Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 1

The Cycle is a path that neither ends nor begins, so why we walk it is all that matters. 

The Lacuna Augury

~~~~~

Rocca blinked.

He wondered where he was this time. Through ceiling-high windows he stared out at an unfamiliar city-scape slipping into twilight under skies that threatened rain. Across the street he could see a car whose back broken window had been poorly replaced with a thick sheet of plastic that fluttered sedately in bitter air. The derelict high-rise the car rusted in front of had several windows boarded up, but from the dim flickering lights in a store on the first floor it still appeared to be in use. The few people who walked the streets wore tattered clothing over hunched shoulders, wordlessly plodding toward their next disappointment. Battered vehicles shimmied noisily down long stretches of pitted road between aged structures, emitting half-hearted bleats from their horns at every imagined delay. The city felt tired.

Flashes of red and blue light flickered through a set of windows along a nearby wall. Rocca blearily made his way over to them and peered down several stories to the front of the building he was in where lines of officers kept an agitated crowd of protestors at bay from behind hastily erected barricades. Apparently there were still some who hadn’t given up on this city. Makeshift protest signs danced in angry hands, and though he couldn’t read the language they were written in, he knew what they said. That knowledge was far more than anything that could have been accounted for through his own experience. Rocca knew. He always knew. Here, he knew things that he couldn’t.

The usual haziness that came from entering someone’s final moments was lingering. Rather than try to clear his head, Rocca let his mind drift for a bit longer. He longed to be down there on the street amongst the protests, rallying against whatever injustice loomed, lost in one passionate moment after another without any worry for tomorrow. He had always wanted to be like them. Watching any of the myriad of protests that seemed to occur on an almost daily basis around his campus had always been enough to leave him feeling invigorated. There was just something about the way they brought passionate people together to resist and strive for change as one that he found intoxicating.

As the haziness began to clear and the anxious, leaden weight of reality settled onto him. The only thought that ever occupied his mind returned: escape. He could run. He had run before. Ran until his lungs gave out and his legs crumpled beneath him. Perhaps he could hide again. Try to lose himself in the crowd before fading into the shadows between buildings. He could try and fight too, but like everything he had tried so far it hadn’t done any good. Final moments were a story with only one ending, and there was no escape from this side.

There was a way back — he knew there had to be — but if it was in these prisons of death where he chose to hide from Her, he hadn’t found it yet.

“Did you find it, whatever you were looking for?”

Rocca, jolted from his musings, turned sharply to Kwame who slowly withdrew his hand which had rested on Rocca’s shoulder.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

Rocca waived it off with a minimal gesture. “It ended as it always does, but I didn’t find anything new. Perhaps next time.”

Kwame’s eyelids drooped almost imperceptibly. “You still think home is out there somewhere? Somewhere you can get?”

“Yes, it’s somewhere we can get, but we can’t keep having this conversation.”

“So you say, but tell me that we’re getting closer.”

“We’re getting closer.” Why couldn’t it be true?

Kwame sighed heavily and crossed his arms. “Are we really? I can’t do… whatever it is that you do. I don’t know any of these things you know. I don’t feel anything you say you can feel.”

Looking down, Rocca noticed for the first time that they both carried assault rifles hung on straps around their necks. By the looks of them, they could have been relics of several wars. Rocca turned from Kwame and the windows for the first time to view the rest of the room. Twenty or so women and men, all in tattered clothing just like theirs, were scattered about the cold office room lit only by the weak sunlight in tense silence. Some of them didn’t look like they were out of high school, if they had even gone, yet each one carried a gun of one kind or another. Though scared, their hearts all said the same thing: not without a fight.

A pair of men with machine guns stood guard over two women and a man wearing fine suits who were bound and on their knees against a side wall. Unlike the rest, they looked liked they might actually have served. Rocca had never seen any of the hostages before, but all the same he knew that they were parliament members, and ones that had voted time and time again to trade the freedoms of their people for kickbacks from government or corporate groups: a distinction that had long ago become meaningless.

Rocca pinched his eyes shut and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He had become accustomed to knowing things he shouldn’t, but it made his sanity feel slippery, as though with one misstep he could find himself falling away forever.

“Well, are we getting closer or not?” pressed Kwame.

Rocca peered back into his friend’s dark, searching eyes. “I don’t know.”

Kwame flopped heavily into a nearby desk-chair, his expression a mix of frustration and fatigue. Rocca clasped his shoulders with both hands.

“Look at me.”

Kwame reluctantly complied.

“We will not give up. We’re not dead yet. That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

Kwame hung his head. “You know I have great faith in you, but how do you know?”

“What?”

“How do you know we’re not already dead? This…place, these places, what you call final moments. Whatever they are, they’re not real.”

“I promise you, they are real.”

“How do you know? How do we pass from one to the next, living and dying again and again? How do you know what it is like to be dead? Can you say it is not like this?

Rocca’s expression hardened, and he stomped on the rising doubt Kwame had stirred up with a conviction he hoped would reach his words  “It’s real.”

“Then they are not what was real before. We can’t leave; we can’t go anywhere! We’re prisoners here. Can you say this is not Hell?”

“We’ll find our way back.” Words he knew he spoke as much to reassure himself as Kwame. “This place and the real world are one in the same right now, they’re overlapping. We’re so close that what we do here happens there. But when it ends, it takes the people who were meant to go with it and then disappears forever. We die because we’re a still a part of it. We just need to find a way to…step across, and let the final moment leave without us.”

A man with several sets of dog-tags hanging from his neck shouting into his cellphone drew Rocca’s and Kwame’s attention away from each other. Rocca knew he was the group’s leader, and wondered what language it was he was speaking.

“What do you mean it’s too hot‽” You swore to me that you were behind us, and if we ever needed help you would be there no matter how dire the situation. You swore it, so how can it be too hot‽”

Whatever reply was given failed to pacify. Dog-tags hurled his cellphone with a primal shout at the face of the male hostage. Hard plastic cracked against bone with a sickening sound that caused several of the young freedom fighters to wince. The bound man cried out and writhed against his bonds, but that only seemed to fan the flames that the phone conversation had ignited.

“I didn’t hear you cry out at the suffering of your countryman when you sentenced them to die on their knees in the gutters.”

Dog-tags marched toward the three hostages. They tried to retreat from him, but with a wall at their backs and armed guards on either side, there was nowhere for them to go. Dog-tags’ boot crashed heavily into the man’s fat stomach. His face contorted with pain, then connected with the tile floor before he emptied his stomach. Dog-tags turned and shouted at one of the women hostages. Her eyes went wide with fear.

“Is there no end to the suffering you’re still able to cause our people?”

The woman bleated out some obsequious gibberish, but the back of Dog-tags’ fist silenced her and shot a spattering of blood across the floor. Dog-tags had turned to the other woman when Rocca spoke.

“You shouldn’t hit them.” The moment he opened his mouth he regretted it, but he kept it off his face. No interfering. That was his rule, and hard learned at that. Interfering lead to caring, and caring led to trying to make a difference, and that’s how you got the attention of things you didn’t want taking notice.

Dog-tags turned on him, but seemed to struggle for a moment to figure out who he was. Because Rocca and Kwame were a part of the final moments, they didn’t quite exist, and phased into people’s perceptions only when given a reason to pay attention to them. Gaining attention from the real world forced it to readjust itself to fold them into the situation as thought they were supposed to be there, and Rocca feared that such a change might be enough to get Her attention, or the attention of something else as equally undesirable.

Eventually Dog-tags appeared to settle into some semblance of recognition along with the rest of the room who had turned, silent and tense, to see who had spoken. Dog-tags focused his frustration and anger on Rocca, fixing eyes burdened by death on him as he marched over. He bared down upon Rocca with all the weight of those eyes, his body positioned in such a way to suggest that he might lash out with one of his clenched fists, but Rocca was beyond any power this man held sway over, so he held his place steadfast.

“Perhaps your loyalties lie elsewhere, is that it? Will you try and betray us so you can run back to some imagined protection you think they will offer you?”

Standing this close, Rocca couldn’t help but notice the empty hourglass that appeared and floated above Dog-tags’ forehead. It meant that these was his final moments, but he was used to seeing that — it was the hurt he saw beneath the anger in Dog-tags’ eyes that surprised him. How bad had the news over the phone been? Rocca looked past Dog-tags and scanned the young faces around the room, their breaths held whether they realized it or not. Dog-tags wasn’t taking well to being ignored, but just before he spoke again, he turned and saw what Rocca had seen, a room full of frightened eyes all on them, and seemed to change his mind.

“Forgive me,” he said, turning his back on Rocca. “Now is not the time for quarrels. Now is the time for solidarity. Now is the time we stand together as one; unmovable as the mountains, fearless as angels. They’ve shut the heat off to test our resolve, and the lights to scare us, but we mustn’t forget why we’re here. We’re here because our countrymen were driven away from self-reliance and freedom by fear, and then lured into arms that promised comfort. Each step our countrymen took with the corrupted made them weaker, and each time they waited for them to forget they had taken that step before coercing them to take another.

When our countrymen realized the lies for what they were they resisted, only to find that their hands were weak, and their swords dull. They tried to rise up and take back what was rightfully theirs, and many were snapped like dead trees against a storm. But we have bent like reeds and weathered that storm, and now will show them that not every hand is weak, and not every sword was left unsharpened and out to rust.”

Dog-tags was a far better speaker than anyone he had ever heard at the campus rallies or protests. It was easy to see why he had been able to rally these kids, and why….No, he couldn’t let himself get involved. They only lives he could save now were Kwame’s and his own.

Dog-tags walked unhurried back to where the hostages were kneeling. All three of them stared up at him, eyes wide and shaking as they shrunk back from his approach. Dog-tags stared dangerously down at them. “You won’t need to be strong for us anymore.”

Dog-tags turned from the hostages to the rest of the room. “We have to sit tight for now, but don’t get comfy, and stay vigilant.”

The botched entry. More memories that weren’t his flooded Rocca’s mind. The parliament members had chosen this decrepit and mostly out of use government building for their clandestine meeting, but the insurgency had caught word of it through their network. There had been only two guards stationed in the building, and both were old if not elderly. The plan had been to subdue them, then capture the parliament members and get out before what few people in the building there were knew what had happened.

It did not go as planned.

One of the guards must have been ex-military. It only took a single inattentive moment for him to easily turn the tables on the youth that was watching over him by taking his gun. He got off one shot, injuring one of the kids, before a girl who had clearly never fired a gun shot him in a fearful rage when he turned the gun on her. When his comrade fell, the other guard lunged for the alarm and triggered it just before Dog-tags shot him dead.

After that, they had had to sift through the ensuing pandaemonium of routed government workers for their targets, and caught them by luck on a side staircase where they were pushing others out of the way in their haste. By the time they had secured their targets the police had already arrived, and they had no other option but to drag the parliament members upstairs and regroup. Rocca could tell that the few seasoned soldiers in the group blamed the kids, but how can anyone blame a rag-tag team of passionate teens without training who were handed guns and told to change the world?

Rocca identified the kid who had been shot. Dog-tags had stopped to check up on him. A fellow freedom fighter sat with them, clearly watching over his injured comrade, and though he looked concerned as his friend looked to be in a good deal of pain, Rocca got the impression that the wound was clean and the kid was in no danger of bleeding out. Small favors.

Kwame, who had been waiting until he felt certain that no one was paying attention to them anymore, pulled Rocca by the arm away from everyone else before speaking. “Why did you do that? You told me interfering was dangerous.”

“I said it wouldn’t make any difference.” Actually, dangerous didn’t begin to describe the depths of what Rocca feared were the ramifications of another serious blunder on his part. When he had pulled Kwame free from the man’s final moments — something he still didn’t know how he had done — it had felt like existence itself was being unmade. It made Rocca uneasy to think about just how little he felt he understood after so long.

“Then why try to stop that guy? What difference is it going to make?”

Rocca looked to the frightened hostages, all of whom were now crying.

“I don’t know, but I just needed to. Do the right thing, I mean. Maybe that’s enough.

Rocca slumped in a chair that appeared beneath him, which, moments before, had been twenty feet away and overturned next to the wall. Kwame averted his gaze immediately, beads of sweat forming on his brow despite a simultaneous bout of shivering.

Rocca raised an eyebrow, then considered the chair beneath him for a moment.

“Sorry. I forget I’m even doing it most of the time.

“No, I’m sorry, it’s not my place. I don’t think I was meant to see such things. I should be used to it by now, but each time I witness it, it takes another shaving of my sanity with it.” Kwame shivered again and looked up at the ceiling. “Could you do something about the heat or the lights?”

“Too noticeable.”

“Too noticeable? What about that chair, or the fight you had with that guy?”

“Anyone could have done those things, but the lights and heat are different. The police must be taking directions from someone else, because they cut the power to the building. I don’t mean they shut it off, I mean someone got in there with something big and cut the wires clean in two. These final moments don’t take well to you doing something you can’t, and I’m not about press our luck any further.”

“They are cut, aren’t they?”

“I said they were, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did. What does it feel like?”

“What does what feel like?”

“Doing the things that you can do.”

Rocca shrugged and checked his clip to verify that it was loaded. “I dunno. Sometimes the things I want just happen, or if I focus on something I start knowing things about it. More than I want to know sometimes.”

“So what’s going to happen to us?”

“Wish I knew. For a lot of things it’s like reading from a book, but for others when I go to read the page it’s blank. Like when I try and find a way back, I get nothing. But even that’s different, because ‘back’ doesn’t exist in here. This place is temporary. So even though in one way we’re right on top of it, it’s…out there somewhere.” Rocca made a frustrated and dismissive gesture toward ‘out there.’”

Kwame nodded toward the assault rifle. “You planning on using that?”

“If I need to.”

Kwame laughed. “Why would you need to? You just told me nothing we do can make a difference.”

“Maybe not, but we can still change ourselves.”

“Are you going to use that gun to change yourself?”

Rocca felt the weight of the weapon in his hands. “I hope not.”

“You know, for awhile I thought we were immortals. How many times have we died, only to live again? No scars, no broken bones. I really thought we had beaten death, but we haven’t.”

“Never said we had.”

“No, but you let me think it, didn’t you?”

“I can’t help what you think. Besides, since we’re still here, calling us immortals is rather fitting, don’t you think?”

Rocca thought he heard something strange. He strained to perceive it more clearly with a sense beyond those known, but whatever had been there came and went too quickly. It was like trying to remember a dream.

“What?” Rocca asked Kwame, snapping out of it.

“I said I know the truth.”

Rocca gave a dry chuckle and a streak of amusement colored his usually listless expression. “What truth is that?”

“I know that death is hunting us, and she’s getting closer.”

The amusement drained entirely from Rocca’s expression, and his features hardened. “What do you mean, ‘she?’”

“I’ve seen Her, and I know you’ve seen Her too. I didn’t in the beginning, but I do now. She’s looks tough like a warrior, but also beautiful and gentle. She has fiery, flowing red hair. Looks like…uh…”

A brilliant sunset that you hope never ends. Rocca’s tone eased, and a familiar sadness settled around his eyes. “You’re wrong. She’s not death, but she’s not life either.”

“We’re not just coming to these places to find a way out, are we? We’re running from Her.”

It wasn’t a question. Rocca offered no reply.

“You say she’s not death, then who is she? What does she want?”

“Me.” Rocca took a long breath. “She wants me.”

“You? But…what does she want with you?”

“I…don’t know.” It was the truth. She had explained it once, but it hadn’t made any sense, at least not to him.

“Well, then who is she? What is she?”

“She’s a lie. A well of hope run dry, then filled with empty promises enough to drown in. She can’t have you, and she can’t have me, because we,” Rocca leaned in and whispered sharply, “we are going back!”

Rocca and Kwame turned together to look out the window, both having felt the familiar disturbance. It was like a beloved memory recalled and then left behind, followed by an ominous and expectant silence that waited to be filled. It heralded the end for those whose final moments these were. Once they were collected, whatever this place was would cease to exist, and he and Kwame would be flung back into the in-between to search for another place to hide. They couldn’t run forever like this, but Rocca couldn’t tell if they were any closer to finding a way out now than when they had started. Where in a mess like that was there room for hope?

“Something’s coming.”

It surprised Rocca that several of those around him heard him say it and were rushing over to stand alongside him. Him and Kwame, together with those who had crowded around, stared down beyond the protesters and police, straining to identify what they could feel was coming.

“I don’t see a damn thing,” said a short, masculine woman. Rocca continued to stare undisturbed out the window. As time passed and still nothing revealed itself, one by one the soldiers trickled back to their posts, mumbling curses as they went until only a boy of maybe seventeen remained at the window along with him and Kwame.

“I didn’t want him to hurt those officials as much as he did either.” the kid said to Rocca in hushed tones. “But we’re still doing the right thing, right?”

Rocca wished he had ignored the kid. Often they would simply stop noticing him if he did. The empty hourglass was there floating above his forehead as plainly as it had been on Dog-tags.

Rocca sighed. “I don’t know, kid; let’s hope so.”

The kid watched him for a moment, then stared out the window as well.

“Both my parents were executed,” said the kid in a nervous outburst that seem to come easier as he went along. “For treason. They organized some of the first protests when I was ten. Since they were taken away, me and my sister have just been going wherever we can, working when it’s available, and stealing when it’s not. It’s alright for the most part, but some nights when we get really hungry or cold I think about how our parents just wanted to give us a better life than they had, and the government punished all of us for it. I don’t want them dying to be for nothing, so we joined up to start making a better life for ourselves and hopefully everyone else. Also, I thought by joining we might be able to keep what happened to us from happening to someone else. I don’t know, I guess it was dumb of me to think we could do that without anyone getting hurt. I just…I’m tired of seeing people hurting, even if they’re government people. I just want everything to change, ya know?”

Rocca squeezed the kid’s shoulder, wondering how they could bear the weight, and drew in a long, shuddering breath while Kwame focused on inspecting his weapon.

“You’re doing good, kid.” Pathetic. Was that really all he could muster in the face of so much courage?

“Hey,” Courage pointed out the window.  “is that what you were talking about? Those trucks coming around the corner?”

They were, and the expectant silence began to fill with inevitability.

The front tire of the lead truck burst, startling the crowd of protesters and causing it to swerve wildly. The sudden change in direction almost toppled the vehicle, but somehow when it got rear-ended by the truck following it, it shimmied back onto a balanced footing, and came to screeching, sparking stop. Rocca regretted doing it as soon as it happened. More could have been killed or injured, and he was only delaying what would come next.

“Those are military trucks,” shouted Courage, and the crowd around the window quickly reformed. Even Dog-tags found a place to watch the soldiers checking that everyone in the back of their truck was okay.

Once collected, the soldiers became a flowing stream of body armor and assault weapons, leaving their trucks behind. Two-by-two, they made their way through a narrow passage the police had managed to make in the crowd of protestors. One protestor stepped out into the passage, shaking a sign and shouting at the oncoming soldiers.  The butt of a rifle lashed out and caught him in the face, and he went down hard. The soldiers never slowed a step.

A cellphone rang, and one of the two men guarding the parliament members pulled it from his pocket and answered it. After listening for a moment, he tossed the phone to Dog-tags who caught it and pressed it to his ear. His expression went grim as he listened, and without saying a word he clicked off the call and tossed the phone back without looking.

“No one’s coming.”

The lingering silence that followed those words was finally lifted by the frightened cry of a burly and buxom woman. “There weren’t supposed to be any soldiers. In and out, that was how it was supposed to be. We don’t stand a chance against them!” She turned tail and pushed her compatriots out of the way ,racing to the frosted window in the room’s door, looking through it like she was trying to scan the hallway as the rabble of kids began to unravel. Shouts from all sides blended into a panicked static as the boy who had been shot broke into tears, and another one took aim through the glass at the soldiers that had stayed behind to guard the trucks. The bound trio struggled against their bonds as their guards divided their attention between keeping them still and the chaos unfolding in front of them.

“Put that gun down!”

The room came to a wordless halt and turned as one to stare at Dog-tags.

“I said, put that gun down!”

The boy at the window lowered his rifle so fast he nearly dropped it. Recovering ungracefully, he stood at attention, rigid and wide-eyed as Dog-tags shouted at Turn-Tail.

“Your cowardice embarrasses all of us. Pull it together, now!”

A sickening shame appeared to stagger the woman. Averting her gaze, she reverted into silence and gave a quick, obsequious nod.

“Get the hostages to their feet! You six, you’re with me! You seven and you seven are together! You two, check the hallway and make sure it’s clear or clear it!”

Rocca was shocked that that last command had been directed at him and Kwame, but they obeyed and moved with instincts that weren’t their own. Kwame opened the door as Rocca raised his weapon to the ready, scanning the hallway in one direction while pressed against the wall, exposing as little of himself while maximizing his view. Slicing the pie, he was able to scan from one end of the hallway to the other, verifying that it was clear before slipping out and taking a knee. Kwame quickly followed, and went down to one knee facing the other direction. After a moment, Rocca leaned his head back far enough to shout “Clear!” into the room.

“Something’s different,” said Kwame. “They never notice us this much.”

“I noticed that too,” replied Rocca.

“What does it mean?”

“I’m not sure yet. Maybe we’re getting closer to the real world, or maybe we’ve been noticed by something and we’re in a lot of trouble. Either way, stay alert. We don’t want to miss an opportunity, or get caught off guard.”

“You expecting something hostile?”

“I’m only familiar with one thing that’s out there, and I’m not too keen on what it wants. So I figure it pays to be weary of whatever else there might be.”

Behind Rocca the first grouping filed out, followed quickly by a second with Dog-tags and the hostages, and finally a third.

“But I want to fight!” pleaded Turn-Tail with Dog-tags. “I’m sorry for what I said before, there was no excuse for it I know but-“

“This isn’t about what you want,” rebuked Dog-tags. “This is about what give the greatest number of us the best chance of survival. Right now they don’t know how many of us there are, and we can take advantage of that. Keep yourself and the rest alive, and you’ll have done a great service for the cause. Now get them upstairs and hide! ”

Turn-Tail nodded solemnly. Turning, she lead her group up the nearby stairs and out of sight. Dog-tags grabbed two of the hostages and tossed them at Rocca’s group. They both stumbled and several of the teens had to catch them to keep them from falling.

“We’ll try for the East side. The rest of you, you take those two and try for the South side. When you make it out, head for the regular rendezvous, we’ll be there as fast as we can. Do whatever it takes to keep the hostages alive; they have to face justice. May God keep you safe. Now everyone, go!”

With the other teams departed and out of earshot, a heavy silence descended upon the empty hallway. The brass-skinned man who was leading their group used hand signals to relay his instructions, and they began their cautious advance toward the South side of the building. Their footsteps echoed through the hall as they walked. Their heavy breaths and the nervous clattering of weapons added to the imagined cacophony as one of the hostages began to cry. The Brass Man turned to the broken pair, giving them a disparaging look, then walked up to them.

“It doesn’t matter what we think of each other anymore,” he began in hushed tones, “We’re in this together from here on. If we make it, you make it. If we die, you die. Get it? So keep that in mind before you lose your head and start shouting at the first soldier you see to come save you.”

It occurred to Rocca that he couldn’t feel the soldiers, he couldn’t feel where they were or what they were doing. When he reached out for them, they just slipped away. Rocca hoped that he was right and that this meant they really were coming closer to home, but that hope was quickly losing ground to a growing dread that something was very, very wrong.

Rocca moved up alongside Kwame as they neared a set of stairs. He leaned over to give voice to his trepidation just as a bullet bored through the Brass Man’s chest, his zeal erupting against the wall as his unrealized scream tore from the lips of the girl behind him.

Muzzle flashes flared from both sides as the soldiers came out from around the corner. Rocca pushed Courage to the floor without thinking and returned fire. His shots intentionally connected only with kevlar plates, sending two of the five soldiers reeling back as bullets curved around his will and struck the wall behind him. One of the hostages broke away and sprinted directly into the line of fire. The girl who had screamed put a hole in his spine before taking one in the chest herself. In another heartbeat and burst of gun fire the exchange ended.

The heavily muted world around him pulsed and burned as adrenaline tore through Rocca’s veins. Far away, Courage shook and shouted at the motionless and wide-eyed girl who had shot the fleeing hostage. The remaining hostage shared the hard floor with only corpses, crying and curled up with her eyes shut. No one else still stood on either side. When the adrenaline began to ebb, the world rocketed back into focus with a sudden, sickening impact.

Rocca didn’t bother to check the sea of empty hourglasses for pulses, and sought out Kwame instead. He found his friend on the floor gasping for breath, his clothing splattered with blood. Rocca went down to one knee beside him, skillfully shouldering his weapon without a thought.

“Rocca… it’s beautiful,” Kwame rasped through his obvious pain, staring past Rocca.

Rocca tore open Kwame’s shirt with practiced indifference and inspected the damage. The government soldiers had been good shots. Another hair’s-width over and the shot would have been instantly fatal. As it was, the wound was still mortal.

“How does it look?” asked Kwame.

“Bad. Fatal as always,” sighed Rocca, a touch of relief in his words.

Kwame nodded and spoke slowly. “Good, good. I’m very tired.”

“Looks like this is where we part ways again.”

Rocca stood and took careful aim. One clean shot, and then relief until the next final moments.

“It’s for good this time, brother.”

Rocca hesitated, and peered at Kwame over his weapon. “What?”

“What are you doing, are you crazy‽” Courage pulled Rocca’s weapon down with both hands. “You can’t just kill him! We have to try and help him!”

Rocca couldn’t hear him as he watched an empty hourglass manifest over Kwame’s forehead

“You can’t go,” said Rocca, numbly.

“I’m so sorry, Rocca, but I must,” soothed Kwame.

Rocca tossed his gun aside went down again, scooping up Kwame’s hand in his, squeezing it tightly. “I can still get you home. You don’t have to leave me. You don’t understand what you’re doing.”

“You’re right,” replied Kwame, struggling but managing to hold his other bloodied hand over Rocca’s. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything here. I’m not like you, Rocca, I’m not…touched. I don’t belong here. You saved me once, and for that mercy I’m forever grateful, but my time has come and gone, and I’m already late for whatever comes next.”

“No…” Tears welled up in Rocca’s eyes. “We have to make it back together.”

“It’s enough that you make it back, and you will, I’m sure of it.” Kwame managed a reassuring smile.

Rocca saw Her then. And felt Her, and heard Her, and could touch and taste Her. The hallway opened out onto a gold and green windblown meadow on the edge of a sea. It was a place lit by sky filled with sun and stars together. It was a place where he had been with Her before. It was way-gate to a place beyond here, home, or anywhere else, and from that place She — a sunset of beauty and life and peace that never ended — stepped out. Lies, it was all lies.

“Rocca, my love, rejoin me. Let me free you from the fetters of pain and suffering.” Her gossamer words flowed through him and all else, reverberating out into places he couldn’t describe yet still perceived.

Rocca met Her gaze, and did not falter. “You never loved me, and we’re going home, so you’ve come for nothing.”

“Who are talking to?” asked Courage.

Rocca turned back to Courage. “You’re right, we have to help him, and we have to do it now. Get on his other side and help me get him up.”

“I do love you, Rocca. There’s no need to run.” with a gentle gesture, She raised an upturned palm to him. “Please, come away from this place with me.”

Her presence pulled at all of him. It reached deep into him and offered solace for the pain, for the loneliness, for the death, for everything, but Rocca didn’t want to hear it. She had been blocking his senses, trying to corner him. He was sure of it.  A count to three brought Kwame to his feet, and they began to move. Rocca never looked back.

Muffled cries followed them, and soon they were joined by the surviving terror-stricken hostage. Together the four of them made their way over the fallen government soldiers and slowly down the stairs. After only one short half-flight, Rocca pulled them all back around a corner, having spotted another group of soldiers on the floor below. Together they sat down on the stairs, hiding behind a section of broken wall that held a large gas pipe inside of it.

“Hey, hey I don’t think he’s breathing!” said Courage in a panicked whisper, checking Kwame for breath and pulse.

Rocca desperately tried to think of anything he could do. He pressed his extra senses as hard as he knew how, probing everything he could, but came up empty, and the tears came freely. Floor-to-ceiling windows ran the length of the stairs at intervals, and through the one Rocca sat next to he could see the protesters below. Their resolve returned, emboldened by their numbers, they shouted at the soldiers that had left the trucks to stand guard alongside the officers, and at the news crew that had arrived and was recording the scene.

A series of heavy metallic clanks drew his attention away from their passion. When he saw what had made the sound, he reached out and grabbed Courage with all his strength. He wrapped his body around the boy’s and turned his back to shield him from the grenade.

Open air welcomed shattered glass and bone alike. Their bodies twisted slowly and unnaturally in the void as they plummeted. Rocca opened burned eyes and saw Her there, holding Kwame’s hand as his physical body fell away, offering her other to him. He turned away from them and back to Courage. He must have been too slow, the boy was already dead. As the ground rushed up to meet them and everyone below screamed and scattered, Rocca poured every ounce of will he had left into a single point of focus.

No more running.

Seared and broken bodies connected with concrete, and Rocca blinked.