Chapter 76: Ms. Mondragon

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

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

LXXVI. Ms. Mondragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole group of them cackled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum mumum mu—”

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Mondragon nodded again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you. Miss—”

“Your name is not Miss.”

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

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

“I’m sorry. What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, I—” Muna started to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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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.

#     #     #

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

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.

A Protector’s Facemask

The police of Outland call themselves “protectors”. They live in Outland 1 where there are only two paths available in life: become a protector or live in shame as a housekeeper. Protectors wear plated vests that look like armor, and helmets with face masks halfway between screaming and laughing. When a protector talks the helmet modulates their voice and the face mask’s teeth flash electronic yellow, red, and green.

Below is an animation I did of a protector’s face mask as it would look when the protector speaks. It’s my first attempt at animation so it might be a little quick for comfort but I thought I would share anyway.

The mask of a protector.