Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Just Another Day at the Office

By N. J. Kailhofer

A Mare Inebrium Story
Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield

Jack winced. It was the third floor alarm.

It was always the third floor.

"What in the Hell do we need R&D for?" he grumbled to himself as he snatched the oversized ring of keys from the worn wooden peg on the back wall of his closet-sized, Spartan office. "We never make anything new." The office was identical in size to those held by other one hundred and twenty-three building managers, but as he lifted his weary bones up from the squeaky, leather office chair that perched as best it could in the tiny amount of space between the natural wood desk and the cement block wall, he couldn't help but feel that he deserved better. After all, the trinkets and secret doohickeys manufactured in his building were the most damned profitable products created in the whole god-forsaken complex.

Jack paused to consider his reflection in the picture of his wife on his desk. His crew-cut hair was white now; long gone was the thick blond shuck that covered his head when he took the job. His face bore more defined lines and, of course, the dark tan you got from working in this hellhole most of your life. The rest looked the same. Same blue-buttoned work shirt, same regulation tan pants, same steel-toed work boots.

"Not long now," he told his wife's picture. "Hang on 'till retirement."

He sighed, and shuffled down the dim, subterranean hallway to see what kind of abomination one of those arrogant brainiacs had loosed upon his beloved building this time. His office was ensconced in sublevel five, well away from the factory production floors, as well as from the hush-hush work done in the very lowest levels, but it made his frequent trips to silence that damned alarm all the longer.

"Ain't like it used to be," he mumbled to the dark gargoyle hanging over the door to the elevator. The twin, crisscrossed metal gates that allowed him access to the lift were just in the way now, and it took discipline to seal them tightly before thrusting the throttle of the elevator to the 'up' position. He knew only too well to what an unlocked elevator shaft could lead.

The elevator hesitated as if unsure it wanted to climb the shaft, then, ages old motors began to spin, urging the rickety lift upwards. It clattered as it rose, the metal cage seeming to catch on every tiny imperfection of the shaft's walls. It irritated Jack, knowing it was yet another thing to add to his list of repairs if he ever received more than the tiny budget allocation that was his each year.

Somewhere overhead a pulley began to protest, squeaking out a repeating note that managed to set Jack's teeth on edge, as it had so many times before. By the time the elevator clawed its way to sublevel one, below the main factory floor, it was squawking louder than the alarm.

"Damn that thing!" he swore. "I greased it just last week!"

The shaft emerged into the open air as it climbed. He remembered to take a deep breath before the sulfurous wave of scalding heat washed over him as the lift rose above ground, although in a mostly protected corner of the foundry. He could see a group of men he knew there, Cubs fans, packing sand around copes, the top halves of the molds. Beyond them, the factory floor stretched out as far as the bilious clouds of steam and smoke would allow him to see. Liquid streams of red-hot metal tipped from suspended crucibles towards the packed molds, spilling rivulets of slag to the spattered floor below the forms.

His view was cut short as he rose through the opening in the ceiling to level two. He considered holding his breath until he reached the next level, but new he would not make it. Packaging had a ceiling high enough to encompass those awful-smelling extrusion towers for the blister packs workers stuffed merchandise into. The heat of the foundry below helped keep the plastic pliable until the packs were sealed with those damn radio frequency welds. That machinery had been torture to get in place and working.

He saw another group of Cubs fans that he knew on the conveyor belt near the shaft, stuffing those ridiculous hoop rings magicians used into packs. Beyond them, chains for escape artists, trick swords for plunging around pretty assistants, locks, amulets of protection, and somewhere down the line, silver bullets were all married into packaging for quick sale. Next to that line was a faster conveyor carrying the nonmetal magic: the wands, the capes and top hats, magic staves… the list was nearly endless.

He averted his eyes and stuck earplugs in as he crawled up through level two: accounting and human resources. The souls that worked in those rows of hot, stuffy cubicles were just too hideous for him. Besides, the last thing you wanted to do was meet their gaze; their trapped, unholy expressions gave him the heebie-jeebies.

He reached level three and halted the throttle. The elevator's mechanisms protested the change, but deposited him safely at a tiny hallway that had only a single unisex bathroom, the metal fire door into R&D, and the alarm. That red alarm box mounted above the door wailed incessantly with a noise so loud that he had trouble thinking, even with rubber bungs in his ears.

Almost every fiber in his being sighed with collective relief as his key turned the switch on the bottom of the device, halting its interminable wail. He had to pause to collect himself for a moment. His shirt was thick with sweat now, either from the noise or from the trip through the factory, and he himself felt drained, the will pushed out of him. He watched the tiny frosted glass window in the door while he regained his composure. Inside the room flickered with firelight, but this was normal for any room that had a window to the outside in it.

The door was locked.

This surprised him. No one in the room was supposed to have a key, so the door would always be open in the event of an evacuation.

He took the plugs from his ears and banged on the door. "Building manager! Open up!"

The silence on the floor was startling. It was never that quiet. His eyes darted to the bathroom door and saw that the tab read 'unoccupied.'

That was wrong, too. There was always some fool trying to hide from work in the bathroom. He pushed that door open and saw there was no blood or anything, just the toilet and a sink, so he knew they hadn't let some test animal loose.

He shifted to a new key on his ring but it would not fit in the lock.

Concern began to spread across his features, and he whipped a small notebook out of a back pocket. Flipping it open, he made a note with his company pen.

He then grabbed an oddly shaped key from the far end of the wad of them on his ring and jabbed it into the lock as hard as he could. The skeleton key molded itself into the shape of the tumblers in an instant.

He smiled to himself. You learned a few tricks when you managed a magic factory for as long as he had.

Morons, these R&D guys, he thought.

He frowned when he found the space beyond the door was devoid of occupants.

Research and Development was a hundred foot square room that looked exactly like an oversized 8th grade science room. Rows of long lab benches, each complete with a sink and Bunsen burners, paralleled the Monitor's desk at the far side of the room. Past that, a wall of windows looked out to where the intake valves for the forge would be if you could see them through the clouds of billowing flames. But you could not; he knew first hand.

At each bench, a wooden stool perched below a lab notebook, neatly centered on the black transite tabletop. Placed on the notebook at an exact 45° angle was a sharpened pencil.

On every notebook.

On every table.

The room was perfectly clean and ordered. If he had not known better he would have believed there had never been anyone working in the room.

He recognized it as an illusion instantly.

"Rookies," he mumbled under his breath and made another note on his notepad.

His eyes darted around the room, looking for the item that would be out of place. There! On the left side of the room, on a table along the wall, he saw an oscilloscope plugged into an outlet. The waveform on its tiny screen wobbled with regular pulses.

He knew they did not have any budget for such things and ran to the machine, pulling the cord from the wall. Reality as he knew it melted into nothingness. In its stead, a shocking scene flooded his view.

A blinding white light centered in the room, so bright that he could not stand to look at it. Spreading out on the floor from the lab's center were black scorch marks, dispersing out to cracked and shattered lab tables piled around the room's periphery. Escaping plumes of natural gas formed fiery geysers in the air alongside sprays of water from burst and twisted pipes. It was as if some tremendous explosion had cleared the center of the room.

Another quick scribble in his pad was cut short by a slamming sound which extinguished the unbearable light.

Blinking to adjust his eyes, he recognized a dark green, wood-paneled door and frame freestanding in the center of the room.

"What in Blazes--" he began.

A figure stepped from behind the door.

Smudged coke-bottle glasses beneath an unruly black mop glared out at him with smoldering hatred. He wore the same blue work shirt, same tan pants, and same brown work boots as Jack.

"Bob?" Jack goggled.

The man sneered at him as an acknowledgement.

"What the Hell have you done here, Bob?" Jack pressed, shocked to the marrow of his bones. Bob was the Monitor in here, and was supposed to know better. Jack had talked to him in the break rooms for twenty years. He had never seemed capable of anything like this.

Bob chuckled darkly. "You never thought I had it in me. Always cutting down my stories, criticizing my characters, telling me plots were lacking… You never thought I had enough magic in my soul to write a way out, but I do." Jack's eyes narrowed. He had not expected a fight. "That's right. I always thought you were a no talent hack." Bob's eyes burned with something as dark as the Bosses downstairs. "You were the one who taught me that reality could change in this room just by writing it down."

He lifted a notepad identical to the one in Jack's own hand. With a jerking motion, Bob jabbed a period onto his page.

The air around Jack congealed into a solid block of suffocating granite that stretch from floor to ceiling. Bob sniggered at him in mocking tones. "Write your way out of that one, Jack."

Jack stepped through the square column of stone as if it were not even there and into the open.

Bob gaped at him. "How did you do that?!"

Jack shook his head in judgment. "If that's the best any of the writers can do in here, it's no wonder why we never have any new magic products to sell."

He stepped to him and held his own note pad up for Bob to see.

It read, 'Nothing in the room could have any effect on Jack.'

Bob gasped.

Quick as a flash, Jack wrote in his book and Bob's pencil vanished.

"Now," Jack growled, "where are the rest of them?"

Bob glowered at Jack in resentment. "They went through the gate."

Jack considered his options. There was going to be a long reckoning about this one. He probably would be called to see Number Two, and that would burn up the last of his career options. On top of that, those broken transite tabletops were fifty percent asbestos. The cleanup would devour most of his budget for the whole year and keep a department out of work for just as long.

His pen ready, he questioned, "Why did you do this?"

"Why?" Bob repeated. "Why? Because this place is Hell! It's the worst place in the universe!"

Jack frowned. "You're an independent contractor, just like me. This company is going to be around forever. At retirement, we get to leave this pit with a pile of benefits. All you've got to do is do your job."

Bob shook with rage. "This place destroys your soul, you fool!"

Jack considered his argument.

"Fine," he concluded, pulling his pen from the paper. "Go ahead and go."

Bob eyed him warily. "What?"

"Go," Jack repeated. "And close the door behind you."

Bob looked at him with fresh eyes. "Thanks," he mumbled.

Bob's hand darted to the knob and opened the portal. Jack winced at the light and blocked the view with his hand.

The gateway slammed shut, extinguishing the light.

He sighed, surveying the rubble strewn around him. "Only one hundred more years to retirement."

Hell only employed two kinds of outside contractors: writers and Cubs fans, because they were used to the sense of constant disappointment its location infused into its inmates. Jack had been an extraordinarily good writer in his youth, and the products he invented earned him a promotion to building manager.

Gripping his pad firmly, he read the lettering on the door.

"If that's where they went," he chuckled grimly. "They'll all be back, for a permanent stay."

His pen flew across the pad, but the door did not disappear.

Jack raised an eyebrow, and then wrote, The atoms of the door disintegrated.

The door stubbornly remained whole.

He tried, the door returned to where it came from, but nothing happened.

"Hmm," he puzzled.

The door dissolved into nothingness. No result.

The door was whisked away into a black hole. No good there.

The door stopped protecting itself and vanished forever. That did not work, either.

"What the Hell?!" he blurted out, frustrated. He circled the door warily, looking for clues as to why it remained.

On the far side of the doorway, a yellow protuberance about two inches across stuck out from the bottom of the frame. Looking closer, he could see the chitin that formed it was cracked and oozing where it was compressed to the edge of the opening. With a start, he realized it was something's leg stuck in the door.

He tried to swallow but his throat was dry. Whatever it was, it had to be huge, and his writing skills would have nothing to do with whether he survived it out not.

Carefully, Jack turned the knob. With only slight resistance, the door swung inward an inch. The same blinding light flooded through the opening, and he had to squint as hard as he could to see the ichor-tipped appendage pulled back to the other side of the portal. Glancing up to see where the leg had come from, he yanked the door closed as hard as he could.

"Whoa!" he boggled, the image of Bob caught in the pincers of an enraged-looking monster the almost the size of a Volkswagen still burning into his memory. "I'd hate to be the manager of that building."

His pen flew across the pad once more and this time the doorway winked out of existence, leaving only the image of the lettering printed on door to linger for a moment before it too, vanished into the ether.

"To The Mare Inebrium."

The End

Copyright © 2004 by N.J. Kailhofer

Bio:"Like my grandfather and my father before me, I became an apprentice at a tiny print shop in Kaukauna, Wisconsin. In hopes of saving my own children from their generational fate, or perhaps for sanity's sake, I took up writing. I was in the March 2004 edition of Planet Magazine, and look forward to future escapes."

E-mail: kailhofer@yahoo.com


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