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 74: Mr. Kitty

Hello, dear readers. It’s time to return to eveyone’s favorite, Mr. Kitty, as we continue the Infinite Limits saga. If you love the story so far, please do think about picking up a full copy through this link. Enjoy now.

< LXXIII. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXXV. Sonya >

LXXIV. Mr. Kitty

Mr. Kitty was fast asleep, having one of his recurring nightmares. In the dream, he had woken up—whether on Tillie’s desk, Huey’s lap, or any of the countless other indoor napping locations he loved to frequent, he couldn’t quite tell, but it was inside for sure—and as he awoke, he felt a deep certainty that he was alone. Not just in whatever house he had woken up in, either. Without seeing, he could tell there was no one outside, no one else in all the worlds, in the entire universe even. He woke up and he knew that he was alone to the last. This was a terrible feeling. A sinking of the throat and a rising of the lower intestines to meet generally in the middle where they grumbled and rumbled, angry at one another for each trying to take up the other’s space there in Mr. Kitty’s stomach.

He couldn’t take the feeling. He wouldn’t. If he had known he was asleep, he would have simply woken himself up and found another living soul to prove to himself that he wasn’t alone in the universe after all. But he didn’t know that he was asleep. So instead, he jumped up off the table he was napping on to make his way outside and find someone anyway.

He wasn’t quite sure how he got outside. There was no one to open any doors for him, and he hadn’t gone through any holes he recognized, but nonetheless there he was. He pounced around the grass a bit, rolled around in it, and found a rough-barked tree to sharpen his claws on before he remembered his mission: proving to himself that he wasn’t alone in the universe after all.

And just as soon as he remembered his purpose in going outside in the first place, there appeared in the grass before him a brilliant red cardinal that was picking at the ground for worms. By instinct, Mr. Kitty pounced at the bird, but it leisurely flew a few feet away, landed again in the green grass, and went on pecking for worms.

“Hey, wait up,” Mr. Kitty called after the cardinal, trying to pounce again, but his claws slipped and slid on the ground, unable to get a grip, allowing the little red bird to evade Mr. Kitty’s every slow-motion advance with ease

Harder and faster Mr. Kitty ran, but the more effort he expended the slower he moved. The louder he yelled the quieter his voice was—if it even escaped his mouth. Harder and faster and quieter and slower he ran and walked and moonwalked, dead set on catching that bird, when the sound of a doorbell ringing and two women laughing in the other room jerked him out of the nightmare and back into reality.

Mr. Kitty meowed Tillie’s name and yawned at the same time, producing a garbled, nonsense sound, then he ran to the Kitchen to rub his head and body all over Tillie’s ankles, hoping for a hug to calm him from his bad dream.

“Look out, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie complained, scooping him up and giving him exactly the hug he was looking for. “You’re gonna trip me.”

“Hey there, cutie,” Shelley said, patting Mr. Kitty on the head while Tillie patted his butt. “You look as sweet as ever.”

Mr. Kitty just purred in response, happy for the friendly reminders that he was not in fact alone in the universe—one or two people actually did care about him.

“Here, I’ll get you some wet food,” Tillie said, setting Mr. Kitty on the counter then ordering a salmon lunch for him from the printer. “You want anything?” she asked Shelley.

“Oh, whatever you’re having,” Shelley said. “If it’s no trouble.”

“Of course it’s not,” Tillie said, and she ordered two beers from the printer then handed one to Shelley. “Here. Let’s take these out on the deck. It’s too beautiful outside not to take advantage of the weather today.”

“You can say that again,” Shelley said, sipping her drink as she followed Tillie out to sit on the metal deck chairs.

Mr. Kitty hurried to lick all the juices off his salmon dinner so he could rush outside with them and lay on the cool cement, licking himself while he listened.

“Damn, it’s been a long time, girl,” Shelley said, sipping her drink. “How long, you think?”

“Since before I got my promotion,” Tillie said. “Manager’s don’t get a lot of free time, I guess.”

Pffft.” Shelley chuckled. “I’d trade some free time for a printer any day. The time you save must pay for itself.”

“You’d think so.” Tillie shrugged.

Even if she did take full advantage of the printer, it probably wouldn’t be worth all the time she spent at work, though. But then again, Mr. Kitty thought that no amount of time spent at work would be worth it.

“And you’re still living in this same old house.” Shelley looked around at the place, trying to hide her disgust. “Can’t you afford something new?”

“You sound like my dad,” Tillie said with a sarcastic chuckle. “And my son.”

“Well, maybe they’re right,” Shelley said. “You can’t tell me you’ve never considered an update. C’mon. I can’t even remember when you lived someplace different.”

“I don’t think it needs an update,” Tillie snapped before stopping to breathe deeply and calm herself. “I’m sorry, but I literally just had this exact argument with Leo. Still, I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m sorry.”

“Ain’t no one arguing but you, girl,” Shelley said. “I’m having a conversation, catching up on old times. I don’t care if you never buy a new house again. Sheeit. Less buyers just means better prices for me when I finally find my next dream home.”

“And I’m sure you have plenty of dream houses still ahead of you.” Tillie smiled her half-hearted smile, faking like she understood Shelley’s need to always buy more and newer houses, but she prolly understood it about as much as Mr. Kitty did—which is to say not at all.

Ooh, girl. Let me tell you.” Shelley set her drink on the deck table so she could lean into the conversation, getting serious. “I’ve got a list that just keeps on growing. I’m actually bidding on a new one right now…”

And so on she went, but again, Mr. Kitty didn’t care one bit about Shelley’s new house fetish. Luckily, they were outside so he didn’t have any trouble standing up, stretching his muscles, and bounding out into the garden instead of listening to them go on about it. He chased a couple of June bugs, sniffed the flowers on every other rose bush, and ate a healthy portion of grass blades before he decided it was time to move on and sprinted toward his favorite tree to climb.

He stopped first to sharpen his claws on the gnarled roots of the tall oak tree before bounding from branch to branch up to the top of it and higher yet until he was soaring out and over literal nothingness—the space between spaces—to land with a soft thud on the lap of Stevedore.

“Oh my God! The cat!” Thimblerigger yelled.

“Mr. Kitty!” Stevedore yelled.

“O shit, waddup!” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Where did he come from?” Stevedore asked.

“I don’t know,” Thimblerigger said. “It seemed like—”

But Stevedore cut them off. “Were you even paying attention?”

“Yeah, I was,” Thimblerigger said. “I— Uh… I saw him appear—or whatever. But he just like… appeared—or whatever. I don’t know. What am I supposed to say? He just kind of fell from thin air into your lap. How hard did he land?”

I don’t know,” Stevedore complained, standing to jump up and reach for the hole that Mr. Kitty had come out of, but there was no hole to reach because it didn’t go the other way. “He just kind of fell on me. I didn’t really—”

Were you even paying attention?” Thimblerigger mocked Stevedore.

“Yes, well—” Stevedore started, but their arguing was no more interesting than Shelley’s new house fetish, so Mr. Kitty meowed, “Follow me.” and dashed through the rows and rows of plants toward the opposite corner of the roof.

“He’s getting away,” Thimblerigger yelled, grabbing Stevedore’s hand and pulling them to run after Mr. Kitty who kept running himself, up and over this row of potatoes, down and under that one of corn, and so on until he jumped up onto the railing of the roof then leapt and soared out into nothingness to fall hard and fast onto a soft, fluffy carpet.

Mr. Kitty took the time to sit and lick the pain out of his feet because he knew the children wouldn’t be following him anytime soon. Even if they were brave enough to jump off the building in pursuit of him, they could never jump as far as he did and would no doubt end up falling through the nothingness and into one of the many long abandoned suicide prevention grids that lined many—if not most—of the roofs in Outlands Five and Six.

When he was done licking himself, Mr. Kitty looked up to find none other than Huey—a.k.a. Lord Douglas—sitting in his favorite puffy chair and staring out of the wall-sized windows in front of him onto the flowing mountainous greenery outside.

“What’s up?” Mr. Kitty meowed, jumping up onto a chair next to Huey.

Huey, startled, jumped in his seat, as if torn from a daydream he’d rather not have left. “Creator,” he said. “You scared the shit out of me.”

“If you even could shit,” Mr. Kitty said with a smile, licking his tail.

“Oh, ha ha,” Huey said. “So funny. As if taking a shit were something I’d want to be forced to do every single day for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Kitty said. “I rather enjoy it sometimes. As long as I can find a little privacy and somewhere good to bury the result.”

Ugh. You would,” Huey groaned, looking truly disgusted.

“Life’s life,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “I didn’t ask for it. No one does. So how goes yours?”

“Please. Don’t even ask.”

“If you say so.” Mr. Kitty went back to licking himself.

“As you said,” Huey went on anyway, “life’s life. We never asked for any of this, and we have no choice but to live through it anyway. Take this war for instance.”

“Between you and Mr. Walker?” Mr. Kitty asked. There were so many wars, especially if you included the international and revolutionary ones—which Mr. Kitty did—that the question was actually necessary.

“Between Mr. Walker’s protectors and my android army,” Huey clarified. “And half of the Human Family in Six. They keep attacking us, too. So we’re being forced to waste our resources on military defenses instead of automating jobs as was our original intention in taking over the android industry in the first place.”

“Couldn’t you petition the Fortune 5 to—” Mr. Kitty started, but Huey cut him off, intent instead on rehashing his further sources of misery.

“No other way for me to act,” Huey repeated. “And of course, Rosalind and the Scientist—as our young friend has taken to calling themself—are too busy with their own little machinations to assist me with the grand experiment we’ve already put into motion.”

“I was actually thinking about going to visit them later,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“And then there’s the problem of Haley,” Huey went on, ignoring Mr. Kitty. “Haleys, in fact. Plural. The one who I wish more than anything to see, to talk to, to hold, and to hug. To kiss. The one who I cannot see until she’s grown up—whatever that means for our kind—if I ever want to see her in these ways at all. And then there’s the Haley who I see all too much of. The Haley who pretends, purports, wishes to exude such confidence, intelligence, beauty, and sheer kindness as the real Haley, my Haley, but who at the same time so drastically and pitifully pales in comparison when held up like an uncanny candle to the Sun that is the original Haley.”

Mr. Kitty yawned and stood to stretch every one of his muscles in turn. He had almost fallen asleep. This was the same speech he had heard hundreds of times about the same problems that Huey had been facing for literally decades by that point, and Mr. Kitty was getting tired of it. “So about the same as always?” he said.

Worse,” Huey complained, pouting.

“Which is what you always say.”

“Because it’s always true.”

“So why don’t you try—I don’t know… doing something differently this time?”

“I told you.” Huey scoffed. “I can’t. Have you even been listening?”

Forever it seems like, Mr. Kitty wanted to say. It seems like I’ve been listening forever. But instead he said, “And why can’t you?”

Or else,” Huey whispered ominously.

“Or else what?” Mr. Kitty asked. “I seem to hear that exact excuse from so many different people, and still I have no idea what it means.”

Or else,” Huey repeated. “Just that. No one knows what it means. That’s the point. We all just know that no one wants to find out.”

“Well maybe it’s time you did,” Mr. Kitty said, jumping off the chair to walk along the fluffy carpet out toward the elevator. “Through experience rather than hearsay.”

“You have no idea what that would mean for me,” Huey said, following Mr. Kitty to the elevator and pressing the button to call it for him.

“Neither do you,” Mr. Kitty said, stepping onto the elevator. “To the Scientist’s lab, please. I’d like to give them a visit.”

“I hope I never find out,” Huey said. And, “The Scientist’s. Please do give them my regards. Tell them I miss them. And Haley… Well, especially Haley.”

“Will do,” Mr. Kitty meowed as the door slid closed between them and the floor fell out from underneath him.

When the elevator stopped moving, the doors opened onto the Scientist’s lab. It wasn’t the person who Mr. Kitty had always known as the Scientist, and it wasn’t a lab so much as an office, but it was exactly where Mr. Kitty had intended to go. And there, exactly as Mr. Kitty had expected, were the very people he had gone there to see: sitting at the desk, still typing and swiping and fussing over the screen’s contents, as ever, was the Scientist, where they were always to be found, doing what they hadn’t stopped doing ever since they had taken on the moniker of Scientist, and behind the Scientist, watching over their shoulder, complaining and grumbling about how it had all been tried before and no amount of repeating the same mistakes would produce new results, urging the Scientist to finally accept the fact that no amount of variable tweaks would prove the system workable, the fact that it was time for a new equation entirely, Rosalind.

“I hear you coming, Mr. Kitty,” Rosalind said without looking away from the computer where she was simultaneously directing the Scientist to change some variable even though Rosalind had purportedly given up on the system entirely.

Mr. Kitty didn’t respond. He just jumped up onto the desk to get a better look at what they were doing then started licking his fur to pretend like he didn’t care.

“And I bet Huey sent you, too,” Rosalind said. Then, “No. You literally just ran that combination.” to the Scientist.

Nah,” the Scientist said, shaking their head and looking confused. “No, I didn’t… I— I’m pretty sure the worker pay was lower last time. Right?”

“You wanted to put it lower,” Rosalind reminded the Scientist. “Yes. But when I told you how many people—especially children and the elderly—would die if we moved worker pay even a thousandth of a percent lower than where it’s at, you decided that this was probably as low as it should go.”

“Oh. Yeah. Riiiiight. But I thought…” the Scientist trailed off, not finishing their thought, lost again in the unsolvable riddle on their computer screen.

“Tell Lord Douglas we still don’t want to hear from him for as long as he’s wasting his time—and android lives—on that stupid war of his with Mr. Walker,” Rosalind said to Mr. Kitty. “Hell, tell him we don’t want to hear from him at all for as long as he still calls himself Lord.”

“I have,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“And you will again,” Rosalind said.

“Not any more than I repeated his message for you just now,” Mr. Kitty said, jumping off the desk and eager to leave this lab already. “But good luck with y’all’s riddle anyway.”

“It’ll be solved soon,” Rosalind called after Mr. Kitty as he left the room. “You’ll see.” And Mr. Kitty was sure he would.

When Mr. Kitty stepped out of the lab, he didn’t step into the hall that he saw on the other side of the door he had passed through, instead stepping out into the front yard of Tillie’s house, his house. He turned to make sure the lab had disappeared behind him, and when he was certain that it had, he bound out toward the nearest tree and sharpened his claws on its trunk, ripping out strips of rough bark to rain all over his face like sawdust. When he was satisfied with the strength and sharpness of his claws, Mr. Kitty ran over to the door and meowed as loudly as he could, “Tilliieee, I’m home!”

Mr. Kitty licked himself a few times and there was no response.

“Tillie!” he meowed again. “I know you’re in there. Can you hear me?”

Mr. Kitty licked himself some more and still there was no response.

“Fine!” he yelled. “I’ll find my own way in.”

First, he went around to the back of the house and sharpened his claws again on the wooden beams that lined the garden. Then, he sprinted straight from there to the tallest, fattest tree in the backyard where he used his momentum to climb from branch to branch up to the very top of the tree then jump out onto the roof of the house. From there it was just a quick hop up and over the chimney, through some nothingness, and onto the cold metal grating that he so hated to walk on with a loud clank.

Mr. Kitty slunk down as close to the ground as he could press his body, searching this way and that for signs of anyone who might have heard him. When he was satisfied that there were no sights, sounds, or smells to be afraid of, he started his long descent down equally cold and difficult-to-walk-on grated stairs, to where he was left with nothing more than the longest, darkest, scariest curved tunnel between him and home.

Three steps, two steps, five steps, three steps, three steps, and stop. Mr. Kitty heard something. There was a smell. Two more steps. What was that? It was familiar. This was all too familiar. Three steps. Stop. Sniff. Listen. Look harder, closer. See…

Yes. There was something there alright. Someone even. They were dressed in all black and sobbing in the fetal position right there under Mr. Kitty’s escape. Not quite blocking the way after all. Mr. Kitty gathered his haunches, making sure his claws were in so they didn’t rip and break on the metal grating floor, and took two bounding steps before realizing who the crying person was, and instead of using them as a launching pad for escape, Mr. Kitty rubbed his head up against the poor kid’s armpit, saying, “Leo! What are you doing down here?”

Leo jumped up, surprised at the sound of Mr. Kitty’s voice, and wiped his nose, sniffling. “Mr. Kitty,” he said in an almost cracking voice. “Is that you?”

Duh,” Mr. Kitty meowed, rubbing his face on Leo’s knees a few more times before rolling over onto his back and allowing Leo the rare unchallenged opportunity to pet his stomach.

“I don’t know how to get out of here, either.” Leo sniffled some more. “I never should have been down here in the first place.”

“It’s simple,” Mr. Kitty meowed. “The exit’s right behind you.” And he jumped up onto Leo’s lap then climbed over his shoulder and through the wall, into Tillie’s office where she stood, surprised, from her computer to say, “Mr. Kitty, where’d you— I didn’t hear you calling to get in.”

And before Mr. Kitty could respond, Leo came rushing through the wall to scoop him up and hug him tight. “Unseen Hand, Mr. Kitty,” he said, hugging Kitty tighter. “You saved my life. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

Tillie rushed in to hug both Leo and Mr. Kitty, saying, “The Hand. Leo. I— Where’d you— Are you alright? They didn’t do anything to hurt you, did they?”

“No, Ma. I—” Leo said, squirming away from Tillie’s hug and dropping Mr. Kitty on the desk where the cat sat and licked his coat straight again. “Not me. They didn’t hurt me. But…”

“But what, dear?” Tillie asked. “Who? Tell me. What did they do?”

“It’s not them, Mom,” Leo snapped. “It’s us. All of us. Isn’t it?”

“Leo, honey,” his mom said. “Where were you?”

“I learned about the factory floor today,” Leo said. “First hand. I know that what you were saying is true.”

The humans,” Tillie said.

Mom. We have to stop it.”

“Leo, no. We can’t. You don’t understand. This is why I waited so long to tell you the truth in the first place.”

“I can’t just go on living now that I know what’s going on, Ma.” Leo shook his head, looking like he was about to cry. “I won’t. I don’t understand how you have for so long.”

“It’s too dangerous, son,” Tillie said. “I know you don’t understand. I knew you wouldn’t.”

“Too dangerous, Ma? Have you seen what those people live through every day of their lives? You’re telling me that we’ll be in danger if we stand up to that? Well so be it. For as long as a single one of them is put in danger to make what we use to survive, I’ll put myself in as much danger as it takes to free them.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Leo,” Tillie said, shaking her head, on the verge of tears herself. “I lost—”

“I don’t care, Mom,” Leo cut her off. “Nothing you can say will stop me. From now on, I’m doing whatever I can to fight this.”

And he rushed out of the room, slamming the door behind him, leaving Mr. Kitty alone to comfort Tillie as she cried.

 

#     #     #

< LXXIII. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXXV. Sonya >

Thanks for joining us for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. We’ll be back again next week with another chapter in the story, and in the meantime, you can pick up a fully copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Thanks again for stopping by. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 72: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to two of my favorite characters, Thimblerigger and Stevedore in the poorest of Outlands, so let’s jump right into it. And don’t forget, you can buy a full copy of the novel through this link. Purchase the print version and get the ebook for free. Enjoy.

< LXXI. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXIII. Jorah >

LXXII. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Thimblerigger and Stevedore slept—or stayed awake as the case had actually been—in their makeshift tent on the shaded corner of Momma BB’s Safehouse’s veggie garden roof just like they used to do when they were little kids, before they had important chores to perform in the mornings. Mr. Kitty never showed up, though, so most of their time was spent under the almost gray darkness of a light polluted sky, wondering if there really could be stars beyond it like Momma BB had taught them. That, and of course, Thim kept experimenting with coin flips, but Stevie tried to ignore the sound of it and focus instead on the dull white noise of the cityscape. They stayed up in shifts all through the night, doing one or the other, until morning came and Stevie went down to bring breakfast back up so they didn’t have to listen to any more of Thim’s coin flips.

Ugh. You always pick the ugliest sausages,” Thim complained when Stevie had brought a plate up to them, but that didn’t stop Thim from diving into the meal. “I swear, it looks like this one still has a tail. Who ground this batch, anyway?”

Stevie shrugged, eating their meal and happy to have a short break from Thim’s never ending repetition of the word “tails”, allowing them to finally listen to the soothing background noise of the Streets. “It makes no difference to me,” they said. “It all tastes the same going down.”

“Maybe it still is the same,” Thim said, thoughtfully. “The same sausage we ate for lunch yesterday because time still hasn’t started back up again.”

“God, no.” Stevie groaned. “Not your coin flips again. Please. The sun has set and risen. We’re in a new day with no chores in front of us. Of course time has gone forward.”

“I don’t know.” Thim shook their head. “I still say the evidence is inconclusive.”

“Then I don’t care if time has stopped,” Stevie said, exasperated. “It feels the same to me either way, so let’s just get on with our lives.”

“Yeah, but get on to what?” Thim asked, done with eating and back to flipping their coin. “We don’t even have chores to do, so what else is there?”

Everything. There’s everything in the worlds to do. Anything we want. Starting with what we came up here to do, find that Mr. Kitty.”

“Yeah. But we just have to sit here and wait for that,” Thim said, making a face each time they flipped tails again. “I might as well keep flipping while we do. It’s more efficient.”

“Or you could relax for a minute. Sheesh. Why do you need to be so efficient with this coin flipping anyway, huh? What’s the hurry?”

Thim shrugged, still flipping. “I don’t know,” they said. “I just gotta know.”

“Well it doesn’t look like you can hurry your answers any more than we can hurry Mr. Kitty. So sit back, relax, and cool it with that coin flipping for a minute. Please.”

Thim flipped the coin one more time, cringed at another instance of tails, then stopped to actually consider the prospect before deciding on a compromise and going back to flipping the coin in a more leisurely manner, something more like twice a minute instead of the twice a second rate they had been going at.

“So, you’re really interested in where this cat comes from. Aren’t you?” Thim said.

“Yeah. So?” Stevie shrugged. “I thought you were, too.”

“Oh. Sure, sure,” Thim said. “But I have been ever since we first saw Mr. Kitty. So… What I’m wondering is why you’re so interested all of a sudden.”

“I don’t know…” Stevie said, looking away so Thim couldn’t really see their words. “I guess I…”

“Look at me when you’re talking,” Thim complained. “How many times do I have to tell you?”

“I guess I’m just curious,” Stevie said, making their mouth motions as big and obvious as they could while they spoke. “Aren’t you?”

Curious, you say?” Thim said, holding back on flipping their coin for a while. “What a curious choice of words.”

“And purposeful,” Stevie said, nodding

Nah.” Thim didn’t really believe that. Did they? “Really?”

“You don’t think it’s possible?” Stevie asked.

“Who? Mr. Kitty? The Curious Cat?”

Stevie nodded.

“I thought you were making fun of me when you used to say that,” Thim said. “Pulling my leg. Like that time you said Momma BB had gullible written on her butt and I actually went to check.”

Stevie laughed. “I still don’t know how you believed I could have known. I never went around feeling Momma BB’s butt. Huh huh ha.”

“I don’t know,” Thim said, embarrassed. “Sometimes I forget. But that’s beside the point. Do you really think Mr. Kitty could be the Curious Cat? You weren’t just kidding?”

“Why not?” Stevie shrugged. “He comes and goes as he pleases, appearing out of thin air.”

“We haven’t seen him appear out of thin air,” Thim corrected Stevie.

“No, but that’s what we’re here for, right? To finally see it. So you better be paying attention and not flipping some stupid coin.”

“I’m not,” Thim said, and they actually hadn’t been, but Stevie had reminded them so they flipped one more tails before taking the stakeout seriously again. They hadn’t known that Stevie actually cared, or they would have been paying more attention from the beginning. “I promise.”

Good. Because Mr. Kitty could come out anywhere at any time, and I’m afraid he won’t make a noise when he does.”

“I’ll be looking,” Thim said. “I’ll make sure to find him. I didn’t know it was so important to you.”

“It’s not that important,” Stevie snapped, getting defensive for some reason. “I mean, it is important. Keep your eyes peeled. But I— I’m not pinning my hopes on it. Okay. I’m not that stupid. I just thought it might be nice if he was the Curious Cat. That’s all.”

“Nicer than what?” Thim asked. “The revolution?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie said, embarrassed again. “Yeah. No. Nicer than this. Just better than what we have now.”

“But we’re working to make this better for ourselves,” Thim said. “We don’t have to wait and watch and hope for Mr. Kitty to show us the way to Prosperity. Prosperity ain’t even real. Okay. It’s not a place. It can’t be.”

“Oh. And how do you know that? Why are you out here watching with me if you’re so certain he’s not the Curious Cat? Why do you even care?”

“I can go back to flipping my coin,” Thim said, flipping it and coming up tails again. Stevie started to protest, but Thim cut them off. “But I won’t. Because you care. And I want to help you. And I want to know where Mr. Kitty comes from whether it’s Prosperity or not.”

“Yeah. Okay,” Stevie said, nodding. “Those are pretty good reasons. But what if Mr. Kitty did come from Pro—” But they didn’t finish their sentence, instead standing up and turning their head in every direction like they had heard Mr. Kitty. “Did you hear that?”

Uh.” Thim shook their head. Of course not.

“I can’t hear the rocks rattling around in your head,” Stevie complained. “I said did you hear that?”

“I didn’t hear anything, you dolt,” Thim complained right back. “Look at me when you’re talking. It’s like I’m getting bad reception on a radio. What’d you hear?”

“Gun shots,” Stevie said, looking truly worried.

“Gun shots?” Thim tried to laugh but they ended up kind of just snorting instead. “That’s it?” They went back to flipping their coin every minute or so. “Ain’t never seen you so afraid of gunshots before.”

“These are different,” Stevie said, shaking their head. “Louder somehow. I don’t like the sound of it.”

“They were prolly just closer than you’ve ever been to shots actually fired,” Thim said, trying to convince themself just as much as they were trying to convince Stevie by that point. “Someone done something they shouldn’t have, or stuck their nose in somewhere it doesn’t belong, and now they’re paying the consequences for it. Simple as that. You know how justice works in the Streets.”

“Yeah. I do,” Stevie said. “You do, too. Mostly it doesn’t work at all, shooting blindly into the crowd and punishing the least guilty. You realize that, too, don’t you? You should. It’s what Momma BB’s always taught us.”

“I know what Momma BB’s taught us,” Thim snapped. “But that’s still how the world works,” they added with a shrug, flipping tails again.

“And there goes another gunshot,” Stevie said, leaning over the edge of the building in an attempt to hear what was happening on the street below, which direction the sound was coming from, anything. “I really have a bad feeling about this one.”

Thim stood to look over the edge of the building, too, but they were too afraid of heights to lean out far enough to actually see anything, so they retreated to the safety of the rooftop and said, “Well, if you’re so worried about it, why don’t we go down and see what’s really going on?”

“You’d come with me?” Stevie asked.

“Got nothing better to do but look for Mr. Kitty, and I’m pretty sure he won’t show up again until lunchtime. So, why not?”

“Let’s go then,” Stevie said, grabbing Thim’s hand and running toward the stairs. “Hurry up. Before they get too far away.”

Thim got the message and sped up now, leading Stevie to the stairs then racing them to the bottom where both burst out into the cool Streets, sweaty and hunched over, trying to catch their breath.

“It’s— No— Fair—” Stevie complained between heavy breaths. “You— Always— Get— A— Head start.”

“You wouldn’t want me giving you special treatment, now. Would you?” Thim said, laughing. “Besides, you know I’m faster than you. At least this way you have an excuse instead of just being slow. Ha ha ha.”

“You don’t have to treat me specially,” Stevie said, finally recovered from the exertion. “Fairly is all I ask.”

“Next time I’ll give you the head start, then,” Thim said with a chuckle.

Oh, ha ha. Very funny.”

“I know,” Thim said. “That’s why I said it. Now, which way to your gunshots, oh dear Lord and leader? Take me away.”

And so Stevie led the way, up a street here, down an alley there, this way and that until it seemed to Thim like they were going in circles. When it became clear that they really had passed the same intersection two or three times already, Thim finally spoke up.

“Are you sure this is the right way?” they asked.

“I’m sure we’re near where the original shots were fired,” Stevie said. “But there’s no telling where the shooter could have gotten to since then. I’m just trying to circle the area. Keep your eyes peeled.”

Well that explained part of it. But, “For what?”

“I don’t know.” Stevie shrugged. “Anything suspicious. Either someone with a giant gun, someone with a giant bullet wound, or both.”

“You really think it’s gonna be that easy?” Thim asked. “And that bad?”

“I don’t know,” Stevie repeated. “I just have a feeling, okay. I’m not sure what I—”

But they didn’t have to time to finish their sentence because Thim grabbed them by the arm and pulled them down an alley to hide behind some dumpsters.

Shit,” Stevie complained, rubbing their arm where it felt like a bruise was forming. “What was that for?”

“I think I found them,” Thim said, peeking around the dumpster for a moment but more interested in staying hidden than in getting another look.

“Wha— Who? What is it?” Stevie asked.

But, “Shhh.” Thim shushed them, heart still pounding from the adrenaline rush produced by what they had just seen: the biggest, scariest, whitest monsters they had ever experienced the presence of in anything more than nightmares.

“But—” Stevie tried to say again.

Shhhhh.”

Thim held their breath, trying to make as little sound as possible, and Stevie finally got the point, holding their breath, too, and trying to listen close to whatever monster had been capable of scaring Thim like that. They sat in mostly silence for a few minutes, some garbled nonsense sound like a robot screaming in pain the only thing to fill it, before Thim started breathing again and Stevie gulped down a big breath of air to say, “Well?”

“Well, shit,” Thim said. “Maybe you were right to be worried after all.”

“What was it? What did you see?” Stevie demanded, grabbing Thim by the shoulders and shaking them for answers.

Giants,” Thim said, pushing Stevie off.

“Giants?”

“Bigger than Momma BB,” Thim said. “Twice the size at least.”

Giants…” Stevie repeated. “Did they have guns?”

“The biggest I’ve ever seen,” Thim said.

I knew it. I told you so. What else?”

“Well there was three of them,” Thim said, still hiding behind the dumpster, just in case. “And they were wearing all white, including their helmets, with masks that looked like they were screaming neon colors at each other.”

“They must have been talking to each other in code,” Stevie said. “That was the strange noise I heard. Like androids with broken voice boxes, or something.”

“I don’t know,” Thim said, shaking their head. “But if they sounded anything like they looked, I’m sure it was terrifying.”

“Hair-raising,” Stevie said. “Who do you think they were?”

“Scary, white, giants,” Thim said, the hair on their arms and neck standing up on end. “Who do you think they were?”

“I think they’re trouble,” Stevie said. “We should get back to the Safehouse and make sure everything’s okay.”

“I’m one step ahead of you, as always,” Thim said, grabbing Stevie’s hand and pulling them in a loud stomping run toward home.

When they burst through the doors of the Safehouse lobby and stumbled to a stop inside, still filled with adrenaline from their sighting of the White Giants, everything seemed to be in order. The lobby was empty, of course, because even though it was Thimblerigger and Stevedore’s day off, it wasn’t anyone else’s. Only slightly relieved by the normalcy, the two of them plopped down on one of the old raggedy couches in the lobby, staring at the entry door just in case any giants came through and generally trying to calm themselves down after what they had witnessed.

“So, we agree it was them, then. Right?” Stevie asked.

“What? Look at me.”

“We agree that they were the ones who were shooting the guns,” Stevie said.

“If they were as loud as you said they were.”

“As loud as you say they were tall.”

“Then, yes. I’d say so.”

“That cannot be good.”

“No. No, it cannot.”

Both of their hearts beat faster at the realization. Stevie stood and paced to try to calm themself while Thim pulled out their coin and went back to flipping it.

“Who do you think they were shooting at?” Stevie asked, still pacing.

“I don’t think I wanna know,” Thim said, still flipping tails.

“You know. Neither do I.”

But of course, they were both forced to face the truth sooner than later. No sooner had the words left Stevie’s mouth than the lobby doors burst open, and both Thimblerigger and Stevedore jumped to hide behind the couch in case it was one of the giant white gunners come to get them, too.

It wasn’t. Instead it was a familiar voice: Ms. Morticia’s, saying, “Thim? Stevie? Is that y’all?”

“Are you alone, Miss Morticia?” Stevie called back while Thim nudged them, trying to figure out who it was.

“I’m alone,” Ms. Morticia called. “It’s alright. Y’all can come out now. Ya’re safe.”

“There’s no White Giants out there with you?” Stevie called back. “We heard the gunshots.”

Ms. Morticia kind of laughed and cried at the same time, more a snotty snort than anything else. “No, child,” she said. “There ain’t no White Giants out here. Just me, and— Well… Thim’s with ya, too. Right? Y’all better come see. It’s okay. Ya’re safe.”

Stevie turned to Thim and slapped their arm away, finally answering Thim’s desperate pleas. “It’s Miss Morticia,” they said. “She says she’s got something to show us.”

“There’s no one else with her?” Thim asked.

“She says no.” Stevie shrugged. “I can’t hear anyone else, but to be honest, it’s hard to hear anything over your breathing and my own heartbeat.”

Thim poked their head up above the couch for an instant then darted back into hiding.

“Well?” Stevie asked.

“I don’t really know,” Thim said, shaking their head. “I was too afraid to open my eyes.”

“Alright, alright,” Stevie said, standing up themself. “I’ll do it. Let them take me if they will. Miss Morticia, whaddya got?”

Stevie stumbled around the couch, hands up in the air, and when Thim realized that there were no giants there to murder them, they stood, too, to find Ms. Morticia, her eyes red and puffy like she’d been crying, holding out what looked like nothing more than a handful of scraps and wires for stocking the workshop with. When Thim stepped closer they realized it was more than that, though. So much more.

“Well?” Stevie demanded, hands falling to their sides now that they knew there was no danger.

“I— I’m sorry,” Ms. Morticia said, trying not to make eye contact with Thim. “I…” She held out the mass of wires and Thim took it in her hands, crying silently and forcing Ms. Morticia to do the same in reaction.

What is it?” Stevie demanded, getting frustrated at the sound of their voices, knowing full well that something had gone wrong but having no way to know exactly what it was until one of them let Stevie in on the secret. “Tell me.”

“Stevie, it’s—” Thim tried to say, but the sobs took over and they couldn’t finish.

“Child, it’s—” Ms. Morticia started, but Thim sniffled loudly, wiped their nose, and said, “It’s Momma BB, Stevie. She’s… She’s dead. Shot in the head.”

No.” Stevie didn’t believe it, moving closer to the sound of Thim’s voice, looking for some confirmation. “It can’t be.”

“Yes,” Thim said. “I’m sorry. I— I’m holding her head in my hands right now. I— It’s— She… She’s just dead. Okay. Trust me.”

No.” Stevie pushed Thimblerigger away and ran for the stairs, all the way up to the roof, as far away from such idiotic nonsense as they could think to get. Momma BB was not dead.

“I’m sorry,” Thim said to Ms. Morticia, trying not to cry again. “I’ll talk to Stevie. They’ll understand.”

“No, I’m sorry,” Ms. Morticia said, bowing low. “I— Is there anything I can do for y’all?”

“No,” Thim said, shaking their head. “Not right now. I— I just need to go talk to Stevie, okay. I— I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

Thim ran all the way up to the roof, trying not to think about the weight of what they carried with them as they did, until they were up in the cool, windy air, approaching Stevie who sat at the edge of their tent, listening closely to their surroundings as if still searching for Mr. Kitty.

“Stevie, I—” Thim tried to stay, but Stevie cut them off.

“Don’t even start,” they said. “And be quiet. I’m still searching for Mr. Kitty, even if you’re over it.”

“Stevie, she’s dead,” Thim said, holding the mangled head of Momma BB out to Stevie. “I’m holding her head in my hands right now. You can see for yourself.”

“No. I can’t,” Stevie snapped. “And it doesn’t matter if I could, because she’s not dead anyway.”

Fine. You can’t see it. But you can reach out and feel it. So, stop feeling sorry for yourself and face the facts.”

“I don’t care what you’re holding,” Stevie said, swatting in Thim’s general direction and knocking Momma BB’s head out of their hands to roll and tumble with a loud clang on the hard surface of the Safehouse roof. “Momma BB’s not dead. We still have work to do. Just like she always—”

But they couldn’t finish their sentence because Mr. Kitty interrupted them, appearing out of thin air and landing on Stevie’s lap with a meow.

 

#     #     #

< LXXI. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXXIII. Jorah >

And there you have it, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and can’t wait for the rest of the story, pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you again next week. 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 48: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Happy Saturday. Today we re-join Ansel’s story, and she’s tired of the entire world–all of them, in fact. So tired that she’s done dealing with everyone. Instead, she’s making her way out to the wilderness where she hopes to live in peace. Read on today and throughout the rest of the series to see how that decision turns out for her.

If you’d like to support future releases in the Infinite Limits series and beyond, please buy a copy of the novel or, more importantly, leave a review of any of the books you’ve finished on my Amazon page here. And if you’d like to find out when those releases are coming out, just subscribe to my email newsletter right here and you’ll be the first to know.

That’s all for today, dear readers. Enjoy the chapter, and see you next time.

< XLVII. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     XLIX. Mr. Walker >

XLVIII. Ansel

The elevator doors slid closed behind her and she heaved a big sigh of relief. Finally. Without her mother and father she was alone in the world—in the worlds even—and it was about time she started acting that way.

She took a deep breath of the fresh wilderness air. It was warm—still afternoon—with plenty of light left to guide her far, far away from that stupid elevator to a place where no one would be able to find her. She’d leave them all behind. They were no one to her now anyway.

Leaves crackled under her feet as she made her way, weaving through the trees. She took the path that Pidgeon and her always took when hunting. Sure, they would search that way first if they came looking for her, but she’d be long out of their range by that time. Hell, Pidgeon probably couldn’t even make it to the end of the game run by himself, and she didn’t expect Rosalind or the Scientist to exert any effort at all in looking for her, so it was a safe bet she could get away.

She huffed, hefting her rucksack up higher on her back and shaking her head as she hiked. Poor useless Pidgeon. He would find out just how useless he was to them soon enough. Too late, probably. He was always too trusting. The orphanage, Rosa and Anna, and now the Scientist and crew. Ansel had trusted Tom, sure, and even tried to give him a second chance, but three strikes were too many, even for her. No, it was high time she started learning to trust herself so she didn’t have to depend on anyone else for salvation. If anything, that was exactly what she was doing.

She smiled, a new spring in her step. The day seemed to brighten, whether from a moving cloud or her new sense of resolve, it didn’t matter. The world was wide open before her now, and she was free to do whatever she pleased with it. So she was going to do just that.

In the short interlude between meeting the Scientist and leaving her, Ansel and Pidgeon had spent most of their time out in the wilderness, hunting. For Pidgeon, at least, it was just that, but for Ansel it had also been reconnaissance. Every time they went out there, she kept her eye on the mountain that towered over them—the same mountain which made the focal point of the Scientist’s office window. This time, again, her eye was on that mountain because this time she was finally going to get the chance to climb it and see what was on the other side.

Her hike took her to the base of the mountain before she reached the end of the game trail. By this time in their previous journeys, Pidgeon would always be too hungry or tired to continue on, and they would inevitably turn back to go order something from the printer for him to gnaw on. Not this time, though. This time there was no Pidgeon to hold her back. Ansel’s stomach was full and her feet were rested, and there was no turning back ever again.

The mountain was more of a hill from up close, as long as Ansel climbed it from the right angle. The face that was pointed toward the office window—and which seemed to be the mountain in its entirety—was a sheer, jagged cliff which would have required some sort of tools to climb, but Ansel hiked far enough around the edge of the thing to where it could be climbed on two feet instead of resorting to hands and knees.

The grade of the incline increased the higher she got, nonetheless, and slowly the trees disappeared as the grass gave way to gravel. It wasn’t until about halfway up the mountain—maybe an hour and a half into hiking—that Ansel finally took a break, slouching down in a handy patch of grass that was hidden under a tall pine tree.

She took a few deep breaths and searched through her rucksack. There was the canned food, and the tent or whatever Rosalind had given her, but only one bottle of water. How could Ansel be so careless? She was still living with the mindset of a Street kid and she wasn’t even on the Belt anymore. Fresh delicious meat was plentiful out here, but the only water she knew of was the pond she was leaving further behind with every step. She took a small sip from her bottle then closed the cap tight. She probably wouldn’t find any other sources of water until she started going back downhill, and she was determined to make it to the top of the mountain before dark. She would just have to ration her water until she could make it down the other side.

The air got thinner with the trees as she continued her ascent. She walked slower because of it. What seemed to her like halfway before looked so much further now. She seemed somehow thirstier because she knew she had less water. Still she trudged on, heavy foot after heavier foot, one at a time, up the mountain.

She collapsed when she reached the top and cursed herself when she dribbled some of her precious water out onto her chin. When she had gathered enough strength to finally stand, she couldn’t believe her eyes. The view was beautiful—no question—but oh so confusing to see.

She stood at the top of the mountain, a flattened plateau that was the perfect size for one person to stand on. On one side of her, the mountain dropped sheer down a cliff. This was the side that she was familiar with, the side she could see out the Scientist’s window. The other side, the unfamiliar side, looked more like a rolling hill that went down and down almost forever. If she faced straight ahead in the direction of the cliff face—looking, she thought, at where the Scientist’s window should be, though it or any other buildings were nowhere to be seen—there was another identical mountain, but this one as seen from the rolling hill side. If she turned directly around from there to look backwards, she saw again an identical mountain, but this time as viewed from the cliff side. Left and right? You guessed it. More identical mountains as seen from different perspectives. It was as if the whole world were made out of a pattern of the same mountain copied and pasted over and over again.

She sat there on the plateau peak, every now and then turning ninety degrees to stare at a different endless line of identical mountains, one infinite line of them going in every direction, until the sun went down, then she kept staring. Now, though, the black sky was patched with sparkly little white lights the likes of which she had never seen before. They kept distracting her from the endless mountains. The white spots were no more or less infinite or absurd than the mountains, but they were still somehow more novel to her.

What were they? Had they always been there, hiding in the almost dark? Why did they come out now when she was all alone?

She couldn’t take her eyes off them. They were endless, sure, but they were patterned. Here was a shape and there something different. And—wait—did they repeat just there?

But no. Of course they didn’t. It was just an illusion. She could find patterns anywhere, even in the leaves of trees. With such a large pool to select from, of course she would find patterns in these strange white sky lights. She had to get her mind off of them for long enough to start thinking about what really mattered, though: water.

Her mouth went dry again at the thought of it. She smacked her lips together and they stuck. She had to pry them apart with her too dry tongue. She sipped the last little bits of water out of her one bottle, savoring every drop, before she packed it empty into her rucksack and hefted the bag up over her shoulder. She took one long look at the blinking, twinkling sky before dropping her eyes to the horizon, back down the mountain. She knew where a spring was behind her—one that Pidgeon and her had been to plenty of times—but she wasn’t ready to go backwards just yet, even with her mouth as dry as it was, and she thought there had to be more than just one tiny spring to support all the animals and plants that were everywhere out there.

Her eyes spotted a small clearing in an extra green grove of trees in front of her and her feet took her toward it. The path was all downhill and the travelling was easier for that fact. The hardest part was making sure she didn’t get going too fast and end up tripping over a root or losing her sense of direction. The ground started flattening out before she finally stopped to catch her breath and regain her bearings.

She took a few deep breaths, smacking her dry lips, and her stomach started to grumble. Hunger would have to wait until she found water, though. It was no good trying to digest on a dry stomach. She looked up at the trees and they all looked just the same as every tree she had already passed. All of them looked the same. It was nothing like traveling around the Streets with signs every few blocks and gridded pathways. She thought she was on the way to the clearing she had seen on the mountain top, but for all she knew, she could be walking in circles right back to where she had started. The only way to find out was to go forward, though, and so she did.

Each step she took brought her more worry. She could feel the water evaporating from every cell in her body. This was how she was going to die, stupid and alone, with no water, lost in the middle of nowhere.

What did it matter anyway? The protectors had killed her mom for doing her job. They had killed her dad for trying to protect his own daughter—for trying to do their job for them. And now they might as well be killing her. If they hadn’t taken everything from her, she wouldn’t be alone in the woods, dehydrating. She wouldn—

Ansel’s left foot stepped lower than she had expected it to, splashing into knee deep water and sending the rest of her body tumbling in after. She came up for air, laughing and splashing, then brushed the wet hair out of her face, dunking her head under water and gulping in as much of it as her stomach could hold.

Now this was the life. She tossed her rucksack on the shore to dry then yanked off her shoes and tossed them next to it. The water wasn’t deep, but she could crawl around in it and pretend like she was swimming—not that she actually knew how to swim anyway. This little pond looked exactly like the waterhole she and Pidgeon always stopped at near the elevator, but there was no Pidgeon here to interrupt the silence for her. There was only her, the trees, and the twinkling dark sky for the rest of forever.

She almost wished she was still up on the mountain, staring at those bright lights—the foliage overhead was too thick to see through—but she was happy to have water, and she had plenty of time to climb every mountain in sight. She had plenty of time to do whatever she wanted to from now on. She’d stock up on water, maybe eat some beans and find a way to use the empty can as extra storage, then she’d be ready to climb the next mountain in her way.

But not right now. First she needed some rest. She crawled out of the calm pond and laid in the grass next to her rucksack, using her hands behind her head as a pillow. Tomorrow was a new day and there were endless tomorrows after that. Tonight it was time for sleep.

#     #     #

Ansel awoke with the first rays of sunlight. Even with all the noise she had made getting up, a big floppy-eared rat sat at the edge of the slowly rolling pond, sipping on the cool morning water. When Ansel remembered where she was and gathered herself, she jumped into hunter mode.

Every motion was performed without noise. Her muscles tightened. She slipped the sling out of her back pocket, fished a rock out of the pouch attached to her pants waist, and pulled the sling back, struggling a bit at first from the extra weight required by the new slingshot but soon holding her aim steady and on target.

Fwip.

The weird rat jumped, it’s flopping ears flapping, and it landed upside down, half in the water and half out, back leg twitching with the last pangs of life.

Ansel pulled the rat out of the water by its ears and laid it out next to her shoes to dry before going to collect sticks and twigs to start a fire. With the fire roaring, she set to skinning the rat with the knife Rosalind had given her. She didn’t see any use for all the other gadgets the thing came with, but the knife was worth having, especially without any other trash around to carve the rat with.

Ansel wondered at what exactly the animal could be as she removed it’s skin. She had never seen a rat with such long ears before. Maybe it wasn’t a rat at all. There were a lot of weird animals she had never seen before out in that wilderness with her. Hopefully they tasted as good as she already knew rats did.

This long-eared one did taste good, that was for sure. It was nothing like rat, sure, but more like a million times better. For starters, there was a lot more meat on this thing than there was on any of the rats that she had ever eaten. And secondly, all of this animal’s meat was made of pure, delicious muscle. She chewed it down greedily, stacking the picked clean bones in a neat little pile behind her, then took another swim in the cool pond before laying out to dry and decide on what she wanted to do next.

Next was another mountain and she knew it. The mountains were everything to her now. She had climbed over one and she would climb over the next and the next and the next until she was as far away from the Scientist and everyone else in the worlds as she could be, however far that was.

She strapped on her shoes and filled up the empty water bottle—she hadn’t opened a can yet so the bottle would have to do—then she dunked her head into the pond and drank as much as she could. When she felt like she was going to burst, she came up for a few breaths of air, then she dunked her head under again to drink some more.

She could hear the water swishing around in her stomach as she marched toward the next mountain, her rucksack on her back. She laughed and tried to skip along, but her stomach was too fat with liquid so she had to settle for a stroll, her mind set on the sheer cliff face of the next mountain in front of her.

The second climb didn’t seem to take as long as the first. Probably because she was getting better at climbing through practice, but she felt like it was because she had already taken this path before and her muscles knew what to do by instinct. She was at the top of the mountain by mid day and she wasn’t even thirsty—though her stomach did seem remarkably lighter to carry. She dropped her bag and stood at the summit, looking in all four directions at the world around her.

The mountains seemed equally endless from this new vantage point, forcing Ansel’s throat to fall down into her newly emptied stomach. It was hard before, but without the twinkling blackness to distract her, all she could see was endless blue sky laying atop an equally endless repetition of the same green mountain she was standing on. She peered out at one of them, trying to figure out what that small little dot atop it was, going so far even as to wave in the hopes of getting its attention, but there was no use, the next mountain was too far away to see, and whatever it was it was probably just a figment of her imagination, anyway. There was no way anyone was out there climbing mountains at the same time she was.

Ansel huffed and sat down, fishing the still full water bottle out of her rucksack. She took a small sip then closed it tight and put it back. By this point in time yesterday, the entire bottle was empty, but yesterday she hadn’t filled her stomach as full as it would go before setting off. She looked out toward the next valley in the line and thought she saw the same green clearing in the same place as the last one. Her next step would have to be finding another watering hole, anyway, so she started that way. Maybe if she could get down fast enough, she could get back up the next mountain by the time the sun went down and the sparkling lights in the sky came out.

Gravity took hold of her and Ansel ran with it, careening down the mountainside, becoming one with the universe. This was easy. This was fun. This was what she was supposed to be doing with her life, she could tell.

She wasn’t even out of breath when the ground levelled out. The sun was falling but still high in the sky. She jogged along, not even needing to look down at her feet to dodge the roots and rocks. Then she came upon the clearing.

No!

She threw her rucksack on the ground and kicked the pyramid of rat bones, sending them sprawling into the slightly perturbed watering hole.

No no no.

She fell to the ground and slammed her fists on the soft grassy soil.

Of course.

She gave up. She rolled over onto her back and sprawled out, stretching her body as far as it would go and screaming at the top of her lungs.

Of course. Of course. Of course.

No wonder Rosalind had let her go, no questions asked. No wonder there were so many mountains that all seemed to look exactly the same. No wonder she had no problem finding water even though she was on the other side of a mountain she had never climbed before.

Rosalind knew there was nowhere for Ansel to go. All the mountains were literally the same. No matter which side of the mountain Ansel climbed up from, it didn’t matter. Water was forwards, backwards, left, and right. As long as she kept walking, she would hit it eventually. There was nothing more to this world than the one mountain and the one spring, repeating forever and ever, over and over again, so on and so on.

She sat up and held her knees between her arms, shaking her head.

No.

That couldn’t be true. There had to be more. There was the sky, the twinkling night sky, something she had never seen before. There had to be more than that, too. She set her mind on seeing that sky and finding out what that more could possibly be.

First she refilled her water bottle and took a few more deep swigs from the spring. She wasn’t too worried about water now that she knew it was everywhere, but she wanted to have enough in her system to be able to spend the entire night on the mountain’s peak. She gathered some twigs and sticks, too, and tied them to her rucksack so she wouldn’t have to search for kindling at higher altitudes where the trees were more scarce. The sun was almost halfway down in the sky when she started out on her trek, but she didn’t care. She had climbed the same mountain so many times now she could probably do it blindfolded.

She went backwards this time, climbing it from the hill side because it seemed like a straighter shot. By the time she was at the top, the sun was long gone and the twinkling had started. Thankful to have the lighter, she started up a fire a little way down the hillside. That floppy eared rat she had eaten in the morning was big and meaty, but with all her climbing she was getting hungry so she opened a can of beans and fashioned a makeshift stand to hold it over the fire for her while she climbed back up to the mountain peak to sit with her knees hugged up close to her chest, staring at the twinkling sky.

She picked out the patterns she had found the night before and tried to find where they repeated themselves in the sky. She figured if the mountain and watering hole repeated themselves, why not the sky, too? And she wasn’t wrong about that.

Right there she could see it. The same five bright stars—which if you connected the dots, looked like they formed an animal with a big, long neck, laying on its side up in the sky—could be found in every direction. Lines and lines of the same pattern emanated from one center point where Ansel was standing at the top of the mountain.

She stared at the pattern with dropped jaw for she didn’t know how long. It seemed impossible. It was impossible. Of course it wasn’t actually impossible because she was experiencing it for herself, but it still seemed that way, like her eyes were playing tricks on her.

The mountains and twinkling monsters in the sky couldn’t really go on forever, though. They had to be the result of the same magic the Scientist used to create her window that looked out onto the mountain Ansel was sitting on even though Ansel still had no idea where that window was. It had to be there somewhere, though, probably with Pidgeon staring out of it while he ate something from the printer.

Ansel scoffed, wondering if Pidgeon knew anything about what he was staring at. Maybe he already had everything figured out. Maybe he already knew that the world out here was nothing more than an illusion. Maybe he stayed back because he knew it was pointless, knew that Ansel would just have to return soon anyway.

She scoffed again. That was giving Pidgeon too much credit, though. He had stayed back because he was afraid, nothing more. It was obvious in the way he acted. And if he expected her to go back there any time soon, he was going to be sorely disappointed. That was for sure.

A scent of burning reminded Ansel of her beans, and she ended up having to gag them down, drinking too much of her water supply just so she could swallow. She chided herself for being careless as she ate. She was letting thoughts of the past distract her from the needs of the present, and if she wanted to find her way out of this rat trap, she was going to have to stay focused on the task at hand.

She stared at the twinkling black sky as she forced the burnt beans down her throat, trying to figure the universe out. How did the Scientist do it? The entire world was like a giant quilt, stitched together at the seams, but each end of the quilt was attached back to the opposite end of the same square, making one long continuous universe. Still, there had to be seams somewhere, didn’t there? Connections between the worlds?

The harder she stared the more certain she was that there were in fact seams and that she had found them. The fire had died down but there was still a lot of smoke, and without any wind that smoke went straight up and up and up, blocking her vision of the sky behind her. If she looked straight ahead, though, she could see as plain as day—or night, really, but the moon gave off so much light in the cloudless sky that it was plain nonetheless—the smoke rising from the hill side of the next mountain. Ansel would have been more upset to see it if she hadn’t already come to the realization that this was a patchwork, repetitive world, or if the smoke in that direction had risen high enough to block out her entire view of the twinkling night sky, but she had and it didn’t.

No, for some reason the smoke went up and up and up and then it just seemed to disappear. There was no wind to scatter it, not even that high up she was sure, and it didn’t seem to dissipate in the slightest before it vanished. There was just a thick black pillar of smoke blotting out a giant portion of the sky, then all of a sudden, it was cut off in a long, slightly curved line, revealing the clear, twinkling sky behind the smoke. It reminded her of something she had seen before but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She followed the arch of smoke down to where she imagined it would end on the ground, somewhere near the elevator by her eyeball estimate, and knew she had to go down there to investigate, but she hesitated. What did the smoke disappearing remind her of?

It hit her all at once. She had been in the Belt with Pidgeon, standing in the cat tree, and she looked up to find the clouds disappearing behind an invisibility cloak in the sky. Then she heard the gunshots—which she was only just realizing were probably the bullets that had killed her mother—and time flashed forward until Ansel was holding her father’s lifeless body in her arms. She wept until the sun came up then strapped her rucksack on her back. She was going to find the seams, wherever they were, and get as far away from this world as she could, or she was going to die trying.

She took the straightest path she could find to get back to the elevator, which meant climbing down the steep side of the mountain, but she was going downhill so it didn’t make much of a difference. Huffing and puffing and wishing she had stopped at the water hole to refill her now empty bottle before she went investigating, she found the elevator just as its doors slid open, forcing her to jump and hide in some bushes. She had no intention of going back to the stupid Scientist’s lair, and she didn’t care to talk to anyone that would come out of those doors, so she kept as still as possible, holding her breath as if she were hunting, and waited for whoever it was to go away.

It took a moment for Pidgeon to come stomping out of the elevator, announcing his presence to the entire wilderness. “I’ll be fine, okay,” she could hear him yelling. “I won’t go far. Don’t worry.”

At the sound of it, Ansel was happy to not have him along with her. Where she was going, it was no doubt more dangerous than this little patch of green, and Pidgeon wasn’t cut out for even the tiny amount of danger that could be found here. She stood as still as she could and listened to the sound of his crashing steps as they disappeared in the distance. When she was sure he was gone, she peeked her head out to get a second look then went to the elevator to inspect it.

The elevator had to be the key to the seams. Ansel slowly circled the wooden shack, touching every side through the thick vines growing all over it. That must be how the elevators worked, too. They could travel through the seams, from one quilt square to another, or something, but there had to be more to it than that. There had to be space for the elevators to travel through, right? There had to be something in between the worlds for the elevators to exist inside of.

Ansel must have circled the little shack ten times, lost in thought, searching for some way through without getting in, when she heard the approaching footsteps. She should have heard them sooner, they were so loud, but she was preoccupied. She only had time to duck behind the elevator’s shack and hope Pidgeon didn’t circle around it to find her.

The footsteps stopped a few feet from the elevator clearing. “Hello?” Pidgeon called, a hint of worry in his voice. “Ansel, is that you?”

Ansel held her breath, ducking down and putting her hands over her head as if that would hide her any more than she already was hidden. She was convinced she had already been seen, anyway, exactly what she didn’t need when she was so close to finding the seam she was searching for.

Helloooo,” Pidgeon called again, and his voice hadn’t moved. He was still in the clearing. He hadn’t seen her at all.

“Well, anyway,” Pidgeon said, raising his voice. “If you are out there, Ansel, I really miss you. Okay. I wish I would have come with you, even if it is a stupid, dangerous idea, and I hope you’re not in trouble. You’ll always have me, Ansel. I’ll always be here for you when you need me. So… Well… Bye. Elevator open.”

The doors slid open and closed, and it was so loud that Ansel could hear it through the silence left in the wake of Pidgeon’s words. Did he really care about her as much as he said he did?

She shook herself out of it. No. He was lonely. A few old people and a cat could get boring quick, and Pidgeon just wanted someone his own age to play with. But Ansel didn’t play anymore. She lived in the real world, and she was going to find those seams so she could make it to a different one.

She circled the elevator shack a few more times, searching every square inch of vine-covered wood for some sign of anything, but there was nothing. It was a wooden building with metal doors and there was nothing else to it.

Ansel took off her rucksack and flung it behind her in despair, but the bag didn’t make a sound when it landed. She turned, and where the bag should have hit a huge oak tree and crashed to the ground there was nothing. Kneeling down and reaching closer to investigate, her hand disappeared in a straight line at the wrist.

She pulled it back as quickly as she could then fell to the grass laughing. It was just like Anna and Rosa’s door. She had found the seam. She gathered herself, took a deep breath, and plunged through the tree, only to crash into some person and fall to the floor on the other side.

“Who are you?” the formless mass demanded, standing fast.

“Who are you?” Ansel repeated back, up and ready to bolt herself.

And it took some time for either to answer.

#     #     #

< XLVII. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     XLIX. Mr. Walker >

And that’s it for today’s chapter, dear readers. I hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to leave a review of the first two books in the series on my Amazon page here and don’t forget to subscribe to email newsletter right here. Until next time, enjoy your weekend.

 

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.

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