CHAPTER 1: LEVEL 82
In any apocalyptic scenario, location is a major survival determinant…
I descend the stairs slowly, careful not to make any noise. The level I’d just come from had been safe. I know this, because I’m the one that cleared it. But all four stairways in the Kraftt Tower are apparently open on multiple levels, which means that they are emphatically not safe.
I clutch my flashlight in my sweaty left hand and direct its dim glow, muted by the red cloth I’ve tied over it, directly in front of me. I’m wearing three jackets for padding, plus Janet’s scarf (I try not to think about Janet, she was my first) and the motorcycle helmet I found on 85.
I’m holding a three-foot-long metal strut from a computer rack in my right hand. I’d wrapped duct tape around one end to give me a better grip. I call it “George,” I’m not sure why. Sometimes I talk to it, too. I’m probably not entirely sane anymore, but it beats the alternatives.
In a moment I’m on the landing, which turns out to be covered with bloodstains, long since dried. They look black in the light. There are drag marks going down the stairs, too.
I try not to imagine what happened here. I need to stay focused.
Ten more steps and I’m at the door for Level 82. I strain my senses for any sound of movement. I hear a faint scuffing sound, so faint that I’m not sure if it’s real or just my imagination.
It doesn’t matter.
Here and now, my choices are constrained. If I’m swarmed in the stairway, retreat to the floor above might be possible, unless I have the bad luck to be attacked from that direction. But retreat would only be a temporary respite. Food and water are limiting factors. To live, I need to keep moving. And if I’ve got to be moving, then it has to be down because that’s the only way I’ll ever escape this God-forsaken Tower of Doom.
The door is metal, with a faux wood façade. Pine, I think.
It’s locked, of course. There’s a badge reader next to it so all of us office workers can unlock it with our badges. Since the power’s been off for the past week, that’s not real useful. I shift George to my left hand, juggling to hold both my weapon and flashlight in one hand. The light shakes a little as I do this.
I pull my +3 Vorpal Lock Pick out of my pocket. OK, it’s really a screwdriver with a few metal bits superglued to it, but that just sounds too mundane for the apocalypse. Anyway, the server room on 88 has the same kind of lock as the stairway doors. It had taken me half a day of experimentation to cobble together a working lock pick.
I hear another scuffing sound. Unmistakable this time. And closer. I think there’s a hostile on the landing below me.
This is how things get dicey. I call this whole routine American Roulette. Pick a floor. See what’s behind the door. Live or die. Repeat again tomorrow, if you’re lucky.
I insert my lock pick in the gap between the door and its frame. Shove, twist, pry. All of this makes noise. Not a lot, but more than enough.
I pull the door open enough to put my foot in the gap, then I bite down on the handle of the screwdriver, sorry, I mean my +3 Vorpal Lock Pick. I grab George in my right hand and swing it in a whistling arc as a bloody-faced man in a grungy business suit lunges upward into my circle of illumination. The metal bar smashes his skull and sends blood splatter into the wall.
It’s really all about the follow-through. That’s something my grandfather taught me. Although he was talking about baseball, not smashing skulls. I’m still really glad he taught me how to properly swing a bat. I just never imagined that it would be a survival skill.
My attacker falls backward down the stairs, knocking at least one companion down, or so I judge from the snarling. In the momentary lull after that, I hear footsteps and groaning coming from above, too. I guess it’s time to see what’s behind door 82. I slip through and pull the door shut behind me, then move about six feet down the blessedly empty hallway.
I ignore the savage sounds from beyond the door and try to listen for any sounds of hostiles on this floor. Hearing nothing, I move to my next critical task.
Before I can clear a floor, I have to make sure all four stairway doors are closed, otherwise, well, I could be facing a nearly unending supply of hostiles.
From personal experience, let me tell you: Swarms are bad.
At full occupancy, the Kraftt Building could supposedly hold 20,000 people. I don’t really think the skyscraper was full when disaster struck, and some people undoubtedly escaped even then. I’m estimating that the building was half-full at worst. Of those, I figured half turned and the rest got eaten. That makes me a rounding error, I guess.
I jog quietly around the floor to check the other stairs. I’m careful to avoid the restrooms. All the bad guys need to survive is water; they’ll sleep and conserve energy if there’s no food (so never, never, never assume they’re dead until George has verified it), but they get weaker without water.
The floor turns out to be secure. Lucky me.
While I’d gotten my daily cardio in by barreling around the hallway track, I’d only passed one glass-fronted corporate entrance. This is a sure sign that the company has the entire floor, which isn’t my favorite situation. I prefer when the hostiles are penned up in different office pods.
I walk back to the entrance. A law firm. Not much use for that anymore. Glass doors embedded in glass walls let me look in on a fancy foyer with a marble floor, comfy chairs and a mahogany counter behind which, in some lost world now quickly receding from memory and never to return, an immaculately dressed administrative assistant would have smiled and greeted me.
Printed on one of the glass doors in white letters:
In an emergency
Press on door for 15 seconds
An alarm will sound
I press hard with my shoulder. After a moment, there’s a very slight pop and the door swings inward. No alarm goes off.
I wait for full minute with the door half-open, counting the seconds. Nothing happens. It’s all very boring. Which is good. I like boring.
Quietly, I make my way through the office. It’s daylight outside, which isn’t a surprise because that’s the way I plan these excursions. Light fans in through the exterior windows.
I see bloodstains in places, and drag marks, but no hostiles and no dead bodies. As I pass the break room, I curse silently when I see that the vending machine has been smashed open and all my junk food is gone. It’s not all bad, though. The soda machine is a tougher nut to crack (I have a tool for that, too), and it’s undamaged.
I turn a corner and I see a hostile fifteen feet away. Female, with her back turned to me. I’m feeling good because the floor’s been empty so far and maybe I’m feeling a little cocky, too. Plus, sometimes I think I just need to hear a voice, even if it’s only mine.
In my best faux Spanish accent, which is actually pretty awful, I say: “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my co-workers. Prepare to die.”
Then I raise George and charge at the hostile.
The figure turns around, a shocked expression on her face, and screams.
Stunned, I shift my swing at the last second and slam George into the wall beside her. I yank it out of the wall and jump back away from her.
“You’re not a—”
“Obviously,” she says. “You moron.”