As always, the Short Fiction page contains any parts you might have missed.
Now on to Vortel and Axel. Enjoy.
The next week dragged.
Vortel watched Axel but avoided speaking with him for the most part. The blasted idiot had awoken something deep inside Vortel, something he had buried years ago and refused to acknowledge.
Now it was back, a constant nagging in his chest and whispered accusations in his head. Years ago, he’d learned to contain it, keep it locked under a steel lid of indifference. Giving in to the emotion only served as a stark reminder of how he’d screwed his entire life and ruined countless others. Better to ignore the guilt as if it didn’t exist than to let it slowly eat away at his life.
To make up for his wounded conscience, Vortel hardened his external appearance, answering gruffly, yelling, cursing, and threatening. The other L-14 members quickly learned to stay out of his way. Even Axel must have sensed he’d touched a nerve, because except for a few genial remarks in passing, he kept his reckless nonsense to himself.
Vortel wavered between throwing himself against the electric mesh and wanting to bash Axel’s head in. But he did neither, and life continued as it always did in P-19. Only now, for the first time in years—decades, even—something was different for Vortel. He didn’t want to accept his fate.
As he headed down to the main level one afternoon, carrying a bag of clothes that needed washing, it struck him like a fist to the stomach.
Dammit. He couldn’t go on like this. He’d made peace with his sentence long ago, but it was as if his wasted life spread out behind him like the hall he walked down—empty, void of meaning or significance. Bland tiles with harsh lighting.
“Curse you, Axel,” he muttered.
Arriving at the main level, he found the object of his torment wearing an apron and pushing a cart loaded with dirty dishes toward the kitchen. Axel didn’t notice him, and Vortel stopped to watch.
Axel darted a look left and right. A handful of prisoners moved around further down the hall, and two human guards lounged in an office across from the elevator, smoking and talking about hot dates, but no one paid him any heed. No need, with cameras and detectors scanning every inch of P-19.
Axel stopped outside the swinging kitchen doors, staring down the hall away from Vortel. Toward the far tip of the oblong building, where the restricted area was located.
Vortel’s jaw tightened. What was the fool doing? Vortel stayed put, not wanting to draw attention. For a few moments, Axel stood, one hand resting on the cart, the other scratching the back of his neck. Then he disappeared into the kitchen.
Vortel frowned. “Nonsense.” Nothing escaped the scrutiny of the security system. Even if Axel were a master robber and hacker, trying to escape would be as futile as a dog attempting to chew its way out of a solid steel vault.
Mumbling choice words at Axel in his head, Vortel headed in the other direction. After dropping his laundry bag off at the washroom, Vortel hesitated. His schedule called for lavatory cleaning, and the supplies rooms were near the front of the building, the opposite end from the kitchens. The guards would notice if he wasn’t in the correct place.
Vortel sighed and headed for the supply rooms, located down a short corridor off the main hall. He was returning with the cleaning cart when he turned the corner and nearly smacked into Axel.
“Steady there, my man.” Axel dodged, smirking. “Getting attacked by a rogue cart wasn’t in my afternoon plans.”
“Too busy with something?” Vortel continued, and of course, Axel fell in step beside him.
“I’m always busy.” Axel tapped his forehead. “Mind never rests. There’s no time.”
“Must be exhausting.” Vortel stopped outside the men’s lavatory and propped the door open.
“You get used to it.” Axel cracked his knuckles and raised an eyebrow. “Care for a hand?”
“Aren’t you scheduled for kitchen duty?”
“Strictly speaking…no. Funny how things can change at the last minute.” Axel’s eye began twitching at that moment, as if he’d planned the statement to be humorous.
Vortel wanted to drag an answer out of Axel but thought better of it. Instead, he said, “You’re one step away from getting yourself in a crapload of trouble.”
“Really?” Axel looked surprised. “I thought it would be half a step by now. Seems I need to up my game.” He winked through the eye twitch and grabbed a mop. “Shall we?”
Vortel hated lavatory cleaning, but assignment here was small payment for avoiding the mines. He wasn’t sure whether Axel’s presence helped or annoyed. Until the motor-mouth started asking questions.
“You’re from Trannis?” Axel swabbed the floor with the mop.
“I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s a prime tourist destination—something about red geysers and anti-gravitation fields.”
“Charming.” Water sloshed from the bucket as Axel rinsed his mop. “Did you have a family?”
Vortel moved to the nearest mirror and began scrubbing vigorously. “Why do you care?”
“Making small talk. Attempting to maintain some sense of normality in this rat’s hole. Being polite. Is that against P-19 policy?”
“Depends who you ask.” Vortel kept his back to Axel. Why was he interested in Vortel’s past? He moved to the next mirror.
The swishing sounds of the mop resumed. “I noticed your locket.” Axel’s tone was so offhand it took Vortel a moment to realize what he’d said.
He spun. “You can shut your mouth, leave, or find out how soft Tebin has been on you.” He clenched the rag in his right hand.
“You always wear it.” Axel continued as if Vortel hadn’t spoken. “It must carry special significance.”
Vortel took a menacing step forward, then pulled up short. What would he gain by beating Axel to a bloody pulp, except add another shovel of dirt on the grave he’d dug himself that awful night?
“My girl,” he said in a rough voice.
“Your…” Understanding lit Axel’s eyes. “Ahh, I see. Pretty, was she?”
Vortel turned back to the mirror. His face stared back at him, tanned skin chiseled with sharp lines and hardened from his years as a gang member and prisoner. A face deserving nothing but punishment.
He wanted to speak but his throat had closed. He glared at the reflection, wanting to punch his face and shatter it. Shatter what it stood for.
“I’m sorry,” Axel said, sounding sincere.
silence stretched. Vortel heaved a sigh. “She had the most beautiful eyes…blue, like a clear sky.”
“What was her name?” Axel’s voice was soft.
“Renya.” The word tore at Vortel’s throat.
“I never had a girlfriend,” Axel said, resuming his mopping. “Too obsessed with school and then my—ahem—clandestine endeavors.”
“It’s better that way,” Vortel said bitterly. “You can’t lose something you never had.”
“You miss her, don’t you?” Axel’s voice was soft, sympathetic.
Missed her so much it was like having red-hot daggers driven into his heart. Vortel nodded, not trusting himself to speak. A corner of his mind railed against this, demanding he throttle Axel for dredging up painful memories, but he didn’t act on the impulse. He let the anger out on the mirror instead. It squeaked under the brisk scrubbing.
Standing there with the past fresh in his mind, Vortel felt the weight of the years press down on his shoulders. Was she alive? Married? She had been part of the gang. Had she moved on and made better decisions? He hadn’t dared let himself ask those questions before because of the possible answers, but now he found himself wanting to know.
“Dammit, are you some sort of magician?” he muttered.
“What’s that?” Axel asked. “No, my man, not in the way you mean. My powers lie elsewhere.” He sounded thoughtful.
Vortel turned, eyes narrowed. “Like telling me how to get out of this mess?”
Axel opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it. He winked and whispered, “I’m a man of many tricks. One day I might surprise you.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” Vortel said with sarcasm.
“You do that. The problem with working in my trade is that no one gets to appreciate your talent. Sure, they understand you’re good at what you do, but there’s no firsthand praise, no public recognition.” Axel paused, eyes twinkling. “Just a lot of private smirks.”
Vortel gave a dry laugh. “Sounds like you went into the wrong profession.”
“There’s always time to rectify past mistakes,” Axel said, giving Vortel a pointed look.
What was he on about now? Vortel ignored him, and they finished their cleaning in silence.
But Axel’s words nagged Vortel.
I’d love to hear what you think.