CHAPTER ONE

This post contains the first chapter of my as-of-yet untitled sci-fi novel. I present this first draft now, in a raw, unedited format (be kind, hopefully-soon-to-be-constant reader). Feedback is encouraged!

I wake up in the dark.

            I’m flat on my back in a cramped, hot space. The heated air makes it hard to breathe. I try and raise my arms and find them bound to my side.

            Panic hits me in the face like a bucket of cold water.

            How did I get here? More important – Where the hell is here?

            I’m disoriented. My memory is a blur of images and sounds, but neither are making any kind of sense. Something has gone terribly wrong. All I know for sure is that I’m not supposed to be here…wherever here is.

            The world around me throbs with a dull mechanical pulse. I hear the hiss of steam through the walls. It sounds distant and dangerously close at the same time. A thick mechanical sound suddenly clanks from somewhere underneath my prone back with a subsonic growl that rattles my teeth. From all around a sexless mechanical voice begins to count backwards from 10.

            “10…9…8…”

            A dull red glow creeps to life around me, pulsing in time with the countdown that is coming from everywhere and nowhere. As it swallows the darkness around me, I can make out my surroundings, everything bathed in the blood red glow. I’m in a smooth mechanical-looking shaft. The walls of the shaft are featureless and slanted downwards at an angle so my feet are lower than my head, pointed towards an inky blackness just beyond my bare toes. I crane my neck to look above me. A thick metal hatch, split down the middle and apparently sealed tight, looms above my head.

            “7…6…5…”

            In the steadily rising crimson glow, I can make out the thick black cords that loop around my waist, coil around my wrists, and come together just above my stomach into a heavy mechanical clasp. Three red led lights blink ominously from the clasp, also in time with the countdown. Panic rising, I struggle against my restraints, thrashing will all my strength. There’s a menacingly deep mechanical sound from the clasp and the black cords suddenly slither tighter around my body. My wrists burn as the cords contract against my bare skin and a single line of blood runs down the back of my left hand and onto the pristine mechanical wall of the shaft.

            “4…3…2…1”

            There’s a sharp pop from all around me, it 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 go. 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, racing downwards faster and faster with each second.

            The world explodes around me into blinding white light and, without warning, I’m in free fall. I’m in midair. Air rushes past my head as a deafening roar and the world spins around me in deep greens and blues as my eyes struggle to adjust. I twist my head around in a desperate bid to orient myself, but I’m moving much too fast. My world is a blur, and I’m falling out of control.

            Miraculously, I manage to hit the water feet first. The impact with the surface stings my bare feet, sending lances of pain up my shins. I open my mouth to cry out, only to gag as I inhale a mouthful of cold, fresh water.

I’m sinking. A thin line of bubbles drifting towards the surface as the breath in my lungs floats casually away, abandoning me as I fall deeper into the dark water.

My bindings retract, cutting into my raw wrists a second time. The metal clasp sinks into the dark water below, black cords retreating like thin obsidian snakes as they disappear into the mechanism as it fades from sight. My arms and legs suddenly free, I claw against the frigid water, desperately trying to drag myself towards the anemic horizon of light above me. My empty lungs scream in my chest as a dull spreading fire, waves of pain in stark contrast to the frigid fingers the icy water is driving deep into the rest of my body. I climb for what feels like eternity towards the shimmering circle of light above me. Black pushes against my vision and spots dance in front of my eyes as my world starts to collapse into a narrowing tunnel. My arms and legs are numb, distant things, churning and flailing against the blackness, driven on by the manic lash of ancient, animal instinct to cling to life fiercely, madly, until the very end.

            I break the surface with the last of my strength, and greedily suck oxygen into my burning lungs, sputtering and coughing as the cold air collides with the fire in my chest. My breath escapes as great clouds of vapor in the frigid air, and I tread water with my aching legs as I turn my head back and forth to take in my surroundings.

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

            Exhausted, I force my numb limbs into action, forcing them to swim towards the beach directly ahead of me. I swim clumsily, my arms and legs feeling like petrified wood – wood that somehow can still feel pain – until my bare feet find the gently sloping lakebed where it begins to rise 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 clouds. I sink to the ground and watch my breath float away into an unfamiliar sky.

            The last thing I remember is someone screaming my name.

Asher; My name is Asher. The memory is clear, but somehow, the name feels wrong; like it belongs to someone else. Is it Asher?

I try and latch onto more of the memory, the face or the voice calling to me, but it twists and dances away as I try and pull it into focus. All I can grasp are vague echoes of groaning, shearing metal and a terrifying smell, like meat burning over a chemical fire.

            My last clear memory is as confusing as the emptiness around it. I remember being packed into the main lecture hall at The Reach Fleet Academy with my classmates. 200 nervous cadets, their faces drawn with apprehension, waited in a classroom built for half that number to hear whatever news was important enough to drag us out of our racks in the middle of the night.

            My best friend, a wiry boy named Arthur Goulsbee – everybody had always called him “Ghoul” – sat next to me, fiddling with his data pad absentmindedly. He brushed a strand of unruly dark hair away from his eyes and yawned.

            “It’s probably just another freaking drill.” He said as we rushed from our barracks and down the dimly lit station hallway towards the lecture hall, the hallway lights still muted to accommodate night cycle. “The brass loves that shit.”

            “I don’t know. This feels different. The lieutenant looked a little freaked out.” I said.

            “When? When he was screaming at the top of his lungs and dragging us out of bed? Or when he was threatening to lose his boot in my ass if I didn’t get to the lecture hall?” Ghoul had replied with a smile.

Rear Admiral Pierce was already standing at the lectern at the front of the large amphitheater when we slide into our seats, the read admiral’s craggy face a mask of the calm and control only a lifetime of military service can produce. Dark bags hung beneath his grey-blue eyes, which were shot through with red and wider than usual. The crowd of teenagers fell silent under his gaze. Ghoul rolled his lively blue eyes dramatically and made a show of stowing his data pad ceremoniously into his pack, which sat crumpled between his feet.

The room fell silent under the read admiral’s gaze. The only sounds were the creaking of seats, the odd cough here and there, and the whisper of fabric as 200 restless cadets in stiff wool uniforms squirmed anxiously. The admiral cleared his throat, smoothed the front of his dark blue naval uniform – a blue so deep it was nearly black – and began to speak. When he spoke, his voice was measured and mechanical, the voice of a man clawing for calm as a storm rages in his gut.

             “At 0300 yesterday morning, The Citadel Line was tripped. The Ceres array caught multiple burns crossing the belt and burning hard for Earth. At 0200 this morning Cydonia base was able to confirm. Size and strength are unknown, but from the number of torches burning it appears to be a sizable fleet.”

            As he spoke, the lights in the auditorium dimmed and the holodisplay rendered a model of the solar system in cold blue lines that shimmered in the air above the Admiral’s head. A cluster of angry red orbs blinked to life inside the ring of the asteroid belt, leaving thin red trails as the red cluster crept towards the translucent blue orb of Mars on the display. It looked like a body scan of a cancerous fingers reaching slowly towards a human heart.

            There were gasps from the audience. Dread crept into my guts, coiling around my spine like a snake. Ghoul was speechless, staring silently at the animated display that hung in the air in front of us, the sharp angles of his face catching the blue glow of the disaster as it unfolded on the holodisplay in front of us.

            “We don’t know how they bypassed the Jovian early warning line or our deep system eyes, but Fleet hasn’t been able to raise Europa or the Jovian Frontier Fleet for nearly 72 hours.” The admiral paused for a long moment. A battle between panic and control seemed to be playing out behind his stern, wide eyes. “The Brass fears the worst.” Pierce continued, the lines deepening in his scarred face as he frowned.

            “That’s impossible.” I whispered to no one in particular, my mind reeling from the implications. “They’re more than halfway to Earth. Jesus, they’re past the bulk of the fleet.”

            On the holodisplay, the main concentration of the our remaining ships glowed as a cluster of green icons, ringed in red, on the far side of Jupiter. From Earth, a smaller cluster of green icons sprouted thin green lines that stretched into the empty space between Earth and Mars as fleet command desperately plotted intercept vectors towards the glowering red mass slowly making its way across the big black. They didn’t look like they’d make it in time.

            Ghoul sat stunned, speechless for the first time since I’d met him, two years earlier, on our first day at the academy.

            The holodisplay suddenly snapped off, leaving Rear Admiral Peirce alone on the dimly lit podium. In the momentary solitude of the shadows, before the stage lights came back up, I swear I saw him wipe away a single tear before wrestling his composure back from the edge.

            “Make no mistake, cadets. We are at war…and the enemy has just seized the initiative”

            The cold snaps me out of the past, 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? I’m supposed to be on Valhalla Station, in my 3rd year at The Reach Naval Academy. One thing is certain – it’s never winter at The Reach, and this sure as hell isn’t Valhalla Station. I don’t know how I know this, but for some reason, I do. My head is a mess of incomplete information and hologram-thin memories. What the hell is happening to me?

            I scan my surroundings, shivering as the adrenaline from the fall fades away. Cold bites hungrily into my aching limbs and gobbles up what’s left of my body heat. I start to shiver so hard my teeth rattle 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 deeper than the 3rd or 4th row of tall black trees. Nothing moves in the sky or on the ground. It is deathly silent.

            I force my distant legs to move. They feel like dead wood as I force myself to my feet and walk slowly towards the darkness between the trees. I instinctively clutch my arms to my chest 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. 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 of the beach are cold under my bare feet and frigid water drips from my stiff, halfway frozen uniform.

            I’m still wearing my uniform. That means I must have been taken from Valhalla Station. The thought pops into my head like an unconscious reaction…but the words are alien and totally without any deeper meaning. What the hell (or where the hell) is Valhalla Station?

            Movement in the forest ahead shoves the thought out of my head. Something darts between the trees, just beyond the anemic pool of sunlight that’s able to penetrate the dark canopy above my head. The underbrush crunches as it moves, and unnerving wet clicking sounds drift out of the trees.

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

            No reply. Underbrush crunches in the dark as I move towards the sounds. The strange clicking gets louder as I reach the edge of the trees and peer into the inky blackness in-between. I take another cautious step into the forest, and stand in the dark, waiting for what feels like an eternity for my eyes to adjust to the low light. Deeper inside the forest, cloaked in darkness, the thick liquid clicking sound gets more frantic and a good deal louder. The sound is unnatural. It sends shivers crawling up my spine – maybe this wasn’t such a great idea.

            Silence. Whatever is out there has stopped moving. My heartbeat is deafening, each beat thundering in my ears like artillery fire, drowning out the subtle sounds of the forest around me. I fall silently to a knee and scan the darkness ahead with partially adjusted eyes. In front of me, maybe 10 or 15 feet, a grey smudge that could almost be the shape of a man hunkers motionless, half hidden behind one of the larger tree trunks. The strange clicking sounds return, playing tricks on my ears as they seem to dance between the trees, clicking and slurping with a wet thickness from several places at once.  Keeping my eyes locked on the strange form ahead of me, I search the underbrush by touch, grasping as quietly as I can for some kind of weapon – a rock, a branch, anything. Finally, my frigid fingers wrap around a fist-sized rock, but as I try and lift the rock from the ground, it slips from my weakened, 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 triangle of three blood-red lights blaze 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. The forest looks like a vision of hell.

Then the monster screams.

            The scream is inhuman. It’s impossibly loud, expanding violently into the subsonic and ultrasonic all at once. It 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 fall to the ground. My tailbone smacks into the cold earth, sending a lance of pain up my spine. 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 blood red search light.  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 sure that my life depends on getting the hell away from it.  

I will myself to my feet and spin around. My body responds sluggishly, the communication wires bent and bowing with ice, limbs dangerously numb from an eternity of being wet and cold. I dash towards the thin grey daylight on the other side of the trees, towards the rocky shore that suddenly seems miles 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 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 and I skid to a halt.

            Three human-looking 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 any further 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 his 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 the small flaming stick in his other hand.

“Get Down!” the tall figure says, a strong male voice booming over the nightmare screams still pouring out of the forest. 3 Shafts of intense red light stab out from the trees, flicking and jumping around the three figures on the beach, perhaps drawn to the sound of the tall figure’s booming voice.

            I’m frozen in place, torn between the terror in the woods, and the men (armed men) 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’m afraid I’m going to throw up. I struggle against the mass of fur and limbs on top of me, but strong arms pin me to the ground on my stomach, as a knee digs roughly into my back, to immobilize me. The sharp rocks of the beach dig into my face, smearing small smudges of blood on the stones beneath my cheek.

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

From the corner of my eye I see the dirty cloth leap into flames in the larger man’s hand, 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 intersect. The bottle arcs through the air, trailing a thin tongue of flame that traces a lingering path across my rapidly burring vision, before exploding with a crash onto 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 and away from the flames.

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