“You have to trust me.”
Flames were licking the closed door, poking out round the cracks like angry tongues. The smoke was so thick it was like breathing dust. Jen watched impatiently as the four young children glanced out of the smashed window behind them, visibly baulking at the prospect of a five-story drop. The makeshift rope of tied bedsheets swayed in the wind, not exactly boosting confidence.
There was an awful splitting sound as the door began to bow to the pressure behind it. Time to go. Jen sank to her knees before the kids, and stared each of them in the eye.
“I know it’s scary. I know it’s dangerous. But staying here will mean certain death, and I don’t think any of you want that. You’re all capable of climbing down the building – I tied the knots in the rope real tight, and you just have to lower yourself from knot to knot. There’s a crowd out there praying for you to come down – they might even catch you if you fall. We have to go, now. There’s no other way.”
Aiden, the youngest at only five years old reached out to take Jen’s grimy hand.
“Okay,” he said solemnly, his forehead creased. “Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay-“
Jen rocked back on her heels, watching with dismay as the last two seconds replayed themselves over and over and over again. The childrens’ heads jerked to and fro as they watched and re-watched Aiden’s agreement, and the smoke swirling around them traced out the same pattern, forming and dissipating to a robotic rhythm.
“GODDAMMIT,” she yelled at the ceiling, “Walker, you’re a USELESS PIECE OF SHIT…”
The dark, smoky room shuddered and faded out, revealing a plain white cuboid grid. Jen got to her feet, and paced the floor. Moments later, a hidden door swung open, and a sheepish looking man in a lab coat hurried in.
“Um, I, erm, I’m really sorry,” he said quickly, not daring to look Jen in the eyes, “We don’t know what happened…”
“It GLITCHED, Walker, that’s what happened. Right at the key moment.”
“Uh, yeah, um, sorry, I meant I don’t know why it happened…erm, the guys are checking over the vectors again, and Paul is scanning for bugs, but I don’t really-“
Jen raised a palm, and waited until Walker looked at her properly.
“Don’t ever waste my time again.”
With that she strode out of the grid, grabbed her jacket from her locker, and locked herself in the bathroom. With the lights off Jen felt closer to the burning room, and she took a few minutes to breathe, sigh, and curse the tension out. She felt watched, like those kids were right behind her, their scared faces pleading her help. That meant money.
Chris was knocking on the door, waiting for her.
“Jen, are you okay?”
Jen took one last deep breath, and unlocked the door. Chris smiled with relief, and put a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry Jen, Walker just told me – did it upset you? Not getting closure, I mean? Do you need to talk to someone?”
Jen laughed, “Oh please, don’t flatter yourself – the story was good, but not that good.” The lie didn’t sound right, too high pitched and insistent. They both hesitated awkwardly.
“I think it’ll sell well though,” Jen conceded, “I mean, it needs a few tweaks – I think the programming team could take another look at the flame patterns for a start, they seemed so artificial…but once that’s all sorted, we could have a popular program here.”
“Maybe we did alright then.”
“Maybe. So, what’s next?”