Chapter 38 (or, "Mistakes")
Tama and his friends hadn't thought about enlisting somebody to stay awake as a guard. They had figured they wouldn't need to. The cards themselves would stand guard.
Dvorak Romanov stood on Disasterville's gate, an entire deck of Digital Merge heroes in his suit pocket and a smile on his face. From here, he could see all of Disasterville. He liked playing with Isabel Gonzalez. But more importantly, he liked playing with the five kids she had chosen as her friends.
He hated it when he was tampered with. All he wanted at this point was to be left alone, but he couldn't just give up his job. He could, however, slack at it for the next millennia or so...which was what he had done, considering every job as a two-week vacation to a new universe. He would stick around long enough to get to know the population from his invisible standpoint and then move on. Sometimes, the worlds he went to weren't interesting at all -- Sarah usually classified his world as dead and picked one guardian for both worlds. And sometimes, he would have to suck it up and play guardian, which meant two weeks of dodging QWERTY's calls and ultimately putting an ends to both worlds as they merged.
At least he didn't have to be involved in any separations. Those were almost worse than collisions.
Regardless, he hadn't had any troubles with his long standing vacation -- until Isabel Gonzalez had showed up. He hated New York City. And he knew Sarah loved it. Both worlds in case 560 had been so similar that he had just went to world A and hid out in an abandoned subway station, hoping to stay there until it all blew over. If the substitute couldn't help and was stuck with his or her (or whatever) job, then there would be no substitute. But Sarah hadn't had any of that -- she had sent hints to the guardian Carissa Lopez, hints that made it possible for her to find him hiding out in City Hall.
Instead of staying hidden at that point, he had gotten mad, transformed all of New York City into his playground. And it would have stayed that way, except Carissa had then asked Ariana's help for getting into limbo. Operation Colemak had overridden his substitute role -- something that made him even madder than the substitute role in the first place. And Isabel Gonzalez had become the substitute in Carissa's place, ensuring Dvorak couldn't erase her best friend and taking the hit instead.
And Dvorak hated her for it.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his communicator. Dvorak hadn't taken long in figuring out their plan: he could see how the cards were laid out. He could stay out here and eliminate all of their cards, giving them not a fighting chance in saving this world. But that would be just too rude and just too easy. Miss Gonzalez was already gone, anyway. He might as well prolong their suffering and snuff out their world at the last second.
He hated Sarah, but she was useful sometimes...for instance, she made sure that every member of her faction had the coordinates of every other member unless they were in limbo. Miss Gonzales was gone, sure, but there were still three QWERTY operatives in this realm, trying to protect their guardian. He selected one of the members and hit the center button, teleporting instantly to where they were.
He had figured he'd appear where the entire group was, but instead, he found himself on the town hall roof. Matsumoto Tamasine was there, facing away from Dvorak, looking out over the city in his modified street clothes and QWERTY jacket. The moon was overhead, hitting him at just the right angle, casting his shadow into Dvorak's path.
And all of a sudden, Dvorak knew.
He clenched his fist. This was no time for getting emotional. Even more so, he had to press on. This was just another hole in the plan, a hole that could be his end if the others ever discovered it. Sarah probably already knew, that good for nothing --
"You." Dvorak snapped back to reality. Tama had turned around.
He smiled. Time to put the facade back on. "What about me?"
Tama had his hands up, in a fighting position -- rather sloppy for a thirteen year old, like a puppy too big for his feet. "Why haven't you made me disappear yet?"
Dvorak wasn't sure what Tama was talking about until he remembered: this was mission 928, and he was messing with Isabel. He needed to keep this facade up. He could never tell anybody this secret. "Well, what if I don't want to make you disappear?"
Tama's hands went down. "Why don't you?"
He didn't have the answer for that. Not yet. "You think I'm the bad guy, don't you? That I just cause trouble for you and your friends."
"You sure do cause a lot of trouble. But I'm sure you have a reason for it." Tama took a few steps back, leaning against the short wall separating him from the long fall below. "How did you get here, anyway?"
"What does it matter to you? I'll always be the bad guy to you and your friends. You'll never be able to see past what I've done."
Tama remembered how Dvorak had taken over Dimitri, the man living in Brighton Beach; how he had interrupted their first mission and had almost re-established himself as a person in New York City. He caused stress and trouble wherever he went, but why was he? "I think I get it. You don't want to be a substitute anymore, do you? You just want to be a regular person."
"You know nothing!" Dvorak pointed his phone at Tama, intending to eliminate him, but the boy was quicker. He, instead, disappeared out of thin air. How had he done that?
Dvorak was furious now. He hated playing games. He was the substitute, and he made the rules.
He instead pointed his phone at the building below him and executed the command. Within three and a half seconds -- the normal execution time -- the entire building and its inhabitants had been transported to limbo. Dvorak landed on the ground. Stupid Matsumoto Tamasine, getting in his way. It was over now, though -- the guardian was in limbo.
Or so he thought.
Tama and Erika reappeared on the other side of town, diverted to the high school by the coordinates Canberra had sent before. "That was close," Tama said as he put Erika down -- he had been carrying her so the program could work.
Erika let herself collapse once her feet reached the ground. “Where are we?”
“The high school. The town hall -- Dvorak just made it disappear.” Tama gritted his teeth. Jen had activated some of his code, but he, Rhiannon, Rikimo, and Rifka were now gone. It was just the two of them. Why couldn’t he make Dvorak see?
“Are we safe?”
He turned back to her. “Call back your cards. It’s too dangerous right now. We need to plan better.”
Erika nodded and waved her hand; like magic, the cards returned to her hand. She paused to take a deep breath and realized she was still shaking. She had been safe. Had. “Now what?”
Tama tried to keep his own cool. "We need to get you into limbo, but without Dvorak. People can only come out of limbo when somebody goes in -- and not one of us, either. It has to be somebody from your world. When you go in, you'll get everybody else -- Canberra and Rikimo and Rhiannon and all of your friends -- and then we'll make sure your world stays the same as it once was."
"And then...what about me?"
He tried not to ramble. "You'll simply rewrite yourself back into your world. When limbo closes, instead of disappearing or going to QWERTY, you'll go back home. Everything will be the same again."
Erika put a hand to her chest. “I don’t know if I can handle this. I feel really tight.”
“You’re probably stressed out.” Tama put his hands on Erika’s shoulders. “You’re going to be okay. Just stay with me, okay?”
Erika looked into Tama’s eyes and found the strength to nod. “As long as this nightmare will be over soon.”
“It will be. I promise.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Within seconds, Dvorak was standing behind them. “Don’t make any rash movements. I’d like to propose a deal.”