This story is by Candace Cox and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Kiran wasn’t sure when her senses weren’t engulfed by smoke, metal, and dust. She pressed her cloth against her mouth and nose, trying to breathe in some clean air but only managing a cough. The cloth was dirty with sweat and the same dust that coated her beige tunic, doing nothing to cool her down from the temperature. She wished she had something better, but the only ones she knew of that could afford that were the Rulers, who didn’t need such things to begin with.
She took a brief glance around, the endless tunnels dark aside from the scattered lanterns of the others. With a sigh, she turned back to her work. A clink of her pick against the rock indicated something more than just the same old gravel that she saw most of the time down here in the mines.
Narrowing her eyes a little and lifting her lantern from the ground, Kiran noticed the iridescent glimmer that shone out from beneath the ordinary rock. The Rulers would be pleased.
She wasn’t sure what the substance was, no Underling was supposed to know—but she knew that it was valuable to the Rulers. Supposedly it powered their mechanical hearts, allowed them to create more technology, gave them a chain of being that made them seem more alive than the all-too human Underlings who were forced to work for them. The metal wasn’t needed, but useful—just like the Underlings.
With a grunt of effort after chipping away, Kiran dislodged the shimmering metal, and with it came an avalanche of stone that caused her to cry out. She moved backwards to avoid the tumbling rocks, nearly backing into the other wall of the mines. The dust still completely covered her sight and filled her lungs, her head throbbing with pain as a few of the rocks hit her. A clatter reverberated as her light source was knocked away, the lantern flickering out. Coughing on bits of gravel that got into her mouth, Kiran tried to force her mind back to the task and fight through the squalid conditions. She heard none of the others comment on the rockslide, all too absorbed in their work.
Wiping the collection of dust from her brow and brushing stray strands of dark brown hair out of her face, Kiran squinted. Pulling a hair tie from her pocket, she tied her hair up into a ponytail. She took the iridescent rock in her fingers, turning it over. The glow from it beamed—a message of hope.
Something fluttered above her head.
Stumbling backwards and looking up, Kiran saw what looked like a bird, flying upward through the tunnels and to the surface above. She already knew what kind, even without fully glimpsing it. A crane.
“Still thinking about Scintilla?” a small but cheerful voice said.
Kiran broke out of her thoughts, turning left as a boy with dusty-blonde hair and a small satchel came running up to her. The bag had a small pocket on its side that held a lit lantern.
The boy placed the small bag on the ground; the light brought forth the welcomed flickering, before he turned to her, blocking it out. In contrast to Kiran, the boy never had a chance to develop much of a body, and she couldn’t help but think that the rock retaliation inflicted on her earlier would be impossible for him to survive. All he had is something she’d never had: vibrant enthusiasm—an awesome but useless trait that reverberated in his “Well… are ya?”
A nod from Kiran as she brushed some gravel off of her shoulders. “Yeah.”
The boy nodded in understanding. Scintilla was the one dream of peace and safety any of them had. The shining city that was far away from all the smoke and machinery of Hiraeth. Far away from the imprisonment. The promise of something better. Something liberating.
The words of the robotic Rulers echoed in her head, the same as every year at this time: “We can spare only one.”
“Didn’t you send your crane out?”
Kiran shook her head. “Not yet, Sindri.”
“What?!” Sindri looked at her in surprise. “I thought you did! You know they only let one person go!” He closed the distance between them, bringing the flickering light back. He lowered his voice, giving his lecture a hint of desperation. “You’re gonna lose your chance, you shoulda done it days ago. Now you’re stuck here til sundown. It’ll never cover the distance in time.”
Kiran put her latest find in her bucket, going back to slamming the pick, grunting, with nothing to say.
“42-A’s shift just ended, I could try to fake it somehow,” Sindri insisted, pulling out a few papers from his bag. “Fold more cranes, sign them out, I can forge your signature if I try—”
“It’s okay,” Kiran insisted. “I’m sure—”
A horn resounded through the mines, putting their conversation to a halt. A voice echoed from everywhere at once—it could have come from deep beneath the earth or from the heavens. With the network—the wired, intrusive city—it was impossible to tell. The voices of the Rulers were everywhere.
“Underlings in Section 42-B, your shift has ended.”
“Thank goodness!” Sindri said, tugging his friend along, both tripping over rocks in their haste to get started.
“Don’t you think we’re cutting it a bit close?” Kiran asked, her feet struggling to keep up, her mind blurred by panic.
“Less talking, more running!” Sindri cried out as they burst upward from the mine into the town. Light reflected off the buildings, those jagged shards of metal that rose high. Grandeur. The grandeur bestowed to the gutless spawn of those who’ve held power since the dawn of time. The grandeur that was lost as they ran further, to the outskirts made of small, wooden houses, where Underlings rented rooms—a cheap old bed, a sink, a mirror, a bathroom that had to be shared (all for a sizeable chunk of the pay the Rulers let them have).
Kiran’s senses became dulled to the gravel at her feet and Sindri’s fingernails scraping her skin. All that mattered was getting to her room and getting her crane loose. She had to have hope for her one chance at freedom.
The pair scrambled into the home where Kiran had a room all to herself after they had taken her in. Unlike Sindri, who had to share not only a room but a bed with his father and mother.
Kiran slammed the door.
Made it. No time to breathe.
But they were breathless—a fact that hit them both as they ascended the rickety stairs. Sindri let go, using both hands to cover his mouth as he went into a coughing fit, three-fourths up. Once in her room, they both caught air (as good as it got). While Sindri helped himself to water, Kiran did a quick check: her bed, shelf of books, windowside table, chair—she hadn’t been targeted by a thief or the Rulers’ security force.
The creature in the black birdcage at the far side of the table was caught in the window’s breeze—the origami crane with a will all its own. Its head tilted, quizzical, its eyes fixed on Sindri.
“Yeah, yeah, we’re glad to see you, too,” Kiran said, walking to the table and removing the latch. Letting the creature have permission to be free, to hover for a moment before it glided down, graceful, next to the pen. Waiting for the pen. One word, a name, that’s all it would take.
Kiran took the instrument and stood poised over the bird. I’m fine, I can do this. Her resolve failed as she hesitated for too long. Her hands started trembling. She was aware of Sindri talking but blocked out his words, her mind too consumed by her own panic.
One out of 5,052. It’s you or Sindri or one of those others—while the rest get abused, lost, buried or destroyed when the judgment of utter uselessness is announced.
“Y’know… you can write a reason.”
Kiran paused, the pen raised just over the right wing of her crane as Sindri’s words finally got through to her. “What?”
“You can write a reason,” Sindri said, a little stronger. “Writing a reason why you should get it gives you more of a chance. It throws off the algorithm.”
Kiran’s brown eyes grew wide, staring at him as if transfixed when he had spoken. “… How do you know that?”
“Remember Burak, who was able to leave last year?”
“Back when he was my buddy in 42-A, he told me he was gonna try that, and it worked.” Sindri said with a shrug. A grin began to appear on his face. “Not saying it’s a foolproof plan or anything, but he got out. Why not you?”
“Could’ve been luck.”
“I told you… it throws off the algorithm.”
Only able to half-match his smile, Kiran turned back to her crane, reaching for her pen, before looking back at Sindri as realization dawned. “But what about you? You won’t be able to come with me, and you’ll be stuck here for another year at least. Maybe I could write your name, too—”
”You deserve to go to Scintilla just as much as anyone else.”
Kiran tried to fight off tears, hating herself for understanding, as she turned back to her crane. It inclined its head toward the window.
“I know, I know it’s almost sundown, be patient!” Kiran snapped.
Her pen poised above the wing, Kiran took a deep breath and started to write.
“I am Kiran. My name means ‘dust’, and for most of my life that’s all I’ve known. My parents told me stories of greater places, where the air was more oxygen than smoke, where we could be free to make our own choices. Losing them to an accident in the mining shafts was the hardest moment of my life, but in the time since, I’ve found it gives me hope. I’ve learned to never let them or that hope escape me. If I didn’t hold on, I would have turned to dust for real. But dust can let sunbeams wash over it. That’s what I’m hoping this will do for me.”
The paper bird sped forward, faster than either Kiran or Sindri could comprehend. It hurried to the tallest building, a bronze structure that towered over everything.
A beam of yellow light extended from the center, catching the crane in its light before the winged paper creature vanished.
Message received. Made it by two minutes.
Kiran stood upright. Sindri came over and put an arm around her.
Won’t be long now…
The sky began to darken. The hum of machinery slowed to a crawl. The pair tightened their hug.
After several tense seconds, they heard the Rulers’ mouthpiece—the same bitter, condescending tone that it always was—“This is your home, the only life you know. You’re born. You work. You die.”
One out of 5,052.
“We can spare only one.”
Both Kiran and Sindri felt their hearts stop.
“A name has been chosen.”
One out of 5,052.