I was walking down the hallway in my office building, arms folded gentlemanly so that my hands were behind my back, when a hooligan stepped around the corner and punched me squarely in the jaw.
I reeled back – as an internet scholar, I must say, my jaw is made of metaphorical glass – and bounced off the wall, but did not fall. The hooligan gave an ungodly snort, reminding me of the subculture what goes out on weekends to play pretend as minotaurs and elves, and smacked her fist into her open hand loudly. “About time you got here,” she spat.
“Pardon?” I managed to sputter, caught on the tightrope between indignance and animal fear. I had just gotten punched in the face! What does one do with such an event, short of fleeing or fighting back or perhaps screaming for help?
I considered, for a second, that third option. Unfortunately for me, the building is very large and well-insulated against sound, and the hallways are usually empty at hours other than those designated for arriving, lunching, or leaving.
“Idjit,” the hooligan growled, the rumble in her voice further testament to her uncivility. “You really have no idea, do you?”
I worked my jaw and tried to ignore the ache spreading up my face. At least she hadn’t broken my nose; that was something, I supposed. I nearly started my response by calling her ‘madam’ before angrily tossing aside such courtesies. She did not deserve them. She had punched me! “I have no idea who you are or what you could possibly hope to gain by brutally assaulting me,” I said as coldly as I could manage. The ice in my voice was somewhat belied by the tremor rattling it.
She smacked her forehead with her open palm, and the slap resonated through the silent hall. “You fool cuss,” she swore, then strode forward with a hand extended. I shied backwards, but scraping along the wall is not a terribly efficient way of fleeing, and her hand closed like an iron band around my silver watch and the wrist beneath it. “Come on. We’re going.”
“Absolutely not!” I protested, but the hooligan outweighed me by some fifty pounds as far as I could reckon and had no trouble at all dragging me along behind her. I stumbled and tried to dig in my heels and gave a few obligatory shouts of help! help! I’m being abducted! help! with little hope. When each office suite in the building has its own small kitchen and set of bathrooms, there is precious little random traffic during work hours.
“I will pick you up and carry you like a load of dung if I have to,” she snapped as we navigated the turns of the networked hallways.
“Do you often carry loads of dung?” I snapped, at my wit’s end and beginning to feel fear claw my throat shut. I truly was being abducted, and I could not save myself, and no one was present to save me.
“Only person-shaped ones,” she retorted, surprisingly quick and scathing in her comeback. I betted she’d be an interesting combatant in the well-loved water-cooler game of Ridicule.
I flailed ineffectually with my free hand, trying to shove her hand from my captive wrist and, when that utterly failed, trying to grab at the wall as we marched along. Being a very fine office building, all doorknobs and light switches were flush with the wall, inset for a smoother look, and offered no purchase for my grasping fingers.
“Will you at least tell me why you are so invested in ruining my life? And also perhaps where we’re going?” I finally asked, exasperated, as I consented to walk normally alongside her. She had a longer stride to me, which I matched with some difficulty.
She eyed me sidelong like a stray cat that had just pissed on her boot. I half-expected her to spit in my face with such an expression, but she only rolled her eyes. “What’s your name?” she asked me in turn.
I was aghast. “You cannot tell me that you do not know who I am, after all this implying that I am a specific target for your… your… criminal intentions!” She delivered unto me such a burning stare that I recoiled as far as I could. After a moment, I collected myself and replied, “My name is Wilford Kerr. To whom do I have the dubious honor of speaking?”
“Wilford,” she echoed with a tone between amusement and scorn. “And what do you do here, Wilford Kerr?”
I felt the lower eyelid of my left eye twitch, but I smoothed out my frustration. Perhaps, if I answered her questions, she would answer mine. “I am a virtual kinetic architect.”
“And who do you architectize for, Wilford Kerr?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. I really didn’t know what was going on. Was I being played a fool and revealing everything to validate her kidnapping a stranger, or was I being played a fool and being led on to some inexorable mental revelation? “I am employed by the Midlands division of the National Digital Builders Corps.”
She winked at me. “And you have no idea why someone would want to take you?”
“… not really, no,” I confessed. “Are you holding me for ransom? I’m not entirely sure the Corps would be willing to tender money to a terrorist or criminal or whatever you–”
“Insurgent, if you please,” she said, mocking my civil tone.
My stomach dropped out of its place behind my ribs and hit the floor. I stopped in my tracks, mouth agape– but she didn’t stop, and within a stride I was being pulled along again. “In– in– in–” I stuttered helplessly.
My captor chuckled mercilessly. “You formal types,” she scoffed, then jiggled my wrist as though I were a child. “Gonna be in shock until we’re done, huh?”
That spurred me out of my broken-record mouthing. “Done? Done with what? What are we doing?”
“We’re going to get rid of this building,” she said casually, nonchalantly. I stopped again, and she dragged me forward again, and I let my legs buckle beneath me so that she had to haul my dead-but-still-fairly-inconsiderable weight along the textured flooring.
“You– you can’t– there are people here!– I won’t–”
“Oh calm down.” She paused long enough to lift me, by my arm alone, to my feet again. When I was standing reluctantly again, she pushed her face close to mine, and I recoiled. Her breath smelled like sweetmints. “We aren’t going to kill anyone. That’s why we need your help.”
“I am not helping–”
“Or,” she interrupted, “you can be a useless cuss and require us to hurt people before we can deal with the building itself. Your choice.”
My jaw dropped, and I sputtered, but I was fast realizing that I was not getting out of these turbulent events so easily, so my sputtering did not last as long as before. “Just how do you plan on walking me out past security like this?” I instead demanded, trying to jiggle my arm as she had but accomplishing far less. Her hand was a lead weight on my wrist.
She smiled broadly, revealing slightly crooked but healthy teeth. “Why, I’m your cousin, Wilford. Your cousin Oni. We’re going out for a special early lunch with my mother.”
But we walked cordially through the gates of security, and I gave the guard on duty the all-okay nod, and somehow he didn’t notice the early signs of a bruise growing beneath my loose watch-band. Once we emerged from the building and its long covered walkway, Oni held open the door of a sleek black transport for me. It was one of the sporty, fine models that would fit one driver and one passenger directly behind them, trading roominess for performative speed and power.
I hesitated. We were in the dimly-lit open space of the parking garage outside the building. No people in sight, only rows of transports and a few expensive cycles, but this was it: if I got in the transport with her, there would be practically no hope of escape. Or rescue. She hadn’t been pulling me along since we passed through security, so if I tried to run…
She was watching me with a stare like a crouching feline. I got in the transport. She shut the door, and I heard it lock.
The transport shifted as she climbed in ahead of me. I didn’t hear the engine come to life, which indicated to me that the insurgents were either very skillful at stealing nice vehicles or they had enough money to legally purchase them for certain missions; the transport rolled like a wave across the smooth pavement and out into the street.
“There’s a panel inset into the back of my seat,” Oni said over her shoulder, too casual as she navigated our bullet-shaped vehicle through the larger bodies in traffic. “Use it.”
I lifted a felt cover to see a small, inactive screen. “Use it to do what, exactly?” I asked. I was tense and quivery and I was fairly sure my heart had grown hummingbird wings and was desperately trying to evacuate my flesh. I was now responsible for all the two-thousand-or-so lives of the workers in my entire building.
“Put your name in,” Oni replied dryly.
I did so, and the screen flooded with information – schematics of the building, all the contact information for every floor– every office suite– every single person. Messages were pre-written for all of them, set to send at close-spaced intervals during the building-wide lunch hour for those who wouldn’t be leaving on their own initiative.
“Cuss,” I whispered reverently. Their planning was sublime. I had so little to do; I just activated the program that would, in essence, completely evacuate the building.
“Ten minutes before the end of lunch hour, before anyone comes back and after everyone leaves what’s going to at all, we’ll hit the fire alarm and force the stragglers out,” Oni said to me as we paused at a traffic light. “You’ll have five minutes between them all leaving and the alarm being shut off to get rid of the building.”
I bit my tongue on the question of but why this building?, feeling sure that I already knew. The top floor was reserved for governmental entities, small subsidiaries and nothing like real headquarters, but enough to make an impact on a federal level of the building was targeted.
Then I realized it. “You lied,” I said, feeling more surprised than I ought to have. “You would have evacuated everyone without me. If I hadn’t come, they’d still all be safe– you lied!”
Oni was laughing, a rumbling chuckle from her belly. “Dumb cuss,” she said without any particular acid; she almost made the insult sound affectionate. “I didn’t lie. Since you cooperated in leaving with me, I didn’t have to hurt you and the security guards to get you out. I never said the whole building’s populace was in danger – you assumed that on your own.”
I kicked at the floorboard in frustration, then watched as the screen flicked away from the long queue of pending message sends and opened up into a new interface. Proprietary software that I had helped create for my employer waited at my fingertips, but the tools and controls that were designed to create kinetic blueprints for vehicles and smaller robotics had been overlaid with building mechanics. Our building’s mechanics.
“Do the rest,” Oni said, gravity pulling her voice low. “You’ve got twenty-five minutes before you need to deploy it.”
I reeled as though she’d punched me again. Less than half an hour to do a week’s worth of work? “You jest, surely,” I said, but I already knew she didn’t, and her silence proved it.
I worked. The minutes flew by like the traffic around us, and I paid no heed to where we were driving; I just worked and worked and kept in mind that if I was even a minute late, I would be risking lives of completely innocent people returning from their lunches. I worked and when I hit validate program, I realized I was sweating and shaking and in need of a bathroom.
“Ninety seconds to spare,” Oni said. I had no idea how she knew when I stopped; the touch of fingers to screen is quiet and hard to detect, even in such a silent transport as this. “Good job, Wilford.”
We rolled to a gradual stop, and I realized we were on the roof of the parking garage, the nose of our vehicle pointing straight at my towering building. The red lights of fire alarms flashed in every window, a warning for civilians to not enter.
The program validated, and I numbly pressed my fingertip to the button that said schedule deployment. It timed itself correctly, and I stared past Oni’s head to watch the building.
At precisely the right second, all the fire alarm lights went dark, and then the building began to come apart.
Like a thousand short insect legs, the steel struts in the walls swiveled outwards, breaking through the glassy golden surface of the building. Giant shards of surfacing material fell towards the ground, dissolving within seconds and landing as metallic dust over the trees and bushes planted around the base of the building.
The building-turned-millipede wriggled struts enthusiastically, as though it was trying to climb the air, and then all the metal rods left their makeshift joints. They, too, dissolved into silver particles before they hit anything. So it was with the rest of the building, floor by floor collapsing, crushing, dissipating, until all that was left was a very dusty pile of unprogrammable furniture and a few archaic personal computers that did not have safety mechanisms built into them. It was a jumbled heap a story and a half high, sprawling the entire square footage of the building’s concrete base. I watched a desk chair tumble off the peak of the pile and go rolling down the slope and into the bushes.
“Nice work,” Oni said appreciatively.
“We’re going to be arrested,” I pointed out, slowly shaking myself from the stupor of witnessing so much destruction and some millions of dollars in damage. I could hear the whine of police cycles already, mingling with the hawkish cries of incoming ambulances and fire control vehicles.
“Nah,” she said dismissively, and our transport shuddered violently. For a moment, I thought she was going to kill us both– then, as I realized she was about to drive off the edge of the fifty-foot-high parking garage’s roof, I thought I was right.
We cleared the edge in a graceful arc, but before the missile-like nose of our vehicle could turn towards the metal-dusted ground, a noisy pair of engines caught fire just behind my seat and rocketed us forward. I peered out the tiny side windows and caught a glimpse of smooth wings extended from the transport’s flanks, just small enough to have been easily hidden and stored, just large enough to keep us from plummeting to our deaths.
Oni was laughing as she rode the winds away from the ruined building where I used to work.