Chapter 19: Ellie

Here’s Ellie’s third and final chapter for y’all to read today. I especially enjoyed writing the scene with everyone drinking around the table at the end. I hope y’all will enjoy reading it, too.

There are only two more weeks before you can read the entire novel here on the website, but you can still go to Amazon to order a copy before then. Either way, thanks for reading along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Ellie McCannik

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

XIX. Ellie

She pounded her fists against the cold metal until her knuckles were bloody and numb. She flung her body at the door in vain and slouched down sobbing uncontrollably with her cheek on the rubber conveyor belt.

The door was closed. Her chance was gone. She had waited too long to bring her son to the beach, then she waited too long to live the experience for him. She failed again and again. He wasn’t even alive, and she continued to fail him.

She wept and wept with her cheeks on the belt before she remembered that she had already set some of the discs. She picked one out of the pouch and pressed the little red button to see how long she had left. Five minutes. Five minutes. Was it worth it to try to leave? What did she have to live for anymore? If she stayed here and held the disc tight, they would all think that she decided to stay on the beach. She would disappear from existence just like that, erased from memory. She almost felt calmed at the thought of it.

But she didn’t. She still hadn’t kept her promises. She could probably set more of the discs before she left. And if they could get her to the beach once, they could do it again. Couldn’t they? By that time she could do enough to pay for the privilege and not have to worry about making the same stupid mistake and missing her chance again. She had to do something. She couldn’t give up and wait for the explosion to erase her responsibility. That would be doing even more of a disservice to her son.

She opened her eyes and picked herself up to jump down off the conveyor belt. The disc said three minutes now. She peeled off the paper backing, stuck it to the screen which told her what particular piece of crap was supposed to come down the conveyor belt every day, the machine that guided her work, the robot who used her, and she sprinted out of the hall, down the stairs, and out of the building entirely, not stopping until she left the front door, and then only slowing to a fast walk—she didn’t really have time to act nonchalant. She was only half a block away from the building when she heard the explosion.

Her heart pounded at the sound, and her feet tingled. She could feel the ground moving beneath her, as if the whole world was shaking. She felt like she wanted to run, but she stopped herself. Then she wanted to look back. She stopped herself from looking at first, then thought it might be more suspicious not to look and decided to turn and see what she had done. An entire floor of the building—not as high as she thought it would be—was blown out, but the rest of it was still standing. There was a blasted-out gash, bleeding rubble, water, and electricity. Not as much damage as she had expected, she thought the whole building would come down, but she had left a mark at least.

She turned and hurried on her way toward the elevator to ride it to her bar. What else was there for her to do? She had just laid bombs in her workplace and blown it to smithereens. She had been to the beach and back in less than fifteen minutes. She had kept all her promises and broken all of them all at the same time. What was she to do but get a drink and enjoy the rest of Christmas?

The public elevator had no one. The street to the bar was empty. The bar was dark when she got there. It was closed. Of course it was closed. Even the bartender had a family to spend Christmas with. Even Gertrude. Everyone did. She kicked the door.

Stupid stupid stupid. She had drank her last beer and eaten her last egg before she went on her mission. She wasn’t supposed to be coming back. She should have been on the beach, figuring out how to make a fishing rod or a spear, but instead, she was standing in front of a closed bar with nowhere left to go.

Her hand flicked over the address card in her pocket. Well, almost nowhere. Gertrude had invited her over. She wanted to know all the details, Ellie was sure. She’d probably have a drink to share, and some food. It was Christmas after all. And it would be nice to tell someone about what had happened, to unburden some of it somehow. Though she wasn’t quite sure how much of it she wanted to tell. She pulled out the card and made her way to the nearest public elevator.

Gertrude’s street looked just like Ellie’s, though the buildings were different colors and in slightly different degrees of dilapidation. She held her breath as she pressed the buzzer next to Gertrude’s name: Trudy Weaver. It took a minute for a response to come, and Ellie was on the verge of leaving when a staticy voice said, “Yes? Um—ahem—Excuse me. Hello?”

“Um…Yeah,” Ellie said, leaning close to the intercom and talking too loudly. “I was looking for Gertrude.”

“Oh, Trudy, dear,” the voice said, apparently Gertrude’s. “Please. And this is she. May I ask who’s speaking? You sound like a robot.”

Ellie heard laughter from the background. “Oh—It’s uh…It’s Ellie,” she said. “Ellie McCannik. From QA.”

“Oh. Ellie, dear. Come on up. Up up up. Have a drink and tell us all about your day.”

Ellie felt like she was intruding on something. “No—I, uh,” she said. “I don’t want to be any trouble.” But it was no use because the door had already buzzed open and the intercom link had popped shut.

The inside of Gertrude’s building looked exactly the same as the inside of Ellie’s building. Her room was at the top floor, much like Ellie’s was. When Ellie got there, she noted it was in the exact same place, too, though it was a different number, even instead of odd. She didn’t know if she should knock or walk in, and she still hadn’t decided when the door opened and Gertrude handed her a full glass of eggnog. “Merry Christmas, dear,” Getrude said, hugging her. “Drink this and have a seat. I’ll introduce you to everyone.”

The room was full of people, but Ellie could tell it was emptied of things to make space for them. There was no bed in sight, and from the looks of it, this was the only room there was. Instead of a bed, there was a foldable table in the middle of the room with three people sitting around it. Ellie didn’t recognize any of them, and she could tell by the arrangement that she was taking Gertrude’s seat. She couldn’t see any more chairs, either. She felt even more like she was intruding despite the full drink in her hand.

“Oh, no,” Ellie said. “I couldn’t. I just wanted to come—”

“Oh, no,” Gertrude said, guiding Ellie to the seat. “Nonsense, dear. Sit down. Drink.” She tilted Ellie’s glass to give her a good long swig. Ellie did feel better for it. “Now. This here pretty, young face you see is Aldo,” Gertrude said, pointing to a kid with disheveled hair sitting in the back corner of the small room. “Aldo, say hello to Ellie.”

He smiled, and blushed, and took a big drink out of his glass.

“Aldo’s shy but he has deft hands,” Gertrude said. “Nimble little fingers. He works on the discs for us.”

“Trudy!” Aldo gasped. “You’re not supposed to tell.”

“Quiet, dear,” Gertrude said, waving his concerns away. “Please. Ellie here just placed some of your discs in her QA hall. Didn’t you, Ellie?”

Ellie blushed, too. She agreed with Aldo. She didn’t really want Gertrude talking about what she had done in front of a bunch of strangers. “Uh…” she said. “Yeah, well—”

“She knows what discs are,” Gertrude went on, ignoring Ellie. “And she doesn’t know anything about you besides how cute you are. So what’s the harm?”

“Still,” Aldo huffed. “It’s not right.”

“Oh, lighten up, dear,” Gertrude said, smiling. “It’s Christmas, a time for celebration. Your discs went off with a bang.” She laughed.

One of the others at the table leaned in toward Ellie and said, “So you’ve joined the cause.”

Ellie didn’t know how to answer. She took a long sip of eggnog to buy time. Technically she didn’t choose to join the cause. It was just the only option she had left. So maybe she had joined the cause after all. Whatever. It was easier to nod along either way.

“Welcome,” the woman said without waiting for further answer. “I’m Vicki. This is Alena.” She pointed to the fourth person sitting at the table. “We’ve known Trudy since before she got promoted and moved to this high class place.” She smiled and winked at Gertrude who laughed.

Oooh, dear,” Gertrude said. “A long time ago that was, too. These are my best friends, Ellie. They’re family. Vicki and Alena work down at a coal plant. They had a shift today, too. And they set their own discs.”

“Trudy!” Aldo complained again.

Aldo!” Gertrude replied in a high-pitched, mocking tone. “I want Ellie to know that she’s one of us, that she’s put herself on the line but she’s not alone. You don’t expect her to tell us what she did without a little leverage of her own, do you? It’s four against one.”

“Yeah, well.” Aldo huffed. “She better not tell.”

“Of course she won’t,” Gertrude said, turning to Ellie. “Will you dear?”

Ellie shook her head. She didn’t know who she would tell.

“You see,” Gertrude said. “You have nothing to worry about, boy. No one does. It’s Christmas. The operation is underway. Our glasses are full, and we have good company. Now, where were we? Vic, you were telling us about how your shift went. Why don’t you go back a little in the story for Ellie’s sake.”

“Oh, no,” Ellie said, taking the drink she was sipping away from her mouth. “Don’t mind—”

“Oh, no,” Vicki said. “It’s no problem. So, like Trudy said, Alena and I work in the coal plants. Well, that used to mean shoveling and all that, but they mostly replaced shovelers with robots so we just stand around in the fumes in case anything goes wrong these days. Then maybe a bot malfunctions, you know, and we take over the shoveling until a new one gets there or whatever. That’s abou—”

“Is all that necessary?” Alena interrupted her.

“Uh, well. I don’t know,” Vicki said, shrugging. “I don’t know how much she wants to know. Anyway. We worked our shift, right. And at the end of it—just like the Scientist said—the bots all turned off at once.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. And we…Well, we were free to do what we had to do without interference.

“So we set the discs, and we got out of there, and we were waiting for the elevator to come when we heard them go off. And did they ever go of? Whoooeeee. I mean, we couldn’t stop to see the damage, you know, but from the sound of it, they won’t have any power from that plant anytime soon.”

Aldo smiled and sipped his beer.

“Brilliant,” Gertrude said, beaming. “Wonderful. Amazing.” She sounded tipsy. “You fill my heart with joy. Tis the best Christmas gift a girl could ever ask for.” She walked over and planted a big kiss on Aldo’s forehead.

“C’mon man,” he said, wiping it away in disgust.

“You blew up a power plant?” Ellie said. Everyone in the room looked at her, and she regretted opening her mouth.

“See!” Aldo said, as if she had already told someone about his involvement.

“Quiet, Aldo.” Gertrude said.

“Yes,” Vickie said. “We did. This particular plant powers most of Outland 1’s communication capabilities. Without it, their response to the rest of the operation will be crippled.”

“But can’t they just—I’m sorry.” Ellie shook her head. She had almost let her mouth run off on its own again.

“No,” Vickie said. “Go ahead. Your opinion’s valid.”

Ellie looked around at everyone else in the room. They all seemed to agree with Vickie, even Aldo, so she went on. “Well, I was just thinking…I mean, couldn’t they just reroute the power from somewhere else?”

“I…uh…” Vickie looked to Gertrude for an answer.

“Yes,” Gertrude said, frowning. “They could. And they will, dear.” She smiled. “Probably they already have. Ha ha! But it’s still not fast enough to catch us.” She laughed. “It’s not about shutting down their communications forever, you see. We only had to do it for long enough to get what we needed on the other side.”

“So what was it that I was doing then?” Ellie asked. “Blowing up the conveyor belts to their homes? What good is that?”

“No, dear. No.” Gertrude set her glass on the table and took Ellie’s face between both hands. “You were a redundancy,” she said, talking too close and jiggling Ellie’s face as she did. “Quality assurance. Each of your discs went out to a different part of the operation. You played an important role.”

“I—I didn’t set them all,” Ellie blurted out, pulling away from Gertrude’s embrace. She took a big swig of eggnog.

“Where are the rest?” Aldo said.

“Right here.” She tossed the pouch on the table and Aldo snatched it up. “I’m sorry.”

“No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head and waving it away. “No need to apologize. At least you came back. And you set some. There’ll be plenty more for you to do, if you’re up to it.”

“But I didn’t…” She shook her head.

“You did what any human would,” Alena said. “You did what you could. There’s no changing that now. All you can change is what you do in the future.”

“I did the same thing on my first go,” Vicki said. “She sent me undercover to a plant I had never been to and expected me to download files from the mainframe. Me. I asked her why she didn’t just do it herself. She’s connected to everything. She can change our elevator paths and our shifts and turn off the robots, why couldn’t she do something so simple as downloading a little bit of data for herself? But she just said she couldn’t do it, that I had to. So I went all the way into the control center of the plant, and I was going to download everything, but a cat jumped out—I shit you not, a cat—and it spooked me so much I had to get out of there.”

Alena laughed. “Scaredy cat,” she said.

“Hey,” Vicki said, raising her hands in defense. “If you were there, you would have run, too.”

I downloaded my files,” Alena said with a grin.

“Yeah, well,” Vicki said, shaking her head and chuckling. “You didn’t get chased out before you could.”

“By a cat!” Alena laughed.

“You placed some, dear,” Gertrude said to Ellie. “That’s all that matters. You did your best and you’re back to try again. You did more than just set discs, though. Didn’t you? Tell us about that.”

“Oh, yeah. Well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“Ellie works in QA,” Gertrude said to the group. They all looked at her like that meant something to them.

“Well, I got to see the beach,” Ellie said when the attention had grown to be too much.

“The beach?” Aldo said.

The beach,” Alena said.

“Tell us, dear,” Gertrude said.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “It was—It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Have you ever gargled with salt water for a sore throat?”

Aldo cringed.

“Imagine that smell all around you,” Ellie said, smiling at the memory. “Everywhere. And the faint hint of tuna dinner fresh out of the can. And that was just the smell!”

“I hate fish,” Alena said, crinkling up her nose like she could smell it then and there.

“But it wasn’t just that.” Ellie shook her head. “The sky was this endless deep blue with no clouds in sight. And it butted up against the endless deep blue of the ocean water. And while the sky seemed so far out of reach and aloof, the ocean just wanted to reach out at you again and again until you finally agreed to meet its wet touch.”

“Beautiful, dear.” Gertrude smiled.

“And the sand,” Ellie went on, unable to stop reminiscing. “Oh, the sand. It was amazing. I just want to bury my feet in it right now and feel the ocean breeze. It was like the biggest sandbox you had ever seen. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “I was a child again for fifteen minutes.” She remembered Levi and finished her drink.

“Would you like some more eggnog, dear?” Gertrude said, already getting a pitcher out of the fridge. “In the Christmas spirit.” She poured some into Ellie’s glass.

“I went to the mountains,” Alena said. “I always thought they were the prettiest thing ever. I don’t know why.”

“Because they’re so big,” Vicki said. “And old. Bigger and older than anything we’ve ever built.”

“And they’ll be there longer, too,” Aldo added.

“Oh. Now, Aldo,” Gertrude said. “Don’t be so cynical at your young age.” She tossed a piece of ice at him. “We’ll be here for a good long time yet. Not us but us. You know what I mean.”

“You’ll be here longer than any of us,” Vicki said, laughing.

Aldo and Alena joined in, too. Ellie gave a little chuckle herself.

“I can only hope so, dears.” Trudy smiled. “I can only hope so.”

Ellie sipped the eggnog and it felt warm throughout her body. She looked around the room and actually enjoyed the faces she was surrounded by. It was a feeling she missed. She didn’t know these people, but she felt like she did. She felt like they knew her, too. Though not even Trudy did. But did any of that matter anymore? Did anyone know anyone? No. And these people were welcoming her into their family.

“You didn’t choose to stay in the mountains?” Ellie asked, a little embarrassed by the question. Of course Alena didn’t choose to stay in the mountains, otherwise she wouldn’t be there to answer the question.

Alena chuckled.

I wanted to stay,” Vicki said. “I had studied up on how to build shelter and hunt in the cold, and I knew we could make it out there on that beautiful mountainside. Alena, here, convinced me otherwise.”

“Just in time, too,” Alena said with a smile.

“Well, I couldn’t live without you,” Vicki said, shaking her head and trying to suppress a grin. “Could I? Not even out there.”

Alena blushed.

“How’d you convince her?” Aldo asked. “I think I’d stay if I ever got the chance to leave this shit hole.”

“Aldo!” Gertrude said, spitting up some eggnog.

“It’s true!” Aldo said.

“Honestly,” Alena said. “I’m not sure I have convinced her still to this day.”

“She stepped through the door,” Vicki said. “That’s all it took. All the freedom in the worlds wasn’t enough if she wasn’t there to share it with me.”

“And she still tries to convince me to go back every day.” Alena laughed.

“Well why don’t you want to leave?” Ellie asked.

“That’s a good question,” Alena said, looking into her drink and really thinking about what she wanted to say before answering. “And a difficult one to answer, I’d say. I know Trudy talks about morality and all that, but it’s something different for me. I would—I don’t know how to say this better—but I would feel guilty if I left, you know. Like I was taking advantage of others because they had been taken advantage of with me. If that makes any sense at all. I don’t know.” She shook her head. “Besides, if we all leave when we get the chance to leave, then who’s going to fight for the people that never get a chance to? You know. I don’t know. I just—I would feel too guilty if I didn’t do everything I could to help. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been talking forever.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Someone else say something.”

Aldo scoffed. “They can fight for themselves,” he said. “We are.”

Ha, child.” Trudy laughed. “What exactly do you think you’d be doing if we hadn’t come along and let you into the family, huh?”

Aldo sipped his drink. “Yeah,” he said. “Well, something. That’s for sure.”

“Something, dear?” Trudy laughed again. “You wouldn’t even know who to fight or that the other worlds existed. You’d be just as ignorant and helpless as everyone else.”

“I’m not ignorant!” Aldo slammed his glass on the table, spilling some eggnog. “Don’t call me that.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, cleaning up the mess he had made. “We all are. It’s not an insult. It just means that you don’t know something. And none of us would know any of this if no one ever told us. That’s exactly why I choose to stay, Ellie, dear. I plan to tell as many people as I can before I die and get more people to stand up and fight with us.”

“Stand up and fight?” Aldo scoffed. “I’ve never heard of you doing any fighting.”

“Nor me you, dear,” Trudy said, smiling and whipping the wet rag playfully towards him. “But we all contribute to the struggle in the best way we can. For me it’s recruiting and communications, for you it’s tinkering with technology. They’re both as necessary as the other. They’re both vital to the struggle. You and I fight just the same as our friends here who go on the front lines and place your discs.”

“Well said.” Vickie raised her glass. “Well said. You do have a great gift for communication, Trudy.”

Everyone laughed. Ellie, too. She was feeling more comfortable the more eggnog she drank.

“We all know that,” Vickie went on. “But how great is Aldo’s gift at tinkering? Ellie, tell us, did you get to see the outcome of your disc placement?”

“Oh, well…” Ellie sipped her drink.

“You don’t have to tell us, dear,” Trudy said. “But it would be a Christmas gift to have some news of the operation.”

“Well…” Ellie said. “I didn’t place all of them, you know.”

Aldo scoffed.

“Yes,” Trudy said, ignoring him. “That’s fine, dear. But how close were you when the ones you did set went off? Did you hear them? Did you see any of the damage they created?”

“Oh. Well…” Ellie looked around the table at expectant eyes. “Yeah,” she said. “I mean, it was kind of hard not to. The ground shook underneath me. It was like a small earthquake. And it was so loud I couldn’t hear for a minute afterward.”

Aldo grinned.

“How close were you?” Vicki asked, leaning in closer.

“Maybe a block away,” Ellie said. “My ears are still ringing.” She stuck a finger in one ear and wiggled it around to drive the point home.

“Did you see the damage?” Vicki asked.

“Yeah, well…” Ellie took a sip of her eggnog and glanced over at Aldo who seemed to tense up in anticipation of her answer. “There was a whole floor of the building gone, but the rest of it was still standing. It was like it had a huge wound on its side.”

“Is that right?” Vicki looked at Aldo.

“Don’t look at me,” he said. “Where were you? The QA hall?”

Ellie nodded.

“Well those were direct charges. Back up. Meant to take out specific targets and cause minimal collateral damage. If the building’s still standing, then it’s meant to be standing. Even if she set only one of those discs. I guarantee it.”

“That is right,” Vicki said. “Well done then.” She raised her glass. “To a successful operation.”

Everyone clanged their glasses over the table and took a big swig of whatever they were drinking.

“Now.” Vickie put an empty glass on the table. “If y’all don’t mind, I can’t speak for Alena here, but I’d like to get some rest after that long day of work—with overtime—so I’m going to bid my adieus.”

Ugh.” Alena stood from her seat. “Me, too, Trudy,” she said. “But you know we love the drinks and company as always.”

“And you know you two are always welcome, dear,” Trudy said with a smile, setting her own glass on the table. “Just come ringing, and if I’m here, there’s something to drink.” She winked.

“Well, we’ll be here tomorrow afternoon to get some more news,” Alena said. “Right?” She raised her eyebrows.

“I’m hoping as much as y’all are, dear,” Trudy said.

“Alright, girl,” Alena said. “See you then.” She hugged Trudy and waved to Aldo then turned to Ellie and said, “Nice to meet you. I hope to see you again soon.”

“You, too.” Ellie said, holding out her hand, but Alena came in for a hug instead.

Vicki shook hands with Aldo and hugged Trudy then stopped in front of Ellie. “You did good today,” she said.

“I could have done better,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“No.” Vicki shook her head. “You can always do better. But you did good. That’s what’s important. You got that?”

Ellie didn’t know how to respond.

“I look forward to working with you in the future,” Vicki said. She shook Ellie’s hand. “Bye y’all. See you tomorrow.” She waved to everyone as they left.

The door closed behind them, and Trudy finally took a seat. Ellie felt bad for forgetting that she was standing for all that time. She wanted to say something to make up for it, but nothing was sufficient.

“Well, dears,” Trudy said. “Another round of nog?”

“Nah,” Aldo said, standing. “I should get going, too. I have some more tinkering to do.”

“Good luck with that, dear,” Trudy said. “You’re one of the best.”

Aldo looked at her like he didn’t believe what she was saying. “Uh…thanks,” he said. “And nice to meet you.” He nodded at Ellie and slipped through the door.

Ellie sipped the last dregs of her eggnog. She set the empty glass on the table.

“Well, dear,” Trudy said, finishing her own glass and setting it on the table. “I guess you’ve got something important to get to yourself. Don’t let old Gertrude keep you from it. I understand.”

Ellie shook her head. “Nope,” she said. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Now now, dear,” Trudy said, shaking her head. “Honestly. I’m fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. I don’t need your pity.”

“It’s not pity.”

“Oh. Sure…” Trudy gave a thumbs up, smiling and nodding. “Okay.”

“Trudy,” Ellie said, looking her in the eyes. “I honestly have nowhere else to be.”

“How kind.” Trudy winked.

“No. I mean…I tried to go to my bar before I came here. It was closed. That’s when I realized that the bar was all I had. But that’s not enough anymore. That’s why I came here in the first place.”

“So I was your second choice,” Trudy said with a smile as she went to the fridge to pour two new glasses of eggnog.

“Honestly.” Ellie sighed. “This entire place was my second choice.”

“I knew it!” Trudy said, almost spilling the drink she was pouring. “I knew it.

“You knew what?” Ellie asked, frowning.

“I knew something had to happen to keep you from placing all those discs. You had plenty of time if you chose to come back.”

“Yeah.” Ellie shook her head. “Well, maybe I didn’t choose to come back.”

“Maybe you did,” Trudy said, sipping her drink. “Maybe it was your subconscious choosing for you.”

“Maybe it was just a stupid mistake that I regret.”

“You know,” Trudy said. “I did the same thing.”

“What?”

“I wanted to stay over there, but I didn’t make it back.”

“I thought you had never been across,” Ellie said.

“I thought you wanted to join the struggle.” Trudy smiled and sipped her drink.

Maybe Ellie didn’t know as much about Trudy as she thought she did. “So?” she said.

“So I didn’t make it back either,” Trudy said. “But when I started working with the struggle, I knew it was what was best for me. It was difficult, yes. It is still difficult. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Ellie hated her and loved her all at the same time for that. Trudy represented everything Ellie could become. She set a bar for Ellie to reach merely by existing. “You know, Trudy,” she said. “I think this is the start of a beautiful relationship.”

“Me, too, dear.” Trudy smiled and nodded. “Me, too.”

#     #     #

< XVIII. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XX. Tom >

Thanks again for following along. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Please think about buying a copy from Amazon to help support my future writing endeavors. And have a great weekend.

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Chapter 12: Ellie

We’re back today with Ellie’s second point of view chapter. Thanks for sticking with us this long, and if you don’t want to wait any longer, don’t forget you can purchase a full copy of the novel on Amazon here.

Ellie McCannik

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

XII. Ellie

She sat in the same booth she had when Gertrude first opened her eyes to the truth of the world only yesterday. The air had the same stale, smoky smell, and most of the same people were there. That is, everyone who was there now was there last time, but not everyone who was there last time was there now. Ugh. Did it really matter? She was just distracting herself from the reality of the situation.

That woman—the Scientist as she like to call herself for some egotistical reason—she was the one who had really given Ellie the opportunity. She had given her more than just an opportunity, though. She had given her responsibility. What else was opportunity but the responsibility to put that privilege to use?

The Scientist had said that she could fulfill Ellie’s desire to see the beach. She looked a little upset when Ellie asked for it, but Ellie didn’t care. She had always promised her son that she would take him to the ocean, and even though he wasn’t alive to see it for himself, she still wanted to hold true to that promise. But would she stay out there forever, or would she come back to help the Scientist fight for freedom?

“Fight for freedom” though? Ptuh. Ellie didn’t even know what that meant. The Scientist wasn’t specific about it, either. But that’s what this meeting was supposed to be about, right? To get the specifics about what she was supposed to do for “the cause”. And they didn’t even know when she was supposed to do whatever it was she was supposed to be doing. It didn’t give her much confidence in the plan she was becoming a part of.

Her beer was getting low and it was a bit past the time she was supposed to be contacted. She swirled the dregs of her drink around and took a small sip, surveying the room again. It was still just the regulars, no one she didn’t recognize. Who would the Scientist send, anyway? They would have to be able to keep a secret to be a part of the Scientist’s organization, so the anonymity of her bar would be protected, but how was she supposed to recognize the person other than the fact that she didn’t recognize them?

She topped off her beer and thought about leaving when the door opened and in came Gertrude, walking like she owned the place. She went straight to the bar and ordered without looking over at Ellie in the corner booth. Maybe she hadn’t seen her.

Ellie walked up behind Gertrude and patted her on the back. “Trudy, friend,” she said. “I thought you said this was a secret you could keep.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shrugging her off. “Do you see anyone else here with me?”

“I thought you understood I meant from yourself as well.” Ellie smiled.

“Dear,” Gertrude said, looking into Ellie’s eyes. “I know it.” The bartender set two beers in front of them. “Here. Take this and let’s go to the booth. I’ll explain.”

Ellie took the beer and stared at Gertrude. She let her walk to the booth first, eyeing her every step suspiciously. When they sat down and Gertrude said nothing, Ellie said, “What are you doing here?”

“Oh. Come on, dear,” Gertrude said, waving the question away. “You’re smarter than that. And you don’t dislike me that much, do you? You wouldn’t like to have a beer with your dear friend Trudy every now and again?”

Ellie took a swig. “So you’re the contact.”

Gertrude looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Of course, dear,” she whispered. “The less you know about the organization the better for everyone. That way you know nothing they would want to get out of you, and if they did get it out of you, it’s not enough to take down the entire thing.”

“Get it out of me?” Ellie said, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes, get it out of you. The Scientist did tell you that you’d be risking more than death, didn’t she?”

Ellie hadn’t realized how serious those threats were until Gertrude repeated them. She took a gulp of beer and nodded. “She did.”

“Okay. Then you know what I mean by get it out of you. Are you still willing to go through with it? If you want to walk away, it’s better that you do it now. After you know your mission, you’ll be in considerably more danger.”

Ellie nodded.

“Well then,” Gertrude said. “As it turns out, the operation begins tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Ellie’s faith in the plan dwindled a little further.

“Yes, tomorrow. And you won’t be the only one going through, or coming back. So there’s no leeway on that.”

Ellie nodded.

“Good. You’re scheduled as the only QA worker in our building for tomorrow afternoon. You’ll work your shift as normal—and this is going to be a looong, boring shift, because everyone’ll be at the Christmas Feast—but when the bell rings at the end of it, you have fifteen minutes to visit the destination of your choosing by crawling through the conveyor belt.”

“Fifteen minutes isn—” Ellie said.

After fifteen minutes,” Gertrude cut her off, “the door will close, whichever side of it you’re on. Fifteen minutes isn’t a lo—

“That’s what I’m saying,” Ellie said, taking a drink of her beer.

“Ellie, listen to me. Do you want to do this?”

“Of course I do. But fifteen minutes? That’s not worth—”

“Fifteen minutes is more than most people get, sweetheart. Most people never get to see the other side for their entire life. The other sides, Ellie. There are more than just two.” Gertrude had gotten a little loud so she looked around to see if anyone was listening.

Ellie knew she was right, though. Gertrude was risking herself just to give Ellie a chance that no one she had ever known had ever had. And what was Ellie doing? She was complaining that they weren’t giving her enough time. She could take all the time she wanted, she only had to worry about surviving over there on her own to do that. Who was she to be upset at Gertrude for passing on information, anyway?

“Have you ever seen it?” Ellie asked.

Gertrude shook her head, looked into her glass, and took a sip. “Not yet, dear. No. That’s not the place for me. Nor the job. I’m too set in my ways. I’ll see it when we’re all done here and no sooner.”

“You mean the—errevolution.” The word tasted bad in Ellie’s mouth, it was hard to spit out. She took a sip of beer to get rid of the aftertaste.

“If that’s what you want to call it, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “I prefer the struggle. I’ll do my duty until I’m of no more value to the struggle, then maybe I’ll take a gander at that beach of yours. I hear that’s what you’ve chosen. Am I right?”

Ellie blushed. She took a sip of beer. “That’s just a silly old dream we used to have.”

“I hear it’s wonderful.” Gertrude smiled. “The Scientist has told me all about it.”

Ellie looked at her suspiciously. “How much do you know about this Scientist, though?”

Gertrude looked around again then leaned in close to whisper her answer. “That one is an enigma. Hardest person to find gossip on that I’ve ever met. No one knows much of anything about her. Though there are stories. Rumors mostly. But they’re all so outlandish it’s hard to believe any of them.”

“But she can control where the conveyor belts let out,” Ellie said. “I know we don’t send stacks of bacon and eggs to the beach. So she can—she can change where it goes or whatever. Like teleportation or something.”

“It’s the same way the elevators work, dear,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “She can control and direct those, too. There’s no denying her knowledge or power. It’s her intentions and history that I have a hard time getting my grasp on.”

“But you trust her,” Ellie said. “You think she’s doing the right thing.”

“If I could be said to know anything about what she’s doing, I would say it’s the right thing. She’s never hesitated to answer any of my questions—well, she’s answered most of them—and she’s shown me things you would never believe. I’ve known her for a long time now, and I’ve never seen her do anything but the right thing. So, yeah, I guess you could say I do trust her.”

Ellie took a sip of beer. “Now I just have to decide if I trust you.”

Gertrude laughed. “And I you.”

Ellie realized again that Gertrude was putting just as much faith into her as she was putting into Gertrude. It was a mutual dependency, a mutual distrust. “What is it I have to do to earn this opportunity, then?”

“Oh. No no, dear,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “It’s not like that. The Scientist asks that I’m as clear as I can be on that point. This isn’t a payment you’re making. This is another option you have. It’s an opportunity, not a requirement.”

“So I could just go and sit fifteen minutes with my toes in the sand and come back to my normal life with no problems at all?”

“With no problems from the Scientist. And she’d do everything she could to make sure you had no problems from anyone else, either.”

“Everything she could?”

“She’d cover your digital trail. Everything else would be up to you.”

“Digital trail?” Gertrude seemed to be talking in code.

“Security recordings and conveyor belt logs and all that,” Gertrude said, waving her hands. “The things the protectors would use to find you. I don’t know.”

“And if I stayed on the beach for longer than fifteen minutes?”

“You’d be on your own.”

Ellie shook her head. “What’s my third option?”

“Help us in our concerted attack on the system that prevents any other worker from visiting the same beach you’re visiting.”

Ellie took a swig of beer. She didn’t know what help she could be in something that sounded so militaristic, but she was intrigued. “Concerted attack?”

“Like I said, you won’t be the only one going through. Not even close. We’ve been planning this maneuver for months. That’s why it’s so easy to get you across unnoticed. Their security will be preoccupied.”

“But what part am I supposed to take in all this?” Ellie still didn’t think she had any valuable skills.

“It’s simple. You take these.” Gertrude set a pouch on the table. “Each one is a little disc with a red button. You take the paper backing off, stick each disc to each door in your hall, and press the red buttons to activate them. After that, you have ten minutes to get out of the building or you’ll be there when they…blow up.” She whispered the last two words.

Blow up?” Ellie whisper-yelled back.

“They’re,” Gertrude looked around the bar to make sure no one was eavesdropping, “explosives.”

“Explosives!” Ellie said too loudly.

Gertrude laughed unnaturally loudly herself in response. “Ha ha ha! Yes! An explosive drink that one. I’ll order two.” She slapped her hand on the table and stood to go to the bar.

Explosives? The Scientist wanted her to blow up the QA hall. That was her “opportunity”. What kind of opportunity ended with her destroying her workplace, her entire means of existence? That was no opportunity. That was payment. That was stupid. Why would anyone ever agree to it? The Scientist should have come out with that from the beginning. No. She wouldn’t do it. Especially if she could go spend fifteen minutes on the beach and come back to her normal life either way.

But what kind of life was that? Working for the people who had killed her son until she could find some other way to get back at them. Well here was a way to get her revenge right now.

Gertrude sat back at the booth with two tiny glasses. She set one in front of Ellie. “Cheers,” she said, holding up her own tiny glass.

“What is it?”

“A fireball,” Gertrude said with a shrug. “I don’t know what it is. I just had to get something explosive. Now tap my glass and take the shot.”

Ellie picked up the tiny thing, tapped it against Gertrude’s, and downed its contents in one gulp. Living up to its name, it burned all the way down her throat and made a fireball in her stomach. “Explosive,” she choked out.

“Now this is the best you can do for us on such short notice, dear,” Gertrude said, unphased by her own fireball. “It requires no training, and it goes a long way to furthering our multi-prong approach. And I know what you’re thinking, but you won’t lose your job over it. They’ll just move you to another hall to do your work. The Scientist, dear, she already took care of it. I made sure. I work in the same building, you know. And if you do lose it, she’ll see to it that you’re taken care of anyway. She lives up to her word, Ellie. Trust me.”

“But only if I do this for her,” Ellie said. “If I set the bombs and blow the place up.”

“There won’t be any people there, dear. It’s just a building we’ll destroy, a tool they use to oppress us. And I told you, she’ll take care of you whether you set the discs or not. This is all up to you now, remember. It’s your choice. You can go and live on the beach forever, or visit the beach and come back to your normal life, or visit the beach and do something to stop them from preventing anyone else’s seeing it. Whatever you decide, the Scientist supports you and she’ll do everything she can to help.”

“This sounds too good to be true,” Ellie said, shaking her head.

“It is too good to be true. But it’s also true. You have the discs now. And you have the timing. That timing’s strict, do you understand? That’s the one aspect you have no control over. There’s no helping that.”

“So her power’s not endless,” Ellie said.

“No one’s is.” Gertrude shook her head.

“And that’s it, then?”

“That’s it. Until tomorrow. And remember to work your entire shift as normal. Security won’t be down until after that.”

“How will I let you know if I did it?”

Gertrude laughed. “We’ll know, dear. It should be obvious when we try to go back to work in the morning, don’t you think?”

Ellie couldn’t help but chuckle at herself. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’re right about that. As long as I do it right.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” Gertrude smiled. “It’s simplified. Easier than work on an assembly line. Just rip, stick, press, rip, stick, press. You do that, you have twenty five minutes after the end of your shift to get out. You can’t mess it up.”

Ellie finished her beer. She noticed Gertrude’s had been empty for some time. She was going to say something about it when Gertrude cut her off before she could get started. “You need anything else, dear?” she said. “I’ve got the family to see back home, it being the holidays and all.”

Ellie was confused. She thought Gertrude had lost everyone. That was supposed to be why she had gotten her pity promotion. She wanted to stop her and ask about it, but she knew the feeling of not wanting to be where you were, so she settled for one last question. “With all the work you do, and all the danger you put yourself in, do you—Is it worth it?”

Gertrude smiled. She looked into Ellie’s eyes, but she looked through her, not at her, seeing something else. She eventually nodded and said, “Yes, dear. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever found worth doing. I never feel like I’m doing anything wholly moral unless I’m working to move the struggle forward.”

“I hope you’re right.” Ellie shrugged.

Gertrude stood from the table. “Me, too, dear,” she said. “Me, too. Now don’t forget your pouch. If someone finds that, the Scientist may not be able to protect you. Have a good night, too. And have a great Christmas, whatever you decide to do. If you need somewhere to enjoy the holiday, don’t be afraid to stop by, dear. Here’s my address.” She set a slip of paper on the table next to the pouch

“Thanks, Trudy,” Ellie said, putting the address and the pouch in her pocket, careful not to press any of the buttons on the discs inside. “You have a good Christmas, too.” She didn’t think she’d be visiting the old lady, but she did appreciate the gesture.

“I will, dear,” Gertrude said. “Bye.” She waved as she left.

Ellie sat staring at her empty glass, deciding between getting another here or drinking one at home. Ugh. Why did Gertrude have to be such a nice, likeable, good person? It was so much easier to hate her for what she appeared to be than to truly get to understand who she was. But now that Ellie was starting to know who she was, it was impossible to hate her. It was impossible not to see her as an omen of the future, too. An omen of Ellie’s own future.

She never thought she was being moral unless she was furthering the struggle. What was that? Was she being pious or honest? Was she lording superiority or offering her actual opinion?

Ellie shook her head. No. Gertrude was helping. She was saying what she honestly believed. Ellie was taking out her frustration over the decision she had to make on Gertrude. She needed a drink to settle her nerves, and she didn’t want to stay out in public with a pouch full of bombs in her pocket, so she decided that going home was the best option.

When she looked up from her glass, the bar was empty except for her and the bartender. She brought her glass to the bar and thanked him, then headed out into the cool, dark air.

The street was just as empty as the bar. Everyone was home with their families, even Gertrude. Trudy. There was an elevator between Ellie and home, but the cool air and exercise was welcome, so she decided to walk down Elysian instead of taking the shortcut.

What was morality anyway? Nothing. Anything. Whatever you made of it. Gertrude thought the struggle was moral. The Scientist did too, probably. And her classes and church had taught Ellie that toil was moral, work was honorable. But what did they have to say about the price she had paid?

Nothing.

What was moral? That was a hard question to answer, no doubt. But she did know what wasn’t moral. She knew the way they worked and toiled to produce things they would never see was immoral. She knew the loss of life for that production was immoral. She knew those things were wrong, but what was right?

Fighting against that had to be right, didn’t it? Fighting against the immoral, righting wrongs. How could that not be moral? How could it be?

She groaned and wished she had taken the elevator. She needed that beer now more than ever, and two blocks was still too far. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the sight of a small, dark form, running along beside her to sit down directly in her path and meow.

“Git!” she yelled, stomping to shoo it away.

The cat ran a little further down the street and meowed again.

“What do you want? I don’t have any food.”

The cat waited until she got a few steps away then ran off ahead again. When it got to Ellie’s apartment, it rubbed its face on the door jamb as if it knew she were going in that one.

Ellie kicked it away when she got there. “Shoo,” she said as she opened the door, but the cat ran through her legs and up the first flight of stairs.

“You’re not coming with me,” she said, climbing up after it. “And now you’re locked inside.” She chuckled.

When she got almost to the top of each flight, the cat ran up to the next. It licked itself a few times, and ran up to the next, licked itself as she climbed, then ran up to the next, all the way to the top floor where Ellie lived.

She got out her key and unlocked the door then turned to the cat and laughed. “See,” she said. “You’re not coming in. Now git!”

She slipped through the door as quickly as she could and slammed it shut, ensuring the cat couldn’t follow her. Satisfied, she carefully slipped the pouch out of her pocket and set it on her dresser. With a sigh, she crossed back to the fridge to get a beer—her last one—then collapsed onto the bed.

This was her home. One room and a bathroom. Her bed was on the same wall as the door, and when you walked in, you walked straight into the fridge. There was room enough between the fridge and the bed to walk, but not to open the fridge all the way. On the other side of the fridge was the door to the bathroom. The dresser was at the foot of the bed, and the last wall had a counter with two stove tops and a sink. She took it all in, sighed deep, and sipped her beer, staring at the pouch on her dresser.

There went her long weekend. At least she would still get Monday off. Or she could be sitting on the beach, fishing for food, and sleeping under the stars, instead of sitting in this tiny room. Could she do that?

Could she set bombs in the QA hall and blow the place to bits? That she thought she could do. She wouldn’t feel great about it, a little vindicated maybe, and it would never bring her son back. They would probably never even know it was her who did it, but then she could at least say that she had done something, changed something, affected something. And it’s not like anyone would be hurt. It would be a few halls, one building. That’s it.

But that wasn’t it. There was a concerted effort. She was just a piece in a bigger strategy. A pawn? No. Pawns didn’t have a choice. Did she have a choice, though? Gertrude had made it sound like she did, but she made it sound like she didn’t, too. She was full of contradictions. This entire thing was. Ellie’s understanding of it was continuously in flux. She wasn’t sure if Gertrude was a senile old lady, not worth the time of day, or a wise old soul, sent to guide her on the path to morality.

Pffft. Here came morality again, creeping its ugly head into the conversation. There was no morality. Even if there was, no one cared. Morality only works if it’s reciprocal. Unless others are moral, you have no room to be. Then again, if no one is ever moral, then no one will ever be moral. Another contradiction. What came first, morality or the moral?

She took a big swig. Moral didn’t matter. What mattered was what she was going to do. Gertrude’s morality had no bearing on that. Gertrude and the Scientist had done all that they could to get her there, now it was up to her to walk through the door.

She sighed again, but this time it was a sigh of relief. Tomorrow she would finally see the beach, she would bury her feet in the sand, feel the breeze on her face, and on top of that, she would throw a wrench in their machine on her way out. She took another swig and caught some movement out of the corner of her eye. There on her counter, rubbing its face on her sink faucet, was the black cat from outside.

“How did you get in here?” she said, opening the door and going around the bed to shoo it out. “How did you even get in here?” She stomped her feet, but the cat stayed under the bed. “Get out. Git!” she yelled as she stuck her hand under the bed to shoo it out the door. “And stay out!” She jumped over onto the bed to slam the door closed.

Stupid thing. That was strange. But the bed was so comfortable. She might as well try to catch a few winks.

#   #   #

It was somehow harder to wake up on Sunday than on any other day of the week, even though she normally woke earlier. But she was no stranger to doing what she had to do, and so she did it.

It was harder to wake up, but the commute to work was easier to balance it out. The streets were barren, there was no line at the elevator, and the entire building was empty of employees. She checked her pocket to make sure the pouch was there as her footsteps echoed magnificently in the emptiness of the halls. She almost thought that, without all the angry employees standing around and gossiping, this place might not be half as bad as it normally was. But then she got behind the conveyor belt, expecting her normal beginning of the shift burst of work to get her warmed up for the rest of the day, and after five or ten minutes, the burst still hadn’t come.

Gertrude had told her this was going to be a long shift, that everyone would be at the Christmas Feast. That meant that whoever it was that usually got their things through her conveyor belt wasn’t in their normal place. Instead, they were at some Feast. Feast? What did Feast even mean? A Christmas party? No. It had to mean more than that. Most of what came through the conveyor belts was food, and cooking utensils, and clothes. The only place people needed all those at once was at home. So it went to someone’s home. Or a store. A store that sells all three things? If you can, why not sell anything? But no. Eggs and bacon and pans and clothes together? Someone was cooking and getting dressed. It had to be a house.

Ugh. She had gone through all of this before. She already knew it was a house. She still had no idea what a Feast was. She was still as ignorant as ever. But not for too much longer, now. Soon she’d experience the beach.

She patted the pouch in her pocket. Would she lay the bombs? Yes. Of course she would. She knew she wanted revenge, and here was just that. Or some small piece of it, at least. But could she do more?

Gertrude thought she could. Gertrude thought it was moral to do so. Why did she keep going back to Gertrude’s morality? Because Gertrude gave her this opportunity, and she owed the old lady something for it. Because Gertrude reminded her of herself in the future. Because Gertrude was kind and tried to help. But that’s why she was going to set the bombs, right? That was her payment, even though Gertrude said it wasn’t. Yes, tha—

The bell rang. Ellie jumped. The screen said cat food. Cat food? A bowl came rolling through and out the other side. Apparently someone was still at home. And now they had cat food.

Ellie stared at the conveyor belt for a while longer, waiting for another quick burst of work, but nothing came. This was going to be a long shift. Gertrude’s words echoed through her mind again, setting her off on the same line of thoughts she went over earlier.

#   #   #

She had no more idea what she was going to do when the final bell rang than when she had sat down for her shift. The cat food was the only thing that came through the entire time, and she thought she was going to die by the end of it, but the last bell went off, she looked at the screen to make sure it wasn’t more work, and when she saw nothing, she realized it was time to decide.

She felt for the pouch in her pocket. It was still there. She thought about going to set the bombs so she didn’t have to come back after she had seen the beach, but she didn’t know how long it would take to set them all, and she wanted to make sure the beach was really there before she did anything.

She climbed up over the railing and stood on the conveyor belt. She had always wanted to be there, and had often imagined herself seeing “Ellie” on the screen then making sure it was her who went through. She laughed a little, then remembered where she was and that she had a time limit.

She crouched down and tried to see as far into the “in” port as she could now that she had a better perspective. All she could see was darkness, even from there. She tried to reach into it, but her hand met a cold, hard door.

She turned to peer through the other side and there was light coming through, and a cool breeze, and the scent of salt water and fish. The beach.

She crawled on hands and knees through the “out” port onto soft sand. She couldn’t believe her eyes, or her skin, as she stood with some difficulty. Before her was a short stretch of white sand with the deep blue tide beating and beating against the shore in some absurd attempt to reach dry land. She dug her feet into the smooth, fine pebbles and brushed her hair—which had been blown into her face by a cool ocean breeze—out of the way, smiling like she hadn’t smiled since her son had gone. Since Levi had gone. He would have loved to see this, to feel it, to smell it. She fell down on her knees in the sand and started to weep.

She was here. This was it. The one promise she had made to Levi and she had fulfilled it too late. It wasn’t enough. Fifteen minutes wasn’t enough. She had to take it all in, experience all of it. She had to do it for him. She knew it. This was moral. Keeping her promises. But she couldn’t stay here without paying the price. She owed it to Gertrude and the Scientist. She had to keep her promises to them as well.

She struggled to her feet and stared out again at the endless water and the endless sky. She almost wanted to forget the bombs entirely.

Helloooo!” a voice called from down the beach. A figure far away made its way through the tide toward her. “Hey! Did the Scientist send you, too?”

Ellie was going to ignore the person, but hearing the Scientist’s name intrigued her. Plus, as he came closer, he didn’t look like any threat she couldn’t handle.

“Hello! Do you hear me?” he called when he was close enough that she obviously did.

“Yes,” Ellie said. “Yes and yes. Who are you?”

“Oh. Ho ho.” The man chuckled. “Just a worker. Just like you. I asked for the beach. You asked for the beach. There’s only so much beach—and a lot less of it that we can be on without anyone knowing.”

Ellie tried to count how long she had been through the door already. It could have been five minutes, it could have been ten. “I don’t have much time left,” she said

“Much time? Ha ha! You’re going back? Are you crazy?”

“No. I—I didn’t pay my debt. I need to before I can—”

“Oh, ho ho, child. There’s not much time now. You better forget about that. You’re already out here, why don’t you just stay? Otherwise you might not get the chance to come back.”

“No,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “I can’t.”

“You don’t really have a choice, you know. Your time’s runn—”

He kept talking, but Ellie wasn’t listening. She crawled back through the conveyor belt, and his voice disappeared behind her.

She jumped down off the belt and the floor felt so much harder after the softness of the sand. How much time did she have left? She sprinted out the door, slammed it shut, jerked the pouch out of her pocket, and fumbled through it for one of the discs. She didn’t know what to do with the pouch while she set the bomb so she dropped it on the floor.

Rip, stick, press? Rip, stick, press? As if.

The paper backing on the disc was impossible to get off. It took ten, fifteen attempts, especially with her hand shaking at the fear of missing her time limit. She finally got it off, stuck the disc on the door, and pressed the button which turned green and displayed a little clock counting down from thirteen.

Thirteen minutes? Fifteen minutes at the beach, ten minutes to set the bombs and get out of the building. She looked up and down the hall. She could place some, but not all, of them if she wanted to make it back to the beach before the door closed. She had to set as many as she could.

She scooped up the pouch and tied it to her belt loop, jogging to the next door. It only took five tries to rip the paper backing off before she could stick and press. She pulled a disc out and started on it on her way to the next door when she got into a rhythm.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

Rip, stick, press.

Run.

She watched the timer closely as she activated each one. Eleven and a half minutes, the clock said, and that’s all the time she had.

She sprinted down the hall, back into her workroom, and jumped up onto the conveyor belt. She could still feel the cool breeze and smell the fish and salt. She even looked forward to getting to know whoever it was that waited on the other side of the door. She looked down at her cubicle one last time, never would she have to see it again.

“Hurry,” she heard from inside the “out” port.

She dropped to her knees and crawled toward the beach, only to hit her head on a cold, metal door.

#   #   #

< XI. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     XIII. Pardy >

Thanks again for reading along. I hope to see you back again next Saturday and throughout the week. And don’t forget, the full novel is available through here.

Chapter 05: Ellie

Another week brings us another chapter with number five, Ellie, today, and again we have an illustration of the POV character. I hope you’ve been enjoying the story so far, and if you don’t want to wait to finish it, order a copy of the full novel right here.

Ellie McCannik

< IV. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     VI. Officer Pardy >

V. Ellie

There was a time in her life when Ellie thought that no job could be more boring than slip, snap, clicking. That was a long time ago, before the accident that took her son. They took care of an employee after an accident in the family like that. That was how she got her pity promotion.

She went from production to quality assurance. Where production was repetitive and tedious, quality assurance was random and exhausting. There would be long stretches in which she could only stare at an empty conveyor belt, sitting alone in her ten by ten cube, just one door and the conveyor belt spanning between dark metal hoods on either side of the room. Then, during the rushes, there would be a flurry of work as items sped in from one side of the conveyor belt, stopped for a moment, then sped out the other: four eggs, check, four strips of bacon, check, four pieces of bread, check, blueberry jam, check, tray with plate, platinumware—not silver apparently—and coffee mug, check, check, and check. Then a slight rest. Then eight eggs, check, eight strips of bacon, check, eight pieces of bread, check, and so on and so on. She felt as if she were feeding a beast that got hungrier and hungrier the more that it ate until it couldn’t hold anymore and its stomach exploded. Then the thing woke up and ate its own insides, which only served to make it hungrier and hungrier again until it went through the same process over and over.

There she sat in her tiny gray room, counting the time away, ensuring that each item on the conveyor belt matched the words on the little screen in front of her. They always matched. There was a little red button next to the screen that she was supposed to press if there was ever a mistake, but she had never had the opportunity to press it. There was never a mistake.

She spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if she did press it. Not out of the blue, of course—she would probably be fired for that, and there was no good reason to test the hypothesis—but what if it didn’t match for once? What if the screen said “pan” and out came a fully cooked chicken? She’d press the button, of course, but then what? Would the conveyor belt stop? Would an alarm sound and lights flash? Would whoever needed the pan go waiting? Where was the pan going anyway?

That was another thing she spent her time thinking about. Where did the conveyor belt go to and where did it come from?

A bell rang. The screen read sixteen hamburgers. Sixteen hamburgers came out with barely enough time for Ellie to count them before they zoomed on down the line and out of sight. Sixteen buns, check, sixteen potatoes, check

When the flood of work subsided she cleared her mind. She wondered again what the red button would do. Would it set off lights and sirens? Then she remembered she was on to wondering about the conveyor belt and went back to that.

It was strange, the conveyor belt. Impossible really. The “out” end went through the wall that Ellie had never seen the other side of, but the “in” end went straight through the same wall the door was on. Ellie had been on the other side of that wall, and she knew there was nowhere for anything to come from. The conveyor belt didn’t continue out into the hallway. It stopped right there at the wall. And there was no way it was coming from above, either. There were metal hoods covering the “in” and “out” ports, so no matter where she stood in the room she was unable to see where the things came from or where they went to, but when she stood up as tall as she could, she could see over the hoods to the other wall and knew that nothing was coming from up there.

The bell rang. Thirty two hamburgers, check, thirty two buns, check, thirty two potatoes, check. And so on and so on.

When it had all gone by and the work died down again, she wondered if the monster on the other side of the wall had finally burst. She squirmed in her chair, trying to lean over to see where the things came from, where they went to, but there was nothing, only darkness under the hoods. They came from nothing and went to nothing, stopping on the way so Ellie could make sure the correct goods got from here to nowhere.

She knew better than that, though. She might not know where they went—that much stuff all at once never ended up in the hands of anyone she knew—but she knew all too well where they came from. She had spent her time on the assembly line slip, snap, clicking away at who knows what, and everyone else she knew had spent their time on their own lines producing something else for someone none of them knew. Hell, she had paid the ultimate price for production, more expensive even than her own worn-out weary life, she had lost the new, endless life of her son, and as a reward, she got to sit in QA instead of work on the assembly line. Some reward!

Her heart beat faster at the injustice of it all. She wanted to break something, to take something, to get revenge somehow. She wanted to press the red button and see the look on their faces, see if they even had faces. She wanted to shut everything down, go out to the bar, and get stone cold drunk until she forgot who she was and thought the bar and the beer were all the world that existed, get drunk until she forgot the cost. But that wasn’t an option, that was death, and death wasn’t a choice. Her death wouldn’t bring her son back. It would only prevent her from getting revenge. The only recourse she had left was to wait, to bide her time until she could find an effective way to exact that revenge.

She checked the conveyor belt again. Still she couldn’t see anything. Right about then she would normally have another string of hamburgers and potatoes, but nothing came. The bubble must have burst early. The monster was full and her shift was almost over.

The time ticked by slower when the work didn’t come. She sat staring at the conveyor belt, going through the same cycle of thoughts over and over again: Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from. How could I let them know that I know? I need this job to exist, though. Nothing on the screen. Where does the stuff go anyway? Where does it come from? Oh, I know all too well where it comes from…

Sometimes she’d linger on one bit a little longer than the others, but most of her time was spent thinking about her son and how nothing could ever make up for losing him. The seconds ticked by at a glacial pace whatever she had on her mind.

A bell rang. This one was slightly different in tone. She still looked to the screen first to see what was supposed to come through, but when she saw that it was empty, she jumped from her seat and rushed to the door.

Her hurried footsteps echoed through the concrete hall. She kept her eyes forward, intent on the destination in front of her. She could hear some small conversations going on around her, and she had to fight through clumps of traffic because of it, but she tried to ignore it all. She was leaving. It was about to be a long weekend. She didn’t have to hear their stupid gossiping for a full three days, and she was overjoyed at that fact. She couldn’t believe that she was feeling as much Christmas joy as she was without her son there to bring it out of her.

She choked back tears at the thought of him and set her mind again on the bar. The sun was low when she burst out of the glass doors of the factory lobby. Shadows from the tall buildings all around cut across her face as the air started to cool. She shook her body a little to warm it up, and was about to set off toward the elevator terminal when, from behind, she heard a gravelly old voice that grated at her insides. “Ellie! Ellie, dear!” it called. Ellie shuddered more at the sound of it than she did at the cold air.

“Ellie, wait up, dear,” the voice said. “Please. My old legs aren’t what they used to be.”

Ellie relented, stopping in her tracks but not turning to greet the woman. She knew who it was. She knew the old lady had gotten the same pity promotion that Ellie had gotten, only for Gertrude it had been many years since. Gertrude was promoted for losing a son and a husband. She, too, knew the real cost of production. That was a big part of the reason Ellie didn’t like her. Gertrude had been put through the same torture at the hands of production—more, considering it took her husband, too—and here she was with nothing to show for it but a prolonged lonely life. Deep down Ellie feared that Gertrude was some kind of omen revealing her own future self.

“Oh, dear,” Gertrude said, finally having caught up to Ellie who still wasn’t moving. “I’m sorry, honey. You’ll have to let me catch my breath.”

“Hello, Gertrude,” Ellie said with no inflection. She looked the old woman up and down, studying her crow’s-feet and sagging cheeks, her sagging everything. More than even behind the conveyor belt, Ellie wished that she was at the bar, deep in drink, instead of on this busy sidewalk.

“You know, dear—You know…” Gertrude looked suspiciously at the people walking around them, as if they might be eavesdropping on their conversation. She lowered her voice so none of them could hear. “You know, I heard a juicy little morsel of information today. Juicy juicy, sweetheart. You wouldn’t believe.”

Ellie rolled her mind’s eyes. “Oh yeah, Gertrude? Did Maci finally find out who the father of her baby is?”

“Trudy, dear. My friends call me Trudy. And, in fact—now that you mention it—there has been another possible father added to the list. He’s a nice young man, it seems—much nicer than any of the current frontrunners, that’s for sure—from what I’ve heard at least. My fingers are crossed for her that it’s this one and not one of those other two deviants. That’s all I know.”

“Well, Gertrude—er—Trudy,” Ellie said. “You’ll have to tell me all about it after the long weekend, huh? Right now I’m off to celebrate. Merry Christmas to you.” She started again toward the public elevator.

“Ellie, dear. Wait!” Gertrude grabbed her arm.

Ellie almost gasped in surprise. It wasn’t like Gertrude to be so forceful.

Ahem. Excuse me, dear,” Gertrude said. “I apologize. It’s just—I…” She looked around again at the people leaving work or going to it.

“What is it Ger—Trudy? Is something wrong?”

“I—uh—” Gertrude shrunk back into her old self. She seemed to age ten years with the bad posture. She looked frail and weak. Ellie almost pitied her. “Perhaps we could talk somewhere more…personal,” she said, looking around again, but still no one was paying attention to them.

Ellie didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to sit and listen to some pointless anecdote about the social life of someone she didn’t know or care the least bit about, and that was probably exactly the “juicy morsel” of information that Gertrude was so excited to share. But then there was something in the shrillness of her voice when she called for Ellie to wait, and it was strange to see her being so secretive with her gossip. Yes, usually she asked everyone she told not to tell a soul, but that was because she wanted the honor of telling as many people as she could herself. If anyone ever asked her about any piece of gossip, Gertrude would jump at the opportunity to share even the most personal of secrets, as long as it was her doing the sharing. This time, though, it was almost as if she was afraid that someone would find out what she knew. As if the secret was more important than the latest social gossip.

“I hear there’s an okay bar just down the street,” Ellie said. “Do you drink?”

Gertrude laughed a scratchy laugh. “The Water Cooler, dear?” she said, shaking her head. “Too many co-workers. I was thinking of something a little more…private.”

It must have been more than gossip if she didn’t want co-workers to hear it. Ellie was more curious than ever, but at the same time she was torn. She knew the perfect place to talk, where no co-worker would ever overhear them, a bar that no co-worker knew about, but that was exactly why she liked it. Everyone at the production plant and in a five mile radius would learn about it if Gertrude knew. But was that worth it for finding out what made the old lady so nervous to know and share?

“I might know a place,” Ellie said.

“Great, sweetheart,” Gertrude said with a smile. “It’s not too far is it?” She started toward the public elevator without waiting for an answer. “I’m not sure my old dogs can take it.”

“I said I might know,” Ellie said without moving. Gertrude stopped and turned back to her with a puppy dog look on her face. “But I wouldn’t want it getting around about this place. If you know what I mean.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Gertrude said. “You can trust dear old Trudy with that, you can.” She crossed her heart and spat on the ground. “If not me, then who can you trust? Huh?” She smiled wide as if she meant it.

“Like Maci and her potential fathers could trust you?” Ellie said. “Or Merl when he had his ED problems? Or Sally with her miscarriage? Maybe I can trust you like—”

“Now, now, child. Hold your tongue. None of those were secrets entrusted to me. They were all gossip floating in the air for anyone to catch and pass along. Secrets are different. Secrets I can keep.” She had a stern, serious look on her face as she said it, a look Ellie had never seen from her.

“But this will be a secret I entrust to you and you alone,” Ellie said.

“And I’ll keep it as well as I expect you to keep the secret I’m entrusting to you.”

Ellie looked her up and down one more time and nodded. “Let’s go, then,” she said. “I need a drink.”

The public elevator was crowded. It was always crowded. As they waited, the sun went further down, producing a cold breeze through the skyscrapers that towered over them. Gertrude took the chance to go over the finer points of Maci’s new baby daddy possibility while they waited. He loved reality TV and hated sports, which was so strange in a guy. He had a job in food production, so he made a good amount of tokens, but apparently he wasn’t very good looking. Although Gertrude thought that part shouldn’t matter. Then she admitted that it did matter. “Of course it does,” she said, winking at Ellie. “You’re lying if you say it doesn’t. But he’s an honest, productive worker, and that’s more important.”

When they were finally at the head of the line and the elevator doors slid open, Ellie was hit by the stale odor of urine. They stepped onto the elevator without acknowledging it, and Ellie said, “Elysian Fields.”

“So,” Gertrude said, as the elevator fell into motion. “Elysian Fields.” She tapped her nose with a finger.

“A secret you’re entrusted to keep,” Ellie reminded her.

Gertrude nodded and mimed a key locking her lips. Ellie suspected it might not have been a mistake to bring her along when Gertrude didn’t add another word for the entire walk from the elevator to the bar, down an alley a half a block away.

The air inside was stale with the scent of burnt tobacco and rank with the sour aroma of still fermenting yeast. Ellie took in a deep breath of it and her muscles relaxed. She walked straight up to the bar, sat at her regular seat on the far end, and ordered a beer, forgetting Gertrude who paused at the door to look at the place before walking cautiously over and taking the seat next to her. It didn’t take long because there was nothing more than a jukebox, pool table, dartboard, and a few booths to see.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” Gertrude said when the bartender brought Ellie’s drink.

“On my tab,” Ellie added, feeling guilty for not ordering one for her already.

Gertrude took in the place one more time. There was one other customer sitting at the opposite end of the bar, staring at the football game on the TV in front of him. “This is a nice place,” she said. “What did you say it was called again?’

“I didn’t.” Ellie took a drink of her beer. She remembered the long weekend and felt the Christmas spirit again, adding, “I mean, it doesn’t have a name. I just call it the bar because it’s the only one I ever go to. That’s why I wanted to keep it a secret.”

Gertrude nodded and locked her lips again. The bartender brought her beer, still frosty and wet from where the head had overflowed, and Gertrude looked at the glass as if it wasn’t clean. She picked it up anyway and took a tiny sip, then smiled and raised it when she saw that Ellie was watching.

“So,” Ellie said, taking a drink from her own glass. “You had something you wanted to tell me.”

Gertrude looked over at the other patron, still enraptured by the game on the TV, then leaned in close to Ellie. “Something you want to hear, dear,” she whispered. “This is one piece of information I’m not sure I want to share.” The door opened as she said it, and she jumped at the sound, looking around to see a few regulars who Ellie knew always came in to play pool. “Wanna take a booth?” Gertrude asked when she had gathered herself. “It should provide more privacy.”

Ellie nodded and led Gertrude to the back booth. She had to know what it was that made the old lady so jumpy. “So…” she said when they had both sat down.

“So,” Gertrude said. She looked behind Ellie at the people playing pool, the door, and the lone drinker, watching the game, before she continued. “How’s your new job treating you?”

“It’s paying for these drinks.” Ellie took a sip to drive the point home.

“Yes. It does pay, doesn’t it. If only it paid better.” Gertrude laughed.

“It can always pay better.”

“How true.” Gertrude nodded. “How true. I wonder, dear. Do you know where this bar gets their beer?”

Ellie shrugged. “Out of the tap. As long as I can drink it, what do I care where they get it?”

Hmmm. I guess you’re right.” Gertrude took a thoughtful sip of beer. “But you know where it comes from, don’t you?”

Ellie thought about her son, tightened her lips into a line, and nodded.

“Well, dear,” Gertrude said. “Do you ever wonder where it all goes?”

Ellie took a big gulp of beer. Getrude couldn’t have found that out. Could she? It did seem like a piece of knowledge that she would put more discretion into sharing. “Every day I sit behind the conveyor belt and ask myself that same question,” Ellie said.

“Yes, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “Yes. I think we all do. And not just in QA, either. Every one of us down here slip, snap, clicking, and growing food, and shipping this and that here, there, and everywhere. But still, with all these advancements in production, all these jumps in productivity, still not even the slightest percent of what we make ends up in our hands. No, it all just seems to…seems to…disappear. Poof!” She waved her hands as she said it and laughed, then perked up in silence and looked around the bar to see if her outburst had drawn the attention of any curious onlookers. When she was satisfied that it hadn’t, she leaned over the table close to Ellie and whispered, “I’m sorry, dear. I’ve been gossiping a long loooong time to get this piece of information.” She sipped her beer.

There was no doubt left in Ellie’s mind that this was actually something worth knowing, something beyond Gertrude’s usual workplace gossip. She took a big gulp of beer in anticipation and emptied her cup with it. “Wait,” she said, holding up a finger. “Wait. I know what this means, but wait. I need a beer to take it with. You want another one?”

“Of course, sweetheart.” Gertrude smiled. “Thank you. And, yes. I think a beer would help grease the gears, so to speak.”

Ellie went to order two more. She sat in the booth, handed Gertrude her beer, and took a swig of her own. “You said you know where it goes.”

“Oh, ho ho. No, sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “No no no.” She looked around the bar and leaned in close. “If I knew that I wouldn’t be here to tell you. No. It’s not me. But…You work in QA. You know we’re on the last line of defense, we’re the last thing that each commodity sees before it goes on its way out into the wide world. You know all that already, right?”

Ellie nodded.

“Of course you do, dear,” Gertrude said. “We all know that down in QA. It’s our job to know it. But none of us knows where the commodities go. None of us who can talk about it, at least.” She grinned and took a sip of her beer. Here was the Gertrude Ellie knew: happy to lord her knowledge over the ignorant.

“How?” Ellie asked. She didn’t want to give Gertrude the satisfaction of asking what was already implied.

“How else, dear?” Gertrude said. “She went right down the conveyor belt like a Christmas turkey!” She had a big smile on her face when she said it.

Ellie almost choked on the beer she was drinking. She set it down and said, “No.” So many times she had thought that going through herself would be the only way to find out where everything went, but she never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to actually try it. She wondered what it felt like, what she—Ellie didn’t even care who she was—saw, what Gertrude knew about it and how.

“Yes,” Gertrude said with a smug grin, taking a sip of her beer.

Ellie waited a full minute, staring at the delight on Gertrude’s face from dangling the information in front of her, before she said, “Well…”

“Well, dear?” Gertrude said, prolonging her joy for as long as she could.

“What did she see?”

“Sweetheart,” Gertrude said, shaking her head. “I told you I wouldn’t be sitting here if I knew what she saw. You’re asking the wrong questions, dear.” She sounded like Ellie’s school teacher lecturing her on proper slip, snap, clicking technique and timing. They both used the same patronizing voice and had the same pompous look on their faces when they spoke.

Ellie thought about what to say next, about what the right question might be. Gertrude didn’t mind waiting. She was happy to hold out on her information for as long as she could. She was relishing it. “How did you find out?” Ellie finally asked, satisfied it was a pointed enough question.

“Ah, dear,” Gertrude said. “Now that’s a question worth asking. And for the first line of evidence I present to you the fact that she didn’t leave her hall with the rest of us at the end of shift on the day in question.”

Ellie knew there was more to come, but she humored the pause in Gertrude’s explanation with the hope that cooperating would speed the process along. “But that doesn’t mean anything,” she said. “She could have been sick and gone home early. That doesn’t prove she went through the conveyor belt.”

“True, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding solemnly. “True. But she also told me about her plans to go through.”

Ellie had more questions about that point, but she knew if she went off on a tangent now, they would never make it to the end of the explanation, so she held them for later. “Still,” she said instead. “She could have lied.”

“Also true,” Gertrude said, raising a finger. “But then why would the protectors have come and questioned everyone on our hall about her whereabouts?”

How was Ellie supposed to know that they did? She took a big gulp of beer. But that did seem to point to it being real. “But why’d she do it? What was her plan when she got through?”

“That, dear, I’m not entirely sure of,” Gertrude said. “She did mention to me that she planned on doing it, but that information came at great cost. As to what she planned on doing once she was through, that was too expensive to bear, even for me.”

“What’s on the other side?”

“Again. I couldn’t tell you if I knew.”

“Okay,” Ellie said, sighing. “So you’re telling me that she went through the conveyor belt and never came back, then the protectors came and questioned you about it.”

“I don’t know if she came back or not,” Gertrude said.

“What did the protectors say to you?”

“Like I said, they asked general questions. If we noticed any suspicious behavior, if we knew where she might be, things like that.”

“Just like that?” Ellie said. “Nothing else?”

“Just like that.” Gertrude nodded.

Ellie took a swig of beer, started her question, then took another drink. “What would it cost to know what she planned on doing?”

“Now that’s the question I’ve been waiting for all along, dear,” Gertrude said with a smile. “Are you sure you want to know the answer?”

Ellie nodded.

“She told me I’d have to commit to going through myself. Or at least, to doing something equally insane. She wasn’t specific, and she didn’t want to tell me about it at all, but that was the gist of it.”

Ellie thought about whether she would do it, about going through the unknown into a dark abyss. She wondered how it would feel, what she would find, and if she could bear to try. “You thought
that was too expensive?” she said.

“We’ve seen what it did to our poor friend—well, sort of,” Gertrude said, shrugging. “It cost her everything for all we know.”

“We haven’t seen, though,” Ellie said. “We’ve only assumed.”

“Well, I guess that’s true, dear,” Gertrude said, nodding. “But do you think the presence of the protectors indicates any other outcome?”

“Maybe they took her for what she did.”

“Then why would they ask if we knew where she might be? And what would they do with her if they did take her?”

“I—well…” Ellie didn’t know how to answer that.

Gertrude smiled and sipped up the last bit of her beer. “Would you like another, dear?”

Ellie nodded. She could use one to help process all this new information. Gertrude went off to order them.

What would she actually be risking by going through? She could die. It could be something impossible to live through. She had never seen a living thing come down the conveyor belt. But what cost was that? She had lost everything worth living for except her need to avenge that fact, and Gertrude was offering the only real piece of information concerning where the things that her son had died making went.

But then again this was really nothing. It was all hearsay and rumors and all from Gertrude the Gossip Queen. So some woman Ellie had never met said that she might want to go through the conveyor belt. Ellie herself had thought the same thing on many occasions but never mentioned it. If she had mentioned it to someone and happened to miss work for a couple of days, they would be saying the exact same things about her.

But then there were the protectors. They lent credence to the theory that this mystery woman had attempted to go through. But they also added an element of danger if Ellie decided to go through herself. She knew good and well that there were things worse than death—worse even than the helpless, alienated life she already lived—and if anyone could make those things a reality, it was the protectors.

Gertrude set the beer in front of Ellie before she sat down. She looked around the bar one more time for good measure, took a sip of her beer, smiled, and said, “So, dear. Do you think you’d be willing to pay the price?”

#      #       #

< IV. Mr. Kitty     [Table of Contents]     VI. Officer Pardy >

Thanks again for joining us, and don’t forget to purchase a paperback or eBook version of The Asymptote’s Tail today.

Ellie McCannik

Ellie lives in Outland 5. She used to slip, snap, click but now she works in QA. She sits behind a conveyor belt, watching a screen until a word pops up, then ensures that whatever goes down the belt matches the word on the screen. This is a terribly boring job and the entire time she’s there she imagines drinking at her bar.

Here’s an illustration of her at her favorite place. It’s not my best but I do spend more time writing and editing than I do drawing so what else can you expect? Enjoy nonetheless.

Ellie McCannik