This is chapter 20 of my novel, Foreign. I publish a new chapter each Friday at noon. To catch up on previous chapters, check out the archives here. If you want to stay caught up, make sure to subscribe to my blog in the upper right corner of this page. That way, you’ll get each chapter delivered straight to your inbox. Please also spread the word about Mark and Justin’s journey. There’s still much more to come.
In the two and a half seconds that followed, Mark had just enough time to see that there was indeed an outcropping of metal that below him. His only hope was the the metal would be stronger than the inner wall of the city or his fall would be much longer than desired.
To his relief (and pain), he found the metal of the open heat exhaust vent to be adequately sturdy. It funneled both of them into a dark corridor where they crashed against an interior wall.
Shaken up by the experience, they both took a few minutes to get up from the floor of the room. Mark’s visor illuminated more warning lights. His suit informed him that he received external forces on his boots that were two times the exposure limit. He was to return his suit for maintenance at his earliest convenience.
They couldn’t see much detail in the room because it was darker than the outside, but outside light was pouring in through the openings. Sitting on the ground, still winding down from exhilarating experience of skydiving without a parachute and surviving, Mark looked down the corridor. They were in a long, narrow room with circular walls, like they were inside a donut, looking down a tangent line along its edge. The opening formed an outline of the entire room.
As they gazed down the solid white line of light from the outside, they could see the general shape of the room. They were in one of the ITER fusion reactors. Mark was sure of it. Although it was bigger than Mark had envisioned it. The curvature of the tokamak was barely perceptible as he looked down the long room. He walked to an edge of the corridor, turned on his visor light and examined the material of the wall. It was a convex curved wall that eventually wrapped into the floor and ceiling, coated with curved sheets of some type of metal. The metal looked like it was smooth and flawless at some point in time, but it wasn’t that way anymore. Some of the pieces almost looked warped or rough while others looked like they didn’t fit in place like they should have. It seemed odd that the walls of something so important would look so shabby.
Mark heard a grunt as Justin sat up from the floor of the room. He must have been shaken up more than Mark had been.
Justin stood up. “We’ve gotta find a way out of this place before it goes online.”
“Yeah, but look at these walls. They’re made to withstand crazy temperatures. I don’t think we’ll be able to just punch through this stuff,” Mark said.
Justin replied, “Yeah, but I think they work on these things while they are cooling. There’s gotta be somebody along the way we can find and just follow them out. You up for some running?”
“I guess I have to be,” Mark said as he began a jog down the unending corridor.
While they were running, Mark checked the status of his suit after their fall. Everything was still in working order, but it definitely looked banged up. He was amazed at how durable the suit was. He must have fallen close to a sixty feet and he landed on a hard metallic surface. But his Tielsuit continued on in the same way it had when they found it. As they ran in the silence, scouring the walls for any signs of recent work or weakness, Mark thought about the different times he would have died if he didn’t have his suit. He was sure that they wouldn’t have had any chance of escape without their suits. They were unimaginably lucky that they found those suits on their way out.
Neither Justin nor Mark were in the best shape for long distance running so their pace slowed as the minutes passed by. Everything looked the same. It was disorienting to continue running in a room that had absolutely no distinguishing features. Mark tried to figure out how long the room was to kill some of the time. He thought he remembered from the Hall of Records that the whole city was something like like ten or twelve miles wide. Even with the small number, that would mean they were running in a thirty one mile circular corridor around the city. There could be people working on the tokamak on the opposite side from them and it would be impossible for them to meet before the reactor came back online. Mark only hoped that luck continued to be with them.
After an indeterminate amount of time, a series of red flashing lights dropped down from the ceiling. Somehow they heard a recording inform them that the tokamak would resume fusion in fifteen minutes, and all workers should finish their current tasks and leave immediately. The lights continued to flash as their run became a sprint.
The walls felt closer than they had been only minutes earlier. No matter how far they ran, everything looked the same. The corridor continued its gradual curve and the lights flashed red, like they were trapped in a horror movie. The monotonous running only fed Mark’s sense of despair. His efforts felt completely futile.
Another announcement sounded, “Fusion will begin in ten minutes. Please note the closest exit and finish your current task.”
Come on! There’s got to be somebody working close to us.
Five more minutes passed as they were given another warning of the impending danger. Around the same time as the warning, Mark thought he noticed something. He wasn’t sure how long it had been this way, but the metallic wall was reflecting the flashing red lights in a way it hadn’t just minutes earlier. He kept his running down the corridor, but changed his course so he’d run closer to the wall. Though he was moving quickly, every metal sheet looked much newer than the first ones he had seen. They all had a shine that definitely wasn’t there the last time he had checked. None of them looked misshapen or like they didn’t quite fit.
Mark wasn’t sure if he should find hope in this or not. It could mean that they were even further from the workers because this portion was newer or it could mean that they were really close to the workers because this part of the wall had been replaced more recently. Either way, he pressed on, already out of breath.
“One minute until fusion begins. Hydrogen heating will begin shortly.” And alarm began to sound in unison with the lights. The loud noise added to the sense of impending doom. The heat exhaust vents closed back into the wall, preparing the tokamak for use again. The corridor became pitch black between each flashing red light.
“Shortly?” Justin cried out, “I thought that bastard said we had a minute?”
They kept running, more out of desperation than anything else, unsure of what they were even looking for.
And then Justin saw it. Up and around the corner to their right they saw a faint white light. It was dim enough that they might not have seen it with the vents still open. As they crested the curve, the dim glow became a work light in the hand of a man walking toward the interior wall.
Both Mark and Justin yelled at the top of their lungs, hoping the man would hear them and stop everything, but he continued for the exit. They were still probably three hundred feet away.
He must not have heard our yells over the noise of the alarm!
The worker disappeared into the wall, but they could still see a light pouring into the corridor from where he had left. They continued onward, only one hundred fifty feet away.
Fifty more feet to run, and the white light pouring into the corridor cut out. The red lights ceased flashing, and they heard a his as pumps sucked out the oxygen in the room, replacing it with pure hydrogen. The only light in the room was their visor lights, bouncing through the corridor as they ran aimlessly.
The hissing stopped and they saw a red band appear in the middle of the corridor, following the direction of the circumference of the reactor.
“Shit! They’re heating the hydrogen already!” Justin cried.
“Shut up and look at the wall!” Mark demanded. The glow of the hot hydrogen cast the entire corridor in a reddish orange hue. The metal on the walls looked as shiny as a bathroom mirror. This part was brand new. It must have been the part they just replaced.
It must mean that the old wall must be close by!
Mark ran forward another ten feet. An alarm sounded in his Tielsuit. “External suit temperature is 500 degrees from the maximum level before damage is sustained.”
Just as I thought!
Ignoring the warning from his suit, he looked at the wall, and the metal looked even worse than the stuff he had seen when they first came in. There were bubbles and ripples in it, there was no reflective shine to any of it.
“Justin, get over here!” Mark yelled. The whole room was turning from an orange to a yellow as the hydrogen heated up. Mark heard another warning from his suit telling him that the suit was no longer guaranteed to withstand the heat around them. He started kicking against the wall as hard as he could. Justin came up next to him and followed suit.
The yellow light all around them became so bright it was turning to white. They had no more than ten seconds left before they’d be vaporized. They both kicked at the wall repeatedly not even sure that success would stop the reaction. With each kick, Mark noticed that it was getting harder to move. In fact, his body felt a tug toward the inner wall he was attacking.
Cracks in Mark’s visor inched across his field of view from the edges. Intense heat was radiating through the glass against Mark’s face. And without warning, his entire body was pulled into the wall, like it had become a giant magnet. The impact of his suit against the wall provided the needed force; his foot pierced the plate of metal he been kicking, and air rushed in through the opening into the lower pressure area where they were.
An alarm sounded inside the reactor and everything began to shut down. The white hot gas turned to yellow, then red, and then disappeared in a matter of seconds. The magnetic force faded and Mark dropped to the ground. A nearby panel in the wall was pulled inward, and four men in suits similar to Mark’s and Justin’s entered the corridor. They headed straight for Mark and Justin.
For chapter 21, click here.