“This is brilliant!” Ned marvelled as he leaned closer to the machine we’d found in a backroom of the warehouse. “Someone figured out how to splice genes together in a way to get a slightly-larger-than-house-cat-sized elephant.”
“House cat?” I’d never seen one and wasn’t sure what size they were.
“They’re about this size.” He leaned over and showed cat height relative to his shin. “We had them growing up—well robotic versions. I grew up off station…”
“Right,” I said cutting him off—I didn’t need his life story. “Why build the machine?”
He shrugged. “For fun, I guess.”
“Where would one get elephant DNA from anyway?” I asked, glancing around. “Humans were the only mammal included in the DNA banks on the old generation ships.”
“Isn’t tinkering with genetics banned under the GenEn protocols?” Ned asked.
“Those protocols only apply to humans,” cut in Susan.
“Mrs. Long is involved,” I said as the pieces began coming together in my head. “She has a weird tooth-thingy that had been recently drilled into.”
“You mean a tusk?”
Without answering Ned, I raced out the door. Running as fast as I could, I followed the elephants’ path down the corridor and into the common space between apartment blocks.
“Susan, release Mrs. Long’s door.” It slid open in front of me and I skidded to a halt in the middle of the space. She wasn’t there. Glancing around, I noticed the tooth-thingy—tusk—was gone too. “Crap!”
“Wow,” said Ned as he entered the apartment not even breathing hard from the sprint. “How can anyone stand living like this?”
“She bamboozled me.” I went over to her teapot and put my hand on its side. Warmth radiated into my hand. “She seemed like a poor old lady struggling to get by, not some criminal mastermind.”
“Are there any back rooms?” asked Ned. He walked around the piles of random items and I followed.
We found a bedroom so crammed with stuff I doubted anyone could sleep in it. Empty toilet paper rolls and used toothbrushes dating back decades filled the tiny bathroom. Why hadn’t she put all the garbage into the recyclers?
“She can’t actually live here,” I said as we entered the kitchen. “Susan, please pull up Mrs. Long’s financial records.”
“It’s possible she has a second apartment just to live in.” Ned opened the refrigerator. It was full of empty test tubes—not a single item of food was inside.
I leaned back against the doorframe. “I’ve searched this style apartment before. We’ve looked everywhere.”
Susan cut in. “I consulted Mrs. Long’s financial records. She is on full subsidy and has been for the last 21 years. This is her official residence.”
Frowning, I looked in the cupboards. They were full, but not with food. Ned opened the pantry door and began removing items ranging from a tricycle to contraband cans of paint.
“We’re not here to clean up,” I said.
“Got it,” he said as he pulled a rope. It was attached to a dolly piled with stuff—and it moved smoothly out of the pantry.
“You think there’s unauthorized modifications in there?” I’d seen those sorts of mods elsewhere, but never in the apartment of a little old lady—nor cleverly hidden behind hoarder’s piles.
Ned stepped into the now-empty space and started running his hands along the walls. I shuffled around the dolly to watch. He found a leaver and pulled it. Part of the wall slid open revealing a dark space beyond.
I shone my flashlight in. A staircase led down. The air inside was remarkably fresh.
Ned scrunched his face up. “Maybe we should call for backup.”
“Naw.” I stepped around him. “Everyone’s busy in Docking Bay 34. I’ll take point.” Flashlight in hand, I started down the stairs.
At the bottom, a manually sliding door let me out into a maintenance corridor—the kind not typically accessible to the public. Only registered station workers were allowed into the service maze that kept the station running.
I looked both ways. The walls, floor and ceiling were all painted the same battleship grey with only strip lighting providing minimal illumination. The long corridor extended as far as I could see; even with its low ceiling, I could still make out the station’s curve in the distance.
“I’ve never been a fan of these spaces.” Ned stopped beside me.
“If you stuck with hunting criminals through their numbers, you’d never have to be in these spaces,” I said, my gibe half-hearted. “Why would Mrs. Long want to get down here?”
“Maybe, there’s a short-cut to her lab,” suggested Ned.
“Right,” I said. “Susan, map the most direct route from where we are to warehouse DZ-473.”
“Warehouse DZ-473 is not accessible from this level,” said the AI.
“Is there a route that will put us directly below it then.” I glanced around. I wouldn’t admit it to Ned but, the maze of maintenance corridors always left me uncomfortable—every now and then very bad things happened in them. Memories of the time those arachnids escaped down here surfaced and I shivered.
“Turn left and walk 43 metres,” said Susan. Ned and I started walking. After 42 metres, Susan said, “on your right should be an access panel.”
The two of us stopped at the access panel—it was welded shut.
“Now what?” Ned rapped his knuckles against the metal surface. “I think we’ve literally come to a dead end.”
I frowned at the inaccessible access panel and resisted my urge to kick it. Taking a step back, I put my hands on my hips and met Ned’s gaze. “You don't happen to have a cutting torch on you?”
“Naw, the spreadsheets I normally deal with typically don't need it.” He scratched his head. “Based on your description of Mrs. Long, I don’t think she could’ve gotten that far ahead of us.”
I stared at him for a minute, then it dawned on me. “We might catch her in the warehouse.” Without waiting for Ned to respond, I turned and sprinted.
It’s not looking good for Flo and Ned. Click here for Chief Thumbold’s response.