CHAPTER TWO

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 wakes me up. 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 exactly like mine watch me intently. I notice that their uniforms 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 him and another, 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.” He fixes me with a look of brotherly concern. “Do you remember your name, kid?”

I open my mouth to speak – to tell the large boy my name – but freeze when I realize that I still have no idea what to call myself. When I search the space in my head where my name should reside, there’s nothing there.

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’s okay, kid.” Dex says with a disarming smile. “It was the same for us. I guess our names don’t come in with us.”

“What the hell was that thing in the woods?” I manage to get out before a wave of nausea washes over me when I attempt to stand up and fail.

“We call them Clockers.” Dex replies as I abandon my attempts to stand due to the supernova of pain inside my skull. “We don’t know what the ugly bastards are, but we know enough to run when they show up.”

“Clockers?” The pain in my skull seems to vibrate with every word that comes out of my mouth.

“Because they tick, numb nuts.” Hawk scoffs, shaking his head at my pitiful lack of understanding.  

“And because, if they catch you, your time is up.” Angel adds theatrically and then smiles, proud of his contribution to the story. Hawk groans and roles his eyes at the younger boy’s attempt at a joke. “What?! I thought that was good!”

“Hilarious.” I reply, unamused. It might be the atomic detonation of a headache, or my missing memories, but I’m in no mood for jokes.

 “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, just bad-ass!”

“Uh…thanks?” I say, still wrestling with the tsunami of confusion tearing through my head as I try and come to grips with the new reality in front of my eyes. “Wait, you saw me come down?” I say, my head still a jumble of clashing, distorted memories. Heck, until the baby-faced kid brought it up, I was starting to think that my fall and the monster in the forest had all a bad dream. I suddenly realize that I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep in this cave, or how long it’s been since I fell out of the sky and into that frozen lake.

“Cut the shit.” Hawk sneers. “I’m not buying this for a second, Dex.”

“I… I don’t understand’ I stammer in reply, confused by the strange currents running between these ragged boys. Its clear Hawk doesn’t like me one bit, but for the life of me, I can’t guess why.

“Shut up, Hawk.” Dex says, still watching me warily. “I won’t ask twice.”

“Will one of you tell me what the hell is going on?” I say through cracked, aching lips. “Where the hell 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. I’m suddenly very aware that I’m naked under this heavy, stinking fur – naked and unarmed. As I look from face to face, I wonder darkly how they came by their dark blue uniforms. They could be stranded cadets, just like me, or there could be a pile of decomposing teenage boys somewhere in the forest missing their uniforms. The urge to bolt from the cave and into the night is strong, rising like my gorge and threatening to vomit me out into the cold – and into almost certain death.

“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 basic stuff, like 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 red sockets of forcibly extracted teeth.

“I can’t…I can’t remember.” I say. “It’s like my head is full of static or something. I can’t get a lock on anything.”

“Well, what can you remember?” Dex says, his face an unreadable mask. “Anything at all?”

“I was in some kind of …tube.” I say. “I had a restraining buckle attached to my chest – when I struggled, it 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 down all around me. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it…I don’t know. Maybe from The Reach?” 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 motionless like a statue.

“And then I was falling,” I say. “to my death, I was pretty sure. Then I hit the water.” I run a hand through my damp hair and let out a long, ragged sigh. “I guess I got lucky.”

“Jesus, we know all this,” Hawk says. “what about before? What do you remember about before?”

“I don’t understa..” I say.

“Bullshit!” Hawk says, jumping across the fire to pin me against the cave wall, his filthy hands around my throat like a vice. “You’re one of them! Admit it, you Ghosty fuck!” The sudden explosion of violence catches me off-guard. My head slams into the cave wall hard enough to send a riot of white dots careening through my vision like confetti. On instinct alone, I bring my knee up hard into my attacker’s groin with every last ounce of my waning 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 by the back of his uniform collar and tosses the groaning boy back against the opposite cave wall. He curls against the stone, 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, 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 Ghoul, and about the shocked look on her 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, but not bright enough to fully see. It’s maddening.

            Dex leans back against the cave wall, his eyes distant. Hawk has finally stopped vomiting 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 surprising me even as it leaves my cracked lips. 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. I think.”

            “A while?” I say. Dex nods slowly and continues, gazing into the crackling fire with a faraway look in his sad brown eyes.

            “Yeah. We’ve been here a little longer than you have, kid.” Dex says with fatalistic laugh. “And we remember even less.”

            “Ok. 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. I try and keep my mind away from the image of dead cadets – cadets missing their uniforms – somewhere in the woods. 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 of their own.

“Can’t remember. Just remember the hallway and flashing red lights.” Dex replies.

“What were you running fr…?” I say, but Dex cuts me off before I can finish the question.

“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 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. Shit just…pops into your head when you need it. It’s weird.”

“We can’t even remember our names.” Angel says in a small, sad voice that reminds me of a lost child.

“Then…why are you called Angel?” I reply.

“Just look at him!” Hawk laughs, pointing at the cherubic boy as Angel’s face turns a bright red in embarrassment.

“We gave each other names.” Dex interjects, scowling at Hawk until the sharp-faced boy falls silent. “Hey you got a little confusing after the first couple of days.”

“The first couple of days?” I reply, sensing that there’s a larger story here that Dex isn’t telling me. “How many days have…”

“Angel’s name is pretty self-explanatory.” Dex says, ignoring me. “Hawk. Well, look at that beak. It works.”

“Fuck you, big man.” Hawk spits back. “I’m fast and deadly…like a Hawk!”

“Whatever you need to tell yourself.” Dex fires back with a good-natured chuckle.

“Why do they call you Dex?” I ask cautiously, hoping that the name is an affectionate nickname and not a subtle dig like Hawk or Angel.

“I’m ambidextrous. Lefty and righty.” Dex replies, wiggling his fingers in the air like some halfwit children’s magician during the big reveal of his signature trick.

“Ambidextrous.” I echo. “You can’t remember your name or where you’re from, but ambidextrous is no problem.”

Dex just shrugs like this is all as normal as sunset and just as pedestrian.

“What should we call the new guy?” Angel says, and excited smile spreading across his innocent features as he bounces in his seat.

“Fish!” Hawk exclaims with cruel excitement. “No, no…Pond Scum!”

“Do I get a vote?” I interject, suddenly very concerned that I might end up named Pond Scum, Fish, or some other pond-based callsign.

“No!” Angel and Hawk both cry in unison.

“Splash?” Angel continues, scrunching his face up like he’s furiously wracking his brain for ideas.

“Crash.” Dex says, nodding at me with satisfaction.

“Crash!” Angel repeats, clapping his hands. “It’s perfect.”

“Crash…” I say, trying on the name like a new piece of clothing. The word feels strange in my mouth, but somehow…right. “I guess it could be worse.” I shrug nonchalantly and return Angel’s infectiously innocent smile.

“Nice to meet you, Crash.” Dex says. “Now, get some rest. We need to move out soon.”

“Wait, none of this makes 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 the details line up, but the more I stare at it, the more confusing it gets. “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 dividing 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 sense. After a moment, I give up and decide the safest play is to say nothing.

The fire crackles and pops. Outside, the wind howls like a wounded animal, whipping small flurries of snow in through the gaping mouth of the cave. The white flakes dance and swirl in the captive air currents, spiraling against the low cave ceiling in random patterns before evaporating in the heat thermals above the fire. “Do you know how we got here?” I say, finally. “Or where we are?”

“Nope.” Angel says. “Everyone just kind of …woke up here on that first day, and no one coul…”

“Are there more of you somewhere?” I say before he can continue. “Wait, what do you mean, first day? How many days 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 immediately silent like a scolded child. It’s clear where the power is here. What’s not clear is if these strange boys are friends or enemies. A panicked voice inside me screams that I should escape, get away before it’s too late. All that matters is staying alive long enough to get out of this place. Maybe these lost boys can help – and maybe I’ll be another dead cadet in the woods, missing my uniform.

 “Just tell him.” Hawk says, to my surprise. Dex continues to regard me suspiciously, his dark eyes never leaving mine. Finally, Dex sighs and runs a hand over his smooth scalp. 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 more of us in camp, not far from here.”

“50?!” I say, shocked that so many could have ended up here at the same time. This can’t be an accident – we’re here for a reason.

“At last count, yeah.” Dex says. “There used to be more.”

A new flurry of questions explodes through my head like a full bomber load of cluster munitions. How can 50 people forget their entire lives? What camp? Jesus, where the hell are we?

“And, we’ve been here a little longer than you have.” Dex says before I can sort through the new blast wave of questions tearing through my mind. The pit in my gut 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 grotesque sneer.

“Six. Freaking. Months.”

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