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Here's "Chapter 4: Down".
A sentient vending machine hits on B.
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‘Twelve. Out of here. Out out out. ’
B. was flying down over the steps of the emergency staircase that was meant to be used in the unlikely case of a malfunction to the elevators, cold sweat from the horror crawling down his back, warm sweat from the breathless run starting to drip from his forehead.
When he ran past the doors of the twelfth floor, the weird man spotted him and popped his head out between the neoglass panels, calling to him.
“Woah woah woah! Hey, kid! Kid! Where are you going?”
“I’m sorry!” B. slowed down for a heartbeat “I’m sorry!” were the only words that escaped from his terrified mouth, then he reprised his previous desperate pace.
“Kid!” the weird man managed to add “Hang on to that trinket! It might come in handy one day!” and then the boy was gone.
‘Eleven. Come on come on come on.’
B. couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. The memory of it still a bleeding cut in his distressed mind.
Once the doors of the red elevator had opened, the salarymen and the weird man had gone their own separate ways, whereas Zazee and B. had stepped out and they had started looking around in search of a sign, or of a holo receptionist. After a few seconds, a young woman in a white lab coat had approached them.
“Zazee, welcome! And I see you came with B.! We will be ready for you in three hours, dear boy” her smile was warm and compassionate, but there was something unusual in the way she talked: her “dear boy” was different, an inflection similar to the way Zazee had made fun of the receptionist earlier “You can wait there” she had pointed at a room with no door a few steps on the right “Take a seat, make yourself at ease. I’ll come looking for you when it’s time.”
The woman had moved her long blue hair from her right to her left shoulder, then she had taken Zazee under her wing and the two of them had started walking down a corridor. From where he had been standing, B. couldn’t see the end of it.
It all had happened so fast, and the two siblings were so confused and intimidated by the circumstances, that B. had nodded and had started moving toward the waiting room, while Zazee had only managed to mutter “I’ll see you later” while quickly waving at her brother as she went along with the woman.
‘Ten. AI! How much do I have before…’
B. had let himself crumble down on a chair. Ten feet in front of him, a vending machine had started to buzz, chirp, and ring, trying to catch the attention of its next customer; the lights of the electronic mermaid had been reflecting on the boy’s distracted eyes, devoid of any chance to entice him into its womb.
“Sooo… you here to do the Thing?” B. couldn’t have said for how long the weird man in the pink lab coat had been seated next to him “I’m Cuz by the way” the man had added, offering his open hand.
“It’s… a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir” B. had shaken Cuz’s hand, puzzled “I’m B.”
“I know who you are: I work here at the Bureau. What does the B. stand for, tho? Billie? Bob? Buster?” the man had asked, increasingly amused.
“It’s Borges” B. had replied, with anticipation “What kind of name is Cuz anyway?”
Cuz had let himself go in a surprisingly loud laughter “Well, it’s supposed to be Cosgrove Mulligan Peterson, but I’m sure you can see for yourself why I tend to go with Cuz!”
B. had chuckled along for a moment, then he had stopped, not any less puzzled than a few seconds before.
‘Who is this man?’ he had thought ‘What does he want from me?’
“So, the Thing, you were saying.” Cuz had stopped laughing, and he had repeated his initial question, his tone of voice and facial expression still as amused as they could have gotten.
‘Nine. Not much. Not much. Go go go.’
The ninth floor didn’t seem to have doors. Not from the stairs, anyway. B. almost tripped and fell over a bulky cable that, coming from somewhere above his head, slithered down the outer wall, then traversed the whole landing and disappeared where the doors should have been. Having interrupted his frantic descent for a moment, the terrified boy switched his focus to the odd floor which could seemingly be accessed by elevator only.
He could hear a regular buzzing coming from beyond the wall, at times interrupted by a clicking sound. B. put an ear against the wall. He expected it to be cold, but it was warm instead, and he could hear the muffled voices of at least two people.
“… boy… sterilize… loading…” B. wasn’t sure what to do with what he had just heard. He stepped back, his right hand lingering on the surface of the wall. Then he shook his head, took a deep breath, and continued to run down the stairs.
‘Eight. Almost halfway down. I can do this. I can do this.’
“Yep, I came here with my sister, Zazee. She’s down there… somewhere.” B. had answered, barely raising a lazy hand and pointing at the corridor “But I’m not due until another three hours or so.”
“Here, I’ll buy you some coffee. Do you children like coffee? I always forget.” Cuz had gotten up and he had walked closer to the vending machine.
“I do. I’ll have an Orange Mocha Frappuccino, thank you.” B. had followed him. The vending machine had sounded even more excited than before, sensing two customers nearby.
“Ha! A true classic! I like your style, kid. I’ll have one myself!” Cuz had focused his gaze on the display, making known to the vending machine what he had chosen, then he had waved in front of it to confirm the payment. The machine had started peeling the oranges and emitting a symphony of enticing sounds to nudge its customers into indulging themselves and having more of its offering.
“Listen up, kid. I’ll only say it once.” Cuz's face had lost any sign of amusement, his voice was hushed and worried “The Thing…”
‘He’s Elite! That’s why his speech felt weird!” B. had finally understood.
“… It’s not what you think it is.”
‘Seven. Oof this is harder than… no. Come on. I can do this.’
“What do you mean it’s not… who are you?” B. had felt the danger starting to climb up his back with iron claws. With a loud cheerful whirr, the vending machine had started picking the coffee beans to grind.
“Cosgrove Mulligan Peterson, of the Elite Petersons, as I’m sure by now you already know. That medallion you were flaunting around back in the elevator, who gave it to you?”
“None of your business, sir.” B. had decided he couldn’t trust him.
“None of my…” a flash of amusement had briefly made a comeback in the man’s eyes “Listen to me: the Thing will change your sister in ways you can’t possibly imagine, and we don’t have enough time for me to explain it to you anyway. Whoever gave that trinket to you, must’ve cared for you. A lot…” Cuz had stopped talking for an instant, then with renewed understanding “Right. That must be it! You can’t go in with that thing on you. They won’t like it. The friend who gave it to you must have known that.”
“What are you saying? What does it mean!” B. had felt even more confused.
“Sst. Lower your voice, kid. This vending leech is almost done with the coffee. It won’t cover our voices for much longer.” Cuz had replied. “What I’m trying to say is: your sister will be back soon enough. See for yourself and make a decision.”
The vending machine had completed their order with the most joyfully loud chirp. Cuz had grabbed his frappuccino and, without waiting for a reply from B., he had disappeared behind a door at the start of the endless corridor.
‘Six. AI! I’m halfway there! Are they looking for me? Is it already too late?’
Left alone, more worried than before, and confused, for a while B. had paced up and down across the waiting room, holding his frappuccino, untouched, in a fatuous attempt to calm his nerves. The vending machine had returned to its idle routine of inviting sounds, but the boy had turned deaf to the infructuous charade.
B. had sat down, only to reprise his pacing after a few seconds. Still unable to get a good grasp of the tangle of emotions – fears, for the most part – and information that had been eroding his temper since Cuz had left.
“Zazee is walking back through that AIdamned corridor any minute now.” He had muttered under his breath “She’ll be alright. She’ll be Zazee. She won’t…” but then someone, a woman in a turquoise lab coat, had emerged from one of the dozens of doors in the endless corridor. Whistling, untroubled, she had glanced at B. for half a second, then she had continued to the red elevator.
Still pacing, when he had walked in front of the entrance of the doorless waiting room, B. had noticed the woman had now been staring at him while commanding the elevator to bring her down to the “Ninth floor. And on double speed, for fuck’s sake!”.
Puzzled, his worried thoughts now down to a manageable level somehow, the boy had tossed the pristine and ice-cold frappuccino into the trash can and he had surrendered to the overzealous vending siren.
He had got another frappuccino for himself, and a Pumpkin Spice Latte for Zazee.
‘Five. Tired. Must go on. Zazee…’
Twenty more minutes later, a door at the far end of the corridor had been opened wide, and Zazee’s familiar silhouette and walk as she had made her way through the endless esophagus to the beast’s mouth, had immediately brightened up B.’s brooding misery.
Several feet behind her, a man with a dark red lab coat standing near the door she had just come from, had been trying to tell the newly adult woman something, but Zazee had seemed impervious to the attempts, and B. had been able to only catch a few words: “… please, … early, …minutes”.
When she had finally got in front of him, B. was so happy that he had been shaking, and he had almost spilled her latte.
“Zazee! I was so worried! There was this man…” he had begun, but his sister had suddenly taken over.
“B., I’m not sure how much…” a single tear had started sliding down her left cheek “Oh, thank you.” she had grabbed the latte from B.’s hands, and she had taken a sip with her right hand.
‘Wrong… hand?’ B. had noticed.
“I don’t…” then she had started slowly, softly, touching her left thumb with her pinky.
“Zazee what…” B. had immediately recognized his sister’s peculiar way of signaling danger.
“feel…” she had continued signaling, faster, and harder “so…” her face twisted into a grimace of pain “Good! I’m good! I’ll see you around.” she had concluded, now calm and collected.
The signaling had stopped all of a sudden, she had transitioned her baggy fluo green athleisure outfit with pearly purple-and-fuchsia moon boots into dark blue jeans, a light pink buttoned-up shirt, and a pair of matching sandals, and she had started walking away toward the red elevator.
“Zazee, wait! Where are you going? What happened back there?” B. had attempted.
“Don't call me that. My name is Organza, dear boy.”
‘Four. Almost there! Almost there!’
Just like that, Organza Fratti, the woman who had been his beloved sister and best friend Zazee for the past eighteen years, had disappeared behind the red sliding doors of the elevator.
At that point, B. had snapped and he had started running. He had soon found the emergency stairwell and he had started his damning descent. Persuaded, at first, that he would have been able to get down on the ground floor on time and intercept Zazee.
The boy was now on the fourth floor, and he was exhausted. The tension, more than the twenty-some flight of stairs, had consumed most of his energy. So much so that he tripped on his own feet, ruining on the spotless floor.
“Ouch!” he reached with his open hand to the back of his head. When he tried to bring it back right in front of his eyes, to check for any trace of blood, a shiver of pain struck him in his right shoulder and the movement he managed to complete followed a lower orbit, ending a few inches under his nose.
The first tear touched the palm of his hand with unexpected grace. B. was genuinely surprised, because the pain he was feeling was physical and, sure, he was worried for Zazee but…
It had taken B. thirty full minutes to close the dam against the waterfall of his angst. He had never cried so much in his whole life. Even the first time down in the Retaliation Pit, when he was only eleven years old - the couple of years after Erica had returned to the Elite district had been difficult for the little boy: he had gotten angry, and he had often found himself at odds with Mom - he had managed to compose himself after at most five minutes of weeping.
But now he was alright. The pain from the fall was waning, he had made peace with the understanding that Zazee must have been long gone by then, and the emotions that had been festering his soul were slowly distilling into a new, powerful, encompassing, one.
‘Vengeance. I’ll get my answers, I’ll get my Zazee, I’ll get my revenge.’
His fist still clenched, his perilous pace now reduced to an attentive walk, right in the middle of the flight of stairs that was taking him to the second floor, he noticed something that in his hurried fury he hadn’t acknowledged up until then.
“What’s this?” B. muttered to himself, as he grabbed the metal panic bar of a wide light-gray door. He pushed down, and the door burst open. A gust of fresh hair whirled around his face, snatching away from the corner of his left eye the remnants of his last tears.
‘A fire escape… escape… RUN!’
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