You've found the semi-secret page on my website that contains the prologue and first chapter of my work-in-progress, Victor-27.
If you want to jump in blind, not knowing anything about the book, go for it!
If you want a little heads-up of what to expect, see the query below:
Twenty years ago, the frigid Khizmit Enclave had two problems: too much crime and not enough coal. Their solution was The Preemptive Initiative—kill all the criminals and incarcerate their children—the vanguard of future threats to their peace and prosperity.
Victor-27 doesn’t know what his parents did. All he cares about is that although he’s spent his whole life in prison cells and rat holes, he isn’t ready to stand before The Judgment Board in six months. There, they’ll decide if it’s worth the risk to let him keep living and working, or if his eighteenth birthday present will be capital punishment.
Once Victor-27 is transferred to another prison, it becomes apparent that although someone on the outside seems to be rooting for him, his fate is ultimately in his own hands. And Khizmit has far bigger problems than a lack of coal. Twenty years ago, Khizmit tried to end a war by testing serums to create stronger soldiers. Only they’d tested them on criminals.
In this coming-of-age YA science fiction, Victor discovers that he’s capable of much more than the violent disposition associated with his prison tag.
As the threat of his execution draws nearer, he is left with two choices: die for a crime he didn’t commit, or become the violent criminal they always thought he was in order to escape. But will freedom in Khizmit Enclave be the utopia he’s always imagined? He has nowhere to go and doesn’t know a soul on the outside.
Or does he?
Victor-27 is book one in a trilogy, tentatively called The Preemptive Initiative. (85k words)
Prologue and Chapter One
The Prison Rules
Prisoners are members of a preemptively criminal community. In order to keep the community running smoothly, prisoners must adhere to the following rules:
1. Prisoners must remain silent during quiet hours, after lights out.
2. Prisoners must keep the cell clean. Beds must be made and the floor must be spotless.
3. Prisoners must accept that anything they own or are temporarily using can be confiscated at any time per order of the Warden.
4. Prisoners must never accuse the Judgment Board, Wardens, or guards as being “unfair” or “impartial.”
5. All prisoners in a cell will stand when a Warden or other figures of authority stand at the door of, or enter, the room they occupy.
6. Prisoners must obey all orders issued by guards at all times. A guard’s verbal order supersedes any written order. The Warden’s verbal order supersedes both the guard’s verbal order and the written rules. Orders from the Head Warden are supreme.
7. Prisoners must report all rule violations to the guards, or they are subject to the same disciplinary measures given to the violators.
8. Prisoners who fraternize with or initiate physical contact with guards, soldiers, or other non-prisoners will be subject to severe disciplinary action.
9. Failure to obey any of the above rules will result in punishment, or, at the discretion of The Judgement Board, early termination.
My parents had really skudged up.
The hatred for who they were and what they’d done far outlived them. That hatred for my parents raged on, almost growing as time passed. Who hated them the most? Not the Wardens. Not the Chancellors on the Judgement Board. Not even the people in Khizmit who’d been subjected to their crimes. The person who hated them most was a tired 12-year-old who stood in the dank packing station under the hazy sun in Rhosivi Mines, hands and arms black from coal dust and stiff from the unrelenting cold.
The person who hated them most was the sum of all their parts, to include, I’d been told, their proclivity for violent crime.
They were the reason I stood in the chilly summer air packaging coal into 30-kilo rough burlap bags, weighing and reweighing them, stumbling and struggling under their weight. I cursed my parents under my breath before tying off the bags and loading them into the back of the cart. Several armed guards chuckled at my desperate attempts to complete the task without grunting pathetically.
The day was warm, as far as days in Rhosivi go. Beads of sweat ran from my face and head down my back and into my clothes until they were drenched. Then they fell into ground beneath me or dropped in splatches onto the dry chunks of coal.
I wondered if other places in the world enjoyed weather in some moderation outside of burning and freezing. I’d tried to satiate my curiosity of the outside world by reading about it, but with books it was hard to tell truth from exaggeration and opinion from reality. None of the books I read gave me any indication of the outside world as it might look today, but they gave me an escape from the hell that I lived in. An escape that I seized in the form of daydreams while doing monotonous work like this.
While I packed sacks of coal, I went to fictional worlds where Slavic Gods warred and romance existed. Worlds where people travelled and enjoyed sumptuous meals, and days held more than simply back-breaking labor under hateful gazes of inmates and guards alike. Sumptuous is a good word, isn’t it? Not one I would have ever uttered aloud, since I’m not sure I would have pronounced it correctly. I’d only ever read it. Besides, I’d hate to ruin the guards’ perceptions of me. Usually they just hear “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” or “Yes, Mr. Preemptive Officer,” to the guards who were particularly exacting, come from my lips. Anything more might give them reason to kill me.
They wanted me to be stupid, so for them, I was.
A dozen other inmates stood outside with me where the tracks leveled out for packaging coal. The guards liked to send me to this station where I could work without a tool. In my hands, they saw the most innocuous things as threats. Here I could work without a ‘weapon,’ unlike most of the other boys I knew from my unit who’d been given chisels and hammers for mining. I didn’t complain about it though. There were few commodities as coveted as fresh air on a nearly-warm day. My single task was to fill burlap bags with ore, exactly thirty kilos, and tie them off, all under the direction of armed guards.
The sun peeked out from behind clouds and burned my skin where it was exposed, on the backs of my ears and the tip of my nose while the air nipped at them with the threat of frost.
A huge steel mine cart, held together with metal bracing along the top and crossing through the center, sat between me and the other inmates. They’d been given shovels to dig the rocks out of the cart and pile them on the dirt to sort through. In my hands, the shovel was a weapon, not that I’d have used it as such, but it was easy enough to imagine the ways it could have been.
Not that it would have been. Anything’s a weapon for inmates like me.
As I dug through coal with my bare hands, weighed it, and packed it up, my hatred for my parents grew as though fueled by every additional piece of ore that passed through my hands. Hunger and hatred gnawed at my gut with equal intensity. The coal seemed to suck the moisture from my body, and whittle down my fingers with its rough texture. It scrubbed away my fingerprints and left only blackness, like a burn my body could not heal.
I knew the gist of what The Preemptive Initiative entailed. A few years before my birth, Khizmit Enclave had two problems; too much crime and not enough coal. Khizmit strived to be a safe place where people could live and raise their families in peace, but, apparently, criminals sought to destroy everything they’d built and worked for. I don’t know if it was murder, theft, political crimes, or mere pettiness. Thanks to TPI, I’d probably never know, but Khizmit had captured and killed the culprits, my mother included, and we—the inmates, the offspring of the criminals—were trapped in this cold hell, not for the crimes of our fathers, but for the crimes we were sure to commit, had we been permitted to grow up and live in Khizmit Enclave.
What a load of slag. None of it mattered anyway. All that mattered to me was graduation. Keep my head down, try not to get in anyone’s way who was bigger than me, and don’t let anyone kill me before I could graduate. Though I hadn’t witnessed any of the executions, I heard the percussive gunshots on the days when older inmates didn’t pass The Judgement Board.
The slaghead working at the same table as me swept his arm across it, pulling the ore toward him. He was fourteen, wearing the same uniform linen pants that I wore, and I knew his name without reading it off his wrist. Romeo, well Romeo-22 actually. His friends called him Mop because his curly mop of hair seemed to grow faster than everyone else’s, always begging for a haircut and his narrow, dull eyes seemed to reveal a lack of intelligence. I wasn’t his friend. Like most of the inmates, years of mining had turned his arms into machines. His biceps were at least twice as wide as mine. But give me another year or two and I’d be as big as him.
The lurp wanted to see me get killed. Or he wanted to see me kill. I don’t think he had his motivations in order, but he hated me. Or feared me.
“I just need a quarter kilo for this bag,” I said, jerking my head toward the burlap sack. “Last one. You can have the rest.” This final bag would mean I’d met my quota, which guaranteed a full dinner and all the koruna I needed to buy the latest contraband filtering its way through the prison. A chess set.
Rumor had it that most of the pawns were missing, but it made no difference to me. Half the guys in my unit in the prison were saving up for the cigars one of the guards had promised—the same one who’d brought a few paperbacks to the prison without either of the Wardens finding out. I mean, I think they knew the books where there, but they didn’t do anything about it. Warden Velky might not have known, but even if he did, he’d have needed permission from Head Warden Markos to go through and destroy all contraband.
Head Warden Markos, the one built like a Viking lord, didn’t care if you had cigars or cards or books or capsules of vyco so long as you showed respect and did your tasks without causing any fights.
I reached for the ore on the table again. “Skudge off!” Romeo-22 said. “When I’m done, you can see if there’s any left for you.”
“That’s not how it works, and you know it.” I smiled, as if that would change his mind. He didn’t even look at my face. “A quarter kilo man. C’mon.”
“Get lost, 27.”
“Don’t call me that.” I clenched my jaw. “My name is Victor.”
“You don’t have a name. None of us do. What, you think you’re special?”
My heart pounded down into my hands and I clenched them into fists.
“Your name isn’t Victor. It’s literally the letter V and you’re the twenty-seventh one they tatted. That’s it. You don’t have a name because you don’t matter.”
I reached over to get more coal and he batted my hand away. I extended my other hand, sliding it across the table, and he smashed his fist onto it. My fingers throbbed as the little bits of coal on the table bit into my skin.
I’d make him pay.
A thought flashed through my head, telling me to grab that shovel of his and smash the smug look off his face. I could almost feel the crunching of his nose and teeth. Maybe his eye would get bashed out, too.
Instead, I clenched my fists, willing the impulse to go away.
Honestly, with the shovel, it would have been too easy. I could have done it with my bare hands. It didn’t matter that he was older, bigger, and stronger. I could catch him off guard, trip him so his head would smash into the side of the metal cart holding the coal. Or I could pull him back, and push him over so his neck would snap on the edge.
“Don’t do this,” I said, and my voice cracked.
“Don’t do this,” Romeo imitated, making his voice crack.
He lunged, and shoved me down to the rough ground and two of his friends rushed over to his side. For a moment, the sun glared into my eyes and I couldn’t see the attackers. Romeo’s voice reached me. “Stay down, or I’ll break your hands. We’ll see how many bags you fill with mangled fingers.”
Rage and instinct rushed through me and I lifted my legs, moved my bodyweight to my upper back on the ground, and then in a burst of energy, kicked both of my legs up. I landed in a crouch, just in time to slide my right leg across the ground and knock the kid closest to me onto his back.
The other guy, Raph, a sixteen-year-old, rushed me with a lump of rock in his hand. He wouldn’t care about having to fill my quota for a month if he killed me. Before he was within striking distance, he chucked the lump of ore at my face. I caught it. Threw it. Whack! He fell to the ground with a thud.
He didn’t get back up.
Another kid rushed me and swung. I didn’t know who it was as I dodged right and then left and stepped back as he jabbed at me. He kicked at me. I side-stepped before he swung his left fist toward my head. I ducked, and then on the way up, caught him square in the jaw with an uppercut. His eyes rolled back and he collapsed to the floor.
I turned to Romeo-22, whose eyes flashed with hatred and surprise. He looked back to his friend who laid unconscious on the ground with a trickle of blood coming from the cut on his forehead.
What had I done? How had I done it?
The guards reached us.
“Mr. Preemptive Officer,” he said, buttering him up with his official title. “The Victor attacked us. Tried to kill us!” Romeo shouted. The higher-ranking guard, a captain, based on the gold pinecone patch sewn in the center of his ushanka, took my right arm while another, the one with a gold birch leaf crest, took my left. The birch leaf one, a lieutenant, jumped onto my arm, no doubt causing bruising from his body weight as he dug his knee into me. I didn’t fight them.
“Sir, he—” I started but Romeo shouted louder.
“You’re dead!” Romeo glared at me, his eyes laughing as the guards restrained me.
“Must be because he’s going through puberty. Growing up and becoming more violent.” the captain said. “We were warned it could happen soon.”
The guards pushed me to the ground where I stayed, flat on my back.
“Get the Warden,” the guard on my right arm directed. A tingling sensation spread through my wrist as he cut off the circulation with his weight.
I tried to explain myself again. “I didn’t attack them. Romeo wouldn’t give me the coal I needed for my last bag.”
The guard didn’t take his eyes off me, not even when Romeo grabbed a bent a piece of metal that protruded off the side of the cart holding the remaining rocks. The sharp, rusted piece of steel broke off into his strong hands. I tried to pull my arms free, but the guards tightened their grip.
Romeo stepped closer, gripping the shiv with a look of glee, and spoke to the captain. “Sir, we have rules in this prison.” My heart started beating faster. Rules. Traditions. The guard said nothing, so Romeo continued talking. “Prison rules.” My heart beat faster. I tugged at my arms to get them free, but with no success. “He knocked my friends out. Made one bleed. The rules demand retribution.”
The guard looked at me. I shook my head back and forth as I begged him. “Sir, please no. Please, I didn’t. It was self-defense. He threw it at me and I threw it back.”
“You caught it out of the air and threw it back with alarming accuracy. You dodged every punch and knocked out an older inmate with one hit,” the captain corrected.
What I’d hoped to find in his expression was pity or understanding. But his gaze held one thing. Malice. Malice in his eyes and his tight lips. He nodded to Romeo. “Make it quick,” he consented and Romeo leapt at me.
He sat on my chest and I kicked and tried to twist, but the guards tightened their hold. I kept my eyes open as Romeo placed the sharp tip of the makeshift blade to my cheek and leaned in. “No, Romeo, please!” I screamed as I saw it coming. “No!”
The metal punched through my cheek and chipped my teeth. Pain exploded across my face as blood poured across my jaw and down into my stomach. I felt the pieces of my teeth slip down my throat as I gagged on my own blood before spitting it into Romeo’s face. Stop. It had to stop.
Romeo narrowed his eyes, and tugged at the piece of metal, willing it to cut a longer slice as someone ran in and tackled him.
The man deftly rolled over me, knocked Romeo to the ground. My savior stood just as he pulled out the sabre at his waist.
Romeo gasped as he tried to get some air back into his lungs, but he didn’t sit up, not with the Warden who had arms wider than his thighs standing over him.
Head Warden Markos’s eyebrows were low over his eyes and his fists were so tight, fat veins poked out along his forearms. His hands didn’t shake as he threatened Romeo. The tip of the sabre didn’t waver a bit as he held it against Romeo’s chest. Head Warden Markos took one look at my face and visibly winced. The world began to dim. The taste of metal in my throat was so potent now, I could have sworn I’d swallowed the whole skudging thing.
“Get him to the medical station now!” Head Warden Markos growled, his voice even harsher than his accent usually made it.
My head rolled to the side as the blood kept pouring from my face. The guards picked me up as I started to drift off, only able to form one coherent thought as they carried me away. I looked at the two attackers on the floor, both unconscious, and realized something magnificent.
I was dangerous.
Slag for Brains
“On yer feet, skudger!” yelled the guard, waking me from one nightmare to throw me into a new one. A real one. Quickly, I climbed out of the cot, careful not to slip on the slick, cold floors as I tugged up the blanket and readjusted my thin pillow. It was early. I could tell from the way my breath billowed out of my mouth more than I could tell from the low light of a distantly rising sun filtering through the small, high windows in the hallway.
The guard’s key rattled in the ancient lock before the rusty screech of the bolt slid back. Immediately alert, I bowed my head in submission before the guard spoke again.
“Back against the wall. Warden wants a word,” he continued in a scornful tone. I wasn’t expecting to get transferred today, but the Warden didn’t come for any other reason. Then, like a punch to the gut, I remembered that I’d seen Head Warden Markos all last week, meaning he wasn’t coming for me. I wasn’t getting transferred.
The other Warden wanted a word.
Nausea swam up my throat into my mouth. Warden Velky’s visit meant one thing: Today I was seventeen and closer to death than I’d ever been.
I sighed and dropped into my cot to tug my worn boots on. They were too small, but at least they kept the cold out.
“No sudden movements,” the guard said as I stood again. I knew better than to argue with the thick-waisted cruster. His hand rested on the butt of his lugar, just itching for an excuse to shoot me. Once my back touched the cold, damp wall, I ran a hand through the black stubble on my head. In a passing thought, I wondered which of my parents had given me this thick mat of hair that did its best to defy the monthly shaving. They killed my father as soon as they found him, and my mother lived only long enough to birth me before they put a bullet between her eyes. A fact the guards and Warden Velky reminded me of at least weekly
If pictures of them existed, they were stuffed away in their files of disappeared criminals and their affiliates. They were long gone, leaving me to serve their sentence in this hellish tomb—a place of transgenerational agony.
My generation knew a mostly silent kind of torture and agony, but the nightmarish hell of our parents found new life in our dreams, where their ghosts seemed to linger.
I heard Warden Velky’s boots clicking dully along the floor before he rounded the corner of the door. Same assured gait, eager to begin the day’s work on prisoners. Every step brought to mind one of the bruises the metal tips had left on me and anyone that didn’t move out of his way fast enough. I dropped my gaze quickly as Warden Velky entered, followed closely by the guard.
“Well, Victor twenty-seven, you’ve managed to make it another year. I wonder just how long you’re going to hold back those murderous tendencies, your skrag of a mother gave you.” His sharp accented drawl sent my skin crawling.
Warden Velky moved forward and I found myself flinching. I could feel his eyes looking for mine—that tendency to convey dominance. He laughed, the sound more like a bark than anything. “One wrong twitch from you and you won’t have to work on your birthday.”
Warden Velky laughed mere centimeters from my face, testing me. I didn’t look beyond the sharp tip of his freshly slicked goatee. Something lingered in the air there—something pleasant, something foreign. Fruity. Not gruel. He pulled the curved sabre from the sheath on his belt and held the blade in front of my throat. “Have any violent thoughts? What about now?”
I wondered if I could take the blade from him and kill him with it before the guard shot me. But as much as I wanted Warden Velky to die, I wanted to live even more. His proximity forced me to stare at his thin, brown beard. His annual visit to my cell reminded me of just how much he loathed my very existence.
“You’re very lucky,” Warden Velky said, putting the blade away.
“Yes, sir,” I whispered.
He reached forward and grabbed my face, painfully turning it up to him. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘yes, Mr. Chief Preemptive Officer,’” and then, because of the pressure he was applying to the base of my throat, I coughed, right in his face. He dropped his hand and then shoved my head backwards, where it smashed into the wall. Pain rang through the back of my skull, and I knew without reaching back that a huge bump was already forming.
Warden Velky wiped his face on his uniform sleeve, the one without his rank patch. He glared at me and leaned forward, wagging his finger in my chest.
I forced my fingers to unclench before the thick guard decided to pull his lugar on me. Sierra-19 had gotten as far as raising a fist to Warden Velky last year on his thirteenth birthday, before the bullets tore into him.
“You skudging lurp.” Warden Velky said, taking a single step back. “When I’m Head Warden, I won’t need a reason to kill you. That might come before this year’s over.”
A thick wad of slimy spit landed just beneath my eye. I didn’t dare wipe it away while Velky stared at me, watching as his saliva slid slowly down my cheek.
Then, like some wounded animal writhing back to life, the prison began to wake. Keys began to rattle. Bolts and gates screeched. Footsteps of guards and roused prisoners began to echo down the hallways. Warden Velky, ever the coward, retreated out of my cell, down the hallway, to the safety of a guard tower or his office before the rest of the guards unlocked the other inmates in my sector.
Only then did I wipe my face and exhale.
I shut my eyes, waiting for my turn to leave, grateful for another day of life. Maybe not grateful, I considered. As much as I wanted to live, this was no life.
I dropped back onto my cot, images from the nightmare I’d been having flashed in front of me all over again. My father had been holding a lugar to my head. What made my father worse in my dreams, is that he had my face—wide European nose, dark eyes—often so dark that the irises blended into the pupils—black hair, strong jaw, and unlike me, thick facial hair that covered any hint of what might have been dimples.
The therapist they’d forced me to talk to at the Children’s Detention Center had repeated the same line he’d said every week. I should be grateful to the Task Force for finding my parents when they did. Otherwise, they had no doubt my mother would have killed me either before birth or after. “They saved me,” he’d said. I owed the Task Force and the Chancellors on the Judgement Board my life, which is why, at age eight, they sent me to Rhosivi Prison to mine for Khizmit. To pay them back for sparing my life. Here at Rhosivi, not only were there no mandatory therapy sessions, they seemed to prefer I not talk at all, to anyone, for any reason.
The guards herded my sector outside toward the wide mine entrance, handing us each a boiled potato to have for breakfast, and I repeated the sentiment I’d often thought.
My parents must have really skudged up.
Sometimes while working in the tunnels, I swear I felt death’s breath on my face, and heard it calling me into its embrace. The darkness of the mine pressed around me with significantly more weight than the threadbare blanket on my cot did at night. At least it was warm down here. I wiped some of the sweat off my forehead as I counted to sixty.
A blast somewhere far beneath me caused the bolts in the wall to shudder and while I couldn’t see it, I felt bits of coal dust drift into my eyes. The slaghead guard I call Caterpillar, on account of his eyebrows, had taken my goggles a few hours prior, and I didn’t have enough koruna to buy them back yet. I didn’t regret kicking in India-07’s ribs though. That skudgeface had been begging for it for weeks. One kick and I’d busted three of his ribs. The violence didn’t make me happy or proud, what I liked about it was that his injury insured my own survival.
I had an impossible balance to attempt to find. On the one hand I had to demonstrate with some regularity that crossing me was a death wish, or at least, a guarantee that you’d get injured. It kept the gangs away from me, I kept my rations, no one robbed me, and I was allowed to continue on with my life. But, if I was too dangerous, the guard would unload a round into me. Warden Velky would execute me early.
I gripped the metal handle of the pump and cranked it up and down, only distantly hearing the burst of air blow through the ventilation shafts. They hadn’t even taken any of India-07’s koruna for choking me, despite the purple bruises his grubby hands had left. I swear, they’ve all had it out for me since the day I showed up on my eighth birthday.
I’d known long before that how truly horrid a birthday is. Every day that passed brought me one day closer to my death, one day closer to the end of everything. The marking of a full year, well, it was hardly something to look forward to. Skudging birthdays. Today was my skudging birthday, making me one of the oldest inmates in the whole mine.
I counted the seconds aloud before giving the pump twenty more heaves. Twenty pumps, a minute rest. The repetitive motions of mining can drive a person mad.
Sometimes when I’m pumping for the ventilation, I think about the scar on my face and how easily I could have killed Romeo, but didn’t. Didn’t that mean something? Or did imagining smashing his head open indicate something else entirely? My face didn’t even dimple on that side anymore on his account. And my dimples had been my most redeeming quality.
“Victor-27,” someone coughed out from the tunnel, bringing me back to the present. “You up here?”
The soft beam of a lantern broke through the black. My own lantern, set on the ground beside my feet, only illuminated a few feet around me. Just enough to see the pump and remember that I hadn’t been buried alive.
“Yeah,” I said, finishing the latest set of twenty pumps.
Mike-05 stepped closer to me. Mike looked even smaller in the mine than he did outside. He’d only been here for a few months, and it’d taken most of that time to convince him that I wasn’t going to kill him, despite what the other slagheads said about me. The brown linen shirt didn’t fit him right, and the cuffs that he’d put in his pants to shorten them now bulged with rocks and rubble. His lantern cast obscure shadows across his face as they mingled and danced with the lightly falling dust.
“I need…help.” His voice would have carried through the hollow air but he barely raised it above a whisper. Mike showcased his metal bucket. At the bottom sat a single piece of ore. Just one. And we only had two hours left, at most. He wouldn’t eat if he didn’t have at least half a bucket. “I wasn’t gonna ask but I can’t get that deep and I’m…” He looked around.
If there were others near us in the shaft, we wouldn’t have been able to see them unless they lit their lanterns. The truth of that used to creep me out as I’d stumbled across guards down here at times, spying on me, just out of sight. Usually even the sound of their breathing carried and echoed, so I felt confident he and I really were alone.
“What is it?” I asked, starting back up the next pumps.
“I’m scared of going too deep.” I shouldn’t have made him confess it. The fear manifest in his shaky voice and in the shine of tears in the light of his lantern.
“Can you work it?” I asked, gesturing to the pump.
“For a while, yes,” he said, setting his hammer and chisel into his bucket. “Don’t…don’t tell anyone.”
I reached out and ruffled his hair, unearthing a plume of dust. “I’ll take it to my grave.”
Ignoring his blatant trepidation in trusting me, I took the bucket and gave him quick instructions for working the air pump. He nodded.
“I can do it.”
“If you don’t pump, the guys down there will suffocate,” I explained.
“I got it,” he said, taking hold of the pump.
“I’ll be back soon,” I said, and then I bolted down an abandoned tunnel. The small light illuminated the way, and I ran, foolish as it might have been, into the darkness. We might have two hours, but Mike’s arms would give out long before then.
I sprinted straight back until the columns grew thinner, more precarious, and then I stopped, catching my breath as I looked around. The area had been picked clean, which is why we’d rotated out of this area and gone deeper, but since I wasn’t supposed to be mining, I couldn’t very well work where anyone else was. The air back here was stifling, especially as I began to work with the tools. The clanging they creating as I hammered and dug echoed, but it wasn’t as if the area was off limits. No one had a reason to come back here just because they heard a sound.
Maybe it was dumb luck, or maybe I really was born for this, but I found enough ore near a bit of clay to get his bucket to the halfway mark. My arms ached from the pumping, but hammering used slightly different muscles, and the chisel made it easy. The air echoed with every down stroke of the hammer and I tried to keep track of the time as I worked.
When I got back to Mike, he was sitting on the floor, his arms dropped to his sides like limp noodles. A clear track of tears shone on his cheeks as soon as I brought the light close enough. Without a word, I passed his bucket to him and leapt onto the pump and pumped it fifty times before even daring to ask Mike how long it had been.
“You okay?” I finally asked.
“You found some.” He held the biggest piece of coal in his hand as if he were looking at a block of gold.
“You’ll eat well tonight,” I said, with more than a little pride.
He sat there beside me for a while, saying nothing, just resting until the sirens went off. Though distant, the shrill cry was distinct.
“Mike,” I said. “Don’t tell anyone what I did for you. Ever. No matter what.” The balance had to be maintained. Too nice and I’d be a target. I wasn’t the only dangerous inmate here; just the only Victor.
He didn’t say anything.
“I’m serious. I don’t mind helping, but they can’t know you didn’t do it, okay? If they knew, you’d be punished, and I didn’t help you out so that you’d be punished.”
“I know,” he finally said.
I kept pumping a few more minutes, to be sure everyone had enough air to get to the elevator, and then turned away from them, almost running into a guard in the process.
“Why aren’t you moving?” The guard growled as his light swept across my face, making my eyes burn from the sudden brightness. He had a square face and a round chin with a large dent right in the center which he hadn’t been able to completely shave.
“I am moving.” I explained.
“You weren’t,” Dent said.
“I had to pump air down.”
“You’ve got slag for brains,” he laughed. “You really think we’d put you in charge of anyone else’s life.”
I didn’t dare say anything, but I stared into his square face at the dumb dent that looked a bit like a rat hole on his face.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Though I didn’t want to, I answered him. “What are you saying?”
“This pump goes to an unworked section.” Dent laughed again. “Even dumber than I thought you’d be.”
The words hit me hard. The realization didn’t hurt and it didn’t annoy me. Rather, anger blossomed but I bit it back. “You mean I did this, all day, for nothing?”
“Not for nothing. For the good of the Khizmit.”
My arms throbbed. “If there was no one in the shafts where this sent air all day, why didn’t you put me to work pulling the elevator or going deep with the others? Why would you waste my time and energy like that?”
“Your time. You say it like it should mean something.” Dent laughed again and the sound echoed all around as if the air itself mocked me for my efforts.
“I did that all day! Every minute!”
His voice became sharp and his upper lip curled. “Not every minute. The data came back and said that you didn’t pump it for a full eight minutes.”
I swallowed hard.
“I came back to see if something had hit you on the head. Did something fall and knock you down for a full eight minutes?”
“No, sir,” I said submissively.
I heard the rocks shuffle as Mike poked from around the corner. The guard cast his light down toward him.
“What are you doing here?” Dent asked.
Mike held up his bucket. “Looking for coal, sir.”
Dent, apparently satisfied with Mike’s answer, turned his light back to me.
“You didn’t work the full day, so you won’t get a full meal,” he said.
No sense in fighting with him even though he was asking for it.
“Yes, sir,” I murmured, submissive and accepting, at least, in my tone. In my chest the anger swirled again and my fists tightened.
“You want to argue it? Make your case for the missing eight minutes?”
“So, you admit that you wasted your time? Bet it was fun, wasn’t it? Imagining a group of miners down there, your fellow lurpers digging, working, and then suddenly, gasping. Did you listen to see if you could hear anyone choke?” Dent moved in closer to me.
I raised my eyes only to the top brass latch of his jacket. I fixed my gaze on the circle of light reflecting off the metal and held still, lest any movements get mistaken as a threat.
He leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Did you hope to hear them call for help?”
The walls shook again as a group of boys just beyond the north wall heaved at the ropes and pulled the elevator up.
“Tell me I’m right,” he said, and his hand moved to the staghorn handle of the hunting knife at his waist. Slowly, he pulled the twelve-centimeter blade out of the leather sheath as he dragged out his words again. Only the officers had weapons. The blade alone told me this guard I’d named Dent was either a lieutenant or a captain who hadn’t brought his sidearm into the mine with him. “Tell me I’m right, skudger. That you wanted to hear them suffer. That you sat here imagining their pain at your hands, and you laughed.”
“You would have heard me laugh,” I said, now looking at the light glinting off the blade.
“You smiled then.”
I almost admitted what he wanted me to. In some ways, it would have made everything easier to become what they thought I was—what they wanted me to be.
“I got tired. Tired of doing it. Bored of it. It wasn’t malicious.”
“It was just selfish.”
I stayed rooted to the spot as he slipped the dagger back into the sheath. He laughed one “hah!” and leaned back down into my face.
“Two more minutes and I’d have the privilege of marching you back to Warden Velky myself.”
“Maybe next time,” I said, giving him hope the same way that they’d fed it to me. Hope. Lies. What’s the difference?
Dent finally snapped his knife back onto his low belt. “Get back in or you’ll owe me all your koruna.” He walked off before muttering to himself again. “Slaghead.”
Mike poked up from around a corner. “You ready?” he asked. His sudden reappearance started me. He had what he needed- coal. What was he hanging back for?
Maybe he thought I’d protect him on the way out if he ran into a Juliet or angry Hotel. “Yeah, but you better not come out with me. Just, hang back a few minutes and then follow.”
“Good thinking. Thanks Victor-27,” he said, his voice sounding the slightest bit more confident than it had before.
I turned to leave, but not before saying, “Just Victor. My name’s Victor.”
But even I know that a letter isn’t a name.
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