Chapter 69: Chief Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today’s chapter is Kevin Malone’s favorite based on the number alone.

But to get serious, today we see the world through the eyes of Chief Mondragon, the highest ranking official on—and leader of—Mr. Walker’s protector force. If you enjoy this chapter and can’t wait to finish the entire novel, don’t forget to pick up a full copy in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

LXIX. Chief Mondragon

Ugh. Shit. Chief Mondragon was exhausted. Tired of everything. Something was going to have to give soon or she was going to snap. She stood in her private locker room, strapping on and straightening her plated armor vest in a wall-sized mirror, and she knew that much at least. Something had to give.

When she was still just an Officer, Chief Mondragon had thought that her superior officers were making excuses to hide their own irrational decision-making when they would complain about their hands being tied behind their backs by even further superior officers. When she had been promoted to Captain, she found out firsthand that they weren’t excuses after all. Her hands had been strictly bound by the orders of the Chief, even if it looked from the lower ranks like she had more freedom than she really did. And now that she was finally the Chief herself? Of course, she felt no freer than she ever had throughout her entire career as a protector.

Sure, she got to order everyone around, from the Officers at the bottom on up to the Captains right below her and everything in between. Yes, every member of the Protector Force was required to stand and salute any time she entered a room. And okay, nominally, she was the one who decided the direction in which the Force’s efforts would primarily be directed on a day to day basis. But these were nothing more than illusions of power. She was still being ordered around, not only by the traditions, rules, and entrenched institutions of the Force’s bureaucracy itself, but by the owners whose abundance of wealth somehow granted them supreme control over a fighting force which they had not the first of how to oversee. Still she was forced to stand, bow, and acquiesce any time one of the fat, out-of-shape office jockeys decided to let their pneumatic pants carry them out of their mansions and into the real worlds. In short, she was no more powerful or free than she had ever been in her entire career as a protector, even as the Chief Officer overseeing the entire Force.

None of that would have been a problem for her, either, except for the fact that the people who did have all the power and freedom, the owners of the Protector Force, hadn’t done a single bit of work to get into that position of superiority over her. Most of them, the current owner Mr. Walker and his anti-robot agenda along with them, inherited their wealth and power, explaining why they were so terrible at running the Force in the first place, but instead of admitting to that fact, the owners were too busy claiming responsibility for any of the Chief’s successes and blaming all their failures on the Invisible Hand.

I have no choice was Mr. Walker’s favorite refrain in response to any of Chief Mondragon’s disagreements. The Market demands obedience, and the Market knows best. Even when those decisions, dictated by the market, resulted in losses of profits, lives, and property, and even when criminals roamed free because of the decisions made by Mr. Walker, his excuse remained the same: The Market demanded it. And every single time, Chief Mondragon bit her tongue, protecting her position as Chief instead of saying what she really wanted to say: “If the Market was so damn demanding, how could it ever be free?”

Chief Mondragon was not free. She knew that much. She had only one course of action in front of her if she wanted to keep the career that she had dedicated her entire wasted life to. She put her helmet on her head, waited for her brain to adjust to the three hundred and sixty degree view of the world it provided, then brushed her mustache and goatee to perfection, before—satisfied with her appearance—she marched out of her private locker room, through whitewashed halls, and into the briefing auditorium without even a second to spare before it was time for her speech—the same one she had given every year since becoming Captain.

Some Lieutenant opened the auditorium door for her, Chief Mondragon marched up to the stage’s podium, and the entire room of rookies all stood at attention and saluted her. The Chief saluted back and said, “At ease.” surprised for a moment at the sound of her modulated voice as the entire auditorium of Officers sat in one fluid motion.

“Protectors of Outland,” the Chief went on, regaining her composure as she fell into the routine of oft rehearsed words. “From this day forward, that includes you. You have sworn to uphold the sacred duties of Protectorship, and you will uphold those virtues or perish in embarrassment. Now, children—because y’all truly are babies in the eyes of the Force—life out there is real, and we’re here for one reason and one reason alone: To protect the ideals of Outland. Protectors, what are those ideals?”

“Property, liberty, life,” most of the Officers staring back at her from their soft, cushy stadium seating spoke on top of and over one another. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Chief Mondragon.

“I said, protectors,” she repeated, doing what little she could to prepare these poor little noobies for the thankless, endless, Sisyphean career that lay ahead of them from this day forward, pumping them up like a football coach in the locker room before a big game. “What. Are. Those. Ideals?” she demanded.

“Property! Liberty! Life! Sir,” the room sang in unison.

“And without these basic freedoms, what are we? We are not civilization. We are not human. We are nothing. Today you are tried by fire. Every protector is baptized into the Force the same way. If you cannot make it in Outland Six, then you are not strong enough, you are not fit enough, you are not enough to protect any of the Outlands. Do you understand me? This work is dangerous, protectors. You’ve been told the stories of your ancestors. You’ve been trained. You know as well as you can know what awaits you out those doors. So I’m going to ask you one more time. Protectors, are you ready?”

“Hoo-ra!” they replied.

“Hoo-ra!” Chief Mondragon repeated. “You know your vows rookies. I suggest you listen to your Sergeant if you want to make it through this alive. Lock and load.”

The mass of them stood and milled around to find their squad assignments, following the directions projected on their helmets’ viewports. One lucky pair—well, half lucky—would be grouped with Chief Mondragon instead of a Sergeant, and soon the new round of legends and rumors surrounding the most recent class of rookies would begin to take shape, further chaining future generations to the traditions of the past the same way that had always been done every year a new cohort graduated from the Protector Academy. The same as everyone else, the Chief was bound by the Market to act as she acted, greeting the two nervous recruits who had been assigned to her squad and preparing each for herodom in their own way.

“Officer Michelle Kelley,” the first of the two said, standing erect and saluting Chief Mondragon. “Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Officer.” The Chief saluted back. “And your partner?”

Officer Jones,” Officer Kelley groaned. “She’s kind of a joke around the locker room, sir.”

“Did I ask you what you think’s funny?” Chief Mondragon demanded. “Do you think I care what y’all talk about in the locker room? Why do you think I have my own?”

“I— No—” Officer Kelley stammered. “I don’t understand, sir. I—”

“If I want to hear about your jokes, I’ll ask you to say something funny. Right now, I want to know why you’re reporting to me without your partner by your side.”

“I— Uh…” Officer Kelley still didn’t understand.

I— Uh” Chief Mondragon mocked her. “You’ll come to find that your partner’s the only person in the worlds who has your back, Officer. Never leave their side. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, saluting.

And at the same time, Officer Nakia Jones marched into position next to Officer Kelley, saluting just the same. “Officer Jones, reporting for duty, sir.”

Chief Mondragon saluted back. “At ease, Officers. I selected you two specifically for this operation because I feel like you show the most potential out of our new class of rookies.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted again.

“I—uh… Me, sir?” Officer Jones started before saying. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“Yes, you,” Chief Mondragon said. “The both of you. But I can’t give you any more details until we’re in the field proper, so let’s get on with it. Go, go, go. Move, move.”

They followed the rest of their squadron out into the transport bay where Chief Mondragon ordered the machine to take them to Outland Six. The floor fell out from underneath them, and when it stopped again, the doors slid open and all the protectors inside flooded out onto the streets like a white water rapid, heading toward lower ground at their designated sectors where they would march, patrol, and put on a show, doing nothing of any importance while Chief Mondragon initiated the traditional culling ceremony for a new rookie cohort.

#     #     #

Chief Mondragon led the two rookie Officers along the green grass of the Neutral Ground while Sixers split in front of them like the Red Sea afraid of Amaru’s wrath. Construction on the border wall was coming along nicely, and the Neutral Ground was almost a continuous strip of green grass again, but off in the far distance, Chief Mondragon could still see patches of skyscrapers blocking what was once a straight line view into a beautiful blue and green infinity.

They followed the Neutral Ground for a while before turning into the streets where the skyscrapers ate them like darkness. Chief Mondragon leisurely wound her way through the boulevards and alleys, even doubling back in some places, not only so she could enjoy the stark, brutalist architecture, but also to test her charges’ sense of direction as they made their way toward destiny.

When she stopped their procession in front of the door she was looking for, hidden deep in a dark alley and flanked by dumpsters, she turned to find both of her charges confused under their screaming facemasks—Officer Kelley tried to cover her reaction up as quickly as possible, but Officer Jones let her confusion linger.

“Here we are, girls,” Chief Mondragon said, trying to lighten the mood a bit since they were going to be getting into character soon anyway. “You two ready?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted.

“Ready for what?” Officer Jones asked.

“You’ll see,” the Chief said, opening the door and letting the rookies in first before following them inside and locking the door behind her. “Come on in.”

They stepped into a costume closet. It was one of many that the Force had requisitioned from Outland Three using their powers of eminent domain. Now, instead of dressing up some artsy-fartsy thespian hippies who would use the costumes for nothing more meaningful than playacting, these outfits would go to a more productive use: allowing protectors to go undercover in protection of the ideals of humanity: property, liberty, and life—in that order. Of course, they would also be used for the annual culling event, but that was just as important, and in this instance, one in the same.

“Where are we?” Officer Jones asked.

“You just walked here,” Chief Mondragon said, chuckling—she loved when she got an opportunity to use that joke. “You tell me.”

Uh. It looks like a costume closet?”

“Very observant, Officer,” the Chief said with a smile. “And what do you think we’re doing here?”

“Going undercover, sir,” Officer Kelley said with a salute.

“Well, yes, Kelley,” the Chief said. “But I didn’t ask you. And you have no need to show off. Trust me. But, yes. We’re here because we’re going undercover. We have intel saying there’s a cache of stolen printers in this sector. Hopefully we get the chance to make some arrests today.”

Hoo-rah,” Officer Kelley intoned.

Uh— Undercover, sir?” Officer Jones said, not as excited about the prospect as Officer Kelley.

“Undercover, Officer,” Chief Mondragon repeated. “All three of us. They did go over that in the Academy, didn’t they? Jones, you’ll be playing my lovely lady wife. So do dress appropriately. And Kelley, you’re just a normal Sixer. So pick something trashy. As long as you don’t stick out too much, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

“I— Your wife?” Officer Jones said, taking off her helmet and looking even more confused without it on.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, picking out a costume and changing into it.

“Yes, my wife,” Chief Mondragon said, mocking offense as she changed into her own costume—a simple blue jeans and t-shirt combo that most of the Sixers seemed to wear. “Do you have a problem with that? Should I be offended?”

Oh. No, sir,” Jones said, stumbling around, trying to take off her shoes. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sir. I— I—” And she almost fell over before she finally did get her boots off.

“Careful, Jones,” Officer Kelley said with a smirk. “I already told you, take your shoes off before your helmet. If you’re not careful, you’re gonna give yourself a concussion.”

The Chief let them chuckle and joke together while they got dressed, then she performed an inspection. Officer Kelley was wearing a similar blue jean and t-shirt combo to the one that the Chief was wearing, which was perfectly acceptable, but she also still had her gun strapped over her shoulder.

“Lose the rifle, kid,” the Chief told her. “Side arms only. This is undercover. No flashing guns.”

The Captain turned to Officer Jones who wasn’t carrying her rifle, that’s for sure. She was wearing a purple flowery sundress and blushing under the Chief’s inspection.

“Officer Jones, a dress?” Chief Mondragon asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, embarrassed. “I thought I was supposed to be your wife. If this won’t do, I can change.”

“You look fine,” the Chief said with a wink—she looked fantastic, in fact. “But where exactly do you plan on putting your sidearm?”

“Right here, sir,” Officer Jones said, flipping her skirt up to pull her sidearm out of her garter. The Chief had to admit, she was impressed.

“If you don’t mind flashing the world to get to it, I don’t mind seeing what you’re packing,” Chief Mondragon said with a laugh.

“Maybe it’ll be a useful distraction,” Officer Jones said, chuckling herself.

“Alright, then,” the Chief said. “Looks good. I’m to be referred to as Ms. Mona Mondragon from here on out. You’re my wife, Nakia Mondragon. And you’re back up. Give us seven minutes exactly to scope the place out, then if we haven’t called down an abort, you come up to assist with the arrest. Can we handle that?”

Hoo-rah!” Kelley cheered while Jones said, “Yes, sir—erhoo-rah.”

“That’ll have to do.”

The door they were looking for was squashed tight between two others that were too close on either side, like the one they were using didn’t belong where it was, plucked out of some other world entirely and squeezed here into this one. It led them into a short hall and up a tall staircase, both too skinny just the same as the door, so much so that Chief Mondragon’s gun, hidden in her pants waist, scraped along the wall as they climbed.

“Just let me do all the talking in here,” the Chief said, taking step by creaky step. “I don’t need you messing anything up.”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Jones said, breathing heavily from the climb.

“And no more sirs. It’ll give us away. To you, I’m Mona.”

“Yes, sir—er. Okay… wifey?”

Seriously.” The Chief scoffed. “Just let me do the talking.”

Ms. Mondragon—now fully in character herself—knocked the secret knock, and after a moment, the door at the top of the stairs swung open to reveal an empty room with chipped vinyl floors, moldy crumbling ceiling panels, and two doors besides the one they went in through, one closed tight behind the man who had answered their call, and the other, the exit, slightly ajar.

“No one told me there’d be two of ya,” the man who had answered the door grumbled, looking between Ms. Mondragon and Nakia nervously.

“No one told me I couldn’t bring my pack mule with me,” Ms. Mondragon said, smacking Nakia—who responded with a yelp—on the butt. “Thought I might need some help carrying my purchases, see.”

The Sixer didn’t like it, though. Scum that he was, he still knew enough to be suspicious, even if he had no choice but to go along with the transaction anyway—no matter how shady. Ms. Mondragon had flashed a stack of cash to get into this meeting, and all that the trash on Six ever thought about was money, so he was sure to go along in the end. Same way they did every year.

Mmmhmmm…” He liked the sound of that. “Well, if ya’re buying so much ya need two people to carry it, I guess I don’t really mind. But in the future, ya need to give us some forewarning. Or else.”

“Sure, sure,” Ms. Mondragon said, waving the man’s concerns away. There’d never be another next time for him. “In the future. But let me ask you, where are these printers of yours? I’ve always wanted to see one up close.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the man said, shaking his head. “Boss’s orders. We keep the printers locked up in the other room and the customers here in this one. It’s called the airlock system.”

“Airlock system?” Ms. Mondragon sighed. “You know that really was half the reason I came out here in the first place. If I knew I wasn’t going to get to see one in action, I would have just sent the mule to get everything on her own.” She tried to smack Nakia’s butt again, but this time wifey was expecting it and jumped out of the way.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the floor. “Those are the rules. Maybe ya just should have sent her.”

“The rules?” Ms. Mondragon repeated. “Put in place by your boss, I assume. The same woman who I negotiated with to purchase the knock that got me in here. And what a high price I paid, might I remind you. Is she here, by the way? Locked up with the printers, I assume. Letting you vet the possible infection in the airlock. Well, we’re not contagious. There’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled wide, trying to make the man believe, but he still didn’t.

“Those are the rules, ma’am,” he said, still looking at his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Is she here?” Ms. Mondragon demanded, tired of playing games with this piece of trash—she never was a fan of kick the can.

“I— Uh— Who?” the man stammered.

Your boss. Let me speak to her.”

“I—uh…”

Now.”

And at that, the man kind of jumped up and yelped, exactly like Nakia had done when Ms. Mondragon had goosed her earlier. He turned and ran out through the closed airlock door, locking a deadbolt behind him.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” Nakia snapped.

Ms. Mondragon chuckled. “Calm down, woman. You’ve got bigger problems ahead of you.”

“I will not calm down. You just sexually… What did you say?”

Ms. Mondragon pulled her gun out of the waist of her pants and pointed it at Nakia. “I said you’ve got bigger problems to worry about. It’s almost time for Kelley to come up, and she’s never late. Not by a second.”

“Yeah. So?” Nakia said, slowly backing towards the exit while keeping her eyes on Ms. Mondragon’s gun. “That’s no problem.”

“Not for me, it isn’t. But for you, I’m afraid, it’s a culling.”

“A culling, sir?” Nakia asked at the same time that the airlock door opened and out came the giant, limping robot who Ms. Mondragon had really come for, distracting her for just long enough that when she pulled the trigger, Nakia had time to dive out of the way of the bullet, shoot one back that grazed Ms. Mondragon’s arm, and escape through the exit, her purple, flowery dress flowing in a wave of ripples behind her.

“What’s the meaning of this—” the robot demanded before Ms. Mondragon swung her gun around and put a bullet between the limping machine’s eyes, exploding its plastic face all over the frightened airlock attendant who ran away to lock himself inside with all his precious printers. Ms. Mondragon hoped he was willing to die for them, because she was going to make sure that he did.

She was rubbing the red-hot gunshot wound on her arm, trying to decide whether to chase that fucking traitor Nakia or to kick down the door and kill the Sixer asshole first, when Kelley came bursting into the room, reminding Ms. Mondragon that she didn’t have to do either for herself, she had backup.

“I— Sir, what happened?” Kelley asked, her gun already out, staring confused at the obviously dead but not bleeding robot corpse on the floor.

“That way,” Mondragon yelled, pointing out the exit that Jones had escaped through. “She shot me. Officer Jones. Get her.”

“I— What? Who?” Kelley hesitated, still confused.

“Now!” Mondragon yelled, and Kelley sprinted out in pursuit of Jones.

Ms./Chief Mondragon lay on the cold vinyl floor next to the dead robot, resting for just a moment. At least she had gotten that much right. The ringleader was dead. Mr. Walker could get off her back about that. But Nakia was still alive, and she could end up causing more trouble than Mondragon cared to deal with. Maybe Kelley would take care of that in the Streets so Mondragon didn’t have to. Probably not. Nakia had gotten a pretty good head start and she was smarter than any of them had given her credit for.

Either way, all Mondragon could do was wait. Wait for backup to come clear out bodies and printers alike. Wait for the medics to bring pain relievers and patch her arm up. Wait for Mr. Walker to come up with another impossible demand that she’d have to find some way of complying with. And wait for Nakia to be served the justice that was coming for her. That last one was what Mondragon most looked forward to, and just imagining the scene filled her with a wave of relaxing serotonin as she closed her eyes, waiting for everything to come.

#     #     #

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

And there you have it, dear readers, the sixty-ninth chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and what to read the rest right now, or if you just want to support my future writing endeavors, please do pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you back next weekend for another chapter in the story. Until then, take care, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 20: Tom

Chapter 20’s here with Tom’s final POV chapter, and now he’s just Tom. No Officer Pardy, no Pardy, just Tom. I hope you’ve been enjoying everything, because next week I’ll post the final final chapter for book one of the Infinite Limits series (or, as usual, you can buy it on Amazon through here). Thanks for joining us. And have a good weekend.

< XIX. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XXI. The Scientist >

XX. Tom

“Ansel, wait!” Tom called as the children ran away. They were so small he only had to jog to keep up, but he knew it was no use. “Pidgeon!” he called, sprinting to catch up with the boy—who was lagging behind—and grabbing him by the shoulder to stop him.

“Please don’t hurt me,” the boy said, holding his hands up in front of his face. A little puddle formed at the front of his pants.

“I’m not—I won’t—” Tom said. “You’re Pidgeon, right.”

The kid was shaking still, but he dropped his hands. “R—Richard, sir.” He nodded.

“But they call you Pidgeon, right? She does, Ansel does.” The name tasted like guilt in his mouth.

“Yes, sir,” Pidgeon said, nodding. “All the kids at school do.”

“I don’t care about the kids at school, son. I care about Ansel. Now I need you to catch up to her and protect her with everything you’ve got. You understand me?”

“I—uh—I was, sir,” Pidgeon said, shaking more violently. “But you stopped me.”

“No, kid,” Tom said, stepping closer and looking him in the eyes. “I mean you stick by her side no matter what. I’m coming back here, and I will find her. If you’re not there with her when I do, then I’ll find you next, and it won’t be to protect you. You got that?”

“No. I—But—Why me?”

“Someone has to protect her while I’m not there.” Tom shook his head. “You’re the only one who’s left, so you’ll have to do.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“I said you’ll do. You’ll do whatever it takes. And don’t let me find out that you didn’t.”

“But, I—”

“Go!” Tom stomped his foot to scare the kid away. Pidgeon’s eyes grew wide as he fled clumsily away. He looked like he probably pissed himself again.

Tom took off the old model helmet that Rosa and Anna had given him and carried it by his side, roaming the streets of 6. What good was the helmet to him now? If anyone wanted to shoot him, they could go right ahead and do it. He didn’t care. He had failed and failed and failed, and he was on his way to face the consequences of that failure. At least if someone shot him now, they would keep him from that experience. In fact, he didn’t know why he was still carrying the stupid thing at all. He tossed it at the building closest to him and felt better for having the weight lifted.

Why did he need any of it? He unbuckled his plated vest as he walked and tossed that on the ground, too. Now they would have an even bigger target to put him out of his misery.

He didn’t know where he was, but he kept walking. Without his helmet and vest, people didn’t recognize him as a protector. The streets filled up as he wandered through them.

Maybe he didn’t have to go back and face the consequences after all. Maybe he could stay here in Outland 6 and blend in as one of them. He was a lot taller than they were, sure, but they didn’t seem to notice or care. No one even glanced at him twice now that he was out of his protector uniform.

He plopped down on the sidewalk with his back leaning on a rough brick building and untied his heavy white boots, throwing them on the ground next to him with a thud. Why not? He didn’t need any of it anymore. And maybe if they found him shoeless and half-naked they’d be easier on his punishment. Probably not, but he was beyond caring.

He got up and tried out his socked feet. The ground was rough, and every few steps he’d hit a pebble, or a shard of glass, and feel a shock of pain shoot up through his foot, but he almost liked it. It was freeing. Or, no, that wasn’t right. It was grounding. He could feel the ground underneath his feet, and he finally knew where he stood. He tore his undershirt off, too, and walked on with nothing but his white protector cargo pants and white cotton socks.

People did start to look at him then. He had gone over that line of blending in right back to standing out more than ever. Now, though, instead of running away at first sight of him, people either pointed and stared, or tried to avoid eye contact as they scurried by. The crowd parted in front of him however they reacted. He felt as if he were afflicted with some contagious disease. They all steered clear of him until a little boy ran out and offered him a bright red poinsettia.

Tom looked down at the kid’s dirty, smiling face and the flower in his hand. He extended his own hand to reach for the flower and it shook with the effort. He put the poinsettia to his nose and smelled it. Tears welled up behind his eyes and something caught in his stomach. “Thank you,” he whispered. The kid smiled wider then ran back into the crowd of people.

He did still care. Of course he did. He cared about his son back home, he cared about setting a good example for him. That’s why he had done all of this in the first place, to protect his son, not to protect Ansel. She was collateral assistance. He was supposed to be setting an example for his son, building a world that was safe for him to live in, but what was he doing instead? He was half-naked in the streets of Outland 6, giving up on his life. What kind of an example was that?

He put the flower in his pocket then tried to find some landmark to show him where he was. So few of the intersections had signs, it was impossible to find out that way. He didn’t recognize anything. He tried the next street, and the next, then turned a corner and went down another street or two.

He was starting to regret taking off his shoes. His feet burned. Every step now was like walking on glass, whether he actually stepped on a piece or not. At the next intersection there were still no signs in sight. He checked the bottom of one foot, and as suspected, his sock was soaked in blood. Great. Exactly what he needed, open wounds on the bottom of his feet so he could catch whatever diseases the streets of Outland 6 carried. Still, he had no choice but to carry on. Going back to find his shoes now would only open him to more risk.

It was three more blocks before he found a sign, and he didn’t recognize the street name. Still, it was a sign. He followed the street he had a name for until he came to the next named street a few blocks away. This one he did recognize. He knew where he was, and he knew where he had left to go. He sighed in relief and his feet ached less because of it. It was four blocks to the Neutral Grounds, then there was a transport bay every fifteen blocks along that. This street was right in the middle of two transport bays—of course—but it was somewhere, which was a lot better than nowhere.

He had hoped to see a protector and be able to hail them before he got to the Grounds, but he didn’t see anyone between where he was and the closest transport bay, a transport bay which wouldn’t open without his comm link. He sat down with his back on the bay doors and checked his feet again. The entire bottom of both socks were soaked in blood, so he had no way to tell how bad the injuries were. For all he knew he could be soleless. He wanted to peel his socks off to get a closer look, but he thought that would only make things worse, especially if he ended up having to walk some more.

What to do now? He could sit there and wait for someone to come out of the bay, giving his feet a rest in the process, but there was no telling how long that would take. He looked at his feet one more time and tried blowing on them to ease the pain, but it didn’t help, the socks were in the way. It did stretch his already worked muscles, though, so he went on for a while anyway to give them a cool down. Then he leaned back and looked at the trees in the Grounds.

What was he going to tell the Captain when he finally got back? How could he explain this? His nakedness? How could he explain being ambushed by tiny troll ladies?

Okay. He got hit in the back of the neck and knocked out. That was a fact. He wouldn’t be lying if he said it. And there was physical evidence to back that up. Then they took his gun, comm link, and all his gear, and they sent him off to fend for himself. He walked for blocks and blocks, until his feet were bloody, and he finally found a transport bay. They had to believe him. Look at his feet.

Or they knew it was him at the Feast. Then what would they do? He didn’t want to think about that. He was lucky he didn’t have to, because the transport bay doors opened behind him, and he fell backwards at the feet of three protectors.

“Well, well, well,” one of the protectors said through bright, shining teeth.

“Pardy. You make our job easy,” another said in the same modulated voice.

“Home base, we have the golden egg. Be back in five,” the third added.

“Already?” came a voice over their comm links. “Congratulations, Officers. Bring him in.”

“Tom Pardy, you are under arrest for attempted assassination and dereliction of duty. Surrender now or face justice.”

Tom stood and backed away from them, wincing at the pain. “I—what?” he said, holding his hands up. “No. I didn’t—”

One of them took out their stun gun. “Just come quietly, or we’ll do this the hard way. You were a protector once, Pardy. You know how this goes.”

“No. You can’t,” Tom said. “You don’t understand. I can explai—”

Tom felt the pinch of taser darts sticking like tiny fishhooks into his bare chest, a shock of electricity surging throughout his body, and the hot pressure of a deafening explosion behind him which flung his body into the back wall of the transport bay where the three protectors broke his fall before he blacked out into nothingness.

#     #     #

Tom awoke for the second time in his life bound to a chair and gnashing at his restraints. A bright white light blinded him. It was much whiter than the yellow light Anna and Rosa had used to blind him. This wasn’t their dump hideout in Outland 6. The seat here was harder and colder, though it was about the same height. The air smelled antiseptic, sterile, overcleaned. This time it wasn’t Sixer scum who held him in captivity, it was his fellow protectors.

He heard the door open and close, but here it didn’t affect the brightness of the light that blinded him. Here a camera digitally tracked his pupils to ensure maximum light exposure with a light that was bright enough to penetrate eyelids. The protectors had blinding down to a science.

Whoever opened the door walked in and sat at the chair across from him. That’s all he could tell by the sound. All protectors wore the same boots, so all their footsteps sounded the same. The person didn’t say anything for a good long time. They let Tom struggle in vain until he gave up, clenching his eyes tight against the rays which he couldn’t stop.

Pardy, Pardy, Pardy,” the voice finally came, Captain Mondragon’s voice. “You should know by now that this struggling is useless. You are a protector after all. Aren’t you?”

“You killed Rabbit,” Tom said, his eyes still clenched against the hot lights.

“Watch your mouth, Pardy,” the Captain snapped. “That’s a heavy accusation to be lobbing at a superior officer. Now, we can chalk that one up to duress and move on. But before we do anything, can we turn these lights off, please? I think he’s had enough. Thank you.”

Tom’s eyelids turned from red to black. He opened his eyes slowly, and it was still blackness until they adjusted to the room. It was an interrogation room. There was a metal table, big black two way mirror, and the Captain sitting across from him, raised up a little to look down on him in his too short seat.

“There, Pardy,” the Captain said, grinning. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“Why are you holding me?” Tom demanded. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Pfft, Pardy.” The Captain laughed. “Please. Give us some credit. You know our capabilities.”

“I know you’re capable of killing an officer on duty.”

“Then you should know what will happen to you if you try to get in the way.” The Captain smiled. “Pardy,” she said, shaking her head. “Come on. I tried to help you. I’m trying to help you. I gave you the world on a platinum platter. You simply have to work with me, Pardy. You can do that, can’t you?”

“Work with you?” Tom scoffed. “After you sent me into that shit shift?”

“You asked for Outland 6, Pardy.”

“Not the solo Street beat right after my initiation.”

The Captain laughed. “No, Pardy. You didn’t ask for that. But when you asked for 6, you showed me that you weren’t willing to cooperate. I made it clear which precincts I thought would be most profitable for both of us.”

Tom shook his head. He struggled against his cuffs again then slammed his fists on the table. “I have my reasons! I had no choice!”

“Yes, Pardy.” The Captain smiled. “Good. You had no choice. That’s what I told them. Everyone else thought you were a rebel mole, or you went insane after killing your first Sixer, or something. But not me. No. I told them, Not Pardy. Pardy goes by the books, that one. He’s got his reasons and they support Property, Liberty, Life or I’ve never done an honest day of protector work in my life. That’s what I said, Pardy.”

“You’re mocking me.” Tom sneered.

“No, Pardy.” The Captain looked offended. “No. Well…” She chuckled. “Maybe a little. But I did say that. And that is what they think.”

“That’s why they think I came back without my gear?”

“Oh. Sweetheart.” The Captain gave him a wry grin, shaking her head. “That’s precious. But no. That’s why they think you tried to assassinate Lord Walker. They think you had a hand in all that other stuff, too—and Amaru are they looking for a head to take over that one—but I know you better than that, Pardy. Don’t I?”

“Lord Walker?”

Ugh. Pardy.” The Captain frowned. “You’re not helping my case here. You’re not helping your case. If you don’t know the name of the man you tried to kill, how could you have a legitimate reason to kill him?”

“That’s—No. I didn’t—”

“We know it was you, Pardy. Our tracking capabilities don’t end at guns and comm links. You might as well come clean now. We know where you were during your entire shift—ahem—and beyond. And we know your boots and armor were in the Feast Hall when the assassination attempt occurred. Taking into account the size of the shooter and your absence from duty, it was obviously you. Now that we have that out of the way, why’d you do it, Pardy? And make it good this time.”

“I don’t even have my boots. I didn—”

“You did it because…”

Why’d you kill Rabbit?” Tom demanded.

“Pardy.” The Captain shook her head. “I told you. Watch your mouth. Now I’m the only one on your side here. You’d do better for yourself not to alienate me. Being honest with me is the only way that I can help you.”

“Did you kill anyone else besides Rabbit?” Tom asked, gritting his teeth. He had never hated a fellow protector before. It seemed wrong to do it now, but he couldn’t hold back his anger.

“I shot the scumbag trash, low-class Sixer that dared to draw a gun on a protector. I shot the wannabe person that shot your Rabbit. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know, Pardy. Why do you care? They murdered an Officer of the Law and they’re dead because of it. Case closed.”

“No. But the woman—”

“So it is about her, then,” the Captain said, shaking her head. “Pardy, we kill people in the line of duty. It happens. If you can’t deal with that, then you’re not cut out to be a protector. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable doing housework.”

“She said she had a husband,” Tom said, ignoring her. “Was he the one who you killed?”

The Captain smiled. She leaned closer over the table. “Why do you care so much, Pardy?”

“Just tell me!”

“This isn’t a negotiation, son. It’s an interrogation. Or did you not notice the shiny, new bracelets we gave you? Silver is your color, boy.”

Tom swung his fist at her and moved his chair forward with the force of it against his handcuffs.

“Well, now you notice them for sure,” the Captain said with a smile.

“What do you want?”

“I told you. I want to know why you did it. But make it good this time. You have an audience.”

He looked over at the black mirror. “I was protecting a little girl,” he said to it instead of the Captain.

“A little girl?” the Captain said. “By shooting Lord Walker?”

Tom looked back at the Captain. “Is her dad alive?”

Her dad.” The Captain scoffed, shaking her head. “Of course. I should have known. We should have known. We do have a department for this type of thing, don’t we?”

“Is. He. Alive?” Tom demanded.

“How old is your son now, Pardy? Ten, eleven years old. I must confess, I don’t know much about your personal life.”

“Leave him out of this.”

“How can I?” the Captain said, shaking her head. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? I should have known when you started talking about that trash’s daughter earlier. This is my fault really. I’ll pull in the favors required to pay the consequences, but that’s all I need to know from you, Pardy. I wish you had thought of a better story, though. I had a lot invested in you, son. Well, good luck anyway.” She stood and made to walk away.

“Wait!” Tom called.

She stopped but didn’t turn around.

“Her father. Tell me. Is he alive?”

The Captain took a few slow steps back to the table and leaned over it to get close to his face. “For now, Pardy,” she said. He could feel the heat of her breath as she spoke and smell the liquor she must have drank before the interrogation. “But not for long. You get caught with that many printers in Outland 6 and there’s nowhere left to go. I’ll hurry it along now that I know he’s so important to you, though. You can count on that.” She pushed herself up off the table and walked out chuckling.

“I want to see him!” Tom yelled after her, but the door closed and she didn’t respond.

He fought against his chains until he bled, then he gave up. There was no use. His life was in their hands. Whoever they were. The Captain and her superiors, whoever was listening behind the black mirror, they decided his fate now. Not him. The door opened, and a pair of Officers he didn’t recognize marched in. One of them tossed the clothes out of Tom’s locker onto the table while the other undid his cuffs.

“Change into your clothes, citizen.”

Citizen? “The names Pardy,” Tom said, rubbing his bloody wrists. “Officer Pardy.”

“Not anymore, citizen. Dress yourself.” They pointed their guns at him.

“Alright, alright.” Tom slipped out of his white cargoes and into the jeans and t-shirt he had worn to his first day at the academy. They were fresh, and clean, and hadn’t been worn since. They felt soft and comforting against his skin. He only regretted the circumstances under which he had to put them back on.

“So. What now?” he asked when he was dressed. “Is that it? No trial?”

“You’ve been tried, citizen. Come with us.” One of them shoved Tom towards the door which the other had opened. They marched him at gunpoint through the halls to the transport bay where the Captain was waiting by the bay’s open doors.

“Well, Pardy,” she said. “This is the best I can do for you.”

“What?” He said through gritted teeth, fighting the urge to punch her.

“You’re clearly not stable enough to be a protector. Look at how worked up you are now. Dangerous, really.” The Captain shook her head. “And even more clearly, you miss your darling son. So it’s back to housework for you, Pardy. The only thing you’re good enough for.”

“I—but—”

The two officers pushed him through the bay doors into the elevator and got in with him. The doors closed, the floor fell out from beneath them, then the doors opened, and one of the protectors poked Tom in the back with a gun. “Out!”

He stepped out of the doors, and they slid closed behind him.

He looked up at the sky then down at the courtyard around him, spotting a tree that he wanted to climb. He ran over to it and sat at the bottom, taking off his shoes. He got one off and his sock was still bloody. It reminded him of everything he had just been through, everything he had just done.

What was he doing now? He felt like he had been here before but with less clothes. He remembered it like it was a bad decision made a long time ago. He thought it was probably still a bad idea. There was something—something—but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. A little black cat scampered across the sidewalk in front of him and disappeared on the other side.

His son.

He stood and limped—more from having only one shoe on than from having bloody feet—down the few blocks to his house. He checked his pockets but didn’t have a key, and he had to knock on his own door to get in. He was banging excitedly when his wife yelled at him to shut up, she was coming, then opened the door. “Tommy,” she said when she saw him. “I—”

Chels.” Tom hugged her as she squirmed away, surprised.

“What are you doing here?”

“I—uh—” It wasn’t the reaction he had expected. But what did he expect?

“And you only have one shoe on. Tom, what happened? Are you alright?”

“Chelsea,” Tom said, grabbing her hands. “Chels. I—I’m fine now. Where’s Jonah?”

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, clearly still confused. “He’s outside playing or something. Settle down and tell me what you’re doing here.”

“I—I don’t know,” Tom said, avoiding eye contact. “I did something. I—I’m not a protector anymore.”

Chelsea crossed her arms and frowned. “Not a protector?”

“There was this girl, Chels. This girl.” He shook his head. “She reminded me so much of Jonah. I just had to see him. Where is he?”

“What girl, Tom? What are you talking about?”

“This—This girl.” Tom sighed. Water welled up behind his eyes. “I…I killed her mom, and I had to—”

“You killed her mom?” Chelsea’s arms uncrossed.

“I—I didn’t mean to. I thought she had a gun.”

“She had a gun!” She embraced him in a long hug. “Sweetheart.”

Tom felt his heart drop to his stomach. The tears came. He had never cried in front of Chelsea before, but he couldn’t stop himself now. “N—No…She didn’t.”

“Sweetheart,” she whispered in his ear, patting his back. “It’s okay. I’ll get you back up and on your feet in no time. Then you can get back to protecting the worlds.”

He pushed away from her, tears still in his eyes. “No. You don’t understand. I can—I can’t go back. They won’t take me anymore.”

“What?” She didn’t sound as understanding as she did before. Her arms crossed again.

“They took my badge. I won’t be a protector ever again.”

“No.” She backed away from him. “How? Why?”

“I had to,” Tom said, shaking his head and looking at his feet. “The girl. If it was Jonah, we would have wanted someone to do the same for him.”

If it was Jonah, Tom. If. But it wasn’t. It was some Sixer trash. Are you telling me you threw your life away for trash?”

“I—No—” Tom said, shaking his head. “I didn’t throw my life away.”

“Well, you’re never going to be a protector again. Right?”

“I…” Tom shook his head again, eyes still glued to his feet.

“Then you threw your life away, Tom.” She stomped into the house.

“Wait!” Tom called. She stopped herself halfway through closing the door. “Where are you going?”

“To submit my application to the Protector’s Academy,” she said. “You don’t expect me to live in a two housekeeper family, do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer and slammed the door behind her.

Tom turned around and slouched onto the stoop with his head in his hands. He had thrown his life away, hadn’t he? Being a protector was the only way to build a respectable life in Outland 1. He knew that. It had been drilled into his head since before he understood words. What was he now? A housekeeper, the lowest of the low in 1. Better than any Sixer, sure, but that wasn’t saying much. And all for what? A filthy, scrawny piece of trash from Outland 6.

“Dad?” a voice came, breaking him away from the world inside his head.

He looked up from his sorrow to see Jonah standing there in the yard with a friend who Tom didn’t recognize. “Jonah?” he said.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Jonah.” Tom stood up, realizing how ridiculous he must look wearing only one shoe. “I, uh…”

“Hey, I’ll see you later,” Jonah said to his friend who scurried away, giggling. “Dad. What are you doing here?”

“Jonah,” Tom said, trying not to cry. “I missed you so much.” He picked Jonah up in a big hug, but Jonah squirmed away.

“Dad, shouldn’t you be at work?”

“No, son,” Tom said. “I shouldn’t.”

“But you told me—”

“Jonah. Listen to me. Everything I told you was wrong.”

“What?”

“It was all based on bad information, son. Red herrings.”

“Red herrings?” Jonah was obviously confused. Tom couldn’t blame him.

“Yeah, you know, something that sounds like a clue but—”

“Yeah, dad.” Jonah scoffed. “I know what a red herring is. I’m not stupid.”

“Oh. Well…” Tom had to gather himself for a moment. He hadn’t seen Jonah in so long he had forgotten how old he was now, how much he already knew about the worlds. “Of course, son. But school, and television…The news—Those are all red herrings,” he said.

Jonah laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, son. It’s all wrong. You have to think for yourself. Pretty much do the opposite of whatever they say.”

Jonah chuckled some more. “Alright, dad. Is this some sort of test or something?”

“No.” Tom shook his head. “I’m serious. Red herrings.”

Pffft. Sure, dad.” Jonah smiled. “That’s why you’re wearing one shoe, right?”

“I, well…”

“Alright, dad,” Jonah said, skipping up the stairs and inside. “I’ll keep that in mind. But come on inside. It’s almost time for dinner.”

Tom sighed. No one was ever going to believe him. Still, what was there left for him to do? He followed Jonah inside to see if he could help with dinner.

#     #     #

< XIX. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XXI. The Scientist >

Thanks again for reading this far. Don’t forget to join us for the exciting conclusion of The Asymptote’s Tail next Saturday, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel from Amazon if you want to support future novels in the Infinite Limits series and beyond. Have a great weekend, y’all.