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  • Writer's pictureJohn Lombard

A Confederacy of Lanyards

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

There are rules for lifts.

Some rules are obvious.

If you are part of a group, use one lift, and travel together.

Face the door, so you can see when people enter, and leave quickly when the lift stops.

Stay under the weight limit, so you don’t break the motor.

You may need a security pass to use the lift. Perhaps you have one for the lift in the building where you work. You wear a lanyard on your neck, and at the end of the lanyard dangles a bad photo of you on a hunk of plastic with a radio receiver or magnetic stripe encoded with your identity.

Rules like these are essential etiquette for lifts, to keep us safe as we hurtle at 35km per hour towards the ground, trapped with strangers in a cramped metal box.

Some rules you can bend. If you want to keep the door open for someone, you are supposed to hold the open door button. But a hand or foot thrust into the gap works just as well. I’ve never heard of anyone losing a limb doing it.

Some rules you should never break, unless you are prepared for what comes next.

Here is the most important one. Perhaps you know a lift surrounded by signs declaring only a few people can use the lift at the same time. Perhaps the lift has red dots on the floor, to show people where they must stand. The lift may even be programmed to only answer a summons if it has an unoccupied space. This rule is that people in a lift can’t get too close to each other.

We are told this rule is because of disease. If we get too close on a lift, the germs that dance on our breath will hop to other passengers.

That is true, and a good enough reason not to overcrowd a lift.

But there is another reason for this rule.

In this building, the rule was six. Only six people in a lift at once. Posters were printed, emails were sent, dots were pasted on the floor, and the lift was programmed to not open for excess passengers. Everyone knew the rules. And if they didn’t, the lifts counted presses of the up and down call buttons, so the lifts knew when they were full. These precautions meant long waits for lifts, but they kept everyone who used the lifts as safe as they could be.

It was 10:05am, time for the morning coffee run.

On the eleventh floor, Jaime and Orville got in the lift.

This pair worked for the same paperclip company, and had been dating on the hush-hush for three months. They considered their romance a coy secret. Of course, everyone in the company knew about their liaison, although they said nothing.

Jaime loved pet goldfish, but couldn’t get the hang of cleaning the water in the tank. Her current goldfish was Mephisto the 7th. She didn’t know it yet, but in a month, she would need to buy Mephisto the 8th.

Orville’s life outside work was rugby, whether playing badly for his local club, watching TV replays of matches, or beers with his footy mates, who called him ‘Orv.

The pair had the spark that comes when young, attractive people have little in common and mistake apathy for mystery. They ate lunch together every day, and booked faroff hotels for weekends. By choice, they had not seen each other’s apartments, to preserve a fiction of distance.

On the ninth floor, Wallace got in.

Wallace had fought hard battles for his law firm in a long career, but after the incentive of a heart bypass stepped back from the front ranks. A respected elder and mentor in the firm, he now took earlier nights to spend more time with his family. Having lived apart from his wife and teenage son for so many years, they didn’t know what to do with him, and resented the loss of space. Wallace had not noticed, assuming his family was grateful to have the patriarch holding court.

On the eighth floor, Linda and Clinton got in.

A few months ago, Linda and Clinton had discovered they were both consultants, in a layoff-beset office where this was not a popular thing to be. They identified opportunities, filed reports, and coaxed their coworkers with the bland confidence of people who knew the ship had hit an iceberg and were already in a lifeboat. They enjoyed sneaking lunch together and talking shop, each secretly convinced they were the smarter of the duo.

Here the trouble began, for if Clinton had just pushed the button twice, as he was supposed to, the lift would have stopped taking passengers at six people, and that would have been the end of it.

On the fifth floor, Cheryl got in.

Cheryl had received an epic shellacking from Mr Big for a fumbled tender, and needed to scramble crosstown for an urgent meeting to put everything right. She knew who was really behind this slipup, and when she got her hands on Darryl…

And if that had been everyone, that would have been the end of it. Jaime and Orville, the bright young things. Wallace, the half-retired lawyer. Linda and Clinton, the sharp consultants. Cheryl, a tough woman on the go. Six people, the approved number of people for this particular lift.

That would have been the end of it, if not for Kieran.

Kieran was a lovable mess. Young and new to the world of desks and virtual meetings, in whimsical moments he was known to play wastebasket cricket in the halls with a ruler and a scrunched up ball of paper. His spreadsheets, when he deigned to produce them, were the despair of weary coworkers. Kieran had a meeting with his boss soon to discuss his shaky prospects, and wanted to sneak a quick coffee first.

Working on the third floor, Kieran by all rights should have used the stairs. It wasn’t far to walk, especially for someone as young and fit as Kieran. But Kieran decided to use the lift.

Kieran knew the rule - six to the lift. So when the lift opened, and there were six people already inside, he should have let the door close and taken another one, or better yet taken the stairs. But he did the unthinkable. He got in.

On the ground floor, something else got out.

In that first firework of confusion and pain, the union shambled out of the building, a huddle of cascading legs tumbling onto the deserted weekday streets of the city. If anyone saw it, they observed only a gaggle of friendly urban professionals, perhaps a little wobbly after a cheeky lunchtime bevvy.

Wallace recited each step of Jaime’s morning make-up routine, and the brands of the thirteen products she used, shocked at this late-life discovery of contouring. Kieran realised it would be easier to model revenue growth by applying the choose function in a spreadsheet, a trick from Clinton’s toolkit. Cheryl’s mind was flooded with locker room banter from Orville’s weekends, and she was disappointed to discover that when men are naked together, they mainly talk about triathlons. Linda re-lived an uneasy afternoon as a small girl when her mother left her in a bookstore for hours and she thought she had been abandoned, and felt six minds take a bite from that memory.

The union pinballed through the streets for some time, sifting an endless jumble of recollections and feelings, like a dinner party shoved into the backseat of a taxi. Orville and Jaime found pettiness and vanity in each other, but already knew each other well enough not to be surprised by these qualities. Linda and Clinton each found that the other knew more than they expected, and swapped their professional experiences like well-thumbed self-help books. Kieran and Wallace recognised in each other an appreciation for lazy afternoons and long beach holidays. Cheryl recoiled from this roiling sea of intimacy, reciting the items on her to-do list to focus, only to thoroughly expose her priorities and personality.

The abrasions of intimacy scraped at this burgeoning camaraderie, to expose gashes of hostility. Cheryl was horrified at Kieran’s cosmic lack of ambition. Jaime loathed Clinton’s stultifying arrogance, too familiar in awkward and self-absorbed men. Linda despised Wallace’s unquestioning demands on his family. Orville saw how little he brought to the union, and resenting himself, resented them. But they could not hide feelings from each other, and bickering dissolved in the swirling broth of shared lives.

Cheryl was used to taking charge, and still burning from her morning humiliation. Darryl needed to be dealt with. Now a committee, she raised this motion with the other members. Orville assented, keen to salve his insecurity by bullying a scapegoat. Jaime decided to follow Orville, exalting in their new intimacy. Clinton believed in doing everything well, and gave them his support so he could contribute to a satisfying outcome. The other three dissented. Linda felt this was too petty a goal for a new and strange being, and Kieran and Wallace harped the siren song of food and sleep. But the majority ruled, and the motion was carried.

Cheryl knew where Darryl worked. Clinton suggested the union wait at a bus stop outside Darryl’s building, where it would seem to be an ordinary group of commuters, and nobody would linger for too long or pay them too much attention. If the union did not move, it seemed human, or at least human enough for a bus stop. To pass time until Darryl came out, Orville recounted the outcomes of dozens of rugby matches to an audience as fascinated as he was, for they were becoming him, as he was becoming them.

Darryl left the building at dusk. The union followed him for two blocks to the multi-story carpark where he kept his convertible.

Darryl might have been cautious if he had seen just one person following him. But a motley crew of office workers in a tight pack surely had an innocent purpose, perhaps a farewell dinner or a celebration to mark a big deal. If he had looked closer, he might have seen that the faces did not match as they should have. He might have seen that a raised eyebrow on Clinton fit Jaime’s curled lip, or that the left eye on Kirean was the twin of the right eye on Linda. He might have noticed the twitching of seven bodies learning to contort as one. But it was late, and Darryl was thinking of the sofa, Pornhub, and the half bottle of whiskey waiting for him.

When Daryl reached his car, he dipped his hand in his coat pocket for the keys. He sensed someone too close behind him, and whipped around, brandishing his keys like a stubby switchblade. He saw Cheryl. He sneered at her. Then he saw the group around her, and was puzzled. Then with an icicle stab of fear he realised that what he saw was no longer human.

Before he could scream, fourteen hands took him, lifting him as helpless as a wiggling bug imobile in a spider’s cocoon. The hands began to yank and scratch and twist, and for the next five minutes pieces of Darryl squelched on the car park concrete.

Cheryl on her own would not have taken such an extreme method to resolve a workforce issue. But when you are seven, one seems such a tiny thing, and so fragile.

Splattered in viscera but sated by revenge, the union was quieter. The people who had been Cheryl and Clinton entwined in satisfaction, and Orville and Jaime melted together in the thrill of the moment. With these personalities mute, Wallace was the dominant voice, and the only thing he wanted was to go home. Kieran was supportive, keen for some quiet and a feed. And Linda could see the wisdom in at least cleaning the gunk from their bodies.

And so under cover of night Wallace came home to his family, bringing a party of dinner guests.

His wife screamed, of course. This was when the union discovered they could extend their mind like a corkscrew finger and poke at someone’s thoughts. With a nudge, a twist and a tuck Wallace’s wife became much calmer. She went to the kitchen, and began to make dinner.

The union cleaned itself in the bathroom, slipping off blood-soaked clothes, scrubbing flailing hands and feet, and washing off torsos and thighs and necks. It needed five towels to dry itself. After that, it considered dressing in Wallace’s clean clothes. It reflected that their huddle gave more than enough body heat, and that with the growing power of their mind it no longer needed to blend in with humans. And so, it decided clothes would no longer be necessary.

A few hours later, Wallace’s son came home. He had snuck a joint with mates after school, and planned to go straight to his room to blast metal in his headphones. Enroute, he saw his father sprawled on the couch, naked and tangled with six strangers. Four roast chickens were laid out in front of this group. His mother stood to attention at the side, with her head bowed like a servant.

Wallace’s son felt an understandable melange of confusion, disgust and horror. Then the union reached out with the corkscrew finger of its mind, and with a twist Wallace’s son was calm.

And so the union and Wallace’s family enjoyed a meal together, with wife and son taking dainty bites, while the union dismembered whole chickens, with the same gusto it had torn into Cheryl’s rival. Hands and mouths worked together in complex jerks, like a ballet performed by robots. Wallace savoured the taste of a chicken wing in Clinton’s mouth, the snap of bones in Cheryl’s fingers, and the coat of grease on Orville’s chin.

Afterwards, the son and wife performed short poems and songs on how much they loved and respected Wallace, with a short comic opera on goldfish for Jaime.

Content, Wallace tumbled down into the union, Kieran following him in the oceanic bliss of surrender.

This left Linda as the sole piping voice of discord, a screeching owl in a forest of deafening harmonies. To lash out at those who hurt them, to feel the thrill of life, to be the ruler of a tiny world… Was that really what they were meant for? Could their new existence be shared? Yes. That must be their true purpose.

Linda wrapped herself in the union like a blanket, and dissolved into endless comfort.

Now one mind with one purpose, the union’s will vibrated like a tuning fork, and began to broadcast a summons.

It was late that night when we felt it. I was shelving in a grocery store in the suburbs, not too far away. My girlfriend had just broken up with me for the third time, and for good. I felt like pieces had been scooped out of me. Not even half a tube of cookie dough had been able to fill the void.

That’s when the wave of thought and feeling hit us. It was as grave as any holy man’s sermon, as stirring as any leader's speech, and as energising as any minstrel’s song. It described what we could be, if we only gave ourselves over. I saw how small I was, and knew I wanted to be a part of it.

I ran towards it through the streets, hungry for this chance to satisfy all longing. I could hear the racing thoughts of others caught in the union’s psychic net. Some were drawn to security, some to kindness, some to community, some to beauty, and some to power. Whoever we were, we would be forgiven, accepted, and given purpose. Now they were seven, but could we become a hundred? Or a thousand? Could our one mind entwine the entire world, to dwell in eternal bliss forever?

I was one of the first to arrive.

It was magnificent - the union no longer walked, it rolled through the suburban streets on a wheel of splayed hands and feet, eyes twitching in every direction. The seven hearts beat in perfect time, and I could my temple pulsing in unison. It roared, one voice from seven mouths, with the ecstasy and power of untrammeled life.

Even though it had abandoned clothes, I saw that on each of the seven necks, there was still a lanyard. At the end of each lanyard there was an ID pass, with the name that had been shed to birth this glory.

The lanyards were tangled together in a knot. And in that moment, I knew the reason for the most important of the rules for lifts.

As the growing crowd approached, our souls were flooded with radiance. We understood ourselves and each other, and were connected by how similar we had always been. This was to be a child in your mother’s arms, this was to clutch a lover for the first time, this was to dandle a grandchild on your knee, and to be all those people at once. I was a small girl being pushed on a swing by her father. I was an old woman who had fallen in the shower. I was a drunk man wandering alleys at night, musing on the sacrosanct in the flicker of downtown neon. These were senses and appetites and experiences and identities undreamed of.

Perhaps it was too much too soon. The union was a newborn, and may have been greedy or foolish. A dozen of us clambered onto the union to fuse with it, and just like that the dream vanished, like a fairytale castle vanishing into smoke at the break of dawn.

As we fell away, I saw that the knot of lanyards had been broken, snapped by the crush of our bodies.

Nobody speaks of that day. We never speak of events we can’t explain, no matter how often they happen. No one who finds themselves in the middle of the suburbs on a work night buried in a pile of strangers, with some of them naked, would stop for discussion. We each went our own way, thrilled or disappointed or peaceful or despondent.

I don’t know what became of the seven founders of the union.

Wallace would have gone home to his family, but after his chicken dinner I would not be surprised if they had fled to a hotel. Perhaps Jaime and Orville have moved on, all mystery ripped from their flirtations. Or perhaps they are thinking of marriage, aware they understand each other better than anyone else ever will. For Linda and Clinton, they may have found ambition or humility. Who knows? Will Cheryl thrive in her career, or become a suspect in a murder? Will Kieran learn anything from this?

Touched by their union, I know everything about these seven people except their futures. Why must we be riddles to each other, when every person is a new continent to discover?

At first I returned to the routine of life, with late shifts at the grocery and nights out with my mates. But I now knew the reason for the most important of the rules for lifts. Knowing, I could not stay in my old life.

So I got myself an office job. It’s a tall building, with a lot of lifts. The work is boring, but I have a lanyard of my own now, and wear my pass on it. I know how important it is, so I polish it every night.

I take every chance I can to use the lift - for errands, for meetings, for coffee runs. And I watch for that one lift that will change everything. For I know the reason for the most important of the rules for lifts, and the miracle that happens when you break it.

Today, the lift opens in front of me. It is as full as my heart. I begin to weep. The people stare at me. Do the people in the lift know what will happen when I take one more step? Do they want this as much as I do? What will we become when the lift reaches the ground floor?

The door closes before I can move.

One of the people in the lift saw me and pressed the close door button.

They knew the reason for the rule as well.

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