Chapter 20: Tom

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

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

XX. Tom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I—But—Why me?”

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

“But what am I supposed to do?”

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

“But, I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You asked for Outland 6, Pardy.”

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

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

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

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

“You’re mocking me.” Tom sneered.

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

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

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

“Lord Walker?”

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

“That’s—No. I didn’t—”

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

“I don’t even have my boots. I didn—”

“You did it because…”

Why’d you kill Rabbit?” Tom demanded.

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

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

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

“Who was it?”

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

“No. But the woman—”

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

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

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

“Just tell me!”

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

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

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

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is. He. Alive?” Tom demanded.

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

“Leave him out of this.”

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

“Wait!” Tom called.

She stopped but didn’t turn around.

“Her father. Tell me. Is he alive?”

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

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

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

“Change into your clothes, citizen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—but—”

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

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

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

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

His son.

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

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

“What are you doing here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

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

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

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

“Dad, shouldn’t you be at work?”

“No, son,” Tom said. “I shouldn’t.”

“But you told me—”

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I, well…”

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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Chapter 13: Pardy

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

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

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

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

XIII. Pardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I—”

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

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

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

“Pidgeon?” Pardy remembered Rabbit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Protector, pig, same difference.”

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

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

“You’re lying,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a girl!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Because you killed my parents!”

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

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

“What orphanage?”

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

“Who’s Pidgeon?”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not a girl!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is.” Pardy nodded. “I promise.”

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

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

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

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

“Outland 6? What does that mean?”

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

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

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

“Costume closet?” The girl raised an eyebrow.

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

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

“Oh,” Pardy said. “Right. Go ahead.”

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

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

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

“Right off it.”

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

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

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

#   #   #

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

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

He struggled against the restraints and grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Listen to her,” Pardy said.

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

“But I—” Pardy protested.

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

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

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

“What?” Pardy said. “No, I—”

“Get her out of here!”

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

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

Pardy didn’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardy,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—I could—”

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

“Ansel?”

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

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

“Ordered by who, Tom?”

“By my Captain—My superior officer.”

“And who ordered your Captain to order you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you said you could.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—they told me,” Pardy said.

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

“I—well—yes,” Pardy said. “That’s—”

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#   #   #

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

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