CHAPTER SIX

This post contains the sixth 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 explains this to me as I stand in the doorway, frozen in place by the expansive winter scene stretching out in front of me. We stand at the edge of a clearing, set on the plateau of a high hill covered with a carpet of fresh snow. Behind us and down the hill, the blackness of the forest stretches out for an unbroken eternity into the bowl of an expansive valley that slopes down and away until it disappears into a cloud of fog that seems to swallow the forest whole. Opposite the forest, massive stone cliffs form a vertical black wall 100 feet high. A towering wall of water crashes and roars down the center of the rock wall, churning into the surface of a roughly circular body of water that’s nestled against the cliff base on the clearing floor. Thick white masses of ice cling to the outer edge of the wide strip of falling water like frozen barnacles on the side of some massive black ship. The roar of the falling water is like static, a deep rumbling white noise that I can feel through the soles of my boots, through the frozen ground.

            Squat stone huts scatter the treeless expanse of the clearing. Their walls are the flat gray concrete of the ruins I saw in the forest, each capped by a flat, irregular roof made of snow dusted tree branches and scraps of ancient looking wood. Faint tendrils of smoke drift upwards from unseen fires, escaping through low stone chimneys that poke through the odd thatched roofs like periscopes in some strange ocean of wood and snow. Tattered blankets, like the one draped around my shoulders, cover every door and sway slightly in the cold breeze that drifts through the clearing.

            A 10-foot-tall wooden wall, made of the black trunks of trees, rings the entire settlement. It cuts a rough semicircle, stretching from the edge of the forest, around the cluster of huts, until terminating into the black stone wall of the towering cliff face on either side of the small body of water.  The wall is broken only by a large wooden gate set opposite the cliff face, near the center of the curved edge of the barrier that faces the dark forest beyond. A heavy wooden bar is braced horizontally across the double doors of the gate, sealing the portal closed. A smaller wooden door, just large enough for a single person to enter or exit, is set into the side of the wall directly in front of us, down the slightly sloping hillside.

A handful of people busy themselves with various tasks, moving among the low concrete huts. Each person is draped in a haphazard combination of dark animal pelts and tattered woolen blankets, and I can make out that they’re all wearing jumpsuits, identical to my own, from the brief glimpses of navy-blue cloth and colored piping around stiff collars that protrude from furs and blankets alike. I notice that each boy is wearing heavy leather gloves and black combat boots identical to my own.

They shuffle through the snow like ursine ghosts, taking no notice of our small group. I notice that the building behind me is the only one set outside the tall wooden 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 small settlement as the boundaries of the clearing will allow. A thin dirt path, recently dug out of snow and earth, snakes out from the doorway at my back stand,  winding down towards the cluster of buildings at the other end of the clearing, the black-brown earth of the fresh trail standing out conspicuously against the unbroken white expanse of the surrounding snow.

            “We found this place on the first day, after we got away from the Clockers.” Dex takes in the small town and the human shapes moving below us inside the walls. His dark eyes shine with a mixture of pride and something like fatherly concern as he watches in the scene below. “I don’t know why the Clockers stopped chasing us. One moment, they were there, and then, they were just gone. When we finally stopped running, the first sound we heard was that waterfall.” Dex nods to the high cliff face that towers above the settlement.

It is a breathtaking sight, and I wonder to myself how many human eyes have seen what I’m looking at now. Despite my current predicament, I feel a sudden surge of gratitude that I’m able to witness this enormous monument to nature’s savage beauty with my own eyes.

“At first, we didn’t know what it was,” Dex continues. “But we followed the sound just the same, and it led us here. It’s like it was trying to protect us.” There is a reverence in his voice that surprises me. Dex doesn’t strike me as someone that believes in signs or benevolent deities. “When we saw the clearing and town, I knew that we’d been led here for a reason.” Dex pauses, a shadow crossing the strong, solid features of his face like a cloud drifting past the sun. “I’m even more convinced of that, today.”

            “It was like this when you found it?” I say as I sweep my eyes over the strange sight below us.

            “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 built the wall – we made this place what it is.”

            Dex’s face is unreadable. He avoids my eyes and continues to watch the movement of his people between the scattered huts and the tall wooden walls. Angel shuffles nervously in place, his gaze snapping between Me, Dex, and the forest that stretches out behind us. If I had to guess, I’d say he doesn’t like being outside the walls and so close to the forest. He grips his long wooden spear tightly, his white knuckles broadcasting he agitated state. Nervous agitation swirls around him like a cloud of flies.

            “Look – I don’t know where you came from, and for now, I don’t care.” Dex finally says, abruptly changing the subject. His deep voice regains its former ring of confidence and command. He locks his dark eyes onto mine. His expression has hardened into a rigid crag of threatening intensity. “All you need to know is this: If you do anything to hurt my boys, anything to jeopardize the safety of The Falls, I’ll toss your ass out the main gate myself. Clear?” Before I can answer, Dex turns and starts down the thin dirt path towards the wall. Angel jogs to catch up with the larger boy. He scrambles down the path, slowing only to aim a brief, apologetic glace over his shoulder at me.

I stand for a moment, watching the two boys 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 stranger boys inside their walls, or if should I take this chance to escape the forest. On the horizon, the first pink brush strokes of sunset paint a slight bruise where the jagged tree line meets the sky. It’ll be dark soon, and bitterly cold.

More importantly, if I’m ever going to get home, I need to understand this place. To find the way out, I need answers, but I doubt that I’ll 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.

Is it possible that this is the dream?

A sharp gust of wind on my face, and soft earthy aromas of dirt and pine make a strong argument in favor of the reality of the world around me. All my senses insist that, wherever this is, I’m actually, physically, here. My mind drifts back to Ghoul, and to the hallway filled with running cadets. The images are thin and insubstantial, spun from the gossamer threads of half-remembered dreams.

As if to underscore this conclusion, my stomach rumbles painfully, and as I linger with my thoughts by the low stone hut, a light snow begins to fall. Hunger finally moves my feet, pushing me down the 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 it 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, and my aching stomach grumbles loudly beneath my clothes. 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 the massive wooden wall. 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. They wait several feet from the door, standing in a rough semicircle to block further entry into the snow-covered clearing. 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 seems to blend in with the winter scene around us. Hawk and the blonde hold crude metal swords that are hardly 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 memory. 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. It’s not safe.”

            “It’s worth the risk. We were meant to find him.” Dex says, his voice confident and firm. Hawk’s small retinue exchange weary looks, unconvinced by the older boy’s conviction. “I still believe that he could be the key.” I sense something hidden beneath the surface of this exchange, something coded in the tension that hangs in the air along with the older boy’s words. Hawk furrows his brow, his concerned gaze directed at Dex. The two boys stare each other down, some silent struggle playing out in the empty space between their grim, stoic faces.

            “The gate nearly killed him! What more do you need to know?” Hawk says, concern written across the sharp features of his young face. “He’s not special. He just like us.”

            “In that case, I’d say he belongs inside the walls…just like us.” Dex smiles, pleased with the verbal trap he’s just sprung on the younger boy. Hawk looks at Dex with disbelief and a cold, brooding anger. He 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, he could be one of them!” Dex slaps the sword aside with a lightning fast motion, grabbing 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?” Dex’s face is inches from the pale boy’s face, his voice the cold whisper of a blade being dragged across ice. “We don’t have time for this…get back to your section.” 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 lowers his sword instinctively and takes his own step backwards and away from the furious larger boy. “We have more than enough enemies today,” Dex growls after him. “we can’t afford any more. Go make sure everyone is ready.”

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.” He snaps his long, slender fingers, turns on the heel of his black combat boot, and jogs away across the clearing as both spear-carrying boys hurrying 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.

“Tell me about it.” Dex says with another of his cold, humorless laughs. I find myself wondering if he has any other kind, or if there is anything in this place worth spending it on.

A young cadet with unkempt red hair and a pale freckled face runs toward us. He’s carrying two of the crude scrap metal swords, one makeshift scabbard in each of his slender hands. He slides to a stop in front of Dex, his bright green eyes sparkling with excitement. Sweat beads on the freckled skin of this forehead. His jaw is square, and busy red eyebrows threaten to overwhelm his clear, jade eyes from their perch above. He flashes a wide smile at me, then turns his attention to my companion.

 Dex accepts the pair of sheathed swords, thanks the friendly ginger boy, then waves him away, saying something about time being short. The cadet’s tangled mop of red hair bobs and bounces in time with the rough-looking bow and the arrow-stuffed quiver slung across his back. As he moves away from us at a run, his black boots throw up clumps of snow as he hurries towards the main gate.

The settlement buzzes with activity. Cadets no older than I (many considerably younger) hurry back and forth between huts and the high wooden walls, each face a variation on a common theme of grim determination, shot through with fear.  Boys carry armloads of familiar wooden spears to the base of the wall, delivering them to other boys, who then hand the spears up to other cadets standing on a thin wooden platform set halfway between the ground and the sharpened points at top of the wall. The platform runs along the entire length of the wall, and cadets with wooden bows and quivers stuffed full of vicious looking arrows are stationed every 10 feet, their wide eyes scanning the forest and the sky with manic expressions somewhere between fear and anticipation. On the ground, two large boys struggle to carry either side of a huge log up to the main gate. They drop the heavy column of wood to the right of the large double doors with a deep, ground shaking thud, then turn and hurry back the way they came.

A small red-haired boy, the same kid that delivered the pair of swords to Dex minutes before, emerges from a small hut near the wall, holding a sputtering wooden torch in front of his slight body. His arm is straight, shaking slightly as he strains to keep the flames as far away from himself as the length of this arm with allow. Flames dance and sway at the end of the torch, which looks like it’s been made by wrapping a thick tree branch with a bulbous knot of cloth, the fabric clearly soaked in some kind of flammable liquid. Small droplets of liquid flame drip from the burning tip of the torch, fizzling out as they hit the ground and leaving tiny melted holes in the snow as the red-headed torch bearer hurries towards the wall.  

My mind flashes back to being rescued in the dark woods beyond the frozen pond – to the jar full of unfamiliar flammable liquid Dex hurled at the monster in the trees, likely saving my life in the process.  I wonder what the cloudy amber liquid might be, and where they could possibly be finding it in this primitive realm of swords and spears and high wooden walls.

The ginger torchbearer reaches the wall and hands the torch up to one of the archers stationed along the interior platform. The archer, an olive-skinned cadet with short dark hair, takes the torch from the younger boy, then uses the flames to ignite his own torch, which is wedged at angle, jammed into a gap between the thick logs that make up the individual slats of the settlement wall. Once the archer’s torch is burning on its own, the small flame dancing and throwing shadows against the dark wood of the wall, he passes the torch to the archer to his right, who repeats the process before handing the torch to the next archer in the line. As I watch, a ring of torchlight winks steadily to life along the inner surface of the wall as the arrow-lighting torch is passed along the entire length of the barrier, lighting the grim faces of the young archers in a warm orange glow.

 A feeling like déjà vu dislodges itself from the empty void of my memory, crashing into the empty hallways of my mind like an avalanche down a mountainside. They’re preparing for battle, I’m suddenly sure of it, and for a brief, vertigo inducing second, I’m equally sure that I’ve witnessed this scene before. The faces of the archers lit by dancing flames, the groups of cadets ferrying spears and swords to the base of the wall; all of it takes on a surreal, shimmering unreality, like the illusive threads of a fading dream in the moments just after waking. The feeling passes as quickly as it came on, reality snapping back into sharp focus like an unseen lens has been dialed back into place.

“What’s going on, Dex? Why is everyone…doing whatever it is that they’re doing?” I say, giving voice to the creeping tension climbing up my spine like some charge-spitting lattice of living wires. Dex tosses a rough metal sword in my direction, still secured inside a straight wooden scabbard. I catch it easily in my right hand. I make a mental note that I must be right-handed. Good to know, I guess. The scabbard is cold against the bare flesh of my hand.

The weapons is clearly handmade, evidently by someone with only a passing familiarity with ancient edged weapons. A thick leather strap is attached to the scabbard in two places along its length, and the hilt of the sword is wrapped with thin leather strips, worn smooth and flat by what I assume must be the hands of the sword’s previous wielders. I grip the hilt in my hand – my right hand – and draw the blade out of the scabbard slowly. The sword is as long as my forearm and a single sharp edge runs along one side of the grey length of the weapon. The other side is flat and blunt, the metal a quarter-inch thick. The weapon comes to a point in a sharpened 45-degree angle at the tip. The edge looks like it has been recently sharpened, but I can still make out small nicks and rough triangular gouges along the killing edge that the unknown swordsmith hasn’t been able to grind out or sharpen away. This sword has been used, likely against another, similar blade.

“It’s delivery day.” Dex says in a matter-of-fact tone, as if this bit of information tells me everything I need to know. He pulls the long, leather strap of his sword scabbard over his shoulder and cinches it tight around his body in a diagonal line so the sheathed sword lays flat against the fur covering his broad back. The leather-wrapped hilt protrudes from behind his left shoulder like the pointing finger of a skeletal hand. Dex is right-handed too, I guess. Also, good to know. “Put that chopper on. You’re going to need it.”

“What the hell is ‘delivery day?’” I loop the leather strap around my body, imitating the over-the-shoulder placement Dex seems to prefer, so the that the hilt hovers slightly behind my head on my left. I cinch the strap tight around my body, then draw the sword out of the scabbard experimentally. The blade is heavy and surprisingly well balanced. I’m equally surprised by how good – and how familiar – the primitive weapon feels in my hand.

“There’s a lot I haven’t explained about this place. Mostly because, until you see it, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.” Dex says as he watches me turn the blade over in my hand. Snowflakes land on the dull grey metal of the blade. They melt quickly, sending individual drops of moisture running down the length of the blade in thin, glistening lines. “Just stay close, and don’t get killed. I’ll tell you everything I know once we’re on the other side.”

“On the other side of what?” I slide the sword back into the sheath on my back with some difficulty, missing the scabbard twice before finally guiding the blade home. I can feel Dex watching me, concerned. On the horizon, the first crimson and pink hues of sunset start to creep into the flat gray sky. “And what do you mean ‘don’t get killed’? Can you please tell me what the hell is goin…” Dex raises a hand, cutting me off midsentence.

“Just stay close. Come on.” The older boy turns and jogs towards the main gate, leaving me behind.

“Come on, Asher.” My heart skips a beat, startled by the sound of Angel’s voice from behind me. I’d completely forgotten he was there. I wonder, silently, if this happens often to the soft-spoken cadet. “It gets better. I promise. Now, come on, It’s almost time.” Angel flashes his childlike smile, pats me amicably on the shoulder, and runs past me to catch up with Dex. Grudgingly, I force myself to jog after the two boys, my stomach continuing to grumble as I hurry to catch up.

            Dex, Angel, and I are standing on the archer’s platform, a 4-foot-wide wooden ledge attached to the inside of the settlement wall. From our spot, directly above the main gate, the forest stretches out like a mottled black and white tapestry. The sun is sinking behind the far rim of the bowl-shaped forest, painting the scattered cloud cover in watercolor bruises of reds, yellows, pinks, and oranges. The snow-crusted treetops catch the pink hues of the evening light, reflecting the breathtaking palate in the sky in muted tones. long shadows creep across the clearing floor, thrown by the cluster of buildings huddled around the waterfall, inside the tall wooden walls.

            Flickering smudges of orange light, cast by the ring of archer’s small torches, dance and sway in the evening air. The line of flickering torchlight runs the entire length of the settlement wall. Two larger torches, made from chopped sections of what looks like a thin tree from the forest below, sputter and hiss from their places atop the large square section of wall that makes up the reinforced main gate. The orange glow of their larger flames bathes the three of us in a medieval collage of firelight and shifting shadows, shadows that deepen with every passing moment as the blood red disc of the sun continues to sink beneath the far horizon.  

            We’ve been standing on the wooden platform for the better part of two hours. Dex has barely spoken since we climbed the wooden ladder up from the clearing floor. Despite my constant, repetitive questions, the broad-shouldered cadet has remained tight-lipped, refusing to say a word about the anachronistic military drama playing out around us. His attention is focused elsewhere, somewhere beyond the wall, his eyes searching the rose-hued skyline with hawk-like intensity. Even Angel waves away my questions, looking irritated by the interruption as he checks and double-checks his short wooden bow, and counts (and recounts) the small forest of arrows protruding from the end of a black metal cylinder set into the platform floor. I notice that, although the short bow looks like it was constructed by hand, the arrows are a different story. The arrows look mass produced. The shaft of each identical arrow is long and thin, made of brushed black aluminum, fletched at the tail end by three rounded half-triangles of reflective black plastic. When the Angel removes an arrow from the quiver at his feet to test the draw of his wooden bow, I can clearly see a thin triangle of polished, razor sharp metal attached to the business end of the shaft. When I ask Angel where the modern-looking arrows came from, he ignores me and continues fussing over his archer’s station.

            A small group of cadets has gathered on the snowy clearing floor behind us. Each is wearing one of the metal swords on their backs in the same style as my own. The thick leather straps crossing each chest look like the ceremonial sashes of some minimalist religious order. The small group of young men stand facing the boy who I now know is named Snow. The boy with the white-blond hair is pacing back and forth in front of them slowly, his ice-blue eyes shine with intensity as he delivers a pre-battle pep talk to prepare his men.

What, I wonder, is he preparing them for? The entire population of this living anachronism is keyed up, nervous anticipation crackling between the young cadets like static electricity before a thunderstorm. Something is coming, some impending…thing, but thanks to the reticence of my new companions, I still have no idea what that thing may be. The sword strapped to my back makes a persuasive argument that, whatever is coming, these cadets find it a lot more terrifying that the prospect of arming the stranger in their midst.

 The more I see of this place, the more confused I get. The swords and spears and wooden battlements all feel out of place, clashing with my singular clear memory of what seemed like a technologically advanced reality. I wonder again which reality is genuine, and which is the dream. I survey my surroundings again and realize that one thing is excruciatingly real: the fear.  The fear etched on the Dex’s dark features is deep and genuine, its dark contours mirrored in each face standing guard along the wooden battlements. The churning fear in my own stomach, with its sharp edges and rapidly expanding tendrils, is also painfully real, as is my constant struggle to keep it at bay, stifled and crammed into some secure, dark place in my chest. A new possibility snaps into my mind with a sharp crack, causing the fear-thing to struggle fiercely against its bonds with renewed strength and maniac intensity.

What if neither place is real?

            A chorus of shouts erupt from various spots along the wall, snapping me out of my introspection before I can follow the chain of my thoughts any further. I scan the battlements for the source of the sound and see every pair of eyes turned upwards, towards the gradually darkening sky of steadily oncoming sunset. A black speck, it’s shape impossible to determine at this distance, has appeared on the southern horizon, just above the jagged black teeth of the treetops where the forest meets the sky. All eyes are glued to this new aerial intruder as it moves smoothly across the reddening sky, heading directly towards us.

A new sound accompanies the unidentified dark shape, gliding towards the falls from the south, far across the negative space ocean of the treetops. At first, I can barely hear the anything at all, a whisper barely audible above the persistent crash and rumble of the waterfall at the center of the clearing. Then the sound grows in volume and intensity, swallowing up the sounds of the clearing and the falling water as it draws closer. The oncoming sound is a deep rumble, a dense droning, shot through with strange harmonics, like the whirling chaotic buzz of a million agitated hornets. A high-pitched mechanical whine slices through the dense mid-tone of the steadily approaching sound, riding atop the oncoming thunder like a skeletal rider astride a charging horse. The sound is like a scream loosed from the breaking heart at the center of the world.

“Get ready!” Dex’s voice thunders above the cacophonous symphony of the waterfall at our back and the ominous sound stalking towards us through the red winter sky. “Keep your eyes on your quadrants, ground team be ready!” His voice is clear and loud, commanding and reassuring in equal measure. I can see it in the eyes of the boys all around me, as they stand ready along the length of the wall and in small clumps on the clearing floor. I get a sudden sense that Dex has been doing this for a very long time, far longer than six months. The way that these boys look to him to reinforce their own strength is so practiced, the symbiosis so natural, that it feels like the product of years – not months. The fatigue on the older boy’s face makes so much more sense now. It can’t be an easy weight to carry.

The shape in the southern sky is larger now, sliding towards us like it’s following the arrow-straight course of some unseen cable. The aircraft – the unfamiliar word seems to materialize in my head instantly, as soon as the object begins to come into clearer focus – has a long, black body (a fuselage?) that vaguely resembles a whale, or some other oceangoing creature in its contoured lines, and in the way the nose of the craft ends in a blunt, snout-like point. The body of the aircraft tapers gradually up from the roughly conical nose into a taller dorsal section, while the underside of the craft is a uniformly flat surface from nose to tail. At the opposite end, the tail splits into a pair of thin stabilizer fins that angle away from the flat black body of the craft in crisp “v”. A pulsing blue glow emanates from the space between the angular tail fins, casting a shimmering, undersea glow along the back half of the aircraft as it glides towards us. On either side of the streamlined black body, a pair of smaller cylinders, each about a third the length of the main craft’s body, are attached to flat metal struts that protrude out from the aircraft’s metallic skin. Each cylinder lies horizontal, parallel with flat belly of the aircraft, and shimmering heat distortions, like tiny localized mirages, obscure small sections of the craft directly underneath the rear of each cylindrical pod.

            I watch the oncoming aircraft racing towards us, my mind trying to make sense of what my eyes are seeing, while a tiny voice in the back of my head insists that there’s something familiar about the dark shape skimming along the treetops beyond the wall, picking up speed as it accelerates toward us. All around me, archers are knocking arrows to bow strings, their knuckles white as they grip their bows tight, eyes never leaving the approaching object.

            “What is it?” I shout over the oppressive wall of noise, trying to get Dex’s attention. The older boy ignores me, his eyes never leaving the airborne intruder as it skims the white treetops of the forest valley on its path towards us. The aircraft is closer now, only a few hundred yards away. Its speed is constant, relentless, and for a moment, it looks like its flight path will take it directly into the gate at full speed, slamming into the wooden wall like a missile and showering the forest and clearing alike with shattered wood and broken bodies.

            “5 seconds!” Dex screams above the din, his voice clear and strong against the chaos of the scene around me. Instinctively, I reach behind my head and draw the crude sword out of its scabbard with a clumsy, halting motion. I grip the hilt of the sword tight and will my hand not to shake. I fail miserably.

            “Fangs out!” Snow screams at his small retinue of cadets standing below us in front of the sealed main gate. The small cluster of boys toss off their heavy furs and draw their blades in unison. A pair of huge boys grab either side of the bracing bar that holds the huge wooden gate closed. Snow gives the word, and the two young giants heave the bar up and away from the gate, then drop it with a heavy thud several yards away from the now unblocked wooden doors.

The craft is dangerously close, under a hundred yards away now. The archers hold their fire. The sound of the engines is deafening, and the black bulk of the fuselage is a sharp-edged void against the red and yellow sky sunset sky. Without warning, the aircraft comes to an abrupt halt 50 yards from the settlement, seeming to bounce to a stop as if it’s reached the end of an unseen tether. Again, to my surprise, the archers hold their fire. It hovers low above the tops of the trees, which bend and whip away from some invisible engine wash like blades of grass in a high wind. I notice that the four cylinders on either side of the smooth black body have rotated to face the forest canopy and wager that whatever force keeps the thing aloft must be coming from the ends of those strange appendages.

            THRUST PODS. The terms slams into the front of my mind with dizzying force, and for a moment, I screw my eyes shut tightly and fight the urge to pass out. In my mind’s eye, I see the strange flying machine, but there’s something different about it. It rotates in my mind, the sharp lines and angles of the craft drawn in the translucent blue lines of the half-remembered holodisplay from my memories. As I watch, more words flood into my head, attaching themselves to various features of the aircraft via several thin red holodisplay lines.

            The four cylinders attached on either side of the fuselage are labeled ‘THRUST PODS’, the blue light pulsing between the stabilizer fins is the ‘MAIN DRIVE’, the nose of the craft is labeled ‘MAIN SENSOR PACKAGE / AI PILOT SUITE’. My mind seems to crackle and struggle against the new vocabulary as even more lines and undecipherable labels appear on top of the ghostly blue wireframe. I realize that I understand the language of the strange words, but the meaning of each strange formation of letters seems to dance slightly out of reach, taunting me from beyond the edge of my own shrouded memories. I can’t shake the intense feeling that I should know what each of the alien phrases means – but I don’t. At once, the translucent forest of labels and thin blue lines shimmer out of existence, replaced by a block of words that appear in bold, blue capitals beneath the still turning wireframe:

MFR: NORTHROP-ATOMICS

CLASS: MQ-X HEAVY DRONE

NAME: SHRIKE

            “Doors!” I snap open my eyes at the sound of Dex’s booming voice. The heavy drone – apparently named ‘Shrike’ – hasn’t moved. It hovers, menacing and still, 50 yards in front of the main gate like a massive black hummingbird, the blast from its 4 thrust pods continually kicking up swirling clouds of snow and white vapor as it holds position 20 feet above the trees. As I watch, a large rectangular section of the fuselage slides open smoothly and without a sound, revealing a red lit interior space festooned with all manner of tubes, wires, and blinking electronic lights that seem to pulse and flicker randomly. As I watch, a square black crate, nearly the size of the newly opened section of fuselage, slides into place in the open doorway of the hovering drone. The light inside the cavity snaps from red to green and the crate abruptly jolts towards the open door, sliding as if on rails towards the edge of the glowing cavity and towards empty forest air beyond.

“Doors, now!” Dex screams from somewhere beside me. I feel the platform beneath my feet vibrate as the two large cadets that had unlocked the main gate swing the massive wooden doors open, the heavy bulk of the doors creaking loudly inwards, opening a portal in the battlements that leads out and into the forest.

             The Shrike drone rocks slightly to one side, angling its open doorway down towards the treetops and the obscured forest floor beneath. The perfectly square black crate slides further towards the lip of the cargo hold, seems to pause for the briefest of moments, then tumbles out the gaping green portal, crashing through the snow-covered canopy and down towards the darkness of the forest floor below in a tangle of snapping branches and billowing clouds of disturbed snow. 

Snow and his band of grim-faced cadets howl in unison on the clearing floor, their battle cry challenging with the deafening roar of the heavy drone engines in the deepening twilight of the evening air. Swords raised, they charge out the open main gate towards the tree line as the Shrike MQ-X heavy drone swings around in a single smooth motion and rockets back the way it came at impossible speed, blue light pulsing in blinding bursts from between its v-shaped stabilizer fins as it recedes from view.

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