The Longest Shard: 2

Shard

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

For those who wish to read the novella all at once, the 99¢ ebook is available for purchase.

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Day 1


Morton Barrens
Maximum Security Penitentiary
February 9, 1442 AL


“Let me be as clear as the crystal you will soon be harvesting,” Warden Simkins intoned from the balcony atop the prison’s outer wall, “this is not some risto-friendly rehab camp.” 

“Well, smog it, I want a refund,” Manny, the convict to Gideon’s left, whispered. 

His comment earned a chuckle from the convict to Gideon’s right.

The nearest corrections officer shifted, but said nothing. 

“This is a working prison.” The warden let his eyes skim over the five newcomers while the suns glinted off the deep umber of his shaved head. “And it is through your labor that you will make restitution to the society you have wronged. You will also learn, and quickly,” Simkins added, “that these walls, these walls are not your prison.” 

“Could’a fooled me,” Manny muttered.

“The suns are your prison,” Simkins boomed. “The demands of your own bodies are your prison. And should any of you decide to test your luck—to walk away from your work party, or climb the walls of the yard in an attempt to escape—you have my promise that no one will stop you. But in so doing, you will be consigning your bones to the suns. I will waste none of my officers on seeking wayward inmates, just as I will punish no inmate who changes their mind and chooses to return.” 

He allowed that to sink in before adding, “But if you do take the walk, and have a change of heart, you must turn back before reaching your 7,562nd step. Any further, and you won’t be able to return.” 

It was on that last, ominous warning that the corrections officers began herding the newest inmates through the prison’s main gate. 

Less than an hour later, Gideon exited another gate, dressed in the dull gray uniform worn by all Morton inmates.

His clothes and personal belongings were gone, locked away in a small box by a stone-faced corrections officer. 

Everything. 

Including his coat. 

To Gideon, losing the long-coat of the Colonial Infantry was akin to losing a limb. 

Who was he, if not a soldier? 

An idiot, Dani would say. 

Thinking of Dani, his hands clenched, then loosened again, as the motion caused a fresh stinging. 

He glanced down at the 66987 that another stone-faced guard had just tattooed on the back of his hand. 

Feeling more than a little stony himself, Gideon turned from the mark of his crimes to scan the yard into which he’d spilled. 

The square of gritty soil was larger than he expected, and dotted with the occasional bench or slab of rock, which he saw some inmates making use of to read, or play a game of cards. 

And Cher, a non-binary convict out of Epsilon who Gideon had met on the airship, simply sat and stared over the small expanse. 

The way Cher sat—their long-fingered hands laced together, dark eyes seeing nothing—put Gideon in mind of a woman he’d once seen in the aftermath of a pitched battle waged on the streets of Macintosh. 

The woman had been sitting just so—hands clutched, eyes empty—on the stoop of a burned-out building, while company after company marched past, on their way to the next engagement. 

Shaking off the memory, Gideon turned from Cher to study the walls of the enclosure. Three of them, including the one from which he’d just emerged, were formed by the two wings of the cell blocks, each two stories high. The third, he’d been told, held the mess, the infirmary, and solitary units. 

The fourth and final side of the yard was defined by a wall Gideon figured a determined double amputee could climb, if they really wanted. 

But as the warden had pointed out earlier, the only time an inmate would want to climb that wall would be if that inmate were feeling suicidal. 

The wall, and the roofs of the buildings, were topped by parapets along which the corrections officers walked, their crossbows loaded with rubber-tipped riot bolts. But, Gideon noted, each of the guards also carried quivers of live bolts at their hip, alongside thick club-like sticks he knew to be crystal-powered shock batons. 

“How’s the hand?” 

Keepers.” Gideon spun to face another inmate.

“Sorry,” the man said with the whisper of a smile that matched his genteel Avonian accent. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Doc,” he added, by way of introduction. 

“Gideon,” Gideon replied automatically as he eyed the man. Lean, graying, and observing Gideon through a pair of spectacles. “Is that a nickname or a profession?” 

The eyes behind the spectacles crinkled while the whisper of a smile became more of a statement. “Both, as it happens. Which means it’s me who’ll be stitching you up should the need arise.” The smile twisted a bit as he added, “The staff physician prefers to stay on the staff side of the wall.” 

“Ahh,” Gideon said as another inmate emerged from one of the two cell blocks. 

“Hey, Doc!” the new guy said, then looked up at Gideon, his deep brown eyes shining with a pleasure that had Gideon wondering what kind of pharmaceuticals Doc might be handing out to the general population. “Hello,” he greeted Gideon. “You must have just got in. I met Manny already. He’s in his cell and looked kinda down.” 

“That’s natural, under the circumstances,” Doc pointed out. 

“I know, but I saw Renny walking away right before I got there.” 

“Ah,” Doc said.

“Renny?” Gideon asked. 

“He’s a scary son of a sabertooth,” the kid explained with a grimace. “Even scarier than Pavel.” 

“Pavel?” Gideon echoed the name. He was starting to feel dizzy. 

“Context, Nyal,” Doc murmured. “Pavel Escamilla,” he continued to explain. “In for person-slaughter, assault and battery, willful destruction of property and… well, the list goes on. Mostly because Pavel keeps adding years to his sentence every time he thinks another inmate looked at him funny.” 

“Good to know,” Gideon said, determining that, at no time, would he be looking at anyone, ever.

“But at least Pavel is predictable,” Nyal said. “Renny’s just mean.”

“Like a bully on the queen pitch mean?” Gideon asked before he could stop himself.

“Like hiding a dead tarantula under Kneecaps Mololo’s pillow because she scored the last portion of tea at breakfast mean,” Doc explained.

“I don’t think Kneecaps has slept a night through since then,” Nyal offered.

Gideon thought it would take a lot to unnerve someone who went by the name Kneecaps.

“Not to give you the wrong idea,” Nyal said, as if suddenly realizing the dire picture he and Doc were painting. “Generally everyone here gets on pretty well.” 

“Uh-huh,” Gideon said.

“No, but truly,” Nyal said, his brown eyes brimming with sincerity. “Even after a day in the veins, someone’s almost always ready for a game of cricket or net the queen or basketball. And Doc’s mad for his card games.” 

“True enough,” Doc agreed. 

“And sometimes Lonnie puts together a show,” Nyal continued. “He’s in for counterfeiting, but his real love is theatre. He even used one of my models, a replica of the Hollywood Bole, in a shadow play about Yggdrasil. And once we even—”

Gideon held up a hand. “I appreciate the sales pitch,” he said, “but I’m not looking to join the local knitting circle here.” 

“Good thing, since the warden won’t let us have any needles,” Nyal said thoughtfully. “But you might want to get into the Go tournament. We call it the Go-on-Forever tournament, because, well, look where we are. And Pavel sponsors centipede races, because he’s got a collection of them.”

“You and Pavel have fun with that,” Gideon said, “but I think I’ll just skip the self-delusion portion of my incarceration, if it’s all the same to you.” 

“Oh.” Nyal blinked and seemed to shrink into himself. “Well.” His shoulders slumped and he shoved his hands in his pockets before walking away, with a great deal less energy than he’d arrived. 

“That was unkind,” Doc observed.

“You think it’s better for him to live in some fantasy?” 

“What I think is that Nyal exemplifies the power of the mind over adversity,” Doc replied. 

“Sounds like a load of cog-wash,” was Gideon’s opinion. But he glanced over to the youth, now crouched near one of the walls. He appeared to be folding a scrap of paper into a draco. “What’s a kid like that doing in a place like this, anyway?”

“He may look young, but Nyal is of age,” Doc said. “Just as he was of age the night he blew a safe in a bank he thought to be deserted.” Doc glanced over at Nyal’s hunched shadow. “When he found the remains of the guards inside, he walked out of that bank, away from the rest of his crew, and up to the nearest copper to turn himself in.” He glanced back at Gideon. “Unlike you, Nyal believes he belongs here.” 

“What makes you think I don’t belong here?” Gideon asked evenly.

“I didn’t say that,” Doc pointed out. “I simply observed you believe you don’t.” Then he, too, walked away.

“Always good to see a fellow soldier in this muck heap.”

Gideon’s lip twisted as he turned to see yet another inmate coming to a halt at his side. “Are you a sensitive?” he asked, eying the dark-haired, fair-skinned stranger. 

One ink-black brow arched. “Hardly.” 

“So what makes you think I’m military?” Gideon asked, even as his self reminded him, vigorously, he wasn’t in the mood for another conversation.

“The way you stand,” the man replied, as if it were obvious. “The way you scanned your surroundings, and the enemy,” he nodded at the guards pacing the walls above, “the second you stepped into the yard. Then there’s the way your hand moved towards a weapon you’re not carrying when you heard my voice.” 

Gideon glanced down, saw his hand was, in fact, resting where his shooter would have been holstered, if he’d been wearing it. “Points for being observant,” he said. “Bet that’s helped you acclimate, since you’ve only been here, what, two… maybe three… weeks?” 

The dark eyes narrowed at that. “And what makes you think I’ve been here such a short time?” 

“Your skin’s more burned than tanned, which tells me you haven’t had time to adjust to the desert suns,” Gideon said with a shrug. “Also, your uniform hasn’t started to fade, and it’s still holding the creases from the original folds. Your boots are dusty, but not broken in, and your hand is still inflamed from the tattoo.” 

“Well played,” the stranger said, flicking a glance at the reddened flesh around the numbers etched onto the back of his hand. “I did, in fact, arrive in this charming little facility two weeks and three days ago. Renny Boucher,” he introduced himself with a crooked tip of the head.

“Gideon—”

“Quinn, yes. I know,” Renny said. “Word travels,” he explained. “And what did you think of the warden’s welcome speech?”

“I’d say he had a shot at the Hollywood Dionysus prize,” Gideon said, once he caught up with the whiplash change in topic, “but the judges would have to shave off a few points for the scenery chewing.” 

“On the contrary,” Renny said, “I wager they’d give him higher marks, as there’s so little scenery in the Barrens to chew.” 

Gideon almost laughed, which was a strange sensation, given the circumstances. 

Circumstances including not only where he was, or why, but also that, from his accent, Renny Boucher was almost certainly from Adidas—one of the Coalition states against which Gideon had, until very recently, fought. 

“And now you’re thinking how I’m not from your native Colonies,” Renny said. 

“Are you sure you’re not a sensitive?” Gideon asked. 

Renny dismissed that with a flick of his hand. “The curse of being the lone Adidan in a Colonial prison.” 

“And how did you manage to become the lone Adidan in a Colonial prison?” 

“That would be a long story.” 

“It’s not like I’m going anywhere,” Gideon said, unable to entirely mask the bitterness of that truth.

“No urge to take a long walk, then?” Renny asked, inclining his head towards the joke of a wall. 

Gideon followed his glance and recalled Simkins’s dire warnings. “Not just yet.” 

“Good.” Renny fixed his oddly intense gaze on Gideon as he added, “All in all, I’d prefer to be the one who ends you.” 

“Excuse me?” Gideon asked. 

“No,” Renny replied, and as he did, the unnamed intensity in his eyes resolved itself into a bone-deep hatred before he walked away, leaving Gideon gaping in his wake.


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