CHAPTER TEN

This post contains the tenth 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’m strapped tight into a crash couch and the world is coming apart all around me.

I’m in the belly of a large vehicle. I guess from the lines of identical couches lining both walls of the long, roughly cylindrical space, it must be some kind of transport vessel. Silent, stone-faced cadets are strapped into the majority of the couches, clutching the thick black harness straps in white-knuckled terror. Nearly a third of the seats are empty and the straps of their 4-point harnesses writhe and snap menacingly like furious black snakes. The entire hold shakes violently, and from somewhere beyond the massive closed blast doors at the far end of the room, the avalanche roar of a heavy main drive burn is deafening. It’s like being drowned at the base of a waterfall. My teeth feel like they’re going to vibrate out my head and an invisible hand crushes downwards from the wall opposite the main drive roar, and it threatens to smother me into unconsciousness.

            The hold has no windows, and the space above the line of strapped in cadets looks like it was made to hold small pieces of luggage. It’s almost completely empty. This is either going to be a short trip, or we must have boarded in one hell of a hurry.

            Boarding…I don’t have any memory of boarding this ship. I don’t remember buckling myself in, can’t remember where we’re headed, and I have no idea who any of these people are, aside from the vaguely familiar dark blue naval uniforms we seem to share. How did I get here? I try and remember where I was moments before and my mind fills up with blurry, disjointed images of snow-covered trees, and of someone’s blood, bright and accusing in the snow. Is it my blood? Does it belong to someone else? I can’t remember and the images seem thin and hollow against the crisp reality of the crowded passenger hold.

            There is a sharp rapping sound like fist-sized hail hitting a tin roof, and the entire compartment vibrates like a massive shuddering tuning fork. I can feel the vibrations on the back of my eyes and in the roots of my teeth. A harsh white light fills the cabin suddenly, flickering violently and freezing everything into a jarring stop-motion strobe of jerking bodies and terrified faces that hang in the air too long, wide eyes and fear-distorted faces shuddering in a grotesque freeze-frame collage. A shower of orange and white sparks burst from a panel above the heavy door and I’m momentarily blinded by the intense light. When my eyes readjust, a familiar face stares back at me from the couch opposite mine.

            “Hey Buddy.” The cadet strapped into the seat directly across from me says with a crooked smirk. “Remember me?” I stare blankly at the wiry, sharp-faced boy. I can’t deny that this smirking boy looks familiar, but my mind refuses solidify his memory into something as tangible as a name. Without warning, an avalanche of disconnected images and jumbled memories flood through my head in a torrent of faces, voices, and thoughts. It’s like a firehose has been opened up, inches from my face, and I’m choking as I try to drink it all in at once.

It hurts like a bitch.

The sudden agony of the surge snaps my head forward, and my hands fly up to the sides of my head involuntarily, like they’re trying to block the sudden burst of feelings and information all on their own. When the pain in my head finally subsides and I’m able to raise my head again, I’m shocked when I realize that know exactly who this person is. I doubly shocked that I was ever able to forget.

His name is Ghoul, and he’s my best friend in the world.   

            “Sorry, bud, I know that probably sucked a big one, but we don’t have much time.” He’s shouting at the top of his lungs, struggling to be heard over the steadily increasing roar of the main drive. In the flickering light of the long cabin, his face suddenly sharpens, becoming impossibly clear in the time it takes me to blink once. All at once, the world around us blurs, the colors fading like a saturation knob has been cranked to its lowest setting, then appears to stretch buldge away from where we’re sitting, while Ghoul snaps into razor sharp focus. The roar of the engine becomes dulls and muffled like I’m hearing it through ears stuffed with cotton.

The effect is disorienting, to say the least.

“There, much better. At least I can hear myself think, now.” Ghoul says as he brushes a stray stand of dark hair away from his face. His voice sounds strange and disjointed – like it’s coming from all around us instead of from my friend’s still-smirking lips.

            “Where the hell are we? Why can’t I remember anything…well, anything but you?” I ask, still rubbing my temples as I try (and fail) to blink the blurry scene around me back into some less-nauseating semblance of focus.

            “Long story, bud, and we just don’t have time. Let’s just say that this…this is a dream…sort of.” He waves his hands in frustration like my questions are an irritating swarm of flies, and he’s trying to bat them away. “Trust me, we don’t have time for this.” Ghoul spits the words out rapidly, racing through each one until the syllables run together in a near constant torrent of sound. Something I can’t see grabs his attention and his head snaps to the right, his eyes focusing momentarily on nothing at all. I follow his gaze and all I can see is empty air above patch of blurry deck plating. “Shit.” He whirls around, focusing all of his manic attention back on me. “I’m running out of time. Listen up.”

            ‘Ghoul, what the fuck is going on? How the hell did I even get he…” I say, cutting in before he can continue talking.

            “Jesus, Crash, will you please shut up?” He brow is furrowed so fiercely that his acne pocked forehead resembles a line of dunes on the surface of some small pink moon. Before I can speak again, Ghoul launches into another barrage of machine-gun-rapid speech. From the look of intense concentration on his face and his flat, frantic monotone, I wonder momentarily if he’s reciting a memorized speech or reading from a script. “Red circle, gold pyramid, blue cube, gree…”

            “What the hell…?” I interrupt the bizarre litany of shapes and colors and glare at my frantic friend as a look of panicked desperation crawls over his face like oil dumped into an ocean. “Just tell me what the hell is going on? Why the hell can’t I remember…?”

            “God damn it, Crash! Shut up! Just shut up the hell up and listen to me!” The world around us convulses wildly, jerking me hard against the straps of my crash couch. Ghoul snaps his head to the right so quickly that I hear a loud pop from his neck. He stares with wide, terrified eyes at the same empty spot in the vibrating hold. “You need to know this shit; you have to remember!”

A bone-jarring groan ripples through the cabin and the world around me blurs and distorts maddeningly, The walls and screaming cadets strapped into their seats twist and stretch away into infinity before snapping back towards us with sickening speed. The ship groans again and the world fractures into millions of pieces that spin outwards and race away, leaving nothing but a total, endless blackness all around us.

Somehow, I’m still strapped into my crash couch, hanging motionless above an endless void.

Ghoul floats in front of me, face red and spittle flying from his lips as he continues screaming to be heard over the bone-shattering sound all around us.

            “What the hell are you talking about?” The sound around me has become so loud that it’s impossible to tell if Ghoul can hear me over the deafening roar threatening to suffocate us before dragging us into the void.

            “Red circle, gold pyramid, blue cube, green st….” Ghoul recites. I stare at his lips and try to decipher the words coming out of his mouth. Before he can finish, my friend stops in mid-sentence, his mouth frozen open in the time it took me to blink. His lips stopped moving in the middle of some unintelligible next syllable, stranding his face in a strange, desperate rictus, eyes till locked onto mine.

What the hell is he trying to tell me?

It’s the last thing to cross my mind before his motionless form shatters into countless glittering fragments and then I’m swallowed by the onrushing darkness and the roar from a distant, unseen apocalypse.

            I wake up to Snow shaking my shoulder, his ghostly pale face inches from my own. The cold from the forest floor seeped into back my back like a toxin, leaving my entire spine numb and aching. Snow kneels next to me, his eyes darting around the floor of the small stone hut we’d sheltered in for the night. The rest of the cadets are asleep in a tight group near the far wall of the broken-down hut, huddled together to keep their bodies beneath the jagged remains of the structure’s largely absent wooden roof. A light snow drifts down through gaping hole where the ragged wooden ceiling surrenders to open sky, and dim moonlight paints the sleeping bodies with a soft silver brush. The silence that surrounds us is oppressive and total, and my ears play tricks on my mind as I strain against the emptiness for any out of place sounds.All I can hear is Snow hissing at me in an irritated whisper.

            “Wake up, new guy.” Snow whispers, giving me another sharp shake to rouse me from my sleep. “Jesus Christ, you sleep like the dead.” He mutters to himself as he continues to shake my shoulder. Even though the total time I’ve known Snow probably amounts to under 24 hours (I think…time seems funny here), I can tell something has changed – that something is wrong. His usually cold, evenly metered voice sounds brittle and unsure, stretched thin and weakened by veins of fear that course through like a cancer.  

The soft human sounds of sleeping cadets drift towards us from the covered corner of the room. One of the prone forms begins to snore loudly prompting another of the sleeping cadets to let loose an irritated groan as he blindly kicks at the offending sleeper until the buzz saw snoring abruptly ends in muttered half-conscious curses as the snoring cadet rolls on his side, lapsing back into silence.

“What’s wrong?” I start to say, but Snow claps his hand over my mouth before the second syllable escapes from my mouth. His eyes gleam as they meet mine, full to the brim with a barely restrained panic that jolts me into silence even more than the rough hand secured over my mouth. Without removing his hand, Snow brings the finger of his free hand to his lips slowly and I nod once to show that I understand. His hand lingers for moment on my face like he’s arguing silently with himself about trusting my promise of silence. Finally, he pulls it away. He seems to relax slightly when I don’t make another sound.

Somewhere beyond the half-tumbled walls of the hut, a soft rustling sound, like wind gently nudging some bit of forest foliage, whispers in the dark, barely audible over the sounds of my own breathing and the steadily increasing thud of my heart in my chest. Snow’s eyes snap up sharply at the sound. He scans the perimeter of the room, head swiveling smoothly on his neck like some automated defense turret scanning everything within its electronic field of vision. When the sound doesn’t repeat itself, he turns slowly back towards me as I raise myself into a crouch next to him as silently as I can manage. I wince at the noise this mankes, giving Snow an apologetic look as I crouch next to him in the moonlight.

When he speaks, his voice is barely audible. “Dex is gone.” He whispers. “He left while we were sleeping.”

“That son of a bitch,” I hiss back. When we found this place, after hours of following Dex’s torch through the forest, Snow had insisted that someone stay awake to keep watch. Dex had volunteered to take the first shift so the rest of us could catch a few hours of rest. He must have slipped away while the rest of us slept. After his unsettling speech on the march here, I should have seen this coming. “When did he leave, do you know?”

“He never woke me for my watch.” Snow sighs softly. His voice is so quiet that I find myself straining against the darkness to watch his lips as he speaks. In the anemic moonlight, it isn’t doesn’t help much, but it’s enough for me to follow along. “And I think someone’s out there…outside.”

“Maybe it’s him. He’s probably just taking a piss.” I say without conviction. Snow fixes me with a withering glare that tells me exactly what he thinks of my unsolicited tactical assessment. I close my eyes and hold my breath, focusing hard on the sounds around me. The mass of sleeping cadets breathe soft rhythms in the corner of the hut. The dirt of the structure floor crunches softly under Snow’s boot as he shifts slightly to keep his balance. When we found the hut, we’d dug out as much of the snow as we could so we could sleep on dirt instead of a hard packed snow. If my aching back is any measure of success, I don’t think it made much difference.

There’s another soft rustling from outside the hut, followed by the sharp crack of a twig snapping under a boot – or a claw. The rustling outside abruptly ends. Snow’s eye snap open wide as they meet mine. We hold our breath and strain to reacquire the sound. Across the hut, the open doorway is an ink-black rectangle, as dark as deep space and suddenly just as deadly. We draw our swords from our scabbards as silently as we can, mine from it’s place on the ground next to where I had been sleeping, Snow’s from the scabbard still cinched tightly on his back. We turn silently to face the open door, moving as slowly as we can until we’re both half-crouched as we glide towards either side of the half-destroyed passageway cut into the building wall.

I press my back flat against the wall, careful not to disturb any of the loose stone blocks that make up the ancient-looking structure. Snow mirrors my position on the opposite side of the door. From outside there is only silence. We wait for a long moment. My cold fingers ache around the frigid hilt of my blade as I reach out with my ears to try and construct a mental map of the forest outside.

Nothing. It’s as silent as the grave beyond the door, and twice as dark. If there is something moving out there, I can’t hear it.

Maybe this is all in our heads, a shared delusion brought on by shock, by hunger, and by cold. I’m about to turn to Snow and say as much when another sharp rustling sound, louder this time and closer to the doorway, sends lightning bolts of adrenaline lancing down my spine. I jump, startled, and almost drop my sword. Snow catches my eye and mouths silently for me to follow him on three. I shake my head and point to the sleeping boys in the corner of the room with a scowl, trying to impart my reluctance to leave our friends unprotected, but Snow ignores me and holds up three fingers to start a silent countdown. As he ticks down from three using his slender white digits, I notice the dried blood that cakes each one like a haphazardly applied coating of dark red paint, and I wonder how many friends he’s watched die today. For me, the violence of the past 24 hours has been deeply upsetting, especially when my mind drifts back to the jagged memories of own contributions, but for Snow and Dex and all the rest, today’s dead have the names and faces of friends. It must amplify the agony a hundred-fold. For them, today can only have been an unbearable horror.

I can’t blame him for wanting to charge into the dark after that pain. As terrified as I am, the least I can do is make sure he isn’t alone when he does it. Snow has ticked away two fingers when I meet his gaze with the determined look I can muster and give him a single solemn nod. I think I see something like relief flicker across his face, but it’s quickly replaced by a granite mask of resolve, by the face of a soldier. He curls his index finger into his first, returns my nod, and darts out the door without making sound.

“This is a terrible idea.” I whisper to myself, then follow him out the door and into a pitch-black night.

I burst through the door and nearly collide with Snow. He’s standing very still, sword clutched in both hands like he’s about to sever the nearest tree – or whatever else may be out here – at chest height with a single horizontal slice. I raise my own sword and scan the dark maze of tree trunks in front of us for movement. Moonlight drifts down through a riot of tiny breaks in the dense canopy above, illuminating the first few rows of trees in a midnight mirage of silver light. Trees melt out of the darkness towards us, then stretch backwards to disappear into an ocean of black as an unbroken wave. Nothing moves in the twilit stillness. Even the snow has stopped falling as the entire universe feels like it’s holding its breath in anticipation.

Snow turns to face the half-collapsed building where the rest of our party sleeps. The small square building cowers on the forest floor like a kicked dog. What’s left of the rotten wooden roof droops like wet hair around the weathered stone walls. Snow nods towards the right side of the structure, then stalks quietly around the opposite side of the building like an albino cat pursuing unseen prey. I follow his lead and move as silently as I can around the right side of the ancient-looking stone hut. My half-frozen feet are clumsy and ill-suited for stealth in my second-hand boots, and I wince with each step as the underbrush crunches softly beneath my feet.  

I move slowly along the perimeter of the hut, listening for any hint of movement ahead of me as I creep along. As far as my untrained senses can tell, the forest is silent and still, the noises we heard from inside the building are nowhere to be found. I slide forward along the wall until I reach the corner of the building. Careful to remain hidden from anyone (or anything) that may be lurking out of sight beyond the wall, I poke my head around the corner until I can see a small empty clearing behind the building. Moonlight scatters and warps on the white ground in shimmering pools, giving the tiny square of open ground an unearthly alien glow that, under better circumstances, I think I’d call beautiful. Tonight, it reminds me of a graveyard.

I flinch backwards, nearly dropping my weapon for the second time, as Snow appears suddenly around the opposite corner of the building, striding with confidence into the center of the clearing. He stalks back and forth in the moonlight, as if he’s daring the strange sounds to repeat themselves, like he’s challenging the darkness to come for us.

I emerge from my hiding place around the corner to join him as he slides his sword into the scabbard on his back with a disappointed grimace.

“There’s no one out here.” Snow says with a frown. The full volume of his voice sounds like thunder in the stillness of the winter night around us. I search between the dark slashes of the trunks with nervous eyes, expecting white-clad killers to materialize from the gloom, called from hiding by the sound of Snow’s voice. “He actually left me behind.” Snow shakes his head in disbelief. “I’ve backed him since day one. Done every damn thing he told me to do…I even put up with his idiotic quest to open that god damn door…and after all that, he just leaves me here with you.” He spits the last two words at me like he’s hoping they might melt me where I stand. A faint clicking sound drifts from his pocket as he nervously flips his lighter open and closed in a slow and steady rhythm, like a monk worrying a string of bone beads. I’m concerned that his restraint might be dangerously threadbare after the day we’ve had, so I bite my tongue and decide not to take the bait. In a one-on-one fight, I have no illusions about which of us would end up broken on the forest floor.

“You don’t know that. We don’t have a clue where Dex went.” I’m careful to keep my tone neutral and my face blank as I speak. I don’t want to give Snow an excuse to think of me as the enemy. “Let’s get back inside and figure out what the hell we’re going to do next.”

 “I knew it was a mistake. I knew it.” The clicking from Snow’s pocket becomes more frantic as he mutters to himself, ignoring me.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Everything! Everything we’ve done since those assholes started fighting us for the deliveries. I wanted to leave, to get the hell away from that stupid cave, but Dex wouldn’t hear it. He wouldn’t listen. He was so damn sure that the answer was in there somewhere, and when that thing just…appeared in the cave, it was like he’d been given a sign from the gods.”

“Slow down, man.” I put my hand on Snow’s shoulder, and I can feel the rage vibrating through his wiry frame. “I still don’t know what any of this shit means. If you fill me in, then maybe I can help somehow. I’m stuck here, same as you.” Snow tenses at the unexpected physical contact, and for a moment I’m afraid that I’ve made a dangerous miscalculation. Then Snow’s shoulders slump and I feel his body relax as he breathes out a long, ragged sigh.

“Yeah… Yeah, ok. Maybe you’re right.” Snow says, sounding unconvinced. His bright blue eyes shine in the moonlight, and as he talks, he never takes his eyes away from the forest. “You know most of it, at least as much as I do. I heard Dex laying shit out as we walked. We found The Falls right after we woke up. Clockers chased us for hours, almost like they were herding us where they wanted us to go, but we were so exhausted, we were ready to grab any hope we get with both hands and hang on. Dex was normal at first, just another freezing, starving kid huddling in some smashed-up town at the edge of a forest full of monsters.” Snow’s laugh sounds fragile and half-crazed, and I wonder again about the state of his mind after such a long time in this place. “Shit started to get weird after the first batch of supplies fell out of the sky. At first, we were just happy to have food in our bellies and a way to stay warm, but then Dex started to talking about providence, and destiny, and shit – like he thought we were some chosen tribe in the wilderness, kept alive by some fucked-up forest god. Everyone though he was nuts, but he kept us alive…that means something. Plus, He knew how to motivate the tribe to get shit done, so we all just wrote it off. We use the tools from the crate to fix shit, to chop down trees, to build the wall…to do whatever. Then we started seeing those white bastards in the forest – The Ghosts.” Snow turns and locks his eyes on mine. His cold cobalt eyes are suddenly shrink-wrapped in tears and his lips tremble uncontrollably, like a man trying to hold back an ocean in his chest, as he holds me in his gaze. “I knew they were dangerous. I fucking knew. I tried to tell Dex that we weren’t safe at The Falls anymore, that we needed to leave, to keep searching for a way out of this god damn forest, but he wouldn’t listen. As crates kept coming, and life got more comfortable, he became more and more convinced that we were…special. That we were the chosen. The more guys that died protecting the crates, the more convinced he got. Some of us started wondering if we’d made a mistake saving his life.” Shame clouds his pale face as he remembers, and I feel a sharp pang of sympathy for this faithful lieutenant. “Shit – even Hawk was having his doubts near the end.”

“Then what happened?”

“Then you happened, asshole!” The flash of anger is so sudden that I take a step away from the furious cadet before I realize what I’m doing. Snow just laughs. It’s a cold, flat sound that echoes into the darkness around us like a skeleton dropped down a well. “Relax. If I wanted to kill you, you’d be Clocker food already. I saw the way you used a blade.”

“Comforting. What the hell do you mean: I happened?”

“I mean exactly that. You showed up, the black door showed up, and then Dex finished losing his fucking mind.”

“I don’t understand. What do I have to do with any of this?”

“I have no clue, but Dex was convinced that you were the key to everything…to leading his people out of the wilderness.” Snow rolls his eyes bitterly. “Dex and Hawk were in the cave behind the waterfall, I think they were hiding supplies or weapons or some shit in case we were overrun and needed a place to fall back. The way they told it; the door just popped into existence while they watched.”

“That’s impossible. Doors don’t appear and disappear at will.”

“Yeah, well…I’d been in that cave at least dozen times, and I think I would have noticed a huge evil door. Until today, that cave was just a cave.” Snow says, shrugging his shoulders like we’ve been discussing the goddamn weather. “Dex had a couple guys try and open it. They all got zapped, just like you. When we left the cave to figure out what to do next, we saw the flyer way off in the distance, way farther away than we’d ever seen it.”

“Flyer? You mean the drone?” Snow gives me a skeptical look and a pit forms rapidly in my stomach as he watches me silently. I silently wonder if it might be prudent to keep my odd dreams (visions?) to myself, at least until I have a better idea what they mean.

“Drone, Flyer, whatever. Same thing, I guess.” He says finally. I breathe a silent sigh of relief and nod for him to continue. “Well, Dex freaked out. Starting raving about displeasing the allmind, or some shit, and about the Ghosts getting our supplies. He grabbed his guys, Hawk and Angel, and tore off after the crate. I wanted to get the guys armed up and come with him in force, but he wouldn’t hear it. He was going with his boys, and that was that. I let him go. Didn’t know what else to do.”

“I don’t get it, why did the dro…the flyer drop two crates this time? What changed?” Before Snow can answer, I’m suddenly sure I know what he’s going to say. The pit in my stomach slithers tighter around my spine in anticipation as a cold smile spreads across the other boy’s sharp features.

“That’s just it, new guy, it didn’t drop a crate. They got there just in time to see it drop something else.”

My throat constricts and when I speak my voice is hardly more than a rasped croak. “What was it?” I ask, hoping desperately for any answer other than the one I’m expecting.

Snow’s eyes are hard when he replies, the smile melting away from his face like snow under a hard rain. “It was you, new guy. For some reason, on the same day that ghosts killed every damn one of my friends, the flyer brought us…you.”

The words hit me like a railgun slug in the gut, impact not mitigated in the slightest by the expectation the information was coming. I’m distantly aware that my mouth is hanging open as my mind races to find a response. I grasp for any shred of memory or insight that I can toss into the rapidly expanding chasm that I feel growing between this stern, pale boy and myself.  

He still thinks I’m a part of all this, that somehow my appearance is the X factor that spun his world on its head.

Shit, what if he’s right?

His gaze bores into me like twin cutting lasers. I force myself to meet the super-heated assault with my own artificially confident stare. The depth of fury I see bubbling like magma behind those icy blue eyes sends a cold shock down my spine. A misstep from me now, and I’m afraid that volcano will explode, and who knows what happens next. Pain makes madmen out of the best of us – and I can tell that this boy is in agony.

“Look, Snow… I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I’m a hundred percent sure that all this shit isn’t somehow related to me, but I swear to God, I’m just as in the dark as you. I’m just another prisoner, trapped in this insane place, just like you.” Snow just stares at me, his face unreadable. “I’m not special, ok? I’m not different in any god damn way. I’m just…like…you.”

“Oh, I doubt that very much, dream slicer.” Purrs a low female voice from somewhere behind me. The voice is confident, cold, and more than a little amused. Before I can turn around, someone presses something sharp into the back of my skull hard enough to break the skin. I hear the creak of a taught bowstring and feel the single bead of blood that slides down the back of my neck. I freeze in place, every molecule of my body suddenly focused on the small, glowing pinprick of pain at the base of my neck. “Now…both of you… on your knees, or my girls and I drop you where you stand.”

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