Hope you had a fantastic Thanksgiving. Here’s the next part of the tale. The Short Fiction page has the previous installments if you need to get up to speed on what’s happening.
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
Later that night, Vortel stood outside the elevator on the main level. Chores ended at nine, giving prisoners an hour to do as they pleased before the nightly curfew. Most preferred to lose themselves in the holographs in their rooms, browsing magazines, playing games—anything to distract their minds.
After a few minutes, as Vortel anticipated, Axel showed up, strolling down the hall with his hands in his pockets. Carefree as a man returning home to his family.
Seeing Vortel, he broke into a grin, then grimaced. “Ahh. Damn face.” The trophies of his beatings were healing but still looked nasty.
“I’m going to make my rounds,” Vortel said, punching the elevator button. “You’re coming.”
“Really? How touching. What happened to no friends in P-19?”
“We’re not friends.” The elevator arrived and they stepped in.
“You could have fooled me,” Axel said as they zipped up. “This is downright friendly. You’d better watch yourself. You might be growing soft.”
Eyes narrowed, Vortel raised a fist. “Don’t make me remind you.”
“Fair enough.” Axel threw up his hands. “Can’t afford to blemish my features more than they already are.”
When they arrived, the parallel corridors of L-14 were empty. Vortel started off and Axel fell into step beside him, his stride casual.
“I’ve been meaning to ask—” Axel began.
“I ask the questions,” Vortel said. “Why do you care about the mines?”
“Scholarly curiosity? No? How about academic purposes?”
Vortel grabbed Axel by the front of his shirt, yanking him to a stop. “I’ve had enough of your smart mouth. Give me straight answers. That’s how it works around here.” He let go.
“Fine. But be warned, my straight is usually crooked to everyone else.”
Vortel nearly punched him.
Axel smoothed his shirt and they resumed their pace. He pulled out his file and began running it across his nails.
“Stop,” Vortel muttered.
“Can’t. Habit I picked up as a kid. It drove my mom crazy. She always doted on my older brother—who could never do anything wrong in her book—so I needed a way to get revenge for being ignored.” He gazed into the distance, then shook himself. “Back to the topic at hand. I like to stir things up. For example, taking perfectly structured systems and blowing them up in everyone’s face.”
“Talk like that will get you sent to the mines,” Vortel said. “The cameras have recording devices.”
Axel lowered his voice. “Maybe that’s what I want.” He winked.
“They put you in the wrong place,” Vortel said. “You should have gone to the asylum.”
“Oh, but this is so much better. A quarry of possibilities directly under my feet. I couldn’t ask for more.”
“You’re planning something.” Vortel whispered the words.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Axel slid his file back in his pocket as they turned the corner at the end of the corridor and started up the opposite side.
“If you want to kill yourself, that’s your business. But if you drag me into it, it becomes mine.”
Axel grew serious. “Funny you should say that, because I get the distinct feeling there’s more to you. That locket, for example. Odd trinket for an ex-murderer to carry around.”
Vortel’s hand automatically went to his chest. Pain mixed with anger in his gut. Of all the things Axel could have brought up. “Keep your nose to yourself or I’ll break it.”
“I’ve had worse,” Axel muttered. He nodded at a camera as they passed, and said so low Vortel barely heard, “I can tell you something, if you return the favor.”
“I doubt it’s anything I don’t know. I’ve been here for twenty-four years.” The words were like dust in his mouth.
Axel seemed genuinely sympathetic. “I’m sorry, my man. Do you ever think of, you know…”
“Escaping? I learned the hard way. It’s pointless. Everyone tries eventually but no one succeeds.” Besides, what would he do if he escaped? He had nothing to return to but broken promises and painful memories.
“I think everyone makes mistakes,” Axel said. “I detest philosophy, but it seems even the worst deserve another chance. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Vortel swallowed hard. A second chance. More like a disguise of hope that showed its true face as soon as the longing formed. “What can you tell me?”
“That depends on what you can tell me.”
“I’m LL.” Vortel put force into his words but they lacked conviction. Axel’s question had thrown him.
Axel said softly, “Security systems aren’t that hard to override, given the right knowledge.” He tapped his head, a sly look in his eyes. “Your turn.”
Vortel hesitated. They continued to walk, Axel waiting patiently. What the hell. It couldn’t hurt. The idiot would figure it out eventually. “I started a war.”
Axel let out a low whistle. “I—wait. Twenty-four years.” His forehead furrowed in concentration. Then his eyes widened. “The Annataran overthrow. Started when a rogue militant assassinated the Prime of Trannis. Yes, I heard of that.” Axel nodded. “In fact, they still haven’t calmed things down. But I had no idea…”
“You asked.” Fury and frustration churned inside Vortel.
“What do you know of the war?”
“Enough.” Vortel spat the word.
“Over eighteen million have died.” Axel’s voice was cold, accusing. “Twenty-four years is a long time to accumulate casualties when advanced robotics is involved.”
Vortel thought his veins would burst. Emitting a savage growl, he grabbed Axel by the throat and pinned him to the wall. “Shut. Up.”
Axel’s Adam’s apple bobbed against Vortel’s palms. His words were a strangled rasp. “Don’t you regret it?”
“Every day,” Vortel said through clenched teeth. “I was young and stupid. I made a bad choice. I’ve lived with it for twenty-four years.”
“And you wish you had that time back. A second chance.” Axel’s gaze was intense, his voice low.
“I’m not a monster.” Vortel’s shell—hardened to the outside world—was cracking. He snarled and let Axel go. “Get out of here.”
Axel massaged his throat. “I think I need some coffee.” As he left, Vortel noticed a thoughtful look in his eyes, as if he’d found the answer to a question he’d been after.
Vortel leaned against the wall, sucking in deep breaths. The pain of his past crashed into his chest like collapsing a brick wall. Shut it out. There was nothing he could do, no penance he could make or prayer he could say that would change anything.
But in the back of his mind, Axel’s words repeated.
A second chance…a second chance…
What do you think so far? I’d love to get your feedback.