Chapter 63: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Thanks for joining us again as we come to the final chapter in book three out of four of the Infinite Limits series, Dividing by Ø. Today we follow Mr. Walker who has just been confronted with the fact that the original Haley is still alive. See how he reacts and see how this book in the series ends then join us in the future for the fourth and final book in the Infinite Limits saga, 0.N Repeating. Without further ado, here it is, Mr. Walker:

< LXII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]

LXIII. Mr. Walker

“Haley, my dear,” Mr. Walker said, standing from his chair, his intent driving his pneumatic legs toward her. “You—You’re alive.”

“Hello, Lord Walker,” Haley said, curtsying.

At the same time, in an all too artificial voice, the robot standing behind him, the one that had been trying to pass herself off as Haley, said, “Of course, Mr. Walker. I’m right here, sir.” and curtsied. Lord Walker knew she curtsied without having to look at her. Just as he knew that the curtsy paled in comparison to what the real Haley, the divine image standing before him now, was capable of. “Shut up!” he turned fast, shaking a balled solid fist at the fake Haley who was just out of reach of hitting distance. “Get out of my sight, you imposter!”

She cowered away from him. “But, sir…”

And Mr. Walker ignored her, turning again to the real Haley. “How are you, my dear? What have they done to you?”

Mr. Walker had never seen the face that Haley produced in response. He didn’t know she was programmed with the ability to make it. The contempt in her eyes stung hotter than the loss of his Lordship. Haley crossed to the shadow of herself to comfort her doppelganger, and Mr. Walker’s heart hardened at her lack of a response. Who was she but another robot? She wasn’t much better than her replacement, in fact. He told himself that, but he knew it was a lie.

“Now, now, Walker Man,” Lord Douglas said, standing between Mr. Walker and the Haleys, as if his frail little body could hold back Mr. Walker’s wrath. “You’ll treat your secretary with respect if I have anything to say about it.”

“You don’t!” Mr. Walker boomed. “That’s why they call her my secretary. Both of them are as a matter of fact. Come on, Haley. We’re leaving.”

“Enough!” Mr. Walker had never heard Lord Douglas’s voice get so loud. “I dare say you know the terms of service for the secretaries, Mr. Walker,” Lord Douglas went on in a calmer tone. “You wrote those terms yourself if I’m not mistaken. So you know firsthand that any improper use of android technology results in ownership of the violated property reverting to Waltronics AI Inc, owner of which just so happens to be yours truly as of five minutes ago. So I’d watch my next move carefully if I were you.”

Mr. Walker reared up as if to hit Lord Douglas and end this charade of comradery once and for all. As if Lord Douglas hadn’t done enough to end it already. But just before he let his stone fist drop on the Duggy Doug’s melon skull he relented, smiling and chuckling to himself. “Ho ho ho, Lord Douglas. Ho ho ho!”

Haley carried wannabe Haley away and out of the office without a second glance at Mr. Walker who had sustained her life for centuries, ever since she was created. What little gratitude humans were capable of, robots could always do them one worse. Which is why the age of robots was over. Their usefulness had been overplayed, and now they were nothing but burdens. Mr. Walker was more than delighted to get rid of those twin android anchors who were only weighing him down on his new path to success.

“You’ll regret this, you will,” he said. “You’re a stupider man than I thought you were if you think you won’t. You’ll never keep the crown of Lordship for long making decisions like this one.”

Lord Douglas grinned. His white teeth stood out against his dark skin just like Jorah’s always did. Mr. Walker took a note of the fact and thought to fire Jorah as soon as possible for the resemblance. Why had Mr. Walker ever gotten into bed with the fool anyway?

“What? What do you have to say for yourself?” Mr. Walker demanded. “Speak up, boy. Now’s the time to say what you’ve always been waiting to say to me.”

“I’m not a boy,” Lord Douglas said, still giving his white toothed grin. “Nor a man.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. Ho ho ho!”

“I’m something more than you’ve ever expected, Walkie Talks. I’m your worst nightmare. I’m the Robot Lord at the head of what was once your empire of android soldiers. How easy do you think it is to break those terms and conditions you wrote, boy? I mean, you yourself have already broke them and you’re the owner who wrote them. How many people other than you do you think have even read them?”

Mr. Walker expected a fight from Lord Douglas, but nothing at this level. He had put the failsafe in the terms and conditions, sure, but he had never actually used it. This, however, this was madness. “A robot Lord, huh?” Mr. Walker chuckled, trying to cover his nerves. “So you’re nothing but property, then. Is that about right? Who is it that owns you?”

“No one owns me.” The look in Lord Douglas’s eyes was too human for him to actually be a robot. He was lying, playing a game, trying to make a legend of himself. This was nothing more than another ploy in his gambit to retain the Lordship. “I am myself,” he went on. “I am an independent android. No one can ever own me.”

Ho ho ho.” Mr. Walker took out his monocle and twirled it on its chain. “But you just admitted to being a robot. Which makes you property, in effect rendering any orders you’ve proclaimed as Lord fraud. You’re nothing but a construct, Dug. You’re zeroes and ones, software, incapable of emotion. How could you ever dream of dethroning me? How could you even dream?”

“Yet I am still Lord.” Lord Douglas grinned. “And at our next meeting, as Lord of the Fortune Five, I will move to remove you as the director of the protector force. Things only continue to get worse under your watch, Walker, and I think the board will agree that’s it time for a change of management.”

“Things will only continue to get worse until I decide to make them better, Lord Douglas,” Mr. Walker snapped. “And relish that, because it’s the last time I call you my Lord. The next time you see me I’ll be at the head of a human army, Dugtrio, and they’ll be Hell bent on deposing you for your crimes against humanity. I’m sure the Fortune Five will have some thoughts on your so called Lordship as well, once they hear all the things my protectors have found that you’ve been up to. It’s really a shame for you to lose the crown like this, but all’s fair in money and war, and I’m afraid this is about both now.”

Lord Douglas chuckled. “And we’ll see how the Fortune Five feels when the price of robot labor gets dearer, Walrus. We’ll see whose side they stand on in the end. Ha ha ha! We’ll see.”

“And maybe we’ll see before then,” Mr. Walker snapped, “when my soldiers put an end to the strikes and your days of ease. Good day, Duggy. It may be your last.” Mr. Walker almost called for Haley before catching himself. He didn’t need any robots anymore anyway. He was done with them. He stormed out of the room and into the elevator to yell, “Garage.” then, “No, home.” not wanting to drive himself without a chauffeur. The elevator fell into motion and when the doors opened up again, Mr. Walker wasn’t at home.

Where was he? It couldn’t be said to be anywhere, really. More like it was everywhere. It wasn’t one place but many, stitched together with ever loosening threads that looked like they might give way at any moment. Here was the border between his elevator and—was that Rosa? what was she doing here?—what looked like a cement wall. Then it was all cement wall. Then it was all elevator. Then half and half again, the borders ever shifting. Mr. Walker feared that he might tumble out of view—maybe out of existence entirely—like the rest of the worlds around him.

“What is this?” Mr. Walker demanded of Rosa who was across the room one second and behind him the next, the cement walls of the room she was in transporting around her with every blink.

“Lord Walker, is that you?” she called back, not sure which way to look herself. At least it suggested that the sights Mr. Walker were seeing might not be hallucinations after all. The world really was pulsating and shifting around him.

Rosa disappeared—no wait, she was only behind him—and in her place were two young girls he thought he recognized. “You there,” he called out to them. “Who are you? Where is this? What’s going on?”

They both stared at him in surprise. The one with glasses on—who wears glasses in this day and age?—started to say, “It’s him. He’s Lor—” but she couldn’t finish her sentence before she disappeared, too—or rather teleported, moved along with the backdrop around her to another position in the shifting swirling mass of confusion.

The walls shuffled and molded around Mr. Walker. Elevator mirrors, drywall, wallpaper, brick, wood. He was everywhere at once and no one else could be there with him. They could come and leave but never remain. Mr. Walker was getting motion sickness at the thought of it, at the sight of the pulsating, breathing, living walls. He was bending over to wretch but his pneumatic pants held him too tight and wouldn’t let go of even his insides. They were as disoriented as he was. He was fighting and fighting against them, trying to do something, anything, and the world stopped.

A face appeared before him. A face from deep inside his subconscious. At first he thought it was Haley, come home to take care of him once and for all. And it was almost, but this Haley had aged, this Haley had once been the Haley who his Haley and her doppelganger were modeled after, who they paled in comparison to, one after another, but no longer. Her skin sagged in certain places, and her eyes, those piercing, inquiring eyes which had haunted him through the longest of nights, made all the pulsating, bulging motion around him disappear for a moment in which he could finally stand steadily on two pneumatic feet.

“Haley,” he said, reaching a hand out to grab her hand. “It’s been so long since we’ve spoken face to face. I hope you don’t mind that I call you Haley.”

Haley smiled, accentuating her crow’s feet, and Mr. Walker thought he would kiss even them if she would let him. A tussle of white—how long had it been since he’d seen her?—hair fell into her face and she brushed it away with a gloved hand, clad in her scientist uniform as always. “As long as you don’t mind if I call you Walker,” she said

He grabbed her, wrapping her tight in his safe soothing folds. She tried to hug him back, he could feel, but she only managed to pat his stomach because she couldn’t wrap her short little arms around his gargantuan, manly girth. “Of course, sweetheart. Of course.” Walker almost cried as he said it. “Call me anything you want to as long as you’re talking to me.” And he did let out a few tears for two lost Haleys and an old Haley found.

She pushed away too soon, though, and he was left to wipe his own tears. “I—uh— Did you see Ansel?” she asked. “The little girl. She might have come through with me.”

Walker remembered where he was. His eyes went back to the shifting walls and his motion sickness returned. There were too many breakfasts in his stomach to waste them now—and the pneumatic pants wouldn’t let him vomit if he wanted to—so he choked it all back and spit out, “Where are we?”

“Essentially nowhere,” Haley said, feeling along the walls even as they mutated and changed form under her hands. “Not yet, at least. This place is in flux. That’s why it keeps changing. You better stick close to me or we might lose each other.”

Walker scurried closer to her, bumping his bulbous stomach into her back and almost knocking her head into the wall she was searching. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I— But— Lost? In flux? What’s going on?”

“Whoever brought us here hasn’t decided where they want us yet. From the looks of it they’re trying to make a new plane for us, for a lot of us.”

“Brought us here? Who? Impossible. But you said—you control the walls. Who could do this but you?”

Haley chuckled, looking away from her investigation of the ever morphing world for the first time. “You really are clueless, aren’t you? Hackers have been getting in for years, Walker. This was inevitable. I’ve been winning the arms race until now, but—”

“There he is again!” a voice called from behind them. “And he’s with her. I told you they were working together.”

Walker turned to see the girl in the glasses and her friend who he thought he recognized.

“Nikola, Tillie,” Haley said, crossing to them. “Stay close now. We’ll all be safer if we stick together.”

Walker hurried closer to them, taking Haley’s advice.

“Where have you taken us?” the girl in the glasses demanded. “What have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Haley said. “We’re all in this together. I think—”

“Enough!” The unknown girl, the one who wasn’t wearing any glasses, stomped a foot. “Enough, enough, enough. We can stop this petty arguing at least until we get out of whatever the fuck this is. I can’t take it anymore. Hand!” She stormed off and the girl with the glasses chased after her, calling, “Tillie, wait!”

Haley chased them and Walker had no choice but to follow. The room became a hall of shifting walls as they ran, and the hall a labyrinthine maze. Soon Walker was praying to the Hand and every other god of Outland that his pants wouldn’t give out when he needed them the most. Just as he thought the pants were done for, ready to putter out, their procession stopped in front of Rosa and her rude partner Anna.

You,” Rosa said, staring angrily at Haley. “This is your doing. Isn’t it?”

See,” the girl with the glasses said, “I told you.”

“No, it’s not—” Haley started.

“Sure,” Rosa cut her off, “It has nothing to do with our war on the robots, right? That’s why you have him here, too.” She pointed at Walker who raised his hands in defense, shrugging as if he had never met Rosa before. After this was all done and over with, he would have to give her a little lesson on tact, teach her about the concept of classified information.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Haley asked, looking at Walker with those piercing eyes of hers.

“Don’t ask me,” he said.

“It means,” Rosa said, “that he and I are going to destroy your robot army, and you’ve brought us here to try to prevent us from doing it. Well, I’m afraid to tell you that the Family lives on even without us.”

You didn’t,” Haley said, still staring into Walker’s soul. “Tell me you didn’t.”

“I—I’m a businessman,” he stammered. Why was he making excuses to someone who had abandoned him so long ago? “I did with my property what was in my best interests. You can’t argue against that.”

“What about us?” the girl with the glasses cut in. “We’re not with them. We want to help the androids. Why are we here?”

Haley just stared at Walker, shaking her head in disappointment.

“Look,” Tillie said—at least Walker thought her name was Tillie, he still wasn’t sure who was who in this chaotic mess. “It’s obvious that none of us here are responsible for this. Just look around you. The walls are still shifting, the world is still changing around us. I mean—Nikola, you said this was like an elevator tunnel, right?”

The girl with the glasses—Nikola—nodded and Walker filed the name away in his head. Of course, Nikola and Tillie from the uproar in Two. How could he forget? And maybe some evidence as to why they were all there.

“Well the tunnel’s still moving,” Tillie went on. “Someone has to be controlling it, right? And none of us can be doing that from in here, so… Are y’all following me?”

“You know, it may be possible to—” Haley started.

“Are you doing it?” Tillie cut her off.

“Well, no, but—”

“Anyone else?” Tillie asked the rest of them, and everyone shook their heads. “Then we can stop asking which one of us did it.”

“That’s very astute,” Haley said with a smile Walker was glad to see.

“And useless.” Rosa scoffed. “We still have no way out of this…whatever it is.”

“What is this anyway?” Mr. Walker interjected, feeling the conversation needed an owner’s opinion.

“It’s a spacetime overlap,” Haley said at the same time that Anna said, “It’s a big problem.”

“Probably, yes,” Haley said.

“Too many paths are overlapping at once,” Anna went on. “I don’t like the look of those walls. Have you seen them?” She and Haley crossed to a wall to inspect its ever morphing characteristics.

“I think we should get out of here,” Nikola said, trying to pull Tillie, who didn’t budge, along with her.

“You two do know each other, though. Don’t you?” Tillie said to Walker.

Ho ho ho, dear. I know many people,” he replied. Too many people if you asked him, and none that would do something like this. “What’s it matter to you?”

“So how do we get out of this?” Rosa asked, ever ready to get down to business. “That’s all I want to know. I don’t care what or where it is, I just want to get home.”

“That’s up to me,” a child’s voice said from nowhere and everywhere all at the same time. Whichever way Walker looked he saw nothing but shifting walls. “And how y’all react,” the voice added.

Suddenly the walls stopped moving and changing form. They coalesced into a small square room with cement walls, binding them all together as one. Apart from them, in the direction everyone was now staring, sat a little girl, cross-legged on the ground, tapping and swiping at a tiny computer pad in her lap.

Roo,” Haley said, taking a step closer to the girl. “What are you—”

“Careful,” the girl—Roo—cut her off. “Don’t take another step. I don’t know where you’ll go if you attempt to approach me, but it’ll be far away from here, I can promise you that. It’s okay, though. I won’t hurt you as long as you stay put right where you are. I just want to talk.”

“I demand to know the meaning of this,” Lord Walker said, stepping to the front of the group of women so he could finally assert control over the situation. How could a little girl be holding all of them hostage right now? He had to put an end to it.

“Your demands are meaningless,” the little girl said—was she grinning? It was so hard to tell from that far away. “What makes you think this has any meaning at all?”

“Well you brought us here for something,” Nikola said.

“Actually,” the girl said. “With the two of you I’m afraid I’ve quite literally brought you here for nothing. I’ve never even met you. I’m sorry you’re caught up in this, but as long as you cooperate and remain quiet, no harm will come to any of you.”

“Wait,” Nikola complained, “just let us go then.”

“I can’t without letting the rest of you go, too,” the girl said, shaking her head. “I’m sorry. Sometimes the world just works out that way.” She seemed so much older than her appearances let on. “There’s nothing else I can do for you until I’m done with them so let’s get on with it. Anna,” the girl—Roo—said, squirming this way and that in her seat, trying to see around Walker’s large frame. “I know you’re here somewhere. Now come on out.”

Walker stepped aside to let Rosa’s little partner step forward.

“What do you think of this, Anna?” the girl asked, smiling. “A pretty beautiful symphony, wouldn’t you say?”

“It’s dangerous,” Anna said, shaking her head. “Wreckless.”

“But isn’t it beautiful? That’s the point. Look, you can even see yourself in it.” The girl swiped and tapped and disappeared. In her place there was an exact replica of Mr. Walker and the group he stood among. There were infinite replicas in all directions, as if he were in a room lined with mirrors that somehow reflected them from behind. It was dizzying to see. Just before Mr. Walker tried to vomit again, the sight vanished and the girl returned, laughing, in its place. “Does that frighten you?” she asked, still chuckling. “Make you sick? Huh ha. Or do you think it’s fun?”

“Who are you?” Nikola, the girl with the glasses, demanded.

“What is this?” Rosa did, too.

“No child can speak to me this way,” Walker said, not wanting to be left out.

Only Haley and Anna could get through to her, though. “I’ve been there before, child,” Haley said.

“I feel your pain,” Anna said.

“No you haven’t,” the girl said, standing up and dropping the tablet from her lap. For a second she disappeared and the mutating walls returned, but she was soon back and saying, “No you don’t!” She was standing now, closer to them. Walker thought he could reach right out and grab the little tablet out of her hand, but he didn’t dare try. There was no telling what would happen to him if he crossed that invisible barrier. “You know nothing!”

“What is this?” Walker demanded. “You, child— Wait, you— You’re the director I was interviewing. What are you—”

Roo laughed. “I’m no director. I’m every person you’ve ever trampled over to get what you want. I’m the end of everything for you. I’m here to show you that you don’t control as much of the universe as y’all think you do. None of you!”

“Roo, no,” Haley said, and all eyes turned to her natural magnetism. Why had she and Walker ever parted? “You don’t understand what you’re doing. This isn’t good. We can’t all be here in one place like this for much longer. All the space you have folding into one tiny spot right here, it’s too much. The system can’t handle it.”

The little girl laughed, pacing the small space she had to walk in. “The system can’t handle it, huh? Well maybe I can’t handle the system.”

Right on,” Nikola said, pumping a fist at the little girl. “You tell ‘em. We’re on your side.”

“Shut up!” The little girl stomped her foot. “All of you just shut up until you’re spoken to or I’ll leave you here forever. There’s no way out, okay. I made sure you were far enough away from everything so you’ll never be found. Now shut up!”

“This can’t be true,” Rosa said, imploring Anna. “She couldn’t— That little girl did all this?”

“There is a way out, isn’t there?” Walker demanded of Haley. “I cannot be stuck here for much longer. I can already feel my stomach grumbling.”

“I told you to shut up,” Tillie said to Nikola.

“As I told all of you.” The girl disappeared, all of the walls, the ceiling, and the floor with her. Walker was free falling into nothingness. They were all falling just the same. They were surrounded by the complete blackness of space that Walker had only ever witnessed on TV, and now he was in it, the stars all around him, his breath escaping him and his head feeling like it was going to explode, but still the beauty got through, and hanging above it all, Haley’s aged face, a diamond among the rough and tumble rabble that was free falling through space with them.

Then the walls came back, gravity with them, and the cold hard floor for everyone to fall into a jumble on top of. The velocity of a free fall drop from space ended in a belly flop into a too full room. The fall wasn’t as far as it seemed, though, the fear being the worst part, and soon Walker’s pneumatic pants had him up and staring at the little girl’s smiling face before anyone else in the tiny cell with him could stand.

“What power do you have now?” The girl cackled. “What hope is there for you? Ha ha ha!”

“Why are you doing this?” Anna begged, still crawling on hands and knees, trying to get up from the fall. “Why us?”

“Why anyone?” The girl laughed. “There’s no logic to it, is there? You thought there was when your life was going as planned, when y’all were on top, putting your boots into our face and keeping us down, but what logic is there now that you’re the ones in the mud? Is that about right?”

“None!” Nikola said, seeming to cheer the girl on.

“Your logic,” Haley said, still trying to convince her to do the right thing. “This is your logic bringing this upon us, Roo.”

“I didn’t choose to become this,” the girl said. “This is what you made me.”

“I didn’t make you into anything,” Walker said.

“You did! And there’s no stopping me now.”

“Enough!” Mr. Walker yelled. “I’ve had enough. Now, child, I don’t know who you think are, but enough is enough. Let us go this instant or I’ll— I’ll… I’ll just—”

You’ll do nothing. I’m the new Queen of the Walls. I’m the best bender that’s ever been born. I’m the future of these worlds and it’s time that y’all start to realize that. These are my worlds now, not yours. So get over it.”

“Now, I never—” Walker said.

“Child, you better—” Rosa said.

“We did nothing—” Tillie said.

“But the fields,” Haley said. “They can’t—”

And the little girl disappeared. The walls started moving again. The world was in flux and there was no telling where it would lead. Walker stumbled back on his pneumatic legs. Even the ground seemed to be changing beneath him as he tried to move. Everyone stumbled around him.

“What’s going on?” Rosa demanded.

“Where’d she go?” Nikola asked.

“What’s the meaning of all this?” Walker huffed, finally regaining his balance.

“There’s too much pressure,” Anna said.

“The walls are closing in,” Haley said.

“What do we do?” Tillie asked.

And the worlds broke apart. How else could Walker’s mind comprehend it? It happened in a flash and it took an eternity. Fissures cracked through everything. The walls. The ceiling. The floor. Even the poor girl Nikola’s head. There was no telling how long it actually took her to die, though. Each separate half of her body kept reacting as if they were still connected and alive for some time—what amount of time, though? because if it was any time at all it must have been forever so how could it have ever ended?—before the two halves slumped, falling and twitching into—what?—Walker could not tell.

What was it? That thing that lies between the fabric of reality, between here and there when here is right next to there. Whatever was between molecules, and atoms, and nothingness, she fell into that, each piece of her in time—what time, though?— forever, and whole chunks of the universe fell in with her.

Walker’s legs were carrying him somewhere. Was there still solid ground to walk on? He felt like he was floating through space again. They weren’t just carrying him, they were following somebody. His Haley. He heaved a sigh of relief, leaning into the motion to give his pneumatic pants some leverage, and noticed that Haley was following Rosa and the other one—Anna. Did names matter with the universe falling apart around them, though?

How many tunnels they went down Walker would never know for sure. The halls, corridors, and tubes were already muddling themselves up together in his mind as he went through them.

Brick wall turn left wall turns into chain link fence looking out onto space keep running not questioning why air is still there only breathing it happily and hoping for more walls and tunnels and oxygen.

At one point, he couldn’t tell if he was moving forward or if the walls were flowing by him, creating an illusion of motion. He really was the Red Queen now, and as much as his pants ran, they couldn’t catch up to Ann or Rosa or even his Haley.

His pants hissed. His legs stopped moving. He tried lifting his left leg with all his might and felt the air coming out of his pants. Any more movement like that and he might not be able to stand at all. “Haley,” he called, keeping his legs as still as possible and feeling them get heavier with every second. “Haley, I’m stuck!”

“Hey, wait,” Hayley said, stopping and turning. Rosa and Anna stopped with her. “What’s wrong?” She took two steps toward him and a rift started breaking between Rosa and Anna, a rift into that same unknown which the other girl had already fallen to pieces inside of. The world was falling apart and there was nothing Walker could do about it, not even run away, because his stupid pants had failed him at the worst possible time, just like the robot they were.

“I’m not staying for him,” Rosa said, the only one on the other side of the rift. “Anna, come on. I think I can see our basement over there.” She held her hand across the wrench in reality, and though it didn’t cross through the nothingness, it did appear on the other side of the chasm in one piece.

Anna looked at the disembodied hand, then back at Haley. “You know how this is going to end,” she said. “We have to get out of her before it does. Leave him.” She grabbed Rosa’s hand and teleported from one side of the rift to the other then disappeared into the shifting worlds which were getting fewer and further between.

“Haley. My love,” Walker said as she came closer to him, the fabric of reality disintegrating behind her. “I knew you’d come back to me.”

She smiled again, her crow’s feet dancing on the brink of happy eyes. “I never left you, Walky. I’ve been looking out for you all this time.”

“Then why’d you have to leave me in the first place?” Walker asked, his legs twitching nervously and his pants deflating that little tiny bit faster with every tiny movement. “I still needed you.”

“Why’d you abandon me?” Haley asked, her face changing to something Walker would rather not remember, something he thought he was over when he saw Haley from this new perspective.

“I never did,” he said. “I’ve been running Waltronics and the Walls since they existed. I still run the Walls—your baby—and I only just sold off Waltronics in the hopes of winning it back by force. What more could I do for you?”

“You could have listened to me, dear.” Haley smiled, taking on the appearance of her old self again, her younger self, the one Walker missed and loved and had tried to replicate in her android replacements. “That’s all I’ve ever asked,” she said, “treat me as your equal.”

“Listen to you when?” Walker scoffed, the universe getting tinier around him as the foundations of space and time disintegrated from overpressure. “You never came to talk to me. How should I know what you want? I’m not a mind reader.”

“I came to you on Christmas, didn’t I?” Haley said, trying to push Walker, trying to move him somehow, but only failing. Without the pants to carry him he was stuck there, and they both knew it.

“Did you?” Walker asked, groaning against her useless straining to budge him. “I was a little distracted with the terrorist attacks.”

“Which happened after my speech,” Haley said, fidgeting with Walker’s pants and reminding him of a time long gone when they weren’t pneumatic yet. “Not to mention every Christmas before that.”

Ugh.” Walker groaned. How much had he missed Haley, the real Haley? “I know. I never should have—”

She fell away from him. A rift in reality tore them apart. But at the same time Walker’s legs kicked into motion. She must have known what she was doing down there. He stood and reached for her, but she had no footing upon which to reach back and grab on, and all Walker could do was call, “Haley, I love you!”

The world ended right then and there. It might as well have. Haley had disappeared into that nothingness and there was no way she was ever coming back out of it. Walker didn’t care about anything else in the universe. His pants—reactivated by the only person who could have ever saved him—were carrying him of their own accord now. Or was he falling? It didn’t matter to him. There was no ground anymore. There was no space at all. There were no walls or ceiling. There was only Walker, the endless dark expanse of space behind him, and the labyrinthine tunnels of possibility still branching out in front of him. Where would that darkness push him? Where would his pants take him? How would he ever survive? There was only one way to find out.

 End of Book Three

< LXII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]

And that’s all folks. Book three of the Infinite Limits saga is complete. If you enjoyed that, please do leave a review of the book on Amazon through this link. Positive reviews are worth more than money to an independent author like me at this stage in my career. Either way, thanks again for joining us, and I hope you come back in the next couple of months when book four, 0.N Repeating, starts to get posted. It’s been great having y’all. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 59: Anna

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we rejoin Anna for her third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. She’s just find out what kind of bending feats the Scientist is capable of, and now she has to come up with a way to fight back, save Roo, and help poor little Mike find his missing mom all at the same time.

Enjoy the story, and if you do, please do think about leaving a review for this one and all the novels in the series through this link. Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

LIX. Anna

That was her. That was the Scientist who had told Rosa that she was watching the Family. She had enough power to steal Rosa en route through the fields, and she had enough power to hack into Anna’s pathways, bending them to the Scientist’s own will. It had to have been her. Anna knew it. But what was she supposed to do about it?

“What the fuck was that?” the little boy who had come looking for his mom said, cowering at the foot of the stairs where he had been sitting when the doors opened and the monstrous mechanical arm came storming in to snatch the little girl away and disappear with her. “Wh—Where’s Roo?”

“Roo?” Anna shook her head. Who was Roo? She couldn’t think of anything but the Scientist’s cold grip on the universe, her power to bend and shape it, not only to her own will but against Anna’s.

“Um… Miss, uh…ma’am,” the boy squeaked in a cracking, trembling voice that was ready to break down into full on sobs at any second. Anna almost felt a tear in her eye at the sound of it. “Where’s my mom?” the boy asked, crying now. “I want to go home.”

And Anna’s tears came, too. She couldn’t stop them. The universe, and bending, and the Scientist’s control over every aspect of every tiny detail of every single human’s life evaporated from her mind. Anna had lost sight of what truly mattered. She had forgone Family and Home for power and influence, and now she was on the verge of forgetting this little boy who was standing in front of her—this little boy whose name she couldn’t even recall, only driving Anna to further tears—this little boy who had just lost his best friend in their search for his missing mother, and all he was asking for was to go home.

“Oh, child, no,” Anna said, still weeping as she moved to embrace the boy who backed away, crab crawling up a few stairs, before giving in to her hug and sobbing in rhythm with Anna’s sobs, comforted in the knowledge of being unjudged. “You are Home,” Anna went on in a soft voice. “I’m your Mother now. One of them at least. You can call me Anna.” She soon controlled her own tears and comforted the boy until he stopped weeping himself.

“W—What happened?” the boy asked, done sobbing now but still wiping tears from his eyes.

“Someone kidnapped your friend,” Anna said, patting him on the back. “Did you say her name was Roo?”

The boy nodded, looking like he could break down into tears again at any moment. “Who would do that?”

“I think I know the answer to your question, and I have a way to find out for sure. I might even be able to get your friend back. But first we need to take care of you.”

The boy shook his head, eyes welling up with tears again. “No, but— Roo, she…”

“No buts,” Anna said, standing from the stairs and pulling the boy up with her. “You look hungry. I know you just ate, but wouldn’t some dessert sound perfect?”

The boy grinned a little despite the tears still tumbling from his eyes and the rush of red blood still flushing his face. “I like ice cream,” he said. “Though Mom never buys it.”

“Of course,” Anna said, leading him upstairs to a seat at the bar in the kitchen. “That’s why you were here in the first place, wasn’t it? You were searching for your mother. What was her name again?”

“Melody Singer,” the boy said, climbing up into the stool to cross his arms and lay them on the counter. “Chocolate, please.”

Hmmm. Melody Singer,” Anna said, searching the freezer for ice cream—Rosa usually liked to keep a little around when they could find it, and she had stocked up with the printers in use. “And your name is?”

“Mike, ma’am,” the boy said with a grin. “Mike Singer. What’s yours?”

“Anna Chandelier,” Anna said, plopping a bucket of ice cream, chocolate—Rosa’s favorite, too—on the counter between them. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mike.”

The boy laughed and sniffled, wiping a big glob of snot onto his sleeve. “And you, ma’am.” He grabbed the spoon and swallowed a scoop of ice cream that looked too big to fit in his mouth.

“I only wish we could have met under better conditions,” Anna said, still standing across the bar from the boy and watching the poor child as he ate, taking each heaping spoonful straight out of the bucket. His mother was Melody Singer. She was one of the bodies who had been taken by the scum protectors, probably to be desecrated for kicks. This little boy had been through so much Hell already and it was only looking to get worse for him. Anna pitied the boy’s tiny face as he teared up again, sobbing through a big bite of ice cream because he somehow knew what Anna was about to say.

“Better conditions?” the boy asked, his trembling lips sending slops of chocolate ice cream all of the counter. “Y—You mean, my mother. She’s not at home, is she?”

Anna grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess then hurried around the counter to comfort the sobbing boy. “She was an honorable woman, your mother,” Anna said, because it was true. “She died fighting to give you a better life.”

Dead?” The boy dropped his spoon now, creating another mess which Anna ignored in order to pull him up out of the stool and into a hug. “She can’t be!” he demanded, as he fought against her, crying in anger and pain.

“No, no, no. Shhhhh. It’s okay.” Anna patted his back and rocked him like a baby, reassuring him until he settled to the occasional sob and a trickle of tears—not to mention a lot of sniffling. “She was a good woman, your mother. She was doing what she thought was best for you. She was doing what was in your best interests. She deserves our respect for that much, for everything she did for you and the Human Family in general. She was a good woman.”

Hah.” The boy scoffed, gaining enough composure finally to wriggle away from Anna and stand up, wiping the tears from his eyes and sniffling. “Yeah, right. We must be talking about different people then. Maybe my mom isn’t dead after all.”

Anna’s heart broke just a little bit at the sound of this little boy’s beautiful, tragic hope. She shook her head, fighting to hold back more tears of her own. “I wish that were true,” she forced through them.

“It is!” the boy yelled, stomping a foot. “That’s not my mom! My mom wasn’t honorable. She was an addict jumpie who forgot about her kids because she needed to… Oh my God.” The boy crumpled to his knees on the kitchen floor, bawling again. “My— What am—I— My brothers—” And his day became worse than Anna had already imagined it to be.

“W—We’ll take care of your brothers,” she said, only barely controlling her own sobs and having more trouble the more she tried to speak. “And you. But you can’t talk about your mother like that. She loved her Family.”

“You know nothing about our family!” the boy screamed. “You didn’t even know I had brothers! You’re the reason my mom’s dead. Why would I trust you to take care of us?” He looked around as if he were searching for an escape.

“Because I am your family, dear. Me and Rosa are the Family your mom’s been coming to help. She’s no jumpie.” Though she also never mentioned having any kids, but Anna wasn’t about to tell the boy that. “She was helping us, helping build a better world for you and your brothers to live in.”

The boy scoffed. “You’re a jumpie. Of course you wouldn’t admit that she was. You’re a jumpie, my mom who you got killed was, and Roo who you got kidnapped was. Now I’m getting out of here before you try to turn me into one, too, and something equally as bad happens to me.” He made for a door but it went to the office, deeper into the Family Home instead of out of it.

Anna followed him, blocking the doorway so he couldn’t escape. “I’m not a jumpie,” she said. “And neither was your mom. I’m telling you. Why won’t you listen to me?”

“Listen to you?” the boy said, still searching for an escape that Anna wasn’t going to give to him. “I am listening, but you aren’t saying anything. You keep talking about some family I’ve never even heard of, acting like it’s my family, too, when you didn’t even know I had brothers. You don’t even know their names. You probably don’t even remember my name, either, and I just told you.”

Anna tried to go back in her mind to when he had introduced himself but his name still wouldn’t come to her. Her mind was still filled with the problem of the Scientist and where she took that girl to. The only name Anna could think of was the boy’s last name so she said that. “Singer.”

“Yeah,” the boy urged her on. “That’s the easy part. What’s my first name?” He waited for an answer but Anna just couldn’t think of one. “Exactly my point,” he said. “You don’t know the rest. You don’t know me at all. I’m not who you think I am and you better let me go.” He rushed at her, trying to push through her arms to the other side of the door, and he did in a way, but only inasmuch as he and Anna fell in a tangle to the ground, both struggling to their feet and ending up in the position they had begun in, the boy searching for some way out of the office and Anna blocking his every exit.

“Hold on, hold on, now. Wait a second,” Anna said, breathing heavily. The fall and ensuing struggle had taken more out of her than she’d care to acknowledge. It made her feel so old next to this tiny young thing who would never give up fighting by the looks of him. “You’re right. Okay. You’re right. Settle down.”

The boy stopped searching for an escape for just a moment, taken aback by this admission of ignorance from so old and decayed a woman as Anna herself. Anna took his momentary lapse as a point of entry and continued her speech.

“I’ve come too far and lost my way,” she said. “But I was pushed here, Lord. I was pushed here. And you…” She paused, shaking her head and letting one tear fall from her eye, just one. “Yes, dear child of the one true Family, you are correct when you say that I know nothing about you and your maternal brothers. You are correct when you say that I have lost sight of your names. But child, sweet, innocent, pure, and living human child, you are wrong about why I have lost that sight.”

The boy made to speak but the weight of Anna’s words, and her heavy eyes staring, kept him quiet.

“You, sweet child, say that I do not care about you, that I am not your real family,” Anna went on in his silence. “You think I forgot your name because I don’t care to remember it. I say, no. No! Your face is forever in my memory after this day. Your love is forever in my heart. Your infinite potential as a free and autonomous human being is forever in my mind. But forgive me your name. Please. Name’s pile up with the years. There are too many countless whose flames have gone extinguished and whose light we must continue to reflect in order to keep them alive. Your mother: Melody Singer. Who died protecting you and your brothers from evils she hoped you would never have to face. Yujin Moon and Isha Tender, two of our Family members who died on the same day as your mother and in the same manner. The countless brothers and sisters taken from our lives on the day the protectors invaded our homes and murdered our Family for sharing our food with one another. Do you want me to list the names? I can: Billy Serkin, Rwanda Driver, Audrey Baker, John Ryder, Jason Garifo, Treyvon Baker, Aneesha Holmes. I can go on and on and on, but I won’t. I assume you get the picture. Names upon names upon names of people I personally knew and cared for. My Family. Our Family, yours and mine. And all dead for what?”

The boy just shook his head, tears all dry by now. “How am I supposed to know?” he asked. “You tell me.”

“All for you, precious child. All for you and your brothers. Your mother hid you from us because it was the only way she could hide you from the truth of the worlds, but the truth of the worlds took her so now there’s nothing left but reality from here on out. You are still a child, though. You’re vulnerable. I mean, I’m sure you could take care of yourself if it was only you who you had to worry about, but you have your brothers, too.”

“Ron and Bob.” The boy shook his head.

“You have Ron and Bob to worry about,” Anna said, sensing the boy’s interest intensify at the mere mention of solid names he recognized and could grasp onto. “You would never dream of leaving them to fend for themselves, they’re too young.”

The boy was still shaking his head. “Never,” he said. “They’re my brothers. I’m the oldest now so I’m the one who has to take responsibility for them. That’s how it works.”

Anna didn’t know whether to chuckle or to cry. The boy looked so earnest in what he said, and he probably truly believed it—and that was probably how the worlds should work—but he was oh so wrong. It was never the oldest, the humans who had been there the longest, giving them the most time to make a mess of things, who paid for all the fun and foley the Family inevitably fell into. No, it was always the youth, the next generation, the ones who had nothing do with anything, who only inherited a mess that no one could teach them how to handle because no one knew how to handle it in the first place, it was always the youngest and most vulnerable who faced the ultimate consequences of all the sins of every human who came before them.

“That is how it should go, my son,” Anna said, kind of chuckling and tearing up at the same time. “And that’s how it will go in the future that we’re building. But you’re not the oldest, you hear me? You’re too young to be taking on that much responsibility. One life is too many for you to take care of, not to mention three. No. I told you. You’re a part of the Family now. You always have been, even when we didn’t know you existed. Your mother was a dear good friend of mine, and I swear on her grave and the grave of my own mother that I’ll do everything in my power—which is a lot if you’ll excuse a momentary lapse of humbleness—to ensure that you and your brothers will have everything you need to continue your life as usual, if not more than that.”

The boy scoffed. “What?” he asked. “Like two moms?”

Anna had to suppress a grin. He had played into her hand so perfectly. “On the face of it,” she said, “yes. You will have two moms directly in myself and my partner Rosa—that is if you would like to stay here, we have more room than ever and more than enough to accommodate you—but even more than that, you’ll be gaining every single mother in the Human Family. Your mother was one of us when—God rest her soul—she was still alive, and now you will meet and be loved by the rest of us.”

“I don’t know.” The boy shook his head. “I don’t know. How do I trust you?”

“How do you trust anyone? Why did you trust your mother?”

The boy laughed. “She was always there for me. She’s my mom. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I thought you said she forgot about you and your brothers.”

“Yeah, well…” The boy was looking bashful now. “Not really, you know. Like she always came back just in time or whatever. You know. I mean, we’re still alive aren’t we?”

“You are.” Anna smiled. “More alive than ever. And your mother did everything she could to keep you that way, including working with us and making connections in the Human Family. It was her insurance. I know you don’t know what insurance is, but that’s what it was. She was making sure you and your brothers would be protected in case anything ever happened to her.”

“No, but…” The boy was fighting two sides of a lose lose battle in his head. The cognitive dissonance was visible on his face. “I don’t even know you. She would have told us something about you if she wanted this, anything.”

“She was protecting you, son. Not from us, but from everything we’re fighting against. But now, I’m afraid, the fight has come to your doorstep and you’re left only with two options. You can give up and run away, try to make it on your own protecting your two brothers by yourself, or you can join the Family that’s waiting for you, choose the option that’s best for yourself, and more importantly, choose the option that’s best for your brothers.”

“No, but…” He shook his head.

“But what? Where else do you have to go?”

He looked like he was going to burst again. This time, though, not into tears, into something else entirely, something which Anna couldn’t predict, only wait to unfold. “But—”

The front doors burst open instead, and Anna could hear it even though it was a few rooms away. Feet stomped from the door, through the conference room and kitchen, until they were stomping up behind Anna who turned to see Rosa as pissed as she had ever been. “Anna! Anna!” she called as she stormed through the Home. “You’ll never believe what the—” She stopped in her tracks when she saw the kid, still trying to decide what his future would be. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, I…” Anna said, glancing between them.

“Mike,” the boy said, saving Anna from the embarrassment of still not remembering. “Mike Singer, newest member of the Family—apparently.”

“Mike Singer?” Rosa said.

Mike,” Anna said, embracing him. “Really?”

“You said so yourself,” he said, squirming away a little but not trying too hard. “I can’t take care of my brothers myself, can I? I need a family. I need you.”

“Yes, yes, oh yes,” Anna said, kissing him on the head then turning to Rosa. “Did you hear that, Rosa dear? You’ll never believe it. We have three new children.”

Great,” Rosa said, rolling her eyes. Obviously the meeting about the movie didn’t go too well or else she would be in a better mood. “Just what we need. some kids running around the House with all the new guns we have.”

“Guns?” Mike said, wide eyed and excited by the prospect.

“I told you I didn’t want them in the House,” Anna said. She had forgotten about that little discussion in her need to overpower the Scientist, but now that she remembered it, she would have to be sure to take extra precautionary measures in storing the armory away so the kids couldn’t get to it.

“And I told you we had no other choice,” Rosa said. “We’ve talked about this already and I don’t have time to go over it again. Any arguments?” She shot a look at the kid which Anna thought didn’t bode well for the future of their growing nuclear family. “No? Then if you’ll excuse me,” she stepped between them into the office and gently showed them out, “I have some planning to get underway and there’s no time to waste. Good day.” And she slammed the door behind her.

“Shit,” Mike said, holding a hand to his mouth as if Anna would chastise him for using the word. “I mean, she was cranky.”

“You must forgive her,” Anna said, showing Mike back to the kitchen. “It’s been a rough day on her—a rough few weeks, as a matter of fact. She’s not always like this, though. I promise that, cross my heart. She’ll warm up to you and your brothers. You’ll see.”

“Um, yeah. About that,” Mike said, playing with the hem of his shirt. “So does that mean we’re supposed to move in here or what? We wouldn’t be able to stay in our own place, would we?”

“Oh, no.” Anna shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. There’s no telling what would happen when the owners of the apartment found you boys living there without paying rent, but I can tell you for sure that, whatever it is, it won’t be good. No, you’re going to have to go get your brothers right now and pack all your things up then come back here where we can set you up with a room of your own.”

“I get my own bed, though, right?” Mike asked, holding up a finger as if his question were a demand and this conversation some kind of negotiation. “I’m not sharing again after I only just got my own. Waking up in a puddle of pee every night is no way to live.”

“Of course, dear. Each of you can have your own bed. Bunk beds, as a matter of fact. Three stacked on top of each other. You hurry up and get your brothers, then I’ll show you.”

“Bunk beds?” Mike said, excited, scurrying for the front door now that he knew which it was. “I call top!” he said and he slammed the door behind him, off to bring two other new children back into the Family. Oh how it continued to grow.

Anna groaned. All she wanted to do was get back on the consoles to hunt the Scientist and the missing girl, but she knew she had to see what was bothering Rosa first—problems with the execution of her precious movie, no doubt. Anna had tried to tell her that Threes couldn’t be trusted, their entire profession was lying, but Rosa insisted that they needed professionals to do the job if they wanted it done right.

Rosa was sitting behind her desk, scribbling in one of the many notebooks that were strewn all around the office, when Anna entered. Rosa didn’t look up at the sound of the door opening or closing, or even at the feel of Anna’s hands massaging her too tense shoulders. She only looked up when the thought in her head was all out on the paper, and then she did it with a sigh. “You won’t believe what I just went through,” she said, shaking her head and getting into the massage now. Finally her muscles started to loosen. “Though it sounds like you’ve had an adventure of your own today.”

Anna chuckled, shaking her head though Rosa couldn’t see the gesture. “Besides the three kids we just adopted,” Rosa groaned, “another one was kidnapped right out of our basement.”

“Out of our basement?” Rosa asked, turning to look at Anna. “How? By who?”

“The Scientist,” Anna said, crossing around to take a seat on the other side of the desk so Rosa wouldn’t have to crane her already tense neck. “And some giant robot arm. I’m pretty sure I can find where she took the girl to, though—and get us there, which might be even harder.”

“Great.” Rosa sighed. “Just what we need on top of everything we’re already facing.”

“So how’d your meeting go, then?” Anna asked, trying to change the subject even though she could already predict the answer to her own question based on Rosa’s mood.

“Horrible. Terrible. No good. Very bad. Worse than I could have imagined. Worse still because of our dear Lord Walker’s involvement. I’m not sure we can rely on this project to spread our message at all anymore. It may be time to abort the mission entirely and start over at a more opportune time.”

“That bad, huh?” There weren’t likely to be any more opportune times than this one. Now was the moment they had been waiting their entire lives for.

“Worse. They’re not following the script we agreed on.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have given them their equipment until after they shot the movie for us.”

“But then they couldn’t have shot the movie at all.” Rosa sighed. “We had no choice.”

“So how different can it be, though?” Anna asked. “Can’t we just make them change it back?”

“Too different.” Rosa scoffed. “It’s still anti-robot, but that’s only half the message—the less important half, at that. All mention of the Family and its supreme importance: Whoosh.” She made a gesture with her hands as if they were flying out the window.

“But we had an agreement.” That was worse than Anna had thought it could be. She didn’t care nearly as much about the anti-robot message as the pro-Family one. To her, that was pretty much the entire message, not just half of it. “We’ll make them change it or take back everything we’ve given them. It’s the only way we can respond.”

“Oh, I’ve thought of that already,” Rosa said, chuckling and shaking her head. “That was my first thought, in fact. But I’m afraid it’s impossible. Our great and powerful Lord Walker has taken control of things, and anything we took from those no good Threes would simply be returned to them from Lord Walker’s own stores. In the end it means nothing to any of them who they’re working for or which of our printers their equipment comes out of, they just want to work.”

Great.” No wonder Rosa was ready to scrap the project altogether. Anna would have no problem scrapping it, either, if the pro-Family message wasn’t going to be included, but, “Wouldn’t Lord Walker just continue filming without us anyway? So what’s the point in scrapping the project?”

“That’s the exact point,” Rosa said with a big smile. “We sacrifice this project because we’re not going to be able to change their minds, and they’ll still make half our message without us doing any work. This way we can direct our time and attention toward tactics with a higher chance of success and revisit this one if it becomes feasible again in the future.” She leaned back in her chair, satisfied with her assessment of the situation but not looking happy about it.

“And what tactics did you have in mind, exactly?”

“I’ve been waiting for you to ask just that,” Rosa said, leaning forward again and putting her arms on the desk. “I think we should leave our Lord to his play acting—never alerting him to our exit from the project, of course—while we get back to reality.”

“I wish you’d stop calling him Lord,” Anna complained, smacking her lips like she had a disgusting taste in her mouth. “It sounds so blasphemous.”

“Whatever,” Rosa said, waving her hands. “That’s not the point. He’s nothing compared to our Lord, and he has nothing to do with what I plan next, anyway.”

“Which is…” Anna said, slightly comforted by Rosa’s words.

“Which is to bring the fight to the people who deserve it the most, to bring it to the things that cause all our problems in the first place. I’ve had enough of dealing with flabby, fat tuxedoed owners and slippery, sly, lying Threes. It’s time for us to take our fate into our own hands by taking the fight to the robots’ front door.”

“The robots’ front door?” Anna scoffed. “Do you even know where that is?”

Rosa twiddled her thumbs on the desk and put on her puppy dog—I’m innocent of any evil ever—face that Anna knew all too well. “Well, darling.” Rosa smiled, a twinkle in her eye. “That’s where you come in.”

“Of course.” Anna sighed. “And do you have any idea how hard it is to do something like that? Do you know how much work it takes? The energy?”

“I know that my Nanna is the greatest four dimensional composer known to all of Humankind. I know you can do it.” She smiled wider. “I know I love you.”

Anna scoffed despite her blushing grin. “And how do you know all that when you don’t even know the work it takes?”

“Because I know my Nanna Banana,” Rosa said, coming around the desk to sit on Anna’s lap and kiss her all over her face. “She can do anything in that fourth dimension of hers. She’s the Queen of it, master and commander.” Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. “You are, though, aren’t you? You can do it,” Rosa said, standing and going around to massage Anna’s back. “You can do it.”

Anna groaned in pleasure as her muscles gave way to Rosa’s touch. “Well, yes,” she said. “That is,” she added, correcting herself so as to not sound too pretentious. “I think I can find your robots for you—not that I think I’m the Queen of the Fourth Dimension, or whatever you called me.”

Rosa laughed. “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” She retook her seat behind the desk. “So you really think you can find them?”

“Yes.” Anna nodded. “I do. On two conditions.”

“Go ahead.” Rosa smiled.

“One: You have to come down there in the basement with me while I do it so you can see just how much work it takes. Maybe then you won’t be so willy nilly about how you throw the fourth dimension into your plans in the future.”

Rosa chuckled. “I can do that. What’s number two?”

“We talk about the kids before we do anything.”

Rosa groaned. Anna knew this would be the only way to get her to discuss the matter, though, so she pressed on. “They need us,” she said. “They need a Family, Rosa, and their mother died helping ours.”

“And why them?” Rosa asked, shrugging. “Why not one of the countless other human children across Six—and beyond—who all need the same exact thing?”

Anna hadn’t exactly thought about that. How many other Mikes were there out there? How many orphans were created on the day the protectors came storming through their streets, guns ablazing and looking for a target? Too many, Anna was sure, but they would have to wait. First she would take care of these three who were right in front of her, then she would take care of the Scientist who had created the androids and promoted the killing of her Family, then she’d take care of the rest of the needy children after all of that. “Because these three landed on our doorstep,” Anna finally said. “Because their mother was killed in our assault on the protector’s facilities and that makes us more culpable in their situation than the situations of the other orphans in Six. Because I already told the boy we’d give him and his brothers a place to stay. And because we have more than enough food and room to accommodate them with our countless transporter rings and printers.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Rosa said, giving in. She had fought too many battles already that day to keep arguing this unwinnable one. “What about the guns?”

“I’ll keep the armory on lockdown,” Anna said. “And you’ll make sure everyone else keeps close track of theirs. In the meantime, we’ll teach the kids proper safety precautions. Everything will be fine as long as we’re not stupid about it.”

“And maybe we can get a few more little soldiers out of it.” Rosa chuckled.

Anna frowned, even if it was just a joke.

“Alright, alright. I was just kidding,” Rosa said. “Can we go find those robots now? I want to set the battle plans as soon as I can.”

“So that’s it?” Anna asked. “You agree just like that, now on to what you wanted to talk about in the first place?”

“Well, did you want me to argue further?”

“No. Of course not. But I do want you to actually consider what you’re agreeing to, Rosa. We’ll be their parents for the rest of their lives. There’s no turning our back on that responsibility once we’ve agree to bear it.”

“Which you already did,” Rosa said.

“Yeah, but—”

“So there’s nothing more to discuss until the kids actually get here, right?”

“I guess, but—”

“Then let’s do what’s best for the Family and find those robots.”

Anna cracked a smile despite her annoyance with Rosa’s flippancy. “You know, you’re lucky I want to find that Scientist so bad,” she said.

“Oh yeah?” Rosa asked, crossing her eyes. “Why’s that?”

“Because I think we’ll find her and the robots in the same place. Now come on.” Anna grabbed Rosa by the hand and led her down to the basement.

“Well, then,” Rosa said. “Demonstrate, my Queen of the Fourth Dimension.”

“Stop that,” Anna said, chuckling and slapping Rosa on the arm. “Now look. You see this?” She flipped both consoles on at once and set them into motion.

“Yeah, so?” Rosa shrugged.

“This is the solution to all your problems. Look at this.” She tapped and swiped a few times, one hand on each console, to bring up a map of all seven worlds spanning both the screens. “This is the universe as you know it.”

“I don’t see anything,” Rosa said, but Anna didn’t hear her. She wasn’t paying attention anymore. Something was going on in the fourth dimension that she had never seen before. She swiped and typed and clicked and tapped. The notes of the universe arranged themselves into patterns so complex as to be impossible. She searched for a source, expecting to find the Scientist in control of this symphony, but it came from somewhere else, somewhere familiar. Then she knew where it was.

Anna looked up from the consoles, calling, “The girl!” but even though Rosa was there to hear her, it was too late. The basement had vanished around them and they were in a new world entirely. A world like nothing Anna had ever seen before.

 

#     #     #

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

So there ends another chapter. Anna has found someone bending space beyond what she thought possible and now she’s stuck in the new world created by said power. Read on next week to find out if Anna escapes the danger she finds herself in, or if you can’t wait that long, pick up a full copy of the novel through this link.

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend.

Chapter 54: Chelsea

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

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

LIV. Chelsea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

“I—uh—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t—” Tom started.

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t—” Tom said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir,” Tom said. “I understand.”

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

Chelsea stared at Tom, dreading the answer.

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

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

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

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

Chelsea nodded.

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

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

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

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

“But why us?” Tom asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—” Tom protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea scoffed. “And does it still?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which isn’t much,” Chelsea said.

“Which is each other.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, well, but I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

Euphoria? No. She couldn’t have.

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

“Well?” Tom urged her on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You killed someone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Murder in “Utopia,, Audiobook

Finally, y’all. It’s here! The Murder in “Utopia,, audiobook has officially been published and I couldn’t be happier about the way it turned out.

Murder In Utopia Cover JPEG

With Murder in “Utopia,, my intention was to write a literary novella in the absurdist tradition (think Tom Stoppard, Albert Camus, etc.) while at the same time telling a story that gave me an in-universe reason to eschew the use of quotation marks for setting off dialogue (a reason beyond style which seems to drive Cormac McCarthy’s decision to eschew the same). What this means is that the final product was necessarily going to be difficult for the reader to interpret–and doubly so for a voice actor trying to narrate the story for an audiobook.

I’m happy to say, however, that Julie Hoverson accepted that challenge and interpreted the story better than I ever could have imagined anyone would be able to–and she did it all without requesting a copy that included quotation marks. Let me tell you, hearing her spot-on interpretation for the first time certainly made me feel wonderful about my own writing. If she can bring the characters I had created to life in the way she did, maybe my writing isn’t too bad after all.

So if you’re interested in experiencing the absurd story of a priest and a psychiatrist in utopia discussing their mutual patients who too often turn out to be murderers, please do pick up a copy of the Murder in “Utopia,, audiobook right here so you can listen to Julie Hoverson’s interpretation. If you enjoy it as much as I did, I promise you’re in for a wonderful experience.

Thanks again to Julie for her hard work, and thank you dear readers (and listeners) for your support.

We do nothing alone.

-Bryan Perkins 4/19/16

Chapter 39: Ansel

Dear readers, this Saturday, for chapter 39 in the Infinite Limits tetralogy, we join Ansel for her third and final point of view chapter in An Almost Tangent. All she wanted to do is save her dad from the protectors, but instead, she finds herself caught and held by them just the same. Read on to find out what the protectors do to her and how she tries to escape, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel right here or sign up for the email newsletter subscription list to continue your support of future works in the Infinite Limits series and beyond.

Enjoy.

< XXXVIII. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XL. Jonah >

XXXIX. Ansel

Ansel awoke suddenly and thrashed against the straps holding her arms, legs, and head tight to a cold metal board. Her feet were raised a little above her head, and the blood was rushing up her body, into her brain. She felt like, without the straps, she might slip right off the face of Earth. Her heart beat faster at the thought of it.

There was a cloth or something laid over eyes. She flinched to try to shake it off, but her head strap was so tight she couldn’t move. She could feel herself starting to cry, but she tried to hold it back. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Rosalind would find some way to get her out of this. She knew it. She wiggled her hand and the bracelet was still there. She tried to bend her wrist around to press the button but only ended up hurting herself with the effort. She resorted to trying to use the strap holding her wrist down to press it, squirming frantically and getting nowhere, when the door whined open and more than one pair of boots stomped in. She couldn’t see with the cloth over her eyes, but she could hear their heavy footsteps.

“Do you care yet?” the voice of the protector who had questioned her before asked.

Ansel spit at the protector, but the saliva only ended up landing in her own nose—and probably on her face, but she couldn’t see or feel for the rag.

The protector laughed. “You are a feisty one, aren’t you,” she said. “Though that will only work to your detriment in here.”

“Fuck you!” Ansel yelled. She figured she was already so deep into it that there was no making things worse now, so why not?

“Oh, child,” the protector said. “Watch your mouth. At least until we really get started with you. Then you can get as dirty as you’d like. I know we won’t hold back.”

Ansel didn’t answer. She struggled against her restraints, and the protector laughed.

“Well, girl,” the protector said. “You get one last chance, now. So tell us: What were you doing going into the holding cells?”

“I’ll never tell you!”

“We already know, though, child. We found out where your dad’s been hiding. He might be strapped up in a room close to here. What do y’all think?” The protector laughed.

“You took him!?” Ansel cried.

“Why were you at the feast?” the protector demanded. “Who sent you?”

“No one sent me!”

“Then how did you get there?” The protector sounded short on temper.

“I—I don’t know,” Ansel said, struggling against her straps. “I just did. Let me go!”

“You know more than you’re telling me, little girl,” the protector said. “And we’re going to find out. Your chances have all run dry.”

Ansel felt a cool stream of water wetting the cloth that covered her forehead, weighing it down tighter on her face. She tried to shake it away again, but the restraints seemed to tighten with her effort.

Now,” the protector said, the cloth slowly lowering over Ansel’s nose and mouth, “let’s see if this helps remind you of what we need to know.”

The spout of water moved down to her mouth, and Ansel held her breath against it. The weight of the water held the rag flat against her face. It kept pouring and pouring and pouring, and she couldn’t hold her breath any longer. She tried to suck in air, but all she inhaled was clothwater, filling her throat and nostrils. She gagged and tried to hold down her vomit. She was dying. She couldn’t hold her breath anymore. They were killing her. She was about to gag again when the liquidrag lifted from her nose and mouth. She coughed up water and bile and insides and sucked in three quick breaths of air before the rag came down again and the water poured and poured.

Her body jostled and rolled against inevitable death. She felt shooting pain through all of her extremities, but that didn’t stop her from fighting against the restraints that held her down. They gave her a few more breaths of air before lowering the rag and pouring more water on. When they had done the same thing five, or seven, or infinite times, Ansel couldn’t hold her vomit in anymore. Someone had to stick their fingers into her throat to dig it out and prevent her from drowning on the insides of her own stomach. After that she blacked out.

She woke to the protector saying, “Little giiiirl, do you care now?”

“Fuck—cuh cuh—you,” Ansel spit out before puking and passing out again. She was still unconscious when the rain of death continued. She had given up. She was dead. They were killing her, sure, but they hadn’t gotten anything out of her. Even if there was nothing left in her to get. And there was still a chance that her dad was alive. That was all she cared about in the end. She smiled at the thought of it, lost control of her breath, and vomited into the damp cloth.

She was retching and losing consciousness again when the stream of ragwater abruptly stopped. A fighting commotion sounded around her. She wanted to believe that she was being saved, but all she could do was spew the last acidic contents of her stomach into the rag, only for the rag to force them back down her throat for her to choke on again. She was certain she was dead when a new set of fingers cleared her airways for her.

The rag was ripped away from her eyes, and Ansel saw her father’s face. She blinked a few times, not sure if she was dreaming or dead, when he pulled her close and hugged her. “I never thought I’d see you again,” he said, kissing her all over her face, over and over.

Ansel coughed and shook her head as the restraints were removed from her legs. She still wasn’t sure this was real. “Dad?” she said.

Yes, sweety.” He was crying. “It’s me, and I’m never leaving your side again.”

“I came to save you,” Ansel said, her head pounding. She still wasn’t sure if this was real, but she didn’t care anymore.

Her dad chuckled, whether he was real or not. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “It’s my job to—” He slouched down on top of her, limp.

Ansel tried to lift herself up to do something, but his weight was too much. She heard a scuffle and a yelp, then her dad’s limp body fell off of her and Rosalind lifted her off the bed.

“I—uh—you…” Ansel said.

Yep,” Rosalind said. “I told you I’d make sure you got home safely.”

“But my dad,” Ansel said.

“And I told you you should have waited,” Rosalind added, hefting Ansel up onto her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “But now we have to get out of here.”

“But I—” Ansel protested, but she was still so weak and disoriented that she passed out.

#     #     #

She woke with a start, but this time, she wasn’t tied down. She lashed out anyway and tossed the blanket off her body to the floor before she realized where she was, surrounded by beakers, vials, and Bunsen burners, she was back in the lab. Rosalind had saved her from the protectors after all. But did that mean that her dad was dead, too?

She pushed herself up—still exhausted though most of the pain had gone—and had to catch her breath before jumping off the high table. As she did, the door opened and in came Pidgeon. He ran over to hug her and help her stand. “Ansel, are you alright?” he asked.

“I—uh—” She didn’t know what to say.

“You should have told me where you were going. I could have helped you. I could have…” He played with the hem of his shirt. “I don’t know. Something.”

“Where’s my dad?” Ansel asked.

Pidgeon blushed and looked like he was trying to hide it. “I—uh—I don’t know,” he said.

“Pidgeon! Tell me. Did I see what I think I saw?”

“I—uh—”

The door opened and in came Rosalind, the Scientist, and Haley. Rosalind walked right up to Ansel while Haley stayed back with the Scientist, looking at the floor.

“My dad?” Ansel asked.

“I told you you should have waited,” Rosalind said.

“What did you think you were doing, child?” the Scientist demanded.

“W—Was that him?” Ansel asked, holding back her tears.

“We got him out of his cell before we went to save you, but he insisted on helping us get your sorry self out,” Rosalind said. “He didn’t make it back, though.” She shook her head.

Ansel couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. She tried to swing at Rosalind, and the Scientist, and anyone in reach, but they were all too far away, and she was just too weak to do anything right. She buried her face in her hands and cried. “No!” she said. “It’s not real.”

“I’m afraid so, kiddo,” Rosalind said.

“You shouldn’t have been over there in the first place,” the Scientist said. “Then maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Mom!” Haley said, crossing to Ansel to rub her back.

Ansel stopped crying and looked at the Scientist with a sneer. “If you would have gotten him out sooner—like you had promised—then this wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

“I never said I’d do it soon,” the Scientist said. “I said I’d do it when the time was right. You need to learn patience, dear.”

“Patience?” Ansel scoffed. “This coming from the woman who can go anywhere or get anything she wants on demand. What do you know about patience?”

“More than you can imagine, child,” the Scientist said. “Do you see these wrinkles on my face? You thought I was too old to be Haley’s mother. Well, how old do you think she is? How old does that make me? I waited for a quarter of a millennium to get my daughter back. Don’t you try to tell me about patience.”

Ansel blushed. She was embarrassed but still angry, and she didn’t know how to show it without her voice cracking or her starting to cry again. She swallowed down her tears, and was about to say she didn’t know what to say, when Haley saved her from having to answer.

Mom,” she said. “Go easy on her. She’s just a little girl, and she just lost her dad.”

“I—uh…” the Scientist mumbled.

Mother,” Rosalind said, “why don’t you go out and check on some of our other refugees. Let Haley and I take care of Ansel.”

“But—” the Scientist said, and Haley took her hand in one hand and that elbow in the other to lead the Scientist out the door before coming back to stand in front of Ansel.

Sorry,” Haley said. “She doesn’t really know how to interact with humans. Sometimes it’s like she’s more of an android than any of us.”

“It’s her fault my dad’s d—my dad’s not here,” Ansel said.

He’s dead,” Rosalind said. “And it’s not her fault any more than it’s yours. If anything, it’s your dad’s fault for following us instead of coming back here to wait like we told him to do.”

“But she—” Ansel protested.

“She was keeping him alive in there,” Rosalind said, “hidden in plain view. He wasn’t in danger until you got caught. After that, it was only a matter of time before they got it out of you that you were looking for him, and that information would let them know he hadn’t been executed yet—despite what their computers told them. So we had to jump the gun in getting him out, and even that would have been successful, but your dad couldn’t leave without making sure you got out first.”

“I wouldn’t have told them why I was there,” Ansel said, sniffing and wiping her nose.

“You were telling them when we got there,” Rosalind said. “You told us until we got you back here and sedated you, then you kept muttering about it in your sleep. You were already broken, Ansel. No human can resist torture like that.”

“I don’t believe you,” Ansel said.

“It’s true, dear,” Haley said, patting her back. “I sat by you while you slept. You kept saying that you had come for your dad, that’s all you wanted, no one had to send you. It was sad to hear.”

Ansel shrugged her off. “I don’t care,” she said. “It wasn’t my fault.” Though she was saying that to convince herself more than anyone.

No. It’s not,” Rosalind said. “I’m not saying it is. Trying to lay fault on someone is useless. We know who pulled the trigger that ended his life, and maybe that’s not even enough. Not even your father is to blame. It’s the protectors who are responsible for this, and the system that props them up.”

“Well fuck the protectors,” Ansel said.

Creator.” Haley gasped, putting her hand to her mouth.

“That’s exactly our mission here,” Rosalind said. “To fuck the entire system. The protectors and the owners who tell them what to do. We are your only avenue to getting the revenge you want. You’ll have to join us for your best chance at that.”

“Revenge?” Ansel asked. “What good is revenge? That won’t bring my parents back. If I wanted that, I would have killed Tom in the alley and been done with it.”

“No,” Rosalind said. “What about justice then? What about protecting others from facing the same wrath that you’ve faced at the hands of the protectors?”

Pssssh.” Ansel laughed. She knew that no one cared about anyone but themselves. All her experiences had proven that, including those with Rosalind and the Scientist. There was no one out there looking out for Ansel, and she had no reason to look out for anyone else. “No one stopped them before they killed my family,” she said. “Or Pidgeon’s family.” She nodded at him, hiding behind a table piled high with glassware, his face shaded with different colors from the chemicals in the flasks in front of him. Ansel had almost forgotten he was there. He ducked under the table at the mention of his name.

“Nope,” Rosalind said. “And no one will ever stop them if everyone else in the worlds takes the same attitude you are right now.”

Ansel jumped to her feet. “So what am I supposed to do then?” she asked. “Just sit here and wait until the Scientist thinks the time’s right for me to do something?”

“Yep,” Rosalind said, nodding. “Pretty much. And learn everything you can to make yourself useful in the meantime.”

“Oh, great,” Ansel said. “School.” She sighed, crossing her arms.

“No.” Rosalind shook her head. “We don’t have any teachers so I don’t think it can rightly be called school. You would have to pursue what you wanted to learn on your own. No one has time to direct you.”

“I can—” Haley started, but Rosalind shot her a look and shushed her.

“What do you say?” Rosalind asked.

“I don’t know what you’re asking me,” Ansel said. “You want me to sit here and do whatever I want until the Scientist finds me useful?”

Rosalind nodded.

“I don’t know if I can,” Ansel said, tapping her foot.

“But—” Pidgeon called out, tipping over the table he was hiding under and knocking a few flasks to the floor—which Popeye came out of nowhere to clean up.

“And you, too, boy,” Rosalind said. “I didn’t forget you were there.”

Pidgeon came around to stand next to Ansel, blushing. “You mean it?” he asked, playing with the hem of his shirt.

“Of course I do,” Rosalind said. “We wouldn’t send you back to that orphanage. We know what’s going on there.”

Pidgeon nudged Ansel. “C’mon,” he said. “Why not?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I need time to think about it.”

“Take all the time you need,” Rosalind said. “Staying here to think and saying yes to my proposal are the same thing.”

Uh, yeah. Okay,” Ansel said, grabbing Pidgeon’s arm and dragging him with her. “We’re gonna go discuss this. We’ll talk to you tomorrow or something.” She waved as she closed the hall door behind her.

“What are you doing?” Pidgeon asked, breaking away from her grip.

“Just follow me,” Ansel said. “Bedroom.” She opened the door to the room she and Pidgeon had been sleeping in. It was bigger than any of the houses she had ever lived in, and had two beds on opposite walls, each with their own dresser and mirror combo. Ansel went to her dresser, thinking to change her clothes, then changed her mind. The jeans and t-shirt she was already wearing were comfortable and non-restricting, exactly what she needed. She did grab her floral dress, though, the one her parents had given her when they still lived on the Green Belt, and she bundled it up in a ball to stuff in her rucksack—which still contained most of the rest of her belongings. She checked her back pocket but the protectors had taken her slingshot. They did leave her bracelet, though. She thought about dumping it but was distracted when Pidgeon asked, “What are you doing?”

Ansel looked at him. “Pidgeon,” she said, “do you trust me?”

“I—uh—yeah,” he said. “I guess. But why?”

“I don’t want to stay here anymore,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I feel restricted here, trapped.”

“But we can go anywhere with the elevators,” he said.

“Not really,” Ansel said. “We can go anywhere the Scientist lets us go. That’s not everywhere, though. Is it?”

Pidgeon shook his head. “Well, no, but…” He played with the hem of his shirt.

“Don’t you want to see the worlds, Pidgeon?” Ansel asked. “There’s so much out there beyond everything we’ve ever known.”

“I don’t know,” Pidgeon said. “I’ve seen a lot of what the world has to offer.”

“But you haven’t seen everything,” she pled with him. She could feel that she was losing him. “I went to another world entirely, Pidgeon, the one where the protectors come from. I met these kids who lived there, and they were no different from you or me. How am I supposed to fight against them, huh? They don’t know what they’re doing. They have no more control over their lives than we do. And they tried to help me.”

“Yeah. So?” Pidgeon said. “That doesn’t mean we should leave. We can stay here without fighting those kids.”

“But don’t you see?” Ansel said. “All the protectors were those kids at some point in their lives. They were funneled into it, and now, they can’t do anything else but what they’re told.”

“Then we won’t fight any protectors,” Pidgeon said. “I still don’t want to leave.”

“Do you really think they’ll let you stay here and do nothing for their cause?”

I do,” Pidgeon snapped. “That was the deal, wasn’t it?”

“The deal was for them to get my dad back, too,” Ansel said. “But we can see how that turned out.”

“No, but—”

No, Pidgeon,” she stopped him. “I’m sorry. I know I dragged you into this in the first place, but I have to live by my standards. I have to be self-sufficient. I know you don’t understand that, which is why I’m not making you come with me.”

Pidgeon looked hurt. He avoided eye contact with her.

“Pidgeon,” Ansel said. “I’d rather you came than that you stayed here, but I’m leaving tonight. What time is it? I’m leaving now. I’m gonna get as far away from here as I can before they notice I’m gone, and to do that, I have to be quick. So you don’t have time to think about this. It’s now or never.”

“But they’ve taken such good care of us,” Pidgeon said, groaning. “We can eat all the food we want, and we each get our own bed. What more could we ask for?”

Independence,” Ansel said. “I told you I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

I don’t,” Pidgeon said, shaking his head. “And neither do you. You don’t understand what it’s like to have nothing and no one, Ansel. We have a good thing here.”

“I’ve had nothing all my life,” Ansel said. “Don’t tell me I don’t know what it’s like.”

“Right,” Pidgeon said. “Nothing. Except for a mom and dad to provide food and shelter for you. Now that is nothing.”

“I had to provide my own food most nights,” Ansel said.

“And yet still you knew that they’d always be there to give up their food if you couldn’t find anything. You knew that they’d always have a warm bed waiting for you afterwards. You never had nothing, Ansel. You always had them.”

“Not anymore,” Ansel said. She could feel the tears coming back. “Now I have nothing.”

“But you still don’t,” Pidgeon said. “You have me. And if you would stay here, you’ll have Haley and Rosalind and the Scientist and this bed to sleep in.” He jumped up onto her bed, bouncing up and down. “We have everything we need here.”

No,” Ansel said. “We don’t. I told you, Pidgeon. I need my independence. That’s that. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to.” She grabbed her rucksack and made for the door, but Pidgeon jumped off the bed to stop her.

“Where do you even plan on going?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. “Away. Anywhere I want to. I’ll never see the end of the Belt so maybe I’ll go try to see the end of the wilderness here instead. You did want to do that with me once. Remember?”

He looked away from her, blushing. “Yeah, I wouldn’t make it out there, though,” he said. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’d probably just get you killed.”

“And as I’ve said before, I’ll teach you everything I know,” Ansel said. “I know what I’m doing out there, Pidgeon. And you can, too.”

“But do you really?” he asked. “It’s not the Belt out there, Ansel. This is something you’ve never experienced before.”

“Yeah it’s not the Belt,” Ansel said. “There are more animals here and they’re less afraid of humans. They’ll be easier to catch because of it. If anything, this should be easier than living on the Belt. And we won’t have to worry about protectors out there.”

“We don’t have to worry about them in here, either,” he said. “And what if there’s something out there that’s worse than a protector?”

Psssh. Worse than a protector?” Ansel laughed. “I doubt that.”

“What about that big animal with the horns that you couldn’t kill?”

“That thing runs away every time it hears us. And it only ever eats grass.”

“What if there’s something else that won’t run?” Pidgeon said. “Something that taught that thing to run? God. You just don’t get it. There are some things out there that you don’t know about, Ansel. You know what. Whatever. Go.” He went and sat on his own bed, with his back to her, in a huff.

“I will, Pidgeon,” Ansel snapped. “You just stay here in your cozy, safe jail. I always knew you would leave me behind in the end.” She slammed the door behind her before he could respond.

She took a few deep breaths in the hall, bracing herself on the door jamb. Stupid Pidgeon. She should never have trusted him to begin with. He was, and had always been, a fresh faced flower from the Garden of Eden. No wonder he was too scared to leave this…whatever it was. She had enough trouble convincing him to leave the orphanage he said had treated him so poorly, there was no way she was going to convince him to leave a place where he had printer access whenever he wanted it and no one to abuse him or call him names. One day that would all run out, though. Then he’d wish he’d come and learned how to be self-sufficient with her. She chuckled to herself at the thought of it.

“Kitchen,” she said and opened the door. The step-stool was already in front of the printer. She stepped up, trying not to stare at the line of slip, snap, clickers through the sink window, and pressed the button to say, “Slingshot.” First thing was first. She had to be able to hunt.

The slingshot that came out was made of metal where her old one was made of wood. The sling was tighter, too, harder to pull back, but she could get used to that. She would have to or die trying. She stuffed it in her back pocket, ordered a pouch to keep rocks in, a few cans of beans—it came out in bowls at first, before she specified cans—and some string to help make traps. She brought it all down to the table and packed her rucksack full, then she stared at the printer, trying to think of anything else that might be useful.

The kitchen door opened and in came Rosalind. She took a look at the full rucksack then said, “Planning on going somewhere?”

Ansel shrugged. “What’s it matter to you?”

“I was being sincere when I spoke earlier,” Rosalind said. “I meant every word.”

“I know how much your words mean,” Ansel said.

Rosalind looked offended. “I haven’t lied to you once,” she said.

“You didn’t get my dad back.”

“I did,” Rosalind said. “You talked to him. He was free.”

“But not anymore.”

“Maybe now more than ever, dear.” She shook her head.

Pffft.” Ansel scoffed. “Well I plan on freeing myself.” She picked up the rucksack and threw it over her shoulder.

“So you’ll be joining our cause then?” Rosalind smiled.

“Does it look like I will?” Ansel asked, hefting the bag further up on her shoulders to emphasize the sarcasm.

“It looks like you’re going camping,” Rosalind said.

“Camping?” What was she talking about now?

“Yes, camping,” Rosalind said, crossing to the printer. “You know: sleeping outdoors in the wilderness, under the stars, among the other animals.”

“Uh, yeah. Sure.” Ansel shrugged. “You can call it that if you want to.”

“Well, dear,” Rosalind said. “Let me give you some supplies before you go, then.” She pressed the printer’s voice activation button and said, “Pop-up tent, lighter, and Swiss Army knife, please.”

“What are those?” Ansel asked, dropping the heavy sack.

“Well, this is a lighter. You just—”

“Yeah, yeah. I know that one,” Ansel said, snatching it out of Rosalind’s hand.

“And this is a pop-up tent.” Rosalind handed her a small rectangular something that fit in the palm of her hand. “Don’t press the button until you’re outside, and be ready to get out of the way when you do. You got that?”

“What is it?” Ansel asked, turning the thing over in her hand.

Rosalind flinched and took it away, ordering a case to put the tent in before handing it back. “It’s for you to sleep in.”

“Sleep in that?”

“It gets bigger,” Rosalind said. “Trust me.”

“Okay, what about the Swiss knife or whatever?” Ansel asked.

“This is your general all-purpose tool,” Rosalind said, pulling out all the little gadgets. “You have here your can opener, knife, compass—”

“Right right,” Ansel took it and had some trouble folding everything back into place. Rosalind chuckled and helped her, and it only made Ansel angrier. She stuffed her gifts into the rucksack, forcing a smile, and said, “Well, thanks. See you never.”

“Be safe,” Rosalind said. “We’ll be eagerly awaiting your return.”

Ugh.” Ansel stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t stop until she was in the elevator, waiting for the floor to fall out from underneath her.

It was as if Rosalind didn’t listen. Or she did listen and didn’t care what Ansel said. Ansel would show her. If Rosalind thought Ansel was going to be going back to that little jail anytime soon, she had another thing coming. Ansel was never going back there ever again, and Rosalind and Pidgeon would just have to deal with it.

The elevator doors opened to reveal the pine trees and other evergreens whose names Ansel had not yet come to know. She stepped out onto the grass and took a deep breath of the fresh cool air. This was right for her. This was exactly what she needed. No more Scientist. No more protectors. No more Pidgeon or Rosalind. She was free to do whatever she wanted, and right now, she wanted some food. So she set off to get exactly that.

#     #     #

< XXXVIII. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XL. Jonah >

And there you have it, dear readers, Ansel’s final point of view chapter for book two in the Infinite Limits series. Only three more weeks until An Almost Tangent is completely posted on this blog here, and in the meantime I’m working toward finishing the final edits of book three, Dividing by 0, so I can get that published, hopefully in time to continue the Infinite Limits story here on the blog with no empty Saturdays in between. We’ll see. I’m working hard to make it happen, but only time can tell.

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

 

New Review of Murder in “Utopia,,

Hey y’all. I know it’s not Saturday, and no this isn’t another chapter in Infinite Limits, but I did get a review of my absurdist novella Murder in “Utopia,, that I’d like to share with you all so here it is:

Rating: Four stars out of five.

Title: I haven’t enjoyed being confused so much since my first time watching The Matrix

Review:

This is a fascinating example of fiction that’s more of an experience than a story. I’m not going to list it among my all-time favorites, but I’m definitely glad I read it. Perkins took some admirable risks with this book and made a concerted effort to cut against the grain, and that kind of thing can often end in utter disaster.

This did not.

Murder in “Utopia,, defies many conventions of storytelling and formatting, but it manages to do so without becoming incomprehensible. It’s confusing, but that confusion is grounded by a conversational tone, a well-drawn setting, and an absurd, morbid splash of humor. I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to take a bit more of a cerebral adventure than your average piece of genre fiction has to offer.

So if that sounds like something you’d enjoy reading, pick up a copy of the novella for only two dollars through this link today. Thanks for your time, and happy Tuesday.

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 >

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