Drag sighed. Cleaning duty for the fifteenth day in a row. He glowered down at the can of ASPRO he’d been using to remove mould from the ventilation ducts.
All the other kids had proper jobs. His brother, Seth, worked in the underground farms. Jess was allowed to drive the buggy that took people down into the store rooms. But Drag?
You’re not big enough, Drag. You’re not tall enough, Drag. No, Drag, you’re too small, Drag.
Drag slumped against the wall. Being small sucked. So did living underground. Not that he could remember living anywhere else. Not since year zero, the year that scientists had decided that the climate was too dangerous to live on the surface. The storms were too violent, the heat extreme. He glared at the rocky walls. Only adults were allowed outside now and only if they wore protective suits.
There was a loud bang and Drag’s sister skidded out of a side door, her eyes wider than the flashing blue lights that lined the rocky ceiling.
‘You have…to come…upstairs,’ wheezed Jess.
Drag frowned. ‘But I haven’t finished—’
Jess shook her head. ‘Emergency!’ She began walking backwards towards the stairs. ‘Code 5.’
As if by magic, the lights above their heads flickered. Drag gulped. A Code 5 emergency could mean a total loss of power, which meant no oxygen, no air conditioning, no…
‘Does Mum know?’ shouted Drag.
They reached the stairs. ‘She went outside to check on the solar panels,’ called Jess. ‘But that was hours ago. Oh Drag. Something terrible has happened. I know it!’
There were at least thirty people gathered in the exit chamber, all talking at once. When Drag pushed to the front, he saw his brother struggling to shift the handle on the huge outer doors.
‘It won’t budge. Not without power,’ snarled Seth.
‘Maybe I can help,’ offered Drag.
Seth winked. ‘Thanks buddy, but you’re too small.’ He rummaged around in a pocket and tossed Drag a couple of ripe apples. ‘Here, share these around. It’ll help calm the kids.’
Drag stuffed the fruit into his overalls and opened his mouth to argue, his words drowned out by shouts as the lights above them fizzled and died.
‘QUIET!’ yelled Seth and a torch snapped on, the bright yellow beam swinging left and right.
‘What are we going to do?’ cried Jess. ‘This is the only way out.’
‘No it’s not.’ Drag felt rather than saw everyone turn in his direction. ‘What about the ventilation ducts? They go all the way to the surface.’
‘They’re tiny!’ exclaimed Jess. ‘We’d never fit.’
‘I would,’ said Drag.
Torchlight swept into his eyes. ‘No chance,’ Seth began to splutter. ‘You…you’re way too…’
‘What?’ grinned Drag. ‘Small?’
There was a long silence then Drag heard Seth sigh.
‘Do not get stuck!’ said Seth for the tenth time.
Balanced on Seth’s shoulders, Drag reached into the circular tube. Without air conditioning, the air was stiflingly hot and sweat dribbled into his eyes. It didn’t help that he was stuffed into an oversized body suit. Drag adjusted the headlamp strapped to his forehead and began worming his way forwards, slowly at first then faster as his legs pumped in time with the hammering in his chest.
‘You OK?’ shouted Jess.
‘Uhuh,’ grunted Drag. What else could he say? He was lying face down in a tube barely large enough to accommodate a family of rats. Probably not a good time to talk about his fear of tight spaces. Another ten minutes on his belly and he reached an intersection and slid left. A further fifteen and he began to see daylight.
Drag emerged into a scorched landscape of stunted trees and low desert bushes. High above him, the sky over Killykeen was a deep violet blue. It looked, thought Drag, like a bomb had exploded. There was debris scattered everywhere.
The frantic shout scared him half to death. His mother was clinging to the branches of an oak, her legs less than five metres above his head.
Drag waved. When his mother screamed, he stopped, looked around and finally understood.
The bear’s claw missed Drag’s cheek by a whisker. Leaping sideways, he rolled into a thicket and scooted beneath a hollow log. For almost two minutes nothing happened at all.
Drag risked a quick peek and realised why. The bear’s tail was caught in a mesh of tangled wire. The poor creature looked tired out and hungry. Hungry. Drag thought about the apples still stuffed inside his overalls. And had a wild idea.
‘It’s Ok,’ he breathed. Drag ignored his mother’s shout as he circled the bear, an apple in each hand. Very slowly, he took hold of the end of the wire and tossed the bear the fruit. As soon as he heard the creature begin to chew, he carefully loosened the metal knot. With a few sharp twists, the bear’s tail was free.
There was a moment of heart-stopping quiet as Drag and the bear stared at each other, and then it finally bounded out of sight.
A minute later, his mother grabbed him in a crushing hug and burst into tears.
It took almost an hour for Drag to help fix the hole in the perimeter fence and then the solar panels.
‘That was very brave,’ his mother said at last. ‘But please, Drag, don’t ever do anything like that again.’
Drag shrugged, but deep inside he was glowing.
His mother smiled. ‘Then again,’ she flicked a switch and Drag heard the familiar sound of electricity, ‘maybe we should reassign you to security. Anyone who can climb the ventilation ducts, rescue a bear and save us all from disaster—’
‘I don’t mind cleaning,’ blurted Drag. ‘Honest.’ He looked into a sky filling with the first faint stars. ‘Although it would be nice,’ he added, ‘to be allowed outside.’
‘I think that can be arranged,’ smiled his mother. ‘Once in a while.’