cabinet was marked with a rectangular tile - red, blue, green. Next to the color tile, a green light - the power on indicator? Pressing on the light did nothing - wasn't a button. Each cabinet had a line of ten circular lights that ran along the top of the face, similar to the "floor indicator" lights on an elevator. Every few seconds, the red machine would make a banging sound, like a soda machine dispensing a can. Digging away at the cubes, John found the output slot. The machine banged again, and a red cube bumped out. Another circular light on the red machine clicked on. After ten red cubes, the green machined banged. John dug down again - yes, green cube machine dispenses one green cube for every ten reds. When array at top of green cube machine hits ten, blue machine bangs out blue cube. So, one hundred red (100), ten green (10), one blue (1). Significant? Sure. What does it mean? No fucking idea.
So this is what he does:
Crawl back out of room. Come back with detached file cabinet drawer. Bigfoot shamble return to machines. Use filing drawer like no-handle coal shovel to dig out the facings of all three machines. No obvious power switch. No controls. Can't open the cabinets, no access panels, or even screws or rivets. Walk around the office, looking for the circuit breaker. Nothing.
Best bet seemed to be clearing the room and getting the output under control. John thought about the task of sorting the cubes by hand. This was cleaning the Augean Stables, but with the value-add of sorting and collating the different varieties of bullshit contained within. This couldn't be a brute force job. To the best of his knowledge, he was not condemned to a Greek mythology afterlife, and he lacked the necessary army of Mandarin nabob abacus slingers to do the sorting in their embroidered silk robes. John felt like he was starting to get a feel for Firedrake. A right tool for the right job man. Machines for machine work.
Another walk around the office. In a storage closet by Mr. Firedrake's suite, there was a large cardboard box. Line art printed onto the corrugated cardboard depicted in heavy black ink something that looks suspiciously like an industrial robot - multi-jointed arm, machine vision camera.
John hand-trucked the box back to the buffer room. Opened it with a box cutter. It was a robot, about five feet tall, a motorized arm mounted on a heavy base like a floor lamp. Ran on wall current. John plugged it in, and a little flat panel display on the arm mount lit up.
"PUT ME TO WORK!" Big block type and a sunshiny synthetic voice razzed out of the user interface panel. Graphics started to roll by. The arm stirring a can of paint. The arm turning a screwdriver on an assembly line. The arm holding an M-16 and shooting down an empty corridor. The arm sorting boxes.
John reached up and tapped the screen.
"I LOVE TO SORT! TAKE MY HAND AND HELP ME LEARN!" John guided the hand down to a red cube, gently fighting the poppy little surges of motor feedback from the machine's articulation. He closed the claw around the cube and then moved the arm around to the right and opened the claw. He did the same for a green cube, and a blue cube. Red cubes right. Green cubes left. The least frequent blues to the rear.
"I"M READY TO GO GO GO!" The word "GO!" pulsed on the monitor. John tapped the screen, and the robot went to work. It was fast and precise. Time for lunch.
John bought a sandwich at the food court. The price had risen to ten dollars a sandwich. The waves occasionally send spray against the windows. People looked wrinkled. Some sported bedhead, the maintenance routines for the coiffures disrupted by the marine event.
Two big men in polo shirts and khakis were making their way among the tables. They were handing out pamphlets to the food court patrons. The two men made their way over to John. John could read the title of the pamphlet now, upside down: DEALING WITH STRESS IN THE WORKPLACE.
"Hello. I am Fletcher Winston, from Building Management. Are you an employee here at Obelisk Tower Place?" Fletcher was big, from lifting weights. He wore gold rimmed glasses. His pants were elaborately pleated.
"I am. I work at Firedrake Consulting." said John.
"Floyd Newport, John. Is that Firedrake Consulting, LLC?" asked Floyd, the other pleated man. John looked past him. Matilda/Madison was sitting down to eat her lunch.
"Uh, yes. Is there another Firedrake in the building?"
"You are not a full time employee of one of the leasers here at the property?" asked Fletcher.
"No. I'm a temporary worker."
"Then I'm afraid you're ineligible for our stress management literature and complementary seminar at the wellness center on 15." said Floyd. The two men walked off.
Matilda/Madison, Contessa of the Food Court, was eating her lunch now, across the wide room. Silver light from sun playing on the rolling swell outside the windows threw rapid shadows among the tables. Matilda/Madison was eating the same sandwich that John and everyone else in the food court was enjoying at ten dollars a pop. She was reading An Anatomy of Melancholy, a huge dog-eared trade paperback edition. First revenge, then Victorian science and medicine, now Age of Enlightenment natural philosophy on mental illness. John felt sick to his stomach, then terribly lonely. His hands went to work making an origami crab out of his sandwich wrapper. She was either an angel Just-In-Timed together just for him on the celestial assembly line as part of a new program of metaphysical beneficence, a mad-as-a-hatter artchick sent by malevolent forces to burn him to the ground, or some dialectic established between the two. From his observations to date, she was quite unaware of his existence - despite his staring.
But, assume nothing. Matilda/Madison, lunch hour Philosophina Naturalis took an easy, double-eyed peek over the top of her book. She pulled her left hand away from the book and gave John the slowest and gentlest of waves. John could feel the blood flush to his neck, under the skin.
To her right, the Alpha Matron - Compass Shawl, looked up from her sandwich and fixed John with a glare, a glare that ran departments and inspired fear.
John left the foil crab on the table. There were things to do.
Back on his home floor, John found the cargo elevator. It was part of the tower's service core. The elevator was operated by a heavy rubberized keypad. John punched in numbers in five floor increments, starting at the 46th floor - smoking girl's secret hideout. Fifty-one. Bump and ascend. Fifty-six. Bump and ascend. Sixty-one. Error. Decrement floor count to sixty. Going up. Last stop.
The doors open onto another unfinished floor. This must be the top. It was going to be a gallery or showroom or restaurant. High ceilings, tall windows that looked over water that today was a light blue wash, blending into the horizon line with no distinct boundary.
There was a collection of cardboard boxes in the center of the floor. Two of the boxes were very long - twenty five feet in length. One of the smaller boxes had a bright orange plastic shipping envelope adhered to its side. John pulled off the packet. It was addressed to Mr. Firedrake.
The boxes were shipped to Mr. Firedrake. They contained a kit for a twenty five foot catamaran, an actual fucking sailboat. A pamphlet inside the packet unfolded to reveal a diagram of the completed boat. It was a racing boat, with small sleeping and cargo berths enclosed in each pontoon. The packet also contained a disc labeled "READ ME FIRST." John slipped the disk into his shirt pocket.
Hanging on the service core wall were blueprints for the whole building. Other than the top floor, foot court, and Firedrake Consulting on 20, every completed floor was identical.
Firedrake Consulting, LLC held the lease to the sixtieth floor. John looked out at the water for a while. It was pretty thrilling. He wondered when the entire works was going to pitch into the sea, the breaking sea around the building's base cutting away at whatever substrate supported the tower until the inevitable collapse. Or maybe everyone would wake up tomorrow to find themselves back where they started, baseline reality, all of them strung out and wrinkled from the event, but none the worse for wear, a short drive away from home, back to the weather radio and a call from the temporary agency.
Blue water turning to green promises something different.
John took the stairs down, floor by floor. Everything above 43 was unfinished. Miss M's private smoking parlor on 46 was undisturbed.
Back through the front doors at Firedrake. Emily at her desk, reading a magazine.
"How is it going back there, Hon?" asked Emily.
"Got it under control. Going to start taking some stuff down to storage."
"You're doing a great job, sugar."
John walked back to Mr. Firedrake's suite. The door was locked. Through the glass door, John could see the desk. It was the biggest desk he had ever seen, a smooth expanse of lacquered top over heavy legs hewn out of timber, expertly joined. It was beautiful - masculine and crafted. John had read about desks built from salvaged timber, wood salvaged from shipwrecks or collapsed barns. This desk had that feeling - imperious, accomplished, and competent. It was the kind of desk John would really like to spend an afternoon with, going through every drawer. Use the pens. Write on the letterhead. Smoke a Cohiba from the left hand drawer. Look for the pistol hidden in the locker drawer on the right. The center of the desk held a brass sextant and oversized pocket watch, maybe a ship's clock, like a Harrison Watch?
It was the desk of a man that would know what to do, if he were here.
"Arr! Welcome squiddy, to SEA DOG!" The voice was coming from the computer in front of John. John had pulled one of the Firedrake workstations and moved it to the top floor on the cargo elevator. He was sitting cross-legged in front of the machine on a slab of foam rubber he'd found.
On the screen in front of him was a picture of the Sea Dog catamaran, under full sail, cutting through the water. In the lower corner of the screen was an animation of a pirate, dancing a jerky hornpipe as the computer idled and the video began to loop from different perspectives. John moved the mouse, hit a few keys on the keyboard.
"Arr! Welcome squiddy! Welcome to SEA DOG!" John's manipulation of the keys seemed to have no effect.
"Welcome, matey! Welcome aboard!"
"Hello?" John looked for the condenser mic.
The Pirate produced an accordion, squeezed out a quick jig, clicking his heels.
"Arr, matey! We'll make a sailor of you yet! Captain of the Mizzen!"
"Sea Dog, do you have any other voices or wizards available?"
The Pirate stumbled under an animated wave, to be replaced by uptight looking figure in the uniform of a British naval officer.
"Of course, old boy. Just the thing, the very thing. Capital, I say! Top drawer!" The Captain puffed madly on a pipe, the animation looping too quickly, the motion pixilated.
"Can you go back to the Pirate, please?"
"Arr! I knew you were as faithful as a ship's watch, squiddy! Now let's start by opening the box labeled 'One'."
The day was gone. Dark sky full of low cloud hung over dark water. John walked back into the Firedrake offices. Emily slept seated at her desk, arms folded across her chest, head down.
past Temporary: Tuesday
-:::- Temporary: Worksday future