“It branches off.” Mike angled the torch, and he was right. About five feet down the dusty metal wall abruptly stopped leaving a rectangle of yet more darkness.
“I wanna see, can I see?” Jack was hopping with impatience, or maybe it was just residual pain.
“Shut up!” I said, hushed. I didn’t know how well would sound would travel down this thing.
We spent a minute in silent thought. I had to try though, there wasn’t any choice in the matter. No point in coming this far and turning back.
“Okay, I’ve got an idea. I just hope the sides of this thing are strong enough.” I started unlacing the boot’s I’d bought, near new, for going out.
“What the hell are you doing?” Mike asked, as I got one boot off and pulled off my three threadbare socks. My toes were already numb, but as soon as my bare feet hit the freezing winter air my whole foot started to sting. Not numb enough, it seemed.
“I used to do this as a kid,” I said, already unlacing the other boot.
“Get frostbite?” he remarked. Of course, I’d never tried it somewhere like this. The principle should be the same, though.
I hesitated, unsure of what to do with a pair of boots. I wanted to keep them with me, so I settled on tying the shoe-laces together and hooked them over my neck like a cold, wet and annoying necklace.
“Hold these,” I slowly peeled back the Velcro of my Batons so not to make a noise, and passed them to Mike. “They’d make hell of a racket knocking against the sides of that vent.”
He took them without complaint, but one eyebrow raised. I pushed my legs into the opening, sitting on the sharp edge and put my hands either side. Now, just to slide my weight over and hold myself up with my arms. That wasn’t too scary, it was the easy bit.
Instead of letting my legs dangle I pushed them against the sides, star-like. At around three feet wide, it was a comfortable distance and gave me room to push outwards and brace myself.
Tentatively, I took the weight of my body with me legs, my bare feet gripping on the smooth polished metal.
Holding my breath, I lifted my hands until I was completely supported by my legs. Success! I let it out slowly, didn’t want to push my luck making sudden movements.
“Okay, that’s pretty cool.” Mike said, “But you’re not going to catch me trying it.”
I grabbed back on and let my legs dangle, then lowered myself as far down with my arms as I could. There was no way I’d be able to just drop down into the opening in front of me so I pushed my feet outwards and started to painstakingly walk myself down the shaft.
It wasn’t so bad, I had the strength, and friction, to keep myself up with just my legs or arms, but I played it safe and moved one hand at a time, never giving myself less than three points of contact.
It still made my stomach flutter every time I braced myself and moved a hand down. However safe it felt. The hollow noise of each movement echoed down the endless shaft below. A reminder that I couldn’t slip up, literally.
My foot started to cramp up almost immediately. I gritted my teeth and did my best to ignore the excruciating pain. I never understood cramps, it just seemed like your muscles did it to spite you. However much it hurt I wasn’t going to let it phase me. I was acutely aware of the drop.
After making what felt like the noisiest five foot descent of all time, I was level with the opening. It was disturbingly narrow and I could hear the whirr of machinery, fans? Didn’t look much like an entrance, even if I could squeeze myself into it… Did I want to? Would it end in a grate I couldn’t remove or a fan that would end up slicing my fingers off?
Would I be able to turn around, get back out? I had a vision of getting stuck there and being found fifty years later when the building gets renovated. A mummified skeleton trapped in the walls.
I needed a light at least. I looked up at the two silhouetted faces against the murky night sky.
“Mike,” I whispered, “Can you pass me down your flashlight?”
“Sure, but you’ll have to catch it.” There was movement and then I was blinded by a blanket of light as he shined it down onto me.
“Just a second,” I moved my feet into the corners in front of me and leaned back so I could brace my shoulders against the wall behind. It left my arms free for catching, and most of my body was blocking it’s fall if I missed. “Alright, go for it. Give me a count-down.”
“Okay on zero. Three, two, one.” I reached out to catch, but as it spun the beam swung around and shined right into my eyes. I forced myself to keep them open, but it wasn’t much use. Once the white glow passed my vision was filled with purple. Effectively blinded, the small plastic tube bounced off my fingers as I closed them around empty air.
It hit me right in the chest and rolled down my front, and I fumbled to stop it from falling – envisioning the loud knocking as it bounced down the whole building.
Except catching something is an instinctive action, and constantly pushing your whole body outwards to keep yourself suspended in a steel shaft isn’t. As it rolled onto my hip I lifted my knee up to stop it from falling.
Dumb, stupid brain. That was not what I wanted to do.
I felt myself slip. That same feeling when you’re just about to go to sleep and you dream of falling. It was like a spike through the heart. Pure panic.
I responded by kicking outwards again and forcing myself into the walls. I hardly moved an inch downwards. But I obviously overreacted, there was a loud ‘pop’ as the thin metal sheared from its rivets and the walls of the shaft deformed, splitting along a seam around level with my waist.
I felt myself lose grip as the walls pushed outwards. Forgetting about the noise, forgetting about the stupid little plastic torch I grabbed for anything I could, trying to catch the edges of the now-sheared metal and the sharp corner of the branching-off duct.
I dropped. My attempts to catch hold resulted in nothing more than sliced fingers and a splattering of blood.
I fell. For half-a-second I tumbled uncontrollably. Up, down, it was all meaningless. All I knew was the weightlessness of falling and the confusing bouncing from one edge to the other in an uncontrollable tumble.
I just had to slow down. I didn’t need to know which way up was. I slammed my hands out into the sides and kicked my feet to either side. Whatever orientation I was, it would help slow my decent.
There was a shrill squeal as my skin rubbed on the smooth sides. I felt each ridge in the ventilation scrape up the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands but It must be working, what the hell was at the-
I hit the bottom. I think I did. There was noise, a lot of noise. Things broke.
When I opened my eyes I was blinded once again by light that was far too bright. The dust didn’t help, stinging and choking. I blinked, stared up at a roughly rectangular hole in a suspended ceiling trying to rationalise my sudden change in setting.
I tried to stand, still coughing to clear my air-ways. Not much point in trying to stay quiet. That must have been the nosiest entrance anyone had ever made while sneaked into a building. I succeeded in getting to my feet, trying to find somewhere level among the detritus of twisted metal and collapsed ceiling to put my delicately bare feet.
“Uh…” I nearly jumped out of my skin at the voice, trying to twist around to face the confused noise from behind me. I placed my foot on a pointed piece of mangled vent and lost my balance, falling backwards in a sprawl. “Hello?”
I was faced with a slight woman with startling resemblance to the dead girl we’d found. I couldn’t help but stare. She was wearing some kind of thin bath-robe thing over, I presumed, just underwear. But it was hardly long enough to cover her up. She must be freezing. That or it was really hot in here.
It was quite hot in here…
She was holding a spindly stool up as if to fend me off with it.