CHAPTER NINE

This post contains the ninth 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.

We run as a pack, navigating the dense maze of black trunks by the ominous red-orange glow of the inferno raging beyond the tree line. Even at this distance, the spastic dance of the flames paint giant distorted shadows on the forest floor and across the towering height of the trees. As I run, ghostly faces chase me through the darkness; Angel’s soft, innocent features, ruined by blade and flame. Hawk’s sharp cruel eyes, black and bulging from the intense heat of the burning walls. The terrified face of the black-haired boy with the bright blue eyes seems brighter and more substantial than the rest, like somehow the proximity of his death to the moment has lent power to his spectral image in my mind.

The specters swirl around me like a flock of frightened birds, scattered into the cold forest air by our passing and by the sound of heavy boots hammering their disjointed rhythm into the frozen ground.  One by one, the features of each face blackens and distorts, the translucent faces devoured from within by unseen flames, until they drift away in roiling black clouds of ash and dancing sparks.

            There are only a handful of us left. I count 5 other cadets – 6 if I count myself – as we crash through the darkness of the deep woods. Dex and Snow survived the battle at the foot of the wall. Now they run on either side of me in determined stony silence. They are battered and worn, and each boy bleeds from a dozen ragged wounds.

I realize that I’m bleeding too.

The gash in my side pulses like living fire writhing beneath my skin like a luminous snake of pure agony. The shredded cloth of my filthy uniform has begun to stiffen as the blood coagulates in the frigid night air. Slowly, the furnace glow of the burning settlement fades as the distance between our ragged band and the fallen town stretches out. An impenetrable darkness settles around us as we move deeper into the heart of the forest. Thin shafts of moonlight offer the only illumination, seeping through the knot of dense canopy above to bathe the forest floor in pale silver moonlight. In the flat twilight, we look like ghosts; bloody specters driven forward through this colorless afterlife, the reaper himself close on our heels.

            Dex stops abruptly and holds up his hand to bring the rest of us to a halt. We huddle around him in the darkness, eyes straining to see each other in the low light. The forest around us is completely silent, and my exhausted mind muses absently about the total lack of animal or bird noises in this wild place. Just another oddity I can’t reconcile, another blank puzzle piece I can’t make fit.

The thought evaporates as Dex begins to speak in a rasping whisper to the group. “I don’t think they followed us into the woods. Has anyone seen the enemy in the last hour?” Dex scans the faces in the circle, looking from face to face anxiously. In the darkness the whites of this eyes appear to hover above the ground as his dark skin fades into the night. Next to him, Snow’s pale skin and white hair are make him appear spectral and translucent. We shake our heads as Dex meets our eyes. “Okay. Okay…that’s good. I think…I think we’re okay.”

            “You think we’re okay?” Even in the darkness Snow’s eyes flash as he hisses a reply. “Our home is burning to the ground, everyone we know…everbody not standing with us right now is very probably dead, and those goddamn things are definitely going to come after us, if they aren’t already on their way right now. What part of this shitstorm is okay?”

            “Stow that shit right now, Snow. Just…just let me think.” Dex snaps back, his voice less confident than I’ve ever heard it. The rest of the small circle of cadets remains silent, but a tangible wave of tension ripples through the group as their leader appears to falter in the face of this disaster.

 I’m shocked to realize that I feel the same way. Without even realizing it, I think I must have been drawing strength from this boy, despite the strange circumstances of our first day together. Seeing him starting to buckle under this load sparks a deep, completely involuntary, sense of panic in the pit of my stomach. If he can’t handle it, what the hell chance do I have?

            “We have to find shelter. We’ll freeze to death out here if we don…” I stammer, straining to keep my voice as quiet as I can, but still wincing as the sound swells out into the darkness like a pulsing beacon against the stillness of the forest. Dex silences me with a quickly raised hand and turns to Snow, his eyes once again firm and full of purpose.

            “Snow, give me the lighter.” Dex says. His voice is steady and emotionless, his momentary crisis of leadership apparently already a memory. Snow rummages in his pockets and produces a battered flip top metal lighter. He holds it between two pale fingers, suspending the silver metallic square in the air in front of his face. Silver moonlight dances around edges of the silver shape and seems to pool in the smooth worn edges like fireflies on a still pond. Even in the dark, I can tell it’s old – very old. Dex reaches for the lighter causing Snow to yank it backwards and out of reach. He closes his fist around the small square object like an obstinate child refusing to let go of a favorite toy. From the anguished look etched onto Snow’s moonlit face, I can tell that this is more than some ill-timed power play. The lighter means something to him.

            “Why?” Snow says finally, still clutching the lighter in his fist. “What do you want it for?”

            “We’re not going to get anywhere wandering around in the freakin’ dark, and we need to find some cover…somewhere to wait for morning.” Dex tears a long strip of cloth from the left arm of his threadbare uniform. I flinch as the sound of tearing cloth grates against the still silence of the surrounding forest. Dex smiles conspiratorially at the circle of confused faces (mine included) that stare back at him as he kneels and begins searching through the tangle of vegetation that carpets the forest floor. “I’m going to forge us a light to lead us through this darkness, my friends.” He selects a thick branch, about the length of his forearm, and begins winding the torn length of cloth around one jagged end. “Now give me the damn lighter, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

            Dex leads the way through the darkness. The makeshift torch in his hand casts a wavering sphere of orange light around us as we walk. Somehow, the fist-sized flame makes the darkness beyond the circle of light seem even deeper. My imagination populates the blackness beyond with every horror my restless mind can conjure up; hordes of white-clad killers, monsters with blood red lights for a face, and worst of all, the faces of the burning dead left behind in the ruins of the Falls. I stay close to Dex as we trudge through the snow and underbrush. Snow marches along next to me in stony silence, the only sound is a rhythmic metal snapping as he nervously flips the top of the lighter open and closed in his pocket over and over.

            Every inch of the forest looks the same. Even the trees look like carbon copies as we press forward beneath them into the night. Every now and then Dex will stop and scan some patch of the maddeningly uniform darkness around us, but the result is always the same. Just trees, snow, and more endless, unforgiving darkness. When Dex sends Snow to the back of our small formation to make sure our rear is covered, I see an opportunity to find out more about Snow’s odd connection to the lighter.

            “He had it with him when he arrived, I guess.” Dex says with a shrug, making sure to keep his voice low so it doesn’t carry to the back of our ragged column. “Never lets that thing out of his sight.”

            “Did you have anything with you when you got here?”

            “Nah. As far as I know, Snow was the only one.” Dex says with a dismissive shrug, clearly less interested than I am in what appears to be a glaring violation to the rules of this place. He suddenly looks at me with narrowed eyes, tearing his gaze from the forest ahead briefly to stare at me instead. “Why? Did you bring something in with you too?”

            “If I did, what it was is probably at the bottom of that damn lake.” I say with a laugh. Dex just nods slowly and returns his gaze to the path ahead. He doesn’t appear amused.

            “Well.” He says after a long moment of silence. “Aren’t you going to ask?”

            “Ask what?” I reply cautiously.

            Dex barks out a single sharp laugh that sounds like a dry bone snapping against the ocean of silence around us. “Ask what, he says.” He says, chuckling grimly as he shakes his head. “Kid, you haven’t stopped launching salvos of questions my way since we dragged your ass out of that pond. Shit hasn’t gotten any less confusing in the last few hours, so I guess I just assumed you’d have another question or two, now that we have a second. Shit, I bet you’ve been making a whole list of stuff to ask, am I right?”

            “No,” I reply as embarrassment flushes my cheeks red. “I didn’t make a list. Well, not a big one, anyway.”

            “Uh huh.” Dex seems less than convinced. “Well, what do you want to know? I figure you’ve earned the right to know what’s going on. At least to know as much as we do, which isn’t much, I’m afraid.”

            “Okay,” I say. “start from the top, I guess. Where the hell are we, and why did those…people try and kill us?

            Dex is silent for a long moment, like he’s searching for the right place to start. As I watch the exhausted older boy trudge through the snow, lit only by the flickering orange light of our lonely torch, I feel like the weight of tonight’s losses, along with all the losses that must have come before, are almost visible as an actual physical object, balanced precariously atop his broad shoulders. For a moment he’s a teenage atlas, forced to carry a world of misery all alone – just so his friends don’t have to.

            “We call them Ghosts.” He says when he finally breaks his silence. “No idea what they call themselves. They started showing up a couple of days after we found the Falls. We’d see them standing in the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of three or four, just watching us. At first, we thought they wanted to talk – that maybe they were stranded here too, but every time we would try, they’d just melt back into the trees. They boys started calling them Ghosts after that.” Dex speaks in a low monotone and intensifies his scanning of the trees around us, like he’s worried that even mentioning their name might call them out from the darkness to finish us off. “After a week, or maybe it was more like 5 days, the first crate showed up. Shit, it scared us half to death. We didn’t have the wall yet, and it was all we could do to stay alive in the huts. We were half starved, more than half frozen, and absolutely sure that death-by-Clocker was right around the corner.” As he talks, I try to make sense of the confusing information Dex is rattling off. A tidal swell of questions fills my mind, but I keep them to myself, afraid I might break the spell that has him talking if I were to interrupt. “When the first crate showed up, we though it was over. We huddled in our huts like terrified animals, afraid to move or make a sound as the flyer approached. It was so damn loud. I thought the world was pulling itself apart at the seams. When I finally got up the nerve to poke my head out and take a look, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. That thing was moving so fast. I’d never seen anything like it. Some guys ran into the woods, some even jumped into the pond. They were dead in minutes. Froze to death. We tried to fish their bodies out later, but…” Dex’s voice trails off, the sound of his voice suddenly lost beneath the sound of boots on frozen ground and the sputtering whispers of the anemic torch still clutched in his hand. “Then, at the last second, it just stopped in midair right in front of us. It came closer to the camp on the first couple of deliveries. Not sure why.”

            “Then it’s not just repeating the same flight program. Interesting.” I say and then kick myself mentally as I realize that I’d said the words out loud. Dex fixes me with a puzzled look and then continues his monologue, like I hadn’t said a word.

“It just hung there, whipping up so much snow and dirt that we almost didn’t see it when it dropped that first crate. Then it just took off. We stayed hidden for a long time, listening as that noise it made got quieter and quieter. When we finally left our hiding places, the crate was just sitting there, right on the edge of the clearing like it had been there for a hundred years. Snow wanted to leave, to find someplace safe. He was so damn sure that it was dangerous, that it was some kind of warning. But we were starving, and we were freezing, and I had to do something -even if it killed us. So I opened it.”

            “What was inside?”

            “Emergency ration packs, furs, stuff for fixing the huts, medical shit…everything we needed to survive. Same shit you’re carrying around right now.” He says as he pats the heavy duffle bag that’s still slung around my back. “We couldn’t believe it. We’d been hanging on by the very last inch of ourselves, man.” His voice is soft and reverent, like a man giving thanks at the feet of some silent but benevolent idol. “It meant we were going to live.”

            “Do you know where the drone came from? Or, who was controlling it?” I ask, my mind flashing back to the invasive burst of technical schematics and oddly hollow knowledge that had flooded through my head at the precise instant I first saw the bulky Shrike drone, several hours earlier. The memory feels strange. Like the gulf of violence and death stretching backwards in time to connect that moment to this one is distorting my mind’s eye so totally that everything becomes a blood-red smear on the empty canvas of my memories.

            “Drone?” Dex scoffs, sounding offended by the word. “No one sent it. It came because we needed it to. I think any of us are here by chance, and I think everything that happens here happens for a reason.” A new edge has crept into his voice that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. A quick glance at his eyes deepens my worry. For the briefest moment, Dex’s soulful brown eyes are transformed – they look just as crazy as the eyes of the Ghost I’d left bleeding at the foot of the burning wall.

            The strange transformation faded as quickly as it had appeared. Dex carried on with his story like the uncomfortable interlude hadn’t happened, but the episode left me shaken and concerned. Dex has been a still pond from the moment we met. Even in the violent spasm of the battle, or our desperate flight from the burning fort, he was the one that remained calm. He was the unyielding nucleus of this terrified group of ragged teenage boys, the light leading us away from danger and towards safety. But, in one frightening moment, the smooth surface of that pond had been disturbed by cold wind, and the glimpse I got of what lies beneath poured ice water on my heart.

            If I hadn’t been sure before, I sure as hell am now – I need to get the hell away from this guy if I’m going to survive another day.

When Dex picked up the thread of his story, I almost jumped out my boots from surprise. “The next crate showed up about a month later, but this time, the crate fell farther away, closer to the forest. We unpacked it as fast as we could and headed back to The Falls (that’s what we’d started calling it at that point). We spent another month rebuilding huts, exploring the forest, whatever. We saw Ghosts here and there, but always at a distance. Some of the guys, Snow especially, were worried that they were a threat, but I didn’t see it. They never came any closer, and we eventually just got used to it. Just more weird shit to add to the list.”

Dex pauses to look over his shoulder at Snow as a dark cloud passes over the shadowed features of his face. Snow nods once at the older boy as their eyes meet, then turns his attention back to the darkness between the trees.

“Things changed about three months in.” Dex continues. “By then, the huts were looking good, and we were falling into a kind of routine. It was rough living, but it was still living. For a bunch of kids that were sure they were gonna die, that went a long way. I spent my time supervising repairs and passing out supplies. Snow spent every second of daylight out in these damn woods. I don’t know what he was looking for, a way out, maybe? Or maybe for those white bastards? I don’t really know. I do know that he didn’t any luck with either.”

A weak smile creeps across the dark-skinned boy’s strong features as he appears to savor the memory. As I march beside him in silence, I try and summon an image of those first days at The Falls. I can’t help but smile as I imagine Dex alternating between barking orders and making inspirational speeches at his small army of marooned cadets. It must have been quite a sight.  

“We argued a lot, mostly about the Ghosts.” Dex continues. “Snow thought we needed to make weapons, that we had to defend ourselves. I didn’t agree. He thought I was being a fool, and I thought he was being paranoid. Shit, we’d probably still be fighting about it if things hadn’t gone sideways when the next crate dropped.”

“What was different about that one?”  

“Let’s just say, shit escalated.” A fatalistic smile cracks the stone façade of his features, but sadness creeps into his eyes, like frost over a lake, as he continues his tale. “The third time, the crate dropped a lot farther away, actually inside the damn forest. We found the crate easy enough, and just like always, we cracked it open and got busy.” Dex lets out a long, shuddering sigh, like he’s bracing himself for whatever he’s about to say next. His voice creaks under a heavy load of emotion as he lurches back into the story. “A squad of Ghosts, maybe 5 or 6, attacked us the second we got the crate open. They were armed…we weren’t. You can probably guess how that worked out.” Dex abruptly wheels around to face the small group of cadets behind us, like he’s suddenly afraid that they’ve been dragged off and into the night without him noticing. His eyes are wide like an animal in a trap. I can only guess at the horrors that must fill his head after so much violence, after such senseless loss. His tattered subconscious must work overtime dreaming up new and terrible ways to steal the few friends he has left. I’d guess it torments him every moment that they’re are out of his sight.

Apparently relived that the group is still whole, he seems to relax. We continue through the silent forest, Dex holding his torch high like a beacon for his countless dead, a light to lead them – and us – out of this darkness.  

“So…how did you survive the attack?” I ask, as my curiosity beginning to outweigh any concern I may have about how fast this guilt-ridden boy is unraveling.

 “Snow. Snow saved my ass.” Dex is unable to meet my gaze as he answers the question, his voice barely more than a ragged whisper. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s ashamed of something, or he doesn’t want Snow to hear what he has to say. “That sneaky albino shit had been making weapons behind my back – spears, mostly – and then training his boys to use them. I hadn’t known about any of it.” His free hand falls to the strap of his scabbard, still cinched tight around his body diagonally. He clenches it tight in his fist like the weight the weapon on his back is a painful reminder of this perceived betrayal even now. “Snow and his men killed 3 of them that night…3 Ghosts. For me. To keep me alive. Ghosts have been coming for the crates ever since.”

I lower my voice to match his but feel utterly ridiculous as I lean in conspiratorially to respond with a matching whisper. “So… Snow was right. If it wasn’t for him, today might have come a long time ago.”

“No!” He snaps back with narrowed, blazing eyes. “No, that’s not it at all!” The suddenness of his of anger takes me by surprise. I’m speechless for a moment as I reel from the unexpected emotional shift. “Don’t you get it?” Dex seethes. “This is all his fault! All of it. The Ghosts didn’t attack us until weuntil Snow forced their hand. He failed the test. He failed the test for everyone, and now we’re all paying for it with our blood.”

 “Test? What the hell are you talking about?” I hiss back, struggling to keep my voice low to keep Snow from hearing the strange territory our conversation has strayed into. “How could any of this possibly be his fault?”

Dex’s dark eyebrows knit together fiercely, and a deep scowl cuts a thin canyon across his face as he scowls past the torchlight and into the darkness beyond. I can’t tell if he’s seen something out there, or if he’s deep in thought about my harshly whispered questions. Behind me, Snow and the 3 other surviving cadets follow along in exhausted silence. Chins drift slowly towards chests and then heads snap up without warning, their owners suddenly awake and wide-eyed, as each boy does silent battle with his own spent body as we stumble onward through the woods.

“Look around, kid.” Dex replies, waving his free hand in an expansive gesture that might have been funny under different circumstances. “Look at where we are. Think about all the shit that’s happened to us…to you!” He stops walking abruptly and focuses the full weight of his manic attention directly at me. As he does, I’m vaguely aware that Snow and the others have come to a halt as well. They watch us silently, concern slowly spreading across their drawn, exhausted faces. “Everything that happens in this place…in The Zone, happens for a reason. We’re all here for a reason.”

“And you know what that reason is?” I say, being careful to keep the worry out of my voice and the concern – the concern that this kid has lost his damn mind – off of my face.

“Of course not,” Dex scoffs. “But I do know this: we were given peace until we fashioned weapons of war. We were given food and safety until we rejected those gifts and took up arms against our home.”

“What about everyone we lost when the Clockers attacked? What about all of the goddamn kids we left behind when we were running for our fucking lives? Where’s the peace for them?” Snow growls, shoving himself between me and Dex until their faces are mere inches apart. Snow vibrates with barely restrained rage, and for a second, I’m afraid the pale boy might wring Dex’s neck before I can get between the two cadets to separate them.

“I haven’t forgotten them, my friend.” Dex’s voice is heavy with a deep, genuine sadness. He places a thick hand on Snow’s shoulder and fixes him with soulful, grieving eyes. The gesture seems to short circuit Snow’s anger, and his mouth hangs open in confused silence. “I can’t forget any of them. I see each of their faces every time I close my eyes. But I didn’t understand how lucky they were until today.”

“I…I don’t understand.” Snow stammers, clearly thrown off balance by Dex’s unhinged behavior. “They died, horribly. They’re all dead, Dex. How can you possibly call them lucky?”

“Because they were the first.” Dex says, his voice hushed with awe. “They were the first to be sacrificed. Their blood led us to the safety of The Falls. The blood of our brothers that died today will lead us even further. Don’t you understand?”

Snow is speechless. I can see the rage building in his cold blue eyes like thermal vents yawning open under a pair of mountain lakes. His jaw bulges as he grinds his teeth. His face is a flat granite mask, unreadable and still. “No,” Snow says through clenched teeth. “I…don’t…understand.”

“Open your eyes, my brother!” Dex cries, clearly oblivious to the volcano of barely restrained fury straining against his friend’s pale skin. “It’s all so clear, so easy to see once you realize what this place really is.”

“And what is that.” I say, even though I’m not sure I want to hear the answer to this particular question.

“A test.” Dex replies after a long, dramatic pause, like this is all just part of some grotesque bit of theater. “It’s a gauntlet meant to separate the worthy from the weak…the wheat from the chaff.” He turns his head in quick, jerking motions as he snaps back and forth between Snow and I expectantly, like the next lines of dialogue in this insane play belong to us and he’s waiting for us to play along.  

“I think you need to get some sleep, Dex.” Snow says, earning a look of fierce disappointment from Dex. “We’ve all been through a lot today. Why don’t we talk about this in the morning, once we’ve all had a good night’s sleep?”

Dex responds by shaking his head and letting loose a disappointed sigh. The look of pity he gives us reeks of condescension and his smile is artificial and cruel. “Alright, brother.” Dex says, sharpening the term of endearment into a jagged, hurtful barb. “Tomorrow it is.” He raises his torch above his head, expanding the sphere of orange light into the forest beyond to reveal a small stone hut crouched in the center of a small circular clearing. Dex smiles another hollow smile and gestures magnanimously towards the open door of the crumbling structure. “Make yourselves at home.”

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