Hello, dear readers. Happy Saturday. Today we re-join Ansel’s story, and she’s tired of the entire world–all of them, in fact. So tired that she’s done dealing with everyone. Instead, she’s making her way out to the wilderness where she hopes to live in peace. Read on today and throughout the rest of the series to see how that decision turns out for her.
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That’s all for today, dear readers. Enjoy the chapter, and see you next time.
The elevator doors slid closed behind her and she heaved a big sigh of relief. Finally. Without her mother and father she was alone in the world—in the worlds even—and it was about time she started acting that way.
She took a deep breath of the fresh wilderness air. It was warm—still afternoon—with plenty of light left to guide her far, far away from that stupid elevator to a place where no one would be able to find her. She’d leave them all behind. They were no one to her now anyway.
Leaves crackled under her feet as she made her way, weaving through the trees. She took the path that Pidgeon and her always took when hunting. Sure, they would search that way first if they came looking for her, but she’d be long out of their range by that time. Hell, Pidgeon probably couldn’t even make it to the end of the game run by himself, and she didn’t expect Rosalind or the Scientist to exert any effort at all in looking for her, so it was a safe bet she could get away.
She huffed, hefting her rucksack up higher on her back and shaking her head as she hiked. Poor useless Pidgeon. He would find out just how useless he was to them soon enough. Too late, probably. He was always too trusting. The orphanage, Rosa and Anna, and now the Scientist and crew. Ansel had trusted Tom, sure, and even tried to give him a second chance, but three strikes were too many, even for her. No, it was high time she started learning to trust herself so she didn’t have to depend on anyone else for salvation. If anything, that was exactly what she was doing.
She smiled, a new spring in her step. The day seemed to brighten, whether from a moving cloud or her new sense of resolve, it didn’t matter. The world was wide open before her now, and she was free to do whatever she pleased with it. So she was going to do just that.
In the short interlude between meeting the Scientist and leaving her, Ansel and Pidgeon had spent most of their time out in the wilderness, hunting. For Pidgeon, at least, it was just that, but for Ansel it had also been reconnaissance. Every time they went out there, she kept her eye on the mountain that towered over them—the same mountain which made the focal point of the Scientist’s office window. This time, again, her eye was on that mountain because this time she was finally going to get the chance to climb it and see what was on the other side.
Her hike took her to the base of the mountain before she reached the end of the game trail. By this time in their previous journeys, Pidgeon would always be too hungry or tired to continue on, and they would inevitably turn back to go order something from the printer for him to gnaw on. Not this time, though. This time there was no Pidgeon to hold her back. Ansel’s stomach was full and her feet were rested, and there was no turning back ever again.
The mountain was more of a hill from up close, as long as Ansel climbed it from the right angle. The face that was pointed toward the office window—and which seemed to be the mountain in its entirety—was a sheer, jagged cliff which would have required some sort of tools to climb, but Ansel hiked far enough around the edge of the thing to where it could be climbed on two feet instead of resorting to hands and knees.
The grade of the incline increased the higher she got, nonetheless, and slowly the trees disappeared as the grass gave way to gravel. It wasn’t until about halfway up the mountain—maybe an hour and a half into hiking—that Ansel finally took a break, slouching down in a handy patch of grass that was hidden under a tall pine tree.
She took a few deep breaths and searched through her rucksack. There was the canned food, and the tent or whatever Rosalind had given her, but only one bottle of water. How could Ansel be so careless? She was still living with the mindset of a Street kid and she wasn’t even on the Belt anymore. Fresh delicious meat was plentiful out here, but the only water she knew of was the pond she was leaving further behind with every step. She took a small sip from her bottle then closed the cap tight. She probably wouldn’t find any other sources of water until she started going back downhill, and she was determined to make it to the top of the mountain before dark. She would just have to ration her water until she could make it down the other side.
The air got thinner with the trees as she continued her ascent. She walked slower because of it. What seemed to her like halfway before looked so much further now. She seemed somehow thirstier because she knew she had less water. Still she trudged on, heavy foot after heavier foot, one at a time, up the mountain.
She collapsed when she reached the top and cursed herself when she dribbled some of her precious water out onto her chin. When she had gathered enough strength to finally stand, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The view was beautiful—no question—but oh so confusing to see.
She stood at the top of the mountain, a flattened plateau that was the perfect size for one person to stand on. On one side of her, the mountain dropped sheer down a cliff. This was the side that she was familiar with, the side she could see out the Scientist’s window. The other side, the unfamiliar side, looked more like a rolling hill that went down and down almost forever. If she faced straight ahead in the direction of the cliff face—looking, she thought, at where the Scientist’s window should be, though it or any other buildings were nowhere to be seen—there was another identical mountain, but this one as seen from the rolling hill side. If she turned directly around from there to look backwards, she saw again an identical mountain, but this time as viewed from the cliff side. Left and right? You guessed it. More identical mountains as seen from different perspectives. It was as if the whole world were made out of a pattern of the same mountain copied and pasted over and over again.
She sat there on the plateau peak, every now and then turning ninety degrees to stare at a different endless line of identical mountains, one infinite line of them going in every direction, until the sun went down, then she kept staring. Now, though, the black sky was patched with sparkly little white lights the likes of which she had never seen before. They kept distracting her from the endless mountains. The white spots were no more or less infinite or absurd than the mountains, but they were still somehow more novel to her.
What were they? Had they always been there, hiding in the almost dark? Why did they come out now when she was all alone?
She couldn’t take her eyes off them. They were endless, sure, but they were patterned. Here was a shape and there something different. And—wait—did they repeat just there?
But no. Of course they didn’t. It was just an illusion. She could find patterns anywhere, even in the leaves of trees. With such a large pool to select from, of course she would find patterns in these strange white sky lights. She had to get her mind off of them for long enough to start thinking about what really mattered, though: water.
Her mouth went dry again at the thought of it. She smacked her lips together and they stuck. She had to pry them apart with her too dry tongue. She sipped the last little bits of water out of her one bottle, savoring every drop, before she packed it empty into her rucksack and hefted the bag up over her shoulder. She took one long look at the blinking, twinkling sky before dropping her eyes to the horizon, back down the mountain. She knew where a spring was behind her—one that Pidgeon and her had been to plenty of times—but she wasn’t ready to go backwards just yet, even with her mouth as dry as it was, and she thought there had to be more than just one tiny spring to support all the animals and plants that were everywhere out there.
Her eyes spotted a small clearing in an extra green grove of trees in front of her and her feet took her toward it. The path was all downhill and the travelling was easier for that fact. The hardest part was making sure she didn’t get going too fast and end up tripping over a root or losing her sense of direction. The ground started flattening out before she finally stopped to catch her breath and regain her bearings.
She took a few deep breaths, smacking her dry lips, and her stomach started to grumble. Hunger would have to wait until she found water, though. It was no good trying to digest on a dry stomach. She looked up at the trees and they all looked just the same as every tree she had already passed. All of them looked the same. It was nothing like traveling around the Streets with signs every few blocks and gridded pathways. She thought she was on the way to the clearing she had seen on the mountain top, but for all she knew, she could be walking in circles right back to where she had started. The only way to find out was to go forward, though, and so she did.
Each step she took brought her more worry. She could feel the water evaporating from every cell in her body. This was how she was going to die, stupid and alone, with no water, lost in the middle of nowhere.
What did it matter anyway? The protectors had killed her mom for doing her job. They had killed her dad for trying to protect his own daughter—for trying to do their job for them. And now they might as well be killing her. If they hadn’t taken everything from her, she wouldn’t be alone in the woods, dehydrating. She wouldn—
Ansel’s left foot stepped lower than she had expected it to, splashing into knee deep water and sending the rest of her body tumbling in after. She came up for air, laughing and splashing, then brushed the wet hair out of her face, dunking her head under water and gulping in as much of it as her stomach could hold.
Now this was the life. She tossed her rucksack on the shore to dry then yanked off her shoes and tossed them next to it. The water wasn’t deep, but she could crawl around in it and pretend like she was swimming—not that she actually knew how to swim anyway. This little pond looked exactly like the waterhole she and Pidgeon always stopped at near the elevator, but there was no Pidgeon here to interrupt the silence for her. There was only her, the trees, and the twinkling dark sky for the rest of forever.
She almost wished she was still up on the mountain, staring at those bright lights—the foliage overhead was too thick to see through—but she was happy to have water, and she had plenty of time to climb every mountain in sight. She had plenty of time to do whatever she wanted to from now on. She’d stock up on water, maybe eat some beans and find a way to use the empty can as extra storage, then she’d be ready to climb the next mountain in her way.
But not right now. First she needed some rest. She crawled out of the calm pond and laid in the grass next to her rucksack, using her hands behind her head as a pillow. Tomorrow was a new day and there were endless tomorrows after that. Tonight it was time for sleep.
# # #
Ansel awoke with the first rays of sunlight. Even with all the noise she had made getting up, a big floppy-eared rat sat at the edge of the slowly rolling pond, sipping on the cool morning water. When Ansel remembered where she was and gathered herself, she jumped into hunter mode.
Every motion was performed without noise. Her muscles tightened. She slipped the sling out of her back pocket, fished a rock out of the pouch attached to her pants waist, and pulled the sling back, struggling a bit at first from the extra weight required by the new slingshot but soon holding her aim steady and on target.
The weird rat jumped, it’s flopping ears flapping, and it landed upside down, half in the water and half out, back leg twitching with the last pangs of life.
Ansel pulled the rat out of the water by its ears and laid it out next to her shoes to dry before going to collect sticks and twigs to start a fire. With the fire roaring, she set to skinning the rat with the knife Rosalind had given her. She didn’t see any use for all the other gadgets the thing came with, but the knife was worth having, especially without any other trash around to carve the rat with.
Ansel wondered at what exactly the animal could be as she removed it’s skin. She had never seen a rat with such long ears before. Maybe it wasn’t a rat at all. There were a lot of weird animals she had never seen before out in that wilderness with her. Hopefully they tasted as good as she already knew rats did.
This long-eared one did taste good, that was for sure. It was nothing like rat, sure, but more like a million times better. For starters, there was a lot more meat on this thing than there was on any of the rats that she had ever eaten. And secondly, all of this animal’s meat was made of pure, delicious muscle. She chewed it down greedily, stacking the picked clean bones in a neat little pile behind her, then took another swim in the cool pond before laying out to dry and decide on what she wanted to do next.
Next was another mountain and she knew it. The mountains were everything to her now. She had climbed over one and she would climb over the next and the next and the next until she was as far away from the Scientist and everyone else in the worlds as she could be, however far that was.
She strapped on her shoes and filled up the empty water bottle—she hadn’t opened a can yet so the bottle would have to do—then she dunked her head into the pond and drank as much as she could. When she felt like she was going to burst, she came up for a few breaths of air, then she dunked her head under again to drink some more.
She could hear the water swishing around in her stomach as she marched toward the next mountain, her rucksack on her back. She laughed and tried to skip along, but her stomach was too fat with liquid so she had to settle for a stroll, her mind set on the sheer cliff face of the next mountain in front of her.
The second climb didn’t seem to take as long as the first. Probably because she was getting better at climbing through practice, but she felt like it was because she had already taken this path before and her muscles knew what to do by instinct. She was at the top of the mountain by mid day and she wasn’t even thirsty—though her stomach did seem remarkably lighter to carry. She dropped her bag and stood at the summit, looking in all four directions at the world around her.
The mountains seemed equally endless from this new vantage point, forcing Ansel’s throat to fall down into her newly emptied stomach. It was hard before, but without the twinkling blackness to distract her, all she could see was endless blue sky laying atop an equally endless repetition of the same green mountain she was standing on. She peered out at one of them, trying to figure out what that small little dot atop it was, going so far even as to wave in the hopes of getting its attention, but there was no use, the next mountain was too far away to see, and whatever it was it was probably just a figment of her imagination, anyway. There was no way anyone was out there climbing mountains at the same time she was.
Ansel huffed and sat down, fishing the still full water bottle out of her rucksack. She took a small sip then closed it tight and put it back. By this point in time yesterday, the entire bottle was empty, but yesterday she hadn’t filled her stomach as full as it would go before setting off. She looked out toward the next valley in the line and thought she saw the same green clearing in the same place as the last one. Her next step would have to be finding another watering hole, anyway, so she started that way. Maybe if she could get down fast enough, she could get back up the next mountain by the time the sun went down and the sparkling lights in the sky came out.
Gravity took hold of her and Ansel ran with it, careening down the mountainside, becoming one with the universe. This was easy. This was fun. This was what she was supposed to be doing with her life, she could tell.
She wasn’t even out of breath when the ground levelled out. The sun was falling but still high in the sky. She jogged along, not even needing to look down at her feet to dodge the roots and rocks. Then she came upon the clearing.
She threw her rucksack on the ground and kicked the pyramid of rat bones, sending them sprawling into the slightly perturbed watering hole.
No no no.
She fell to the ground and slammed her fists on the soft grassy soil.
She gave up. She rolled over onto her back and sprawled out, stretching her body as far as it would go and screaming at the top of her lungs.
Of course. Of course. Of course.
No wonder Rosalind had let her go, no questions asked. No wonder there were so many mountains that all seemed to look exactly the same. No wonder she had no problem finding water even though she was on the other side of a mountain she had never climbed before.
Rosalind knew there was nowhere for Ansel to go. All the mountains were literally the same. No matter which side of the mountain Ansel climbed up from, it didn’t matter. Water was forwards, backwards, left, and right. As long as she kept walking, she would hit it eventually. There was nothing more to this world than the one mountain and the one spring, repeating forever and ever, over and over again, so on and so on.
She sat up and held her knees between her arms, shaking her head.
That couldn’t be true. There had to be more. There was the sky, the twinkling night sky, something she had never seen before. There had to be more than that, too. She set her mind on seeing that sky and finding out what that more could possibly be.
First she refilled her water bottle and took a few more deep swigs from the spring. She wasn’t too worried about water now that she knew it was everywhere, but she wanted to have enough in her system to be able to spend the entire night on the mountain’s peak. She gathered some twigs and sticks, too, and tied them to her rucksack so she wouldn’t have to search for kindling at higher altitudes where the trees were more scarce. The sun was almost halfway down in the sky when she started out on her trek, but she didn’t care. She had climbed the same mountain so many times now she could probably do it blindfolded.
She went backwards this time, climbing it from the hill side because it seemed like a straighter shot. By the time she was at the top, the sun was long gone and the twinkling had started. Thankful to have the lighter, she started up a fire a little way down the hillside. That floppy eared rat she had eaten in the morning was big and meaty, but with all her climbing she was getting hungry so she opened a can of beans and fashioned a makeshift stand to hold it over the fire for her while she climbed back up to the mountain peak to sit with her knees hugged up close to her chest, staring at the twinkling sky.
She picked out the patterns she had found the night before and tried to find where they repeated themselves in the sky. She figured if the mountain and watering hole repeated themselves, why not the sky, too? And she wasn’t wrong about that.
Right there she could see it. The same five bright stars—which if you connected the dots, looked like they formed an animal with a big, long neck, laying on its side up in the sky—could be found in every direction. Lines and lines of the same pattern emanated from one center point where Ansel was standing at the top of the mountain.
She stared at the pattern with dropped jaw for she didn’t know how long. It seemed impossible. It was impossible. Of course it wasn’t actually impossible because she was experiencing it for herself, but it still seemed that way, like her eyes were playing tricks on her.
The mountains and twinkling monsters in the sky couldn’t really go on forever, though. They had to be the result of the same magic the Scientist used to create her window that looked out onto the mountain Ansel was sitting on even though Ansel still had no idea where that window was. It had to be there somewhere, though, probably with Pidgeon staring out of it while he ate something from the printer.
Ansel scoffed, wondering if Pidgeon knew anything about what he was staring at. Maybe he already had everything figured out. Maybe he already knew that the world out here was nothing more than an illusion. Maybe he stayed back because he knew it was pointless, knew that Ansel would just have to return soon anyway.
She scoffed again. That was giving Pidgeon too much credit, though. He had stayed back because he was afraid, nothing more. It was obvious in the way he acted. And if he expected her to go back there any time soon, he was going to be sorely disappointed. That was for sure.
A scent of burning reminded Ansel of her beans, and she ended up having to gag them down, drinking too much of her water supply just so she could swallow. She chided herself for being careless as she ate. She was letting thoughts of the past distract her from the needs of the present, and if she wanted to find her way out of this rat trap, she was going to have to stay focused on the task at hand.
She stared at the twinkling black sky as she forced the burnt beans down her throat, trying to figure the universe out. How did the Scientist do it? The entire world was like a giant quilt, stitched together at the seams, but each end of the quilt was attached back to the opposite end of the same square, making one long continuous universe. Still, there had to be seams somewhere, didn’t there? Connections between the worlds?
The harder she stared the more certain she was that there were in fact seams and that she had found them. The fire had died down but there was still a lot of smoke, and without any wind that smoke went straight up and up and up, blocking her vision of the sky behind her. If she looked straight ahead, though, she could see as plain as day—or night, really, but the moon gave off so much light in the cloudless sky that it was plain nonetheless—the smoke rising from the hill side of the next mountain. Ansel would have been more upset to see it if she hadn’t already come to the realization that this was a patchwork, repetitive world, or if the smoke in that direction had risen high enough to block out her entire view of the twinkling night sky, but she had and it didn’t.
No, for some reason the smoke went up and up and up and then it just seemed to disappear. There was no wind to scatter it, not even that high up she was sure, and it didn’t seem to dissipate in the slightest before it vanished. There was just a thick black pillar of smoke blotting out a giant portion of the sky, then all of a sudden, it was cut off in a long, slightly curved line, revealing the clear, twinkling sky behind the smoke. It reminded her of something she had seen before but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She followed the arch of smoke down to where she imagined it would end on the ground, somewhere near the elevator by her eyeball estimate, and knew she had to go down there to investigate, but she hesitated. What did the smoke disappearing remind her of?
It hit her all at once. She had been in the Belt with Pidgeon, standing in the cat tree, and she looked up to find the clouds disappearing behind an invisibility cloak in the sky. Then she heard the gunshots—which she was only just realizing were probably the bullets that had killed her mother—and time flashed forward until Ansel was holding her father’s lifeless body in her arms. She wept until the sun came up then strapped her rucksack on her back. She was going to find the seams, wherever they were, and get as far away from this world as she could, or she was going to die trying.
She took the straightest path she could find to get back to the elevator, which meant climbing down the steep side of the mountain, but she was going downhill so it didn’t make much of a difference. Huffing and puffing and wishing she had stopped at the water hole to refill her now empty bottle before she went investigating, she found the elevator just as its doors slid open, forcing her to jump and hide in some bushes. She had no intention of going back to the stupid Scientist’s lair, and she didn’t care to talk to anyone that would come out of those doors, so she kept as still as possible, holding her breath as if she were hunting, and waited for whoever it was to go away.
It took a moment for Pidgeon to come stomping out of the elevator, announcing his presence to the entire wilderness. “I’ll be fine, okay,” she could hear him yelling. “I won’t go far. Don’t worry.”
At the sound of it, Ansel was happy to not have him along with her. Where she was going, it was no doubt more dangerous than this little patch of green, and Pidgeon wasn’t cut out for even the tiny amount of danger that could be found here. She stood as still as she could and listened to the sound of his crashing steps as they disappeared in the distance. When she was sure he was gone, she peeked her head out to get a second look then went to the elevator to inspect it.
The elevator had to be the key to the seams. Ansel slowly circled the wooden shack, touching every side through the thick vines growing all over it. That must be how the elevators worked, too. They could travel through the seams, from one quilt square to another, or something, but there had to be more to it than that. There had to be space for the elevators to travel through, right? There had to be something in between the worlds for the elevators to exist inside of.
Ansel must have circled the little shack ten times, lost in thought, searching for some way through without getting in, when she heard the approaching footsteps. She should have heard them sooner, they were so loud, but she was preoccupied. She only had time to duck behind the elevator’s shack and hope Pidgeon didn’t circle around it to find her.
The footsteps stopped a few feet from the elevator clearing. “Hello?” Pidgeon called, a hint of worry in his voice. “Ansel, is that you?”
Ansel held her breath, ducking down and putting her hands over her head as if that would hide her any more than she already was hidden. She was convinced she had already been seen, anyway, exactly what she didn’t need when she was so close to finding the seam she was searching for.
“Helloooo,” Pidgeon called again, and his voice hadn’t moved. He was still in the clearing. He hadn’t seen her at all.
“Well, anyway,” Pidgeon said, raising his voice. “If you are out there, Ansel, I really miss you. Okay. I wish I would have come with you, even if it is a stupid, dangerous idea, and I hope you’re not in trouble. You’ll always have me, Ansel. I’ll always be here for you when you need me. So… Well… Bye. Elevator open.”
The doors slid open and closed, and it was so loud that Ansel could hear it through the silence left in the wake of Pidgeon’s words. Did he really care about her as much as he said he did?
She shook herself out of it. No. He was lonely. A few old people and a cat could get boring quick, and Pidgeon just wanted someone his own age to play with. But Ansel didn’t play anymore. She lived in the real world, and she was going to find those seams so she could make it to a different one.
She circled the elevator shack a few more times, searching every square inch of vine-covered wood for some sign of anything, but there was nothing. It was a wooden building with metal doors and there was nothing else to it.
Ansel took off her rucksack and flung it behind her in despair, but the bag didn’t make a sound when it landed. She turned, and where the bag should have hit a huge oak tree and crashed to the ground there was nothing. Kneeling down and reaching closer to investigate, her hand disappeared in a straight line at the wrist.
She pulled it back as quickly as she could then fell to the grass laughing. It was just like Anna and Rosa’s door. She had found the seam. She gathered herself, took a deep breath, and plunged through the tree, only to crash into some person and fall to the floor on the other side.
“Who are you?” the formless mass demanded, standing fast.
“Who are you?” Ansel repeated back, up and ready to bolt herself.
And it took some time for either to answer.
# # #
And that’s it for today’s chapter, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to leave a review of the first two books in the series on my Amazon page here and don’t forget to subscribe to email newsletter right here. Until next time, enjoy your weekend.