It’s the last Saturday before Christmas and we’re rejoining Tillie in an An Almost Tangent. If you’ve been enjoying the story so far, or if you just want to buy me a super awesome Christmas present, you should purchase a copy of The Asymptote’s Tail or An Almost Tangent for you or a friend through this link. If you don’t have any money to spare and would still like to get me something, sign up for my email update newsletter here and share with all your friends. Happy Saturday y’all, and enjoy the read.
All she knew was pain. She couldn’t even breathe without waves of it shooting through her ribs. She groaned and more overcame her. She struggled to sit up and lean her back against the hard wall behind her. Why was the light so bright? Where was she?
She took in the room. It was small—no, tiny. She was lying on a cold metal bed of some sort, and all the walls were plain white. There was a white metal toilet on the white tile floor next to her bed, and besides the looming white metal door, that was it. Was this jail?
She groaned again. The pain in her chest was piercing. She lifted her shirt up a little to try to see what the cause was but quickly dropped it when she got a peek of purple, black, and red. She cringed at the sight then groaned from the pain of cringing. There was nothing she could do about it now. There was no point in even looking. The only thing looking again would accomplish is making her vomit.
She took in the room a second time. Was this jail? No. It couldn’t be. Could it? They wouldn’t put her in jail for meeting with a group of students on the parade grounds. They didn’t even do anything. This had to be something other than jail, but what?
She tried to get up off the bed to see if the door would open, but the pain in her ribs was too much for her to stand.
It could be a hospital. She had never been to one before. She had always gotten house calls at her dad’s when she was sick. So this could be what a hospital looked like. Right? With a hard cold bed, and a toilet right next to it, in a room the size of a closet. Yeah right.
She was starting to accept that it was jail and trying to decide how she wanted to react to that when the door swung open. A protector in a white plated vest and cargo pants with no helmet on walked in carrying a metal stool which she set in the middle of the small room.
“Sit, citizen,” the protector demanded.
“I, uh…” It was too painful to talk, how could Tillie be expected to carry her own body weight for long enough to walk over to the stool? “I can’t move,” she groaned.
“I, uh…” Tillie wanted to protest again, but she could tell by the look on the protector’s face that it would be pointless. She gritted her teeth against the waves of pain in her ribs as she shimmied over to the stool to plop down, happy for the slightly less painful fire of breathing in comparison to when she was forcing herself to walk.
“Tell me why you’re here, citizen,” the protector said, still standing and towering over Tillie.
“I don’t even know where I am,” Tillie groaned.
“You are in a holding cell, citizen. You are in prison. Now tell me why you are here.”
“Tell you why I’m here?” Tillie moaned at the pain of talking. “How should I know?”
“You took part in an illegal use of private property, citizen. You failed to disperse when you were ordered to do so by the proper authorities, and as a result, you were served justice.”
“Now tell me,” the protector said. “Why did you do it?”
“I—Do what? I didn’t do anything?”
“Do you deny being present at the incident in question?”
“I—no. I was there, but—”
“Do you deny that you failed to disperse when being ordered to do so by a lawful protector?”
“I—We didn’t have a chance to—”
“Do you deny receiving two warnings before sub-lethal force was applied?”
“Well, no, but—”
“Then you are hereby found guilty of unlawful trespass. An officer will be along to deal your sentence shortly. And remember, citizen, we are always watching.”
“No, but—” Tillie complained, but the protector slipped the stool right out from under her—sending Tillie falling to the cold tile floor—and stomped out of the room, slamming the heavy door behind her.
Tillie lay on the floor, rubbing her burning chest. Unlawful trespass? She was on the property of the school she attended, in an open and publicly accessible park. How could she be trespassing? And what was that interrogation about? Was that supposed to be a trial? She didn’t even get a chance to defend herself. That wasn’t justice.
She was getting her energy up to pull herself off the floor and onto the bed when the door opened again. Another protector with no helmet on walked in, and when he saw Tillie on the floor, he gasped and rushed to kneel by her side. “Are you alright?” he asked, helping her up to sit on the bed.
“What do you think?” Tillie groaned.
“Oh, well, of course,” the protector said, blushing. “But, I—uh—here.” He searched pocket after pocket in his cargo pants until he produced a syringe with a little plastic cap. “This should help.” He popped the cap off, tapped the air bubbles out, and plunged the needle into Tillie’s thigh before she could protest.
“Ow!” she yelped. “What was that?”
“Oh, well…” The protector recapped the syringe and pocketed it. “That’s for your injuries. You have the platinum health insurance plan so you receive the best treatment.”
“So that was a pain reliever?” She noticed the pain had all gone from her body, and she could actually sit up without cringing.
“Pain reliever?” The protector looked at her like she was stupid. “Have you ever been to a doctor?”
“Well, no…” she said.
“Look, you’ll be fixed up as good as new after that. No worries. Now, I just need your thumbprint on this…” He searched his pockets again and pulled out a small tablet then held it out for her to press her thumb to.
“What was that for?” she asked when he drew the tablet away to look at what had come up on the screen.
“Confirmation that you’ve served your time, billing of your crime insurance policy holder, the usual. We do it to—”
“My time?” Tillie frowned. “How long am I supposed to stay here?”
The protector looked at the tablet’s screen again. “Um, nope,” he said. “It says right here: Platinum insurance plan (PIP). Sentence: time served. That means you’re free to go, ma’am.”
“That’s it? Nothing else?” She stood, surprised to feel no pain in her ribs.
“That’s it,” the protector said. “If you’ll just follow me, I’ll escort you to the transport bay, and you’re free to go.”
“Well okay then. Let’s go.” She was feeling better now that her pain was gone and she knew she didn’t have to spend any more time in that room. And besides, this protector was kind of cute in his clean white uniform, and she was starting to like the sound of being escorted by him.
He took her out into a long hall that was lined with metal doors which looked exactly like the one they had come out of. At the end of the hall was an elevator door which the protector opened and showed Tillie into.
“What now?” she asked when he didn’t step in with her.
“It’s just an elevator,” he said as the doors slid closed between them. “Tell it where you want to go!”
She looked around. The elevator was almost the size of the room she had been held in. She tried to decide where she should go. Should she go to her dad’s? There was a 3D printer there, but she wasn’t really ready to tell him that she had been arrested. She had been arrested.
It hadn’t sunk in until just then. Her heart beat harder. Her hands slickened up. She wondered what had happened to everyone else, to Emma, Nikola, Rod, and the rest. How many of them were behind the same white metal doors she had just passed by, and what was their crime insurance policy like?
Emma. She had to go see if Emma was alright. And Nikola, too—who had probably lost her glasses. “Parade grounds,” she said.
“Input insufficient,” a robotic voice that still somehow managed to sound militaristic said. “Specify which parade grounds.”
“The LSU parade grounds, okay. I thought you were smarter than that.”
The elevator fell into motion and the doors opened to an entirely empty parade grounds. It was eerie, like she was stepping onto a recently deserted battlefield. She almost expected to find dead bodies still on the ground where their assembly had taken place, but there was nothing, no one, only her and the trees. She headed toward her dorm when she heard a rustling sound in an oak tree above her and Mr. Kitty jumped down with a meow.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, bending down to pet him. “Where did you come from?”
He meowed again.
“Well, you’ll never guess what just happened to me,” Tillie said, waving him along with her. “C’mon. I need some food and rest. And I’m sure you do, too. Let’s go get it.” Her stomach growled. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was. Then again, she didn’t have much time to think about anything but her broken ribs and tiny jail cell. She still couldn’t believe she had been arrested. She had to tell someone.
Mr. Kitty meowed and led the way back to the dorm. It was empty when they got there, and Tillie went straight to searching through the kitchen cabinets for something to snack on. “There’s nothing here,” she complained.
Mr. Kitty meowed, licking himself on the coffee table.
“Ugh.” Tillie plopped herself onto the couch. She thought about turning on the TV to see what the news had to say about what had happened, but she forgot about it when Mr. Kitty jumped onto her lap and purred.
She pet him on the head, saying, “Mr. Kitty, that was a ridiculous day.”
He half-barked and half-meowed.
“What was that, Kitty? I’ve never heard you make that noise before.”
He meowed a high pitch one.
“Oh, well, in that case—”
The door opened, and Emma stumbled in—looking like Tillie felt before she had gotten that grey shot from the cute protector. “Oh my God,” Tillie said, standing up and helping Emma over to the couch. “Are you alright?”
“Fuck. No.” Emma groaned.
“What happened? They didn’t give you a shot?”
Emma laughed then groaned then looked like she was going to cry. “Are you kidding me? I’m lucky to be out of there already.”
“I—but—they gave me a shot and let me go,” Tillie said.
“The perks of being a manager,” Emma groaned, looking like she wanted to die.
Wow. Really? Such pain was acceptable as long as it was the pain of someone who couldn’t afford to get rid of it. She thought about her argument with Shelley before Christmas and how the only thing Shelley wanted was a chance to use the 3D printer. Tillie had never gone without printer access, so she couldn’t imagine what it would be like not to have one. But now, with her recent experience of the pain that Emma was still feeling and imagination enough to know what Emma must have felt getting from the elevator home, Tillie knew exactly what it was like to go without platinum health insurance, and she could imagine better what Shelley must have been feeling about the 3D printer because of it. Tillie was so stupid for the way she had treated her best friend.
“Hey.” Emma groaned, breaking Tillie from her daydream. “It’s not your fault you have better insurance than I do,” she said, shaking her head with a pained look on her face. “Okay?”
Tillie tried to smile. “There has to be something I can do.”
“Did your doc send you home with an extra shot of nanobots?”
Emma tried to laugh, but she groaned instead. “You haven’t taken any science classes. Have you?”
“No, well, it doesn’t matter,” Tillie said. “Look. I’m gonna go get you some painkillers and food at least. I’ll be right back.”
She didn’t wait for an answer. She ran down to the Tiger Mart and was happy to see that she was the only one there. She walked up to the counter, and it took the woman behind it some time to back away from the show she was watching and tend to Tillie’s needs.
“Uh, hellooo,” Tillie called, impatient, as the woman sauntered up to the counter, still looking at the TV screen.
“I’m sorry, dear,” the counter attendant said, finally breaking away from her show when a commercial came on. “You’ll have to excuse me. It seems like you’re the first customer I’ve had all day.”
“I need some painkillers,” Tillie said, tapping on the counter. “And fast.”
“Tylenol or aspirin?”
“No.” She shook her head. “Stronger.”
“Ma’am, do you know that—”
“I don’t care!” Tillie snapped. She didn’t need a lecture on painkiller safety, she needed to get back to Emma. “Just order them. And a can of red beans, a pack of rice, some garlic, an onion, celery, and a bell pepper.”
“Onion, celery, and bell pepper,” the woman repeated to the 3D printer. She brought everything to Tillie in a plastic bag and said, “Thumb please.”
Tillie pressed her thumb on the pad, snatched up the bag, and ran back to her dorm. Emma was still lying on the couch, and Mr. Kitty was sleeping right next to her. Tillie sat on the coffee table and held out the bottle of pills. “Here,” she said. “These should help.”
“Water,” Emma groaned.
Tillie filled a glass, handed it to her, and sat back on the coffee table. “How’re you feeling?” she asked.
“Not great. I’m sure you know.”
“Not even.” Tillie shook her head. “I have no idea how you made it home looking like that. I couldn’t even get off that cold bed when I first woke up.”
“Ugh. It wasn’t easy.” Emma sat up, feeling better already, it seemed.
“Did they throw you into a tiny room with nothing but a bed and a toilet, too?”
“That’s jail,” Emma said, as if she had been there before and it was no big deal. “If you have platinum insurance, that is. If we didn’t, we’d probably still be back in the general population—for who knows how long. Trespassing is a serious offense, you know.”
“Yeah, well, we didn’t trespass. We go to the school. And we didn’t even get a trial. I didn’t, at least. Did you?”
“What they call a trial,” Emma said. “But we found that evidence you were looking for. We can be certain we did something now. They were afraid of us, Tillie. They didn’t want us spreading the truth we know. I mean, there were barely thirty of us there, and half of them were probably pros anyway. This has only just begun. Mark my words.”
“Pros. You know, protectors pretending to be students. Undercover agents. Plants. It’s the only way they could have known about it to react so quickly. And it’s a sign that what we did to Five and Six is shaking things up for them. They wouldn’t fight back so violently unless they thought their power was in real danger.”
“Okay,” Tillie said, trying to collate everything Emma had just said in her brain. “So you’re telling me that half the students out there were actually undercover protectors.”
“Well, maybe half is hyperbolic, but there were pros in the crowd, I guarantee it. Like I said, that’s how they reacted so quickly.”
“The fact that there were pros—or whatever—alone isn’t enough to suggest that they’re taking notice of what we did?”
“Well, no. Not really. There are pros at every meeting. That’s nothing to them. They have plenty of bodies up in Outland One, they can use them generously.”
“Then how is it a sign that they noticed again?” Tillie still didn’t quite understand. She had never been to a General Assembly and maybe they were illegal. Maybe they all ended like that. Or maybe the protectors just did what they did because of what Emma was saying. There was Russ as evidence that they would react violently to talking about humans on an assembly line.
“Because they reacted,” Emma said. “They only react if they notice. Here, look. TV, news.”
Tillie turned to sit on the couch with Emma. Nothing about what had happened was being reported. It was all the reports you would expect to see on a typical news day.
“Flip through the news,” Emma said.
The TV started its cycle and no channel mentioned the miniature war they had just taken part in on the parade grounds.
“I don’t see how this can be a sign that they noticed,” Tillie said as the channels kept cycling.
“They’re suppressing the message,” Emma said. “Just like they did with Russ. And just like it did with Russ, it’s going to backfire on them.”
“But how? With Russ it’s different. He’s followed by paparazzi all the time. But there was no one there to record us when it happened.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Emma smiled and popped a little American flag pin off her chest. “Pin camera,” she said, holding it up to Tillie who took it in hand to get a closer look. “I wear it to every protest,” Emma went on. “Most times I just use the footage for promotional videos and the like, but it continuously uploads everything it captures, and there’s an emergency system set. If anything goes wrong, I activate it, and it sends an alert out to everyone in the school directory and anyone who’s ever given me their phone number. Everyone knows, Tillie. The entire school, at least.”
Tillie thought about the emptiness of the parade grounds. It was made more eerie with this new knowledge. No one was outside because they were all afraid they might get caught up in the next skirmish. “So that’s why they’re all hiding,” she said. “They’re afraid of the protectors.”
“Some are probably afraid,” Emma said. “But my emergency alert also told everyone to clear campus until five pm tomorrow. Maybe some of them are listening to me.”
“Wait, what? Why?” Tillie asked, confused even more. “Why would you do that?”
“It’s a trick my parents taught me,” Emma said. “It’s a show of solidarity first, keeping the campus empty, and at the same time it leaves the protectors to stew in what they’ve done. They’ll either suspect that we’re all cowards or worry the entire time about how we’ll respond when we finally do emerge. I’m sure some of them got the email, too.”
“Pros,” Tillie said, feeling like she was starting to catch on just a little bit. It was almost like a movie.
“Exactly,” Emma said. “So they know that we all know. And they know that the alert was attached to the video. And if everyone who got the video actually showed up out there, they would never attack us again.”
“You think that will actually happen, though?” Tillie said, frowning. “The entire student body? That seems overly optimistic.”
“Well, you haven’t seen anyone outside yet, have you?”
“Then we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out. I think you’ll be surprised.” She smiled.
Tillie still wasn’t sure, but she hoped Emma was right. After the way the protectors had reacted to whatever they were doing on the parade grounds, she was dead set on continuing to do it and figuring out why the protectors wanted them to stop so badly. She only wished she had taken it more seriously before, then maybe she’d have been better prepared.
“So how can I see the video you sent out?”
“It should be on your phone,” Emma said. “I sent it to everyone.”
Tillie checked her pockets and realized she didn’t have her phone on her. She was pretty sure she had it before the assembly. “I—uh—don’t have my phone,” she said.
“Did you bring it with you to the assembly?”
“I should have told you to leave anything you wanted to keep here, but I didn’t think they’d react the way they did.”
“So I need a new phone then,” Tillie said.
“Looks like it.”
“Here, I’ll go get my—” Emma groaned as she tried to stand from the couch. The painkillers had done something but not much.
“Oh, no no no,” Tillie said, standing up and guiding Emma back down to the couch. “I’ll get my tablet and you can look it up on there.” She went and got her tablet out of her room and handed it to Emma who swiped and tapped a few times then handed it back.
The entire screen was filled with a chest-eye view of the assembly. The sound was muted, giving it an eerie feeling. Tillie knew that just to one side of the camera was where she was standing. The field of vision was filled with white-clad protectors fanned out with guns pointed at the camera. Not being there in real time, Tillie had the chance to notice that they weren’t normal guns. Some of them had long tubes going into the backpacks of the protectors carrying them, and others had huge nozzles and giant air cartridges attached to them. The protectors silently ordered them to leave a couple of times, then the action started. The camera was mostly blocked by the cloud of gas, but she could still see it wobbling and fighting to stay alive until it, too, fell to the ground and stopped broadcasting.
Tillie didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t believe that she had lived through that, that Emma had recorded it and shown it to the entire school. Maybe the students were all doing what Emma had asked them to do. Maybe they would all flood the parade grounds the next day. She knew she would definitely be there either way.
“Fuck,” she said long after the video had stopped playing. “I can’t believe we lived through that.”
“I can’t believe they reacted that way,” Emma said.
“So what now? We just wait until tomorrow and see who shows up?”
“Pretty much,” Emma said. “Rod and Nikola—if they’re out by then—should be coming over here before the assembly tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Oh, no no. Of course.” Tillie wanted to know what their jailbird experiences were like anyway.
“Alright,” Emma said, getting comfortable on the couch. “TV, entertainment. I think I deserve a little rest.”
Tillie chuckled. “I’d say. Are you hungry at all?”
“Shit, yes.” Emma groaned. “But I’m not moving from this spot.”
“And you don’t have to,” Tillie said. “Let me cook you up some red beans and rice.”
Tillie cooked in the kitchen while Emma watched a historical fiction mockumentary about an assembly line worker played by Russ Logo. It was one Tillie had seen plenty of times before so she didn’t mind missing most of it while she cooked. They ate and finished the movie, and by the time it was done, it was well past midnight.
“Well,” Emma said, popping another pill into her mouth. “I’m going to rest up before tomorrow. They should be here around four. I’m sure we’ll both be awake by then.”
Tillie remembered how late she had gotten up the morning of their GA confrontation with protectors, but this time was different, this time she was actually interested in going to the assembly. “Yeah,” she said. “I should get some sleep, too.” And she went to bed herself.
# # #
Tillie woke well before noon and set to getting dressed right away. She made sure to wear the clothes she cared the least about this time. If she still had her phone, she would have left it on her dresser, but the protectors had taken that from her already.
She went into the living room, and Emma was cooking breakfast in the kitchen. “How are you feeling, dear?” Emma asked.
“Like I have the worst hangover ever,” Tillie said, plopping down on the couch.
“Well, I think I have something to cure you right up,” Emma said. “Eggs, bacon, and waffles, finished right…about…now.” She carried two plates into the living room and handed one to Tillie.
“Thank. The. Hand,” Tillie said. “You’re amazing.”
Emma smiled and started in on her own food. “Not really,” she said. “I had ulterior motives for going to the Tiger Mart. I wanted to see the campus.”
“How was it?” Tillie asked through a full mouth. This was exactly what she needed.
“No one out there still. You know, I really think they might be listening to me.”
“I hope so,” Tillie said, stuffing her face some more. And she really did hope so, too.
They watched cartoons for the entire day. Neither of them said anything about it, but neither of them asked to see the news either. Tillie was glad for that. She hoped she never had to watch the news again.
The cartoons were your typical Saturday morning fare, even though it wasn’t Saturday morning. It was always Saturday on the cartoon network. They sat through hours of it, and Emma cooked another meal which they had both finished eating before the first knock came.
“I’ll get it,” Emma said, answering the door. Tillie just groaned. “Hey, Rod,” Emma said. “Come on in.” She hugged him, and Rod came in to plop himself down on the couch right next to Tillie. She scooted over a little so their legs weren’t touching.
“Hey,” he said as he sat down. He was still wearing an American flag t-shirt, though for all Tillie remembered it could have been a different one.
“So, how are you?” Emma asked.
“Uh, I have platinum insurance,” he said.
“Do you know what happened to Nikola?” Tillie asked.
Rod shrugged. “I lost it soon after they started with the gas. Got a bag to the head and it knocked me clear out. And then they had the nerve to make me wait until they questioned me before they gave me my nanoshot. Can you believe that shit?” He shook his head.
“Me, too!” Tillie said. “How can they do that?”
Emma popped another painkiller. Tillie had forgotten that Emma still hadn’t gotten a shot. She had no idea how Emma was still standing.
“I don’t know,” Rod said. “But when my dad found out, he was livid. He thinks he’s got an airtight case against them. He wanted me to give you these in case you needed representation, too.” He set two business cards on the table.
Tillie picked one up. “Your dad’s a lawyer?” she asked.
“Well I—” Emma started, but a knock came at the door. She opened it to let Nikola in.
“Ugh.” Nikola groaned and plopped on the couch next to Rod. She was breathing heavily and sweating. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I ran straight here when I got the message, but that wasn’t until I got home to my computer because they took my phone.”
“Mine, too!” Tillie said
“Here, take this,” Rod said, handing Nikola a business card. “My dad thinks we have a case.”
“You were there all night?” Emma asked.
“Yeah.” Nikola pushed her glasses up on her face. “You weren’t?”
“Not me,” Tillie said. “Rod?”
Rod shook his head. “Platinum insurance,” he said. “My dad—the best lawyer in existence—wouldn’t let my crime insurance lapse. Seriously though, y’all, he thinks he has a case. You better take these cards if you know what’s good for you.”
“Me neither,” Emma said. “I’m sorry Nikola. I didn’t know they would respond that way. I should have warned y’all about the possibilities.”
Nikola shrugged. “It was one night on a hard bed and one shitty meal. I could use a shower and something real to eat, but other than that, I’m fine.”
“I’m afraid that, if we’re successful today, their reaction might be even more drastic than it already was,” Emma said.
“More drastic than pepper gas and bean grenades?” Tillie scoffed. She couldn’t believe that anything could be more drastic than what they had experienced already.
“My dad would definitely have a case then,” Rod said.
“If it gets as bad as I think it will,” Emma said, “his case will be the least of our worries.”
“You think it will be that bad?” Nikola asked.
“We only had thirty students out there and they responded with a hundred protectors shooting gas and bags,” Emma said. “How many protectors do you think they’ll send if we have a hundred?”
“What if the whole student body shows up?” Rod said, eyes wide.
“Then I don’t think they’d stop at bean bags,” Emma said.
Everyone looked around at each other gravely, taking in what that meant. This was serious. The protectors showed that when they gassed and arrested everyone. If there really were that many people out there for the assembly, then it could only get more serious. Tillie swallowed the lump in her throat, smiled at Nikola, and said, “Well it’s almost time then, isn’t it? What do y’all say we go put the speculation to rest?”
# # #
Thanks again for joining us this weekend. Don’t forget to pick up the perfect gift for the speculative literature hipster in your life by buying a copy of The Asymptot’es Tail and An Almost Tangent through this link today. And if you want to stay up to date on new releases and be the first to learn about special deals and book giveaways, sign up for my email update list here. Have a great weekend and a happy holiday season, y’all.