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.

Running. I’m running as fast as I can.

            I’m in a long corridor with slightly curved walls made of polished, artificial wood. My boots slap against the black marble floor like gunshots in a cathedral. Paintings with ornate gold frames hang every few feet along both walls, displaying portraits of men and women in midnight blue uniforms, chests festooned with colorful ribbons and gleaming medals. I know that I should know who they are, but their names hang just out of reach in my head. Crimson lines of pulsing red lights run down the corridor at ankle height, bathing everything in a hellish glow. A deafening alarm blares from unseen speakers, pulsing and droning in time with the red corridor lights.

            A crowd of young men and women in dark blue naval uniforms – uniforms identical to my own – stampede down the corridor in a mad, panicked mob. Some are crying, some are screaming, all look terrified. The blaring alarm swallows their cries, filling up the corridor with its steady, pulsing wail.  Every face is ashen with terror, eyes panicked and wide. A bone shaking rumble vibrates the deck plates under our feet, throwing runners to the ground and dislodging several of the ornate portraits from their places on the walls as the corridor lurches sickeningly to one side, then the next. Cadets crash to the black marble floor, sliding and skidding into the corridor walls in tangled knots of flailing arms and legs.

            The chaos around me is somehow familiar. I’ve been here before; I know I have. The details are blurry, shifting just out of reach in the fog of my memory like a half-remembered dream, but I’m sure of it.

            Up ahead, the corridor bends to the right at a 90-degree angle, funneling the running mass of cadets down another long passageway. A lighted sign on the corridor wall tells me we’re headed towards the hanger bay. Blinding blue-white light flashes in sporadic bursts from the mouth of the new passageway, throwing a mangled riot of shadows against the far wall of the corridor.

            A voice inside my head is screaming, begging me to run – to get the hanger bay before it’s too late. The voice is unfamiliar, somehow not my own. I stop running, coming to a stop several feet before the corridor makes its right-hand bend. I stand still, taking in the madness of the scene unfolding around me. Streams of panicked cadets break around me like a river around a stone. I half expect to be knocked over, crashed into and trampled by the surging wave of people coming up the corridor behind me, but I feel nothing.

            I look down at my hands. They’re covered in dirt. The palm of my hand is smeared with blood – the blood I wiped from my neck after Dex’s blade broke the skin.

            None of this is real.

The realization washes over me like a cold wave. Memories rush into my head. I remember falling towards the black door – no, not falling. Pushed. I was pushed. Did the door open? Is this where it took me, back into my own hazy memories? Back in time?

            A small, willowy girl in a tattered navy uniform pushes her way out of the moving mass of people directly in front of me. She struggles against the surging knot of cadets, clawing her way towards me like a salmon fighting a current. Her piercing blue eyes lock onto mine through the crowd. The eyes are familiar, as is the pinched, angular face they’re set in. The girl is waving her small hands wildly as she struggles against the crowd. She’s yelling, mouth forming words that are swallowed up by the din of the alarms and the cries of the panicked crowd.

            Ghoul! Her memory rips through the fog in my head in an agonizing surge, like a fractured bone snapping back into place. A tidal wave of nausea radiates through me and I fall to one knee, fighting back the surge of bile rising in my throat like an awful geyser. The memory is thin and fragile, sketched into my mind with the faintest of lines, but it’s enough. The girl struggling through the crowd towards me is my closest friend, the girl I’ve always called “Ghoul”, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. Details blur and twist around her memory in my head, distorted by the confused wall of fog that’s swallowed the rest of my life. A single, sharp thought slices through the haze in my head, slamming into the front of my mind like a railgun round – CRASH.  The word feels alien, like it came from somewhere – from someone – outside my head. I think it may be Ghoul’s voice. I try and cry out to the struggling girl, screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard over the swelling chaos of sound that fills the corridor. “Ghoul! What are you trying to tell me?”

            Ghoul continues to struggle against the crowd. Bodies drag her tiny frame backwards and out of view. I push myself to my feet and launch myself at the crowd, pushed into action by a sudden need to save the tiny teenage girl – to save my friend. The world around me stutters and skips, the crowd suddenly moving in disorienting stop-motion fits, first in slow motion, then at a manic accelerated speed, like reality is trying to catch up with itself and failing. Behind me, the red lights of the corridor begin to snap off one by one, each making a deep audible clunk as it disappears, leaving an impenetrable darkness in its wake. Darkness stalks down the corridor as the lights die, clawing itself towards me faster and faster.

            A thin female arm emerges from the crowd, straining towards me with an open, grasping, hand. I grab Ghoul’s hand and try and drag her away from the undulating crowd. The darkness behind me is only feet away. Ghoul’s hand tightens around mine as I strain backwards with all my strength, succeeding only in pulling her head and torso free of the writhing mass of cadets. Her blue eyes are grim, face set in a mask of effort and concentration. I scream her name, but the sound is consumed by the deafening drone of the alarms. Ghoul pulls me close, gripping my hand with all her strength, and mouths a single word – CRASH. She flashes a crooked smile that is excruciatingly familiar, squeezes my hand, then disappears back into the shapeless mass of the crowd as the darkness swallows us both.

            I wake up in a small room with concrete walls and an irregular wooden ceiling that looks like it’s made of small logs, wood scraps, and roughly shaped branches. The faint smell of smoke and burned hair lingers in the air. I realize, after a moment of sniffing the air to find the source, that the smell is coming from me. A single gas lantern hangs on a rusted metal hook set into the ceiling. It lights the room with a dim orange glow, throwing a slightly swaying circle of light and shadow on the bare gray walls as it flickers and hisses from its place above the bed.

            I’m lying on a small cot, my body covered with a faded green wool blanket. The blanket is worn and tattered, patched in several places and holed in others. The boots that Dex gave me sit on a chair standing next to my cot, its plastic and metal frame shoved up against the wall next to my cot. A doorway stands at the opposite side of the small, square room. A blanket identical to my own, but with its own network of patches and holes, has been nailed into one of the wooden ceiling beams, transforming the blanket into a makeshift door. The doorway blanket sways slightly in the breeze drifting in from outside. The air is cold and clean, and I drink it into my lungs in greedy, gulping breaths as I struggle get my bearings in the small room.

            Images flash through my mind; The hallway, pictures in golden frames, Ghoul. What had she been trying to tell me? Was She a real person at all, or some imaginary friend my unconscious mind conjured up as I lay unconscious after the black door’s attack? (Attack? Is that the right word? Can a door attack someone?) I struggle to replay the dream in my head, and while I can clearly remember my friend’s face and the desperation in her eyes as she somehow forced the word CRASH into my head with all the grace of a sniper’s round, the rest of the dream is hazy and insubstantial. The memory shimmers and shifts like a mirage, always just out of reach and impossible to pull into focus. Just a dream. I need to focus on reality. “Where the hell am I?” The sound of my own hoarse voice startles me as I realize I’ve spoken the words out loud.

My throat hurts. My entire body hurts. My head hurts most of all.

What the hell happened? The last thing I remember is my hands slapping against the oddly warm metal surface of the huge black door, and then pink agonizing lightning arcing around my arms and over my body. I sit up abruptly, inspecting my body franticly with the palms of my hands, searching for the burns that would explain the smoky burnt hair tang that still hangs in the room like an unwelcome guest. Finding nothing more concerning than a slight blackened stiffness around the cuffs of my sleeves and a few signed hairs around my temples, I sink back into the stiff cot with a relived sigh.

So far, this has been not been my favorite day – not that I have many to compare it to, but the point seems to stand.

I throw off the heavy blanket and swing my bare feet down to the cold stone floor. The room is featureless, save for the blanket door and the single chair against the wall. The stone walls looked weathered and ancient, like the interior of some long-forgotten temple, the colorful paintings of gods and monsters long worn away by wind, and rain, and time. I grab my boots, pull them onto my feet one at a time, and tie the frayed black laces tight. My captors could return at any moment, and when they do, I want to be long gone.

The blanket door flaps open as I’m lacing up my second boot and Angel enters the room cautiously, his cherubic face pinched and apologetic.  Seeing that I’m awake, his guileless eyes open wide, and he pulls back the blanket over the door to call out to someone outside.

“He’s awake!” I hear Angel’s muffled voice through the blanket as he calls out to whoever is beyond the swaying cloth barrier to my makeshift cell. He lets the door flap closed and then turns back to me with a broad smile spreading across his innocent face. He crosses the room and claps me on the shoulder amicably. “You’re awake! I can’t believe it, we though it fried you for sure.”

“I’m awake alright.” I say, momentarily thrown by Angel’s friendly greeting and his total lack of guilt at his contribution to my imprisonment. He looks me up and down, visibly amazed by my current state of awake-ness and my largely unfried body. My throat is raw, and I find that I need to clear it loudly before speaking again. When I do, my voice is little more than a painful croak. “What the hell happened.”

“Dex said you tried to open the door.” Angel says, still smiling his broad, untroubled smile, like today is just another day in…well, wherever this is. Confused by the look of rage assembling itself on my face, he frowns, and continues rattling off words, undaunted. “The door thing really knocked you on your ass, man. You’ve been out ever since. We were starting to wonder if you’d ever wake up.”

“How long was I out?”

“Two days!”

“Two days?!” I sputter, my mind reeling in confusion. How could I have been asleep that long? My dream felt like it had only lasted minutes, no more. Apparently, even dreams aren’t safe from this place’s ravenous appetite. An intense feeling of violation washes over me like a rouge wave. I probe the empty hallways of my memory again, desperately this time, like a tongue flicking in and out the cavity left by an amateurly extracted molar. Nothing. Just tattered scraps and half-formed images.

“Dex carried you back himself.” Angel beams proudly. “I’ve been taking care of you ever since.” Angel sits down next to me on the cot, completely oblivious to the rage pumping through my veins like a black-market stimulant. “You talked in your sleep. Like, a lot. Kept saying the same thing over and over…It kind of freaked me out, man.” Angel eyes me warily, concern written on the features of his child-like face. “Okay, it really freaked me out.”

“Why, what did I say?” I ask, hoping weakly that my unconscious self might have more answers than I do.

Cerberus. You kept saying it over and over.” Angel says. His voice is quiet and strangely reverent, like even repeating my strange mantra frightens him in some primal, childish way. “What does it mean?”

I force out my breath in a long, exhausted sigh. “I have no idea.” I reply. Angel’s face falls, disappointment clouding his delicate features. He brushes a blonde lock of hair out of his eyes and looks towards the swaying blanket covering the only way out of this tiny stone room. A chill creeps through my aching body like tendrils of living ice, and I notice for the first time how incredibly cold it is inside this concrete box. I pull the blanket off the cot and wrap it around my shoulders like a cloak.  In the distance I can hear falling water, muffled voices, and the crackle and pop of flames.

            I’m contemplating knocking Angel unconscious so I can make my escape when the blanket over the door is pulled open by a strong, dark-skinned hand. Dex slides slowly into the room, his muscular frame filling the door and obscuring the scene outside. The white glare from the word outside transforms the tall boy into an inky silhouette that fills the doorway for a moment before the blanket flaps closed, smothering the light from the outside world. Dex’s eyes lock on mine with an intensity that turns my guts to water. In that instant, I’m sure that he’s come to kill me. Now that he knows I can’t help him with whatever insane plan he’s cooking up to pry open the black door, he’s come to finish the job he started in the cave.

I should have run when I had the chance. Instead, I sat here sharing my god damn dreams with this baby-faced savage like I had all the time in the world. Now I’m outnumbered 2 to 1, and my chances of making it out of this room alive have been cut in half.

My muscles tense in anticipation as Dex approaches, and I scan the room for a something to defend myself with. He eyes me cautiously, the palms of his open hands held out in front of him in a universal gesture of placation. I glare daggers back at the older boy and rise slowly to my feet, my fists balled at my side. I may be outnumbered and outmatched physically, but there’s no way I’m going down without a fight. Hell, maybe I can take once of them with me when I go.

I let the wool blanket slide off my shoulders and it whispers to the floor in a soft rustle of fabric. Angel glances between the two of us warily, as if he expects violence to explode without warning. Intense, crimson anger flares in my chest like magma coursing out of a stone heart. I tense my body, ready to respond in kind to whatever he sends my way. I decide that the lamp is too far away – I’ll have to use the chair as my weapon.  Dex just smiles and continues to hold out his open hands as unthreateningly as he can.

“Glad to see you’re on your feet.” Dex says finally, his voice a monotone line like words etched into ice. “We should probably talk. I owe you an explanation, I think.”

“An explanation?” I say, trying to keep my voice cool and threatening, but failing as rage sharpens my cracked syllables into a shaky, wavering rasp. “You tried to kill me, you lunatic. We don’t have anything to talk about.”

“No, I didn’t.” He replies evenly. The cool control in his voice is infuriating. He may as well be commenting on the weather. I glare back at him in silence, every molecule of my body vibrating with rage. “I had to know if you could open the door…I had to know if I was right.”

“You could have asked.”

“I did.”

“You could have asked without a goddamn knife to my throat!”

Angel looks shocked. He glares at Dex in horror, his mouth agape, anger pouring into his striking blue eyes like blood into bowl. The emotion is alien and obscene on his delicate features, like every bit of him is trying to resist the unwelcome sensation and is failing miserably. For a moment, I think he might start screaming, hurling obscenities and questions against the stone cliffs of the older boy’s stern face, but Angel says nothing. He just fumes in Dex’s direction in betrayed silence.

“I did what I had to do…what I thought was right. If you had seen what we’ve seen, you’d have done the same.” Dex continues watching me with wary, cautious eyes as his hands drift slowly down to his sides. “I won’t insult you with an apology, Crash. I’d throw a hundred of you at that damn door if I thought there was even a chance it might get my boys home.”

Silence hangs between us for a long moment. Our shadows tremble and fuse into strange alien shapes against the drab concrete walls, conjured to life by the swaying lantern above our heads. Angel shifts uncomfortably next to me, continually glancing back and forth between the two of us with a worried expression darkening his young face. I try and stoke the fire my anger has lit in my chest, to look at both boys as the threat they are, but when I look at Angel, my rage falters. Captor or not, I don’t think I could strike this boy down to make my escape – could I?

“Well…were you right?” I say through clenched teeth, my curiosity getting the better of me for a moment. “What could letting that thing almost kill me possibly tell you?” Dex smiles apologetically and leans against the wall like a bored teenager waiting for the bus. In my head, I continue hatching and rejecting possible escape plans that involve combinations of the lamp, the chair, and my fists, but things break down every time I imagine smashing Angel’s childlike face on my way out that door. The thought turns my stomach, I realize with surprise. I guess I’m the kind of person that avoids violence against the innocent, if at all possible.

“I don’t know if I was right or not,” Dex says with an infuriating yawn. “Like I told you in the cave, you and the black door showed up at the same time, kid. I had to know if you were the key.”

“The key?” I echo in disbelief. “What the hell are you taking about?”

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds, really.” Dex replies with a condescending smirk, like he’s explaining the most basic of concepts to a particularly slow child. “There are rhythms and patterns to this place, running just below the surface, but clear as day for those of us that have learned to see them. Trusting in the ebb and flow of those patterns has kept us safe – it’s kept us alive. So, when something new breaks the pattern -like a mysterious stranger falling from the sky, or a huge unbreachable black door appearing out of thin air in the middle of our home – we don’t take any chances.”

“What kind of patterns?” I ask, frustrated by the older boy’s vague, seemingly nonsensical explanation for his previous assault. “What the hell does that have to do with me being a…key?”

“You’ll see, kid.” Dex replies with a chuckle that sets my blood boiling. “Trust me, once you’ve seen what I have to show you, things will make more sense.”

 “Don’t call me, kid.” I snap back on reflex. “So, what now? Am I your prisoner, or something? Jesus, you guys aren’t cannibals, are you?”

Dex barks another clipped laugh that has all the warmth of a circling vulture’s cackling cry. “Prisoner? Hardly. You’re free to leave whenever you like. No one here will stop you…or eat you.” He gestures towards the door magnanimously.

“Great. Good luck with your door.” I move towards the door as quickly as my aching legs will take me, but before I can cross the tiny space and make it outside, Dex’s hand falls heavily on my shoulder.

“Of course, you’ll be dead before sunrise tomorrow if you try and tackle the forest alone, kid.” Dex spits the last word at me like barbed dart, his hand still clamped around my shoulder threateningly. “All I ask is that you hear me out before you leave.” The larger boy drapes a thick, muscular arm around my shoulders like he’s my oldest friend. It takes every bit of restraint I have to keep from punching him in the throat and then bolting for the door. Instead, I shrug off his arm and take a step away, anxious to keep some distance between us in case things take a turn for the physical again. “Look, I’ll admit that we got off to a bad start – and I’ll own that – but, if we’re being honest, I think we both want the same thing, Crash.”

“Really? And what’s that?” I take another cautious step away from Dex and towards the door. I have a clear shot at the door now, I should take it before my window of opportunity closes.

“To get the hell out of this place. To get home.” Dex says, slumping down to sit on the cot with a ragged sigh. For a moment, the towering granite monument of Dex’s confidence seems to crack, and his carefully constructed mask slips just enough for me to get a flash of the scared teenager underneath. A boy that just wants to get home, even if his memories of that place have been stolen. When he meets my gaze, the façade has slipped back into place, and a poised, confident leader stares back at me with eyes that again blaze with purpose and conviction.

“Home?” I reply, thrown by the unexpected glimpse of vulnerability from the imposing figure in front of me. I can’t help but wonder which of Dex’s faces is the real one – the confident leader, or the frightened, desperate teenager. “What makes you think there’s even a home to go back to?”

“I refuse to believe that this…place is all there is, kid.” Dex replies. “And I’m going to find a way out of here, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?” I reply, hoping Dex can’t sense the growing surge of desperation churning behind my words like a tempest in the tidepool of my largely empty memory.

“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?” Dex replies with an evasive smirk that makes me want to put his head through the wall. “All of this could be nothing more than coincidence. Maybe you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re no more special or interesting than anyone else.” Dex nods sagely as he paces around the room like a pontificating professor in front of a captive audience. I open my mouth to reinforce the coincidence option, but Dex plods ahead, ignoring me completely as he continues his impromptu sermon. “Or you’re something else – something special.” Dex rounds on me suddenly, lunging forward until his broad face is only inches away from my own. His eyes bore into mine like a tunneling electron microscope, and though I desperately want to turn away – to break the strange spell his intense stare has cast over me – I’m frozen to this spot. Dex’s voice is barely more than a whisper and his eyes never waver or flick away from my own – he doesn’t even seem to blink. “Maybe, you’re what – you’re who – I’ve been waiting for since the moment I realized what this place is.”

I stay silent for a long moment, purposely letting the obvious question dangle in the air between us like a mote of dust suspended in a shaft of the late evening sunlight that’s seeping in around the edges of the blanket-door. Dex holds my gaze in silence, an amused twinkle sparkling briefly in the hazelnut depths of his dark eyes before disappearing, leaving only his frosty glare behind like a layer of ice covering a still forest pond. As the silence stretches out between us like a bottomless chasm, every additional moment compounds the waves of frustration bubbling up from the deep crevices inside me until I’m unable to maintain the standoff any longer, and in spite of myself, I blink. “Jesus Christ, I give up!” I exclaim with an exasperated wave of my hands.  “All right, Dex. I’ll bite: what is this place?”

“Patience. Patience, my new friend.” Dex coos in an infuriating, syrupy tone. I bite down hard on the inside of my cheek – biting until it bleeds – just to keep myself from scowling back at the self-satisfied prick and his ham-handed attempt to intrigue me with his mysterious omissions and allusions. “You up for a walk?” He continues, gesturing towards the door like a tour guide from hell. I keep a wary eye on the older boy, searching for the trap – the danger – in his sudden (and likely artificial) shift in demeanor.  Realizing that any escape attempt will involve first escaping from this dingy concrete box, I decide to smile and play along – just long enough to find my way out of here.

“Depends.” I say as nonchalantly as I can muster. I taste blood as my teeth break the skin on the inside of my cheek. “You have any more electrified gates, Satanic doorways, or PMS-ing airlocks you need me to try and open?”

“Nah,” Dex replies quickly, matching my tone with a smile that never seems to reach his eyes. “We only have the one.”

I play along, laughing politely at the older boy’s weak attempt at humor. “In that case, how could I possibly refuse?”

 “Great!” Dex exclaims, clapping his hands together loudly. “Let’s go meet the boys.” He gestures towards the door with an innocent look on his face. “No tricks. Honest.”

“After you.” I say, matching his artificial grin with a hallow smile of my own. In the moment, I decide that there’s no way I’m walking out the door first, and I’ll be damned if I let the larger boy get behind me again. Dex continues smiling his dead-eyed, shark-like smile. Then, as if he’s read my thoughts, he sweeps open the door to let Angel leave first, then he follows the younger boy out the door, leaving me alone in the tiny concrete room.

For a moment, I stand alone in the tiny concrete cell, watching the gently swaying blanket in the doorway as it flutters back and forth in the crisp cold air wafting in from outside. I take a deep breath, steel myself for the unknown world waiting outside, and then pull the blanket tight around my shoulders and follow Dex and Angel out the door.

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