Chapter 26: Jonah

Well, dear readers, today’s chapter is a day late. Sorry about that. I totally got sidetracked yesterday and forgot it was Saturday. But fear not, today we continue the story of Infinite Limits with the first point of view chapter from Jonah Pardy. I hope you enjoy it, and if so, do think about picking up a full copy of the novel through this link.

< XXV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XXVII. Guy >

XXVI. Jonah

Jonah kneeled on the rough concrete, counting in his head how many shots had been fired at him so far. He chanced a quick peek around the dumpster and was greeted with a hail of gunfire. He glimpsed his partner, his best friend, the one person he was assigned to protect in this sick game called life, laying on the ground in front of the dumpster, surrounded by a sticky thick pool of red. She had taken the shots that would have finished him, and now it was his responsibility to ensure her actions weren’t in vain.

He checked his ammo. Seven shots. Lucky number seven. There couldn’t be more than that many of the thugs out there so there was still some chance—however small. All he had to do was hit his target with every shot he took while simultaneously avoiding every bullet they lobbed back at him. Piece of cake. He chuckled. His heart beat faster in anticipation. He took a few deep breaths to ready himself, set his sights on another dumpster a few yards ahead, and jumped into motion.

He did a cartwheel out from behind his cover, staying below the onslaught of bullets, and scratched his back on the concrete in the process. He could feel the breeze blowing past from the missed shots. He caught the hint of movement out of the corner of his eye and fired in that direction, tumbling behind the next dumpster without looking to see if he had hit his mark.

He rubbed his shoulder and could feel the blood, but that’s all it was, thank Amaru. He took off his blue masked helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead. This was it. There were five or six of them left, and he had to do something about it or go down in a pathetic laughable whimper. A whimper was unacceptable.

He held his empty helmet up over the dumpster and a few shots rang out. He popped up and knocked off two rounds without his helmet on—not regulation at all, but he was in a bind—hitting both targets, then dropped back down behind the dumpster, breathing heavily and shoving his helmet back on. It was now or never.

He rolled out from behind the dumpster, doing the same cartwheel roll as before, and as he stood, he felt a piercing pain in his chest. He looked down to see his blue vest splattered with bright red. He touched it with his hand, rubbing the sticky goo between his fingers, and fell to his knees. This was the end.

Two red-vested, red-helmeted kids came out from behind their own dumpsters on the other side of the alley, cheering and raising their guns over their heads. The dead bodies scattered around Jonah started to rustle and move. Those that were dressed in red and splattered with blue joined in the cheering. Those who were dressed in blue and splattered with red took off their helmets and hung their heads in shame. Liz, his partner and friend who was lying in the pool of red paint earlier, walked over to him, patted him on the back, and lifted him to his feet. Jonah flinched as she did, a fresh wave of pain emanating from the wound on his back, which he had only made worse with his second roll move.

“It’s alright,” Liz said, brushing his pants off for him. “You did your best.”

“I hate being the last one out,” Jonah said with a groan. “It’s worse than being first. People always think you’re a coward and you just hung back while your whole team died.”

“No they don’t—well… I don’t think that,” Liz said, guiding him by the arm back toward the locker room.

Of course you don’t,” Jonah complained, shrugging and walking as slowly as he could. “But you don’t count.”

Liz dropped his hand, straightened up, and hurried to the locker room ahead of him, disappearing before he could ask her what he had done wrong.

Jonah took his time, though, letting the entire team go in before him. Even if Liz didn’t think he was a coward, he knew that everyone else would and that he would hear all about it while he was changing. It was a lose-lose situation for him, though. The longer he waited to go into the locker room, the more of a coward he looked like and the worse those jerks would be. His heartbeat quickened in preparation, but he took a few deep breaths to calm it and slowly slipped into the door.

The entire room, tile, lockers, walls, and all, was stark white. Everyone had already started changing out of their red-speckled uniforms, stuffing them irreverently into their lockers and vying for the best showers. Jonah walked up to his locker, right next to Liz’s, as she slammed hers shut and stomped to a shower without looking at him.

He tried to keep his eyes on his own locker as he pressed his thumb to the locking mechanism. He got out his blue jeans, white t-shirt, towel, and soap and stripped to his underwear, stuffing his uniform into his locker. He breathed a sigh of relief when the warm water poured over him and he hadn’t had to hear a single word about his performance, then he winced in pain at the burn from the scrapes on his shoulders and back.

He washed himself then dried and dressed in the peace of the shower stall. When he opened the curtains, Stine was sitting on the bench in front of her locker—which was on the other side of his locker from Liz’s—with her group of lackeys hanging on her every word. He had to push his way through them to get to his locker. “Excuse me,” he said as he did, keeping his eyes on his locker’s locking mechanism as he tried to press his trembling thumb to it.

Whale Bait,” Stine said loud enough for the whole room to hear. “Good show out there. Are you planning on becoming a tumbler in Outland Three when you grow up?”

The room burst into laughter. Stine high-fived a few of her lackeys as Jonah stuffed his towel and soap inside his locker.

“You know I saw your girlfriend take that bullet for you, too, Plankton,” Stine went on. “She’s worth more than you are out there, you got it? You should be the one taking bullets for her, not the other way around.”

Jonah slammed his locker door. “No shit, Stine. Amaru up above. Where were you out there, though? Your suit’s got red paint on it just like everyone else’s.”

The room quieted, and her lackeys looked to Stine for a witty retort.

“I fell over laughing when you did your somersaults,” she lied. “It left me defenseless. I didn’t know they let carnies into the Protectors Academy. Shouldn’t you be in Outland Three with the rest of them?” Her and her lackeys all laughed and high-fived each other at the same joke told over again in so short a time.

Jonah ignored them as best he could, though, stomping out of the locker room, wishing he hadn’t closed his locker already so he could slam it again. Outside, Liz was tying her shoes under the building’s awning. He knew it wasn’t a coincidence, too. It was an excuse to wait for him without waiting for him. “Hey,” he said, walking up to her.

“Hey,” she echoed back, standing and making her way with him down the sidewalk, between the empty patches of field which were filled with oak trees to shade their path. “How was it in there?” she asked when they had gone a way in the cool, silent afternoon air.

“Would’ve been nice to have some backup,” he said.

I thought I didn’t matter.”

Jonah sighed. Of course that was what she was mad about: his stupid choice of words. “No. I didn’t mean that. I—”

“Those were your exact words,” she said. “And I quote, Of course you don’t. But you don’t count. end quote.”

“Do you ever forget anything?” Jonah groaned.

“That was like twenty minutes ago, Jonah. How soon do you expect me to forget?”

“Yeah, well, that’s not what I meant, okay. And you know it.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“I…Well…” What did he mean? “I meant that—you know—well, it’s just that you… Liz. It’s just that, the protective person you are, you’re always on my side. Right? You always want to protect me. So even if I was acting like a coward and you did take a bullet for me, you wouldn’t say so because you wouldn’t want to hurt my feelings. Yeah—uh—that’s it… That’s what I meant.”

Liz smiled. “You didn’t act like a coward,” she said. “You run a little faster than I do. I happened to be behind you when the shot was fired. It wasn’t your fault.”

“Like I said,” Jonah said. “You may think so, but Stine and her crew don’t agree. And they were sure to let me know what they thought of my performance while you were out here tying your shoes.”

“Well who cares what they say? They’re idiots.”

They walked some more in silence, passing expansive yards and cookie-cutter ranch style houses. The serene boredom of Outland One—the least dangerous world of them all, even before Inland—was enough to make Jonah want to pass out.

“So, you wanna hang out at my place or something?” he asked. He didn’t usually have to, but recently, his home life had changed.

“Is your dad gonna be there?” Liz asked right back, scrunching up her nose and giggling.

“Yeah, well, of course,” Jonah said. “He does the housework now. You know that.”

“But he’ll be wearing two shoes this time, right?” She laughed outright now instead of just giggling.

“Now that was one time,” Jonah complained, embarrassed. “And he had been through a lot. At least that’s what Mom says.” He shook his head.

“Why isn’t he a protector anymore anyway?” Liz asked, looking sheepish when she did. She had asked him the same question before, and she had to know by now what his answer was going to be, but she went on anyway. “I mean, what happened to him?”

“I don’t know!” Jonah snapped, stopping in his tracks. They were getting close to his house anyway. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. And asking me again won’t change that. Okay.”

“I—uh—well, I’m—”

Look. If you wanna know so badly, then why don’t you come over to my house and ask him for yourself? Maybe he’ll tell you.”

“I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I mean, have you even asked him?”

“Of course I’ve…” Jonah thought about it for a second. His mom had told him not to ask his dad about it. Maybe he hadn’t. He wouldn’t defy an order from his mother. “I mean, that is, I think I have,” he said. “Yeah. I have.”

“You haven’t. Have you?”

“I think I did. Well, maybe not…”

She hit him on the arm. “You haven’t.”

He rubbed his arm even though it didn’t hurt. “Thanks a lot,” he said. “You know I scraped up my back today rolling around on the concrete trying to get us a win for once.”

“Well that wasn’t your back.”

“Still, it was the same side. It hurts.” He tried to put on a pained face, but it probably just came off constipated like Liz always told him it did.

“Yeah, well, you haven’t asked your dad what happened to him, have you?”

“No, well, I never got a chance, you know. He’s always going off on those rants about conspiracy theories and red herrings and how I can’t believe anything anyone tells me. I just want to shake him and tell him that what he’s saying means I can’t believe him either, but my mom ordered me not to ask him about it so what am I supposed to do?” He was breathing heavily because he had delivered the entire rant in a single breath.

“Yeah, well, you can’t disobey your mom I guess.” Liz shrugged.

“Exactly,” Jonah said. “So how was I supposed to ask him?” He grinned, confident that he had won the argument and they could go inside to eat something and relax a little after that beating during the standoff.

“Well, do you even care?” Liz asked. Of course she could carry any argument in the worlds on just a little bit further.

“What do you mean?” he replied. “Of course I care. He is my dad, isn’t he?”

“I know you care about your dad, but do you even want to know what happened to him? I mean, he got fired, Jonah. That’s a pretty big deal, you know. It probably had a big effect on him.”

Jonah thought about it. His dad would never be a protector again. He had only gotten to be an actual protector for about a day. Jonah couldn’t imagine how that would feel, living his dream for one day then having it torn away forever. Maybe he would go crazy and rant about red herrings, too. He certainly wouldn’t put up with Stine and her locker room buddies, that was for sure. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I never thought about it that way.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about!” She hit him again but softer this time, more of a pat. He rubbed his arm anyway. “You didn’t even think about it!”

“Yeah, well, even if I had thought about it, I still couldn’t disobey my mom’s orders, could I? So what am I supposed to do, huh?”

“No.” Liz smiled. “You can’t do that. That’s true. But your mom never ordered me to do anything, did she?”

Jonah shook his head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“C’mon,” she said, grabbing his hand and skipping toward his house. “What are partners for, anyway? You’ll thank me when he answers.”

“No,” he said, skipping along hand-in-hand with her. “You’ll be sorry when he does. You’ll see.”

They didn’t stop until they got to the covered porch of what looked like the exact same house as every one they had passed on their way there.

“Now,” Jonah said before he opened the door. “I have to warn you, he’s been extra weird today, so know that anything he expresses are his views and his views alone and I in no way support or deny any of them.”

Amaru, you sound like a TV show,” she said.

“Yeah, well, I learned the whole bit from TV.” Jonah grinned. “Pretty good, huh?”

Liz chuckled.

“Anyway,” Jonah went on. “I’m serious, okay. Don’t ask him about it right away. Let’s play it cool and see what he’s acting like, then I’ll give you the signal or something.”

She laughed. “I’m not a complete social reject,” she said. “I’ve got more tact than you’ll ever have. Just open the door and let’s get on with it.”

Jonah opened the door to find his dad on hands and knees on the beige Berber carpet in the foyer, wearing a pink apron and yellow rubber gloves, scrubbing the walls with a sponge. He looked up when they came in, dropped his sponge in the bucket with a splash, and stood to hug Jonah with wet, antiseptic-scented hands. “Welcome home, son,” he said.

Uh, hey Dad,” Jonah said, squirming away from the soggy hug. “You know Liz.”

“Liz, dear,” his dad said, hugging her too. “So nice to see you again.”

“And you, Mr. Pardy,” Liz said, wiping some suds from her shirt. “Your apron is lovely.”

Jonah’s dad looked down at himself, took off his apron, and said, “You kids go find something to watch on TV and I’ll fix you up a delicious snack in no time flat.”

Jonah shrugged. When his dad had gone into the kitchen, he looked at Liz and said, “See, I told you.”

“He seemed nice,” she said, shrugging back. “And supportive. He didn’t seem that bad to me.”

“Yeah, well, just you wait and see.”

The living room was lined with the same beige Berber carpet as the hall, and the leather couch matched the color of the carpet perfectly. There were gun and news magazines on the coffee table and a TV on the wall across the room.

“TV on,” Jonah said, plopping onto the couch and kicking off his shoes. “The Greatest Mouse Detective or Protector Time?” he asked.

“I don’t care,” Liz said, joining him on the couch but leaving her shoes on. “You decide.”

“Protector Time it is. TV, Protector Time,” he said. “Biological!” he yelled, putting his fist in the air as Liz giggled.

The TV flipped to a cartoon about a little girl and her pet cat who could grow and shrink at will. In each episode, which really consisted of two sub-episodes, the girl and the cat would get into all kinds of adventures, the moral of which always ended up being the protection of property, liberty, and life.

In this particular episode, the girl and cat combo were fighting to save the Smooth Terra Prince from an evil fire witch when they lost their ice wands and were left to decide between using the fire witch’s own lava wand against her or facing certain defeat with no defense. Just as their arguing ended and the cat convinced the girl that using the fire witch’s weapon was wrong—that you couldn’t fight fire with lava—a volcano erupted, sweeping the red witch away in a wave of lava and melting the glacier the girl and the cat were standing on, leaving the girl to use the cat as a surfboard to ride the resulting wave in the other direction, toward the party in Vegetable Kingdom which they were already late for anyway.

“Oh, ho ho, that was biological,” Jonah said as the screen faded to a long line of commercials—mostly thanking the protectors for their service, with a few ads for housekeepers sprinkled in between. “But I would have definitely used that fire wand. They were stupid to stand there arguing while they were defenseless.”

“Would you though?” Liz asked. “I mean, like Jackie said: You can’t fight fire with lava.”

“Yeah, well, tell that to the volcano that saved their lives. If Phillis had just picked up the wand and used it, they would have been out of there and at the party in time, no volcano needed.”

“Or they would have been stranded without the knowledge that they could melt the iceberg and surf home. It’s the unintended consequences that mess things up,” Liz said, crossing her arms and shaking her head.

“Yeah, well, it would have melted anyway. I’m sure.” Jonah crossed his arms.

Liz probably would have argued further, but Jonah’s dad came in, carrying a tray and wearing the pink apron again. “Here you are kids,” he said. “I didn’t know what you wanted so I brought a little of everything. Pizza bagels, pizza rolls, pizza slices. Pretty much your whole pizza food group there. We have some fish sticks, chicken nuggets, sausages in a—”

“Okay, dad,” Jonah said. “Thanks. We get it. The next episode is about to come on, though. So…”

“Thank you, Mr. Pardy,” Liz said, grabbing a pizza roll.

“What are you watching?” Jonah’s dad asked, sitting on the couch between them and eating one of the pizza rolls himself.

“Protector Time,” Liz said “Have you ever seen it?”

“Uh, it’s nothing,” Jonah said. “Just a cartoon. It’s for kids anyway. You wouldn’t like it.”

“Protector Time?” his dad said. “Is that the one with the little girl and the cat?”

“Phillis and Jackie,” Liz said.

“Oh, I watched an episode of that cartoon while Jonah—or, while you both were at school, I guess,” he said. “I like that Phillis.”

“Jackie’s my favorite,” Liz said. “I wish I could grow big like that.” She sat up straight and puffed out her cheeks, raising her arms to make herself look bigger.

“I think you grew a little bit,” Jonah’s dad said, laughing.

Liz huffed out all the air she was holding in and laughed with him.

“Alright, alright,” Jonah said. “The next episode’s about to come on. Quiet down you two.”

They stifled their laughter but couldn’t stop it entirely until the theme song was over. In this half-episode, Phillis and Jackie were going to a party in Smooth Terra Land with the Smooth Terra Prince when all the snacks and drinks for the party—all three of them watching at home ate some more pizza at the mention of snacks—were stolen by the Angors from Exic Space. When they entered Exic Space to get the food back and save the Smooth Terra Prince’s party, Phillis and Jackie found the Angors all looking sickly, skinny, and weak, as if they hadn’t eaten a real meal ever. And when they finally found the Smooth Terra Prince’s food, they couldn’t dare take it back from these people who so obviously needed it more than the Smooth Terra Land party did.

“I’m not doing it,” Phillis said, crossing her heart on the screen. “We were sworn to protect life and that includes the life of Angors.”

“No,” Jackie said. “We were sworn to protect property, liberty, and life, dude. Besides, look.” She pointed into the crowd of Angors at a particular one who looked healthier than the rest. Not only healthy, this Angor was downright fat. And as it ate and ate from the pile of party supplies, it grew skinnier and skinnier. Soon Jackie made Phillis realize what was going on, and they took up arms to return the party food to its rightful owners then joined in the Smooth Terra Prince’s celebration.

Dude,” Jonah said, “Those Angors suck.”

“Don’t say that,” his dad said.

“I don’t know,” Liz said. “Property, liberty, life and all, sure, but that one Angor was hungry, wasn’t he?”

Exactly,” Jonah’s dad said.

Pssshhh.” Jonah scoffed. “Property, liberty, life,” he said. “You know that. You can’t steal what other people own. You might as well own their body like they’re a robot or something. Are you saying that any time I’m hungry I can just steal whatever you have?”

No,” Liz said.

“When you’re hungry you can get whatever you want from the printer,” Jonah’s dad said.

“Yeah, well, I own that printer,” Jonah said.

“You don’t own anything,” Liz said. “You’re a kid.”

I own that printer,” Jonah’s dad said. “Me and your mother.”

“Yeah, well, you know what I mean,” Jonah said. “They didn’t own the food. It was for the party. It doesn’t matter if they were hungry or not because it’s not theirs.”

“But what harm did it do?” Liz asked. “The one fat guy ate some to get skinny like all the rest of them, but then there was plenty of food still left over for the party, and none of the Smooth Terra people even noticed any was missing.”

Yeah,” Jonah said. “But there was some missing. And Phillis and Jackie had to bring it back or there would have been more missing, wouldn’t there? I mean, what did you want them to do? Just leave all the food there and forget about the party?”

“No,” Jonah’s dad said.

“They should have invited the Angors to the party,” Liz said.

“It was their food, they could do whatever they want with it,” Jonah said.

“But they weren’t going to eat it anyway so why not share?” Liz asked.

“Alright, alright now,” Jonah’s dad said. “It’s just a cartoon, kids.”

“Yeah, well, it has a purpose,” Liz said.

“I guess,” Jonah said, shrugging.

“Okay,” his dad said, eating a few more pizza rolls. “That’s enough. Do you kids need anything else? I might get back to cleaning the walls here. You’d be surprised at how dirty they can get.”

“No, Dad,” Jonah said. “I think we’re good.”

“Well, sir,” Liz said, looking at Jonah who tried—and failed—to tell her to shut up without his dad seeing. “There is one thing.”

“Oh, well go ahead dear,” his dad said. “Anything for a friend of Jonah’s. A friend of my son’s is a friend of mine.”

“Well, it’s just—”

“No, Dad. I think—” Jonah tried to cut her off but couldn’t.

“You used to be a protector, right?”

“Yes, well…” Jonah’s dad said, moving some of the food around on the table. “I used to be. Yes.”

“Question answered,” Jonah said, standing from the couch. “You wanna go hang out outside for a while?” He jerked his head toward the door to try to feed Liz the answer.

“Just a second, Jonah,” she said in a huff then looked back to his dad and smiled. “Mr. Pardy, sir. What happened? I mean, why did they—why did they…”

“Why did they fire me?” Jonah’s dad asked for her.

Jonah’s eyes grew wide. He tried to imagine how his dad would react to the question he had asked himself. His mom had to have ordered Jonah not to ask about it for good reason. She wouldn’t have given him a random order without a care as to whether he followed it or not. But he didn’t break this one, right? He hadn’t asked anything. He sat slowly back on the couch, staring at his dad on the way down, waiting for a response.

“Yes, sir,” Liz said. “Why can’t you be a protector?” she added as if she didn’t even want to say the word “fired” again.

“Well…” His dad looked at Jonah. He threw one of the pizza rolls onto the tray then picked it up and threw it on again. He was deciding something in his head. “Your mom doesn’t want me talking to you about it,” he finally said, looking at Jonah.

“Yeah.” Jonah shrugged. “Well I’m under strict orders not to ask you about it myself.”

“So that’s why your girlfriend was doing the dirty work.” Jonah’s dad smiled at the both of them. “A loophole in the chain of command. I like it.”

“She’s not my girlfriend!” Jonah complained. “She’s my partner.”

“Excuse me, sir?” Liz said, clearly surprised at what Jonah’s dad was saying. Jonah had warned her to beware of red herring conspiracies, but he guessed that hearing it straight from the horse’s mouth was a little different.

“That’s right,” his dad said, smiling wider. “What did you expect from me? A lecture on following orders?” He chuckled.

I sure didn’t,” Jonah said.

“No, well,” Liz said, “I don’t know. Aren’t grownups supposed to teach us to respect the chain of command?”

“Yes, well, that’s what they would have you believe,” Jonah’s dad said. “That’s what their entire system is based on. That’s why it’s all you learn in school and why your parents and all the other grownups don’t know anything else to teach you.”

“So they’re—or I guess you’re just following orders when you tell us to follow orders?” Liz said.

Exactly,” Jonah’s dad said, clapping his hands together. “And worded more eloquently than I could have ever put it.”

Liz giggled and smiled. “I think I’m getting it, but—”

“Getting it?” Jonah said, angry for some reason he didn’t quite understand. “What is there to get? It’s all nonsense. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense is all you’ve talked about ever since you got home, Dad. It’s getting ridiculous. Maybe it’s time for you to grow up.” He sneered and grabbed one of the pizza bagels.

“Jonah!” Liz cried. She probably would have hit him if his dad wasn’t sitting between them. “Don’t talk to your dad like that!”

“No,” his dad said. “It’s alright. He’s right, you know. You’re right.” He looked Jonah in the eyes, and Jonah turned his head to get away from the awkwardness. “I know I’ve been talking nonsense. I wanted to tell you everything I’ve learned, but your mother didn’t want me talking to you about it. She thinks I’m crazy, too. So everything I tried to say to you come out as gibberish. I’m sorry.”

Jonah shrugged and grabbed another pizza bagel. “Whatever,” he said, still chewing. “I just thought you went crazy because you lost your job. I probably would if I could never be a protector again.”

“Jonah!” This time Liz did reach across his dad to slap him.

“What?” Jonah complained, rubbing his arm. “It’s true.”

His dad sighed and looked off toward the TV—which was off now—as if he were daydreaming. “No,” he said. “He’s right again. You know, my dad had to give up protecting for housework when my mother—your grandmother—was killed in the line of duty. He was never the same after that. He would—He—” His dad chuckled, and Jonah felt a tugging at his stomach as he realized that his father had been a kid once, too. He had his own dad and mom who ordered him around and his own dreams for the future, probably the same dreams that Jonah had of becoming a legendary protector who was renowned across all seven worlds for being fearless in the face of injustice, dreams which were all but impossible for his dad now. Jonah was starting to understand why Liz hit him earlier.

“The old man,” his dad went on, “he set up a neighborhood watch because he didn’t want to leave raising me to some cowardly housekeeper, as he always put it. Of course there was never any crime living in One, but that didn’t stop us from patrolling up and down the neighborhood every night as he trained me in everything a good protector should know.”

“How sweet,” Liz said with a smile and a tear in her eye.

“What does any of that have to do with why you got fired?” Jonah asked.

“Nothing,” his dad said. “Nothing… Well, everything, you know. What he taught me then shaped everything I’ve done up until now, everything I will do in the future. I got fired because I was following his teachings. I was being the protector he always wanted me to be, the protector I thought could be a role model for you, Jonah. But now I’m no protector at all, and I never will be one again.”

“I’m so sorry,” Liz said. Her eyes were red and she looked like she was about to cry.

“It’s my own fault,” Jonah’s dad said. “Well, no, it was my choice. That’s different. It was the system’s fault and my choice to go against it to do what I thought my dad—and you, Jonah—would want me to do.”

“I wouldn’t want you to get fired,” Jonah snapped, defensive because he felt like his dad was trying to blame him for something he obviously had nothing to do with. “What kind of example does that set?”

“Would you want me to protect a little girl that needs protecting, or would you want me to leave her to fend for herself?” his dad asked. “Which example would you set for your son?”

“Of course I would protect her,” Jonah said. “So what?”

“Is that why you got fired?” Liz asked. “Protecting her?”

“Yes and no. I thought I was protecting her, but I don’t know anymore. I think I might have jumped from one authority to another without realizing that they both could be wrong. And that’s what you have to understand, Jonah. And you, too.” He looked at Liz. “You’re his partner. You’ve gotta have his back in all of this, in everything. Everyone has to have someone to help them along, and y’all have each other now. But I’ll give you this little piece of advice, okay: Don’t trust your superiors. Now don’t rebel all at once and ruin any chance y’all have at a normal life, if that’s what you want, but question every order they give you in your head. As you do, I think you’ll both start to see that those orders aren’t all reasonable, and maybe you’ll start to go against one or two of them. Don’t be afraid to, now. Do what you know is right no matter what they tell you. That’s all you can ever really do. Do you understand me?”

Liz smiled wide and laughed a little. “Are you kidding me?” she said.

“No,” Jonah’s dad said, shaking his head. “I’m dead serious. You can’t trust anything any of them tell you.”

Dad,” Jonah said, standing up, “you understand that means I can’t believe anything you say, right?”

“No,” he said. “I mean, yes. I do. Exactly. You can’t trust anyone, Jonah. Only yourself.”

“Then I can’t trust you when you say that,” Jonah said. “Ugh. This is ridiculous. I’m out of here.” He stomped outside without waiting for Liz to follow.

#     #     #

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There you have it, readers. Join us next Saturday (really Saturday this time, I promise, lol) for the next chapter in the story, and please do consider picking up a full copy of the novel through this link.

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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.

Chapter 13: Pardy

Today brings us Tom’s second point of view chapter, and you might notice he’s thinking of himself as Pardy now rather than Officer Pardy.

But before we get on with that, I wanted to comment a little on yesterday’s last chance for first editions post. It looks like (I’m sorry hipsters) I’m going to extend that last chance until next Saturday because I realized that this coming Wednesday is my birthday. I think the author’s birthday might be a pretty good marketing opportunity, and I don’t want my updates to make the novel unavailable for purchase on that day, so I’m just going to wait until next Saturday to do it. Yes, you heard that right people, that means you have one more full week to slip into the hipster parade with us. Just click through here to buy the full paperback first edition and you’re a member of the club. Easy as that.

Now that we have the business news out of the way, here’s Pardy’s chapter. Enjoy:

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

XIII. Pardy

Pardy couldn’t stop wondering if he had made the wrong decision in asking for Outland 6. He had been on patrol for only a few hours and he already knew that the populace hated him, they disappeared any time he came near. There was no point in him walking the streets but to send the Sixers back inside for the few seconds it took him to pass by. This was what he chose, though. He wanted to find something out about that woman’s daughter, and this was the only way he knew how to do it.

He had filled out his forms, just like the Captain asked, and sent them straight to her first. She made him sit down so she could read them over, and when she was satisfied, she asked him which patrol he would like. She hinted that Outland 3 was flashy and upscale—with a lot of celebrities—but Outland 5 was where protectors went to make a real name for themselves, to go down in history. When he told her he wanted Outland 6, she didn’t believe him. She gaped at him, wide-eyed, then laughed. “Good one, Pardy,” she said. “But really. What patrol do you want?”

When he insisted that he was serious, she tried to convince him that he was making a mistake, that Outland 5 would serve him much better than Outland 6, which no one anywhere cared about, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t have it. He had to find that woman’s daughter and protect her, even if he couldn’t tell the Captain that was why he wanted 6 in the first place. She was going to have to accept that and send him there or deal with her superiors about the death of Rabbit. But he hadn’t told her that, either. She knew her career was in his hands as much as he knew his was in hers.

And so she gave it to him: Outland 6. But she made him go on a solo patrol which started not moments after his initiation was over, after his partner had died and Pardy had killed a mother. As a result, he found himself walking along the streets of Outland 6, in the dark of night, looking for a boy he wasn’t sure he would recognize, to ask him about a girl he wasn’t sure existed. He figured his best bet was to find the kid he had seen in the tree—the only person who hadn’t run when Pardy came around in protector gear last time—and the only place he knew to look was the last place he saw him.

His path to the Neutral Ground from the last checkpoint on his patrol took him through the alley he had killed the woman in without his realizing it until he was already there. He stopped when he did. The ground was still dark with her blood. No one cared to clean it. There was no point. This was Outland 6. Pardy pictured his son again and set off toward the Grounds with a renewed sense of urgency.

Even the Neutral Grounds were empty. Word of his coming had come before him. That, or no one cared to be out at this time anyway. He heard a rustling in the trees down the street and darted back into the alley to watch the very kid he was looking for—plus a little girl—chase after a cat along the Neutral Ground in front of him.

They were so small that they might as well have been walking. Pardy could have caught up to them in a few long strides, but he didn’t want to scare them away before he found out where they were going. He had to keep stopping to let them get further ahead before he continued his pursuit from alley to alley. At one time he thought the little boy looked back and saw him, but the kid kept running, trying to keep up with the little girl who was much faster than him. They turned down an alley, and Pardy had to sprint so he didn’t lose sight of them.

When he turned around the corner, the girl had climbed up on a dumpster, chasing the cat which seemed to disappear into the wall a few feet above it. “Hey! Stop!” Pardy called, running down the alley towards them, probably not the best idea if he actually wanted them to stop he realized too late.

The boy turned to see him storming down the alley, then sprinted wide-eyed the other way and disappeared around the corner. The girl tried to jump up to where the cat had vanished into the wall, but she couldn’t get high enough, so she crawled down the pile of boxes to get to the top of the dumpster just as Pardy got to the bottom of it.

“Stop right there,” Pardy said. “I need to talk to you.” He dodged back and forth to bar her escape.

“Yeah. Right,” the girl said. “I know better than that.” She faked one way and stepped the other, but Pardy was too fast. He was there to stop her no matter which way she went.

“I’m not going to hurt you, girl. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“I’m not a girl,” the girl said, pulling a slingshot out of her back pocket and taking aim.

“No. I—”

“I’m not.” Sh—er—not-she held the slingshot steady, aiming it directly between his eyes. His helmet scanned her heartbeat and breathing which both indicated she was calmer than her voice betrayed. “You gonna kill me now?” she asked.

“What? No. I—Of course not. Why would you ask that?”

“That’s what your kind does,” the girl said. “Isn’t it? That’s what Pidgeon says. He knows.”

“Pidgeon?” Pardy remembered Rabbit.

“Do it, then!” the girl yelled, stomping her foot on the dumpster lid with a loud thump. “I know you want to! What’re you waiting for?”

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no.” He reached slowly to his cargo pants, and she backed closer to the wall, keeping the slingshot aimed at him. “Look,” he said. “I have some beef jerky here. I’ll give it to you if you put your weapon down and answer a few questions. That’s it. I promise. I would—I would never…kill you.” He grimaced.

The girl slowly let the tension out of her slingshot, slid it into her back pocket, and crept up to the edge of the dumpster to sit down with her legs dangling off, reaching her hand out toward him expectantly. “Well,” she said.

He fumbled through his pockets some more, searching for the jerky he had grabbed to give him some energy for this stupid shift. He hadn’t eaten in he didn’t know how long, but the girl seemed like she could use it more than him anyway. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days. “There,” he said when had found the pocket it was in. “Here it is. Just like I said.” He handed it over and prepared to stop her from running off with it, but she just took a big bite and chewed loudly with her mouth open, kicking her dangling legs back and forth against the dumpster.

Pardy took off his helmet, lodging it up under one arm, and ruffled his hair. He could breath so much better without it on. “I—uh…” he said. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t trained to investigate or interrogate, he was trained to observe, find law breakers, and dispense justice. But he had to do something, this was the first and only person to actually stop and talk to him.

“Well,” the girl repeated through a mouth full of jerky.

“I—uhhh…” Why couldn’t he figure out what to say?

“You had some questions,” the girl said, still chewing. “I can’t give you your jerky back now… Unless you’re willing to wait a little while.” She giggled.

“No,” Pardy said, cringing. “Uh…No. That’s just—no. So…” He grasped for anything. “Do you know a lot of the kids around here?” he decided on. It was something at least.

“I ain’t snitchin on anyone if that’s what you’re asking,” the girl said, taking another bite of jerky and eyeing him suspiciously.

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no. That’s not—No. No one’s in trouble, okay. I’m just—I’m looking for a girl.”

She stood up and backed away, still chewing. “I told you I’m not a girl!”

“What? No. I—look. Have you heard about any of your friends, or anyone you know really, who—who’s lost their parents recently.”

She threw what jerky she had left at him. “Go away! I don’t want your stupid jerky!” She spit a half-chewed glob at his face and only barely missed.

“No,” Pardy said, waving his hands. “No, wait.” He fumbled through his pockets, looking for the necklace. The little not-girl was climbing the stack of boxes on the dumpster, trying to jump up to nowhere. “Look!” He held out the silver butterfly for her to see. “Look, I’m sorry. I have something for you.”

She turned to see the necklace, and her eyes widened in anger. She stormed down the boxes, leapt over the dumpster onto Pardy’s shoulders, and beat at his face with her tiny fists. “You! It was you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

Pardy dropped his helmet with a clang and pried her off, holding her out at arm’s length. The fury in her face brought tears to his eyes as she struggled against him, flailing her fists and kicking her legs. He tried to fight the tears back, but they wouldn’t surrender. They weakened him. He couldn’t hold her any longer. His arms gave way and the flurry of fists resumed. He had no recourse but to cower into the fetal position on the concrete and let the tears flow.

“It was me,” he said. “It was me. I’m sorry. I didn’t—I don’t deserve to live. I did it. I can’t even say it. I’m sorry.”

The tears kept coming but the pain of the fists had gone. He was still lying in the fetal position on the rough alley concrete, sobbing, and sniffling, and crying like a child. Then he felt two tiny arms wrap around him in a warm embrace. For a second he smelled his wife, and pictured his son, and he felt good. He was doing his best. For them. And he had found the girl he needed to protect.

As his sobbing subsided, he realized the arms weren’t around him in an embrace. They had intent. They were fumbling through his belt for something, and he only realized what it was when it was too late. He backed toward the dumpster, crab-crawling on hands and feet, and stared at the little not-girl pointing his own gun at him.

“Please,” he said. No more tears in sight. This type of danger he was trained to overcome. “If you pull that trigger, it won’t end well for either of us. There’s a biolock. If you try to fire it, it will explode in your hands.”

She took a step closer. “Explode in my hands, explode in your face, what’s the difference?”

“I deserve this. I know. What I did was wrong. But you don’t deserve it. There has to be a better way.”

“I don’t know, pig. I think there was probably a better way to handle my mom and dad, too. But you didn’t care about that. Did you?”

“You’re dad!” Pardy said, remembering why he had come in the first place. “You’re dad. He—he’s not—dead. I know where he is.”

He could see her grip on the gun loosening. “Yeah,” she said. “Right. How do you expect me to trust a lying pig?”

“I’m not…I’m not a pig. I’m a protector.”

“Protector, pig, same difference.”

“Look at me,” Pardy said, pointing at his eyes. “Just look at me for a second. Okay. I’m at your mercy. You can commit the same wrong that I did, and add your life to the count, or you can trust me just a little bit. I won’t even ask for the gun back. I just want you to take your finger off the trigger.”

Her hands started to shake. Pardy squirmed back a little closer to the dumpster. She wanted to pull the trigger, he could tell, but she wanted to see her father, too.

“You’re lying,” she said.

“No. I’m not lying. I swear it. Look.” Pardy felt around the ground for the necklace and held it out again. “See? We took your father, okay. They took your father. I’m not—I can’t help them kill anyone else. And I will get him back.”

“I don’t believe you!” She shoved the gun closer to his face.

“Here,” Pardy said. “Take it.” He dangled the necklace right in front of the gun’s barrel.

The girl took one hand off the trigger and grabbed the necklace. She slipped it into her pocket then put the gun right back to his head. “All that means is that you killed my mom,” she said.

“No. It means that I cared enough to keep it. It means that I came searching for you, and I found you. It means that I’m here to help you. I want to protect you. That’s what it means.”

“I don’t need your protection!” the girl yelled. Pardy flinched away from the gun. “Look at you.” She laughed. “I stole your gun while you were crying on the ground like a baby. If anything, you need my protection.”

As if on cue, a group of hooded figures came into the alley. They stopped at the Neutral Ground entrance and one yelled, “Hey! You two. What’s going on down there?”

The girl turned and pointed the gun at them. “None of your business!”

Pardy stood up. He searched for his helmet out of his peripheral vision but couldn’t find it quick enough without a 360 degree view. He reached for his gun before he remembered the little girl was still holding it. Just what he needed.

“Now move along!” the girl yelled, shaking the gun at them.

“You. Girl,” the voice from down the alley came again. “You the Server kid?”

“I’m not a girl!”

The hooded figures started to creep closer. The girl backed up, and Pardy stepped between her and them. “Give me the gun,” he said, his hands behind his back, not looking away from the slowly advancing gang. She handed it over and he pointed it at them. “Stop right there, citizens,” he called in the deepest voice he could muster. He wished he had his helmet on, with it’s voice modulator and aiming assistance technology, but he had practiced enough without a helmet to take care of this small problem. “Turn around and go on your way.”

Ha ha ha!” They laughed, still slowly approaching. “No,” one of them said. “We’ll take the girl, pig. She belongs to us now. If you go on your way, maybe we won’t roast you with her. And that’s a one time offer. You got that?”

They were closing faster, and some of them had started making loud animal noises, halfway between oinks and barks. The girl tugged on his vest. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “We can ditch them. Follow me.”

“If you take one more step, I’ll have no choice but to use deadly force,” Pardy said, ignoring the girl.

They didn’t stop. “Yeah right, pig. Try and stop us.” A couple of them broke into a run, and Pardy fired, knocking both to the ground with one shot each. The others stopped in shocked silence.

The girl pulled on his vest again and yelled, “Come on!”

They sprinted off, twisting and turning down the alleys, away from the Neutral Ground and into the streets, before the gang could gather themselves. They sprinted a few zigzag blocks, then ducked behind a dumpster. Pardy was breathing so heavily he could barely hear the footsteps running past as the gang went looking for them.

“Y—You shot them,” the girl stammered when the sound of them running by had disappeared. “You actually shot them.”

“Why were they coming for you?” Pardy said.

“You just killed two of those guys, didn’t you? You’re a killing machine. Is that the only thing you know how to do? Pidgeon was right.”

“They were coming after you. It was us or them. Why did they want you?”

“Because you killed my parents!”

Pardy stood up and peeked over the dumpster to see if anyone had heard her. There was no one to see. “I—We’re going to get your dad back,” he said when he crouched back down to her. “But why would they chase you because of that?”

“To put me in their orphanage. Duh. You took some of their best employees, and now, they want me as payment.”

“What orphanage?”

“I don’t know.” The girl shook her head. “But Pidgeon didn’t make it sound good.”

“Who’s Pidgeon?”

“Pidgeon,” she said, scoffing. “That kid you chased away earlier. He was supposed to go to the end of the Belt with me. I knew he’d never make it, though. But he lived in the orphanage. He would know. If he was here, he could tell us.”

“Okay,” Pardy said, nodding. “Well. The first thing I need to do is get out of this gear. Let’s go back toward the Grounds—er—Belt. I have a change of clothes there. C’mon.” He got up as if to start on their way, but she didn’t budge.

Um…No. They’ll be looking for me there. The only safe way is to go toward the Streets.”

“I can’t walk around in these clothes anymore,” Pardy said, looking down at himself. He had lost his helmet, but he still stuck out like a Sixer in Amaru’s Temple. “Not while we’re here. It draws too much attention. Everyone will be looking for a protector walking around with a little girl.”

“I’m not a girl!”

“Whatever,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “They’ll find us. I need to change or get back to the precinct. One or the other, and they’re both towards the Neutral Ground.”

“Whatever that is, I’m not going there,” she said, crossing her arms. “So you’ll have to leave me behind or come this way with me.” She turned her back to him.

Pardy sighed. This was the point of no return. He had found the girl he needed to protect, but how much was he willing to put on the line to do it? He was going way off regulations already, but hadn’t the Captain encouraged him to do just that? Not only that, she had pushed him into it by giving him this shift. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.

“Well then.” She smiled. “Let’s go this way. We’ll get a little further from the Belt, so they’re not looking for us, then head west out and beyond their reach.”

“But we won’t be able to get your father back unless we go back to the transport bay,” Pardy said in one last ditch effort to get her to comply. He didn’t have time to go running around Outland 6, and he didn’t want to have to pick her up and carry her where he needed to go.

She was about to head the other way but stopped. “You’re really serious about this?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I’ve heard that before.” She shook her head.

“I mean it,” Pardy said. “Look.” He pulled the picture of his son and wife out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“This looks like a baby Pidgeon,” she said with a laugh.

“That’s my son. I see a lot of him in you. If I was…gone, I would want someone to protect him for me, so I want to protect you. I will protect you. I promise.”

She rubbed her finger across the picture. “He looks like you, too. You look like Pidgeon.”

Pardy laughed. “I wish I hadn’t scared him away. Maybe he could help us right now.”

“Maybe he’s trying to,” the girl said, shrugging. “Help me, at least. He hates pigs.”

Pardy laughed again. “Are you ready to go back toward the transport bay? I know a place where we can lay low for a while.”

“If that’s where my dad is,” she said, eyeing him.

“It is.” Pardy nodded. “I promise.”

“Well…” She shrugged. “Let’s go, then. But let me lead the way. I have more experience in the Streets than you do.”

“Okay,” Pardy said. He didn’t care as long as she led in the direction he wanted her to go. “Just take us toward that tree your friend was climbing. Do you know the one?”

“You saw that?” the girl said, blushing.

“I—uh…yeah,” Pardy said, blushing himself. “I used to climb trees when I was a kid. It was the first thing I ever saw in Outland 6, that tree.”

“Outland 6? What does that mean?”

“You know, Outland 6,” Pardy said. “The world you live in. The one we’re in now.”

“I know the Streets and the Belt and that’s it. This Outland you’re talking about must be someplace else.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Pardy said, shaking his head. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to a Sixer about the other worlds anyway, even if he was already this far off regulations. “My shift is supposed to end soon. We need to get to the costume closet and get you set up so I can figure out how to get your dad out.”

“Costume closet?” The girl raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll see,” Pardy said. “Come on.” He started around the dumpster, but she pulled his arm to stop him.

“Hey,” she said. “Me first, remember. I know this place better than you.”

“Oh,” Pardy said. “Right. Go ahead.”

She poked her head around the dumpster then started moving in bursts. She crossed the street into another alley and stopped in the shadows to make sure no one was coming before she went a few steps further and stopped to peek around the alley’s corner. He kept track of their position as they moved and she seemed to be taking them a roundabout way but in the right direction.

“The closet’s on this alley,” he said when they got far enough back east.

“Alright,” she said. “How close to the Belt?”

“Right off it.”

She sighed. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said, shaking her head. “Alright, well, we’re not taking the straight route, that’s for sure. Follow me.”

As they dipped and dashed through the alleyways, Pardy thought that this gir—er—or, whatever she was, didn’t need any protecting. She was leading the way. She knew what she was doing. She was taking a circuitous route like he had been trained to do, and she was only a child from Outland 6. How could she be so competent without any training? She was smarter and more able than his son, and his son must have been a few years older than her. How was that possible?

He was still thinking about it when he felt the thud on the back of his neck and his mind blacked out to nothing.

#   #   #

Pardy woke to the sour aroma of waking salts. He tried to jump up into a defensive position, but his arms and legs were tied to a tiny chair with linen. Two dark shadows blocked the light shining in his face, blinding him. One of them spoke.

Tsk tsk tsk. You’re all alone now, protector. You know that much at least. Don’t you?”

He struggled against the restraints and grunted.

Aww. He still thinks he’s in control of his life,” the second voice said.

“Protector. What’s your name?” the first voice said.

“Where’s the girl?” Pardy demanded. “What did you do with her?” He fought against his restraints.

She’s not a girl!” the second voice said in a mocking tone. “And it’s you you should be worrying about, protector.”

“Now,” the first voice came back. “What were you doing with her? What use is a little girl to the likes of you?”

“She’s no use to me. I’m not trying to use her. I want to protect her.”

“Protect? Ha ha ha!” The second voice cackled.

“Like you protected her mother, yes?” the first said.

“I know that was wrong,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “I want to make it right. I—I already talked to—”

A door groaned and more light poured in from behind the two shadows. Two shorter figures came in, one of them yelling, “I told you to get me when he woke up! He’s the only one who can get my dad!”

“We told you to stay out!” the first voice said.

“No,” the girl said. “You don’t own me. Set him free so he can get my dad!”

“Listen to her,” Pardy said.

“Shut up!” the first voice yelled. “Shut up all of you!”

“But I—” Pardy protested.

“No! Shut up. Answer this, protector, why are you here?”

“To protect her,” Pardy said, nodding in the direction of the shadow he thought was the little girl.

“You know you’re not gonna be able to get her dad out,” the first voice said. “I know that badge and your uniform. You’re an Officer. You don’t have the power it takes to affect something that important.”

“What?” Pardy said. “No, I—”

“Get her out of here!”

The second form ushered the two small shadows out of the room and closed the door. It was only Pardy and the first voice left.

“Look, protector,” it said. “What’s your name?”

Pardy didn’t answer.

“The girl wants you to get her dad back, but you can’t. We both know that. It’s not your fault. Now whether or not it’s your fault that you killed her mom is a little more of a gray area. Or a white area, should we say? Protector’s white.”

Pardy struggled against the restraints again, moving the chair with his effort. “I didn’t want to kill her,” he grunted. “She threatened me.”

Ha ha!” the voice laughed. “Sure. Sure, protector. It wasn’t your fault. No, you were just following orders, weren’t you? You’re a cog in a big machine and you alone can’t grind against the forces that tell you which way to turn. Sure, protector. Believe that if you must. You are only human, aren’t you? You are human, right? You bleed?”

Pardy struggled to break free, but the shadow only laughed.

“Oh. I know you are protector. It takes a human to fight like that, a human to gnash against chains he never expects to break free of. You are a human, protector. Not a cog. And you pulled that trigger. No one else.”

The door opened and closed, letting the second figure back in.

“Do you have everything under control?” the first said.

“Yes, yes,” the second said. “She won’t bother us again. She knows what the deal is now.”

“Did you hear that, protector?” the first said. “She knows what the deal is now. She knows what we’re going to do to you for what you did to her. Do you know, protector?”

Pardy struggled against his restraints and the two figures laughed together.

Struggle, struggle, all you want,” the second voice sang.

“Protector—huh huh—protector. It’s okay.” The first voice forced down its laughter. “Protector, we aren’t going to do anything to you. That’s why the girl won’t come in. She knows we won’t hurt you. In fact, my partner here has some food for you.”

The overhead lights flipped on. Two short, dirty-haired, dirty-everythinged women crouched in front of him. No, they weren’t crouching. They were standing, but their backs were so hunched as to produce the illusion of crouching. They looked so small and frail. He almost wanted to laugh at the thought that they could hurt him. He chastised himself for somehow being caught by them, a giant knocked out by ants. One of them was holding a bowl of steaming something, and the other was empty-handed. Pardy looked around the room for his gun but it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Ha ha! You called it,” the one holding the bowl said, the second voice.

“Your gun’s not here, protector,” the woman who owned the first voice said. “You can stop searching. We got rid of your comm link, too. Don’t worry. They won’t know where you are. In fact, they’ll think you’re in two places at once. Huh huh.”

They burst into laughter again. Pardy looked at his wrist and his comm was gone. “How did you know?”

“You’re not the first protector to try to help a Sixer.” The old woman shoved the bowl into Pardy’s chest, spilling hot slop over his white uniform. When she realized he couldn’t use his hands, she put it on his lap and untied them. “And you won’t be the last.”

“Settle down, now,” the other said. “Let me talk to him. You go take care of the girl.”

The door slammed and Pardy’s stomach growled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He sniffed the soup and looked closely at a spoonful.

“Don’t worry,” the woman with the first voice said. “She made it, not me.” She pointed over her shoulder at the other woman who had already left. “It wouldn’t kill you either way, but this way it tastes better going down.”

Pardy took a big spoonful, and it tasted much better than he had expected, much better than all the nutritionally balanced meals he had eaten in his life, the ones designed to make him a perfect protector. He couldn’t help shoveling it into his face.

“That’s real cooking there, protector,” the woman said, laughing. “Homemade by human hands. You can have all of it you want, too. So don’t be shy. Heh heh.”

Pardy ate and ate until the spoon couldn’t scoop anymore.

“Now. Protector,” the woman said. “Your arms are free, I couldn’t stop you from leaving if I tried, and we’ve fed you from our own feed stores. My name is Rosa, and I want to help you help the girl. So, do you think you can trust me with your name?”

He didn’t trust her still. She was right, though. With his hands free he could easily get past these frail, old women, but she probably also knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to see to it that the girl—he still didn’t even know her name—was protected. These people seemed to also want to protect her, but he wasn’t sure how they could. Still he had no choice. He had to at least hear them out until he could find a better way to protect the girl. Maybe they could help him find that way.

“Pardy,” he said.

“Pardy?” Rosa repeated. “That sounds like a surname. Do you have anything more…intimate?”

He didn’t understand why he didn’t want to tell her, but he didn’t. “Tom.”

“Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Was that so hard? It’s so nice to finally meet you, Tom. Would you like me to untie your legs? That can’t be comfortable.”

Pardy started untying them himself, but she helped with the other leg. When they were done, he stood and stretched his muscles. He had to stoop so he didn’t hit his head on the short ceiling, and Rosa looked even smaller from the new vantage point. He still didn’t understand how he could let them knock him unconscious.

“There,” she said. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“What do you plan on doing with me?” he asked, finally back in control of his fate, gun or no.

“Do with you?” Rosa laughed. “No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought it was clear that we couldn’t do anything with you if we tried. We don’t want to do anything with you at all. We want do it for you. And for the girl, of course.”

“Where is she?” Pardy demanded. “I want to talk to her.”

“Yes, well, you will. But first you have to understand that you can’t get her father back. Now do you understand that?”

“You don’t know that. I’m a protector. I can—”

“You can shoot her mother when a superior officer is nowhere near?” Rosa frowned with her lips in a tight line. “We know how it happened, Tom. If you can’t resist the other cogs when they’re nowhere near you, how do you expect to go into the heart of the machine to bring her father back out?”

“I—I could—”

Y—You would fail. Get arrested yourself. I don’t intend to sound rude when I say this, either, but you have to know that we can’t lose whatever chance of protecting Ansel you actually do offer us.”

“Ansel?”

“That’s her name, Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Ansel. And her parents were Eva and Andy. You killed one and locked the other up. No one else, Tom. You. And do you know why?”

“I was ordered—” Pardy stuttered. “I was ordered to stop her.”

“Ordered by who, Tom?”

“By my Captain—My superior officer.”

“And who ordered your Captain to order you?”

“I don’t know. The Major, or the Chief, or—”

“Exactly, Tom. There are more and more. Your boss, your boss’s boss, their bosses. But where does it end? Is it bosses all the way up? What exactly are you protecting?”

“Property, liberty, life,” Pardy replied by reflex.

“Exactly,” Rosa sneered. “Property first, then liberty, then life. In that order. You’re protecting someone else’s property, too. Not ours. Not here. Not in Six. Have you ever heard of property being returned to Six?”

“Six has no property,” Pardy said. “Everything they have they’ve stolen.”

“That’s not true, Tom.” Rosa shook her head. “You spend some time here with us and you’ll learn that.”

“I don’t care about any of this.” He was getting annoyed. He clenched his fists. He had to fight the urge to hit this trash for talking to him like she was his superior. He couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice. “Where’s the—Where’s Ansel? I want to see her.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll get her. But I’ll need to talk to you after you’re done telling her you can’t save her father. I can offer you a way to actually protect our mutual friend. That’s what we both want, isn’t it? Now, I’ll go get her. You and I will speak again soon enough.” She swept out of the room, and shortly after, Ansel stormed in.

“They said you can’t get my dad out,” she said, crossing her arms.

“They might be right,” Pardy said, shaking his head.

“But you said you could.”

“I thought I could. I was lying to myself, though. I’m just an Officer. I don’t have that kind of power.”

Ansel hit him on the arm, and he flinched away, hitting his head on the roof. “You also said you wouldn’t lie!”

“I didn’t know I was lying,” he said, rubbing the quickly forming knot on his head. “I wanted it to be true, so I thought it was. That’s not the same as lying.”

“A lie’s a lie.” She hit him again for good measure.

“I may not be able to get your father back, but I still promise to do whatever I can to protect you.”

“They told me you’d say that, too. They told me it may not be true either.”

“They don’t know me, Ansel. How would they know what I’ll do?”

“How do you know my name?” Ansel asked, raising her hand to hit him again.

“I—they told me,” Pardy said.

He relinquished himself to the slaps as she said, “And I don’t even know yours! They know you better than I do! And they knew you were lying even when you didn’t!” One slap on the arm for each word of the accusation.

“I—well—yes,” Pardy said. “That’s—”

She hit him again. “Then they know you better than you do.”

He didn’t know how to answer. He gave up and plopped back down into the short seat. He huffed and looked at Ansel’s size compared to Rosa’s, wondering how old she actually was. She could be older than his son. “Tom,” he said.

“What?”

“My name’s Tom,” he said. “Tom Pardy.”

“Well, Tom,” Ansel said, extending a hand. “I’m Ansel Server.”

“Nice to meet you Ansel,” he said, taking it.

“You said you’d do anything to protect me, right? Well Rosa and Anna said they have a plan that you could help them with. Pidgeon seems to think the world of them, but I wouldn’t trust his judgment. I don’t even know if their plan has anything to do with getting my dad back, but I need you to figure out what it is before I can decide what to do next. What do you say?”

Tom didn’t trust Pidgeon’s judgment either. Nor did he trust Rosa or Anna. He didn’t trust their methods—ambushing him in the alley and tying him up—and he didn’t trust that they wanted to protect Ansel. He didn’t trust a Sixer to look out for anyone but themselves. But who was he to talk? He was the one who had killed Ansel’s mother. He had gotten ambushed by two scrawny, old, hunchbacked Sixers. He was protecting a Sixer, and maybe a Sixer was exactly the help he needed to figure out how best to do that.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”

“I ain’t asking you to trust them.” Ansel scoffed. “Just hear them out and tell me the plan, then I can decide from there.”

He couldn’t argue with that logic. Even if it would be him deciding from there and not her. “I’ll hear them out,” he said, nodding.

#   #   #

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

Thanks again for joining us. And don’t forget, you have only one week left to be a hipster among hipsters and buy the true first edition of The Asymptote’s Tail through this link. Thanks for reading along. And have a great weekend.

Chapter 06: Officer Pardy

Today’s chapter, number six, brings us Officer Pardy and an animation–the first I’ve ever made–of what a protector’s facemask looks like when talking. Enjoy, and happy Saturday.

The mask of a protector.

< V. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     VII. The Scientist >

VI. Officer Pardy

Officer Pardy checked himself in his locker mirror one last time. He wanted his uniform to be perfectly up to code for his first day on the job. Assured that it was, he brushed his finger across the picture of his wife and son on the inside of his locker door, decided he would take it with him after all, stuffed it in his cargo pants, and slammed the locker shut.

Another Officer, putting socks on beside him, jumped at the sound of it. “Amaru above, Tom!” Rabbit said. “As if I didn’t have enough going on to destroy my nerves already.”

“Settle down, Rabbit,” Officer Pardy said, picking up his helmet from the bench. “You’ll have nothing to be afraid of out there. I’ll protect you.”

A couple of others getting dressed in the locker room laughed. Everyone knew Rabbit was meant to do housework. He didn’t have anything that a protector needed in him except for the blood of his hero mother. Rabbit was a liability to the entire operation, and that was a secret to no one.

“Yeah. Right, Tom,” Rabbit said absently, putting on his boots. “Thanks.”

“Hey, Rabbit,” Officer Pardy called as he walked out of the locker room. “Rabbit!”

“Huh? Yeah, Tom?” Rabbit said. “What is it?”

“You gotta put your pants on before your boots, boy. I know it’s not regulation, but it is common sense.”

The locker room burst into another bout of laughter. Rabbit looked down at his feet, realized what he had done, then got to untying his boots and getting redressed properly. Officer Pardy—the first dressed because he was the first there—marched out to the sound of Rabbit jokes.

The stark white briefing room was empty. Rows and rows of stadium chairs sat facing a tall podium on a stage in front of a screen that covered the entire wall behind it. Officer Pardy marched to the front center seat and sat with perfect regulation posture. He had to make a good impression, to set an example for the other rookies to follow. He wanted to show everyone that he was the epitome of a protector. He slipped his helmet on, and his vision shifted into darkness for a split second before the goggles measured the exact location of his pupils and projected the image of the world around him onto his eyes with far more detail—and a much wider range of vision, a full 360°—than he could ever pick up helmetless.

Slowly, the other rookies filed into the briefing room, taking their seats around him. They talked to each other, and joked to relieve their nerves, but—unlike in the locker room—Officer Pardy was all business. There was a time for play, and there was a time for work, and when your helmet was on, you knew you were working. The aura of officiality he put off was so dense that no one sat in the seats next to him. At least until Rabbit came in and plopped himself into the chair to his left.

“How do I look?” Rabbit asked, sounding out of breath.

Officer Pardy looked over at him. His helmet saw through Rabbit’s, and he could see that Rabbit was pale and frightened underneath. The helmet scanned Rabbit’s heart rate and temperature. There was nothing there but housekeeper. His chest plates were off balance and his helmet too large, but it was too late for Officer Pardy to help him with that now, so he stared straight ahead again and said, “Regulation, Officer.”

Amaru,” Rabbit said, shaking his head. “I don’t know. Why am I here, Tom? Why am I here?”

Officer Pardy wouldn’t have answered if he could. The Captain marched in with her mustached helmet and took the podium anyway, so he didn’t have the option. The entire room stood to attention. The entire room, that is, except for Rabbit who first made a ruckus getting to his feet—almost knocking the entire line of protectors to his left down as he did. When Rabbit had finally gathered himself, the Captain said, “At ease.” and the room sat in one fluid motion, even Rabbit. Officer Pardy couldn’t help but think that the error would have been made an example of if it was made by any other Officer, but he wasn’t about to question the judgment of his superiors on his first day as a member of the force.

“Protectors of Outland,” the Captain said in a modulated voice, the mouth of her facemask flashing red, yellow, and green under her bristly, dark mustache. “Let me repeat that, Protectors of Outland. 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, don’t get me wrong, children—because, truly, you are all still babies when it comes to the force—the worlds out there are much different than the worlds you’ve seen on TV. Life out there is real. It’s nothing like the fairy tales you learned about in school. We’re here for one reason and one reason alone: To protect the ideals of Outland. Protectors, what are those ideals?”

“Property. Liberty. Life,” the room said in unison.

“I said, protectors! What. Are. Those. Ideals?”

“Property! Liberty! Life! Sir!” the room sang.

“And without these basic freedoms what are we? We are not civilization. We are not human. We are nothing.”

“Hoo-ra!” a lone voice called.

“Hoo-ra,” the Captain repeated. “That’s right. Hoo-ra! Are you ready protectors?”

“Hoo-ra!” the room sang in unison.

“Today you are tried by fire. Every protector is baptized into the force the same way. If you cannot make it in Outland 6, 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 know what you signed up for. You’ve heard the stories of your ancestors. You’ve been trained. You know as well as you can what awaits you out those doors. So I’m going to ask you one more time. Protectors, are you ready?”

Hoo-ra!”

“We’re sweeping the Neutral Ground, today, rookies.” A map of Outland 6 with the section of the Neutral Ground that they would be focusing on came up on the screen behind the Captain. “We have one hundred rookies here in this room. We have countless rooms like this around Outland 1, all with the same mission. You’ve been through the drills. You know your vows. You’ll be paired with another rookie and led by a Sergeant. I suggest you listen to your Sergeant if you want to make it through this alive.”

Rabbit swallowed loud enough for Officer Pardy to hear it.

“You’ll find your partner and Sergeant assignments on your comm link and in your viewscreens. Go meet your Sergeants and do your jobs, protectors. Hoo-ra!”

“Hoo-ra!”

Before Rabbit could check his assignment, Officer Pardy pulled him up by his collar and dragged him to stand in front of the Captain.

“Tom, what are you—” Rabbit pleaded as he did.

“Captain Mondragon, sir,” Officer Pardy said, standing to attention in front of the Captain and saluting. “Officer Pardy, reporting for duty.”

Rabbit looked at him then at the captain and half saluted. “Er—Ra—No—uh—Officer Jefferson, uh—sir, or—Captain.”

“At ease, Officers,” the Captain said, ticking off a salute herself, her arm brushing against the dark mustache adorning her facemask with the motion. Rabbit was already at ease. Officer Pardy followed orders. “I selected the two of you for a special operation.” The mouth of her facemask flashed as she spoke, but the voice modulator was off. “I’ll be joining you because I want to see how you do with my own two eyes. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Pardy said, looking through the black mirrors of the Captain’s eyes.

Rabbit nodded.

“Then load up and let’s go,” the Captain said.

They got into the transport bay with three other teams, twelve protectors in formation waiting for the doors to open. When they did, the sun came in bright through the skyline and oak trees, and Officer Pardy’s helmet had to adjust his viewscreen to compensate. The trees reminded him of a park back home in Outland 1, one tree in particular he used to climb. He was caught off guard when Rabbit marched out with the rest of the troop, leaving Tom to play catch up.

“Alright,” the Captain said. The Sixers around were starting to clear out of the area, but Officer Pardy noticed a little boy going up the tree he wanted to climb. “Beta team, Sector G,” the Captain said, pointing. “Gamma team, Sector D. Delta team, Sector E. Go, go, go.”

The other teams moved out into the city, away from the Neutral Ground.

“Pardy, Jefferson,” the Captain said. “Follow me.”

They followed along the park. As they went, word of their coming passed in front of them, and the crowds dispersed like flies when swatted at. Officer Pardy was beginning to wonder how they would catch anyone doing anything if everyone knew they were coming when the Captain veered off into an alleyway.

“Alright, boys,” she said, unlocking a padlock on a door halfway down the alley. “While they’re out there, stirring up the population, we’re going to do some real protector work. You hear me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Pardy responded automatically.

“Um. Where are we, sir?” Rabbit asked, stumbling through the dark doorway.

The Captain flipped on the lights. “You just walked here, Jefferson,” she said. “You should know where you are.”

“Sector F, sir,” Officer Pardy said. “An alley two blocks east of the transport bay, sir.”

“Okay, Pardy,” the Captain replied, giving a thumbs up and nodding. “No need to show off. Just get out of your gear like a good little Officer and put on some of these plain clothes.”

The room looked like a giant costume closet for a theater company in Outland 3. There were shirts, shoes, and dresses piled everywhere, on top of cupboards and cubbies and hanger racks, and there were carpet-covered benches in between piles of clothes. Officer Pardy thought that there was no way that what they were doing was regulation, but he couldn’t rightly ignore a direct order from a superior officer, either, so he set to picking out a costume and changing into it.

“Um. Right here, sir?” Rabbit asked, appalled by the idea. “Right in front of—but there’s no—”

Pardy laughed as he slipped on a pair of sneakers. He wanted to remind Rabbit to put his pants on before his shoes, but he wasn’t sure if it was appropriate while on duty, even without a helmet on. When the Captain started redressing herself, Rabbit relented, too.

“We’ll be posing as your typical Sixer scumbag,” the Captain said as she got dressed. “The type of person who’s too lazy, stoned, or stupid to work, so they resort to stealing from those of us who have the common decency to earn our own living. We have intel that says there’s illegal printer activity on this very block. Jefferson and I will enter the establishment—posing as a family looking for food. Pardy will enter five minutes later as back up. Jefferson and I will procure an illegally printed commodity and arrest the operators of the stolen device. When Pardy comes in, we’ll confiscate all the printers on the premises and make arrests as needed. Now, are there any questions?”

“I—I’m supposed to be your husband?” Rabbit said.

“Yes, Jefferson,” the Captain said with a grin. “Can you handle that?”

“I—uh—yes, sir.” Rabbit blushed.

“You got any problems, Pardy?” the Captain asked.

“Sir, no, sir,” Pardy said. Not on his first day he didn’t.

“Good,” the Captain said. “Jefferson and I are heading out. You tail us and enter on your cue. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Pardy said.

“Let’s go protectors,” the Captain said, slapping Rabbit on the back and leading him out of the closet.

Pardy walked as far behind them as he could without losing sight. The sidewalk was full now that they were out of protector gear, so he had to stay close. The Captain and Rabbit entered a nondescript door in between two apartment buildings, and Pardy walked past it, bending down to tie his shoe and count away the seconds in his head. He whistled the Protector’s Alma Mater to keep time as he observed the area around him. He was closer now to the tree that reminded him of his favorite one to climb as a kid, and he looked up to see two little forms sitting high up in the branches. He had almost lost track of his whistling while watching them when someone bumped into him from behind and he did lose track of it.

“Watch out,” the person said, pushing Pardy away.

“Stand down, citizen,” Pardy said, standing and holding his fists up in a defensive stance.

“What was that?” The person looked at him like he was speaking a foreign language.

“I said—uh—excuse me, sir,” Pardy said, dropping his hands.

“Right,” the person said, walking away and shaking his head.

Pardy tried to calculate how much time he had lost to find out where he should be in the tune, but his eyes kept going back to the kids in the tree and he couldn’t think. He decided it had been long enough and went for the door. He turned the rusty knob and pushed, but it didn’t budge. He looked around, and a little girl smiled at him then ran away to her mom. He turned the knob again and pulled this time, almost falling over backwards when the door swung open.

The hall was dark and short. It led to a steep staircase. Pardy wondered why no one else had come in or gone out since Rabbit and the Captain had. He tried to quiet his steps but the staircase echoed everything back at him. He was at the top of the third flight, reaching out for the doorknob in front of him, when the gunshots rang out. One. Then two. Then one more.

His heart skipped a beat. He shoved the door open and swung out his gun. The Captain’s gun was pointed at a man who had his hands on his head. Rabbit was bleeding on the floor, maybe groaning, maybe not moving. A flutter of motion disappeared out a back door.

“Follow her!” the Captain ordered, cuffing the man and calling for backup.

Pardy’s legs moved before his mind did. He didn’t have to be quiet anymore, and his presence stormed through the back staircase. He was at the last flight of stairs before the purple flower pattern of her dress disappeared around the corner of the door. He scanned left and right when he emerged from the building, then followed her wake into the still busy sidewalk. He slid to a halt, almost passing the alley she went down, before following her, his footsteps echoing like a war cry. She got to the end of the alley and tried to escape into another door, but it wouldn’t budge.

“No!” she screamed, beating her fists against the door. “Damn you! Let me in! No!” She started to cry.

Pardy pointed his gun at her heart. “Freeze.”

“Fuck you.” She didn’t turn around. She just kept banging on the door.

“Put your hands in the air and turn around.” Sweat started to pool on his forehead.

“Fuck off!” the woman yelled, not looking at him.

“Please, ma’am. I don’t want to have to hurt you. Turn around slowly and put your hands on your head.”

She turned fast. Pardy took a step back, his heart skipping a beat. “Oh yeah?” she said. “I’m sure she didn’t, either. Is that right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, ma’am. Just put your hands on your head, and we’ll get this all sorted out. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have no reason to worry.”

Her!” the woman yelled. “That—that—that fucking woman! She was a protector. And you—you are, too. Aren’t you? You fucking pig!”

“Please, ma’am,” he said, adjusting his grip on his gun. “Put your hands up.”

“No.” She shook her head, stepping closer. “You. You put your hands up. Do you hear me? You!”

“Please, ma’am.”

“We didn’t have any guns,” the woman said, chuckling or sobbing, Pardy couldn’t tell anymore. “None of us. Just think about that, protector. Think about my daughter who won’t see her parents ever again because you were protecting us.”

“Ma’am,” Pardy said.

“You heard me,” the woman said. “Fuck off!” She took a step toward him, or reached for something in her dress, or—something—Pardy didn’t know.

But his finger reacted before his brain did. The gun blast went off and she fell. He caught his breath for a second, his gun poised, and reeled at what he had done. The world spun around him and he wanted to pass out. He fell to his knees at the woman’s side, pressing on her chest to stop the bleeding.

She coughed. “H—How—”

“No, I’m…” He pressed harder. What had he done? As she took her last spluttering breaths, he tore the silver butterfly off her neck and shoved it in his pocket.

A group of protectors in full gear swarmed into the alley around him. They asked him questions he didn’t remember answering. They didn’t seem to matter. They said that the Captain would be waiting for him at headquarters for debriefing. They said he was a hero, that they had found a stockpile of illegal printers waiting to be distributed. They patted him on his back for that, and no one asked him where his gear was or who the woman dying in the alley was. No one asked why he had shot her. No one told him how Rabbit was doing. He probably wouldn’t have heard them even if they did.

He made his way through the crowd of protectors, bunched up in the alley, out to the main drag that ran along the Neutral Ground. The sidewalks were empty again and he could finally breathe. He took a few deep breaths and sprawled out on his back in the grass, staring up at the trees, at the clouds that passed through the holes in their canopy. He laid there and stared at nothing, asking himself if this was what the job was. Was this protecting? Was this what he had signed up for? Why would anyone agree to this?

He stood and brushed himself off, taking a few more deep breaths. This wasn’t the reaction of a protector. He knew that much. He had followed direct orders. He did nothing wrong. He had nothing to worry about. The rest would have to wait.

But still. He wasn’t ordered to kill her. She reached for something, he told himself. She had said that they didn’t have guns, but that’s what a Sixer would say to catch you off guard. She was raving. What was she saying besides that? She must have been in shock from finally getting caught. That’s what it was.

She said she had a daughter.

Pardy wanted to sit down again, but he fought the urge. He pictured his son living in an orphanage because he and his wife were killed in the line of duty. He pictured the look on his son’s face when he heard the news, the tears and the crying. He swallowed hard, shoved it all back down into his subconscious, and marched to the costume closet to change out of those dirty rags of clothes and put back on his clean, white, regulation protector gear.

The transport bay was empty when Pardy got there. Everyone was either cleaning up the crime scene or still parading around their designated sector, putting on a show. He stared at the doors as they closed, imagining the Captain’s response to his actions, wondering where Rabbit was and if he was alright, and generally trying not to picture that woman’s daughter or his own son’s crying face. The transporter stopped, the doors opened, and Pardy realized he was facing the wrong direction.

“Rabbit. Is that you?” a modulated voice came from behind him, followed by eerie laughter. “No, eh. It’s Pardy,” the voice said. “But he looks like he’s seen the ghost of Rabbit, doesn’t he? Ha ha ha.”

More laughter. Pardy clenched his fists, marched between the two laughers, bumping their shoulders with his, and stomped down the hall to the debriefing room. They would have to wait until he was off duty before real justice could be served.

The debriefing room was smaller than the briefing room. It was more intimate. There was one long table with chairs all around it so the protectors could sit facing each other. It was empty when Pardy went in, so he took the middle seat to wait, straight-backed and full regulation. He had a long time to continue his cycle of thoughts concerning the Captain’s reaction, Rabbit’s health, and the woman’s son before an Officer came in and told him the Captain would speak to him in her office.

Her office was bigger than the debriefing room, and her desk was almost the size of that table. The Captain was sitting in a big, leather chair with her mustached helmet on the desk. Two low, soft stools sat on the floor in front of Pardy, and there were no pictures or decorations on the walls besides her Captain’s diploma and a copy of the Protector’s Manifesto: Property. Liberty. Life. framed on one wall. The Captain had her back turned, staring out a window that made up the entire back wall of the room, overlooking a beautiful snowy-white mountain view. Pardy closed the door, marched up to the desk, and said, “Pardy, sir.”

“Yes, Pardy,” the Captain said. “I know.” She didn’t turn around when she spoke. “Take a seat, please. And take your helmet off.”

Pardy struggled down onto one of the stools, his knees bending up to his chest. He slipped off his helmet and breathed a deep breath of air tinged with stale liquor. He had nowhere else to put his helmet but the floor next to his low seat, so he did just that.

“You did good out there, Pardy,” the Captain said after a long silence. “I’ll start with that. You did good.” She nodded, still looking out the window.

Pardy took another deep breath and nodded himself. That was one less stop on the cycle of worries.

“And no, Pardy,” the Captain went on. “I don’t mean you did well, either.” She turned around as she said it. “I know my grammar. You did good and you did it well. You understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good,” the Captain said, smiling. “Very good. Pardy… Now—before we get on with this debriefing, I need to ask you a question.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Whatever you say, sir.”

“Good, Pardy. Good, good, good. I get it. You do it by the book. Chain of command. Follow every regulation to the dot. Do what you’re told not what you want. I get it. That’s why I chose you today, Pardy. You know that, right? You’re top of your class, a physical specimen, the perfect candidate for promotion through the ranks. Do you agree, Pardy?”

“Sir, yes, sir.”

Haha. Of course you do, Pardy. I knew you would. Now, how much are you willing to do to get that promotion?”

“Whatever it takes, sir,” he answered without hesitation.

“You need to think about this, Pardy,” the Captain said, shaking her head. “Whatever it takes leaves open a lot of possibilities. What if it takes breaking regulations? What if it takes ignoring your superior officers?”

“I don’t follow, sir.”

“I didn’t expect you to, Pardy. That’s why you’re so perfect for the position. It doesn’t matter anyway. I just needed to plant the seed, see how you’d respond. Regulation response if I’ve ever heard one, Officer. Regulation response.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The Captain laughed. “Pardy,” she said. “You’ll have my job yet. Hahaha. Now, let’s get down to it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why don’t you start by telling me what happened after you left the room in pursuit of the suspect.”

“Yes, sir.” Pardy nodded. “I followed the suspect down the back staircase and caught up to her in an alley a block and half west of the back exit. She was attempting to enter a domicile through a door in the alley, but the door was locked. She yelled at me, reached for something in her dress, and I dispensed justice. At that time backup arrived and I left the scene to come here for debriefing.”

“In her dress, Pardy?” the Captain said, frowning.

“Yes, sir.”

“Let me ask you, Pardy.” The Captain grinned. “Have you ever worn a dress?”

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Have you ever worn a dress?”

“No, sir.” He shook his head.

“Did you see me wearing a dress out there?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you know why?” the Captain said, raising her eyebrows.

“No, sir.”

“Because it’s not easy to hide a gun in a dress, Pardy. Especially the kind she was wearing.”

“I didn’t know, sir.”

“I know you didn’t know, Pardy. But I know. And now you know. And, another thing. She yelled at you?”

“Yes, sir.” He nodded.

“What did she say?”

“She cursed, sir.”

Haha. Oh, sweetheart,” the Captain said, smiling and shaking her head. “She cursed? That’s adorable. But we’re both adults here. What did she say?”

“She told me to fuck off, sir. She said you killed her husband, sir. She said they didn’t have guns and that she had a—”

“Alright, Pardy,” the Captain said, waving her hands. “Alright, I get it. But I’ll tell you this: If you ever want a chance of getting that promotion, you have to leave out the part where she said she didn’t have a gun. She had the gun out already. You can’t hide anything that’ll get through protector gear in a dress. You got that?”

“No, sir,” Pardy said, shaking his head.

“Pardy,” the Captain said, sighing. “She didn’t have a gun. We didn’t find a gun on her. She was telling the truth. You leave that part out in the official report and you come out better for it. You got it?”

“Uh—er—Yes, sir,” Pardy said.

Uh—er—Yes, sir,” the Captain mocked him. “You sound like Rabbit, Pardy. Get it together.”

“Yes, sir.” He nodded.

“That’s better. And about Jefferson…That was a necessary casualty in the war on injustice. You understand that, right?”

“Yes, sir,” Pardy said. He didn’t understand, but he didn’t know how to say no again.

“Then you might survive yet, Pardy,” the Captain said, smiling. “If you stick with me you certainly will. You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Now remember what I said and go fill out your reports. You’ll have your choice of patrol for the coming week if you play your cards right. And that’s the first step in a long line of them to your promotion, Pardy. By that time I’ll have a goatee and I’ll remember what you did here for me today. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Pardy said. They weren’t clear, but again.

“And do close the door behind you on the way out,” the Captain said, turning back to the view and waving him away. “So many people forget to do that it’s ridiculous.”

“Yes, sir.” Pardy struggled up out of the stool, grabbing his helmet and slipping it on, then took extra care to close the door as quietly as he could behind him.

The report form was already up on his computer when he sat down. He stared at it, not wanting to fill it out, not sure if following the Captain’s orders was up to regulation, and groaned. Of course he knew that following her orders was regulation, but was it still regulation if she was ordering him to break regulations? Never before had he been faced with such a paradox. All through school his education was simple: Follow the rule of law and protect the essence of society: Property, liberty, life. His teachers ordered him to complete assignments, and he followed through. That was how simple the job was supposed to be. But this, this was different. The Captain said that the woman he had killed wasn’t lying. She said they didn’t find a gun. Did that mean that none of them had guns? Who fired the shots? Who shot Rabbit?

He realized he didn’t even know if Rabbit was still alive and called down the room to another Officer who was doing busy work at her desk.

“Didn’t make it,” she said, happy to take a break. “Ironic almost, dying in action just like his mother. A hero’s bloodline, I guess.”

“Yeah,” Pardy said. “A hero.”

“It’s just a shame it had to happen on his first day, though, you know. We all ribbed him, but he was a good guy. No protector deserves that. Not even the least of us. But you and the Captain showed them, didn’t you?”

Pardy didn’t answer. He stared blankly at the forms on his computer until the other Officer went back to her’s.

If they didn’t have a gun between them, then the Captain killed Rabbit and they didn’t show anyone anything but that it was okay to kill protectors. But why would she do that? Why would she want Rabbit dead? She was a protector.

They did have a 3D printer. A whole stack of them, apparently. A printer was as good as a gun. A printer was an unlimited supply of guns, bombs, and any other weapon your heart could desire. If they had even one printer, then at least one of them would have a gun to protect it. The denizens of Outland 6 would do anything to get their hands on a printer, including perpetrating violence against one another, and they wouldn’t stop at violence against protectors. Pardy had learned that through his studies of the historical arrest records.

But she didn’t have a gun. That woman didn’t. She was unarmed, and he shot her. He killed her. He heard her yell at him, telling him to fuck off. He heard her crying and pleading to whoever was behind the locked door to let her in. And he pictured her daughter. He pictured his son. He was a protector. It was his duty to uphold justice and what did he do? He killed a mother, created an orphan, and had been praised as a hero for doing so, not only by his fellow Officers, but by a Captain who said that he had what it took to climb the ranks to his dream job. So why was he having such a hard time accepting it all?

He knew he had only one option he could live with, that there was only one regulation course of action he could take. He set to filling out the report. The orphan girl would have to wait just a little bit longer for justice.

#       #       #

< V. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     VII. The Scientist >

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