Chapter 65: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

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

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

LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

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

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

“Tails,” Stevie repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

“Tails again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know what. Maybe it is.”

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

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

“What now?”

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

“The same coin flip?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thim shrugged again. “Inconclusive.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

0.N Repeating

Finally, without further ado, here it is, the fourth and final novel in the Infinite Limits Series, 0.N Repeating. If you’re interested, you can purchase a full print or ebook copy of the novel on Amazon through this link, or you can join us here on the website every Saturday for a new chapter until the story’s complete. It’s been a long time coming, I know, so I hope you enjoy the conclusion to the tale. And thanks again for sticking around this long. We do nothing alone.

0-n_repeating_cover_for_kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

  1. Haley
  2. Thimblerigger and Stevedore
  3. Jorah
  4. Mr. Kitty
  5. Sonya
  6. Chief Mondragon
  7. The Scientist
  8. Haley
  9. Thimblerigger and Stevedore
  10. Jorah
  11. Mr. Kitty
  12. Sonya
  13. Ms. Mondragon
  14. The Scientist
  15. Haley
  16. Thimblerigger and Stevedore
  17. Jorah
  18. Mr. Kitty
  19. Sonya
  20. Muna
  21. The Scientist
  22. Shoveler

 

 

 

 

 

“Nothing is isolated, everything touches you
Like a cancer or kiss, who’s to say which”

Chayce Halley

 

 

 

 

 

LXIV. Haley

In that sordid, gray kitchen it was a torture to cook second breakfast. Hell, it was torture to cook any meal anywhere, even if cooking only took pressing a button and telling a printer what she wanted. But even after freeing herself from servitude to that fat, pompous Mr. Walker, Haley was still being forced to cook.

She sighed, pressed the printer’s little red button, and said, “Salmon and salad with a glass of water.” then waited the eternity it took for the slow machine to process her order, fulfill it, and let her get on with her day—long enough for her to imagine a million, billion other things she’d rather be doing. She lifted the plate of steaming, disgusting food out of the printer’s arched mouth and opened the kitchen door to reveal the office where Lord Douglas always took his meals, too busy to stop working long enough to eat the vomit-inducing food he insisted on consuming for appearance’s sake.

Lord Douglas was there, in his huge, filigrous office, as expected, but for once he wasn’t working, instead watching TV on the 3D projector in the room’s ceiling.

Haley,” he said, standing to take the plate from her and guide her to a seat. “Now no need to curtsy today,” he said, sitting back in his own seat and starting in on his food even as he talked. “Not until we’re at the Christmas Feast, at least.”

Haley was a bit confused, considering she had no intention of curtsying anyway, but she just sat there and watched the TV show—some action flick about an android uprising—while Lord Douglas went on speaking and eating at the same time.

“And what are you doing here, anyway?” he said through his chewing. “I thought I gave you the day off.”

“You never really give me anything,” Haley said with a shrug.

Lord Douglas ignored her, though—because he certainly heard it, she spoke loud and clear—saying, “You know what. Could you actually get me a hamburger instead today? It is Christmas, after all.”

“I thought you just gave me the day off,” Haley said.

“Until the Christmas Feast,” Lord Douglas replied, nodding in earnest. “But I’m asking you now as my friend—not as my secretary—could you please get me a hamburger, fries, and milk shake from the printer so I don’t miss the premiere of my Christmas commercial? If you hurry, you might not miss it yourself.”

Ugh.” Haley groaned, standing and marching toward the kitchen. “Fine. Whatever. But it’s definitely as your employee. You can’t be my boss and my friend at the same time.”

Haley ordered a hamburger, fries, and milkshake from the printer, and while she waited for the machine to do its work, Mr. Kitty meowed behind her.

“Hey there, Mr. Kitty,” Haley said, surprised, patting the cat’s butt and scratching around his ears and chin to the sound of ragged purrs. “Nice collar, by the way. Red really is your color.”

The black cat, Mr. Kitty, meowed his agreement.

“You thirsty? Let me get you some water.” Haley turned the faucet on a dribble and Mr. Kitty went on lapping it up.

“There you are,” Haley said. “Now wait here for me. I’ll be right back. I have to deliver this stupid hamburger to the stupid Lord first, but I do want to talk to you. So don’t go anywhere.”

She hurried back through the door, into Lord Douglas’s office, and set the tray of food in front of him then tried to scurry back out of the room to catch Mr. Kitty, but Lord Douglas stopped her before she could get anywhere.

“Haley, wait,” he said, smiling wide and standing to physically sit her in a chair. “You’re just in time. Look.”

Projected perfectly into her eyes, thanks to the highest tech projector system in existence, was the three-dimensional image of Lord Douglas—wearing the same too tall top hat, monocle, and tuxedo that he always wore, including then as they watched the commercial. He stood at the head of a board meeting of the Fortune 5, giving out orders to the owners around him and getting only eager faced servility in return. The camera zoomed out and out and out of Douglas Towers entirely until it zoomed so far away as to show that Douglas Towers was only the lead cog—and the largest one at that—in a much larger machine. As the camera zoomed out, a voiceover narrator said, “Lord Douglas, your Christmas Feast Head. Not only the richest owner in the worlds, he’s the Owner’s Owner.” Then the video cut to charts and graphs, not only of Lord Douglas’s net worth, but of the overall increased efficiency of the entire market ever since he had been dubbed Lord.

“Well, what do you think?” Lord Douglas asked, smiling and proud of himself, taking a big bite out of his hamburger before he went on through a full mouth. “It was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

Uh. Yeah. I guess,” Haley said. She didn’t really know, though. Even since she had been freed from working for Mr. Walker, she still didn’t have much experience with TV, so she didn’t know one way or the other what made a commercial good or bad.

I think it was great,” Lord Douglas said, smiling wider. “I came up with that slogan myself, too, you know. The Owner’s Owner. It was all my idea.”

“That’s pretty good.” Haley shrugged. Again, she didn’t have any experience with slogans, commercials, or any of that, and she really didn’t care.

“I’d say so,” Lord Douglas went on anyway. “It’s better than my first idea was, that’s for sure. The economy’s owner. That just sends the wrong message. We want to show that I’m the best at planning and controlling the economy, not the other way around. The economy doesn’t control us anymore, we control it. And that’s the message I want to send. Did you get that from the commercial?”

Uh, sure,” Haley said, uninterested. “Honestly, though. I really don’t care. It seems pretty boring.”

“Boring? Huh. That’s not what you said—or Haley said, rather. My Haley, that is. The real one. Hand. I can’t believe I’m still getting you two confused. Are you sure there’s no other name you’d rather go by? It would be a lot easier for me if you did.”

“Why should I be the one to change my name?” Haley asked. “Just come up with something else to call your girlfriend.”

She’s not my girlfriend,” Lord Douglas snapped. “Not yet, at least. I haven’t even been in her presence now for… Wow. I can’t even remember. It must be decades by now.”

“Then you shouldn’t have any trouble telling us apart,” Haley said, hoping to end the conversation with that. “Haley is my name, and I’m not going to change it for anyone.”

“Alright, alright. You don’t have to get so defensive,” Lord Douglas said, getting defensive himself.

Right…” Haley said. “So, do you have anything else for me to do, or can I take the rest of my morning off, as you just promised?”

“Until the Christmas Feast. Yes,” Lord Douglas said, but as Haley was about to leave, he stopped her again. “Oh, wait. Actually, there is just one more little thing. If you don’t mind.”

Ugh. Mind what?” Haley asked.

“I need you to take this letter to Rosalind,” he said, pulling a blank sealed envelope out of the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket and holding it out to Haley. “Please. No one over there takes my communications anymore. This is the only way I can be sure they get the message before the Feast—even when they inevitably fail to respond. What do you say? As a friend?”

“Again, no.” Haley sighed. “This is not at all as your friend. We are not friends. You’re my employer. But: Before you pout and complain. Yes. I will bring it over there because I was planning on visiting Haley anyway. That’s who the letter’s really about, isn’t it?’

“The letter is a private affair,” Lord Douglas snapped. “And I would appreciate it if you left my private affairs just that: private.”

Ptuh. Privacy went right out the window when you made me your secretary, Lord Douglas. You realize that I have access to all your communications for scheduling, preference mapping, and other customization purposes, don’t you? There is no privacy between us, Lord. So stop playing make believe and hand me the envelope. I’ll deliver your little love letter, and I won’t tell your precious Haley any more about your personal communications than I already have in my long time working for you—which is absolutely nothing. Trust me, we have much more interesting things to discuss than you, Lord.” She snatched the envelope out of his hand.

“Like what? Since when?” Lord Douglas demanded, seriously getting flustered. “You never told me you had such a close relationship with Haley.”

“That’s because I don’t share our personal conversations with you, either, my Lord.”

“I— But—”

“What did you expect me to do with my free time? Stay in that closet you left for me like all the other good secretaries? I’m sorry, but no. That’s not me. That’s not your Haley, either. In case you were wondering. So I wouldn’t go getting my hopes up if I were you.”

“I— But…” Lord Douglas stammered again.

“No, sir. No buts. Now. It’s supposed to be my morning off. I’m gonna go deliver this letter and spend the rest of my free time however I want to spend it. I’ll see you at Feast time.”

She didn’t wait for a response, instead exiting the room into the short hall that led her to the elevator and pressing the button to call it. When she got on, she said, “Take me to Rosalind, please.” and the floor fell out from underneath her.

#     #     #

Rosalind was in her own office when Haley found her, an office which was much smaller than the one that Lord Douglas used. Rosalind’s office had just enough room for a desk—that was pressed all the way up against the back wall, looking out through a window onto an ocean view—and two short stools. Rosalind sat on one of the stools, using her computer to do calculations that she could have done faster in her head. “Goddamn it! Not again,” Rosalind complained after another batch of failed calculations.

“God?” Haley was taken aback.

“Yes, God,” Rosalind said, standing from her desk so quickly that she knocked her stool over with the motion. “I don’t really believe in the powers of our Creator now that she’s dead, so I thought I might try to update my vocabulary with my new belief system.”

“Does that mean you believe in the humans’ concept of a God now?” Haley couldn’t believe that.

Psssht. No. Of course not.” Rosalind crossed her arms. “I don’t know. What even is the human concept of God anyway? Who cares?” She shrugged.

Ptuh.” Haley laughed. “Not me, that’s for sure. But it sounds like you do.”

“Well, I don’t.” Rosalind huffed. “The only thing I’m concerned with right now are these stupid calculations. God, our Creator, and everything else in the worlds are nothing compared to this.”

“Well, in that case,” Haley said, “here’s a letter from no one about nothing. I’ll give you three guesses what it says, and I haven’t even read it myself.”

“I’m sure that I don’t need to read it, either. The answer’s no. Not for as long as he’s undercover, and even still for a long time after that.”

“Is that what you want me to tell him?”

“Yes. Please, do.”

“Alright,” Haley said. “If you say so. But not right now. On the way to the Feast tonight. In the meantime, it’s my day off, and I’m gonna use it to see Haley.”

“Take your time,” Rosalind said. “Huey’s the only one who’s in a hurry. But before you go, do you mind if I ask you one question?”

“Shoot.”

“Why is it that you still work for that asshole, anyway?”

#     #     #

Apparently, Haley wasn’t going to get to take the rest of the morning off after all. Haley was busy doing something with that Pidgeon guy she was always spending time with, so Haley had gone back to the office to wait, and of course, Lord Douglas was there, practically begging her to make him lunch—as a friend—so he didn’t have to miss a rerun of his commercial. Haley reminded him that they weren’t friends, that she didn’t have a choice as to whether or not she did his biddings—did she though?—and then she went to get his lunch for him, as commanded.

“Thank you so much, Haley, dear,” Lord Douglas said, taking the plate of food. “Everyone watches the numbers before they go to the Feast, so the run right before is always the most important for any Christmas commercial. All the others are mini focus groups if you know what you’re doing. You understand, don’t you?”

Sure,” Haley said, but she didn’t care enough to even try to understand. The world of Inland was supremely boring to her.

“Great… Good.” Lord Douglas smiled. “Then perhaps you won’t mind if I ask you a few more small favors—as a friend—on this, your morning off.”

“I’m not your frien—”

“Yes, yes,” Lord Douglas cut her off. “I know how you feel about the matter, but rest assured, I feel quite the opposite. I look at you as one of my closest friends—besides Mr. Kitty, Pidgeon, and my Haley, of course—and I truly hope that one day you’ll feel the same way about me.”

Ptuh.” Haley scoffed. “As long as you’re my Lord and boss, I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

“Luckily, I’m no human, and I’m capable of holding my own breath for as long as you are of holding yours. I’ll turn you around yet. But in the meantime, there are those few little favors I’d still like to ask.”

Jobs,” Haley reminder him. “Not favors.”

“Yes, well, if you’ll just set out my best tuxedo and top hat, then ensure that the electric limo is charged and detailed in preparation for tonight, I’d feel much more prepared.”

“Charge the limo? Can’t we just take the elevator like civilized human beings?”

“Of course we could,” Lord Douglas said. “And I usually do. But the limo doesn’t use that much electricity, this is my twenty fifth year in a row as Christmas Feast Head, and I deserve a treat, even if it’s something as small as a short car ride. Besides, as I often remind you—”

Image is everything. A wealthy facade leads to a wealthy wallet,” Haley recited for him.

Exactly. You got it. So, does that mean you’ll do me these favors?”

“It means I don’t have any other option.”

She laid Mr. Douglas’s most expensive tuxedo and tallest top hat out on his bed, ensuring there were no wrinkles or lint in sight, then sat in the already—and always—charged limo to wait for Lord Douglas. She didn’t have anything better to do until the Feast anyway.

When Lord Douglas finally came out to the garage, dressed and ready to leave, Haley got out of the car, opened his door to let him in the back seat, then returned to the driver’s seat herself, despite Lord Douglas’s insistence that she sit in the back with him. She didn’t want to give him any reason to think that she was his friend, even if his delusions had already led him to the false assumption.

They rode the limo to the Feast Hall parking garage, Haley let Lord Douglas out of the back seat, and it wasn’t until they had made it all the way into the Feast Hall lobby that Lord Douglas said, “Aw, crap. You know what. I left my hat in the car. Can you be a doll and go get it for me?”

Ugh.” Haley groaned, and of course, she could. She worked for him. She could do anything he asked her to do, or else. Haley never was certain what that “or else” actually meant, but she never felt the need to find out, either.

She ran back to the limo to get Lord Douglas’s stupid hat, and as she sprinted to return it to him, she ran straight into Rosalind and fell to the ground on top of her.

Ugh. I’m sorry,” Haley said, helping Rosalind up and brushing herself off. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Me neither,” Rosalind said, holding Lord Douglas’s top hat out to Haley. “My mind’s a bit preoccupied.”

“Tell me about it.” Haley groaned. “Stupid fucking bosses.” She held up the hat as evidence. “Speaking of which, I better go before he gets pissed.”

“Owners and their phallic hats,” Rosalind scoffed, shaking her head, as Haley ran off to the Feast Hall lobby to deliver Lord Douglas’s phallus to him.

Of course, he wasn’t alone, though. The Feast Hall lobby was mostly empty—all the other owners already in the hall because they didn’t have the need to maintain the fashionably late image of a Lord—but there, talking to Lord Douglas, was the second richest—and first fattest—owner in all the worlds, Mr. Walker himself, who was once Lord and even for a while there Haley’s boss.

Ah, Haley,” Mr. Walker said, interrupting whatever Lord Douglas was saying as soon as he saw her—some argument about Mr. Walker’s deliberately shoddy protector work, from the snippet Haley had heard on the way in.

My Haley,” Lord Douglas insisted, contradicting what he had earlier told Haley about which person with the same name was his Haley.

“Yes, but first she was mine.” Mr. Walker chuckled. “You only get sloppy seconds, sir.”

“I’m sure any seconds coming from your direction would be sloppy,” Lord Douglas said. “Which is why I would never eat them. But right now, I’d like to make an appearance at this Feast, so if you’ll excuse me, ol’ Walky Talky.” Lord Douglas gave a half bow and made his way around Mr. Walker’s girth to enter the Feast Hall proper.

Haley started to follow Lord Douglas, but Mr. Walker mumbled something under his breath, and for some reason, she wanted to know what he had said. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, stopping to wait for his answer. “What was that?”

“I said, How lovely to see you, dear,” Mr. Walker said, bowing surprisingly low, even for as much weight as he had lost since Haley used to work for him. “How does our Lord Douglas treat you now that you’re his secretary?”

“Never as bad as you did,” Haley said. Which was pretty much true. Mr. Walker’s worst was worse than Lord Douglas’s—as was his baseline status quo—but every once in a while, Haley had to admit that Mr. Walker seemed to want to be genuinely kind to her while Lord Douglas always and forever seemed fake.

“But pretty bad, eh?” Mr. Walker said. “That’s the way of the worlds, isn’t it? Especially for you soulless robots.”

Mr. Walker seemed like he was in one of those moods where he was trying to be nice, so Haley smiled while she said, “From here, it looks more like you owners are the soulless ones—not us robots. Now if you don’t mind, please fuck off while I go do one of your fellow soulless owner’s work for him.”

Mr. Walker looked offended, but Haley didn’t care. She stomped out of the lobby, through the densely-packed Feast Hall, and into the kitchen to order herself a drink from the printer that was nearest the entrance. She had finished her first drink and was ordering up another when Mr. Walker’s secretary, Elen, came in, staring at Haley—as she usually did.

“What?” Haley snapped when Elen wouldn’t stop staring. “I’m not in the mood today, so just spit it out. What?”

“You’re gonna get caught one day, and Lord Douglas is gonna be pissed,” Elen said, shaking her head.

“No, I’m not. No owner comes back here, Lord Douglas doesn’t care enough to keep inventory, and I don’t give a shit if I piss him off anyway. So fuck all those fat fucks out there, and fuck you, too, if you go snitch for them.” Haley gulped down the rest of her drink and ordered one for Lord Douglas.

“Does that stuff even get you drunk?” Elen asked. “Seems like such a waste if robots aren’t affected. Maybe you can give me a sip of your next one.”

“Maybe you can order your own,” Haley said as she carried Lord Douglas’s drink out into the Feast Hall to deliver it.

She passed lines and lines of fat and fatter owners who were already drinking away—their hats getting taller the closer their seats were to the head table and the Fortune 5. Before she was even halfway to the head table, Lord Douglas yelled over the cafeteria roar of the Feast Hall to urge her along. “Haley! Haley, my dear. Please hurry,” he called. “Walker here’s telling jokes, and I’m not sure if it’s the smell of his breath or the cheese on his punchlines, but I need some sort of alcohol in my system to deal with the odor.”

Most of the owners in the Hall laughed—none more loudly than Mr. Angrom, Lord Douglas’s right hand at the head table—while Mr. Walker, Mr. Loch, and a relatively few other owners dispersed throughout the crowd glared in silent anger. For her part, Haley neither laughed nor glared, instead setting Lord Douglas’s drink in front of him and going back to the kitchen to order herself another round.

As she walked away from the Head Table, Lord Douglas called his Feast order after her. “And a turkey for the Feast tonight, darling! One that’s fatter than Walker here, all slopped with gravy. With potatoes, deviled eggs, and pie on the side. Thank you very much.”

Haley did not say you’re welcome. She stormed into the kitchen, ordered two drinks at once, chugged one down in a single gulp, and snatched an envelope out of Elen’s hands without thinking about it. When Haley did think about it, she started to say, “Wait, who’s this from?” but only got out “Wait…” before she read the words on the message inside and knew the answer to her question.

“Seriously.” the message read. “Why do you still work for that asshole? Isn’t it time you quit?”

#     #     #

< Book III     [Table of Contents]     LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

There it is, dear readers, the first chapter in the final novel of the Infinite Limits series. Join us right here every Saturday to read a new chapter until the entire story is complete. And if you can’t wait that long, please do pick up a copy in print or ebook format through this link. Thanks for joining us. I hope you had fun.

We do nothing alone.

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.

Chapter 62: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we rejoin Ansel as she’s exploring Outland 4 with her new friend, Ashley. Read Ansel’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø right here, and don’t forget to join us next week for the concluding chapter of book three out of four of the Infinite Limits series. Enjoy.

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

LXII. Ansel

The claws never came. Nor the jaws. Only the laughter of Ashley who couldn’t even speak he was so doubled over. Ansel crawled to her feet, picking up her rucksack and brushing herself off, and the huge cat was no longer in front of her. She turned to find it inside another clearing behind her, across the dirt path they had come in on, looking out the other way and ready to pounce on some unseen thing.

“Oh. Oh ho ho!” Ashley laughed, trying to get control of himself. “Don’t worry. He can’t get you. Ho ho ho!”

Ansel reached out toward the cat and her hand disappeared in a straight line at the wrist, just like it had done when she had tried to open Anna and Rosa’s door what seemed like ages ago.

“You see,” Ashley said behind her, and Ansel turned to see her disembodied hand floating on the other side of the dirt path. “We can’t get to it, either. The only difference is that we can see the jaguar’s side of the wall and the jaguar can’t see ours. It’s kind of like a one-way mirror in that sense.”

Ansel waved her arm and the floating hand waved in unison. What kind of world was she living in?

“Pretty nifty, isn’t it?” Ashley asked

“I thought it was going to kill you,” Ansel said, pulling her arm out of the—whatever it was in—so it looked like her body was all in one piece again. “I don’t really find that funny.”

Ashley grinned, laughter trying to burst out of him again. “Well, I did. And there was no danger, anyway. And you acted heroically, trying to push me out of the way like that.” He giggled. “My saviour.”

“Alright,” Ansel said, walking down the path the way they had been going before Ashley stopped her to see the big cat. She wondered what other animals she might see on the way. “Enough funny business. Why’d you bring me here, anyway?”

Ashley followed along behind her, keeping good pace and walking more quietly than Pidgeon would have ever been able to. “Well, a few reasons,” he said. “First, to show you that my chemistry homework is far from the coolest thing in this world.”

Ansel nodded, not really hearing what Ashley was saying. Out in a clearing to the right of her was a giant hairy human-like thing with bigger muscles and a bigger head than she had ever seen—except for maybe on those fat tuxedoed babies at the dinner party. The hairy human thing was scratching itself in the sun and chewing on a pile of fruits. Ansel’s knees shook a little. She would have bolted out of there already if she hadn’t experienced the embarrassment of the giant cat incident earlier. Why was everything so much bigger and scarier here? “What is that?” she asked.

Ashley had to look again, as if he hadn’t noticed the thing the first time because it was an everyday occurrence to him. “Oh, a gorilla,” he said. “A rather big one, too. They’ve been bred to be larger and more ferocious for the show value. Thank our Holy Mother for the Walker-Haley fields between us or this guy here would be more dangerous than that jaguar we saw earlier.”

“A gorilla,” Ansel said, mesmerized by its huge bulging muscles and chomping jaws. “These things just live out in the wild?”

Ho ho ho, not anymore.” Ashley chuckled. “A long long time ago this guy’s great, great, great times a bunch ancestors lived in the wild, but like I said, they were a lot smaller back then. Now they’re an endangered species. Pretty much completely extinct, actually. Like most of the animals in here, they only exist in captivity.”

Here came that word again: endangered. “So that’s what makes them endangered?” Ansel asked. “Because they only live in captivity?” She had been held captive her entire life, kept ignorant of these worlds and the many others she had discovered in so little time since finding the first new one. Maybe she was endangered, too.

“Well, not exactly,” Ashley said. “But yes. We hold them here because they’re endangered, they’re not endangered because we hold them here.”

Pshh. What’s the difference?”

Ashley had to think long and hard about that. Ansel just let him. She was happy enough to stare at the magnificent gorilla as it ate. Who would endanger such a beautiful beast?

“You know,” Ashley said after some time of silence, breaking Ansel away from her reverie. “I’m not entirely sure there is a difference anymore, the more I think about it. It’s like, in the beginning we built walls to keep everything out for our own protection, and now we have to build walls that keep them in for their protection. I’m not sure when that changed, but when it did, it rendered any differences there might have once been entirely meaningless.”

Ansel didn’t know exactly what he was saying. She wasn’t sure she cared, either. She didn’t respond. Instead she just walked on along the dirt path in search of whatever new creature she might find in the next clearing. Ashley followed behind her, seemingly content to explore his own thoughts in silence while Ansel explored the real world.

It was a long walk before she came to the next animal, but Ansel didn’t mind. The anticipation was part of the fun, and there were plenty of exotic plants everywhere—not to mention birds of various bright colors flying around. But then the giant towered over her with its long yellow and brown spotted neck, chewing leaves it ripped from the trees with a finger-like tongue. Ansel didn’t ask what this one was, it didn’t need a name. She just stared up at its towering figure, plucking leaves from the trees, and tried to imagine what it saw through its elevated eyes.

“That’s a giraffe,” Ashley said, giving Ansel a name for the beast anyway. “It’s my favorite 3D animal, personally. They’re so tall and graceful, and such perfect pieces of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection. The way their laryngeal nerve goes all the way down and back up the neck again instead of taking the short route…”

Ashley kept going but Ansel didn’t hear a word he said beyond giraffe. She kept repeating it in her head. Giraffe, giraffe, giraffe. Who would endanger the giraffe? How could you trap such a strong looking gorilla? What kind of person would hurt a big black jaguar? She wasn’t sure she could take any more of this zoo if it meant seeing more caged and endangered beauties like this one.

Alright, enough.” Ansel snapped, cutting off Ashley’s lecture on giraffes which was still going on despite her ignoring it. “Why did you bring me here? Tell me.”

“I—uh… I thought you might like to see it. I don’t know. And I thought it might help explain where you are. I just— I, uh…” He shrugged.

“How is this supposed to help? Just tell me where we are.”

Uh, well, it’s—you know—like a model, really. Or maybe a metaphor. It’s meant to illuminate—”

“Get to the point.”

“Okay. Well. You know how the jaguar couldn’t pounce on you, right?”

“Of course.”

“Well, we couldn’t really touch it and it couldn’t eat us, right. I mean, the cat couldn’t even see us, okay. So you could essentially say that we are in two separate worlds, right? Us and the jaguar, I mean. The jaguar in their own world, and they can’t see into ours, but we can see into their world even if we can’t physically go there. Right? Not by walking off the path here where it looks like the jaguar’s world should be, at least.”

“Okay,” Ansel said still having a hard time following him. “So what?”

“Well essentially, the wider world—or worlds you might say—are split up the same way. Okay. They’re all right next each other like we are with the jaguar, but there’s no line of sight going either way. It would be more like if we couldn’t see into the jaguar’s habitat either, just like it couldn’t see out to us.”

“We wouldn’t even know they were there,” Ansel said, starting to understand now.

“Exactly.” Ashley smiled. “But those other worlds would be there, with all those people in them, living their own lives, oblivious to everything going on in our world, acting as if we didn’t exist either. Do you see where I’m going?”

Ansel nodded. She saw exactly where he was going. She wasn’t quite sure if she could believe what he was saying, but he had given her plenty of evidence to support his story with the way this zoo worked, and what he said seemed to explain some of the stranger experiences she had been going through ever since she moved to the Belt and beyond. “You’re saying that the world works exactly like this zoo,” she said. “You’re telling me that humans live in these same sort of cages that y’all have endangered all these animals with.”

“Yes, well, I’m not sure I would call the worlds cages,” Ashley said with a chuckle. “I’m not even sure I’d call what these animals are in cages, either. I mean, besides there being no bars, this is all the wilderness any of their ancestors have known for generations. These…protected habitats, let’s call them, make up the entire universe that these animals can ever experience, sure, but they’re not caged in, really, and they don’t know any better anyway.”

“Because they can’t know any better,” Ansel said. “They’re just animals. But you’re trying to say that humans are caged up like this, too. Would that be okay with you as long as the humans didn’t know any better?”

“First of all, they’re not cages,” Ashley said. “Habitats.”

“Whatever.”

“And second of all, you don’t give enough credit to these animals—or maybe you give too much credit to humans, I’m not sure. But take the gorillas, okay. They started out smart, of course, but you should see how intelligent they are now that they’ve been bred for it.” He nodded over at the long necked giant that was still munching on leaves. “That giraffe over there can figure out a lot more about the worlds than you might think. I promise you.”

“Wait, I don’t understand,” Ansel said. “Are you saying you would be okay with humans being caged, or put in habitats, or whatever you want to call it, as long as they didn’t know any better?”

“I’m not saying that exactly,” Ashley said, tapping his chin. “How can I communicate this in a way that you’ll understand? I could see how it might be for the best. That’s it. Just like the reserve here—let’s get that nasty word zoo out of our mind for the sake of objectivity. Without this reserve, where else could these animals go?”

“To the wilderness,” Ansel said. “Where they would be free to roam wherever they want to without being sent back to the beginning every time they finally get to the end.”

“What wilderness?” Ashley scoffed. “You’re looking at all the wilderness there is left that isn’t already owned and in use. And if there was any more, that would only broaden their playing field. The animals would still be sent to the beginning every time they got to the end because that’s how a round planet works.”

“And the humans?” Ansel asked, feeling her control over her temper loosen. “It’s best for them, too? You think it was best for me to be caged in the Streets, surrounded by cement and concrete, without any source of food or support of any kind for as far as I could possibly go in my little world? What kind of habitat is that? What was I being protected from?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ashley said, looking like he was getting a little angry himself. “You’ve given me no information about where you’re from so I can’t speculate as to whether it was for your best or not. I can see how it’s for the animals’ best because I’ve studied them thoroughly, but I have yet to come to a conclusion on humans. If you were a little more cooperative in answering my questions, maybe I could figure out how I felt about your situation sooner than later.”

“I—uh…” He was right even if he was being an ass about it. Ansel had been too harsh on him herself, though. He probably knew as little about her world as she knew about his. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m just— I’m a long way from home, I think, and I’ve been through a whole lot of Hell to get here. I miss my family and friends, and I never should have come all the way out here on my own in the first place.” She shook her head, fighting tears. “We do nothing alone.”

“It’s okay,” Ashley said, looking terrified at the prospect that Ansel might start crying—which made her chuckle a little. “You’re— You’re not alone, okay. I want to help you, you know. I will help you.”

“You don’t just want to study me?” Ansel smiled.

“Oh, I could study you all day.” Ashley held a hand to his mouth, blushing. “I mean— You know what I mean. But that’s not the only thing I want to do. I want to help you, too. We can help each other, I think.”

Psssh. Yeah right. How could I help you? You don’t need any hunting done, do you?”

“Well, no.” He shook his head.

“Then I prolly won’t be much help. Sorry.” Ansel shrugged.

“I doubt that.” Ashley chuckled. “The mere fact that you’ve brought my attention to the possibility of worlds beyond those that are known and mapped has been help enough. I always knew there were way more lines of tunnel than the maps showed us, and now I might just understand why.”

“Wait, so you didn’t know about the other worlds either?”

“I knew of one,” Ashley said. “We call it Never Never Land. It’s where all the celebrities live. But I imagine it’s not the world you come from, is it?”

Ansel shook her head. “I’m not really sure what a celebrity is.”

Exactly. Pointing further to the fact that you hail from a third, separate world and implying the possibility of further worlds after that.”

“All because I don’t know what a celebrity is?”

“All because you came through the seams,” Ashley said, smiling. “Now come on. Let’s get to my lab so we can try to find your world.” He grabbed her by the hand and pulled her running back the way they had come from.

Ansel forgot herself in the wind whipping against her face and the flying branches all around her. The giraffe, gorilla, and jaguar were nothing more than blurs in her peripheral vision, along with the long smudge of dark jungle green. It wasn’t until the world stopped moving again and the elevator doors slid closed behind them that either of them spoke.

“They still weren’t as cool as chemistry,” Ansel said at the same time that Ashley said, “I think I know how to find your world.”

“Oh, sorry,” they said at the same time.

“And chemistry? You’re way off,” Ashley said while Ansel said, “Oh, cool.”

“Animals are much cooler than chemistry,” Ashley said when they were done apologizing for talking over each other.

“But those animals were so far away,” Ansel said.

“Luckily for us. Lab.”

The elevator fell into motion.

“Well, I’d still like to know more about chemistry,” Ansel said.

“Maybe I’ll show you after we search for your world.”

Ansel shrugged. She didn’t really care about finding her world, more so she just wanted to find a new one to live in. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and she stepped into a long hall but Ashley didn’t follow. Ansel turned to look at him and found him shaking his head, looking afraid. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Th—This isn’t my lab,” Ashely said, still shaking his head. “This is wrong. We should go. Come here. Get back in the elevator.” He waved to hurry her up.

Before Ansel could respond, though, the door at the other end of the hall opened and in came Rosalind, followed by Popeye. Ansel groaned. She knew she recognized this hall, but she had thought it was because all those white-coated people’s buildings looked the same.

So,” Rosalind said with a grin, “the prodigal child returns.”

Popeye waved emphatically, like the tail of a dog who was happy to see its owner, but Popeye was all tail and no dog.

“I didn’t return,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “This isn’t where we were trying to go.”

“Oh, then what are you doing here?” Rosalind laughed a cackling laugh.

Um, I’m sorry, ma’am,” Ashley said, finally coming out of the elevator and putting a hand on Ansel’s shoulder—which she shrugged away. “It was some sort of malfunction in the elevator. We were supposed to go to my lab. We’ll just be leaving now.” He tried to pull Ansel back into the elevator but she wouldn’t budge.

“It was no malfunction,” Ansel said. “She did it on purpose. Didn’t you?”

Ha ha ha.” Rosalind laughed. “Who’s the bumbling new child you’ve brought with you this time, girl? Have you found yourself a new boyfriend already? Pidgeon’ll be sad to hear it. Ha ha ha!”

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Ansel said, stomping a foot. She could see Ashley blushing out of her peripheral vision and tried hard not to look at him.

“I—It was an accident,” Ashley stammered.

“It was not an accident, boy,” Rosalind snapped. “You’re girlfriend here is right about that. The Scientist wants to see you and she couldn’t wait until you two split up so here you both are. Now come on in. Right this way.” She made a gracious wave of her arm then shoved Ansel and Ashley down the hall toward the door at the end of it where Popeye was waving them on.

“I—I don’t—” Ashley stammered, gripping tight to Ansel’s shirt.

“She’s never gonna convince me to stay,” Ansel said, trying to shrug him away in vain. “I don’t know what she would have to talk to me about.”

Rosalind grinned, still pushing them along. “You’ll just have to go in and see for yourself, then. Won’t you, girl?”

Ansel didn’t let the word cut her like she knew it was meant to. She didn’t respond to it at all. She just gave up fighting and went in through the door, pulling Ashley along in her wake.

The Scientist was sitting in a puffy chair, under the view of the endless mountain that could never again impress Ansel, indicating for them to take their seats across from her. Ashley hesitated but Ansel had been through all this before. She strode right up and took a chair without having to struggle into it, despite its height. Seeing her confidence gave Ashley some of his own, and soon he struggled into the chair between Ansel’s and the Scientist’s. When he was finally up and seated, he stared in slack jawed awe at the Scientist who smiled—suspiciously Ansel thought—right back at him.

“I— You’re— You can’t be,” Ashley said.

The Scientist nodded, still grinning. “Yes, child. I can be,” she said. “And I am.”

“Why did you send for me?” Ansel demanded, ignoring Ashley’s fanboy reaction. She didn’t care who he thought the Scientist was or how impressed he was by her, Ansel just wanted to get out of there as soon as they could.

“Ansel,” Ashley said, “she didn’t want to see you. She’s too important. She probably doesn’t even know who you are. She’s—”

Actually, I did want to see Ansel,” the Scientist said. “I needed to see her, in fact.”

“But you’re—” Ashley said.

“The Scientist,” Ansel cut him off. “I know.”

“Well I was going to say Dr. Haley Walker,” Ashley said, “but she is pretty much the epitome of a scientist. You’re right about that.”

“Haley Walker?” Ansel said.

“My true name.” The Scientist nodded.

Why had she hidden the name for so long if this kid knew it by the sight of her? “Well what do you want?” Ansel demanded.

“I want to know how your trip has gone, dear.” The Scientist smiled—Ansel still couldn’t think of her as Dr. Walker, she had been the Scientist for too long. “I want to know if you’ve changed your mind.” Then quickly, as if to prevent the answer she knew was coming, the Scientist added, “I want to know what you want now. I’m sure you have a better idea for yourself after your little adventure in Four, don’t you?”

“What do you know about my adventure?” Ansel asked, wondering who was slipping the Scientist information.

“Not much, child.” The Scientist laughed. “Which is why I need you to tell me all about it. Starting with the name of your little friend who you’ve brought along with you.”

“I— I’m Ashley Tyson,” Ashley said, squirming in his seat. “I’m a topological physicist myself, ma’am. Can I say that I admire you more than any scientist who has ever lived. Like, for real. You’re my hero.”

The Scientist chuckled. “You can, but you wouldn’t be the first.” She winked. “And that’s about enough said. Let’s talk about something interesting for a change. Where did you and my dear Ansel meet?”

Ansel resented being called “her dear” by the Scientist, but she didn’t get a chance to respond because Ashley was too eager to speak. “Well I was down in the Labyrinth, ma’am—forgive the colloquialism—but I was monitoring Walker-Haley field function for class credit when she appeared out of nowhere and ran right into me. I thought she was my replacement, you know, but then she said she had come through the seams of Sisyphus’s Mountain without the protection of a transport shield or radiation suit, and I wouldn’t believe her. I mean, I thought that was impossible. It is impossible, isn’t it? She didn’t really go through the fields naked. Did she?”

The Scientist was chuckling for most of his long rant, shaking her head, and she continued on after he stopped. “I don’t know,” she said, looking at Ansel for confirmation. “Did you?”

Ansel shrugged. “I found an escape from your mountain wilderness and I took the opportunity, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“By the elevator?” the Scientist asked.

Ansel nodded. Of course the Scientist knew about the seam already. Getting Ansel  to tell the story out loud was just some sick power trip.

“It’s always tricky keeping the fields contained in such tight spots,” the Scientist said, more to herself than either of them. “I’ll have to take a closer look at that in the morning.”

“So she did go through naked,” Ashley said, glancing wide eyed between the Scientist and Ansel. “You weren’t lying?”

“Of course I wasn’t.” Ansel scoffed. “I wouldn’t.”

“And there are worlds we haven’t been told about,” Ashley said to the Scientist. “Aren’t there?”

“Beyond your imagination.” The Scientist nodded.

Ashley seemed to fall into his own mind, lost trying to determine the possibilities created by the new information he had just been given. Ansel wasn’t impressed, though. “Is this all you brought me here for?” She scoffed. “To impress some white coated flower from another planet? Can I leave now?”

“Not in the least,” the Scientist said, getting serious now. “But the rest, I’m afraid, the reason I really brought you here, that has to be taken care of in private. Ashley, friend, you’ll have to wait in the other room with Rosalind. I’m sorry.”

“I—but—” Ashley complained as the office door opened and in came Rosalind. “I have so many questions to ask you.”

“C’mon, kid,” Rosalind said, jerking a thumb toward the door. “You heard the lady. Let’s go.”

“In due time,” the Scientist said, standing to help Rosalind guide him out of the room. “All your questions will be answered in due time.”

Ansel heaved a sigh of relief when he was gone. The sooner they were alone, the sooner she could leave, and that was the only thing Ansel wanted. “So,” she said expectantly as the Scientist retook her seat.

“So, my dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Your trip. How did it go?”

“Ashley already told you most of it.”

The Scientist chuckled. “He told me nothing, how you met. I want more. I want to know everything that happened after, everything that happened before. I want to know everything. Did you climb the mountain?”

Ansel nodded.

“And what did you see?”

“Myself,” Ansel said without hesitation. She had thought about that view so many times since she had seen it that she could respond by reflex. “My future, my past…me.” She shrugged.

The Scientist nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Sure it was. It was almost like that, at least. You can never get over the mountain, though, so it’s only ever your present, really.”

“But I did get over it,” Ansel said defiantly, puffing out her chest. “Three times.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how many more mountains were there after that?”

Ansel shook her head. “Is this all you brought me here for? To toy with me? I’m pretty sure by now that it’s the only reason you let me go out there in that wilderness in the first place.”

“No, dear. Settle down, now.” The Scientist tried to calm her. “We can move on if that’s what you want. I’d still like to know what happened after you met Ashley, though. Did you enjoy your time in Four?”

“What’s Four?”

“The world you were in, my dear. You understand how these things work, now, don’t you? I’m told you visited a zoo. That had to be illuminating.”

“The whole world’s like a zoo, isn’t it?” Ansel demanded, searching the Scientist’s eyes for some deeper meaning beyond her words.

“I think that’s always been true,” the Scientist said with a smile. “It has been for as long as I can remember, anyway. And that’s a long time, mind you.”

“No, I mean we’re all caged up like those animals I saw. We have no means of escape. Though I did escape, somehow.” Because the Scientist had plucked her out of her world, but the Scientist knew that and Ansel wasn’t ready to give her the credit. “But everyone else is stuck where they are.”

“My previous comment still holds true.” The Scientist nodded. “It’s been like this pretty much forever. Though I know what you mean. And yes, at one time we were using the Walker-Haley fields to fence things in, but now the entire universe consists of fences and walls, making it all but indistinguishable whether we’re in the wilderness or the reserve. There’s no separation anymore. You don’t even have to say we’re like the animals kept in the zoo that you visited. In essence, all the worlds of Earth are a part of the same network of habitats making one total zoo.”

“And you’re the zoo guard,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “You make sure everyone stays in their places and the walls stand tall and strong.”

“I brought you out of the Streets, didn’t I?” the Scientist said. “I didn’t force you to live in Six forever, the lowest of the low.”

“My parents got me out of the Streets,” Ansel snapped. “That wasn’t you. That was our own hard work, and if they hadn’t been killed, I could have gotten out of Six—or whatever you want to call it—myself.”

The Scientist chuckled. “And how do you think they got their hands on those printers that got them their promotions, huh? I got you out of the streets, I got you out of Six entirely, and I want to give you more than that. I want to give you all the worlds on a platinum platter.”

Ansel scoffed. “Yeah, right. To do what with them? Tinker and toy like you do? No thanks.”

Ba ha ha.” The Scientist shook her head, waving a finger at Ansel. It reminded her of the same gesture her mom used to make. She didn’t know whether to be endeared or angry at the reminder. “Not so fast, Ansel. You’ll want to consider this offer and consider it well.”

“Well…” Ansel said.

“Well, dear.” The Scientist smiled. “Before I give you the offer, you must first answer me one question. What is it that you want most in life?”

Ansel groaned. She had had enough of the Scientist’s pseudo-spiritual mumbo jumbo. “What if I don’t want to answer that question?” she asked, playing the Scientist at her own games.

“Then you’d be answering my question.” The Scientist grinned. “You want not to answer the question. Though I figured you’d want a little more out of life than that. Not answering one question isn’t a lot to work with.” She chuckled, pleased with herself for some stupid reason.

“What does it matter anyway?” Ansel asked.

“What could it hurt to tell me? You’re only wasting time. I know you want to hear my offer. Your curiosity’s been piqued. And I won’t tell you what the offer is until you answer my one simple question, easy as that. So what do you say? What do you want most in life?”

Ansel sighed. The Scientist was right. The worst that could happen would be that the Scientist didn’t offer her what she said she wanted. Who cares if the Scientist learns what that is? “My parents to be alive again,” she said.

“Oh, well…” A tear came to the Scientist’s eye and she quickly wiped it away with the long white sleeve of her coat, trying to be discreet. “I knew this would be your first request but I didn’t think it would hit me so hard. I’m sorry.” She wiped her eyes again. “I’m afraid resurrection’s not possible, though. Where would we be if it was? Do you have any other desires?”

Ansel shook her head. “You asked for what I wanted most in the world and I told you. Now what’s your offer?”

“My offer pales in comparison to your need for a family, Ansel. I’ve already offered you what family I can and you rejected it. Instead I’m here to offer you independence. You’re on your own now—though my offer a family still stands, mind you—but with that in mind, and resurrection off the table, what do you want?”

“Nothing! I don’t want anything else. I want everything to go back to the way it was before you killed my family!”

“What next then? What are you going to do when you leave here? Where will you go? Where do you want to go?”

Ansel worked to calm herself down, taking deep, heaving breaths. She wasn’t quite sure. She could go back to the Streets, try to hook up with Katie again, relive the life she used to live before everyone started trying to turn her into a garden flower. Or she could try to convince Pidgeon to live out in the endless mountain with her. She could teach him a few things about hunting, and he would be close enough to the elevator that he could get whatever his heart desired to eat from the Scientist’s 3D printer. Or she could go do chemistry and stare at bizarre animals with Ashley, maybe even get a white coat of her own some day. She didn’t really want to do any of those things, though, and she kind of wanted to do them all at the same time. What could she say? She couldn’t decide. “I don’t know,” she finally did say after too long thinking about it. “I want to do a lot of things.”

The Scientist smiled. “Name a few.”

“Maybe I want to go back to the Streets to find my old friends. I haven’t seen them since I moved to the Belt.”

“But you wouldn’t want to live there again, would you? Not after everything you’ve seen out here. Not now that you know how you could be living otherwise.”

“Well maybe I want to go back out to the wilderness, then. I bet I could convince Pidgeon to come with me.”

“Out there on Sisyphus’s Mountain? You think that wilderness is big enough for you?”

“No, well… I would like to do chemistry, too. Ooh, and free those animals in the zoo. They deserve a bigger wilderness as much as I do.”

The Scientist chuckled. “Well, you do want a lot of things. Don’t you?”

“Yeah, so?” Ansel crossed her arms, self-conscious and regretting that she had told the Scientist anything.

“So do you think it’s possible for you to do all of them at once?” the Scientist asked. “Do you think you can get everything you want? How likely do you think it is that you could even get one of them?”

Ansel shook her head, not saying anything. She had said too much already.

“Well, I’m here to tell you that I can give you all of them, everything you want. You won’t have to choose. I’ll give you more than that on top of it. In fact, I’ll give you everything, period. All of this. All of my power, my knowledge, my walls. I’ll teach you chemistry, show you how to control the elevators so you can get to the Streets, or the wilderness, or wherever you want to go whenever you want to be there. I’ll give you control over all the walls in existence, even the walls of the zoo where you’ll one day be the zookeeper who has the power to expand or detract the habitats as you see fit. I’ll give you all of it.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Ansel scoffed. “You would never—”

“I will, dear. I am. I’ve been building up to this all along. You were chosen from the beginning, ever since I gave your parents the printers that helped pluck you out of the streets. This has been the plan all along. Rosalind will tell you.”

Ansel looked up and Rosalind was in the room with them, hovering by the doorway. How long had she been there?

“If you’re ready to learn, girl.” Rosalind smiled.

“And if I’m not?” Ansel demanded. “What if I don’t want any of this?”

“But you just told me you did.” The Scientist stood from her chair, reminding Ansel of how tall she was. “This is everything you want. Come with me. I’ll show you.”

She took Ansel’s hand and led her out past Rosalind through the door, but they didn’t emerge into the hall. They were somewhere else, in another world entirely. A world in which reality seemed to morph and change around them. There were others there, too. Anna and Rosa, some fat guy like the babies she had seen crying at the dinner party, and a couple of people who she didn’t recognize. Ansel didn’t know what to do. She tried to turn and run but the Scientist grabbed her by the rucksack, trying to stop her. After a short tug of war and a tussle, Ansel’s bag fell to the ground between them and the tent that Rosalind had given her opened up inside, expanding until the rucksack burst, pushing the Scientist deeper into the patchwork nonsense world they had stepped into and Ansel in the opposite direction, back into the office they had come from, where she landed, stunned, at Rosalind’s feet.

“What the fuck was that?” Rosalind demanded, rushing to the door which wouldn’t open now. “Where’d you go?”

“I— I don’t know. There were people” What had she seen? It couldn’t have been real. Who was that girl among them?

The door finally opened, but only to the hall. Rosalind burst out through it then back in again. “She’s gone,” she said. “The Scientist. Come on. I need your help.”

Rosalind ran out toward the elevator and Ansel was left stammering, “I— I don’t— I—” before she forced herself to stand up and follow.

#     #     #

< LXI. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LXIII. Mr. Walker >

There it is, dear readers. Ansel’s next chapter. Only one more left in this novel, but if you can’t wait until next Saturday, go ahead and pick up a copy of this one, and all of them in the Infinite Limits series, through this link. Thanks again for following along this far. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 61: Chelsea

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to chapter 61 of the four book Infinite Limits series. Today we see the world through Chelsea’s point of view as she’s been forcefully reunited with her husband, Tom, leaving their son home alone in the grips of the Captain. Chelsea will do anything to protect her son, now read on to find out if she can convince Tom to do the same.

Thanks for joining us, readers, and if you’d like to read the last two chapters in this, book three of the Infinite Limits saga, Dividing by Ø, then go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link–and maybe leave a review if you’ve got the time. Either way, thanks again for joining us, readers, and enjoy.

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

LXI. Chelsea

The alarm that morning must have been the most grating, terrible sound that Chelsea had ever heard in her entire life. It didn’t sound any different than it did on any other day of the week—she had been woken up by the same alarm since she had joined the Academy—but still, the noise was worse than ever with the weight of what she was expected to do that day bearing down on her.

She took her time getting out of bed, enjoying the warmth of the comforter and the solitude of her bedroom. Finally, she knew who she was. She was a protector and she was ready to put right the wrongs which had been allowed to exist in the worlds for too long. That was what was best for Jonah. It was the only thing she could do.

When she eventually did get out of bed, she filled out all her paperwork in her bedroom, eschewing the bathroom and a shower—one day without wouldn’t be too bad—because she wasn’t ready to face Tom just yet. Her hair pulled into a ponytail, her protector’s suit on, and her helmet lodged up under her arm, Chelsea took a deep breath in preparation and opened her bedroom door.

She let all the air out in one loud breath when she saw that Tom wasn’t even there. He must have gone ahead to the meeting without her. Hopefully so. She didn’t need him to be late. The Captain would probably end up making her pay for that, too.

Chelsea’s stomach grumbled on the way to the elevator. She was hungry, sure, but that would have to wait along with her shower. The mission came first, and if assassination was on the plate, she already knew what her reaction would be and an empty stomach was for the best. She stepped onto the elevator, said, “Captain’s office.” not knowing where else to go—she didn’t need the locker room becauses she was avoiding Tom—and the floor fell out from underneath her.

She held her breath and counted her heartbeats as the elevator moved. Twenty beats, a good indication she was calm and ready for what was to come. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat, speeding up. There was Tom, standing in the hall, in full uniform except for his helmet which was tucked up underneath his armpit.

She must have registered her surprise—and hopefully only the surprise and not also the disgust which had seemed to build up over night with all her time alone to imagine what dangers exactly it was that Tom had put her Jonah into—because his voice was already defensive, if not his words, as he said, “Uh, hey.”  kicking dust like a scolded child. “I thought you’d be in the locker room. I tried to clear out so I wouldn’t bother you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Chelsea shrugged. What did he want, a medal of honor for being able to discern her obvious feelings for once in a lifetime? “I hadn’t noticed.”

“So, about last night… Well—”

“Just forget about it,” Chelsea cut him off. Now was not the time to be arguing again. Now was the time to be cool and collected and ready for a mission. Why couldn’t Tom understand that? “We should be going in,” she said, trying to pass him, but Tom stopped her.

“No, wait,” he said, and Chelsea jerked her arm out of his grip. “I’m sorry, I—”

“No!” Chelsea snapped, losing her temper despite her every effort to control it before such an important mission. “Not now, Tom. You lost your opportunity to explain yourself when you put our son in danger—and on multiple occasions at that. No—Stop! Listen to me. Let me finish. Now we’re going to get in there and do whatever the Captain asks us to do no matter how much you object. And—I’m not finished. Just shut up for a minute. And we’re going to do it all while keeping the fact that the safety of our son, Tom, the safety of our Jonah is on the line and we cannot forget that. I’ll do anything to protect him, okay. It doesn’t matter what the Captain asks me to do, I’m going to do it for Jonah. You got that?”

Tom nodded. “Of course. I would, too. But—”

No buts. We just do it. Anything she says, Tom. Now come on.” Chelsea stormed past him, toward the Captain’s office. She knocked twice on the door then burst through it without waiting for an answer and groaned when the Captain wasn’t there. She heard Tom come in behind her and blurted out, “I told you not to—” before she blushed, slapping her hand to her mouth, and said, “Oh, uh, Captain, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I— I thought you were—”

Can it,” the Captain said, brushing Chelsea off and marching around to sit in the chair behind the desk. “There’s no time, Pardy. I’ve got much more important shit to take care of. So please, let’s just get this over with. Sit down. Both of you.”

Uh, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute and taking one of the low seats in front of the Captain’s desk, thankful not to have to explain herself.

Tom took the seat next to Chelsea and the Captain got straight to business. “So I gave you some generalities about your mission yesterday, but no specifics. Mostly because we didn’t have them. But now we do, and I’ll tell you, there’s not a lot of subtlety to this one. We’ll be sending you straight to your targets. That’s it.”

Tom fidgeted in his seat and Chelsea swallowed some spit.

“Tom, you’ve been there before, but not like this. The world’s become a much different place since you were a protector last, and you may not recognize as much as you expect to, but you should have no trouble recognizing your targets. They haven’t changed. I assure you of that. Chelsea, you studied the maps in bootcamp—or whatever facsimile thereof they’re giving you new recruits with as fast as we’re pulling you in these days—but you can fill in the holes of what Tom remembers and ensure y’all get to the right place.”

“Yes, sir,” Chelsea nodded.

“Anything else, sir?” Tom asked.

“Not really, Pardys. I’m afraid you won’t have much support out there beyond the normal patrolling officers, and they’ll, by necessity, be stationed as far away from your position as possible when we send you over there. It’s just you two, your guns, and the entire Force that’s counting on you—despite the fact that none of them actually know you’re even on this mission.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Chelsea said, saluting. “We won’t let you down, sir.”

“I hope not,” the Captain said, standing and saluting back. “Now get out of my sight. I have other business to tend to.”

Even Tom got the message on that one and scurried out close behind Chelsea.

“Did she say where we’re supposed to be going?” Tom asked, trying to keep up with Chelsea who was hurrying to the elevator. She wanted to get this done with as soon as possible.

“She said you’re supposed to know the place.” Chelsea shrugged. “It’ll come up in our viewports. Come on.”

They got on the elevator and the doors slid closed. Chelsea waited but the thing didn’t move and no directions came up in her mask’s viewport. She was starting to get a little nervous.

“Well…” Tom said, nervous himself from the sound of it.

“Well, you know the place, don’t you?” Chelsea snapped. Did she have to do all the thinking? “Take us there.”

“Oh—I guess… Well, Outland Six Sector F, then,” Tom said and the elevator fell into motion.

When it stopped and the doors slid open, Chelsea stepped out but Tom didn’t follow. “Well,” Chelsea said. “C’mon. This is the place, isn’t it?”

“I—uh… I don’t know,” Tom said, stepping out of the elevator and surveying the buildings all around them. “This— It didn’t look like this before.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Of course not. You do recall that the walls between Five and Six were destroyed, don’t you? It did happen on your watch. Seems like something I’d remember.”

Tom ignored her, still staring at the new world in awe. “No, but… This used to be a long strip of green surrounded by buildings. Now it’s just a patch. Where’d it all go?”

“You really have no idea how the worlds work, do you?” Chelsea chuckled. “That’s how the walls function, Tom. This is the world now. Just show me where to go so we can get this over with.”

“Why are you so eager?” Tom asked, finally breaking his eyes away from the towering buildings that surrounded them to address her. “Why do you want to do this?”

“I want to protect our son,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “We’ve been over this so many times already. Just leave it at that for now and let’s do what we came here to do: protect Jonah.”

“It’s almost like you—like you’re looking forward to killing them,” Tom said, breaking eye contact again but this time to stare at his feet.

Chelsea swallowed the spit that had gathered in her throat. She shook her head slowly, trying not to show any emotion. “I’m doing what’s best for our son,” she said in the steadiest voice she could muster. “I’m doing what you should have been doing all along, what you should be doing now. So please. Let’s go.”

Tom bowed his head and shuffled down the sidewalk, hopefully in the direction of their targets. Chelsea followed close behind, observing her surroundings and noticing that there was no one in the streets, no one anywhere, it seemed. Her school lessons had taught her that Six was packed to the brim and overflowing with criminals, hooligans, and harlots—the real scum of the earth—and she wondered where they were all hiding. Probably under a rock somewhere where they belonged.

After a few blocks of walking it was starting to seem like Tom didn’t actually know where he was going at all. That or he was taking her off course for a reason, trying to protect his trash friends. Probably the former, though. Chelsea saw a lot more ignorance in Tom than malice, and she still held some small hope that he would do what was best for Jonah in the long run.

“Wasn’t there a closer elevator?” Chelsea asked when the walking had grown to be too much and they still weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“I don’t know,” Tom said, turning to Chelsea and looking genuinely concerned. “I mean, no. This was the closest elevator before the walls came down, but I’m a little lost now.”

Great.” Chelsea scoffed. “Perfect. Now what?” She was on the verge of calling back on her radio when Tom gasped.

“Wait a second. Wait.” He pulled Chelsea by the arm to hide in an alley. “That’s it,” he said, poking his head around the corner of the building.

“Are you sure?” Chelsea asked, moving him aside so she could look. “Let me see.” She poked her head around, too, but didn’t know what she was looking for so all she saw was more of the same buildings and streets they had been passing already. “Which one?” she asked.

“A few buildings down. Right in front of that patch of grass,” Tom said and she could tell the one he was talking about. “That’s the one for sure. It was in a different place the last time I was here, but that is the one.”

“You’re sure?” Chelsea asked him again, looking into his eyes. “Jonah can’t afford any mistakes.”

“I’m sure.” Tom nodded. “Though I’m still not sure how you want to go about this.”

Chelsea thought about it for a second. The Captain hadn’t been specific. Chelsea had assumed they would just go in and get the job done then get out. How hard could it really be in Six? But maybe Tom was right this time. Maybe a little more finesse was in order. “Did you have anything in mind?” she asked him, because she sure didn’t.

“Well…” Tom didn’t look very sure of what he was about to say. “The Captain chose me because I already know the targets, right. Maybe she thinks they’ll just let me in.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Do you think so?”

“Well not like this, obviously,” Tom said, taking off his helmet and vest. “Come on. You, too, if you’re coming in with me. They don’t trust protectors.”

Chelsea scoffed again. “Well, we are here to kill them. I mean, you don’t think they’ll be able to tell? I thought they already knew you, anyway. They know you’re a protector.”

“So?” Tom said, down to his undershirt and cargo pants. “They don’t know you. And we don’t need to rub it in their face, anyway. And say we come to someone else before we find our targets? They might not recognize me, and what do you think they’d do if they saw a protector?”

“Try to kill us,” Chelsea said. “Exactly why we should keep our armor on. I’m not taking mine off.”

Tom chuckled. “C’mon,” he said. “These people are tiny. You’ve never seen them before. They’ll be no match for the two of us. I’m leaving my gun, too, but you can bring yours if you want to.”

Tom.” Chelsea scoffed. “This is ridiculous. You don’t have to be tall or strong to shoot someone. You’re not listening to me. We’re here to get something done and we can’t do it without our guns.”

“Well I’m not taking mine with me,” Tom said, tossing it onto the pile with the rest of his uniform. “You can do whatever you want to.” He looked at her like she was going to take off her armor and throw her weapon down, too, and when she picked his gun up to strap it over her back instead, he let out a big sigh. “Fine. Whatever. C’mon. Follow me.”

They snuck, hugging their backs to the wall, from the alley to the doorway despite the sheer emptiness of the entire world. Tom crossed to the other side of the door and made the hand signal that indicated he was going to kick it in. Chelsea held up a finger, stopping him just before he did, and tried the handle—which, of course, was unlocked. She pushed the door open with a grin on her face, then got serious again and pointed her gun up and down the entrance hallway. When she saw it was all clear, she waved for Tom to follow her.

While Chelsea snuck from wall to wall, hall to hall, in perfect reconnaissance procedure, Tom didn’t even try to hide or protect himself at all. Chelsea was getting the feeling that he might not be as dedicated to Jonah’s safety as he claimed to be. She cleared a big conference room, kitchen, and office, leaving only one closed door left in the place, when she finally spoke.

“What the fuck are you doing, Tom?”

“Searching the premises.” He shrugged. “It looks like no one’s home.”

Chelsea’s hands started to tremble and her palms slicked up. If she wasn’t wearing gloves, she might have dropped her gun, but instead, she raised it, aiming the barrel at Tom despite her brain’s confusion as to exactly why. “You’re not taking this seriously at all,” her mouth said. Why was it being so harsh on him? “This is our son’s life at stake, Tom. Jonah’s life. And you’re willing to throw it all away?”

“Woah, now. Settle down,” Tom said, raising his hands in defense. Chelsea was glad she had her helmet on so he couldn’t see the disgust she couldn’t keep off her face. “I’m not the bad guy here. No need to point that thing at me.”

Chelsea held the gun steady, still pointing it at him. “Aren’t you, though, Tom? You’re the one who said you’d do anything so you didn’t have to kill someone else. Is that what you’re doing now? Sabotaging the mission? Putting our son in danger for your own selfish desires?”

“No.” Tom chuckled nervously, hands trembling in the air now. “Of course not. I— I wouldn’t… Jonah would— The Captain—”

“Now your tune changes.” Chelsea laughed and she didn’t know why. She felt like she was losing control of herself. She couldn’t stop. “Now that you see the gun pointing at your head it means something to you, but when you can’t see it and it’s pointing at our son’s head this is all a game.”

“No, I—”

“It’s not a game, Tom. I’m not playing it anymore.” She shook her head, her arms trembling and grip on the gun loosening. “You can take this mission seriously, or I’ll—”

Bang.

The front door of the house swung open and in pointed five or six guns.

Pow.

Chelsea’s trigger finger slipped. Her arm recoiled. Tom made his puppy dog eyes one last time before, gripping his stomach, he fell to his knees.

Pow pow pow.

Shots rang out from the pile of guns in the doorway, whizzing past Chelsea and setting her feet into motion. She dove into the kitchen, back braced against the counter, her only protection, and shots still rang.

No. She shook her head, blinking tears away as the shots still fired over and around her. No, no, no. Not like this. Not my Tom. Not by—

Crack crack.

Their aim was getting better. Their guns were more powerful than the standard Sixer fare, too. Those were probably the same terrorists who had attacked the precinct. They were firing the protectors’ own guns at Chelsea. Her inherited instinct and training kicked in. She knew what she had to do.

Pop pop pop.

She jumped up from behind the counter like a protector in a box and dropped three of the five bodies with three well placed shots. Her kill count was steadily rising, and the more she did it the more she wanted to.

Pop pop.

Two more shooters dead with two more shots, and Chelsea plopped back down, hidden behind the counter despite the room being empty of anything living but her. She was getting better at this killing thing, she told herself over and over, trying to get her heartbeat under control. Maybe she would make a good protector after all.

Her heart rate calmed and most of the adrenaline absorbed into her body, Chelsea stood on shaky legs, using what was left of the counter as a balance, to survey the room. By the looks of the tattered mass of splinters that the counter she had been using for cover had become, a few more seconds of indecision on her part and she’d be just another body dying in that room. She shook her head. Thank Amaru she wasn’t.

There were six lifeless bodies on the blood-stained floor, but only one that Chelsea crossed to kneel by. His whole undershirt was puddled with blood all up under his limp arm and on his stomach while his face was twisted into a grotesque smile, as if he welcomed the fate that had finally come to him. Chelsea didn’t want to throw up this time, but she did want to cry, and cry she did until her tears were dried up.

She stood and surveyed the room again only to find the same six bodies and all dead thanks to her. Had she done the right thing? Of course not when it came to Tom, but tha—that was an accident.

That was an accident. That was an accident. That was an accident.

The more she repeated it to herself the more she believed it was true. She was pointing the gun at him, yes, but she never would have pulled the trigger if that pile of trash didn’t storm in with their guns blazing. She had never meant to hurt him, her Tom. Of course she didn’t. She was simply trying to get his attention, to make him take this mission seriously, and it worked. It worked until…

What had she done? What was she to do next?

She couldn’t just stand there and wait for someone else to come. Another troop of Sixers would be on their way soon, no doubt, and then there’d be an even larger mass of bodies to explain. No, she had to get out of there and fast. But she couldn’t just leave Tom’s body behind. Not after she had…

She had to call for backup. It was her only option. Even if it took the local patrol forever to get there. She ran back to the alley to strap Tom’s vest back on him and lay his helmet by his side then make the call.

“Emergency line open,” she said, finding it surprisingly easy to keep her voice steady. “This is Officer Pardy reporting a four three nine in progress. We have an Officer down in Sector F of Outland Six. Send medical unit and backup as soon as possible. Over.”

“Loud and clear, Officer Pardy,” a voice replied over the headphones in her helmet. “Repeat. That’s a four three nine in progress?”

“Affirmative. I repeat, we have a four three nine in progres. Send backup immediately. Over.”

“The closest Officers are on their way. Over and out.”

The comm link shut off with a barely perceptible blip and Chelsea let out a sigh of frustration. Maybe Tom wasn’t so incompetent after all. Maybe the entire Force and the rest of the worlds beside that were just as ignorant, naive, and incapable. She had seen enough idiots getting ahead in the Force to think that stupidity was the norm rather than an anomaly.

What those protectors might have thought when they first saw Chelsea, standing over a mass of lifeless bodies, staring through the blood-stained vinyl at a universe far away and only accessible to her, she may never know. If they were less trained in reacting to violence or more loving of the scum that inhabited World Six, those Officers might have seen her as a crazed murderous psychopath, bent on admiring the ghastly product of her horrible profession. These two protectors, though—Officers and rookies though they were—had been through a particular upbringing, the same one Chelsea had gone through as a kid. Violence was a part and parcel of life in Outland One. Surviving violence and inflicting it on those who would inflict it on you before they had the chance to displayed the epitome of prowess. Murdering Sixers made one venerable, put one’s picture in the school books next to the mythological heroes of society, recorded your biography so generations yet to be born could read it forevermore. These protectors saw not a psychopath in Chelsea, but a heroic protector, doing her duty in the defense of property, liberty, and life, and she would no doubt go down in history for avenging the death of her husband on duty.

Hands patted her back. There were still only two other officers there, but it seemed like so many more. They asked her how it felt to finally get to destroy some of the scum from Six. They congratulated her on her kills. They apologized for her loss, even if it was an honorable loss, even if Tom had found the perfect way for a protector to die. And she?

She smiled and nodded, playing along with the other protectors. She told them it was exhilarating to finally take justice into her own hands, exciting to dispense it to those who so direly needed their fair share. She thanked them, assuring them that this was not the end of her kill list, that she would do her best and damndest—excuse the word in such a heat of excitement—to dish out the same justice to all Sixer trash. She nodded, letting a single tear fall from her eye, and agreed with them that this was indeed the best way for a protector to die, as a martyr for property, liberty, and life. She only worried about how to tell her son.

Then there were more of them. Protectors flooded the room. Chelsea was lost in a sea of them. How long she had been reminiscing and congratulating herself with the other two she didn’t know, but she was glad it was finally over. It was all over now. No more mission to Scumland to kill scumbags. No more of Tom’s exploits to endanger Jonah. No more of Tom at all.

Her control over herself was breaking and she was on the verge of bursting into tears when a gloved hand grasped her by the shoulder and turned her to stare into a masked and mustachioed face. “Officer Pardy,” the Captain said in a modulated voice, hiding any emotion underneath those blinking neon teeth. “To my office. Now. I’ll meet you there.”

“But, sir—” Chelsea started.

“Now!”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute in automatic response to the volume of the Captain’s voice—even modulated she could hear it. “Right away, sir.” She marched out, bumping shoulders with the crowd of protectors left in her wake, and stood at attention until the elevator doors closed, cutting her off again from the rest of the world.

The elevator ride was infinite. The solitude was welcome and it elicited a sobbing, sloppy, teary-eyed scene which Chelsea was glad no other human witnessed. She enveloped herself in the cold misery of a life alone, responsible for the life of another. She was out of Hell into a new one, out of the pit and into the frying pan, and yet somehow she managed to bottle it all up inside again by the time the elevator stopped and the doors reopened.

The hall was empty, thank Amaru, and there was no one to question her about what she had done—what she had done. She found solitude in the Captain’s office, too—staring out the wall sized window onto the snowy mountain scene—but she didn’t let her sadness overtake her this time. She maintained control of herself. The Captain could walk in at any moment and Chelsea didn’t need her to see what only the elevator had witnessed.

When the Captain did walk in, a single tear had broken through Chelsea’s defenses. She wiped it away as she turned to salute, and the Captain didn’t even acknowledge the salute—much less the tear, to Chelsea’s relief.

“Fucking shit, Pardy. Fuck—king—shit,” the Captain said, throwing her helmet at the wall and plopping into her desk chair. “What do I have to do?” she yelled out the still closed window at no one.

Chelsea didn’t say a word. She didn’t want to make things worse. The Captain was obviously pissed at what Chelsea had done, and with good reason, too. They had lost an officer in the line of duty on an operation that was supposed to be hush hush. Chelsea was responsible for that and her punishment would no doubt be severe. Hopefully a little less so for the fact that she knew not to defend her heinous failures.

“You have no idea what’s going on out there, Pardy,” the Captain said, turning in her chair to look into Chelsea’s eyes. “Do you?”

“I—uh… No, sir.” Chelsea shook her head. She really didn’t, and now was not the time to pretend like she did.

The Captain grinned, nodding her head slowly. The way her teeth reflected as white as the walls and the snow on the mountain outside seemed to want to impose some meaning on Chelsea but she didn’t know what it was. “Pardy, you’re a good Officer. I hope you know that. That’s why I hate for this to happen to someone such as yourself.”

Chelsea braced herself. Here it came, her punishment for killing Tom and starting the shootout. Even if the Captain never found out it was actually Chelsea who had killed Tom and not the trash that died with him, this was karma taking its due. “I understand, sir,” Chelsea said. “You do what you have to do. As did I.”

The Captain broke into laughter. “I do— Wait— Ho ho ho. Me, Pardy? What did I do besides send you on an impossible mission?”

“I— What, sir? I meant your punishment, sir.”

“Punishment?” The Captain was really laughing now. “Ho ho ho. Pardy. Now— Pardy— Ho ho ho. Punishment for what?”

“Well, for my failed mission, sir. Tom—er—Officer Pardy, sir… He’s dead. I killed— I killed all those Sixers. I—”

Oh ho ho! You kill me, Pardy. Sorry for the ill timed figure of speech, but there’s no better way to say it. What do you think this is, huh? So you killed some Sixers? So what? They had guns, Pardy. You performed your duty and eliminated the threat. The only one who failed is Pardy Two for dying, but how could we punish a dead man? Ho ho ho!”

Chelsea gritted her teeth. Even though it was her who had pulled the trigger that ended Tom’s life—an accident she reminded herself—she didn’t like the flippant manner with which the Captain was treating his demise. Who was she, even as a Captain, to put such little value on Chelsea’s husband’s life?

“If anything, we’ll be giving you a medal of honor, Pardy,” the Captain went on. “And we’ll be giving Pardy Two a posthumous one at that. No, you’ve done well for yourself—and for your son, whose future is looking brighter than ever. But that’s not what I asked you here for.”

Chelsea was speechless. This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t even sure if they had killed the right Sixers, Tom was gone forever, and more than anything, she had a deep sense that the mission was an abject failure. There was no way in this world—or any of them for that matter—that she should be getting praise for what was probably a fireable offence.

“Although there was one little snag in your performance,” the Captain said.

Chelsea scoffed, as if Tom’s death wasn’t snag enough.

“You didn’t get the targets I tasked you with specifically. Though you did manage to take out most of their closest staff. So we got that going for us. Which is nice.”

“I—uh. I don’t understand.”

“Your targets weren’t there, Pardy. You know, the people you were supposed to kill.”

“O—or apprehend, sir.”

The Captain chuckled. “Sure, Pardy. But we see the choice you made, don’t we? Ha ha ho!”

Chelsea didn’t know what to say. She had failed and failed and failed, and the Captain didn’t care one bit.

“No, Pardy, but that’s not what we’re here about. I admire your decision. It was the correct one, the profitable one, and if you stick with me, you’ll see some of those profits. But only if you stick with me.”

“I—sir…” Chelsea didn’t understand. Any of it. She felt worse now for doing what she had done than she had felt when she was actually doing it. Why? What was different? “But Tom— I didn’t get the targets— I—”

“You did your best, Pardy. You did what you could and what you had to do. There’s no question about that. From anyone. You did good well, and I want to ensure that you’re in a position to do it even better in the future. Are you feeling me? It’s a war out there, Pardy. A big one. We’re tight on bodies here in the Force, and you’ve shown us that you have what it takes. So what do you say?”

“I—uh—” Chelsea’s lips stuck together as she tried to speak. Her palms should have been slick but they seemed to dry and crack. The whole world was evaporating around her. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t understand.”

“I’m offering you a promotion, Pardy. I’m offering you a team under your command under my command. I’m offering you the ensured safety of your career here and your Jonah at home. I’m offering you the world on a platinum platter. So, Officer Pardy, what do you say?”

What could she say? “Sir, yes, sir.”

#     #     #

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Come back next week for the next chapter or pick up a full copy of this novel and the previous two in the series through this link. Either way, have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

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 57: Nikola

Another day, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga, and today we rejoin Tillie and Nikola as Nikola’s parents try to convince them both to take on a dangerous mission designed to retrieve vital information about the worlds of Outland. Enjoy the story, and if you want to read the rest of the entire novel right now, pick up a copy through this link. Thanks for following along, dear readers. We do nothing along.

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

LVII. Nikola

“Uh, that’s not really what I had in mind, Dad,” Nikola said, looking to her mom for help. “I don’t know, I thought maybe we’d start on the assembly lines, or in the farms, or something. You know, something a bit more suited to someone without any basic training—no offense Tillie.”

Tillie didn’t respond. She was still staring blankly across the desk at Nikola’s dad.

“Give your American friend some credit,” Nikola’s mom said. “She looks strong and healthy from here. She seems to have put up with capture by those vicious protectors. You can handle it, right, dear?”

Tillie nodded.

Ugh, Mom.” Nikola sighed, looking back to her dad for help now. “Can’t you to just leave her alone for like a day. She’s only just gotten out of that prison. You can’t expect her to have gotten over it already.”

“None of us can say whether she has or not,” Nikola’s dad said. “Only she can decide that for herself. She doesn’t need you speaking for her, you know. Now, American, do you understand what we’re asking of you?”

Tillie still just stared blankly across the desk.

Nikola scoffed. “Her name’s Tillie, Dad. Not American. And no one understands what you’re asking of her. Not even me.”

“We’ve found the linchpin in America’s walls, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “They’ve centralized control of them so much that we can shut down all transportation in one fell swoop. That includes 3D printers.”

“How would they eat?” Tillie finally spoke up, in a quiet, almost croaking voice.

“Excuse me, soldier?” Nikola’s dad said.

“Without printers how will they eat?” Tillie repeated, louder this time.

“The printers won’t be off for too long,” Nikola’s mom said. “You can be sure of that. But by the time they get turned back on, we’ll have a foothold on the inside. We’ll remain there, controlling and monitoring everything, long after they think we’ve gone.” She smiled.

“How long is too long?” Tillie asked. “My dad needs printers to eat, printers to get dressed, printers to feed Mr. Kitty, Hell, he needs printers for everything required to sustain his life. How long will they be off?”

“All of fifteen seconds is what we need,” Nikola’s dad said. “In and out just like that. And you’re gonna give it to us.”

“But why us?” Nikola demanded. “Isn’t there someone else who’s better for the job?”

“Why Tillie, you mean,” Nikola’s mom said. “She’s the key. I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to let you go along, in fact. What do you think, honey?”

“I’m not letting her go without me,” Nikola said.

“If it convinces the American to help,” her dad said, “it might be worth the risk.”

“Yes, but only the—” her mom started.

“Why me?” Tillie demanded.

Everyone turned to stare at her. Maybe she was ready for the mission after all.

“The Scientist, dear,” Nikola’s mom said. “We’ve been following her for some time, actually, trying to find our opening. It wasn’t easy, you know. She practices tight security. But what’s important is that we’ve been following the Scientist, and we’ve found that she’s been following you. Now since she’s already looking for you she won’t be surprised to find you on her doorstep. When she let’s you in you just have to garner enough trust to get near a computer then we can do the rest.”

“That’s it?” Nikola scoffed. “Get near a computer? She doesn’t even have to use it?”

“It doesn’t even have to be turned on,” Nikola’s dad said with a big smile. “Just wear this transceiver and get near the thing.” He held up a silver bracelet, grinning wide and proud of the little gadget—he always did love his electronic gadgets. “No one will even know you’ve done a thing.”

Nikola took the bracelet out of his hands so her dad would sit down and stop pushing it on Tillie who seemed to be lost in her own little world.

“So how do we get there?” Nikola asked, stalling for time since Tillie obviously needed more to work out how she felt about the situation. “To the Scientist.”

“That’s the tricky part,” Nikola’s dad said.

“And it’s not we yet,” her mom added.

“Why don’t you tell them, honey,” her dad said. “This is more of your area.”

“As I said,” her mom went on, “we’ve been following the Scientist following your Tillie ever since we helped her escape from that prison.”

Nikola couldn’t tell whether it was a cough or a scoff, but Tillie made a noise.

“Beyond that,” Nikola’s mom went on, not noticing the noise or ignoring it—probably the latter. “We’ve been leading the Scientist on a wild goose chase—if you’ll forgive the archaic saying.”

“She means we’re making the Scientist think we took you someplace where we didn’t,” Nikola’s dad clarified.

“The plan is to let her actually find you,” Nikola’s mom went on. “She’ll take you back to her lab, and then it’d be up to you to find the computer.”

“And if she doesn’t take us to her lab?” Nikola asked, not confident in this flimsy plan even though she was definitely going along with it if Tillie decided that she wanted to. “What if the protectors greet us instead?”

“They won’t,” her dad said. “And the Scientist will. She’s smarter and faster than those protectors, and she’ll want to protect your American from them. She’s got something in store for you, girl.” He chuckled, nodding at Tillie.

Nikola scoffed. “Dad!”

“And when are we supposed to do this?” Tillie asked.

Nikola’s mom smiled. “As soon as you can, dear. The sooner the better. We have an operation set up at fourteen hundred hours—that’s…two hours from now—but any later than that and we’ll have to find another suitable transfer point in the next two weeks or so.”

Tillie took the bracelet from Nikola’s hand and strapped it on her wrist. “And I just stand close to the computer?” she asked. “I don’t have to turn this on or anything?”

Nikola’s dad chuckled. “That’s my girl. And no. We’ll control everything from here. You just get us in range.”

“I’ll do it,” Tillie said. “Just tell me when and where.”

“Great!” Nikola’s dad stood and clapped his hands together. “Nikola, take our American friend to get some proper mission attire then meet us in the Central Depot at fourteen hundred hours. You’re doing a great service to all the World’s beings, dear girl. We thank you for that.” He grabbed Tillie by the hand to shake it vigorously while pulling her up out of her seat.

“Alright, Dad. We’ll be there,” Nikola said, prying Tillie’s hand away from his and showing her out the door. “Don’t worry.”

They didn’t talk again until they had traversed the halls and stairwells to Nikola’s room where she said, “You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, right?”

“What? Wear proper mission attire?” Tillie asked with a little chuckle. “Good. Because I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway.”

“No,” Nikola said, shaking her head. “I mean you don’t have to go on this mission at all if you don’t want to. My parents can’t make you do it. No one can make you do anything here.”

“I want to,” Tillie said. “Trust me. It’ll be good to get back home anyway. Even if I won’t really be home for good.”

“Yeah, sure,” Nikola said. “I guess.” Though she wasn’t sure.

“Trust me, Nikola. I’ll be alright. There’s nothing to worry about. Now let’s go get some more of that free food before we go on this mission. I’m starving.”

“Yeah, I bet.” Nikola laughed. “The ants ate all yours earlier.”

#     #     #

They met Nikola’s parents in the Central Hub. Not really, though. After riding the bullet proof glass elevator down into nowhere they were probably far far away from the People’s France. They were in a tiny room with cement walls and a linoleum floor. Nothing else. Just the four of them staring at each other.

“Now you’re sure you want to do this,” Nikola said. “They have no control over you. You can still say no if you want to.”

Tillie nodded.

“And you have the transceiver?” Nikola’s dad asked.

Tillie held up her arm with the bracelet still attached.

“The Scientist might not take you directly to the world with her computer in it,” Nikola’s mom said. “She probably won’t. That’s likely to be a heavily secured area. So you two are going to have to do whatever you can to get her to bring you there.”

Nikola scoffed. “Like what?”

“Ask her about the walls,” Nikola’s dad said. “How they work and all that. Pretend like you don’t believe in them. She’s a scientist, she’ll want to teach you, prove them to you. She won’t be able to resist. I promise.”

“And what if she never takes us to the right place?” Nikola asked. “How are we supposed to get back home if you don’t have control over the system?”

“We’ll get you back,” her mom said. “We’ve done it once before, haven’t we?”

Nikola scoffed. “Barely.”

“With perfect timing is how I like to think of it,” her dad said with a smile. “How are you feeling, American?”

Tillie hadn’t spoken since they had left the food cart for the Central Hub. She fidgeted now, looking for the right thing to say. “Ready,” she finally did.

“Good,” Nikola’s mom said with a smile. “Your ride’s almost here. We’ll send you along to the alley then you wait for our signal there. Good luck, girls. The solidarity of our people rides with you.”

Nikola and Tillie stepped onto the elevator in silence. This was a different elevator than the one they had ridden in on. It was all steel—walls, ceiling, and floor—instead of glass and linoleum. The doors slid closed, hiding her parents from view, and Nikola breathed a sigh of anticipation. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked again. She hated sounding like a broken record, but she had to be sure they weren’t taking advantage of Tillie.

“There’s no turning back now,” Tillie said, and the floor fell out from underneath them.

When the elevator stopped and the doors slid open Nikola took a deep whiff of the world around her. She could smell America. There was something in the air that made it different. A camouflaged French revolutionary waved them out of the elevator and into an alley where they were left to wait for the next leg of the trip. Nikola paced back and forth from wall to wall as they did while Tillie stood still, staring off into the distance at nothing, lost in thought again.

“This is the last chance to turn back,” Nikola interrupted her revery.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

The revolutionary—who Nikola didn’t recognize somehow, she thought she knew everyone on the base if not anyone who’d be on this mission—shushed Nikola and waved for her to get closer to where he was hiding behind a dumpster. “Fat chance,” he said. “No turning back now. So shut up and get over here. You’re endangering the mission.”

Nikola stopped pacing. “Endangering how?” she asked, looking up and down the alley then back at the pushy soldier. “There’s no one even out here.”

“Not now there isn’t,” the soldier said in a whisperyell. “But someone could walk by at any minute. Now get over here.” He waved to her again.

“You have no control over me,” Nikola said, standing her ground. “I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m not trying to control you,” the soldier said, getting flustered. “I just want to ensure—” He held a hand to his ear. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter anymore. Your ride’s here. Follow me.” He jumped up onto the balls of his feet and made his way down the alley in a crouch.

Nikola tried to make a joke about it as they followed the crouching tiger, but Tillie wasn’t interested. She didn’t look when Nikola tried to tap her on the arm to get her attention, and she didn’t even grin or crack a smile, much less chuckle or laugh, when Tillie told the joke anyway. Maybe it was time to get serious after all. Nikola set her mind on doing just that, falling into line behind the solemn parade led by a crouching madman.

The soldier stopped in front of a public elevator a block and a half away and looked surprised when he turned to find Tillie and Nikola walking with a normal stride, not trying to hide themselves at all. “Get down,” he demanded, waving them toward the elevator. “Do you want to be seen?”

“I thought we were trying to get caught,” Nikola said, looking around to find the streets as empty as they had been the entire time. “Isn’t that the whole point of this operation?”

“You have to get caught by the right person. If the protectors get you, we’re fucked. Now get in.” The elevator doors slid open and the soldier pushed Nikola in.

“Alright, shit,” Nikola said, regaining her balance. “I’ll remember that.”

Tillie stepped into the elevator. “Door closed,” she said.

“You don’t even know my name,” the soldier said as the doors slid closed between them. “Or the code!” he added, trying, but failing, to get his fingers inside and pry the door open.

“Shows him,” Nikola said, chuckling. “We should let him stew for a while before we open them up again.”

“We don’t need the code,” Tillie said, staring straight ahead at the closed doors.

“What do you mean? How are we supposed to get to the Scientist?”

“I already know the Scientist,” Tillie said. “Well, I know of her. Emma knew her.”

“Emma?”

“Yes, Emma.” Tillie turned to Nikola and smiled. It was an eerie smile, more of a smirk, like no grin Nikola had ever seen on Tillie’s face before. She looked almost mad. “Emma was working with the Scientist. The Scientist gave us the keys we needed to destroy the walls between Five and Six. We did that, Nikola.”

No.” Nikola shook her head. It couldn’t be true. She had seen the intelligence reports on the operation. It was a false flag attack put on by the Scientist in order to distract the masses from her true plan. It had nothing to do with Outland Two. It—

“Yes. Emma, the Scientist, and I were all working together. There’s no way I’m about to sabotage everything we’ve worked so hard to build. And I’m not about to let you sabotage it, either.”

“No—but— She isn’t working with us,” Nikola pleaded, trying to knock some sense into the ignorant American before it was too late. “She holds their walls up for them. Without her the walls would crumble and our job would be so much easier. You can’t be working with her. It goes against your interests.”

“Without her Five and Six would still be separated,” Tillie said, sneering. “Without her I wouldn’t be in this fight to help you at all. Without her none of this would be possible, and I won’t let you ruin it now.”

“No. Tillie, listen—”

“The struggle itself is enough to fill one’s heart,” Tillie said and the floor fell out from underneath them.

“Tillie, please,” Nikola begged. “You can still do the right thing. Or if you want, give me the bracelet. I’ll do it and you won’t have to feel any guilt at all. But don’t ruin this opportunity for us. Please.”

Tillie scoffed. “Giving you the gun to shoot for me would be exactly the same as pulling the trigger myself.” The elevator stopped. “We’re here anyway. Let’s see what the Scientist has to say about it.”

The elevator doors slid open to reveal a short empty hall. Tillie stepped into it right away but Nikola hesitated. Maybe she should just stay in the elevator and leave Tillie to deal with the Scientist, after all. By the sounds of it, Tillie wasn’t going to cooperate and Nikola would have a hard time finding a way back to the People’s France as a result. She knew she couldn’t do that, though, that she still had to try to complete her mission no matter how hopeless it looked, so she followed Tillie out into the hall and the elevator doors slid closed behind her.

“Now what?” Nikola asked Tillie who was slowing down, looking a little less sure of herself.

“Well there’s only one door,” Tillie said, pointing. “So there’s really no choice, is there?”

As she said it, the door opened and in stepped a tall, dark faced woman with a severe look about her. She was wearing a pinstripe pantsuit which only seemed to make her legs look longer as she took a few strides to cross the short hall and stand in front of them with a sneer. This couldn’t be the Scientist, could it? She didn’t look like she’d be willing to cooperate at all if she was, so Nikola certainly hoped not.

“Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked her outright, seeming to stand taller as she said the words.

The woman didn’t answer, though. She just stared blankly down at Tillie, not even sparing a second glance for Nikola who didn’t regret that fact.

“We’re looking for the Scientist,” Tillie persisted. “It’s urgent. Can you take us to her?”

“Urgent, huh?” the woman finally said, and the deep baritone of her voice took Nikola off guard. Nikola almost let out a gasp but managed to hold her silence as the woman went on. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“W—We— Who are you?” Tillie stammered.

The woman chuckled and it sounded eerier than her voice. “I’ll be asking the questions here, girl. You trespassed on my property. Now who are you?”

“Tillie Manager, ma’am.” Tillie swallowed some spit, making enough noise for Nikola to hear it. “I need to—”

“And your friend, Tillie Manager, does she have a name, too?”

“Nikkie—” Tillie started but Nikola elbowed her to shut her up.

“Nikkie Manager,” Nikola said. “Who are you?”

The woman chuckled. “She’s a feisty one, isn’t she? No wonder you brought her along with you.”

“We need to see the Scientist,” Tillie said, a hint of anxiety slipping into her voice. “Where is she?”

“And what do you need to see the Scientist for? She’s a busy woman, you know.”

“We—I have information,” Tillie corrected herself. “It’s about an attack. I’m with Emma.”

“Emma who?”

Tillie tried to speak but nothing would come out. Nikola didn’t know Emma’s last name and she wouldn’t be surprised if Tillie didn’t know it either. Neither of them knew what to say now. At least Tillie hadn’t given away their mission yet. There was still a chance it could be a success.

“And you expect me to trust you?” the woman said, chuckling. “I’d be in my right mind to kick the both of—” The door opened behind her—interrupting her speech—and a big metal arm with a too human hand rolled out into the hall on giant tires. “Popeye,” the woman said, “not now. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

The hand waved then turned this way and that, as if it were trying to communicate something.

“Yes, they’re here,” the woman said. “Can’t you see them right there?”

The arm did another, slightly different, dance in response.

“I’ll bring them in shortly,” the woman said. “I’m just having a little bit of fun before I do. I am still allowed to have fun, aren’t I?”

The mechanical arm waved her away and rolled back into the room it had come out of.

“W—Was that—” Tillie said. “The Scientist?”

The woman chuckled. “Creator, no,” she said, shaking her head and wiping a tear from her eye. “We’d all be in a lot worse position if that no brains arm was the Scientist. Now come on. It looks like she’s ready for you.”

They followed the woman through the door at the end of the hall and into a huge office room with a giant oak desk, a circle of big fluffy chairs around a few side tables, and a wall-sized window looking out onto a vast, green wilderness scene. There were no computers, of course—just Nikola’s luck—only a white haired old woman in a white coat sitting in one of the puffy chairs and the big mechanical arm washing the giant window.

“Come in, come in,” the woman in the white coat said, standing from her seat and showing Tillie and Nikola to two of their own before retaking hers. “Have a seat, please. We have so much to talk about.”

“Are— Are you the Scientist?” Tillie asked, taking her seat. Nikola took a second to stare out the window at the rolling hills before sitting, too.

“I am, dear,” the woman in the white coat said. “And you already met Rosalind.” She indicated the tall scary woman who had received them at the elevator. “And of course Popeye.” The big mechanical arm waved then went back to washing the window. “And you two are?”

“I’m Tillie,” Tillie said, not choosing to speak for Nikola this time.

“Yes, Tillie,” the Scientist said. “I know that one already, actually. Your friend here, however…” She lowered her eyes at Nikola.

“I’m just a friend,” Nikola said. “No names needed.”

“Ah. I see,” the Scientist said, tapping her chin. “I can’t make you do anything, now, but I’m afraid I’d be more comfortable if I had a name I could call you by.” The Scientist waited for a response, but when it became clear to everyone that Nikola wasn’t giving any the Scientist said, “Have it your way, then. Friend it is. So, Tillie and Friend, how can I help y’all?”

“I need to—” Tillie started, but Nikola knew it was her last chance to interject before Tillie ruined everything.

“You could stop propping up the ownership class for starters,” she blurted out without thinking.

The Scientist gave Nikola a death stare. Rosalind, or whatever her name was—sitting at the desk and playing cards with herself—scoffed. The sound of it made Nikola feel a little more confident and seemed to perturb the Scientist who shot a glance in Rosalind’s direction. “Friend,” the Scientist went on, “if you’re going to talk to me like that, I’d rather we were on a first name basis.”

Nikola scoffed, almost perfectly mimicking the sound of Rosalind’s and surprising herself because of it. “Sure thing, the Scientist.” She held up air quotes around the woman’s “name”. “My name’s Friend, the Friend. Nice to meet you.” She stood and held out a hand for the Scientist to shake.

Rosalind chuckled at the desk, and this time the Scientist did more than shoot her a glance. “Don’t you think there’s a better place for you to play your cards,” she snapped.

“Not if I want to hear what y’all are talking about,” Rosalind said with a snicker.

“That’s exactly my point,” the Scientist said, turning back to Nikola and composing herself. “Now, Friend, where were we?”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Rosalind grumbled, making an effort to take a long time picking up the cards. “C’mon, Popeye. We’re not wanted here.” She waved the arm along to follow her slowly out of the room.

“Well…” the Scientist said, raising an eyebrow and trying to ignore Rosalind’s loud exit. “Go on, Friend.”

Nikola hesitated. She had lost track of the conversation. It wasn’t her turn to talk, was it? The ball was in the Scientist’s court. She took too long and Tillie ended up picking it up and running with it, “We wanted to tell you something.”

“No, that’s not it,” Nikola said, cutting the Scientist off before she could respond. “You were about to tell us your name. It’s your turn to offer up some information. You got Tillie’s name first, now you give us yours. Tit for tat. Your move.”

The Scientist smiled. She seemed to be enjoying this now, which didn’t sit well with Nikola. “I already knew Tillie’s name,” she said. “No new information was exchanged there.” Nikola tried to speak up but the Scientist raised a hand to stop her. “But. I will give you the benefit of the doubt by going first in an exchange of names, Friend.”

Fine,” Nikola said. “Go ahead then. I’m waiting…”

The Scientist made her wait just a little bit longer, that wry wrinkly grin on her face. After a few more moments of silence, letting Nikola stew in it, she said, “My name is Dr. Haley.”

“And…” Nikola said, motioning her on. “Dr. Haley… What? Not just a first name basis. A full name basis.”

The Scientist started to squirm in her seat a bit. Nikola scooted up to the edge of hers. Tillie did, too, apparently not as set on thwarting the mission as she had first seemed. “Now that wasn’t part of the deal,” the Scientist said, fidgeting still. “A name for a name, Friend. Now what’s yours?”

“You have my last name already,” Tillie cut in, and Nikola knew she had won the conversation. “You apparently knew it before I even told you.”

“Yes, well…” the Scientist said, looking for some escape, but she was trapped.

“Well what is your last name?” Nikola asked, confident the game was done.

“I—Well… Dr. Haley Walker,” the Scientist said—Dr. Walker said.

“Walker?” Tillie said, eyes wide. She looked to Nikola. “You knew, didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know you were working with her,” Nikola said. “We didn’t know. We didn’t know Emma was, either. If we had known, we wouldn’t have gone through all this. I promise you that.”

“Who are you, Friend?” the Scientist asked, standing up. “And how do you know so much?”

Nikola laughed. “It’s not so great being on the other side of the information divide, is it?”

“You’re related to Lord Walker, aren’t you?” Tillie said, her attention turned to the Scientist still. “That’s why you keep his walls up for him.”

“The former Lord,” the Scientist said. “Huey’s Lord now. But, no. I keep the walls up because we need them, child. How else would we eat? Our population is just too big. The 3D printers are necessary. That’s how you’ve gotten everything you need to live since you were a baby, you know. That’s how your father lives. None of us would be here now without those fields, and the second they go down is the second society crumbles.”

No.” Tillie shook her head. “But you— Emma told me that you gave us the entry code. You helped us tear down the walls between Five and Six.”

“One wall between two worlds,” the Scientist said. “That puny thing was causing more harm than good. If we could only get these riots under control, the economy would be running better than ever without it.”

“You hear that?” Nikola said to Tillie rather than the Scientist. “The economy. That’s the only thing she cares about. The Invisible Hand.”

“Oh, no.” The Scientist shook her head. “This hand won’t be invisible. It will be the rubber gloved hand of a scientist. My hand.” She held one up to underline the point. “With the help of the robots, of course, thanks to the very generous Mr. Walker who was cooperative enough to trade all control over the production of androids to me. Now all that remains to be seen is how cooperative you, my new friends, are willing to be?”

“Y—You’re one of them,” Tillie said, shaking her head and standing from her seat. “You’re no different from the people you sent us to fight.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, dear,” the Scientist said, standing to meet her gaze. “I’m very different from them. I’ll be able to use the walls and the robots together to provide goods and services more efficiently than ever. We’ve done it, Tillie. We’re finally in control. Everything you and Emma worked so hard for is finally coming true.”

Tillie scoffed, stepping away from the Scientist. Nikola stood and stepped between them, as if her physical presence could maintain the mental rift she had seeded with her words. “Don’t listen to her,” Nikola said.

“You’re no different,” Tillie said. “More of the same. You sit here benefitting from our exploitation just as much as those fat owners do, comfortable in your too big office with your too big view, literally mending their walls for your profit. If anything, you’re worse than they are. Without you, they wouldn’t know how to put the walls that keep us apart back together again.”

“No.” The Scientist shook her head. “Those walls do more than keep us apart,” she said. “Much more. You can’t see that yet—which is why you want to tear them all down at once—but the unintended consequences would be disastrous. You’re too young, too inexperienced to make a decision of this caliber, and you have no idea what you’d be in for if you tried.”

Nikola scoffed. “And you’re too old to change your mind. You’ve shown us nothing, told us nothing to convince us. What evidence do you have? Why should we believe you? We shouldn’t even be here listening to you right now. This is ridiculous. C’mon Tillie. Let’s go.” She grabbed Tillie’s surprisingly compliant arm and dragged her toward the door. While Tillie didn’t resist—she seemed too shocked to even think, by the look on her face—-the Scientist did everything she could, short of grabbing Tillie’s other arm and having a tug of war, to stop them. They were out in the hall—the Scientist still begging them to stay—when Tillie finally woke up to the world around her and shrugged Nikola off.

“You’re a bad person,” she said, turning to the Scientist. “You should have told us what we were really fighting for instead of keeping us in the dark like that.”

The Scientist shook her head. “I told you all I could, child. I’ll show you more now if you’ll stay.”

“No,” Tillie said, and she turned to get on the elevator.

Nikola got on, too, and told the doors to close behind her so the Scientist couldn’t beg anymore. “Take us home,” she said, happy with the outcome of the mission even if her parents would call it a failure, and when the elevator fell and stopped and the doors opened, they were not in the People’s France. They were nowhere Nikola had ever seen before in a world that seemed impossible.

#     #     #

< LVI. Mr. Walker     [Table of Contents]     LVIII. Laura >

There it is, dear readers, Nikola’s third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you return to read the rest of story. If you just can’t wait, though, don’t forget that you can pick up a full copy of the novel right here.

Thanks again. Have a great weekend. And always remember, we do nothing alone.