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.

We run like a pack of frightened animals, driven through the dense maze of trees by the demoniac glow of the inferno at our backs. Even at this distance, the chaotic spasms of flames paint giant distorted shadows on the forest around us. Grotesque shadows tremble and dance along the towering trunks like deformed giants of shadow and smoke.

As I run, the faces of the dead chase me through the darkness. I see Angel’s innocent features, ruined by blade and flame. Hawk’s flashing eyes, black and bulging from the intense heat of the burning walls. The terrified face of the black-haired boy with bright blue eyes. His death echo seems closer and more substantial than the rest, like somehow the proximity of his death has amplified his spectral image more than the rest.

The specters swirl around me like a flock of frightened birds scattered into the frigid air by the sound of our boots as they hammer their disjointed rhythms against the frozen ground.  One by one, their faces blacken and distort as their ghostly features are devoured from within by invisible flames before they drift away as clouds of ash and smoke and sparks.

            There’s only a handful of us left. I count 6 other cadets – 7 if I include myself. Together, we crash through the darkness towards the dark heart of the forest.

None of Snow’s Fighters have survived. A wave of gratitude almost brings me to tears as I realize that they traded their lives for the time we needed to escape. Well, they traded their lives so their leaders could escape, is likely a more accurate assessment. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Lucky Me.

 Somehow, all four of my bunkmates survived along with Dex and Snow. Now they run together in shell-shocked silence. Each is battered and worn. All bleed from dozens of ragged cuts and scrapes.

I realize with detached disinterest that I’m bleeding as well.

The gash in my side pulses like living fire. It writhes under my skin as a luminous snake of pure agony. The cloth of my uniform stiffens around the ragged hole made by the enemy blade. It sticks painfully to the wound as my blood coagulates in the frigid night air. Slowly, the furnace glow of the burning settlement fades as we stretch out the distance between ourselves and the horror behind us. Darkness settles around us as we move deeper into the forest, forcing us to slow to a walk as we pick through the underbrush in the gloom. Thin shafts of moonlight offer the only illumination as it seeps through the dense canopy above to bathe the forest floor in pale silver. In the flat twilight, we look like ghosts; bloody specters driven forward through a colorless afterlife, the reaper himself on our heels.

            Snow stops abruptly and holds up his hand, bringing the group to a halt. We huddle around him in the semi-darkness, eyes straining to see in the low light. The forest around us is as silent as a graveyard. As I struggle to catch my breath, it occurs to me that the forest is always quiet and still, no matter the time of day and night. No flocks of birds glide gracefully overhead, no animals or insects rustle through the underbrush underfoot. It would seem that humans are the only life in this place. How is that possible?

I file the observation away for later examination as Snow begins to speak. His voice is barely more than a whisper. “I think we lost them.” He rasps as he scans the faces in the small circle of frightened boys. In the darkness, Dex’s eyes appear suspended in air as his dark skin melts into the night. Next to him, Snow’s pale skin and white hair make him appear spectral and translucent. The others hover in a circle around the two leaders, their faces a reflection of the fear and exhaustion churning in my chest.  Snow sighs heavily and frowns. “But we can’t stay here for long. We have to keep moving or they’ll find us for sure.” In the darkness it’s hard to tell, but I think I see real fear wash over his thin features as he looks pointedly at the leader of The Falls. “Dex,” Snow says hopefully, “What are your orders? What the hell do we do now?”

Dex stares out into the darkness with glassy, distant eyes. His lips move like he’s in the middle of a conversation with some unseen companion, but no sound escapes as he mumbles. I can hear the soft creak of his leather boots as he rocks back and forth slowly like a traumatized child. The muscular boy seems suddenly frail and depleted, like the flames of the burning camp have somehow burned away some intangible thing that had made him seem so imposing and vital in the days before.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” Stretch whispers in my ear. “Is he cracking up or something?”

“He’s fine,” Snow says curtly before I can reply. He glares at Stretch with cold blue eyes and my lanky bunkmate seems to wither under the frosty weight of Snow’s gaze. Stretch doesn’t say another word.

“Dex,” I say cautiously, placing a hand on his slowly swaying shoulder. “Are you alright?” He recoils abruptly from the contact like he’s been touched by a red-hot poker. His eyes are wide and wild. For the briefest moment, he looks like he’s about to leap across the small circle of frightened cadets to fall on me in a flurry of teeth and fists, but the madness passes out of his eyes like a dark cloud sliding past the moon. Once it’s gone, all that’s left is that cold, blank stare.

“I’m fine,” Dex mumbles. “I’m just…I’m just fine.” He composes himself, shaking away the fugue like a man struggling up from the depths of deep sleep. The glassy panic retreats from his red-rimmed eyes but doesn’t disappear completely. It peers out from behind his resolve like an emaciated stalker, peering out from the shadows as he stalks his prey – waiting for night to fall.   

            “What do we do now, sir?” Ugly says with a brittle, shaky voice.

            “We keep moving. There are some ruins about 5 miles from here that we can use for shelter tonight. Tomorrow we’ll figure out how to take back The Falls.” Dex replies with a surprising amount of confidence.

            “Take back the…” Frog sputters in surprise. “Have you lost your god damn mind, Dex? They hit us with an entire army! There are seven of us left…seven! We don’t stand a chance!”

            “Unless you know something we don’t, that sounds like suicide to me, boss.” Ugly adds with an apologetic grimace.

            “Enough.” Dex snaps curtly. “The Falls is our home. Ours! There is no way I’m going to let it go without a fight.” He spits bitterly and looks from face to face grimly. “I’ll do it alone or die trying if I have to.”

            “One thing at a time, boys,” Snow says calmly. “If we don’t find some shelter, and fast, we’ll die of exposure before anything else.” He points at the duffel bag slung over my shoulder. “Crash, hand me the bag.” I shrug off the thick black strap and hand the pale boy the heavy duffle bag. He rummages around inside the black canvas sack for a moment before pulling out two small white packages. He rips open each container and extracts their contents calmly. One package holds a silver flask labeled “FUEL” in large block letters. The other contains a large spool of cloth bandages.

            “What are you doing?” I ask as he searches the forest floor with both hands. For a moment, he doesn’t answer, and the only sound is the soft rustle of leaves and underbrush as he continues to search the ground with pale, dirty hands.

            “We’re not going to get anywhere in the dark.” Snow replies as he pulls a stout branch out from underneath the frozen plants carpeting the forest floor. “The rest we can figure out later.”

            Dex leads the way through the darkness. The makeshift torch Snow cobbled together is in his hand and it casts a wavering sphere of orange light around our tiny, ragged band as we walk. Somehow, the fist-sized flame only seems to make the darkness beyond the circle of light feel 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 instead of a face, and worst of all, the faces of the smoldering 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 us in stony silence.

            Every inch of the forest looks the same. Even the trees look like carbon copies as we press forward into the night. Occasionally, 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 endless, unforgiving darkness.

Snow nods at Dex silently and then trudges to the back of our small formation to make sure our rear is covered.

            “Well.” Dex says after we stomp along in silence for another few minutes. “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 replies, chuckling grimly as he shakes his head. “Kid, you haven’t stopped bombarding me with questions since we dragged your ass out of that damn 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 it.”

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

            Dex is silent for a long moment, like he’s contemplating where to start. As I watch the exhausted older boy trudge through the snow, face lit by the flickering orange light of the lonely torch, I feel like the weight of tonight’s losses, along with all the losses that must have come before, are visible as an immense 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 finally, breaking the tense silence. “No idea what they call themselves. They’ve never really been much for small talk. They started showing up a couple days after we took over the Falls. We’d see them standing in the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of three or four, just watching – watching us. At first, we didn’t know what to think – we thought they might be stranded here like us. We tried to make contact – to communicate – but every time we’d try, they’d just melt back into the trees. They boys started calling them Ghosts…I guess it just stuck.” Dex speaks in a low exhausted monotone as he scans the trees around us, like he’s worried that even mentioning the Ghosts might call them out from the darkness to finish us off. “After a about week, the first crate showed up. Shit, it scared us half to death. We didn’t have a 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 in the cards for all each and every one of us.” As he talks, I try to make sense of the confusing information he’s rattling off. A tidal wave of new questions sweeps through my mind, causing me to miss words here and there as Dex talks. I keep the questions to myself, afraid I might break the strange spell that’s animated the stoic boy into telling his tale. “When the first crate showed up, we thought it was all over – that we were dead meat. We huddled in our huts like terrified animals, afraid to move or make a sound as the flyer approached. It was just so damn loud. Sounded like 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 my eyes. The 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 words lost beneath the sound of boots on frozen ground and the sputtering hiss of the anemic torch. “At the last second, the flyer stopped in midair, right in front of us. It came closer to the camp on those first couple deliveries. Not sure why.”

            “Then the drone isn’t just repeating the same flight program…” I mutter. I kick myself mentally as I realize that I’d said the words out loud. If Dex and the others knew about my hallucinations, they might just leave me in the forest to rot. Dex fixes me with a puzzled look and then continues his monologue, ignoring my outburst for the time being.  

“It just hung there, whipping up so much snow and dirt that we almost missed it when it dropped the 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 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 threat. But we were starving, and we were freezing, and I had to do something -even if it killed me. So, I opened it.”

            “What was inside?”

            “Salvation. There were emergency ration packs, heavy 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 slung behind my back. “We couldn’t believe it. We’d been hanging on by the very last inch of ourselves.” His voice is soft and reverent, like a man giving thanks at the feet of some silent but benevolent idol.

            “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 familiar information that had flooded through my head at the precise instant I first saw the bulky Shrike drone. 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. It saved our lives, man…doesn’t matter where it came from.” Dex shakes his head and smiles like he’s explaining 2 plus 2 to a remedial child. “Don’t you see? Everything that happens here happens for a reason, Crash. Even what happened tonight.” A new edge creeps into his voice that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. A quick glance at his eyes solidifies the concern growing my gut. For the briefest moment, Dex’s soulful brown eyes are transformed – they look as unhinged and detached from reality as the eyes of the Ghost I’d left for dead at the foot of the burning wall.

            The strange transformation fades as quickly as it appeared. Dex carries on with his story like the uncomfortable interlude was a figment of my imagination, but the episode leaves me shaken and more than a little concerned that our fearless leader may be a few arrows short of a quiver. 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 has been the only one that’s been able to remain calm. He is the nucleus of this terrified group of battle worn boys, the light leading us away from danger and towards safety. But, in one frightening moment, the smooth surface of that pond ia disturbed by a cold wind, and the glimpse I get of what lies beneath chills me to the bone.

            If I wasn’t convinced before, I am now – I need to get the hell away from these lunatics before they get me killed. It’s the only way to escape this…this what? And what about my bunkmates? They’ll never survive out here alone. Dex will lead them on a suicide mission to retake the falls as soon as he possibly can if I can’t dissuade him. Leaving my friends with Dex is as good as leaving them for dead. I shake my head to chase away the internal conflict, forcing myself to refocus on Dex as he continues telling his tale.

When Dex speaks again, I almost jump out my boots in surprise. I’d been so consumed by my own internal storm that I’d almost forgotten he was there. “The next crate showed up exactly 30 days later. 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. 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 flame-lit features of his face. The shadows are like liquid on his broad features, shifting and warping into a thousand unfamiliar faces as the flames dance and flicker. 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 quietly. “By then, the huts were looking good, and we were falling into a kind of routine. It was rough living, but it was living. For a bunch of kids that were absolutely sure they were gonna die, that went a long way. I spent my time organizing the boys and trying to learn as much about this place as I could. Snow and Hawk spent every second of daylight out in these damn woods. I don’t know what they were looking for. A way out, maybe? A clue to where the hell we are? Or maybe for those white bastards? I don’t really know. I do know that they didn’t any luck with any of it.”

A weak smile creeps across the dark-skinned boy’s face as he appears to savor these memories of better times. As I pad along beside him in silence, I try and summon an image of those first days at The Falls. I can’t help but smile myself as I imagine Dex alternating between barking orders and making inspirational speeches to his small army of marooned cadets, driving them towards greatness. It must have been quite a sight, and I’m genuinely sorry I missed it.

“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.”

“Sideways?” I echo quietly as I chance a look backwards, over my shoulder, at the pale, wiry Fighter commander.

“Let’s just say that shit escalated.” A fatalistic smile cracks the stone façade of his features, but sadness creeps into his eyes, like frost creeping across a lake, as he continues recounting events as we walk through the night. “The third crate dropped a lot farther away, actually inside the damn forest. We found the thing easy enough, and just like always, we cracked it open and got busy unloading.” Dex lets out a long, shuddering sigh, like he’s bracing himself for what comes next. His voice creaks under a heavy load of emotion as he lurches back into speech, his words are clipped and hard like a line of sharpened stones – or a stream of bullets. “A group of Ghosts, maybe 5 or 6, attacked as soon as the boys started to pry open the crate. They were armed…we weren’t. You can probably guess how that worked out.” Dex abruptly wheels around to look back at the small group of cadets behind us, like he’s suddenly afraid that they’ve been dragged off into the night without him noticing. His eyes are wide, lips trembling as he scans the trail behind us. I can only guess at the horrors that must fill his head after so much violence, after such meaningless loss. If I had to guess, I’d say his tattered subconscious must work overtime dreaming up new and terrible ways to steal the few friends he has left – it would explain a lot.

Apparently satisfied that the group is still whole, Dex relaxes visibly. We continue moving through the silent forest like a funeral procession. Dex holds the torch high like a beacon for his countless dead; a light to lead them – and hopefully us – out of the darkness.  

“So…how did you survive?” I ask cautiously, my curiosity beginning to outweigh any concern I may have about the speed at which this guilt-ridden boy is unraveling. Better get what I can from him now, before he goes totally crackers and decides to run naked into the forest to join the monsters and mysteries beyond our tiny circle of light.

 “Snow. Snow saved my life.” Dex is unable to meet my gaze as he speaks, his voice barely more than a ragged whisper. Is it shame? Or is he afraid of Snow hearing this part of the story? “That sneaky albino shit had been making weapons behind my back – spears, mostly – and training his boys to use them. There were no Fixers or Fighters before that. I hadn’t known about any of it.” His free hand falls to the strap of his scabbard, still cinched tight around his body as a thin brown diagonal line. He clenches it tight in his fist like the weight the weapon on his back is a painful reminder of this betrayal even now, months later. “Snow and his men killed 3 of them that night…3 Ghosts…and set us on a collision course with those bastards. The massacre today was a long time coming. It’s been crawling towards us since the first drop of Ghost blood hit the ground.”

I lower my voice to match his but feel utterly ridiculous as I lean in conspiratorially to respond with a matching whisper. “It sounds like Snow was right to me. If it wasn’t for him, my guess is what happened today would have come a long time ago.”

“No!” He snaps back loudly with narrowed, blazing eyes. “No, that’s not it at all!” The sudden explosion of anger takes me by surprise. I’m speechless for a moment, reeling from the abrupt 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 us all, 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 enough to spare Snow from the strange territory our conversation has strayed into. “You said that the Ghosts attacked you. How could any of this possibly be his fault?”

Dex’s dark eyebrows knit together into a fierce V, a deep scowl cutting a canyon across his face as he glares past the torchlight and into the darkness beyond. I can’t tell if he sees something out there, or if he’s deep in thought about Snow’s past sins. Behind me, Snow and my disheveled friends follow along in exhausted silence. Chins drift slowly towards chests until heads snap up abruptly, their owners suddenly awake and wide-eyed, as each boy does silent battle with his own exhausted body as we stumble onward through the woods.

“Look around, kid.” Dex snaps, waving his free hand in an expansive gesture that might have been comically melodramatic under different circumstances. “Look 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 intensity in my direction. As he does, I’m vaguely aware that Snow and the others have come to a halt as well. They watch us silently, confusion and concern covering their drawn, exhausted faces like a fresh coat of gray paint. “Everything that happens in this place…in The Zone, happens for a reason, Crash. We’re all here for a reason. Even you.”

“And you know what that reason is, I’m guessing?” I say, careful to keep the doubt out of my voice, and the concern – the concern that this kid has lost his damn mind – off my face. Last thing I want to do is spook the crazy guy.

“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 The Zone. There are no coincidences in this place, Crash. Everything happens for a reason. Everything.”

Snow stomps loudly across the forest floor towards Dex, his face nearly purple with rage. “What about everyone we lost on arrival day? What about all the goddamn friends we left face down in the snow as we ran for our fucking lives? Where’s their piece, you delusional fool?” Snow growls, inserting himself between Dex I until their noses are almost touching. Snow vibrates with rage, spittle flying from his lips as he tears into Dex with his furious explosion of words. I get the feeling this confrontation was a long time coming, and for a tense heartbeat, I’m afraid the pale boy might try and wring his leader’s neck before I can separate them.

“I haven’t forgotten them, my friend.” Dex’s says heavily as a deep, genuine-sounding sadness fills his voice. He places a thick hand on Snow’s shoulder and fixes the wiry, pale boy with pleading eyes. The gesture seems to short circuit the quick-burning edge of Snow’s anger, but his mouth hangs open in seething silence all the same. “I haven’t forgotten the ones we’ve lost. I can’t forget any of them, brother. I still see each and every one of their faces whenever I close my eyes, but I didn’t understand how lucky they were until today.”

“Lucky?” Snow stammers, clearly thrown off balance by Dex’s unhinged behavior and the bizarre proclamation. “They died, Dex…horribly. They’re all gone, man, and it didn’t mean a god damn thing! Does that sound lucky to you?”

“Yes, brother. Because they were the first.” Dex says reverently, his voice slipping into a grotesque imitation of a priest speaking some ancient, forgotten mass. “They were the first to be sacrificed, and their blood led us – all of us – to the safety of The Falls. The blood of our brothers that died today will lead us even further. Can’t you see that?”

Snow is speechless. I can see the rage bubbling into his cold blue eyes like thermal vents suddenly snapping open under a pair of frigid 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…can’t.”

“Then, open your eyes, my brother!” Dex cries, oblivious to the volcano of barely restrained fury straining against Snow’s threadbare restraint. “It’s all so clear, so easy to see once you realize what this place really is.”

“And what is that?” I say coolly, unsure I want to hear the answer to this particular question.

“A test.” Dex replies after a long, dramatic pause, like this is all 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…that you need to get some sleep, Dex.” Snow says with some effort, earning a look of fierce disappointment from Dex. “Because you sound like you’ve lost your god damn mind. Why don’t we talk about this in the morning, once you’ve had a chance to clear your head?”

Dex responds by shaking his head in disappointment. He lets loose a long, exaggerated sigh. The look of pity he gives us reeks of condescension and his smile is artificial; almost cruel. “Alright, brother.” Dex says, sharpening the term of endearment into a jagged, hurtful barb. “Tomorrow it is.” Dex raises the torch above his head with a satisfied smile, the sphere of orange light revealing 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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