Country of Origin: United States of America
Emile scowled theatrically at the mirror. His imagination ran wild with unearned pride. That’s how I’ll look, he thought. That’s how I’ll look when I march up to receive that shiny, new badge. He could see it in his mind so clearly. The chrome-laminated card nestled snugly on his uniform, with the burnt bronze lettering spelling it all out: Emile Constance, Floor 738. He imagined the envious looks of his floormates. Floor 452 was by no means undesirable, for it was better than being on, say, Floor 451. It was certainly better than being on something like Floor 302, and infinitely better than the dredges of Floor 94. But part of being on the 400-600 series floors was constantly looking up to the more prestigious denizens of Floor 700 and higher. Sometimes, it felt like there was more shame in remaining on the 400-600 series than it would be to live the miscreant lives near the base of the skyscraper. Those in Emile’s position were expected to eventually replace the residents on Floor 700. But you could not be too mediocre. If you were too mediocre, you risked losing your position on the floor to someone lower who had shown great promise, or even worse. You would have to face the same walls for the rest of your life. One can only handle monotony for so long before he goes insane.
Emile dreaded the thought. He very much wanted to take that position on Floor 738. But the competition was incredibly fierce. At times, Emile doubted himself and his rather well-off position as the Chief Supervisor of the Labor Schedulers. It was he, after all, who approved all the schedules for the laborers on Floors 302-367. Of course, there were others like him, but he was certain that he was among the best when it came to supervising such things. He had hosted every biweekly meeting for the Labor Schedulers of Floor 452 for the past three years. Recently, he made a mandate that the meetings would be held weekly. Despite the gripes and complaints of those under his wing, he knew it was the right decision when he was personally congratulated by an emissary of the Ministry of Labor from Floor 776 via an official letter that came through his cubicle’s designated mail tube. His merit was noticed not only by his colleagues but also by the principals above. It was a great honor to Emile to be recognized in such a way.
Not to mention that he was fiercely loyal to the cause of The Reclaimers. He firmly believed that it was their mission to rebuild what was destroyed and rediscover what was lost. He trusted, as The Reclaimers told them, that every small effort of every floor was necessary to save humanity from extinction, and that they are in it together, all parts of the same body. With his spirit invigorated by existential optimism, he marched out into the sleek, tarnished silver halls of Floor 452. They were not nearly as shiny as the sterile, reflective halls of Floor 702, but they made an impression nonetheless. Emile had the privilege of visiting Floor 702 once. It amazed him to think that he would soon be even above that.
His navy-gray uniform was impeccable. He noticed both the quality and lack thereof in the many other uniforms that passed by. Normally, he’d follow the sea of people right to his cubicle, but today was a special occasion. He, and a handful of others on Floor 452 would be entering the cafeteria to have an early breakfast and anticipate a new life.
Sitting at one of the many tables, he looked down at his tray and sighed. Part of him was already manifesting a nostalgic feeling for the tasteless nutrient loaf that he had eaten for the past five years. In a strange way, he would miss it.
“They say that on 738, Principals get to eat things other than a nutrient loaf.”
Emile was only half listening. He replied something along the lines of an “uh-huh” as he continued to poke at his food, slowly lifting the fork and chewing on the rubbery brown solid.
“Eggs, Emile. Buttered toast. Bacon.” The last word came out of Votsky’s mouth with a spatter of saliva. A little bit of it fell onto Emile’s tray. Disgust crossed his face as he pulled his nutrient loaf farther away from the now-tainted side of the tray.
“You’re only in it for the food,” Emile replied sourly, the disgust remaining on his face.
“Well, aren’t you?” Votsky fired back instantly. “If not the food, then certainly you’re in it for the five-minute hot showers. Here, we only get two minutes, lukewarm. And on Floor 738, they have personal rooms that are 50 square feet instead of 32.”
Votsky kept rambling on about 738. With contempt, Emile smirked quietly and watched Votsky’s mouth fly open and closed unceasingly. He doesn’t truly respect The Reclaimers and their mission. I’m not like him, he told himself confidently. If I had to stay on Floor 451 forever, I would do it because The Reclaimers know best. He was bold enough to continue this train of thought despite the nagging reminder of his own hypocrisy. After all, just 20 minutes ago, he was fantasizing about the shiny new badge while he practiced the airs of superiority in his bathroom mirror. He pushed the thought away, nodded at something Votsky said, and then finished the last bite of his loaf. That was a wrong move.
“Why are you nodding? Didn’t you hear what I said?” Votsky snapped. When Votsky was rambling, one always ran the risk of unconsciously agreeing to something they weren’t supposed to or answering a rhetorical question. Emile blinked a few times and remained silent. “I asked you what your job was before you came to 452.”
“Oh. I transported artifacts from the Basin,” He lied. It was one of the better occupations for the low-skilled laborers of the 200-300 series floors.
“Is that so?” Votsky replied, the tone walking the line between disbelief and surprise. “I heard that it is a very rewarding job. The Reclaimers care a lot about recovering the past. Still, I doubt that does much in the way of your Merit.”
What did Votsky know about Emile’s Merit? Emile flashed him a hateful look. “As if you would know anything about Merit,” he whispered with venom.
“Oh, I know plenty about Merit,” Votsky retaliated. “When I was on Floor 93, I was one of the Listeners. Did you know that I broke up revolt plans on that floor? The Principals were very happy with me. I even received an award for it. They said that if it weren’t for my Listening, they could’ve brought the whole tower down. But yeah, I guess that’s nothing compared to you picking up boxes full of dirt.”
Votsky’s taunt almost got the better of Emile. Emile stood up aggressively, slamming his tray on the table. The fork rattled against the metal sheet. In the quiet cafeteria, it drew looks from the handful of other people hoping to get to floor 738. Exhaling deeply, Emile picked up his tray and walked towards the dispensary as if that was what he had planned the entire time and had made the racket only accidentally. The truth was that, for a brief moment, his hand was balled into a fist, ready to move just inches above the table and slam into Votsky’s jaw. He resisted the urge and thanked himself for it.
At that dispensary, he collected himself. He tossed the leftover crumbs. He was thankful that he had eaten most of the nutrient loaf before losing his appetite to anger. He walked back to the table and glared at Votsky.
“I would say good luck, but I genuinely hope you stay on this floor forever. Better yet, I hope you’re sent back down to 93,” Emile said quietly, seething.
Before Votsky could utter a snarky reply, Emile made her way towards the door, joining a conglomeration waiting for the appearance of the Emissary. The excitement of the small crowd wasn’t like the kind you got from the lower floors, where large groups of laborers would clamor to see who was cut out for management. Emile had seen plenty of those in his teens, and the crowd in front of him was a polar opposite. These people spoke with a pseudo-intellectual air, as if they were critically analyzing who they thought was the best candidate for the position. In their hearts, they all wanted it for themselves but acted as if they truly knew who the Reclaimers would find worthy. This phony brothel unraveling before him was of no interest to Emile. He simply wanted to hear his name called out by the Principal.
Emile was devastated. It was as if the Principal had sent daggers straight into his ears, stabbing violently into his brain matter and siphoning his will to live. “Votsky Noel,” the Principal repeated. The beady-eyed, snarky intellectual steadily walked across the cafeteria. It was as if he knew that he would be selected, so he simply sat at his original spot so that the walk to claim his burnt-bronze badge of honor would last unbearably long. Emile could not hide his devastation—he wore it on his face with such embarrassment that he felt his entire body turn hot as the blood flushed his cheeks.
Votsky did not even grant him a condescending smile. He acted as if Emile had not existed at all, marching up to the Principal and taking his place beside him. And without another word, the Principal left with Votsky. There was no lecture for their inadequacy—no, Emile’s inadequacy. His shame was more humiliating than the scorn of a Principal. Was he even close? Did he even have a chance against the likes of Votsky? Was his story about being a Listener true?
He was a Listener, Emile thought. A Listener. No one talks about their role as a Listener—we only know of their existence through rumor.
Emile’s disconcerted expression turned into a cruel smile. Votsky had made a fatal error, a severe misjudgement. Perhaps it was not the fact that Votsky was a Listener that was a compromising secret, but what he had discovered. Revolt plans on Floor 93? A truly compromising detail. It would embarrass The Reclaimers.
Later that day, when Emile had returned to his usual post, he stepped into one of his subordinate’s cubicles and tapped her on the shoulder.
“Yes, Mr. Constance?”
“Did you hear that one of our own has been selected to be a Principal today? Votsky Constance. If you see him, be sure to congratulate him.”
“Oh—of course,” she nodded.
Emile put on a friendly facade. “He deserves it. Did you know that he was a Listener? Said to have stopped a rebellion on Floor 93. No doubt that he is loyal to the cause of the Reclaimers.”
A seemingly innocent comment transfers by word of mouth with ease. It was no more than two hours into the day that the message had spread throughout the floor like a virus. Many congratulated Votsky on his new position and even more congratulated him on having stopped a rebellion on Floor 93. Votsky, wide-eyed and aware of how compromising the detail was, vehemently denied any rebellion had ever taken place. But by that time, it was far too late. Emile had sown a dreadful seed. Thirty minutes later, two men covered head to toe in sleek, black metallic suits threw the door open. They approached Votsky in his cubicle; nightsticks idle in their hands.
“Are you Votsky Noel?”
Votsky adjusted his glasses nervously, his hands shaking. “Y-yes—”
The confirmation was all it took for one of the guards to slam his nightstick into Votsky’s jaw. He slumped to the ground immediately, shouting in pain as he was then struck again, this time on the back. The guards holstered their nightsticks, hoisted Votsky up by his arms, and dragged him out into the hall.
The last person to have seen Votsky on Floor 452 was Emile. Votsky, his eyes glazed over and welling with tears, glanced curiously at the instrument of his downfall. Constance Emile was standing at the threshold, feigning concern. Votsky knew Emile was responsible. The door closed, leaving a deafening silence in the department of Labor Schedulers.
Principal Constance of Floor 738 was held in great esteem. Although he had only been on Floor 738 for a few months, he was entrusted with many important duties and had been ruthlessly effective in increasing the floor’s productivity. One day, he was required to go back down to Floor 452 and discipline his successor, who caused a severe dip in efficiency during his short tenure. After all, Emile was irreplaceable. As he descended the tower with an escort of a single guard, he looked down at his burnt-bronze-lettered badge and proudly adjusted it, ensuring it was evenly aligned and free of any blemish. The doors of the elevator opened with a subtle chiming sound, and Principal Constance was greeted by the pale, worn face of a familiar, beady-eyed man. He looked down at the floor with a submissive, defeated gaze, holding a mop and bucket in both hands as he waited for Emile to pass.
Thank you to Kacper Janusz for their inspired edit on this piece and everyone else on the Fiction team.
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