This post contains the sixteenth 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 spend the next hour telling Hawk everything that happened since we were separated. He listens intently as I speak, stopping me periodically to pepper me with questions. I tell him about killing the Ghost at the battle for The Falls and about the barbarian’s dying words – the same words that the Ghosts had chanted when Dex joined them at The Falls.
I tell him about Dex’s bizarre rant and about his departure in the middle of the night. Hawk’s eyes light up when I tell him about Helios and The Sisters of Winter – the tribe of warrior women that abducted us and dragged us to their impressive underground realm.
I tell him about the dreams and about Nyx and Fira’s plea for help. When I tell him that I ran from Helios, abandoning Snow and the others, my face burns with shame. Hawk shakes his head in disgust, but keeps his mouth shut.
When I’m done, Hawk sits down beside me to lean against the cold bark of the huge tree trunk. He appears lost in thought, brows knit together in an expression of fierce concentration. He twirls his single remaining dagger between dexterous fingers as he contemplates what I’d said, his eyes focused somewhere far away.
“So,” I say, breaking the tense silence, “what the hell do we do now?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious, don’t you?”
“Umm…not really. We’re lost in the woods, surrounded my monsters and killers and god knows what else, and every one of our friends are lost, dead, or captured.”
“Not everyone. We know exactly where Snow and your bunkmates are, don’t we? Get this through your head, Crash: there is no way I’m abandoning the boys at The Falls.” Hawk says, picking his teeth nonchalantly with the tip of his dagger. I wince as I watch the bizarre grooming ritual, as I remember the last place the blade has been.
“You want to go back to Helios.” I say grimly. “Don’t you?”
“Not bad, kid. Maybe your little sisters are right, and you have magical powers after all.” Hawk says, wiggling his fingers in the air as if he’s casting a spell.
“Funny,” I say dryly. I try to flip him off and fail miserably as a lance of pain from my injured shoulder stops my arm mid-gesture, causing me to wince and mutter a string of expletives under my breath.
“This isn’t over until we’re dead!” Hawk says, slamming his fist into the snowy ground emphatically. “If the Sisters can help us take back The Falls – help us free our friends – then we have to try. They clearly want something from you. We can use that. Maybe it’s enough to convince them to help us.”
“And if I can’t give them what they want?” I say, turning away from Hawks insistent gaze. My face flushes red with embarrassment, terrified that my mask will slip, and Hawk will see the coward hiding beneath. “What if the dreams are just dreams? What if they don’t mean a goddamn thing?”
“You don’t believe that,” Hawk says, “and neither do they. I may not be able to remember…well, anything, but I do know one thing. This place cannot be all there is. There has be more. If there is even a chance that they’re right and you really can get out of here, we’d be insane to walk away.”
“What if you’re wrong?” I reply.
“Then we’ll go down fighting for…”
“For what?!” I say, cutting him off. “What the hell is so important that it’s worth dying for?”
“Our brothers,” Hawk replies. “Our brothers are worth dying for.”
I’m suddenly unable to look Hawk in the eyes. I know he’s right and I’m ashamed that my strongest instinct is to run away and save myself. I’m ashamed to admit to myself that, if our roles were reversed, Hawk might be laying dead instead of The Clockers.
“Whoever put us in here took everything we have,” Hawk continues, “even our memories. All we have left is each other. Even if you’re right and there really is nothing else outside The Zone, they are worth fighting for…worth dying for. Now, are we going to Helios or not?”
Hawk’s words cut me to my core. His unshakable commitment to stand by his brothers, no matter the danger, stirs a something deep within me that I realize has been trying to break through since the moment I arrived in The Zone. I’ve worn my fear like armor – keeping everyone at arm’s length to stay uninvolved, to stay separate from the madness of this place. But, in some deep place, under a slag heap of fear and doubt and confusion, something else has been straining to break through.
I’ve been alone since the moment I arrived, and through everything, I’ve kept myself that way. When Hawk risked his own life to stand with me against the Clockers, that armor cracked and splintered, allowing the first shafts of light to seep out and illuminate the truth that I’ve been hiding from – The truth that I can’t do this alone, and more than anything, I want a place to belong…to call home.
“I can’t do this alone, kid.” Hawk says, offering me his hand. After a long moment, I make my decision. As terrified as I am, I take the offered hand and allow Hawk to pull me to my feet.
“For our brothers,” I say, still gripping Hawk’s hand tightly in my own.
“For our brothers.” Hawk echoes.
We stand in silence, our brief oath echoing in the forest air like the ringing of a church bell. Inside, my fear and self-doubt remain, but for the first time, I feel like I’m not facing it alone.
The setting sun paints the horizon a bloody red as Hawk and I begin the long trek back to Helios. Hawk leads the way, struggling to find my trail in the deepening gloom beneath the canopy above. After an hour of false starts and backtracking over our own tracks, Hawk decides that we need to stop for the night or risk losing the trail back to Helios completely in the darkness. I don’t argue. Between my aching body and the dull fire in my wounded shoulder, I doubt I could walk more than a few more steps anyway.
We make camp in a small hollow beneath a pair of massive fallen trees. Snow builds a small fire in the space between us, draping branches across the opening of our makeshift cave to mask the light from the flames. Although we’re both worried that the fire may reveal our location and put us in danger, we agree that we have to take the chance to avoid freezing to death.
Hawk produces a pair of ration packs from his satchel and we eat in silence, staring at the flames as they flicker and dance, throwing shadows around the tiny space beneath the fallen logs. My eyelids are as heavy as lead but my shoulder throbs like a second, agonizing heartbeat, keeping me from falling asleep. Hawk sharpens his last remaining knife with a small black whetstone, and stares at the fire in silence.
“Tell me about the girl,” Hawk says softly. “What kind of name is Ghoul, anyway?”
“It’s a nickname,” I reply, my voice thick with exhaustion as I teeter between consciousness and sleep. “Everything about the dreams is all scrambled and strange in my head. It’s hard to explain.”
“When I dream, I’m somewhere else,” I explain as Hawk continues staring into the flames with an unreadable expression on his face. “It’s so real when I’m there. The sounds and the smells so sharp and…and…”
“Familiar. I think the dreams are actually memories – my memories.”
“And you remember this girl? Ghoul?” Hawk mumbles. His eyes are half open and unfocused as fatigue beings to overwhelm his desire to stay awake to learn more.
“Yes,” I reply. “Well, no. I don’t know.”
“Much clearer, thank you, Crash.”
I let out a frustrated sigh and try and arrange the thoughts in my exhausted mind into something that might make sense to my weary companion. “When I’m in the dream, my memories are still a mess, still missing,” I reply. “Like the images and feelings are covered in snow. I can make out the shape of things, but only just barely.”
“Poetic,” Hawk chuckles dreamily. “Very deep.”
“You want to hear this or not?” I snap back in frustration. Hawk nods slowly, but his eyelids droop even lower as exhaustion overruns his defenses little by little.
“Yes. I want to hear it.” Hawk drawls from the space between waking and sleep. Outside, the wind howls, adding its song to the crackle and pop of the fire.
“Last time I was in the dream, things were different,” I say quietly, feeling out each word as sleep threatens to pull me under. “It was like Ghoul was able to brush just enough snow off the shapes in my head for me to remember her in some thin, vague way. It was like she jammed the memory of us, what we mean to each other, back into my mind. I don’t remember how we met, or why she means so much to me but, for a split second, that feeling was stronger and more real than anything in this place or the dream.”
“Feeling?” Hawk mumbles in a drunken slur. “What feeling?”
“Love. I think I loved her more than anyone or anything in the world.”
We set out for Helios as the first golden rays of sunlight peek through the trees. I doubt I would have found my way back on my own, but Hawk, it turns out, is a surprisingly talented tracker. Even in the early morning twilight, he manages to pick up my trail with ease, leading us back to the mouth of the cave.
As we approach, I see a lone figure standing in the entrance. Snow, his arms crossed, and a frown set on his pale face, stands like a stone sentinel in the mouth of the cave. A fresh wave of shame washes over me when I see him. Guilt sinks a new pit in my stomach as I follow Hawk towards the scowling leader of The Fighters. He see us and a wide smile spreads across his face, to my great surprise. He bolts towards us and wraps us both in a fierce embrace that sends shockwaves through my injured shoulder, but I hardly notice the pain. The feeling of relief – of belonging – is so powerful and new that it tears through me like a flash flood, filling all of me with a warmth that I hadn’t known I’ve was craving. It has only been hours since I left, but my entire world feels like it has changed. I return the embrace as I choke back tears of joy. Hawk laughs hysterically and thumps Snow on the back.
“I knew you were too slippery to kill, you dangerous little bastard!” Snow exclaims as he claps Hawk on the shoulder, the beaming smile still radiating joy and relief across his thin features. “And you,” Snow says, thumping me playfully in the chest. “Don’t ever do that to me again.”
“Snow, I…” I stammer, unable to keep the tears from flowing. “I was wrong. I’m so sorry I let you down. All of you.”
“You didn’t let me down, brother,” Snow replies.
The word smashes into me like a meteor, and a ragged sob escapes my throat. “I’m just glad you’re alright,” Snow continues, “and that found your way home.”
“Get a damn room, for fuck’s sake,” Hawk says with a genuine smile. I realize that it’s the first time I’ve seen him smile with anything other than cold malice and I can’t help but smile myself. “Besides, Crash wouldn’t be able to find his own asshole with a map. If I hadn’t found him, some Clocker would be crapping out what’s left of him right about now.”
“Clockers?” Snow says, noticing my mangled, bandaged shoulder. Concern furrows his brow as he carefully examines the field dressing. “What the hell are they doing this far out?”
“Hunting,” Hawk replies. “Hunting him.” He nods his head in my direction as a look of grave concern wipes the smile from his face. “I think Dex has something to do with it.”
“Dex?” Snow says, surprise and concern mixing on his face like oil on the surface of an icy pond. “How is that possible?”
“Let’s get inside,” I say as Snow looks between Hawk and I expectantly. “We have a lot to catch you up on.”