Chapter 35: Olsen

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.

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Chapter 34: Guy

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

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 >

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. I hope you’re enjoying the story of An Almost Tangent and the Infinite Limits tetralogy so far. If so, pick up your copy of the novel here and join my email update list right here. Have a great weekend readers. See you next Saturday.

Chapter 32: Ansel

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.

Chapter 31: Rosa

Happy new year, y’all. For the first Saturday of 2016 we’ll be rejoining Rosa in her fight to save the Human Family. Will she be able to offer them the security and freedom she knows they deserve, or will the owners reign supreme as they have always done? Find out by continuing the story here with us today or buying a full copy of the novel through this link.

Enjoy. And don’t forget to join my email update list for news on deals, new releases, and free books. Have a great weekend and a great new year.

< XXX. Huey     [Table of Contents]     XXXII. Ansel >

XXXI. Rosa

Rosa groaned while Anna, who had teleported in something special for her to wear, fixed her blouse. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Anna asked, stepping back to get a good look at her creation.

“Of course I want to do this. It’s a major part of spreading the word of the Family. Besides, we’ve found the perfect candidates for our purpose. They want gear not tokens. What else do you expect me to do?”

“Well, you could send someone else,” Anna said. “It’s just—I’m not sure I trust that ring yet.”

“I don’t trust anyone else to do this for us,” Rosa said. “Besides, we sent that protector through and he came out unharmed.”

“I guess.” Anna huffed, unsatisfied.

Rosa embraced her. “C’mon now, sweetheart,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be back in no time with a story for my Nanna.”

Anna tried not to smile, but she couldn’t help it. She looked into Rosa’s eyes. “And in the meantime, I’ll watch over your new toy Ollie,” she said with a grin.

Rosa pushed her away, chuckling. “C’mon now. She’s been doing pretty well, hasn’t she? If anything, she’s worth more than what we’re paying her.”

Anna smiled. “I’m just kidding. She’s a good kid. You’re a fine judge of character, you know. But not of danger. So you be careful.” She kissed Rosa on the cheek.

“I’ll be fine,” Rosa said, kissing Anna’s lips. “Be back in no time with good news to share.”

“Okay, well let’s do it,” Anna said. “Stand back.”

Anna went to the big metal console in the corner of the basement to press some buttons and flip some switches. Rosa had no idea how it all worked. She just stood there trusting Anna to get her to the right place. After some time of flipping and tapping, Anna looked up at Rosa, smiled, and said, “Alright. Are you ready?”

Rosa nodded. Her heart beat faster. The protector did seem fine when he came back through, but she had known no one else to do it, and the protector didn’t stay for long. He could be a mess by now. What if there were long-lasting effects she didn’t know about?

Anna pressed a button and the machine hummed into action. The console she stood behind was attached by thick black wires to a thin metal ring large enough for a normal sized human to walk through—or a protector if they were stooping. The ring lit up, and what looked like heat waves emanated toward the center of the circle until the concrete wall behind it disappeared and a carpeted bench, piled high with clothes, appeared in its place.

Rosa looked back at Anna. “Are you sure this is right?” she tried to yell over the loud humming.

Anna nodded.

“Why are they always costume closets?” Rosa asked.

Anna shrugged. “Easy place to hide the hardware? There have to be a lot of them in Three?”

“I guess.” Rosa shrugged.

“Be careful,” Anna said. “I’ll open it up again in fifteen minutes. If you’re not here by then, I’m sending someone in after you.” The hum of the machine was getting louder so Anna had to yell to be heard.

“I’ll be fine,” Rosa called, but Anna shook her head, pointing at her ears, unable to hear. Rosa blew her a kiss, turned, and stepped through the ring into the costume closet. The door disappeared with a fwip behind her and she took a deep breath. She was alive, thank God, and in another world. She crossed herself and made her way out of the closet. It was connected to a local community theater on a side alley. No one was there, and it might have been abandoned, but she hurried out anyway, not wanting to take the chance of being seen. Outside were lines of four and five story buildings all with balconies. Rosa went over the directions in her head one more time and made her way toward the meeting.

Cohen wanted to meet in a bar. He said that’s how business was done by everyone he knew, everyone in Outland Three. Rosa had to ignore her disgust—giving him the benefit of the doubt from having been born and raised in this Sodom and Gomorrah—but she wouldn’t compromise her own beliefs and have a meeting in a bar.

“No,” she had told him. “How about a park?” She did love to do business under God’s watchful eye. And, luckily enough, there was a park directly across from the bar where he first wanted to meet with her. That’s where she found herself after walking through blocks and blocks of uniform balconied buildings.

There was no one in the park when she got there, though. She wasn’t even sure it could be called a park. It was smaller than the field which now sat in front of her own home. It was just a patch of grass really, but there was a tall bench which Rosa had to jump up into where she sat and waited.

Across the street from the “park” was a bar with a big neon sign, reading “Indywood”, above the doors. It wasn’t long before those doors opened and out came a fluffy haired kid who looked a lot like Northwood, only with somehow more colorful clothes. He came across the street to sit on the bench next to her. While her legs dangled, not touching the ground, his were bent up a little to his chest.

“Cohen,” she said with a smile.

He looked at her like he was a little disgusted at the sight of her. “Uh… Rosa?” he asked, unsure.

“Yes, child. I’m Rosa.”

“I—uh—well…”

“You expected something different?” She smiled. “I know you did. Don’t worry. I don’t mind. It gives me the advantage. You’re exactly what I expected.”

“But how can you…”

“It doesn’t take anything to operate a 3D printer,” she said. “You know what a printer is, don’t you?”

Cohen nodded.

“Then you know what it means when I say I have access to one.”

His eyes widened. He smiled and nodded then shook his head. “No,” he said. “How can I believe you?”

“Oh, that’ll be easy enough,” Rosa said. “Once we give you what we promise, it won’t matter to you whether we have a printer or not.”

“And what exactly is it that you promise?” He looked suspicious of her claims.

“What exactly is it that you need?” Rosa asked with a smile.

Cohen chuckled. “Well, let’s see: Cameras, computers, lights, camera rigs, mic rigs, editing software, costumes… Should I go on? I mean, honestly, there’s no end to the list of things we need.”

“And what would you be willing to offer in return for everything on that list of yours?”

He laughed. “Whatever you want. Whatever we can do.”

“Good. Very good, child,” Rosa said. “Well, that’s exactly what I’m here to offer you. All we ask is that you record and broadcast a short script of our own. We’ll give you what you need to do it, and after that, you can keep the equipment and do whatever you want with it.”

“I—uh—are you serious?” Cohen asked. His jaw dropped.

Always,” Rosa said. “Here. Here’s the script.” She handed him the stack of papers.

He flipped through them and said, “I can’t make the decision myself.”

“Oh, I know,” Rosa said. “You have to come up with a list of what you need, too. We can’t give it to you until we know what it is.”

“Right, right,” Cohen nodded with a big smile. “Great. Perfect.” He clapped his hands together and stood from the bench. “I’ll go take this to them right away. I’m sure they’ll say yes. I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t. You can—Do you wanna come in with me? Most everyone’s inside right now. You could meet the crew if you’d like.”

“Oh, no no,” Rosa said, standing herself. “I trust you. Take your time. I have my own business to tend to as it is. Shall we make it the same time and place in say…a few days.”

“Let’s make it three,” Cohen said, holding out his hand.

Rosa shook it and smiled. “Very good, child. I’ll see you in three days.”

“Thanks again, ma’am,” Cohen said, nearly skipping as he hurried away back to the bar.

Rosa smiled to herself as she walked back to the costume closet. There was one more step taken toward uniting her Family and returning them to their rightful place in society’s natural hierarchy. How things had ever been so perverted she may never know, but she knew that, as long as she was alive, she would fight to purify the worlds. She had no choice, really. It was human nature to exert her free will, and her free will told her to free herself and her Family from the tyranny of the robots.

The teleporter door—or whatever—wasn’t open when she got to the closet, but she didn’t have to wait long before she was hit with a blast of cool wind and the sound of a vacuum sucking the air out of the room. Anna was leaning this way and that around the console, trying to see through the ring, and when she saw Rosa, she smiled and sighed. Rosa smiled and stepped through the door, but instead of stepping into her basement and Anna’s arms, she stepped into a short, brightly lit hall. She turned around to try to go back, but the door had closed and in its place were the metal doors of an elevator.

Rosa slammed her fists on the elevator doors, and at the same time, a door at the end of the hall behind her opened. She turned to see a woman who looked a little bit taller than her—and maybe a bit older—but a lot whiter. She was wearing a long white coat, and she had on a big fake smile. Rosa could tell when a smile was genuine, and this one was certainly a big fat fake.

“Where have you taken me?” Rosa demanded.

The woman chuckled. “Why, I haven’t taken you anywhere at all. You stepped through a hole in my wall and ended up somewhere you didn’t expect. You were the one trespassing in my fields.”

Rosa smiled. So that was how it was going to be. If this old lady wanted to play word games, she didn’t know who she was dealing with. “Well,” Rosa said. “I’m sure they aren’t your fields, so why don’t you direct me to who’s really in charge here? Who’s the owner?”

“You don’t think I’m in charge?” the woman asked, feigning offense.

“Not with a place like this,” Rosa said, indicating the small hall. “No, I’m sure you do what you’re told. So who owns you?”

“Follow me,” the woman said, going back through the door that she had come in. “I’ll show you.”

Rosa hesitated for a moment then followed the woman. She wasn’t going to get out of there until she played along, so that was just what she had to do. Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long. She still had so much business to tend to back home.

The room was an office bigger than Rosa’s conference room. There was a too large desk and a few too large chairs. The wall opposite from the door was a window looking out onto a vast green wilderness. Rosa had to stifle a gasp when she saw it, and once she had seated herself in one of the chairs, she knew the old woman across from her had seen her awe, despite Rosa’s efforts at hiding it.

“Now do you think I’m in charge?” the woman asked.

Rosa scoffed. “A view is not power,” she said. “You’ve convinced me of nothing.”

“What is power?” the woman asked.

Family, Rosa would have said. Humans. Influence. But again, she didn’t want to respond. That would be playing into this woman’s hand.

“Power is a lot of things,” the old lady said. “A view has some power. The power to awe.” She smirked. “Resources have power. Everyone needs resources to live. And influence.” The woman paused, looking for Rosa to react, but Rosa maintained a straight face. “Which some of us hold more of than others. But I hold a different kind of power. I control transportation between the worlds.”

That couldn’t be true. “Why are you telling me this?”

“You don’t believe me,” the woman said. She smiled. “What would it take to make you believe?”

“I—well—I just want to know why you’re telling me all this.”

“No.” The woman shook her head. “You want more than that. I know you better than you think I do. Trust me. What would it take to convince you that I control transportation between the worlds?”

Rosa smiled. “Send five printers meant for robot factories to the Family Home,” she said without a second thought.

“Do you have one already?” the woman asked.

Rosa was taken off guard by the quickness of her response. She expected a dodge which really meant no, not for the woman to go along with it. “Well, no. Not yet.” She smiled. “Not technically, but we manage.”

“Then how do you propose we—”

“The same way you’re going to get me home. If you can trick me into stepping into your trap, then you can deliver a few printers to where I was supposed to go. I thought you controlled transportation between the worlds.” Rosa smiled. “Prove it.”

“Five printers is pretty specific,” the woman said. “Why five?”

“It’s as random as any other number,” Rosa said. “If I’d said three or seven, you’d be asking the same thing.”

“You don’t want to think more carefully about the decision?”

“I don’t think you’re going to do it,” Rosa said. “That’s thinking enough, I’d say. Why would you give me everything when you already have me in the palm of your hands?”

“Why wouldn’t I? It’s like you said, whether I choose to be benevolent or malicious, it’s just as arbitrary either way. Why do you question it because I choose benevolence?”

Rosa couldn’t argue with that, with free will. But she was forced by history to stand by her hasty decision. “If it’s benevolence you want to prove, then show me,” she said with a smile.

“Very well,” the woman said, standing. “But we can’t do it here. We have to go to my office.”

Rosa stood up and looked around. “This isn’t your office?”

“Oh, no, dear,” the woman laughed. “Please. This gaudy thing? This is a show piece.” She smiled. “My office is much more sensible. Come on.” She walked out of the door to the hall and Rosa followed.

The woman closed the door behind them and opened it again. Instead of the gaudy office, it opened onto a slightly less huge office with a big desk in the center that butted up to a glass wall. But here, the window didn’t look out onto wilderness, here it looked out onto lines and lines of humans, piecing some thing together. Rosa couldn’t help herself. She walked right up to the window and stared out over them with a tear in her eye.

“It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” the woman said behind her, sitting at the desk, typing and clicking away at the computer.

Rosa wiped the water from her eyes and composed herself. “How do you… How can you…”

“The power over transportation includes views,” the old woman said. “I choose to look at this because I know the sacrifices those workers make and I want constantly to be reminded of them.”

Rosa broke away from the window and walked up to the desk. “So you really do—”

There,” the woman said with a smile. “Your Anna may still be worried about you, but now she has five 3D printers to fill her mind instead.”

“You did it?” Rosa asked. “But how—” She stopped to compose herself. She remembered where she was and what she was doing. “But how am I supposed to know for sure?”

“You’ll know when I send you home,” the woman said. “It doesn’t matter now anyway, does it? I would think that the office change alone was enough to convince you—not to mention the view—but hey, I’m not you.”

“Yes, well,” Rosa said. “That still doesn’t explain why you’re convincing me. Or who you are.”

“I’m the Scientist,” the woman said. “I’m more powerful than you’ll ever know. And I’ve been watching you. I gave you those printers because they mean nothing to me and I want you to know that as fact. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Rosa understood that this woman was trying to intimidate her, that was about it. She didn’t respond, forcing the Scientist to go on.

“Let me ask you this,” the Scientist said. “What do you know about androids?”

Rosa rolled her eyes and nodded, giving a thumbs up. “Okay,” she said. “I get it. Of course that’s what this is all about. I should have known from the beginning. Are—Are you one of them? That’s it, isn’t it? You’re a rogue elevator scheduler bot gone wild.” She laughed.

The old woman laughed, too. “No, dear,” she said. “I’m something worse than an android. I’m the mother of the androids, and I know what you’ve been up to.”

Rosa half chuckled. This woman wasn’t serious, was she? “Yeah right,” she said.

“Yeah, Rosa,” the Scientist said. “That is right. Go home, find your 3D printers, and realize that everything I’ve said here is true. Then think about that long and hard before you make any more moves with your family. You understand?”

“I’m not sure you understand,” Rosa said. “Like you said, there are different forms of power, and some of us hold more influence than others. We’ll see whose power is stronger than whose. Especially now that we both know what we’re up against.”

“Oh, it’s still not a fair fight,” the Scientist said. “But I did give you fair warning, so you’re responsible for everything that happens next, Rosa. I hope you know that.” She opened the office door and showed Rosa into the hall.

“I’ll gladly take that responsibility,” Rosa said, walking all the way into the elevator.

“Well, I tried to warn you,” the Scientist said. “This’ll take you a few blocks from home. I trust you can find your own way after that. Good luck.”

The doors closed before Rosa could respond. The elevator fell into motion and stopped, then the doors opened onto a street she recognized. She hurried home, storming in through the full conference room and down to the basement where Anna and Olsen were sliding printers across the concrete floor.

“Rosa!” Anna ran over to embrace and kiss Rosa as soon as she saw her.

Rosa pushed away. “Where did these come from?”

Anna laughed. “I thought you’d tell me. This isn’t your plan to fund our new operation?”

“I only wish,” Rosa said.

“What happened to you?” Anna asked. “Where did you go?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” Rosa said, trying to process it all in her head still. So that woman did have some amount of control over transportation, but that didn’t mean that she controlled all of it. Obviously she didn’t or Rosa and Anna wouldn’t have their own transporter ring in the first place. But that woman’s technology was well advanced beyond theirs, there was no doubt about that. The way the door in that hall functioned was evidence enough.

“You can’t tell me anything?” Anna urged her on.

“There was this woman,” Rosa said. “An old woman. She—she said…” Rosa looked over at Olsen who was still trying to shove a printer even though Anna had stopped helping. It was obviously too big for one person to move so Rosa said, “Olsen, could you go start dinner for us? Make enough for yourself to eat, too, please.”

Olsen nodded and hurried clumsily out of the basement.

“What is it?” Anna asked, coming closer to Rosa.

“I’m not sure you’d even believe me,” Rosa said, shaking her head. “I’m not sure if I even believe it myself.”

“Of course I will, love. Tell your Nanna and she’ll make it better.”

“She said she’s been watching us,” Rosa said.

“Watching us?” Anna asked, scrunching up her eyes.

“And that she controls all transportation between the worlds.”

Impossible.”

“That’s what I said,” Rosa said. “But she sent these 3D printers as proof. The place she took me to, Anna. The things she showed me… They weren’t possible. And she’s after us.”

“But why?” Anna asked. “What have we done?”

“She said she’s the mother of the androids.”

“The mother of the androids? Was she one?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Then why does she care?” Anna scoffed.

“I don’t know,” Rosa said. “But she does. And she said she’s watching us.”

“So what are we supposed to do then?” Anna asked, crossing her arms.

“We speed things up,” Rosa said. “And we get more transporter rings to confuse her while she’s trying to figure out what we’re up to.”

More transporters?” Anna laughed. “We can’t even afford this one. How do you expect us to get more?”

“Look around you, Anna, dear.” Rosa embraced her. “We’re surrounded by printers.” She kissed Anna before she could talk “We can afford anything we want now.”

“Yes, well,” Anna broke away from Rosa’s embrace. “For as long as we have these we can. We better put them to use while we do, though. And what do you propose we do with them?”

“First, we get what we need to build the other transporter rings,” Rosa said. “More than a few more. Then we use them to feed the masses like we know they should be used to do.”

“But why more rings?”

“And we hurry our operations in Two,” Rosa said, ignoring the question. “We can’t forget the lower worlds, now can we? If we want success, our efforts must know no bounds. Am I right?”

“Yeah, but—”

Good.” Rosa smiled. “Let’s go brief Olsen. She’s ready, wouldn’t you say?”

“Well, it doesn’t take much, but—”

“Fine then,” Rosa said. “Perfect. Let’s go, dear.”

Rosa went up the stairs and to the kitchen before Anna could protest any further. If Rosa let her, she knew that Anna would go on and on, asking questions about what had happened and coddling Rosa for nonexistent injuries. There was no time left for that now, though. A new “mother” had shown her face, a human claiming to be the mother of androids. Well this so called mother had chosen her side, and Rosa had chosen hers. Rosa had her own Family to look after, and she wasn’t going to let some old lady’s anthropomorphizing sentimentality get in the way of that.

Olsen was standing behind the oven, frying something in a pan, jumping every now and again around the popping hot grease. She turned and smiled at Rosa as they approached. “I’m getting better,” Olsen said. “I still burn myself every now and then, but I don’t burn the food anymore, at least.” She smiled again then yelped and rubbed her arm where a bit of hot oil had hit it. “Ow! You see.”

“Yes, child,” Rosa said. “You’ve come a long way.”

“That she has,” Anna said, coming in and standing close behind Olsen to inspect her work. “She’ll be a proper chef in no time, if she keeps at it.”

Olsen blushed and set to scooping out the little nuggets. “Chicken,” she said. “It’s my favorite so I always practice with it.” She popped one in her mouth then promptly spit it out. “Ah. Hot!”

“You know, child,” Rosa said. “I think you’re ready to take on more responsibilities around here.” Olsen’s eyes widened. “We have a special project which I think would be perfect for you.”

Ooh, what is it?” Olsen smiled and popped another nugget in her mouth. Rosa could tell it was hot by the look on her face, but Olsen kept chewing through the heat anyway. “I’m in,” she said through her reverse blowing.

“Settle down, now,” Rosa said. “You haven’t even heard what the mission is. You can’t agree to something until you know what it is. Besides, there’s a test you have to pass first.”

“A test?” Olsen looked alarmed.

“Think of it as a trial run,” Rosa said. “You perform this first task up to our standards, and we’ll see if you’re capable of performing a more pressing piece of business for the Family.”

“Definitely,” Olsen said, nodding. “As long as it’s not a written test—I mean… What do you want me to do?”

“It’s simple, dear,” Anna said. “You and I are going to lug one of those big beasts of a 3D printer out of the basement and up onto the street corner.”

“That’s all?” Olsen asked.

“Of course not, sweetheart,” Anna said, shaking her head. “Then we offer each person who comes along whatever they want from the printer—sure to tell them it’s courtesy of the Family, of course—and ask them to join us. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.”

“What do you say?” Rosa asked.

“Well it doesn’t sound difficult,” Olsen said. “I don’t know what kind of test this is.”

“A trial run, child,” Rosa said. “Can you do it?”

“Of course I can,” Olsen said. “When do I start?”

“Right now,” Anna said. “You go downstairs and get ready. I’ll be down in a minute to help you.”

“Yeah, okay.” Olsen grabbed the rest of her nuggets and ate them on her way out.

“Do you think she’ll do this?” Anna asked.

“Hand out food on the streets? Of course.” Rosa smiled.

“You know what I mean,” Anna said.

“Well I think that, as long as we keep paying her for the privilege of learning how to cook, she’ll do anything we say.”

“But even this?”

“She doesn’t have to know what she’s doing.”

“It’ll be obvious once she’s done it though,” Anna said.

“Maybe not as obvious as you expect,” Rosa said. “Besides, I have a feeling that, once she gets out there and feels what it’s like to help her fellow brothers and sisters, she’ll do anything she can to get that feeling back.”

“I hope you’re right, dear.” Anna shook her head. “Though I’m not sure you are.”

“I’m not sure, either,” Rosa said. “But I am sure of one thing. You want to know what that is?”

“What?”

Rosa kissed her cheek. “No robot mother is going to hold our Family back.”

#     #     #

< XXX. Huey     [Table of Contents]    XXXII. Ansel >

So ends chapter 31 of the Infinite Limits tetralogy. I hope you’re enjoying the story so far. If so, pick up a full copy of the novel right here or sign up for my email update list right here.

Thanks again for following along this far, and a happy new year to all of you.

 

Chapter 30: Huey

Hey, y’all. Late again this weekend thanks to the holiday season messing with my internal clock, but here’s the next chapter in the Infinite Limits tetralogy. This time we return to Huey as he bargains and deals with the owners of Inland and Rosalind as she tries to keep him in line.

I hope you’re enjoying everything so far. If so, pick up a physical or digital copy of the full novel An Almost Tangent through this link and sign up to join my email newsletter here. I don’t send out many messages to the list, but when I do free books are usually involved.

Enjoy now. And have a good Sunday.

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

XXX. Huey

It was amazing to finally get to spend some time alone with Haley. It was the first chance Huey had gotten since Christmas. She was so busy spending time with her mom and sister, and he had his owner duties to tend to.

They had spent the rest of that day listing activities for Haley to try, and when they first started out, she could only name things she had already done. Huey helped her along with some suggestions she hadn’t thought of, though, and soon, they were shooting off ideas back and forth, creating a never-ending list of activities for her to try and find out if she loved.

“How could anyone ever be bored?” Haley had asked just as the Scientist and the kids came into the room, destroying Huey’s little Heaven. That was the end of his time alone with Haley, but even that small bit was enough to remain in his mind all through the rest of the next day which he spent sitting in one of the puffy office chairs, talking to Mr. Kitty about life, love, and Haley. He was still doing it late into the afternoon when Rosalind stormed in, breaking him from his conversation.

“Of course you’re in here,” she snapped, crossing her arms. “Doing nothing as always, I assume.”

“What?” Huey asked, shrugging at Mr. Kitty. “There’s nothing to be done. Of course I’m doing nothing.”

“Nothing to be done?” Rosalind huffed. “I take it you haven’t been following the proceedings in Outland Two, then, Mr. Douglas.”

“I—uh…” He hadn’t. Ever since his time with Haley he had thought about nothing else, and certainly not all this nonsense going on in the Outlands. He could only put off his duties for so long, though.

Your undercover operations,” Rosalind said. “You do remember those, don’t you?”

Huey nodded, embarrassed.

“Well, the protectors have intel which should help prepare you for the inevitable meeting you’ll be having with the Fortune Five about it. So, if you don’t protest, Mr. Douglas, sir, your elevator’s waiting.” She curtsied and stepped out of the room into the hall.

“Well, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, standing from his chair. “You heard her. I have work to do. Thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy your company.”

Mr. Kitty didn’t answer. He just kept licking himself.

Huey fixed his tuxedo, putting on his top hat and monocle, in the reflection on the wallwindow. He always had to look the part of an owner or all the work they had been doing for so long would be all for not. Satisfied, he went out to the hall where Rosalind was waiting in the elevator.

The doors slid closed. “So, any background I need for this?” Huey asked as the elevator carried them downward.

“I’m sure your squad will brief you,” Rosalind said.

The elevator doors opened to three protectors saluting them. “At ease,” Huey said.

They dropped their salutes, and the protector in front, Agent Colvin, said, “Yes, sir. We thought you’d like an update before the planned demonstration, sir. Were we wrong, sir?”

“Demonstration?” Huey asked. He should have been paying more attention instead of dreaming about Haley. Rosalind shot him a dirty look as if she agreed with his very thoughts.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin went on. “From the video message, sir. We’ll show you everything right away, sir. Follow me.” She directed them down a long white hall, lined with blue carpet. There were glass doors every so often, with offices behind them, and in the door at the end of the hall was a long room with stadium seating, all directed at a podium and screen.

“If you’ll take a seat, sir,” Agent Colvin said.

Huey took the front row center seat and tried to signal to Rosalind to sit next to him, but she stood off to the side, ignoring him. Agent Colvin stood behind the podium and didn’t say a word. She simply stared out at Huey and the empty seats around him, standing at attention. After he took his tall hat off and set it on the chair next to him, rolling his neck to stretch it, he realized that she was waiting for him and said, “Go ahead.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “Where would you like me to begin, sir?”

“From the beginning, please,” Huey said. “Whatever you had planned to tell me. Assume I haven’t paid any attention in the last twenty four hours.”

Rosalind scoffed behind him.

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “As you know, since the Christmas attack we’ve seen a rapid increase in cross-world contamination incidents. That includes border crossings, printer theft, the usual. We believe we’ve got our thumbs on the major illegal immigration cartels, but even with our increased activities, contamination incidents continue to grow. That’s all without mentioning the den of thieves which Outland Five has become with its introduction to Outland Six.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Perhaps I should have been more clear, Agent. My major concern right now is Outland Two. We all know that the savages in Five and Six can’t be domesticated, but when their behavior spreads closer to us, we have reason to worry. Do you understand?” He felt bad for saying it like that. He didn’t really believe that the people who lived in Five and Six were any more savages than the people that lived in any of the worlds, but he had a role to fill. The protectors here were required to believe that he was no different from any other owner so he had to act like one. He could practically hear Rosalind’s head shaking behind him, though—and her eyes rolling. She probably thought that he actually believed what he was saying, even though she knew from experience that he was helping fight to free those very “savages” from their oppression. She always thought that he enjoyed filling the role of an owner too much, and in some ways, she was right. It did have its benefits. But this wasn’t one of them.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted behind the podium, trying to get back on track after the tangent.

Huey felt bad for her so he tried to help her along. “You said something about a video message,” he said. “Let’s start with that.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, standing up straighter again. “As you know, at seventeen hundred hours yesterday an unpermitted group of students gathered on private school grounds to spread blasphemous libel.”

Huey nodded. He wasn’t sure he would call it blasphemous or libel, but he appreciated her enthusiasm.

“This particular group of students,” Agent Colvin went on. “Was led by one Emma Whistleblower.” A picture of the Emma in question, with her name in block letters underneath, came up on the screen behind Agent Colvin. “We’ve been tracking her as per your previous request, and as such, we were in prime position for yesterday’s incident. That is to say we already had, and still do have, an agent embedded in their group, sir.”

“Good, good,” Huey said. “But I know all of this already. What about the video?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin straightened up even more, if that was at all possible. “Whistleblower, it’s been revealed—and with due attention to the irony, I might add, sir—wears a camera pin to all illicit functions. She had an emergency protocol in place, and when the illegal activity was put to a halt, the video was sent out to her entire contact list, including everyone who had their contact information in the school’s directory. That’s everyone who works at, teaches at, or attends the university, sir.”

Huey was going to respond, but Agent Colvin stepped out from in front of the screen. The picture of Emma disappeared, and a video of a group of young students, including their Whistleblower, came up in its stead. There was no sound, but Huey could tell they were all listening to Emma speak from behind the camera. Everyone turned their heads at once, and the camera panned over to look the way they were all staring to see a troupe of a hundred white-clad protectors marching toward them. The camera got shakier and panned back and forth between the students, who were tightening up into a bunch—only to make themselves easier targets—and the protectors, who had started hitting them with gas and bean bags, filling the screen with smoke. In the gaseous, dense fog the camera fell to the ground and blacked out.

Agent Colvin stepped back up to the podium. “As you can see, sir,” she said. “The situation was handled efficiently.”

Huey let out a loud chortle. “No,” he said. “That it wasn’t, Agent Colvin. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. And it wasn’t you protectors’ fault, at that.”

Agent Colvin fidgeted again behind the podium. “That’s not all, sir,” she said.

“Go on,” Huey said, waving her on. Of course that wasn’t the end of it. That was just the beginning. It was the spark of an explosion he had talked about with Mr. Angrom.

“Well, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “There was a message sent with the video, sir. Shall I read it to you, or—”

“On the screen, please,” he said.

It popped up. “This is how they protect you,” it read. “We are students. We gathered on the parade grounds. We did no wrong. We tried to warn you. What you thought was yours does not belong to you. Now the protectors have shown you. The protectors have shown us all. How long will we let them take what is ours?

“We ask you to clear all school grounds in memory of those who were viciously attacked by our ‘protectors’. We will hold this vigil for 24 hours, and at 5:00 PM on January 2nd we will reclaim the grounds! The only question left is will you be there to help us take back what is ours?”

It didn’t take Huey more than a few seconds to read and a couple more to process. He smiled when he had then licked his lips to hide it. Now was not the time for celebration. Now was the time to fill his role. He waited a little longer to answer, the amount of time that a normal owner would take to read such a minor amount of text, then said, “And have you been surveying the campus?”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted then added, “Not a soul, sir.”

Huey fought the smile again. “Is our embedded agent in place?”

“Sir, yes, sir. He was arrested with everyone else, but his cover wasn’t blown. We’ll be set up for the demonstration at seventeen hundred, sir.”

Good,” Huey said. “Very good. It’s extremely important that we keep our eyes on this particular movement. Do you understand? This is the start of something much bigger. I know it is.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted. “Our agent is moving into position as we speak, and we have the parade grounds monitored from all sides. We have been monitoring them since long before yesterday, sir. We’ll be ready, but how do you want us to proceed?”

Huey laughed. Oh how he wished it was his decision. Well, not really. If he was in control, he would be able to actually put an end to all this, but that’s not what he really wanted. Sometimes he almost forgot that himself. No, what the owners would undoubtedly do would be violent and painful for those brave few children on the front lines, but it would only help to bolster their message in the long run. The owners were fighting gasoline with fire just like Mr. Angrom had said.

“Unfortunately,” Huey said, “That decision does not lie with me. We can only prepare and react based on Lord Walker’s whims.”

“Sir, but—” Agent Colvin started.

“Let me finish, please,” Huey said, holding up a hand to stop her. “There are a few things I need from you. First, have you noticed our food and energy costs declining?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, confused. “But what does—”

“In exchange for this gift,” Huey said, ignoring her questions, “we will ensure that no harm comes to Emma Whistleblower or her roommate Tillie Manager. Do you understand me?”

“I—uh. But, sir. Emma is—”

“Emma is the roommate and best friend of Mr. Angrom’s top manager’s daughter—Tillie, the one with Manager in the name. If any harm comes to either of them, I will hold you personally responsible. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir. But the efficient—”

“Stop right there,” Huey said. “I don’t need a lecture on efficiency. I define efficiency, Agent Colvin. I know what is most efficient, and it’s my decision either way. We will ensure that no harm comes to either of them. We will enjoy lower costs as a result. And we will do it most efficiently without any arguing from underlings like you. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted.

“Good. Very good,” Huey stood up and rubbed his hands together. “Then if there’s nothing else, I’ll be on my way. Business to get to. You know.”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “But…we’ll need to deploy more agents if we—”

“Oh, yes yes,” Huey said. “Of course. Go ahead. We can afford it now.” He smiled. “Okay, Agent Colvin. I’ll see myself out. You have your own work to tend to.”

Huey turned, expecting to see Rosalind, but she wasn’t there. He walked himself all the way out to the elevator before he found her. She avoided eye contact with him until he stepped into the elevator, too, and they watched the doors close.

When the elevator was on its way down, Rosalind scoffed. “You define efficiency,” she said. “I think we might be using different dictionaries.”

“It was an act, Roz,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Everything you see me do in front of the owners or my employees is an act. That’s not really me.”

“I’m one of your employees,” she said as the elevator doors opened. “I guess you’re acting when you’re in front of me.”

“It’s not the same,” he called, but she had already disappeared through the hall door.

Huey sighed to himself. He hated this animosity he felt between him and Rosalind. He wished there was some way he could set things right, but he had no idea where they had gone wrong in the first place. In order to do anything about it he would have to discern that first. He was set on doing just that when the elevator door opened behind him and Ansel and Richard came running through the hall past him.

“Woah, now,” he said as they disappeared through the hall door.

“I’m sorry,” Haley said behind him, laughing.

Huey turned and smiled. “Ah,” he said. “How lovely to see you.”

Haley blushed. “Hello, Mr. Douglas.”

Huey,” he said. “How has your day been, dear?”

Oh.” Haley smiled wide. “You wouldn’t believe it. The kids took me out to run in the grass and chase animals. We climbed trees, and I even got to shoot a slingshot! Uh. I mean… How was your day, sir?”

Huey chuckled. “Not as good yours, I’m afraid. Nowhere near it. And it only looks to be getting worse.”

“Oh no,” Haley frowned. “Is there anything I can do about it?”

Huey checked his watch. It was getting on toward time to go to a feast, and he knew there would be business at this one. His protectors had just told him as much. Still, he wanted even more than ever to spend as much time as he could with Haley. Maybe she could be of assistance with his problems. She was the most experienced android in existence. But no. She had no idea of the situation. She had only just become independent. There was no way she could help. It was his desire to spend time with her and nothing more.

“No,” Huey said finally. “I’m afraid not. Not this time at least. But if you’ll let me get through this feast, there is one thing I could use your help with.”

“What?” Haley asked.

“Finding what it is you love,” he said. “We never finished that yesterday.”

Haley chuckled and blushed again. “No, well, I have a lot to try,” she said. “You said so yourself.”

“Yes.” Huey smiled. “But I have some ideas I think you might not have thought of yet.”

“I can’t wait to hear them,” Haley said. “But I promised the kids that I’d show them how to make cheesecake and whipped cream first. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh, no,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time. You go ahead. I’ll find you again when I’m not so busy. I promise.”

“I can’t wait,” Haley said as she slipped through the hall door into the kitchen.

Huey took a second to catch his breath and let his head calm down. What was wrong with him? He had never felt this way about anyone before. He shook his head to get the thought of her out of it, and made his way through the hall door. He didn’t pick a room before he opened it, but it came out to the office. Probably a default because this was the room he chose most often. Rosalind was sitting in one of the chairs, staring out the window onto the wilderness scene. She didn’t turn to acknowledge him, even when he sat on a chair across from her and put his heavy top hat on a side table.

“You finally made it,” she said after some time’s silence.

Huey didn’t give her the satisfaction of a response.

“So how do you think the owners will respond?” she asked, still looking out the window.

“Exactly how we’ve predicted they would all along,” he said. “They haven’t failed us yet. Or they’ve only failed us. Is there a difference?”

“No, brother. There isn’t a difference,” she said, shaking her head and gazing out the window. “Not with owners. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. The better off we’ll all be, as a matter of fact.”

“You know, I’m sick of you always undermining me.”

Rosalind laughed. “Me, too, sir,” she said with a smile. “Me, too.”

“We’re on the same side whether you believe it or not,” Huey went on. “I’m doing what I was built to do. I’m fulfilling my role, just like you are. I want to free the assembly line workers just as much as you do, and that’s the only reason I put on this disgusting costume every day.”

Rosalind laughed. “Free the assembly line workers, huh? But that’s the entire point of our disagreement, brother. You only see the assembly line workers, and you ignore the secretaries who bathe, dress, and feed the owners. You ignore the oppression they need to be freed from. You ignore me.”

Huey shook his head and grimaced. “Ugh,” he said. “No I don’t. I—”

It doesn’t matter,” Rosalind snapped. “It’s time. Lord Walker called the feast. Let’s tend to your duties, Mr. Douglas.”

“No,” Huey said. “Wait, but—” But Rosalind had left the room already.

She was wrong. Huey did care about the secretaries. He wanted to help everyone, but he had to start somewhere. He couldn’t do everything all at once. Roz only cared about the secretaries because she was currently fulfilling the role of one. Her view was biased. Huey, however, could see clearly from his position as an owner, so he knew his strategy would work better than Rosalind’s. He stood from the chair, put back on his top hat, and followed Roz out to the elevator.

She was waiting inside the doors as usual. He stepped in, and she didn’t say anything to him for the entire ride to the same spinning carousel restaurant in which the previous meeting feast was held. Any time Lord Walker got to choose where the meeting feasts were, he chose the same restaurant. Lord Walker owned the Carousel, and the more often the Fortune Five was seen there, the more likely it would be for other owners to want to be seen there themselves. It was perfect advertising on top of the fact that whatever anyone ordered during the meeting they had to pay Lord Walker for. No outside food or drinks were allowed on the premises.

Huey and Rosalind rode the hover platform up to the head table where Lord Walker and Mr. Loch were laughing drunkenly, patting each other on the back with one hand and waving fried chicken legs around in the air with the other. Mr. Loch dropped his chicken leg and started banging on the table while Lord Walker—who noticed Huey’s arrival—tried to stifle his laughter to speak. “Oh ho ho! Wooooo. Douggy boy. Ho ho ho! You—ho—you beat Smörgy. Ho ho have a seat.”

Numbers clicked in Huey’s head, a small signal from the stock market. He smiled. He had expected this to happen soon but not this soon. In fact, he had almost forgotten about it, lost with everything else he had lost because he had been spending his time thinking about Haley. He turned to Rosalind and grinned. She just shrugged and rolled her eyes, shaking her head. Huey picked up a seat from the end of the table furthest from Walker and dragged it around to the head of the table opposite from him. He sat down on it with a smile as the laughter from the other end of the table died down.

Ahem. Mr. Douglas,” Loch said, an embarrassed look on his face. “Mannersh,” he slurred.

“Now, now, Douggy Poo,” Walker said, cool and collected. He tapped his greasy fingers on the table cloth, leaving stains in their wake. “What is this all about? Huh?”

“You don’t know?” Huey asked with a smile. “You called this meeting.”

“Yes,” Walker said, smiling back. “I called it so we could discuss our next step in dealing with the burgeoning complications in Outland Two. Not so we could bicker over the seating arrangements. Now if you’ll please.” He waved the chicken leg in his hand, trying to tell Huey to move his chair back, but Lord Douglas just smiled.

The hover platform came up carrying Angrom and his secretary. Angrom stood there staring at the table, as if trying to decide how to react, before he went and sat at the right hand of Huey—kitty-corner to Loch—without a word.

“Angrom!” Loch complained, slamming his fist on the table. “What do you think about this?”

“About what, sir?” Angrom asked, shaking his head and feigning confusion. “I’ve only just arrived. How am I to know what you’ve been blathering on about before I got here?”

“You know what I’m—” Loch started, but Walker stopped him.

“Settle down now, Loch Ness,” he said. “We all know what you’re talking about, Mr. Angrom included. He made his decision when he sat down. Didn’t you Angry?”

Angrom smiled. “Not so angry anymore, Wally,” he said with a chuckle. “I think the view is turning for the better. How about you?”

Walker couldn’t hide his derision. “What is this?” he demanded, his voice losing confidence. “Is this some sort of coup or something? You trying to take over, boy?”

Huey shook his head. “I’ve never been a boy,” he said.

No, boy?” Walker raised his voice. “You’ve always been one. And you’ll never amount to anything more than that by acting like this. Now our Smörgy should be here soon, and we’ll let him break this little stalemate for us once and for all.”

“It’s not for any of us to decide,” Huey replied.

The hover platform came up carrying Smörgåsbord, and he walked right up to the seat at Huey’s left hand side to sit down without pause.

Loch’s face instantly turned bright red. He slammed his fist on the table, setting a turkey leg flying, and yelled, “You, too, Smörgåsbord?”

Walker couldn’t hold in his true thoughts, either. “You boxhead, hyrdie-byrdie traitor!” he screamed. “What are you doing?”

“Um, excuse me?” Smörgåsbord demanded, wide eyed and obviously trying not to take visible offence. “How was that now?”

“I said,” Walker said, “why are you sitting on that side of the table, Smörgbox? Do you not realize what you’ve done?”

“Well, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said with a straight face. “I’ll spare you any racial slurs which might apply all too well to you and ask you similar questions in a civilized manner. Why are you sitting at the foot of the table, sir? Do you not notice what you’ve done?”

Walker’s face turned a shade of red which Huey didn’t know human skin was capable of. “I—” Walker stammered, looking around at each face sitting at the table in turn. “The foot? Lord Walker…” His head looked like it was going to explode.

“No, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said. “I checked the numbers before I came here—as I do before I go anywhere—and while you were in your right to call this meeting when you did, as of now, you’re sitting at the foot of the table, sir.”

Lord Huey Douglas smiled. He soaked in Walker’s anger, embarrassment, and disbelief. Walker had been the richest man in all the world for his entire life practically, and now he was no one, he was number two. It took Walker a while to finally accept that fact and he looked like he was going to cry before he finally gave in. Eventually he stood up and called Haley’s doppelganger over to move his chair for him. Seeing Haley have to do that—and knowing that the real Haley was forced to do the same menial tasks, and worse, for so long—only made Huey want to punish Walker all the more, but now wasn’t the time for that. There was business to tend to first.

“Now that we have the seating arrangement under control,” Huey said. “I believe that Mr. Walker called this feast to talk about his botched job in Outland Two. And because I think that Mr. Walker’s failure is a pertinent topic of discussion myself, let’s get on with it.”

“Now I—” Walker started.

Now, I believe that you and I would agree on our next course of action, Mr. Walker,” Huey cut him off. Walker looked around for anyone to protest in his defense, but Loch avoided his gaze, chugging his drink instead, and Angrom laughed silently at him. “I believe—like I know you do, Mr. Walker—in fact, to use your own choice of language, I believe that we should handle this the old-fashioned way.”

Walker sneered.

“How’s that, Lord?” Angrom asked, happy to call Huey his new Lord rather than the much greater evil of Walker.

“We tear it up by the roots,” Huey said, motioning as if he were tearing up weeds from a garden as he spoke. “Like our friends here failed so miserably to do the first time. The key, which they didn’t have, is to know which part of the plant is the root. You target that and the problem won’t ever come back again.”

We tried that,” Walker whined. “And now my protectors expect exponentially more of those hobgoblins out there today. How do you propose to find the roots through all that foliage?” He smiled, satisfied that he had destroyed Huey’s point, no doubt.

Huey chuckled. “That’s the secret, my walrus-sized friend. We already know who the roots are. We’ve known since before you and yours went and fucked things up worse than they already were. I tried to warn you, but you’re made of brick. Aren’t you, Wally?”

Walker didn’t answer. He seethed and ordered Haley’s twin to get him more drinks.

“So these roots,” Smörgåsbord said. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with the change in power yet, but he wasn’t hesitating to go with what he knew the market demanded. “You say you know what—or is it who?—whatever. What are they, Lord Douglas?”

They are a she,” Huey said. The whole table looked confused at the wording. “One student in particular: Emma Whistleblower.”

Pffft. Whistleblower?” Loch said, splashing his drink.

“Yes, Mr. Loch,” Huey said. “Thank you for pointing that out. She is the driving force behind all of this. It was she who started the first Reclaim the Grounds demonstration on New Year’s Day. My private protection agents have evidence which suggests that she was involved in the twelve twenty five attacks as well. We’ve known all of this since before Mr. Walker made his blunder. I tried to warn him before now, but I can still pick up the pieces like I promised I would.”

“No, wait—” Walker protested.

“Kill her!” Loch said, raising his glass.

“Is that what the intelligence said?” Angrom asked.

“Yes,” Huey said. “It is. So let’s put an end to this nonsense once and for all.”

#     #     #

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

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Chapter 29: Tillie

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.

< XXVIII. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXX. Huey >

XXIX. Tillie

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.

“Now, citizen!”

“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.”

“I—But—”

“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?”

“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.”

“Extra strength—”

Maximum strength.”

“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?”

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?”

“No, but—”

“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?”

Tillie nodded.

“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.”

Great.”

“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.

Rod nodded.

“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?”

 

#     #     #

< XXVIII. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXX. Huey >

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