CHAPTER FIVE

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.

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

            I’m in a long corridor with slightly curved walls of polished, stained wood. My boots slap against a black marble floor. Paintings framed in ornate gold frames hang every few feet along the walls, displaying portraits of men and women in deep blue uniforms, their chests festooned with colorful ribbons and gleaming medals. A line of pulsing red lights runs down the corridor at ankle height, bathing everything in a hellish glow. A droning alarm blares from unseen speakers, pulsing in time with the red corridor lights.

            A crowd of young men and women in dark blue naval uniforms – uniforms like the one I’m wearing, I realize – stampede down the corridor on every side. Some are crying, some are screaming. The blaring alarm swallows their cries, filling up the corridor with its steady, pulsing wail.  Every face is white with terror, eyes panicked and wide. A bone shaking rumble shakes the corridor, throwing runners to the ground and dislodging several of the ornate portraits from their places on the walls. Whole groups of cadets crash to the black marble floor, falling and skidding into the corridor walls in tangled knots of flailing limbs.

            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 sharp right angle, funneling the running mass of cadets down another long passageway and towards the hanger bay. Blinding blue-white light flashes in sporadic bursts from the mouth of the new passageway, throwing a twisting mass of shadows against the far wall of the corridor.

            I know that the hanger bay is at the end of that corridor. I don’t know how I know, but I’m sure that it’s true. 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 it right-hand bend. I stand still, taking in the madness of the scene unfolding around me. Masses of panicked, running cadets break around me like a river around a stone. I half expect to be knocked over, crashed into and then 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 knife 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?

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

            Ghoul! The 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 bile rising in my throat. The memory is thin and fragile, sketched into my mind with the faintest of lines, but it’s enough. The boy struggling through the crowd towards me is my closest friend, the boy I always called “Ghoul”, though I can no longer remember why. Details blur and twist around his memory in my head, lost in the confused fog swallowing 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 outside my head. The voice in my head isn’t my own; I think it may be Ghoul’s voice. I try and cry out to Ghoul, screaming at the top of my lungs to be heard over the swelling chaos of sound that fills the corridor. “I don’t understand! What are you trying to tell me?”

            Ghoul continues to struggle against the crowd. Bodies drag him backwards and out of view. I push myself to my feet and dash towards the crowd, suddenly desperate to save the wiry young man – to save my friend. The world around me stutters and skips, the crowd suddenly moving in a strange jerky stop-motion, first in slow motion, then at a manic accelerated speed, like the scene is trying to catch up with itself. Behind me, the red lights of the corridor snap off one by one with a deep audible clicking sound. Darkness snaps down the corridor as the lights die, marching towards me faster and faster.

            An arm breaks from the crowd, straining towards me with an open hand. I grab Ghoul’s hand and try and drag to from the 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 his head and torso free of the writhing mass of cadets. His blue eyes are grim, face set in a mask of effort and concentration. I scream his name, but the sound is consumed by the deafening drone of the alarms. Ghoul pulls me close, gripping my hand with all his strength, and mouths a single word – CRASH. He flashes a crooked mischievous smile that is somehow deeply familiar, squeezes my hand, and 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 the odd tree branch. A faint smell of smoke and burned hair lingers in the air. I realize, after a moment of sniffing the air, 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 light, 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 mostly covered by 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 pushed up against the wall. 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 a wooden ceiling beam, so it now serves as a makeshift door. The doorway blanket sways slightly in a breeze that drifts in from somewhere outside of the room. The air is cold and clean, and I drink it into my lungs in big, slow breaths as I get my bearings in the small room.

            Images flash through my mind. What had Ghoul been trying to tell me? Was he a real person at all, or some imaginary friend my unconscious mind conjured up as I lay unconscious from the strange pink lighting from the black door’s attack? (Attack? Is that the right word? Can a door attack someone?) I struggle to replay the strange dream in my head, and while I can clearly remember my friend’s face and the desperation in his eyes as he 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 ghost running through the half-remembered hallways of my memory. 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 cold metal surface of the huge black door, and then pink agonizing lightning arcing up my arms and over my body. I sit up abruptly, searching my body franticly with the palms of my hands, searching for damage from the strange assault or burns to explain the sour burnt hair and smoke tang that still hangs in the room like an ashen cloud. 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.

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 go wide, and he turns to call out to someone outside of the room.

“He’s awake! Get in here!” Angel calls out to whoever (or whatever) is beyond the swaying cloth barrier to what I can only assume is my prison cell. He turns quickly back to me and smiles broadly, crossing the room to clap 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, confused by the younger boy’s total surprise at this revelation. He looks me up and down, apparently amazed by my current state of awake-ness. My throat is raw, and I clear it before speaking again, my voice a painful croak. “What the hell happened.”

“Dex said you tried to open the door.” Angel says, still smiling a broad smile, like this information explains everything. Reading the confusion on my face, he frowns, and continues. “It knocked you on your ass. 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 had lasted minutes, no more. There must have been more, more that I can’t remember. The realization comes with an intense sense violation. I’ve been violated by the memory-devouring fabric of this impossible place. It seems even dreams aren’t spared by its ravenous appetite. I probe the empty hallways of my memory again, desperately this time, like a tongue flicking in and out the cavity left by a roughly extracted molar. Nothing, still nothing more than tattered scraps and half-formed images.

“Dex carried you back himself. I’ve been watching over you ever since, hoping you’d snap out of it.” Angel says as he sits down next to me on the cot. “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 innocent, child-like face. “Okay, it really freaked me out.”

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

“Crash. You kept repeating the word Crash over and over.” Angel says. His voice is quiet and strangely reverent, like 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.” 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 door in the room. What was the younger boy expecting? Everything about this place is alien and confusing, even the strange lost boys that share it with me. A chill creeps through my aching body like tendrils of living ice, and I realize how cold it is inside the small concrete box. I pull the blanket from the cot around my shoulders like a cloak.  Far in the distance there is a sound of falling water, and the crackle and pop of flames consuming wood.

            I’m about to ask Angel why he looks so disappointed when the blanket over the door is pulled open by a strong, dark-skinned hand. Dex steps slowly into the room, his muscular frame filling the door and obscuring the scene outside. Cool white light silhouettes him in to doorway before the blanket flaps closed behind him, blocking the light and returning the room to a dim orange. His eyes lock on mine with an intensity that turns my guts to water. He’s come to kill me, I know it. He’s come to finish the job he started in the cave.

I should have run when I had the chance instead of discussing my stupid dreams with this baby-faced savage.

I tense my muscles as he moves, and I prepare myself to react. He approaches 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 get slowly to my feet, my fists balled at my side. I let the wool blanket slide off my shoulders and it whispers to the floor. Angel glances between the two of us warily, as if he expects violence to explode without warning. Hot, crimson anger flares in my chest live magma pouring out of a stone heart. I tense my body, ready to respond in kind to whatever he sends my way.  The older boy just smiles and continues to hold out open hands in an apparent offer of truce.

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

“You tried to kill me.” I say, trying to keep my voice cool and threatening, but failing as rage sharpens my hoarse, cracked syllables into a shaky, wavering rasp. “I don’t think we have shit to talk about.”

“No,” he replies evenly. The cool control in his voice is infuriating. “I didn’t…And yes we do.” I glare back at him in silence, the hair trigger of my anger only slightly restrained by my desperate need to understand what’s going on in this frozen place, to gain some kind of foothold. “I had to know. I had to know if you could open the door…if I was right.”

“You could have asked.”

“I did.”

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

Angel looks shocked. He snaps his head around to glare at Dex in horror, his mouth agape, anger pouring into his striking blue eyes like blood into bowl. The emotion looks alien and obscene on his delicate features, like the fiber of his being is trying to resist the alien emotion but is failing miserably. For a brief moment, I think that he’s going to scream at the older boy, to hurl obscenities and questions against the stone cliff face of the older boy’s stern face, but Angel says nothing. He just fumes in Dex’s direction in a hurt, betrayed silence.

“I did what I had to do…what I thought was right. If you had seen what I’ve seen, You’d have done the same in my place.” Dex says. He continues watching me with wary, cautious eyes as he allows his hands to drift slowly down to his sides. “I won’t insult you with an apology. I’d do it again in a second if I thought it would get my boys out of this godforsaken place.”

Silence hangs between us for a long moment. I study his face, his body language, searching for a lie hidden in the subtle unconscious things a man can’t control, but I come away with nothing. Our shadows tremble and fuse into strange and foreign shapes against the concrete walls, conjured to life by the swaying lantern on the hook over our heads. Angel shifts uncomfortably next to me and continually glances back and forth between the two of us as a worried expression further darkens his young face.

“What is this place?” I finally manage to say, breaking the tense silence. “And why the hell did you think I could open that…that thing?” Dex smiles an artificially apologetic smile and leans against the wall with an exhausted sigh.

“I’ll tell you what I can, but I think you’ll be disappointed.”

“I’ll take my chances. Talk.”

“It’ll make more sense if I show you. You up for a walk?”

“Depends. You planning on throwing me at any more electrified doors on the way?”

“Let’s go meet the boys.” Dex says, smiling and gesturing towards the door. “Maybe that will put things into some perspective for you.” I get to my feet slowly, my muscles creaking and groaning in protest. I stand for a moment, lightheaded from the effort, and realize with a sudden clarity that I’m hungry – ravenously, desperately, hungry. I haven’t eaten since my fall into the icy forest lake, and god knows how long ago that was. Two days? More? I push the thought away and steady myself on my feet. Answers first, then dinner…then I’m getting the hell out of here, no matter what Dex shows me.

“After you.” I say, returning his cold smile with a thin, chilly smile of my own. There’s no way I’m walking out that door first, no way I’m letting the larger boy get behind me again. Dex smiles as if he’s read my thoughts and pushes aside the blanket door with a flourish to let Angel exit ahead of him. Dex follows him out the door and into the soft glow of the light. I pull the blanket tight around my shoulders and follow them out in to the white.

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