Epilogue to Suburbia

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They wear the suits. It would be stupid not to, whatever the boffins might say; the techs have been wrong before and the plans offer little scope for error. They don each item of the layered costume following an unspoken routine, checking the seams and smoothing the seals before moving on to the next. Finally they check each other, working through the same, subconscious tick list. It is so like the dry runs, the training exercises: they must have repeated each step hundreds, if not thousands of times. This would be just another test drive… but for one, unique factor.

The smell.

The smell is all around them. It is the smell of disuse, of things long since rotted, of dust settled years ago, of the remnants of pollution left by decades of rain. It is the smell of past death, of where fear used to be, and it permeates even into the sterile, filtered environment of the converted MPV. The smell gets under the skin and into the bones, causing them to shudder involuntarily as they complete the equipment checks. Silence follows: on exercise there would be a remark, a gesture, a grunt to say everything is in order, but here there is nothing. The cloying atmosphere allows for nothing: even breathing feels like an indulgence.

It is time. They reach for their helmets and put them on, raising their arms over their heads as they do so, like lunar explorers. Microphones activate as the helmets lock into position, filling the ears of each person with the sudden noise of breathing, shockingly loud in the stillness. Involuntarily they look at one another, a slight widening of eyes and pause of breath being replaced almost immediately by the shared fragment of a smile. Exhalations follow, tinged with relief.

“Shit.” A’s shoulders, a moment ago tense, sag slightly. Her voice is metallic and echoey, both clear and distant due to the dual-transmission headsets, communicating locally and via a longer range backup. “Nervous?”

“Aye.” B nods, the movement barely perceptible though the heavy suit.

“You ready?”

“Guess. You?”

“Course.” This is A’s show. Born ready, she thinks.

They shuffle towards the side doors, past racks of redundant weaponry: so they have been informed, there is nothing alive to pose a threat. As navigator, B picks up the black box, a squat briefcase with a single appendage that looks like a sound recorder, or a Geiger counter: it is both, and more. Following a final series of checks, A presses a button next to the door and the cabin air mixes slowly with that of outside. This precaution is unnecessary, but unavoidable: the MPV is well outside any quarantine boundary, but it is pre-programmed to operate this way. Above the door, a light glows an unerring red. Watching it is like waiting for someone to die: the hiss of air gradually drops in volume, until both are straining to hear the quietest of sounds, scarcely detectable under the noise of their own, steady breathing. And then, a click. The light switches off.

A momentary pause, fractionally hesitant, speaks volumes. In twenty years, nobody has passed through the portal, and nobody has the first idea what might lie the other side. Who wouldn’t be apprehensive, thinks A to herself. It was a coup to get the job, she knows, even if she did get lumbered with laughing girl here. She reaches towards the handle, closing her fingers around it before pulling backwards and to the left. The door does the rest, sliding open even as a set of steps in pre-drilled aluminium emerge from under the chassis. The clanking and rolling subsides, and all is still again.

“Shall we?” B motions forwards with her hand, out of confirmation rather than respect.

“Yeah. Control, you there?” A’s tone cannot hide her exasperation.

“Alive and kicking.” Brooke’s voice is distant, crackling. “Where did you think I’d be?”

They move down the steps, alighting on a layer of dried mud over tarmac and looking around them, glad of the broad visibility offered by the helmets. Once, this had been a high street, the main thoroughfare of a market town. The MPV is parked in the centre of the road, tracks stretching away behind it like the first footprints in virgin snow. The control centre is established half a mile back and well inside the clear zone, it is a standard model used for health scares and public order management. Meanwhile, in front of them there is nothing but decay. The sides of the dead end are lined with makeshift barriers of corrugated metal, concrete and old doors, the occasional fragment of brickwork betraying that these were buildings, once. Each side is coated with graffiti, lewd remarks (“we want to fuck your children”) side by side with the dare game trophies of death-cheating youths: “I got here,” “Mick rools!” and the unnervingly incomplete “Aberystwy…”

Purposefully yet uncomfortably (there is no easy way to move in the protective suits), they walk down the street. In some places the walls are no more than ten feet tall; in others, they reach a couple of storeys, complete with window frames that give a clear view of the sky. It is like walking through a ghost town: no dogs bark, and the birds learned long ago there was nothing to gain by filling this place with song. The only sounds are their own, each footfall crunching an echo that is amplified out of proportion by the oversensitive body mikes. Step by step they move closer to the archway, which looms ahead of them like a temple. Several decades ago and long before the Secession, this structure marked the entrance to a shopping centre: pedestrianised and gleaming, it had been a small-town cathedral to the religion of the time. Walker’s Gate it was called, in honour of some long dead dignitary. Today, a combination of tarnished and spray painted characters reveal its rebranded identity:

WAnKeRS GaT

To the officials it’s labelled the North Portal, but Wankers’ Gate is the name everybody knows. The name change came early on, with news pictures delighting in its shock value. The name is now the stuff of anecdote and the occasional cautionary remark. “Like the devil out of Wankers’,” says A, who has been around long enough to know both meanings. And a few more things besides, she thinks, remembering the last time she walked this route. All will unfold, says a voice in her mind. Yeah, right.

The orange-clad pair have little time for the history. They know they have a job to do, but they don’t really care about that either. There’s no point, caring: care has been temporarily shelved, and will only regain its status once – indeed if – they find themselves back on this street, walking the other way, job done. The risks are low, say the science techs. So, thinks A, why are they relying on a specialist unit to check out the place? Just your average, low risk, contaminated wasteland, take a peep and check whether we can bring the kids in. We know why. Nobody else is up for the job, and if we fuck up, nobody need ever know.

“It’s shit creek, and we’re going right up it,” says A, realising as she speaks that she is talking out loud. Damn, I meant to think that, she chides herself. What’s wrong with me today.

“Yeah,” agrees B, unperturbed and monosyllabic.

They trudge on, towards the pillared entrance. Unconsciously they fall into step, matching the footfalls to breathing. Trudge, trudge, trudge, the rhythm is hypnotic. They recede from the vantage point of the MPV, every movement followed by the remote-operated camera mounted on its roof. It feeds pictures to whoever is authorised, as do the dual, independently powered headcams and the various other monitoring devices. “Inspector Gadget, eat your heart out,” as Brooke would say.

Whatever that means, thinks A. Trudge, trudge.

The portal looms up and over them as they approach, plaster cracking off its faux-Roman pillars and revealing its true, prefabricated self. A pair of reinforced steel doors dominate the dark space between the pillars, at their centre a burnished metal lock with no noticeable way of inserting a key, card or anything else.

“Control?”

“Hello A, you took your time.” Brooke is still being jovial.

Smart-arse, love to see him here. “Just open the fucking door.”

“Sesame,” he says. Nothing happens. “Oh hang on – there.”

Click.

The doors swing open, their hydraulics operating with surprising smoothness despite the two decades that have passed since they were installed. Beyond lies darkness, a broken chair and various smaller items visible in the light from the doorway.

“See you inside,” says Brooke, a faint tone of hesitation in his voice. “I – er, rather you than me.”

“Thanks for that.” A’s tone is unforgiving.

“Shit, sorry. I mean…”

“Just get off the fucking radio.”

“Yeah, see you inside.”

“Whatever.”

They reach up simultaneously to flick on the helmet-mounted torches, and enter.

———————-ooooooooooooo———————–

Of all the missions, and there have been plenty, this one has been the hardest to prepare. It’s a forensic and political nightmare – nine hundred square miles of potential evidence, and the entire international community at a fever pitch for what might be revealed. The prospect of residual bioactivity and radiocontaminants doesn’t help matters; satellite imaging may be advanced, but it can’t predict the situation in the as-yet uncharted network of tunnels. This particular trip could only ever be reconnaissance: it will not enter the centre, skirting carefully around the real danger zones. At least, that’s the plan, so meticulously put together over the past months. One by one, options were considered and discounted, until the powers arrived back at the answer they first thought of. No point in attempting to use overland vehicles, which would founder on the remaining defences and be more trouble than they are worth; flying in wouldn’t help towards the primary goal of determining the situation on the ground and in the tunnels. Finally, there’s no point in sending in more than two: the second is only for backup, and if things get bad, it is better to lose two bodies than several. This last point has never been written down, but it is understood.

It is not her first time as A. The reason for the mission codes has vanished into the mythology of the unit, nowadays it is accepted without question. Indeed, it would seem strange to use proper names in the field. A’s own place on the team was not unexpected, but B’s selection was, well, novel. She’d only joined the group a few months before, for Chrissakes, a point A had tried to argue with Brooke. To no avail, as it happened, and there was something in his look that had informed her of the pointlessness of the discussion. Doesn’t mean I’m happy, she thinks as she surveys the scene. The area just inside the entrance is clear, any obstacles bulldozed further inside, probably when the steel doors had been installed. The buggers weren’t hanging around. Together, they pick their way across the debris, using free hands to ward off the straggling pieces of insulating material, hanging down at intervals to give a ghost-train feel to the corridor. Before long it widens into a dark, high-roofed chamber, flanked either side by black entranceways. “Lifts,” says A to nobody in particular, associating what she can see with the old building plans no doubt still laid out in the control room. The route is clearer and there isn’t anything worth pausing for, so they head towards the end wall, its crude, breeze block construction visible in the torchlight. In its centre is a single, flat panelled door, blank apart from a handle and a small sticker bearing the word: PULL.

For a moment A regrets the lack of melodrama. No doubt that will follow, she thinks, when the officials claim the first visit for themselves and take their names in the history books. No worries, let ’em. She glances at B, who is waiting expectantly.

“Would you like the honour?” she asks, tilting her head and arching her brows.

B’s expression is unreadable as she reaches forward and tugs, to no avail. Her eyes narrow. She pushes: the door resists for a second, then flies open and outward, swinging wide before jamming to a halt on the weed-strewn paving slabs outside. Sunlight floods in like air into a vacuum chamber, leaving them blinking like infants. Framed in the doorway like a scene from a film, a vista of lush greenery stretches as far as the eye can see.

The euphoria lasts almost as long as the verdant facade keeps its pretence: both dissolve before them as they step forward and the landscape reveals its true nature. Far from lush, it is a threadbare carpet of hardy plants, moss and unkempt grass, hastily thrown over the rubble and ruin. Mother Nature is in no great hurry to reclaim her own, weaving a new layer at the passing of each warm season. In one place a cluster of tattered bones emerges, causing B to crouch down for a closer look.

“Suburbian,” B says, frowning. “Can’t have made it to the Site.”

“Anything else?”

“Young. Can’t tell the sex, but I’d guess at male.”

I know you. A is not ready for the unexpected pang. Lad, I know you. In the periphery of her mind’s eye, a fuzzy image makes a brief attempt to surface. A memory emerges of a boy soldier, proud and dishevelled, acting sentry long after his role had become redundant. Quickly, A ushers such thoughts back into the recesses of her mind, letting the more immediate issues jostle it out of the way. Away. Focus.

“Label it – someone can check it out later.”

B reaches to a panel on her left arm and pushes a button, registering the datapoint with a voice text. When she is finished, she stands and takes in the scene. The terminal building stands alone, a squat block of concrete, topping a small rise in the middle of the pasture spreading out before them.

“Where’s the path? The map shows steps.”

“The map shows a lot of things,” replies A, her composure regained. She raises a gloved hand to indicate straight ahead. “We go over the mountain.’

The route is passable, but only just: the greenery hides a minefield of broken debris. Each footfall has to be tested, and the visibility allowed by the suits is unhelpful in the extreme. The airwaves are silent bar the sounds of increasingly heavy breathing and the occasional expletive as they pick, trip and stumble their way to the top of the rise. B gets there first, turning and offering a hand to her senior officer.

“Come on, let’s keep going,” breathes A, ignoring the gesture. “Plenty of time to rest when we get down there.”

The terminal building is bigger than it looks from the outside. Acknowledging the building plans as they go, they walk past the remains of a ticket office, through the stalls where barriers used to be, not pausing for the long-forgotten lifts as they head for the stairs. Given the encumbrance of the suits they descend carefully, silently grateful that the stairwell is wide and clear. However, it is also long. And warm: it seems to get hotter as they descend. They benefit from the use of the side railing for the last few steps, and the bottom cannot be too soon in coming.

“Jeez,” exhales A, catching her breath as she stumbles out onto the platform area. “Enough!” Clearly, this is a good time to rest. The microphone has lost its echo, she notices, which means they’re cut off from the outside, from Control. She knows this information is reflected in the helmet display, but she can’t summon the energy to look up. B comes up behind her, exhaling vocally and leaning with both hands on a low wall. In front of them and caught by the light of the torches are the transits, lined up like so many egg boxes, with their bulky electromagnets beneath them. Time passes, but nobody is keeping track of how much.

For some reason, the real thing is never quite the same as training, a conundrum that puzzles A as she regains her energy. There is no natural end to a real exercise, so it is difficult to pace… or perhaps you just put more energy into it. whatever, the result is the same. It’s a damn sight more knackering.

“Well,” she says, more to break the silence than anything. Then, nodding towards the case, “Are you going to turn that thing on?”

“It is on,” says B. The word “obviously” is silent.

You are pissing me off. “Readings?”

“Irrelevant,” says B. “Underground hasn’t been sat-tested.”

“I know. What’s the readings?”

“Rad low, Air as clean as youd expect, Bio… maybe its best we kept the suits on.”

“What is it?”

“Dunno. Indicators flying around a bit. Maybe it’s the draft in the tunnels.”

Not that we’d notice, thinks A. All this modern technology, and I still feel I’m modelling a rubber sack. The suits put paid to any idea of feeling what it’s like. They have their own microclimate – clammy, not too hot but warm enough to be discomfiting. Most likely, anyone who tested them for suitability took them off after an hour. Needs must. Better to sweat than to catch whatever might still be down here.

It is time to move on. The techs were almost giggling with delight a few weeks ago, when they claimed to have restored power to the transit line. So they said, this proved easier than fixing the lights – something to do with the relative resilience of the transport circuits, whatever that meant. “This better work,” says A, walking towards the front carriage, its interior obscured by black glass on the silver frame. She reaches over and pushes a button by the door. It makes a sound like it is unsticking before sliding open, smooth and efficient, like it had been used yesterday.

“Result!” murmurs A, quietly delighted.

“Not yet,” says B. “Might not move.”

“Please insert card,” says the transit indifferently, repeating itself every few seconds. They climb onboard, not wanting to prolong the irritating voice. Inside, the console is lit, with blue arrows flashing to indicate a slot. B pulls on a tab on her suit, releasing a key card on a string. She pulls it with her other hand and inserts it into the slot. The lights flicker and change to a steady green.

“Strike two,” says B. She reaches over to a touch screen and taps in a destination.

“Registered,” says the transit. “Stand clear, doors closing.”

“Strike three and we’re out.”

A deep noise, somewhere between a drone and a creak, reverberates through the carriage. It persists for several, uncomfortable seconds before it settles down into a quieter, steady hum. A slight list to one side is felt, as the magnets disengage from the rails; then the dim view outside begins to move backwards and the terminal platform slips behind them. They’re on their way.

“Might as well settle down,” says B. “It’s a bit of a ride.”

Quietly grateful, A takes a seat, or indeed two seats given the bulk of the suits. She leans back to crush the accumulating beads of moisture between herself and the suit. B continues to stand, hefting the black case onto the shelf in front of her so she can monitor the readings.

The ride is seemingly endless, with just the occasional clank of machinery to punctuate the otherwise smooth running. It seems all so familiar and yet strange: the retro feel of the carriage draws comparison with its more modern equivalents, back on the other side of the portal. Above all, it is so quiet – no overheard conversations, no invasion of space, it is like renting a private jet for the day. I could quite get used to this, thinks A, momentarily feeling the chill that her feelings of decadence inspire. Dangerous.

As the shape looms up in front of the transit, A’s brain tries to break out of the reverie and formulate a response. Her eyes dart around her as she attempts to stand, registering B who has already grabbed a safety bar and who is reaching above her head. A sudden jolt is followed by inordinate screeching, drowning out any expletives that A can think of as, caught off balance, she flies forward and crashes to the floor. The transit shudders to a halt, feet from what appears to be a collapsed roof.

“Wha’happened there?” says A, trying to recover her position as well as her dignity, too aware of the spasms of pain being signalled from her wrist and ankle.

“Emergency stop. You OK?”

“Guess so,” says A, stil on her hands and knees. She looks round, sees B pointing at a red handle above the door. “I’ll be even better when we reach the surface. Got a thing about being buried alive. Any ideas?”

“We dig, or we backtrack,” says B. “Don’t fancy digging.”

“We backtrack, then. Best hope we don’t hit any more collapses.”

“No guarantees about this working.” B removes the card and re-inserts it, lights flashing in incredulity before settling back down to the steady green. “We passed a terminal back there,” she says. “We can aim for that and take the long way round.” She taps the console coolly, and before long the car starts moving backwards, away from the fall.

“Thank Christ for that,” says A, who has eased herself back on the seat. “How long are we up for?”

“Another hour at least.”

The alternative route passes without incident. They roll into another terminal, which looks exactly like the one they left and the one they traversed. They disembark quickly, neither hiding their relief. The staircase is short, but it is all upward and it is getting decidedly hot in the suits, the clamminess causing the even the technofabric materials to chafe. And then they are outside again.

———————-ooooooooooooo———————–

They emerge from the terminal onto another panorama of green, only this time the vista is for real. The path down from the concrete bunker overlooks a valley that stretches for miles in each direction, flanked by the gentle contours of distant hills. Above them, the meadows have sharper outlines, remnants of the carefully tended lawns and gardens of decades before. There are no trees, of course, but there is sufficient brush and shrub to make up for their absence. Three quarters of the way up the hill, the stark ruins of a country residence are outlined against the sky.

A has been here before, in her youth. Each movement of her head sparks a series of memories, which crystallise in front of her eyes like cinema stills. I was probably about your age, she thinks, glancing towards B. I was never as tall, never as fit… but I was here. And I was with him. Thirty years of suppressed emotion wells inside her like a geyser, restrained only by the steady stream of air she inhales through her nostrils. She faces away from B, not to hide the emotions but to give the opportunity to hold herself together. Still looking away, she waits a long, solitary moment before risking conversation.

“What’s the Geiger reading?” she asks, her voice only slightly cracked.

“Clear,” replies B.

“Really?”

“Well, no worse than some parts of Cornwall.”

“Air Q?”

“Clean.”

“That’ll do for me,” says A, almost feeling herself. “How about the biochem?”

“Too soon to tell.”

“Oh,” says A flatly, not bothering to hide the disappointment. It means that the suits need to stay on.

They walk up the hill towards the ruins, or more accurately towards the westerly wing, which at least has a floor still standing. A keeps up a good impression but is unable to disguise the occasional wince of pain when she puts pressure on her left ankle. The microphones don’t hide much.

“You’re limping?” B’s voice is tempered with practicality, not sympathy.

“So?”

“I’d best take a look.”

“It’s no bother.”

“Better sort it now.”

“It’s – No – Bother.”

“OK.”

The doorway is in a remarkably robust state, given the dilapidated nature of the rest of the building. It is framed by a stone archway, filaments of cable indicating where a light fitting used to be. The door itself is studded oak, an iron ring and oversized keyhole giving it additional gravitas. It is decidedly locked.

“Can you deal with that?” asks A, still carefully controlling the bursts of recognition that seem to accompany every feature of the place.

“Sure.” B sets down the case and opens it. From one of its many internal compartments she removes a small cylinder, about half the length of a cigarette, and inserts it into the keyhole. Both take a few steps back, using the protection of the archway as B detonates the charge. The door resists opening, its hinges seemingly resentful of the manner in which it was unlocked.

“After y… oh,” says B.

The body lies just inside the entrance, a crumpled heap of clothing, bones and hair. No identification is necessary: each can see for herself the trademark Che Guevara look, the de facto military greens, calf length black boots and flak jacket. For final confirmation an ancient, faded baseball cap lies a foot away from the head, upside down, but unmistakeable. That cap was the stuff of legend, a symbol of freedom and despair. They already know what it will say but A picks it up in one movement, though the suit makes her action less than graceful. Not to mention the ankle.

The logo is there. A purses her lips and frowns slightly, flicking the cap down onto the floor while keeping her gaze carefully trained on the inanimate, non-contentious objects in the hallway: a canvas bag, another pair of boots, a roll of toilet paper. In this way, she keeps an outer appearance of control. Her gaze is drawn back to the cap: no fear, it says, without irony. The words invite closure: A feels the inner peace, knowing them to be true. Good bye, my love.

Looking up, she sees B gesturing towards an open door.

“Stairs,” says B. “We need to go down.”

“Yeah…” says A, “Yeah.”

“You sure you’re OK?”

“Yeah. Let’s go.”

A moves towards the door. As she walks past B, she feels she knows not what. She takes the stairs one at a time, stepping carefully on each one with both feet, a function of training rather than her injury.

Disasters are collections of unfortunate, coincident circumstances, and this is no exception. The runner on the edge of the stair is only a few millimetres high, but that is enough to catch the edge of the bulky yellow boot. Had A not been as tired, she might have lifted her foot just a millimetre higher; had she not been distracted, she might have reacted just a microsecond sooner, before the strain on her weakened ankle became too much. Had she not been encumbered by the suit, she might have kept her balance rather than crashing down the remaining four stairs and landing in an untidy heap at the bottom. Which she does, unglamorously. It is B’s turn to mutter an expletive as she takes the stairs two at a time, keeping her balance as she arrives next to her superior officer.

“Ow, shit. Shit.” The look in A’s eyes is akin to pleading.

“Hurts?”

“Yeah.”

“A lot?”

“Yeah.”

She feels strangely relieved, and is not proud of this. “Sorry,” she says, resigning to the inevitable. It’s over.

B helps A into a more appropriate position, turning her onto her side and propping her head against a box, ignoring the occasional outburst as she does so. She avoids touching A’s left leg, conscious of the impossible angle where the boot meets the suit. “It’s broken,” B says, speaking slowly to confirm the obvious and to indicate what she is about to do. She kneels in front of the open case, preparing a hypodermic syringe.

“This might prick.” Just do it, thinks A, I don’t need the bedside manner.

B tears back a velcro flap adjacent to A’s calf, to reveal a round circle of rubber. It is not the best place to put a needle, but it gets to the heart of the problem and it avoids unnecessary movement. The needle enters through the rubber patch. A doesn’t flinch as B pushes the fluid down through the tube and removes the syringe.

“Sleep well.”

“What do .. you .. m…” A’s helmeted head tips to one side, and release of breath echoes through her mike. First confirming A is comfortable, B closes the case and stands up.

“Hello, Control.”

“How’s A?” asks Brooke.

“She’ll survive. Broken ankle – I’ve had to sedate her.” Though I didn’t need as high a dose as that, B thinks.

“B, you are the new A. Consider yourself…”

“That won’t be necessary, Control”

“What do you mean?” B could hear the frown.

“Brooke, this is a 3-451. I’m afraid I’m bypassing you. Thanks for listening.”

In a temporary building just outside the exclusion zone, a number of screens flicker and go black. Brooke and his colleagues trigger escalation procedures, for all the good it will do them. B smiles as she considers their loss of signal, before reaching up and pushing a mute button on the side of her helmet.

“Radio, I need a new frequency and an encrypted channel.” She spells out the details and watches as the information is registered on the heads up display, reflected on the inside of her visor.

“Frequency set, channel open,” responds the helmet.

“How are we doing?” A man’s voice, gentle and authoritative, and as clear as if it were in the next room.

“Hey Mark, good to hear your voice.”

“Did you miss me?”

“Course I did. Waltzing Matilda was starting to get on my tits.”

“Now now, you shouldn’t speak about your elders and betters like that.”

“You haven’t been cooped up with her for the past month, getting ready for this thing. I assume someone was on commission, the way they dragged it out.”

“I’ll let you off. Did you have to make her keep the suit on?”

“Protective measure,” she replies, “for me, not for her. What’s Brooke’s Army up to?”

“Not a great deal. We blanked their screens and put them on radio silence the moment you said the magic words. You should have seen their faces.”

“You were watching?”

“Our eyes are everywhere, you should know that. Shall we get on with it? We haven’t got all day.”

“You’re starting to sound like her. Can I lose the suit?”

“No problem. We’ve been monitoring every readout from that box of tricks of yours, and there’s nothing. Completely clean, fresh as a new dawn.”

“Thank Christ for that.”

“Cam…”

“What?”

“Good job.”

“Thanks.”

Cam (to her friends and colleagues, only her mother still calls her Camellia) reaches up and clips the helmet from her suit. Her short, dark hair looks matted, and her cheeks are shiny with the moisture that the helmet’s internal airflows have been unable to wick away.

“You have no idea,” she says, sliding her finger down the Velcro to reveal the outer protective zip, “how good it feels to be getting out of this thing.”

“I can imagine.”

“No, you can’t.” Soon she is free of the garb, with only the head-mounted radio remaining. “Particularly the smell. Hang on, I’ll get you back on a video feed.” Taking a pencil-like camera from the black case, she mounts it on to her headset, feeling for the socket to take the wire that is trailing from its rear.

“How’s that?”

“I see sky.”

“Now?”

“Ground.”

“Bugger. Now?”

“OK, it’s good. Let’s go.”

Free from the encumberment of the suit, Cam skips down the steps, annotating vocally as she goes.

“Heading down into the cellar now. Looks like it used to be for wine, there’s a few broken bottles here, nothing worth taking. A door to the left and one straight ahead, entering left door now. Nothing to see, an empty room.”

The signal is coping, they’re only a single floor down.

“Back in the wine cellar now, heading to the other exit door. It’s a corridor, but more brickwork, old I think. Smells old. Door at end, sensor lock. Mark, I’ll need to fix this.”

“Need any help?”

“I’ll manage.”

Cam opens the briefcase on a brickwork alcove near the door. In the torchlight the alcove looks ancient, like the altar of an underground temple. She removes a small metal box, flicks a switch on one side, and places it on top of the lock. A small readout flicks through numbers before a satisfactory click indicates success.

“Opening the door. This is a large room, looks like a lab of some sort. Oh.” Cam looks at the floor straight ahead of her, where something is protruding from behind a desk.

“Yes, I can see. Feet,” says Mark.

Cam moves closer, supporting herself on the desk with one hand as she looks around the corner.

“White male, not young. Nasty blow to the head. He shouldn’t be here.”

“What do you mean? You know him?”

“No, sorry. I mean, this isn’t a twenty-year-dead body.”

“Ah.”

Stepping closer still. “I’d give it under a year.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s come back to him. Continuing to look – there’s three doors in a row, straight ahead. The middle door should be the safe room. The door is open, Mark, I’m not sure this is going to be good…”

Cam enters and scans quickly round the safe room. It doesn’t give the impression of being very safe: several cupboards that might once have been locked stand open, their doors splintered. On the floor lies a crowbar. All of this is incidental to the main issue. Four metal table legs are concreted into the middle of the room, but there is no table top: someone has cut through the legs and removed it.

“Damn,” comes Mark’s voice over the headset. He can see what Cam sees.

“Indeed. Someone’s been here,” says Cam, as she does so recognising the obviousness of what she is saying. “Whatever it was, it’s gone.”

“Try the side rooms… maybe they just shifted it.”

“Yeah, right! OK… left first.”

The door to the left of the safe room opens without resistance. In front of her and filling most of the small room there is a pallet, neatly stacked with boxes. She has a premonition of what they contain, quickly confirmed as she focuses on the selection of brightly coloured labels affixed to each box.

“Sheesh… Can you see this stuff?”

“Well enough.”

“There’s enough here to blow up the Houses of Parliament…”

“I wouldn’t vouch for its stability either. Cam, can I suggest a retreat?”

“Good plan. It’ll probably be the same on the other side, I think I’ll leave that one.”

“Don’t blame you.”

“This little pile explains why this heap of rubble is still here,” says Cam. “I guess it wasn’t supposed to be.”

Cam backs out towards the door, catching the back of her heel on the lintel as she passes.

“Steady, we don’t want any more casualties,” says Mark.

“No intention of being. Speaking of which, think I’ll leave the body for now. He’s waited this long, he can hang on another couple of days.”

“Not sure there’s much more you can do.”

“You’re right,” Cam says. A pause, then: “OK, you can come in. Seal this area, make this lot safe, let Control handle the transit route or they’ll only get sniffy. Oh – and bring a stretcher, get the injury out of here.”

Job done.

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