Chapter 45: Anna

Hello again, dear readers. Before I introduce today’s chapter I have some good news for y’all. Yesterday I received the Murder in “Utopia,, audio files for my final approval and the full audio book should be going live in the next week or two. Yay!

If you can’t tell, I’m really excited about this one. I think the voice actor I chose is fantastic and I’m sure the final product will live up to my expectations. So if you’re as excited as I am to hear that finalized audio book–about a psychiatrist and a priest dealing with a bunch of murderers in “utopia”–subscribe to my email newsletter right here and you’ll not only be alerted first when the book is published, you’ll also receive an exclusive chance to win the audio book in your inbox when that release is announced.

But that’s enough about Murder in “Utopia,, for today. Let’s move on to the 45th chapter of the Infinite Limits story, chapter three of Dividing by Ø, with Anna of the Human Family. Anna, Rosa, and their Family are tired of relying on the protectors, who certainly aren’t there to protect anyone from Outland Five or Six, so they’re taking matters into their own hands. Read on here to find out what happens next, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy–or leave a review–of the book on Amazon if you want to support further releases in the Infinite Limits series and beyond.

Thanks as always, dear readers. Enjoy.

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

XLV. Anna

In her tiny little kitchen, it was a pleasure to cook breakfast—a pleasure not many people knew how to enjoy, sure, but a much needed diversion in these tumultuous times nonetheless.

Rosa was off in her study, no doubt. She always woke so much earlier than Anna and set to work straight away. Anna couldn’t do that, though. She had to ease into her day, get prepared for it, test the water with her toe before diving in. And what better way to prepare for the day than to cook and eat a hearty breakfast? This particular breakfast was one of the heartiest in her repertoire. She had already grated the sweet potatoes—specifically chosen to provide as much energy as possible for the day’s inevitable drainage—and pan fried them along with the sausage and bacon before that. She had it all in the wok now, with some diced bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes—already sauteed—when she added a dozen eggs and set the resultant slop to cooking over the gas stove’s heat.

The energy was going to be needed, that was for sure. No. Maybe that wasn’t quite right. The energy was there already, no doubt about that. An outlet was what they needed. The residents of Five and Six were all hot kinetic molecules, bouncing against one another and the walls that were put there to contain them—walls which did contain them, for the most part, but not for much longer. With so many molecules absorbing so much energy in such a small space, it was only a matter of time before some of them found a seam to escape through—or created one themselves. That was the natural order of things.

When all the eggs in the wok had solidified—changing phase from liquid to solid thanks to the kinetic energy they had absorbed from the stove top—Anna turned the burner off and left the frittatas to congeal. When it came to cooking, like many things in life, Anna knew that you had to let things cool down a bit before you could really enjoy the work you had done.

With breakfast cooked, she made her way to Rosa’s office—their office, really, since there was only one in the entire Family Home, but Rosa claimed it as her own because she used it most often. Rosa was there, of course, behind her desk, scribbling furiously on some notepad, just as Anna had expected.

Ahem.” Anna cleared her throat. “Breakfast’s ready, dear.”

Rosa scribbled a few more lines then looked up at Anna absently. “Oh—uh—I’m sorry. What was that?”

“Breakfast,” Anna said, crossing around the desk to massage Rosa’s shoulders. “You need your energy for the long day.”

Ahhh,” Rosa groaned, reacting to Anna’s fingers. “That feels so good.”

“So will some food in your stomach,” Anna said, really digging into Rosa’s muscles. Rosa let out a little yelp that was tinged with pain and pleasure at the same time, a result of the satisfying, painful release of lactic acid build up in her muscles. “I made frittatas,” Anna went on, “the perfect start to an important day.”

“They don’t get much more important than this one, do they?” Rosa stood from the chair to embrace Anna and kiss her.

“No,” Anna said, giggling as she caught her breath. “They don’t. So come on.” She took Rosa’s hand and led her out to the kitchen to sit her in one of the bar stools. “So,” Anna said as she loaded a plate and set it in front of Rosa, “how do you feel?”

Aaaaahhhh.” Rosa yawned, stretching her arms as wide as they would go. “Tired.”

Anna scoffed. “That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Rosa said between bites, using her fork more like a shovel than an eating utensil. “What did you want me to say?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to say how you feel. It’s a big day today. I thought you would think so, too.”

“Of course I do.” Rosa chuckled, spitting some chewed up slop onto her plate. “But every day is big with our Family. Every day I put everything on the line for our prosperity. Today’s no different. You know that about me.”

Anna cracked a smile. She did know that about Rosa. It was one of the main reasons she loved her: the woman’s indomitable will and incessant optimism. Today really was just another day to her. The inevitable success of the Human Family was just as inevitable as it had always been. Whether they were simply pulling new members one by one, or taking the biggest risk that either of them had ever taken, it made no difference to Rosa, the Human Family would overcome all odds.

“I’m glad to see you’re so confident,” Anna said, kissing Rosa again.

“And why wouldn’t I be?” Rosa asked with a wry grin. “It remains impossible for the Human Family to fail as long as we stand united.”

“But this?” Anna asked, breaking the embrace and taking a step back. “Are you sure it’s the only way? Aren’t the protectors humans, too?”

Rosa scoffed. “You saw what they did to us, honey. When they reacted like that, they showed us that they aren’t human. They aren’t a part of my Family at least. No one who crosses us like that could ever be.”

“I don’t know,” Anna shook her head.

“What then? You’d have us do nothing? Should we just let them murder us en masse again the next time they come around?”

“No,” Anna said. “We have to protect ourselves.”

“Exactly.” Rosa smiled. “We have to protect ourselves. We can’t expect the protectors to do it for us. Our only other option would be to give up on the Family altogether, to get back under their radar by doing nothing to fight back against them. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No way,” Anna said. “Of course not. Not an option.”

Good.” Rosa kissed her on the forehead. “Then why don’t you go on downstairs and get the consoles running. I have a few more things to tend to here, but I’ll be along to help as soon as I can.”

Anna chuckled as she left the room. “Sure thing, dear,” she said, waving and closing the office door behind her. Rosa wouldn’t be down until it was time to go through the rings and Anna knew it. There was no point for her to be. There was nothing Rosa could do in that basement to help prepare for what was to come. She would only get in the way. Anna was one of only a handful of people in all the worlds who knew how to operate that particular model of transport ring, using the control consoles she herself had designed and built, and that handful didn’t include Rosa. Rosa’s strengths lied in other areas—areas where Anna was weak—so it made no difference to Anna  whether Rosa tried to help or not. In fact, it was better if she didn’t.

The transport rings were stored in the basement of the Family Home. Where there used to be piles and piles of boxes containing various supplies—mostly paper and drawing utensils, but a little bit of food here and there, interspersed with the occasional clipboard, there could never be enough clipboards—there were now six giant rings lining the walls and the two consoles in the middle of the otherwise empty room.

Anna’s fingers moved over the consoles’ controls with the deft speed of a practiced musician. The buttons and levers were her piano keys. The music she made was only audible in the clicking and swiping as she worked, but her composition was performed in a medium far different from that of sound. The sounds were only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of Anna’s symphony spread deep, submerged in the darkness of nameless dimensions, shaping and reshaping her very plane of existence.

This was when Anna felt her best. She could almost see those deeper dimensions of existence as she molded them with her very hands. Here and there were once thought to be separated by a great chasm of nothingness, but that nothingness was not nothing after all. On the contrary, it was something. As she poked and prodded at that nothing that was really something, the very foundations of existence began to untangle in Anna’s hands. These distances weren’t separated by a single path from A to B, they were separated by many paths, infinite paths perhaps, and all of varying lengths. The more she played with this ball of yarn at the heart of her universe the more it unfolded, the more it opened up to her requests, and the more she could control the world around her.

The tricky part—Anna had determined after a not insignificant amount of trial and error—was in finding the path you wanted, the shortest path you could catch with the technology at your disposal, and making sure you ended up with that particular one rather than any of the seemingly infinite other possibilities. Getting the paths to shuffle themselves was the easy part. Getting them to shuffle a royal flush to the top of the deck was where it got hard. But then again, you didn’t always need the flush to win. Sometimes you could get by with two pair—especially when you had six hands, one per transporter ring, to work with—and Anna was getting better at shuffling aces to the top, at least, if not the full flush.

She set the timing patterns and outlet depots for the mission—they weren’t going to any costume closets this time—and by the time she was done, she could already hear Rosa upstairs, riling the crew who had volunteered to go through. She climbed the stairs into the neatly packed conference room, filled with thirty-five of the bravest Family members Anna had ever known and listened to what was left of Rosa’s speech.

“They have brought us to this,” Rosa spoke—almost sang, really, in that commanding tone of hers. “It is their fault!” She slammed her fist on the podium and the group hooted and hollered in response. “We try to feed our Family and what do they do to us? Murder us in the streets. Step over the dead and dying bodies of our brothers and sisters in order to come into our homes and disrespect our rights. I say no more!”

The crowd raged again. Anna was nervous to hear shouts of “Kill them all!” and “Eye for an eye!” but she couldn’t blame them. She couldn’t stop them, either. Hell, she couldn’t even stop herself from helping them if she wanted to. She could only hope that their heads would cool once they finally carried their fate in their own hands. That might be the only way to prevent the apocalypse she thought was probably inevitable no matter what she did.

“Tonight we endure no more,” Rosa went on. “Tonight we take responsibility for our own protection. Tonight we take the fight to their home and we earn their respect. Are you with me?”

Anna joined in with the cheering this time. She couldn’t help it. Rosa had the same effect on everyone.

“You know your assignments. You know your objectives. You’ve studied up on the blueprints and know exactly when and where to go. Don’t let me down. Don’t let yourselves down. But most importantly, don’t let your Family down. Because it’s not only our lives on the line out there, it’s the life and livelihood of each and every one of our human brothers and sisters. We will not fail them!”

Everyone cheered to that, standing from their seats and stomping their feet. Anna’s heart raced at the sound of it.

“Let’s do this. Troops, forward!” Rosa waved her hand and Anna was pushed down into the basement, riding the crest of a wave of soldiers dedicated to protecting the Human Family. Anna took her place behind the consoles, and when Rosa came down—last out of all the Family—she called them to attention. Their excited chaos suddenly dissipated into a steel sense of resolved solidarity. At three words from Rosa, the fluid mass that had seemed too large to be contained by the small basement coagulated into six tight columns, one directed toward each of the transport rings.

“Now is the time for discipline,” Rosa said over the silent and still platoon. “Now is the time for resolve. Together with our Family we cannot fail. Now let us succeed!”

Rosa shot Anna a hand signal and everything around her disappeared. There was no platoon of soldiers, stuffing her basement too full. There was no basement at all and no Rosa inside of it, waiting to guide her platoon through the transport rings. There was only Anna and the music she loved.

Soon the rings were humming into action. Six of them all together in such a tight space must have been deafening to the troop, but Anna couldn’t hear a thing, she was too busy listening to the subtle notes of her song. The strings of creation jumped and jittered as Anna wove them together into the most elegant universal tapestry that any of them there had ever been a part of. Never before had Anna controlled six rings at once. Three she had done, and there was some thrill to it, but nothing like six. Each hand was working a different console, and it became as if half her brain controlled three of the rings and the other half the rest. There was no time for anything else but the music.

Then the humming stopped. Anna shook her head and looked up. The basement was empty. The thirty six brothers and sisters—including Rosa—who had only just filled the room to bursting were now in another world entirely. It took them only three steps to get from the Family Home to Outland One, across six worlds—three steps and Anna’s symphony.

Anna sighed in relief and frustration. This was the worst part about being the Queen of the Consoles: waiting for the action to finish without being able to see it. She wasn’t sure she would go across with them even if they didn’t need her to run the rings, but she had a hard time picturing how it could be any worse over there than it was waiting helpless at Home to see which of them returned alive.

Then she did the worst thing she could do. She started imagining all the terrible possibilities of what could be happening to her Family members in One, to her Rosa and the others who Anna’s own hands had sent into whatever terrible fate that awaited them. She imagined the protectors being there just as her Family stepped through the portals, waiting to gun Anna’s brothers and sisters down before they even had a chance to move. She imagined her Family making it all the way to the guns they were seeking, only to be shot in the back as they lay their hands on salvation. She imagined the look on Rosa’s face as the life left her body, never to be caressed or kissed or loved by Anna again. And she began to weep.

She shook herself out of the crying after only a moment, though, wiping the moisture from her eyes. Those scenarios were all in her head. They weren’t reality. The only way Anna could find out what was actually happening over there was to wait until her now three and a half minutes—still three and a half!—were up and she could let them all back to fill her in on every little detail.

She paced the room as she waited, trying to get her mind back on the path settings she would need to set for her Family’s triumphant return rather than imagining the horrible things that could be happening to them. She kept slipping back into the daymares, though, until she set her hands to work on the consoles, preparing another symphony. There was still more than a minute before an escape was called for, sure, but this way she could distract herself with the music.

Before she knew it, the rings were humming into motion. She didn’t even have to check her watch. She had come to be so in tune with the rhythms of the universe that she probably kept better time than the old ratty thing ever could. The doors opened, her masterpiece finally coming to fruition, but something had gone wrong. One door wasn’t in the right place. The entryway had opened exactly where it was supposed to open, but it didn’t lead home. It led… Where? Where the fuck was it going?

The pace of Anna’s fingers on the console quickened. Who was messing with her strings? Who was trying to play over her? Why were they doing it? And most importantly, how could they?

Voices tried to break through her shell of concentration, but Anna pushed them away. Or rather she let them go and pushed her mind away from the noise, deeper into the fourth dimension. Some of her Family had made it back safely, at least. She could work harder and smarter with that small comfort, but she wasn’t going to stop until all her brothers and sisters were safe again at Home.

At first sight of it, she thought the breach had come from the protectors themselves. Maybe it was some kind of defensive system she hadn’t noticed when she was first planning the pathways. But that wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. There was no activity from One at all, and why would the protectors ever send her people to… Where were they being sent?

It was an eternity in her mind—or three seconds in reality—before she caught the other end of the rope. She had a grasp on both sides now and set all six of the rings alternating between various portals near the location of the missing Family members. She kept shuffling the deck and dealing hands, shuffling the deck and dealing hands, confident that eventually she would hit big.

She didn’t know how long she had been at it when the humming stopped. Did she stop it? Had she done anything to help anyone this entire time, or was she just a waste of effort and life?

Hands patted her back until there was no more rustling in the basement. Everyone had scurried upstairs to run away or been left on the other side, in One with the protectors. Anna didn’t care anymore. The symphony had taken every ounce of her brain power to compose and conduct. She had no energy left with which to worry. She sat straight down on the ground behind her consoles, ready to give in to the world, and cried silently to herself.

Then came the voice, her voice, the only voice which could possibly bring Anna back to reality after all that. “Nanna,” it said. “No more worries in your eyes, now, Nanna. Your Rosie-Posie’s here.”

Anna cried and jumped up and hugged Rosa—all at the same time. “I thought I had lost you,” she said through her tears.

“And I you.” Rosa grinned, kissing Anna. “But you came back to me, and you brought our brothers and sisters with you.”

“I—I could never—” Anna said. She gathered herself and wiped her eyes, remembering how little she actually knew about what transpired in One. “But what happened? How are you— How did it go? Is everything alright?”

Rosa chuckled. “It’s more than alright,” she said. “But there’s plenty of time for that later. Come on.”

Rosa led Anna out of the basement—almost carrying her up the stairs into a frenzy of motion all through the halls, each Family member doing their work with a big black gun strapped over their shoulder—into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Anna’s heart skipped a beat, though, when she saw one body bleeding on the dining room table and another doing the same on the kitchen counter, and she was torn violently back into reality.

Again her muscles seemed to work by reflex. Rosa handed her a glass, and instead of drinking the water, Anna fed it to the injured party on the counter who sipped it up with a groan. “There you are, child,” Anna said. “Let me see what they did to you.”

One of the other soldiers was already snipping off the injured party’s shirt so Anna helped with the last little bit and peeled the shirt off as gingerly as she could. It stuck to the poor woman’s skin, right under her breast, giving Anna a good idea of where the wound was. The injured woman groaned in pain as Anna tried to get a better look. Anna wanted to groan herself at what she saw, but she held it back. This was a pretty bad wound. She lifted one side of the woman’s back and felt around as softly as she could. No exit wound. It was getting worse.

“I’m gonna need some tweezers and bandages,” Anna said. She turned to Rosa. “And some pills, dear. Injections preferably, but I’m not sure we have any at the moment. You’ll have to take a look-see.”

“I—but— Are you sure, dear?” Rosa said, caressing Anna’s lower back with one hand. “You just fainted down there in the basement. I don’t want your health getting any worse than it already is. There are people here who can do this for you.”

I’m sure,” Anna said, kissing Rosa’s cheek at the same time that she took the rags and bucket from some assistant’s hand. “I was worried that I had lost you, but now that you’re back, I’m over it. Just go get those injections.”

“Injections, huh?” Rosa raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure pills won’t do?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Anna snapped, working on getting the shrapnel out of the woman’s abdomen at the same time as carrying on the conversation. If they asked her to cook a meal and write some slogans, too, she might need as much brain power as she had needed earlier to reshape the universe with six rings at once, but reshaping one human body would have to suffice for now. “Either would’ve done,” she said. “Like I said already. But now that you’ve taken so long, pills should be more than enough because…ah.” She held up the bullet which was, luckily, still in one piece. “I’ve got the bullet.”

“Right, right,” Rosa said, kissing Anna on the cheek one more time before heading down to the basement. “I knew my Nanna could take care of everything.”

“You, take care of this,” Anna, stitching the wound closed, said to the soldier that had been assisting her. “Bandage her up and keep her watered. And there are beds in the basement. When you’re done here, go ahead and put two or three of them in the conference room. I don’t think we’ll be having any more public meetings here after all of this so it shouldn’t matter in the long run.”

“But the basement’s clear,” the assistant said. “There weren’t any beds down there a minute ago.”

“Rosa will show you,” Anna said, crossing to the next patient. “Go.” That was the one thing Rosa did now how to use the consoles for, a pre-programmed room change.

“Okay, what do we have here?” Anna asked, looking down on a too young boy who was holding a bloody rag to his own forehead.

“I’m fine,” the boy said.

“I don’t know,” the nurse who had been tending to him said—if she could even be called a nurse she was so young. “You bled a lot.”

“Let me see,” Anna said, taking the rag from his head.

The boy winced in pain.

See,” the nurse said, crossing her arms.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Anna said, dabbing some more blood away as the boy winced.

See,” he said with a groan.

“Looks like it could use some stitches, though,” Anna said, dabbing the wound one last time.

The boy jerked away from her. “Stitches?” His eyes widened and his face lost that rebellious resolve he was trying so hard to maintain. “I don’t know about that, ma’am. Are you sure?”

“It won’t hurt,” Anna said. “Much. Besides, I thought you were fine.” She grinned.

“I am,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Then lay right down like a good boy so I can stitch you up.”

He hesitated then gave in, probably trying to impress the nurse who, for her part, looked genuinely worried about the boy’s health. “Ugh. Fine.”

“Great,” Anna said when he was on his back. “You,” she said to the nurse, “get a light over here please.”

“Oh—uh.” She ran to the other room and came back holding a floor lamp. “Will this do, ma’am?”

“Yes, yes,” Anna waved her closer “Just put it close so I can see. There you are. Okay. Now this is going to hurt. Are you ready?”

Anna didn’t wait for an answer. The boy winced and groaned and ground his teeth, but he didn’t jerk his head at all, and soon Anna was tying off five stitches.

“There you are,” she said with a smile as he sat up, trying to scratch the stitches. Anna slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch them. That’ll make things worse. Nurse…” She looked to the girl who was still holding the lamp.”

“Oh—uh—Ellen, ma’am,” the girl said, almost hitting herself with the lamp trying to shake Anna’s hand.

“Nurse Ellen will fit you with some gauze. You keep it covered and dry, then come back to me in the morning—after you’ve gotten some rest. You understand me?”

The boy nodded, going to scratch his head again, but Anna slapped his hand away. “And no scratching. I mean it.” Anna looked at Nurse Ellen and gave her a big smile, patting the girl on the back. “You did well, Nurse,” she said. “Just wrap his head up with some gauze and be sure he doesn’t scratch it. If you can handle that, maybe I’ll teach you how to sew the stitches next time.”

Nurse Ellen’s white-knuckled grip on the floor lamp finally loosened. She set it down, her hands trembling, and the lamp rattled. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Right away, ma’am.” She took a few steps then turned around, blushing, to go the other way toward where the gauze was stored.

Anna surveyed the room. Two bodies wasn’t bad. She had expected her kitchen to be a morgue after what Rosa had planned. And the mission was definitely a success, the guns on everyone’s shoulders was evidence enough of that. As long as that bullet wound didn’t become infected, they might not—

“I’m here!” Rosa said, storming in with a bottle of pills and a handful of syringes held up over her head. “I got what you asked for, Nannie dear.” She smiled, holding her bounty out to Anna, proud of herself.

Anna chuckled. “Too late again, Rosie,” she said with a grin, shaking her head. She still couldn’t decide if Rosa did these things because she was cheap and didn’t want to waste the supplies, or if Rosa was simply too queasy to witness the blood. Most likely it was the former, but probably a little of both. “But give the kid a pill anyway. And the woman a few.” Anna handed the bottle to Nurse Ellen then turned to Rosa. “Come on.” She held out her hand. “You have to tell me all about what happened now.”

Rosa smiled and took Anna’s hand, kissing the back of it before letting Anna lead the way into their office.

“So,” Anna said, sitting Rosa in the desk chair and taking the seat across from her. “Those injuries weren’t too bad. Everyone else is back safe then? No other injuries for me to tend to?” She smiled wide, hopefully.

Rosa’s smile slowly faded to a frown. She broke eye contact with Anna, fumbling through the desk for nothing in particular. “Well, yes and no,” she finally said. “Yes those are the only injuries for you to treat…” She smiled a fake smile, not going on.

Anna sighed. “But not everyone else is home safe?”

Rosa shook her head, breaking eye contact again.

“Well what then? Who? Go on. It’s not like not telling me is going to change what happened.”

“No…well… A few of us didn’t make it back. And some of those who did make it back aren’t alive to be treated. And that’s just from my squad. I haven’t had reports from the others yet.”

No.” Anna fought tears. “Who?”

“Yujin and Melody were murdered just as we got our hands on the guns. They were so close, but the protectors who did it paid the price. We got Yujin’s body back, but reinforcements came and the protectors took Isha when she tried to retrieve Melody’s. They—they still have her. We’re not sure if she’s alive or dead.”

“No. But they’ll—”

“That’s not all,” Rosa said, stopping her. When she was giving the bad news, Rosa sure liked to pile it on. Why could it never be the same with the good? “One of those doors you sent us to get home didn’t bring us back here like it was supposed to.”

“I know, I tried—”

“I’m not entirely sure where it took us, actually. But wherever that is, Kara’s still there. The rest of us made it to your second door and back home, but she… She didn’t.”

“I know where she is,” Anna said. “That door wasn’t sent by me. There was some kind of interference or something. I don’t know. I had never seen anything like it before.”

“But you know where she is?” Rosa asked, sitting up in her chair and leaning forward on her desk with a big smile. “You can get us back there?”

“Yes,” Anna said, though she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded. “Of course I can.”

“Good.” Rosa smiled. “Not now but soon. No Family members left behind.”

“No,” Anna said. “Of course not. That’s why I wouldn’t give up—I didn’t give up—until I got you back from wherever they took you.”

“Whoever they are.”

“I’ll find out.”

Rosa chuckled, standing and crossing around the desk to massage Anna’s shoulders. Anna loved the feeling of those fingers on her skin. “I know, dear,” Rosa said. “Just like I knew you’d get me back from wherever they sent us to. And just like I knew that we couldn’t fail in this mission as long as we worked as a Family.”

Anna rolled her shoulders under Rosa’s massaging fingers, groaning with pleasure. “You think it was a success, then?”

Rosa laughed. “Of course, dear.” She kissed Anna on the cheek. “And now our Family’s invincible.”

#     #     #

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

So there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Pick up your copy of the novel or leave a review of any of the books in the series right here, subscribe to my email newsletter for your chance to win a free Murder in “Utopia,, audio book right here, and enjoy the rest of this lovely weekend.

Thanks again for following along, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

 

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Dividing by Ø

Here comes another one, folks. If you’ve been following along on the blog, you already know that, last weekend, I posted the final chapter of book two of the Infinite Limits series, An Almost Tangent, to the website here. Well, I’m happy to say that today I’m right on schedule to publish book three, Dividing by Ø, and continue sharing chapters in the Infinite Limits story to my blog. (If you subscribe to my email newsletter, you already know this and have entered for your chance to win a free copy of the ebook, of course, but if you don’t, you can subscribe to that here.)

Yay! 🙂

That’s right, dear readers. You can purchase a full copy of book three in the Infinite Limits tetralogy starting today through this link. Now, Amazon is taking some time in figuring out which books are mine and that the print and ebook versions are the same book so you may have to do a little searching to find the one you want, but they should both be on my Amazon author’s page right here.

Thank you all for your support so far and into the future. We do nothing alone. And now, without further ado, here’s the first chapter in Dividing by Ø. Enjoy.

Dividing_by__Cover_for_Kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

43. Nikola
44. Laura
45. Anna
46. Roo
47. Chelsea
48. Ansel
49. Mr. Walker
50. Nikola
51. Laura
52. Anna
53. Roo
54. Chelsea
55. Ansel
56. Mr. Walker
57. Nikola
58. Laura
59. Anna
60. Roo
61. Chelsea
62. Ansel
63. Mr. Walker

 

 

 

 

 

“Cause I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”

Nina Simone

 

 

 

 

 

XLIII. Nikola

Nikola took a deep breath of the cool air and held it in her lungs for as long as she could, her hand set gingerly on the doorknob in front of her. Letting the air out as slowly as possible, molecule by molecule almost, she adjusted her glasses. She knew that Tillie would be happy to get out of the Hellish prison the protectors had put her in, but she wasn’t as sure about how Tillie would feel concerning where they had taken her. She huffed and fixed her glasses again. There was only one way to find out.

The door creaked open to reveal an official looking reception area, something requiring a high level of security to get past. The walls and carpet were two slightly different shades of gray, and the short chairs lining the room were a third. Behind the reception desk a gray-haired old man peered like a fish through the bulletproof glass that separated his side of the room from hers.

Nikola crept up to the desk, trying to make as little noise as possible—all these drab gray offices made her feel like she was in a library—but the door creaked closed behind her and slammed shut. She jumped at the sound of it, pretty sure she saw the old man behind the desk groan and roll his eyes, and when she got close enough to speak, he cut her off before she could even get started.

“Bonjour,” he said in a slow, drawling voice. “Comment puis-je vous aider?”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola blushed. She knew enough French to understand the old man’s question, but she wasn’t confident she could speak her response. “Eh—Je m’appelle Nikola. Je suis ici pour…uh…I was sent to see the American.” She shrugged at the English bit.

The old man behind the desk rolled his fishy eyes for sure this time. “Ah.” He nodded. “L’American. Oui. Let me see here…” Somehow he spoke even slower in English. “Here it is. Yes. Nikola Montpierre, Special Agent First Class in the Revolutionary Workers Defense League. Here to put one Tillie Manager through orientation. Is that correct, mademoiselle?”

Nikola nodded. “Yes, sir. That’s me. What do you—”

“Please place your thumb on the scanner in front of you.”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola pressed her thumb to the tiny window on the desk in front of her and the camera behind it scanned her print. Satisfied, the glass door next to her beeped and opened.

“Agent Pierre of intake will give you further directions,” the old man said, not even looking at her anymore as he spoke, back instead to staring at his computer screen. “Just through the door there.”

“Oh—uh… Thanks.” Nikola nodded and went in the clear glass door, through a short hall, and into a smaller, darker reception area. There were no chairs in this room, and the colors bordered closer to black than gray, but there was still bullet proof glass between her and who she assumed was Agent Pierre behind the desk in front of her.

“Bonjour,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. He seemed much nicer than the old man already. “How can I help you?”

“Oh, uh—I’m here to see Tillie.”

“Oh, oui, oui, mon couer.” He chuckled, his eyes twinkling. “Of course. But I already knew that. I intended to ask if there was any further assistance I could offer.”

Nikola blushed. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what she was doing, or what to expect. She just wanted to talk to Tillie. “Uh…”

“I see.” Agent Pierre winked. “It’s your first time, then, huh?”

Nikola nodded.

“Well, she’ll be right inside waiting for you. And remember, you can do whatever it is you have to do in there. The walls are thick, see. You might as well be in an entirely different world.” He laughed a big hearty laugh, still somehow managing to maintain his French accent as he did.

“Um…okay,” Nikola said. She wasn’t sure why she would need soundproofing but Pierre seemed to be trying to help. “So I just—I just go in then?” She looked around for a door but there was only the one she had come in through.

“Oh, no, sweetie. You don’t go anywhere. We take you there. Adieu.”

Before she could respond, the floor fell out from underneath her. She hadn’t realized she was in an elevator until just then, gasping at the jolt of inertia. The walls were all bullet proof glass and she could see the rest of the building as it fell up up and away around her. When the elevator stopped, it was in front of some frightened soul who was hunching in a metal chair with a bag over their head. Through the glass, whoever it was seemed as far away as the old man in the reception area—and even more fishy. The doors slid open and Nikola rushed to the person’s side, hurrying to remove the bag from their head.

Tillie flinched away at first, jumping up and struggling against the unknown assailant. “Stop! Let go! Stop!” she yelled as Nikola wrenched the bag from her head. Tillie still must not have recognized Nikola, though, because it took her some time to stop struggling, even with the bag removed. When she finally did recognize Nikola, she started weeping and repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

“Nikola. I never thought I’d— Nikola, help me— Nikola, Nikola.”

What had they done to her?

Nikola tried to hug Tillie to calm her down but Tillie’s arms were cuffed to the chair. “They tied you down! Why would they tie you down?”

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola,” Tillie muttered. Her head looked heavy and her eyes wouldn’t stop blinking at a rapid pace. It seemed like she could lose consciousness at any time.

“Yes, Tillie. It’s Nikola. I’ll get you out of this. Just let me—let me…”

Tillie went on repeating her name while Nikola scanned the room. It was tiny and dark. There was nothing in it but the chair Tillie was tied to and a button on one wall which Nikola ran over to press.

“Bonjour. C’est Pierre. Puis-je vous aider?” came a voice over the intercom.

“Why’d you cuff her?” Nikola demanded of the red button.

“Qui?”

“Tillie Manager. This is Nikola Montpierre. Why did you—”

Ah,” the voice cut her off. “L’American. You did not say you wanted her uncuffed, ma’am. I did ask if there was any way I could help you. Remember?”

“Why’d you cuff her in the first place?”

“Standard procedure, mademoiselle. Much like asking for the keys before you go down the hole. Perhaps you’ll remember that in—”

“Just bring me the keys!”

Nikola! Nikola, Nik—cola,” Tillie mumbled louder at the sound of Nikola’s yelling.

“Oui, mademoiselle. Right away, mademoiselle. Be down in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, mademoiselle,” Pierre said in an overly subservient tone, dripping with pomposity.

“I’ll have you out as soon as I can,” Nikola said, crossing to Tillie to stroke her hair as the elevator fell from behind the fishbowl door and soon reappeared, coming from the top down and carrying Agent Pierre. The doors slid open and Agent Pierre bowed low, presenting a keychain and key to Nikola who rushed to grab it and ran back to unlock Tillie.

“Je t’en prie, ma chérie. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No!” Nikola stomped a foot at him then went back to comforting Tillie.

“Then, adieu.” Agent Pierre bowed low, the fishbowl elevator doors slid closed, and he fell out of the picture.

Nikola unlocked Tillie’s hands and feet, but still Tillie wouldn’t stand. She kept rocking in the chair, repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

Nikola sighed, pushed her glasses up on her nose, then took Tillie’s face between her hands to look her friend in the eyes. “Look at me,” she said. “Tillie. It’s me. It’s Nikola. I’m Nikola. I’m here to help.”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling despite her red puffy eyes. “Nik-ola, Nikol-a, Nikola.”

“Yes, dear. It’s—I’m—” Nikola’s own eyes went red. She let go of Tillie’s face to wipe away the moisture. “Nikola’s here, honey. What did they do to you?”

“Nikola?” Tillie started crying again.

Nikola did, too. She didn’t know what else to do. They weren’t supposed to treat Tillie like this. They were supposed to be saving her from that horrible place, not putting her somewhere worse.

“Alright,” Nikola said, grabbing Tillie’s hand and helping her stand. Tillie protested at first but eventually gave in, standing with some effort and a lot of assistance.

“Nikola?” she said, looking like a sad, lost child.

“Yes,” Nikola said. “It’s me. And I’m getting you out of here. You need some fresh air and a doctor. Now come on. Up you go.” She lifted Tillie’s arm over her shoulder and walked her to the elevator.

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling as the elevator’s fishbowl doors closed and the floor fell out from underneath them.

Agent Pierre didn’t look happy to see Tillie when they arrived. “Mademoiselle,” he said with a sneer. “I don’t think you have clearance to take L’American with you. I’m afraid—”

“I have clearance!” Nikola said, banging on the glass between her and Agent Pierre, Tillie still holding onto her shoulders for support. “Let us out of here!”

“I—uh…” Agent Pierre was flustered. He looked this way then that, trapped in his fish bowl, then typed and clicked on his computer, gaping wide-eyed at whatever it was he saw there.

“Oh, mademoiselle,” he said. “Je suis désolé. Go ahead. Go ahead,” he added, waving them through the now open doors.

Nikola practically carried Tillie through the reception area into the cool air outside. They came out of the tall, official looking cement building into the center of everything. To Tillie it probably looked like a war zone from some movie produced in Outland Three. They were surrounded by crumbling buildings—all but the gray behemoth they had just come from were crumbling into piles of rubble at their feet—interspersed with huge canvas tents, all in various shades of browngreen. To add to the effect, most of the people walking around the rubbled streets wore big black combat boots and camouflaged uniforms, whether they were working one of the many food stands—one on each corner practically—or actually parading from one assignment to the next in preparation for a military maneuver. To Nikola it looked entirely different though. To Nikola it looked like home.

Tillie’s eyes brightened as she squinted against the sunlight. She looked this way and that, taking everything in, then smiled at Nikola and said, “Nikola.” with a nod.

Nikola tried to smile back. “Yep,” she said. “Though I was hoping some fresh air might help with that. I can’t imagine what they did to to you to make you—hmmm…”

“Nikola?”

Nikola sighed. “Exactly.” She took Tillie by the arm and led her through streets lined with rubble, toward nowhere in particular. She didn’t know where to go. What would cause a person to lose the ability to speak anything but a single word? Why did that word have to be Nikola’s name? And what could she do to change it?

She looked up from her thoughts and they were in front of her parents’ half building, half tent office. Where all the other tents they had passed were more like canopies, this one had dark green walls held down with big slabs of rubble and armed guards at either side of the entrance flap. Nikola stopped in her tracks but Tillie kept going, pulling Nikola’s arm a bit before coming to a halt, too.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Nikola said. “I—it’s just—”

“Nikola Nikola.” Tillie shook her head, not wanting to go in.

“Right, well. It’s just that exactly,” Nikola said, adjusting her glasses. “You keep saying that over and over, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.”

“N—N—Nik—ol—a,” Tillie said with some effort, like she was trying to say something else but couldn’t.

“No, no no.” Nikola waved her arms and stepped closer to Tillie, patting her on the back. “I mean, I’m sure you’re fine, you know. But I—but— Okay. Well, let me start from the beginning. You see that tent building?” Nikola pointed and Tillie looked at the two armed guards.

“Nikola?” she said with raised eyebrows.

“Yep,” Nikola said, nodding. “The one guarded by those two big guns. Well, behind those guns are my parents—my whole family probably. And—well—since they were the reason I was in your country in the first place, I guess they’re the best people to ask about what happened to you because of it. Besides, they’re gonna want to know how you’re doing anyway. They’ve been pretty worried about us ever since I left.”

“Nikola?”

“Well—no—of course it would be better if you could actually talk when you met them, but you’ll have to meet them sooner or later anyway and they can probably help get your words back. Two birds with one stone, you know.”

Tillie shrugged with a sigh, shaking her head.

“I’m glad you agree.” Nikola grinned. “And whatever you do, don’t mention our smoking on the balcony, okay?” She chuckled a little, but Tillie wasn’t ready to find the situation funny. Nikola couldn’t really blame her. “Alright. Well, let’s do it then,” she said, taking Tillie’s arm.

Nikola pulled Tillie between the guards, and she could feel Tillie’s fear rise up through the goosebumps in her skin as they passed inside the tentbuilding. If Nikola hadn’t grown up with the guards always there, twenty four seven, she might feel the same way. She might also have gasped—like Tillie—at how official the inside of a canvas tent and crumbling building could be made to look, almost exactly like the inside of the holding cell Tillie had only moments ago been released from. Tillie must have noticed the similarity, too. After her gasp she struggled trying to get away from Nikola and out of the building, but Nikola held her tight.

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola!” Tillie begged as she tried to escape.

“No—it’s okay—I—” Nikola argued, but she couldn’t formulate words and hold Tillie at the same time.

Luckily, her little brother—she loved to call him that even though he was so much bigger than her (or anyone for that matter)—Curie ran around from behind the reception desk to help her. “Woah there, lil’ Nikkie,” he said, holding Tillie still but somehow managing to be gentle about it at the same time. “Who’s this frightened little bird you brought us today?”

“Tillie,” Nikola said, more to Tillie than her brother. “It’s okay. This is my little brother, Curie. He can—he’ll help us, okay. You’re safe now. You’re safe with us.”

Tillie was still darting her wide eyes back and forth between their faces, but she was struggling less and less, and as Nikola’s brother continued to talk, his voice seemed to have a soothing effect on her.

“Ah. Tillie,” he said with a smile. “The beautiful American you’ve told me so much about. And one of a very few in her country to really see the truth of the worlds, from what I understand. I embarrass myself by calling her a mere bird. No, she’s too intelligent for that, too fierce. I must be blind to miss a majestic eagle as it stares me in the eyes.”

Tillie stopped struggling, staring Curie in the eyes. Nikola had let go of her a long time ago, but Curie still held her one hand in both of his, looking deep into her eyes just the same. Nikola fidgeted and coughed. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat. “So, Curie, this is Tillie. Tillie, Curie. You two seem to be pretty well acquainted by now.”

“Not well enough,” Curie said, not taking his hands off Tillie’s.

“Curie?” Tillie said.

“Tillie!” Nikola cheered, clapping her hands together. “You said something else. You—”

“Nikola, Nikola!” Tillie exclaimed, deflating again when the words only came out Nikola.

“It’s okay, my eagle,” Curie said, rubbing Nikola’s hand in his palm now. “We’ll take care of your injuries and have you flying again in no time. Singing, too. I promise. Just, please, come with me. I’ll make you right again.”

Tillie gave in to him, lost in Curie’s eyes and words. Nikola kept her feelings of awkwardness quiet this time, instead following them in silence and letting Curie continue to do what seemed to be working for Tillie.

There was no elevator in this building, nor any bullet proof glass. Curie led Tillie hand in hand through grayed halls into a brightly lit, clean white room. Tillie jumped up onto the hospital bed just as Curie asked her to, and Nikola began to hope that she might get better sooner than later.

“Now,” Curie said, looking Tillie in the eyes again. “Look at me, okay. I’m going to get you some paper.” He rummaged through a drawer and handed her a pad of paper and a pen. “Okay. Are you ready?”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, nodding.

“Good,” Curie said. “Very good. You anticipate me already. So, first, I want you to write my sister’s name for me,” he said, pointing at Nikola. “Right there on the pad.” He pointed at the paper.

Tillie wrote the name with ease and held it up for them to see. Nikola smiled and nodded, trying to be encouraging.

“Very good, my eagle,” Curie said. “Now, this time I would like you to write my name on the pad, please.”

Tillie struggled hard to write something down then scribbled it out with a sigh. She wrote something else then scribbled it out again in a huff.

“It’s okay, Tillie. You can—” Nikola tried to say but Curie shot her a look, cutting her sentence off with his ice blue eyes.

“You can do it,” he said to Tillie. “You remember what it is. I know you do. You just said it. And it’s not hard to spell, just five letters exactly how it sounds.”

Tillie was sweating by the time she finished, and the letters looked like chicken scratch when she held the notepad up for them to see, but Curie and Nikola smiled, nodded, and cheered her on as if it were a much more difficult task.

Perfect,” Curie said, bringing Tillie in for a hug. “Now, what’s your name?”

“Tillie!” Tillie blurted out, holding her hands to her mouth when she did. “My name is Tillie Manager!”

“Yes, my eagle,” Curie said, smiling wide and hugging. “Your name’s Tillie Manager.”

“Tillie!” Nikola screamed too loudly. “I knew you’d be okay.” She grabbed Tillie and squeezed her tight. “I’m so glad you—”

“What is all this racquet down here?” asked a voice from behind them, Nikola’s mother’s voice. “How many times do I have to tell you kids that this is an official building and not a playground?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. We were just…” Nikola trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Tillie said, bowing her head.

“Mother,” Curie said, standing taller and stepping toward their mom. “This is the American. She was in need of medical attention. We took care of that and we were just about to send her to you.”

Nikola’s mother looked between the three of them suspiciously. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Mother,” Curie said, nodding earnestly.

“Of course, Mom,” Nikola said. “Why would we lie?.”

Her mother looked around at them one more time. “Of course,” she said. “Well, then, Curie, you get back to the desk now. You’ve already left someone waiting for you, which is why I’m down here in the first place. And Nikola, you bring the American up to my office. Your father will want to speak with her.”

“I was about to do exactly that,” Nikola said, “but I—”

“Then go,” her mom said, clapping her hands at Nikola like she was still a child. “Allons-y. Rapide. I have business to attend to.” She kept clapping until Nikola grabbed Tillie by the hand and ran up two flights of stairs, the first of which her mother followed them up, clapping all the way.

Nikola stopped to catch her breath between flights, hunched over and trying not to curse. She looked up and Tillie was hunched over, breathing heavily, too, but she was smiling at least. Nikola couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of her, and soon they were laughing together, their laughs echoing through the empty stairway.

“So,” Nikola said when they had gotten their laughter under control. “That was my mom.” She shrugged.

“And your brother.” Tillie smiled.

“Yes. And my brother,” Nikola repeated, giving Tillie a look she probably couldn’t decipher. Something along the lines of Watch it sister. Nikola wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Tillie and Curie’s rapidly developing relationship, and she had bigger issues on her mind for the moment so she didn’t want to think about it at all. “And you’re about to meet my father,” she went on, trying to change the subject. “Him and my mother being the reasons you’re here now.”

Right,” Tillie said. “You said that already. What I still don’t know is where here is, though.”

“Oh. Of course.” Nikola chuckled nervously and fixed her glasses. She forgot about the basics in her need to get Tillie talking again. “Well, you’re in my home now,” she explained. “This is my country, or—er—our world, or whatever you Americans call it.”

“So you are a Russian, then,” Tillie said, taking a step back from her. “And we’re in—you took me to…Russia?” She held her hand to her mouth, as if terrified.

“What?” Nikola chuckled. “No. Of course not. I told you I wasn’t—”

“Then where are we?” Tillie demanded. “If we’re not in Russia and we’re not in America, then where could we be?”

“Lots of other places,” Nikola said, trying not to laugh now that she remembered how dismal Tillie’s American education must truly have been. “There are many more than two countries, you know. Too many more. This one included. Come on. I’m sure my dad can explain it better than I ever could, and I know for a fact that he’ll end up explaining it to you again, anyway. So let’s just go and get it over with.”

Tillie hesitated.

“Honestly, Tillie,” Nikola said, “It’s the only way forward, whether you’re actually in Russia or not—which I guarantee you’re not.” She extended her hand.

Tillie looked at it for a second then took it. “You’re right,” she said. “Y’all got me out of that prison. I should be thanking you, not complaining. Let’s go.”

The office was up a few flights of stairs still. The walls were all gray and slightly crumbling—patched in parts with green canvas—and there were two big desks facing each other on either side of the room. Nikola’s dad was at his desk, on the right hand side of the office, furiously typing at something, and the other, her mother’s desk on the left hand side, was empty. Nikola’s dad didn’t even look up when they entered the room.

Ahem,” Nikola cleared her throat, adjusting her glasses. “Uh—Dad—or—er, sir. It’s me. Nikola.”

“Just a moment, dear,” her dad said, lifting a hand just long enough to wave it once and get back to typing. “Almost done.”

“Oh, well…” Nikola looked at Tillie and shrugged, mouthing, “I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t more than a minute before Nikola’s dad stopped typing and looked up from his work, satisfied. “Ah, there we are,” he said with a smile. “Now, dear—oh—you should have told me there was company.” He stood up fast and ticked off a salute. “General Andre Montpierre at your service, mademoiselle.”

“Oh—uh—” Tillie blushed.

“It’s just Tillie, Dad,” Nikola said. “No need to salute. She’s here—”

“Nonsense, Nikola.” Her dad scoffed. “And just Tillie? That’s all the more reason to show our respect. She’s an ambassador from another country, dear. Practically another world!”

“Yeah, well,” Nikola said. “I thought maybe you could hold off on the theatrics a bit. At least until she feels more comfortable in her transition, you know. She’s been through a lot.”

“Oh, no. I mean, of course. I’m sorry, dears.” He crossed from behind the desk and led Tillie to a soft chair by a window. “Here, take a seat. Can I get you anything? We don’t have much, but there’s some ice in the freezer and a mighty nice tap for water, if I do say so myself.”

“No, dad,” Nikola said. “We’re fine.”

“Actually some water would be nice,” Tillie said, getting comfortable in her seat.

“There you have it,” Nikola’s dad said, crossing to a sink on the far wall. “One ice cold water, coming right up.”

“Thanks,” Tillie said, taking a sip of the water as Nikola’s father sat in one of the chairs himself—not his desk chair.

“So,” her dad said. “America, huh? It must have been a long trip getting here.”

Ugh. You wouldn’t believe,” Tillie said with a sigh. “It was a nightmare.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry about that, dear. So sorry.” He shook his head, staring off into the distance. “But,” he said, brightening up, “that’s all behind us now. Now is the time to look to the future. Are you ready for that, Tillie?”

“I—uh…” Tillie looked like a landlord caught in a rent strike. She couldn’t even move or speak. Nikola was worried Tillie might revert to repeating Nikola’s name again so she tried to come to Tillie’s rescue.

“You know, Dad,” Nikola said, “maybe you can kind of explain what’s going on—or—I don’t know, why Tillie’s here or whatever. I only just got her out of holding, you know, and they still had her locked up with a bag over her head when I got there.”

“Locked up and bagged? No!” Her dad looked seriously concerned but Nikola knew better. Nothing on base went down without his knowing it. He might be a good enough actor to fool Tillie, but Nikola had lived with him for long enough to see through it.

“Yes, Father,” Nikola said. “Now why would they do that?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, shaking his head and waving her concerns away. “They’re soldiers, dear. All they do is follow orders, live by regulations. It’s procedure so they follow it. That’s all.”

“Procedure set by—” Nikola started to say, but her dad cut her off.

“Now, Tillie,” he said, “I know this must be pretty overwhelming for you, but do you have any questions for me? Let’s start there.”

Nikola wanted to drive the point further, but she knew her dad wouldn’t react well so she just sighed and let Tillie speak.

“Well, sir.” Tillie shook her head. “I have a lot, actually.”

“Of course. Of course you do, dear. Ha ha ha! Who am I kidding?” He rocked back and forth in his chair, clapping his hands and laughing. “Well, then. Go ahead. What first?”

“Well, sir. Uh… I guess, where am I?”

“You’re in my office. Where else? Ho ho ho.”

Nikola groaned.

“But really,” her dad said, putting on a straight face, “you’re at Bitburg Revolutionary Base in The People’s France. Right now you’re in one of the most closely protected and highly classified buildings—nay rooms—in the entire country. Welcome, little American. Welcome to our workers’ paradise.”

“Oh, uh…” Tillie hesitated.

“Don’t make it seem so great,” Nikola said. “The People’s France isn’t a very protected place in general. And besides that, it’s tiny.”

“No, well, for now it is,” her dad said. “But we’re working on that. We’re growing, aren’t we? Step by step, every day, the incessant march of modernization drives on. You know.”

Nikola shrugged. “I guess.”

“So what am I doing here?” Tillie asked. “When do I go home?”

“You are being protected here, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “You’re being protected from the ones you Americans call protectors. You were there. You experienced it: A bag over your head, shoved into a drawer to rot. And let me tell you, the things they had in store for you are so much worse than that. It’s unimaginable. If we hadn’t secured your escape… Well, let me just say that you have no idea what would have happened to you and you should be happy for that fact.”

“Dad!” Nikola said, slapping his arm.

“It’s true, Nikola,” he said, rubbing where she had hit him. “And Tillie should know it. That’s why you’re here, Tillie. We saved you from things unthinkable inside those prison walls.”

Tillie shook her head. “Like what?”

Torture,” Nikola’s dad said. “A fate worse than death. They’d kill you a thousand times and keep you alive to do it again. Human or android, it makes no difference to them. They’ll make you suffer until you give up and then make you suffer a little more. That’s just the way they like it.”

“I…” Tillie looked to Nikola who nodded. Nikola knew that much wasn’t an exaggeration. At least that’s what they had told her when she agreed to go undercover, that she, too, would be risking a fate worse than death. “I can’t believe that,” Tillie said.

“I know, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “It’s unbelievable. But it also happens to be the truth. I think you’ll find that all truths are a little hard to bear, especially when you first learn of them. We live in unbelievable times, girls, so what else can we expect but unbelievable things?”

“No, but…” Tillie started.

“Dad, maybe that’s a little—” Nikola tried to say but Tillie cut her off.

“I want to go home!” she demanded.

“I know, child.” Nikola’s dad frowned. He shook his head. “I know. But you can’t. Not yet. It’s not safe for you. We’d be sending you back into exactly what we rescued you from in the first place. I can’t have that on my conscious. I’m sorry.”

“Then when?”

Hmmm.” Nikola’s dad thought on that for a moment. “When the time’s right is all I can say. Sooner than later, I hope. But I don’t know. It’s out of my control. In the meantime, there are a few things you could help us with around here. The more help we have the sooner we can make our world and yours safer for everyone, and only when it’s safe will I send you home.”

Ah.” Tillie nodded. “I see.”

Nikola frowned. She didn’t like the tone of Tillie’s voice or the look on her face, something. Her father didn’t seem to notice anything suspicious, though, because he just smiled and nodded and went on talking.

“Good,” he said. “Great! Then let Nikola here show you around, and once you’re settled in, we’ll see what exactly it is that you can do to help us help you. How does that sound?”

“Sure.” Tillie nodded. “Whatever you say, sir.”

#     #     #

< Book II     [Table of Contents]     XLIV. Laura >

There y’all have it, the next chapter in the Infinite Limits story. If you just can’t wait to read the entire novel, pick up a full copy through this link. Thanks for your support, as always. I look forward to sharing the rest of the story the with you.

We do nothing alone.

-Bryan Perkins 03/26/16

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.