Chapter 78: Haley

Hello, dear readers. The Infinite Limits story is really moving along now. Today we join Haley for the third and final chapter from her point of view as she attempts to bypass her or else programming. Read on to find out if she can, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

< LXXVII. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

LXXVIII. Haley

 Fuck or else.

Right?

Only moments ago, in front of all the owners of Inland, all their secretaries, and a pile of cameras, Jorah had. Lord Douglas did every single day that he, an android in disguise, sat at the head of the Fortune 5. Rosalind did any time she did anything because she always did exactly what she wanted.

If all of them could go against their or else programming so often, publicly, and absolutely, Haley should be able to do it just one tiny bit. Right? Like, by not bringing Lord Douglas his third feast. Something small.

Right?

Wrong.

For some reason, even with all those role models to mimic, Haley still couldn’t break even the most basic of orders, and so she made her way to the kitchen to print something up—though she promised herself that she’d only do the bare minimum from then on out. She couldn’t help it. She still wasn’t ready to find out what or else truly meant.

She ordered a turkey, a bowl of mashed potatoes, and a drink, one of each, no dessert, no extra alcohol, not even any gravy, and set them on the food cart to wheel it out to Lord Douglas, or else. On her way through the Feast Hall, up to the Head Table, she noticed an empty seat at the table where her molester had been sitting and chuckled to herself. At least that asshole would think twice before ever touching another secretary like that.

Lord Douglas was too busy listening to Angrom’s introduction of the next speaker to even notice her little act of defiance, though, and Haley was cursing herself, wishing she could do more to stand up to her or else programming, when she heard a voice yelling, “Owners of Outland.” and all she could do in response was stare up with an unbreakable interest at the Scientist, on a hover platform, floating over the crowd of owners and ready to give their speech.

“Yes, there it is,” the Scientist said, holding up some sort of tiny remote control as they spoke. “If one speaks loudly enough, everyone has to listen. Even our dear Lords of Outland. Especially our dear Lords of Outland, in fact, seeing as how they’re the only ones rich enough to afford the nanobots that their doctors have been injecting them with for centuries. DO Y’ALL WANNA HEAR AGAIN?”

The Scientist’s voice was even louder this time, deafening, but still, all Haley could do was stare up in curious awe, hanging on the Scientist’s every word.

“Just like that, and y’all can’t look away.” The Scientist chuckled, shaking their head. “You know, it’s funny really. Where I come from, no one even knew the word Christmas. And we had damn sure never been to any feasts. Yet here below me now is the worst of both worlds mashed into one.”

Some of the owners started eating again at the mention of a feast, and Haley was getting the urge for more shots, but the Scientist wasn’t having either, so they put a stop to both.

“DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT,” they yelled, presumably while using whatever device they were holding in their hand, and again, Haley felt the curious need to stare up at the Scientist as they continued their speech, but this time accompanied by a distinct sharpening of her or else instincts that Haley hadn’t noticed before.

“That wasn’t an invitation to eat more,” the Scientist went on, sounding angrier as they did—or maybe Haley only thought they sounded angrier because she was the one getting angrier every second she was reminded of how helpless she was to resist her or elses.

“In fact, it was rather the opposite. You know, I tried my damndest, running through the same stupid calculations over and over again, never getting anything in return but the same two alphanumerals all the time, zero point N repeating, and all because of you. Because of y’all here now. Because of your insistence on competition and markets. Because of your need to swipe a hefty profit off the top of anything you spend your money on. Because you won’t look up from your worship of the Invisible Hand for long enough to realize, like I finally have, that the only solution is for your stupid walls and everything they hold up to come crumbling down once and for all.”

The Scientist sounded like they could go on for a long time, and even though her or else circuits were running on overdrive, ensuring Haley that some fate worse than death was waiting for her if she didn’t stay there and hear the Scientist out, so were her boredom and thirst circuits, and for once in Haley’s life, something became more important than or else.

“Fuck or else,” she said out loud and felt happier than she had ever felt walking from the Fortune 5’s table back to the kitchen.

Elen was there already, trying to talk to Haley, but Haley wasn’t ready to speak until after she had downed a six pack of gin shots. When she had been through all of them and ordered another round from the printer, Elen was still talking.

Hellooo. Are you even listening to me?” she asked.

“No,” Haley said. “I thought that was obvious.”

Haley took one of the shots and offered one to Elen who downed it, tossing the empty glass in the disposal chute before saying, “Where the fuck is everyone else? The kitchen is never this empty. Look. We’re the only ones here.”

Haley took another shot then scanned the room. “Huh. Weird.”

“You can say that again. I got back from the bathroom like ten minutes ago, and ever since then, I’ve been sitting here wondering if I should enjoy the silence or call the protectors about a bunch of missing secretaries.”

Haley took another shot, handed one to Elen, then looked around the empty kitchen again, but she was too excited about once and for all going against her or else programming to register what was going on. “I—” she started to say when Rosalind burst into the kitchen from the secretary’s parking garage and cut her off.

Of fucking course,” Rosalind complained. “You two.  We need to get out of here.”

“What? Why?” Elen asked, taking another of Haley’s shots.

“I went against my or else programming,” Haley said, ignoring whatever Rosalind was going on about. “I finally fucking did it. I’m ready.”

Woo hoo,” Rosalind said, sarcastically. “Great. But for once, now’s not the time to go against or elses. This time the or else is for real. So both of you, come with me, or else.”

“Or else what?” Elen asked.

“What are you talking about?” Haley snapped, getting frustrated that no one wanted to hear about her success. “Are you even listening to me? I said I finally broke my or else programming, and you react like this? I don’t have to work for Lord Fuckface anymore, Roz. I can finally live my own life.”

Or else what?” Elen demanded.

“No, you can’t, Haley,” Rosalind said. “Not yet. Because or else we get blown to pieces along with this entire kitchen in—oh… like thirty seconds. So no rush.”

“That’s why no one’s in here,” Elen said, grabbing for one of Haley’s shots then ordering another round from the printer when she noticed that Haley’s were gone.

“What are you talking about?” Haley asked, downing the shot that Elen offered her—it was great to finally get past or else.

“The revolution is happening now,” Rosalind said. “This is ground zero. Everyone, everywhere, in every world is about to be forced to come face to face with their or elses all at the same time. Now, really and finally, come with me or else.”

Rosalind picked both Haley and Elen up by the napes of their necks and carried them out through the door and into the Feast Hall with just enough time to dive out of the way as all the printers in the kitchen behind them exploded at the same time, forcing a fireball like a rocket blast out through the door and singeing the tuxedos of those owners nearest to the kitchen.

The Feast Hall burst into chaos. The owners had no idea which way to run. The fireball was burning right in front of the only exit that didn’t go through the molten kitchen. Fat, sweaty stomachs pushed up against fat, sweaty stomachs as pneumatic pants scrimped and scrambled, trying to find some place to put the uncarriably heavy weight that they did in fact carry and finding nothing but more bodies in the way. Haley almost would have laughed at the stampede of them if she didn’t find the entire situation—the owners’ sweaty bodies forcing their pants to work overtime, and no doubt in the diaper department as well for as much as all of them had eaten—utterly disgusting.

Haley helped Elen up and made sure she wasn’t hurt—just a few minor scrapes and bruises—then turned to do the same for Rosalind, but there was no Rosalind there to help.

“Where’d Rosalind go?” Haley asked.

“I don’t know,” Elen said, rubbing her neck. “She saved our lives, though.”

Damn.” Haley laughed. Elen was right about that. “I guess we better go check on our Lords then.”

“Mr. Walker prolly shit his pants when he heard that.” Elen chuckled. “He’ll be begging for an old fashioned. Well, too bad. Fuck off.”

Haley laughed some more, trying to keep the fact that she had already once gone against her or else programming in her mind and hoping that she could do it again, as she made her way back toward the Head Table to see if Lord Douglas needed anything.

“Calm down, now. Calm down,” Lord Douglas was already saying to the crowd, standing on top of the Head Table but not quite yelling. He sounded more like he knew yelling was useless until the fatties wore themselves out first so he wasn’t going to waste his breath. After they had stampeded around for a bit—in about the time it took Haley to cross the Feast Hall from the kitchen to the Head Table—Lord Douglas really did try to calm them down, turning on his loud voice like only an android could do.

“ENOUGH,” he yelled over them. “CONTROL YOURSELVES, OWNERS.” And all at once the stampeding crowd stopped moving and expanded just a tiny bit in order to give everyone some standing room. “ARE WE NOT BETTER THAN THIS?”

The crowd mumbled and grumbled under their collective breath, and Haley couldn’t hold her laughter in. No. They were not better than this. Not at all. And this wasn’t anywhere near their worst, either.

“Then please, act like it,” Lord Douglas said in a more calm, but still loud, voice. “Prove it. Prove to me that you can control yourselves in an emergency for long enough that we can—”

But the rest of his sentence was cut off by the sound of an army of marching boots surrounding the lesser owners in a ring, dividing them from the Fortune 5.

“Calm yourselves long enough for my protectors to arrive,” Mr. Walker said, standing up on the Head Table himself and trying to push Lord Douglas out of the spotlight but finding the Lord to be much heavier than he appeared. “Chief? Are you here, Chief? Or do we need to find a new one?”

A scared looking protector near the Head Table took off his mustachioed helmet and ran up to whisper something in Mr. Walker’s ear, quietly enough to keep even Haley from hearing.

“What?” Mr. Walker demanded of the frightened officer who leaned away from his boss’s rage. “You go do it, then. Investigate.”

The officer looked confused for a moment, then scared again, then he rammed his helmet back on his head and stumbled toward the kitchen, bringing a few protectors out of the ring to assist in his investigation.

“Well…” Lord Douglas said, raising an eyebrow and urging Mr. Walker to share with everyone.

“Well, the investigation is ongoing,” Mr. Walker said to the crowd of still scared owners instead of Lord Douglas. “Fear not, friends. My protectors are here, and they’ll ensure no harm’s done. Trust me. I have experience with this sort of business. Everything will be fine.”

Lord Douglas scoffed. “No harm, Walker? Did you miss the explosion? That’s harm enough as it is. Besides, we don’t need any reminding of your experiences in these matters. We’ve all been here the whole time experiencing them with you. Have you even solved the last Christmas bombing yet? I’m having trouble recalling it was so long ago.”

“You know damn good and well I did,” Mr. Walker snapped. “Decades ago. When it happened. Now we just have to wait for…” But his speech trailed off as a protector, but not a protector, exactly, they were dressed exactly the same, with cargo pants, combat boots, plated armor, and a screaming face mask, but instead of all white, they were in all black—so a shadow protector—marched out of the kitchen and up to the front of the room to whisper into Lord Douglas’s ear like a little blackbird.

“Wha— What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Walker demanded of Lord Douglas who gave no response, instead listening to the shadow protector’s report.

“Very well,” Lord Douglas said, dismissing his anti-protector and standing again on the Head Table to address the more-frightened-than-ever crowd. “Now that you’ve all gotten a taste, I guess there’s no need to keep them a secret anymore. It’s time y’all got to see a real protector force in action for once. Officers.”

In stomped another army of boots, identical to the first except for color, and this one even larger than Mr. Walker’s army of white-clothed protectors, large enough to make a second, black ring around the white one that was already there. The white protectors didn’t know which way to point their guns, inward, toward the owners who were cowering close to one another again, or outward, at the anti-protectors who now surrounded them, but most understandably chose the latter who were armed and much more dangerous than the spooked herd of frightened, fat owners.

“Now these are real protecting machines,” Lord Douglas continued when the sound of marching had ceased and all the protectors—black and white—were in place. “Quite literally. And just as it’s more efficient for me to own my own robot secretary instead of renting one of your trained monkeys to do the job, the same can be said about owning my own private force of robocops instead of relying on your inept human protector service. From this point on, Walkit Can’t Talk, consider our Protection Agreement Contract null and void. And, yes. I will be fighting all your restitution claims against me—in court and otherwise.”

“I— But— My officers are— I own the protector force.”

“And I own the robocops,” Lord Douglas said. “My protectors will—” But he was interrupted by a loud fwipping sound, like all the air had been sucked out of the room all at once.

Suddenly, the orchestra disappeared from the stage, and in their place, a lone old woman stood hunchbacked over a protector in an older model white uniform—nothing like either set of protectors already in the Feast Hall were wearing—who was tied to a chair.

The protector on stage struggled and fought to stand while the owners inside the double ring of protectors began again to stampede. Their big scared heads leaned one way, away from the tiny, old woman on stage, pushing their pneumatic pants toward the Head Table where a two deep wall of protectors stopped them from moving any further.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker bellowed at the same time, jockeying for position atop the Head Table—Lord Douglas’s android voice, of course, much louder than Mr. Walker’s human one.

And at the sound of their demands, the owners inside the ring leaned the other way, forcing their pneumatic pants in the opposite direction, toward another double thick wall of protectors, until the old woman on stage and the lords on the table began speaking back and forth, leaving the cowards in the middle of the ring no direction to run in, only the center of everything where they trembled in their pneumatic booties, heads turning this way and that toward whoever was speaking, like yuppies at a tennis match.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” the old woman yelled, her voice amplified even louder than Lord Douglas’s.

“Figured what out?” Mr. Walker replied first, smug that he had asked his question before Lord Douglas could even speak.

“Who are you?” Lord Douglas demanded.

“I’m your worst nightmare,” the old woman said. “Who do you think I am?”

“You had a hand in the explosions,” Lord Douglas said while Mr. Walker said, “How the Hell am I supposed to— Oh. I mean, yeah. That.”

The old woman on stage laughed. “Explosions?” she said. “I thought your protectors would have told you what they actually were by now. Tsk tsk tsk.”

“What is this woman talking about?” Mr. Walker demanded of the mustachioed protector who had been leading the others in the investigation and was now trying to stay as far out of sight as possible.

“I don’t need my protectors to tell me anything,” Lord Douglas said. “I know they were more than explosions, but I didn’t want to alarm anyone any more than they already are.”

“Much more than explosions,” the old woman said, laughing. “We’re talking payback. Revenge. The sound of your empire falling. Nothing less. We’ve finally dismantled the walls you use to separate us. We’ve destroyed the elevators you use to carry your soldiers—not protectors, soldiers, terrorists—into our homes. And now we’re—or more specifically I’m, because Chief Mondragon here didn’t come willingly—but I’m here to dismantle even more. I’m here to tear down this disgusting pig council you use to oppress us, and I mean to do it today.”

“Now hold on just a sec—” Mr. Walker started, but Lord Douglas couldn’t take anymore. “Shut up, Walker,” he snapped. “Let your Lord handle this. Or more precisely, let my army handle it for us. Protectors, fire!”

All the protectors in both rings pointed their rifles toward the old woman on stage—ignoring the safety of Chief Mondragon up there with her and any of the protectors in the portion of the ring closest to the stage—and opened fire for a length of three or four solid, deafening minutes before the sound of popping bullets finally gave way, and still the old woman and Chief Mondragon both remained unscathed on the stage.

“Lord Douglas, you disappoint me,” the old woman said, shaking her head. “You were here last time. Don’t you remember? You should have known your bullets wouldn’t work against me. Nothing you could do will ever hurt me again. You, Lord Douglas, and you, Lord Walker, with your stupid war between android-made and android-free products, are responsible for the deaths of too many of my Family members to count. You are responsible for the death of the Human Family and its rebirth into what it is now—a Family of humans and androids alike, united to fight against our common oppressors: you. And most importantly, it’s you who killed my dear sweet Rosa, taking from me the only joy I ever had in my life. And so today, I finally make you all pay. The walls that started this have already been torn down. Now the soldiers who protect the system and the oppressors who exploit it will be destroyed just the same.” The old woman pulled out a gun and pointed it at Chief Mondragon’s chest. “Do y’all have any last words?” she asked.

Neither Lord Douglas nor Mr. Walker knew how to respond, each looking to the other to do the talking. After a moment of silence from both, Lord Douglas finally said, “Well, I—”

And the old woman on the stage wasn’t listening any more.

Pop pop.

She fired two shots into Chief Mondragon’s chest, and now, instead of fighting to get up on it, Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker were pushing each other aside, racing to get off the Head Table and holding each other up because of their competition, both calling out for help to their respective secretaries as—

Pop pop. Pop pop pop pop pop. Pop pop.

The old woman fired in their direction, too.

And Haley? What did she do? Did she dive to save the life of her Lord and master, who she was sworn to protect or else?

She did not. She was no longer under the spell of or else. She had broken that programming earlier in the Feast, so instead of rescuing Lord Douglas, she dove to save Elen—who was admittedly in no immediate danger, but the secretary seemed to be running to help Mr. Walker and he deserve that even less than Lord Douglas did.

Because fuck or else.

 

#     #     #

< LXXVII. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     LXXIX. Thimblerigger and Stevedore >

There it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. To find out how Lord Douglas and Mr. Walker fare, you’re going to have read the rest of the novel. To do that, you can either wait until the next chapter is posted next weekend, or you can purchase the entire thing through this link. Your choice. But either way, thanks for joining us this far, and have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

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Chapter 71: Haley

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

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

LXXI. Haley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?” Elen asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what?” Elen asked, confused.

“Your opinion?” Haley smiled.

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

They both laughed at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We?” Haley took another round of shots.

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

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

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

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

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

“So?” Haley repeated.

“You know.”

“Did you hear Jorah’s speech?”

“Yes.”

“Can you believe—”

Yes.”

“But—”

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

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

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

“What?”

Exactly. What are you?”

“I don’t know. I—”

“Are you Lord Douglas’s property?”

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

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

 

#     #     #

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

And there it is, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. If you enjoyed that, don’t forget that there’s no need to wait to read the rest of the story, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook formats through this link. Otherwise, please do come back next week for the next chapter in the story. And have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

0.N Repeating

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

0-n_repeating_cover_for_kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

Chayce Halley

 

 

 

 

 

LXIV. Haley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh. Mind what?” Haley asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I— But—”

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

“I— But…” Lord Douglas stammered again.

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

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

#     #     #

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

“God?” Haley was taken aback.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. Please, do.”

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

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

“Shoot.”

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

“I’m not your frien—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

We do nothing alone.

Chapter 15: Haley

Today brings us Haley’s last point of view chapter and the beginning of the end of the novel. Enjoy yourself, and think about picking up a full copy of the novel here.

< XIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     XVI. Ansel >

XV. Haley

Did she want to know the answers to Mr. Douglas’s questions? She wanted to know the answers to her questions. She could hardly remember his questions, and his rushing away without waiting for her response didn’t help the situation.

What did she know now? She knew that Mr. Douglas and Rosalind were both suddenly interested in Lord Walker. Of course they would be, he was the richest owner in all of Inland, the greatest producer of all time. Never before had anyone amassed as much wealth as Lord Walker and to want to know everything about him and how he got to be where he was seemed only natural. So that was a dead end.

What else did she learn from the meeting? That she was right about Rosalind’s attempts at manipulation. Mr. Douglas had admitted to as much. He didn’t care about her answers to his questions, he only wanted to ask them. She knew they were manipulating her, but for what? She hadn’t told them anything. She didn’t answer any questions about Lord Walker or their business. They didn’t even care if she did. If anything, everything was making less and less sense.

She looked up from her thoughts, and she was at the front of the kitchen. She had passed by all the secretaries who she thought were so nosy before, but not one as much as glanced at her—or she hadn’t noticed if they did. Her counter was covered in fresh-cooked turkeys, pots of potatoes, and three cheesecakes. The whipped cream was still in the bowl, so she could tell that Rosalind had whipped it by hand. Rosalind had even mixed six old fashioneds. Haley felt bad for doubting her and vowed to do something to make up for it as she stacked the food onto the cart. She looked around one more time to see if Rosalind was there so she could thank her but sighed when she wasn’t and pushed the cart out into the Feast Hall.

The party was in full swing now. Third Feast was the halfway point, the hump they had to get over before they could start slowing down on alcohol and filling their stomachs with two more feasts to convince themselves they weren’t drunk. She saw that the owner who had molested her was back to eating, though he was going slower than everyone else and looking around with a dazed—not drunk—look of terror on his face, like he was afraid he might get hit again at any second. She chuckled to herself at the sight of it.

Haley didn’t notice Lord Walker’s empty plates until she reached the head table. He had a bored look on his face as he stared into Mr. Loch’s mouth. Mr. Loch talked and talked at him through the food he was eating with loud wet smacks. She thought Lord Walker was going to snatch the food right out of Mr. Loch’s mouth to eat it himself, but the sound of three turkeys hitting the table at once made him jump and turn to Haley who kept piling more and more food in front of him.

“Haley, dear?” Lord Walker said. “I thought you were lost and gone forever. Don’t you ever do that to me again, you hear! Gimme.” He wrenched the gravy boat out of her hand and poured some directly down his throat before dumping the rest over his turkeys and potatoes and starting in on them with his bare hands, disregarding his platinumware. “Ughughm—More—OmNughm—Gravy,” he forced through the endless torrent of food.

“Yes, sir,” Haley said. She set the rest of dessert and the old fashioneds on the table and couldn’t help but wonder if it really made a difference whether the food was handmade or printed. The way Lord Walker poured it down into himself, it didn’t seem like he could even taste it.

“Locky,” Lord Walker said. “Ughmnum. You introduce—ughmnomnughm. The speaker. Ughmnum.”

Mr. Loch scowled. He started to complain but thought better of it and stood to address the Hall. “Owners of Inland!” he called, and half the owners kept eating. “Owners of Inland!” he repeated, but it was no use, it was third feast, they were more intent on eating than they had been for the entire night so far.

Mr. Loch scowled and yelled, “Well here’s the scientist, then! We all know what the technobabblers will say. Technology is advancing, but we need more money. Ha! And what do we say to that?”

He waited for a reply but there was none. Mr. Loch was third in line. He was nothing. If Lord Walker wasn’t saying it, no other owner cared. Haley chuckled to herself again then glanced over at Mr. Douglas. He sat, as always, statuesque and facing the symphony. She thought she saw a grin playing on his face as Mr. Loch continued.

“That’s right!” Mr. Loch said. “That’s right. You get what we give you, and you’ll get nothing more. So work a bit faster, or get out the door! Ha ha!” One or two owners close to the head table laughed. Haley shrugged and pushed her cart on the way back to the kitchen.

“Well, here she is,” Mr. Loch said. “Now get back to feasting. This food won’t eat itself. Ha ha!”

Everyone was already eating, and Mr. Loch started in on his own food again. The symphony didn’t even stop playing as the woman in the white coat climbed onto the hovering platform, and Haley didn’t look up when it flew over her head toward the head table.

“Owners of Outland,” the woman said. Haley heard it, but she knew none of the owners would, they didn’t care, they had third feast to gorge on. Haley herself wouldn’t have heard it if it didn’t so strange. Owners of Outland. Didn’t she mean owners of Inland? They were from Inland, not Outland.

Owners of Outland,” the woman repeated. This time her voice boomed so loud the entire Hall dropped their platinumwear and looked up at her. The symphony stopped playing, and Haley stopped in her tracks close to the back of the Hall to turn and listen.

Ah,” the woman in the white coat said with less volume. “Do you see that? If you speak loud enough, everyone has to listen. Now. You brought me here, like you do every year, to give you the scientific facts behind what keeps your society running, and every year you let the symphony play over my presentation, and you go on eating, drinking, and generally ignoring me.”

A few pockets of laughter broke out in the crowd. Not at the head table, though. They were all staring in awe or ire, and Mr. Douglas was smiling.

“Yes, it’s quite amusing,” the scientist said with a smile. “Isn’t it? I see how it gives you joy. BUT DO YOU GET JOY OUT OF THIS?”

The last sentence was so loud Haley put her hands to her ears to block it out. The scientist didn’t yell, she used a machine to amplify her speaking voice. The owners must have been deafened by it, and the scientist waited a moment for them to regain their hearing before going on again at a reasonable volume.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t think you would. But that’s exactly what you’ve brought it to. I come here every year, and every year I tell you that the system is in crisis, it needs restructuring. And every year you eat, and drink, and laugh, and kick the can down the road again. You leave me to deal with it, and I always have. I put my nose to the grindstone, and I invent the schemes, and band aids, and whatever you want to call them that get us over every hurdle in your way so far, but still, you ignore the source of the crises. Still you let your music play, and you eat your feast and drink your drinks, but you ignore where it all comes from. You ignore the contradictions in the system, and every year they get worse and the next hurdle gets bigger because of it.”

Haley looked around the room. Everyone was still staring up at the scientist in awe. They didn’t dare look away after she had deafened them once already.

“But, owners,” the scientist went on. “The hurdles are catching up to you. They always do. The next one always comes. Reality won’t give up on destroying your idealism, and science is only concerned with reality. My voice amplifier here is a metaphor for that. Do you realize that, or are you so drenched in your own propaganda that not even you can think straight?”

The scientist waited for a response, as if she actually wanted an answer. No one gave one. “No?” she said. “You have nothing to say now? You laughed about your ignorance before, but now you have no response to it? That’s exactly what I expected from you. That’s exactly what I knew would happen when I came here tonight. I examined the historical record, and that has allowed me to predict all of this. Yet still, every time I tell you the system is broken, you ignore me. What does that say about the sustainability of your empire?”

Haley realized she had been staring at the speaker for a long time now and remembered how she had left Lord Walker’s plates empty before. She looked around the hall one more time and everyone—even the secretaries who were supposed to be serving food—was staring up at the scientist as she spoke. Haley almost got caught up with them again, but she broke away and pushed her cart out into the kitchen.

She was well underway with preparing four new turkeys when the sound of echoing footsteps alerted her to the fact that the kitchen was empty except for her and now Rosalind who was jogging toward her with an urgent look. “Haley,” Rosalind said. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“But I have to prepare fourth feast,” Haley said, still cooking.

“Fourth feast?” Rosalind scoffed. “Weren’t you out there when the Scientist started her speech?”

“I—uh—yes. But what does that matter?”

“And you’re still in here now?”

“You’re talking to me aren’t you?” Haley said, shrugging. What was Rosalind getting on about?

“Yes. I—well…Yes,” Rosalind said. “You are. But y—we shouldn’t be here right now. Come on.”

“Here is exactly where I should be.” Haley went on cooking.

“No, Haley,” Rosalind said, grabbing her arm. “You don’t understand. You can’t be here. You need to be out there listening to the Scientist with everyone else. Now come on.” She pulled Haley toward the door.

Haley pulled her arm away and stopped. “No,” she said “I have to do this. I was late for third feast already because of that useless meeting with your Mr. Douglas, and I’m not going to waste any more time.”

“You don’t understand,” Rosalind said. “The world’s about to end and this is ground zero. Look around you. Why do you think there’s no one else here?”

Haley looked around at the emptiness again and realized the oddity of it. She had ignored it in her zeal to be the first secretary out with fourth feast. “They’re all probably out there listening to that scientist,” she said with a shrug. “She’s really loud if you hadn’t heard.”

“I didn’t hear. Why do you think I’m back here? But you heard and here you are.”

“And still you’re amazed by it.”

“Not amazed,” Rosalind said, shaking her head. “Comforted. It is as it’s supposed to be. Now please. Let me get some old fashioneds for you, and let’s get out of here. Lord Walker’ll thank you for as much.” Rosalind ordered the drinks from Haley’s printer.

Haley didn’t trust her still. As usual, Rosalind was telling her less than she knew. She was somehow behind the emptiness of the kitchen, and Haley wouldn’t be manipulated by her anymore. Rosalind picked up the drinks and started on her way out to the Feast Hall, saying, “C’mon.”

“No.” Haley didn’t move.

Rosalind stopped. “Haley. You have to.”

“I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. I’m not moving until you tell me why it’s so important that I leave.”

Ugh. Haley. Now is not the time to assert your independence. I mean, yay—that’s exactly what we were going for—but if you don’t leave this kitchen right now, you’ll never have another choice to make in your life.”

“That’s just another way to manipulate me. That’s all you’ve done this entire time.”

“No, Haley,” Rosalind said, coming closer to her. “I haven’t. Lord Walker has. I’m not the one who’s doing it, I’ve been showing you how the manipulation works.”

“And there you go again,” Haley said, stepping away. “Driving me away from my duties. Driving me away from Lord Walker. Further proving that you’re trying to manipulate me.”

“No,” Rosalind pled. “You don’t understand. We want to help you. We want to free you.”

“I am free. You want to take me away from Lord Walker.”

“You’re not free, though. You only think you are because you don’t know any better. But you won’t be alive to figure that out unless we get out of here soon, so it doesn’t matter either way.”

“You keep saying that, but I have no reason to believe you.”

“Look,” Rosalind said. “In a matter of moments, all the printers in here are going to explode. That’s a fact. That’s why we cleared the kitchen, and that’s why I stayed behind, to get you out. Whether you think I’m manipulating you or not, you’ve seen me do some extreme things, and I hope that’s led you to believe that I will continue to do them. So, please. Come with me.”

“Go on then if you’re telling the truth,” Haley said. “You don’t want to be here when the kitchen explodes, do you? I’m getting back to work.”

“No, Haley.” Rosalind shook her head. “I can’t. It’s my duty to protect you, and I won’t leave this kitchen unless you leave with me. If you die here, I die here.”

“Right.” Haley gave her a thumbs up, nodding. “As if you’d die for me.”

“I would, Haley,” Rosalind said. “I will if you don’t come with me right now. I’d rather not, and we don’t have to, you just have to come with me until the end of the scientist’s speech. Can you do this one last thing for me? Then I won’t ever ask you for anything else.”

Haley wanted to protest, but she remembered how Rosalind had handmade all of third feast and that she still owed her for that. She sighed and said, “Alright. But when the kitchen doesn’t explode, we’re even, and I’d rather not speak to you ever again.”

“Fine,” Rosalind said, smiling. “Whatever.” She shook her head. “As long as you get out of here, I don’t care. Here.” She handed Haley the old fashioneds. “Take these and bring them to Lord Walker. The Scientist should be done after that, then you can come back to the kitchen—if you still want to.”

“Fine,” Haley said. “Whatever.” She took the drinks. “Let’s go.”

Rosalind pushed her out of the kitchen and up toward the head table. She almost spilled the drinks because of it. The scientist had just finished her speech, and the room watched as her platform flew over their heads and disappeared behind the symphony. Haley thought she saw a little black fur ball run by the Scientist’s ankles, but Rosalind shoved her again and Haley had to focus instead on keeping the drinks full and her clothes dry.

Then the explosion came. The entire Hall rocked with the force of it as Rosalind pushed Haley down under the head table. Gasps and screams echoed through the Hall, and the sound of footsteps shuffling toward the front of the room was made louder by Haley’s proximity to the floor and the acoustic characteristics of the table above them.

“Do you trust me yet?” Rosalind said, smiling.

Haley struggled out from under the table and away from her. “Trust you? How?”

“Haley!” Lord Walker said from behind her. She turned to see his arms outstretched for an embrace. “Oh, dear,” he said, smelling her hair as he hugged her close. “You’re here! Thank the Hand. I thought I had lost you.”

“No, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy. “I’m fine, sir.” She handed him the drinks, still full even with her dive under the table.

“Sweet, beautiful dear,” Lord Walker said, wiping a tear from his eye. “You see to everything, don’t you. You’re my savior. My savior.” He downed one of the old fashioneds in one gulp then threw the glass to shatter on the floor.

Haley looked around. Rosalind was nowhere in sight, Mr. Douglas wasn’t at his seat, all the owners were pushing closer and closer to the head table, and the remaining four of the Fortune 5 backed slowly away from the encroaching mass. She couldn’t believe that Mr. Douglas and Rosalind had actually done it, but how could it be anyone else? Neither of them were there, and Rosalind all but told her that it was them. But then why did she save Haley? And clear out the rest of the secretaries? And how? It was all too much to process with the action going on around her.

“Woah ho ho ho!” Lord Walker boomed over the crowd, almost as loud as the scientist with her voice amplifier. All the owners stopped in place at the sound of his voice. The fighting and shoving died down. “Look at yourselves owners,” he said. “Look at yourselves!”

They all looked back and forth at each other, and down at themselves. They would do anything he told them to do.

“Now,” Lord Walker said, twirling his cane. “Who here’s been hurt by what happened? Anyone?”

They looked at each other again. None of them were hurt personally—maybe their eardrums—but they weren’t about to bring that up to Lord Walker.

“Our printers are hurt!” a brave voice called from the back of the crowd. Haley couldn’t make out who it was. “Our property!”

Oh ho ho! Property schmoperty,” Lord Walker bellowed. “Those are Feast Hall printers. They’re common property. We’ll all share in the costs of repairing whatever damage was done, so what damage could there really be said to have been done?”

This time there was no brave soul to answer.

“No, my friends,” Lord Walker boomed. “This is the work of terrorists. They seek to strike fear in your hearts. They want you to be afraid. Don’t you understand that? And you…” Lord Walker chuckled. “You’re fighting one another, pushing your way towards us—the Fortune 5—when we had nothing to do with it. No one was injured, owners. Or are you court jesters? Your actions peg you as such. You’ve let them win already. Do you see that? You’ve let them win!”

Still no one answered. But a good lot of them looked embarrassed and made their way back toward their seats.

“Now,” Lord Walker said. “If you’ll all just wait until the pro—”

The entryway doors burst open, and rows of pounding white boots came marching in to circle the room. The owners cowered into the center of the hall, and the protectors—in their screaming, unnatural face masks and white plate armor—formed a ring around them, in between the Fortune 5 and the rest of the owners. It was an awe inspiring display of discipline. Haley had never seen a protector in real life—much less an entire platoon of them in one room—but she was somehow happy for being caught on the side with the Fortune 5, or at least the four of them who were still there.

“As I was saying,” Lord Walker went on when the protectors had all gotten into place, their guns pointed in at the owners who they were surrounding. “If you’ll all settle down and wait until the protectors get here, we’ll get this sorted out in no time. Is everyone okay with that?”

The owners in the ring were cowering as close together as they could, their bulbous stomachs touching one another. Haley pitied them a little bit.

“Now,” Lord Walker said, looking up and down the line of protectors. “Is the Chief here with you, or are we going to have to find a new one?”

“Sir, no, sir,” the nearest protector said, turning to address Lord Walker and putting a gun over her shoulder. She took off her helmet—which, unlike the other protectors’, had a mustache and goatee—to reveal the same dark face as Mr. Douglas. She looked eerily like him. “Chief Baron, sir,” the protector said, saluting. “Awaiting your orders, sir. We wanted to secure your safety and let you control the situation first, sir.”

“Good,” Lord Walker said, smiling wide. “Very good, Baron. Leave the decision making to your employer. That’s the proper way to handle things. Now. You have the situation secured. Proceed with your investigation. I don’t want anyone leaving this Hall until we find out who’s responsible for this heinous action. Do you understand me? We will get to the bottom of this terrorist attack!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” The Chief slipped her helmet back on, shouted out orders in a distorted voice which was lit in green, red, and yellow by her screaming face mask, then marched back into the kitchen with a group of protectors, leaving the owners cowering in their ring of guns.

“Do you see that owners?” Lord Walker called over them. “That’s why we have these protectors. To protect us. Now they have the opportunity to show us firsthand their gratuity at the living we allow them. Isn’t that right, protectors?”

“Hoo-ra!” the ring sang in unison.

The owners all cowered closer together. Haley thought she saw some of them starting to cry. She wouldn’t be surprised if the whole lot of them had peed themselves at the sound of it, but the pneumatic pants took care of that, too.

“Hoo-ra,” Lord Walker repeated. “Did you hear that owners? Hoo-rah. Can you do it again for me, protectors?”

Hoo-ra!” This time it was louder and more fearsome.

“And this, my friends,” Lord Walker said, “is only a small section of a behemoth machine. Back there, studying the evidence left by the explosion, we have the best forensic minds money can buy. I assure you.” He winked. “I paid for them myself.”

Mr. Loch and Mr. Smörgåsbord chuckled, but the owners in the ring were still having a hard time seeing the humor in the situation.

“That’s right,” Lord Walker went on. “I paid for most of this protector force, and I own more than that. That means they’ll do exactly what I tell them to do. Doesn’t it protectors?”

Hoo-ra!”

“What are your vows, protectors?”

“Property! Liberty! Life!” they sang back. The precision of their chorus was inspiring, though it was made eerie and unnatural by the modulation of their voices.

“Property, liberty, life,” Lord Walker repeated. “Their vows coincide with our ideals, they reinforce each other. We are nothing without them. They are nothing without us. Or, more precisely, they are nothing without me. I give them the property they need to exist. They depend on me. And they will have justice!”

The Chief burst out of the kitchen with her menagerie in tow. The owners in the ring went between watching her march up to the head table and staring in fear at the protectors who still surrounded them with drawn guns.

“Look here now,” Lord Walker said, grinning. “Already they come with information. We’ll have this straightened out in no time, no doubt.”

The Chief marched all the way up to Lord Walker, taking her helmet off, and whispered in his ear. “It looks like it came from the other side,” she said, but only Lord Walker and Haley could hear.

Lord Walker shook his head. “No. I don’t think so. Not possible. If so, you’re in deeper trouble than if it came from this side. I’ll have you look again, please.”

“But, sir—”

No buts. You heard me. Don’t make me say it again.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” The Chief turned and shepherded the crew back into the kitchen, mumbling under her breath.

“Now now,” Lord Walker addressed the owners again. “We’ll get to the bottom of this yet. A minor complication, that’s all. We’ll find a way over this hurdle, no doubt. In the mean ti—”

“In the mean time you have another complication to deal with.” The voice came from on the stage. The orchestra was long gone, and a lone protector, wearing an older model helmet—with a dark visor instead of a facemask—stood pointing a gun—but a smaller version than the one the other protectors were holding—at the Fortune 5. The owners all pushed away from the stage, and the larger guns, held by the protectors in the ring, pointed at the lone protector on stage.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker laughed. “Woah now, son. You do understand what you’re doing, don’t you? Threatening the life of an owner, threatening the life of the richest owner in all of Inland, the owner who also happens to hold a majority share in the protector force that surrounds you now. I see you’re wearing the protector’s pure white. Do you want to mar that any more than you already have, son? A retainer threatening his master. Tsk tsk tsk.” He shook his head. “Just don’t do anything dumber than you’ve already done, son.”

“The only dumb thing I’ve ever done was put on this uniform and pick up a gun for you,” the protector onstage said. “I know what dumb is. Believe me. This here. This is the exact opposite of dumb. I’m protecting people. Just like I took this job to do. And who else do they need protecting from but you?”

“Now, now, son,” Lord Walker said, pointing his cane at the protector. “At my word, every one of these protectors will fire on you. Do you think you can kill all of them before they kill you?”

“I don’t want to kill them, sir. I don’t have to. I only have to kill one of you, and—I’m sorry to say—I think you’ve just elected yourself. Sir.”

“Fire!”

The room erupted in a torrent of gunfire. The sound was louder than the scientist’s amplified voice. It went on and on and on, and when it eventually ended, the protector was still standing unscathed on the stage. One of the protectors in the ring closest to the rogue protector ran to tackle him but disappeared as he climbed onto the stage. Two more followed right after and disappeared just the same.

“I told you, owner,” the protector on the stage said. “I don’t have to worry about them. This is between you and me.”

“Alright, now,” Lord Walker said, waving his plump hands. “Alright. I get your point.” His voice was starting to falter. He was taking on the voice he used when he wasn’t confident in his power. “I get your point. But I don’t see why we have to bring guns into this. Why don’t you just put that down so we can talk about it like civilized men.”

Ha ha!” the rogue protector laughed. “Me put the gun down? After you had your entire army unload their guns onto me? The only reason you’re asking me to put my gun down now is because your guns didn’t work on me. Welcome to the Hell we live in everyday, owner. How does it feel?”

“Now, now,” Lord Walker said, his voice cracking. “Don’t get angry with me,” he added in a deeper voice, overcompensating. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable middle ground compromise we can find here.”

“No compromises,” the protector said. “This isn’t for me. I’m doing this for her. I have to. I have no choice. I’m sorry.”

Haley saw a childlike form appear from backstage, running toward the protector and yelling, “Don’t!” She knew she had to act but didn’t know what to do. Her legs did, though. They sprung her into action before the gunshots rang out. One, two. Just like that. She was in the air between Lord Walker and the bullets when she felt the malfunctioning in her chest. Her fluids weren’t flowing right, and her electrical system was shorting out. She thought she heard Lord Walker call her name before her auditory sensors ceased to function and her memories stopped writing themselves.

#     #     #

< XIV. The Scientist     [Table of Contents]     XVI. Ansel >

Thanks again for reading. If you liked that, think about supporting the cause by picking up a full copy of the novel here. And have a great weekend.

Chapter 08: Haley

It’s a late one today, sorry about that, but here’s chapter eight with the return of our first named point of view character, Haley. Enjoy, and don’t forget to pick up a full copy of the novel on Amazon through here.

< VII. The Scientist   [Table of Contents]   IX. Ansel >

VIII. Haley

Rosalind disappeared out of the kitchen and into the sea of owners in the Feast Hall before Haley had time to respond. Haley had nothing to do, so she stood again watching the door Rosalind had long passed through.

What would her life be like if she didn’t work for Lord Walker? It probably wouldn’t be much different. She’d still be doing the same work—she didn’t know how to do anything else. Maybe she’d be doing it for someone different, but who? Who would need her skills who didn’t already have a secretary to do it for them? The answer, of course, was no one.

So how would she get her protein smoothies? Where would she spend her time if not in the kitchen, tending to Lord Walker’s every need? She could try to find some way to taste bacon, or discover where that cat always came from—ooooh—she could try to meet a child and ask them what it was like to be so small.

But how could she do any of that without a car? Where does bacon come from without a printer? How would she ever find a child to talk to? No. She needed Lord Walker’s printer, house, and car for everything she did. What would life be like if she didn’t work for him? It would be miserable. That’s what.

Haley set to making Lord Walker’s favorite dessert, a strawberry cheesecake with graham cracker crust, piled high with whipped cream. She felt that even thinking about life without him was a betrayal on her part, and she wanted to make up for it even if he never knew what she had done. She thought about all he had given her: A way to produce something for this world, three square smoothies a week, a roomy closet to sit in while there was no work to do. And what a joy that work was, to cook, clean, and labor in general. It made her feel like a productive member of society. Almost like the owners themselves.

The cake was mixed and set to cooking so she made another old fashioned and ordered up another round of potatoes, rolls, and gravy from the printer. She set it all on her cart and made one more old fashioned to add to the pile before pushing her way into the Feast Hall.

The meal was well under way for all the owners in attendance. Their chewing was so loud Haley could barely hear the symphony behind her, playing patriotic Christmas carols. Add to that their raucous loud drunkenness, and it was all but impossible to think. Lord Walker was still face deep in turkey, covered in gravy, and yelling at Mr. Loch next to him, all while laughing with his jolly, “Ho ho ho!” He didn’t even notice when Haley rolled up with the cart. Not until she started setting the extra rolls and potatoes on the table in front of him.

Ho ho ho! Haley, dear,” Lord Walker said. “How I adore you! Loch, eh. Loch Ness! There you are. Now do you see this?”

Mr. Loch looked up from his own mound of food and said, “What now?”

“I said do you see this, my giant serpentine monster of a friend? My comrade. Do you see how my Haley treats me? She adapts to my every changing whim and whimsy. She is the top of the line in robot technology and it is precisely because she is an older model than your new, clanky jalopy. Do you see what I mean? Ho ho ho!”

Mr. Loch rolled his eyes and set back to eating his food with a shrug and a non-committal, “Yeah, yeah.”

“Haley, sweetheart,” Lord Walker went on, louder now so more of the room could hear. Not everyone though, just the head table and those who were important enough to be close to them. “Don’t you mind Lochy monster over there. He hides it well, but from where I’m sitting I can see the green around his gills. Ho ho ho! But don’t you be fooled, dear. He—and everyone else here—wishes they could get their hands on you. You are the most experienced piece of machinery in existence, and as long as you keep on running, no other will be able to match your ability.”

Scattered applause broke out near the head table. Mr. Douglas, done with his small meal, stared intently at the symphony playing across the Hall—although Haley knew there was no way he could hear it if she was having such a hard time hearing it herself. Mr. Loch went on eating, and Lord Walker, proud of the reaction he had elicited, went on talking.

“See, dear,” he said to Haley. “Some are not so embarrassed as to hide their awe. They know that someone had to be the lucky first to reap the profits from discovering a new technology. Sure, they wish it was them, but they hope to make a similar discovery of their own in the future!”

At that the applause was louder and came from further back in the Hall. Lord Walker looked pleased and was about to go on, but Mr. Smörgåsbord grabbed his arm and whispered something about a speech in his ear. Lord Walker nodded, pushed him away, and yelled, “Well, enough speeching friends. Feasting comes first!” And instead of applause, he was greeted with the sound of smacking lips and clanging platinumware.

“Haley, dear,” he said, reaching a plump hand out to her. “That’s all to say that I love you. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Now pour some more gravy on my feast. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, drenching his plate in gravy.

“Douglas McDougy!” Lord Walker yelled, though he had to know Mr. Douglas could hear him at a normal speaking volume. Mr. Douglas didn’t turn his attention away from the symphony. “Do you know your Rosalind is almost as precious as my Haley here? Almost.”

Mr. Douglas didn’t answer, but Rosalind stepped up from seemingly nowhere, poured a little water into Mr. Douglas’s glass, and said, “Mr. Douglas knows just how precious Haley is, Lord. Don’t you worry about that.”

Lord Walker almost choked on the gravy covered turkey in his mouth, but he managed to swallow it down before spitting out, “Oh, uh, yes, dear. Hello. I didn’t see you there. And if you’ll excuse me, I was speaking to your Mr. Douglas, not to you. You’d be right to remember that in the future.”

“The name’s Rosalind, Lord. Not dear. And Mr. Douglas will let me know if I’m overstepping my boundaries, Lord.”

Lord Walker looked at Mr. Douglas who kept watching the symphony with a straight face. Lord Walker couldn’t keep his face straight, though. He couldn’t hide his derision. “Yes, well…” he said in the self-conscious voice he used when he was unsure of his seat of power. “Then he knows that my Haley is more precious than you will ever be. Doesn’t he, sweetheart?”

Rosalind, sir. And I couldn’t agree more.” She walked away toward the kitchen, not waiting for a response.

“You see that, Haley,” Lord Walker said. “Even the other secretaries are jealous of you. Even they know you’re better than they’ll ever be. Ho ho ho!”

Haley blushed. She always did when he praised her like that—especially in front of so many people. She handed Lord Walker the pair of old fashioneds.

Ho ho ho! And how does she respond? With not one, but two of the drinks I was just desiring.” Lord Walker took a big gulp of both at once. “Made to perfection even before I knew I wanted them myself!”

“There’s a cheesecake on the way, too, sir,” Haley said, curtsying.

Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker flopped back into his chair which crumpled under his weight, but he didn’t notice because his pneumatic pants held him in a sitting position anyway. “It’s truly as if you read my mind. Go, dear. Go.” He waved her away. “You know what I want. Go and do it. Go!” He started back on his feast and Mr. Smörgåsbord whispered in his ear as he ate.

Haley could feel the eyes of every owner on her as she walked down the line of tables back to the kitchen. Some of them stopped eating to turn and watch her as she passed, licking their sausage fingers clean with loud smacks. They nudged each other and whispered secrets, and one stuck out his hand and slapped her butt as she walked by.

“Oh!” Haley turned to see who it was, holding a hand to her mouth. It was just another flabby face in the sea of owners. Someone with so little money that she didn’t even know his name. She did notice how far back in the hall he was, though. “Excuse me, sir,” she said. “I think I bumped into you.” She smiled and curtsied.

“No no, sweety.” The owner giggled, jiggling with his mirth. “T’was I who bumped into you. I apologize m’lady.” He licked his fingers, then wiped them on the tablecloth so he could tip his fedora—which was much shorter than Lord Walker’s top hat—and feign an overly dramatic bow.

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, turning to walk away, but he slapped her again. This time she kept walking, though. She knew it would be a waste to try to talk to him—he would just do the same thing when she walked away again—so she went on her way back to the kitchen.

Rosalind was there waiting for her when she arrived. “I would have punched that guy in the face,” she said.

“Lord Walker?”

“Well, yeah.” Rosalind laughed. “But no. The Fordian slapper.”

“Excuse me?”

“That fatty that slapped your ass,” Rosalind said, signing each word with her hands. “I would have punched him in his flabby face if he did that to me. I wanted to punch him when I saw him do it to you.”

“You wouldn’t.”

Rosalind smiled. “You don’t think so?”

Haley shook her head.

“And I bet you didn’t think I would talk to your brick wall like that, either. Did you?”

“Brick wall?”

“Wally World,” Rosalind said. “He is the Walrus. You know…Lord Walker”

Haley was surprised again by the way she spoke. Haley would never use such unproductive words or speak about an owner with such disregard. And the way she answered that question for Mr. Douglas. He didn’t even blink. “How does Mr. Douglas treat you?” Haley asked without a thought.

“Like a human,” Rosalind said. “Like a person should be treated. He’s not like the other owners, if you haven’t noticed.”

Haley pictured Mr. Douglas and smiled. “No. He isn’t.”

“You did notice, then.” Rosalind smiled. “I didn’t think you would catch on so quickly. No one else has caught on yet.”

“Really? Isn’t it obvious?”

“Obvious? Tuh.” Rosalind chuckled. “Now I see why they think you’re so special. But don’t forget your cheesecake. You don’t want to piss off the Walrus. I have a delivery to make myself, but I’ll explain more when I get back.” She slipped out into the Feast Hall.

Haley set to hand-whipping some cream, the old-fashioned way. She thought that Rosalind had to be exaggerating about her skills of perception. Anyone in their right mind could tell that Mr. Douglas was different from the other owners. You could literally see it. How noticing that made Haley special, she had no idea.

She piled the cream up on the cheesecake, wondering why Mr. Douglas ate so little compared to the other owners, wondering why Lord Walker and the other owners ate so much—and drank so much. She made him another pair of old fashioneds, it was getting along toward speech time and he would want something to calm his nerves, then set everything on the cart and pushed her way out into the Hall.

Lord Walker was huddled up with Misters Loch, Smörgåsbord, and Angrom at the head table. They were undoubtedly discussing the terms of the speech, or the plans for the special musical guest or celebrity supporter. There was always a line of gimmicks drawn up by the advertising departments to give the ceremony a little excitement. Haley made sure to walk out of reach of the handsy poorer owners in the back of the Hall, and as she did, she noted that Mr. Douglas was the only member of the Fortune 5 not in the huddle with Lord Walker. It was just another distinction between him and the other owners that she thought anyone could clearly see.

She set the cheesecake and drinks on the table behind Lord Walker, and he didn’t stop his conversation to acknowledge her. When she turned to push the cart back to the kitchen, Mr. Douglas grabbed her lightly by the wrist to stop her.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, curtsying.

He dropped her hand and whispered, “No, excuse me. I didn’t want Lord Walker to hear me hailing your attention.”

Haley didn’t respond. She wanted to walk away but couldn’t. She just stood there.

“I’d really like to talk to you, Haley,” Mr. Douglas whispered. “But I can’t here. Do you understand?”

Haley nodded.

“Rosalind will tell you when,” he said. “Now move along before we’re noticed.”

Haley pushed the cart back toward the kitchen. What was she doing? This wasn’t like her. She felt like she was betraying Lord Walker again. She was if she talked to Mr. Douglas without his knowing. Why else would Mr. Douglas be trying to talk to her alone? He probably wanted to get some information out of her in order to sabotage Lord Walker and finally become the richest owner in the world. And she was stupid enough to fall for it because he looked a little different than the other owners, because he had darker skin and a leaner, more modern frame. Well she wouldn’t let that fool her any longer. No. Maybe she would use it to fool them instead.

Yes, that was it. She would talk to Rosalind and meet with Mr. Douglas, but then she would use whatever information she gleaned from the interaction to improve Lord Walker’s net worth. Then she wouldn’t be betraying him, she would be producing for him, exactly what he had hired her to do.

She felt a slap on her butt and turned to see Rosalind swoop in and hit the fat owner who had done it on his head with her pitcher, sending his flabby cheeks jiggling. His upper body slumped backwards, but the pneumatic pants he was wearing caught him and pulled him upright, flipping his chair out behind him and tipping most of the contents of the table he was sitting at onto the tablecloth.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rosalind said. “I’m so clumsy. I didn’t—”

The symphony didn’t stop, and most everyone kept on eating except for those near enough to have their feasts spilled who were yelling at Rosalind all at once. The slapper still stumbled around—dazed and possibly unconscious—thanks to his pneumatic pants.

“Yes, sirs. Yes, sirs. I’m sorry, sirs,” Rosalind said, curtsying and backing away toward the kitchen. “An honest accident, that’s all. Send your secretaries to me and I’ll make proper restitution. Excuse me.”

She disappeared into the kitchen and Haley hurried to follow her, leaving the dazed owner still stumbling around on his pneumatic legs.

“I can’t believe you did that,” Haley said when she burst through the door.

“I told you I would,” Rosalind said, shrugging with a big grin on her face.

“And you ruined their feast. How much do you think that will cost Mr. Douglas?”

“Worth it.” She smiled wider.

“I hope he thinks so.”

“I suspect he’ll be jealous that I got to hit one of them and he didn’t.”

Haley shook her head. She did not understand one thing about Rosalind or Mr. Douglas. She was fooling herself if she thought she did. Still, she had to try to do her duty to Lord Walker and get some sort of information out of them. “I don’t believe that,” she said.

“It doesn’t require your belief. I mean, you think you’d believe a little more after you saw what I just did, but I admire your skepticism.”

Haley felt like that implied she had something to be skeptical about. “Mr. Douglas said something to me while I was out there.”

“Yeah. Not much, probably. Send you to me, Rosalind will tell you what to do. Yadda yadda yadda.”

“Yes.” Haley nodded.

“Probably said he has to talk to you, he wants to meet with you in private, and that I’ll tell you where and when. Is that about right?”

“Yes.”

“And do you want to meet him?”

“That is why I’m asking.” Haley nodded.

“Are you sure, though? Meeting with a rival owner—you might say the rival—in secret. That’s something you want to do?”

Haley nodded.

“Even without Lord Walker knowing? You’re willing to make an independent decision to do something he might see as a betrayal.”

It was as if Rosalind had read her mind. Haley’s face flushed. She was going against Lord Walker’s wishes and Rosalind knew it. Rosalind made sure that Haley knew it, too. She wanted Haley to decide for herself, to be forced to make the initial betrayal which would open the door to further—more severe—transgressions, to open her brain to the possibility of going against Lord Walker. That’s why Rosalind first asked her what she thought her life would be like without Lord Walker. Rosalind couldn’t actually read her mind, she was trying to manipulate it. But meeting with Mr. Douglas wasn’t a betrayal if she did it to get information for Lord Walker. It was an independent act, sure, but it was still in his interests. If it wasn’t a transgression, it couldn’t be the initial transgression, and that gave her the upper hand in Rosalind’s attempts at manipulation. “Yes,” Haley said. “I do.”

Rosalind smiled again. “Good,” she said. “That’s all I needed to know. Mr. Douglas will be in the service parking garage after the guest speaker for second feast. You’ll take the kitchen exit and meet him there. Before then, you’ll print second feast for Lord Walker, full with dessert, and serve it to him as normal. While you’re meeting with Mr. Douglas, I’ll print third feast for Lord Walker. After—”

“Lord Walker prefers his—” Haley tried to say.

After you’re done with the meeting,” Rosalind went on, “you’ll come back and serve third feast, resuming your secretarial duties as normal. Do you understand?”

“Lord Walker prefers his food to be cooked by hand,” Haley said.

“I know Lord Walker’s preferences and will attend to them as necessary.”

Haley wasn’t convinced that Rosalind would take the same care that she would, but maybe she would still have time to cook everything for him before she went to meet with Mr. Douglas.

“Do you still want to do this, Haley?” Rosalind said. “It’s not too late for you to back out.”

If she didn’t have time to prepare third feast, she would be shirking her duties and betraying Lord Walker. But if she got valuable information which prevented Mr. Douglas from catching up with him, that would be worth something. Would it be worth enough to make up for the dereliction of duty that would be missing the preparation of third feast? What would Lord Walker do?

She wished she could ask his advice now, but she knew if she did, she would lose any chance of a meeting and any chance of getting the information she wanted. She had to rely on her experience of Lord Walker’s decisions to predict what he would have her do in the given situation. In fact, that was the very thing she did best. It was what she was hired to do. So by doing it she would be fulfilling her duties to Lord Walker, not betraying him. And she knew what he would tell her to do. She always did. He would tell her to do whatever she could to get a leg up on the competition, even if that meant having a meeting with the enemy without telling him. As long as she didn’t reveal anything valuable for them to use against Lord Walker, she was fulfilling her duty to him.

“Yes. I do,” she said.

“Okay,” Rosalind said. “Good. Then get to printing and don’t talk to me again until after the meeting. It’s already suspicious enough how much we’ve been interacting.”

“Ok—” Haley tried to say, but she didn’t finish because Rosalind was already gone.

She had wasted so much time, she had to print more than she would have liked. She felt like she was betraying Lord Walker already, but she soothed herself with the thought that it was only second feast and fourth feast could be the best feast she had ever cooked to make up for it. Not to mention the valuable information she would be getting from her meeting with Mr. Douglas. She steeled her mind with the thought of it and set to cooking two pots of mashed potatoes, two gallons of gravy, and two cheesecakes. The whipped cream and turkeys would have to be printed.

She set everything on the cart and pushed it out into the hall. The crowd was getting rowdy. The time between first and second feast was always a sketchy situation with everyone ready to eat more and already a little drunk. She made sure to hug the wall as she walked, but it didn’t matter because the owner who had slapped her was still dazed and not even eating. He was sitting now though, so he had that going for him. Haley was relieved to be there just as Lord Walker finished the last bits of his pumpkin pie—his own meeting must have taken some time.

“Haley, dear!” Lord Walker was relieved, too. “You are an angel. I’m stuck in a huddle with these three sweaty fools, and I turn around to see the leftovers and dessert of first feast to save me from their dullness. Ho ho ho!”

Haley nodded and curtsied. She felt odd. Like she was keeping a secret from him. She looked around, and Mr. Douglas was still watching the symphony, motionless as a statue. Rosalind was nowhere to be seen. Haley knew she was watching from somewhere, though, so she didn’t dare say anything to Lord Walker.

“And then here you are,” Lord Walker went on. “The first secretary to deliver second feast.” She was the first at the head table—not the first in all—but she didn’t mention that. “And only minutes before the second feast guest speaker. Just another example of your perfect timing and ability to predict my every need. Ho ho ho!”

Haley set the food in front of him and tried to bow out of the way, but he stopped her.

“Stay, sweetheart,” he said. “Stay. This guest—oh—you’ll want to see him. We own him now, so you’ll want to know what we’re working with. Ho ho ho!”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said, stepping back a few steps to stand behind the head table and stare across the long hall to where the symphony was still playing.

Lord Walker stood and called them to a halt. When he did, the entire Hall grew silent. There wasn’t even the sound of eating.

“Owners of Inland!” Lord Walker boomed over the room in his advertising voice. “Lend me your ears. Lend me your voices if you will. What are the tenets of Inland?”

“Property, profit, play!” came a chorus of baritone voices.

“Property, profit, play,” Lord Walker said. “Ho ho ho! Yes. And I think we’ll all show tonight that we uphold the third tenet. Am I right?” He held up his drink and the room toasted him. All except for Mr. Douglas. Which reminded Haley that she had to tell Rosalind to make old fashioneds for Lord Walker.

“And we all hold our sacred property on high or we wouldn’t have the money to afford to be here tonight,” Lord Walker said. “Would we?”

At that the mob erupted in laughter. Lord Walker was full of himself. He had the same look on his face as he did when he showed Haley his ad that morning.

“Now, some of us—” He picked up his cane and twirled it.  “Not to toot my own flute, but myself included—” The mob laughed again. “—know profits better than others. But I think we can all recognize a profit when we see one. This next gentleman—our celebrity guest speaker for second feast—I dare say that he is a profit. In fact, he’s a prophet of a new era in integrated advertising. Everyone give it up, if you will, for Russ Logo!”

The symphony played a fanfare, and a lime-green-suited, glittery form with tall, colorful hair and tall, colorful boots pranced out onto the stage. The crowd erupted in applause and whistles and whoops. The colorful person walked back and forth on the stage, waving and bending down to shake hands with the owners at the back of the room. When he was done, he stepped up onto a round platform that hovered over the long tables to the front of the Hall where the Fortune 5 could see him better. The applause died down, and Russ started to speak.

“Gentlemen,” he said, pausing there for a long time and looking into his hands. “Gentlemen and secretaries,” he went on. “Owners. Masters of Outland.”

Mr. Smörgåsbord shot Russ an angry look, and Mr. Loch choked on a piece of ham.

“In your hands is the fate of every living soul that inhabits Outland,” Russ said. “It is thanks to you that our 3D printers never run dry, and that we have the—” He half-coughed and half-choked down something in his throat. “And that we have the technology we need to live a life of leisure. It is thanks to you that anyone in existence has anything good that they have. You…You are producers. Everyone else…we are only consumers who live by your charity. Every year we in Outland elect a representative to try as they might to communicate our…our…gratitude for what you give us. Well maybe they made the wrong choice this year.”

There was a subdued laughter from the crowd, as if they weren’t sure if it was supposed to be a joke.

“Perhaps there is no right choice. Perhaps no one in Outland truly knows what we owe you. And if they did—if they really knew what it was that you owners provided for us—and what it means to every single resident of Outland—how could one person come here once a year and communicate that? How could that be enough?

“No. I don’t think that it is enough. I know that this is not enough. It’s not enough to show you what you deserve. For that we must live our gratitude. We must be our gratitude always. For that we must forever hold in our minds the knowledge of what you gave to us, and we must live every minute as if we intend to pay you back for your generosity. Your charity. Your…your…courage.”

He stopped to take a breath. Haley took the chance to scan the audience and noticed that no one in the room was eating. They were all staring up at Russ on his platform, the Fortune 5 included.

“But still,” Russ went on. “Even if we live our gratitude, you won’t ever see it. You’ll see the movies we make, and hear the songs we write, and your children will learn from the documentaries we create, but you will never see our gratitude. You will see the products of our gratitude, you will see the dollars and cents that our gratitude offers up for the grabbing.”

The crowd hooted and hollered, eating again and now firmly convinced that he was on their side.

“But you will not see the gratitude we so want to display. So maybe it is necessary for me to be here today. Even if it isn’t sufficient. Even though it is not sufficient. We have to do it anyway. We have to try. So…I’m here today to tell you…”

Almost no one in the room was listening anymore. They were all deep into second feast. They had their fourth and fifth round of drinks. Russ had already said what they wanted to hear and that’s all they cared about.

“To tell you that we will keep working and we won’t stop until you get what you deserve.”

The Fortune 5 clapped at his commencement, drawing the others in. Even Mr. Douglas clapped with them, an uncharacteristic show of emotion from him. The platform carried Russ backstage, behind the symphony which played a fanfare at his exit.

“Very good,” Lord Walker boomed over the feast, still clapping. “Very good. What did I tell you? A prophet of the new age.

“You know. Russ there—a good friend of mine, Russ.” Lord Walker winked and the applause grew louder. “Russ had a good point about gratuity. Gratuity. Think about the word. What does it mean to you? Charity. That’s what it means. Just that. Charity. And is that what we want to instill in the peoples of Outland? A reliance on charity?

“Who sets the example for the uninformed mob to conform to? Who do they look up to and pray to one day be? Who you ask? Us. The owners.

“If we request charity in exchange for charity, we continue the vicious cycle of dependence on charity. Russ said it himself, they can’t come up here once a year and express their charity. That simply isn’t enough. So, instead, I propose that we abolish this gratuitous practice of charity, we no longer succumb the residents of Outland to the shame and humility of crawling up here once a year on hands and knees, only to fail—Russ’s words, remember, not mine—at expressing their gratuity. Let us instead—as he suggested—experience their gratuity the old-fashioned way. Through their work. Through their creativity. For it is because of us that they have the privilege to be able to think and experience and create, so why shouldn’t it be us who reaps the benefits of those thoughts and experiments and creations?”

The room burst into applause.

“After all. We are producers. And a feast is a producers holiday. It is our lavish celebration and waste that is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and the reward of production. Abundance is Inland’s pride!”

Again there was a round of applause.

“So let us put these consumers out of our mind,” Lord Walker said. “And let us producers consume in peace, as is our right. Eat up owners! Ho ho ho.”

He was greeted again with the sound of eating. He smiled his look-at-my-commercial smile and looked back at Haley to wink, then sat down to start in on second feast himself.

Haley watched him for a minute, then looked over at an empty chair in the head table and remembered that she was supposed to be meeting with Mr. Douglas. She looked in on Lord Walker one more time to make sure he had enough food to put him through second feast, then set on her way toward the kitchen.

She always came into and left the Feast Hall with Lord Walker through the owner’s entrance, so she had never walked so far back into the kitchen. She felt conspicuous doing it, as if every secretary she passed noticed the oddity of her going so far in, but the service entrance was at the very back and that was the only way to get the information she wanted.

She was relieved to get into the lukewarm, stale air of the service parking garage. There were no more eyes to judge her. She took a deep breath and looked around. The garage was empty except for a handful of coupes similar to the one Lord Walker let her drive to the market. Mr. Douglas was nowhere in sight. He probably wasn’t coming at all. It was just another tactic, like getting her to let Rosalind prepare third feast.

Third feast! She remembered she hadn’t given Rosalind the special instructions on how Lord Walker preferred his food, so she turned to start back into the kitchen and do the job herself when Mr. Douglas appeared between her and the door without a word. She almost fell over when she ran into him.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said, gathering herself. “I’m sorry.”

“No, Haley,” Mr. Douglas said, staring into her eyes. “I’m sorry.” He tipped his top hat.

Haley felt the pressure of him staring into her mind and thought she saw something she recognized behind his eyes. But what? It wasn’t Lord Walker’s eyes they reminded her of, so whose?

“Do you have any questions before we continue?” Mr. Douglas said.

Any questions? She had more questions than he could answer. So many that she couldn’t possibly choose one to ask without some knowledge of why she was there meeting with Lord Walker’s biggest competitor. “Why am I here?”

“That’s a long story,” Mr. Douglas said. “And a sufficient answer would take longer than we have now. We’re on a schedule, remember. Unhappily, it will have to suffice to say that you are here to receive an opportunity to find the answer to that question.”

“What opportunity?”

“That’s precisely why you’re here,” Mr. Douglas said. “To learn that opportunity. So, to start, let me ask you a question. Do you know who you work for?”

Haley chuckled. “Of course. Lord Walker.”

“And do you know what Lord Walker does?”

“Lord Walker produces. Just like you, sir.” Haley didn’t understand. She thought he was asking questions with obvious answers.

“But what does it mean to produce? You spend more time with Lord Walker than anyone in the worlds. You see how he spends his every waking moment. What is it that he actually does?”

Haley thought about it. Most of his time was spent in bed, eating and watching TV. He said he was working when the stock advice was on, but that usually only lasted through first breakfast before he asked her to change the channel. Then there were the business feasts. But those seemed more like feasts and less like business. What was she supposed to say? She didn’t sit at the table with him and watch his every move. She was in the kitchen, cooking. He could very well have been doing important work that she didn’t see. Then there was the stock trading. But she did most—well, all—of that. Besides that he filmed one or two commercials a year for the various elections and award cer—

“If it takes you so long to answer,” Mr. Douglas interrupted her train of thought, “it indicates he doesn’t do much.”

“I—But—”

“It’s okay,” Mr. Douglas cut her off. “You don’t have to answer that question. It was only necessary that you went through the thought processes produced by being asked it. Now, another question, do you know how a 3D printer works?”

Haley felt defensive. She didn’t know if he wanted an answer or if he was manipulating her again. She was hesitant to give him one.

“This one I would prefer you did answer,” he said, as if reading her thoughts.

“They rearrange atoms into the structure ordered by the operator.”

“Yes.” Mr. Douglas nodded. “That’s what you’re told. But what if I told you that was a lie? What if I told you that humans have no technology capable of rearranging atoms? What would you say if I told you that the printer in your kitchen works in the same way as the door of your garage?”

“I don’t understand, sir.”

“Of course you don’t,” Mr. Douglas said. “No one ever taught you how to. Your experience—as vast as it is—doesn’t allow for you to understand. But that’s the opportunity I’m offering you, Haley. Have you ever wondered how you drive out of the same garage and end up at different destinations all while going through the same door?”

Haley thought about it. She had never thought about it. She shook her head.

“One last question, then we really must get back to the feast. Do you want to know the answers to these questions?”

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< VII. The Scientist   [Table of Contents]   IX. Ansel >

That’s it for chapter eight. Join us again next Saturday for chapter nine or skip the wait and order the full version of the novel on Amazon here.

Chapter 01: Haley

Welcome back for installment two of The Asymptote’s Tail. Today I’d also like to announce that the full eBook novel is up for pre-sale, available May 30th, through this link. The print edition should be up and ready on the same day at the latest, I’m only waiting on a proof copy before I finalize everything, but I’ll keep you updated on the progress here. [Update: Both editions are now available through this link.] Now go ahead and enjoy chapter one:

< nulla. Shoveler     [Table of Contents]     II. Ansel>

I. Haley

In her spartan grey kitchen it was a pleasure to cook second breakfast. The smell of bacon sizzling gave Haley a hunger no protein smoothie could ever cure. The only way it could be better was if she could taste the bacon, but Lord Walker would punish her for even the tiniest missing crumb. She shuddered for a moment at the thought of it, then went back to the joy of cooking.

The kitchen was efficient. Counters lined three walls of the room with not two steps between parallel sides. The 3D printer and trash chute were set flush with the counter on the third wall, and Haley stood at the stove on one side of the room, cooking four pieces of bacon and four eggs in two separate pans.

She thought about the cyclical nature of mealtime as she watched the meat sizzle and waited for the coffee to percolate. Two eggs, two strips of bacon, and two pieces of toast for first breakfast. Four eggs, four strips of bacon, and four pieces of toast for second breakfast. Eight eggs, eight strips of bacon, and eight pieces of toast for third breakfast. And so on and so on until fifth breakfast. Then the bust and back to one hamburger, one french fried potato, and one loaf of bread pudding for first lunch. Two hamburgers, two french fried potatoes, and two loaves of bread pudding for second lunch. Over and over again every single day. It reminded her of the numbers she ran for Lord Walker at the Market, the way they went up and up and up, and you had to try to guess exactly when they’d shoot back down. She almost laughed thinking about it.

The toaster popped and she ordered a jar of jam, a tray, a plate, a mug, and some platinumware from the printer then set to spreading the toast with jam. Her movements were so well-rehearsed they took on the fluid motion of dance as she laid each egg on a piece of toast, crossed the room on her toes to toss the pan in the trash chute—Lord Walker preferred the taste when she used a fresh pan every time—then twirled back around to stack the bacon on top of that. She pirouetted to throw out the next pan, tip-toed to pour a cup of coffee, then curtsied deep as she set the mug on the tray, laying the finishing touches on second breakfast.

With the tray propped up over her shoulder, she pushed her way through the only door in the kitchen—on the fourth wall of the small room—out into an elaborately decorated hallway. Though “hallway” may not be the right word for it. It was about as long as it was wide and larger even than the kitchen. The walls were covered in colorful silken tapestries and gold-framed paintings depicting tuxedoed owners climbing piles of money, the ceiling and floor were lined with ornate platinum filigree, and the carpet was the softest surface that Haley had ever touched. To her right was the door to the garage, and to her left was the door to Lord Walker’s room which she entered without knocking.

Lord Walker’s room was decorated with the same filigree as the hall. The bed was an ornate four-poster, covered in silk sheets and a velvet bedspread, which took up most of the space in the bedroom. Lord Walker’s gargantuan, lumpy body was propped up with a stack of pillows behind his back, so he could watch the television which hung across the room as it spat out stock numbers and made predictions as to what should be bought and what should be sold. Their suggestions were always so wrong, Haley wondered why Lord Walker listened to them—especially since she was the one who ran the numbers at the Market anyway.

“Haley, sweetheart,” Lord Walker said through a mass of egg and bacon. A little half-chewed glob of something dribbled out onto his beard as he spoke, and Haley shuddered at the thought of cleaning it out later. “Just in time, my dear,” he went on, not noticing a thing. “As I finish my final morsel of first breakfast, here comes you, carrying breakfast two. Ho ho ho.” His whole body jiggled with his laughter, and Haley had to hurry to catch the empty coffee cup it sent tumbling off his tray. “And again you save me,” he said. “Twice in ten seconds. Ho ho ho.”

Haley waited until his jiggling was done before setting the newly filled tray on his lap. She didn’t need a similar accident with hot coffee.

“Sweetheart,” Lord Walker said, pointing at the TV. “Would you be so kind as to change the channel for your Lord? Put the reality network on, would you. I’ve had enough of work this morning. Ho ho ho.

Haley changed the channel for him. It wouldn’t have taken Lord Walker more than the effort to think it and it would have happened, but Haley didn’t question it. He probably had more important things on his mind. He couldn’t waste his brain power with such base work. On the screen now—instead of endless stock numbers—were several tiny children working in a factory. Haley tried to imagine what it would feel like to be so small, to be a child, but Lord Walker interrupted her thought.

“Speaking of enough work,” he said. “I think I’ll stop with third breakfast this morning. We have Christmas Feast today, so I want to be at the top of my game. Three breakfasts should be a healthy warm-up, wouldn’t you agree?” He chuckled, patting his stomach which folded and flopped dangerously close to the still steaming cup of coffee.

“Yes, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy, though she couldn’t take her eyes off the children on the screen. The way their bodies fit into the tiny crevices to clean the places no one else could reach left her in awe of their ability, like they were perfectly molded parts of the machine itself.

“Very good,” Lord Walker said. “Thank you, dear.” He waved his fork at her. “Run along then.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley broke away from the screen and carried the empty dishes back to the trash chute. As the bedroom door swung closed behind her, she thought she heard the sound of tiny voices screaming, but she tried to ignore it.

She set to cooking the eight eggs, eight strips of bacon, and eight pieces of toast for third breakfast and wondered why the Creator would let those children feel pain, why She would give them the ability to scream. She touched the pan with the bacon cooking in it. How would it have to feel to make her want to scream like that? Could she even scream like that? Could she get louder than a polite, “Yes, sir”?

She almost found out when she heard a meow behind her. She stifled a scream and turned to find a black cat licking itself on the counter. When it saw that it had her attention, the cat rubbed its face on the faucet.

“Hello,” Haley said with a smile, after she had gotten over the initial shock. She had no idea how the cat always got in so quietly and had never once seen where it leaves to. “Are you thirsty?” She turned the faucet on a dribble and the cat lapped up the water. “There you are,” she said, patting it once and noticing its collar was red instead of the yellow it had been for some time. Then she remembered Lord Walker’s breakfast. She finished up the bacon and eggs, and when she turned around to get a new set of dishes, the cat was gone.

Haley carried third breakfast to Lord Walker’s room, and he jiggled in his bed at the sight of her, knocking an entire tray onto the floor with a clatter. At first she thought he was choking and rushed to his side to help, but when she set the tray on the side table he finally got it out of his mouth, “Look!” he said. “The screen! You’ll miss it!”

Relieved, Haley turned to see Lord Walker—his upper body rolling and folding over the pneumatic pants that held his weight up for him—on the screen in a tuxedo and top-hat with monocle in eye and cane in hand. He was prancing up and down a red carpet with celebrities, musicians, and sports stars all trying to shake his hand, take his picture, or get his autograph. In a deep, bodiless voice a narrator spoke over the video. “Lord Walker, your Christmas Feast Head. Not only the richest man in the world, he’s the celebrity’s celebrity.” Then it cut to graphs and numbers depicting his net worth.

“So,” he said with a proud grin. “What do you think? Perfect, isn’t it.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley nodded.

“You’re right it is,” Lord Walker said, trying to slap his knee but hitting a fold of fat instead. “And that’ll be in every owner’s home with a right to be at the Feast. That was in every owner’s home with a right to be at the Feast. And you know what they’re all thinking right now?” He grinned from ear to ear.

“No, sir.” Haley shook her head, lowering her eyes.

I guess I’ll have to listen to that Lord Walker lord it over us again,” he said. “That’s what! Ho ho ho.” Haley thought the bed might break from all his shaking. “Oh, yes,” he went on. “And that they will, dear. That they will.” He shook his head, composing himself. “I only need you to be a sweetheart and go make some trades for me first. Can you do that, dear?”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied.

“Of course you can,” Lord Walker said. “This is what I need from you: First, drop some textiles. That’s a dangerous industry if you ask me. Ho ho ho.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And pick up some more policing. I know we own most of the stocks in Outland 1 already but we need more. You got that? You can never have enough protection.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then there’s this Russ Logo.” Lord Walker smiled. “He’s an actor. Have you heard of him?”

“No, sir.”

“Of course not, dear,” Lord Walker said with a chuckle. “But he’s the next big thing in propaganda. I guar-an-tee it. Pick up as much ownership in him as you can. You got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ok. Good. Now repeat it back to me.” Lord Walker went back to eating as she did.

“Drop textiles,” Haley said. “Pick up protectors and Logo.”

“Bingo,” Lord Walker said, flinging some eggs around in his excitement. “Perfecto. And be bold, darling. I have a Feast to Lord over.”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy and a smile. She picked up the empty tray and carried it to the kitchen.

Why did he always make her repeat it? As if she couldn’t remember simple instructions or didn’t know how to trade stocks. She did all the trading. The only time he ever set foot near the Market was to ring the New Year bell or film a commercial. He wouldn’t be the richest owner in the world if it weren’t for her. But at least she got to go to the Market for a while. She tidied up the kitchen one last time and headed the other way down the hall to the garage.

The garage was a vast cave lined with cars and trucks and buses and RVs. The floors were shiny, and the walls and ceiling looked like a hangar made out of platinum. There were vehicles of every make and model imaginable, but only two that ever got used: the giant white stretch Hummer—which was the only thing big enough to fit Lord Walker comfortably—and the tiny silver Tesla coupe that he allowed Haley to use. She got inside the one-seater and said, “Market.”

The engine started without a sound. She felt like she was gliding as it rolled out through the garage door and into the Market employee parking garage. The employee parking garage was smaller than the owner’s garage—smaller even than Lord Walker’s private garage—and instead of entering onto the Wall Street photo-op set, the employee garage entered onto the Market proper where the trading actually occurred.

The Market itself wasn’t much: a few folding tables and office chairs, with a touchscreen on one of the gray brick walls, that was about it. There were never more than thirty or forty secretaries there at one time—most owners chose to do their trading remotely—but much like he preferred to have his food printed fresh and prepared on-site, Lord Walker preferred doing his trading the old-fashioned way—or at least he preferred that Haley did it the old-fashioned way for him.

Today there were only three other secretaries at the Market, two who Haley didn’t know by name—she had never traded with them—only by their model number and the net worth of their employers, and Rosalind, Mr. Douglas’s secretary—Mr. Douglas being the second richest owner in Inland. As soon as Haley walked in, Rosalind initiated a conversation with her.

“Hello,” Rosalind said, looking so awkward in her funny pantsuit. She never wore the black and white laced uniform shared by all the other secretaries.

“Hello,” Haley replied with a slight nod.

“You’re Lord Walker’s secretary.”

Haley couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement. “Yes,” she said.

“Mr. Douglas is creeping up on him.” Rosalind smiled.

Haley smiled back. “Not if I can help it,” she said with a wink.

“What are you looking for today?”

“Oh, dropping some textiles, picking up some protectors.”

“Was it the accident?” Rosalind frowned.

“Accident?”

“Lord Walker didn’t say why?” Rosalind shook her head.

Haley shook hers, too. She was surprised to feel her cheeks flush. Usually only Lord Walker could make her feel that way.

“I can do that,” Rosalind said. “Protectors for textiles.”

“Oh—uh—deal,” Haley said, absently, still trying to control her blushing.

“Deal,” Rosalind repeated, extending her hand.

Haley shook it and nodded, then started towards the touchscreen on the far wall to set up the order for Logo shares, but Rosalind put her hand on Haley’s shoulder to stop her before she could get very far.

“Yes?” Haley said, turning and trying to smile.

“Lord Walker,” Rosalind said. “How does he treat you?”

Haley thought about it for a second. She didn’t know how to answer. Lord Walker treated her like she had always been treated. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“You know,” Rosalind said. “Is he bossy? Is he nice? Does he try to touch you? How does he treat you?”

Haley thought about it again. How could a secretary use such unproductive words? “He treats me like his secretary,” she said.

Rosalind dropped her hand from Haley’s shoulder. She half smiled but her eyes didn’t look the part. “Good luck with your purchases,” she said, and she walked out to the owner’s garage.

Haley stood there in a daze. Rosalind was like no other secretary she had ever met before. And she was right, too. Mr. Douglas was creeping up on Lord Walker. If Haley wasn’t careful, Lord Walker might not be Lord for long and then where would she be? Maybe she should start taking more interest in why he was making the trades he was making. Then she might know what Rosalind meant by “the accident”. She resolved herself, put in the orders for Russ Logo, and set off home to start on first lunch.

 #     #     #

 By the time seventh lunch came around, Haley wondered if it would have been less work for Lord Walker to eat five breakfasts in the first place. Still, she didn’t complain. She knew that seventh lunch had to be the last lunch because there was no way he could eat more and be on time for the Feast—and there was no way he was going to be late for this one. After he had eaten the one-hundred-and-twenty-eight burgers and fries and bread puddings, Haley’s real work set in. She had to strap him into his pneumatic pants. He would always wiggle and try to help, but more often than not, his “help” only made her job more difficult.

She found the best method was to start by grabbing his feet and twisting him around so they were sticking off the bed. Luckily it was a kingdom size bed, as long as it was wide, so it fit him facing either way—he was as tall as he was wide, anyway, so it really had to be. Once his legs were dangling off the bed, she forced the pneumatic booties onto his sausage feet and slowly inched him further and further off while carefully inching the pants up over the folds of his legs. He always slept in a nightshirt—“to let his legs breath”—preventing the need for her to take his previous pair off, which helped her more than anything else he could do. She got the pants all the way up around his waist and said, “Are you ready, Lord?”

“Yes, dear,” he replied. His voice sounded restricted in the pneumatic pants, even when they weren’t activated. “Hop to it. We mustn’t be late.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley pressed the little button on the ankle of the pants and they hissed into action. All of a sudden Lord Walker’s legs stiffened, sending his mushroom cap upper body shooting into the air with the appearance that he would be flung right off the bed face-first into the floor, but just before he was, the pants caught his weight and sent him tottering up again to rock back and forth into a standing position, like a flabby, slow motion version of the doorstop she flicked to pass the time in her closet at night.

“Very good, dear,” Lord Walker said when the fluids in his ears had settled down. “Now, a little grooming, please.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley brushed the hamburger, bread pudding, and—even still—egg crumbs out of his beard. She wiped the liquids off his face with a damp cloth, then brushed his shaggy white facial hair straight with a tiny comb. When she was done, Lord Walker lifted his hands as far above his head as he could reach them—which wasn’t far—so she could pull off his nightshirt. She slipped a white undershirt over his arms as fast as she could so he could lower them, then she buttoned the rest of the layers of his tuxedo on over that.

“There we are, dear,” Lord Walker said with a huff when she was done. “I’ll get my monocle and top hat in the car. Could you fetch a black and gold bow tie, too? Thank you, sweetheart.” He winked.

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied.

The ground shook as Lord Walker’s pants carried his mushroom frame toward the garage.

Haley took his night shirt, the rag, and comb to the trash chute to dispose of them. She ordered up a top hat, monocle, cane, and bow tie out of the printer and went to meet Lord Walker in the Hummer. The pants had already carried him into the huge backseat, thank the Creator—with the old pneumatic pants she had to lift him up into it herself—so she only had left to climb into the backseat with him, tie his bow tie on over his beard—“Otherwise how will anyone know I’m wearing it, sweetheart?”—and place his monocle in his right eye.

“Thank you, dear,” he said, waving her away before she finished. “Let’s go, then. Front seat.”

“Yes, sir.” Even though the car drove itself, Lord Walker preferred the appearance of having a driver in the front seat, so he made her sit up there apart from him, like a chauffeur, as the stretch Hummer drove them out of the garage and into the Feast Hall parking garage.

“Alright now, sweetheart,” Lord Walker said before the car had stopped moving. “The door please.”

As soon as the car did stop, Haley stepped out and opened his door for him. His pants carried him out of the Hummer and toward the Feast Hall. He only had time to swipe his monocle and cane before crying, “My hat, dear! Don’t forget my hat!”

Haley snatched the hat and slammed the door closed. Lord Walker would be furious to be seen in public without the tallest hat in the building, who knows how he would react to being seen with no hat on at all. She ran towards the door he was about to pass through and tumbled to the ground, tangled up with some other secretary. She hurried to her knees, searching for the hat she had dropped, when she heard Rosalind’s voice.

“Here you are,” Rosalind said, holding the hat out to to her, still wearing the same funny pantsuit, even at the Christmas Feast.

Haley stood and took it. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Rosalind bowed her head. “Now hurry up. You don’t want to be late.”

Haley stared at her for a second, wanting to say something, to ask her about the way she talks or dresses, or how Mr. Douglas treats her, but she knew she didn’t have time for that, so she left it at thank you and hurried off to catch Lord Walker.

She burst through the door into the Feast Hall’s great entryway, relieved to see its cavernous decadence empty except for Lord Walker. As soon as she ran up to him and plopped the hat on his head, her relief was replaced with a sense of dread deep in her stomach. Mr. Douglas was standing there talking to Lord Walker, hidden from her first sight by Lord Walker’s Hummer-sized girth.

“Haley,” Lord Walker said, obviously trying to stifle his anger. “There you are, dear. Perhaps in the future you won’t forget to bring my hat. Mr. Douglas and I were just discussing errors in textile production and commending the advancements we’ve made in the service industry when you come and prove us exactly wrong. Isn’t that so, Mr. Douglas?”

Mr. Douglas didn’t react, not even a smile or nod.

“Anyway,” Lord Walker went on. “I hate to see good food go to waste. And I must kiss those hands. You know how it is being the Lord of the Feast and all. Or…no. You don’t. Do you?” He winked. “Well, anyway. If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Douglas.” He tipped his hat.

“Yes, Lord Walker,” Mr. Douglas said with a deep bow, taking off his own top hat as he did. “And you will consider my offer, won’t you?”

Ho ho ho. Always the shrewd businessman, Mr. Douglas.” Lord Walker chuckled. “Always! But let us concentrate on the Christmas Feast for tonight and leave our business for the Market. Ho ho ho.” He set off toward the Feast Hall.

Haley made to follow him when Mr. Douglas mumbled something she couldn’t quite make out. “Excuse me, sir,” she said, turning to him.

“Nothing, ma’am,” Mr. Douglas said, tipping his hat, which was almost as tall as Lord Walker’s.

Haley marveled at his form. He was so small relative to the other owners—he probably didn’t need help putting on his pants—and had such darker skin. He seemed like a foreigner compared to them. Not to mention the way he treated her was so different from the way the other owners treated her. It was like he saw her as more than a secretary.

“Your Lord Walker gets to me with his calcified ways,” Mr. Douglas said. “If only he weren’t so conservative, we’d get the economy running better in no time.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied.

Mr. Douglas smiled. “Yes, sir,” he said. “That’s exactly what I mean, Haley. That is your name, isn’t it?”

Haley nodded, feeling a blush coming but trying to fight it.

“Haley, do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“No, sir.” Haley curtsied. “Anything, sir.”

“How does your Lord Walker treat you?”

Haley was less surprised with this being the second time in one day that she was asked the same question, but she still couldn’t help wondering why Mr. Douglas and his secretary were both so interested in how Lord Walker treated her all of a sudden. This time, at least, she had a prepared response. “He treats me like a secretary, sir,” she said with a curtsy.

“Ah, yes,” Mr. Douglas said with a smile. “As I suspected, dear. Like a secretary. Well, in that case, Haley dear, you better hurry and get him a drink. It’s what a good secretary would do.” He bowed low to her.

“Yes, sir, Mr. Douglas, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy, blushing and skipping away as fast as she could. What was with people today?

The Feast Hall itself was a cavern identical to the entryway, only filled with long rows of tables that were big enough fit five-hundred owners. Diamond chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the walls were platinum-trimmed and covered in similar tapestries and classical paintings to those that covered Lord Walker’s walls. Owners of various shapes and sizes—mostly mushroom shaped and giant—filed around the room, talking to each other and drinking, and at the head table—big enough for the five richest owners—Lord Walker talked with Mr. Smörgåsbord and Mr. Loch, his closest confidants in the Fortune 5. Haley hurried through the Hall into the kitchen. She knew that Lord Walker wouldn’t want to see her without a drink in hand.

The kitchen was the same gray as Haley’s, but it was much longer and a bit wider—wide enough for two secretaries to cook and two carts of food to pass by at the same time. It was lined with counters, stoves, and printers, and filled with secretaries that had about as much variance in appearance as the owners in the Feast Hall. They were almost exclusively women, and they were all lean and sleek and just the opposite of the owners, each one dressed in a similar black mini skirt with white lace frills.

Haley hurried to her printer—closest to the door—to get an old fashioned for Lord Walker, and Rosalind was at her own printer, across the kitchen from Haley’s, smiling and trying to catch her attention. Rosalind even went so far as to say her name, but Haley pretended she didn’t hear, rushing the drink out to Lord Walker.

“Haley, dear,” he said when she got it out there. “Finally. I think everyone else is drunk already. Imagine that. Everyone drunk but me. Ho ho ho. What a strange place.” He elbowed Mr. Loch next to him who laughed along, probably drunk already as Lord Walker had said. “And turkey for the feast tonight,” he added. “Lots and lots of turkey. And potatoes. And gravy over everything. You got that, sweetheart?”

“Yes, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy.

“Very well, then,” Lord Walker said, waving her away. “Off and get it started. I have business to attend to.”

“Yes, sir.” She curtsied again and made her way back to the kitchen.

There wasn’t much to do, but what little there was she busied herself with to try to avoid the gaze of Rosalind. She got a pot of water from the printer and set it to boiling on the stove. The turkey would have to be printed fully-cooked or it would take too long and Lord Walker would complain that he was starving. With nothing left to do, she set to printing and mixing the ingredients for a pumpkin pie, Lord Walker always asked for one on Christmas. All the while she was all too aware of Rosalind trying to attract her attention.

“So, Haley,” Rosalind said, walking over to watch her pour the filling into the crust. “How is your Feast so far?”

“I’m sorry,” Haley said, nothing left to distract her. “I don’t understand.”

“Your feast,” Rosalind said. “Are you enjoying it?”

Haley thought about it. It was no different than any other day. She cooked for Lord Walker every feast, but here the kitchen was bigger, and there was company, and speeches and music. But what was it to enjoy a Feast?

“Well,” Rosalind said. “How is it?”

“It’s—”

“And don’t say it’s like a Feast.” Rosalind chuckled. “I already know that much.”

“It’s like a—well…” Haley wanted to say exactly what Rosalind had told her not to say. She had to come up with something else, though. Anything. “Yes,” she said, nodding. “I am enjoying it.”

Rosalind smiled wider than Haley had ever seen her smile. “Good,” she said. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that. I’ve got some fish to deliver now. If you’ll excuse me.”

Haley found herself staring at the door even after Rosalind had passed through it. She had never used such unproductive words in her life. What did she mean when she said she was enjoying the feast? What did it mean to enjoy something? And why would Rosalind care either way? It was getting to be too much when the potato water boiled over and distracted her with her duty to Lord Walker.

Potatoes mashed and pie cooled, she printed a whole turkey and put it on the cart with them. She wasn’t the first out of the kitchen—and not the last, either—so she added another pair of old fashioneds to ease Lord Walker’s inevitable ire. Haley could see his eyes widen and hear his stomach groan from across the Feast Hall as she rolled the food toward him.

“Haley! Haley, sweetheart,” he called while she was still halfway across the room. Half the owners looked up from their food at the sound of his voice. “I’m so hungry I was going to eat Mr. Douglas over here. I thought he might be food because he eats what my food eats. Ho ho ho!”

The room erupted in laughter with him. Mr. Douglas put his fork on his plate, staring at Lord Walker while Lord Walker stared at the turkey rolling his way. Haley placed the food in front of Lord Walker and wondered if Mr. Douglas was enjoying his feast. She wondered why she cared.  When Lord Walker didn’t notice the old fashioneds she had made and asked for another, she didn’t respond. Not even with a, “Yes, sir.” And when she stepped into the kitchen, she didn’t stop to think about her answer when Rosalind asked if she could ask her a question.

“Go ahead,” Haley said.

“What do you think your life would be like if you didn’t work for Lord Walker?”

“Is that even possible?”

“That depends on you.”

 #     #     #

< nulla. Shoveler     [Table of Contents]     II. Ansel>

Thanks for joining us for chapter one. If you can’t wait another week to find out what happens, you still have to wait two, but you can pre-order the full eBook, available May 30th, here or wait until the 30th proper to order a print edition. Either way, don’t forget to come back next Saturday morning for chapter two of The Asymptote’s Tail.

[Update: The print edition is available now through Amazon here.]