All the way home, Chloe stared at the red envelope. Ahead of her, her mother and father spoke in quick, hushed tones. Oliver walked just behind her, peering over her shoulder with beady eyes.
“I can’t believe you got called. I’m a much better worker than you are, and I sure as hell want it more. All you want to do is go back to that stupid airplane building.”
“Hush, Oliver. Someone might hear you.” Chloe returned her attention back to the envelope and the small silver key contained within it.
“Chloe, dear, your father and I want to talk to you for a minute.” Chloe noticed her mother’s jaw muscles tighten as she fought back tears.
Chloe’s father nodded toward Oliver’s room. “Please excuse us, Oliver.”
Oliver grumbled sullenly before slamming his door shut. Chloe’s parents led her to their room and motioned for her to sit. She looked up at the two of them, not exactly sure what to expect. After a moment, Chloe’s mother broke down into silent tears.
“You promised she would never be called, Henry,” she sobbed.
“They know she found the outside. I’m surprised it took them this long to arrange for her to win,” her Dad said, holding Chloe’s mom.
Chloe looked up from her envelope. “Why are you saying it like that? There is a spaceship.”
“Well, yes of course there is.” Tears were falling heavily from her mother’s eyes.
“Jillian, I need to you to see to Oliver. I need to get Chloe out while there’s still time.” He turned to Chloe, tossing her a bundle he had pulled from their closet. “Follow me and look excited.”
Chloe put on her best face and walked beside her father as he led her down a series of tunnels to the section where the radiation shield was controlled. They walked through security checkpoints manned by bored looking security guards. His ease with everyone they came across almost had Chloe convinced that everything was alright. The guard at the last checkpoint raised an eyebrow at Chloe but let both of them pass when her father slid him an envelope. He nodded solemnly and flipped a switch at his station. “You’ll have about six hours of privacy. Beyond that you get no guarantees.”
When they entered her father’s office, her father’s demeanor immediately reverted to an uncharacteristic scowl. Tension weighed down on his shoulders, making them scrunch together. “How much of the journal have you read? Anything about your grandfather’s planes?”
“Just answer me, Chloe.”
“Uh, a bit. Dad, what’s…”
“Enough to fly one?” He begun to dig through drawers, gathering a file or two along with a strange looking metal device. He shook out smaller metal shells from a cloth bag and placed them into the bigger device. He looked down at the object as if he would an old friend.
“What is that?”
“With any luck, I won’t have to use it.” He opened a panel in the floor with a makeshift bed. “Not exactly luxury, but you better get some sleep. We’ll be leaving in about six hours.”
“No. I’m not doing anything until I get some damn answers.”
“Watch your tone with me, young lady.” He pointed to the object held firmly in his hand. “This is called a gun. It’s a weapon. A bit old but she works just as great as the day your grandfather bought her.”
“I thought weapons were outlawed for anything except hunting when we came down here?”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about humans. The foreman was a high ranking air force general before the war. He knows where every stash of weapons is from here to the Pacific Ocean.”
“Pacific Ocean?” Exhaustion tugged at the edge of her mind.
“It’s a huge collection of water to the west.”
She stifled a yawn. “Where are we going in six hours?”
“Let me worry about that.” He paused. “Now, Chloe, this is important. Only let me or your mother take you from this room. Do not trust Oliver.”
“It’s not the time nor the place. I will explain when we get to a safer location. For now, just some rest but remember do not let anyone but me or your mother take you from this room.”
Chloe’s mind exploded into a million questions but her eyes suddenly grew heavy and her mind fogged with exhaustion. Her father helped her into the bed, tucked her in and sealed her under the floor just as she dozed off.
She woke up to someone was shaking her shoulders. It hardly felt like an hour had passed, let alone six. Oliver’s face was scrunched up like an animal had died nearby. There was a bruise at his neck. “Chloe,” his speech slurred. “Get up.”
She blinked through the haze of sleep hanging about her. “Where’s Dad?”
“He and Mom had to go ahead and get some things ready. They sent me to get you. Do you still have your red envelope?”
She felt her pocket and pulled out the crumpled envelope. Oliver smiled and pulled her from the hidden space. Her father’s warning flashed in her mind. Suddenly she noticed Oliver’s grip start to tighten, but she managed to twist out of it.
“Chloe, we don’t have time. I need to take you to Mom and Dad.” There was something to his tone that unsettled her stomach. She darted for the door and yanked it open, taking off down the hallway. She ran as fast as she could towards the security guard.
From the shadows, a hand grabbed her and placed a rag over her mouth. She recalled a sweet smell before her body went limp in the man’s arms.
Chloe felt control coming back to her fingers. She tapped them against the operating table. She turned her gaze down her body to her toes wiggling at the end of her feet. Excellent. She slowly sat up, nausea crashing against her stomach. Her fingers ripped off the wires connected to her temples and chest. She paused for a moment, feeling her new heart beating rapidly beneath her chest.
Around her, the dimly lit room was plunged in silence. Crackling circuits sparked in the distance. She pushed herself off the table and approached the window. Outside, fires sprang up and consumed everything in sight. Far below, her masters scoured the landscape, chasing the native people down with animalistic ferocity. She turned and looked at the cage on the floor with the disgusting worm meant for this body. She opened the valve to the air and shoved it under the operating table, ignoring the muffled squeals of the creature inside. She brought a quivering hand over her mouth as she staggered to the other end of the laboratory. She braced herself against a counter with dozens of needles and solutions strewn about the surface, lifting her gaze to the partially shattered mirror.
Her face was covered with dried blood. She reached a hand back and felt the line of stitches at the back of her neck. Staring into her reflection, Chloe felt herself move her mouth and pieces of sound came out. She continued to struggle to bring the words racing in her mind to her mouth until she managed, “Chloe.”
Chloe was shocked as her reflection’s words became clearer. “Chloe, listen. Watch.”
She turned towards another of the operating tables where a man and a woman laid side by side. Tattoos lined the sides of their faces and foreheads in an intricate design. The steady beeping of the heart monitor set Chloe slightly at ease but she couldn’t shake the paranoia nagging at the back of her mind.
She heard footsteps behind her. “Ah, you’re awake Senator. I was beginning to think we’d lost you. How is the new body? Is it pleasing?” He inspected the stitches at her neck and checked her vitals.
“Very. I feel fine,” she heard herself lie.
“Good. Now let’s see if we can revive your brother and sister.” Chloe watched as the man, also with the strange tattoos and slanted eyes, grabbed a needle from a nearby cabinet and injected its contents into an IV leading to the two patients.
Chloe woke with a start drenched in sweat. Her arms and legs were strapped to an ice cold metal table. Wires were attached to her stomach, chest, arms, and legs, leading to a variety of machines. She squinted against the large bright light dangling above her. Turning her head slightly, she saw she was in a small room with the only door somewhere to her left.
“Hello,” she called out with a hoarse voice. “Anybody?”
“It’s no use, dear ‘sister,'” Oliver’s voice dripped with disdain. “No one can get out of those without serious injury.”
“Oliver?” Her fingers tingled with numbness and she was pretty sure the table wasn’t rotating. “What’s going on?”
“You were chosen for the lottery.” He leaned over the table, a genuine smile plastered across his face. “Like all who have been chosen before you, we must prepare you for the journey. After all, if we’re to conquer new worlds, the army we send must be the best the galaxy has ever seen. While admirable, the Balor Project was too meek. The Mayor’s new creations will be so much better.”
Chloe immediately thought of the little boy and his mother. “But you chose a child.”
Again Oliver smiled. “Turns out children’s bodies can handle the procedure better. After all, a mission like this will require many of our youth to continue the mission after we inevitably pass away.”
Chloe began to struggle against the bonds with no success. “You’re crazy.”
“I prefer inspired. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to attend to…”
A loud bang accompanied the scrape of metal on metal as the door flew off its hinges.
“You!” Oliver hissed.
“Get away from my daughter, you poisonous snake. Back, I said!”
Oliver shrunk back against the wall. “You’ll never get out alive, you know that. Go ahead and try.”
Her father ran to her side, keeping an eye on Oliver as he undid her bonds. “Can you walk?”
Chloe nodded. “I think so.”
She struggled to her feet and half-limped after her father. She quickly regained her footing and managed to keep a good pace behind her father. They climbed several sets of stairs and took a turn onto a catwalk. Chloe looked down and saw endless rows of rooms identical to hers. Before she could start crying, her father grabbed her arm and pulled her down a side tunnel where another man was waiting for them.
“Who’s this? Where’s Mom?”
Her father bit his lip. “I couldn’t reach her in time. Frank here was a pilot before we were forced down into the caves. We’re going to fly out of here.”