This post contains the fifth 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.
They call it The Falls.
Dex tells me the name of their home as I stand frozen in the doorway of the hut, halfway in and halfway out. The scene in front of me is impressive, to say the least, and the incredible sight that stretches out in front of me takes my breath away. I don’t know what I expected to find when I left the hut, but it for sure wasn’t this.
We stand at the edge of a roughly circular clearing, set on the flat top of a high, snow-covered hill. All around us, beyond the boundary where the clearing surrenders to the trees, the forest stretches out for what seems like eternity. I feel like I’m floating on some small, arctic island adrift on an unbroken black sea. The forest slopes gradually away from the plateau to form an enormous bowl-shaped valley that disappears into a curtain of thick fog hanging like a veil across the distant horizon.
At the far edge of the plateau, opposite the fog-shrouded expanse of forest, a wall of high stone cliffs claws towards the sky as a single towering edifice of flat black stone. The imposing stone barrier stretches off into the distance – to my right and to my left – as a single unbroken structure, it’s a gradual curve making me wonder how far the natural barrier extends. Are there breaks in this imposing stone formation, hidden somewhere beyond the impenetrable screen of fog devouring the forest, or do the cliffs link up on the opposite side of the sunken valley, encircling everything (and everyone) like the walls of some impossibly huge prison?
I suddenly feel painfully small and insignificant, like an insect trapped under the shadow of a massive, descending boot. I have the sudden, sinking feeling that getting out of here might be harder than I thought.
A shimmering strip of pale water dives down the black rock face on the other side of the clearing, churning into the dark surface of a small pond that’s nestled against the cliff base on the clearing floor. Jagged white protrusions of dirty ice cling to the outer edge of the wide strip of falling liquid like barnacles along the hull of an ancient shipwreck. The roar of falling water is constant, a hiss of perpetual natural static, underpinned by a bone-deep rumble that I can feel through the soles of my boots and in the pit of my stomach.
I guess I can cross ‘why do they call it The Falls’ off my list of questions for Dex. One down, about a million to go.
Squat stone huts are scattered through the treeless expanse of the clearing. The walls are weathered and worn, the poured concrete pocked and cracked by time and weather, and each small structure is topped by a flat, irregular roof of tree branches and wooden planks so aged that they appear halfway petrified.
Faint tendrils of smoke drift upwards from unseen fires, escaping through low stone chimneys that poke through the irregular wooden rooftops of the huts like shabby periscopes in an ocean of wood and snow. Tattered blankets, like the one still draped around my slumped shoulders, sway lazily in the doorways, coaxed to life by the frigid breeze drifting through the clearing like a wandering spirit.
Most impressive of all is the settlement wall.
The sturdy wooden barrier surrounds the cluster of stone huts that make up the main settlement –The Falls – like a horseshoe that’s been driven into the solid stone of the cliff face on either side of the waterfall pond. The only ways in or out of the palisade (that I can see, anyway) are a sturdy-looking gate set into the curved stretch of wall opposite the towering cliff face, and a smaller door, just large enough for a single person, set into the nearest arm of the wooden U-shaped fortification. The smaller entrance is connected to the spot I’m standing by thin dirt path running down the slightly sloping hillside from the hut behind me.
From our slightly elevated vantage point, I can see over the wooden wall to watch a handful of people busying themselves with various tasks, oblivious to our small group outside the wall. They scurry between the low concrete huts like ants on an anthill. Each figure is draped in familiar-looking pelts and tattered woolen blankets, and some carry primitive looking tools or weapons in their gloved hands. I can’t tell if these boys – and it looks like they are all male, I realize with interest – also wear dark blue navy jumpsuits like Dex’s small band, but I am I able to confirm that each boy is wearing heavy leather gloves and black combat boots identical to my own. I wonder where they’re getting the gloves and boots – or the tools and fuel, for that matter.
They shuffle through the packed snow inside the walls like ursine ghosts, moving in and out of huts in a strangely mesmerizing ballet of primitive settlement life. I can’t help but be impressed by scale this place – by the home they’ve carved out of this unforgiving wilderness in only 6 months (if Dex is to be believed). I’ve seen the monsters that haunt the shadows here, and anyone that can survive – that can thrive – in a place like this deserves at least some of my respect.
The small stone hut to my back is the only structure outside the walls. It’s perched on a small hill that rises above the walled town at the far edge of the clearing, as far from the rest of the settlement as possible, while still remaining inside the boundary of the treeless expanse.
I guess they trust me about as much as I trust them, I realize with a fatalistic smile.
A thin dirt path, which looks recently cleared of snow to expose the dark soil beneath, snakes away from the hut behind me and winds down towards the smaller door in the nearest limb of wall. The black-brown earth of the freshly tilled trail stands out in stark contrast to the unbroken expanse of surrounding snow like a fresh scar on an otherwise unspoiled face.
“We found this place on the first day, after we escaped a pack of Clockers not far from here.” Dex watches the hive of human activity below with a mixture of pride and something that looks like fatherly concern. Dex’s motives are anyone’s guess, and certainly don’t trust the strange older boy, but his concern for his people appears genuine and deep. “I don’t know why the Clockers stopped chasing us. One moment they were there, and the next, they were just…gone. When we finally stopped running, the first sound we heard was falling water.” Dex nods to the high cliff face that towers above the settlement.
The looming wall of water It is a breathtaking sight, and I find myself wondering how many human eyes have seen this savage expression of natural beauty. Despite my current predicament, I feel a sudden, and altogether surprising, surge of gratitude that I’m able to stand here and take this monument in with my own two eyes.
“At first, we didn’t know what it was.” Dex continues. “We followed the sound and it led us here, like it was calling us. Like it wanted to protect us.” There is a reverence in his voice that takes me by surprise. Dex doesn’t strike me as someone that believes in signs or benevolent deities. “When we saw the clearing and the town, I knew that we must have been led here for a reason.” He pauses as a shadow drifts across his strong, solid features like a cloud obscuring the the sun.
“Led here?” I repeat, confused by the tinge of religious awe creeping into Dex’s voice. “Lead by who?”
“I don’t know.” Dex replies as he continues to regard the town below with a distant, distracted gaze. He seems only vaguely aware that I’m speaking to him through the fog of his sudden introspection. “But whoever it was, they saved our lives by bringing us to this place.”
“It was like this when you found it?” I say as I sweep my eyes over the strange sight below us. The huts look ancient, like they’ve been squatting on the plateau floor for a thousand years, but there are signs of recent construction everywhere – especially on the towering wooden curve of the walls
“Hardly.” Dex laughs. “You’re looking at six months of sweat and blood. We thatched the roofs, we built the chimneys one stone at a time, we repaired the broken-down huts – hell, we even built the wall. In every way that matters, we made this place what it is.”
Dex’s face is unreadable as he avoids my eyes and continues to watch his small tribe as they shuffle between the scattered huts inside the wall. Angel fidgets nervously in place beside the older boy, his gaze snapping between Me, Dex, and the dark expanse of forest stretching out behind us. If I had to guess, I’d say he doesn’t like being outside the walls – or this close to the forest. He grips his long wooden spear like it’s the only thing preventing the forest from dragging him off his feet and into the darkness beneath the canopy, his white knuckles broadcasting his anxiety as if through a megaphone.
“Look, I don’t know where you came from, and for now, I don’t care.” Dex says unconvincingly. His deep voice regains some of its former confident shine as he shakes himself from his distracted reverie. He dark eyes lock onto mine like heat-seeking missiles as his expression hardens into a rigid crag of threatening intensity. “All you need to know is this: If you do anything to hurt the tribe, anything that might jeopardize the safety of The Falls or keep us from getting home, I’ll toss your ass out the main gate myself. Clear?” Before I can answer, Dex turns and storms down the thin dirt path towards the main settlement. Angel immediately jogs to catch up with the larger boy, like an obedient dog chasing after his master. He scrambles down the path, slowing only to aim a brief, apologetic glace over his shoulder at me as he goes.
I stand alone for a moment, watching them make their way towards the small door set in the high town walls. My head swims with questions, so many that I don’t know where to begin. I wonder, briefly, if I should I follow these strange boys inside their walls, or if I should grab this chance to escape. On the horizon, the first pink and purple brush strokes of sunset bruise the sky in a jagged line where the dark silhouette of the tree line meets the sky. It’ll be dark soon, and even colder than it already is.
If I’m ever going to escape this place, I’m going to need some things first. To survive out there, in the woods – against the monsters they’d called Clockers – I’m going to need answers, but more importantly, I’m going to need a way to defend myself. I’m going to need weapons…and food. Definitely going to need food. Besides, in my current state, I doubt that I’d last 5 minutes in the darkness beyond the wall. For the second time today, an intense wave of disorientation sways me on my feet, and world around me seems to blur and sway like a mirage. A single lunatic thought pops into my head as the world reorients itself and snaps back into razor sharp focus:
Is it possible that this is the dream?
A sharp gust of cold wind on my face, and the soft earthy aroma of dirt and pine chase the thought from my head as quickly as it had come. Every one of my senses insist that, wherever this is, it’s real. I’m actually, physically, here. My mind drifts back to Ghoul, and to the hallway filled with terrified, running cadets. The memory is thin and insubstantial, spun from the gossamer threads of half-remembered dreams.
As if to underscore the point, my stomach rumbles loudly, lurching painfully to remind me that I haven’t eaten for – well, for who knows how long. As I wrestle with these thoughts, a light snow begins to fall and the riot of colors on the horizon deepens as the sun sinks slowly behind the trees. In the end, it’s hunger that finally prompts my feet to move, carrying me down the dirt path and towards the high walls of The Falls.
I catch up with Dex and Angel as they reach the small door set into the base of the wooden wall. The door is cut from the same dark wood as the rest of the wall, and a small square window is set at eye level. I notice that there’s no way to open the door – or the window – from outside.
Dex pounds on the door, the sound thin and hollow against the crashing subsonic pulse of the nearby waterfall. The smell of meat cooking over an open flame wafts from somewhere beyond the wall, causing my mouth to water uncontrollably and my empty stomach to grumble loudly beneath my clothes. I wonder again, absently, how they managed to get the meat – I haven’t seen any animals or birds since I arrived. God, could they be eating Clockers? Or, even worse, each other? Maybe that’s what I am to them – dinner. A sudden, intense desire to run bubbles up from some primal place inside me and I have to fight hard to keep from bolting back up the path and into the waiting darkness of the forest.
The small widow snaps open suddenly, yanked open by someone on the other side of the door. A pair of familiar, cold eyes appear in the newly opened viewport.
Hawk. Of course, it’s Hawk.
Dex mumbles something that I can’t make out – a word or short phrase – and the small window snaps shut as abruptly as it had opened. For a moment, we stand in silence, three small figures clinging to the base of a massive wooden wall as night descends around us. I’m about to ask Dex what’s going on, when the door swings open slowly, unseen hinges creaking loudly in protest, to reveal the primitive town inside.
I follow Dex and Angel through the door in a single-file line. Hawk stands with a group of three other boys, scowling as he watches me enter the settlement walls. They wait several feet from the door, standing in a rough semicircle to block further entry into the town. Two of the grim-faced boys hold long wooden spears. Hawk stands directly in front of us, flanked by a tall, thin boy with grey eyes and hair so blonde that it seems to blend in with the winter scene around us. Hawk and the blonde hold crude metal swords that look like little more than sharpened scrap metal with grips tightly wound with thin lengths of leather. Hawk glares past Dex and Angel, his dark eyes boring into mine with a look of pure hatred. I respond in kind, the memory of his sneak attack in the forest fresh and raw in my head. He sneers at me, contorting his pinched features into an ugly, angular mask of disgust. “Dex, I’m begging you to rethink this. He shouldn’t be inside the walls. We don’t know shit about this kid.”
“It’s worth the risk. I know you don’t agree, but I know that We were meant to find him. Just like this place.” Dex says, like this is the most obvious conclusion in the world. Hawk’s small retinue exchange concerned looks, clearly unsettled by the older boy’s conviction. “I still believe that he could be important.” Dex continues, never taking his eyes off Hawk. I sense something hidden just beneath the surface of this brief exchange, something coded in the tension that hangs in the air along with the older boy’s words. Hawk furrows his brow, the look on his face more concerned than confrontational. The two boys stare each other down, some silent struggle playing out in the empty space between their stoic young faces.
“The gate nearly killed him. What more do you need to know?” Hawk says, concern deepening across the sharp features of his young face. “He’s not special, Dex. He’s a nobody – just another lost kid, just like us.”
“In that case, I’d say he belongs here…just like us.” Dex smiles, pleased with the verbal trap he’s sprung on the younger boy. Hawk shakes his head and laughs. It’s a sharp, cruel sound like the cracking of a whip, and utterly devoid of humor. The sound startles me, and I flinch slightly as the noise punctuates the tension crackling between them like electricity.
“This is bullshit!” The blonde cadet cries suddenly, raising his sword to point directly at me. “He could be anyone. Shit, Dex, he could be one of them!” Dex slaps the sword aside with a lightning fast motion and grabs the blonde boy by the front of his fur pelt. The other armed boys take a tense step forward, hands gripping weapons tight as Dex drags the shorter boy off his feet.
“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to, Snow?” Dex’s face is inches from the pale teen’s face, his voice the cold whisper of a blade dragged over ice. “We don’t have time for this…get back to your Fighters before I toss you off the wall for the Clockers and Ghosts to fight over.” Snow shakes himself free of Dex’s grip and takes an uncertain step backwards, surprise and anger rippling across his delicate features. “Now.” Dex barks.
Snow composes himself, and without another word, turns and hurries away. Dex wheels on Hawk. Hawk lowers his sword instinctively and takes his own step backwards and away from the suddenly furious larger boy. “We have more than enough enemies already,” Dex says, raising his voice so the small crowd of onlookers that has started to form can hear him. “We can’t afford any more. If anyone else has anything to say about it, say it now.” Dex looks from face to face with a theatrical, exaggerated bravado that would be almost comical under different circumstances. Eyes suddenly find the ground as Dex sweeps the crowd with his blazing glare. No one says a word. “Good. Now, get back to work.”
Hawk slides his sword into the scabbard lashed to his back, smiling serenely as he guides the blade into place in a smooth, practiced motion. “You’re the boss, boss.” He says, sharpening the last word into a snide barb. He flicks his cold gaze to me, the side of his smile twisting his face into a cruel sneer. “Welcome to The Falls, Crash.” He snaps his long, slender fingers, turns on the heel of his black combat boot, and stalks away across the clearing as both of his armed companions hurry to keep up.
“The welcoming committee needs some work.” I say as I watch the trio hurry out of sight, cutting a path through the snow towards the massive wooden gate at the apex of the wooden wall.
“We don’t get a lot of visitors.” Dex says with another of his cold, humorless laughs. I find myself wondering if he has any other kind, or if this place has stolen that too.