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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Gideon’s first week of harvesting was spent in an isolated tributary of crystal that curved around a spit of sandstone, just out of sight of the parent vein.
All of the newcomers were given remote sections. The reason being, if an inexperienced harvester were to detonate a cluster of the piezoelectric silicate, the rest of the party—and, more importantly, the larger vein—would be spared.
Whatever the reason, Gideon was fine with the removed location.
Here, there was at least a measure of privacy.
Every once in a while a CO would wander by to assure themselves he was still there, and working, but beyond that, his only company was the occasional scarab or lizard scrabbling over the rocky spit, and the constant hum of living crystal.
For Gideon, it came off as more a pressure behind the ears than an actual sound. From what he’d heard from the other prisoners, however, there were a few convicts who ended up going swarm from the ceaseless not-quite-a-sound.
Since most of those so driven were also rumored to be sensitives, Gideon figured he was safe, given he was about as sensitive as the bed of shard he was currently trying to loosen.
Shard had been another jump on Gideon’s geological learning curve, because it wasn’t until he was forced to harvest the stuff that he learned crystal only ever grew from shard. And shard, he also soon discovered, was smogging hard. Hard enough that one could only get the crystal out of the ground by taking the shard with it.
It was a long, painstaking process, but Gideon found he didn’t mind the labor.
Partly because any form of action was better than staring at the wall of his cell, or the dust in the yard, or the dried food pellets served in the mess, all of which allowed far too much space for thinking.
All in all, better to be out in the veins, shifting grit, wrestling with shard and taking great care not to jar, rattle, or otherwise disturb the delicate crystal growing from said shard.
“Well, look here. If it ain’t Himself, all alone inna veins.”
Gideon looked over his shoulder. “Hello, Lonnie,” he greeted the bearish figure.
Lonnie’s first love might, as Nyal claimed, be the theatre, but his current appearance indicated he’d decided to moonlight in the “How to Make Gideon’s Life Hell” society.
“I hear you were Corps before you came to the Barrens.” Pavel Escamilla—the same Pavel Gideon had been warned of—appeared at Lonnie’s side, bristling with animosity.
“Was,” he said to the Stolichnayan giant, turning to scoop out another pile of dirt. “Now I’m just another number… like you.”
“Not like us.” A voice which Gideon recognized as belonging to Mama Callas, a Fordian out of Moosehead, joined the party. “We may be criminals, eh, but we ain’t no traitors,” Mama continued.
As her voice ground through the air like the gravel he was moving, Gideon wondered why the COs were allowing so many prisoners to wander into his work site.
Probably because most of the COs hate your guts, his self informed him.
Since many of the COs were ex-military, Gideon supposed this to be true.
He glanced Mama’s way. “I hear you’re in for smuggling a shipment of this stuff,” he said, nodding towards the sparkling river of crystal.
“Yeah.” She frowned, her brows furrowing as she glared at the silicate. “What about it?”
“Word has it you lifted the shipment from a Corps resupply lorry.” Gideon paused, stretched, heard his back crack, then looked at her again. “Stealing weapons’ grade crystal from the Corps during a time of war strikes me as more than a little treasonous.”
At which point a laugh, followed by Renny, slid around the spar of rock. “He does make a point,” Renny said to Mama, while throwing Gideon a smile that would look at home on an Ares crocodile.
“Renny,” Gideon said, as if greeting an old friend over tea. “What’s the buzz?”
“Nothing yet,” Renny said. “But in a few minutes, everyone will be talking about how my friends and I—”
“Ain’t your friends,” Mama interrupted him.
“Only here because you’re paying us,” Lonnie agreed.
“And I like hitting people,” Pavel added.
“My temporary employees and I,” Renny corrected, “are going to be breaking a few of your bones. Maybe even your jaw.”
“That sounds bad,” Gideon decided before returning his attention to the small mountain of dirt he’d built up through the morning’s work. “Lucky for me,” he said, “you and your employees won’t be doing that.”
“Oh? And why ever would we not?” Renny asked, while the other three inmates shifted to block Gideon from any escape.
“Because,” Gideon said, driving his spade into the pile of discarded earth, “I happen to be holding the Spade of Hesitation.”
At that, Mama let out a snort. “And what on toxic Earth is the Spade of Hesita—”
She never got to finish the sentence, as the spadeful of dirt hit her in the face.
Mama got off easy, however, as Pavel got the actual spade upside his head.
While Mama spluttered and tried to clear her eyes, and Pavel dropped like a felled tree, Gideon shoved the butt of the spade into Lonnie’s prodigious gut, then swept the head around to drive Renny—who was now holding a long, oily black dagger Gideon realized was made of shard—a few steps back.
From that point on the fight got muddy, but because Gideon never stopped moving, and kept a firm grip on his spade, he was able to hold on to the advantage.
Or he did until a whistle shrieked across the desert and a handful of corrections officers finally arrived, skidding to a halt in a cloud of red dust.
Gideon watched them take in the scene.
From their expressions, they’d been expecting to see Gideon bleeding out in the veins.
He could only imagine their disappointment in finding him standing—mostly untouched—with his spade held in front of him like a quarterstaff, while the remaining inmates sat, lay, or staggered blindly through the vein.
“Drop the shovel and get on the ground,” CO Menk growled at Gideon.
“Actually, it’s a spade,” Gideon said, but he did as he was ordered, dropping flat on the ground, hands behind his head, while the other guards swarmed over the remaining combatants.
“You always did think yourself clever.”
Gideon angled his head to the right to see Renny… also flat out, and spitting blood into the dirt.
There was no sign of the dagger, but Gideon felt certain Renny had managed to stow it safely out of the guards’ view.
“How would you know?” Gideon hissed the question.
Renny merely curled his lip as Mama said, to no one in particular, “I still don’t get it. What’s the smogging Spade of Hesitation?”