THE TRAIN ARRIVES in the dead of day.
The sun, perched high in the sky, scorches the desert a blinding white. Only the black filament of the train’s moving shadow taints this baked wasteland. The train slows, its line of cars rattling like the links of a metal chain dragged. None of the occupants on the train—and there are many, and they are tense, and they are standing with taut backs and frightened eyes—make a sound.
A tiny black dot circles high in the blue sky. It is a hawk, gazing curiously at the rippling shadow of the train beneath. The hawk squawks in surprise as the train suddenly dips into an opening in the ground. Like a snake, swiftly into a hole, disappearing. Gone as if it were never even there.
About ten miles away, on the other side of a range of low-slung hills, lies a gigantic disc-shaped building spanning several city blocks. It lies silent as a tombstone, circled almost completely by a thin rampart. A tall, slim obelisk rises from the building’s dead center. The windowed tip of this obelisk glimmers brightly under the sun like a lit candle. The obelisk is otherwise, as with the entire building, the color of the desert. Nothing moves on, in, or around the building. Not at this time of day.
The hawk observes this building with a steely, unblinking stare. Then, with a sudden squawk, it flaps its wings and flies away.
WE PLUNGE INTO the tunnel. Its opening gapes wide like a diseased mouth that eagerly swallows us whole. Our world of stark white and cobalt skies, in a sudden blink of an eye, is erased with pure black. A hot wind, dank and moist as a tongue, hurls through the bars of our caged car, gusts through our clothes and hair, our clenched hands, our crouched, shaking bodies.
Under us, sparks of light shoot out from the shrieking, braking wheels of the train. As one, we’re flung forward onto the metal mesh floor. Fear hums off our piled bodies in droves. A small hand, clammy with fear, clutches mine. “Not the Palace, not the Palace, not the . . . ” she murmurs. One of the younger girls.
Yesterday, after Sissy and I recovered from the turning (the hellish fever broken, our discombobulated bodies knit back together), we told the girls what we suspected about our destination. Not the Civilization, the idyllic city they’d been told by the Mission elders was filled with millions of humans populating its streets and filling its stadiums and theaters and parks and restaurants and cafés and schools and amusement parks.
But the Palace. Where the Ruler reigns. Where, it is said, the only humans are those imprisoned in the catacombs like cattle in pens. Their individual fates hostage to the whims of the Ruler’s voracious appetite.
For a few minutes, the train drifts along the tunnel before lurching to a stop. Nobody moves, as if motion alone will cause the next unwanted chain of events to begin.
“Everyone stay still,” Sissy whispers next to me. “Stay very, very still. ” For three days and nights on the rattling train, exposed to wind and sunlight, motion has been our constant companion. This stillness, this blackness, it is a world too suddenly and starkly reversed.
A loud metallic click rings from the train car door. And for the first time in days, the door begins to slide open. The girls nearest to it, screaming, recoil from the opening.
But I leap toward the door, grab hold of one of the bars. I lean back, digging in my heels, and attempt to halt its progress. I sense somebody else next to me, also pulling back on the door. It’s Sissy. For days, we’ve tried, futilely, to pry it open. But now, in this dark tunnel that can only portend one thing, we’re trying to close it. But again our efforts are futile. Even as we grunt, our feet scrabbling for position, the door slides open, clicks into place. In the darkness, I hear similar clicks clacking along the length of the train. The doors of each train car are now opened and locked into place.
A wave of cold fear washes over us. Nobody moves.
“What now?” a trembling voice asks from the darkness.
“Nobody move!” Sissy shouts, loud enough to be heard down the length of the train. “Everyone stay where you are!” I feel the strands of her hair brushing against my arm. She’s swiveling her head, trying to get a visual on something, anything. But we see nothing. We might as well be hanging suspended in a black void. And that’s why Sissy warned us not to disembark. We might be stepping off into a steep slope or even a sheer drop.
A loud hiss suddenly explodes from the front car, jolting all of us. A pungent odor of steam and smoke spreads down the tunnel, drifting through the bars of the cars like sodden ash.
And then, only silence.
We huddle closer together, anticipating the sound none of us want to hear.
“David,” Sissy says. “Toss out one of the cans of food. ” He does. In the darkness, we hear the can land with a metallic rattle against a floor of some kind. It bounces twice before rolling to a stop.
“Everyone stay on the train!” Sissy shouts. “Gene and I are going out to investigate. ” Then she drops through the opening and onto the dark floor of the tunnel. I follow her. The ground is pebbly, it rattles under our feet. My eyes are getting used to the darkness, and when I look back at the train I can see the girls. The whites of their eyes gleaming slightly, hoping for assurance. But we have none to give them.
“Do you see anything?” Epap whispers. “Sissy?”
“Hold on. ”
But he doesn’t. He drops out of the train car, clattering pebbles as he lands. He approaches us, arms spread in front. “Only one thing to do, Sissy. Head back the way we came. All of us, we follow the train tracks back outside. ”
But Sissy shakes her head. “The entrance to the tunnel must have closed after us. Otherwise light would be pouring in; we’d be able to see more in here. ” She’s right. There’s not even a distant dot of light behind us.
Epap speaks, his voice fraught with fear. “Doesn’t matter. We need to start moving. Any moment now, duskers might—”
A loud metallic clang suddenly crashes overhead. Everyone jolts. A few girls scream out.
And then there is light.
THE LIGHT STREAMS out from a large glass shaft that rises from floor to ceiling near the last train car. I take a closer look: the soft light emanates not so much from the shaft itself as from a glass elevator now descending inside the shaft. Like a falling curtain of light, the elevator illuminates the craggy walls of the tight tunnel. The single elevated platform, seemingly hewn out of the same rock, stretches along only one side of the train, and it is up onto this platform that Sissy, Epap, and I now hoist ourselves. We pause, then turn to the sound of footsteps running toward us. It’s David, and his hand slides into Sissy’s.
The glass elevator reaches the bottom. For a brief moment, its internal light flickers. Then the doors slide open.
Nobody moves. A crackling sound suddenly fills the air, like static over the school PA system. “Attention. Any passenger on the train must enter the elevator. You have one minute. ” The earsplittingly loud voice—electronic and robotic—blares through the tunnel, its words echoing down its length.
David turns to Sissy. “What happens after one minute?” he asks, his voice trembling. “What happens, Sissy?”
She doesn’t answer, only swivels her head, her eyes nervously scanning the walls. She tenses. There is a row of doors set into the far wall. Her eyes flick back to the elevator, narrowing.
Through the bars of the train cars, the girls’ eyes are wide with fear and panic. As one, they start exiting their train cars, first a trickle, then a flood of bodies pouring out.
“Fifty seconds. ”
Sissy grabs David’s hand. “This way,” she says to Epap and me. “C’mon, hurry. ” We start running toward the elevator glowing with whi
The girls are stumbling on the pebbles of the tunnel floor. In their haste, and with their lotus feet, they fall and topple over one another. They are crying out now, their fear reaching breaking point.
“To the elevator!” I shout to them, swinging my arms urgently. “Hurry, everyone!” Epap breaks away from us, races to the edge of the platform, starts pulling up a few girls. But there are too many of them and too little time. I grab him, try to push him toward the elevator. He resists.
“There’s no time, Epap!” I shout.
“Forty seconds. ”
Epap’s jawline ridges out. He lifts up one more girl, then lets me pull him away. The girls on the platform are doing their best to run, but their lotus feet can only plod along so fast. Sissy, Epap, David, and I are the first to reach the elevator.
“Thirty seconds. ”
For a brief moment, we can only stare into the elevator’s interior. Our hearts sink. It’s tiny inside, able to accommodate five at the most if we squeeze tight. It was never meant to transport a whole village of girls. We tumble inside. There’s nothing. No button, no control, no switch. The walls are smooth unbroken panes of glass. I quickly examine the outside. Same thing: no controls at all.
“Twenty seconds. ”
Sissy’s forehead is scrunched into deep grooves of concentration. Then they smooth out, decision reached. “There’s still room for one more!” she shouts. “You all stay here; I’ll be right back!” And then she runs off and disappears into the darkness.
“No, Sissy!” I shout. “There’s no time!”
Out of nowhere, a girl suddenly stumbles out of the darkness. It’s Cassie, the girl with freckles who’s proven to be a leader among the girls. Epap shouts at her, urging her to hurry. She throws herself headlong into the elevator, her mouth distorted in a silent scream. And that’s it. There’s no more room inside. We’re shoulder to shoulder.
“Ten seconds. ”
“Sissy!” I scream. “Sissy, get back here!”
No response. No sight of her. More girls are blundering toward the spread of light now, falling, shuffling, yelling. Then I see Sissy. She’s at the platform, bent over, trying to help more girls up. But in their panic, they’re grasping, clutching at her, and though she’s yelling at them, they’re refusing to let go. Five, six, seven of them are grabbing at her arms, her legs, and Sissy can’t extricate herself. She’s in trouble.