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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Replete with a dinner that had included the quarterly fruit allowance, featuring a cup of chilled mango and blueberries, Gideon settled down in the yard with Doc and Horatio to read a three-month-old copy of the Nike Daily News.
Horatio was pouring over the entertainment section while Doc perused the colonial pages and Gideon devoured Nike’s local reports with as much fervor as he would a new dreadful.
“Oy!” Horatio exclaimed, pulling Gideon’s attention from what he suspected was a highly censored story on manufacture of a new airship engine.
“What is it?” Doc asked.
“They’ve gone and cancelled the Dionysian Festival,” Horatio said. “The Hollywood Bole will be dark for the first time since it began in thirteen fifty-seven.”
“Political complications?” Doc asked, reading over Horatio’s shoulder.
“Buggering Midasian flu outbreak,” Horatio said.
“I’m surprised they were able to keep the festival going this long,” Gideon said.
Horatio peered around Doc’s paper to see Gideon. “Why?”
“Rumor has it there’s a war going on?”
“There’s been a sodding war going on… and off, and on again… for smogging decades,” Horatio reminded Gideon.
“And Hollywood’s neutrality is famed for a reason,” Doc added. “Besides which, I believe there’s something to be said for Colonial and Coalition citizens being able to come together in peace to share ideas, art, scientific theories—”
“Military secrets,” Gideon tossed in.
“Do you reckon?” Horatio looked from the paper to Gideon, and back to the paper.
“I’d bet my quarterly ration of blueberries on it,” Gideon replied.
“Is that personal experience talking?” Doc asked.
“I’ve never been to Hollywood,” Gideon said and, after an uncomfortable pause, returned his attention to his section of the paper and, though he forced himself to finish the article he’d been reading before Horatio’s outburst, he couldn’t say his heart was really in it.
Once he’d finished the piece describing the strengths and weaknesses of the citizens running for district minister, he moved on to an op-ed decrying the rapid expansion of a crystal-based power grid in Nike, a city that already had ample energy sources from a hybrid system of bio, wind, and hydro-power.
The addition of a crystal-powered network was, according to the author, merely another example of Tenjin Corporation’s continuing crusade to enrich itself at the expense of honest utility workers, as well as exemplifying the very values that had led to Earth’s destruction.
As one familiar with selfish behaviors that had a negative impact on others, Gideon could sympathize, but the author of the piece had to be pretty swarming naive if they believed a few impassioned paragraphs would have an impact on the citizenry, much less strike a chord with the district ministers whose pockets were probably lined by Tenjin Corporation “donations.”
He turned from the politics of the day with some relief, flipping the page to the bottom half of the fold, and was immediately struck by the headline, Nikean Native Awarded Posthumous Medal of Honor.
While something in his belly clutched at the title, he continued on to read the article in silence, while at his side Doc and Horatio quibbled over a piece from Doc’s section proposing the relative merits of another expedition into the Amazon Mountain Range.
He read the article through once, each word of the dry report burning into his brain. Then he read it again, hoping—as a child reading a poor grade report might hope—that the words had rearranged themselves into a different story.
A story that didn’t mock the choice he’d made, four years ago.
When, on the second study, the article remained unchanged, Gideon folded the paper with care, and with care rose from the bench. The air was cooling, he noted, but nowhere near as cold as the chill resting in his chest.
Doc asked if he was all right, and Gideon must have given a sensible response, because there were no further questions, and Gideon made his silent way out of the yard, into the cell block and up the rattling allusteel stairs to his floor without speaking to another soul.
Entering his cell, he stretched out on the thin cot and, for once, did not turn to read the names of the six soldiers killed at Nasa before closing his eyes and waiting, in that very private darkness, for the official lights out.
When morning came, Gideon rose and performed his morning exercises, just as always.
He went to the mess, and sat at the same table, with the same companions, listened to the morning grousing, mixed in with any fresh gossip, and responded when a response was required.
When the meal ended, he joined the other members of his work party in the passenger crawler. He ignored the ruts and bumps of the journey, and on arrival at the site, headed to his assigned section, tools in hand.
But on reaching his station, a sparkling spit of buzzing crystal he shared with Pavel and Horatio, he remained standing, staring out at the desert.
“You planning on meditating the crystal out of the ground?” Pavel asked.
At the question, Gideon turned to face Pavel, the violent offender who would likely never be able to function outside of the rigors of the Barrens.
“Gideon?” Horatio also straightened. “You all right then?”
Rather than respond, Gideon let his gaze trail down the vein, and the dozen or so convicts working it. Pirates, thieves, murderers—and one or two who were worse than murderers, though such predators were rare on Fortune. But criminals, every mothering one of them, all digging into the hard-packed earth to free the hunks of crystal-rich shard for the benefit of a world that had happily forgotten they existed.
“Gideon?” This time it was Pavel trying to get his attention.
He looked up at the giant and for once, Pavel had no trouble reading his expression.
“Are being sure?” Pavel asked, his voice unwontedly gentle.
“Sure?” Horatio echoed, stepping away from his work. “Sure about what?”
By this time, the cessation of activity around Gideon had spread down the line to Lonnie, and then Joss, and Mama.
“What’s going on here?” CO Tullaine wandered up to where Gideon stood, still looking at Pavel. “Someone find a scorpion nest?”
“No,” Gideon replied before anyone else could. Then he turned to Pavel and said, “Yes.”
Then the big man’s brow furrowed in what, Gideon realized with a distant sort of surprise, was sadness.
“I’m sorry,” he said to Pavel. Then, before anyone else could burden him with their care, turned from the party and began to walk away.
“Quinn!” Tullaine called.
“Gideon?” Horatio added, sounding a bit desperate. “What are you doing? Smog it, where’s he going?”
Gideon continued on, not looking back as Pavel tried to explain, or when Tullaine, and Woo and Finch, as well, ordered the remaining inmates back to work.
He was impressed that the hubbub didn’t even start to ease off until he reached step number forty-seven.
At least the dregs of Fortune would miss him.
For a time.
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