Happy day before Thanksgiving. Here’s the next piece of Axel and Vortel’s story. If you need to catch up, hop over to Short Fiction.
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
For the next few days, Vortel kept Axel under close observation. As an LL, he had more freedom to choose which chores he was assigned, and he always made sure to be near Axel for as much of the day as possible.
Amazingly, Axel managed to avoid mine duty. For the most part, the labor at P-19 was average—it lacked variety but wasn’t taxing.
Except working in the mines.
Vortel had endure that trial more times than he cared to count. It was the one job everyone in P-19, from the soft greenhorns to the hardest life criminals, hated. The prisoner overseers used it as punishment, though every morning random names were drawn. Another advantage of being an LL—if your name was picked, you simply forced someone else to take your place.
One afternoon, Vortel was polishing the ground-level hallway that ran the length of the tower. He hadn’t seen Axel since the lunch break and was getting an itch under his skin to find him.
As he swabbed the polished granite with his mop, a group of prisoners marched past, under the supervision of four robots. Axel was among them, standing out like a newly constructed house in Trannis’ poverty district. Most of the prisoners preferred to dress in dirty, unkempt clothes as a sign of rebellion against the ordinary feel of P-19. Axel wore black slacks and a yellow button-down shirt.
He winked at Vortel as they passed, then gave the slightest gesture with his head toward the lavatories located down the hall.
Vortel stared after him as the group moved on. Was Axel trying to get his attention? He glanced around. A few prisoners hurried to tasks, and security monitors on the walls stared like hard black eyeballs, but no one seemed to have noticed.
What was the idiot up to now?
He scrubbed the floor and released a hiss of breath through his teeth. Being in the dark didn’t sit well with him, and he didn’t trust Axel.
“Did the floor offend you?” Tebin’s sarcastic voice made Vortel flinch.
He turned slightly and refused to look at the scum-spine.
“You know,” Tebin said, moving back into Vortel’s sight, “I’ve been thinking.”
“Congratulations.” Vortel plunged the mop into the rolling bucket and flicked it out, spraying lemon-scented polish on Tebin’s bare shins. Too bad.
“Clever, Vortel.” Tebin gave a single clap. “How did you ever manage to become such a skilled killer? I would have thought your clumsiness would make it impossible.”
Vortel stopped and raised his head. “Want to test your theory?”
Tebin kept his face smooth, but a flash of fear shot through his eyes. “Such petty arguments we have. Is it really necessary?”
Vortel’s fingers tightened around the mop handle. “I’ll report you to the Director, say you’re neglecting your duties.”
Tebin scratched his neck, blue skin a startling contrast to his white and green tunic. He sneered. “I’m watching you and your new friend.” He sauntered off.
Black curses on the blue-skinned rat.
Vortel worked his way down the hall, watching for Axel to reappear. Tebin was a fool, but perceptive. And despite his thick skull and bombastic show of strength, born to fabricate the most devious schemes if their feud history was any indication. What did he see that Vortel was missing? Had Axel talked with Tebin, shared a secret? Was their animosity a show, meant to throw Vortel’s suspicions?
That was his past speaking. Distrust everyone, even people who seemed to be allies. Axel wasn’t an ally, but the thought of a level member working with Tebin made Vortel’s stomach turn. If Axel was playing him, Vortel would tear him apart and hang him up for the entire prison to see, rules be damned.
“Having a rough day, my man?”
Vortel’s head snapped up. He hadn’t heard Axel approach. “What do you want?”
“I need a break. Care to join me?” Axel strolled past him and through the lavatory door.
After scanning the hall, Vortel followed.
The tiled area was empty except for them. Security cameras nestled in every corner where two walls met the ceiling. If Axel wanted to—
“What’s in the mines?” Axel asked from the end of a row of sinks.
“Don’t be shy. I’m not a frightened boy.” Axel flipped the faucet on and ran his hands under the water.
“Hard work. Tunnels. Annoyed guards.”
“That’s not what I mean. What do they harvest? What’s the purpose of the mine?” Axel kept his eyes forward.
Realizing he looked suspicious standing in the middle of the lavatory doing nothing, Vortel moved to a nearby sink and began washing his hands. “It’s the only place on Sacarra where they can extract andonium.”
“Ah, yes, wonderful andonium.” Axel dried his hands. “Precious stuff, that. Useful, too. It has a variety of applications, if my memory serves. I remember running across it during my research for time-travel and reading up on the latest theories.”
There it was again.
Before Vortel could ask, Axel said, “Lovely chat, my man, but duty calls. Don’t want any trouble from those mechanical bigwigs. They get feisty, as I’m sure you know.” He winked and went off, leaving Vortel with more questions.
Thoughts to this point? What have you liked? What have you disliked? I’d love to hear in the comments.