The door from the stairwell swung open with a thump. A man in a boiler suit and a woman in jeans and a brown leather jacket stepped through it. The man in the boiler suit winced every time he took a step with his left foot, as if he had a limp.
"Are we almost done yet?" he said, his voice small and reedy, almost childlike.
"This is the eighth floor, so we're over halfway now," said the woman.
"Eighth? This is the floor the subject lives on."
The woman frowned. "Really. Which apartment?"
"On the left, maybe three doors from where we are now... yeah, it is three."
The woman stepped down the hall and stopped in front of Tilly's door. She pressed an ear to the door and listened, holding a hand up for the man to stay away when he moved to join her. Finally she straightened up and shook her head.
"She's not back yet," she said. "We still have time to finish this. Where do you think the garbage chute is?"
The man glanced around. "It's almost the same layout as the sixteenth and twenty-fourth floors," he said. "It should be down that way, just past the elevators."
"Cover me," said the woman. They made their way to a heavy metal door set into the core of the building. The woman opened it, glanced inside, and nodded to the man. She stepped in the small room between the door and the garbage chute. The cracks around the chute door and the surrounding frame began to glow white, and the sound of a thousand tiny voices shouting began to grow.
The woman reached into her pocket, retrieved a glowing ball, and then quickly pulled the chute door open and dropped the ball in. The sound of the voices reached a screaming pitch, peaked, and died away to nothing with the fading of the light.
The man shook his head. "Far too easy," he said. "Something's wrong."
"Excuse me," said a voice behind them. The man and the woman both jumped, only to notice that there was a woman standing behind them, holding a white plastic bag that had been tied shut.
"I just wanted to put this away," the woman said, with the You're in my way message clearly underlined in her tone.
"Sorry," said the man, and he stepped aside while the woman in the brown leather jacket extricated herself from the garbage chute room.
"Not at all," said the woman with the garbage bag. She lifted the garbage bag slightly and moved forward. The man in the boiler suit noticed the plastic reflect the fluorescent tubing in the hallway.
The woman stepped inside the garbage chute room. The man in the boiler suit did a double take. The reflection on the plastic hadn't diminished, even though there was no overhead light in the garbage chute room.
The garbage bag was glowing.
The woman holding the garbage back turned to the man in the boiler suit and smiled. The man smiled back, grabbed the woman in the leather jacket by the arm, and pulled her back towards Tilly's apartment.
"I have a duplicate, right here," he said, patting down his breast pockets. "Here..." He fished a key out of a pocket and opened Tilly's door. He pushed the woman in the leather jacket into the apartment even as she started protesting, and let himself in. He set all of the locks and leaned against the door, breathing heavily.
"What is it with you and breaking protocol!"
The man jerked his head in the direction of the garbage chute. "You didn't see it," he said. "She's replacing the ones we just killed. She's one of them. The woman. She's a hostile."
"Where did she come from?"
The man slumped against Tilly's door. "Here," he said. "The elevator doors didn't open, and we came from the stairs. She had to come from this floor. If it had been the the stairs at the end of the other wing, she would have been standing in a different place when we saw her."
"So what do we do now? We're in Ninth Protocol. We have to finish this off."
The man stood up and shrugged. "We wait for the research subject," he said. "After all," he added, when the woman started to protest, "it's her planet. After all these years of putting up with us studying her, I think it's about time we give her a say in all this."