Hello, dear readers. Welcome to the penultimate chapter in the Infinite Limits saga (not counting a short epilogue). This has to be one of my favorite chapters in the entire series. Here we join Captain Mondragon to discover what her fate is after having been shot in the chest at the Christmas Feast. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it, and don’t forget, if you do, you can always pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.
What the Hell was this?
What the— Was this Hell?
Last she remembered she was tied to a chair, listening to that woman go on and on about someone’s death somewhere. Sitting in the darkness. Listening. Waiting…
And what? What happened next?
Fwip qiwʇ. The sound of a vacuum. The quick short breeze. And the worlds had changed even though she hadn’t moved.
She wasn’t in darkness anymore. She wasn’t in Six at all. She was on a stage, still tied to the chair, listening to the old woman rant at a sea of tuxedoed owners. But they weren’t listening, instead stuffing their fat faces full of food. She recognized the place. The Feast Hall in Inland. A place she’d been to a long time ago. But there was no time to reminisce, because soon the old woman’s rant was over and she was not pointing her gun at the owners.
Pop. Pop pop. Pop pop pop. Pop pop pop pop pop. Pop pop pop pop pop pop pop.
A gunshot. Two. More?
She didn’t know. But she did know pain. A dear friend by that time, pain. It was everywhere. Not just in the newly formed hole in her chest, slowly leaking the life giving red out of her body, but everywhere. Every cell. Every molecule. Every quark and string. You name it. Pain tore her apart, integrated itself into her being, and put her back together again, a writhing miserable mass that wouldn’t want to go on living even if it could.
What else was there?
She died. She gave up. Gave in to the pain. Let it win. Resistance was futile, and she knew that better than anyone, so why would she think of resisting? She didn’t even think.
Amaru up above had called upon her, Muna Mondragon, as a little girl in Outland One, and Muna had risen to the occasion. Not only had she joined the Force, she had become the best in the business, the youngest Chief of Protectors in history. And now, even as a Chief, she had been brave enough to put her own life on the line, walking an Officer’s beat in Outland Six where she had been ambushed, kidnapped, and publicly assassinated in front of the owners’ very own Christmas Feast. It was a classic story meant for a hero’s legend, just like the ones that Muna had learned when she was little, but she had lived it in real life. She was no doubt assured a place in the highest ranks of Amaru’s Protector Force—if she believed in any of that anymore. The question then became, did she believe in any of that anymore? And did it really matter?
She had no choice but to find out.
Her heart stopped. One of the bullets that the old woman had fired entered through her chest, messed the place up, leaving the muscle out of order, and came back out again on the other side, without even closing the door on the way out. There was no fighting that if she tried, so Muna Mondragon died.
From her schooling—and from her experiences of the deaths of others—she knew that her entire body would be giving up, releasing everything she held back in life, just as her heart already had. But she couldn’t tell if she had shit herself or not by that point. She couldn’t tell anything at all. The universe was getting too bright and too dark, both at the same time, until she couldn’t tell the difference between the two and ended up whiting/blacking out—or something like it, she couldn’t see, feel, dream, or think, so she didn’t really have any word at all for what had happened to her.
Time drifted by. At least she can only assume it did. There was no way to know for sure with no senses to experience by, but she had never known time to stop before, so she figured it had done what it always did and kept running. Then she was sure that it had, because suddenly, she woke up.
Well, no. Maybe she wasn’t sure about that. Maybe she still wasn’t awake. But she could think again. At least she thought she could think. She thought therefore she was thinking. Or something like that. She thought.
Thinking down, she began to feel again, too. Not all at once, though. First her feet and the ground beneath them, wiggling her little toes one by one. Somehow, she was standing. And she was wearing her boots. Had she been wearing them before she…
Next, she felt her head. The helmet upon it. Heavy was the head that wore the Lord’s crown. Heavier still the head that wore the screaming neon samurai facemask. Even now she was forced to wear it. Now after she had…
And so on and so on. Hands in gloves, legs in cargo pants, body in plated armor. She thought she could think, she felt like she could feel, then she saw what there was to see. Was it a dream?
Her eyes, no longer blind, took a moment to adjust to her helmet’s cameras just as the cameras took their time to adjust to her eyes. When all parts of her—because by that time the helmet and its cameras truly seemed to be a part of her Amaru-given body—had done their necessary adjusting to one another, she could see a full three hundred and sixty degrees in every direction around her. More than that. In each of those directions she could see in three hundred sixty degrees at a perpendicular angle. Effectively her vision was a sphere and she could see in all directions at once. She didn’t have to look down to see that her hands did in fact move when she willed them to—as shiny and translucent as her hands were, she had to work to convince herself that they were in fact her hands, but she didn’t have to look down to see them—and she didn’t have to look up to see that the sky was dark and the stars were brighter than she had ever thought they could be. She could see the city around her, and a long strip of green that she could only compare to the Neutral Ground. She could even see straight down through her body to the grassy ground underneath her booted feet. She could see everything all around her all at once.
What else could she do but give her new legs a walk? Sure enough, they seemed to work just fine, but the effect of movement was nauseating with her vision the way that it was. Every time she stepped forward it seemed like she was going forward in all directions at once, every part of everything she could see—grass, cityscape, sky, herself, everything—seemed to move closer to her at the same time.
She was startled by the sensation at first, and disoriented. She tried to step backwards to get her bearings, but of course, she was stepping backwards in every direction, too, so again everything everywhere seemed to get closer to her.
She tried to sit down and cry, give up again like she had when she died, but her legs wouldn’t let her do even that. Were they even her legs anymore? No matter what Muna tried, all they did was step forward. Standing still didn’t even work any more. All she could do was take step by step closer to every single thing in existence.
So, step she did. Step, step, step, step, step, one foot in front of another, trying to focus on that one point of her perception that went straight up and down the Neutral Grounds instead of on any of the infinite other perspectives she had going in every direction she could see: every single direction at once. Despite her efforts to see straight ahead, she became so dizzy that she tried to vomit, but again her legs would only let her keep on walking forward towards everything.
On and on and on, further and further and closer and closer to everything in every direction she went until she started to get the hang of it and she could finally focus on that one single spot all the way down the Neutral Grounds which was where she was actually trying to go.
Now it seemed like she was making progress. How much time had that taken? She couldn’t quite remember and the stars above her didn’t seem to be changing position.
Oh, no. The thought of the stars made her lose her concentration, and she had to fight through more dizziness and nausea to get back to the focus that she had so recently found.
What next, though? She was intent on the Neutral Grounds again, but she couldn’t stop walking if she wanted to. And she did want to. She tried again but there was no use. She just kept walking, walking, walking until she didn’t anymore.
A door. Golden but still obviously a transport bay. Her hands reached out to open it, but nothing. The doors were sealed shut. And finally, her legs gave her the rest she had been hoping for, struggling for, praying for, and they let her sit down, her back to the elevator doors.
Sitting now, finally able to rest and not moving, she could see the world without wanting to throw up. She was on eye level with the ground, and there along the green grass of the Neutral Grounds were her footprints in thick, red, almost waxy blood. She reached down to touch the nearest footprint with her finger, to see if it really was as thick as it looked, and when she pulled her hand back up she was holding a red poinsettia.
What the Hell was this?
What the— Was this Hell?
She tried to smell the poinsettia but couldn’t figure out where her nose was, and that’s when she had had enough. Enough of all of it. She took off her helmet, hoping it would fix her vision, but nothing changed. She could still see in every direction at once. She didn’t know what else to do, but her hands didn’t stop there. They started unlacing her boots and tossing them one after another in all directions at the same time.
There, she thought to herself when both boots were just little dots floating out of sight. That’s much better. But her hands still didn’t stop. They took off her socks and plated armor, even her undershirt and pants, until she was down to her underwear, and on beyond that until she was peeling her skin off of her muscles and letting it drift away, floating in the wind like cellular dust. On she went through the muscles, through fat and meat alike, bones and organs. Layer by layer, piece by piece, cell by cell, her hands stripped her—and thus themselves—naked until there was nothing left. But somehow there was still her.
But somehow there was still her.
But somehow there was still her. What was she?
And then there wasn’t her. The brightness came back. The darkness. Quick and sudden like an explosion. Did time stop again? Was it ever flowing?
# # #
She awoke in cuffs and manacles, chained to the chair she was sitting on and shrouded in darkness. Not too dark, though. Nothing like what she now knew was possible. She could even see enough to recognize that she had only two perspectives again—one for each eye—rather than the infinitely spherical point of view she had been dealing with. But beyond that, nothing. Dark forms. Shadows. Maybe a table here closer to her and a wall further off. Nothing was certain anymore. She wasn’t quite sure anything ever could be certain again.
And then the brightness came. Again, not too bright—well, yes, literally too bright for her to see in this instance, but not as bright as the brightness she had now experienced. She squinted her eyes against it. Held them closed tight, but still her eyelids were red hot. She had to fight the urge to hide her head under her arms because she didn’t want to give her interrogator the upper hand so soon. And she knew this was definitely an interrogation. These were the exact tactics Muna herself used when questioning a suspect.
Whoever it was, her interrogator took their time—just as Muna would have—but it didn’t matter how long they waited. Muna had spent plenty of her own time behind just such spotlights in her rise through the ranks of the Protector Force so she was well experienced in withstanding the hotbox.
Eventually her interrogator realized who they were dealing with and out came a voice, not through speakers, but naturally—as naturally as any voice could sound coming through those modulated facemasks, at least, which was surprisingly natural for someone who’s been on the Force for as long as Muna had been—as if someone had been there in the room with her the entire time, hiding behind the darkness and the light alike, waiting for Muna to give in—which she would never do.
“What are you doing here, [Muna/Mona/Officer/Sergeant/ Captain/Chief/Ms./Mondragon]?” the inhuman voice demanded, using all the names and ranks that Muna’s ever gone by all at the same time.
“Where am I?” Muna asked, still squinting her red-hot eyelids against the too bright lights. “How am I supposed to know?”
“You know where you are,” the voice said, seeming to crackle and groan even more than normal. The effect was utterly terrifying. Like being roared at by a glitched out ghost in the machine who wanted to eat your brain and use it for processing power. Muna now truly understood why the helmets were built with the effect. “Don’t lie to yourself.”
“An interrogation chamber, obviously. But where? Whose?”
“Ha ha ha!” Whatever noise that voice made, if it can even be called laughing, it should be made illegal. “Yours, of course. Who else?”
Muna didn’t know how to respond, and even if she did, she wasn’t sure her interrogator would have been able to hear her over their own terrifying cackling.
“How many people have you killed in the culling?” the voice demanded, stopping its laughter all of a sudden, and the absence of laughter was almost as unsettling as its presence. As if fear of the laugh returning was worse than the laugh itself.
“How many people have I— What is this?” Muna asked.
“How many officers have you culled?” the voice demanded again, shortening the wordspan as if counting down—to what, Muna didn’t want to know.
“How many— I—” She couldn’t count them. She didn’t have to. They were neatly recorded in her files so she didn’t have to think about any of those people ever again. She wasn’t responsible for them. The Force was. And she wasn’t about to start thinking about them now just because this bodiless voice asked her to from behind its blinding lights. “I don’t know.”
“Who was the first?” the voice demanded.
“I don’t know,” Muna repeated, but she did know. Of course, she did. She had still been a Captain. It was her first rookie class. She had teamed up with Pardy and Rabbit and had almost fucked the whole thing up—or more accurately, Pardy had tried to fuck it up for her—but her ability to stay cool and handle the consequences before they got out of control had been what propped her up in the eyes of her superiors, and soon she was lead culler for her district every single quarter, on the fast track to Chiefdom.
“Who?” the voice demanded.
“I don’t know,” Muna repeated, knowing it was impossible for her to hold out forever.
The voice did have a body after all. Hands at least. Fists more likely, but Muna heard them slamming on a metal table and she knew she had to answer.
“Rabbit, okay. Officer Jefferson. Are you happy?”
“Did Rabbit deserve to die?” the voice asked, and the way it said his name, Rabbit, was offensive somehow, disgusting.
“I don’t know,” Muna said, struggling against her chains, but they were so tight she couldn’t even move. “Who am I to say? Can’t you turn off that light?”
The light went out, but Muna knew not to be relieved. It was just a ploy. An attempt to get her to open her eyes then turn on the lights again and blind her. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. She held her eyes closed tight despite the fact that her eyelids had gone from red hot to cooling black.
“Did any of them?” the voice asked at a quieter volume, less modulated, like a normal protector’s voice.
“Does anyone?” Muna asked.
“Did you?” the voice answered her question with a question, taking a page out of Muna’s interrogation playbook.
“What do you mean did I?” she demanded, struggling again but still unable to move. “Do I! Do I!?”
“Do you?” the voice asked.
And Muna didn’t know how to answer. Maybe she did. “Maybe I do.”
“You did,” the voice said. “And maybe you do, too.”
Muna was more confused than ever. She didn’t know what to say. All she could do was fight against her chains, but they seemed to get tighter and tighter with her every attempt to move. The voice left the room without another word, just the opening and closing of a door and the exit of a protector’s silhouette. Not soon after, two more protector silhouettes came in to wordlessly unchain Muna while she begged them to speak.
“Who are you? Where am I? How’d I get here?” she pleaded, but neither Officer said a word until she was fully unchained, then one of them said, “Stand up.”
She stood. One of the Officers took her chair out of the room and the other her interrogator’s chair. Then they came back in to take the table and close the door behind them. Muna tried to open the door and follow them, but all of a sudden, the floor fell out from underneath her. She was in a transport bay of some kind, and when the floor stopped falling, the whole wall slid open like an elevator door to reveal the pale, boring suburbia of Outland One.
Muna stepped out of the elevator onto the lamplit path, and each new square of the sidewalk lit up like a disco floor whenever she stepped on it, leaving a trail of light in her wake. On and on she walked, brightening the scenery with every few steps she took, until she came upon a tree that she recognized from her childhood, a tree that she used to love—and sometimes hate—to climb.
As she walked closer, she realized there was a little girl climbing the tree, and a gang of children chasing her up it, calling her names and yelling mean things. What were they all doing out there so far past curfew? Muna was about to go lecture them when she was interrupted by their singing:
Mona, the moaner.
More disgusting than a boner.
She opened her trap, it smelled like crap
And that’s why her family disown her.
It was a song Muna was familiar with, the reason she hated the name Mona. Those same kids used to chase her around, singing that same song, and that must have been her, a tiny little Muna Mondragon, up in the tree, crying, waiting for the little jerks to go away and leave her alone.
“Go away!” Muna yelled at them, stomping in their direction like she was trying to scare a pack of swarming dogs. “Scram! She wasn’t disowned! She’s an orphan!”
But the children didn’t respond. They just went on singing the same lyrics over and over again while little Muna kept crying in the tree.
Mona, the moaner.
More disgusting than a boner.
She opened her trap, it smelled like crap
And that’s why her family disowned her.
And when adult Muna stomped over to pick one of the children up by the collar and make them leave, her hand went straight through the kid, like he was a hologram, or a ghost—maybe a little bit of both.
Muna had sat through enough of their singing. She had been through more than enough as a child. So, she did the only thing she ever could do to get away from the neighborhood kids. She ran home. Not to the orphanage, where she had spent most of her youth imprisoned—or close enough—but back to where she had lived with her family before her parents had been killed on duty in Outland Six. Even if she had no memories of the few short years that she had lived there as a baby, it was still the place that she most considered home.
The way from her favorite tree to home was exactly the same as she remembered it, for better or for worse. She was even treated to a visit from the black cat she always used to chase—and was never able to catch. He ran across the path, lighting a block of the sidewalk up and disappearing on the other side before she could even react. And then there it was: her house.
It looked exactly like every other house she had passed on her way there. Every house in Outland One looked exactly the same: cut out of a single-story ranch style mold that came in left-handed or right-handed depending on which side of the entrance the kitchen was on—left-handed for Muna’s house.
She approached slowly, trying to take it all in, to remember the bushes out front as they looked when she was young—taller, more spacious, a secret garden to hide under and inside of until all the bad things in all the worlds all went away—but everything seemed smaller to her going back again, less protective. That is until the front door creaked open and out walked her mom and dad, looking as young and healthy as they did in the photographs that formed Muna’s only memories of their appearances.
“Munya, my dear,” her dad said, climbing down the front stoop to embrace and hug his daughter. “It’s so nice to finally see you again.”
“You look beautiful, sweetheart,” her mom said, joining in on the hugs and kisses. “More beautiful than I ever could have hoped for.”
“I— But—” Muna stammered. “Mom… Dad…”
“Munya,” her dad repeated.
“What is it, dear?” her mom asked, concerned.
“I— Uh… You’re supposed to be…”
“Taller?” her dad said, trying to make a joke but failing miserably. “Handsomer? Smarterer? I am, honey. All three.”
“We’re supposed to be what, dear?” her mom asked, chuckling at the silly joke.
And Muna finally just said it: “Dead.”
“No, dear. Not dead.” Her dad said, chuckling at his joke before he even told it. “I’m dad. Nice to meet you. Ho ho huh.”
“Dead?” her mom said, eyes wide as if she hadn’t known.
“Yes. Both of you,” Muna said.
“Then what am I doing here?” her dad asked, looking at his hands like he just noticed them.
“What are you doing here?” her mom asked, looking at Muna the same way.
“Oh, well… I don’t know.” Muna said. “I…”
“Are you supposed to be dead, too?” her dad asked, and her mom slapped him on the arm.
“Don’t say that,” she said. “Now, dead or not, I’m going in to finish cooking dinner, and if you two don’t come in to help me, you can be certain you’ll both be dead by the time we’re done eating.” She stormed inside, slamming the screen door behind her.
Muna’s dad shrugged. “Well, you heard your mother,” he said. “Dead or alive, she’s the boss. So, let’s do it.” And he went inside, too.
Muna didn’t know what to do. Was she dead? Did it matter? But she didn’t have time to think about that. For now, she just wanted to help cook dinner, enjoy a meal with her parents, and catch up on lost time.
# # #
And there you have it, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Come on back next week for the final chapter (and the epilogue), or if you can’t wait that long, go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.