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 51: Laura

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

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

L. Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura chuckled, not sure what she was laughing at.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does this have to do with me?”

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

“No, but you said—”

“What did I say?”

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

If you did something for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura scoffed. “Sure. Whatever.”

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

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

“Who is it?” Laura asked.

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

The door opened and in came Haley followed by—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura nodded. Jorah nodded more emphatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But why us?” Laura asked.

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

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

“But the script sucks,” Laura complained.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you two talking about?” Jorah complained.

“It’s not gonna fix anything, though,” Laura said. “All that buy human-made only crap. It doesn’t change a thing. Everything just costs more so we get less anyway. That’s never going to change unless the entire system changes.”

“It might not solve any of your problems,” Lord Walker said, chuckling. “Other than your little ankle monitor fiasco, of course. But it will certainly do wonders for mine.”

“But, sir,” Jorah said, looking confused. “Human-made only? I’m—I mean, aren’t you— Don’t you—”

“Yes, Jorah, my boy. You heard it right.” Lord Walker laughed, clearly enjoying himself.

“But you own the vast majority of android production plants,” Jorah said. “Why?”

“For now I do,” Lord Walker said, serious faced again. “We haven’t finished the movie yet, though. We haven’t disseminated it to the masses. But I’ll take care of my investments in due time, my boy. I assure you of that. Now you stop worrying about my finances and start preparing for your roll. Haley will make sure you have a copy of the script.”

“I—but—” Jorah hunched over in his seat, giving up. He shook his head. “Yes, sir,” he said, defeated. “When do I start?”

“Now that’s the spirit,” Lord Walker said, clapping his hands together. “I’ve booked a studio for you all starting tomorrow morning, bright and early. You’ll get the shooting schedule along with your script. Is there anything else you need?”

“No, sir,” Jorah said, shaking his head and missing the characteristic twinkle in his eye.

“Good. And as for you, sweetheart.” Lord Walker turned to Laura. “I need you to go tell your crew that you found a replacement for Emir then give them the new shooting schedule. We have a deadline, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said, nodding. “I’ll tell them, sir, but they may not like it. Especially Cohen and the shooting schedule.”

Nonsense,” Lord Walker said, waving her concerns away. “I’m sure they’ll love to have Jorah on board, and as for the rest, they’ll like it or they’ll never work in any business ever again. Ho ho ho!”

“I—uh… I’ll tell them, sir.” Laura shrugged. What else could she do?

“Good,” Lord Walker said. “And while you’re at it, get me in touch with that script writer of yours. Have him call me. I have some projects I’d like him to start working on right away.”

Laura sighed. It was sounding more and more like Lord Walker was planning on stringing her along, never to remove her ankle monitor, just as she had expected. “I’ll try,” she said. “But we haven’t been able to get in touch with him for some time now. And besides, he only really edited the script. Cohen’s the only one of us who’s met the original writer.”

Interesting,” Lord Walker said, tapping his chins. “Well have this Cohen call me then. That way I can find the writer and straighten out any concerns your director has about the new shooting schedule in one fell swoop. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, sir,” Laura said. She’d love to lay some of this burden on that asshole Cohen. Maybe then he’d finally pull some of his own weight. “I’d be happy to. Anything else?”

“That’s all, dear,” Lord Walker said. “For both of you. Now go get some rest and prepare. You both have important work in front of you tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Jorah and Laura said at the same time, standing to follow Haley out of the big oak door, down the hall, and to the elevator. Laura stepped aside to let Jorah into the elevator first.

“I can’t believe I have to do this,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Dressing room.” The doors slid closed then opened half a minute later to an empty elevator.

“It was nice to meet you,” Laura said when she had stepped into the elevator.

Haley blushed. “You, too,” she said, curtsying. “Good luck.”

The elevator doors slid closed and Laura said, “Indywood.”

The floor fell out from underneath her and she shook her head, still unable to believe anything form the last few hours. First, she actually did rig the lights to fall on Emir, which she had never thought she would do, not even for freedom. Then she met the flabby fat face behind the voice that had been pulling her strings—and how many others’?—for so long. And finally, she met Jorah Baldwin, who—now that Russ Logo was out of the picture—was the biggest actor in all the worlds. Not only that, she found out that she would be working on a film with him.

The elevator doors opened and Laura pushed out past the line of people to vomit in an alley around the corner. Saying it all at once like that made her life almost unbearable to think about. She needed a strong drink—and fast—in order to get the taste of vomit out of her mouth and calm her nerves so she hurried to the bar.

Cohen, Jen, and even Emily were all at one of the normal tables. Guy was still nowhere to be found—she wondered if the protectors finally took him to be tortured like she had tried to warn him would happen—and Steve was presumably still taking care of Emir. Laura went straight to the bar without acknowledging the crew—who were deep in conversation and didn’t seem to notice her anyway—to order a fireball and a Suburban. She took the shot at the bar—not taking it in one gulp but swishing it around in her mouth first to get rid of the barf aftertaste—and thanked the bartender. She needed that.

She carried the Suburban over to the crew’s table and patted Cohen on the back as she sat down. “What’s up?”

“Whoa!” Cohen screamed, jumping from his seat. “Fuck. You scared the shit out of me. Don’t sneak around like that.”

Emily giggled. “You might wanna change your underwear, then.”

“Laura,” Jen said. “When did you get here?”

Laura shrugged, taking a big gulp of her drink. “I don’t know. Just now.”

“And where the fuck have you been?” Cohen demanded, still fuming. “We’ve all been here furiously brainstorming some way to save this production. We’ve got a deadline, you know, and a shit ton of scenes Emir was supposed to lead.”

“I know more than you could imagine,” Laura said under her breath.

“What was that?” Cohen asked, holding a hand to his ear. “Why don’t you speak the fuck up so everyone can hear you?”

Laura had had enough. What did it matter anyway? Cohen wasn’t in charge anymore, whether he liked it or not—whether the entire crew liked it or not. That was just the way the world worked and they would all have to get used to it.

I said, I know more than you could imagine,” Laura repeated.

Daaaaamn,” Emily said, snapping her fingers. “You tell him, girl.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Cohen demanded.

“It means we have a new shooting schedule,” Laura said. “We have new deadlines to worry about that you don’t know about. It means that I know more than you could imagine.”

In yo face,” Emily said.

“Wait, what?” Jen said.

I’m the director,” Cohen said. “I’ll decide the shooting schedules. Nothing has changed until you consult me about it. You got that?”

Laura scoffed. “So y’all found a replacement for Emir, then?”

Cohen looked around the table at blank faces. “Well, no,” he said. “But—”

I have,” Laura said, grinning. “And let me just say that the replacement will probably be better than the real thing.”

Sure.” Cohen scoffed. “You found someone better than Emir who will work for nothing. I doubt that.”

Laura nodded, letting them stew a bit longer.

“Well, who is it?” Emily asked, unable to contain her excitement.

“Jorah Baldwin.”

The entire table, save Laura, laughed.

“Yeah, right,” Cohen said.

“Shit, girl.” Emily chuckled. “You had me goin’ for a minute there.”

Sure,” Jen said, giving a thumbs up. “Nice story. You trying to become a writer?”

“Laugh now if you want to,” Laura said, “but you won’t be tomorrow. You’ll be stupefied probably. That’s when we start shooting. The studio’s booked and it’s big enough for any scene. Look, I’ll show you.” She pulled out her phone and sent them all the shooting schedule.

“Well, this scheduling receipt looks legit,” Cohen said after taking a moment to investigate it. “But you can’t expect me to believe you got Jorah Baldwin to agree to work on this project for free.”

“Has he even read the script?” Jen asked.

“No, I don’t think he has,” Laura said. “But he’ll be there.”

“But— But how?” Cohen asked, still searching through the schedule. “How could you schedule all this? When have you ever met Jorah Baldwin?”

“I didn’t schedule it,” Laura said. “The investor did. And I met Jorah today. He’ll be there. I guarantee.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Emily said, bouncing up and down in her seat. “We’re actually going to get to work with Jorah Baldwin.”

“An investor, huh?” Cohen said. “I’d like to meet this person.”

“Well that’s good,” Laura said, sending him Lord Walker’s contact information. “Because while you probably won’t be able to meet with him in person, he does want to speak with you before tomorrow. I just sent you the number.”

“Lord Walker?” Cohen said, checking the message again. “The Lord Walker? You can’t be serious.”

“Oh. My. Fortuna,” Emily said. “He’s like the richest producer in all of existence.”

“Really?” Jen said.

“I’m serious,” Laura said. “Give him a call and see for yourself, Cohen. He’s how we got Jorah.”

“Alright, one second.” Cohen lifted a finger and went outside to make the call. He was only gone for a few minutes, in which Jen and Emily grilled Laura about Jorah’s appearance and demeanor, before he came back in with a big smile on his face and sat at the table.

“So?” Jen said.

“Is it real?” Emily asked.

Laura just nodded.

“It’s a go,” Cohen said. “Six AM tomorrow. Expect Jorah. This is the real deal.”

Emily squealed, Jen gasped, and Laura breathed a sigh of relief to have some of the burden off her shoulders.

#     #     #

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

So there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you’re enjoying the story, and I hope you come back for more next week. Until then, have a great weekend and have a great week besides that. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 45: Anna

Hello again, dear readers. Before I introduce today’s chapter I have some good news for y’all. Yesterday I received the Murder in “Utopia,, audio files for my final approval and the full audio book should be going live in the next week or two. Yay!

If you can’t tell, I’m really excited about this one. I think the voice actor I chose is fantastic and I’m sure the final product will live up to my expectations. So if you’re as excited as I am to hear that finalized audio book–about a psychiatrist and a priest dealing with a bunch of murderers in “utopia”–subscribe to my email newsletter right here and you’ll not only be alerted first when the book is published, you’ll also receive an exclusive chance to win the audio book in your inbox when that release is announced.

But that’s enough about Murder in “Utopia,, for today. Let’s move on to the 45th chapter of the Infinite Limits story, chapter three of Dividing by Ø, with Anna of the Human Family. Anna, Rosa, and their Family are tired of relying on the protectors, who certainly aren’t there to protect anyone from Outland Five or Six, so they’re taking matters into their own hands. Read on here to find out what happens next, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy–or leave a review–of the book on Amazon if you want to support further releases in the Infinite Limits series and beyond.

Thanks as always, dear readers. Enjoy.

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

XLV. Anna

In her tiny little kitchen, it was a pleasure to cook breakfast—a pleasure not many people knew how to enjoy, sure, but a much needed diversion in these tumultuous times nonetheless.

Rosa was off in her study, no doubt. She always woke so much earlier than Anna and set to work straight away. Anna couldn’t do that, though. She had to ease into her day, get prepared for it, test the water with her toe before diving in. And what better way to prepare for the day than to cook and eat a hearty breakfast? This particular breakfast was one of the heartiest in her repertoire. She had already grated the sweet potatoes—specifically chosen to provide as much energy as possible for the day’s inevitable drainage—and pan fried them along with the sausage and bacon before that. She had it all in the wok now, with some diced bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes—already sauteed—when she added a dozen eggs and set the resultant slop to cooking over the gas stove’s heat.

The energy was going to be needed, that was for sure. No. Maybe that wasn’t quite right. The energy was there already, no doubt about that. An outlet was what they needed. The residents of Five and Six were all hot kinetic molecules, bouncing against one another and the walls that were put there to contain them—walls which did contain them, for the most part, but not for much longer. With so many molecules absorbing so much energy in such a small space, it was only a matter of time before some of them found a seam to escape through—or created one themselves. That was the natural order of things.

When all the eggs in the wok had solidified—changing phase from liquid to solid thanks to the kinetic energy they had absorbed from the stove top—Anna turned the burner off and left the frittatas to congeal. When it came to cooking, like many things in life, Anna knew that you had to let things cool down a bit before you could really enjoy the work you had done.

With breakfast cooked, she made her way to Rosa’s office—their office, really, since there was only one in the entire Family Home, but Rosa claimed it as her own because she used it most often. Rosa was there, of course, behind her desk, scribbling furiously on some notepad, just as Anna had expected.

Ahem.” Anna cleared her throat. “Breakfast’s ready, dear.”

Rosa scribbled a few more lines then looked up at Anna absently. “Oh—uh—I’m sorry. What was that?”

“Breakfast,” Anna said, crossing around the desk to massage Rosa’s shoulders. “You need your energy for the long day.”

Ahhh,” Rosa groaned, reacting to Anna’s fingers. “That feels so good.”

“So will some food in your stomach,” Anna said, really digging into Rosa’s muscles. Rosa let out a little yelp that was tinged with pain and pleasure at the same time, a result of the satisfying, painful release of lactic acid build up in her muscles. “I made frittatas,” Anna went on, “the perfect start to an important day.”

“They don’t get much more important than this one, do they?” Rosa stood from the chair to embrace Anna and kiss her.

“No,” Anna said, giggling as she caught her breath. “They don’t. So come on.” She took Rosa’s hand and led her out to the kitchen to sit her in one of the bar stools. “So,” Anna said as she loaded a plate and set it in front of Rosa, “how do you feel?”

Aaaaahhhh.” Rosa yawned, stretching her arms as wide as they would go. “Tired.”

Anna scoffed. “That’s it?”

“I don’t know,” Rosa said between bites, using her fork more like a shovel than an eating utensil. “What did you want me to say?”

Anna shrugged. “I don’t want you to say anything. I want you to say how you feel. It’s a big day today. I thought you would think so, too.”

“Of course I do.” Rosa chuckled, spitting some chewed up slop onto her plate. “But every day is big with our Family. Every day I put everything on the line for our prosperity. Today’s no different. You know that about me.”

Anna cracked a smile. She did know that about Rosa. It was one of the main reasons she loved her: the woman’s indomitable will and incessant optimism. Today really was just another day to her. The inevitable success of the Human Family was just as inevitable as it had always been. Whether they were simply pulling new members one by one, or taking the biggest risk that either of them had ever taken, it made no difference to Rosa, the Human Family would overcome all odds.

“I’m glad to see you’re so confident,” Anna said, kissing Rosa again.

“And why wouldn’t I be?” Rosa asked with a wry grin. “It remains impossible for the Human Family to fail as long as we stand united.”

“But this?” Anna asked, breaking the embrace and taking a step back. “Are you sure it’s the only way? Aren’t the protectors humans, too?”

Rosa scoffed. “You saw what they did to us, honey. When they reacted like that, they showed us that they aren’t human. They aren’t a part of my Family at least. No one who crosses us like that could ever be.”

“I don’t know,” Anna shook her head.

“What then? You’d have us do nothing? Should we just let them murder us en masse again the next time they come around?”

“No,” Anna said. “We have to protect ourselves.”

“Exactly.” Rosa smiled. “We have to protect ourselves. We can’t expect the protectors to do it for us. Our only other option would be to give up on the Family altogether, to get back under their radar by doing nothing to fight back against them. You don’t want that, do you?”

“No way,” Anna said. “Of course not. Not an option.”

Good.” Rosa kissed her on the forehead. “Then why don’t you go on downstairs and get the consoles running. I have a few more things to tend to here, but I’ll be along to help as soon as I can.”

Anna chuckled as she left the room. “Sure thing, dear,” she said, waving and closing the office door behind her. Rosa wouldn’t be down until it was time to go through the rings and Anna knew it. There was no point for her to be. There was nothing Rosa could do in that basement to help prepare for what was to come. She would only get in the way. Anna was one of only a handful of people in all the worlds who knew how to operate that particular model of transport ring, using the control consoles she herself had designed and built, and that handful didn’t include Rosa. Rosa’s strengths lied in other areas—areas where Anna was weak—so it made no difference to Anna  whether Rosa tried to help or not. In fact, it was better if she didn’t.

The transport rings were stored in the basement of the Family Home. Where there used to be piles and piles of boxes containing various supplies—mostly paper and drawing utensils, but a little bit of food here and there, interspersed with the occasional clipboard, there could never be enough clipboards—there were now six giant rings lining the walls and the two consoles in the middle of the otherwise empty room.

Anna’s fingers moved over the consoles’ controls with the deft speed of a practiced musician. The buttons and levers were her piano keys. The music she made was only audible in the clicking and swiping as she worked, but her composition was performed in a medium far different from that of sound. The sounds were only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest of Anna’s symphony spread deep, submerged in the darkness of nameless dimensions, shaping and reshaping her very plane of existence.

This was when Anna felt her best. She could almost see those deeper dimensions of existence as she molded them with her very hands. Here and there were once thought to be separated by a great chasm of nothingness, but that nothingness was not nothing after all. On the contrary, it was something. As she poked and prodded at that nothing that was really something, the very foundations of existence began to untangle in Anna’s hands. These distances weren’t separated by a single path from A to B, they were separated by many paths, infinite paths perhaps, and all of varying lengths. The more she played with this ball of yarn at the heart of her universe the more it unfolded, the more it opened up to her requests, and the more she could control the world around her.

The tricky part—Anna had determined after a not insignificant amount of trial and error—was in finding the path you wanted, the shortest path you could catch with the technology at your disposal, and making sure you ended up with that particular one rather than any of the seemingly infinite other possibilities. Getting the paths to shuffle themselves was the easy part. Getting them to shuffle a royal flush to the top of the deck was where it got hard. But then again, you didn’t always need the flush to win. Sometimes you could get by with two pair—especially when you had six hands, one per transporter ring, to work with—and Anna was getting better at shuffling aces to the top, at least, if not the full flush.

She set the timing patterns and outlet depots for the mission—they weren’t going to any costume closets this time—and by the time she was done, she could already hear Rosa upstairs, riling the crew who had volunteered to go through. She climbed the stairs into the neatly packed conference room, filled with thirty-five of the bravest Family members Anna had ever known and listened to what was left of Rosa’s speech.

“They have brought us to this,” Rosa spoke—almost sang, really, in that commanding tone of hers. “It is their fault!” She slammed her fist on the podium and the group hooted and hollered in response. “We try to feed our Family and what do they do to us? Murder us in the streets. Step over the dead and dying bodies of our brothers and sisters in order to come into our homes and disrespect our rights. I say no more!”

The crowd raged again. Anna was nervous to hear shouts of “Kill them all!” and “Eye for an eye!” but she couldn’t blame them. She couldn’t stop them, either. Hell, she couldn’t even stop herself from helping them if she wanted to. She could only hope that their heads would cool once they finally carried their fate in their own hands. That might be the only way to prevent the apocalypse she thought was probably inevitable no matter what she did.

“Tonight we endure no more,” Rosa went on. “Tonight we take responsibility for our own protection. Tonight we take the fight to their home and we earn their respect. Are you with me?”

Anna joined in with the cheering this time. She couldn’t help it. Rosa had the same effect on everyone.

“You know your assignments. You know your objectives. You’ve studied up on the blueprints and know exactly when and where to go. Don’t let me down. Don’t let yourselves down. But most importantly, don’t let your Family down. Because it’s not only our lives on the line out there, it’s the life and livelihood of each and every one of our human brothers and sisters. We will not fail them!”

Everyone cheered to that, standing from their seats and stomping their feet. Anna’s heart raced at the sound of it.

“Let’s do this. Troops, forward!” Rosa waved her hand and Anna was pushed down into the basement, riding the crest of a wave of soldiers dedicated to protecting the Human Family. Anna took her place behind the consoles, and when Rosa came down—last out of all the Family—she called them to attention. Their excited chaos suddenly dissipated into a steel sense of resolved solidarity. At three words from Rosa, the fluid mass that had seemed too large to be contained by the small basement coagulated into six tight columns, one directed toward each of the transport rings.

“Now is the time for discipline,” Rosa said over the silent and still platoon. “Now is the time for resolve. Together with our Family we cannot fail. Now let us succeed!”

Rosa shot Anna a hand signal and everything around her disappeared. There was no platoon of soldiers, stuffing her basement too full. There was no basement at all and no Rosa inside of it, waiting to guide her platoon through the transport rings. There was only Anna and the music she loved.

Soon the rings were humming into action. Six of them all together in such a tight space must have been deafening to the troop, but Anna couldn’t hear a thing, she was too busy listening to the subtle notes of her song. The strings of creation jumped and jittered as Anna wove them together into the most elegant universal tapestry that any of them there had ever been a part of. Never before had Anna controlled six rings at once. Three she had done, and there was some thrill to it, but nothing like six. Each hand was working a different console, and it became as if half her brain controlled three of the rings and the other half the rest. There was no time for anything else but the music.

Then the humming stopped. Anna shook her head and looked up. The basement was empty. The thirty six brothers and sisters—including Rosa—who had only just filled the room to bursting were now in another world entirely. It took them only three steps to get from the Family Home to Outland One, across six worlds—three steps and Anna’s symphony.

Anna sighed in relief and frustration. This was the worst part about being the Queen of the Consoles: waiting for the action to finish without being able to see it. She wasn’t sure she would go across with them even if they didn’t need her to run the rings, but she had a hard time picturing how it could be any worse over there than it was waiting helpless at Home to see which of them returned alive.

Then she did the worst thing she could do. She started imagining all the terrible possibilities of what could be happening to her Family members in One, to her Rosa and the others who Anna’s own hands had sent into whatever terrible fate that awaited them. She imagined the protectors being there just as her Family stepped through the portals, waiting to gun Anna’s brothers and sisters down before they even had a chance to move. She imagined her Family making it all the way to the guns they were seeking, only to be shot in the back as they lay their hands on salvation. She imagined the look on Rosa’s face as the life left her body, never to be caressed or kissed or loved by Anna again. And she began to weep.

She shook herself out of the crying after only a moment, though, wiping the moisture from her eyes. Those scenarios were all in her head. They weren’t reality. The only way Anna could find out what was actually happening over there was to wait until her now three and a half minutes—still three and a half!—were up and she could let them all back to fill her in on every little detail.

She paced the room as she waited, trying to get her mind back on the path settings she would need to set for her Family’s triumphant return rather than imagining the horrible things that could be happening to them. She kept slipping back into the daymares, though, until she set her hands to work on the consoles, preparing another symphony. There was still more than a minute before an escape was called for, sure, but this way she could distract herself with the music.

Before she knew it, the rings were humming into motion. She didn’t even have to check her watch. She had come to be so in tune with the rhythms of the universe that she probably kept better time than the old ratty thing ever could. The doors opened, her masterpiece finally coming to fruition, but something had gone wrong. One door wasn’t in the right place. The entryway had opened exactly where it was supposed to open, but it didn’t lead home. It led… Where? Where the fuck was it going?

The pace of Anna’s fingers on the console quickened. Who was messing with her strings? Who was trying to play over her? Why were they doing it? And most importantly, how could they?

Voices tried to break through her shell of concentration, but Anna pushed them away. Or rather she let them go and pushed her mind away from the noise, deeper into the fourth dimension. Some of her Family had made it back safely, at least. She could work harder and smarter with that small comfort, but she wasn’t going to stop until all her brothers and sisters were safe again at Home.

At first sight of it, she thought the breach had come from the protectors themselves. Maybe it was some kind of defensive system she hadn’t noticed when she was first planning the pathways. But that wasn’t true. It couldn’t be. There was no activity from One at all, and why would the protectors ever send her people to… Where were they being sent?

It was an eternity in her mind—or three seconds in reality—before she caught the other end of the rope. She had a grasp on both sides now and set all six of the rings alternating between various portals near the location of the missing Family members. She kept shuffling the deck and dealing hands, shuffling the deck and dealing hands, confident that eventually she would hit big.

She didn’t know how long she had been at it when the humming stopped. Did she stop it? Had she done anything to help anyone this entire time, or was she just a waste of effort and life?

Hands patted her back until there was no more rustling in the basement. Everyone had scurried upstairs to run away or been left on the other side, in One with the protectors. Anna didn’t care anymore. The symphony had taken every ounce of her brain power to compose and conduct. She had no energy left with which to worry. She sat straight down on the ground behind her consoles, ready to give in to the world, and cried silently to herself.

Then came the voice, her voice, the only voice which could possibly bring Anna back to reality after all that. “Nanna,” it said. “No more worries in your eyes, now, Nanna. Your Rosie-Posie’s here.”

Anna cried and jumped up and hugged Rosa—all at the same time. “I thought I had lost you,” she said through her tears.

“And I you.” Rosa grinned, kissing Anna. “But you came back to me, and you brought our brothers and sisters with you.”

“I—I could never—” Anna said. She gathered herself and wiped her eyes, remembering how little she actually knew about what transpired in One. “But what happened? How are you— How did it go? Is everything alright?”

Rosa chuckled. “It’s more than alright,” she said. “But there’s plenty of time for that later. Come on.”

Rosa led Anna out of the basement—almost carrying her up the stairs into a frenzy of motion all through the halls, each Family member doing their work with a big black gun strapped over their shoulder—into the kitchen to get a glass of water. Anna’s heart skipped a beat, though, when she saw one body bleeding on the dining room table and another doing the same on the kitchen counter, and she was torn violently back into reality.

Again her muscles seemed to work by reflex. Rosa handed her a glass, and instead of drinking the water, Anna fed it to the injured party on the counter who sipped it up with a groan. “There you are, child,” Anna said. “Let me see what they did to you.”

One of the other soldiers was already snipping off the injured party’s shirt so Anna helped with the last little bit and peeled the shirt off as gingerly as she could. It stuck to the poor woman’s skin, right under her breast, giving Anna a good idea of where the wound was. The injured woman groaned in pain as Anna tried to get a better look. Anna wanted to groan herself at what she saw, but she held it back. This was a pretty bad wound. She lifted one side of the woman’s back and felt around as softly as she could. No exit wound. It was getting worse.

“I’m gonna need some tweezers and bandages,” Anna said. She turned to Rosa. “And some pills, dear. Injections preferably, but I’m not sure we have any at the moment. You’ll have to take a look-see.”

“I—but— Are you sure, dear?” Rosa said, caressing Anna’s lower back with one hand. “You just fainted down there in the basement. I don’t want your health getting any worse than it already is. There are people here who can do this for you.”

I’m sure,” Anna said, kissing Rosa’s cheek at the same time that she took the rags and bucket from some assistant’s hand. “I was worried that I had lost you, but now that you’re back, I’m over it. Just go get those injections.”

“Injections, huh?” Rosa raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure pills won’t do?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Anna snapped, working on getting the shrapnel out of the woman’s abdomen at the same time as carrying on the conversation. If they asked her to cook a meal and write some slogans, too, she might need as much brain power as she had needed earlier to reshape the universe with six rings at once, but reshaping one human body would have to suffice for now. “Either would’ve done,” she said. “Like I said already. But now that you’ve taken so long, pills should be more than enough because…ah.” She held up the bullet which was, luckily, still in one piece. “I’ve got the bullet.”

“Right, right,” Rosa said, kissing Anna on the cheek one more time before heading down to the basement. “I knew my Nanna could take care of everything.”

“You, take care of this,” Anna, stitching the wound closed, said to the soldier that had been assisting her. “Bandage her up and keep her watered. And there are beds in the basement. When you’re done here, go ahead and put two or three of them in the conference room. I don’t think we’ll be having any more public meetings here after all of this so it shouldn’t matter in the long run.”

“But the basement’s clear,” the assistant said. “There weren’t any beds down there a minute ago.”

“Rosa will show you,” Anna said, crossing to the next patient. “Go.” That was the one thing Rosa did now how to use the consoles for, a pre-programmed room change.

“Okay, what do we have here?” Anna asked, looking down on a too young boy who was holding a bloody rag to his own forehead.

“I’m fine,” the boy said.

“I don’t know,” the nurse who had been tending to him said—if she could even be called a nurse she was so young. “You bled a lot.”

“Let me see,” Anna said, taking the rag from his head.

The boy winced in pain.

See,” the nurse said, crossing her arms.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Anna said, dabbing some more blood away as the boy winced.

See,” he said with a groan.

“Looks like it could use some stitches, though,” Anna said, dabbing the wound one last time.

The boy jerked away from her. “Stitches?” His eyes widened and his face lost that rebellious resolve he was trying so hard to maintain. “I don’t know about that, ma’am. Are you sure?”

“It won’t hurt,” Anna said. “Much. Besides, I thought you were fine.” She grinned.

“I am,” he said, crossing his arms.

“Then lay right down like a good boy so I can stitch you up.”

He hesitated then gave in, probably trying to impress the nurse who, for her part, looked genuinely worried about the boy’s health. “Ugh. Fine.”

“Great,” Anna said when he was on his back. “You,” she said to the nurse, “get a light over here please.”

“Oh—uh.” She ran to the other room and came back holding a floor lamp. “Will this do, ma’am?”

“Yes, yes,” Anna waved her closer “Just put it close so I can see. There you are. Okay. Now this is going to hurt. Are you ready?”

Anna didn’t wait for an answer. The boy winced and groaned and ground his teeth, but he didn’t jerk his head at all, and soon Anna was tying off five stitches.

“There you are,” she said with a smile as he sat up, trying to scratch the stitches. Anna slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch them. That’ll make things worse. Nurse…” She looked to the girl who was still holding the lamp.”

“Oh—uh—Ellen, ma’am,” the girl said, almost hitting herself with the lamp trying to shake Anna’s hand.

“Nurse Ellen will fit you with some gauze. You keep it covered and dry, then come back to me in the morning—after you’ve gotten some rest. You understand me?”

The boy nodded, going to scratch his head again, but Anna slapped his hand away. “And no scratching. I mean it.” Anna looked at Nurse Ellen and gave her a big smile, patting the girl on the back. “You did well, Nurse,” she said. “Just wrap his head up with some gauze and be sure he doesn’t scratch it. If you can handle that, maybe I’ll teach you how to sew the stitches next time.”

Nurse Ellen’s white-knuckled grip on the floor lamp finally loosened. She set it down, her hands trembling, and the lamp rattled. “Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Right away, ma’am.” She took a few steps then turned around, blushing, to go the other way toward where the gauze was stored.

Anna surveyed the room. Two bodies wasn’t bad. She had expected her kitchen to be a morgue after what Rosa had planned. And the mission was definitely a success, the guns on everyone’s shoulders was evidence enough of that. As long as that bullet wound didn’t become infected, they might not—

“I’m here!” Rosa said, storming in with a bottle of pills and a handful of syringes held up over her head. “I got what you asked for, Nannie dear.” She smiled, holding her bounty out to Anna, proud of herself.

Anna chuckled. “Too late again, Rosie,” she said with a grin, shaking her head. She still couldn’t decide if Rosa did these things because she was cheap and didn’t want to waste the supplies, or if Rosa was simply too queasy to witness the blood. Most likely it was the former, but probably a little of both. “But give the kid a pill anyway. And the woman a few.” Anna handed the bottle to Nurse Ellen then turned to Rosa. “Come on.” She held out her hand. “You have to tell me all about what happened now.”

Rosa smiled and took Anna’s hand, kissing the back of it before letting Anna lead the way into their office.

“So,” Anna said, sitting Rosa in the desk chair and taking the seat across from her. “Those injuries weren’t too bad. Everyone else is back safe then? No other injuries for me to tend to?” She smiled wide, hopefully.

Rosa’s smile slowly faded to a frown. She broke eye contact with Anna, fumbling through the desk for nothing in particular. “Well, yes and no,” she finally said. “Yes those are the only injuries for you to treat…” She smiled a fake smile, not going on.

Anna sighed. “But not everyone else is home safe?”

Rosa shook her head, breaking eye contact again.

“Well what then? Who? Go on. It’s not like not telling me is going to change what happened.”

“No…well… A few of us didn’t make it back. And some of those who did make it back aren’t alive to be treated. And that’s just from my squad. I haven’t had reports from the others yet.”

No.” Anna fought tears. “Who?”

“Yujin and Melody were murdered just as we got our hands on the guns. They were so close, but the protectors who did it paid the price. We got Yujin’s body back, but reinforcements came and the protectors took Isha when she tried to retrieve Melody’s. They—they still have her. We’re not sure if she’s alive or dead.”

“No. But they’ll—”

“That’s not all,” Rosa said, stopping her. When she was giving the bad news, Rosa sure liked to pile it on. Why could it never be the same with the good? “One of those doors you sent us to get home didn’t bring us back here like it was supposed to.”

“I know, I tried—”

“I’m not entirely sure where it took us, actually. But wherever that is, Kara’s still there. The rest of us made it to your second door and back home, but she… She didn’t.”

“I know where she is,” Anna said. “That door wasn’t sent by me. There was some kind of interference or something. I don’t know. I had never seen anything like it before.”

“But you know where she is?” Rosa asked, sitting up in her chair and leaning forward on her desk with a big smile. “You can get us back there?”

“Yes,” Anna said, though she wasn’t as sure of herself as she sounded. “Of course I can.”

“Good.” Rosa smiled. “Not now but soon. No Family members left behind.”

“No,” Anna said. “Of course not. That’s why I wouldn’t give up—I didn’t give up—until I got you back from wherever they took you.”

“Whoever they are.”

“I’ll find out.”

Rosa chuckled, standing and crossing around the desk to massage Anna’s shoulders. Anna loved the feeling of those fingers on her skin. “I know, dear,” Rosa said. “Just like I knew you’d get me back from wherever they sent us to. And just like I knew that we couldn’t fail in this mission as long as we worked as a Family.”

Anna rolled her shoulders under Rosa’s massaging fingers, groaning with pleasure. “You think it was a success, then?”

Rosa laughed. “Of course, dear.” She kissed Anna on the cheek. “And now our Family’s invincible.”

#     #     #

< XLIV. Laura     [Table of Contents]     XLVI. Roo >

So there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Pick up your copy of the novel or leave a review of any of the books in the series right here, subscribe to my email newsletter for your chance to win a free Murder in “Utopia,, audio book right here, and enjoy the rest of this lovely weekend.

Thanks again for following along, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

 

Chapter 35: Olsen

This Saturday brings us to the two thirds finished point of An Almost Tangent with Olsen’s second point of view chapter. She’s slowly falling in with the pro-human, anti-robot Human Family because she needs a job to survive and there are no others available now that Five and Six have been connected. To find out how she handles the new responsibilities given to her, continue reading here or pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon through this link. And don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter through this link in order to keep up to date on new releases and book deals in the Infinite Limits series and beyond. Enjoy.

< XXXIV. Guy     [Table of Contents]     XXXVI. Tillie >

XXXV. Olsen

A 3D printer was a big thing. Olsen had never really seen one up close before. Now that she had, she didn’t think it looked too fancy. It was just a tall, fat metal console with a red button and a sliding door on the front. If it weren’t for the red button, it would look exactly like a trash chute—which Olsen had seen plenty of.

She walked up to one of the printers and rocked it, wondering if two people was enough to carry the heavy thing upstairs. Hopefully Anna was stronger than she looked. She was nice, and smart, and she knew how to cook, but none of that would help them get this hunk of metal up the stairs.

The door opened and Anna came downstairs, smiling at Olsen. “So, child,” she said. “What do you think? Are you ready for this?”

Olsen patted the printer. “I don’t know,” she said. “This thing is pretty heavy. Do you think the two of us can move it?”

Anna laughed. “No, child,” she said. “Not without tools. But that’s no problem now that we have the printer. What I really meant to ask is are you ready to give your Family what they deserve?”

Olsen blushed. She thought all the “family” talk was a little weird, but she didn’t know how to bring that opinion up to the people who were paying here wages. She did what she had been doing and just smiled and nodded along. “I’m ready to cook for people,” she said.

“Oh, child,” Anna frowned. “This won’t be cooking, I’m afraid. We don’t have time for all that. We’ll be printing everything so we can spread our message as far possible.”

“Our message?”

“About the Human Family, child,” Anna said. “You know. You read the pamphlet.”

Olsen groaned to herself. She hadn’t really finished the pamphlet yet. After her conversations with her mom and Sonya, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what the rest of it said. She needed this job, though, and they were teaching her how to cook—even if they wouldn’t be cooking now—so she didn’t want to blow this. “Well,” she said. “I’m ready to help people.”

“Good, child,” Anna said. “Helping humans is exactly what we’re all about. Now, the first thing’s first. We need to get this printer out there to the people. Are you ready?”

Olsen nodded. “But I still don’t know how we’re going to carry it,” she said.

“Just leave that to me, child,” Anna said, walking over to press the printer’s red button. “Anti-grav cart, please,” she said. “Four-pack.”

The metal doors slid open, and Anna reached in to pull out four small discs. “Now,” she said, kneeling down next to the printer. “If you just tip it that way a little bit, I can get this under here.”

Olsen pushed on the top of the console, leaning it over a little so Anna could slide the discs under both corners of the raised side.

“Now the other way, child,” Anna said.

Olsen went around and tilted the printer the other way, and Anna put the remaining two discs underneath.

“There we are,” Anna said, bent down and pressing a button on each disk, making each corner of the machine float up an inch off the ground as she did, until she had activated all four discs and the entire printer floated a few inches over the basement’s cement floor.

“There,” Anna said, standing and brushing herself off. “Light as a feather now. It would really only take one of us to move it, but we’re best to use both for safety’s sake. Come on, now. Help me out, child.”

Olsen got behind the printer with Anna, and they didn’t even have to push, more so just guide it on its way. It was a little trickier when they were bringing it up the stairs, but that was only because the machine was so much lighter than it looked and Olsen kept lifting it so fast that the thing almost fell over onto Anna. They got it up to the top of the stairs without an incident, though—thankfully—and pushed the printer out to the field across the street from the Family Home.

“More room out here when they start showing up,” Anna said with a smile. “Now, this is the tricky part. Do you see the buttons on the discs on that side?”

Olsen bent down to get a closer look. “Uh, yeah,” she said. “I think so.”

“Press them both at the same time. On my count, okay. On three. Are you ready?”

Olsen wasn’t sure she was. Some people walking past were already stopping to see what they were doing, and it only made her more nervous. “Uh—yeah,” she said anyway. She had no choice. It was her job now.

“Okay, then. One…two…three!”

Olsen pressed one then tried to press the other but missed, and three of the four corners of the 3D printer fell to the ground with a loud bang. Olsen hurried to stop the thing from tipping over onto Anna while Anna pressed the last button for her, and the printer smashed to the ground with another loud clang.

“Uh—wow—I—I’m sorry,” Olsen said, breathing heavily.

“You’re fine, girl,” Anna said. “I told you that was the hard part. We’re out here and ready now. That’s all that matters. Look.”

Olsen turned to see people starting to crowd around them. The spectacle of the big metal box was enough to draw their attention. That and the notoriety Anna and Rosa had been able to draw with their nightly speeches in the field.

“Friends,” Anna called over the people. Her voice wasn’t as loud or deep as Rosa’s, but it carried just as far and touched a different part of the soul. “Family. Humans.” Olsen cringed at the last word but kept listening anyway. She knew Anna meant well, even if Olsen disagreed with her methods—or Sonya disagreed with her methods, Olsen still wasn’t sure how she felt about them yet. “We are here today to fulfill one wish for every Family member who has one.”

The crowd started whispering among itself. Olsen couldn’t help but smile. These people were about to get an opportunity to ask a printer for whatever they desired, and Olsen was playing a hand in giving that to them. Still, no brave souls came up to ask for what they wanted. Olsen didn’t blame them, though. She didn’t think she would want to be the first to step up either. She couldn’t even imagine what she would ask for.

“Brothers and sisters,” Anna went on. “Siblings. I know you all have something you need at home. Certainly you don’t have enough food, or your kids need new shoes, or maybe you just want that keg of beer all to yourself for once.” She smiled at what looked to be someone in particular from the bystanders. “We’re not here to judge. We’re only here to make your dreams come true, whatever you wish for. Now, who will be the first lucky Family member to get what they desire?”

“How about a fucking job?” someone called from the crowd, which looked to be about a hundred people by then.

Anna laughed. “Oh, no,” she said, putting on a solemn face like she really meant what she was saying. “Sadly, that can’t be gotten from a printer. But if it fits through those doors, you can have it otherwise.”

“My family hasn’t eaten meat in weeks,” an older woman, who was particularly dirty, at the front of the crowd said. She looked like she was from the other world—or whatever Sonya called it. “I’d like a turkey stuffed with vegetables,” she said, “so my kids can eat right.” She pushed her two little children out in front of her, and they blushed and hid their dirty faces.

That we can do,” Anna said. She pressed the red button. “Turkey, stuffed with fresh vegetables,” she said.

The doors slid open, and there it was, steaming and warm. The crowd let out a collective gasp. The chatter grew louder. The woman and her kids walked up to the printer wide-eyed.

“Help her, Olsen,” Anna said.

Olsen shook herself out of her daze and grabbed the turkey out of the printer’s mouth. It was heavy and awkward to hand off, and probably would have been easier for the woman to take out herself, but Olsen loved the feeling she got from the process, like she had been responsible for giving the woman and her family the meal they so desperately needed.

The woman turned around with a smile and raised the turkey up over her head for the still growing crowd to see. Eyes grew wide and the chatter around picked up. People stepped closer now that they had proof of how the printer worked. There was some jostling and commotion, and a young boy fell over with a yelp near the front of the crowd, producing more ado.

“Now, now,” Anna called over them. “Settle down, please! Settle down.”

The crowd didn’t listen. The fighting over who pushed the boy rippled out like a wave, making everyone more anxious. Olsen was starting to worry. She could see how hungry the faces were, how dirty they were. She could still tell the otherworlders from the locals because they were still dirtier, but it wasn’t by much anymore. No matter which world they were from, they all looked desperate enough to do anything to get their hands on the printer. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as she thought it was. How did Anna and Rosa expect her to respond to this test? How could she respond to it? She looked to Anna for guidance, and Anna shrugged. Olsen had to do something to show the Family she was reliable beyond cooking. She had to demonstrate her value like her mom had told her to do.

“Quiet!” Olsen yelled, and the crowd went silent, staring at her in surprise. She had surprised herself, too. She meant to do something but not that. At least it seemed to work. She looked to Anna who smiled then mouthed, “Good job.”

“Now,” Anna called over the group, which was numbering near a thousand and still growing. “We can’t do anything unless we do it in an orderly fashion. Everyone will get a chance to ask for something, but we can only fulfill one request at a time. We’ll have to stop like this every time we here jostling or arguing, though, and that will only mean a longer wait for everyone. So, for the sake of yourselves and your Family, I implore all of you to keep it calm and orderly. Can we do that?”

The crowd mumbled incoherently, but by the sound of their collective groaning, it seemed like they agreed.

“I said, can we do that?” Anna repeated with more volume.

“Yes,” the crowd responded, somewhat in unison.

Good,” Anna said. “Then one by one, please. And if you can decide on what you’d like before you get here, it will save a lot of time for everyone. Thank you. Who’s first?”

After that it was a surprisingly orderly process. One by one, members of the dirty masses stepped up to ask for whatever their hearts desired. The people who looked like they were from Olsen’s world all seemed to be asking for various food items, some of them necessities, most of them luxuries, and a lot asked for big jugs of alcohol which were some of the heaviest things to lift out of the printer. Olsen couldn’t imagine carrying one all the way home. One old man asked for twenty-four cartons of cigarettes. When exactly twenty-four came out, the later requests started to become more specific and grow in quantity.

The people who were dirtier, like they had come from the other, new world, would sometimes ask for food, too, but never alcohol or other luxuries. They asked for big cans of meat and beans or pounds of rice, but even that wasn’t often. More often they asked for clothes and shoes, things that would last longer, and mostly they asked for tools of various kinds—many of which Olsen didn’t recognize—things that they could use with their own hands to better produce for themselves. Seeing these differences between the two groups, Olsen was coming closer and closer to believing that two worlds had collided—or merged—or whatever Sonya wanted to call it.

The work was exhausting, and it only got more so as time went on and the requesters grew bolder in their demands. But still, Olsen continued to hand gift after gift from the mouth of the printer—it looked like it had one red eye that was the voice activation button, and the doors were arched to make a big frowning mouth—into the hands of the citizens of her world and the other alike. It was beautiful, almost as if they really were a big family sharing in everything they owned, one by one, everyone getting what they needed.

The crowd had grown so big it filled all the space in sight, wrapping around buildings and down alleyways. Olsen thought she would never be done handing out gifts to the people when jostling spread like a wave up one arm of the amorphous, multi-bodied organism, radiating through every other part in turn. When it reached the center, where they were working, Olsen looked to Anna to see what to do. Anna called up a stool out of the printer then stood on it to look over the crowd in the direction the wave had come from. Olsen didn’t like the look on Anna’s face when she could finally see what was going on. Olsen’s heart beat faster and her palms slicked up.

“Anna,” she said. “What is it?”

Anna shook her head. “Trouble. I’m surprised it took them this long.”

Olsen looked over the way Anna was staring but couldn’t see anything through the mass of people. The crowd wasn’t just jostling anymore, it was pushing toward them, trying to escape some danger that was still out of sight. “What do we do?” Olsen asked.

Anna shook herself out of her daze. “You stay with the printer,” she said. “Keep fulfilling requests until you can’t anymore then get out of here as fast as you can. You did well, today, kiddo. We’ll see you tomorrow morning to discuss the details of your next assignment.”

Olsen shook her head. Her voice wouldn’t work for more than a squeak so that was all she did. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this anymore. She wasn’t sure she was ready for anything. She should have listened to Sonya and left this job to someone else. Now she was—now she was—what? She was—

“You can do it,” Anna said, giving Olsen a quick hug then disappearing into the crowd, and Olsen had no choice but to find her voice again. She took a deep breath and said, “Who’s next?”

“Me,” a man said, stepping forward from far back in the line.

“No, me,” another said from closer up. He pushed the first and they started to grapple.

An old woman tugged on Olsen’s shirt. “Me, please,” she said in a scratchy, frantic voice. “Just one ham, please. It’s all I ask.”

“Oh, well, okay. You,” Olsen said, pulling the woman closer and away from the two men who were still fighting. She pressed the big red eye and started to speak when one of the men in the grapple—who had knocked the other out—yelled, “A pistol!”

“No, not—” Olsen said, but the doors slid open, and the man shoved her aside to grab what came out. When she stood up again, he was pointing the gun at her. She held her trembling hands above her head.

“Stop right there,” he said. “This here printer’s mine now. You can just git.”

Olsen said, “But—”

“No!” the man yelled, shaking the gun. “No buts. Go!” He pointed the gun at the crowd, too. “All of you!” They backed away, but people were still pushing from the other direction so there wasn’t far to go. He pointed the gun back at Olsen. “I said git,” he said.

Trembling, her hands up, she had no idea what to do. Anna had told her to work until she couldn’t anymore, and how could she work when someone was pointing a gun at her? But she couldn’t just leave the printer here with him, either. They needed it. The Family needed it. Anyone who waited their turn and didn’t point a gun to steal everything deserved it. Not this thief. Ansel had almost built up the courage to say something when bangs and screams echoed loud through the streets. All heads turned in their direction, the direction the commotion had been coming from all along, to see what it was. All Olsen could see was the crowd pushing harder towards her and a fog rolling in over their heads.

A fog? That wasn’t fog. It was purplish in color and this was the middle of a warm day. She didn’t have time to figure out what it was before more bangs and screams echoed from every direction. The crowd started pushing from all sides now, and neither Olsen nor the man with the gun cared about the printer anymore.

Then Olsen saw the tall dark shadows in the fog—or cloud—or whatever it was. They towered over everyone, and every now and then, a bright light would flash in front of them, and there would be more screams and hysteria. She was shocked, in awe. Were they killing people? Was that gas dangerous?

A child bumped into her and fell away at her feet. “Mommy! Mommy!” the kid pleaded, standing up and running into the crowd. Olsen couldn’t help, though, she had to take care of herself now.

Once she decided she wanted to move, her legs took her toward the Family Home. It was the closest safe space she knew of so it was the first thing her subconscious thought of. She had to fight and force her way through the mass of people running this way and that, and by the time she made it across the street to sit on the floor inside, with her back to the door, her face was bloodied and bruised and her whole body ached.

She took a few deep breaths, sitting on the ground, wiping the blood from her nose. What in the Hell was that? Who were those giants out there shooting people? And most importantly, what had Olsen gotten herself into by getting involved with the people who had started it all?

She wanted to cry. She wanted to stand up and run home, or to Sonya’s, or anywhere away from there, anywhere where she could forget about all of this. This wasn’t being a chef. This was madness.

Rosa came in out of the basement door and looked surprised to see Olsen sitting on the ground. “You should have gone home, child,” she said, shaking her head. “Here the danger’s coming to you.”

“I—uh—” Everything that had just happened ran through Olsen’s head again. “It got crazy out there,” she said. “I didn’t know where else to go. I couldn’t get home.”

“You are home, child,” Rosa said, crossing the room and helping Olsen to her feet. “You’re a part of the Family so this is your home.”

“Oh, yeah…” Olsen blushed. She still wasn’t sure she wanted to be a member of the Family. “I meant—”

“Oh, I know what you meant, dear,” Rosa said, holding Olsen’s hand and leading her to the kitchen to sit on a bar stool at the counter. “And I meant what I said. You should feel safe here. Even when they come to invade our private property.” She nodded toward the door. Olsen was surprised she couldn’t hear more of what must still have been going on outside. “Would you like some pancakes, child?” Rosa asked. “Only thing I can cook, I’m afraid. And Anna’s a little busy at the moment.”

“I—uh—” This was all getting to be too much to handle. Olsen couldn’t keep up with the pace that everything was coming at her. “Invade our privacy?” she said. She didn’t even know what she was asking.

“Pancakes, child?” Rosa said, already heating a griddle and mixing the batter. “Do you want some?”

“I—uh—” Olsen shrugged. “Sure.”

“Good,” Rosa said. “Because I’m making you some anyway. It’ll be comforting. Pancakes are comfort food. That’s why I know how to make them.”

“Um, okay.” Olsen shook her head.

“That’s one thing these protectors need to learn,” Rosa said, cooking. “How to be comforting. You know how they used to say that you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar? Well that’s not true at all. Flies don’t care about honey. They don’t like the sugar or something. I don’t know the science behind it. Ask Anna. But you don’t catch flies by giving them honey. That’s the point I’m trying to make. You catch flies by giving them what they want, dear. And do you know what it is that flies want?”

Olsen shook her head.

Shit,” Rosa said with a chuckle, pouring some batter onto the griddle. The smell of it cooking already started to comfort Olsen. She was forgetting the chaos that was still going on outside. “Flies want shit,” Rosa went on. “So that’s how you catch them. The protectors here think they can catch flies by swatting at them, and that’s got to be about the dumbest method I’ve ever heard of.”

“What protectors?” Olsen asked, squinting and rubbing her face.

“The cops. Police. Pigs. I don’t know what you Fivers call them. In Six we mostly call them assholes, and that only behind their backs. They’re the big, tall, well-armed, white guys out there, shooting everyone up and causing chaos.”

“Those are protectors?” Olsen sighed.

“You were out there, child.” Rosa flipped a pancake. “You saw what they’re capable of. Did they use the gas?”

“There was some fog or something,” she said.

“You didn’t get caught in it, then?” Rosa smiled. “Good for you. It’s not fun. That’s pepper gas. It sticks to every pore you have and burns like fire when it contacts water. So if you ever get caught in it, do not wash with water. You got that? Use milk. It neutralizes the proteins or something. I don’t know. Again, ask Anna.”

“No,” Olsen said. “It couldn’t have been protectors. They were shooting people in the crowd. Protectors wouldn’t do that.”

“They did do it, child.” Rosa flipped a pancake onto a plate and set it in front of Olsen. “They’re still doing it outside as we speak. Do you want to take another look and see?”

She did not want to do that. “But why?” Olsen groaned.

“Power, child,” Rosa said, pouring another pancake onto the griddle. “Control. Resources. Labor. You name it. All the things greedy people want at their own expense. They’re trying to control us, to make us obsolete, and this is their way of showing us what will happen if we try to fight back against them. And we’ve only just begun, little darling.”

Olsen dribbled some syrup on her pancake and took a big bite. It was rather comforting. “But they’re only turning us against them,” she said.

“Yes, child.” Rosa smiled. “That’s the swatting approach I was talking about earlier. It’s worked for them for a long time because they’ve been able to keep us so afraid we won’t act, but will you let them continue to scare you into inaction after you’ve seen what they did today?” she asked, flipping a pancake on the griddle.

Olsen didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to be anything but afraid of the protectors now. They were huge, and they had guns and burning death gas and futuristic armor. What was she supposed to do to stop that?

Rosa sat at the counter next to her and started in on her pancake without syrup. “I know it’s scary,” she said. “I know they’re scary, too. No doubt about it. So big and white and bully. It’s okay to be afraid of them, but it’s not okay to let that stop you from doing what you want to do. You got that?”

Olsen nodded, stuffing her face. She didn’t want to say anything stupid.

“You’ll be fine, child,” Rosa said, taking a bite. “I’ll take care of you. Don’t worry.”

From the other room came the sound of a door caving in and Olsen jumped, bumping her plate and almost spilling it. Rosa patted her arm and said, “You’ll be fine, child. Just keep on eating and let me do all the talking. You got it?”

Olsen nodded. She probably wouldn’t be able to eat ever again, but she definitely wouldn’t say a word.

Into the kitchen marched a line of protectors with their guns pointed at Olsen and Rosa. The one in front took off her helmet, sneered at them, and said, “You’ve gone and done it now.”

Rosa went on eating her pancake without answer. Olsen was trembling and about to cry.

“Fork down, stand up, and show us where the rest are,” the protector said.

Rosa smiled. She finished the last bite of her pancake, set the fork down, and deliberately wiped her face. The protectors behind the officer that was talking looked like they tensed up. Olsen tensed up, too.

“Now, citizen!” the protector demanded.

“There are no others,” Rosa said. “We in the Human Family share everything we own with our brothers and sisters. If we had more printers, they would have been out there on the streets, providing for those in need.”

“Stand up, citizens!” The protector pointed her gun at Rosa.

Olsen jumped up and put her hands in the air. She hadn’t realized that they were talking to her, too. Rosa slowly stood and carried their plates through a line of protectors to rinse them and place them in the sink.

“Now,” Rosa said, clapping her hands together. “Would you like to see the basement so we can get this over with? I have plenty to do, you know. You saw how many of my Family members were in need outside, such a larger number ever since you and yours came through.”

The protector sneered at Rosa. She looked like she wanted to shoot the old lady right there. Olsen was surprised when the protector didn’t, instead pointing her gun toward the direction of the basement door. “Go on, then,” she said. “Both of you.”

Olsen followed close behind Rosa, with her hands up and the protector’s gun poking her in the back. They went through the gauntlet of protectors, opened the door, and climbed down into a basement that Olsen didn’t recognize. Instead of the stacks of supplies, and four other printers, that were there before, the room was smaller and lined with bunk beds.

“You see,” Rosa said when the three of them were down there alone. “Nothing. Our sleeping quarters. No illegal printers.” She smiled.

“Shut the fuck up, Rosa,” the protector said. “And tell me what you think you’re doing. I don’t have time for all this shit that you’re stirring with all the other feces I already have flung on my plate. Including your previous problem—which still exists.”

“Well, that was at the bequest of your—”

And you failed,” the woman cut her off. “Because you failed, I have to clean up the mess. Now’s not the time for your family bullshit, alright. We have bigger fish to fry in the other worlds.”

Olsen had never seen anger on Rosa’s face before, but she was pretty sure this was it. It came off looking more like steel reserve and disappointment, though. “Now is exactly the time for the Family, child,” Rosa said. “It was your protector who failed, not me. I did my job. And as a matter of fact, I’ll be taking care of yours, too. Tomorrow, we’ll fry your fish for you. Don’t you worry.”

The protector looked unconvinced. “You don’t even know what fish I’m talking about,” she said.

Rosa smiled. “I guess we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see then, won’t we?”

The protector sighed, shaking her head. “Don’t do anything stupid,” she said. “I can’t protect you out there.”

“And here I only need protecting from you,” Rosa said.

“Yeah,” the protector said. “And no one can offer you that. I’ll see you again in a few days,” she added, climbing the stairs. “Don’t put so many of your children in between me and you the next time I come looking, and you won’t have such a big mess to clean up after I’m gone.”

When the door closed, Olsen sighed a big huff of air and finally dropped her hands, flopping onto one of the beds. She was dizzy and lightheaded, like she had been forgetting to breath. She couldn’t believe she had lived through that and she hoped never to meet a protector face-to-face again.

Rosa sat on the bed next to her and patted her back. “It’s okay, child,” she said. “You’re safe here at Home.”

Olsen didn’t know what to say. She just started crying. She couldn’t control herself any longer. Rosa pulled her into a hug and patted her back some more.

“You see, child,” Rosa said. “This is how they treat us. We’re nothing to them. All those casualties upstairs were nothing more than lost property to them—cheap, expendable property at that. We’re worth even less than the robots these days.”

Olsen was still crying. She pushed away from Rosa’s embrace, sniffling. “B—but you said. Y—you said you’d fry—you’d fry—”

Rosa pulled her in again. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she said. “When they’re not being my enemy. We share a mutual problem, and I think I—no—we can handle it more efficiently than our brute force counterparts.”

“We?” Olsen said. Sniffling and wiping her nose with her shirt.

“More specifically you, child,” Rosa said. “You can end these troubles for us once and for all. What do you think?”

“I mean, uh…” Olsen didn’t know what she was capable of that no one else in the Family could do instead. “What would I have to do?”

“Nothing, really,” Rosa said. “You’d have to deliver some food to those in need. Much like you were doing out there today.”

Olsen’s eyes grew wide thinking about another encounter with the protectors.

Rosa chuckled. “Oh, child,” she said. “Except without the protectors this time. Don’t you worry. They wouldn’t react the same way in the lower worlds. The property’s more specialized and less expendable down there. They wouldn’t risk damaging it.”

“Lower worlds?”

“Yes, child,” Rosa said. “You have been reading the pamphlets, haven’t you?”

“I—uh—”

“There are seven of them in total,” Rosa said. “Six now with our worlds combined. And you’ll be going to one of the others to do what has to be done.”

Olsen’s eyes grew wide again but this time not in fear. She was excited by the idea of seeing the look on Sonya’s face when Sonya learned that Olsen had been to another world, that she knew how many other worlds there actually were. She smiled from ear to ear and nodded, unable to come up with words.

“Good, child,” Rosa said. “You won’t regret that decision one bit. Here’s what I need from you.”

#     #     #

< XXXIV. Guy     [Table of Contents]     XXXVI. Tillie >

That’s it for Olsen this week. Find out exactly what Rosa asks of her in the conclusion of An Almost Tangent by picking up a full copy of the novel right here. And thanks for reading along, dear readers. Have a great weekend.

Chapter 34: Guy

It’s another Saturday here in Louisiana and Guy’s in trouble. He’s been arrested by the protectors and they think he– No, they couldn’t. Could they really think he committed the murder?

Find out what the protectors end up doing with him as we continue the Infinite Limits story with the next chapter in An Almost Tangent. And if you enjoy what you’re reading so far, join the email update list with news on new releases and book deals right here and pick you up a copy of both available novels in the Infinite Limits series right here.

Thanks for joining us, dear readers. Enjoy.

< XXXIII. Jonah     [Table of Contents]     XXXV. Olsen >

XXXIV. Guy

Guy wasn’t there. He couldn’t be there so he wasn’t. He sat perfectly still, and the harsh, blinding white room disappeared around him. In its place what though? What was this? Where was he? His mind had never taken him here before

Guy was standing outside of himself. No, he was standing outside of himselves. As he stepped further and further back so did they, and soon, there were seven of him, all breaking away from each other. He stopped and heard a noise behind him, then he jumped but didn’t turn to see what had produced the noise. The others jumped, too. All of him did. Then they all ran back together and tumbled into one Guy again. Just as they—or he, he wasn’t sure of the difference anymore—tried to stand up, a door opened and broke him out of his trance.

All of a sudden he remembered where he was. He squinted his eyes against the sterile white light, reflecting off the sterile white walls. He looked up in fear at the armor-clad protector standing in front of him. The protector’s actual uniforms looked much different than the costumes he was used to seeing on set. The real deal looked more utilitarian, less showy. The armor wasn’t overly bulky, and the helmets looked light and airy in comparison to the heavy props he was used to. Then there were the guns. Those were definitely bigger, and infinitely more deadly.

“Citizen,” the protector said in a deep, modulated voice, facemask smile teeth glowing neon with every word. “Come with me.”

“I—but—” Guy said.

Now, citizen.”

Guy stood slowly with his hands up. He didn’t put them down until the protector turned and led him out the door and through a hall to a room with a big metal table and chairs on either side.

“Sit, citizen,” the protector said.

“I—but—”

“Sit!”

Guy raised his hands again and slowly moved toward the seat that was closest to him.

Uh uh,” the protector said, pointing a gun at the other seat. “That one.”

Guy nodded and took the other seat. The protector left without another word. This room was just as bright and white as the one he had been waiting in. If anything, it was brighter. Even when he closed his eyes they burned from the heat of the lights. There was a big black mirror across the room from him, and he could see himself sitting behind the table in it. At least they didn’t have him in cuffs. If they did, he would look exactly like every criminal he had ever seen played on TV. But he wasn’t a criminal. He was Guy. He set his mind on getting back into his meditation trance when the door opened and a protector walked in wearing no helmet. Guy shaded his eyes with his hands to try to figure out more, but he still couldn’t make anything out with the bright lights.

“Well, well,” the protector said. “This is a predicament you find yourself in. Isn’t it?”

“I—uh—” Guy didn’t know how to respond. “What have I done?”

“That’s what we’re here to find out. Isn’t it?”

“I haven’t done anything,” Guy said. He blinked water from his eyes, not sure if it was from fear or the brightness of the lights.

“Oh, but haven’t you?” the protector asked. “Dim the lights please.”

The lights dimmed, but they still reflected hot off the white walls. Guy could see the protector’s face now, and she was grinning an evil grin.

“What do you want from me?” Guy asked.

“The truth,” she said. “I want to know everything you know about what happened: How you were involved, who else was, how you killed him, everything.”

“I—but—no!” She couldn’t be serious. What reason would he have to kill Russ Logo? What reason would he have to kill anyone? “I didn’t do anything.”

The woman scoffed. “No?”

Guy shook his head. He could feel tears building up behind his eyes again, and he knew these weren’t from the lights.

“Oh, well, okay then,” the woman said, smiling and nodding. “You’re free to go.” She gave a thumbs up.

“I—uh—really?”

“No, Mr. Rockwell!” She slammed her fists on the table. “Not really. Where do you think you are right now?”

He looked at the black mirror then back at her. “I—uh—”

“You’re in an interrogation room, citizen,” she said, “one short elevator ride away from the holding cell we’ll store you in when we find you guilty. Don’t worry, though. You won’t be staying there long. Not with the kind of insurance Lord Walker had out on the property you destroyed. No, with that much insurance—and your lack of it—I foresee a quick trip to the disposal unit in your future. Maybe they won’t even waste the expense of holding you at all, just send you straight there. There aren’t often vacancies in the cells these days. Now, Mr. Rockwell… Do you understand why it’s so important, so crucial, so…vital for you to tell me everything you know as soon as possible.”

Guy nodded, swallowing his fear. His tears had dried up with the rush of adrenaline his body produced in reaction to the protector’s speech. He wiped his sweaty hands on his thighs and tried to come up with something to say, but he couldn’t think straight. This protector couldn’t be serious. There was no way they could think that Guy had something to do with Russ’s death. How could they? He didn’t.

“Well,” the protector said, tapping her fingers on the table. “Sooner would have been better.”

“But I don’t know anything,” Guy complained. “What am I supposed to say?” His body started to tremble, and he tried to hold tight to his seat to stop it, but it was no use, the chair just shook with him. He had lost control.

“You’re a bit nervous for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong,” the protector said with a grin. “Now why’s that, Guy?”

“I, well…” His trembling got worse now that she had pointed it out. “Because you’re a—a protector,” he stammered.

“That’s right,” she said. “I’m here to protect you. Why would that make you nervous?”

“No, but you just said—”

“I just warned you of the consequences if you’re found to have some part in this,” she said. “If being the operative word, citizen. Like if you hadn’t done anything wrong, you wouldn’t be so nervous that I could hear your chair rattling.”

Guy jumped up, pushing the chair to the ground with a clatter and making his heart skip a beat.

The protector laughed. “Settle down now, son,” she said. “And get back in that chair.”

Guy picked it up, and the chair felt extra heavy because his arms wouldn’t stop shaking. He felt so weak. He made a lot of noise setting it upright and was relieved at the small comfort of being able to sit on its cold hard surface.

“Now,” the protector said when he had reseated himself. “Tell me what you know.”

I told you,” Guy said, his voice breaking. “I—I know nothing.”

The protector shook her head. “You were there, weren’t you?

Guy nodded.

“And you were the first to notice something wrong. You were the one holding him while he died, and you alerted everyone else to that fact. Do you expect me to believe that this was all a coincidence?”

He was already dead,” Guy blurted out then covered his mouth.

The protector raised an eyebrow. “Go on…”

“W—when I turned him over,” Guy said. “He was already dead. He didn’t die in my arms.”

She nodded. “Still,” she said, “it seems suspicious, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t do this,” Guy said. “I wouldn’t. I loved Russ. I worked on every movie he was ever in. I—we—he was going to give me notes on a script I wrote.” He wished he could take it back as soon as he had said it.

You don’t say,” the protector said. “Russ Logo, the biggest star in the history of entertainment, was going to give a no name extra notes on his script. Was this some kind of charity?”

Guy’s cheeks flushed. He was angry and embarrassed at the same time. Who was this cop to talk to him about art? Who was she to say that he wasn’t good enough to work with Russ Logo? She didn’t know anything about writing, or movies, or anything in the world that mattered. “Yes,” he said. “That’s right.”

“It was charity?” The protector looked confused.

“I—wha—no,” Guy said, shaking his head. “It wasn’t.”

“Then what?”

“I—because…”

“You know what I think, Rockwell,” the protector said. “I think you’re lying. I think he denied your request for help, and that’s why you killed him. Isn’t it?”

“I—never—no, but—”

No more buts, Rockwell. Tell us what happened!’

“He wasn’t giving me notes, okay.” Guy sighed. He couldn’t keep that lie up any longer. It was too unbelievable. “But I wouldn’t kill him for that. That’s ridiculous. I don’t even know how to kill a person. I—I just couldn’t do it. It’s absurd.”

“Sure, Rockwell.” The protector scoffed. “That’s what you’d like us to believe. But I’m not buying your stupid routine. You got that?”

“I—but—”

She slammed both hands on the table and pushed herself up from the chair. “I said, you got that?”

Guy nodded. He didn’t know if he wanted to hit her, run away and try to escape, or tremble in his seat, pissing himself.

“Good,” she said. “We’ll be watching you, Rockwell. You can count on that.” She left the room, slamming the door behind her.

Guy took a deep breath. The room spun around him. She really thought that he had something to do with Russ’s death. The protectors thought he was a suspect in Russ’s murder. His stomach gurgled like it wanted to expel all of its contents. Guy felt like passing out.

The door swung open and two protectors marched in. One pointed a gun at Guy and said, “Stand up, citizen. Over here.”

Guy put his hands up and slowly crept toward the protector.

“Stay put,” the protector said, pushing the gun closer as if Guy didn’t know it was there. The second protector bent down and strapped something heavy around Guy’s ankle.

“There we are, citizen,” the first said. “Now we’ll have our eyes on you at all times. Follow us.”

They marched him down a long hall to a big elevator and rode with him back to the entrance where they had arrested him. “Don’t forget,” the protector said, pushing Guy into the street. “We’re watching you.” The doors slid closed.

Guy looked around. This was his street alright, but it looked different. Where before all the close set balconies and squished together buildings were a comforting, warm embrace, now they seemed cold, hard, and distant. It was light out. He didn’t remember how long he had been gone for or if he had slept even. He thought that maybe the whole thing was a dream and he would wake up soon, warm and comfortable in his bed. But no matter how many times he blinked or tried to pinch himself, he just wouldn’t wake up.

He didn’t want to climb up to his tiny apartment and be alone right now. He didn’t think he could handle that. He still wasn’t entirely sure if he was insane, and he needed some other human to tell him the truth. He sighed and stepped back into the elevator to tell it to bring him to the closest stop to Indywood.

He hoped his crew would be there. He almost started trembling again in anticipation as he opened the bar doors, but when he saw what was behind them, his jaw dropped. Every single patron was dressed from head to toe in black. The bar’s decorations had been changed from their normal colorful festivity to a drab black motif, with only black and white movies playing on the screens. He felt like he had walked into a funeral. Even the music playing seemed dark and sad. But to his relief, most of the crew was sitting at their normal tables so Guy walked over and waved. “Uh, hey,” he said.

“Oh, Fortuna.” Jen gasped, standing from the couch and hugging him. “I was so worried about you.”

Guy blushed. “I—uh—”

“Here, take a seat,” she said, pulling him down to the couch. “Scoot over, Emir. Let him in.”

They shuffled around to let Guy onto the couch. Cohen looked him up and down. “Where have you been?” he asked.

“Shit, Cohen.” Jen shot him a look. “I told you the protectors took him. What do you mean where has he been?”

“Yeah, well.” Cohen sneered. “Why’d they take you, then? Huh? We were expecting our sheets this morning, Guy. We’re pretty much ready to shoot everything. All we need’s the script.”

“We don’t have every—” Laura started.

We’re ready.” Cohen cut her off.

“Well, it wasn’t really my choice to be arrested,” Guy said.

“You were arrested!” Emily said.

“I told you!” Jen said.

“Is that why you aren’t wearing black?” Emir asked.

Guy looked down at himself. He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing on what was apparently yesterday. “Why are you all wearing black?” he asked.

Uh, doi,” Emily said.

Emir scoffed.

“Because of Russ,” Jen said. “Like you said.”

Guy rubbed his face with his hands. Of course. The news must have gotten out by now. They were mourning Russ’s death. That’s why the entire bar was dressed in black, too. Guy had told his crew about it the day before, and they didn’t believe him then, but now that everyone knew the truth, they had no choice but to advertise their melancholy, wearing it on their sleeves and shirts and dresses and shoes—even the bar’s decorations and the movies on the projector screens. He wasn’t crazy after all. He felt an itch on his leg and went to scratch it, but abruptly stopped when he felt the weight on his ankle and remembered what it was.

“So,” Jen said, patting him on the back. “Tell us. What happened?”

“I, uh, well…”

“Go on,” Cohen said. “We’re not getting anything done until we get past this, so you might as well spit it out now.”

“Well,” Guy said, “they questioned me about what happened. Since he died in my arms and all…”

“So it was true,” Emir said, a proud look on his face.

No way,” Emily said. “Really?”

“I was there,” Jen said. “They stole Guy right off his front steps and disappeared through the elevator. I was terrified. I thought they were going to kill me with their creepy voices and glowing teeth.”

Cohen laughed. “So what?” he asked. “They just asked you a few questions and let you go?”

The whole crew looked on at Guy expectantly. He relished the attention and paused for effect. “Well, not just that,” he said. He lifted his foot onto the table and pulled up his pants leg so they could all see his new fashion statement. “They said they were watching me, too,” he said with a shit-eating grin on his face.

The group let out a collective gasp.

Bad ass,” Emir said.

Fortuna,” Emily said.

Holy shit,” Laura said.

You can’t be serious,” Cohen said.

Jen gasped.

Steve came back from the bar with a drink in hand and said, “What? What happened, y’all? What did I miss?”

And Guy just nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Well I told y’all what had happened and you didn’t believe me. Remember?”

They all tried to avoid his gaze, except for Steve who was still trying to figure out what he had missed and Laura who was filling him in.

“Well, I had nothing to do with it,” Guy went on. “So this ought to be off my ankle in no time.”

Laura scoffed.

“What?” Guy asked her.

“Oh, nothing,” she said, waving it away.

“Come on,” Cohen said. “Share it with the crew.”

“Well, it’s just—you’ve never had a run in with the protectors before, have you?” Laura said.

Everyone looked at him, and Guy shook his head.

“Yeah, well,” she said, “that thing won’t be as easy to get off you ankle as you think it will be. That’s all I’m saying.”

“But I didn’t even do anything,” Guy complained. “They can’t just tag me like an animal whenever they want to.”

Emily scoffed, taking a drink.

“Pretty much,” Laura said, sipping hers, too.

“Well, we’ll see about tha—”

Alright, alright,” Cohen said, waving his hands to shut everyone up. Some small disparate conversations had started among the crew. “Enough. You see? That’s why I didn’t want to bring this up. We’ll be on it forever. It’s time we get on to the real business that brought us here.”

“Go on, then,” Emir said, losing interest.

“First,” Cohen went on, “and I hate to bring it back to you again already, but Guy, come on man, tell us, is the script finished yet?”

“Well, I didn’t really have time to get to the edits, did I?” Guy said. “I came straight here from prison.”

“No, and we didn’t get your new pages either,” Cohen said. “But am I to take that to mean the script is not finished?”

Guy wanted to slap the smug grin of his face. He hated that patronizing tone so much. “Yes, Cohen,” he said in the sweetest voice he could muster. “When I say I have more edits to do, that means the script’s not done yet.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” Cohen said, ignoring Guy’s tone. “Because I’m gonna need you to drop that script and work on a higher priority piece right away.”

“I—what?” Guy said. The rest of the crew complained with him. What could be higher priority than the project which all of them had been devoting their every free hour to for months now? “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No,” Cohen said, grinning wider. “I’m more serious than I’ve ever been.”

“What the fuck, Cohen?” Emir demanded. “What could be more important than this script?”

This script,” Cohen said, holding up a packet of papers. “There are only a few here so ya’ll’ll have to share for now.” He handed one to Guy then a couple to a few of the others. Jen read Guy’s over his shoulder as he flipped through it so he went a little slower than he normally would have.

“This is crap,” Guy said when he had flipped to the end and passed it to Jen so she could get a closer look.

“That’s where you come in,” Cohen said. “You have to make it workable.”

“But why?” Emir huffed, throwing his copy on the table. Emily smacked him, picked it up, and went on reading.

“Because this is how we get the equipment we need to make our project look like it’s done by professionals and not children,” Cohen said. “That’s why. Laura, you think you could make our shots cleaner with a better camera and some new lenses?”

“I—uh—of course,” she said. “But—”

“What about mics, lights, dollies, and tracks?”

Laura nodded.

“Steve, if you could have anything in the world, cost not a factor, could you solve that owner fatness issue? Could you make them look really, really, like, disgustingly alien fat?”

“Oh, of course,” Steve said, waving a hand at Cohen. “No problem. But cost is a factor, dear.”

“Not anymore it isn’t,” Cohen said. “Not if we film this script first. Then we can each write out a wish list containing anything we want and have every little bit of it fulfilled.” He put his smug grin back on and crossed his arms, full of himself.

No one said anything. They didn’t know how to answer. Guy did, though. He didn’t believe Cohen for one minute. “Yeah, right,” he said.

“Yeah, Guy,” Cohen said. “That is right.”

“But how?” Emir asked.

“Let’s just say I found an investor. They offered unlimited printer access in exchange for one small script.”

“Who?” Emily asked.

“You wouldn’t know ‘em,” Cohen said.

“We wouldn’t know someone with a 3D printer?” Jen asked.

“I don’t like it,” Laura said.

Look,” Cohen said, “this is going to bring our project to the next level, y’all. Now, I know how much time and effort y’all have been putting into this because I’ve been there every step of the way with you, and I know it seems ridiculous to veer off course just now, when we seem so close to our hard sought destination, but a slight detour now will save us more time and effort in the end. It’ll save us money and, most importantly, respect. I know it seems like a gamble to you, but that’s because y’all haven’t met the investor. If you had, you would be as confident as I am in this thing, and you, Guy, would be hard at work fixing that script right now so we can bring her something we can all work with.”

“Why don’t we just meet her then?” Guy asked. “If that would change all of our minds, I mean.”

The rest of the crew seemed to agree.

“That’s the rub,” Cohen said. “For in that meeting what things may come? Our inertia might change her mind, then where would we be? Back where we started from—with extra time wasted. No, that’s the worst course of all. For now, you have to trust me as your director. You have to trust my judgement. And I swear before Fortuna that you will not be disappointed.”

Emir shrugged. “I’m in,” he said. “Whatever.”

“Me, too,” Emily said, throwing her copy on the table. “I can see something to work with in there. I just want to act.”

“I don’t know,” Laura said. “I need more time to read it before I decide.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Jen said, still flipping through her copy.

“That’s alright,” Cohen said. “Guy still needs to come up with his revisions before we know what we’re really working with, anyway. What about you, Steve?”

Steve shrugged. “You give me a costume to design, and I’ll make it.”

“Well, then,” Cohen said with a smile. “Guy. What about you?”

Guy didn’t want to do this. He was a writer, not an editor. The prospect of working on someone else’s project was already unappealing enough, and the tripe that he had skimmed through only made it worse. But he couldn’t let his crew down, either. Without them he’d be a sad, lonely extra, sitting by himself in his room, with only the imaginary friends in his head to keep him company. He shook his head. “I don’t know if I can make this workable,” he said.

“I believe in you,” Cohen said.

Guy scoffed. “It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Still,” Cohen said. “I think you can do it.”

“I don’t know,” Guy said, standing up. “And I’m not deciding until I read it in full. I’ll let you know when I do.” He stomped out of the bar, noticing that he hadn’t brought a script with him when he was only halfway outside, but not stopping until he was in the fresh air anyway.

He took a deep breath. That was not a productive way to end the conversation, but Cohen didn’t care what the words actually said, what the film actually meant in the end. All he cared about was getting another director credit that he could slap on his resume. Most of the rest of them didn’t care, either. They were all the same, they just wanted to work. They didn’t realize it was different when you were a writer. Putting your name on something meant it represented your views, and Guy didn’t think that this script was speaking for him. He didn’t want to go back in for a copy because of that, so he decided he would just have to call Jen to get it later. He was about to head to the elevator when she came out waving one for him anyway. “Guy, wait,” she said.

Guy chuckled. “I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said.

“Yeah, well, you better not be,” she said, hitting him with the script. “We need you.”

Guy blushed. It was nice to know that at least one member of the crew thought that was true. “Not really,” he said. “You already have a script.”

“Yeah, but you said it sucks.”

“It does,” Guy said. “But what do you think?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I don’t read that fast. And I’m not a writer anyway. What does my opinion matter?”

“But you’re going to be working on the project,” Guy said. “You’re putting your time and effort into it. Don’t you think it would be a waste of your time if it wasn’t good?”

“Not if I’m getting paid well enough.” Jen smiled.

“But we’re not getting paid at all.”

“We are, though, silly.” She slapped his arm. “Cohen said we’d get to fill out a wish list. I’m asking for a new battle station.”

“But do you think that’s worth it? I mean, here. Look at this.” He grabbed the script out of her hand and flipped to a particularly horrible quote he remembered from his skim through. “Here it is: Assembly Worker—and that’s her name, mind you—Assembly Worker slip, snap, clicks at a line. Enter Android Thief—again a name. This is my job. How will my human children eat?—she literally says human children for Fortuna’s sake—then Android thief pushes Assembly Worker out of the way and slip, snap, clicks in her place, saying. I am a robot. I don’t care. And that’s all the robot ever says throughout the entire script, okay. I am a robot. I don’t care. I mean, that’s how ridiculous this shit is.” He looked at her, pointing at the spot in the script, and when she didn’t respond, he said, “That’s shit. I mean, the names alone are a red flag. The dialogue is stereotypical and stilted. The imagery is less than subtle.” He chuckled to himself. “This is pure garbage.”

“I don’t know,” Jen said. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“It wasn’t that bad?” Guy scoffed. “Do you even know what this thing is saying? That was the most obvious scene I could pick out.”

Jen looked offended now. Like she didn’t want to be there talking to Guy anymore. “What does it matter anyway?” she asked. “A job’s a job.”

“But this isn’t just a job, Jen. Who do you think’s going to watch this crap? What’s the point in working on something so ridiculous? I mean, robots stealing jobs? That was maybe topical like a hundred and fifty years ago, if then. It’s Luddite nonsense, and I don’t understand how anyone who has access to a printer could still be promoting such utter horse shit.”

“Guy, settle down.” Jen sighed. “You’re too worked up about this. It’s not that big of a deal, okay. It’s just a job.”

“No, but—”

No,” Jen stopped him. “I know you have your ideals, and you like to stick to them, but now’s not the time, okay. Wait—I know. Just listen. You wrote the script we really care about. Those are you’re words, Guy. Most of the rest of the crew trusts Cohen to—I know, but listen—most of them trust him to be a good judge of character, and I do, too, Guy. Even if their message is ignorant, I trust that this investor’s payment will be true. And if it is, we’ll be so much more capable when we get to finally do your script that it’ll be seen by more people because of it. Don’t you want your script to be seen by as wide an audience as possible, Guy?”

“Well, yeah, but—” Guy started.

But nothing,” Jen said. “Do you trust me, Guy?”

He blushed again. “I—of course—but—”

“Then do it for me,” she said. “And the rest of the crew. Fuck Cohen. I know you can polish this turd up enough to make it easier on the rest of us, then we can get to the real work of putting your script into production, the job we all really want to do. What do you say?”

“Uh, yeah, well, I guess, but—”

“Well, it’s settled then.” She turned him toward the elevator and patted him on the butt. “Get to it,” she said. “We can’t wait to hear your edits.”

#     #     #

< XXXIII. Jonah     [Table of Contents]     XXXV. Olsen >

That’s it for this Saturday, dear readers. Again, thank for joining us, and don’t forget to pick up the full novel and sign up for the email update list in order to support my future writing projects, many of which are already well under way. Have a great weekend.

Chapter 30: Huey

Hey, y’all. Late again this weekend thanks to the holiday season messing with my internal clock, but here’s the next chapter in the Infinite Limits tetralogy. This time we return to Huey as he bargains and deals with the owners of Inland and Rosalind as she tries to keep him in line.

I hope you’re enjoying everything so far. If so, pick up a physical or digital copy of the full novel An Almost Tangent through this link and sign up to join my email newsletter here. I don’t send out many messages to the list, but when I do free books are usually involved.

Enjoy now. And have a good Sunday.

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

XXX. Huey

It was amazing to finally get to spend some time alone with Haley. It was the first chance Huey had gotten since Christmas. She was so busy spending time with her mom and sister, and he had his owner duties to tend to.

They had spent the rest of that day listing activities for Haley to try, and when they first started out, she could only name things she had already done. Huey helped her along with some suggestions she hadn’t thought of, though, and soon, they were shooting off ideas back and forth, creating a never-ending list of activities for her to try and find out if she loved.

“How could anyone ever be bored?” Haley had asked just as the Scientist and the kids came into the room, destroying Huey’s little Heaven. That was the end of his time alone with Haley, but even that small bit was enough to remain in his mind all through the rest of the next day which he spent sitting in one of the puffy office chairs, talking to Mr. Kitty about life, love, and Haley. He was still doing it late into the afternoon when Rosalind stormed in, breaking him from his conversation.

“Of course you’re in here,” she snapped, crossing her arms. “Doing nothing as always, I assume.”

“What?” Huey asked, shrugging at Mr. Kitty. “There’s nothing to be done. Of course I’m doing nothing.”

“Nothing to be done?” Rosalind huffed. “I take it you haven’t been following the proceedings in Outland Two, then, Mr. Douglas.”

“I—uh…” He hadn’t. Ever since his time with Haley he had thought about nothing else, and certainly not all this nonsense going on in the Outlands. He could only put off his duties for so long, though.

Your undercover operations,” Rosalind said. “You do remember those, don’t you?”

Huey nodded, embarrassed.

“Well, the protectors have intel which should help prepare you for the inevitable meeting you’ll be having with the Fortune Five about it. So, if you don’t protest, Mr. Douglas, sir, your elevator’s waiting.” She curtsied and stepped out of the room into the hall.

“Well, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, standing from his chair. “You heard her. I have work to do. Thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy your company.”

Mr. Kitty didn’t answer. He just kept licking himself.

Huey fixed his tuxedo, putting on his top hat and monocle, in the reflection on the wallwindow. He always had to look the part of an owner or all the work they had been doing for so long would be all for not. Satisfied, he went out to the hall where Rosalind was waiting in the elevator.

The doors slid closed. “So, any background I need for this?” Huey asked as the elevator carried them downward.

“I’m sure your squad will brief you,” Rosalind said.

The elevator doors opened to three protectors saluting them. “At ease,” Huey said.

They dropped their salutes, and the protector in front, Agent Colvin, said, “Yes, sir. We thought you’d like an update before the planned demonstration, sir. Were we wrong, sir?”

“Demonstration?” Huey asked. He should have been paying more attention instead of dreaming about Haley. Rosalind shot him a dirty look as if she agreed with his very thoughts.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin went on. “From the video message, sir. We’ll show you everything right away, sir. Follow me.” She directed them down a long white hall, lined with blue carpet. There were glass doors every so often, with offices behind them, and in the door at the end of the hall was a long room with stadium seating, all directed at a podium and screen.

“If you’ll take a seat, sir,” Agent Colvin said.

Huey took the front row center seat and tried to signal to Rosalind to sit next to him, but she stood off to the side, ignoring him. Agent Colvin stood behind the podium and didn’t say a word. She simply stared out at Huey and the empty seats around him, standing at attention. After he took his tall hat off and set it on the chair next to him, rolling his neck to stretch it, he realized that she was waiting for him and said, “Go ahead.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “Where would you like me to begin, sir?”

“From the beginning, please,” Huey said. “Whatever you had planned to tell me. Assume I haven’t paid any attention in the last twenty four hours.”

Rosalind scoffed behind him.

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “As you know, since the Christmas attack we’ve seen a rapid increase in cross-world contamination incidents. That includes border crossings, printer theft, the usual. We believe we’ve got our thumbs on the major illegal immigration cartels, but even with our increased activities, contamination incidents continue to grow. That’s all without mentioning the den of thieves which Outland Five has become with its introduction to Outland Six.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Perhaps I should have been more clear, Agent. My major concern right now is Outland Two. We all know that the savages in Five and Six can’t be domesticated, but when their behavior spreads closer to us, we have reason to worry. Do you understand?” He felt bad for saying it like that. He didn’t really believe that the people who lived in Five and Six were any more savages than the people that lived in any of the worlds, but he had a role to fill. The protectors here were required to believe that he was no different from any other owner so he had to act like one. He could practically hear Rosalind’s head shaking behind him, though—and her eyes rolling. She probably thought that he actually believed what he was saying, even though she knew from experience that he was helping fight to free those very “savages” from their oppression. She always thought that he enjoyed filling the role of an owner too much, and in some ways, she was right. It did have its benefits. But this wasn’t one of them.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted behind the podium, trying to get back on track after the tangent.

Huey felt bad for her so he tried to help her along. “You said something about a video message,” he said. “Let’s start with that.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, standing up straighter again. “As you know, at seventeen hundred hours yesterday an unpermitted group of students gathered on private school grounds to spread blasphemous libel.”

Huey nodded. He wasn’t sure he would call it blasphemous or libel, but he appreciated her enthusiasm.

“This particular group of students,” Agent Colvin went on. “Was led by one Emma Whistleblower.” A picture of the Emma in question, with her name in block letters underneath, came up on the screen behind Agent Colvin. “We’ve been tracking her as per your previous request, and as such, we were in prime position for yesterday’s incident. That is to say we already had, and still do have, an agent embedded in their group, sir.”

“Good, good,” Huey said. “But I know all of this already. What about the video?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin straightened up even more, if that was at all possible. “Whistleblower, it’s been revealed—and with due attention to the irony, I might add, sir—wears a camera pin to all illicit functions. She had an emergency protocol in place, and when the illegal activity was put to a halt, the video was sent out to her entire contact list, including everyone who had their contact information in the school’s directory. That’s everyone who works at, teaches at, or attends the university, sir.”

Huey was going to respond, but Agent Colvin stepped out from in front of the screen. The picture of Emma disappeared, and a video of a group of young students, including their Whistleblower, came up in its stead. There was no sound, but Huey could tell they were all listening to Emma speak from behind the camera. Everyone turned their heads at once, and the camera panned over to look the way they were all staring to see a troupe of a hundred white-clad protectors marching toward them. The camera got shakier and panned back and forth between the students, who were tightening up into a bunch—only to make themselves easier targets—and the protectors, who had started hitting them with gas and bean bags, filling the screen with smoke. In the gaseous, dense fog the camera fell to the ground and blacked out.

Agent Colvin stepped back up to the podium. “As you can see, sir,” she said. “The situation was handled efficiently.”

Huey let out a loud chortle. “No,” he said. “That it wasn’t, Agent Colvin. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. And it wasn’t you protectors’ fault, at that.”

Agent Colvin fidgeted again behind the podium. “That’s not all, sir,” she said.

“Go on,” Huey said, waving her on. Of course that wasn’t the end of it. That was just the beginning. It was the spark of an explosion he had talked about with Mr. Angrom.

“Well, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “There was a message sent with the video, sir. Shall I read it to you, or—”

“On the screen, please,” he said.

It popped up. “This is how they protect you,” it read. “We are students. We gathered on the parade grounds. We did no wrong. We tried to warn you. What you thought was yours does not belong to you. Now the protectors have shown you. The protectors have shown us all. How long will we let them take what is ours?

“We ask you to clear all school grounds in memory of those who were viciously attacked by our ‘protectors’. We will hold this vigil for 24 hours, and at 5:00 PM on January 2nd we will reclaim the grounds! The only question left is will you be there to help us take back what is ours?”

It didn’t take Huey more than a few seconds to read and a couple more to process. He smiled when he had then licked his lips to hide it. Now was not the time for celebration. Now was the time to fill his role. He waited a little longer to answer, the amount of time that a normal owner would take to read such a minor amount of text, then said, “And have you been surveying the campus?”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted then added, “Not a soul, sir.”

Huey fought the smile again. “Is our embedded agent in place?”

“Sir, yes, sir. He was arrested with everyone else, but his cover wasn’t blown. We’ll be set up for the demonstration at seventeen hundred, sir.”

Good,” Huey said. “Very good. It’s extremely important that we keep our eyes on this particular movement. Do you understand? This is the start of something much bigger. I know it is.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted. “Our agent is moving into position as we speak, and we have the parade grounds monitored from all sides. We have been monitoring them since long before yesterday, sir. We’ll be ready, but how do you want us to proceed?”

Huey laughed. Oh how he wished it was his decision. Well, not really. If he was in control, he would be able to actually put an end to all this, but that’s not what he really wanted. Sometimes he almost forgot that himself. No, what the owners would undoubtedly do would be violent and painful for those brave few children on the front lines, but it would only help to bolster their message in the long run. The owners were fighting gasoline with fire just like Mr. Angrom had said.

“Unfortunately,” Huey said, “That decision does not lie with me. We can only prepare and react based on Lord Walker’s whims.”

“Sir, but—” Agent Colvin started.

“Let me finish, please,” Huey said, holding up a hand to stop her. “There are a few things I need from you. First, have you noticed our food and energy costs declining?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, confused. “But what does—”

“In exchange for this gift,” Huey said, ignoring her questions, “we will ensure that no harm comes to Emma Whistleblower or her roommate Tillie Manager. Do you understand me?”

“I—uh. But, sir. Emma is—”

“Emma is the roommate and best friend of Mr. Angrom’s top manager’s daughter—Tillie, the one with Manager in the name. If any harm comes to either of them, I will hold you personally responsible. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir. But the efficient—”

“Stop right there,” Huey said. “I don’t need a lecture on efficiency. I define efficiency, Agent Colvin. I know what is most efficient, and it’s my decision either way. We will ensure that no harm comes to either of them. We will enjoy lower costs as a result. And we will do it most efficiently without any arguing from underlings like you. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted.

“Good. Very good,” Huey stood up and rubbed his hands together. “Then if there’s nothing else, I’ll be on my way. Business to get to. You know.”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “But…we’ll need to deploy more agents if we—”

“Oh, yes yes,” Huey said. “Of course. Go ahead. We can afford it now.” He smiled. “Okay, Agent Colvin. I’ll see myself out. You have your own work to tend to.”

Huey turned, expecting to see Rosalind, but she wasn’t there. He walked himself all the way out to the elevator before he found her. She avoided eye contact with him until he stepped into the elevator, too, and they watched the doors close.

When the elevator was on its way down, Rosalind scoffed. “You define efficiency,” she said. “I think we might be using different dictionaries.”

“It was an act, Roz,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Everything you see me do in front of the owners or my employees is an act. That’s not really me.”

“I’m one of your employees,” she said as the elevator doors opened. “I guess you’re acting when you’re in front of me.”

“It’s not the same,” he called, but she had already disappeared through the hall door.

Huey sighed to himself. He hated this animosity he felt between him and Rosalind. He wished there was some way he could set things right, but he had no idea where they had gone wrong in the first place. In order to do anything about it he would have to discern that first. He was set on doing just that when the elevator door opened behind him and Ansel and Richard came running through the hall past him.

“Woah, now,” he said as they disappeared through the hall door.

“I’m sorry,” Haley said behind him, laughing.

Huey turned and smiled. “Ah,” he said. “How lovely to see you.”

Haley blushed. “Hello, Mr. Douglas.”

Huey,” he said. “How has your day been, dear?”

Oh.” Haley smiled wide. “You wouldn’t believe it. The kids took me out to run in the grass and chase animals. We climbed trees, and I even got to shoot a slingshot! Uh. I mean… How was your day, sir?”

Huey chuckled. “Not as good yours, I’m afraid. Nowhere near it. And it only looks to be getting worse.”

“Oh no,” Haley frowned. “Is there anything I can do about it?”

Huey checked his watch. It was getting on toward time to go to a feast, and he knew there would be business at this one. His protectors had just told him as much. Still, he wanted even more than ever to spend as much time as he could with Haley. Maybe she could be of assistance with his problems. She was the most experienced android in existence. But no. She had no idea of the situation. She had only just become independent. There was no way she could help. It was his desire to spend time with her and nothing more.

“No,” Huey said finally. “I’m afraid not. Not this time at least. But if you’ll let me get through this feast, there is one thing I could use your help with.”

“What?” Haley asked.

“Finding what it is you love,” he said. “We never finished that yesterday.”

Haley chuckled and blushed again. “No, well, I have a lot to try,” she said. “You said so yourself.”

“Yes.” Huey smiled. “But I have some ideas I think you might not have thought of yet.”

“I can’t wait to hear them,” Haley said. “But I promised the kids that I’d show them how to make cheesecake and whipped cream first. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh, no,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time. You go ahead. I’ll find you again when I’m not so busy. I promise.”

“I can’t wait,” Haley said as she slipped through the hall door into the kitchen.

Huey took a second to catch his breath and let his head calm down. What was wrong with him? He had never felt this way about anyone before. He shook his head to get the thought of her out of it, and made his way through the hall door. He didn’t pick a room before he opened it, but it came out to the office. Probably a default because this was the room he chose most often. Rosalind was sitting in one of the chairs, staring out the window onto the wilderness scene. She didn’t turn to acknowledge him, even when he sat on a chair across from her and put his heavy top hat on a side table.

“You finally made it,” she said after some time’s silence.

Huey didn’t give her the satisfaction of a response.

“So how do you think the owners will respond?” she asked, still looking out the window.

“Exactly how we’ve predicted they would all along,” he said. “They haven’t failed us yet. Or they’ve only failed us. Is there a difference?”

“No, brother. There isn’t a difference,” she said, shaking her head and gazing out the window. “Not with owners. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. The better off we’ll all be, as a matter of fact.”

“You know, I’m sick of you always undermining me.”

Rosalind laughed. “Me, too, sir,” she said with a smile. “Me, too.”

“We’re on the same side whether you believe it or not,” Huey went on. “I’m doing what I was built to do. I’m fulfilling my role, just like you are. I want to free the assembly line workers just as much as you do, and that’s the only reason I put on this disgusting costume every day.”

Rosalind laughed. “Free the assembly line workers, huh? But that’s the entire point of our disagreement, brother. You only see the assembly line workers, and you ignore the secretaries who bathe, dress, and feed the owners. You ignore the oppression they need to be freed from. You ignore me.”

Huey shook his head and grimaced. “Ugh,” he said. “No I don’t. I—”

It doesn’t matter,” Rosalind snapped. “It’s time. Lord Walker called the feast. Let’s tend to your duties, Mr. Douglas.”

“No,” Huey said. “Wait, but—” But Rosalind had left the room already.

She was wrong. Huey did care about the secretaries. He wanted to help everyone, but he had to start somewhere. He couldn’t do everything all at once. Roz only cared about the secretaries because she was currently fulfilling the role of one. Her view was biased. Huey, however, could see clearly from his position as an owner, so he knew his strategy would work better than Rosalind’s. He stood from the chair, put back on his top hat, and followed Roz out to the elevator.

She was waiting inside the doors as usual. He stepped in, and she didn’t say anything to him for the entire ride to the same spinning carousel restaurant in which the previous meeting feast was held. Any time Lord Walker got to choose where the meeting feasts were, he chose the same restaurant. Lord Walker owned the Carousel, and the more often the Fortune Five was seen there, the more likely it would be for other owners to want to be seen there themselves. It was perfect advertising on top of the fact that whatever anyone ordered during the meeting they had to pay Lord Walker for. No outside food or drinks were allowed on the premises.

Huey and Rosalind rode the hover platform up to the head table where Lord Walker and Mr. Loch were laughing drunkenly, patting each other on the back with one hand and waving fried chicken legs around in the air with the other. Mr. Loch dropped his chicken leg and started banging on the table while Lord Walker—who noticed Huey’s arrival—tried to stifle his laughter to speak. “Oh ho ho! Wooooo. Douggy boy. Ho ho ho! You—ho—you beat Smörgy. Ho ho have a seat.”

Numbers clicked in Huey’s head, a small signal from the stock market. He smiled. He had expected this to happen soon but not this soon. In fact, he had almost forgotten about it, lost with everything else he had lost because he had been spending his time thinking about Haley. He turned to Rosalind and grinned. She just shrugged and rolled her eyes, shaking her head. Huey picked up a seat from the end of the table furthest from Walker and dragged it around to the head of the table opposite from him. He sat down on it with a smile as the laughter from the other end of the table died down.

Ahem. Mr. Douglas,” Loch said, an embarrassed look on his face. “Mannersh,” he slurred.

“Now, now, Douggy Poo,” Walker said, cool and collected. He tapped his greasy fingers on the table cloth, leaving stains in their wake. “What is this all about? Huh?”

“You don’t know?” Huey asked with a smile. “You called this meeting.”

“Yes,” Walker said, smiling back. “I called it so we could discuss our next step in dealing with the burgeoning complications in Outland Two. Not so we could bicker over the seating arrangements. Now if you’ll please.” He waved the chicken leg in his hand, trying to tell Huey to move his chair back, but Lord Douglas just smiled.

The hover platform came up carrying Angrom and his secretary. Angrom stood there staring at the table, as if trying to decide how to react, before he went and sat at the right hand of Huey—kitty-corner to Loch—without a word.

“Angrom!” Loch complained, slamming his fist on the table. “What do you think about this?”

“About what, sir?” Angrom asked, shaking his head and feigning confusion. “I’ve only just arrived. How am I to know what you’ve been blathering on about before I got here?”

“You know what I’m—” Loch started, but Walker stopped him.

“Settle down now, Loch Ness,” he said. “We all know what you’re talking about, Mr. Angrom included. He made his decision when he sat down. Didn’t you Angry?”

Angrom smiled. “Not so angry anymore, Wally,” he said with a chuckle. “I think the view is turning for the better. How about you?”

Walker couldn’t hide his derision. “What is this?” he demanded, his voice losing confidence. “Is this some sort of coup or something? You trying to take over, boy?”

Huey shook his head. “I’ve never been a boy,” he said.

No, boy?” Walker raised his voice. “You’ve always been one. And you’ll never amount to anything more than that by acting like this. Now our Smörgy should be here soon, and we’ll let him break this little stalemate for us once and for all.”

“It’s not for any of us to decide,” Huey replied.

The hover platform came up carrying Smörgåsbord, and he walked right up to the seat at Huey’s left hand side to sit down without pause.

Loch’s face instantly turned bright red. He slammed his fist on the table, setting a turkey leg flying, and yelled, “You, too, Smörgåsbord?”

Walker couldn’t hold in his true thoughts, either. “You boxhead, hyrdie-byrdie traitor!” he screamed. “What are you doing?”

“Um, excuse me?” Smörgåsbord demanded, wide eyed and obviously trying not to take visible offence. “How was that now?”

“I said,” Walker said, “why are you sitting on that side of the table, Smörgbox? Do you not realize what you’ve done?”

“Well, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said with a straight face. “I’ll spare you any racial slurs which might apply all too well to you and ask you similar questions in a civilized manner. Why are you sitting at the foot of the table, sir? Do you not notice what you’ve done?”

Walker’s face turned a shade of red which Huey didn’t know human skin was capable of. “I—” Walker stammered, looking around at each face sitting at the table in turn. “The foot? Lord Walker…” His head looked like it was going to explode.

“No, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said. “I checked the numbers before I came here—as I do before I go anywhere—and while you were in your right to call this meeting when you did, as of now, you’re sitting at the foot of the table, sir.”

Lord Huey Douglas smiled. He soaked in Walker’s anger, embarrassment, and disbelief. Walker had been the richest man in all the world for his entire life practically, and now he was no one, he was number two. It took Walker a while to finally accept that fact and he looked like he was going to cry before he finally gave in. Eventually he stood up and called Haley’s doppelganger over to move his chair for him. Seeing Haley have to do that—and knowing that the real Haley was forced to do the same menial tasks, and worse, for so long—only made Huey want to punish Walker all the more, but now wasn’t the time for that. There was business to tend to first.

“Now that we have the seating arrangement under control,” Huey said. “I believe that Mr. Walker called this feast to talk about his botched job in Outland Two. And because I think that Mr. Walker’s failure is a pertinent topic of discussion myself, let’s get on with it.”

“Now I—” Walker started.

Now, I believe that you and I would agree on our next course of action, Mr. Walker,” Huey cut him off. Walker looked around for anyone to protest in his defense, but Loch avoided his gaze, chugging his drink instead, and Angrom laughed silently at him. “I believe—like I know you do, Mr. Walker—in fact, to use your own choice of language, I believe that we should handle this the old-fashioned way.”

Walker sneered.

“How’s that, Lord?” Angrom asked, happy to call Huey his new Lord rather than the much greater evil of Walker.

“We tear it up by the roots,” Huey said, motioning as if he were tearing up weeds from a garden as he spoke. “Like our friends here failed so miserably to do the first time. The key, which they didn’t have, is to know which part of the plant is the root. You target that and the problem won’t ever come back again.”

We tried that,” Walker whined. “And now my protectors expect exponentially more of those hobgoblins out there today. How do you propose to find the roots through all that foliage?” He smiled, satisfied that he had destroyed Huey’s point, no doubt.

Huey chuckled. “That’s the secret, my walrus-sized friend. We already know who the roots are. We’ve known since before you and yours went and fucked things up worse than they already were. I tried to warn you, but you’re made of brick. Aren’t you, Wally?”

Walker didn’t answer. He seethed and ordered Haley’s twin to get him more drinks.

“So these roots,” Smörgåsbord said. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with the change in power yet, but he wasn’t hesitating to go with what he knew the market demanded. “You say you know what—or is it who?—whatever. What are they, Lord Douglas?”

They are a she,” Huey said. The whole table looked confused at the wording. “One student in particular: Emma Whistleblower.”

Pffft. Whistleblower?” Loch said, splashing his drink.

“Yes, Mr. Loch,” Huey said. “Thank you for pointing that out. She is the driving force behind all of this. It was she who started the first Reclaim the Grounds demonstration on New Year’s Day. My private protection agents have evidence which suggests that she was involved in the twelve twenty five attacks as well. We’ve known all of this since before Mr. Walker made his blunder. I tried to warn him before now, but I can still pick up the pieces like I promised I would.”

“No, wait—” Walker protested.

“Kill her!” Loch said, raising his glass.

“Is that what the intelligence said?” Angrom asked.

“Yes,” Huey said. “It is. So let’s put an end to this nonsense once and for all.”

#     #     #

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

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