As always, be sure to check out the Short Fiction page if you’re behind.
Now on with Axel and Vortel’s story.
The afternoon dragged by, Axel being his usual cheerful if not slightly insane self. If he knew Vortel was watching him, he didn’t give any indication. By the time the siren rang, summoning the prisoners to the dining hall for dinner, Vortel was convinced Axel was up to something.
It shouldn’t bother him, but it did. As part of L-14, if Axel did anything stupid, he would be a bad reflection on Vortel. Letting anyone step out of line was unthinkable, not to mention it would give Tebin the upper hand in his and Vortel’s subtle feud. Vortel needed to chop the finger off before it pulled the trigger.
So, much to his disgust, as the prisoners milled in the dining area getting their food and finding seats, he made a point of waiting until Axel came through the line, plate piled with food.
“Over there.” Vortel jerked his head at an unoccupied table in a corner.
“Warming up to my charming personality, my man?” Axel asked as he slid onto the bench.
Vortel sat across from him and leaned back against the wall. “What are you up to?”
“Right now, shutting my stomach up.” Axel shoved a slice of buttered bread into his mouth.
Vortel bit back a curse.
“Mmmm.” Axel grinned. “For a prison, the food never disappoints. I think my mother would be jealous.”
“Part of the pain of P-19,” Vortel said. “They do everything they can to make life feel normal, as if you weren’t in here because you’d done something no one could forgive.”
“And why are you here? What did you do?” Axel ate a piece of steak, juice dribbling down his chin.
Vortel gave his frigid stare. “Murder.”
Axel raised an eyebrow, but with satisfaction, Vortel noted the lines of unease at the corners of his eyes. That would soften him for what was to come.
Axel’s next question caught Vortel off-guard. “Why P-19? There are plenty of murderers in other prisons.”
“Mine was a special case.” Vortel had tried to shut that night out of his head, but after twenty-four years it continued to haunt him. The memory would accompany him to the grave.
“Care to elaborate?” Axel asked, digging into a heap of fluffy mashed potatoes, its sides dripping with butter.
“No, I think you should.”
“I wasn’t there,” Axel said around his mouthful of potatoes.
“But why are you here?” Vortel pushed his steak around with his knife, appetite robbed by the memories of his past.
“I told you—theft, bribery—”
“Not that. There’s something else.”
Axel stared at Vortel. “Do tell, because I’d love to know. It’s always useful to know what you’re doing, especially if you’re in the dark about it.”
“Stop playing games with me.” Vortel leaned forward, jaw set. “You’re different. Too different.”
Axel turned his attention to his food. “Call me a free soul. See?” He held out his left arm. On the inside of his forearm a tattoo was etched that read Always Free.
Vortel frowned. “Were you part of a secret organization?”
“Actually, yes. Axel’s Moneymaking Schemes Anonymous. It’s useful to be the only member. Removes the threat of betrayal.” Axel winked.
Vortel slammed his fist on the table, making the plates and glasses clink and drawing several looks from nearby prisoners. “Stop with the clever words.”
Axel’s throat bobbed as he gulped, and Vortel realized he was holding his knife in a stabbing position.
He dropped it on the table with a clunk. “Just because we’re talking and I haven’t punched you doesn’t make us best buddies.” Anger swirled in Vortel’s chest, seeking release. “You don’t belong in P-19 and I want to know why. Start talking. Now.”
Axel’s eyes shifted. Finally, he sighed. “I like to dream big. Thus my old life. Now that I’m here, I’m not going to stop.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I never let things rest. Life’s too short for that.”
“I don’t like rules or systems.” Axel tapped his tattoo and resumed his normal voice. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
Vortel rubbed his jaw. “Not good enough.”
“It’ll have to be. There’s nothing more to tell.” Axel’s eye twitched several times, making his words seem comical.
Vortel dropped his voice to a threatening growl. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m LL.”
“I suppose you could kill me and then never find out what might happen next. Or, you could let it go and see what happens.” Axel waved at the walls. “I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.”
Fair point. Still, Vortel needed to probe further. “How did you do it?”
“Do what?” Axel took a swig of coffee.
“Your crimes. They must’ve been severe for you to end up here.”
“Yes, I suppose blackmailing the Prime of Telkin and bribing the War Officer of Annatar would count.”
Vortel wasn’t expecting that. He sat back. “You’re daring. Or stupid.”
Axel laughed. “Both, actually, though I’d prefer ‘tactfully risky’ to ‘stupid.’ That hurts my ego.”
“Still, that’s not enough to land you here.”
Axel chuckled. “It’s only the beginning. I have a list as long as a virtual bank’s encryption code. Which isn’t that hard to break if you know what you’re doing.” He sounded proud of the fact.
In spite of himself, Vortel was interested. “Who taught you?”
Axel downed his remaining coffee before answering. “It’s called getting an education.” When Vortel didn’t respond, he went on. “I have three and a half university degrees.”
“Three and a half?”
“I was in the middle of the fourth when I realized I could make buckets of money instead of wasting my days crammed inside an IHS room. Those are—”
“Interactive Holograph Station,” Vortel said. “I’m not stupid.”
“Right. Anyway, I figured the hell with studying, quit the program, and the rest is history.”
“Expensive history by the sound of it.”
Axel gave a sly grin. “I don’t like rules and systems, remember? Besides, there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush of living on the edge, the sense of power. Have you ever felt it?”
Many times, but never in ways Vortel liked remembering. “So they caught you and stuck you in here to torment me.”
Axel grimaced and shook his head. “They got lucky. I was messing around in a company’s files and the security department tracked my position. A boring way to go out. I’d rather have gone down with proverbial guns blazing.”
Vortel’s gut twisted. Guns blazing. He nearly threw his plate in Axel’s face. In spite of that, he was beginning to see Axel in a new light. Not an ignorant wimp, but someone with many layers, like the security in P-19. Such people were useful, even in prison.
And Axel stood up to Tebin—a bonus.
“Stay in line,” he said.
“Actually, back to the line.” Axel stood. “I need more coffee. Helps my brain function. That last year of Subatomic Physics nearly did me in.”
Those words were above Vortel’s level, but he nodded as if he knew exactly what Axel meant. “Sounds…interesting.”
“That part sucked. But the time-travel theories I studied were fascinating.” Axel winked and headed off.
What did that mean? As he pondered what to do about Axel, Vortel noticed Tebin a few tables over, glaring his direction. Time-travel would be worth it to send that scum-spine out of his life forever.
No. Don’t think of that. Vortel skewered a piece of steak and chewed harder than necessary.
The locket around his neck seemed heavier and colder than usual.
Thoughts, positive or otherwise, are more than welcome.