Chapter 76: Ms. Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to the story of Captain Mondragon as she goes undercover as Ms. Mondragon in search of the protector who got away. If you love the story so far–which if you’ve come this far, I’m sure you do–then don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel through this link. Now, enjoy.

< LXXV. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXXVII. The Scientist >

LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon

Chief Mondragon had never enjoyed walking a beat. Not for her entire career. She wasn’t that type of protector. She had always thought she was more of a bodyguard type, meant for Outland Three, but she had never been given the opportunity. Embarrassingly, she used to harbor an outlandish fantasy about being noticed on set and asked to guest star on one of her favorite versions of Law and Order—or at the very least to serve as an advisor of some sort. Instead she always ended up stuck in Five, like the workhorse she was, until she couldn’t help but to make a name for herself, working her way up the ranks faster than any protector in history. How ironic it was, then, finally a Chief, as far above a rookie Officer on a foot beat that she could possibly be, and still, there she was, on the shittiest of assignments, alone, in Outland Six, the asshole of the universe, looking for the protector—no, trash—who had shot her, Ms. Mondragon—she was still undercover, after all.

The skyscrapers were tall and dark all around her, infinite and eternal if the owners could have their way—and for more than a long time they had. As massive and imposing as the architecture was, however, the denizens of Outland Six were exactly the opposite. They were all tiny, scruffy, and frail, looking like they could be blown away at any minute by the next breeze. Yet they still carried on defiantly around Ms. Mondragon, trying to ignore the giant among dwarves, as if they weren’t afraid of her for as long as she was out of uniform.

Officer Jones was smarter than any of them had given her credit for by selecting Jones for the culling, though. That much was for sure. Not only had the rookie managed to avoid Ms. Mondragon’s bullet—a feat accomplished by no other culling sacrifice in Ms. Mondragon’s long history of performing the duty—Jones had also been aware enough to ditch all tracking devices before a K-9 unit could catch up to her—including the three implanted under her skin, a very painful process. Now Jones had disappeared into the dirty, shit-smelling Streets of Outland Six, and there was no telling where she could be. The only chance Ms. Mondragon had of finding Jones was the exact reason she hated taking beats in Outland Six in the first place: she was going to have to ask the locals for help.

Who though? That was the rub. None of the trash was giving her a hard time yet, but they did notice her, and stared just a little, looking rightfully suspicious. Sure, there were stories of runaway traitors who had jumped worlds, looking to hide from this and that or steal the other from another, but those instances were few and far between. No one near had likely ever seen a person who was as tall as Ms. Mondragon outside of a protector uniform, and that was going to make it difficult for her to find someone who was willing to cooperate for long enough to give any assistance.

Ms. Mondragon turned down a particularly dark alley, looking to continue her search, when as if in answer to her prayers, Amaru dropped two little children right on top of her. Literally. They fell as if from the sky and landed on Ms. Mondragon’s head, knocking them all into a confused heap on the ground that was trying to get up in three different directions at once.

“Thim, are you okay?” one of the children called, struggling to stand.

“Stevie, where are you?” the other, Thim, yelled. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” the first kid, Stevie, said. “I’m right behind you. I— Nevermind.”

Ms. Mondragon waved her hand right in front of Stevie’s face, but the kid still didn’t answer, instead walking forward—almost straight into Ms. Mondragon who only just stepped out of the way—to tap Thim on the shoulder.

Thim turned fast, putting their fists up as if to fight. “Hey, now. Don’t surprise me,” they said before they noticed Ms. Mondragon and dropped their hands in wide-eyed awe.

“Surprise you?” Stevie laughed, still oblivious to Ms. Mondragon’s presence. “That’s something coming from the one of us who decided it was a good idea to jump off a building in pursuit of a cat. You’re lucky I followed you. You might be here all alone. Now where is here anyway?”

“Not right now,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie by the hand and pulling them to turn around and stand by Thim’s side, facing Ms. Mondragon. “Who are you?” Thim demanded.

“Who the Hell are you?” Ms. Mondragon demanded right back. “And where’d you come from?”

“That’s none of your business,” Thim said. “We have chores we need to get to. Good bye.” Thim tried to pull Stevie up the other way through the alley, but Ms. Mondragon stepped in front of them to block their way.

“Hold on, now. Wait a second,” she said, holding out a hand for the kids to shake. “Maybe we got off on the wrong foot—or should I say head?” Ms. Mondragon laughed too loudly at the joke, trying hard to gain the children’s confidence but having trouble because she had never liked children at all. “My name’s Ms. Mondragon. I noticed that you’re Stevie and you’re Thim.”

Thim just looked at Ms. Mondragon’s proffered hand like they were afraid of it, but now Stevie took charge. “Well, Mrs. Mondragon—” they started but were interrupted.

“Please, Miss,” Ms. Mondragon said, tutting and really getting into her character. “Or just shorten it to Mona if you want to.” Ms. Mondragon smiled on the outside but cringed on the inside, she hated that name.

“Okay, Mona,” Stevie went on. “But it doesn’t matter. We still have to leave.”

And so this time Stevie tried to lead Thim away, pulling them by the hand, but Ms. Mondragon was done playing games. She picked Thim up by the back of the collar and said, “Now listen to me, kid. You’re gonna talk or else.” But Thim wasn’t listening, instead struggling and fighting and saying, “Hey, let me down.”

“Or else what?” Stevie demanded, kind of looking in Ms. Mondragon’s direction, but not really, while at the same time reaching out with their hands to feel around, as if in search of something—most likely Thim, Ms. Mondragon assumed as she started to understand the situation. These kids were good, though, keeping it hidden from Mona for so long. Maybe they could actually help her find Jones after all.

Or else,” Ms. Mondragon repeated, setting Thim down right next to Stevie then pulling her gun out of her pants waist to prevent them from trying to escape again, “I take this gun, and I kill one of you little trashlings with it, then I force the other of you to give me the information I’m looking for anyway.”

“She doesn’t want it that bad,” Thim said to Stevie, calling Mondragon’s bluff, and the two kids ran off into the alley anyway.

Ms. Mondragon huffed, hesitating, unsure if chasing them was worth it and coming to the decision that the kids weren’t going to offer any information anyway. She was just going to have to think up another way of finding Jones for herself.

Ugh. She still had at least a couple of hours before she was expected back at the precinct for some useless meeting or another, so she went in the opposite direction from where those pesky kids had run off to in the hopes of finding some other useful lead. She was making her way through the maze of alleys, searching for something, becoming more and more suspicious of the emptiness of the Streets when they filled up again, all of a sudden and from both sides.

Soooie!” came voices from either end of the alley she was walking down. “Looks like we got us an old fashioned pig pen.”

“Y’all better watch out, now!” Mondragon yelled, pointing her gun up and down the alley. “You don’t want me to use this.”

The whole group of them cackled.

“Come on now, pig,” one of her pursuers said. “Don’t make us laugh.”

And: Pop. Pop. With two bullets, Ms. Mondragon killed two of her approaching attackers, hoping to start clearing herself a path out of the alley, but all the rest of them just laughed louder in response to their fallen comrades’ deaths.

“How many bullets do you think you have in there?” one of them asked.

“How many do I need?” Ms. Mondragon snapped back, knowing good and well that she didn’t have enough to fend them all off, whether they had weapons of their own or not.

“More than you could ever make,” one of the group behind her said.

“They can always make more,” Ms. Mondragon said, and she fired a couple more rounds off, her attackers getting too close for comfort. “I don’t know if we can say the same about y’all, though.”

“Oh, you can,” one of them said, stepping forward with arms outstretched like spread wings. “See? Do whatever you want with me. It doesn’t matter.”

Mondragon shot him in the head. “Okay,” she said, pointing her gun at the rest of them. “Who’s next?”

“Pick one,” they all said. “We are all one. And you are all alone.”

Mondragon fired off a few more rounds before she was swarmed, gagged, and cuffed.

“Now you’re ours for once,” the group of them said all at the same time, in dozens of different voices, and Ms. Mondragon felt a thud on the back of her head before passing out on the cold concrete.

 

#     #     #

She awoke tied to a chair with a gag in her mouth, and she struggled. Where was she? Who was she? Chief—no—Ms. Mondragon. She had to remember that. She was still undercover. She was tall. That’s all. Still a sixer piece of trash, but a tall one. She had to convince her captors of that or things would only get worse for her, Ms. Mondragon was sure of that.

It wasn’t long after waking that Ms. Mondragon heard a door open, felt a presence in the room. She started to struggle again, and tried to talk through the disgusting gag in her mouth, before a lone white light switched on, blinding Mondragon more than darkness ever could have. “Untie me this instant,” she demanded anyway, squinting hard against the hot hot lights, but all her words came out mum. “Mummum mum mum mummum.”

Struggle struggle all you want,” a cackling old crone’s voice sang from behind the blinding light. “Complain that you’ve given more than you’ve got. Yet you’ve taken more than you’d ever give. So tied up with us, come see how we live. Ah ha ha ha ha,” she sang, followed by more cackling laughter.

And, “Mum mum mum mum mum,” was all that Ms. Mondragon could say in response.

“You’re free to speak all you want,” the woman said without singing this time, and Mondragon thought she recognized the voice but couldn’t quite place it. If she could only get that gag out of her mouth, she’d be able to talk some sense into whoever it was. “You have the freedom of speech,” the bodiless voice went on from behind the blinding lights. “But I can talk louder than you now!” she yelled. “How does it feel?”

Mum mummu mum mum mum,” Ms. Mondragon mumbled in response.

“Yes, I know,” the woman went on as if she had understood what Ms. Mondragon said. “I’ve felt it, too. I feel it every day of my life in this exploitative system, and as soon as that stupid wall’s fixed up again, I’m gonna be silenced even more than I already am. It’s disempowering, demobilizing, devastating. It makes you feel like less than a human, doesn’t it?”

Mum mumum mu—”

I know. And now you know just the tiniest bit more about where I’m coming from—about where we all live every single day of our pathetic little lives in Outland Six. And maybe you can come to understand just a tiniest bit better why I have no choice but to do what I’m about to do. So are you ready for me to remove the gag, then?”

“I’d rather you turn off the spotlight first,” Mondragon tried to say, but again, none of her words made it through the gag.

“If I’m gonna do this, I need assurances that you’ll act like a civilized human being. So, can you please answer me reasonably. Shake for no, nod for yes. No need to mumble through the gag that I’m offering to remove.”

Ms. Mondragon almost started to talk again, but she caught herself and nodded instead.

“Very good. Now, are you gonna act like a civilized human being so I can take this uncomfortable gag out of your mouth?”

Ms. Mondragon nodded again.

“Okay. I’m trusting you. Don’t let me down,” the voice said, stepping through the light to become a hunched, frail shadow that removed Ms. Mondragon’s gag before disappearing behind the brightness again. “There you are. How’s that?”

Ms. Mondragon wanted to yell and scream and spit, but she knew that none of those things would get her untied. She had to get on her captor’s good side if she wanted to escape. So she used her softest, nicest voice to say, “Much better. Thank you.”

“Very good,” the old woman said, and Mondragon could tell she was smiling by the sound of her voice, even if the woman still hid behind the bright spotlight. “Now, tell me your name.”

“Do you think we can turn that light off first?” Ms. Mondragon asked, flinching away from it. “It’s blinding.”

Tell me your name,” the woman repeated in a sterner voice.

“I—uh—Ms. Mondragon,” Ms. Mondragon stammered, trying not to offend the woman.

“Miss?” the woman said with a scoff. “Please, now, dear. If you plan on playing games, I’ll put your gag right back in your mouth and leave you here in the dark until we need you. I’m trying to extend some common courtesy here. So please, don’t insult me.”

“I—uh—I don’t understand,” Ms. Mondragon stammered, trying to figure out where—or when—she recognized the old woman’s voice from.

“What’s your name?” the woman repeated. “It’s not a difficult question.”

“I told you. Miss—”

“Your name is not Miss.”

“Okay, Chief Mondragon,” the Chief gave in. Who was she to think that she could ever hide who she was anyway?

“Pretty sure Chief’s not your name, either, Chief. Though that does get my next few questions out of the way.”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“What. Is. Your. Name? How can this be hard?”

The Chief didn’t know why it was hard either. She had been Officer, Captain, Chief, and everything in between for so long now that it was almost as if her old name was no longer a part of her, a distant memory that was hazy, out of focus, and hard to look upon.

“Muna,” she finally said, quietly and in a croaking voice, as if her body didn’t want to remember it. “Muna Mondragon,” she repeated, a little louder this time.

Muna Mondragon,” the old woman said, smiling again from the sound of her voice. “Very good. Now, do you recognize who I am?”

“I can’t see you, ma’am,” Muna said, trying hard not to sound annoyed. “Maybe if you turn the light off, I might recognize you.”

“Do you promise to continue acting calm and decent like a civilized person?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Very well.” Switches clicked and the lights flipped—the blinding spotlight turning off and the, not as bright, overhead lights turning on. “Tell me what you see.”

Muna had to hold her eyes shut for a while longer to let them adjust to the new dimness of the room. Whoever the old woman was just waited in silence, all except for the sound of her heavy breathing. When Muna’s eyes finally did adjust, she blinked them open and found exactly what she had expected to find: a frail, hunchbacked old woman who Muna thought she recognized from somewhere some time but still couldn’t quite place for sure.

“So?” the old woman asked when she had given Muna sufficient time to adjust to the darkness. “Do you recognize me, Chief Mondragon? I’ll give you a hint. You weren’t yet a Chief when we first met.”

Muna reached deeper into her memories, looking for the old woman, and still nothing came. She never did like guessing games, but she had to play along if she ever wanted to be free, so she just said the first name that came out of her mouth. “I don’t know. Rosa?”

Ah ha ha ha!” the old woman cackled. Then she stopped all of a sudden, got serious, and stood a hairsbreadth away from Muna’s face to say, “If only. If only I were Rosa. Then maybe you wouldn’t be here at all. Maybe you’d be dead and naked in that alley where we caught you molesting those poor children.”

“I wasn’t—” Muna complained, trying to defend her name, but the old woman hit Muna hard knuckled on the thigh, giving her a Charley horse she couldn’t do anything about because her arms and legs were tied to the chair.

“You won’t speak again until I tell you to,” the old woman snapped. “I’m not finished explaining why you’re lucky to be sitting in front of me and not Rosa. I haven’t told you why Rosa is unable to stand here in front of you right now—even if she wanted to. Do you have any idea why that might be?”

Sure Muna did. Rosa was one of the lower worlders who had helped Mr. Walker recruit more lower worlders to fight in his war against the robots. Rosa had probably died just like most of the lower worlders have in this protracted and ongoing war between the human and robot workers. But Muna wasn’t about to admit to any of that while she was tied to a chair in this crazy old woman’s dungeon, so she just kept her mouth shut for the time being.

“This time I would actually like for you to speak up,” the old woman said, slowly pacing the room. “My God. You really are just defiant by nature, aren’t you? Speak up. Where do you think Rosa is?”

“Well, I—” Muna started to say.

She’s dead,” the old woman snapped. “She died in your war, fighting your battles for you. You killed her.”

“No— I didn’t,” Muna complained. “Not my war. I have bosses.”

“Yes. You did. You still do. You are the face of this war, the Chief of the Protector Force, and it must have been destiny that you walked into that alley when you did, because you could never be more useful to us than you are right now. So thank you for that much. But that’s all I need from you for now. You sit tight, and I’ll come back to get you when you can be useful again.”

“No, wait,” Muna called. “You never told me who you are. I— You’re the new head of the Human Family. Right?”

Buh ha ha ha ha!” the old woman cackled. “You wish. Then you could have me go fight your fights for you like you used to do with Rosa. Well, not this time. I hate to tell you that most of the Human Family—with more and more defectors every day—broke off to form our own group. We’re no longer the Human Family. We’re just the Family now, and we’re your worst nightmare. We’ve finally realized that we have more in common with the oppressed robots than we do with y’all owners—even if you call yourselves human. Now we might actually be able to do something to stop you.”

“I’m not an owner. I—” Muna tried to say.

“You’ll shut up. You’re just as bad as an owner if not worse. Now, like I said, that’s all I need from you. You can wait here until you’re useful again.” She switched the lights off and left Muna alone in the darkness.

Muna struggled against her bindings, shaking and rattling the chair she was tied to, and she screamed as loudly as she could, generally making a ruckus in the hopes of getting the old woman to come back and negotiate some more.

After a few minutes, the door did open, shutting Muna up, but only to let in the two little kids who had fallen on her head, getting her into this mess in the first place. Thim and Stevie turned on the overhead lights and stared at Muna in frightened silence.

“Where’s the old woman?” Muna demanded.

“Anna says you better be quiet,” one of them said, trying to sound brave despite their cracking voice. “Because if she has to come back in here, she’ll give you something to scream about.”

“And that would show you for molesting little children,” the other said. “So shut up.”

And they turned the lights off again, leaving Muna alone in the darkness with no choice left but to wait for whatever it was that Anna was going to do with her.

#     #     #

< LXXV. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXXVII. The Scientist >

There you have it, dear readers. Another chapter from the perspective of a protector. If you want to see what Anna has planned for Ms. Mondragon, you’re going to have to wait for the continuation of the story next week, or if you can’t wait, go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Thanks again for joining us, and have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 75: Sonya

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to the story of Sonya, a bartender who loves her job, as she tries to figure out what she can do to make the worlds a better place to live in. Enjoy the read, and if you do, don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link.

< LXXIV. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon >

LXXV. Sonya

Sonya sat in the back booth of The Bar, where only a red light lit the table—and not a very bright one at that—waiting for Ellie to arrive with her people, and for the first time in her memory, Sonya felt like she would rather be at home, alone, than there in her bar, with a cold glass of beer in hand, music floating all around her, and the happy voices of her comrades enjoying themselves echoing through the building like a school cafeteria.

What could Ellie and her Scientific Socialists have planned, anyway? And if it had nothing to do with the Scientist, why’d they name the group after her? And most importantly, did Sonya trust Ellie, or didn’t she?

Ugh. She did. Of course, she did. Otherwise she wouldn’t be there for the meeting in the first place. But she didn’t trust Ellie, either. Otherwise she wouldn’t be there for the meeting because she would have already been convinced to go along with whatever they were planning. It was just another of life’s contradictions.

Finally, after too long feeling uncomfortable in her own bar—in her own skin, essentially—Ellie showed up with what looked like an older, wrinklier version of herself in tow. They ordered a round of drinks and brought one to Sonya where they joined her in the back booth, sitting together across the table and sipping on their beers.

“Ellie,” Sonya said. “And… I’m sorry. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Trudy, dear,” the older woman said with a smile. “And no. We’ve never had the pleasure of meeting. Ellie and I are used to keeping our lives more compartmentalized. We’re trying to change that, though—difficult process that change can be.”

“I’ve told you about Trudy,” Ellie said, nodding and trying to reassure Sonya. “She was— Well… She was the one who introduced me to the Scientist—and to activism in general.”

Ah, Gertrude,” Sonya said, trying to smile but having a hard time of it because she was still worried about what this mission might entail. “I think I can remember a few stories.”

“Nothing but the good ones, I hope,” Trudy said, chuckling and sipping her beer.

“I think I only have good ones about you,” Ellie said with a smile.

“Except when you thought I was a nosy, annoying gossip,” Trudy said. “Back when you still insisted on calling me Gertrude. You can’t lie to me, child.”

“Yes, well… I was young and stupid then,” Ellie said. “I didn’t know any better.”

“And what exactly does any of this have to do with me?” Sonya asked, getting a bit impatient.

“Oh, well, nothing,” Trudy said.

“But everything,” Ellie said. Another contradiction. “You said you trusted me. Right?”

Sonya nodded.

“And now,” Ellie said, “here I am introducing you to Trudy, my partner. She brought me into this life, and ever since we learned about the Scientist’s death, we’ve been working together to save what part of her organization we can. Not only that, we’ve been doing our best to make it a more open, honest, and effective group. Just like I’ve been telling you.”

“Hard work, that,” Trudy said.

“Go on…” Sonya said.

“Well, and I thought introducing you two,” Ellie said, “would—I don’t know—serve as some amount of proof, or something. That we are doing what we say we’re doing, that is.”

“And the name, too,” Trudy reminded her. “Did you tell her about the name? Scientific Socialists, dear. It’s who we are. Lovely, don’t you think?”

“But you’re not involved with the Scientist anymore?” Sonya asked Trudy, seeing if the old woman would give a different answer than the one that Ellie had. “I didn’t really like her or her ideas. She—”

“She’s dead, I’m afraid,” Trudy said somberly, shaking her head and looking deep into her drink. “So we couldn’t be working with her even if we wanted to. No. But we sure do have more scientists than we know what to do with these days. I’ll tell you that much.” She kind of chuckled a little, the stark opposite of her mood only moments before.

“And not just the ones who call themselves the Scientist, either.” Ellie added.

“Well, okay,” Sonya said, taking a long sip of her beer before going on. “So, let’s say that I do trust you, Ellie. Which for the most part I do.”

“Thank you so very much, dear.” Ellie smiled.

“And let’s say that, by extension, I trust Trudy, too. Which I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t at this point. You seem like a nice enough person.”

“You’re too kind, dear.” Trudy bowed her head.

“But still,” Sonya went on, “assuming all of that to be true—which for the most part it is—I’d still need to know what exactly it is you want us doing if I’m ever going to decide whether to do it or not. So how about we quit beating around the bush and get down to it?”

“I like her,” Trudy said, nudging Ellie with her elbow.

“I knew you would,” Ellie said. Then to Sonya, “Well, you see, the plan is… Well the plan is gonna happen whether you agree to help us or not. Let’s just get that out of the way first. Processes have been set into motion that we have no control over. It would be impossible to stop them now.”

“This is your opener?” Sonya scoffed. “You know you’re supposed to be convincing me to help you, right.”

“Wait now. Hold up just a second,” Ellie said, getting a little defensive. “I said these processes were out of our control. It’s not our fault what’s happening. We didn’t start it, and we have no way to stop it. So, don’t blame us.”

“All I’m hearing is excuses,” Sonya said.

“I really like her,” Trudy said.

“The walls are coming down,” Ellie finally said outright. “All of them. Not just between Five and Six this time. No more half measures. The major crisis we’ve been predicting is finally coming, and now it’s up to us to decide whether it results in a new and better world or further barbarism.”

Pffft.” Sonya scoffed. These were the grand claims she had come to expect from Ellie, but never before had her predictions been so specific. Usually Ellie just spoke in generalities and platitudes, so maybe, just maybe, this newfound specificity meant that Ellie actually did hold some knowledge of the future to come. “You’re kidding. Right?” Sonya said, goading them on. “Another out there prophecy from the Scientific Socialists.”

Neither Ellie nor Trudy answered, both solemnly staring into their drinks and letting the implications sink in.

“All of them?” Sonya asked, still having a hard time believing it.

“All of them,” Ellie repeated.

“On Christmas day,” Trudy said, nodding. “What a gift.”

“Christmas day? But that’s tomorrow,” Sonya said.

“Indeed, it is,” Trudy said.

“So, what are we supposed to do for food?” Sonya asked. “Huh? What about the elevators? Or the buildings that’ll fall because they’re stacked on thin air? What about the people inside them? How many are gonna die?”

“That’s where we come in,” Ellie said. “Like I told you. It’s up to us to decide between something better or barbarism.”

“This is barbarism already,” Sonya said. “I won’t take part in it.”

“Yes, it is,” Trudy said. “Which is why we’re tearing it down. Whether you want to help us or not.”

I won’t,” Sonya said. “I’ll do everything I can to stop y’all if I have to. I won’t let you do this.”

“Stop us?” Trudy said, laughing. “You have no idea what our plans are. Stop us from doing what?”

“I told you we don’t have any control over this,” Ellie said. “There’s no us to stop. We’re on your side. We’re just trying to save the lives of as many people as we possibly can.”

“How?” Sonya demanded. “And make it quick. I’m already tired of this conversation.”

“We’re organizing the evacuation,” Ellie said.

“And taking care of everyone’s basic needs after the deed’s done,” Trudy added.

Right.” Sonya scoffed. “You expect me to believe that when y’all won’t even try to stop this from happening in the first place. Do you know how many people died when just the walls between Five and Six went down?”

“We can’t stop it,” Ellie said.

“All we can do is wait,” Trudy said. “Do not open until X-mas.”

“We can’t wait,” Sonya complained. “If what you’re saying’s true, there’s practically no time as it is. We’ll never save everyone.”

You don’t have to save everyone, dear,” Trudy reminded her. “We do nothing alone.”

“Rosalind and the Scientist have guaranteed that their robot army can warn most of the population, anyway,” Ellie explained. “We don’t even need much from you. But we can’t save everyone without you, and we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t ask.”

Fine,” Sonya said after a long pause. “If you’re being honest, and there’s truly no way of stopping this before tomorrow, then I want to help. We want to help. So just tell me what y’all need, and we’ll get started right away. There’s no time to waste.”

“That’s the thing, dear,” Trudy said. “We can’t do anything, can’t tell anyone but those who are sworn to secrecy, until a precise time tomorrow.”

“If word leaks earlier than that,” Ellie said, “the entire operation could be compromised and more lives will be lost because of it.”

“I thought y’all had given up secrecy,” Sonya reminded them.

“We have, dear,” Trudy said. “When we’re able. But human lives are at stake. Jumping the gun will only cause the scientists to blow the walls sooner. Then we wouldn’t be able to warn anyone at all. Do you want that on your conscious? All those people who we would could have evacuated dead.”

“You said that the Scientist wasn’t involved in this,” Sonya said.

She’s not,” Ellie snapped. “She’s dead. We’re talking about the scientists. With an s. Plural. And there’s no stopping them. You said you trusted us, Sonya. So, what is it? Are you gonna help warn these people while we still can, or are you gonna let them die because you couldn’t put our differences aside for long enough to save lives?”

“I…” Sonya hesitated. Of course she wasn’t going to sit around and let a bunch of innocent people die, no matter how little she trusted the Scientific Socialists, because she still trusted Ellie as an individual. And for some reason, despite the old woman’s stubborn obstinance, Sonya was already growing to like Trudy as well. So in the end—as it always seemed with the really big decisions in life—Sonya had no choice. “What do you need me to do?”

“How many people can you muster?” Trudy asked.

“How many do you need?” Sonya smiled. “We’ve been ready and on call for decades now.”

“As many as you can spare,” Ellie said. “The more the merrier, it being Christmas and all.”

“Not yet,” Sonya said, standing from the booth. “But too soon now. Let me grab Barkeep and another round of drinks, then y’all can give us the details.”

“Do you think Barkeep’ll be able to trust us?” Ellie asked. “Me specifically.”

“There’s no choice now. Is there?” Sonya said, and there wasn’t. There was just the exact future they had been preparing for. Hopefully their training would be enough.

Barkeep was convinced of the seriousness of the situation easily enough and then begrudgingly accepted the conditions of their participation just the same as Sonya eventually had. With all that settled, they finished their drinks over discussion about the number of people needed where, when exactly they could start evacuating, and how long they had until all the walls between the worlds of Outland were finally, once and for all, demolished.

“Fifteen minutes,” Barkeep said, shaking her head as she stood from the booth. “Shit.”

“It’s not much time. I know,” Ellie said, standing, too—along with everyone else.

“But it’s all we’ve got,” Trudy said.

“We’ll make do,” Sonya said. “I know we can.” And everyone there certainly hoped it was true, even if none of them were as certain as Sonya tried to sound like she was.

Ellie and Trudy went on their way, and Barkeep assured Sonya that she had everything under control so Sonya could go home to get some rest before the operation. Sonya was too excited for rest, though, so when Barkeep had finally forced her out of the bar, Sonya decided she’d walk home instead of taking the elevator.

Fifteen minutes? Fuck.

Her heart beat faster and her palms slicked up just thinking about it. This was the real deal. Revolution? Maybe. Hopefully eventually. But an inciting incident big enough to spark a revolution if Sonya and her comrades were in fact organized enough to direct it that way. There was only one way to find out.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a little black blur run out in front of her, stop to lick its tiny black paws, then run out again just as she got close enough to pet him.

Mr. Kiiitty,” Sonya called, following the black cat. “I’m gonna scoop you.”

He meowed at her then ran up to her door to rub his face on the jamb.

“I got you,” Sonya said, scooping him up over her shoulder to sit on it like a fat, furry parrot with his back legs draped over her back and his front legs over her forearm which she used to prop him up. “Up we go,” she added, carrying him inside and up the stairs to her apartment. “Elevator Kitty. Ella-ella-vate your Kitty,” she sang, bringing him inside to let him drink from her bathroom faucet.

“Alright, Kitty,” Sonya said, laying on her bed and feeling very tired all of a sudden. “I’m going to sleep. Come and join me if you want. Otherwise, you know the way out.” Sonya never understood how Mr. Kitty left without her opening the door for him, but he was never there when she woke up.

Mr. Kitty jumped up onto the bed with her and kneaded her chest for a minute before curling up in her armpit to lick himself clean while Sonya drifted happily off to sleep.

#     #     #

Sonya had no trouble waking for her shift at the bar the next morning—which was only open early on Christmas—and as expected, Mr. Kitty had already disappeared through whatever exit he always took. Sonya bathed, groomed, and got dressed then rode the public elevator to The Bar where she ordered herself up some peanut butter on toast for breakfast. She was never really a big fan of eating at all, especially so early in the morning—preferring instead to drink her calories—but she knew she’d appreciate the energy for her mission to come.

And so began what seemed like the longest shift Sonya had ever worked—and she had worked for forty eight hours straight once, with only thirty minutes of sleeping in between. Just as she had felt when waiting for Ellie—and never otherwise in her life—Sonya would rather be anywhere else in the worlds than there at The Bar right then.

But she was there, and she had no choice about that. Soon customers started to trickle in—getting drunk before joining their family for Christmas dinner or because they had no family to join—poor, innocent, ignorant customers with no idea of what was waiting for them that afternoon, and all Sonya wanted to do was to yell at them to go home, get their families, and run to the nearest safe zone. But that was also exactly what she couldn’t do. So she shut her mouth and served their drinks in silence. It truly felt like the shift would last for an eternity.

 

#     #     #

Of course, nothing lasts for an eternity. Soon, the bar was emptied and it was time for the mission.

Sonya’s partner for her part in this met her outside of The Bar right as Sonya was locking up. They walked together to the public elevator in silence, and once inside, Sonya looked over at the woman—whose name she didn’t even know—to say, “Are you ready?”

“Are you?” the woman asked.

“I guess I kind of have to be. Don’t I?”

“Then there’s no point in asking,” the woman said.

Sonya shrugged. She guessed not. She took one last, deep breath—and heard her partner do the same—then said the secret phrase that was supposed to take them to their destination: “Socialism or barbarism, we do nothing alone.”

“Prepare for evacuation in T minus thirty seconds,” a robotic voice said over the elevator speakers. “Twenty nine, twenty eight, twenty seven…”

Sonya caught one final glimpse of her partner—who looked to be as ready as Sonya wished she felt—and, “Three, two, one. Begin evacuation.” The floor fell out from underneath them—just as hundreds of thousands of elevator floors fell out from underneath hundreds of thousands of other pairs of comrades across the worlds—until thirty seconds later the elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and the real countdown began. Fifteen minutes.

Red lights started flashing in the elevator, and in place of the usual soothing robot’s voice, came a deafening alarm.

“I’m about to get loud,” Sonya’s partner said, running to the center of the, thankfully short, hall. “You might want to cover your ears.”

But Sonya wasn’t listening. She was running to the far end of the hall to start banging on doors and evacuating people. Before she could land the first knock, Sonya’s partner yelled in an impossibly loud voice—impossible for a human—“This is not a drill. The building is on fire. You must all evacuate immediately. I repeat, this is not a drill. The building is on fire. You must all evacuate immediately. I repeat…” And so on and so on, even as they directed residents toward the emergency exits.

Thus Sonya didn’t have to bang on any doors. Heads poked out one by one from each apartment, starting with the apartment she was standing in front of, and the residents recognized danger when they saw it. No one hesitated to file out and follow orders as needed.

“What about our belongings?” some of them asked. “Can we gather them up?”

“There’s no time for that,” Sonya said, shepherding confused people out of their homes and into the hall.

“Where did the stairs go?” others asked, even as Sonya’s partner loaded them five at a time onto the elevator in what had been the stairwell.

“All stairwells are equipped with emergency elevator systems for situations just such as these,” Sonya’s partner explained—making the whole thing up for all Sonya knew, but she couldn’t tell because it was so well delivered.

And elevatorload by elevatorload, the entire floor was cleared without a hassle, everyone except for one stubborn old man.

“Please, sir,” Sonya begged him, pulling him by the arm to stand him up, but he just flopped right back down in his seat when she let him go. “You have got to get out of here.”

“He won’t listen to you. I’ll tell you that right now,” the man’s nurse said, heading calmly out to the elevator. “But he’s your problem now. Good luck.”

“We’ve got to get him out of here,” Sonya’s partner said, pushing Sonya out of the way. “Here, let me—”

But Sonya pushed right back. “No. I can handle it,” she said. “You go do one last scan for stragglers.” And as her partner ran out to perform a final check for evacuees, Sonya said to the old man, “Alright. I asked you nicely. Don’t forget that.” Then she lifted him up over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes to carry him—struggling all the way—-to the elevator where she plopped him down in the far corner.

“One minute and counting until doors close,” the elevator’s voice said at a volume as loud as its sirens. “I repeat, fifty eight seconds and counting until doors close. Please keep all limbs inside the elevator car.”

“All clear,” Sonya’s partner said, smiling despite her sweaty face. “I think that’s everyone. We really did it.”

“We really did—” Sonya started to say, but the old man stopped her.

No,” he squealed, standing up and struggling to get off the elevator while Sonya held him back with one hand. “Mr. Kitty. He’s in the bathroom. You can’t leave him.”

“Forty seven. Forty six. Forty five,” the elevator continued to count down, whether anyone was listening or not.

“We can’t,” Sonya said. “There’s no time.”

I’ll get him,” her partner said, and she sprinted back towards the old man’s apartment in a race against time to save his cat.

Sonya was fighting the old man off with her left hand, trying to keep him inside the elevator where he’d be safe, and at the same time, reaching out as far as she could with her right hand toward the cat that Sonya’s partner had found and was holding outstretched, racing toward the elevator.

“Four, three, two,” the elevator counted down, and Sonya’s fingers grasped the scruff of the cat’s neck, pulling it in toward the elevator car only for: “One. Evacuation complete.” The cold, metal doors slammed shut fast, closing just below Sonya’s elbow, leaving her partner, the old man’s cat, and the rest of Sonya’s arm on the other side as the floor of the elevator fell out from underneath them.

 

#     #     #

< LXXIV. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon >

There it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. We’re more than halfway through the last installment now. I hope you’re enjoying the story, and if so, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

The Law of the Conservation of Resources and Effort

The Law of the Conservation of Resources and Effort.png

“That’s how the market works. There are only finite resources, and they all require labor to be made consumable. If one person takes more resources or does less labor–or, as is so often the case in your America, both–then someone else will receive less resources and do more labor to make up for it. It’s like a law of physics, but instead of mass and energy it’s called the Law of the Conservation of Resources and Effort.”

-Nikola Montpierre, Dividing by Ø

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?”

 

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

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