The girl’s words echoed through the corridors. Chief stopped short, and Kid almost bumped into him. A warm flash of irritation ran through him and he gave the young man a shove, sending him stumbling back towards Red.
“What the hell?” The big man caught him and glared at Chief.
“Be careful,” Chief snapped.
“Was that Kali?” Kid asked, looking around.
Chief’s face softened. Kid hadn’t complained. He wouldn’t be a problem. “Not from the intercom panel. Speakers in the wall, maybe. General channel.”
“Can we talk back?” Red asked.
Kid walked up to the hall panel and gave it a careful look. He held down one of the buttons with his thumb. “Kali?”
His voice echoed in the hall.
“Hey!” Kali’s voice answered. “Where are you? I found something.”
“We are on D-floor,” Kid said.
Chief stepped up, guiding Kid aside, speaking into the panel. “There is an elevator stopped below us. Took a long time to get the doors to D open. Not a lot of room to work.”
He didn’t mention how slow the difficult climb had gone, or the muscle he’d pulled trying to pry the heavy door open in the dark. It hurt, but he’d been walking without a limp, to avoid looking hurt in front of the others. They probably already thought him weaker due to his age, and the last thing he needed was them to stop listening to him.
“D-floor? So you’re above me? Below?”
“Above. Higher letters are up top. The elevator on your floor is stuck and we can’t get past it down the shaft.”
“You need to see — how can you get down here?”
“Maybe she can try and fix the elevator?” Kid suggested.
“The three of us could barely manage working together,” Red said.
Chief frowned. If they couldn’t find a way down to the next floor, they’d be trapped. The people who had built this place had to have accounted for the possibility of the elevator breaking down. They hadn’t come across any stairwells or ladders, but there had to be something, if only for airflow.
“We’ll try and find an access shaft or some other way down,” he said into the intercom. “Stay where you are.”
“…Okay.” Kali’s voice was hesitant, her tone uncertain.
“We won’t abandon you,” Chief said, trying to reassure the girl. “We’ll find a way.”
Red, Kid, and Chief split up to search the floor for any access points to the next level, agreeing to meet in the central room near the elevator every hour. The old man found himself carefully scaling tubes to peer into vents, and squeezing between them to peer into dark corners.
Red was waiting when he returned to the elevator. “Find anything?”
“Scraped knuckles and a snag.” Chief pointed at where his sleeve had caught on a sharp corner. “Nothing useful.”
“Hey, we’ve still got most of the deck to search,” Red said.
Chief just nodded and examined the dryness of his palms. Trying to scramble over equipment wasn’t easy. He still felt unsteady. He needed food. Real food, not this tube-nutrient shit.
Kid’s unsteady footpads arrived moments before he did.
“You guys…” The young man wheezed, taking in big gulps of air.
“Steady there,” Chief said, patting him on the back.
“Take your time.” Chief exchanged a quick glance with Red. Kid’s enthusiasm was admirable, but he was having deepening concerns about the young man’s mental state.
Kid bent over, hands on his knees, taking in large breaths. He looked up, from Chief’s face to Red’s.
“You guys! I found… a door!”
“A new door!” Kid pointed back along the hall he’d run from.
“A door where it wasn’t on F-deck!”
Chief straightened up, tilting his head. This was promising. “Show us.”
There was, indeed, a new door. It was set in the outermost hallway’s ring, midway between the spokes leading to the central elevator area. The new door was different from the others, taller and broader, with a heavier frame, a duller grey than the pale cabin doors. It lacked any painted numbers or lettering.
“Maybe it’s a supply closet?” Red suggested. “Or an emergency exit.”
“Maybe.” Chief traced a finger along the yellow and black stripes of its frame. “Can you get it open?”
“Let’s see,” Red said.
The big man stood in front of the doorway. He flattened his palms against its surface, fingers gripping at the seam running down its front. His muscles bulged under his jumpsuit as he pushed, straining to slide the halves of the door apart. His face darkened, and a vein stood out on his forehead.
“Let me see if I can–” Kid started, stepping forward.
Red staggered forwards, almost falling as the doors suddenly gave and slid sideways from each other into the wall. He caught himself on the frame.
“Holy shit,” he said.
Red and Kid jostled alongside him for a look.
A long dark corridor extended out beyond the doorway, many times the length back towards the elevator. Lights flickered on before them, one after another, illuminating the path with a slightly brighter and more artificial radiance than in the halls. The walls were coarser, too, bare metal, and the floor was a grated steel over what looked like pipes and cables.
“What is this place?” Red whispered, his fingers curling and uncurling.
Chief didn’t respond as he stepped forward silently into the hall. The air had a different taste to it here, a different smell that he didn’t recognize. It smelled… old. Almost like sawdust, but sweeter. Like oil.
Like machines. Like an army waiting for the order to move out.
He gestured for the others to follow, then started down the hall, keeping an eye on his surroundings. Thick pipes ran along the walls at various heights, and along the ceiling, none of them leaking, many of them showing obvious signs of repair. Some had condensation frosted on the outside, and one was leaking a trickle of clear liquid down the wall and into the grate below.
Kid stopped. “It doesn’t smell.”
“Don’t taste it,” Red said.
Kid’s nose wrinkled. “I know!”
The lighting was inconsistent, with some sections dimmer or flickering, and in the distance Chief fancied he could see an area cast into darkness.
“Look here,” Red said, stopping and stooping.
“What is it?” Chief asked.
The larger man held up a cellophane wrapper. “Cigarettes. Empty, though.”
“Any idea how old?”
“No. No brand. Just the wrapper.”
Chief frowned. “Keep an eye out for anything else. Anything that can tell us where we are. Who we are.”
They continued creeping along, finding a few other traces of inhabitance. A brown-stained plastic cup. Empty tins.
“Look at this,” Red said. “Is this blood?”
Reddish-brown stains dried to a gum were spattered along the wall in thin streaks and dots.
“I think so,” Chief said. “Old blood.”
He followed the splatter down the corridor to what looked like a latched panel. It had been heavily scored and dented, possibly by the length of pipe laying at its foot. He picked it up, turning it over in his hands, then walking into the light in the middle of the corridor for a better look.
“What’s that?” Red asked.
“Pipe,” Chief said. “Look.”
Chief held the length of steel aloft, letting the light glitter off of the sawed-off and sharpened edge that had been filed to a fine blade. Stained with dark brown streaks, it was easy to see how it had been employed as a weapon.
He handed the weapon to Kid, who stared at it in awed fascination at arms length.
Red accompanied Chief as he returned to the latched panel, standing at his flank while the older man’s bony fingers fiddled with the latch. Despite his grip it wasn’t easy to move, scraping against the panel, but Chief managed. Giving a final nod to Red he gripped the panel firmly before ripping it away from the wall.
Empty eye-sockets stared back at them as they beheld a skeletal figure curled up into the corner of the small space behind the hatch. It looked almost as though the figure was clutching its arm, sitting in a dried pool of blood, wearing a torn jumpsuit that matched their own.
Kid gave a small shriek and dropped the pipe, its clattering echoing up and down the corridor.
The silence that followed was impossible to ignore.
Chief exhaled, finding himself in the middle of the corridor, bladed pipe in hand, staring wildly up and down its length. His heart was beating as if to escape his chest, but he had no recollection of moving, no memory of grabbing the pipe.
Red and Kid were staring at him.
“Shit…” Kid muttered.
Chief straightened, stepping out of the low broad stance he’d been in. “Reflexes.”
“Fast fucking reflexes,” Red said.
Chief managed a grin. Better to let them think it intentional. That he was in control.
He walked back to the alcove and pointed at the skeleton with the blunt end of the pipe. “Chased in here. Bled to death. Whoever hurt him locked him in.”
“It latches from the inside, too,” Red said.
“Fear is stronger than any chain of iron,” Chief said, liking the way the phrase made him sound wise. “They probably left him in here to die.”
Red nodded, poking his head back in. “There’s a ladder down. Maybe to the floor below?”
“He couldn’t have climbed, not with his arm like that,” Chief said. “With that much blood… he’d have minutes.”
“We could climb it, though,” Red said. “Get to Kali.”
“Good,” Chief said.
He turned to Kid. The poor boy was still trembling. “You okay? Want to stay up here?”
The young man shook his head with a sudden, jerky motion.
“Good. Let’s go find that girl.”