- SJF – Chapter 1
- SJF – Chapter 2
- SJF – Chapter 3
- SJF – Chapter 4
- SJF – Chapter 5
- SJF – Chapter 6
- SJF – Chapter 7
- SJF – Chapter 8
- SJF – Chapter 9
- SJF – Chapter 10
- SJF – Chapter 11
- SJF – Chapter 12
- SJF – Chapter 13
- SJF – Chapter 14
- SJF – Chapter 15
- SJF – Chapter 16
- SJF – Chapter 17
- SJF – Chapter 18
- SJF – Chapter 19
- SJF – Chapter 20
- SJF – Chapter 21
- SJF – Chapter 22
- SJF – Chapter 23
- SJF – Chapter 24
- SJF – Chapter 25
The cop chasing Darius had doubled back and come into the alley. He pointed his gun directly at Darius’s face. Darius saw the look in the cop’s eyes and knew that he meant business. There would be no warning shot.
This is it. It’s all over.
“Drop the backpack and place your hands on your head,” said the cop.
Darius stared down the barrel of the gun, weighing his options. He could do what the cop said, and he’d spend more than a few years in prison. Or he could die right there in the alley. Neither option seemed acceptable.
Darius dropped the backpack, slowly putting his hands on his head. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. Maybe I won’t be charged with carrying felony weight. Maybe this won’t be counted as my third strike. Yeah, right, he thought, grunting with laughter.
The officer moved in closer, grabbed Darius, pushed him up against the side of one of the derelict buildings, and without a word began frisking him. The cop, still winded from the chase, breathed his hot breath on the back of Darius’s neck—it smelled almost as bad as the alley itself.
A voice came over the cop’s walkie-talkie. “You got a twenty on the suspect?”
The cop grumbled to himself, fidgeted with something, and a second or two later spoke into his radio. “Copy that.”
Using his left hand, the cop pushed Darius hard against the wall. But if the officer was pushing against Darius using his left hand, then it meant that he was using his right hand to hold the radio.
Where’s his gun? Darius wondered, before realizing the cop must have holstered his weapon. Now’s my chance. If I’m gonna get out of this, it’s gotta be now.
Running wasn’t Darius’s thing—he wasn’t good at it. But he did know how to fight. His father saw to that, teaching Darius to defend himself after he had come home with a bloody nose given to him by a schoolyard bully. He was six at the time, and small for his age. Even now he wasn’t that big, but back then, he was tiny. And the other kids picked on him. So his father taught him how to defend himself.
Darius took a deep breath, reminding himself that his life was on the line. Three strikes and you’re out. And then he remembered what his father had taught him: “In a fight, your greatest strength will always be the weakness of your opponent.”
The weakness of the cop, who weighed at least seventy-five pounds more than Darius, and stood at least five inches taller, was that he wasn’t paying attention. The cop only had two things over Darius—his gun and his undivided attention. Neither one was trained on Darius. The cop underestimated the sixteen-year-old kid he had pushed up against the wall of a crumbling building. Darius didn’t need any more advantage than that.
Darius elbowed the cop in the ribs as hard as he could—hard enough to knock the wind out of the police officer. The radio fell to the ground. Gasping for air, the cop reached for his gun. Darius knocked it out of the officer’s hand with a kick, sending it flying into the darkness.
Shocked, sucking in air, the cop fought to regain himself. He had been in worse scenarios, faced down more dangerous felons than the scrawny black kid that caught him off guard with an elbow to the ribs. He was ready for a fight.
Darius was ready for a fight as well. If he knew anything at all, he knew how to fight—it came as naturally as breathing. He’d spent over half of his life fighting. He fought back against the bullies at school. When his parents were killed and he found himself living on the streets, he fought to stay alive.
The officer took a swing at him, and Darius ducked the punch. With nothing for the cop’s fist to connect to, he spun around, losing his balance. Darius took advantage of the moment, body slamming the cop into the side of the building.
The cop let out a loud grunt, the wind knocked out of him for a second time. Off balance and gasping for air, the cop was running on empty. Whatever fight he had in him disappeared. Darius slammed the officer again into the wall of the building. A small cloud of concrete erupted as part of the wall crumbled to dust against the force of impact. Grabbing the cop by the front of his uniform with a classic jujitsu hold, Darius used the man’s own weight against him, driving him to the ground. He almost felt bad for the cop, but not so bad that he was willing to go to jail.
Darius took off running, stopping when a stray beam of moonlight glinting off the cop’s gun caught his eye. Last thing I need is to get shot, Darius thought.
Darius grabbed the gun and looked over at the cop. The officer, picking himself up from the ground, saw Darius holding the gun. Even in the darkness, Darius could see the look of fear on the cop’s face. Did I look that scared when the gun was pointed at me? Darius thought to himself.
He wondered if the cop had a family. Maybe the cop thought of them as he stared down the barrel of his own gun, wondering if he’d ever get to see his kids again. Maybe he was just another bully that only felt safe when the odds were in his favor. None of it made a difference to Darius. He wasn’t about to shoot the cop. Someone like Karlito might use the gun. Darius wasn’t Karlito. He wasn’t about to make a bad situation worse.
With all his strength, Darius threw the gun into the building across the street. He took off running before the gun had a chance to land somewhere amidst the rubble. It would only be a matter of moments before more police arrived for backup. Darius’s freedom depended on his next moves. It had been one thing when he had the backpack full of eXXeLL. He had just beaten the hell out of a cop, which made getting away all the more important.
The success of Darius’s escape depended on one simple fact: he knew where he was. People once lived in No Man’s Land, his family included. He had grown up not far from the burned-out block he ran down, and though many years had passed, he still knew the streets. Five, maybe six blocks away was a subway station.
If I can get to the subway, I can get to the Caves, he thought.
The “Caves” were what people called the abandoned subway tunnels and derelict stations that had been left to rot after The Attack caused parts of the city to collapse on itself. Some stations and tunnels were repaired, but those that weren’t—those that cut through the heart of No Man’s Land—had been transformed. Instead of the hustle and bustle of commuters moving through the city, the stations became caves that had been taken over by those with nowhere else to go. There was no telling who you might find living in the Caves, anyone from junkies desperate for a fix to rogue metahumans that refused to register.
Darius hated the thought of seeking refuge in the Caves—it was too dangerous and just plain scary. He lived down there for nearly six months and seen things he never wanted to see again. It was a whole different world, requiring a special strength just to survive. The fact that Darius made it out with so few scars always amazed him.
Most people thought the worst thing about the Caves were the metahumans living down there. The law required anyone with “enhanced abilities and unusual attributes” to be registered with the Federal Bureau of Metahuman Affairs, and there were a lot of people who thought of metahumans as monsters.
The metahumans didn’t bother Darius—he actually got along with mutants better than he did most “normal” people. It was the giant killer rats he couldn’t deal with. But if it came down to hiding in the abandoned subways and dealing with giant rats, or going to jail, there was no question. The cops would never find him—they never went into the Caves unless they absolutely had to.
The Caves it is, he said to himself.
Before he could take another step, two police cars came tearing onto the street, one on either end of the block, lights flashing, sirens blaring, boxing Darius in. He looked to his right, then to his left, and knew he couldn’t go in either direction. Instead, he went straight ahead, right into the derelict building in front of him.
It smelled worse in the building than in the alley—a combination of piss and crap and the rotting stench of dead dreams and forgotten lives that once called No Man’s Land home.
This is stupid, Darius thought, angry there was nowhere else to run. He quickly moved further into the building, his eyes adjusting to the dark. Something scurried past him on the floor. Please don’t be a rat, he said to himself. Anything but a rat. The last thing he needed was a hungry rat the size of a dog trying to chew his leg off.
Outside, Darius could hear cops moving toward the building. He could either make his way to the basement, where he could try to hide from the cops, or he could try something nearly as stupid and definitely more dangerous. Darius opted for the second, found the stairs, and ran as quickly as the darkness and rotting steps would allow him up to the second floor, then the third, fourth, fifth and finally to the roof of the building.
Out of breath again, his heart pounding, Darius felt the stabbing pain in his side return to taunt him like one of the bullies who used to pick on him at school.
Darius quickly surveyed his surroundings. All of the buildings on the block were tightly stacked with only a few feet between them. He could jump from rooftop to rooftop until he reached the end of the block. He had no idea what to do after that. I’ll deal with it when I get there.
Darius ran from one rooftop to the next. The cops must have been looking for him inside the building he’d run into, because by the time he had jumped across five rooftops, they had yet to show up. He raced to the roof of the last building on the block and looked over the edge. He didn’t see any cops in the darkness below. He did see a fire escape, and he knew how to get back down to the street.
Darius climbed on to the fire escape. Old and rusty, the fire escape made a terrible creaking sound and. as he began his climb, Darius wondered how sturdy it was. He didn’t have to wonder for long.
As he lowered himself down four rungs from the top, the concrete in which the ladder was anchored simply crumbled to dust. The rusted metal of the ladder seemed to scream as it bent and broke, the whole thing falling away from the building.
It was a six-story drop to the ground. I’m dead, was the only thought in his mind. But then something grabbed Darius by the back of his sweatshirt, hoisted him high into the night air and flew off.
Darius knew exactly what had saved his life—or rather, who had saved his life. It only made him wish he’d fallen to his death.