Chapter 15: Haley

Today brings us Haley’s last point of view chapter and the beginning of the end of the novel. Enjoy yourself, and think about picking up a full copy of the novel here.

< XIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     XVI. Ansel >

XV. Haley

Did she want to know the answers to Mr. Douglas’s questions? She wanted to know the answers to her questions. She could hardly remember his questions, and his rushing away without waiting for her response didn’t help the situation.

What did she know now? She knew that Mr. Douglas and Rosalind were both suddenly interested in Lord Walker. Of course they would be, he was the richest owner in all of Inland, the greatest producer of all time. Never before had anyone amassed as much wealth as Lord Walker and to want to know everything about him and how he got to be where he was seemed only natural. So that was a dead end.

What else did she learn from the meeting? That she was right about Rosalind’s attempts at manipulation. Mr. Douglas had admitted to as much. He didn’t care about her answers to his questions, he only wanted to ask them. She knew they were manipulating her, but for what? She hadn’t told them anything. She didn’t answer any questions about Lord Walker or their business. They didn’t even care if she did. If anything, everything was making less and less sense.

She looked up from her thoughts, and she was at the front of the kitchen. She had passed by all the secretaries who she thought were so nosy before, but not one as much as glanced at her—or she hadn’t noticed if they did. Her counter was covered in fresh-cooked turkeys, pots of potatoes, and three cheesecakes. The whipped cream was still in the bowl, so she could tell that Rosalind had whipped it by hand. Rosalind had even mixed six old fashioneds. Haley felt bad for doubting her and vowed to do something to make up for it as she stacked the food onto the cart. She looked around one more time to see if Rosalind was there so she could thank her but sighed when she wasn’t and pushed the cart out into the Feast Hall.

The party was in full swing now. Third Feast was the halfway point, the hump they had to get over before they could start slowing down on alcohol and filling their stomachs with two more feasts to convince themselves they weren’t drunk. She saw that the owner who had molested her was back to eating, though he was going slower than everyone else and looking around with a dazed—not drunk—look of terror on his face, like he was afraid he might get hit again at any second. She chuckled to herself at the sight of it.

Haley didn’t notice Lord Walker’s empty plates until she reached the head table. He had a bored look on his face as he stared into Mr. Loch’s mouth. Mr. Loch talked and talked at him through the food he was eating with loud wet smacks. She thought Lord Walker was going to snatch the food right out of Mr. Loch’s mouth to eat it himself, but the sound of three turkeys hitting the table at once made him jump and turn to Haley who kept piling more and more food in front of him.

“Haley, dear?” Lord Walker said. “I thought you were lost and gone forever. Don’t you ever do that to me again, you hear! Gimme.” He wrenched the gravy boat out of her hand and poured some directly down his throat before dumping the rest over his turkeys and potatoes and starting in on them with his bare hands, disregarding his platinumware. “Ughughm—More—OmNughm—Gravy,” he forced through the endless torrent of food.

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. She set the rest of dessert and the old fashioneds on the table and couldn’t help but wonder if it really made a difference whether the food was handmade or printed. The way Lord Walker poured it down into himself, it didn’t seem like he could even taste it.

“Locky,” Lord Walker said. “Ughmnum. You introduce—ughmnomnughm. The speaker. Ughmnum.”

Mr. Loch scowled. He started to complain but thought better of it and stood to address the Hall. “Owners of Inland!” he called, and half the owners kept eating. “Owners of Inland!” he repeated, but it was no use, it was third feast, they were more intent on eating than they had been for the entire night so far.

Mr. Loch scowled and yelled, “Well here’s the scientist, then! We all know what the technobabblers will say. Technology is advancing, but we need more money. Ha! And what do we say to that?”

He waited for a reply but there was none. Mr. Loch was third in line. He was nothing. If Lord Walker wasn’t saying it, no other owner cared. Haley chuckled to herself again then glanced over at Mr. Douglas. He sat, as always, statuesque and facing the symphony. She thought she saw a grin playing on his face as Mr. Loch continued.

“That’s right!” Mr. Loch said. “That’s right. You get what we give you, and you’ll get nothing more. So work a bit faster, or get out the door! Ha ha!” One or two owners close to the head table laughed. Haley shrugged and pushed her cart on the way back to the kitchen.

“Well, here she is,” Mr. Loch said. “Now get back to feasting. This food won’t eat itself. Ha ha!”

Everyone was already eating, and Mr. Loch started in on his own food again. The symphony didn’t even stop playing as the woman in the white coat climbed onto the hovering platform, and Haley didn’t look up when it flew over her head toward the head table.

“Owners of Outland,” the woman said. Haley heard it, but she knew none of the owners would, they didn’t care, they had third feast to gorge on. Haley herself wouldn’t have heard it if it didn’t so strange. Owners of Outland. Didn’t she mean owners of Inland? They were from Inland, not Outland.

Owners of Outland,” the woman repeated. This time her voice boomed so loud the entire Hall dropped their platinumwear and looked up at her. The symphony stopped playing, and Haley stopped in her tracks close to the back of the Hall to turn and listen.

Ah,” the woman in the white coat said with less volume. “Do you see that? If you speak loud enough, everyone has to listen. Now. You brought me here, like you do every year, to give you the scientific facts behind what keeps your society running, and every year you let the symphony play over my presentation, and you go on eating, drinking, and generally ignoring me.”

A few pockets of laughter broke out in the crowd. Not at the head table, though. They were all staring in awe or ire, and Mr. Douglas was smiling.

“Yes, it’s quite amusing,” the scientist said with a smile. “Isn’t it? I see how it gives you joy. BUT DO YOU GET JOY OUT OF THIS?”

The last sentence was so loud Haley put her hands to her ears to block it out. The scientist didn’t yell, she used a machine to amplify her speaking voice. The owners must have been deafened by it, and the scientist waited a moment for them to regain their hearing before going on again at a reasonable volume.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t think you would. But that’s exactly what you’ve brought it to. I come here every year, and every year I tell you that the system is in crisis, it needs restructuring. And every year you eat, and drink, and laugh, and kick the can down the road again. You leave me to deal with it, and I always have. I put my nose to the grindstone, and I invent the schemes, and band aids, and whatever you want to call them that get us over every hurdle in your way so far, but still, you ignore the source of the crises. Still you let your music play, and you eat your feast and drink your drinks, but you ignore where it all comes from. You ignore the contradictions in the system, and every year they get worse and the next hurdle gets bigger because of it.”

Haley looked around the room. Everyone was still staring up at the scientist in awe. They didn’t dare look away after she had deafened them once already.

“But, owners,” the scientist went on. “The hurdles are catching up to you. They always do. The next one always comes. Reality won’t give up on destroying your idealism, and science is only concerned with reality. My voice amplifier here is a metaphor for that. Do you realize that, or are you so drenched in your own propaganda that not even you can think straight?”

The scientist waited for a response, as if she actually wanted an answer. No one gave one. “No?” she said. “You have nothing to say now? You laughed about your ignorance before, but now you have no response to it? That’s exactly what I expected from you. That’s exactly what I knew would happen when I came here tonight. I examined the historical record, and that has allowed me to predict all of this. Yet still, every time I tell you the system is broken, you ignore me. What does that say about the sustainability of your empire?”

Haley realized she had been staring at the speaker for a long time now and remembered how she had left Lord Walker’s plates empty before. She looked around the hall one more time and everyone—even the secretaries who were supposed to be serving food—was staring up at the scientist as she spoke. Haley almost got caught up with them again, but she broke away and pushed her cart out into the kitchen.

She was well underway with preparing four new turkeys when the sound of echoing footsteps alerted her to the fact that the kitchen was empty except for her and now Rosalind who was jogging toward her with an urgent look. “Haley,” Rosalind said. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“But I have to prepare fourth feast,” Haley said, still cooking.

“Fourth feast?” Rosalind scoffed. “Weren’t you out there when the Scientist started her speech?”

“I—uh—yes. But what does that matter?”

“And you’re still in here now?”

“You’re talking to me aren’t you?” Haley said, shrugging. What was Rosalind getting on about?

“Yes. I—well…Yes,” Rosalind said. “You are. But y—we shouldn’t be here right now. Come on.”

“Here is exactly where I should be.” Haley went on cooking.

“No, Haley,” Rosalind said, grabbing her arm. “You don’t understand. You can’t be here. You need to be out there listening to the Scientist with everyone else. Now come on.” She pulled Haley toward the door.

Haley pulled her arm away and stopped. “No,” she said “I have to do this. I was late for third feast already because of that useless meeting with your Mr. Douglas, and I’m not going to waste any more time.”

“You don’t understand,” Rosalind said. “The world’s about to end and this is ground zero. Look around you. Why do you think there’s no one else here?”

Haley looked around at the emptiness again and realized the oddity of it. She had ignored it in her zeal to be the first secretary out with fourth feast. “They’re all probably out there listening to that scientist,” she said with a shrug. “She’s really loud if you hadn’t heard.”

“I didn’t hear. Why do you think I’m back here? But you heard and here you are.”

“And still you’re amazed by it.”

“Not amazed,” Rosalind said, shaking her head. “Comforted. It is as it’s supposed to be. Now please. Let me get some old fashioneds for you, and let’s get out of here. Lord Walker’ll thank you for as much.” Rosalind ordered the drinks from Haley’s printer.

Haley didn’t trust her still. As usual, Rosalind was telling her less than she knew. She was somehow behind the emptiness of the kitchen, and Haley wouldn’t be manipulated by her anymore. Rosalind picked up the drinks and started on her way out to the Feast Hall, saying, “C’mon.”

“No.” Haley didn’t move.

Rosalind stopped. “Haley. You have to.”

“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m not moving until you tell me why it’s so important that I leave.”

Ugh. Haley. Now is not the time to assert your independence. I mean, yay—that’s exactly what we were going for—but if you don’t leave this kitchen right now, you’ll never have another choice to make in your life.”

“That’s just another way to manipulate me. That’s all you’ve done this entire time.”

“No, Haley,” Rosalind said, coming closer to her. “I haven’t. Lord Walker has. I’m not the one who’s doing it, I’ve been showing you how the manipulation works.”

“And there you go again,” Haley said, stepping away. “Driving me away from my duties. Driving me away from Lord Walker. Further proving that you’re trying to manipulate me.”

“No,” Rosalind pled. “You don’t understand. We want to help you. We want to free you.”

“I am free. You want to take me away from Lord Walker.”

“You’re not free, though. You only think you are because you don’t know any better. But you won’t be alive to figure that out unless we get out of here soon, so it doesn’t matter either way.”

“You keep saying that, but I have no reason to believe you.”

“Look,” Rosalind said. “In a matter of moments, all the printers in here are going to explode. That’s a fact. That’s why we cleared the kitchen, and that’s why I stayed behind, to get you out. Whether you think I’m manipulating you or not, you’ve seen me do some extreme things, and I hope that’s led you to believe that I will continue to do them. So, please. Come with me.”

“Go on then if you’re telling the truth,” Haley said. “You don’t want to be here when the kitchen explodes, do you? I’m getting back to work.”

“No, Haley.” Rosalind shook her head. “I can’t. It’s my duty to protect you, and I won’t leave this kitchen unless you leave with me. If you die here, I die here.”

“Right.” Haley gave her a thumbs up, nodding. “As if you’d die for me.”

“I would, Haley,” Rosalind said. “I will if you don’t come with me right now. I’d rather not, and we don’t have to, you just have to come with me until the end of the scientist’s speech. Can you do this one last thing for me? Then I won’t ever ask you for anything else.”

Haley wanted to protest, but she remembered how Rosalind had handmade all of third feast and that she still owed her for that. She sighed and said, “Alright. But when the kitchen doesn’t explode, we’re even, and I’d rather not speak to you ever again.”

“Fine,” Rosalind said, smiling. “Whatever.” She shook her head. “As long as you get out of here, I don’t care. Here.” She handed Haley the old fashioneds. “Take these and bring them to Lord Walker. The Scientist should be done after that, then you can come back to the kitchen—if you still want to.”

“Fine,” Haley said. “Whatever.” She took the drinks. “Let’s go.”

Rosalind pushed her out of the kitchen and up toward the head table. She almost spilled the drinks because of it. The scientist had just finished her speech, and the room watched as her platform flew over their heads and disappeared behind the symphony. Haley thought she saw a little black fur ball run by the Scientist’s ankles, but Rosalind shoved her again and Haley had to focus instead on keeping the drinks full and her clothes dry.

Then the explosion came. The entire Hall rocked with the force of it as Rosalind pushed Haley down under the head table. Gasps and screams echoed through the Hall, and the sound of footsteps shuffling toward the front of the room was made louder by Haley’s proximity to the floor and the acoustic characteristics of the table above them.

“Do you trust me yet?” Rosalind said, smiling.

Haley struggled out from under the table and away from her. “Trust you? How?”

“Haley!” Lord Walker said from behind her. She turned to see his arms outstretched for an embrace. “Oh, dear,” he said, smelling her hair as he hugged her close. “You’re here! Thank the Hand. I thought I had lost you.”

“No, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy. “I’m fine, sir.” She handed him the drinks, still full even with her dive under the table.

“Sweet, beautiful dear,” Lord Walker said, wiping a tear from his eye. “You see to everything, don’t you. You’re my savior. My savior.” He downed one of the old fashioneds in one gulp then threw the glass to shatter on the floor.

Haley looked around. Rosalind was nowhere in sight, Mr. Douglas wasn’t at his seat, all the owners were pushing closer and closer to the head table, and the remaining four of the Fortune 5 backed slowly away from the encroaching mass. She couldn’t believe that Mr. Douglas and Rosalind had actually done it, but how could it be anyone else? Neither of them were there, and Rosalind all but told her that it was them. But then why did she save Haley? And clear out the rest of the secretaries? And how? It was all too much to process with the action going on around her.

“Woah ho ho ho!” Lord Walker boomed over the crowd, almost as loud as the scientist with her voice amplifier. All the owners stopped in place at the sound of his voice. The fighting and shoving died down. “Look at yourselves owners,” he said. “Look at yourselves!”

They all looked back and forth at each other, and down at themselves. They would do anything he told them to do.

“Now,” Lord Walker said, twirling his cane. “Who here’s been hurt by what happened? Anyone?”

They looked at each other again. None of them were hurt personally—maybe their eardrums—but they weren’t about to bring that up to Lord Walker.

“Our printers are hurt!” a brave voice called from the back of the crowd. Haley couldn’t make out who it was. “Our property!”

Oh ho ho! Property schmoperty,” Lord Walker bellowed. “Those are Feast Hall printers. They’re common property. We’ll all share in the costs of repairing whatever damage was done, so what damage could there really be said to have been done?”

This time there was no brave soul to answer.

“No, my friends,” Lord Walker boomed. “This is the work of terrorists. They seek to strike fear in your hearts. They want you to be afraid. Don’t you understand that? And you…” Lord Walker chuckled. “You’re fighting one another, pushing your way towards us—the Fortune 5—when we had nothing to do with it. No one was injured, owners. Or are you court jesters? Your actions peg you as such. You’ve let them win already. Do you see that? You’ve let them win!”

Still no one answered. But a good lot of them looked embarrassed and made their way back toward their seats.

“Now,” Lord Walker said. “If you’ll all just wait until the pro—”

The entryway doors burst open, and rows of pounding white boots came marching in to circle the room. The owners cowered into the center of the hall, and the protectors—in their screaming, unnatural face masks and white plate armor—formed a ring around them, in between the Fortune 5 and the rest of the owners. It was an awe inspiring display of discipline. Haley had never seen a protector in real life—much less an entire platoon of them in one room—but she was somehow happy for being caught on the side with the Fortune 5, or at least the four of them who were still there.

“As I was saying,” Lord Walker went on when the protectors had all gotten into place, their guns pointed in at the owners who they were surrounding. “If you’ll all settle down and wait until the protectors get here, we’ll get this sorted out in no time. Is everyone okay with that?”

The owners in the ring were cowering as close together as they could, their bulbous stomachs touching one another. Haley pitied them a little bit.

“Now,” Lord Walker said, looking up and down the line of protectors. “Is the Chief here with you, or are we going to have to find a new one?”

“Sir, no, sir,” the nearest protector said, turning to address Lord Walker and putting a gun over her shoulder. She took off her helmet—which, unlike the other protectors’, had a mustache and goatee—to reveal the same dark face as Mr. Douglas. She looked eerily like him. “Chief Baron, sir,” the protector said, saluting. “Awaiting your orders, sir. We wanted to secure your safety and let you control the situation first, sir.”

“Good,” Lord Walker said, smiling wide. “Very good, Baron. Leave the decision making to your employer. That’s the proper way to handle things. Now. You have the situation secured. Proceed with your investigation. I don’t want anyone leaving this Hall until we find out who’s responsible for this heinous action. Do you understand me? We will get to the bottom of this terrorist attack!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” The Chief slipped her helmet back on, shouted out orders in a distorted voice which was lit in green, red, and yellow by her screaming face mask, then marched back into the kitchen with a group of protectors, leaving the owners cowering in their ring of guns.

“Do you see that owners?” Lord Walker called over them. “That’s why we have these protectors. To protect us. Now they have the opportunity to show us firsthand their gratuity at the living we allow them. Isn’t that right, protectors?”

“Hoo-ra!” the ring sang in unison.

The owners all cowered closer together. Haley thought she saw some of them starting to cry. She wouldn’t be surprised if the whole lot of them had peed themselves at the sound of it, but the pneumatic pants took care of that, too.

“Hoo-ra,” Lord Walker repeated. “Did you hear that owners? Hoo-rah. Can you do it again for me, protectors?”

Hoo-ra!” This time it was louder and more fearsome.

“And this, my friends,” Lord Walker said, “is only a small section of a behemoth machine. Back there, studying the evidence left by the explosion, we have the best forensic minds money can buy. I assure you.” He winked. “I paid for them myself.”

Mr. Loch and Mr. Smörgåsbord chuckled, but the owners in the ring were still having a hard time seeing the humor in the situation.

“That’s right,” Lord Walker went on. “I paid for most of this protector force, and I own more than that. That means they’ll do exactly what I tell them to do. Doesn’t it protectors?”

Hoo-ra!”

“What are your vows, protectors?”

“Property! Liberty! Life!” they sang back. The precision of their chorus was inspiring, though it was made eerie and unnatural by the modulation of their voices.

“Property, liberty, life,” Lord Walker repeated. “Their vows coincide with our ideals, they reinforce each other. We are nothing without them. They are nothing without us. Or, more precisely, they are nothing without me. I give them the property they need to exist. They depend on me. And they will have justice!”

The Chief burst out of the kitchen with her menagerie in tow. The owners in the ring went between watching her march up to the head table and staring in fear at the protectors who still surrounded them with drawn guns.

“Look here now,” Lord Walker said, grinning. “Already they come with information. We’ll have this straightened out in no time, no doubt.”

The Chief marched all the way up to Lord Walker, taking her helmet off, and whispered in his ear. “It looks like it came from the other side,” she said, but only Lord Walker and Haley could hear.

Lord Walker shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Not possible. If so, you’re in deeper trouble than if it came from this side. I’ll have you look again, please.”

“But, sir—”

No buts. You heard me. Don’t make me say it again.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” The Chief turned and shepherded the crew back into the kitchen, mumbling under her breath.

“Now now,” Lord Walker addressed the owners again. “We’ll get to the bottom of this yet. A minor complication, that’s all. We’ll find a way over this hurdle, no doubt. In the mean ti—”

“In the mean time you have another complication to deal with.” The voice came from on the stage. The orchestra was long gone, and a lone protector, wearing an older model helmet—with a dark visor instead of a facemask—stood pointing a gun—but a smaller version than the one the other protectors were holding—at the Fortune 5. The owners all pushed away from the stage, and the larger guns, held by the protectors in the ring, pointed at the lone protector on stage.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker laughed. “Woah now, son. You do understand what you’re doing, don’t you? Threatening the life of an owner, threatening the life of the richest owner in all of Inland, the owner who also happens to hold a majority share in the protector force that surrounds you now. I see you’re wearing the protector’s pure white. Do you want to mar that any more than you already have, son? A retainer threatening his master. Tsk tsk tsk.” He shook his head. “Just don’t do anything dumber than you’ve already done, son.”

“The only dumb thing I’ve ever done was put on this uniform and pick up a gun for you,” the protector onstage said. “I know what dumb is. Believe me. This here. This is the exact opposite of dumb. I’m protecting people. Just like I took this job to do. And who else do they need protecting from but you?”

“Now, now, son,” Lord Walker said, pointing his cane at the protector. “At my word, every one of these protectors will fire on you. Do you think you can kill all of them before they kill you?”

“I don’t want to kill them, sir. I don’t have to. I only have to kill one of you, and—I’m sorry to say—I think you’ve just elected yourself. Sir.”

“Fire!”

The room erupted in a torrent of gunfire. The sound was louder than the scientist’s amplified voice. It went on and on and on, and when it eventually ended, the protector was still standing unscathed on the stage. One of the protectors in the ring closest to the rogue protector ran to tackle him but disappeared as he climbed onto the stage. Two more followed right after and disappeared just the same.

“I told you, owner,” the protector on the stage said. “I don’t have to worry about them. This is between you and me.”

“Alright, now,” Lord Walker said, waving his plump hands. “Alright. I get your point.” His voice was starting to falter. He was taking on the voice he used when he wasn’t confident in his power. “I get your point. But I don’t see why we have to bring guns into this. Why don’t you just put that down so we can talk about it like civilized men.”

Ha ha!” the rogue protector laughed. “Me put the gun down? After you had your entire army unload their guns onto me? The only reason you’re asking me to put my gun down now is because your guns didn’t work on me. Welcome to the Hell we live in everyday, owner. How does it feel?”

“Now, now,” Lord Walker said, his voice cracking. “Don’t get angry with me,” he added in a deeper voice, overcompensating. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable middle ground compromise we can find here.”

“No compromises,” the protector said. “This isn’t for me. I’m doing this for her. I have to. I have no choice. I’m sorry.”

Haley saw a childlike form appear from backstage, running toward the protector and yelling, “Don’t!” She knew she had to act but didn’t know what to do. Her legs did, though. They sprung her into action before the gunshots rang out. One, two. Just like that. She was in the air between Lord Walker and the bullets when she felt the malfunctioning in her chest. Her fluids weren’t flowing right, and her electrical system was shorting out. She thought she heard Lord Walker call her name before her auditory sensors ceased to function and her memories stopped writing themselves.

#     #     #

< XIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     XVI. Ansel >

Thanks again for reading. If you liked that, think about supporting the cause by picking up a full copy of the novel here. And have a great weekend.

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Chapter 14: The Scientist

Today brings us the Scientist’s second chapter, and it marks the day that two thirds of the novel are available on the website. Next week we’ll start reading the final chapters from each character’s point of view, and at the end of week seven, you’ll all get to know the conclusion of book one of the Infinite Limits series. Or you can find out sooner by purchasing the novel on Amazon.

Today I’m including an illustration I did of Popeye the mechanical arm, who you might remember from the Scientist’s earlier chapter. I hope you’ve enjoyed everything so far, now go and enjoy this one too.

Popeye< XIII. Pardy     [Table of Contents]     XV. Haley >

XIV. The Scientist

Every day different. Every day the same. Only change is constant. Reality is contradiction.

She stood in front of the printer—as she did every meal—and imagined the people who grew, reared, harvested, and collected her food, the ones who built the things to make it all possible, and those who sent it along so she could consume it. She ordered everything as raw as it came, but that meant that she had to order the sandwich she wanted fully made. Still, they were forced to do as little of her work as she could help, and soon she would be helping in a more efficient manner. It was Christmas Feast Eve, and Mr. Kitty should be on his way.

She carried the plate of food into her office, and when she opened the door, he was there. “Mr. Kitty!” she said, setting her plate on the desk next to the cat who went over to eat the meat out of her sandwich. “Finally, Mr. Kitty. Red! Eat all you want. I’ll make you more if you’re here when I’m done.”

The cat meowed.

“Oh. You have no idea, Mr. Kitty. Sic bo shines down on you. I’ve been waiting for you to come in with that beautiful red collar for you don’t know how long.”

He meowed again.

“Alright, Mr. Kitty. I’m gonna get to work,” she said. Mr. Kitty went off on his way, ignoring the rest of the meat in her sandwich, and she started the macros going which would set the work schedules across all the Outlands as needed for the operation. She moved the repair bots around to fix only the holes she didn’t need and set a few to creating some holes that might come in handy in emergency situations. With everything she could do before her lunch meeting done, she went to ride the elevator to the bar and get on with her meeting.

Trudy was already in the corner booth with two beers. The glasses were still frosty, and Trudy’s drink was mostly full, so she hadn’t been there long.

“Trudy, dear,” the Scientist said, sitting down and taking a sip. “You know me all too well.”

“More than anyone in the worlds, I’d say.” Trudy smiled.

The Scientist loved her smile, it was so genuine. “I didn’t keep you waiting long, did I?”

“Oh, no no,” Trudy said. “Just sat down. You’re as punctual as ever, dear. Don’t you worry.”

“Good,” the Scientist said. “I was a little distracted, you know. The roses are red.” She smiled.

“No kidding,” Trudy said, sipping her drink.

“Would I kid about this?”

Trudy shook her head. “That you wouldn’t.”

“Trudy, you do trust me, don’t you? I could tell you more, but it would only put you in more danger.”

“And I’m not in danger now?” Trudy said, shaking her head.

“No. Of course you are. I didn’t—I didn’t mean that. I meant that you’d be given added danger for no need.”

“Not me, dear. I know enough already. I’m in plenty of danger no matter what else you tell me. The more I know, the more danger for you, though.”

“No. Well…I—Not just me.”

“Right, right,” Trudy said, smiling and nodding. “Back to the circular argument. It’s not just you, it’s the plan, it’s too dangerous to tell me about a plan that I’m a part of.”

“It would put you in—”

“I’m already in danger, dear.” Trudy laughed. “We’re going around in circles. That’s why they call it a circular argument. Let’s end it here before I get dizzy. I know you’re not going to tell me everything, and you know I’m not going to stop asking, so let’s just get on with what really brought us here.”

The Scientist sighed and took a sip of beer. Trudy was right. She couldn’t be put in any more danger, but it would put the operation as a whole in danger if the protectors could get more information out of her. Still, Trudy deserved to know more. She had been with them for so long, and her work was so valuable, that she had a good argument for it. An argument which she never pushed too far. The Scientist promised herself that, as soon as this operation was over, she would tell Trudy everything. Well, at least she would tell her more.

“Trudy,” the Scientist said. “You deserve to know more.”

“I know it.”

“You’ve done more for this revolution than anyone has. Myself included.”

“Oh, now don’t say that,” Trudy said, blushing. “That’s not what we’re about and you know it, dear. Solidarity. Without any of us, none of this would be possible.”

“Solidarity, dear,” the Scientist said, raising her glass.

They took a drink in unison.

“Trudy, sometimes I think—no—I know that you know more about the revolution than I do, even if I know more specifics about what plans are in action.”

“Oh, honey,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “Now I know you’re wrong on that. I know more specifics than your computers could hold. Who’s infatuated with who, and which coworkers are possibly parents of the same children, Hell, I could tell you what most of the workers in my hall eat for every meal every day of the week, but you try to tell me you know the specifics.”

The Scientist shook her head. Trudy was right again. The Scientist knew what food they received, how often, and in what proportions, but she didn’t know how they cooked it or who they ate it with. She knew nothing in comparison to Trudy. “Like I said,” she said. “I know you know more about the revolution than I do.”

“Not so fast, dear,” Trudy said, raising a finger. “We know different parts of the struggle. You know as much as you know, and I know as much as I know, but together we know what we both know. We do nothing alone, remember. Without any of us, none of this would be possible.”

“Again you prove your worth,” the Scientist said, smiling wide. “Day after day. You will get what you deserve, Trudy. Mark my words.”

“I hope you’re right, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “If it’s not too late for that already. Either way, the worlds don’t seem that just to me.” She sipped her beer.

“No. They don’t,” the Scientist said, taking a sip of hers. “Which is why we have to make them that way. Right, Trude?”

“Right as rain, dear. Just you and me. Huh huh huh.”

“Now tell me,” the Scientist said, ready to get down to business now that the pleasantries were out of the way. “Do you trust Ellie?”

“I trust her to do what she wants.” Trudy shrugged. “You said that’s what you wanted.”

“Yes. Yes yes. That’s what I said. But sometimes I wonder if that’s what’s really for the best.”

“For whose best, dear? Your best? Ellie’s best? My best?”

“Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. All of them. The best for all of them.”

“All of us, dear. You are included in that. You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

“Am I?” the Scientist said. “I created the Walker-Haley fields that keep us apart. I created the printers you fill with commodities. I created the androids who forced all the service workers of Inland into Outland 6. I am responsible for all of that, Trudy, responsible for propping up the entire system that keeps you down. How am I supposed to be one of you if I’m the one doing this to you?”

“Now, now, sweetheart,” Trudy said. “We all do what we have to do to survive, and sometimes that ends up in some of us keeping others down. That’s not you, dear. That’s the system. As long as you recognize what you’re doing, and you do all you can to stop it, you’re one of us. And who’s done more to bring down the system than you?”

“Well, you, Trudy. I just said that.”

“And I just said that’s not true. You keep talking us in circles, dear. Is there something you’re getting at, or are we just here for a drink and a ring around the rosies?”

Trudy always knew when there was something. But first there was business. All play and no work made Jill a happy jerk. “You know there is, Trudy,” the Scientist said. “But first let’s get back to Ellie. You say you trust her. How far does that trust go?”

“As far as anyone I’ve ever brought to you,” Trudy said. “She won’t tell anyone anything. I can guarantee that. She never tells anyone anything. Which leads me to suspect that she might take the opportunity to drop out if you give it to her, but she’ll be sure to do what you ask of her first. She wouldn’t want to live knowing that she owed you.”

“And you’re sure of all that from having talked with her so little?”

“It doesn’t take much,” Trudy said, taking a sip of her drink. “Like you’ve said before, they usually tell you everything they want with their first words. Well, with me, one conversation reveals a person’s entire character. I couldn’t tell you how I do it, I just know that I do.” She took another sip. “And I’d say that you know it, too, with what you have me doing for you.”

“What I ask you to do for us.” The Scientist winked. “But I do know it works, and every day it amazes me more.”

Trudy blushed. “So what do you have in store for her?” she asked. “Info finding mission? Meet her favorite propaganda star? One-on-one with an owner so she can show him how she feels? What did she ask for?”

“The beach,” the Scientist said.

Ugh.”

They both drank at that.

“I told you I trusted her to do whatever she wanted,” Trudy said. “But that’s not where it stops. I know better than that, dear. There are always conditions. So what are they? What did she say?”

“Well, I…” The Scientist sipped her beer and looked around the bar.

“You haven’t told her yet, have you?”

“The roses only just turned before I came to see you,” the Scientist said. “I had to set the scheduling macros. I have more still to set. I thought I had more time.”

“With the Christmas Feast tomorrow, you thought you had more time?” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Be ready for the blooming every day, dear. That’s what you taught me. It’s what you taught all of us. Especially with the field yellow as it is. Or rather, as it was.”

“Yes, well,” the Scientist said. “There was more to do. Besides, there’s plan B…”

Trudy rolled her eyes and took a big gulp of beer.

“You.”

“Yeah yeah,” Trudy said, waving her on. “Well now you have to tell me what you have in store for her. Is that the bush you’ve been beating around?”

No. It wasn’t. “Well, yes and no,” the Scientist said. “But, Ellie. You think she would be willing to use a disc?”

Trudy looked around the room then sipped her beer. She leaned in close and said, “A disc?”

“More to the point, would she be willing to use a dozen discs?”

“That many?”

“Her entire hall,” the Scientist said, nodding. “She’ll put one on each door, and I’ll direct the belts so the explosions target specific locations. Two birds with one stone. We have the misdirection of bombing the QA hall, and we render key printers in Bourgeoisville inoperable.”

Trudy laughed, spitting some beer up onto the table.

“What?” The Scientist didn’t get the joke.

Bourgeoisville,” Trudy repeated, mimicking the Scientist’s voice and adding an extra snobby accent. “You sound so bourgeois when you say it.”

“Yeah, well, would you rather I called it Inland like they do? Or Earth 2.0?”

“Now, now,” Trudy said. “Don’t get mad. I just thought it was funny. You can call it Donkeybuster for all I care. Soon we’ll see that it’s all the same anyway. Right?”

She wasn’t right this time. What you called it did matter. The name you gave it affected how you thought about it, if you believed you could change it, but how could the Scientist sit and argue against someone who knew the oppression of the system firsthand? “No,” she said, shaking her head, not wanting to argue the point any further with so much work still on the horizon. “You’re—You’re right.”

“Stop that,” Trudy said. “Now I’m not right. We both are. And Ellie will use the discs just fine. But what are you giving her?”

“The beach,” the Scientist said. “Like she asked for.”

“For how long?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes during the operation,” the Scientist said. “Those are fifteen completely secure minutes. But after fifteen we need the holes to give other workers what they want. It’s the best I can do.”

“Fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes,” the Scientist said.

“I don’t know if that’ll be long enough.” Trudy shook her head.

“It has to be. That’s all we have.”

“You couldn’t send her over there then move the door back when she’s done?”

The Scientist shook her head. “Not on such short notice. And we need the operating power, anyway. Fifteen minutes for a beach trip is a lot, all things considered. She’s not the only one going to the beach, either. She’s just the most likely to return. Whether she does or not, though, she gets fifteen minutes to decide.”

“And discs,” Trudy said. “One on each door?”

The Scientist pulled a pouch out of her coat pocket and put it on the table. Trudy scooped it up and put it in her own pocket.

“Rip, stick, press?” Trudy asked.

“Rip, stick, press,” the Scientist said. “One on each door. If they’re activated, they’ll explode twenty-five minutes after her shift ends. That’s fifteen minutes on the beach, then ten minutes to set the discs and get out of there. She can do either, or both, or neither, and whatever she decides, I’ll be willing to meet with her again. You know the deal.”

“And when she blows up her own workplace?” Trudy said. “When she blows up my workplace. How do we support ourselves then?”

“She—and you—will be moved to another building,” the Scientist said. “There are empty QA buildings waiting for just such an emergency. Don’t worry. I know. Her, nor your, job are in any danger, only the owners’ infrastructure on one side and their party on the other.”

“And when they realize that she was the only one working before the building blew up, won’t they know she had to be the one to do it?”

“Technically she’s not scheduled to work.” The Scientist smiled. “Someone else is. And they’re already dead. The protectors will assume a corpse did it, and Ellie will be in the clear.”

“But if she does lose her job…”

“She won’t,” the Scientist assured her. “But if she does, then she’ll be added to the distribution list. Have you ever known me to let anyone I could help go helpless?”

Trudy shook her head. “You do everything you can.”

“And I will continue to do so.”

“So when do I tell her?”

“Tonight. At the bar. Her bar. She has to do it tomorrow or wait. The roses are red, Trudy. The roses are red.”

“They are, dear,” Trudy said with a smile. “And I’ll be sure Ellie knows it, too. But what are you going to do about it?” She sipped her beer.

Trudy knew what was really bothering the Scientist. She knew everything. “I’m going to help everyone, then get what I want,” the Scientist said.

“Everyone?” Trudy said, raising an eyebrow.

“I get what I want every day. I have a printer for that. It’s not my turn. I have to let the others get a chance before I take more.”

“It’s not anyone’s turn, dear,” Trudy said. “It’s all of our turn. If it wouldn’t take more than an elevator ride to get fifteen minutes of what you want, then it wouldn’t stand in anyone’s way, would it?”

“No. I—”

“And this is about getting everyone what they want, right?” Trudy said.

“Yes, but—”

“And you are a part of everyone, aren’t you?”

“Well, but—”

“But you deserve to get what you want, too, dear,” Trudy said, slapping her hand lightly on the table. “As much as any of us. You’re not like the owners, you know. You’re helping us, and you deserve the same window of happiness that you’re offering everyone else.”

“Fifteen minutes?” the Scientist said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Trudy repeated.

“I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“It’s all you can get.”

“It’s all I can afford.”

“It’s all we can afford, dear.” Trudy smiled and winked.

The Scientist shook her head. “But what if she doesn’t believe me?”

“If you never tell her, she’ll never have a chance to decide.”

“How could she trust me? I let this happen. It’s my fault.”

“It’s the system, dear. Let’s not get back on the merry-go-round. Without you, she wouldn’t be alive. You deserve to see her. For fifteen minutes at least.”

“I’m going to do it, Trudy,” the Scientist said.

“You should.”

“What do I say?”

“You say what you’ve been waiting to say. You’ve thought about it. I know you have. You already know what to say. Say that.”

“I know nothing, Trudy.”

“No one does.” Trudy shook her head.

“Right again,” the Scientist said. “Right again.” She sipped her beer.

“I always am, dear.” Trudy smiled. “You should get my advice for everything.” She winked and finished her beer.

“Oh. I do. Don’t worry.”

“Well,” Trudy said, standing from the booth. “I think you’ve got some work to do, then. I know I do, and I should be off to it.”

“You’re more productive than anyone, Trudy.”

“Oh. I know, dear,” Trudy said with a smile. “I know.” She laughed as she left, waving over her shoulder.

The Scientist sipped her beer. She had some time before her next meeting. She could play a game of pool. Trudy suggested that she attend to her own desires, too. But the game would go long. She was so out of practice it would have to unless the other player ran the table. Either way, her second meeting would likely be kept waiting, and there was still so much work to get done before the Feast.

No. Who was she kidding? She didn’t have time for that. Not even fifteen minutes. Did she have fifteen minutes to take what she really wanted, though? Her beer was empty, so she got another and sat back at the booth to watch the other patrons play. Her time was tomorrow if she wanted it. Just like everyone else. What was safe for them, was safe for her. If she ever wanted to see her daughter, Christmas was the time to do it.

The door to the bar opened and in came Anne, dressed in her coveralls still. She skipped the bar and sat in the booth with the Scientist. “What?” Anne said with a smirk. “Nothing for me?”

“I didn’t know you were off the wagon,” the Scientist said. “You can have some of mine if you want.”

“And get your cooties?” Anne said with a cringe. “I think not.”

“Cooties? What year is this? Are you a child?”

“We’re all kids compared to you.” Anne laughed.

The Scientist laughed, too, and took a drink of her beer. “You don’t know how true that is, dear. You have no idea.”

Anne looked around the bar and leaned in close. “I don’t know…” she said. “There are rumors,” she added in a whisper.

The Scientist chuckled. She leaned in close, too. “That I’m a robot!”

“How’d you know?” Anne laughed.

“I’ve heard them all, dear. I’m no robot, though. I’ll tell you that much. But I’m older than any robot that could pass for me. So there’s some truth to it.”

“But, how?” Anne said, shaking her head in disbelief.

“That’s not what we’re here for, dear. The roses are red.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anne said, sitting up straighter in her seat.

“You know what you’re to do, then.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know.”

“Tell me.”

“First, I alert the other operatives in my sector, they have work of their own to do. Then I work my shift as normal. At the end of my shift, I set the discs and get out of there, ensuring the building is clear on my way.”

“Very good,” the Scientist said. “Very good. Are you ready for this?”

“I don’t know, ma’am,” Anne said, looking at the table. “After th—after the operation, when it’s all said and done, there are gonna be shortages, you know. I mean, how do w—how do we deal with that?”

“We’ll be working to direct the food to those who need it,” the Scientist said. “And to keep it out of the owners’ hands. There is a risk of shortages, but we’ll do everything we can to relieve those in need.”

“It won’t be enough,” Anne said.

The Scientist didn’t answer. She sipped her beer.

“It never is.” Anne took a deep breath, shaking her head. “Not even when there aren’t shortages. It’s gonna stay like this forever, isn’t it?”

“Unless we do something about it,” the Scientist said.

“And this is something? This will give us more food?”

The Scientist shook her head. “No. Probably not. Not right away, at least. You’ll have to fight for what you deserve. They’ll never hand it over without a struggle.”

“And this is how we struggle? By bombing our own food supply?”

“It’s not food, though. Is it? You work there, Anne. Coconuts, pineapples, saffron…Do you ever eat any of that? Do you know anyone who does?”

Anne shook her head.

“No. You don’t. Because it’s not food you’re growing. Those are luxuries, and you’re growing them for someone you’ll never meet, someone who does nothing for you in return but keep you at the bare minimum you need to survive so you can continue to grow their luxuries. You won’t be creating shortages. There will be more work than ever to get those luxuries up and running again. They’ll be desperate to be the first to do it. But the explosions also go through the transport tubes, and that will take out printers the owners can’t live—or steal what you create—without. This is just the beginning, Anne. There’s so much more to come. Can you help us get it started?”

“I can,” Anne said. She pounded her fist on the table then looked around self-consciously.

We can, dear,” the Scientist said. “None of us alone. And after this phase of the operation, we’ll move to getting those in need what they need, just like you want to do.”

“But why don’t we do that first? Instead of bombing the luxuries.”

“We have to do this tomorrow in order to do that in the future. This is only for you to know, but we’ll be retrieving a stockpile of printers for exactly that purpose. We’re using the explosions around different sectors as a distraction to collect the printers and take them to a safe distribution point where they can be given to those most in need.”

Anne nodded. Her hand motioned as if to grab for a glass that didn’t exist, and when she realized that there was nothing there, she brushed the hair out of her face instead. “That’s the only way to do it?”

“That’s the only way to do it with as few people as we have. The best thing we could do would be to stop producing for them altogether and start keeping everything for ourselves. But we’re all too comfortable in our jobs to do that.”

“You, too?”

“Me especially.”

“You’re really not that different from us, are you?”

“I eat better,” the Scientist said. “I eat every day. And I know I’ll sleep in a big, comfortable bed every night. In that sense, I’m different. But they exploit me the same as they do you. And I know that enough to do everything I can to help you stop them.”

“But who are they? How could they be so evil?”

“They’re mostly inheritors of wealth,” the Scientist said. “They were born into a role which they fulfill all too well. As much as they know what they’re doing, they have no idea what they’re doing. No more idea than anyone in any of the Outlands really. They’ve never experienced hunger or alienation, and they don’t interact with any humans who ever have. They literally live in their own world, in complete ignorance of what day-to-day life is like for the vast majority of people. They commit evils, yes, but not because they are evil. It might be more accurate to say that they’re possessed. Or possessive.” The Scientist shook her head. “I don’t know what I’m saying, though. Do you?”

Anne shook her head.

“No,” the Scientist said. “No, of course not. How could you when I don’t? Contradictions. Contradictions everywhere and I don’t understand them. But I won’t stop until I tease them out, you see. Do you understand that?”

Anne nodded and grabbed again for her non-existent drink.

“Good,” the Scientist said. “Because that’s the real point of all this. Even if you don’t agree with my methods and you want to walk away today without doing anything for the operation, you’re free to do that—I hope you won’t, of course—but if you do, you have to keep struggling to tease out those contradictions for yourself, you have to do it your own way.”

“You know I’m not walking away.” Anne shook her head. “I would have done that a long time ago.”

The Scientist smiled and sipped her beer. “Yes.” She nodded. “I know. But it’s important to remind you that you can, and that you’ll still be looked after, even if you do.”

“I know, ma’am,” Anne said, nodding. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

“Good,” the Scientist said, clapping her hands together. “Good good good. That’s good to hear, Anne. Thank you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now, I’ve got a lot of work to do before tomorrow, and I think you do, too.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Anne said, standing up and holding out her hand. “I won’t let you down.”

The Scientist took her hand and shook it. “I know you won’t, dear. Hopefully I won’t let you down, either. Now be careful out there. This is the real thing. These discs will be live.”

“I understand, ma’am. I’ll keep everything under control.”

“You do what you can, Anne.” The Scientist smiled.

Anne shook the Scientist’s hand one more time then went out into the world. The Scientist watched the rest of the pool game, finishing her beer in the booth. This was it. No more meetings. No more real work besides setting a few more macros before the operation was underway. Still, she did have to do that.

She set the empty glass on the bar and the bartender said “All’s well in the world.”

“Is it ever?” The Scientist didn’t know if it was a question or a statement.

“No” The bartender shook his head, thinking about it. “Well, the world’s a big place.”

“And there are so many of them.” The Scientist laughed.

The bartender eyed her with a squint. “You come in here with your white coat, and you order your beers and sit in your corner booth, and I know there’s something more to you.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.” He nodded.

“And how do you know that?”

“No one tips well,” the bartender said, tapping his head with a rag. “No one wears white coats. My customers don’t pay attention because they don’t want any attention paid to them, but I do, ma’am. I own the place. I rule here. That means my rules. And you follow them well enough—no questions being one of those rules—but I needed you to know that I know there’s more to you than that. That’s all.” He went back to cleaning glasses.

“That’s very observant of you,” the Scientist said. “Mr.—Uh…”

“Bartender.”

“Mr. Bartender.” She smiled. “And I appreciate your discretion.”

“Discretion’s the rule, ma’am. Be assured of that. But it’s more than that. My customers aren’t all as unconcerned as I make them out to be. You understand? If I noticed you, then they did. That’s all I’m saying.”

The Scientist nodded and signaled for another beer. “I appreciate that Mr. Bartender.”

“It’s called customer service, ma’am,” he said, getting her another drink. “I find it helps to keep my customers coming back.”

“Yes,” the Scientist said, nodding. “I’ve noticed it’s mostly the same people in here when I come in.”

“Mostly, ma’am,” the bartender said. “Especially when you come in.”

Huh.” She sipped her beer. “I see. And you wouldn’t tell them anything that could lead them to me, would you?”

“I don’t know anything to tell them, ma’am. I just aim to tell you that they come in every time you come in.”

“I won’t even ask who they are, sir. Thank you.” She left a hefty tip and didn’t finish her beer.

She knew they’d find the bar eventually. They always did. But so soon? And why did she have to learn about it just as the roses bloomed? Not that it mattered whether she knew about it now or not. There was no worrying anymore. The only thing she could do now was prepare for tomorrow.

The elevator took too long to get back to her lab even though it took only half a minute. She knew it was exactly thirty seconds because she oversaw the operation of every elevator in existence. She opened the door to her office and Popeye was typing on the computer. The big metal arm turned around in surprise at the sound of her entrance.

“Not today, Popeye,” she said. “The roses are red. The roses are red!”

Popeye waved and gave a thumbs up, then rolled out through the hall door to do who knows what.

“First things first,” she said out loud, even though Popeye had left the room. She set the last few macros and the computer went to work. She typed in the command to send Ellie’s conveyor belt to the beach for fifteen minutes, then she thought about her own wish.

Fifteen minutes with her daughter. That was worth at least as much as seeing the beach or meeting a famous celebrity, wasn’t it? Or was it worth more? Did she deserve it? But who was she to say that what they wanted was worth less than what she wanted?

No. Fifteen minutes of time through the holes was fifteen minutes of time through the holes, no matter where you went or what you did while you were there. That was the question, then, wasn’t it? Did she deserve the same fifteen minutes she offered the workers?

She thought she did. She was a worker, too. Technically. And fifteen minutes wasn’t much to ask. She had fought longer than anyone and had never taken her fifteen. Now was the time. This was
a major operation. There were so many distractions she could probably come up with a couple of extra fifteen minute blocks through the holes. Trudy was offered time that she didn’t take, she wanted the Scientist to take it instead. She typed out one more direction for the Walker-Haley fields to follow the next day and went straight to bed, trying to go to sleep like a child on Christmas Eve.

#     #     #

The day was long, longer than any day she could remember and she remembered a lot a lot of days. Christmas was never a thing that Fours looked forward to, but she had studied the history of the holiday and she knew the stories about how the children would react. She never understood it, though. Any Christmas she had as a child was too long ago to remember, and ever since she had discovered printer technology, anything she ever wanted was at the touch of a button. What presents could there be? But now she was about to get something a printer couldn’t give her. Well, technically it was the same technology making it possible, but it was something entirely different.

The Feast didn’t start until late into the afternoon and the operation until a little way into that. She spent her time waiting by going over every bot assignment and all of the hole placement timings and disc countdowns, imaging everything that could go wrong, any actors who would take what she offered and not do what she asked. She set redundancies for those who she thought might fail, and when she was satisfied the strategy would work as best as it could, it was time for her to take her fifteen. Or maybe she was only satisfied because she had to be, because she had no more time to obsess over every possibility. Either way, control was out of her hands now.

She left the computer to guide the process and went out into the hall. Mr. Kitty was there waiting for her. He meowed.

“Hello, Mr. Kitty,” she said. “Would you like to meet my daughter?”

He meowed again.

“Good,” the Scientist said. “She’s just an elevator ride away. There’s no time to waste.”

The elevator doors opened, Mr. Kitty meowed, and they both walked in for her fifteen minutes.

#     #     #

< XIII. Pardy     [Table of Contents]     XV. Haley >

Thanks again for joining us. I hope you enjoyed it. And if you want to read the full novel without waiting another seven weeks, just click through here to purchase it on Amazon.

Chapter 13: Pardy

Today brings us Tom’s second point of view chapter, and you might notice he’s thinking of himself as Pardy now rather than Officer Pardy.

But before we get on with that, I wanted to comment a little on yesterday’s last chance for first editions post. It looks like (I’m sorry hipsters) I’m going to extend that last chance until next Saturday because I realized that this coming Wednesday is my birthday. I think the author’s birthday might be a pretty good marketing opportunity, and I don’t want my updates to make the novel unavailable for purchase on that day, so I’m just going to wait until next Saturday to do it. Yes, you heard that right people, that means you have one more full week to slip into the hipster parade with us. Just click through here to buy the full paperback first edition and you’re a member of the club. Easy as that.

Now that we have the business news out of the way, here’s Pardy’s chapter. Enjoy:

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

XIII. Pardy

Pardy couldn’t stop wondering if he had made the wrong decision in asking for Outland 6. He had been on patrol for only a few hours and he already knew that the populace hated him, they disappeared any time he came near. There was no point in him walking the streets but to send the Sixers back inside for the few seconds it took him to pass by. This was what he chose, though. He wanted to find something out about that woman’s daughter, and this was the only way he knew how to do it.

He had filled out his forms, just like the Captain asked, and sent them straight to her first. She made him sit down so she could read them over, and when she was satisfied, she asked him which patrol he would like. She hinted that Outland 3 was flashy and upscale—with a lot of celebrities—but Outland 5 was where protectors went to make a real name for themselves, to go down in history. When he told her he wanted Outland 6, she didn’t believe him. She gaped at him, wide-eyed, then laughed. “Good one, Pardy,” she said. “But really. What patrol do you want?”

When he insisted that he was serious, she tried to convince him that he was making a mistake, that Outland 5 would serve him much better than Outland 6, which no one anywhere cared about, but he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t have it. He had to find that woman’s daughter and protect her, even if he couldn’t tell the Captain that was why he wanted 6 in the first place. She was going to have to accept that and send him there or deal with her superiors about the death of Rabbit. But he hadn’t told her that, either. She knew her career was in his hands as much as he knew his was in hers.

And so she gave it to him: Outland 6. But she made him go on a solo patrol which started not moments after his initiation was over, after his partner had died and Pardy had killed a mother. As a result, he found himself walking along the streets of Outland 6, in the dark of night, looking for a boy he wasn’t sure he would recognize, to ask him about a girl he wasn’t sure existed. He figured his best bet was to find the kid he had seen in the tree—the only person who hadn’t run when Pardy came around in protector gear last time—and the only place he knew to look was the last place he saw him.

His path to the Neutral Ground from the last checkpoint on his patrol took him through the alley he had killed the woman in without his realizing it until he was already there. He stopped when he did. The ground was still dark with her blood. No one cared to clean it. There was no point. This was Outland 6. Pardy pictured his son again and set off toward the Grounds with a renewed sense of urgency.

Even the Neutral Grounds were empty. Word of his coming had come before him. That, or no one cared to be out at this time anyway. He heard a rustling in the trees down the street and darted back into the alley to watch the very kid he was looking for—plus a little girl—chase after a cat along the Neutral Ground in front of him.

They were so small that they might as well have been walking. Pardy could have caught up to them in a few long strides, but he didn’t want to scare them away before he found out where they were going. He had to keep stopping to let them get further ahead before he continued his pursuit from alley to alley. At one time he thought the little boy looked back and saw him, but the kid kept running, trying to keep up with the little girl who was much faster than him. They turned down an alley, and Pardy had to sprint so he didn’t lose sight of them.

When he turned around the corner, the girl had climbed up on a dumpster, chasing the cat which seemed to disappear into the wall a few feet above it. “Hey! Stop!” Pardy called, running down the alley towards them, probably not the best idea if he actually wanted them to stop he realized too late.

The boy turned to see him storming down the alley, then sprinted wide-eyed the other way and disappeared around the corner. The girl tried to jump up to where the cat had vanished into the wall, but she couldn’t get high enough, so she crawled down the pile of boxes to get to the top of the dumpster just as Pardy got to the bottom of it.

“Stop right there,” Pardy said. “I need to talk to you.” He dodged back and forth to bar her escape.

“Yeah. Right,” the girl said. “I know better than that.” She faked one way and stepped the other, but Pardy was too fast. He was there to stop her no matter which way she went.

“I’m not going to hurt you, girl. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

“I’m not a girl,” the girl said, pulling a slingshot out of her back pocket and taking aim.

“No. I—”

“I’m not.” Sh—er—not-she held the slingshot steady, aiming it directly between his eyes. His helmet scanned her heartbeat and breathing which both indicated she was calmer than her voice betrayed. “You gonna kill me now?” she asked.

“What? No. I—Of course not. Why would you ask that?”

“That’s what your kind does,” the girl said. “Isn’t it? That’s what Pidgeon says. He knows.”

“Pidgeon?” Pardy remembered Rabbit.

“Do it, then!” the girl yelled, stomping her foot on the dumpster lid with a loud thump. “I know you want to! What’re you waiting for?”

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no.” He reached slowly to his cargo pants, and she backed closer to the wall, keeping the slingshot aimed at him. “Look,” he said. “I have some beef jerky here. I’ll give it to you if you put your weapon down and answer a few questions. That’s it. I promise. I would—I would never…kill you.” He grimaced.

The girl slowly let the tension out of her slingshot, slid it into her back pocket, and crept up to the edge of the dumpster to sit down with her legs dangling off, reaching her hand out toward him expectantly. “Well,” she said.

He fumbled through his pockets some more, searching for the jerky he had grabbed to give him some energy for this stupid shift. He hadn’t eaten in he didn’t know how long, but the girl seemed like she could use it more than him anyway. She looked like she hadn’t eaten in days. “There,” he said when had found the pocket it was in. “Here it is. Just like I said.” He handed it over and prepared to stop her from running off with it, but she just took a big bite and chewed loudly with her mouth open, kicking her dangling legs back and forth against the dumpster.

Pardy took off his helmet, lodging it up under one arm, and ruffled his hair. He could breath so much better without it on. “I—uh…” he said. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t trained to investigate or interrogate, he was trained to observe, find law breakers, and dispense justice. But he had to do something, this was the first and only person to actually stop and talk to him.

“Well,” the girl repeated through a mouth full of jerky.

“I—uhhh…” Why couldn’t he figure out what to say?

“You had some questions,” the girl said, still chewing. “I can’t give you your jerky back now… Unless you’re willing to wait a little while.” She giggled.

“No,” Pardy said, cringing. “Uh…No. That’s just—no. So…” He grasped for anything. “Do you know a lot of the kids around here?” he decided on. It was something at least.

“I ain’t snitchin on anyone if that’s what you’re asking,” the girl said, taking another bite of jerky and eyeing him suspiciously.

“No,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “No no no. That’s not—No. No one’s in trouble, okay. I’m just—I’m looking for a girl.”

She stood up and backed away, still chewing. “I told you I’m not a girl!”

“What? No. I—look. Have you heard about any of your friends, or anyone you know really, who—who’s lost their parents recently.”

She threw what jerky she had left at him. “Go away! I don’t want your stupid jerky!” She spit a half-chewed glob at his face and only barely missed.

“No,” Pardy said, waving his hands. “No, wait.” He fumbled through his pockets, looking for the necklace. The little not-girl was climbing the stack of boxes on the dumpster, trying to jump up to nowhere. “Look!” He held out the silver butterfly for her to see. “Look, I’m sorry. I have something for you.”

She turned to see the necklace, and her eyes widened in anger. She stormed down the boxes, leapt over the dumpster onto Pardy’s shoulders, and beat at his face with her tiny fists. “You! It was you! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”

Pardy dropped his helmet with a clang and pried her off, holding her out at arm’s length. The fury in her face brought tears to his eyes as she struggled against him, flailing her fists and kicking her legs. He tried to fight the tears back, but they wouldn’t surrender. They weakened him. He couldn’t hold her any longer. His arms gave way and the flurry of fists resumed. He had no recourse but to cower into the fetal position on the concrete and let the tears flow.

“It was me,” he said. “It was me. I’m sorry. I didn’t—I don’t deserve to live. I did it. I can’t even say it. I’m sorry.”

The tears kept coming but the pain of the fists had gone. He was still lying in the fetal position on the rough alley concrete, sobbing, and sniffling, and crying like a child. Then he felt two tiny arms wrap around him in a warm embrace. For a second he smelled his wife, and pictured his son, and he felt good. He was doing his best. For them. And he had found the girl he needed to protect.

As his sobbing subsided, he realized the arms weren’t around him in an embrace. They had intent. They were fumbling through his belt for something, and he only realized what it was when it was too late. He backed toward the dumpster, crab-crawling on hands and feet, and stared at the little not-girl pointing his own gun at him.

“Please,” he said. No more tears in sight. This type of danger he was trained to overcome. “If you pull that trigger, it won’t end well for either of us. There’s a biolock. If you try to fire it, it will explode in your hands.”

She took a step closer. “Explode in my hands, explode in your face, what’s the difference?”

“I deserve this. I know. What I did was wrong. But you don’t deserve it. There has to be a better way.”

“I don’t know, pig. I think there was probably a better way to handle my mom and dad, too. But you didn’t care about that. Did you?”

“You’re dad!” Pardy said, remembering why he had come in the first place. “You’re dad. He—he’s not—dead. I know where he is.”

He could see her grip on the gun loosening. “Yeah,” she said. “Right. How do you expect me to trust a lying pig?”

“I’m not…I’m not a pig. I’m a protector.”

“Protector, pig, same difference.”

“Look at me,” Pardy said, pointing at his eyes. “Just look at me for a second. Okay. I’m at your mercy. You can commit the same wrong that I did, and add your life to the count, or you can trust me just a little bit. I won’t even ask for the gun back. I just want you to take your finger off the trigger.”

Her hands started to shake. Pardy squirmed back a little closer to the dumpster. She wanted to pull the trigger, he could tell, but she wanted to see her father, too.

“You’re lying,” she said.

“No. I’m not lying. I swear it. Look.” Pardy felt around the ground for the necklace and held it out again. “See? We took your father, okay. They took your father. I’m not—I can’t help them kill anyone else. And I will get him back.”

“I don’t believe you!” She shoved the gun closer to his face.

“Here,” Pardy said. “Take it.” He dangled the necklace right in front of the gun’s barrel.

The girl took one hand off the trigger and grabbed the necklace. She slipped it into her pocket then put the gun right back to his head. “All that means is that you killed my mom,” she said.

“No. It means that I cared enough to keep it. It means that I came searching for you, and I found you. It means that I’m here to help you. I want to protect you. That’s what it means.”

“I don’t need your protection!” the girl yelled. Pardy flinched away from the gun. “Look at you.” She laughed. “I stole your gun while you were crying on the ground like a baby. If anything, you need my protection.”

As if on cue, a group of hooded figures came into the alley. They stopped at the Neutral Ground entrance and one yelled, “Hey! You two. What’s going on down there?”

The girl turned and pointed the gun at them. “None of your business!”

Pardy stood up. He searched for his helmet out of his peripheral vision but couldn’t find it quick enough without a 360 degree view. He reached for his gun before he remembered the little girl was still holding it. Just what he needed.

“Now move along!” the girl yelled, shaking the gun at them.

“You. Girl,” the voice from down the alley came again. “You the Server kid?”

“I’m not a girl!”

The hooded figures started to creep closer. The girl backed up, and Pardy stepped between her and them. “Give me the gun,” he said, his hands behind his back, not looking away from the slowly advancing gang. She handed it over and he pointed it at them. “Stop right there, citizens,” he called in the deepest voice he could muster. He wished he had his helmet on, with it’s voice modulator and aiming assistance technology, but he had practiced enough without a helmet to take care of this small problem. “Turn around and go on your way.”

Ha ha ha!” They laughed, still slowly approaching. “No,” one of them said. “We’ll take the girl, pig. She belongs to us now. If you go on your way, maybe we won’t roast you with her. And that’s a one time offer. You got that?”

They were closing faster, and some of them had started making loud animal noises, halfway between oinks and barks. The girl tugged on his vest. “It’s not worth it,” she said. “We can ditch them. Follow me.”

“If you take one more step, I’ll have no choice but to use deadly force,” Pardy said, ignoring the girl.

They didn’t stop. “Yeah right, pig. Try and stop us.” A couple of them broke into a run, and Pardy fired, knocking both to the ground with one shot each. The others stopped in shocked silence.

The girl pulled on his vest again and yelled, “Come on!”

They sprinted off, twisting and turning down the alleys, away from the Neutral Ground and into the streets, before the gang could gather themselves. They sprinted a few zigzag blocks, then ducked behind a dumpster. Pardy was breathing so heavily he could barely hear the footsteps running past as the gang went looking for them.

“Y—You shot them,” the girl stammered when the sound of them running by had disappeared. “You actually shot them.”

“Why were they coming for you?” Pardy said.

“You just killed two of those guys, didn’t you? You’re a killing machine. Is that the only thing you know how to do? Pidgeon was right.”

“They were coming after you. It was us or them. Why did they want you?”

“Because you killed my parents!”

Pardy stood up and peeked over the dumpster to see if anyone had heard her. There was no one to see. “I—We’re going to get your dad back,” he said when he crouched back down to her. “But why would they chase you because of that?”

“To put me in their orphanage. Duh. You took some of their best employees, and now, they want me as payment.”

“What orphanage?”

“I don’t know.” The girl shook her head. “But Pidgeon didn’t make it sound good.”

“Who’s Pidgeon?”

“Pidgeon,” she said, scoffing. “That kid you chased away earlier. He was supposed to go to the end of the Belt with me. I knew he’d never make it, though. But he lived in the orphanage. He would know. If he was here, he could tell us.”

“Okay,” Pardy said, nodding. “Well. The first thing I need to do is get out of this gear. Let’s go back toward the Grounds—er—Belt. I have a change of clothes there. C’mon.” He got up as if to start on their way, but she didn’t budge.

Um…No. They’ll be looking for me there. The only safe way is to go toward the Streets.”

“I can’t walk around in these clothes anymore,” Pardy said, looking down at himself. He had lost his helmet, but he still stuck out like a Sixer in Amaru’s Temple. “Not while we’re here. It draws too much attention. Everyone will be looking for a protector walking around with a little girl.”

“I’m not a girl!”

“Whatever,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “They’ll find us. I need to change or get back to the precinct. One or the other, and they’re both towards the Neutral Ground.”

“Whatever that is, I’m not going there,” she said, crossing her arms. “So you’ll have to leave me behind or come this way with me.” She turned her back to him.

Pardy sighed. This was the point of no return. He had found the girl he needed to protect, but how much was he willing to put on the line to do it? He was going way off regulations already, but hadn’t the Captain encouraged him to do just that? Not only that, she had pushed him into it by giving him this shift. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.

“Well then.” She smiled. “Let’s go this way. We’ll get a little further from the Belt, so they’re not looking for us, then head west out and beyond their reach.”

“But we won’t be able to get your father back unless we go back to the transport bay,” Pardy said in one last ditch effort to get her to comply. He didn’t have time to go running around Outland 6, and he didn’t want to have to pick her up and carry her where he needed to go.

She was about to head the other way but stopped. “You’re really serious about this?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you.”

“I’ve heard that before.” She shook her head.

“I mean it,” Pardy said. “Look.” He pulled the picture of his son and wife out of his pocket and handed it to her.

“This looks like a baby Pidgeon,” she said with a laugh.

“That’s my son. I see a lot of him in you. If I was…gone, I would want someone to protect him for me, so I want to protect you. I will protect you. I promise.”

She rubbed her finger across the picture. “He looks like you, too. You look like Pidgeon.”

Pardy laughed. “I wish I hadn’t scared him away. Maybe he could help us right now.”

“Maybe he’s trying to,” the girl said, shrugging. “Help me, at least. He hates pigs.”

Pardy laughed again. “Are you ready to go back toward the transport bay? I know a place where we can lay low for a while.”

“If that’s where my dad is,” she said, eyeing him.

“It is.” Pardy nodded. “I promise.”

“Well…” She shrugged. “Let’s go, then. But let me lead the way. I have more experience in the Streets than you do.”

“Okay,” Pardy said. He didn’t care as long as she led in the direction he wanted her to go. “Just take us toward that tree your friend was climbing. Do you know the one?”

“You saw that?” the girl said, blushing.

“I—uh…yeah,” Pardy said, blushing himself. “I used to climb trees when I was a kid. It was the first thing I ever saw in Outland 6, that tree.”

“Outland 6? What does that mean?”

“You know, Outland 6,” Pardy said. “The world you live in. The one we’re in now.”

“I know the Streets and the Belt and that’s it. This Outland you’re talking about must be someplace else.”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Pardy said, shaking his head. He wasn’t supposed to be talking to a Sixer about the other worlds anyway, even if he was already this far off regulations. “My shift is supposed to end soon. We need to get to the costume closet and get you set up so I can figure out how to get your dad out.”

“Costume closet?” The girl raised an eyebrow.

“You’ll see,” Pardy said. “Come on.” He started around the dumpster, but she pulled his arm to stop him.

“Hey,” she said. “Me first, remember. I know this place better than you.”

“Oh,” Pardy said. “Right. Go ahead.”

She poked her head around the dumpster then started moving in bursts. She crossed the street into another alley and stopped in the shadows to make sure no one was coming before she went a few steps further and stopped to peek around the alley’s corner. He kept track of their position as they moved and she seemed to be taking them a roundabout way but in the right direction.

“The closet’s on this alley,” he said when they got far enough back east.

“Alright,” she said. “How close to the Belt?”

“Right off it.”

She sighed. “You have got to be kidding me,” she said, shaking her head. “Alright, well, we’re not taking the straight route, that’s for sure. Follow me.”

As they dipped and dashed through the alleyways, Pardy thought that this gir—er—or, whatever she was, didn’t need any protecting. She was leading the way. She knew what she was doing. She was taking a circuitous route like he had been trained to do, and she was only a child from Outland 6. How could she be so competent without any training? She was smarter and more able than his son, and his son must have been a few years older than her. How was that possible?

He was still thinking about it when he felt the thud on the back of his neck and his mind blacked out to nothing.

#   #   #

Pardy woke to the sour aroma of waking salts. He tried to jump up into a defensive position, but his arms and legs were tied to a tiny chair with linen. Two dark shadows blocked the light shining in his face, blinding him. One of them spoke.

Tsk tsk tsk. You’re all alone now, protector. You know that much at least. Don’t you?”

He struggled against the restraints and grunted.

Aww. He still thinks he’s in control of his life,” the second voice said.

“Protector. What’s your name?” the first voice said.

“Where’s the girl?” Pardy demanded. “What did you do with her?” He fought against his restraints.

She’s not a girl!” the second voice said in a mocking tone. “And it’s you you should be worrying about, protector.”

“Now,” the first voice came back. “What were you doing with her? What use is a little girl to the likes of you?”

“She’s no use to me. I’m not trying to use her. I want to protect her.”

“Protect? Ha ha ha!” The second voice cackled.

“Like you protected her mother, yes?” the first said.

“I know that was wrong,” Pardy said, shaking his head. “I want to make it right. I—I already talked to—”

A door groaned and more light poured in from behind the two shadows. Two shorter figures came in, one of them yelling, “I told you to get me when he woke up! He’s the only one who can get my dad!”

“We told you to stay out!” the first voice said.

“No,” the girl said. “You don’t own me. Set him free so he can get my dad!”

“Listen to her,” Pardy said.

“Shut up!” the first voice yelled. “Shut up all of you!”

“But I—” Pardy protested.

“No! Shut up. Answer this, protector, why are you here?”

“To protect her,” Pardy said, nodding in the direction of the shadow he thought was the little girl.

“You know you’re not gonna be able to get her dad out,” the first voice said. “I know that badge and your uniform. You’re an Officer. You don’t have the power it takes to affect something that important.”

“What?” Pardy said. “No, I—”

“Get her out of here!”

The second form ushered the two small shadows out of the room and closed the door. It was only Pardy and the first voice left.

“Look, protector,” it said. “What’s your name?”

Pardy didn’t answer.

“The girl wants you to get her dad back, but you can’t. We both know that. It’s not your fault. Now whether or not it’s your fault that you killed her mom is a little more of a gray area. Or a white area, should we say? Protector’s white.”

Pardy struggled against the restraints again, moving the chair with his effort. “I didn’t want to kill her,” he grunted. “She threatened me.”

Ha ha!” the voice laughed. “Sure. Sure, protector. It wasn’t your fault. No, you were just following orders, weren’t you? You’re a cog in a big machine and you alone can’t grind against the forces that tell you which way to turn. Sure, protector. Believe that if you must. You are only human, aren’t you? You are human, right? You bleed?”

Pardy struggled to break free, but the shadow only laughed.

“Oh. I know you are protector. It takes a human to fight like that, a human to gnash against chains he never expects to break free of. You are a human, protector. Not a cog. And you pulled that trigger. No one else.”

The door opened and closed, letting the second figure back in.

“Do you have everything under control?” the first said.

“Yes, yes,” the second said. “She won’t bother us again. She knows what the deal is now.”

“Did you hear that, protector?” the first said. “She knows what the deal is now. She knows what we’re going to do to you for what you did to her. Do you know, protector?”

Pardy struggled against his restraints and the two figures laughed together.

Struggle, struggle, all you want,” the second voice sang.

“Protector—huh huh—protector. It’s okay.” The first voice forced down its laughter. “Protector, we aren’t going to do anything to you. That’s why the girl won’t come in. She knows we won’t hurt you. In fact, my partner here has some food for you.”

The overhead lights flipped on. Two short, dirty-haired, dirty-everythinged women crouched in front of him. No, they weren’t crouching. They were standing, but their backs were so hunched as to produce the illusion of crouching. They looked so small and frail. He almost wanted to laugh at the thought that they could hurt him. He chastised himself for somehow being caught by them, a giant knocked out by ants. One of them was holding a bowl of steaming something, and the other was empty-handed. Pardy looked around the room for his gun but it wasn’t anywhere in sight.

Ha ha! You called it,” the one holding the bowl said, the second voice.

“Your gun’s not here, protector,” the woman who owned the first voice said. “You can stop searching. We got rid of your comm link, too. Don’t worry. They won’t know where you are. In fact, they’ll think you’re in two places at once. Huh huh.”

They burst into laughter again. Pardy looked at his wrist and his comm was gone. “How did you know?”

“You’re not the first protector to try to help a Sixer.” The old woman shoved the bowl into Pardy’s chest, spilling hot slop over his white uniform. When she realized he couldn’t use his hands, she put it on his lap and untied them. “And you won’t be the last.”

“Settle down, now,” the other said. “Let me talk to him. You go take care of the girl.”

The door slammed and Pardy’s stomach growled. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was. He sniffed the soup and looked closely at a spoonful.

“Don’t worry,” the woman with the first voice said. “She made it, not me.” She pointed over her shoulder at the other woman who had already left. “It wouldn’t kill you either way, but this way it tastes better going down.”

Pardy took a big spoonful, and it tasted much better than he had expected, much better than all the nutritionally balanced meals he had eaten in his life, the ones designed to make him a perfect protector. He couldn’t help shoveling it into his face.

“That’s real cooking there, protector,” the woman said, laughing. “Homemade by human hands. You can have all of it you want, too. So don’t be shy. Heh heh.”

Pardy ate and ate until the spoon couldn’t scoop anymore.

“Now. Protector,” the woman said. “Your arms are free, I couldn’t stop you from leaving if I tried, and we’ve fed you from our own feed stores. My name is Rosa, and I want to help you help the girl. So, do you think you can trust me with your name?”

He didn’t trust her still. She was right, though. With his hands free he could easily get past these frail, old women, but she probably also knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He had to see to it that the girl—he still didn’t even know her name—was protected. These people seemed to also want to protect her, but he wasn’t sure how they could. Still he had no choice. He had to at least hear them out until he could find a better way to protect the girl. Maybe they could help him find that way.

“Pardy,” he said.

“Pardy?” Rosa repeated. “That sounds like a surname. Do you have anything more…intimate?”

He didn’t understand why he didn’t want to tell her, but he didn’t. “Tom.”

“Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Was that so hard? It’s so nice to finally meet you, Tom. Would you like me to untie your legs? That can’t be comfortable.”

Pardy started untying them himself, but she helped with the other leg. When they were done, he stood and stretched his muscles. He had to stoop so he didn’t hit his head on the short ceiling, and Rosa looked even smaller from the new vantage point. He still didn’t understand how he could let them knock him unconscious.

“There,” she said. “That’s better. Isn’t it?”

“What do you plan on doing with me?” he asked, finally back in control of his fate, gun or no.

“Do with you?” Rosa laughed. “No, Tom,” she said, shaking her head. “I thought it was clear that we couldn’t do anything with you if we tried. We don’t want to do anything with you at all. We want do it for you. And for the girl, of course.”

“Where is she?” Pardy demanded. “I want to talk to her.”

“Yes, well, you will. But first you have to understand that you can’t get her father back. Now do you understand that?”

“You don’t know that. I’m a protector. I can—”

“You can shoot her mother when a superior officer is nowhere near?” Rosa frowned with her lips in a tight line. “We know how it happened, Tom. If you can’t resist the other cogs when they’re nowhere near you, how do you expect to go into the heart of the machine to bring her father back out?”

“I—I could—”

Y—You would fail. Get arrested yourself. I don’t intend to sound rude when I say this, either, but you have to know that we can’t lose whatever chance of protecting Ansel you actually do offer us.”

“Ansel?”

“That’s her name, Tom,” Rosa said with a smile. “Ansel. And her parents were Eva and Andy. You killed one and locked the other up. No one else, Tom. You. And do you know why?”

“I was ordered—” Pardy stuttered. “I was ordered to stop her.”

“Ordered by who, Tom?”

“By my Captain—My superior officer.”

“And who ordered your Captain to order you?”

“I don’t know. The Major, or the Chief, or—”

“Exactly, Tom. There are more and more. Your boss, your boss’s boss, their bosses. But where does it end? Is it bosses all the way up? What exactly are you protecting?”

“Property, liberty, life,” Pardy replied by reflex.

“Exactly,” Rosa sneered. “Property first, then liberty, then life. In that order. You’re protecting someone else’s property, too. Not ours. Not here. Not in Six. Have you ever heard of property being returned to Six?”

“Six has no property,” Pardy said. “Everything they have they’ve stolen.”

“That’s not true, Tom.” Rosa shook her head. “You spend some time here with us and you’ll learn that.”

“I don’t care about any of this.” He was getting annoyed. He clenched his fists. He had to fight the urge to hit this trash for talking to him like she was his superior. He couldn’t keep the edge out of his voice. “Where’s the—Where’s Ansel? I want to see her.”

“Alright, alright. I’ll get her. But I’ll need to talk to you after you’re done telling her you can’t save her father. I can offer you a way to actually protect our mutual friend. That’s what we both want, isn’t it? Now, I’ll go get her. You and I will speak again soon enough.” She swept out of the room, and shortly after, Ansel stormed in.

“They said you can’t get my dad out,” she said, crossing her arms.

“They might be right,” Pardy said, shaking his head.

“But you said you could.”

“I thought I could. I was lying to myself, though. I’m just an Officer. I don’t have that kind of power.”

Ansel hit him on the arm, and he flinched away, hitting his head on the roof. “You also said you wouldn’t lie!”

“I didn’t know I was lying,” he said, rubbing the quickly forming knot on his head. “I wanted it to be true, so I thought it was. That’s not the same as lying.”

“A lie’s a lie.” She hit him again for good measure.

“I may not be able to get your father back, but I still promise to do whatever I can to protect you.”

“They told me you’d say that, too. They told me it may not be true either.”

“They don’t know me, Ansel. How would they know what I’ll do?”

“How do you know my name?” Ansel asked, raising her hand to hit him again.

“I—they told me,” Pardy said.

He relinquished himself to the slaps as she said, “And I don’t even know yours! They know you better than I do! And they knew you were lying even when you didn’t!” One slap on the arm for each word of the accusation.

“I—well—yes,” Pardy said. “That’s—”

She hit him again. “Then they know you better than you do.”

He didn’t know how to answer. He gave up and plopped back down into the short seat. He huffed and looked at Ansel’s size compared to Rosa’s, wondering how old she actually was. She could be older than his son. “Tom,” he said.

“What?”

“My name’s Tom,” he said. “Tom Pardy.”

“Well, Tom,” Ansel said, extending a hand. “I’m Ansel Server.”

“Nice to meet you Ansel,” he said, taking it.

“You said you’d do anything to protect me, right? Well Rosa and Anna said they have a plan that you could help them with. Pidgeon seems to think the world of them, but I wouldn’t trust his judgment. I don’t even know if their plan has anything to do with getting my dad back, but I need you to figure out what it is before I can decide what to do next. What do you say?”

Tom didn’t trust Pidgeon’s judgment either. Nor did he trust Rosa or Anna. He didn’t trust their methods—ambushing him in the alley and tying him up—and he didn’t trust that they wanted to protect Ansel. He didn’t trust a Sixer to look out for anyone but themselves. But who was he to talk? He was the one who had killed Ansel’s mother. He had gotten ambushed by two scrawny, old, hunchbacked Sixers. He was protecting a Sixer, and maybe a Sixer was exactly the help he needed to figure out how best to do that.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t trust them.”

“I ain’t asking you to trust them.” Ansel scoffed. “Just hear them out and tell me the plan, then I can decide from there.”

He couldn’t argue with that logic. Even if it would be him deciding from there and not her. “I’ll hear them out,” he said, nodding.

#   #   #

< XII. Ellie     [Table of Contents]     XIV. The Scientist >

Thanks again for joining us. And don’t forget, you have only one week left to be a hipster among hipsters and buy the true first edition of The Asymptote’s Tail through this link. Thanks for reading along. And have a great weekend.

Last Chance for First Editions

Some of you might already have seen that I tweaked the cover of The Asymptote’s Tail and wrote a new (much better I think) blurb for the back cover of the novel. Well, I plan on putting those changes into effect starting tomorrow after I post the new chapter. This means that your chance to be a super hipster who read my novels before I was even close to cool is coming to an end. If you bought one of the 31 already sold hard copies, thank you, you’re already a hipster, you have nothing to worry about. If not, buy your copy before tomorrow to get a true first edition. [Update: This date has been extended. You now have until next Saturday, August 15, to get first editions. See here for more info.] You never know, maybe I’ll actually hit it big and this will become a huge collectors item one day. Or maybe you’ll just be a hipster who likes reading things that never became “cool”. Either way, this is your last chance to do it. No regrets.

That’s really all for this post. Just fair warning. But here’s also that new cover and blurb in case you wanted to see/read them. Thanks for your time:

Cover of The Asymptote's Tail

Hundreds of years in the future, when 3D printers provide every luxury we could desire, from food to clothing, entertainment, and beyond, when androids perform what little labor is left necessary in the resulting boon, and when we have no more need for cars, taking electric elevators wherever we want to go, whether it be upstairs, across the country, or to another world, humankind will be living in a utopia, right?

Ask Ansel, a resident of Outland 6, the poorest world of Inland. When a “protector”–clad in white plated armor and cargo pants and wearing a screaming facemask that glows neon with every word–allegedly kills her parents, she sets out to find them.

As Ansel’s world intertwines with that of the protectors, her actions set in motion the destruction of the walls of ignorance between all the worlds of Inland, forcing seven people–Ansel, the “protector”, a servant, a black cat, an actor, an assembly line worker, and a scientist, each previously oblivious of the others’ existence–to come to terms with worlds they thought long dead to history or impossible for centuries to come.

The Asymptote’s Tail, an epic dystopian science fiction novel and the first in the four-part Infinite Limits series, tells their story. Are you ready to learn the truth it holds?

Chapter 12: Ellie

We’re back today with Ellie’s second point of view chapter. Thanks for sticking with us this long, and if you don’t want to wait any longer, don’t forget you can purchase a full copy of the novel on Amazon here.

Ellie McCannik

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

XII. Ellie

She sat in the same booth she had when Gertrude first opened her eyes to the truth of the world only yesterday. The air had the same stale, smoky smell, and most of the same people were there. That is, everyone who was there now was there last time, but not everyone who was there last time was there now. Ugh. Did it really matter? She was just distracting herself from the reality of the situation.

That woman—the Scientist as she like to call herself for some egotistical reason—she was the one who had really given Ellie the opportunity. She had given her more than just an opportunity, though. She had given her responsibility. What else was opportunity but the responsibility to put that privilege to use?

The Scientist had said that she could fulfill Ellie’s desire to see the beach. She looked a little upset when Ellie asked for it, but Ellie didn’t care. She had always promised her son that she would take him to the ocean, and even though he wasn’t alive to see it for himself, she still wanted to hold true to that promise. But would she stay out there forever, or would she come back to help the Scientist fight for freedom?

“Fight for freedom” though? Ptuh. Ellie didn’t even know what that meant. The Scientist wasn’t specific about it, either. But that’s what this meeting was supposed to be about, right? To get the specifics about what she was supposed to do for “the cause”. And they didn’t even know when she was supposed to do whatever it was she was supposed to be doing. It didn’t give her much confidence in the plan she was becoming a part of.

Her beer was getting low and it was a bit past the time she was supposed to be contacted. She swirled the dregs of her drink around and took a small sip, surveying the room again. It was still just the regulars, no one she didn’t recognize. Who would the Scientist send, anyway? They would have to be able to keep a secret to be a part of the Scientist’s organization, so the anonymity of her bar would be protected, but how was she supposed to recognize the person other than the fact that she didn’t recognize them?

She topped off her beer and thought about leaving when the door opened and in came Gertrude, walking like she owned the place. She went straight to the bar and ordered without looking over at Ellie in the corner booth. Maybe she hadn’t seen her.

Ellie walked up behind Gertrude and patted her on the back. “Trudy, friend,” she said. “I thought you said this was a secret you could keep.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shrugging her off. “Do you see anyone else here with me?”

“I thought you understood I meant from yourself as well.” Ellie smiled.

“Dear,” Gertrude said, looking into Ellie’s eyes. “I know it.” The bartender set two beers in front of them. “Here. Take this and let’s go to the booth. I’ll explain.”

Ellie took the beer and stared at Gertrude. She let her walk to the booth first, eyeing her every step suspiciously. When they sat down and Gertrude said nothing, Ellie said, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh. Come on, dear,” Gertrude said, waving the question away. “You’re smarter than that. And you don’t dislike me that much, do you? You wouldn’t like to have a beer with your dear friend Trudy every now and again?”

Ellie took a swig. “So you’re the contact.”

Gertrude looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Of course, dear,” she whispered. “The less you know about the organization the better for everyone. That way you know nothing they would want to get out of you, and if they did get it out of you, it’s not enough to take down the entire thing.”

“Get it out of me?” Ellie said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, get it out of you. The Scientist did tell you that you’d be risking more than death, didn’t she?”

Ellie hadn’t realized how serious those threats were until Gertrude repeated them. She took a gulp of beer and nodded. “She did.”

“Okay. Then you know what I mean by get it out of you. Are you still willing to go through with it? If you want to walk away, it’s better that you do it now. After you know your mission, you’ll be in considerably more danger.”

Ellie nodded.

“Well then,” Gertrude said. “As it turns out, the operation begins tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Ellie’s faith in the plan dwindled a little further.

“Yes, tomorrow. And you won’t be the only one going through, or coming back. So there’s no leeway on that.”

Ellie nodded.

“Good. You’re scheduled as the only QA worker in our building for tomorrow afternoon. You’ll work your shift as normal—and this is going to be a looong, boring shift, because everyone’ll be at the Christmas Feast—but when the bell rings at the end of it, you have fifteen minutes to visit the destination of your choosing by crawling through the conveyor belt.”

“Fifteen minutes isn—” Ellie said.

After fifteen minutes,” Gertrude cut her off, “the door will close, whichever side of it you’re on. Fifteen minutes isn’t a lo—

“That’s what I’m saying,” Ellie said, taking a drink of her beer.

“Ellie, listen to me. Do you want to do this?”

“Of course I do. But fifteen minutes? That’s not worth—”

“Fifteen minutes is more than most people get, sweetheart. Most people never get to see the other side for their entire life. The other sides, Ellie. There are more than just two.” Gertrude had gotten a little loud so she looked around to see if anyone was listening.

Ellie knew she was right, though. Gertrude was risking herself just to give Ellie a chance that no one she had ever known had ever had. And what was Ellie doing? She was complaining that they weren’t giving her enough time. She could take all the time she wanted, she only had to worry about surviving over there on her own to do that. Who was she to be upset at Gertrude for passing on information, anyway?

“Have you ever seen it?” Ellie asked.

Gertrude shook her head, looked into her glass, and took a sip. “Not yet, dear. No. That’s not the place for me. Nor the job. I’m too set in my ways. I’ll see it when we’re all done here and no sooner.”

“You mean the—errevolution.” The word tasted bad in Ellie’s mouth, it was hard to spit out. She took a sip of beer to get rid of the aftertaste.

“If that’s what you want to call it, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “I prefer the struggle. I’ll do my duty until I’m of no more value to the struggle, then maybe I’ll take a gander at that beach of yours. I hear that’s what you’ve chosen. Am I right?”

Ellie blushed. She took a sip of beer. “That’s just a silly old dream we used to have.”

“I hear it’s wonderful.” Gertrude smiled. “The Scientist has told me all about it.”

Ellie looked at her suspiciously. “How much do you know about this Scientist, though?”

Gertrude looked around again then leaned in close to whisper her answer. “That one is an enigma. Hardest person to find gossip on that I’ve ever met. No one knows much of anything about her. Though there are stories. Rumors mostly. But they’re all so outlandish it’s hard to believe any of them.”

“But she can control where the conveyor belts let out,” Ellie said. “I know we don’t send stacks of bacon and eggs to the beach. So she can—she can change where it goes or whatever. Like teleportation or something.”

“It’s the same way the elevators work, dear,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “She can control and direct those, too. There’s no denying her knowledge or power. It’s her intentions and history that I have a hard time getting my grasp on.”

“But you trust her,” Ellie said. “You think she’s doing the right thing.”

“If I could be said to know anything about what she’s doing, I would say it’s the right thing. She’s never hesitated to answer any of my questions—well, she’s answered most of them—and she’s shown me things you would never believe. I’ve known her for a long time now, and I’ve never seen her do anything but the right thing. So, yeah, I guess you could say I do trust her.”

Ellie took a sip of beer. “Now I just have to decide if I trust you.”

Gertrude laughed. “And I you.”

Ellie realized again that Gertrude was putting just as much faith into her as she was putting into Gertrude. It was a mutual dependency, a mutual distrust. “What is it I have to do to earn this opportunity, then?”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “It’s not like that. The Scientist asks that I’m as clear as I can be on that point. This isn’t a payment you’re making. This is another option you have. It’s an opportunity, not a requirement.”

“So I could just go and sit fifteen minutes with my toes in the sand and come back to my normal life with no problems at all?”

“With no problems from the Scientist. And she’d do everything she could to make sure you had no problems from anyone else, either.”

“Everything she could?”

“She’d cover your digital trail. Everything else would be up to you.”

“Digital trail?” Gertrude seemed to be talking in code.

“Security recordings and conveyor belt logs and all that,” Gertrude said, waving her hands. “The things the protectors would use to find you. I don’t know.”

“And if I stayed on the beach for longer than fifteen minutes?”

“You’d be on your own.”

Ellie shook her head. “What’s my third option?”

“Help us in our concerted attack on the system that prevents any other worker from visiting the same beach you’re visiting.”

Ellie took a swig of beer. She didn’t know what help she could be in something that sounded so militaristic, but she was intrigued. “Concerted attack?”

“Like I said, you won’t be the only one going through. Not even close. We’ve been planning this maneuver for months. That’s why it’s so easy to get you across unnoticed. Their security will be preoccupied.”

“But what part am I supposed to take in all this?” Ellie still didn’t think she had any valuable skills.

“It’s simple. You take these.” Gertrude set a pouch on the table. “Each one is a little disc with a red button. You take the paper backing off, stick each disc to each door in your hall, and press the red buttons to activate them. After that, you have ten minutes to get out of the building or you’ll be there when they…blow up.” She whispered the last two words.

Blow up?” Ellie whisper-yelled back.

“They’re,” Gertrude looked around the bar to make sure no one was eavesdropping, “explosives.”

“Explosives!” Ellie said too loudly.

Gertrude laughed unnaturally loudly herself in response. “Ha ha ha! Yes! An explosive drink that one. I’ll order two.” She slapped her hand on the table and stood to go to the bar.

Explosives? The Scientist wanted her to blow up the QA hall. That was her “opportunity”. What kind of opportunity ended with her destroying her workplace, her entire means of existence? That was no opportunity. That was payment. That was stupid. Why would anyone ever agree to it? The Scientist should have come out with that from the beginning. No. She wouldn’t do it. Especially if she could go spend fifteen minutes on the beach and come back to her normal life either way.

But what kind of life was that? Working for the people who had killed her son until she could find some other way to get back at them. Well here was a way to get her revenge right now.

Gertrude sat back at the booth with two tiny glasses. She set one in front of Ellie. “Cheers,” she said, holding up her own tiny glass.

“What is it?”

“A fireball,” Gertrude said with a shrug. “I don’t know what it is. I just had to get something explosive. Now tap my glass and take the shot.”

Ellie picked up the tiny thing, tapped it against Gertrude’s, and downed its contents in one gulp. Living up to its name, it burned all the way down her throat and made a fireball in her stomach. “Explosive,” she choked out.

“Now this is the best you can do for us on such short notice, dear,” Gertrude said, unphased by her own fireball. “It requires no training, and it goes a long way to furthering our multi-prong approach. And I know what you’re thinking, but you won’t lose your job over it. They’ll just move you to another hall to do your work. The Scientist, dear, she already took care of it. I made sure. I work in the same building, you know. And if you do lose it, she’ll see to it that you’re taken care of anyway. She lives up to her word, Ellie. Trust me.”

“But only if I do this for her,” Ellie said. “If I set the bombs and blow the place up.”

“There won’t be any people there, dear. It’s just a building we’ll destroy, a tool they use to oppress us. And I told you, she’ll take care of you whether you set the discs or not. This is all up to you now, remember. It’s your choice. You can go and live on the beach forever, or visit the beach and come back to your normal life, or visit the beach and do something to stop them from preventing anyone else’s seeing it. Whatever you decide, the Scientist supports you and she’ll do everything she can to help.”

“This sounds too good to be true,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“It is too good to be true. But it’s also true. You have the discs now. And you have the timing. That timing’s strict, do you understand? That’s the one aspect you have no control over. There’s no helping that.”

“So her power’s not endless,” Ellie said.

“No one’s is.” Gertrude shook her head.

“And that’s it, then?”

“That’s it. Until tomorrow. And remember to work your entire shift as normal. Security won’t be down until after that.”

“How will I let you know if I did it?”

Gertrude laughed. “We’ll know, dear. It should be obvious when we try to go back to work in the morning, don’t you think?”

Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle at herself. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’re right about that. As long as I do it right.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Gertrude smiled. “It’s simplified. Easier than work on an assembly line. Just rip, stick, press, rip, stick, press. You do that, you have twenty five minutes after the end of your shift to get out. You can’t mess it up.”

Ellie finished her beer. She noticed Gertrude’s had been empty for some time. She was going to say something about it when Gertrude cut her off before she could get started. “You need anything else, dear?” she said. “I’ve got the family to see back home, it being the holidays and all.”

Ellie was confused. She thought Gertrude had lost everyone. That was supposed to be why she had gotten her pity promotion. She wanted to stop her and ask about it, but she knew the feeling of not wanting to be where you were, so she settled for one last question. “With all the work you do, and all the danger you put yourself in, do you—Is it worth it?”

Gertrude smiled. She looked into Ellie’s eyes, but she looked through her, not at her, seeing something else. She eventually nodded and said, “Yes, dear. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever found worth doing. I never feel like I’m doing anything wholly moral unless I’m working to move the struggle forward.”

“I hope you’re right.” Ellie shrugged.

Gertrude stood from the table. “Me, too, dear,” she said. “Me, too. Now don’t forget your pouch. If someone finds that, the Scientist may not be able to protect you. Have a good night, too. And have a great Christmas, whatever you decide to do. If you need somewhere to enjoy the holiday, don’t be afraid to stop by, dear. Here’s my address.” She set a slip of paper on the table next to the pouch

“Thanks, Trudy,” Ellie said, putting the address and the pouch in her pocket, careful not to press any of the buttons on the discs inside. “You have a good Christmas, too.” She didn’t think she’d be visiting the old lady, but she did appreciate the gesture.

“I will, dear,” Gertrude said. “Bye.” She waved as she left.

Ellie sat staring at her empty glass, deciding between getting another here or drinking one at home. Ugh. Why did Gertrude have to be such a nice, likeable, good person? It was so much easier to hate her for what she appeared to be than to truly get to understand who she was. But now that Ellie was starting to know who she was, it was impossible to hate her. It was impossible not to see her as an omen of the future, too. An omen of Ellie’s own future.

She never thought she was being moral unless she was furthering the struggle. What was that? Was she being pious or honest? Was she lording superiority or offering her actual opinion?

Ellie shook her head. No. Gertrude was helping. She was saying what she honestly believed. Ellie was taking out her frustration over the decision she had to make on Gertrude. She needed a drink to settle her nerves, and she didn’t want to stay out in public with a pouch full of bombs in her pocket, so she decided that going home was the best option.

When she looked up from her glass, the bar was empty except for her and the bartender. She brought her glass to the bar and thanked him, then headed out into the cool, dark air.

The street was just as empty as the bar. Everyone was home with their families, even Gertrude. Trudy. There was an elevator between Ellie and home, but the cool air and exercise was welcome, so she decided to walk down Elysian instead of taking the shortcut.

What was morality anyway? Nothing. Anything. Whatever you made of it. Gertrude thought the struggle was moral. The Scientist did too, probably. And her classes and church had taught Ellie that toil was moral, work was honorable. But what did they have to say about the price she had paid?

Nothing.

What was moral? That was a hard question to answer, no doubt. But she did know what wasn’t moral. She knew the way they worked and toiled to produce things they would never see was immoral. She knew the loss of life for that production was immoral. She knew those things were wrong, but what was right?

Fighting against that had to be right, didn’t it? Fighting against the immoral, righting wrongs. How could that not be moral? How could it be?

She groaned and wished she had taken the elevator. She needed that beer now more than ever, and two blocks was still too far. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the sight of a small, dark form, running along beside her to sit down directly in her path and meow.

“Git!” she yelled, stomping to shoo it away.

The cat ran a little further down the street and meowed again.

“What do you want? I don’t have any food.”

The cat waited until she got a few steps away then ran off ahead again. When it got to Ellie’s apartment, it rubbed its face on the door jamb as if it knew she were going in that one.

Ellie kicked it away when she got there. “Shoo,” she said as she opened the door, but the cat ran through her legs and up the first flight of stairs.

“You’re not coming with me,” she said, climbing up after it. “And now you’re locked inside.” She chuckled.

When she got almost to the top of each flight, the cat ran up to the next. It licked itself a few times, and ran up to the next, licked itself as she climbed, then ran up to the next, all the way to the top floor where Ellie lived.

She got out her key and unlocked the door then turned to the cat and laughed. “See,” she said. “You’re not coming in. Now git!”

She slipped through the door as quickly as she could and slammed it shut, ensuring the cat couldn’t follow her. Satisfied, she carefully slipped the pouch out of her pocket and set it on her dresser. With a sigh, she crossed back to the fridge to get a beer—her last one—then collapsed onto the bed.

This was her home. One room and a bathroom. Her bed was on the same wall as the door, and when you walked in, you walked straight into the fridge. There was room enough between the fridge and the bed to walk, but not to open the fridge all the way. On the other side of the fridge was the door to the bathroom. The dresser was at the foot of the bed, and the last wall had a counter with two stove tops and a sink. She took it all in, sighed deep, and sipped her beer, staring at the pouch on her dresser.

There went her long weekend. At least she would still get Monday off. Or she could be sitting on the beach, fishing for food, and sleeping under the stars, instead of sitting in this tiny room. Could she do that?

Could she set bombs in the QA hall and blow the place to bits? That she thought she could do. She wouldn’t feel great about it, a little vindicated maybe, and it would never bring her son back. They would probably never even know it was her who did it, but then she could at least say that she had done something, changed something, affected something. And it’s not like anyone would be hurt. It would be a few halls, one building. That’s it.

But that wasn’t it. There was a concerted effort. She was just a piece in a bigger strategy. A pawn? No. Pawns didn’t have a choice. Did she have a choice, though? Gertrude had made it sound like she did, but she made it sound like she didn’t, too. She was full of contradictions. This entire thing was. Ellie’s understanding of it was continuously in flux. She wasn’t sure if Gertrude was a senile old lady, not worth the time of day, or a wise old soul, sent to guide her on the path to morality.

Pffft. Here came morality again, creeping its ugly head into the conversation. There was no morality. Even if there was, no one cared. Morality only works if it’s reciprocal. Unless others are moral, you have no room to be. Then again, if no one is ever moral, then no one will ever be moral. Another contradiction. What came first, morality or the moral?

She took a big swig. Moral didn’t matter. What mattered was what she was going to do. Gertrude’s morality had no bearing on that. Gertrude and the Scientist had done all that they could to get her there, now it was up to her to walk through the door.

She sighed again, but this time it was a sigh of relief. Tomorrow she would finally see the beach, she would bury her feet in the sand, feel the breeze on her face, and on top of that, she would throw a wrench in their machine on her way out. She took another swig and caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. There on her counter, rubbing its face on her sink faucet, was the black cat from outside.

“How did you get in here?” she said, opening the door and going around the bed to shoo it out. “How did you even get in here?” She stomped her feet, but the cat stayed under the bed. “Get out. Git!” she yelled as she stuck her hand under the bed to shoo it out the door. “And stay out!” She jumped over onto the bed to slam the door closed.

Stupid thing. That was strange. But the bed was so comfortable. She might as well try to catch a few winks.

#   #   #

It was somehow harder to wake up on Sunday than on any other day of the week, even though she normally woke earlier. But she was no stranger to doing what she had to do, and so she did it.

It was harder to wake up, but the commute to work was easier to balance it out. The streets were barren, there was no line at the elevator, and the entire building was empty of employees. She checked her pocket to make sure the pouch was there as her footsteps echoed magnificently in the emptiness of the halls. She almost thought that, without all the angry employees standing around and gossiping, this place might not be half as bad as it normally was. But then she got behind the conveyor belt, expecting her normal beginning of the shift burst of work to get her warmed up for the rest of the day, and after five or ten minutes, the burst still hadn’t come.

Gertrude had told her this was going to be a long shift, that everyone would be at the Christmas Feast. That meant that whoever it was that usually got their things through her conveyor belt wasn’t in their normal place. Instead, they were at some Feast. Feast? What did Feast even mean? A Christmas party? No. It had to mean more than that. Most of what came through the conveyor belts was food, and cooking utensils, and clothes. The only place people needed all those at once was at home. So it went to someone’s home. Or a store. A store that sells all three things? If you can, why not sell anything? But no. Eggs and bacon and pans and clothes together? Someone was cooking and getting dressed. It had to be a house.

Ugh. She had gone through all of this before. She already knew it was a house. She still had no idea what a Feast was. She was still as ignorant as ever. But not for too much longer, now. Soon she’d experience the beach.

She patted the pouch in her pocket. Would she lay the bombs? Yes. Of course she would. She knew she wanted revenge, and here was just that. Or some small piece of it, at least. But could she do more?

Gertrude thought she could. Gertrude thought it was moral to do so. Why did she keep going back to Gertrude’s morality? Because Gertrude gave her this opportunity, and she owed the old lady something for it. Because Gertrude reminded her of herself in the future. Because Gertrude was kind and tried to help. But that’s why she was going to set the bombs, right? That was her payment, even though Gertrude said it wasn’t. Yes, tha—

The bell rang. Ellie jumped. The screen said cat food. Cat food? A bowl came rolling through and out the other side. Apparently someone was still at home. And now they had cat food.

Ellie stared at the conveyor belt for a while longer, waiting for another quick burst of work, but nothing came. This was going to be a long shift. Gertrude’s words echoed through her mind again, setting her off on the same line of thoughts she went over earlier.

#   #   #

She had no more idea what she was going to do when the final bell rang than when she had sat down for her shift. The cat food was the only thing that came through the entire time, and she thought she was going to die by the end of it, but the last bell went off, she looked at the screen to make sure it wasn’t more work, and when she saw nothing, she realized it was time to decide.

She felt for the pouch in her pocket. It was still there. She thought about going to set the bombs so she didn’t have to come back after she had seen the beach, but she didn’t know how long it would take to set them all, and she wanted to make sure the beach was really there before she did anything.

She climbed up over the railing and stood on the conveyor belt. She had always wanted to be there, and had often imagined herself seeing “Ellie” on the screen then making sure it was her who went through. She laughed a little, then remembered where she was and that she had a time limit.

She crouched down and tried to see as far into the “in” port as she could now that she had a better perspective. All she could see was darkness, even from there. She tried to reach into it, but her hand met a cold, hard door.

She turned to peer through the other side and there was light coming through, and a cool breeze, and the scent of salt water and fish. The beach.

She crawled on hands and knees through the “out” port onto soft sand. She couldn’t believe her eyes, or her skin, as she stood with some difficulty. Before her was a short stretch of white sand with the deep blue tide beating and beating against the shore in some absurd attempt to reach dry land. She dug her feet into the smooth, fine pebbles and brushed her hair—which had been blown into her face by a cool ocean breeze—out of the way, smiling like she hadn’t smiled since her son had gone. Since Levi had gone. He would have loved to see this, to feel it, to smell it. She fell down on her knees in the sand and started to weep.

She was here. This was it. The one promise she had made to Levi and she had fulfilled it too late. It wasn’t enough. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough. She had to take it all in, experience all of it. She had to do it for him. She knew it. This was moral. Keeping her promises. But she couldn’t stay here without paying the price. She owed it to Gertrude and the Scientist. She had to keep her promises to them as well.

She struggled to her feet and stared out again at the endless water and the endless sky. She almost wanted to forget the bombs entirely.

Helloooo!” a voice called from down the beach. A figure far away made its way through the tide toward her. “Hey! Did the Scientist send you, too?”

Ellie was going to ignore the person, but hearing the Scientist’s name intrigued her. Plus, as he came closer, he didn’t look like any threat she couldn’t handle.

“Hello! Do you hear me?” he called when he was close enough that she obviously did.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “Yes and yes. Who are you?”

“Oh. Ho ho.” The man chuckled. “Just a worker. Just like you. I asked for the beach. You asked for the beach. There’s only so much beach—and a lot less of it that we can be on without anyone knowing.”

Ellie tried to count how long she had been through the door already. It could have been five minutes, it could have been ten. “I don’t have much time left,” she said

“Much time? Ha ha! You’re going back? Are you crazy?”

“No. I—I didn’t pay my debt. I need to before I can—”

“Oh, ho ho, child. There’s not much time now. You better forget about that. You’re already out here, why don’t you just stay? Otherwise you might not get the chance to come back.”

“No,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“You don’t really have a choice, you know. Your time’s runn—”

He kept talking, but Ellie wasn’t listening. She crawled back through the conveyor belt, and his voice disappeared behind her.

She jumped down off the belt and the floor felt so much harder after the softness of the sand. How much time did she have left? She sprinted out the door, slammed it shut, jerked the pouch out of her pocket, and fumbled through it for one of the discs. She didn’t know what to do with the pouch while she set the bomb so she dropped it on the floor.

Rip, stick, press? Rip, stick, press? As if.

The paper backing on the disc was impossible to get off. It took ten, fifteen attempts, especially with her hand shaking at the fear of missing her time limit. She finally got it off, stuck the disc on the door, and pressed the button which turned green and displayed a little clock counting down from thirteen.

Thirteen minutes? Fifteen minutes at the beach, ten minutes to set the bombs and get out of the building. She looked up and down the hall. She could place some, but not all, of them if she wanted to make it back to the beach before the door closed. She had to set as many as she could.

She scooped up the pouch and tied it to her belt loop, jogging to the next door. It only took five tries to rip the paper backing off before she could stick and press. She pulled a disc out and started on it on her way to the next door when she got into a rhythm.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

She watched the timer closely as she activated each one. Eleven and a half minutes, the clock said, and that’s all the time she had.

She sprinted down the hall, back into her workroom, and jumped up onto the conveyor belt. She could still feel the cool breeze and smell the fish and salt. She even looked forward to getting to know whoever it was that waited on the other side of the door. She looked down at her cubicle one last time, never would she have to see it again.

“Hurry,” she heard from inside the “out” port.

She dropped to her knees and crawled toward the beach, only to hit her head on a cold, metal door.

#   #   #

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

Thanks again for reading along. I hope to see you back again next Saturday and throughout the week. And don’t forget, the full novel is available through here.

Chapter 11: Mr. Kitty

Today brings us Mr. Kitty’s second chapter, marking the halfway point of the novel. I hope you’ve all enjoyed it so far and continue to join us in the future as we reach the conclusion of The Asymptote’s Tail. And remember, if you don’t want to wait the ten weeks that’ll still take, you can order a full copy of the novel (in paperback or eBook format) on Amazon through this link.

Enjoy, and happy Saturday.

Mr. Kitty< X. Russ   [Table of Contents]   XII. Ellie >

XI. Mr. Kitty

He was dreaming about a fat, juicy pigeon. The kind that was stupid enough not to fly away as long as he moved in short bursts, stopping for a moment in between. Humans the pigeons understood. It was easy to tell when a human came barreling down the sidewalk toward you, all eyes on their destination, no thought to spare for the stupid birds flapping about. But Mr. Kitty would slink a little closer and stop, slink a little closer and stop, each time going a different distance or speed, or stopping in between for a different amount of time. It was that erraticism, that randomness, which kept the pigeons unsure of how long they had to scrape for food before it was time to fly away or be torn to bits and eaten alive. He was shaking his tail, gathering his haunches, about to pounce on a particularly plump pigeon when the sound of Tillie rushing into the spare room and slamming the door behind her woke him from his nap with a jump.

Tillie didn’t even notice him. She threw her purse on the chair and plopped down onto the bed. Mr. Kitty walked over to knead her lap, but as he put his first paw on her, she flung him off, locked the bedroom door, then sat back on the bed with her head in her hands, sobbing.

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Un. Seen. Hand,” Tillie said. “Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaaaand,” she moaned. “I can’t believe I did that. What did I just do? Why would I just do what that woman told me to do? I don’t even know her. Unseen Hand, Unseen Hand, Unseen Haaand.”

“Tell me,” Mr. Kitty meowed, jumping onto her lap. “Maybe I can help.”

“Oh. Mr. Kitty, I’m sorry,” she said, petting his head and starting to cry again. “I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just not fair.”

Mr. Kitty purred.

“I mean, what am I supposed to do about it?” Tillie complained. “Who am I? You saw what they did to Russ when he almost outed them, and he’s a huge star. Imagine what they’d do to me if they ever found out what I did. What did I do? Unseen Hand, what did I do?”

Mr. Kitty tried to roll over on his back in her lap and show her his belly to make her feel better, but the phone rang, and she jumped up to grab it out of her purse, pushing him down onto the floor. She stared wide-eyed at the screen, then sighed in relief and answered it.

“Shelley,” she said. “Unseen Hand. You’re never gonna believe this. I have to—You have to come see me right now.”

“No, Shelley. No.”

“Because I can’t leave my house right now. That’s why.”

“No, look. No. I’m not—No. It’s not a prank.”

“I can’t tell you over the phone or I would have told you already.”

“Yes! The Hand. Just come over already.”

“Good. I’ll see you soon.”

Tillie hung up the phone, sat back down, and scooped Mr. Kitty up. “Ugh. I’m sorry again Kitty. I suck. I’m just—I’m a little on edge right now, you know. I—Well…I did something kind of stupid and reckless, and I might be in danger because of it. But what am I talking about? You wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. Would you, Mister Kitty?

Mr. Kitty purred in response.

No,” she said in her baby voice. “I know you wouldn’t. You sweet wittle fing you.” The doorbell rang. Tillie stood up, pushing Mr. Kitty onto the floor for the third time, and crept over to the bedroom door. She turned the deadbolt as quietly as she could and cracked the door to peek through with one eye.

Tiiilllliie! Doorbell!” her dad called from the living room.

She didn’t answer. Mr. Kitty tried to push his way through her legs, but she scooted him back with her foot, so he sat on the floor behind her and licked himself.

“Tillie, honey!” her dad called. “Can you get that? I’m in the middle of a game!”

The doorbell rang again.

“I’m in the bathroom, dad!” Tillie called back. “It’ll be a minute! Can’t you?”

With one more ring and a groan, her dad called, “Alright!” then walked slowly backwards out of the living room, trying not to miss any bit of the game. When he had gotten far enough into the hall that he couldn’t see the TV anymore, he turned to the door straight away and opened it.

Mr. Kitty could tell that Tillie was holding her breath, even from his view sitting under her feet. She only let go of it when her dad stepped aside to let Shelley in. Then she opened the bedroom door and went right out to them. “Thanks, dad,” she said. “Sorry. Had to wash my hands, you know.”

“Of course, darling,” her dad said, getting back to his game in the living room. “You and your friend feel free to order anything from the printer,” he said with a wave, not looking at them.

Oooh, I think I’ll have—” Shelley started, but Tillie grabbed her arm and dragged her back into the room where Mr. Kitty was waiting. She tossed Shelley on the bed, then closed and locked the door behind them.

“Dang, girl!” Shelley said, sitting up. “You do not want to get physical with me. Don’t make me remind you how you know.”

“Okay,” Tillie said. “Okay okay. I’m sorry, Shelley. I’m sorry.”

“That’s right you are,” Shelley said, shaking her head. “Here you are sittin pretty with your in-house printer, and your dad offers me one thing and…what? You drag me into the spare room, lock the door, and fling me on the bed. Girl, are you crazy? I mean, do you know what a 3D printer does? Do you know what he was offering me? Of course you do. What am I talking about? You have one you can use any time.”

“Yeah, Shelley,” Tillie said. “I do know how a printer works. That’s the entire reason I asked you to come here in the first place. Do you know how a printer works?”

Uh, yeah.” Shelley scoffed. “Of course I do. You tell it what you want and it gives it to you. Everyone knows that.”

“But where does it come from, Shelley?” Tillie said with a sigh. “I’m not asking if you know how to operate a printer. A baby could operate a printer. I’m asking if you know how they work.”

Mr. Kitty jumped up onto Shelley’s lap. He rubbed his head on her arm and meowed to say that it was okay for her to admit that she didn’t know.

“I don’t—” She pet Mr. Kitty on the head. “You’re not making any sense, Tillie.”

“It’s simple,” Tillie said. “Where do the things that the printer gives you come from?”

“They come from the printer,” Shelley said with a shrug. “Where else?”

“The printer just makes them out of thin air?”

“No,” Shelley said. “I—It rearranges the atoms or something. I don’t know. That’s elementary school science, Tillie. How am I supposed to remember?”

“Right,” Tillie said. “Okay. So that’s what the school system teaches us, right. That the printers rearrange atoms. But if that were the case, then why would we need assembly line workers?”

“But we don’t have assembly line workers,” Shelley said with a smile. She thought she had gotten Tillie with that one. “We have robots.”

“Then why do we have the robots?” Tillie said, standing up and getting close to Shelley, towering over her. Shelley was leaning so far back on the bed to get away from her that Mr. Kitty was sitting on her stomach instead of her lap.

Shelley guided him off so she could scootch around Tillie and stand up herself. “I don’t know, Tillie,” she said. “But if you only invited me over here to yell at me and demean me, then I might as well leave.”

She made for the door, but Tillie stopped her. “No,” she said. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—I’m just really stressed right now.” She sat down on the bed with a bounce, and Mr. Kitty jumped onto her lap to purr.

“I can see that, girl,” Shelley said, sitting beside them and patting Tillie’s back. “Tell Sister Shelley what’s bothering you. She’ll make it all better.”

“I—I don’t know if you can,” Tillie said. Moisture welled up behind her eyes, and Mr. Kitty purred louder.

“Oh, I know I can, honey,” Shelley said, snapping her fingers. “Just tellin me’ll make you feel better. I guarantee it.”

Tillie chuckled and smiled. “Like the commercial.”

“Who say, I say, I say, let em have it…with nooo problem. I guar—un—tee!” they sang in unison then laughed together.

“Shelley,” Tillie said when they were over their laughter. “I did something stupid.”

“Well, who hasn’t, girl?” Shelley said. “Spit it out.”

“No, Shelley,” Tillie said, looking at her lap. “I mean, this—this was really stupid. And dangerous.”

Shelley smiled. “What’d you do, girl? Got a little wasted at the bar? Did you cut in line at the elevator?” She lowered her voice as if someone was listening. “Did you have unprotected sex?”

Tillie scoffed and pushed her away. “No. Ugh. No! Nothing that bad. Except. Maybe it was worse.” She kind of half-grinned and half-frowned. “I don’t know, Shelley. I shouldn’t have brought it up. You’re never going to believe me if I tell you anyway.”

Shelley shook her head. “No, girl. Uh uh. C’mon now. We’re sisters for life. Every secret safe and every word spoken true. You know the deal, sweetheart. We pinky promised, and swapped spit, and pricked our fingers to mix blood. There’s no breaking those vows. So tell me what you have to say and I’ll trust it entirely, and keep it secret until my grave.”

“You can’t tell anyone,” Tillie said. “I mean no one.”

“Cross my heart,” Shelley said, crossing her heart. “You know I won’t. Have I told anyone about—”

“Alright,” Tillie said, stopping her from bringing up any of a number of embarrassing stories. “Alright alright. I believe you. But I may be putting you in danger by telling you.”

“Shoot, girl. Ain’t no one gonna know but your cat here, and he won’t put me in any danger. Will he? Will you?” She squeezed his cheek.

“No,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Tillie said. She took a deep breath to gather herself. “Well I—It all started when I saw that episode of Logo’s Show. Did you see it?”

“Girl, you know I watch every episode,” Shelley said. “Which one you talkin about?”

“I’m talking about the most recent episode, the show that was cut short.”

Awww shoot. Yeah, girl. What was that? They played some rerun from last Christmas instead. As if I wanted to see Christmas reruns. That’s what the Christmas Rerun Marathon is for.”

“Right,” Tillie said. “But didn’t you wonder why they cut it short?”

“Well, he couldn’t finish the show, girl.” Shelley scoffed. “Obviously.”

“But why couldn’t he?” Tillie said, losing control again. “This is just like the 3D printer discussion!”

“I don’t know, girl!” Shelley said, standing again. “Why?”

Tillie took a few deep breaths and patted Mr. Kitty on the head. “I’m sorry. But if you had seen what I saw…Shelley. You know the assembly lines.”

“The robot assembly lines?”

“No, Shelley. Yes. But no. I’m saying—I’m saying printers don’t rearrange matter and the assembly lines aren’t worked by robots.”

Pfft.” Shelley scoffed. “Sure, girl,” she said, nudging Tillie and laughing. “Then where does everything come from?”

“From people, Shelley. Human beings work on the assembly lines. They make everything we order from the printers.”

Shelley laughed. She shook her head. “I don’t know, girl. That sounds ridiculous. How could humans make things instantly when we order them?”

Tillie frowned. “They don’t make it when we order it. They make huge supplies of everything so it’s ready before we order it. Anyway, I thought you said you’d believe me.”

Ooooh, girl.” Shelley shook her head. “I did say that, but I wasn’t expecting this. I mean, you’re telling me that everything I’ve ever been taught is wrong. How am I supposed to believe that?”

“You said you would. And I’m telling the truth. I met with one of the workers, Shelley. I’ve talked to them. They’re real.”

“What are you talking about?” Shelley said, waving her arms and shaking her head. She seemed to be getting as frustrated with the conversation as Tillie was. “How?”

“I don’t know. I saw this photo on my dad’s computer, then I started looking into it, and before I knew it, I was taking the elevator to the library, and I ended up at some woman’s house instead.”

“A woman’s house?” Shelley said, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know, Shelley,” Tillie said with a sigh. “She told me how to meet with one of them, and I followed her directions, and I saw him. He told me that they work every day for twelve hours, and they get just enough money to make it to the next week, and they have no choice but to work from the time they’re old enough to hold a broom or they’ll starve. He said they made everything we get out of our printers, and they teleport it to us when we order it. Shelley, they do all that so we can have what we have.”

Shelley shook her head and made for the door. Mr. Kitty jumped out of Tillie’s lap and onto the ground, searching for an escape. “No,” Shelley said. “I don’t believe it. Why are you telling me all this? If you didn’t want me to use your printer you should have just said so. But this? This is ridiculous.”

“No, Shelley,” Tillie said. “Why would I care about that? I need help. We have to stop this.”

“Stop it? Ha! Stop what? You’re delirious. I’m out of here. Get back to me when you’re feeling better.”

“No, Shelley. Stop!”

Shelley left the room and Mr. Kitty followed her. Tillie hurried out to stop her before she got through the front door. “Shelley!” she called. “Shelley, wait!”

Shelley stopped, sighed, and turned around. Mr. Kitty didn’t stop, though. He was tired of listening to them. He’d figure out what Tillie meant to do about it later. For now he had to get out of the house. He had been caged up like a human for too long and he needed to stretch his legs a bit.

The house had a big yard, and it was only a short walk from there to the public elevator system. Mr. Kitty took his time slinking through the garden along the yard’s metal fence, rubbing his face on every hard stick he passed, smelling every other plant, even taking a bite or two out of a few pieces of grass—important for his digestion. He was so lost in the smells and colors that the sound of Shelley’s feet coming down the walkway toward him made him jump. She went one way down the sidewalk, toward the elevator entrance, and he went the other, toward his favorite tree to climb.

He stopped at the base of the tree to sharpen his claws on its roots. He loved the sound it made when his claws sank into the wood, and the feeling as they caught in the meat of the root which could only give way under the brute force of his animal strength. He gathered his haunches and zipped up to the first fat branch overlooking the neighborhood. None of the houses looked like they belonged next to each other with their extreme shifts in architecture and landscaping, but one thing they all had in common was that they were all huge and all set on a lot of land. Mr. Kitty pitied them down there, trapped in their houses, stuck in their web of sidewalks. They had access to more knowledge than most humans Mr. Kitty knew, but somehow they understood the least about the world.

A sound of talking from above caught his attention. He recognized the voices. Those two kids were closer to freedom than anyone in the houses below him—except for maybe Tillie, who was making strides. He really liked those kids, too. They didn’t give up. They deserved a little reward for their perseverance, and he was in the position to give just that to them. He climbed up to the branch he was looking for and jumped into the air, gliding out where it looked like there was nothing to land on. He ended up landing on Pidgeon’s lap.

“The cat!” the other kid said, standing on the branch.

“Mr. Kitty!” Pidgeon said. “Where’d you come from?”

“Where’d it come from?” the other kid said.

“Settle down,” Pidgeon said. “He’s not going anywhere. Look at him.”

Mr. Kitty kneaded Pidgeon’s lap and purred. The other kid sat down, holding out a hand for Mr. Kitty to sniff, it smelled a bit like rat, a not altogether undelicious smell.

“I’m Ansel,” the kid said. “Where’d you come from?”

“Through the hole,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“He’s trying to tell you,” Pidgeon said.

“Yeah, right,” Ansel said.

“Here, I’ll show you,” Mr. Kitty said. He jumped off Pidgeon’s lap and hopped from limb to limb down the tree.

“Follow him!” they yelled together.

Mr. Kitty heard the sound of leaves rustling and branches breaking as they chased down after him. He hoped they hadn’t broken his landing pad in their descent—he would hate to find that out the next time he decided to come through that way. He stopped for a second on the soft grass to give them a chance to catch up, licking his feet to taste the difference in the soil, and when the sound of them chasing after him was close enough, he bound down the green strip towards a hole that could send them where they wanted to go—if they were willing to follow him.

The hole was a few blocks away, and Mr. Kitty was much too fast for the little two-legged humans, so he had to treat them like pigeons in reverse. He would run out ahead, then stop to lick himself while they caught up, then run out ahead again, and repeat for the four blocks distance to the alley he was looking for. At the end was the tricky part. He could get into the restaurant easily enough—jumping through the broken window—but they wouldn’t follow him that way. He could wait for someone to open the door so they would be more likely to follow, but the timing on that was a long shot. Then there was the alley side of the hole, and from the looks of it, there was just enough trash for him to get the boost he needed.

He let the kids get a little bit closer, so close they were shouting at each other, then he heard another human voice he didn’t recognize. It was too late to turn and find out who it was, though, because he was already bounding toward the dumpster. He jumped up onto a soggy box that almost gave way under his weight, onto the dumpster lid, then up two more boxes to claw his way into the building itself, giving him the last bit of momentum he needed to make the extra few feet into the hole to fall far and fast onto the carpet on the other side.

He licked the pain out of his feet and listened for the sound of the human children following him. He heard some sounds, but nothing quite like they were climbing up after him. More like they were going the other way. He shook his head in pity. At least they had a new goal to work toward.

Mr. Kitty sniffed the air. It took him a second to remember where this side of the hole let out, usually he used the side that was inside the restaurant. The feeling of the carpet suggested he was where Haley lived, but the smell gave it away. There was a vaguely chemical scent—something synthetic—and the air smelled extra oily. He walked down the hall and pushed his head through a door.

Behind it was an office with a long desk. A huge window that looked out onto a vast wilderness with trees, hills, and animals everywhere made up the far wall of the room. There was no one sitting behind the desk, but Rosalind and Huey were sitting on two puffy chairs in the corner, staring out the window in silence. Mr. Kitty meowed to announce his presence and both looked around with a smile.

“Mr. Kitty,” Huey said. “So nice of you to join us.”

Rosalind stood to get something out of the desk and sat back down. “You want some treats, Mr. Kitty?” she said, pouring a few crunchy, delicious-smelling bits onto a side table. Mr. Kitty jumped up to eat them while Rosalind and Huey took turns patting him.

“Thanks,” Mr. Kitty meowed when he was done eating.

“Of course,” Rosalind said, patting his back a few more times. “Mr. Kitty, would you like a new collar? We need to get a message through, and you’re the only one who can deliver it.”

“Are you gonna give me some of that wet food?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Of course we are, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said with a smile. “We would have given it to you even if you said no.”

“That’s why I keep coming back,” he meowed.

Rosalind took off his yellow collar and snapped a red one around his neck.

“You know,” Huey said with a smile. “Red is your color, Mr. Kitty. It stands out beautifully against your dark fur. What do you think, Roz?”

“Beautiful,” she said, scooping Mr. Kitty up and kissing him on the head while he tried to squirm away from her. When she set him back on the table, he licked his paws and rubbed the kiss away.

Awww, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “Don’t rub it away. You know it means I love you.”

“You know I hate it,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yeah, but you love it, too,” Rosalind said. “One of life’s little contradictions.”

Mr. Kitty continued licking himself. He got started, he might as well get the rest of his coat while he was at it.

“Contradictions,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m tired of contradictions. But you will be visiting Outland 4 today, won’t you Mr. Kitty?”

“Outland what?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“The Scientist, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said, patting his head and smiling. “You know. She wears the long white coat. She’d like to see your new collar.”

“Sarcasm,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “But I need the elevator.”

“Of course,” Rosalind said. “Just let me get your wet food first.“

She shuffled through the drawer again, and Mr. Kitty jumped off the table onto the desk to hurry her up. She pulled the tin open and set it down, and he licked all the juices off the top as quickly as he could then meowed that he was ready to go.

“I’ll let him out,” Rosalind said, walking toward the hall he had come in through.

“Thank you, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, waving.

Mr. Kitty stretched his legs and followed Rosalind out to the elevator at the other end of the carpeted hall. She opened the doors and Mr. Kitty climbed in.

“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said. “She’ll be expecting you. And thanks again.”

The doors closed, and the floor fell out from underneath him. When the elevator stopped falling, the doors opened and Mr. Kitty climbed out into a hall with hard, cold vinyl floors instead of soft carpet. He hated walking on the stuff. No wonder humans wore shoes all the time with the ridiculous concrete and vinyl they put everywhere they were supposed to walk.

He turned through the hall into an office and jumped up onto the desk. No one was sitting there, but he knew she would be back soon. He licked his feet to get the cold, unnatural feeling of the vinyl floor away. There were more computer screens here than there were on Tillie’s dad’s desk, and the numbers seemed somehow more interesting, plus, the Scientist liked to watch TV while she worked, and Mr. Kitty enjoyed a little television himself every now and again. He wanted to see what was going on in the computer world, so he walked across the keyboard to get it going when the Scientist came in, holding a plate with a sandwich on it.

“Mr. Kitty!” she said, setting the plate on the desk next to him. He sniffed it and started eating the meat out of the sandwich. “Finally, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said. “Red! Eat all you want. I’ll make you more if you’re here when I’m done.”

“I’m full anyway,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh. You have no idea, Mr. Kitty,” the Scientist said with a smile. “Sic bo shines down on you. I’ve been waiting for you to come in with that beautiful red collar for you don’t know how long.”

“Thanks,” he meowed. “See ya.”

“Alright, Mr. Kitty,” she said. “I’m gonna get to work.”

Mr. Kitty walked out of the door, and instead of into the hall, he came out into his yard. He looked back, and as the door closed behind him, it disappeared. He walked through the spot in the air where the door had been to make sure it was gone. Satisfied, he turned and bound through the grass to sit at the front door of the house.

“Anyone home?” he meowed as loud as he could. He knew her dad wouldn’t hear him, or care, but he thought Tillie might pick his voice up and prevent him from having to take the long way in. “Helloooo! I’m out here!” he tried one more time, then sat down to lick his feet.

Maybe she wasn’t there. Or maybe she was actually in the bathroom this time. Either way, it didn’t seem like she was coming, so he got up and went around to the back of the house. He climbed up a big oak tree in the backyard to jump up onto the roof. This roof was just a little lower than the previous house’s, so it took him two jumps to get high enough to fly through the hole, out onto the metal grating on the other side. He landed with a clang and looked around with puffed up fur to make sure there was no one there to see him. There wasn’t.

The floor here was even worse than the vinyl. If he wasn’t careful to keep his claws in while he walked, they would catch on the holes in the metal grating and break off when he lifted his foot. Even when he was careful he couldn’t prevent it from happening sometimes. And the stairs he had to climb down were made of the same metal grating. On top of that it, was impossible to stay silent while walking on it. He had to constantly look this way and that to be sure no one heard him.

Finally, at the bottom of six flights, came the worst part of this entrance into his own house. It was a long, skinny strip of metal grating that curved around a wall into a tunnel of darkness with no escape but to go straight back the way he had come, that is if he could react fast enough when he finally saw who was coming. Luckily they couldn’t walk quietly on the metal grating either, so he usually heard them long before he saw them.

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and sniffed the air. It smelled stale, and oily, and there wasn’t much oxygen. He had to breathe deeply, even from walking down such few flights. He turned this ear then that toward the black tunnel and there was no sound. He slunk his way into the darkness, wishing there was another escape.

He paid extra attention to keeping his claws in, stopping every few steps to be sure no one was coming. He had counted the steps so many times, he knew how close he was by reflex. Thirteen bursts of three steps, eleven bursts of two, and seven bursts of one. Not in that order, but do that number and he’d be there. He was fifteen steps away when he smelled it. It was oil, but it wasn’t oil. He knew that smell, but from where?

He took a few steps closer and heard sobbing. Why would someone be sobbing down here?

A few more steps and he saw the form on the ground, right in front of his exit. It didn’t see him yet, though. Or hear him. Or smell him. He could run up, use it as a jumping platform, and be gone before it had time to realize what had even happened.

He was gathering his haunches to do it when he caught the smell again, and this time he recognized it. It wasn’t oil, it was cooking oil. And there was shampoo and soap mixed in there. That wasn’t someone. It was—

“Tillie!” he meowed.

She jumped up and stopped crying all at once. The sound of it echoed through the empty tunnel. “Mr. Kitty. I—Is that you?” she said, taking the hood off her head.

Mr. Kitty walked up to her and brushed his cheeks on her legs.

“Mr. Kitty!” She perked up. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here?” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Oh no,” Tillie said, slouching down. “I don’t know how to get out of here, either.” She started to sob again.

“I know the way out,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “It’s right here.”

“I know, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. I’m so stupid. I never should have gotten involved in this. I don’t know how I got you wrapped up in it with me.”

“Wrapped up in it?” Mr. Kitty struggled to get away and ended up clawing her chest.

Ow, Mr. Kitty!” she yelled. “Settle dow—Where—”

Mr. Kitty jumped through the hole into Tillie’s dad’s office where he was sitting at the computer, watching numbers change on the screen, paying no attention to the cat who had just appeared in the room behind him. Mr. Kitty turned to see if she would come on her own, but he only heard the faint echo of her calling his name and sobbing. She was confused just like a human.

“Come on!” he meowed.

Tillie’s dad turned and said, “Mr. Kitty. Shut up. How’d you get in here?”

“Tillie!” Mr. Kitty meowed. “Go through the wall. Like platform 9¾.”

Cat! Shut. Up,” her dad said. “Have you seen Tillie?”

Before he finished his sentence, she appeared in the room right next to Mr. Kitty. She gasped, scooped him up, and kissed him on the head, crying. “You did it, Kitty!” she said. “You’re so smart.”

“I worked for it,” he meowed.

“Oh, I love you, too, Kitty,” she said, squeezing him tighter and driving the air out of his lungs.

“Tillie!” Her dad had finally gathered himself for long enough to respond. “Wh—Where? How did you…”

“Dad.” She dropped Mr. Kitty and went to him. “I’m sorry. I—I didn’t. You have to understand.”

“Understand?” her dad said, looking around the room. “You just—You appeared from nowhere. The door’s locked. I look away. Then I look back. That’s not—It’s not—It’s just not.”

“Dad,” Tillie said. “I can explain. I—”

Explain! Explain? Well go ahead then, dear. Go ahead. Try to explain that.”

“Well, I—Well…” Tillie said. “You know those pictures I saw.”

“The pictures I told you not to tell anyone about.” Her dad crossed his arms.

“Right,” Tillie said, smiling a big, fake smile, and looking this way and that with her eyes. “Riiight. Those pictures. Well—and I didn’t show them to anyone, okay. And I didn’t even tell anyone about them, you know. But—I mean, I couldn’t forget them, you know. It’s not like I could delete them from my memory, Dad. I can’t unsee them, okay. And I just—well, I don’t know, I had to know the truth, you know. I had to do something. So I did.”

“No, Tillie,” her dad said. “It’s not okay. That—that doesn’t explain anything. So what? So how did you get here?”

“Dad.” She rubbed her hands on her cheeks, trying not to cry. “Come on. You can’t tell me—You can’t tell me that you don’t know. You have to know. You’re a Manager.”

“What, dear?” her dad said, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “I have to know what?”

“I mean, where I was,” Tillie said. “How the world works. What’s really going on beyond the numbers. We talked about this, dad. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here.”

“Yeah,” her dad said, nodding. “Well. Okay. Yeah. I know how the world works, honey. But you’re talking in riddles. If you’d just ask me a direct question instead of being so emotional, then I’m sure I could give you a direct answer.”

Tillie didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Mr. Kitty could see it on her face. She scoffed, and chuckled, and sobbed, and giggled, and blew a big glob of snot out of her nose. “Dad,” she said. “You’re asking me to disregard everything I think and feel. I have emotions, you know. And they’re real. And just because you go by the numbers alone doesn’t mean there isn’t more to the world than that. Can’t you see you’re asking me to stop being myself?”

“Tillie, dear,” her dad said, standing from his desk and turning to try to comfort her. “Tillie I’m sorry. I just want to help you. I was confused. You appeared out of nowhere. It must…it must have been some fault in the Walker-Haley fields. Am I right?”

“So you do know, then,” Tillie said, pushing him away and wiping her face with her sleeve.

“Of course I know, dear,” her dad said. “Of course I do. I manage the robot workers. How could I not know that printers don’t actually rearrange matter?”

Tillie faced the contradiction of wanting to laugh and cry all at the same time again. She was never one to hide her emotions. “Dad. You don’t know. You don’t understand at all. You’ve only penetrated the first layer and you think that’s all there is to it, but there’s so much more.”

“What are you talking about, dear?” Her dad frowned, shaking his head.

“They’re not robots, dad. That was a picture of human kids I saw on your computer.”

“Tillie,” her dad said in a pleading tone. “They said on the TV that it was a hoax. They played it on the emergency broadcast system. Every channel.”

“You’re the one who told me that I shouldn’t believe what I see on TV.”

“Yeah, well, then you shouldn’t believe what Russ told you, either. He’s a celebrity. He’ll do anything for fame.”

“But one side has to be right,” she said. “Either they’re humans, or they’re robots. It can’t be both, right?”

“No—Well, no…That is true. But there aren’t humans on the assembly lines, dear. I assure you. I would know if there were.”

“And the TV has said that they are humans, and it’s said they aren’t, so can we at least agree that it doesn’t matter what the TV says.”

“Yes,” her dad said, nodding. “And that’s the first sensible thing you’ve said. It’s what I’ve been trying to say all along, dear. But, still, there are not humans on the assembly lines.”

“Dad. I talked to one. He said that every single one of them has a job on a line, or running, or cleaning. He told me that he had never seen a robot in his entire life.”

“No, dear.” Her dad shook his head. “Well, that’s a—he lied to you!”

“Who did, dad? My eyes? My ears? I talked to him myself. While we sit here with our printer, eating everything they make and throwing away what we don’t want, they survive on scraps. You have to know how much of the world’s resources are dedicated to them, dad. You are a Manager, aren’t you?”

“Yes, well,” her dad said, shaking his head. “O—of course—of course I know. I know what portion of our finite resources we put toward the robots of Outland 5, dear. But that’s all they are. Robots.”

“So you don’t believe me then?” Tillie said, shaking her head.

“No, dear,” her dad said, shaking his head and avoiding eye contact with her. “Of course not. How could I?”

Ugh, fine!” Tillie stormed out of the room, and Mr. Kitty chased after her.

“Tillie!” her dad called, but he didn’t get up from his chair to chase them.

Tillie went into the spare bedroom and started packing her things.

“What are you doing?” Mr. Kitty meowed, standing on her backpack.

She scooped him up and set him on the bed. “Sorry Kitty,” she said. “I can’t stay here with him anymore. You can come with me if you want.”

“Where are we going?”

#   #   #

< X. Russ   [Table of Contents]   XII. Ellie >

Thanks again for reading. And don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon today. Have a great weekend.

Chapter 10: Russ

This Saturday brings us chapter ten with Russ’s second point of view chapter. Head on over to Amazon to pick up a full copy of the novel and read all of Russ’s chapters today.

This Saturday brings us chapter ten with Russ’s second point of view chapter. Head on over to Amazon to pick up a full copy of the novel and read all of Russ’s chapters today.

Russ Logo

< IX. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XI. Mr. Kitty >

X. Russ

Russ curled tighter into the fetal position on his fluffy, soft couch. He squeezed the blanket closer around himself. This was warmth. This was safety. This was all he needed in the world. He didn’t ask for any of that other shit. He didn’t go out looking for some stupid assembly line worker—eractor to pull that lame robot prank and get him wrapped up in Fortuna knows what.

What was he wrapped up in anyway? He threw the blanket off his body as if it were the situation he had been unwittingly thrust into. He had told the protectors he knew nothing. He didn’t know anything. The papos were there recording the whole thing. The protectors watched the footage for themselves. And still, they—they…

He grabbed the blanket off the floor and wrapped it around himself again. His body ached. His head pulsed. His ribs were at least bruised if not broken. He tried to sit up a little, but the pain was so much he groaned and went back into the fetal position. He had never before experienced such pain, such anger.

The protectors were savages. He had never met a protector, but he had played more than a few, and none of the roles he had ever portrayed were as deranged as the protectors he had encountered in real life. Protectors? Ha! They were something altogether different than that. They were unreal. It didn’t matter what he knew or what he said, they were out for blood and they were going to get it.

He heard a knock at the door and flinched, sending a shock of pain through his ribs and forcing another loud groan out of his mouth. The door swung open, and Jorah came in saying, “I’ll take that as a come in you barbarian.” When he saw Russ curled up on the couch, blanket tight under his chin, face makeup-less and bruised, Jorah held his hand to his mouth and gasped. “Russ, dear. What did they do to you?” He sat down on the couch, sending another wave of pain through Russ’s body. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He stroked Russ’s hair. “Tell your Jorah what they did to you, honey.”

“Jorah,” Russ groaned. “Why?” He wanted to cry.

“You know,” Jorah said. “That was a great groan. Uhhgghh.” He tried to mimic it. “I could use that in this play I’m doing. Do it again.” He poked Russ.

Ugghhhggh. Jorah! Please.”

“I’m sorry, dear,” Jorah said with a frown. “But the show must go on, you know. Anything to make it more realistic, right? You should be glad to have this experience. You can use it to your advantage in the future.”

Russ groaned again. “I don’t care about the future. I just want to be able to breath without my lungs burning.”

“Oh. Sweetheart.” Jorah pet his hair. “I know. I’m sorry. You know me. Always looking at the platinum lining.”

“Jorah, do you even see my face?”

“I do, dear.” Jorah patted his head. “I do. Now tell your Jorah what they did to you. Was it the protectors? I saw a replay of your show, you know. And your emergency broadcast, too. You did, weeell…you looked great.”

“Replay?” Russ frowned.

Yes, replay. I was at work, you know. I couldn’t rightly watch your show and film mine at the same time, could I?”

Russ groaned in response.

“But it was them,” Jorah said. “Wasn’t it?”

“There weren’t supposed to be any replays,” Russ said, clutching his blanket tighter under his chin.

“Yeah, well, once the feed goes out, there’s no getting it back. I’m sure everyone in the world’s seen it by now.”

“That’s not good.”

“Not good?” Jorah chuckled. “It’s great. The classic Streisand effect in action. You’re getting more publicity because they’re trying to cover it up. You’re all over every gossip magazine and talk show. You just keep getting bigger and bigger.”

“That’s not good, Jorah.” Russ groaned.

Pfft. Sweetheart.” Jorah shook his head. “Tell me how, then. Tell me how that’s anything but good.”

“Do you see my face, Jorah?” Russ said, turning this way and that to give him full view of the injuries. “Did you hear me groaning? That’s how it’s not good. The more people who see that video, the more broken ribs and bloody faces I get. That’s why! Uggghghgh.”

“Alright, dear. Alright,” Jorah said, brushing Russ’s hair to calm him. “You’ve made your point. Just tell me what they did to you. I’m here to help, sweetheart.”

“They just—they thought I had something to do with it. Apparently it’s against the rules of the network to talk about the assembly lines. I don’t know. But they thought I was in on it.”

“Why didn’t you tell them you didn’t know the freak?” Jorah scoffed, still brushing Russ’s hair.

“I did!” Russ said, sitting up with a groan. “It was the first thing I told them. But they didn’t believe me. They said I wouldn’t have brought it up on my show if I wasn’t in on it.”

Jorah shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, tsk. You know, though, Russ. They do have a point.”

“What?” Russ couldn’t believe what he was hearing. First protectors acting like savages, and now Jorah saying they were right to do it. There was something wrong with the world, and Russ just wanted it all to go away.

“I mean—like I said, Russ. You’re getting more publicity than anyone has ever gotten out of this. You’re telling me that it’s just a coincidence. You had nothing to do with it.”

“Jorah, do you really think I would get myself beaten to near death just for a little bit of publicity?”

Jorah giggled. “Uh…Yeah. You would, wouldn’t you?”

“Well…Yes. I would,” Russ said, shaking his head. In fact, he had done almost exactly that on many occasions. Maybe it was a bad defense to go with. “But I didn’t. Not this time. I swear to you, Jorah. I had nothing to do with it, and the protectors did this anyway. It was like—it was like they just wanted to beat someone.” His ribs hurt with the thought of it.

“No way, Russ,” Jorah said, shaking his head. “Protectors aren’t like that. I’ve played, like, a hundred protectors and a thousand criminals, and I know that no protector would ever do what you’re trying to say they did.”

“I know, Jorah.” Russ sighed. “That’s exactly what I thought. But I’m telling you, they were unreal. You can see the outcome.” He put on the saddest face he could muster, but acting was difficult in such pain.

“Sweetheart.” Jorah stood up and Russ groaned. “There it is. Remember that for the future, Russ. Your work will be better for it. But, sweetheart, I’m going to let you sit here and sort your story out so it doesn’t sound so ridiculous to the next person you tell it to. Do you understand what I’m saying, dear?”

“You’re saying you don’t believe me.”

“Oh, dear.” Jorah shook his head. “No no no. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that it would be best for you to come up with a better story. It doesn’t matter. You’ll figure it out. I’ll see you after the feast, Russ. You’re sure to win it now. So do yourself a favor: Go see a doctor, get ready to put on a perfect performance, and try not to get in any deeper than you already are. I might stop by before your speech. I’d rather not, but I might, dear. Ta ta.”

The door clicked closed and Russ clinched his blanket tighter. What was with Jorah? He wasn’t normally so cryptic. Or was he? All they ever really talked about was clothes and gossip. They had never had a real conversation before. What was a real conversation anyway? His stomach groaned and his ribs burned. Jorah was right about one thing: Russ needed to get to a doctor. He couldn’t live like this anymore.

His stomach wouldn’t shut up, but it would have to wait a little longer. He didn’t think he could move enough to eat anyway. He tossed the blanket off and slowly inched his legs over the couch and onto the floor. He took a few deep breaths and gathered his strength to push himself up to a stooped position. His body burned and his head pounded. He wanted to give up, to fall down onto the floor and go to sleep, but he pushed himself through the door and out into the hall to press the elevator button.

“Russ my man. Ru-uusss. How are you?” Wes said, coming up through the hallway. The sound of his voice made the pounding in Russ’s head all the worse. “Look, Russ. I’m sorry I was hard on you, but you’re the best, you know. I gotta stick it to you so everyone else is afraid of me. You understand that. Right, buddy?”

The elevator dinged and the doors opened. “Ugghhgh,” Russ groaned. “I’m not your buddy, guy,” he said as he plopped himself onto his elevator’s velvet couch.

The door slid closed, and he lost himself in the softness of it. It was like a nest, a womb. He wanted to lay there forever. He reached down to the floor for his blanket, grasped at air, and remembered he wasn’t in his dressing room anymore. “The doctor. Now,” he said.

The elevator fell into motion. He could feel himself getting better already. The doors opened, and there was nothing behind them but a dark, empty hall. “Not now,” he said, groaning. “Not now! I said the doctor.”

The doors started to close, but a gloved hand with a long, white sleeve slipped between them and forced them open again.

“Please,” Russ pled. “I need to get to a doctor.”

“Russ Logo?” the old woman who the gloved hand belonged to said, standing in the elevator door.

“Yes,” Russ said, almost crying. He reached his trembling hand out to her while still lying on his couch. He must have looked so pathetic. Hopefully it would work. “It’s me,” he said, making sure to let his lower lip tremble as he spoke. “I need a doctor. Please close the door.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “I’m not a doctor, but I can take care of you. If you’ll just come with me.”

“No,” Russ said. “I—I can’t. Who are you?”

“Would you prefer a wheelchair, Mr. Logo?” the woman asked. “Popeye, fetch a chair for our guest, please.”

“No. I—” Russ protested, but a big mechanical arm pushed a wheelchair his way.

“There you go, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “Popeye, help him into it, please.”

“No,” Russ pled. “Please. I can—Ugghhghh.”

The mechanical arm lifted Russ up and plopped him into the wheelchair. Russ screamed out in pain at the sudden motion.

“There we are, Mr. Logo,” the woman said. “Now bring him to the lab, please, Popeye. We need to see to his injuries.”

Russ was beyond protesting. He couldn’t imagine getting past the mechanical arm if he tried. He couldn’t imagine getting out of the chair if he tried. The arm rolled along behind him, pushing his chair behind the woman in the white coat who led the way through a short hall into a room that was filled with glassware, tubes, chemicals, and machines of every shape, size, and color. It was only missing two wires with electricity going between them to make it look exactly like the Frankenstein set Russ had worked on a few years back. Only instead of Eyegore there was a huge mechanical arm, instead of Frankenstein it was this woman in a white coat, and instead of a monster it was Russ who Popeyegore lifted up and strapped onto the lab table.

“No. No, Popeye!” the woman said, slapping the metal hand. “No restraints, please. He’s a friend. He won’t squirm. Will you, Mr. Logo?” She smiled.

Russ looked around him. There were sharp objects everywhere, but none of them seemed to have any blood on them. He sniffed the air and smelled hospital antiseptic. “Didn’t you say you weren’t a doctor?”

The woman looked at him, frowning. “Didn’t I say I wasn’t… Hmmm. No. I’m not technically a doctor. I was never certified. Never got that MD. I’m more of a scientist, so to speak. But I know more about human anatomy than any doctor you’ll ever meet. I guarantee that.” She turned and went back to digging clangily through the drawers, looking for some thing.

“Um,” Russ said. “Maybe I should go to a real doctor.” He tried to smile, but even he was having trouble acting in this situation, pained and alone in an unknown place, guarded by a huge mechanical arm. “That is, if we can get my elevator back. Did you send it away? Where are we, anyway?” He was sitting up now with great pain from the effort. “I need to get out of here.” He tried to slip off the table, but his feet couldn’t hold his weight. Popeye could, though, and the thing scooped him back up onto the table.

“Oh, Russ,” the woman said, still digging through the drawers. “I’m sorry. I just—I couldn’t find it…But, riiiiight—wait for it—right here! Here it is.” She pulled a small vial of some gray something out of one of the drawers and held it up to the light to read its small print. She had to squint and move it back and forth, looking for the right distance from her face to read the label, before she shook her head. “No,” she said, frowning. “No no no. That’s not it. That would probably kill you.” She went on digging through the drawers again.

Russ sat holding his burning ribs, staring at the robotic arm, trying to find its weakness, but there was nothing to see. “Please don’t kill me,” he whispered.

“Here it is!” the woman said. “No—yes—no. Ah. That’s the one.” She pulled out another little vial that looked exactly like the first one.

Russ’s heart beat faster. He was about to attempt an escape, but he saw the arm inching closer to him. “Please, ma’am,” he said. “Don’t kill me. I—I’m famous. I have a printer. I can get you whatever you want. Just d—don’t hurt me…Please.” He was crying by the end of it, his words barely audible.

Ppphhh.” The woman chuckled. “No, dear.” She shook her head. “No no no. No need to cry. Popeye, a tissue for our friend, please. Can’t you tell he’s crying?”

The arm moved back and forth like it was anxious and didn’t know which way to go. It finally picked a direction and knocked a beaker onto the floor to shatter in its haste. “And clean that up, please,” the woman said. “You clumsy fool you.” Popeye rolled back with a single tissue between its huge metal fingers, and Russ couldn’t help but chuckle at the juxtaposition before grabbing the tissue, blowing his nose, and resuming sulking with an occasional sob.

“I’m not going to kill you, you know,” the woman said, filling a syringe with the silvery gray liquid from the vial. “If I wanted to kill you, I wouldn’t bring you to my lab to do it. That would be a good way to get caught. I’d have to go through the trouble of doctoring your elevator’s travel logs, doctoring the Walker-Haley field logs, disposing of your body. No. That would be a stupid way of killing you.”

Russ felt a little better, but not much. His bones still ached. More than ever now.

“If I wanted to kill you, I would just send someone to you to do it for me,” the woman went on. “That way the protectors would be less likely to look to me as the one who did it. So, you see, you have nothing to worry about. If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead already. Heh heh. No. You’re too important to kill, Russ. You don’t know it yet. Not really. I mean, you think you’re important—and you are because so many people seem to agree with you—but you have no idea the role you can take in history. No idea. But, I digress. In order to get to then you have to live through now first. And I’m here to make sure you do just that.”

“I don’t understand.” Russ groaned. “Where am I!”

“You will understand,” the woman said. “And you’re in my lab. I know that means nothing to you now, but I’ll show you in time. First, however, a little something for the pain.” She held the syringe point up and flicked it a few times with her middle finger. Russ tried to back away from her, wide-eyed and groaning with the effort, but Popeye held him from behind.

“It’ll just be a little pinch, then you’ll feel as right as rain,” the woman said, shoving the needle deep into his thigh as Russ screamed.

“There now.” The woman smiled. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” She put the syringe in a trash chute and pulled up a stool to sit by him. “You can let him go now, Popeye. He’ll want to hear what I have to say once he realizes I’m not here to kill him.”

“I’ll have you arrested,” Russ said, surprised to be on his feet with no pain in his body. “I’ll—I—I’m kind of a big deal, I’ll have you know,” he added less confidently.

The woman laughed a big, hearty laugh. “No one would ever believe you,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “You don’t even know where you are. You have no idea how to get back to your safe, cozy dressing room, Russ. There’s nothing you could possibly do to affect me in any way. I know you’ve never been in this situation before, but you are in it now, and as it stands, you’re powerless. As such, I suggest you take a seat and listen to what I have to say. Then I’ll let you go.”

Russ’s hands slicked up. He didn’t know if his elevator would be there for him, even if he thought he could make it past that giant arm. He was feeling better. His ribs didn’t hurt anymore. His head was clear. He felt healthier than he did after he had finished training for that Spartan movie, and only seconds ago he couldn’t hold up his own weight. She had injected him with something and that’s why he felt better. It healed him. She could have killed him right there, she had said as much herself.  He really had no choice but to do whatever she said, and she knew it. “All I have to do is listen to you, then you’ll let me go?”

“And take a short tour of the premises here. There are some things I can’t tell you. Some things you just have to live to understand. I dare say that you’re feeling up to a little stroll compared to when you crawled in here earlier. Or, rather, when Popeye carried you in.” She grinned.

The metallic hand waved at him.

“What did you do to me?” Russ demanded.

“I made you better,” the woman said with a smile. “Didn’t I? You still haven’t sat back down since you could hold your own weight. You seem to be healthy and ready to get on your feet again. Or should I say stay on your feet?”

Russ realized he was still rubbing his sweaty palms on his pants and stopped. He relented and put his butt up on the table but sat on the very edge so he could jump into action at any instant. What kind of action? He had no idea. “But how did you do it? What did you inject me with?”

“Oh. That. Well, that’s going to be harder to explain. That is—I guess—everything will be hard to explain. So that’s about as good a place to start as any. Let’s just say it was uh…a umm…a cure. Yes, a cure.”

“A cure for what?” Russ didn’t have any diseases that needed curing, unless you counted the fists of protectors as a disease, but he didn’t see how a shot could cure that.

“Everything,” the woman said, shrugging.

Russ chuckled and rolled his head back to stretch his neck muscles. He did feel good. “You can’t cure everything.”

“I did, actually,” the woman said, not trying to sound impressive—or at least not doing a good job of acting it. “I did better than that. If you kept coming back every month, you’d stop aging. Can you believe that? Imagine the price that would fetch on your beauty market. Number one trend in no time, right? But they won’t do that. It’s too dangerous. People living so long. And if you inject enough, you—”

“Wait.” Russ couldn’t believe what she was saying. He would have heard about something like that if it was real. “You cured aging?”

“Well, I’ve successfully treated aging. You have to continue treatment. And the longer you do it the more it takes. No. No no no.” She shook her head, waving her hands. “Now you’ve gone and gotten me way off topic. Perhaps I underestimated you, Russ. Are you ready to hear why I brought you here, then?”

Russ nodded. He was ready to go home, and if that’s what it took to get there, he was ready to hear whatever other insane claims this woman had to make.

“Russ,” she said. “Why were you in so much pain when you entered my lab?”

“I don’t—I’m not—” He wasn’t going to risk the wrath of the protectors by talking about that with a woman whose name he didn’t even know.

“I know, Russ.” She shook her head. “You’re not supposed to talk about it. But I already know what happened, too. I know more than any of those protectors who did it to you. They know nothing, Russ. This here—this lab—this is the highest clearance level location in all the worlds. We don’t normally take visitors, you know. That’s why Popeye here’s been so clumsy. Isn’t it, Popeye?” The arm knocked over another set of glassware in response and set to cleaning it up. “They beat you because a woman talked to you, Russ. They beat you for nothing you did. Because they were suspicious. Because they were trying to prevent you from talking about your experience on your show. They didn’t want you to tell people what you know.”

“I don’t know anything,” Russ said.

“You know what she told you,” the woman said, raising her eyebrows.

“She told me a lie. It was a joke, a publicity stunt. She told me noth—”

“She told you the truth, Russ. Why do you think they beat you? What do you think they did to her?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Russ, it’s time we take that tour now,” the woman said, standing from her stool. “Are you ready?”

“Where are you taking me?” Russ said, jumping off the table fast to bounce on the balls of his feet.

“I’m taking you to see the truth. I told you there were some things I couldn’t tell you, now you’ll experience them for yourself. Come on.” She started out the way they had come in. “Popeye, wait here, please. Thank you.”

The arm slouched down and rolled off into a corner.

Russ stretched every muscle as he crossed the room out into the hall where the woman waited for him. She closed the door behind him, and—still holding the doorknob—said, “Are you ready, Russ?”

He shook his head. Ready for what?

She opened the door and there wasn’t a lab behind it anymore. Instead there was what could only be said to be the real life version of the set of the assembly line documentary he was currently working on, except built to one-half size. He poked his head in the door to look up and down the line of dirty, intent workers—all at one-half size themselves—trying to find the food cart, or the cameras, or the director, but there was none. He sniffed the rank air and looked closer at the workers, recognizing the syncopated humming and clicking he heard. It was the sound of conveyor belts and the chorus of slip, snap, clicking. They were slip, snap, clicking. This was an actual factory. These were actual factory workers.

He looked closer at the nearest of them. None had looked up to see that they were being watched. The one closest to him looked like a tiny human, but such intense concentration didn’t seem possible for a human to keep up for as long as she had already done, for as long as the entire warehouse filled with them had already done. The sweat smell overcame him again. It smelled like hard work, like long days on the set, looooong days. He tried to step into the factory to get one of their attention, but the woman in the white coat stopped him.

“You shouldn’t interrupt them while they’re working,” she said. “If they fall behind, they might not be able to eat tonight. Come on.” She pulled him back into the hall and closed the door.

“Was that—” Russ said. “What was that?”

“That was a factory, Russ. The woman who talked to you, the one who the protectors have now, she worked in a similar factory where they make clothes. I figured this particular line would be a little more relatable for you, though. We can go see the costume factory, too, if you want.” She smiled.

“Those were people?” Russ shook his head. He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. And yet he had to, he had seen them with his own two eyes, eyes he could no longer believe.

“Human beings, Russ. Not just people. Living, breathing human beings. And that was one sector in one factory. They make a part of a part of a thing on those lines. Imagine how many more of them there have to be to make all the things in existence. Your clothes, beauty products, cameras, phones, TVs, computers, elevators. Everything Russ. Humans are still cheaper than robots, so humans still do the work.”

“No.” Russ still couldn’t believe it. “But…But I’ve seen the footage of the robots doing it.”

“Russ.” The woman laughed, shaking her head. “C’mon, man. You’re an actor. You know how films work. In fact, you’re currently playing the role of one of those workers you just saw. Let me ask you this, have you ever seen one of your own documentaries on TV?”

Russ tried to remember, but he knew that he hadn’t. He knew there were a lot of things he had worked on that he had never seen. In fact, unless it was his talk show, someone else’s talk show, or a gossip news show, he had never seen himself on TV. Up until now he had accepted that fact—along with the awards he was piled with for playing those roles—without question, but how could he not question it when he had seen what he just saw?

“No, Russ,” the woman said. “I know you haven’t. I’ve seen them, though. And all those workers have, too. They learned from you that you always put a few more pieces together after the bell rings to make sure you’re on quota. Did you know that?”

Russ shook his head. “No. That wasn’t me. That was the director. I did that scene wrong. He made me do it again”

“You were complicit, Russ. You are complicit. You’re the highest viewed actor ever to exist in the entire history of their propaganda machine. You’re paid the most for that. Who else do you know who has a 3D printer? Who else has a choice of view from their dressing room?”

“I don’t ever change that view. I told them I want to see where I am, not some fake view they conjured up for me on a computer screen.”

“Are you sure about that, Russ?” the woman said, shaking her head. “The world’s awful pretty from where you’re sitting. Even knowing that humans work on these assembly lines—and, I assure you, they do—are you really willing to give it all up for a little bit of truth?”

Russ’s head started to pound again. He massaged his temples. “I don’t—I don’t believe you.”

“It’s okay, Russ. I know. Let’s go get a beer and talk about it for a little while longer, okay. Just this one last stop, then I’ll let you go back to your printer and your view of the real world, and you can live your life however you desire.”

“I don’t—” He didn’t finish because she opened the door to reveal an alleyway. “Where are we?”

“This is where the people who our owners decide are useless go. I call it Lumpenville. The protectors call it the Neutral Ground. The people who live here call it the Green Belt. But you won’t see why until you step outside.” She went out first and waved her arm to direct his vision down the alley.

He followed her outside, looking down the way she had directed, but all he saw was skyscrapers. The sky was blotted out except for a tiny slit that turned into a point out on the horizon, which was the alley going in a straight line between the buildings. It was as if the entire world were sidewalks and buildings, and nothing else existed. His head spun at the sight of it. “What’s green about this?” he forced through his want to retch.

“Nothing, Russ,” the woman said, smiling. “Absolutely nothing. It’s a world of completely streets. It’s a place where human beings live. I bet you’ve never heard of a place like this, have you?”

“Why are you showing me this?”

“You said you didn’t want the fake view. Well, this is an important part of your world, Russ. If you want the prettier version, just turn around.”

He turned from the oppressive skyline to see a patch of hazey blue-gray, something more than a slit, and below it there was a little bit of green. He went that way out of the alley, then turned left and right to see a long, skinny green park that went as far as his eye could see in either direction.

“That’s why they call it the Green Belt,” the woman said, walking up behind him and pulling him to follow her along the park. “The rest of the world here is just like what you saw when you first came out: completely streets. This is the only grass the people who live here ever have the chance of seeing, unless they hijack a protector’s elevator port, but that might as well be impossible with the technology they have here—not to mention the illegality of doing something like that.” She chuckled.

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“You said you wanted to see the real world, Russ. Look around. These people have no way of leaving this place. This is the best they can ever expect of their world. Just be thankful that you’re here with me and we have a way out.”

“But people actually live here?” Russ scoffed.

“Yes, Russ,” the woman said, stopping. “They do. Look around you. These people live here.”

Russ realized that there were people filing around him. They weren’t papos, none of them were carrying cameras or noticed who he was and they were all half-sized like the people on the assembly lines. “But…” he stammered.

“Here,” the woman said, grabbing his arm and pulling him along again. “Come on. Let’s get a beer. You’ve dealt with a lot today.”

They walked a few buildings down the street and into a door with no sign. Russ coughed up his lungs when he smelled the smoke. The few inhabitants of the dark room looked around to stare at him until he finished then went back to what they were doing. He rubbed his burning eyes. When they adjusted to the light, he noticed that the people were playing pool. He didn’t know people still did that. The woman in the white coat walked up to the bar to order. She sat at a low stool and patted the seat next to her. “C’mon, Russ.” She smiled. “There’s someone you should meet before we leave.”

Russ crept up to the stool and sat next to her. For as short as it was, it was surprisingly comfortable. “Where are we?” he said, looking around at the place again.

“We’re at a bar on the Green Belt. The bar is what they call it.”

“But, how?” Russ said. “I don—”

The bartender came back and set a beer in front of each of them. “Thank you, dear,” the woman in the white coat said. “This is my friend, Russ. Say hi, Russ.”

Russ nodded.

“Hello,” the bartender said, smiling.

“Ms. Valetson,” the woman in the white coat said. “You know the people who come to drink here pretty well, wouldn’t you say?”

The bartender smiled and chuckled. “What do you mean, ma’am?”

“Well.” The woman looked at Russ then the bartender. “Would you say that they mostly live around here?”

“Of course,” the bartender said. “Where else would they live?”

“And would you say that they’re mostly humans?”

The bartender laughed again, unsure if she should answer. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“No, ma’am. No joke. Would you say your customers are primarily humans?”

Um. Yeah,” the bartender said, raising an eyebrow. “Of course. I don’t know what else they would be. Now, if y’all’ll excuse me, I have to help some other customers.” She went down the bar to tend to someone else.

“Did you hear that, Russ?” The woman elbowed him, almost making him spill the beer he was gulping.

“I heard it,” he said, wiping his mouth.

“And what do you think?”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do about it,” Russ said.

“I don’t expect you to do anything, Russ. I just think that someone who is as important as you are should know what the world they live in really looks like, how it works. You said you didn’t want the fake view. Well this is the real world.”

“But what can I do?” Russ said.

“You can do what you do best, Russ,” the woman said, patting him on the back. “Act. Talk to people. Set trends. But set the trends you know you want to set. Do what you want to do, but do it knowing all the information. That’s all I care about. The rest is up to you.”

“But I can’t do what I want,” Russ complained. “I have to follow a script. I have to listen to the director. I don’t operate the cameras, sew the costumes, build the set—“

“No, Russ. You don’t. That’s the point. You can’t do anything alone, so you can’t do whatever you want, but no one can make you do anything, so you can do whatever you want. It’s a contradiction. You just have to live through it.”

“And then what?” Russ scoffed. “Never get another role in my life?”

“You’re always the protagonist of your own story,” the woman said. “Look, it doesn’t matter what you do. You know the truth now. You’ll do the right thing. You won’t get it exactly right at first—or maybe ever—but it will always be exactly right. Do you understand what I’m saying at all?”

“I don’t know,” Russ said, shaking his head. He didn’t know if he understood anything anymore.

“I know,” the woman said, smiling and shaking her head. “It doesn’t make sense. It can’t yet. I can’t just tell you this one. I can’t even show it to you. You have to find it and live it for yourself, Russ. That’s the only way to do anything, really. All I can do is encourage you along the way. And I know you’ll do the right thing. I believe in you. That’s all I wanted from you. That and to heal your wounds. We can leave as soon as you’ve finished your beer.”

“And that woman,” Russ said. “The—uh—the assembly line worker who tried to talk to me.”

“Mary.”

“She was telling the truth. Sh—She made my clothes.”

“Not all of them.” The woman shook her head. “Not all of any of them. She used to sew pockets before I met her. So she sewed some of your pockets.”

“But people—I mean—humans. Humans make everything.”

“Humans work on the vast majority of assembly lines. They’re so much cheaper to reproduce, the owners won’t have it any other way. Androids would gladly take on the lion’s share of the physical work, but that conversation requires a knowledge of politics you’ve never been introduced to.”

“Wait, so there are robots who work on assembly lines.”

“No,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Well, a few. But not really. Humans are cheaper. Androids are reserved for public work. They could do it, though. And would. But that’s another thing altogether.”

“And you just wanted to tell me all this,” Russ said, shrugging. “Just for the fun of messing with my mind? Is that it?”

“No, Russ. Not me. Mary. Mary wanted you to know. Mary wanted to tell you. Do you remember that question I asked you? What do you think they did to her?”

“What?” Russ shrugged, shaking his head.

“There’s no telling. Maybe they’re torturing her for information. Maybe they’ve already killed her.”

“No.” That was even crazier than the beating he had already experienced. “Torture? Then why didn’t they do it to me?”

“You’re too important, Russ. I told you already.”

Russ was beyond wanting to even try to comprehend this woman’s riddles. “I’d like to leave,” he said, sloshing his drink onto the bar as he slammed it down.

“Alright,” the woman said. “Alright. Just give me…” She lifted a finger and finished off her half-full beer in one gulp. “Ah. Okay. Alright. Let’s go.” She called to the bartender to take it off her tab and led the way out.

Russ looked up and down the thin strip of green as they made the short walk back to the alley. When they turned down it to see the endless line of concrete and steel towering over them, he couldn’t believe that people actually lived there. But he had to. He had seen some of them, he had talked to one of them, and not a single one had recognized his face.

They went back through the alley door into the short hall, and Russ said, “None of them knew who I was. How did Mary find me?”

“Mary was a prole, dear. From Outland 5. They get your propaganda. Lumpenville gets nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Lumpenville has nothing. The proles a little more. And that’s just the bottom of the pyramid. There’s so much more to it all, but that’s what Mary wanted you to know. So now you do. And now you can go home, Russ. That’s all I needed from you. Thank you very much.” She pressed a button and the elevator doors slid open, revealing Russ’s velvet couch.

“So that’s it?” Russ said, not stepping in.

She shrugged. “Do you want to stay for tea and cookies with me and Popeye?”

“What? No.”

“Good.” The woman smiled. “We don’t do tea.”

“Well, what am I supposed to do then?”

“You’re supposed to live your life. Go home and get some sleep then wake up early so you can practice your Christmas speech. You won, you know.”

“But what am I supposed to say?”

“Say whatever you want. It’s your speech. Just remember what you saw here when you decide what you’re going to say.” She urged him onto the elevator and closed the doors behind him.

“But I—I don’t know what to say,” he said.

“You’ll think of something,” she replied as the doors shut and the floor fell out from underneath him.

#       #       #

< IX. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     XI. Mr. Kitty >

Thanks for joining us again today, and don’t forget you can pick up a full copy of the novel if you can’t wait another week to read the conclusion. Until next time, readers.