The tunnel seemed to drag on without any sign of anything interesting. Countless twists and turns and Chloe found nothing but bugs, scurrying at the edges of her torch’s reach. Her footsteps echoed off the neglected, unfinished walls. Her father told her once these were going to be used for housing another hundred people, but Chloe couldn’t remember the last time any survivors were found. Maybe it really was dead up there.
She stopped, about to turn around, when a something strange caught her attention. Just beyond her torch’s reach, she spotted a part of the tunnel where the wall had partially collapsed, revealing a passageway just big enough for her to squeeze through.
Chloe stuck her head through the opening but saw nothing. She reached into her backpack and grasped a small tube, cracking the middle and shaking the contents until they glowed. Reaching the light ahead of her, she maneuvered herself through the opening and left the torch at the opening. These walls were very different. She ran a hand along the rough stone and jerked back at the slimy feel of the rock. Even the floor was slightly slippery and uneven. Chloe made a note to watch her step. As she pushed forward, the tunnel tightened around her and soon the turns became disorienting. She had been focusing too much on not losing her balance that she failed to notice the sharp rock jutting from the floor. Without warning, she fell face first onto the rough stone floor.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Her fingers went to the throbbing in her forehead. “No blood.”
Groaning slightly, she sat up and used her hands to feel for a grip to pull herself up. What she got instead was something solid and waxy, like a torch. When she reached higher for a grip, the rock Chloe grabbed came straight out of the wall. The rocks surrounding it followed, covering Chloe in dirt and grime. She looked up, only to be blinded by a beam shooting out of the ceiling. Her eyes recoiled shut, but the light was too much. Large dots spotted the inside of her vision. Slowly, she was able to open her eyes and look at the strange green object clutched in her hand.
Her father once talked about something like this. What did he call it? Oh yes, a plant. Such a strange word for a strange object. She’d have to ask her father about this when she got back. Angry voices floated down an adjacent corridor. One of them she recognized as the foreman.
What could he be doing down here?
She pulled a small notebook from her pack and marked the location of this plant thing and the light in her notebook before sneaking down the corridor, stashing the light tube in her pack. The conversation was mumbled, forcing Chloe to shift forward bit by bit until she found a comfortable place amongst the darkness to hide within earshot of the foreman. The other voice belonged to the mother of the little boy who’d last won the lottery.
Chloe watched as the foreman extended his hands, palms outward to the woman. “Rest assured, your son is perfectly safe in the compound. You need to listen to…”
The mother, Carol, if Chloe remembered right, stepped forward and leaned on her toes to meet the foreman’s gaze, jabbing a finger against the foreman’s sternum. “No, you listen. You will let me see my boy and you will apologize to me for being an awful inconvenience. Do you understand me?”
Chloe bit her tongue to stop from laughing. This Carol lady certainly had gumption to talk to the foreman like that. Her breath held, she awaited the foreman’s reply. His top lip curled into a sneer. When Carol jabbed his shoulder, the foreman snatched her wrist and pushed her back at arm’s length.
“George? What’s going on?”
As the mayor emerged from a door at the other end of the room, her gut told her to run, but like the idiot her brother claimed her to be, Chloe slinked back under the cover of shadows and dared not breathe, but kept the scene within her sights. For all his smiles and kind words, the mayor’s squinted face never quite sat right with Chloe. His nose twitched as if allergic to the woman, but otherwise kept a straight face.
“George? I think you should let the worried woman’s hand go.” The mayor’s lap dog growled softly as he released Carol’s wrist. She took a few steps back, switching her gaze between the two men.
“Perhaps I can help resolve the problem. Mrs. …?”
“Rangar,” she replied. “My husband works in the mineral mines.”
The mayor turned his eyes down in thought and smiled. “Ah yes, one of the better workers, I hear. I didn’t know he had such a fine wife to come home to every night. What a lucky family is your husband’s to have a catch such as yourself.”
Carol uncrossed her arms as the mayor’s silky words wove a noose around her anger and resolve. Her shoulders lowered and a smile pulled up the corners of her lips. Not that Chloe could blame Carol – greater women had been conned using far less.
“My son…” She trailed off as if she didn’t entirely know why she was there.
“Unfortunately the rules are very clear. Once someone has handed in their red ticket, they must be quarantined from the rest of the population so they may be fully prepared for the voyage at hand.”
Something sparked in her eyes and tears began to swell. “But my boy is all alone. None of our family was selected. I just want to make sure he’s safe. Please, you have kids, you must understand.”
The mayor rubbed his hand against his neck, pulling his thin lips into a tight line. “George, please leave us.”
The foreman raised an eyebrow, but nodded and exited through the door behind the mayor. Chloe released a sigh of relief and took in another deep breath when the door clicked shut. As the mayor launched into some speech about the importance of family and jingling his massive set of keys, Chloe almost didn’t notice the mayor circle Carol and lock the remaining three doors before coming to stand in front of her.
“It turns out, Mrs. Rangar, that we have one extra seat available other than the allotted lottery space. I was going to open it to a bonus lottery, but your circumstances being what they are with your son and all, I would be willing to give that spot to you for your son’s sake.”
Carol’s round eyes welled with tears as she threw her arms around him. “Oh thank you, thank you, thank you. I shall go tell my family straight away.”
“No need, my dear. I’ll have George attend to your family while I personally escort you to the spaceship.” He gestured towards the tunnel Chloe was currently in.
“Crap,” she whispered under her breath. Before they got too close, Chloe jumped to her feet and retreated back as quickly and quietly as she could. Carol and the mayor passed without so much as a second glance when the torch light so obviously
revealed her position. Her chest relaxed into a sigh while the sweat over her neck slowly froze in the cold air. Deciding to try her luck, Chloe followed the mayor down a long stretch of tunnel. As they progressed, the tunnel’s walls transformed from its characteristic rough texture to a smoother, sleeker design. When Chloe returned her attention to the mayor, he and Carol had just disappeared through a strange looking door. As she got closer, Chloe noticed the material resembled the stuff the heavy mining drills were made of, and judging by the mayor’s struggle, she’d bet the door was at least six inches thick.
Her hand yanked at the handle, but, of course, the damn thing was locked. Cursing herself for being slow, Chloe noticed the strange markings all over the door. Her fingers touched the cool metal and traced the lines of the design. A giant spaceship, carved into the metal and then colored in with red paint, covered most of the door. A green banner stretched across the door’s width with something scribbled in white.
“In darkness, destinies are realized.” Before Chloe could examine much further, she heard footsteps approaching from behind her. She reached into her belt and grabbed her notebook and light tube. Clenching the tube between her teeth, she quickly sketched the emblem and added to her crude map of Section 7. Satisfied, Chloe stuffed the tube and notebook into her belt and ran as far from the footsteps as she could. There were too many close calls for Chloe’s liking tonight. Besides, she still had the plant and the strange light to investigate.
Using her map, Chloe easily found the passage she’d stumbled into earlier. The light streaming in from the ceiling had waned from a bright white to a dim pillar of reds, oranges and yellows. The leafy vine clung to its perch, keeping watch as diligently as a plant could do. Chloe slowly stepped up to it and reached out with trembling fingers. Her fingertips grazed the large leaves, smiling at how strange the thing felt. As she pulled her hand away, the leaf fell away from its home and landed on the cave floor.
“No, plant. I’m so sorry.” She scooped up the leaf gingerly and tried to reattach it but each time it floated back down to the floor. “I’m sorry.” It was all she could think of to say.
Reaching back for the plant, her arm brushed against the edge of the light. It felt warm and comforting on her skin. She reached through the ceiling and found ledges to pull herself up. A short climb later she emerged, baffled and amazed.