World Apart

By C.J. Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Action

Chapter 6

When blood is drawn and life’s at stake,

The mind’s besieged with imagery,

Make a promise to survive,

Then fight to keep it literally.

Aric lay still as the blade’s cold touch brought a trickle of blood down his throat. His breaths were shallow to keep it from cutting further, but his rapid heart beat threatened to send him into heaving gasps. He was hopeful, though. If Gregor really wanted to kill him, it’d be done by now. He strained to whisper to his attacker:

“Gregor . . . .” There was silence. He could feel the man’s breath on the top of his head: a nearly calming sensation if not for the circumstances. “Gregor?” he repeated.

Still silence. Confused, Aric lay motionless and followed suit. A minute passed before the stillness broke.

“What is it, Aric?”

“What is it?” he asked, gulping as the shiv’s touch forced a tremble to his voice. “Are you . . . kidding me, man? Chill out . . . for a minute.” He paused and took some breaths. “Get that thing off my throat . . . so we can talk about this like men.” His attacker eased up a bit. “I can help you, Gregor. Just tell me who’s got you. Who’s putting you up to this?”

Gregor was silent, but his thoughts were so loud that Aric could feel them. Moments passed before a falling tear struck his forehead and gave way to hushed sobs from behind. Aric’s faint light of hope brightened with every drop. He had a chance. He just needed to say the right things.

“It’s Lance, man,” Gregor said. “He’s gonna kill me if I don’t knock you off. It’s that run-in you had with his boy, Trey, last week. He’s been lookin’ to make an example out of you, and he’s already got me by the balls for that androweed he lent me a while back. He’s not gonna let me back out of this.” Gregor stopped crying, but his breathing was erratic and flush with fear.

“But you can’t do this,” Aric began, his voice a slow whisper. “Your time’s almost up in this hellhole. Two months and you’re back in the real world—back with Leila.” He paused to allow the emotions of that name to develop. “You know how much you talk about her. The way her big eyes lit up whenever you came around, those rosy cheeks, her slender neck, that laugh that made you feel like nothing in the world was wrong. I’ve heard it all a million times. You survive off those memories. You need those images to remind yourself what you’re living for and what’s waiting for you outside these walls.”

Aric paused again, his ears straining to read his captor. Gregor wasn’t breathing. He was too distracted, too lost in thought.

“You kill me now,” Aric continued “and you might as well kiss those dreams goodbye. You best believe they won’t let you see the light of day for a year, and they won’t let you ever feel Leila’s touch for the rest of your life. You’ll be in here with guys like Lance, watching every move you make, trying not to step on anyone’s toes. Too bad the floor here is made of toes.”

Gregor released a heavy sigh, his breath warm as it spread across Aric’s face.

“Eventually, though, you’ll find your ticket out of here. Not through the gates out front, but through the gates of Hell with a spot on some asshole’s hit list and a knife to your throat in the middle of the night. Don’t let that be you, man. Make the right move now, and I’ll help you make the right moves for the short time you have left. We’ll get you out of here alive and with something to live for.”

Aric stopped to let his words sink in. Lying steady, he awaited a response, and once again, the delay was agonizingly long. He looked up at the steel bars of his cell, their immovable formation providing endless mockery. The prison was dark beyond, the noises of dripping water and restless inmates echoing from distant chambers. More immediately, there materialized the faint drum of booted feet on the metal grid walkway. The thumping came slow and quiet, its maker clearly unrushed and bored in routine patrol. As the sound intensified, Aric closed his eyes, estimating its location relative to his cell door.

He could hear Gregor hold his breath and felt the bed move beneath him as the man hunched down to hide, his arm still steady with the blade against Aric’s throat. There was a sensation of suspense in the air, for neither Aric nor Gregor knew whether the situation would be seen by the approaching guard, or whether Aric was going to speak up or remain silent. In time, the footsteps came just outside the bars, accompanied by a dark figure whose head remained straight ahead, unconcerned with upholding his task of inspecting each cell.

Aric’s heart raced as he reviewed his options: scream for help and risk being cut or simply remain silent and trust in his negotiating skills. His time was running out as the shady contour vanished beyond the brick wall and the footsteps began to fade into the distance. Before he realized it, he had missed his opportunity. Apparently his subconscious had thought it wiser to keep his mouth shut. He exhaled the breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and, behind him, heard Gregor do the same.

“You didn’t say anything.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I like you, Gregor. I want you to get out of here. I need you to get out of here, because it’s the only way I’m gonna believe that it’s still possible for me to do the same.” Aric stopped speaking as images of his girlfriend and daughter forced their way into the moment. “I’ve got a family waiting for me too, man. They need me, just like Leila needs you.”

Gregor pulled the steel piece away from Aric’s neck and replaced it in his pocket. Aric allowed his muscles to relax and cocked his head abruptly to the side, producing a loud crack followed by a short sigh and a quiet laugh. “Geez, man, you really had me on edge there for a minute. I about shit my pants.” He rubbed the shallow cut with his fingers. It had already clotted.

“Stop joking around, Ice Pick. Lance is gonna be the one shitting when he sees you in the yard tomorrow with a pulse. You gotta tell me what we’re gonna do about that.”

Aric’s forced smile straightened out as he curled to sit up on the edge of his bed. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I don’t do well with awkward moments, and I just didn’t know what to say to you after you’d about carved my ass up. Don’t do that to me again, man. We’re friends. We gotta have each other’s backs. God knows there ain’t no one else in this place that’s gonna do it for us.” He looked into his friend’s eyes, their perimeters visibly swollen from crying. The eyes looked back in compliance. They were no longer sad, but clearly worried. “Tomorrow, you just gotta play it cool. Act like nothing’s up, but stay the hell away from Lance and his boys. Don’t hang around me, either. We don’t want him thinking you and I are teamed up to challenge him. That would just piss him off even more. Also, we—”

“But what if he comes at me?” Gregor interrupted. “What if he and his boys step up and wanna kill my ass right there in the yard? If you’re not around, who’s gonna help me out?”

“I’ll be around, just not right there with you,” Aric assured. “I’ll keep an eye on you, and if I see any funny shit start up, I’ll be there by your side before anything goes down.” He maintained his gaze into Gregor’s anxious eyes, which squinted and shifted sporadically. They wanted to trust in his words, but they were hesitant. Within the cold stone walls of prison, trust was an ideal everyone quickly learned to lock away and then misplace the key to. “I promise you, Gregor.”

His friend nodded in acceptance and then turned and disappeared into the shadows of his bunk bed. Aric stayed sitting for a minute, thinking about his promise and reassuring himself that he was prepared to uphold it. He lay back and closed his eyes, hoping his mind would quiet itself and allow him sleep.

“I trust you, Ice Pick,” Gregor said, the voice resounding from the darkness in the corner of the cell. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Aric took the words in but remained mute. After a minute, he opened his eyes and resumed the rumination that had been interrupted. The pale beam of light from earlier still poured into the room through the small casement in the stone wall. Its form cut through the night as a river cuts the earth, unyielding and confident. Its image now loomed far less animated than he had previously appraised. The fairies had resigned to their homes, leaving him to reflect in solitary amongst the chilled sheets of his meager cot. Maybe they had fled in fear, he thought. The gravity in the room was, after all, still rather suffocating.

He took a deep breath and tasted the air, wondering if it was “nothing” that now lingered on his tongue. He believed so. For once in his life, he finally felt as though he had a grasp on the concept. He smiled and closed his eyes to sleep. If he died tomorrow, at least he could die knowing “nothing” better than anyone else. At the front of his mind, he was truly hoping that nothing went wrong tomorrow, but in that respect, “nothing” seemed even more unlikely. This scared him.

*****

Two big men leaned their bulky bodies against the chain link fence that enclosed the yard. Their arms were entirely black with ink, the markings so cluttered and messy that they were indistinguishable from an infant’s scribblings. The tattoos spread inward like a fungus, disappearing beneath their grungy tanks and spilling out from beneath the neckline to engulf their throats. They were lovers, but in a macho way. They weren’t too mean on their own, but they were puppets, and their puppet master made “mean” look like a puppy with a pink bow.

Dante and Cain were tight-jawed as they scanned the yard. The two flanked a taller man whose face came to a point like a rat and whose body art was more like battle armor than anything else. His limbs were far lankier than the others’, but his muscles appeared powerful still. A web of veins bulged from the surface of his skin, their prominence creating the impression of submerged rage or even potential insanity. His eyes, even from across the courtyard, were piercing and callous. They were dark grey, almost black, their depths containing only sinister thoughts.

He was a drug dealer and a cop killer, and he probably had more blood on his hands since getting to prison than he had before. One time, Aric had watched him smash a newbie’s face against the tile wall of the showers, repeatedly until the kid’s body went limp and his teeth littered the floor. Then, to show that indeed he had no soul, he raped the kid as the blood flowed and mixed with the draining waters about them. Aric hadn’t stayed to watch. He just remembered Lance’s evil grin and the way the man’s eyes had pulsed with madness. There was something twisted deep within him, so much, in fact, that he very well may not have been a man at all, but something else.

Aric quickly shifted his focus as Lance brought his heart-stopping gaze toward him. Those eyes reminded him too much of that bastard, Matrick. He shuddered as he always did when Matrick made his way into his mind. He could feel Lance staring at him, so he picked up the dumbbells at his feet and made like he was busy. It was too late.

Lance and his two minions were already on the prowl, their slow gaits attracting eyes to their advance. In fact, Aric’s reluctance to look made him stick out even more than if he had given in to the urge. He curled the weights diligently, even going as far as to count out the reps while he huffed and puffed. The three men approached from the corner of his eyes.

“Seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven,” he lied.

They veered sharply before reaching him and continued onward toward a cluster of picnic tables at the other side of the yard. Aric abandoned his award-winning performance and turned to see what the trio was really up to. They sat at a table and began to speak amongst themselves, but Aric detected a sort of artificiality in their behavior. He scanned the area around them and, sure enough, found Gregor playing cards nearby, oblivious to their presence as he dealt out a new hand to those around him. Aric shook his head in frustration and leaned back to wait for the inevitable.

“Aric Trent?” inquired a deep voice from over top his shoulder.

Aric rotated to see who was asking. It was a guard—tall, built, prominent Adam’s apple covered with a layer of stubble from waking up too hung-over to shave. He looked down at Aric with an expression that said he really didn’t want to be there.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“You have a visitor.”

“I do?”

“Yes, that’s what I said. You have a visitor. A little girl. You wanna come see her or should I tell her you’re busy curling . . . .” He paused to stretch his neck over Aric’s shoulder and see the dumbbells at his feet, “15-pound weights?” he finished derisively and without a smile.

Aric looked down at the weights and blushed slightly as he brought his gaze back to the guard with an abashed smirk on his face. Then he remembered his promise to Gregor, and the smirk straightened out. He couldn’t leave. Not with Lance so close. He glanced quickly toward the picnic tables, again. There were five others with Gregor: friends, and all big too. Only 50 feet away, an officer stood leaning against a wall with rifle in hand and his eyes scouring the area. He was one that appeared to take his job seriously.

“Well?” the guard prodded.

Aric was torn. It was but once a week that he escaped to visitation, and he wouldn’t be gone long. Things felt tense, but the hardass with the rifle had the area under control. “Of course I’ll go see her.” He rose to stand. “And I was just warming up. You know, gettin the blood pumpin?”

“Yeah, okay,” the guard replied, unconvinced. He looked forward, still without a smile—at least on the outside.

Aric just laughed. “So let’s go. I’ve got a visitor waiting for me.”

The guard ushered him onward with a directional head nod and then led him through the dim prison corridors that gradually increased in cleanliness as they made their way to the more public side of the facility—the shades of grey between the dark and the light, one could say. The guard stopped him before an electronically-locked steel door and grabbed the handcuffs from his waist, slapping them on Aric’s wrists before delivering a thumbs-up to the security camera in the upper corner of the room. With a buzz, the deadbolt lock clicked out of place, and the guard pushed the door open, a strong current rushing past them as the opposing air from both sides of the doorway mixed.

Aric inhaled the freshness of freedom and suddenly craved it. The handcuffs, though, were going nowhere. A long, white hallway stretched out before him, but they took the first right and walked along a corridor whose left wall contained a series of large glass windows providing a peek into the visitor’s area. The girl sat alone at a tall wooden table that would have towered over her head had she not been sitting on a chair. A baby blue bow floated on the dark lake of her hair, steady amidst the current that brought black curls to fall about her shoulders. Her lips were red and pursed like she was kissing the air, and her feet dangled over a foot off the floor, wiggling back and forth as little kids love to do.

Aric smiled at his daughter. She hadn’t seen him yet. She was busy staring down at her hands—probably thinking about what color to have her mother paint her nails. Whitney, of course, was nowhere to be found. He tried to ignore that detail.

As he walked through the double doors leading into the room, he saw straight across to the glass door opposite him. Through it, Whitney and Scott sat, conversing while they waited for their daughter to return. Scott was her new boyfriend. His new enemy. The guy was a pencil-neck little prick with an unbefitting arrogance that would make you expect a man of far greater worth. Aric scoffed at their touching hands and looked away in disgust. That was his woman, his love, the mother of his child.

In a sense, he couldn’t blame her, but for his own sake, he had to. She had promised to wait for him—promised to visit every weekend and count down the days until her visit could end with their side-by-side stride out the front doors. It hadn’t lasted long. Only a couple months into his sentence, she had come with that asshole, the two of them holding hands before him as she carried on about how sorry she was and how his absence had pushed her to find what she needed elsewhere.

He couldn’t believe that guy had the audacity to sit in front of him with his girl’s hand, fondling it while she spoke as if it was his. The guards had been too quick for Aric to get a good shot at the bastard, and the handcuffs required that he double-fist it as if he were pushing the man’s face. No blood was spilled, but the scuffle had served its purpose. Scott no longer stepped foot in that visiting room or even looked him in the eye for that matter. Sometimes, Aric would dream about the things he would do to that guy if he had another chance, but then he would always end up killing himself somehow. He supposed it meant something. Dreams often do.

“Daddy!” his daughter screamed.

Aric looked up at her smiling face as she leapt down from her high throne and came rushing toward him like a miniature linebacker. She was latched around his legs before he could even say a word.

“Destiny, my baby,” he shouted in elation. “When’d you get so fast, and so big, too?”

He brought his bound hands down upon her shoulders, pulling her closer while she stayed clinging to his knees. When she finally let go, he crouched down and gave her a real hug, tears running down his cheeks and wetting the back of her dress. She was the only person in the world who loved him despite what he had done, or rather what he had been convicted of doing. In fact, he was quite sure that she was the only person in the world that loved him, period.

Aric hadn’t seen his worthless father since the night he’d been arrested, but he didn’t much care for the man in the first place. Sure, he’d received a few letters—his father apologizing for his ways and asking for forgiveness, taking responsibility for forcing Aric down the wrong paths—but these had come too late, and he’d always thought them hollow and insincere. They had been wads of paper beneath his bunk for the past five years, as meaningful to him as shit-smeared toilet paper.

“I’ve been eating my vegetables, Daddy. Scott says it’ll make me big and strong.”

Aric cringed inside but hid his resentment behind the white picket fence of a fake smile. “Oh he did, huh? Well it seems like it’s working.”

“Yeah, it is, Daddy. He said I look like I may be able to beat you in a fight now.” She feigned some punches at him and giggled.

Aric hated that guy more and more every day. “Well you tell him that Daddy said it’s best to practice with easier opponents first, so you need to fight him before you try and take on your old man. As a matter of fact, I think you should surprise him with a little attack as soon as you get back out there with him. If he gets mad, just tell him that Daddy told you to do it.”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

“I know. I know. Your daddy’s a pretty smart guy, huh?”

“The smartest daddy in the whole universe!” she proclaimed.

Aric gave her another hug and then picked her up and brought her over to the table, groaning as if she weighed a ton as he sat in the chair and placed her on his lap.

“Now, tell me how preschool is going. Are you making a lot of friends?”

“Preschool is so fun. We play games, and eat snacks, and the teachers tell us stories before we nap.” Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. “And there’s this boy named Charlie that’s really nice and always gives me his candy. He’s really funny and likes to make weird voices when he talks to the teachers. Everyone likes him, and he said he wants to be best friends.”

“Oh wow. Charlie sounds like a pretty cool dude,” Aric agreed. “Always be careful with boys, though. You never know what they want. You should talk to your mommy about boys some time. She’s almost as smart as Daddy.”

“If Mommy was smart, she would be in here right now sitting on your other leg.”

Aric was stunned by his daughter, but pleasantly so. He smiled from ear to ear and grabbed her little hands. “I agree with you, honey. She should be in here. We’re a family. Your mommy has just made her own decisions, and she’s decided that she wants to be with Scott instead.”

“But Scott isn’t nice to Mommy like you would be. Sometimes, I hear him yelling at her and she cries. She even told me that she wished you were with us.”

Once again, Aric was surprised. His daughter had no idea how important the things she said were. He had been unaware that Scott was that type of guy or that Whitney still had even the slightest vestige of affection for him. “Well, you tell Mommy that I said I love her and I miss her very much.”

“Okay, Daddy, but I think she already knows that.”

Aric smiled and gave his daughter a kiss on the forehead. They talked for another few minutes before a knock on the glass door interrupted Destiny’s amusingly-passionate exposition about the superiority of girls over boys. Whitney peeked half her body into the room as if afraid to enter all the way. It took only a few seconds for the air currents to bring her sweet scent to him. Andromedan lilac; he could never forget that smell.

“Destiny, it’s time to go, sweetheart.”

Whitney’s emerald eyes only glanced in their direction before shifting back to stare at the floor. Aric could tell she couldn’t stand looking at him, and he wished it was because she couldn’t stand knowing that looking was all she could do. She was still so beautiful, even though a part of him had already condemned her to his shit list, right below Scott. But, in light of the new information his daughter had divulged, this view of her no longer seemed so rigid.

If she still loved him, he needed that. The feeling of being loved was something he never truly knew until meeting her, and it was something he almost died without during the time between the introduction of Scott and the birth of his daughter. Now, Destiny gave him the fix that he required, but like any addiction, more is better, and he wanted more.

“Hi, Whitney,” Aric said, realizing that it would take her off guard. “How are you?”

She looked up at him, just for a moment, and then returned her gaze to empty space. “I’m fine, Aric. Thank you.” Her tone was neutral. “Come on, Destiny. Scott needs to get going.”

Aric clenched his fists for a second and then put his hands over his daughter’s ears. “You tell that asshole to go fuck himself. This is my daughter, and I’m spending time with her.”

She looked back into the room behind her, hoping that Scott hadn’t heard his words. “Aric, let’s not do this in front of her. Scott has an appointment to get to. He’s not being malicious and trying to take your daughter from you. I swear.”

Aric looked into her eyes, attempting, with his own, to plead for her to come back to him. For once, she returned his eye contact, and within her, he could see something stir as if trying to break free from chains. Deep within her, he saw a prisoner akin to the ones he lived amongst, only more oblivious to her oppression. She was a prisoner in that she felt obligated to live a life that she did not want, with a man that she truly did not love but pretended to nonetheless—more so for her own contentment than for his. But this stirring of consciousness, this awakening of truth, was only transitory, for it stopped almost as soon as it began and then vanished as she looked away in fear of her true feelings’ escape.

Aric took his hands from his daughter’s ears and gave her a final kiss before lifting her off his knee and lowering her to the floor. She ran off toward her mother, who reached out to intercept the lively child. Destiny turned and waved before disappearing with Whitney into the next room. Aric moved to the exit through which he had entered but turned around, first, to catch a final glimpse of his daughter.

Scott stood in plain sight with Destiny in front of him and his hands resting on her shoulders. She must have sensed Aric’s gaze because she turned her head and smiled back at him. It was a mischievous smile. As she spun back around, she brought a swift jab to Scott’s groin. He hunkered over in pain, and Aric could only imagine the sound that escaped his throat at that moment.

She said something to Scott, who then looked up through the doorway and across the room to Aric’s amused face. He was visibly pissed and flipped a middle finger in Aric’s direction: the most damaging thing he could think of doing from such a distance. Aric just returned a taunting grin and turned to walk back to the yard.

Seeing his daughter had made his day. In fact, it had made his week. Nothing made him happier. The guard from before was following by his side now, accompanying him back through the electronically-locked steel door and down the shades of gray into the darkness again.

“Cute girl,” he said as he fiddled a key in the handcuffs and cracked them open to release Aric’s wrists.

“I know. That’s my daughter. She’s so much like me,” Aric replied proudly, stepping through the doorway into the sunlit courtyard.

The guard looked down and shook his head. “Let’s hope not.”

He slammed the barred door shut and turned to walk back down the hallway from where he’d come. Aric wanted to scream something derogatory, but he thought it unwise and took a deep breath, instead. As he turned to squint into the brightness of the yard, his heart sank and his adrenaline came flooding forth to fill his veins and fuel his impending actions. A crowd had gathered near the picnic tables, and he knew the spectacle that was surely drawing their attention. Where the hell was that guard with the gun?

In a reckless sprint, he broke through the barricade of bodies and arose at Gregor’s back. Lance and his puppets were front and center, spouting out threats that stopped as they noticed Aric’s emergence from the crowd.

“There’s the man of the hour, now,” Lance said with an impious undertone. “Or should I say ‘dead man’?”

Gregor turned around to see his friend. His face was pale and hopeless, but Aric could see a small fire rekindle at the recognition of his ally.

“Just let it go, Lance,” Aric began. “I bumped into Trey. It was an accident. I don’t think we need to stir up this much trouble over something so stupid. And Gregor is getting out of here in a couple months. I can’t even believe you would ask him to throw that away and knock me off in my sleep. I never thought you were such a coward.”

Lance looked at him in rage as the veins in his arms and neck began to swell more than Aric had thought possible. Apparently, he wasn’t fond of the name-calling. Trey stood flimsily amidst the crowd at Lance’s back. He was small-framed and fair-skinned with long, blonde hair casting an effeminate air about his figure. The way he shifted awkwardly and bit his lip while staring at the ground, it was clear he was against what was happening. A bruise pooled beneath his right eye like running mascara. He wasn’t going to speak up.

“First of all, I don’t care if it was an accident. Everyone in this place needs to be fully aware of what they’re doing when they’re around me and my boys, especially my main boy.” He turned quickly to wink at his nervous lover, and Trey blew a kiss as he knew he had to. “You slip up, then you pay the price. Secondly, I didn’t ask Gregor to kill you; I told him to kill you. This son of a bitch owes me money, so it’s either do what I say or end up a slab of meat. He’s made his decision.”

Lance’s voice was deep and raspy from too much smoking. When he spoke, there was little intonation and almost no emotion—not even anger. It was as if he was reciting the facts: cold, heartless, unwavering. “Let’s get this over with,” he said, making his hands into pistols and shooting them at the two men in a gesture that was meant both to intimidate them and order the thugs at his sides to begin their assault.

Aric took a step back as the two gorillas came charging, but Gregor froze and cowered down to cover up. Dante reached him first and brought a powerful knee up toward his face. Gregor blocked it with his forearms, but the strike jarred his skull nonetheless and knocked him to his side. The assailant followed with some heavy bombs to the back of his head while Cain worked his kidneys like a set of bongos. Aric rushed forward and delivered a forceful shove, sending Dante’s top-heavy body crashing to the dirt.

Cain was to his right, still pounding away at Gregor’s helpless figure. Aric spun with an elbow extended and struck the man’s temple so hard he could feel something crack beneath the blow. Cain stumbled backward and Aric pursued. Still dazed, Cain made a wild swing at the air but had done so too soon, his fist finding nothing but the empty space before Aric’s charging face. A brutal head butt to the nose had a river of blood flowing down his tatted throat quicker than his skintight tank could absorb it.

With a well-placed foot and a vigorous push, Aric swept the man’s wobbly legs out from under him and sent him to the dirt to make mud with his leaking fluids. Before he could turn, a pair of meaty arms wrapped him up about the chest, pinning his own arms to his sides and squeezing the air from his lungs. Aric’s spine cracked within Dante’s embrace, bringing white spots of faintness to float about his vision.

He stomped his captor’s foot and then slammed his head back into the man’s face, loosening the bear hug a bit. A deep inhalation expanded his ribcage and forced the grip to widen yet further, and a quick exhalation allowed him to slim up enough to slip out of the hold by dropping to his knees. He sprang away from the man’s immediate reach and turned around to see that Gregor had joined the fray, his arms locked tightly around Dante’s neck. The big bastard was swinging violently behind him but soon realized it wasn’t working. Frantically, he reached for his throat, attempting, fruitlessly, to remove the arms that were stealing his breath.

Aric thought to lend a hand, so he moved forward and brought a hard uppercut into Dante’s abdomen. The blow forced from his lungs what little oxygen remained, and almost instantly, he went limp in Gregor’s arms. Clearly over 250 pounds, Gregor could do nothing but let the man’s dead weight plummet to the ground beside his bleeding lover. He watched the body fall and then looked up to Aric with a grin. It was short-lived.

Lance suddenly materialized at Gregor’s back with a menacing expression smeared upon his face. Aric could say nothing before Lance had wrapped an arm around Gregor’s forehead and forced it backward, using his other hand to carve a deepened gorge in Gregor’s throat with a rusty steel scrap. Gregor’s eyes widened in shock, relaying a plea for some kind of miraculous rescue that he knew would not come. It was only an instant that this appeal existed, for by the time the blade had worked its way from left to right across his throat, his eyes were already dimming and beginning to close.

“No!” was all Aric could manage to say, his arms outstretched and longing to lend aid. Although he had hoped it, his scream had not been enough to deter Lance from carrying out that ruthless attack. Gregor writhed before him now, his attacker sneering as he knelt down to use Gregor’s sleeve as a rag for his tarnished blade. Lance stood, pointed the weapon at Aric in an unspoken threat, and then turned to disappear through the wall of onlookers.

Before Aric could yell after him, a sharp pain pierced his neck, and he felt suddenly as though he had been turned upside down. He reached a hand up and pulled the dart from its target before falling to the ground, disoriented. The crowd dispersed as soon as they registered what was happening, giving way for the guard who had fired the tranquilizer to come assess his quarry. Aric looked up, the bright sun casting shade on the officer’s face to reveal nothing more than a dark figure looming over him. If it was the asshole from earlier, he wanted to strangle him, but his muscles had gone dead with the poison, so he just lay there.

Another shadowy form joined the other, and together they hoisted him up by the arms and dragged him across the yard. He watched as Gregor’s lifeless body shrank into the distance. Dante and Cain were stirring now, and more guards approached to deal with them. Aric removed his gaze from the scene and stared to the ground as the dirt and gravel slid beneath him. All noises were slow and muffled as if his head were submerged in water.

He glanced up, past the masses, to the distant fence that rose from the dirt and stretched around the facility. He’d had enough. There was certainly nothing for him on this side: just pain and fear and loneliness. But on the other side of that chain-link barrier was his Destiny, and if he squinted his eyes just enough, and turned his head to just the right angle, that fence appeared to disappear. Nothing was holding him back. Nothing.

He turned his eyes to the blurring image of his shoes scraping trails in the dirt. Through the doorway into the guards’ headquarters, a radio blared. The disc jockey’s voice droned amongst the chaos of the yard, and Aric focused on it as he drifted to sleep.

“To be honest, nobody quite knows what to expect yet. We don’t even know what it is. We just know it’s huge and it’s coming right for us. Looks to me like we’ve got ourselves a pretty serious game of chicken going on, and somehow, I don’t see us moving out of the way any time soon. Let’s just cross our fingers and hope this thing doesn’t have the balls to stay its course. We’re in God’s hands now. That’s for sure. All we can do is sit back, live our lives, and wait to see what happens.”

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