It was impossible to go higher or lower in the CDC building. The elevator didn't work, the stairwells blocked. Fortunately, Ruby had learned another way around.
Through the Gen-Corp building, Ruby and Skylar descended to the main floor. The entryway to the building was a bright, open space with high ceilings and a wall of windows. It would have been beautiful were it not for the scattered debris and the stench of rotten meat. Ruby saw no dead bodies, but she suspected she'd find them if she searched long enough.
Where Gen-Corp's welcoming lobby ended, the stark utilitarian cubicles and gray walls of the CDC began. From here, Ruby could enter the building unimpeded. She found only offices on the first floor. The elevator was as useless here as it was on the second floor, but the stairway was open.
Ruby stood in the entrance. The florescent lights blinked and buzzed, many of them out completely, leaving the stairway an eerie, forbidding place. She gazed down into the darkness, then up towards the upper floors. The wall had caved in above, leaving the path upwards difficult to navigate and probably unsafe.
"Which way, Sky?" Ruby said, then flinched, hearing her own voice echo up and down through the shadows. She started again, quieter. "We're looking for a lab where Chandra can study tiny robots in a blood sample and examine their... I don't know. Their software."
Skylar nodded, then shot up the stairs. Ruby waited, listening as the tiny buzz of Skylar's wings faded. She found a chair in a cubicle near the door, sat down and let her eyes meander over the contents of the desk. Typical office stuff: A stapler, a keyboard, a stack of Compute magazines. Her eyes flitted up to a card lying across the top of the cubicle. A picture of a fixie on the back caught her attention. She stood to retrieve it. On the front, she read:
GenCorp FRB Series 400 Upgrade
Congratulations on your purchase of a series 400 upgrade for your Fixie Repair Bot. This upgrade is valid for any existing FRB series 200 and above. To activate the enhanced features, read the activation key shown below out loud to the FRB.
Warning: This code must only be used once. If a patron attempts to use an activation key fraudulently, the FRB will be deactivated immediately and cannot be reactivated without assistance at a Gen-Corp Product Maintenance facility.
Activation Key: A7238G-926XE-5B6B770
The back of the card depicted a flying fixie, her arms outstretched, mouth open wide as if singing.
Ruby sat back and stared at the card. Series 400. If she remembered correctly, an upgrade to series 400 would allow Skylar to talk. That could solve a lot of problems, especially with their current predicament with the Simps.
She had forgotten that Skylar was a GenCorp product. She was in the CDC building now, but perhaps this card had blown in during the commotion when the Simps attacked.
But what if the activation key was already used? Then Skylar would be deactivated and Ruby would lose her best friend. It wasn't worth the risk to lose Skylar just because Ruby wanted to talk to her.
She heard the buzz of Skylar's wings as she shot down the stairwell to the lower levels. A half minute later, Skylar zipped back, waving Ruby over.
"Did you find something?"
Skylar nodded and waved again.
Skylar buzzed into the stairwell, then back, watching Ruby.
"I... uh, I've got something here that—"
Skylar spotted the card in Ruby's hands. Her mouth dropped open. She hung for a second, then shot down and hovered between Ruby and the card. She hovered for a moment, then arced away, landed on the cubical desk and turned to Ruby. She gestured to the card.
"You want me to read it?"
Skylar nodded emphatically.
"But what if it's already been used?"
Skylar gestured at the card again.
"I don't want to lose you Sky."
Skylar folded her arms and leaned forward, her eyebrow raised. She waited, then made an impatient twirling gesture with one hand.
Ruby bit her lip. Skylar seemed so sure.
Ruby lifted the card and read each character in the activation code. She hesitated at the final 'Zero'. Skylar looked excited, ready to burst. Ruby spoke the last number.
Skylar froze in place and toppled to one side.
"Sky?" Ruby dropped the card and leaned over the fixie. "Oh my God, Skylar?"
Skylar lay on her side, her body and wings in the same position they had been when Ruby first pulled her out of the box.
Ruby's heart sank. She lifted the fixie, who now stood as rigid as an action figure. "Skylar, please."
She pressed the button on Skylar's foot. It blinked red three times and went dark. "Please don't die."
What could she do? Was this something Basha or Chandra could repair? Was there anyone in the world that could bring Skylar back? She wanted to retreat to the lab where the others worked. She'd tell them what happened and beg for their help.
But as much as it pained her, Skylar couldn't be her top priority. The Simp plague threatened the whole world, and if Ruby couldn't help Chandra and Basha get what they needed, no one would stop the spreading horror.
Ruby placed Skylar in her coat pocket, then returned to the stairwell. She didn't know where Skylar had been or what she'd seen, but Skylar had been downstairs last. Ruby would start there.
The lights were all out below. Ruby descended into darkness, the only illumination the dull blinking of fluorescent high above. She was at least pleased to find that the steps were free of debris. Hopefully that meant someone used these stairs often enough to clear them.
On the landing for the first basement level, the door was locked, the barred slot window yielded no light from within. A keypad to the right of the door glowed dim. Could Skylar have picked this lock, or was a keypad beyond her skills. Ruby stood and wondered what to do. There were more stairs going down. It was dark below, but as Ruby leaned over the stair rail, she detected a faint green glow on the lower stairs.
Retreat or go on? Ruby had to at least try. She crept down the next few stairs, careful not to make a sound. The lower she got, the more certain she was that there was light below. She rounded the first landing. At the bottom of the next stair, a door stood ajar, the green illumination shining through.
Her heart fluttered. She wasn't sure whether to proceed. Skylar had found something, but had this been the place the fixie had wanted her to go? Maybe Skylar thought she could protect Ruby. Ruby cursed herself for ever finding that upgrade card.
She took slow, deliberate steps down to the bottom. There were no more stairs. This was the end. She shuffled towards the door, her hand outstretched.
She saw only a shift in the shadows. As she turned, she felt the sting of a needle in her neck.
As she lost consciousness, she felt the breath of her attacker in her ear. "I'm so glad you came," he whispered. "I've been desperate for an unsullied control subject."