We’ve almost reached the end of the journey (the Short Fiction page contains any parts you may have missed). Today I’m happy to present the second-to-last installment.
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
Vortel stared at the numbers for a second, mind blank. In the distance, a voice blared over a loudspeaker, snapping him out of his daze.
Get moving. Axel had sent him back to save himself, not stand around like a boulder.
Vortel sprinted to the square and took in the surroundings. It had been twenty-four years, but he remembered everything as if it had happened the night before. He headed right, skirting the crowd of people heading to the fundraiser. At the edge of the square, a series of moving walkways led under a bridge for rapid-transport trains, over a gushing river, and toward a sprawling park.
Vortel edged past people on the walkway, muttering apologies. The far edge of the park—its green lawn already packed with people—held a large amphitheater constructed to look as if it was carved out of the face of a cliff, though in reality it sat in the heart of the city. Lights blazed from nooks in the rock, making it difficult to make out what was happening onstage.
The walkway whisked Vortel to a path running around the perimeter of the park. He broke into a sprint straight up the path along the park’s east border.
A glance back at the City Tower told him it was eight forty-five. He pictured the gang’s plan. Renya would be near the edge of the seating area across the park, waiting to give the signal. And his younger self perched in a tree along the path, silently setting up his sniper rifle. Meanwhile, Gurn and the others assembled in the street behind the amphitheater, which loomed ahead on his left.
His mind raced through options. Hit Gurn and the others first, or deal with himself? No, his position in the tree was such that stopping himself would draw too much attention. On the other hand, Gurn and company should be alone, having cleared the street of any potential interferences. If he dealt with them quickly, no one would find out and he’d still have time to stop himself.
As Vortel neared the amphitheater, he made out details. A fat man in a white suit stood at the mic. The Prime sat near the back of the stage, flanked by two security officers and nearly lost in the bright lights.
Where was Renya? A stab of longing pierced him. His gaze swept the crowd but he didn’t spot her. Not now. A mind full of distractions asked for disaster. His legs begged to match the pumping of his heart, but he slowed slightly so as not to draw attention from the uniformed officers scattered across the green.
According to the plan, Gurn would have four others with him, armed with knives, a few handguns, and the grenades in case his younger self failed. Vortel eyed Axel’s “pens” and sent up a silent thank you.
He could take them.
Two male officers stepped from the shadows at the side of the amphitheater as Vortel passed. Guns drawn, they blocked his way.
“State your business,” the one with a beard snapped.
“Getting some exercise.” He emphasized his excuse with a casual shrug.
“You’ll have to go somewhere else,” Beard said. “This area’s off-limits.” The communicator clipped to his belt crackled.
“We’ve got a situation. Three armed—” The voice cut off, followed by the muffled sounds of a struggle.
Beard’s face exploded in rage. “You’re with them, aren’t you?” He jammed the barrel of his gun into Vortel’s chest.
Slow breath. No quick movements.
A soft pop. Beard went rigid and crumpled forward, blood spreading across the back of his neck. Vortel dodged aside and rammed the tip of the shocker into the neck of the second officer, who went down stunned. A quick search revealed a short woman dressed in black, peering over a hedge of bushes that lined the path. One of the gang.
“Who are you?” she hissed.
“We have to hide them.” Vortel gestured to the officers.
She crept onto the path, gun leveled. The barrel sported a silencer.
“I’m with Gurn,” Vortel said, trying to appear unthreatening.
“Give the sign.” Her arm trembled and fear glinted in her eyes.
Vortel regretted what he was about to do. He tapped a fist against his chest three times. She relaxed and approached. Vortel stabbed the shocker into her side. Shock registered in her eyes. She gasped, convulsed, and pitched into Vortel’s arms.
After hiding the three bodies beneath the hedge, Vortel headed into the street. As expected, it was empty. The gang must have removed any patrolling officers. His stomach twisted.
He hadn’t gone far when a skinny figure sprang from the shadowed doorway of a shop, gun pointed at Vortel’s head. “Another step and you’re dead.”
Vortel gave the sign without thinking.
The boy—no older than sixteen—frowned. “Who are you? I don’t recognize you. Did you see Netta?”
Vortel jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. “Trouble with some officers. She’s dealing with them. Take me to Gurn. He knows me. He can explain.”
The boy gave a wary squint, then nodded.
Vortel’s muscles tightened and a rock settled in his stomach as he followed the kid. What was his name again? He deserved a better fate than this, but Vortel didn’t have time to negotiate. “How much longer till the hit?” he asked.
On the right, a row of two-story shops fronted the street, and on the left, the backside of the amphitheater towered into the night, a blank wall of gray stone. A knot of figures huddled at its base. Vortel picked out Gurn straightaway. Stocky and short, but cockier than a spoiled rich brat. Everyone carried guns and knives. Four grenades lay next to Gurn’s boots.
Gurn turned swiftly at the sound of their approach, brown coat swirling. His eyes were hard as granite. “I told you—” He broke off as he saw Vortel. “Who’s this?”
Skinny shrank back. “Said he knew you. Gave the sign and everything.”
Gurn thrust his face into Vortel’s, eyes narrow. “You look familiar, but I’ve never seen you before. Start talking.”
Vortel weighed his options. Exploding the “pens” would be easiest, but too noisy. And could he really kill them? They were dangerous yes, but still kids. Distant applause rippled through the air.
Vortel stared Gurn in the eye. “Don’t waste your life. Trust me—it becomes hell.”
Gurn scowled. “Get rid of this—”
Vortel drove the shocker into Gurn’s ribs. Infuriated surprise flooded Gurn’s face as he sank to the pavement. In the stunned silence that followed, Vortel wrenched the gun away from Skinny. Waving it at the three young men, he said, “Forget the assassination, the rebellion—everything. Get out of here and I’ll let you live.”
Instead of crumbling without their leader as he’d hoped, the gang rushed him. But Vortel was stronger and more experienced. He blocked vicious kicks and jabs, and spun, slashing the shocker across anything within reach.
A blade sliced his right forearm and he grunted but kept fending off the attack. A kick to the ribcage and Skinny sprawled with a yelp. Vortel smashed a fist into the face of the boy aiming a gun. The third slashed with a knife, catching Vortel across the thigh. Growling, Vortel lunged and thrust the shocker into the boy’s arm. Then again into his stomach.
Seconds later, the fray was over. Vortel grit his teeth at the pain. Sticky blood oozed from the gashes, but he didn’t have time to bandage himself.
He limped down the street, leaving the gang members scattered where they lay. Hurry. Hurry. How much time did he have? Each second drew out in agonizing suspense as he waited for the gunshot. It didn’t come.
Still a chance to save the Prime…and himself.
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