‘We’re going to have to start a fire,’ Kiri said.
‘A fire?’ Ben looked confused.
‘Yes, I bet it has a safety valve on it,’ Kiri explained. ‘If we can trigger the switch it should open automatically and we can sneak in before anyone gets here to turn off the alarms.’
Ben grinned and produced a lighter from his pocket.
‘Well its lucky I came prepared then,’ he smiled.
It took them around forty minutes to find some flammable material in the building. Most of the facility contained similar bare rooms, with clunking machinery and pumps, but eventually they found one storage room with several bits and pieces of wood. Most of it was locked up in storage units but Ben managed to prise a couple of slivers free.
‘We’re not going to start much a fire with that,’ Kiri said disappointedly as Ben showed her what he had.
‘Let’s look upstairs,’ Ben suggested. ‘Maybe they have some labels or notebooks or something.’
Leaving the few scraps of wood in the corridor, they set off back to the entrance where the grand staircase stood. It really did look like some sort of made-up structure and as they walked up the curving stairwell Kiri had the crazy thought that none of it was real and the steps beneath her feet would suddenly collapse.
It didn’t collapse though and they soon made it to the top landing, where the stair opened out into a balcony with three doors leading off in different directions.
‘It’s like a palace in a vid!’ Ben said excitedly.
Kiri nodded, she had to agree it was such a strange building. Why was there no lift? Why build all this when it only housed machinery?
‘Let’s go this way,’ she said pointing to the door that led off to the left of the landing.
The doorway led to a narrow corridor with a high ceiling and small wooden doors on both sides at regular intervals. In contrast to the ground floor, where all the doors were open these doors were closed.
Kiri and Ben tried to open the first nine or ten doors they passed but they were all either locked or well and truly jammed in place. The spacing of the doors and low height of the frame suggested that the rooms behind were also different from the huge chambers on the ground floor.
Each door was no more than three metres from the next and the narrowness of the corridor would have prevented any large machinery from making its way along there.
After the twelfth door the corridor turned at a right angle to the left and they followed it round moving faster now, only checking doors at random in case they were open. None of them were so they picked up speed hoping that the passageway would lead them somewhere.
At intervals along the corridor, a swing door blocked the way. After they had passed through three of these they saw a chink of light coming from a door on the left.
‘Look it’s open,’ Ben whispered.
Whether it was her connection with Ben or her own feelings, Kiri could not say, but she understood perfectly why he had whispered. Although that part of the corridor looked no different from the way they had just passed she suddenly had the feeling that they were trespassing.
‘Maybe we should go back,’ she whispered in reply.
‘No, come on we’ve got to look, there might be something to burn in there.’
A curious yellow light spilled out of the doorway but Kiri was afraid to imagine what could be contained within.
Ben was closest as they approached and with gritted teeth poked his head around the door. It was with relief that Kiri saw his jaw muscles relax as he let out a low breath.
‘What the hell?’ Ben spluttered and in a moment Kiri’s fear turned to curiosity as she pushed next to Ben to get inside the room.
What they discovered was at once utterly shocking and totally inexplicable.
The room itself was tiny, no more than two metres wide by three metres deep. The walls were all bare and covered in crumbling plaster. The floor too was in disrepair and made of the same concrete like material as the corridor.
What attracted their attention was a small pile of bedding and clothing in the far right corner. Resembling some kind of nest, a thick blanket had been scrunched up to provide a minimal mattress and on top of it were a few grubby possessions.
A small plastic brush, a handful of pieces of paper covered in writing, a pair of shoes that were black with grime.
‘Does something live here?’ Ben asked in shock.
He knelt down next to the few tawdry items rummaging through the blanket to see if there was any further clue but it appeared to be empty.
‘I don’t know, it looks like it.’ Kiri said. ‘Why would anyone else be here?’
Indeed it made no sense at all. There was no reason for anyone to even be there, never mind to be living in the water treatment facility.
The idea that somebody or something might be living in this room, that they might return at any moment, sent a shiver of fear down Kiri’s spine. A thousand half-formed thoughts filled her mind, images that had fed her imagination when as a middle-ager she and Ben had tried to break into prohibited areas.
They had imagined armies of mutants and hidden tribes, clans of subterranean warriors and advanced alien species. Any and all sorts of weird and wonderful life lived there between the off-limits cracks that filled the city, at least in Kiri’s imagination.
Now it seemed there was some kind of person or creature living out here and Kiri wanted to run a mile.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Ben whispered. Kiri could tell from his tone and his expression that he was terrified as well.
Being closest to the door Kiri was the first to exit and she let out a short scream as, from the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow flit away. Ben nearly jumped out of his skin.
‘What was it?’ he whispered, once the two of them had calmed down.
‘I don’t know,’ Kiri said, and the truth was she had not seen anything more than a shape but somehow she felt reassured. Although she had nothing definite to go on, some subtle aspect of the way the shadow had moved suggested that whoever it belonged to was more scared of them than they were of it. Presumably there weren’t very many visitors in this remote building.
‘I think we should follow it,’ Kiri emboldened by the thought whoever lived in the room might be able to help them.
‘What if it’s a Zoob,’ Ben whispered using the childhood name they had coined for the imaginary creatures that lived beneath the city.
Neither of them had so much as uttered the word Zoob in years but the moment that Ben said it Kiri was transported to another world, a magical world that she had lost touch with. The sensation only lasted an instant but Kiri felt a connection, not only to her younger self but beyond that to some realm where imagination was somehow stronger than reality.
In her day-to-day life she had barely noticed the passage of time, had always felt that she was essentially the same person that she had always been, but now for the first time she realised how far she had come. Every little knock and every little success she had experienced had shaped her more than she realised.
It had made her into who she was, and she was proud of that, but for that instant, having a connection to what she had been, to the way she had seen the world as a child, to something purer, she wished she had not lived through any of it.
Although she felt a fear to leave the familiar world behind and follow this shadow deeper into the depths, she knew also that every step away from the world she knew was taking her closer to this magical world where imagination ruled.
It was as if such a world existed outside the normal humdrum existence, it surrounded it, it was where she had come from and where she would go back to, a realm of pure possibilities. The thought made her tingle with excitement and whatever danger the journey posed paled into insignificance.
It was the first time Kiri had ever thought she might ‘go’ anywhere after the unwinding. Everyone was taught that after the unwinding there was nothing and like all her classmates Kiri had never seen any reason to question it.
It had seemed such an obvious point, once a person unwound there was nothing left, their accounts were deleted and their apartments reset.
Occasionally majors would go to special hospitals a few weeks before their eighteenth if the medical diagnostics suggested there might be complications but for most people the unwinding happened without complication at their home and then that was that.
In rare cases some people went crazy and set out into the country to have their unwinding there. No matter how far away they went the drones were always able to detect them and pick up the body afterwards. This other world Kiri had felt was not something she could explain, it made no sense, but the feeling alone was enough to spur her on.
‘It’s not a Zoob,’ Kiri said confidently.
Ben took a look over his shoulder at the few items littered on the floor of the room and was reassured enough to press on.
The way on along the corridor was the same as the way they had come, lined with door after door but this time neither of them stopped to check if the doors were locked or not. After walking for several minutes they reached a large metal door that blocked the end of the corridor.
In the upper half of the door was a tiny window reinforced with wires embedded in a grid. The other side of the window was so grimy that they could see nothing through it. On the wall next to door was a numeric keypad that looked like it was used to unlock the door.
‘’Now what?’ Ben said, staring at the keypad. ‘I guess whatever it is that lives here knows this place well.’
‘We could knock,’ Kiri said half-joking as the door looked far too solid to transmit any sound.
Nonetheless Ben thumped the steel door as hard as he could, producing three damp thuds.
‘I guess we lost them,’ Ben said angrily.
‘Not yet, if we enter the right code…’ Kiri stopped dead for almost in response to her words a small piece of paper had appeared from underneath the door.
Ben looked at her quizzically before bending to pick up the chit of paper. On it were five numbers written in shaky handwriting.
‘5 – 7 – 8 – 2 – 2’ he whispered, staring at the spot where the paper had been shoved in disbelief.
‘Quickly,’ Kiri said, grabbing the paper from him in frustration. ‘They must be on the other side.’
Pushing Ben out of the way she jabbed the numbers into the keypad and was rewarded with a satisfying bleep and a flash of a green LED on the pad.
Behind the scenes they heard mechanisms engaging as the lock clunked into life. Kiri was itching to get passed the door and meet whatever was behind the door but the mechanism was painfully slow. It took a full twenty seconds before the door inched far enough forward to allow either of them to pass through.
‘They’ve gone,’ Kiri sighed as she poked her head through the opening to find another identical empty corridor.
Ben nodded sagely but seemed secretly pleased that they had not been forced to confront their mysterious guide.
‘At least that proves that whatever it is trying to help us,’ Kiri said. ‘It might just be shy after living here on its own so long.’
‘Either that or its leading us toward some trap and it doesn’t want us to see its face.’ Ben mumbled morosely.
Despite his concerns they carried on down the corridor. The air slowly changed taking on a thick dank smell.
‘We don’t even know how many of them there are,’ Ben said after they had walked on another fifty metres. ‘Can you smell that it’s like a wet dog, there could be a whole lair of them here.’
Kiri didn’t reply but the smell had been bothering her too, it was everywhere and made the air seem sweaty. It wasn’t like anything she knew but at the same time it triggered a vague memory that she couldn’t put her finger on.
At the end of the corridor they reached a swing door that opened onto a stairwell. Apart from black steel steps leading up and down the landing was bare.
‘Do you think this leads to the sewer?’ Ben asked.
‘Yes that must be where it is leading us,’ Kiri said with a grin. ‘Come on, we might still catch up.’