“You used to live here?” I’m not sure what I expected when Thomas asked me if I was free for patrol but delving into the Rot was certainly not on the list of considerations. Creeping down from the north-east of the town the Rot was residential once upon the time, converted when the war started to act as a military base and research centre. Most of the buildings were empty shells, the real infrastructure stretched out below in case of bombings, though in the end they hadn’t dug in deep enough.
“I must have been about six when the war started.” he tells me, aiming a torch down the torn out hole in the flooring. “I don’t think anyone expected it to reach us here, thought Europe would keep it contained.”
“We were Europe.” I say, trying to focus on the corridor leading away from us instead of his boots balancing on the edge of the floorboards. I tuck a stray strand of blonde behind my ear and glance back. He keeps one hand splayed on the ground behind him but if the wood cracks then that isn’t going to be much use. The boards whine as he leans forwards, searching something out in the darkness.
“You know what I meant.” he grunts. He lifts his hand and waves for the rope wrapped around my shoulders. I shrug it off, the rifle balanced against my hip bouncing as I do.
“You mean no one expected for them to poison the channel.” I say, passing over the rope and watching him unwind it. We’re alone in the building and most of the other patrols would have returned from the outlying areas to report in by now. On your own doesn’t seem to quite cover the isolation.
“I mean no one expected them to go this far.” He ties off the rope, knotting it around one of the remaining bits of pipe work that hasn’t rotted off the walls and tests its strength. There’s no explosion of dust or high pitched scream as metal pulled apart so it looks as if it will hold.
“You ready?”he asks, moving forward to loop the other end of the rope around me. He runs it around my waist, over my shoulders and behind my back. If I fall he’ll be up here to catch the rope and in turn me.
I nod and swallow.
“Why not?” I say, trying to smile and not doing very well. I can feel the corners of my mouth tremble slightly and my hands have started twitching. It’s not the height that bothers me it’s the darkness he’s going to be lowering me into. “I mean it’s not like we haven’t got the faintest idea what might be down there.” A choked sort of laugh catches in my throat but Thomas doesn’t look at me. He’s checking the knots.
“If anything moves you shoot.” he says, finished with the ropes now. “I’m not in the mood for explaining your death to the bosses.”
I shrug and step forward. Close to the edge the floorboards give slightly, my weight causing them to bend towards the gaping hole.
“I thought we counted as a lost territory. It’s not as if they care too much about what happens now.”
Thomas’ palm presses against the small of my back.
“You can still back out.” he tells me. I shake my head and crouch. You can’t see much but there is the hazy outline of a ladder on the other side of the gap. A ladder I will have to jump to reach. I stand again, grabbing the rope as I do and making sure the throw it well to the side.
“Remember,” Thomas says, “when you find the box you need to get out of there as quickly as you can. If the boffins back at the Warrens are right then the old power sources are going to be leaking some pretty nasty stuff.”
I nod again, I’ve back up fifteen paces and Thomas is now stood in the distance between me and the hole. He moves back.
“Be careful.” he says.
I don’t say anything; we both know that being careful has nothing to do with staying alive down there so I focus on running and jumping. I hear wood snapping as I push off and then I’m falling forwards and the air rushing up in sour and acrid. My breath rips from my lugs as the iron rungs of the ladder clash against my hips and chest. Reflex is the only thing that keeps me from tumbling again as my hands rap around the metal, flakes of paintwork peeling beneath my skin. I cough.
Above me Thomas is no doubt looking down, squinting to see me in the darkness.
“Tones?” he calls. I cough again to clear my throat; I don’t have any breath to answer him with. “Tones!”
“I’m okay.” I croak, hoping the raspy noise will reach him. It seems to because he doesn’t call again. Sucking in another breath I move my hands, feeling outwards along the rungs to the edges where the metal should be stronger and less likely to snap. The structure itself isn’t that old and the building above would have protected it from most of the weather but nothing can really be trusted in the Rot.
I test each rung before putting my weight on it, moving downwards slowly and trying not to breath in too deeply as I do. Something else creeps into the bitter air, something damp that seems to stick to my skin as I sink lower. Above me the patch of grey light from Thomas and the corridor grow smaller.
The hands on my wrist watch should glow in the darkness but my sleeve covers the face and I don’t want to risk pausing to roll my sleeve back. Without it I can’t tell how long I’ve been moving or how far I might have gone but my shoulders ache and my thighs are starting to cramp from the repetitive motion. I can’t be too far from the bottom I think to myself. If it is much further then the rope tying me to Thomas was going to run out.
My foot hits the floor with a jolt, sending my stomach leaping into my chest in the same sickening motion as your foot sliding through air when you misjudge the staircase or drive over a hump in the road too fast.
I don’t move away from the ladder, instead I keep one hand wrapped around it and fumble though the pockets in my trousers to find a glow stick. Snapping it reminds me of the floorboards back above me giving way as I pushed off into the gap.
Glow sticks don’t give out that much light, it shows me that what I’m standing on isn’t a floor so much as a platform overlooking something larger and more open. I shift forward, sliding my feet across what feels like grated sheets until I find a set of railings which indicate my boundaries. Beyond there is nothing but emptiness, impossible to judge in the gloom. Pulling another glow stick out I snap that as well and hurl it forwards, sending it end over end until I hear it clattering across something deep below me.
The whirring is quiet to begin with. It builds to a hum and I feel the vibrations running through the railings in front of me, the thin cylinders making up the barrier shaking as light begins to flicker somewhere above, blinding me more effectively than the darkness had before. One by one the flickering stops until the expanse is filled with the same sort of light you find in hospital theatres, clear and harsh. I can feel the headache building behind my eyeballs and I squint, forcing my eyes to stay open. Thomas’s rope is still wrapped around me and I know that I can yank on it if I need help but if I do that then he’d never let anyone come back here and we’d be stuck as we are, without any real communication to the outside world.
The fuzzy spots in my vision take a while to fade but they do and I can see the building in front of me. It’s more of a cavern than a building, with numerous platforms suspended throughout, connected by walkways and staircases. In places there are railings and floor panels missing, stripped wires sticking out at odd intervals and the scattering of yellowed paper suggesting that when this place was emptied it was done so in a hurry.
“Put your hands where I can see them!” The voice echoes from somewhere beneath me, hidden by platforms and rusted with age. “I said put your dam hands where I can see them!”
I lift my hands slowly, spreading my fingers as I do so. Off to my left there is a slight shadow but I can’t be sure it belongs to the person speaking; all I can be sure of is that they’re male and older.
“Good lassie. Now you stay there nice and still while I come up. Don’t you move now you hear me! Don’t you move!” His feet clatter off the metal staircases as he moves closer, the sound bouncing too much to pin down.
I see his head first. It pops up, the hair grey and almost shaved to baldness so it looks more like someone has sprinkled pepper across his scalp than a hairstyle. He’s too far away to see anything like eye colour but his nose is quite noticeable, large and triangular it sits slightly off to the left on his face. I wonder if it’s natural or if it had happened in an accident a while back. As soon as his shoulder’s clear the level he has a pistol aimed at me, both hands wrapped around the handle.
“Now then lassie.” he draws closer, boots clanging against the grated walkway. “What are you doing down here?”
I stay silent and wonder about tugging on the rope, telling Thomas to yank me up. But I’m too far down; the stranger would shoot me before I had time to grab the rope never mind before Thomas pulling me clear of him.
“Quiet one eh?” He steps closer; pistol still trained on me as he reaches forward and pulls forward the lapel of my jacket. If he’s looking for an insignia he won’t find one. No one bothers with uniform anymore.
“Director Meers send you?” he asks, letting go of my lapels and stepping back. “Bloody bastard really is a coward if he’s going to send some little girl to ferret me out.”
I resist the urge to snort at him. I may be a girl but I’m certainly not little, at six foot eight I tower over most of the guys in my unit, only Thomas and Giddeon are taller than me and even then it’s only by an inch and half.
“I don’t know what you mean.” I tell him. “I wasn’t sent here to look for anyone.”
“Then why are you here?” he asks. He keeps the gun steady and level so I wasn’t dealing with some deranged junkie hopped up on government supplied opiates, but that doesn’t make the situation any safer or him any less dangerous.
“I’m looking for information.” I say, hoping that if I stick as close to the truth as possible then he’d give me the chance to disarm him. I see him posture shift and his grip on the gun relax.
“What sort of information?” he asked. “What would Headquarters need from one of the closed off branches?”
“Headquarters?” I felt the word tumble from my mouth before I can really register it. “Headquarters haven’t been active in this sector for years, not since the Turnover.”
His eyes narrow and I see him check me over. He hesitates over the rifle at my hip but not for long, he clearly doesn’t see me as a threat.
“What turnover?” The question emerges slowly.
I shrug and he levels the gun between my eyes.
“I asked you a question.” he hisses. “What turnover?”
Sweat beads in my hairline. It isn’t the first time someone has turned on a gun on me but the experience is never a pleasant one.
“Someone knocked out whoever was in charge.” I tell him, doing my best to remember what little information had come through. Headquarters was the sort of organisation that kept to itself, especially after the first director was assassinated, but that was before I’d joined up with Thomas and his unit, before we’d been cut off from everyone else.
“Meers is gone?” The question wasn’t directed at me but more at himself so I didn’t bother to answer. He let the gun drop slightly so it was aiming at my chest again. “You’re sure?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No.” I told him. “The information was passed in through an agent who was unfortunate enough to catch Harrington’s attention.”
I saw something harden behind his eyes.
“Lee Harrington?” he asked.
“What the hell is he doing on this side of the channel? He’s an office lackey!”
I shook my head.
“He runs Britain.” I can feel the scowl on my face as I speak. “He’s got nearly every county buried beneath his thumb.”
Laughter rumbles out of him like thunder.
“I suppose that makes you the resistance then?” he says. “You and whoever is on the other end of that rope, or did you come alone? Whoever you’ve got behind you they must be pretty desperate to delve down here.”
I bite my lip, unsure what to say.
“You know about the leaks?” I ask. “Yet you stay down here.”
He chuckles again.
“Leaks.” he says. “They’re no bloody leaks down here. It’s one of the defence mechanisms, creates a false atmosphere between topside and Headquarters. Keeps away anyone with the resources to want to come down here in the first place.”
He slots the gun away into a holster around his waist.
“Joel McGregor.” he says, holding out a hand for me to shake. “Welcome to the British root of Headquarters.”