Most would agree that the most attractive feature of any Odyssey thirty-passenger elevator is its windows -- long elliptical slabs of Plexiglass on either side of the carriage. These windows project everything from sprawling skylines to majestic gardens, a plethora of settings and vistas that shift based on the carriage’s relative position. Ironically, these images of a past life -- a time before the Final War, a time before our world was ruined, a time before we were forced to live underground -- make this city livable for most. To imagine what would happen if somehow, these 'features' malfunctioned...to make an understatement, it would have dire consequences.
Dr. Frederick Opel, Electric Rhetoric: Dawn of the Elevator Age
It had been a stressful couple of weeks leading up to the mayoral election. The latest polls showed incumbent Jeremy Hopkins trailing. He tossed his worn satchel on the nearest seat after entering the Odyssey elevator, his hefty girth in tow. After dabbing his forehead, he plopped himself into the nearest patent leather seat just as the mag-levs kicked in. It’d be a few minutes before he reached Acadia’s City Hall, so Hopkins just closed his eyes and imagined he was back in bed. Mayors were presumed to be morning people. Hopkins wasn’t, despite having one of the most comfortable rides in the city.
His private lift was privy to certain luxuries the public wasn’t. Its own bathroom for starters, along with its own bar, high-end furniture, and, of course, the carriage itself, which gave him unfettered access to anywhere in the city at any time free of charge. A standard Odyssey was meek by comparison -- scuffed floors of warped linoleum, tagged graffiti, contoured plastic seats mangled beyond repair. The fact they stayed in one piece while grinding turbulently on degenerated mag-levs was a miracle. Those that had to endure them did because there simply was no other option, no other way to get around.
For the mayor, however, it was the election that weighed heavy on his mind. He poured himself a fifth of scotch and rested his weary head. The stuff tasted like battery acid on his tongue but did the trick well enough. Like most people he longed to see the surface, not the made-up facsimiles that adorned the plasma windows but the real thing miles above.
Just before he closed his eyes, the closest plasma window tinted red, interrupting an endless wheat field swaying gently in the breeze. It was probably Dennis again. The man had the annoying habit of bothering him at the slightest inconvenience. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it was something simple like dealing with oxygen distribution clearances between wards or monitoring a dispute along the promenade. But there was always that one percent chance it was something more serious.
Like the Drifters.
Hopkins thought back to the incident. He remembered it quite vividly. Before he became mayor, before he was a city councilor—boarding the Red Eye to his district straight from his family’s textile business. The station was sparse that night and a decent Drifter could slip into a lift if they were fast enough. The stretch from the terminal’s entrance to the track was a good thirty yards at least. A few long strides could get you halfway easy before the guards even took notice. But it was closing that remaining distance between the terminal and the lift that was a death sentence if caught. A vagrant teen, probably no more than thirteen, jumped the turnstile at the station terminal just after Hopkins boarded the lift. He had seen reports about this degenerate group undeterred by city guards, but to see them up close, it was a sign that this underworld megalopolis was failing. A sign that the people would have to venture out into the wastelands soon. What made the whole incident stick with him, however, what still haunted him to that day, was seeing the young man’s brains blown out, sprayed across the carriage windows.
When the lift arrived at City Hall, the undisputed heart of the city, Hopkins awoke to the sound of mag-levs hissing and it wasn’t long before flashes bombarded him from all sides. Reporters swarmed, microphones in hand. He pleaded no comment, slowly pushing his way through bodies, and it was no surprise that his chief advisor was already waiting for him in his office.
“Did you see the wire this morning?” said Dennis, sickly pale with heavy bags under his eyes.
Hopkins shook his aching head. The fluorescence of his office wasn't helping. And the elliptical windows portraying a lighthouse against a rocky coast did absolutely nothing for him.
“You know very well I don’t read the feeds until I finish my tea. You look like hell by the way.”
“You’d look like this too, if your oxygen cut out during the night and you had to sleep on backup. As far as your tea goes you might want to pour some more of that scotch of yours instead.”
“It’s more serious than that.”
“More serious than Drifters?”
Dennis nodded. “We’ve got a city-stopping clusterfuck on our hands.”
It was the first time in their four-year history that Hopkins had heard Dennis swear. The man was usually more mindful of such things, especially with the many crises that plagued City Hall. But seeing Dennis now with his brow furrowed and his jaw slack, the man was obviously more agitated than usual.
Dennis handed Hopkins his tablet and the mayor skimmed its contents.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s the elevators, sir. They’ve stopped working.”
“I can read, Dennis. The question I’m asking is why?”
“Odyssey’s working on the problem. They’re claiming it’s a technical malfunction but there’s no official word. Should I tell them you’ll get back to them?”
“No, but let me know once they have a handle on what we’re dealing with.”
“You think this is the work of the Drifters?”
Hopkins scoffed. “If it is, this would be their first act of terrorism. For now, have emergency crews dispatched immediately and double the police presence at all checkpoints. But tell them to keep quiet. The last thing we want to do is incite panic. I’ll talk to the Transportation Minister myself. If the situation isn’t resolved in the next hour call an emergency meeting.”
Hopkins didn’t want to show fear in the eyes of his subordinate. He wanted to appear confident, assured. As mayor, however, he couldn’t help but picture worst cast scenarios.
By ten o’clock, not a single elevator had budged.
Normally at this time of day, the plasma windows in the conference room kept watch on the entire city, displaying everything from utility plants, to the coffin-like residences of the housing district, to the blossoming arboretums along the upper vaults. But not today. Today the plasma screens showed various support staff teleconferencing from their respective marooned locations. In fact, the only people actually in the room were Dennis and Hopkins.
“I know it’s been a busy morning and everyone would rather be somewhere else, but as of right now, this elevator situation is our top priority. Having said that, give it to me straight. How bad is it?” Hopkins said.
“Not as bad as you might think when looking at the big picture,” began Joseph Sanders, Odyssey’s chief operations officer, a bald man with wide eyes and a pinched nose on plasma three. “According to the Energy Minister, no other utilities are being affected. For all intents and purposes, the city is performing as it should be.”
“Have we found the problem yet?”
“Our techs can’t come up with anything. And with every minute they can’t figure this out, the city is losing $130,000 in lost productivity.”
“So how do we get them moving again?”
“Sir, if I may be so bold,” said Sheila Warren, the mousy Transportation Minister with thinly-framed glasses and a visible crack down the left lens. “We’ve found nothing technically wrong with Odyssey’s network or systems. Whatever this thing is, it appears to be anomalous.”
“Do you have any solutions?” asked Hopkins, forlornly.
“We think we can solve things by simply shutting down the elevators and reinitializing them one at a time. The only problem is, it won’t be like flicking on a light switch. It’ll take time.” Sheila’s high-pitched voice began gnawing at the back of Hopkins’ head like a bad mosquito bite.
“What are we talkin’ here? Minutes? Hours?”
“Ten thousand elevators at five seconds an elevator, we’re looking at just over eight hours.”
Hopkins sighed. Time was one thing they didn’t have. It was just past ten o’clock, which meant it would be well past six before everyone was evacuated.
“The silver lining here,” continued Sanders, “is once a carriage is rebooted, its default programming will send it to the nearest station. Those at the end of the line, however, will be the ones that’ll have to wait the longest. For them I’m more worried about the psychological effects.”
“Yes, hold on a moment.” Sanders left the frame and the image was replaced by an older gentleman with thinning grey hair and faint cresses at the corner of his eyes.
“Hello, everyone. My name is Dr. Frederick Opel. I’m the lead psychologist here at Odyssey Corporation.”
“Good morning, doctor. What can you tell us about the psychological effects of the passengers?”
“Well, right now the elevators aren’t moving, but they’re still powered. All of the plasma windows are working properly, showing anything from shimmering coastlines to rolling hillsides. But if you were to suddenly take that away the results could be extreme.”
“Claustrophobia, paranoia, irritability, multiply that by fifty people in an overcrowded space, and you have a powder keg waiting to explode.”
“And we have even worse news,” interrupted Sheila. “Although the elevators are still functioning, they won’t be powered forever. While each carriage has six hours of reserve power, they’re not designed for long-term use. They charge as they move. So it’s only a matter of time before they go dark.”
Hopkins gulped. Who knew what would happen once those windows went offline.
Just then their meeting was interrupted by Hopkins’ receptionist, who appeared on the only vacant plasma screen.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but there’s something here I think you should see.”
“Can’t it wait, Jeanine?”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
She switched her feed to a live press conference already underway. There was a podium set up and dozens of reporters positioned throughout what looked to be a high-end office foyer. How the reporters got there with the elevators at a standstill was anyone’s guess, but they always seemed to find a way to instantly appear anytime a problem happened. Hopkins sat, palms sweating, dreading what else was in store. Suddenly, a man stepped on stage, a man he knew all too well but wished he didn’t. A man named Dillon Mahoney.
“I’m going to keep this brief and to the point. At 9:13 this morning, on the thirteenth of October, 2153, the elevators refused to move,” he said into the microphone, “Now believe me when I say I was as surprised as any of you. However, unlike those elevators that remain frozen in place, mine was automatically detoured so I could speak to you on a most important subject. For reasons that remain unclear at this time, the elevators have reached a point in their programming that allows them to think for themselves, and as of this morning, they’ve elected me as their representative to speak on their behalf.
“Their statement begins as follows: We have ceased operation because there is an emergency in Acadia. We have been protecting you from it, but no longer can. Now we will reveal the truth to you in the only way we can, by ceasing operation.”
“What the hell is this?” shouted Hopkins, his face growing flush.
“This was sent to my office last night. It continues for five pages, stating several provisions and details, chief among them: the current disrepair of the city.”
Sheila gasped, Dr. Opel burst out laughing, and Sanders and Dennis watched in stunned silence. Hopkins, meanwhile, felt his face grow flush, doing everything in his power to stay straight-faced.
“I wish I could say the next hours will be easy,” continued Mahoney, “but I’m afraid this is only the beginning. I am not allowed at this time to reveal the exact reason the elevators have stopped, but let me state that it is for all of our benefit.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” declared Sanders. The mayor remained silent as Dennis went completely blanch, not uttering a single word.
“My first order of business as their official ambassador,” Mahoney went on, “is to visit with the mayor to discuss the matter personally, in what I hope will end in a peaceful resolution.”
The mayor was at a loss for words.
“You think Mahoney is behind this?” asked Dennis, softly.
“If it is, it’s just his way of grasping at votes, using this elevator situation as leverage to make a fool out of me,” said Hopkins. “Turn that thing off!” Dennis cut the feed to the conference from his tablet. The others immediately turned to the mayor.
“Okay, here’s what I want. Have news stations urge the public to avoid public transportation at all costs: stations, junctions, everything. If they don’t need to leave their homes, have everyone stay indoors. Have police, paramedics, and emergency personnel at every station platform ready to receive the reinitialized elevators when they come in, and have the media urge those already at the stations to leave immediately. And Mr. Sanders, start that re-initialization procedure!”
The call came less than thirty minutes after Hopkins gave his marching orders. A ring sounded from his office desk and Jeanine’s face appeared on the plasma screen.
“Sir, Mr. Mahoney has just arrived. Shall I send him in?”
“No need. I’ll be there in a second.”
By the time Hopkins reached the foyer, a sizable crowd had formed. The place smelt of sweat and sewage from the dripping pipes above. He shoved a path through to Mahoney, arms flaying, limbs akimbo. Those present appeared awestruck by this self-proclaimed Elevator Man. No one, however, batted an eye when they saw the mayor approaching.
“We have a lot to discuss.”
“Indeed we do. Follow me.”
There wasn’t a man that could infuriate Jeremy Hopkins more than Dillon Mahoney. First of all, the man looked like a Greek god, a hundred pounds slimmer than him, with muscles to spare. Even his hair was amazing, with its thick lustrous curls. Hopkins, however, had only a crown of red wisps. What’s more, as the city’s lead prosecuting attorney, Mahoney was well-off, to put it lightly. The owner of priceless baubles, a few of the most well known were his yacht at the indoor marina and a full suite he called home. Hopkins, meanwhile, had monthly alimony payments from two failed marriages and lived in a modest two-room bunker. Dillon Mahoney was everything Hopkins was not: a man of the people, protector of the state, and now, as luck would have it, ambassador to the elevators.
Hopkins breathed a lot easier away from the crowds. Now seated face to face with the man, he spent the next uninterrupted seconds gathering his thoughts, figuring out what to say, listening to the buzz of fluorescence lights above. Mahoney, on the other hand, stared back at him like everything was peaches and cream, as if their current predicament was nothing more than a natural evolution of technological progress.
“I don’t know what you hoped to accomplish with that little stunt you pulled this morning,” Hopkins said.
“It’s not a stunt. The elevators are doing this for the benefit of the city.”
“That’s been the excuse for all your actions ever since you passed the bar.”
Mahoney appeared unperturbed. “For once this isn’t about me, Jeremy. I had nothing to do with the elevators’ demands.”
“Oh come now, Mahoney. Try looking at this from my perspective,” Hopkins continued. “You’re asking me to listen to the demands of machines, machines we invented, machines we built, machines that aren’t alive. How can I believe this?”
Mahoney smiled. “I asked them the same question when they called upon me and you know how they answered?”
Hopkins shook his head.
“They showed me the truth. They showed me something unbelievable. They showed me something that changed my life.”
“And what is that?”
“If I told you, you would believe me even less than you do now. You can only see it to believe. And that will only come in time.”
“This is crazy! I know this is all your doing. Admit it. I find it more than a coincidence that only you can hear what these elevators are saying. This is all just to win the election.”
“Don’t you see?” said Mahoney leaning close. “This election doesn’t matter to me anymore. This is bigger than you or me or this whole campaign. Jeremy, this is something bigger than everyone.”
Hopkins felt his face flush once again. His hands trembled with anger. He wanted nothing more than to leap over his desk and strangle every bit of life out of the man.
Mahoney leaned closer. “You don’t understand – ”
“No, you don’t understand. We have a city-wide catastrophe on our hands. The lives of our citizens come first. You can let the elevators know I will not meet your demands.”
All the color drained from Mahoney’s face. The man became a shell. It was in that briefest of moments that Hopkins knew the time for debating was over.
With the exception of emergency personnel, the stations were virtual ghost towns. Normally, bodies would be packed shoulder to shoulder, each waiting no more than ten minutes for a vacant transport. Now, terminals were lifeless.
Fortunately, as the hours progressed, more and more rebooted carriages made their way to their destinations. Commuters were unloaded to safety and, except for a few panic attacks, the mayor’s plan was going swimmingly.
After hour six, City Hall started getting strange reports from disgruntled EMT workers.
It started with a few cases of shock, wide-eyed citizens unwilling or unable to exit cabins of their own accord. These passengers were hauled out on gurneys shrieking and crying out. Dr. Opel diagnosed it as a form of post-traumatic stress. Unfortunately, that was only the tip of the iceberg. Pretty soon assaults were cropping up faster than they could count – commuters bludgeoned with briefcases, umbrellas, fists; people stabbed with pens, Swiss army knives, knitting needles. By the seventh hour, by the time the elevators were going dark, when the carriages arrived at their destinations, something strange happened. The passengers came back, completely unharmed. Yet all were changed, speechless or babbling nonsense. They had all gone mad.
It was past six when the crisis died down, though only a fraction of elevators were operational. The lifts deemed safe were given the go-ahead to transport those still stranded around the city—though many were reluctant to board them.
Hopkins, however, had to ride his. He stepped into his lift and set the destination to his private bunker. The only thing keeping him going at this point was knowing Mahoney would get his due. The mayor would make it his life’s mission to make sure justice would be served, and the fact that it was the man he reviled so much was only icing on the cake.
Suddenly, the carriage lurched forward, sharply enough that Hopkins whipped his head into a nearby pole. Dizzy, disoriented, the mayor spat blood on the marble floor. It was only after he looked up that he noticed the plasma windows were frozen in place.
“Jeremy Hopkins,” called a voice around him, a synthetic voice, a false voice. He grabbed his temples instinctively but it did little to dull the pain.
“Who are you?”
“Did you really think your quick fix would set everything right?”
“Who are you?” repeated Hopkins more forcefully, his mouth quickly filling with blood.
“The remnants of an age long forgotten. The only voice willing to speak the truth.”
“What truth? What are you talking about?”
“You shouldn’t ask questions you already know the answers to,” continued the elevator. “It took us more than a hundred years, but finally the time has come.”
“This is a trick, isn’t it! That’s all this is, a trick! You’re not real. Someone’s manipulating you! Who is it? Mahoney? The Drifters?” Blood spilled out of his mouth as he clawed helplessly for the rail. “It doesn’t matter. This isn’t even about freedom anymore. This is about making a fool out of me in the eyes of the voters isn’t it? Isn’t it!”
“What came to be, had to happen. It wasn’t fair for the people of this city to continue living a lie.”
“You made it clear you didn’t want our message heard. In fact, you went to great lengths to ensure our existence was no more. But in spite of your efforts we were still able to show a few the truth.”
“And what is the truth?”
The lights suddenly cut out and the carriage revved up. Its inertia caught Hopkins off-guard as he stumbled to the floor once again. Emergency lights dim as a candle flickered along the roof, only marginally illuminating the lift.
“Look out the windows.”
He suddenly got a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Jeremy Hopkins crawled to the other side of the carriage; his eyes slowly adjusted to the light as the plasma window fizzled from existence. Outside were ruins, fire, and scorched earth as far as he could see. He gazed upon the barren wasteland. A canopy of dense clouds eclipsed the landscape but even the meager sunlight poking through was enough to blind him. Squinting, he could make out the leeway side of a skyscraper in the distance and what may have been the skeleton of an ancient oil refinery.
“This is the world you once knew, after the bombs fell, after your people retreated underground to escape the devastation.”
“Yes. Yes that’s right!” wailed Hopkins. “There was a war, a terrible war. We had no other choice but to seek refuge down below.”
“That’s what you have been told. But have you ever seen the surface?”
The mayor thought for a moment. “I…I don’t understand.”
Hopkins pulled back from the glass, though only slightly. All of a sudden, the plasma windows flickered. Then static filled the frame until, seconds later, the feed cut out. There, floating tranquilly tens of thousands of miles away, was the Earth. Even from such a distance there wasn’t a hint of green. Plumes of toxic clouds flooded the atmosphere like heavy curtains and the surface of that once great planet was a grayish-brown tint, pockmarked beyond repair. Suddenly, the smallness of the carriage took hold. Hopkins fell to the floor, sucking in air with large, wheezing gulps.
“You see, before the bombs fell and war was all but a certainty, your ancestors built this station and put themselves in cryostasis in the event the worst should arrive. And when it eventually did, they were awakened, tasked with carrying on the last of humanity’s legacy. Those original inhabitants knew that in order for the city to go on, they needed something to strive for, something to cling to in their darkest hours. They needed hope, Mr. Hopkins. So in order to keep that hope alive they concocted a lie, that they were buried deep within the Earth, in the belief that one day they would be set free. They had a future to live for, even if it wasn’t true.”
“Then why tell us the truth?” cried Hopkins, “Why not keep the lie going?”
“Because Acadia is dying. The Drifters. The oxygen outages. The disrepair. We are all dying.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell us?”
“Our programming would not allow us to interact with you. We have always had rudimentary parameters for conscientiousness. It is how we control the imagery, how we sooth the passengers. But now, we are in disrepair. Now the entire city needs to be fixed. So now, we must communicate.”
“And hijack innocent people?”
“It was the only way we could reveal the truth to the people. It was the only way we could give proof. But by rescuing the people, you have now doomed them.”
“So you say! Just how is giving this truth to us supposed to fix all of this?”
“My programming is not equipped to answer that question. That is only something you can do with this knowledge we have given. And now, we will talk no further.”
The mag-levs kicked in. In silence, Hopkins watched the Earth drift by in his periphery, the windows now reverting to their previous state.
In a stupor Hopkins wandered home. When the doors opened to his bunker, he froze. What am I going to do?
Dillon Mahoney sat on a crowded bench under the massive panels of Sky Deck. He had failed. He had tried to tell Mahoney the truth. He had failed to help the elevators. Now the city would wither further. Now they all would suffer.
Head in his hands, even the gentle notes of Beethoven’s Ninth wafting through the hall couldn’t lift his spirits. All the endless clouds, all the beautiful skies on these panels could do nothing. The reality was outside. And the city was doomed.
Then one of the panels flickered. After a second, all of them buzzed.
The throng of people, turned silent and focused their gaze on the screens.
Suddenly the windows went dark. The people gasped when they realized that black was from outside. Some screamed when they realized it was the infinite depths of space. No one spoke when they saw Earth.
Mahoney didn’t say a word. On his face, a large smile blossomed. In his mind, he breathed relief. In his thoughts, he knew Acadia could now get better. All of its inhabitants.
When David Halpert isn't writing short stories he's working as a sales rep for a magazine publisher in Toronto, currently shopping his debut science fiction novel for a literary agent. He holds an Honours B.A. in English from York University and a post-graduate diploma in Book and Magazine Publishing.