To free oneself from rigid bonds,
And have the chance to live sweet life,
Often, fears must be addressed,
A trip to hell, through pain and strife.
It was too damn loud to sleep, and the stench in the air lingered thick and moist. Aric sat slumped in the seat of a prison bus as it rumbled down a dusty road. As usual, he could taste that dust as it sifted in through the open slits of crooked windows. He could taste the hygienic shortcomings of his fellow passengers, as well, and it made him cringe at his dilemma. Smell their body odor or taste it? These were his only options. He had to breathe somehow.
The black ring around his ankle cut into his flesh, so he picked at it and tried to squirm it down to a thinner part of his leg. It grabbed at his skin and pinched as it slid. “Damn it,” he mumbled. It was a little better—still uncomfortable—but he decided to settle. They told him it would knock him unconscious if he tried to mess with it. He’d pressed his luck enough.
Most of the inmates were asleep on the bus, snoring and trembling limply with the roughness of the road. A few were awake and talking shit amongst each other in the back. Aric’s gut groaned with desire. They had been driving for nearly twelve hours straight, and all he’d eaten was some insipid soup with a hair in it and a slice of stale bread with an island of mold on one corner of the crust. He swallowed his own spit to try and fill some of the empty space in his stomach, but he doubted it would work.
The bus growled, too, as its wheels tore into the soil and dragged them up the side of a steep hill. Down from its crest, there was a dirt-tread valley littered with buildings that looked like they had been thrown up in 20 minutes with some scraps pulled from a junkyard. The vicinity was enclosed by a tall chain link fence, its length trimmed with rusted barbwire that would kill its victim with infection if they didn’t bleed out first. Clouds of dust whipped through the air, borne by warm breezes from the desert’s core. Aric could already feel the grit between his teeth. He smacked his lips together and peered through the window to his right.
A filthy sign sat back from the road, barely visible behind the low-hanging woodland boughs. Its words were equally as concealed under a layer of mud and sand, but he could just make them out:
Southwestern Arthian Correctional Boot Camp: We’ll make men of you yet.
Aric chuckled to himself. They were about to go to war, and their only training would take place in a reformation camp for derelict juveniles. Obviously, it wasn’t ideal, but really, they had little choice. It was either rot away in a lonely 10’ x 10’ cell or risk your life fighting to save it from such a fate. For most, the decision was simple.
The tarnished fence grew in the windshield as their bus descended down the far side of the hill. Two watchtowers flanked the iron gate, and guards loomed within each, clutching rifles and staring intensely down upon them. As the vehicle approached, one of the watchmen signaled to a larger building in the center of the camp, and the gate creaked open to allow them passage. For some of the men on that bus, it represented their door to freedom, but for a majority, that entrance slammed behind them like the jaws of Death.
Once inside, Aric could hear the roar of conversation amongst those already settled in their barracks. The buildings were much larger than they had appeared from a distance. He wondered how many men were bunked in each. Seventy-five? A hundred? Two hundred maybe? Judging by the number of separate housing units, he guessed that nearly 6,000 criminal soldiers-in-training likely resided in that hellhole.
Aric expected a lot of drama and a fair amount of violence, for rivals and enemies that had long been separated were bound to be reunited within those walls. Maybe giving weapons to these animals isn’t such a good idea, he thought. The whole concept of war was new for everyone, but society must truly be desperate to summon their criminals for help. He glanced around at the hardened faces of the brutes around him. It’s likely we’ll have a war of our own before the end of the week. He leaned low in his seat and took an oath to stay away from the wolves. He was going to make sure he made it to the rightful fight and, ultimately, back to his girl.
“Hey David, wake up,” Aric said, shaking his friend from nightmare. “We’re here.”
David had been drooped in his seat like a wilting flower for the last few hours, contributing to the snores and the odor that had kept Aric from doing the same. “Wh-what? Oh, shit. I fell asleep.”
“Ha, I’d say so. You were twitching like you were having a seizure or something.”
“Damn,” David mumbled, sitting up and scratching his shaggy hair. “I was having some more bad dreams. I don’t think they’re ever gonna stop. It’s like a fucking curse, you know? Those girls aren’t ever gonna let me rest.”
“Well, think on the bright side. Since you’re paying for your sins now, maybe God will cut you a break in the afterlife.”
“Haha. No, my friend. Satan’s got me a nice little spot picked out. That, I’m sure of.”
Aric slipped on a fake smile and shook his head. He didn’t like hopelessness. He didn’t believe in the concept.
“All right, you animals, wake your asses up.” One of the correctional officers in the front of the bus was standing in the aisle and yelling at the top of his lungs. “It’s time to get off this damn bus. You’re to report to barrack number 27 immediately, where you’ll each be provided with a bag of gear and then allowed to pick a bunk. Sergeant Mauler will meet you there shortly, so don’t be late. Trust me. You don’t want to get on that guy’s bad side, especially this early in the game. Now move it.”
The prisoners rose quickly and filed down the aisle and out into the scorching sun. Aric and David moved a few yards away and paused to survey the area. There were men of all sizes and races, bustling about near their barracks, flashing gang signs and ink, taunting, and cursing, and emanating their violent natures with every move. He wasn’t small—5’11” and 200 pounds of lean muscle—but Aric didn’t feel safe with so many bloodsuckers running around without chains. He wanted some security.
Toward the rear of the bus, he spotted a small, brown boulder with a bed of rocks and pebbles about its base. He left David standing for a moment and moved closer to explore. His fingers sifted through the stones until he found the one he was looking for and palmed it, rising to glance around for prying eyes. There were none. With both hands clasping its face, Aric lifted the rock above his head and slammed it onto the boulder’s edge, the collision sending stone shards about the ground like shrapnel.
As he had hoped, one fragment was fairly thin with sharp edges coming to a point at one end. It was only a few inches long, but good enough to do some damage if he needed to. Discreetly, he slid the blade up the sleeve of his prison jacket and walked back to David’s side.
“What’s that for, Ice Pick?” David asked.
“Protection,” he said bluntly. “Let’s get to barrack 27 before that Mauler guy gets there.”
The two of them moved swiftly across the camp, avoiding eye contact with the convicts that leaned against walls and glared at them like fresh meat as they passed. Aric looked up at the numbers on the buildings to make sure they were heading in the right direction, and as he drew his gaze back down, a familiar face caught his attention. Some 50 feet to his right, a group of felons gathered about a picnic table, looking up at a man who stood on its top, speaking.
The orator was tall and muscular with greasy black hair that never moved and malevolent eyes, the authority of which Aric could sense even without their attention. They were eyes you couldn’t forget: eyes that still haunted him after five years. A sudden warmth fell over him with an uncontrollable trembling, like the heat of friction from his rampant emotions. Instinctual fear gave way to the stronger sensations of anger, and hatred, and vengeance. He did not fear this man anymore; he simply wanted to wring the life from him.
Five long, unjust years in the slammer, his girlfriend’s love, and his daughter’s birth taken, his name marred by crimes he hadn’t committed: the greatest misfortunes of his life could all be traced back to that one man. Aric stopped thinking and just walked. He walked directly toward the crowd with a look in his eye that would have set them on fire had they noticed him. He didn’t know what he was about to do, but he was prepared to see what happened. His breaths were quick and shallow and louder than the muffled noises of his surroundings. He could feel his heart pumping heat and fury into his muscles.
Aric’s gaze drew Matrick’s from atop his stage, and the bastard twisted his lips into a wicked grin and gestured with his arms for the crowd to part. They turned to see the object of Matrick’s attention, and Aric ignored them, his eyes affixed to the one man that mattered. Matrick jumped down from the tabletop and stepped forward through his horde of cronies. “Ice Pick?” he said, cocking his head with a theatrical squinting of the eyes. “Hot damn, is that you?”
Aric said nothing. He just kept on trucking. He didn’t slow down, he didn’t speed up, he just advanced swiftly and intently like a man possessed. The distance between them shrank without his notice, and suddenly, it had nearly vanished.
“Well, I’ll be damned. It is you,” Matrick continued. “It’s so nice to—”
His arrogant voice desisted as Aric jammed the sliver of stone up under the traitor’s chin in midsentence. Blood rose in the wound and rinsed down Matrick’s chest in a flood. His face grimaced in pain and surprise, his chest heaving with blood-soaked coughs. His powerful eyes drained of their charisma, flinching, and shrinking, and finally closing with a long exhalation. Aric released his weapon and watched his nemesis collapse to the blood-sodden dirt at his feet.
He was panting with brutish rage, his forearm varnished to the elbow with red and dripping ruby beads in the dust. At that moment, he was fearless and feral, prepared to take whatever lives rose to challenge him. To the mob around him, the threat was unmistakable. They backed away like a dilating pupil, shocked and afraid of the savage stranger that stood amongst them.
“That man was a snake,” Aric said furiously. “I hate snakes.”
The others looked on in terror, unwilling to speak and chance provoking another attack. Aric moved to leave, and the masses scattered from him as if he were diseased. Only seconds after his departure, an uproar rose at his back as the convicts panicked, and argued, and began to fight. He didn’t turn to watch, just waved David on and walked quickly from the scene.
“What the hell was that all about?” David whispered.
“Someone from my past,” Aric replied. “A debt long overdue.” David nodded and said no more. “Come on. Let’s get to our bunks before the guards figure it all out.”
They walked on, and from the corners of his eyes, Aric watched the guards approach the chaotic pack and ask no questions before pulling remotes from their pockets and knocking the delinquents out one-by-one with the press of a button. Aric held his breath as he waited for someone to rat him out, but it never happened. Apparently, he had made enough of an impression to deter the men from risking the possibility that he hated rats as much as he did snakes.
It took only a few minutes to come upon barrack 27 and enter to the tumult of slamming lockers, stomping feet, squeaking beds, and curse words galore. The men were unpacking big, brown, fabric bags onto their cots, sorting out the boots, and shirts, and pants, and socks like children evaluating their pull after a night of trick-or-treating. Aric scanned the room until he found two adjacent empty cots a few rows over on the end.
The duo started in that direction but barely took a single step before stopping to cringe at the sudden spawning of a piercing ringing noise within the room. Aric frantically jammed his fingers into his earholes and turned to see a man in uniform standing behind them with a look of disgust and an instrument like a mini satellite dish with a rifle-like grip. The man aimed the sonic weapon directly at them, grinning sadistically beneath his protective earmuffs as the high-powered sound waves threatened to burst every ear drum in the room.
“All right, you bags of shit, line up along this row of beds,” he hollered, “and stand straight or I’ll shock the piss out of you.” He waved a long, black rod in his hand: a Bolt Baton. Everyone in the room had probably had a taste of its sting at least once in their life: enough to plant their feet as firm as a tree’s roots and straighten out like a light pole. Aric held his hands together behind his back, attempting to keep his bloody arm from view. “As your correctional officer probably informed you, I’m Sergeant Mauler, and you don’t want to piss me off.
“I’m here to welcome you to your intensive four-week crash course on how to be a soldier in the Arthian Military. Of course, none of you scoundrels will ever get close to having the skill or mental toughness of the real men of our armed forces, but my job is to get you as close as possible. The first thing you must know is that nobody cares whether you live or die.” Mauler paused to let his statement sink in, seeking eye contact with each man but finding it only transiently before his intimidated victim would reflexively look away. “Society shat you into the toilet of prison and flushed you down, and the last thing people want is to see their turds climb up out of the sewers and walk the streets like they’re real boys. Luckily for you guys, you don’t give two shits what society thinks. That is, after all, why they cast you out in the first place.
“This is your opportunity to flip the world your middle finger and rise up from the ashes with a second chance they don’t want you to have. Keep that in mind when you’re out there in the heat of combat with bullets zipping over your head and your rifle smoking at your side. If you’re not fighting for your people, then you’re at least fighting for yourself. You slack off or do anything I don’t like while you’re in this camp, and you’ll find yourself in a dark hole eating your own shit until you decide to shape up. One more mistake, and it’s back in society’s toilet where you came from.
“You will address me only as ‘sir,’ and you will say my name before and after every utterance that escapes your filthy mouths. Now tell me, do you understand everything I’ve just said to you?”
“Sir, yes, sir,” the men answered.
“Very good,” Mauler said with surprise. “This group may be a head above the others. It took at least three lashes of this baton here before the other barracks got that right. For that, I’ll cut this speech short and save the rest for the morning. Since you’re all fresh recruits, the rest of the day is yours to spend. There’s a bag of gear on each one of these cots, so for those of you who haven’t done so already, make sure to find your own bed and unload your bag into your locker. Lights go out at 2100 hours, and we’ll be waking you at the break of dawn to assign you to your training stations for the day. In the meantime, get settled in and don’t do anything stupid. That’s all I have. At ease, pigs.”
Mauler exited the room as abruptly as he had appeared, leaving the men to break away from their neat procession and reassume their former chaos. Aric and David headed toward the empty beds they had previously spotted and took a seat.
“Looks like you’ve found my bed.”
Aric looked up to see a short, gangly, Hispanic guy with a crew cut, a white tank top, and an arm so full of ink that it looked like an ornate prosthetic limb. The man wasn’t looking at him. He was speaking to David.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” David said, instantly standing to relinquish his cot. “I didn’t realize.”
Aric looked past the bully where his two friends stood and laughed like hyenas with mouths half-filled with yellowed teeth. He recoiled at the sight of them. As the incident with Matrick had already revealed, Aric was finding his fuse to be quite short that day.
“Don’t you fucking move, David,” Aric demanded. “Sit back down on your bed.”
The Hispanic turned his head like an eagle—sharp and quick—his eyes attempting to intimidate. He licked his lips: another attempt. “What was that, boy? You’re my bitch up in here. You don’t disrespect me.”
Boy? Aric thought to himself. The name opened up a box of memories he’d hidden away for years. It was a box filled with misery, humiliation, and anxiety, but even more with hatred and resentment. If this asshole’s gonna go there, then he can deal with the consequences. Aric’s fingers curled to fists that clenched and turned red with the fire that his father lit long ago. His eyes grew intense, suggesting the violence to come.
The two amigos stopped laughing and stepped up behind their leader like ghetto bodyguards with ridiculous goatees. The man kept his face toward Aric and lifted his arms to highlight his friends’ presence. “What are you gonna do?”
Aric stared at him for a while with a frightening look in his eyes and a jaw that clenched in his restraint. He was going to pounce—his body language showed that clearly—but when he would strike was the question.
The two glared at each other for nearly 20 seconds without exchange, and then Aric spoke. “Another time.”
The man laughed insincerely, his eyes squinting, and then stopped, suddenly, his menacing cackle. “No, you’ve stepped up now, boy. There ain’t gonna be no other time.” As the words still fell from his tongue, he lunged forward to grab Aric but came up short. Aric had rolled backward off the other side of the bed. He threw a jab out that connected solidly with his attacker’s forehead, and the man winced with the hit but didn’t back down, flailing wild fists overtop the bed. His arms were too short to reach Aric, so he circled around the cot and charged forward with his hands flying freely ahead.
Aric had his guard up and shuffled away from the blows, most of them missing and others only grazing his forearms. Without warning, he stopped his backpedaling and sprang forward at the unwary aggressor. The sudden change in momentum startled the man and cluttered his mind for but an instant, and in that moment, Aric pushed his face with open palms and slipped a foot behind his legs. The man’s feet came forward while his head went back, and he slammed to the ground with skull-splitting impact.
Without wasting a second, Aric dropped to his knees by the man’s side and drove a heavy elbow into his nose. The bones cracked beneath the blow and sent streams of blood oozing down the man’s cheeks. Aric punched him once more in his broken nose, and then stood and kicked him hard to the temple, rendering him unconscious. Ten feet away, the two amigos had David on the ground and were bent over, dropping fists upon him. The whole room of prisoners had gathered around to watch, and no one was jumping in to stop the assault.
Aric sprinted at them and leapt in the air, crushing the side of one of their heads with a flying knee that dropped the man into a brain-dead stupor. The second guy was to his left and brought a hook around that hit Aric in the cheek but didn’t faze him. The other fist was swinging too, but Aric ducked below it and speared the man to the floor. They grappled with each other for some time before Aric wound up on top with his left hand clenching his opponent’s throat. He smashed a hard fist into the guy’s nose, bouncing his head off the cement floor with a brutal thud. The foe’s resistance faded, so Aric released his throat and rained a flurry of straight punches down upon his face until his body went limp.
Out of nowhere, the tough sole of a boot stamped its imprint in Aric’s cheek and sent his body tumbling from his victim’s comatose torso. He somersaulted backward to evade another strike and stood to face his new enemy who had entered from the crowd. The man had a long, unkempt beard and a scar that ran from above his left eye and down across his nose to his right cheek. He was obviously some sociopath who just wanted to join the fight. Scarface blitzed forward.
Aric eluded some wild punches and then delivered a strong uppercut into the man’s gut that made him hunch over and spit air. He fell to his knees and then to his side unconscious, and Aric watched him drop with a baffled look upon his face. Suddenly, he became overwhelmed with faintness and his head began to bobble like a drunkard. His vision blurred, colors mixed, and then everything faded to black as he crumpled to the ground beside Scarface.
“I said not to do anything stupid,” Sergeant Mauler screamed from the far side of the room. He slipped the remote device back into his pocket. “That’s what happens when you disobey an order.”