CHAPTER SEVEN

This post contains the seventh 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 join The Fighters the next day. Thankfully, Snow doesn’t force me to bunk with The Fighters on the night following the fight, since I’m pretty sure they would have smothered me in my sleep. I don’t think they like the idea of a lowly bullshit shift Fixer joining their ranks – or kicking the shit out of three of their best.

When I returned to my hut in the hours following the fight – after a stern lecture from Snow about how great an honor it is to be invited to join the ranks of The Fighters – my four bunkmates were in a state of exuberant excitement. Word had reached them (don’t ask me how) about my promotion to The Fighters, and from their reaction, you’d think we all had been called up. We spent the night joking and talking, sharing in what they saw as our shared victory. Each of my bunkmates must have told and retold the story of the fight at least ten times, my exploits growing more and more impressive with each retelling. I did my best to stay aloof, to remain distant, but some small part of me couldn’t help but bask in the warmth of their acceptance and friendship. When I left our hut, early the next morning, I was surprised by how much I realized I was going to miss the strange quartet of boys now that I’m part of another, altogether separate, group. I pushed the feeling aside and made my way towards The Fighter’s barracks and towards my eventual escape from this place.

Dex and Snow are waiting for me when I arrive outside The Fighter’s barracks. The rest of The Fighters have already left, and I can hear them training in the open area behind their cluster of huts. I guess they want me all to themselves. An uneasy knot congeals in my stomach as I wonder what the unexpected reception could mean.

“Welcome, Crash.” Dex says with a politician’s empty smile. “So happy you could join us.” I stand at attention in front of the two masters of The Falls, waiting for the other shoe to drop – for whatever comes next. Snow regards me coolly but remains silent, allowing his leader to do the talking. “We’re going to do things a little differently with you.” Dex continues like he’s reading a prepared speech off some invisible teleprompter. “Usually, there’s a long and arduous trial period with lots of fighting and grunting and whatever, but I think we can skip that with you.” Snow shifts uncomfortably at the dismissive description of what I assume must be the entry gauntlet he devised for The Fighters. For the second time, I sense a deep, fracturing tension between the two boys and wonder what it means – and how I can use it.

“So, what. I’m just…in?” I ask bluntly, causing Dex to laugh another of his humorless, brittle laughs. Snow’s jaw is working so hard that I’m surprised I can’t hear his teeth cracking.

“Hardly.”  Dex replies. “You see, today is a special day at The Falls. A day we’ve been preparing for since before you even arrived.” Dex waves a hand at Snow dismissively. “Thank you Snow, I’ve got it from here.” Snow gives his leader a curt not and the stomps towards the training circle and his waiting cadre of Fighters.

“Ok, I’ll bite. What’s so special about today?” I say after Snow has disappeared around the squat line of stone huts. “Is it your birthday or something?”

“No, it’s not my birthday.” Dex replies with a good-natured chuckle. “At least, I don’t think it is. I guess I wouldn’t know if it was.” I smile weakly at the thin joke and allow Dex to continue his obviously rehearsed remarks. “No, today is much more important. The outcome of today’s…activities…will determine if we live or if we die. It’s no exaggeration to say that the fate of The Falls rests on our success today.”

“What does that have to do with me.”

“Everything, Crash. Consider today your initiation. Your path into the storied ranks of my Fighters. The deal is simple enough – If you live through the day, you’re in.” Dex spreads his arms in a wide, welcoming gesture like a gameshow host revealing an impressive grand prize. “If you don’t…well, then I guess I was wrong about you, and it won’t matter anyway. What do you say? You in? Or would you prefer to go back to shoveling snow and shit with the Fixers?”

“You going to tell me what’s happening today?” I ask as I try and calculate what this strange older boy hopes to get out of this arrangement.

“Nope. You’re going to have to trust me.” Dex replies with a look that appears suspiciously like excitement. Hell, he’s practically salivating at the prospect of having me fight at his side. What new weirdness does today have in store; I wonder. And do I really have a choice? If I’m going to get out of this madhouse alive, I need to access to the weapons and supplies The Fighters protect. With a sinking feeling that I’m going to regret it later, I give Dex my answer.

“Fine. I’m in.”

Dex beams with the first genuine smile I’ve seen. “Excellent. Let’s get started. It’s going to be a long day.”

A young Fixer 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 pale freckled skin of his forehead. His jaw is square, and bushy 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 Dex.

 Dex accepts the pair of sheathed swords, thanks the beaming ginger boy, then waves him away. 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 disappears into the busy town center.

The settlement buzzes with activity. Fixers and Fighters no older than me (many considerably younger) hurry back and forth between huts and the high wooden walls, each face a variation on the common theme of grim determination, shot through with anticipation and fear.  Fixers carry armloads of wooden spears to the base of the wall, delivering them to other Fixers, who then hand the spears up to Fighters standing on a thin wooden platform set halfway between the ground and the sharpened points at the top of the wall. The platform runs along the entire length of the wall, and Fighters with wooden bows and quivers stuffeded full of vicious looking arrows are stationed every few yards, their wide eyes scanning the forest and the sky with manic expressions somewhere between fear and excitement. On the ground, two large Fighters 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 Fixer boy 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 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 my rescue in the dark woods beyond the frozen pond – to the jar full of unfamiliar 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 Fixer with short dark hair, takes the torch from the younger boy, then uses the flames to ignite his own torch, which is jammed at an angle 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 bow wielding Fighter 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 through 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 something like this before. The faces of the archers lit by dancing flames, the groups of cadets ferrying spears and swords to the base of the wall; everything 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 and feels strangely familiar.

The weapon 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 its grey length. The other side is flat and blunt, the metal nearly 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, and I can 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.

“Dex. What the hell is going on?” I ask again, more forcefully this time.

“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 accusing finger of a huge 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. Mostly because, unless you see it yourself, it’s pretty hard to believe.” Dex explains 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 more 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 crimson and pink hues of sunrise start to dissolve into the flat gray sky of another winter morning. “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, Crash.” My heart skips a beat, startled by the sound of Angel’s voice from behind me. I had no idea he’d been standing next to me and hadn’t noticed him arrive. 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 in knots about whatever new danger I’m running towards.

            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.

It’s beautiful.

            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 all damn day. 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 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 Fighters 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 Snow at rapt attention. The boy with the white-blond hair is pacing back and forth in front of them slowly, his ice-blue eyes alight with intensity as he delivers a pre-battle pep talk to his small cadre of Fighters.

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 and Dex’s mysterious offer – contingent upon surviving…whatever this is – makes a persuasive argument that, whatever is coming, these Lost Boys 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 certainly seemed to be a technologically advanced reality – a reality I was a part of. 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 sharp-edged 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. A black speck, its shape impossible to determine from so far away, has appeared on the southern horizon, just above the jagged black teeth where the treetops devour 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 dark shape as it glides towards The Falls from the south, far across the negative space ocean of the snow-crusted treetops. At first, I can barely hear 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 sliding towards us through the red winter sky. “Keep your eyes on your quadrants. Fighters, get 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 feeling 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 shape in the southern sky is larger now, sliding towards us like it’s following some unseen cable. The aircraft – the unfamiliar word seems to materialize in my head as soon as the object crosses some threshold and glides into clearer focus – has a long, black body 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 light 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 from the aircraft’s metallic skin. The cylinders are parallel with flat belly of the aircraft, and shimmering heat distortions, like tiny localized mirages, dance and pulsate from the end of each cylindrical pod.

            I watch the strange aircraft race towards us. As my mind struggles to make sense of what my eyes are seeing, 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. I realize, as I watch, that the object is picking up speed as it approaches. All around me, archers ignite the cloth-wrapped killing points of arrows using their small torches. Arrows are knocked to bow strings as knuckles go white from strain as hands grip bows tight, and wide, frightened eyes bore into the approaching object like drilling lasers.

            “What the hell is that thing?” I shout over the oppressive wall of noise, trying and failing to get Dex’s attention. The older boy’s eyes never leave the airborne intruder as it skims the white treetops of the densely forested valley. Every second brings the flying object closer. A blink of the eye and the aircraft is even closer; only a few hundred yards away. The aircraft’s speed is constant, relentless, and for a moment, I’m afraid it’s going to slam into the wooden wall like a guided missile, 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 my sword from of its scabbard with a clumsy, halting motion. I grip the hilt as tightly as I can and will my hand not to shake. I fail miserably.

            “Fangs out!” Snow screams to his small retinue of Fighters, still standing below us in front of the sealed main gate. The small cluster of Fighters toss off their heavy furs and draw their blades in unison. The whispered song of steel sliding from scabbard fills the air like an soft evening breeze. A pair of huge Fighters grab either side of the bracing bar that holds the massive wooden gate closed. Snow gives the word and the two young giants heave the bar up and away from the gate. They drop it with a heavy thud several yards away from the now unlocked wooden gate.

The aircraft is dangerously close, less than a hundred yards away now. The archers hold their fire. The sound of the engines is deafening, and the black bulk of the thing cuts a sharp-edged silhouette against the red and yellow collage of the sunset sky. Without warning, the aircraft slides to an abrupt halt 50 yards from the settlement, seeming to bounce to a stop as if reaching the end of some unseen steel cable. To my surprise, the archers continue to hold their fire. The menacing machine hovers low above the treetops which bend and whip away from the invisible engine wash like blades of grass in a tornado. I notice that the four cylinders on either side of the machine’s smooth black body have rotated to face down towards the forest canopy and guess 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 as a clenched spectral fist of dizzying force, and for a moment, I have to screw my eyes shut and fight the urge to pass out. As soon as I close my eyes, I see the strange flying machine in my mind’s eye, but there’s something different about it. The aircraft rotates in my mind, the sharp lines and angles of the craft drawn in the familiar blue lines of the holodisplay from my single remaining memory. Before I can open my eyes to get away from the strange vision, a jumble of unfamiliar words flood into my head, attaching themselves to various features of the aircraft via a forest of thin red holodisplay lines.

            The four cylinders attached on either side of the fuselage are labeled ‘THRUST PODS’; the blue light pulsing between those stabilizer fins is from the ‘MAIN DRIVE’; the nose of the craft is labeled ‘MAIN SENSOR PACKAGE / AI PILOT SUITE’. My mind struggles to understand the strange new vocabulary as even more lines with even more confusing labels appear on top of the ghostly blue wireframe. I realize with some amount of surprise that I understand the language the strange words are written in, 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 absent memories. Even so, I can’t shake the 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 stern block of words that appear in bold, blue capital letters beneath the still turning wireframe of the aircraft:

MFR: NORTHROP-ATOMICS

CLASS: MQ-X HEAVY DRONE

DESIGNATION: SHRIKE

            “Doors!” My eyes snap open at the sound of Dex’s booming voice. The heavy drone – The ‘Shrike’ – hasn’t moved. It hovers like a massive mechanical hummingbird 50 yards away from the main gate, the blast from its 4 thrust pods kicking up swirling clouds of snow and white vapor as it holds position above the treetops. As I watch, a large rectangular section of the fuselage slides open smoothly, soundlessly, revealing a red lit interior space festooned with a riot of tubes, wires, and blinking electronic lights that pulse and flicker at random. A square black crate, easily 5 feet long on each identical side, slides into place in the open doorway. The light inside the cavity snaps from red to green and the crate crawls towards the open door, sliding towards the edge of the glowing cavity on unseen rails – sliding towards empty air beyond.

“Doors, now!” Dex screams from beside me. I feel the platform beneath my feet vibrate and shake as the two enormous Fighters swing the massive wooden doors open, the heavy bulk of the doors creaking loudly as they glide inwards, opening a large square portal in the battlements below that leads out and into the forest beyond.

             The Shrike drone rocks slightly to one side, angling the open doorway down towards the treetops and the forest floor beneath. The square black crate reaches the lip of the cargo hold, seems to pause momentarily, then tumbles out the yawning green opening to crash through the snow-covered canopy and disappear and down into the darkness towards the forest floor below. There is an audible crash and the sound of snapping branches as the crate disappears from view, replaced by a billowing cloud of disturbed snow that drifts up from the newly-created gash in the forest canopy.

Snow and his band of grim-faced cadets howl in unison on the clearing floor, their battle cry challenging 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 trees 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 pulses in hypnotic, blinding bursts from between its v-shaped stabilizer fins as it recedes from view.

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