Leadership calls it a maintenance detail, but Kagen is about to learn why the workers know it as The Death Detail.
Driven underground to escape a biological weapon known as The Agent, the last known colony of people take refuge in a large subterranean facility called Securus. Kagen Meldon, a Healer by profession, finds his only mental escape in exploring The Caves, an adjoining underground system isolated from the poisonous atmosphere.
His life was routine until an unexpected discovery in The Caves leads to the murder of his close friend. The tragic event, combined with the ensuing Leadership cover-up, throws his life into chaos. Now, struggling through the relentless scrutiny of Leadership and battling a deadly viral outbreak, Kagen’s pursuit of the truth leads him to risk his own life as well as the safety of everyone he loves. Can he survive The Death Detail long enough to reveal the sordid secret the conspirators are trying so vehemently to protect?
e x c e r p t
For the first time I can remember, I wake up before the blare of my morning alert. Sleeping is usually an escape from my bland world, bringing dreams filled with vivid colors and exciting landscapes to explore. Tearing my mind away from those dreams to face my stark reality is normally difficult, but today is not going to be a normal day. For the first time in months, I have been given a permit to go into The Caves with my friends. Leadership has been much more restrictive with access lately, especially with groups, so this evening’s excursion will be a rare escape for us.
My eyes are open, but the room remains veiled in darkness. With all of Securus being deep underground, there are no windows or light except for the barely perceivable shimmer penetrating the seals of the entry door. By the time I sit on the edge of the bed, the main power is activated. The lights inside my quarters turn on, emitting their familiar warm glow. Years ago they were altered to provide a substitute for the Sun’s rays after we discovered the lack of natural sunlight was causing depression and vitamin deficiencies. The bland walls of my quarters are not much more stimulating in the light than they were in the darkness.
The bunk above mine is empty. I hear my brother, Arluin, already dressing in the bathroom. As usual, he was the first to rise. Despite our ten year age difference, people often mention how alike we are. We do share the same olive skin tone and short cropped hair, but this early in the morning, the similarities end there. Even when I was a teenager like him, I was never such a morning person. Sitting on my bed, I wait for Arluin and my mother to get dressed before taking my turn. By the time I finish dressing, they are both already sitting in front of the television monitor embedded into the far wall, waiting for me to join them.
Arluin looks back at me with a hint of jealously in his deep green eyes. “You got up fast today.” He knows exactly why. Since Arluin is two years away from the mandatory minimum age requirement, he cannot go with me.
“You’ll be able to go soon enough.” I pat him on the shoulder while sitting down, not wanting to make him feel too bad. Being constantly surrounded by the same bland, steel walls is hard on all of us. Going into The Caves is the only time we temporarily escape them.
“Yeah, yeah.” Arluin turns to look me in the eye, revealing his mischievous smile. “So, Kagen, when are you gonna trick some girl into marrying you so you can finally get assigned you your own quarters and give me some space?”
“You and mom would be lost without me,” I tell him.
“We would manage just fine. It wouldn’t hurt for you to give some of those nice girls a chance,” my mother says from her chair next to Arluin.
Before I respond, a short high-pitched tone indicates the announcements are about to begin, mercifully cutting our conversation short. We divert our attention to the television in time to see the image of Mr. Vaden appear. For a moment, he remains silent while looking through the screen, as if waiting for our full attention. As always, he wears the official uniform of Leadership, which has clean lines on a mineral grey base. Differing accents on the sleeves and collar indicate the individual’s rank and occupation. The accents on Mr. Vaden’s uniform are royal blue, indicating his rank as the official leader of Securus.
Like all of those in Leadership, he also bears the distinctive insignia on the left breast of his uniform. It has an eight pointed Sun with a yellow center that melds into orange tips. The sun is surrounded by its glowing light and is nestled within the center of a sharp black biological hazard symbol. It is a reminder of the terrible biological weapon, known as The Agent, which has driven our people underground. The inspiration for the emblem was taken from the unique biohazard marker stamped into the massive steel outer doors that once served as the lone entrance to Securus. At first, the stamp was meant to keep others away by making them think the facility was already infected. Now, the Leadership insignia is meant to symbolize the light and strength that has come from the tyranny of The Agent’s devastation.
Seeing Mr. Vaden stare into the camera, waiting to speak, often makes me feel uneasy. He possesses an air of authority augmented by the streaks of silver interspersed in his hair. Even on the artificial screen, his calculating eyes seem to stare directly into you.
“Good morning, I am Mr. Vaden,” he starts as always, even though he needs no introduction. “I am pleased to announce our food and water levels remain above minimum levels. Energy generation remains sufficient. No defects were identified in the air filtration system diagnostic.
“However, not all news is good today. There has been some minor seismic activity, and I advise increased caution if venturing into The Caves. Not all areas have been reinforced and there’s always the danger of a collapse in the more remote chambers. Because of this, we will be closing off the upper tunnels to the public and limiting permits for access until everyone’s safety can be assured. Any infractions of our policies while in The Caves will not be tolerated.
“I also regret to inform you this week’s surface air test shows The Agent remains present and active. That is all for the morning announcements, may you all have a safe and productive day.”
The screen turns off, but I remain in my seat. Mr. Vaden’s warning during the announcements is completely unexpected. I have been in the upper tunnels many times before. They are heavily reinforced and never seemed to be unstable or dangerous. We have not had any people injured while in The Caves lately, so this closure makes me wonder why he is so concerned with that area. There has to be something more behind his decision. Since I am headed out there today, this is a troublesome change.
Arluin taps my shoulder, reminding me it is time to go. We all head down the hallway to our designated breakfast hall. There are many of these halls spread throughout Securus, and they all look the same. Once inside, we are again surrounded by more plain steel walls. At least in here the uniformity is broken up by a mobile food service area as well as built-in partitions. This designed flexibility allows the area to be used for multiple purposes throughout the day. With limited resources, we must always be creative and flexible with what we do have.
Today, our breakfast consists of the usual mix of a synthetic nutrient drink, small piece of bread, and a porridge-like substance. This is not our best meal of the day, but the food is always enough to get me through the morning. After some idle talk amongst our neighbors, I leave the hall and make my way to work. Securus has numerous levels and with the infirmary being six flights up, I use one of the many stairways to get there. There are some elevator platforms centrally located for our use, but I prefer the exercise of the stairs. When I reach the infirmary, the warm smile of our senior Healer, Rana McPheeters, greets me.
“We have a busy morning ahead of us with a full schedule of appointments. Can you take care of them for me?” she asks with a faint wink from behind large eye glasses that do nothing to conceal the keen perception behind them.
“Of course, to what do I owe the honor of filling in on your favorite duty?” I reply with a suspicious stare. Once assigned to the infirmary from the general aptitude testing, our training circulates us through all the jobs in the infirmary, but we typically settle on the particular function that suits us best. Rana has always greatly preferred the appointments over the walk in visits, so I cannot help but wonder what surprise she has waiting for me.
“Oh, I just wanted a change of pace for the day,” she says, nonchalantly turning to walk inside.
We both enter the main door into the infirmary, then turn down the central hallway connecting the various exam and treatment rooms. Like most other areas in Securus, the walls in here are undecorated except for labels to the individual rooms and sections. After passing the sterile surgical room, I turn into the appointment exam room. It has been a while since I worked in here, but the setup is ingrained into my mind. The small gurney for examinations sits adjacent to a row of cabinets filled with medicines and other essential equipment on the far wall. I check the schedule for the day before turning to prepare the equipment needed.
Before I get started, a crash comes from the hallway. I run out to find a man with a crazed look in his eyes, crawling on the floor toward Rana. She looks at the man before turning to me with confusion. We have both seen people like this before, except he is somehow covered with dirt. The only possible explanation for the dirt is if he came from The Caves. That does not make any sense though. Only research workers are allowed out there this early, and his uniform clearly shows he is not from the Research Department.
I go to help him up so we can get him into the treatment room. The reason for the rest of his weak and disheveled appearance is not so elusive. His frazzled, rusty brown hair has matted blood clots in it. Dried crimson stains trace down to his back. Aside from the wound, he also has cracked lips and sunken eyes signaling dehydration. My guess is he was injured out there and ended up stuck in The Caves all night. But if he was, then why did none of the Guards help him get here?
As soon as I get the injured man to his feet, he stagers and nearly falls before leaning heavily on me. He lifts his head from my shoulder, whispering to me. “They didn’t see me, but I saw them. They shouldn’t be out there. You have to stop them.”
His words seem like the product of his weakened physical state. Even so, they grab my attention. “Stop who?”
“The shadow-men in The Caves. They’ll be the end of Securus,” he says before his voice trails off.
Inside the exam room, I help him onto the gurney. I want to ask him more, except there will be scheduled patients waiting for me soon. On top of that, Rana raises a single eyebrow at me while she steps in to work on the ill man. Her look is meant to remind me that she is more than capable of handling this herself. Taking the hint along with a deep breath, I make my way back to the appointment room.
The patient’s odd presentation and message have piqued my interest, but in this profession, one must be able to mentally move on from whatever we encounter in order to best care for the next person. This time, doing so is harder than normal because his words mark the second unusual warning centering on The Caves. The coincidence is hard to ignore, especially on the very day I am scheduled to go out there.
Despite that, my job now is to focus on the scheduled appointments. Today, they largely consist of yearly blood screens for health maintenance and outbreak protection. The screens are not my favorite task, though they are necessary for the health of Securus.
There are multiple groups of collection tubes for me to separate. Each one reminds me of a disaster from the past. Our sophisticated biological filters protect us from the poisonous surface atmosphere, but The Caves are directly connected to the lower levels of Securus, bypassing their protection. Along with new resources, The Caves brought new microbes that when mixed with the old, created deadly strains of disease that nearly devastated our entire population.
The first set of tubes is intended to screen for continued immunity from vaccinations to a severe flu that wiped out one fifth of our population in a matter of months. The second set is to screen for any signs of a deadly hemorrhagic fever previously spread by tiny mites that invaded Securus. The screening for this one is geared at identifying any cases before the patient develops the full disease, with profuse bleeding from every possible orifice, both internally and externally. Since the mites have been eradicated and there has not been a case in years, I always felt like the testing was overkill. But, because the outbreak was so visually terrifying, our Research Department insists on it. The third set of tubes is for the general health maintenance. This is probably the only truly useful part of the screening.
All of the testing equipment is in order, and the vaccines are ready. I again fight to push aside my curiosity to Rana’s intentions and the weird coincidences with The Caves while gearing up for the day. Even so, I am not looking forward to covering in this area because the visits will all be the same. Extract enough blood for analysis; listen to the sounds of their heart and lungs, then move on to the next person. We already have so much routine in Securus, so adding more to my day is not the best change.
I already want to go back to my usual station where there are infinitely more possibilities. Random injuries, which for some reason always seem to be occurring to our younger men, and acutely ill people trickle in throughout the day. Each patient is always unique. It can be stimulating work, not to mention there is also another added benefit. In between these visits, I occasionally have the time to access the internet interface. This is a rare privilege, since there are so few access points, with most of them being restricted to Leadership personnel. The Healers are granted an exception to look for information to improve our effectiveness in treating patients, so they do not typically monitor our use. Now with the regimented schedule of the appointments, there will be no time for me to search the internet for the images that so often fill my dreams.
Even so, I would never decline Rana’s request. Instead, I need to figure out what she has in store for me today. She has a reason for nearly everything she does, and part of my continuing training is to decipher her lessons.
The morning moves faster than expected, and as the end of the scheduled appointments nears, I begin to appreciate why Rana enjoys these visits. Instead of focusing on the repetitive actions of the task, she relishes the opportunity to simply enjoy the company of those she sees. I wonder if that was the purpose of the switch all along. To give me more chances to connect with our people. While considering this and waiting for my next appointment, Rana appears in the doorway.
“I’m so forgetful today! I neglected to add one more name to the morning list,” she says while entering the room. There are many ways to describe Rana, but forgetful is not one of them. She may be older, with a head now full of long grey hair to prove it, but she remembers every word we have spoken to each other since I began as an understudy with her eight years ago. This seemingly incidental comment worries me. I make a mental note to speak with her later to make sure she is not feeling ill. Rana adds the name to the appointment list on the computer before leaving the room. I try not to stare, though she is clearly watching me out of the corner of her eye as she leaves. My curiosity compels me across the room to the list. I scan it to find the name she added. My heart momentarily flutters when seeing the name. The additional patient is Talia Vaden.
Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to speak with Talia for years, ever since we finished our primary education courses. Seeing her name brings back a flood of memories. I remember the last time she filled in for her father, Mr. Vaden, during the announcements. The screen beamed her long flowing black hair, deep brown eyes, and naturally tanned skin that completed the image of this stunningly beautiful woman. Her elegant confidence while speaking commands attention.
I shake my head, attempting to refocus my attention. Needing something to do while waiting for Talia’s appointment, I wander over to the cabinets and shuffle the phlebotomy supplies into a more logical order. There is not much to fix since this was already done as part of the morning check, but the mindless activity helps keep me on track. My attention is diverted back to the door by the sound of footsteps drawing near. I turn just as Talia enters the room. When seeing her, my knees almost give. She is radiant as ever.
“Hi Kagen, I didn’t know I was going to see you today! It’s been so long,” Talia says with a warm smile.
“I-I’m filling in for Rana. She wanted to change things up for the day.” I stutter for a moment before regaining my composure. “So, how are things in Leadership, you whipping everyone into shape?”
“It’s been great. With my growing responsibilities, I can better influence and organize Leadership. I have so many ideas to try to improve our life in Securus.” Talia speaks without any trace of insincerity, unlike many other members of Leadership who focus on their political ambition. Listening to her speak makes me grin. She has always had a way of sounding so proper and formal, only to surprise you with an offbeat or playful joke when you least expect it.
“You always did love a challenge,” I reply while carefully fumbling my way through the testing. “Are there any special projects you’re working on?”
“Well, I’ve been studying The Caves. I think there’s a lot more potential out there we have not yet harnessed,” she explains. “But, I don’t want to get too excited about it until I’m sure. I need to find some time to get back out there to collect more samples.”
“I’m going out to The Caves during free time today with some friends. You could come with us if you like. We could help collect whatever specimens you need,” I blurt out while labeling the samples.
“Sounds like fun, but I’m kind of busy. It could work if I can reschedule some meetings. I’ll let you know,” Talia replies causally. She gives me a brief hug, and then heads off.
After my knees regain their stability, I leave my exam room to check in with Rana. She is busy with some medical charting in the other exam room. From the door, I give her a suspicious stare. Seeing this, she responds with an embellished expression of innocence.
Even though Talia and I were friends in the past, I have always known there could never be anything more. We are bound by an unspoken law prohibiting those in the highest positions in Leadership from mixing with someone from the worker class. Being the daughter of Mr. Vaden and having a ranking position in the developmental section of the Research Department has her on track to succeed her father. Still, that never stops the tingling sensation in my stomach every time she is near. I never spoke of this with Rana, but it is hard to hide anything from those penetrating eyes.
With the morning appointments finished, I motion that it is time for my lunch. We do not have the same scheduled lunch breaks because there always has to be someone present in case of emergency, so she waves me off and continues her work. Before leaving, a lingering thought in the back of my mind stops me.
“Oh, just out of curiosity, what happened to the confused guy this morning?” I ask Rana.
“He wasn’t that bad. I gave him some fluids and stapled his scalp lacs. There were no internal injuries. When I finished, some Guards came to get him. They said he had been hiding in The Caves, trying to avoid going the Detention Center. I’m sure that’s where he is now,” she says with a shrug.
The explanation does make sense. Even so, his warning to me felt real. What could he have meant? Could he somehow be connected to the odd closure of the upper tunnels? There are no creatures out there big enough to be mistaken for a man, so that could not be what he saw. Most likely the shadows he saw were from the Guards chasing him or some research workers checking new tunnels for safety. But how could he mistake them for anything else, or think they were a threat to Securus? Realistically, his words had to be either delirious rambling or him faking delirium in an attempt to stay in the infirmary instead of going to the Detention Center. I cannot blame him for that, simply hearing Rana say the name of that place makes me uneasy. Most people would make up any story to avoid going there. I force my mind away from the disheveled man, since given his current situation, we will likely never hear from him again.
I leave the infirmary while replaying the rest of the morning in my mind. The work was more pleasant than expected, and it was nice to see Talia again. Thinking of Talia and remembering Rana’s clever setup brings my smile back. With extra energy in my steps, I continue on to get my lunch.
As expected, my friends are already there when I reach the lunch hall. A tight schedule must be maintained in the various food halls in order to rotate enough people through so everyone gets their daily ration. Because of the time constraint, they cannot wait long for me or they will miss their meal. This particular lunch hall is larger than my breakfast area but otherwise looks quite similar to it. Like most of the larger areas, it also serves various functions. I walk over to the food dispersal station and scan my identification key to gain access to my allotted meal. Such strict rationing is needed to make sure we do not exhaust our food or purified water supply. This was an even more critical issue before the discovery of The Caves saved us with its added resources. I pick up my ration consisting of purified water, a potato-like vegetable, and a synthetic sliced meat. The warmth of the meal helps distract from its lack of taste.
“Hey Kagen, any unexplained foreign bodies at work today?” shouts a voice from across the hall. I hold in a laugh and hide my face while making my way to the table. There is only one person in Securus the voice can belong to. When I reach the table, a stalky man with spiked hair waits for me, grinning from ear to ear with satisfaction at my embarrassment. Despite our unnatural circumstances, Hadwin is always in a good mood. He often finds ways to entertain our group, usually at the expense of one of us.
“No Hadwin, you weren’t on my schedule,” I chide while sitting down. “But, I did have an interesting visitor today.”
Sitting at the table with Hadwin are the other regulars in our group, Merrick and Sayda.
“So, who was this interesting visitor?” Merrick asks.
“Talia Vaden,” I answer, masking any excitement from my voice.
Before even looking, I feel Sayda’s attention fixate on me. I turn to find her striking crystal blue eyes studying me with curiosity. She brushes back the few strands of golden blonde hair that has escaped her ponytail as she asks, “Really? What warranted a visit from the daughter of Mr. Vaden?”
“Nothing special, just routine stuff. I was filling in for Rana,” I respond. “I invited her to go with us to The Caves later, but she probably won’t be able to make it. Anyway, anything interesting going on with you guys?”
“I’m ready to get back into The Caves. Last time I was in there I found a new rock face we can climb. I haven’t tried it out yet, but I bet you’ll all be far behind me when I reach the top!” Merrick boasts with a confident smile.
“Can we make it there with the new closure?” I ask, intentionally not mentioning the words of the man in the infirmary. There is no point in bringing up his failed attempts to avoid the Detention Center.
“It’s not in the upper tunnels, although it’s close to them. I’m pretty sure Leadership doesn’t even know about it yet. So you can’t use that as an excuse to get out of losing to me,” he says.
We all have our own way of distracting ourselves from our circumstances. Merrick often consumes his time with activities created by his fierce competitiveness and stubborn determination. If Merrick thinks it is going to be challenging, we will definitely have an interesting time. We continue on with our banter while finishing our meal. Afterwards we all head our separate ways, returning to work for the afternoon shift.
That night, after my shift in the infirmary, I meet my mother and Arluin for diner. These halls are usually the same ones used for lunch, but the assigned location for individuals varies between the two depending on work and living locations. The hall is, as usual, lively with conversation. It is always filled to capacity since more people share the same time assignment. We are at a large table, surrounded by the other families that reside near our quarters. Dinner is typically the best meal of the day, and tonight is no exception. There are fish from some of The Caves’ vast pools of water as well as a mixture of mushrooms grown in some of the smaller side chambers. It is not often we get an entire meal without an artificial substitute, so we all consume it eagerly.
“Why are you in such a good mood?” Arluin asks me while finishing the last bits of his food.
“No particular reason. It was a decent day, and it’s almost free time,” I respond with a wide smile.
“Who’s going with you?” asks my mother.
I devour the last crumbs of my meal before answering. “Hadwin, Merrick and Sayda. I invited Talia, but she probably won’t be able to make it.”
Hearing my response, Arluin flashes a knowing smile.
“Why don’t you invite some of the girls from our sector like Lana or Abira?” my mother pleads. It takes a lot of effort not to roll my eyes. She is always trying to fix me up with someone. I pretend not to hear her question, and since my food is already finished, excuse myself from the table.
Anxious to get to The Caves, I rush down the stairs, descending further and further. Halfway down I pass the welded lines which mark the point where the original facility ended. Despite Leadership’s efforts to limit population growth, our numbers have climbed to the thousands. We have had to expand the facility further into the depths to accommodate it. That is how The Caves were discovered in the first place.
I reach the bottom of the stairwell. Walking through the lower door and rounding the corner, I enter a lounge area that doubles as a staging center for the research workers. Eager to get into The Caves, I rush past the lingering research workers, all the way to the massive outer doors. After checking in my reservation with the stationed Leadership Guard, I finally make my way into the main chamber of The Caves. As soon as I am outside the rigid structure of Securus, it feels like a weight is lifted from my shoulders. No matter how many times I come here, the surroundings always evoke a sense of awe. Even in the largest halls Securus has to offer, nothing compares to the openness of this space.
High above me, rocks seem to be flowing down from the ceiling. Others reach upward from the floor, slowly extending their spires toward the ceiling. The random patterns and rounded shapes naturally arising throughout The Caves are a profound contrast to the linear and symmetrical structure of Securus. Out here, there are always new formations to discover in the many uncharted tunnels and chambers. That is why we love coming out here so much. It is our escape. Luckily, despite its enormous size, the system is an isolated one. No traces of The Agent have ever been found in any of the tunnels or chambers down here.
The main path is easily navigated with use of the lights from the outer structure of Securus. Not far from the entrance, lies one of the natural standing pools. This is only one pool of a larger system that interconnects with various others. Water flows freely through tunnels deep within the pools as well as cracks in the cave walls. I have always found the sound of the flowing water and constant trickle from above much more soothing than the mechanical groans of our facility.
Further in the chamber, I stop to marvel at some water bound creatures who, like the people of Securus, have adapted themselves to this unique environment. From the pictures I have seen on the computer, the fish in The Caves look very different than the ones on the surface. Evolving in the darkness has drained them of all color, shrinking their eyes to functionless beads. In place of sight, they have developed sensory organs near their numerous short whiskers to help them navigate the waters. As if to remind me not all of the creatures here have such a bland outer appearance, a few of the shrimp-like creatures we call Glow-runts, swim by. They emit a natural glowing light easily visible in the dark waters, creating shooting swirls of dramatic color as they move about.
The Leadership Guard at the secondary station watches me closely while I walk by the water. We harvest the various pools on a rotating schedule to collect these creatures for our nutritional needs. Like most other things in Securus, fishing is tightly controlled by Leadership to prevent depletion of the pools’ resources. The Guard and a few security cameras keep watch to enforce the restriction, but that is not really needed. Our people understand we cannot afford to jeopardize this fragile ecosystem that is so vital to our own survival.
There are some manufactured sitting areas near the entrance to The Caves, but I prefer to wander farther in. Rounding the path, past the water and some massive stalagmites, I find a raised formation that has been broken in half. The exposed, flat surface serves well as a bench. Waiting for the others to arrive, I spend the time admiring the intricate rings making up layer after layer inside the formation.
After a while, my mind starts to wonder. It drifts back to this morning, replaying the warning from the man in the infirmary, “The shadow-men in The Caves. They’ll be the end of Securus.’’ I look all around. Off to the right, far behind the secondary Guard, is the closed entrance to the upper tunnels. Other than that, nothing appears out of the ordinary. No diabolical figures lurk in the shadows. I take a deep breath and expel the thoughts from my mind. Even considering the possibility of the shadow-men makes me feel a little foolish. Not long after I turn back to the formations around me, my solitude is interrupted by the sound of voices growing near.
“Do you ever do anything other than complain?” Even from a distance, the annoyance in Merrick’s voice is obvious.
“I’m not complaining, just pointing out the truth.” The man’s voice is familiar, but I cannot place it.
“And you guys say I’m cynical,” laughs Sayda.
“Ok, guys, take it easy. No need to argue. Let’s relax and have some fun.” My heart skips a beat when hearing her voice. Talia has been able to escape her evening plans after all.
They come into view with Hadwin and Sayda walking next to Talia. They all wear their work uniforms which look like bland, well-fitted jumpsuits of different colors. Hadwin’s is a deep blue, Sayda’s black, and Talia’s is the standard Leadership grey. On the opposite side of them are Merrick and the person he was arguing with. The unexpected addition is a thinly built man with dark eyes and carefully styled hair. His appearance is a stark contrast next to Merrick with his dark complexion, short, tightly curled hair, and strong build.
A scowl briefly creeps across my face when I finally recognize who the extra man is. His name is Aamon. It was his Leadership uniform that gave him away. It is made of the same mineral grey base as the others, but has a burnt orange trim indicating a medium level rank. I have only had minimal interaction with him in the past, but even so, something about him makes me leery. If there are any shadow-men out here, he would be it. His name is not on my permit, but Leadership members do not have the same restrictions as the workers.
“Hey, Kagen. At least you’re not waiting for us naked again!” Hadwin exclaims, pretending to wipe his forehead in relief. I can only shake my head. Where he comes up with these things I will never know. If nothing else, he is always good for a laugh. I greet my friends and Talia with brief hugs before shaking hands with Aamon, using enough force to cause a slight wince.
“Don’t see you in The Caves much,” I say, watching him shake the feeling back into his hand.
“When Talia told me she was coming to The Caves, I thought it would be a good opportunity to do some investigating of my own. Maybe I can help with the logistical aspects of harvesting The Caves’ assets.” Aamon examines the surrounding area while replying. The extra attention he pays to his outward appearance combines with his rigid posture to make him look completely out of place. I doubt he really wants to research The Caves. He must have another reason for coming along. In the end, his motives do not matter. We will not let his presence ruin our trip.
“Alright, let’s head in.” I motion for the others to follow me.
We continue around the path to the end of the main chamber. At the back wall, a tunnel leads to the other chambers deeper within The Caves. The light from Securus does not penetrate this far into The Caves, so we affix our illuminators and turn them on high. They look and feel like a simple headband, except they have a row of lights engrained into the lining. Their combined light floods the tunnel, making it easy to navigate.
As we walk, the lights reveal small signs placed on the walls of the passage, helping to guide us to the different sections, and also warning of potential dangers. Only the initial parts of these connected tunnels are marked like this. Deeper in, beyond the last pools, the passages have not been fully mapped or secured. Out there we will need to rely on our own markings and memory to return safely.
“There’s a specific chamber close by I wanted to visit, if you guys are okay with it?” Talia asks as we walk.
“Sure, we have more than enough time. Just point us in the right direction,” I tell her.
With the tunnel walls narrowing, we form a line to continue on. We go through the unmarked passages, following Talia. Eventually, the group manages to traverse a particularly low and narrow shaft leading to a small cavern. After wriggling myself out of the tunnel, I stand up and survey the surroundings. My eyes adjust enough to see a faint glow in the chamber not coming from our illuminators. As each member of our excursion emerges into the chamber I have them turn down their lights. When all the lights are out, the glow intensifies. The cavern fills with a vibrant, sparkling teal light emanating from the walls. The many crystals jutting from the rocks above reflect the light in brilliant patterns all around us. It is easy to see why this cavern is of particular interest to Talia.
“Like some of the creatures in The Caves, the microbes in this chamber have evolved to emit a biological fluorescence. The mechanism of their light is different from that of the fish and may have promise as a supplemental light source. This could help diminish our energy needs significantly,” Talia says in her usual formal tone.
She turns her light back on and moves to the side of the chamber to collect her samples. Aamon, who had been slowed while crawling through the passage, finally catches up to the rest of us. He enters the chamber with an annoyed grimace while dusting himself off.
“Took you long enough,” Merrick laughs.
Aamon looks as though he wants to respond, but thinks better of it. Sayda and I go over to join Talia while the others scatter to explore the rest of this area.
“This bioluminescence is beautiful, but it’ll be difficult to convert for our use,” Sayda states bluntly as she moves away to study an area with a more intense glow, leaving Talia and I alone.
“I thought you were too busy, Talia,” I say with a gentle nudge.
“Well, sometimes I have to just do what I want,” she replies with a sly smile.
After a few minutes, Aamon wanders over to inspect an unimportant appearing rock formation immediately next to Talia. He is obviously attempting to listen to our conversation. I get the feeling he is more interested in Talia than anything else in The Caves. From the look on her face when she sees his snooping, that feeling is not mutual. After a few minutes, Talia finishes her collection. We leave the chamber, finally heading to Merrick’s new climbing area.
We walk, crawl, and climb our way through a seemingly endless maze of passages. The entrance to Merrick’s cavern is well hidden, so it is not surprising the chamber has gone undiscovered until now. Upon entering the cavern, we all turn our lights to the highest dispersal setting to illuminate the area. My jaw immediately drops. Merrick has not let us down. Before us lies an expansive cavern with an amazing natural beauty. Everyone stands in awe-struck silence while absorbing the view.
My eyes are drawn to the daunting vertical wall on the far side, divided by a magnificent waterfall. I have only seen waterfalls during my internet musings and some of my more pleasant dreams, certainly never before in person. The water forms a stream that continues on through a fissure in the lateral wall, leading out of the chamber. The enclosed surroundings intensify the soothing rumble of the falls. Merrick watches the stunned contortions of our faces with a smug smile.
“Ok Merrick, you win. This is our best find yet,” I admit while giving him a firm push on his shoulder.
I can hardly believe the fortune of finding this area. The excitement makes me want to run around like a schoolboy. Luckily, I am able to restrain my enthusiasm before embarrassing myself. Hadwin does that well enough, so there is no reason to make myself an easier target for him. As we walk through the cavern, my eyes absorb the unique formations we pass. There are mineral deposits that look as if they were bubbling out of the ground, now frozen in mid drip. Other spires have box-like pieces stacked upon each other, reaching impressive heights. On the other side of the cavern, stone flowers and draping mineral leaves protrude from the rocky walls. Even the moist air in here soothes my lungs with each deep breath.
“Let’s rest up a little before we tackle that beast,” I suggest to the others. We find a suitably flat area to relax in. I nearly fall asleep while enjoying the continuous murmur of the falls. Moments like these are both a joy and torture to me. While it is stimulating to have these intricate caverns to explore, doing so is only a temporary reprieve. Escaping the steel cage we live in reminds me of what could have been if the wars never broke out, if mankind had only been able to resist its compulsion for self-destruction that led to the release of The Agent nearly one hundred years ago. In the end, we always have to return to the claustrophobic and drab surroundings consuming our existence in Securus. Even so, we enjoy the moment for what it is, knowing it will not last.
While I relax, Talia remains alert, constantly finding new features in the chamber to grab her curiosity. Sayda and Merrick both spend their time keeping an eye on Hadwin, who seems to be waiting for one of us to fall asleep so he can play a prank on them. Aamon does not speak much, though his dark eyes dart around, inspecting our surroundings. He looks even more uncomfortable in this cavern than he did in the others.
Time moves quickly while we are out here, making it easy to overstay our permit. Thankfully, Leadership is typically not rigid with the curfew as long as we do not disturb others and maintain our daily production. Even so, there are limits to their leniency and we are starting to push it. Especially given Mr. Vaden’s warning during the announcements.
“It’s getting really late guys. Should we climb or save it for next time?” I ask the group.
“I can cover for us,” Talia volunteers. “I’ll tell Leadership you were helping me collect samples. I’m not a good climber, so I’ll hang around here and fill my sample containers until you guys get back.”
When Talia glances at the rock wall, her eyes momentarily widened. If I did not know better, I would think she was afraid of the climb.
“I’ll keep you company,” Aamon quickly interjects. His eagerness to keep her company is not surprising. He has been closely shadowing Talia the entire trip. As soon as he spoke Talia let out a subtle sigh. It appears she was hoping he would join us on the climb. Even so, it is probably best he does not come with us. He does not look to be the most agile climber and would probably be a liability for us to keep him from falling.
“Afraid to get beat by a girl, Aamon?” Sayda quips before turning to the rest of us, not waiting for his answer.
“Okay, let’s make it fast,” I tell the others before raising an eyebrow at Merrick. “Are you up for the challenge?”
“Merrick’s coming in last this time,” Hadwin proclaims.
“We’ll see about that,” Merrick says with a confident smile. He turns to face to wall. “Look over to the left of the falls, there’s a plateau up there we can climb to.”
The plateau he points at is twice as high as we have ever climbed before. Seeing the height if the wall sends a tingling though me. I feel both excitement and apprehension at once. This will be an intimidating climb, but the challenge is too enticing to pass up. We head over to the rock face to study its surface and plan our route to the ledge high above us. Mercifully, the section we plan to climb is not completely vertical. It has a slope along with numerous ledges for us to rest on if needed.
Intent on beating the rest of us to the top, Merrick starts first. I hesitate only long enough to be sure of my path before joining the race. Hadwin may be strong, but climbing is definitely not one of his more accomplished skills. I quickly overtake him and close in on Sayda.
“Don’t look back, I’m coming for you!” I shout to the others.
“Never gonna happen,” mocks Merrick.
I make good progress despite the fatigue starting to burn in my muscles. With only Merrick left to catch, I push harder, concentrating on my hand and footholds while making sure to regulate my breathing. As I get close to Merrick, my concentration is shattered by a sound that instantly halts my movement, and elicits a hallow fear in the pit of my stomach. The distinctive crash of falling rocks comes from the right of me. I turn to look for Sayda, worried she could have been hit by the debris. My glance brings the realization that she was not in the path of the falling rocks, but was the cause of them. She had veered over to a completely vertical section in an attempt to catch back up with us. I see the newly broken rocks on the tip of a ledge that gave way. Sayda has fallen below my line of sight.
“Sayda!” I call out, holding my breath while waiting for her reply. My heart sinks when none comes. I cannot believe we were so reckless to let this happen. I hastily descend toward the ledge, hoping to find her.
“I see her!” shouts Hadwin from the opposite side of the ledge. Luckily, he was not beneath Sayda when the rocks fell. “Hold on, Sayda. We’re coming!”
“Is she hurt?” I ask Hadwin, involuntarily cringing in anticipation of the answer.
“She hit the wall hard. I think the blow knocked her breath out, but she’s hanging on like a little spider monkey!” Hadwin chuckles.
With his words, my fear eases, giving my tiring muscles renewed strength. Hadwin may have an odd sense of humor, but he would never joke if he thought Sayda was in any real danger. I exhale, now understanding why she had not screamed. Sayda only fell a short distance. She had her wind knocked out in the process, robbing her of her voice. I maneuver myself down onto the ledge she dangles beneath, looking past it to find her. She has become stuck in an awkward position, unable to climb up or down. She hangs too far below the ledge for me to pull her up on my own, so I guide Hadwin up and around the other side of the ledge to help me. While Hadwin makes his way up, Merrick finds his way down to the ledge. We all position ourselves and together lift Sayda up onto the ledge.
“Are you okay? Any injuries?” I ask while looking her over. Some minor abrasions and bruising stands out against her fair skin, but she has no signs of any broken bones. I am momentarily taken aback when seeing the slight tremor in her hands from the shock of the near fall. This is the first time I have ever seen Sayda seem fragile.
“I’m alright. Just give me a minute to catch my breath,” she replies gruffly, becoming annoyed by our concerned for her.
“Now that’s the Sayda we know.” Merrick smiles, relieved by her return to form. “You always were a tough one!”
With this unexpected change in events, we lose our enthusiasm for racing up the wall. We are ready to head back down, but Sayda insists we continue on. She already feels embarrassed by her misstep, and turning back would make her feel even worse. So we decide to finish the climb. I call out to Talia and Aamon to let them know we are all okay. They do not respond. Being this close to the falls, the roar of the water drowns out our voices. They are unaware anything has happened at all.
With Sayda safely recovering on the ledge, Merrick and I turn back to the wall to finish the climb. Hadwin ignores her protest, insisting on waiting with Sayda on the ledge while she continues to recover. Merrick will go first and I will follow. We tell Sayda and Hadwin that after we reach the top we will let them know if it is worth the effort for them to join us. The words are more for her sake, because we have no intention to have them follow us, even if the view is impressive. We do not want Sayda risking a climb with any physical or emotional impairment.
I let Merrick get far enough away so there will not be any danger of falling rocks before following him up the wall. The remaining section feels stable, making the climb easier. Merrick reaches the top of the wall while I am still far from it. He disappears from my view as he walks onto the ledge. When I do reach the summit, somehow it is empty. In the back of the landing is a dark tunnel. Merrick must have gone in there. Before following him, I glance back toward the others. Hadwin and Sayda are resting comfortably on their ledge while Talia and Aamon’s lights move far off in the distance continuing Talia’s ‘research.’
I enter the tunnel and follow the tortuous path, looking for Merrick. Deeper in, the sounds of the waterfall become muffled and eventually go silent. I tilt my head, straining to hear anything besides my own breath. No sign of Merrick appears. Suddenly, the silence is disturbed by another low rumbling. It seems to be coming from all around me. My hand reaches out to the wall, feeling the vibrations pulsing through the rocks. The intensity of the rumble increases. Now the ground beneath me trembles. It is an earthquake. My muscles tense and my eyes search for an escape. These tremors are dangerous even when in the relative safety of Securus, but here in decrepit tunnels, they can rapidly turn lethal.
Above me, large rocks and pointed stalactites threaten to shake loose. I shout for Merrick but he does not respond. The intensity of the earthquake increases, making the ground churn beneath my feet. I need to get out of here. I turn back to the entrance of the tunnel, stumbling from the shaking in the ground. My foot trips on a loose rock, sending me crashing to the floor. As I turn to get up, a spear-like deposit the size of my leg brakes free from the ceiling, falling straight at me. I roll to the side just in time to avoid being gored by the spear as it strikes the ground. Now back on my feet, I run for the exit. After only a few strides, the earthquake stops as abruptly as it begun. I stop running and catch breath while checking the ceiling above me. The tunnel has shed many rocks but the main structure of it appears to be intact. This is the best I could hope for because it gives me a chance to go find Merrick.
“Merrick, are you okay?” I call out, moving deeper into the passage. This time, I hear a muffled reply. After turning the corner in the passage, the reason behind his muted voice is revealed. A complete collapse in the path blocks the way. The wall of rubble is so thick the light from his illuminator barely penetrates it. Luckily, there are a few cracks large enough to see through if I position myself close enough to get a proper vantage point.
“Did any rocks hit you?” I ask, pressing my head against a small portal.
“No, I’m okay, just trapped,” he replies. “I’m gonna look around and see if there’s another way out.”
I survey the structure of the collapse, hoping to find a way to break through. The rubble is too solid and the individual rocks are too large. Even if Hadwin were here to help, we would not be able to move the debris. Hoping he has found another passage, I again peer through the small portal to check his progress.
The scene on the other side of the wall instantly freezes me in place. Merrick stands with his hands raised in the air. He looks to be in a surrendering pose while his eyes are fixed on something beyond my field of vision. Beads of sweat gather on his dark skin, dripping down from his forehead. Something is making him nervous, but he remains motionless. His agitation spreads to me, sending shivers down my spine. Why is he standing like that? I ask myself before realizing an external light shines on him. He is not alone.
I immediately turn off my illuminator so it will not give me away. Carefully, I shift to another crack in the rubble. I nearly jump from the shock of seeing two dark figures standing before Merrick, with frightening assault rifles trained on him. It’s the shadow-men. They’re real! The terrifying realization stuns me. More questions race through my mind. Where did they come from? Who are they?
The two shadow- men wear pitch black uniforms with a rigid form that looks to be armored plating. Their faces are concealed behind helmets connected to tinted visors and a filtered breathing apparatus. The glare from the light they have pointed on Merrick makes it difficult to see more detail on the soldiers. I do manage to see a brief reflection from something on one of their breast plates. It looks like an insignia made of an eight pointed sun. The symbol is not the one used by our Leadership, but the similarity is disturbing.
The shadow-men appear to be soldiers. They are nothing like the people from Securus, but how could that be? No one else is left. Everyone else died many years ago when The Agent was released and spread across the surface of the planet. Ours was the only underground facility operational in time to escape the deadly biological weapon.
Behind these menacing figures, where there had only been the darkness of the tunnel before, a glow of light reveals a distinctly man-made tunnel. The view of the tunnel is limited, obscuring most of the details except for the metallic shine of railway tracks on the floor.
“Who else is here?” demands the shadowy figure to the left in a low growling voice.
“It was just me and a friend, but he already left to get help. The earthquake blocked the tunnel, so we thought I was trapped.” Merrick keeps his voice low and steady as he slowly backs away from the men. Despite his fear and confusion, he is trying to keep the rest of us safe.
The figures position themselves so he cannot pass, giving him nowhere to go but back against the rocks behind him. My mind races, desperately searching for anything to help Merrick. Without warning, an intense flash of light erupts from the barrel of the gun on the right. Almost no sound comes from the weapon. I watch in horror as Merrick collapses to the ground. I nearly yell out as it happens, feeling the burn in my chest as if I was the one shot. Even from my position behind the rubble, I see the blast through his ribs and instantly know the injury is fatal. We have nothing in Securus capable of repairing the damage.
My body remains anchored in place while I struggle against the desperate urge to break through the wall in the vain hope of comforting Merrick in his last moments. Only, deep down, I know he is already gone. My entire body trembles from the overwhelming rage and sorrow threatening to consume me. I am an instant away from losing reason and giving in to panic. The only thing that stops me is the faces of the others flashing through my mind. I need to stay calm to get them out of here alive. If these soldiers killed Merrick so callously, there is no doubt they would do the same to the rest of us. I need to save the rest of my friends.
I tear myself away from the sight of my fallen friend and silently maneuver out of the tunnel. Fear and anger cloud my thoughts so much, I do not even realize my body is descending the rock wall until I make it halfway down. Only then does the presence of Sayda and Hadwin coax me back to reality.
“Where’s Merrick? Is he okay?” Sayda asks warily while rising to her feet.
“He went into a passage behind the top ledge. There was a cave-in during the earthquake.” I pause before telling the rest. If I do, they will heedlessly rush to Merrick, only to share his fate. I cannot tell them the truth. Withholding it is the only way to get them to safety.
“He’s walled in. I tried to get to him, but it’s impossible. I couldn’t even hear him through the rocks. We need to go get help now.” The words are like poison in my mouth. I hate the deception but have no better option. Only when they are safe can I divulge the terrible secret that already eats away at me from the inside.
“One of us should wait in the passage with him,” Hadwin insists, not wanting to abandon our friend.
“That tunnel is not safe,” I tell him, straining to keep my voice from trembling.
This at least is true. I think they sense my desperation and decide to trust my judgment despite their hesitation in leaving Merrick in there alone. We descend the rest of the wall and rush over to where Talia and Aamon wait for us. I repeat my putrid tale of what happened and reiterate the need to get others to help rescue Merrick.
The group remains silent as we run through the tunnels as quickly as we can. Even though Talia does not know Merrick well, she is obviously just as concerned as the others are for him. Aamon, on the other hand, has stopped shadowing Talia. Every time the terrain slows us, he seems to be more interested in watching my reactions as he repeatedly asks me about what happened. I ignore his questions and the suspicious stare he gives me, focusing on getting everyone back to safety.
We cross one more collapsed passage, blocking our return. Thankfully, the rubble of this second collapse is much smaller than the first. We are able to quickly clear a path wide enough to pass and continue back to Securus.
As soon as we reach the initial chamber of The Caves, we rush over to the Leadership Guard. I mentally compare his uniform to that of the soldiers’, but there is no similarity between them. This Guard wears the same basic uniform as those in Leadership. The crimson trim lining his uniform indicates his occupation as an armed member of the Leadership Guard. He has no armor and his helmet does nothing to hide his face like the soldiers’ helmets do. The small pistol protruding from the holster on his right hip seems laughable when compared to the terrifying weaponry the soldiers carried. Even the bright insignia on the Guard’s chest looks different. I must have been mistaken about the symbol on the soldiers’ uniforms. They couldn’t have been part of Leadership, could they? I ask myself, searching in vain for another explanation.
When the Guard sees us coming, he jumps back and pulls out his gun. A nervous twitch shows in the corner of his eye as he raises the weapon, aiming it directly at me. Wanting to keep him from accidentally firing, I calmly explain the situation to the Guard, leaving out any mention of what was really in the passage. With a gun in my face and a shaky man behind it, I do not want to say anything to make him more suspicious. After absorbing my explanation, he calms down and holsters his weapon, realizing we pose no threat.
With his fears pacified, I momentarily consider telling the truth of what happened, but then decide against it. I cannot get past the uneasy feeling from watching one of the typically stoic Guards be so edgy for no apparent reason. That combined with the nagging thought of the symbol on the soldiers’ armor keeps me quiet. If they really were part of Leadership, all our lives could be in peril for having discovered them.
The more I think about it, the more I believe they have to be part of Leadership. None of the workers could ever attain the equipment those two men had. Since there are no other surviving colonies besides Securus, Leadership is the only real possibility.
Even if there was another facility we did not know about, it would be too far away for them to make it to these tunnels through the poisonous atmosphere. The nearest underground facility to Securus was being built nearly seven hundred miles away. Regardless of the murderers’ origin, my priority is to keep the others safe and retrieve Merrick’s body. In case I am wrong and the soldiers are not involved with Leadership, I need to convince them to bring a big enough rescue team so we will not all be in danger when we go back out there.