This post contains the second 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! If you haven’t read the first chapter, you can find it here.
The crackle and pop of flames snaps me back to conciseness. I’m sitting in front of small fire, my body propped against the rough stone wall of a cramped cave. I’m wrapped in one of the heavy furs the strangers at the lake had been wearing, my dark blue cadet uniform laid out on a large flat stone next to the fire. The silver piping of my 3rd year, a subtle stiff ring of color around the collar of my drying uniform, catches the fire light as the flames dance and toss shadows on the low cave ceiling, and onto the dark stone walls.
My body aches in a thousand places, and I can feel long stinging wounds around my wrists and on the bottom of my feet where my flesh has been worn away or torn. I sit up with a groan and nearly fall back against the cave wall as a wave of nausea and dizziness washes over me like some black surf that threatens to send be back into the black.
Directly across from me, on the other side of the modest fire, three young men in tattered uniforms like mine watch me intently. Their uniforms are nearly identical to my own but are ripped and worn, patched in a dozen places and soiled with dirt.
The boy on the left has short cropped blonde hair, earnest blue eyes, and a round, friendly face. The frayed piping around his uniform collar is green – the color of a first-year cadet. We’d called them plebes at The Reach. Second-years were Yearlings, or more often, Yuks. Thirds like me were called Cows for some stupid reason that I can’t seem to remember, and fourth years were called Firsties. Green is for Plebes, Red for Yuks, Silver for Cows, and, of course, the Firsties wear gold.
The blonde boy is warming his outstretched hands by the fire. Small bandages, bandages that look like they used to be white in some distant past, are wrapped around several of his knuckles, and his fingernails are ragged and caked with dirt. A sharp wooden spear leans behind him against the cavern wall. He glances nervously at the larger, dark-skinned boy that sits between himself and the other, smaller cadet.
The boy on the right, the smallest of the three, sharpens a small dagger against the surface of a smooth stone with obsessive intensity. I can hear the subtle rasp of metal against stone as he methodically draws the dagger back and forth in cold, mechanical sweeps. Dirty black hair hangs down to his jaw and he pauses his task often to push stray locks behind his ears and out of his angular, cruel-looking face. Torn silver piping rings his collar, identical to my own. That should make him about 17, just like me. He has a sharp beak of a nose, dark brown eyes, and a thin slash of a mouth that turns down in a bitter frown when he notices that I’m awake.
“Oh good, he’s up.” The cruel looking boy says. “Have a nice nap, asshole?”
“Knock it off, Hawk.” The larger, dark-skinned boy says. He straightens his broad shoulders and meets my eyes over the dancing flames of the modest campfire. He’s older than the other boys. Gold piping rings his uniform collar. Something about the way he carries himself leaves me with no doubt that this guy is in charge.
“Thanks” I say, my voice barely more than a hoarse whisper. I nod to the fire and to my drying uniform. “Another 5 minutes, and I’d have frozen to death, I think.”
Hawk snorts out a derisive laugh, turning his attention back to his endless knife-sharpening ritual.
“I’m Dex” the dark-skinned boy says. “That’s Hawk. The kid is Angel.”
“Asher.” I say. I can’t escape how foreign – how wrong – the sound feels on my tongue. I shrug. “I think.”
Dex nods, holding eye contact with an intensity that makes me uncomfortable, like he’s trying to chase out a lie or see past a mask. I hold his gaze, unsure what I’ve done to inspire such caution in the leader of this small band of lost boys. After all, I’m pretty sure we’re all on the same side – the matching uniforms certainly suggest as much. Maybe these guys remember more than me, maybe they can tell me what the hell happened, or better yet, where the hell we are.
“That fall was nuts!” Angel says, breaking the tension with a smile and a good-natured laugh. “We thought you were raspberry jam for sure. Badass crash, bad-ass.”
“You watched me come down?” I say, my head still a jumble of clashing, distorted memories. Heck, until the baby-faced kid just brought it up, I was starting to think it was all a bad dream. I suddenly realize that I have no idea how long it’s been since I apparently fell out of the sky and into a lake.
“We watched you get delivered, more like.” Hawk sneers.
“What do you mean.’ I reply.
“Shut up, Hawk.” Dex says, watching me warily. “I won’t say it again.”
“What the hell is going on?” I say. “Where are we?” I look from one face to another, trying to gain my bearings but finding only caution in Dex’s eyes, and a surprising amount of anger written across Hawk’s sharp features, all of it directed at me. Angel just looks scared. A cold dread starts to coil around my spine, fear pooling in my stomach like frigid black water.
“Why don’t you tell us what you remember?” Dex says as he leans in towards the warmth of the fire.
I stare at him for a moment, trying to sort through the last few hours in my head. My dread deepens as I realize something is missing – a lot, actually. I try and remember where I’m from, who my parents are, what day it is, and I come up with nothing. It’s like trying to grab smoke out of the air. Glaring dark spots in my memory stare back at me like the raw sockets of missing teeth.
“I can’t…I can’t remember.” I say. “It’s like my head is full of static or something.”
“Well, what can you remember?” Dex says, his face an unreadable mask. “Anything at all?”
“I was in some kind of shaft or tube.” I say. “I had a restraining buckle attached to my chest – when I struggled, they got tighter. The black cords that were all around me.” I free my arms from the warmth of the heavy furs and show the boys the burns that snake around my bloody wrists. “There was a voice counting, counting down all around me. It sounded like the computers at The Reach, but different somehow…I don’t know.” Dex and Hawk share a concerned look at the mention of The Reach. If I had to guess, I’d say they remember that much, at least.
“And then?” Dex says, his eyes impossible to read, face stoic and slack.
“And then I was falling,” I say. “to my death, I was sure of it. Then I hit the water.” I run a hand through my damp hair and let out a long, ragged sigh. “I can’t believe that I survived.”
“Jesus, we know all this,” Hawk says. “what about before, what do you remember about before?”
“I don’t understa..” I start to say.
“Bullshit!” Hawk says, jumping across the fire to pin me against the cave wall, hands around my throat. “You’re one of them! Admit it!” The sudden explosion of violence catches me off-guard. My head slams into the cave wall hard enough to send white dots careening through my vision. I bring my knee up hard into my attacker’s groin with what’s all of what’s left of my strength.
Once…twice…three times. I can feel the impact of each blow vibrating through his wiry body, as he struggles to keep his hands around my neck.
After the third impact from my knee, Hawk’s grip loosens, and he groans in pain as he slides away from me and onto the cave floor. Dex grabs Hawk the back of his uniform collar and tosses the groaning boy back against the opposite cave wall. He curls against the stone wall, his face turning green, glaring daggers at me through the flames.
“Knock it off!” Dex says. “Let him talk.”
Hawk’s eyes burn at me like coals set in the angular sharpness of his face as the firelight paints dancing shadows over his pinched features, making it look like a skull. Without warning, he doubles over and wretches horribly, expelling the contents of his stomach onto the dirt floor of the cave, just beyond the wavering orange ring of light from the flames.
“I don’t know how I got here!” I spit in Hawks direction. “And I sure as hell don’t know what, or who, you think I am. I’m alone. I’m no one.”
“Before you fell out of the sky…what’s the last thing you can remember?” Dex says with the measured, nonthreatening voice of a therapist – or a skilled interrogator.
I push myself into a seated position against the cave wall and pull the heavy pelt back around my shoulders. I notice for the second time how bad it smells. I guess the drive to stay warm has a way of eclipsing other needs.
“The Reach.” I say, the name conjuring memories that already feel thin and insubstantial, like pencil outlines against the violent colors of the cold, the cave, and the fear.
I tell them what I remember. It isn’t much.
I tell them that I’m from a place called The Reach Naval Academy. I can’t remember much about it, just that at some point in the past, I’d lived there with a bunch of teenagers just like myself.
Dex listens intently, and studying my face as I talk, as if trying to find my tell, or the lie hiding behind the features of my haggard face.
I tell them about the briefing, about something called Jupiter Fleet – missing and presumed lost. I tell them about the breaking of the Shatter Line – the swarm of tiny spy satellites (the most recent boasting full AI autonomy) buzzing between the frozen rocks of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. I tell them about the confusing sense of dread that spread through my guts as the angry red dots cut crimson lines across the miniature solar system in the holodisplay, burning towards earth – towards home. Finally, I tell them about my friend, and about the shocked look on his face as they told us we were at war.
I also tell them that I have no idea what any of it means. I remember the words, the sights, but they seem amputated from any larger meaning, from any larger understanding of the stage the events unfolded on.
The small group listens intently. I’m surprised by their lack of reaction to my words. Apparently, my story means as little to them as it does to me. Just unfamiliar words and confusing events.
As I talk, I realize that the holes in my memory are worse than I thought. No matter how hard I try, I can barely remember anything before the briefing, and absolutely nothing that came after – not until I crashed into the lake. When I scan the dark spaces on either side of that single bright spot, the memories spiral away in shreds and tatters.
Somehow, the strange briefing is and clear and crisp in my mind. I can close my eyes and see the worn grey nanoplastic seats in the auditorium, feel the rough edges of the words (usually crude ones) carved into the retractable writing surfaces meant for manual notetaking. I have a vague sense that they were big on analog stuff like that in my regiment at the Academy, and an oddly clear recollection that it used to drive Ghoul nuts. Somehow, the memories surrounding Ghoul are a little brighter than the rest.
Dex leans back against the cave wall, his eyes distant. Hawk has finally stopped throwing up and sits with his back to the cave entrance, as far from me as he can get without leaving the circle of warmth from the crackling fire. Angel watches Dex with a worried expression, his eyes wide and blinking rapidly like a frightened animal. Beyond the irregular circle of the cave’s mouth, the sun has gone down, and darkness has settled over the forest.
“What about you, firstie.” I say, the word surprises me even as it leaves my cracked lips and my eyes flick to the gold piping around Dex’s uniform collar. “What’s your story?”
“Firstie…” Dex echoes, like he’s hearing a fondly remembered nickname used by a long dead parent. “It’s been a while since anyone’s called me that.”
“A while?” I say. Dex nods slowly and continues, gazing into the crackling fire with a faraway look in his brown eyes.
“Yeah. We’ve been here a little longer than you.” Dex says with fatalistic laugh. “But we remember even less about whatever came before.”
“Start from the top.” I say.
“Well, the uniforms would suggest that we’re from the same place you’re from. Didn’t know it was called The Reach until just now though.” Dex says. “Our memories are a little more fucked than yours.”
I shift uncomfortably but say nothing as I continue to watch Dex intently as he talks. My mind races. None of this makes sense. How can we have forgotten most of our lives?
“The last thing any of us can remember – hell, all we can remember – is running. I remember running down a metal corridor. Alarms were screaming. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of other kids packed the halls, running like the devil was right on our tail.” Dex says.
“Do you know where you were? Was it Valhalla Station?” I say, surprised for a second time by the unfamiliar words escaping from my mouth like they have a mind all their own.
“Can’t remember. Just remember a long hallway and flashing red lights.” Dex replies.
“What were you running fr…?” I continue but Dex cuts me off before I can finish the questions.
“Can’t remember that either.” He says. “Hell, we don’t even remember that we were cadets – if what you’re saying is true, anyway. We remember our names, mostly – some of us just the first name, some have a little more. We remember all kinds of nonspecific shit, like how to build a fire or make a Molotov cocktail, but none of us can remember how we know any of it – or when we learned it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” I say, my mind reeling as I try to make sense of this new information. I turn it around and around in my head, trying to find an angle that makes all of the details line up, but the more I stare at it, the more confusing it gets. “Wait – why the hell do I remember more than you?”
“You tell us.” Hawk says, his voice dripping with venom as he continues to glare at me from the opposite side of the cave. His eyes are cold, pupils dancing with tiny reflections of the flames that divides the space between us. This time, Dex says nothing. He watches me carefully as I shake my head and try to find an answer, something that makes some kind of sense. I give up and say nothing.
The fire crackles and pops. Outside, the wind howls like a sick animal, whipping small flurries of snow into the cave. The white flakes dance and swirl in the trapped air currents, spiraling against the low cave ceiling before disappearing in the heat thermals above the fire. “Can you remember how you ended up here?” I say, finally.
“Nope.” Angel says. “Everyone just kind of …woke up here on that first day, and no one coul…”
“Everyone? Are there more of you somewhere?” I say. “Wait, what do you mean, first day? How long have you been here?”
“Surviving is only thing we’ve had time for.” Dex says, ignoring the question. He shoots a warning look at Angel, who falls silent with a guilty expression. It’s clear who’s in charge here. What’s not clear is are these friend or enemies. A panicked voice inside me screams that I should escape, get away from these strange savage boys before it’s too late.
“Just tell him.” Hawk says, to my surprise. Dex continues to regard me closely, eyes never leaving mine. What is he looking for, I wonder? Finally, Dex sighs and runs a hand over the smooth scalp of his dark-skinned head. I notice, for the first time, that his head is freshly shaved. After a long moment, the older boy continues speaking.
“We’re not the only ones here.” Dex finally says. “There’s about 50 of us in camp, not far from here.”
“At last count, yeah.” Dex says. “There used to be more.”
A hundred questions explode through my head. How can 50 people forget their entire lives? What camp? Where the hell are we?
“We’ve been here a little longer than you.” Dex says before I can sort through the tidal wave of questions pouring through my mind. The pit in my guts gets deeper with every word. Something is very wrong here.
“How long.” I manage to say, once I find my voice. It’s Hawk that replies, his face screwing up into sneer.
“Six. Freaking. Months.”