We’ve reached the end, the grand finale. Thank you so much for reading. I hoped you enjoyed the story.
And the Short Fiction page…well, you know the drill. 😉
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
Vortel winced with every step he took. He clamped down on the gash on his arm, but could do nothing about the one slicing across his thigh. Rounding the backside of the amphitheater, he headed up the path.
Fifty yards ahead, planted innocently near the front left corner of the amphitheater, rose his killing perch—a large tree with thick branches and flowering ferns.
Squinting, he thought he made out a shape among the branches.
Vortel slowed to a rapid walk. The crowd, spread out on blankets or seated in the reserved chairs at the front, clapped at something. Vortel scanned the skyline for the City Tower. Eight fifty-seven.
He halted and wiped sweaty, bloody palms on his pants. What should he do? Nothing too drastic. He needed to thwart the assassination and give his younger self a chance to escape.
Preferably with Renya.
He scanned the crowd and went cold, as if someone had dumped ice water on him. Renya stood past the tree and to the left, arms folded, watching the stage, as beautiful as he remembered. Casually, she began inching toward the path. Reaching it was the signal for his younger self to shoot when ready.
“Can I help you?”
Vortel snapped around, catching himself in time to avoid punching a thickset security officer in the nose.
Stocky squinted and pointed at Vortel’s cuts. “Had too much to drink and waded into a brawl, did you?”
His ignorance indicated he had no idea about the gang, the assassination, or the other security officers. Vortel’s mind raced. “That girl standing over there. She’s part of a plot to assassinate the Prime.”
The man raised a bushy eyebrow. “Is that so? And how long have you been drinking? Or is it the blood that’s making you lightheaded?”
Renya was halfway to the path. Vortel pointed. “Take her. You have to believe me. When she reaches the path, she’s going to signal someone to shoot the Prime.”
The officer eyed Vortel’s clothes. “You’re telling me this because you’re an upstanding citizen of Trannis? Highly unlikely. Stay out of the bars or I’ll have to take you in.”
Vortel took a gamble. He kicked the officer’s shin and darted toward the tree.
Swearing, the officer followed. Vortel ran despite the pain stabbing his leg, forced himself not to look at Renya, not to think about anything but changing this horrid moment. He caught a glimpse of himself through the ferns, leaning forward, intent on the stage. The sniper rifle nestled in position, two-legged tripod resting solidly on the wide branch.
Vortel spun to face the officer and pointed. “Up there.”
The man slammed to a halt, eyes going wide. He fumbled for his communicator with one hand while drawing his handgun with the other. “Emergency. Emergency. Report to the northwest corner immediately.”
On the stage, the fat man was shaking hands with the Prime.
A shape darted past the tree and slammed into the officer’s side. Renya. A dagger gleamed in the light. The officer gasped sharply and pitched forward, Renya on top of him, her knife buried in his neck. Blood spurted.
“No,” Vortel shouted, his cry drowned by thunderous applause from the audience.
Vortel let instinct take over. Race to the tree. Clamber up the trunk, using the crevices his younger self had carved in the wood only hours earlier. The familiarity made him want to gag. Behind him, Renya swore. Vortel pulled himself onto the lowest branch, hissing through his teeth at the burning pain in his arm and leg. His younger self sat just above him, crouched on the wide branch, sighting down the barrel.
The Prime began speaking.
The safety clicked off.
“Vortel,” Renya yelled.
His younger self jerked up with a curse, nearly dislodging the gun. Vortel reached up and yanked on the branch with his good arm. His younger self cursed again as he slipped and locked his legs around the branch. Vortel grabbed his ankle, and his younger self kicked.
“Reyna, help,” he said.
Something rippled though Vortel’s arm, sending hot needles into his skin. The world began to spin. He froze. He was directly affecting his younger self. Did that mean…?
A sharp blade sliced across the outside of his left leg just above his boot. Sticky warmth seeped into his pant leg. His leg buckled and he nearly fell off the branch. Renya scrambled onto the branch, brandishing her bloody knife, fury turning her eyes to cloudy blue pools.
His younger self had grabbed the rifle. Instead of shooting, he swung it at Vortel’s head. Vortel leaned back, caught the barrel, and yanked. His younger self lost his footing and fell, fingers grasping for a hold on the bark. Renya screamed, but his younger self dangled between her and Vortel, preventing her from attacking.
An explosion tore the air. Vortel craned his neck so quickly he almost lost his balance. Another rebel group Gurn hadn’t informed him of? The amphitheater broke into chaos.
Vortel’s muscles went limp and he released his grip on the rifle with a final tug. The movement provided enough of a jolt to dislodge his younger self from his precarious position, and he plummeted to the ground with a shout.
Everything around Vortel began to shake and a cold rush of air whistled past his face. He turned, heedless of Renya. A mass of flames and smoke consumed the stage, punctured by scrambling shapes. A knot of officers bustled away. Between their heads, Vortel caught sight of the Prime. Alive. Unharmed.
Vortel couldn’t swallow. He couldn’t breathe. Numbness pressed into his mind, accompanied by darkness at the edges of his vision. The shock hit him.
He wasn’t a murderer.
A tear leaked out of his eye.
He pulled Axel’s paper out of his pocket but his fingers went slack and it slipped from his grasp and drifted toward the lawn.
A cry of dismay lodged in Vortel’s throat as it squeezed shut.
His body twitched. He felt like a tattered blanket slowly unraveling. Legs turning to water, he pitched forward off the branch. The ground rushed up but morphed into a sheet of blackness.
Falling, falling, falling…
A jolt shot through Vortel’s legs as he hit the ground and rolled. He came up on one knee, gasping. Screams and shouts filled the smoky air, and people rushed past in a panic.
Renya dropped lightly to the ground beside him. “Are you all right?”
Vortel nodded. “Did they get him?”
“I’m not sure.” She reached down and pulled him up.
Vortel looked around. “We have to get out of here before someone sees us.” He bent to retrieve his rifle, which had fallen a few feet away, and stopped. A crumpled piece of paper lay in the grass. Curious, he stuffed it into his pocket and jerked his head toward the street behind the alley. “C’mon. Let’s go.”
Together, he and Renya ran. Something felt wrong. The note. It seemed to burn a hole in his pants. Who had the man been? Was the note his?
Not ready to deal with Gurn, Vortel led them behind a hedge of bushes clumped at the base of the amphitheater backdrop wall, but tucked into the shadows around the corner from the stage.
“What are you doing?” Renya asked as he clicked the safety on and propped his rifle against his leg.
Shaking his head, he drew out the paper, smoothed it, and turned himself so a trace of light allowed him to read. Crooked handwriting in large letters filled the page.
Vortel, my man,
If you’re reading this, it means you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. I knew you could do it, and I’m glad I was able to help you. It was a pleasure getting to know you, even if you’re reading this and thinking, “What the hell does that mean?” What it means, my man, is simple. Like I told you in the tunnel, make this chance count.
For yourself, for everyone involved. Especially for Renya.
“The man dropped that,” Renya said. She peered at the message and gasped. “That’s my name. How does he know my name? Who is he?”
Vortel stared at the paper, hands trembling. “I…I’m not sure.”
The paper rustled and disintegrated, leaving Vortel grasping air.
He gulped. Ice snaked up his spine.
Something about the message…the man. He stared at his hands, which still shook. Faint memories tried to push into his mind—a vague dream bobbing to the surface. When the stranger had touched him, he’d felt the oddest sensation, as if he had met the man before. In that moment a wave of memories had flooded him—a prison, mine tunnels, a man who always winked.
He lifted his gaze and stared into Renya’s pale blue eyes. “I think he saved me.”
Concerned filled her expression. “Saved you? From what? He tried to kill you.”
Vortel pictured the message.
Make this chance count.
A powerful urge cam over him. He grabbed Renya’s hand. “You were right. We need to get out of here. Leave the gang while we still can. Go somewhere…” he gazed around “…safe.”
Renya cocked her head. “Why the sudden change? You’re not making any sense.”
They ran down the path while the confusion continued in the amphitheater behind them. Vortel’s mind raced faster than the high-speed transport trains as Axel’s words tumbled around.
Deep down, he knew he had experienced something incredible. It didn’t make sense, but for some reason he trusted Axel’s message, as if it was a promise he’d made himself years ago and now remembered.
They paused at an intersection. No sight of Gurn and the others. “Where should we go?” Renya asked.
An enormous pressure lifted off Vortel. “I don’t know. Let’s keep running and see where we end up.”
Renya gave him one of her are-you-serious looks. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know. I feel…” Vortel took a deep breath and looked around. “I feel free.”
There you have it. I’d love to hear your impression of the story. Leave a comment below or find me on social media.