Fasten your seat belt, because things could get crazy in today’s installment.
Check out the previous parts on the Short Fiction page.
Vortel found himself dreading the day. On the surface, it didn’t feel different. He got up, roused L-14 for roll call, and headed down to breakfast as if this was another knot in the endless rope he’d tied for himself.
All the same, it felt hollow. He went through the motions but felt detached from them. He kept thoughts of that night from consuming every waking moment and focused instead on the environment around him. The smell and taste of the food, the babble of the inmates, the stern watchfulness of the guards.
He couldn’t put it into logical thoughts, but there was something slightly off, as if before he had been living in a world of color and sound, and now everything around him was gray and silent.
Axel gave him a mischievous wink as they passed during breakfast and a slight nod as they headed down to the mines, but nothing more to indicate their plan.
The minutes dragged past with painful slowness. Vortel was sure the morning shift stretched twice as long as normal. He avoided glancing too often toward the second tunnel, where Axel worked and the transporter was hidden. It was stupid, but he worried anything he did that hinted at the escape would draw the guards’ attention like a gunshot.
Now that Axel’s plan had gone from overblown words to concrete reality, he would die before he lost his chance. Nothing would stand in his way. Not even Tebin.
Lunch came, duller than normal but at the same time infused with more life than Vortel had felt during his stay in P-19. Vortel kept his distance from Axel and noticed Tebin offered them sneering glares. No fuss had come from the incident the night before, and that bothered Vortel. Sure as mine duty, Tebin would cause a stir before the day was out. For the first time as a prisoner, Vortel wished curfew would arrive.
Vortel was headed back to his station in the mines when the foreman cut him off. “Hold up.”
Vortel went rigid. His fingers curled into fists. Had they discovered the transporter? Had someone worked out Axel’s plan? Did Tebin know? The muscles of his jaw bunched as he stared at the foreman.
“You have a new assignment.” The foreman waved at the extraction zone to their right, a shallow, bowl-shaped pit with a system of pulleys and buckets hanging down the sides. “One of the workers cut off a finger. You’re his replacement.”
Upwards of thirty men and women, caked in dust and wearing protective masks, stood or sat at small stations around the perimeter of the pit, systematically removing the stone around the andonium veins with battery-powered grinder drills. They loaded the harvested andonium into the buckets to be lifted up a dark shaft to the level above.
Vortel knew better than to question, so he grunted, grabbed a mask, and headed to the empty workspace. It was odd, but the nearer proximity to Axel’s tunnel eased some of his restlessness. The buzz of the drills grinding the rock drowned everything else to a distant hum. As he worked, Vortel ran different scenarios through his head to be prepared for the escape.
What if Axel was caught?
What if Tebin tried to assault them again?
What if the sensors went off as they made their way to the mines?
Life in a gang had taught him to arrange backup plans and prepare for any mishaps. He was so absorbed in his thoughts that the signal for break startled him.
He was one of the first in line and gulped down his portion of water before returning to the extraction zone. He was at the head of the stairs when he caught sight of Tebin, a cluster of robot guards, and the P-19 Director stepping off the elevator.
The Director never came to the mines unless…
He gulped down a surge of panic. They were here for him and Axel. Steel bands tightened around his chest as the group approached the foreman. It was impossible to hear the conversation, but Tebin kept turning his head as if searching for someone.
Vortel slowly backed toward the row of carts waiting to be unloaded at the rim of the pit. Axel’s tunnel was fifty feet to his right. He crossed the track and began to duck behind the nearest cart. Tebin turned toward Vortel.
Their eyes locked.
Tebin shouted and pointed.
Vortel ran for his life.
More shouts erupted behind him. He pelted into the tunnel, knocked a skinny man down, and kept going. He didn’t look back, but the commands of the robots reached him.
“Axel!” he shouted. Panic gripped his chest like a fist. Such fear hadn’t surged through him since the night of the assassination. His boots slapped on the stone floor and air rushed past his face as he tore around the corners.
Dammit, how far had the workers progressed?
“Axel,” he called again, not caring if anyone heard. They were already exposed.
The tunnel straightened and he glimpsed Axel far ahead. Vortel shouted and waved his arms. Axel looked up and trotted toward him.
“What the devil are you doing? Quiet down.”
“They know.” Vortel slammed to a stop, chest heaving. “Tebin brought the Director. He saw me. The guards are coming.”
Axel grabbed his head and swore. “No—no—no.”
“We have to go.” Vortel glanced back. Rapid footsteps echoed off the walls.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen.” Axel looked ready to snap an iron bar in half, but he pulled himself together and broke into a jog. “How many?”
“At least ten,” Vortel said, wishing Axel would hurry up. The abandoned tunnel was back toward the cavern—toward the guards.
“We’ll get you out of here, I promise.” Axel’s face reminded Vortel of a man getting ready to kill.
“Tell me what to do.” Vortel refused to give in to the despair threatening to crush him. This would work. It had to.
Axel didn’t reply. He opened his compartment and removed two black disks half the width of his palm. “Give me a second.”
The voices of the guards were closer. Vortel grabbed a discarded pick. It was useless against the electric guns, but he couldn’t face them without a weapon. The gap closed as they approached a sharp bend.
“Get ready,” Axel said, face grim.
Vortel braced himself and raised the pick. They turned the corner.
Eight guards rushed at them, less than fifteen paces away. They raised their guns. Before Vortel could do anything, Axel threw the disks. They expanded as they flew and sprouted whirring blades. In a blink, they reached the guards, blades wide enough to span the entire width of the hall. Eight robots toppled, heads hacked off, exposed wires sparking.
Axel and Vortel sprinted past. Two more turns and they would reach the side tunnel.
Axel pulled out what appeared to be a small grenade. Vortel wanted to ask where he’d gotten such an impressive array of weapons, and how in the name of reason he’d kept them hidden from the detectors and guards this whole time.
They careened right, then left. The tunnel straightened for a ways. Tebin, the Director, and a pack of guards stampeded toward them. Between them gaped the entrance to the side tunnel. Vortel charged, trusting Axel.
Something whizzed in the air. The guards scattered as the small orb flew at them. It landed with a clack and a loud beep.
“Into the tunnel,” Axel shouted.
Vortel threw himself sideways and vaulted over the barrier. Axel followed. A moment later an explosion tore through the tunnel. The concussion shook the ground and pulsed in the air, but the brunt of the shock wave shot down the main passage. Clouds of dust billowed, plunging them into murky shadows. Rock cracked. Stony thuds pounded Vortel’s ears.
“Follow me,” Axel said.
As always, thoughts welcome.