Happy Saturday. Hope things are going well for you. Speaking of which, it’s time to see how things are going with Axel and Vortel.
At this point, I sound like a recording on repeat, but here’s the Short Fiction page if you need to get up to speed on any of the action.
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
Their conversation cast a shadow over Vortel the rest of the day. At dinner, he turned a stony gaze on anyone who came too close or hinted they were about to speak to him. He shouldered his way through the food line, then picked a quiet corner and ate in silence.
No one bothered him, which was just as well for them. Even Tebin passed by with a raised eyebrow and continued without a word.
Vortel found his own reaction disturbing. Hadn’t he moved on from this? Hadn’t he vowed not to dwell on his mistakes? He couldn’t change anything no matter how hard he wished for it. This wasn’t some children’s tale that ended with happily ever after. It was real life—hard, unforgiving, cruel.
He tore a piece of chicken off the bone with his teeth, watching the activity around him. Prisoners talked, swore, told stories, made crude jokes. Some clustered in groups—like Tebin and his thugs near the door—others sat on the fringes, unwelcome but with nowhere else to go.
No one seemed the least bit phased by his or her life. Once you lived in P-19 long enough, it took on a routine of its own. That routine had become stamped on Vortel. All the same…what was it like outside? Did the sun still shine? Had the Annatar system floundered in the face of war or managed to flourish?
He thought back to his earlier days, before walls, guards, and curfews. What he wouldn’t give to see a tree again, or feel the wind on his face.
He was being a crapload of a fool. Much as he hated to admit it, Axel had broken through the tough exterior Vortel always displayed, digging inside to find out who he really was beneath the threats and crimes. Vortel honestly didn’t know who he was. Since that night, he’d told himself he was a murderer, scum of the galaxies. Did he believe that, or was he holding on to the hope that something existed for him beyond his crime?
He finished eating and leaned back, looking out over the dining area but not seeing it. No one was watching, so he pulled the locket from beneath his shirt and ran his fingers over the smooth silver. Renya had stolen it from a pawnshop and given it to him when he was seventeen. It held a blurry picture of her. He hadn’t opened it in—how long had it been?
Why was he even carrying it anymore?
“Because you’re a senile bastard,” he said softly.
He let his mind wander.
A few hours later, Vortel stirred. The tables were empty except for five prisoners, dusty from the mines. Vortel headed out to the hall, where a cluster of older inmates—men and women—sat on the floor playing cards. Guards stalked the corridors. The digital clock above the elevator read 8:56. Just over an hour till curfew.
With nothing better to do, Vortel took the elevator up to L-14. He almost wished Axel would be there waiting for him, but the corridors were empty. Vortel stood for a moment, staring at the nearest security monitor. How hard would it be to disable to system?
“Stop it. Don’t let that pale freak make an ass out of you.” He started toward his room but hadn’t gone far when a thud from above caught his attention. Though a solid ceiling separated each level from the one above, the gap between the parallel corridors allowed some sound to travel among the levels.
Vortel moved to the wire mesh and craned his neck. Another thud came, followed by harsh laughs. Two floors up.
Vortel frowned. Had they found another unfortunate soul to pick on? Too bad. As long…
Axel’s voice. “Remind me to steal your clothes next—”
Another thud, followed by a grunt and a hiss. Vortel recoiled as he realized they were using the electric mesh to torture Axel. It was a common hazing routine, but knowing Tebin, he wouldn’t stop, and the electrical charge was strong enough that too many shocks could kill a person.
Anger blazed in Vortel and he raced back to the elevator. Axel might be an obnoxious bighead, but he was a member of L-14. Vortel would be dead before he let Tebin and his thugs pick on one of his level members.
The elevator took forever, but it finally stopped and the door whooshed open. Vortel charged out. Tebin and three others were partway down the hall to the right. Axel slumped in a heap at their feet, inches from the mesh.
“Get away from him, bastards,” Vortel shouted.
Tebin and the others turned, surprise registering on their faces. Tebin’s expression morphed to anger.
“This is my level. I’ll do as I please.”
Vortel’s long strides chewed up the distance. Two of the thugs moved toward him, knees bent and arms raised in defensive postures.
The monitors would catch everything, but Vortel didn’t care. He reached the thugs, both shorter than him, but sturdy as bricks. Nothing he hadn’t handled before.
Driven by rage, Vortel’s movements were quick and effective, honed from years on the streets in Enden. He kicked one in the knee and landed a punch to the arm of the other. The man threw a wild jab. Vortel grabbed his wrists, yanked the man forward, and rammed the top of his head into the man’s chin.
His opponent crumpled, face a bloody mess.
Spinning, Vortel barely ducked the kick of the third thug. Vortel dropped low, put his weight on his hands, and swung his legs, clipping the man in the ankle and knocking him to the floor. Vortel pounced and smashed his fist into the man’s eye. More blood. The man screamed and tried to roll. Vortel drove his foot into exposed ribs.
A yell from Axel broke through the battle haze that had seized Vortel. He whipped around to see Axel on his knees, face pressed against the mesh as Tebin twisted his arm behind his back.
Cursing, Vortel leapt at Tebin.
Tebin let Axel go and dodged out of the way.
“Get out of here before I call the guards,” Tebin said, eyes blazing.
“Call them.” Vortel charged, jaw clenched.
Tebin might be a bully, but in a fair fight, he was terrible. Vortel knocked aside a feeble right hand cut and buried his fist in Tebin’s stomach. As Tebin folded, Vortel brought his knee up into Tebin’s face.
Tebin slumped to the floor, moaning.
Ignoring the gasps of pain and soft curses, Vortel went to Axel. “Can you stand?”
Axel shifted and groaned.
“How many times did they shock you?”
“Th-three,” Axel mumbled.
Not life threatening. Vortel gently helped Axel to his feet and put an arm around his waist to steady him. “Easy. Can you walk?”
Axel nodded. “I think so.”
“Let’s go.” Vortel spared a scowl for Tebin’s thugs as he and Axel slowly headed toward the elevator.
“I thought you didn’t like me,” Axel said through bleeding lips.
Vortel shrugged. “Couldn’t let them kill you.”
Axel managed a weak grin. “Thanks, my man. I’ll pay you back. I promise.”
We’re nearing the halfway point. What are your impressions so far?