Whitewash and Rust

The power grinder screeched into action, spitting orange and blue sparks and sending rust flying to
the gantry below.
“Stop!” shouted a voice, trying to sound imperative but inconspicuous at the same time. The man at
the grinder paid no attention, although whether he was being obstinate or simply couldn’t hear over
the grinder wasn’t clear. The layer of rust had shaken free, and he was now working on the more solid
layer of unbroken steel beneath. It was old, but it was a good build, and the grinder had slowed down
and stopped spitting out so many sparks.
“John!” came the shout, again. “Stop! Do you want them to know we’re here?”
This time, he heard. Clicked the grinder off, and it wound down gratefully with a whirr and a series of
clicks. “What are you talking about? We’ve been here for days. Did you see anyone on the way down
“No, but…”
“But what, Susan? Look!”
He waved his hand above them towards a security camera, staring at the ground, almost forlornly,
clearly powered off.
“There’s no-one home. None of these have been active. They’ve gone, Sue.”
“There’s power,” she replied. “All this strip lighting, John – hell, your damn grinder. Who’s paying for
that? There’s someone still looking after this place, and I don’t want them to know we’re here.”
“There’s no-one looking after it,” he said, rather more confidently than he felt. “The grounds haven’t
been tended for years, looks like. All those ancient computers and equipment when we got in – some of
that stuff looked like it was from the 1960s, for God’s sake. You said it yourself – we’ve been here for
days. If they knew we were here, wouldn’t they have come for us by now?”
She didn’t really have an answer for him, and an awkward silence filled the air.
“Look,” he said, more to say something than nothing. “We’ve got this far. We’re close.” He turned
around before she could respond, pulled his mask down, and started the grinder with a kick. Susan
turned away from him to shield her eyes from the glow, but also to hide her face. A tear rolled down
her cheek, followed by another, descending off the walkway into the murk below. She didn’t hear them
She felt a pang of guilt, again, for abandoning her daughter. She’d let herself be convinced by everyone
who told her that she’d run away, that she’d found a better life outside of their tiny town, somewhere
more worldly than the few cross streets where everyone knew each other as intimately as family. And,
after a time, it had been easier to forget. To forget what a loving and generous person Claire had been,

always wanting to help their community in any way she could.  How she’d jumped at the chance to
attend clinical trials once the lab had opened up just outside of town. She was certain it’d rejuvenate
their industry, that they town would become a hotbed for science.
She’d packed her overnight bag before they could object, not that they would have. The passion for
this had her fiercely in its grasp, and she left with great hopes. She did so well, her letter said after the
first day, that she’d be staying another week for more testing, she hoped they didn’t mind, and to keep
her room as it was because she’d left a few things in odd places and wanted to be able to find things
when she got home. Another letter arrived after that, and again, and again, and her room stayed as it
was – slightly untidy, but not embarrassingly so, and enough to remind her parents that it was a place
lived in. And slowly, the letters had stopped coming, and it had become easier not to enter the room.
Susan tried to pinpoint the moment that they realised that their daughter had left them, and choked
as she couldn’t. It was heartbreaking to think that she had chosen to leave so deceitfully, and even
moreso to realise later – far too much later – that it was not the case. That she had been taken, and no
objection had been made. It was five years now since they raised it with the local police, and many
more since she left, but the labs had been derelict for years and under new management, the owner
nowhere to be found. Five years of red tape and shouting, and it had come to nothing.
Grief met panic, met outrage and action, and within a few days they had gathered their equipment and
broken into the lab to find any shred of evidence of Claire. It was easier than expected, even if the
equipment they had needed to be put to strange and creative uses, a strange hubris behind their
security systems that no longer kept secrets safe.
Two days of investigation, of climbing and tracking through a seemingly endless procession of sterile
rooms, corridors and machinery until finally, here, their destination. Wherever their daughter was,
the answer would be here, behind this door. It had to be.
The grinder John held sputtered and died, and he threw it down with a clang and a curse. It landed
next to a small pile of ruined tools, each used and abused in their attempts to make it through the
blast door. It still stood mercilessly above them, almost mocking in its immutability. He gave it a kick,
as if that would help.
“We’re done,” he stated, defeated.
“We’re close,” she reminded him, betrayed. “We can find her! We just have to get through!”
“It’s no use,” he replied. “We can’t get past this. This is military-grade, or something. Nothing I’ve got
gets through. All the time spent attacking this thing, and what have I got to show for it? Some
callouses and rust-stained boots.” He kicked the door again, for effect.
“We can’t give up on her, John!”
“We already did,” he said, turning away.
“And now we’re making it right!” she shouted, angry at him to hide the truth of it, to hide her anger at
herself. “Whatever happened to her, the answer is right there! Six feet away! We owe it to her!”
He looked back at her, his reddened eyes meeting hers. “I failed her, Sue,” he said, simply.

“We did,” she agreed, taking his hand. “But if we can get past this, if we can find out what happened,
we can fix it. We can tell the world what these scientists-” she spat – “did to our daughter.”
She pulled him closer, and he wrapped his arms around her, still shaking.
“You’re right,” he said. “We got this far. We can’t give up on her now.”
He bent his head, and kissed her lightly, each of them shaking in each others arms, not wanting to let
one another go.
Their shaking became a rumble, the gantry wobbled, and their embrace became a clutch, each of them
terrified to let each other go as rust shook down off the precipice and into the abyss below. The
massive, implacable doors groaned, and shifted apart, pale mist rolling from the gap and a cool breeze
flowing through their hair. They turned in astonishment as the sheet metal fell away, revealing a dark
expanse behind, a hallway lined with glass tubes, as high and as far as they eye could see, each filled
with a murky liquid and covered in grey condensation.
Behind them, the security camera span into life, rotating to focus on them, the red status light on its
shell blinking into activity.
“Oh,” said a female voice, disembodied, cold and clipped.

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