The Longest Shard: 5

Shard

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 29


Gideon wasn’t even a month into his sentence when someone took the long walk. 

Not that he knew this straightaway. No one even suspected it, until evening roll call, after his work party was lined up next to their crawler.

“Mololo!” CO Tullaine called out.

“Here.”

“Escamilla!”

“Bah.” 

Gideon watched Tullaine look at Pavel, open her mouth, then shake her head and return to the list of the day’s party. “Boucher,” she called out.

“Always,” Renny drawled. 

“Quinn!”

“Here.” 

“Rhouk-Paquin.”

“Here, Boss,” Nyal said.

“Halili.” 

Tullaine waited, looked up. “Halili?” she called again, looking over the long line of convicts, all sporting head-to-toe coats of brick-red dust. “Anyone see Manny Halili?”

Gideon and several others looked up the line, then down, but found no sign of Manny, who had arrived on the same airship as Gideon. 

Now, as he and the others began to shift, looking over each other’s shoulders for the missing inmate, a good dozen corrections officers closed in to loom over the assembled prisoners, while two more, Menk and Woo, conferred with Tullaine. 

After a quick, heated discussion, Woo strode back to the main work site, while Menk headed to the cab of the crawler—to radio the prison, Gideon supposed. 

“Everyone back in line,” Tullaine snapped, turning her attention back to the now-milling prisoners. “Callas,” she called out, glancing at the clipboard.

“Yo!” Mama called back. 

“Worchowski,” Tullaine called out. When the last prisoner pronounced himself present, she jerked a thumb at the crawler. “Everyone load up.” 

“What about Manny?” Nyal asked. 

“Not your problem,” she told him, brusquely though. From the expression on her face, Gideon thought it would be her problem if Manny didn’t make a hasty appearance. 


He didn’t, and it wasn’t until the end of a subdued dinner hour, which Gideon shared with Nyal, Doc, Lonnie, and Kneecaps, when Warden Simkins appeared at the head of the mess, that Gideon and the others learned what had happened. 

“You’ll have heard by now that Manny Halili did not return from today’s work site,” Simkins began, his usually deep voice downright sepulchral. “Once his absence was confirmed, Corrections Officer Woo returned to Halili’s assigned work location, where he discovered Halili’s crystal canister, spade, and…” He paused, swallowed. “And his ear.” He waited until the various sounds of swearing, gagging, and dropping of spoons eased. 

“Do you have large predators out here?” Gideon murmured. 

Nyal, at Gideon’s left, shook his head.

“Further investigation revealed a set of footprints, with blood trace, leading to the east. All indications point to Halili doing harm to himself before leaving of his own volition. Following protocol, the staff will not engage in pursuit. Halili is free to continue on his course, and just as free to return. For now, I recommend everyone get a good night’s rest, and contemplate the folly of wandering off into the desert.”

“Does this happen often?” Gideon asked the others at his table once the warden had departed and the murmurs and rumblings of subdued conversation spurted back to life. 

“Not so much,” Lonnie said. “But there’s some doing hard time who just… get tired.” 

“Manny got here the same time I did,” Gideon pointed out. “And he was only sentenced to three years.” 

“But he’s also a sensitive,” Nyal said. 

“How do you know?” Lonnie asked. 

“He told me after I lost the sixteenth game of hangman in a row,” Nyal said, poking at his rations with his spoon. He looked at Doc. “Do you think it was him being a sensitive that sent him mad?” 

Doc, who was still staring at the space Simkins had occupied, turned his attention back to those at the table. “There’s no way of knowing, is there?”


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