Chapter 36: Tillie

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This lovely Saturday brings us the third and final chapter from Tillie’s point of view in book two of the Infinite Limits series, An Almost Tangent. Today Tillie and friends brave a second General Assembly on campus even after the first was so violently dispersed. Will they be the only students with enough courage to continue their protest, or will the campus support them. To find out, read on here and now or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. And don’t forget to sign up for the email newsletter to keep up to date on all my new book releases.

Thanks for joining us. Happy reading.

< XXXV. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXXVII. Huey >

XXXVI. Tillie

They waited a little while longer, letting the clock get past five to see if anyone would brave going out on campus before they did, but when they went out themselves at five-oh-one the campus was still empty. They could see eyes peering through dorm windows and heads poking out of doors, but there were no actual bodies on the campus with them. Tillie tried to hold her head high, to show the onlookers that she wasn’t afraid as she walked along, while Emma kept her eyes straight ahead, dead set on getting to the parade grounds. Rod kept staring back and forth at the people in the windows and doors, a big smile on his face, waving at them and trying to get them to join. And Nikola followed behind, meek and hunched over, pushing her glasses up every few steps as if she were offended by everyone watching her walk.

When they got to the parade grounds, they were empty, too. Emma led the group straight to the flagpole in the center of the field and stood up on its cement base, holding the pole for support, trying to get a better view of the campus. She shielded her eyes with her hands and scanned the horizon.

“Why won’t they follow us?” Rod asked. “They were all looking.”

“They’re afraid,” Tillie said. She knew it from the beginning. She would be, too, if she didn’t have Emma to inspire her on.

“They’ll come,” Emma said, still scanning the campus from her vantage point on the flagpole. “If only to see who else does.”

“I don’t know,” Nikola said with a shrug.

“I do,” Emma said. “Look. Over there.” She pointed in the opposite direction from which they had come. There were people coming alright, a band of ten or so of them, and they didn’t need to see anyone else doing it before they were brave enough to come. “It’s the Americorp. kids,” Emma said.

They were the news nerds who Tillie had met at the first party on New Year’s Eve. One came up and hugged her, saying, “We saw the video. I can’t believe it wasn’t on the news. Sorry we weren’t here to support you. We’re here now, though. Solidarity.”

Tillie shook her head, blushing. She didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure that this Americorp. kid was actually talking to the right person.

“We’re glad to have you,” Emma said, hugging each of them in turn. “Where’s Jason? He was here yesterday.”

They all kind of shook their heads and frowned, looking at the ground or kicking dirt. “They still have him,” the one who had hugged Tillie said. “He had no insurance, money, or parents to bail him out. There’s no telling how much time he’ll get. That’s when we knew we had to help y’all fight. For him.”

“That’s right,” Emma said. “I completely agree. And I—”

“I think some other people agree, too,” Rod said, pointing toward a new group of students on their way to join the assembly.

People were streaming out now, each made braver and more curious by every new person that joined. Soon they were coming from every direction, hundreds of them, and when the parade grounds was packed and spilling out between the stone-faced buildings, it felt like the entire student body was there with them.

Emma gathered the Americorp. kids around her and said, “Go up to as many people as you can and tell them that we’ll get started soon, they should discuss what happened yesterday among themselves, and to pass it on. Alright?”

Everyone nodded and fanned out into the crowd. The message spread like waves through the masses. Tillie took the chance to stand up on the flagpole and look out at the mass of them. There was no end to the people, whichever direction she looked in. The crowd wrapped around all the buildings in sight, and some of the attendants went so far as to climb trees so they could watch everything from above. Tillie didn’t realize there were this many people who lived on campus. How did they all fit? She was lost thinking about it when Emma pulled her down off of the flagpole.

“I told you they’d come out,” Emma said with a smile.

“Since when did this many people go to this school?” Tillie asked.

“My address book extends to the local community,” Emma said. “They care about what happens to us, too.”

“Well, you were right,” Tillie said. “What do we do now?”

“I’m going to get the assembly started. I need you to stay up on the flagpole and look for any signs of protectors. They’ll be out here for sure. There’s no telling how long we’ll have.”

“How will I know when they’re coming?” Tillie asked.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know. They won’t be subtle about it.”

Tillie shrugged. “Okay, I guess,” she said, and she climbed back up onto the flagpole.

“Wait,” Emma said. “Bend down here for a second.”

Tillie bent down close to her, and Emma pinned the American flag camera onto Tillie’s shirt.

“You’ll have a better view,” Emma said with a shrug and a smile.

“I’ll give it back to you when we’re done,” Tillie said.

Emma smiled and nodded then turned to the crowd. “My friends,” she called as loud as she could. Not many could likely hear her, though, with all the chatter going around. “Please repeat everything I say.” No one answered.

“My friends!” she yelled louder. “Please repeat everything I say!”

A few members of the crowd who were close to her responded, but their chorus was broken and incoherent. The whole crowd started to quiet down and listen now, though. Something was finally happening.

“Good try,” Emma yelled. “In unison now.”

She paused and indicated for them to repeat that, too. And no one did at first, but then a few caught on and yelled it back incoherently at her.

“My friends,” she called one more time, stopping and indicating for them to repeat that.

“My friends,” a chorus started to emerge from the crowd.

“Please repeat everything I say,” Emma added with a smile.

“Please repeat everything I say,” the crowd repeated, and it was so catchy that even Tillie found herself yelling it from the flagpole.

“This is the people’s mic,” Emma went on.

“This is the people’s mic.”

“We will use it so everyone can hear.”

“We will use it so everyone can hear.”

“Can you hear me?”

“Can you hear me?”

Good.”

“Good.”

“We are here today.”

“We are here today.”

“To reclaim these grounds.”

“To reclaim these grounds.”

“We’ve paid our dues.”

“We’ve paid our dues.”

“This is our school.”

“This is our school.”

“And we will not be scared away.”

“And we will not be scared away.”

“Now do you stand with me?”

“Now do you stand with me?”

“No answer that one.”

“No answer that one,” some of them yelled while others just whooped and whistled and cheered.

“Mic check!” Emma yelled after the cheering had died down.

“Mic check,” a few yelled back.

“Mic check,” she called again, and soon the chorus was back in sync.

“Mic check,” they said.

“That is how.”

“That is how.”

“We will acknowledge.”

“We will acknowledge.”

“Who’s at the mic.”

“Who’s at the—”

The rest of the snippet was only finished by part of the crowd. There was yelling and screaming coming from all directions. Tillie remembered she was supposed to be the lookout and scanned the crowd all around her. Everyone was pushing inward. What little clearance there had been around the flagpole closed and Tillie stood nearly on top of the crowd. She had lost everyone she had come with in the chaotic masses, but she could still hear Emma yelling, “Mic check! Mic check!” to no response.

They were surrounded by the same pepper gas cloud that they had been sprayed with only yesterday. Tillie knew burning pores were in her future. Gunshots rang out over the crowd. Not beanbag air shots, but bullets, accompanied by more and louder screaming and further stampeding of bodies which had no way to go but toward the center of the parade grounds, where Tillie was standing alone, sliding off the flagpole where the human currents were roughest.

She almost fell off when Emma jumped up to join her, grabbing Tillie and holding her tight to the pole.

“What the fuck is going on?” Tillie asked.

“A more drastic response than last time,” Emma said.

“Well, no shit,” Tillie said. “But what—”

Shhh.” Emma held a finger to her mouth. “There’s no time,” she said. She pressed the tiny flag pin to Tillie’s chest and looked straight into it. “This is how they respond to a threat to their power,” she said. “They fear us for good reason, and they will silence us at all costs. We will win as long as we never sto—”

Emma’s head jerked back, exploded. Her hand let go of the flagpole. Her body slouched into the stampeding crowd. It happened in slow motion. Tillie reached down to grab her, almost losing her own grasp on the flagpole, and missed Emma’s hand by an inch. She jumped down and tried to push the crowd away but it didn’t matter. If Emma had been trampled already, it wasn’t clear. The damage to her head was such that Tillie couldn’t see anything else. Nothing was left on Emma’s shoulders but raw ravaged neck.

Tillie turned and leaned on the flagpole, vomiting burning acidic bile into oncoming footsteps. No one noticed. They just trampled and splashed through what was once the contents of her stomach, as they no doubt aslo did through what was once Emma. Tillie took a few deep breaths and fought the urge to lie there on the ground, to give up, letting happen whatever happened, letting the stampeding masses trample over her and turn her into the same nothingness that Emma had become. She fought the urge to look back at Emma’s obliterated face, at the destruction the protectors had rained down on them for doing nothing that was not within their rights. She didn’t want to throw up anymore, and there was nothing she could do for Emma now.

Her first instinct was to get to an elevator and go to her dad’s house, but she knew there was no chance of getting an elevator in this nonsense. She jumped back up onto the flagpole to see what was going on. The cloud of pepper gas was getting closer, it surrounded her. No matter which way she went, she’d have to go through it, but the sooner she went the thinner the cloud would be. If she couldn’t get to her dad’s, her only choice was her dorm so she jumped down off the flagpole and fought her way through the crowd in that direction.

She pushed her way through bodies going this way and that and made slow progress. When she hit the wall of gas, she had to stop to cough and wipe her eyes, but that only made things worse. She pushed and fought blindly against the mass of bodies surrounding her, holding her eyelids closed tight against the fire gas. She had no idea anymore if she was even going in the right direction, but she wasn’t going to stop fighting. Those were Emma’s last words, and Tillie would live up to them or die trying. She would never sto—

The thought was driven out of her mind with the familiar pressure of a beanbag in her chest. Apparently they were still using some. She was bent over, trying to catch her breath, when another hit her in the head and knocked her unconscious.

#     #     #

This time she knew where she was when she woke up. She recognized the cold bed and the harsh white walls. Pulling herself up to lean on the wall, groaning, she wondered if it was the same cell she was held in before. She was in a lot more pain this time, though, longing for the little gray shot that would make her all better.

The heavy door whined open. A protector in full gear came in. “Come with me, citizen,” it demanded in its glowing modulated voice.

“I can’t move,” Tillie groaned. “Give me my shot.”

“No shot,” the protector said, walking over, lifting Tillie up like a baby, and marching out of the room, down the hall, and into another door. Tillie let out a loud groan when the protector plopped her down on the ground in front of a tall table and stomped out without another word.

Somehow this room was even brighter than the room they had taken her from. She had to close her eyes against the light, and even that wasn’t enough. She bumped her head hard on the table, fumbling blindly for anything to block out the white heat, and groaned at the pain all throughout her body. Her eyes felt like they were going to pulse out of her head. She managed to find a stool and pull herself up onto it to flop her head down on the table in front of her, using her arms to finally block out the light. The cool black relief didn’t last long, though, because the door opened, another protector walked in, and they yelled, “Look at me, citizen!”

Tillie didn’t budge. She didn’t want to be blinded again. The protector didn’t care, though, grabbing a clump of Tillie’s hair to pull. “You’re in it deep, now,” the protector hissed. “Not even daddy’s platinum plan can save you. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Tillie yelled, and the protector let go of her hair. Tillie’s head slammed on the table from the momentum, and she screamed as her pain only grew.

“Didn’t do anything?” the protector said. “Ha! Lights.”

The lights dimmed. Tillie could feel it, even with her arms blocking out the light. She blinked her eyes in her arm cave, relishing the dark comfort for one more second, before slowly raising her head. Across the table, in the white, white room, was a protector with no helmet on and a big black mirror behind her.

“So you weren’t at the center of the riot on LSU’s parade grounds?” the protector asked.

“That wasn’t a riot,” Tillie said.

“No?” The protector frowned. “Then it didn’t end in violence and bloodshed? That must have been my imagination.”

Tillie pictured Emma and her stomach grumbled. She choked back vomit and fought the urge to jump over the table and attack this pro. That would probably work out poorly for everyone, especially Tillie.

The protector grinned. “No, girl,” she said. “It wasn’t your imagination, either. It did end in bloodshed.”

“Not until you got there.” Tillie sneered.

“Well, we wouldn’t have been there if you weren’t,” the protector said. “Would we? What did you expect after the previous day’s outburst? We’d let you bring out more of your little thug friends to disrespect the sacred rights of private property?”

“We own those parade grounds as much as anyone,” Tillie protested. “We pay to go to that school.”

“Yes,” the protector said. “You pay to attend the school. You pay to learn and sleep and eat, not to own the school grounds. You’re merely a tenant. The school belongs to Mr. Smörgåsbord, and you’ve trespassed on his property too many times for us to let it slide.”

“It’s not his!” Tillie yelled, then she groaned and hunched over the table in pain. She had forgotten her injuries in her anxiousness to deal with this protector, and now the pain of them all rushed back at the same time.

The protector laughed. “No, dear,” she said. “As long as he can afford the guns to protect it, it belongs to Mr. Smörgåsbord.”

As long as he can afford you,” Tillie groaned.

Well.” The protector laughed some more. “Not just me, girl,” she said. “The whole force. You think you can afford that?”

Tillie shook her head, sobbing silently at the pain.

“No. That’s right. And that’s why the school belongs to him and not you. That’s why you’re here with me now. Do you understand yet? No more demonstrations on our property or our responses will continue to get more drastic. Do you understand?”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Tillie asked. She wasn’t any leader. She didn’t plan any of this. She just happened to take part in it. Why was she getting all the blame?

“Because you wear the pin now.” The protector nodded at it.

Tillie looked down. The little American flag camera was still pinned to her shirt. She wanted to cry at the sight of it, at the memory of what they had done to Emma, but she fought that back. She looked up at the protector and said, “But—”

“Of course we know,” the protector said. “Why do you think she still had it yesterday?” She chuckled. “We’re not as ignorant as y’all hope we are.”

“Then why didn’t you take it?” Tillie asked, fumbling to get the thing off but failing.

“Because we want you to have it,” the protector said. “We can track it, download what it uploads, we see everything it sees, child. Why would we want to take that away from you when we would be taking it away from us?”

Tillie shook her head. She didn’t even notice her pain anymore. It was covered by a fierce anger and hatred, directed at the protectors in general, sure, but at this protector especially. “Then why give away your capabilities?” she asked.

“Because you wear the pin,” the protector repeated. “Because it doesn’t matter if you know, you need that technology in order to be effective. Because you’re powerless against us, and I want you to know that fact. More than that, I want you to feel it deep inside of your bones and all throughout your nervous system. I know you do, child. I know you’re still hurting from the beating we gave you. That, dear, is why we did this: To show you that we’re the big bad wolf and the boogie monster and all your childhood nightmares all rolled into one, and you’re just a little girl with nothing to do about it.”

“I—” Tillie protested.

No. Listen, girl. You have it good. I know who your father is. I know what kind of life you’re living. What I don’t know is why you would throw that life away for something like this. I mean, what are you even doing it for?”

Tillie shook her head, trying not to cry. She wasn’t sure how to answer that question anymore. She came into all this because she wanted to fight to give robots a voice, but when she learned it was really humans on the assembly lines, she went to fighting to free them instead. But now what was she doing it for? It was more than that now, more than giving robots a voice or freeing humans from sweatshop labor. When she watched the only friend she had left in the world die right in front of her eyes, the protectors had made it personal. “Fuck you,” she said.

The protector looked taken aback. “What was that?”

“Fuck. You,” Tillie repeated, sitting up taller.

“You do understand the situation you find yourself in, don’t you?” The protector chuckled.

“I do,” Tillie said. “I understand you’re questioning me without first giving me a medical examination. I know you haven’t even scanned my insurance level yet. I know that you are required by law to follow certain regulations, too. And I know that my lawyer, Mr…” She couldn’t remember Rod’s last name. “Roderick, will have a field day taking the protectors—and you especially—for everything you’re worth in court.”

The protector grinned. “Is that so?”

“Well, there are a few ways to find out,” Tillie said. She held her breath and tried to calm her beating heart while waiting for a response. She had no idea what those few ways might be.

“Have it your way,” the protector said, standing from her chair. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Tillie fought the urge to call the protector back and apologize as she walked out. She slouched down onto the table and covered her head again when the door closed.

What the fuck did she just do? How could she talk to a protector like that? But the protector did leave. Maybe Tillie had said the right thing. She hoped so. She didn’t know how much worse it could get.

The door opened, and she looked up, groaning, to find the face of the protector who had given her the shot before. She sighed in relief.

You again,” he said with a smile, crossing around the table to her and fumbling through his pockets.

“And you,” Tillie groaned. “I need my shot.”

“I—uh—well…” The protector avoided her gaze, fumbling through his pockets still. “I can’t right now,” he said.

But—” Tillie protested.

“I’m sorry,” he said, holding his tablet out to her. “I’m on orders, but I’ll do what I can for you.”

Another let down in a long line of them. The worlds kept getting worse and worse. Tillie pressed her thumb to his little tablet, and when he read the screen, he frowned.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Well, you’re not gonna like this,” he said.

“I already don’t,” she said, groaning and rubbing her head. “I need my shot.”

“Yes, you do. But…”

“But what?”

“This is a second felony in two days,” the protector said, “both on campus. The school contract has a clause which overrides your insurance policy. I’m sorry. I…” He looked at his feet, avoiding eye contact with her.

“What? So what is that supposed to mean?” she begged, holding back tears.

“Well, it means—”

The door swung open and in came two protectors, pointing their guns at her. “Hands on your head, citizen,” one of them said.

Tillie tried to stand, but the stool fell out from underneath her, and she fell to the floor. “No,” she said, crab crawling backwards on the cold floor.

“This is your final warning, citizen.”

“No!” She backed into the wall behind her and there was nowhere left to go. One protector grabbed her, and when Tillie fought away, trying to escape, the other hit her in the back of the head with a gun, knocking her out cold.

#     #     #

Tillie woke to shadows towering over her. She panicked, jumping up and flailing her arms, groaning from the pain, but the shadows gently restrained her, and when she came to, Tillie realized that it was Nikola and Rod who were looking down on her, and a whole crowd of others who she didn’t recognize. The room looked like it used to be white but now it was dirtied gray. She groaned some more and tried to sit up but couldn’t do it without their help. How had she lived through so much pain?

“Where am I?” she asked when she had gathered herself enough to speak.

“This is general holding,” Nikola said.

“And my dad’s gonna have a field day with it.” Rod chuckled. “Disregard Rod Swadson’s Platinum Plan and see if you’re not bankrupt in the morning.”

“How long have we been here?” Tillie asked. She noticed the crowd was still silently staring at her. There must have been twenty or more of them. It was hard to count from her vantage point on the small room’s floor, especially with a pounding headache.

“We were already here for hours before they tossed you in with us,” Rod said. “Haven’t seen a protector since—unless they were tossing someone else in. And they’ll hear about that from my dad, too. You can be sure of that.” He huffed.

“They killed Emma,” Tillie said. The whole crowd gasped. She had forgotten they were listening, but now that she remembered, she didn’t care. They should all hear this, too. They were probably all out there when it happened. The same thing could have happened to any one of them. “I saw it,” she said. “Her head exploded in front of me. Look…” She wiped her shirt, but it wasn’t sticky anymore, just stained red. “That’s her blood on my shirt.”

“That’s her blood on their hands,” Nikola said.

Tillie forced herself to stand, against all the advice of every nerve in her body. “You people don’t understand yet,” she groaned. “They killed her because she wanted to tell you something they didn’t want you to know. That’s it.”

“That humans work on the assembly lines,” Nikola said, urging Tillie on.

No,” Tillie protested. She wasn’t trying to encourage them. She was trying to illustrate the reality of their situation. “That’s not important,” she said. “What she said doesn’t matter. What they did because of it does.”

“Because they’re afraid!” Nikola said.

The crowd cheered. Nikola was making everything Tillie said have the opposite meaning from what she intended. “Because they want to make us afraid,” Tillie said. “And we should be. I was interrogated by one of them before they dumped me in here. They thought I took over for Emma because I wear her pin. They ensured me that their responses would get more drastic if we continued doing what we’re doing, and I believe them. I’m scared.”

The huddled mass of prisoners didn’t know how to respond to that. They looked back and forth at each other, hoping one or another of them could tell the rest what to do. Tillie thought she might have actually gotten through to them until Nikola said, “And we must use that fear. We must not run away from it. We must not let them win by default. Together we can prevail!”

The cheering grew so loud it had to be heard by the guards. “No,” Tillie pleaded. “That’s not what I mean. I meant—”

The door of the cell swung open and a column of white-clad protectors made their way in, packing the room tighter than it already was. “Quiet citizens,” one of the protectors ordered. “Break this meeting up or every one of you will be placed in solitary confinement.”

The crowd stomped and protested, Nikola and Rod especially. Tillie turned her back to the protectors and waved her arms, shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No no no. I told you. Be afraid.”

“And use it!” they replied.

“For Emma!” Nikola said.

“For Emma!” they repeated.

“And Tillie!” Nikola said.

“And Tillie!” they repeated.

“No!” Tillie said, and the protectors crashed down on them. Tillie couldn’t fight. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t do anything. She tried to give up, crumpling to the floor where she would probably be stomped to death, but as she let go of herself a bag went over her head and she was lifted by strong arms to be thrown over a broad shoulder.

She didn’t resist or struggle as she was carried away from the sound of the riot in the cell. She didn’t care anymore. She had nothing left in her, no energy at all. She would certainly never break another law again as long as it meant that she never had to interact with another protector in her life.

Then she thought she heard someone whispering her name. “Tillie Manager,” it said. “Psst. It’s me—uh—” It was the protector who was carrying her. “Well, the guy who processed you last time. And gave you your shot. Get ready for another one.”

She felt the sting of a needle in the back of her thigh and sighed at the instant relief.

“That should make this a little easier,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He hefted her off his shoulder and laid her down in between two tight walls, pushing her forward into even deeper darkness. She tried to move but there was no room, only inches before she hit a hard surface in every direction. She banged on the walls of the tiny space around her, breathing heavily. The hood was still on her head so she kept inhaling cloth. She felt like she was going to suffocate, like they were going to scare her to death.

She tried to calm herself. She stopped struggling and laid as still as she could. At least she had gotten a shot so she wasn’t hurting anymore. She slowed her breathing and managed to keep the cloth out of her mouth. Maybe Nikola was right. Maybe they should use their fear. They should become stronger by overcoming it. But how was she supposed to do that now? Stuck in here, in a drawer, with a limited air supply.

Her heart beat faster. She lost control of her breath again until she remembered where she was. They wouldn’t let a prisoner die in their custody. Would they? They di—

The drawer slid open. She tried to move, to stand, but she was grabbed by two pairs of hands and lifted out of her resting place. “Come with us,” a voice she didn’t recognize said. “We’ll get you out of here.”

“But—” she protested, and someone flung her over their shoulder, with the hood still on her head, to run on their way to she had no idea where.

#     #     #

< XXXV. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXXVII. Huey >

That’s it for Tillie’s point of view in Almost Tangent. To find out who has her and where she’s going you’ll have to read on in the Infinite Limits series. If you’d like to support the creation of further works from me, Bryan “with a Y” Perkins, please do pick up a full copy of each novel on the page linked here before joining my email newsletter through this link.

Thanks again for reading me, friends. Have a great weekend and happy Mardi Gras.

 

Interview With SF-Books

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The other day I did a short interview with the website SF-Books.com and I thought I’d share it here, too, so as many people as possible could read it. They sent me a list of questions and I ended up writing up a short five hundred word response. Here are both.

Here’s a brief list of questions:

What is your latest book? What is it about? What writers do you enjoy or influence your work? What did you do before you took up writing? Did you read much scifi/fantasy as a kid? What are you working on next?

Thanks, Simon

And my response, which you can find on the SF-Books website here:

My name’s Bryan “with a Y” Perkins and I make the money I need to survive in our capitalist society by doing independently contracted quality assurance work for search engines. That’s a fancy way to say that I’m a glorified survey taker who teaches AIs how to do his job for him. I didn’t go to school thinking I’d be a robot teacher, though. I attended LSU in Baton Rouge and got a degree in Biology but never really felt like starting a career in the field. Instead I worked through odd jobs in video game testing, freelance writing, and freelance editing while I became heavily involved in Occupy Baton Rouge. To this day I still do what I can to end the reign of profits over human needs–mostly writing revolutionary fiction–but now I do it from my new home in New Orleans, Louisiana.

My latest book, An Almost Tangent, is book two in the four part epic dystopian science fiction series Inifinite Limits. It continues the story of the worlds of Outland in which 3D printers provide every luxury humans could desire, from food to clothing, entertainment, and beyond, androids perform what little labor is left necessary in the resulting boon, and elevators travel anywhere anyone might want to go, whether it be upstairs, across the country, or to another world. Things might sound idyllic in Outland, but from Ansel’s point of view they look a little different.

As for my influences, I certainly have to name Margaret Atwood for helping me realize that long, beautiful sentences do belong in science fiction–if I can ever figure out how to write them myself. And of course Ursula K. Le Guin, not only for her writing but for her subject matter and fearless politics. Le Guin is never afraid to call out the established order of things and demand something new and better. Third I’ll say Kurt Vonnegut, someone who I read almost religiously in high school and who I only wish I was as funny as. And last but not least, Albert Camus for his absurdism. Without The Stranger, which I discovered in high school, or The Plague, which came to me later in life, I might not be the absurdist writer I am today.

I have several irons in the fire right now. I’m producing an audio book for my novella Murder in “Utopia,, which is currently only available in digital format right here. That should be out sometime in late March or early May. I also have book three of the Infinite Limits series, Dividing by Zero, sitting on my hard drive waiting to be edited and published, which I should get to after finishing the first draft of the novel I’m currently writing, The Vanguard, in the next month or so. And besides that I’m shopping around a shorter speculative fiction novel, called Executioner(s), for traditional publishing and editing another to start sending queries out for. It seems like so much more when I write it all out like that, and I’m starting to think that maybe I should go get to work on it now…

So there it is, dear readers. Subscribe to my email newsletter, delivered rarely, if you want to keep up to date as all those new releases start trickling out, and have a wonderful Thursday.

Chapter 35: Olsen

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This Saturday brings us to the two thirds finished point of An Almost Tangent with Olsen’s second point of view chapter. She’s slowly falling in with the pro-human, anti-robot Human Family because she needs a job to survive and there are no others available now that Five and Six have been connected. To find out how she handles the new responsibilities given to her, continue reading here or pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon through this link. And don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter through this link in order to keep up to date on new releases and book deals in the Infinite Limits series and beyond. Enjoy.

< XXXIV. Guy     [Table of Contents]     XXXVI. Tillie >

XXXV. Olsen

A 3D printer was a big thing. Olsen had never really seen one up close before. Now that she had, she didn’t think it looked too fancy. It was just a tall, fat metal console with a red button and a sliding door on the front. If it weren’t for the red button, it would look exactly like a trash chute—which Olsen had seen plenty of.

She walked up to one of the printers and rocked it, wondering if two people was enough to carry the heavy thing upstairs. Hopefully Anna was stronger than she looked. She was nice, and smart, and she knew how to cook, but none of that would help them get this hunk of metal up the stairs.

The door opened and Anna came downstairs, smiling at Olsen. “So, child,” she said. “What do you think? Are you ready for this?”

Olsen patted the printer. “I don’t know,” she said. “This thing is pretty heavy. Do you think the two of us can move it?”

Anna laughed. “No, child,” she said. “Not without tools. But that’s no problem now that we have the printer. What I really meant to ask is are you ready to give your Family what they deserve?”

Olsen blushed. She thought all the “family” talk was a little weird, but she didn’t know how to bring that opinion up to the people who were paying here wages. She did what she had been doing and just smiled and nodded along. “I’m ready to cook for people,” she said.

“Oh, child,” Anna frowned. “This won’t be cooking, I’m afraid. We don’t have time for all that. We’ll be printing everything so we can spread our message as far possible.”

“Our message?”

“About the Human Family, child,” Anna said. “You know. You read the pamphlet.”

Olsen groaned to herself. She hadn’t really finished the pamphlet yet. After her conversations with her mom and Sonya, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what the rest of it said. She needed this job, though, and they were teaching her how to cook—even if they wouldn’t be cooking now—so she didn’t want to blow this. “Well,” she said. “I’m ready to help people.”

“Good, child,” Anna said. “Helping humans is exactly what we’re all about. Now, the first thing’s first. We need to get this printer out there to the people. Are you ready?”

Olsen nodded. “But I still don’t know how we’re going to carry it,” she said.

“Just leave that to me, child,” Anna said, walking over to press the printer’s red button. “Anti-grav cart, please,” she said. “Four-pack.”

The metal doors slid open, and Anna reached in to pull out four small discs. “Now,” she said, kneeling down next to the printer. “If you just tip it that way a little bit, I can get this under here.”

Olsen pushed on the top of the console, leaning it over a little so Anna could slide the discs under both corners of the raised side.

“Now the other way, child,” Anna said.

Olsen went around and tilted the printer the other way, and Anna put the remaining two discs underneath.

“There we are,” Anna said, bent down and pressing a button on each disk, making each corner of the machine float up an inch off the ground as she did, until she had activated all four discs and the entire printer floated a few inches over the basement’s cement floor.

“There,” Anna said, standing and brushing herself off. “Light as a feather now. It would really only take one of us to move it, but we’re best to use both for safety’s sake. Come on, now. Help me out, child.”

Olsen got behind the printer with Anna, and they didn’t even have to push, more so just guide it on its way. It was a little trickier when they were bringing it up the stairs, but that was only because the machine was so much lighter than it looked and Olsen kept lifting it so fast that the thing almost fell over onto Anna. They got it up to the top of the stairs without an incident, though—thankfully—and pushed the printer out to the field across the street from the Family Home.

“More room out here when they start showing up,” Anna said with a smile. “Now, this is the tricky part. Do you see the buttons on the discs on that side?”

Olsen bent down to get a closer look. “Uh, yeah,” she said. “I think so.”

“Press them both at the same time. On my count, okay. On three. Are you ready?”

Olsen wasn’t sure she was. Some people walking past were already stopping to see what they were doing, and it only made her more nervous. “Uh—yeah,” she said anyway. She had no choice. It was her job now.

“Okay, then. One…two…three!”

Olsen pressed one then tried to press the other but missed, and three of the four corners of the 3D printer fell to the ground with a loud bang. Olsen hurried to stop the thing from tipping over onto Anna while Anna pressed the last button for her, and the printer smashed to the ground with another loud clang.

“Uh—wow—I—I’m sorry,” Olsen said, breathing heavily.

“You’re fine, girl,” Anna said. “I told you that was the hard part. We’re out here and ready now. That’s all that matters. Look.”

Olsen turned to see people starting to crowd around them. The spectacle of the big metal box was enough to draw their attention. That and the notoriety Anna and Rosa had been able to draw with their nightly speeches in the field.

“Friends,” Anna called over the people. Her voice wasn’t as loud or deep as Rosa’s, but it carried just as far and touched a different part of the soul. “Family. Humans.” Olsen cringed at the last word but kept listening anyway. She knew Anna meant well, even if Olsen disagreed with her methods—or Sonya disagreed with her methods, Olsen still wasn’t sure how she felt about them yet. “We are here today to fulfill one wish for every Family member who has one.”

The crowd started whispering among itself. Olsen couldn’t help but smile. These people were about to get an opportunity to ask a printer for whatever they desired, and Olsen was playing a hand in giving that to them. Still, no brave souls came up to ask for what they wanted. Olsen didn’t blame them, though. She didn’t think she would want to be the first to step up either. She couldn’t even imagine what she would ask for.

“Brothers and sisters,” Anna went on. “Siblings. I know you all have something you need at home. Certainly you don’t have enough food, or your kids need new shoes, or maybe you just want that keg of beer all to yourself for once.” She smiled at what looked to be someone in particular from the bystanders. “We’re not here to judge. We’re only here to make your dreams come true, whatever you wish for. Now, who will be the first lucky Family member to get what they desire?”

“How about a fucking job?” someone called from the crowd, which looked to be about a hundred people by then.

Anna laughed. “Oh, no,” she said, putting on a solemn face like she really meant what she was saying. “Sadly, that can’t be gotten from a printer. But if it fits through those doors, you can have it otherwise.”

“My family hasn’t eaten meat in weeks,” an older woman, who was particularly dirty, at the front of the crowd said. She looked like she was from the other world—or whatever Sonya called it. “I’d like a turkey stuffed with vegetables,” she said, “so my kids can eat right.” She pushed her two little children out in front of her, and they blushed and hid their dirty faces.

That we can do,” Anna said. She pressed the red button. “Turkey, stuffed with fresh vegetables,” she said.

The doors slid open, and there it was, steaming and warm. The crowd let out a collective gasp. The chatter grew louder. The woman and her kids walked up to the printer wide-eyed.

“Help her, Olsen,” Anna said.

Olsen shook herself out of her daze and grabbed the turkey out of the printer’s mouth. It was heavy and awkward to hand off, and probably would have been easier for the woman to take out herself, but Olsen loved the feeling she got from the process, like she had been responsible for giving the woman and her family the meal they so desperately needed.

The woman turned around with a smile and raised the turkey up over her head for the still growing crowd to see. Eyes grew wide and the chatter around picked up. People stepped closer now that they had proof of how the printer worked. There was some jostling and commotion, and a young boy fell over with a yelp near the front of the crowd, producing more ado.

“Now, now,” Anna called over them. “Settle down, please! Settle down.”

The crowd didn’t listen. The fighting over who pushed the boy rippled out like a wave, making everyone more anxious. Olsen was starting to worry. She could see how hungry the faces were, how dirty they were. She could still tell the otherworlders from the locals because they were still dirtier, but it wasn’t by much anymore. No matter which world they were from, they all looked desperate enough to do anything to get their hands on the printer. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as she thought it was. How did Anna and Rosa expect her to respond to this test? How could she respond to it? She looked to Anna for guidance, and Anna shrugged. Olsen had to do something to show the Family she was reliable beyond cooking. She had to demonstrate her value like her mom had told her to do.

“Quiet!” Olsen yelled, and the crowd went silent, staring at her in surprise. She had surprised herself, too. She meant to do something but not that. At least it seemed to work. She looked to Anna who smiled then mouthed, “Good job.”

“Now,” Anna called over the group, which was numbering near a thousand and still growing. “We can’t do anything unless we do it in an orderly fashion. Everyone will get a chance to ask for something, but we can only fulfill one request at a time. We’ll have to stop like this every time we here jostling or arguing, though, and that will only mean a longer wait for everyone. So, for the sake of yourselves and your Family, I implore all of you to keep it calm and orderly. Can we do that?”

The crowd mumbled incoherently, but by the sound of their collective groaning, it seemed like they agreed.

“I said, can we do that?” Anna repeated with more volume.

“Yes,” the crowd responded, somewhat in unison.

Good,” Anna said. “Then one by one, please. And if you can decide on what you’d like before you get here, it will save a lot of time for everyone. Thank you. Who’s first?”

After that it was a surprisingly orderly process. One by one, members of the dirty masses stepped up to ask for whatever their hearts desired. The people who looked like they were from Olsen’s world all seemed to be asking for various food items, some of them necessities, most of them luxuries, and a lot asked for big jugs of alcohol which were some of the heaviest things to lift out of the printer. Olsen couldn’t imagine carrying one all the way home. One old man asked for twenty-four cartons of cigarettes. When exactly twenty-four came out, the later requests started to become more specific and grow in quantity.

The people who were dirtier, like they had come from the other, new world, would sometimes ask for food, too, but never alcohol or other luxuries. They asked for big cans of meat and beans or pounds of rice, but even that wasn’t often. More often they asked for clothes and shoes, things that would last longer, and mostly they asked for tools of various kinds—many of which Olsen didn’t recognize—things that they could use with their own hands to better produce for themselves. Seeing these differences between the two groups, Olsen was coming closer and closer to believing that two worlds had collided—or merged—or whatever Sonya wanted to call it.

The work was exhausting, and it only got more so as time went on and the requesters grew bolder in their demands. But still, Olsen continued to hand gift after gift from the mouth of the printer—it looked like it had one red eye that was the voice activation button, and the doors were arched to make a big frowning mouth—into the hands of the citizens of her world and the other alike. It was beautiful, almost as if they really were a big family sharing in everything they owned, one by one, everyone getting what they needed.

The crowd had grown so big it filled all the space in sight, wrapping around buildings and down alleyways. Olsen thought she would never be done handing out gifts to the people when jostling spread like a wave up one arm of the amorphous, multi-bodied organism, radiating through every other part in turn. When it reached the center, where they were working, Olsen looked to Anna to see what to do. Anna called up a stool out of the printer then stood on it to look over the crowd in the direction the wave had come from. Olsen didn’t like the look on Anna’s face when she could finally see what was going on. Olsen’s heart beat faster and her palms slicked up.

“Anna,” she said. “What is it?”

Anna shook her head. “Trouble. I’m surprised it took them this long.”

Olsen looked over the way Anna was staring but couldn’t see anything through the mass of people. The crowd wasn’t just jostling anymore, it was pushing toward them, trying to escape some danger that was still out of sight. “What do we do?” Olsen asked.

Anna shook herself out of her daze. “You stay with the printer,” she said. “Keep fulfilling requests until you can’t anymore then get out of here as fast as you can. You did well, today, kiddo. We’ll see you tomorrow morning to discuss the details of your next assignment.”

Olsen shook her head. Her voice wouldn’t work for more than a squeak so that was all she did. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this anymore. She wasn’t sure she was ready for anything. She should have listened to Sonya and left this job to someone else. Now she was—now she was—what? She was—

“You can do it,” Anna said, giving Olsen a quick hug then disappearing into the crowd, and Olsen had no choice but to find her voice again. She took a deep breath and said, “Who’s next?”

“Me,” a man said, stepping forward from far back in the line.

“No, me,” another said from closer up. He pushed the first and they started to grapple.

An old woman tugged on Olsen’s shirt. “Me, please,” she said in a scratchy, frantic voice. “Just one ham, please. It’s all I ask.”

“Oh, well, okay. You,” Olsen said, pulling the woman closer and away from the two men who were still fighting. She pressed the big red eye and started to speak when one of the men in the grapple—who had knocked the other out—yelled, “A pistol!”

“No, not—” Olsen said, but the doors slid open, and the man shoved her aside to grab what came out. When she stood up again, he was pointing the gun at her. She held her trembling hands above her head.

“Stop right there,” he said. “This here printer’s mine now. You can just git.”

Olsen said, “But—”

“No!” the man yelled, shaking the gun. “No buts. Go!” He pointed the gun at the crowd, too. “All of you!” They backed away, but people were still pushing from the other direction so there wasn’t far to go. He pointed the gun back at Olsen. “I said git,” he said.

Trembling, her hands up, she had no idea what to do. Anna had told her to work until she couldn’t anymore, and how could she work when someone was pointing a gun at her? But she couldn’t just leave the printer here with him, either. They needed it. The Family needed it. Anyone who waited their turn and didn’t point a gun to steal everything deserved it. Not this thief. Ansel had almost built up the courage to say something when bangs and screams echoed loud through the streets. All heads turned in their direction, the direction the commotion had been coming from all along, to see what it was. All Olsen could see was the crowd pushing harder towards her and a fog rolling in over their heads.

A fog? That wasn’t fog. It was purplish in color and this was the middle of a warm day. She didn’t have time to figure out what it was before more bangs and screams echoed from every direction. The crowd started pushing from all sides now, and neither Olsen nor the man with the gun cared about the printer anymore.

Then Olsen saw the tall dark shadows in the fog—or cloud—or whatever it was. They towered over everyone, and every now and then, a bright light would flash in front of them, and there would be more screams and hysteria. She was shocked, in awe. Were they killing people? Was that gas dangerous?

A child bumped into her and fell away at her feet. “Mommy! Mommy!” the kid pleaded, standing up and running into the crowd. Olsen couldn’t help, though, she had to take care of herself now.

Once she decided she wanted to move, her legs took her toward the Family Home. It was the closest safe space she knew of so it was the first thing her subconscious thought of. She had to fight and force her way through the mass of people running this way and that, and by the time she made it across the street to sit on the floor inside, with her back to the door, her face was bloodied and bruised and her whole body ached.

She took a few deep breaths, sitting on the ground, wiping the blood from her nose. What in the Hell was that? Who were those giants out there shooting people? And most importantly, what had Olsen gotten herself into by getting involved with the people who had started it all?

She wanted to cry. She wanted to stand up and run home, or to Sonya’s, or anywhere away from there, anywhere where she could forget about all of this. This wasn’t being a chef. This was madness.

Rosa came in out of the basement door and looked surprised to see Olsen sitting on the ground. “You should have gone home, child,” she said, shaking her head. “Here the danger’s coming to you.”

“I—uh—” Everything that had just happened ran through Olsen’s head again. “It got crazy out there,” she said. “I didn’t know where else to go. I couldn’t get home.”

“You are home, child,” Rosa said, crossing the room and helping Olsen to her feet. “You’re a part of the Family so this is your home.”

“Oh, yeah…” Olsen blushed. She still wasn’t sure she wanted to be a member of the Family. “I meant—”

“Oh, I know what you meant, dear,” Rosa said, holding Olsen’s hand and leading her to the kitchen to sit on a bar stool at the counter. “And I meant what I said. You should feel safe here. Even when they come to invade our private property.” She nodded toward the door. Olsen was surprised she couldn’t hear more of what must still have been going on outside. “Would you like some pancakes, child?” Rosa asked. “Only thing I can cook, I’m afraid. And Anna’s a little busy at the moment.”

“I—uh—” This was all getting to be too much to handle. Olsen couldn’t keep up with the pace that everything was coming at her. “Invade our privacy?” she said. She didn’t even know what she was asking.

“Pancakes, child?” Rosa said, already heating a griddle and mixing the batter. “Do you want some?”

“I—uh—” Olsen shrugged. “Sure.”

“Good,” Rosa said. “Because I’m making you some anyway. It’ll be comforting. Pancakes are comfort food. That’s why I know how to make them.”

“Um, okay.” Olsen shook her head.

“That’s one thing these protectors need to learn,” Rosa said, cooking. “How to be comforting. You know how they used to say that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Well that’s not true at all. Flies don’t care about honey. They don’t like the sugar or something. I don’t know the science behind it. Ask Anna. But you don’t catch flies by giving them honey. That’s the point I’m trying to make. You catch flies by giving them what they want, dear. And do you know what it is that flies want?”

Olsen shook her head.

Shit,” Rosa said with a chuckle, pouring some batter onto the griddle. The smell of it cooking already started to comfort Olsen. She was forgetting the chaos that was still going on outside. “Flies want shit,” Rosa went on. “So that’s how you catch them. The protectors here think they can catch flies by swatting at them, and that’s got to be about the dumbest method I’ve ever heard of.”

“What protectors?” Olsen asked, squinting and rubbing her face.

“The cops. Police. Pigs. I don’t know what you Fivers call them. In Six we mostly call them assholes, and that only behind their backs. They’re the big, tall, well-armed, white guys out there, shooting everyone up and causing chaos.”

“Those are protectors?” Olsen sighed.

“You were out there, child.” Rosa flipped a pancake. “You saw what they’re capable of. Did they use the gas?”

“There was some fog or something,” she said.

“You didn’t get caught in it, then?” Rosa smiled. “Good for you. It’s not fun. That’s pepper gas. It sticks to every pore you have and burns like fire when it contacts water. So if you ever get caught in it, do not wash with water. You got that? Use milk. It neutralizes the proteins or something. I don’t know. Again, ask Anna.”

“No,” Olsen said. “It couldn’t have been protectors. They were shooting people in the crowd. Protectors wouldn’t do that.”

“They did do it, child.” Rosa flipped a pancake onto a plate and set it in front of Olsen. “They’re still doing it outside as we speak. Do you want to take another look and see?”

She did not want to do that. “But why?” Olsen groaned.

“Power, child,” Rosa said, pouring another pancake onto the griddle. “Control. Resources. Labor. You name it. All the things greedy people want at their own expense. They’re trying to control us, to make us obsolete, and this is their way of showing us what will happen if we try to fight back against them. And we’ve only just begun, little darling.”

Olsen dribbled some syrup on her pancake and took a big bite. It was rather comforting. “But they’re only turning us against them,” she said.

“Yes, child.” Rosa smiled. “That’s the swatting approach I was talking about earlier. It’s worked for them for a long time because they’ve been able to keep us so afraid we won’t act, but will you let them continue to scare you into inaction after you’ve seen what they did today?” she asked, flipping a pancake on the griddle.

Olsen didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to be anything but afraid of the protectors now. They were huge, and they had guns and burning death gas and futuristic armor. What was she supposed to do to stop that?

Rosa sat at the counter next to her and started in on her pancake without syrup. “I know it’s scary,” she said. “I know they’re scary, too. No doubt about it. So big and white and bully. It’s okay to be afraid of them, but it’s not okay to let that stop you from doing what you want to do. You got that?”

Olsen nodded, stuffing her face. She didn’t want to say anything stupid.

“You’ll be fine, child,” Rosa said, taking a bite. “I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry.”

From the other room came the sound of a door caving in and Olsen jumped, bumping her plate and almost spilling it. Rosa patted her arm and said, “You’ll be fine, child. Just keep on eating and let me do all the talking. You got it?”

Olsen nodded. She probably wouldn’t be able to eat ever again, but she definitely wouldn’t say a word.

Into the kitchen marched a line of protectors with their guns pointed at Olsen and Rosa. The one in front took off her helmet, sneered at them, and said, “You’ve gone and done it now.”

Rosa went on eating her pancake without answer. Olsen was trembling and about to cry.

“Fork down, stand up, and show us where the rest are,” the protector said.

Rosa smiled. She finished the last bite of her pancake, set the fork down, and deliberately wiped her face. The protectors behind the officer that was talking looked like they tensed up. Olsen tensed up, too.

“Now, citizen!” the protector demanded.

“There are no others,” Rosa said. “We in the Human Family share everything we own with our brothers and sisters. If we had more printers, they would have been out there on the streets, providing for those in need.”

“Stand up, citizens!” The protector pointed her gun at Rosa.

Olsen jumped up and put her hands in the air. She hadn’t realized that they were talking to her, too. Rosa slowly stood and carried their plates through a line of protectors to rinse them and place them in the sink.

“Now,” Rosa said, clapping her hands together. “Would you like to see the basement so we can get this over with? I have plenty to do, you know. You saw how many of my Family members were in need outside, such a larger number ever since you and yours came through.”

The protector sneered at Rosa. She looked like she wanted to shoot the old lady right there. Olsen was surprised when the protector didn’t, instead pointing her gun toward the direction of the basement door. “Go on, then,” she said. “Both of you.”

Olsen followed close behind Rosa, with her hands up and the protector’s gun poking her in the back. They went through the gauntlet of protectors, opened the door, and climbed down into a basement that Olsen didn’t recognize. Instead of the stacks of supplies, and four other printers, that were there before, the room was smaller and lined with bunk beds.

“You see,” Rosa said when the three of them were down there alone. “Nothing. Our sleeping quarters. No illegal printers.” She smiled.

“Shut the fuck up, Rosa,” the protector said. “And tell me what you think you’re doing. I don’t have time for all this shit that you’re stirring with all the other feces I already have flung on my plate. Including your previous problem—which still exists.”

“Well, that was at the bequest of your—”

And you failed,” the woman cut her off. “Because you failed, I have to clean up the mess. Now’s not the time for your family bullshit, alright. We have bigger fish to fry in the other worlds.”

Olsen had never seen anger on Rosa’s face before, but she was pretty sure this was it. It came off looking more like steel reserve and disappointment, though. “Now is exactly the time for the Family, child,” Rosa said. “It was your protector who failed, not me. I did my job. And as a matter of fact, I’ll be taking care of yours, too. Tomorrow, we’ll fry your fish for you. Don’t you worry.”

The protector looked unconvinced. “You don’t even know what fish I’m talking about,” she said.

Rosa smiled. “I guess we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see then, won’t we?”

The protector sighed, shaking her head. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she said. “I can’t protect you out there.”

“And here I only need protecting from you,” Rosa said.

“Yeah,” the protector said. “And no one can offer you that. I’ll see you again in a few days,” she added, climbing the stairs. “Don’t put so many of your children in between me and you the next time I come looking, and you won’t have such a big mess to clean up after I’m gone.”

When the door closed, Olsen sighed a big huff of air and finally dropped her hands, flopping onto one of the beds. She was dizzy and lightheaded, like she had been forgetting to breath. She couldn’t believe she had lived through that and she hoped never to meet a protector face-to-face again.

Rosa sat on the bed next to her and patted her back. “It’s okay, child,” she said. “You’re safe here at Home.”

Olsen didn’t know what to say. She just started crying. She couldn’t control herself any longer. Rosa pulled her into a hug and patted her back some more.

“You see, child,” Rosa said. “This is how they treat us. We’re nothing to them. All those casualties upstairs were nothing more than lost property to them—cheap, expendable property at that. We’re worth even less than the robots these days.”

Olsen was still crying. She pushed away from Rosa’s embrace, sniffling. “B—but you said. Y—you said you’d fry—you’d fry—”

Rosa pulled her in again. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she said. “When they’re not being my enemy. We share a mutual problem, and I think I—no—we can handle it more efficiently than our brute force counterparts.”

“We?” Olsen said. Sniffling and wiping her nose with her shirt.

“More specifically you, child,” Rosa said. “You can end these troubles for us once and for all. What do you think?”

“I mean, uh…” Olsen didn’t know what she was capable of that no one else in the Family could do instead. “What would I have to do?”

“Nothing, really,” Rosa said. “You’d have to deliver some food to those in need. Much like you were doing out there today.”

Olsen’s eyes grew wide thinking about another encounter with the protectors.

Rosa chuckled. “Oh, child,” she said. “Except without the protectors this time. Don’t you worry. They wouldn’t react the same way in the lower worlds. The property’s more specialized and less expendable down there. They wouldn’t risk damaging it.”

“Lower worlds?”

“Yes, child,” Rosa said. “You have been reading the pamphlets, haven’t you?”

“I—uh—”

“There are seven of them in total,” Rosa said. “Six now with our worlds combined. And you’ll be going to one of the others to do what has to be done.”

Olsen’s eyes grew wide again but this time not in fear. She was excited by the idea of seeing the look on Sonya’s face when Sonya learned that Olsen had been to another world, that she knew how many other worlds there actually were. She smiled from ear to ear and nodded, unable to come up with words.

“Good, child,” Rosa said. “You won’t regret that decision one bit. Here’s what I need from you.”

#     #     #

< XXXIV. Guy     [Table of Contents]     XXXVI. Tillie >

That’s it for Olsen this week. Find out exactly what Rosa asks of her in the conclusion of An Almost Tangent by picking up a full copy of the novel right here. And thanks for reading along, dear readers. Have a great weekend.

Audio Book on the Horizon

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If you follow me on Facebook, you might have already heard the news, but I wanted to share it with everyone who reads the blog, as well. The news being that I’ve officially selected a narrator for the Murder in “Utopia,, audio book which should be releasing some time in late March or early May–as long as everything sticks to schedule, of course.

Murder In Utopia Cover JPEG

I’m producing the novel through Amazon’s ACX which connects independent authors with independent producers, and the entire process turned out to be rather simple and straight forward. If any of you readers are authors yourselves and you have questions about the process, feel free to ask them here and I’ll answer to the best of my ability.

The audition I chose was from one Julie Hoverson. She’s produced hundreds of audio books through ACX under different pen names (or should I say voice names?), and I’m really excited to hear her final take on the novella. If you’re interested in hearing some of her other work, check out this audio drama podcast she wrote, produced, and starred in from 2008 on until 2012ish called 19 Nocturne Boulevard. From the website:

19 Nocturne Boulevard is an anthology series – half hour stories, ranging from horror to sci fi, from fantasy to dark social commentary and from humor to nothing funny about it…

So if you’re as excited to hear the audio book as I am, sign up for my email newsletter through this link and stay up to date on the release of the Murder in “Utopia,, audio book, and if you can’t wait that long, just pick up an eBook copy of the novella through this link.

Thanks for your time, dear readers. Happy Thursday. Have a good one.

Chapter 34: Guy

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It’s another Saturday here in Louisiana and Guy’s in trouble. He’s been arrested by the protectors and they think he– No, they couldn’t. Could they really think he committed the murder?

Find out what the protectors end up doing with him as we continue the Infinite Limits story with the next chapter in An Almost Tangent. And if you enjoy what you’re reading so far, join the email update list with news on new releases and book deals right here and pick you up a copy of both available novels in the Infinite Limits series right here.

Thanks for joining us, dear readers. Enjoy.

< XXXIII. Jonah     [Table of Contents]     XXXV. Olsen >

XXXIV. Guy

Guy wasn’t there. He couldn’t be there so he wasn’t. He sat perfectly still, and the harsh, blinding white room disappeared around him. In its place what though? What was this? Where was he? His mind had never taken him here before

Guy was standing outside of himself. No, he was standing outside of himselves. As he stepped further and further back so did they, and soon, there were seven of him, all breaking away from each other. He stopped and heard a noise behind him, then he jumped but didn’t turn to see what had produced the noise. The others jumped, too. All of him did. Then they all ran back together and tumbled into one Guy again. Just as they—or he, he wasn’t sure of the difference anymore—tried to stand up, a door opened and broke him out of his trance.

All of a sudden he remembered where he was. He squinted his eyes against the sterile white light, reflecting off the sterile white walls. He looked up in fear at the armor-clad protector standing in front of him. The protector’s actual uniforms looked much different than the costumes he was used to seeing on set. The real deal looked more utilitarian, less showy. The armor wasn’t overly bulky, and the helmets looked light and airy in comparison to the heavy props he was used to. Then there were the guns. Those were definitely bigger, and infinitely more deadly.

“Citizen,” the protector said in a deep, modulated voice, facemask smile teeth glowing neon with every word. “Come with me.”

“I—but—” Guy said.

Now, citizen.”

Guy stood slowly with his hands up. He didn’t put them down until the protector turned and led him out the door and through a hall to a room with a big metal table and chairs on either side.

“Sit, citizen,” the protector said.

“I—but—”

“Sit!”

Guy raised his hands again and slowly moved toward the seat that was closest to him.

Uh uh,” the protector said, pointing a gun at the other seat. “That one.”

Guy nodded and took the other seat. The protector left without another word. This room was just as bright and white as the one he had been waiting in. If anything, it was brighter. Even when he closed his eyes they burned from the heat of the lights. There was a big black mirror across the room from him, and he could see himself sitting behind the table in it. At least they didn’t have him in cuffs. If they did, he would look exactly like every criminal he had ever seen played on TV. But he wasn’t a criminal. He was Guy. He set his mind on getting back into his meditation trance when the door opened and a protector walked in wearing no helmet. Guy shaded his eyes with his hands to try to figure out more, but he still couldn’t make anything out with the bright lights.

“Well, well,” the protector said. “This is a predicament you find yourself in. Isn’t it?”

“I—uh—” Guy didn’t know how to respond. “What have I done?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out. Isn’t it?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Guy said. He blinked water from his eyes, not sure if it was from fear or the brightness of the lights.

“Oh, but haven’t you?” the protector asked. “Dim the lights please.”

The lights dimmed, but they still reflected hot off the white walls. Guy could see the protector’s face now, and she was grinning an evil grin.

“What do you want from me?” Guy asked.

“The truth,” she said. “I want to know everything you know about what happened: How you were involved, who else was, how you killed him, everything.”

“I—but—no!” She couldn’t be serious. What reason would he have to kill Russ Logo? What reason would he have to kill anyone? “I didn’t do anything.”

The woman scoffed. “No?”

Guy shook his head. He could feel tears building up behind his eyes again, and he knew these weren’t from the lights.

“Oh, well, okay then,” the woman said, smiling and nodding. “You’re free to go.” She gave a thumbs up.

“I—uh—really?”

“No, Mr. Rockwell!” She slammed her fists on the table. “Not really. Where do you think you are right now?”

He looked at the black mirror then back at her. “I—uh—”

“You’re in an interrogation room, citizen,” she said, “one short elevator ride away from the holding cell we’ll store you in when we find you guilty. Don’t worry, though. You won’t be staying there long. Not with the kind of insurance Lord Walker had out on the property you destroyed. No, with that much insurance—and your lack of it—I foresee a quick trip to the disposal unit in your future. Maybe they won’t even waste the expense of holding you at all, just send you straight there. There aren’t often vacancies in the cells these days. Now, Mr. Rockwell… Do you understand why it’s so important, so crucial, so…vital for you to tell me everything you know as soon as possible.”

Guy nodded, swallowing his fear. His tears had dried up with the rush of adrenaline his body produced in reaction to the protector’s speech. He wiped his sweaty hands on his thighs and tried to come up with something to say, but he couldn’t think straight. This protector couldn’t be serious. There was no way they could think that Guy had something to do with Russ’s death. How could they? He didn’t.

“Well,” the protector said, tapping her fingers on the table. “Sooner would have been better.”

“But I don’t know anything,” Guy complained. “What am I supposed to say?” His body started to tremble, and he tried to hold tight to his seat to stop it, but it was no use, the chair just shook with him. He had lost control.

“You’re a bit nervous for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” the protector said with a grin. “Now why’s that, Guy?”

“I, well…” His trembling got worse now that she had pointed it out. “Because you’re a—a protector,” he stammered.

“That’s right,” she said. “I’m here to protect you. Why would that make you nervous?”

“No, but you just said—”

“I just warned you of the consequences if you’re found to have some part in this,” she said. “If being the operative word, citizen. Like if you hadn’t done anything wrong, you wouldn’t be so nervous that I could hear your chair rattling.”

Guy jumped up, pushing the chair to the ground with a clatter and making his heart skip a beat.

The protector laughed. “Settle down now, son,” she said. “And get back in that chair.”

Guy picked it up, and the chair felt extra heavy because his arms wouldn’t stop shaking. He felt so weak. He made a lot of noise setting it upright and was relieved at the small comfort of being able to sit on its cold hard surface.

“Now,” the protector said when he had reseated himself. “Tell me what you know.”

I told you,” Guy said, his voice breaking. “I—I know nothing.”

The protector shook her head. “You were there, weren’t you?

Guy nodded.

“And you were the first to notice something wrong. You were the one holding him while he died, and you alerted everyone else to that fact. Do you expect me to believe that this was all a coincidence?”

He was already dead,” Guy blurted out then covered his mouth.

The protector raised an eyebrow. “Go on…”

“W—when I turned him over,” Guy said. “He was already dead. He didn’t die in my arms.”

She nodded. “Still,” she said, “it seems suspicious, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t do this,” Guy said. “I wouldn’t. I loved Russ. I worked on every movie he was ever in. I—we—he was going to give me notes on a script I wrote.” He wished he could take it back as soon as he had said it.

You don’t say,” the protector said. “Russ Logo, the biggest star in the history of entertainment, was going to give a no name extra notes on his script. Was this some kind of charity?”

Guy’s cheeks flushed. He was angry and embarrassed at the same time. Who was this cop to talk to him about art? Who was she to say that he wasn’t good enough to work with Russ Logo? She didn’t know anything about writing, or movies, or anything in the world that mattered. “Yes,” he said. “That’s right.”

“It was charity?” The protector looked confused.

“I—wha—no,” Guy said, shaking his head. “It wasn’t.”

“Then what?”

“I—because…”

“You know what I think, Rockwell,” the protector said. “I think you’re lying. I think he denied your request for help, and that’s why you killed him. Isn’t it?”

“I—never—no, but—”

No more buts, Rockwell. Tell us what happened!’

“He wasn’t giving me notes, okay.” Guy sighed. He couldn’t keep that lie up any longer. It was too unbelievable. “But I wouldn’t kill him for that. That’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how to kill a person. I—I just couldn’t do it. It’s absurd.”

“Sure, Rockwell.” The protector scoffed. “That’s what you’d like us to believe. But I’m not buying your stupid routine. You got that?”

“I—but—”

She slammed both hands on the table and pushed herself up from the chair. “I said, you got that?”

Guy nodded. He didn’t know if he wanted to hit her, run away and try to escape, or tremble in his seat, pissing himself.

“Good,” she said. “We’ll be watching you, Rockwell. You can count on that.” She left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Guy took a deep breath. The room spun around him. She really thought that he had something to do with Russ’s death. The protectors thought he was a suspect in Russ’s murder. His stomach gurgled like it wanted to expel all of its contents. Guy felt like passing out.

The door swung open and two protectors marched in. One pointed a gun at Guy and said, “Stand up, citizen. Over here.”

Guy put his hands up and slowly crept toward the protector.

“Stay put,” the protector said, pushing the gun closer as if Guy didn’t know it was there. The second protector bent down and strapped something heavy around Guy’s ankle.

“There we are, citizen,” the first said. “Now we’ll have our eyes on you at all times. Follow us.”

They marched him down a long hall to a big elevator and rode with him back to the entrance where they had arrested him. “Don’t forget,” the protector said, pushing Guy into the street. “We’re watching you.” The doors slid closed.

Guy looked around. This was his street alright, but it looked different. Where before all the close set balconies and squished together buildings were a comforting, warm embrace, now they seemed cold, hard, and distant. It was light out. He didn’t remember how long he had been gone for or if he had slept even. He thought that maybe the whole thing was a dream and he would wake up soon, warm and comfortable in his bed. But no matter how many times he blinked or tried to pinch himself, he just wouldn’t wake up.

He didn’t want to climb up to his tiny apartment and be alone right now. He didn’t think he could handle that. He still wasn’t entirely sure if he was insane, and he needed some other human to tell him the truth. He sighed and stepped back into the elevator to tell it to bring him to the closest stop to Indywood.

He hoped his crew would be there. He almost started trembling again in anticipation as he opened the bar doors, but when he saw what was behind them, his jaw dropped. Every single patron was dressed from head to toe in black. The bar’s decorations had been changed from their normal colorful festivity to a drab black motif, with only black and white movies playing on the screens. He felt like he had walked into a funeral. Even the music playing seemed dark and sad. But to his relief, most of the crew was sitting at their normal tables so Guy walked over and waved. “Uh, hey,” he said.

“Oh, Fortuna.” Jen gasped, standing from the couch and hugging him. “I was so worried about you.”

Guy blushed. “I—uh—”

“Here, take a seat,” she said, pulling him down to the couch. “Scoot over, Emir. Let him in.”

They shuffled around to let Guy onto the couch. Cohen looked him up and down. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Shit, Cohen.” Jen shot him a look. “I told you the protectors took him. What do you mean where has he been?”

“Yeah, well.” Cohen sneered. “Why’d they take you, then? Huh? We were expecting our sheets this morning, Guy. We’re pretty much ready to shoot everything. All we need’s the script.”

“We don’t have every—” Laura started.

We’re ready.” Cohen cut her off.

“Well, it wasn’t really my choice to be arrested,” Guy said.

“You were arrested!” Emily said.

“I told you!” Jen said.

“Is that why you aren’t wearing black?” Emir asked.

Guy looked down at himself. He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing on what was apparently yesterday. “Why are you all wearing black?” he asked.

Uh, doi,” Emily said.

Emir scoffed.

“Because of Russ,” Jen said. “Like you said.”

Guy rubbed his face with his hands. Of course. The news must have gotten out by now. They were mourning Russ’s death. That’s why the entire bar was dressed in black, too. Guy had told his crew about it the day before, and they didn’t believe him then, but now that everyone knew the truth, they had no choice but to advertise their melancholy, wearing it on their sleeves and shirts and dresses and shoes—even the bar’s decorations and the movies on the projector screens. He wasn’t crazy after all. He felt an itch on his leg and went to scratch it, but abruptly stopped when he felt the weight on his ankle and remembered what it was.

“So,” Jen said, patting him on the back. “Tell us. What happened?”

“I, uh, well…”

“Go on,” Cohen said. “We’re not getting anything done until we get past this, so you might as well spit it out now.”

“Well,” Guy said, “they questioned me about what happened. Since he died in my arms and all…”

“So it was true,” Emir said, a proud look on his face.

No way,” Emily said. “Really?”

“I was there,” Jen said. “They stole Guy right off his front steps and disappeared through the elevator. I was terrified. I thought they were going to kill me with their creepy voices and glowing teeth.”

Cohen laughed. “So what?” he asked. “They just asked you a few questions and let you go?”

The whole crew looked on at Guy expectantly. He relished the attention and paused for effect. “Well, not just that,” he said. He lifted his foot onto the table and pulled up his pants leg so they could all see his new fashion statement. “They said they were watching me, too,” he said with a shit-eating grin on his face.

The group let out a collective gasp.

Bad ass,” Emir said.

Fortuna,” Emily said.

Holy shit,” Laura said.

You can’t be serious,” Cohen said.

Jen gasped.

Steve came back from the bar with a drink in hand and said, “What? What happened, y’all? What did I miss?”

And Guy just nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Well I told y’all what had happened and you didn’t believe me. Remember?”

They all tried to avoid his gaze, except for Steve who was still trying to figure out what he had missed and Laura who was filling him in.

“Well, I had nothing to do with it,” Guy went on. “So this ought to be off my ankle in no time.”

Laura scoffed.

“What?” Guy asked her.

“Oh, nothing,” she said, waving it away.

“Come on,” Cohen said. “Share it with the crew.”

“Well, it’s just—you’ve never had a run in with the protectors before, have you?” Laura said.

Everyone looked at him, and Guy shook his head.

“Yeah, well,” she said, “that thing won’t be as easy to get off you ankle as you think it will be. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But I didn’t even do anything,” Guy complained. “They can’t just tag me like an animal whenever they want to.”

Emily scoffed, taking a drink.

“Pretty much,” Laura said, sipping hers, too.

“Well, we’ll see about tha—”

Alright, alright,” Cohen said, waving his hands to shut everyone up. Some small disparate conversations had started among the crew. “Enough. You see? That’s why I didn’t want to bring this up. We’ll be on it forever. It’s time we get on to the real business that brought us here.”

“Go on, then,” Emir said, losing interest.

“First,” Cohen went on, “and I hate to bring it back to you again already, but Guy, come on man, tell us, is the script finished yet?”

“Well, I didn’t really have time to get to the edits, did I?” Guy said. “I came straight here from prison.”

“No, and we didn’t get your new pages either,” Cohen said. “But am I to take that to mean the script is not finished?”

Guy wanted to slap the smug grin of his face. He hated that patronizing tone so much. “Yes, Cohen,” he said in the sweetest voice he could muster. “When I say I have more edits to do, that means the script’s not done yet.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” Cohen said, ignoring Guy’s tone. “Because I’m gonna need you to drop that script and work on a higher priority piece right away.”

“I—what?” Guy said. The rest of the crew complained with him. What could be higher priority than the project which all of them had been devoting their every free hour to for months now? “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No,” Cohen said, grinning wider. “I’m more serious than I’ve ever been.”

“What the fuck, Cohen?” Emir demanded. “What could be more important than this script?”

This script,” Cohen said, holding up a packet of papers. “There are only a few here so ya’ll’ll have to share for now.” He handed one to Guy then a couple to a few of the others. Jen read Guy’s over his shoulder as he flipped through it so he went a little slower than he normally would have.

“This is crap,” Guy said when he had flipped to the end and passed it to Jen so she could get a closer look.

“That’s where you come in,” Cohen said. “You have to make it workable.”

“But why?” Emir huffed, throwing his copy on the table. Emily smacked him, picked it up, and went on reading.

“Because this is how we get the equipment we need to make our project look like it’s done by professionals and not children,” Cohen said. “That’s why. Laura, you think you could make our shots cleaner with a better camera and some new lenses?”

“I—uh—of course,” she said. “But—”

“What about mics, lights, dollies, and tracks?”

Laura nodded.

“Steve, if you could have anything in the world, cost not a factor, could you solve that owner fatness issue? Could you make them look really, really, like, disgustingly alien fat?”

“Oh, of course,” Steve said, waving a hand at Cohen. “No problem. But cost is a factor, dear.”

“Not anymore it isn’t,” Cohen said. “Not if we film this script first. Then we can each write out a wish list containing anything we want and have every little bit of it fulfilled.” He put his smug grin back on and crossed his arms, full of himself.

No one said anything. They didn’t know how to answer. Guy did, though. He didn’t believe Cohen for one minute. “Yeah, right,” he said.

“Yeah, Guy,” Cohen said. “That is right.”

“But how?” Emir asked.

“Let’s just say I found an investor. They offered unlimited printer access in exchange for one small script.”

“Who?” Emily asked.

“You wouldn’t know ‘em,” Cohen said.

“We wouldn’t know someone with a 3D printer?” Jen asked.

“I don’t like it,” Laura said.

Look,” Cohen said, “this is going to bring our project to the next level, y’all. Now, I know how much time and effort y’all have been putting into this because I’ve been there every step of the way with you, and I know it seems ridiculous to veer off course just now, when we seem so close to our hard sought destination, but a slight detour now will save us more time and effort in the end. It’ll save us money and, most importantly, respect. I know it seems like a gamble to you, but that’s because y’all haven’t met the investor. If you had, you would be as confident as I am in this thing, and you, Guy, would be hard at work fixing that script right now so we can bring her something we can all work with.”

“Why don’t we just meet her then?” Guy asked. “If that would change all of our minds, I mean.”

The rest of the crew seemed to agree.

“That’s the rub,” Cohen said. “For in that meeting what things may come? Our inertia might change her mind, then where would we be? Back where we started from—with extra time wasted. No, that’s the worst course of all. For now, you have to trust me as your director. You have to trust my judgement. And I swear before Fortuna that you will not be disappointed.”

Emir shrugged. “I’m in,” he said. “Whatever.”

“Me, too,” Emily said, throwing her copy on the table. “I can see something to work with in there. I just want to act.”

“I don’t know,” Laura said. “I need more time to read it before I decide.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Jen said, still flipping through her copy.

“That’s alright,” Cohen said. “Guy still needs to come up with his revisions before we know what we’re really working with, anyway. What about you, Steve?”

Steve shrugged. “You give me a costume to design, and I’ll make it.”

“Well, then,” Cohen said with a smile. “Guy. What about you?”

Guy didn’t want to do this. He was a writer, not an editor. The prospect of working on someone else’s project was already unappealing enough, and the tripe that he had skimmed through only made it worse. But he couldn’t let his crew down, either. Without them he’d be a sad, lonely extra, sitting by himself in his room, with only the imaginary friends in his head to keep him company. He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can make this workable,” he said.

“I believe in you,” Cohen said.

Guy scoffed. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Still,” Cohen said. “I think you can do it.”

“I don’t know,” Guy said, standing up. “And I’m not deciding until I read it in full. I’ll let you know when I do.” He stomped out of the bar, noticing that he hadn’t brought a script with him when he was only halfway outside, but not stopping until he was in the fresh air anyway.

He took a deep breath. That was not a productive way to end the conversation, but Cohen didn’t care what the words actually said, what the film actually meant in the end. All he cared about was getting another director credit that he could slap on his resume. Most of the rest of them didn’t care, either. They were all the same, they just wanted to work. They didn’t realize it was different when you were a writer. Putting your name on something meant it represented your views, and Guy didn’t think that this script was speaking for him. He didn’t want to go back in for a copy because of that, so he decided he would just have to call Jen to get it later. He was about to head to the elevator when she came out waving one for him anyway. “Guy, wait,” she said.

Guy chuckled. “I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.

“Yeah, well, you better not be,” she said, hitting him with the script. “We need you.”

Guy blushed. It was nice to know that at least one member of the crew thought that was true. “Not really,” he said. “You already have a script.”

“Yeah, but you said it sucks.”

“It does,” Guy said. “But what do you think?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I don’t read that fast. And I’m not a writer anyway. What does my opinion matter?”

“But you’re going to be working on the project,” Guy said. “You’re putting your time and effort into it. Don’t you think it would be a waste of your time if it wasn’t good?”

“Not if I’m getting paid well enough.” Jen smiled.

“But we’re not getting paid at all.”

“We are, though, silly.” She slapped his arm. “Cohen said we’d get to fill out a wish list. I’m asking for a new battle station.”

“But do you think that’s worth it? I mean, here. Look at this.” He grabbed the script out of her hand and flipped to a particularly horrible quote he remembered from his skim through. “Here it is: Assembly Worker—and that’s her name, mind you—Assembly Worker slip, snap, clicks at a line. Enter Android Thief—again a name. This is my job. How will my human children eat?—she literally says human children for Fortuna’s sake—then Android thief pushes Assembly Worker out of the way and slip, snap, clicks in her place, saying. I am a robot. I don’t care. And that’s all the robot ever says throughout the entire script, okay. I am a robot. I don’t care. I mean, that’s how ridiculous this shit is.” He looked at her, pointing at the spot in the script, and when she didn’t respond, he said, “That’s shit. I mean, the names alone are a red flag. The dialogue is stereotypical and stilted. The imagery is less than subtle.” He chuckled to himself. “This is pure garbage.”

“I don’t know,” Jen said. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“It wasn’t that bad?” Guy scoffed. “Do you even know what this thing is saying? That was the most obvious scene I could pick out.”

Jen looked offended now. Like she didn’t want to be there talking to Guy anymore. “What does it matter anyway?” she asked. “A job’s a job.”

“But this isn’t just a job, Jen. Who do you think’s going to watch this crap? What’s the point in working on something so ridiculous? I mean, robots stealing jobs? That was maybe topical like a hundred and fifty years ago, if then. It’s Luddite nonsense, and I don’t understand how anyone who has access to a printer could still be promoting such utter horse shit.”

“Guy, settle down.” Jen sighed. “You’re too worked up about this. It’s not that big of a deal, okay. It’s just a job.”

“No, but—”

No,” Jen stopped him. “I know you have your ideals, and you like to stick to them, but now’s not the time, okay. Wait—I know. Just listen. You wrote the script we really care about. Those are you’re words, Guy. Most of the rest of the crew trusts Cohen to—I know, but listen—most of them trust him to be a good judge of character, and I do, too, Guy. Even if their message is ignorant, I trust that this investor’s payment will be true. And if it is, we’ll be so much more capable when we get to finally do your script that it’ll be seen by more people because of it. Don’t you want your script to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, Guy?”

“Well, yeah, but—” Guy started.

But nothing,” Jen said. “Do you trust me, Guy?”

He blushed again. “I—of course—but—”

“Then do it for me,” she said. “And the rest of the crew. Fuck Cohen. I know you can polish this turd up enough to make it easier on the rest of us, then we can get to the real work of putting your script into production, the job we all really want to do. What do you say?”

“Uh, yeah, well, I guess, but—”

“Well, it’s settled then.” She turned him toward the elevator and patted him on the butt. “Get to it,” she said. “We can’t wait to hear your edits.”

#     #     #

< XXXIII. Jonah     [Table of Contents]     XXXV. Olsen >

That’s it for this Saturday, dear readers. Again, thank for joining us, and don’t forget to pick up the full novel and sign up for the email update list in order to support my future writing projects, many of which are already well under way. Have a great weekend.

Chapter 33: Jonah

Standard

Another Saturday brings us another chapter in the Infinite Limits tetralogy. Jonah just wanted to help Ansel where his dad couldn’t and now look where that got them. To find out what kind of punishment he and his partner are going to face for their attempts at protection, continue reading the story right here, right now, or think about picking up a full copy of the novel right through this link. And if you want to keep up to date on new releases and deals on books, don’t forget to join my email update list right here.

Thanks for joining us, dear readers. Enjoy this week’s chapter.

< XXXII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XXXIV. Guy >

XXXIII. Jonah

They sat side-by-side in the bright white room, trying not to look at each other. Jonah had never been more scared in his life. Not when he first got shot in a standoff. Not that night they had stayed up late watching horror films and his mom came in the room to scare them. Not even standing up to Stine in the locker room at the academy. But this? He couldn’t handle this.

He wiped his hands on his jeans and looked around the room, breathing heavily. Liz moved like she was going to comfort him then stopped herself. They both knew they were being watched, judged, made to wait and worry. School had taught them exactly the process they were being put through, but that didn’t make it any less terrifying for Jonah. He was so scared he didn’t even want to look over at Liz to see if she was as afraid as he was.

The room was tiny. There were four metal stools along the back wall—two of which they occupied—and a door across from them. That was it. That and the white, white walls, floor, and ceiling. The lights were bright enough to reflect back off everything and give him a headache. His whole body started to sweat, not just his hands.

He couldn’t take it any longer. He broke. “Is it hot in here?” he asked, fanning himself by pulling on his shirt over and over. “I can’t handle this.”

Shhhh.” The sound of her shush told Jonah that Liz was afraid, too.

Jonah, however, decided that he had already started talking, so why not continue? It would help ease his nerves, and it might help calm Liz a little, too. “You know,” he said. “They make it hot in here so we’re uncomfortable. That’s why it’s so bright, too.”

Shut. Up!” Liz demanded. Apparently his talking didn’t calm her.

That wasn’t going to stop Jonah, though. “Yeah, well,” he said. “I don’t care if they are listening. I don’t think them knowing that I think it’s—”

The door swung open and in stomped a fully clad protector. “You,” it said, pointing at Liz. “Come.” Liz jumped up and followed the protector out, and the door slammed closed behind them.

Great,” Jonah said out loud to the empty room. “More waiting. There’s nothing I love more than waiting alone in a hot bright room.” He chuckled to himself and noticed the lights getting brighter. The reflections off the shiny floor were too bright to look at so he squinted his eyes. A bead of sweat rolled down his eyebrow. He wiped it away with a sigh.

Woof,” he said. “Nothing like a good sauna.”

The door swung open, and this time, the protector didn’t ask him for compliance. It lifted Jonah up by the arm—taking no notice of his struggles—and carried him out through a set of empty halls to open a door and throw him inside.

Jonah stood and brushed himself off. “Thanks,” he said to the door which had already been slammed shut.

“You’re welcome,” a voice said behind him.

He turned to see a big desk, and behind it, a wide window, looking out onto a snowy mountainscape. Sitting at the desk was a woman in protector dress uniform with her arms crossed on the table. “Please take a seat,” she said, indicating the stools across the desk. They looked too small even for Jonah, and he was just a kid.

“I think I’ll stand,” he said.

“That’s an order, son,” the protector said. “Do you see this?” She turned to show the rank insignia on her arm, but Jonah should have known by her collar that she was a Captain. He was getting too cocky too soon, just like his dad had done, and if he wasn’t careful, he might never be a protector himself.

“Yes, sir,” he said, taking the short stool. He had to sit up as straight as he could to see the Captain over the desk.

“Sir, yes, sir,” the Captain said.

Sir, yes, sir,” Jonah repeated.

“And just because you’re not a protector yet doesn’t mean I’m not your superior,” the Captain said. “Every citizen of Outland is outranked by every protector. You got that?”

Jonah couldn’t help but notice the “yet” in what she had said and take some hope as to what it meant for his future. “Sir, yes, sir,” he said.

“Good,” the Captain said. “Now, Jonah—that is your name, isn’t it, citizen?”

“Jonah Pardy, sir.”

“Yes… Pardy.” The Captain smiled. “As I suspected. Now tell me: What were you doing with this…Sixer girl in our transport bay?”

Jonah shrunk down into his seat so the Captain couldn’t see his face through the desk. His heart beat faster. He heard a mechanical whirring as the Captain’s seat raised up so she could see him.

“Pardy,” she said. “There’s no hiding from this. Tell me what you were doing, or we find out the hard way. You do know what the hard way is, don’t you?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

“Well?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Well, sir…” Jonah hesitated. What was the point of lying? They had already gotten Ansel, and they would be able to get any information out of her that they wanted. Then he remembered Liz and his promise to her. He was so stupid. Of course she was scared in there. Hopefully he could help her just a little bit. “First of all,” he said. “Liz, my partner, she had nothing to do with it, okay. I made her come. She said it was a stupid idea.”

The Captain laughed. “She was right about that. So, what? You dragged her out there with your tiny little hands?”

Jonah blushed. “Well… No, sir. But by going, I made her go. She’s too loyal to let her partner go on a mission alone.”

“As every protector should be,” the Captain said. “But why did you want to do it?”

Now Jonah didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to say anything about his dad and lead him into any more trouble than he had already had to deal with, but he had to come up with something. They would get some explanation out of Jonah, one way or another. He ended up falling back on his reliable, go to excuse. “I wanted to protect her.”

The Captain smiled. “Just like your father,” she said. Jonah could tell she meant more than she said by the sound of her voice. “Hopefully not just, though,” she added.

Jonah didn’t answer. The Captain obviously knew who his dad was so he didn’t have to tell her. Hopefully he wouldn’t have to pay for his dad’s sins, though.

“You know why he was discharged, don’t you,” the Captain said.

Jonah shook his head. “Sir, no, sir,” he said. “I was ordered not to question him about it, sir.”

“And you expect me to believe that you follow orders, Pardy? Why would you be sitting in front of me right now if you followed orders?”

“I had to protect her, sir,” Jonah said. “That’s my duty, si—”

“It’s your duty to uphold the protector’s tenets, Tiny Pardy. What are they?”

Property, liberty, life, sir,” Jonah recited.

“Very good,” the Captain said. “And how can you protect property when you’re invading ours, Pardy? Now, I don’t want you to end up like your father. You hear me?”

Jonah blushed.

“It was the same girl that got him fired, too, you know,” the Captain said. “It’s a bit suspicious, you showing up with her in particular. As if your father’s an accomplice.”

“He doesn’t know I’m here, sir,” Jonah said. “He thinks I’m in bed, sir. You can—”

“Oh, we’ll see,” the Captain said. “Don’t you worry. He’s already been contacted and given all the details of what you and your little girlfriend have been up to tonight.”

Jonah swallowed.

“But like I said,” the Captain went on. “I don’t want you going down the same path your father did. I can see a bright future for you, son. Do you know that?”

Jonah didn’t trust her quite yet, but he wanted to hear about this bright future of his. He sat up straighter in his seat.

“For any of that to come true, though, you’re going to have to start toeing the line of decency. But I don’t think we’ll see any more little rebellions out of you in the future. What do you think, Pardy?”

Jonah shook his head. “No, sir,” he said.

“You know, I had high hopes for your father, too,” the Captain said. “I thought he would surpass even me in the ranks. But he failed. He went by the books until he killed that little girl’s mother, then he couldn’t handle his duties anymore.”

Jonah tried not to gasp, but the Captain could see his surprise.

“He didn’t tell you then,” she said with a smile. “No, he probably wouldn’t have. He did more than that, too, but that much is classified. If you want to know that, you’ll have to ask him yourself—or work up the ranks until you gain the proper clearance. But you’ve wasted enough of my time already, son. Get out of my sight. And don’t let me catch you breaking another regulation, or you’ll be punished far worse than you already have been. Do you understand me?”

Jonah nodded. “Sir, yes, sir,” he said. “Is that all, sir?”

“Yes, Pardy. Now git.” She turned around in her chair to look out the window. “And close the door on your way out. If you forget that…” She trailed off as if he had already left.

Jonah crept out of the room and closed the door as quietly as he could behind him. He looked up to find the hall empty and realized he had no idea how to get out of this place. He went down the hall, checking each door he passed, but none of them were open or unlocked. A few had windows, but even if he jumped, he wasn’t tall enough to see into them. He was doing just that—jumping up to try and see through one of the tall windows—when a door opened behind him. He turned around quick, thinking of an excuse, and breathed a deep sigh of relief when it was only Liz.

Amaru,” he said. “You spooked me.”

Her face was red and puffy. It looked like she had been crying. She brushed past him and hurried down the hall to call the elevator at the end of it—where it always was in long halls like this one. Jonah ran to catch up and just made it inside before the doors closed and the elevator fell into motion.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Liz sniffed and looked away from him to wipe her nose. “Of course I’m not alright!” she snapped. “We were just arrested. That’s not an alright thing to happen.”

“Oh, no, well… I mean, of course.” That was stupid, but what was he supposed to say? He did all he could do in there. He had tried to take the blame, but the Captain saw straight through him. Nothing else was in his power.

“Are you alright?” she asked. The elevator doors opened and she stomped out before he could answer.

Jonah ran to catch up with her. “Liz, wait,” he called, but she didn’t stop. “I’m sorry,” he said, trailing along beside her. “I told her I made you do it. I tried t—”

I told you that wouldn’t matter,” she said. “But you had to go on this stupid mission and drag me along anyway. You know what my punishment is? Six demerits, Jonah. Six. With no chance of rehabilitation.”

Jonah stopped in his tracks. Six demerits with no working them off. That was a sentence to living on a knife’s edge for the rest of the Junior Academy, and Liz still had so many years ahead of her. It seemed cruel and unusual as a punishment, especially considering that Jonah himself—after admitting to all the blame—only received a stern warning.

Liz had kept walking while he thought about it so Jonah had to run to catch up again. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said when he did. “Six with no parole? That’s harsh.”

Liz stopped and stared at him. Her face was red again but not from crying this time. It was anger in her eyes. “Why?” she asked. “What sentence did you get?”

Sentence? She was acting like she had a trial. Jonah didn’t remember getting any sentence. He only remembered getting a lecture and a warning. It was more like talking to his mom than facing Court Martial.

“Well…” she said.

“Well,” he said, “the Captain never really gave me a sentence.”

Liz looked like she didn’t know whether to hit him or ask more questions. She stomped her foot and huffed and said, “Captain?” through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, well,” Jonah said. “That’s where they took me—uh, after they tried to blind me with light and heat me out,” he added to try make it seem like he had suffered, too.

“They didn’t give you a sentence. They took you to the Captain. Next you’re going to tell me they made you a protector, too.”

“Well…” Jonah smiled.

She hit him on the arm and started walking again. “That I won’t believe. I can barely believe that they didn’t punish you. Now why do you think that is, Jonah Pardy?”

“I don’t know.” Jonah shrugged. “Because of my boyish charms and the honor I showed in trying to take the fall for you?”

Liz stopped. “Ugh. Take the fall for yourself, you mean,” she said, walking again—and a little faster.

“Well, it’s not my fault,” Jonah said. “Do you want me to go back and ask for a punishment? Make sure she didn’t forget? Would that make you feel better?”

“Stop being so dense,” Liz said, stopping and grabbing his arm to stop him, too. “This is bad even for you. Let me walk you through it. I got the most severe punishment they could lay down on a first time offender. You got a warning from a Captain, the least harsh punishment I’ve ever heard of. If anything, it was an honor to meet her face-to-face, and now she knows your name when you get out of the Academy.”

“Yeah, for breaking the law,” Jonah said. “What’s your point?”

“That’s even more evidence,” she said with a scoff. “Don’t you see?”

Jonah shook his head.

“I bet she even asked you about your father, too,” Liz said. “Didn’t she?”

“How could you know that?”

“It’s simple.” She smiled. “First—and most obviously—it was Ansel who we were bringing in there.”

Jonah remembered Ansel. He hadn’t even thought about what had happened to her since they had gotten caught. He wondered now where she was and what they were doing to her. “Yeah,” he said. “So what?”

“So she’s the one who your dad got fired trying to protect. You don’t think the Captain would see some connection there?”

Jonah wanted to hit himself in the head. He had been dense. He hadn’t been taking this whole thing seriously. It was just another game to him, another standoff like at the end of every school day. But now he was remembering that this was way more important than school, this was real life.

And,” Liz said, obviously aware of the fact that she had made Jonah realize how dumb he had been. “That’s likely why she gave you such a lenient—or should I say non-existent?—punishment compared to mine.”

“But why?” Jonah said. “Wouldn’t that call for more punishment, not less? Oh, he’s breaking the law trying to protect the same Sixer his father got sacked protecting, let’s be lenient on the poor kid. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You don’t have to be an ass,” Liz said. “Did she say anything to you? Did she mention your dad?”

“Well, uh…” Of course she did, but Jonah wasn’t ready to bring up the whole part about his dad murdering Ansel’s parents just yet. So he chose to play it stupid instead. “Yeah, I think so,” he said.

You think so?” She tried to hit him, but he dodged it. “You were talking to the Captain, and you think she mentioned your dad. You weren’t even paying attention! Maybe you did get demerits but you just don’t remember.”

“No,” he said. “I definitely didn’t get demerits. And she did mention my dad, but I still don’t understand why she wouldn’t punish me.”

“I’m not entirely sure, either,” Liz said. “But it has something to do with your dad and that girl. Maybe she’s watching you. Or maybe she wants to hold it over your head. But all I know is I can’t help you find out.”

She started to walk away, but Jonah stopped her. “What?” he complained. “C’mon. We’re partners. You can’t just di—”

Six demerits, Jonah. You know what that means. I can’t get another one.”

“Yeah, but…” He couldn’t argue with that. “Partners.”

“You’d ask your partner to risk that? To risk everything?”

“What? No. I wouldn’t ask that. I’m not asking you to do anything illegal. Just come help me ask my dad about it. That’s all. You can’t get a demerit for that, can you?”

“With your dad, I don’t know.” Liz grinned.

“Yeah, well, you’re right about that.” Jonah smiled.

“I can’t believe we just did that, Jonah.”

“I can’t believe we got caught.”

I can. But not that you weren’t punished. Now let’s go find out why. I’ll race you!”

They sprinted the short distance left to Jonah’s house. It wasn’t until they burst through the door, yelling, “Daaaad, I’m hoooome!” and, “Mr. Paaaardy!” simultaneously that they both realized it was late at night—or early in the morning maybe—and Jonah’s dad was probably sleeping. He wasn’t, though, luckily. He called in from the kitchen, “Hoooome, I’m daaaad!” and came out carrying a tray full of random foods to greet them.

“Come, come,” he said, leading them to the living room and setting the tray on the coffee table. “Sit down. I’m sure you’re both exhausted.”

Liz seemed happy to have someone to finally commiserate with. She hopped up onto the couch and grabbed a cookie and a glass of milk then set to dunking the cookie in the milk and chewing the soggy bits. Jonah joined her on the couch, but he didn’t eat anything. He wanted to know now more than ever why exactly his dad had been discharged.

“So,” his dad said, sitting on a chair across from them. “I got a call that said you two had an interesting night.”

Ugh.” Liz sighed and plucked another cookie off the tray. “Some of us more interesting than others,” she said.

“Tell me,” his dad said. “I want to know everything.”

“Dad, did you kill someone?” Jonah blurted out. He didn’t know where it came from.

Liz dropped her cookie in her cup of milk with a splash, and Jonah’s dad just stared at Jonah for a second. “Where did you hear that?” he asked.

“I talked to the Captain. She—”

“You talked to Captain Mondragon directly?” his dad asked.

“I—well—she didn’t even give me her name. But she mentioned something about—”

“You shouldn’t have found out that way,” his dad said, shaking his head and lowering his eyes.

Liz dropped the cookie she had just fished out back into the milk again.

Jonah scoffed. “What? So it’s true? You killed Ansel’s mom.”

This time Liz choked on the cookie. “Achcha cha chasorry,” she said, still trying to cough it up. “Sorry.”

“I thought she had a gun,” his dad said. “I was on the streets of Six, in plain clothes, with no body armor. My partner had just been shot. I chased the suspect away from the scene of the crime, and she made a move. So I made a move back. I reacted. That’s what a protector’s supposed to do, son. Or are they teaching you something different in the Junior Academy these days?”

Liz shook her head, wide eyed and in shock.

Jonah couldn’t hide his sneer. How could his dad talk to him like this when his dad was the one admitting to killing Ansel’s mom? “You thought she had a gun,” Jonah said.

His dad tried to look away from them. “She didn’t, though,” he said, shaking his head.

Liz put down her milk and cookies to sit on the arm of Jonah’s dad’s chair and pat his back. Jonah looked away. He didn’t want to see his dad crying.

“I made a mistake.” His dad coughed and straightened up. He guided Liz back to her seat. “And you’re the only people who know. Now you see why I wanted to protect Ansel, why I had to protect her. I had to make up for that mistake.”

“It was the right thing to do,” Liz said.

“But what did you do?” Jonah asked. “They wouldn’t fire you for killing a guilty Sixer. I know that much.”

His dad looked away again. “No,” he said. “That’s not why I was discharged. It was the way I went about trying to protect her.”

“What was it?” Liz asked.

“Well… I…”

Dad,” Jonah said. “Liz got six demerits, no parole, and I didn’t get any punishment at all today because the Captain knew I was your son. What did you do?”

Liz looked like she wanted to yell at Jonah, but she didn’t want to interrupt the conversation at the same time. Jonah’s dad looked at his lap then shook his head and looked at Jonah to say, “I shot an owner.”

Liz’s jaw dropped. She looked like she was going to hyperventilate. She was looking this way and that, as if, by saying what he had done, Jonah’s dad had called protectors to come arrest them all.

“You did what?” Jonah asked, shocked.

“I did what I thought was in her best interest.” his dad said. “In your best interest, really. I did this all for you, after all.”

“I never asked you to do anything for me,” Jonah said.

“You didn’t have to ask,” his dad said. “I did it for you because I love you and I thought it was what was best for you.”

“Killing an owner was best for me?” Jonah scoffed. “I don’t see how it could be.”

“That’s because it was a stupid mistake,” his dad said. “We all make stupid mistakes. We’re just human. My stupid mistake happened to be bigger than most people’s. That’s all.”

Both of yours,” Jonah said. “If you hadn’t killed Ansel’s mom, you would never have had a reason to shoot that owner.”

His dad looked hurt. “I know I was wrong. What can I do to change that now, though?”

Liz looked at Jonah and nudged him. She mouthed, “Go on.”

“Dad,” he said. Jonah could let him off the hook and try to help his father through this, sure, but one of them was supposed to be an adult, and it wasn’t Jonah. “You have to do something. Tonight, we…” He looked away. “Ansel was with us when we were arrested. They took her, too.”

“I know, son,” his dad said. “But there’s nothing we can do about that. I had to realize that was true of her father before I was free to throw my life away.”

“No!” Jonah complained. “Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me that I can’t. I’m responsible for this. If it wasn’t for me, Liz never would have gotten her demerits and Ansel never would have been taken. I need to do something to make up for that.”

“You can’t, boy!” his dad snapped.

Liz slowly set her cookies and milk on the table and backed deeper into the couch, embarrassed. Jonah just stared at his dad, wide-eyed. His dad hadn’t yelled at Jonah since before he left for the Academy, and the red hot anger in his face was a little frightening.

“Nothing you can do is going to change the fact that the girl was taken,” his dad said. “Nothing will change what they do to her now that they have her. Not one thing. And you can’t help Liz work off her demerits, either. So the best thing you can do to make it up to her is to leave this thing alone and go about your schooling with your head down, making sure your partner doesn’t get dishonorably discharged before she even has a chance to enlist.” He took a deep breath.

Jonah shook his head. “That’s not true,” he said under his breath.

“What was that?” his dad asked.

“I said, just because you couldn’t think of anything better than shooting an owner, doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“It does mean that,” his dad said. “And even if there was something you could do, I would order you not to do it. In fact, I am ordering you. Jonah, I order you to get any idea you have of saving that girl out of your mind and focus on becoming a protector before you go and throw your life away like I did.”

“No!” Jonah stood from the couch. “You can’t even say her name.”

Ansel,” his dad said with a cold expression on his face.

“It’s your fault she’s an orphan,” Jonah said. “It’s your fault the protectors have her now. You told me to ignore the orders that are stupid so I’m doing just that.” He turned and stormed out of the house.

“I order you to come back right this moment,” his dad yelled after him, but Jonah ignored it, slamming the door shut behind him. He sat down on the stoop, breathing heavily and furious.

His dad was being impossible. First he tells Jonah to ignore orders, everything he’s been taught is a red herring lie, then he tries to give Jonah orders with the next breath. He can have it one way or the other, and he didn’t get to decide anymore. Jonah did. There had to be something he could do to help save Ansel, no matter what his dad said.

The door opened and closed behind him, and Liz slapped the back of his neck as she sat on the stoop next to him. “Thanks,” she said.

What?” Jonah snapped.

“That totes wasn’t awkward at all. Especially the part where you left me alone with your dad after yelling at him right in front of me.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t exactly at the shooting range myself.”

“You know, Jonah… Your dad might be right.”

Jonah scoffed. “About which contradictory position?”

“It’s not contradictory,” she said. “He’s just trying to protect you. Like he has been doing all along.”

“Yeah, well, he has a funny way of showing it.”

“At least he does show it.”

They stared out at the yard and trees in silence. Everything was lit with the eerie white streetlights so only the brightest stars and planets were visible in the sky. A little black cat ran across the sidewalk.

“I mean,” Liz said. “What can we do?” Jonah couldn’t help but smile at the fact that she used “we” instead of “you”, at least she still wanted to be his partner. “Is your plan to go through the elevator and get arrested again? Because they might not be as easy on a second offender, Pardy or not.”

Jonah blushed and shook his head. “No,” he said. “Of course not. That was a stupid idea from the get go.”

Tah-yeah!” Liz scoffed.

“Well, I don’t see you coming up with anything better,” Jonah said, standing from the stoop, offended.

Liz shook her head. She looked hurt by what he said, or his tone of voice, or something else he had done—he could never tell what exactly. “Because maybe there isn’t a better idea,” she said. “Maybe there really is nothing we can do.”

“No,” Jonah said. He stomped his foot. “I won’t believe it. There’s something I can do, I know it.”

“But, Jonah. You’re dad said—”

“I don’t care what my dad said. My dad told me not to follow orders blindly. He told me to protect the weak. He told me I can do anything if I just believe in myself. I know what he said, Liz, he’s my dad, and that’s why I have to do this. Can’t you see that?”

“I, but—”

“No,” Jonah stopped her. “I need to go for a walk, clear my head. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay.”

Liz shook her head. She looked like she wanted to say something more but couldn’t think of what, a rare occurrence for her.

“Don’t worry,” Jonah said, trying to ease her tension just a little. “I won’t do anything before I put it past my partner.”

She smiled. “You better not.” She stood from the stoop and wiped off her pants. “And think about what your dad said.”

Jonah nodded, not wanting to respond and drag the argument out further than it had already gone. He needed to be alone with his thoughts for a while before he even knew his own opinion on the matter himself.

“And get some rest, too,” Liz said over her shoulder as she made her way toward her house. “We still have class in the morning, you know.”

Ugh.” Jonah sighed loud enough for her to hear it then made his way absent-mindedly along the winding sidewalks, letting his feet take him wherever they wanted to go.

He couldn’t believe that Liz agreed with his dad. But then again, he couldn’t blame her. She had just gotten six demerits for following him on his stupid plan so of course she would want to be more careful in the future. But he hadn’t gotten a single demerit. He had no reason to be careful. He had broken the law and gotten away with it scot free. Now he felt like he had the responsibility to do something for those who hadn’t. But what? What could a little kid who hadn’t even passed through the Junior Academy do in the face of all odds?

He was about to give up on everything and go back home when he ran into some person and fell to the ground. It felt weird though. He didn’t land on sidewalk or grass. He looked around himself, and he wasn’t even outside anymore. He was in a grey hallway. And the person he had bumped into wasn’t wearing a protector’s white uniform, she was wearing a long white coat. The woman extended a black gloved hand to help him up.

“Where am I?” he asked, standing with her assistance.

“My name’s the Scientist,” she said. “I understand there’s something you want.”

#     #     #

< XXXII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XXXIV. Guy >

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Chapter 32: Ansel

Standard

This Saturday we return to the story of Ansel. She’s tired of waiting for the Scientist to save her dad for her, so Ansel’s about to set out and try to do it on her own. She’s willing to do anything, even talk to Tom again, and with Rosalind’s help Ansel does just that.

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< XXXI. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXXIII. Jonah >

XXXII. Ansel

“You going hunting?” Pidgeon asked when Ansel came into the office wearing a new t-shirt and pair of jeans. “Can I come?” He stood from his seat on the floor where he had been staring out the window.

Huey was sitting on one of the puffy chairs, petting Mr. Kitty on his lap, and he looked at Ansel expecting an answer, too.

Uh—no,” she said. “I’m not hunting.”

“Not with those new clothes on, you aren’t,” Huey said.

Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Where you going then?” Pidgeon asked. “Can I still come?”

“Uh…” Ansel shook her head. “I just need a little time alone.” She rushed out of the door and leaned on the hall side, breathing deeply.

Huey knew something was up. There was no doubt about that. She could tell by the look in his eyes. But even though she had told Pidgeon where she was going, he still didn’t expect a thing. He’d probably just sit and sulk because she didn’t invite him, stuffing his face with food to drown his sorrow.

She huffed and resolved herself, pictured the lab in her head, said “lab” out loud just to be sure, then opened the door.

Rosalind was there as promised, playing cards with Popeye. She looked like she hadn’t moved since Ansel had left her last.

“Are you ready for this?” Rosalind asked, not looking up from her game.

Ansel checked her back pocket for her slingshot, made sure she had a pouch of rocks tied to her belt loop, and sighed. “I’m ready,” she said.

“And you’re sure you don’t want to bring your boyfriend? He may be more help than you know.”

Ansel shook her head. She remembered Rosalind wasn’t looking at her and said, “I’m sure. This is one thing I have to do alone.”

Rosalind looked up from her game with a smile. “If you say so. It’s your decision.”

Ansel nodded.

“Well, let’s get to it, then. Shall we?” Rosalind tossed her hand down and stood up, but Popeye went on laying cards on the table anyway. Ansel followed her out into the hall to stand in front of the elevator.

“Now, you studied the map I gave you, right?” Rosalind asked.

Ansel nodded.

“Take this.” Rosalind held out a silver band. Ansel took it but didn’t know what to do with it. “Put it on your wrist,” Rosalind said, tapping her own wrist.

Ansel fiddled with the thing but couldn’t figure out how to fasten it on.

“Here, let me.” Rosalind snapped it on in one fluid motion and turned it for Ansel to look at. “It’s made simple so even a little girl can understand.”

“I’m no—”

I know, but do you see it? Look at it.”

Ansel looked at it again. It was just a silver band with a black rubber button on it. “Yeah. I see it,” she said, jerking her hand away. “So what?”

“When you get back to an elevator and you want to come home, you press that button and I’ll make sure you get back here. But don’t take long, you hear me? I have better things to do than sit around waiting on a little girl like you.”

“I’m—”

Uh huh.” Rosalind nodded. “You get one chance. I still recommend that you wait for the Scientist instead of doing this on your own, but I can’t blame a girl for wanting some adventure.” She smiled.

“I’m not stopping the Scientist from doing what she promised to do,” Ansel said, ignoring the “girl” this time. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t do something myself instead of just sitting and waiting for a savior who may never show up. Or maybe I’ll save him before the Scientist gets a chance to, save her the trouble.”

Rosalind grinned. “Alright then,” she said. The elevator doors slid open behind her. “It’s your choice, your decision to make. Just press the button when you’re ready to come back home.”

Ansel stepped onto the elevator. She looked at the bracelet then nodded. “I’m ready.”

“Good luck.” Rosalind turned to walk away as the doors slid closed.

Ansel’s heart beat harder. She wiped the sweat from her palms on her thighs and waited for the elevator to take her away. Her heart skipped a beat when she felt the floor fall out from underneath her. She still wasn’t used to the sensation and thought she never would be.

The doors opened and it was nighttime beyond them, but the sidewalks were lined with pristine streetlights that shone bright white. They were too white. Ansel shielded her eyes from them as she took in the trees, walkways, and sparse buildings. The place was practically abandoned. With so much grass and trees she couldn’t understand how it hadn’t been settled already. This was even better than the Belt. It was almost like the Belt mixed with the wilderness outside the office’s wallwindow. This she could get used—

The elevator doors slid closed, interrupting her thought, and she only barely had time to slip out of them. She gathered herself fast and ducked behind the nearest bush. What was she doing taking in the scenery? She had business to take care of.

Rosalind had given her a path to take to Tom’s house—and it was a pretty good one—but Ansel made some alterations of her own—there were bushes Rosalind would never think of hiding behind because she was too big. Ansel dipped and dashed, and the further she got, the less she felt like it was worth it to spend so much energy hiding. There was no one outside. She could see the light flooding from all the windows of the sparse houses, indicating there must be people inside them, but there was no one on the streets. She didn’t see a single person before making it to the house which was supposed to be Tom’s.

She crouched behind some bushes in the backyard, realizing that what she had been thinking of as small buildings weren’t actually small because they were meant for only a single family at a time. The place seemed even emptier with the realization.

She crept up to the back door—unlocked, as Rosalind had said—to let herself into a kitchen the size of her old house. This must be why Tom didn’t care about helping her find her dad anymore. He had a good life and a huge house, why would he care about anyone else?

The kitchen door swung open and in came a kid that looked like he was about Pidgeon’s age. He looked a lot like Pidgeon, in fact. He put his fists up in front of his face, like he wanted to fight, when he saw Ansel. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“I, uh—” Ansel stammered, not sure of what to say now that she was there.

“Jonah, who’s—” Tom said, coming in with a pink apron on. “Ansel? What are you—”

“Ansel?” Jonah said, dropping his arms and staring between her and Tom. “Are you serious?”

“Go to your room,” Tom said, pointing. “I need to speak with our guest alone.”

“But it’s—”

That’s an order,” Tom snapped, giving him a look.

“But you told me—”

“Pick your battles or you might end up like me,” Tom said. “Now pick.”

“Yes, sir.” Jonah lowered his head and sulked out of the room.

“What are you doing here?” Tom asked, turning to Ansel.

“Didn’t think you’d ever see me again, eh?” Ansel sneered.

“No. I—well—no,” Tom said. “How’d you get here?”

“You said you’d help me get my dad back,” Ansel said. “Are you gonna keep that promise, or was it just another lie?”

“No. Well, I’d keep the promise if I could,” he said. “But what am I supposed to do? Look at me. I’m a housekeeper. I’m weak, powerless.”

Ansel scoffed. “So you give up, then. Is that it? You’re not called a protector anymore so you can’t help anyone. You can only protect people if you have a silly white costume and a big black gun. Is that it?”

“No, I can—”

“Then protect me!” Ansel stomped her foot. “Help me. Tell me where my dad is at least.”

Tom lowered his eyes. “I’m not—I’m not sure I can.” He shook his head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“When I left… Captain Mondragon…she said…”

“Spit it out!” Ansel was getting tired of his games again already.

“She said she would speed up his execution because he meant so much to me.” Tom stared at the floor instead of making eye contact.

Ansel flung herself at him and tried to hit him, but he held her at arm’s length until she gave up.

“I never should have trusted you,” she said, breathing heavily and trying to find entry to attack him again. “I shouldn’t have come here, either. You’re too weak to do anything for me.”

I’m not weak,” Tom said. “I’m powerless. I could storm the holding cells, then what? I’d be useless to you the second I tried to help.”

“Then you’re useless to me now,” she said, stomping her foot again and crossing her arms.

“No, but I—”

“No,” Ansel stopped him. “I’ve had enough. Just remember what you did to me, protector.” She scoffed and stomped out the way she had come in, bursting out into to the cool dark air.

That was a bust. Just like Rosalind had said it would be. But Ansel had to prove to herself that there was nothing left for her to do but wait for the Scientist. She started on her way to do just that when she heard a whisper behind her.

Psst. Hey,” the voice said. “Over here.”

Ansel turned and didn’t see anyone. “Who’s there?” she asked the darkness.

“Over here.” The little boy from inside stepped out of the bushes.

“Jonah?”

“And you’re Ansel,” he said with a smile. “I’m so glad to finally meet you.” He extended a hand for her to shake, and she took it reluctantly.

“How do you know my name?” she asked as she shook it.

“Well, my dad—uhTom… He’s told me about you and what he did for you.”

“About what he did for me?” Ansel scoffed. She made to walk away, but he called to stop her.

Wait,” he said. “I can help you even if he can’t.”

Ansel stepped up to him and grabbed him by his shirt. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about, kid,” she said, putting her face close to his.

“Alright, alright,” he said, breaking away from her grip. “Settle down now. I know you’re angry. And you should be. But I want to protect you.”

Ansel scoffed. “I don’t need protecting. Especially the kind of protecting you and your dad offer. I need to know where my dad is and how to get to him. That’s it. You can’t help me with that so you’re no use to me.”

“But I can help you with that,” Jonah said.

Ansel chuckled. “Your dad can’t even help me. How do you think you’re going to be able to?”

“My dad’s old,” Jonah said. “He’s retired. He doesn’t know what the worlds are like these days.”

“Oh, and you do?”

“I know Outland One better than you ever will,” he said, puffing his chest out and looking proud of himself.

“I don’t care about Outland One,” Ansel said. “I want to know where my dad is.”

Well he’s here,” Jonah said. “That’s the point. He’s in the holding cells. Dad doesn’t know this, but I’ve seen them. I know where they keep the prisoners, and I can get us there.”

Ansel laughed. “Yeah, right,” she said.

“Yeah. It is right. But if you don’t want to see your dad, I won’t take you to him. I was just trying to help you out, you know.” He made to walk away, but Ansel stopped him.

“Wait,” she said. “Can you take me to him right now?”

“Of course I can. That’s what I was trying to say.”

This was her only hope. She had to use this trip for something productive, even if Tom was a useless idiot. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

“Alright. Follow me,” Jonah said, walking out to the sidewalk.

Uh,” she said, not following him.

He stopped and turned around under the bright light of one of the streetlamps. “What?” he asked, waving her on. “Come on. It’s this way.”

“Are you serious? I can’t walk around in the open like that. Get over here.”

“What?” he said, not moving. “Come on.” He waved her on again.

“No, get—” She ran over and dragged him back into the shadows of some bushes. “Look. I’m not supposed to be here, okay. You get that, right? That means no one can see me. I can’t just walk around the streets like you do, especially when they’re as brightly lit as y’all got ‘em down here.”

Jonah looked around. “It’s not that bright,” he said. “Pretty dark, in fact. I think that light’s out.” He pointed, but Ansel couldn’t see through the bright white in front of them.

“Whatever,” she said. “Look. Just stay out of the lights, okay. Pretend like you can’t be seen either. Can you do that?”

Jonah put his fists up again like he wanted to fight. “I got you,” he said. “Follow me.” He did a somersault out across the lit path to hide behind a shaded bush.

Ansel thought it was a bit flashy, but it served the purpose of keeping Jonah hidden so she didn’t say anything. At least the kid seemed like he understood what she was saying now. And after talking to him, he was definitely a kid, younger than Pidgeon and probably younger than her. Her previous age estimate was way off.

They crossed this way and that, and Ansel memorized landmarks on the way. She would have to be able to find her way back to the elevator for any of this to be worth anything. They had gone some distance, and Ansel was about to say something about it, when Jonah came to an abrupt stop under a big oak tree.

“Wait,” he said, holding up a hand.

“What?” Ansel asked.

“We just gotta… I’m waiting for someone.”

“Waiting for someone?” Ansel stepped back.

“Yeah, well…”

“What are you talking about? Who?”

“Don’t worry. It’s just my partner. I wouldn’t go into this mission alone, you know. Are you crazy?”

Ansel huffed. She kind of missed Pidgeon. She wondered what he was doing. Probably eating or looking out the window. Probably eating and looking out the window. She should have brought him with her. Rosalind was right again. We do nothing alone.

“Yeah, alright,” Ansel said. “But whoever it is, they better hurry up. I don’t have any more time to waste than we already have.”

“Here she is now,” he said. “Liz, over here!”

Ansel didn’t see her until she was right next to them. “What is it, Jonah?” Liz demanded when she was. “Who is this? Why’d you call me out here so late? It better be a real emergency this time.”

This is Ansel,” Jonah said with a big grin. “The Ansel.”

Liz looked at Ansel, then Jonah, and back again. “No,” she said.

Ansel blushed. She was glad it was too dark for them to really see her face, even with all the lights. “If y’all’re done,” she said. “I need to get to my dad.”

Liz grabbed Ansel’s hand and shook it too vigorously. “I can’t believe we’re actually meeting you,” she said. “Jonah’s dad, or, Mr. Pardy, he—”

“Alright, Liz.” Jonah slapped her on the arm. “Be cool. I wouldn’t have told you to come if I knew you were going to act like a fangirl.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I—” Liz finally let go of her hand, and Ansel wiped it on her pants. “It’s just, I’ve never met a real life Sixer before, you know. Is it true that you have to steal everything you own?”

Ansel scoffed. “I ain’t no Sixer. I’m from the Belt, and I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I hunt for my food.”

“Hunt? But—” Liz said, but Jonah cut her off.

Liz,” he said. “Enough. We don’t have time. We’re going in.”

“You mean… No.” She shook her head.

Yes,” Jonah said, “She wants to see her dad. He’s in the holding cells, or he’s not alive. Do you have any other ideas?”

“No, but… This?” Liz said. “What if she was lying?”

“Then we’ll find out when we go through with it, won’t we?” Jonah said. “Look. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. I just thought it would be better to have my partner with me when I went.”

Liz blushed. Even in the dark, Ansel could see it. She wondered if they had seen her embarrassment, too. “I—well…” Liz said, hesitating. “You’re right. I couldn’t leave my partner alone. But even if we get on the elevator and to the cell block her dad happens to be in, I still don’t know how you expect to get him out.”

“If I can see him,” Ansel said, “or even hear his voice—anything to let me know he’s still alive—that’s enough for me.”

“See,” Jonah said. “It’s nothing. We can do that. Just get in, see him, and get out. No one will ever know we were there. What do you say?” He put on a big smile.

“I don’t know,” Liz said. “I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as you’re making it out to be. What if we get caught?”

“We won’t get caught,” Jonah said. “And if we do, I’ll take all the blame for it. I’ll tell them I forced you to come.”

Liz laughed. “Oh, I’m sure they’ll believe that,” she said. “Are you gonna say you tied me up and dragged me all the way out there? Do you have some rope?”

Ansel chuckled. She kind of liked this Liz.

“No, well,” Jonah said, looking embarrassed.

“I didn’t think so,” Liz said. “And I already said I’m coming, anyway. This is Ansel you’re talking about. Now come on.”

Liz knew to sneak without being told, unlike Jonah. They became a caravan of three cockroaches creeping through bushes, scurrying fast through the light, remaining as much out of sight as they could while they made their way through the deserted landscape to some place that could have been any place for all Ansel knew. There grew to be less and less houses as they went until there was only grass and still-lit streets. Then they got to a big square building that was painted stark white. It looked more like it belonged near the Belt than here with all the single family houses, but here it was, waving proud white flags, still lit with spotlights in the night. They stepped behind a bush on the outskirts of the shell of light which surrounded the building, and Ansel asked in a whisper, “Where are we?”

“This is our school,” Jonah said at a normal speaking volume.

Liz elbowed him. “This is the Junior Academy,” she whispered. “It’s where we learn to be protectors.”

Ansel looked over at the two, wide-eyed. These kids were going to grow up to be giants in white just like Tom was. They didn’t look so big now. She sneered.

“Are you alright?” Jonah whispered, although he still spoke too loud. “You still want to do this?”

Ansel scoffed. “What’s the plan?”

“Okay, well,” Jonah said. “In there they have an elevator that we use for training scenarios and all that. That’s not important. What’s important is that I—” Liz nudged him “Well, we, got access to a code to send us to the holding cells. We plug it in, it takes us there, we see your dad, and then we get out. Just like that. What do you say? Great idea, huh?”

Liz rolled her eyes. “We’ll go in through the locker room,” she said. “No one’s ever in there after hours, and it’s pretty much right next to the elevator. They trust us too much.” She shook her head with a grin.

“They trust their brainwashing too much,” Jonah said, getting loud again. “Isn’t that right partner? Wubba lubba dub dub!”

This time it was Ansel who hit Jonah, but she didn’t do it playfully. She hit him as hard as she could, square in the stomach. He huffed and doubled over, and Liz got into a defensive stance, bent down just a little bit with fists in front of her face.

“I understand that this all fun and games for you two,” Ansel said, “but I’d be fucked if I was ever found, and I don’t need you yelling out, telling people exactly where we are.”

Liz dropped her defenses and looked embarrassed. Jonah caught his breath, stood up, and wheezed. “Got it.”

“Sorry,” Liz said. “We’ll be serious, though. They can’t catch us, either. Right, Jonah?”

Jonah nodded.

“Ok. Let’s do this then,” Ansel said.

Jonah did his somersault out from behind the bushes again, and Ansel was starting to think it was getting old. She looked at Liz who shrugged and jogged out after him, crouching even though there was nothing to hide behind. What was Ansel thinking following these kids? It was too late for her to change course now, though. This might be her only chance at seeing her dad ever again.

They went in through a side door—painted as white as the rest of the building—into a white-washed locker room. The lights weren’t on and Ansel could still see the white reflection off the walls.

This way,” Jonah whispered, trying to roll again and hitting his head on a bench with a loud, “Ow!”

Shhhh,” Liz and Ansel shushed him in unison.

Jonah got clumsily up, rubbing the no doubt growing knot on his head, and followed them out the next door, around a corner, and down a hall to stop in front of a pair of elevator doors. “Here it is,” Liz said.

“Alright, here’s the code.” Jonah pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. “Four three, four f, four four, four five,” he read off as Liz pressed the numbers on the keypad. The doors slid open and a bright, white light flooded over them.

“There it is,” Jonah said, squinting.

Ansel shielded her eyes with her hand as she stepped in. Jonah followed, but Liz hesitated.

“C’mon,” Jonah said. “There’s no going back now.”

Liz sighed and stepped in, too. The doors slid closed, and the floor dropped out from underneath them. A few seconds of silence and fidgeting later and the doors slid open to three giants in white screaming facemasks pointing big black guns at them.

“Halt, citizens,” one of the protectors demanded in a deep modulated voice, teeth glowing neon yellow, green, and red with every word.

“Fuck,” Jonah said.

“You two, come with us.” Two of the protectors dragged Liz and Jonah off, and the third stepped onto the elevator, grabbing Ansel by the shoulder. Ansel fought to free herself, but the giant’s grip was too tight and the doors closed. The floor fell out from underneath them again, and the elevator doors opened to reveal a long white hall lined with metal doors.

The protector pushed her out with the barrel of a gun and said, “Go on, now. Git.”

Ansel took a step out and looked at the doors, thinking that her dad might be behind one of them. There were no windows, though, so she had no way to tell. As she stumbled along, taking as much time as she could to walk through the hall, she remembered her bracelet and pressed the button over and over, knowing it was useless. They got to the end of the hall before the protector stopped and opened one of the metal doors.

In,” the protector demanded, poking Ansel with the gun. Ansel slipped in and the doors closed behind her.

She was in a tiny room, smaller than any room she ever lived in. It took only two steps to get from one side to the other, and the entire thing was painted white.

She banged on the metal door. “Let me out!” she called. “You can’t do this! Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!”

There was no answer. She banged and banged until her knuckles were bloody and her fingers numb, and still, no one came.

She slouched in a corner, holding her knees up to her chest. This wasn’t happening. She had pressed the button. Rosalind and the Scientist would come looking for her and everything would be okay.

She shook her head. No. That probably wasn’t true. She was supposed to press the button when she was near an elevator, and she wasn’t anywhere near an elevator. She was locked up in a tiny cell.

Her heart beat faster. She took a few deep breaths to try to calm it. She was here now. She had to decide what she was going to do.

She heard footsteps through the metal door. She stood up and got the slingshot out of her back pocket. They hadn’t even searched her. She loaded up a rock and aimed it at where she thought the protector’s head would be—it was a pretty big target. When the doors opened, she let it go. The rock pinged off the protector’s facemask and Ansel felt a blow to her jaw which caused her to black out.

 

#     #     #

She opened her eyes and they filled with pain. She closed them and it wasn’t any better. She tried to move, but she was tied down with cold metal chains. So this was the end.

There were sounds and pain, sounds and pain, then her eyelids turned from red to black, sweet, cool, comforting black. Even when the sounds started making sense again, she clenched her eyes tight, trying to hold onto that welcoming blackness until, finally, she had to respond by opening her eyes.

A big white protector loomed over her. The protector smiled like she had won simply because Ansel had opened her eyes. She had won nothing. Ansel would give her nothing.

“So,” the woman towering over her said, the protector. “We meet at last. I’m so glad to finally have the honor.”

Ansel scoffed. She could smell bullshit when she heard it, and this stunk.

“Well, dear. I want to ask you what it is that you’re doing here.”

Fuck you,” Ansel said, trying to spit on the woman but only managing to dribble spittle on the floor.

The protector chuckled. “Oh dear,” she said. “I’m not sure you understand where you are right now.”

“I’m not sure I care,” Ansel said with a smile.

“Well, you will. In due time, girl. You will.”

#     #     #

< XXXI. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXXIII. Jonah >

And so ends another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. To find out what happens to Ansel you’ll have to wait a few more weeks or pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon right here.

Thanks for joining us, dear readers. Have a great weekend.