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THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
“How is this going to work?” Vortel asked as he and Axel rode the elevator up to L-14.
“The andonium you gave me was enough,” Axel said. “I still need to convert it to a usable source—powder in this case, to power the spacetime interrupter. That’s the tricky part, really. Managing the other components should be as slick as a water slide.”
“I meant, what’s the plan?”
The elevator stopped and the doors opened.
Two figures lunged through, slamming into Vortel. He caught sight of their faces—Tebin’s thugs—before they tackled him. He went down swinging and his right fist connected with a kneecap.
More scuffling sounds filled the elevator, but he was too busy to check on Axel. Heavily muscled arms wrapped around his neck. Hands yanked his arms back. Vortel twisted. Fury blazed through his veins.
A fist smashed into his teeth. He tasted blood. He growled and kicked with his legs, trying to free himself. A forearm pressed against his throat, crushing his windpipe. He gasped for breath that wouldn’t come.
“Don’t kill him. Not yet.” Tebin stepped into the elevator, a smug grin plastered on his face. He pressed the button for floor eighteen and the elevator whisked up.
The thugs manhandled Vortel to his feet. One kicked him between the legs and he crumpled, groaning. Axel lay in the corner, blood trickling from his mouth. He appeared to be unconscious.
“I want answers,” Tebin said, looming over Vortel. “You can give them to me, or my men can beat them out of you. Your choice.”
Vortel spat blood at Tebin’s boots. Tebin grabbed Vortel’s neck below the chin and tilted his head back. “I don’t think you heard me correctly.”
Vortel wheezed. Pain radiated through him as the thugs kept his arms twisted behind his back.
Tebin inclined his head toward Axel. “I want to know what he’s doing. Don’t lie. I can smell a lie a mile away.”
“Why would I know?”
Tebin’s fingers tightened. “Don’t play smart with me, Trannisan vermin. Answer me.”
Movement stirred in the corner of Vortel’s vision. Axel’s left hand crept toward the bulge on his right arm. Tebin and his thugs didn’t notice.
“Fine,” Vortel said. “He’s been teaching me.”
Tebin’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Teaching you? What?”
“His tricks,” Vortel said, willing himself not to glance toward Axel.
“You’re lying,” Tebin snarled.
Vortel stared him in the eye.
The elevator arrived and the doors opened.
“Get them out,” Tebin said, releasing Vortel.
A sharp hiss. Tebin blinked and went stiff. A small dart stuck out of his neck. He hit the floor like a falling board.
Axel was on his knees. The bulge on his arm hung open like a small storage compartment. He threw another dart at the nearest thug. It sank into the brute’s arm before he had a chance to react. His hold on Vortel went slack and he tipped over.
Cursing, the brute holding Vortel twisted to shield himself with Vortel’s body. Vortel rammed an elbow into the man’s exposed stomach and squirmed sideways to give Axel a wider target. Axel hopped to his feet and threw another dart. It took the last thug in the throat and he too smacked to the floor.
Vortel stared at the bodies. “Are they dead?”
Axel snorted. “I wish. Unfortunately, it’s only a powerful sedative. Let’s get them off.” They dragged the bodies into the corridor. Axel removed the darts, which were the length of an index finger, and stuffed them in a pocket. “The less evidence, the better. Can’t let these jerks broadcast my secrets.”
“What in the name of the Prime is that?” Vortel asked, eyeing Axel’s still-open bulge. It was a compartment, built into Axel’s arm.
“I call it my hush-hush.” Axel flipped the flap shut—it perfectly matched his skin, not even leaving a line showing—and pulled the sleeve of his black button-down shirt back over. “It’s where I keep my stash of goodies. Like Mom’s cookie jar. Don’t bother asking anything else. I probably won’t tell you, and we have more important things to discuss.”
“Tebin’s on to us,” Vortel said as they entered the elevator and headed back to L-14.
“Good thing the escape is tomorrow,” Axel said. “Where were we before Hot-Head and his band of merry brutes so rudely interrupted? Oh yes, the plan.”
“Tebin will come after us again,” Vortel said. “It better be a blasted good plan.”
“Please. Give me some credit for my brilliance,” Axel said as they stepped into the corridor and headed to Vortel’s cell.
Axel was silent for a moment. “You were right—I have been snooping around after curfew.”
Axel patted his secret compartment. “Experience and a few friendly gadgets to help me. You don’t think I pulled off my amazing feats of crime because everyone around me was incompetent? Well, that’s partly true.”
Vortel’s mind worked. He kept his voice low. “We use your magic device to slip out after curfew…”
“…head down to the mines, and goodbye P-19,” Axel finished. “Exactly, my man. You catch on quick.”
“It makes sense.” Vortel scanned his card and they went in.
“I’ll have the transporter ready by tomorrow afternoon. That will give us plenty of time.”
“If we run across any guards, do you…?” Vortel nodded at Axel’s bulge.
“I’m a man of surprises. Don’t you trust me by now?” Axel’s sly grin was actually comforting this time.
Vortel sucked in a deep breath and dropped heavily onto his cot. “How can I know you’re telling the truth? This could be a hoax.”
Axel grew serious. “Technically, nothing I can say will make you change your mind, but do you really think I’d go to all this trouble just to trap someone I only met a few months ago?”
“Then why bother to save me?” That question had been nagging Vortel.
Axel opened his mouth and closed it. He shifted on his feet, as if he stood on hot pavement. “I want to screw the system, flaunt their failure in their snobbish faces. I told you that already.”
“Why me? You could have picked anyone.”
“Don’t know,” Axel said with a shrug. “I promised I’d pay you back for saving me from Tebin the Terrible.” He leaned forward. “And you seemed like a good man to save.”
“Because I’m a murderer?” Vortel said flatly.
Axel shook his head. “Think of what your action did. It started a civil war, cost millions of lives. Who wouldn’t change that if given the chance?”
Vortel stared at the wall, not wanting to say anything. The scenes from that night played through his mind. “If this works—”
“It will,” Axel said firmly.
Vortel didn’t look at him. “If this works, we need a plan for stopping the assassination.”
Axel leaned against the wall, stretched out his legs, and folded his arms. “You were there. What do you suggest?”
“The problem is, Gurn had a failsafe in place, in case anything went wrong. I was the trigger man.” The words stuck in Vortel’s throat. He swallowed. “But if I failed, Gurn and the other four were hidden, ready to throw grenades on the stage where the Prime was giving his speech. Preventing me from pulling the trigger is only half the battle. And if the grenades go off this time around, a lot more people will get hurt.”
Axel’s lips quirked in a crooked, mocking sort of grin. “It never can be simple, can it?”
“We’ll need to divide responsibilities.” A thought struck Vortel. He mentally raced back through their previous conversations, worry building. He leveled a hard look at Axel. “You are coming?”
Axel shrugged. “Why stay here? I deserve a better fate than becoming Tebin’s permanent punching bag.”
Vortel exhaled. Thank the gods—if there were any. “Good, because I need you.”
“Fancy that.” Axel smirked. “Watch what you say or you might end up in the hardened-criminal-turned-softie yearbook.”
Vortel snorted. “Not likely.”
Axel tapped his right index finger against his lips. “Given the situation you’ve described, it’s better if I handle your younger self, and you take care of this Gurn fellow and his buddies.”
Vortel frowned. “Why?”
“Coming into direct contact with yourself is a bad idea. Things could get wacky. You might even end up causing a disturbance and zapping yourself—present and past—out of existence. Wouldn’t want that.”
Vortel would have to take Axel’s word for it. Such vulnerability made the mental alarms from his gang days scream in protest, but he didn’t have a choice. “Renya will be there.” Vortel examined his hands. “Don’t hurt her.”
Axel put his hand on his heart. “Scout’s honor.” He stretched and yawned. “I’d better get going. Got a few loose ends to tie up, and I need my rest. We have a big day tomorrow.”
As always, I’d love to know what you thought.