We’re nearing the finish, and things are getting interesting for Axel and Vortel.
Check the Short Fiction page for any parts you may have missed, and as always, I hope you enjoy!
THE TIME THAT WAS NOT
A knock sounded on Vortel’s door. He groaned and sat up on his cot. Was it time for roll call already? He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and looked at the digital readout on the wall. 6:34 AM.
Roll call wasn’t until seven o’clock. What was going on? The knock sounded again, more insistent. Grumbling, Vortel pulled on a pair of baggy orange pants and a neon green shirt with the sleeves cut off.
“I’m coming,” he said gruffly.
He opened the door and knew something was wrong.
Axel stood in the corridor, dressed sharply. Lines of worry creasing his face. “Sorry to disturb you, my man, but…” He glanced around. “May I come in?”
“No. Stand there, but keep your voice down.” Vortel leaned against the doorjamb and yawned. “This better be important.”
“I need your help.” Axel looked as if the request would make him puke.
“My project. I’ve run into a snag.”
Vortel let out a sharp breath. “Like getting caught?”
Axel shook his head. “Nothing that drastic, but…” He shifted, clearly uncomfortable. “I didn’t want to involve you, but I can’t see a way around it. I’m sorry.”
“Get on with it.” A nagging feeling filled the pit of Vortel’s stomach.
“I need andonium to power the transporter,” Axel whispered.
“Steal it,” Vortel said. “Being stupid hasn’t stopped you yet.”
“I would, but the tunnel I’m working in has run dry. We’ve been searching for a new vein the last three days. No luck. It’s only a matter of time before someone finds the transporter. I need the andonium today.”
Vortel pursed his lips. “And you want me to get it.”
“I can’t think of anything else. They almost always put you on loading duty. I’ll need a chunk about two feet square, mostly andonium.” Axel held his hands apart to demonstrate. “Bring it to the second tunnel.”
“You’re telling me what to do?” Vortel’s words were cold.
“I’m telling you what’s necessary to make this work,” Axel said, eyes flashing. “I’m almost done, and let’s just say it’s been risky. Way more than you know. I haven’t gotten this far by pulling components out of my pockets. The guards or Director could find out at any time. This might be your only chance.”
Vortel rubbed his jaw. “I steal some andonium. You use it. Then what?”
“We send you back.” Axel sounded more confident than Vortel felt.
“You’re sure it’ll work?”
“Positive.” Axel accompanied the word with a sharp nod. “I’d better get back before roll call.” He rubbed his reddened eyes and yawned. “This night business is catching up to me.”
Vortel paused. “Night business? You mean you’ve been sneaking out after curfew starts?”
“Keep your voice down,” Axel said. He winked. “Once I put my mind to something, nothing stops me.”
“I’m off. Get me that andonium this afternoon. I’ll need at least a few hours.” He spun and left.
Vortel gaped after him. It was impossible to get out during curfew, let alone move about without trigging the floor sensors. What was Axel, some sort of magic maniac?
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. What did it matter? Magician or idiot, the man was offering Vortel a chance to reclaim his life. Which meant Vortel would have to risk his skin to get the andonium.
It was worth it.
The din of the mining operation kept invading Vortel’s thoughts. Sweat drenched his shirt and trickled down his face and neck as he shoveled huge chunks of rock laced with andonium into the waiting cart. He’d been working for nearly an hour since the lunch break ended.
He paused and assessed the environment. Inmates were busy picking, shoveling, pulling carts, grinding stone, and a dozen other things, all under the watchful eye of several dozen robot guards. The titanium devils moved along the paths between the work areas, eyes scanning everything with watchful diligence. One passed Vortel’s pit every few minutes. He would have to work quickly.
The problem was, he hadn’t seen any rocks fitting Axel’s description. He had no idea exactly how much andonium Axel needed, and he wasn’t about to cut it close. He had one shot at this—it better work the first time.
He bent and continued shoveling. Lumps of stone clattered down the chute into the pile. Vortel inspected them as he worked, silently cursing. Getting the andonium to Axel would be hard enough, but he needed something to take first. So far, it had been slim pickings.
Might as well figure out how he was going to pull this off. Back on Trannis, planning robberies had been a pastime for him. After a few years of experience, he became the best in the gang. Between shovelfuls, he took in his surroundings.
He was near the far end of the cavern, opposite the elevator shaft and the foreman’s station. This particular pit was next to a tunnel, but not the one he needed. Axel was two tunnels down—halfway between Vortel and the foreman. Between Vortel and his destination were two more loading areas, several cart tracks, dozens of workers, and the ever-present guards.
Vortel pursed his lips. His best bet was to load the andonium into the cart and pull it toward the tunnel. The track followed the base of the wall around the cavern, and the carts moved in a clockwise direction, meaning he could take it toward the unloading area and pass conveniently by the tunnel on the way.
After that, he still needed to find Axel. That would be difficult but manageable—provided he didn’t run into any guards or blabbermouth inmates who noticed what he was doing. Most mineworkers were so numbed to the labor that they went through the motions without thinking or paying attention to anything. His biggest danger was the guards.
More chunks tumbled into the pit. Vortel caught his breath. One was nearly as wide as his chest, and one entire side was the greenish-gray color of andonium. He checked to be sure. That was his piece. He loaded the rest of the chunks first then placed the prize on top. One more round and the cart would be full.
A horn sounded, making Vortel jump. He went stiff until he realized it was the signal for water break. He tossed his shovel down and grabbed the harness attached to the cart as the inmates filed toward the cistern next to the foreman’s station.
He had the harness over his shoulders when a mechanical voice said, “Water break. Now.” A silver robot marched up the path, pointing toward the other inmates.
“It’s nearly full. I was going to take it on my way,” Vortel said, nodding at the cart.
The robot stared at him with emotionless eyes. After an eternity of silence, it said, “Don’t hold up the schedule.”
Vortel ducked his head and strained against the leather harness. The cart rolled easily after him and he made his way quickly toward the tunnel. A few workers trickled out of the entrance. Vortel glanced around as he slipped out of the harness. The guards were preoccupied with keeping the workers in line.
Here went nothing.
He grabbed the hunk of rock and dashed into the tunnel.
The rock was heavy, even for his brawny arms. Before long he was panting and his muscles burned from the load, but he plowed down the empty tunnel, mouth dry. Let it work. Let it work.
Where was Axel?
He rounded a bend and spotted Axel up ahead, stooped over something on the stone floor. Vortel jogged up, wheezing, and set the rock down.
“Here. Don’t ask me for anything else.”
Axel eyed the nugget. “That should do. How—”
Vortel shook his head and started back. “Later.”
When he arrived back, half the workers had returned to their tasks, but no one seemed to have noticed his absence. He hauled the cart to the huge demolition zone where the andonium was extracted. A few guards gave him long looks as he hurried to the back of line for water.
Minutes later he was back at the pit, feeling as if a heavy chain had been lifted from around his neck. Now it was up to Axel.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.