Grumbling to myself, I groped my way to the wall – this one seemed to be hard-packed dirt, slightly musty-smelling, with no plank cladding at all – and along it until I reached a door. The door, at least, was reasonably normal, and actually felt smooth and comparatively high-tech. It had a round doorknob with a narrow, ziggy-zaggy modern keyhole in the middle of it. I wondered how the door was fixed into the dirt wall, then decided I didn’t want to know.
As per my decision I floundered my way along the wall, getting dense grit under my fingernails. I found a corner, went along the next stretch of wall, found another corner, went along the next wall, found the third corner …
I tripped over something, swore, lost the wall for a minute and then climbed back to my feet. I crouched, felt around, and picked up the object I’d tripped over.
It seemed to be a plain – and again, quite modern – corrugated cardboard box, knee-high, folded shut with its upper flaps interlocked but not taped. It was just heavy enough to have tripped me, and whatever was inside went sliiiide-thump, sliiiide-thump when I tilted the box from side to side.
Shrugging to myself, tucking the box under my arm as best I could, I went back to trailing the fingers of my other hand along the wall until I reached the final corner and crossed back to the door.
“Only one, then,” I muttered. “Good.”
I opened the door, and was immediately rewarded with an indirect, heavily-muffled light that nevertheless seemed quite dazzling after the basement or cellar or whatever you want to call it. I stepped through and was relieved to find I was once again standing on concrete. The light was filtering in from a series of slots up in the ceiling, and there was a certain amount of dripping, some puddles, and a God-awful reek that nevertheless made me smile.
It was the smell of carcass-filled sludge rising up out of the sub-sewer from old Barnsley Yard. And that meant I was home.
I closed the door behind me, and out of curiosity looked back at it. It had a little rectangular sign on it that read UTILITIES 3. When I opened it, I saw a wall of dusty old dead fuse boxes and a shelf with a pair of wire cutters on it. I grunted, closed the door, and looked down at the box in my hands.
This one had L&E LOST & FOUND written on it in chemi-pen. Frowning, I crouched, put the box on the floor, and unfolded its top.
Inside, there was a little suitcase. At first glimpse it looked like an oversized lunchbox or something, but it wasn’t plastic or metal and it didn’t seem to have any logos or pictures on it. It half-filled the container it had been stored in, with just enough space left over for it to slide and flip onto one of its other faces when I tilted the box.
I lifted the case out, and turned it this way and that.
It wasn’t plastic or metal, but it wasn’t any other recognisable material either. It was somewhere between aluminium and carbon fibre, dark but gleaming slightly in the many places it had been scratched. The whole thing was battered and scuffed and dented, its corners rounded, the little panel of inactive buttons – or they may have just been toy buttons – in the place of its lock scratched and crooked. Other parts of the case’s surface were discoloured with patches that may have been the remains of sticker adhesive, although they weren’t sticky anymore. I knew, however, that the large clear patch diagonally stretched across one of the case’s sides had once borne the label OPEN ME.
I knew this, because I’d seen a case very much like this before. In the Wasteland, in the middle of a red-painted patch of end-state-dead ground. It hadn’t been this big – it had been an accessory for a doll-that-wasn’t-a-doll, and it had been just large enough to contain a coin that I still carried with me. And I knew this was the same thing, just scaled upwards in size, because a horrid little withered blue hand was still clutching the case’s handle.
I stared at the hand with my face twisted in distaste that was probably disproportionate to the sight. The hand was faded and wrinkled and slightly sparkly, as if it had been decorated with glitter once upon a time. The wrist, severed like the gory aftermath of a failed diamond heist, was weirdly antiseptic, blue and glittery all the way through as if the toy – or whatever it was – had been designed with a severed hand clinging to it. Or the owner of the hand was actually formed of the washed-out blue stuff.
Aware that I was trespassing in some maintenance sub-basement under a building somewhere between the L&E tower and the old department store where the Prism was sitting, and that I could be found at any time and also that this sub-basement didn’t seem to be particularly waterproofed against the encroaching Lake Philip, I sat on the floor and opened the case.
“Huh,” I said, looking down.
That was when a security guard arrived.