The following morning was an eerie one in the city.
The weekend had arrived and the city, usually bustling with consumer frenzied activity, seemed quiet and missing some of its inhabitants.
Shops stood half empty while the usually swelling cafe’s contained more empty seats than ever before. Those that were out went about their business as usual and some even enjoyed the newfound space while others wandered around slightly confused as to what the odd atmosphere was all about. It was something tangible but not quite ready to be spoken aloud but there were murmurs. Perhaps the Square was running something special? If so, why weren’t they consulted about it or why was it not raised at any of the community meetings? Nothing on at the Square today, others informed, nothing at all. Perhaps all the partying has collectively caught up on people. Still, we are making great money so one quiet day won’t kill us. Hey, did you catch the power outage last night? What was that? Power surge I reckon. Friend of mine said she heard noises coming from HQ and that she saw a bright light coming from the top floor.'
The theories and whispers exchanged never found a conclusion, but the air of suspicion and foreboding remained.
In his apartment, Geoff pottered around to music, cleaning, doing last night’s dishes and pondered about what he might do today.
Geoff couldn’t put his finger on it, but he had woken up feeling slightly anxious. He had had a restless night’s sleep tossing and turning and had felt a little unusual before going to bed too. It was as if he was not alone, now that he thought of it in the cold light of day. This feeling of being watched had lingered a while, as if there was some presence gazing at him from afar, penetrating through walls and buildings. He shrugged the feeling off, turned the music up a notch and continued his chores.
Once he was showered and dressed, Geoff decided he would go to the cinema. He had won a free ticket in a department competition at the start of last week and he may as well use it, there were a few half decent looking films out, including a sci-fi flick. Perhaps he could have a sneaky little joint on the way then sit back and enjoy the big screen revealing its latest and most likely, unoriginal piece of film.
Geoff padded into his bedroom and looked in his wash basket for his work trousers, he was pretty sure he had put the ticket in his trouser pockets. No dice.
Geoff wandered around his apartment trying to think where on earth he had put it. Part of him quietly enjoyed the leisurely hunt, he was a procrastinator and liked to stay in a little too much, the search delayed his mission to venture out.
He had left it on his desk in work. Geoff could see it in his mind’s eye, sat next to his keyboard taunting him.
Still, Geoff was more determined than usual to get out and about or at least get out and then sit in a cinema. Geoff made his mind up after some deliberation over coffee (he now bought coffee after his little office time with Marie) that he would head over to HQ, pop in his office and grab the ticket. In fact, it would be a nice little detour and who knows, he may even bump into Marie.
As Geoff ambled through the city towards HQ, he pondered on the fate of Steve Rocker. He wondered how quickly Steve would be dealt with and just what the outcome of those dealing’s would be. It was obvious the man was an arse, but he did not wish the guy to suffer in any unnecessary way, a demotion would be just perfect to Geoff’s mind.
Geoff reminisced over his meeting with Marie, that sparkle in her eye and musical giggle that he so enjoyed hearing. He had lusted after women all his life, privately that is, but he had never formed a meaningful bond with real live one till yesterday. It was ridiculous of course, she was married, had a kid and he was nothing, but one can dream and if the dream did not become reality, which he felt sure it wouldn’t, he just wanted to be around her anyway.
He liked the effect she had on him and she had inadvertently got him thinking beyond his solo little life since that simple meeting. His parents would have loved Marie, of that he was sure.
Geoff’s journey through the City was at an end, raced along by thoughts of Marie; he entered HQ and met the security guard stationed in the reception area. He informed the rather uptight guard of the nature of his visit, produced his Employee ID Card, and stated he was more than happy to be escorted to his office should that allay any fears. The security guard responded with a dismissive grunt and told Geoff he had ten minutes to collect his ticket and any work. Geoff had lied about picking up some work in case prying work-related parties should enquire about his presence at HQ on a weekend. Without quite knowing it, he also lied because he still had that nagging feeling of being watched, even now when he was away from his apartment.
Geoff wound his way down to the basement and felt the invasive feeling intensify as he neared his office.
Geoff stepped into his room tentatively and eyed it with suspicion. He briefly plopped himself at his desk and spied what he was looking for. The ticket was sat exactly where he remembered it.
But amongst his usual desk clutter lay foreign objects unfamiliar to his eye. Reams of data and odd tools lay strewn about the place and not only on his desk as he spun on his chair, checking the room out. There was also a veritable mess across the floor leading out of his room and corridor which led to private quarters.
Geoff wandered over to the door and gave it a push, the door did not give, and Geoff peered back into his room feeling just a little edgy. A waft of stale sweat swam its way past Geoff from his office. Geoff checked himself for the smell. Nothing.
He went back to the desk and had just decided to grab the ticket then inform security on his way out of his discovery, when he heard a shuffling noise behind him.
Geoff span on his chair and his vision was met directly by the cold faceless stare of the server. Except, Geoff observed, the server seemed different somehow. Maintenance, thought Geoff. Maintenance have been in here fiddling with the server running updates or manually fixing something and left the place untidy, or rather untidier.
But the shuffling noise, what was that, it sounded like it came from the server. Geoff stood and leant into the server to take a closer look. The thing looked cleaner than he remembered it. But there was something else, something he could see but could not quite understand. The lights on the server, normally blinking melodically on its stacks, seemed different somehow. They did not blink now; they seemed to stare, as if there was more going on behind those lights. Geoff snorted dismissively, which echoed and made him jump.
He shook his head and decided to leave, convincing himself it was a simple maintenance job and they had left a mess.
Geoff started up the stairs ready to make it to the cinema and got about three steps up when he heard from behind him, a whisper “Its ok my sweet, your little man has left now.”
Geoff slowly turned and crept back down the stairs. As he tip-toed back towards his room he saw a scruffy, bedraggled looking individual, caressing the server’s outer case, and whispering in soothing tones.
The strange man turned his head then flinched, as he saw Geoff standing in the doorway. Silence hung between the two as their eyes met before the man approached Geoff, hands shaking manically as he did. “Who are you?” Geoff enquired.
“I…I am,” the man could barely speak. His lips were dried and cracked, his beard shaggy and filthy with his once white overcoat heavily stained with grease, sickly yellow stains, and all other manner of unimaginable blemishes. Geoff could see the fear and state this man was in and moved to ease him.
“Hey its ok, it’s ok”, he soothed. “I just work in this office is all and that’s my workstation, I just came to collect something. Are you ok sir, you look, unwell?”
In response, the man's eyes rolled alarmingly before the colour drained from his face and his body hit the floor quicker than Geoff could catch him. Geoff knelt to him hurriedly and rather clumsily turned the man’s face to meet his. He was breathing. His eyes fluttered open. “Forgive me,” he gasped. “I feel weak. I have not stopped or slept for some time now,” he added. Geoff detected more than a hint of German in this strange man’s accent. “Hey, its ok, I’ll get you some assistance, just prop yourself up in my chair here and let’s get you seen to. I know server maintenance is important but I’m sure this little job can wait no?” Geoff said as he reached for the phone at his desk to call for help.
The odd man quickly and forcefully, considering his condition, placed his hand on Geoff’s and spat out “No! Please do not do that, please I beg you. I am fine, just, just fine.”
Geoff looked at him cautiously. “You don’t seem fine Mr, not at all. You look terrible, no offense. Look I can get you help; you need to be seen to.”
“Seen to?” he enquired. His face was positively drenched in fear. “You, you’re with them, aren’t you? The four heads, you are with them, I should have known. Please, please it is not too late for you. Do the right thing. We like you. We think you could help. They will turn this city into hell itself. People will die. People have already died, and it will only get worse, not just here you must understand but in the outside world. They are tearing everything to pieces. They have murdered me already. I am already dead you see. But it does not matter because I have made her live and she will save you all. She just needs some help and I…I cannot be trusted. Please will you help her?”
Geoff seriously feared for this man’s sanity. Maintenance could be stressful, but this was madness. What on earth was he talking about, who was she and why was he so scared of the four heads? No matter, this was not Geoff’s business, “Just stay calm ok Mr, and I’ll get help”
“Lahm” the man whispered. Geoff leaned closer to hear him. “My name is Lahm, Franz Lahm. I created the teleportation pads, helped build this city.”
Behind them the server let out a low rhythmic beat. Lahm’s anxiety went up a notch. “Do as I say quickly, please Mr Smith,” Lahm pleaded. “They are coming now. You must believe me. Everyone here and on the outside is at risk. They are insane and they will take everything before the end. Please, say nothing of me and the server. Take me upstairs, clear up in here and when the time comes, when she calls you, please help her. Together you can save it all. Now, please get me out of here and say nothing of this.”
Geoff lifted the bag of bones that lay in front of him with ease. This poor man had wasted away.
He did not carry him on instruction but because he desperately wanted this experience to end for both him and this Lahm character. As Geoff gingerly carried Franz out of his room and started up the stairs, he heard hurried footsteps race towards him from the top of the stairs and within moments was greeted by the image of the burly security guard he met upon entering HQ. “I said ten minutes pal what the..”
The security guard’s admonishment was broken as he spied Geoff carrying the pile of skin and bones, “Jesus what happened down here, where’d you find him?” he enquired. Lahm’s fingers curled around Geoff’s shirt collar, “Please, tell them nothing,” Lahm whispered.
Geoff looked down into Lahm’s eyes. They seemed to Geoff sincere and desperate, loaded with fear. Geoff lied without further thought, even if it was purely for this man’s delusions, he wanted to make him feel better. “I found him on the floor outside my office, he was trying to let himself into the private quarter and collapsed before he could open it. He needs help, quickly.”
The security guard took Lahm from Geoff’s embrace and carried him up the rest of way. Geoff found an excuse to zip back to his office. He still did not have his cinema ticket, so he raced back down, grabbed the ticket, and quickly gathered up the reams of data and odd tools and buried them at the back of his desk drawers before locking them.
The server which bleeped frenetically as Geoff entered the room, quieted, and calmed.
Geoff raced back up the stairs to the reception area. The guard seemed pre-occupied with what to do after placing Lahm on the chair behind reception, leaving him slumped like a drunk.
“Well are you going to phone for help or what, look at him for God’s sake!?” shouted Geoff.
“Hey, fuck you pal. Listen, I will deal with it but I need you gone ok. I am not supposed to let people in below certain job grades. You should not even be here. Now go and I’ll get this man help.”
Geoff looked at him suspiciously and was about to resolve to stay when he caught Lahm’s expression from his position behind reception. Lahm was smiling and nodding. He then silently mouthed the words thank you, before gesturing weakly for Geoff to leave.
The security guard wore that dismissive expression again and was plainly waiting for Geoff to leave. “I’ll check up on him mate, check you got him admitted for help ok?” Geoff stated.
“No need pal, they’ll let you know how he is come Monday, and they may want to find out more about how you found him down there. What he was doing exactly?” replied the security guard.
“I told you, he was doing nothing. He was trying to get into what I assume is his private working quarters or whatever and then he collapsed. Never seen the poor man before”
“Well tell it to them. Now, if you don’t mind. Will you leave and let me get on to helping this man?”
Geoff finally did as he was asked and looked over his shoulder to see the security guard patting Lahm on the head and picking up the phone. The last image Geoff saw as he made his way down HQ’s steps was of the security guard talking on the phone and staring up at the ceiling as he did so.
Geoff instinctively looked up to the top floor of HQ, those blacked out windows gazed back, and Geoff felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise in response before briskly making his way out of the Square and into the temporary new quiet of the City.