Storm Tower: A Short Story
I first presented this story as a 1,500-word short story for a competition. Since then I have expanded it to nearly 5,000 words. I am publishing it here on HubPages in a single part. I put a lot of work into this one, and I believe it shows. If you want to read this story, feel free to do it in several visits. It should be an exciting read, and I hope you enjoy every word. If you read the shorter version, this one has been expanded to more than three times the length.
The scene in front of New York City's newest skyscraper resembled a rock concert with sixty-eight-year-old Martha Storm as the rock star. In reality, she was CEO of the first corporation in history to have a net value of one trillion dollars, a distinction earned a year earlier, in 2051.
Reporters from all the local stations and national networks bombarded her with questions about the grand opening of the new world headquarters for Storm Enterprises, the world's tallest manmade structure.
She spotted Tom Drake, her company's head of security as he plied a path in her direction. Martha latched onto the arm of the man who had been with her from the start. They made for the front doors of the skyscraper that reached upward, five thousand eight hundred feet, like a rocket in countdown mode, ready to pierce the fabric of the blue summer sky.
"I was going over the guest list for today's grand opening luncheon." Tom pressed the button to summon an elevator. "It's impressive, to say the least."
"It will be a grand event, but I have to say, I'm ready to get back to work." Inside, Martha rummaged through her purse for a mirror and touched up her red lipstick.
"Save some time slots for more simulations. We must prepare ourselves for any possible emergency." Tom had learned the security business from the bottom up in the toughest city in the world. The people in skyscraper management respected him as the best at protecting those who lived and worked in high rises from fire, terrorism and the forces of nature. His latest project was a series of holographic security programs which he ran in a cutting-edge simulation room on the 396th floor.
The elevator doors opened into a broad lobby. A set of tall double doors stood open, revealing a banquet room where a live band entertained a festive crowd.
All attention turned to Martha. Silver hair that framed her blue eyes and still youthful face flowed over shoulders of sheer white silk beneath white lace. White pants accentuated her already long legs.
She navigated through the crowd, a who's-who of politics, business, sports, and entertainment, sharing a handshake here and an embrace there as she made her way to the head table.
Martha greeted each of the dignitaries as the entire room applauded the company's matriarch and the city's dearest friend.
Martha championed the cause of single mothers by injecting common sense into a social discussion that had degenerated into a quagmire of political sophistry. One of her proudest achievements was the establishment of a trust fund that provided free childcare combined with tuition grants to help single mothers become self-sufficient.
The city loved Martha Storm, and Martha loved the city.
Martha approached the podium and raised her hands to quiet the cheering crowd. Before she spoke a single a word, fire alarms sounded. The applause died out until the clink of a fork against a goblet might have been heard across the banquet room except for the wailing of the alarm.
Furrowed brows looked one way, then another, for some explanation. A waiter reported the elevators would not respond. Murmurings rose to shouts of concern and cries of near panic when the waiter announced that none of the stairwell doors would open.
"Everyone please sit down." The familiar, reassuring voice of Martha Storm came out of the speakers. "We don't even know if there is an emergency, so please, calm down. We'll bring you up to date as soon as we know more." She nodded to the band leader. As if on cue, the alarms stopped just in time for soft music to fill the room.
In the lobby, Tom gave instructions to his assistant, Lei, an immigrant from China, before leaving him in charge of the guests.
"Watch for anyone who isn't coping well. Keep them contained to the banquet room. There's no need for anyone to wander around. Have the wait staff continue serving water and coffee."
"You can count on me, Mr. Drake. I won't let you down."
Both men checked their phones, and Tom shrugged his shoulders. "It looks like my service was interrupted."
"Yours, mine and a lot of others." Lei pointed out people who were punching the keypads of their phones in frustration.
Martha didn't like the way Lei looked at Tom when Tom wasn't aware of it, the glint in his eyes, the slightly upturned corners of his thin lips that said, according to Martha's interpretation, step aside, old man, you can't handle this job anymore. If it wasn't that, she wasn't certain what the look might mean. When the men finished, she stepped forward and addressed Tom. "Let's talk."
Tom left the door slightly ajar as they walked into Martha's office. "Something's wrong with my cell phone, Lei's too. In fact, we noticed several of the guests trying to make calls with no success."
"Mine works just fine."
Tom took Martha's phone and scanned the screen. His eyebrows raised. "What's this smiley face icon? The words below say, Having fun yet?"
Martha took her phone back. "I have no idea. I'm sure it wasn't there earlier. I don't understand Tom. Is someone messing with our phones, with the elevators? Why? What do they want?"
Tom used Martha's computer to evaluate which systems in the building were unresponsive. "We already know the cell phones aren't working––except for yours. What's this? The elevators are responding, but not to this floor." He pushed himself away from the desk.
"Someone has either hacked into our system, or there is a serious malfunction."
Martha's cell phone chirped, her ringtone for an unknown caller. Tom took the phone and activated the speaker. Setting it on the corner of her desk, he nodded to Martha.
"Martha Storm speaking. Who is this?"
"Ms. Storm, how's the party? I imagine my surprises put a damper on your celebration. We've disabled all the cell phones except yours, which will only work to communicate with me. The police are evacuating the rest of the tower in response to my anonymous call. It's you we are interested in. No doubt, you've already discovered that the elevators aren't working on the four-hundredth floor.
Tom opened his mouth to speak, but Martha beat him to it. "You're telling us what we already know. Get to the point, you bastard."
"We've taken control of Storm Tower. There is no way anybody on that floor is going to get out, unless you intend to jump."
"We've installed a portal on your cell phone that will lead from your bank account to ours. You have one hour to transfer one billion dollars. Tap on the icon, enter your account number and say goodbye to all that money. If you don't cooperate, you and all your rich friends will ride that tower right down to the streets."
"Alright, you've made your demands, now you listen to me. There are hundreds of people up here whose combined wealth couldn't provide what you've demanded. Only I can do that. Before I even look at the app, everyone except me gets to leave the building."
"Ms. Storm, your bravado is amusing––"
"I have no way of knowing that you will let us go if I do give you the money. Release them or all you will end up with is a bunch of dead bodies on a pile of rubble." Martha ended the call and muted the receiver.
"My guess," said Tom, "is that this man will accept your terms, but he'll be watching the security cameras and your cell phone. If we try to get you out with the others, he'll retaliate."
"Then we won't try." She looked at the six-and-a-half-foot tall ex-military man who had kept the high-and-tight haircut, now gray, edged with silvery-white. At sixty-nine, he would still be a challenge for anyone hand to hand. Tom had the mindset of a predator. Yes, she trusted this man with her life.
Even at this critical time, she couldn't help a passing thought. Why haven't Tom and I ever had more than a business relationship and a good friendship? It's been over a decade since I lost Frank in the experimental orbiter accident and Tom's wife died even longer ago of cancer. I'm certainly attracted to him. Love those green eyes. And it's hard to miss he thinks the world of me.
"You'll need to decide whether you want to stay or leave with the others," she said, coming back into the moment.
Tom nodded. "You know the answer to that." He held Martha's gaze willing her to believe her safety was his highest concern. "But this is a serious security breach, and I'm responsible for it. You may want..."
"We can discuss that later. Right now, I want you at my side, not someone else, especially not Lei." The phone chirped. Martha touched the screen.
"Ms. Storm, you've pushed back a little too hard. We're going to demonstrate who is in charge." The call ended.
While Martha was still holding the phone, trying to grasp what the caller had just said, an explosion shook Storm Tower. Windows cracked. Everything not anchored to the floors or walls came down with thuds and crashes. Hundreds of unsuspecting people broke into a cacophony of screams, yells, and cries that called Tom away from the office. In the midst of the din, the phone chirped again.
"Ms. Storm, for the next hour, you will stay in your office with your cell phone pointed at your face. We will turn the elevators back on. If they work after that minor explosion, then everyone, other than you, can leave. During that sixty minutes, you will transfer the money."
Martha watched down the hall from the doorway of her office as one thousand relatives, friends, employees, celebrities and politicians paced, each waiting their turn to escape. All twelve elevators remained operational. Each car would make five round trips lasting four minutes which included loading and unloading.
Some refused to go down first. Others pushed their way into the elevators, oblivious to anyone but themselves, showing their true colors.
She sat down and propped the cell phone against a photograph of herself with her children and grandchildren at Thanksgiving. Her phone flashed another warning. Video function accessed by unknown user. A chill sent goosebumps down her neck and spine when she realized that the caller was watching. Her phone lit up again. Incoming message from unknown user.
Transfer the money, Ms. Storm.
A digital timer appeared, counting down from sixty minutes, but to Martha, time seemed to stand still.
Tom left Lei in charge of the evacuation and returned to Martha's office. He picked up a pair of binoculars from the coffee table and looked straight down at the street.
"What do you see?" Martha remained seated.
"The first of the guests just left the building. I wrote a detailed description of what's happening and asked the Senator to deliver it to the commissioner. By the way, the senator insisted on being among the first to leave. That probably will cost him the re-election" Tom watched news helicopters circling at a distance. "What will you do about the money?" She didn't answer right away, so Tom turned his head and stared at Martha until she finally glanced his way.
"What?" Martha used her mirror to see what might be so interesting.
"You're putting lipstick on."
"So I am." She slid the lipstick and mirror into her desk drawer.
"I asked what you would do regarding the money."
"I don't want to give that crook one red cent. On the other hand, I can't let him destroy this building and kill who knows how many people."
"The man gave you a multiple choice question. It has two possible answers, A and B. You've chosen, C, which isn't going to make the teacher happy." Tom left the office to check on Lei.
Martha stared at the icon on her phone. One billion dollars. Can I even arrange for that much cash at such short notice? The timer on her phone informed her that she had squandered nearly half an hour. No billionaire keeps that much in a bank account. There are stocks I could liquidate quickly. But the question isn't can I, but should I? Should I do what this man is demanding? She rested her forehead on clasped hands.
The phone chirped. "Ms. Storm, you've wasted thirty minutes. Don't try our patience any longer."
Martha looked up and raised her middle finger toward the man who was threatening to take down her tower and kill hundreds of innocent people.
Tom stepped back into the office."The last of the guests just started down."
The phone chirped.
"Ms. Storm, here's my answer to your little demonstration of insolence and an incentive to help you make up your mind about transferring the money."
Tom bent over the desk and looked Martha in the eyes. "What the hell did you just do?"
The building rumbled. What hadn't fallen before, came down now. The two outside walls of glass shattered releasing a swirling cloud of important documents to rain down on the city.
Tom pulled Martha from her chair and ran from the wind-torn room toward his office.
Martha shouted into her cell phone. "There are still people in the elevators!"
The response was chilling. "Ms. Storm, that was the elevators."
She dropped to her knees. Inner pain welled up and overflowed in a mournful, guttural cry. She wept alone as wind roared through the corridor, blowing her hair, drying her tears.
"It's time to go, Martha." Tom pulled her to her feet. He wore a parachute pack and harness. A handgun hung at his side. He helped her into a second harness and attached the back of her gear to the front of his.
Glittery shards littered the floor where only moments before a floor to ceiling window had offered protection and security. Together, they stepped forward into the gaping jaws of shattered teeth.
Martha looked down and saw the toes of her shoes extending out over the street, more than a mile below. She held the phone up for anyone watching to see. "Go earn your own damn Billion."
Tom jumped and immediately released the parachute. Before it inflated, they spun around, and Martha watched floor after floor of Storm Tower zip past. The parachute opened, and they abruptly decelerated by one hundred miles per hour. They glided toward another skyscraper which had been evacuated. Movement caught Martha's eye on a balcony near the top. She pointed, just as a gunman stood up.
Martha reached back, unsnapped the handgun from Tom's holster and took aim. Her shots weren't even close, but they drove the would-be shooter under cover.
"Stay alert. There may be more." Tom's voice was barely audible over the rushing wind
Martha clutched the gun to her chest.
Tom increased the speed of their descent until they approached the level of other buildings. A man popped up on a flat roof and released a series of rounds. Bullets zinged past. Martha lined up her new target. She got lucky.
They glided toward Central Park and landed in Sheep Meadow. Tom unbuckled Martha from the harness and put his arms around her. "That was too close. But your demonstration of very poor shooting, saved us, not once, but twice." They gathered up the parachute and watched the tower against the backdrop of blue sky and wispy clouds.
A city of millions waited as one in nervous expectancy. The loud cracking sound of a series of explosions that occurred below their line of sight reached them. Storm tower continued to stand, refused to give up. Polished siding shimmered in the afternoon sunlight. The skyscraper dropped. Story after story collapsed until the spire surrendered its place on top of the world and sank in its own cloud of dust beneath the new skyline.
The lights in the simulation room came on. Martha blinked, and tears streamed down her cheeks, following the creases of an absent smile. Tom sat next to her.
"Nicely done, Tom. I had no idea that was a simulation. How did you get me here? We went directly to the luncheon."
"No, we got off the lift here and stepped into a virtual luncheon. We immediately fell into our roles in what you believed to be reality."
"That was amazing. The program must have interacted with my words, my decisions. How did I do?"
Tom got up and checked the corridor outside the simulation room, then returned to Martha. "You are a charming, caring, courageous, belligerent, stubborn woman."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Early on, you called the bad guy on the phone a bastard."
"Yes, I did."
"And then came your demonstration of insolence. I never did hear what that was."
"I gave him the finger. The second explosion came just after that. The man said it was––"
Tom's face was grim when he met Martha's eyes. "Everyone on that final elevator trip down, perished, including Lei."
"Why did you do this to me, Tom? Why?" Martha stood and turned away.
"You set yourself up as a target when you built the world's tallest building, especially in this city." Tom waited while Martha blew her nose. "We had to know how you would react under such stress. That's one reason I planned this simulation on the day of the grand opening; to make sure you were truly stressed."
"The guests, the grand opening. I totally forgot!" She turned back to face Tom.
"Well, you can continue to forget it. I canceled the event."
"We have a problem. Remember the two snipers?"
"How can I forget? I shot one of them, maybe killed him! I can't even hit the target at the shooting range. You've tried to train me, but I'm a hopelessly poor shot."
"Those two men were not part of the simulation." Tom let the implications of that fact sink in. "It's possible that two men with guns came into this room. Remember how I said you and I immediately fell into our roles when we entered?"
"You think they became part of the simulation?"
"It could be."
"Then where are they?"
"I don't know. When the simulation ended, you fainted. That's when I canceled the grand opening. The police are evacuating the building now."
"But I shot one of them."
"The simulator doesn't use real bullets."
"But the snipers do."
"That's why we need to get you outside and leave this to the police."
A door opened from the corridor outside the simulation room. Tom pulled Martha down behind a storage cabinet. He tapped the screen of his cell phone and whispered, "Security camera."
On the screen, a man stood in the doorway of the darkened room, silhouetted against the lighted corridor. It was Lei. Tom was about to stand up, but his associate was joined by four more Chinese men, all armed. Lei pointed around the room and down a hallway toward the computer center. Lei was advising them how to search the department.
Tom frantically worked with his phone.
In an instant, the simulation room vanished, and Martha was on the floor of a different room. Tom was next to her, evaluating their situation.
A group of people stood at the entrance of the long narrow room, staring at them. Martha caught a glimpse of five Chinese men as they forced their way through the crowd.
Tom helped Martha up and headed off in the opposite direction of their pursuers. They were in a corridor lined with mirrors of different shapes and sizes. Their reflections were grossly distorted. Martha would have laughed at the images any other time.
"We're in a house of mirrors, like at a carnival."
"This was a demo from when we purchased the simulation equipment."
"But why are we here?"
"Those thugs were getting ready to search the simulation department. We had no chance back there. Here, we do."
From behind, guns fired. Mirrors exploded.
They ran outside and disappeared into a throng of people which moved through the midway of a county fair as if they were floating by on a lazy river.
Tom skirted the ticket booth for the Incredible Painted Lady. Inside, they ran past the advertised woman in a bikini, displaying dragon images that crowded one another over every inch of her exposed flesh. He searched one way, then the other. He approached a wall and began feeling around.
The five Chinese men forced their way past the ticket booth and entered the room just as Tom found the doorknob which had been masked by the simulation. He turned it, and they passed into one of the tower's stairwells. Lei spotted them and ran at the closing door.
They began to ascend, and Tom relaxed. "We're still in Storm Tower on the three-hundred-ninety-sixth floor. You have to watch closely to see the clues."
"But Lei saw us go through the door. He'll be after us any second now."
"Lei doesn't understand the simulations the way I do. He has to figure out what just happened before the idea of a doorknob even enters his mind. They climbed to the four-hundredth floor.
Tom opened the door and checked the corridor. It was clear. They went directly to his office.
"It's hard to believe, but Lei is involved," Tom whispered.
"I knew there was something about him. I thought he just he wanted your job."
"Stay put. I won't be long."
"Where are you going?" But Tom was already out the door. When he came back, he locked the door and turned around. Martha gawked in disbelief.
"It's time to go." Tom wore his harness and parachute.
"You've got to be kidding. Is this another simulation?"
"No. This is the real deal. Our lives are in danger. Now let's get you strapped in." He helped her put on the second harness, spun her around and attached their gear. He reached around her to open the floor-to-ceiling, sliding window, but the latch wouldn't move. The locked doorknob rattled behind them.
Martha searched with her hand until she found Tom's sidearm and pulled it from its holster. She wrenched her aching body around as far as she could. Tom turned to give her a clear view. The door burst open. Martha fired. The shot shattered the door frame at the level of Lei's chest driving him back into the hallway. The window slid open. Tom jumped.
They fell for a few seconds through sky that had been penetrated by one structure only. The skyscrapers below rushed up to meet them, ready to bludgeon them, becoming the instruments of their deaths. But the parachute unfolded, filled with air, and snatched them away. They flew between highrises and descended toward the lower buildings of Midtown.
Martha resisted the temptation to close her eyes as Central park went from thumbnail size to full screen. Sheep Meadow was at their feet.
"Raise your legs."
She lifted her knees as far as she could, grateful to her trainer in the company gym. Tom gently landed in a seated position, to the amusement of runners and families picnicking on the grass.
"What just happened back there with Lei? Martha pointed toward the tower. "Who were those men? They spoke Chinese." She waited for an answer while Tom gathered up the parachute.
"It's called international corporate warfare. Either Lei was a plant from the beginning, or they recruited him after he got the job. They were probably sent to disrupt the grand opening party and kill both of us. But they got caught up in the simulation as you did."
Tom stuffed the chute and harness into his parachute container, and they headed for 5th Avenue. On the way, Tom called the police to let them know they had escaped and that Lei was working with the terrorists. Martha pulled up an app on her phone to summon her driverless limousine.
The car parked three blocks from the tower, and Tom spoke to an officer who escorted them to where the commissioner oversaw the operation.
"Tom, Ms. Storm." The Commissioner ran to meet them. "Holy cow, what a spectacle you put on for this city! Are you both okay? Do you need to see the emergency medical team?"
"Thanks, Commissioner. We're as good as gold," said Tom. "What's the status of the gunmen?"
"We've got all five Special Operations Response Teams in there now, including the K9 units. When you called and reported that Lei was involved, we got some of his personal effects to give the dogs his scent. It's just a matter of time unless those men want to go down fighting. It's a lot of building to cover, and we may have to chase them all the way to the top."
"I can help with that." Tom pulled out his cell phone and began tapping.
"When he does that, expect anything to happen." Martha folded her arms in front of her.
"It should be easier now. Wherever they are, they'll stay. I've closed and locked every door in the building and shut down the elevators. Get me to the ground floor security office, and I can provide exact locations."
The Commissioner grabbed Tom by the arm and headed off toward the front doors. Martha followed close behind.
Tom sat down at a computer in the security center and began to type.
"How in the world can you get their exact locations?" The commissioner maneuvered to see the screen.
"Motion sensors connected to the security cameras. As soon as they move, I'll get a notification." The men watched until a message popped up. "They're still in the simulation room. I'll get your men to floor three-ninety-five. They can proceed up one-floor using stairwells.
An hour later, the front doors of Storm Tower opened. Special Operations Response Team officers streamed out and created a perimeter. Behind them, the five Chinese terrorists emerged in handcuffs and leg irons. The procession moved toward the street where a police transport van waited.
Martha walked across the lawn and cut them off halfway.
"Martha, wait!" Tom took her by the arm and turned her toward him.
"I want to talk to Lei."
The Commissioner and two officers pulled Lei aside. Martha approached, looking the young man in the eyes. He dropped his gaze to examine his shoes.
"You tried to kill Tom and me today."
"They made an offer I couldn't refuse."
"Wouldn't refuse, you mean." She waited until he looked up. "You should know by now I don't use violence and intimidation to get ahead. Look at me, and look where you are––where you're headed."
"They won't forget this. They won't leave you alone."
"And I won't stop doing what I've done for forty years."
"Times change. Rules change."
"That's where you're wrong, Lei. Your boss, whoever he may be, is desperate. He knows the truth even if you don't."
"And that is…?"
"I make the rules now."
One month later, Martha stood at the windows of her office, looking out over the city. "It's good finally to get some news about the investigation. I certainly needed some closure."
"The charge of international terrorism should be a wake-up call to the people Lei was working for." Tom joined her at the window.
"I'd like to know who those people are. Maybe names will come out during the trial." Martha was silent for a moment. "I still can't believe we jumped from this tower. It's like a dream."
"You handled it well."
"It's called BASE jumping, isn't it? Building, Antenna, Span and Earth, the four fixed objects crazy people like to jump from."
"I guess that's one way to look at it."
"I'd like to do the simulator version again sometime when we aren't running for our lives."
"There's no time like the present." Tom walked to the door. "I thought you might like to try it again, so I put together a new program."
"Where will we jump from? One of the bridges? The Empire State Building?"
"You've heard of The Eiger, haven't you?"
"The mountain? In the Alps?"
"Yes, but before we go, you might want to touch up your lipstick."
"For a base jump?"
"No, for dinner afterward. There's a romantic little restaurant that just opened down the street."
"Romantic? Thomas Drake, are you asking me out on a date?
"It's about time, don't you think?."
"The restaurant, it's not Chinese, is it?"
"A handsome man, romantic dinners, the Bernese Alps; I could get used to this."
Tom turned Martha around after their first kiss and pulled her back
against his torso. He attached their harnesses, and they absorbed the view
of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys four thousand five hundred feet
below. Clouds moved around them and were carried away by a gentle breeze.
"The Nordwand, or North Wall," said Tom. "It has a German nickname as well, The Mordwand."
"What does it mean?" Martha stood with Tom on the rock tower formation known as The Mushroom.
"That's comforting; nevertheless, I'm ready when you are."
"Do you think we're too old for this?"
"I don't know about you, but I'm certainly not. Now quit stalling."
"Next time, you jump solo."
Tom leaned forward and pushed off. They spread their arms to embrace the panorama of mountains, valleys, sky, and clouds as the brisk alpine air washed away all emotions but wonder.
© 2018 Chris Mills