The Short Fiction page has any parts you may have missed.
And now on with the show.
Axel ended up the infirmary for three days, and Vortel was there when he strolled out, wearing a fresh polo shirt and slacks and grinning like a thief who’d just broken into the biggest vault in the bank.
He raised an eyebrow at Vortel. “A welcome back reception? How kind, though I can’t say I blame you. I have that effect on people.”
“Follow me,” Vortel said.
“But…” Axel cast a longing glance at the dining area across the hall. “It’s lunch. They barely fed me in there.”
“Is Tebin right?” Vortel hissed. With the lunchtime clamor coming from the open doors, no one could have overheard the question.
“Depends. Right about what?”
“Are you planning something?” Vortel kept his voice low and eyes facing down the hall.
“Yeah, filling the hole in my stomach. We can talk later.”
Vortel turned to snap at Axel and froze. Tebin lounged against the doorframe to the dining area, eyes narrowed. Axel saw him too and shifted from one foot to the other.
Tebin stepped forward, mouth twisted in a smirk. “I’m sorry, did I interrupt something?”
“No,” Vortel said at the same time Axel said, “Yes, my date with a plate of food.”
“How did you do it?” Tebin asked Axel.
“Worm your way into Vortel’s good favor. You have something to offer him in return for protection, perhaps?” Tebin’s voice purred as he walked up to them with the haughty confidence of a guard dealing with unruly prisoners.
“And if I did?”
“Shove out, Tebin.” Vortel’s blood pumped. At that moment, he thought Tebin would make an excellent board—lying stiff on the floor.
“Make me.” Tebin’s eyes gleamed. “I want in on your secret or I’ll make every second of every day miserable.”
“Remind me why you’re here,” Axel said.
Tebin pulled his shoulders back. “Thirty-eight convictions of assault.”
“Not surprising,” Axel muttered. “I’ve been wondering, is it your skin? Does the color affect your attitude?”
Tebin snarled and reached for Axel’s throat. Vortel jumped between them and slapped Tebin’s hand away.
“Stand down,” a robotic guard shouted. It trotted toward them, electric gun leveled.
“All clear,” Axel said. “Just trying to get some food before I faint.” He paused halfway through the doors. “That’s allowed, isn’t it?”
The robot latched its mechanical gaze on Vortel and Tebin. “If you create a disturbance again, it will be grounds for reporting you.”
Vortel said a few choice words in his head and followed Axel to the end of the food line. As they moved through, he could feel Tebin’s eyes watching his back.
“What happens if metalmind reports you?” Axel asked as he heaped his plate with potato salad and slices of ham.
“Mine duty for three weeks,” Vortel said.
“Haven’t been down yet, but I’ve heard its hell,” Axel said.
Axel added a cup of steaming coffee to his tray. “But…andonium. Might be worth it.”
“Always, but I toss some honesty in there too, just to throw people off. Do you know anything about andonium?” Axel headed for the empty end of a table.
“Enough.” Vortel looked around. Tebin sat near the door, elbows on table, chin resting on his clasped hands. Studying.
“But probably only the routine stuff they teach at schools.”
“I didn’t go to school,” Vortel said as he slid onto the bench. “The streets were my classroom.”
Axel waved his hand. “Perfectly fine. Lower education is a complete waste of time. But getting to college…the things you can learn. Take andonium. Refined to power electronic devices. Turn it into liquid, add some special touches, and you have a bomb.”
A few inmates glanced their way, but Axel continued, oblivious. “Theoretically, you can also use it to send ripples through the time stream.”
“So?” Vortel shoved a slice of salty ham into his mouth. At least P-19 provided hearty meals.
“If you point the ripples in the right direction—against the natural flow—it’s possible to create a warp in the stream.” Axel leaned forward, eyes bright. “Time-travel, my man. Think of it.”
Vortel didn’t want to. It brought back too many memories, too many possibilities. If he let himself dwell on that, it would gnaw at his insides until nothing remained.
“Shut up, Axel,” he said.
To his shock, Axel did, and they finished eating in silence.
Despite Vortel’s resistance, Axel’s wild talk kept invading his thoughts. Curse Axel and his grand schemes. Curse Tebin for being a nosy blue-skin. Curse P-19 and its unforgiving walls. Curse life as a gang member and horrible decisions.
On Trannis, philosophers and thinkers who had nothing better to do with their time talked about the wheels of the universe and debated the existence of the gods. A crapload of rubbish as far as Vortel was concerned, but now he found himself wondering. Was his life another cog in a mindless universe, or did higher beings exist? Was their sole purpose to toy with the galaxy’s races for sport? Did they care or know what happened in the ordinary life of a criminal?
“Shut it off,” Vortel, he muttered at himself as he stalked down the hall toward his room after dinner. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
Gang members couldn’t afford time to wonder about gods and the ways of the universe, not with laws to break and bullets to avoid.
Reaching his room, Vortel looked up. Axel lounged in the shadowy corner beside his door, filing his fingernails.
“Get away,” Vortel snapped, pulling out his cell card to scan.
“Invite me in.” Axel gave him a meaningful look.
Vortel paused, card hovering above the blue rectangle on his door. “Why?”
“Because we’re level pals,” Axel said louder than necessary, maintaining his strange look, as if he was trying to convey something.
Axel apparently wanted to discuss something away from prying ears and eyes. Vortel hesitated, then nodded and swiped the card. “Help yourself.”
Inside, Axel perched on the single stool. Vortel sat on his bunk, which took up the entire wall opposite the door. Above it was a small window, looking out at a view of solid rock three inches away. The only piece of the outside world he’d seen in twenty-four years. Though furnished as bedrooms, the cells were really cages. After curfew locked the door, nothing short of blowing a hole in the wall would allow anyone to get out.
Which meant no security monitors.
“Make it good.” Vortel crossed his arms and leaned against the wall.
“I’ve been thinking. Scheming really.” Axel gazed at the ceiling.
“It’s odd, you know,” Axel continued. “This overwhelming desire to help someone. Pretty unnatural for me if my parents’ opinions count for anything. Maybe I just want a way to get revenge on the system. I don’t know.” He shrugged.
“You have five seconds to get to the point.” Vortel glared. “Four…three…”
“What if you could go back and change the past?” Axel let the words hang between them. He looked Vortel in the eye. “Would you?”
At his words, a tiny flicker of hope buzzed in Vortel’s chest, but he crushed it and met Axel’s gaze with a glare of stone. “Why would you ask such a thing?”
“Would you?” Axel pressed.
Vortel folded his arms. “You don’t even know the history.”
“Enlighten me. I’m a good listener.”
After a long moment, Vortel said, “Gurn, our leader, was never content with us being an ordinary gang. He craved bigger things than looting tourists and causing trouble.”
“A relatable fellow,” Axel said. When Vortel frowned, he said, “Sorry, continue.”
“He got us involved in a rebellion of sorts, a secret commitment to undermine the Trannisan government.” Vortel paused. Renya had been against it. Why hadn’t he listened to her? “After a few years of minor incidents, Gurn and his rebellion pals grew more daring.”
“Did Trannis need a rebellion?” Axel asked. “Was the Prime a worthy leader?”
“The situation involved class issues you wouldn’t understand, but we didn’t think he was.”
“Looking back, what would you say?”
Vortel rubbed his forehead. “That I was too young to understand. The Prime wasn’t a perfect ruler. No one would argue that. But he didn’t deserve to be assassinated.”
“Which brings us back to the matter at hand,” Axel said.
“Stop.” Vortel help up his hands.
“I don’t care how plausible it sounds. Forget the science, the impossibility—and the fact that we’re currently locked in the most secure place on Sacarra, maybe in the entire Annatar system.” Axel stood up, eyes glinting. “Would. You. Do. It?”
Instead of Axel’s face, Vortel saw images from that night. The night that haunted his dreams. “Get out,” he growled.
Axel paused at the door, turned. “I’m only going to ask once. Yes or no?”
Vortel grit his teeth. “Yes, damn you!” He leapt up and shoved Axel out the door.
As Axel strode away, Vortel heard him whisper, “That’s all I needed to know.”
Several days later, Vortel came out to rouse L-14 for inspection and found Axel pacing. Vortel stomped past him, fingers curling into fists. They hadn’t spoken since Axel’s question. Axel had stopped pestering him and Vortel had avoided him. Not Axel so much as the problems he presented.
Vortel made his daily round, shouting louder than usual, Axel trailing behind. Finally, reaching the end of the first corridor and heading back up the second, Vortel glanced back.
“I know you hate me,” Axel said, “but don’t focus on that right now.”
“You’d rather have me plan how I’m going to pin you to the ceiling?” Vortel kept walking.
“No, I’d rather have you trust me.”
Vortel snorted. “Keep wishing.”
They walked in silence to the end of the corridor then returned to stand by the elevator. A ding from the floor below announced the coming guards. Everyone from L-14 had gathered in the hall, ready to begin another day.
Axel shifted on his feet and chewed his lip, staring at the elevator door as if he wanted to bore a hole through the steel.
Vortel frowned. His street sense told him something was wrong.
Axel turned suddenly, a fake smile on his face. “How bad are the mines?”
“Why? Did you finally get duty?”
“Um…no, and yes. It’s…” Axel looked away. “…complicated.”
The elevator opened and six robot guards stepped out, accompanied by the Level Director, wearing her frown as naturally as her pink lipstick.
“Here goes nothing,” Axel muttered at Vortel. He jumped forward and grabbed the screen from the Level Director. “Pardon, Miss, but this screen is faulty.”
The robots swiveled and trained their electric guns on Axel.
“Back off,” the woman spat.
“You’re too beautiful,” Axel said in a fervent voice.
Vortel gaped as Axel grabbed the woman around the waist and pulled her into a kiss.
With a muffled screech, she shoved him away and stomped on the top of his foot. “Bastard!”
Four robots advanced and gripped Axel’s arms.
Axel thrashed, face red. “No. No. I refuse to be sent to the mines.”
The woman had retrieved her tablet and tapped furiously. “That’s where you’re going,” she said in a clipped voice. “Mine duty every day for a month.”
“But I’ll die.” Axel slumped, using the movement to glance over his shoulder and wink at Vortel.
“Good riddance,” the woman said.
Vortel stared. This was a ruse? Axel wanted to work in the mines? Axel wasn’t cut out for that kind of labor, and the environment in the mines was more brutal than even Vortel cared to admit. He wouldn’t last two weeks alone.
Vortel stepped forward. “I’m LL. I take full responsibility for his actions.”
“You should.” The woman never looked up. “Mine duty for you as well. You can suffer together.”
Vortel bit back a string of curses. Axel had better have a good reason for this.
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