Time for a change of pace. You may recall me mentioning I was working on a story to post here. It was supposed to start several weeks ago, but well…procrastination and busy life.
Until now. The story has taken shape and it’s time to release it into the world. I’m going to post new installments every Wednesday and Saturday, and at this point I have around eighteen, so it will run into next year.
I’ll update the list of installments every time I post a new one.
And now I’m pleased to introduce:
The Time That Was Not
Genre: sci-fi (time travel)
Setting: near future, in a galaxy far away 😉
Content warning for some swearing
Vortel marched down the stainless corridor in the P-19 Penitentiary. For the 6,570th time. That was since he’d started counting, anyway, eighteen years ago.
No one else cared, but it gave him a link to his old life, however thin and pointless.
Vortel’s black boots tapped on the smooth concrete floor as he called out, “Open up. Inspection in two minutes.” As the self-appointed leader of Level 14, he made sure everyone was on time. Part of the routine. A mindless repetition, like everything in this godforsaken place. Get up, eat, work, follow orders, avoid being sent to the mines, turn in, sleep. Repeat.
Below, the morning siren sounded, its wail summoning the prisoners into the corridors. Vortel turned at the end of the corridor, crossed the walkway, and started back up the opposite side.
The high-pitched siren shifted tone to sharp beeps.
Stopping dead, Vortel peered downward through the wire mesh forming the inside wall of the corridor and guarding the open space between the twin corridors running the length of the tower. The emergency alarm? He scanned the Level 14 hallways. Damn. Blue-face wasn’t standing in front of his door.
Cursing, Vortel charged to the elevator and headed to the ground level. Never trust a blue-skin from Feggo. The members of his city gang had drilled that maxim into him as a youth.
Not caring whether he got in trouble, Vortel tore out of the elevator, nearly knocking into a robotic guard. Vortel’s long strides carried him toward the only exit in P-19. Guards shouted behind him. Sickly green lights flashed.
The end of the corridor opened into a foyer area equipped with nasty surprises for anyone attempting to escape. Vortel plowed through the windowless doors and slammed to a halt.
At the far end, Blue-face balanced on a stool. The row of tiles in front of the closed sliding door sparked with powerful electric shocks.
“Get down, numb-brain,” Vortel shouted.
Ignoring him, Blue-face clawed frantically at the smooth steel. He must know the only way to access the controls that opened the door were in the Director’s office. Which may as well have been an underground vault.
“Stand aside,” a human voice said. Hands shoved Vortel and he stumbled.
The chatter of machine guns rang off the walls.
Vortel clapped his hands over his hears and bent his head. That sound. The white tattoos on his neck and arms stung, constant reminders of his days before P-19. He shook off the bad memories. The story of his life…bad memories.
When he looked up, Blue-face was a bloody mess on the floor.
A handful of robotic guards with lean titanium bodies prodded Vortel back into the hall. A knot of prisoners had gathered, their murmurs loud in the silence now that the alarm had stopped.
Tebin, the blue-skinned LL from Level 18 chuckled. “One of yours, Vortel? Couldn’t stand P-19 anymore? Or maybe he tried to escape because of you.”
Vortel restrained himself. One hint of aggression and he’d bring every guard—wired with gadgets and otherwise—down on him. He wasn’t ready for that. Eventually, everyone in P-19 went insane and did something stupid like Blue-face had.
Not him. Not yet.
A detail of robotic guards arrived, heads swiveling with precision and legs pumping in a smooth gait. One human accompanied them, carrying a clear glass screen glowing with red readouts. The Director—a brown-haired woman with an attractive figure but an expression that suggested she ate gravel and dust at every meal.
“Anyone care to use their tongues?” she asked.
“The rat was from L-14.” Tebin pointed at Vortel. “His level.”
“Explain,” the Director said as she tapped on her screen, purple fingernails clicking with each touch.
Vortel slouched against the foyer door. “I was calling everyone out for morning inspection. Heard the alarm go off, but Blue-face was already gone.”
“Mmmmm.” The clicking continued.
“I tried to make him stop but he didn’t listen.”
“Of course he’d say that.” Tebin shot Vortel a sly look.
“So would you.” The Director’s piercing eyes reminded Vortel of a high-society snob he’d had the pleasure of robbing. “I’m not here to listen to your bickering.” She waved her hand. “He’s dead. No harm done. Back to your levels for inspection.”
At least she hadn’t taken Tebin’s bait. Anyone with eyes could see Vortel wasn’t involved.
After the inspection ended, the prisoners crowded to the elevator, whispering about the incident. As Level Leader, Vortel went down by himself, saved from the crush of bodies that would follow on subsequent trips. No official rules about that, just the way he preferred it.
No sooner had he reached the main level than buzzers sounded from the security monitors mounted on every wall. Another escape? No, that wasn’t the alarm. It was the signal a new batch of inmates had arrived. He headed back to the foyer.
Sure enough, a knot of robots stood on either side of the open doors. The outer door shut with a hiss. Vortel paused. Moments sooner, and he would have glimpsed a sliver of freedom. In the twenty-four years since coming to P-19, his view hadn’t changed. A solid wall of rock three inches from the reinforced glass window in his room. The sum total of the outside world.
Shaking the thought away, he turned his attention to the newcomers filing into the hall. A motley crew of nearly a dozen, mostly blue-skins from Feggo, with a few bald-headed tramps from Trannis—Vortel’s home planet.
And one pale-skinned man who stood out like a knife at a machine gun fight.
Vortel had seen enough humans from Earth—mostly as his gang wreaked havoc on their lavish apartments in the Trannisan capital of Enden—but a human prisoner in P-19? This was the top security facility for criminals in the Annatar System, not a dumping ground for random convicts.
He stalked forward, elbowed through the other prisoners who had come to see the unfortunate souls. The robots removed the magnets binding the wrists of the new additions to P-19. Vortel’s eyes never left the human. Tall and lanky, he had dark eyes and spiked brown hair. His complexion was a sharp contrast to his rumpled blue business suit. A large bulge swelled from his right arm just below the shoulder. His eyes darted left and right, taking in everything. A computer analyzing data. He didn’t seem the least bit intimidated.
That would change soon enough.
“Level assignments and instructions,” a robot said as it handed out tablets battered by years of use.
Vortel remembered the sickening sense of finality in his stomach when a guard had pushed the slender tablet into his hands. Curling his fingers, he sucked breath through his nostrils.
“Where are you assigned?” His voice cut through the murmur of insults directed at the newcomers. When none of them answered, he folded his arms. “Rule one: obey LLs.”
The human flashed a smirk. “LLs? Slow down, my man. We’re new here.”
Casually stepping forward, Vortel glared. To his credit, the man didn’t back away. “You’ll learn.” Vortel slapped the tablet from the man’s hand. It smacked on the floor.
The man snorted. “Easy, my man. No need to—”
“Don’t speak back to an LL.” Vortel stomped on the tablet, cracking the screen. “And pick up your mess.” He went to the eating area.
He could deal with the man in a more thorough manner later when there weren’t dozens of eyes watching. Flaunting his power in front of other Level Leaders would only stir up hostility he didn’t want.
But something about the human was off, and Vortel meant to find out what.
The eating area was a spacious room lined with monotonous tables and filled with drab light. Some conversation went on, but only in select groups, with little voiced but complaints and curses.
Vortel loaded his plate with food and headed to an uncrowded table. No need to put himself in a bad mood by sitting next to anyone. As he dug into the hearty meal of fried potatoes, ham, scrambled eggs, and banana muffins, he noticed the human standing in line, gazing around with interest.
No trace of fear or resignation.
Vortel’s eyebrows pinched. Strange. Apparently someone needed a few lessons in reality. The man got his food and headed to a nearby table. No sooner had he sat down than the jeering began from the prisoners around him, crude and pointed. Without a response, the man left and headed toward Vortel.
“You’re not welcome here,” Vortel growled as the man lowered his lanky frame on the bench across the table.
“Prisoners have freedoms, right?” The man stuffed an entire muffin in his mouth. “Besides,” he said around his mouthful, “you seem decent. For a P-19 prisoner.”
Vortel leaned forward, face hard. “Do I?”
The man shrugged and crammed in another muffin.
“What do you know about P-19?” Vortel filled his voice with contempt.
“Enough.” Tilting his head back, he guzzled his coffee. “Ah, nothing like coffee to soothe the soul.” He waved the empty mug to indicate the area. “Fine place, for a high-security gig. Good food so far, and the coffee’s decent, a rare thing in my experience. Seems top—”
A taunting voice broke in. “Vortel, who’s your new friend?” Tebin sauntered over, a nasty grin pasted on his flat face.
In response, Vortel kicked his heavy worker boots into the human’s shins. The man winced. “A newcomer,” Vortel said. He left before Tebin’s scheming mind could go fabricate reasons why Vortel was paying attention to the human.
Behind him came grunts as Tebin gave the human idiot a lesson in the ways of P-19. Vortel held as much love for Tebin as for barbed wire, but in that moment, he found himself smirking. The man’s optimism would die a slow death here.
Just like everything else did.
Too long? Too short? Enjoyable? Boring? As always, I’d love to hear what you think.