We were almost five hours into our exploration of The Hub when we came across a seating area in a quiet corner of the South Quadrant and decided to take a break. We sat ourselves down in the middle of a row of shiny plastic chairs and gazed through a large clear window at the fading sunlight outside. For a minute or so neither of us spoke.
In the end it was Michael who finally broke the silence. “This is hopeless!” he eventually exclaimed. “I don’t see how there can possibly be a hidden room located anywhere in this building.”
I smiled a quiet smile of satisfaction. Not, of course, that I was satisfied that it should seem impossible that we might find the hidden room but I was glad that on this occasion Michael had been the one to say so. I resented the fact that so often it seemed to be left to me to be the voice of doom on this expedition of ours.
“I guess Liv would appear to have had a point,” I noted mildly.
It was not that The Hub was not big enough to tuck away a hidden room or three. The place was frankly enormous. Given that there seemed to be mezzanines on mezzanines it was no simple matter to calculate precisely how many floors there were but I would guess that the tip of the glass dome soared at least 500 feet above the base of the ground floor and there was room enough to fit a whole World Cup’s worth of football pitches from end to end inside. No, space was certainly not the issue.
On the other hand it did seem counterintuitive to say the least to try and locate a hidden room inside a building that had no rooms at all. The whole complex was set out on an open plan with archways and transparent glass partitions where otherwise you might expect to find doors and walls so that it was possible to stand at one side of the building and see clear through all the shops, cafés and rest areas to the opposite side. Even the toilets were situated within Perspex cubicles whose clear walls only frosted over when the lock was engaged; a design which I quite frankly felt made the whole process of going for a wee a far more unnerving experience than it ever needed to be.
Michael sighed. “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to keep looking in the hope that something turns up,” he said in an attempt to dredge up a little of his usual optimism, an attempt that was hampered somewhat by his need to stifle a yawn halfway through the sentence.
“That might be easier to contemplate if it wasn’t so damn stuffy in here,” I complained, producing a yawn of my own in sympathy. “What is it about these soulless modernist buildings that makes them feel like they were designed to send you straight to sleep?”
“Kinda overwhelming, isn’t it?” came an unexpected voice from one side.
We turned to find ourselves being addressed by a young Asian lad of about twenty or so seated a couple of chairs further along the row. His spikey black hair was criss-crossed with thick stripes of peroxide blond and he beamed at us with the kind of inoffensive good looks you might expect to find on a children’s TV presenter or a Japanese pop star.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” he added cheerfully. “How long since you arrived?”
“A few hours,” I replied.
“Thought so,” he said with a knowing nod. “You can always tell. I’m Kai by the way.”
We introduced ourselves in return and Kai took the opportunity to scoot across the empty chairs between us. “I’d be happy to show you around a bit if you like,” he told us. Then, with a nod towards the darkening sky beyond the window, he added, “It’s getting pretty late. Have you thought about how you wanna spend the night?”
“Not really,” Michael confessed. “What do people usually do at night-time in The Hub?”
“Well, there’s a section in the West Quadrant where you can hire a cubicle with a bed in it or there’s a place up on the second floor that rents out hammocks,” suggested Kai. “But I know of a few good places where you can get your head down for free. See, unless you’ve got marks to burn you’re probably gonna want to save your cash for later. I mean, if you think you feel tired now just think how desperate for a good night’s sleep you’re gonna be in a couple of weeks.”
“A couple of weeks?” I repeated.
“Oh yeah, you guys won’t know yet,” said Kai. “Let me guess – your travel advisor told you that your flight would be called in 48 hours, 72 at the outside, right?”
“She said it may take up to a week,” conceded Michael.
“A week – you’d be lucky!” remarked Kai. “More like a month, I’d say.”
“Really? So long as that?” I said in surprise.
Kai nodded ruefully. “The average flight delay just keeps getting longer and longer.”
“Why is that?” asked Michael.
“Nobody knows. Or if they do they aren’t saying,” replied Kai with a shrug. “Though if you ask me, like with everything, it all boils down to money. The longer passengers are stuck here, the more they’re obliged to spend – food, drink, entertainment… And it’s not like you can nip out somewhere else in the hope of saving a few marks – leave The Hub, you lose your flight allocation. They’ve got you right where they want you.”
“Bastards,” I murmured sympathetically. Though on this occasion my natural socialist outrage at such rapacious corporate behaviour was slightly tempered by the thought that, based on the progress we’d made in the first five hours, we should be glad for any delay going.
“You’ve got credits on your wristband that cover you for some stuff,” continued Kai with the worldly air of the seasoned old lag sharing his hard-won wisdom with the new guys. “But most people blow all that in the first couple of days, expecting their flight to get called any minute. Then you’re stuck. What you gotta do is use your credits wisely, know where the bargains are and what deals are on offer.
“I’ve been here three weeks and I’ve barely touched a single credit,” he announced proudly. “I can show you where all the best offers are to be found if you like.”
“And how did you get to be so wise in the ways of The Hub?” I asked him with a smile.
“I guess I have a kinda knack for noticing things,” he confessed rather bashfully. “And, well, I suppose I was pretty clued in before I even got here cos my sister flew out with the Alfraganus Line a year ago. She gave me the lowdown when they contacted Earth from the refuelling dock just beyond Neptune. I’ll actually be the sixth member of my family to emigrate to the Kepler Cluster – I’ve got a brother and three cousins out there too. Where are you guys headed?”
“Well, we’re booked on the Solar Swift Cruise…” I began.
“Seriously?” interrupted Kai. “I never woulda had you two pegged as part of the Starship Codgers brigade. You do know that the average age on those cruises is about 105, don’t you?”
“As I was going to say, we’re booked on the Solar Swift Cruise but we don’t actually intend to fly anywhere,” I continued.
“Huh?” Kai regarded us with a baffled expression.
“We just needed the tickets to get inside The Hub,” explained Michael.
“But why would you want to get inside The Hub if you don’t plan to fly anywhere?” demanded Kai, his bafflement in no way assuaged by this information. “This is like the dullest place on the entire planet. There’s nothing to do but drink coffee and check the noticeboards every five minutes. If you manage more than two hours during the day without nodding off they give you a free muffin.”
“We came to The Hub because we’re looking for something we think is hidden inside here,” I explained. “Actually, seeing as how you’re so familiar with the place you may be able to help.”
And so once again Michael and I ran through our patented story of CJ Sturridge and the 273 scattered rooms of his prison.
“Whoa! That’s a killer tale,” enthused Kai when we were done. “Did that really all happen to you?”
“Scouts honour,” I swore.
“But are you sure that little machine of yours isn’t on the blink?” returned Kai. “Cos I really don’t see how anyone could hide a room anywhere in this place.”
“Then you’ve definitely never noticed a door lurking anywhere it shouldn’t in all your time here?” asked Michael, a touch despondently.
“They don’t really go in for doors much round here,” replied Kai with an apologetic shrug. “You can see for yourself it’s all sliding glass and Perspex. The only doors I know of in the whole place are those big black entrance doors. Well, that is apart from…” Just when it was starting to get interesting Kai’s voice tailed off distractedly as his gaze shifted somewhere beyond us.
“Apart from…?” I prompted.
With some apparent effort Kai dragged his attention back to our conversation. “Actually there is one door I’ve seen during my time at The Hub. Just one single solid door that leads… well, who knows where?”
“So where is it?” asked Michael eagerly.
But Kai’s attention had drifted again. Ignoring the question, he dropped his head and lowered his tone in a conspiratorial fashion. “Hey, do you see that couple sitting in the row just behind us?” he said.
Somewhat reluctantly, both Michael and I turned around and immediately spotted a young man and woman sitting in the chairs almost directly behind us. Fortunately, they were too busy checking their wristbands and murmuring excitedly together to take any notice of our staring.
“I bet you ten to one their flight’s just been called,” said Kai knowingly.
“Oh,” I replied without much interest.
“See, from what I hear they used to make a big deal about departures,” continued Kai. “Loud Tannoy announcements, signs on all the noticeboards, everyone getting together to wave off the passengers on their big space adventure.
“But now it’s all hush-hush. A quiet buzz on the wristband, usually either late evening or early morning. And they go to a lot of trouble to keep details of the assembly point secret from the other travellers. The passengers who have been called are very specifically notified to make their way there discreetly and anyone else who might stumble in on the party by accident gets ushered away pretty sharpish.”
We all turned for another glance at the couple behind us. They were certainly gathering up their hand luggage in a strangely surreptitious manner.
“Now, don’t you think that’s a little strange?” asked Kai.
“Perhaps with all the delays they’re worried about the other passengers getting jealous,” suggested Michael casually.
“Perhaps,” said Kai with a shrug. “But in spite of all their precautions I managed to find out exactly where the departure point is located,” he added with a proud smile. “Do you guys wanna go and see the passengers getting shipped off to the launch site?”
“To be honest I think we’d rather go and take a look at this door you say you spotted,” I demurred.
But Kai’s smile only broadened. “But that’s just it – the door is located at the departure point. If you come with me to see the passengers getting shipped out I’ll show you the one and only door that appears to exist in the whole of The Hub.”
It turns out that even a place as seemingly open-plan and transparent as The Hub is not entirely devoid of hidden nooks and crannies. We accompanied Kai as he weaved his way effortlessly past restaurants, shops and seating areas in pursuit of the young couple. But as we headed towards what seemed to be a dead end in a quiet corner of the first floor the couple we were following abruptly vanished somewhere between a drinking fountain and an empty pretzel stand. As we drew closer I realised that the stand and the fountain appeared to have been carefully located to conceal from view the head of a narrow spiral staircase.
However, instead of following the couple down the staircase Kai pulled us to one side and made a pretend study of the specials board of a nearby café. “We’ve gotta go careful here cos they can be real funny about people muscling in on the assembly point,” he advised in a low murmur. “As soon as they see our wristbands aren’t lit up they’ll know this isn’t our flight and we’ll get shooed away pretty quick. Our best bet is to wait for a bit of a queue to build – we’re less likely to get spotted amongst a crowd.”
So we loitered by the specials board as inconspicuously as we could whilst a succession of eager travellers disappeared furtively down the spiral staircase. After about fifteen minutes Kai judged that enough passengers had gone by for it to be safe for us to follow.
The foot of the staircase came out into another of those sheltered nooks, shielded from the rest of The Hub by a giant electronic noticeboard. We joined the rear of a straggling queue that wound its way towards a tall desk manned by a female attendant. She was busy checking the credentials of each passenger before waving them through a sliding glass door to where a bus sat on the tarmac beyond, presumably waiting to ferry them on to the launch site.
The sides of the queue were being carefully patrolled by two security guards. As they strolled up in our direction each of us casually crossed our arms or stuck our hands in our pockets in an effort to disguise the fact that our unlit wristbands indicated we were not supposed to be there.
Only once the guards had turned away on another circuit – having thankfully failed to spot our unwarranted presence – did Kai speak. “And there you have it,” he said in a low voice, nodding to his right. “That’s the only door I’ve seen in all my time at The Hub.”
It nestled in the shadows of the spiral staircase – a short section of grey concrete wall in which was set a plain grey door. In the midst of all this modernist glass and chrome it looked as incongruous as a transistor radio sitting in the middle of an Apple store. Unfortunately for our prospects of investigating what lay beyond the door, another, rather bored-looking, security guard was standing in front of it.
“I saw a staff guy open the door one time,” Kai added. “He seemed to disappear down some stairs on the other side. I reckon it might lead to an underground level.”
“Do you suppose it’s locked?” I mused, trying to give the door a surreptitious once-over without attracting the notice of the guard in front.
“There’s a keypad on the left there,” Kai pointed out.
At that point our attention was distracted by a disturbance at the head of the queue where a small man with a halo of tight dark curls was arguing vociferously with the check-in attendant. We were too far away to hear the substance of the disagreement but a few details rippled down the line.
“Seems like some poor chap has lost his wife,” sympathetically remarked a woman a few feet ahead of us to everyone in the general vicinity.
“Maybe she got cold feet at the prospect of six years stuck on a spaceship with him,” chuckled a man nearby.
“Well I hope he doesn’t intend to hold up the line for long,” a haughty voice pronounced.
“Hey, you’ve waited four weeks for this flight to be called,” another responded cheerfully. “Are you really saying you can’t wait a few minutes more for the guy to find his wife?”
Whilst the banter continued back and forth we turned our attention back to the door.
“The thing is,” said Michael with a sigh, “what are the chances of us ever getting our hands on that code?”
“1820,” responded Kai matter-of-factly.
Both Michael and I gazed at him in astonishment.
“The code I mean – it’s 1820.”
“How on earth do you know that?” I demanded.
“Like I said, I have a habit of noticing things,” replied Kai with a shrug. “I saw the guy go through and I just happened to notice the code he tapped into the keypad.”
“That’s amazing!” I exclaimed. “Now all we have to do is figure out how to get past that guard.”
This, it turned out, was not a problem that was to detain us for long. In fact, we’d barely had time to start mulling it over before the disturbance at the head of the queue escalated with surprising consequences.
As far as I could tell it began with the check-in attendant politely requesting that the man with the curls might like to step aside in order to allow her to get on with processing all the other travellers whose spouses or partners hadn’t gone missing. This suggestion apparently did not go down well.
“No, I will not move over there!” yelled the man in question, raising his voice to such a pitch that it no longer needed the queue grapevine to translate his words. “Why won’t you help me find my wife?”
A muttered comment was then thrown from one of the passengers in the queue which served only to inflame the situation further.
“She has NOT just popped to the loo!” the curly haired traveller practically screamed at his fellow passenger. “She’s been missing for a whole day and nobody seems to care! Why aren’t you people taking this seriously?”
By now the two guards who had been patrolling the queue had naturally been dragged over towards the altercation. The first of these, a big man with a thick Sergeant-Major style moustache, respectfully suggested that the man might do well to calm down and lower his voice. The curly haired traveller was having none of it.
“I demand to speak to someone in authority!” he yelled louder than ever. “What have you done with my wife?”
The second guard, a cheery ruddy-faced chap, then attempted to lay a soothing hand on the aggrieved passenger’s arm. Unfortunately, this only prompted him to fly into an even greater rage and the affair swiftly descended into an all-out scuffle.
On the face of it the struggle didn’t promise much in the way of a fair fight – the short, slightly-built traveller was both outmuscled and outnumbered – but the passenger’s anger seemed to lend him a peculiar strength. Even when the guards had abandoned all pretence of restraint and resorted to a straightforward manhandling of their opponent he continued to prove a handful, twisting and biting and flailing wildly. In the end the moustachioed guard was obliged to call in extra reinforcements in the shape of the bored-looking guard who had been watching over the door beneath the spiral staircase before the battle began to be won.
However, once the three guards had finally wrestled their prey to the floor they were faced with the tricky question of what to do next with him. It appeared that the guards were feeling inhibited from taking further action by the presence of the gawping queue of passengers, who were all following events with avid interest. The moustachioed guard seemed to be signalling to the check-in attendant that she could rid them of this troublesome presence by ushering all the passengers swiftly through the gate onto the waiting bus outside but the check-in attendant displayed a marked reluctance to countenance this clear breach of protocol. An awkward debate ensued, punctuated by muffled cries of “Oof…!”, “Get off…!” and “My wife…!” from the man on the ground.
So absorbing was the ensuing drama that it took a nudge from Kai to alert Michael and I to the opportunity it presented for us. “If you want to see what’s through that door then I reckon this is your chance,” he said urgently.
Reluctantly I turned away from the absorbing scuffle towards the unguarded door. “Are you coming with us?” I asked Kai.
He gazed wistfully at the plain grey door for a moment or two, clearly tempted, before reluctantly shaking his head. “I can’t,” he said with an unhappy sigh. “Supposing we get caught? They might throw me off my flight. I’m sorry but I’ve got family waiting for me.”
Just at that moment the check-in attendant’s voice called out clearly to everyone in the queue. “If you could all please make your way through the exit door as swiftly as possible,” she announced, signalling her decision to finally cave in to the demands of the security guards. “We’ll complete all the necessary formalities just as soon as we have you on the coach.”
It was clearly now or never. There was barely time for a hasty word of thanks to Kai for all his help before the queue began to move forward in one direction, obliging Michael and I to hurry away in the other. My ears were alert for any shout of objection as I hurriedly tapped the digits 1820 into the keypad beside the door. But there was only the sound of shuffling feet receding into the distance as the lock sprung open with a satisfying click and we hurried out of the shiny glass world of The Hub and disappeared into an unknown realm beneath.
To be continued…