Authors: Anthony Thackston
Tags: #Science Fiction
Ascent-The Ladder - Copyright 2015 Chad Thackston
With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced, transmitted, or used in whole or part by any means without the written permission of the author (
All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, with or without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.00.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons—living or dead—or places, events, or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are products of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.
Cover Design Copyright 2015 Kerry Beyer (www.kerrybeyer.com )
The rungs of the old wooden Ladder feel smooth and cylindrical, as if it would be impossible to get a splinter from them. The side rails are just as smooth. It’s as though the Ladder is made from one large piece of wood. Like the spaces between each rung were simply punched out of the single piece in perfect squares, and the remains machine sanded to perfection. Except for a human mistake, like a misstep or not having a firm grip, there is no way to fall from the Ladder. Certainly not from the wood shattering or falling apart.
The tunnel surrounding the Ladder is dark except for a few sparse lights hanging along the wall. Their dim lighting illuminates the dark just enough to see each rung of the Ladder.
A strange swirl moves around in one spot. It goes no higher than the space in which it floats and it does not sink down any lower. It encompasses only one section of the tunnel.
Not far above the swirl, a bright light shines through cracks in the ceiling. Passing through the swirl seems to cause no harm or discomfort.
Ascending higher above the strange swirl, a sliver of light in the ceiling illuminates the walls of the tunnel. The surface of the walls are dark and rocky. Rounded edges pop out as though they could be safe to climb if not for the Ladder. Touching one of the protruding rocks leads to its crumbling off the wall and down to the bottom of the Ladder. Others merely crumble at the slightest touch.
Higher still, the swirl is gone and only the sliver of light remains. But even it does not shine on the bottom of the Ladder. Dark is all that is left, below.
The hatch, at first, seems stuck. It does not budge. Its surface feels cool and as smooth as the rungs of the Ladder. It might be mistaken for a wooden door if not for the obvious difference in material. The dense, steel hatch makes little sound when knocked against—a testament to how solid it is.
A slight shove and the hatch creaks open partially. It almost floods the tunnel with light. One more sturdy push should swing the door wide open.
The hatch flies up with the groan of hinges that have not moved in years. The tunnel becomes awash in the brightest light. Shielded eyes do little to keep out the glare. Fortunately, it takes little time for eyes, so used to darkness, to adjust. Climbing out of the hatch and onto the cool grass that surrounds it, reveals a sight that
is vastly different from the dark of the tunnel. The light filling the tunnel comes from one source hanging in the sky. It is both beautiful and painful to look at but surrounding it is clear blue sky, empty except for a few birds. The light source feels hot. It is a welcome feeling from the murk of the tunnel. A cooling breeze gives some rest from the heat of the light and an enormous gasp for air fills the lungs. It is clean, clear and refreshing. A feeling not normal for lungs accustomed to the dark dinginess of underground. The different air causes a cough but it is one that subsides soon enough as the lungs acclimate to the new air.
In the distance is a glimmering city. The light reflects off of it as a piercing point almost brighter than the source it reflects. The tall spires rise out of the ground like crystals from a mine. Closer by, trees gently sway as the cool breeze flows through their branches.
A few leaves are taken from the branches to fly through the air, sailing on the winds. A few of the leaves fall into a flowing river that carves a path along the ground. Getting closer to the flowing water seems harder than opening the hatch. Looking back reveals the inside of the tunnel is a dark and forbidding sight. Like a black hole. Even with the hatch fully open it is nearly impossible to see inside it. But it is time to move away from that life. The surface is so much more inviting.
Legs that worked to climb the Ladder suddenly cannot take a step forward. It’s as if something is pulling back and preventing them. The harder the resistance, the stronger the pull until it finally separates feet from ground.
The trees, the river, the shining city and even the very light in the sky disappear as the dark of the tunnel swallows all will and want.
The hatch closes, shutting off all the light and the hope of freedom. Hands grip the rungs of the ladder but the pull is too strong. Too constant. A final tug, more forceful than the rest, rips fingers from their clench.
Down and down further into the tunnel. Deeper into the dark, and tumbling through the swirl that now seems to fill the tunnel with its dense haze. The cough comes quick. It is violent and deep. Smog fills the lungs. It feels nothing like the clean air of the surface. The cough is constant and growing more extreme. It seems to have no end.
Joe’s eyes open to the sound of a coughing fit. A woman in a white lab coat, walks with a child, her arm around one shoulder and a handkerchief covering his mouth with the other hand. Joe lifts his head and looks at his surroundings. A six foot cut-out made of stone and dirt fills most of his vision. The roof of the bunk is not high enough to sit all the way up. It’s barely high enough to roll over.
Home sweet home
Joe rolls out of the bunk and sits on the stone edge. Bare light bulbs are strung along cables on the ceiling. It’s more than enough to see clearly but it makes for a depressing atmosphere. And the rows of stone and dirt beds cut-out into the rock, stacked four high, one on top of the other, running down the length of the tunnel don’t help to lighten the environment.
Kids as young as five intermingle with teenagers as old as nineteen. There are even a few twenty year olds. Some of them wear hard hats and tool belts containing small tools such as dirt trowels and claws, gloves and various necessities designed for digging. Their faces are dirty and their eyes are joyless. No one at that age should look as these kids do.
Joe’s head slumps into hands only slightly cleaner than yesterday. A thought escapes his mouth, “Not again.”
“Oh yes, again.”
A pair of rubber pants hit Joe in the head. The mud waders fall to the dirt floor. Joe looks up, as if the morning wasn’t hard enough. Having a dream like that then waking up to this would make anyone depressed. And topping it off by having to deal with the smugness of Mason was almost too much to bear.
Mason stands over Joe like he’s in charge. Not one of the biggest kids but certainly the only one to throw his weight around, Mason has made Joe his target of choice since they were both old enough to carry a pick axe.
“It’s every day for you, Mud Slinger. Get to it.” None of the kids were authority figures, a fact that Mason likes to overlook while he barks orders to anyone and everyone.
Some days, Joe would stand up to Mason. This is not one of those days. A bruise and a possible stay in the Ban isn’t an ideal way to start the morning. Though the alternative isn’t much better.
“Let’s move, slinger,” Mason orders, his voice louder, making sure everyone in the bunks can hear him.
“You gonna stand there and watch me put pants on?” Joe asks as an act of defiance. The words carry a tone of insult at Mason’s intelligence. The offensive intention goes unnoticed, like usual.
“If I have to,” Mason retorts as though he has the upper hand.
Joe defiantly yanks on the rubber legs. Pulling rubber over the cotton cloth of the non-work pants is an act only those well practiced manage to do quickly. It’s not that the rubber goes on with difficulty. It’s what they go over that makes it a chore. The cotton pants underneath get pulled by the rubber and cause uncomfortable bunching. It’s a lot like wearing a diaper. Not the worst experience but generally undesirable.
“All right, get slinging,” Mason barks one last time.
A small head shake is all Joe can manage. The thought of one good lick on Mason’s jaw is becoming, increasingly, stronger. At least a day in the Ban would keep him from having to hear the constant teasing. Though, the return from Mason would be a sore reminder on top of the confinement.
Just let him have it and
move on, Joe. Just move on.
The rational thought wins out.
Joe walks through the tunnel of the bunks, passing rows and rows of empty stone cut-outs and ladders that lead to the upper rows. The work day starts early, like always. It isn’t rare for Joe to be a little late to work. But Mason doesn’t, typically, catch on. At least this way, he’s already wearing the annoying pants.
Exiting the bunks and passing a seemingly endless stream of kids all wearing work gear, Joe enters the Junction. It is the largest space in the Mines. Along its walls are the same lights as those in the Bunk Hall, all strung together. And like the Bunk Hall lights, they shine dimly, through the dust kicked up by those passing along through The Junction.
Kids and teenagers move quickly and with purpose. Some move empty wheelbarrows, others labor to move full carts. The carts are full of dirt and shiny stones. Some have nuggets of gold and silver.
A line is formed at a steel box. The full carts at the front of the line have kids shoveling the minerals into the box. Once the lid closes, a foot lever is pressed and the box makes a sound like rocks spinning against an iron pot. The sound is accompanied by a noise like air escaping through a vacuum. No one knows where it all goes or what it’s for. But the box is completely empty after each load. Only a thin layer of stirred up dirt remains.
Joe continues past more kids to walk into another tunnel, this one shorter than the tunnel to the bunks. Even though the lights are irritating to the eyes, the Gear Hall is better lit than the Bunks or the Junction. Large cut-outs line the rock walls. Each one contains lockers and the necessary tools for each worker’s job.
Joe walks into a smaller cut-out. This one doesn’t need to be massive since it only contains lockers, buckets, shovels and water packs. Each water pack carries roughly five gallons of water and is equipped with a hose attachment for spraying water. Carting a full wheelbarrow is the heaviest job in the Mines but the water pack is right up there as far as weight class is concerned.
Joe opens up a locker and grabs a hard hat. Next to the series of lockers is a corner with one shovel and a bucket.
I guess the others are already at it.
“Good morning, Slinger.”
The spunky voice calls from behind Joe. Lauren is a freckle-faced tomboy who’s more than happy to get dirty. It helps that she gets to carry the water pack. Rinsing off is never a problem for Lauren.
“You ready for another mud day?” She asks, skipping to her locker.
“You ask that every morning,” Joe replies.
“And you answer it the same way every time.”
Joe and Lauren became fast friends when they were Belters. Working in the light duty tunnels, just scraping through the dirt and the rocks, it is a dirty job for sure but one that is easy enough for the youngest ones. It’s mostly sitting down and comes across more as playing in the dirt than actual labor.
Anything the Belters find is placed on a conveyor belt that travels to a cart to be hauled off. They start this job young because it’s part of the conditioning. Slowly getting them ready for what will become their life of labor.
“We should start on the ceiling, today,” Lauren suggests.
“I’m not throwing my shovel at the ceiling again. Last time—”
“That’s what the hard hat is for.” Lauren knocks on Joe’s hat.
“We’ll stick to the walls, thanks.”
“You’re no fun. We’re gonna have to get the ceiling eventually.”
A younger boy walks into the area and grabs his hard hat from a lower locker. “I’m gonna find a silver, today. I got a feeling.” Marvin is a Sifter. He lays a tray in the little water pools made by the water pack and sifts through the mud, looking for smaller minerals. It’s an old way of scavenging but it’s perfect for the younger kids. Marvin’s luck with his job keeps him ever the optimist. At his age it’s all he can handle.
“You wish,” Lauren tells him in her teasing way.
“You watch. I will find a silver, right Joe?”
Marvin looks up to Joe. It’s surprising considering that Marvin’s attitude is closer to Lauren’s. It helps that both of them have jobs that are a lot more fulfilling than shoveling mud and working in the splash zone of the water spray. Shovelers have the worst job in the mines. And every section of the Mines needs shovelers. It doesn’t matter if it’s clay, loose dirt, gravel, mud or minerals, the hands get raw and blistered, and the constant leaning into the dig causes all kinds of back problems in later ages. Many of the teenagers have chronic back pains and some will have them for the rest of their lives.
“If you do find a silver, our team will get extra rations. I’ll keep an eye out for a silver, too.” Lauren rubs Marvin’s head. “As soon as my pack is full, we’ll go.”
The water blast from the faucet is pretty quick. The force from it fills a water pack up in no time at all.
Joe helps Lauren strap the full pack to her back. Two straps over her shoulders, one clip across her chest and one clip around her waist and she’s ready to move.
When Lauren smiles at Joe, he can’t help but smile back. No matter his mood, Lauren always manages to put a smile on his face.
“You’re a goober,” he says.
“Let’s move out, Slingers,” Lauren orders in her best captain impression.
The three exit their equipment cut-out and head toward the Mud Hall.
The Junction is the center-most point in the Mines. It is a large circle from which all tunnels are accessible. The Doctor’s office is in the rear—if there is such a thing in a circle—wall of the Junction. Her office is the cleanest space in the Mines. The cabinets and drawers are made of stainless steel and the walls are a white that is only brighter with the lights reflecting off of them. It is the same kind of light as the Gear Hall.
Joe, Lauren and Marvin pass by and see the Doctor, the same woman in the white lab coat who passed by Joe in the bunks, speaking to a tall man who stands, strong, with his hands behind his back. The Boss is in charge of the Mines. Not a tyrant but the Boss is not someone who is very loving. That act falls to the Doctor. If she can be seen as a mother figure, the Boss is seen as a stepfather figure. A very strict one. They stand with their backs to the Junction but Joe sees just enough of a kid lying on the exam table. Unmoving. His shirt looks to be torn and there is blood dripping from the steel exam table.
“What’s up there?”
Joe just barely hears the Doctor’s question. The Boss only shakes his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he spots Joe, Lauren and Marvin standing, staring at the kid on the table.
“Get to work, Slingers.” He orders. The three of them quickly walk away.
Not far from the Doctor’s office, resting on the wall and disappearing into a vertical tunnel, is the Ladder. It is the only way in or out of the Mines. Joe stops and stares at it.
“I know that look,” Lauren says. “Can we just move on and not go through this, today?”
If the Boss and the Doctor are the kids’ parents, the Guard is the bully big brother. If he had his way, the kids would all be doing their work while chained to a short leash hooked to the walls. The Boss is the only one who keeps the Guard in line. Unfortunately for the kid the Guard currently holds by the shirt collar, the Boss is preoccupied. Joe sets his bucket and shovel down and approaches the Ladder. He keeps an eye on the Guard.
“Joe, don’t.” Lauren tries to whisper loudly.
“Joe—” Marvin starts but Lauren covers his mouth since he’s liable to get Joe caught.
Joe stands at the Ladder and steps up onto the first rung. He looks at the Guard who is still reprimanding the other kid. He looks higher into the tunnel and steps up onto the second rung. The same lights surrounding the Junction are strung together in the vertical tunnel. They are amassed just inside but seem to get further apart the higher up the tunnel they go.
Joe squints and can almost see something moving in the darkness. He raises one foot to place on the third rung but instead of solid footing he finds only surprise when he is shoved off of the Ladder.
Joe hits the ground hard enough to have the wind nearly knocked out of him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” The Guard walks to Joe and stands over him. “You know the rules.”
“I was just looking!” Joe yells.
“Are you raising your voice at me? I should let you go up. Nothing but death up there anyway.”
“Joe!” Marvin tries to run to him but Lauren holds him back.
“He’ll be fine. Don’t get involved, Marvin.”
While the Guard deals with Joe, a teenager rushes the Ladder and climbs up it. The sound of the teen’s foot hitting the wood of the Ladder is unmistakable. Joe turns in time to see the escaping teen halfway to the tunnel. The Guard runs to the Ladder and tries to grab his foot but he just misses.