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 an unfamiliar room. It’s 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 that sits directly below. The slightly swaying light source makes the table, and the worn chairs 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. Before, the dream world felt oddly familiar, like the meaning and memory of each place was just out of reach behind the infuriating invisible walls erected around my past.

This place is completely alien.

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 my 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 – somehow followed me from the real world into the dream. 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 realize that I can’t remember the last time I 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 throbbing in 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 with the torrent of worry rushing through my head like a raging river. I shove down a persistent 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 ravenous 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 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 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 beyond. The chair sails through the air. The instant it crosses the boundary between light and darkness, it winks out of existence. I barely notice through the red haze of my anger. I wheel around, 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 to escape the same way. Before I can test the hypothesis, a disembodied laugh booms from the nothingness around me. I spin around, searching for the owner of the disembodied 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 his broad face. The large boy sits across the table, his 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 the news.

“You don’t look so good, kid. You should sit down. We have a lot to talk about,” Dex says, his voice dripping with mock concern. I slide into the chair opposite my former friend in a daze, my head suddenly full to bursting with grisly images of my dead friends. I try to push the images away, but the painful visualizations sink their claws deep and refuse to budge.

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

“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 are gone. They’ve been replaced by two glowing red orbs – Clocker lights. Black expanses of the strange metallic moss swallow the dark skin of 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.”

“My help? Are you insane? You and those…monsters killed my friends…our friends, Dex. I’m not going to help you with a god 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 as he drinks in the look of shock on my face as 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 might know 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 weakly.

“Yes, you do,” Dex says through that infuriating smile. “And I think you know, somewhere deep inside that scrambled little 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’d rather die in here than I help you do anything.”

“Hell?” Dex repeats with a chuckle. “Where do you think we are, kid?” Dex swings his feet off the table and leans towards me, fixing 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.

“Is that why you brought us here?” I say, “to help you escape?”

Dex laughs, his Cheshire grin growing even broader as he regards me with something like amused pity on his face. “Is that what you and your campfire buddies think? That I brought you here?” I keep my mouth shut and meet his mechanical, hypnotic gaze in stony silence. “Oh lord,” he mutters to himself, “this batch may be the dimmest bunch yet.”  

“What do you mean by batch?” I say, hoping to use his obvious overconfidence against him to learn more about The Zone and about how I got here.

“Nice try, kiddo,” Dex scoffs as he wags a finger at me like a disappointed teacher. “I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”

“If you want my help, you’re going to have to give me more”, I say. “What is this place? How did you get here? How die we get here? Why do you need me to escape?”

Dex regards me for a long moment, his brow knit together as he contemplates my terms. “Ok, Crash. I’ll play along,” Dex says thoughtfully. “But we’re playing by my rules. I tell you what you want to know, and you give me what I need. Deal?”

“Deal,” I say. “Start talking.”

Dex leans back in his chair again and swings his boots back onto the table casually. “Well, first things first, your witch queen is right…sort of. The Zone is a kind of prison and all of us – you, me, The Sisters of Winter, the…what do you call them? Oh yes, Clockers! – are trapped here together. I didn’t build The Zone and I didn’t bring you here, but I do know the way out.”

“Who are you really?” I ask. “I know you’re not my friend. I know that Dex is dead.”

“Dead? Hardly!” Dex exclaims with a chuckle. “I’m the same Dex you knew back at The Falls. I remember fishing you out of that frozen pond just like it was yesterday. I’m just…more now. I can’t really explain it if I’m being honest. One moment I was the Dex you knew and the next…” He trails off and, for a moment, a shadow seems to pass over his distorted features. Is there something left of my friend inside this twisted, altered shell? The moment passes quickly and his smile returns.

“Dex would have never betrayed his brothers,” I reply. “If you’ve forgotten that, then Dex is truly dead. You’re just the monster that stole his face.”

“His brothers?” Dex scoffs. “This allegiance to your inconsequential little tribe is pathetic. Your petty loyalties are meaningless in this place. They’re an artifact of the cycle, nothing more. I no more owe allegiance to my so-called brothers than I do to the trees and the rocks that make up this damn cage.”

“The cycle?” I say, trying in vain to reign in the painful certainty that Dex is truly dead. “I’ve heard that before. What does that mean?”

“Oh yes,” Dex replies with an amused smirk, “Your red-haired witch figured that part out, didn’t she? She’s very perceptive, I must remember to ask her how she uncovered that little tidbit.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You’re lucky I haven’t pulled what I want out of your skull and left your corpse to the tenders!” Dex thunders as he swings his feet to the floor and bangs a sturdy fist on the table. “I will determine what you’re allowed to know, boy.” He takes a moment to compose himself. The smile creeps back across his face. His voice is calm and friendly again when he says “The cycle and The Zone are…intertwined. You see, I’ve known your friends for a long, long time, Crash. I’ve watched them build their little towns. I’ve watched them freeze to death in the endless snow. I’ve watched them die of thirst as the sun scorched The Zone. I’ve watched them wage their pointless wars, and I’ve watched them kill each other a thousand times over. The cycle is all of this. The cycle is The Zone.”

“So Fira was right?” I ask cautiously. “We’re stuck in some kind of loop? We’ve done this all before?”

“The cycle has repeated many times,” Dex replies. “Even I don’t know how long it’s been running. But there is one thing that I do know, kiddo.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re a new variable,” Dex hisses as he leans towards me hungrily. “You’re a wrinkle in the sequence, my confused little friend. I can’t wait to find out what that means.” He licks his lips and a cold shock runs down the length of my spine as I wonder what horrors this monster has in store for me. “Now, I’ve held up my end of the bargain. What do you say, Crash? Ready to help me with a prison break?”

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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