The Guardian - Chapter Four
When Marc Rayner dreamed, he dreamed of his mother.
(Authors note: This section does contain R rated material. Child abuse and violence.)
They were walking hand in hand along the beach near their home. Sometimes, they would stray from the shore, skirting too close to the tide coming in. She would clasp his hand so he wouldn’t be afraid of the surf while the sea rushed up embraced their ankles. Then she would scan the white foamy shore to find something to interest him. When she did, she’d wash away the tiny grains of beach sand covering the object, before showing it to him.
Sometimes it was a seashell. At other times it was an interesting piece of driftwood or even an insignificant sea creature she would toss back after he’d seen it. Mostly it was seashells. He remembered how they would look with their iridescent colours, curled into a beautiful and unusual shape. He would stare at them in wonder as he held them in his palm.
“Keep it with you, Marc,” she had said. “Keep it with you always, and you’ll never forget this place or this day. When you’re older and all grown up, I won’t be around so much. This will remind you I will always be here for you.” She had smiled with a sad, faraway look in her eyes. “Always.”
Even dreaming he knew this was his idealised version of the day. His mother never spoke such foreboding words, but the rest of it, the rest of it was real. They collected seashells, and he kept as many of them as he could, but he lost them like he lost her.
As easily as a cog might slip into a new groove, the dreamscape of pleasant ocean breezes and sunny skies turned dark. Erin vanished, and her disappearance marked the imminent arrival of the monster haunting his dreams.
Instead of his mother, a big ugly brute of a man glared at Marc with a sneer of contempt.
“What is this?” He grabbed Marc’s small wrist and shook the seashell loose.
It fell from Marc’s palm in slow motion, the sound of mocking laughter trailing after it. It landed a scant distance away. The shell created a small divot on the soft sand. Marc scrambled forward, trying to retrieve it, clinging to the desperate hope as long as he had it, nothing bad would ever happen to him.
But the outcome was always the same.
A heavy boot smashed down on it just as he was inches away from reclaiming his prize. Tiny fragments flew outwards in all directions as the seashell shattered under the forceful impact of the foot. The crunch like thunder clapping in his ears. When the boot moved, there was nothing but pieces of pulverised shell.
Then the man laughed until tears ran down his cheeks.
Black hatred filled Marc. It swelled up inside of him like the crushing waves of a king tide. The roar in his ears was not the sea but his own screaming. What came after was an abyss he could not bear to look into.
The monster of his nightmares wasn’t the man in front of him, but the manifestation of his terrible rage.
On the very worst night of his life, he learned to be a child didn’t spare you from the depths of ugliness and cruelty. Marc became a monster far worse than any of his past abusers. That night, he learned what he could do to survive and every day since, was simplicity itself in comparison.
With a loud gasp, he sat up in a cold sweat, perspiration running down his forehead. His damp shirt stuck to his body, smothering him with their moisture. For a moment, he forgot where he was, his mind still lingering in the limbo between dreams and consciousness. After a few seconds, his racing pulse slowed and the storm of moths in his head settled. Only then did he realise he was within the hold of a slave ship, on route to Staryn.
Get a grip, Rayner.
It was just a dream. The same stupid dream plaguing him with since that terrible night.
Yet the memory of it lingered. The details were so clear he could still remember her scent in his nostrils. Like before, he’d wake up believing for a moment, they really walked hand in hand on that beach again.
The moment of weakness evaporated when he remembered where he was.
She’s gone Rayner, the cold, rational part of impatiently reminded him. Wishing and dreaming about her will never bring her back. Accept it.
Against the severity of that voice, Marc was powerless. He was its creature now. He had to accept it. Erin was not coming back, and longing for her would only make him weak. Besides, even if it was possible, she would never understand who he was now. Her little boy died with her and she would not recognise the stranger in his place.
Marc calmed down and decided he no longer wanted to sleep. Sleep might surface more than dreams about Hyran Gron,, and Marc couldn’t face that. Hyran and his wife were the very last people to foster Marc before his escape into Metro’s Underground. Both of them were cruel, who enjoyed every ounce of pain and degradation they had inflicted upon him.
They pushed him further than anyone ever pushed him before, with little thought to what they were releasing inside him. Neither had imagined for a moment, there would be retribution for what they did because they assumed he was a child, incapable of fighting back.
By the time they realised their mistake, it was too late, and he’d left their corpses behind to burn.
After Erin’s death, the Citadel Youth Centre, better known as the Ward, took charge of his life. It turned him from a helpless little boy into a faceless number. Bewildered, Marc wondered what sin did he commit to deserve banishment to such an awful place? For Marc, the Ward was as close to hell as he could ever imagine it.
Despite the Citadel propaganda machine calling the Youth Centres a refuge for homeless juveniles, ‘prison’ was closer to the truth. It was very much like a dungeon to wall up the forgotten refuse of human and non-human progeny. It even looked like a prison with its panopticon design, surrounded by tall, grey walls and grim-faced warders carrying heavy stun weapons and batons.
Every time they patrolled the long corridors wearing their scary black uniforms, he would cringe in his room. The thick, iron bars personified the grim reality of their circumstances and by the warder’s regular beatings. The children needed conditioning for years of servitude, and the warders tutored well.
After spending six weeks in the Ward, Marc became a foster child. In his exhilaration at being rescued from that dismal place, he never considered he might end up somewhere worse. Over the next few years, he would learn this lesson the hard way.
By the time he was seven, Marc underwent this process several times already because people who fostered from the Ward did not want children. They wanted, and they got slaves. Slaves, whose wills they could shatter without the benefit of experience or age. Their tools were prolonged abuse and cruelty. After two years, Marc had become accustomed to bruising and savage beatings. What else could they do to him?
Discarded by his latest foster parents, Marc spent a few weeks at the Ward before Hyran Gron claimed him and became his legal guardian.
The Grons were farmers. Hyran and his wife Lysa were salek bovine farmers on the further side of the continent. Their own children left home after adulthood with no aspirations for taking up the family business. Fearful of being left alone in their old age, without a strong, young back to do the work, led them to him. They sought a child from the Ward and got Marc.
His expectations of his new life at their farm were low. During the journey, the Grons were cold. They spoke to him only when it was necessary and the words uttered were lacking in empathy or kindness. Resigned to his fate, Mark knew it was only a prelude to what would come later. After two years, nothing else would surprise him.
The Gron’s farm was on the tip of the continent, only a few degrees from one of the planet’s tropics. Although the land was parched and dry, there was a harsh beauty in its sun-baked hills and warm, golden fields. Despite his severe treatment by the Grons, Marc liked the farm more than any other place he had ever been. Even if he never had much time to enjoy it, there was beauty in dry gold.
His toil began the very next day, and Hyran worked him into exhaustion, day in and day out. At the end of each day, he would stagger into the cellar of the Gron’s barn, where a bed and small light awaited him, and collapse drained. It would take him several weeks before he would learn to pace himself to avoid complete exhaustion every night.
After that, things became tolerable for a while. He discovered a chest of old books in the cellar with him, and during the night would sneak out into the warm fields and read them. Erin taught him how to read before her death and Marc tried to read as much as he could, so he wouldn’t forget how.
His favourite was a book by a notable philosopher, Bonli, who was a nihilist. Most of the language was beyond Marc’s limited reading skills. What he understood, he committed to memory. Marc cherished the book and placed it with the few meagre belongings he had salvaged from his mother’s house.
The beatings still continued, beginning after he arrived. The abuser was new, but the pain was familiar and Marc resigned himself to it once more. Hyran would become drunk, stagger into this cellar, full of abuse and rage for reasons Marc could only guess, and vent them out on him. The first time left him with several broken ribs. He’d just turned seven.
Later, there was a second time, then a third, fourth. There were so many times after that, Marc no longer remembered how many bones he’d broken or bruises he had suffered. Lysa attended his wounds with as much sympathy she would give to an injured animal in the field. He supposed, to her, he was no better than livestock.
Still, despite Marc’s loathing of the Grons, he understood he needed their protection. While he was at their farm, he beyond the reach of the Guild who plucked children out of the Ward for mining work. Their fates unknown. Brutality aside, the Grons were a necessary evil for his continued survival.
Of all his possessions, the most precious thing Marc owned was a seashell he saved from his mother’s home. It was about the size of his palm and still glittered with the sand from the beach near their home. Erin picked it up during one of their walks. And while almost everything he’d brought from home no longer existed, the seashell remained intact.
To him, it was sacred. It symbolised her love and their life together and Marc clung to it as the last fragment of Erin and perhaps the child he had been.
Marc kept it hidden during his years in the Ward and the different foster parents. With no doubt in his mind, he knew he had to protect it at all costs because losing it would break him. Hyran was just mean enough to destroy it.
However, no amount of reasoning could suppress the growing cancer of outrage spreading throughout Marc Rayner’s soul. A hatred for his life and his helplessness was evolving into a powder keg of violence awaiting the right spark to set it alight. Afraid of the consequences if he unleashed the pent up rage inside of him, he kept the fire hidden, believing he saw the worst of their abuses.
He was wrong.
It started out with Hyran stumbling into the cellar one night. He found Marc asleep, with one of the old, yellowed paper books belonging to Hyran’s school teacher mother next to the boy’s bed. Already violently drunk, Hyran roared and bellowed in indignant rage, waking Marc by dragging him out of bed and flinging accusation of trying to better himself. Did he think he would ever leave the farm? Did he think he was just going to go after Hyran and Lisa invested in him?
Marc steeled himself for the beating. It was just another indignity he wound endure until it was over. Hyran had different plans. He wanted to break the boy’s spirit. He wanted to see fear in Marc’s eyes instead of just detachment. Enraged, the drunken farmer took out his welding torch and set alight each book in the chest with sadistic pleasure, while Marc watched.
If it was sorrow Hyran wanted to see in the boy’s expressionless eyes, he was disappointed. Marc showed the man no reaction. He wouldn’t give Hyran the pleasure.
The lack of reaction infuriated him, and Hyran swatted Marc aside with a backhanded blow. Hyran was starting to turn when he caught sight of something beyond the burning books, a seashell nestled by the blankets that was Marc’s bed.
What’s this?" He strode across the room and picked up the shell in his hand.
Whatever this seashell was to Marc, Hyran knew it was precious. He turned over his palm and let it fall to the wooden floor. The seashell skittered across the dirt floor and landed a few inches beyond Marc’s reach, but it remained unharmed. Hyran saw the boy’s sigh of relief. It was likely the only thing of value in his possession.
Marc wanted to beg him not to do what he knew Hyran was about to, but it was futile. Watching in silence, steeling himself for anguish, Marc knew what was coming.
Hyran was smiling when he brought down his leg and crushed the fragile aquatic form under the weight of his boot. The boy watched as Hyran took great pleasure in grinding his boot deep into the floor. The shell’s fragments went in all directions. What remained was powder.
Marc wanted to cry. He wanted to kick and scream, but once again, defiance and anger kept him from displaying his anguish. The last bit of Erin destroyed should have done the same to him, but Marc controlled his sorrow. Hyran did it to get a reaction, but every ounce of will inside Marc wouldn’t allow it. Even for this.
“You think you’re a tough petty bastard don’t you!” Hyran stormed over to him again, shoving him against the wall, his thick hand over Marc’s throat.
Maybe he’ll kill me. It could happen. Hyran was drunk and crazy enough. Marc considered dying. At least the pain would end. There would be no more beatings, no more Ward. If there was an afterlife, he might even see Erin, and they’d walk on the beach again. He didn’t realise he was smiling at the possibility.
“WHY ARE YOU SMILING?”
Hyran screamed in fury, wanting to wipe that odd smile from the boy’s face. He thought he’d done it then, broke the little brat, but the boy’s defiance was maddening. There had to be some way to show him who held the power here.
And then something very dark surfaced in Hyran’s mind.
He released his grip on Marc’s throat and stroked the boy’s cheek like he was feeling the texture of cloth. Despite the dirt on the boy’s face, his skin felt smooth to the touch and pleasing. Without warning, Hyran spun Marc around and slammed him up against the wall.
For a moment, Marc did not understand what Hyran was doing until he heard the slight scraping of material. Marc turned his head long enough to see Hyran fumble with the hook of his trousers. With a flash of realisation, he understood with horror what the man intended. He tried to bolt, but Hyran had him pinned. When he felt his pants being pulled down around his knees, Marc fought harder, but it was too late.
The pain that followed was beyond comprehension. The scream Hyran wanted to hear escaped his lips without Marc even being conscious of it. He imagined the triumph on Hyran’s face as the man grunted and strained with animal noises Marc would live with for the rest of his life. Warm blood dripped down his legs as skin tore. Nausea welled up from the pit of his stomach, threatening him with vomit. At some point, he threw up on himself.
After what seemed to be forever, he heard Hyran let out a satisfying groan and withdraw.
Marc remained where he was for a moment, leaning against the wall, still shuddering with pain. Hyran was still behind him, and that snapped his mind into working. Marc pulled up his pants and stared at the man with stony eyes, black with rage and something beyond disgust.
Hyran staggered away, still affected by his climax.
He had enjoyed hearing the boy scream, enjoyed hearing screams becoming whimpers as Marc’s struggles to escape faltered with the pain. Hyran hadn’t expected it to be so pleasurable. At first, it was about power, but now he’d tasted the forbidden, he wanted more. Maybe he would do it one more time before he returned to the house. The boy was tastier than his wife. After a moment, he decided against it. He was too drunk for another attempt.
“Not bad.” He gloated. “We’ll do better tomorrow night.”
Perhaps it was the horror Hyran intended to use him or the seashell’s destruction, but something inside Marc snapped.
With its obliteration, Marc surrendered to the black bubble of rage welling inside him. With a breath, he unleashed it and scrambled towards the pyre of books still burning. Distracted with pulling up his trousers, Hyran didn’t notice Marc grabbing a flaming book by an unburned corner. Not until Marc came at him and jabbed it at his groin.
Hyran screamed at the pain and fell backwards.
Marc gave him no time to recover, snatching a mallet stored in the cellar before closing in. Hyran was writing on the floor, still clutching his genitals.
“Die.” Marc stared at him and swung.
The first blow caught Hyran in the ribs. Marc heard him scream. He heard bone snapping like kindling, and it just might have been the sweetest sound he ever heard.
This man destroyed the most precious thing he owned and followed it with something as vile. Marc should have felt something, but he did not. There was only emptiness. It was a most curious sensation, to feel nothing. No anger, no rage or no pain, just the solace of that cool emptiness. In its embrace, he was not a helpless child. Inside him, he knew that he would never be that again.
Hyran had only a second to process what was happening before Marc brought the mallet down again. This time, he struck Hyran’s neck as the man lay on his side, writhing. As steeled slammed against flesh and bone, there was a sickening squelch, like elastic snapping. He did not realise until later, he’d broken his foster father’s neck.
All he knew was he couldn’t stop. Adrenalin was coursing through him as Hyran Gron became the recipient of all the years of rage and abuse. Marc kept smashing until there was nothing left of Hyran’s skull except a mess of blood, pulp and fragmented bone.
Like the seashell he’d broken.
Instead of shame, Marc felt exhilarated, almost to a point of euphoria. He had never felt clearer about anything than that conscious decision to kill Hyran Gron. The fire from the burning book returned him to the moment. It landed near Marc’s bedding and was spreading across the sheets and mattress.
What came next was so clear to him, there was no doubt at all. Marc gathered whatever belongings he had left and then ensured the fire spread, taking the dead remains of Hyran Gron with it. Then, almost as an afterthought, he picked up the mallet and headed towards the house.
When the large satchel containing his things dropped by the back door, Marc stepped through it like an invited guest. The mallet dripped with Hyran’s blood and created a small trail of crimson dots behind Marc. There was a smattering of blood on his face. Only he knew of the blood under his trousers.
He found Lysa in the kitchen alone, preparing dinner for a husband that would never come home to eat it. She turned to him, startled by his silent arrival. It took but a second for her to register the blood, and then her eyes widened at the sight of the mallet.
“What have you done? Where’s Hyran?”
Marc stared back at her, shaking her head.
At that, her screams became mindless shrieks of terror, but it was far too late. Retribution was at hand, and Marc would see it paid its due. At his height, the swing of the mallet struck ribs and shattered a good number of them on impact, repeating the pattern of attack he’d used on Hyran. She fell to her knees, screaming and had one lucid moment of pure terror before he swung the mallet again.
The second blow shattered her skull with one loud crunch. She crashed against the kitchen table, knocking over the dinner she was preparing all over the floor. He picked up a piece of meat and took a bite. There was no point letting it go to waste.
Once the Grons were no more, Marc helped himself to their provisions. He set the house on fire and released all but one of the farm animals which he used it to reach the nearest town.
It took weeks before he reached Metro, but once there Marc understood that while he didn’t burn in the fire, he was nevertheless excoriated. The victim he had been died in the flames.
The person he was, would never be one again.
A girl came up to him at his corner in the hold.
She had sun-streaked blond hair, speckled blue eyes and healthy skin, implying she was new to the Ward. Unlike the others, he’d noticed her walking around earlier, trying to find some strength in this dismal place. The others had given up trying. Like he had been years ago, they resigned to their fates. It was not the case for this girl, Marc thought. Her spirit was still intact and fighting. She might survive the Staryn camps.
“Hi,” she greeted, trying to force a smile. “I’m Sarah. You don’t mind if I talk to you, do you? It’s just no one else wants to talk and there’s not much else to do in here.” She said all this in one breath. It was probably the talking keeping her sane, Marc guessed.
“No, you can talk.”
Until he arrived on Staryn, he could not plan his escape so there was nothing else to do and he didn’t mind the distraction.
“Thanks,” she brightened. “What’s your name?”
“I’ve been watching you, you know. You’re the only kid in here who isn’t crying all the time or trying to get out. How come?” Her blue eyes studied him as if he were a cypher.
“Waste of time. Crying isn’t going to do anything and trying to get out of here is stupid. We’re in space, where are we going to go if we get out? I can escape when I get to Staryn.”
“Wow,” Sarah looked at him with admiration. “I never really thought of that. You’re smart.”
Marc shrugged. It was just plain common sense. In the last three years, Marc thought like a master strategist, determined to stay one step ahead of the Citadel and the Ward. He weighed every action and measure every consequence. It had to be, or else he would have wound up in the Citadel’s hands far sooner than this.
It took several months after his flight from the Grons for March to reach Metro.
The capital city of the Folina star system was an urban jungle with too many buildings and even more people. Despite being only a century old, its position near the major space lanes ensured steady commercial growth, bringing in visitors from every corner of the galaxy. Factories sprung overnight, blocking out the mountain ranges with a new skyline of concrete and steel. More and more people abandoned the towns to flock to the city, taking advantage of Metro’s new prosperity.
With the increase in trade, the infrastructure necessary to support it soon followed. There were more buildings, new streets built and sacrificed neighbourhoods for high density housing. The city became a hive of frantic activity, with people coming and going, oblivious to each other as they went on their way. It was the perfect place for Marc to lose himself.
Metro City’s vast network of old pipe and sewer tunnels allowed Marc to move around during the day. This allowed him to avoid the Citadel troops who had orders to detain any unaccompanied minors. During his first winters, they were a godsend, shielding him from the bitter cold. At night, he would emerge into the city, taking advantage of the shadows during his midnight forages.
Marc’s hunting ground became the slums of Folina, what its occupants called the Old Town. There, poverty made everyone anonymous. Like all enormous cities, not everyone found the prosperity promised by slick advertisements and Citadel propaganda. They cased the dreams of fortune but the reality left them trapped on Folina after discovering there were no streets of paved gold.
In Old Town, Marc befriended the vagrants who roamed the streets with their filthy clothes and rotten teeth. To survive, he ran errands for the local prostitutes and acting as their lookouts when they were servicing their clients in alleys.
Other times, he ran errands for King Farid, a narc merchant who ruled the drug trade in Metro. His subjects were the peddlers selling vials of death on every street corner. Farid, a big scaly Noxorian from Outer Clusters, ruled them with an iron fist. One of Farid enforcers, a human named Deering, took a liking to Marc because he’d been an orphan on the streets too.
Their friendship was brief with Deering arrested not long after their meeting for killing a rival gang lord and shipped off world. But before that, he’d taught Marc how to fight. A kid alone was an attractive target and Deering showed him how to use his small size to an advantage. He also gifted Marc with a book reader loaded with titles, and Marc treasured it.
After his recapture by the Citadel, he mourned the loss of the reader almost as much as his freedom.
They arrived on Staryn three days later.
During that time, Marc learned Sarah was a part of a trading caravan travelling from world to world until she was separated from her family. Once the authorities found her, she was sent to the Ward.
Her company during the journey occupied the time but now they were at their destination, he no longer needed the distraction. There was only one thing on his mind as he stepped off ramp of the slave ship and onto the parched world of Staryn.