What do the mines hold for Vortel and Axel? Read today’s installment to find out.
And visit the Short Fiction page for anything you may have missed.
Two weeks into their mine assignment, Vortel wanted to strangle Axel. He was past the prime of life—too old to be slaving in the dusty tunnels for ten hours every day. What had Axel been thinking? Vortel watched him as much as possible—which wasn’t often thanks to the unforgiving guards—but Axel hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary.
“Look, my man,” Axel said as they rode the crowded elevator to the mine, which spread out over several levels beneath P-19. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this. I didn’t mean to get you involved.”
There were too many prisoners crammed around them for Vortel to ask what was on his mind, so he settled for a curt nod. “I’m saving your sorry hide—again.”
“Much appreciated, though the guards have me half-convinced they should be inmates too.” Axel held up his hands, which were clean but chafed. “I’ve been worked to death. I didn’t sign up for this.”
A burly inmate gave a dry laugh. “Did any of us?”
Axel nodded and opened to his mouth to reply, but Vortel elbowed him in the ribs.
Vortel shook his head and hoped Axel got the message to shut up.
The elevator dropped off inmates at the first two levels, then plunged downward to the bottom level of the mines, buried deep underground. The Level Director had made sure Vortel and Axel were assigned the worst location with the worst jobs. Axel seemed pleased with the arrangement, but Vortel couldn’t figure out why.
At the bottom, they followed the other workers into a large open space that resembled a huge cavern. Huge electric lights bathed everything in a sickly white glow. Scaffolding clung to the inward-sloping walls, and several well-lit tunnels branched away from the central cavern. Complex systems of pulleys hung from crossbeams and angled poles, and steel tracks with carts crisscrossed the floor. Dozens of men and women, wearing brown trousers and gray shirts, were already hard at work. A din of noise echoed through the cavern.
“Never could figure why they don’t use any high-tech gadgets,” Axel said as they got into line to receive their morning tasks.
“Why would they when they can make us suffer?” Vortel said bitterly.
“Good point,” Axel said.
They arrived at the robotic foreman. “Tunnel extraction,” it said to Axel. “Loading carts,” it said to Vortel.
Axel grimaced. “See you at lunch, my man.” He picked up a metal toolbox and strode away.
Vortel grabbed a shovel from a nearby pile and obediently followed a towering human guard to the far side of the cavern, where they had recently hit a rich vein of andonium.
Five carts were lined up on the track running along the base of the wall, waiting to be filled. Up on the platforms, workers chipped at the rough walls with picks. A few lucky ones had drills. They rolled small and large chunks of rock down a slide, where they landed in a shallow pit to be shoveled by Vortel into the carts.
Vortel had been working ten or fifteen minutes when someone joined him. Blue flashed in the corner of his eye, and when he straightened to toss a load into the cart, Tebin’s form filled his vision.
“Welcome to the scum hole, scum,” Vortel said, words accentuated by the thunk of the stones into the cart.
Tebin stood opposite him and dug his shovel into the pile of rock. “I thought it best to check in on you and your friend. Where is he? Oh, don’t tell me the rats got him.”
“Couldn’t keep your temper. Is that why you’re here?” Vortel asked.
“I told you, I’m watching you.”
Vortel spread his arms out. His neon green shirt was already damp , and sweat trickled down his face. “Take a good look. This is all you’re going to see.”
Tebin huffed and resumed shoveling.
His presence bothered Vortel. Had Tebin found out something about Axel that Vortel was unaware of? The scrape of metal on rock and the clink of the picks filled his mind, and he settled into a steady rhythm.
It was mid-morning when a loud beep rose about the clamor, signaling a brief break. Ignoring Tebin, Vortel headed to the foreman’s station by the elevator to get a drink. He was on his way back when a yell came from the nearest tunnel, the one Axel had gone down. Two guards rushed in and emerged a minute later carrying a man between them. Blood poured from a gash on his leg.
One of the guards waved at Vortel. “Take over.”
Vortel trotted into the tunnel. It was twice his height, lit by huge floodlights hanging from the ceiling, and broad enough to allow scaffolding on both sides with plenty of room in the middle. The workers were more scattered, and he rounded several twists before he came to the place where the man had been working. A woman with stringy red hair sat on the floor, legs stretched out and arms crossed.
“What happened?” Vortel asked.
“Accident,” she said in a slurred voice. “Clipped with a pick by the gangly white guy.”
Vortel narrowed his eyes. “Where is he?”
She shrugged. “Dunno. Don’t care.”
Vortel glanced around then headed deeper down the tunnel. What was Axel up to?
He soon came to a narrow branch that was barricaded and dark. Probably a cave-in. He paused and in the silence heard shuffling boots and the sounds of tapping coming from the abandoned tunnel. A light flickered.
Vortel climbed over the wood bars and went softly forward, feeling along the wall with his hand. The light continued to flash in and out of sight. He worked his way around a pile of rubble. The air was heavy. Not far past the rubble heap, the tunnel bent to the right.
A familiar voice muttered, “Not enough, blast it.”
Vortel came around the corner. “What in the name of insanity?”
Axel jumped up, grabbing a shovel and lifting it before he saw Vortel. He drew in a ragged breath. “What the hell were you thinking? I might have bashed your head in.”
“Unlikely,” Vortel said. His eyes strayed to a niche in the wall, where an odd contraption stood, illuminated by a portable light. Two tripod-like legs attached to a ring, which was slightly higher than Vortel’s head. Several clusters of wires poked out from the thick legs like unruly hair. On the ground lay a confusion of mismatched electronics, some clear flex-tubes, and a metal box. “What are you doing?”
“Things.” Axel swiped his arm across his forehead. “No time now. Got to get back before old nosy joints shows up.”
He switched off the light and brushed past Vortel.
“No you don’t.” Vortel clamped his hand on Axel’s shoulder. “Explain.”
“On the way, or we’ll both be in drowning in trouble,” Axel said.
“Fine.” Once they started down the tunnel, Vortel said, “Okay, talk.”
Axel sighed. “I wasn’t prepared for you to know yet.”
“My secret,” Axel whispered. “The thing that’s going to change everything from this point forward.”
“I don’t like people who use words without saying things,” Vortel said. “Get to the point.”
“It’s a Spacetime disruptor with programmable settings. In crude terms, I’m making a time-travel machine.”
Vortel scoffed. “Impossible.”
“I have the ingredients, I just need to get them and mix them in the right amounts.” Axel sounded determined. “Think of it as my way of screwing the rules and doing something the entire Annatar system will be talking about for decades. And fulfilling a promise.”
Vortel shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m sending you back, my man.” Axel lowered his voice as they reached the main tunnel. “Away from all this. You’ll have another chance.”
Vortel stopped. He couldn’t take this in, not right now. “You liar. It’ll never work.”
Axel kept walking. “Of course it will. I’ll make sure it does. Now shut up and get back to your station before the guards whip themselves into a tizzy.”
They approached the woman, still sitting on the floor. The guards hadn’t returned. Distant sounds drifted down the tunnel.
Vortel took several deep breaths. “This is craziness. We’re in P-19, and you think you’re going to build a time machine in an abandoned mine tunnel?”
Axel grinned. “Watch me. Actually, strike that. Mind your business and let me work my magic.” He clapped Vortel’s shoulder. “I won’t disappoint you. I promise.”
“It’s too risky. They’ll catch you and then…”
“I don’t care.” A grim look glinted in Axel’s eyes. “I’m going to blow their tidy system to pieces.”
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.