The Longest Shard: 11


Tale of Fortune, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers. 

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Day  391

Several months after the viper exchange, Gideon strode out into the middle of the yard, much as he’d done exactly one year ago.

And he knew it had been exactly one year because he’d just been walked out of his first annual parole review. 

More like his first annual pointless exercise, he thought, since his alleged crime had earned him a life sentence. 

But thanks to the First Landers, who were determined not to repeat the mistakes of their Terran forebears, the Colonial criminal justice system required an annual evaluation for each inmate.

Even inmates who’d confessed to treason, and had a snowball’s chance in Nasa of ever being released. 

Which Gideon had known, going into the meeting, and therefore not the reason he now stood in the center of the yard, silently engaged in a battle to suppress the rage he could feel burning through every molecule.

It had kindled soon after walking into the room and seeing only a token assembly that consisted of Warden Simkins, some pallid lieutenant attached to the Corps Advocate General, and a staff recorder. 

The session opened with Lieutenant Spud-face reading out the summary of Gideon’s crimes, as well as the transcript of his confession. 

It ended with Simkins agreeing solemnly with Spud’s assessment that Gideon was a very bad person and slaving away in the veins day in and day out was too good for him.

That CO Kamal was in the room and seemed sympathetic to Gideon’s cause somehow made the whole thing worse. 

But what really twisted the knife—in Gideon’s eyes, at least—wasn’t the sentence itself, or the way Simkins and the potato bandied their opinions about Gideon as if he weren’t even there. 

It was, rather, the realization he’d been in the Barrens for an entire year.

Three hundred ninety-two days had passed since he’d first stumbled into the yard, his hand stinging from the prison tattoo and his mind numb with loss.

“Not feeling celebratory?” A too-familiar voice slid through the dark haze, exactly as it had a year ago. 

“Not today, Renny,” Gideon said.

“But it’s your anniversary,” an undeterred Renny replied. “We should mark it in some way. Like you marked mine by breaking my nose.” He gently touched the bridge of that abused organ, still slightly crooked. 

Since he’d only broken Renny’s nose because Renny was attempting to strangle him with a bootlace, Gideon opted not to respond.

“Well, if you don’t want to celebrate your anniversary, maybe we should raise a bowl of kibble to mark the completion of that swarming list on your wall.” 

At that, Gideon’s lip curled. “What makes you think I’ve finished?”

“I made some enquiries into your case,” Renny said. “Enough to know how many of your company died. Six dead, six names on the wall. Which means,” Renny continued, “you’ve no more need of my shard.” 

Gideon’s gaze slid towards Renny. “And you think I should give it back?”

“It would be the decent thing.” 

“You just want to bury it in my spine.”

“I was thinking more your throat.”

“I think I’ll hang on to it a bit longer,” Gideon decided, and returned to his study of the yard. Less because he was interested in the evening activities and more because he still very much wanted to hit something, and Renny made such an appealing target. 

Almost immediately his eyes landed on Doc, seated at his favorite stone slab. With him were Mama, Suleiman, and a newcomer, a Campbell Islander named Cassandra O’Malley

Gideon didn’t know what Cassandra was in for, but he had seen her in Renny’s presence once or twice. 

As she flashed a lightning-bright smile at Doc, Gideon could see why Renny would talk her up. Though it was just as likely Renny only wanted to recruit the new inmate in his campaign against Gideon as for any amorous purposes. 

With some regret, Gideon continued to scan the yard, fixing next on the vision of Lonnie, sprawled on the ground, rather like a fallen aurochs, with Kneecaps kneeling at his side, and Vito standing over him, clutching a hand to his heart. 

Gideon grimaced at what must have been a rehearsal for one of Lonnie’s productions, and turned to the queen game going forward, just in time to see Pavel chuck the queen past the keeper with a swift smack of his stick. 

As Pavel’s team whooped with glee, Gideon spied two figures on the far side of the pitch, both pressed into the shadows of the outer wall. 

“Hello?” Renny said as Gideon angled for a better look. “You do realize I’m still here?”

“Don’t care,” Gideon said as he recognized one of the two bodies as CO Kozinski, who must have flipped on his shock baton, because a flash of sparks erupted to push back the shadows.

And in that brief flash, Gideon spied a thoroughly petrified Nyal, pushing himself into the wall.

Gideon was moving before he knew it. 

“Wait,” he heard Renny say. 

“No,” he responded, and kept moving. 

“You’re going to get killed,” Renny hissed, following. 

“Isn’t that what you want?” Gideon asked.

“Only if I’m involved,” Renny replied, then clammed up as both men came up alongside Doc’s card game. 

“What’s going on?” Doc asked, glancing up and then following the direction of Gideon’s glare.

“Ah, well. Will you look at that,” the older man huffed his disapproval.

The comment had the rest of the players looking up from the cards in time to see Kozinski holding Nyal by the collar while he waved the baton in front of the young man’s glassy eyes.

Gideon’s lip curled, and he spared Renny a glance. “When you speak of this,” he said, “and you know you will… be specific.” 

“What?” Doc asked, looking from Gideon to Renny and back to Nyal’s dilemma. “Speak of what?” 

“It’s a short story,” Renny replied. “I believe I will call it The Death of an Idiot. 

Gideon didn’t bother responding as he worked his way to his objective, using the shove-and-tumble of the queen game to cover his approach.

All the while, he kept his eyes on Kozinski, repeatedly tapping his baton against the wall, sparking and sparking again as he brought the charged stick ever closer to the trembling Nyal. 

“—just saying,” Gideon heard say as he drew close, “a little friendliness could go a long, long way to making your life easier. Or you could keep being unfriendly, and find out just how hard things can get.” 

The stick sparked closer, and closer, and was perilously near Nyal’s head when Gideon slid in to wind his arm around Kozinski’s. 

“What the hel-eeoww!” The guard’s exclamation accompanied Gideon’s circling action, which dragged the baton away from Nyal’s face and towards Kozinski’s.

In self-defense, Kozinski dropped the weapon, which fell, sparks shooting everywhere as it bounced and rolled to a stop at the foot of the wall. “Quinn?” he sputtered, trying to free the arm Gideon still had entangled. “Are you insane?” 

“People keep asking me that,” Gideon replied, and then he punched Kozinski, easing back from the eruption of red from the bulbous nose.

From all around, he heard the low rumble of interest. “Scarp,” he hissed at Nyal, and was relieved to see the kid fade into the audience gathering on the queen pitch. 

Then Kozinski let out a hoarse growl, warning Gideon to dodge an incoming fist, so it only glanced off his ribs. 

Gideon growled himself, and with a sense of satisfaction he knew he’d regret later, buried his own fist in Kozinski’s throat.

Renny owes you,” he muttered as the CO dropped, gasping, to his knees.

At the same time, a series of whistles told Gideon the other screws had taken notice of the scuffle.

On the wall, shouts preceded the appearance of COs’ crossbows at the ready, while on the ground, a small army of guards stormed the yard. 

From his initial attack to the first whistle, Gideon figured the entire altercation had only lasted about fifteen seconds, but as he looked at the whimpering Kozinski at his feet, he found himself wishing for more time.

At least Nyal had made it to safety, which was more than Gideon could hope for, as the incoming COs surrounded him to apply their own shock batons, as well as a few well-placed boots.

Even as his fists curled, Kamal’s barely audible “Don’t fight” tickled his ear. 

Gideon would never know why, but that single exhortation from the CO managed to do what dreaming of murdering Renny—or actually pounding on Kozinski—couldn’t. 

Because the second he heard the hiss of an order, the rage that had shadowed him into the yard fell away, and only Gideon… tired, empty, and alone… remained.

How long he would remain, however, was another story, as fists, batons, and boots worked him over until his vision blurred and he wondered if, maybe, the guards really were going to do Renny’s work for him. 

Which was when he heard CO Kamal’s voice ordering everyone to stand down, and beyond that, a low, repetitive thumping he couldn’t identify.

Squinting through the pain, dust, and tears, he could just make out the mass of prisoners standing in a distant circle, and how each and every one of them was pounding a fist to the heart, over and over and over in an echo of the hand to the heart of the Colonial Corps.

And just as the whisper of warning earlier had deprived him of his close-held rage, this voiceless tribute rushed in to fill the vacancy with something else—a something he’d never have expected to feel in this place.

He could only hope, as Kamal and Menk hauled him to his feet, that this new sense of belonging would sustain him for what was likely to be a long, uncomfortable stint in solitary.

* * *

No one could have been more surprised than Gideon when that stint turned out to be only a few hours. 

And it turned out to be only a few hours because CO Kamal hadn’t accepted Kozinski’s story—that it had been Gideon who’d been threatening Nyal, and who turned on Kozinski when the guard tried to intervene. 

Kamal had followed through on their hunch by first speaking to Nyal, and then a number of other prisoners who’d witnessed the beatdown, including Doc, himself, and Renny.

Once they’d gotten the story from the inmates, Kamal had gone to the warden, who then did the needful and dismissed Kozinski for cause.

All of this Gideon discovered when he’d been removed from the darkness of the solitary cell and deposited in the infirmary.

“You’re telling me a guard went to the wall for a convict?” Gideon asked. 

“The same guard you saved from a viper,” Doc pointed out.

“Yeah but—Nyal?” he asked, wincing as Doc prodded a contusion on his back. “He really told the truth about Kozinski?”

“Never seen him so worked up,” Doc murmured. “There’s a laceration here. May need stitches.” 

“And Simkins actually gave Kozinski the boot?”

Doc pulled out his suture kit. “Simkins can be a bit pedantic, but he does like to run a clean prison. And another benefit,” he added, “Cassandra, the new inmate, was so impressed with your attack of Kozinski, she’s given Renny the cold shoulder. So it appears there’s one less shard in the back for you to worry over.” 

“Always a good day when someone doesn’t want to kill me,” Gideon decided, then cursed as the Doc put in the first suture.

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