Detective Mike Maloney looked around the room and sighed. He turned a concerned eye to his companions, two soldiers whose faces were blanched a sickly shade of white. The man, a youth named Jeffery Nar, was cradling his stomach in one arm. He had the look of someone who was only now realizing the magnitude of what they had gotten into. The woman’s name was Penny Sapp, and in the little time spent with her Mike had determined that her most striking and impressionable feature, her fiery red hair, was also an eerily accurate reflection of her personality. The room had had a sobering effect on her though, as it had for all of them, and like a wet blanket thrown over a flame she seemed smothered, weighed down. She was clearly making an effort to put on a brave face, but slight tremors of hand and pale complexion betrayed her discomfort.
“Hey.” At the sound of his voice Penny looked up, jumping a little, and Mike winced inwardly. “You might want to loosen up.” He gestured with one hand towards her weapon, and her eyes followed his motion, resting on the source of his concern with surprise; she held the automatic in an evidently unconscious death grip, the skin on her hands even more pale than that of the rest of her body from clenching the gun. She quickly removed one finger from the trigger, which Mike noticed with dread bounced back up as soon as she let it go. “We wouldn’t want you squeezing off any rounds in here. There’s enough blood as it is without you going and adding more.” Sapp nodded, red in the face with embarrassment. With almost morbid cheeriness, Mike decided the flush was better than no colour at all, and in fact seemed to go quite well with her hair and freckles. This thought he (understandably) kept to himself.
The last two members of his small party had stayed outside to stand guard, a position his sickly companions no doubt now wished they’d taken. His apprentice-in-training, a youth of 20 named Patrick Anderson, was one of the envied. Mike had tried to coerce Patrick into entering the room with them, in an attempt to take advantage of the situation and use it to further his training, but the apprentice had taken no more than two steps into the area before his stomach gave way and he was forced back outside to regurgitate what little food he had eaten for breakfast. The fifth and final member, a third soldier, also male, had stayed outside at Mike’s instruction to stand guard, an order he had been all too happy to accept.
The room was at the top of an eight story building, tucked away in the back of an apartment. It had taken the team a good half hour to find it, after searching through the majority of the top floor’s apartments. The scout who had first stumbled upon the room hadn’t specified in his message back to the base as to which room number it had been, and his subsequent apparent disappearance had made things all the more inconvenient for the investigation (and, if the need and/or opportunity arose, rescue) team.
The scout, who had been identified in the assignment details sent out to the team as Damien West, had been on a routine patrol of Block 1 earlier that morning. The first alert had been sent back to the base at 8:24, and it stated that he thought he had heard screams coming from a building on Fir Street, address 10611, and was planning on investigating. The reply, sent by whichever of the base’s responders West had connected to at the time, had ordered him to stay in place and wait for backup, and if at all possible he was to continue to covertly assess the situation in the meantime. This was received at 8:26, at the same time that a copy of the assignment details was sent to each of Mike’s team members’ Digifiles. It was a good eight minutes before West finally replied, and in the space between the responder sent several messages ordering him to confirm that the message had been received. When West finally did reply, it was brusque and filled with spelling mistakes, giving the impression of having been written in distress and under pressure. The message said that he had entered the building and followed the screams to the top floor, where after some searching had found a room filled with blood. The responder had quickly sent an update to Mike’s team, and had asked West for more information, reminding him to remain covert. To this the responder had received no reply, and after a second message ordering him to respond passed without an answer, they had flagged the assignment as urgent and a potentially dangerous situation. By this time the group had organized, and at 8:54, exactly half-an-hour after the first message, the quintet set off for 10611.
The first thing Mike noted upon arrival was an apparent lack of the alleged screams, or for that matter an apparent lack of anything that might raise suspicions. Rather than reassure them though, as it so often did the dead calm of the city unnerved the Rebels, raising the hairs on their arms like a kind of primal alert system. The building itself had no telltale differences or unique traits, but as they passed through its empty double doorway, stepping out of the warmth of the morning sun and into the shadow of the interior, a chill that had nothing to do with the sudden drop in temperature came over them all. A distinctly ominous feeling seemed to hang over the atmosphere, made no better by the beams of their flashlights, which only penetrated one kind of darkness. With dread in their hearts they had ascended the stairs all the way to the top, where they began their search for the room covered in blood.
All regrets and personal definitions of the word aside, the search had been successful, more so than any of them had been expecting. A room covered in blood was just too vague a phrase; it sounded like an exaggeration, too fluffy and casual to be accurate. And yet what the team eventually found not only met the description of their lost comrade, it surpassed them.
The room was lit by a single amber lightbulb which hung from the ceiling, producing more noise than illumination as it steadily droned on with the unmistakeable sound of a dying bulb. This alone broke the otherwise all-encompassing blood; these two things aside the room was visibly empty. And with so much blood, it was almost understandable (in a hysterical reasoning kind of way) that there would be nothing else. “Well of course there was nothing else, it was full of blood! There was no room for anything else! It was everywhere!”
It was indeed everywhere, or at least as close to everywhere as was physically possible. The air itself was thick with the unmistakeable metallic scent, so much so that Mike could almost taste it. The ceiling seemed to ripple and pulse in the light, a horrible living thing, as gravity forced the liquid to converge in certain areas before the strain grew too great, pulling the drops to the ground in a grisly red rain. Both soldiers had already had the misfortune of being directly beneath several of these drops when their time had come, and they now had some poor (not to mention almost certainly recently deceased) soul’s body fluids matted in their hair and on the shoulders and back of their clothes. Mike had so far been a combination of lucky and strategic, glancing upwards every few seconds to make certain he was in the clear.
The walls were equally as drenched, and the blood ran down in seemingly ceaseless streams. Mike walked over to the nearest wall, and without hesitation he pressed a single finger into the surface. It slid into the red just short of half a centimeter deep, and the flow began to pass around the sudden obstacle, some of it running over his finger and onto his hand. Grimacing in both disgust and awe at the sheer volume of it all, he withdrew his finger, wiping the liquid off on the seat of his pants and ignoring the stain it had left on his skin.
The ground was by far the worst off, and understandably so. While the ceiling and walls had the occasional patch where the blood, for no apparent reason, had drained away, leaving that unmistakeable red stain, on the ground there were no such places. Not only was there nowhere for the blood on the ground to drain, it was also the place where the blood from the ceiling and walls came to rest as well, adding to the already staggering volume. On level ground their shoes easily sank at least two centimeters; in places where the shed’s misshapen floor had depressions the blood pooled deeper, some of these almost deep enough to submerge the entire foot. These were just as bad if not worse than the drops from the ceiling, the result being the trio were forced to watch both above and below when moving.
Almost as if to make up for the unsuccessful ceiling drops, as Mike walked back to the center of the room he stepped in one of these puddles, supressing the urge to cry out and quickly withdrawing the wretched foot and its now reddened shoe. He pulled it upwards, resting the ankle on his other leg, and assessed the damage. His shoe was leather, a rare and valuable find that had served him well for the better half of two years, and he felt certain it wouldn’t soak through to his sock. The foot had been submerged almost to the rim though, and he could feel the blood seeping through the space between the tongue.
“Look- could you hurry up or something?” Completely absorbed in studying his shoe, Mike looked up in mild surprise at the sound of Jeffery’s voice; since talking to Penny he had all but forgotten about the soldiers, their unobtrusive presence fading into the background. “This isn’t exactly fun for us, and as far as I can tell the only thing you’re investigating is your foot.” Mike’s eyes settled on his, and the hostility in the soldier’s expression immediately died down. The last of his speech dried up on his lips, and he was forced to avert his gaze. Mike said nothing, and after a moment he returned his attention to the shoe.
He brought his face as close to the sole as he could, perfectly balanced on the other foot. Blood dripped down from the shoe and onto his sock, his pants leg, but he either ignored it or was completely unaware of it. His eyes squinted in concentration, and then they opened wide, an alert and slightly triumphant glow visible to anyone who might have happened to see them. Without taking his eyes off what he had found, he reached one hand into the pocket of his jacket and retrieved a pair of tweezers. These he positioned between forefinger and thumb, and as the soldiers watched him with something between fascination and repulsion, he pressed the tweezers into the sole and clamped down on the miniscule object lodged there. With an inaudible change in his breathing pattern, he pulled it out and held it up to the light, placing his foot back down as he did so. From their distance the soldiers saw something glinting faintly in the light, but otherwise it was too small for them to make out.
“You’re both dismissed,” Mike said abruptly, in a voice that was not raised and yet which seemed to command attention. “Stand guard with the others outside.” There was a moment’s hesitation, then they turned and filed out of the room, heads down in respectful shame and nonexistent tails tucked between their legs, like children who had just been scolded and sent to bed early.
They passed by Patrick, who was bent over in one corner of what appeared to have been the living room, still recovering from his nausea. He raised his head at the sound of their passing footsteps, and gave them a nod of acknowledgment which Penny returned sympathetically. The soldiers continued on through the apartment with Penny in the lead until they had passed through the front door and into the hallway. Then she stopped, so abruptly that Jeffery was forced to sidestep her in order to avoid bumping into her back. Without a word she turned to grab the door handle, closing it behind them before facing Jeffery.
“What the hell was that?” she hissed, looking like she wanted to push him over. “Are you trying to make us look bad? I mean, shit, you could have at least left me out of it. What were you thinking? You can’t just mouth off to our supervisor like that!”
“Did you see his eyes?” the younger soldier cut in, completely disregarding all of her concerns.
“His eyes! It was like…”
“It was like he was staring into my soul,” he whispered, almost to himself. There was a moment of silence as Penny regarded him suspiciously, trying to decide whether or not he was pulling her leg, and then she burst into scornful laughter.
“You’re joking, right?”
“I’m serious! They were like ice.”
“Well you certainly know your cliché’s.”
“It’s a saying for a reason, you know. They were blue and cold. And sharp. Like ice.” He raised his hands, palms up, as if presenting his case in point.
“I’ll tell you one thing; you’re about as good with descriptions as you are with first impressions.”
“Fine, screw you too. But I’m telling you, there’s something off with that guy.”
“You’re one to talk.” Penny turned to leave, and Jeffery grabbed her upper arm.
“Wait- listen.” She turned, giving him another glare, and he released her arm quickly, unaware of just how close he had come to having his fingers broken.
“What?” she snapped.
“Do you know what his name is?”
“His name. The detective. Our superior, not the” – he gave a dismissive nod of his head in Patrick’s direction – “other one.” Penny frowned, but it was in thought this time, not anger.
“I… don’t know. I can’t remember.” She paused, and Jeffery waited respectfully. “You know, this is going to sound weird, but I don’t think he introduced himself at all. Why? Didn’t he introduce himself to you?”
“No, he didn’t.” Penny hesitated, and then her expression stiffened.
“Well, I’m sure it simply slipped his mind. You know how some of these detective types can be. Eccentric and all. Just check the assignment details on your Digifile.”
“It wasn’t in the assignment.” This time the hesitation lasted longer, and Jeffery could almost see the doubt growing in her mind.
“Ridiculous. Assignments always contain the team supervisor’s name.”
“This one didn’t. Just his ID number. Or didn’t you notice?”
“I- no, I didn’t. That’s… not possible.”
“Don’t believe me? Check.” She reached into her pack, her hand hesitating over the Digifile, almost afraid of what she would find, and then she pulled the handheld device out. Jeffery looked away respectfully as she entered her eight-digit code, and then watched her expression carefully as she opened the most recent assignment, received just over an hour and a half ago, and read through it.
“It’s not there,” she said finally, still staring at the screen.
“I told you,” he said softly, but there was no trace of satisfaction in being right. Indeed, he almost sounded regretful himself, as though he had been hoping she would find something he had missed.
“It was probably just a mistake. Some fault in the hardwiring. An error in the system that prevented it from replacing the ID number with the name.”
“I’m not a detective, so I wouldn’t know, but don’t they say something along the lines of ‘there is no such thing as coincidence’? What are the chances he forgets to introduce himself to both of us, at the same time that faulty programming causes his name to be excluded from the assignment details?”
“You’re right,” Penny replied, and Jeffery recognized the flash of anger just before it was too late, “you’re not a detective. And unlike a detective, you’re not getting paid to stand around and think all day. You’re paid to listen to your superiors, and right now your current superior told you to stand guard. So if you’re so hung up on what his name is, why don’t you just go ask him? Whatever you decide to do, keep me out of it. Some of us actually plan on following the rules.” She stayed just long enough for Jeffery to offer a response, and when he didn’t she stormed off, walking to the end of the hallway before stopping and assuming position to stand lookout. Jeffery stared after her for some time, and then he too turned away, staring out the window and searching the horizon for something he didn’t want to find.
Mike’s fingers slid along the floor, unseen beneath the surface of the blood puddle, searching and probing. Every now and then he would graze another piece of the broken object in passing, and his fingers would double back and calmly research the area until they found it again, gently but firmly grasping it between his thumb and forefinger and extracting it from the liquid. Whenever this happened he would take the piece he had discovered and hold it up to the light, pinched between two fingers, and examine it for a second or two before dropping it into the plastic evidence bag held by his other, unoccupied hand. Soon he had gathered an impressive collection of the pieces, so much so that the bag had been filled up to the halfway mark. They ranged in size and shape, but most were indistinguishable from the first piece found in his shoe. When his search had extended well outside of its original perimeters and he still had yet to find another piece, he stood up and wiped his bloodied hand on the seat of his pants before sealing the bag shut.
He gave the room one last lingering look, and had there been someone else there to see his eyes they might have registered sorrow in his gaze. Then it was broken, and he walked outside with the bag still in hand.
Patrick was standing off to the left in the living room, leaning against the wall and inspecting the fingernails on his right hand. Mike took a moment to survey the apartment, noting that the front door had been closed and the three soldiers were absent. He walked over to Patrick, who remained fully absorbed in extracting the grit from beneath his nail until Mike was standing directly in front of him, at which point he looked up, doing a double take and dramatically placing one hand over his heart.
“Shit, Mike, you scared the hell out of me!”
“Not anymore! Jeez, you almost gave me a heart attack! You can’t just go sneaking up on people!”
“Are you done?” Mike asked, raising an eyebrow. Patrick gave him a look of reproach and sighed.
“Good. What do you make of this?” He held out the bag, and Patrick took it, pinching the corner between two fingers. He raised it up to eyelevel, looking revolted.
“Do I even want to know what this is?”
“I was hoping you could take a guess.”
“Where did you even get it?”
“Come on, Patrick. It’s covered in blood. Where do you think I got it?” Patrick made a face.
“Don’t tell me you were searching through that.”
“Suffice to say I’ve been through worse.” The comment came off nonchalantly and might have been taken for nothing more than a comeback, but something about the way he said it made Patrick think he was telling the truth. “Come on, take a guess. Remember what I said; start with analyzing it. You don’t need to jump straight to a conclusion.”
“Right.” He peered at the bag’s contents. “Well… whatever it is, there’s a lot of it.”
“You’re not wrong, I’ll give you that much. Come on, you’re supposed to be learning.”
“You’re supposed to be teaching.”
“I am teaching.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I’m teaching you the only way I know how to teach. This is how I learnt. There was no one there to give me the answers when I first started. There was no manual, no textbooks, no tests. There was no one to tell me if I was right or wrong. There was just a need. And right now the need is to determine what this is. Lives may depend on it.”
“Lives? As in plural? How do you know that? Well, I suppose that much blood couldn’t have come from just one person. But how could you know it’s urgent? A mess like that doesn’t usually leave survivors. Unless you think whoever did this is going to strike again.” Mike gave a small smile, and while Patrick wouldn’t have gone as far as to call it unpleasant it was clear his face was unaccustomed to the expression.
“I didn’t ask you to analyze my words; we’ve already established that you’re well-versed in that respect. Right now we’re focusing on evidence.”
“Okay, okay.” Patrick returned his attention to the bag, clearly pleased and revitalized by the hard-earned compliment. “Let’s see… well, they’re clearly pieces of the same object.”
“Clearly,” Mike echoed quietly to himself, his eyes unfocused.
“And whatever it is… well, it’s kinda hard to tell with the blood, but it looks like metal. Lightly coloured though,” he added, just as Mike said the same thing. They exchanged a glance, and Patrick shuddered.
“I think I’ve been spending too much time with you.” Mike gave two sharp, dismissive waves with his hand.
“Okay. Well, other than that, there’s not much else I can really see. I mean, if we could put whatever it is back together that would certainly solve all our problems, but…” He scoffed. “Like that’s ever going to happen. Right?”
“That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
“What? Put it back together?”
“Yep.” Mike began walking to the front door.
“You’re joking, right?” Patrick started after him, still holding the bag. “You’ve got to be joking. Mike, look at this thing!” He held it up, waving it back and forth. “I mean, even if you did manage to get all the pieces, which is hard to believe, they all look the same! How are you going to figure out which parts connect to which parts? Hell, how are you even going to keep them together?”
“We’ll find a way,” he responded without slowing.
“Now wait a second. I asked how you were going to figure it out; there was no ‘we’ mentioned whatsoever. I did not asked to be included! This is going to take forever. You know I have a short attention span.” Mike kept walking, the thin smile on his lips unseen from behind.
The apartment was in the northwest corner of the building, meaning that from the front door branched off two hallways, or rather one hallway bent to travel the width of the building, the apartment’s front door located where the hallway made its turn. When this was factored in with the fact that the floor’s fire escape was located directly beside the room, even Patrick was able to see that it was no coincidence that specific room had been chosen. But what had quite possibly benefitted the culprit now posed an issue of security to the team, namely a matter of guarding all three routes. It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t; after all there were three soldiers. The issue was that in order for them to each guard their respective routes far enough away from one another that they could raise the alarm in time to give the others a decent heads up they needed to be out of one another’s sight. What made it worse was the fact that in a building, particularly one that large, it wasn’t exactly difficult to hide from a five-man team who had only searched the top floor, and not even the entire top floor at that. The amount of possible hiding places was intimidatingly large, and separating was almost not worth the risk. Unfortunately, if the entire team were to be caught off-guard all crowded into the same corner their chances of survival would be less than that of the alternative. So as far from ideal as it was, it was also their best option.
“Where are we going?”
“To talk to the female soldier.”
“Penny. Her name is Penny, Mike.”
“Yes. I knew that. What have I told you about using my name on cases with other people?”
“Sorry. Slip of the tongue. Besides, there’s no one around. Why are we going to talk to Penny?”
“We are going to talk to the others as well. She’s just first on the list, because she is by far the most reasonable of the three, and I’d like her input. Not to mention she’s their senior, and my second-in-command for this mission.”
“No- yeah, I got that much. I meant what are we going to talk to Penny about?”
“You know how much I hate repeating myself.”
“Well why are you asking me to tell you what we’re about to talk about when we’re about to talk about it?” Patrick fell silent for a moment, the only sound that of their muffled footsteps on the mildewed carpet.
“That was rhetorical,” he finally countered, to Mike’s chagrin. He sighed, and Patrick couldn’t help but smile at the sight of his mentor’s head shaking slowly back and forth.
Just like everything else in the city, which all ran off the same, massive generator that powered the Cube itself, the building still had electricity. It certainly came in handy when exploring what would otherwise be very dark buildings, but it wasn’t always easy or practical to find the controls for places with master switches. Even when they did a lot of the time the wiring would be corrupted, a problem only encountered in pre-Cube buildings, the ones that hadn’t been built with the new and improved non-corruptible materials. In this case they hadn’t had the manpower or the time to locate the master switch for the floor, assuming there was one and the lights weren’t out simply because the wiring had gone. The lights in the rooms, or at least in the room they were most concerned with still worked, but Mike guessed the hallway lights ran on a different current. As helpful as it would have been to have the hallways lit up, they couldn’t spare anyone to look for the master switch, and it really wasn’t all that bad; the hallways had windows every few meters that let in a decent amount of sunlight.
“Look- there she is.” Sure enough as they rounded the hallway’s corner they saw the redhead’s unmistakeable locks, almost glowing in the dimly lit space, as she ducked into one of the apartments. “Come on. She’s searching all the rooms. Did you notice all the apartments we’ve passed have their doors opened? She’s leaving them to show which ones have been searched, and to make it impossible for anyone to close them without raising suspicion. Clever,” he remarked, sounding impressed.
“Wait. How did you know she had come this way?”
“You never ‘guess’.”
“Fine. Then you tell me how I did it.” They kept walking, Patrick falling behind slightly, his gait that of someone distracted and thoughtful.
“Alright. Don’t strain yourself,” Mike interrupted finally. “You’re cluttering the atmosphere.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“I can hear you thinking, and it’s distracting.”
“Tell me something. Are all detectives full of sh-”
“What?” He raised a hand and pointed, and after a moment of peering through the dark Patrick made out Penny’s hair, this time leaving the room she had entered before. As Mike had said, she left the door open. She glanced back their way in the hallway, but made no indication of having seen them and continued walking.
“You’re going to startle the female soldier.”
“Right. Don’t say-”
“Your name. I know. And I’m not going to startle Penny. What might startle her though is if we walk right up to her completely silent and then say something. You know, if you keep that up you’re likely to get shot one of these days.” Patrick cut in front of him and called out to her in greeting, knowing Mike would say and do nothing until he was directly beside her and wanting to avoid a repeat (potentially fatal at that, given the tense, alert posture Penny conveyed, and the way she held her gun at the ready) of the scare his mentor had given him only moments before.
Penny turned at Patrick’s voice, and Mike saw her raise the gun just slightly, before her body visibly relaxed, and she managed a reasonably amicable nod.
“What’s up?” she asked when they had both made it over to her, the trio forming a circle. “Did you get what you need? Ready to head out?”
“Not quite yet, no. There’s still something about the room that’s unsettling me.”
“Aside from the obvious, I assume?” Neither of the others acknowledged this comment from Patrick, but he paid it no mind. While it used to bother him, he had long since grown accustomed to fading into the background during more serious conversations.
“I want to stick around a while longer and see if I can’t figure it out,” Mike continued. “Patrick and I are heading back to the room now” – at this Patrick fixed him with a look – “and I’d like you and the other two to remain standing guard. I just wanted to give you an update, just so you know what’s happening. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m… still inspecting my shoe.” Penny flushed.
“Listen, about that, I’d like to apologize for my colleague’s behaviour earlier-” Mike raised a hand, and she fell silent.
“Don’t mention it; you have no accountability over his actions.”
“Then why did you even mention it?” Mike raised an eyebrow, and then, to Patrick’s surprise, smiled.
“A slip of the tongue. Trust me, I harbour no ill will, to you or your subordinate.”
“Okay, well, if that’s all…”
“No. I also wanted to ask you to keep an eye out for any disturbances in the dust.”
“Ah, sorry, what?”
“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to look out for anything suspicious, but I also want you to keep an eye out for any signs that a certain area has been disturbed lately. Places like this have been abandoned for so long that the dust builds up considerably. So when life finally returns it’s impossible to miss. The dust is our friend. You should look out for a spot where there’s no dust, perhaps because until recently there was something over that spot, or perhaps a surface, like a desk, or windowpane, where the dust looks to have been swept away. Say, by a sleeve or fingertips? Even footprints are visible in the dust, though they’re harder to spot on this carpet. A job like that–” tilting his head in the direction of the bloody room “–would take a lot of time. Whoever did it would likely have had somewhere nearby where they could take breaks in between, if not simply somewhere to store their things. And the excessive amount of it is probably an influence, but the blood still appears fresh. It’s not crusted or dried yet, see? Even in areas where its shallower, the blood is still viscous.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that whoever did this is probably still nearby.” Patrick rested a hand on his holster and began looking around, as though he expected the person to jump out at them right then and there. “At the very least they were here when the scout came by, otherwise we wouldn’t have a missing Rebel on our hands.”
“So you think he’s dead?”
“Not necessarily, but he’s most certainly been captured by someone. It might not even be the same person who did this, but I don’t believe in coincidence. The culprit would want to make sure they had a secure location all to themselves before they even began to embark on their massacre. There wouldn’t be more than one hostile in this area.”
“But you’re sure he’s been captured?”
“Why else would he be missing, or neglect to respond to the base? I’ve ruled out all other explanations. If his radio had broken somehow he would have either waited here for someone to come and retrieve him, as is standard protocol, or he would have made his way back to the base, in which case we would have seen him on the way here or heard about his return from the base by now.” Mike fixed her with a grave look. “He’s been captured. The good news is that assuming the person who did this is still here, which I believe they are, then there’s a chance he might not only be alive, but rescuable. We’ll have to act fast though.”
“Right, of course.”
“Good work searching the rooms by the way. Good idea.”
“Thank you,” she said, looking thrown off by the compliment. Mike nodded, and then, with a different kind of nod to Patrick, he turned to go back the way they had come. “Wait!” Penny suddenly cried out, stopping them.
“I, uh, I didn’t catch your name.”
“Phil,” Mike replied coolly, without so much as a moment’s hesitation. “Phil Akens.”
“Ah. Right, well, okay. Thanks.”
“For what? Telling you my name? It’s not exactly a favour.”
“Right, of course. It’s just that, well, it wasn’t in the assignment details.” Mike frowned, the perfect image of innocent surprise.
“Really? Are you sure?”
That’s strange. It was probably a glitch in the software; I’ll have to let them know when we get back. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.”
“Alright, Patrick, let’s go. We still have to talk to the other two as well.” Patrick nodded, giving Penny a small what-can-you-do smile as they left.
When they were out of earshot Patrick said, “What was that about?”
“The thing about inspecting your shoe.” Mike shrugged.
“A misunderstanding. Nothing you need to worry about.”
“Okay, and what about the ‘slip of the tongue’? You never have ‘slips of the tongue’. In fact I’m fairly certain you plan what you’re going to say several days in advance.”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Were you… flirting with her?” The detective scoffed.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Holy shit, you were! Boy, you need some lessons, because putting them off is definitely not part of the process.”
“Patrick, I can honestly say I was not flirting with her,” he said, pronouncing the word with distaste.
“Oh sure, sure. Moving on, I figured out how you did it. How you followed Penny’s route.”
“You followed her footprints in the dust.”
“Let me guess, you knew it was her by the shoe size.”
“How is that even possible? I mean I can barely even make out the carpet, least of all any footprints in the dust on the carpet.”
“Observance, Patrick. I wasn’t following them the whole time, you know. I just checked them whenever we passed by a window, to make sure we were going in the right direction. The rest of the time I just guessed which direction she was going. That’s a big part of detective work, you know. Filling in the blanks, going off of what you’re given.”
“You can turn just about anything into a lesson, can’t you?”
“Alright, alright.” They walked in silence for a moment, until Mike sighed.
“You’re thinking loudly again. Is there something you want to ask me?” Patrick looked up in genuine surprise.
“You freak me out sometimes, you know that?”
“Come on, what is it?”
“It’s nothing, really.”
“Patrick,” he warned.
“Alright, alright. It’s just that, well… why do we have to lie about your name again?”
“We don’t have to. I just like it better that way. My name attracts too much attention around the base nowadays. I find it far more convenient if my coworkers don’t know who I am.”
“And that’s the only reason?” Mike tilted his head to one side.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no other reason?”
“No, not that I can think of. Why? What were you thinking?” Now it was Patrick’s turn to sigh.
“Nothing. I was just wondering. The whole thing is just kind of getting sketchy, if you ask me.”
“It’s not sketchy, Patrick. You’re just uncomfortable lying to your comrades. But tell me: in the grand scheme of things, which takes precedence between your comfort and mine?”
“I can’t tell if you’re joking or not. Please tell me you’re joking.” Mike smiled, saying nothing. The smile was answer enough.
They found Jeffery on the fire escape, and told him the same thing they had told Penny. He also apologized for his actions, saying he hadn’t known what came over him, and that he believed it was just the stress and discomfort from the room. Mike told him he forgave him, and they parted. But when they went down the other hallway to try and find the third soldier, whose name neither of them could remember, they came up with nothing.
“Can’t you follow his footprints, like you did with Penny?” Patrick asked, his voice slightly raised in the beginning stages of panic. “I mean, it’s not like he disappeared into thin air, right? Right?”
“Of course not. But the sun is on that side of the building. There’s still light shining in on this side, but not as much. Not enough to see the dust. They were easier to track in the beginning, but now…” He shook his head. “They’ve faded. Either he’s suddenly developed an aptitude for walking light footed, or…”
“Or?” Patrick asked impatiently when Mike didn’t finish.
“Or the dust here is less dense.” He looked up, his intense blue eyes meeting Patrick’s. “From having been traded on repeatedly.”
“What, you mean like someone was walking here before?” Now Patrick’s voice was even higher than before, well on its way into hysteria. His hand, Mike noted, had returned to the butt of his gun, like a comfort mechanism.
“More like several someone’s,” he responded, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth. Suddenly Patrick looked like he wanted to either throw up again or start shooting things. “Look, it’s not a big deal,” he said, trying to backpedal. “Whoever it was is long gone. Unfortunately, so is our soldier.” Damnit, he cursed silently. Still not helping. “I’m probably just overreacting. I’m sure the soldier is just… searching rooms, like Penny. Remember, he started before her, so he’s probably far down. I could be wrong about the dust.”
“Well,” Patrick said, attempting to swallow some of his panic along with excess saliva, “if he is searching the rooms, he’s not going about it very well.” He nodded towards the empty hallway, indicating all the closed doors.
“Yeah,” Mike agreed, unable to say more for fear of starting Patrick up all over again. “Listen, let’s go check out the room. The sooner we’re done the sooner we can leave this place.” Patrick nodded, still looking shaky.
“Okay. Okay, right. I like the sound of that.” Mike gave him his best attempt at a reassuring pat on the shoulder, earning himself a weirded-out look from his apprentice.
“Maybe don’t do that.”
“Right,” he said, his arm dropping to his side. “Alright, you go ahead to the room, I forgot I need to tell…”
“Jeffery something else. Okay?”
“Alright, but I’m not going into that room alone.” Mike nodded.
“That’s fine, just wait outside.” They walked back, Mike stopping at the fire escape with Jeffery and waiting until Patrick had ducked into the apartment before facing the soldier.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen your comrade recently?”
“Who, Ross? No actually, I haven’t. Not since we went into the room and he stayed outside. He was supposed to be watching this corridor, actually. Why?” His voice dropped. “You don’t think… something happened, do you? To him, I mean?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I feel bad asking you to do this, but do you think-”
“Are you sure? I hate to send you down there alone, but Penny can’t leave her post, and Patrick’s not up to it; I can’t guarantee he’d be much of a help. I’d do it myself, but I need to get through with this as fast as possible-”
“Man, I’ve got it. Trust me. Consider it an apology, for my outburst earlier. Besides, I’ll be fine.” He patted the butt of his gun for emphasis. Mike nodded grimly.
“Alright. I want your weapon out and at the ready at all times. And make sure you have a line open on the walkie. Be extremely careful. We already have two soldiers missing. I would hate for you to be the third.”
“Got it.” He gave Mike a salute, and then, unholstering his weapon, started off into the darkness of the corridor. Mike watched his figure as it was swallowed up into the darkness, and then, when he could barely make out his outline, turned away and headed back to the room.
“Patrick.” He jumped at the sound of his name, reaching for his gun as he turned, but thankfully he registered that it was Mike before it was unholstered and exhaled deeply instead. “Ready?”
“What…” he swallowed, “what do you need me to do?” Mike took in his shaking hands, his darting eyes, his pale, sweaty skin, and made a decision.
“You just… stay outside for now. Keep an eye out for me while I’m in there. If I need you I’ll call, but for now, just wait.”
“Okay,” he said, visibly relieved. “That I can do.”
Mike stepped back into the room, his shoes squelching softly as they were once more exposed to the blood. He looked around, not sure what he was looking for but certain that it would come to him eventually. There was just something… wrong with the room, aside from the obvious, as Patrick had said. And that was just it, wasn’t it? The initial impression, the shock value of the room, so to speak, was so attention-commanding, so distracting, that it was almost impossible to get over it and look at whatever it was that it was hiding. Almost impossible. But not quite. He imagined the blood was water. Still strange, but bearable. And then he had it.
“Patrick!” he called, almost shouting in exhilaration. “Patrick, get in here!”
“What? What is it?” he said, rushing in, his weapon drawn. He looked around the room, and when he registered the lack of immediate danger, lowered his weapon and looked to Mike for an explanation. “What the hell, man? I thought you were being killed!”
“Patrick, what do you notice about the room? About the blood, specifically the blood.” He was talking fast, excited now.
“I don’t know… it’s gross?” Mike slapped him across the face. Gently, but firmly.
“Ow! What the hell?” he exclaimed, rubbing his cheek.
“Alright, alright.” The young detective in training looked about the room, examining it for the first time. Mike watched him eagerly, barely holding it in. “I dunno, there’s a lot of it?”
“Exactly. Go on.” He looked at Mike, and opened his mouth to complain that he didn’t know what he was looking for, when a drop of blood fell right before his face.
“It’s dripping from the ceiling,” he said, more to himself in awe than to Mike.
“That’s right,” Mike said, encouraging him to go on.
“If it’s been dripping from the ceiling this whole time…”
“And flowing down the walls,” Mike added.
“Then by now it should have all collected on the ground.” Patrick was fully invested now, staring down at the ground, his eyes unfocused as they always did when he was thinking hard.
“Unless…” Mike prompted, still watching his face.
“Unless… Unless it’s still coming from above.” Mike heard the click as it snapped into place in his head, and Patrick met his eyes. “Holy shit, Mike. It’s being fed in from above.” Mike grinned.