9. A Brisk Morning Swim
Jay plunged into the pool and found himself in a strange blue twilight. He ducked his head down and his feet up, and started swimming in the direction of the most light. He had gone perhaps fifty meters when he saw ripples above him. He popped up above the surface, and banged his head on a low rock ceiling. He was in an air pocket, he realised, still within the cave. Still, a good chance for some more oxygen. He breathed for a few moments, then ducked back down and continued swimming.
The passage suddenly opened out all around him, and he found himself in the lake proper. He treaded water for a moment, holding his position as he looked around him. Based on the light filtering through the water, it was day (still? again?) above, but he was deeper than he’d thought – this might be a problem. He wasn’t sure he had enough breath to make it to the surface. He looked ahead – the corkscrew building looked closer than the surface, but if he couldn’t find a way in he’d be completely stuffed.
Well, nothing for it. He started swimming towards the building descending through the water; angling up slightly, as if it would make any difference in the end.
He had crossed perhaps half of the intervening distance when he saw, down and a little to the left, between two levels of the outer spiral, a flashing light under some kind of ledge on the side of the central column. He aimed for it, kicking harder as his lungs started to throb.
He was barely going to make it; his chest was heaving, wanting desperately to breathe, and he was still not close enough. He kicked as hard as he could, pulling himself through the water with his hands, shoulders, legs and lungs burning. He reached the ledge, ducked under it, looked up – thank goodness; it was an entrance. He thrust upwards, through the surface and into an air pocket, lungs heaving, spots dancing across his eyes, his vision dimmed at the edges as his body sucked in the oxygen it had been missing.
Once his body – and sight – had recovered a little, he looked around. There was a small platform on the side of the building, just above him, and a small hatch, not unlike an airlock. Of course; this far down, such an entrance would need to be pressure-equalised, or it’d flood the whole building. He pulled himself up onto the platform, and set about trying to wring some of the water from his clothes. He pulled his boots and socks off, turning his boots upside-down to drain them, and squeezing as much as he could out of his socks. He left them for a moment as he examined the hatch.
This was obviously a maintenance hatch – he guessed that occasionally divers needed to make repairs to the outside of the building, and this would be far easier than descending from the surface. The hatch had a big spin-lock on this side; it looked like he wouldn’t have too much trouble getting in.
Jay pulled his damp socks and boots back on; they squelched a bit, but they’d stop his feet freezing completely. He spun the lock on the hatch, listening for any telltale hiss of air. Nothing – they must keep the internal chamber pressurised. Good. He spun the lock all the way out and pulled the hatch open. He climbed through the hole, pulling the hatch shut again behind him, and spinning the lock back into place. He looked around, and found the ‘de-pressurise’ button he was looking for. He pressed it and was greeted with a hiss of out-flowing air and a sudden drop in pressure. He waited a moment or two, then spun the lock and opened the internal hatch. He found himself in a large, mostly empty room. Seats and lockers at one end suggested a changing area for the divers, and a small control panel sat on the wall beside the hatch through which he’d ended. He locked the hatch behind him and hit the pressurise button; no sense leaving a trail.
He crossed over to the lockers, looking through them for any change of clothes. He found a dry set of overalls, and a fresh pair of socks, and lost no time changing into them. He pulled his damp boots back on and sat back to take stock.
Where was he? That was probably the first question. He was, he thought, probably about halfway down the central column of the building. He needed to get down to the bottom to open those doors, then find Melissa, who was probably somewhere near the bottom too – after all, that’s where he’d ended up when they captured him. If only there were maps or schematics lying around. Well, time to move anyway.
He opened the door out of the diving room and strolled out into a corridor. He looked left, then right. Left looked more likely, he thought; the right-hand corridor branched off into two smaller sections a short way down. He turned left and started walking. He paused when he saw the glass window of another guard station up ahead, but decided that he may as well keep moving; he’d be far less conspicuous that way.
The station was empty anyway, but he got a terrible shock when he saw his reflection in the glass. His welts were completely gone, but across his forehead and down the side of his face he had a series of dark markings. He looked closer; they were tattoos, vague, mostly skin-tone tattoos, but tattoos nonetheless. That would explain the tingling and stinging in the dream, but that wasn’t how dreams worked, was it? What was going on?
“Give me something, please,” Jay had said. He guessed this was it. And fair enough, as far as things went, this was really something. Still, if he’d really wanted full-facial tattoos, he probably would have got them himself. And he was going to stick out like a sore thumb with these. Why hadn’t the gorillas said anything?
Okay. Time to move. Maybe the guard station had something useful? The door was ajar – probably not too much to look after in this part of the building. Jay went in. There were the usual accoutrements – the panic button, the monitors showing camera footage from nearby rooms and corridors. A small cabinet under a bench held some drawers, but these had nothing in them but papers and documents of little interest. A couple of pigeonholes above the counter were slightly more interesting – Jay grabbed an ID badge, a keycard, and a cap.
The top of the control panel that took up part of the counter read 15-B. Trouble was, Jay thought, was that 15 from the bottom, or from the top? Well, he only needed to visit one more floor to find out. And B, he figured meant that this was the second station on this floor. That didn’t tell him how many there were, unfortunately, just that there were at least a couple.
Jay heard voices and footsteps around the corner, and ducked down under the counter. The footsteps continued around the corner past the station, and he got to his feet again. Definitely time to move. He exited the station and continued down the corridor, back the way the footsteps had come from. Hopefully there was an elevator or something handy.
There was. Four elevators, in fact, in a lobby in what he guessed was the centre of the building, standing in pairs on opposite sides of the room. He looked at the lights above them, but they weren’t numbered, so it didn’t help him much. He pushed the ‘down’ button and waited.
He waited for a minute or so, then a lift dinged and the doors opened. He stepped in, and realised that the lift was already occupied. Too late to back out.
“Which floor?” the other man asked.
“Uh… all the way down, thanks,” Jay replied.
“Sure… er, you’ll have to swipe your card for that one.” The man was looking at Jay.
“Oh, of course. Always forget that.” Jay chuckled, trying to hide his nerves. He reached across the man, attempting to cover the someone-else’s photo on the card as much as possible, and swiped it through. There was a soft chime, and the man pressed the ‘23’ button at the bottom of the panel. It lit up.
“What’s it like down there?” the man asked. He seemed suddenly as nervous as Jay felt. “I mean, are the stories true?”
Jay suppressed a smile. He was in the clear. “Some of them – I don’t like it down there very much. Some things have been exaggerated, of course, but it can get pretty unpleasant.”
The other man shuddered. “Glad it’s not me, really. I mean, I guess the pay’s pretty good, but, not for me. I don’t have the stomach.” He was looking at Jay as if he was some kind of mutant. Well, if what Jay had experienced was representative of the lower floors, perhaps it wasn’t entirely unjustified. Interrogations and, uh, industrial accidents weren’t everybody’s preferred career choices.
The lift stopped – level 18, according to the display – and the other man stepped out. “Have a good day.” Jay nodded in assent. He’d try.
The doors closed, but before the lift started moving again they opened. A man stepped in, dropped a briefcase, swore, picked it up, pressed the already-lit 23, frowned, turned to look at Jay, and turned white. It was Karl.
“This figures,” said Jay. “Two people in the building who’d recognise me, one of them gets into the lift with me.” He spun Karl against the wall and held him there. “Please, I’d like as little hassle as possible.”
“Why the hell are you heading back down? And how on earth have you managed to evade capture for an entire day?” Karl sounded genuinely curious, and not at all angry or frightened.
“Well, to answer your second question first, I’ve been… elsewhere, for most of that time. And to your first question – I have someone else to retrieve.”
“In fact, you’re just the one to help me, if I can be so bold. Where is she?”
Karl twisted his head around to look at Jay. He stared for a moment, then nodded. “You picked the right floor. I’ll show you.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he continued, “are you planning anything else? Because if you’re going to cause any real trouble, I’d prefer to not be involved, if possible.”
“That’ll depend on how helpful you are,” said Jay. “Tell you what, you help me out, I’ll do my best to give you get a bit of a head-start before I do anything terrible.”
“Um… okay.” Karl chewed his lip a little, then shrugged. “What the hell. The boss would tell me to give you a chance, anyway.”
“Honour and all that, huh?” said Jay. “I always felt honour was for people who had nothing better to believe in. If I had to choose between honour and saving Melissa, I can tell you I wouldn’t stop to think.”
“No, you wouldn’t, would you? I think that’s the difference between men like you and men like me.”
The lift slowed to a halt, and dinged as the doors opened.
“Now, where’s Melissa?” Jay asked.
“Follow me,” said Karl. He turned out of the elevator and down the corridor. Jay recognised the corridor as they reached the guard station on the corner; ahead lay the big double doors under the sea, and to the right lay the interrogation room. Karl turned right.
Jay tensed as they came to the door to the interrogation room, but Karl carried on past it. He took another turn, then followed the left fork as the corridor split in two. They descended a short flight of steps to a lower level, but the ceilings here remained at the same height as the upper level, giving an odd sense of space to things.
“In here,” said Karl, stopping in front of a nondescript door.
“Open it,” said Jay.
Karl took out a keycard, swiped it across a reader, then entered a code into the keypad beside it. The door slid open.
Through the doorway, Jay could see Melissa, sitting slumped across a bed. She looked up, saw Jay, and sagged with relief. She got to her feet slowly and carefully, as if afraid that she was dreaming and she’d wake up, and walked out of the cell towards Jay. She hugged him tightly, then stepped back, and traced her fingers over his new tattoos with a puzzled expression on her face.