I dashed down the staircase that lay behind the grey door with my mind so full of concern for whether our hasty exit might have been noticed by the guards up above that I completely failed to consider whether or not there might be any security guards lurking below. It was extremely fortunate then that when Michael and I had barrelled our way down to the foot of the staircase we found that the corridor that lay beyond was entirely devoid of life.
What it did have plenty of, on the other hand, were doors. The broad, starkly lit corridor stretched ahead for about 100 yards before forking away to both left and right and as far as the eye could see the bare whitewashed walls were dotted with plain grey doors.
“Bingo!” Michael rather succinctly declared.
Before we could begin any kind of exploration though our attention was caught by the sound of the door up above opening, followed by the heavy tramp of two pairs of footsteps. Someone was coming down the stairs after us.
For a moment I panicked, gazing helplessly up and down the empty corridor in search of a place to hide. But then Michael grabbed my hand and pulled me back into the corner of the stairwell, beneath the shadow of the staircase. He was not a moment too soon either for just a few seconds later the footsteps were upon us.
Through the open slats of the staircase we saw two pairs of heavy black boots go past, gradually revealed as belonging to the two security guards who had patrolled the queue upstairs. The slightly larger of the two guards, with the Sergeant-Major style moustache, carried the curly-haired traveller slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The explanation for the sudden docility of the recently volatile passenger became apparent with a glimpse of his closed eyes and lifeless face.
“Shit!” I exclaimed in an anxious whisper. “Is he…?”
“Just unconscious I think,” whispered back Michael, though his tone had more about it of hope than certainty.
Fortunately for us at least, the guards did not pause or look back once they reached the foot of the stairs but carried straight on down the corridor. They were engrossed in what, but for the presence of the unconscious passenger, might have been the kind of innocuous workplace grumbling engaged in by two lowly employees of any company.
“…the management really needs to get a grip on this,” the moustachioed guard was moaning. “Somebody needs to have a word with Van Damm or there’ll be a bloody riot up there before long.”
“I doubt it,” his ruddy-faced colleague sanguinely returned. “You saw those passengers up there. No-one’s gonna put their place on a flight at risk over some annoying squirt kicking up a fuss about his missus.”
“Maybe… But it’s happening a bit too often now for my liking,” muttered Guard Number One.
“Well, you go ahead and say something to Van Damm if it bothers you that much,” replied his colleague with a shrug. “Me, I prefer to keep my job.”
The voices trailed away as the guards disappeared around the bend in the corridor. We hovered uncertainly beneath the stairs for several minutes after they had gone before we felt secure enough to move.
“Is it getting dystopian enough for you yet?” I couldn’t resist remarking archly to Michael as we stepped back out into the bright glare of the corridor.
“We’d better get on with checking these doors before anyone else comes along,” was the only reply he was prepared to make.
So we began to work our way slowly down the corridor, opening each door as we passed. The first four rooms we came to were all empty offices, the staff evidently having finished for the day. The fifth and sixth rooms appeared to be medical laboratories of some description; along with an array of technical equipment they both contained several refrigerated cabinets well-stocked with blood and tissue samples. The seventh room was the first which we found to be occupied but the manner of its occupation was more than a little surprising.
The room was long and narrow and had been laid out like a hospital ward with a row of beds running along each wall. And although there was no sign of any doctor or nurse to oversee their care each bed was occupied by a peacefully sleeping patient.
Somewhat perplexed, we walked slowly down the centre of the room, peering curiously at each lifeless figure as we passed. The patients were a mixture of both genders and covered a variety of age and race. Dressed anonymously in identical white hospital gowns, they were each hooked up to a drip on one side and a heart monitor on the other. The monitors were all beating out a slow steady rhythm that formed an eerie background soundtrack. As we passed by I peered curiously at the charts that hung on the end of each bed, recording a few bare personal details.
“Do you see this?” I said to Michael in the vaguely hushed tone that seemed natural in such a place. “They’ve all got a flight number listed on their chart. Do you suppose they’re all passengers?”
“Maybe,” replied Michael. “But what’s wrong with them all?”
I had nothing to offer other than a clueless shrug in response to that question. There were no outward signs of illness or injury on any of the patients yet not one of them so much as stirred as we went by. Granted, we weren’t exactly being noisy or disruptive but something told me that we could have sung or danced or even engaged in a Batley-Townswomen’s-Guild-style re-enactment of the Battle of Pearl Harbor without getting the slightest reaction.
When we reached the far end of the room we came upon another door and I instinctively reached out and opened it. It let directly into another, identical room where two more rows of comatose patients stretched out ahead of us.
“Good God!” exclaimed Michael. “How many of these people are there?”
Not really knowing what else to do, we resumed our progress down this second room, continuing to gaze upon the lifeless bodies in the hope of coming across some kind of clue. We hadn’t taken much more than a few strides before I gradually became aware of a fresh sound that was beginning to make itself heard beneath the rhythmic beating of the heart monitors. A quick glance at Michael confirmed that he heard it too – a sort of dull roar that seemed to come from somewhere deep below.
We stopped and hesitated before continuing with an uncertain shake of the head. But all the time the dim rumble continued. We’d reached about the mid-point of the room when the underground growl suddenly increased in volume and the ground began to shake beneath our feet.
There was just time to stagger back a few paces with a startled, “What the…?” before the tip of a pneumatic drill broke through the floor just ahead of us with an extra-loud roar. It sunk swiftly back down below the surface again and there was a brief pause before it thrust its way up through the floor once more.
Michael and I shuffled hurriedly backwards and instinctively ducked down behind one of the hospital beds as this process was repeated several more times. Eventually, the drill having been worked around until it had opened up a gaping black hole in the middle of the floor, it disappeared back down below one last time and the dull roar of its motor was silenced.
We peered curiously over the top of a blissfully sleeping patient to see two hands next reach up out of the freshly made hole and a tall slender woman in dark overalls pulled herself nimbly up onto the floor above. The woman, who was about thirty-ish with blonde hair pulled back into a severe ponytail, paused just long enough for a cursory glance around the room, dusting herself off, before she reached down to help a second figure up out of the hole. This proved to be another woman of about the same age, shorter with dark wavy hair. Her somewhat less gainly entrance was explained when she turned to reveal that her dark overalls stretched out over a profoundly pregnant belly.
While the second woman leaned on a nearby bed to recover from her exertions the blonde woman reached down and hauled a large black holdall up onto the floor beside the hole. This was followed by a third figure scrambling up out of the darkness. This final entrance proved to be the most protracted of them all for the last arrival was a big bloke, wider even than the pregnant woman, and the hole was scarcely large enough to accommodate his ample girth. Still, with a good deal of grunting and groaning he somehow managed to wriggle clear and finally stood up, shaking the dust free from his long thick hair.
By the time the big guy had completed his unorthodox entry the two women had already swung into action. The pregnant woman swiftly set off for the far end of the room where she began to make a careful check on the occupant of each and every bed. The blonde woman knelt down and began checking through the contents of the black holdall. The big guy seemed rather less sure of his role and hovered uncertainly around the edge of the hole before the blonde woman shooed him away with a vague instruction to check that the coast was clear.
As he chose to lumber slowly up the aisle in pursuit of this duty there was really no chance he would before long fail to spot us in our rather feeble hiding place. Sure enough, as he came up alongside the bed that we’d ducked behind, he turned and his face crumpled into a puzzled frown. Michael and I somewhat sheepishly rose to our feet to face him. There was an awkward moment during which he stood gazing at us with the unhappy expression of someone who has stumbled upon a colleague they would rather have avoided at a party before he slowly reached into his overalls and pulled out a sleek pistol which he pointed at us. Michael and I responded in the time-honoured fashion by putting our hands up.
“Athos! Aramis!” the big guy hissed over his shoulder at his two companions. “We got company.”
The pregnant woman threw just the briefest of glances in our direction before, apparently finding our presence entirely uninteresting, she continued with her inspection. The blonde woman looked up and glared at us with an expression of pure annoyance for a few seconds before reluctantly rising to her feet and coming over.
“What do you want me to do Aramis?” the big guy asked as she drew alongside him.
The woman addressed as Aramis surveyed us in silence for a moment or so. Finally she said, “Shoot them.”
“Whoa there…!” I exclaimed.
“Now hang on just a minute…” began Michael.
But Aramis was not interested in our protestations. “I said shoot them Porthos,” she repeated impatiently.
Fortunately for us at least, Porthos did not appear entirely comfortable with this suggestion. He gazed unhappily at us and then glanced down at the weapon in his hand as if he wished it wasn’t there. “Do I have to?” he asked Aramis. “Can’t we just tie them up or something?”
“Look, I don’t quite know what you’re up to,” began Michael in a fresh effort at defusing the situation, “but I’m sure…”
“We don’t have time for this,” retorted Aramis briskly. “If you won’t shoot them,” she added, addressing Porthos, “then give me the gun and I’ll do it.”
But Porthos didn’t move. “Athos said there should be no unnecessary violence,” he protested. “And they look pretty harmless.”
Aramis snorted. “Harmless? I don’t think so. After all, they’re Van Damm’s guys, aren’t they?”
“Whoa there!” I repeated, anxious to clear up what threatened to be a fatal misunderstanding. “Now, I don’t know who exactly this Van Damm is but I can assure you we are not his guys. Or her guys as the case may be.”
Aramis snorted again. “Of course you’re Van Damm’s guys. What else are you doing down here if you don’t work for him?”
“Actually we’re passengers from The Hub upstairs,” Michael hastened to explain. “We just came down here to take a look around.”
“Ha! Don’t give me that,” retorted Aramis. “Passengers aren’t allowed down here, certainly not ‘to take a look around’. How did you get past security for a start?”
“We, er, sort of sneaked through a door when no-one was looking,” I said, realising even as I spoke that it sounded rather an unlikely explanation.
“Ha!” exclaimed Aramis again. “It’s taken us five months of careful planning to tunnel into here and you expect me to believe that you just strolled in through an open door?”
“The door wasn’t exactly open…” protested Michael mildly.
“For heaven’s sake Porthos, we haven’t time for this!” Aramis interrupted. “Just shoot them, will you?”
“Nobody is going to shoot anyone,” burst in a new voice, providing a timely interjection.
We all turned to see the pregnant woman at last striding over to join us, her inspection of the beds apparently completed. Porthos breathed a huge sigh of relief as she came to stand alongside him. Aramis glared at her impatiently.
“Oh don’t be soft Athos,” she growled. “You don’t really believe that crackpot story of theirs, do you? They must be Van Damm’s guys.”
“The crackpot story, I’ll admit, I’m not too sure about,” said Athos. “But I can prove to you they’re not working for Van Damm. Turn around, would you?”
This last request, made to Michael and me, was rather unexpected but I had a sense it was issued in our best interests and so, notwithstanding a certain reluctance to turn my back on a loaded weapon, I complied. Michael did the same.
“There,” said Athos in a reasonable voice. “Do you suppose if they were Van Damm’s guys they’d be wearing those?”
“I guess not,” Aramis reluctantly conceded.
Whirling back round, it took a second or two before I realised that Athos had been pointing at the small green travel-sickness patches we were sporting behind our right ears. To be honest, it seemed a far from definitive proof to me but there was no doubting from her expression that it had clinched the argument for Aramis.
“You really ought to take those patches off,” Athos urged Michael and I. “Right away.”
“Why?” I asked curiously. “They’re just travel sickness patches, aren’t they?”
“Please, just take them off.”
Somewhat uncertainly, I reached up and pulled the patch away from my skin at about the same time as Michael removed his. I was rewarded with something that felt like a short, sharp electric shock jolting through the back of my head. Shaking my head to dispel a slight feeling of dizziness I peered curiously at the inoffensive looking object in my hand. In the meantime Aramis made an effort to regain some authority.
“Alright, so maybe they’re not Van Damm’s guys,” she admitted, “but I’m damn sure they didn’t just wander in here by accident. They’re up to something.”
“Maybe they are but that’s not important right now,” replied Athos. “Aramis, I’ve checked the whole ward – he’s not here!”
Aramis gazed uncertainly at Athos for a moment or two before she seemed to comprehend the meaning of this cryptic statement. “But he must be!” she finally responded in surprise.
“I’ve checked and I tell you he’s not here,” repeated Athos urgently. “What could they possibly have done with him?”
Aramis gazed round the room in confusion. “But they wouldn’t have…” she murmured helplessly.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” said Michael gently, “but do I take it that you’re looking for a particular patient?”
Athos quickly nodded.
“Well then you ought to know that there’s another room just like this one through that door there,” he told her. “There are more patients through there.”
Athos looked over at the door indicated with an expression that was as much hesitant as hopeful, like a child who’s scared to open a present on Christmas morning in case it turns out that the much-longed-for toy is not contained within. But then a desperate resolve seemed to take over and she darted towards the door.
“Athos wait!” Aramis called after her. “We don’t know…”
But it was too late – Athos had already vanished through the door. We all stood and stared after her for a moment or two.
Finally Porthos turned to Aramis. “What do we do now?” he asked.
“I suppose we’d better go after her,” replied Aramis with a reluctant shrug. “One for all and all for one, right?”
To be continued…