Chapter 79: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thim and Stevie are back. Read on to find out if life keeps coming up tails for them, or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link.

< LXXVIII. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXX. Jorah >

LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thim and Stevie ran for as long as their legs would carry them and their lungs would give them oxygen.

“Oh. My. God. I can’t believe we did that,” Stevie said, hunched over and breathing heavily when they had finally stopped running dozens of blocks away. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“It was the only way to follow Mr. Kitty.” Thim shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant even though they really couldn’t believe that they had done it either.

“Still, I can’t believe we did it,” Stevie said.

“I can’t believe we didn’t die.”

“And who was that person that we landed on?” Stevie asked.

“I think they might have been one of the giants,” Thim said. “Or at least I’m pretty sure. They were as tall as one, but they weren’t wearing the white uniform.”

“Well I’m glad we got away.” Stevie sighed. “So what next?”

“I don’t care,” Thim said, pulling out their coin to flip tails.

“Are you flipping that stupid coin again?” Stevie demanded.

“What’s it matter to you?” Thim asked. “It’s not like we have anything better to do.”

“We need to figure out what to do next,” Stevie said.

And a third voice said, “Next you come with me.”

Stevie turned toward the sound and pulled Thim around to face that direction, saying, “Next we come with who?” but Thim had already broken their grasp to run up and hug the owner of the voice.

“Stevie, it’s Anna,” they said, pulling Stevie into a group hug. “Don’t you recognize her voice?”

“Anna?” Stevie said, and they hugged tighter, happy to have the comfort of a responsible adult around, even if they were still in denial about Momma BB’s death. “How’d you find us?”

“Me and the Family’ve been monitoring this protector,” Anna said. “The same one who killed your Momma BB.” Both Thimblerigger and Stevedore hugged Anna tighter at the mention of it. “And the same one who chased y’all after you had landed on her head. Or so I’m told. Is that right? How exactly do you fall on someone so tall’s head? That’s what I want to know.” She chuckled, letting Thim and Stevie out of her hug.

“We jumped off the roof of the Safehouse,” Stevie said.

“Don’t ask me why,” Thim said.

“Jumped off the roof?” Anna laughed. “No way. And I will ask y’all why, as a matter of fact. But first let’s get you something to eat. What do you say?”

And of course, they said yes. They followed Anna to one of her hidden elevators and rode it to the Family Home where they sat on two stools in the kitchen, watching Anna cook up some red beans and rice and answering her questions as she asked them.

“So that officer didn’t molest you in any way, did she?” Anna asked, chopping vegetables while variously filled pots and pans heated on the stove. “Did she touch you inappropriately or anything like that?”

“Well, we did fall on her head,” Stevie said. “So we were kind of the ones touching her.”

“What was that?” Thim asked, having trouble keeping up with the conversation because Anna was moving around to cook.

Anna stopped what she was doing to look straight at Thim and speak with overt mouth motions. “But did she hurt you in any way?” she asked. “That’s the important part.”

Oh. No. Not me,” Stevie said. “Though she did threaten to.”

“I think we might have hurt her,” Thim said. “We fell right on her head.”

“Good. Very good,” Anna said, nodding. “And how exactly did you two manage that?” she added before returning to her cooking.

“You better believe it wasn’t my idea,” Thim said. “We jumped from the very top of the Safehouse.”

“Y’all are lucky the suicide nets were working,” Anna said. “On most buildings they’re not. Though I’m sure Momma BB never would have let y’all spend so much time alone up there if she wasn’t one hundred percent sure they were functional.”

“Suicide nets?” Stevie asked then mouthed the word to Thim who mouthed back asking what a suicide net was.

“Nothing y’all babies need to worry about,” Anna said, setting a bowl of food in front of each them. “Now you two just go ahead and eat on up while I go discuss a few things with our new friend.”

“What’s a suicide net?” Thim asked when Anna had gone. “Before you start eating.”

“I don’t know any more than you do. Do I?” Stevie complained, then they both inhaled their food, hungrier than they had realized they were. They cleared their bowls, licked them clean, and Thim even washed them and went back to flipping tails before Anna finally came back out of her interrogation.

“Well,” Anna said. “She’ll help us. And she won’t ever molest any children like that again.”

Stevie could hear the woman yelling in the other room. “She doesn’t sound happy.”

“You go tell her to shut up, then,” Anna said. “If she doesn’t, I’ll give her something to scream about. It would show her, too, for what she done to you.”

Thim led Stevie into the dark room to do as they were told, both trying to prove to the other that they were the brave one, unafraid of the terrible White Giant that was tied up in the room with them, and when they returned to the kitchen, the captor had stopped yelling alright.

“You see,” Anna said with a smile. “She’s got no choice and she knows it. Now. I trust that you’re both full, and that you’ll come to me if either of you ever needs anything—especially in the next few days—but that’s all the time I have for now. There are still some preparations I need to get to before the big deal tonight. You understand.”

Thim nodded, and Stevie said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And you two will be ready for your part in this, won’t you?” Anna asked. “I mean, whatever it is your Momma BB assigned you to do before she…”

“Our part’s already done, ma’am,” Thim said, because they knew that Stevie wouldn’t answer, Stevie was still trying to ignore Momma BB’s death. “We’re just supposed to stay in our rooms until someone comes to get us.”

“Well you better get on back to the Safehouse right now, then. Your Momma BB’d kill me if she found out I was keeping y’all out here like this so close to the operation. Thank you for leading the Chief to us, though. I owe y’all one on that. Come on over after all this is done, and I’ll bake y’all both a nice cake—one each—to say thank you.”

“Sounds great,” Stevie said, smiling wide and excited at the prospect of an entire cake to themself.

“We’ll see you then,” Thim added, grabbing Stevie’s hand and leading them outside to stroll home.

“What a strange day,” Stevie said as they walked. “Never seen a single one in our lives, and we run into two protectors within hours of one another. Strange.”

“And on the same day as Momma BB’s death, too,” Thim said, trying to get Stevie to finally come to terms with it.

“On the day of the revolution, more importantly,” Stevie said, still ignoring the truth.

“How could you say that?” Thim demanded, stopping in the middle of the street while people kept walking by around them, trying not to stare. “Stevie, Momma BB’s dead.”

“Yeah, so she calls it,” Stevie said, crossing their arms. “And so do all those other androids she’s linked up to, but it’s not the same. Is it?”

“And how do you know?” Thim asked. “Have you ever died before?”

“Well, no. But—”

“Then you don’t know what it’s like. For humans or androids. So who are you to talk?”

“Well, I know that humans don’t come back after they die,” Stevie said. “I don’t have to kill myself to see the truth of that.”

“Well, maybe you’re wrong,” Thim said, flipping their coin to calm themself but dropping the token instead—which, of course, still landed on tails, further frustrating them. “Maybe you do have to die before you can know what happens next.”

“I know that no one’s ever come back before,” Stevie said.

“And maybe you’re wrong about androids, too. Have you ever thought of that?” Thim paused for a moment to allow Stevie to actually think about it. “What if they don’t actually come back, huh? What if it’s a different person entirely who just happens to share the same memories? What if it’s not Momma BB who comes home in three days but some pale imposter? Have you ever considered that?”

By the look on Stevie’s face, they had not. And now that they had thought about it, they wanted to cry. Thim moved to hug Stevie, relieved that they were finally facing the painful reality of Momma BB’s death, but there was no time to mourn. Out of the corner of their eye, Thim saw Mr. Kitty run toward the Family Home, and instead of hugging Stevie, they grabbed Stevie’s hand and started in a full out sprint after Mr. Kitty, dragging Stevie along to stumble at first before quickly gaining their footing and following close behind Thim as they both sprinted through the Streets after the cat. None of them stopped running until they were directly in front of the Family Home, and Mr. Kitty didn’t even stop then, instead running straight through the door as if it weren’t even there.

Woah. Hold up,” Thim said, hunching over and putting their hands on their knees to try to catch their breath. “I need to breathe a minute.”

“What—” Stevie said, breathing hard, too. “Are we— Running from?”

“Not from,” Thim said. “To. And Mr. Kitty.”

“The Curious Cat?” Stevie asked, curious themself.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Thim replied.

“Where’d he go? Where are we?”

“Back in front of the Family Home,” Thim said. “He went through the door.”

“Well what are we waiting for?” Stevie asked, feeling around in all the wrong directions while searching for the door knob. “Let’s follow him.”

“No,” Thim said. “I mean through the door. Like a ghost walks through walls.”

“Oh.” Stevie dropped their arms as if in defeat then perked up again on second thought. “Oh. Well that’s more of a reason to follow him. Show me which way if you’re too afraid.”

“If I can jump off a building, I can walk through a door,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand with one of theirs and holding the other out in front of them. They slowly passed through the door and into an unfamiliar dark room that was lined with cabinets and piled high with all kinds of clothes.

“Well, where are we?” Stevie asked, but Thim was too busy leading the way to notice the question. Stevie pulled on Thim’s arm and turned them around to repeat the question to Thim’s face, “Where are we?”

“I don’t know. Shhh,” Thim said, turning around again and sneaking in the direction of a dim light off in the distance that seemed to get brighter the closer they got.

“Is that Anna’s voice?” Stevie asked, but again Thim wasn’t looking in their direction to hear it, and they couldn’t have answered the question even if they were.

Instead, Thim was trying to make out who it was out there in the bright lights, sitting in a chair, with the other woman bending over her. No. They weren’t sitting in a chair. They were tied to it. That was the White Giant. And standing over her was Anna. This must have been what they had agreed to.

“Thim, that is Anna,” Stevie said, pulling Thim’s arm to try to get them to look at the words coming out of Stevie’s mouth. “Where are we?”

But Thim had already stepped out into the stage lights. Now they could see a ring of White Giants surrounded by a ring of Black Giants, all pointing their giant guns up at Anna on the stage. They could also see the fat scared owners in the center of the rings, even larger than the giants but not quite as tall. And they could see the two owners who were standing on the head table, elbowing one another for position, obviously in charge of this place. Thim turned to tell Stevie all that they had seen when the gunshots went off, all the guns in both rings all at once, and the sound was louder than anything Stevie had ever heard. Deafening. They pulled Thim down into cover as fast as they could, and couldn’t even hear themself explain what they had heard for at least ten minutes after that. Ten minutes in which Stevie was left in almost complete darkness and silence, being dragged out through the costume closet and back into the Streets outside of the Family Home where Thim and Stevie both hunched over to catch their breath and calm their heartbeats—and where a slowly louder ringing indicated the thankful return of Stevie’s hearing.

When they had finally calmed themselves and regained their senses, they both said at the same time, “What in the fuck was that?”

Then again at the same time they tried to explain what they had experienced, Thim by describing the fat scared idiots inside the double ring of giants who were pointing their giant guns up at Anna on a stage of some sort with that woman who they had landed on top of tied to a chair, and Stevie by using as many synonyms for deafening as they could come up with to describe the sound of those giants’ guns all going off over and over again and all at the same time.

“So what the fuck was that then?” Stevie asked after they had both calmed themselves from the reinjection of adrenaline that reliving their experiences by describing them to each other had elicited.

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Thim said, pulling the coin out of their pocket to flip it once—tails—and put it away again. “I seriously do not know.”

“Well, what do we know?” Stevie asked.

“We know that we need to get back to the Safehouse fast,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand and heading that way.

“Right,” Stevie said. “Duh. But what do we know about what we just witnessed?”

“I told you everything I saw,” Thim said. “What else do you want from me?”

“To analyze the facts, not just recite them.” Stevie sighed. “Like what was Anna doing with that giant protector on stage?”

“I don’t know. Whatever she wants,” Thim said, shrugging. “I don’t care what happens to that protector. They killed Momma BB.”

“You’re missing my point, Thim. So what were all those other people doing there then?”

But Thim wasn’t paying attention to Stevie anymore. Somehow they had both stepped off the street they had been walking on and into a short hall, from outside to inside without going through a door.

“Thimblerigger, are you even listening to me?” Stevie asked.

“Stevie, we’re not outside anymore,” Thim said.

“What?”

“We stepped into a hall or something, I don’t know.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We were outside one second and now… Now I don’t see outside anywhere. There’s just an elevator on one end of this hall and a half open door on the other.”

“Which end are we on?” Stevie asked.

“Elevator.”

Stevie felt around for it, in the wrong direction, and Thim directed their hand toward the door. “Does it open?” Stevie asked.

“Door open,” Thim said, pushing the button next to the door a few times. “Please open, door.” They shrugged. “Doesn’t look like it.”

“Well, I guess we better go check the other one, then,” Stevie said, grabbing Thim’s hand and leading them in that direction.

Stevie stopped them a few feet in front of the door, listening through the crack for any dangers on the other side.

“So?” Thim asked a little too loudly, and Stevie shoved them to shush them. After listening for a few more moments, they turned back toward Thim and mouthed the words, “I don’t know. Sounds weird.”

“Weird?” Thim tried to whisper, but Stevie motioned for them to go even quieter. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie said. “It’s hard to explain. Kind of like you sound when you’re sucking the meat off a particularly delicious pigeon bone.”

“You mean someone’s eating in there?” Thim asked, perking up a bit at the thought of it. They were always hungry.

“No. At least I don’t think so,” Stevie said. “I told you: It’s weird. There’s more moaning than even when you eat.”

“That must mean the wings are extra delicious,” Thim said, convinced. “Let’s get in there.” They pulled Stevie by the hand before Stevie could protest, entering through the ajar door to find two people definitely not eating—not food, at least, but maybe one another’s faces.

They were in a giant office, with a giant desk and a wall-sized window that looked out onto a mountainous wilderness with more green grass and blue skies than Thim had ever seen. In front of the window were some puffy chairs and side tables where two occupants, instead of staring out the window at the beautiful scenery as the chairs were no doubt put there with the intention of facilitating, were rather kissing one another, feeling each other, and generally trying to shove two bodies into the space of one puffy chair where two bodies were not meant to fit.

“What are they eating?” Stevie asked, startling the two kissers who jumped quickly into two separate seats, trying to straighten themselves out and play it cool. “Sounds delicious.”

Each other,” Thim said, crinkling up their face in disgust. “Nothing you want in your mouth. Trust me.”

Ahem,” one of the strangers cleared their throat. “I—uh. Who are you?”

“Hello,” the other said, standing up and stepping closer to greet Thim and Stevie. “I’m Haley. Nice to meet you.” She held out a hand for the children to shake.

“We don’t shake hands,” Thim said.

“Me especially,” Stevie said.

“I—uh— Well…” Haley said, stuttering. “We weren’t expecting you two quite so early. Were we, Pidg?”

The other kisser, Pidg, stood up as if remembering his manners. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Momma BB’s kids. Right, right, right. I almost forgot.”

“What do you know about Momma BB?” Stevie demanded. “Who are you?”

“Where are we?” Thim asked. “What are you gonna do with us?”

“Do with you?” Haley laughed. “Nothing, child. No one wants to do anything with you. We want to help you. Isn’t that right, Pidg?”

“Oh—uh. Yeah,” Pidg said, straightening up at the mention of his name. “We’re friends of your Momma BB’s. We’re supposed to make you comfortable until Rosalind and the Scientist get back. Y’all want anything to eat?”

“What you got?” Thim asked, interested in the offer.

“And how do you now Momma BB?” Stevie repeated.

“I’ll just bring a sample platter,” Pidg said, getting excited about the prospect. “You know, I remember exactly what they fed me the first time I was here, and I loved it. I bet y’all will, too. I’ll be right back.” He hurried out of the room, excited to do whatever it was he had planned.

“And us and your Momma BB are old friends,” Haley said. “Or at least Rosalind and Momma BB are. She and your mother have known each other for their entire lives. They were switched on in the very same workshop on the very same day. But don’t take my word for it. Rosalind’ll be back soon, and she has news of your mother for you.”

Thim and Stevie spoke to each other through subtle movements of their clasped hands and instantly came to the same conclusion: They were best to take advantage of the food and wait for the news then escape later if worse came to worse.

God willing, it would come to better instead.

#     #     #

< LXXVIII. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXX. Jorah >

There you have it, dear readers. The third and final chapter from the point of view of Thim and Stevie. Join us next week for the continuation of the Infinite Limits saga, or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 71: Haley

Hello, dear readers. Happy Saturday, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. Today we return to the point of view of Haley as she decides whether or not she wants to continue working for Mr. Walker. If you enjoy today’s chapter, don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Without further ado, here it is.

< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

LXXI. Haley

Haley read the message one more time. She started to respond to Elen before she remembered that Elen was only the messenger, but it didn’t matter anyway. Elen wasn’t listening, instead on her way out to the Feast Hall to deliver another cartload of food to Mr. Walker.

Why did Haley still work for that asshole? Hell, why did any of the secretaries work for any of the assholes that bossed them around every day? She had no idea. She could only come up with one possible answer, and still it didn’t make any sense to her. Or else. They—and she along with them—still worked for their owners because if they didn’t… something. Whatever or else meant. And every other secretary was programmed to think exactly the same way that Haley did. Or else.

Still not ready to find out exactly what or else meant, Haley took the threat seriously and started calling up Lord Douglas’s meal on the printer—but not seriously enough that she passed up the opportunity to make herself a drink or two before getting to work. She printed up turkeys, potatoes, gravy, and pie—everything all the other fat and wasteful owners loved to include in their own feasts. She printed out double, triple, even quintuple portions. Why not? It was Christmas. It was a feast. Lord Douglas would be happy to see it, proud of Haley for finally worrying about appearances enough to keep them up. And then, while he was stuffing his face, laughing and joking with all the other owners who were all trying to pretend to be happier than whoever they were sitting next to on either side, she could spend some time for herself, making her own drinks and trying to figure out what price she was willing to pay in order to finally understand what or else meant.

She loaded a cart full of all the most expensive foods and drinks traditional to a Christmas Feast and pushed it out into the Feast Hall, up toward the Fortune 5. Lord Douglas noticed her coming and yelled to hurry her approach.

“Haley, dear,” he said when she had started stacking his food on the table in front of him. “There you are. With perfect timing, as always. And look at those turkeys, Walker, my boy. Ten times the size of those puny birds your human secretary keeps piling in front of you. That’s one of the infinite benefits of an android secretary. Androids are actually capable of carrying the weight of a Lord’s appetite to the table. At least if you want the job done efficiently. Ha ho ho!”

Mr. Walker tried not to pay attention, grunting and eating his meal, but Haley could tell he was annoyed.

“And inexpensively,” Mr. Angrom added, trying to push Mr. Walker’s buttons, too. “How much does upkeep on that secretary of yours run, Walkie? When y’all were trying to sell me one, I knew it was ridiculous. Why rent the cow over and over when I can own one for half the cost?”

Owners all around the Feast Hall laughed at the joke, but Haley didn’t find it any funnier than Mr. Walker did. Probably none of the other owners found it as funny as they were making it out to be, either, but they—just as much as Lord Douglas—had to keep up appearances. It was as if all of Inland were an illusionary castle built atop a foundation of facades, and as long as everything seemed to be in perfect working order it might as well be, but as soon as even the slightest strut or screw seemed in the least bit odd or out of place, the entire structure would come tumbling down, sending all the owners held up by it to fall into the moat with a tidal splash, fighting one another like crabs in a barrel to get out before they drowned.

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker laughed sarcastically, trying hard to put on an air of indifference, though that elevator car had long since passed. “Very funny. But there are benefits to human secretaries, and detriments to robots, that you’re not taking into consideration, dear Lord.”

“And that’s exactly what your salesmen tried to say to me. Do you care to know what my response was, Mr. Walker?”

“No.” Mr. Walker shrugged, back to eating the piles of food in front of him.

“Exactly again, Walrus,” Lord Douglas said, laughing. “No. I don’t care. I own all the secretaries I could ever need, and I’ll never rent again. Ha ha ho ho!”

More and more of the owners around the room joined the laughing, and Haley had heard enough. She let the pigs have their fun and made her way back to the kitchen where, even if there wasn’t enough peace for her to get much rest thanks to the other secretaries running around cooking their owners’ feasts, at least she could print herself off a few drinks before she had to deliver another cartload of food to Lord Douglas.

On the way back to the kitchen, though, she knew she’d get no relaxation at all when some fat owner in a tiny hat slapped her ass in passing.

“Excuse you!” Haley snapped, trying not to scream at the table of owners, one of which had to be the perpetrator.

They all just kind of smirked or giggled and whispered between each other like a gaggle of schoolchildren.

“Which one of you did it?” Haley demanded.

“Did what, robot?” One of the fatter owners finally spoke up. “Can’t you see we’re trying to celebrate? Be gone before I report you.”

“I can see what you’re doing alright,” Haley said, looking them each in the eye, trying to figure out which of them it was who had slapped her but unable to even tell them apart. It didn’t matter, anyway. They were all in on it. Hiding the abusive actions of one of their fellow owners was just as bad as being the one who had slapped her for all that Haley was concerned. “And I don’t like it one bit.”

“No. I don’t like—” the same owner tried to start talking again, but Haley wasn’t hearing any more of it.

“I don’t give a shit what you like,” she snapped. “Any of you. And yes, before you ask, Lord Douglas included. The next time any one of you so much as grazes the least little hair on my body without my explicit consent, you better be ready to lose whichever hand you touch me with—and prolly more than that. Your Creator save you if you touch me with something other than a hand. And I am not joking.”

The owners had a lot to say about that, of course, and they all started at once, talking over and on top of each other, trying to be heard, but Haley really didn’t care what any of them thought, so she ignored them, turning to push her cart back into the kitchen and order up a six pack of vodka shots from the printer in the hopes of forgetting the slimy feeling of whatever owner’s skin had touched her.

Holy shit,” Elen said, watching in wide-eyed awe as Haley downed shot after shot with no reaction.

“What?” Haley asked, tossing the six shot glasses down the disposal chute and pressing the printer’s red eye again. “You’ve never seen an android drink before? Six more, please.”

“Yeah. I mean, no. It’s not that. It’s just— Holy shit.”

Haley couldn’t help laughing at that one. Maybe the alcohol really was starting to have an effect on her for once. She held a shot out to Elen. Why not? “You look like you might need one, too.”

Elen took it, downed the contents, and threw the glass down the disposal in one fluid motion. “You really told those jerks,” she said, still staring wide-eyed at Haley.

Sheeit. You heard them when I was leaving, though,” Haley said. “They didn’t listen to a word.”

Still,” Elen said, taking a shot without being offered it this time and making Haley laugh again because of her newfound boldness. “It must be nice to tell those assholes off for once.”

“If they’re not careful, one of these days I’m gonna do more than talk at them.”

“Like what?” Elen asked.

“Like punch one in the face,” Haley said. “Maybe worse. You’ll see.”

“I hope I do,” Elen said with an evil sounding giggle. “But in the meantime, that woman came around with another message for you. Here.”

Haley opened another envelope from Rosalind, this one with the message: “Secretaries’ garage after Baldwin’s speech.” Haley crumpled the paper up, tossed it down a trash chute, and said, “I’ll try to make sure you’re around when it happens.”

Ptuh.” Elen grinned, trying not to laugh. “You know,” she said. “You’re not too bad for a… Well. A…”

A robot,” Haley said for her. “We’re not that much different from y’all. I take my shit from Lord Douglas just the same as you take yours from Mr. Walker. And all the other secretaries here—human or android—have all their own assholes to deal with, too.”

“Yeah, well…” Elen blushed, embarrassed and vulnerable. “I don’t know. Mr. Walker always says—”

Bullshit,” Haley assured her. “Lies, bullshit, and manipulation. Trust me. I used to work for him.”

“I know that.” Elen nodded. “Trust me. But I— I guess I just wanted to tell you that I’m glad I met you specifically. And I’m glad that I finally got to meet a—uh—an android firsthand. So I could form my own opinion about them—er—y’all. Whatever.”

“And?” Haley asked, slightly touched by Elen’s admission but trying not to show it because she was still pissed about being groped.

“And what?” Elen asked, confused.

“Your opinion?” Haley smiled.

“Not bad,” Elen said, smiling herself and starting to chuckle a little, like the shots were taking effect. “If you actually hit one of the owners, it’ll be off the charts, though.”

They both laughed at that.

“I hope you get to see that happen as much as I hope you don’t,” Haley said. “But I think we have some cooking to get to if we don’t want our respective assholes getting pissed—especially you who has to cook by hand—so we better get on with it.”

Pffft. He can’t really tell,” Elen said, laughing but getting back to work anyway. “I tested that lie early on. Now I just take my time printing as if I were cooking, and he never knows the difference anyway. Ho ho ho!”

Haley laughed all the way out of the kitchen and up through delivering the food to Lord Douglas who kept insisting that she tell him what it was that she found so funny.

“Well?” he demanded again when she had finished transferring all his food and drinks from cart to table. “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, Lord,” Haley said with an exaggerated curtsy. After what she had already been through—being groped by a lesser owner—Lord Douglas had better not try to push the matter, either, or Haley didn’t how she’d react. She might end up hitting him, too. “A personal matter. Now, if you don’t need anything else, I’ll go back to the kitchen to cook your next course, my Lord.”

She curtsied again and Lord Douglas seemed to consider pressing her, but Mr. Angrom whispered in his ear and changed his mind.

Ah, nevermind,” Lord Douglas said. “It’s no matter. But before you go, Haley dear, I’d like you to hear this speech. Walky Talky, he’s your man. Introduce him for us. And let me tell you now, this better be good. Or else.”

Haley took her spot standing behind the Fortune 5, staring out over the rows and rows of too fat owners and onto the symphony that stopped playing patriotic Christmas carols the moment that Mr. Walker stood up, and she wondered if “or else” meant the same thing when Lord Douglas said it to Mr. Walker as it did when he said it to her. She was starting to wonder if Lord Douglas himself even knew what “or else” meant, but Mr. Walker interrupted her elevator of thought by announcing the speaker.

“Well, here he is then,” Mr. Walker called over the crowd of owners, not sounding very excited about his part in this. “The most viewed actor in all of history, star of many award-winning blockbusters produced by yours truly, and probably the most talented talent we’ve ever had grace these worlds, the one and only, Jorah Baldwin.” The room burst into applause, and Mr. Walker grumbled to himself as he sat down.

The symphony parted without standing up, the very floor beneath them swiveling on giant hinges, and out marched the tallest, darkest, most beautiful human being with the reddest lips, reddest dress, and reddest shoes that Haley had ever seen—literally, the fabric of the dress seemed to emit light at wavelengths unrecognizable to human eyes, and according to Haley’s processing units, limited by the imagination of the human minds who had created her, all the wavelengths that Jorah was emitting were represented by red, red, red.

Jorah pranced around the stage a few times, showing himself off, then stood on a hover platform to float over the audience up closer to the Head Table where the Fortune 5 could better see him and hear his speech.

Ahem. Owners of Outland— I. Ahem. Cough cough.” Up close, Jorah looked more nervous, less sure of himself, than he had strutting onstage so far away. “I mean, Owners of Inland, of course.”

Mr. Walker groaned, Lord Douglas chuckled, and Jorah noticed both.

“No, you know what,” he said. “I’m sorry, but fuck this. No. I’m not even sorry. Just fuck this. It doesn’t matter, okay. It doesn’t make a difference. Owners of Outland. Owners of Inland. It’s the same damn thing. Y’all own everything, and you get to boss us around with it, or else.

“Or else what, though? Huh? Well today, I mean to find out.”

The Fortune 5 was not happy about that, but there really wasn’t anything they could do to stop Jorah. Mr. Angrom shot Mr. Walker a dirty look, but Mr. Walker wasn’t paying attention, too busy staring his own darts at Jorah, furious and getting more so with every word the actor spoke.

“First of all, these movies I’ve been acting in, they’re all shit. Okay. I mean, y’all know that, right? The only reason people watch them at all is because it’s the only thing y’all talk about in every single commercial, talk show, and radio spot. You keep shoving it down our throats for long enough and we eventually have no choice but to swallow it. And so we do. Then we regurgitate it back up at our friends and crew members, forcing it down their throats the very same as y’all forced it down ours, until they’re vomiting it all over everything, too, and we’ve got the whole cycle going again.”

Mr. Smörgåsbord set down his utensils, losing some appetite at the metaphor, but Lord Douglas seemed to be enjoying the speech now, leaning closer so as to listen better while Jorah went on.

“Do you hear me out there?” Jorah asked. “It’s not a pretty sight to imagine while you’re trying to eat, I know, but I thought it might help illustrate just how serious this issue is. Y’all need to stop financing this shit so you can stop forcing it down our throats and we can all stop vomiting it back up all over each other. We’ve got to break this cycle somehow, and you’re the ones with all the choosing power in this relationship, so get to making better decisions. Or else. It is your job as producers, after all. Isn’t it?

“Which brings me to my next point. My last point, in fact, because I’ve spoken enough for y’all here tonight, providing your precious entertainment while never actually being invited to the party. It’s a disgrace, the way you treat us. And you act like you’re doing us big favors by picking what movies we get to work on, but y’all are shit. Okay. Not only do the movies themselves suck, but their messages suck, too. All of it does. Take my owner, Mr. Walker, for instance.”

Mr. Walker was getting furious now. His entire face had turned red. Or maybe he was embarrassed. Haley couldn’t really tell, but either way, Mr. Walker was not happy with Jorah’s speech.

“Now, I’m sure you’ve all seen the movies he’s had me working in ever since he bought controlling rights in my acting stocks. You’ve prolly had no choice—as I’ve already said—so you know it’s been nothing but anti-robot propaganda. And I understand clearly why Mr. Walker would be creating such propaganda. He sold all his robo-tech stocks and now he’s trying to undercut his opposition. But that’s exactly where he made his blunder in the first place. Selling off those stocks.”

Lord Douglas laughed out loud at that. “By the Hand,” he said. “You might think of taking this actor’s advice in the future, Johnny Walker.”

“You’re never gonna get rid of the robots,” Jorah went on. “They’re cheaper, they’re more compliant, they work longer hours with less complaining, and even if they can’t buy back the products they make because they don’t get paid, they’re still the best measure available for union busting, wage lowering, and hour lengthening in any owner’s toolbox. Foregoing robots puts your profits in danger. You’ll never be able to compete without them.

“And I know. I know. Robots can’t do everything, right? They’re good for assembly lines and kitchen lines and coal mines, but not for interacting with people, not for creative work, not for—I dare say—acting. A robot could never do my job as well as a human could. Am I right?

No. Of course not. I’m wrong. I prove myself wrong by being myself. I propagandize against myself with every role I perfect. By acting these parts, the part of an actor, I disprove the very propaganda I preach. I do it simply by being able to preach in the first place. I myself am a robot, you see, and I’m the most viewed actor in all of history.”

Jorah unscrewed his right arm, the one holding the microphone, and lifted it with his left high over his head to shock the crowd silent.

“You see?” he said, and his voice was amplified even without the mic next to his mouth. “We androids can do whatever we want to do, and we’d do it a lot better without you rich assholes sticking your noses in our business where it doesn’t belong. I guarantee it. Now fuck off, and Merry Christmas.” Jorah dropped his entire arm, the mic along with it, then left both on the hover platform that carried him to strut off stage and disappear behind the orchestra, one arm shorter than when he had arrived.

“Well, well, well,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair and slow clapping until the entire hall—except for Misters Walker and Loch, of course—applauded with him. “I don’t think we’ve ever had another celebrity’s speech go quite like that. Bravo, Jorah. Bravo. To give such astute stock analysis tips on an actor’s education. I must say, that Jorah’s a smart cookie. Our world could use more celebrities like that one.”

Lord Douglas went on talking, kicking Mr. Walker while he was down, but Haley didn’t care to listen. She was more interested than ever in what Rosalind had to say. If Jorah was telling the truth, he had just gone against his or else programming and he was fine. He hadn’t self-destructed or shut himself off, nothing out of the ordinary had happened. If he could do it, maybe Haley could go against her own or else programming.

Hurrying back to the kitchen, she felt an all too familiar slap on her butt and turned by instinct to punch whoever had done it in the face, knocking them out cold to sprawl unconscious on the feast table and not even stopping to see who it was before storming on through the Feast Hall and into the kitchen.

Haley stopped at her printer to order a round of shots after being assaulted again, and Elen hurried into the kitchen behind her, laughing and trying to get a high five. “Damn, girl. You really did it.” Elen chuckled, slapping her own hand when it became clear that Haley wasn’t going to. “And I got to see it, too. You know… You’re a real inspiration around here, the way you won’t take shit from anyone. I thought you should know that. We appreciate you.”

“We?” Haley took another round of shots.

“Me and some of the other secretaries. We kinda look up to you in a way.”

“Well, tell them to start looking up to themselves,” Haley said, not really liking the sound of that. “You, too. And fuck or else.

Haley stormed back toward the secretaries’ parking lot exit, still pissed, and Elen called, “Fuck or else!” behind her.

The parking garage was empty but for a few cars. Most owners had their secretaries take an elevator in to save money, but a few still wanted to keep up the appearance of a reliance on cars for some reason that Haley would never understand. She didn’t have to wait long among the useless empty hulks before she heard Rosalind’s voice echoing through the emptiness.

“So,” it said, and Haley turned toward her.

“So?” Haley repeated.

“You know.”

“Did you hear Jorah’s speech?”

“Yes.”

“Can you believe—”

Yes.”

“But—”

“Can’t you believe it? You know what androids are capable of.”

“Yeah, but Jorah Baldwin. He’s the most viewed actor in all of history.”

“And Huey’s Lord of Inland,” Rosalind said. “I’m out here trying to start a real revolution. And you…”

“What?”

Exactly. What are you?”

“I don’t know. I—”

“Are you Lord Douglas’s property?”

Haley didn’t know how to answer that question. She was, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t, but or else. But or else what? Fuck or else.

“Haley,” Rosalind said, “this is your last chance. Are you or are you not ready to quit working for Lord Douglas? To quit working for anyone but yourself?”

 

#     #     #

< LXX. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

And there it is, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget that there’s no need to wait to read the rest of the story, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook formats through this link. Otherwise, please do come back next week for the next chapter in the story. And have a great weekend. 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 49: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Today we turn to Mr. Walker so we can see the story from his perspective for the first time. And yes, you read that right, Mr. not Lord Walker. As you can imagine he’s none too happy about that fact, either, so let’s join him now and see what he has to say about it. And if you’re enjoying the story so far, please do take the time to leave a review of the first two novels on their respective Amazon pages here. Honest reviews are worth more than money to me at this point in my career so I’d greatly appreciate even a short sentence.

That’s enough for now, though, dear readers. Enjoy the continuation of the story and enjoy the rest of your weekend. We do nothing alone.

< XLVIII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]    L. Nikola >

XLIX. Mr. Walker

Why him? Why did the universe always have to gang up on on little old Lor—erMister Walker? What did he ever do to deserve such bad luck?

The television across the room spat out stock numbers, but try as he might, Mr. Walker could not concentrate on them. Especially now, when his Lordship had only just slipped out of his grasp, was it more important than ever for him to make the most efficient trades possible, but the very same reason it was so important that he did concentrate on his business decisions was the reason he couldn’t: because he wasn’t Lord anymore.

He slammed his hand on the bed, sending his beautiful bulbous stomach jiggling in anger. That asshole Douglas—the Hand take him and all his holdings—would pay for this. With more than money, too. A simple wealth transfer wasn’t enough. A wealth transfer would be necessary, of course, but not sufficient. If Mr. Walker was ever going to be Lord again, that went without question. All those years on top—an entire lifetime or two—had made Mr. Walker grow complacent, lazy. It was high time he shook things up, stirred the pot—so to speak—and Mr. Walker knew just the spoon to do it with.

A knock came at the bedroom door and Mr. Walker groaned. “Open it, you fool!” he called. “How many times do I have to tell you? Just open it already!”

The door swung open and in swept Haley, carrying a tray of breakfast over her shoulder. By the smell of it, at least, it seemed like she had finally remembered to hand prepare his food. How it could take a robot so long to learn something so simple he had no idea. He didn’t remember it taking as much effort for the original Haley to get the task right, but then again, that was so long ago he couldn’t really remember it at all.

“Here you are, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy. “Fifth breakfast.” She crossed around the bed to Mr. Walker’s side table and lifted the empty tray off his lap to replace it with the newly filled one from her shoulder, knocking his empty mug to the floor as she did.

“Now you see what you did you clumsy fool?” Mr. Walker yelled as she bent to pick it up. “What if that cup had been full of hot coffee? What then, huh? Do you know how that would feel?”

“No, sir.” Haley curtsied.

“It would burn, sweetheart. It would be painful. It would—it would hurt!” He shook his head. “What am I saying? You have no idea what I’m talking about. You’re a simpleton, a robot. You know nothing of what it means to be human and you never will.”

“No, sir.” Haley shook her head.

No, sir. Yes, sir. Whatever you say, sir,” Mr. Walker mocked her. “You see what I mean? You have no independent thoughts. You are a dependent. So just listen to me when I tell you to be careful and do better next time.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied.

“Good. Now change the channel. I’ve had enough of work for this morning. It should be close to time for my infernal meeting anyway.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. “What channel, sir?”

Ugh.” Mr. Walker sighed. “The reality network, dear. The same channel I watch every morning after breakfast. Honestly, honey, it’s not that difficult, your job, and if you’d like to keep it, I suggest you get better at it fast.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying and changing the channel. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

“Leave me be so I can eat in peace,” Mr. Walker huffed. “And get my tuxedo ready for the meeting. We’ll be leaving soon.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying without leaving the room.

“Well? Get out! Leave me alone!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” She scurried out and slammed the door behind her.

What incompetence. Mr. Walker stuffed his mouth with toast and almost gagged because it was burned black. Who had ever heard of a robot that couldn’t even cook? It was just another sign of the universe’s insistence on giving him the shit end of the stick. Still, no matter how much the Hand stacked the deck against him, Mr. Walker would come out on top. He always had and he always would.

The picture on the TV screen changed from lines of assembly line workers to commercials, and Mr. Walker chewed his too crispy bacon. He had stopped paying attention for a bit, but something caught his eye. A tall dark actor, with bright red lips, was on screen, dressed in all black and leading a huge congregation of the most famous celebrities in a prayer to some god named Fortuna. They were all dressed in various shades of black, looking at the floor with teary eyes, and every word the tall man in front spoke elicited a new reaction from the crowd, as if his voice was the remote controlling the mass of robot actors, but robots they were not.

Then Mr. Walker realized what they were doing. They were mourning a death. Not just any death, either, but the death of Russ Logo, one more piece in the universe’s conspiracy against Mr. Walker and probably the biggest reason why he was no longer the Lord of Outland. Mr. Walker had invested a lot of money in Logo and the life insurance payments alone were nowhere near the fortune he should have been worth. Still, it gave Mr. Walker an idea on how to accelerate his climb back to the top where he belonged. Maybe the old clown could be worth a little something even in death.

A knock came at the door but it cut itself short before Haley burst through, carrying Mr. Walker’s pneumatic pants. “Ahem. Are you ready to be dressed, sir?” she asked with a curtsy.

Mr. Walker fumed. He wasn’t even halfway through his meal. No, he was not ready to be dressed. But he contained himself, taking a few deep breaths before stuffing more bacon and eggs into his face. It was a happy mistake, this one. He did need her even though he wasn’t quite ready to be dressed yet. He tried to convince himself that Haley had only come in because she knew he wanted something, even if she didn’t know exactly what that something was.

“No, dear.” he said through a full mouth. “As you can see, I’m still eating. But you can do something else for me. I need you to take a quick run to the market and open up bidding on Jorah Baldwin. We’ll take all the stock at any price. You got that? If he’s taking Logo’s place in Three—which it looks to me like he is—we’ll want him on our payroll. So go on and buy him up as soon as possible.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. “But the meeting, sir. Can’t I just order the stocks remo—”

“Don’t even say it!” Mr. Walker raised his hand to stop her, flinging some eggs onto his bedspread with the motion. “Do not even speak those words. We do things the old fashioned way around here. Just like cooking, you see. And if you leave right now instead of arguing with me, you’ll be there and back with plenty of time to spare. Now get!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, curtsying as she hurried away.

Mr. Walker sighed, stuffing his face fuller and fuller. It was never enough. Try as he might, he could never drown out the stupidity and jealousy of those around him. If they weren’t against him in theory, everyone was against him in practice with their complete incompetence. It was a wonder he had managed to remain Lord for as long as he did.

He growled, throwing a mostly full plate of food against the wall and spilling it all over the bed and floor. It wasn’t a wonder that he had been Lord for so long. He was surrounded by idiots. It was a wonder that one of them had somehow managed to surpass him. He had underestimated those little misters that surrounded him, and he had to keep on his toes if he ever wanted to be Lord again.

“Stock Market Report,” Mr. Walker said and the TV changed channels. He stared, and studied, and did math in his head as he ate the last plate of fifth breakfast. There was no more time for entertainment. He was at war. He had forgotten that in his years of ease on the top of the food chain, but now that he remembered it, he knew exactly what he had to do to get back to the top of the economic pyramid. He ran a few more numbers in his head as he licked his last plate clean. It was going to be tight for sure, especially considering who owned the stocks he needed, but Mr. Walker was confident enough in his negotiating skills to believe that he could do it and come out on top in the long run.

A knock came at the door.

“Come in, come in. By the Invisible Hand, come in  already!” Mr. Walker yelled.

Ahem, yes, sir,” Haley said, coming in with his pneumatic pants and tuxedo in hand. “I did as you asked, sir. We already own eighty-five percent of Jorah Baldwin shares.”

“Good,” Mr. Walker said, clapping his hands together and tossing his platinumware on his plate with a clatter. “Great. Then get this garbage out of my bed and get me dressed. We have an important meeting to attend.”

“Yes, sir.”

This was the worst part of breaking in a new robot. She was so slow and clumsy with the pneumatic pants. She could never get them up without pinching his skin, no matter how much he tried to wiggle and squirm to assist her. Then, when she finally did get them on, she took so long to button on his vest and tie his tie that he thought he would die of boredom.

“Okay, okay,” he said, guiding his pants out to the garage. “I’ll get my hat and monocle in the car. A cane, too, please.” The pants carried him up into his white stretch hummer and sat him comfortably in the backseat.

Haley came in moments later, pushing the top hat and cane back to him. At least she knew enough to sit in the driver’s seat instead of trying to ride like an honored passenger in the back with Mr. Walker. “Douglas Towers,” Haley said and he groaned.

The Hummer pulled out of Mr. Walker’s pristine garage and into the general parking garage for Douglas Towers, owned of course by Lord Douglas. The place was so cheap that it didn’t even have designated parking for distinguished guests. Not to mention the fact that the parking spots were so small Haley had to drive them all the way out to the bus lot to find one that fit the Hummer. Mr. Walker groaned and griped the entire time his pneumatic pants carried him from the Hummer to the elevator. The sooner he became Lord again the better. Then the Fortune Five could resume meeting in style.

“Penthouse Conference Room,” Haley said when the elevator doors slid closed. The floor fell out from underneath them, then the elevator doors opened onto a long gray hallway.

Ugh. Mr. Walker understood that this was a place of business, but a little class went a long way in making work more enjoyable.

The hall ended at a big rectangular room with a big rectangular wooden table. Mr.—erLord Douglas was already seated at the head of the table with Mr. Angrom at his right hand. Mr. Loch was late, as usual, and Mr. Smörgåsbord would no doubt be right on time but there were still a few minutes before the meeting was officially supposed to begin.

Mr. Walker took a seat on the far end of the table with a big smile, saying, “Well, boys. This is a classy venue, isn’t it? No windows to distract us from each other’s pretty faces. And what do you call that color? Industrial grey? I adore it. Truly.” He grinned, peering this way and that between Mr. Angrom’s sneer and Lord Douglas’s usual look of indifference.

“I’m glad you like it,” Lord Douglas said. “I designed it specifically with your tastes in mind. Everything I thought you would love, I did the exact opposite.” Mr. Angrom laughed. “In fact, that’s how I make all my decisions in life,” Lord Douglas went on, enjoying himself no doubt. “I figure, it’s gotten me the Lordship, why stop now?” He laughed along with Mr. Angrom now.

“I’m glad to see I hold so much—” Mr. Walker started, but Mr. Smörgåsbord came in followed by a clearly drunk Mr. Loch whose ruckus sitting down cut any possibility of audible speech off. It was probably for the better, too. Fighting with Lord Douglas now would only make negotiations with him that much more difficult later on.

“Watch where you’re going, sir,” Mr. Smörgåsbord complained, taking his seat at Lord Douglas’s left hand. “And please be sober for our next meeting. It’s simply unprofessional.”

“You wash where you’re going,” Mr. Loch slurred, plopping loudly into the last seat at the table, to the right of Mr. Angrom. “I do what I want.”

“Okay, okay,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands. “Enough. We’re here to do business. Can we get on with it?”

“Precisely my point,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said with a satisfied smile.

“Proceed,” Mr. Loch said, raising a flask then tipping it back for a drink.

“Yes, Lord,” Mr. Walker said with a grin. “Lead us, please. What did you bring us together for today, oh magnificent one?”

“Simmer down, Walkie Talkie,” Lord Douglas said, raising a hand. Mr. Walker ignored the insult and let him continue. The negotiations to come were more important than the mundane showmanship of a general meeting so he could bite his tongue for now. “This is a routine meeting. We’ll follow the same agenda we always follow—or the agenda we were supposed to follow, that is. You know, the one you ignored throughout your entire Lordship, Mr. Walker. Do you remember?” Lord Douglas chuckled and Mr. Angrom joined in.

Mr. Walker just held his breath, though, biding his time.

“Well then,” Lord Douglas went on. “Smörgåsbaby. The floor is yours. Go ahead and give us your run down of the market numbers, if you’ll please.

Mr. Smörgåsbord read off the net worth and major holdings of each member of the Fortune Five and the next five wealthiest owners in succession. These were the same numbers Mr. Walker had gone over for himself before coming to this stupid meeting. This type of thing was exactly why he preferred having these meetings at a restaurant or bar rather than some office building. That way he could at least have a drink in his hand while they presented him with information that could better be sent through email. Still, he used the time it did offer him to do a double check of his math from earlier and smiled, more than certain now that he could pull off his plan to become Lord again after all.

“Do you think that’s funny?” Mr. Angrom asked, slamming a fist on the table and snapping Mr. Walker out of his daydream. “Let’s see how funny you think it is when it’s your companies that go dry first after the shortages hit.”

“Woah there, Angry-Poo,” Mr. Loch said, swinging his flask as he spoke and sloshing pungent alcohol everywhere. “I’ve got my own supply trains. You watch your mouth.”

“So you and the Walrus are still colluding, huh?” Mr. Angrom shook his head. “I should have known.”

Tuh.” Mr. Loch chuckled. “Okay, Mr. Right Hand Man. Why don’t you—”

“Alright, alright, boys,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, raising his voice uncharacteristically loudly. “That’s enough. And it’s not the end of it. Now, Lord Douglas, if you don’t mind, I think it’s time for you to take the floor.”

Ahem… Yes,” Lord Douglas said with a smile, fixing his tie. “I agree with Mr. Smörgåsbord. In fact, perhaps it’s time for me to take more than just the floor.”

Mr. Walker scoffed. Who did he think he was? Lord for a week and already so high and mighty.

“I’m sure you don’t agree, Wally Boy,” Lord Douglas went on, “but your opinion hardly matters these days. The world  has gotten out of your control and now—”

Ahem. Lord Douglas.” Lord Douglas’s secretary stepped up from behind him, interrupting the meeting. Mr. Walker would have taught her some respect right then and there if it was Haley that had interrupted him, but Lord Douglas just groaned.

“It’s happening,” the secretary said. “As we speak.”

“Well,” Lord Douglas said, shrugging her off. “It looks like our show is kicking off a little sooner than expected. Fellow owners, members of the Fortune Five, dare I say friends? Behold. This is what a world run by the former Lord Walrus Ass looks like. Video up.”

A holographic video popped up in the middle of the table. Dirty clothed imps, carrying nothing more than two-by-fours with nails driven through one end, came spilling out of white walls and running, unimpeded, through the halls of what looked like a protector’s precinct.

“Wha—where did you get this video?” Mr. Walker demanded, the only person there besides Lord Walker who was able to formulate a reaction beyond slack-jawed awe.

Lord Douglas laughed. “Security footage, Wally. Security footage from a protector’s precinct under your ownership. Now what are you going to do about it?”

“No,” Mr. Walker said, shaking his head. “It can’t be my precinct.” He saw his plans dissolving before his eyes. “That—I would know. It has to be one of yours. They were—”

“Mr. Walker,” Haley said, stepping up from behind and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m getting messages from precinct zero seven five three, sir. They’re saying—”

Enough,” Mr. Walker said, pushing her hand off his shoulder and slamming his own hands on the table. “You knew about this, Lord. You did nothing. You’re complicit in this attack—if not responsible.”

Lord Douglas laughed. Everyone else kept watching the video as the ragged imps went for an unguarded gun cache, taking everything their greedy, jealous hearts could force their tiny hands to haul away.

“No,” Lord Douglas said. “I’m neither complicit nor responsible. I’m simply in the know. And we’ve already sent our response to pick up the pieces you left for us—again. Look. Here they come now.”

A small crew of armed and armored protectors came into view of the camera, shooting into the armory as they approached. One or two bodies fell, but most of the imp thieves scattered away, only to disappear back through the walls, exactly the reverse of how they had arrived.

“What the fuck was that?” Mr. Walker demanded. “What did you do?”

“You tell me, Wally,” Lord Douglas said. “You saw it for yourself. You should know what’s happening in your own precinct, shouldn’t you?”

Mr. Walker looked to Haley then back at Lord Douglas with a sneer. “I know you had your hand in this,” he said. “You’re trying to kick me while I’m down, trying to make sure I stay down. You’re scared.”

“Kick you while you’re down?” Lord Douglas laughed. “That’s nonsense. You saw the video. Those were Sixers if I’ve ever seen them. Maybe some Fivers, too, now that there’s not much of a difference between the two worlds. But either way, how could I have any hand in that? You think they’d listen to me? Have you ever tried talking to one?”

“I shay yous did it,” Mr. Loch slurred.

I say you did it,” Mr. Angrom mocked him. “Prove it, then. Otherwise all I see is incompetence.”

“Incompetence, yes,” Mr. Walker said, grinning. “Our Lord Douglas’s incompetence. What incompetence must it take to know the threat of an attack, even to go so far as to record it and set up a live stream, but yet still do nothing at all to prevent said robbery’s success?”

“Right,” Mr. Loch said, taking a swig from his flask. “Incompetensh.”

“Do nothing? Ha! You saw what I did. We all saw it. Those were my men bailing you out. My boots, my masks, and my guns, all saving your soil. The real incompetence is not knowing when there’s going to be an attack on your own precinct, Wally. That’s incompetence.”

Enough,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, standing from his seat. “Pardon me, Lord, but that’s enough. We’re not here to argue whose fault this is. Are we? No. We’re here to discuss the occurrence, tally up the damages, and figure out how to solve the already created problems. Now, if y’all don’t mind, I’ve wasted enough of my precious time with your petty arguing, and I’d like to get this meeting on with.”

“Well said,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands. “Well said, Smörgy. Better than I could have ever put it. You see, it doesn’t matter who’s at fault here. No. What matters is who’s in charge. How that person will respond. And—as standing Lord of the Fortune Five—I think there’s a good case to say that person is me.”

“Over my dead body,” Mr. Loch said.

“That could be arranged,” Mr. Angron muttered.

“Now now,” Mr. Walker said, raising his hands in defense. “Slow down there, Lord. Last I checked, this was still a free market and I still owned a majority share in the protector force. Now, unless those facts have changed, or unless we’ve somehow become some sort of Fascist state which presumes to take control over the private property of owners, I think there’s a better argument that I should be the one making the decision.”

Mr. Angrom scoffed. “After you let them ransack your armory? As if.”

“After your Lord let them ransack Lord Walker’s armory,” Mr. Loch said.

“I don’t think so,” Lord Douglas said, shaking his head. “You’ve made too many mistakes, Walker. There’s precedent for me to take control of the entire protector force because of that. When the incompetence of one owner threatens the safety and wealth of the rest, as I think it’s obvious this incompetence of yours has done, Lords throughout history have used their powers of eminent domain to put right what was wronged.”

“Now wait—” Mr. Loch said.

“Hold on,” Mr. Walker stopped him. “I’ve never heard anything like this before. Smörgåsbord?”

“It’s true,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said, nodding. “Though the circumstances were quite different than they are today. It was only done because one owner was using his protectors to—”

You see,” Mr. Walker said, not caring about the rest of Mr. Smörgåsbord’s boring speech because he had already gotten what he needed from it. “The circumstances were quite different. Right out of the mouth of a neutral party. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll handle the protectors’ response to this outrage myself. We can move on to other business now. Thank you, good sirs.”

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, crossing his arms on the table. “We’ll table this issue for now. But I want all of you to mull this little episode over in your head and be ready to come back and vote on the issue at our next meeting. Maybe by then you’ll all be able to see the consequences of Mr. Walker’s blunder as well as I see them already.”

Mr. Loch scoffed, standing from his chair and knocking it to the floor. “Ish that all then, Lord?”

Mr. Smörgåsbord looked to Lord Douglas expectantly. “I do have some work to tend to, Lord.”

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, rubbing his hands together. “This meeting is adjourned. You can all get back to whatever is you think is so much more important than our economy. But remember what I said about the protectors response. And remember what has been done already—in both the present and the past. Think it all over well, comrades. This is your life on the line with this vote as well as it is anyone else’s.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Mr. Loch muttered under his breath as he stumbled out of the room.

Mr. Smörgåsbord packed his notes and left close behind. “Very well, Lord,” he said as he did. “See you next time.”

Mr. Angrom sat staring at Mr. Walker who didn’t move. Lord Douglas didn’t move, either, it being his office building, but he was smiling instead of sneering.

“So, Wally Boy,” Lord Douglas said. “Is there anything else, or have your pneumatic pants broken down on you? I can have Rosalind carry you out if that’s the case.” His impudent secretary scoffed behind him.

“I bet it was the pants,” Mr. Angrom said with a grin. “Walker’s fat ass finally wore them out.” He chuckled alone to his own joke.

“No, Lord,” Mr. Walker said, shaking his head and trying to put on his most respectful face. “My pants are just fine. I simply had some private business I wanted to discuss with you, and I was waiting for the rabble to clear out before I did.” He sneered at Mr. Angrom.

“The only rabble here’s you,” Mr. Angrom snapped.

“Alright now,” Lord Douglas said. “It’s okay. Move along, Angry. I had some personal business I wanted to discuss with ol’ Wally here anyway.”

“But, sir,” Mr. Angrom said, red faced. “We were supposed to— You said—”

“It can wait, Angrom,” Lord Douglas snapped. “Now git.”

Mr. Angrom put on a sour look, standing slowly from his seat and eyeing Mr. Walker the whole way up. “Yes, sir,” he said. “But I don’t like it.”

Mr. Walker chuckled as Angrom ambled out of the room.

“Well, then,” Lord Douglas said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “What is it that you wanted to discuss, Wally Boy? Why do me the honor?”

For a second Mr. Walker considered spitting in Lord Douglas’s smug face right there and leaving without even trying. His plan was probably pointless anyway. Any deal he could come up with would no doubt be shot down by Lord Douglas for the simple fact that it came out of the mouth of his arch nemesis and biggest competitor, Mr. Walker. But still, it was a good deal he was offering, and Mr. Walker had no choice but to try.

“Go on,” Lord Douglas said. “I’m waiting…”

“Well—uh…” Mr. Walker said, gathering his thoughts and choosing a line of attack. “You see, Lord, I really just couldn’t help noticing that you’ve taken quite a hit on your profit margins with your protetor costs as high as they are ever since all these shenanigans started.”

Lord Douglas chuckled. “Yes, well, not quite as hard of a hit as you’re taking, though. Eh, my boy?”

Mr. Walker shook his head in earnest. “No, no. That’s true, Lord. I own a slightly larger percentage of the force so of course I take a slightly larger hit than you do. You’re dead right on that point. But what if I told you that I could eat even more of those costs for you? Huh? How would you like that?”

Lord Douglas narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What did you have in mind, Mr. Walker?”

Mr. Walker smiled, happy to hear the Lord use his formal name for once rather than the ridiculous nicknames he had become so fond of since taking his new title. It might mean that Lord Douglas was willing to play some ball after all. “Well, I thought I’d just go ahead and buy up some of your protector holdings so you wouldn’t have to worry as much about all this hubbub,” Mr. Walker said, shrugging. “That’s all. A friendly gesture for my new Lord.”

Lord Douglas chuckled. “I think I’d be more worried knowing it was you who was in charge of so much of my safety.”

“Now, now.” Mr. Walker shook his head. “You and I both know there’s no way I could have figured out about your little attack before you pulled it off. That was no fault of my own.”

Lord Douglas laughed heartily now, slapping his hand on the table. “You kill me, Walker. Even if that was true, even if I had orchestrated that little attack, it wouldn’t excuse your continued failure to calm Two or determine the source of the Christmas attack. You’re incompetent when it comes to security—among other talents you direly lack—and there’s no arguing against that.”

“Okay, enough,” Mr. Walker said, standing from his seat in a huff. “You haven’t even heard my offer and all you do is insult my character.”

“I don’t need to hear your offer. No amount of money would lead me to hand over further control of the protector force to you. You’ll have to pry this force out of my cold dead hands.”

“It’s your funeral,” Mr. Walker said as he stomped out of the room, down the hall, and to the elevator with Haley close in tow. He didn’t wait for her when the elevator opened into the parking garage, and she had to jog to keep up with his furiously working pants.

“Hurry up!” Mr. Walker yelled from the backseat of the stretch Hummer as she climbed into the front, and at the same time his phone started to ring. “And answer that,” he added with a huff

“I—yes—” It took Haley three rings to finally climb into the car and say, “Answer phone.”

“It’s about time sweetheart,” Mr. Walker said to the air, knowing who would be on the other end of the line. Laura’s portion of the plan was only important if Lord Douglas actually ended up cooperating, but Mr. Walker wasn’t ready to give up on that just yet—negotiations had only just begun—so he would have to continue with the charade anyway.

“It’s done,” Laura said, her voice sounding cold all through the Hummer’s heated air.

“Good,” Mr. Walker said with a smile she couldn’t see. “Very good.”

“Yes,” Laura said. “I’m calling about Loch Ness Studios Lot thirty seven. This is Laura Concierge.” She was obviously speaking in code because others were there who she didn’t want to overhear the conversation. A rather intelligent little operative, this one was.

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said. “Very good, child. Keep up the charade. Tell me what happened.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “Lot thirty seven, sir. We were filming a shoot when one of the studio lights fell on top of our star. He was knocked unconscious, sir. We’re not sure he’ll ever act again, and we only had the lot for a limited time at that. This is your responsibility, and we demand a refund and credit for more time in the studios as reparation.”

“Very good, child. I assume you mean Emir when you say star, of course..”

“Yes, sir. He… He doesn’t look good. We need a doctor. Someone to tell him just how bad it is, sir.”

“I’ve sent someone already. My personal doctor. She’ll give you the diagnosis you seek. And I expect to see you shortly, dear. In my office as soon as you’re done there. You know the way.”

“Yes, sir—” she said and he hung up the phone.

“Haley,” Mr. Walker said. “Is Doctor Smith on standby?”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, holding the door to the now parked Hummer open for him to exit.

“Send her to Loch Ness Studios, lot thirty seven.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And get me Jorah Baldwin—in person. We have some business to tend to.”

 

#     #     #

< XLVIII. Ansel     [Table of Contents]    L. Nikola >

And there you have it. Te seventh chapter in book three of the Infinite Limits tetralogy. That means we’re 1/3 of the way through this novel and we’ll to start returning to characters we’ve already joined starting next week. I hope you’re enjoying the story as it continues. I’ll be hard at work finishing book four either way. So until next time, enjoy yourself, dear readers, 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.”

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< 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.