This post contains the third 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! You can find the rest of the published chapters here.
The fire has nearly burned down to embers as Dex relates his tale in a flat monotone, details coming in fits and bursts of description. Angel and Hawk listen intently as he talks. I notice that both follow the older boy’s lead – even the hot-tempered Hawk, although he does his best to hide it. I doubt it has anything to do with the gold rank piping around his worn uniform collar. Even if they had remembered what it meant, rank is meaningless in the wild. The desperate follow strength.
“About a hundred of us woke up, all at once, in the forest just north of here.” Dex says. His eyes are distant, catching the slow pulse of the dying embers that have replaced the small fire. “We were terrified. We wandered the woods, just calling out for help. After about a day, we all sort of just found each other.”
Angel pokes absently at the dwindling coals with the butt of his long, roughly sharpened spear. I keep my mouth shut and wait for the older boy to continue. A long moment later, Dex continues.
“By the time it got dark on that first day, there were 98 of us clumped together in the forest. I was the oldest – the only one with gold around my neck, too – so guys all started looking at me like I knew what was what.” Dex says, pulling back part of the dark brown pelt near his throat to display the frayed gold piping around his uniform collar. “I didn’t know shit. But I could tell everyone was scared – especially the young ones – so, once the sun came up that next morning, I picked a direction at random. I figured, anywhere had to be better than freezing our asses off where we were, so we all just started walking.”
you remember anything about where you came from? How you got here?
I say, interrupting Dex’s monologue. I try and keep the edge of desperation out of my voice and fail.
“No. Nothing. We remember running, and our names…but the names all felt wrong.” Dex says.
“Some guys had flashes of stuff. Images that didn’t make any sense, or that they couldn’t understand, words that would get stuck in your heads. Stuff like that.” Angel says, looking up from the embers for the first time since Dex started talking.
“And we all knew some of the same stuff, but we didn’t know why, or how we knew any of it.” Dex says.
“Like what?” I say.
“Random shit. Always information, never events. Never anything from our before lives.” Dex replies. “It’s like our brains had held onto a lot of random crap, like how to make a fire, and how to speak English, but none of us remember actually learning any of it.”
I open my mouth to continue questioning my new companions (captors?) but Dex cuts me off again, this time with an impatiently raised hand. I stay silent, but the massive weight of my questions continues to build in strength, threating to tear through mind like an avalanche. Nothing about this place makes sense, and I’m getting more confused the more I learn.
“We walked for hours.” Dex continues. “I knew we had to find shelter. Someplace that we could build a fire, or at least get out of the snow, to keep from freezing to death, but the forest was endless. Every bit of it looked identical to the rest. Hell, we could have been walking in circles, for all I could tell. It was snowing the entire time. The forest just ate our footprints like it wanted us to stay lost.”
A high-pitched and unnatural scream splits the silence beyond the darkened cave mouth. The harsh sound is faint, dancing at the edge of audible, but still manages to raise every hair on the back of my neck. My eyes dart to the door of the cave, probing the threatening darkness beyond the mouth of the cave. I’m suddenly very aware of how vulnerable our position is – one way in, one way out. If the pale horror from the lake found us here, there would be no escape.
Dex cocks his head to the side, eyes closed and listening intently as another faint scream, closer this time, drifts in from the forest outside. The other two boys are quiet. Their faces drawn and pale, eyes locked on the gaping entrance to our tiny refuge. Dex runs a hand over the fabric of my uniform, still laid out flat on the rock next to the coals of the now dead fire.
“Put this back on. We may have to move quickly when we go.” Dex says, tossing the uniform in my direction. He reaches into a small nylon pack and produces a pair of scuffed, black boots. He drops the boots in front of me. “You’ll need these too.”
“Thanks.” I say. Where the hell did he get a fresh pair of boots…or the pack?
I stand and start to dress myself. The midnight blue fabric is warm against my skin, the thick cloth still clinging to the thin remains of heat from the dwindling fire. I pull on my uniform jacket, body moving on autopilot, and I’m unprepared for the intense wave of deja vu that washes over me. I button the jacket closed, muscle memory propelling my shaking fingers to perform motions they must have performed a thousand times before. My hands remember the movements, but the memories are gone.
“They hit us at sunset.” Dex says, picking up the thread of his tale. He stares out of the cave mouth into the night, eyes focused again on some unseen point, far in the distance – maybe somewhere in the past. “You can always hear Clockers before you see them. That’s what we call them – Clockers – Because of that damn ticking sound they make.”
“What are th…” I start to ask, but Dex ignores me. He speaks slowly, his voice quiet and strained, like he’s struggling to keep his head above an ocean of emotions churning behind his dark brown eyes. He’s not remembering this – he’s reliving it.
“We heard them before we saw them. That damn ticking came from everywhere, from all around us. Quiet at first, then louder and louder.” Dex wrings his hands as he talks. Angel and Hawk have gone still, Dex’s words casting a shadow over them both as he continues to speak. His words come quicker now, his fear starting to shine through the cracks in his mental resolve. “We kept moving, and the sound followed us as we went. It was so damn dark under those god damn trees. I just wanted to get us out of the forest, to some place where I could see the sky so we could figure out where we were, what to do next.”
Dex lapses into silence again as I pull the heavy black combat boots onto my bare feet. I wince as a lattice of minor cuts on my feet, earned running across the sharp beach rocks hours earlier, meet the rough boot interior. I ignore the pain and pull the laces of both boots tight. If we meet any more of these Clockers, I want to be ready to run. A dark smear of dried blood on the toe catches my eye in the firelight, and I wonder what happened to the previous owner. I shove the thought out of my head. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is keeping myself alive and then getting out of this god damn forest.
“The sounds kept getting louder.” Dex says, shaking himself out of his silence abruptly. “Then, all of the sudden, it was gone. It got quiet. The snow seemed to swallow up every sound in the world. No one said a word; we all just froze.” I watch the older boy closely as he stands and makes his way to the mouth of the cave. He scans the darkness beyond with quick nervous glances.
“What happened next?” I say, hoping for some detail that might help me get my bearings in this strange, terrifying place. Dex turns slowly and fixes me with wide, mournful eyes. I notice for the first time how exhausted this boy looks.
“Then they started to scream.” Dex says. His face is ashen, the mask of a man reliving a nightmare for the hundredth time. “Red light exploded from the darkness in front of us, behind us, from everywhere. I yelled for everyone to run, to follow me, but it was too late. One of those things crashed into us from above, landed on top of a boy that had been standing next to me.” Dex chokes back a sob that sounds like it comes from deep in his chest. “I ran. I turned my back on the kid…on everyone…and I just ran. He was screaming, begging me for help…but I ran.”
“He was already dead, there’s nothing you could ha…” Hawk says, showing more compassion than I’d have guessed him capable of.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Dex says, wheeling on Hawk with blazing eyes. Hawk reacts like he’s been slapped. He takes an unsteady step backwards, colliding with the cold stone of the cave wall. Surprise and shock are etched into his sharp features in equal measure. I expect him to lash out at the older boy, to bite back like a kicked dog, but to my surprise, he holds his tongue. As Dex turns his back on this scarecrow of a boy, turning back to face the gaping cavern entrance and the inky darkness beyond, I catch a flash of barely restrained rage smoldering from Hawk’s red-ringed eyes before his distant, cold gaze settles back into place, like snow falling on steel.
“We were surrounded. The red lights were coming from all around us, and they just kept screaming.” Dex says, placing an unsteady hand on the cold cave wall as if to steady himself against the weight of the memory. “A group of us ran towards the only darkness we could see. The red lights were everywhere else. I don’t know how long we ran. It felt like forever.” The dark-skinned boy takes a deep breath, steadying himself. His composure seems to return, and when he continues speaking his voice is calm; distant. “Eventually, we just couldn’t run anymore. When we finally collapsed, it was nearly morning. I took a count of who was left and who was lost. There were 46 of us left. 46 out of nearly 100.”
“My god” I say. “I’m sorry.” The words feel small and hollow measured against the ocean of pain that seems to radiate off Dex in waves. Some part of me wants to comfort this boy that I barely know, but I everything I can think to say seems trite and thin. I’m a stranger to this small tribe, to this circle forged by shared scars. Dex’s pain is mirrored on the grim faces of the other two boys, and for a moment I can see myself through their eyes – I’m an outsider. An unknown. A threat.
“We need to get moving.” Dex says. “we’re a long way from home.”
“Home?” I say.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Hawk says. “We can’t bring him back with us.”
Dex sighs heavily and tosses me one of his heavy furs. “We’ll take precautions, Hawk. Besides, this is what we’re supposed to do.”
“This is a stupid idea. We don’t know anything about him. What if he’s not what you think he is? He could be…” Hawk says, pointing an accusing finger at me.
“I don’t think so.” Dex says, cutting the other boy off before he can finish the accusation. “But we’ll take precautions just the same.”
For what seems like the hundredth time since waking up in an unfamiliar metal tube earlier in the day, I’m confused. What has these boys so afraid? Who (or what) does Hawk think I am? The more I learn about this place, the harder it is to wrestle into focus. It’s like I’m only seeing shadows while the shapes that throw them lie hidden far away, shrouded in darkness.