Chapter 56: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Good news. Yesterday I finished the handwritten draft of book four in the Infinite Limits series, 0.N Repeating. That means that after a good bit of transcribing and a few months of the first draft sitting in a drawer I’ll soon be editing and publishing the completion of the Infinite Limits story. Yay!

Today, however, we join Mr. Walker for his second point of view chapter which marks the 2/3 complete point in Dividing by Ø. So join us now as Mr. Walker tries to become Lord again and don’t forget to stick with us to see the exciting conclusion of the Infinite Limits saga. We do nothing alone.

< LV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     LVII. Nikola >

LVI. Mr. Walker

“Waltronics Unlimited is seeing profits rise sky high as riots around the worlds increase demand for friendlier, more compliant employees at an exponential rate,” recited the big bald face on the television screen, beads of sweat glistening in the camera lights. “The cost of food and other amenities continues to plummet as cheaper robotic labor drives down profit margins at the benefit of preventing shortages in the luxuries we all need to live.”

Mr. Walker chuckled in his bed, the springs bouncing up and down with his behemoth movement. This newscaster knew nothing about the inner workings of the Free Market. He—like all journalists and most owners—was stuck in the fetishism of numbers. He and people like him had a money fetish, but Mr. Walker knew better. Mr. Walker could see beyond the glamour of the gold and green to the true source of money’s power: Power.

A bit redundant, sure. He chuckled again. But that’s why it was such a powerful realization when he had finally come to it. It was hidden in plain view. He could tell any owner in existence the secret to his success, and each and every one of them would no doubt laugh him off. The source of money’s power is power? they would say with a wry grin on their faces, not sure if good ol’ Mr. Walker was having a jest with them, making a fool, taking the piss. That’s ridiculous. It’s a tautology.

At which point Mr. Walker would smile and nod, still not letting on to whichever owner it was whether he were joking or not. Would he really give his secret away like that? But after all he would decide that it didn’t matter if any of them knew the secret because none of them were man enough to wield it anyway, and Mr. Walker would say, “Yes, my boy.” Maybe patting him on the back—because it would undoubtedly be a him, the owners were almost invariably men as the secretaries were almost invariably women—but Mr. Walker would pat whoever he was on the back to encourage him on a bit then say, “The source of money’s power is power. That is what’s truly important in life and in business. That’s my secret to success.”

Then Mr. Walker’s student would mull it over for a bit, unable to tease out the very truth which was so simply and plainly staring him in the face, only to laugh and pat Mr. Walker on the back, saying, Good one, old Lord. You had me going there for a second. At which time the poor boy would walk away to the next conversation, forever to be haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity and missed information.

“The Market as a whole is in a steep decline,” the sweating bald face on the television droned on mechanically, obviously reading from some eye implant. “Not since the historic rise and crash of the last century have we seen such steep and bracing freefalls in stock prices all across the board.”

Mr. Walker laughed out loud now. The fetish was blinding our dear newscaster again, only this time it wasn’t simply a fetishism of money but a fetishism of the Market itself. This particular fetish was probably more prevalent and harder to get past than the money fetish. Owners especially loved to hold the Market on high as a separate being worthy of being kept alive for the sake of principal. The Market should exist because it always had existed, was their motto, and who could blame them? For all intents and purposes it was the Market—and money—which gave these owners their power. Or so it appeared.

Mr. Walker knew better, though. He knew better than this idiot newscaster, of course, but better even than any other owner in Inland. That was how he had remained on top for as long as he had. Forever, really, until a minor lapse of attention on his part and one lucky decision—along with some mildly clever colluding with Mr. Angrom, he had to admit—made by the now Lord Douglas. But Mr. Walker was back in the survival mode which had made him Lord, the survival mode which he should have maintained even while on top of the food chain and which he would never come out of again—even when he finally and inevitably did regain his Lordship from the Standing Lord Dougy.

Mr. Walker understood that the Market was nothing more than a means to an end. That was it. It was no magical force. It was no independent actor. It was simply the culmination of billions and billions of tiny independent social interactions, all expressing themselves at the same time in a similar place. Each of countless billions of actors did what they themselves thought would get them most of what they wanted in life, and it was that exact selfishness that was the embodiment of the Market, its driving force.

So what if there were less economic exchanges occurring today than there were yesterday? So what if less wealth changed hands? Mr. Walker still ate fifteen square meals a day—more on weekends—and drank his old fashioneds to top off the night. So what?

It made no difference, but only as long as you hadn’t been caught up in the money fetish. Money isn’t power. Mr. Walker knew that. Money’s only power when it’s in style. That’s when it can best perform its magic trick illusion. And money’s only in style when times are good. When times are rough—when the worlds are rioting and there are plenty of robots to make all the commodities but no humans to buy them up—that’s when money loses its flair, the glamour fades, the fetish is revealed. Owners finally see what Fives and Sixes live through their entire lives: money is nothing but symbols. People, food, and electricity form real wealth. Those are the three basics any economy will always need: People, food, electricity. Power, power, power.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” a new voice said on the TV screen and Mr. Walker groaned. The propaganda sector was his least favorite section of Outland and he hated hearing their news. Still, he was deep into Three with this movie business—and only getting deeper as things progressed—so he would have to bear through it.

“We have with us live the one and only Jorah Baldwin—most viewed living actor—for an exclusive interview. So, Jorah, your building is at the heart of the affected area, you’re right in the middle of this brown out, is that correct?”

“Brown out?” Jorah said, frowning. Even Mr. Walker, with as little experience as he had in PR, could tell that Jorah’s makeup was off, like it had been put on by a broken robot. “What is that supposed to mean? You mean blackout?”

The camera cut to the news caster whose face had turned red, embarrassed. “Oh—Uh. I’m sorry. I thought that was— I didn’t want to offend you.”

Jorah scoffed and the camera cut to him. “Well, the blackout sucks, and there isn’t anything offensive about that, girl. My makeup is likely much more offensive. I had to put it on by hand, in the dark. So you can imagine how tough that was. I mean… damn.”

“Oh no, you look great,” the newscaster said, smiling and nodding—and maybe even flirting a little. Pretty creepy if you asked Mr. Walker. Jorah was his property after all. “Tell me, have you been able to get food or water? What about the elevators? Are they running? Are you trapped?”

“Oh, well…” Jorah bit his lip. “I’m afraid I haven’t tried the elevator, or gotten hungry for that matter. In fact, all I’ve done since the blackout is get dressed and prepped for this interview. Which was pretty hard, you know. Did I mention that I had to put my makeup on in the dark?”

“You heard it here fans,” the newscaster said, a serious look on his face as he stared into the camera. “They’re putting their makeup on manually and in the dark. And in case you were unaware, that is a difficult and annoying task. More in thirty minutes as the story progresses.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, wishing he had an old fashioned to sip after that story but not wanting to call Haley for it—really he shouldn’t have to call her, she should just predict his every need like a robot was supposed to do. He shook his head, ignoring Haley’s incompetence and bouncing up and down in his bed with more laughter. Putting on their makeup in the dark? Ho ho ho! That was an apt metaphor for his fellow owners if there ever was one. Mr. Walker, on the other hand, created his own light by which to see. Power, power, power. And he was ready to leverage himself into more of it.

Haley came in—finally—carrying an old fashioned. Mr. Walker sighed in relief at the sight of the drink but growled in anger at her tardiness. Robots, it seemed, were going out of style, and Mr. Walker needed to get himself positioned on the right side of that divide before anyone else did.

“I thought you might like a drink, sir,” Haley said, curtsying by his side table.

“I would have liked a drink five minutes ago,” Mr. Walker grumbled. “Now I absolutely need one. Gimme.” He snatched the drink out of her hand, spilling some on his nightshirt and the comforter in the process. “Now look what you’ve done,” he snapped, sipping the drink. “Clean it up!”

Haley was already cleaning it. “Yes, sir.”

“And you get out of here until it’s time for my meeting. I’m not to be disturbed. Do you understand me? I need to prepare.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied and left, slamming the door too loudly as she went.

If only Mr. Walker could fire her right then and there. He was so mad he wanted to chuck his glass at the TV but the drink’s soothing insobriety and the television’s priceless information were both worth too much to him and it would no doubt take Haley far too long to replace them both as it took her far too long to do anything these days. Mr. Walker would simply have to continue biding his time as he had been doing since that fateful day on which he had lost his crown as Lord of Outland.

He was no longer Mr. Walker at all, in fact. Instead becoming Mr. Red Queen, the Sisyphus of playing cards, always running faster and faster just to keep up—not to mention getting ahead—and he would find his way to the top of the deck again no matter what it took.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” the newscaster repeated, and Mr. Walker groaned as they played the same “live” interview with the same poorly made up Jorah. The power was out. Mr. Walker had gotten the point the first time around. This wasn’t a news story that needed repeating.

“Haley!” Mr. Walker called. “Haley, dear. Get in here!”

It took her much too long to open the door in a fluster and say, “Yes, sir.” with a clumsy curtsy.

“Get my pants, dear. I’m not waiting any longer. We’ll take the old boy by surprise. Chop chop, now. Hop to it.” He clapped his hands together, jiggling his belly with genuine mirth.

“Yes, sir.”

Getting dressed was the same struggle it had been ever since he had gotten this new model of Haley. Mr. Walker couldn’t wait until he could finally get rid of the ignorant, useless thing. Perhaps if this meeting went well enough, he could set that process into motion sooner than later. Not before getting the android to find her own human replacement, of course, but soon. He laughed then yelped as the idiot machine pinched his thigh in the restricting pants.

Damnit,” he snapped. “Be careful!”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied as she worked, pinching him again. “Sorry, sir.”

By the time he was fully dressed Mr. Walker was happy to have summoned Haley as early as he had. If he had waited any longer, her incompetence might have made them late. As it was they were almost five minutes early, which to Mr. Walker was right on time.

They parked in the cheap parking garage—the one that didn’t even have reserved owner parking—and Mr. Walker didn’t gripe once on the long walk all the way from the bus parking spots to the elevator. In fact, Mr. Walker had even insisted that they hold this meeting at Douglas Towers. He wanted Lord Douglas to feel comfortable on his own turf as they made the negotiations. The more comfortable Lord Douglas was the more likely he was to go along with Mr. Walker’s offers. That was Salesmanship 101. If it took parking in bum fuck Egypt with the busses and meeting in an austere conference room, then that was exactly what Mr. Walker was going to do.

Haley made an incessant tapping noise with her feet on the floor of the elevator as they rode it down to the conference room. Mr. Walker was about to yell at her to stop when the elevator doors slid open to reveal Lord Douglas’s grinning face waiting in the hall for them. Mr. Walker almost scoffed though he was able to hold it in. If he wasn’t mistaken, Lord Douglas’s hat had grown noticeably taller since they had last met.

“Wally the Walrus,” Lord Douglas said with a smile. “You’re just on time, five minutes early. As predictable as a secretary, you are.” He chuckled.

“Sometimes I’d wish they were more predictable.” Mr. Walker tipped his hat and bowed as low as his pneumatic pants would allow. “But you know that I prefer to treat my business associates with respect, Lord Douglas. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unforgivable in my book.”

“Yes, well in that case, you were early so you were on time so you were late, and that, my friend, is unforgivable in your very own book.” Lord Douglas laughed, looking at Haley to join in but Haley only blushed and broke eye contact.

Mr. Walker fumed. What was his robot doing blushing at a single glance from his arch nemesis? What was he doing trying to make a deal with that very same enemy? Why hadn’t he spit in the insolent fool’s face, marched out of those shabby wannabe towers, and been done with this toxic relationship once and for all?

He smiled, regaining his cool, remembering why he was there, and said, “Of course, Lord.” bowing again, but this time not as low and without the hat flourish. “The contradictions are there for anyone to see. It’s just wordplay, though. You know what I mean.”

“Is it though?” Lord Douglas smiled. “Just word play, I mean. You honestly believe that someone who is not early is not on time, don’t you?”

Mr. Walker fiddled with the knob of his cane. He didn’t like this line of questioning one bit. He was losing control of the conversation already and they hadn’t even started the negotiations. This was going to be a long meeting if it continued on like this, but Mr. Walker had no choice. He had to answer in appeasement if he wanted to keep Lord Douglas on the line. He only wished he had ever actually fished before—rather than seeing it in old movies—so he could better understand the metaphor.

“Yes, well, that’s my personal motto,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “I can’t hold everyone to it though, of course.”

“Yes, so if you’re early, you’re on time, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said, groaning in his mind. And if I’m on time, I’m late. You’ve been there already. Get on with it so we can get to where I want to go.

“Then I’m sure you can see where I’m going from here,” Lord Douglas said, stepping into the elevator with Mr. Walker who stepped back in surprise to let him on. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to predict where we’re going now.” Lord Douglas smiled.

The doors slid closed and the elevator fell into motion without another command from Lord Douglas. When the doors reopened Mr. Walker was speechless.

This wasn’t the drab gray conference room he had expected. No, this wasn’t Lord Douglas’s style at all. It couldn’t be. It was too grand, too beautiful, too…

The room was a giant office, at least twice as big as Mr. Walker’s own. There was a big desk—twice again the size of the desk in Mr. Walker’s office—and some fluffy looking chairs that surrounded a side table, all looking out onto a wilderness mountain scene.

“I see you like this office much better than my usual conference room,” Lord Douglas said, already seated in one of the fluffy chairs by the windowwall and indicating for Mr. Walker to take the seat across from him. “I thought it might be a bit more your style.”

Mr. Walker tried not to react as he took his seat, but he knew that not reacting was reaction enough for Lord Douglas to discern. “I didn’t know you had any taste,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “Even this little,” he added, trying to play some small amount of offense in what had become a defensive game for him.

“Well.” Lord Douglas shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t take much credit for the decor in here—if any. I pay people to worry about such minor details for me. You know how it goes.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, fidgeting in his seat. “Oh, I don’t now. I like to do things the old fashioned way myself.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair. “Did you need something to drink? I’m such an ungracious host. An old fashioned, though, right? That is your preferred beverage.”

“An old fashioned would be just fine,” Mr. Walker said.

“Very good, then.” Lord Douglas smiled and bowed. “I’ll return shortly.”

Mr. Walker couldn’t believe that Lord Douglas actually left the room to get the drinks himself after showing off with this magnificent office. What kind of madness was he getting at? Lord Douglas had a secretary who Mr. Walker had seen on many occasions, so where was she in all this? Mr. Walker turned around and Haley was still standing there, staring at one of the blank walls instead of out the window. She smiled and feigned a curtsy, conscious of Mr. Walker’s gaze, while Mr. Walker just went on wondering what kind of play Lord Douglas was making.

Lord Douglas returned with drinks in hand and gave one to Mr. Walker—who didn’t leave his seat to accept it, wanting to reappropriate some control of the situation. “There you are. One old fashioned for you and one for myself. Let us drink together to the Invisible Hand’s rule over all our fates.” Lord Douglas raised his glass.

Mr. Walker clinked his glass to Lord Douglas’s with a smirk. “To the Hand’s infinite wisdom,” he said

The old fashioned burned hot all the way down Mr. Walker’s throat and into his stomach, like nothing he had tasted since Christmas when the new Haley had come into his life and fucked everything up for him. She wouldn’t be in it for much longer, though. Not much longer at all.

“So,” Lord Douglas said, setting his empty glass on one of the side tables, unphased by the fire of his own drink. “You came here for a reason, Wally Boy. Let’s get down to it.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, trying to cover up the burning that was still going on inside his own mouth and stomach. “Of course I did, Douggy. It’s always business between us, isn’t it?”

Lord Douglas frowned. “Is it, Walrus? You don’t consider me a close personal friend?” Even Lord Douglas couldn’t keep a straight face saying something as ridiculous as that.

“Am I?” Mr. Walker asked, chuckling himself. “Is that what you’re looking for here, a friend?”

“No—Ha ha! No, Wally.” Lord Douglas put on a straight face again, abruptly halting his laughter. “Not exactly. I’m looking for something more than that.”

Mr. Walker felt like he was on the defensive again. He had initiated these negotiations, how had they gotten so far out of hand so quickly? He needed to retake control of the conversation and fast.

“But this isn’t about me,” Lord Douglas said, as if laying down his arms for the time being, giving up his advantage and letting Mr. Walker speak for some unknown and supremely suspicious reason. “You initiated this meeting, Walker, so you tell me what it is you want and I’ll decide where we go from there.”

“Yes, well…” Mr. Walker fixed his bow tie through his grizzly beard. “I hate to tread ground already walked upon, but I’m afraid we never made it to the end of the particular path in question. That is to say that I called this meeting to finish what we’ve already started.”

Lord Douglas didn’t smile or nod, but his eyes twinkled. “I assumed as much,” he said. “I also assume—forgive my presumptiveness—that you are talking about your desire to relieve me of my shares in the protector force. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Mr. Walker smiled. Now they were getting into territory he had prepared for. Finally he could retake control of the negotiations. “No, you’re not often wrong. Are you Lord Douglas?” He diverted his eyes, being as earnest as he possibly could, feigning a sacrifice of position but only setting himself up for success in the long run.

Lord Douglas couldn’t help but grin, as Mr. Walker knew he would. “Go on, Walrus,” he said. “This flattery gets you nowhere.”

“It’s not flattery when it’s true,” Mr. Walker said, taking a page from Jorah’s book. “Only embellishments can be flattery. But let’s continue anyway. Stating common knowledge is no use to either of us. No, what’s most useful to both parties is for us to discuss the benefit that would accrue to you by consolidating ownership over the android and AI industry.”

Here Lord Douglas was caught speechless. His jaw didn’t drop but the subtle twitch of his eyes expressed his complete and utter awe at the prospect.  “Slow down there, Walton my boy,” Lord Douglas said, fidgeting in his seat. “I thought you were here to talk about the protectors.”

“Oh, yes, yes.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Of course the protectors factor into this, but that’s exactly the ground we’ve already tread upon.”

“I see.” Lord Douglas nodded.

“Do you though? Can you honestly see the possibilities? Have you been following the news at all, Lord Douglas? The numbers? The more the people riot the more the robots are worth and the the more the protectors cost. These are basic axioms of economics.”

“Sure.” Lord Douglas laughed. “That’s why you’re so eager to rid yourself of Waltronics for a bigger share of the protectorship. Right? Because androids are becoming more profitable and protectors are becoming less. That makes a whole lot of sense.”

“That’s where you get me wrong, Doug.” Mr. Walker smiled a tense smile. This was the hail mary, the lynchpin of his entire plan. It was all or nothing, full force or no force, and so he went into it with everything he had. “I’m not in it for the money, my Lord. I’m in it for something more than that.”

Lord Douglas scoffed. “Oh yeah? What more could there be besides money?”

Principle,” Mr. Walker said, slamming his ham fist on a side table and nearly crumbling the fragile thing under his brute strength. “The rule of law. The sanctity of private property and the Free Market. What more could there be in the worlds than that?”

Lord Douglas tapped his chin, thinking about how to answer—or at least wanting to look the part. He took his monocle out of his eye and blew some warm breath on it to rub it clean with his pocket square. “Principle, you say,” he said. “I think I understand all too well the principles on which you stand, and I’m not sure I would like those to be the driving force behind the protectors.”

“But they already are.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Ignoring the fact that I already own a majority share—however slight that majority might be—the principles I stand for are the principles we all stand for. They are the principles of the Free Market, foremost among those being the absolute utility of private property rights and the complete freedom of discretion with regards to one’s own property. What could you find to argue against in that?”

“I could argue with your performance, Wally Boy. That’s what. Talk all you want about ideals, the fact of the matter remains that you have yet to solve the two largest terrorist attacks in recent history, one of which occurred under your Lordship.”

“I’m afraid your information’s a little dated.” Mr. Walker smiled. “Both cases have been solved and the terrorists responsible are being held accountable.”

“Oh. Well then.” Lord Douglas gave a slow, sarcastic, palm clap. “Bravo. It’s only taken you this long. Do you want a cookie cake?”

“No,” Mr. Walker answered without hesitation. “I’m not proud of the time it took. I should have done better. I can do better. And I would have, but I didn’t have the proper resources. We’re running low in One, as you know. We’re pulling rookies up before they’re properly trained. Furthermore, the force is too fractured for it to be as effective as it needs to be in these particularly trying times—as evidenced by our little armory attack last afternoon.”

Your little armory attack, Mr. Walker.”

“Exactly my point, dear Lord. This is our protector force, meant to protect all of us, not just the ones who own them. If we had shared information instead of hoarding it, we could have prevented the attack instead of letting that scum get away with the guns. Now hold on a second there, Lord. Let me finish, please. You see, I know you’ll never work that close with me, sharing all the secrets you gain, and I don’t blame you for it. Information is too valuable to be sharing it like that. So the way I see it, for the good of every owner of Inland, I believe we should consolidate ownership of the protector force under one head so—whoever that head is—he will be able to properly utilize the resources and manpower that are needed to completely and thoroughly protect our economy in these dire times in which we find ourselves.” Mr. Walker was breathing hard by the end of his speech. He had to get it all out in one breath so as not to leave any spaces for Lord Douglas to interject. Now that Mr. Walker wanted him to respond, though, Lord Douglas was taking his time.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lord Douglas, with raised eyebrows, finally asked, “And why, then, should it be you at the helm of the protectors and not me?”

“Well, Lord Douglas.” Mr. Walker bowed as low as he could without losing his top hat—not far because the hat was so tall. “Do you really want to be at the helm of a sinking ship? The protector force is hemorrhaging money. Life would be so much easier taking advantage of the riots by selling robot replacement workers than it would be paying for the protectors who are supposed to put those riots to an end. Don’t you think?”

“Which brings us back to the question of why you would be volunteering to do the harder job in my place.”

“I’ve already told you. Honor, my boy.” Mr. Walker puffed out his chest. “Respect. I’m no longer Lord, you know, and it’s starting to sink in. Not only that, I keep falling further and further behind every day. I’m sure you know that. You watch the markets as close as any good owner.”

Lord Douglas smiled and gave a slight nod.

“I’m not catching up to you any time soon—even with complete control of Waltronics Llc.—and I know that. You know that. Every owner who can read a stock quote knows that because it’s a fact. I’m just trying to find another way to do something worth being remembered for, and I think stopping this riot might be the best course of action for me. You’re beyond all this protecting now. You’re Lord. Everything you do is honorable and destined for the history books. I, on the other hand, am forced to find other avenues through which to make my life a fulfilling one, and protecting is what I’ve chosen.”

Lord Douglas nodded. “And what exactly is it that you’re offering?” he asked. “What is it that you want?”

“I propose a one for one trade. I own ninety percent of Waltronics android facilities while you own ten percent of the same. I own fifty-one percent of the protector force while you own forty-nine percent of the same. I suggest an even exchange, my Waltronics holdings for your protector stocks. Straight up. Now, I know they’re not exactly—”

“Deal.”

“Wait a second. You can have some time to— What?”

Lord Douglas stood and extended his white gloved hand across the desk. “I agree to trade all my protector stocks for all your robotics stocks. Deal.”

Mr. Walker looked at the hand. This was way too easy. How was it so easy? Still, it was what Mr. Walker had wanted. He stood and shook Lord Douglas’s hand vigorously. “Deal, then Douggy,” he said. “I’m glad you could finally see it my way. You won’t regret this, now. Haley, my dear, you got that, right? You witnessed it?”

“The transaction has been processed, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy.

“Very good. Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker said, still shaking Lord Douglas’s hand. “It was so good doing business with you, Lord.”

“And you, my friend,” Lord Douglas said with a wry smile. “Better than you could imagine. But—and only if you don’t mind, of course—there is one last piece of business I’d like to share with you. If you would, please, sit down.”

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker retook his seat, his stomach jiggling in glee. “Anything, my Lord,” he said. “After a deal like that, I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Lord Douglas said, leaving the room. “There’s someone I’d like you to see.”

Mr. Walker didn’t care who it was. He had gotten what he wanted out of these negotiations, and they were a success no matter who came through that door behind Lord Dug Bot. The fool had no doubt fallen into the same sense of ease that Mr. Walker had when he was Lord, and Mr. Walker was going to make him pay for it.

The door opened and Mr. Walker did a double take, looking back at Haley then forward to Haley again. No. It couldn’t be.

“I believe you know Haley,” Lord Douglas said with a grin, stepping behind her. “And I hope you don’t regret our deal, after all.”

 

#     #     #

< LV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     LVII. Nikola >

So there it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If so, don’t forget to go through this link to purchase full copies of all the novels in the series–and maybe leave some positive reviews, I could really use the exposure. Thanks again for following along. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend, y’all.

Advertisements

Chapter 55: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to Ansel’s story. She’s found a way off of Sisyphus’s mountain through the seams of reality and now she’s forced to face another brand new world entirely. Discover what she finds there in this next chapter of the Infinite Limits saga, and please do think about picking up a full copy of this and any of the other novels in the series through this link.

Thanks again for reading along, dear readers. Enjoy the story.

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

LV. Ansel

“I asked you first,” the boy said, standing from where he had been knocked down by Ansel and brushing himself off. She could see that he was a boy now and that he was wearing a long white coat just like the Scientist’s.

“So,” Ansel said, picking up her rucksack and wishing she had come up with a better response than “So”.

“So?” The boy scoffed. “So you should answer first, that’s what. It’s common courtesy.”

“And what if I don’t answer you at all?” Ansel asked, crossing her arms, stuck in this ridiculous line of reasoning because of her earlier one word response. “What if I don’t trust that you’ll answer my question in return?”

The boy laughed now, but when Ansel gave him a look he stopped. “Wait,” he said. “You’re serious? Why wouldn’t I? Sharing information costs me nothing and maybe you could do something useful with the knowledge. As to why you wouldn’t give me your name, I don’t see any good reason for you not to. I mean, our conversation would certainly be more productive if we knew each other’s names. Don’t you think?”

Ansel couldn’t argue with that. She wasn’t quite sure why she was arguing in the first place. Maybe she just didn’t want to trust anybody anymore. “I’m Ansel,” she said with a shrug.

“Hello, Ansel,” the boy said, holding out a gloved hand for her to shake. “I’m Ashley.”

Ansel scoffed. “Ashley?”

“Yes, well, I answered your question, didn’t I? That’s my name. So what’s the problem?”

“Well, that’s a…” Ansel didn’t know how to else to say it so she just put it bluntly. “That’s a girl’s name and you’re a boy.”

“I’m not a boy!” Ashley insisted, crossing his arms and tapping one foot.

Ansel couldn’t argue with that, either. She knew how much she hated it when people tried to tell her she was a girl when she knew she wasn’t one, and now here she was doing the same exact thing to this bo—eher—Ashley. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I didn’t mean to… I’m just sorry.”

“Good,” Ashley said, nodding and uncrossing his arms. “And in the future don’t go around assuming things when you only have limited evidence. You’ll end up making a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.” He picked up a heavy bag and strapped it over one shoulder, making to lug it away and leave Ansel behind without another word.

Uh, wait,” Ansel said, stopping him. He looked pretty irritated to be standing there with the heavy bag over his shoulder. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Where are we now?” She hadn’t taken the time to look around before, but now that she did, she was a little unsettled by the place. They were standing in a long, dark, slightly curved tunnel with cement walls and metal grating for a floor. Maybe going through that seam wasn’t such a good idea after all. It didn’t look like she’d be able to find food or water anywhere near this tunneled labyrinth of caves, and her minimal supplies were only enough to last a day or so at most.

“I’m going home,” Ashley said, his voice straining against the weight on his shoulder. “My shift’s over and you’re here to relieve me. So on that note, goodbye.” He started to walk again, his feet clanging on the metal grating with every heavy step.

“Wait, relieve you?” Ansel said, rushing over and taking his bag off his shoulder to let it fall with an echoing bang on the metal floor. “What are you talking about?”

Ashley groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You have been through training, haven’t you? Let me guess, you don’t even have your own interface.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ansel shrugged. “I don’t even know what an interface is.”

Great.” Ashley sighed, bending over to open his bag and fish a big heavy computer tablet out of it. “Just what I needed. You know, I don’t get enough credit to waste my time training newbies. I have other shit to do.”

“I don’t need any—”

“Look. It’s okay. You can use mine this once, but you have to bring it back to me right after your shift. You got it?”

“Would you listen to me?” Ansel said, stomping her foot with a loud clang. “I don’t have any shift. I don’t need any training. And I’m not here to relieve you. I just need you to tell me where I am and how I can get out of this stupid tunnel.”

Ashley stared at her, blank faced, taken aback by Ansel’s aggressiveness and finally at a loss for words.

“Well…” Ansel said. “You had answers for everything else. Why not this?”

“I—uh— Who are you now?” Ashley asked, taking a step back from her.

“I’m Ansel. I already told you that. Now it’s your turn. Where am I?”

“How did you get here if you don’t know where you are?” Ashley asked, taking another step back. “Who are you?”

I’m Ansel,” Ansel repeated. “How many times do I have to tell you? I came through the seams the elevators travel through and now I’m here. Where is here, and how do I get out of this stupid cement tunnel?”

The seams.” Ashley said, excited, stepping forward now and apparently over his initial fears. “What seams? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Ansel said. “The seams between the edges of the worlds. I think it’s the same sort of way an elevator travels between them.”

“But you didn’t take the elevator?” He was putting the interface, or whatever, into his bag now and fishing some other foreign tool out of it. “You walked through the fields without any protection?” He waved a little beeping and flashing wand in front of her, apparently communicating some meaning to Ashley who was staring at it rather than Ansel as he spoke.

“No elevator,” Ansel said. “Not this time. I hate those things. And besides, do you see any elevator doors around here?”

“Of course not,” Ashley said, still scanning her with the wand. “But you could have ridden an elevator near here then walked the rest of the way.”

“Hey, cut that out!” Ansel pushed the wand away and stepped back from Ashley now. “All I need to know is how to get out of these stupid tunnels, alright. Leave your little beeping scanner doohickies for someone else.”

Ashley chuckled. “Doohickies? Hardly. If you came through the fields unprotected, there’s no telling what you passed through—or for that matter, what passed through you. This here little doohickey might just save your life. Now, can you read this?” He held the wand too close to her face for her to see anything.

Ansel snatched it out of his hand to get a better look. “Sonic Scanner,” she read.

“Good. Very good,” Ashley said, snatching the scanner back. “That means you have no spatial distortions. You came out facing the same way as you were when you went in. Getting flipped around’s not a fatal outcome, of course, but it would be rather annoying to deal with if you ask me.”

“Whatever.” Ansel sighed. “I’ve had about enough of this examination. If you’re not going to show me which way is out, I’ll just find it on my own. Good bye and good riddance.” She stomped loudly down the dark tunnel, picking a direction at random.

Uh, I wouldn’t go that way,” Ashley said, re-packing his bag and hefting it up over his shoulder. “The security bots will stop you if you try. I’m surprised they haven’t noticed you yet as it is. Come on. Let’s go this way. I’ll show you.”

Ansel hesitated, not sure if she wanted to trust this guy just yet—she had made plenty of judgement errors in deciding who to trust lately and she didn’t need to add another mistake to that list—but in the end she didn’t really have a choice either way.

“We’ll get something to eat, too,” Ashley said, starting his slow trudge up the tunnel and limping from the weight of his bag over one shoulder. “Come on. We have so much to talk about.”

Ansel hesitated again but only for show this time. She knew he was her best bet in finding out where she was, whether she trusted him or not. After a moment’s wait to let him think she wasn’t too eager to join him, she jogged to catch up and followed him to an elevator.

“I hate these things,” Ansel said as the doors slid closed.

“I love them,” Ashley said, dropping his bag with a thud. “Dorms, please.”

“Dorms?” Ansel said, and her stomach grumbled—she wasn’t sure if it was out of hunger or because the floor falling out from underneath her made the butterflies in her stomach scatter.

“Don’t worry,” Ashley said. “It’s not like I’m inviting you up to my room or anything. You can wait in the lobby. I just have to drop this bag off. It’s too—ugh—heavy.” He lifted it up on his shoulders with a huff as the doors slid open.

Ansel tried to say that she could take care of herself whether it was in the lobby, in his bedroom, or anywhere else in all the worlds, but she couldn’t form words when she saw what the elevator doors opened onto. This was no lobby. It couldn’t be. It was outside. It looked like the wilderness with the endless mountains she had just escaped from, like a tiny patch of the green belt without the skyscraper walls closing it in on either side.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said, already on his way through the grass. “There’s a bench by the bubble. You can wait for me there if you don’t want to come up to my room. Let’s go.”

Ansel forced her jaw shut and hurried to catch up. “This is the lobby?” she asked, stupidly, regretting it instantly.

“That it is. Pretty lame, huh? But it could be worse.”

“Worse?” What was this guy talking about? He didn’t know how good he had it. “Are there any animals?”

Ugh. Yes. Tons of squirrels and rabbits. And beware, they will charge at you for any little crumb of food. They’ve gotten pretty mean lately, but they usually stick by the pond so as long you stay away from there, you should be safe.”

“There’s a pond?”

“Well, duh,” Ashley chuckled, setting his bag on a little bench under a huge oak tree that was hung with ivy. “This isn’t Pennbrook. We have some class here. Though—what am I saying?—there’s no telling where you come from. You probably have no idea at all what I’m blathering on about, do you? Here. You wait right here and I’ll be right back.” He hefted up his bag one more time and carried it into a little glass bubble near the bench. The doors of the bubble slid closed and the translucent thing carried Ashley up into the sky to disappear behind the fluffy white clouds.

Ansel set her rucksack on the bench then sat beside it to take in this new wilderness. It seemed larger than the one she had come from, but maybe that was only because there was no mountain to give her perspective. There were no hills at all, in fact, only flat ground and trees too thick to see through in every direction. It didn’t really seem like a forest, though. It was more like a bunch of trees.

Ansel stood and paced in front of the bench, getting anxious. What was taking this kid so long and when was someone going to figure out that she didn’t belong there? There weren’t many people around, sure, and plenty of space for them to spread out into, but the few that Ansel did see were all wearing the same long white coat that Ashley was—like it was some kind of uniform or something. It made Ansel feel self-conscious about the new jeans and t-shirt that had so shortly ago made her feel more comfortable than she’d ever felt wearing clothes.

Where was she anyway? Ugh.

Maybe she shouldn’t wait for this Ashley kid to come back, after all. She had promised herself to be more careful about trusting strangers, and here she was waiting for one to come and take her who knows where. Maybe she should just go find that pond he was talking about and hunt those squirrels and rabbits, whatever they were. They probably tasted good. Why else would someone stock this wilderness with them?

She had gathered her rucksack and decided to go do just that when the bubble came back down out of the sky, carrying Ashley in his long white coat. “You’re not planning on ditching me, are you?” he asked as the pod doors slid open. “I’ve got so many questions I need to ask you before you go.”

Well, she was planning on ditching him, but it was too late for that now. “Nah,” she lied. “I saw you coming. I was just getting ready.”

“Let’s go, then,” Ashley said. “You said you were hungry, right? Well come on.” He waved her on back toward the elevator they had ridden in on. Getting into it after him, Ansel noticed the elevator was in a wooden shack just like the elevator in the wilderness outside of the Scientist’s window. In fact, the shack looked like an exact replica. “Dining Hall,” Ashley said as the doors closed, and his stomach grumbled while the elevator fell into motion. “I guess I’m pretty hungry myself,” he said with a blush.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened onto a huge dining room filled with long tables that were half empty. The floor was white vinyl, the tables and chairs were silvery and metallic, and every single person besides Ansel was wearing a long white coat.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said after some time of Ansel staring at the scene from the safety of the elevator. “Let’s get some food, then we can talk.”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, hesitating, still standing in the elevator door and preventing it from closing. “I don’t feel right. I wish I had one of those white coats. I look like a Street orphan trying to pass herself off as a Day Schooler.”

Ashley looked at her as if he hadn’t even known she were wearing clothes until she mentioned them. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t even notice they were different.” But now that she had pointed it out, Ansel could tell that he couldn’t stop noticing.

“Well, someone will notice,” Ansel said. “And when they do, it won’t be hard to figure out that I don’t belong here. Then what would they do with me? I don’t need any protectors ruining my plans.”

“Protectors?” Ashley chuckled. “Protectors haven’t existed since 3D printers were invented. There’s no need for them anymore. They’re ancient history. I promise. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now come on out of that elevator, someone’s probably trying to use it.”

Ansel scoffed. “Then the 3D printer hasn’t been invented yet,” she said. “I’ve seen protectors and I know they exist. You can fuck with them if you want to, but I’m getting out of here so I don’t get caught. Doors close.”

The elevator doors tried to close but Ashley stuck his arm inside to stop them before they could. “Wait,” he said. “Hold on a second. You see, that kind of information is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You can’t leave.”

“Well I’m not going in there looking like this,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “I won’t do it. That would be stupid and dangerous.”

Hmmm.” Ashley thought about it for a moment. “Okay, well, here.” He started to take off his jacket. “Take mine. You’ll look like you belong here so no one will mess with you, and I actually do so it won’t matter if they try messing with me.” He held out the jacket with a smile.

Ansel hesitated. She wasn’t sure his logic was sound, but she was getting pretty hungry and she still had no idea where she was or where she was trying to get to. “Alright. I guess,” she said, begrudgingly taking the coat and slipping it on. It fit her perfectly and smelled like something attached to a distant memory she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “But if anyone starts acting suspicious, I’m out of here.”

“And I won’t stop you,” Ashley said with a big smile. “You say the word and I’ll show you back to the seam where I found you—or you found me—whatever.”

Ansel nodded. “Good. Let’s go get some food then.”

He led her between the tables, and at first Ansel was still worried that she was going to be found out, but she came to recognize that no one there was paying any attention to her. They were all too busy with their own lives, doing their own things. Some were arguing with one another—across tables and up and down them—about a subject matter that must have been important from the tones of their voices. Peppered among the debaters, sitting at tables all alone even if sitting right next to one another in body, were others who furiously clicked and typed on tiny computer screens, working on something equally as important as the debates going on around them. None of them from either group were really even eating, it seemed, and those who were only did it with one hand or through a mouth full of words, more worried about subjects far beyond basic human needs for nourishment.

The line they waited in for food was short and quick. Each person ordered the same thing without thinking, and the printer dashed it off, no questions asked. When it was their turn to order, Ashley said, “One special, and a—uh…” and he looked to Ansel.

She froze. She didn’t know what she wanted to eat. She never knew. There were always way too many things to choose from, and she had no way of knowing what this Ashley might think was weird food to order. Before she went into full meltdown mode, agonizing over the decision, Ansel went with the only thing she could think of, the same choice she usually made during anxiety breakdowns, following the crowd. “Same,” she said.

“And one special,” Ashley said with a grin. The printer hummed into motion and soon Ashley was handing Ansel a tray and leading the way to a table. He started to sit at one that was already filled with people until Ansel urged him to move to a more secluded area. Even with the jacket she didn’t really feel comfortable being out there in the open like that.

“So,” Ashley said through a bite of his sandwich, the same sandwich Ansel was chewing on. The special was apparently the same meal she had gotten for lunch when she let the 3D printer order for her in the Scientist’s kitchen: soup and a sandwich. “I have so much to ask you I don’t even know where to start.”

Ansel scoffed, poking at her sandwich. She should have ordered wild game, that was what she really wanted to eat, not this sliced, pre-made cold sandwich. “How about you start by answering some of my questions,” she said.

“Splendid idea,” Ashley said, spitting a little half-chewed bit of food across the table in his excitement. “Your questions should be as informative as my answers. Even more so, probably.”

“Well, okay,” Ansel said, stirring her soup. She didn’t really believe what he said, but she didn’t mind the flattery. “So where am I?”

“Where are you? Hmmm.” Ashley dropped his sandwich, really thinking about the question. “That all depends on how you mean.”

Ugh.” This wasn’t getting anywhere fast. “What do you mean how I mean? I mean where am I?”

“Well, you’re sitting right there aren’t you? But that isn’t a very useful answer.”

“No. It’s not. It’s a little too obvious.”

Exactly,” Ashley said, clapping his hands. “Too specific. Already known. I could say you’re in the dining hall of Tulane Advanced STEM Academy, too, but that would be equally useless for you.”

“What’s the Tulane Advanced Stem Academy?”

“You hit the nail on the head again.” Ashley laughed. “Though technically true, the statement relies on knowledge inaccessible to you, rendering the truth it holds once again moot.”

“Oh my God,” Ansel said, putting her head down on the table, almost in her soup. “Can you tell me anything useful?”

“God?” Ashley grinned. “Now that’s an archaic term. And finally we find some small illumination of the matter at hand. May I ask you a question now? Have you ever heard the word of Sic bo?”

Ansel groaned, raising her head to look at him and actually spilling some of her soup with the motion. “I don’t know. Is it something useful?”

Ashley chuckled. “About as useful as God most of the time, if you ask me, but in this instance rather useful as it appears to be a key to your origins.”

“My origins?”

“Your origins. From the Latin oriri meaning to rise, become visible, or appear, sometimes used to mean zero on the Cartesian coordinate plane. Your origin is thus the center or your world, where you came from. So, have you ever heard of Sic bo?”

Ansel shook her head.

“And Mother Maria, ruler of fate?”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Ansel complained. “I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions.”

“I’ll take that as a no, and I’m not surprised by the fact, either. It’s further evidence in support of the hypothesis that you, Ansel, are not from this world at all—maybe not even from this country or time period for all I know, but more evidence is required before making further inferences.”

“I’m from the Streets,” Ansel said, fighting back unexpected tears from the memory of them. “I don’t know what world you’re from, and I don’t know what a country is, but I do know that I’m from the Streets.”

“The streets? You see? I mean, is that even in America?”

“What’s America?”

Ashley made to speak then stopped. He put a hand to his chin and shook his head. “I— Well, it’s— You know… our country.”

“Whose country?”

Us. The people who live here. The people who think and create here, moving America’s technology forward. Who else is there?”

Ansel chuckled. She had no idea what this guy was talking about anymore, and the only way she could respond without lashing out or crying was with laughter. “Who are you even?” she asked.

Ashley had to think about that one, too. “You know,” he said after some time. “I’ve never really pondered that one, either. You ask a lot of questions I’ve never even thought of. This is amazing.”

“Well while you do ponder it, maybe you can figure out how to tell me where I am, then more importantly, how to get out of here. I think I’m done with this place.”

No,” Ashley said without hesitation. “You can’t go yet. I have so much to learn.”

“Well I’m not learning anything, Ash. So what’s the point?”

He smiled wide. “I know how I can explain where you are and maybe find out where you’re from at the same time.”

Ansel shook her head, not believing him. “And what about where I want to go?”

“That, too. All of it.” He stood fast from his seat, knocking it over with a clang. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He grabbed Ansel’s hand and pulled her to the elevator, leaving her just enough time to grab her rucksack in the process. “Lab,” he said when the doors closed behind them.

“Lab?” Ansel said. “No, I’m not going back there.”

“Back?” Ashley scoffed. “You’ve never been to my lab before.”

Ansel calmed down, blushing. All this time she had thought that there was only the one lab, the Scientist’s Lab, she had no idea it was a general word like kitchen or bedroom.

The elevator doors opened onto a short hall that looked just like the Scientist’s. Ansel fought her urge to push Ashley out of the elevator and ride it back to the wilderness lobby where she could live in peace and instead followed him through the hall to the door at the other end.

“Are you ready?” he asked, holding his hand on the doorknob.

Ansel nodded

Ashley opened the door to reveal a room that looked exactly like the Scientist’s office—the smaller one Ansel had only been in a few times—but instead of looking out onto a line of assembly line workers, the window here looked out onto the same scene as the window in Rosalind’s giant office—the wilderness scene with the endless mountains which Ansel had climbed over and over and over before travelling through the seams to literally run into Ashley.

“So what do you think?” Ashley asked, scurrying to the desk where he flipped on the big bank of monitors—just like the Scientist’s only a little smaller.

“I’ve seen better,” Ansel said, casually strolling to stand behind him and drop her bag. “That view’s kind of played out, isn’t it?”

“I like the mountain,” Ashley said, defensively, still typing and clicking at the computer. “It reminds me of Sisyphus. I could only imagine what it would look like to stand atop that mountain.”

Ansel scoffed. “I don’t know what Sisyphus is, but it’s not that great of a view up there. It’s kind of annoying, really, to see all those mountains and know that you’ll never be able to climb them all. And I’m telling you that from experience.”

Ashley stopped typing to turn and stare at her. “No,” he said, jaw dropped. “You haven’t. You couldn’t have. That would mean that you—”

I did,” Ansel said, smiling and nodding, proud of herself. “That’s where I came from when I ran into you.” She pointed out the window. “I stood on that mountaintop before I traveled unprotected through the elevator seams into your tunnels.”

“No way. Uh uh. Impossible,” Ashley said, clicking and typing away again. “Look at this.” A complicated diagram came up on the bank of screens. Ansel wasn’t sure, but it looked kind of like a three dimensional map. “There’s only one way into that sector and it’s too heavily guarded for anyone to get into or out of, much less both.”

“Well I did,” Ansel said, beaming—and blushing a little bit, becoming a little full of herself for some reason. “Now how do I get back?”

“You don’t.” Ashley scoffed. “I don’t even know how you claim to have gotten in there in the first place, but it’s out of the question to go back.”

“That’s shit,” Ansel complained. “You told me you could help me find where I wanted to go. I want to go back there, to where I can at least hunt for my own food. So are you going to help me do it or what?”

“Hunt for food? Now you’re really crazy.”

“I am not, and I don’t care what you think. I’m leaving.” Ansel stormed out of the room but she didn’t emerge into the hallway. She would have complained about how hard those stupid doors were to operate, but she was distracted by what she saw. The room she had gone into was filled with the same type of glassware she had seen in the Scientist’s big lab, these vials and beakers filled with variously colored chemicals in different states of matter—Rosalind had already taught Ansel a little bit about chemistry in her short stay with them. Ansel rushed over to get a closer look at a particularly bright red concoction that was boiling, steaming, and mixing with a colorless gas to form a new green liquid, when Ashley rushed up and pulled her back from the table. “Be careful,” he said. “I’ve been working on that set up for weeks. Don’t mess it up.”

“What is it?”

“Chemistry homework. I hate chemistry.” He grimaced. “I don’t see how it’s ever supposed to be useful for a spatial physics major, but they make us all take the basic science classes and that includes the worst of them, chemistry.”

Ansel scoffed. “This is basic?”

Ashley blushed. “Yeah, well, I got held back in my first few attempts. None of those being my fault, of course.

“But what are you doing?” Ansel asked, ignoring his embarrassment.

“Making some inorganic something or other. Ugh. I can’t even remember anymore. Does it matter?”

UhYeah,” Ansel said. “It’s pretty much the coolest thing you’ve shown me since I’ve been here.”

“My homework? Wow. You know, there’s a lot cooler stuff around here. You should see the zoo. We have actual four dimensional animals, though all you can really see are their projections on our 3D space, of course.”

“Zoo?”

Ashley laughed. “Yeah, you know, a place where they keep animals to look at. It’s much better than stupid chemistry, and it’ll help me explain where you are. Come on. It’s not going to make sense until I show you.”

Ansel didn’t want to leave the shimmering colorful glass paradise, but she would like to see some strange new animals—and maybe even figure out what that long eared rat she had eaten in the shade of the endless mountain was. She followed Ashley down the hall and into the elevator where he said, “Zoo.”

“So you just keep the animals caged up or something?” Ansel asked. “Is it so they’re easier to eat?”

“Eat?” Ashley chuckled. “Mother Maria, no. Of course not. It’s so we can study them. And preserve most of them, really. There aren’t many species that aren’t endangered these days.”

Ansel nodded, not entirely sure what he meant, but at the same time not wanting to make a fool of herself. She thought she could understand the word species from context clues—it was a type of animal—but endangered was a little more difficult. Ansel knew what danger was—probably a lot more so than this white coated kid would ever understand it—but she still had no idea what it meant to be endangered. Was she endangered every time she was in danger? It was better she didn’t ask so she could save herself from sounding like an idiot. She’d try to pick up more clues as to what the word meant when they got to this zoo.

The elevator doors slid open to reveal another wilderness scene but this one packed denser with dark leaved trees all hung with vines. Ansel stepped out onto the soft soil of a dirt path and stared up at the canopy where the sun burst through in tiny clumps of rays, giving the canopy the appearance of a green night sky similar to the black one she had seen twinkling over the endless mountain.

“They always bring you to Africa first,” Ashley said, leading Ansel along the tiny dirt path that seemed to go on forever in front them. “Every zoo I’ve ever been to, I swear. They want to hit you with the big stuff right when you enter so you’ll be hooked from the start for the rest of a mediocre ride to the grand finale.”

“Africa?” Ansel asked, not really interested in his response because she was too distracted by the endless trees and echoing noises which must have belonged to some strange creatures.

Ashley chuckled, stopping in Ansel’s way and pointing out to guide her vision through a small clearing in the trees. “Africa,” he said. “Another country, one with animals like you’ve never seen before.”

There in the clearing was a black cat that looked almost exactly the same as that Mr. Kitty that Ansel had chased ages ago, but this cat was twenty times Mr. Kitty’s size. It stood in a hunter’s stance, muscles tense and twitching, ears pointed backward, long black tail held flat, and green eyes staring through Ansel’s skin to the meat and bones it so wanted to taste underneath. Ansel’s muscles tensed up along with the big black cat’s, her own hunter’s reflexes kicking in, while Ashley didn’t seem to care that the thing was staring at them, ready to pounce, when it did.

Ansel let out a shrill scream that didn’t make sense—she had meant to yell “Look out!” but the words came out jumbled and unintelligible—and dove to push Ashley out of the hungry beast’s way, dreading those sharp, deadly claws which were angling for her jugular.

 

#     #     #

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

And so ends another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story as much as I have writing it. Do join us again next week for the next chapter. Until then, have a great weekend and a great week after that. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

Chapter 54: Chelsea

Just a short introduction today, dear readers. For this morning’s chapter in Chelsea’s story she deals with the consequences of a criminal attack on the protector station. Enjoy today’s read, and if you do, don’t forget to pick up a copy or leave a review through this link. Now here it is:

< LIII. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LV. Ansel >

LIV. Chelsea

Her heart stopped. The world spun around her. There was one body left at her feet. The others had fled, chased by the backup that arrived all too late, but Chelsea was proud of herself. She had done her duty. She had protected. She plopped down onto her seat, let her gun fall to the floor, and slammed her head on the desk three times in quick succession.

After some time alone in silence, punctuated sporadically by the sound of her head hitting the desk, an Officer she didn’t recognize rolled a cleaning cart in and set to disposing of the body which was still lying, breathless and dead, on the once white floor behind her. Chelsea didn’t react to his presence. She simply laid her head on the desk, trying to catch her breath and listening to the Officer as he struggled clumsily with the still warm body until the cart creaked away again, quieter under the new weight of Chelsea’s first kill.

She gagged, grabbing the wire mesh trash can at her feet as fast she could, but only managed to dry heave. Luckily she hadn’t been eating much lately or the can and the floor would have been covered in whatever meal came before murder. She stood to stare at the bloodstains on the floor, which would no doubt take some effort to wash away and would thus remain for a long time to come, reminding her of just what she had lived through. She looked down at her hands and thought for a second that she saw blood on them then tried to laugh the vision away. That was nonsense, insane, true metaphorically—perhaps—but when one started hallucinating metaphors it was high time to seek out psychological assistance.

She turned to look away from the blood, her entire body trembling. She had done her duty. That’s all. They were trespassers with cruel intentions, and they deserved what they had gotten. But why did she still feel so guilty about it?

She was standing there, staring off into the nothingness behind the bloodstains on the floor, when a hand grasped her by the shoulder and jerked her back into reality.

“Pardy!” the hand’s voice said, the Captain’s voice. “Don’t you go all Pardy on me, now. I know it’s your name, but unlike your husband, you can handle a little violence in the course of duty, can’t you?”

Chelsea shook her head, still not fully back to reality or completely able to understand what the Captain was saying. “Go all Pardy, sir?” She squinted, trying to be sure it was actually the Captain she was talking to and not some metaphorical hallucination.

“Like your husband, the former Officer Tom Pardy. He couldn’t handle his first kill, either. A lot of people think that’s what made him do what he did. A lot of people hope so, at least, but they’ll probably never get the chance to find out the truth now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It doesn’t matter, kid,” the Captain said, patting Chelsea on the back. “You did good.”

Chelsea flinched away from her touch. “I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head. “I never should have left my post to chase after them. They never should have made it into this room in the first place.”

“That was one little mistake,” the Captain said, chuckling. “We can sweep it under the rug with ease. No problem.”

“I—uh—”

“Now let me finish,” the Captain said, adding a hint of harshness to her tone which betrayed the gaiety she had obviously been struggling to maintain. “The important part is that you understand that you didn’t have a choice. You were forced to kill those intruders. Killing them was the only regulation course of action. They don’t call it a Protector Force for nothing, you know. You were forced into it.” The Captain tried chuckling again, but it did nothing to lighten the mood.

“I should have killed more,” Chelsea said, shaking her head. “I should have killed all of them.” Tears welled up behind her eyes but she fought them back without wiping them. She didn’t want the Captain to see her weakness.

“You did what you could, kid. You’re a rookie at a desk job who doesn’t even carry an assigned weapon. Another Officer was killed, you know. At least you fared better than he did.”

Chelsea cringed at the thought of Officer Janitor’s lifeless body.

“And you did me proud,” the Captain said. “Which should be bountiful for your career—as long as you’re willing to keep it up. You are willing to keep it up, aren’t you?”

“I—uh…” Chelsea wasn’t sure about killing another person, no matter how much they deserved it, but she also knew that it was probably the only way to keep her son safe under the Captain’s custody. “Yes, sir, Captain, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a weak and lazy salute.

“Very good, Pardy,” the Captain said, slapping Chelsea on the back. “Then follow me to my office. I have some good news and some bad news we need to discuss, and they might just be the same thing. Ha ha!”

“I—What?” Chelsea tried to say but the Captain had already left the office.

In the hall, Chelsea picked her way carefully around the blood she knew belonged to Officer Janitor while the Captain marched unceremoniously through the still sticky puddles, leaving red boot prints in her wake. Chelsea breathed a sigh of relief when the elevator doors closed and she didn’t have to look at the blood any longer.

“Oh, I know. You must be tired, kid,” the Captain said in response to the sigh which she must have mistaken for a yawn. “But I’m afraid this bit of information can’t wait. You’ll get an opportunity for rest after this meeting. I swear it.”

The doors slid open and the Captain marched out fast, leaving Chelsea to play catch up. When the Captain swung her office door open and burst through it, Chelsea stopped dead in the doorway with dropped jaw. Sitting there, bent kneed and clearly nervous, staring out the window across the desk, was Tom. All Chelsea could do was wonder who was taking care of Jonah if Tom was there.

Ah, Pardy,” the Captain said, crossing around the desk to take her seat. “You’re already here. Perfect. And I’m sure you know Pardy.” The Captain smiled at her own joke.

Tom stood and stepped toward Chelsea to hug her then awkwardly tried to tick off a salute toward the Captain when Chelsea didn’t reciprocate, unable to decide who in the room he should be looking at. “I—uh. Yes, sir,” he said. “Chelsea—I—”

“Yes, Chelsea Pardy,” the Captain said, “but let’s keep this professional, please. While you’re on the Force you have no spouse, you have no family, you have no one but your fellow Officers, and I am your superior. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Tom and Chelsea sang in unison.

“Good.” The Captain smiled. “Now take a seat, both of you. We have so much to discuss.”

Tom sat straight back in the seat he had been occupying, and when Chelsea tried to cross to the other side, he made it more awkward than it had to be by clumsily standing up, bumping into her, and switching seats instead of simply moving his legs out of the way so she could get by. When the scene was finally over, Chelsea sat on the stool red faced with embarrassment and starting to get angry.

“Well, now that we’ve been through all that,” the Captain said, crossing her arms on the desk, “let’s talk about your son.”

“Who’s taking care of him?” Chelsea demanded, looking first at Tom then the Captain and back again. “Who?”

“I don’t—” Tom started.

“He’s being taken care of,” the Captain said. “You can trust me on that. And he will continue to be taken care of for as long as you two continue to do what it is that I ask of you.”

Chelsea nodded, not wanting to say anything to endanger Jonah.

“And if we don’t do what you ask?” Tom asked, all too confidently. Chelsea could have killed him for using “we” instead of “I”. He was trying to drag her into his sins again.

“If you decide to disobey me, your superior officer,” the Captain emphasized to remind Tom as she had only recently reminded Chelsea, “then maybe I’ll be less able to ensure your son’s safety. He was caught committing a serious crime, you know. Him and his girlfriend together. They both got off easy if you ask me.”

“You wouldn’t—” Tom said.

“How could you let him do that?” Chelsea demanded of Tom. “You were supposed to be his caretaker.”

“I didn’t let him do anything,” Tom said defensively, holding his hands up like Chelsea was going to hit him—she was getting so furious she was actually starting to think about doing it, too. “There was no way I could have stopped him. It’s not like he told me what he was planning on doing.”

I would have known. I should be taking care of him now.” Chelsea reared back her hand to actually hit him before she remembered where she was and gathered herself, apologizing. “I—uh—I’m sorry, Captain. I—

“Shut up, both of you,” the Captain said, pushing herself up from the desk with both hands. “Enough. I told you we need to keep this professional.”

“You’re the one who brought Jonah up,” Chelsea snapped, regretting it right away.

Yes.” The Captain smiled, much to Chelsea’s relief, and retook her seat. “That’s true. But only as insurance that you two will remain professional. As long as you do, I do. You don’t want this world here to start affecting your personal life. Believe me. It always seems to get ugly when business and the personal cross paths in One.”

Chelsea shook her head, trying not to cry. She knew Tom was going to fuck this up for her somehow. She had to do everything in her power to make sure he didn’t.

“Yes, sir,” Tom said. “I understand.”

“And you agree to follow orders like a good protector?” the Captain asked.

Chelsea stared at Tom, dreading the answer.

“I would never do anything to hurt Jonah,” he finally said, not making eye contact with either of them.

“Good,” the Captain said, smiling. “That’s all I needed to know. I’m guessing you can’t wait to hear what I have in store for you, then. Am I right?”

Neither Tom nor Chelsea answered, both tired of her games, no doubt.

“Well, it’s pretty simple, really. We’ve found the masterminds behind the terrorist attacks—including the latest, Pardy, the one you were instrumental in putting an end to.”

Chelsea nodded.

“What does that have to do with us?” Tom asked.

“I’m getting there, Pardy,” the Captain said, hesitating. “Uh—er, Pardy Two. That’s going to get confusing, isn’t it? Either way, you two, Pardy and Pardy Two, are going to go undercover to apprehend or assassinate—your choice—the Sixer trash that was responsible.”

“Assassinate?” Chelsea said. That was escalating things rather quickly considering this was only her first day out of the desk job.

“Your choice,” the Captain repeated, shrugging. “That’s why I said or. Apprehend or assassinate. Though assassination’s not as expensive, assuming you are successful. None of those storage fees, you know. Ha ha!”

“But why us?” Tom asked.

You,” the Captain said, looking at Tom, “because you already know the targets.”

“Anna and Rosa,” he said, shaking his head.

“The very same,” the Captain said with a big smile. “They are responsible for your attempted assassination of then Lord Walker. They orchestrated the attack which you, Pardy One, just helped to foil. And they no doubt had a hand in the Christmas bombing of the walls between Five and Six.”

“But why us?” Chelsea complained, still unable to believe how far Tom was pulling her into paying for his mistakes. “I’ve been sitting behind a desk for the entirety of my very short career and he’s been dishonorably discharged once already. There has to be somebody better you could choose for this job.”

The Captain chuckled. “Oh, there are plenty of protectors who are better trained or more experienced, and they could no doubt perform much better under the given circumstances. That’s not a question. But sadly, they’re all preoccupied with other—more above board, shall we say—missions. If I had the luxury of going to them, then trust me, I wouldn’t be here arguing with you two to do it.”

“And how are we supposed to trust you when you killed Rabbit?” Tom asked, and Chelsea cringed again at his use of the royal “we”.

The Captain laughed. “Alright now, Pardy Two. It’s not the time to be bringing up nonsense like that. You’re in no position to say anything about Rabbit—or anything else that went on that day, as a matter of fact.”

“They didn’t have any guns,” Tom said and Chelsea was on the verge of hitting him again. Didn’t he care at all about Jonah? If he did, he wouldn’t be arguing with the Captain after the threats she had made.

“If they didn’t have guns then, they do by now, boy,” the Captain snapped, sneering. “You keep bringing up ancient history that it would be in your best interest for everyone to forget. The less we remember about it the less we’re reminded of your traitorous and unforgivable actions which we have yet to sufficiently punish you for. Do you understand me, Pardy Two?”

“Then why am I here if my actions are—” Tom started to say, but Chelsea couldn’t take any more.

“Shut up, Tom!” she yelled, slapping his arm. “Fuck! Don’t you care about your son at all?”

“I—uh—” Tom looked hurt. “Of course I do. I—”

“Then act like it and shut the fuck up. It’s that simple.”

The Captain chuckled, shaking her head. At least she seemed to be enjoying this. “You know, Pardy One’s giving you some good advice there, boy. You’d do right to listen to her.”

“But—” Tom protested.

No buts,” Chelsea said, shooting him one last look which he finally acquiesced to.

“Well, do you two lovebirds finally have that out of your system?” the Captain asked to no response. “Good. You’ve had a rough day—the both of you—so I’ll try not to get too angry over your insolence. For now you two need to go ahead back to your quarters and get some rest. We’ll be expecting you bright and bushy tailed at oh six hundred hours tomorrow morning. Your mission can’t wait any longer than that, I’m afraid.”

Chelsea nodded. “Sir, yes, sir.” She could definitely use the rest and some time alone to process the day’s occurrences.

“And what about you, Pardy Two? Can you handle that?”

“I haven’t been assigned any quarters, sir,” Tom said, trying to avoid eye contact with Chelsea who did not like the sound of what was coming next.

“No, Pardy,” the Captain said. “You haven’t. And you won’t be. You’ll be staying with Pardy. There’s limited space with all our new recruits, and this is the best we can do for you—all things considered.”

Chelsea scoffed, shaking her head. So much for having no family when you were on the force. “I won’t—”

“You will do as I order,” the Captain cut her off, slamming a hand on the desk. “I thought we’ve been over this already. Or do you not care about your Jonah either?”

The way the Captain said “Jonah” sparked a fire inside of Chelsea which took all of her willpower to contain. She didn’t dare speak for fear that opening her mouth would let it all out in one burning, explosive burst. Instead she just nodded.

“Good,” the Captain said, turning to look out her window. “Then get out of my sight. I need my own rest. I don’t want to see another Pardy’s face again until the mission tomorrow. You got that?”

Chelsea stood and stomped out of the room without waiting for Tom to follow. She had taken care of enough of his problems for him, he could find his own way in the worlds from now on. The elevator doors were sliding closed between them when he stuck his arm inside, just in time to pry them open.

Tom stood in the now open doors sheepishly, not making eye contact, trying to put on that puppy dog face he always used when he knew he was in trouble, but being cute wasn’t going to get him out of this one. “Well, are you getting in or do you plan on standing there all night?” Chelsea snapped.

Tom stepped in, still avoiding eye contact, still making puppy dog eyes, still without a word.

Quarters,” Chelsea said, staring straight ahead at the closed too late elevator doors while the floor fell out from underneath them.

Neither Pardy said a word before the freefall stopped and the elevator doors dinged open. Chelsea marched down into her door near the end of the hall, slamming it shut before Tom could catch up. She went to order a meal out of the printer in the kitchen—one continuous room along with the entryway/living room—and Tom came in to take a seat on the couch.

“I don’t see why you’re so mad at me,” Tom said after a short time of silence, only filled by Chelsea’s ordering from the printer.

Chelsea scoffed as she took her food out of the printer and into the living room to sit behind her dinner tray, in her favorite chair, and watch some TV while she ate.

“It’s not like I wanted any of this to happen,” Tom said. “I only did what I thought was best for Jonah.”

Chelsea dropped her fork on her plate and stared at Tom, shaking her head. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Of course I’m not kidding you. I did what I thought was best for Jonah. What else—”

“What else?” Chelsea scoffed. “Let’s see… What else, besides throwing your life away by attempting to assassinate a Lord and retainer, could you have done to keep your son safe? Well, Amaru, Tom. I don’t know. That’s a hard one.” She tapped her chin and crossed her eyes to drive the sarcasm home. Even Tom couldn’t be dense enough to miss that.

“Well, of course it sounds stupid when you put it like that,” Tom said, looking genuinely hurt. “But it wasn’t like that at the time. You weren’t there. It jus—I—It seemed like the right thing to do, the best thing to do at the time.”

Chelsea scoffed. “And does it still?”

Tom shook his head. “I can’t answer that, you know. I mean, I’m different now. I’ve seen how things turn out if I attempt the assassination, but that’s not to say that things couldn’t be worse right now if I hadn’t done what I did in the first place.”

Chelsea chuckled despite her anger. “I don’t see how they could be much worse than they are now, Tom.” She went back to eating her food and half-watching the TV.

“It’s not that bad is it?” Tom asked. “At least we’re together, you and me.” He smiled an unconvincing smile.

“And what about our son?” Chelsea asked, standing and throwing her mostly untouched meal down the trash chute. “Jonah is the most important thing in my life, the only thing that matters to me at all anymore. Don’t you understand that?”

“Of course I do. He’s all that matters to me, too. It’s not like I asked to come back here. If I had a choice, I’d be back at home with him.”

Chelsea shook her head, not sure of the implications of what she was hearing. Had he had a choice before then? Did he throw his life away on purpose, so he could get out of the Force? Who was this person she was talking to, and where was the Tom she had married? “Then why are you here?” she demanded, getting heated. “You’ve been able to do a pretty good job of keeping yourself off the force up until now.”

“None of this was on purpose, okay. I made some stupid decisions, and I got kicked out, and now they installed a draft so I’m back in. They kick me out when I want to be here and they bring me back in when I want to leave. What am I supposed to do, huh? I’m just a lowly Officer with no say in the matter.”

Chelsea shook her head. “You’re supposed to protect your family,” she said. “Your son.” But with as little agency as she had been able to enact for herself since she’d become a protector, Chelsea was starting to understand where Tom was coming from—even if she still wasn’t ready to forgive him for his actions.

“There’s no use in arguing about it, anyway,” Tom said. “We’re here now and we can’t do anything about that. We might as well try to make the best of what we do have.”

“Which isn’t much,” Chelsea said.

“Which is each other.”

Chelsea really looked at Tom for what must have been the first time since she had left home to become a protector. She pictured him as he was back then on that day, standing next to Jonah, shaking his head, pleading with her to stay, trying to lie to himself that they could make a good life for Jonah on a two housekeeper income. He had taken it worse than Jonah who just stood there, still as a toy soldier, and when she went to hug her boy and say goodbye, he stepped back and ticked off a salute. She almost lost it then. Back then, when Jonah had saluted, leaving her no choice but to salute back then turn around and leave him, and just then, when the look of Tom’s puppy dog eyes sent the memory of it all rushing back to her in pictures and sounds. She fought the tears off both times, though, this second time staring coldly into Tom’s eyes to say, “We don’t have anyone, Tom. You heard the Captain. We have no family now, only the Force.”

“Well that didn’t stop her from holding Jonah hostage to blackmail us with, though, did it?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re right about that.”

“That’s because we do have a family, no matter what they say. And no matter how hard they try to split us apart, we’ll always stick together.” He paused, waiting for a response, but Chelsea didn’t have one. She still didn’t know how much she could trust Tom after what she had been through because of his mistakes. “For Jonah,” Tom added and the tears finally won out on Chelsea.

She stood and walked away from Tom, hiding in her bathroom to keep her weeping secret. Tom would just try to comfort her if he saw her crying, and she didn’t want to feel his comforting touch just as much she did want to. She still wasn’t ready to forgive him, though, so didn’t won out over did. Her crying under control, she fixed her hair in the bathroom mirror, tying her ponytail tighter, then went back to sit in the living room and watch TV, avoiding eye contact with Tom again.

“What do you think she did with him?” Chelsea asked after a few minute’s silence, turning off the TV but still staring at the black mirror that was left in place of whatever police procedural was on the screen before.

“I don’t know.” Tom shook his head, shrugging. “Nothing yet. I hope. She seemed to have treated him well when he was arrested.”

Chelsea cringed. She had almost forgotten about the arrest with Jonah’s new danger. “How could you let him do that?” she demanded again, still not satisfied with the conclusion of their earlier, more public, argument.

“How could I stop him?” Tom asked. “His partner was out there, too, you know. Are you calling her father a bad parent, or are you just calling me one?”

“No, well, but I—”

“You would have been asleep the same as me,” Tom went on over her. “You would have been left to wait and react the same as I was. It wasn’t my fault. Children will be children, and there’s no changing that.”

“No, well—” Chelsea hesitated. Tom almost had a point. Almost. “If you hadn’t gotten mixed up with that Sixer trash in the first place, Jonah never would have had a reason to go to the holding cells. So the situation might not have been the result of bad parenting directly, but it was your fault in the end anyway.”

Chelsea braced for a response but none ever came. Tom just sat staring at his feet and shaking his head. Chelsea felt guilty for hurting him like that, but only for a moment, then she remembered that he deserved it. “Well,” she said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Nothing,” Tom said, still staring at his feet. “There’s nothing I can say. You’re right about that.”

Chelsea should have been happy to finally hear him admit to being wrong, but for some reason, it only made her feel worse, more guilty, as if she were kicking him while he were down. “Then what were you thinking when you did it?” she asked.

“I thought I was protecting Jonah,” Tom said, his voice on the verge of breaking. “I thought it was for the best.”

Chelsea couldn’t stay mad at him any longer. She crossed to take a seat on the couch next to Tom and pat his back. “You had no choice,” she said, trying to reassure him. “They take control of your entire life here. It was the Protector Force that made you do it. That’s why they call it a force.” She tried to chuckle even though she thought the joke was even stupider the second time around.

“The Force may have been the reason I killed that girl’s mom, but they had nothing to do with the rest of it. That was all me.”

“No, but—” It was true. It was all Tom’s fault, but she didn’t want to rub that fact in his face any further than she already had. Tom had suffered enough for it already, just as she had. “But you wouldn’t have ever met that girl if you weren’t forced to kill her mother, right? So maybe they did kind of forced you into it.”

Tom shook his head, staring at the floor, and Chelsea found herself grasping for anything she could say that would make him feel better. Nothing seemed adequate. Then she remembered the rest of her day. She remembered all she had been through, even before the Captain had brought up the danger her son was in, before Jonah’s danger wiped every other concern from her mind, and she knew what she had to say. She let go of Tom’s hand and tried to stare at the same point on the white vinyl floor that he was staring at. “I killed someone today,” she said.

Out of her peripheral vision she saw Tom staring at her in horror. “No,” he said.

She nodded. “Yes.”

She had expected a barrage of questions to avoid, but Tom just shook his head in silence. After some time of it, mulling the incident over in her head, she finally said, “How did it feel when you…”

“When I killed her?” Tom finished Chelsea’s sentence for her. “When I killed Ansel’s mom?”

Chelsea only nodded. They didn’t need many words after so long together.

“What was it like for you?” Tom asked.

Chelsea thought back to the scene at the precinct. It seemed like it was a million miles away and eons ago. It probably was, even though it was only an elevator ride away and earlier that day. She looked down at her hands and could almost see the blood that was never really there. She felt the gun recoiling and remembered the euphoria as the bullet she had fired ended one of those scumbag’s reign of terror once and for all.

Euphoria? No. She couldn’t have.

She had just killed someone. Human beings weren’t supposed to feel euphoria at—

“Well?” Tom urged her on.

“I asked you first,” Chelsea said, trying to deflect the attention from herself.

“I felt like I wanted to throw up,” Tom said, shaking his head with a disgusted look on his face—the one he always used to wear when he was changing Jonah’s diapers. “It was the most horrible experience in my entire life, and I will never do it again. No matter what the Force threatens.”

“You’d even risk our son?” Chelsea asked, trying to ignore the fact that Tom had reacted to killing the way that she had thought she would have before she knew better, the way she thought she should have even though she hadn’t.

“Of course not,” Tom said. “Why do you think I’m here right now? But I’ll do everything in my power to make sure I never have to kill again. You’ve done it yourself. You know what it feels like to kill someone. Don’t you think the same?”

Chelsea pictured the scene. The adrenaline rushed through her body from even replaying it in her brain. She was there again, firing those same shots, and she didn’t feel the same way he did. She would go back and do it again if she had the chance. Again and again, even. She longed for a gun in her hand. She couldn’t wait for tomorrow when she could put her newfound joy into practice.

“No,” Tom said, standing from the couch and backing away from Chelsea into the kitchen. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Chelsea realized she was smiling and wiped it off. “What?”

“You—you enjoyed it, didn’t you? You would do it again if they asked you to.”

I did what was best for Jonah,” Chelsea snapped. She didn’t know why she felt the need to defend herself against the worst parent and protector in the history of existence, but she went on anyway. “I did what was best for the Force.”

You killed someone.”

“Someone who deserved it. I killed someone who would have killed me if they had the chance. I did what I had to do.”

Tom shook his head. “There had to have been a better way.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Says the failed assassin. You’ve got to be kidding me. Who are you to give me lessons on morality?”

“But I know that what I did was wrong. I’ve admitted to that. You, you’re—”

“I’m protecting our son,” Chelsea said, stomping a foot. “I’m doing what you should have been doing all along. You can shut up about it and sleep on the couch, but I’m tired of listening to you. Good night.”

Tom tried to protest, but Chelsea wasn’t having any more. She stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. He’d just have to wait until after the mission if he wanted to discuss the matter further.

 

#     #     #

< LIII. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LV. Ansel >

And so there it is. The next chapter in the Infinite Limits saga complete, and Tom’s on the protector force again. To find out how Tom and Chelsea fare as partners keep reading along every Saturday on the website here or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Thanks kindly for all your time and interest, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 53: Roo

Hello, and happy Saturday, y’all. Last weekend my Author Spotlight interview on /r/books went fantastically so thank you to everyone who posed a question. It was a lot of fun. If you missed the chance to read the interview or ask a question, here’s a link to it, and feel free to ask more questions if you have them because I’m always on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills and I’ll be sure to see your question and answer it to the best of my ability.

Now back to the story. Today we’re joining Roo again as she tries to help poor Mike find his jumpie mom and in the process finds the Human Family. See what Roo has to think of the Family by reading on here and now, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link or to leave me a review for any of the novels you’ve already read in the series. It would mean a lot to me.

Thanks for your time, dear readers. Here’s Roo.

< LII. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LIV. Chelsea >

LIII. Roo

Roo had lost herself again in the fourth dimension. Although there was no longer a beautiful tapestry of timespace to act as her guidepost, it was easy enough to retrace her path back to the place where the tapestry had originally been produced. This, Roo thought, was where the woman with the gun who was now sitting in Roo’s secret lair had come from. Roo changed the exit path from her lair to the family home—or whatever Kara was calling it—and returned to Earth to see once and for all where exactly that was.

“I still don’t see why I have to come,” Mike said, obviously uncomfortable in his still wet pants.

“Nor do I,” Kara said. “Just open the door and send me home.”

Roo scoffed. “You need me,” she said to Kara. “That’s why you’re taking us with you. And you’re the only one who can identify your mom,” she said to Mike. “Which is why you’re coming. It’s quite simple, really.”

“You can’t talk to me like that, girl,” the woman said, grabbing her gun again as if she would use it.

“And you can’t force me to go with you,” Mike said, crossing his arms.

“I can, and I can, actually. In fact, I already have. There’s no way for you to go home home now so you’ll join us or you’ll wait right here until I get back.”

“You opened it?” the woman asked, dropping her gun to her side and stepping through the wall.

Roo followed close behind while Mike hesitated, still trying to decide if going or staying would be worse, then called, “Wait up!” before chasing out after them.

What they stepped into didn’t look like a house. It was one big room, with cement walls and floor, that was lined with electronic rings—one of which they had just stepped through—leading Roo to believe that this was where some serious bending took place. The spacetime tapestry she couldn’t stop picturing in her head was probably woven right here at these two consoles.

Two consoles? Roo couldn’t believe her eyes. She thought it would take at least four benders to hold together something so complex as what she had seen, but taking a step closer to get a good look, she could see that no more than two people at a time could possibly control these six portals with the way they were wired up. That couldn’t be right, though. Whoever these benders were must have some sort of remote console system set up so more than two people could work on the transporters without having them all in the same room. That had to be it.

Uh, Roo,” Mike said, tapping her on the shoulder to break her away from her intense investigation of the console and ring system. She turned around to find Kara gone and the room empty save Mike, her, and the transporter system. “I don’t like the feeling of this place,” Mike went on. “Maybe we should go back home.”

“But we haven’t even looked for your mom, yet,” Roo said, though she wasn’t in the least bit concerned about that. All she wanted was to figure out who operated this system and how they had done what she had seen them do. She couldn’t come outright and ask that, though, bending being so frowned upon—not to mention illegal—but the search for Mike’s mom served as perfect cover—which is why she couldn’t really let him leave just yet either. “You came to me asking for help,” she reminded him. “Well, here it is. I’m helping.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mike said. “Well, what do we do now, then? If you’re so confident my mom’s actually here.”

“We follow Kara upstairs and go look for her. That’s what. Now come on.” Roo waved for him to follow and started up the stairs.

“No, wait,” Mike called. “But what if they—” But Roo didn’t stop to listen. She climbed the stairs, and as soon as she got to the door, it swung open to reveal two old ladies looking down on her. Roo almost fell down the stairs, jumping in surprise at the sight of them.

“Woah now, child,” one of them said. “We won’t hurt you.”

“What are you kids doing down there?” the other asked, sounding angry where the first was only surprised. “And how did you even get in?”

“I—uh—” Roo’s heart beat faster and faster. She couldn’t remember why she was there.

Luckily, Mike found some courage for once, climbing up the stairs behind her to say, “My mother.” His voice cracked as he spoke, but he still somehow managed to sound resolute in his words. “We came to find my mother and bring her home.”

“They’re just looking for family,” the nicer woman said. “I told you.”

“And who might your mother be?” the angry one asked.

“Melody Singer,” Mike said.

“And what makes you think she’s here?” the angry woman asked.

“Well, I—uh—” Mike looked to Roo, losing his cool, but it was okay because he had stalled long enough to let Roo regain hers.

“She said something about a family, or a home—or something—when she left last. She was very vague,” Roo said, smiling a little but trying not to grin—she always got the two mixed up when she was trying to be sneaky.

The angry woman eyed Roo suspiciously. “Is that so, child?”

“Now now,” the nicer woman said. “Enough of this stairway interview. Let us at least take this to the office. Or—better, yet—the kitchen. I’m sure our guests here wouldn’t mind a little bite to eat while we speak. Am I wrong?” She looked down at Roo and Mike, expecting an answer.

“Oh, well, I guess I could eat,” Mike said, unsure of himself.

“I’m not hungry,” Roo said. Then she smiled and added, “Though a seat might be nice. Thanks.”

“There’re seats in the kitchen,” the nicer woman said, shepherding them the rest of the way up the stairs and past the angry woman who eyed them as they passed. “And you’ll be hungry once you smell the food. I promise.”

“I guess so,” Roo said, letting the woman push her through a short hall into a large kitchen where she sat Roo and Mike on stools at the bar and set to cooking something up. The angry woman followed in last and stood off to a corner, staring in Roo and Mike’s direction.

“So,” the nice woman said as she chopped some bell peppers. “Your mother has told you about the Human Family, then?”

“The human family?” Mike repeated.

“She’s not my mom,” Roo said.

“But I thought you said—” the angry woman tried to say from her far corner of the kitchen but the nice lady shot her a look that shut her up.

“I’m helping him find his mom,” Roo explained. “I’m just doing him a favor. His mom mentioned some family home so we came here to see if we could find her.”

“Is that right?” the woman said, turning her back to toss some bell peppers into the pan and grab an onion to chop. “Your mom mentioned it?” she asked Mike who nodded.

“This is the place, right?” Roo asked.

The woman nodded. “This is the Family Home. Yes.”

“Then have you seen my mom?” Mike asked, hopefully.

The woman nodded again, adding the onions to the pan. “She’s been here. Yes. You haven’t seen her recently, though? I don’t think she’s been on duty for some time.”

“On duty?” Mike said.

The woman nodded. “For the Family, child. For all Humankind. It’s a noble thing your mother’s doing.”

“And what exactly is that?” Roo asked.

“Fighting the robot menace,” the woman said, stirring the vegetables to send them sizzling then adding some sausage to the mix. “Destroying the walls between our human brethren. Protecting the Human Family.”

“Robot menace?” Mike said.

“Destroying the walls?” Roo said.

The woman smiled, adding canned beans to the pan and letting it simmer in silence. When it was set and cooking, she crossed to the bar and stood across from Roo and Mike, smiling. “I think it’s time I ask a question.”

“I—uh…” Mike said.

Roo just nodded. Sometimes questions revealed more information than answers.

“How did you get into the basement?”

Mike looked to Roo who didn’t break eye contact with the woman, Roo who didn’t respond to the woman’s words in any way, when it became clear to everyone there that no answer was forthcoming, the woman spoke on.

“Let me venture a guess,” she said, back turned again to stir the pan once more and let it simmer. “You jumped in.”

Mike sounded like he had choked on his own spit with his gagged coughing. Roo still didn’t respond.

“Oh, don’t worry,” the woman said, crossing back to the bar to stare into Roo’s eyes. “I’m not even mad about it. In fact, I’m kind of impressed. For two children to jump back into my Home, carrying the very same Family member we’ve been searching for without success—why that can only be a blessing from above.”

“Who are you?” Roo asked, not impressed by the woman’s obviously insincere attempt at flattery.

“My name’s Anna,” the woman said, extending a hand across the counter. “And you are?”

Roo hesitated then took the woman’s hand. “Roo.”

“Hello, Roo. So nice to meet you.”

“Is that your transport system in the basement?” Roo asked, ready to get down to business now that all the subterfuge was uncovered.

“So you did jump in then,” Anna said, laughing and dishing out two bowls of red beans, one for Roo and one for Mike. “You admit to that.”

“So who besides the two of you controls the consoles?” Roo asked, ignoring Anna’s statement. Of course they had jumped in. How else could they have gotten into that basement? “Or do you have some remote units hooked up somehow? I’d like to see them, too.”

The angry woman in the corner scoffed while Anna chuckled. “Remote units?” she said “What makes you think that?”

“I saw the bending you were doing,” Roo said as a matter of fact. “Complexity of that level is too much to handle for two benders alone, especially for as tiny of a space as you were holding those wormhole exits inside of.”

Anna smiled wide, almost blushing, then let out a short burst of laughter. “Oh? Well, there weren’t two of us. I’ll tell you that much.”

“Then there were remote units,” Roo said, confident she had figured it out without having to be told. “I knew it.”

“No,” Anna said, straight faced. “No remote units, either.”

“Then how did you get more than two people to control the transporters? You only have two consoles down there.”

“There weren’t more than two, either,” Anna said. “There weren’t even as many as two.”

Roo shook her head in disbelief while the angry woman chuckled in her corner. Mike went on eating, oblivious to the  world around him now that he had been assured that his mother was safe and at home.

“Then that means…” Roo said.

“That I created the symphony you witnessed all by myself.” Anna laughed.

Roo couldn’t believe it. It was impossible. No one person could maintain that all by themselves. This woman was obviously a liar. “Prove it,” Roo said.

Anna chuckled. “Now? But you haven’t even touched your beans.”

The angry lady cackled behind her. “I’m out of here,” she said, kissing Anna on the cheek. “I trust you can take care of this, my dear.”

“I didn’t come here to eat,” Roo said, standing from her stool, and the angry old lady ruffled Roo’s hair as she passed to leave.

“Nor to find your friend’s mom,” Anna said, “from the sound of it.”

“Hey!” Mike said, finally back in the conversation at the mention of his mother.

Roo shrugged. “We’ve already found her. You said she was here before and hasn’t been on duty since. Is there any reason I should disbelieve your word? I don’t know. Maybe there is. Maybe demonstrating that you actually are capable of holding six transporter paths together on two consoles—by yourself—will help me believe you. What does it matter what I came here for anyway? We’re here now so let’s move forward. Shall we?” She stood as if to go toward the basement and waved for them to follow along behind her.

Anna smiled and nodded, clearing Mike’s empty bowl and Roo’s untouched one. “You know, I don’t mind showing you because you seem to have a rather advanced knowledge of the system, but in the future, you’d do better for yourself to be less pushy in your demands when made upon a complete stranger. I don’t have to show you anything if I don’t want to. I have nothing to prove and others might not be as accommodating as I am. That being said,” Anna went on, rinsing her hands and drying them on her apron. “I’m curious to see how much you would actually understand about a demonstration so, please, lead the way”

Roo started to protest before she realized what Anna had said. When she did, it took her some time to process the information and get her feet moving toward the basement for the others to follow. Downstairs, Anna went straight to the consoles and Roo stood looking over her shoulder. Mike sat on one of the bottom steps, bored and uninterested in a beauty he had no way of deciphering.

“So, uh, what about my mom?” he called from the stairs as Anna booted the consoles up. “How am I supposed to get home?”

“I’ll send you along presently, dear,” Anna said, pressing the consoles’ various buttons and levers to get them going. “And with six paths to choose from. That ought to satisfy your curiosity. Eh, girl?” She smiled at Roo who nodded, staring in awe as the woman’s hands flicked unconsciously across the screens, buttons, and levers of the consoles, untangling the universe even as the old woman spoke. “Now, what can you see me doing here, child?”

“I—” Roo gulped down spit. “Uh—You— You’re not even looking. How could you be using two separate consoles if you’re not even looking at the screens?”

“How could I be using both consoles at once if I had to look at the screens?” the woman asked, still swipping and swiping, sending space into flux, and forcing it back down into submission. Not at two points alone, though, creating one path between them, but at twelve points along six separate and nearly intersecting paths. Roo couldn’t imagine the sheer feeling of power emanating through Anna’s body at being able to exert so much control over the universe. “Which screen would I look at?” Anna continued. “No. You see, I could do this with my eyes closed if I had to. In fact, I will.” She closed her eyes and kept swiping and typing.

The transporter rings hummed into action. The noise was loud but Roo welcomed it. It drowned out the rest of the world so she could focus more entirely on the masterpiece being created in front of her eyes, a masterpiece on the scale of the one she had witnessed earlier, and this tapestry was clearly created by a lone bender using two consoles at once—with her eyes closed!

Roo was falling headlong into the four dimensional masterwork when a cold hand grabbed her from behind and jerked her back down into 3D reality.

She flailed her arms and legs and screamed in protest, but there was no response to her fighting. Before she knew it, she was no longer in the basement of the Family Home. Instead she was lying on a cold, hard floor, watching the hole she had been pulled in through disappear behind her. She climbed to her feet and slammed her fists on the elevator doors which took the place of the hole in spacetime.

“Where am I?” she demanded, turning to find a big metal arm with a too human hand waving at her as it rolled back and forth on thick treaded metal tires. “W—What are you?” She backed up to the elevator doors and the door across the hall opened. An old white lady in an old white coat came through, smiling and nodding.

“Very good, Popeye,” she said. “Thank you so much. That’ll be all for now.”

The metal arm waved and went out through the door that the white coated woman had come in through.

“Who are you?” Roo demanded, trying to back closer to the elevator doors she was already pressed flat against. “Where am I?”

The woman chuckled. “Settle down, dear. There’s no need to be alarmed. You’re safe here.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re in my lab, dear. My home. Now, please. Come with me. We have so much to discuss.”

“No.” Roo stood her ground. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me why I’m here.”

The woman stopped crossing the hall and turned back to Roo with a smile. “And what if I didn’t answer?” she asked. “You could be standing there for quite a while, you know.”

Roo shook her head. She hadn’t thought about that possibility. She turned to the metal, handle-less elevator doors behind her and tried to pry them open with her fingers but it was useless.

“You see,” the woman said with a chuckle behind her. “There’s no point in trying to escape. And you have nothing to worry about, anyway. I’ll tell you everything you want to know, but I’d rather do it in a more comfortable setting. Could you agree to that much at least?”

Roo gave up on trying to open the elevator doors and turned slowly to face the woman. Roo didn’t like the lady’s white hair or coat, or the wrinkles on her face, or anything about her really—especially the whole kidnapping thing—but she didn’t really have a choice in the matter, either, and maybe if they went somewhere else, Roo’d be able to find an escape.

“Well, come on, then,” the woman said, waving for Roo to follow her down the hall. “Let’s have a seat and chat.” She opened the door and Roo went in.

There were no more exits on the other side of the door than there were in the hall. In fact, there were less, only one, the door she had come in from. Other than that there was a big desk and some puffy chairs around side tables that were next to a giant window that looked out onto a huge wilderness scene—probably a video played on a fake window, or something like that, because nothing so beautiful could possibly exist in real life.

“So, what do you think of the place?” the woman in the white coat asked, taking a seat in one of the puffy chairs and indicating for Roo to sit in the chair across from her.

“Pretty cool graphics,” Roo said, nodding at the window as she sat down.

The woman chuckled. “Oh, it’s pretty cool alright, but they’re not graphics. That’s the real world out that window. I assure you of that.”

“No way,” Roo said. “That kind of wilderness doesn’t exist anywhere but stories.”

“It does,” the woman said, pointing out the window. “There it is.” She smiled.

Roo scoffed. “Yeah, right. So I could just walk out there right now and see it for myself? Show me.”

“You would have to take the elevator there,” the woman said, “if you decided that was what you wanted. But we’ll get to that later. Didn’t you have some questions you wanted answered first?”

Roo shook her head. She had more and more questions the more she experienced. At this rate it seemed like none of them would get answered. “Yeah,” she said. “So what?”

“So how about we play a game? Would you like that?”

Roo shrugged. “Depends on the game.”

“This is a game of questions. I ask you a question and you answer it, then you ask me a question and I answer it. Simple as that.”

“Any question?” Roo asked.

“Any question.”

“And you have to answer it?”

“As do you.”

Roo nodded, thinking about it. “And why can’t I go first?”

“Well my first question will be simple, an opener. So essentially you will be first after you answer it.” Roo tried to protest but the woman went on speaking anyway. “What’s your name?”

Uh—” Roo hesitated. “Roo,” she said. “What’s yours?” And she held her hands to her mouth, regretting the wasted question.

“The Scientist,” the woman said. “Nice to meet you, Roo.”

“The Scientist?” Roo scoffed. “What kind of name is that?”

“It’s one I’ve chosen,” the woman said. “And I didn’t have to answer that question because it’s my turn, but I’ll let it slide this once. You should be more careful in the future. Think about what you’re going to say before you open your mouth.”

Roo nodded solemnly.

“Okay.” The Scientist nodded. “Good. Then question two: What were you doing with those women I found you with?”

Roo frowned, shaking her head. “What? Those human family jerks? Nothing. I don’t even know them.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I—uh—I don’t know. I was helping a friend look for his mother.”

The Scientist eyed Roo suspiciously. “Is that right?”

Roo nodded. “Yes,” she said. “She got addicted to jumping, and she was doing it with that family—or whatever—so we went there to look for her.”

“How did you know she was there?”

“It’s my turn,” Roo said. “I don’t have to answer that.”

The Scientist nodded with a smile. “Go on.”

Roo thought hard about what to say next. She wasn’t going to waste another question on something stupid like she had done with her previous turns. When she was satisfied she had formulated something vague enough to extend her turn as long as possible, she said, “Why me?”

“Why you?” the Scientist repeated.

“That’s what I said. Why me?”

“Why you what?”

“Just why me?”

After a moment’s thought, the Scientist said, “Because you know about the walls.”

“The walls?”

“Yes, the walls, the elevators, the other worlds. Because you know about jumping, or whatever you want to call it. That’s why.”

“I—uh…” Roo hesitated, not sure how much it was safe for her to reveal to this woman.

“Am I wrong?”

Roo knew she couldn’t lie, not about this at least. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “But how do you know?”

The Scientist laughed. “I control the walls, dear. I have my eyes everywhere. I know about every little thing that happens on either side of my babies.”

“So why did you bring me here then?”

“Technically it’s my turn,” the Scientist said. “But answering this leads into my next question, so in answer, I’m impressed by the knowledge you’ve gained through self study. Yes, I’ve seen your work, and yes, I’m impressed by it. How couldn’t I be?”

Ummm.” Roo tried not to blush. She had never been complimented on her bending before. “Thanks… I guess. But I’m still not sure what all this means.”

“It means I want to train you, dear. I think you’ve got what it takes. I want to teach you all the secrets of the fourth dimension.”

Roo scoffed. “You don’t know all the secrets.”

“I know a good deal of them—more than anyone, I’d venture to say. I certainly know more than that Anna who I’m sure you were quite impressed by.”

Roo’s eyes grew wide. “You know about her?”

“Everything on either side of my walls,” the Scientist reminded her, nodding.

“And you know what she can do, then? All alone, operating two consoles at once, six paths with one brain.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Yes. It’s quite impressive with her limited technology. I’ll give you that much. But what if I told you that I could control every single wall in existence, all by myself, using only a single computer?”

Roo scoffed, shaking her head. “Impossible.”

“Not impossible,” the Scientist said. “That’s how the worlds work. That’s what I can teach you. That’s my question for you, dear. Are you willing to learn?”

Roo shook her head. “I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t think any human created the walls? Maybe you think they were always there. Or is just that you think they’re beyond human powers to control?”

Roo shook her head. “No, I didn’t say that.”

“You think it takes more than one person, then?”

No response.

“Well, dear, I have the technology, you see. I have everything you would ever need to reshape the universe on the scale that I do, and I’m offering you the opportunity to use it.”

Roo shook her head. She didn’t know anything about this woman. She still didn’t know where she was or why, not to mention how she was supposed to get home, so she didn’t respond at all.

“You have nothing to say, then?” the Scientist asked.

Roo shook her head, lips held in a straight line.

“You do understand what I’m offering, don’t you? With my equipment here you’ll be able to do things you could never imagine. Haven’t you ever dreamed of having this level of technology at your disposal?”

“No,” Roo said. “I bend just fine with what I’ve got. I never even knew this level of technology existed until you just told me about it, so how could I have dreamed of having it?”

“But you do know now,” the Scientist said. “And you can use the technology for yourself if you want to. I’ll even teach you how. Don’t you want that?”

“That would be fine,” Roo said, nodding.

“Then what’s the problem? I don’t understand.”

“Well, ma’am.” Roo paused, trying to formulate her thoughts into something that could be translated into words. Honestly, she didn’t have a particularly logical reason why she distrusted this scientist, but Roo knew that something was off about the conversation that had been going on between them so far. “I can’t accept your offer when I don’t know what it will cost me,” she said. “I don’t— I just don’t like to owe someone like that.”

The Scientist chuckled, shaking her head. “No, dear. It won’t cost you anything. This isn’t a deal. It’s an offer.”

“No, ma’am.” Roo shook her head. She had been taught better than that. “There’s no such thing. It’ll cost me something. You’re just not telling me what that something is yet. That’s why I can’t take the deal, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

The Scientist smiled, standing from her chair. “You’re a clever girl, you know.”

“I ain’t stupid,” Roo said.

“No.” The Scientist shook her head. “You’re not that. And you deserve to know the truth, what this would actually cost you. Though I’ll say now that it’s not me who you’ll be paying, it’s yourself. But come along. You’ll see. I’ll show you.” She extended a hand for Roo to grasp.

Roo looked at it for a second, hesitating. “I’ll pay myself?” she asked, standing but not accepting the Scientist’s assistance.

“You alone will have to deal with the knowledge I’m giving you,” the Scientist said. “You’ll pay in your responsibility to your own conscience, the most miserly fee collector you’ll ever encounter.”

“My conscience?” Roo tried to say, but the Scientist had already left the room. Roo followed her, and the Scientist closed the door behind them.

“Do not speak when I open this door again,” the Scientist said, looking deep into Roo’s eyes. “These people cannot know that we’re watching them. If they see you, even I may not be able to keep them from punishing you.”

Roo nodded. What was this crazy woman talking about?

“And don’t try to step through the door,” the Scientist added. “It’s a long fall from up here, and I’d hate to lose such a promising young prodigy to their glitz and glamour.”

Glitz and glamour? The more she spoke the less sense the Scientist made. Roo shrugged. She didn’t see herself stepping off a cliff any time soon, and she didn’t really need anyone warning her not to.

“Well, then, dear,” the Scientist said, opening the door. “Open your eyes to the worlds.”

Roo looked down into a steep drop off over a mass of the biggest, fattest people she had ever seen, all dressed in the same black and white outfits and wearing too tall hats. They were seated at massive tables, stuffing their faces with mounds of food, and laughing, joking, and drinking as they did it—mouths full or not. Roo almost wanted to barf watching them. Why was this woman showing her these disgusting beasts?

“Disgusting, isn’t it?” the Scientist said, chuckling and shaking her head.

“What does this have to do with me?”

“Look at them down there, oblivious, all enjoying the food that you and your family grew, shipped, and prepared for them.”

“Is this some more of that human family shit?”

“Oh, no no. I mean your nuclear family. Your mom and dad and brothers and sisters.”

“So what?”

“So now you know. Now you have to live your life with the knowledge that they take everything you produce so they can live like this, like the disgusting fat beasts you see down there devouring everything you’ve ever created.”

Roo looked down at them one more time then slammed the door. “So what? What do you want me to do about it?”

“Do you think you could do anything?”

Roo scoffed. “I am the greatest bender any of the worlds have ever seen. I can do whatever I want.”

“Then prove it,” the Scientist said. “Show the worlds that you can master the fourth dimension. Use the technology you so want to use. Use it to shape the universe into the image of what you think it should look like.”

“And if I just want to bend for the sake of bending?”

“Then be my guest. But I’m sure you’ll think of something more creative to do with your time and newfound power than tinkering with wormholes.”

Roo shook her head, chuckling. She still didn’t trust this woman, but she did like the possibilities presented by what she was offering.

 

#     #     #

< LII. Anna     [Table of Contents]     LIV. Chelsea >

And so Roo has met the Human Family and the Scientist both, and both have offered her a spot at their table. Keep coming back every Saturday to follow the exciting conclusion of the story and see what Roo decides, or pick up the full novel through this link and finish it today if you like. Your choice.

Either way, thanks for following along, dear readers. I really appreciate it. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend.

Chapter 52: Anna

Anna’s coming to realize just how much control over the universe she can exert by running six consoles at once when the only thing that could pull her away from the experience, a mysterious visitor from another world come with a message that Lord Walker wants a visit with the Human Family, does. Find out why Lord Walker wants to meet by continuing on in the story today, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link or subscribe to my email newsletter through this one.

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. Have a great weekend.

< LI. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LIII. Roo >

LII. Anna

They probably didn’t need all six transporter rings for such a small operation in a low security area, but Anna had insisted. Once she had gotten a taste for the power that came from so much control over the universe, she couldn’t get enough of it. They only used two of the rings for their search, but with six paths to choose from she could ensure the paths they did use were spot on. The humming of the rings died down, and when she looked up from the consoles they were still only six. No Kara had been found.

“It looks like Five to me,” Rosa said, dropping the huge protector rifle she was holding to hang from her shoulder. Anna was still a little uneasy at the sight of all those guns dangling from her Family members like black misshapen shadows, but she couldn’t argue with why they had taken them and she wasn’t about to try. “You were right about that.”

“There’s more than that, though,” Anna said, shaking her head. “There are tiny disturbances I can barely see, maybe some holes in the wall or something. Did you search thoroughly? What did you see?”

Rosa scoffed. “We searched every brick of both alley walls. If there were holes, we couldn’t get through them.”

“She has to be there somewhere,” Anna said, shaking her head. Maybe if she hooked up another console or two, she could get a better picture of what was going on, a higher resolution image. She was getting so good at controlling two consoles that she could almost do it with one hand tied behind her back, so why not try to control three or more? Then she might be able to find the holes herself without anyone having to leave the basement at all. It was a—

“Anna!” Rosa said, breaking her from her thoughts. “Did you hear me?”

“Huh? What was that?” Anna hadn’t heard anything outside of her own head.

“I said fire them up again. We’re gonna station a lookout. Two at a time, switching up every six hours. Crake, Janice, you’re on first watch. Everyone else go get some rest. We may have won the battle, but the war’s nowhere near over.”

Anna didn’t hear the rest of Rosa’s orders or see the others leaving. She went back into her own little universe, setting the pathways and imagining new and better methods of finding Kara by herself. When the rings stopped humming and she looked up from the consoles again, she was alone with Rosa smiling at her.

“What?” Anna asked, blushing and feeling self conscious, as if she had just woken up to someone watching her sleep.

“Nothing,” Rosa said, grinning from ear to ear. “You look so beautiful when you’re working, lost in your own world like that. That’s all.”

Anna’s face got hotter. “I was just thinking.”

“I know,” Rosa said. “You always stick your tongue out like that when you’re thinking, and you’re always thinking. That’s why I fell in love with you. For your brains.”

Anna giggled. “Stop that.”

“What?” Rosa said, coming closer to embrace her. “Stop complimenting you? Stop stating the facts as I see them? Why?”

“Why?” Anna said, kissing Rosa’s cheek. “Because I don’t want—”

The door slammed open and a pair of boots stomped down the stairs at top speed. Anna wasn’t sure whether she gasped because of the sound of it or the sight of another gun.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the owner of the boots said, looking at their feet as Anna and Rosa broke apart. “There’s a call for Rosa.”

“A call?” Rosa said, confused.

“A message,” the boots said. “A messenger. She demanded to see you. Said you wouldn’t want to miss this investment opportunity. It was about a movie or something.”

“My movie?” Rosa said, interested now and a little less confused. “How did they get here?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” the boots replied, shrugging. “But she’s waiting for you in your office.” Then the boots stomped back upstairs and disappeared.

“A messenger?” Anna said, raising her eyebrows.

“One of the Threes working on our movie, from the sound of it,” Rosa said, shrugging. “Though I didn’t think they were capable of interworld travel.”

“Well there’s only one way to find out,” Anna said, taking Rosa’s hand and leading her upstairs. “Let’s go.”

The “messenger” was standing behind one of the office chairs when they arrived. She stood as straight as a statue, staring at nothing across the desk and wearing a mostly black, skimpy skirted outfit with white lacy frills. She looked like she could maybe be from Three—she was certainly tall enough—but that’s only because a Three could look like anyone or anything, that being their entire purpose in life, acting like someone else.

“Hello,” Rosa said, crossing the room first and extending a hand to the messenger. “I don’t think we’ve met.”

So if it was a Three, it wasn’t one Rosa knew. Mark that in the previously empty column of things that Anna knew about this messenger.

“Hello, sir,” the woman said, curtsying instead of taking Rosa’s hand then trying to reach for it after Rosa had already taken it back. “I’m Haley. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, too, Haley,” Anna said, trying not to sound ironic. “My name’s Anna and this is my partner Rosa. Please, take a seat.” She indicated the chair that Haley was standing behind.

“Oh, no,” the woman said, shaking her head. “There’s no time for that. We should be leaving as soon as we can. Mist—erLord Walker doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“Lord Walker?” Rosa said. “I was under the impression that you had some message about our movie. Am I wrong?”

“Oh, no, ma’am. Not at all. It’s about the movie alright. There are some exciting new directions Lord Walker has planned. He’ll tell you all—”

“New directions?” Rosa said, and Anna could tell she didn’t like the sound of that.

“Lord Walker can explain everything better than I can,” Haley said. “Please. Come with me and I’ll take you to him.” She started out the door as if they would follow her.

“But where do you expect us to go?” Rosa asked, her voice getting angrier and angrier. “And how?”

“To Lord Walker’s compound,” Haley said, stepping back into the office. “We would have called first, but—well… You know. You have no phones to call here.”

“And what makes your Lord Walker think I want to speak to him?” Rosa demanded.

Haley laughed. She shook her head then paused when Rosa and Anna didn’t laugh along. “Wait,” she said. “You’re kidding, right? This is a joke? I still don’t understand humor very well so you’ll have to humor me.”

Rosa shook her head and groaned. Anna tapped her foot. Neither said a word.

“Well, he’s an owner,” Haley said, as if it should be obvious to them with that information alone. “Like pretty much the richest owner in all of existence.”

“Is that supposed to impress us?” Anna asked, a little impressed.

“It doesn’t?” Haley asked. “Well, either way, he loves your movie, and he thinks he can provide further investments which would serve to boost your message.”

“He loves my movie?” Rosa asked, confused.

“Our message?” Anna said, equally so.

“Yes,” Haley said. “Both. But you’ll have to come meet with him for any of that to happen. So what do you say? Let’s go.”

Rosa turned to Anna with that I know you’re going to think it’s crazy but I want to do this anyway look and said, “What do you think?”

“I don’t know.” Anna shook her head. The owners were exactly the people who were holding their Family down, exactly the people they had sent a protector to assassinate, and now they were thinking about getting into business with one? It didn’t seem right. “We don’t even know who this guy is. How can we trust him?”

“It couldn’t hurt to see what he has to say, though,” Rosa said, unrelenting. “Right?”

“I guess.” Anna shrugged. It was no use arguing when Rosa had her mind set, especially about this movie of hers. “But if you go, I’m coming with you this time. I’m not going to sit here and wait anymore.”

“We may need someone to—” Rosa tried to say but Anna held a finger to her lips to stop her.

“No. Either we both go or neither does. You decide.”

Rosa smiled, kissing Anna’s finger. She turned to Haley. “You heard the woman. Let’s go. Lead the way.”

They followed Haley out of the Family Home, through the streets and alleys of Five/Six, to the nearest elevator where she opened the doors and showed them in. “Right this way, m’ladies.” When they stepped in and the doors closed she added, “The office.” and the elevator fell into motion.

The elevator opened onto a long hall lined with red carpet and hung with tacky, overly rich paintings and tapestries. Anna tried not to gag at the sight of it even though she knew it was meant to impress. It looked like some poor person’s sick idea of what a rich person’s house should look like.

Haley led them to the other end of the hall and through huge oak doors into a similarly decorated office with a giant oak desk populated by the fattest person that Anna had ever seen. The man chuckled with a deep “Ho ho ho!” not getting up from his seat as Haley showed Rosa and Anna to the two chairs across the sea of desk from him.

Ho ho ho!” he was still chuckling once they were seated. “It’s so good to finally meet you, though I must say that I expected an individual not a pair. Ho ho ho!”

“We’re a Family,” Rosa said, and Anna smiled. “There are no secrets between us.”

Ho ho ho! A family. Of course. Just like your script, huh? It wasn’t all fiction, then. Was it?”

“Not in the least,” Rosa said.

Good,” Lord Walker said, slamming a ham fist on the desk. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. You see, I’m more interested in your message than I am in your medium. Though I do think you have some gumption. Ho ho ho!”

“And what do you think the message is?” Anna asked.

“Well,” Lord Walker said, staring at Anna for a moment in silence. “I would say the message is made quite obvious in the script.”

“Humor me,” Anna said. “Pretend I haven’t read it.” She actually hadn’t but she knew what the message was anyway. She didn’t have to read it to know. She knew Rosa well enough to know what it would say.

“Read it?” Lord Walker said. “I thought you had written it, my dear.”

I wrote it,” Rosa said, proudly—and deservedly so.

“Answer the question,” Anna said. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why she disliked this jiggling, black clothed man in the tall hat, but she knew that she did.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker chuckled. “She’s a feisty one, isn’t she?” he said to Rosa. “Like an angry cat or something. I see why you brought her along. Ho ho ho!”

“I’d like to know the answer to her question as well,” Rosa said.

“Of course, dear. Why wouldn’t you? Your message is an obvious one, and one I’m afraid I’ve only recently come to understand the true profundity of. It’s an old fashioned message, if I’ve ever heard one, and I mean that with all due respect. Old fashioned is my motto, you see. I live by it. And, yeah, though I may have been lost, I now am found.” He grinned, nodding his head and sending his chins jiggling.

“And…” Anna said. For all his words the big man hadn’t said a thing.

“And a sturdy dose of old fashioned capitalism is exactly what we need. For too long now we’ve been lulled into a false sense of lazy security by the ever present and ever popular robot service force, but I’m afraid the jig is up. The worlds are crashing down around us. You’ve experienced it for yourself first hand, I’m sure. And the only way to prevent that disease from spreading to the rest of the worlds and beyond is to return to our roots. We are not meant to have social relations with things, tools, objects. Instead we should be hiring people, human beings. And in that human—we might even say familial—interaction we will return to the glory days when there was enough work to go around. As soon as we get rid of the robot menace, all our worlds will be made right again. I assure you of that, my dears. I assure you of that. Ho ho ho!”

“Well,” Rosa said, “I can’t argue with that.”

Anna only shook her head, though. She still wasn’t sure about this Lord Walker. He seemed to understand their message, but there was something a little off in his delivery. The words he used were a little too perfect, a little too planned, as if he had been rehearsing them for some time before delivering them, and from the look of him—so richly dressed and overweight, sitting in his opulent palace while messengers fetched his visitors for him—he was getting more out of this—or any—relationship than he was putting into it.

“So what did you have in mind?” Anna asked.

“Ah, yes,” Lord Walker said, grinning. “Finally. To the business. First and foremost, since we’ve already been discussing it, the movie. As I said, I thought it was brilliant. I mean, I loved every bit of the script. It was full of top notch symbolism and simple enough for even the dullest of Sixers to understand.”

Anna scoffed. Who did this pompous whale think he was?

“Yes,” Rosa said. “I really tried to make it accessible and entertaining. I think those are the keys when you want to spread your message as far as it can go.”

“Oh, yes,” Lord Walker said. “There’s no doubt that those are two of the keys—and very important keys at that—but as you’ll come to see, my keychain is full to the brim. One thing, for instance, that I find you’re lacking in is a proper crew and the right actors.”

Rosa scoffed. “No doubt. But I don’t really have much control over that. I was forced to take what I could get on such short notice, I’m afraid.”

“Yes,” Lord Walker said. “I realize this. That’s where my keys come into play. I’ve already selected an actor to play the robot. He’s a real star, too, top of the line, and he should give us the name power we need to get this movie seen throughout all the worlds.”

“And the rest of the crew?” Rosa asked. “I was scraping the bottom of the barrel to get them. They’re prolly not any better themselves.”

“Independent’s big right now,” Lord Walker said, waving her concerns away. “Don’t you worry about that. I’ll ensure they have the studio space and equipment they need, and they should do just fine.”

“Good,” Rosa said. “Great. What do you think Anna?”

Anna shook her head. “I don’t know. What’s in it for you?”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker laughed. “Spreading the word, my dear. That’s all. And it doesn’t matter if you agree anyway because I’ll be helping whether y’all ask for it or not. I just wanted to meet you to get a feel for you. And I’ll tell you, I like what I see.”

“So that’s it then?” Anna asked. “You don’t want anything else?”

“Well…” Lord Walker tapped his sausage fingers on the desk. “There is one other thing.”

Of course. Anna sighed. There was the matter of what he wanted from them out of all of this. There was always that.

“What is it?” Rosa asked, smiling. “Anything we can do to help our new friend.”

Lord Walker chuckled. “Yes. Friends. I’d like to think of you that way. And in turn I’d like for you two to think the same of me.” He eyed Anna as he said it. She had to suppress a groan. Now she remembered why she never went to any of these meetings with Rosa. She couldn’t play the fake kissy kissy suck up game that Rosa was so good at.

“And can your friends serve you in any way?” Rosa asked, proving again she thought nothing of this man—if he even was human. If Rosa held any regard for him at all, she would have called him brother—or son at the worst, but she would have brought him into the Family in some way nonetheless. Friend was something else to Rosa, something lower, and the funniest part was that Lord Walker didn’t understand that fact one bit. He thought she was being nice when she called him friend, and Anna wanted to laugh out loud at him for it.

“Well, you see…” Lord Walker paused for a moment, taking the monocle out of his eye and setting it on the table. His neck must have been tired from carrying his already massive head, not to mention the towering top hat with it. “This is a touchy subject. I don’t want to offend.” He spoke as if he had already gained their confidence.

“Please,” Rosa said. “Go on. We know you have no ill intent.”

Anna did scoff at that one. She couldn’t help it. If anything, Lord Walker’s intent was entirely ill. She regretted the scoff as soon as she had let it out, though, and held her hand to her mouth in embarrassment.

Lord Walker sneered at her. “Yes, well… I don’t want to make any assumptions about your intent, either,” he said, focusing all attention on Rosa alone now, practically acting as if Anna wasn’t there. Anna didn’t care, though. She didn’t want him talking to her anyway. She wanted to leave. She never should have been there in the first place. “Which is why I will try to be as elegant and proper as I can when I tiptoe around this one.”

“Please, Lord,” Rosa said, bowing her head a bit. “No tiptoeing.”

“Well, you see,” Lord Walker said, still tiptoeing nonetheless, an amazing feat for such a wide frame—it probably would have been havoc on his pants if he were doing it in real life rather than with words. “There was a slight disturbance in Outland One recently. A group of terrorists—as what they did can only be described as an act of terror—attacked one of the protector precincts under my ownership.” He paused, waiting for a response, but he got none. Ann and Rosa both knew how to control their emotions when it was essential.

“And the only reason I bring it up,” Lord Walker went on when he was sure he wasn’t getting the response he wanted, “is because it just so happens that one of my protectors found the source of that disturbance. It took them some time, yes. Whoever these people were had to be very clever in order to break into my precinct. They knew how to cover their tracks, you see, but not well enough. There’s always some trail left behind, I’m afraid, and my bloodhounds never fail to sniff it out.”

“I’m not sure I understand what this has to do with us, sir,” Rosa said.

Hmmm.” Lord Walker frowned. “I thought you would by now. You’re smarter than that, aren’t you? No.” He shook his head. “That’s not it. You’re not stupid. That’s for certain. You act this way because you’re afraid. You shouldn’t be, though. This affects nothing about the deal we’ve already made. In fact, if anything, it makes me more eager to work with you. You’ll fit in better with my new business model this way.” He smiled.

“What are you saying?” Rosa asked.

“I’m saying, my dear, that I know it was you who attacked my protectors and stole my guns. I’m not as stupid as you’re making yourselves out to be.” Rosa tried to speak but Lord Walker cut her off. “But, as a gesture of friendship, and as a way to get our new business relationship started off on a good foot, I’m willing to overlook your transgressions without recompense. Furthermore,” he went on, cutting Rosa off again. “I’ll see to it that an arsenal twice the size of what you’ve already taken ends up in your hands, with the promise of more weapons to come as you prove to me that I can trust you.” He smiled, finally relinquishing the floor, but Rosa nor Anna said anything in response.

“Well,” Lord Walker said. “What do you think?”

“Work together toward what?” Anna asked.

“Toward our common interest, sweetheart. What else? Toward the destruction of the robot industry. Toward the benefit of myself and yours. Toward whatever we can agree on, including this movie we’ve already begun. What’s it matter to you if you’re doing what you already would be doing and getting some extra benefit from it on top?”

Some benefit.” Anna scoffed. “Some benefit much smaller in proportion than our input, I’m sure.”

“Your input?” This time it was Lord Walker’s turn to scoff, unable to control his own emotions. “And what exactly do you think that is, sweetheart? You’re nothing more than bodies. Anyone can be a body. Everybody’s some body. I can pick up anyone off any corner in any world and they can contribute exactly the same thing as you. Any benefit you get is more than proportional to your input. If anything, it’s charity on my part. The only reason I chose you is so I didn’t have to meet with any other disgusting low worlders or deal with the headache of punishing you for your hilariously inadequate crimes. Now. You can take what I offer you, which is more than you can ever expect otherwise, or you can turn around right now, leave my office, and face the wrath of Lord Walker.” His nose was flaring and all of his chins had gone red by the end of his heavy breathed speech.

“You can f—” Anna started to say but Rosa stopped her. She turned to Anna and nodded with a straight face. That’s all it took. Rosa would handle this. Anna wouldn’t like how she did it, but that was how the world worked. Anna fumed under her skin about that fact, hiding it well, as Rosa spoke.

“I’m sorry if we’ve offended you,” Rosa said and Anna took special notice that she used “we’ve” instead of “she’s”. “It was not our intention. You must understand that we would be stupid not to ensure that we get a fair deal out of this relationship.”

Lord Walker nodded. “Yes, of course, but—”

“And you must also realize,” Rosa went on, taking control of the conversation finally, “that when you talk about a future relationship it implies future demands on our time which we may not be prepared to put up with. Given zero knowledge of your future plans, we would essentially be handing you a blank check by accepting your offer.”

Lord Walker grinned. “It’s funny you should say that,” he said, “a blank check. It’s such an archaic term, especially for a Sixer.”

“I’ve made it a point to remember my Family’s history,” Rosa said, nodding once.

Lord Walker nodded back. “Yes,” he said. “It’s important to remember history if you want to know how to come out on top when it repeats itself. But how about I offer you a blank check in return then?”

“How so?” Rosa said.

“Well, I’ll simply send you one of the armories. They’re essentially 3D printers capable of creating all the guns and armor you have time to ask for. That’d be about the same as a blank check, and it would serve to show just how much I trust you and value our new relationship.”

Rosa looked to Anna who shook her head. She didn’t like this idea. He was giving them a blank check, technically, but it was limited and Lord Walker could cut off the supply whenever he wanted. And besides that, there was no telling what he would ask of them in return.

“And this is a once in a lifetime offer,” Lord Walker added, anticipating their reluctance. “If you leave here without saying yes, then you’ve said no and you’re responsible for whatever happens to you and your family as a consequence.”

Anna shook her head again. She still didn’t want to get in bed with this flabby monster, but she knew what Rosa was going to say before she said it.

“We’ll take the armory,” Rosa said. “And we’ll see where we go from there.”

“Good,” Lord Walker said. “Great. That’s all I needed to hear. Haley will show you home and carry the armory for you, but I’m afraid that’s all I have time for today, ladies. I’ll get you a phone, too, so we won’t have to meet in person all the time. You heard that Haley? Get them a phone, too. Now, ta ta!” He turned in his seat so his back was facing them and they couldn’t respond if they wanted to.

Anna and Rosa followed Haley out through the elaborate hall to the elevator where the armory was waiting for them.

“He’s so pompous,” Anna said when she saw it.

Rosa grabbed her arm. “We need this.”

“Sorry for the tight fit, Haley said, squeezing into the elevator with them. “Sector US1Q84.” The doors slid closed and the elevator fell into motion. When they opened again Haley pushed the armory out, following them in silence to the Family Home.

“All the way in the basement, please,” Rosa said when they had arrived, and Haley obliged.

“It was a pleasure to meet you,” Haley said when she had climbed back upstairs.

“And you,” Rosa said, extending a hand to Haley who took some time to shake it before curtsying and leaving.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Anna said, slapping Rosa on the arm and stomping to the kitchen. “And all for some more guns.” She had to cook something and get some food in her stomach to forget how gross everything about what had just happened was.

“I didn’t hear you speaking up,” Rosa said, following her into the kitchen and sitting at the bar. “I did what needed to be done.”

Ha!” Anna set to cooking, not even knowing what she planned on making. “I didn’t have to speak because you knew how I felt already. I don’t like all these guns around here, and I certainly don’t want any more in the House.”

“Technically, there aren’t any more, just a printer that can make some.” Rosa grinned, trying to lighten the mood.

“You know what I mean,” Anna said, dicing harder and faster. “There will be because of that thing. And more deaths, you can count on that. I don’t like one bit about this Lord Walker business, and I don’t understand how you could.”

Rosa chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry. I don’t trust that fat old man as far as I can throw his gigantic top hat, but what did you want me to do? Say no and piss him off from the get go? At worst, we get some guns out of it so we can defend ourselves better when we inevitably do piss him off by not bowing to his every demand.”

“Unless he cuts off the pipeline,” Anna said, tossing the diced vegetables into the frying pan.

“Then we’ll just have to be sure we get the guns before we piss him off. Won’t we?”

Exactly,” Anna said, throwing a can of beans in with the vegetables. She hated using the cans, but she was too hungry to wait for the real thing. “Which means more guns in the House, exactly what I said I didn’t want in the first place.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Rosa said, shaking her head and letting her hands flop on the table, not quite slamming them. “I know you don’t want violence. I don’t either. But that’s the only way that they know how to respond so we have to be prepared when they do.”

“I don’t know.” Anna shook her head. “It’s almost like we’re asking for it if we stock up on weapons like this.”

“It would be asking for it if we didn’t,” Rosa said. “We have to protect ourselves. No one else will.”

“Well, I hope you’re right,” Anna said. “And I hope Lord Walker doesn’t ask us to do something we don’t want to do in the meantime—like maybe start the violence instead of defending against it. What do we do then?”

“We say no.”

“And deal with his wrath?” Anna said with a laugh, setting a full bowl of food in front of Rosa and sitting next to her to start in on her own.

“Exactly,” Rosa said with a smile, taking a bite. “Mmmm. Delicious.” She took another. “And exactly why we’d be dumb not to arm ourselves in preparation. You met the guy.”

“Which is why I don’t trust—” Anna turned to say but Kara came rushing into the kitchen to cut her off.

#     #     #

< LI. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LIII. Roo >

There it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to come back next week for the continuance of the story. We do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 51: Laura

Laura has done her deed and now she’s on the way to Mr. Walker’s lair to see if it was enough to ensure her freedom. For some reason, though, she’s got a sneaking suspicion that it won’t be. Read on here to find out along with Laura, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy and/or leave a review of the novel through this link, I’d really appreciate it. Enjoy your reading, y’all, and have a great weekend besides that.

< L. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     LII. Anna >

L. Laura

Laura did know the way to the voice’s lair, but she had never had a reason to use it. She would be a much happier person, living a better life, if she never had a reason. She was okay with the way things were, never seeing the face that owned the voice on the other end of the phone, slowly, day by day, paying off her debt. But this? This was too much to ask

She stalled for time in her small apartment, staring at her reflection in the ancient battle station—so old it didn’t even have makeup removing capabilities—despite the fact that she knew perfectly well she had no time to spare. ASAP meant as soon as possible, and to the voice on the other end of the phone that meant sooner than possible.

She cringed at the thought of what the voice’s face would look like, at the power it held. That voice controlled every aspect of her life. That voice followed her every move thanks to the ankle bracelet she had been strapped with for longer than she cared to remember. That voice held the key to the same ankle monitor and that was reason enough not to keep the voice’s owner waiting. She sighed and stood from the battle station, surveying her room one last time, surveying the life she had been chained to, imagining the life she would have been capable of living if it weren’t for that anchor weighing her down at the ankle, and seized the moment. It was now or never and never was too late.

The public elevator was only a block away from her apartment complex, but she walked slowly. The end of her debt was supposed to be at the other end of the elevator ride, along with the voice’s face, but Laura had been made promises before, and she was quite certain that she’d be coming home with her ankle monitor still attached. A little part of her couldn’t help hoping she was wrong, that this was the day she was finally going to be set free, and it almost scared her to think about that freedom, so she forced herself back into the defeated cynicism that had been keeping her alive for so long now.

There was a short line at the elevator, but it was orderly and quick. Soon she stepped through the doors and they slid shut behind her. She took a deep breath of odorous air and sighed, hoping the password would work.

“I would tell him to shrug,” she said and the floor fell out from underneath her.

It felt like her heart stopped for the entire thirty second ride, only jumping back into motion after the elevator ceased to move, like some cruel inertial joke. Her breath didn’t start up again until the elevator doors opened, revealing a long, elegant hall lined with red carpet and hung with classical paintings and tapestries. She stood in awe for a moment and only just stepped out of the elevator as the doors slid closed behind her.

She looked around at the brightly lit hall, embarrassed. She didn’t know whether to continue on her way to the big wooden door at the other end of it or to wait there until someone came to greet her. She really wanted to turn around, get back in the elevator, and go home, and she was about to do just that when the wooden door across from her opened and closed with a loud thud. A woman in a lacy, short black and white skirt came scurrying down the hall toward her, saying, “Hello. Hello.” and curtsying every few steps as she walked. “I apologize, ma’am. I should have been here to greet you, but Mist—erLord Walker needed my assistance in his office. But I’m here now. So, hello.” She curtsied one more time when she had finally crossed the long hall.

“Oh—uh…” Laura blushed. She didn’t know what to say. This certainly wasn’t the voice on the other end of the phone, but she couldn’t just ask for a voice, could she? She would sound insane.

“Laura, I’m sorry,” the woman in the black and white skirt said, blushing herself. “I’m so rude. I apologize again and again. Don’t tell Mister Walker I said this, but I’m very new to this secretary business so you’ll have to bear with me.”

Laura nodded as if she knew what was going on. Whoever this person was seemed nice enough and it took some pressure off of meeting this Lord Walker—or whoever—who Laura assumed was the voice she had been talking to.

“My name’s Haley,” the woman went on, curtsying again. “We’ve been expecting you. Mister—ooh, shoot—I mean Lord. I’m sorry. I’ve got to stop doing that.”

Laura chuckled, not sure what she was laughing at.

Lord Walker is waiting in his office. He will receive you there. If you’ll follow me, please.” Haley made her way back up the red carpeted hall she had just come down.

Laura followed, but slowly, examining each picture, tapestry, and painting as best as she could with what little time she had. They all looked pretty much the same to her: fat, tuxedoed white men variously displaying their riches. She shook her head and caught up with Haley who had stopped at the big wooden door which only seemed larger with proximity.

“Now, when we get in there,” Haley said, “be sure to address him as Lord Walker. He wouldn’t want to be called by any other name. Trust me.”

Laura smiled and nodded.. “And what’s your name?” she asked.

“Oh, I’m Haley,” the woman said, shaking her hand. “But that’s not important. You won’t need to address me at all. Only speak to Lord Walker and only after you’ve been spoken to. You got it?”

Laura nodded. It sounded about how she would expect the voice to act from what she knew about its owner already, but she wasn’t sure how this Haley put up with being in such close proximity to the demanding beast for so long. “And you live like this everyday?” she asked.

Haley chuckled. “I get to,” she said. “This is the best job a robot can have. You wouldn’t believe what they’d have me doing if I wasn’t here.”

Laura’s jaw dropped. She had seen androids before but nothing so lifelike as this one. She wasn’t sure she believed Haley when she said she was a robot. She couldn’t be. She looked so…human.

“Well, are you ready then?” Haley asked after a moment’s silence. “Lord Walker doesn’t like to wait.”

Laura swallowed the dried up spit in her mouth. Her diaphragm and vocal chords couldn’t coordinate themselves enough to make speech so she just nodded. Now or never.

Haley opened the door to reveal a room identical to the hall, only wider, and instead of being empty this one had a huge wooden desk with some chairs sitting across from it. Behind the desk, the largest person Laura had ever seen sat wearing a tuxedo and towering top hat. Laura chuckled internally at the sight of it. No offense to Steve, but the costumes they were using on set were nothing compared to the real thing.

Ho ho ho!” the man behind the desk laughed in the voice that Laura recognized from all her phone conversations. The sound sent a chill up her spine. “Haley, dear. Be a good girl and show our company in, please. And Laura, my gem, don’t be shy. Ho ho ho!”

Laura hesitated but Haley guided her in to sit at one of the chairs in front of the big desk. The chair was so puffy and soft that Laura felt like it would eat her up if she didn’t sit right at the edge of it.

“There we are,” the voice said, it’s face fatter and more grotesque than Laura ever could have imagined. “I’m sorry I didn’t stand to shake your hand, dear, but my pants have been acting up today. Ho ho ho!”

Laura smiled, nodding. She didn’t find anything about this funny, but playing along would hopefully hasten the process.

“So,” the voice went on “Laura. It’s good to finally meet you face to face.”

Laura nodded. “Yes—uh—Lord Walker. You, too.”

The voice, Lord Walker, smiled. He chuckled a little then went into a full on guffaw. “Yes, dear,” he said. “Lord Walker. How nice to hear it fall from your precious lips.”

Laura didn’t know how to respond to that. She just smiled and nodded along.

“So, then, girl.” Lord Walker sneered and his face somehow became more grotesque—so much so that Laura had to stifle a gag at the sight of it. “Tell me again how it went.”

“It went exactly as planned, sir,” she said, trying not to vomit.

“Yes, yes. Of course. But humor me. Remind me of the plan. Bring me through it step by step. It’s one of life’s few pleasures, you know, a good story well told.” He grinned.

Laura shook her head. Lord Walker already knew what she had done, why did she have to repeat it for him? It was just some sick show of power on his part. “I did what you asked,” she said. “I knocked Emir out. He can’t act anymore. What do I do next?”

Next,” Lord Walker said, his grin fading, “you bring me through what happened, step by step. If you’re not going to play along, then this isn’t going to be any fun for anyone and I might just have to go find another convict grip who actually wants to live a life free of her ankle monitor. There are plenty of them out there, you know. And besides that, I own the protectors so I have the power to make more whenever I want to.”

Laura swallowed down what she wanted to say—that she didn’t believe Lord Walker would ever take the stupid monitor off her, whether she cooperated or not—because somewhere deep down inside of her she still had some hope that he would. Instead she said, “Well—I… Uh. Where should I start, si—Lord?”

“From the beginning,” Lord Walker said, smiling again and tapping his fingers on the desk. “Go on.”

“Well—-uh…” She still didn’t know how far back he wanted her to go. “Three nights ago, as per your request, I went into Loch Ness Studios—which was unlocked and empty like you said it would be—to set up the rigging on the lights.”

“Tell me,” Lord Walker said, clapping his hands together like an eager child. “What kind of rigging?”

“Oh it was your simple laser disc,” Laura said. “It’s just a ring you can wrap around any object, then with the flick of a switch, red hot lasers instantly saw whatever it’s attached to in half.”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker guffawed, throwing his head back to look at the ceiling as his heaving stomach jiggled. “And that’s just what you did, right? Flicked a switch and kerplow!” He mimed an explosion with his ham hock hands.

“Yes, sir.” Laura nodded. “As soon as he was in position I took the cue and set the effects in motion. I did exactly what you asked me to do and now Emir can’t work for weeks. So please, how do I get rid of this stupid monitor?”

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker chuckled. “Slow down now, sweetheart. You’re putting your cart in front of your horse. Do you know what that saying means?”

Laura shook her head. She didn’t know what it meant, but whatever it did mean, she didn’t like the sound of it. It sounded like Lord Walker was trying to weasel out of their deal—again.

“No, you probably wouldn’t,” Lord Walker said. “Not with your education, at least. You know nothing of history beyond the last hundred or so years of art history, and this saying comes from a time well before that.”

Laura was tired of his games but she had no choice but to play along. “So what does it mean then?”

“It means you’re getting things out of order. You’ve got it in reverse. You see, back before elevators, way back even before the automobile era, people used to get around by having horses pull them in carts. So you can see what a problem it would be to put your cart before your horse. It’s not trained to push the thing. All it knows how to do is pull. So you’re not gonna get anywhere that way. Ho ho ho!”

“What does this have to do with me?”

“Oh, not much, probably.” Lord Walker shrugged. “Besides the fact that you’re putting your cart before your horse by asking me to remove your ankle monitor before you’ve finished your services to me.”

“No, but you said—”

“What did I say?”

“You said you would remove my ankle monitor if I—”

If you did something for me.”

“Yes,” Laura said. “Then you told me to rig the lights to fall on Emir and I did just that.”

“And you did a very good job of it, too, dear. Dr. Smith told me you got him right on the head.” He grinned from ear to ear, giving a thumbs up with his sausage finger.

“So you should hold up your end of the agreement, then,” Laura said. What was his problem? This was no way to conduct business.

“I’m afraid not,” Lord Walker said, leaning forward to cross his arms on the desk, getting serious about the conversation finally. “You see, that was only step one in the task I have in mind for you.”

Ugh.” Laura groaned. “And how many steps are there?”

Lord Walker tapped each of his chins with each of his plump fingers. “Hmmm. It’s hard to break the plan into discrete steps like that. Each superstep includes various substeps. No, let’s leave the step counting for later. For now let’s get to step two.”

Laura groaned. There was probably no end to the steps, but no matter how Sisyphean the task was, she had to push the boulder up the hill or be left with no hope at all. “So what do I do?”

“Oh, don’t look so down.” Lord Walker smiled wide. “This step will be a lot easier for you than the last one. And dare I say fun?”

Laura scoffed. “Sure. Whatever.”

“Oh, you don’t believe me?” Lord Walker snapped his fingers, still smiling and staring at Laura. “Haley, dear. Bring our star in now, please. I think it’s finally time for our employees to meet face to face. Maybe we’ll do some ice breaker exercises or something. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying and exiting through the heavy door.

“Who is it?” Laura asked.

“Oh, you’ll see,” Lord Walker said, pointing at the door. “Patience my dear. You’ll see. Ho ho ho!”

The door opened and in came Haley followed by—

Laura shook her head. She blinked her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She couldn’t form words or move her legs to stand and greet him so she just sat there, shaking her head and chuckling in disbelief.

“Laura Concierge,” Lord Walker said, “meet Jorah Baldwin.”

The Jorah Baldwin, wearing a black paisley suit and his trademark red lipstick, bowed low and presented a hand to Laura. It took her a while to stand—her legs wouldn’t work at first, like they had fallen asleep—but when she finally got the blood flowing again she managed to shake his hand and squeak out, “Nice to meet you, sir.”

“Oh, ho ho!” Jorah laughed, taking her hand again and kissing the back of it. “Call me Jorah, please. Leave all this sir business for our great and powerful Lord Walker.”

Lord Walker chuckled from behind the desk where he was still seated. “Now now, Jorah, my boy. Take a seat and leave all that flattery for a better time and place. Preferably somewhere more public where we’re surrounded by owners. Ho ho ho!”

Jorah bowed low to Lord Walker before taking the seat that Laura had been sitting in. It took Laura some time to remember how to work her legs and sit in the seat next to him.

“Oh no, my Lord,” Jorah said, shaking his head, stern-faced. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not flattery. It’s merely a statement of fact. Truths are not flatteries. Only embellishments can be.”

“All the same,” Lord walker said, smiling wider still. “Now is not the time for truths. Now is the time for business. So, shall we get down to it, then?”

“Oh, yes. Of course. Go ahead,” Jorah said, bowing his head.

Laura just nodded, still unable to think, much less to speak.

“Well, now,” Lord Walker said, taking his time after asking everyone else to hurry. “What we have in front of us may seem like an odd decision at first glance, but I want to emphasize the word seems.”

Laura nodded. Jorah nodded more emphatically.

“Let me assure you, however,” Lord Walker went on, “that I have measured and weighed all the possibilities before us and this is the most profitable course of action.”

“Good, My Lord,” Jorah said, bowing his head with every other word. “I trust your judgement.”

“It’s good to hear that, Jorah,” Lord Walker said, beaming. “Because I’m afraid this will seem much more absurd from your perspective than it will from our dear Laura’s here, though I’m sure she never could have imagined this outcome in her wildest dreams.”

“Oh, I’m ready, Lord,” Jorah said, nodding and eager though Laura had some idea of what was coming next—an idea she couldn’t believe, just as Lord Walker had said—and if she was right, Jorah was not going to like the plan.

“You, Jorah Baldwin,” Lord Walker said proudly, “are going to star in the independent film being produced by Laura’s company.” He smiled wide.

Now it was Jorah who was caught speechless. “I—uh…” he stammered.

“He what?” Laura blurted out, covering her mouth after she had realized what she’d done.

“Yes,” Lord Walker said, smiling and nodding. “He will take Emir’s role as the robot in your film. I read through the script, you know. It pissed me off at first—being the inventor of the androids as I am, of course it did—but then it got me to thinking of how I could spin the story to my advantage. So, Jorah—the biggest star in existence—” Jorah acted embarrassed by the flattery, whether he was or not. “—will star in your movie, and I—the greatest owner in all of history—will back it as the executive producer. There’s no way we don’t have a blockbuster on our hands with names like Walker and Baldwin behind it.”

“But why us?” Laura asked.

“Why me?” Jorah asked, shaking his head.

“Now listen here.” Lord Walker slammed his hands on the desk. “You, girl, should be honored. You’re going to have your name on the biggest film this year. Hell, the biggest film ever.”

“But the script sucks,” Laura complained.

“And you, Jorah, are going to be more famous than you thought possible under my ownership. I guarantee it. The only hitch is that you have to act in the roles that I tell you to act in or you’ll end up as nothing more than another extra… Or worse. Got it?”

“But she said the script sucks,” Jorah complained.

I read the script,” Lord Walker said, proudly. “And I found it to be quite entertaining. More importantly, I agreed with the message. And with the worlds’ biggest star on the cast, we’ll be able to spread that message all the way through Outland Six and back again.”

“The message?” Laura scoffed. “That’s the worst part of the script. Why would you want to spread that racist Luddite garbage?”

“Racist?” Jorah said, groaning. “What is she talking about, Lord?”

Lord Walker grinned and nodded at Laura, clearly impressed. “Well, well,” he said, tipping his huge top hat. “It seems your education was a little more thorough than I imagined. Luddite garbage, huh? Now I wouldn’t call it garbage, but I like where you’re going with the Luddite bit.”

“What are you two talking about?” Jorah complained.

“It’s not gonna fix anything, though,” Laura said. “All that buy human-made only crap. It doesn’t change a thing. Everything just costs more so we get less anyway. That’s never going to change unless the entire system changes.”

“It might not solve any of your problems,” Lord Walker said, chuckling. “Other than your little ankle monitor fiasco, of course. But it will certainly do wonders for mine.”

“But, sir,” Jorah said, looking confused. “Human-made only? I’m—I mean, aren’t you— Don’t you—”

“Yes, Jorah, my boy. You heard it right.” Lord Walker laughed, clearly enjoying himself.

“But you own the vast majority of android production plants,” Jorah said. “Why?”

“For now I do,” Lord Walker said, serious faced again. “We haven’t finished the movie yet, though. We haven’t disseminated it to the masses. But I’ll take care of my investments in due time, my boy. I assure you of that. Now you stop worrying about my finances and start preparing for your roll. Haley will make sure you have a copy of the script.”

“I—but—” Jorah hunched over in his seat, giving up. He shook his head. “Yes, sir,” he said, defeated. “When do I start?”

“Now that’s the spirit,” Lord Walker said, clapping his hands together. “I’ve booked a studio for you all starting tomorrow morning, bright and early. You’ll get the shooting schedule along with your script. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, sir,” Jorah said, shaking his head and missing the characteristic twinkle in his eye.

“Good. And as for you, sweetheart.” Lord Walker turned to Laura. “I need you to go tell your crew that you found a replacement for Emir then give them the new shooting schedule. We have a deadline, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, nodding. “I’ll tell them, sir, but they may not like it. Especially Cohen and the shooting schedule.”

Nonsense,” Lord Walker said, waving her concerns away. “I’m sure they’ll love to have Jorah on board, and as for the rest, they’ll like it or they’ll never work in any business ever again. Ho ho ho!”

“I—uh… I’ll tell them, sir.” Laura shrugged. What else could she do?

“Good,” Lord Walker said. “And while you’re at it, get me in touch with that script writer of yours. Have him call me. I have some projects I’d like him to start working on right away.”

Laura sighed. It was sounding more and more like Lord Walker was planning on stringing her along, never to remove her ankle monitor, just as she had expected. “I’ll try,” she said. “But we haven’t been able to get in touch with him for some time now. And besides, he only really edited the script. Cohen’s the only one of us who’s met the original writer.”

Interesting,” Lord Walker said, tapping his chins. “Well have this Cohen call me then. That way I can find the writer and straighten out any concerns your director has about the new shooting schedule in one fell swoop. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said. She’d love to lay some of this burden on that asshole Cohen. Maybe then he’d finally pull some of his own weight. “I’d be happy to. Anything else?”

“That’s all, dear,” Lord Walker said. “For both of you. Now go get some rest and prepare. You both have important work in front of you tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Jorah and Laura said at the same time, standing to follow Haley out of the big oak door, down the hall, and to the elevator. Laura stepped aside to let Jorah into the elevator first.

“I can’t believe I have to do this,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Dressing room.” The doors slid closed then opened half a minute later to an empty elevator.

“It was nice to meet you,” Laura said when she had stepped into the elevator.

Haley blushed. “You, too,” she said, curtsying. “Good luck.”

The elevator doors slid closed and Laura said, “Indywood.”

The floor fell out from underneath her and she shook her head, still unable to believe anything form the last few hours. First, she actually did rig the lights to fall on Emir, which she had never thought she would do, not even for freedom. Then she met the flabby fat face behind the voice that had been pulling her strings—and how many others’?—for so long. And finally, she met Jorah Baldwin, who—now that Russ Logo was out of the picture—was the biggest actor in all the worlds. Not only that, she found out that she would be working on a film with him.

The elevator doors opened and Laura pushed out past the line of people to vomit in an alley around the corner. Saying it all at once like that made her life almost unbearable to think about. She needed a strong drink—and fast—in order to get the taste of vomit out of her mouth and calm her nerves so she hurried to the bar.

Cohen, Jen, and even Emily were all at one of the normal tables. Guy was still nowhere to be found—she wondered if the protectors finally took him to be tortured like she had tried to warn him would happen—and Steve was presumably still taking care of Emir. Laura went straight to the bar without acknowledging the crew—who were deep in conversation and didn’t seem to notice her anyway—to order a fireball and a Suburban. She took the shot at the bar—not taking it in one gulp but swishing it around in her mouth first to get rid of the barf aftertaste—and thanked the bartender. She needed that.

She carried the Suburban over to the crew’s table and patted Cohen on the back as she sat down. “What’s up?”

“Whoa!” Cohen screamed, jumping from his seat. “Fuck. You scared the shit out of me. Don’t sneak around like that.”

Emily giggled. “You might wanna change your underwear, then.”

“Laura,” Jen said. “When did you get here?”

Laura shrugged, taking a big gulp of her drink. “I don’t know. Just now.”

“And where the fuck have you been?” Cohen demanded, still fuming. “We’ve all been here furiously brainstorming some way to save this production. We’ve got a deadline, you know, and a shit ton of scenes Emir was supposed to lead.”

“I know more than you could imagine,” Laura said under her breath.

“What was that?” Cohen asked, holding a hand to his ear. “Why don’t you speak the fuck up so everyone can hear you?”

Laura had had enough. What did it matter anyway? Cohen wasn’t in charge anymore, whether he liked it or not—whether the entire crew liked it or not. That was just the way the world worked and they would all have to get used to it.

I said, I know more than you could imagine,” Laura repeated.

Daaaaamn,” Emily said, snapping her fingers. “You tell him, girl.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Cohen demanded.

“It means we have a new shooting schedule,” Laura said. “We have new deadlines to worry about that you don’t know about. It means that I know more than you could imagine.”

In yo face,” Emily said.

“Wait, what?” Jen said.

I’m the director,” Cohen said. “I’ll decide the shooting schedules. Nothing has changed until you consult me about it. You got that?”

Laura scoffed. “So y’all found a replacement for Emir, then?”

Cohen looked around the table at blank faces. “Well, no,” he said. “But—”

I have,” Laura said, grinning. “And let me just say that the replacement will probably be better than the real thing.”

Sure.” Cohen scoffed. “You found someone better than Emir who will work for nothing. I doubt that.”

Laura nodded, letting them stew a bit longer.

“Well, who is it?” Emily asked, unable to contain her excitement.

“Jorah Baldwin.”

The entire table, save Laura, laughed.

“Yeah, right,” Cohen said.

“Shit, girl.” Emily chuckled. “You had me goin’ for a minute there.”

Sure,” Jen said, giving a thumbs up. “Nice story. You trying to become a writer?”

“Laugh now if you want to,” Laura said, “but you won’t be tomorrow. You’ll be stupefied probably. That’s when we start shooting. The studio’s booked and it’s big enough for any scene. Look, I’ll show you.” She pulled out her phone and sent them all the shooting schedule.

“Well, this scheduling receipt looks legit,” Cohen said after taking a moment to investigate it. “But you can’t expect me to believe you got Jorah Baldwin to agree to work on this project for free.”

“Has he even read the script?” Jen asked.

“No, I don’t think he has,” Laura said. “But he’ll be there.”

“But— But how?” Cohen asked, still searching through the schedule. “How could you schedule all this? When have you ever met Jorah Baldwin?”

“I didn’t schedule it,” Laura said. “The investor did. And I met Jorah today. He’ll be there. I guarantee.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Emily said, bouncing up and down in her seat. “We’re actually going to get to work with Jorah Baldwin.”

“An investor, huh?” Cohen said. “I’d like to meet this person.”

“Well that’s good,” Laura said, sending him Lord Walker’s contact information. “Because while you probably won’t be able to meet with him in person, he does want to speak with you before tomorrow. I just sent you the number.”

“Lord Walker?” Cohen said, checking the message again. “The Lord Walker? You can’t be serious.”

“Oh. My. Fortuna,” Emily said. “He’s like the richest producer in all of existence.”

“Really?” Jen said.

“I’m serious,” Laura said. “Give him a call and see for yourself, Cohen. He’s how we got Jorah.”

“Alright, one second.” Cohen lifted a finger and went outside to make the call. He was only gone for a few minutes, in which Jen and Emily grilled Laura about Jorah’s appearance and demeanor, before he came back in with a big smile on his face and sat at the table.

“So?” Jen said.

“Is it real?” Emily asked.

Laura just nodded.

“It’s a go,” Cohen said. “Six AM tomorrow. Expect Jorah. This is the real deal.”

Emily squealed, Jen gasped, and Laura breathed a sigh of relief to have some of the burden off her shoulders.

#     #     #

< L. Nikola     [Table of Contents]     LII. Anna >

So there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you’re enjoying the story, and I hope you come back for more next week. Until then, have a great weekend and have a great week besides that. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 50: Nikola

Today brings us chapter fifty of the Infinite Limits saga with Nikola’s second point of view chapter in book three, Dividing by Ø. For this chapter we rejoin Nikola and Tillie in Nikola’s hometown to learn more about what the universe is like outside of Outland and if Tillie is willing to help Nikola and her family with their mission.

If you’ve been enjoying the story so far, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel here or subscribe to my email newsletter for news and updates on new releases in the Infinite Limits series and beyond. Until then, enjoy today’s read.

< XLIX. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LI. Laura >

L. Nikola

Tillie burst through the building’s tent flap doors—apparently no longer afraid of the guards—and ran down the dirt street, making  Nikola sprint to catch up. Tillie was two blocks down the road and around a corner before Nikola finally grabbed her by the arm to stop her.

“W—Wait,” Nikola said, hunched over and breathing heavily. “W—Where’re you going?”

“I don’t know,” Tillie said, shrugging Nikola’s hand off. “Does it matter? I’ve had enough of this place. I just want to go home.”

“You heard my dad, Tillie. You can’t go home. The protectors will—”

My dad wouldn’t let them do anything to me. He has a little more power than a protector, Nikola. I’m a Manager.”

Nikola scoffed despite her every effort to stifle it. She knew that Tillie couldn’t help her ignorance. Tillie was a product of her experiences, just like every other human being in existence, and she had no control over what those experiences were. But it was all Nikola could do not to laugh in the face of such plain naivete.

“So what?” Nikola said. “That doesn’t matter anymore. You’re in the real world now. The real worlds. All of them. Things work a little differently outside of America and you’re just going to have to get used to it.”

“No, but…” Tillie turned to look at Nikola, a tear forming in her eye. “But my dad… Mr. Kitty… How am I supposed to…”

Of course. Nikola palmed her face then rearranged her glasses. Tillie missed her family. Nikola hadn’t thought twice about it because her family was here, but no wonder Tillie wanted to go home.

“I know,” Nikola said, trying to calm Tillie now. “I’m sorry. I wish you could go back to them, too, but there’s no way. The protectors are after you now. They won’t stop until they get you.”

“And who’s fault is that?” Tillie demanded, pushing herself away. “They wouldn’t be after me if I had served my sentence, would they?”

“Well, no. But you probably wouldn’t even be alive if that were the case. Do you know what they would have done to you? You’d still be in that solitary drawer we saved you from—at the very best.”

Probably wouldn’t be alive.” Tillie scoffed. “According to who? You’re dad? He doesn’t care about me. All he cares about is y’alls stupid country here—whatever you call it. I could tell that by the way he spoke to me.”

“No.” Nikola shook her head. “He does care about you. He cares about all the people of all the worlds.”

Tillie scoffed again. “Yeah. Sure. What does he think he is, the Invisible Hand or something? As if.”

“Far from it. As far as you can get. The Invisible Hand doesn’t care about anyone. The Invisible Hand is the enemy we’re fighting against. So, no. He is not, nor will he ever be, the Invisible Hand. My dad’s something far greater than that.”

“Fight against the Invisible Hand?” Tillie said backing away from Nikola and almost tripping over some rubble. “But tha—that’s blasphemous.”

“Of course we’re fighting the Invisible Hand. What do you think Emma was doing? What do you think you’ve been doing this entire time? That’s the whole reason you’re here now. We’ve been fighting the Invisible Hand together.”

“No—I…” Tillie looked like she was fighting back tears. “I wasn’t. We weren’t. Emma never said anything about that to me. We were fighting for the robot workers, not against the… Invisible Hand.” She whispered the last two words as if the Hand had ears and was listening, as if it cared one bit about either one of them.

“Yes,” Nikola said, trying to hide the annoyance in her voice. She kept reminding herself that Tillie had gone to American schools, that she couldn’t possibly know any better, that Tillie had been raised in the religion of the Invisible Hand and she might not be willing to throw off its shackles so soon or all at once. “You were fighting for the robots and the assembly line workers against the will of the owners,” Nikola tried to explain. “You were attempting to violate their property by freeing the androids. You were going against the will of the market by fighting for the rights of the assembly line workers who voluntarily chose those jobs. You did all of that, Tillie.”

“I—But, no.” Tillie gave up and plopped down onto a big piece of rubble then buried her face in her hands.

“Don’t worry,” Nikola said, taking a seat next to Tillie to try to comfort her. “It’s not like the Hand struck you down on sight, is it?”

Nikola grinned, nudging Tillie who cracked a smile and chuckled, her head still buried in her hands. “I guess I’m still standing,” she said with a muffled voice.

“Well, you’re sitting in the dirt right now, but I get the point,” Nikola said, standing and brushing her own dirty pants off. “C’mon,” she added, holding out a hand to help Tillie up. “Let’s go for a walk, clear your head. It should be nice after being cooped up in those boxes for so long.”

“You’ve got that right,” Tillie said, smiling as she followed Nikola through the rubbled streets to nowhere in particular. “Though I’m not sure how comfortable I am being around all these soldiers. It’s like being surrounded by protectors.” She shuddered as she said it.

“Oh, no, no,” Nikola said, smiling and trying to sound cheerful. “It’s nothing like that. You have to understand that you’re in an entirely different country now. We’re not capitalists here. Countries like this one are few and far between, and what few there are always seem to be under attack from one front or another. So, you see, this is all necessary. We’re all revolutionaries in the People’s France. There are no two ways about it. In America you separate your classes out, allowing the few to hoard property from the many, and you reserve military power for only a select group of people who are sworn to protect those property owners. That’s why your protectors are so mean. They’ll do anything and everything they have to do in order to preserve that unique monopoly they hold over the use of violence. Here in the People’s France, though, you don’t have to worry about all that. Here we all share the same power so here there’s no unique monopoly to protect. Here we cooperate instead of compete, and as soon as all the worlds start acting the same way, we’ll all be so much better off for it.” Nikola was out of breath from the long winded speech, but she tried to be as reassuring as possible, smiling and nodding at Tillie as they walked.

“I don’t know,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “I still don’t get it. It’s all just so…foreign to me. I mean, how does your economy even work if you don’t follow the Invisible Hand? Is it okay to steal things? What property can there be? What’s stopping me from stealing your glasses right now?”

“Look,” Nikola said, grabbing Tillie’s hand and leading her toward her favorite food cart. “I’ll show you. It’s so much easier to see it in action than it is to try to explain the entire thing. Besides, you’ve got to be getting pretty hungry by now, anyway. I mean, I know I am, and I haven’t been through half of what you have in the meantime.”

“That I am,” Tillie said, hurrying to keep up with Nikola who was getting excited at the prospect of food.

The food cart was only a few blocks away. It sat under a big khaki canopy which was filled with bodies—either waiting in line, or enjoying some meal at one of the numerous full tables in the canopy’s shade. There were so many people they were even using the rubble on the side of the road as picnic tables, ignoring the glaring sun in their faces.

“This is probably not the best time to come here,” Nikola said when they had gotten into the amorphous line behind a group of loudly talking camouflaged people. Before she went on talking the line had already grown longer behind them. “Lunch break is the busiest time for any eatery, and this particular cart is one of the most popular establishments on base. But it’s worth the wait. I promise.

Tillie nodded, looking nervously around at the bustling crowd and the still growing line of people behind them. Her eyes were wide and she was fidgeting with the hem of her shirt.

“Is everything alright?” Nikola asked. Of course it wasn’t with all Tillie had been through, but what else could she say?

“I—uh—yeah.” Tillie nodded, eyes still dancing around the crowd. “I’m fine.”

“It’s gonna be okay,” Nikola said. “I know dad seems like he’s got a single track mind, but he’ll do everything he can to help you. We’ll get you back home as soon as we can. I promise.”

“Oh, no.” Tillie shook her head. “It’s not that. Well—of course that doesn’t help—but…”

“It’s alright,” Nikola said. “Tell me.”

“Well,” she said, stepping up in line and looking more and more anxious the closer they got to ordering. “I don’t know. I don’t— How am I supposed to pay for this? How am I supposed to pay for anything? I can’t live here, Nikola, this is crazy.”

Nikola tried not to laugh, patting Tillie’s back. “It’s alright, girl. Don’t worry. You’ll see.”

“Are you sure?” Tillie said, a look of relief washing over her face. “I mean. I’ll pay you back when I can. I just—I wasn’t really expecting to leave the country. I didn’t even know you could.” She managed a half grin.

“Of course I’m sure,” Nikola said, stepping up to the counter. “And you won’t have to pay me anything. Don’t worry. Two of the usual, please,” she added to the server, and within a moment, Nikola had the food in hand, giving one plate to Tillie. “There you are, girl. Now come on. Let’s find a seat.”

They navigated through the shaded maze of tables, in the hopes of catching someone at the end of their meal, with no luck. They ended up having to use some rubble as a picnic table but were lucky enough to find a nice spot in the shade of a building. Nikola set in on her food right away, eating as quickly as she normally did, but Tillie took her time, whether from habit or out of shock Nikola didn’t know.

“So,” Tillie said, taking a nibbling bite. “You get free meals there because of your parents or something? Do y’all own the place?”

Nikola shook her head, still stuffing her face with food. “Nope,” she said through a full mouth.

“But you didn’t pay,” Tillie said. “Did you?”

“Nope.” Nikola shook her head again, smiling with thick, food-filled cheeks.

“Well why didn’t they stop you if you didn’t pay?”

Nikola chuckled. “Well, technically, I do own the place.”

“Well which is it?”

“We all own it,” Nikola said. “Every worker in the People’s France owns it. Any one of us can go up to that food cart and get our food for free, no questions asked. Not just you and me.”

Tillie scoffed. “But how? How does that work? If everyone can just go down to the corner and get free food whenever they want, then why would anyone ever work?”

“Well, back home you could go to your dad’s house any time you wanted to and get free food there, couldn’t you?”

“Well, yeah, but…”

“And you still worked, didn’t you?” Nikola urged her on, nodding.

“Yeah, but—”

“So why’d you do it?”

Uh… I don’t know.” Tillie thought about it for a second. “Well, first of all, my dad won’t be there forever, you know. I won’t always be able to go to his house and use his printer whenever I want—which, by the way, he works for the privilege to own. It’s not really free, you know.”

“It’s free for you though.”

“Not forever.”

“No.” Nikola nodded. “Not forever. But still. Is that the only reason you do anything? To make some money or earn a 3D printer?”

Tillie scoffed. “Well, no.” She chuckled, shaking her head. “Of course not. There’s more to the world than that.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” Tillie hesitated. “I don’t know. Like making something of yourself.”

“Making your father proud?”

“Yeah, sure.” Tillie nodded like she was getting into the conversation now. “That’s a part of it. A big part with my dad, but it’s still not everything.”

“So what else, then?”

“I don’t know.” Tillie brushed her hair out of her face. “Like contributing to society, you know. Making the world a better place. That sort of thing.”

“And that sort of thing is exactly why people still work, even though they can go down to the store and get a free meal any time they want. It’s why we all still work when we get free rooms and clothes and everything. We know that society depends on our work, and we want to do everything we can to contribute, to make something of ourselves, to make our friends and family proud. And it’s a lot more fulfilling than being materially rewarded while your comrades are held in artificial poverty, I’ll tell you that much.”

“I thought that’s what we were doing, “ Tillie said, breaking eye contact. “Me and you, and Emma…and even Rod. I thought we were contributing to society.”

“We were contributing to society,” Nikola said, getting heated again by trying to calm herself. “We were doing the best we could under the circumstances we were given. I still am doing the best I can. The only question is if you want to continue doing your best with me given your new circumstances or if you want to give up on everything you’ve been working so hard for this entire time.”

“No,” Tillie said, shaking her head and still not making eye contact. “But you said…” She mumbled something Nikola couldn’t hear.

“What? I said we were doing good.”

“You said we were fighting against the Invisible Hand!” Tillie held her mouth after she yelled it. “I’m sorry,” she said more softly. “I—”

“No,” Nikola said, shaking her head. “It’s alright.” She should have known better. She was attacking Tillie’s religion, the root of her being, and she was being much too careless about how she was going about it. Still, there was no way left to go but forward. Retreating now would only make it worse for Tillie in the long run. “I understand,” Nikola said. “You were raised by the Invisible Hand. It’s all you know. Being told this about the Hand is just as jarring as finding out about the assembly line workers, sentient androids, and other countries, I’m sure, but I can’t even really imagine what it’s like to be you right now. That’s a real shitstorm to deal with all at once after having been told so many lies for your entire life.”

Tillie chuckled. “You can say that again.”

“That again,” Nikola said, chuckling herself.

Tillie smacked Nikola on the arm. “You know what I mean,” she said, laughing.

“Sure I do,” Nikola said. “But as hard as it is to accept, you have to understand that the Invisible Hand isn’t a real thing. It doesn’t care about you or anyone else. It doesn’t care about anything. It doesn’t have the capacity to care. It has no body, no heart, nothing. It’s all just a fairy tale meant to keep you in line.”

“No, but…” Tillie shook her head. “That’s impossible. The Invisible Hand guides the markets toward our benefit. That’s how the world works.”

“That’s how they tell you your world works, Tillie. That’s how most of the worlds out there pretend to work. But it’s not how this world works. That’s not how the People’s France works. You’ve seen it yourself. You’re eating the products of it right now. There are no markets here—not in any sense of the word you would recognize, at least—and yet somehow we continue to manage.”

“I don’t know,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “It doesn’t seem sustainable. And you don’t really have much, do you? I mean, your streets are all rubble and your buildings are half tents.”

“Our buildings are rubble because your country and others like it make them that way. Do you think we blew them up ourselves? That we’re too stupid to know how to repair buildings? Do you think we enjoy living like this?”

“I— No—” Tillie shook her head. “But—”

“No! Of course not. But we have to. Your country claims ownership over too many of the worlds’ resources, so for as long as it and the others like it exist, cooperative countries like ours have to be as efficient as possible in using what little resources we have left to us after the imperialist countries suck the World dry. And that’s World with a capital W, which stands for Earth, the one we all share no matter how high you build your walls or how impenetrable you try to make them. And sure it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but every one of us gets enough, none of us goes wanting, and we’ll only be getting more as we continue to reappropriate what’s rightfully ours.”

Tillie turned away, blushing. Her shoulders heaved slightly as if she were crying, or laughing, or trying not to do both. Nikola scooted closer, knocking her empty plate and Tillie’s nearly full one to the ground, and patted Tillie’s back.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to get so heated. It’s not your fault and I didn’t mean to imply that it is. It’s like I said earlier, we—you included—were doing the best we could do to fight it from the inside. I know it’s hard for you to see the Invisible Hand as anything but a source of good because that’s all you’ve ever been taught about it, but you have to understand that the Hand is at fault. It is the reason your country claims the resources it claims. And for any of that to change, workers everywhere are going to have to see the true face of the Invisible Hand and realize how bad it is for the vast majority of people.”

Tillie turned back to Nikola, wiping tears from her eyes. “I still don’t get it,” she said, shaking her head.

“Get what?”

“How the world could work without the Invisible Hand guiding it. It could only result in anarchy.”

Nikola chuckled. “This is anarchy,” she said with a big smirk. “Or on the way to it, at least.”

“Well, okay then,” Tillie said. “Why would you want that? There’s nothing stopping anyone from doing anything. That’s just chaos.”

“Anarchy is not chaos. You’ve got that wrong. Did you see chaos when we got our free food?”

Tillie kicked some rubble. “It was kind of hectic in there,” she said under her breath.

“But not chaotic. The line was orderly. Everyone knew who was up next. We chose seats based on availability and need. That’s anarchy. No hierarchies. No chaos. Just cooperation.”

“Yeah, okay,” Tillie said, grasping at straws now. “Well, if there’s no hierarchy, then no one tells anyone what to do, right?”

“Essentially.” Nikola nodded.

“And there’s no reason to do a shitty job, then, right? Like toilet scrubber or janitor or something. Especially if you get a room and food anyway. Right?”

“Well, I would—”

“So who does that crap work? Who cleans the toilets?”

“Who cleans your toilet at home?”

“I do, of course, but—”

“And no one pays you to do that, do they? No one tells you to do it. You do it because otherwise your house would stink and your toilet would get to be too disgusting to use. Well our house here is a little bigger. We own any toilet we use and take care of each of them accordingly. Not because we were told to do it by some superior. And not because we were paid to do it. There are no superiors. There is no money. We do it because it’s our country, our house, our toilet, and we don’t want any of the above to stink.”

Tillie sighed. She stared at her feet for some time, and at the food on the ground which had been discovered by a troop of ants that was carrying it away on their backs, bit by tiny bit. Nikola let Tillie gather her thoughts and after a few silent minutes Tillie said, “I don’t know why I’m arguing with you. You’ve probably been here your entire life, experiencing everything that I’m denying can even exist. Shit, I’m here living it myself. I’m harder to convince than Shelley.”

Nikola chuckled. “It’s alright, you know,” she said. “I have a pretty good idea of what you’re going through.”

Tillie scoffed. “Yeah. Right. I’m sure. How could you have any idea?”

“Because I went through it myself. I had been living in America for some time before I met you and Emma, you know, but not forever. I was born here, in the People’s France. I was raised here. And when I moved to America, I went through the same shock you’re going through now, only mine was in reverse. I found myself faced with social relations which seemed too cruel to be anything more real than a horror story, and even though I was living inside of that all too real nightmare, I kept telling myself that it didn’t exist, it was impossible, just too unfair, even if I was experiencing it with all my being.”

Tillie smiled. Her eyes were red, and some moisture was welling up behind them, but she made no motion to wipe her tears away or hide them. “You do know what I’m going through,” she said. “And I know what you went through. Well, we do and we don’t.”

Exactly,” Nikola said with a smile. “But I do know one thing for sure. You’ll get through this alright, with or without the Hand by your side.”

“I don’t know,” Tillie said, shrugging. “I sure hope so.”

“I know so,” Nikola said, standing and taking Tillie’s hand to pull her up. “You’ve only just gotten here. The more time you take to experience it the less you’ll have to argue with your senses about whether or not it’s possible. Now help me clean this mess up and follow me. I’ve got something else I want you to see.”

Oooh,” Tillie said, kneeling to pick up her plate but leaving a good bit of food for the ants. “Tell me it’s another brother. With more guys like that, I could easily get used to living here.”

Nikola scoffed. “You better not even joke about that,” she said. “Now come on. You’ve got to see this.”

She ran out ahead, leaving Tillie to catch up as they jogged through winding rubbled streets. Slowly, the lay of the land grew from flat to steeper and the crumbled buildings grew more dilapidated and sparser. They had slowed to a walk by the time the buildings all gave way to grass, trees, and the hill towering over them, but still neither said a word. They took in their surroundings in silence, Tillie paying extra attention to every detail of the beautiful wildlife scene, despite her heavy breathing, and Nikola paying extra attention to Tillie’s every reaction. They were almost to the top of the hill, just at the point before they could see over it, when Nikola spoke again.

“I like to come here sometimes to get away from everything,” she said.

“It’s beautiful,” Tillie said, not taking her eyes off the scenery.

“Isn’t it? Just wait until we get to the top. You’ll see what beauty can be.”

“I can’t imagine how it could get any better,” Tillie said. “It’s already so—” But she couldn’t finish her sentence. Her jaw dropped and she stood in awe, looking at the entire base now revealed below them. They had gotten to the top of the hill, and from there, they could see this entire sector of the People’s France, every last tent and brick of rubble.

“This is my home,” Nikola said after some time of silence. “The People’s France.”

“It’s— I…” A tear came to Tillie’s eye.

They stared at the view for some time in silence, then Nikola started pointing things out. “I know it’s not much,” she said. “You can see pretty much all of it, too. You see that big green canopy down there, with all the tiny people around it?”

Tillie nodded. “They look like ants.”

“That’s where we got lunch. And we ate just over there.” She pointed again. “And if you look a few blocks over and into the center a bit, you can see my parents’ offices.”

“The patched up building?” Tillie asked.

“Yep, that’s the one. And the big tall one there in the middle of everything is where I came to rescue you from.”

“Where they had me tied up.”

Nikola shook her head, embarrassed. “I didn’t think they would—”

“No,” Tillie cut her off. “It’s alright. It’s not your fault. You did your best, right?”

Nikola nodded, not sure if she had actually done her best. She could have gone to get Tillie out sooner. But how was she supposed to know they would keep her locked up like that? After some time of silence, thinking too much about it, Nikola pointed way off into the distance, out past the buildings and tents, to say, “You see that hill way over there on the other side of the base?”

Tillie shielded her eyes with her hand and gazed off in the direction Nikola was pointing. “Yeah.” She nodded.

“That’s the hill we’re standing on right now. If we stood at the very peak of it with a pair of binoculars, we’d be able to see the back of our own heads, looking the other way off in the distance.” Nikola paused to let Tillie understand what she had just heard. “That’s how small this base is,” she went on. “And this is the largest base in all of the People’s France. Besides us there are maybe two or three bases that are half this size and countless micro cells. That’s our entire country, and we’re standing against giants. America, The European Union, East Asia, more countries than you could imagine, and they all claim ownership over more of our World and its resources than they could ever use in any of their lifetimes.

“I’ve been living in America for a while, you know. And it’s great for the most part, sure. There are a lot of fun parties all the time, and it’s liberating to be as wasteful as you want without worrying about the consequences because you always know you’ll have more than you’ll need, but that’s not enough for me. It’s too empty. Heartless. And if you spend some time here with us, I think you’ll start to understand what I mean.”

Tillie shook her head, still looking off into the distance, trying to see herself on the hill across the city. “And that’s why you came to LSU,” she said. “That’s why you joined Emma’s general assemblies or whatever. You were doing all this to turn America into the People’s France?”

“No. I was doing it to help free the androids in your country. I was doing it to free the assembly line workers everywhere. Because I believe exploitation is wrong. Because it was the right thing to do. There are countless reasons why I was doing it, can’t you see any of them?”

“So no one here uses robot workers then?”

Nikola shook her head. “Not like America does.”

“And no one works on assembly lines?”

“We all work on assembly lines. We all work on farms. We all join the military. Everything is so simplified, nothing requires specialization or training. We can all share in the burden of labor for the greater good.”

Tillie scoffed. “So you’ve worked on an assembly line, then.”

“I have. It’s not like it’s hard. It’s just boring and mind numbing. But you get used to it. You can get used to anything. You’ll see.”

“And you would rather do that than live in America and never have to work on an assembly line?”

“I’d still be getting everything I need to live from assembly line workers, though, even if I didn’t have to work on one personally. There’s no choice in our World’s economy. With that fact in mind, I’d rather do my own assembly line work than force some poor soul to do it for me. Wouldn’t you?”

“I’m not forcing anyone,” Tillie said, crossing her arms and getting defensive again. “It’s voluntary. They choose to take those jobs.”

“Voluntary?” Nikola scoffed. She was trying her hardest not to attack Tillie again when she was obviously vulnerable—fresh out of prison and in a foreign country she didn’t even know existed only a few hours before—but Nikola couldn’t hold back her passion for the argument. “Do you think they want to work on an assembly line any more than you do? Do you think they would be working on one if they had any better options?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Of course not. And the only difference between you and them is that you happened to be born in Outland Two while they were born in Outland Five. How does that make you any better than them?”

“It doesn’t. I—”

“No. It doesn’t. But that’s how the world works when you live by the religion of the Invisible Hand. That’s how the market works. There are only finite resources, and they all require labor to be made consumable. If one person takes more resources or does less labor—or, as is so often the case in your America, both—then someone else will receive less resources and do more labor to make up for it. It’s like a law of physics, but instead of mass and energy it’s called the Law of the Conservation of Resources and Effort.”

Tillie sat down on the grass with her arms on her knees, looking out over the base. She shook her head. “You know, I never thought of it like that.”

Nikola took a seat next to her, unconsciously mimicking Tillie’s posture.

“I guess I haven’t really had the time to think about it at all.” Tillie chuckled. “I only learned about the assembly line workers on Christmas break and life’s been a bit hectic since then.”

Nikola chuckled. “You can say that again.”

The Hand—” Tillie said. “Or—erfuck. Whatever. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “What am I supposed to say now?”

“I think it makes a better expletive when you know the truth.” Nikola chuckled. “You might as well keep using it.”

“I can’t believe I’ve been a part of that for so long,” Tillie said. “I can’t believe I’ve been forcing those people to do everything for me.”

“You didn’t know,” Nikola said, patting Tillie’s back. “And you had no choice, anyway. You were stuck in that system the same as everyone is.”

“I guess.” Tillie shrugged. “That doesn’t make me feel any less guilty, though. Actually, it kind of makes me feel more guilty. Like I should have known, you know. Or maybe I could have known but I chose not to, chose to ignore it. It might even be worse that way.”

“But how could you have known any different?” Nikola asked. “No one ever taught you. You’ve never met anyone who has even known the truth themselves unless they were in on keeping the secret. You’re being too hard on yourself, expecting too much too soon. You’re only human after all.”

“I met you,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “I met Emma. I lived with my dad, a high level manager, my entire life. The information has been right under my nose all this time, and I’ve only just now gotten to it.”

“And as soon as you did, you did your best to change things,” Nikola reassured her. “You joined Emma, and you protested, and you went so far as to get arrested for what you thought was right, and now you’re here, with me, still fighting the injustice of it all.” She smiled, standing up and brushing herself off.

Tillie scoffed, still seated. “I’m not doing anything.”

“Oh, there’s plenty to be done around here. New hands are always welcome.” Nikola chuckled.

“I don’t know.” Tillie shook her head. “What can I do?”

“As much as anyone else,” Nikola said, pulling Tillie up. “Let’s go ask my parents what they need. I’m sure they can find something for you. They’re always finding work for me to do.”

Hmmm, well I guess. But I still want to go home.”

“And my parents can get you there. So let’s go.”

 

#     #     #

< XLIX. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LI. Laura >

And there it is, dear readers, chapter fifty in the Infinite Limits saga. Don’t forget to leave an honest review for each book you’ve finished in the series if you have the time because I’d really appreciate it. Until next time. Have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.