The Longest Shard, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers.
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Squatting in the middle of his assigned vein, Gideon gently nestled the hunk of crystal he’d unearthed into a padded canister, then paused as a puff of dust tickled his nose.
With a grimace, he eased back on his heels and stared up at the bleached sky while, all around him, crystal hummed and picks scraped the hard, dry earth.
When the tickle faded, and no rogue sneeze threatened the stability of the canister, he closed and fastened the hinged lid and picked up his hard-won cargo.
Rising, he started down the long line of inmates, all hunkered over their own chosen clumps, as they counted down the baking minutes until the COs called time.
He angled away from the vein and towards the cargo mech, parked along with the personnel crawlers and rations cart, a safe distance from the vein.
Approaching the massed vehicles, huddled together with their wing-like solar shields spread wide, Gideon thought they looked like a nest of giant insects, napping in the suns until the time came to crawl back to the prison.
He was halfway to the caterpillar-treaded mechs when the first sounds of trouble rose from the southwest curve of the vein, in the form of shouts and curses, followed by the dreaded six-toned whistle that signaled an unstable vein.
This last was followed by the equally dreaded shouts to “Clear! Clear! Clear!” and even as Gideon turned, the cylinder cradled in his arms, the previously somnolent desert erupted in a flood of motion.
All along the vein, prisoners and guards alike scrambled to get as far as possible from a potential explosion.
Gideon, already at a safe distance, remained still, staring towards the curve from which the disturbance had arisen.
He watched Horatio skitter past, and CO Woo slide up to assist a limping Mama to the relative safety of the transports.
Pavel came up short next to Gideon. “You should be moving,” he said.
Gideon shifted the weight in his arms. “Why? What’s happening?”
“Cassandra has gone swarm,” Pavel said.
“Take this.” Gideon shoved the canister at Pavel and took off running before he could think about what he was doing.
No one tried to stop him. Those who hadn’t yet reached a safe distance were anxious enough to get there that they ignored his passage, and he soon came stumbling to a halt at the edge of a crop of mature crystals, well into the twinning stage.
Even in the current circumstances, he wondered at the sheer beauty of it all—the spires of crystal, their facets catching the sunslight and tossing it shimmering back to dance like stars over the dull red of the desert… and the woman standing in their midst.
“Cassandra,” Gideon spoke her name softly as he came up alongside CO Kamal, who hadn’t yet deserted the field.
A quick scan told Gideon why the guard remained—Cassandra wasn’t alone in the vein. At her feet, CO Menk lay unmoving, his close-cropped hair sticky with blood.
Gideon stepped forward, seeking a path between the clustered masses of crystal.
“Quinn,” Kamal hissed the warning as he moved. “He’s still alive.”
Gideon’s head dipped in acknowledgement of their warning, but he kept his eyes on Cassandra as he took another step.
Now he was close enough to hear her muttering to herself as her eyes danced over the crystal, to Menk, and back. Her hair, wild at the best of times, seemed to have come alive, dancing with static in the breathless air.
She held a pick, which swung wildly as she waved her arms, like one in the middle of a violent argument.
At her feet, Menk groaned. Her lips twisted. She raised the pick.
“Cassandra?” Gideon moved another step closer, hoping to draw her attention from the wounded man.
She froze, looked up. “Gideon?” she asked and then, as he watched, gave a whole body shudder, and the glassy-eyed anger cleared.
“Gideon,” she said again, and for a moment he saw the woman who’d muscled her way into his cell, two years ago. “Fancy a cuppa?” Her smile beamed briefly before her brows furrowed in disapproval.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on out and we’ll get brewing.”
“I would,” she said with a toss of her head, “but you’re still a feckin’ idiot.”
“Because I want to help you?”
“Because you think yourself a man of honor,” she countered, pointing the pick in his direction. “Because you think anything you do will actually help. It won’t,” she said, letting the pick drop at her side. “In the end, you’ll have saved no one.”
“Oh! Ohohoh!” Cassandra said, putting a finger to her lips. “I forgot, I’m not supposed to tell.”
“Tell what?” Kamal asked.
Cassandra looked at the guard, allowing Gideon to move another meter or so closer.
“That yon Gideon’s innocent,” she said so matter-of-factly that Gideon almost tripped and fell into a mass of crystal. “But he’s wrong,” she continued, clutching the pick in both hands. “There’s no one innocent here. We’re all of us wicked, all of us stained.”
As she spoke, she raised the pick over her head in both hands.
Gideon cursed and was pretty sure he jumped the last half meter of distance, in time to intercept the pick before she could bring it down in the nearest clutch of crystal.
She snarled in his face, and held fast with a strength fed by madness as much as labor. Unable to wrench the tool from her hands, Gideon twisted the pick she held to one side, until both combatants were locked, side to side, by the weapon neither would release.
She was so close, Gideon could see the pulse fluttering at her throat.
Then she let out a sound, half laugh, half cry.
“I know you,” she said, as if the last few moments had never happened.
Gideon, unnerved, met her gaze and found it to be clear. “I know you too,” he began, only to be interrupted by a too-familiar k-chunk.
By the time the sound of the fired crossbow registered, Gideon was no longer fighting to prevent Cassandra from doing murder.
He was, instead, struggling to support her sagging body, from which the bolt fired by a late-arriving Tullaine quivered.
Cassandra’s eyes remained open, locked on Gideon’s as he, with the greatest care, lowered her so they both knelt in the hollow of the vein, like the doomed lovers in one of Lonnie’s theatricals.
Dying or not, Cassandra was what she was, and must have picked up his thought because her lips turned up, and she eased closer, so close he could feel the touch of her fluttering breath as she said, “And thus, with a kiss…”
“No,” Gideon whispered, knowing the denial to be useless, for there was no more breath, no more light, no more life in the figure he held so close.
* * *
Later that evening, he was sitting on the edge of his bunk, stripped to the waist and staring at his damp shirt, which he’d draped over the back of the privy, when Doc appeared at the door of his cell.
“It’s almost lockdown,” Gideon told him without looking up.
“I know. But I thought you’d want to hear that I was able to meet with Warden Simkins.”
Gideon met Doc’s tired gaze. Waited.
“He says Menk will recover from his injuries.”
“I was also able to convince the warden, with some assistance from CO Kamal, that any inmates identifying as sensitives, of any strength or variety, should be kept out of the veins.”
“Action without sufficient data?” Gideon asked.
Doc grimaced, and turned his eyes to the list carved into the wall behind Gideon. “As you pointed out some time ago, the Barrens was meant to provide a place of rehabilitation, not torture.”
“That would be good, then,” Gideon allowed.
“There was something else,” Doc said.
“Kamal mentioned something about Cassandra saying you were innocent.”
“She did,” Gideon agreed, his voice neutral. “Right before she tried to spark a cache of crystal and blow us all back to Earth.” He held the other man’s gaze. “It was the madness talking.”
“That’s what Simkins said,” Doc admitted.
Gideon nodded once before returning his attention to his damp shirt, and the bloodstains he hadn’t been able to entirely wash out.
He heard Doc let out a huff of breath, and then the soft thud of his footsteps as he departed.
He was still sitting, staring at the dampened shirt, when CO Finch came by to lock his door for the night.
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