If you’re behind on the story, catch up on the Short Fiction page.
Now it’s time to find out what Axel and Vortel are up to today.
Over the next few days, Vortel watched Axel closely during their breaks. They always drew different assignments in the mines, and Vortel had no chance to see if Axel was progressing on his plan. Every morning and night, and during the lunch hour, he shadowed Axel.
He was torn between beating some sense into the idiot and sitting back to see if Axel could actually pull his scheme off. It was bloody ridiculous—P-19 boasted a perfect record. No one had ever escaped. But if anyone were going to tarnish that reputation, Vortel had no doubt it would be Axel.
One morning after a restless night dreaming about Renya, Vortel arrived at the kitchen and found Axel at a crowded table, talking loudly.
“Another cup of coffee, friend. Can’t have enough of them.” He tilted his head back and laughed until he shook.
Vortel grabbed his food and claimed a spot at the next table where he could keep an eye on things. Axel’s behavior was always unique, but he seemed more off-the-wall than usual this morning.
“Any of you fellows worked in the mines?” Axel asked. “For three weeks straight?” He snatched his coffee mug up, realized it was empty, and slammed it back down. “It’s hell, I tell you.”
“Heavy air’s getting to him,” a gray-haired inmate muttered.
Axel went to get more coffee and spotted Vortel as he came back. “Morning, my man. Enjoy your sleep while you can. It’s a blessed gift.” Axel’s eyes were bloodshot, and dark bags had formed under his eyes. He yawned and took a long swig. “Ahhhh. Coffee is the lifeblood of humanity.”
Vortel watched him coldly. What was going on? Axel was hiding something from him. He could feel it.
He monitored the situation throughout the day, and by that evening, he was convinced Axel was putting on a show to cover up his activities with the time machine. The audacious idiot was doing it. He would send himself to the restricted area if he weren’t careful. Prisoners who went there never returned. Vortel would be damned if he let himself get dragged down in Axel’s sinking ship.
He stalked down the hallway to the kitchen, where Axel was supposedly on cleanup duty. He hated to admit it, but he didn’t want to see Axel caught. Time for a stern lecture.
The kitchen was empty except for Axel, who stood with his back to Vortel at the stainless steel industrial sinks. He was hunched over, but not washing dishes. What was that in his hands?
Vortel moved softly forward, shooting furtive glances at the monitors in the four corners of the room. He half-expected the emergency alarm to blare and the thud of robot guards as they swarmed in.
Instead, he heard Axel mutter, “Come on, stupid thing. Work.”
As if sensing someone, he whipped around, eyes startled in his drawn face. The tension eased as he saw Vortel. “Just, um…waiting for the water to heat up. Takes a blasted long time.” His hand slipped into his pocket and came back out. Empty.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Vortel hissed.
“Do I look like an idiot?” Axel replied, voice tight.
Vortel didn’t say anything.
“Go away and mind your own business. This is my problem, not yours.” Axel faced the sink and turned the water on.
“It’s my business if your crazy plan gets me in trouble,” Vortel said.
“Leave before it does.”
Footsteps in the hall. Vortel froze as a human guard marched in. He gave Vortel a dirty look and strode toward Axel. Vortel hesitated, heart pounding. Had they discovered Axel? Despite his misgivings, the thought of his chance to escape vanishing crashed into him like a hammer. He took a step forward.
“Get out,” the guard snarled.
Vortel stared at Axel for a long moment, then turned and left.
He headed to his room, where he spent the next hour pacing, a thousand thoughts running through his head. No alarms, so they hadn’t discovered Axel…
Later, Vortel made his round to ensure everyone had arrived for curfew. The inmates answered with gruff responses but Vortel didn’t care. They knew what would happen if they refused to acknowledge him. When he reached Axel’s room, he rapped on the door.
He knocked harder. “Curfew in one minute.”
“Answer me, you lump of good-for-nothing—”
Down the hall, the elevator dinged. Vortel twisted in time to see Axel charging down the hall, polo shirt untucked, hair messy. “What in the—”
“No time to explain,” Axel said, brushing past in a rush and opening his door. He was breathing hard and looked like the newest member of a gang after making his first theft.
“Stop,” Vortel said, holding the door open. “You tell me what you’re up to or I’ll make your ears ring.”
Red lights flashed in the corridor, signaling the last call before curfew. Vortel ground his teeth.
“Too late.” Axel flopped down on his cot. “Be patient, my man. You’ll find out soon.” He winked.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.