This post contains the nineteenth 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 come to on the floor of a room that I’ve never seen before. The room is dark – so dark that I can’t see the walls or ceiling. A single flickering bulb hangs from the ceiling on a black cord that disappears into the darkness above. A glowing filament inside a dirty glass bulb paints an anemic circle of orange light on the surface of an ancient-looking table sitting directly below. The slightly swaying light source makes the table, and the worn chairs sitting on either side, appear to be floating in an ocean of darkness. In the distance, a low mechanical thrum drones on rhythmically like the beating heart of some giant beast – a beast that has swallowed me whole.

 I realize that I’m dreaming, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is different this time around. Before, the dream world felt oddly familiar, like the meaning and memory of each place was just out of reach behind infuriating walls erected around my past. This place is completely alien, and unlike my previous visits to the strange internal landscape of my own mind, my memories of The Zone are sharp and clear in this place. The memory of Dex kicking me unconscious with his heavy combat boot is particularly vivid. I bring my hand to my face tentatively, expecting a sharp spike of pain as I gingerly probe the anticipated injuries. To my surprise, there is no pain. I explore the features of my face with my hand and find no damage at all, in sharp contrast to my previous dreams where the blood and grime – and the wounds – followed me from the real world. I lower my hand, still half expecting it to be covered with blood from a shattered nose, despite the absence of pain. Nothing – my hand is clean.

I get to my feet slowly and approach the worn table in the center of the space. I lower myself into one of the rickety-looking chairs and take a deep breath. I can’t remember the last time I just sat and rested. Expecting a repeat of previous encounters, I wait for Ghoul to materialize out of the gloom surrounding the strange tableau. The dull thrum continues to throb from the darkness beyond the pool of light around me. I feel like an artifact on display in some alien museum, my entire world contained within this single shaft of grimy yellow light. It’s hard to sit still and wait with the torrent of worry rushing through my head like a raging river. I shove down a rising wave of panic as my mind races. Did my friends survive the blast? Are they lying dead among the shattered remains of Helios’ grand stairway? Did anyone survive? Am I all alone again?

I abandon my chair and pace around the nondescript table as a solid knot of anxiety hardens in my gut like a cancer. I need to get out of this place – I need to wake up, and soon. I’m no good to anyone trapped in this mental purgatory.

“Hey,” I shout into the nothingness that surrounds me, “I don’t have time for this crap! Send me back! Now!

Ghoul doesn’t answer. No one answers. I kick over my chair in a burst of frustration as I let fly a streak of profanity that would have make the devil blush. Still, no answer comes. Rage blossoms in my chest like an exploding star. I grab the toppled chair and hurl it towards the blackness that shrouds this place. The chair sails through the air. As it crosses the boundary between the circle of light and the darkness beyond, it winks out of existence. I wheel around, still furious and intent on sending the second chair flying after the first. The sight that greets me as I turn around stops me in my tracks.

The first chair has reappeared. The unremarkable piece of furniture is back in place next to the table, as if it never left. As I inspect the chair, I wonder, absently, if the same thing will happen to me if I try and escape into the blackness beyond the light. Before I can test the hypothesis, a disembodied laugh booms from the nothingness around me. I spin around, searching for the owner of the oddly artificial voice, but the laughing stranger is nowhere to be found. I know one thing for sure – it isn’t Ghoul.

“So much rage,” the voice drones once the laughter fades. “You have spirit, Crash. I like that. It makes the process much more entertaining.”

“Let me the hell out of here,” I shout into the void. “I have to get back to my people!”

Your people?” The voice replies, sounding amused. “Since when are they your people? I thought you were a loner – a lone wolf. What do you care what happens to these…strangers? Trust me, Crash. They don’t care about you.” Another mocking peel of laugher echoes through the darkness around me. I clench my fists as anger courses through me with each harsh laugh.

“You’re wrong,” I spit back hotly, unsure who I’m trying to convince – the voice, or myself.

“Am I? Well, it’s a moot point anyway, kid.” As he speaks, Dex materializes before my eyes, a wide smile plastered across the heavy features of his face. The large boy sits across the table from me, feet resting casually on the tabletop as he leans back in his chair. “They’re all dead, buddy. Blown into little tiny bits. Sorry about that. Couldn’t be helped.”

Dex’s words hit me in the chest like a hammer as a wave of grief washes over me. I take a step backwards, suddenly unsteady on my feet as I struggle to process this terrible revelation.

“Sit down, Crash. We have a lot to talk about,” Dex says, his voice dripping with feigned concern. I slide into the chair opposite my former friend in a daze, my head reeling from the loss of my companions. My mind is full of terrible images – my friends lying dead, their bodies distorted into grotesque ragdolls by Dex’s biomechanical suicide bombers. I try to push the images away, but the painful visualizations claw their way back in no matter what I do.

“Hey,” Dex says impatiently, snapping his fingers in front of my eyes to snap me out of my fugue. “Snap out of it. We have business, you and I.”

“What happened to you?” I stammer through the typhoon of pain raging in my chest. I meet his cold gaze and notice that his soulful brown eyes have been replaced by two glowing red orbs. They look like Clocker lights. Black expanses of the strange metallic moss swallow the dark skin on his face making his brilliant white smile all the more radiant by contrast.

“Even if I had a thousand lifetimes, I couldn’t begin to make you understand,” Dex scoffs, a frown creasing the distorted features of his once handsome face. “Let’s just say that I’m…more than I used to be.” He waves a hand dismissively and continues, “But, never mind all that. It’s not important right now. What is important, is that I need your help, Crash. And you’re going to give it to me.”

“You helped those monsters kill my friends…our friends, Dex. I’m not going to help you do a damn thing.”

“So confident. So brave.” The mocking smile has reclaimed Dex’s face as he regards me with cruel amusement. “I hate to break it to you, Crash, but no one is coming to help you this time. Not Snow, not hawk, not the witch queen and her pathetic little band – not even your dream girl, Ghoul.”

Dex’s smile spreads wider at the look of shock that crosses my face when he mentions Ghoul’s name. How could he know about Ghoul? The only people that know about my dreams are lying dead in the ruins of Helios, so how does Dex know about Ghoul and the dreams? Cold fingers of dread creep through me as I wonder what else this new Dex knows about me.

The larger boy’s smile evaporates as his glowing red eyes bore into me from across the table. “Nah, you’re all alone again, kid, “Dex continues with maddening calm. “I’m all you’ve got.”

“I don’t believe you,” I stammer, unable to convince even myself.

“Yes, you do,” Dex says through that infuriating smile. “And I think you know, somewhere deep inside that scrambled brain of yours, that the only way you’re getting out of The Zone is with my help.”

“Go to hell,” I spit back. “I’ll die before I help you do anything, traitor.”

“Hell?” Dex repeats with a chuckle. “Where do you think we are, kid?” Dex swings his feet off the table and leans towards me to fix me with his glowing red eyes. “Sometimes, you have to work with the devil to make it out of hell,” He says with a conspiratorial smile. “Now, what do you say, Crash? Want to help me bust outta this place?”

Before I can answer, harsh white light explodes all around me. I screw my eyes shut and shield my face with my forearms, but I’m blinded by the intense blast of light all the same. The table and chairs disappear – Dex disappears – as the entire tableau is swallowed by the light. I can hear Dex cackling. His voice sounds far away, distant and receding as the white light devours the world around me.

“Well played, little girl,” Dex bellows between peels of manic laughter. “Well played indeed. See you soon, Crash. See you very soon.”

As his harsh laughter fades, swallowed by the explosion of white light, a familiar voice drifts towards me as if carried on a gentle breeze. “Wake up, Crash,” Ghoul’s disembodied voice whispers softly, “Wake up…NOW!”

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