Episode 510: St. Albans Secrets, Part Three

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Rina: There might be another entrance.
Nika: There would have to be at least air vents.

Huddled in the meager shelter of the doorway, Joshua starts thinking really loudly: I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

We start searching the area around the doors. To one side we have the cliff face, a straight shot down to death. To the other side, the shallowest of shoulders and a steep rise up. Arden looks for any entrance or vent at ground level.

Kiera: Actually, an air vent would give you a melt pattern. Cuz the temperature inside is still going to be warmer than the outside. So it’ll melt a little bit.
Rina: So we’re looking for thermal exhaust ports now?

Good point. There aren’t any readily apparent on the slope immediately hemming the road, but that doesn’t rule out vents on the backside of the slope or even higher up where we can’t quite see. Since higher up the mountain seems the best bet and our hovercraft can’t attain the height we’d need, we’re going to have to climb the slope to search for a possible vent overhead. With the wind and the snow tearing at us every inch of the way.

Great.

Rina: Damn. I left my fifty feet of rope in my other pants.
Joshua: Let’s climb. (a beat) We gonna climb?

We examine the route up. It doesn’t look too bad. If we fall, maybe the snow will cushion our landing?

Nika: We can take the shuttle up, but at least for a short distance, let’s try to climb.

We put our hands and feet to the rocky mountain wall and get to it. We actually get some distance up the side, despite the ice and snow and wind. Even Rina’s managing to hang on, despite her injuries. Arden goes slowly, mindful of his surgeon’s hands. Those of us carrying rifles have them slung securely across our backs. We make our way slowly up and we can see the antennas above us. We can see some evidence that they’re relatively new construction—that at one point there was something else here but it got cleared for the antennas. They’re not so tall as antennas go, either, more like a chunky cell phone tower as opposed to the more slender (and towering) radio type. As we get closer to them, Joshua’s mental distress jacks up several notches and he feels even worse.

Joshua: Mind waves.
Nika: What?
Kiera: (pinching Joshua’s butt) Keep going.
Joshua: Ow! (swats her fingers) Those aren’t mind waves …
Nika: Mother of God …

Clinging to the side of the mountain, Joshua looks carefully around. It’s a world of white—snow and ice everywhere—and then his eye spots something. A depression in the snow off to the side, perhaps marking a spot where the snow has melted over a vent.

Joshua: There

We all inch closer to it and sure enough, we can see little wisps of steam coming through a couple of inches of cleared vent plate. Dare we risk it? We’ve been out in the cold and the wind for three hours now and some of us are taking stun from the elements. Risk adverse or not, we don’t have much choice—we need shelter.

The depression it’s sunk into is big enough to afford all of us a somewhat level place to stand. Rina gets over the vent and pulling her tools from her pockets she gets to work on that vent cover. The ice makes the job tricky and she cuts her hand on a slipped screwdriver, gets her right through her gloves. She curses and sucks her wound and Arden quips.

Arden: What would MacGruber do?
Joshua: Blow it up. That’s what he always does.
Rina: (accent thickening) MacGruber is Anti-Christ of engineering world. Are you kidding? St. MacGyver I pray to.

The intense worry that has ravaged Joshua for hours flat-out disappears.

Joshua: Holy crap!
Nika: What?
Arden: Is it getting worse?
Joshua: No. It just disappeared. Um … crap. How long before you get this thing off?
Arden: (to Joshua) Deep breath.

Joshua projects as hard as he can the message: Coming to help. Hold on a little longer. We’re coming. He projects as much positive feeling as he can while still hiding Mystery Woman behind his mental door. Rina spits and gets back to work. It takes about an hour, but that vent cover comes off. We lean in to look down the dark hole thus exposed and see it’s a straight shot all the way down to … more dark. About fifteen feet. The vent is about the width of a person. We regard it dubiously. The warmth coming out of that vent helped stave off frostbite and freezing while Rina worked, as did some of the exercises Arden suggested that actually fit in the meager space we had to stand in, but the longer we stay here, the more damage the elements will inflict on us. We could go back to our ship, rest up, and try again … or, having gotten this far, we can push on and hope for the best.

Rina: (eyeing the vent) Is piece of cake.
Arden: Yeah, if we had a rope.
Rina: It’s a standard person size. So it’s about … two and a half feet by two and a half feet, so, you know … you do the chimney thing.

She mimes putting her hands against an invisible wall a foot in front of her, inching slowly down it. The metal of the vent is cold and wet from the snow, making for a slippery climb down, but it’s warmer than the outside. Arden goes first down the vent, being the biggest at six-foot-two, then the rest of the crew follows in descending height and weight, with Rina bringing up the rear. Arden runs out of vent and drops about six feet into a transverse tunnel that stretches out before and behind him. Nika drops him her flashlight so he can take a better look around. He turns it on and looks.

There’s a breeze on his face and a little ways forward he can see a huge fan spinning at the end of the vent—obviously part of the ventilation system. Joshua inches past Nika in the shaft to join him and once he’s past her he looks down at Arden below, shining the flashlight around … and he suddenly sees the shaft and the tunnel beyond it like an infinity puzzle, like seeing it in two mirrors facing each other. Arden and the tunnel are replicated a thousand times, sinking far and away from Joshua incredibly fast. It’s vertiginous and overwhelmed, Joshua loses his grip on the shaft and falls to the tunnel floor.

Whump!

He doesn’t land on Arden but he takes a bit of stun from hitting the floor. Arden rushes to him and examines him for injuries.

Joshua: Don’t worry about it, I’m okay …
Arden: Did you just slip?

Joshua draws breath to answer and is hit with a single word directly into his brain: Intruders.

Joshua: (to Arden) You might want to leave. (to crew) Down, please. Down, please.

Arden goes to the fan at the end of the tunnel. Looking it over it’s pretty damned obvious that what we’re looking for is on the other side of that fan. The fan itself is huge and going at a speed that could cut someone in half.

Nika drops into the tunnel and lands flat on her ass. Arden quits the fan and checks her over. She’s fine, just bruised.

Nika: That hurt like a mother. I think I broke my tailbone.
Arden: At least you landed on a padded part.
Joshua: (to Kiera) Come on, please. Down, please. (to Nika) We’ve been detected.
Nika: Oh, fabulous.

Kiera’s next, making her way down and dropping. She’s agile as a cat and manages it gracefully. Rina descends next and though she’s less graceful about it, she manages to land without damage. She straightens and realizes the tunnel is about five feet high and she’s the only one of the party not stooping. Lucky break for her. She joins the rest of the crew at the fan. She and Kiera look it over. There’s no on-off switch and whatever power cable it’s got running to it is on the wrong side from us. So no snipping a power cord and letting it come to a stop, as Kiera had hoped. Rina gauges the speed and the thickness of the blades and nods.

Rina: We’ll have to jam it. Whose rifle do we … ? Wait. (pulls out her leatherman’s pliers)
Nika: What?
Joshua: I was hoping there’d be some other way. What are you doing?
Nika: No.
Rina: You think?
Nika: You’ll cut your hand off. Use my rifle.

Jamming a rifle into the fan will probably stop it but given the Laws of Conservation of Energy, there will be considerable kinetic energy to overcome and the fan blades might shatter instead of simply jamming against the rifle. Or the rifle might shatter. Or both.

Nika: Wait. Before you do that—do you have a scarf?
Rina: A scarf?
Nika: Yeah. Cold weather gear.
Rina: No. Excellent idea though.
Nika: You got a tee-shirt?
Rina: (eyeroll) Yeah. I can sacrifice a tee-shirt. Turn around everybody.

She’s not entirely serious—a tee-shirt would shred under the torque and the fan would just keep on spinning. A scarf would be marginally better, since it could make up in bulk what it lacked in tensile strength, but even then it isn’t as sure a bet as jamming the rifle in. Still, the threat of kick-back on the jamming implement makes Nika reluctant to have anyone get close to the fan when we jam it—she’s already got one crewman severely injured through misadventure, she’s not risking another.

If we could get to the cables on our flatbed, we could use those to foul or maybe even snare the fan blades, turn on the cable winch mounted to our vehicle and possibly even pull that sucker apart. But that would mean a hour’s worth of climbing, one way, and we aren’t sure if we have enough cable to make it all the way back. So scratch that idea.

What about the strap on the rifle? Long enough? Strong enough? No and no, not really. Besides, the cage over fan blades doesn’t have any gaps big enough to throw anything through it—we’re looking at a lattice work with three-inch spaces between the bars. A rifle barrel would fit through easily. A thrown object, not so much.

Kiera: Hell. Might as well shoot the cussed thing. The mesh that’s over that thing. Can we maybe kick it in? If we could take the mesh and destroy it, we could maybe stick the mesh in and stop it.
Arden: Kiera … (stepping away from the fan)
Joshua: Everybody might want to move back.
Nika: Back up. The rifle’s going in. (steps forward) Everybody against the wall, hands over your head.
Joshua: Yay.

Kiera cringes and turns away—she can’t stand the sight of the rifle getting destroyed, just hurts her heart to see a weapon go like that. Joshua takes the rifle from Nika and goes right up and jams the rifle through the cage. There’s a shriek of metal and a crash and a crunch. There’s a flash from the motor, blue and electric. Sparks fly and bits of metal off the fan—or the rifle, we can’t be sure—spit out through the cage, warping it. Joshua leaps out of the way and takes some damage from the shrapnel, suffering a few cuts here and there … but the rifle catches and slams, the blades stop, and we’ve got a way past the fan. The rest of us scramble to our feet. As Nika, Kiera, and Rina get to work pulling the damaged cage away from the frame to make a hole big enough for us to get through, Arden patches up Joshua’s cuts.

Arden: Lesson for the day—don’t stick a breakable thing in a fast-spinning fan.
Joshua: I don’t think that was the lesson. That was pretty quick. Did all of you see that? That was amazing!
Nika: (facepalm!) I’m sure there’s brain damage. I’m sure of it.
Joshua: Can we get going? Through the thing? (points at the fan) Also, they’ve mentally detected us. Just in case you wanted to know.
Kiera: Is that a good thing where they’re happy you’re—
Joshua: One thing they said—intruders
Kiera: Oh, then I’d say that’s bad.
Arden: Who said ‘intruders’?
Joshua: In my mind.
Arden: (upset) This is new information that you probably should have shared before now.
Joshua: I did. That’s why I said they had to come down.

He points to the rest of the crew.

Joshua: I didn’t say specifically the ‘intruders’ part but I did say we gotta come down. I did say they’d detected us...
Rina: Arden, when she fell, you thought they did not hear her? (points to Nika) Of course, we just gave our position away.
Joshua: No, you’re misunderstanding me, Rina. There are—
Nika: There are Readers in there and they have reported it.
Rina: (b-duh!) I’m sure.
Nika: No-no, you’re missing the point entirely.
Joshua: When I fell, it was because I heard them.
Rina: Now, didn’t I tell you to work on your shields?
Joshua: I am shielding but I’m shielding one thing—
Nika: I told you so is extremely helpful, there, Rina.

We duck through the gap through the stopped fan blades and continue down the air duct as we talk. We keep our heads and our voices down.

Joshua: I’m actually wondering if it’s automated.
Nika: What?
Joshua: Which would actually be wicked cool.
Nika: Wicked and intriguing maybe.
Joshua: An automated mental—
Kiera: Yeah, but it only works against other Readers. So what good is that?

Arden speculates that it might be sign they’re working on a way to make this work on normal people. Rina speculates maybe they’ve found a way to mechanically reproduce a Reader’s ability to project? Before she can start coming up with a shopping list for the pieces and parts for such a thing, Nika puts her foot down as Captain.

Nika: Guys. We do not have time for this conversation.

We walk on, with Arden taking point—because he has the flashlight—then Joshua, Rina, Nika and Kiera follow in order. We follow the vent to an intersection with a transverse vent. The run we’re standing in continues past the intersection and the beam from the flashlight is swallowed up by the distance. Stopping shy of the transverse, we all go still and listen. Arden’s in front and picks up the noises first. He turns to Joshua and points over his shoulder.

Arden: You hear that?
Joshua: Yeah. You wanna look around the corner?

Arden inches forward with his flashlight and gun, the fist holding the flashlight propping his gun hand. Before he turns around the corner, he can see faint beams of light shining our way from the lefthand side of the transverse. Arden immediately turns off his flashlight, crouches down and looks around the corner. He sees the approaching light sources, does a snap count and pulls back around the corner. He tells Joshua very softly that he thinks there are three of them, three flashlights. Joshua’s seen the beams of light too and he turns to Rina and whispers we’ve got company heading our way. Arden darts across the transverse, deliberately going slow enough so as to be seen but hopefully fast enough not to be shot.

A curse floats to us from the lefthand transverse and we clearly hear the sound of guns cocking. Joshua tries to get a Reading off the approaching party. He gets the impression of adrenaline and the idea that we’re dealing with trained guards. Joshua is hit again with the impression—trained guards—and then he withdraws his senses back into his own head again. The impression lingers, echoing in his head. Joshua can’t be certain if going off his drugs has made his Reading abilities unstable or if this is how it’s always been and the drugs stabilized his Readings … but that’s not the issue he’s concerned with. The fact that there are trained guards advancing on our position is and Arden’s just separated himself from the rest of the party by jumping across the intersection. He steps up to the corner, using it for cover.

Nika taps Rina on the shoulder and motions her engineer to let her swap places. Rina does, Nika moves forward and Rina stops her Captain long enough to give the woman her pistol to replace the rifle sacrificed to the fan. Nika taps Joshua on the shoulder and he turns and tells her what he’s sensed ahead.

Across the way, Arden is about to call out to the crew when the lights down the transverse turn off.

Blackness.

Now what? Joshua Reads the way ahead again and comes away with another impression—Green. Joshua relays this new information to Nika.

Joshua: (whispering very softly) Cap’n. Got an impression. Green.

Nika takes a second to parse the meaning. Are the guards using night vision goggles, maybe? Can we use that to our advantage? Nika swaps places with Joshua.

Nika: (louder whisper) Hsst! Arden. Flashlight. Down the hall. Quick.

She’s hoping to screw their night vision. Arden pokes his hand and the flashlight clear of cover and shines it down the transverse as ordered. Nika fires her pistol down the path of Arden’s flashlight beam—a single warning shot.

It’s answered with an immediate volley of bullets and for three seconds, the transverse is filled with flying lead. She and the crew draw back, covered by the corners. The guns fall silent and the bullets cease to whine past … and a voice floats down to us from the guards’ position.

Guard: Put your weapons into the corridor. Come out with your hands open and you won’t be fired upon.

Nika decides to go along with the order. She very softly tells the crew to do as they’ve been told. Rina volunteers to go first and hands her rifle to Nika. Maybe we can draw the guards closer and ambush them.

Across the way, Arden turns his flashlight to the floor to provide some ambient light for the rest of us. After all, it’s nearly pitch black in here and we don’t have night vision goggles. Rina steps out into the transverse and plays bait.

Nika: (to self) God help us.

Rina peers into the darkness toward the guards’ position. She can see very faint lights in the distance, maybe from their helmets?

Guard: Take five steps forward, turn around, put your hands on your head and get on your knees.

Rina takes those five steps and puts her hands on her head and kneels but she faces them. No way is she going to turn her back on the enemy. If they’re shooting to kill, she’s going to face the damned bullets thank you. The guards, however, come from a different school of thought. A bullet augers into the floor next to her knee.

Guard: Turn around. That was a warning shot.

Rina considers it carefully. They could have shot her and killed her right then, no need to order her to turn around. Instead they deliberately missed with a warning shot. That must mean they want her alive. Alive, she’s got a chance. Dead, she’s got nothing. She turns around. To her right, she can hear Nika and Joshua whispering.

Joshua: What’s going on?
Nika: Nothing good.

On her knees, Rina suppresses a cringe—she hates giving her back to the enemy. She has to trust her crew to cover her. To her left, Arden makes his move. He pops around his corner, yells “Flat!” to Rina and brings his weapon up to shoot. Of course, the meaning of the word escapes her and she’s still kneeling upright, spoiling his shot, causing him to abort his action. And Arden’s action spoils Nika and Rina’s plan to draw the guards closer into ambush.

Kiera grabs Joshua to keep him from jumping out to give himself up to save Rina. Rina flinches but doesn’t move. She’s got a story already prepped in her head—she and Arden had heard St Albans got abandoned after the bombing and they’re here for salvage, just looking to see what they can grab and sell. They’re scavengers, nothing dangerous, no need for shootin’. Rina knows the guards have only seen her and Arden. The rest of the crew are still hidden and still have the element of surprise. They may yet pull this off. At the very least, they can hide and avoid capture.

Nika comes to the same conclusion and starts backing up. Kiera groks immediately and pulls Joshua along with her. Nika backs them up down the tunnel for the fan, bringing her rifle up and aiming it sightlessly toward the intersection. Back at the junction, a shot fires from the guards, then another, missing Arden. The shots go wide over Rina’s head, since she’s still on her knees and out of the fire path. Arden jumps back behind his corner and calls out.

Arden: Look, we don’t want to get anyone hurt. We were responding to a request—

Dammit, he’s ruining their cover story. Salvage and scavengers, now that’s plausible. Responding to a request? That’s never going to fly.

Rina: (coughing) Shut up, Arden. (coughs)
Guard: Put your gun on the floor where we can see it. Put your gun in the corridor and step out where we can see you.

Arden complies and steps out where they can see him. One of the guards comes up behind Rina and pulls her wrists down and zip ties them. She lets him, suppressing a flinch. Having people at her back where she can’t see them really really hinks her, but she doesn’t resist. He hauls her by the elbow to her feet. The angle and the pressure stresses her injuries and the pain is intense. She yells and staggers.

Rina: Aughh! Ow, ow, ow—(coughs)—Bozhe moi! Ow! Aughh …
Guard: Shut up.

This carries clearly down the vent to the rest of the crew. Nika keeps pushing Kiera and Joshua back with her shoulders, her rifle up and ready to fire. Kiera plugs Joshua’s ears with her fingers and pulls him along—no running to the rescue as his lady love screams. The odds aren’t in their favor right now. Move, move, move!

Guard: (to Arden) Turn around and put your hands behind your back.
Arden: I would really not have my hands bound. You have my weapon and—
Guard: I can shoot you here or you can put your hands behind your back. I rarely miss at this range.

Sucking down air against the pain, the thought wanders through Rina’s head that ‘rarely miss’ implies the guard might actually miss. She shoves the thought down. With her injuries riled and pounded by pain, with her hands tied behind her and saddled with a partner who is clueless as to tactics, Rina knows the odds are stacked too high against her. It’s no longer a matter of trying to fight her way free. It’s all about buying her crew time to get away.

Arden puts his hands behind his back. The guard relieves him of his flashlight, clipped on his belt for hands-free use.

Guard: On your knees.

Arden complies. His hands are tied like Rina’s.

Nika gets her remaining crew all the way back to the fan and using the cover of noise the guards make subduing their prisoners, she risks getting Kiera and Joshua through the disabled fan for the other side. She breathes a little easier with the fan providing them a sliver of cover from casual observation. It’s not enough to hide them if someone walks up to the fan. She pushes her crew all the way back to the shaft to the surface. She knows the guards would be fools not check the horizontal vent for more intruders and when they see the fan, they’ll know something’s up and investigate further. Best she and her people are nowhere near when that happens. It means leaving Arden and Rina behind, but … She orders her crew up the shaft.

Joshua gives Kiera a leg up and then Nika. Kiera’s above her in the shaft and she hisses at Nika.

Kiera: Don’t leave Joshua at the bottom! Don’t leave him at the bottom!

Meaning don’t let him go last—she knows the fool’s going to get seized by the moment and rush to rescue and ruin everyone’s chances to get away. It’s too late. Nika’s already engaged in the shaft and there’s no time to drop and swap with Joshua. The guards will be here any second.

Kiera: I swear to God, I will let go this thing, drop, and shoot his ass …

She’ll have to drop on Nika to do it, but Kiera’s past caring at this point. Luckily for everyone, Joshua climbs up the shaft after his captain and they all move higher up. And just in time too, because one of the guards does investigate the vent and approaches the fan just as Joshua’s feet disappear from view up the shaft. Holding their breath, the crew can hear the guard mumbling into his headset, but can’t make out the words. Back at the junction, however, Rina and Arden hear every word.

Rear Guard: (over the comm) I don’t see anyone but it looks like they broke through the fan over here.

Arden susses what will happen next and tries a distraction.

Arden: Yeah, we ruined a rifle on the fan doing that.
Head Guard: Check it out.
Rear Guard: Okay.

Not what Arden had hoped. Back in the shaft, the rest of the crew tries to listen for the guard’s next move. Kiera hears the slow footsteps draw closer to the fan. She reaches between her knees and grabs Nika’s shoulder and points down and silently mouths: He’s at the fan. Nika nods and reaches between her knees and grabs Joshua and pulls steadily up on him. The meaning is clear.

Up and out. NOW!

Of course, it’s easier said than done. The vertical shaft is slippery from melting snow from above and hauling someone up by their collar while keeping yourself wedged in place isn’t a cakewalk. Nika hauls on Joshua and then freezes. Thanks to her contortions, she’s momentarily stuck, unable to move upward and any further downward movement will have her plummet on top of Joshua and send them both crashing to the floor far below. She forces herself to wait, to breathe, and then her balance returns and she can move upward again. Kiera makes it to the top of the vent and crawls out. Nika gets a hand up and pulls out. Joshua’s next and he rolls over the lip just in time.

Back at the junction, Rina and Arden hear the rear guard report back over the comms.

Rear Guard: Yeah, the vent’s open. It looks like it’s been pulled off. I don’t see anyone else. We’ll have to send a crew up here.
Head Guard: We should probably keep a guard up here.
Rear Guard: (grokking it) No way! It’s freezing up here!
Head Guard: Hold your position. You can come in a little ways. Just make sure they’re not comin’ in that way, if there’s any more.
Rear Guard: (grudging) All right.

The rear guard looks up the shaft again and then steps away from the cold down draft pouring through the thing. Outside, on rock just past the opening, Nika, Kiera and Joshua are relieved that the man isn’t going to climb up and discover them. However, this also means there’s no going back down the shaft to ambush the guard from behind. They’re going to have to find another way in. Nika figures out that the people inside will send a repair crew outside to fix the damage done. It’s unlikely they’ll send the repair crews crawling up a vertical shaft to replace a cover but instead will send them outside to make the repair. That means the front door will have to open up to let them out.

Why not sneak inside when the repair crew steps outside and their backs are turned?

Nika, Kiera, and Joshua scramble down off the mountain as fast as they dare. It won’t be long before that repair crew shows up on the doorstep and once they walk out, the doors will swing shut and the opportunity to slip inside will be lost.

Back at the junction, Arden is hauled to a frog march position and Rina pulled down alongside him. She yelps again, milking her injuries for all they’re worth. She and Arden are frog marched by the remaining two guards for a 100 feet or so to a grate that’s been pulled away from an opening. Beyond it is a 10-foot wide corridor. A guard precedes them into it and Rina and Arden are shoved through from behind. They stagger upright and manage a quick look around. The grate they exited is revealed to be an access cover to the vent running off this corridor and the corridor runs at right angles to it. To the left, it runs off into the distance and the lights mounted at intervals in the ceiling fade off into darkness. There’s no telling how deep it runs. To the right, the run is considerably shorter, a run of maybe 100 feet opening out into a vast space that strongly suggests a cavern waits beyond. Halfway to the cavern lies what looks to be a door on the right hand wall and a section of clear plexi to the left. The guards shove them toward the cavern end and Rina and Arden start walking.

As they approach the end of the corridor, the door on the right proves to be a corridor about 10 feet long, ending in elevator doors. The plexi on the left is actually the clear wall of a guard station immediately opposite the corridor and Rina spies the surveillance camera aimed at it. The office is occupied by another guard. Unlike Rina and Arden’s captors, he’s not decked out in armor but is dressed in a light blue uniform shirt and trousers. There is no insignia anywhere on any of the men that Rina can see. His voice is tinny, issuing from a hidden speaker, and he leans closer to the mike as he sees the party come up.

Station Guard: (with static) What’cha got?
Head Guard: I dunno. Intruders. Just like she said.
Station Guard: Interesting. Anyone else?
Head Guard: Eh, we left Charlie up there.
Station Guard: Oh.

The security staff exchange eyerolls.

Station Guard: We’ll send a team.
Head Guard: Yeah, they pried off one of the vents.
Station Guard: Huh. That’s the most excitement we’ve had in a few months. (a beat) All right. You should probably take them down. Talk to the Director.

The station guard nods at the elevator doors. The guards give Rina and Arden a shove toward them and they’re moving again.

Meanwhile, outside, Kiera tells Nika it might be best if they moved the mule out of sight. No point in letting the repair crew find it when they step outside—it’s our only ride out of here and we don’t want them confiscating it. And not a moment too soon. From somewhere beyond the vent shaft, down inside, they can hear the repair crew’s voices drifting up to them.

Repair crewman#1: (enthused) Whaddya waitin for? C’mon. The pay’s way better.
Repair crewman#2: (sour) Great.
Repair crewman#1: (still enthused) No, some of these planets are amazing. They’re really great.
Repair crewman#3: Yeah! Beach planet. Then there’s the whore planet. The Sino planet …
Repair crewman#2: (still sour) ‘Frozen wasteland planet? No, I don’t think so. No frozen wasteland planets.’

People are mobilizing to investigate the vent. What are Nika, Joshua, and Kiera going to do now? People will be climbing out of the shaft pretty damn soon. Do they want to be there when that happens, Nika asks? Besides …

Nika: They’ll be sending guards up here to see what else is here. The question will be—what is the likelihood we’re actually going to get in there and be able to do anything?
Joshua: Now, or then?
Nika: Either.
Joshua: I’m not sure we can open the vent again.

Rina’s got all the tools and she’s a prisoner inside. Joshua tries not to dwell on the prisoner part.

Nika: Yeah. There’s that problem and there’s also the problem of they’ve had to have seen the ship land.
Joshua: That’s not necessarily true.

We did land in very heavy cloud cover and we stayed fairly low, due to whiteout conditions.

Kiera: Where do you think they’re going to send the detail out? If they send them out the front door, we can always go in the front door.
Nika: (liking this) Yeah. We gotta figure they’ll come out the front door and come around and climb up. So if we get down there first, we can wait by the front door and when they go up to check the thing, we can just go right in through the front door.
Joshua: I feel like there’s a flaw in that plan somewhere.
Nika: There should be, shouldn’t there? But I’m not seeing it.
Joshua: There might be more than one set of guards coming out, in the front area.
Kiera: Yes, but we wouldn’t be trying to bottleneck them and shoot my way as gunfire erupts and the next umpteen people come through here (gestures at the vent) and start firing.
Nika: At least if they’re coming that way, they’re coming one by one, like the ants come marching one by one, and we take them all out, hurrah-hurrah.
Kiera: All right but I have one clip with me. And you can’t climb.

Also, the probability is they’re more likely to send repair crews out the front door instead of guards, who are more likely to come through the vent.

While Nika, Kiera and Joshua start climbing down the mountain for the road again, Rina and Arden are divested of their backpacks and tool belts and suffer a thorough frisking. Rina’s injuries don’t take it kindly and the guards seem indifferent to her pain. They find her boot knife and her pocket tools. They also take Rina’s and Arden’s winter jackets, uncuffing them and leaving their hands free. Jackets dispensed, they are taken into the elevator and they go down. There are two sets of doors on this elevator, directly opposite each other, front and back. There are only four buttons on the controls: up, down, doors close, doors open. There is no indicator showing how many floors they go down on their trip and like elevator passengers everywhere, they all stand and stare at the doors they entered through. The ride is short, maybe one floor’s worth—assuming they are going at a normal speed—and the doors behind them open, necessitating some shuffling around before they step off into the corridor outside.

It’s a straight 20-foot run to another set of elevator doors, with a camera mounted above to record their approach. The guards nudge Rina and Arden to move forward. They do, walking for the doors opposite, and Arden notices that the guards tense up three feet into the corridor. He turns to look at them closely and the corridor is abruptly flooded with a blinding purplish-white light. Arden recognizes it as a decontamination protocol and waits the 15 seconds for the light to blink off. That explains the space separating the elevators, at least. Rina blinks spots from her vision and tries not to dwell on what might be waiting for them at the end of the journey. Putting all-comers through decon suggests either a clean room is coming up soon or … She tries not to dwell on the alternatives.

They are shoved into the second elevator by the guards. Unlike the first elevator, this one has levels clearly indicated. They’ve entered Level 2. The guard presses the button for Level Three and there are buttons for Levels Four and Five. Arden takes note of the details. Also unlike the first elevator, the two sets of doors are not opposite each other, front and back, but adjacent to each other, to the front and on the side. It’s a short trip before the doors open again onto a corridor about 10 feet wide and 10 feet long. Again, there are doors immediately opposite the elevator and it’s surmounted by a camera too. This door opens up to reveal a much larger room on our approach. There are benches and lockers inside. It’s a dressing room, obviously, and Arden starts getting a little nervous. If he sees biohazard suits in here … He spies several hanging on a wall nearby.

Arden: This is starting to look like a Level Three containment. If it becomes Four or Five, I’m going to be upset.

What’s so virulent or dangerous down here that they’re going to such lengths to isolate it? Then again, the guards aren’t wearing anything like a biohazard suit so maybe the situation isn’t as dire as it looks. Rina and Arden take a careful look at their surroundings as they’re hustled through. Rina spots 3-inch pipes with 5-inch connectors—they look like fire suppression lines, but they’re not. Could be they’re chemical decontamination lines instead, in the light of what they’ve seen so far. Even so, the lines are clearly high pressure lines and should one of them rupture, the force released would slam anyone to the floor and rip clothing off their bodies. It doesn’t make for comfortable walking under them, nope.

There is another door out of the room. It’s sealed and it has a camera as well. The guards point them to it. Arden opens the door for Rina. Beyond it is another run of corridor with yet another plexi-walled guard station. Like the station some floors above, the man behind the wall is in a blue uniform shirt and pants, no insignia. He punches the comm button on his console and his voice comes out of the speaker.

Station Guard: Stop. Cuff ’em again.
Arden: There’s really no need to do that.

Arden puts his hands behind his back anyway. He’s zip-tied. Rina is too. They’re taken down the corridor past a door. There are cameras covering the corridor but Rina and Arden note there are blind spots in the surveillance. The corridor does a dogleg turn and ends at a door. The door opens and reveals a large operating room beyond, with several operating tables. Stepping inside, Arden and Rina note there are several exits from this room. Rina is busily mapping their route here in her head, praying she’s memorized everything correctly. Arden notes that for all its size, the room is not an operating theatre, with tiers for observers. It’s just a big room for operating in.

Yeah, but operating for what? On whom?

Standing amongst the tables is a short plump Chinese woman, likely in her early twenties. She turns around and looks at Rina and Arden, then turns to the guards.

Chinese Woman: It’s not them.

As we fade to black, we can hear Arden say:

Arden: Not us what?


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