Matt went first, then Steph, and Dale last. He didn’t bother pulling the door shut behind him, because he knew it would close by itself, just as they always did. Sure enough, when he landed, after sliding and scraping his way down the tight tube, the square of light above him vanished a few moments later, leaving them in suffocating darkness.
The space was so cramped they were all touching each other, but for the first minutes none of them moved. The wind buffeted them from several different directions, but it didn’t sound like wind, it sounded like human screams. It was the most horrible sound Dale had ever heard, and it was so loud in his ears they hurt. He tried to shift around so that he was on all fours, but the tunnel was too cramped, and he ended up bumping into Steph and then sitting in an awkward squat with his back against the wall. What if we die in here, lost in the tunnels? Will our screams join the others? The fear hit him, an ice cold blanket settling on his shoulders.
He leaned closer to Steph and shouted as loud as he could: ‘To hell with this! Tell Matt to pass back the keys and we’ll get out and try something else! There has to be a better way!’
He waited, but she made no response. Damn, but the wind was loud. Then her hand found his and tugged, and he realised she was trying to pull him into one of the interleading tunnels. That could only mean Matt had actually started crawling down one of them. ‘Are you insane! You don’t even know where you’re going, Matt! These could lead anywhere!’ But again, his screams were lost to the wind, and a few moments later he was crawling on all fours, his scalp brushing the ceiling and his elbows clipping the occasional protrusion of rock.
It lasted an eternity. There was no communication, no reassurance that Matt had so much as an inkling where to go beyond a vague notion of where the other door would be in relation to the original trapdoor. Twice Dale had to squint against unexpected light as Matt tried one of the keys in a door and stumbled on one of Zindel’s other worlds, but both times he closed the door a moment later, and they moved on.
Dale’s mouth went dry. The air smelled saltier than the ocean, and it sucked the sweat from his skin, leaving behind a salty residue. His mouth became so dry that his tongue felt like a piece of beef jerky flopping around in his mouth. He was thirstier than he’d ever been, and he was bleeding from a hundred tiny cuts. He bumped his head, his arms, constantly rubbed his knees and feet on the harsh rock. If he could see, he was sure he’d be leaving behind a bloody trail.
Now and again, he squeezed Steph’s hand, and she squeezed back, and he somehow found the strength to crawl on, and on.
They went up and down and as far as Dale was concerned they were lost for good. They would never find their way back to the trapdoor, let alone Zindel’s world. They would simply wonder these tunnels forever, the weight of a whole planet above them and nothing but blackness and screams in front of them, and their skeletons would never be found. And then Matt opened another door and blinding light shone into the tunnel.
Dale squinted ahead, sure the light would vanish again as Matt closed the door, but then he felt Steph tug his hand and he was crawling forward after her, into the brightness. It was impossible, too good to be true, but when he squeezed out of the doorway after her and tumbled into soft, green grass and saw a blue sky above him, he knew they’d done it. They’d found paradise.