Here’s Ellie’s third and final chapter for y’all to read today. I especially enjoyed writing the scene with everyone drinking around the table at the end. I hope y’all will enjoy reading it, too.
There are only two more weeks before you can read the entire novel here on the website, but you can still go to Amazon to order a copy before then. Either way, thanks for reading along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
She pounded her fists against the cold metal until her knuckles were bloody and numb. She flung her body at the door in vain and slouched down sobbing uncontrollably with her cheek on the rubber conveyor belt.
The door was closed. Her chance was gone. She had waited too long to bring her son to the beach, then she waited too long to live the experience for him. She failed again and again. He wasn’t even alive, and she continued to fail him.
She wept and wept with her cheeks on the belt before she remembered that she had already set some of the discs. She picked one out of the pouch and pressed the little red button to see how long she had left. Five minutes. Five minutes. Was it worth it to try to leave? What did she have to live for anymore? If she stayed here and held the disc tight, they would all think that she decided to stay on the beach. She would disappear from existence just like that, erased from memory. She almost felt calmed at the thought of it.
But she didn’t. She still hadn’t kept her promises. She could probably set more of the discs before she left. And if they could get her to the beach once, they could do it again. Couldn’t they? By that time she could do enough to pay for the privilege and not have to worry about making the same stupid mistake and missing her chance again. She had to do something. She couldn’t give up and wait for the explosion to erase her responsibility. That would be doing even more of a disservice to her son.
She opened her eyes and picked herself up to jump down off the conveyor belt. The disc said three minutes now. She peeled off the paper backing, stuck it to the screen which told her what particular piece of crap was supposed to come down the conveyor belt every day, the machine that guided her work, the robot who used her, and she sprinted out of the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building entirely, not stopping until she left the front door, and then only slowing to a fast walk—she didn’t really have time to act nonchalant. She was only half a block away from the building when she heard the explosion.
Her heart pounded at the sound, and her feet tingled. She could feel the ground moving beneath her, as if the whole world was shaking. She felt like she wanted to run, but she stopped herself. Then she wanted to look back. She stopped herself from looking at first, then thought it might be more suspicious not to look and decided to turn and see what she had done. An entire floor of the building—not as high as she thought it would be—was blown out, but the rest of it was still standing. There was a blasted-out gash, bleeding rubble, water, and electricity. Not as much damage as she had expected, she thought the whole building would come down, but she had left a mark at least.
She turned and hurried on her way toward the elevator to ride it to her bar. What else was there for her to do? She had just laid bombs in her workplace and blown it to smithereens. She had been to the beach and back in less than fifteen minutes. She had kept all her promises and broken all of them all at the same time. What was she to do but get a drink and enjoy the rest of Christmas?
The public elevator had no one. The street to the bar was empty. The bar was dark when she got there. It was closed. Of course it was closed. Even the bartender had a family to spend Christmas with. Even Gertrude. Everyone did. She kicked the door.
Stupid stupid stupid. She had drank her last beer and eaten her last egg before she went on her mission. She wasn’t supposed to be coming back. She should have been on the beach, figuring out how to make a fishing rod or a spear, but instead, she was standing in front of a closed bar with nowhere left to go.
Her hand flicked over the address card in her pocket. Well, almost nowhere. Gertrude had invited her over. She wanted to know all the details, Ellie was sure. She’d probably have a drink to share, and some food. It was Christmas after all. And it would be nice to tell someone about what had happened, to unburden some of it somehow. Though she wasn’t quite sure how much of it she wanted to tell. She pulled out the card and made her way to the nearest public elevator.
Gertrude’s street looked just like Ellie’s, though the buildings were different colors and in slightly different degrees of dilapidation. She held her breath as she pressed the buzzer next to Gertrude’s name: Trudy Weaver. It took a minute for a response to come, and Ellie was on the verge of leaving when a staticy voice said, “Yes? Um—ahem—Excuse me. Hello?”
“Um…Yeah,” Ellie said, leaning close to the intercom and talking too loudly. “I was looking for Gertrude.”
“Oh, Trudy, dear,” the voice said, apparently Gertrude’s. “Please. And this is she. May I ask who’s speaking? You sound like a robot.”
Ellie heard laughter from the background. “Oh—It’s uh…It’s Ellie,” she said. “Ellie McCannik. From QA.”
“Oh. Ellie, dear. Come on up. Up up up. Have a drink and tell us all about your day.”
Ellie felt like she was intruding on something. “No—I, uh,” she said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” But it was no use because the door had already buzzed open and the intercom link had popped shut.
The inside of Gertrude’s building looked exactly the same as the inside of Ellie’s building. Her room was at the top floor, much like Ellie’s was. When Ellie got there, she noted it was in the exact same place, too, though it was a different number, even instead of odd. She didn’t know if she should knock or walk in, and she still hadn’t decided when the door opened and Gertrude handed her a full glass of eggnog. “Merry Christmas, dear,” Getrude said, hugging her. “Drink this and have a seat. I’ll introduce you to everyone.”
The room was full of people, but Ellie could tell it was emptied of things to make space for them. There was no bed in sight, and from the looks of it, this was the only room there was. Instead of a bed, there was a foldable table in the middle of the room with three people sitting around it. Ellie didn’t recognize any of them, and she could tell by the arrangement that she was taking Gertrude’s seat. She couldn’t see any more chairs, either. She felt even more like she was intruding despite the full drink in her hand.
“Oh, no,” Ellie said. “I couldn’t. I just wanted to come—”
“Oh, no,” Gertrude said, guiding Ellie to the seat. “Nonsense, dear. Sit down. Drink.” She tilted Ellie’s glass to give her a good long swig. Ellie did feel better for it. “Now. This here pretty, young face you see is Aldo,” Gertrude said, pointing to a kid with disheveled hair sitting in the back corner of the small room. “Aldo, say hello to Ellie.”
He smiled, and blushed, and took a big drink out of his glass.
“Aldo’s shy but he has deft hands,” Gertrude said. “Nimble little fingers. He works on the discs for us.”
“Trudy!” Aldo gasped. “You’re not supposed to tell.”
“Quiet, dear,” Gertrude said, waving his concerns away. “Please. Ellie here just placed some of your discs in her QA hall. Didn’t you, Ellie?”
Ellie blushed, too. She agreed with Aldo. She didn’t really want Gertrude talking about what she had done in front of a bunch of strangers. “Uh…” she said. “Yeah, well—”
“She knows what discs are,” Gertrude went on, ignoring Ellie. “And she doesn’t know anything about you besides how cute you are. So what’s the harm?”
“Still,” Aldo huffed. “It’s not right.”
“Oh, lighten up, dear,” Gertrude said, smiling. “It’s Christmas, a time for celebration. Your discs went off with a bang.” She laughed.
One of the others at the table leaned in toward Ellie and said, “So you’ve joined the cause.”
Ellie didn’t know how to answer. She took a long sip of eggnog to buy time. Technically she didn’t choose to join the cause. It was just the only option she had left. So maybe she had joined the cause after all. Whatever. It was easier to nod along either way.
“Welcome,” the woman said without waiting for further answer. “I’m Vicki. This is Alena.” She pointed to the fourth person sitting at the table. “We’ve known Trudy since before she got promoted and moved to this high class place.” She smiled and winked at Gertrude who laughed.
“Oooh, dear,” Gertrude said. “A long time ago that was, too. These are my best friends, Ellie. They’re family. Vicki and Alena work down at a coal plant. They had a shift today, too. And they set their own discs.”
“Trudy!” Aldo complained again.
“Aldo!” Gertrude replied in a high-pitched, mocking tone. “I want Ellie to know that she’s one of us, that she’s put herself on the line but she’s not alone. You don’t expect her to tell us what she did without a little leverage of her own, do you? It’s four against one.”
“Yeah, well.” Aldo huffed. “She better not tell.”
“Of course she won’t,” Gertrude said, turning to Ellie. “Will you dear?”
Ellie shook her head. She didn’t know who she would tell.
“You see,” Gertrude said. “You have nothing to worry about, boy. No one does. It’s Christmas. The operation is underway. Our glasses are full, and we have good company. Now, where were we? Vic, you were telling us about how your shift went. Why don’t you go back a little in the story for Ellie’s sake.”
“Oh, no,” Ellie said, taking the drink she was sipping away from her mouth. “Don’t mind—”
“Oh, no,” Vicki said. “It’s no problem. So, like Trudy said, Alena and I work in the coal plants. Well, that used to mean shoveling and all that, but they mostly replaced shovelers with robots so we just stand around in the fumes in case anything goes wrong these days. Then maybe a bot malfunctions, you know, and we take over the shoveling until a new one gets there or whatever. That’s abou—”
“Is all that necessary?” Alena interrupted her.
“Uh, well. I don’t know,” Vicki said, shrugging. “I don’t know how much she wants to know. Anyway. We worked our shift, right. And at the end of it—just like the Scientist said—the bots all turned off at once.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. And we…Well, we were free to do what we had to do without interference.
“So we set the discs, and we got out of there, and we were waiting for the elevator to come when we heard them go off. And did they ever go of? Whoooeeee. I mean, we couldn’t stop to see the damage, you know, but from the sound of it, they won’t have any power from that plant anytime soon.”
Aldo smiled and sipped his beer.
“Brilliant,” Gertrude said, beaming. “Wonderful. Amazing.” She sounded tipsy. “You fill my heart with joy. Tis the best Christmas gift a girl could ever ask for.” She walked over and planted a big kiss on Aldo’s forehead.
“C’mon man,” he said, wiping it away in disgust.
“You blew up a power plant?” Ellie said. Everyone in the room looked at her, and she regretted opening her mouth.
“See!” Aldo said, as if she had already told someone about his involvement.
“Quiet, Aldo.” Gertrude said.
“Yes,” Vickie said. “We did. This particular plant powers most of Outland 1’s communication capabilities. Without it, their response to the rest of the operation will be crippled.”
“But can’t they just—I’m sorry.” Ellie shook her head. She had almost let her mouth run off on its own again.
“No,” Vickie said. “Go ahead. Your opinion’s valid.”
Ellie looked around at everyone else in the room. They all seemed to agree with Vickie, even Aldo, so she went on. “Well, I was just thinking…I mean, couldn’t they just reroute the power from somewhere else?”
“I…uh…” Vickie looked to Gertrude for an answer.
“Yes,” Gertrude said, frowning. “They could. And they will, dear.” She smiled. “Probably they already have. Ha ha! But it’s still not fast enough to catch us.” She laughed. “It’s not about shutting down their communications forever, you see. We only had to do it for long enough to get what we needed on the other side.”
“So what was it that I was doing then?” Ellie asked. “Blowing up the conveyor belts to their homes? What good is that?”
“No, dear. No.” Gertrude set her glass on the table and took Ellie’s face between both hands. “You were a redundancy,” she said, talking too close and jiggling Ellie’s face as she did. “Quality assurance. Each of your discs went out to a different part of the operation. You played an important role.”
“I—I didn’t set them all,” Ellie blurted out, pulling away from Gertrude’s embrace. She took a big swig of eggnog.
“Where are the rest?” Aldo said.
“Right here.” She tossed the pouch on the table and Aldo snatched it up. “I’m sorry.”
“No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head and waving it away. “No need to apologize. At least you came back. And you set some. There’ll be plenty more for you to do, if you’re up to it.”
“But I didn’t…” She shook her head.
“You did what any human would,” Alena said. “You did what you could. There’s no changing that now. All you can change is what you do in the future.”
“I did the same thing on my first go,” Vicki said. “She sent me undercover to a plant I had never been to and expected me to download files from the mainframe. Me. I asked her why she didn’t just do it herself. She’s connected to everything. She can change our elevator paths and our shifts and turn off the robots, why couldn’t she do something so simple as downloading a little bit of data for herself? But she just said she couldn’t do it, that I had to. So I went all the way into the control center of the plant, and I was going to download everything, but a cat jumped out—I shit you not, a cat—and it spooked me so much I had to get out of there.”
Alena laughed. “Scaredy cat,” she said.
“Hey,” Vicki said, raising her hands in defense. “If you were there, you would have run, too.”
“I downloaded my files,” Alena said with a grin.
“Yeah, well,” Vicki said, shaking her head and chuckling. “You didn’t get chased out before you could.”
“By a cat!” Alena laughed.
“You placed some, dear,” Gertrude said to Ellie. “That’s all that matters. You did your best and you’re back to try again. You did more than just set discs, though. Didn’t you? Tell us about that.”
“Oh, yeah. Well…” Ellie sipped her drink.
“Ellie works in QA,” Gertrude said to the group. They all looked at her like that meant something to them.
“Well, I got to see the beach,” Ellie said when the attention had grown to be too much.
“The beach?” Aldo said.
“The beach,” Alena said.
“Tell us, dear,” Gertrude said.
“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “It was—It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Have you ever gargled with salt water for a sore throat?”
“Imagine that smell all around you,” Ellie said, smiling at the memory. “Everywhere. And the faint hint of tuna dinner fresh out of the can. And that was just the smell!”
“I hate fish,” Alena said, crinkling up her nose like she could smell it then and there.
“But it wasn’t just that.” Ellie shook her head. “The sky was this endless deep blue with no clouds in sight. And it butted up against the endless deep blue of the ocean water. And while the sky seemed so far out of reach and aloof, the ocean just wanted to reach out at you again and again until you finally agreed to meet its wet touch.”
“Beautiful, dear.” Gertrude smiled.
“And the sand,” Ellie went on, unable to stop reminiscing. “Oh, the sand. It was amazing. I just want to bury my feet in it right now and feel the ocean breeze. It was like the biggest sandbox you had ever seen. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I was a child again for fifteen minutes.” She remembered Levi and finished her drink.
“Would you like some more eggnog, dear?” Gertrude said, already getting a pitcher out of the fridge. “In the Christmas spirit.” She poured some into Ellie’s glass.
“I went to the mountains,” Alena said. “I always thought they were the prettiest thing ever. I don’t know why.”
“Because they’re so big,” Vicki said. “And old. Bigger and older than anything we’ve ever built.”
“And they’ll be there longer, too,” Aldo added.
“Oh. Now, Aldo,” Gertrude said. “Don’t be so cynical at your young age.” She tossed a piece of ice at him. “We’ll be here for a good long time yet. Not us but us. You know what I mean.”
“You’ll be here longer than any of us,” Vicki said, laughing.
Aldo and Alena joined in, too. Ellie gave a little chuckle herself.
“I can only hope so, dears.” Trudy smiled. “I can only hope so.”
Ellie sipped the eggnog and it felt warm throughout her body. She looked around the room and actually enjoyed the faces she was surrounded by. It was a feeling she missed. She didn’t know these people, but she felt like she did. She felt like they knew her, too. Though not even Trudy did. But did any of that matter anymore? Did anyone know anyone? No. And these people were welcoming her into their family.
“You didn’t choose to stay in the mountains?” Ellie asked, a little embarrassed by the question. Of course Alena didn’t choose to stay in the mountains, otherwise she wouldn’t be there to answer the question.
“I wanted to stay,” Vicki said. “I had studied up on how to build shelter and hunt in the cold, and I knew we could make it out there on that beautiful mountainside. Alena, here, convinced me otherwise.”
“Just in time, too,” Alena said with a smile.
“Well, I couldn’t live without you,” Vicki said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “Could I? Not even out there.”
“How’d you convince her?” Aldo asked. “I think I’d stay if I ever got the chance to leave this shit hole.”
“Aldo!” Gertrude said, spitting up some eggnog.
“It’s true!” Aldo said.
“Honestly,” Alena said. “I’m not sure I have convinced her still to this day.”
“She stepped through the door,” Vicki said. “That’s all it took. All the freedom in the worlds wasn’t enough if she wasn’t there to share it with me.”
“And she still tries to convince me to go back every day.” Alena laughed.
“Well why don’t you want to leave?” Ellie asked.
“That’s a good question,” Alena said, looking into her drink and really thinking about what she wanted to say before answering. “And a difficult one to answer, I’d say. I know Trudy talks about morality and all that, but it’s something different for me. I would—I don’t know how to say this better—but I would feel guilty if I left, you know. Like I was taking advantage of others because they had been taken advantage of with me. If that makes any sense at all. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Besides, if we all leave when we get the chance to leave, then who’s going to fight for the people that never get a chance to? You know. I don’t know. I just—I would feel too guilty if I didn’t do everything I could to help. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been talking forever.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Someone else say something.”
Aldo scoffed. “They can fight for themselves,” he said. “We are.”
“Ha, child.” Trudy laughed. “What exactly do you think you’d be doing if we hadn’t come along and let you into the family, huh?”
Aldo sipped his drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Well, something. That’s for sure.”
“Something, dear?” Trudy laughed again. “You wouldn’t even know who to fight or that the other worlds existed. You’d be just as ignorant and helpless as everyone else.”
“I’m not ignorant!” Aldo slammed his glass on the table, spilling some eggnog. “Don’t call me that.”
“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, cleaning up the mess he had made. “We all are. It’s not an insult. It just means that you don’t know something. And none of us would know any of this if no one ever told us. That’s exactly why I choose to stay, Ellie, dear. I plan to tell as many people as I can before I die and get more people to stand up and fight with us.”
“Stand up and fight?” Aldo scoffed. “I’ve never heard of you doing any fighting.”
“Nor me you, dear,” Trudy said, smiling and whipping the wet rag playfully towards him. “But we all contribute to the struggle in the best way we can. For me it’s recruiting and communications, for you it’s tinkering with technology. They’re both as necessary as the other. They’re both vital to the struggle. You and I fight just the same as our friends here who go on the front lines and place your discs.”
“Well said.” Vickie raised her glass. “Well said. You do have a great gift for communication, Trudy.”
Everyone laughed. Ellie, too. She was feeling more comfortable the more eggnog she drank.
“We all know that,” Vickie went on. “But how great is Aldo’s gift at tinkering? Ellie, tell us, did you get to see the outcome of your disc placement?”
“Oh, well…” Ellie sipped her drink.
“You don’t have to tell us, dear,” Trudy said. “But it would be a Christmas gift to have some news of the operation.”
“Well…” Ellie said. “I didn’t place all of them, you know.”
“Yes,” Trudy said, ignoring him. “That’s fine, dear. But how close were you when the ones you did set went off? Did you hear them? Did you see any of the damage they created?”
“Oh. Well…” Ellie looked around the table at expectant eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of hard not to. The ground shook underneath me. It was like a small earthquake. And it was so loud I couldn’t hear for a minute afterward.”
“How close were you?” Vicki asked, leaning in closer.
“Maybe a block away,” Ellie said. “My ears are still ringing.” She stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it around to drive the point home.
“Did you see the damage?” Vicki asked.
“Yeah, well…” Ellie took a sip of her eggnog and glanced over at Aldo who seemed to tense up in anticipation of her answer. “There was a whole floor of the building gone, but the rest of it was still standing. It was like it had a huge wound on its side.”
“Is that right?” Vicki looked at Aldo.
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Where were you? The QA hall?”
“Well those were direct charges. Back up. Meant to take out specific targets and cause minimal collateral damage. If the building’s still standing, then it’s meant to be standing. Even if she set only one of those discs. I guarantee it.”
“That is right,” Vicki said. “Well done then.” She raised her glass. “To a successful operation.”
Everyone clanged their glasses over the table and took a big swig of whatever they were drinking.
“Now.” Vickie put an empty glass on the table. “If y’all don’t mind, I can’t speak for Alena here, but I’d like to get some rest after that long day of work—with overtime—so I’m going to bid my adieus.”
“Ugh.” Alena stood from her seat. “Me, too, Trudy,” she said. “But you know we love the drinks and company as always.”
“And you know you two are always welcome, dear,” Trudy said with a smile, setting her own glass on the table. “Just come ringing, and if I’m here, there’s something to drink.” She winked.
“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to get some more news,” Alena said. “Right?” She raised her eyebrows.
“I’m hoping as much as y’all are, dear,” Trudy said.
“Alright, girl,” Alena said. “See you then.” She hugged Trudy and waved to Aldo then turned to Ellie and said, “Nice to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”
“You, too.” Ellie said, holding out her hand, but Alena came in for a hug instead.
Vicki shook hands with Aldo and hugged Trudy then stopped in front of Ellie. “You did good today,” she said.
“I could have done better,” Ellie said, shaking her head.
“No.” Vicki shook her head. “You can always do better. But you did good. That’s what’s important. You got that?”
Ellie didn’t know how to respond.
“I look forward to working with you in the future,” Vicki said. She shook Ellie’s hand. “Bye y’all. See you tomorrow.” She waved to everyone as they left.
The door closed behind them, and Trudy finally took a seat. Ellie felt bad for forgetting that she was standing for all that time. She wanted to say something to make up for it, but nothing was sufficient.
“Well, dears,” Trudy said. “Another round of nog?”
“Nah,” Aldo said, standing. “I should get going, too. I have some more tinkering to do.”
“Good luck with that, dear,” Trudy said. “You’re one of the best.”
Aldo looked at her like he didn’t believe what she was saying. “Uh…thanks,” he said. “And nice to meet you.” He nodded at Ellie and slipped through the door.
Ellie sipped the last dregs of her eggnog. She set the empty glass on the table.
“Well, dear,” Trudy said, finishing her own glass and setting it on the table. “I guess you’ve got something important to get to yourself. Don’t let old Gertrude keep you from it. I understand.”
Ellie shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I’ve got nothing.”
“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Honestly. I’m fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. I don’t need your pity.”
“It’s not pity.”
“Oh. Sure…” Trudy gave a thumbs up, smiling and nodding. “Okay.”
“Trudy,” Ellie said, looking her in the eyes. “I honestly have nowhere else to be.”
“How kind.” Trudy winked.
“No. I mean…I tried to go to my bar before I came here. It was closed. That’s when I realized that the bar was all I had. But that’s not enough anymore. That’s why I came here in the first place.”
“So I was your second choice,” Trudy said with a smile as she went to the fridge to pour two new glasses of eggnog.
“Honestly.” Ellie sighed. “This entire place was my second choice.”
“I knew it!” Trudy said, almost spilling the drink she was pouring. “I knew it.
“You knew what?” Ellie asked, frowning.
“I knew something had to happen to keep you from placing all those discs. You had plenty of time if you chose to come back.”
“Yeah.” Ellie shook her head. “Well, maybe I didn’t choose to come back.”
“Maybe you did,” Trudy said, sipping her drink. “Maybe it was your subconscious choosing for you.”
“Maybe it was just a stupid mistake that I regret.”
“You know,” Trudy said. “I did the same thing.”
“I wanted to stay over there, but I didn’t make it back.”
“I thought you had never been across,” Ellie said.
“I thought you wanted to join the struggle.” Trudy smiled and sipped her drink.
Maybe Ellie didn’t know as much about Trudy as she thought she did. “So?” she said.
“So I didn’t make it back either,” Trudy said. “But when I started working with the struggle, I knew it was what was best for me. It was difficult, yes. It is still difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ellie hated her and loved her all at the same time for that. Trudy represented everything Ellie could become. She set a bar for Ellie to reach merely by existing. “You know, Trudy,” she said. “I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.”
“Me, too, dear.” Trudy smiled and nodded. “Me, too.”
# # #
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