22. Down the Chute (Reprise)
They were only a short way down in the lift when the sirens started, and the lift jolted to a stop. The doors slid open, with ‘level 6’ lit up on the control panel. Outside in the corridor, lights flashed red as the sirens whooped, much louder with the lift doors open. Jay winced, and leaned out of the lift to look around. The corridor was empty. He beckoned the others out of the lift and headed down to the left.
“Do you know where we're going?” Melissa asked.
“Nah, haven't been on this floor,” said Jay. “But the lift didn't seem to be going any further, so what else can we do?” He paused. “Level 6, right?”
“That's what the lift said,” said Mark.
“Last time I was in the building, they were talking about a leak on this level. Maybe we can do something with that.”
“What, like flood the building? The whole thing's under water level, right?” said Vi.
“Maybe something like that. We don't have to destroy the place, just enough that they don't have time to look for us,” said Jay.
“You might have something there, I suppose. Still, we're heading down even further; that's mighty risky, isn't it? There's no other exits, right?” said Mark.
“Well,” said Jay, “There's one or two. There's that underwater entrance I mentioned earlier; and last I was there there was diving gear nearby. That was about level 15 I think.”
“Wait a minute,” Melissa said. “We've already emptied the place out, right? That was what the diversion was all about. Why are we talking about flooding the place? I mean, surely if they wanted us and they had the people they would have just come to get us right? Instead, they just set us running around on some random floor of the building by ourselves. I'd say they have no-one left, and they're just trying to slow us down.”
“Sounds mighty sensible to me,” Vi said. “Question is, is there another way down? I don't expect they're going to start the lifts again.”
“There should be stairs,” said Jay. “Failing that, there's the loading chute down the side of the building, but I do hope it doesn't come to that.”
“Really?” said Mark. “It sounds ideal to me.”
“Really,” said Jay. “You didn't go careening down it out of control and knock yourself at the bottom.”
“Oh. I see,” said Mark.
The corridor they were on turned sharply to the left; they followed it. The sirens and flashing red lights gave everything an eerie, ghastly quality that none of them were enjoying much. The strobing of the lights was distracting too; several times one of the party found themselves stumbling as they tried to take a step or cross a sill at the wrong moment, the light vanishing at the crucial point at reappearing a second too late.
“I wish we could find the light switches.” Melissa shivered.
They followed a gentle curve around to the right, and saw a t-junction in the corridor ahead.
“You might just be in luck,” said Jay, pointing towards the glass screen on the corner. He looked through the glass – the station was empty. The door was closed, though. Jay raised his gun again, pointing it at the door handle.
“Far out, Jay, don't use all your ammo,” said Mark, stepping in front of him. He turned sideways, raised one booted foot, and kicked at the handle. The door splintered around the latch, but didn't swing loose. Mark kicked it again, and this time it swung ajar a little. He pulled it open.
“After you,” he said, indicating the doorway with his hand, as if he were a porter at one of the hotels downtown.
Jay shook his head, then grinned sheepishly. “Sure, thanks,” he said. He walked into the station and examined the controls.
“Panic button there,” he said, pointing out the red button on the wall. “I don't think it'd do much more than we've already got, but no sense pushing it unnecessarily. The area controls –” he looked at the console set into the counter – “are usually here. See anything likely?”
Vi reached over his shoulder and flicked a switch at the top of the console. The sirens dropped down to silence.
“Great. Don't suppose you can fix the lights as well?” said Jay.
“I see the switch marked ‘siren,’” said Vi, “but I'm afraid I don't see any marked lights.”
Jay flicked a few switches at random, but nothing seemed to happen. “Figures,” he said. “I guess we're stuff with the emergency lighting then.” He stepped out of the station and off down the corridor again.
He stopped a moment later as he realised they were back at the lifts. The doors to the lift they'd come out of still stood open. He jabbed at the buttons, but there was no sign of any response.
“Okay,” he said, “let's try right this time.” He traipsed to the corridor ahead of him, and turned to the right.
A few random turns – guesses, somewhat, maybe some intuition as to how buildings tend to be organised – found them climbing down a few steps into what appeared to be some kind of maintenance or storage area. Buckets and mops stood in one corner, and a few broken-looking light-fittings and odd brackets sat on a table against one wall. A door stood at the back of the area, with a single glass panel set into it at head height. A sign on the door read ‘Fire Door. Keep Closed.’
“That looks hopeful,” said Mark.
“Indeed,” said Vi. “Let's take a look then.”
Opening the door, they found a small flight of stairs heading down, then turning sharply to the left at a blank wall at the bottom. They traipsed down the stairs, finding themselves in a low-ceilinged area – obviously suffering from the sunken area above. The stairs had ended here; there was no obvious way further down. They headed back towards the centre of the building, a floor lower, at least.
“Does this mean we're going to have to explore every single floor to find the stairs?” said Melissa. “Because if so, that sucks. We could be here forever.”
“Got any better ideas, then?” said Jay. “Because I'm fresh out.”
“We could try the lifts again,” said Mark. “I mean, maybe they didn't do anything before because there was already one on that floor? It's got to be worth a try, right?”
No-one had anything better, so they made their way towards the lobby. They passed another guard station, but when Jay motioned towards it everyone just shrugged and carried on.
“No-one wants to try for the lights again?” Jay asked, a little put out.
“Just leave it Jay. It'd just be a waste of time, and at least we got rid of the sirens. I can handle the flashing lights,” said Vi.
“I must say, big brother,” said Mark, “this is a pretty lousy-ass adventure you've dragged us all along on.”
“Hey, we wanted to come, remember?” said Melissa. “A few hours ago, you didn't even want to wait until morning – if you could fly you would've come running out here on your own.”
“Well, yeah,” said Mark, “but I wasn't expecting to find myself lost at the top of some nightmare high-rise building, was I?”
They reached the lifts again, and jabbed at all the buttons, but weren't entirely surprised when nothing happened at all.
“Sorry Mark,” said Melissa. “Got anything else?”
“Hey guys,” said Vi, standing off to one side, looking at something on the wall. “Take a gander at this.”
It looked like a schematic of some sort; it didn't have a big ‘you are here’ on it, but it seemed pretty straightforward anyhow.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing at a point marked ‘maintenance access.’ “Looks like a way out, huh?”
“Ah crap,” said Jay. “That'll be the chute I was talking about. Well, guess there's nothing for it. Lead on.”
Vi had a good head for maps. A short few minutes – and no wrong turns – found them outside a door that was, indeed, marked ‘maintenance access.’ Vi pulled it open, and was about to step through when Jay put a hand on her shoulder to pull her back.
“Just a word of advice,” he said. “You'll want to watch this.” He took off his backpack and rummaged around in it. He frowned, then shrugged, and pulled out a ready-to-eat meal pack. “This'll do. Watch carefully.” With everyone leaning in at the doorway, he tossed the meal out into the middle of the gently-sloping chute. It stopped for a moment, then began sliding downhill. It had already picked up a surprising amount of speed by the time it disappeared out of sight around the corner.
“That's not going to stop until it reaches the bottom,” he said, “and if it's anything like me, it'll be travelling mighty fast by the time it does.”
Everyone nodded, grateful for the warning, and Melissa looked faintly pale at the idea.
“Now, there is a thin grip strip down each side of the chute; if we stay on that we should be okay,” said Jay. “It's just not very wide, is the only thing. Well, how about I lead?”
“Sure,” said Vi, “sounds good to me. But if I slip, you've gotta catch me, alright?” She grinned.
“Ha!” said Jay. “You fall, we'll catch you up at the bottom.” He grinned back.
All glad to be moving in the right direction again, they stepped out onto the grip strip and began cautiously moving downwards.
They had been moving for some minutes when the red lights stopped flashing and went out. They stopped, waiting for the normal lights to come back up. After a minute or so, realisation began to dawn.
“The bastards. They're going to leave us in the dark,” said Melissa.
“What are they doing?” said Vi. “This is bizarre. How many of them are there, if all they've got is sirens and stopped lifts and turning the lights off?”
“My guess?” said Jay. “I bet there's only a couple left. It wouldn't surprise me if our friends Todd and Karl are the only ones left in the building. They're probably thinking it's some kind of game.”
“No, I dare say you're the only one thinking that, Jay,” said Vi.
“Oh come on,” said Jay. “If anyone is aware of the seriousness of what's going on here, it's me. It's not as if you've been beaten up and left for dead by these guys.”
“No, you're right. Sorry, that was unfair,” said Vi.
“Damn right,” said Jay. “But never mind. Now, are we going to stand around here bickering all day, or are we going to start moving? If we stick right close to the wall I think we'll be okay.”
“Let's do it,” said Melissa. “I don't think they're planning to turn the lights back on anytime soon. I'm going to keep a hold of your pack, though,” she said to Vi who was in front of her.
“Sounds like a good idea,” said Vi. “Mark, I'm holding yours.”
“Okay,” said Mark. They started moving, feeling their way along the inside wall of the chute, following the gentle downhill curve to the right, walking in the pitch darkness.