As they drew closer, Mikael was able to get a better look at the building they had been ordered to search. It looked like a hab-block, a small one at that. He estimated that the building was probably only large enough for a dozen or so habs. The sort of accommodation that middle-management types could afford; senior Administratum clerks and the like. More up-market than where the majority of Valerion’s population would have lived.
At least, it had been. It looked like it had been severely damaged by fire; the top of the block seemed to have collapsed, and the glass in the windows had blown out and now littered the ground in front of the building. Mikael dodged the fragments wherever he could but avoiding them all wasn’t possible, and he was painfully aware that the loud crunching their footsteps made would advertise their presence to anyone inside.
He crouched beside the entrance to the block, the other guardsman just behind him. He listened for a few seconds, but could hear nothing apart from the ever-present sound of explosions and warfare somewhere in the distance. Pressing the stock of his lasrifle into his shoulder, Mikael stepped through the entrance and immediately moved to one side, to give the other man room to enter as well as to minimise the time he was exposed in the doorway.
Mikael blinked rapidly to help his eyes adjust. They were in a small lobby; to the right was a flight of stairs leading upwards. To the left of the staircase was a short passageway; he could see several doorways set into the walls. He motioned for the other guardsman to watch the stairs and stepped forward carefully, gaze flicking between the sight of his lasrifle and the floor in front of him, ensuring that his feet didn’t disturb anything and make a noise that might betray his presence.
The first two doors were locked, but the third door was open. Moving toward it, Mikael cast a quick glance at the area underneath the stairs, but there was nothing there. The room beyond the doorway was a supply closet; shelving on one wall held various cleaning products, and several mops lay on the floor near the door. There was no sign that anyone had been in there recently.
Mikael turned to move back towards the lobby entrance, and caught sight of the floor underneath the staircase. His eyes narrowed. He could see something there now, that he hadn't seen the last time that he had looked. He stepped closer.
It was a plant.
Only a few inches tall, its stem disappeared into a crack in the flooring. It had eight slender leaves, each a vivid green. He stared at it, unable to remember the last time he had seen such a shade of green, the colour of healthy life. Certainly not since he had entered Valerion. For a moment he was tempted to reach out and touch it, to feel the texture of the leaves between his fingers.
Mikael stood up, forcing himself to focus. He had a job to do, he couldn’t afford to let himself get distracted like this. He moved back to the foot of the stairs, where the other guardsman was waiting. Mikael shook his head, indicating that he had found nothing. The guardsman nodded, and motioned up to the next floor. Mikael started to nod, then hesitated. What was the man’s name?
It took him several seconds to think of it, and when he remembered it the name came with a sense of shame that he had forgotten, however briefly. The guardsman was Leon Haem, they had fought together for years on half a dozen different worlds. How could he have forgotten that?
Haem was staring at him, probably wondering what the delay was. Mikael nodded sharply, and the other man started up the stairs, Mikael close behind him.
This floor of the block had suffered significant fire damage. Every wall was blackened and scorched, and the air was thick with the stench of burning. The corridor doubled back on itself and ran parallel to the staircase before turning back round again and meeting another flight of stairs. A window in the far wall provided some illumination, but everything was so blackened by the flames that had swept through here that it seemed very dark.
There was a single door, charred and cracked, but still standing closed in its doorway. Haem tried the handle and pushed gently, then shook his head. No good. Either the door was locked or, more likely, the heat had warped the door and its frame so that it could not be opened without considerable effort. That meant they would have to make a noisy entrance. Mikael pointed his lasrifle at the doorway and waited while Haem stood against the opposite wall, then lunged forward.
It took two kicks to get the door open; it slammed back and hit the corridor wall before rebounding towards them. Mikael was already halfway into the hab though and stopped the door with his shoulder, his attention focussed on what was inside. At the end of a short passageway was what looked like a kitchen; two doors on either side of the corridor led into other rooms. Mikael moved to the first door on the left, Haem taking the right side of the corridor. They made no effort to move quietly; any element of surprise they might have had was long gone. Speed was of the essence now.
The first room had several chairs set up facing a vidscreen that was attached to one wall. There had been a fire here as well; the vidscreen was broken in half and the rest of the furniture had been wrecked. Clouds of ash kicked up by their entrance hung in the air and Mikael had to stifle the urge to cough.
"Clear!" He yelled, and moments later an identical cry came from Haem. He left the living room and moved up to the second room on the left side of the corridor. A bathroom. No space in there for anyone to hide. He stepped into the kitchen as Haem entered the remaining room. Nothing there either. There was a worktop in the centre of the kitchen and various appliances lined the walls. Ladles, spatulas and the like hung from long hooks embedded in the ceiling above the worktop.
Mikael entered the corridor and a few seconds later Haem joined him.
"All clear", Haem said. "No sign that anyone has been here".
"Same", Mikael replied. "We should....."
Movement to his left.
Mikael turned and dropped to a crouch, raising his lasrifle as he did so. The shadows in the kitchen were moving; he counted one, no, two figures; their outlines vague but nevertheless they were there, moving towards the doorway. With Haem following he threw himself into the kitchen, finger tightening on the trigger.....
The room was empty. Nothing had changed, except that the kitchen implements hanging from the ceiling were swaying back and forth, as if stirred by a slight breeze. Mikael just stood there, unable to make sense of it. There was no other way out of the room, and nowhere for anyone to hide. Yet he was certain that he had seen something.
"You saw it too, didn't you?"
"Definitely", Haem replied, looking just as confused as Mikael felt. "It must have been the ladles and stuff swinging, made the shadows move".
"Maybe". Mikael nodded, although he was far from convinced. They had certainly looked like figures.
"Let's keep going".
They left the hab and moved to the bottom of the next flight of stairs. When they looked up, however, they saw that the next floor was sealed off. At the top of the stairs it looked like the walls and ceiling had caved in; blackened joists protruded from a heap of shattered brickwork and sheets of plaster. There was no way through.
Mikael and Haem headed back to the ground floor, each looking into the hab as they passed the entrance, but this time there was no sign of movement. At the foot of the stairs, Mikael paused.
"Go on ahead, okay? I'll be with you in a second". Haem looked at him curiously, but shrugged and left. Mikael walked through the lobby towards the area underneath the first flight of stairs. He wanted to look at the plant again. It was slightly odd, he knew that, but even so. Who could tell how long it would be before he would get to see another? He reached the back of the staircase and crouched down.
The plant was gone.
Mikael stared, then rubbed his eyes, as if doing so might make the plant magically reappear. Still nothing. He leaned forward, and scrutinised every inch of the flooring. When he had first seen it, the plant had been growing out of a small crack in the flooring, but even that was missing. There was no sign that the plant had ever been there.
Mikael got to his feet and clutched his lasrifle more tightly, suddenly aware that he was alone in a dark building. It just didn't make any sense. He was positive that he had seen the plant there, just as he had seen the shadows move upstairs. There had to be an explanation. He was exhausted, he knew he was. That had to be it. Fatigue was making his mind play tricks on him.
Or he was going mad.
All he knew for certain was that he wanted to be away from here as soon as possible.