Aestus, Book 1: The City
An underground city, built centuries ago to ride out the devastating heat. A society under attack. And a young solar engineer whose skills may be the key to saving her city…if she doesn’t get herself killed first.
15 years ago
Jossey scrambled up the side of the condenser pod and sat under the desert sky, looking up at the glitter of stars.
She winced at the squeak of Tark’s shoes on the sleek metal curve of the pod. This one was older, maybe a century or more, but still in good condition. “Ship-shape,” Father would say, though the phrase meant nothing to her. It was one of those strange things grown-ups said.
The steel pod gleamed in the starlight. She hoped the Onlar wouldn’t see two figures sitting here.
Tark plunked down beside her, floppy hair shoved out of his face. “You scared now?” he hissed.
“Shut up.” She was, but she didn’t dare show it. Tark was thirteen and didn’t let her forget that she was only ten. She pretended to be nonchalant, but strained to hear over the soft whooshing of the condenser motors.
She wasn’t quite sure she believed the Onlar existed, always half-wondered if those were stories made up to keep children obedient, like the monster under the bed, but if Father caught them…
But the stars.
They seemed to move, to shimmer, in the burning air above the horizon. Even at midnight it was hot, like the slow glowing of an oven that has been left open to cool. The land was punctuated by rock spires and deep canyons that Tark said the Onlar used to hide during the daytime.
Above her rose a massive arc of stardust and shining distant regions, seeming to twist its way across the July sky. She reached out her hand as if to touch it.
Father used to jokingly say that the atmosphere hadn’t exactly turned to Venusian fumes after the years of extreme heat began. (She didn’t know what Venusian meant, but it sounded bad.) Instead, it seemed to have expanded in the heat, an enormous bubble wobbling and making the stars appear to shimmer and dance, glittering orange and pale shades of pink, melting into the horizon.
Tark glanced over his shoulder at the deep hole in the side of one of the spires. The glint of machinery shone there in the starlight. The elevator. The pair had snuck out upside using it, the result of hours of Tark exploring the City’s abandoned upper tunnels with his friends. It was a crankshaft model from the old days, nearly rusted beyond repair, and just unsealed enough for a group of boys to be able to break in.
Of course, none but Tark had been brave enough to risk a trip in such a rattling bucket up to the surface, or, really, anywhere. None but Gavin, his best friend.
And his little sister.
She looked up again, searching for the moon, and slid to the left. Tark gripped her arm. “Careful.” She glanced down and saw, beneath her dangling feet, the edge. It was a twenty-five-foot fall. She shivered and scooted closer to her older brother.
They were up there because Jossey had asked to see the moon.
She’d seen it in videos, of course. She’d also seen paintings her father had done, from memory, of the surface when it hadn’t been quite so hot. There was one of a sunset. There was even one of a tree, a tiny scrublike thing Father had seen once as a boy, rising out of the sandy ground.
From time to time he would talk about it in wonder, the insistence of life on survival aboveground. The pictures lined the interior of their small living chamber, next to the portrait of the rose Mother had given him on their wedding day. (None of them had ever seen a rose. It was a symbol of Mother’s family.)
But Jossey had never seen anything other than the daylight sky, and that only when Father let her tag along on Engineering trips up to the surface, telling her that she needed to pay attention to the machinery and to leave the landscape to Patrol.
She had seen something white in the sky on that trip, and Father had explained to her that that was the moon, and it was often out at night, and she had stared because it looked like a little planet, floating up there in the blue. She had asked if it was cool up there, and Father had said he didn’t know.
So she had asked to see the moon. And Tark, who never said no to his little sister, and who explored the scariest tunnels, even the ones the guards didn’t want to go into, shrugged and said, “Okay.”
Now they were sitting on top of a condenser pod, the sweet-smelling night air drifting past them. Tark’s eyes were bright, almost silver, under a mop of blond hair.
“There it is,” he whispered. He pointed a skinny arm across the canyons, across the darklands to the east. The moon floated low on the horizon, a few days past full, looking faded as time carved a shadow into its yellow face.
Jossey stared at it, amazed. It was like an entire world was there in the air before them.
It was so beautiful that Jossey forgot all about the Onlar, forgot about Father, forgot even that Tark was holding her wrist so she wouldn’t slide off the pod. She was brought back to reality when his hand tightened over her arm.
She started to complain, but he hushed her, gray eyes enormous in the faint light as he stared past her.
Then she turned to look and she wasn’t sure which of them was screaming.
Patrol found her the next day, draped across the base of the machine under the burning summer sun, nearly dead from dehydration. She had a massive bleeding cut across her eye and her femur had partly splintered on impact with the machine. Surgeons later told her it was a wonder she had survived.
For weeks, while she recovered in the hospital, Jossey screamed about green eyes, but otherwise refused to talk about what she had seen.
And despite their best search efforts, Tark was gone.
The tunnels were burning.
Jossey stood watching the condensation running down the rough-hewn walls in the flickering light, waiting for the shuttle to come and take her deeper underground, to the safe zone. The fans were on down far below, a constant blasting in the background, but the air was barely moving. She fumbled in her bag for the tin of water, reassuring herself for the fifth time that it was there. Sweat poured from her, and from the other workers staring dead-eyed at the floor or wall, waiting for the evening transport to arrive.
It wasn’t like the shuttle to be this late. Storms were already rocking the atmosphere above them, and the thunder could be heard, dully, above the fans deep in the tunnels. She hoped she had enough water to last if the transport were delayed again.
Jossey checked the red safety gauge on her wrist. 110 degrees, and that was cooler than it had been earlier in the day, before the storms. She wiped at her forehead, tried to make herself more comfortable without actually opening the tin; water had to be strictly rationed.
The ground beneath them shook as thunder sounded above. The storms had arrived earlier than ever this year, and she hoped she was up for another week in the solar plant. At least they paid well, she thought, and someone had to do it. Even if they had to deal with the awful transportation. Her giant duffel was uncomfortable against her long-ago-injured leg, which still ached when the pressure was low like this. She hiked the straps further onto her shoulders, grimacing.
She glanced around. The two solar crews were scattered in clumps, some sitting on their bags, some huddling near the walls and morosely watching the condensation drip. At least today there’d been a bit of respite: one of the families in the other solar crew had just had a baby, so the new father had brought some treats up top with him.
Just about anything to take their minds off the start of the storm season and their daytime banishment from walking the solar farm border, with its slightly cooler canyons. It was dangerous during electrical storms, especially with all that tall metal equipment out there.
Not that the canyons were that safe either, but at least they were outside, not cooped up in the control box.
Despite the blazing heat, it was always hard to come back down after a day above. Jossey especially hated this shuttle stop and how dim it was. To save energy, the City had cut the lights up near the surface, and workers were expected to bring their own illumination for “emergency purposes.” That meant that the end of their shift found them all huddled in a blazing hot tunnel next to the only light source from here to the first safety gate hundreds of feet below.
Try to walk from here and you’d be in pitch darkness all the way down, with only your little clip-on red safety light to illuminate the path, following the spiraling edge of a pit with a guardrail that Jossey didn’t trust to keep a bus on the road.
She shook her head and tried not to think about the darkness below them.
Usually it didn’t bother her; she slept on her long journey down into the earth. But she did wish the transport would be more on time, because –
Her safety gauge pinged and began to glow a faint orange. Beginning of sunset. She fidgeted and looked around. The transport’s delay was now more than just annoying.
Another twenty minutes and the sun should be fully down. She hoped Patrol would be manning the outside tunnel entrance tonight.
A faint clanking sounded farther up in the tunnels, barely audible over the noise of the fans. The transport, she thought, relieved, peering into the dimness, but the noise sounded off somehow, as if one of the tires were worn down almost to the rim. She covered her other ear and squinted, straining to make out the sound.
Then there was a sharper sound, almost like a backfire, that resounded up and down the tunnel.
Someone next to her, Adams she thought, sighed. “New driver,” he grumbled. “They always run the gears too hard.”
Jossey glanced at the time. Twenty-six minutes late. Too close to the risk window. Much too close. She could hear the atmosphere rumbling above her, elemental, sounding as if the storms were about to break.
There was a horrible mechanical screech from very close up the tunnel and the clattering sound came again. Everyone’s heads shot up as the transport shuddered its way into view.
“Finally,” muttered an old man who had taken up refuge on one of the half-hewn benches and was fanning himself with his workman’s cap. Jossey half-smirked. He was a machinist with her solar crew. She’d never heard him utter a word.
She looked over toward the approaching vehicle as people started shifting, gathering bags, getting into a semblance of a line.
Her smile disappeared.
The entire transport was listing to the side. The lights in the interior were dim, and the driver seemed not to see the waiting group, inching forward, then slamming on the brakes, as if just realizing they were there.
Jossey’s skin prickled. The driver looked…not right. He was middle-aged, probably ex-Patrol, tasked with the boring yet necessary job of shuttling workers to the surface to keep the condensers functioning. He was one of several; Jossey thought she recognized him, but today he looked wild-eyed at them as if they weren’t there, as if he thought he were seeing things.
She glanced at the tires, but it was too dark in the flickering single light at the stop to see if anything was wrong.
The door swung open and they shuffled on. The driver didn’t look at them. His face was a strange shade of gray; Jossey blinked and hoped it was the poor lighting.
She waited until everyone else from her crew was on, counting them off. Then she climbed on, dragging her heavy bag, and took a seat near the front. The door hissed shut and the yellowish lights inside the transport buzzed and flickered.
With a rumble and a clunk, the transport trundled downward into the underground night.
The headlights barely pushed back the inky blackness, two beams slicing across the jagged hewn rock walls and into nothingness beyond. Jossey held her bag tightly, feeling distinctly on edge.
Usually the darkness was familiar, a fact of life to those who lived underground, and she knew that Patrol should be operating for another hour or so. But the tunnel’s stone walls seemed discolored, like the driver’s face, and she shook her head, concentrating instead on her own reflection in the darkened windows: her eyes shadowed, the left brown, the right an icy blue-green, a scar slicing across her brow and her eye and coming to rest on her cheek.
Her face was thin, almost pinched, with a pointed jaw and pale skin; she was barely twenty-five but she felt much older. Her uniform read SOLAR CREW 23 – LEADER, reflected backward in the glass. She always felt dry, exhausted, when she came down from the blistering heat of the outside.
She frowned and turned back to the view through the windshield, staring ahead into the tunnels. The driver still seemed to be on autopilot, big hands clumsy on the wheel, heavy shoulders hunched. The other passengers seemed nervous as well – normally some of them made light conversation, but this evening they were dead silent.
The transport shuddered as the driver overcorrected for no discernible reason and veered to the left. He gripped the wheel so hard his knuckles turned white, and slowed down to a snail’s pace.
Jossey felt the juddering of the brakes beneath her feet, could smell the dust from the tunnels as it filtered through the transport’s old intake system. Before them, the headlights disappeared quickly, swallowed up into total blackness.
On the boundary of light and dark, through the dusty windows, she thought she saw movement.
If the Onlar come, don’t move. Make yourself small. They can see you in the dark.
Jossey turned away, spine tingling, before she could let herself look too closely at the darkness.
She watched the driver’s hands nervously. The air felt cooler down here, the humidity lessening as they descended, but she felt clammy and strange and cold, skin prickling.
She glanced around, thought maybe others had the same consuming urge to get out and run.
But they were trapped inside their little bubble of half-functioning light.
The transport hissed as it clanked its way deeper into the earth.
The lights continued to buzz and flicker, and she realized she could hear a strange dragging sound. It was almost as if a piece of the transport had come off and was bumping against the rocky floor of the tunnel behind them. She stood, hesitant, and approached the driver.
“Um, excuse me – ”
The driver nearly jumped out of his seat at being addressed, but kept his eyes focused on the tunnel ahead. Jossey jumped too, startled. The passengers behind her shifted uneasily.
Over the eerie silence, she heard a steady whispering coming from him. She realized he was muttering what sounded like some kind of prayer.
“Excuse me,” she began again. “I hear something, there’s some kind of – ”
The driver hunched further, away from her, and began to mutter more feverishly.
She paused, listening more closely. She couldn’t identify the sound. It didn’t quite sound like metal. It was almost as if a heavy bag had caught on the fender. Someone’s belongings, maybe, left behind at the stop. She frowned, trying to make it out.
Something else: a scraping. Slight. Persistent.
The clammy feeling was worse now.
She stepped forward again, opened her mouth to try again.
At that moment, with a clunk and a thud, the dragging noise ceased.
AT THE SOUND, THE DRIVER FLINCHED AS IF SOMEONE HAD STRUCK him with one of those Patrol wands. As Jossey watched, he half-glanced over his shoulder, face gray and eyes wild.
Before she could look back to see what had been causing the noise, he stomped on the accelerator.
The transport, much too old for this type of treatment, groaned and hissed as it picked up speed. Jossey frantically grabbed for a handhold and whipped around, but the transport didn’t have a back window.
She suddenly found she did not want to see whatever had fallen.
She staggered as the transport hit the beginning of a curve and her bag tipped to the floor, spilling the contents everywhere. She yelled for the man to stop, using her foot to scoop her things into a pile while trying to keep her balance. She couldn’t afford to lose anything, not here.
Not in the dark.
The driver ignored her.
“Leave it, leave it,” he was muttering under his breath.
“Sir!” Someone joined in. Now the crowd on the transport seemed terrified. “Stop the shuttle!”
The ground rumbled beneath them and the headlights wove wildly as they bumped over the rocky tunnel floor, careening into blackness. Jossey looked out the right-side window as they turned a corner, behind them, and thought she saw something in the distance, a long shape, on the tunnel floor.
Jossey turned back to the driver, pleading, joined by a chorus of voices. “Please! Stop the shuttle!”
Suddenly the driver began to gurgle, a wheezing sharp gasp seeming to come from somewhere deep inside. He reached feebly for the dash controls, then slumped forward, motionless.
People started screaming. The young woman behind Jossey was whimpering, holding her bag in front of her like a shield.
The driver’s foot was stuck on the accelerator. Jossey abandoned her bag and stumbled forward, hitting her shoulder sharply on one of the hold-bars as she dove to the floor and shoved the man’s foot off the pedal. There was no brake pedal, none that she could see.
One of the other solar crew, a tall young man with glasses, pulled his way forward, stepping over people’s spilled belongings, and touched the man’s neck.
“He’s breathing,” the passenger announced.
“Get him out of the way!” Jossey gasped, grabbing for the steering wheel. It was heavy, rubber-coated metal, and it jerked out of her hands as she tried to pull the transport into a straighter course. The young man complied, manhandling the driver to the floor, as she flailed for the wheel. Everything was shaking; she could barely sit down without falling.
She looked frantically for a brake, an emergency stop, anything. The transport was rattling too hard for her to make out the labels on the dash, the light above the driver’s seat flickering over the dashboard. Her teeth were shaking in her head as the tires bounced over the rocky tunnel floor.
“Anyone know how to stop this thing?” she yelled, looking over her shoulder. A sea of silent, gray faces met her. She looked at the young man. “You?”
He had pulled himself to his feet and was holding onto one of the bars. He shook his head, staring at the unconscious man on the floor.
He examined the instrument panel, then grabbed a lever and yanked on it. A horrible hissing sound, and the door swung open. Beside him she could hear the loud reverberations of tires on rock, bouncing back into the vehicle.
“Try another!” She gripped the steering wheel, feeling the vehicle shuddering as it bounced over the rock.
Somewhere, even over the noise of the transport, she could hear rushing water – an underground river, one that helped keep the City functioning, currently flooded by the summer storms. She knew that meant they were nearing the top of the giant spiral and the pit. There was a slight up-incline close to here, she remembered, and then a steep drop. If they could hit that up-incline they might be okay.
She gritted her teeth, took her eyes from the road and looked at the instrument panel. Still nothing that said “brake.” “What kind of stupid system is this?” she hissed.
The young man pressed another button. With a groan, the transport shuddered, then the brakes engaged. He staggered, reaching desperately for the nearest handhold; Jossey felt the wind leave her as she was slammed into the seatbelt.
Sparks flew outside the windows, steel shrieking against steel. In the headlights, Jossey could see the arm of the spiral approaching, a steep incline to the right, with a drop-off hundreds of feet into a frighteningly deep pit. The guardrail looked extremely flimsy against several tons of solid steel. She closed her eyes and prayed.
The bus rolled more and more slowly, then shuddered to a stop and went silent as the engine disengaged.
Then the vehicle turned off, leaving them in total blackness.
IT WAS PITCH BLACK INSIDE THE TRANSPORT. PEOPLE WERE shrieking, gasping, their voices ringing off the glass and walls. The noise, the terror in their voices, was overwhelming. Jossey dropped to the floor and fumbled for her belongings. The knife, where was her knife? Had she packed it? Had she forgotten it?
She collided with a seat and sat still, trying to breathe, trying to orient herself. Calm down. Remember the procedure.
They come in the dark. They can see you.
The scar across her eye began to throb. She’d seen one of Them, a long time ago. She’d lived. Tark, her brother –
Calm down calm down calm down
The air was thick with fear. Jossey could feel the waves of prickling heat rising in her chest, choking her.
Procedure. Follow the procedure. Team leaders, instruct the others.
She fumbled for the safety light around her neck. Water, she needed water.
“Find your lights,” she managed to croak. Her cord was tangled. She frantically yanked and heard something snap, fall to the floor.
Circles of red light blossomed around her, one by one, like so many giant eyes floating in the blackness. In the dimness, she saw her safety light, a dark lump on the floor. She picked it up carefully, pressed the button.
It glowed in her cupped hands like a coal. She resisted the urge to shove it in her pocket, keep whatever might be outside in the darkness from seeing it.
Calm calm calm you have to be calm
Faces crowded around her, shadowed and foreign in the dim reddish light, eyes watching her expectantly. They were too close. She tried to maintain eye contact.
Her Engineering team members all knew what had happened to her, to her brother.
They’d never seen one of the Onlar, the creatures from the aboveground world.
But she had.
“Are you the team leader?” It was the young man who had helped her stop the transport. He was crouching in front of her, watching her face. In the dimness, his glasses shone eerily. One of the lenses was cracked. She blinked, shoved away the image that came to mind.
The question, the urgent tone, knocked some sense back into her brain. She closed her eyes, willing herself to calm down, and thought for a moment. Patrol should be alerted that a transport hadn’t arrived, should come looking for them. But the driver needed medical attention. And the gates below were due to close soon. Once they closed for the night, it was up to the discretion of the City’s Council whether to send out a team to retrieve anyone.
“Well?” demanded one of the older workers from the other crew. PERKINS, his uniform said. He was tall and balding, with a craggy face and a perpetually combative manner. She remembered him being argumentative on previous transport trips.
She tried to keep her face expressionless.
“Hold on, I’m thinking.” She got to her feet and turned to the dashboard, carefully stepping over the driver. The radio should be around here somewhere. She deeply regretted having never listened to her father when he tried to show her how these vehicles worked.
She held the glowing light over the dash and inspected it. There – a radio! She pushed the button, listened.
“The engine has to be engaged, I think,” the young man said quietly.
Jossey looked down at the driver on the floor. He was breathing, but shallowly.
She sat carefully back in the driver’s seat, felt around for the ignition. The keys were still there. She turned them.
A sputtering sound, then a grinding of metal. The noise in the blackness was horrific, like giant claws scraping the stone walls.
She shut the engine off, petrified. If the Onlar were in the tunnels already –
Her watch beeped. The sun was fully down now. Jossey shook her head, held it in her hands, staggered out of her seat. The others watched her with what looked like pity and not a little fear. They knew her story. But she was the leader of Solar Crew 23 – the rest weren’t likely trained for such emergencies. The other crew’s leader was out sick, she knew.
That left just her to take care of nearly three dozen people.
She sat on the floor, tried to collect herself. The heat was making her feel sick.
“You try,” she gasped out, waving the young man toward the driver’s seat.
He seemed competent enough. He gave her a worried look, sat down and tried. The engine made a chunk chunk chunk sound and a foul stench began to fill the transport.
“Shut it off!” yelled Perkins. “You’re ruining the – ”
There was a loud hiss as the stench intensified. And then, with a very final-sounding clunk, the engine fell silent.
The two crews staggered out of the transport, coughing, waving away the fumes. The railing wasn’t ten feet away, a thin line barely visible in their safety lights. Jossey, one hand still pressed to her eyes, tried to wave them into a group at the front of the bus.
She poured some precious water onto a cloth and covered her face.
“We can’t stay here,” she said through the cloth. “There’s no shelter. Even if Patrol makes it way up here, even if Council allows it – we’ll probably be toast if the Onlar find us. Or if we run out of water. It’s still” – she glanced at her wrist gauge – “eighty-five degrees, give or take.”
Perkins opened his mouth, and she gave him a steely glare.
One of his team members, a very young junior Engineer whose name Jossey recalled as Sally, spoke up. “I can’t,” she said firmly.
The old machinist had followed Jossey’s example with the cloth. “What do you mean, you can’t?” The air stank of whatever chemical had been put in the ancient transport. He coughed wetly. “If They don’t get us, this stuff in the air might.”
“I – ” The girl looked at the railing, and beyond to the enormous chasm. “I can’t walk…down, I mean.”
“She’s my niece,” Perkins said, stepping forward. “Scared of heights.” He glanced around the group. “I imagine she’s not the only one. Am I right?”
There were a few murmurs, but the group stayed silent. “And you want us to walk all the way down in the dark? Next to that?” Perkins gestured to the guardrail.
“Like I said, there’s no shelter, and no water,” Jossey said quietly. “We’re about as unsafe as we can be here. Do you hear that?”
The group, floating spots of red in little clusters, paused. Over the sound of the rushing water from the underground river, Jossey could hear the beginning of a faint wailing coming from deep below.
Tunnelsong, it was called. It happened when the cooler night air began to sink into the pit. It was the final warning that darkness had fallen above.
The group looked at her soberly.
She repeated herself. “We have to move.”
The group shuffled around. They weren’t protesting. But she could hear mumbling. It was probably a matter of time.
“Line up,” she ordered.
She counted them off into teams of five. They hovered in little clusters of light, throwing eerie shadows on the tunnel walls.
“Each group, choose a leader. The rest of you, lights on your backs. Any weapons you have on you, grab them now. No water until I say so, or unless you’ve reached stage-four exhaustion. Understood?”
“Understood,” they responded. The groups probably had no weapons worth using, she thought grimly, but it should give them something to occupy their minds.
As they mutely dug around in their bags, she turned to the young man who had helped her stop the transport.
“Come with me,” she muttered.
He followed her to the back to the transport.
She looked at him appraisingly. He was tall, maybe late twenties, with long, tied-back dark hair. He had removed his broken glasses, and his face looked entirely different than she had imagined.
Long silver eyes observed her silently as she struggled to process the change. Before, he had been one of the group, another bored-looking Engineer nose-deep in the latest scientific texts; she couldn’t even say with confidence how long he’d been working the other crew. But now –
Something about him was oddly familiar. She couldn’t put her finger on why. Maybe a former classmate? Someone she’d served with before?
She shook her head. More important to their current situation, he seemed remarkably calm.
She also did not miss the ease with which he handled his heavy pack.
He looked faintly bemused at her frank assessment, and seemed to be waiting for her to speak. She blurted out what was on her mind. “Are you former Patrol?”
He blinked, and lowered his bag. “Apprenticed, once upon a time,” he admitted. “I didn’t do so well in training. I decided I was more useful as an Engineer.”
“Well, I hope you’ve remembered something of your training,” Jossey said quietly. “What’s your name?”
She opened her mouth. He looked uncomfortable. “I know who you are.”
Jossey didn’t meet his eyes. She motioned to the back of the vehicle. “We need to get the stretcher out. Are you up for carrying the driver?”
He gestured in assent.
Jossey knew enough about transports to know that somewhere near the back there should be an emergency stretcher. She held the safety light up and shined it over what looked like a rusted sign. “MEDICAL EMERGENCY ONLY,” it said. She could barely make out the lettering – it had faded over the decades, maybe longer. She realized she had no idea how old this transport was. It could be from her great-grandparents’ time, for all she knew.
“Caspar, give me a hand with – ”
Frowning, she paused and looked more closely, held up a hand as Caspar obligingly took up a position on the other side of the heavy door. He waited patiently.
She held the orb nearly to the metal, squinting in the darkness. There were flecks of something – it was hard to tell what color they were in the reddish light. She moved the light slowly down the door toward the fender.
Jossey nearly gasped as the light vanished into three gouges each as wide as her thumb.
She made a strangled sound. The fender was halfway off, more deep gouge-marks scored into the metal. The base was twisted where it appeared to have been dragged along the ground.
Where something had held onto it, she thought. Something that had fallen onto the floor of the tunnel.
She could feel the blood draining out of her face; her scar throbbed and her eye teared up. Her hands were suddenly ice-cold despite the heat.
“Don’t,” Caspar said under his breath, gesturing toward the circle of reddish lights floating near the front of the transport.
She half-laughed, shakily. She didn’t think she could scream if she tried.
Perkins glanced over irritably and Caspar waved. He turned back to Jossey. “We need to hurry,” he said.
Deep behind them in the tunnel, Jossey thought she heard something. The clink of a rock. A trickle of gravel.
She whipped around, stared into the blackness. Part of her wanted to turn up the brightness on the safety light. Part of her wanted to switch it off entirely.
“Can we get back into the transport?” she muttered.
“Not with that chemical floating around.” Caspar shook his head. “Forget about the Onlar – it might kill us. I have no idea what the Founders put in these things back in the day.”
She realized she was shaking. “I saw it. It looked dead.”
She pointed to the fender. “It wasn’t moving. I saw it.”
She had a sudden memory of bright green eyes, glowing in the darkness. And the terror on Tark’s face.
“It didn’t move,” she repeated, almost frantically.
“Let’s get a move on!” shouted Perkins, making her jump.
“Stupid loudmouth,” she muttered under her breath. She wanted to yell something back, but she didn’t want a crowd of jumpy people to get angry and shout and give themselves away even more. Not with rocks maybe moving in the tunnel above them.
She was having a hard time breathing all of a sudden.
She glanced at her wrist gauge once again. The final night shuttle was late too. She didn’t want to think about why.
IT FELT LIKE HOURS BEFORE THEY MANAGED TO ORGANIZE themselves and start downward into the earth. Every movement, every sound, was making Jossey anxious, and despite her calls for speed, they descended at a snail’s pace into the deep, carrying all the extra water they could find in the transport’s cargo boxes.
She clutched the handles of the stretcher, the strain tearing at her shoulders. Caspar carried the other end. Jossey had taken first shift – she figured she’d have a mutiny on her hands if she didn’t, since many of the group wanted to just leave the driver for Patrol to recover.
Barbarians, she thought, but she understood their logic all too well.
They can see you in the dark.
She gritted her teeth and shuffled her way over the rocks, following the faint trail of red bobbing lights before her. To his credit, Perkins had managed to organize the group and was acting as point.
The instructions were to be as quiet as possible. But at least one person was stumbling on rocks every so often, knocking them over the edge of the cliff with a nerve-jangling clatter. It took all Jossey’s self-control not to shout at them.
Behind her, she could feel the night breeze in earnest. And she could hear the slow dribble of rocks, occasional enough that she thought maybe she was hearing things.
Without safety lights, the darkness of the tunnel was absolute. With them, it was dim, but she could make out the wall and the figures of the thirty or so people shuffling down into blackness.
It was impressive, she thought, how the human eye could adjust.
Caspar, carrying the other end of the stretcher, glanced back every so often as if to make sure she was okay. She wasn’t, but she gave him a brief smile before focusing on blocking out the pain in her arms.
A trickle of night air hit Jossey, and the smell of the desert. A memory flashed before her – the moon, floating on the horizon. And the rustle of bleached hair in the wind.
She shook her head frantically, stopping in her tracks, hands white-knuckled on the stretcher.
At the sudden jerking stop, Caspar turned around, eyeing her. “You okay?”
Her face felt white. Her leg burned with the memory of THAT pain.
The screams in her mind were so loud she almost wondered if they were real. But Caspar just looked at her, quizzically. She tried to smile. “Yes,” she managed. “Let’s keep going.”
“We can stop.”
She thought about the rocks in the tunnel and shook her head.
They would probably need a water break soon, however. They’d already covered quite a distance, even at such a slow pace.
She was calculating how much each person would need when a shriek tore out of the darkness up ahead, a terrified sound like a wounded animal.
Caspar jerked around and met Jossey’s eyes. Without a word, they set the stretcher down and sprinted toward the source of the noise, staying well to the left of the crowd. Jossey’s wrists were numb, and she shook them as she ran.
Sally sat on the edge of the cliff, clutching Perkins’ ankle. Apparently her foot had slipped over the side in the dark at a point where the ledge had eroded. She was sobbing. Perkins was awkwardly patting her on the head.
“She’s on my Engineering team,” Caspar muttered to Jossey as they pushed through the crowd. “New kid. Never been aboveground before.”
“Apparently she’s never been tunnel exploring either,” Jossey whispered back. “Not doing so great in the dark.” She glanced over her shoulder, at the maw of the tunnel behind them. “I thought I hear– ”
He gave her a look. She clamped her mouth shut.
Sally was in hysterics. “I can’t go. I can’t.” She scooted back against the wall, sat there with her hands pressed against the rough-hewn stone, hyperventilating.
Jossey shouldered her way through the crowd and crouched in front of the young woman, Perkins hovering protectively.
“Sally,” Jossey said as gently as she could.
“I can’t,” Sally whimpered. “We have to wait for a transport.”
“We need more light,” Perkins barked.
“That’s not a good ide– ”
“Who do you think you are?” He rounded on her. “We’re all Citizens here.”
Jossey remained crouching, glaring up at him.
“She’s team leader,” the old machinist said.
“For your crew, maybe,” Perkins said. “My team leader’s sick today, and I’m a Senior Engineer, so guess that makes me in charge.”
“Can’t you feel the night air?” Jossey said coldly, standing up and turning to Perkins, ignoring the pain in her bad leg. She twisted her fingers in the faint breeze.
He was half a head taller than her, but she held her ground, crossing her arms. Sally looked back and forth between them, wide-eyed.
“I guess you should know,” Perkins finally said, smirking. “Aren’t you the girl whose brother – ”
In an instant, Jossey’s face went from concerned to frozen, stonelike. She looked sharply away from Perkins.
“No extra light. None.” She smiled twistedly at him. “Try not to fall.” To Sally, she said, “Get up.”
Sally looked at her, openmouthed.
Jossey stalked back to the stretcher. “Let’s go.”
Perkins had turned away from her and was grumbling to one of his fellow workers. Sally was still on the ground, huddled against the wall, head in her arms. Jossey shook her head and stretched, preparing her arms for carrying the driver again.
In the darkness behind them, there was a light clink as something rolled out of the tunnel and struck the stretcher.
Jossey, without turning around, gave him a look. Then she reached up and switched off her safety light.
THEY CAN SEE YOU IN THE DARK.
Jossey sidestepped into the blackness, slipping off her pack and leaving it on the ground so it couldn’t get in her way.
In the faint dimness she saw a tall shape near the tunnel wall, nothing more.
She had been facing away from the creature when she had turned off her light; she hoped it would not notice her disappearance, especially not with all the other lights up ahead. Her breathing felt ragged, her head pounding and starting to spin as the heat and darkness and fear converged, and she regretted not drinking more water before they started down into the earth.
Too bad, she told herself. Move.
The railing had to be behind her somewhere. She could feel the nighttime circulation from the pit, a wall of air rushing downward.
It got stronger the closer you were to the edge. She shivered.
Her hands were clammy as she reached backward into darkness for the metal rail, her eyes on the creature, watching it for signs of movement.
There was no rail.
Jossey tipped backward, flailing, stepping into empty air, white-hot terror stabbing through her core.
She tried to scream.
And then she couldn’t breathe at all as her upper back hit the rail with a solid thud.
Her hands shot out sideways and found the metal bar that separated her from a five-hundred-foot fall, closing over the rail in a desperate vicelike grip. Her left foot slid forward and she pulled her right foot up over the edge, scrabbling for solid ground, her already-sore arms burning as she held on.
She sagged against the rail, eyes closed, trying to breathe, trying not to whimper.
Jossey let the cool night air wick the sweat from her forehead and tried not to think about the hundreds of feet of blackness below her or the creature before her, tried not to think about how clammy her hands were and how easily she could slip off this railing. The ground beneath her feet was pebbly. Eroded, she thought. From below, she could hear the faint reverberations of tunnelsong rising.
Jossey gritted her teeth, then bent her right knee and felt behind her with one tentative foot for the edge of the cliff to see how far back it was, how much maneuvering room she might have.
She bit her lip to keep from shrieking as her toes disappeared over the edge in the blackness. She lost her balance again, dropping to her right knee, hard, on the stone.
A foot. A foot between her and the pit.
Focus. You can do this. You have to do this. Team leaders, you are responsible for your group.
Jossey hauled herself back up to a standing position, entire body rigid.
Her hands shook against the rail. She tried to slow her breathing, forced herself to open her eyes.
You are the team leader.
The group seemed to have slowed, a sea of bobbing red lights to her right and dead ahead.
There it was. The creature, too, seemed to have slowed.
Its green eyes were dull, not the brilliant color she remembered, as if it too were hiding in the dark.
She heard the snick of claws as the Onlar unsheathed them, and saw the dullest of gleams, red in the eerie light.
She remembered turning with Tark to find a blaze of white hair and two green almost-flames where eyes should be, a creature, its voice shrieking, endlessly, so close to her face that she could smell its foul breath. The image burned in her memory like the desert moonlight. She remembered Tark’s arm around her, trying to drag her back, and then the creature’s claws had flicked out toward her face and she remembered nothing more.
Jossey squeezed her eyes shut, tried to clear her mind. Now. You are here now. Not there.
When she opened them at last, the creature had inched forward. It stood still, intently, as if studying the group. As she watched, it began to follow them.
She carefully – very carefully – released the railing with slippery hands and dropped to her knees, crawling forward until she was well clear of the edge.
By the time anyone else seemed to realize it was there, the Onlar was close to the head of the group.
Then someone turned and saw it, full in the face, and there were screams and sounds Jossey had never before heard from human beings as people clawed at each other, trying to get away.
Safety lights fell to the ground, scattered on the tunnel floor, rolling and sending running shadows flying across the blood-colored walls as people tried to hide in the darkness.
The creature slashed at the crowd with its claws, but it was staggering, pulling itself forward on what Jossey thought was a broken leg, toward the person yelling for them all to stop.
Jossey broke into a sprint, running to the cover of the tunnel wall.
She inched her way along the stone, knife gripped in her fist, heart beating in her throat. It wasn’t much of a blade, compared to what Patrol carried – her father had given it to her, and Mother hadn’t approved of weapons, even after Tark – but it was something. At most, she thought, the others might have wrenches on them.
She didn’t know what even her knife could do against one of the creatures, not after the stories she’d heard. Their bite was deadly, it was common knowledge; no one bitten had ever survived it. As for those They took with them…
Sometimes they only find bones.
She willed herself to move, keep going forward, but her feet felt frozen to the ground.
The creature’s eyes were lit a brilliant green now, like two almost-flames in its face. It was panting, its blazing eyes fixed on Perkins, pointing at him with claws the length of a man’s forearm. Its hair was matted and stuck out at odd angles.
She could see no face, just eyes.
Perkins turned and saw the creature.
The creature hissed and pulled itself forward.
Perkins backed up against the guardrail. His face was a horrible shade of gray as he shouted for help, fumbling in his bag.
From one of the dark corners of the tunnel, some brave crew member threw a rock at the creature; it struck it in the back and the creature let out an enraged howl, but it kept stumbling toward Perkins, leg dragging along the ground.
Perkins shouted for help, again, desperately.
Jossey could see Sally in the shadows, her eyes shut, shaking as she pressed her hands over her ears.
The safety lights glowed softly, dotting the tunnel floor like a galaxy of blood-red stars. A part of Jossey noted that in another situation, they might be beautiful.
In that moment, something occurred to her.
She made her way to her abandoned pack and dropped to the ground, wincing as she hit her sore knee.
She tore open the bag and fumbled through its contents. The rough ground bit further into her knees and she ignored the pain, rifling through as fast as she could.
Did I leave it on the transport?
She let go of the knife, which hit the floor with a clattering sound, and dug in with both arms.
At the noise, the creature whipped around, blazing eyes trained directly on her.
Jossey’s breathing caught and she forced herself to stay calm as the creature looked back and forth slowly between her and Perkins.
Where is it where is it where
She had a horrifying mental image of the little metal tube rolling down the aisle of the transport, and realized she didn’t know if she’d gotten everything back.
The interior of her duffel was a mess of unidentifiable objects, sharp and dull and different materials, all jumbled together in darkness.
And she might have about three seconds before –
The creature snarled, blazing eyes locked on her.
Jossey’s fingers closed around a long metal object. She yanked it triumphantly out of the bag.
A utensils holder.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Caspar and a man from her crew brandishing stretcher poles. They shouted at the creature. She didn’t know what good the poles could do.
Why weren’t we armed? she thought furiously to herself.
The Onlar ignored them, focusing back on Jossey.
She stared it straight in the eyes as she scrabbled frantically in the endless bag with her arm, fingers half-numb and icy cold.
The creature made a gurgling sound and lurched in her direction.
Then, suddenly, her hand found the raised printing she sought.
She ripped the tube out of the bag, twisted off the top and pressed the button.
With a psssssst and a loud crackle, the emergency flare shot out gleaming pinkish-red sparks and then hissed, blazing bright, so bright it was almost as if it were suddenly daylight underground.
They can see you in the dark, she thought. But what about in the light?
The creature howled at the brightness, throwing an arm up in front of its eyes. Staggering, it turned and lunged in Perkins’ direction, claws extended. Perkins didn’t move, frozen to the guardrail.
Jossey looked away from the light and hurled the flare at the creature.
The creature dragged itself toward Perkins, still covering its eyes, swiping viciously ahead of itself into open space with enormous jagged claws. What sounded like gargling came from its throat.
Perkins still didn’t move. Jossey, still half-blinded by the light, scooped up the knife and broke into a sprint, shouting for Perkins to run.
The creature swung around, claws extended toward her face.
JOSSEY HADN’T EXPECTED SUCH QUICK MOVEMENT. SHE SLID TO the ground as she dodged underneath the claws and found herself looking straight into a pair of green almost-flames for the second time in her life.
The creature hissed, barely balancing with its bad leg, and stabbed downward with its enormous claws. She jerked her whole body to the side, felt them jab into the ground beside her. She could hear Perkins’ horrified voice, Caspar shouting, others she didn’t know.
She scrabbled for the flare, felt it sear into her hand as she wrapped her fingers around it, just below the flame.
Then she thrust it upward toward the creature’s face as it leapt on her.
EVERYTHING WAS DARK.
Jossey wasn’t sure she was still breathing.
Everything was dark, and heavy, and she felt as if one of the tunnels had collapsed on her. Something was warm, all over her hands and her arms, and she wondered if maybe it was her blanket overheating again. She tried to shake her head, but found she couldn’t move.
Something smelled terrible, rank. Something very close. She could feel it filling up her nostrils. From somewhere high above came the murmur of voices.
She tried to speak, but she couldn’t find the air. Her chest felt as if someone were standing on it.
In the darkness, she felt a slight breeze, drifting across her left hand. Just barely. Desperate, she tried to move her fingers.
The voices above her stopped. She tried harder. One finger felt half-broken.
She gritted her teeth and forced it to move.
There was a muffled exclamation from above, and then the weight was being pulled off her, and with a sharp pain in her chest and a gasping rush of cool air to her lungs she could breathe again.
She lay there for a moment, choking, inhaling dust, then rolled over and groaned as pain seeped through her body. Wherever she was, it was very dark, with an odd flickering in the air. She wasn’t home, she thought.
The ground beneath her was rocky, gritty. It smelled of dirt and that rank odor. Next to her hand, the remains of a flare smoldered on the ground, bits of hot ash scattered and glowing gently.
She rolled onto her back again and blinked up at the half-familiar faces staring down at her, four images resolving into two and then blurring again. Her head was killing her. “What’s going on? Who are you?”
The younger man’s brow furrowed. She didn’t think she recognized him. The older one was white as a sheet. He looked more familiar, if blurry. Percy? Patrick? She could not remember.
She turned her head to the right and jumped, leaping backward with a shriek. An Onlar was lying facedown next to her, very definitely not breathing. Jossey pushed herself to a sitting position, inching away from the Onlar, and cradled her head in her left hand as the light from the flare wavered in and out, pulsing unpleasantly in the background.
She realized she was gripping a knife in her right hand. The blade and her arms and torso were covered in blood.
She leaned over and was violently sick on the stone.
The reddish light from the flare was still flickering over the tunnel walls as she tried to collect herself. Why was one of the creatures from the aboveground – She tried to remember. Her head throbbed where she had struck it against the tunnel floor.
“You saved us,” the older man said quietly. Perkins, she thought she remembered. She opened half an eye, wincing, and looked up at him. “Who are you?” she repeated.
“Don’t you remember?” The younger one.
His uniform said SOLAR CREW 35. Not her crew, then. Sharp silver eyes probed her face. “The accident? The transport?” he said urgently. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
At the word “transport,” memories came flooding back, along with a surge of adrenaline that made Jossey grip the knife so hard she thought the handgrip would cut her palm.
She wobbled as she scrambled to her feet, ignoring his question, and felt herself pitch sideways. The two men grabbed her shoulders and forced her to sit.
“Don’t move,” the older one, Perkins, said. “We think you took a nasty hit to the head.” He cleared his throat. “Caspar and I – ” He glanced at the younger man.
Caspar. That’s right.
“Where are the others?” she demanded. “What happened? Did Patrol – ”
Perkins gestured further down the tunnel, where the red light dissolved into blackness.
Caspar spoke up. “They ran when the thing attacked you.” He cleared his throat. “We, ah – ” He looked away.
“We thought you hadn’t made it,” Perkins said gruffly. “We told them to wait further down so they wouldn’t…have to see anything further.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to process it all.
“Don’t!” Caspar’s voice was sharp. She blinked, startled, and tried to focus on his features. It made her dizzy.
“Don’t close your eyes,” he said more gently.
“I – ”
“We have to get you on the stretcher. Patrol doesn’t seem to be coming.”
“The driver?” she asked weakly.
He looked sober. “That” – he gestured to the Onlar – “got to him on its way up to Perkins.” He frowned. “Usually they don’t bother to chase us this far down without larger numbers.”
“Why?” She tried to keep her vision steady, gripping her head in her left hand. Concussion, she thought. Her right hand still wouldn’t let go of the knife. Her left felt strangely numb, detached, although she knew she had probably burned it badly.
She glanced at it. It was white, as if she had dipped it in chalk. Second-degree, she estimated, maybe third.
“Where’s the group?” she asked a second time.
“You need a doctor,” Caspar said, frowning.
Perkins got to his feet. “I can go get the stretcher. You okay to move?”
Jossey gestured in assent, but she was struggling to sit straight. “Do I have to?”
Perkins picked up what looked like an improvised weapon and walked off. Caspar stayed, watching her face.
“We’re not far from the first checkpoint,” he said. “We can call Patrol from there. You did a good job getting us this far, Jossey.”
“Patrol has them in the tunnels.”
“I don’t remember much from my apprenticeship, but I remember the endless check-ins.” He gave half a smile. “It should be around here somewhere.”
“Huh,” Jossey said distractedly. She stared at the knife in her hand. I should clean this, she thought. “The poor driver. I wonder–”
Caspar reached out for the knife. Her grip tightened even further.
She shook her head. “I can’t.” Her wrist was trembling.
“It’s okay. It happens to many of us.” He smiled ruefully. “It happened to me.”
“You?” Her hands were starting to shake now from the adrenaline. And she could feel the searing pain of the burn from where she had held onto the flare.
“When I was an apprentice. I was fifteen, maybe sixteen. When we were first attacked in the tunnels, I…might have hidden behind a rock spire. The commander had to pry the knife out of my hand.” He cracked a grin. “I think that’s the only Patrol-related injury I have.”
She laughed shakily and focused. Her wrist relaxed, just barely.
With a clatter, the knife fell to the ground, making her jump.
Caspar picked up the weapon, glanced at it, then casually wiped it on his uniform. Jossey looked away, horrified.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Habit.”
They both looked up as footsteps approached.
It was Perkins. With him was Liam, the silent blond giant from her crew. The stretcher looked like a toy in his arms.
Some people from the group had followed, keeping well back as they eyed the dead Onlar on the tunnel floor. Sally was at the front. Her hands flew to her mouth as she saw the creature.
She broke from the group and ran to Jossey’s side.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried.
“Keep your voice down!” Perkins hissed.
The young woman’s gaze flew to her uncle, stricken. In a whisper, she continued. “This is all my fault. If I hadn’t screamed – ”
Jossey shook her head, instantly regretting it as pain lanced through her skull. She gripped her forehead in her hands. “Please don’t,” she managed.
Sally wiped at her face and took a step back. “You saved our lives,” she said, gingerly reaching out and touching Jossey’s shoulder, flinching when Jossey winced in pain.
Perkins gently drew his niece away. She wept into his shoulder.
Others weren’t much better off, Jossey saw. One was supported by his neighbors, face white as he eyed the dead Onlar. He was injured, probably while running. His crew members helped him onto a makeshift second stretcher. Several people looked to be in shock.
“Get everyone water,” she muttered to Perkins. To her surprise, he did as she asked without complaint.
Caspar took one of the canteens, slit it open with the knife. Jossey tried to protest, but he gave her a look that silenced her.
“Put your hand in this,” he said.
“Just do it.”
She put her burned hand into the half-canteen. It was full of cool water. Her hand was still shaking, but she focused on keeping it still.
“This is all the water we can spare,” Caspar told her. “But you need to cool that off.”
“Are you a doctor too?” Jossey half-joked.
He grinned. “Just got into too many adventures as a kid.”
“You probably won’t feel that burn fully for a while,” he added. “Adrenaline is a beautiful thing.”
Liam placed the stretcher on the ground next to Jossey. “Thank you,” he said. His normally stonelike expression cracked into a smile. She smiled back.
“Here,” Caspar said, glancing at Liam. He stood up and moved aside. “Be careful with your head.”
“I’m fine,” Jossey muttered. She gingerly climbed onto the stretcher, trying not to spill the water or move her head too quickly. She stared at the ceiling as they slipped someone’s bundled emergency blanket under her head, and tried not to look as the Onlar was unceremoniously shoved to the side of the tunnel.
The creature’s arm slid down its body, and the claws hit the floor with a clicking sound that made Jossey flinch and close her eyes against the wave of fear that threatened to overwhelm her.
Caspar’s voice said, “Don’t sleep!”
She opened her eyes and stared resolutely at the ceiling. “I’m not.”
“Good.” He turned to Liam. “Let’s go. Carefully.”
Suddenly he sounded much older; there was something dark to his tone.
Jossey wanted to look at him, see what had changed, but she found she felt less sick if she simply looked up.
THE REMAINDER OF THE GROUP WAS WAITING FOR THEM AS THEY neared the curve in the tunnel. Jossey tried to smile as people murmured their thanks. An Onlar attack wasn’t unheard of against Patrol – was fairly common – but the last attack on a transport had been before Jossey had been born.
None of these people had been prepared for this, she thought.
None, she suspected, but Caspar. He seemed exceptionally calm, nothing like the terrified Patrol apprentice he said he had once been. And maybe Liam, whose granite-like back forged ahead into the gloom. She was glad they were the ones carrying her. The rest of the group clustered together like tunnel bats, jumping at every sound.
They made their slow way ever downward.
Jossey faded in and out of awareness, focusing on keeping her eyes open, pinching herself when necessary. Her hand was beginning to burn.
Really burn. Like she had dipped it in fire.
She tried to think about something else, and her mind drifted to Tark.
If he were in this situation, she thought, he’d probably be having a great time. Onlar, the dark, a broken-down transport…that kind of thing was almost all he and his best friend Gavin used to talk about. They used to play Patrol all the time. Sometimes they would take her with them, though not into the outer tunnels.
Tark had never been afraid of the dark, of the tunnels and the stories their teachers told, even as a child, she remembered. He’d just laughed whenever the teachers tried to scare them into staying within the City bounds. Every year the speech was the same.
She remembered the last one she’d heard with Tark, before he’d moved on to middle school.
“The Onlar are vicious killers,” Teacher Peterson had told them, striding dramatically across the front of the primary school’s classroom, as if his words were not frightening enough. He was a tall, angular man, with a face like a horse, as Mother had said.
Eight-year-old Jossey did not know what a horse was, but she thought it must be scary, like Teacher Peterson.
“There are three levels to this City,” Peterson nearly shouted, spittle flying from his mouth. “The inner level is usually safe. The outer level you may only enter with your parents, or an adult. And you must never, ever go outside the main gates without Patrol. Do you understand?”
Jossey knew that Tark and Gavin snuck outside the gates on a regular basis when Patrol wasn’t looking. Patrol couldn’t be everywhere, and often the boys weren’t missed for several hours. When she’d caught on, they’d bribed her with sugar gems and the promise of a tunnel adventure to keep her quiet.
Onlar, Peterson went on, was a word that meant “They” or “Them” in the Old Language. Creatures of the aboveground.
They hid during the day. But at night…
Jossey was in her third year of primary school, and she’d heard all of this before, but some of the others clearly hadn’t. Little Benny Kingman looked petrified, and clutched his sister’s hand under their adjoined desks.
Tark, though, seemed less than impressed. He yawned from the back of the classroom, earning giggles from Gavin and a withering glare from Teacher Peterson.
“Do you know WHY you must never go into the tunnels, Tark?”
Tark sat up straighter, but looked evenly at the teacher. “Because the Onlar might take you.”
“That’s right,” Peterson snarled.
Tark looked unfazed. “I’ve heard Patrol only finds bones,” he said, grinning.
Gavin raised his hand. Peterson pointedly ignored him. “Stand in the corner, Tark,” Peterson said. “This is no laughing matter.”
Tark shrugged and wandered over to the corner.
Jossey watched him go, wide-eyed. The class was almost over. If he got in trouble again, Father might not let either of them go on the Engineering trip he’d promised them.
Peterson returned to the front of the classroom, looking disdainfully at the motley group of children. They shuffled their feet under his gaze.
He flicked the switch on a projector, and the terrifying features of an Onlar filled the screen, far too close-up for Jossey’s liking. Beside Jossey, Benny whimpered.
“THIS is an Onlar,” Peterson announced unnecessarily.
Jossey pretended to be brave, looking coolly at the screen while secretly hoping the lights in the inner tunnels wouldn’t flicker on the way home.
“Beyond the City gates, the tunnels are off-limits except by special permission, as I said,” Peterson continued. “Once you are adults, if you are Engineers, you may take shuttles to the surface. These shuttles are specially designed to – ”
Gavin’s hand was now fluttering. Peterson sighed and turned from the screen. “Yes, Gavin?”
“What if we took swords with us? Or – or – ” He dissolved into giggles.
Tark cracked up. “Yeah, what about if we dressed like Onlar and – ”
“Out of my class. Out!” Peterson roared. “Demoted for the day!” Muttering under his breath, Peterson stalked over to his desk.
Tark and Gavin whooped and raced out of the classroom, laughter trailing behind them.
The other children were stock-still, eyes enormous, watching Peterson scribble something into his notebook. Demoted for the day was a severe punishment – it meant no field trip points. And they desperately wanted to go to the City’s chocolate-processing plant on Friday. Jossey squirmed, hoping that being Tark’s sister wouldn’t put her spot in danger.
There were slight whispers as Peterson got up again, but the class fell dead silent as the teacher turned and looked at them. Jossey shrank in her chair.
“Anyone else?” Peterson demanded.
Chocolate field trip or no, Jossey timidly raised her hand.
Something had been puzzling her for weeks. Tark’s answers hadn’t been sufficient, and were, she suspected, probably made-up.
She gulped as Peterson glared down his narrow nose at her.
“Teacher P-Peterson,” she half-squeaked, “how do the Onlar– that is, how do they survive aboveground if they don’t have uniforms like us?”
Peterson’s face was like stone.
“They hide in the canyons,” he said finally. “There are caves up there. And even so, the Onlar are adapted to the heat.”
She thought for a moment. Caves made sense. But –
“What does ad-adapted mean?”
Before Peterson could respond, the class bell had rung, and Jossey’s question had gone unanswered.
Now, Jossey watched the tunnel ceiling above her, half hearing Caspar and Perkins’ low conversation.
“They’d have to examine the body,” Caspar said.
Jossey’s ears perked up. Patrol would probably be interested – they’d want to know how and why one of the Onlar had managed to get past the defenses at the tunnel entrances and attack a transport. Those were normally heavily secured – the transports went through a gate at the surface before picking up passengers, who took an access tunnel directly from the solar farm to the transport stop.
Her thoughts went to the second transport, the one that was supposed to have come in behind them.
There was always a final backup shuttle, in case anyone had to stay for any reason at the solar plant. Otherwise, they’d be stuck up there for the night, sealed into the metal box. She’d had to do that once or twice.
It had been a truly awful experience – she hadn’t slept a wink, every shadow moving under the moonlight a potential threat, maybe an Onlar coming to attack their solar plant. She’d sat by the window, staring off into the moonlit desert landscape. Once, she’d thought she’d seen a pair of green eyes staring back at her from a cliff.
A desert cat, her then-crew-leader had guessed. She’d hoped so.
What if the transport –
“What – ” Her mouth was dry, and the word came out as a croak. Caspar glanced down at her.
She tried again, cleared her throat. “What happened to the other transport? The night one?”
Caspar shook his head. “Don’t think about it.” He glanced over at Perkins. “Doing all right?”
The answer was a grunt.
“The Patrol box is somewhere up here,” Caspar said to Liam. “Let’s slow down a bit.”
“Would Patrol even come get us, do you think?” Jossey said softly, hoping the rest of the group wouldn’t overhear. She knew that after nightfall the Council might refuse to send Patrol up into the tunnels. It was too dangerous. And escorting an entire group of unarmed civilians…
“My uncle is on the Council,” she added hopefully.
“Is he?” Caspar glanced down at her.
“Yes. Ladislaus Sokol. He’s – ”
“ – Minister of Intelligence,” Caspar said. “Yes, I know who he is.” He smiled a little. “I think everyone does.”
“Well then maybe – ” she said hesitantly.
Liam cut her off. “I see something up ahead.”
Caspar slowed down, peered into the dimness. Jossey couldn’t see anything. But Caspar whistled. “There it is.”
A BOX, ABOUT THE SIZE OF JOSSEY’S HAND, GLOWED A FAINT turquoise in the tunnel wall, barely illuminating the rock around it. Caspar grinned. He and Liam gently lowered the stretcher to the ground.
Caspar went up to the glowing box. “Let’s see if I can remember how to do this,” he muttered.
He reached out and put his hand on the box. It began to glow more brightly. A strip of red appeared around the edge.
“Is it working?” Perkins asked.
“Hold on.” Caspar frowned. He punched a couple of buttons. “This one’s an older model.” Something lit up, flickered, then faded. He groaned. “I can’t remember the code.”
“Great,” Perkins grumbled.
Jossey watched from the ground, curious. She’d been in the tunnels a few times, mostly when Tark had taken her exploring, but had never seen one of these. Maybe Patrol didn’t have them so close to the City.
Caspar looked lost in thought for a moment, then his silver eyes lit up and he pressed another sequence of buttons.
A green strip appeared around the edge, and the box crackled loudly.
“Identify yourself.” The tinny voice resounded around the tunnel.
Caspar quickly pressed another button. The volume dropped.
He leaned in toward the box. “Level P-45, quadrant four.” His voice was calm, assured. “I’m an Engineer with solar crew 35.”
P-45? Jossey squinted, her head pounding.
The other crew members silently gathered around, watching.
“What is your situation?” The voice was young. Jossey guessed a new recruit.
Caspar glanced at the rest of them. “We are a transport party, two solar crews, total about thirty people. We’ve been attacked, one Onlar down, one driver down, several injured. We need immediate help,” he said.
There was a click. A few seconds of silence.
There was a second click, a faint rattling sound.
Then the tinny voice spoke again. It was calm, measured.
As if the person on the other end were reading from a script.
“We regret to hear of your situation, Engineer, but the Gates have been closed.”
“I understand that, but – ”
“You are advised to remain where you are,” the tinny voice continued. “Take shelter. At first light Patrol units can be sent to the surface and evacuate you along the way.”
Caspar stared at the box.
It crackled, and went silent.
Someone choked. Jossey turned but couldn’t see who. Their safety lights had been on for over two hours, and were beginning to dim.
She reached up and switched hers off; they might need them later. She watched others silently do the same.
Liam’s jaw tightened, and he stepped forward as if he wanted to physically reach the person on the other side of the box. Perkins put a warning hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t,” Perkins rumbled.
The Patrol dispatcher on the other side of the box had sounded like he was rattling off the day’s menu or announcing an evacuation drill – “Citizens, remain calm,” that type of thing – rather than giving them what was essentially a death sentence.
Jossey looked at her safety gauge. 10:02 PM. Sunrise should be around 5:00 AM.
Seven more hours in the dark, most likely. Enough water for about four hours.
No one moved for a long moment.
Jossey made to get up, but found she could not.
She sank back to the ground, hand over her face. Perkins gruffly handed her his water canteen, and she drank from it gratefully. It wasn’t quite as hot down here, but she’d calculated the water rations. They’d used some to treat the injured, and she’d used up all of her own after fighting the Onlar. Her burned hand was currently dipped in her ration.
Seven hours, she thought again. She looked up at Caspar, feeling dizzy.
Perkins exploded before anyone else could.
“You can’t do that to an entire transport!” Perkins yelled. “Do you hear me? We’re Citizens! We pay your wages!”
The tinny voice did not react. The box still glowed a faint green, which meant it was connected.
Caspar held up a hand.
Toward the box, he said calmly, “We do not have enough water, even without considering the Onlar. Do you understand me?”
The voice repeated, firmly, “The gates are closed.”
Jossey tried again to get to her feet, tried not to drop the water container. Her hand was nearly screaming in pain.
“Our team leader is injured,” Caspar said, seeing her trying to stand. He shook his head at her, frowning. “We cannot wait for rescue. Do you – ”
“Again, I am sorry, but – ”
The voice did not sound particularly sorry.
Caspar’s face stilled. “Give me your superior,” he said slowly.
His tone – Jossey looked up sharply at him. There was something about it, something she had not heard before.
As if he expected unquestioning obedience. His long silver eyes were narrowed.
She felt a sudden chill.
He started to type in a code.
“You have no override authority – ” the box squawked.
“There is a Council family member in this crew,” Caspar said coldly. “Maybe you are familiar with Ladislaus Sokol.”
There was a pause. A slight crackle.
Then a different voice, crisper. “Solar crew 35? Your first name for our records?”
“I’m very sorry for the confusion. We can immediately send a transport retrieval team.” The voice was crisp, polite. And afraid, Jossey thought.
She’d never considered her family connections to be important. Her father hadn’t wanted anything to do with the Council, had just wanted to be an ordinary Engineer. She had always found it distasteful that being the niece of Ladislaus Sokol would get her special privileges, though Tark had had no such reservations.
She’d always mumbled her last name when called upon in Engineering school, had always ignored the glances and whispers, had made sure she’d earned her crew leader position.
But if this would save them, she was all for it.
“Engineer, please stay with the com box. And stay alert. There may be more Onlar. The retrieval team should arrive within thirty minutes.”
A click, then silence in the tunnel.
Perkins almost clapped, but restrained himself, looking around at the black entrance to the tunnel above them.
Caspar sighed and came back over to the stretcher, crouching beside Jossey. She smiled at him. “Thanks,” she whispered. “I don’t know what P-45 means, but I’m glad you remembered it.”
“It’s a standard check-in number. It’s on the box.” He pointed to the glowing tiny symbols at the base. “It gives them your location.” He smiled ruefully. “It’s pretty much the only thing I remember. And, of course, how to sound authoritative.” He grinned.
She laughed, flinching as her headache worsened. “You’re good at that.”
“Sorry to interrupt.” Perkins was standing there. “Hadn’t we better set up a perimeter?”
Caspar snapped to full attention. “Yes. Right.” He glanced down at Jossey. “Excuse me.”
They walked off. Jossey rolled onto her side, making herself as uncomfortable as possible, so she wouldn’t sleep.
She looked down at her uniform, at the Onlar’s blood everywhere. She felt itchy all of a sudden, felt the need to dunk herself in a tank of water. If only that were allowed down in the City.
Instead, she covered herself with a thin blanket Sally had brought her from someone’s bag, trying not to think about her ruined uniform.
Her vision was a little better now, but she still saw stars if she moved too quickly. Her hand was aching. She wasn’t sure which was worse.
Perkins and Caspar’s voices approached again. She turned carefully to see that the group was now two circles, the inner one women and older men, the outer one younger men. Liam, who was the biggest of the group, was positioned closest to the upper tunnel exit.
“Good,” murmured Jossey.
She felt clammy all of a sudden as Caspar and Perkins sat down next to her. Something felt wrong.
“I don’t feel – ”
Caspar took one look at her face, grabbed the nearest canteen, and shoved it into her hand. “Drink,” he ordered.
“I need a doctor,” Jossey mumbled, pushing it away. “That’s someone else’s water.”
“It’s my water. Drink it.” He looked frantic. “Perkins – ”
Perkins looked back and forth between them. “Sally!” he barked.
His niece hurried over.
“Keep her awake. Tell her stories. Poke her in the shoulder. Anything. We have to keep watch,” Perkins said.
“Make her drink the water,” Caspar added.
Jossey sighed and tried to drink. She choked, took another sip, tried not to spill any.
Sally looked apprehensive, but sat down next to Jossey. “Tell me about – your childhood,” she said cheerily.
Caspar looked concerned, but satisfied. He and Perkins walked farther off and began to converse in low tones.
Jossey groaned. The last thing she wanted to do was to talk about her childhood. But Perkins had a point. She took another swig of the water and coughed.
“What do you want to know?”
Sally smiled, a little shyly. “Did you ever go tunnel exploring?”
Jossey laughed. “Will you tell on me?”
Sally was trying not to laugh aloud as Jossey told her the story of the time Tark had snuck an entire live tunnel bat family into their living quarters and hid them in his room for two days before Mother discovered them.
Jossey smiled too. She’d forgotten some of these silly stories, had purposely buried them.
She was grateful to Caspar for the extra water, though she felt guilty as he sat on the ground, looking exhausted. He looked over, and she looked away from him awkwardly before taking another swig of the water.
Maybe she’d try to save some for him.
She realized it was hard to see him, even with her eyes adjusted to the dimness. With a shock, she realized that it was hard to see, period.
Was it her concussion? she wondered, frantic.
Then she realized that it was the safety lights.
They were fading.
No one seemed to have noticed. But with those off, they’d probably be sitting ducks…again. The Onlar could move silently, on padded feet, even when injured. Even in numbers, she’d heard.
“Caspar,” she croaked. “Perkins.”
They didn’t seem to hear. Sally looked at her, frowning.
She gestured for the junior Engineer to go get them.
They got to their feet in an instant as Sally came running, looking over at Jossey with alarm. Jossey beckoned to them with her good hand, barely able to raise her head off the makeshift pillow.
Caspar got there first, dropping to a crouch. He shoved dark strands of hair out of his face, concerned silver-grey eyes peering into hers. “Are you all right?”
“The lights,” she croaked. “They’re going out.”
She gestured to Perkins. “We need to turn them off. All but the outer circle. Patrol gave us half an hour. It’s been ten minutes. At this rate, we might have ten minutes of solid darkness if we don’t turn some off.”
The Onlar had attacked in maybe three minutes.
“I can tell them.” Sally stood up.
She disappeared into the circle.
One by one, the lights in the center faded to blackness.
Caspar got to his feet. “Everyone needs a swig of water. And we should enforce absolute silence. Without enough light – ”
He didn’t have to complete the sentence.
“I’ve got the outer circle,” he said to Perkins. Then he looked down at Jossey. “And you – ”
She smiled wanly. “I’m closest to the bottom of the circle. They’ll probably come from above.”
He looked soberly at her. “Just don’t make any noise.”
She handed him the water. “Drink.”
“I’m in charge.”
Something like a smile passed over his face.
“You’re out of commission,” was all he said.
Before she could say anything else, he disappeared into the dimness, leaving her with the water.
She lay there, waiting, as her hand continued to burn and the lights faded even further. Some of them began to flicker.
The group was completely silent as one, then the next, vanished into blackness.
It had been forty minutes since they’d called for rescue when the final one went out.
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