The Longest Shard: 8

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  110


Some months after the death of his sock, Gideon wandered from his work site to join the rest of the harvesting team for the extended lunch period, a concession to the potentially fatal heat of the midday suns. 

Approaching the open-air rations cart from which the meals were distributed, he envisioned a Pavel-sized pizza with a Tesla-style crust and every topping known to Fortune.

Okay, every topping except aubergines. 

Gideon had staked his tent firmly in the “No Aubergines on Pizza” camp.

Not that it mattered, because while the pizza remained aromatically planted in his imagination, CO Kamal was atop the cart, dispensing the two cups of freeze-dried nutrition pellets and two liters of water every prisoner was allotted during their lunch break. 

Gideon accepted his share with inner resignation and an outer “thank you.” This was partly because his fagin had raised him to be polite and partly because years in the Corps taught him it paid to be nice to whoever was handing out the grub.

From Kamal’s sneer, he doubted the guard was impressed, but old habits were hard to break. 

Once he had his bowl and flask, he headed towards a promising patch of shade by a boulder, where he could eat and enjoy the long rest period in peace. 

On the way, however, he caught sight of Renny. 

The rangy Adidan had already collected his rations but, unlike every other member of the work party, he wasn’t eating.

Instead, he was staring fixedly at the lunch cart.

Gideon looked back to where Kamal continued to hand out bowl after bowl of ostensible food. But, as they were facing the other way, they didn’t notice Renny’s rapt attention.

Nor could they see the weaving head of the iridescent white snake pushing its way out of one of the food containers, or the viper’s telltale hood flashing wide and white as a moon as it reared high. 

Imaginary pizzas faded from Gideon’s mind and actual rations flew from his hands as he raced back to the cart.

“Behind you!” he yelled as he ran, a warning which only resulted in Kamal turning to glare at Gideon, their expression darkening and their hand dropping to the hilt of their shock baton.

A series of k-chunks from all sides told Gideon at least a few crossbows had been cocked. 

Gritting his teeth, he launched himself at Kamal, knocking them off the cart even as a lash of white cut across the air where Kamal had been standing.

Ignoring Kamal’s curses, Gideon twisted his body so when they landed, he took the brunt of the fall. 

By now, the knocked crossbows were firing, so Gideon twisted again, this time rolling Kamal to the ground to spare them being battered by the rubber-tipped bolts. 

“Ow,” he said, and then cursed.

“Are you insane?” Kamal asked, glaring up at him, a flush deepening the sepia tones of their complexion.

“Maybe.” Gideon cursed again as another bolt struck.

“Hold your fire!” Kamal called out and, as the thudding of rubber on and around Gideon’s body ceased, added a terse, “Get. Off.” 

“Okay,” he said, and rolled to one side, his vision blurring with shock as he felt new contusions blossoming every-smogging-where. “Ow,” he said again, while the thudding of boots and puffs of dust told him more guards were joining the party.

“Time to learn what happens to troublemakers,” Gideon heard someone growl, and blinked away some dust to identify CO Kozinski, a recent addition to the Morton security force, moving his foot back. 

He was bracing himself for the expected kick when he heard Kamal shout, “Wait!” 

“Why?” Kozinski asked. 

“Snake,” Gideon wheezed, one hand flapping in the direction of the cart.

“A viper,” Kamal confirmed, stepping back from the cart with deliberate care. “It must have gotten into the rations.” 

CO Menk slid a live round into his crossbow before joining Kamal. “How on toxic Earth did a snake get in there?” 

Gideon, who’d managed to sit up by now, saw Renny observing the proceedings with a decidedly sour expression, and had a pretty good idea how that snake had gotten into the rations. 

A few minutes later, when Renny sidled up to Gideon, who sat hunched over a second bowl of freeze-dried nutrition, his suspicions were confirmed. 

“You really are the worst,” Renny said, squatting next to Gideon. 

“Says the guy who just tried to commit murder by snake,” Gideon said, after swallowing a mouthful of kibble.

“Please, that viper wouldn’t have killed anyone,” Renny scoffed, then paused, considering. “Probably it wouldn’t have killed anyone.” 

“And you know this, how?”

“I saw it bite a hyrax before I grabbed it,” Renny said. “I’m not suicidal enough to risk handling a viper with full venom sacs.” 

“Okay,” Gideon said, then he paused, thought. “But why?” 

“Maybe I wanted everyone looking at the lunch cart instead of me.” 

“Again, why?”

“Because,” Renny hissed, “if everyone was looking at the lunch cart, I’d have had a chance to get into the crystal trolley for a fresh sliver of shard. Which is something I’d never have had to do, if you hadn’t stolen my original piece.” 

“I never stole your shard,” Gideon pointed out. “You carelessly left it tangled in my sock.” 

“I want it back.” 

“I thought you were going to get a new one?”

“I was, until your heroic leap put one of the guards, and her riot bow, on top of the crystal trolley.”

“Ah.” 

“Where,” Renny asked, “is my shard?”

“Somewhere safe,” Gideon told him, and when Renny’s eyebrows arched meaningfully, added, “it’s not on me.” 

“This is exactly why you don’t deserve it,” Renny hissed. “I always kept it close.” 

“That’s because you’re a stone killer.”

“I wasn’t always,” Renny murmured, rising. “But you?” He looked down at Gideon. “You were always a thief.” 

Before Gideon could ask what he meant by that, Renny had straightened and headed back to the veins. 

And as Renny walked away, he began to whistle a song that Gideon soon recognized as the same ditty Hamish Costanza loved so much.

Hearing it set Gideon’s teeth on edge, as he just knew it’d get stuck in his brain, and he’d likely be humming the smogging thing for a week. 

* * *

Gideon had been right.

He did get that swarming song stuck in his head. 

So stuck that the perky tune, and the memories associated with it, kept him awake several hours past lights out. 

Memories of Hamish himself, humming that damned song over a campfire as he doctored the rations, somehow turning the dried aurochs, vegs, and pomegranate seeds foraged during the day into a sweet and savory concoction that made Gideon’s mouth water even now.

Then there were the recollections of Hamish and Walsie, arguing over their favorite queen teams, or Hamish and Private Lau flirting as he disabled a mine she’d uncovered. 

And lastly, of Hamish, standing between Dani and the other surviving members of the Twelfth Company, including Tina Lau, listening as Gideon confessed to treason before the assembled court martial.

It was this last memory that, at long last, followed Gideon into sleep, and, perhaps ironically, away from all his worries. 

Because it was here, in dreams, that Gideon could at last leave behind the rigors of the Barrens, the accusatory echoes of the court martial, and experience a moment before the world named him traitor.

A moment when he was still Colonel Gideon Quinn, alone in his quarters back at Epsilon Base.

A moment in which Dani slipped into the room.

In the dream, as in life, Gideon looked up from whatever book he’d been reading at the time to see her shedding her jacket to the floor, followed by her gun belt, boots, trousers, and the rest before sliding under his blanket. 

“Mind if I interrupt?” she asked, eying the book. 

Her voice had been low, and warm, the Fujian accent adding a hint of mystery. 

“Interrupt what?” he’d asked back, letting the book slide down to join her scattered clothing. 

From there the dream progressed much as he recalled, with the catches of breath, the brush of lips, and the weight of Dani’s leg sliding across his as she shifted under the blankets. 

Which was when Gideon came suddenly, chillingly awake, to find himself staring up at a slim bar of light from the corridor, which bisected the ceiling.

From a distance he heard the steady tread of the night guard, and closer the snores of Pavel, and the muttered curses of Mama, who talked in her sleep.

Gideon had a moment to regret waking—the dream had been remarkably visceral. 

So much so, he could still feel the weight of Dani’s leg moving over his.

Even as he thought this, her leg shifted again, this time accompanied by a soft rasp, as of something heavy moving over a rough blanket.

Gideon held his breath, and—moving as slowly as possible—lifted his head so he could, in the same faint light spilling from the corridor, spy the moon-white hump slithering up his right leg.

He barely had time to recognize the chill of terror shooting up his spine when the snake reared and its hood flared, prepared to strike.


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