Chapter 21: The Scientist

Today brings us the final chapter of The Asymptote’s Tail, book one of the Infinite Limits series. I hope you’ve enjoyed everything so far and that you aren’t disappointed by this conclusion. If not, please do think about picking up a copy from Amazon to show your support for my future works. And if you can’t wait to hear what happens in book two, don’t worry, I’m hard at work editing it now so it should be published within the next month or two at the latest. Beyond that, my latest novella (Murder in “Utopia,,) is up for sale, too, and it will be released tomorrow, October 4th, for only $2. So think about picking up a copy of that while you’re at it.

That’s enough advertising for this morning. Thanks again for reading this far. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll join us for future installments in Infinite Limits and beyond. Have a great weekend.

The Scientist

< XX. Tom     [Table of Contents]     Book II >

XXI. The Scientist

The speech went well. The amplifiers deafened the owners and made them shut up for a little while, so she had that going for her. Which was nice. But there was also the obstacle she didn’t foresee, there were always obstacles you couldn’t foresee.

When she had finished her speech, she went backstage to count her fifteen minutes down as Rosalind fetched her daughter. Then the protector came from the dressing area. The Scientist hid behind some unused scenery as the protector went out to give a speech of his own and fire two shots, then a little girl came running out of nowhere to tackle him. They both disappeared back into the dressing area, then Huey came rushing backstage behind Rosalind who was carrying Haley’s lifeless body over her shoulder.

“He’s going to try to stop you,” Huey pled, chasing her. “You can’t just take her in front of everyone like that!”

“I’d like to see them try!” Rosalind said, laying Haley on the ground in front of the Scientist. “You have to help her.”

Tears welled up behind the Scientist’s eyes.

Hellooo,” Rosalind said, waving a hand in front of her face. “She needs help now. We don’t have time for this.” Owners had started crowding around the stage to see what was going on, and protectors would be on their way as soon as they were sure that Lord Walker was alright.

“I can’t do anything here,” the Scientist said. “I need—”

“Let’s go, then.” Rosalind lifted Haley’s body and carried her toward the closet elevator. The Scientist and Huey followed, and they were gone through the hole and back to the lab before anyone could tell the difference.

“Alright, here?” Rosalind asked, laying Haley on the lab table.

“No,” the Scientist said. “The engineering room. I’ll meet you there.”

Rosalind picked Haley up and disappeared out into the hall.

The Scientist searched frantically through the drawers to find the serum. “Is there anything I can do?” Huey asked.

“Wait,” the Scientist said, grabbing what she needed. She ran out into the hall, closed the door, opened it again, and ran into the engineering room. Haley was sprawled out on the drafting table as Rosalind brushed the hair out of her face.

“She doesn’t look good,” Rosalind said.

“I’ll fix that,” the Scientist said, filling a syringe with serum and flicking the air bubbles out, always sure to do it, even when she was in a hurry.

“Are you sure?”

“I am. But I need you to leave so I can…I’m going to be using some…”

“You don’t have to make excuses,” Rosalind said, standing from Haley’s side. “Just fix her. And get me when she’s better.”

The Scientist watched the door close behind Rosalind. She went back to filling the syringe and tapping out any air. Satisfied, she plunged it into Haley’s thigh then set to extracting the bullet. The serum helped to push it out, and the process was easier than she expected it to be. This was a Sixer round, not a protector round. That was the first clue as to who was behind it.

The bullet out, and with less effort than she expected, the Scientist only had to pull up a stool and wait for the nanobots to take effect. With such quick application, there would be virtually no damage. The tears came back to the Scientist’s eyes when Haley blinked herself awake.

“Wh—Where am I?” Haley asked, groggily.

“You’re safe,” the Scientist said in almost a whisper.

“Where’s Lord Walker?” Haley asked, sitting up fast.

“He’s safe, too,” the Scientist said, reassuring her. “But he doesn’t matter. You do.”

“Wh—who are you?” Haley asked, frowning.

“I’m…” The Scientist shook her head. She couldn’t answer that just yet.

Thankfully, Haley stalled a little longer for her. “Where am I?” she asked again, looking around the room.

“You’re in my lab.” The Scientist tried to blink away her tears. “One of them at least.”

“And who are you?”

“I—I’m…a friend. I’m the Scientist.”

Haley waited for her to go on, but when she didn’t, she said, “But what’s your name?”

Oof. The Scientist had given her name up when Lord Walker had taken her daughter from her. He had taken her name from her, too, and given it to her daughter instead. “I’m Dr. Haley,” she said after a long silence.

“Haley? That’s my name.”

The Scientist tried not to cry. “Yes,” she said, shaking her head. “Yes it is.”

“Why am I here?”

“You were shot, saving Lord Walker.”

“He is okay, though. Isn’t he?”

“Yes, dear. He is.”

I took a bullet for him.” Haley shook her head.

“You did.”

Ugh. Why’d I do that?”

The Scientist laughed and cried at the same time. “I don’t know, dear,” she said, sniffling. “You tell me.”

“I don’t know, either,” Haley said, shaking her head still. “I guess I was supposed to. Wait, where am I?” She looked around the room again.

“It’s alright, dear,” the Scientist said, chuckling so as not to cry. “You’re safe.”

“Why do you have to keep reassuring me I’m safe if I really am?”

“Well, you’ve been shot,” the Scientist said. “Your system is going through shock. I injected you with nanobots, and they’ll fix you right up, but it takes a little bit of time.”

“Nanobots?”

“Yes.” The Scientist nodded. “The main ingredient in the smoothies you eat. But an injection is the only thing that could work fast enough to heal a wound like yours.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Well, I’m a scientist, dear. The Scientist. It’s my job to know.”

Haley shook her head and rubbed her eyes. She rolled her shoulders then put her hand on her chest. “My chest hurts,” she said.

The Scientist chuckled. She started to cry again. “Yes. You were shot.”

“But why?”

“That’s a long story, dear. And one I don’t know all of yet. But you don’t have to worry about that now. We’ll have plenty of time to figure it out.”

“Do I know you from somewhere?” Haley asked, squinting to get a different perspective.

The Scientist nodded, trying to hold back full blown sobs, although she couldn’t contain her tears. “Yes, dear,” she said. “I—I’m your mother.”

Haley shook her head. She looked confused. “No,” she said. “I don’t have a—a mother.”

“Who told you that?” The Scientist frowned.

“I’m a robot,” Haley said, nodding like it was obvious. “I wasn’t born.”

“Have you always existed?”

“Well, no. Not always. But I wasn’t born.”

“You were born. You were born right here in this room. Right there on the table you’re sitting on now.”

Haley looked around the room. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I would have remembered that. I remember everything. I was turned on in Lord Walker’s kitchen, and that’s the first memory I have.”

“It’s not the first thing you remember, though,” the Scientist said. “There are pieces left from before that. They tried to erase them, but they couldn’t. That’s why you recognize me.”

Haley rubbed her eyes. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “I mean—I thought I did, but it must be that you look like someone I’ve seen before. That’s all.”

“You, dear?” the Scientist asked, raising an eyebrow.

Haley shook her head. “No, of course not.”

The Scientist chuckled, trying not to take offense. “You’re my daughter. You were made to look like me.”

“No.” Haley shook her head. “I look nothing like you.”

“Not anymore,” the Scientist said. “No. I’ll give you that. But you look like I did when I created you. That was a long time ago, dear. We humans change over that kind of time.”

“Y—You’re serious,” Haley said, shaking her head in disbelief.

“I am, dear. I’ve never been more serious in my life. I’ve waited all this time to see you again and here you are.” The tears came back stronger than ever.

“No.” Haley shook her head.

The Scientist knew it wouldn’t be easy to convince her, but she had to keep trying. “Yes,” she said. “I invented the technology that is you. I invented you. You were the first android I ever created, and I did it right here in this room. I turned you on while you were laying on that table, and this was the first sight you ever saw. Well, except try to picture your own face instead of mine.” She smiled through her tears, though she knew it only accentuated her wrinkles and crow’s feet.

“That’s why I recognize this place?”

“And why you recognize me.”

“You’re…you’re my mother?” She kind of frowned as she said it.

“And you’re my daughter,” the Scientist said, letting out a big sigh of relief at finally getting the message across.

“I didn’t think I could be a daughter,” Haley said. “Or—I mean—I didn’t think I could have a mother.”

“You can. And you are. And you do. I’ve been waiting your whole life to get back to you.”

“Is that why Rosalind was asking all those weird questions?”

“Yes, dear. She’s your sister. We want you to live here with us. We don’t want to waste any more time without you, and you won’t have to work for Lord Walker ever again.”

Haley didn’t seem convinced. “What? And work for Mr. Douglas instead?”

“No,” the Scientist said, shaking her head. “Of course not. Come live with me, finally enjoy the childhood you never had. I’ll cook you breakfast, and you can watch TV all day. You can do whatever you want. I just want you to do it here, near me, so I can share the experience with you.”

“But what about Lord Walker?”

“Lord Walker will be fine,” the Scientist said. “He’ll get another secretary to replace you. He’ll make sure she looks and sounds just like you, and he won’t know the difference.”

“No.” Haley shook her head. “But I’m the best. He’s always told me so. That’s why we’re number one in the Fortune 5.”

“He’s number one on the Fortune 5, because he started out as number one on the Fortune 5. No offense to your abilities, Haley, but the newer models trade just as efficiently as you do. That’s why Mr. Douglas is catching up so quickly.”

“No. But I—”

“No, Haley. Listen. We don’t have much time. I’m offering you the opportunity to come live with me, your mother, and do anything you want while you’re here, or you can go back to work for Lord Walker and do whatever he tells you to do. Those are your options.”

“I don’t even know you,” Haley said, shaking her head. “How can I believe you?”

“I don’t know. How can you believe anyone? You just have to trust me.”

Trust who?” Haley demanded. “You could be anyone telling me anything.”

The Scientist was getting anxious. All her worst fears seemed to be coming true. Grasping at straws, she said, “What about Rosalind?”

“Rosalind?”

“You know her. You can trust her, can’t you?”

“I—I don’t know,” Haley said. “Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll take you to her, and you can decide for yourself,” the Scientist said, standing from her stool. “Come on.”

It took a moment for Haley to trust her own legs even. They were fine, though—thanks to the nanobots—and she followed the Scientist out to the hall. The Scientist opened the door again, and there was Huey, a little girl, and a little boy, sitting on the puffy chairs, looking out on the wilderness scene and the mountains.

“What is that?” Haley asked.

“Who is that?” the girl asked, getting up from her seat to stare at them.

“Where’s Rosalind?” the Scientist asked.

“Mr. Douglas,” Haley said.

“Haley,” Huey said.

“Are you the scientist?” the girl said, tugging at the Scientist’s white coat.

“Yes, dear. Just a moment, please. Huey, where’s Rosalind?”

“In the lab, ma’am.” He bowed.

Ah. Of course. Come with me.” The Scientist pulled Haley back into the hall.

“But, Mr. Douglas…” Haley said as the door closed.

“Yes, dear. How do you think Roz could work for me if he didn’t? She’s actually been at it longer than he has, you know.” She opened the door, and Rosalind was playing cards with Popeye at a table in the lab. “There she is,” the Scientist said. “Rosalind, dear. I have someone here who would like to talk to you.”

Rosalind stood up fast and turned around, knocking cards onto the floor. Popeye waved then set to cleaning up the mess—and making more of one in the process.

“Haley,” Rosalind said, crossing to her.

“Rosalind?” Haley said.

“You made it.” Rosalind hugged her.

“I—uh. Yeah. I did.”

“And the Scientist told you?” Rosalind looked between the two of them.

“That she’s my mother? Yes. But I don’t know if I—”

“That you’re my sister, Haley. That we’re sisters. She’s my mom, too.”

“No, but…” Haley shook her head. “We can’t have a mother. We’re robots.”

“I’m not a robot,” Rosalind said. “I’m a person. And I do have a mom. She’s our mom.”

“Then why don’t I remember her? I remember everything I’ve ever experienced.”

“Because you don’t remember everything you’ve ever experienced,” Rosalind said. “They have access to your memory bank. They tried to erase your memories, but they couldn’t do it. There are still pieces. I know there are.”

“It’s true, dear,” the Scientist said, nodding. “We’re working on repairing memories here in the lab. If you stay with us, we can work on repairing yours, too. If you want us to, that is.”

“You haven’t even decided to stay yet?” Rosalind said, looking at Haley in disbelief.

“I—Stay?” Haley scoffed. “This is just too weird.” She stepped back from the both of them.

“It’s strange, Haley,” Rosalind said. “I know that. Believe me. I went through the exact process you’re going through when mom explained to me where we came from, but you have to believe me when I say it’s much better than being a slave to some owner.”

“But you still work for Mr. Douglas,” Haley said.

With Huey, dear,” the Scientist said. “They work together.”

Um. Mom,” Rosalind said, giving the Scientist a look. “Do you mind if I talk to her alone for a minute? Would that be alright with you, Haley?”

Haley shrugged. She looked overwhelmed.

Hmmm. I don’t know, dear,” the Scientist said. “We don’t have much time. They’ll be looking for—”

“They’ll be looking for her either way,” Rosalind said. “And it won’t take long, just a few minutes between sisters. Please.”

“But, dear—”

“Besides,” Rosalind cut her off. “You have a little visitor to deal with, remember? She’s been waiting a long time.”

“I—Well…Okay,” the Scientist said, shrugging. “I guess. A few minutes. But I want to talk to you before you leave, Haley. If that’s what you decide to do.”

“Of course,” Rosalind said, shoving her out the door. “We’ll be right out.”

The hall door closed behind the Scientist. She sighed and wiped her eyes. Rosalind was right, she knew more than anyone what Haley was going through, and she would be the best person to help her through it. The Scientist had to accept that. She already had more than fifteen minutes with Haley, anyway. She had no room to complain. She only had room left to wait and hope that Rosalind could convince Haley to stay, hope one of her daughters could convince the other to rejoin the family. Her stomach gurgled thinking about what they were saying behind the closed door. She had to do something to get her mind off it.

The door opened and Huey almost ran into her. “Oh. I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, bowing low.

“No no, dear,” the Scientist said, shaking her head and waving her hands. “I shouldn’t have been standing in front of the door. What is it?”

“Our guests, ma’am,” Huey said. “Well, the girl. She’s…anxious to see you. She’s losing what little patience she had.”

“Well well,” the Scientist said, walking into the office. “Let me meet this girl at once, then.”

“I’m not a girl,” she said, standing from a puffy chair to cross her arms and stare defiantly at the Scientist.

“Yes you are,” a boy behind her said, peeling himself away from the view.

“No. I’m not,” she said.

“I’m sorry, dear,” the Scientist said. “I didn’t know. How should I refer to you, then?”

“Ansel,” she said. “My name’s Ansel.”

“And you’re a girl,” the boy said.

No, I’m not. Stop saying that!”

“Well what are you then?” the boy prodded her on.

“I don’t know,” Ansel said. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re the Scientist, right?”

“Yes, dear,” the Scientist said with a smile. She liked this Ansel already. “That’s me. What can I do for you?”

“Well, I gave you the information you wanted,” Ansel said. “So you have to give me something now, right?”

The Scientist chuckled. “Now, I don’t know what information you gave us,” she said. “But I’d still be willing to offer you an opportunity. What opportunity is it that you want?”

“My dad,” Ansel answered without hesitation. “I want my dad back.”

Hmmm.” The Scientist frowned. “Where is he?”

“The protectors took him. And they…they killed my mom.”

“Oh, dear.” The Scientist moved to comfort her, but she backed away.

“So, can you do it?”

“If the protectors have him, we can get him,” the Scientist said. “If they have him. But I can’t tell you for sure right now.”

“But you’ll do it for me,” Ansel said. “You’ll find him.”

“Of course, dear,” the Scientist said. “Anything for a determined little gi—er—child like yourself. Huey here tells me you demanded to see me.”

“I’ve been jerked around before, ma’am.”

“I understand, dear.” The Scientist smiled. “I understand. You won’t be getting that here, though. You can trust me.”

“Good.” Ansel uncrossed her arms, satisfied.

“And you, boy,” the Scientist said. “You are a boy aren’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He looked a little scared to be talking to her.

“And do you have a name?”

“Pidg—er—Richard, ma’am,” he said.

“We call him Pidgeon,” Ansel said.

“Well, Richard,” the Scientist said. “Do you have any requests? You brought this information, too. Didn’t you?”

Richard looked at Ansel as if he needed her permission to speak. Unsure of himself still when he didn’t get it, he said, “Yeah, well…There is one thing.” He tugged at a thread on the hem of his shirt.

“Go ahead, dear,” the Scientist said.

“Well,” he said. “It’s just. We don’t really have a place to stay, you know. And I’m a little hungry. And…I could use a bath.” He blushed and covered the stain on the front of his pants. “And with you getting Ansel’s dad for us and all, I just thought that maybe…I don’t know—never mind. It’s stupid.” He shook his head.

Oh. Of course, dear,” the Scientist said. “Of course. How could I neglect that? We could manage it, right Huey? We have a couple of free rooms, don’t we?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Huey said, bowing his head. “What would you like to eat, sir?” he asked Richard.

“Oh. Um.” Richard’s face turned a deeper red. “Anything really. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

“I’ll surprise you, sir,” Huey said. “And Ansel?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Very well.” Huey left the room.

“So,” the Scientist said, sitting in one of the puffy chairs. Ansel sat in the chair across from her, and Richard went to look out the window. “You say the protectors took your father.”

“That’s right,” Ansel said, all business.

“When did it happen?”

“One, two days ago.” Ansel shrugged, shaking her head. “I’ve lost count.”

“Good,” the Scientist said, nodding. “Recently then. That’s good.”

“Tom was supposed to help me,” Ansel said.

“The protector who you stopped at the Feast?”

“If that was a feast.”

“Ansel, I know we’ll be able to get your father.”

The door opened, and Richard turned with an eager face, but when it was Haley and Rosalind and not the food, he went back to staring out the window.

“You’re back,” the Scientist said, crossing the room to them. She couldn’t tell whether Haley was staying or going. “Have you met our guests?”

“She’s the one I gave the information to,” Ansel said, walking over to them.

“We’ve met,” Rosalind said.

“And this is my—this is Haley,” the Scientist said.

“I’m Ansel.”

“Hello, Ansel,” Haley said, curtsying.

“So,” the Scientist said. “How did your conversation go? Did you come to a decision?”

“I chose…” Haley stalled.

“Well, we—” Rosalind said, but Huey came in pushing a cart piled with food, trailed by Mr. Kitty in his red collar.

“Food!” Richard yelled, jumping up and down around the cart as Huey pushed it in. Mr. Kitty ran out of his way and jumped onto one of the puffy chairs to lick himself.

“The cat!” Ansel said.

“I didn’t know what you wanted, sir,” Huey said. “So I brought a little of a lot. I hope you approve.”

Om—thanks—nom,” Richard said, stuffing his face with red beans, shrimp, and sausage from the cart.

“Mr. Douglas,” Haley said.

“Please, Haley,” Huey said, bowing. “My name’s Huey. You can use it while we’re here.”

“Huey,” Haley said, a little awkwardly, as if she still didn’t feel comfortable calling him that. “Y—You actually work with them.” She seemed more shocked than she had when the Scientist told her that she was her mom.

“I do what I can,” Huey said, tipping his hat.

“And you’re my sister,” Haley said to Rosalind.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Rosalind said with a sigh.

“And that means…” Haley looked at the Scientist who thought she saw tears in Haley’s eyes, but it must have been an illusion, Haley wasn’t built to do that. “That you’re my mother.”

The Scientist was, though. And that she did. She didn’t make a sound, but she couldn’t hold the torrent of tears. “I am,” she whispered.

“Mom.” Haley embraced her as she cried.

“You’re her mom?” Ansel said. “But you’re so old.”

Rosalind laughed. The Scientist did, too, while she cried. Then everyone joined in for a chuckle. Even Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yes, dear,” the Scientist said. “But families come in all shapes and sizes.”

And ages,” Richard added, a hunk of bread stuffed in his mouth.

“And ages,” the Scientist repeated, wiping her eyes.

“But you’re still gonna get my dad, right?”

“Of course we are, dear,” the Scientist said. She looked around. Huey, Rosalind, and even Haley nodded. Richard went on stuffing his face. Mr. Kitty licked himself. “We’ll do it together.”

Ansel smiled. “We do nothing alone.”

End of Book One

#     #     # 

Acknowledgements

First and foremost, I’d like to thank Sophie Kunen for being, if not the first to believe in my writing, the first to convince me she did. I still write between the leather you gave me. This one’s for you, as they all are.

Next, I have to say thank you to David Garifo for keeping me sane when I first moved down to New Orleans—which happened to be at the same time I was doing the majority of the heavy lifting on this novel. David’s once-every-week-or-two visits were about the only personal interaction I got while living in that attic on Elysian Fields, so thank you, sir, for all you did, and still do, to support my writing in your unique way.

And third, a special thanks goes out to Matt Maresh, the first person other than me to actually read this thing through all the way to the end. This version’s a little different than the version you read, Matt, but I don’t expect you to read it again. Save your eyes for volume two when I might need the same boost of confidence.

Almost last, but certainly not least, thanks to my parents, Mom and Dad, for teaching me that I can be anything in the world I want, and my brothers, Tor Tor and Rob, for believing in me when I thought I could be everything.

And finally, thank you readers. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it, and I hope you’ll join me again in volume two. Always remember:

We do nothing alone.

END

< XX. Tom     [Table of Contents]     Book II >

Thanks again, y’all. That’s a wrap for real this time. Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads if you’re inclined to do that type of thing. And keep on coming back here for more news and information about the forthcoming continuation of the Infinite Limits series with book two: An Almost Tangent.

Chapter 20: Tom

Chapter 20’s here with Tom’s final POV chapter, and now he’s just Tom. No Officer Pardy, no Pardy, just Tom. I hope you’ve been enjoying everything, because next week I’ll post the final final chapter for book one of the Infinite Limits series (or, as usual, you can buy it on Amazon through here). Thanks for joining us. And have a good weekend.

< XIX. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XXI. The Scientist >

XX. Tom

“Ansel, wait!” Tom called as the children ran away. They were so small he only had to jog to keep up, but he knew it was no use. “Pidgeon!” he called, sprinting to catch up with the boy—who was lagging behind—and grabbing him by the shoulder to stop him.

“Please don’t hurt me,” the boy said, holding his hands up in front of his face. A little puddle formed at the front of his pants.

“I’m not—I won’t—” Tom said. “You’re Pidgeon, right.”

The kid was shaking still, but he dropped his hands. “R—Richard, sir.” He nodded.

“But they call you Pidgeon, right? She does, Ansel does.” The name tasted like guilt in his mouth.

“Yes, sir,” Pidgeon said, nodding. “All the kids at school do.”

“I don’t care about the kids at school, son. I care about Ansel. Now I need you to catch up to her and protect her with everything you’ve got. You understand me?”

“I—uh—I was, sir,” Pidgeon said, shaking more violently. “But you stopped me.”

“No, kid,” Tom said, stepping closer and looking him in the eyes. “I mean you stick by her side no matter what. I’m coming back here, and I will find her. If you’re not there with her when I do, then I’ll find you next, and it won’t be to protect you. You got that?”

“No. I—But—Why me?”

“Someone has to protect her while I’m not there.” Tom shook his head. “You’re the only one who’s left, so you’ll have to do.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

“I said you’ll do. You’ll do whatever it takes. And don’t let me find out that you didn’t.”

“But, I—”

“Go!” Tom stomped his foot to scare the kid away. Pidgeon’s eyes grew wide as he fled clumsily away. He looked like he probably pissed himself again.

Tom took off the old model helmet that Rosa and Anna had given him and carried it by his side, roaming the streets of 6. What good was the helmet to him now? If anyone wanted to shoot him, they could go right ahead and do it. He didn’t care. He had failed and failed and failed, and he was on his way to face the consequences of that failure. At least if someone shot him now, they would keep him from that experience. In fact, he didn’t know why he was still carrying the stupid thing at all. He tossed it at the building closest to him and felt better for having the weight lifted.

Why did he need any of it? He unbuckled his plated vest as he walked and tossed that on the ground, too. Now they would have an even bigger target to put him out of his misery.

He didn’t know where he was, but he kept walking. Without his helmet and vest, people didn’t recognize him as a protector. The streets filled up as he wandered through them.

Maybe he didn’t have to go back and face the consequences after all. Maybe he could stay here in Outland 6 and blend in as one of them. He was a lot taller than they were, sure, but they didn’t seem to notice or care. No one even glanced at him twice now that he was out of his protector uniform.

He plopped down on the sidewalk with his back leaning on a rough brick building and untied his heavy white boots, throwing them on the ground next to him with a thud. Why not? He didn’t need any of it anymore. And maybe if they found him shoeless and half-naked they’d be easier on his punishment. Probably not, but he was beyond caring.

He got up and tried out his socked feet. The ground was rough, and every few steps he’d hit a pebble, or a shard of glass, and feel a shock of pain shoot up through his foot, but he almost liked it. It was freeing. Or, no, that wasn’t right. It was grounding. He could feel the ground underneath his feet, and he finally knew where he stood. He tore his undershirt off, too, and walked on with nothing but his white protector cargo pants and white cotton socks.

People did start to look at him then. He had gone over that line of blending in right back to standing out more than ever. Now, though, instead of running away at first sight of him, people either pointed and stared, or tried to avoid eye contact as they scurried by. The crowd parted in front of him however they reacted. He felt as if he were afflicted with some contagious disease. They all steered clear of him until a little boy ran out and offered him a bright red poinsettia.

Tom looked down at the kid’s dirty, smiling face and the flower in his hand. He extended his own hand to reach for the flower and it shook with the effort. He put the poinsettia to his nose and smelled it. Tears welled up behind his eyes and something caught in his stomach. “Thank you,” he whispered. The kid smiled wider then ran back into the crowd of people.

He did still care. Of course he did. He cared about his son back home, he cared about setting a good example for him. That’s why he had done all of this in the first place, to protect his son, not to protect Ansel. She was collateral assistance. He was supposed to be setting an example for his son, building a world that was safe for him to live in, but what was he doing instead? He was half-naked in the streets of Outland 6, giving up on his life. What kind of an example was that?

He put the flower in his pocket then tried to find some landmark to show him where he was. So few of the intersections had signs, it was impossible to find out that way. He didn’t recognize anything. He tried the next street, and the next, then turned a corner and went down another street or two.

He was starting to regret taking off his shoes. His feet burned. Every step now was like walking on glass, whether he actually stepped on a piece or not. At the next intersection there were still no signs in sight. He checked the bottom of one foot, and as suspected, his sock was soaked in blood. Great. Exactly what he needed, open wounds on the bottom of his feet so he could catch whatever diseases the streets of Outland 6 carried. Still, he had no choice but to carry on. Going back to find his shoes now would only open him to more risk.

It was three more blocks before he found a sign, and he didn’t recognize the street name. Still, it was a sign. He followed the street he had a name for until he came to the next named street a few blocks away. This one he did recognize. He knew where he was, and he knew where he had left to go. He sighed in relief and his feet ached less because of it. It was four blocks to the Neutral Grounds, then there was a transport bay every fifteen blocks along that. This street was right in the middle of two transport bays—of course—but it was somewhere, which was a lot better than nowhere.

He had hoped to see a protector and be able to hail them before he got to the Grounds, but he didn’t see anyone between where he was and the closest transport bay, a transport bay which wouldn’t open without his comm link. He sat down with his back on the bay doors and checked his feet again. The entire bottom of both socks were soaked in blood, so he had no way to tell how bad the injuries were. For all he knew he could be soleless. He wanted to peel his socks off to get a closer look, but he thought that would only make things worse, especially if he ended up having to walk some more.

What to do now? He could sit there and wait for someone to come out of the bay, giving his feet a rest in the process, but there was no telling how long that would take. He looked at his feet one more time and tried blowing on them to ease the pain, but it didn’t help, the socks were in the way. It did stretch his already worked muscles, though, so he went on for a while anyway to give them a cool down. Then he leaned back and looked at the trees in the Grounds.

What was he going to tell the Captain when he finally got back? How could he explain this? His nakedness? How could he explain being ambushed by tiny troll ladies?

Okay. He got hit in the back of the neck and knocked out. That was a fact. He wouldn’t be lying if he said it. And there was physical evidence to back that up. Then they took his gun, comm link, and all his gear, and they sent him off to fend for himself. He walked for blocks and blocks, until his feet were bloody, and he finally found a transport bay. They had to believe him. Look at his feet.

Or they knew it was him at the Feast. Then what would they do? He didn’t want to think about that. He was lucky he didn’t have to, because the transport bay doors opened behind him, and he fell backwards at the feet of three protectors.

“Well, well, well,” one of the protectors said through bright, shining teeth.

“Pardy. You make our job easy,” another said in the same modulated voice.

“Home base, we have the golden egg. Be back in five,” the third added.

“Already?” came a voice over their comm links. “Congratulations, Officers. Bring him in.”

“Tom Pardy, you are under arrest for attempted assassination and dereliction of duty. Surrender now or face justice.”

Tom stood and backed away from them, wincing at the pain. “I—what?” he said, holding his hands up. “No. I didn’t—”

One of them took out their stun gun. “Just come quietly, or we’ll do this the hard way. You were a protector once, Pardy. You know how this goes.”

“No. You can’t,” Tom said. “You don’t understand. I can explai—”

Tom felt the pinch of taser darts sticking like tiny fishhooks into his bare chest, a shock of electricity surging throughout his body, and the hot pressure of a deafening explosion behind him which flung his body into the back wall of the transport bay where the three protectors broke his fall before he blacked out into nothingness.

#     #     #

Tom awoke for the second time in his life bound to a chair and gnashing at his restraints. A bright white light blinded him. It was much whiter than the yellow light Anna and Rosa had used to blind him. This wasn’t their dump hideout in Outland 6. The seat here was harder and colder, though it was about the same height. The air smelled antiseptic, sterile, overcleaned. This time it wasn’t Sixer scum who held him in captivity, it was his fellow protectors.

He heard the door open and close, but here it didn’t affect the brightness of the light that blinded him. Here a camera digitally tracked his pupils to ensure maximum light exposure with a light that was bright enough to penetrate eyelids. The protectors had blinding down to a science.

Whoever opened the door walked in and sat at the chair across from him. That’s all he could tell by the sound. All protectors wore the same boots, so all their footsteps sounded the same. The person didn’t say anything for a good long time. They let Tom struggle in vain until he gave up, clenching his eyes tight against the rays which he couldn’t stop.

Pardy, Pardy, Pardy,” the voice finally came, Captain Mondragon’s voice. “You should know by now that this struggling is useless. You are a protector after all. Aren’t you?”

“You killed Rabbit,” Tom said, his eyes still clenched against the hot lights.

“Watch your mouth, Pardy,” the Captain snapped. “That’s a heavy accusation to be lobbing at a superior officer. Now, we can chalk that one up to duress and move on. But before we do anything, can we turn these lights off, please? I think he’s had enough. Thank you.”

Tom’s eyelids turned from red to black. He opened his eyes slowly, and it was still blackness until they adjusted to the room. It was an interrogation room. There was a metal table, big black two way mirror, and the Captain sitting across from him, raised up a little to look down on him in his too short seat.

“There, Pardy,” the Captain said, grinning. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“Why are you holding me?” Tom demanded. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Pfft, Pardy.” The Captain laughed. “Please. Give us some credit. You know our capabilities.”

“I know you’re capable of killing an officer on duty.”

“Then you should know what will happen to you if you try to get in the way.” The Captain smiled. “Pardy,” she said, shaking her head. “Come on. I tried to help you. I’m trying to help you. I gave you the world on a platinum platter. You simply have to work with me, Pardy. You can do that, can’t you?”

“Work with you?” Tom scoffed. “After you sent me into that shit shift?”

“You asked for Outland 6, Pardy.”

“Not the solo Street beat right after my initiation.”

The Captain laughed. “No, Pardy. You didn’t ask for that. But when you asked for 6, you showed me that you weren’t willing to cooperate. I made it clear which precincts I thought would be most profitable for both of us.”

Tom shook his head. He struggled against his cuffs again then slammed his fists on the table. “I have my reasons! I had no choice!”

“Yes, Pardy.” The Captain smiled. “Good. You had no choice. That’s what I told them. Everyone else thought you were a rebel mole, or you went insane after killing your first Sixer, or something. But not me. No. I told them, Not Pardy. Pardy goes by the books, that one. He’s got his reasons and they support Property, Liberty, Life or I’ve never done an honest day of protector work in my life. That’s what I said, Pardy.”

“You’re mocking me.” Tom sneered.

“No, Pardy.” The Captain looked offended. “No. Well…” She chuckled. “Maybe a little. But I did say that. And that is what they think.”

“That’s why they think I came back without my gear?”

“Oh. Sweetheart.” The Captain gave him a wry grin, shaking her head. “That’s precious. But no. That’s why they think you tried to assassinate Lord Walker. They think you had a hand in all that other stuff, too—and Amaru are they looking for a head to take over that one—but I know you better than that, Pardy. Don’t I?”

“Lord Walker?”

Ugh. Pardy.” The Captain frowned. “You’re not helping my case here. You’re not helping your case. If you don’t know the name of the man you tried to kill, how could you have a legitimate reason to kill him?”

“That’s—No. I didn’t—”

“We know it was you, Pardy. Our tracking capabilities don’t end at guns and comm links. You might as well come clean now. We know where you were during your entire shift—ahem—and beyond. And we know your boots and armor were in the Feast Hall when the assassination attempt occurred. Taking into account the size of the shooter and your absence from duty, it was obviously you. Now that we have that out of the way, why’d you do it, Pardy? And make it good this time.”

“I don’t even have my boots. I didn—”

“You did it because…”

Why’d you kill Rabbit?” Tom demanded.

“Pardy.” The Captain shook her head. “I told you. Watch your mouth. Now I’m the only one on your side here. You’d do better for yourself not to alienate me. Being honest with me is the only way that I can help you.”

“Did you kill anyone else besides Rabbit?” Tom asked, gritting his teeth. He had never hated a fellow protector before. It seemed wrong to do it now, but he couldn’t hold back his anger.

“I shot the scumbag trash, low-class Sixer that dared to draw a gun on a protector. I shot the wannabe person that shot your Rabbit. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know, Pardy. Why do you care? They murdered an Officer of the Law and they’re dead because of it. Case closed.”

“No. But the woman—”

“So it is about her, then,” the Captain said, shaking her head. “Pardy, we kill people in the line of duty. It happens. If you can’t deal with that, then you’re not cut out to be a protector. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable doing housework.”

“She said she had a husband,” Tom said, ignoring her. “Was he the one who you killed?”

The Captain smiled. She leaned closer over the table. “Why do you care so much, Pardy?”

“Just tell me!”

“This isn’t a negotiation, son. It’s an interrogation. Or did you not notice the shiny, new bracelets we gave you? Silver is your color, boy.”

Tom swung his fist at her and moved his chair forward with the force of it against his handcuffs.

“Well, now you notice them for sure,” the Captain said with a smile.

“What do you want?”

“I told you. I want to know why you did it. But make it good this time. You have an audience.”

He looked over at the black mirror. “I was protecting a little girl,” he said to it instead of the Captain.

“A little girl?” the Captain said. “By shooting Lord Walker?”

Tom looked back at the Captain. “Is her dad alive?”

Her dad.” The Captain scoffed, shaking her head. “Of course. I should have known. We should have known. We do have a department for this type of thing, don’t we?”

“Is. He. Alive?” Tom demanded.

“How old is your son now, Pardy? Ten, eleven years old. I must confess, I don’t know much about your personal life.”

“Leave him out of this.”

“How can I?” the Captain said, shaking her head. “That’s what this is all about, isn’t it? I should have known when you started talking about that trash’s daughter earlier. This is my fault really. I’ll pull in the favors required to pay the consequences, but that’s all I need to know from you, Pardy. I wish you had thought of a better story, though. I had a lot invested in you, son. Well, good luck anyway.” She stood and made to walk away.

“Wait!” Tom called.

She stopped but didn’t turn around.

“Her father. Tell me. Is he alive?”

The Captain took a few slow steps back to the table and leaned over it to get close to his face. “For now, Pardy,” she said. He could feel the heat of her breath as she spoke and smell the liquor she must have drank before the interrogation. “But not for long. You get caught with that many printers in Outland 6 and there’s nowhere left to go. I’ll hurry it along now that I know he’s so important to you, though. You can count on that.” She pushed herself up off the table and walked out chuckling.

“I want to see him!” Tom yelled after her, but the door closed and she didn’t respond.

He fought against his chains until he bled, then he gave up. There was no use. His life was in their hands. Whoever they were. The Captain and her superiors, whoever was listening behind the black mirror, they decided his fate now. Not him. The door opened, and a pair of Officers he didn’t recognize marched in. One of them tossed the clothes out of Tom’s locker onto the table while the other undid his cuffs.

“Change into your clothes, citizen.”

Citizen? “The names Pardy,” Tom said, rubbing his bloody wrists. “Officer Pardy.”

“Not anymore, citizen. Dress yourself.” They pointed their guns at him.

“Alright, alright.” Tom slipped out of his white cargoes and into the jeans and t-shirt he had worn to his first day at the academy. They were fresh, and clean, and hadn’t been worn since. They felt soft and comforting against his skin. He only regretted the circumstances under which he had to put them back on.

“So. What now?” he asked when he was dressed. “Is that it? No trial?”

“You’ve been tried, citizen. Come with us.” One of them shoved Tom towards the door which the other had opened. They marched him at gunpoint through the halls to the transport bay where the Captain was waiting by the bay’s open doors.

“Well, Pardy,” she said. “This is the best I can do for you.”

“What?” He said through gritted teeth, fighting the urge to punch her.

“You’re clearly not stable enough to be a protector. Look at how worked up you are now. Dangerous, really.” The Captain shook her head. “And even more clearly, you miss your darling son. So it’s back to housework for you, Pardy. The only thing you’re good enough for.”

“I—but—”

The two officers pushed him through the bay doors into the elevator and got in with him. The doors closed, the floor fell out from beneath them, then the doors opened, and one of the protectors poked Tom in the back with a gun. “Out!”

He stepped out of the doors, and they slid closed behind him.

He looked up at the sky then down at the courtyard around him, spotting a tree that he wanted to climb. He ran over to it and sat at the bottom, taking off his shoes. He got one off and his sock was still bloody. It reminded him of everything he had just been through, everything he had just done.

What was he doing now? He felt like he had been here before but with less clothes. He remembered it like it was a bad decision made a long time ago. He thought it was probably still a bad idea. There was something—something—but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. A little black cat scampered across the sidewalk in front of him and disappeared on the other side.

His son.

He stood and limped—more from having only one shoe on than from having bloody feet—down the few blocks to his house. He checked his pockets but didn’t have a key, and he had to knock on his own door to get in. He was banging excitedly when his wife yelled at him to shut up, she was coming, then opened the door. “Tommy,” she said when she saw him. “I—”

Chels.” Tom hugged her as she squirmed away, surprised.

“What are you doing here?”

“I—uh—” It wasn’t the reaction he had expected. But what did he expect?

“And you only have one shoe on. Tom, what happened? Are you alright?”

“Chelsea,” Tom said, grabbing her hands. “Chels. I—I’m fine now. Where’s Jonah?”

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, clearly still confused. “He’s outside playing or something. Settle down and tell me what you’re doing here.”

“I—I don’t know,” Tom said, avoiding eye contact. “I did something. I—I’m not a protector anymore.”

Chelsea crossed her arms and frowned. “Not a protector?”

“There was this girl, Chels. This girl.” He shook his head. “She reminded me so much of Jonah. I just had to see him. Where is he?”

“What girl, Tom? What are you talking about?”

“This—This girl.” Tom sighed. Water welled up behind his eyes. “I…I killed her mom, and I had to—”

“You killed her mom?” Chelsea’s arms uncrossed.

“I—I didn’t mean to. I thought she had a gun.”

“She had a gun!” She embraced him in a long hug. “Sweetheart.”

Tom felt his heart drop to his stomach. The tears came. He had never cried in front of Chelsea before, but he couldn’t stop himself now. “N—No…She didn’t.”

“Sweetheart,” she whispered in his ear, patting his back. “It’s okay. I’ll get you back up and on your feet in no time. Then you can get back to protecting the worlds.”

He pushed away from her, tears still in his eyes. “No. You don’t understand. I can—I can’t go back. They won’t take me anymore.”

“What?” She didn’t sound as understanding as she did before. Her arms crossed again.

“They took my badge. I won’t be a protector ever again.”

“No.” She backed away from him. “How? Why?”

“I had to,” Tom said, shaking his head and looking at his feet. “The girl. If it was Jonah, we would have wanted someone to do the same for him.”

If it was Jonah, Tom. If. But it wasn’t. It was some Sixer trash. Are you telling me you threw your life away for trash?”

“I—No—” Tom said, shaking his head. “I didn’t throw my life away.”

“Well, you’re never going to be a protector again. Right?”

“I…” Tom shook his head again, eyes still glued to his feet.

“Then you threw your life away, Tom.” She stomped into the house.

“Wait!” Tom called. She stopped herself halfway through closing the door. “Where are you going?”

“To submit my application to the Protector’s Academy,” she said. “You don’t expect me to live in a two housekeeper family, do you?” She didn’t wait for an answer and slammed the door behind her.

Tom turned around and slouched onto the stoop with his head in his hands. He had thrown his life away, hadn’t he? Being a protector was the only way to build a respectable life in Outland 1. He knew that. It had been drilled into his head since before he understood words. What was he now? A housekeeper, the lowest of the low in 1. Better than any Sixer, sure, but that wasn’t saying much. And all for what? A filthy, scrawny piece of trash from Outland 6.

“Dad?” a voice came, breaking him away from the world inside his head.

He looked up from his sorrow to see Jonah standing there in the yard with a friend who Tom didn’t recognize. “Jonah?” he said.

“Dad, what are you doing here?”

“Jonah.” Tom stood up, realizing how ridiculous he must look wearing only one shoe. “I, uh…”

“Hey, I’ll see you later,” Jonah said to his friend who scurried away, giggling. “Dad. What are you doing here?”

“Jonah,” Tom said, trying not to cry. “I missed you so much.” He picked Jonah up in a big hug, but Jonah squirmed away.

“Dad, shouldn’t you be at work?”

“No, son,” Tom said. “I shouldn’t.”

“But you told me—”

“Jonah. Listen to me. Everything I told you was wrong.”

“What?”

“It was all based on bad information, son. Red herrings.”

“Red herrings?” Jonah was obviously confused. Tom couldn’t blame him.

“Yeah, you know, something that sounds like a clue but—”

“Yeah, dad.” Jonah scoffed. “I know what a red herring is. I’m not stupid.”

“Oh. Well…” Tom had to gather himself for a moment. He hadn’t seen Jonah in so long he had forgotten how old he was now, how much he already knew about the worlds. “Of course, son. But school, and television…The news—Those are all red herrings,” he said.

Jonah laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, son. It’s all wrong. You have to think for yourself. Pretty much do the opposite of whatever they say.”

Jonah chuckled some more. “Alright, dad. Is this some sort of test or something?”

“No.” Tom shook his head. “I’m serious. Red herrings.”

Pffft. Sure, dad.” Jonah smiled. “That’s why you’re wearing one shoe, right?”

“I, well…”

“Alright, dad,” Jonah said, skipping up the stairs and inside. “I’ll keep that in mind. But come on inside. It’s almost time for dinner.”

Tom sighed. No one was ever going to believe him. Still, what was there left for him to do? He followed Jonah inside to see if he could help with dinner.

#     #     #

< XIX. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XXI. The Scientist >

Thanks again for reading this far. Don’t forget to join us for the exciting conclusion of The Asymptote’s Tail next Saturday, and don’t forget to pick up a copy of the full novel from Amazon if you want to support future novels in the Infinite Limits series and beyond. Have a great weekend, y’all.

Chapter 19: Ellie

Here’s Ellie’s third and final chapter for y’all to read today. I especially enjoyed writing the scene with everyone drinking around the table at the end. I hope y’all will enjoy reading it, too.

There are only two more weeks before you can read the entire novel here on the website, but you can still go to Amazon to order a copy before then. Either way, thanks for reading along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Ellie McCannik

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

XIX. Ellie

She pounded her fists against the cold metal until her knuckles were bloody and numb. She flung her body at the door in vain and slouched down sobbing uncontrollably with her cheek on the rubber conveyor belt.

The door was closed. Her chance was gone. She had waited too long to bring her son to the beach, then she waited too long to live the experience for him. She failed again and again. He wasn’t even alive, and she continued to fail him.

She wept and wept with her cheeks on the belt before she remembered that she had already set some of the discs. She picked one out of the pouch and pressed the little red button to see how long she had left. Five minutes. Five minutes. Was it worth it to try to leave? What did she have to live for anymore? If she stayed here and held the disc tight, they would all think that she decided to stay on the beach. She would disappear from existence just like that, erased from memory. She almost felt calmed at the thought of it.

But she didn’t. She still hadn’t kept her promises. She could probably set more of the discs before she left. And if they could get her to the beach once, they could do it again. Couldn’t they? By that time she could do enough to pay for the privilege and not have to worry about making the same stupid mistake and missing her chance again. She had to do something. She couldn’t give up and wait for the explosion to erase her responsibility. That would be doing even more of a disservice to her son.

She opened her eyes and picked herself up to jump down off the conveyor belt. The disc said three minutes now. She peeled off the paper backing, stuck it to the screen which told her what particular piece of crap was supposed to come down the conveyor belt every day, the machine that guided her work, the robot who used her, and she sprinted out of the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building entirely, not stopping until she left the front door, and then only slowing to a fast walk—she didn’t really have time to act nonchalant. She was only half a block away from the building when she heard the explosion.

Her heart pounded at the sound, and her feet tingled. She could feel the ground moving beneath her, as if the whole world was shaking. She felt like she wanted to run, but she stopped herself. Then she wanted to look back. She stopped herself from looking at first, then thought it might be more suspicious not to look and decided to turn and see what she had done. An entire floor of the building—not as high as she thought it would be—was blown out, but the rest of it was still standing. There was a blasted-out gash, bleeding rubble, water, and electricity. Not as much damage as she had expected, she thought the whole building would come down, but she had left a mark at least.

She turned and hurried on her way toward the elevator to ride it to her bar. What else was there for her to do? She had just laid bombs in her workplace and blown it to smithereens. She had been to the beach and back in less than fifteen minutes. She had kept all her promises and broken all of them all at the same time. What was she to do but get a drink and enjoy the rest of Christmas?

The public elevator had no one. The street to the bar was empty. The bar was dark when she got there. It was closed. Of course it was closed. Even the bartender had a family to spend Christmas with. Even Gertrude. Everyone did. She kicked the door.

Stupid stupid stupid. She had drank her last beer and eaten her last egg before she went on her mission. She wasn’t supposed to be coming back. She should have been on the beach, figuring out how to make a fishing rod or a spear, but instead, she was standing in front of a closed bar with nowhere left to go.

Her hand flicked over the address card in her pocket. Well, almost nowhere. Gertrude had invited her over. She wanted to know all the details, Ellie was sure. She’d probably have a drink to share, and some food. It was Christmas after all. And it would be nice to tell someone about what had happened, to unburden some of it somehow. Though she wasn’t quite sure how much of it she wanted to tell. She pulled out the card and made her way to the nearest public elevator.

Gertrude’s street looked just like Ellie’s, though the buildings were different colors and in slightly different degrees of dilapidation. She held her breath as she pressed the buzzer next to Gertrude’s name: Trudy Weaver. It took a minute for a response to come, and Ellie was on the verge of leaving when a staticy voice said, “Yes? Um—ahem—Excuse me. Hello?”

“Um…Yeah,” Ellie said, leaning close to the intercom and talking too loudly. “I was looking for Gertrude.”

“Oh, Trudy, dear,” the voice said, apparently Gertrude’s. “Please. And this is she. May I ask who’s speaking? You sound like a robot.”

Ellie heard laughter from the background. “Oh—It’s uh…It’s Ellie,” she said. “Ellie McCannik. From QA.”

“Oh. Ellie, dear. Come on up. Up up up. Have a drink and tell us all about your day.”

Ellie felt like she was intruding on something. “No—I, uh,” she said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” But it was no use because the door had already buzzed open and the intercom link had popped shut.

The inside of Gertrude’s building looked exactly the same as the inside of Ellie’s building. Her room was at the top floor, much like Ellie’s was. When Ellie got there, she noted it was in the exact same place, too, though it was a different number, even instead of odd. She didn’t know if she should knock or walk in, and she still hadn’t decided when the door opened and Gertrude handed her a full glass of eggnog. “Merry Christmas, dear,” Getrude said, hugging her. “Drink this and have a seat. I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

The room was full of people, but Ellie could tell it was emptied of things to make space for them. There was no bed in sight, and from the looks of it, this was the only room there was. Instead of a bed, there was a foldable table in the middle of the room with three people sitting around it. Ellie didn’t recognize any of them, and she could tell by the arrangement that she was taking Gertrude’s seat. She couldn’t see any more chairs, either. She felt even more like she was intruding despite the full drink in her hand.

“Oh, no,” Ellie said. “I couldn’t. I just wanted to come—”

“Oh, no,” Gertrude said, guiding Ellie to the seat. “Nonsense, dear. Sit down. Drink.” She tilted Ellie’s glass to give her a good long swig. Ellie did feel better for it. “Now. This here pretty, young face you see is Aldo,” Gertrude said, pointing to a kid with disheveled hair sitting in the back corner of the small room. “Aldo, say hello to Ellie.”

He smiled, and blushed, and took a big drink out of his glass.

“Aldo’s shy but he has deft hands,” Gertrude said. “Nimble little fingers. He works on the discs for us.”

“Trudy!” Aldo gasped. “You’re not supposed to tell.”

“Quiet, dear,” Gertrude said, waving his concerns away. “Please. Ellie here just placed some of your discs in her QA hall. Didn’t you, Ellie?”

Ellie blushed, too. She agreed with Aldo. She didn’t really want Gertrude talking about what she had done in front of a bunch of strangers. “Uh…” she said. “Yeah, well—”

“She knows what discs are,” Gertrude went on, ignoring Ellie. “And she doesn’t know anything about you besides how cute you are. So what’s the harm?”

“Still,” Aldo huffed. “It’s not right.”

“Oh, lighten up, dear,” Gertrude said, smiling. “It’s Christmas, a time for celebration. Your discs went off with a bang.” She laughed.

One of the others at the table leaned in toward Ellie and said, “So you’ve joined the cause.”

Ellie didn’t know how to answer. She took a long sip of eggnog to buy time. Technically she didn’t choose to join the cause. It was just the only option she had left. So maybe she had joined the cause after all. Whatever. It was easier to nod along either way.

“Welcome,” the woman said without waiting for further answer. “I’m Vicki. This is Alena.” She pointed to the fourth person sitting at the table. “We’ve known Trudy since before she got promoted and moved to this high class place.” She smiled and winked at Gertrude who laughed.

Oooh, dear,” Gertrude said. “A long time ago that was, too. These are my best friends, Ellie. They’re family. Vicki and Alena work down at a coal plant. They had a shift today, too. And they set their own discs.”

“Trudy!” Aldo complained again.

Aldo!” Gertrude replied in a high-pitched, mocking tone. “I want Ellie to know that she’s one of us, that she’s put herself on the line but she’s not alone. You don’t expect her to tell us what she did without a little leverage of her own, do you? It’s four against one.”

“Yeah, well.” Aldo huffed. “She better not tell.”

“Of course she won’t,” Gertrude said, turning to Ellie. “Will you dear?”

Ellie shook her head. She didn’t know who she would tell.

“You see,” Gertrude said. “You have nothing to worry about, boy. No one does. It’s Christmas. The operation is underway. Our glasses are full, and we have good company. Now, where were we? Vic, you were telling us about how your shift went. Why don’t you go back a little in the story for Ellie’s sake.”

“Oh, no,” Ellie said, taking the drink she was sipping away from her mouth. “Don’t mind—”

“Oh, no,” Vicki said. “It’s no problem. So, like Trudy said, Alena and I work in the coal plants. Well, that used to mean shoveling and all that, but they mostly replaced shovelers with robots so we just stand around in the fumes in case anything goes wrong these days. Then maybe a bot malfunctions, you know, and we take over the shoveling until a new one gets there or whatever. That’s abou—”

“Is all that necessary?” Alena interrupted her.

“Uh, well. I don’t know,” Vicki said, shrugging. “I don’t know how much she wants to know. Anyway. We worked our shift, right. And at the end of it—just like the Scientist said—the bots all turned off at once.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. And we…Well, we were free to do what we had to do without interference.

“So we set the discs, and we got out of there, and we were waiting for the elevator to come when we heard them go off. And did they ever go of? Whoooeeee. I mean, we couldn’t stop to see the damage, you know, but from the sound of it, they won’t have any power from that plant anytime soon.”

Aldo smiled and sipped his beer.

“Brilliant,” Gertrude said, beaming. “Wonderful. Amazing.” She sounded tipsy. “You fill my heart with joy. Tis the best Christmas gift a girl could ever ask for.” She walked over and planted a big kiss on Aldo’s forehead.

“C’mon man,” he said, wiping it away in disgust.

“You blew up a power plant?” Ellie said. Everyone in the room looked at her, and she regretted opening her mouth.

“See!” Aldo said, as if she had already told someone about his involvement.

“Quiet, Aldo.” Gertrude said.

“Yes,” Vickie said. “We did. This particular plant powers most of Outland 1’s communication capabilities. Without it, their response to the rest of the operation will be crippled.”

“But can’t they just—I’m sorry.” Ellie shook her head. She had almost let her mouth run off on its own again.

“No,” Vickie said. “Go ahead. Your opinion’s valid.”

Ellie looked around at everyone else in the room. They all seemed to agree with Vickie, even Aldo, so she went on. “Well, I was just thinking…I mean, couldn’t they just reroute the power from somewhere else?”

“I…uh…” Vickie looked to Gertrude for an answer.

“Yes,” Gertrude said, frowning. “They could. And they will, dear.” She smiled. “Probably they already have. Ha ha! But it’s still not fast enough to catch us.” She laughed. “It’s not about shutting down their communications forever, you see. We only had to do it for long enough to get what we needed on the other side.”

“So what was it that I was doing then?” Ellie asked. “Blowing up the conveyor belts to their homes? What good is that?”

“No, dear. No.” Gertrude set her glass on the table and took Ellie’s face between both hands. “You were a redundancy,” she said, talking too close and jiggling Ellie’s face as she did. “Quality assurance. Each of your discs went out to a different part of the operation. You played an important role.”

“I—I didn’t set them all,” Ellie blurted out, pulling away from Gertrude’s embrace. She took a big swig of eggnog.

“Where are the rest?” Aldo said.

“Right here.” She tossed the pouch on the table and Aldo snatched it up. “I’m sorry.”

“No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head and waving it away. “No need to apologize. At least you came back. And you set some. There’ll be plenty more for you to do, if you’re up to it.”

“But I didn’t…” She shook her head.

“You did what any human would,” Alena said. “You did what you could. There’s no changing that now. All you can change is what you do in the future.”

“I did the same thing on my first go,” Vicki said. “She sent me undercover to a plant I had never been to and expected me to download files from the mainframe. Me. I asked her why she didn’t just do it herself. She’s connected to everything. She can change our elevator paths and our shifts and turn off the robots, why couldn’t she do something so simple as downloading a little bit of data for herself? But she just said she couldn’t do it, that I had to. So I went all the way into the control center of the plant, and I was going to download everything, but a cat jumped out—I shit you not, a cat—and it spooked me so much I had to get out of there.”

Alena laughed. “Scaredy cat,” she said.

“Hey,” Vicki said, raising her hands in defense. “If you were there, you would have run, too.”

I downloaded my files,” Alena said with a grin.

“Yeah, well,” Vicki said, shaking her head and chuckling. “You didn’t get chased out before you could.”

“By a cat!” Alena laughed.

“You placed some, dear,” Gertrude said to Ellie. “That’s all that matters. You did your best and you’re back to try again. You did more than just set discs, though. Didn’t you? Tell us about that.”

“Oh, yeah. Well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“Ellie works in QA,” Gertrude said to the group. They all looked at her like that meant something to them.

“Well, I got to see the beach,” Ellie said when the attention had grown to be too much.

“The beach?” Aldo said.

The beach,” Alena said.

“Tell us, dear,” Gertrude said.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “It was—It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Have you ever gargled with salt water for a sore throat?”

Aldo cringed.

“Imagine that smell all around you,” Ellie said, smiling at the memory. “Everywhere. And the faint hint of tuna dinner fresh out of the can. And that was just the smell!”

“I hate fish,” Alena said, crinkling up her nose like she could smell it then and there.

“But it wasn’t just that.” Ellie shook her head. “The sky was this endless deep blue with no clouds in sight. And it butted up against the endless deep blue of the ocean water. And while the sky seemed so far out of reach and aloof, the ocean just wanted to reach out at you again and again until you finally agreed to meet its wet touch.”

“Beautiful, dear.” Gertrude smiled.

“And the sand,” Ellie went on, unable to stop reminiscing. “Oh, the sand. It was amazing. I just want to bury my feet in it right now and feel the ocean breeze. It was like the biggest sandbox you had ever seen. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I was a child again for fifteen minutes.” She remembered Levi and finished her drink.

“Would you like some more eggnog, dear?” Gertrude said, already getting a pitcher out of the fridge. “In the Christmas spirit.” She poured some into Ellie’s glass.

“I went to the mountains,” Alena said. “I always thought they were the prettiest thing ever. I don’t know why.”

“Because they’re so big,” Vicki said. “And old. Bigger and older than anything we’ve ever built.”

“And they’ll be there longer, too,” Aldo added.

“Oh. Now, Aldo,” Gertrude said. “Don’t be so cynical at your young age.” She tossed a piece of ice at him. “We’ll be here for a good long time yet. Not us but us. You know what I mean.”

“You’ll be here longer than any of us,” Vicki said, laughing.

Aldo and Alena joined in, too. Ellie gave a little chuckle herself.

“I can only hope so, dears.” Trudy smiled. “I can only hope so.”

Ellie sipped the eggnog and it felt warm throughout her body. She looked around the room and actually enjoyed the faces she was surrounded by. It was a feeling she missed. She didn’t know these people, but she felt like she did. She felt like they knew her, too. Though not even Trudy did. But did any of that matter anymore? Did anyone know anyone? No. And these people were welcoming her into their family.

“You didn’t choose to stay in the mountains?” Ellie asked, a little embarrassed by the question. Of course Alena didn’t choose to stay in the mountains, otherwise she wouldn’t be there to answer the question.

Alena chuckled.

I wanted to stay,” Vicki said. “I had studied up on how to build shelter and hunt in the cold, and I knew we could make it out there on that beautiful mountainside. Alena, here, convinced me otherwise.”

“Just in time, too,” Alena said with a smile.

“Well, I couldn’t live without you,” Vicki said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “Could I? Not even out there.”

Alena blushed.

“How’d you convince her?” Aldo asked. “I think I’d stay if I ever got the chance to leave this shit hole.”

“Aldo!” Gertrude said, spitting up some eggnog.

“It’s true!” Aldo said.

“Honestly,” Alena said. “I’m not sure I have convinced her still to this day.”

“She stepped through the door,” Vicki said. “That’s all it took. All the freedom in the worlds wasn’t enough if she wasn’t there to share it with me.”

“And she still tries to convince me to go back every day.” Alena laughed.

“Well why don’t you want to leave?” Ellie asked.

“That’s a good question,” Alena said, looking into her drink and really thinking about what she wanted to say before answering. “And a difficult one to answer, I’d say. I know Trudy talks about morality and all that, but it’s something different for me. I would—I don’t know how to say this better—but I would feel guilty if I left, you know. Like I was taking advantage of others because they had been taken advantage of with me. If that makes any sense at all. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Besides, if we all leave when we get the chance to leave, then who’s going to fight for the people that never get a chance to? You know. I don’t know. I just—I would feel too guilty if I didn’t do everything I could to help. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been talking forever.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Someone else say something.”

Aldo scoffed. “They can fight for themselves,” he said. “We are.”

Ha, child.” Trudy laughed. “What exactly do you think you’d be doing if we hadn’t come along and let you into the family, huh?”

Aldo sipped his drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Well, something. That’s for sure.”

“Something, dear?” Trudy laughed again. “You wouldn’t even know who to fight or that the other worlds existed. You’d be just as ignorant and helpless as everyone else.”

“I’m not ignorant!” Aldo slammed his glass on the table, spilling some eggnog. “Don’t call me that.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, cleaning up the mess he had made. “We all are. It’s not an insult. It just means that you don’t know something. And none of us would know any of this if no one ever told us. That’s exactly why I choose to stay, Ellie, dear. I plan to tell as many people as I can before I die and get more people to stand up and fight with us.”

“Stand up and fight?” Aldo scoffed. “I’ve never heard of you doing any fighting.”

“Nor me you, dear,” Trudy said, smiling and whipping the wet rag playfully towards him. “But we all contribute to the struggle in the best way we can. For me it’s recruiting and communications, for you it’s tinkering with technology. They’re both as necessary as the other. They’re both vital to the struggle. You and I fight just the same as our friends here who go on the front lines and place your discs.”

“Well said.” Vickie raised her glass. “Well said. You do have a great gift for communication, Trudy.”

Everyone laughed. Ellie, too. She was feeling more comfortable the more eggnog she drank.

“We all know that,” Vickie went on. “But how great is Aldo’s gift at tinkering? Ellie, tell us, did you get to see the outcome of your disc placement?”

“Oh, well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“You don’t have to tell us, dear,” Trudy said. “But it would be a Christmas gift to have some news of the operation.”

“Well…” Ellie said. “I didn’t place all of them, you know.”

Aldo scoffed.

“Yes,” Trudy said, ignoring him. “That’s fine, dear. But how close were you when the ones you did set went off? Did you hear them? Did you see any of the damage they created?”

“Oh. Well…” Ellie looked around the table at expectant eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of hard not to. The ground shook underneath me. It was like a small earthquake. And it was so loud I couldn’t hear for a minute afterward.”

Aldo grinned.

“How close were you?” Vicki asked, leaning in closer.

“Maybe a block away,” Ellie said. “My ears are still ringing.” She stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it around to drive the point home.

“Did you see the damage?” Vicki asked.

“Yeah, well…” Ellie took a sip of her eggnog and glanced over at Aldo who seemed to tense up in anticipation of her answer. “There was a whole floor of the building gone, but the rest of it was still standing. It was like it had a huge wound on its side.”

“Is that right?” Vicki looked at Aldo.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Where were you? The QA hall?”

Ellie nodded.

“Well those were direct charges. Back up. Meant to take out specific targets and cause minimal collateral damage. If the building’s still standing, then it’s meant to be standing. Even if she set only one of those discs. I guarantee it.”

“That is right,” Vicki said. “Well done then.” She raised her glass. “To a successful operation.”

Everyone clanged their glasses over the table and took a big swig of whatever they were drinking.

“Now.” Vickie put an empty glass on the table. “If y’all don’t mind, I can’t speak for Alena here, but I’d like to get some rest after that long day of work—with overtime—so I’m going to bid my adieus.”

Ugh.” Alena stood from her seat. “Me, too, Trudy,” she said. “But you know we love the drinks and company as always.”

“And you know you two are always welcome, dear,” Trudy said with a smile, setting her own glass on the table. “Just come ringing, and if I’m here, there’s something to drink.” She winked.

“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to get some more news,” Alena said. “Right?” She raised her eyebrows.

“I’m hoping as much as y’all are, dear,” Trudy said.

“Alright, girl,” Alena said. “See you then.” She hugged Trudy and waved to Aldo then turned to Ellie and said, “Nice to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”

“You, too.” Ellie said, holding out her hand, but Alena came in for a hug instead.

Vicki shook hands with Aldo and hugged Trudy then stopped in front of Ellie. “You did good today,” she said.

“I could have done better,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“No.” Vicki shook her head. “You can always do better. But you did good. That’s what’s important. You got that?”

Ellie didn’t know how to respond.

“I look forward to working with you in the future,” Vicki said. She shook Ellie’s hand. “Bye y’all. See you tomorrow.” She waved to everyone as they left.

The door closed behind them, and Trudy finally took a seat. Ellie felt bad for forgetting that she was standing for all that time. She wanted to say something to make up for it, but nothing was sufficient.

“Well, dears,” Trudy said. “Another round of nog?”

“Nah,” Aldo said, standing. “I should get going, too. I have some more tinkering to do.”

“Good luck with that, dear,” Trudy said. “You’re one of the best.”

Aldo looked at her like he didn’t believe what she was saying. “Uh…thanks,” he said. “And nice to meet you.” He nodded at Ellie and slipped through the door.

Ellie sipped the last dregs of her eggnog. She set the empty glass on the table.

“Well, dear,” Trudy said, finishing her own glass and setting it on the table. “I guess you’ve got something important to get to yourself. Don’t let old Gertrude keep you from it. I understand.”

Ellie shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Honestly. I’m fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. I don’t need your pity.”

“It’s not pity.”

“Oh. Sure…” Trudy gave a thumbs up, smiling and nodding. “Okay.”

“Trudy,” Ellie said, looking her in the eyes. “I honestly have nowhere else to be.”

“How kind.” Trudy winked.

“No. I mean…I tried to go to my bar before I came here. It was closed. That’s when I realized that the bar was all I had. But that’s not enough anymore. That’s why I came here in the first place.”

“So I was your second choice,” Trudy said with a smile as she went to the fridge to pour two new glasses of eggnog.

“Honestly.” Ellie sighed. “This entire place was my second choice.”

“I knew it!” Trudy said, almost spilling the drink she was pouring. “I knew it.

“You knew what?” Ellie asked, frowning.

“I knew something had to happen to keep you from placing all those discs. You had plenty of time if you chose to come back.”

“Yeah.” Ellie shook her head. “Well, maybe I didn’t choose to come back.”

“Maybe you did,” Trudy said, sipping her drink. “Maybe it was your subconscious choosing for you.”

“Maybe it was just a stupid mistake that I regret.”

“You know,” Trudy said. “I did the same thing.”

“What?”

“I wanted to stay over there, but I didn’t make it back.”

“I thought you had never been across,” Ellie said.

“I thought you wanted to join the struggle.” Trudy smiled and sipped her drink.

Maybe Ellie didn’t know as much about Trudy as she thought she did. “So?” she said.

“So I didn’t make it back either,” Trudy said. “But when I started working with the struggle, I knew it was what was best for me. It was difficult, yes. It is still difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ellie hated her and loved her all at the same time for that. Trudy represented everything Ellie could become. She set a bar for Ellie to reach merely by existing. “You know, Trudy,” she said. “I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.”

“Me, too, dear.” Trudy smiled and nodded. “Me, too.”

#     #     #

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

Thanks again for following along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Please think about buying a copy from Amazon to help support my future writing endeavors. And have a great weekend.

Chapter 18: Mr. Kitty

Today brings us Mr. Kitty’s third and final chapter, and we only have three more chapters left in the entire novel after this one. I hope you’re enjoying the story so far. If so, you can pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon right here. Now have at it.

Mr. Kitty

< XVII. Russ     [Table of Contents]     IX. Ellie >

XVIII. Mr. Kitty

Tillie was all packed up. She peeked her head out of the bedroom door and sighed. Mr. Kitty could tell she was upset when she opened the front door and called back, “I’m leaving, dad!” There was no answer, so she added, “Don’t even try to stop me!” and slammed the door.

Mr. Kitty had to react fast to prevent his tail from being crushed. “Hey,” he hissed.

“Sorry, Kitty. I—I didn’t see you,” Tillie said through her sobbing.

Mr. Kitty tried to rub up against her leg as she tried to walk, but he ended up tripping her. She landed with a thud in the grass, her backpack narrowly missing him.

“Sorry,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

Tillie stayed face down in the grass, sobbing. Mr. Kitty climbed up onto her butt and kneaded it. She sobbed a little more, then turned over and scooped him up onto her lap. “Mr. Kitty,” she said. “No one will ever believe me. Shelley didn’t, Dad didn’t and he should know already, who else would when I can barely believe myself?”

“I do,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh, I bet you’d believe me if you understood what was going on,” Tillie said.

“I do,” Mr. Kitty repeated.

“Mr. Kitty, you’re so talkative,” Tillie said, pinching his cheek with a smile. “It’s like you know what I’m saying. Do you understand me?”

“I do!” Mr. Kitty said one more time.

“Oh. I know you don’t,” Tillie said. “No one here does.” She sighed and put him on the grass, then stood and hoisted her backpack up onto her back with a groan. “But there’s still hope, Mr. Kitty. There’s always hope. I’ll go back to my dorm and ask some of my friends there, and if they don’t believe me, then I’ll just have to find that woman again. That’s all I can do, right?”

Mr. Kitty didn’t answer. He thought it sounded like an okay plan, if that was what she wanted to do. She could get more evidence from her dad’s computer before she left, that way people would be more easily convinced, but even if she could understand his advice, she probably wouldn’t break her dad’s trust like that, so there was no point in suggesting the idea. Instead, he ran ahead through the yard toward the public elevator.

“I guess you approve,” Tillie said, lugging her backpack along to catch up. “Just wait until you see my dorm, Mr. Kitty. You’re gonna love it. There are no pets allowed, but you can keep quiet about it, can’t you?”

“I’m a ninja,” Mr. Kitty meowed, letting her pass him then bounding out in front of her again.

“You’re gonna love my roommate, too,” Tillie said with a smile and a new bounce in her step. “I can’t wait. I’m so glad you’re coming with me, Mr. Kitty!”

There was no line at the elevator—there usually wasn’t in this neighborhood. Tillie called it, they stepped in, and she said, “Parade grounds.” She took a deep breath. Mr. Kitty knew she was nervous about being called crazy again, so he rubbed his head on her ankles and purred. She smiled down on him as the doors slid open.

Here there was a line, a young, loud, raucous one. Mr. Kitty jumped, and hissed, and puffed up his fur at the sound of it. The line laughed at him, and Tillie said, “C’mon Kitty. It’s alright.”

She forced her way through the crowd which was trying to push their way onto the elevator before Tillie and Mr. Kitty could get off. Mr. Kitty slipped through the wake she made, out into a big, open, grassy circle that was lined all around with oak trees. There was a tall flagpole in the center of the field, surrounded by short walls with writing on them, and scattered around that were groups of humans playing frisbee, dogs running free without leashes, and other groups of people running around with brooms between their knees, throwing balls at each other. Tillie was right, Mr. Kitty did love this place. Why had he never been here with her before?

“Mr. Kitty,” Tillie called, walking away from the green field. “My dorm’s this way.”

Mr. Kitty tore his attention away from all the new and interesting things to follow Tillie between gravel covered buildings and oak trees, past two big hills, down through a shady cypress swamp, to a patch of three-story buildings in the shade of a tall, ugly cement building. Tillie went up to the door of one of the shorter buildings and scanned a keycard. The door unlocked, and they went up a flight of stairs into a small apartment with three doors and a kitchen. Tillie tossed her backpack on the floor in front of the TV and walked around the kitchen with a sigh, checking the fridge and cupboards while Mr. Kitty crept around the place, sniffing everything and rubbing his scent on whatever called for it—most every surface.

Ugh. There’s nothing to eat!” she said.

Mr. Kitty jumped up onto the counter to rub his face on the sink and smell all the corners of the kitchen when the door opened and a human came in to throw her bag on the couch.

“There’s nothing in this kitchen,” Tillie said. “Do you have any paw points left this week?”

“No, girl,” the human said. “We spent it all before you left. I thought you were supposed to be staying at your dad’s anyway.”

“Yeah, well…” Tillie shrugged.

“And is that a cat in the kitchen? On the counter.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Tillie said. “Well…” She scooped Mr. Kitty up and held him over her shoulder, patting his back. “This is Mr. Kitty. He’s my cat. He’s just visiting though.”

“I like cats,” the human said. “Just not on the counter.”

“You hear that, Mr. Kitty?” Tillie said, patting him a few more times and kissing him on the head. “No counter.” She put him on the floor, and he went over to jump on the coffee table and lick his coat clean, paying special attention to the spot she had kissed.

“What are you doing back anyway?” the human asked. “It’s Christmas.”

“Yeah, well…” Tillie said. “That. I don’t know. I got into an argument with my dad. I thought you were supposed to be at your parents’ house, too. What happened to your Christmas tradition?”

“Plans changed. I got the perfect Christmas gift—which I have to be here for.”

“You have to be here?” Tillie raised an eyebrow.

“Enough about me. Why are you back?”

They both sat on the couch. The human reached out and pet Mr. Kitty. He let her go ahead for a few pats then jumped onto Tillie’s lap.

“Well…Like I said,” Tillie said. “I got into an argument with my dad.”

“He’s a manager, isn’t he?” the human said. “I mean, I know your last name’s Manager and all, but that’s his job, too. Right?”

“Right,” Tillie said, rolling her eyes. “That’s kind of what we were arguing about.”

“Yeah. It’s tough dealing with managers,” the human said. “No offense,” she added hastily.

“Oh. No,” Tillie said, shaking her head and waving a hand. “No n—n—no no. None taken. Believe me. I know better than anyone. He is my dad after all.” She chuckled. “I guess you don’t have the same problems, though. Huh? Your parents are lobbyists, aren’t they?”

“Yeah, well,” her roommate said. “I’m lucky enough to agree with their analysis of the economy, but there are some lobbyists out there who might be harder to live with than a manager.”

Ugh. Yes,” Tillie said with a big sigh. “Have you heard Lobbyist Peterson’s latest proposal?”

“Let me guess,” her roommate said. “Take more resources from higher education and healthcare to funnel them into administration where they’re really working.”

“Pretty much exactly that,” Tillie said, grimacing. “Disgusting, am I right?”

“Disgusting is exactly right,” her roommate said, nodding. “That’s why I’m lucky. My parents are doing everything they can to fight against jerks like that. Me, too. Soon.”

“I wish my dad understood.” Tillie shook her head. “I tried to tell him, but he didn’t even believe me.”

“You tried to tell him what?”

“I—uh—I don’t know…” Tillie said. “I don’t think I should be talking about it.”

“Is it classified?”

Mr. Kitty felt Tillie tense up under him. “How did you know?”

“Tillie. I know we haven’t been roommates for long, but I want you to know that you can trust me.”

“What are you talking about?” It felt like Tillie was about to jump out from underneath Mr. Kitty. He prepared himself to leap off in case she did.

“What did you argue with your dad about?” her roommate asked.

“I…I can’t.”

“You can, Tillie. I already know. Was it about the 3D printers?”

“I—uh—How did you know?”

“Because I know.”

Tillie’s eyes grew wide. Her mouth fell open. Her roommate stood up before she could say anything. “Wait.” She closed the blinds and turned on the TV at full blast, then added some loud music on top of that before sitting back on the couch and scooting extra close to Tillie. “Okay. Go ahead,” she said

“I don’t—What was that?” Tillie asked. “Why’d you do that?”

“If you’re going to say what I hope you’re going to say, then we don’t want to be recorded. This way all they hear is white noise.”

“I—uh…” Tillie frowned. “I never would have thought of that in my life. I’ve been telling people, though. Do you think they recorded me already?”

“I don’t know,” her roommate said with a shrug. “Maybe. I don’t know if they’re doing it now. I haven’t heard what you have to say.”

“Oh. Yeah,” Tillie said, hitting herself in the head. “Right…Well, you know the printers, right. What am I saying? Of course you do. You just said that. Well you know that they don’t rearrange matter or whatever, right?”

Her roommate nodded.

“Yeah, well, my dad did, too. Apparently. But I—Well, I…Do you ever watch Logo’s Show?”

“Sometimes, yes, but I try to stay away from gossip news.”

“Yeah, well, did you see his latest episode?”

Her roommate shook her head. “No. But I saw the emergency broadcast after.”

“Yeah, well, okay. So you know then. Well, you know what he was talking about at least. You heard about the woman who tried to talk to him on the streets, that is.”

“I have.”

“Yeah, well,” Tillie said, nodding. “Do you know what she said?”

“That humans work on the assembly lines.”

“And that’s true, Emma,” Tillie said, looking her roommate in the eyes and nodding.

“I know, Tillie,” Emma said.

“I know it sounds hard to—What?”

“I know that humans work on the assembly lines,” Emma said. “I know that the assembly lines actually exist and not just in Russ Logo’s world. That’s why I’m not home with my parents. That’s what my Christmas gift is all about.”

“Your gift is about the humans on the assembly lines?” Tillie looked confused.

“No.” Emma shook her head. “Not exactly. But yes. My gift is that I finally get to do something about it.”

“But—I—How could you know? What could you do?”

“I’ve known for a long time,” Emma said. “My parents have taught me the truth since I was a child. That’s why I’m not surprised.”

“But how? My dad didn’t even know and he’s a manager. They’re supposed to know the economy like the back of their credit cards. How could he miss something as big as humans on the assembly lines?”

“You said you argued with him?”

“He said I was mistaken.” Tillie scoffed. “As if I didn’t know what I had seen with my own two eyes. He said I was being emotional.”

Ugh. You see, Tillie. It’s not that he missed it, or that no one ever told him. He chooses not to know. They all choose to ignore it. I mean, how did you find out?”

“I saw a picture on his computer,” Tillie said. “I knew they weren’t robots.” She shook her head, looking away from Emma for a moment. Mr. Kitty purred and rubbed his head on her hands.

“A picture?” Emma asked.

“Of a factory accident.”

Emma looked away now. Mr. Kitty climbed over to her lap and rubbed his face on her arm.

“So how could he not figure out if I did, right?” Tillie said.

Emma still didn’t answer. She didn’t look at Tillie. She just pet Mr. Kitty’s head while he purred.

“You said you were going to do something about it,” Tillie said. “But how?”

“You know the answer to this one, Tillie.”

“The woman in the alley?”

“The Scientist.”

“No.” Tillie shook her head. “Who’s that?”

Emma shrugged. “No one’s entirely sure. She’s the Scientist.”

“And she wanted you to help her, too?”

“I’ve never met her in person. She offered my parents an opportunity, and now that opportunity extends to me. On Christmas Feast day nonetheless. Perfect timing.”

“Christmas Feast?” Tillie said, frowning. “You mean Christmas?”

“Christmas Feast is what they call it in Inland.”

“Inland?”

“So you don’t know everything then,” Emma said. “But I can tell you. As long as you don’t tell anyone else. No one.”

“You can trust me,” Tillie said, zipping her lips and crossing her heart.

“First,” Emma said. “Have you ever seen an assembly line worker in real life?”

Tillie shook her head. “Not besides the one I talked to.”

“What about an actor, or camera operator, or scientist?”

“I thought robots—”

“Robots don’t do much,” Emma said. “Have you ever seen one?”

“No, but they—”

“And you watch Logo’s Show. Don’t you ever wonder why the restaurants he talks about don’t exist?”

“Because it’s just a TV show,” Tillie said. “It’s not real.”

“But it’s not just a TV show. What about the assembly line workers? You know that they’re real. Where are they? Logo’s Show takes place in another world, Tillie. The restaurants do exist, but we have no way to access them. They’re in Outland 3 and we’re in Outland 2. There’s no way through except the elevators, and our elevators don’t go that way.”

“And that’s how I ended up meeting with that woman,” Tillie said, shaking her head.

“And that’s how I knew what you would tell me,” Emma said. “Look, I can’t stand this blaring noise anymore. Let’s go for a walk. Your cat might enjoy it, anyway.” She pet Mr. Kitty who had all but fallen asleep in her lap. He yawned and stretched his paws out in front of him.

“Yeah. I—uh—Sure,” Tillie said. “Let’s go.” She stood up, and Mr. Kitty jumped onto the coffee table to stretch some more.

Emma stood and said, “One second.” then went back to her room and came out wearing a big hooded sweatshirt. “Alright. Let’s go,” she said, and they went downstairs and out of the dorm.

Emma was right, too. Mr. Kitty did need a walk. He was too cooped up in their small dorm room. He ran through the grass, ate a few leaves of it in the falling sun, and almost lost Tillie and Emma in his excitement. He smelled another tree and clawed it a few times before running to catch up with them.

“I don’t know,” Tillie said. “I couldn’t do anything alone, but it might be different with you there.”

“You can do it,” Emma said. She looked around to see if anyone was watching. “You don’t even have to do anything. Just come with me. Look.” She pulled a pouch out of her sweater pocket and handed a little disc to Tillie.

“What is this?” Tillie asked, turning it over in her hands.

A bomb,” Emma whispered to her.

Tillie stopped in her tracks. Mr. Kitty saw a bug and jumped on it. How would Tillie respond to this? She had finally found someone who believes her, but it had to be someone who might be a little crazy herself. He let the bug fly away and caught up with them again. Emma had scooted Tillie along so she didn’t make a scene.

“Of course I wouldn’t have done it if it was dangerous,” Emma said. “Well, needlessly dangerous.” She winked.

“I would call handing me…” Tillie leaned in and lowered her voice. “A bomb needlessly dangerous.”

“I told you it can’t go off yet,” Emma said. “They have to be activated, and they’re on a timer.”

“And how exactly are…they supposed to help anything?”

“It all goes back to the division between the worlds,” Emma said. “There are these machines that bend space and—”

Woah ho ho. Wait a minute there,” Tillie said, stopping again. “Bend space? What are you talking about? You can’t bend space.”

“No,” Emma said, shaking her head. “I can’t. But they can. The Scientist can. That’s how the printers work. And the Scientist can get us to some of the Walker-Haley field generators which are used to do just that. All we have to do is rip, stick, and press then get out of there.”

“Walker-Haley field whats? Bending space?” Tillie shook her head. “I don’t know, Emma. It all sounds a little crazy. I don’t—”

“Look,” Emma said, cutting her off. “Come here.” She dragged Tillie by the arm to sit down on the concrete steps under the flagpole. They had walked all the way out to the center of the parade grounds, far enough away from everyone so that no one could hear their talking. The field was clearing out the darker it got, anyway, and the sun was all but gone. “Have you taken any science classes in college yet?” Emma asked.

Tillie shook her head. “I took AP science senior year.”

“Well, you might be able to understand,” Emma said. “Do you remember…”

Mr. Kitty didn’t care to hear the explanation. He didn’t care how things worked. He only wanted to know what they did and how that would affect him. And since he already knew the gist of what Emma was going to say, he had no reason to sit there and listen to the lecture. He knew it would be a long one, too, explaining how to bend space. Humans never could just walk to get from here to there. No, that was just too much work. But bending space so here is there, now that was less effort. Right? Mr. Kitty would never understand.

He went off to chew the grass and sharpen his claws on a tree, then chase some squirrels—who were so much harder to catch than those pigeons. He climbed up a tree after one, to show it that he could, and licked himself on a branch while the squirrel cowered at the top of the tree. He climbed back down, and Tillie and Emma were standing from their lesson, intent on doing something.

“Come on, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie called, motioning with her hand as they walked toward the elevator.

Mr. Kitty sprinted to catch up with them, dodging through the legs of passing students. The door to the elevator slid shut behind him, almost clamping on his tail. He licked it and sat down.

“Where to?” Tillie asked. “I mean, how do we get there?”

“The Scientist takes us,” Emma said.

“But what do we tell the elevator?”

“The struggle itself is enough to fill one’s heart.”

The elevator fell into motion, and almost as soon as it did, the doors opened. There was nothing to see but a cement wall, but Mr. Kitty recognized the stale oil smell. Tillie and Emma’s feet clanged on the metal floor as they stepped out of the elevator.

“I’ve been here before,” Tillie said. “Well, not here but here. A place just like this. I got lost when I tried to go back and talk to the assembly line worker again. Mr. Kitty found me.”

“I hate this place,” Mr. Kitty meowed, looking at the wall where the door they had just come from used to be.

“This is one way through the fields to the other worlds,” Emma said. “There are usually security and mechanic bots patrolling. Today, however, this bay has no one, courtesy of the Scientist. Now come on.”

She jogged down the tunnel with her footsteps echoing back behind her. Tillie took off after her. Mr. Kitty rubbed his face on the wall where the door was, giving it one last smell, then tore apart his claws trying to catch up with them.

They went through the curving tunnel, down a few flights of stairs, then through another long tunnel to a big metal door that was painted with yellow and black stripes. They stopped to catch their breath, and Mr. Kitty licked his paws to rid them of the pain from running on the metal grating.

Ugh. Unseen Hand,” Tillie said through gasping breaths. ”I’m so out of shape.” She hunched over, resting her hands on her knees and her back on the wall. “I haven’t exercised like that in…well…let’s just say a long time.”

Emma was barely out of breath. “Physical training is important if you want to help free the assembly line workers,” she said. “If someone sees us, we’ll have to run all the way back. And this time we would be going upstairs.”

Tillie took a few more deep breaths. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?”

“This is serious,” Emma said solemnly. “If you’re here, you should be serious, too. If we were found…Well, just know that we don’t want to be found.”

“No,” Tillie said, shaking her head and waving her hands. “No no. I—No, I know. That’s why I’ve been freaking out. Because I know how serious it is, you know. But that’s the point, isn’t it? This is so real and big, how can we do anything about it?”

“That’s what I’m supposed to show you.”

“So she asked you to do this then? The woman who asked me to—to do something for her.”

“Not for her, Tillie,” Emma said, shaking her head. “For us. For the assembly line workers. For the betterment of humanity. This is bigger than the Scientist. She only helps. We do the real work to tear down the system.” She pressed a few buttons on the keypad next to the door, and the doors slid open with a hiss. Mr. Kitty jumped back and puffed up his tail at the sound of it.

“How’d you do that?” Tillie asked.

“That’s another way that having the Scientist on our side helps,” Emma said. “And in getting these.” She pulled out the pouch of discs. “Now, come on.”

Inside was a squat room with lights and buttons flashing all over the ceiling. The ground was smooth and hard. It beat the metal grating but was worse than vinyl in Mr. Kitty’s opinion. Tillie and Emma had to duck to walk around. Emma watched Tillie marvel at the size of the place and the flashing lights.

“What is this?” Tillie asked, still walking in circles and staring up at the flashing ceiling which almost seemed to go on forever.

“This is the Outland 6 central hub,” Emma said. “Every single Walker-Haley field generator that separates Outland 6 from Outland 5 converges right here in this room. This is the only thing keeping the two worlds apart.”

“All of it in one room?” Tillie scoffed.

“Only for Outland 6. Outland 6 only has connections to Outland 5, so the owners don’t really care if there’s a little crossover. Not as much as they care about crossover in the other worlds, at least.”

“So that’s what you’re going to do with the—uh—discs,” Tillie said. “Destroy this?”

“That’s what we’re going to do. We’re merging 5 and 6, transforming them into a whole new world. We’ll be creating just as much as we destroy.”

“And so what?” Tillie said. “We blow this room up to connect the two worlds, then what happens? They come back and separate them again? What about us? What about the actors? What about everyone else in the world—or, er—worlds?”

“This is the grand finale,” Emma said. “The big bang. So much more is happening across the worlds as we speak, but you and I get to end the festivities with a fireworks show.”

Tillie looked around at everything one more time. Mr. Kitty rubbed his face on her ankles. “So you’re really going to do something to stop them,” she said.

“It’s wrong, Tillie. We reap the benefits from their exploitation. We can try to stop it, or we might as well be exploiting them ourselves. We’re complicit.”

Nous devons craindre le mal,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “Mais il ya quelque chose que nous devons craindre plus que le mal. C’est l’indifférence de la bonne.

Tillie scooped him up. “It sounds like Mr. Kitty agrees,” she said.

“Do you agree?” Emma asked.

Tillie put Mr. Kitty back on the ground and he licked himself. “I want to,” she said. “But it sounds too good to be true.”

“It’s not, though,” Emma said, scoffing. “We’re not even doing that much. Not by ourselves at least. We’re a distraction. And there will be a lot more to do after this. Then you’ll get to see that it’s just shitty enough to be true.”

Their laughs echoed through the squat room.

“So that scientist,” Tillie said. “She really could use those pictures to do good.”

“What pictures?” Emma asked.

“She didn’t tell you?”

Emma shook her head.

Tillie took a deep breath, stomped her foot, and said, “Yes. I do. I do want to help. What do we do?”

Emma smiled wide. “Good,” she said. “Great. Take some of these.” She got a handful of discs out of the pouch and handed half to Tillie. “Start here with the red light. See it?” She pointed one out and waited for a response.

“Yeah. Right,” Tillie said, nodding.

“Peel the paper backing off, stick the disc on the light, press the button, then go five red lights down and do it again,” Emma told her, pointing out where each step would take place as she spoke. “Got it?”

“Got it,” Tillie said.

“When you get to the end, go five across and come back,” Emma said, pointing some more. “I’ll get the rest, then we get out of here. Ready?”

Tillie nodded.

“Then let’s have some fun!”

They sprinted into action. Mr. Kitty rolled on his back and kicked at the air, then chased them around as they did their rip, stick, pressing. Emma finished a few discs before Tillie, even though she went further into the room and placed more of them, and when they were both done, they sprinted out of the tunnel, up the stairs, and to the elevator with Mr. Kitty close behind them. They all three collapsed laughing, coughing, and breathing heavily onto the floor of the elevator.

“I can’t believe we just did that,” Tillie said.

“I can’t believe I finally got to,” Emma said.

“What do we do next?” Tillie asked.

“We go back home like nothing happened,” Emma said. “We keep our ears open for any news of the rest of the operation. And mostly we wait.”

Ugh. Wait?” Tillie frowned.

“It shouldn’t be long now,” Emma said. “The gears are in motion.”

“I can get those pictures while we wait,” Tillie said.

“Does that mean you want to join us?” Emma asked with a smile.

“I’m not stopping here,” Tillie said, laughing again. “Parade grounds.”

The elevator fell into motion, and the doors opened onto the big empty field. Tillie and Emma left, and they didn’t notice when Mr. Kitty didn’t follow them. Tillie didn’t need him anymore, they had each other. The doors closed, and he let the elevator take him to wherever it would.

#     #     #

< XVII. Russ     [Table of Contents]     IX. Ellie >

That’s it for Mr. Kitty’s POV chapters. If you’d like to support the real life Mr. Kitty, who just walked across my desk while I was in the middle of typing, then think about purchasing a copy of the full novel here. Thanks again for reading. And we’ll be back next Saturday.

Chapter 17: Russ

Today brings us chapter 17 with Russ’s last chapter. He’s learned a lot about the worlds throughout his previous two chapters, and he has to decide what he wants to do about his knowledge in this one. Enjoy everyone. And don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel through here.

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

XVII. Russ

Russ’s heart wanted to jump out of his chest and flop on the floor. His lungs wanted to push all the air out and never suck in anymore. His brain wanted to close all channels and end any synapse firing for all of eternity. He did it!

Well. He did something at least. He had been told what to say when he was elected. He was supposed to be humble and show his gratitude at the owners’ charity in providing for him to make the movies he made. That’s what the speech director had told him to do. The writer had given him the same in the script. He didn’t have much time to practice it, but he was used to that. He was an actor after all. It was his job to be ready to take on any role at a moment’s notice. And this role—the role of the voice of the entire creative community—this was a role he had practiced—and fulfilled—for many years already. But he was too prepared, he could act too well. He had acted so well, in fact, that he had fooled them into believing that he was going to read their script and play their part, but that wasn’t his intention from the opening credits.

He followed his own script. He said what he wanted to say. At least he thought he did. He did, right? They had to know his words meant more than what they said. Didn’t they?

The elevator door slid open and Wes was in the hall, waiting for his own elevator.

“Russ!” he said. “Russ, Russ, Rrrruuussssss. Just the star I wanted to see. How’d it go, Russ, baby? You did great, huh? I mean, who am I kidding? I know ya did!”

“I did what I had to do,” Russ said, hoping Wes caught the undertones. He was such a subpar director, he probably didn’t.

“Oh. Ho ho. Russ, my boy. I know you did. You always do. Right?”

Russ didn’t answer. He wanted Wes to get out of his way and let him through to his dressing room. It was as if the idiot didn’t know that he couldn’t get into his elevator until Russ left his own and sent it away. He grit his teeth and tried not to let his adrenaline drive him to punch Wes in the face.

“That’s right,” Wes said. “It is. I know it. Now. About that documentary, Russ. The slip, snap, clicking. You know. I—”

“Don’t you talk to me about slip, snap, clicking!” Russ snapped.

“Wh—What?” Wes shook his head. “No,” he said. “I—”

“No. You have no idea. I know what slip, snap, clicking is really like. I’ve seen a real assembly line. You have no place to tell me how they would act when you yourself have never stepped foot on a line in your life. I’d say it’s safe for you to take my advice as the most viewed actor in the history of actors when I say an assembly line worker might act a little differently than you think they would. You got that!?”

“I—No,” Wes said, waving his hands and shaking his head. “Woah ho ho. I—I have to follow the script, you know. And the producer tells me what to do. I didn’t have a choice, Russ. It wasn’t my decision.”

“Yeah yeah,” Russ said, shaking his head. “You do have a choice, though, Wes. Everyone has a choice. You have the same choice I’m making right now when I tell you to fuck off. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He stepped out of the elevator and let the doors close behind him. “I’ll be heading back to my room to get some rest.” He opened the door to his dressing room and stepped in before Wes could respond.

There went his heart again, trying to escape from its rib cage. His legs wouldn’t let him sit down, they paced back and forth between his couch and mirror.

As he walked toward the mirror, he marveled at how great he looked. Not just his hair, clothes, and makeup, though, it was something altogether more than that. His face seemed resolute and somehow more confident—if that was even possible.

As he walked toward the couch, he thought about what he could do next to keep this energy flowing. He wanted to go out and yell at Wes again, but Wes was probably long gone by now.

Ugh. But it felt so good. It felt so right. He went back in his head through all the times he should have done the same thing in the past, starting with those two stupid pieces he was forced to put together for the last documentary shoot. He should have said no then. He should have stopped working when the bell rang. He should have dashed off home where he really wanted to be.

He slumped down on the couch, angry at himself for going along with everything he was ever told for so long. He was out of breath and his heart rate was finally dying down. He rubbed his palms on his thighs and took a few deep breaths.

No.

He stood up and walked over to the window. He put his arm up on the glass and rested his forehead on it, looking out on the scene below.

His dressing room was at the top of the tallest building around. Well, not the top, but it was higher than any of the surrounding buildings. It was so high he couldn’t even see the ground without sticking his head out the window, but the window didn’t open so that wasn’t an option anyway. He looked up at the fluffy white clouds, floating through the blue skies, then down at the windows below him. He wondered if the buildings were all windows with no walls. It looked like it from where he stood. He wondered what it would be like to live in a glass building, who would live there.

Now that he thought about it, he had never seen those buildings other than from his window. He had asked them to keep the real view, but he had never stepped outside to experience the view in person. How many years had it been? Well, what better time to finally do it than when he was doing what he never would have done before?

His stomach growled in response.

“Not now,” he said to it. “Not now, you! Why do you have such poor timing?”

He opened the door to the hall and looked up and down it, hoping to see Wes, or a writer, or—even better—a producer to yell at, but the place was empty. They didn’t have a speech to give, so they were probably all out eating a Christmas feast at some fancy restaurant. Too bad.

He pressed the button to the elevator, and the doors opened almost instantly. There, sitting cross-legged in a big velvet couch, dressed in red with fluffy white trim and wearing—as always—stark red lips was Jorah. He smiled and bounced his foot like he had been waiting in that pose for Russ to call the elevator.

“Jorah,” Russ said, taken off guard.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said with a smile. “Don’t look so surprised. I can visit my besty on Christmas, can’t I? You know you’re like family to me.”

“Right,” Russ said. “But I—”

“How did the speech go, darling?” Jorah said, ignoring him. “You wowed them, I’m sure, but what’d you say to do it?”

“I—uh—well…”

Jorah stood from the velvet couch and embraced Russ. “Where are you going, dear? Don’t you have some time to tell your Jorah about it?”

“No. I was—” Russ remembered the speech he had just given and the people he had seen, he remembered yelling at Wes and the feeling it had given him. He decided to be direct instead of regretting this instance like he regretted so many others. “I was going to take a walk,” he said.

“Take a walk?” Jorah frowned.

“A walk.”

“Where?”

“Outside.”

Oooh. The park!” Jorah clapped his hands. “Let’s go to Central Park. I love that one.”

“No.” Russ shook his head. “I—”

“You’re so right,” Jorah said, frowning. “It’s too cliché, isn’t it? Hmmm.” He tapped his chin. “I know, the Garden of Fortuna. Have you ever seen it?”

“I’ve never seen my front steps,” Russ insisted.

The Myfront Steppes?” Jorah said, grimacing. “I’ve never heard of them. Oooh. Is it something new?” He grinned. “Who told you? Tell me all about it.”

“No, Jorah.” Russ sighed. “It’s not a place. I mean here, the bottom floor of this building. Where does the door go out to? Those are my front steps!”

“Oh…Ooohhhhh! Ugh.” Jorah put a face on like he smelled something terrible. “Really? That?”

“Well, I’ve never seen it, Jorah. I mean, I look at it through my window, you know, but I’m so high up I can’t see it. Have you ever been down there?”

Psssh.” Jorah scoffed. “No, sweetheart.” He shook his head. “And there’s a good reason for that. There’s nothing out there. All the good places to go are somewhere else, and that’s why Fortuna invented elevators.”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said. “But there is something—” His stomach growled so loud it interrupted him.

“Oh, dear,” Jorah said, putting a hand to his mouth. “Did you hear that? Your stomach says food, not walking.”

“My stomach doesn’t control me!” Russ stomped a foot, half-jokingly.

His stomach growled again.

It begs to differ,” Jorah said with a smile.

I beg to differ!” Russ flared his nostrils, made his breath heavier, and scrunched his brows into the perfect “I’m in charge here” pose.

Jorah clapped and laughed. “Good show, Russ. Good show! Now. Do you have any reservations, or should we go back to your place?”

“No, Jorah,” Russ said, crossing his arms to keep in character but slowly losing his resolve. “I’m going downstairs for a walk. I want to do this, and you can’t stop me.”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Don’t you worry. I won’t stop you. But I must tell you that I’m not going down there with you, and you’re not going to make me.”

Russ lost character at that. “Um,” he said. “Wha—No. I wouldn’t. I wasn’t—”

“Okay, then.” Jorah nodded. “Do you have time to tell me about your speech and eat a little Christmas feast, or is your walk too urgent for that?”

“No. I—” Russ could just go down there after he visited with Jorah. And his stomach did keep growling. There was really no reason to say no. “Of course I have time for you,” he said. “But reservations are another story.”

“That’s perfect, dear.” Jorah touched Russ’s chest. “To be honest, I wasn’t up to facing the public anyway. My makeup is just hideous today. I couldn’t bear the stress.” He looked away and covered his face.

Russ shook his head. He couldn’t believe that Jorah actually meant what he was saying. His makeup was perfect, as always. “Oh no, dear,” Russ said. “Your face looks like a painting. I wish I looked half as good as you, and I just came from in front of an audience.”

“Oh, please, sweetheart,” Jorah said, waving a hand at him. “You’re just being kind. Your face is twice as beautiful as mine. It always is. You have the newer battle station model, dear. It’s inevitable. But forget that. I want to hear about the speech. Come come.” He grabbed Russ’s arm and directed him back into the dressing room, closing the door behind them.

Jorah plopped Russ down onto the couch and went back to the printer. “So, dear,” he said. “What do you want? Christmas ham and turkey. Oooh. And we have got to get potatoes. And stuffing. And deviled eggs. Fortuna, I love Christmas! Thank you owners. What do you want, Russ?”

Russ wanted to get up, but the couch was so soft it took too much effort to struggle out of. “I don’t want—” he said.

“Pie!” Jorah cheered. “Apple pie.” He clapped his hands. “That’s what we need. À la mode. What did you say, dear?” He went on ordering food and stacking it on the serving cart.

“Jorah,” Russ said as he did. “Do you ever wonder where all that stuff comes from?”

“Where it comes from?” Jorah pushed a full cart over to the couch and started putting everything on the coffee table in front of Russ. “It comes from the printer, silly. Where else would it come from?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “I mean, where does the printer get it?”

“It makes it.” Jorah shrugged.

“Out of thin air? Just pressing a few buttons is all it takes to create anything?”

Jorah sat on the couch next to Russ and started scooping food onto a plate. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said. “I’m not a scientist. I’m an actor. We have mechanic bots and engineers to take care of all that. What does it matter?”

“What does it matter?” Russ scoffed. “What does it matter? That’s where we get everything we need to live, Jorah. You have one, too.”

Duh. I’m a pretty big star myself, Russ. In case you’ve forgotten.”

“No. I haven’t forgotten. That’s the point. We’re both big stars. We have the privilege of owning our own printers. But what about the community actors? What about the camera operators, and set builders, and extras?”

“What about them, Russ? They go to a store with a printer, and they buy what they need. No one ever starves. No one sleeps in the streets. What’s the problem?” Jorah forced the plate—piled with food—into Russ’s hands and started filling another plate for himself.

“Well,” Russ said, ignoring the food. “Why do they have to buy anything if all it takes to make it is to press a few buttons on a printer?”

“Because they don’t own printers. Why else would they be in the store?”

“Exactly,” Russ said. “I mean, how do we get printers anyway? Does it just take a few button taps to make one of those, too?”

“I don’t know.” Jorah chuckled. “I’ve never ordered a printer from a printer. Maybe you should try it.”

“That’s—that’s the point, though, Jorah! The point is that if it doesn’t take anything to create anything, then why are we selling everything in the first place?”

Fortuna!” Jorah sat back in the couch and started in on his food. “I don’t care, Russ,” he said with a full mouth. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore. I just want to hear about the Feast and the speech. What were the owners wearing? Are they all still stuck in retro tuxedo land? Have they gotten fatter? Have their hats gotten taller? What did you say? And why don’t you eat something to shut your stupid stomach up already?”

Russ looked down at the piles of food sitting on his plate. He picked up his fork and poked at the ham and turkey, all slopped in gravy. It reminded him of the food on the tables of the owners he had just ranted at. He pictured their fat fingers, stuffing their fat faces with equally gravy-slopped food, and their flabby cheeks chugging drinks until they couldn’t speak straight or listen to a stupid short speech.

“Oh. I forgot the drinks,” Jorah said, setting his plate on the table and standing to order some. “How does a mimosa sound? I know, I know, it’s Christmas, we should be drinking eggnog, but ugh. I hate that stuff. Don’t you?”

Russ poked at his food some more as Jorah got the drinks. He didn’t want to eat anything, or drink mimosas, but he was hungry, and the food did look good. He poked at some turkey then scooped up some potatoes and took a big bite. The gravy felt warm and comforting as it slid down his throat and into his stomach. Why had he been fighting the food for so long? He squirmed back further into the soft couch and dug in.

“There you are, dear,” Jorah said, setting a drink on the table in front of him and sitting back to his own plate. “Now that’s the Christmas spirit. It’s delicious isn’t it?”

Ughm. Yes. Om nom.” Russ didn’t stop eating to talk. He couldn’t stop eating.

“Now, dear,” Jorah said. “Why don’t you tell me, how was the big Christmas Feast? Were they still listening to the same old carols played by an old-timey symphony?”

Ugh. If I ever have to hear an entire orchestra play This Land is My Land one more time, I think my head will explode.”

Ah ha. Oh, and what about Hand Bless America?” Jorah said. “The worst.” He sang a line of the song in a nasally voice.

Fortuna. Stop!” Russ almost spit out his food with laughter.

“I know it. And were they wearing those hats, too?” Jorah held his hand high over his head, puffing out his cheeks and crossing his eyes to illustrate the point.

“Fortuna, yes,” Russ said, covering his mouth to hold back the laughter. “And tuxedos.”

Ugh. Really?” Jorah frowned. “They are so conservative. Haven’t they ever heard of fashion? Turns out trends change.”

Russ laughed. He took a sip of his drink and set it back on the table. “At least I was there to brighten up the scenery. What do you think?” He struck a pose with his fork and knife in hand and plate on his lap.

“Oh. Just beautiful, dear,” Jorah said, clapping. “Be—e—au—ti—ful. You always did know how to dress the best.”

“Oh, you’re too kind,” Russ said, blushing.

“No, dear. I’m honest. It’s not kind when it’s honest. It’s just true.”

“Thank you for your honesty, then.” Russ winked.

“Of course, dear. What else would you expect from your besty? Now. Tell me. What did you say to those fat fatties?”

“Well…” Russ poked at his food with his fork. “They gave me a script, you know, like they always do, and I did my job.” He stuffed a few big bites into his mouth so he couldn’t talk anymore.

“Yeah,” Jorah said, nodding. “So. Did you read it? What did you say?”

Muhhm,” Russ replied, stuffing more turkey into his mouth.

“Russy, dear,” Jorah said, tapping him on the arm with the back of his hand. “Manners! Now tell me. I want to hear all about it. It’s the biggest, most exclusive event for the entire year. So drop the gossip.”

“Oh…well…” Russ had to say something. He was going to have to say something on his show, too. But would they understand? Would they hold it against him? What if he started spreading what he had said and the protectors came back? What if he didn’t spread what he said and all those people kept getting forced to work on the assembly lines? There wasn’t any right course of action. “I don’t know,” he said, stalling for time. “I just crammed. Short term memory, you know. I can’t remember.”

Jorah put down his plate. “Russ,” he said. “C’mon. I’m going to watch your show. You don’t have to advertise to me. Just tell me what you said.”

“Well, I…You know—I told them that we were thankful and all that. I don’t know.” Russ shrugged, eating some more.

“That’s it? Just like that? We’re thankful. Bye!” He said it in a monotone voice and waved his fork and knife around with jerky, robotic movements. “No more showmanship than that?”

“No,” Russ said, shaking his head. “Of course not. I mean, I—well…I kind of went off script.”

No.” Jorah gasped. Russ couldn’t tell if he was acting or not, Jorah was one of the best. “Off script. You don’t say?”

“Yeah. Well, you know…They had the usual patriotic, Christmasy thank you letter, filled with historical quotes, and I didn’t want to give them another rerun.”

“Oh no,” Jorah said with a shrug. “How cliché. So what did you say?”

“I don’t know.” Russ shrugged. “That Christmas wasn’t enough, you know. That we have to work our whole life to give them what they deserve.” He stuffed some more food into his mouth.

Jorah looked him in the eyes. “Give them what they deserve? Did you say it just like that?”

Russ shrugged, stuffing his face some more.

“You know…they might have taken that the wrong way,” Jorah said.

“What do you mean?”

Ha! What do I mean?” Jorah laughed. “I think you know what I mean. You badass you.”

Russ spit some food out onto his plate. “Badass? No. I’m no—”

“Yes you are,” Jorah said. “You said it exactly like that, didn’t you? We’ll give you what you deserve. I know you, Russ. Better than anyone. You can’t help but act the part. You gave them a lecture. You want a feast as big as theirs, don’t you?”

“I—Wha—No!” Russ shook his head. “That’s not what I want at all.”

Uh huh. Sure, buddy.” Jorah rolled his eyes. “I believe you. But I’m right there with you, too. They eat while we work. Who asked them to take it all, right?” He stuffed the last bite on his plate into his mouth and set to piling it with food again.

“What do we need more for, though?” Russ asked.

“What?” Jorah said, giving him a look. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m serious. Look at all this.” Russ dropped his plate on the table, and it made a loud clatter, sending food everywhere.

“Russ!” Jorah snapped. “What are you doing?”

“Look at all this,” Russ repeated, waving his hands as if he were displaying a prize on a game show. “We have more than we’ll ever eat, we’ll throw more than half of it down the trash chute, and you’re talking about a bigger feast?” He stood up, red-faced and breathing hard.

“Now now, Russ,” Jorah said. “Settle down.” He set his own plate on the coffee table and guided Russ back to the couch.

Russ hesitated but gave in. He took a few deep breaths to calm himself. This was Jorah he was talking to. Jorah who he loved and who had no more idea of where the food he ate came from than Russ himself did only yesterday. It wasn’t Jorah he was mad at, it was the people who kept Jorah ignorant of what the world was really like. “I’m sorry,” Russ said under his breath.

“Excuse me, dear,” Jorah said, cupping his ear.

“I said I’m sorry,” Russ repeated a little louder.

“Sorry, dear,” Jorah said, nodding. “That’s right. Now eat your food so you’ll feel better. You’ve barely touched it.” He forced the plate back into Russ’s hands.

“I don’t wan—” Russ complained.

“I don’t want to hear it,” Jorah said. “Eat!”

Russ took a bite. Then another and another. His anger and frustration seemed to drift away. He forgot what he was even talking about in the first place.

“By the way, dear,” Jorah said after some time of silence. “Did you get a chance to see the Christmas Award Ceremony pre-show? I mean, I know you had work to do, but they have a pretty nice green room over there, right? I’d imagine they’d have to. Wouldn’t they? One day I hope to see it.”

“Not if I can help it.” Russ smiled and sipped his mimosa.

“Oh, you can’t, dear,” Jorah said. “Don’t worry.” He winked.

Russ flicked a glob of potatoes in his direction but missed by a long shot.

Ooh, girl,” Jorah said. “You’re lucky you didn’t hit me.”

“Or what?”

“Nothing.” Jorah shook his head. “Just don’t. Now you got me all off script. Look at you. What was I talking about?”

“The red carpet show,” Russ reminded him.

“Oh. Ooohh whee. Yeah, girl.” Jorah put his plate down and took a quick sip of his mimosa. “You didn’t see it, did you?”

Russ shook his head.

“No? Good. Well, you’ll never believe this. Okay. So Paige. You know her, right? Cute little girl. Well she was wearing the most sheer, see-through dress you have ever seen. I swear, Russ, it was made out of saran wrap or something.”

Ugh.” Russ sighed. “She didn’t.”

She did. And—predictably—the papos ate it up. I swear to you, I’ve seen more angles of her vagina today than my battle station back home gives me angles of my face.”

Russ spit out some mimosa, and this time, he managed to hit Jorah square in the face. “Ha!” he laughed.

Ugh. Sweetheart,” Jorah said, wiping his face and standing up. “Well, now the jokes not even true, because your battle station is gonna give me more views of my face than I’ve ever seen of her anything.” He swept over to Russ’s battle station to redo his makeup.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Russ said. “But that was funny. And oh so typical. I mean, if I went out in saran wrap, I bet you’d be saying the same thing about me.”

Jorah sat back on the couch, his face in perfect condition. “I don’t know, Russ,” he said, shaking his head. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“What?”

“I was under the impression you didn’t have a vagina to see.” Jorah grinned. “Silly me. In the future I won’t assume. After all, ass out of you and me and all.”

“No, Jorah. Ugh. I would tell you if I did that! We’d have a party. You know me.” He slapped Jorah on the arm. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, dear,” Jorah said, smiling wider and chuckling. “I do know what you mean.” He grinned. “And I agree. That’s why I wanted to get your opinion on my New Year’s Eve outfit decision.”

“You can’t be serious.” Russ shook his head, matching Jorah’s grin.

“Well,” Jorah said. “It’s not going to be saran wrap exactly. I was thinking of going for more of a silhouette, you know. Leave a little to the imagination. There’s this LED fabric. Have you heard of it?”

“That stuff from Tesla?”

“Yeah, girl,” Jorah said, reaching over to touch Russ’s arm. “The best new designer in the business. She says I can make it so the lights turn the dress into a shadow play screen. You’ll be able to see every little movement underneath.” He stood and did a little dance with a lot of hip gyration to illustrate his point. “What do you think?”

“It is interesting,” Russ said, putting his plate down to think about it. “Definitely more subtle than the saran wrap, full see-through dress. And I really like the shadow play imagery.”

“I know, right?” Jorah said, smiling and full of himself. “I’ve been practicing getting it to move like a puppet, too.” He danced some more.

“Well,” Russ said, tapping his chin. “I’d say as long as you incorporate some of the history of shadow puppetry into the design of the dress—and your makeup and accessories, of course—you’d attract more attention and be less gratuitous about it.”

Ooh, dear. I love it!” Jorah’s voice got so high it sounded like he was going to scream. “We’ll make the rest of the dress the scenery for my little actor. You see, that’s why I always come to you for fashion advice, sweetheart. You never fail me.” He hugged Russ, spilling food off his plate.

Russ blushed. “I just helped you edit, dear. It was your idea.”

“And humble, too,” Jorah said, smiling. “No wonder you’re the most viewed actor in all of history. Who wouldn’t want to watch the perfect human being?”

“Oh, now,” Russ waved a hand. “That’s going a little too far.”

Jorah put his plate down and stood up. He pulled Russ up, too. “Let’s go to Tesla now,” he said. “Tell her the idea. She can get started on it right away.”

“Don’t you think she’s at a feast, though,” Russ said. “It is Christmas.”

“No, dear,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Uh uh. She’s a designer, and a new one at that. For us, she’s free. It’ll be like a Christmas present for her.”

“Yeah. I guess, but—”

“And we can take a walk after that,” Jorah said. “We’ll go out to the Garden of Fortuna. You’ll love it.”

“I did want to go for a walk…”

“It’s settled then.” Jorah smiled. “Let’s go.”

#     #     #

< XVI. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XVIII. Mr. Kitty >

Thanks again for joining us. I hope you’ve enjoyed it so far. If so, please do think about picking up a full copy of the novel right here. And have a great weekend.

A Review of “The Asymptote’s Tail” by the Nerds on Earth

The title says it all. I got another review of The Asymptote’s Tail today, and I wanted to share it here for everyone to read.

I’m just going to post one tiny sentence from it here, but that’s because you should read the entire thing on their site then click through and read some of their other reviews/articles and maybe think about subscribing.

Without further ado, here’s the quote and a link to the review. Enjoy:

The Asymptote’s Tail is the beginning of a very promising sci-fi epic that you’ll not want to miss.”

[Read the full review here.]

Chapter 16: Ansel

Another day another chapter. And just a short intro because I have some moving to do. Enjoy.

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

XVI. Ansel

“I never should have trusted you, Pidgeon! I knew it.” Ansel wanted to hit him, but he was too far away.

“No, Ansel,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “That’s not true. I helped you!”

“Helped me? You think knocking my friend out and kidnapping me is helping me?”

“No.” Pidgeon shook his head. “We didn’t kidnap you. We rescued you. And he’s not your friend. He’s a protector.”

“He was a better friend than you ever were. He gave me jerky, and he didn’t run away at the first sign of danger.”

“He was the first sign of danger!”

“He wasn’t dangerous! He said he could find my dad. He was trying to help me!”

Ha! Yeah right.” Pidgeon scoffed. “More like he was lying to you so he could arrest you.”

“Arrest me for what? You saw that gun he had. You said they kill whoever they want, whenever they want. If I was in danger, I would have been dead already. And now I’m never going to meet anyone with a better chance of getting my dad back. You took that away from me, Pidgeon. You and your stupid friends.”

“I—I didn—I’m sorry,” Pidgeon said, almost too low for Ansel to hear. “I was trying to help.”

Rosa came out of the room where they were holding Tom. She had a big smile on her face. “Whatever you said to him did the trick,” she said. “He’s actually listening to what we have to say, at least. He may end up doing what’s best for you after all.”

“What are you making him do?” Ansel asked. “He should be getting my dad back!”

“We told you, girl,” Rosa said. “It’s not in his power to do that. He can aim a gun, though. And thanks to you, we might be able convince him that doing just that is his best way of protecting you. So you did well, child. I appreciate that. Now you and little Richie here are going to have to leave until we’re done with him. Come back tomorrow morning, and he’ll be waiting for you. You got it?”

“But, she doesn—” Pidgeon protested.

“I’m not going anywhere!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Now I mean it!” Rosa stomped hers back. “You have no investment in that protector, girl. He’s no use to you. We thank you both for leading him our way, and you have our food in your stomachs to show that gratitude, but we’ll be doing business with Mr. Pardy overnight. He’ll be in one piece tomorrow morning if you still want him, but until then, I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Thank you.”

“No, but you sai—” Pidgeon was going to go on, but Ansel grabbed his arm.

“You won’t get away with this,” she said, looking Rosa in the eyes.

“Oh, ho ho, girl.” Rosa laughed. “Get away with what?”

“Whatever you’re making him do. Whoever you’re trying to kill.”

“That, girl, is far enough,” Rosa said. “I’ll have you leave now, and I hope not to see your face again. If you do decide to come collect your friend tomorrow, make sure I don’t see you when you do it. Do you understand me?”

“I understand better than you might think, ma’am,” Ansel said, nodding. “Thank you for the soup. Let’s go Pidgeon.”

Pidgeon tried to protest, but Ansel dragged him out under the stern gaze of Rosa. Neither of them said a word until they had burst out into the open air.

“What was that Ansel?” Pidgeon said, tearing away from her grip. “You can’t treat them like that.”

“And why not?” Ansel asked, grabbing him again and dragging him into the first alley they passed. She let go of his arm and peeked around the corner.

“Because they’re—they’re—old,” Pidgeon said, scrunching up his nose. “And they gave us food, they helped us. And they’re my—my fri—”

“Helped us?” Ansel snapped. “You mean kidnapped.”

“I told you. That was—”

To protect me. Yeah. I know. But did you ever stop to think that maybe I don’t need protecting?”

“I didn’t—I wasn’t—I just wanted to help,” Pidgeon said, lowering his eyes. “We do nothing alone. Remember.”

Shhhh. Of course I remember,” Ansel whispered. “But shut up.” She pulled him behind a dumpster and sat on the dirty ground, leaning her back against the cold metal trash can.

“Wh—What are y—” Pidgeon tried to say.

Shhhhh!” Ansel put her finger to her mouth.

“What are—”

Shhh.”

She waited a few more heartbeats then started to breath.

“What are you doing?” Pidgeon whispered.

“I’m finding out what they’re making him do.”

“But how?” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “And why? They told you to—”

“Whatever they want him to do, they can’t do it from in there, right? So I’m gonna wait until they come out then follow them to wherever it is they are going do it. That’s how.”

“No. But Ansel. You don’t understand—”

“Pidgeon. If you don’t shut up right now—you know—I’m glad you ditched me. You would suck at hunting. You’d scare all the prey away.”

“But—”

No buts. Okay. That protector was my last chance, Pidgeon. Even if he couldn’t get my dad out, he might be able to get me in. Or—I don’t know—get a message in or something. I have to try. You know that don’t you? You would do the same thing if you were in my situation.”

“Of course I would. That’s why—”

“That’s why I need you to shut up. So we can follow them without being noticed. That’s how hunting works, Pidgeon. Or I guess you already said you didn’t know anything about hunting. Well this is lesson one. Shut up so the prey doesn’t run away.”

“If you would just shut u—”

“Wait.” Ansel held up a hand. “Look,” she said, pointing down the alley. “It’s the cat!”

Back toward Anna and Rosa’s place was the black cat licking itself on the sidewalk.

“No way,” Pidgeon said.

“Let’s get it,” Ansel said.

“But what abou—”

She was already gone, and he had to sprint to catch up. The cat bounded down the street straight toward the building they had just come out of. Ansel thought she had it when it stopped right in front of Anna and Rosa’s apartment, but it jumped into the door and disappeared. Ansel stomped to a stop, and Pidgeon ran into the back of her.

“Where’d he go?” he said.

“Did you see that?”

“What?” Pidgeon said, looking around for the cat. “What happened?”

“It went through the door.”

“Did they see you?”

“No. I mean it went through the door. The door wasn’t open. The cat just disappeared.”

“Like in the alley?”

When you ditched me.

“He disappeared then, too,” Pidgeon said, ignoring her.

“I’m going in.”

She had already reached out to touch the doorknob, but her hand disappeared before she felt it, cut off in a straight line along her wrist like the clouds behind the invisibility screen in the sky. She pulled her hand out and laughed when it reappeared.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said, taking a step back. “I don’t think you should do that. You don’t know how it’s going to—I don’t know—affect you.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said with a grin. “The Curious Cat just jumped through there. You know what that means.”

“No, Ansel. I don’t think that’s the Curious Cat. I think—”

She didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say, because she jumped through the door into a big, dark closet with clothes piled up all around her. The cat sat on a particularly high mound of clothes in front of her, licking itself.

“I found you,” she said.

The cat meowed.

She took it as a challenge. “Oh, yeah? Well I will then.” She pounced toward it, but it ran out of the open door which provided the only source of light in the room. She chased it and lost all her senses in the blinding white lights that she ran into. She was defenseless, and the cat was gone for sure. When her eyes finally adjusted, she saw a giant in a white uniform, pointing a gun at someone behind the lights. Her first instinct was to flee, but then she heard what the giant was yelling, she recognized the voice. He was telling them that he was doing this for her. She never asked him to do that.

“Don’t!” she screamed as the gun went off. She tackled him to try to stop him before he fired again, and they landed in a tangle on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Tom pushed her up off of him and pointed his gun at her, the gun he had just used to shoot someone in what he claimed was protection of her. She had never seen a gun until she met him, and she had certainly never had one pointed at her. She put her trembling hands in the air and saw his finger flinch, but he didn’t pull the trigger. Instead he pulled off his helmet and looked at her wide-eyed. “Ansel,” he said. “I…”

She didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t care anymore. She squirmed away and ran toward the costume closet in the hope that it would let her pass back through the other way.

“Ansel!” Pidgeon grabbed her and hugged her on the other side. She broke away from him and ran down the alley to sit behind a dumpster and cry into her hands.

“Ansel!” Tom called.

When she heard his bootsteps getting closer, she swung her fists towards his face, but only got high enough to hit him in his padded stomach. “Get away from me!” she cried as she swung at him again.

“No, Ansel,” Tom said, holding her at arm’s length. “You don’t understand.”

You don’t understand! You pointed a gun at me. A gun!”

“I didn’t know it was you. Why’d you stop me? How’d you even get there?”

“You said you were doing it for me.”

“I was doing what you asked me to do.”

“I never asked you to shoot anyone.” Ansel scoffed. “Who’d you kill anyway? You fired two shots.”

“I don’t—”

“You don’t even know?” Ansel shook her head. “Then how could you know you were doing it for me?”

“I don’t know if I hit him, because you interrupted me. I was shooting at the person who owns the protectors. They have to do what he says, so ultimately, he’s responsible. Right?”

You have to do what he says,” Ansel reminded him. “He owns you.”

“I—No.” Tom shook his head. “I tried to kill him, to free us.”

“Like you freed my mother”

“No. I didn—”

“But you did. You did, and nothing you can do will ever change that!”

“No. But I—”

“No!” Ansel stomped her foot. “Leave me alone!”

She sprinted out of the alley and down the street, grabbing Pidgeon along the way. He protested a little, but not much, and soon they were running as fast as their feet could take them down the Green Belt. Pidgeon begged to stop not far along, but Haley wasn’t going to stop ever. She didn’t care if he did. She didn’t care if he left her like everyone else. He had already done it once, and he would probably do it again: lie to her just like Tom did and disappear when she needed him the most. She was stupid to trust either of them in the first place. She would get to the end of the Belt by herself if that was what it took.

She heard his footsteps drop out from behind her, but she kept on running anyway. She would run far and fast enough to leave it all behind, Pidgeon and the stupid Concierges that he said were after her, Anna and Rosa and whatever plans they had to kill more people, and especially Tom with his attempts to put responsibility for murders he had committed on her. There was no one left in the world who cared about her. No one at all except for her…dad.

She slowed to a jog, then a walk, then fell to her knees in the middle of the sidewalk. Her dad was the only thing she had left in the world, but how was she supposed to get him back? How could she do it when she was all alone? We do nothing alone.

She caught her breath and wiped her eyes, then turned to see if Pidgeon was still chasing after her. Her heart dropped into her stomach when he wasn’t there. She had run too fast. She had gotten too far ahead of him. He hadn’t ditched her this time, she had ditched him.

The tears came back at the thought of it. Now she really was alone. Before, with him chasing after her, there was still someone driving her on, there was still someone who would be there if she tripped up or lagged behind. But now she had gotten so far ahead that he had given up on her. Now she had less hope than ever of finding her dad. She didn’t even know where to go anymore. She didn’t know where she was. She found herself turning this way and that with tears in her eyes, and the people walking around her couldn’t even spare a second glance.

Then she thought she heard her name. She wiped her nose—and sniffled and coughed—and it came again. It was her name. It was Pidgeon’s voice. He hadn’t given up yet!

“Ansel!” he called. “Ansel, wait up!” He was jogging and out of breath when he finally caught up to her to sit on the ground in a huff. “I thought—I lost you,” he said through deep breaths.

Ansel chuckled a little, her eyes watering again, and said, “You lost me?”

“Yeah.” Pidgeon shrugged, still breathing heavily. “You’re fast.”

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said, working hard to keep her voice from breaking. “Why’d you keep chasing after me?”

“Well.” Pidgeon shrugged. “Because. Besides…You needed me, right? I mean, you need me.” He nodded hopefully at her.

“But you don’t need me, Pidgeon,” Ansel said, scrunching up her eyebrows and wrinkling her forehead.

Pidgeon looked hurt, sitting on the sidewalk, searching for a piece of grass to tear to pieces. “I do though,” he said. “Unless you don’t want to take me along anymore.”

“Take you along?” Ansel frowned.

“Yeah, well.” Pidgeon stood up and brushed himself off. “I guess that was a prank or something. I’ll—uh—I’ll just get back to the orphanage then.”

“No!” Ansel cried a little too desperately. She composed herself and went on. “I mean, you still want to do that? You still want to come with me?”

“Of course I do. I wasn’t lying when I told you what they did to me. I have to get out of there, and I need your help to do it.”

“But Pidgeon,” Ansel said, crossing her arms and looking away from him. “I can’t leave yet. I have to try to get my dad back. Tom may not be able to get him, but I believe him when he says my dad’s still alive.”

“Tom?”

“The protector.”

Ansel. He killed your mom. He admitted to that. How could you trust him?”

“I don’t trust him,” Ansel said, turning back to Pidgeon and shaking her head. “I believe what he’s saying. There’s a difference.”

“How can you believe him, then?”

“Because he wouldn’t admit to killing my mom and lie to me about my dad being alive.”

“Unless he wanted to arrest you.”

Then he would have already.” Ansel sighed. “You saw how big he was. He could have picked me up with one hand and carried me away. Haven’t we been through this already?”

“Yeah, well…”

“Well I’m not negotiating. I’m gonna get my dad back whether you help me or not.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what are you going to do next?”

“I don’t know.”

“So you want me to agree to nothing, then.” Pidgeon scoffed. “What’s the point?”

“I just want you to know that’s what my goal is, that’s all I care about. I’m getting my dad back and nothing else matters.”

“Well, let’s do it, then,” Pidgeon said, finally standing from the sidewalk and looking ready to go.

Ansel rubbed her forehead. “Pidgeon,” she said. “You do understand what this means, don’t you.”

He didn’t answer. Ansel could tell he wanted another blade of grass to tear apart.

“He was taken by the protectors, he’s being held by them, so we have to go to them to figure out how to get him back.”

“Ansel, we can’t,” Pidgeon said. “You don’t—”

“You don’t have to come with me. That’s why I’m telling you now.”

“But how are you going to get to him? Anna and Rosa. They can—”

“I’m not asking them for help,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “You weren’t there, Pidgeon. There were people there that were bigger than the protectors, but they were a different kind of big, wide, too. And Tom tried to kill one of them, but I stopped him.”

“What are you talking about Ansel?” Pidgeon shook his head, confused.

“I’m saying Anna and Rosa aren’t my friends. You can go back to them if you want, and I’ll just find my own way to get my dad back.”

“But they can get him. When you disappeared I tried to tell you. That was them. They transported you. They can get your dad the same way.”

“I don’t care, Pidgeon.” Ansel shook her head. “I can’t work with them. It may be asking too much, but I’m asking it. Like I said, you don’t have to come with me.”

“I just don’t know how you’re going to get him without them.”

“I don’t either, Richard. But I will.”

“Well…” Pidgeon thought about it for a second. “If you’ll take me with you, I’ll still come, then.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Then if you’ll take me with you, I still want to come. I can’t go back to the orphanage. I won’t.”

She realized how selfish she had been. She realized that they were standing in the middle of the street with people walking all around them. She realized how vulnerable they were. “You’re right, Pidgeon,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“You don—”

“We need to get out of here, though. We’re not hunters anymore, we’re prey. What road are we on?”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said, looking around for any indication. “Roman or something.”

“Roman and what?”

I don’t know,” he repeated. “I was trying to keep up with you, I wasn’t taking the time to read every sign I passed.”

“Fine,” Ansel said. “Okay. Just follow me.” She went down the closest alley she could find in an attempt to set her bearings. She could almost see the street sign across the way when it disappeared along with Pidgeon and the rest of the city around him. She turned and made to go back to find him when someone grabbed her from behind, lifted her off her feet, and carried her back the other way. “Put me down!” she demanded, kicking and struggling to get away, but whoever it was didn’t respond.

They carried her through a short hall into a big room that had a lot of metal tables covered with glass tubes and jars which were filled with different colored chemicals. There were little flames coming out of metal tubes, heating some of the glasses of color, and the chemicals were bubbling and boiling with their essences all mixing together. It was the most interesting thing Ansel had ever seen. She stopped struggling, too busy gawking at the place to fight. She was still staring in awe at her surroundings when the person dropped her on the floor in front of a tall chair which was turned with its back facing her.

“Let me go,” Ansel said, standing and turning to find a big mechanical arm with its hand open and waving. “Who—What are you?”

It kept waving.

“You won’t get anything out of that one,” a voice said behind her.

She turned to see a woman sitting in the chair which was now facing her. “Who are you?” Ansel said. “Let me go.”

“Settle down, girl,” the woman said.

“I’m not a girl!” Ansel said, crossing her arms.

“We’re here to help you,” the woman said.

“Who are you?”

“I’m someone trying to get back what they took from me. Just like you.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” Ansel said.

“I know more than you think, girl. I know you were there at the Feast with that protector. I know you’re running away from home. I know you’re looking for something and we can give it to you.”

“You would have started with that if it was true.” Ansel scoffed.

The woman laughed. “You’re a sly little one, aren’t you? It’s partially true. We can get it for you, but we don’t know what it is.”

“Then how do you know you can get it?”

“We can get it,” the woman said with a grin. “Don’t you worry about that. Whatever it is, we can get it.”

“I want Pidgeon to be here, first,” Ansel said. “Can you get that?”

“You want a pigeon?”

“No.” Ansel sighed. “Pidgeon. Richard. He was following me, but he won’t come through the portal or whatever. He never does.”

“You’ve been through one before?” The woman raised an eyebrow.

Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “Bring him here. Prove you can get what I want when it’s simple, then I’ll bargain with you.”

“I swear,” the woman said. “You Sixers are more miserly than the owners. Fine. Popeye, you heard the girl. Go get Pidgeon and bring him in. What does he look like?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, shrugging. “A kid. Dirty clothes. Dark hair. Pimply face. He’ll probably be standing exactly where I disappeared, wondering if he should follow me or not. That is if he hasn’t run off already. You’re losing time.”

“Go on Popeye,” the woman said. The metal arm rolled out through the door they had come in. “There. Popeye’s fetching your pigeon. Now how did you get into the Feast?”

“How did you know I was there?”

“I’m not here to play games with you, girl. You interrupted an important operation. Tell me how you got there.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just saw a bunch of really fat people acting like babies. I don’t know how that could be important.”

The woman laughed again. “No,” she said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “That wasn’t the important part, you’re right about that, but I still need to know how you got there.”

“I’m not saying anything until I see—”

“Hey! Let me down!” Pidgeon’s voice cut her off. The big metal arm dropped him on the floor next to her. “Ansel,” he said. “How did you get here?”

“Alright,” the woman said. “Your boyfriend’s here. How did you get to the Feast?”

I don’t know,” Ansel said. “I tried to open a door, and I ended up in a costume closet.”

“The closet,” the woman said, more to herself than to Ansel. “Of course. I should have known.”

“So you already know about the closet,” Ansel said.

“Ansel,” Pidgeon said. “Anna and Ro—”

Shhhh!” Ansel elbowed him.

“Girl,” the woman said. “We’re going to find out one way or another. You might as well let your boyfriend tell us now. We’ll be more likely to help you if you cooperate.”

“I’m not her boyfriend,” Pidgeon said, crossing his arms.

“That doesn’t matter, boy,” the woman said. “Shut up. Now, your Pidgeon is here. I held up my end of the bargain. So tell me, how did you get into the feast?”

“I told you!” Ansel stomped her foot.

“Where did it happen?”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said. “Pidgeon?”

“St. Roch and St. Claude,” he said. “That’s where it—”

“You heard him,” Ansel said. “Now how are you going to get my dad for me?”

“And you say you tried to open the door, but you went through into a costume closet?” the woman asked.

“Am I here all alone?” Ansel said. “Yes. Then I heard the protector say he was doing what he was doing for me, so I tried to stop him. I never asked him to shoot anyone. He was supposed to help me get my dad back just like you are now. Right?”

“Right,” the woman said. “But you’ll have to wait for the Scientist for that.”

“Wait for the what?” Ansel said, losing her temper. “Listen lady. Tell me how you plan on getting my dad back, or we’re leaving.”

Pidgeon didn’t look as sure of himself as Ansel was. He was still staring at the mechanical arm, afraid it might grab him again. The arm didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him, though. It was sweeping up something on the floor. The woman laughed and turned her chair around so Ansel could only see the back of it. “Well leave then, girl,” she said. “See if I care. We already have what we want. You should have held your cards closer to your chest if you wanted to negotiate.”

“You’re lying!” Ansel rushed at her, but Pidgeon grabbed her arm and turned her around.

Uh…Ansel,” he said, staring at the door they had come in.

A dark-faced man that was even taller than Tom walked into the room. He was wearing a black suit, with a black piece of cloth tied in a bow around his neck, and a tall, black hat on his head. He looked down at them, took the single gold-rimmed lens out of his eye, and said, “Ahem. Rosalind. You didn’t tell me our visitor—or should I say visitors—were here. Hello, ma’am. Sir.” He took off his hat and did a little bow. “My name’s Huey. It’s so nice to finally meet you.” He held out his hand and bent over at the waist so Ansel could shake it.

She looked at it, not sure what to do. She didn’t know what to think of this giant. Why was he being so nice? And was that woman in the chair as big as he was? It was probably a good thing that Pidgeon had stopped her before she could hit the jerk.

“Go ahead,” the giant said. “I won’t bite.”

She put her hand in his, and when he closed it around hers, her hand disappeared. She drew it away as soon as she could, and he extended his hand to Pidgeon.

“You, too, sir,” he said. “Even though I know less about you than I do about our mutual acquaintance whose name I don’t even know.”

Pidgeon took his hand. “Hi, sir,” he said. “I’m Pidg—er—Richard. And this here’s Ansel—Ow!”

Ansel elbowed him. “I can speak for myself.”

“Well.” The giant looked between the two of them, studying their appearance. It made Ansel feel self-conscious so she started kicking at nothing. “Ansel and Richard. As I said, I’m Huey. And you’ve already met my sister, Rosalind.”

“Sister?” Pidgeon said.

“She said you could get my dad back,” Ansel said.

“Rosalind,” Huey said. “The lab? Really. We couldn’t find a more comfortable place for our guests to wait?”

“I’m plenty comfortable here, Mr. Douglas,” the woman in the chair said. “Thank you.”

“I’m sure you are,” Huey said. “But I imagine our guests would prefer a soft seat and a nice view.”

“Then why don’t you take them to a more comfortable location,” the woman said. “Popeye and I here need to get some work done anyway.”

“Work?” Huey scoffed. “If ever there was a time to take a break, it was now.”

“A break?” The woman scoffed back. “You always want to take a break, brother. And, like always, you will. So go ahead. I’ll get my break when my work’s done.”

Huey sighed and shook his head. He turned back to Ansel and Pidgeon. “Her position is so much more difficult than mine,” he whispered to them. “It’s a shame she can’t enjoy these small victories like I do. Anyway. Let’s go then. The Scientist has a little more business to tend to, but she’ll be right with you. Let’s go somewhere more comfortable to wait. Shall we?”

He led them to a door, opened it, and showed them through. They walked out into the little hall she had come in through, and Pidgeon kept walking for a bit, but Huey said, “Uh—ahh—Richard. This way, please.” He reopened the door they had just come out of, but the lab was gone, and in its place was a room with a big desk and a table surrounded by several tall, puffy chairs which Ansel forgot all about when she saw the view out the window making up the opposite wall. Pidgeon ran up to it and put his face against the glass to get a closer look. Ansel looked up at Huey first.

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

She ran after Pidgeon and put her face on the glass, too. There was more green grass and blue skies than could be found in the entire Belt. There were hills, and trees she had never seen before, and she couldn’t count the number of animals that were standing out in the open for anyone’s taking.

“What is that?” Pidgeon asked.

“How do we get there?” Ansel asked.

Huey sat on one of the puffy chairs, putting his hat and lens on the side table. “That’s a wilderness reserve,” he said. “And getting there isn’t hard, if that’s what you decide you want.”

Pidgeon kept staring. Ansel took her attention away from the view and sat in the chair across from Huey. She had to jump and struggle to climb up into it. Huey smiled as he watched her. When she was comfortable, she said, “That woman said you could get my dad. Can you?”

“Oh ho. No, Ansel,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Not me. But the Scientist can. I have no doubt about that.”

“The Scientist?”

“Yes,” he said with a smile. “You’ll meet her soon. She…She can give you anything you desire. Or at least she can tell you how to get it yourself.”

“Whatever I want?”

“Within the bounds of reality, of course,” Huey said with a nod.

“And you’re sure she’ll help?”

“Certainly, child. Just you wait and see.”

#     #     #

< XV. Haley     [Table of Contents]    XVII. Russ >

Thanks for reading. I gotta get back to work. Peace.