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The Great Expansion by Owen Jones
SUMMARY: Entry for the October Short Story Competition
Theme - Darkness
Garrn watched the forever clock tick methodically toward the appointed moment. Here on the ladder between Above and Below he was calm. Lately the quiet times had shrunk to almost nothing, windows to the Above becoming rarer than moles. The wise men had said now would be one such. Placing his thick black goggles on in readiness and checking his hunter's pack, Garrn twisted the insulated handles and slowly edged the lid directly above him, minutely ajar.
The light coruscating in, despite the goggles' thick lenses, was painful. When had it not been so, he wondered. Even down this distance the heat was evident and Garrn shuddered at what awaited in the Above. Pushing the lid quickly upwards, he climbed the final rungs of the ladder nimbly, closing and sealing the lid behind him. The awakening power of the feeder-passage's larger spaces besieged his senses, the alien quality of open forcing him to hunch lower still.
But he had been entrusted once again with the mission, a source of great pride and, more importantly, greater privileges in the clan tunnels. He was Garrn.
It felt like the wise men were right, the heat, though cloying and distasteful, was not of a level to force his empty-handed return. Patiently he loped upwards through the familiar, twisting maze of corridors until he looked down on the decayed concrete desert of Once-Home.
Many of the landmarks still stood but it was his own guide markings that concerned him more. As vicious as the winds could be, the abrasive nature of the sand and dust particles that it whipped into a frenzy was cause for greater worry. Never taking his eyes off the ground in front, to look up was to not return, Garrn began moving toward his nearest marking. Carefully he slid down the embankment, the surety of grip required in the tunnels no use in the morass of twisting sands around the complex's entrance.
On the level ground of cracked hardpan he upped his pace to a sprint, time was sneaky in this place and he did not like that. Finding his first guide marking easily, Garrn followed the pattern he had begun all those missions ago. Fortune favoured him, the skilled placement of his markings had survived the conditions of Above and all but one were still clearly visible. Moving to the marking of his previous mission, Garrn tracked slowly to the next habitat, feeling the temperature around him begin to rise. Getting to this point was now taking too long, soon he would have to start a fresh run.
Before entering the unfamiliar habitat Garrn unslung his hunter's pack and removed his weapons, large prey was rare but would save a lot of searching, should he survive. Pushing through a hole in the outer wall, he was confronted by a small foyer with a central room splitting a large staircase. Two thick paneled doors were evident under each side of the staircase. The room had been picked clean. Going higher did not appeal to Garrn, so he chose to enter the left hand set of doors
Beyond the doors was a large sloped room, dark and musty with a big black wall at the bottom.