Chapter 08: Haley

It’s a late one today, sorry about that, but here’s chapter eight with the return of our first named point of view character, Haley. Enjoy, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon through here.

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VIII. Haley

Rosalind disappeared out of the kitchen and into the sea of owners in the Feast Hall before Haley had time to respond. Haley had nothing to do, so she stood again watching the door Rosalind had long passed through.

What would her life be like if she didn’t work for Lord Walker? It probably wouldn’t be much different. She’d still be doing the same work—she didn’t know how to do anything else. Maybe she’d be doing it for someone different, but who? Who would need her skills who didn’t already have a secretary to do it for them? The answer, of course, was no one.

So how would she get her protein smoothies? Where would she spend her time if not in the kitchen, tending to Lord Walker’s every need? She could try to find some way to taste bacon, or discover where that cat always came from—ooooh—she could try to meet a child and ask them what it was like to be so small.

But how could she do any of that without a car? Where does bacon come from without a printer? How would she ever find a child to talk to? No. She needed Lord Walker’s printer, house, and car for everything she did. What would life be like if she didn’t work for him? It would be miserable. That’s what.

Haley set to making Lord Walker’s favorite dessert, a strawberry cheesecake with graham cracker crust, piled high with whipped cream. She felt that even thinking about life without him was a betrayal on her part, and she wanted to make up for it even if he never knew what she had done. She thought about all he had given her: A way to produce something for this world, three square smoothies a week, a roomy closet to sit in while there was no work to do. And what a joy that work was, to cook, clean, and labor in general. It made her feel like a productive member of society. Almost like the owners themselves.

The cake was mixed and set to cooking so she made another old fashioned and ordered up another round of potatoes, rolls, and gravy from the printer. She set it all on her cart and made one more old fashioned to add to the pile before pushing her way into the Feast Hall.

The meal was well under way for all the owners in attendance. Their chewing was so loud Haley could barely hear the symphony behind her, playing patriotic Christmas carols. Add to that their raucous loud drunkenness, and it was all but impossible to think. Lord Walker was still face deep in turkey, covered in gravy, and yelling at Mr. Loch next to him, all while laughing with his jolly, “Ho ho ho!” He didn’t even notice when Haley rolled up with the cart. Not until she started setting the extra rolls and potatoes on the table in front of him.

Ho ho ho! Haley, dear,” Lord Walker said. “How I adore you! Loch, eh. Loch Ness! There you are. Now do you see this?”

Mr. Loch looked up from his own mound of food and said, “What now?”

“I said do you see this, my giant serpentine monster of a friend? My comrade. Do you see how my Haley treats me? She adapts to my every changing whim and whimsy. She is the top of the line in robot technology and it is precisely because she is an older model than your new, clanky jalopy. Do you see what I mean? Ho ho ho!”

Mr. Loch rolled his eyes and set back to eating his food with a shrug and a non-committal, “Yeah, yeah.”

“Haley, sweetheart,” Lord Walker went on, louder now so more of the room could hear. Not everyone though, just the head table and those who were important enough to be close to them. “Don’t you mind Lochy monster over there. He hides it well, but from where I’m sitting I can see the green around his gills. Ho ho ho! But don’t you be fooled, dear. He—and everyone else here—wishes they could get their hands on you. You are the most experienced piece of machinery in existence, and as long as you keep on running, no other will be able to match your ability.”

Scattered applause broke out near the head table. Mr. Douglas, done with his small meal, stared intently at the symphony playing across the Hall—although Haley knew there was no way he could hear it if she was having such a hard time hearing it herself. Mr. Loch went on eating, and Lord Walker, proud of the reaction he had elicited, went on talking.

“See, dear,” he said to Haley. “Some are not so embarrassed as to hide their awe. They know that someone had to be the lucky first to reap the profits from discovering a new technology. Sure, they wish it was them, but they hope to make a similar discovery of their own in the future!”

At that the applause was louder and came from further back in the Hall. Lord Walker looked pleased and was about to go on, but Mr. Smörgåsbord grabbed his arm and whispered something about a speech in his ear. Lord Walker nodded, pushed him away, and yelled, “Well, enough speeching friends. Feasting comes first!” And instead of applause, he was greeted with the sound of smacking lips and clanging platinumware.

“Haley, dear,” he said, reaching a plump hand out to her. “That’s all to say that I love you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Now pour some more gravy on my feast. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, drenching his plate in gravy.

“Douglas McDougy!” Lord Walker yelled, though he had to know Mr. Douglas could hear him at a normal speaking volume. Mr. Douglas didn’t turn his attention away from the symphony. “Do you know your Rosalind is almost as precious as my Haley here? Almost.”

Mr. Douglas didn’t answer, but Rosalind stepped up from seemingly nowhere, poured a little water into Mr. Douglas’s glass, and said, “Mr. Douglas knows just how precious Haley is, Lord. Don’t you worry about that.”

Lord Walker almost choked on the gravy covered turkey in his mouth, but he managed to swallow it down before spitting out, “Oh, uh, yes, dear. Hello. I didn’t see you there. And if you’ll excuse me, I was speaking to your Mr. Douglas, not to you. You’d be right to remember that in the future.”

“The name’s Rosalind, Lord. Not dear. And Mr. Douglas will let me know if I’m overstepping my boundaries, Lord.”

Lord Walker looked at Mr. Douglas who kept watching the symphony with a straight face. Lord Walker couldn’t keep his face straight, though. He couldn’t hide his derision. “Yes, well…” he said in the self-conscious voice he used when he was unsure of his seat of power. “Then he knows that my Haley is more precious than you will ever be. Doesn’t he, sweetheart?”

Rosalind, sir. And I couldn’t agree more.” She walked away toward the kitchen, not waiting for a response.

“You see that, Haley,” Lord Walker said. “Even the other secretaries are jealous of you. Even they know you’re better than they’ll ever be. Ho ho ho!”

Haley blushed. She always did when he praised her like that—especially in front of so many people. She handed Lord Walker the pair of old fashioneds.

Ho ho ho! And how does she respond? With not one, but two of the drinks I was just desiring.” Lord Walker took a big gulp of both at once. “Made to perfection even before I knew I wanted them myself!”

“There’s a cheesecake on the way, too, sir,” Haley said, curtsying.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker flopped back into his chair which crumpled under his weight, but he didn’t notice because his pneumatic pants held him in a sitting position anyway. “It’s truly as if you read my mind. Go, dear. Go.” He waved her away. “You know what I want. Go and do it. Go!” He started back on his feast and Mr. Smörgåsbord whispered in his ear as he ate.

Haley could feel the eyes of every owner on her as she walked down the line of tables back to the kitchen. Some of them stopped eating to turn and watch her as she passed, licking their sausage fingers clean with loud smacks. They nudged each other and whispered secrets, and one stuck out his hand and slapped her butt as she walked by.

“Oh!” Haley turned to see who it was, holding a hand to her mouth. It was just another flabby face in the sea of owners. Someone with so little money that she didn’t even know his name. She did notice how far back in the hall he was, though. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I think I bumped into you.” She smiled and curtsied.

“No no, sweety.” The owner giggled, jiggling with his mirth. “T’was I who bumped into you. I apologize m’lady.” He licked his fingers, then wiped them on the tablecloth so he could tip his fedora—which was much shorter than Lord Walker’s top hat—and feign an overly dramatic bow.

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, turning to walk away, but he slapped her again. This time she kept walking, though. She knew it would be a waste to try to talk to him—he would just do the same thing when she walked away again—so she went on her way back to the kitchen.

Rosalind was there waiting for her when she arrived. “I would have punched that guy in the face,” she said.

“Lord Walker?”

“Well, yeah.” Rosalind laughed. “But no. The Fordian slapper.”

“Excuse me?”

“That fatty that slapped your ass,” Rosalind said, signing each word with her hands. “I would have punched him in his flabby face if he did that to me. I wanted to punch him when I saw him do it to you.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Rosalind smiled. “You don’t think so?”

Haley shook her head.

“And I bet you didn’t think I would talk to your brick wall like that, either. Did you?”

“Brick wall?”

“Wally World,” Rosalind said. “He is the Walrus. You know…Lord Walker”

Haley was surprised again by the way she spoke. Haley would never use such unproductive words or speak about an owner with such disregard. And the way she answered that question for Mr. Douglas. He didn’t even blink. “How does Mr. Douglas treat you?” Haley asked without a thought.

“Like a human,” Rosalind said. “Like a person should be treated. He’s not like the other owners, if you haven’t noticed.”

Haley pictured Mr. Douglas and smiled. “No. He isn’t.”

“You did notice, then.” Rosalind smiled. “I didn’t think you would catch on so quickly. No one else has caught on yet.”

“Really? Isn’t it obvious?”

“Obvious? Tuh.” Rosalind chuckled. “Now I see why they think you’re so special. But don’t forget your cheesecake. You don’t want to piss off the Walrus. I have a delivery to make myself, but I’ll explain more when I get back.” She slipped out into the Feast Hall.

Haley set to hand-whipping some cream, the old-fashioned way. She thought that Rosalind had to be exaggerating about her skills of perception. Anyone in their right mind could tell that Mr. Douglas was different from the other owners. You could literally see it. How noticing that made Haley special, she had no idea.

She piled the cream up on the cheesecake, wondering why Mr. Douglas ate so little compared to the other owners, wondering why Lord Walker and the other owners ate so much—and drank so much. She made him another pair of old fashioneds, it was getting along toward speech time and he would want something to calm his nerves, then set everything on the cart and pushed her way out into the Hall.

Lord Walker was huddled up with Misters Loch, Smörgåsbord, and Angrom at the head table. They were undoubtedly discussing the terms of the speech, or the plans for the special musical guest or celebrity supporter. There was always a line of gimmicks drawn up by the advertising departments to give the ceremony a little excitement. Haley made sure to walk out of reach of the handsy poorer owners in the back of the Hall, and as she did, she noted that Mr. Douglas was the only member of the Fortune 5 not in the huddle with Lord Walker. It was just another distinction between him and the other owners that she thought anyone could clearly see.

She set the cheesecake and drinks on the table behind Lord Walker, and he didn’t stop his conversation to acknowledge her. When she turned to push the cart back to the kitchen, Mr. Douglas grabbed her lightly by the wrist to stop her.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, curtsying.

He dropped her hand and whispered, “No, excuse me. I didn’t want Lord Walker to hear me hailing your attention.”

Haley didn’t respond. She wanted to walk away but couldn’t. She just stood there.

“I’d really like to talk to you, Haley,” Mr. Douglas whispered. “But I can’t here. Do you understand?”

Haley nodded.

“Rosalind will tell you when,” he said. “Now move along before we’re noticed.”

Haley pushed the cart back toward the kitchen. What was she doing? This wasn’t like her. She felt like she was betraying Lord Walker again. She was if she talked to Mr. Douglas without his knowing. Why else would Mr. Douglas be trying to talk to her alone? He probably wanted to get some information out of her in order to sabotage Lord Walker and finally become the richest owner in the world. And she was stupid enough to fall for it because he looked a little different than the other owners, because he had darker skin and a leaner, more modern frame. Well she wouldn’t let that fool her any longer. No. Maybe she would use it to fool them instead.

Yes, that was it. She would talk to Rosalind and meet with Mr. Douglas, but then she would use whatever information she gleaned from the interaction to improve Lord Walker’s net worth. Then she wouldn’t be betraying him, she would be producing for him, exactly what he had hired her to do.

She felt a slap on her butt and turned to see Rosalind swoop in and hit the fat owner who had done it on his head with her pitcher, sending his flabby cheeks jiggling. His upper body slumped backwards, but the pneumatic pants he was wearing caught him and pulled him upright, flipping his chair out behind him and tipping most of the contents of the table he was sitting at onto the tablecloth.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rosalind said. “I’m so clumsy. I didn’t—”

The symphony didn’t stop, and most everyone kept on eating except for those near enough to have their feasts spilled who were yelling at Rosalind all at once. The slapper still stumbled around—dazed and possibly unconscious—thanks to his pneumatic pants.

“Yes, sirs. Yes, sirs. I’m sorry, sirs,” Rosalind said, curtsying and backing away toward the kitchen. “An honest accident, that’s all. Send your secretaries to me and I’ll make proper restitution. Excuse me.”

She disappeared into the kitchen and Haley hurried to follow her, leaving the dazed owner still stumbling around on his pneumatic legs.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Haley said when she burst through the door.

“I told you I would,” Rosalind said, shrugging with a big grin on her face.

“And you ruined their feast. How much do you think that will cost Mr. Douglas?”

“Worth it.” She smiled wider.

“I hope he thinks so.”

“I suspect he’ll be jealous that I got to hit one of them and he didn’t.”

Haley shook her head. She did not understand one thing about Rosalind or Mr. Douglas. She was fooling herself if she thought she did. Still, she had to try to do her duty to Lord Walker and get some sort of information out of them. “I don’t believe that,” she said.

“It doesn’t require your belief. I mean, you think you’d believe a little more after you saw what I just did, but I admire your skepticism.”

Haley felt like that implied she had something to be skeptical about. “Mr. Douglas said something to me while I was out there.”

“Yeah. Not much, probably. Send you to me, Rosalind will tell you what to do. Yadda yadda yadda.”

“Yes.” Haley nodded.

“Probably said he has to talk to you, he wants to meet with you in private, and that I’ll tell you where and when. Is that about right?”

“Yes.”

“And do you want to meet him?”

“That is why I’m asking.” Haley nodded.

“Are you sure, though? Meeting with a rival owner—you might say the rival—in secret. That’s something you want to do?”

Haley nodded.

“Even without Lord Walker knowing? You’re willing to make an independent decision to do something he might see as a betrayal.”

It was as if Rosalind had read her mind. Haley’s face flushed. She was going against Lord Walker’s wishes and Rosalind knew it. Rosalind made sure that Haley knew it, too. She wanted Haley to decide for herself, to be forced to make the initial betrayal which would open the door to further—more severe—transgressions, to open her brain to the possibility of going against Lord Walker. That’s why Rosalind first asked her what she thought her life would be like without Lord Walker. Rosalind couldn’t actually read her mind, she was trying to manipulate it. But meeting with Mr. Douglas wasn’t a betrayal if she did it to get information for Lord Walker. It was an independent act, sure, but it was still in his interests. If it wasn’t a transgression, it couldn’t be the initial transgression, and that gave her the upper hand in Rosalind’s attempts at manipulation. “Yes,” Haley said. “I do.”

Rosalind smiled again. “Good,” she said. “That’s all I needed to know. Mr. Douglas will be in the service parking garage after the guest speaker for second feast. You’ll take the kitchen exit and meet him there. Before then, you’ll print second feast for Lord Walker, full with dessert, and serve it to him as normal. While you’re meeting with Mr. Douglas, I’ll print third feast for Lord Walker. After—”

“Lord Walker prefers his—” Haley tried to say.

After you’re done with the meeting,” Rosalind went on, “you’ll come back and serve third feast, resuming your secretarial duties as normal. Do you understand?”

“Lord Walker prefers his food to be cooked by hand,” Haley said.

“I know Lord Walker’s preferences and will attend to them as necessary.”

Haley wasn’t convinced that Rosalind would take the same care that she would, but maybe she would still have time to cook everything for him before she went to meet with Mr. Douglas.

“Do you still want to do this, Haley?” Rosalind said. “It’s not too late for you to back out.”

If she didn’t have time to prepare third feast, she would be shirking her duties and betraying Lord Walker. But if she got valuable information which prevented Mr. Douglas from catching up with him, that would be worth something. Would it be worth enough to make up for the dereliction of duty that would be missing the preparation of third feast? What would Lord Walker do?

She wished she could ask his advice now, but she knew if she did, she would lose any chance of a meeting and any chance of getting the information she wanted. She had to rely on her experience of Lord Walker’s decisions to predict what he would have her do in the given situation. In fact, that was the very thing she did best. It was what she was hired to do. So by doing it she would be fulfilling her duties to Lord Walker, not betraying him. And she knew what he would tell her to do. She always did. He would tell her to do whatever she could to get a leg up on the competition, even if that meant having a meeting with the enemy without telling him. As long as she didn’t reveal anything valuable for them to use against Lord Walker, she was fulfilling her duty to him.

“Yes. I do,” she said.

“Okay,” Rosalind said. “Good. Then get to printing and don’t talk to me again until after the meeting. It’s already suspicious enough how much we’ve been interacting.”

“Ok—” Haley tried to say, but she didn’t finish because Rosalind was already gone.

She had wasted so much time, she had to print more than she would have liked. She felt like she was betraying Lord Walker already, but she soothed herself with the thought that it was only second feast and fourth feast could be the best feast she had ever cooked to make up for it. Not to mention the valuable information she would be getting from her meeting with Mr. Douglas. She steeled her mind with the thought of it and set to cooking two pots of mashed potatoes, two gallons of gravy, and two cheesecakes. The whipped cream and turkeys would have to be printed.

She set everything on the cart and pushed it out into the hall. The crowd was getting rowdy. The time between first and second feast was always a sketchy situation with everyone ready to eat more and already a little drunk. She made sure to hug the wall as she walked, but it didn’t matter because the owner who had slapped her was still dazed and not even eating. He was sitting now though, so he had that going for him. Haley was relieved to be there just as Lord Walker finished the last bits of his pumpkin pie—his own meeting must have taken some time.

“Haley, dear!” Lord Walker was relieved, too. “You are an angel. I’m stuck in a huddle with these three sweaty fools, and I turn around to see the leftovers and dessert of first feast to save me from their dullness. Ho ho ho!”

Haley nodded and curtsied. She felt odd. Like she was keeping a secret from him. She looked around, and Mr. Douglas was still watching the symphony, motionless as a statue. Rosalind was nowhere to be seen. Haley knew she was watching from somewhere, though, so she didn’t dare say anything to Lord Walker.

“And then here you are,” Lord Walker went on. “The first secretary to deliver second feast.” She was the first at the head table—not the first in all—but she didn’t mention that. “And only minutes before the second feast guest speaker. Just another example of your perfect timing and ability to predict my every need. Ho ho ho!”

Haley set the food in front of him and tried to bow out of the way, but he stopped her.

“Stay, sweetheart,” he said. “Stay. This guest—oh—you’ll want to see him. We own him now, so you’ll want to know what we’re working with. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, stepping back a few steps to stand behind the head table and stare across the long hall to where the symphony was still playing.

Lord Walker stood and called them to a halt. When he did, the entire Hall grew silent. There wasn’t even the sound of eating.

“Owners of Inland!” Lord Walker boomed over the room in his advertising voice. “Lend me your ears. Lend me your voices if you will. What are the tenets of Inland?”

“Property, profit, play!” came a chorus of baritone voices.

“Property, profit, play,” Lord Walker said. “Ho ho ho! Yes. And I think we’ll all show tonight that we uphold the third tenet. Am I right?” He held up his drink and the room toasted him. All except for Mr. Douglas. Which reminded Haley that she had to tell Rosalind to make old fashioneds for Lord Walker.

“And we all hold our sacred property on high or we wouldn’t have the money to afford to be here tonight,” Lord Walker said. “Would we?”

At that the mob erupted in laughter. Lord Walker was full of himself. He had the same look on his face as he did when he showed Haley his ad that morning.

“Now, some of us—” He picked up his cane and twirled it.  “Not to toot my own flute, but myself included—” The mob laughed again. “—know profits better than others. But I think we can all recognize a profit when we see one. This next gentleman—our celebrity guest speaker for second feast—I dare say that he is a profit. In fact, he’s a prophet of a new era in integrated advertising. Everyone give it up, if you will, for Russ Logo!”

The symphony played a fanfare, and a lime-green-suited, glittery form with tall, colorful hair and tall, colorful boots pranced out onto the stage. The crowd erupted in applause and whistles and whoops. The colorful person walked back and forth on the stage, waving and bending down to shake hands with the owners at the back of the room. When he was done, he stepped up onto a round platform that hovered over the long tables to the front of the Hall where the Fortune 5 could see him better. The applause died down, and Russ started to speak.

“Gentlemen,” he said, pausing there for a long time and looking into his hands. “Gentlemen and secretaries,” he went on. “Owners. Masters of Outland.”

Mr. Smörgåsbord shot Russ an angry look, and Mr. Loch choked on a piece of ham.

“In your hands is the fate of every living soul that inhabits Outland,” Russ said. “It is thanks to you that our 3D printers never run dry, and that we have the—” He half-coughed and half-choked down something in his throat. “And that we have the technology we need to live a life of leisure. It is thanks to you that anyone in existence has anything good that they have. You…You are producers. Everyone else…we are only consumers who live by your charity. Every year we in Outland elect a representative to try as they might to communicate our…our…gratitude for what you give us. Well maybe they made the wrong choice this year.”

There was a subdued laughter from the crowd, as if they weren’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke.

“Perhaps there is no right choice. Perhaps no one in Outland truly knows what we owe you. And if they did—if they really knew what it was that you owners provided for us—and what it means to every single resident of Outland—how could one person come here once a year and communicate that? How could that be enough?

“No. I don’t think that it is enough. I know that this is not enough. It’s not enough to show you what you deserve. For that we must live our gratitude. We must be our gratitude always. For that we must forever hold in our minds the knowledge of what you gave to us, and we must live every minute as if we intend to pay you back for your generosity. Your charity. Your…your…courage.”

He stopped to take a breath. Haley took the chance to scan the audience and noticed that no one in the room was eating. They were all staring up at Russ on his platform, the Fortune 5 included.

“But still,” Russ went on. “Even if we live our gratitude, you won’t ever see it. You’ll see the movies we make, and hear the songs we write, and your children will learn from the documentaries we create, but you will never see our gratitude. You will see the products of our gratitude, you will see the dollars and cents that our gratitude offers up for the grabbing.”

The crowd hooted and hollered, eating again and now firmly convinced that he was on their side.

“But you will not see the gratitude we so want to display. So maybe it is necessary for me to be here today. Even if it isn’t sufficient. Even though it is not sufficient. We have to do it anyway. We have to try. So…I’m here today to tell you…”

Almost no one in the room was listening anymore. They were all deep into second feast. They had their fourth and fifth round of drinks. Russ had already said what they wanted to hear and that’s all they cared about.

“To tell you that we will keep working and we won’t stop until you get what you deserve.”

The Fortune 5 clapped at his commencement, drawing the others in. Even Mr. Douglas clapped with them, an uncharacteristic show of emotion from him. The platform carried Russ backstage, behind the symphony which played a fanfare at his exit.

“Very good,” Lord Walker boomed over the feast, still clapping. “Very good. What did I tell you? A prophet of the new age.

“You know. Russ there—a good friend of mine, Russ.” Lord Walker winked and the applause grew louder. “Russ had a good point about gratuity. Gratuity. Think about the word. What does it mean to you? Charity. That’s what it means. Just that. Charity. And is that what we want to instill in the peoples of Outland? A reliance on charity?

“Who sets the example for the uninformed mob to conform to? Who do they look up to and pray to one day be? Who you ask? Us. The owners.

“If we request charity in exchange for charity, we continue the vicious cycle of dependence on charity. Russ said it himself, they can’t come up here once a year and express their charity. That simply isn’t enough. So, instead, I propose that we abolish this gratuitous practice of charity, we no longer succumb the residents of Outland to the shame and humility of crawling up here once a year on hands and knees, only to fail—Russ’s words, remember, not mine—at expressing their gratuity. Let us instead—as he suggested—experience their gratuity the old-fashioned way. Through their work. Through their creativity. For it is because of us that they have the privilege to be able to think and experience and create, so why shouldn’t it be us who reaps the benefits of those thoughts and experiments and creations?”

The room burst into applause.

“After all. We are producers. And a feast is a producers holiday. It is our lavish celebration and waste that is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and the reward of production. Abundance is Inland’s pride!”

Again there was a round of applause.

“So let us put these consumers out of our mind,” Lord Walker said. “And let us producers consume in peace, as is our right. Eat up owners! Ho ho ho.”

He was greeted again with the sound of eating. He smiled his look-at-my-commercial smile and looked back at Haley to wink, then sat down to start in on second feast himself.

Haley watched him for a minute, then looked over at an empty chair in the head table and remembered that she was supposed to be meeting with Mr. Douglas. She looked in on Lord Walker one more time to make sure he had enough food to put him through second feast, then set on her way toward the kitchen.

She always came into and left the Feast Hall with Lord Walker through the owner’s entrance, so she had never walked so far back into the kitchen. She felt conspicuous doing it, as if every secretary she passed noticed the oddity of her going so far in, but the service entrance was at the very back and that was the only way to get the information she wanted.

She was relieved to get into the lukewarm, stale air of the service parking garage. There were no more eyes to judge her. She took a deep breath and looked around. The garage was empty except for a handful of coupes similar to the one Lord Walker let her drive to the market. Mr. Douglas was nowhere in sight. He probably wasn’t coming at all. It was just another tactic, like getting her to let Rosalind prepare third feast.

Third feast! She remembered she hadn’t given Rosalind the special instructions on how Lord Walker preferred his food, so she turned to start back into the kitchen and do the job herself when Mr. Douglas appeared between her and the door without a word. She almost fell over when she ran into him.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, gathering herself. “I’m sorry.”

“No, Haley,” Mr. Douglas said, staring into her eyes. “I’m sorry.” He tipped his top hat.

Haley felt the pressure of him staring into her mind and thought she saw something she recognized behind his eyes. But what? It wasn’t Lord Walker’s eyes they reminded her of, so whose?

“Do you have any questions before we continue?” Mr. Douglas said.

Any questions? She had more questions than he could answer. So many that she couldn’t possibly choose one to ask without some knowledge of why she was there meeting with Lord Walker’s biggest competitor. “Why am I here?”

“That’s a long story,” Mr. Douglas said. “And a sufficient answer would take longer than we have now. We’re on a schedule, remember. Unhappily, it will have to suffice to say that you are here to receive an opportunity to find the answer to that question.”

“What opportunity?”

“That’s precisely why you’re here,” Mr. Douglas said. “To learn that opportunity. So, to start, let me ask you a question. Do you know who you work for?”

Haley chuckled. “Of course. Lord Walker.”

“And do you know what Lord Walker does?”

“Lord Walker produces. Just like you, sir.” Haley didn’t understand. She thought he was asking questions with obvious answers.

“But what does it mean to produce? You spend more time with Lord Walker than anyone in the worlds. You see how he spends his every waking moment. What is it that he actually does?”

Haley thought about it. Most of his time was spent in bed, eating and watching TV. He said he was working when the stock advice was on, but that usually only lasted through first breakfast before he asked her to change the channel. Then there were the business feasts. But those seemed more like feasts and less like business. What was she supposed to say? She didn’t sit at the table with him and watch his every move. She was in the kitchen, cooking. He could very well have been doing important work that she didn’t see. Then there was the stock trading. But she did most—well, all—of that. Besides that he filmed one or two commercials a year for the various elections and award cer—

“If it takes you so long to answer,” Mr. Douglas interrupted her train of thought, “it indicates he doesn’t do much.”

“I—But—”

“It’s okay,” Mr. Douglas cut her off. “You don’t have to answer that question. It was only necessary that you went through the thought processes produced by being asked it. Now, another question, do you know how a 3D printer works?”

Haley felt defensive. She didn’t know if he wanted an answer or if he was manipulating her again. She was hesitant to give him one.

“This one I would prefer you did answer,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.

“They rearrange atoms into the structure ordered by the operator.”

“Yes.” Mr. Douglas nodded. “That’s what you’re told. But what if I told you that was a lie? What if I told you that humans have no technology capable of rearranging atoms? What would you say if I told you that the printer in your kitchen works in the same way as the door of your garage?”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Of course you don’t,” Mr. Douglas said. “No one ever taught you how to. Your experience—as vast as it is—doesn’t allow for you to understand. But that’s the opportunity I’m offering you, Haley. Have you ever wondered how you drive out of the same garage and end up at different destinations all while going through the same door?”

Haley thought about it. She had never thought about it. She shook her head.

“One last question, then we really must get back to the feast. Do you want to know the answers to these questions?”

#     #     #

< VII. The Scientist             [Table of Contents]             IX. Ansel >

That’s it for chapter eight. Join us again next Saturday for chapter nine or skip the wait and order the full version of the novel on Amazon here.

Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings and 10 Tips for Writing

Today I’d like to discuss Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. Here she is in video formattalking about why we tell stories. She thinks it’s in human nature to do so, much like Dan Harmon did in an earlier tip post .

Moving on to a short story she wrote, Happy Endings, we’ll find again some of Atwood’s thoughts on storytelling. With the odd structure of this “story” she seems to be saying, “It’s not the end of a tale that matters but the meaty bits in the middle.” Right here you can find a decent, if short, analysis of the story to serve as a jumping off point for conversation.

And finally, it seems that every author has their own list–this one taken from the Guardian article here–so here’s Atwood’s. Enjoy:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Chapter 07: The Scientist

Here comes Saturday number eight with the introduction of the last point of view character, the Scientist. We’ll start off with an illustration of her then dive straight into the chapter. Enjoy, and if you do, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel, through Amazon here, in order to support my future writing endeavors.

The Scientist

< VI. Officer Pardy             [Table of Contents]             VIII. Haley >

VII. The Scientist

Every day the same. Every day different. The only constant is change. Reality was filled with just such contradictions.

She stood in front of the printer—as she did every meal—and imagined the people who grew, reared, and harvested, built the things to make possible, and sent along the food she was about to consume. She always ordered her meals as raw as they came so those people were forced to do as little of her work as possible. Her personal thrift was only a drop of water on the face of the sun, and she knew it, but it made her feel a little less responsible, a little less complicit, and it wasn’t anywhere near the end of her actions.

One egg, one piece of bread, two strips of bacon. She placed the same order she placed most mornings and it took no more than seconds before each item was in her hands and ready to be prepared. She had done this so many times before that her movements were instinctual. There was no thought in cracking the eggs, cooking everything all at once, and spreading the jam on the pan-fried toast just as the bacon was crisp to perfection. She woke up, and before she knew it, it was done. Just like that. As if she hadn’t woken up until breakfast was cooked and ready even though she was the one who prepared it herself. She was sleepcooking.

With the smell of bacon following her from the kitchen, she brought her breakfast back into her office to start on the day’s security checks. She set the plate in front of the keyboard and bank of monitors on the big oak desk—overlooked by a wall-sized window with a  view of a functioning assembly line—and slid into the fluffy, leather chair. She hit the spacebar to wake the computer, picked up her plate, leaned back in the chair, and started on breakfast while the machine warmed up.

The screen flashed “Good Morning” in pale green on a black background before it hummed away, getting down to business. She chewed her toast as the various checks were performed. First the top tier printers of Inland, those which were owned by the owners. They were the most important printers according to company protocol. Of course, being the property of the owners themselves, they were the newest model printers, and as such, the least likely to malfunction. Still, they were the “most important”, and they were to be fixed before any others. The computer went down the list marking every unit green for fully functional as expected.

Then came the printers in Outland 1. Being the center of the defense of property, liberty, and life, Outland 1’s printers were on a tier with the owners’ own. A few were slightly older models in comparison, but even those were from the previous year at the earliest, and all were highly unlikely to malfunction. The computer ran through these, and there was a minor plug in one of the printer streams, but a mechanic bot was already working on clearing it out, and the bot looked to have everything under control.

Then came the Walker-Haley fields. She always suggested that they run this check first, as it was the basis of the entire system and making changes here could affect the printers she had already inspected, but she wasn’t in charge, the owners were. They had the money. They owned the property. They decided that their printers, and their soldiers’ printers, were more important than their walls or her time. She had no choice but to comply, so she did. The computer went down every single Walker-Haley line, checking every square inch of field for proper wave function. There were more miles of Walker-Haley field lines to check than there were miles of roads at the height of the automobile era, and every morning she sat and watched the computer check every single one, inch by square inch.

The holes came next. You couldn’t separate the worlds like that without leaving connections. What would be the point? No, that’s where the holes came in. So many of them. Transport bays, elevator ports, printers, communication portals, heat transfer—to prevent weather aberrations which plagued early attempts—repair hatches, you name it. Those and the holes that formed from the natural wear and tear of the system, holes like the one that was flashing red on the screen to her left.

“Woah now,” she said, spinning in her chair to get a closer look. “Where are you?” She tapped off a few keystrokes. “Outland 2? That’s odd. Let me just…” She typed a few more strokes and touched the screen with her hand then clicked on the mouse. “Ah,” she said. “Well is that so?”

A video came up on her center monitor, surveillance footage from the area where the hole was. A college-aged woman in a black hoodie was talking to someone in the shadows, maybe an assembly line worker who had found a hole, they had been getting more restless in Outland 5. More than likely it was a Sixer, though, left there to rot in a sea of skyscrapers, fighting over the only strip of green. It was brilliant really how the owners handled that problem, and equally disgusting. Made all the worse by the fact that the Scientist was the one who mended the walls that propped their entire system up, by the fact that she had invented those walls without knowing how they would be used.

She let them talk a minute more, finishing her breakfast and cleaning the dishes, before she called the mechanic bot to fix the hole and set the emergency lights to flashing—which sent the conversants running in opposite directions. She watched the video until the bot got there and set to work, then she switched back to the maintenance scan and leaned back in her chair.

The computer started its check over again from the beginning. Exactly the inefficiency she had warned about, but money didn’t care. There was always more. Nothing had changed, so the computer skipped from Outland 1 to Outland 2 and on down the line. There were less and less printers to check as it went, but more and more of them had problems. She sent bots to those she could afford to, but it wasn’t many, and they were mostly in Outlands 3 and 4. Five would have to wait and 6 wasn’t supposed to have any printers. It was a complex job, managing which bots went where, but she had a sixth sense for the triage needs of the system, which was why they still had her doing it instead of a computer.

As she set to deciding who in Outland 3 would be least likely to complain about a short delay in delivery so she could send a few bots to 5, a black cat jumped onto her lap and meowed.

“Mr. Kitty,” she said, clicking a few more times before she looked down at him “Still in yellow I see. Are you sure you don’t want a change?”

He meowed again and jumped onto the keyboard to lick himself.

She scooped him up and brought him into the kitchen. “I know,” she said. “But I have work to do.” She scratched his head and put him on the counter, then thanked the people behind the printer for the cat food. Mr. Kitty ate it greedily as she went back into the office to work.

She really didn’t have much to do but watch the mechanic bots and computer do their jobs, so she leaned back in her chair to get comfortable. It was almost serene watching them fix her creation. Until she remembered how things used to be. She used to spend all her time working with her hands and her mind, creating new inventions that the world had never experienced before, putting machinery into configurations which had never been attempted. She was herself then. Even though she still worked for Wally World Llc, she felt as if she worked for herself.  If she had an idea she could follow it and see where it led her. She was free to work on the projects she thought were worth her time.

Then she had made the discovery. She created the Walker-Haley fields. The Walker-Haley fields led to “printers”—a masterstroke of advertising if there ever was one. Printers led to the creation of the Outlands. But still, even with all the work it took to build and maintain such a massive and complex system, still she found time to invent, she found time to create, and she came up with her third great invention, her masterpiece, the customizable, almost-human android with full AI capabilities. And when for the third time Lord Walker ripped her creation from her hands and claimed it as his own, she vowed that she would never invent for him again. But still he needed her to maintain his system, to keep up the status quo, and she needed his printers to reproduce herself. So there she sat, building up his walls for him, biding her time until she could finally tear them all down again.

She flipped the center monitor to a television station and let the repairs run on autopilot for a while. She cycled through the channels. She had access to all of them with her clearance level, and she liked to guess which Outland each show was broadcast to based on what it depicted and who was acting in it.

Protector dramas were almost exclusively for Outland 1. She wondered how many different departments and cities they could plaster onto the names of the “different” shows before the people there realized that they were all the same thing.

There were a few different stock analyzers—all giving mutually exclusive advice—and a few political journalists—all arguing for one of two mutually exclusive positions—obviously directed at Outland 2, but they broadcast all the way to Outland 4 and in between.

Outland 4 was bombarded with documentaries and scientific programming of various levels and branches of study.

Outland 3 had everything because they made everything, but she knew that they only watched the self-indulgent, talking head, who’s who in celebrity culture programming. That was the one thing that talked about what they all loved the most, themselves.

Outland 5’s programming was all about the glory of toil and working hard for the common good in the hopes that you would make it big and become a middle manager. She thought that some of those shows actually carried good messages, but the creators didn’t put any effort into entertaining, just educating. Then again, they didn’t have to entertain. That’s all there was to watch in Outland 5. The Fivers didn’t know any better, so they didn’t ask for any better, and no one was about to tell them otherwise. Well, almost no one.

She stopped flicking through the channels and checked on the repair work. Everything seemed to be in good order. It was about time for her lunch meeting so she set a few bots on standby for emergencies with the owners’ printers and left the rest running on autopilot. She went into the kitchen and Mr. Kitty was gone. She washed his dish, staring out the window above her sink at the line of assembly line workers slip, snap, clicking, and collected herself. She sighed, then went out through the small hall to the elevator and said, “Outland 5, please. Frenchmen entrance.”

She came out of the elevator into the sun between classic New Orleans buildings, the kind with short stoops, sweeping porches, and lots of balconies. She was surprised they were left in Outland 5 but assumed they were too structurally damaged to be worth repairing enough for transport. They were good enough for the Fivers, though.

She walked down a sidewalk that was ravaged by tree roots, climbing up and down the concrete hills. This elevator exit wasn’t the closest to where here meeting was, but she had some time to kill, and she enjoyed the walk. She went through Washington Square Park, down St. Claude, to St. Roch to find the sign she was looking for. It just said “Bar” on it. Nothing else.

The bar was so dark she couldn’t see until her eyes had adjusted. She took in the stale smoke and the sound of pool balls clacking before she saw anything that was going on. She went straight for the bar when she could see, ordered a beer without asking—the bartender knew what she wanted already—and went to the back corner booth to wait.

There were three people at the pool table, two at darts, the bartender, and her. A song she liked came on the jukebox, and she couldn’t help but think that she’d enjoy a game of pool herself, but there wasn’t time for that now. Maybe after everything was under way. That and maybe all the worlds would be put back together in one fell swoop.

She laughed out loud at herself, and no one even glanced in her direction. She laughed again because she could, and while she did, the door opened. A dirty-haired, ragged-clothed worker with dark skin walked in, her chest pushed out for everyone to see. The worker caught the Scientist’s eye and went to the bar to get a beer before sitting at the corner booth with her.

There was a silence. They sat studying each others faces, sipping their beers. The Scientist found it was best to let them talk first. Usually they’d tell her exactly what they were there for with the first words that came out of their mouth. So she learned to wait and to watch, and she already knew what to answer before the worker said, “Are you the—”

“The Scientist,” she said. “Yes, Ellie.”

They drank some more. She knew that Ellie wanted to say the right thing, and she was willing to give her the time she needed to figure out what that was.

“I heard you know what’s on the other side,” Ellie decided on.

“That’s true,” the Scientist said, nodding. “I could tell you how many other sides there are, too. But I don’t think that’s what you really want.”

“I’ll decide what I want. Thanks.” Ellie sipped her beer.

“That’s fair.” The Scientist sipped hers, all part of the game.

“What I mean is…You know where everything goes, right. You know who we make it for.”

“I do.”

“Who then?”

“It’s people who aren’t you,” the Scientist said, with a shrug.

“Tell me something I don’t know.” Ellie scoffed.

“What could I tell you about them that would satisfy you? They do less work than you do. Their work is easier, less soul crushing. They have better houses, bigger beds. Many of them own their own 3D printers, their own endless source of anything. And none of their children ever die in factory accidents. You can be sure of that.” She could tell she hit a nerve with that last one from the look on Ellie’s face.

“No,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “They wouldn’t. Would they?”

“No, Ellie. They wouldn’t. And they have property so they don’t have to. So what are you going to do about it now that you know?”

Ellie slammed her fist on the table. “Something, God dammit!” she yelled and still no one turned to look at them.

“I apologize.” The Scientist waved her hands. “I didn’t mean to imply that there was nothing you could do. I literally meant to ask what you specifically would do about it? I know what you want, Ellie. I want what you want. My interests are your interests. I have the privilege to live a life of pampered luxury with access to everything you would ever need to get what you want, to everything that keeps our society running. Don’t get me wrong, I too labor—nothing like you of course, but more than others—but you… I want to do everything I can to help you get what you want. So—if you will—tell me Ellie. You came here. You had no idea who I was. You have no idea who I am beyond the Scientist which means nothing to you. You took a risk coming because you wanted something. I want to know: What do you want?”

“I want to punish them,” Ellie said through gritted teeth. “The people who killed my son.”

“I’m not sure we can find one person and say that they were the one who killed your son.”

“Then I want to punish all of them.”

“It’s not just the people, though.” The Scientist shook her head. “The people are but the heads of a hydra. If you punish one, three will take their place, and those three will be worse than the first. Your son wasn’t killed by people, Ellie, he was killed by the system that puts those people in power. He was killed because he was forced to work in that factory, and he was forced to work in that factory because he lives in Outland 5.”

“I want it all to stop, then,” Ellie said, slamming her fist on the table.

“Do you know what that means, though? Do you know how big they are?”

“I don’t care how big they are! Do you know how big—how important to me—how huge my son wa—is?”

“Good, Ellie,” the Scientist said, nodding. “Good. I didn’t mean to rile you up, but I need you to know that this isn’t something you should undertake lightly. You’ll have to break the law to get what you want, and in doing so, you’ll be risking death or worse as punishment.”

Ellie nodded with a stern face. The Scientist smiled and took a sip of beer. Ellie looked surprised at the change in her demeanor and took a sip to cover it up.

“One more thing,” the Scientist said, still smiling and looking Ellie in the eyes. “Trudy. She’s the one who told you how to find me, right?”

Ellie had to think for a second before she connected Trudy to Gertrude and nodded. There was a hint of fear in her eyes, as if she thought she had done something wrong by giving Trudy away. Or maybe it was shame for revealing a secret.

“That one is a terrific judge of character,” the Scientist said. “And a dear friend of mine. We’ve been working together now ever since she got her promotion. She found me faster than any other, and she’s proven more valuable to our cause than anyone I’ve ever known. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Ellie nodded.

The Scientist laughed. “Oh, I’m sure you don’t. I’m sure I don’t understand what I’m saying half the time. But in time, it always reveals itself. Remember that and you’ll be just fine.” She took a big gulp of beer and finished her glass. “Let me get us a refill and we’ll talk about what you really want to talk about. After all, this is about you. Not me.” She swept off to the bar, leaving Ellie to think about what she had said while she ordered another round. When she sat back down, Ellie looked like she had something to say, so the Scientist took a sip and let her go ahead.

“Did you send that woman through the conveyor belt?” she asked.

“I don’t send anyone anywhere,” the Scientist said. “I force no one. I only give them the information they need to do what they want.”

“But you did talk to her.”

“I gave her some information. Yes. She wanted to meet a celebrity.”

“And you helped her do that?” Ellie scoffed

“Like I said,” the Scientist said, shrugging. “I’m privileged. I want to give back in any small way I can. I want what you want.”

Ellie took a drink of her beer. She didn’t seem to believe what the Scientist was saying.

“She came to me because she wanted to meet an actor,” the Scientist said. “I told her his name, and I directed her conveyor belt to where he was.”

“And that’s it? That was worth risking someone discovering that you had helped her.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Trudy is a fantastic judge of character. Did I mention that? No. I also told her that Russ—the actor she wanted to meet—thought that his clothes were created by androids. Having worked in costume construction before she got her promotion, she was devastated to know that he had no idea she had sewn most of his wardrobe while she was a tailor.”

“He really didn’t know?”

The Scientist shook her head.

“How? How could robots do what we do?”

“That’s the thing. Androids could do all the work that humans do, but humans are cheaper.”

“Then someone knows. They’re not all oblivious.”

“Yes,” the Scientist said, nodding. “But it’s such a small minority who benefits so much from it that they don’t care. In fact, they work as hard as they can to maintain the system as it stands.”

“And that’s why you helped her.” Ellie shook her head. “He’s a celebrity. He could—”

The Scientist nodded.

“What happened to her?”

The Scientist shook her head.

“What?” Ellie said. “Dead?”

“We think not. We hope not. Maybe. Maybe worse. You should know what you’re getting into. She would have stood a better chance if she could have waited, but she grew impatient. Now she’s nowhere to be found. In the end, though, it was her decision, and I can’t blame her for making it the way she did.”

“So if I wanted to go back right now and slip through the conveyor belt to meet a celebrity, you would let me.”

“I would advise against it.” The Scientist shook her head.

“But you would let me anyway,” Ellie said, pushing the point

“Whatever I could do to help you get what you want.” The Scientist shrugged.

“And why would you advise against it?”

“Well, in the near future we will be crossing en masse, and crossing for you would be safer because of it. The more people who go through at the same time, the less likely it is for each one to get caught.”

“Not a bad reason.” Ellie nodded, sipping her beer.

“We don’t know exactly when the operation will occur, though. Mary didn’t want to wait.”

“That was all she was supposed to do, though? Talk to an actor.”

“And tell him she created his clothes, not androids. If he knew, he might spread the word. He has the platform to spread it. He’s privileged in ways that even I am not.”

“Nothing else?” Ellie looked suspicious. Trudy knew how to pick the smart ones.

“A little something else. But its different for everyone, and there’s no requirement that the thing is done for you to get what you want.”

Ellie took a big gulp of her beer. She thought about what she had just heard, shook her head, and said, “And if I want to be put in a room alone with some of these people who know what they’re doing and do nothing to stop it?”

“I can get you close to them, but I can’t promise you’ll be alone. Not to mention I’m not sure that anything you could do alone with them would be of any use to getting real revenge.”

Ellie clenched her fists. She made as if to slam them on the table again but stopped herself. “Dammit. It’s so easy for them. Isn’t it?”

The Scientist nodded. She sipped her beer.

“What can I do, then?”

“What can you do?” the Scientist said. “You’re not personable. You’re no Trudy.”

Ellie laughed, shaking her head. “No. I’m not that.”

“You want to go across, don’t you? You want to see it.”

Ellie looked into her beer and nodded.

“You know, it’s not too different from here,” the Scientist said. “Though they do have all the great natural beauties. Oh, you should see the mountains.”

“Can I?”

“Yes. But you’d be doing them a favor. If you drop out, that’s one less person who knows what they’re doing wrong and wants to fight against it.”

Ellie shook her head, sipped her beer, and stared at it for a while. After a moment of silence she said, “You weren’t lying then.”

“I try not to.”

“Do you think there’s a way I can help? A way that I can get revenge?”

“I don’t think it will be easy, and I don’t know how long it will take, but I have a plan, and I know there’s a place for you in it.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes.”

“You’re in a position like our friend who wanted to meet Russ was,” the Scientist said. “Quality Assurance is the front line, it’s the perfect position for a revolutionary. I’m sure I can find something for you.”

“Revolutionary?” Ellie scoffed.

“You didn’t think it would take anything less to get what you want, did you? To get the revenge you deserve. To prevent them—or anyone for that matter—from doing to someone else what they’ve done to you and your family. You still have time to walk away if you’re not ready for this.”

Ellie took a long drink to resolve herself. “I said whatever it takes.”

“Good.” The Scientist smiled. “Then how do you feel about losing your job?”

Ellie had to think some more at that point. The Scientist knew it. That was the ultimate test of a worker’s commitment to the revolution, the threat of losing their livelihood. She liked to believe that she knew exactly what was going through Ellie’s mind at that moment. Ellie would be wondering how she would eat without her job, where she would live. Once a person got fired from a pity position they never got hired by anyone ever again. By that time they were too old, not valuable enough, their model was dated. But then she would remember why it was that she had come to this meeting in the first place, what she wanted. She’d remember the day they told her that her son had been killed. How they had waited until the shift was over when the accident had happened in the morning, and all because they didn’t want to risk losing productivity. How they had given her two days off then sent her to QA to do robot’s work. Then she’d remember her son, and the days her stomach roared with hunger because she only made enough to feed him. She’d remember all the blood, sweat, tears, and love she had invested in him, that she has nothing left to lose, that she had already lost everything a long time ago. And then she’d answer, imagining all the people who could lose everything just like her, lose everything for the same reasons, lose everything to the same people, and she’d know that they’re people she could help.

“Anything,” Ellie said.

“Good.” The Scientist smiled. “Very good. Well, dear. This is what you do.”

#     #     #

< VI. Officer Pardy             [Table of Contents]             VIII. Haley >

That’s all for chapter seven. I hope you enjoyed it. Come back next week to continue Haley’s–and the entire Infinite Limits universe’s–story, or click through here to order the full novel on Amazon.

Thanks again for all your support already. Have a great weekend.

Octavia E. Butler’s Reasons for Becoming an Author and 10 Quotes About Writing

You can find the source of today’s writing advice post right here. One thing to note before going on is that I’m not posting these to the blog here in the same order as I did to reddit, so you may see references to posts I haven’t made yet. Those links will just take you to an /r/writing self post and a glimpse of the future of this blog. No worries.

Anyway, here it is, Octavia Butler’s advice about writing:

Today I’d like to move to another of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler. As you might be able to tell by some of the other authors I’ve been choosing (Atwood , Le Guin , etc.), I’m a little biased toward speculative fiction, and in this video (which I found on Feministing here), Butler accurately explains a major reason why by explaining why she enjoys writing science fiction. To quote the linked video:

It’s a wonderful way to think about possibilities. It’s a wonderful way to explore exotic politics. It’s a wonderful–it’s a freedom. It’s a way of doing anything you want. There are all sorts of walls around other genres. Romances, mysteries, westerns. There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.

And if that wasn’t a good enough reason for you, you can check out this video snippet of a panel discussion filmed at UCLA in 2002 in which she discusses, among other things, how a bad movie encouraged her to get into science fiction.

Bringing us to her ten “tips” for writing, which in this case comes from the Aerogramme Writer’s Studio website where they’ve collected some inspiring Butler Quotes for us. Here are, I think, the more useful ones for writers:

  1. On Habit : “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
  2. On Science Fiction: “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
  3. On College: “I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me.”
  4. On Persistence: “You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”
  5. On Writers’ Workshops: “A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating. It’s so easy as a young writer to think you’re been very clear when in fact you haven’t.”
  6. On Being a Writer: “Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.”
  7. On Writing Everyday: “And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.”
  8. On Personal Experience: “I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.”
  9. On Research: “I talked to members of my family, and did some personal research that didn’t really have anything to do with the time and place I was writing about, but that gave me a feeling of the experience of being black in a time and place where it was very difficult to be black.”
  10. On Theory: “I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don’t worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It’s not very good for storytelling.”

There are a couple more quotes in there if you’re into Butler as much as I am, but I’m pretty sure these ones contain the only writing tips.

And in case you don’t try to avoid it, like Butler does, and want more theory, here’s a PDF by a couple of English professors in which they analyze and critically study the style and techniques of select Butler works. Enjoy until next time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Chapter 06: Officer Pardy

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

The mask of a protector.

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

VI. Officer Pardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hoo-ra!” a lone voice called.

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

“Hoo-ra!” the room sang in unison.

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

Hoo-ra!”

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

Rabbit swallowed loud enough for Officer Pardy to hear it.

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

“Hoo-ra!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbit nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I—uh—yes, sir.” Rabbit blushed.

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

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

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

“Sir, yes, sir,” Pardy said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, ma’am.”

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

“Ma’am,” Pardy said.

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

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

She coughed. “H—How—”

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

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

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

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

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

She said she had a daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“Sir, yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“I don’t follow, sir.”

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“Excuse me, sir.”

“Have you ever worn a dress?”

“No, sir.” He shook his head.

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

“No, sir.”

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

“No, sir.”

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

“I didn’t know, sir.”

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

“Yes, sir.” He nodded.

“What did she say?”

“She cursed, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh—er—Yes, sir,” Pardy said.

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

“Yes, sir.” He nodded.

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Pardy said. “A hero.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

#       #       #

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

Thanks again for joining us. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to purchase the full novel, in eBook or paper back format, just click through here to Amazon. And have a great weekend.

China Miéville on Novel Structure for Beginners

I spend a lot of time on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills (not writing yet, I’m afraid), and recently I’ve been posting the writing tips that helped get me started to the /r/writing subreddit. Starting today, and every Thursday until I run out of them, I’m going to share those writing tips here on the blog, as well.

You might recognize this first one from my personal note about The Asymptote’s Tail. I’m just going to go ahead and quote the self post directly from reddit, but you can find it here if you want to see the conversation it produced there. I hope it helps:

This was posted here more than a year ago by /u/toothsoup, but it helped me so much, I thought it deserved rehashing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. What follows is all from the linked post above:

I finally got around to transcribing an interview that Miéville gave at a writer’s festival earlier this year where he was talking about his new book (Railsea), writing comics, and his place in the fantastic genre. He also took questions from the crowd, and I found his answer to a rather broad question about structure really solid. It’s helped me out in how I’m thinking about structuring my first novel, so I thought I’d post it here in case it helps someone else.


I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen. The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Chapter 05: Ellie

Another week brings us another chapter with number five, Ellie, today, and again we have an illustration of the POV character. I hope you’ve been enjoying the story so far, and if you don’t want to wait to finish it, order a copy of the full novel right here.

Ellie McCannik

< IV. Mr. Kitty             [Table of Contents]             VI. Officer Pardy >

V. Ellie

There was a time in her life when Ellie thought that no job could be more boring than slip, snap, clicking. That was a long time ago, before the accident that took her son. They took care of an employee after an accident in the family like that. That was how she got her pity promotion.

She went from production to quality assurance. Where production was repetitive and tedious, quality assurance was random and exhausting. There would be long stretches in which she could only stare at an empty conveyor belt, sitting alone in her ten by ten cube, just one door and the conveyor belt spanning between dark metal hoods on either side of the room. Then, during the rushes, there would be a flurry of work as items sped in from one side of the conveyor belt, stopped for a moment, then sped out the other: four eggs, check, four strips of bacon, check, four pieces of bread, check, blueberry jam, check, tray with plate, platinumware—not silver apparently—and coffee mug, check, check, and check. Then a slight rest. Then eight eggs, check, eight strips of bacon, check, eight pieces of bread, check, and so on and so on. She felt as if she were feeding a beast that got hungrier and hungrier the more that it ate until it couldn’t hold anymore and its stomach exploded. Then the thing woke up and ate its own insides, which only served to make it hungrier and hungrier again until it went through the same process over and over.

There she sat in her tiny gray room, counting the time away, ensuring that each item on the conveyor belt matched the words on the little screen in front of her. They always matched. There was a little red button next to the screen that she was supposed to press if there was ever a mistake, but she had never had the opportunity to press it. There was never a mistake.

She spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if she did press it. Not out of the blue, of course—she would probably be fired for that, and there was no good reason to test the hypothesis—but what if it didn’t match for once? What if the screen said “pan” and out came a fully cooked chicken? She’d press the button, of course, but then what? Would the conveyor belt stop? Would an alarm sound and lights flash? Would whoever needed the pan go waiting? Where was the pan going anyway?

That was another thing she spent her time thinking about. Where did the conveyor belt go to and where did it come from?

A bell rang. The screen read sixteen hamburgers. Sixteen hamburgers came out with barely enough time for Ellie to count them before they zoomed on down the line and out of sight. Sixteen buns, check, sixteen potatoes, check

When the flood of work subsided she cleared her mind. She wondered again what the red button would do. Would it set off lights and sirens? Then she remembered she was on to wondering about the conveyor belt and went back to that.

It was strange, the conveyor belt. Impossible really. The “out” end went through the wall that Ellie had never seen the other side of, but the “in” end went straight through the same wall the door was on. Ellie had been on the other side of that wall, and she knew there was nowhere for anything to come from. The conveyor belt didn’t continue out into the hallway. It stopped right there at the wall. And there was no way it was coming from above, either. There were metal hoods covering the “in” and “out” ports, so no matter where she stood in the room she was unable to see where the things came from or where they went to, but when she stood up as tall as she could, she could see over the hoods to the other wall and knew that nothing was coming from up there.

The bell rang. Thirty two hamburgers, check, thirty two buns, check, thirty two potatoes, check. And so on and so on.

When it had all gone by and the work died down again, she wondered if the monster on the other side of the wall had finally burst. She squirmed in her chair, trying to lean over to see where the things came from, where they went to, but there was nothing, only darkness under the hoods. They came from nothing and went to nothing, stopping on the way so Ellie could make sure the correct goods got from here to nowhere.

She knew better than that, though. She might not know where they went—that much stuff all at once never ended up in the hands of anyone she knew—but she knew all too well where they came from. She had spent her time on the assembly line slip, snap, clicking away at who knows what, and everyone else she knew had spent their time on their own lines producing something else for someone none of them knew. Hell, she had paid the ultimate price for production, more expensive even than her own worn-out weary life, she had lost the new, endless life of her son, and as a reward, she got to sit in QA instead of work on the assembly line. Some reward!

Her heart beat faster at the injustice of it all. She wanted to break something, to take something, to get revenge somehow. She wanted to press the red button and see the look on their faces, see if they even had faces. She wanted to shut everything down, go out to the bar, and get stone cold drunk until she forgot who she was and thought the bar and the beer were all the world that existed, get drunk until she forgot the cost. But that wasn’t an option, that was death, and death wasn’t a choice. Her death wouldn’t bring her son back. It would only prevent her from getting revenge. The only recourse she had left was to wait, to bide her time until she could find an effective way to exact that revenge.

She checked the conveyor belt again. Still she couldn’t see anything. Right about then she would normally have another string of hamburgers and potatoes, but nothing came. The bubble must have burst early. The monster was full and her shift was almost over.

The time ticked by slower when the work didn’t come. She sat staring at the conveyor belt, going through the same cycle of thoughts over and over again: Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from. How could I let them know that I know? I need this job to exist, though. Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from…

Sometimes she’d linger on one bit a little longer than the others, but most of her time was spent thinking about her son and how nothing could ever make up for losing him. The seconds ticked by at a glacial pace whatever she had on her mind.

A bell rang. This one was slightly different in tone. She still looked to the screen first to see what was supposed to come through, but when she saw that it was empty, she jumped from her seat and rushed to the door.

Her hurried footsteps echoed through the concrete hall. She kept her eyes forward, intent on the destination in front of her. She could hear some small conversations going on around her, and she had to fight through clumps of traffic because of it, but she tried to ignore it all. She was leaving. It was about to be a long weekend. She didn’t have to hear their stupid gossiping for a full three days, and she was overjoyed at that fact. She couldn’t believe that she was feeling as much Christmas joy as she was without her son there to bring it out of her.

She choked back tears at the thought of him and set her mind again on the bar. The sun was low when she burst out of the glass doors of the factory lobby. Shadows from the tall buildings all around cut across her face as the air started to cool. She shook her body a little to warm it up, and was about to set off toward the elevator terminal when, from behind, she heard a gravelly old voice that grated at her insides. “Ellie! Ellie, dear!” it called. Ellie shuddered more at the sound of it than she did at the cold air.

“Ellie, wait up, dear,” the voice said. “Please. My old legs aren’t what they used to be.”

Ellie relented, stopping in her tracks but not turning to greet the woman. She knew who it was. She knew the old lady had gotten the same pity promotion that Ellie had gotten, only for Gertrude it had been many years since. Gertrude was promoted for losing a son and a husband. She, too, knew the real cost of production. That was a big part of the reason Ellie didn’t like her. Gertrude had been put through the same torture at the hands of production—more, considering it took her husband, too—and here she was with nothing to show for it but a prolonged lonely life. Deep down Ellie feared that Gertrude was some kind of omen revealing her own future self.

“Oh, dear,” Gertrude said, finally having caught up to Ellie who still wasn’t moving. “I’m sorry, honey. You’ll have to let me catch my breath.”

“Hello, Gertrude,” Ellie said with no inflection. She looked the old woman up and down, studying her crow’s-feet and sagging cheeks, her sagging everything. More than even behind the conveyor belt, Ellie wished that she was at the bar, deep in drink, instead of on this busy sidewalk.

“You know, dear—You know…” Gertrude looked suspiciously at the people walking around them, as if they might be eavesdropping on their conversation. She lowered her voice so none of them could hear. “You know, I heard a juicy little morsel of information today. Juicy juicy, sweetheart. You wouldn’t believe.”

Ellie rolled her mind’s eyes. “Oh yeah, Gertrude? Did Maci finally find out who the father of her baby is?”

“Trudy, dear. My friends call me Trudy. And, in fact—now that you mention it—there has been another possible father added to the list. He’s a nice young man, it seems—much nicer than any of the current frontrunners, that’s for sure—from what I’ve heard at least. My fingers are crossed for her that it’s this one and not one of those other two deviants. That’s all I know.”

“Well, Gertrude—er—Trudy,” Ellie said. “You’ll have to tell me all about it after the long weekend, huh? Right now I’m off to celebrate. Merry Christmas to you.” She started again toward the public elevator.

“Ellie, dear. Wait!” Gertrude grabbed her arm.

Ellie almost gasped in surprise. It wasn’t like Gertrude to be so forceful.

Ahem. Excuse me, dear,” Gertrude said. “I apologize. It’s just—I…” She looked around again at the people leaving work or going to it.

“What is it Ger—Trudy? Is something wrong?”

“I—uh—” Gertrude shrunk back into her old self. She seemed to age ten years with the bad posture. She looked frail and weak. Ellie almost pitied her. “Perhaps we could talk somewhere more…personal,” she said, looking around again, but still no one was paying attention to them.

Ellie didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to sit and listen to some pointless anecdote about the social life of someone she didn’t know or care the least bit about, and that was probably exactly the “juicy morsel” of information that Gertrude was so excited to share. But then there was something in the shrillness of her voice when she called for Ellie to wait, and it was strange to see her being so secretive with her gossip. Yes, usually she asked everyone she told not to tell a soul, but that was because she wanted the honor of telling as many people as she could herself. If anyone ever asked her about any piece of gossip, Gertrude would jump at the opportunity to share even the most personal of secrets, as long as it was her doing the sharing. This time, though, it was almost as if she was afraid that someone would find out what she knew. As if the secret was more important than the latest social gossip.

“I hear there’s an okay bar just down the street,” Ellie said. “Do you drink?”

Gertrude laughed a scratchy laugh. “The Water Cooler, dear?” she said, shaking her head. “Too many co-workers. I was thinking of something a little more…private.”

It must have been more than gossip if she didn’t want co-workers to hear it. Ellie was more curious than ever, but at the same time she was torn. She knew the perfect place to talk, where no co-worker would ever overhear them, a bar that no co-worker knew about, but that was exactly why she liked it. Everyone at the production plant and in a five mile radius would learn about it if Gertrude knew. But was that worth it for finding out what made the old lady so nervous to know and share?

“I might know a place,” Ellie said.

“Great, sweetheart,” Gertrude said with a smile. “It’s not too far is it?” She started toward the public elevator without waiting for an answer. “I’m not sure my old dogs can take it.”

“I said I might know,” Ellie said without moving. Gertrude stopped and turned back to her with a puppy dog look on her face. “But I wouldn’t want it getting around about this place. If you know what I mean.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Gertrude said. “You can trust dear old Trudy with that, you can.” She crossed her heart and spat on the ground. “If not me, then who can you trust? Huh?” She smiled wide as if she meant it.

“Like Maci and her potential fathers could trust you?” Ellie said. “Or Merl when he had his ED problems? Or Sally with her miscarriage? Maybe I can trust you like—”

“Now, now, child. Hold your tongue. None of those were secrets entrusted to me. They were all gossip floating in the air for anyone to catch and pass along. Secrets are different. Secrets I can keep.” She had a stern, serious look on her face as she said it, a look Ellie had never seen from her.

“But this will be a secret I entrust to you and you alone,” Ellie said.

“And I’ll keep it as well as I expect you to keep the secret I’m entrusting to you.”

Ellie looked her up and down one more time and nodded. “Let’s go, then,” she said. “I need a drink.”

The public elevator was crowded. It was always crowded. As they waited, the sun went further down, producing a cold breeze through the skyscrapers that towered over them. Gertrude took the chance to go over the finer points of Maci’s new baby daddy possibility while they waited. He loved reality TV and hated sports, which was so strange in a guy. He had a job in food production, so he made a good amount of tokens, but apparently he wasn’t very good looking. Although Gertrude thought that part shouldn’t matter. Then she admitted that it did matter. “Of course it does,” she said, winking at Ellie. “You’re lying if you say it doesn’t. But he’s an honest, productive worker, and that’s more important.”

When they were finally at the head of the line and the elevator doors slid open, Ellie was hit by the stale odor of urine. They stepped onto the elevator without acknowledging it, and Ellie said, “Elysian Fields.”

“So,” Gertrude said, as the elevator fell into motion. “Elysian Fields.” She tapped her nose with a finger.

“A secret you’re entrusted to keep,” Ellie reminded her.

Gertrude nodded and mimed a key locking her lips. Ellie suspected it might not have been a mistake to bring her along when Gertrude didn’t add another word for the entire walk from the elevator to the bar, down an alley a half a block away.

The air inside was stale with the scent of burnt tobacco and rank with the sour aroma of still fermenting yeast. Ellie took in a deep breath of it and her muscles relaxed. She walked straight up to the bar, sat at her regular seat on the far end, and ordered a beer, forgetting Gertrude who paused at the door to look at the place before walking cautiously over and taking the seat next to her. It didn’t take long because there was nothing more than a jukebox, pool table, dartboard, and a few booths to see.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” Gertrude said when the bartender brought Ellie’s drink.

“On my tab,” Ellie added, feeling guilty for not ordering one for her already.

Gertrude took in the place one more time. There was one other customer sitting at the opposite end of the bar, staring at the football game on the TV in front of him. “This is a nice place,” she said. “What did you say it was called again?’

“I didn’t.” Ellie took a drink of her beer. She remembered the long weekend and felt the Christmas spirit again, adding, “I mean, it doesn’t have a name. I just call it the bar because it’s the only one I ever go to. That’s why I wanted to keep it a secret.”

Gertrude nodded and locked her lips again. The bartender brought her beer, still frosty and wet from where the head had overflowed, and Gertrude looked at the glass as if it wasn’t clean. She picked it up anyway and took a tiny sip, then smiled and raised it when she saw that Ellie was watching.

“So,” Ellie said, taking a drink from her own glass. “You had something you wanted to tell me.”

Gertrude looked over at the other patron, still enraptured by the game on the TV, then leaned in close to Ellie. “Something you want to hear, dear,” she whispered. “This is one piece of information I’m not sure I want to share.” The door opened as she said it, and she jumped at the sound, looking around to see a few regulars who Ellie knew always came in to play pool. “Wanna take a booth?” Gertrude asked when she had gathered herself. “It should provide more privacy.”

Ellie nodded and led Gertrude to the back booth. She had to know what it was that made the old lady so jumpy. “So…” she said when they had both sat down.

“So,” Gertrude said. She looked behind Ellie at the people playing pool, the door, and the lone drinker, watching the game, before she continued. “How’s your new job treating you?”

“It’s paying for these drinks.” Ellie took a sip to drive the point home.

“Yes. It does pay, doesn’t it. If only it paid better.” Gertrude laughed.

“It can always pay better.”

“How true.” Gertrude nodded. “How true. I wonder, dear. Do you know where this bar gets their beer?”

Ellie shrugged. “Out of the tap. As long as I can drink it, what do I care where they get it?”

Hmmm. I guess you’re right.” Gertrude took a thoughtful sip of beer. “But you know where it comes from, don’t you?”

Ellie thought about her son, tightened her lips into a line, and nodded.

“Well, dear,” Gertrude said. “Do you ever wonder where it all goes?”

Ellie took a big gulp of beer. Getrude couldn’t have found that out. Could she? It did seem like a piece of knowledge that she would put more discretion into sharing. “Every day I sit behind the conveyor belt and ask myself that same question,” Ellie said.

“Yes, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “Yes. I think we all do. And not just in QA, either. Every one of us down here slip, snap, clicking, and growing food, and shipping this and that here, there, and everywhere. But still, with all these advancements in production, all these jumps in productivity, still not even the slightest percent of what we make ends up in our hands. No, it all just seems to…seems to…disappear. Poof!” She waved her hands as she said it and laughed, then perked up in silence and looked around the bar to see if her outburst had drawn the attention of any curious onlookers. When she was satisfied that it hadn’t, she leaned over the table close to Ellie and whispered, “I’m sorry, dear. I’ve been gossiping a long loooong time to get this piece of information.” She sipped her beer.

There was no doubt left in Ellie’s mind that this was actually something worth knowing, something beyond Gertrude’s usual workplace gossip. She took a big gulp of beer in anticipation and emptied her cup with it. “Wait,” she said, holding up a finger. “Wait. I know what this means, but wait. I need a beer to take it with. You want another one?”

“Of course, sweetheart.” Gertrude smiled. “Thank you. And, yes. I think a beer would help grease the gears, so to speak.”

Ellie went to order two more. She sat in the booth, handed Gertrude her beer, and took a swig of her own. “You said you know where it goes.”

“Oh, ho ho. No, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “No no no.” She looked around the bar and leaned in close. “If I knew that I wouldn’t be here to tell you. No. It’s not me. But…You work in QA. You know we’re on the last line of defense, we’re the last thing that each commodity sees before it goes on its way out into the wide world. You know all that already, right?”

Ellie nodded.

“Of course you do, dear,” Gertrude said. “We all know that down in QA. It’s our job to know it. But none of us knows where the commodities go. None of us who can talk about it, at least.” She grinned and took a sip of her beer. Here was the Gertrude Ellie knew: happy to lord her knowledge over the ignorant.

“How?” Ellie asked. She didn’t want to give Gertrude the satisfaction of asking what was already implied.

“How else, dear?” Gertrude said. “She went right down the conveyor belt like a Christmas turkey!” She had a big smile on her face when she said it.

Ellie almost choked on the beer she was drinking. She set it down and said, “No.” So many times she had thought that going through herself would be the only way to find out where everything went, but she never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to actually try it. She wondered what it felt like, what she—Ellie didn’t even care who she was—saw, what Gertrude knew about it and how.

“Yes,” Gertrude said with a smug grin, taking a sip of her beer.

Ellie waited a full minute, staring at the delight on Gertrude’s face from dangling the information in front of her, before she said, “Well…”

“Well, dear?” Gertrude said, prolonging her joy for as long as she could.

“What did she see?”

“Sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “I told you I wouldn’t be sitting here if I knew what she saw. You’re asking the wrong questions, dear.” She sounded like Ellie’s school teacher lecturing her on proper slip, snap, clicking technique and timing. They both used the same patronizing voice and had the same pompous look on their faces when they spoke.

Ellie thought about what to say next, about what the right question might be. Gertrude didn’t mind waiting. She was happy to hold out on her information for as long as she could. She was relishing it. “How did you find out?” Ellie finally asked, satisfied it was a pointed enough question.

“Ah, dear,” Gertrude said. “Now that’s a question worth asking. And for the first line of evidence I present to you the fact that she didn’t leave her hall with the rest of us at the end of shift on the day in question.”

Ellie knew there was more to come, but she humored the pause in Gertrude’s explanation with the hope that cooperating would speed the process along. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “She could have been sick and gone home early. That doesn’t prove she went through the conveyor belt.”

“True, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding solemnly. “True. But she also told me about her plans to go through.”

Ellie had more questions about that point, but she knew if she went off on a tangent now, they would never make it to the end of the explanation, so she held them for later. “Still,” she said instead. “She could have lied.”

“Also true,” Gertrude said, raising a finger. “But then why would the protectors have come and questioned everyone on our hall about her whereabouts?”

How was Ellie supposed to know that they did? She took a big gulp of beer. But that did seem to point to it being real. “But why’d she do it? What was her plan when she got through?”

“That, dear, I’m not entirely sure of,” Gertrude said. “She did mention to me that she planned on doing it, but that information came at great cost. As to what she planned on doing once she was through, that was too expensive to bear, even for me.”

“What’s on the other side?”

“Again. I couldn’t tell you if I knew.”

“Okay,” Ellie said, sighing. “So you’re telling me that she went through the conveyor belt and never came back, then the protectors came and questioned you about it.”

“I don’t know if she came back or not,” Gertrude said.

“What did the protectors say to you?”

“Like I said, they asked general questions. If we noticed any suspicious behavior, if we knew where she might be, things like that.”

“Just like that?” Ellie said. “Nothing else?”

“Just like that.” Gertrude nodded.

Ellie took a swig of beer, started her question, then took another drink. “What would it cost to know what she planned on doing?”

“Now that’s the question I’ve been waiting for all along, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “Are you sure you want to know the answer?”

Ellie nodded.

“She told me I’d have to commit to going through myself. Or at least, to doing something equally insane. She wasn’t specific, and she didn’t want to tell me about it at all, but that was the gist of it.”

Ellie thought about whether she would do it, about going through the unknown into a dark abyss. She wondered how it would feel, what she would find, and if she could bear to try. “You thought
that was too expensive?” she said.

“We’ve seen what it did to our poor friend—well, sort of,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “It cost her everything for all we know.”

“We haven’t seen, though,” Ellie said. “We’ve only assumed.”

“Well, I guess that’s true, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “But do you think the presence of the protectors indicates any other outcome?”

“Maybe they took her for what she did.”

“Then why would they ask if we knew where she might be? And what would they do with her if they did take her?”

“I—well…” Ellie didn’t know how to answer that.

Gertrude smiled and sipped up the last bit of her beer. “Would you like another, dear?”

Ellie nodded. She could use one to help process all this new information. Gertrude went off to order them.

What would she actually be risking by going through? She could die. It could be something impossible to live through. She had never seen a living thing come down the conveyor belt. But what cost was that? She had lost everything worth living for except her need to avenge that fact, and Gertrude was offering the only real piece of information concerning where the things that her son had died making went.

But then again this was really nothing. It was all hearsay and rumors and all from Gertrude the Gossip Queen. So some woman Ellie had never met said that she might want to go through the conveyor belt. Ellie herself had thought the same thing on many occasions but never mentioned it. If she had mentioned it to someone and happened to miss work for a couple of days, they would be saying the exact same things about her.

But then there were the protectors. They lent credence to the theory that this mystery woman had attempted to go through. But they also added an element of danger if Ellie decided to go through herself. She knew good and well that there were things worse than death—worse even than the helpless, alienated life she already lived—and if anyone could make those things a reality, it was the protectors.

Gertrude set the beer in front of Ellie before she sat down. She looked around the bar one more time for good measure, took a sip of her beer, smiled, and said, “So, dear. Do you think you’d be willing to pay the price?”

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< IV. Mr. Kitty             [Table of Contents]             VI. Officer Pardy >

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