Then he was stretching his arms out of the opening of the duct, his shoulders crackling, the new freedom of movement as sweet as he imagined water might have been.
Hanging out of the end of the duct, he stared down into one twice as wide and intersected by other shafts.
A soft blue light filled the main airshaft—emanating from a bulb far below.
Down at the bottom, he glimpsed an air intake.
Must have been a hundred-foot drop down to those blades.
Like staring down a well.
At intervals of ten feet, more shafts fed into the main, some of them considerably larger.
Ethan glanced up. The ceiling was two feet above his head.
He knew what his next move was, what it had to be, and he didn’t like it.
* * *
Ethan climbed out into the airshaft with the same technique he’d used to ascend the chute—a pressure stance, each foot pushing into the opposite wall.
His bare feet achieved decent purchase on the metal, and despite the looming fall into spinning blades that awaited even the smallest mistake, he felt almost giddy to be free of that tiny shaft.
* * *
He descended in painstakingly slow increments, one step at a time, keeping pressure against the walls with his arms while he lowered his legs, then shifting the pressure back onto the balls of his feet.
Forty feet down, he rested at the opening to the first large horizontal shaft he’d encountered, sitting on the edge and staring down at the whirring blades as he ate the last of the carrots and bread.
He’d been so focused on surviving that it only now occurred to him to wonder what purpose all this infrastructure served.
Instead of continuing down, he glanced back into the shaft, noticing the darkness was interspersed with panels of light positioned at regular intervals. They extended on as far as he could see.
Ethan turned over onto his hands and knees and crawled across the metal for twenty feet until he reached the first one.
Stopped at the edge, a jolt of fear-tinged excitement coursing through him.
It wasn’t a panel of light.
It was a vent.
He stared through it, down onto a flooring of checkered tile.
The air blowing through the ductwork had taken on a lovely warmth, like an ocean breeze in the dead of July.
For a long time, he waited.
There was the sound of moving air, of his respirations, of the metal expanding and contracting, and nothing else.
Ethan took hold of the vent by its grating.
It lifted easily away, no screws, no nails, no welding holding it in place.
Setting the grate aside, he grabbed hold of the edge and tried to build the nerve to climb down.
Ethan lowered himself out of the duct until his bare feet touched the black-and-white checkered tile. He stood in the middle of a long, empty corridor. There was the hum of the fluorescent lights and the soft whoosh of air moving through the ductwork above him, but no other sound.
His feet made a quiet slap against the tile as he began to walk.
There were doors spaced out every twenty feet with numbers on them, and the one up ahead on his right was barely cracked and spilling a bit of light out onto the floor.
He reached it—number 37—and put his hand on the doorknob.
No voices. No movement. Nothing to turn him away.
He pushed the door open another inch and looked inside.
There was a single bed on a metal frame against the far wall, perfectly made. A desk decorated with framed photographs and some tulips in a vase. His eyes passed over a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, a Matisse print, an easel. Beside the door, a terrycloth robe hung from a hook in the wall, a pair of pink bunny slippers beneath it.
He went on down the silent corridor.
None of the doors were locked, and each one he took the risk of opening revealed a similar minimalist living space, brightened with a few flourishing touches of individuality.
After an impressive distance, the corridor terminated in a stairwell, Ethan standing at the top and staring down, counting four flights to the bottom.
A placard on the wall read Level 4.
He crept down to the next landing, which delivered him onto another corridor that looked identical to the one above.
Hard, sudden laughter resonated through the hall.
It drove Ethan back into the stairwell and primed him to flee. He was already figuring he could return to Level 4, use a chair from one of those apartments to climb back up into the airshaft. But the laughter died down, and after he’d waited a full minute, the corridor remained empty.
He padded thirty feet in, finally stopping in front of a pair of swinging doors, each inset with a small window.
A group of three men and two women occupied one of a dozen tables in a modest cafeteria, the smell of hot food making Ethan’s stomach rumble.
One of the women said, “You know that’s not true, Clay,” pointing a fork at him that had speared a glob of what looked like mashed potatoes.
Ethan moved on down the corridor.
He passed a laundry.
A rec room.
An empty gymnasium.
Men’s and women’s locker rooms.
An exercise room where two women jogged side by side on treadmills and a man lifted free weights.
Ethan came to the stairwell at the far end and descended a flight of stairs that led out into the Level 2 corridor.
At the first door he came to, he stopped and peered inside through its circular window.
There was a gurney in the center, surrounded by lights, carts loaded with surgical instruments, heart monitors, IV stands, cautery and suction units, a fluoroscopy table, all immaculately clean and glimmering under the lowlight.
The next three doors were windowless and identified only by nameplates: Lab A, Lab B, Lab C.
Down toward the end of the corridor, one window glowed, and Ethan sidled up beside it.
On the other side of the glass—tapping and the murmur of soft, low voices.
He peered through the window.
The room was mostly dark, its glow coming from numerous monitors—twenty-five of them in five stacks of five mounted to the wall and perched above a large console that looked serious enough to launch a rocket.
Ten feet from where Ethan stood, a man sat staring up at them, his fingers moving at light speed across a keyboard as the images on the screens constantly changed. He wore a headset, and Ethan could just hear his voice coming through, though the words were lost.
On one of the screens, Ethan studied the slideshow of images...
The façade of a Victorian house.
The porch of a different house.
An empty bathtub.
A bathroom with a woman standing in front of a mirror, brushing her hair.