‘Shush,’ Sienna hissed, dropping from the windowsill behind Nadia. Her friend sprawled on the floor. That crash was an accident—a stack of boxes unseen in their eagerness to escape indoors. Hopefully they sneaked in high enough and the thunder roared loud enough that Nadia’s clumsy rearrangement of the—storage room, it had to be; dusty boxes teetered in mountains and walls were lined with shelves and oddities—would go unnoticed. That, and Nadia’s giggles. Sienna had to stifle a snort herself. Had she wriggled through the window first, it still would have been Nadia who upset the stack.
‘If your clumsiness weren’t enough, your inability to keep a straight face will … we’ll be sleeping in the storm if you don’t shut up right now!’
Sienna scowled, dissolving her own amusement so Nadia’s might fizzle out, upper lip twitching in unspoken threats. They didn’t need to be voiced. Nadia had heard them all before. Slowly, she picked herself up and stood amid upturned boxes and spilt contents.
‘Okay,’ she whispered, breath returned. ‘Let’s go. What in hell is this place, anyway?’
‘Inside. That’s all we need to know.’
‘This was your bright-spark idea—where have you got us breaking into?’
‘Since when have you ever had issues breaking … keep it down,’ Sienna whispered savagely as lightning lit up the storeroom, throwing dust and plunder into sharp relief.
‘No one’s going to see me whispering.’
Ignoring her, Sienna tried the doorknob. Locked. Not missing a beat, she pulled picks from a pouch at her hip and set to work. Nadia scanned the mess she’d made for useful spoils. Swiping a torch, she tested its batteries. The pale yellow light illuminated the space not as well, but more reliably than lightning.
‘No food,’ she said, kicking odds and ends aside in disappointment as she searched a futile moment longer.
‘Of course there’s no food. This isn’t a kitchen,’ Sienna said crisply, rotating her pick. Such a primitive lock. She’d be through in less than ten seconds.
‘But you never know when a packet of chips or a protein bar might be lying around—maybe even a can,’ Nadia pouted, adding a few mismatched cords and ancient hard drives they could strip to her pack. Besides old electronics, most everything she’d upset were files, thick papers stacked and sealed in heavy bunker binders. Other than that, there were only a few vacuum-sealed bags.
Curious, Nadia slit one open—it took a few saws for her knife to gash the tough plastic. Tipping the bag up, its contents scattered.
‘We’re not trying to be found out here.’
‘I’m not cleaning up—are you?’ Nadia said, squatting to examine a jacket and jeans that had tumbled free. They seemed in good nick. The jacket might even fit … Nadia shuddered at the bloodstains, and left the clothes on the floor. ‘They’ll be finding a mess anyway.’
An old phone, a bulky watch, a pocketknife, and a falling-apart wallet. Taking the better-quality knife, Nadia flipped open the wallet. A few old notes and a tinkling of change, two cards and three photographs. Nadia shined the pale torch directly on a card, examining its markings.
‘These are pre-revolution.’
‘Good for them.’
The photographs were tiny with rounded corners. The same boy featured in all three, two taken with various smiling young people, the other with an older person who might have been his parent. Their dates confirmed it: whichever long-dead boy had owned this, he’d lived just before darkness rolled into the world.
‘Anything useful?’ Sienna asked, greasing the door hinges. If thunder had disguised Nadia’s clumsiness, she wouldn’t chance being discovered by a creaking storeroom door. Nadia shoved the wallet in her jacket.
‘Okay. Keep it down.’
Sienna eased the door open, old joints barely whimpering thanks to her high-quality grease. Before them, a long hallway stretched left and right.
‘Can’t see a thing,’ Nadia complained, pointing her light each way. It revealed nothing but identical hallway five metres in each direction. Sienna ignored the torchlight, listening intently. There was life to the left. Sleeping. Unaware. Likely only rats. But life, nonetheless.
‘We go right,’ she decided. If Nadia smacked into a hidden door and got the giggles, Sienna didn’t want to challenge how threatening that life might be. Together, the pair crept along the hallway, in search of more spoils and a nook they could tuck themselves in for the night. Preferably a comfortable nook, but, given some of the nooks they’d taken refuge in, Sienna and Nadia weren’t fussy.
Sienna took the lead. Nadia was just behind, gazing at everything her torch lit up. It was quite plain and bare, but the hallway was better tended than the storage room. Not a trip or a snare strewn on the floor. Another suggestion of life, definitely higher than rats. All the more reason to hide away and get out as soon as the skies cleared. Sienna’s step was slow, but confident, while Nadia was enraptured even by the stark walls and tripped with nothing to get beneath her feet. Sienna steadied her, stilling her impatient sigh. Clumsiness didn’t stop Nadia from being dangerous. If she couldn’t pull her weight, Sienna would have shed her long ago, like all the others.
Sienna paused at a heavy door. An emergency stairwell.
‘I didn’t make a sound,’ Nadia pouted. She’d been trip-free for twenty metres.
Sienna motioned for silence, pressing her ear to the door, listening to the stairs it hid.
‘Someone’s coming,’ she mouthed. Immediately, Nadia dimmed the torchlight and positioned herself directly beside the door, back to the wall. Sienna disappeared into blackness, hand at her hammer. Together, they listened. Soon Nadia heard, too. Echoing footsteps. Light and slow. They belonged to someone either very cautious, or very timid. Probably young, as well. Light and fit enough that every step wasn’t a loud sign of tired years weighting its form.
The footfalls paused at the landing, and they heard the soft sound of a hand settling on a doorknob. As carefully as Sienna had eased the storeroom door open, the footsteps’ owner pushed, poking their head through, obscuring Nadia with the open door.
‘Hello?’ they half-whispered, half-called. The rest of their body uncertainly followed their head, accompanied by a white torch. ‘Is anyone here?’
The door bumped shut behind them. Nadia sprang. Surprising the figure, she aimed a blow at their head with her torch. Dropping their light, the figure threw up their arms and ducked. Swiftly, Nadia wrapped a restraining arm about their body. Her other cold hand clamped firmly to their mouth, cutting off their cry. She drew them close against her, drawing their head back and hissing in their ear.