This part was definitely the hardest to write, and I'm still not satisfied with it (which is why it took me over a month to finally get around to editing/posting it ;) ). But, I don't think I can do any better with this piece, so here it is.
Bret rolled over, wishing whoever it was would leave him the fuck alone and let him sleep. He was having such a good dream; he and his teenage sis were playing hide and seek ...
Another sharp pain, this time in his other side.
Bret rolled onto his back and groggily opened his eyes, trying to make out the two grey masses standing over him. He didn't remember seeing those there before, and briefly wondered what they were and who put them there. One of the masses reached down and hauled him to his feet. He heard a quiet snick as he felt something cold and metallic close around his neck.
As his vision slowly cleared, the blurry shape in front of him resolved into the mottled, leathery face of a sneering Denebian soldier.
"You. Walk." The Denebian held up a small remote, and lightly tapped its single button. Bret, now wide awake, felt his whole body spasm as a thousand-volt shock surged through his spine and out along every nerve in his body. It lasted only a few milliseconds, but he wavered on his feet and nearly lost his balance. Before he could regain it, he felt another sharp pain in the small of his back. He looked over his shoulder; the Denebian behind him grinned and held up a long wand-like device with electrodes at the tip. Bret walked.
They marched him toward the outskirts of the City, away from the cheesy restaurant and the site of the earlier gang battle. Bret stole furtive glances at the two Denebians, now walking on either side of him. Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed the lump; it tasted like fear. Panic welled up from somewhere beneath his diaphragm, and he felt his heart pounding.
Bret took a deep breath. They were at the edge of the City, almost into the Badlands. This would be his last chance.
He jumped sideways, smashed his shoulder into the soldier on his left and made a wild grab for the remote that controlled the collar. But the guard was faster; as they fell, he mashed the button down.
Bret landed hard. Waves of liquid fire coarsed through his spine, flowing outward until they reached the very tips of his fingers. His whole body convulsed, muscles contracting and releasing several times per second, shaking him like a marionette in the hands of a psychotic child.
Slowly, the fire receded. He stood, not bothering to brush away the dirt smeared on his face and clothes. The Denebians were watching him closely, but they stood to the side, conversing in their guttural native language. Bret's insides were in knots. He looked downward and swallowed, then bit his lip, chewed on it till it started to bleed, tried to choke off the bitter taste rising in his mouth.
A single tear ran down his face, tracing the edge of his nose as it descended. It fell, hanging suspended in space as the ground rushed up to meet it, before landing with a small pouf in the dust at his feet.
The soldiers finished their conversation and moved towards him. The one with the prod gave him a quick poke and they started off again, marching into the Badlands.
They hiked for what seemed like hours, picking their way through the discarded and forgotten piles of City waste. There were huge mounds of rotting garbage on either side as far as the eye could see. Under foot, there was only dirt, dust, and more trash; nothing grew here. Above, the sky was overcast and dark, the clouds slowly churning. Nature was not happy in this place.
Bret could see a shuttle ahead of them; this, then, must have been what he heard before he fell asleep. It was a Denebian shuttle, painted ice blue, resting in the middle of a cleared patch of dirt. The guards shoved him forward, pushing him toward the shuttle's airlock. As they approached, Bret noticed a splash of color off to the side, almost buried beneath one of the trash mounds. Despite their prodding, he stopped and stared until recognition came.
It was a sunflower, in full bloom, radiating bright color in sheer defiance of the filth in which it stood.
A giggle rose from somewhere deep inside Bret. He tried to stifle it but it forced its way out of him, slowly building into a mad, hysterical cackle. His body shook with its force, his breath came in gasps. The soldier with the prod zapped him in a futile effort to get him to shut up, and he doubled over. They shoved him in, still giggling hysterically, and sealed the door.
The shuttle lifted off and rotated as it found its return heading, the exhaust from its engines vaporizing the sunflower on the ground below.
As always, I'd love to hear your feedback, either on part 3 or on the story as a whole. If this story made you think, or made you feel, I want to know. If you have suggestions for how I could do better, I want to hear them. If you have thoughts about the characters, or the City, or something else here ... please share them.
Thanks again to northing for editing (in person, this time, instead of over the phone :) ).