THE CERBERUS TRIALS – CHAPTER ONE

This post contains the first chapter of my upcoming science fiction novel, The Cerberus Trials. I’m currently querying this novel, and any and all feedback is very much encouraged!

I open my eyes in the suffocating dark, my mind an empty, smoking crater.

            I’m flat on my back in a cramped, hot space, and I can’t remember my own name. Stale air presses in from all sides. My arms won’t move, they’re bound to my sides. Panic hits me in the face like a bucket of cold water.

            Where the hell am I?

            Disoriented. My memory a blur of disjointed images, unfamiliar sounds. They refuse to align into any semblance of sense. Something is wrong, terribly wrong. All I know for sure is that I’m not supposed to be here – and I’m desperate to escape.  

            The world around me throbs with a dull mechanical pulse. Steam hisses behind unseen walls. Dark. It’s so dark. A thick mechanical sound suddenly clanks beneath me, the subsonic growl rattles the teeth in my skull. From all around me, a sexless mechanical voice counts backwards from 10.

            “10…9…8…”

            A menacing red glow fills the space around me, its crimson tentacles reaching out from some nameless abyss. The light grows steadily, pulsing in time with the counting voice. As red light swallows the darkness, I see my surroundings for the first time, a claustrophobic world bathed in crimson.

The shaft is smooth and metallic. The walls featureless and warm. Gravity tugs at my feet. They must be lower than my head, pointed towards an inky blackness beyond my bare toes. I crane my neck and look up. A thick metal hatch, split down the middle and sealed tight, grins like the mouth of a skull from above my head.

            “7…6…5…”

            Thick black cords are looped around my waist and coiled around my wrists. They come together above my waist, disappearing into a thick mechanical clasp. Three red led lights blink in the center of the object, pulsing in time with the countdown. I struggle against my restraints, panic running free in my chest like a wildfire. The clasp near my stomach emits a menacing click and black cords slither tighter around my body, burning the bare skin of my wrists. Blood runs down the back of my hand, dripping onto the pristine mechanical wall of the shaft.

            “4…3…2”

            “Where the hell am I?” The mechanical voice ignores me, indifferent and remote.

            “1,” the voice intones. “Injection sequence initiated.”

            A sharp metallic pop echoes off the sides of the tube. A skull piercing whine screams up from the darkness below my feet, sliding up in pitch as it intensifies. A strong blast of air slams into my shoulders and I’m launched down the tube, picking up speed as I slide. Below my feet, along the tube, lights snap from red to green as the screeching whine climbs higher still. The shaft blurs around me as I pick up speed.

            The world explodes around me into blinding white light. I’m in free fall. I’m in midair. A deafening roar of air rushes past my head, the world spins around me as jagged fragments of black and white as my vision struggles to adjust. I twist my head around, desperate to orient myself, but I’m moving too fast. The world is a blur, and I’m falling out of control.

            I hit the water right side up. The impact stings my bare feet, sending lances of pain up into my shins. I open my mouth to scream, and gag on a mouthful of frigid water.

I’m sinking. A thin line of bubbles drifts towards the surface above as the air in my lungs floats lazily away, abandoning me as I sink deeper into the dark water.

My rope bindings retract suddenly, cutting into raw wrists a second time as they disappear into the metal clasp on my waist. The clasp sinks into the dark water below, black cords still waving and slithering like sea snakes as they disappear into the mechanism as it fades from sight. I claw against the frigid water with my newly freed limbs, desperate to reach the anemic splotch of light above my head. Empty lungs scream in my chest, my dances with red and white spots. My world collapses into a narrow tunnel. My arms and legs are numb, distant things, churning and flailing against the blackness, driven on by the manic lash of some ancient, animal instinct to survive at all costs.

            I break the surface with the last of my strength, and greedily suck oxygen into my burning lungs. I sputter and cough as the cold air collides with the fire in my chest. Breath escapes as great clouds of vapor in the frigid air, and I strain to tread water with aching legs as I take in my surroundings.

            I’m in the middle of a small circular lake, surrounded by a thick wall of snow-covered trees. A thin black pebble beach rings the lake on all sides like the iris of some great monochromatic eye. The sky above is grey and choked by mottled winter clouds. A light snow falls, dimpling the water around me as the flakes dissolve into the dark water and disappear.

            Exhausted, I force my numb limbs into action and swim towards the black beach. I swim clumsily, my arms and legs feeling like petrified wood – wood that somehow still feels pain – until my bare feet find the gently sloping lakebed where it rises towards the rocky beach. I lurch out of the water and onto the shore, body heat billowing off me as clouds of vapor that drift and twist upwards into the cold forest air, dissipating high above my head and joining the grey ceiling of winter sky. I sink to the ground and collapse.

            Someone is screaming my name.

My name? Wait…what the hell is my name? The sound is so clear, but somehow, I can’t make out what the desperate voice is saying.

Holy shit. Why can’t I remember my name?

I try and place the strange new surroundings. The beach, the forest – gone. I’m somewhere familiar. A place of hard right angles and military precision. Corridors that stretch long and straight, floors the shine with polish, and long rows of uniform lights embedded in the dull gray ceiling above.

Is this a dream? A memory? It can’t be real. It was only seconds ago that I fell face first into the cold stone of the beach. I can still feel the icy chill of the stones against my cheek.

I try and latch onto more of the memory, the face or the voice calling to me, but the sounds and images twist and dance away as I try and pull each into focus. All I can make out are vague echoes of groaning, shearing metal and a terrifying smell, like meat cooking on a chemical fire.

            My mind reels again as an excruciating torrent of images and feelings spark through my head. Vertigo. Nausea. Darkness.

The world snaps back into place with a disorientating jolt.

I’m sitting in a theater seat near the back of a large circular room. I’m not alone. All around me, sitting in seats identical to mine, are hundreds of other teenagers, their faces drawn with apprehension and fear. It looks like we’re in a lecture hall or a small theater. Down at the front of the amphitheater-style room is a stage, empty save for a single black lectern emblazoned with a circular seal that I don’t recognize. The seal is a golden circle of braid surrounding what looks like a field of stars. In the center of the field is an eagle with spread wings, a silver sword clutched in stylized talons. I can tell there are words written in the gold margin of the seal, but the letters twitch and distort as I squint to make them out.

            “Probably another freaking drill,” a bored female voice says from the chair to my right. I look over and see a willowy teenage girl with a severe bob of black hair and a knowing smirk. She brushes an unruly strand of hair from her forehead and yawns. “The brass loves that trash.”

            I open my mouth to speak, but my body won’t cooperate. I’m trapped – an observer in this confusing – yet oddly familiar – place. The dark-haired girl rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to the stage at the front of the room. “Great,” she whispers. “It’s Admiral Ball-Buster. Just what I needed at,” she checks her watch, “Jesus, 0300 in the freakin’ morning.”

            A lean older man with close-cropped gray hair steps up to the podium. Dark bags hang beneath his grey-blue eyes, eyes shot through with red and wide with alarm. The crowd of teenagers falls silent under his gaze. The dark-haired girl makes a show of stowing her thin data pad with a look of mock solemnity on her angular face.

The room falls silent under the older man’s icy gaze. The only sounds are the creaking of seats, the odd cough, and the whisper of fabric as this room full of restless teenage bodies squirms anxiously. He clears his throat, smooths the front of his dark blue uniform – a blue so deep it is nearly black – and speaks in the measured, mechanical voice of a man clawing for calm against the storm raging in his gut.

             “At 0315 yesterday morning, the Shatter Line was breached. The Cyclops array caught multiple drive signatures crossing the belt and burning hard. At 0200 this morning, Red Base was able to confirm. Size and strength of the force is unknown, but from the number of torches burning, it appears to be a sizable attack fleet. Possibly the largest we’ve ever seen.”

            As he speaks, the lights in the auditorium dim as a holodisplay draws a diagram in cold blue lines that shimmer in the air above the admiral’s head. A cluster of angry red hexagons blink to life inside the ring of what looks like an asteroid belt, leaving behind thin red trails that stretch backwards and out of view as the red cluster creeps towards a translucent blue orb near the center of the on the diagram. It looks like a body scan of cancerous fingers reaching slowly towards a defenseless human heart.

            There are gasps from all around me. I turn to look at the flippant girl next to me as the color has drains from of her thin face. Her lower lip trembles slightly as she brings a shaking hand to her mouth. A confusing wave of dread creeps into my guts, coiling around my spine like a snake.

            Confusion and fear wrestle in my chest for control. I don’t have a clue what this man is talking about. How could I? Then, why the hell is he scaring me to death? I try and speak, to ask the clearly shaken girl what is going on, what all this means, but my voice won’t cooperate. I look around the room and faces ashen with terror look back at me, tears smearing their cheeks.

The dark-haired girl is speechless, staring silently at the animated display that hangs in the air in front of us. The sharp contours of her high cheekbones are sketched in the artificial blue glow of the disaster as it unfolds on the holodisplay above.

            “We don’t know how they bypassed the early warning line or our deep system eyes, but Fleet hasn’t been able to raise White Base or Frontier QRF for nearly 72 hours,” the man at the podium continues, pausing for a long moment. A battle between panic and control plays out behind his stern, cobalt eyes. “At this time, command fears that the issue…the issue is in doubt,” he says finally, the lines in his craggy, scarred face seeming to deepen further.

            “Holy flippin’ crap,” says the dark-haired girl, loud enough that the grim-faced man at the podium whips his attention to her suddenly.

            “I couldn’t have said it better myself, Ghoul,” the older man says, looking the dark-haired girl directly in the eye with an apologetic expression that seems to frighten her even more.

            What the hell kind of name is Ghoul? Who are these people?

            On the holodisplay, a cluster of green triangles appears, sliding silently through the simulated starfield towards the glowering knot of red hexagons. The faces around me turn a paler shade of white as comprehension dawns – the red hexagons will make it to the blue orb in the center of the diagram long before the green triangles can intersect the threatening red line. Somewhere, in the back of my muddled mind, I know this is a catastrophe, but I have no idea why.

            The holodisplay suddenly snaps off, leaving the older man standing alone on the dimly lit podium. He looks suddenly small, crushed by an invisible weight that rests on his sagging shoulders. In the momentary solitude of the shadows, in the instant before the lights swell back up, he wipes a tear away before wrestling his composure back from the edge.

            “Make no mistake, cadets,” he says. “We are, once again, at war…and the enemy has seized the initiative.”

            The cold snaps me out of the dream and back into the pressing agony of the present. If I don’t do something soon, I’m going to freeze to death for sure. I won’t last an hour in these wet clothes…not in the middle of winter.

            Winter? Where the hell is it winter? My head is a mess of incomplete information and hologram-thin images. What the hell is happening to me?

            Oh yeah, I’m freezing to death.

            I scan my surroundings, shivering as the adrenaline from the fall fades. Cold bites into my aching limbs greedily and gobbles the scant remains of my body’s heat. I start to shiver so hard enough that swear I hear my teeth rattling in my skull.

 The trees are packed tightly together. A thick blanket of snow covers the ground. Beyond the tightly clustered tree trunks, the forest floor is dark, and I can’t see further than a few feet through the shroud of darkness cast by the thick canopy of the tall black trees. Nothing moves in the sky or on the ground. It is deathly silent.

            I force my legs to move. They feel like dead wood as I drag myself to my feet and walk slowly towards the darkness between the trees. I instinctively clutch my arms to my chest, trying in vain to hold on to whatever body heat I have left. It’s not much – and I can feel it slipping away, devoured piece by piece by the ravenous cold all around me. I’m vaguely aware that small icicles have formed in my short cropped black hair and on my eyelashes. I try and blink them away. The small rough stones are cold under my bare feet and frigid water drips from my stiff, half frozen clothes.

            My clothes! I realize that my clothes, soaked and frozen as they are, look almost identical to the uniforms in my dream. How is that possible? Was it a dream, or was it a memory? And why can’t I remember my own damn name!

            Movement in the forest ahead shoves these questions out of my head. Something darts between the trees, dancing on the edge of the anemic pool of sunlight poking through the dark canopy. Underbrush crunches as the thing moves, and strange, wet clicking sounds drift out of the trees.

            “Hello?” I call into the darkness. “Who’s there?”

            No reply. Frozen vegetation crunches loudly under my bare feet as I move clumsily towards the sound, into the darkness ahead. The moist clicking gets louder as I reach the edge of the trees and peer into the inky blackness. I take cautious step into the forest and stand in the dark, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the low light. From deeper inside the forest, the thick liquid clicking sound gets faster and louder. The sound is unnatural. It grates against my sanity and sends shivers up my spine. Maybe stumbling towards terrifying sounds in the spooky-ass forest isn’t such a great idea.

            Silence. Whatever is out there has stopped moving and gone quiet. My heartbeat is deafening, each beat thundering in my ears like artillery, drowning out the subtle sounds of the forest around me. I fall to a knee and scan the darkness ahead. In front of me, maybe 10 or 15 feet, a grey smudge in the shape of a man hunkers motionless, half obscured behind one of the larger trees. The strange clicking returns, playing tricks on my ears as the noise seems to dance between the trees, clicking and slurping with a liquid awfulness from several places at once.  My gaze never leaving the strange form ahead of me, I search the underbrush blindly, grasping as quietly as I can for a weapon – a rock, a branch, anything. Finally, my frigid fingers find a fist-sized rock, but as I try and lift the rock from the ground, it slips from my numb fingers, crashing loudly into the underbrush at my feet.

            In the stillness of the snow-dampened forest, it sounds like a cannon.

Terror screams through me as the thing in front of me of snaps its head towards the sound with an audible hiss. I can make out the outline of a human-shaped head attached to a hunched, feral body covered in motley white corpse flesh. Without warning, a triangular trio of blood-red lights blazes to life in the center of the monster’s face, blinding me and throwing towering shadows of ink and blood high into the upper reaches of the canopy. In an instant, the forest is transformed into a vision of hell.

Then the monster screams.

            The scream is inhuman. It’s impossibly loud, expanding violently into the subsonic and ultrasonic at the same time. The noise splits through the winter air like lightning through a black sky, chasing every other sound back into the darkness beyond the blood red lights. I stumble backwards, trip over my own legs, and hit the ground hard. My tailbone smacks into the cold earth, sending a jolt of pain through my frozen body. I hear underbrush cracking and the snap of branches as the crimson shafts of light sway and bounce in my direction.  

I scramble to find traction as I crabwalk backwards in terror, desperate to put distance between myself and the thing with the blood red lights for a face.  My brain screams at me to stand up and run, but terror pins me to the ground. I’m terrified, too afraid to turn my back on the mesmerizing red glow, but equally sure that my life depends on getting the hell away from this thing – and fast.  

I will myself to my feet and spin around. My body responds sluggishly, the communication wires bent and bowed with ice, limbs dangerously numb from what feels like an eternity of being wet and cold. I dash clumsily towards the thin grey daylight on the other side of the trees, towards the rocky shore that suddenly seems impossibly far away. The hairs on the back of my neck – the ones that aren’t completely frozen – bristle in terrified anticipation, tensing against the inevitable bite of claws or slash of blades that I’m sure will slam into my turned back at any moment. I break through the tree line and back onto the beach as another horrible scream peals from the forest behind me.

I skid to a halt.

Three human-sized figures, faces and bodies hidden entirely by ragged animal pelts, wait like sentinels on the beach in front of me. They stand in a line, blocking my escape. Two of them hold wooden spears, and one – the taller figure in the center of their formation – holds a clear bottle, half-full of sloshing brown liquid, in a gloved right hand. A filthy rag is stuffed into the mouth of the bottle, which the tall figure in the center is trying to light with a small flaming stick.

“Get Down,” the tall figure bellows, his muffled voice booming over the nightmare screams still pouring out of the forest behind me. 3 Shafts of intense red light stab out from the trees, flicking and jumping between the three figures on the beach, perhaps drawn to the sound of the tall figure’s voice.

            I’m frozen in place, torn between the terror in the woods, and the figures blocking my path.

I’m trapped.

I’m calculating the odds of a desperate dive back into the underbrush when I’m tackled from behind by the shorter, pelt-covered figure on the right. We hit the ground hard, but my body is so numb from the cold that I barely register the impact. The stench from the animal pelts is overpowering and, for a moment, I fight the sudden urge to vomit. I struggle against the mass of fur and limbs on top of me, but strong arms pin me to the ground. The figure rolls me onto my stomach as a knee digs roughly into the small of my back, immobilizing me. The sharp rocks of the beach dig into my face, smearing small smudges of my blood onto the stones beneath my cheek.

“Stay down, dumbass. And stay quiet,” my captor hisses in my ear. “We’re trying to save your dumb ass!”

From the corner of my eye, I see the dirty cloth leap into flames in the larger man’s hand, fire racing towards the liquid in the bottle. He hurls the bottle into the woods, aiming for the point where the crimson beams of light seem to originate. The bottle arcs through the air, trailing a thin tongue of flame that traces a lingering path across my rapidly burring vision. It explodes with a crash on the forest floor in a deafening gust of heat and light. The last thing I hear, before blacking out completely, is the sound of something large crashing through the underbrush, away from the flames.

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