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.

I spend the next few weeks settling into life at The Falls. After the excitement of my first couple of days, the next few weeks are boring by comparison. On the first day, Dex introduces me to a handful of other boys, all about the same age as I am, and since then, I’ve made a point of getting to know as many of the other residents of The Falls as I can. In reality, I couldn’t care less about befriending this odd tribe of stranded teenagers, but if I can find someone I recognize (or that recognizes me) in the small population, it might help me figure out what the hell happened to my own memories – and if I’m very very lucky, some way to get them back.

It becomes clear right away that there isn’t going to be an easy fix to my memory problem. Each new boy that I meet remembers even less than I do, and no one has any memory of me at all. Plus, thanks to Dex’s inclusion of me in his bizarre set of quasi-religious beliefs about this place (beliefs very few of the boys from The Falls seem to share), most of the population gives me a wide berth, like I’m cursed or carrying a highly contagious disease. The solitude suits me fine, but the dead ends are infinitely frustrating. On the upside, the fewer people around me, the easier it will be to make my escape when the time comes.

   As days go by, I make a conspicuous effort to settle into the rhythm of life at The Falls. I try and pitch in wherever I can, helping with the mundane, day-to-day tasks of keeping the settlement running while trying to learn as much as I can about The Falls and, more importantly, about the strange world we seem to be trapped in.

So far, all I’ve been able to nail down with any certainty is that no one has any idea where we are, how we got here, or why we’ve been imprisoned in this twisted fairy tale world of perpetual winter (apparently it’s been winter for the past 6 months, and there’s exactly zero evidence that this is going change anytime soon.) I’m not able to piece together much about Dex’s odd beliefs, but I am able to learn is that Dex is convinced that we’re all here for a reason, and that there’s some unseen hand at work behind…well, everything that happens here. Most of the residents of The Falls think he’s starting to lose his mind, but he keeps them safe, so they dismiss it as an endearing eccentricity to be overlooked.

Even so, it’s clear that Dex is the undisputed leader, and that Hawk and Snow (the pale boy I met on my first day inside the walls) are his right-hand guys. Hawk spends most of his time alone, outside the walls, doing god-knows-what, and Snow is never out of shouting distance from the stoic, grim-faced leader of the tribe. The boys I talk to are surprisingly tight-lipped about how this trio ascended to their positions of leadership, piquing my interest in whatever story is hiding underneath that silence. From my own experience with Dex and his lieutenants, I’d bet everything I have (which is nothing at all, I realize grimly) that it involves some flavor of violent takeover.

When I ask around about the monsters in the woods – the Clockers – the boys have even less to say. Even speaking the name of the grotesque human-but-not-human creatures seems to terrify these guys, like repeating the name will somehow summon the monsters from whatever dank lair they conceal themselves in whenever they’re not snatching unsuspecting cadets from the woods to turn into Clocker snacks. From the scraps of information I am able to extract from the more talkative Lost Boys (that’s what they call themselves. I guess Children of The Falls was too unwieldy a title) I’m able to piece together the broad strokes of story behind their crippling fear of the creatures in the woods.

There used to be more Lost Boys – a lot more. On what they refer to in hushed tones as arrival day, about a hundred confused teenage boys woke up together somewhere in the middle of the forest. They were terrified, cold, and had zero memory of how they got there or who they were. All they had were the clothes on their backs and empty spaces where their memories used to be. Apparently, while they were arguing about what to do next, a pack of Clockers found them. They boys that related the story to me were understandably reluctant to dwell on the details about what came next, but they told me enough to paint a gruesome picture of the massacre that ensued. Long story short, half escaped – half didn’t.  

“To this day,” a helpful boy with a shaved head had told me in a conspiratorial whisper, “none of the missing have been found.” The search parties that Dex sent out in the days following their discovery of The Falls couldn’t find any trace of their missing friends – no bodies, no blood, nothing. They’re all just missing (hence the name, I guess), and the 48 boys currently calling The Falls home are all that’s left of the original group of over a hundred.

“It sounds like a ghost story.” I’d said, and then instantly regretted the casual, flippant way the words sounded once they were out of my mouth. The boy with the shaved head turned a trembling, clammy shade of white, and for a moment, I was afraid that I’d inadvertently made this boy so furious that he’d lost the power of speech. When he eventually replied, I realized I had misread the emotional storm that had overtaken him completely – he wasn’t angry; he was terrified.

“We don’t talk about the…Ghosts.”  He said, whispering the last word so quietly that I had barely been able to make it out. I remember that Dex had mentioned the Ghosts on my first day here, but I’d just assumed he was speaking figuratively. I guess I was wrong. “The only thing worse than the Clockers are the Ghosts. Pray you never see one…because if you do, it’ll be the last thing you ever see.”

I tried to get him to elaborate, but he shook his head furiously and then scurried away, glancing nervously around him as he went, like he was afraid one of these “Ghosts” would materialize behind him at any moment to drag him away. I watched him go in bewildered silence, wondering how many more mysteries would be placed in my path as I struggle to understand this place and to find a way home – if I can ever remember where home is.

I hardly see Dex or Hawk at all during the first few weeks at The Falls. Occasionally, the heavy main gate would creak open around sunset and Hawk would stalk back inside the walls, filthy and tired, returning from whatever strange mission he’d be on in the forest beyond the barricade. The one time I’d gathered up the courage to ask him what he’d been doing out there, alone in the woods, he’d slammed me against the wall hard enough to rattle my teeth and explode stars in front of my eyes. He hadn’t said a word, but I got the message clear enough – mind your own business, or else. I’ve given him a wide berth ever since.

I’ve seen Dex even less. The boys preparing meals next to me in the kitchen hut or shoveling snow from the spaces between the huts would whisper about the steadily growing amount of time Dex spends in the cavern behind the waterfall (apparently, this is where he’d tried to feed me to the black door on my first day at The Falls). They had all manner of theories about what he did in there, ranging from hatching secret escape plans to some kind of bizarre Clocker worship, but no one really knew what their increasingly absent leader was up to. Even so, I could tell that these boys trusted Dex with their lives, and when push came to shove, they’d follow him wherever he led.  

I learn that the boys of The Falls are arranged into two distinct groups: The Fighters and The Fixers. Fixers, the largest of the two segments of the population by a wide margin, handle the day-to-day duties at The Falls. They prepare the food, mend clothes, make repairs to the walls and to the small stone huts we all live and work in, and generally take care of life within the walls.

The Fighters are different. They’re a much smaller group, probably half as many cadets as The Fixers, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for in bravado and a fearless, confident swagger. The Fighters are made up of the largest, toughest, most muscular Lost Boys, and while the rest of the camp is busy keeping things running, The Fighters spend all day training to fight with spears, swords, and their bare hands. They keep to themselves, rarely interacting with anyone outside their tightknit ranks, and the rest of the camp seems to give them a wide berth, like they’re a pack of dangerous animals that could turn on them at any time. The Fighters eat together, train and patrol the walls together, and even bunk together in a cluster of huts at the far end of the settlement, nearest the open circle of ground they use to spar and train from sunup to sunset. Unlike The Fixers, The Fighters are always armed. Some carry long wooden spears or pairs of short, wicked-looking knives, but the majority wear crude metal swords in scabbards strapped to their backs. I keep my distance as well, but watch them and their leader, the pale boy I’ve come know as Snow, as they go about their daily martial routine.

If I’m going to get out of this place, I’m going to need to be armed – and all the weapons are in the hands of The Fighters or locked up in the armory. Since stealing a weapon is out of the question – The Fighters have armed guards stationed at the armory and their barracks night and day – I realize I only have one choice: I need to become one of them – a Fighter. Then, all I’ll have to do is steal food and supplies from the storeroom, find a way through the wall, and wait for the right moment. Yeah – easy as pie.

For the time being, I’m stuck being a Fixer. I keep my head down, my ears open, and I wait for my chance to prove that I’m Fighter material. Something tells me I may be in for a long wait.

            I’ve been at The Falls for three weeks, working with The Fixers and getting to know my surroundings as best I can. I keep to myself, trying to maintain a low profile as I go about my daily duties, but little by little, I get to know the boys around me, especially the small group in the sleeping hut Dex assigns me to on my first day inside the walls.

            I share the cramped stone hut with four other teenage boys.

There’s Frog, a portly kid with so many freckles that his face looks like a map of the milky way galaxy. He has large, wet eyes (the feature that earned him his unfortunate name), and a round face that’s constantly splitting into an easy, infectious smile whenever his companions are joking around – even though the jokes are often at his expense. He speaks with a slight lisp and seems to look up to the other boys in the hut with the wide eyes of a loyal little brother.

Bones, on the other hand, is a rail-thin, quiet boy with a gaunt face and sunken cheeks that make him look much older than his 16 or so years. While the rest of the boys in our barracks joke and horse about in the few hours we’re not working with the other Fixers, Bones sits cross legged on his thin bedroll, watching them with a small wan smile, like some tiny skeletal scientist studying the play patterns of a particularly rambunctious breed of rodent. He’s soft-spoken and timid, but a sharp intellect shines out from behind his brown eyes, and I wonder what’s going on inside his head in those long moments of silent observation.

Stilts is tall – very tall – and lean. He has a wide, bright smile that’s always plastered across his thin, animated face, and hazel eyes that sparkle impishly in the instant before he cracks another in the constant stream of jokes, jabs, and good-natured ribbings constantly pouring from his mouth. He seems to have an almost pathological aversion to taking anything seriously, and despite myself, I find that I genuinely enjoy his company. I hadn’t been inside our shared hut more than a minute, on my first night at The Falls,  before he’d draped a slender arm around my shoulders and welcomed me to the group with the first of what would turn out to be a long string of jokes at my expense.

The De Facto leader of the small group of misfits is a strikingly handsome, broad-shouldered boy named Ugly. Upon first meeting him, I was sure he was in the wrong hut, and that he must have gotten lost on his way to The Fighter barracks on the other side of the settlement. One evening, while Ugly is away from our hut, Stretch reveals that our good looking companion got the name from Snow while he was attempting to join the ranks of The Fighters, shortly after the group had arrived at The Falls. As Stretch told it, Ugly was so useless with a blade in the grueling tryout session, that Snow just shook his head and called the whole performance “Ugly. Just ugly as hell.” After that, Ugly was kicked back to The Fixers, and the name just stuck.

 Over the past three weeks, this small group of misfits has introduced me to life at The Falls. They give me a tour of the settlement, pointing out the important landmarks – the armory where an array of crude hand weapons are stored and maintained, the cluster of barracks each group calls home, the kitchen and the storehouses for food, the depot where supplies are kept, and the mysterious cave lurking behind the falls.   

They explain that The Fixers are arranged into two shifts – A shift and B shift – so work can be divided evenly among the 30 or so Fixers. A Shift is made up of the best and the brightest of The Fixer population (as determined by Dex and the rest of the leadership), and as such they get the most sought-after Fixer jobs, like storehouse detail, structure repairs, and upkeep of the furs and uniforms each Lost Boy wears.

B shift (or, bullshit shift, as The Fighters and the cruelest members of A shift are fond of calling them) are tasked with less glamorous camp duties. Among other unpleasant tasks, B shift makes all the tribe’s meals, shovels away the endless carpet of snow that accumulates during the nightly snowfall, and cleans out the primitive trench latrines at the far end of the settlement.  

My four new companions and I are members of B shift.

Today my bunkmates and I are on shovel duty, which consists of removing the fresh drifts of snow from around the various huts and from the flat open areas inside the walls using crudely constructed snow shovels. We then pile the snow against the base of the wooden walls in large piles that stretch halfway up the battlements by the time we’re finished. I don’t mind the work since it gives my mind time to drift towards ever more complex and unrealistic escape plans, but the rest of my small circle of bunkmates hate it almost as much as latrine duty.

“Tell it again, Crash!” Frog says, each word separated by ragged, labored breaths as he fills the scoop of his shovel with a heaping pile of snow. His forehead is moist with sweat from the effort, and his heavy fur cloak lays in a dark pile on the ground next to him.

“Come on, Frog.” I reply in between my own exhausted breaths. “I’ve told it a hundred times. What’s the point?”

“Just once more.” Frog says in a pleading voice. “Pleeeeease?”

“Don’t be a dick, Crash.” Ugly interjects as one of his megawatt smiles spread across his chiseled, impossibly symmetrical face. “Just tell it again. It’s Frog’s favorite, and you know he’ll just cry until you do.”

“That’s definitely true.” Stretch says with a laugh, tossing a jovial elbow into Frog’s ribs as he does. Frog glowers back at him with an expression that was probably intended to be menacing, but just comes off as comical on his round, freckled face.

“Fine.” I say, relenting with a heavy sigh as I toss the heap of snow covering my shovel blade against the tall wooden barricade. “But this is the last goddamn time.” Frog lets out an excited whoop that earns him a withering look from a passing group of A shift Fixers, then he hurries after me as I stomp back towards last small section of un-shoveled snow. Bones and Ugly follow close behind, careful to stay within earshot as I recount, for what feels like the hundredth time since falling in with this strange crew, my one and only memory of the outside world.

I’m barely 10 words into my threadbare tale when a trio of sneering Fighters stalk across the newly shoveled yard to surround the five of us like wolves circling prey. The muscular boys snicker and laugh as they watch Bones and Frog struggle with heavy loads of snow. The Fighters eyes shine hungrily, like beasts out for blood, sending a chill up my spine like a silent alarm has been tripped inside my head. The hairs stand up on the back of my neck and I immediately shut my mouth mid-sentence as these grinning teenage jackals continue to circle us slowly.

“Don’t stop on our account, bullshit shift.” The tallest, cruelest looking of the trio of Fighters says with a predictable (but still, altogether infuriating) sneer. “We heard Crash tells one hell of a story, right boys?” His companions vomit exaggerated guffaws of artificial laughter at the joke. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise further as a warm knot of anger flares to life in my chest. I ball my hands into fists at my sides, but I hold my ground in brooding silence. My plan to escape this frozen place still relies on joining the Fighters, and something tells me they’ll frown upon an applicant that’s beaten down a group of their brothers in arms.

“What’s wrong, Crash? Performance anxiety? Clocker got your tongue?” Says the shortest of the three. What the smirking Fighter lacks in height, he makes up in sheer, muscular girth. His biceps are the size of my thigh and his chest ripples with muscles, even through his midnight blue uniform. Even so, the top of his shaved head only comes up my chin. “Come on, tell us all about the magical fairy world you came from.” He says as he looks back and forth between his companions to make sure they’re enjoying his casual cruelty. I smile my most corrosive, condescending smile as I make a show of tilting my head down so I can look directly into his beady little pig eyes.

“Oh, I’m Sorry,” I say in the friendliest tone as I can muster. “Can you repeat that, friend? I couldn’t hear you all the way up here.” Frog begins to laugh, but then quickly stifles the sound with a shakily raised hand. A mortified look spreads across his round face. He turns a deep shade of red as it dawns on him what he’s done and takes a terrified step backwards, shaking his head in a panic as he tries to distance himself from the furious fireplug of a boy burning holes in his chest with his beady, narrowed eyes.

“What the hell are you laughing at, lard-ass?” Beady Eyes screams at Frog with a sudden eruption of childlike fury that seems to surprise even his Fighter companions. For a moment, I’m sure he’s going to burst into tears, and I find myself fighting back an irrational giggle of my own. Frog is frozen in terror, mouth open and working like a fish that’s been yanked from a lake without warning. Beady Eyes grabs the front of Frog’s uniform jacket and yanks him forward until their faces are only inches apart. A pitiful, frightened squeak escapes Frog’s lips and his eyes are instantly shrink wrapped in terrified, panicked tears.

            “Let him go.” Ugly says in the most menacing tone he can muster as she takes a threatening step towards his struggling friend. Stilts and Bones stare at him in disbelief, terror about what form of retribution the Fighters will rain down on our small group written across their pale features like blinking neon signs.

            “Shut up, washout.” The tall Fighter says as he kicks Ugly’s feet out from under him with a quick, perfectly executed sweep of his muscular leg. Ugly crashes to the ground with a grunt, and when he tries to rise and face his attacker, the tall Fighter smashes him back into the cold ground with a single, brutal stomp to the middle of his back. He chokes out a single wet sob and lays still, pinned in place by the weight of the tall Fighter’s foot on his back and by his own humiliation and shame.

            Frog’s wide, pleading eyes meet mine as Beady Eyes continues shaking him roughly and calling him names. My arms and legs start to tingle as I feel the growing knot of anger expand in my chest like dying star. Strangers or not, these boys have been kind to me – they’ve treated me like one of their own – and I can’t let these smirking, self-assured bullies treat them like this. Before I even realize what I’m doing, my snow shovel is in my hands and I’m swing it as hard as I can at the back of the short Fighter’s head. There is a satisfying crack and Beady Eyes crumples to the ground, unconscious. My body feels strange – like it’s running on autopilot, and I’m just along for the ride. I spin just in time to dodge a savage punch from the tall Fighter that sends him sprawling past me. The third boy rushes me wildly like a bull charging at a red cape. I drop to the ground before he can reach me and land a single straight kick upwards and into his unprotected groin that sends him crashing to the ground in a fit of retching and wet, mewling moans.

            “You’re going to die for this, asshole!” The tall fighter screams as he rushes me from behind. Before I can leap out of the way, he crashes into me like a battering ram and we tumble to the ground in a kicking, flailing heap of fists and teeth and violence. I smash my forehead into the bridge of his nose and a thick red gout of blood erupts across his face like a crimson geyser, staining my face and the snow around us with a grisly red halo. He pushes me away and we scramble to our feet to face each other, fists raised, our faces nightmarish masks of blood and dirt.

            A small crowd has gathered, drawn by the commotion, and they start to chant “Fight, fight, fight!” in a single, eager, bloodthirsty voice as we circle each other slowly. I wipe my enemy’s blood out of my eyes with the back of my hand and spit a great black glob of my own blood onto the white ground. The tall Fighter smiles a maniac grin that’s all bloody teeth and blazing eyes as he taunts me from across the impromptu ring.

            “C’mon, pussy.” The tall Fighter sneers. “I’m going to put you down like the bullshit shift trash you are.” The cheers of the growing crowd of Fighters and Fixers around us get louder. A sea of faces, grotesque and twisted by bloodlust and excitement, hem us in, surrounding us on all sides as the tall Fighter and I turn in a slow circle in the middle of the crowd. I try and find my friends in the crowd, but they’ve been swallowed by the pulsating, jeering mob.

            The Fighter explodes forward, catching me off guard and landing a solid right hook to the side of my face that spins me around and nearly knocks me off my feet. I careen into the jeering crowd and they shove me back towards my opponent with peels of cruel laugher. I can feel my right eye already starting to swell shut, and I’m pretty sure a couple of my teeth are loose. I spin to face my enemy, careful to stay away from the grabbing, shoving forest of arms protruding from the blood frenzied crowd. Another strange tingle ripples down my spine and, again, I get the odd sensation that my body is acting on its own – that it’s fighting for me, rather than following my commands.

            The tall Fighter swings at me again, putting every ounce of his considerable strength into the blow as he aims for the center of my face, intending to shatter my nose and put me down for good.

All at once, the world slides to a stop around me. Everything and everyone decelerates into the strange underwater dance of slow motion. The tingling sensation in my spin explodes into a full-blown spasm of vibrations so violent that, for a moment, I’m afraid I must be in the first seconds of a massive seizure. In the back of my head I hear an oddly familiar voice – Ghoul’s voice.

            “Don’t fight it, Crash.” The disembodied voice of my oldest (possibly imaginary) friend says. The words seem to come from all around me and from nowhere at all. Bizarre echoes and bursts of harsh static duel and compete with Ghoul’s words in the empty space inside my head. “Just let go.”

            The tall Fighter’s fist continues to move along its owner’s intended trajectory, straight towards my nose, but in the strange slow-motion fugue that the world has slipped into, it seems to crawl through the air like it’s made from smoke caught in a gentle breeze. I risk a glance at the throng surrounding us and see that they too are moving at a fraction of the speed they had been only seconds before.

            What the hell is going on?

            “Let go, you stubborn asshat!” Ghoul’s disembodied voice screams over the static insanity swirling around inside my skull like an agitated swarm of bats. Each word she says (thinks?) vibrates like a tiny earthquake along my spine until my entire body feels like a plucked guitar string in the hands of some terrible spectral musician. I try and scream, but my body refuses to send the signal from my brain to my mouth. My every attempt to move is an agony – I feel like I’m struggling against a suit of skintight iron that’s formed around my body like a restrictive metal glove.

            Even with time moving at what feels like a fraction of its true speed, the Fighter’s fist is still coming closer with every elongated moment. I try and force my body to move out of the way, but my limbs betray me, locked into place by the unseen latticework of steel holding me in place. With my strength used up, I stop struggling against my invisible bonds. The moment I relent, the strange sensation of being a passenger in my own body washes over me again, and I feel my body moving on its own, like it belongs to someone else – someone that’s controlling it from afar.

            Suddenly, I’m moving at normal speed – maybe even faster – while the rest of the world around me continues to grind ahead slowly like molasses congealing on a cold day. I feel myself sidestep out of the way of the devastating jab, the clenched fist passing only inches away from my face, and then my arms snap forward to catch the Fighter’s extended arm in a single effortless motion. I catch a glimpse of the tall boy’s wide brown eyes tracking slowly towards me as I deflect the blow with my left arm and wrap my right arm around his near the wrist, pinning his extended arm tightly between my curled forearms. I feel myself yank back hard with my right arm and there’s a loud snapping sound as his elbow joint snaps, pushing a jagged spike of bloody bone out through the skin opposite his elbow.

            Sound and motion roar back to normal speed around me like I’ve erupted up through the surface of a pool of dark water. I feel the Fighter go limp and he slumps to the ground, cradling his ruined arm. A wet, mewling sound escapes his lips as he curls into a ball at my feet. The disjointed sensation in my body is gone, as is Ghoul’s insistent voice in my head. The crowd has fallen eerily silent, and they’re staring at me with a mixture of horror and disbelief. I take in my surroundings as I try and catch my breath. A trio of broken Fighters lay whimpering on the snowy ground at my feet and blood covers my face and my fists from the brief, intense confrontation. I feel sick to my stomach. I turn and scan the crowd for my bunkmates, but all I see are the shocked faces of Fixers and more than a few Fighters, their faces twisted in rage and disbelief at the defeat of their friends at the hands of a lowly B Shift Fixer.

            The crowd abruptly parts and two figures stride towards me through the widening opening in the human wall. Dex and Snow step into the center of the makeshift ring, their expressions unreadable. A wave of fear washes over me, amplifying the growing knot of nausea swirling in my stomach like a tiny hurricane.

            “Get back to work!” Dex calls to the assembled crowd in a booming voice. “It’s over, and we have a lot to do before tomorrow.” The crowd begins to disperse slowly, mummering quietly to each other as they go. Most avoid my gaze, but I catch one or two staring at me like I’ve grown an extra head. As the throng of Lost Boys splinters and trudges away, I catch a glimpse of my small group of bunkmates as they make their way towards our bunk. Frog catches my eye as and mouths a silent “thank you” before turning his back to help Ugly limp back towards the barracks.

            A small group of Fighters glares at me fiercely as they help their injured trio of friends to their feet and then across the newly shoveled courtyard towards their cluster of barracks. Something tells me I’m going to have to watch my back from now on.

            “Quite a mess.” Dex says finally, eyeing me with newfound suspicion. “Tell me, where did you learn to fight like that?”

            I glare back at him defiantly, hoping he can’t see the fear and confusion coursing through me reflected in my eyes. How would I even begin to explain what just happened here? They’d think I’ve lost my mind if I told them my imaginary friend took control of my body and fought for me. I’m not even sure that’s what happened – it’s all fading into a violent, chaotic blur.

            “I’m down at least one Fighter now.” Snow says in his usual cold monotone. “Maybe more.” The pale boy’s face is blank and unreadable as he looks between my battered face and the smears of blood on the snowy ground. “What do you want me to do with this one?” He says to Dex.

            Dex strokes his chin in an exaggerated pantomime of deep contemplation as he regards the bloody aftermath of the fight. He paces slowly around me like he’s inspecting a piece of livestock, nodding his head as he walks. Through his feigned concern I feel like I can see a slight glimmer of excitement – like somehow, he was hoping something like this would happen.

            “I was defending myself.” I say as Dex continues to watch me carefully. “Those assholes started it. I didn’t have a choice.”

            “Defending yourself?” Dex replies with an infuriatingly condescending arch of his dark eyebrows. “From what I hear, you were defending your little friends…not yourself. You must be settling in better than I thought.”

            “Bullshit.” I reply, my voice sounding harsher and more defensive than I had intended. “I don’t care about those kids any more than I care about you and your batshit crusade to open that damn door.”

            “Of course,” Dex says with a knowing smile. “My mistake.” The older boy looks me up and down again with a satisfied smile.

            “I’m still down a Fighter, and we need to be at full strength for tomorrow.” Snow says impatiently as Dex continues to inspect me carefully. It makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m some new tool he can’t wait to turn towards his own purposes.

            “I heard you the first time.” Dex says with a dismissive wave of his hand, unable to tear his eyes away from my blood smeared fists as he snaps his reply to the leader of his small teenage militia. Snow scowls at the larger boy but holds his tongue. From the flash of anger that flickers across the pale boy’s face, I can tell that something is putting a strain on their relationship, but what? Has Dex’s obsessive belief in the mystical, ordered nature of this place finally pushed Snow to the edge? I file the information away for later use, hoping that it might help me escape.

            “I don’t think you did, boss.” Snow persists, his barely restrained anger simmering just below the surface like a pot belching out steam in the seconds before it comes to full boil. “The Fighters have been shorthanded for weeks now, and losing even one could mean disaster when the Gh…”

            “Enough!” Dex says, cutting his second-in-command off harshly. “We haven’t made it this far just to fail now. As long as we stay strong, as long as we stand and fight, The Zone won’t forsake us.” Dex whirls on Snow, waving a threatening finger in the tall boy’s pale, drawn face. “We’re here for a reason, my friend. I know we are…and if we can figure out what that reason is, why we’re here, then we can find a way out.” Dex’s tone softens and he places a hand on Snow’s tense shoulder. “I believe that with all my heart, Snow, but I know you have your doubts. All I need to know, is that you still trust me, my friend. After all we’ve been through, I hope you can at least do that.”

            Snow is silent for a long moment, and to me, he looks unconvinced. But, when he replies, his voice is even and calm – the voice of a soldier taking orders, regardless of his personal feelings. “I trust you, Boss. We’ll make do.”

            “You won’t have to.” Dex replies with a smile. He gestures towards me with a manganous sweep of his hand. “Snow, meet your newest Fighter: Crash.”

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