UNDERGROUNDERS

TIJAN

CHAPTER ONE: OCEAN CORP

It was my first time going to Ocean Corp. Most of the hospitals in Belview City had become small clinics. There were a few in each section of the city with two doctors on staff, but Ocean Corp was different. It looked to have two hundred floors and different buildings attached through glass-encased walkways that were above ground. I had heard they had their own living quarters for patients and staff members. Unlike the rest of the city that struggled after the second depression, Ocean Corp was booming. It had other companies spread all over Belview City and some joked that it was no longer Belview City, but Ocean City.

"Lael."

The tour guide waved at me. She was dressed in all white, matching the exterior of Ocean Corp. If it wasn't glass-encased, it had been painted white. The front entrance opened onto a glass walkway. As we went through the main entrance, an indoor park was beneath us. Doors were spread around the park. Each door had a bench and two chairs outside of it with gravel underneath to outline their patio. Two girls sat outside one of the doors, but they looked up when we came through the door. One's shoulders rose as she gasped. The other only darted inside their door. Her friend followed close behind and then there was no one in the park.

"Hurry up, Lael. Stop ogling."

I glanced around for my boyfriend, but I couldn't find him. Jaron must've rushed ahead. I sighed. He was always doing that. I couldn't remember the last time we spent quality time together, but then I spotted another guy in the group. He was eying me up and down and I flushed. I had a trim body with a slender waist. Jaron loved my blonde hair. It gleamed in the sunlight when we would go for walks before Belview City Park had been closed down because of the local vandalism. It wasn't safe.

Thinking about those times, I missed it. I missed feeling the sun on my skin. I missed feeing warm and knowing that Jaron found me more attractive from the sunlight on my hair and skin. As the group progressed further inside Ocean Corp, I felt sunlight from the glass ceilings above us. It was the same feeling from the park. Closing my eyes, I stopped and savored the moment. Time would go fast and the sunlight would leave again. I never knew where it went, but the night would come. The darkness seemed to last forever.

"Lael."

The tour guide was right in front of me now. The group had gone ahead, but a few lingered, watching us. She turned and waved them ahead. "Go ahead. Room 83. Help yourself to the food inside."

At the mention of food, they hurried down the hallway. It wasn't long until they were gone.

She turned back to me, a clipboard held against her chest and her chin was squared. Pressing her lips together, she moved closer until she was looking down at me. I held my breath, wondering what I had done wrong? I was in trouble. She let out a small breath and tugged on the bottom of her uniform top. There were pearls that ran down the middle, but it didn't open her shirt. They were only for decoration. It was one piece of cloth that she would have to lift over her head. The ends were outlined with a wire and stuck out over her waistline. It gave the image of a triangle, the same symbol Ocean Corp had in their logo. The rest of her uniform were white pants that resembled loose leggings. Her shoes were white also, but they weren't like any shoes I had ever seen. They were made of white cloth with rope that was woven over it.

I glanced at my own feet. Plain. Brown. The bottoms of my sandals were falling off, but I couldn't remember the last time I thought about buying new shoes. Mine were common in Belview City, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Ocean Corp had the best of everything. It made sense that even her shoes would be beautiful compared to my own.

"Lael," she said again. Her voice was full of disappointment and she pressed a hand to her hair. It had been swept up in a tight bun. Her hand felt for any loose strands, but I knew there wouldn't be. Her hair matched her uniform. Everything was pristine and perfect. "You cannot dally anymore. I've already caught you twice."

My head went down. Shame flooded me.

She continued, "You must keep up with the group. Ocean Corp keeps a strict schedule and if any cannot adhere to being on-time, he or she will be cut from the program. You were given this chance for treatment along with your colleagues. It's a wonderful opportunity. I wouldn't want you to miss it because you were daydreaming."

Yes, ma'am. She was correct. I nodded and knew I would have to do better.

"Okay. Well." Her tone softened. "Let's hurry to the room. I hope some food was left for both of us."

My stomach growled. I clamped a hand over it, hoping that wouldn't get me in more trouble, but she had gone ahead. I hurried to catch up with her, but I didn't need her to find the room. As soon as we stepped from the glass walkway onto a landing, the aroma of bread and cider was overwhelming. My stomach growled again, the sound doubled, but I didn't worry if she had heard. The door had been left open. As she saw this, she gasped. "Oh no."

I frowned, but stopped thinking. Hunger clawed at me. I hurried inside the room, but a group had formed around the table. They had remained there as they ate so I pushed past some of them. The ones closest to the table refused to budge. There were a line of guys, bigger and stronger than me, who kept the rest behind them. Spotting a plate of biscuits, I snaked an arm past one of the men and grabbed as many as I could before clutching them to my chest.

"Biscuits," a girl whispered next to me. She was tiny, maybe under five feet, and her mouth was open as she stared at my foot. A small droplet of drool formed at the corner of her mouth. She held a carrot stick in one hand and an apple in the other, but I knew she really wanted what I held.

I shook my head and moved to the outskirts of the group. My stomach was rolling over on itself and I hunched over, shielding the biscuits from others and began stuffing them in my mouth. Both my cheeks were soon full. I couldn't get enough.

"AW!"

The tour guide had shoved the little girl aside. When she fell on the floor, the apple was in the tour guide's hand. She raised it to her mouth in slow motion, staring at the little girl at the same time before she took one large bite from it.

The little girl didn't move from the floor. She stared and watched. She was pleading with her eyes for the apple, but it didn't matter. The tour guide took another bite, grinned down at her, and turned towards the table. The rest of the group witnessed what happened. They shuffled aside for her now. It was a reminder who was in charge and she was. No one wanted to go against an employee of Ocean Corp.

You were given this chance for treatment along with your colleagues. It's a wonderful opportunity.

Food came with the treatments and that was the real opportunity. If we came every day, we would get food every day. On that note, the little girl had gotten up and was going past me. I held my last biscuit out. She didn't look at me. Her hand snatched it from mine and she hurried to a far corner, away from everyone else.

There was still more food left. The group shifted and I could see a plate of fruit. My stomach growled, but a guy blocked my view. He stared at me, a snarl on his face, and I looked away. It wasn't worth a fight and this guy would hurt me. Glancing around for Jaron, I couldn't see him so I knew he wouldn't help either.

Where did he keep going?

The tour guide cleared her throat. A small podium was in the corner of the room, placed on a platform so it was above the rest of the room. She stood behind it and patted her hair again. When she was certain no strand had fallen loose, she rolled her shoulders back and her hands rested on the edges of the podium. She was ready for her speech.

A snicker was heard from the back of the room.

I knew why he was laughing. There were crumbs on the side of the tour guide's mouth. Her hair was perfect, but she hadn't checked the rest of her face. She scowled now at the offender and narrowed her eyes. The snickering stopped.

"Now that we have all eaten, I must go over rules with you," she spoke with firm authority. "As I was reminding one of you earlier," her eyes lingered on me, "Ocean City has given you the privilege of these treatments. Everyone within Belview City has been infected from the undergrounder's disease. We are all here because Ocean Corp has been kind enough to give treatments to those that won the lottery." She beamed at us now. A bright smile on her face. "Each and every one of you won that lottery number, but there must be order among so much chaos and mayhem that occurs in our daily lives."

Pressing a button on the podium, a projection filled the far wall.

There were six rules listed.

No talking.

She explained, "Ocean Corps is a very busy and very important treatment center. There must be silence at all moments when you are walking through the halls. Once you were inside a room, the doors must be closed. They cannot be left open. This is for your safety. And again, silence amongst yourselves."

Only remain on the floor or room permitted.

"At the end of each corridor and floor, security monitors have been placed. They will alert Ocean Corp if any of you try to go beyond the rooms where you will receive your treatments. This is one of the rooms. You will learn what other rooms you are permitted shortly." She paused and leaned forward over the podium. Her fingers curled into it as she swept her gaze across the group. "You will be cast out of the program and will not receive the treatments if Ocean Corp is alerted you have broken the rules. Do you understand how important that is? We all need the treatments."

All treatments are confidential.

The tour guide said further, "There are many in the city who would kill for one of these treatments. Because of this, you must not tell anyone." A murmur rose from the group. She held a hand, silencing the group. "If you already have, you must go home and tell them that you were turned away. Others have hurt past recipients, hoping to take their place so this is for your safety. You must remain quiet about receiving the treatments."

Prompt attendance is key.

I felt her eyes on me again as she explained again. "Every morning you will line up at the door by eight. If you are a minute late, you will lose your spot and you will not receive treatments. You will come in, you will go to your assigned room for the treatment. As soon as they dismiss you, you will leave the building the same way you came in. There will be no lingering. Is this understood?"

No one spoke. No one dared.

Fraternizing is not allowed.

"Well," she harrumphed, pressing a hand to her hair again. "I think this is self-explanatory itself. There will be no fraternizing or socializing among you. If we discover friendships or other relationships, both parties will not receive treatments. Rule number one states that there will be no talking so this shouldn't be a difficult rule to follow."

Stay away from Undergrounders.

Another murmur rose from the group. I held my breath. Undergrounders. They were here? Fear rose up in me. They were the reason all of had come to Ocean Corp.

The tour guide held a hand in the air to silence the room again. "Now," she gentled her tone. "I know this strikes fear in a lot of you, but if you follow the first five rules then there is no need to fear running into Undergrounders."

Someone asked from the back, "But they're here? They're in the building?"

"Yes." She drew the word out until everyone fell silent again. "Ocean Corp must seek new treatments for the citizens in Belview City. We have all been injected by their disease, but we must not harm them. Ocean Corp is still seeking new ways to make everyone healthier in our city. They will not be allowed on this floor so you should never come across them. If you do, remain at a far distance and they will guided to wherever they are going. No Undergrounder goes unattended in Ocean Corp."

"So they'll have staff with them at all times?"

"Yes," she clipped her response out as another bright and forced smile came over her. "Now, let's finish your tour."