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.

Dex jumps from the platform and onto the ground in a single, athletic motion. “Stay Here.” He calls over his shoulder at me. He dashes after Snow’s small platoon before I can say a word, charging into the deepening gloom of the forest beyond the wall as fast as his thick legs will carry him.

“Like Hell.” I mutter. I swing myself down from the wooden platform and drop to the clearing floor, nearly dropping my sword in the process. I ignore Angel’s shouted pleas to stay inside the walls, and I chase after Dex, Snow, and the mysterious box with every ounce of speed my aching legs can muster. Ahead of me, Snow and his small group of cadets have already reached the tree line and disappeared into the darkness of the forest beyond. On the horizon, the red disc of the sun is a thin sliver of pinkish-red light as night descends slowly over the frozen landscape. My eyes strain to make out Dex’s dark form against the equally dark maze of trunks that make up the edge of the forest. I charge after the older boy, driven forward by an insatiable need to understand this impossible place – and to find the way out before one of these lunatics kills me. My heart hammers in my ears, and the sound of my own breathing eclipses the distant roar of the drone as it slips away into the night sky. I push on, my footsteps muffled by the packed snow covering the flat ground between the wall and the waiting maw of the forest.

I reach the edge of the trees a few seconds after Dex. I slide to a halt, momentarily disoriented by the inky darkness beneath the dense canopy as my eyes struggle to adjust in the low light. Behind me, the snow reflects the fading light like a cloudy mirror, sketching the labyrinth of trunks and frozen vegetation ahead in the stark, monochromatic tones of an aging black and white photo. A lone pool of light shimmers ahead of me, deeper inside the gray scale world of the forest floor – it must be where the crate crashed through the dense roof of the canopy of trees. I grip the unfamiliar hilt of the sword in my hand and walk slowly towards the light.

The world beneath the canopy is as silent as a grave. Even the ever-present rumble of the falls fails to penetrate the insulation of the dense tangle of branches above, and my own footsteps seem to melt quietly into the dense carpet of snow all around me. I force myself to take shallow breaths, doing everything I can to pick out the sounds of the others among the oppressive silence that seems to swallow me whole. But, as I creep cautiously forwards, the only sound I can hear is the subtle buzzing in my own ears, the strange auditory interference caused by straining to hear in totally silent places. I press forward, picking up my pace as I chase my own curiosity towards the shaft of light ahead of me through the dense knot of tress.

The black crate is half buried in the snow and soil of the forest floor, resting at a slight angle and illuminated by a fading shaft of late evening sunset stabbing down as a single column from a ragged gash in the forest canopy above. I scan the area for the other cadets – for Dex – but nothing moves around the odd tableau. The crate is made of a flat black material, and an unfamiliar logo – a triangle made of three large circles – is emblazoned on one side of the cube in bright red paint. I stick to the shadows beneath the massive wooden trunks, suddenly very aware of how far I am from the relative safety of the wooden settlement walls. I move cautiously from trunk to trunk in a crouch, sword held in front of me as menacingly as I can manage without any clue how to use it effectively. The crate is close now, only yards away from the tree trunk where I hunker, listening for the others with no luck. As I stand up, determined to step into the dim shaft of light to inspect the crate up close, a pair of strong, rough hands grabs me from behind, pulling me down to the frigid forest floor in a single abrupt motion. Another hand is clapped over my mouth, muffling my attempt to cry out in surprise before the noise is able to leave my lips.

Dex’s face is inches from my own, his strong features knit into a mask of anger and fear. Snow lays behind me, his thin pale hand clasped tight over my mouth. Dex’s eyes are wide. He raises a single finger to his lips, commanding me to stay silent. Reading the terror in his eyes, I nod slowly and Snow slides his clammy palm away from my face. I stay silent, my eyes locked with Dex as we lay on our sides on the forest floor, hidden by the shadows on the edge of the newly created clearing. Dex rolls on his stomach, his eyes flicking back to the strange delivery still resting silently on the forest floor. I follow suit, rolling my body as silently as I can until I’m lying flat on my stomach as well, eyes facing the half-buried crate. The forest around is deadly silent. Nothing moves in the darkness beyond the red shaft of light illuminating the mysterious black box. A light snow begins to fall through the hole in the branches above, dusting the dark edges of the crate.

We wait, flat on our stomachs, for several silent minutes. Dex and Snow scan the dense wooden columns of the forest beyond the crate, eyes wide and darting with fear and anticipation. Every cell in my body feels tensed, expecting the inhuman scream of one of the monstrous Clockers to shred the silence around us at any moment, expecting lances of blinding red light and the screams of dying men all around me – but it never comes. Silence reigns on the forest floor.

Finally, Snow climbs to his feet and strides towards the clearing made by the fallen crate. As he crosses the line between shadow and light, my stomach knots in anticipation, but he enters the rough circular depression without incident, unnoticed and unharmed. He kicks away a carpet of snapped and broken branches as he walks around the black crate in a slow, methodical circle, scanning every inch of the cube with his cold blue eyes. I hold my breath, still waiting for the unseen blow to land, for screaming death to explode out of the darkness like blood red lightning. Snow stops, his inspection apparently complete, and looks in our direction confidently. “All clear, boss.”

“You heard the man.” Dex stands slowly to his feet, extending a brown hand in my direction. His voice seems to fill the vast darkness of the silence beneath the pines. I take the offered hand and Dex pulls me to my feet with a single muscular arm. “Let’s get this done and get back home. We’re not safe yet.” Dex says to the shadows under the trees, his voice confident and clear in the stillness of the steadily darkening forest. There is a subtle rustling all around me as dark shapes appear in the shadowy gloom surrounding the red lit clearing and the silent black crate. The shapes step into the dim red light, revealing themselves to be the boys from Snow’s small band of warriors. A light dusting of snow drifts from the shoulders and hair of each of the cadets as they move, the flakes catch the red light and look like drops of blood falling in slow motion.

            Snow drives the pointed edge of this sword into the seam at the top of the black crate then twists the blade to force the box open. The wood creaks loudly at the intrusion and separates with a dull pop. A barely audible hiss, like oxygen escaping the worn seals of an ancient airlock, drifts through the air as the pale cadet wrenches the top of the crate away in a single, fierce motion. I sheath my sword and walk into the clearing to get a look at the contents of the mysterious crate, which now stands open like the mouth of a cube-shaped grave.

The interior of the crate is insulated with thick crimson padding, designed to protect the contents from impact – like falling out of a Shrike drone and into a densely wooded area. Hundreds of white bricks, each a uniform rectangular shape about 3 feet long and 1 foot wide, are packed tightly inside the cavity of the crate like the pale bricks of a sand-weathered castle wall. I reach my hand inside the mouth of the crate, intending to remove one of the identical packages, and a strong pale hand grabs my arm at the wrist and yanks me backwards and away from the mysterious delivery.

“Hands off, new guy.” Snow hisses directly into my face. His breath is hot against my skin and his pale eyes flash with rage as they bore into mine. I pull my arm free and take a step backwards and away from furious boy. His body vibrates with fury, it seems to drift off of his skeletal frame in waves as he pins me in place with his piercing blue eyes. I continue to back away, stopping when I reach the edge of the roughly circular clearing. Branches snap and crack under my feet as I move. In the stillness of the twilight beneath the canopy, each broken branch is as loud as a gunshot, causing my heart to jump into my throat with each dry snap.

The small group of cadets surround the crate like ants swarming over a discarded piece of meat. One group tosses white bricks out of the flat black cube and onto the forest floor where they start to form a small disorganized pile among the disturbed soil and snapped branches that litter the clearing floor. Another group of cadets huddle around the growing pile of white packages, shoving the white brick-like objects into large black military-style duffel bags at a frantic pace. Snow barks commands, demanding that the small squad of cadets work faster, as he paces nervously around the clearing.

            Dex hasn’t moved. He stands silently, just outside the fading circle of red sunset light, scanning the darkness of the forest with hard, cold eyes, like hunter searching for prey – or a sentinel watching the darkness beyond the walls. His brows are knit together, pinching his face into a mask of concern. He looks worried. Something isn’t right. I step out of the clearing and plant myself next to the large silent boy. Around the half-buried crate, the small group of cadets whoop and holler in excitement as they claim their loot from the fallen cube, steadily increasing in volume as their task nears completion. I realize that it’s the sound of relief. These boys expected – what? An attack of some kind? An empty crate?

I turn to Dex to pester him again for any kind of explanation, and he silences me with a sharply raised hand as he continues to gaze past me and out into the deepening darkness of the forest floor. I follow his gaze beyond the dimly lit clearing, but can only make out the first few rows of black tree trunks before the inky black expanse of the woods dissolves each trunk into black on black shadows against the total darkness of the forest beyond.

“Something isn’t right.” Dex whispers to no one in particular. His voice is barely audible over the racket coming from the boys unloading the crate, but each syllable is shot through with fear like glittering cold veins of gold in a solid granite wall.

“What do you mean?” I keep my voice low to match the older boy’s whispered tone. Dex ignores me, closes his eyes and cocks his head, straining to pick some unknown sound out of the silence that weighs down on the static of jubilant chatter coming from the boys working around the rapidly emptying crate. Dex whirls around suddenly to face back the way we came, eyes screwed tightly shut and head cocked even further to one side in the unmistakable pose of a man listening with all of his might. I search the darkness between the woods and the walls for any stray movement beneath the gloom. Nothing moves, there is only stillness and the steadily descending wave of darkness as the sun continues to sink below the horizon, painting the ragged oval of sky above the clearing a deep bloody red.

“Everyone shut up.” Dex mutters, almost like he’s talking to himself. The noise in the clearing behind us continues unabated, laughter drifting out of the red shaft of light and into the darkness above us like the song of some drunken bird. Dex’s brown eyes snap open, going wide like he’s just realized something terrible. “I said, shut the hell up!” This time his booming voice echoes through the forest like an explosion, freezing Snow and his small band of followers where they stand, instantly creating a strange tableau in the deepening red light of the fading sunset above. The last echoes of adolescent excitement are swallowed by the oppressive weight of silence that seems to hover over our heads in the blackness of the canopy above like a waiting vulture. The forest goes silent. My breath suddenly sounds much too loud in my ears as I tense every fiber of my body in fear. I reach out with my senses to probe the darkness descending around us like a blanket of black, muffling snow.  

Snow stalks out of the clearing to plant himself next to Dex, his footsteps barely audible thanks to the thick carpet of snow on the forest floor. “What is it?” He hisses into the older boy’s ear. He’s drawn his sword, and in the silence, I can hear the subtle creak of the hilt’s leather wrappings as his hand works the grip of his blade in an unconscious physical expression of stress.

Dex puts his large hand on Snow’s wiry shoulder, and the smaller boy falls silent immediately, appearing to defer the Dex’s leadership at an almost unconscious level. In the distance, a droning deep sound wafts through the trees like the bleating of an injured animal somewhere far away.

“Oh Jesus, is that the horn?” Snow exclaims in a breathless whisper, his eyes going wide as his body visibly stiffens next to mine. Dex draws his sword in a single swift motion and meets Snow’s terrified gaze with his own. He nods once and the pale boy’s skin turns an even paler shade of white, which I would have sworn was impossible a moment before. Dex’s brown eyes seems to spark against the night, all fear evaporating into a hard mixture of determination and fury as the older boy visibly steels himself against the sound rising from somewhere beyond the woods.

The horn blares again, louder and in a string of long single tones. Dex spins to face the terrified looking cadets frozen in place around the half-emptied crate. “Back to The Falls!” His deep voice booms through forest and jolts the petrified cadets into action. “Take what you can. Leave the rest.” In the distance, the long tone of the horn stops abruptly, cut off in the middle of another long bleating blast. The boys closest to the crate grab the half-filled duffel bags and bolt out of the clearing. The rest of the cadets follow close behind, swords drawn. Dex turns to me, the features of this broad face contorted into a mask of determined fury. “Stay with me. Fight like your life depends on it…because it does. Let’s go.”

“Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” I say, as cadets bolt past me, running at full speed back the way we had come only minutes before. Dex ignores me and rushes to lead the group of armed boys as they dash into the darkness and back towards the safety of the walls.

“Come on, new guy.” Snow grabs my collar and drags me into a stumbling, awkward run. “Keep up.” I find my footing and follow the pale boy into the darkness, running as fast as I can and cursing as I go.

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