Here’s the next installment. If you missed anything, you can catch up over on the Short Fiction page.
Not him again.
Vortel had barely started his rounds to wake his level and there Axel stood, apparently eager to begin the tedious day as early as possible. Was he asking for trouble?
Axel leaned against the wall beside his door, filing his nails. He wore a clean red polo shirt and khaki slacks, as if he was on his way to work at an established company in whatever city he hailed from. A sharp contrast to the bruises and scars he bore.
Axel glanced up as Vortel approached. “Good morning, my man. Up and about your duties, I see.”
Vortel stalked past. “Roll call,” he shouted.
“What happens if you don’t make roll call?”
“Special treatment from the guards, then from me.” The inspection siren blared as Vortel repeated his call.
“I see.” Axel sidled up beside Vortel. “Is it the personal mission of everyone in here to break the newbies?”
Axel nodded, face thoughtful. “Are you always this friendly?”
Vortel turned, teeth clenched. “Shut it, man.” He held up his hand, thumb and forefinger half an inch apart. “You’re this close to pushing me over the edge.”
Axel drew back as if offended. Or fearful. “I apologize. I’m just trying to make the best of an awful situation. It’s not every day you find yourself incarcerated in P-19.”
“Because this is where the scum come to die.” Vortel resumed his walk, grinding his teeth as Axel came along.
“Anyone ever escaped?” Axel asked.
Vortel ignored him.
Aside from killing someone—a task left to the particularly brutal guards and the Director—prisoners had free rein to exercise punishment on others. Right now, Vortel was questioning whether killing Axel might not be a good idea anyway. The damn fool was a tiny pin under his skin.
“Any instructions, LL?”
Axel’s question was so unexpected Vortel stopped. “Yeah. Stop tagging along, talking, asking questions, and being a nuisance.”
Axel pursed his lips, then nodded and headed back toward his room.
A queer man, to be sure. One who needed close watching.
Through breakfast and into the morning work shift, Vortel never let Axel out of his sight for more than a few minutes at a time. The man was too positive for a P-19 prisoner. During his time as a street thug, Vortel had learned to peg people who acted strange. Experience taught him those were the types to be wary of.
What was Axel’s game?
Several times, Vortel noticed him glancing around, manner so casual it could be mistaken for a mindless act. Vortel’s keen street sense told him otherwise.
At lunch, he sat at the next table over, facing Axel so he could read his face. Vortel had seen dozens of expressions—rage, greed, terror, surprise, bewilderment, all standard in his line of work.
For a moment, his mind flickered to the chain hung around his neck and tucked inside his flaming orange shirt. The cold touch of the locket on his chest was a constant reminder.
He cleared his head and focused his attention back on Axel, in time to see Tebin and two of his cronies stroll over. Vortel leaned forward. This would be interesting.
Tebin’s grin was wolf-like, his eyes hard as stone. He flicked Axel in the ear.
Axel jerked. A cloud of annoyance shadowed his face. “Go easy. These ears didn’t come cheap.”
Tebin barked a laugh. “You don’t want me to hurt your pretty ears? Make me stop.” He flicked Axel again.
Axel twirled his fork and pointed his chin at Vortel. “I think my LL might have something to say about that.”
Tebin glanced over. “Yes, I heard you ended up him. You’ve heard his nickname, right? Interesting how he might have earned it.”
“Everyone’s interesting in their own way.” Axel shoved a forkful of fried potato into his mouth.
“Is that so? What makes me interesting?”
Axel shook his head. “I don’t care for another encounter with your fists.”
Axel’s plate flew off the table and shattered as Tebin slammed him down. Tebin twisted Axel’s arm behind his back and his cronies took turns punching Axel’s head.
“Think you can use your smart mouth with me?” Tebin’s face was tight and his neck muscles bulged. “I swear by my mother I’ll make every day miserable for you.”
Axel grunted and squirmed but the blows continued. Blood trickled from multiple cuts.
Vortel cracked his knuckles under the table. Stepping in would put him on bad terms with Tebin, but he enjoyed watching Axel taunt Tebin.
As Vortel moved to interfere, Tebin released Axel and stepped back, blue face now cool with the look of a gang leader who knew he was in charge. His cronies followed his lead, leaving Axel bent over on the table in a spreading pool of blood.
Tebin laughed. “I look forward to our next lesson, slert.”
A short time later, guards arrived and dragged Axel off to be treated. At least P-19 had a top-notch medical facility. The architects probably anticipated the need, with the kind of rabble housed here.
Vortel followed, far enough behind to go unnoticed. He busied himself with looking productive as he waited for Axel to reappear. Prisoners and guards moved past in the airy hallway, ignoring him.
Nearly thirty minutes later, the door to the ward slid open and Axel stepped out. The nurses had done a decent job of treating him, but he looked like he had been in a fight with a rockslide. When he noticed Vortel across the hall, he winked.
Vortel crossed his arms. “Are you trying to make as many enemies as you can?” he snarled.
Axel grunted. “I thought you’d never notice.” Wincing, he gingerly felt his fresh bandages. “At least they have medicine and technology to counteract Tebin’s alarming temper.”
Shaking his head, Vortel said, “When are you going to learn?”
“Depends on what you mean and what the purpose is.” Axel flopped down on a wooden bench beside the door and sighed. “I had my fill of learning when I was younger.”
Vortel raised an eyebrow.
“Learning is useful, but nothing compared to working with your hands.” Axel flexed his fingers. “Do you have any idea the joy it brings to tinker with parts and try to create homemade machines?”
“No.” Except maybe handling the latest firearms.
“It’s the best, my man—especially when you’re treading delicate territory.” A childish grin lit his face. “I once tried to make a machine to shrink my brother’s cat. Called it the Devil Decreaser. I swear that blasted calico was born for the sole purpose of hating me.”
“What happened?” Vortel asked in spite of himself.
Axel’s chuckle could have passed for the slickest crook in the city. “It didn’t work, I’m afraid. But I fried the cat’s abominably long fur. The thing looked like it had been through a toaster on a conveyor belt.” He shook with silent laughter. “My brother…ooohh, the look on his face when he found out.”
“Did anything come of it?”
“My parents grounded me for six weeks, but it was worth every minute.” Axel gently wiped a tear from his battered face. “Besides, gave me time to rig a flying probe out of old computer parts and my brother’s decapitated RC helicopter. Grand times.”
Had Vortel misjudged Axel? Perhaps he was straight insane. Or recovering from serious drug overdose.
“You two, get to work,” a passing guard snapped, raising his electric gun.
Vortel jabbed his thumb down the hall. “You heard him.”
Axel popped to his feet, then winced. “Ahhh. Quick movements. Blood to the head. Bad idea.”
The guard extended his gun. Though small, the nasty things packed a powerful punch with their electrical zaps.
“Go,” Vortel said.
“Whatever you say, Mr. LL.”
Thoughts about the story so far?