CHAPTER FOUR

This post contains the fourth 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.

We leave the cave at first light and walk for hours. We move at a steady pace through the black tree trunks and over a brittle carpet of ice-crusted vegetation that clings in clumps to the frozen ground. There’s no path through the endless maze of trees, but the trunks are spaced widely enough that we’re able to maintain a relatively straight route forward between them. Dex walks in front, leading the way towards our unknown destination (unknown to me, at least), while Angel and Hawk walk several paces behind. I feel like a prisoner being marched between two distant prison camps. We don’t say a word as we walk. My heart jumps at every sound, and I keep expecting screaming, ticking monsters to fall upon us at any moment, ending our lives in a blur of razor-sharp claws and blood-red light.

The sun has been up for hours, but beneath the thick canopy of trees, its rays struggle to maintain much more than the eerie twilight that shrouds this place. The gloom is punctured at random intervals by thin fingers of sunlight that lance down from jagged breaks in the branches above our heads. It looks like something crashed through the branches and onto the forest floor, but when I scan the ground beneath each hole I don’t see anything out of the ordinary.

 Small pools of light shimmer on the forest floor where the shafts meet the ground. A light snow falls from the breaks in the canopy, flakes catching the sunlight as they drift down the shafts towards the frozen forest floor below.

            I search the low-lit world beneath the pines with wide eyes as we walk. Hoping for some half-buried artifact or recognizable landmark that might tell me where I am.

So far, “Earth” is about as specific as I’ve been able to get…and I’m not even 100% sure of that assessment.  

I try and make a mental list of places on Earth that still have large forested areas, places that might be big enough to lose 100 cadets for months, but my ravaged memory fails me like a hard drive shot full of holes. Names of countries and continents evaporate, half-formed, into the shifting static in my head whenever I try and wrestle any specific detail of subject into clarity. I’m left with hazy after-images and an uneasy feeling growing steadily in the pit of my stomach.

            Here and there I can make out the buried ruins of rectangular concrete structures poking out of the snow and vegetation. The thick gray walls look like they’ve been shattered, none standing higher than a few feet. Their hard stone surfaces are overgrown with unfamiliar vines and moss, and several inches of snow sit undisturbed along the top of each straight wall. Short lengths of rusted rebar protrude from the cratered and cracked concrete at odd angles like ancient compound fractures, hinting at the reinforced skeletons beneath. They look like as if they’ve been laying here abandoned for a thousand years.

                        Without warning, Dex steps in front of me, halting me in my tracks. He places his palm flat against my chest and squares his broad shoulders with mine, blocking my path. I tense on reflex, but manage to keep my hands at my sides, my fists un-balled – the last thing I want to do is prove that I’m some kind of threat or prove that smirking jackass, Hawk right.

 “Hold up, Asher.” Dex says. The name sounds strange in his mouth, like some ancient word from a long dead language.

“Precautions?” I say, meeting his gaze. I see the resolve set in his eyes, but also a flicker of apology.

“Something like that.” Dex looks past me, at something over my shoulder. I realize too late that it can only be Hawk. The lean boy has crept up behind me without making a sound. “Do it.”

Before I can move, Hawk grabs me from behind. His surprisingly strong arms squeeze wrap around my neck in a tight sleeper hold. I struggle wildly, but his wiry arms are like an iron vice. Black waves seem to slosh and crash around the corners of my vision. I beat against his arms with my own, but his grip on me holds. My heart is crashing in my ears, drowning out all other sound. My knees buckle and Hawk eases me down to the ground slowly, never loosening his grip.

“You….dick.” I manage to sputter out through lips that feel strange and numb. My voice sounds thick and slurred in my own ears.  

“Nighty Night.” Hawk says. His voice is cold and seems to come from far away. I can barely hear him over the slamming of my heart in my ears. My body surrenders against my will, and I slip beneath the black waves and into unconsciousness.

            The sound of roaring water startles me awake.

I’m a long metal corridor, the walls and ceiling made up of identical panels of dull gray metal. Some kind of illuminated tube runs along the center of the ceiling, washing everything in a flat florescent glow. Black rubber mats cover the floor, their surface weathered and worn from what looks like years of foot traffic up and down the long passageway. The sound of rushing water echoing off the flat surfaces of the passage is deafening.

            The corridor stretches 30 feet in either direction from where I sit, my back leaning against the cold metal wall. To my left, the corridor ends in a closed metal door. The door looks like it’s made from the same metal as the corridor. Large hinges fasten it to the wall, and a single circular porthole is set into the closed door at eye-level. A thick metal lever, cranked to the right at a 90-degree angle so it’s parallel with the floor, looks like it’s both door handle and locking mechanism.

            To the right, the corridor ends in a shimmering wall of falling water. Clouds of vapor drift into the passageway from the strange liquid barrier. The metal walls near the metal framed square of moving water are slick with moisture.

            I get to my feet, steadying myself against the wall as my knees threaten to buckle under me. My head is throbbing. The muscles in my neck ache like frozen cables underneath my skin. I try and massage away the stiffness, and sharp pain lances through my neck and up into my skull at the touch of my hand.

            “Thanks a lot, Hawk.” I mutter darkly to no one in particular. The sound of water seems to eat the words as the sounds leave my mouth. I run my hand along the smooth metal panel of the nearest wall. Thick grime and dust cake the joints and fastening bolts that hold the passageway together. It looks like this place, whatever it is, has been here a long time.

            From behind me, A thick metallic sound cuts through the white noise of the falling water and I turn in time to see the handle of the door turn. My body sinks instinctively into a fighting stance, and I raise my balled fists as the door creaks open, thick hinges emitting a high-pitched whine.

Dex steps through the open door.

            He sees my balled fists and the rage burning in my eyes and raises his hands, palms out, towards me. His large frame fills up the door, blocking my view of the room he’s just emerged from.

            “Easy. Easy, man.” Dex approaches me cautiously, hands still held in front of his chest, clearly trying to tell me that he means me no harm. Anger tightens itself in my chest like a burning, sharp-edged fist. I hang onto the anger. It grounds me in the moment, grounds me against the fierce tides of my missing memory, against the strangeness of this foreign world, against the terror that’s been running wild in my guts since I hit the water of that freezing lake. If I don’t hang on to something, I’m afraid I’ll drift away.

            “What the hell did you do to me?” I say, the anger exploding out of me with every word. “Why did you bring me here?” The few memories I have flash in my mind, and I’m overpowered by a wave of homesickness for a life I can’t even remember. The sense of loss is overwhelming, it splashes onto the hot core of my rage like an accelerant, sending fire through my veins. Something inside me knows that, everything in this place is wrong, that I’m not supposed to be here. Even though I can’t remember it, I know that I should be somewhere else, but there’s an aching hole where the memories of that somewhere else should be. It’s ragged and in pain, and it threatens to overwhelm me with every breath I take. I feel the hot tears welling up in my eyes and I fight like hell to hold them back.

            “We have to protect this place, couldn’t let you see the way in. Sorry, nothing personal.” Dex says.

            “Who the hell are you? What did you do to my goddamn memory!”

            Dex looks surprised by the question, he’s momentarily taken aback. His face pinches itself into a mask of confusion as if he’s considering how to reply.

            “You think that I…that, we did this to you?” Dex says. He shakes his head and lets out a single, dry laugh. “Kid, we’re even more blank than you. I’d kill to have what’s in your head.”

            It’s my turn to be surprised. I search the strong features of his face for a lie or some kind of deception, but his face is as unreadable. There’s nothing there but exhaustion, pain, and a reflection of my own, gnawing fear.

            I exhale the anger as a long, ragged sigh as I unclench my fists and let my arms drift back down to my sides. The ragged hole in my memory throbs, like phantom pain from a long-lost limb, but my anger evaporates as quickly as it came.

            “What is this place?’ I say. “Why knock me out and bring me here?”

             “It’s…sort of hard to explain.” Dex says. His eyes search mine, his expression unreadable. “There’s something that I need you to see.”

“What kind of something?”

“It’s easier if you see for yourself. C’mon.” Dex places a hand on my shoulder and guides me through the open door at the end of the hall. Behind us, the water continues to roar.  

            The space we enter is huge. The cavern is a naturally formed dome with towering ceilings and rough stone walls that curve slightly towards a high ceiling. We step through the door onto a small metal platform suspended 10 feet above the stone floor of the massive chamber. A metal railing runs around the boundary of the square platform, slightly above waist-height. A metal ramp, wide enough for a single person, leads down to the floor of the natural cathedral. Ancient-looking work lights, caked with grime and clearly man-made, ring the entire space, bathing everything in a sickly yellow light. The lights are bolted into the dark rock walls of the cavern. Black cables connect each light to identical neighbors on either side of each dimly glowing square, then snake along the cave walls and disappear into a wide circular opening above the doorway that stands open behind us.

            “Follow me.” Dex says as he makes his way down the ramp towards the floor of the massive cavern. I do as he asks and follow him down the ramp. The sound of our footsteps on the metal walkway, amplified by the natural acoustics of the cavern, echo loudly and bounce between the curved stone walls before fading away.

            I stare in awe at the sheer size of the cavern that surrounds us, craning my aching neck upwards to try and see the ceiling high above. The ring of dim yellow lights is no match for the size of the place, and the walls arch upwards into darkness, the ceiling hidden completely by the blackness above. I feel tiny in this place, like a mouse trespassing in some enormous abandoned church. Our footsteps are a blasphemy in the solemn stillness of this place. I have a sudden urge to turn and run, to dash back through the door and into the relative familiarity of the metal corridor before whatever gods built this place have time to return.

            Ahead of me, Dex continues walking, his long legs moving quickly across the stone floor and towards the opposite wall of the cave. I hurry to his side then skid to a stop, frozen by the impossible sight standing in front of us.

            Set into the opposite rock wall in an enormous metal door.

            The door stands 20 feet tall and nearly 10 feet wide. A massive black rectangle set deep into the weathered granite of the cave wall, it’s strangely black matte surface glowering down like a silent judge. A long, straight seam bisects the door vertically, running from the top of the massive portal, down the length of the smooth metallic surface, then vanishes into the stone of the cave floor.

The door is entirely devoid of markings. No letters, no numbers, no symbols. A ring of floodlights has been arranged on the cave floor, their beams aimed directly at the huge alien bulk of the thing, but the light bends and twists away in odd and unsettling ways as the beams strike the impossibly black surface of the door.

            Even light is afraid to touch its smooth dull surface.

            As I take in the huge structure, my gaze running from its oddly half-hexagonal top to the place at the bottom where it penetrates the cave floor, my eyes seem to struggle to maintain their focus on the black shape in the cave wall. It’s like some primal part of me, still alive in the empty warehouse of my memories, is trying to drag my eyes away, somehow aware of the fundamental wrongness of this obscene structure.

            “What’s inside?” I finally manage, turning to look at the Dex with something that feels like relief. I can feel the black bulk of the thing looming in my peripheral vision. It feels like being watched by the cold eyes of some huge, indifferent predator. All my ancient instincts are screaming at me to run – to escape the gaze of this threatening giant.

            “We don’t know.” Dex says, tearing his gaze away from the black door. His relived expression tells me that he’s equally uncomfortable standing the shadow of this dull black portal. “We haven’t been able to get it open. There aren’t any controls, no handles, no touchscreen panels. Nothing.” He turns to me, his eyes hard. Again, I get the feeling that he’s searching for something, some answer hidden in my reaction to this alien place. “We’ve tried prying the thing open. No luck. Seam down the middle is so tight that we couldn’t even get a knife blade in. Some of the guys want to try explosives, but something tells me it’s a bad idea.”

            “Wait, you have explosi…”

            “But that’s not the really weird part.” Dex says, cutting my question off abruptly. His eyes are locked on mine, his gaze intense and accusatory. I’m suddenly very aware that we’re alone in this strange place. I take an unconscious step away from the larger boy, forcing my eyes to stay locked on his instead of flicking towards the smaller gray door at the other end of the cavern. It’s a long way across the open space of the cave, but I may be able to outrun the larger boy.

            “What’s the really weird part?”

            “This cave’s been empty for months. When we found it, that was just a huge rock wall.” Dex says, pointing at the massive door. I blink in surprise, all thoughts of escape frozen in place like statues in my mind by the sheer impossibility of this place, this prison I find myself in. I force myself to turn and look at the imposing black door. It towers above me, glowering down ominously.

            “But…that’s impossible. If it wasn’t there when you found the cave, when did it…appear?  How did it appear?” I say, my questions sounding ludicrous to my own ears, even as the words come out of my mouth. How could anything as massive that door just show up? Just appear? It looks like it’s been part of the cave wall for a thousand years.

            Dex smiles a thin smile, a smile that freezes on his face, never reaching his eyes. “That’s the thing, kid. It showed up about the same time you did. Now, what do you think of that?”

The longer I’m in this place, the more alien it feels. It’s a world painted with the familiar colors of trees and rocks, of snowbanks and frigid ponds, of flickering yellow fires and shadows that dance on cave walls, but somewhere deep beneath the surface, it’s like some strange form of matter or magic has seeped into the DNA of this place, twisting reality just enough to allow the screaming horrors in the forest to slip into the world through some terrible door – a door that probably looks a lot like the one towering above me. This is a door that would happily let all manner of monsters into the world from beyond its black depths, and Dex thinks it has something to do with me.

All Dex’s caution, all of Hawk’s explosive anger suddenly comes into sharper focus viewed through this new lens.

They’re afraid – afraid of me.

From what little I know about their time in this strange world, I’m not sure I can blame them. A cold chill runs down my spine as I think of how badly this day may have gone if Hawk had found me on his own. Something tells me that he has a ‘stab first, ask questions later’ policy about things (and people) that he fears.

Dex continues to watch me carefully. I can feel him scanning my face, searching my eyes and my reaction for something, anything, that might make things make sense. He frowns, and I can tell that he hasn’t found what he’s looking for, but his sharp eyes never leave my face.

“I don’t know what you expected, but I’ve never seen this thing before. If I have, I don’t remember. I’m just as lost as you are.” I say, desperate to divorce myself from the association he’s formed in mind between me and the unsettling bulk that I can feel looming out of the corner of my eye. Dex’s eyes are hard, unreadable. He continues to watch me intently with his intelligent, dark eyes. I feel like a specimen under a microscope, or an animal trapped in the gaze of a patient, skilled hunter.

“Open it.” Dex says, nodding towards the massive door. I stare back at him in disbelief. Cold fear breaks on my face and runs down my spine. Escape vectors hum and whir back to life in my head, each one leading across the wide expanse of the cavern floor towards the open door.

“I…I don’t know how.” I say, trying and failing to keep the panic out of my voice.

“Open it. Now.” I hear the whisper of a blade sliding out of its sheath, the hand hidden behind the larger boy’s back. I take a step backwards, trying to put distance between myself and the killing steel.

“I can’t! I don’t know how!” I say, as I try and take another step away from the danger in front of me, towards the safety of the corridor behind us. Dex springs forward, his movements fluid and quick, and he’s suddenly behind me. One hand grabs a fistful of my hair, snapping my neck back painfully, the other holds a 6-inch knife to my throat. I freeze, shocked by the speed of the assault, by how quickly the older boy has taken my life into his hands. I feel the cold of the flat black blade against the warmth of my throat. He moves us roughly forward, pushing me towards the black obscenity of the massive door. I feel a pinch and a single drop of blood slides down the side of my neck from where the blade has broken the skin. I try to keep myself from swallowing, and I let Dex to shove me towards the door, my feet shuffling against the dark granite of the cave floor.

When we’re within 5 feet of the black door, Dex abruptly releases his grip on my hair, shoving me towards the flat black metal of the huge structure. I tumble to the ground, landing hard on my knees, inches from the strange portal. I kneel like a priest in front of a dark, unknowable god.

“Open it.” Dex’s cold voice repeats from somewhere behind me. I don’t turn my head. Instead, I raise my eyes to look directly into the flat black nothingness looming in front of me. A strange rumbling hum pulses threateningly from somewhere deep beneath the smooth black surface, setting my teeth on edge and making my skin crawl. It’s as if every molecule of my body is desperately straining to get away from the sound, away from the towering black scar smearing the face of the cave wall.

I search the expanse of black for anything I can use to push the door open. Nothing. Other than the thin, slightly darker seam running down the center of the door, the flat black surface is as featureless and unbroken as the maw of a black hole.

“I don’t know how to open this thing. There’s nothing to open it with! No handle, no access panel…nothing!” My voice sounds strange. The sound is small and stripped of life, like some hungry thing behind the black expanse is devouring the life in the words, sucking the soundwaves out of the air one syllable at a time until only thin husks remain. From behind me, there is silence. Anger flares in my chest again, spreading like wildfire and coursing down my trembling arms and into my balled fists. What does this lunatic want from me? What do I have to do to convince him that I’m trapped here, just like him? “What do you want from me?”

“I want you…to open…the goddamn…door.” Dex replies, his voice echoing off the cave walls. I hang my head and choke out a something halfway between a laugh and a sob. I’m a trapped animal, a blind rat in a maze. I know that escape through the door at the other end of the cave is an impossibility – Dex is much faster than I am, and he’s armed. I wipe the blood from my neck and glance down at the crimson smear on my palm. I may not be able to remember my life, or anything about who I am, but I’m sure of one thing. I have to get the hell out of this cave and away from this lunatic with a knife. I don’t give a damn if I can open this door – all I want to do is survive, even if it means trapping the rest of these boys here forever. I know what I have to do.

I ball my fists and push myself to my feet, feeling my resolve solidify as I stand. I spin to face the dark-skinned older boy, throwing the handful of loose rocks and sand that I’d clenched in my fist as I rose directly into his eyes. Dex roars and brings his right hand to his face, as he takes a single stumbling step backwards. Seeing my chance, I lunge forward, aiming my dash to the right of my disoriented captor, hoping to take advantage of his unconscious response to my attack. I push my aching legs as hard as I can, covering ground quickly, trying to put Dex behind me before he can recover.

I’m not fast enough.

Dex recovers quickly and wraps a muscled arm around my midsection as I pass, jerking me backwards and throwing me to the ground. The back of my head impacts the solid stone of the cave floor with a thick wet sound. My vison blurs. Pain radiates through my skull and down the length of my spine like red electricity. The towering roof of the cave yawns above me, blurred and out of focus. Dex hauls me to my feet roughly, his clenched fists full of the dirty blue fabric of my uniform. “I’m going to catch hell if he rips my uniform”, I think absently as I’m dragged to my feet. Dex yanks me around until I’m facing the massive black door, its enormous bulk swimming and distorting in my blurred vision.

“There’s only one way out of this cave, kid, and it’s through that damn door!” Dex snarls, his lips inches from my ear. The back of my head throbs and I’m vaguely aware that a concerning amount of blood is soaking my hair and running down the back of my neck. Dex drags me forward, closer to the door. I resist weakly, but I’m no match for his strength in my current state. It’s everything I can do to keep from blacking out. Through my ragged breathing I beg Dex to stop, to let me go, but it falls on deaf ears. Dex is a man possessed, and I’m no match for him in my current state.

We’re only a few feet from the door when Dex wrenches me to a halt. The flat black mass of the door looms above us. I imagine it watching this brief burst of violence with cold approval. I feel the larger boy hesitate, his fists tightening and relaxing almost imperceptibly on the now-ripped collar of my uniform. We stand for a tense moment, the only noises in the silent place our ragged breath and the quiet scraping of my boots against the ground as I push myself away from the door and into the immovable bulk of my captor’s chest.

“I’m sorry.” Dex says. Then he shoves me, as hard as he can, towards the waiting black door.

I pitch forward, open hands flying up in front of me, my body reacting on instinct to try and break my fall. The dark mass of the door rushes towards me. My legs slide out from under me as my center of gravity propels me forward, thrown towards the door from the force of Dex’s shove. I land hard on my knees for the second time.

My open palms smack into the smooth surface of the door, sending impact tremors tearing painfully up my arms and into my shoulders. As soon as my hands connect with the oddly warm surface of the door, my world explodes into white-hot pain. Pink lighting crackles around my hands in agonizing tendrils. I try and pull away, wrenching backwards with every ounce of my strength. My hands don’t move. I’m pinned to this black monstrosity. Tendrils of pink lightning arc and dance up my arms, across my chest, and encircle my skull. I open my mouth to scream, the lighting arcing between my teeth with cold, piercing fire, but before I’m able to make a sound, my world goes black.

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