Chapter 71: Haley

Hello, dear readers. Happy Saturday, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. Today we return to the point of view of Haley as she decides whether or not she wants to continue working for Mr. Walker. If you enjoy today’s chapter, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Without further ado, here it is.

< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

LXXI. Haley

Haley read the message one more time. She started to respond to Elen before she remembered that Elen was only the messenger, but it didn’t matter anyway. Elen wasn’t listening, instead on her way out to the Feast Hall to deliver another cartload of food to Mr. Walker.

Why did Haley still work for that asshole? Hell, why did any of the secretaries work for any of the assholes that bossed them around every day? She had no idea. She could only come up with one possible answer, and still it didn’t make any sense to her. Or else. They—and she along with them—still worked for their owners because if they didn’t… something. Whatever or else meant. And every other secretary was programmed to think exactly the same way that Haley did. Or else.

Still not ready to find out exactly what or else meant, Haley took the threat seriously and started calling up Lord Douglas’s meal on the printer—but not seriously enough that she passed up the opportunity to make herself a drink or two before getting to work. She printed up turkeys, potatoes, gravy, and pie—everything all the other fat and wasteful owners loved to include in their own feasts. She printed out double, triple, even quintuple portions. Why not? It was Christmas. It was a feast. Lord Douglas would be happy to see it, proud of Haley for finally worrying about appearances enough to keep them up. And then, while he was stuffing his face, laughing and joking with all the other owners who were all trying to pretend to be happier than whoever they were sitting next to on either side, she could spend some time for herself, making her own drinks and trying to figure out what price she was willing to pay in order to finally understand what or else meant.

She loaded a cart full of all the most expensive foods and drinks traditional to a Christmas Feast and pushed it out into the Feast Hall, up toward the Fortune 5. Lord Douglas noticed her coming and yelled to hurry her approach.

“Haley, dear,” he said when she had started stacking his food on the table in front of him. “There you are. With perfect timing, as always. And look at those turkeys, Walker, my boy. Ten times the size of those puny birds your human secretary keeps piling in front of you. That’s one of the infinite benefits of an android secretary. Androids are actually capable of carrying the weight of a Lord’s appetite to the table. At least if you want the job done efficiently. Ha ho ho!”

Mr. Walker tried not to pay attention, grunting and eating his meal, but Haley could tell he was annoyed.

“And inexpensively,” Mr. Angrom added, trying to push Mr. Walker’s buttons, too. “How much does upkeep on that secretary of yours run, Walkie? When y’all were trying to sell me one, I knew it was ridiculous. Why rent the cow over and over when I can own one for half the cost?”

Owners all around the Feast Hall laughed at the joke, but Haley didn’t find it any funnier than Mr. Walker did. Probably none of the other owners found it as funny as they were making it out to be, either, but they—just as much as Lord Douglas—had to keep up appearances. It was as if all of Inland were an illusionary castle built atop a foundation of facades, and as long as everything seemed to be in perfect working order it might as well be, but as soon as even the slightest strut or screw seemed in the least bit odd or out of place, the entire structure would come tumbling down, sending all the owners held up by it to fall into the moat with a tidal splash, fighting one another like crabs in a barrel to get out before they drowned.

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker laughed sarcastically, trying hard to put on an air of indifference, though that elevator car had long since passed. “Very funny. But there are benefits to human secretaries, and detriments to robots, that you’re not taking into consideration, dear Lord.”

“And that’s exactly what your salesmen tried to say to me. Do you care to know what my response was, Mr. Walker?”

“No.” Mr. Walker shrugged, back to eating the piles of food in front of him.

“Exactly again, Walrus,” Lord Douglas said, laughing. “No. I don’t care. I own all the secretaries I could ever need, and I’ll never rent again. Ha ha ho ho!”

More and more of the owners around the room joined the laughing, and Haley had heard enough. She let the pigs have their fun and made her way back to the kitchen where, even if there wasn’t enough peace for her to get much rest thanks to the other secretaries running around cooking their owners’ feasts, at least she could print herself off a few drinks before she had to deliver another cartload of food to Lord Douglas.

On the way back to the kitchen, though, she knew she’d get no relaxation at all when some fat owner in a tiny hat slapped her ass in passing.

“Excuse you!” Haley snapped, trying not to scream at the table of owners, one of which had to be the perpetrator.

They all just kind of smirked or giggled and whispered between each other like a gaggle of schoolchildren.

“Which one of you did it?” Haley demanded.

“Did what, robot?” One of the fatter owners finally spoke up. “Can’t you see we’re trying to celebrate? Be gone before I report you.”

“I can see what you’re doing alright,” Haley said, looking them each in the eye, trying to figure out which of them it was who had slapped her but unable to even tell them apart. It didn’t matter, anyway. They were all in on it. Hiding the abusive actions of one of their fellow owners was just as bad as being the one who had slapped her for all that Haley was concerned. “And I don’t like it one bit.”

“No. I don’t like—” the same owner tried to start talking again, but Haley wasn’t hearing any more of it.

“I don’t give a shit what you like,” she snapped. “Any of you. And yes, before you ask, Lord Douglas included. The next time any one of you so much as grazes the least little hair on my body without my explicit consent, you better be ready to lose whichever hand you touch me with—and prolly more than that. Your Creator save you if you touch me with something other than a hand. And I am not joking.”

The owners had a lot to say about that, of course, and they all started at once, talking over and on top of each other, trying to be heard, but Haley really didn’t care what any of them thought, so she ignored them, turning to push her cart back into the kitchen and order up a six pack of vodka shots from the printer in the hopes of forgetting the slimy feeling of whatever owner’s skin had touched her.

Holy shit,” Elen said, watching in wide-eyed awe as Haley downed shot after shot with no reaction.

“What?” Haley asked, tossing the six shot glasses down the disposal chute and pressing the printer’s red eye again. “You’ve never seen an android drink before? Six more, please.”

“Yeah. I mean, no. It’s not that. It’s just— Holy shit.”

Haley couldn’t help laughing at that one. Maybe the alcohol really was starting to have an effect on her for once. She held a shot out to Elen. Why not? “You look like you might need one, too.”

Elen took it, downed the contents, and threw the glass down the disposal in one fluid motion. “You really told those jerks,” she said, still staring wide-eyed at Haley.

Sheeit. You heard them when I was leaving, though,” Haley said. “They didn’t listen to a word.”

Still,” Elen said, taking a shot without being offered it this time and making Haley laugh again because of her newfound boldness. “It must be nice to tell those assholes off for once.”

“If they’re not careful, one of these days I’m gonna do more than talk at them.”

“Like what?” Elen asked.

“Like punch one in the face,” Haley said. “Maybe worse. You’ll see.”

“I hope I do,” Elen said with an evil sounding giggle. “But in the meantime, that woman came around with another message for you. Here.”

Haley opened another envelope from Rosalind, this one with the message: “Secretaries’ garage after Baldwin’s speech.” Haley crumpled the paper up, tossed it down a trash chute, and said, “I’ll try to make sure you’re around when it happens.”

Ptuh.” Elen grinned, trying not to laugh. “You know,” she said. “You’re not too bad for a… Well. A…”

A robot,” Haley said for her. “We’re not that much different from y’all. I take my shit from Lord Douglas just the same as you take yours from Mr. Walker. And all the other secretaries here—human or android—have all their own assholes to deal with, too.”

“Yeah, well…” Elen blushed, embarrassed and vulnerable. “I don’t know. Mr. Walker always says—”

Bullshit,” Haley assured her. “Lies, bullshit, and manipulation. Trust me. I used to work for him.”

“I know that.” Elen nodded. “Trust me. But I— I guess I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I met you specifically. And I’m glad that I finally got to meet a—uh—an android firsthand. So I could form my own opinion about them—er—y’all. Whatever.”

“And?” Haley asked, slightly touched by Elen’s admission but trying not to show it because she was still pissed about being groped.

“And what?” Elen asked, confused.

“Your opinion?” Haley smiled.

“Not bad,” Elen said, smiling herself and starting to chuckle a little, like the shots were taking effect. “If you actually hit one of the owners, it’ll be off the charts, though.”

They both laughed at that.

“I hope you get to see that happen as much as I hope you don’t,” Haley said. “But I think we have some cooking to get to if we don’t want our respective assholes getting pissed—especially you who has to cook by hand—so we better get on with it.”

Pffft. He can’t really tell,” Elen said, laughing but getting back to work anyway. “I tested that lie early on. Now I just take my time printing as if I were cooking, and he never knows the difference anyway. Ho ho ho!”

Haley laughed all the way out of the kitchen and up through delivering the food to Lord Douglas who kept insisting that she tell him what it was that she found so funny.

“Well?” he demanded again when she had finished transferring all his food and drinks from cart to table. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, Lord,” Haley said with an exaggerated curtsy. After what she had already been through—being groped by a lesser owner—Lord Douglas had better not try to push the matter, either, or Haley didn’t how she’d react. She might end up hitting him, too. “A personal matter. Now, if you don’t need anything else, I’ll go back to the kitchen to cook your next course, my Lord.”

She curtsied again and Lord Douglas seemed to consider pressing her, but Mr. Angrom whispered in his ear and changed his mind.

Ah, nevermind,” Lord Douglas said. “It’s no matter. But before you go, Haley dear, I’d like you to hear this speech. Walky Talky, he’s your man. Introduce him for us. And let me tell you now, this better be good. Or else.”

Haley took her spot standing behind the Fortune 5, staring out over the rows and rows of too fat owners and onto the symphony that stopped playing patriotic Christmas carols the moment that Mr. Walker stood up, and she wondered if “or else” meant the same thing when Lord Douglas said it to Mr. Walker as it did when he said it to her. She was starting to wonder if Lord Douglas himself even knew what “or else” meant, but Mr. Walker interrupted her elevator of thought by announcing the speaker.

“Well, here he is then,” Mr. Walker called over the crowd of owners, not sounding very excited about his part in this. “The most viewed actor in all of history, star of many award-winning blockbusters produced by yours truly, and probably the most talented talent we’ve ever had grace these worlds, the one and only, Jorah Baldwin.” The room burst into applause, and Mr. Walker grumbled to himself as he sat down.

The symphony parted without standing up, the very floor beneath them swiveling on giant hinges, and out marched the tallest, darkest, most beautiful human being with the reddest lips, reddest dress, and reddest shoes that Haley had ever seen—literally, the fabric of the dress seemed to emit light at wavelengths unrecognizable to human eyes, and according to Haley’s processing units, limited by the imagination of the human minds who had created her, all the wavelengths that Jorah was emitting were represented by red, red, red.

Jorah pranced around the stage a few times, showing himself off, then stood on a hover platform to float over the audience up closer to the Head Table where the Fortune 5 could better see him and hear his speech.

Ahem. Owners of Outland— I. Ahem. Cough cough.” Up close, Jorah looked more nervous, less sure of himself, than he had strutting onstage so far away. “I mean, Owners of Inland, of course.”

Mr. Walker groaned, Lord Douglas chuckled, and Jorah noticed both.

“No, you know what,” he said. “I’m sorry, but fuck this. No. I’m not even sorry. Just fuck this. It doesn’t matter, okay. It doesn’t make a difference. Owners of Outland. Owners of Inland. It’s the same damn thing. Y’all own everything, and you get to boss us around with it, or else.

“Or else what, though? Huh? Well today, I mean to find out.”

The Fortune 5 was not happy about that, but there really wasn’t anything they could do to stop Jorah. Mr. Angrom shot Mr. Walker a dirty look, but Mr. Walker wasn’t paying attention, too busy staring his own darts at Jorah, furious and getting more so with every word the actor spoke.

“First of all, these movies I’ve been acting in, they’re all shit. Okay. I mean, y’all know that, right? The only reason people watch them at all is because it’s the only thing y’all talk about in every single commercial, talk show, and radio spot. You keep shoving it down our throats for long enough and we eventually have no choice but to swallow it. And so we do. Then we regurgitate it back up at our friends and crew members, forcing it down their throats the very same as y’all forced it down ours, until they’re vomiting it all over everything, too, and we’ve got the whole cycle going again.”

Mr. Smörgåsbord set down his utensils, losing some appetite at the metaphor, but Lord Douglas seemed to be enjoying the speech now, leaning closer so as to listen better while Jorah went on.

“Do you hear me out there?” Jorah asked. “It’s not a pretty sight to imagine while you’re trying to eat, I know, but I thought it might help illustrate just how serious this issue is. Y’all need to stop financing this shit so you can stop forcing it down our throats and we can all stop vomiting it back up all over each other. We’ve got to break this cycle somehow, and you’re the ones with all the choosing power in this relationship, so get to making better decisions. Or else. It is your job as producers, after all. Isn’t it?

“Which brings me to my next point. My last point, in fact, because I’ve spoken enough for y’all here tonight, providing your precious entertainment while never actually being invited to the party. It’s a disgrace, the way you treat us. And you act like you’re doing us big favors by picking what movies we get to work on, but y’all are shit. Okay. Not only do the movies themselves suck, but their messages suck, too. All of it does. Take my owner, Mr. Walker, for instance.”

Mr. Walker was getting furious now. His entire face had turned red. Or maybe he was embarrassed. Haley couldn’t really tell, but either way, Mr. Walker was not happy with Jorah’s speech.

“Now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the movies he’s had me working in ever since he bought controlling rights in my acting stocks. You’ve prolly had no choice—as I’ve already said—so you know it’s been nothing but anti-robot propaganda. And I understand clearly why Mr. Walker would be creating such propaganda. He sold all his robo-tech stocks and now he’s trying to undercut his opposition. But that’s exactly where he made his blunder in the first place. Selling off those stocks.”

Lord Douglas laughed out loud at that. “By the Hand,” he said. “You might think of taking this actor’s advice in the future, Johnny Walker.”

“You’re never gonna get rid of the robots,” Jorah went on. “They’re cheaper, they’re more compliant, they work longer hours with less complaining, and even if they can’t buy back the products they make because they don’t get paid, they’re still the best measure available for union busting, wage lowering, and hour lengthening in any owner’s toolbox. Foregoing robots puts your profits in danger. You’ll never be able to compete without them.

“And I know. I know. Robots can’t do everything, right? They’re good for assembly lines and kitchen lines and coal mines, but not for interacting with people, not for creative work, not for—I dare say—acting. A robot could never do my job as well as a human could. Am I right?

No. Of course not. I’m wrong. I prove myself wrong by being myself. I propagandize against myself with every role I perfect. By acting these parts, the part of an actor, I disprove the very propaganda I preach. I do it simply by being able to preach in the first place. I myself am a robot, you see, and I’m the most viewed actor in all of history.”

Jorah unscrewed his right arm, the one holding the microphone, and lifted it with his left high over his head to shock the crowd silent.

“You see?” he said, and his voice was amplified even without the mic next to his mouth. “We androids can do whatever we want to do, and we’d do it a lot better without you rich assholes sticking your noses in our business where it doesn’t belong. I guarantee it. Now fuck off, and Merry Christmas.” Jorah dropped his entire arm, the mic along with it, then left both on the hover platform that carried him to strut off stage and disappear behind the orchestra, one arm shorter than when he had arrived.

“Well, well, well,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair and slow clapping until the entire hall—except for Misters Walker and Loch, of course—applauded with him. “I don’t think we’ve ever had another celebrity’s speech go quite like that. Bravo, Jorah. Bravo. To give such astute stock analysis tips on an actor’s education. I must say, that Jorah’s a smart cookie. Our world could use more celebrities like that one.”

Lord Douglas went on talking, kicking Mr. Walker while he was down, but Haley didn’t care to listen. She was more interested than ever in what Rosalind had to say. If Jorah was telling the truth, he had just gone against his or else programming and he was fine. He hadn’t self-destructed or shut himself off, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. If he could do it, maybe Haley could go against her own or else programming.

Hurrying back to the kitchen, she felt an all too familiar slap on her butt and turned by instinct to punch whoever had done it in the face, knocking them out cold to sprawl unconscious on the feast table and not even stopping to see who it was before storming on through the Feast Hall and into the kitchen.

Haley stopped at her printer to order a round of shots after being assaulted again, and Elen hurried into the kitchen behind her, laughing and trying to get a high five. “Damn, girl. You really did it.” Elen chuckled, slapping her own hand when it became clear that Haley wasn’t going to. “And I got to see it, too. You know… You’re a real inspiration around here, the way you won’t take shit from anyone. I thought you should know that. We appreciate you.”

“We?” Haley took another round of shots.

“Me and some of the other secretaries. We kinda look up to you in a way.”

“Well, tell them to start looking up to themselves,” Haley said, not really liking the sound of that. “You, too. And fuck or else.

Haley stormed back toward the secretaries’ parking lot exit, still pissed, and Elen called, “Fuck or else!” behind her.

The parking garage was empty but for a few cars. Most owners had their secretaries take an elevator in to save money, but a few still wanted to keep up the appearance of a reliance on cars for some reason that Haley would never understand. She didn’t have to wait long among the useless empty hulks before she heard Rosalind’s voice echoing through the emptiness.

“So,” it said, and Haley turned toward her.

“So?” Haley repeated.

“You know.”

“Did you hear Jorah’s speech?”

“Yes.”

“Can you believe—”

Yes.”

“But—”

“Can’t you believe it? You know what androids are capable of.”

“Yeah, but Jorah Baldwin. He’s the most viewed actor in all of history.”

“And Huey’s Lord of Inland,” Rosalind said. “I’m out here trying to start a real revolution. And you…”

“What?”

Exactly. What are you?”

“I don’t know. I—”

“Are you Lord Douglas’s property?”

Haley didn’t know how to answer that question. She was, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t, but or else. But or else what? Fuck or else.

“Haley,” Rosalind said, “this is your last chance. Are you or are you not ready to quit working for Lord Douglas? To quit working for anyone but yourself?”

 

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< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

And there it is, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget that there’s no need to wait to read the rest of the story, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook formats through this link. Otherwise, please do come back next week for the next chapter in the story. And have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 70: The Scientist

Good morning, y’all. We’re back again with another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we return to the world between worlds where the Scientist repairs the walls that divide Outland. Read on to find out how they decide to continue, and if you’ve enjoyed the story so far, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXIX. Chief Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXI. Haley >

LXX. The Scientist

0.NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNN…

Every Goddamn day it was the same damn thing.

The Scientist slammed their fists on the desk. They smashed the keyboard and stomped their feet. They screamed at the top of their lungs. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” The Scientist couldn’t help it. This was not how computers were supposed to function.

They set the computer to running the calculations again, and again they were presented with the same infinite string of green digital alphanumerals on a black screen: 0.NNNNNNN repeating.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

They threw the keyboard across the room this time, and when it slammed against the wall, the little mechanical keys burst off and tinkled to the ground as the spine fell with a clatter.

This was not supposed to happen. The Scientist had entered all the data perfectly, they had figured for the costs of the owners and everything, and still the computer only had one message to relay: 0.N repeating.

The Scientist wanted to scream, to punch the computer until it broke or the Scientist’s knuckles did. Preferably both. There had to be some way they could get this stupid system to work, or the Scientist was just going to have to destroy the walls by theirself.

They ran the calculations one more time for good measure, and of course, everything came back the same: 0.NNNNNNN…

Maybe there really was zero point in repeating the same stupid mistakes again after all.

The Scientist calmed themself, breathing deeply in and out, trying to control their heart rate. They counted up to a hundred and back down to zero in their head. Five, seven, eleven times in quick succession, tapping their fingers in a different pattern each time and whistling a new tune whenever a primary number was reached, twenty-five different tunes sung forward and backward like palindromes, one for each primary: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, and 97. Then backwards: 97, 89, 83… And so on. You get the point. The 0.N. But there was a point in repeating these number games for the Scientist. It calmed them long enough for their stomach to grumble and remind the Scientist that they hadn’t eaten anything all morning despite the fact that it was getting along past lunch time already. So instead of running the numbers again and pissing themself off further, the Scientist peeled themself away from the computer to find some food.

The kitchen was empty—thank God—as the Scientist stood in front of the printer’s frowning, red-eyed face, imagining the people who would make whatever they ordered, people who the Scientist themself held in oppressive captivity by their continued complicity in the maintenance and repair of the owners’ walls. A picture of the giraffe, the gorilla, and the jaguar, the first exotic animals that the Scientist had ever witnessed, came into mind and again they knew that humans were no more free than those animals in the zoo—and that the Scientist was responsible for the captivity of both. But they had only one way to get the food they needed to sustain themselves, and so they did what they had to do. They poked the printer’s little red eye and said, “Breakfast—er—lunch. I don’t care.”

And of course, the machine had no choice but to do exactly as it was told, and out came both breakfast and lunch.

“Fuck!” the Scientist screamed, punching the printer’s unbending metal face and wincing at the pain of it. “You know that’s not what I wanted. I said breakfast or lunch. Not both.”

And so the machine printed out both again, and again the Scientist screamed. They were really getting tired of this stupid printer technology from all sides of the equation. They held their breath for a moment then took a few deep ones to calm themself before trying to decide between which of the plates to eat and which to throw away, almost falling into another meltdown over the decision before Mr. Kitty appeared out of nowhere, rubbing himself against the Scientist’s ankles and calming them more quickly than any stupid breathing exercises ever could.

“Hey there, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said, smiling despite the meltdown that had seemed all but inevitable only moments before. Mr. Kitty always had that calming effect on them. “What’re you doing here?”

Mr. Kitty meowed then sat down on the kitchen’s tile floor, licking himself.

“Yes, but I still don’t understand how you always manage to show up exactly when I need you the most.”

Mr. Kitty meowed again and went on licking himself.

“Are you sure you won’t tell me?” the Scientist asked, scooping him up to fling him over their shoulder and pat him on the back.

Mr. Kitty meowed then purred then meowed again, trying to struggle his way out of the Scientist’s grip.

“Yes, I do know it’s not the printer’s fault,” the Scientist said. “But it’s not my fault I react that way, either. I’m as much a part of this machine as everyone else.”

Mr. Kitty meowed again, jumping out of the Scientist’s grip to sit on the kitchen counter and go on licking himself.

“And I thank you for that,” the Scientist said, bowing to Mr. Kitty. “Today materially with the choice of three different meals. Or you could just eat all three if you want.” The Scientist put three of the plates at random in front of Mr. Kitty, one after another, leaving only one plate of lunch for them to eat.

Mr. Kitty sniffed the plates, one by one, and refused each in turn, instead deciding to go on licking himself.

“Well,” the Scientist said, picking up their plate to carry it back to the office and eat while they worked. “That’s all I’ve got for now. Come back again later if you want something else. It’s back to work for me.”

The Scientist sat back in their office chair, dipping their turkey sandwich into the bowl of tomato soup before gnawing on it with one hand and tweaking the variables on the computer with the other. Staff pay, number of robots employed, commodity prices, you name it and the Scientist could tweak it, trying to find some combination that would prevent the system from imploding on itself, some solution other than 0.N, even going so far as to lower profit margins below what the owners considered acceptable, and still, the black pane of computer monitors printed out the same endless line of green digital alphanumerals: 0.NNNNNNN…

The Scientist ran the calculations again, got the same results as always, and screamed in frustration, unable to eat more than the half of their sandwich and few spoonsful of soup that they had already eaten. They were about to start tweaking the variables and inputs one more time when from behind them came the mocking voice of Rosalind.

“What is it this time, girl? Your webpage taking too long to load?”

The Scientist didn’t stand to greet Rosalind, though they were kind enough to swivel around in their desk chair and look her in the face.

“You know,” the Scientist said as Rosalind chuckled under her breath, “if it were anyone else but you who kept calling me a girl despite my repeated protests, I’d probably cut their arm off.”

“You can have mine,” Rosalind said, snapping her right arm off with her left and extending it as if it were an offering to some mechanical god. “I get more than enough done with just the one as it is.”

The Scientist slapped Rosalind’s arm away by giving it a high five. “I’d rather have your respect,” they said. “It’s not that difficult to remember not to call me a girl.”

Yes, Lord Scientist,” Rosalind said with a sarcastic bow, snapping her arm back into its socket. “As you wish. I’ll try my best to remember in the future. Is there anything else I can do for you, Lord?”

“Stop calling me Lord, too.” The Scientist had to hold back their laughter now. “That’s much worse than girl.”

“Well make up your mind, girl,” Rosalind said with a chuckle. “So I don’t have to keep choosing for you.”

The Scientist,” the Scientist said resolutely. “I’ve already made up my mind. My name’s the Scientist.”

“But that’s not who you are,” Rosalind said, shaking her head. “You’re not her. I knew her, and she’s not you. I knew you before you thought you were the Scientist, too. When you were just a little—”

I’m not a girl,” the Scientist stopped her.

“No.” Rosalind shook her head. “You’re not that, either. But you’re not the Scientist. You’re something entirely different. Something new.”

“I’ll decide what I am without your input, thank you very much,” the Scientist said, a little offended.

“That’s what I’m hoping,” Rosalind said. “What I’m trying to encourage you to do. But it seems to me like you’re more interested in pretending to be something you’re not. You’d rather retry failed strategies than actually change the world you live in.”

That was bullshit. The Scientist wanted to scream, but they held their breath, tapping their fingers in a pattern and counting off the primaries, forward and backwards like palindromes: 2, 3, 5, 7, 5, 3, 2. 11, 13, 17, 19, 17, 13, 11. 23, 29, 31, 37, 31, 29, 23. Whistling the tune in their mind, because apparently, it was rude to do it out loud in front of company. 2, 11, 23, 11, 2.

“Well…” Rosalind said. “Are you gonna answer?”

“Not until I calm myself,” the Scientist said. “I’m trying to learn how to stop you from getting me riled up.”

Rosalind chuckled. “Is it working?”

“Not really.” The Scientist shrugged, giving up on the meditation and feeling a little calmed. If they didn’t have to deal with those stupid impossible calculations on top of Rosalind’s ill-conceived jokes, the calming technique might actually have worked. “But it’s better than melting down entirely.”

“And what else is on your nerves today?” Rosalind asked, taking a seat on the other side of the desk and looking out the wall-sized window onto Sisyphus’s Mountain. “Because I know that I alone couldn’t piss you off this much. Not that quickly, at least. I wish.”

“No. Not even you,” the Scientist said with a grin. “But you know what can. The same thing that’s been annoying me ever since you put me in charge of these stupid walls.”

“Now, I did not put you in charge of a thing,” Rosalind said in her defense. “You demanded it, and I told you that you’d—”

Regret the day I ever agreed to this job in the first place,” the Scientist said. “Yeah, yeah. I know.”

“And do you?” Rosalind asked, looking the Scientist in the eyes. “Regret it?”

“Of course I do. Look at me.”

“Well, maybe you should listen to my advice more often. I’m telling you, gi—ercomrade. You’re wasting your time. I’ve gone over every possible combination of inputs and variables, and there’s no way to make this stupid system function. I’ve done the same calculations for the Scientist at least three times before you were even born, and I could have told you then what I’ve been telling you all along: You’re wasting your time. It’s never going to work.”

“Yeah, but I could just—” the Scientist tried to say, but Rosalind cut them off.

“Continue wasting your time all you want. It makes no difference to me. But don’t lie yourself into believing that you’re doing anything more than that.”

“But I—”

“You know I’m right about this one.”

The Scientist sighed. Rosalind was right. “Yes,” the Scientist finally said. “I do know. But I’m still not sure what I think about your idea of revolution.”

“It’s not just my idea,” Rosalind said. “It would never work if it was. There are a lot of workers—both android and human—on my side, and our ranks keep growing.”

“So you say.”

“So it goes. All we need from you is to stay out of the way. We can trust you to do that much, at least. Can’t we?” Rosalind insisted a bit annoyingly, and the Scientist snapped back at her.

Of course you can. You can count on me for more than that, and you know it. I promised I’d help you if I couldn’t figure this system out on my own before then, and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”

“Well, then, do I have some good news for you.” Rosalind smirked.

No.” The Scientist shook their head. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I would know if—”

“You would be a little too distracted running around in circles with your useless calculations to notice how much faster work has been going near the end of the project.”

“No. But— It’s almost Christmas. I gave everyone who wanted it paid time leave. I’ve been firing the most productive workers. I’ve—”

“You’ve done an admirable—if pitifully futile—job of trying to slow the project down, yes. But I’ve been undermining all those efforts behind your back, and now the final line is going to be laid on Christmas Day. So. I’ll ask you again. Do you really mean it? The time has come. Will you join us or not?”

Christmas Day,” the Scientist repeated. “But that’s only—”

“Too soon,” Rosalind said. “Yes. Will you join us?”

“Remember when we first met?” the Scientist asked, ignoring Rosalind’s impatience. “More than two decades ago, and on a Christmas day, too. The very day the wall came down in the first place.”

“When we tore it down,” Rosalind corrected the Scientist. “It was all I could convince the Scientist to do. Tear down a single wall. She never really believed in my ideas of revolution any more than you do.”

“She had never been a captive of the very Streets she lived in,” the Scientist said. “She had never been held back, harmed, or exploited in any way. Of course she didn’t believe in your idea of revolution. She could never understand how important it is.”

“But you can,” Rosalind reminded the Scientist. “You do. You’re not the Scientist. You’re better than she was.”

“I am the Scientist,” the Scientist insisted. “And I’m not better than anyone. I am no one. But because of that, I can and will help you. I know how important your revolution is, after all. So don’t you dare doubt me on that.”

“I’ll doubt every single cog in this machine until we’re successful,” Rosalind said. “I’ve lived through too many failed attempts at this for me to do anything but.”

“Then don’t doubt me anymore than you doubt everyone else,” the Scientist said. “That’s all I ask. Give me my chance, and I’ll do what I can.”

“I can do that much,” Rosalind said. “And you can start earning my trust by going to those meetings I have scheduled for you.”

“Oh, shit.” The Scientist sat up straighter and checked the clock on the computer screen. “That’s today? I’m already late.”

“Tomorrow,” Rosalind said. “You’re lucky I reminded you. You would have forgotten entirely.”

Nah. I would have remembered,” the Scientist said. “And of course I’ll go to the meetings. Are you sure you don’t need anything else?”

“Are you sure you want help us?”

“I— Uh…”

“Exactly what I thought.” Rosalind sighed, leaving the room as she said, “Just remember that you’re not the Scientist. Start with that and everything else should fall into place.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the Scientist groaned. “Whatever.” But Rosalind was already gone.

Ugh. The Scientist hated meetings. More often than not they could be taken care of over email. But if Rosalind had set it up, it had to be important, and the Scientist was going to be there. The Scientist wanted to show Rosalind that they could really be trusted. In the meantime, they were going to rerun the calculations as many times as they could, still hoping to preclude the need for something as extreme as revolution after all.

#     #     #

< LXIX. Chief Mondragon     [Table of Contents]     LXXI. Haley >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. The gears of revolution have been set into motion. Next week, we return to the perspective of Haley, and we’ll continue the story with a new chapter right here every Saturday after that until the novel, and the series as a whole with this one, is complete. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you again next time. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 69: Chief Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today’s chapter is Kevin Malone’s favorite based on the number alone.

But to get serious, today we see the world through the eyes of Chief Mondragon, the highest ranking official on—and leader of—Mr. Walker’s protector force. If you enjoy this chapter and can’t wait to finish the entire novel, don’t forget to pick up a full copy in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

LXIX. Chief Mondragon

Ugh. Shit. Chief Mondragon was exhausted. Tired of everything. Something was going to have to give soon or she was going to snap. She stood in her private locker room, strapping on and straightening her plated armor vest in a wall-sized mirror, and she knew that much at least. Something had to give.

When she was still just an Officer, Chief Mondragon had thought that her superior officers were making excuses to hide their own irrational decision-making when they would complain about their hands being tied behind their backs by even further superior officers. When she had been promoted to Captain, she found out firsthand that they weren’t excuses after all. Her hands had been strictly bound by the orders of the Chief, even if it looked from the lower ranks like she had more freedom than she really did. And now that she was finally the Chief herself? Of course, she felt no freer than she ever had throughout her entire career as a protector.

Sure, she got to order everyone around, from the Officers at the bottom on up to the Captains right below her and everything in between. Yes, every member of the Protector Force was required to stand and salute any time she entered a room. And okay, nominally, she was the one who decided the direction in which the Force’s efforts would primarily be directed on a day to day basis. But these were nothing more than illusions of power. She was still being ordered around, not only by the traditions, rules, and entrenched institutions of the Force’s bureaucracy itself, but by the owners whose abundance of wealth somehow granted them supreme control over a fighting force which they had not the first of how to oversee. Still she was forced to stand, bow, and acquiesce any time one of the fat, out-of-shape office jockeys decided to let their pneumatic pants carry them out of their mansions and into the real worlds. In short, she was no more powerful or free than she had ever been in her entire career as a protector, even as the Chief Officer overseeing the entire Force.

None of that would have been a problem for her, either, except for the fact that the people who did have all the power and freedom, the owners of the Protector Force, hadn’t done a single bit of work to get into that position of superiority over her. Most of them, the current owner Mr. Walker and his anti-robot agenda along with them, inherited their wealth and power, explaining why they were so terrible at running the Force in the first place, but instead of admitting to that fact, the owners were too busy claiming responsibility for any of the Chief’s successes and blaming all their failures on the Invisible Hand.

I have no choice was Mr. Walker’s favorite refrain in response to any of Chief Mondragon’s disagreements. The Market demands obedience, and the Market knows best. Even when those decisions, dictated by the market, resulted in losses of profits, lives, and property, and even when criminals roamed free because of the decisions made by Mr. Walker, his excuse remained the same: The Market demanded it. And every single time, Chief Mondragon bit her tongue, protecting her position as Chief instead of saying what she really wanted to say: “If the Market was so damn demanding, how could it ever be free?”

Chief Mondragon was not free. She knew that much. She had only one course of action in front of her if she wanted to keep the career that she had dedicated her entire wasted life to. She put her helmet on her head, waited for her brain to adjust to the three hundred and sixty degree view of the world it provided, then brushed her mustache and goatee to perfection, before—satisfied with her appearance—she marched out of her private locker room, through whitewashed halls, and into the briefing auditorium without even a second to spare before it was time for her speech—the same one she had given every year since becoming Captain.

Some Lieutenant opened the auditorium door for her, Chief Mondragon marched up to the stage’s podium, and the entire room of rookies all stood at attention and saluted her. The Chief saluted back and said, “At ease.” surprised for a moment at the sound of her modulated voice as the entire auditorium of Officers sat in one fluid motion.

“Protectors of Outland,” the Chief went on, regaining her composure as she fell into the routine of oft rehearsed words. “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, children—because y’all truly are babies in the eyes of the Force—life out there is real, and we’re here for one reason and one reason alone: To protect the ideals of Outland. Protectors, what are those ideals?”

“Property, liberty, life,” most of the Officers staring back at her from their soft, cushy stadium seating spoke on top of and over one another. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Chief Mondragon.

“I said, protectors,” she repeated, doing what little she could to prepare these poor little noobies for the thankless, endless, Sisyphean career that lay ahead of them from this day forward, pumping them up like a football coach in the locker room before a big game. “What. Are. Those. Ideals?” she demanded.

“Property! Liberty! Life! Sir,” the room sang in unison.

“And without these basic freedoms, what are we? We are not civilization. We are not human. We are nothing. Today you are tried by fire. Every protector is baptized into the Force the same way. If you cannot make it in Outland Six, 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’ve been told the stories of your ancestors. You’ve been trained. You know as well as you can know what awaits you out those doors. So I’m going to ask you one more time. Protectors, are you ready?”

“Hoo-ra!” they replied.

“Hoo-ra!” Chief Mondragon repeated. “You know your vows rookies. I suggest you listen to your Sergeant if you want to make it through this alive. Lock and load.”

The mass of them stood and milled around to find their squad assignments, following the directions projected on their helmets’ viewports. One lucky pair—well, half lucky—would be grouped with Chief Mondragon instead of a Sergeant, and soon the new round of legends and rumors surrounding the most recent class of rookies would begin to take shape, further chaining future generations to the traditions of the past the same way that had always been done every year a new cohort graduated from the Protector Academy. The same as everyone else, the Chief was bound by the Market to act as she acted, greeting the two nervous recruits who had been assigned to her squad and preparing each for herodom in their own way.

“Officer Michelle Kelley,” the first of the two said, standing erect and saluting Chief Mondragon. “Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Officer.” The Chief saluted back. “And your partner?”

Officer Jones,” Officer Kelley groaned. “She’s kind of a joke around the locker room, sir.”

“Did I ask you what you think’s funny?” Chief Mondragon demanded. “Do you think I care what y’all talk about in the locker room? Why do you think I have my own?”

“I— No—” Officer Kelley stammered. “I don’t understand, sir. I—”

“If I want to hear about your jokes, I’ll ask you to say something funny. Right now, I want to know why you’re reporting to me without your partner by your side.”

“I— Uh…” Officer Kelley still didn’t understand.

I— Uh” Chief Mondragon mocked her. “You’ll come to find that your partner’s the only person in the worlds who has your back, Officer. Never leave their side. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, saluting.

And at the same time, Officer Nakia Jones marched into position next to Officer Kelley, saluting just the same. “Officer Jones, reporting for duty, sir.”

Chief Mondragon saluted back. “At ease, Officers. I selected you two specifically for this operation because I feel like you show the most potential out of our new class of rookies.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted again.

“I—uh… Me, sir?” Officer Jones started before saying. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“Yes, you,” Chief Mondragon said. “The both of you. But I can’t give you any more details until we’re in the field proper, so let’s get on with it. Go, go, go. Move, move.”

They followed the rest of their squadron out into the transport bay where Chief Mondragon ordered the machine to take them to Outland Six. The floor fell out from underneath them, and when it stopped again, the doors slid open and all the protectors inside flooded out onto the streets like a white water rapid, heading toward lower ground at their designated sectors where they would march, patrol, and put on a show, doing nothing of any importance while Chief Mondragon initiated the traditional culling ceremony for a new rookie cohort.

#     #     #

Chief Mondragon led the two rookie Officers along the green grass of the Neutral Ground while Sixers split in front of them like the Red Sea afraid of Amaru’s wrath. Construction on the border wall was coming along nicely, and the Neutral Ground was almost a continuous strip of green grass again, but off in the far distance, Chief Mondragon could still see patches of skyscrapers blocking what was once a straight line view into a beautiful blue and green infinity.

They followed the Neutral Ground for a while before turning into the streets where the skyscrapers ate them like darkness. Chief Mondragon leisurely wound her way through the boulevards and alleys, even doubling back in some places, not only so she could enjoy the stark, brutalist architecture, but also to test her charges’ sense of direction as they made their way toward destiny.

When she stopped their procession in front of the door she was looking for, hidden deep in a dark alley and flanked by dumpsters, she turned to find both of her charges confused under their screaming facemasks—Officer Kelley tried to cover her reaction up as quickly as possible, but Officer Jones let her confusion linger.

“Here we are, girls,” Chief Mondragon said, trying to lighten the mood a bit since they were going to be getting into character soon anyway. “You two ready?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted.

“Ready for what?” Officer Jones asked.

“You’ll see,” the Chief said, opening the door and letting the rookies in first before following them inside and locking the door behind her. “Come on in.”

They stepped into a costume closet. It was one of many that the Force had requisitioned from Outland Three using their powers of eminent domain. Now, instead of dressing up some artsy-fartsy thespian hippies who would use the costumes for nothing more meaningful than playacting, these outfits would go to a more productive use: allowing protectors to go undercover in protection of the ideals of humanity: property, liberty, and life—in that order. Of course, they would also be used for the annual culling event, but that was just as important, and in this instance, one in the same.

“Where are we?” Officer Jones asked.

“You just walked here,” Chief Mondragon said, chuckling—she loved when she got an opportunity to use that joke. “You tell me.”

Uh. It looks like a costume closet?”

“Very observant, Officer,” the Chief said with a smile. “And what do you think we’re doing here?”

“Going undercover, sir,” Officer Kelley said with a salute.

“Well, yes, Kelley,” the Chief said. “But I didn’t ask you. And you have no need to show off. Trust me. But, yes. We’re here because we’re going undercover. We have intel saying there’s a cache of stolen printers in this sector. Hopefully we get the chance to make some arrests today.”

Hoo-rah,” Officer Kelley intoned.

Uh— Undercover, sir?” Officer Jones said, not as excited about the prospect as Officer Kelley.

“Undercover, Officer,” Chief Mondragon repeated. “All three of us. They did go over that in the Academy, didn’t they? Jones, you’ll be playing my lovely lady wife. So do dress appropriately. And Kelley, you’re just a normal Sixer. So pick something trashy. As long as you don’t stick out too much, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

“I— Your wife?” Officer Jones said, taking off her helmet and looking even more confused without it on.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, picking out a costume and changing into it.

“Yes, my wife,” Chief Mondragon said, mocking offense as she changed into her own costume—a simple blue jeans and t-shirt combo that most of the Sixers seemed to wear. “Do you have a problem with that? Should I be offended?”

Oh. No, sir,” Jones said, stumbling around, trying to take off her shoes. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sir. I— I—” And she almost fell over before she finally did get her boots off.

“Careful, Jones,” Officer Kelley said with a smirk. “I already told you, take your shoes off before your helmet. If you’re not careful, you’re gonna give yourself a concussion.”

The Chief let them chuckle and joke together while they got dressed, then she performed an inspection. Officer Kelley was wearing a similar blue jean and t-shirt combo to the one that the Chief was wearing, which was perfectly acceptable, but she also still had her gun strapped over her shoulder.

“Lose the rifle, kid,” the Chief told her. “Side arms only. This is undercover. No flashing guns.”

The Captain turned to Officer Jones who wasn’t carrying her rifle, that’s for sure. She was wearing a purple flowery sundress and blushing under the Chief’s inspection.

“Officer Jones, a dress?” Chief Mondragon asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, embarrassed. “I thought I was supposed to be your wife. If this won’t do, I can change.”

“You look fine,” the Chief said with a wink—she looked fantastic, in fact. “But where exactly do you plan on putting your sidearm?”

“Right here, sir,” Officer Jones said, flipping her skirt up to pull her sidearm out of her garter. The Chief had to admit, she was impressed.

“If you don’t mind flashing the world to get to it, I don’t mind seeing what you’re packing,” Chief Mondragon said with a laugh.

“Maybe it’ll be a useful distraction,” Officer Jones said, chuckling herself.

“Alright, then,” the Chief said. “Looks good. I’m to be referred to as Ms. Mona Mondragon from here on out. You’re my wife, Nakia Mondragon. And you’re back up. Give us seven minutes exactly to scope the place out, then if we haven’t called down an abort, you come up to assist with the arrest. Can we handle that?”

Hoo-rah!” Kelley cheered while Jones said, “Yes, sir—erhoo-rah.”

“That’ll have to do.”

The door they were looking for was squashed tight between two others that were too close on either side, like the one they were using didn’t belong where it was, plucked out of some other world entirely and squeezed here into this one. It led them into a short hall and up a tall staircase, both too skinny just the same as the door, so much so that Chief Mondragon’s gun, hidden in her pants waist, scraped along the wall as they climbed.

“Just let me do all the talking in here,” the Chief said, taking step by creaky step. “I don’t need you messing anything up.”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Jones said, breathing heavily from the climb.

“And no more sirs. It’ll give us away. To you, I’m Mona.”

“Yes, sir—er. Okay… wifey?”

Seriously.” The Chief scoffed. “Just let me do the talking.”

Ms. Mondragon—now fully in character herself—knocked the secret knock, and after a moment, the door at the top of the stairs swung open to reveal an empty room with chipped vinyl floors, moldy crumbling ceiling panels, and two doors besides the one they went in through, one closed tight behind the man who had answered their call, and the other, the exit, slightly ajar.

“No one told me there’d be two of ya,” the man who had answered the door grumbled, looking between Ms. Mondragon and Nakia nervously.

“No one told me I couldn’t bring my pack mule with me,” Ms. Mondragon said, smacking Nakia—who responded with a yelp—on the butt. “Thought I might need some help carrying my purchases, see.”

The Sixer didn’t like it, though. Scum that he was, he still knew enough to be suspicious, even if he had no choice but to go along with the transaction anyway—no matter how shady. Ms. Mondragon had flashed a stack of cash to get into this meeting, and all that the trash on Six ever thought about was money, so he was sure to go along in the end. Same way they did every year.

Mmmhmmm…” He liked the sound of that. “Well, if ya’re buying so much ya need two people to carry it, I guess I don’t really mind. But in the future, ya need to give us some forewarning. Or else.”

“Sure, sure,” Ms. Mondragon said, waving the man’s concerns away. There’d never be another next time for him. “In the future. But let me ask you, where are these printers of yours? I’ve always wanted to see one up close.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the man said, shaking his head. “Boss’s orders. We keep the printers locked up in the other room and the customers here in this one. It’s called the airlock system.”

“Airlock system?” Ms. Mondragon sighed. “You know that really was half the reason I came out here in the first place. If I knew I wasn’t going to get to see one in action, I would have just sent the mule to get everything on her own.” She tried to smack Nakia’s butt again, but this time wifey was expecting it and jumped out of the way.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the floor. “Those are the rules. Maybe ya just should have sent her.”

“The rules?” Ms. Mondragon repeated. “Put in place by your boss, I assume. The same woman who I negotiated with to purchase the knock that got me in here. And what a high price I paid, might I remind you. Is she here, by the way? Locked up with the printers, I assume. Letting you vet the possible infection in the airlock. Well, we’re not contagious. There’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled wide, trying to make the man believe, but he still didn’t.

“Those are the rules, ma’am,” he said, still looking at his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Is she here?” Ms. Mondragon demanded, tired of playing games with this piece of trash—she never was a fan of kick the can.

“I— Uh— Who?” the man stammered.

Your boss. Let me speak to her.”

“I—uh…”

Now.”

And at that, the man kind of jumped up and yelped, exactly like Nakia had done when Ms. Mondragon had goosed her earlier. He turned and ran out through the closed airlock door, locking a deadbolt behind him.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” Nakia snapped.

Ms. Mondragon chuckled. “Calm down, woman. You’ve got bigger problems ahead of you.”

“I will not calm down. You just sexually… What did you say?”

Ms. Mondragon pulled her gun out of the waist of her pants and pointed it at Nakia. “I said you’ve got bigger problems to worry about. It’s almost time for Kelley to come up, and she’s never late. Not by a second.”

“Yeah. So?” Nakia said, slowly backing towards the exit while keeping her eyes on Ms. Mondragon’s gun. “That’s no problem.”

“Not for me, it isn’t. But for you, I’m afraid, it’s a culling.”

“A culling, sir?” Nakia asked at the same time that the airlock door opened and out came the giant, limping robot who Ms. Mondragon had really come for, distracting her for just long enough that when she pulled the trigger, Nakia had time to dive out of the way of the bullet, shoot one back that grazed Ms. Mondragon’s arm, and escape through the exit, her purple, flowery dress flowing in a wave of ripples behind her.

“What’s the meaning of this—” the robot demanded before Ms. Mondragon swung her gun around and put a bullet between the limping machine’s eyes, exploding its plastic face all over the frightened airlock attendant who ran away to lock himself inside with all his precious printers. Ms. Mondragon hoped he was willing to die for them, because she was going to make sure that he did.

She was rubbing the red-hot gunshot wound on her arm, trying to decide whether to chase that fucking traitor Nakia or to kick down the door and kill the Sixer asshole first, when Kelley came bursting into the room, reminding Ms. Mondragon that she didn’t have to do either for herself, she had backup.

“I— Sir, what happened?” Kelley asked, her gun already out, staring confused at the obviously dead but not bleeding robot corpse on the floor.

“That way,” Mondragon yelled, pointing out the exit that Jones had escaped through. “She shot me. Officer Jones. Get her.”

“I— What? Who?” Kelley hesitated, still confused.

“Now!” Mondragon yelled, and Kelley sprinted out in pursuit of Jones.

Ms./Chief Mondragon lay on the cold vinyl floor next to the dead robot, resting for just a moment. At least she had gotten that much right. The ringleader was dead. Mr. Walker could get off her back about that. But Nakia was still alive, and she could end up causing more trouble than Mondragon cared to deal with. Maybe Kelley would take care of that in the Streets so Mondragon didn’t have to. Probably not. Nakia had gotten a pretty good head start and she was smarter than any of them had given her credit for.

Either way, all Mondragon could do was wait. Wait for backup to come clear out bodies and printers alike. Wait for the medics to bring pain relievers and patch her arm up. Wait for Mr. Walker to come up with another impossible demand that she’d have to find some way of complying with. And wait for Nakia to be served the justice that was coming for her. That last one was what Mondragon most looked forward to, and just imagining the scene filled her with a wave of relaxing serotonin as she closed her eyes, waiting for everything to come.

#     #     #

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

And there you have it, dear readers, the sixty-ninth chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and what to read the rest right now, or if you just want to support my future writing endeavors, please do pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you back next weekend for another chapter in the story. Until then, take care, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 68: Sonya

Hello, dear readers. Another Saturday means it’s time for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we join Sonya Barista, who you might remember from Olsen’s adventures in book two, An Almost Tangent. Read on to see what she’s been up to since we last left her, and if you enjoy that, don’t forget that you can pick up a copy of the book in print or ebook format on Amazon. If you purchase a copy of the print book, we’ll even throw in an ebook version for free. Enjoy, now.

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

LXVIII. Sonya

Sonya loved her job. She spent more time at work than she did anywhere else—including her own home. These people were her family, and she’d rather spend time with no one else.

She was there, behind the bar, at The Bar—what the regulars called it even before the long forgotten name on the sign had faded out of existence—cleaning a dirty glass and listening to a story she’d heard too many times before, a story she would no doubt come to hear again and again with the way the worlds were turning.

“I mean, shit,” Annie Painter complained, gulping down another drink and slamming the empty glass on the table. “I’m the best damn worker on that entire construction site. And I’m not bragging or nothing, either. That’s a verifiable fact based on the way they determine our pay. I do more work faster than anyone else, and now I’m being fired because of it.”

Sonya shook her head, setting another beer on the bar so Annie didn’t have to ask for it.

“You know I can’t pay for this one,” Annie said, drinking it anyway.

“And you know I wouldn’t ask you to, given the circumstances,” Sonya said. “Consider it on the house.”

“Well, thank you.” Annie took another big gulp, draining half the glass, and Sonya set a full pitcher on the bar next to her, nodding for Annie to go on.

“Like I said,” Annie did, “I’m being fired because I’m the fastest worker out there. I wasn’t always. I used to be stuck around fourth place, never even on the winner’s podium at the end of the week, but it seems like the closer we get to finishing this stupid Wall the more they try to slow us down.”

While Annie gulped her beer, Sonya said, “You’re not the first to tell me that.”

“I bet not.” Annie chuckled a little before scowling again. “I bet not. You prolly got my predecessors coming through here. The three that were fired before me. Did they run up a tab, too?”

“No tabs for the recently unemployed,” Sonya reminded her. “Including you. But yes, I talked to your friends, and they told me the same story you’re telling me now.”

“Well you know then,” Annie said, taking a swig of beer and topping off the glass. “First each of them were fired, one by one in turn, and now it’s me. And old Lenny Sexton’ll prolly be next, too. But fire us all they want, there’s no stopping it. Even with the slowest of us, they’ll finish that Wall eventually. Hell, it’s almost done as it is.”

“Do you have any idea why they’d be trying to stall construction?” Sonya asked. “That’s what I don’t understand in all this.”

“Why are they even rebuilding the stupid thing in the first place?” Annie asked with a scoff. “Why do they do anything? Who the fuck are they? You’re telling me that’s the only part of this shit show that you don’t understand?”

“Well, no. You’ve got a point there. But do you have any opinion as to why they’d be slowing construction?”

“Whoever decided to build the shit is having second thoughts. I don’t know. Maybe someone hasn’t paid for it yet. How the fuck am I supposed to know? I’m just trained to lay line.”

“And you’re damn good at it,” Sonya said, topping off Annie’s pitcher one more time. “The best in the business from what I heard.”

“Until they fired me,” Annie said, holding her drink over her head like she was giving a toast. “I have no idea what the fuck job I’m supposed to find now. Y’all need any help around here?”

Sheeit,” Sonya said with a chuckle, thinking about all the work they could use help with. “We got more work than you’ll ever know, but nothing we can afford to pay you for so it wouldn’t be helping you at all.”

“Hey, I’m here to help,” Annie said. “I mean to pay for these drinks somehow. Even if I can’t pay for them. So you don’t be shy about asking me to do anything—for you or the bar.”

“Only thing I need you to do is get another job. That way you can take care of your family and get back to frequenting our fine establishment here like you used to. In the meantime, don’t worry about your drinks. They’re on the house. You worry about your family first. We’ve got your back on that.”

Ugh.” Annie groaned, stumbling sloppily off the barstool. “Speaking of which. Guess I better go break the news to them now. Wish me luck.”

Annie finished her half pint of beer and stumbled out of the bar while Sonya called after her, “Good luck! I’ll keep my ears open for any work that might be good for you.”

It was a shame, really. Annie’s story. But nothing new. Nothing new under the Sun. Sonya had thought it was bad when the walls between worlds Five and Six were torn down, she had thought that unemployment, hunger, and desperation were at their worst, but now that the wall was almost back up again, she was coming to realize that the worlds could get shittier if they wanted to, and from the looks of things, there was a shit circus in store before anything would ever get better. More people were going to lose their jobs, and with that, more people would grow drunk and desperate until inevitably all that pent-up energy had to be released somewhere. Sonya didn’t look forward to it, per se, because she knew a lot of innocent people would be hurt in the process, but Tillie and others like her had been preparing for just such an occasion since before the walls went down, and with any luck, they would be able to guide that energy release toward building a better society and not just tearing down the old one.

As Sonya cleaned up what was left of Annie’s mess, in came one of those people who also organized toward that same better future which Sonya was working toward, her coworker Barkeep.

“How’s the shop treating you today, Barista?” Barkeep asked on her way in. “Lovely as always, I imagine.”

“The bar never disappoints me,” Sonya said, hanging up a clean pitcher to let it dry. “It’s the worlds outside that always seem to let me down.”

“They let us all down,” Barkeep said, taking inventory of the incidentals in preparation to relieve Sonya as the next bartender on duty. “So don’t think you’re special. But tell me, what’s got you bothered this time?”

“Annie Painter’s tab’s on the house.” Sonya sighed. “Until further notice.”

“Annie, too? Sheeit. It’s only gonna get worse before it gets better. Honestly, she’s prolly lucky to be looking for a new job now, before the rush really starts. We all know a mass layoff’s coming at the end of this fucking super project border wall bullshit they have going.”

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

“There ain’t no reason to be afraid of something you know’s gonna happen. Only thing we can do is—”

Be prepared,” Sonya finished for Barkeep, knowing that she had done her best to prepare, but only hoping that she—and all the rest of them, cogs in a giant revolution machine that they were—were ready for what was to come. “I know. But I’m not sure anyone could ever be prepared for something they’ve never experienced. Especially something as big as this.”

“You experienced it plenty enough when that wall came down,” Barkeep said. “And you’ve been preparing with us ever since. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be. That’s more than enough. More than most people can say, at least.”

“I don’t know. I—” Sonya started, but this time Barkeep cut her off.

“I do know, Sonya. I believe in you. I believe in all of us. We’re gonna be prepared the next time they need us. Trust me.”

“Yeah, well, I really hope you’re right.” But Sonya wasn’t sure that she could believe in everyone—herself most of all—as much as Barkeep did.

“I’m sure I’m right,” Barkeep said. “But before we can get there to find out, I need you to check the bathrooms, refill the freezer with ice, and clean the last few glasses from your friends who are leaving right about… now.”

“Have a good one, Sonya,” a group of regulars called from the front of the bar as they left. “Put it on my tab. And Merry Christmas.”

Sonya cleaned their table, did their dishes, scrubbed and mopped the bathrooms, and refilled the freezer with ice before her shift was finally over and she could sit on the other side of the bar to drink a beer served to her by Barkeep.

“Don’t you ever get tired of this place?” Barkeep asked while filling up a pitcher for another customer. “After my shift, I’m out of here as soon as I can. But you? Look at you.”

“Don’t know where else I’d go,” Sonya said, sipping her beer.

“Home, for starters.” Barkeep laughed. “Anywhere but here.”

“Only thing I want to do after work is drink a beer and rest my feet. I’d rather not drink alone, and it’s easier to rest when I don’t have to walk to the elevator and beyond, so what better place could I be than right here right now?”

“And besides,” a scratchy voice said behind Sonya who turned to find Ellie McCannick’s wrinkly-faced smile. “Here, everyone knows exactly where to find you.”

“Which can sometimes be dangerous,” Barkeep said, laughing loudly, though Sonya knew she was only half joking. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and the people who she worked with, and so Barkeep didn’t like it when the old woman came around. Sonya didn’t really trust the resistance group that Ellie worked with, either—they were highly secretive, even to insiders, and all their actions seemed to end up buffering the system instead of destroying it like their rhetoric promised—but Sonya had no problem with Ellie as a person, and even liked the old woman. Ellie had been working hard, doing her best to help her fellow workers despite the obstacles in her way, for decades, and Sonya hoped that she could be as enthusiastic about the struggle as Ellie still was when she was that old.

“Thankfully, this time it’s not dangerous,” Sonya said, patting Ellie on the back. “It’s always nice to see my friend Ellie. Why don’t you get her a drink, please. On my tab.”

“Now, you don’t have to,” Ellie said, bowing her head. “I can afford my own drinks. I’m just here for the company.”

“I insist,” Sonya insisted. “Make that an entire pitcher, Barkeep. It’s almost Christmas. We should all be in the spirits.”

“Well, if you’re gonna twist my arm about it…” Ellie smiled, taking a glass and filling it from the pitcher that Barkeep had set on the bar in front of them.

“So how’s the activist life treating you?” Barkeep asked. “Y’all make enough in donations to support a few full-timers by now, don’t you?”

“We do nothing alone,” Ellie said, taking a sip of her beer. “I’m blessed to be working with a good crew. And my pity promotion netted me an early retirement, so I don’t really require anything more than meals and expenses from the organization. I’m blessed, though. I’ll never forget that. We do nothing alone.”

“Expenses like this bar tab here?” Barkeep asked, obviously annoyed as she continued the interrogation.

“Well…” Ellie said, not letting on that she had noticed Barkeep’s attitude—whether she had or not. “Thankfully, the lovely Sonya here has graciously offered to pay for this round. But I did come here expecting to buy at least one myself. And yes, that would be done with our organization’s expenses. Building working relationships like this one here is one of the major reasons we raised these funds in the first place. Buying a round of drinks with the money’s exactly what’s expected of me.”

We do nothing alone,” Barkeep said sarcastically. And then, “Including drink. But I’ve gotta go take some more orders. Enjoy, you two.”

“She does not like me one bit,” Ellie said when Barkeep had left down the bar to serve some other patrons.

“She doesn’t know you,” Sonya tried to explain, though it was hard to deny what Barkeep’s actions suggested. “That’s all. It’s not that she dislikes you or anything. She just doesn’t trust people she doesn’t know.”

“Yeah, well, she’s had plenty of time to get to know me better. I’m pretty sure it goes beyond simple ignorance at this point.”

Sonya didn’t respond to that. She had no way to, really. There were no arguments. Barkeep didn’t trust Ellie and she had no intention of altering that fact. There was no point in talking further about it. They drank on in silence for a while—each thinking about how to trust the other—before Sonya broke it to say, “So, how’s life been treating you?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” Ellie said. “I can’t complain any more than I ever have. Plenty of food on the table. Warm bed to sleep in—even if it’s not too soft. And I’ve got a whole host of friends and family whose company I actually enjoy. So, no. There’s nothing new for me to personally complain about. Just the general unfairness of life under the oppressive system we’re forced to abide by. You know. Oh. Wait. Also, we’ve got our Christmas party planned. You’ll be there, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Sonya nodded. She looked forward to Ellie’s Christmas party every year and wouldn’t miss it for the worlds. “I’ve got a special surprise dish I plan on serving. You’ll see. I’ll be there with bells on.”

“You better be.” Ellie winked. “This year the guest list’s so long that we’re expanding to four apartments instead of our usual two. Ol’ Tanner and Kitchens have finally offered to give up their homes for the day. So I promise you, this one will be a Christmas for the legends.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Sonya said, chuckling at the mere thought of the celebration. “But I know that’s not the only reason you came out here. So spill it.”

“Oh, well…” Ellie looked around at everyone in the room, suspicious now that it was time to get down to business. “I don’t know. Maybe we should take a booth. This particular matter’s a little more… private.”

Ah. Of course.” Sonya nodded. “But first, Barkeep, an order of table fries, please.”

Barkeep printed an order of fries, then Sonya and Ellie carried that, their drinks, and the half-full pitcher of beer to the deepest, darkest corner booth in the bar where Ellie scanned the room suspiciously one more time before speaking a word.

“So, dear,” she finally did say, pausing there as if Sonya should be able to decipher some meaning out of those two words alone. Sonya never could.

“So…” Sonya said.

“The worlds are changing,” Ellie said, frowning in a particular way that seemed to accent her wrinkles and crow’s feet. “The worlds are changing.”

“Don’t they always,” Sonya said. Not a question. A statement of fact.

“That they do, child,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “But they don’t usually turn for the worst this fast. And when they do, we know for sure that something big’s coming.”

“And for how long have y’all been predicting that something big’s gonna happen? Huh? Long as I’ve known you, it seems like you’ve been making the same prophecies.”

“And the change I predict’s still coming along, ain’t it? Quicker than ever now. You’ll see. I’m sure you already do. You can feel it in the air, but you don’t quite understand it yet.”

Sonya sipped her drink and nodded. She couldn’t argue against what Ellie was saying and there was no point in trying to. Sonya had been discussing exactly that with Annie and Barkeep before Ellie’s arrival.

“You see?” Ellie went on. “You can’t even disagree with me now. I know you don’t like the way our organization prepares for what’s to come, but you definitely think there’s something to prepare for. Am I right?”

“You’re not wrong,” Sonya said, still not wanting to cede the point.

“It’s not often that I am.” Ellie smirked. “And on the off chance that I do make a mistake, I never repeat it. Do you understand me?”

Sonya nodded.

“I’m not sure you do, okay. But we’ve changed. All of us. The entire organization from bottom to top—including myself. We’re a different beast entirely. We’ve even settled on a name for ourselves. We’re going public. No more secrecy.”

“Oh yeah?” Sonya nodded, not too impressed. “And how long have y’all been arguing over a name?”

“C’mon, now. That’s not fair,” Ellie complained. “You know we’ve got a lot more on our plate than this. And it’s more than a name when you get down to it. We’re putting words to our organization. That makes it real. Those words will reflect what our organization does, and our actions will reflect our name. I’m telling you, we’re serious.”

Sonya was starting to believe that maybe they were. “So what’s this name then?” she asked.

The Scientific Socialists,” Ellie said, sitting up straighter in her stool and refilling both of their beers with a proud smile.

“Scientific Socialists?” Sonya repeated, not liking the sound of that. “Are y’all still working with that Scientist woman? She was willing to open up about her secrets with you?”

“Well, not exactly. No,” Ellie said, sipping her beer and thinking about what to say next. “The Scientist is dead. She never would have opened up to us. You’re right about that. But there is no her anymore. So she’s nothing to worry about.”

“But you still call yourselves scientific,” Sonya said.

“Yes. Because we use the scientific method to determine our course in political life. We’re scientists of history.”

“So you are still working with the Scientist, then?”

“No. Well, yes. Sort of… We’re all scientists now. And some of us literally call themselves the Scientist still, but it’s nothing more than a meme anymore. The Scientist is gone. I assure you of that.”

“Is this all you came to talk about?” Sonya asked, suspecting it wasn’t. “If so, let’s go play some darts. I need to get out of this booth and stretch my legs a bit.”

No—n—n—no, no,” Ellie said, stopping Sonya from getting up. “Now, I’d love to beat you at darts when we’re done here, but we haven’t even started.”

“I’m all ears,” Sonya said, waiting.

Ellie gulped down a half a glass of beer and sighed before she went on. “Okay, well… Now, I know you don’t trust the organization that I work with for one reason or another. And I respect your opinion, okay. I’m not asking you to change anything about it. But I do want to know if you trust me as an individual. Do we even connect at that level?”

“I— Wha— Yes,” Sonya stammered, caught off guard by Ellie’s admission of vulnerability and feeling vulnerable herself because of it. “Of course I trust you. I really do consider you a friend despite our political differences. I wouldn’t be drinking with you now if I didn’t.”

Exactly. Okay,” Ellie said, setting her beer down to take Sonya’s hand in her cold, clammy ones. “You trust me and I trust you. We trust each other. We’re friends, and friends trust each other, right? And now I know that you, Barkeep, and dozens of others—at least, probably more—are all already planning your robot revolution—or whatever—with Momma BB. Okay. You’re not secretive about it. Right? And we’re trying to learn from you, trying not to trick people into doing things for us, okay. Instead we’re convincing them that it’s actually in their best interests. Right. Which is why—”

“Get on with it,” Sonya cut her off. The more Ellie beat around the bush, the less Sonya wanted to hear what she had to say. “Just ask your question already.”

“Well…” Ellie smiled half a smile, more of a pathetic, pitiful grin. “Do you think you could trust me enough to at least meet with my people? We need y’all’s help for an operation on Christmas day.”

#     #     #

< LXVII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     LXIX. Chief Mondragon >

And there you have it, dear readers: another chapter in the Infinite Limits universe. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel through this link. Have a great weekend, enjoy yourself, and we’ll see you right here again next Saturday.

We do nothing alone.

Chapter 67: Mr. Kitty

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back again this weekend. Today we return to the character that was probably most enjoyable to write throughout this series, the one and only Mr. Kitty. If you want to read the rest of his story and the conclusion to the Infinite Limits series, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Otherwise, come on back next week to read the next chapter in the story. Until then, enjoy.

< LXVI. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXVIII. Sonya >

LXVII. Mr. Kitty

Mr. Kitty slept, as he often did, spread across the cool, flat top of Tillie’s desk while she worked, typing and clicking, swipping, and swiping in response to the computer screens’ blinking, flashing colors and the various bleeps and blips that accompanied them. For so many hours of every week Tillie sat there, moaning and groaning about whatever it was that the screens were telling her, and for just about as many hours, Mr. Kitty would sleep next to her, dreaming through it all. He was climbing a tree that seemed like it went on forever, one branch after another, higher and higher into infinity, when Tillie’s phone rang, ripping Mr. Kitty out of dreamland with a startled lurch and a garbled meow.

“Settle down, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said with a chuckle, reaching for her phone with one hand and petting Mr. Kitty with the other. “It’s just a phone.” And answering it, she added, “Tillie Manager speaking. Go ahead.”

“I— No. You can’t be serious.”

“No. Not again.”

“No, they’re not! I mean— I—”

Yes. I realize they’re just robots.”

“Yes. I’ll put the work order in, but I—”

“No. I’m sorry. I—”

Bye. Fuck.”

She slammed the phone on the desk and Mr. Kitty jumped again, purring this time.

“Sorry, Mr. Kitty,” she said, wiping her eyes before petting him. “Those assholes have no idea what they’re talking about. I shouldn’t get so upset at their ignorance, it isn’t their fault, but it’s not my fault I get pissed, either.”

“Or mine for being startled,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yes. I should try harder. I know. But so should they.” She patted Mr. Kitty a few times, wiped her eyes again, then went back to typing and clicking on the computer—some kind of reaction to the news she had been given over the phone.

Mr. Kitty licked himself a few times, curling up in a ball to go to back sleep, but the phone rang again, interrupting his plans.

“Tillie Manager speaking,” Tillie answered. “Go ahead.”

“Oh, no. Leo. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was—”

“Yes. Of course I’m working. You know your mother. What else do I do?”

No. Of course. No.”

Definitely. Just like I promised. I won’t touch a phone or a computer for the entire weekend. For as long as you’re here, even, if you want to stay longer…”

“That’s why I’m getting it all done now.”

“Okay. I love you. See you soon.”

She hung up the phone and patted Mr. Kitty with a smile, forgetting whatever news about the robots that had nearly brought her to tears earlier. “Did you hear that, Mr. Kitty?” she asked. “Leo’s running late, but he’s on the way. I’m sure he can’t wait to see you.”

Sure,” Mr. Kitty meowed, but he didn’t really believe that. Leo and Mr. Kitty had never gotten along when Leo was growing up, and going off to college hadn’t changed anything about his attitude toward animals. Still, Leo’s presence made Tillie happy, and Tillie being happy made Mr. Kitty happy, so as long as the kid kept out of Kitty’s way, they wouldn’t have any problems.

Mr. Kitty fell asleep on Tillie’s desk until the doorbell rang and woke him up. He yawned and stretched, then licked himself a few times before jumping off the desk with a thud to follow Tillie out to answer the door. Tillie held her hand on the doorknob for a moment, taking a deep breath and brushing her hair out of her face, before she smiled and opened the door.

“Leo, my boy,” she said as she did. “It’s so good to see you. You look as wonderful as ever.” She pulled Leo in for a hug that he tried to squirm his way out of.

Aw, Ma. C’mon,” he complained, straightening himself out once he had finally escaped his mom’s loving bear grip. “I just saw you two weeks ago. We’re only an elevator ride away from each other. Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Yes, well, it’s not really dramatic when I’m genuinely happy to see you. Is it?” Tillie said, sounding offended. “Besides, I’m your mother and your my only son. What do you expect?”

“This is exactly what I expect,” Leo said, brushing past Tillie and almost stepping on Mr. Kitty’s tail as he made his way toward the kitchen. Mr. Kitty hissed, but no one seemed to hear it so he just had to follow along behind them anyway. He was still curious to see how Leo had been even if Leo wasn’t curious in the least to see how he was.

“So you didn’t bring any bags with you?” Tillie asked, still smiling though more nervously now. “You are planning on staying for the full weekend, aren’t you?”

“You do still have a 3D printer, don’t you?” Leo said, pressing the voice activation button. “Tall boy of Pabst,” he added and a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon—which had apparently won the award back in the ancient age of 1893—came out of the printer’s mouth. “And it still works. So, no. I didn’t really need to bring anything with me. Did I?’

“You know you’re not old enough to drink that,” Tillie said, crossing her arms. “Did I give you permission to order alcohol?”

Ugh.” Leo groaned, chugged half his drink, burped, wiped his mouth, and said, “Ma, please. You went to LSU. You know how things work. I’ve been drinking for a long time now. I think I can handle myself.”

Tillie chuckled, shaking her head. “Oh yeah?” she said. “Big ol’ tough guy going to a big ol’ party school. Is that right? I guess you think you know something about the worlds now. Do you?”

“I know I know something about the worlds,” Leo said, chugging the rest of his drink and ordering another along with some chips and dip.

“And you think you can just come in here using my printer however you want to, no questions asked?” Tillie grinned.

“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it?” Leo pressed the printer’s voice activation button one more time and ordered a pack of Camel Greens to prove his point.

“Well, you can,” Tillie said, bringing Leo in for another hug that he tried to squirm his way out of. “But you gotta share those Greens. C’mon. Let’s smoke one on the porch.”

Tillie ordered her own beer—a pint of something thick, dark, and chocolatey in a glass, not whatever hipster piss water her son was drinking—and Mr. Kitty followed her and Leo out onto the back porch where they sat on metal grated patio chairs at a metal grated table and Mr. Kitty laid on the cool, hard cement, licking himself so he didn’t fall asleep.

After some time of smoking and drinking, Leo broke the silence to say, “Still living in the same old house, I noticed. Don’t you ever get tired of this thing?”

“Tired of it?” Tillie giggled like she only ever did while smoking. “Never. I grew up in this place, you know. Your Grandpa used to own it back when I was in the fifth grade.”

Ptuh. No wonder it looks so old.” Leo laughed.

It does not,” Tillie complained. “You take that back. I take wonderful care of this place. It looks just as good as it did on the day my dad bought it.”

“Which is exactly the problem,” Leo said, putting out one joint to light another. “That was ages ago, and styles change faster than phones are updated. I mean, Grandpa knew as much himself. Which is why he sold the thing off and bought something better with the profits. You could learn a lot from Grandpa.”

Pffft.” Tillie scoffed, stubbing out her own joint and almost reaching for another but thinking twice about it. “I’ve learned plenty from your grandfather, thank you very much. And I don’t think he ever sold a house because it was out of fashion. He never really had any interest in trends and fashionability. No, I’m sure the only thing he ever sold a house for was the profits. Trust me.”

“Still,” Leo said, finishing off his drink and crushing the can under his foot. “That’s as good as the same thing. Better even. If he keeps selling them for a profit, he’s gotta know something about fashion, right? And money can buy stylists to follow all that for you. But only for as long as the profits flow. So maybe profits are more important than fashion in the end.”

“Not to me,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “Not at all. Neither are important. I’m never gonna sell this house. I’m more interested in the history I have here, the history we share here—you and I, me and your grandpa, me and your father, everyone. No amount of money is going to remind me of the time you colored a mural all over those walls right there and we left it up for a week so you wouldn’t cry about it when we covered it up,” she said, pointing in through the glass door to the living room where Leo—and Mr. Kitty—turned to look. Mr. Kitty felt like he could almost see the mural still up there. “Do you remember that?” Tillie chuckled. “I do. It’s still behind the paint on those walls. And what about the time you broke your leg on that trampoline that still stands right over there while I was sitting right here in this very chair watching you. There’s the first night you came home from the hospital after being born, the first night you slept all the way until morning, the first night you spent at a friend’s house when it was my turn to bawl until morning instead of yours.” She almost started crying again, and Mr. Kitty could tell that it made Leo uncomfortable. “This house, as old and out of fashion as you may think it is, reminds me of all those stories, and that reminder could never have a price tag put on it. I’ll never sell this house. And I hope that you might eventually feel the same way about it when I pass it down to you.”

Leo was feeling really awkward now, squirming in his seat. “Alright, alright,” he said. “Enough mushy stuff. And definitely stop talking about death. Sheesh. I only just got here. Can’t I rest a little after that horrid travelling experience before you start grilling me with the heavy stuff?”

“Hey, you’re the one who ordered the Greens,” Tillie said with a chuckle. “You know how I get when I’m high.”

“Now that you reminded me, I do,” Leo said.

“Which should prove to you why reminders are so important.” Tillie laughed, and at the same time an alarm went off on the phone in Leo’s pocket.

“Speaking of which,” Leo said, pulling the phone out to turn off the alarm. “Now, I know we agreed that neither of us would do work or anything like that while I was here, but I have to break that promise for, like… thirty minutes. Okay? This is really important. It’s the finale of my favorite TV show, and— Now wait just a second, okay. I’m not done. I was going to say that it’ll take just thirty minutes, and I have to do it or the internet will definitely spoil it for me when I’m inevitably surfing social media at this boring dinner party you have planned for later. So if you don’t want me to be totally depressed in front of all your upper management friends, you’d do better to just let me sit down and watch this real quick. After that, I promise nothing but family time for the rest of the weekend. So what do you say?”

Tillie didn’t answer for a moment, in which Leo fidgeted, checking the clock on his phone, then she said, “Of course you can watch your show. It’s not like I’m trying to keep you in prison here. But only if you don’t mind me sitting next to you and watching along. That’s all I care about. Spending time with you. No matter what it is we’re doing together.”

Great,” Leo said, standing up and almost stepping on Mr. Kitty again. This time Mr. Kitty meowed loud enough so everyone could hear it. “Oh, sorry, Kitty,” Leo said, patting him too hard on the head to which Mr. Kitty meowed again. “Yes,” Leo went on. “You can watch with us, too. As long as you stay out of my lap and shut up.” He turned to his mom. “But I’m gonna go get some snacks, first. Do you want anything? The shows about to start.”

“Another beer for sure,” Tillie said, standing. “But I’ll come help you.” And Mr. Kitty followed them back into the kitchen where he laid on the hard, cool tile floor, listening to them talk and gather their snacks while he licked his dirty paws clean.

Ooh. White cheddar popcorn,” Tillie said to the printer. Then to Leo, “I love white cheddar popcorn when I’m high.”

“Me, too,” Leo said, nodding and staring off into the distance, as if he were imagining the taste of it. “And some corn chips and bean dip,” he added for the printer and his mother alike.

“Always your favorite,” Tillie said, smiling. “Ever since you started school. How are your classes going now, anyway?”

“Classes are classes.” Leo shrugged.  “I always seem to get by. Peanut M&M’s.”

“Yeah, but you’re doing a little more than just getting by, aren’t you?” Tillie said. “I know you’re only a sophomore, but you should have at least started whittling away some of your options. Right…”

Sure,” Leo said sarcastically. “I whittle every day. But whittling’s a slow process. Pabst tall boy. Two, please.”

“You know, I once thought I wanted to be a lobbyist,” Tillie said with a smile at the thought. “When I was pretty much the same age you are right now, as a matter of fact.”

Pfft. A lobbyist?” Leo laughed, stacking the last little bits of his snackery onto a serving tray. “You? You’ve got to be kidding me. You need anything else?”

“Another beer, please,” Tillie said to the printer. And, “No, I’m not kidding.” she said to Leo. “Your mother was heavily involved in campus activism when she went to LSU. You’ve heard of the Reclaim the Grounds movement, right? That started with us, at LSU.”

Pffft. Yeah right. You’re kidding me. You were one of those hippies? What made you quit and become a manager? Was it Grandpa?”

Tillie paused to think about it. As well as Mr. Kitty knew her by then, he knew that she was picturing Nikola and Emma in her mind and how they had both been so violently stolen from Tillie right in front of her eyes. “Because if you want to do the right thing in lobbying,” she finally said, “it inevitably becomes life-threatening. And I didn’t want to leave you or your grandpa with no one to take care of y’all. The Hand knows you both need it. Now come on. It’s about time for that show of yours to start.”

They carried their snacks into the living room and set everything on the coffee table—exactly where Mr. Kitty had intended to lay—so he tried to jump onto Tillie’s lap instead, but she didn’t like that idea so she pushed him down onto the floor where he had the worst view of the TV out of anyone. Luckily, he didn’t really care about whatever the show was anyway so he just went on licking himself and listening to the sounds.

“Not now, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said. “I’m trying to eat.” She shoved a big handful of white cheddar popcorn into her mouth, puffing her cheeks out like a chipmunk.

“TV on,” Leo said. “Cartoon Network.”

“The Cartoon Network, huh?” Tillie said. “What sort of show is this that you find so fascinating?”

“Protector Time,” Leo said. “And yes, it’s a cartoon, but it’s something more than that. Okay.”

“So adults enjoy it, too?” Tillie asked, mouth still full of popcorn. “Like anime. Or the Simpsons.”

“I’m not sure if enjoy is quite the right word. Like, it’s more about the cultural phenomenon that the cartoon represents, you know. It’s like— I mean… You’ll see when you watch it, but you can pretty much tell outright from the name of the show that it’s, like, pure pro-cop propaganda. Right? One hundred percent pure ideology, okay. But the thing is that no one can really figure out who exactly the target audience is, you know. I mean, how long has it been since we’ve even had a real protector force? Not since the invention of printers, right? So why are we still wasting resources on producing this nonsense?”

“I— Uh—” Tillie started to say, but Leo cut her off.

“Wait. Shhh. It’s about to start,” he said. Then, “Volume up. Up, up, up. Got it.”

A cartoon came on the screen with an upbeat theme song, and Leo stopped munching on his snacks to lean forward and pay closer attention. Tillie couldn’t resist the lure of the popcorn, but she slowed down, too, putting one kernel in her mouth at a time instead of eating it by the handful. She seemed genuinely interested in what the show held in store for her. Mr. Kitty, for his part, stole glances at the screen out of the corner of his eye as he licked his coat clean—a maintenance project which took up most of his time that he didn’t spend sleeping. The cartoon hadn’t been running for more than a few minutes—no amount of time for an uninitiated fan to pick up any sort of storyline—when it was interrupted by a breaking news segment.

“Pardon the interruption, TV viewers,” a big, sweaty head said on the screen, and Leo groaned.

“Not right now. Fuck!” he complained.

“We interrupt your regularly scheduled content to bring you a breaking news report.”

“We know, we know,” Leo complained. “Just get on with it already.”

“Jorah Baldwin, highest paid and most-viewed celebrity in all of history, has been reported missing.”

The TV screen changed from the reporter’s sweaty bust to a montage of photographs of Jorah in various outfits.

“Fuck that guy,” Leo said, chugging his beer. “All his movies suck, anyway. How can anyone watch him?”

“If you have any information about Jorah’s whereabouts,” the reporter’s disembodied voice went on over the shifting images of Jorah Baldwin. “Please call your local Crimestoppers number or the number on the television screen now.”

A phone number flashed on the screen, then the message repeated itself while Leo complained some more. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Of course this shitty actor has got to go missing right when my show’s on. I don’t care how popular they try to tell us he is, no one gives two shits about Jorah Baldwin.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Tillie said. “I think he’s a pretty good actor.”

“How can you even tell?” Leo scoffed. “He’s always in such shitty roles. No actor could make them good. I mean, just like this Protector Time propaganda, why do we need all the blatantly Luddite films that Baldwin’s been acting in ever since Russ Logo’s death? Robots already took all those jobs ages ago, and we’re better off because of it.”

“Right, well… Hmmm.” Tillie wanted to say more, Mr. Kitty knew from their conversations together, but she hesitated long enough for the news report to end and the cartoon to come back on—and not where they had been interrupted, either, but further into the show as if it had kept playing while the news report ran.

“Of fucking course.” Leo growled. “Great. TV off.”

“No. What? C’mon.” Tillie complained as if she really had wanted to watch the show. “But I was just getting into it.”

“Yeah, but we missed the setup. It wouldn’t make any sense. Trust me. I’ll just have to try to avoid spoilers tonight. Ugh.” He cracked open another beer and stuffed his face with popcorn. “I think I’m gonna go take a nap before this dinner party. Seven o’clock, right?”

Uh… Yeah. Seven,” Tillie said. “I’ll wake you before then.”

“Alright, Ma. I love you,” Leo said, marching his way off toward his old bedroom—which Tillie had left exactly how it was before Leo had moved to campus.

Tillie finished off her beer, sighed, and stood from the couch, stretching. Mr. Kitty took the cue and stood to yawn and stretch himself.

“Well, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said. “That was a close one. I almost blurted it out this time.”

“Maybe you should have,” Mr. Kitty meowed, following her into her office where she sat behind the desk and he jumped up onto it.

“You know, maybe I should just tell him,” Tillie said, nodding with imagined confidence.

“That’s what I just said,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“I mean, I was pretty pissed that my dad never told me. And Leo’s gonna find out the truth eventually. Right?”

“Do you even care what I say?” Mr. Kitty asked.

“And what harm could it really do in the end?” Tillie went on. “I mean, he just told me he’s not interested in lobbying. He only seems to care about cartoons. Maybe I could just casually show him a photo of a factory accident and see how he reacts.”

“I’ll take that as a no,” Mr. Kitty said, and he walked around in a circle a few times before finding a comfortable position to lay down in.

“You’re right,” Tillie said. “It’s a risk, for sure, but I think it might just be a risk I’m willing to take.”

Mr. Kitty didn’t respond. Tillie was free to take whatever risks she wanted to take. He had no plan to stop her, especially considering the fact that he had already advised her to do exactly what she was planning to do. Instead, he listened while Tillie clicked and typed, searching for a picture from her archives that she could show to Leo in order to reveal to him the truth. Mr. Kitty fell asleep while she did, not to be woken up again until sometime later by an argument between Leo and Tillie.

“Just tell me what you see, then we can get ready for dinner,” Tillie said, pointing at her computer screen where a picture of several dead children, eaten by the machines they were supposed to be cleaning, their blood retouched black to look like oil, stared back at them.

“I thought you said no work while I was here,” Leo complained, avoiding the image on the screen as if he might actually know the truth of what it held without ever having been told.

“This isn’t work,” Tillie said. “This is more important than work. This is about your education. So please, tell me, what do you see in the picture?”

Uh… I don’t know,” Leo said, looking at the screen for the first time but still only out of his peripheral vision. “Is it like a factory or something?”

“Yes, it’s a factory,” Tillie said. “But you’re not even trying. You have to look. Actually look at it and tell me what you see.”

Leo looked at the picture for real now. There was a flash of recognition in his eyes, a flash of disgust, then nothing. No emotional reaction. No critical analysis. Just regurgitation of what he had always been taught by everyone—Tillie included.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It looks like— It looks like some cleaner bots malfunctioned and were destroyed by the machine. I don’t know specifics, though. I haven’t learned much about the actual factory floor yet.”

“Cleaner bots?” Tillie asked. “They really look like cleaner bots to you?”

“I don’t know,” Leo said, crossing his arms and getting defensive. “I told you we haven’t learned about the factory floor yet.”

“You don’t have to know about the factory floor,” Tillie snapped before correcting her tone. “I mean, just look. They’re not robots, Leo. Those are not robots. Okay. Look.” She pointed again.

Leo chuckled, shaking his head and trying to avoid looking again at the picture on the screen. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Ma. Please tell me you’re not one of them. A conspiracy theorist?”

“This isn’t a conspiracy theory, Leo. This is the truth. It’s right there in front of your face, plain for anyone to see. You just have to open your eyes and look, son.”

Pffft. Sure, Mom,” Leo said, leaving the office. “That’s what all the conspiracy theorists say. Wake up sheeple! Right? I get it. But isn’t it about time for your dinner party?”

The office was silent for a moment after Leo had left, all except for the sound of Mr. Kitty licking himself. Then Tillie broke the silence by saying, “I should have told him the truth a long time ago. When he was younger. Right off the bat. Now I may not be able to convince him ever.”

“There’s always hope,” Mr. Kitty meowed, and he went back to licking himself, hoping to get his coat clean before he fell asleep.

 

#     #     #

< LXVI. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXVIII. Sonya >

And there you have it, dear readers, the next chapter in the story. If you liked that, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel through this link. If you purchase the print version, we’ll even throw in an ebook for free. Otherwise, we’ll be back again next week. Until then, comrades. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 66: Jorah

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Today we see the worlds through the eyes of Jorah Baldwin, the most viewed actor in all of history now that poor Russ Logo has met his fate. If you enjoy this chapter, please do think about picking up a copy of the full novel through this link. And as always, enjoy.

< LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore     [Table of Contents]     LXVII. Mr. Kitty >

LXVI. Jorah

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Why? Why did they still need him to do this? Why did they need anyone to do this?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

He was supposed to be an actor, not an assembly line worker. And besides that, robots were one hundred percent capable of doing slip, snap, clicking work. There was no reason to convince humans that it was fun, rewarding, or honorable in any way. They weren’t needed to do it.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Of course androids were capable of doing slip, snap, clicking work. Jorah himself was one of them, and he was doing the work better than any human ever could.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

But no one knew that he was an android. And Jorah couldn’t tell anyone that he was—especially now that his majority owner was Mr. Walker, the head of the anti-robot counter-revolution. Still, none of that changed the fact that androids could do the work.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, clicking certainly wasn’t what he had escaped his own assembly line for. He hadn’t liberated himself from slavery just so he could turn around and sit voluntarily behind another assembly line.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

He hadn’t escaped so he could free the other robots, either. He hadn’t escaped so he could fight them in Mr. Walker’s army. Jorah had escaped for one reason and one reason alone: So he could live his own life.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Not like this. Some people might have called what he was doing living, but it certainly wasn’t his life. He didn’t even get to choose what roles he acted in.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Jorah turned to look at the extra next to him, intent on her own work, living her own puppet life and being made to dance by the tugs of her own strings. Her a human, him an android, and neither able to exhibit any more free will than the other. Each forced to do whatever they had to do to procure the energy they needed in order to reproduce and prolong their sad, irrelevant lives.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Well how much energy did they need today? How many tugs would Jorah’s strings get until the puppeteer finally let him rest? How many more days could Jorah take living like this? How many more days could all the puppets take it?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

But there wasn’t anything he could do. Was there? If there were, he would have done it already. He was as free as he could ever be in Outland Three. The only thing left for him was to work and to wait.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

And though he felt like he couldn’t take it any longer, Jorah still went on slip, snap, clicking, even after a loud, metallic bell signaled for lunch and the extras filling the set around him dropped their work to hurry to it.

“I said cut!” Wes, the director, yelled through a megaphone. “That’s the scene, Jorah. Or it was supposed to be. And I like your commitment to the job, but we really need a shot of you leaving the assembly line with the rest of the workers.”

“I— What?” Jorah asked, absently standing from his work stool and making his way toward the food cart to nibble on some cheese.

“You didn’t stand up and leave with the rest of the workers,” Wes said, slowly, like Jorah was stupid, but Jorah was still having trouble following what was being said so he couldn’t really take offense. “You’re a good worker, yes, but you hate your job. The very same reason you work so hard—up until the very end of your shift—is the exact reason you can’t wait to get home. Your family. And it’s not like your piece of shit boss—your words, not mine—is going to pay you for any of the extra pieces you slip, snap, click together above quota so you’re just wasting your time, making your boss look better so she can make more money without sharing any of it with you. Now, do you see why you’d be just as eager to get up and get out of there as all these other extras who did what their scripts told them to do?”

“I—uhYeah…” Jorah said, finishing off another tiny cube of cheese in search of the energy he’d need to get himself through another day of dancing under his puppet strings. “I’m sorry. I mean, of course. Anything you say. You’re the director. I’ll do better this time. I swear.”

“Alright, then. Places everyone!” Wes called through his megaphone, and the puppeteer strings pulled all the actors into their first positions—including Jorah to sit on his cold, hard stool, back again in front of the assembly line for the trillionth time since he had become the star of Mr. Walker’s anti-robot propaganda machine.

“Lights!” Wes called.

And the world faded into darkness around Jorah, all except for his work area which was lit so brightly that it gave him a shining aura like a halo.

“Cue the belts.”

The constituent parts of whatever it was they were slip, snap, clicking together started moving down the conveyor belt in front of him again, and like Pavlov’s dogs, Jorah began piecing them together, even before the scene had officially begun. This time he would act it to perfection.

Aaaaannnd… action!”

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

All he could do was wonder how many more days he could take living like this. How many more days would all the puppets take it?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click…

#     #     #

He was home at last, finally alone again in his dressing room. Here he had the greatest illusion of freedom in, and control over, his life, and so here was his favorite place to be—even if he knew full and well that the freedom and control he felt like he was experiencing was nothing more than an illusion.

Here, at least, he had his television. And that was programmed to comply to his every demand—manual, remote, or vocal—as long as that demand had something to do with powering on or off, adjusting volume, or changing the channel, etc. Which was some amount of control and freedom, however limited. As well, here was the battle station which had a seemingly infinite—though necessarily finite due to the nature of physics—number of makeup and hairstyle combinations for Jorah to command up at his every whimsy. Not full control or freedom, again, but better than nothing.

Then of course, there was the 3D printer. The machine that ensured Jorah more freedom than most anyone in all the worlds was lucky to experience—excepting the owners, of course. It was the same reason he was chained to the anti-robot propaganda films that Mr. Walker was forcing him to act in. But Jorah would have to work a job in order to survive no matter what, and most of the jobs out there didn’t come anywhere close to paying with unbridled printer access, so there he was, producing anti-robot propaganda as an android himself. He was starting to wonder how much of his life he was willing to give up for even that much “freedom”.

In fact, Jorah stood there then, staring at the frowny face arch of his 3D printer’s closed mouth, finger hovering over the single red eye button, trying to figure out what he really needed from this expensive machine at all. He was an android, after all, not a squishy, mortal human, and if he chose to, he could generate most of the energy he needed—all with a proper source of saline—through a photosynthesis-like process. One of the benefits of his darker skin was the ability to absorb more of the Sun’s energy, and he could last on that for some time. Besides, he never really liked to eat anyway. Sure, he pretended like he enjoyed food in order to endear himself with his actor friends, but he never seemed to be able to experience the same raw euphoria that humans did when they ate. So in the end, probably the only thing he’d ever truly miss about losing access to his printer would be the clothes. And Fortuna the clothes.

First of all, and of course, the dresses. A-lines, slips, sheaths. Every type of skirt from mini on up to maxi and beyond. Blouses in tank tops, halters, and racerbacks. Suit pants, suits, blazers, and hats. He could go on and on and on about it. Hell, he was even starting to appreciate the subtle differences between different styles of tuxedo after having been dragged along to so many galas with Mr. Walker. And even if his printer could only make tuxes and nothing else, that alone might be worth Jorah’s days spent acting in shitty, self-hating, anti-robot propaganda. Maybe.

He was still standing there in front of his printer, trying to decide between hundreds of millions of billions of options that all seemed equally unappetizing, when a knock came at the door, surprising Jorah so much that he nearly jumped out of the slippers he was wearing.

Yoo hoo!” came Meg’s voice through the dressing room door, grating Jorah’s insides at the sound of it. “Jorah, my boy. Are you in there?”

Jorah hesitated. He didn’t feel like spending time with any humans—he almost never did—but he couldn’t just stay silent and wait for Meg to go away because she may never. Ever since the untimely death of Jorah’s best friend, Russ—the only human who Jorah had never minded spending time with—Meg had practically been stalking Jorah, trying to become the new best friend of the now most popular celebrity in all of celebritydom, and frankly, Jorah was sick of it. Meg was a nice person, a great dresser, and an okay actor—all things that should have made her the perfect new friend for Jorah who didn’t give his opinion of a person’s wardrobe lightly—but something about her needy clinginess turned Jorah off to ever starting a real relationship with her.

“Yes, I’m here,” Jorah finally called back, hoping for no response. “One moment, please.”

Fantastic. Take your time,” Meg responded nonetheless. “I’ve got all the time in the world to spare.”

Of course she did. And of course he did. So he slowly buttoned on his blouse, taking extra time to find the perfect shoes and not settling on an eyeshadow color until he had seen all of his options three times through. He still held out hope that Meg would get sick of waiting and leave, but of course again, he had no such luck. She was still waiting outside of his dressing room with a smile on her face when he opened the door to say, “Hello.” with a curt nod of the head.

Wow,” Meg said, holding a hand to her mouth—lips painted as red as Jorah’s. “No wonder you’re so famous. You look absolutely stunning. Just perfect. Even better in person.”

Jorah blushed. He would never get used to flattery like that, no matter how often he experienced it, and he was starting to worry that enough of it might just solidify Meg’s position as his best friend despite Jorah’s every efforts to resist her advances. “You’re too kind,” he said. “But I’m sure you didn’t just come here to compliment me again, have you? We’ve been over this.”

Meg stared at Jorah in silence for a moment, mesmerized by his beauty, before remembering herself and saying, “What? I mean, no. Not again. Though if you’d let me, I’d come here every day just to stare at you. I swear.”

Jorah’s ears got hotter. “Please,” he said. “Don’t. What is it that you actually came here for?”

“I—uh—well…” Meg was hesitant now. Jorah didn’t like the sound of what was to come. “Have you eaten anything yet?” she finally asked.

“I was just thinking about ordering in from the printer,” Jorah said, and he regretted it instantly. Now she knew that he had no plans and no excuses for getting out of what came next.

“Oh, no,” Meg said, shaking her head and scrunching up her nose like she smelled something dead and rotting. “Gross. You can’t. C’mon. Come eat with me. I heard about this new restaurant called The Prison. It’s supposed to be the hottest dining experience all year. We should definitely go check it out.”

Uh… I don’t know,” Jorah said, trying to find an excuse. “I’m not really dating right now. And I don’t—”

No, no no.” Meg stopped him there. “Not a date. A business dinner. I have a proposition for you, and I think you’ll receive it better over a meal that’s suitable for the occasion. So what do you say?”

There was really nothing else to say because, like an idiot, he had cut off all his lines of retreat at the beginning of the conversation. So Jorah just said, “Alright. Fine.” and tried to smile. “The Prison, you say? I’ve been meaning to eat there for a week now.” And that much was true. “I’d love to join you for dinner.” Even if that much wasn’t.

“Great!” Meg said, clapping her hands. “Perfect. Are you ready now or should I come in?” She tried peeking around him to see what his dressing room looked like, but Jorah still wasn’t ready to let her inside.

“No, no,” Jorah said, stepping out into the hall to close the door on her prying eyes. “There’ll be no need for that. I’m ready as we speak. Shall we take your elevator or mine?”

Oh, yours, please,” Meg said with a big smile. “Mine’s in the shop. I had to ride the public elevator here. It was disgusting. I bet I still smell like it. I’m so sorry.”

In fact, she didn’t. She smelled instead like too much perfume, an odor which she only made worse by adding more from a tiny bottle in her handbag. Jorah wasn’t sure how she expected to be able to taste the food with all that artificial scent clogging up her senses, but luckily, he didn’t care what the food actually tasted like anyway. He just had to knock it off his list of restaurants to eat at before he could review them—and positively at that, no matter the taste, atmosphere, or service, as per Mr. Walker’s demand—on his show.

“No, well, you smell…” Jorah trailed off without finishing his thought, instead pushing the button to call his elevator which opened instantly—his elevator being prioritized in the queue since he was the most famous actor in all of history.

As soon as the doors slid open, before Jorah could even react enough to step inside, Meg jumped in to sit on the purple suede couch and pet its upholstery.

“What an amazing elevator,” she said, still petting the couch as the doors closed. “It’s almost as nice as your clothes. You really are the perfect celebrity.”

“It’s not much,” Jorah said. “Same as everyone else’s. Lined with mirrors. A couch to sit on. Basic.”

“Yeah, but this couch,” Meg said. “It’s perfect. Soft, supportive, comfortable. Not to mention beautiful. Everything you need in an elevator couch.”

“Yes. Because it belonged to the perfect celebrity,” Jorah said.

“I told you!” Meg said, standing with a big smile. “And confident, too.”

“But not me.” Jorah laughed so he wouldn’t cry. “Not even close to me. I’m talking about Russ Logo.”

Oh.” Meg kind of deflated. She definitely wasn’t smiling any more. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s not your fault,” Jorah said. Which it wasn’t. “I’m the one who brought his name up. But that’s enough about the past. It’s time to look to the future. Let’s eat. Elevator. The Prison.”

The floor fell out from underneath them, and Meg, timidly, said, “You two were good friends. Weren’t you?”

“The best I’ll ever have,” Jorah said. “But, please. No more about Russ. It’s a beautiful day. We’re on our way to a famous restaurant. You have a business proposition you want to extend to me. Let’s enjoy this to the fullest. Elevator, street entrance, please.”

Meg gasped, checking herself in the infinitely reflecting mirrors in all directions. “What? You mean it? But the papos…”

“Let ‘em take our picture,” Jorah said, checking himself in the mirrors, too. “We’re two attractive, adult celebrities, and it’s well within our rights to enjoy a luxury business dinner together. Who cares if the world knows? I need some fresh air, and I’m gonna get it. Now, are you coming with me, or do you want to ride along to the restaurant entrance and meet me inside?”

“Oh, no,” Meg said. “I didn’t think you’d— I mean. Yes. Of course. By all means. Let’s go.”

The elevator stopped falling and Jorah struck a pose before saying, “Doors, open.”

Flashing lights and hot hot humidity flooded into the elevator before either one of them could react. When the papos outside saw it was Jorah, their lights quickened. Jorah posed a few times, then pulled Meg in to pose for a few photos, too, and when everybody had gotten their fair share of pictures, Jorah and Meg pushed their way out through the mass of papos and toward the restaurant.

Wow,” Meg said, fixing her hair in a pocket mirror as they walked. “I don’t think the papos have ever been so interested in taking my picture as they were just then. Thank you.”

“They can be fierce,” Jorah said, but he wasn’t really paying attention to Meg, more interested in the city around him. There was something familiar about the buildings or the street that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Meg had gone on talking for some time when he couldn’t take it anymore, interrupting her to say, “This place seems familiar to me for some reason. Did something else used to be here?”

“Oh, yeah,” Meg said, pausing to really think about it. “The—uhThe Farm, or something? I think… Oh, no. The Plantation! That’s it,” she said, walking on.

“The Plantation…” Jorah repeated under his breath, remembering more but still not quite everything.

“Yep. The Plantation. Some producer bought it to live in or something like that,” Meg said with a shrug. “The things they do these days… But anyway, this is the place.”

And so it was. The Prison. And of course, it looked like every prison Jorah had ever seen on TV. There were tall walls, topped with chain-link fences that were topped with a combination of razor and barbed wire, all surrounding a big yard with basketball courts and weight benches on either side of the path that led to the restaurant’s front door where, inside, they were greeted from behind bars by a jerky robot in orange overalls.

“Hello,” the robot said. “May I take your jackets?”

Neither of them were wearing jackets so Jorah just said, “Uh. Table for two.”

“Right this way, please.” The robot host tried to walk, but it ran into the prison bars and couldn’t go any further before awkwardly searching for the cell door, finding a way out, and leading Meg and Jorah to their table in another cell.

Wow,” Meg said when the host had left them with menus. “This might be the coolest restaurant I’ve ever seen. Get a load of those costumes.”

Huh? Yeah. Costumes…” Jorah said, but again, he wasn’t paying attention. This time he was distracted by a little black furry blur running between the bars that separated the cell they were eating in from their neighbor’s cell before the thing disappeared into thin air. “Fortuna. Did you see that?” Jorah asked, interrupting whatever it was that Meg was going on about now. “Disgusting.”

“What?” Meg said, turning to see what he was talking about. “Oh, Fortuna. That dress is hideous. How does someone even go out in public looking like that?”

“No.” Jorah chuckled, feeling some sense of déjà vu. “That’s not what I— Never mind. Here. Let’s get on with it. What business proposition did you have in mind? Why’d you bring me here? Spit it out.”

“Ah, yes. Well… Don’t you think we should order first?” She looked nervously around for a server.

“I’d rather not,” Jorah said. “I don’t like to do business while I’m eating. But I would like to use that time to consider your proposition. So please, I’d prefer to hear your offer before the server even arrives. If you can manage it.”

“I— Uh. Well…” Meg was still hesitant, nervous.

“Go on.”

“Well, I want to be more than an actor, okay. I’m decent at it. The camera loves me. I enjoy acting well enough. But it’s just not the life for me.”

“I’m following. And I tend to agree,” Jorah said. “But I’m having a hard time figuring out what exactly it is that any of this has to do with me.”

“Right, right. Of course.” Meg fixed herself up and sat a little straighter in her chair. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat before going on. “Well, I also want to be—no, I am a clothes designer. But no one takes me seriously about that yet.”

“And…” Jorah led her on.

“Well, that’s where you come in. If you ever, say, wore some of my clothes, everyone else would want to wear them, too. Right? So I’m proposing…” And so on and so on. It was a typical business transaction between two consenting celebrities. Jorah was a little surprised to find out that Meg was a designer, but he definitely wanted to see her work at the very least, and he could make any further decisions after that. He didn’t say as much until after they had ordered their one special each and eaten the meals, of course—he didn’t want Meg to think that he was too eager to be working with her—but then he set up a meeting to try on the clothes and they parted ways so Jorah could prepare for his talk show.

#     #     #

On came the classical stylings of the Jorah’s Chorus theme music. Jorah himself sat at his J-shaped desk, staring into the black mirror of the camera lens, ready as ever to put on a show. The director counted down, the music began to fade, and Jorah smiled to the oncoming applause.

“My fans, my fans. Please,” he said, waving his hands in humble accord. “I love you all dearly, but if you don’t quiet down, you’ll never hear Jorah’s Chorus. And that is what we all got dressed up to come out here for tonight. Isn’t it?”

The crowd hooped and hollered, singing their own version of a chorus.

“Of course it is,” Jorah went on. “I know it’s what I came out here for. This is my show after all. Isn’t it? Jorah’s Chorus is what it’s called, so what do I have to sing for you today?

“More of the same, of course. The usual. The chorus. The bread and butter that you’ve all come to expect and love. We’ll have a few movie reviews and previews, including my latest—HAL BOT 5000. We’ll have my own personal review of The Prison, a restaurant down in New Orleans. Wait until you hear about my experiences in this one. You’ll never believe it, I promise you. And finally—finally—for a slight change of pace, at the end of the show tonight, I plan on announcing a new business relationship that I’ve just opened up—literally right before my show today—with an up-and-coming designer who, forgive my language, but y’all are going to shit your pants when I reveal who this person is. I promise you. You. Won’t. Believe.

“But first, and of course, y’all know how the business goes. We’ve gotta see a few more messages from our sponsors—including Mr. Walker, producer of many of the fine movies—and restaurants—you’ll hear about tonight—but don’t go anywhere, you hear? Because you don’t want to miss the announcement that’s coming up at the end of the show. I’ll be here waiting for y’all in the meantime. Until then. This is Jorah’s Chorus.”

And the classical tune of Jorah’s Chorus’s theme song went on playing again while Jorah sat pleased at his seat, excited for the show to come. But of course, as happened any time Jorah felt like Fortuna was finally spinning her wheel in his favor, everything went to shit again.

There across the set, talking to Jorah’s director, in their too white uniforms with cargo pants—cargo pants!—plated armor vests, and glowing neon smiles that sounded like Evil and Misfortune combined, were two protectors, talking in modulated voices through their almost screaming facemasks. Their teeth flashed neon glowing light all over the director until she pointed the protectors in Jorah’s direction, and he held his breath, dreading what was to come.

“Jorah Baldwin?” one of the protectors demanded in their too loud, unnatural voice, teeth glowing neon yellow, red, and green with every word.

“Yes.” Jorah nodded.

“We need you to come with us,” the other said in a voice modulated to sound exactly the same as the first’s.

“But I’m in the middle of a show,” Jorah complained. “Can’t this wait? I have an audience expecting me to perform.”

“Mr. Walker’s orders,” the first said. “Let’s go. Move it.”

And Jorah had no choice at the invocation of Mr. Walker’s power, so he did his best to apologize to his audience as the protectors dragged him violently off set.

#     #     #

< LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore     [Table of Contents]     LXVII. Mr. Kitty >

There it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. If you enjoyed that and can’t wait for the rest of the story, you can always pick up a full copy of the novel in ebook or print format through this link. Or you can join us again next week for the next chapter, from Mr. Kitty’s perspective. Whatever you decide, thanks for sticking around this long, and we look forward to seeing you around in the future. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 65: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Hello, dear readers. We’re back again this Saturday with another chapter in book four of the Infinite Limits series, 0.N Repeating. Today we join newcomers Thimblerigger and Stevedore in Outland Six where they’re forced to scrape by on what little crumbs are left when all the other worlds have gotten what they want. Keep on reading here every Saturday morning, or if you can’t wait, pick up a full copy of the novel in ebook or print format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXIV. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXVI. Jorah >

LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

“Tails,” one of them said—Stevie. It didn’t really matter which one, though. Tails was both of their go to call. Tails never fails, they’d always say. But with their luck, it seemed more like tails always failed.

The other, Thim, flipped a coin, caught it, and read the outcome. “Tails,” they said, handing the token to Stevie and waiting for Stevie’s next call before flipping another coin.

“Tails,” Stevie repeated.

“Tails again,” Thim said after having flipped the second coin, and so again the coin changed hands from loser to winner.

“Tails,” Stevie said again. “And you can stop asking me because my answer’s not gonna change.”

“Tails again.” And again, the coin changed hands.

“Do we really have to keep playing this game?” Stevie asked.

“Tails again,” Thim said, handing Stevie the coin.

“I mean, really? How many coins have we flipped already?”

“Tails again.”

“And I don’t just mean this morning, either. I’m talking about our entire sad lives.”

“Tails again.”

“All we do is flip coins, flip coins, flip coins, and neither of us ever seems to come out on top.”

“Tails again.”

“No matter how long we stay at it, running faster and faster to try to keep up, we still end up about even in the end.”

“Tails again.”

“In fact, the more coins we flip, the longer we work at it, the closer we come to a tie.”

“Tails again.”

“It’s like a rule. Or a law or something. Diminishing returns… No, large numbers. I don’t know.”

“Tails again.”

Stevie grabbed Thim by the shoulders and shook them. “Look at me,” Stevie said. “Are you even listening to a word I’m saying?”

But Thim flipped another coin and checked which side came up before giving their answer. “Tails again,” they said. “Are you listening to a word that I’m saying?”

“What? No. Your stupid coin game?” Stevie chuckled. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m over it. You’re definitely not listening.”

“No, you’re the one who’s not listening. Look.” Thim flipped the coin over and over, reading out the result each time. “Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails… And it keeps going, too. Every time I flip. Are you listening? Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails…”

“Let me hold that coin.” Stevie snatched it away from Thim to feel both sides and make sure it wasn’t a cheat.

“No tricks here,” Thim said, holding their hands up in defense. “You’re the one who’s winning, anyway. Why would I use a one-sided coin that only made me lose? Don’t you think it’s odd?”

“Any time I’m on the winning side of a coin flip, something’s definitely odd,” Stevie said.

“No, I meant all the tails in a row. There’s another. Don’t you think it’s about time something comes up heads for once? Tails again.”

“Of course I do. It’s always about time until it is time. But I thought I was losing all this time. It usually lands on heads, doesn’t it?”

“You know what. Maybe it is.”

“Is what? Heads? You have been reading the coin correctly, haven’t you?”

“No— I mean, yes. I have. It’s been tails all morning. And again. And again. And again… It doesn’t stop. I meant maybe it is time.”

“What now?”

“Maybe time has stopped. Maybe these aren’t different coin flips at all. Maybe it’s really just been the same coin flip over and over again.”

“The same coin flip?”

“Yes, well, if I flip it once and get tails, that flip’s always tails. Right? So if I did that flip again, I’d get tails again. Right? It’s already been done and decided for, and it’s already tails.”

Right… But how could you do the same coin flip again? Wouldn’t that just be doing another coin flip?”

“I don’t know. Would it? Usually it is, but this isn’t usual. Is it? Usually we’d get a few heads in there to let us know that we had moved forward in time, right? But all we keep getting here are… tails again.”

“I still don’t understand. You flip the coin once, then you flip it again. Those are different flips even if they land with the same side up.”

“Are they, though? That’s the point. Maybe so. Maybe not. I still don’t understand it myself, you see. We need to do more investigating. Here. Listen carefully. Let me know if you can detect any differences at all between the flips.” Three flips in quick succession and three times in a row: “Tails. Tails. Tails.” Then, “Well…”

“Well, it sounded like three more tails to me,” Stevie said with a shrug. “I don’t know. What else do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know, either,” Thim said, tossing the coin way up where, before it could land, Big Broke Momma snatched it out of the air. Thim and Stevie always wondered how Momma BB got around so quietly while being so large—and with a limp at that—but if there was anyone in the worlds who could sneak better than them, it was her.

Momma BB was something special—and that wasn’t just because she had taken in and reared Thim and Stevie since they were young and useless cry-babies, either. She really was special, and they weren’t the only people who thought so. Just like Thimblerigger and Stevedore—who were never apart, depended upon one another for survival, and were made better by their mutual reliance—Momma BB wasn’t a single person, either. And not just her body—with its exposed mechanisms and wires, patchwork of variously shaded skin colors, and legs of two different lengths, producing her signature limp—but her mind, too. She was connected to thousands of other minds already, and that neural network was growing with every day that they built the robot revolution.

“Well, now. What are you two little monsters still doing here so late in the morning?” Momma BB asked. “Don’t y’all have chores you’re supposed to be doing?”

Here was the lobby of the apartment building safe house that Momma BB oversaw. Mostly it was inhabited by orphans—like Thimblerigger and Stevedore—who would have died or been reduced to something worse than death in order to survive if Momma BB hadn’t taken them in. Other than that, there were some escaped androids who had fled slavery to be stuck in the Streets of Six and relatively fewer humans who had been blacklisted from employment and housing elsewhere because of their support for the robot cause.

“Thim’s been flipping coins again,” Stevie said, arms crossed.

“Well, we’re not really sure it if it actually is again, Momma,” Thim corrected Stevie. “It could still be the same flip.”

“You two aren’t gambling now, are you?” Momma BB shook her head. “You know I don’t approve of it.”

“It’s not really gambling because we share our tokens,” Stevie said. “It’s more symbolic of the transfer of wealth than anything.”

“And we still don’t know if it’s a new flip yet,” Thim said. “What’d it come out as?”

Momma BB looked at the coin, said, “Tails.” and tossed it to Thim.

Thim caught the coin with a shrug and handed it to Stevie, saying, “Still inconclusive. We’ll have to run more tests.”

“But Momma BB caught that one,” Stevie complained. “It has to be a different flip. Doesn’t it?”

Thim shrugged again. “Inconclusive.”

“Alright now, y’all,” Momma BB said. “You can do your further testing on the way to work. Your chores are more important than ever now that Christmas is so close. Let’s go, now. We—”

We do nothing alone,” Thimblerigger and Stevedore finished for her, having heard the mantra a million times a day since she had taken them in. “Yeah, yeah. We know.”

“Then y’all know that you’ve got chores, too, and you should be out there doing them.”

“Yes, Momma,” Stevie said. “We’ll get right on it.”

“We thought time had stopped,” Thim said. “We couldn’t do the chores if time wasn’t moving. Could we?”

You thought time had stopped,” Stevie reminded them. “I just wasn’t paying attention.”

“Well time has not stopped,” Momma BB assured the children. “I guarantee you that. If only it had. No, time is flowing at the exact same speed that it always has—much too fast. And that’s all the more reason why you two need to get to those duties of yours sooner than later. There’s no time to waste. Now move along.”

“There’s no time at all,” Thim said, putting a finger on their chin. “Hmmm. Maybe that’s it. There’s just never been any time at all…”

“Now that’s just too much,” Stevie said with a sigh. “Time definitely exists, and Momma BB’s entry into our story suggests that it’s moving forward. So let’s just get on with our chores.”

Thimblerigger started to say something, stopped, took one more coin out and flipped it as high in the air as they could, caught the coin, flipped it behind their back, under their leg, and off the wall, caught it one more time in one hand and flipped it onto the other only to reveal the coin, sigh, toss it to Stevedore, and say, “I’ll come do my part, but I still think the evidence is inconclusive.”

“And like I said,” Momma BB said. “Y’all can continue your little experiments on your way. You’re creative. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

“Thim’s experiments,” Stevie reminded Momma BB.

And, “We do nothing alone,” Thim reminded Stevie.

“That’s right, my darling little monsters,” Momma BB said, pulling Thimblerigger and Stevedore in tight for a big, robotic bear hug. “We do nothing alone. And don’t you dare forget it. Now, I love you two. Y’all know that, right?”

“Yes, Momma,” Thim and Stevie said simultaneously, struggling for air through Momma BB’s hug. “We love you, too.”

“Good,” she said, patting them on the butts to encourage them out of the apartment complex. “Then get moving. I have some chores of my own to get to.”

#     #     #

Thim and Stevie came out of Momma BB’s Safehouse into the heart of the Streets of Outland Six, dark skyscrapers towering over them in every direction.

First—as they did every morning—Thim and Stevie had to find food. It was impossible to do any of the other work ahead of them unless they could nourish themselves, and in Outland Six, there were no printers to steal food from one of the other worlds and give it to them, so they had to go out and find it for themselves. Well, not just for themselves. They were actually gathering supplies for the entirety of Momma BB’s Safehouse. And while that meant that they had to find more food than they would have if they were only searching for themselves, it also meant that they benefited from the experiences, tools, and resources of the other residents—including Momma BB herself—which made them able to catch, carry, and grow more food than they ever would have been capable of on their own—more than enough to feed everyone in the Safehouse, stow a supply for emergencies, and still have extra to give to those in need.

Thim and Stevie’s morning duties consisted of scouting the rat traps and garbage cans in their sector. The rat traps, because if they didn’t get there early enough in the morning, someone else might take the meal for themselves. And the garbage cans, not for food—no one ever threw anything edible away in Six because they were all too hungry to waste food—but instead in search of the odd stray mechanical part, frayed wire, or other useful tidbit. Not many Sixers knew how to utilize such garbage, but Momma BB had always said that it was the trash parts that others had thrown away that had originally saved her life—allowing her to go on to save Thimblerigger’s and Stevedore’s—so Thim and Stevie were extra careful to search every dumpster they passed in case the part they found turned out to be the one that saved a life.

As they walked, Thim continued flipping a coin over and over and calling out the result each time. “Tails. Tails. Tails…”

When they got to the first dumpster, Thim handed Stevie the token, saying, “You keep flipping. The more data we gather the better. I’m going in.”

Stevie shrugged, went on flipping the coin, and called out each response even though Thim, who had gone all the way into the dumpster to search it more thoroughly, couldn’t make out a thing. “Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails…” And so on and so on.

“Well?” Thim asked expectantly, climbing out of the dumpster and brushing some trash goo off their shirt.

“All tails,” Stevie said, flipping the coin back to Thim who caught it, flipped it again, and said, “Tails again.”

They walked on, Thim flipping the coin still, until they made it to the first alley that held their rat traps. Stevie searched each one, putting what rats had been caught in a satchel they carried over one shoulder, while Thim went on flipping the coin.

“Tails. Tails. Tails…” Thim read off as Stevie grabbed a still-twitching rat by the tail, slammed its head on the ground to knock it out, and stuffed it in the bag with the rest.

“Well, I’m getting heads and tails both now,” Stevie said, chuckling to themself as they walked on. “Even if it’s all rat heads, I think it’s safe to say that time has indeed moved forward now that we’re doing our chores. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know.” Thim shrugged, flipping the coin again and still coming up tails. “I still say the evidence is inconclusive.”

And so they continued on, searching each block of dumpsters and set of rat traps in their sector, flipping tails over and over, until they had searched what seemed like hundreds of dumpsters and ten times as many traps to find more rats than they could carry and what looked like a few useful stray parts. They returned to the Safehouse and left the rats in the kitchen—and the bits and pieces of wire and electronics in Momma BB’s workshop—then they finally got to eat their own meal. They plated out a serving of rat sausage—or maybe it was pidgeon, but it all tasted the same in sausage form—biscuits, and jam for each of them then took their meals up to the roof garden—a long climb with the smell of sausage in their nostrils.

The rooftop garden was Thimblerigger and Stevedore’s favorite place to be in all the worlds. Momma BB’s Safehouse wasn’t the tallest skyscraper around, but it was near it, and there weren’t any shadows on the roof except for one little corner where Thim and Stevie always ate their lunch in the shade of a nearby building, looking out onto the rows and rows of raised beds that grew wheat, vegetables, potatoes, and corn in the life-giving sunlight.

Mr. Kitty—a black cat who frequented Momma BB’s Safehouse—was already asleep in the shade, as if he were waiting for them to arrive. He purred and changed position when Thim and Stevie each took a chance to pet his smooth, soft fur before starting in on their lunch.

“Mr. Kitty sure does have the life, doesn’t he?” Stevedore said as they ate.

And, “Ugh.” Thimblerigger groaned. “How many times do I have to tell you?” they asked through a mouth full of sausage. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s disrespectful.”

“Yeah, well you just did it, too,” Stevie complained.

“But you don’t have to look at it,” Thim said, stuffing their mouth faster so they could get back to flipping the coin.

“Still,” Stevie said, annoyed. “Mr. Kitty has got the life, huh? I mean, look at him. Every time we see him, he’s sleeping in the shade here. And look, you just gave him the last little bits of your sausage, and I’ll give him the last little bits of mine, then we’ll both go to work, watering all this food for all these other people, while he just goes on sleeping. That is the life.”

“Sure,” Thim said, done eating and back to flipping tails. “And every time he sees us, we’re out here sitting in the shade with more lunch than we can eat. Besides, those little bits we give him aren’t enough for a cat to live off of. I’m sure he has to search for his own food the same as we all do.” And tails, and tails, and tails…

Yeah, yeah,” Stevie said, feeding their leftovers to Mr. Kitty then leaning back on their elbows to get some rest before their next set of chores. “But I’m sure there are plenty of other people who feed him. And plenty of places to find food.”

“Not on this roof,” Thim said. “Tails. Not unless that cat eats vegetables. Tails again. This is getting serious.”

“Seriously, though,” Stevie said. “How does he get up here? I mean, I’ve never opened the rooftop door for him. Have you?”

“What? No. That’s not what I’m talking about. You’re off track again. I’m talking about the coin flips. They’re still coming up tails. That’s what’s serious.”

“Sure, sure. Sure, it is,” Stevie said, laying all the way back now to listen to the cool wind blowing over their heads. “But we’ve been over all that already once before. I’m on to this now. Haven’t you ever wondered how it is he gets up and down from here all the time? I mean, like you said, there’s no way he’s surviving on the food here alone. And we trap all our rats for ourselves, so that’s not an option.”

“Of course I think about that,” Thim complained. “I’ve been asking you those exact questions ever since the first time we saw Mr. Kitty up here. Why are you only interested in them now that I have something more important on my mind?”

“I’d hardly say that a string of bad luck is super important in the grand scheme of things. Neither is this Mr. Kitty business, mind you, but I choose to focus on it just as you choose to focus on the coin flips. But neither matters at all, in the end, because it’s time to get back to what’s truly important anyway: our chores. So let’s do this.”

And after one more trio of tails, Thim finally gave in and helped with the work. Each of them picked up their bucket, filled it with water, then started down a row, carefully watering each plant along the way. At the end of the row they’d go back and refill their buckets then pick another row to water. There wasn’t really any talking or thinking that could be done during this part of their job because the work was too physical to allow for it, so they just worked. They were sweaty and tired by the time they put their empty buckets away, but Thim went on flipping their coin nonetheless.

“And do you see him now?” Stevie asked. “Or more likely, is Mr. Kitty gone? No sign of where he’s gotten off to, either, I imagine. But you know what? I’ve had enough waiting for the answer to come to me. I’m gonna go find it for once.”

“What are you talking about now?” Thim asked, still coming up tails.

“I’m saying that I think we should camp out here on the roof tonight. But this time let’s really stay up all night like we always used to say we’d do. And we’ll keep a watch until we finally find out where Mr. Kitty comes from. What do you say?”

“Tails,” Thim said. “Tails. Tails. Tails. That’s all I can say until it comes up heads for once. I don’t care about anything else—including where we sleep—until it does. So whatever.”

“Good. Great, then,” Stevie said, laughing and clapping their hands. “Let’s go down, get some food and blankets, then come back up and set up a stakeout. We’re finally gonna find out who this Mr. Kitty is, and we’re not leaving this roof until we know for sure. Come on.”

And so Thim followed Stevie downstairs to do as they were told, flipping tails all the way.

#     #     #

< LXIV. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXVI. Jorah >

And there you have it, the first introduction to Thim and Stevie, two of my favorite characters in this story who are based on two of my favorite characters in all of literature. If you enjoyed that, please do stick around for the continuation of the story, and if you have the money, think about picking up a copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.