by Tyler Jones
Sunlight blooms in the sky, rising up from behind all those glass and steel buildings. It burns away the dark blue. The Windows are still tinted from yesterday when I dimmed them. I touch the tablet to wake it up, then press the office icon. A new menu opens, I push the square with curtains. A control panel appears and I drag the fader down.
The glass grows clearer, lets in more light.
A shudder moves through the building. Framed awards, signed photographs of CEOs and politicians rattle against the walls. A golden apple paperweight shivers across the surface of the desk. The window vibrates, warps my reflection in the glass.
Work here long enough you get used to this, this shivering building.
I’m always the first to arrive because I still have some thing to prove.
My dad taught me that. He said, “The moment you think you’ve made it, is the moment someone is waiting behind you with a knife.”
The building I’m in, you know it if you live in the city. The tower at the center of everything, made of rust colored stone. Some people say it gets redder every year.
I grew up walking past the tower every day on my way to school. There would always be a limousine, or a Jaguar, or a Bentley parked in front, letting out some CEO or investor, dressed to the nines in a suit that cost more than my dad made in a year.
I didn’t know what they did in the building, but I knew I wanted to be there. Someday. Away from the single bedroom apartment with stained carpets and mold covered walls. The kitchen window looked out over an alley that always reeked of rotting food and dead animals.
My dad also used to say, “Anything worth having requires sacrifice.”
But we didn’t have anything, in fact, we had less than nothing. Mom died when I was still too young to remem-ber her, and dad worked as a machinist not because he wanted to, but because he couldn’t do anything else. And after forty years of never calling in sick all he had to show for it was a hand missing a finger, and a mind that couldn’t remember which day of the week it was. The dementia stole him in pieces before it took him away for good.
He told me sacrifice was the only way to succeed. He told me this while I practiced basketball in the street. I didn’t want to, dad made me. He made me drill every evening while he sat on the stoop and smoked cigarette butts other people had dropped on the ground.
Everything was a lesson with my dad, but the ones that really stayed with me are the ones he didn’t even know he was teaching.
The foundation of the building was laid back when this massive city was just a small collection of farmhouses and fields. Back when horse-drawn carriages rumbled down the dirt roads. Back when the world seemed a lot smaller.
The foundation is still here, buried way down deep beneath the basement.
There used to be a name out there above the rotating glass doors that lead to the lobby. But those letters rusted and fell off. You can still see the ghost letters on the stone, so faded now no one can read them. All that’s left is the word “corporation”.
Dad hated being poor, but he never said it. He didn’t have to. He just always told me how being rich would be better.
For me, it was the constant embarrassment of being dressed in clothes that other kids in my school had donated to the thrift store. It was not being able to buy a car at sixteen, which meant no dates. It was never having money to go to the movies with my friends.
I would have done anything to have more. And the red tower, it represented everything I wanted. Sometimes I’d walk by after school and look up all that stone, imagine what it would be like to work in a place where you had to wear a suit and tie.
But no one knew what the Corporation did. I asked around and all I got were vague answers about finance and political campaigns. Some said it was stocks, others said it was international trade. Everything and nothing, is what I got.
Dad told me that everything hurts in two ways. “Your momma gets sick and goes to the hospital, now you’re not only worried about her, you can’t sleep because you don’t know how you’re gonna pay for her meds. Two ways—the pain of the thing, and the money you lose taking care of that pain.”
Every night I’d lie on my sleeping bag in the living room with walls so thin you could feel the winter wind squeeze right through the particle board, and promise myself I’d never be poor.
Dad told me my height was the only way it’d happen. Said God gave me a gift with my long arms and legs. I told him I didn’t like basketball, and that was the only time he ever smacked me. His cracked and callused hand struck the side of my face. His fingers burned on my cheek even after the hand was gone.
He pointed one greasy finger at me, breathing heavy, and said, “You don’t get to choose, boy.” The finger moved and pointed at our apartment building. “This where you want to be? This the future you see? No, I didn’t think so. You practice and you practice hard, because it’s the only way you’re gettin’ into college.”
As always, Dad was right.
Basketball got me a scholarship. I majored in business, and a few weeks after graduation I’m standing just outside the red tower, waiting for Mr. Winters, vice-president of the Corporation, for a job interview.
A few minutes before eight, a sleek black car pulled up. The driver got out and opened the back door for a tall skeletal man with slicked white hair. So thin he looked like a skeleton draped in skin. He wore a three-piece navy-blue, pinstriped suit. The gold chain of a pocket watch hung from his vest. He smiled with teeth that looked yellow because of the white- ness of his hair.
Mr. Winters shook my hand, his skin soft and cold. I wore a suit that didn’t fit and still smelled like thrift store because I couldn’t afford to have it cleaned. My scalp itched under a fresh, slightly crooked haircut I gave myself the day before.
He held my hand for a long time, looked into my eyes. Instead of letting go, Winters moved my hand, lifted it to the stone of the building. My fingers flattened against the cold rough granite, Mr. Winters’s skeletal hand on top of mine.
“Do you feel it?” He asked me. Spearmint breath and aftershave filled my nose.
I tried to move my hand, but Winters pushed his down on top of mine, harder. I was about to jerk my hand away when the stone under my skin shivered. I had to crane my neck to see the whole skyscraper, but I swear it swayed a little. The edges of the building blurred. From the roof, birds took flight and scattered into the sky.
Mr. Winters smiled and I saw those yellow teeth again.
Our shoes clacked and echoed over the polished tile of the lobby. A security guard watched us cross, nodded at Mr. Winters as we waited for the elevator, the doors of which looked like they were right out of an old black and white movie.
Mr. Winters remained silent until the bell rang and we stepped inside. His finger hovered over the twenty-four buttons. “Hmm,” he said, “let’s start at Asset Management, shall we?”
His thin finger pushed the button and we rose with a shudder. The numbers on the buttons went all the way to 58, but there’s another floor above that. This one said “CEO.” “Will I meet him?” I asked, pointing to the button.
“Mr. Burke doesn’t much like visitors,” Winters said. “His concern is running the Corporation, not meeting new employees.”
The elevator creaked and groaned as it moved. When the doors opened we stepped out into a large open space. Doors lined each side of the room. A few young men in suits much better than mine walked back and forth. Faces serious, focused. One man came closer, his blonde hairline was slick and sweat dripped from his nose.
“Good morning, Mr. Winters,” he said.
The sweating man moved on, limping as he did. His face tightened in pain with each step.
Doors opened and closed. More young men crossed the large room, passed folders to other men in other rooms.
“Notice anything?” Winters asked.
One man opened his door to accept a file from someone who lurched across the room. The hand that accepted the folder was missing a finger. A white bandage covered the stump where his pinky finger should have been.
Winters patted my shoulder. “Let’s move on, shall we?”
In the elevator, Winters pressed the 32 button and once again the cage jerked a little.
The doors opened onto another floor that looked almost exactly like the other, only the men and women who moved through this space did so with an increased level of efficiency. None of them had sweat soaking the backs of their shirts. An overweight guy with a mostly bald head laughed as he talked with someone holding a tablet. One of the sleeves of his starched white shirt was pinned up at the elbow, just an emptiness where the rest of his arm should be.
An attractive woman in a black skirt and jacket walked by. Her dark hair swayed as she passed, and when the hair moved I saw a twisted patch of scar tissue where her ear should have been.
I thought it was a joke, a prank-the-new-guy trick, but I couldn’t stop the blood from rushing through my head.
A young man, not much older than me, hobbled over on a pair of crutches.
“Good morning, sir,” he said to Mr. Winters.
One leg of this guy’s pants was just dangling cloth.
Winters, hands folded in front, nodded slightly and said, “Are you ready?”
The smile disappeared from the young man’s face. He adjusted the crutches and nodded, then hobbled into the open elevator.
Questions tumbled through my head but I couldn’t find the right words to ask.
Mr. Winters lifted a chain from around his neck, a key dangled at the end of it. He inserted this into a slot near the bottom of the panel. When he turned it, three buttons glowed red. One marked LL, another TL, and the one below that, FOUNDATION. Winters pushed this last one and the elevator rumbled to life.
“Is that the sub-basement?” I asked.
Winters showed his yellow teeth. “Lower than that.”
Crutch guy stood military straight, eyes closed, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. I tried not to look at the empty space under his knee.
The air got warmer as we descended. Deep, low sounds shook outside the elevator walls. The cables that lowered us thrummed, as though plucked by a giant hand.
“Mr. Eisele here has made an important decision today,” Winters said. “He has worked hard and proven himself to be diligent and dedicated. But today,” the elevator caught for a moment and lifted my stomach, “today he takes the next step. Today he secures his place on floor 45.”
Eisele’s breathing came out even faster as the bell rang off each floor. 7, 6, 5
“It’s important for you to understand how one advances within the Corporation,” Winters said, looking at me without any hint of a smile.
“Of course, sir,” I said.
4, 3, 2.
The air got so warm it hurt to breathe. It felt like being suffocated. Now Eisele started to sweat. Little beads of moisture formed on his nose, his forehead. His fingers squeezed the rubber handles of the crutches with small wet squeaks. The smell of his sweat filled the elevator.
1, TL, LL.
At the FOUNDATION level the doors slid open and a blast of warm air hit us. Eisele crutched out into a long stone hallway. Winters and I followed.
There were no lights in the low ceiling, but a red glow came from the far end of the hall. It pulsed on the walls. Walls made of stacked stone that looked like what you’d imagine a castle was made of.
Metallic sounds echoed where the red light came from. Loud clanking noises that filled my head, mechanical and rhythmic. I walked behind Eisele, followed his sweat drenched jacket, followed the nervous reek of him.
At the end of the tunnel was a large circular space. I stopped walking when I saw what was at the center of the room, but Eisele and Winters kept going.
A massive hole in the ground, and from this hole rose a machine that looked like something out of a clockmaker’s dream. A metal framework of pipes and joints twisted together to create a senseless shape. Gears, large and small, spun smaller cogs that pulled giant chains in and out of the hole. And that hole was the source of the red glow, the heat. So much stronger now. Pistons pumped deep into the brightness. Thick pipes ran from the machine and into the walls. Dark liquid leaked from around where the metal connected to the stone.
The whole thing looked like some metallic creature that just clawed its way up from the center of the world. Steam burst out of pipes above us with a loud hiss. The room filled with fresh heat.
Eisele made his way to a piece of stone that stood at the edge of the fissure. Some kind of pedestal with a long trough that led down into the red light. I swear the machine got louder as he got closer. A shudder moved through the floor. Black exhaust spewed from other pipes, a choking odor that smelled like burnt meat.
I could hardly breathe, and not just because of the steam and the heat. This massive machine, whatever it is, I know it saw me. It sensed me in the room. I felt it as clearly as when the curtains of dad’s dementia get pulled back just a little, when he sees me, knows me. All those gears and pipes and chains, something aware was at the center of it.
The top of the pedestal was bowl shaped with a cutout around the lip. Red light glinted from something hanging above the bowl, something I couldn’t quite see. Mr. Winters put a hand on the young man’s shoulder, said something to him, and came back to where I stood.
“If you want to advance within the Corporation,” he said, “you have to make sacrifices.”
Eisele let his crutches fall to the ground. He unbuttoned the left sleeve of his shirt.
“The more you sacrifice, the higher you go,” Winters said.
I followed Winters all morning and the man hadn’t limped once. He wasn’t missing any fingers.
“What have you sacrificed?” I asked.
Winters smiled with rust-colored teeth. Eisele pushed the sleeve up past his elbow and rested his bare arm on the pedestal. Even from where I stood I could see his chest moving faster and faster.
Mr. Winters reached out and grabbed my wrist, pulled my hand closer. I tried to pull back but his grip was strong. My hand moved toward his pants. His eyes didn’t leave mine. He twisted my hand until it opened, pushed my palm against his crotch.
As soon as he let go of my hand I meant to pull away in disgust, but my fingers touched a smooth slope between Winters’s legs. His eyebrows went up. I couldn’t help but
press my hand against him, feeling for something that wasn’t there.
“I gave up what no one else was willing to,” he said.
Eisele’s head hung down, his mouth moved, eyes closed. Praying, no doubt. He unbuckled his belt, wrapped it around his upper arm, and tightened it.
“Burke,” I said, “the CEO. What did he give?”
Winters turned his attention to the machine. “Burke gave more than any of us.”
Eisele moved his other hand to a wooden lever that stuck out of the pedestal. The machine continued to whir and clank. The light from the hole glowed brighter.
“Burke opened himself here,” Winters made a line across his stomach. “He cut through his intestines, fed one end to the gears and let the machine pull from him as much as it wanted.”
Eisele’s hand opened and closed on the lever. The metal rattled and shook, pipes clanged together. Gears screeched and turned faster.
Winters nodded to the machine, “It left him just enough.”
Red light glints above Eisele’s head.
“Burke has led this Corporation for over twenty years,” Winters says. “But he has wasted away. It is almost time for me to take his place.”
Eisele looked over at us. His face was covered in small beads of red sweat. Winters took a small walkie-talkie from his pocket, pressed the button and spoke into it.
“Make the call,” he said.
A voice came through the speaker. “Yes, sir.”
Winters nodded at Eisele, who clenched his teeth together and pushed the lever down. The glinting thing above his head fell, sliced through the air, and a large, rusty blade slammed into the pedestal with a loud crack. A moment of silence. Steam hissed, swirled around Eisele’s feet, then he screamed. It echoed through the room. He fell to his knees, one hand held over the stump. Blood spurted from between his fingers. He writhed on the ground, still screaming, his one leg twitching.
Mr. Winters went over to the pedestal and pulled the lever. The blade slowly rose up, pulled on a thick chain, until it hung in the shadows once again. Eisele’s arm slid down the trough and slipped off the edge. Blood flowed into the machine, ran into the gears. I saw the slickness as they turned, glistening on the teeth, pressing the blood deep into the shafts.
Eisele’s screams grew weaker until they were just whimpers.
“Help me get him upstairs,” Winters said. Eisele’s face had gone stone grey. His lips, pale blue. I lifted him by the shoulders while Winters grabbed hold of the man’s pants, and we hoisted him up.
In the enclosed space of the elevator, I heard sirens echo. Eisele moaned, moving his head from side to side, his mouth all twisted up like he was trying not to cry. I tried not to look, but I couldn’t help but see the bright white bone surrounded by all that raw, angry flesh. Blood oozed from the wound and dripped onto the floor. Mr. Winters’s key still hung from panel, the chain swinging back and forth.
When the doors opened, we carried him into the lobby. Three paramedics rushed inside, pushing a gurney. They got to work right away and none of them asked what happened. Winters stepped aside as one paramedic plunged a needle into Eisele’s arm to start an IV.
The choice wasn’t made, not really, not until I heard the elevator doors begin to close, and I knew the only way to get to the FOUNDATION level was with Winters’s key, so I sprinted across the lobby and shoved my arm into the cage. The elevator doors hit my arm and opened back up. I got inside and pushed the FOUNDATION button. The doors started to close again and I saw Winters in the shrinking space, watching me.
I ran down the stone hall until I came to the room. The machine was quieter now, settled, but still in motion. The gears moved slowly. The structure towered above me, so high I couldn’t even see the top.
I went to the edge of the hole and looked down. Nothing but smoke and red light. Two of the gears were close enough to reach. I tried not to think of the pain, but I knew I had to hurry, while the paramedics were still there. Instead, I thought of what my dad told me, that success requires sacrifice. I thought of him, poor and broken, and reminded myself of the promise I made back in that single bedroom apartment.
I will not be poor.
I did what Eisele did, took off my belt and tightened it around my arm. I was just about to shove my arm into those gears when I saw Mr. Winters enter the room. He came over to me, put a hand on my shoulder. “You have to wait,” he said. “You don’t understand yet how this all works. You will in time.”
My hand reached up to my shoulder, covered his. Then I squeezed and grabbed his arm with my other hand. Winters’s eyes went wide, his shoes scraped the floor as I pulled him. But he was caught off guard, and he knew it. I planted my feet and swung him around with all my strength.
He started to say something, but the words caught in his throat when he lost his balance. The momentum took him right to the edge of the hole, half his body leaning out over all that red light. My hands still held him. His eyes were pleading with me, those yellow teeth clenched together.
I let both hands release at the same time, then shoved Winters in the chest. His feet left the ground, his body went horizontal, floated over the light and smoke, and crashed into the gears. His piercing scream, so loud and so full of pain, bounced around the room as the metal teeth tore through him. The screaming collapsed into a wet gurgle, then stopped. I heard the sound of bones snapping. Dark liquid flooded the gears.
The mess of ground-up flesh and pinstripe suit was crushed and carried from one gear to another. I saw a tangle of once white hair, now pink, fall into the red void below.
I knelt at the edge of the hole as the machine ingested Mr. Winters, and I felt that awareness again, watching me, assessing me. I closed my eyes and waited for whatever would happen next.
Sunlight blooms in the sky, rising up from behind all those glass and steel buildings. It burns away the dark blue.
There’s a knock at the door. I tap the camera icon on the tablet and see Burke waiting outside. I push the lock button and the doors click, swing open.
Burke comes shuffling into the room with the help of a cane—a sickly looking man with grey sallow skin and dark flesh under his eyes. What hair he has is patchy and brittle looking. His teeth are translucent and stained brown.
“Good morning, sir,” he says. “The numbers are up again today. Senator Peyton will be arriving at eleven o’clock, and the sheikh will be here shortly thereafter.”
He looks around the office that used to be his. His eyes on all the cameras I had installed and smiles slightly.
“Will there be anything else, sir?” he asks.
“No. Thank you, Burke,” I tell him.
Burke turns and leaves the room. The doors close behind him automatically and lock again.
I go back to the window and look out at the thriving city. The stone of the tower is redder than it’s ever been. We are in a new era. But I don’t leave this building without an armed guard, and I never eat food from our cafeteria. Because, like my dad said, “The moment you think you’ve made it, is the moment someone is waiting behind you with a knife.”
About the Author
Tyler Jones is the author of Criterium, The Dark Side of the Room, Enter Softly, Almost Ruth, and Burn the Plans. Future releases include Heavy Oceans, to be published by DarkLit Press in Spring 2023, and the novel Midas, which will be released Halloween 2023 by Earthling Publications. His work has appeared in the anthologies, Midnight From Beyond the Stars, Flame Tree Press: Chilling Crime Stories, Burnt Tongues (edited by Chuck Palahniuk), One Thing was Certain, 101 Proof Horror, Campfire Macabre, Paranormal Contact, and in Dark Moon Digest, Coffin Bell, Cemetery Dance, LitReactor, and The NoSleep Podcast.
About the Narrator
Scott Campbell searches for battles that will increase his skills for the battles to come. The slush pile underneath PseudoPod Towers is a worthy opponent. He also writes, directs, and performs for the queer (in every sense of the word) cabaret The Mickee Faust Club. He also write far too infrequently at the official online home of the Sleep Deprivation Institute (and pop culture website) Needcoffee.com. He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets.
Scott is an associate editor at PseudoPod starting in 2016, He lives in Florida with absolutely no pets. He become Web Wrangler in 2021, and promoted to Assistant Editor in 2022. He is an invaluable resource for not only his assistance with reviewing stories but also helping to build all the blog posts and ensuring our website and bios are up to date.