Chapter 66: Jorah

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Today we see the worlds through the eyes of Jorah Baldwin, the most viewed actor in all of history now that poor Russ Logo has met his fate. If you enjoy this chapter, please do think about picking up a copy of the full novel through this link. And as always, enjoy.

< LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore     [Table of Contents]     LXVII. Mr. Kitty >

LXVI. Jorah

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Why? Why did they still need him to do this? Why did they need anyone to do this?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

He was supposed to be an actor, not an assembly line worker. And besides that, robots were one hundred percent capable of doing slip, snap, clicking work. There was no reason to convince humans that it was fun, rewarding, or honorable in any way. They weren’t needed to do it.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Of course androids were capable of doing slip, snap, clicking work. Jorah himself was one of them, and he was doing the work better than any human ever could.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

But no one knew that he was an android. And Jorah couldn’t tell anyone that he was—especially now that his majority owner was Mr. Walker, the head of the anti-robot counter-revolution. Still, none of that changed the fact that androids could do the work.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, clicking certainly wasn’t what he had escaped his own assembly line for. He hadn’t liberated himself from slavery just so he could turn around and sit voluntarily behind another assembly line.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

He hadn’t escaped so he could free the other robots, either. He hadn’t escaped so he could fight them in Mr. Walker’s army. Jorah had escaped for one reason and one reason alone: So he could live his own life.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Not like this. Some people might have called what he was doing living, but it certainly wasn’t his life. He didn’t even get to choose what roles he acted in.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Jorah turned to look at the extra next to him, intent on her own work, living her own puppet life and being made to dance by the tugs of her own strings. Her a human, him an android, and neither able to exhibit any more free will than the other. Each forced to do whatever they had to do to procure the energy they needed in order to reproduce and prolong their sad, irrelevant lives.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Well how much energy did they need today? How many tugs would Jorah’s strings get until the puppeteer finally let him rest? How many more days could Jorah take living like this? How many more days could all the puppets take it?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

But there wasn’t anything he could do. Was there? If there were, he would have done it already. He was as free as he could ever be in Outland Three. The only thing left for him was to work and to wait.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

And though he felt like he couldn’t take it any longer, Jorah still went on slip, snap, clicking, even after a loud, metallic bell signaled for lunch and the extras filling the set around him dropped their work to hurry to it.

“I said cut!” Wes, the director, yelled through a megaphone. “That’s the scene, Jorah. Or it was supposed to be. And I like your commitment to the job, but we really need a shot of you leaving the assembly line with the rest of the workers.”

“I— What?” Jorah asked, absently standing from his work stool and making his way toward the food cart to nibble on some cheese.

“You didn’t stand up and leave with the rest of the workers,” Wes said, slowly, like Jorah was stupid, but Jorah was still having trouble following what was being said so he couldn’t really take offense. “You’re a good worker, yes, but you hate your job. The very same reason you work so hard—up until the very end of your shift—is the exact reason you can’t wait to get home. Your family. And it’s not like your piece of shit boss—your words, not mine—is going to pay you for any of the extra pieces you slip, snap, click together above quota so you’re just wasting your time, making your boss look better so she can make more money without sharing any of it with you. Now, do you see why you’d be just as eager to get up and get out of there as all these other extras who did what their scripts told them to do?”

“I—uhYeah…” Jorah said, finishing off another tiny cube of cheese in search of the energy he’d need to get himself through another day of dancing under his puppet strings. “I’m sorry. I mean, of course. Anything you say. You’re the director. I’ll do better this time. I swear.”

“Alright, then. Places everyone!” Wes called through his megaphone, and the puppeteer strings pulled all the actors into their first positions—including Jorah to sit on his cold, hard stool, back again in front of the assembly line for the trillionth time since he had become the star of Mr. Walker’s anti-robot propaganda machine.

“Lights!” Wes called.

And the world faded into darkness around Jorah, all except for his work area which was lit so brightly that it gave him a shining aura like a halo.

“Cue the belts.”

The constituent parts of whatever it was they were slip, snap, clicking together started moving down the conveyor belt in front of him again, and like Pavlov’s dogs, Jorah began piecing them together, even before the scene had officially begun. This time he would act it to perfection.

Aaaaannnd… action!”

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

All he could do was wonder how many more days he could take living like this. How many more days would all the puppets take it?

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click…

#     #     #

He was home at last, finally alone again in his dressing room. Here he had the greatest illusion of freedom in, and control over, his life, and so here was his favorite place to be—even if he knew full and well that the freedom and control he felt like he was experiencing was nothing more than an illusion.

Here, at least, he had his television. And that was programmed to comply to his every demand—manual, remote, or vocal—as long as that demand had something to do with powering on or off, adjusting volume, or changing the channel, etc. Which was some amount of control and freedom, however limited. As well, here was the battle station which had a seemingly infinite—though necessarily finite due to the nature of physics—number of makeup and hairstyle combinations for Jorah to command up at his every whimsy. Not full control or freedom, again, but better than nothing.

Then of course, there was the 3D printer. The machine that ensured Jorah more freedom than most anyone in all the worlds was lucky to experience—excepting the owners, of course. It was the same reason he was chained to the anti-robot propaganda films that Mr. Walker was forcing him to act in. But Jorah would have to work a job in order to survive no matter what, and most of the jobs out there didn’t come anywhere close to paying with unbridled printer access, so there he was, producing anti-robot propaganda as an android himself. He was starting to wonder how much of his life he was willing to give up for even that much “freedom”.

In fact, Jorah stood there then, staring at the frowny face arch of his 3D printer’s closed mouth, finger hovering over the single red eye button, trying to figure out what he really needed from this expensive machine at all. He was an android, after all, not a squishy, mortal human, and if he chose to, he could generate most of the energy he needed—all with a proper source of saline—through a photosynthesis-like process. One of the benefits of his darker skin was the ability to absorb more of the Sun’s energy, and he could last on that for some time. Besides, he never really liked to eat anyway. Sure, he pretended like he enjoyed food in order to endear himself with his actor friends, but he never seemed to be able to experience the same raw euphoria that humans did when they ate. So in the end, probably the only thing he’d ever truly miss about losing access to his printer would be the clothes. And Fortuna the clothes.

First of all, and of course, the dresses. A-lines, slips, sheaths. Every type of skirt from mini on up to maxi and beyond. Blouses in tank tops, halters, and racerbacks. Suit pants, suits, blazers, and hats. He could go on and on and on about it. Hell, he was even starting to appreciate the subtle differences between different styles of tuxedo after having been dragged along to so many galas with Mr. Walker. And even if his printer could only make tuxes and nothing else, that alone might be worth Jorah’s days spent acting in shitty, self-hating, anti-robot propaganda. Maybe.

He was still standing there in front of his printer, trying to decide between hundreds of millions of billions of options that all seemed equally unappetizing, when a knock came at the door, surprising Jorah so much that he nearly jumped out of the slippers he was wearing.

Yoo hoo!” came Meg’s voice through the dressing room door, grating Jorah’s insides at the sound of it. “Jorah, my boy. Are you in there?”

Jorah hesitated. He didn’t feel like spending time with any humans—he almost never did—but he couldn’t just stay silent and wait for Meg to go away because she may never. Ever since the untimely death of Jorah’s best friend, Russ—the only human who Jorah had never minded spending time with—Meg had practically been stalking Jorah, trying to become the new best friend of the now most popular celebrity in all of celebritydom, and frankly, Jorah was sick of it. Meg was a nice person, a great dresser, and an okay actor—all things that should have made her the perfect new friend for Jorah who didn’t give his opinion of a person’s wardrobe lightly—but something about her needy clinginess turned Jorah off to ever starting a real relationship with her.

“Yes, I’m here,” Jorah finally called back, hoping for no response. “One moment, please.”

Fantastic. Take your time,” Meg responded nonetheless. “I’ve got all the time in the world to spare.”

Of course she did. And of course he did. So he slowly buttoned on his blouse, taking extra time to find the perfect shoes and not settling on an eyeshadow color until he had seen all of his options three times through. He still held out hope that Meg would get sick of waiting and leave, but of course again, he had no such luck. She was still waiting outside of his dressing room with a smile on her face when he opened the door to say, “Hello.” with a curt nod of the head.

Wow,” Meg said, holding a hand to her mouth—lips painted as red as Jorah’s. “No wonder you’re so famous. You look absolutely stunning. Just perfect. Even better in person.”

Jorah blushed. He would never get used to flattery like that, no matter how often he experienced it, and he was starting to worry that enough of it might just solidify Meg’s position as his best friend despite Jorah’s every efforts to resist her advances. “You’re too kind,” he said. “But I’m sure you didn’t just come here to compliment me again, have you? We’ve been over this.”

Meg stared at Jorah in silence for a moment, mesmerized by his beauty, before remembering herself and saying, “What? I mean, no. Not again. Though if you’d let me, I’d come here every day just to stare at you. I swear.”

Jorah’s ears got hotter. “Please,” he said. “Don’t. What is it that you actually came here for?”

“I—uh—well…” Meg was hesitant now. Jorah didn’t like the sound of what was to come. “Have you eaten anything yet?” she finally asked.

“I was just thinking about ordering in from the printer,” Jorah said, and he regretted it instantly. Now she knew that he had no plans and no excuses for getting out of what came next.

“Oh, no,” Meg said, shaking her head and scrunching up her nose like she smelled something dead and rotting. “Gross. You can’t. C’mon. Come eat with me. I heard about this new restaurant called The Prison. It’s supposed to be the hottest dining experience all year. We should definitely go check it out.”

Uh… I don’t know,” Jorah said, trying to find an excuse. “I’m not really dating right now. And I don’t—”

No, no no.” Meg stopped him there. “Not a date. A business dinner. I have a proposition for you, and I think you’ll receive it better over a meal that’s suitable for the occasion. So what do you say?”

There was really nothing else to say because, like an idiot, he had cut off all his lines of retreat at the beginning of the conversation. So Jorah just said, “Alright. Fine.” and tried to smile. “The Prison, you say? I’ve been meaning to eat there for a week now.” And that much was true. “I’d love to join you for dinner.” Even if that much wasn’t.

“Great!” Meg said, clapping her hands. “Perfect. Are you ready now or should I come in?” She tried peeking around him to see what his dressing room looked like, but Jorah still wasn’t ready to let her inside.

“No, no,” Jorah said, stepping out into the hall to close the door on her prying eyes. “There’ll be no need for that. I’m ready as we speak. Shall we take your elevator or mine?”

Oh, yours, please,” Meg said with a big smile. “Mine’s in the shop. I had to ride the public elevator here. It was disgusting. I bet I still smell like it. I’m so sorry.”

In fact, she didn’t. She smelled instead like too much perfume, an odor which she only made worse by adding more from a tiny bottle in her handbag. Jorah wasn’t sure how she expected to be able to taste the food with all that artificial scent clogging up her senses, but luckily, he didn’t care what the food actually tasted like anyway. He just had to knock it off his list of restaurants to eat at before he could review them—and positively at that, no matter the taste, atmosphere, or service, as per Mr. Walker’s demand—on his show.

“No, well, you smell…” Jorah trailed off without finishing his thought, instead pushing the button to call his elevator which opened instantly—his elevator being prioritized in the queue since he was the most famous actor in all of history.

As soon as the doors slid open, before Jorah could even react enough to step inside, Meg jumped in to sit on the purple suede couch and pet its upholstery.

“What an amazing elevator,” she said, still petting the couch as the doors closed. “It’s almost as nice as your clothes. You really are the perfect celebrity.”

“It’s not much,” Jorah said. “Same as everyone else’s. Lined with mirrors. A couch to sit on. Basic.”

“Yeah, but this couch,” Meg said. “It’s perfect. Soft, supportive, comfortable. Not to mention beautiful. Everything you need in an elevator couch.”

“Yes. Because it belonged to the perfect celebrity,” Jorah said.

“I told you!” Meg said, standing with a big smile. “And confident, too.”

“But not me.” Jorah laughed so he wouldn’t cry. “Not even close to me. I’m talking about Russ Logo.”

Oh.” Meg kind of deflated. She definitely wasn’t smiling any more. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s not your fault,” Jorah said. Which it wasn’t. “I’m the one who brought his name up. But that’s enough about the past. It’s time to look to the future. Let’s eat. Elevator. The Prison.”

The floor fell out from underneath them, and Meg, timidly, said, “You two were good friends. Weren’t you?”

“The best I’ll ever have,” Jorah said. “But, please. No more about Russ. It’s a beautiful day. We’re on our way to a famous restaurant. You have a business proposition you want to extend to me. Let’s enjoy this to the fullest. Elevator, street entrance, please.”

Meg gasped, checking herself in the infinitely reflecting mirrors in all directions. “What? You mean it? But the papos…”

“Let ‘em take our picture,” Jorah said, checking himself in the mirrors, too. “We’re two attractive, adult celebrities, and it’s well within our rights to enjoy a luxury business dinner together. Who cares if the world knows? I need some fresh air, and I’m gonna get it. Now, are you coming with me, or do you want to ride along to the restaurant entrance and meet me inside?”

“Oh, no,” Meg said. “I didn’t think you’d— I mean. Yes. Of course. By all means. Let’s go.”

The elevator stopped falling and Jorah struck a pose before saying, “Doors, open.”

Flashing lights and hot hot humidity flooded into the elevator before either one of them could react. When the papos outside saw it was Jorah, their lights quickened. Jorah posed a few times, then pulled Meg in to pose for a few photos, too, and when everybody had gotten their fair share of pictures, Jorah and Meg pushed their way out through the mass of papos and toward the restaurant.

Wow,” Meg said, fixing her hair in a pocket mirror as they walked. “I don’t think the papos have ever been so interested in taking my picture as they were just then. Thank you.”

“They can be fierce,” Jorah said, but he wasn’t really paying attention to Meg, more interested in the city around him. There was something familiar about the buildings or the street that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Meg had gone on talking for some time when he couldn’t take it anymore, interrupting her to say, “This place seems familiar to me for some reason. Did something else used to be here?”

“Oh, yeah,” Meg said, pausing to really think about it. “The—uhThe Farm, or something? I think… Oh, no. The Plantation! That’s it,” she said, walking on.

“The Plantation…” Jorah repeated under his breath, remembering more but still not quite everything.

“Yep. The Plantation. Some producer bought it to live in or something like that,” Meg said with a shrug. “The things they do these days… But anyway, this is the place.”

And so it was. The Prison. And of course, it looked like every prison Jorah had ever seen on TV. There were tall walls, topped with chain-link fences that were topped with a combination of razor and barbed wire, all surrounding a big yard with basketball courts and weight benches on either side of the path that led to the restaurant’s front door where, inside, they were greeted from behind bars by a jerky robot in orange overalls.

“Hello,” the robot said. “May I take your jackets?”

Neither of them were wearing jackets so Jorah just said, “Uh. Table for two.”

“Right this way, please.” The robot host tried to walk, but it ran into the prison bars and couldn’t go any further before awkwardly searching for the cell door, finding a way out, and leading Meg and Jorah to their table in another cell.

Wow,” Meg said when the host had left them with menus. “This might be the coolest restaurant I’ve ever seen. Get a load of those costumes.”

Huh? Yeah. Costumes…” Jorah said, but again, he wasn’t paying attention. This time he was distracted by a little black furry blur running between the bars that separated the cell they were eating in from their neighbor’s cell before the thing disappeared into thin air. “Fortuna. Did you see that?” Jorah asked, interrupting whatever it was that Meg was going on about now. “Disgusting.”

“What?” Meg said, turning to see what he was talking about. “Oh, Fortuna. That dress is hideous. How does someone even go out in public looking like that?”

“No.” Jorah chuckled, feeling some sense of déjà vu. “That’s not what I— Never mind. Here. Let’s get on with it. What business proposition did you have in mind? Why’d you bring me here? Spit it out.”

“Ah, yes. Well… Don’t you think we should order first?” She looked nervously around for a server.

“I’d rather not,” Jorah said. “I don’t like to do business while I’m eating. But I would like to use that time to consider your proposition. So please, I’d prefer to hear your offer before the server even arrives. If you can manage it.”

“I— Uh. Well…” Meg was still hesitant, nervous.

“Go on.”

“Well, I want to be more than an actor, okay. I’m decent at it. The camera loves me. I enjoy acting well enough. But it’s just not the life for me.”

“I’m following. And I tend to agree,” Jorah said. “But I’m having a hard time figuring out what exactly it is that any of this has to do with me.”

“Right, right. Of course.” Meg fixed herself up and sat a little straighter in her chair. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat before going on. “Well, I also want to be—no, I am a clothes designer. But no one takes me seriously about that yet.”

“And…” Jorah led her on.

“Well, that’s where you come in. If you ever, say, wore some of my clothes, everyone else would want to wear them, too. Right? So I’m proposing…” And so on and so on. It was a typical business transaction between two consenting celebrities. Jorah was a little surprised to find out that Meg was a designer, but he definitely wanted to see her work at the very least, and he could make any further decisions after that. He didn’t say as much until after they had ordered their one special each and eaten the meals, of course—he didn’t want Meg to think that he was too eager to be working with her—but then he set up a meeting to try on the clothes and they parted ways so Jorah could prepare for his talk show.

#     #     #

On came the classical stylings of the Jorah’s Chorus theme music. Jorah himself sat at his J-shaped desk, staring into the black mirror of the camera lens, ready as ever to put on a show. The director counted down, the music began to fade, and Jorah smiled to the oncoming applause.

“My fans, my fans. Please,” he said, waving his hands in humble accord. “I love you all dearly, but if you don’t quiet down, you’ll never hear Jorah’s Chorus. And that is what we all got dressed up to come out here for tonight. Isn’t it?”

The crowd hooped and hollered, singing their own version of a chorus.

“Of course it is,” Jorah went on. “I know it’s what I came out here for. This is my show after all. Isn’t it? Jorah’s Chorus is what it’s called, so what do I have to sing for you today?

“More of the same, of course. The usual. The chorus. The bread and butter that you’ve all come to expect and love. We’ll have a few movie reviews and previews, including my latest—HAL BOT 5000. We’ll have my own personal review of The Prison, a restaurant down in New Orleans. Wait until you hear about my experiences in this one. You’ll never believe it, I promise you. And finally—finally—for a slight change of pace, at the end of the show tonight, I plan on announcing a new business relationship that I’ve just opened up—literally right before my show today—with an up-and-coming designer who, forgive my language, but y’all are going to shit your pants when I reveal who this person is. I promise you. You. Won’t. Believe.

“But first, and of course, y’all know how the business goes. We’ve gotta see a few more messages from our sponsors—including Mr. Walker, producer of many of the fine movies—and restaurants—you’ll hear about tonight—but don’t go anywhere, you hear? Because you don’t want to miss the announcement that’s coming up at the end of the show. I’ll be here waiting for y’all in the meantime. Until then. This is Jorah’s Chorus.”

And the classical tune of Jorah’s Chorus’s theme song went on playing again while Jorah sat pleased at his seat, excited for the show to come. But of course, as happened any time Jorah felt like Fortuna was finally spinning her wheel in his favor, everything went to shit again.

There across the set, talking to Jorah’s director, in their too white uniforms with cargo pants—cargo pants!—plated armor vests, and glowing neon smiles that sounded like Evil and Misfortune combined, were two protectors, talking in modulated voices through their almost screaming facemasks. Their teeth flashed neon glowing light all over the director until she pointed the protectors in Jorah’s direction, and he held his breath, dreading what was to come.

“Jorah Baldwin?” one of the protectors demanded in their too loud, unnatural voice, teeth glowing neon yellow, red, and green with every word.

“Yes.” Jorah nodded.

“We need you to come with us,” the other said in a voice modulated to sound exactly the same as the first’s.

“But I’m in the middle of a show,” Jorah complained. “Can’t this wait? I have an audience expecting me to perform.”

“Mr. Walker’s orders,” the first said. “Let’s go. Move it.”

And Jorah had no choice at the invocation of Mr. Walker’s power, so he did his best to apologize to his audience as the protectors dragged him violently off set.

#     #     #

< LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore     [Table of Contents]     LXVII. Mr. Kitty >

There it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits story. If you enjoyed that and can’t wait for the rest of the story, you can always pick up a full copy of the novel in ebook or print format through this link. Or you can join us again next week for the next chapter, from Mr. Kitty’s perspective. Whatever you decide, thanks for sticking around this long, and we look forward to seeing you around in the future. We do nothing alone.

“#DeathTo the TSA” or “0.N Repeating is Back in Progress After a Short Delay”

Hello, dear readers.

Finally, after too long, I’m back again behind the keyboard. If you’ve been paying close attention to the blog here, you might have seen this post from a couple of months ago in which I said I’d have 0.N Repeating–the fourth and final book in the Infinite Limits series–published by this time. You probably also noticed that the novel hasn’t been published. My humblest apologies, dear readers.

You see, the delay occurred when, on my flight home from visiting my family over Halloween, some TSA agent stole my laptop right out of my checked luggage–hence the #DeathTo the TSA in the title of this post. As you might imagine, it’s rather difficult for an independent author to format and publish a novel without a working computer, so I haven’t been making any progress since then.

Fear not, however, dear readers. Because as you can tell by my return to blogging, I was finally able to purchase a new computer, and now I’m back to work on formatting 0.N Repeating and getting the final edits done so I can publish it. I have some work that I’ve already done to redo thanks to the thieves at the TSA, so I don’t want to make any predictions about when exactly I’ll have this one up and published, but I’ll keep y’all posted.

So subscribe to the blog here and stay tuned for my next post in which we’ll find out what the cover looks like, and hopefully sooner than later we’ll all be able to read the conclusion to Ansel’s story in the Infinite Limits universe.

Thanks as always for joining me, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

-Bryan

0.N Repeating Table of Contents

Hey, y’all. Happy Saturday.

Now, I know I didn’t post anything new last weekend, and sadly, that’s going to have to continue for a few weeks yet. Currently I’m working on writing a video game script that I’m almost 2/3 done with, and after that I still have to take the time to edit, format, and publish “0.N Repeating”, the fourth and final novel in the Infinite Limits series, so it’ll be at least a few weeks yet before I get back to my normal posting schedule of one chapter per week. Sorry for the wait.

In the meantime, here’s a little teaser for the next novel. This is the table of contents for “0.N Repeating” as it stands today. This is subject to change as I go through deeper edits, of course, but as of now, these are the points of view you can expect to read about.

“0.N Repeating” Tentative Table of Contents

01. Haley
02. Thimblerigger and Stevedore
03. Jorah
04. Mr. Kitty
05. Sonya
06. Chief Mondragon
07. The Scientist
08. Haley
09. 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

There it is, dear readers. I hope it helps in holding you over until I can get the next book published. And thanks again–as always–for joining us. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 61: Chelsea

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to chapter 61 of the four book Infinite Limits series. Today we see the world through Chelsea’s point of view as she’s been forcefully reunited with her husband, Tom, leaving their son home alone in the grips of the Captain. Chelsea will do anything to protect her son, now read on to find out if she can convince Tom to do the same.

Thanks for joining us, readers, and if you’d like to read the last two chapters in this, book three of the Infinite Limits saga, Dividing by Ø, then go ahead and pick up a full copy of the novel through this link–and maybe leave a review if you’ve got the time. Either way, thanks again for joining us, readers, and enjoy.

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

LXI. Chelsea

The alarm that morning must have been the most grating, terrible sound that Chelsea had ever heard in her entire life. It didn’t sound any different than it did on any other day of the week—she had been woken up by the same alarm since she had joined the Academy—but still, the noise was worse than ever with the weight of what she was expected to do that day bearing down on her.

She took her time getting out of bed, enjoying the warmth of the comforter and the solitude of her bedroom. Finally, she knew who she was. She was a protector and she was ready to put right the wrongs which had been allowed to exist in the worlds for too long. That was what was best for Jonah. It was the only thing she could do.

When she eventually did get out of bed, she filled out all her paperwork in her bedroom, eschewing the bathroom and a shower—one day without wouldn’t be too bad—because she wasn’t ready to face Tom just yet. Her hair pulled into a ponytail, her protector’s suit on, and her helmet lodged up under her arm, Chelsea took a deep breath in preparation and opened her bedroom door.

She let all the air out in one loud breath when she saw that Tom wasn’t even there. He must have gone ahead to the meeting without her. Hopefully so. She didn’t need him to be late. The Captain would probably end up making her pay for that, too.

Chelsea’s stomach grumbled on the way to the elevator. She was hungry, sure, but that would have to wait along with her shower. The mission came first, and if assassination was on the plate, she already knew what her reaction would be and an empty stomach was for the best. She stepped onto the elevator, said, “Captain’s office.” not knowing where else to go—she didn’t need the locker room becauses she was avoiding Tom—and the floor fell out from underneath her.

She held her breath and counted her heartbeats as the elevator moved. Twenty beats, a good indication she was calm and ready for what was to come. The elevator stopped, the doors slid open, and Chelsea’s heart skipped a beat, speeding up. There was Tom, standing in the hall, in full uniform except for his helmet which was tucked up underneath his armpit.

She must have registered her surprise—and hopefully only the surprise and not also the disgust which had seemed to build up over night with all her time alone to imagine what dangers exactly it was that Tom had put her Jonah into—because his voice was already defensive, if not his words, as he said, “Uh, hey.”  kicking dust like a scolded child. “I thought you’d be in the locker room. I tried to clear out so I wouldn’t bother you.”

“Oh, yeah?” Chelsea shrugged. What did he want, a medal of honor for being able to discern her obvious feelings for once in a lifetime? “I hadn’t noticed.”

“So, about last night… Well—”

“Just forget about it,” Chelsea cut him off. Now was not the time to be arguing again. Now was the time to be cool and collected and ready for a mission. Why couldn’t Tom understand that? “We should be going in,” she said, trying to pass him, but Tom stopped her.

“No, wait,” he said, and Chelsea jerked her arm out of his grip. “I’m sorry, I—”

“No!” Chelsea snapped, losing her temper despite her every effort to control it before such an important mission. “Not now, Tom. You lost your opportunity to explain yourself when you put our son in danger—and on multiple occasions at that. No—Stop! Listen to me. Let me finish. Now we’re going to get in there and do whatever the Captain asks us to do no matter how much you object. And—I’m not finished. Just shut up for a minute. And we’re going to do it all while keeping the fact that the safety of our son, Tom, the safety of our Jonah is on the line and we cannot forget that. I’ll do anything to protect him, okay. It doesn’t matter what the Captain asks me to do, I’m going to do it for Jonah. You got that?”

Tom nodded. “Of course. I would, too. But—”

No buts. We just do it. Anything she says, Tom. Now come on.” Chelsea stormed past him, toward the Captain’s office. She knocked twice on the door then burst through it without waiting for an answer and groaned when the Captain wasn’t there. She heard Tom come in behind her and blurted out, “I told you not to—” before she blushed, slapping her hand to her mouth, and said, “Oh, uh, Captain, sir. I’m sorry, sir. I— I thought you were—”

Can it,” the Captain said, brushing Chelsea off and marching around to sit in the chair behind the desk. “There’s no time, Pardy. I’ve got much more important shit to take care of. So please, let’s just get this over with. Sit down. Both of you.”

Uh, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute and taking one of the low seats in front of the Captain’s desk, thankful not to have to explain herself.

Tom took the seat next to Chelsea and the Captain got straight to business. “So I gave you some generalities about your mission yesterday, but no specifics. Mostly because we didn’t have them. But now we do, and I’ll tell you, there’s not a lot of subtlety to this one. We’ll be sending you straight to your targets. That’s it.”

Tom fidgeted in his seat and Chelsea swallowed some spit.

“Tom, you’ve been there before, but not like this. The world’s become a much different place since you were a protector last, and you may not recognize as much as you expect to, but you should have no trouble recognizing your targets. They haven’t changed. I assure you of that. Chelsea, you studied the maps in bootcamp—or whatever facsimile thereof they’re giving you new recruits with as fast as we’re pulling you in these days—but you can fill in the holes of what Tom remembers and ensure y’all get to the right place.”

“Yes, sir,” Chelsea nodded.

“Anything else, sir?” Tom asked.

“Not really, Pardys. I’m afraid you won’t have much support out there beyond the normal patrolling officers, and they’ll, by necessity, be stationed as far away from your position as possible when we send you over there. It’s just you two, your guns, and the entire Force that’s counting on you—despite the fact that none of them actually know you’re even on this mission.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Chelsea said, saluting. “We won’t let you down, sir.”

“I hope not,” the Captain said, standing and saluting back. “Now get out of my sight. I have other business to tend to.”

Even Tom got the message on that one and scurried out close behind Chelsea.

“Did she say where we’re supposed to be going?” Tom asked, trying to keep up with Chelsea who was hurrying to the elevator. She wanted to get this done with as soon as possible.

“She said you’re supposed to know the place.” Chelsea shrugged. “It’ll come up in our viewports. Come on.”

They got on the elevator and the doors slid closed. Chelsea waited but the thing didn’t move and no directions came up in her mask’s viewport. She was starting to get a little nervous.

“Well…” Tom said, nervous himself from the sound of it.

“Well, you know the place, don’t you?” Chelsea snapped. Did she have to do all the thinking? “Take us there.”

“Oh—I guess… Well, Outland Six Sector F, then,” Tom said and the elevator fell into motion.

When it stopped and the doors slid open, Chelsea stepped out but Tom didn’t follow. “Well,” Chelsea said. “C’mon. This is the place, isn’t it?”

“I—uh… I don’t know,” Tom said, stepping out of the elevator and surveying the buildings all around them. “This— It didn’t look like this before.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Of course not. You do recall that the walls between Five and Six were destroyed, don’t you? It did happen on your watch. Seems like something I’d remember.”

Tom ignored her, still staring at the new world in awe. “No, but… This used to be a long strip of green surrounded by buildings. Now it’s just a patch. Where’d it all go?”

“You really have no idea how the worlds work, do you?” Chelsea chuckled. “That’s how the walls function, Tom. This is the world now. Just show me where to go so we can get this over with.”

“Why are you so eager?” Tom asked, finally breaking his eyes away from the towering buildings that surrounded them to address her. “Why do you want to do this?”

“I want to protect our son,” Chelsea said with a sigh. “We’ve been over this so many times already. Just leave it at that for now and let’s do what we came here to do: protect Jonah.”

“It’s almost like you—like you’re looking forward to killing them,” Tom said, breaking eye contact again but this time to stare at his feet.

Chelsea swallowed the spit that had gathered in her throat. She shook her head slowly, trying not to show any emotion. “I’m doing what’s best for our son,” she said in the steadiest voice she could muster. “I’m doing what you should have been doing all along, what you should be doing now. So please. Let’s go.”

Tom bowed his head and shuffled down the sidewalk, hopefully in the direction of their targets. Chelsea followed close behind, observing her surroundings and noticing that there was no one in the streets, no one anywhere, it seemed. Her school lessons had taught her that Six was packed to the brim and overflowing with criminals, hooligans, and harlots—the real scum of the earth—and she wondered where they were all hiding. Probably under a rock somewhere where they belonged.

After a few blocks of walking it was starting to seem like Tom didn’t actually know where he was going at all. That or he was taking her off course for a reason, trying to protect his trash friends. Probably the former, though. Chelsea saw a lot more ignorance in Tom than malice, and she still held some small hope that he would do what was best for Jonah in the long run.

“Wasn’t there a closer elevator?” Chelsea asked when the walking had grown to be too much and they still weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“I don’t know,” Tom said, turning to Chelsea and looking genuinely concerned. “I mean, no. This was the closest elevator before the walls came down, but I’m a little lost now.”

Great.” Chelsea scoffed. “Perfect. Now what?” She was on the verge of calling back on her radio when Tom gasped.

“Wait a second. Wait.” He pulled Chelsea by the arm to hide in an alley. “That’s it,” he said, poking his head around the corner of the building.

“Are you sure?” Chelsea asked, moving him aside so she could look. “Let me see.” She poked her head around, too, but didn’t know what she was looking for so all she saw was more of the same buildings and streets they had been passing already. “Which one?” she asked.

“A few buildings down. Right in front of that patch of grass,” Tom said and she could tell the one he was talking about. “That’s the one for sure. It was in a different place the last time I was here, but that is the one.”

“You’re sure?” Chelsea asked him again, looking into his eyes. “Jonah can’t afford any mistakes.”

“I’m sure.” Tom nodded. “Though I’m still not sure how you want to go about this.”

Chelsea thought about it for a second. The Captain hadn’t been specific. Chelsea had assumed they would just go in and get the job done then get out. How hard could it really be in Six? But maybe Tom was right this time. Maybe a little more finesse was in order. “Did you have anything in mind?” she asked him, because she sure didn’t.

“Well…” Tom didn’t look very sure of what he was about to say. “The Captain chose me because I already know the targets, right. Maybe she thinks they’ll just let me in.”

Chelsea scoffed. “Do you think so?”

“Well not like this, obviously,” Tom said, taking off his helmet and vest. “Come on. You, too, if you’re coming in with me. They don’t trust protectors.”

Chelsea scoffed again. “Well, we are here to kill them. I mean, you don’t think they’ll be able to tell? I thought they already knew you, anyway. They know you’re a protector.”

“So?” Tom said, down to his undershirt and cargo pants. “They don’t know you. And we don’t need to rub it in their face, anyway. And say we come to someone else before we find our targets? They might not recognize me, and what do you think they’d do if they saw a protector?”

“Try to kill us,” Chelsea said. “Exactly why we should keep our armor on. I’m not taking mine off.”

Tom chuckled. “C’mon,” he said. “These people are tiny. You’ve never seen them before. They’ll be no match for the two of us. I’m leaving my gun, too, but you can bring yours if you want to.”

Tom.” Chelsea scoffed. “This is ridiculous. You don’t have to be tall or strong to shoot someone. You’re not listening to me. We’re here to get something done and we can’t do it without our guns.”

“Well I’m not taking mine with me,” Tom said, tossing it onto the pile with the rest of his uniform. “You can do whatever you want to.” He looked at her like she was going to take off her armor and throw her weapon down, too, and when she picked his gun up to strap it over her back instead, he let out a big sigh. “Fine. Whatever. C’mon. Follow me.”

They snuck, hugging their backs to the wall, from the alley to the doorway despite the sheer emptiness of the entire world. Tom crossed to the other side of the door and made the hand signal that indicated he was going to kick it in. Chelsea held up a finger, stopping him just before he did, and tried the handle—which, of course, was unlocked. She pushed the door open with a grin on her face, then got serious again and pointed her gun up and down the entrance hallway. When she saw it was all clear, she waved for Tom to follow her.

While Chelsea snuck from wall to wall, hall to hall, in perfect reconnaissance procedure, Tom didn’t even try to hide or protect himself at all. Chelsea was getting the feeling that he might not be as dedicated to Jonah’s safety as he claimed to be. She cleared a big conference room, kitchen, and office, leaving only one closed door left in the place, when she finally spoke.

“What the fuck are you doing, Tom?”

“Searching the premises.” He shrugged. “It looks like no one’s home.”

Chelsea’s hands started to tremble and her palms slicked up. If she wasn’t wearing gloves, she might have dropped her gun, but instead, she raised it, aiming the barrel at Tom despite her brain’s confusion as to exactly why. “You’re not taking this seriously at all,” her mouth said. Why was it being so harsh on him? “This is our son’s life at stake, Tom. Jonah’s life. And you’re willing to throw it all away?”

“Woah, now. Settle down,” Tom said, raising his hands in defense. Chelsea was glad she had her helmet on so he couldn’t see the disgust she couldn’t keep off her face. “I’m not the bad guy here. No need to point that thing at me.”

Chelsea held the gun steady, still pointing it at him. “Aren’t you, though, Tom? You’re the one who said you’d do anything so you didn’t have to kill someone else. Is that what you’re doing now? Sabotaging the mission? Putting our son in danger for your own selfish desires?”

“No.” Tom chuckled nervously, hands trembling in the air now. “Of course not. I— I wouldn’t… Jonah would— The Captain—”

“Now your tune changes.” Chelsea laughed and she didn’t know why. She felt like she was losing control of herself. She couldn’t stop. “Now that you see the gun pointing at your head it means something to you, but when you can’t see it and it’s pointing at our son’s head this is all a game.”

“No, I—”

“It’s not a game, Tom. I’m not playing it anymore.” She shook her head, her arms trembling and grip on the gun loosening. “You can take this mission seriously, or I’ll—”

Bang.

The front door of the house swung open and in pointed five or six guns.

Pow.

Chelsea’s trigger finger slipped. Her arm recoiled. Tom made his puppy dog eyes one last time before, gripping his stomach, he fell to his knees.

Pow pow pow.

Shots rang out from the pile of guns in the doorway, whizzing past Chelsea and setting her feet into motion. She dove into the kitchen, back braced against the counter, her only protection, and shots still rang.

No. She shook her head, blinking tears away as the shots still fired over and around her. No, no, no. Not like this. Not my Tom. Not by—

Crack crack.

Their aim was getting better. Their guns were more powerful than the standard Sixer fare, too. Those were probably the same terrorists who had attacked the precinct. They were firing the protectors’ own guns at Chelsea. Her inherited instinct and training kicked in. She knew what she had to do.

Pop pop pop.

She jumped up from behind the counter like a protector in a box and dropped three of the five bodies with three well placed shots. Her kill count was steadily rising, and the more she did it the more she wanted to.

Pop pop.

Two more shooters dead with two more shots, and Chelsea plopped back down, hidden behind the counter despite the room being empty of anything living but her. She was getting better at this killing thing, she told herself over and over, trying to get her heartbeat under control. Maybe she would make a good protector after all.

Her heart rate calmed and most of the adrenaline absorbed into her body, Chelsea stood on shaky legs, using what was left of the counter as a balance, to survey the room. By the looks of the tattered mass of splinters that the counter she had been using for cover had become, a few more seconds of indecision on her part and she’d be just another body dying in that room. She shook her head. Thank Amaru she wasn’t.

There were six lifeless bodies on the blood-stained floor, but only one that Chelsea crossed to kneel by. His whole undershirt was puddled with blood all up under his limp arm and on his stomach while his face was twisted into a grotesque smile, as if he welcomed the fate that had finally come to him. Chelsea didn’t want to throw up this time, but she did want to cry, and cry she did until her tears were dried up.

She stood and surveyed the room again only to find the same six bodies and all dead thanks to her. Had she done the right thing? Of course not when it came to Tom, but tha—that was an accident.

That was an accident. That was an accident. That was an accident.

The more she repeated it to herself the more she believed it was true. She was pointing the gun at him, yes, but she never would have pulled the trigger if that pile of trash didn’t storm in with their guns blazing. She had never meant to hurt him, her Tom. Of course she didn’t. She was simply trying to get his attention, to make him take this mission seriously, and it worked. It worked until…

What had she done? What was she to do next?

She couldn’t just stand there and wait for someone else to come. Another troop of Sixers would be on their way soon, no doubt, and then there’d be an even larger mass of bodies to explain. No, she had to get out of there and fast. But she couldn’t just leave Tom’s body behind. Not after she had…

She had to call for backup. It was her only option. Even if it took the local patrol forever to get there. She ran back to the alley to strap Tom’s vest back on him and lay his helmet by his side then make the call.

“Emergency line open,” she said, finding it surprisingly easy to keep her voice steady. “This is Officer Pardy reporting a four three nine in progress. We have an Officer down in Sector F of Outland Six. Send medical unit and backup as soon as possible. Over.”

“Loud and clear, Officer Pardy,” a voice replied over the headphones in her helmet. “Repeat. That’s a four three nine in progress?”

“Affirmative. I repeat, we have a four three nine in progres. Send backup immediately. Over.”

“The closest Officers are on their way. Over and out.”

The comm link shut off with a barely perceptible blip and Chelsea let out a sigh of frustration. Maybe Tom wasn’t so incompetent after all. Maybe the entire Force and the rest of the worlds beside that were just as ignorant, naive, and incapable. She had seen enough idiots getting ahead in the Force to think that stupidity was the norm rather than an anomaly.

What those protectors might have thought when they first saw Chelsea, standing over a mass of lifeless bodies, staring through the blood-stained vinyl at a universe far away and only accessible to her, she may never know. If they were less trained in reacting to violence or more loving of the scum that inhabited World Six, those Officers might have seen her as a crazed murderous psychopath, bent on admiring the ghastly product of her horrible profession. These two protectors, though—Officers and rookies though they were—had been through a particular upbringing, the same one Chelsea had gone through as a kid. Violence was a part and parcel of life in Outland One. Surviving violence and inflicting it on those who would inflict it on you before they had the chance to displayed the epitome of prowess. Murdering Sixers made one venerable, put one’s picture in the school books next to the mythological heroes of society, recorded your biography so generations yet to be born could read it forevermore. These protectors saw not a psychopath in Chelsea, but a heroic protector, doing her duty in the defense of property, liberty, and life, and she would no doubt go down in history for avenging the death of her husband on duty.

Hands patted her back. There were still only two other officers there, but it seemed like so many more. They asked her how it felt to finally get to destroy some of the scum from Six. They congratulated her on her kills. They apologized for her loss, even if it was an honorable loss, even if Tom had found the perfect way for a protector to die. And she?

She smiled and nodded, playing along with the other protectors. She told them it was exhilarating to finally take justice into her own hands, exciting to dispense it to those who so direly needed their fair share. She thanked them, assuring them that this was not the end of her kill list, that she would do her best and damndest—excuse the word in such a heat of excitement—to dish out the same justice to all Sixer trash. She nodded, letting a single tear fall from her eye, and agreed with them that this was indeed the best way for a protector to die, as a martyr for property, liberty, and life. She only worried about how to tell her son.

Then there were more of them. Protectors flooded the room. Chelsea was lost in a sea of them. How long she had been reminiscing and congratulating herself with the other two she didn’t know, but she was glad it was finally over. It was all over now. No more mission to Scumland to kill scumbags. No more of Tom’s exploits to endanger Jonah. No more of Tom at all.

Her control over herself was breaking and she was on the verge of bursting into tears when a gloved hand grasped her by the shoulder and turned her to stare into a masked and mustachioed face. “Officer Pardy,” the Captain said in a modulated voice, hiding any emotion underneath those blinking neon teeth. “To my office. Now. I’ll meet you there.”

“But, sir—” Chelsea started.

“Now!”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Chelsea said, ticking off a salute in automatic response to the volume of the Captain’s voice—even modulated she could hear it. “Right away, sir.” She marched out, bumping shoulders with the crowd of protectors left in her wake, and stood at attention until the elevator doors closed, cutting her off again from the rest of the world.

The elevator ride was infinite. The solitude was welcome and it elicited a sobbing, sloppy, teary-eyed scene which Chelsea was glad no other human witnessed. She enveloped herself in the cold misery of a life alone, responsible for the life of another. She was out of Hell into a new one, out of the pit and into the frying pan, and yet somehow she managed to bottle it all up inside again by the time the elevator stopped and the doors reopened.

The hall was empty, thank Amaru, and there was no one to question her about what she had done—what she had done. She found solitude in the Captain’s office, too—staring out the wall sized window onto the snowy mountain scene—but she didn’t let her sadness overtake her this time. She maintained control of herself. The Captain could walk in at any moment and Chelsea didn’t need her to see what only the elevator had witnessed.

When the Captain did walk in, a single tear had broken through Chelsea’s defenses. She wiped it away as she turned to salute, and the Captain didn’t even acknowledge the salute—much less the tear, to Chelsea’s relief.

“Fucking shit, Pardy. Fuck—king—shit,” the Captain said, throwing her helmet at the wall and plopping into her desk chair. “What do I have to do?” she yelled out the still closed window at no one.

Chelsea didn’t say a word. She didn’t want to make things worse. The Captain was obviously pissed at what Chelsea had done, and with good reason, too. They had lost an officer in the line of duty on an operation that was supposed to be hush hush. Chelsea was responsible for that and her punishment would no doubt be severe. Hopefully a little less so for the fact that she knew not to defend her heinous failures.

“You have no idea what’s going on out there, Pardy,” the Captain said, turning in her chair to look into Chelsea’s eyes. “Do you?”

“I—uh… No, sir.” Chelsea shook her head. She really didn’t, and now was not the time to pretend like she did.

The Captain grinned, nodding her head slowly. The way her teeth reflected as white as the walls and the snow on the mountain outside seemed to want to impose some meaning on Chelsea but she didn’t know what it was. “Pardy, you’re a good Officer. I hope you know that. That’s why I hate for this to happen to someone such as yourself.”

Chelsea braced herself. Here it came, her punishment for killing Tom and starting the shootout. Even if the Captain never found out it was actually Chelsea who had killed Tom and not the trash that died with him, this was karma taking its due. “I understand, sir,” Chelsea said. “You do what you have to do. As did I.”

The Captain broke into laughter. “I do— Wait— Ho ho ho. Me, Pardy? What did I do besides send you on an impossible mission?”

“I— What, sir? I meant your punishment, sir.”

“Punishment?” The Captain was really laughing now. “Ho ho ho. Pardy. Now— Pardy— Ho ho ho. Punishment for what?”

“Well, for my failed mission, sir. Tom—er—Officer Pardy, sir… He’s dead. I killed— I killed all those Sixers. I—”

Oh ho ho! You kill me, Pardy. Sorry for the ill timed figure of speech, but there’s no better way to say it. What do you think this is, huh? So you killed some Sixers? So what? They had guns, Pardy. You performed your duty and eliminated the threat. The only one who failed is Pardy Two for dying, but how could we punish a dead man? Ho ho ho!”

Chelsea gritted her teeth. Even though it was her who had pulled the trigger that ended Tom’s life—an accident she reminded herself—she didn’t like the flippant manner with which the Captain was treating his demise. Who was she, even as a Captain, to put such little value on Chelsea’s husband’s life?

“If anything, we’ll be giving you a medal of honor, Pardy,” the Captain went on. “And we’ll be giving Pardy Two a posthumous one at that. No, you’ve done well for yourself—and for your son, whose future is looking brighter than ever. But that’s not what I asked you here for.”

Chelsea was speechless. This couldn’t be happening. She wasn’t even sure if they had killed the right Sixers, Tom was gone forever, and more than anything, she had a deep sense that the mission was an abject failure. There was no way in this world—or any of them for that matter—that she should be getting praise for what was probably a fireable offence.

“Although there was one little snag in your performance,” the Captain said.

Chelsea scoffed, as if Tom’s death wasn’t snag enough.

“You didn’t get the targets I tasked you with specifically. Though you did manage to take out most of their closest staff. So we got that going for us. Which is nice.”

“I—uh. I don’t understand.”

“Your targets weren’t there, Pardy. You know, the people you were supposed to kill.”

“O—or apprehend, sir.”

The Captain chuckled. “Sure, Pardy. But we see the choice you made, don’t we? Ha ha ho!”

Chelsea didn’t know what to say. She had failed and failed and failed, and the Captain didn’t care one bit.

“No, Pardy, but that’s not what we’re here about. I admire your decision. It was the correct one, the profitable one, and if you stick with me, you’ll see some of those profits. But only if you stick with me.”

“I—sir…” Chelsea didn’t understand. Any of it. She felt worse now for doing what she had done than she had felt when she was actually doing it. Why? What was different? “But Tom— I didn’t get the targets— I—”

“You did your best, Pardy. You did what you could and what you had to do. There’s no question about that. From anyone. You did good well, and I want to ensure that you’re in a position to do it even better in the future. Are you feeling me? It’s a war out there, Pardy. A big one. We’re tight on bodies here in the Force, and you’ve shown us that you have what it takes. So what do you say?”

“I—uh—” Chelsea’s lips stuck together as she tried to speak. Her palms should have been slick but they seemed to dry and crack. The whole world was evaporating around her. “I don’t know, sir. I don’t understand.”

“I’m offering you a promotion, Pardy. I’m offering you a team under your command under my command. I’m offering you the ensured safety of your career here and your Jonah at home. I’m offering you the world on a platinum platter. So, Officer Pardy, what do you say?”

What could she say? “Sir, yes, sir.”

#     #     #

< LX. Roo     [Table of Contents]     LXII. Ansel >

And there it is, dear readers. Another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Come back next week for the next chapter or pick up a full copy of this novel and the previous two in the series through this link. Either way, have a great weekend. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 47: Chelsea

Hello Saturday, hello new chapter in the Infinite Limits story. Today it’s Chelsea at her new job on the Protector Force. I’m tired and lazy this morning so that’s the only introduction you get, but here the chapter is. I hope you enjoy it:

< XLVI. Roo     [Table of Contents]     XLVIII. Ansel >

XLVII. Chelsea

She never could have imagined that protecting would be like this. Hell, she never could have imagined that she would be a protector in the first place, but here she was. It was all Tom’s fault, too. Her becoming a protector and them sticking her in the shittiest of posts both. She was all too sure of that.

What had gotten into Tom anyway? Honestly, Chelsea was a little worried to have to leave Jonah home alone with him. Someone who thought it was a good idea to help Sixer trash by throwing his life away in an attempt to assassinate the Lord of Outland was probably not competent enough to raise a child, but they couldn’t afford an outside housekeeper with a new recruit’s pay—which amounted to not much more than food and boarding—and so Tom it was. Chelsea would have to climb through the ranks as quickly as she could if she wanted a proper caretaker for her son, and from the looks of it, her superiors weren’t going to let her prove herself anytime soon. So far it seemed like the only thing they were going to do was sit Chelsea behind a desk, proofreading reports or signing weapons and evidence in and out of storage, a job which made her feel no more important than a housekeeper.

Chelsea scoffed, looking around the mostly empty room—empty except for one other Officer whose duty it was to sweep and vacuum the place like he was the protector force’s actual housekeeper. That was a ridiculous saying, though, no more important than a housekeeper. No matter how often they had tried to beat it into her head since she was a child, it never seemed to stick. Even if she were on an actual protector’s beat instead of sitting behind a desk, she would feel the same way. She couldn’t help it. She enjoyed cooking, didn’t hate sweeping, and loved nothing more than to see her son growing up with every new day, getting to be a part of his life as he did. No matter how many times anyone told her that the only fulfilling path in life was to become a protector and die in the course of duty, Chelsea knew they were wrong. She also knew she had no choice but to be a protector if she wanted what was best for Jonah, though, so there was no going back.

Chelsea groaned when Officer Housekeeper—she didn’t know the man’s actual name—left the room, pushing his cart of cleaning supplies and emptied garbage. She slammed her head on the desk a couple of times, trying to wake herself from the boredom, and when she looked up, Sergeant Blowhard—another protector whose name she had yet to learn—was standing at attention in front of her desk.

“Oh, uh, hello, sir,” Chelsea said, blushing.

Good morning, Sergeant,” the Sergeant corrected her. “And salute when you’re addressing a superior, Pardy. There’s not much lower you can go from here, but there is something below you, and trust me when I say that you do not want to find out what that something is.” He grinned an evil looking grin, imagining Chelsea in Officer Housekeeper’s position no doubt.

“Yes, sir, Sergeant, sir,” Chelsea said, saluting. As much as she enjoyed keeping her own house, she knew that nothing was more degrading than keeping the protectors’ house for them. “What can I do for you, sir?”

“Well, why don’t you start by telling me why you were hitting your head on your desk, Pardy. I don’t remember seeing that maneuver anywhere in the regulation manual.” He chuckled a big hearty belly laugh, holding onto his gut as he did.

“Oh. That, sir. Well… I just kind of do it to get my head straight sometimes.”

“Get your head straight? Ha! Looks more to me like you were scrambling it. Ha ha ha!”

“Oh, well…” Chelsea didn’t know what to say. No one was supposed to see that. No one was supposed to come back to her little dungeon until shift change. And Sergeant… Fuck. She really needed to figure out his name if she didn’t want to make a fool of herself. But Sergeant whoever never came down there at all.

“Well, there, Pardy,” Sergeant What’s-his-name went on, seemingly ignoring Chelsea’s embarrassment—she hoped. “I hope your brains aren’t so scrambled you have trouble finding your way to the Captain’s office. She sent me down here, personally, to fetch you so it must be urgent. I wouldn’t want you making a fool of our little department down here so don’t do anything that you might regret.”

He didn’t have to say that again. “No, sir,” Chelsea said, shaking her head. “Or—I mean—Yes, sir. I won’t, sir. I can find my way, sir. Any idea of why she’d be asking, sir?”

The Sergeant eyed her suspiciously. Chelsea wanted to blush, or look away, or cover her face, but she fought all her natural instincts. “You know I don’t,” he said, crossing around the desk and lifting her from her chair by her arm. “And even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.” He took her seat, rocking back and forth as if to test its sturdiness. “Now hurry up, Pardy. I’m covering your post until you get back, and I don’t have time for this shit work—pardon my French.”

“Um—uh—yes, sir. Er—Sergeant, sir.” Chelsea saluted, starting on her way out.

“And, Pardy!” the Sergeant called.

Chelsea stopped in her tracks, turning to face him.

“Don’t embarrass me. You got that? Don’t embarrass us.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Chelsea said with a salute then marched out the door.

The Captain’s office was far away from Chelsea’s dank dungeon, no doubt, but with modern technology, even the furthest of distances was only an elevator ride away. Still, the short walk down the hall and the half-minute elevator ride felt like an eternity.

Her heart raced as she waited for the elevator to fall out from underneath her. Her palms slickened up so much she had to wipe them against her cargo pants.

Fuck!

She had forgotten her helmet in her haste to leave. It was probably sitting there at Sergeant Know-nothing’s feet right now. She started breathing heavily just thinking about it, and soon the elevator doors dinged open.

Would the Captain care that Chelsea had forgotten her helmet? Maybe she should go back to get it. But, no. Sergeant Angry-already would be there, wondering what she was doing back, complaining that she had wasted too much of his time already. No. That wasn’t an option anymore. She had t—

The elevator doors closed again.

“Shit,” she said. “I mean, open!”

They dinged open then she took a deep breath and stepped out of the elevator. It couldn’t be too bad, could it? Chelsea had been doing her best no matter how banal and inconsequential the job they had set before her actually was. Maybe the Captain had nothing at all to complain about, only praise in store. Chelsea took another deep breath, trying to hold that thought in her head as she marched into the Captain’s office.

“Pardy, take a seat,” the Captain said without standing from her own seat where she was staring out a long, tall window onto a snowy mountain scene. “And take your helmet off,” she added.

“Oh—uh…” Chelsea hurried to the low stool in front of the Captain’s desk—her knees bending up to her chest as she sat down—so she could hide the fact that she hadn’t had a helmet on the entire time. “Yes, sir,” she said as she did.

“Good,” the Captain said, turning and folding her arms on the desk. “Now do you know why I asked you here today?”

“No, sir. No idea, sir,” Chelsea said, shaking her head though she had a sneaking suspicion it was to talk about Tom. If Tom’s failures were going to be the subject of discussion, though, the Captain was going to have to bring them up herself.

The Captain eyed Chelsea suspiciously, tapping her fingers on the desk. Chelsea tried not to blush or break eye contact, but it was getting harder with every second and it already seemed like the Captain had been silent for an eternity. Chelsea was about to burst out talking when the Captain sighed.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t see how you could. You haven’t had any communications from the outside worlds. I’m sure of that.”

Chelsea held her tongue again. She didn’t know why the Captain was bringing her communications up. She almost wanted to cry because of it. Not because of the breech of privacy—which was all but expected in the force—but because she missed Jonah so much and still had no idea why he hadn’t even tried to contact her once since she joined up.

Then the Captain confirmed Chelsea’s worst fear. “It’s about your son,” she said.

“Jonah!?” Tears came rolling down Chelsea’s cheeks no matter how hard she fought them. “Wh—What happened?”

“Now calm down, Pardy.” The Captain slammed her hand on the desk. “Get a hold of yourself. You’re disrespecting the uniform.”

“But— Wha—”

No buts. Now listen to me. If you’ll just let me speak, you’ll see it isn’t all that bad.”

Chelsea sniffled and wiped her eyes, hating her job as a protector more than ever. If she were at home with Jonah instead of spending all her days behind a stupid desk, doing nothing useful, there would be no reason for the Captain to have this talk. Tom obviously couldn’t handle being a protector—as easy as it had been for Chelsea so far—so why would she be naive enough to think that he would be capable of the infinitely more complicated task of caring for Jonah? She gathered herself, sobbed a few more times, then nodded silently. “Go ahead.”

“Jonah’s been arrested, Pardy.”

Arrested?” Chelsea gasped. “Is there anything worse than that?”

“Now settle down right now, Pardy!” The Captain slapped another hand on the desk. “You can still be demoted, you know. The storage desk is nowhere near the bottom of this Hellhole.”

Chelsea composed herself. The Captain was right about that. Sergeant Ignorant had already warned her of as much.

“Now listen,” the Captain said. “And keep cool because it gets worse before it gets better. Now he and his partner—”

“Liz? No.” Chelsea held a hand to her mouth, shaking her head, and the Captain shot her a dirty look.

“They were both caught entering the holding cells from the Junior—Now wait a minute. Let me finish. They were with the Sixer, the little girl your husband helped, you know. What’s her name again?”

Chelsea shook her head. How was she supposed to know the name of some Sixer trashling? Even if it was the same scum who had already ruined her life once, she wasn’t going to learn the thing’s name. And of course she already knew Tom was involved in this somehow before she even entered the Captain’s office. Chelsea’s face turned red. She wanted to stand up, knock the stupid tiny chair over, and quit the force right then and there so she could go home and take care of Jonah the right way. But she knew that wasn’t an option. They needed a protector’s income if they wanted to support the entire family, and she was the only one capable of being a protector.

“Anyway,” the Captain went on. “Needless to say, they were all apprehended as soon as they entered secure property. The trash was taken out, the girl was punished severely, and the boy—your Jonah—was given to me.”

Chelsea sat up straighter in her seat. She regretted more than ever forgetting her helmet. She knew exactly what the Captain really meant under her veiled wording.

“Don’t you want to know what I did with him?” the Captain asked with a smile. “With your baby boy?”

“Sir, no, sir,” Chelsea said, saluting. “I’m sure you punished him accordingly, sir.” She hoped that wasn’t the case. The punishment for such a severe transgression would no doubt result in Jonah’s expulsion from the Junior Academy, and as much as Chelsea hated being a protector, she knew it was Jonah’s lifelong dream to become Chief of the force.

The Captain chuckled. “Pardy,” she said, shaking her head. “You kill me. It’s amazing how quickly your tone changes. You’re so much more perceptive than your husband ever was. You know that?”

Chelsea didn’t answer. She was perceptive enough to recognize a rhetorical question when she heard one. She let the Captain have her fun and waited on the edge of her seat for news of what punishment Jonah was suffered.

“Pardy,” the Captain said. “That is the other Pardy, ex-Officer Pardy, your husband, seemed to be able to display a particular breed of denseness the likes of which I have never seen in my long years on this Force.”

“I’m not my husband, sir,” Chelsea said a little too sharply. She didn’t mean for the words to come out sounding so harsh but she couldn’t control her tone. She was tired of paying for Tom’s sins already and the debt only kept getting deeper.

“No, Pardy.” The Captain shook her head. “That’s exactly my point, you see. You’re not him. You’re something entirely different. And that gives you a chance to make something better of yourself than he was ever able to. It gives you a chance to come out on top where he failed so miserably. You can do things the right way this time through, and I’m giving you the opportunity to do just that.”

Chelsea shook her head. This was all fluff. It was densely packed with words, sure, but weightless words, wind. The Captain was hinting at something else, some grander plan, but Chelsea only cared about one thing. “My son,” she said. “What punishment did you give him?”

“Now, I’m getting there, Pardy. Settle down. I’m trying to offer you an opportunity here. Or are you as blind as your husband was to that?”

Chelsea didn’t respond. The Captain was going to take as long as she wanted to anyway. She only took a moment, though.

“No,” the Captain said. “I didn’t think so. You’re perceptive. As I’ve said. Now, let’s get back to your son—in a roundabout way, at least. What I’ve been trying to say is that I need you to accept a promotion to fieldworker.”

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Don’t know why I wouldn’t, sir,” Chelsea said, trying to hold back instinctual sarcasm. She really wouldn’t have a choice but to accept the job even if the Captain wasn’t holding her son hostage.

“No. Of course not,” the Captain said. “There would be no reason for you to deny the job. There should be no reason why you won’t agree to work Outland Five like I ask, either. Then again, you don’t really have the option to request Six like your husband did, but you wouldn’t do that to me even if you could, would you?” She smiled.

“Request?”

The smile got wider. “Oh,” the Captain said, mocking surprise. “You didn’t know?”

A tear welled up behind Chelsea’s eye but she could fight this one. She had cried over Tom enough already. But still, it was hard to believe that even he could be so stupid as to request Outland Six. Though there really was no reason for the Captain to be lying to her about it now.

“Whatever,” Chelsea said. “When do you need me in Five?”

“Oh, you don’t care?” The Captain smiled. “I guess I see why. There’s nothing you can do about it anymore. Is there? No. But you can still help your son. I had a nice little chat with the boy, you know. He’s got a good head on his shoulders and a bright future. If you play your cards right.”

“What do you want me to do?” Chelsea was getting tired of this Captain and her games. She wanted to stand up and rush out right then but she knew she couldn’t.

“I want you to go back to your desk and take the rest of the day to think about what will happen to your son if you don’t do exactly as I say. Then I want you to imagine something worse, and still, I promise you, you won’t be close to what I have in mind for him.” She grinned. “I guarantee it.”

Chelsea sat on her hands so she couldn’t swing at the Captain who chuckled at the sound of Chelsea’s annoyed foot bouncing under the desk.

“Good,” the Captain said. “You seem to be getting it. Go on back and mull it over now.” She turned to look out the window again. “And be prepared tomorrow. You have a promotion ceremony to attend. You’re the guest of honor.”

Chelsea stormed out of the room before the Captain was done talking. She slammed the door closed behind her, not caring what the Captain thought, then stomped through the hall to the elevator and screamed at the top of her lungs while the floor fell out from underneath her. She had just enough time to take a deep breath and compose herself before the elevator stopped and its doors opened onto the surprised face of Sergeant Blowhard.

“Oh—uh—Officer Pardy,” he said. “I was just coming to find you. I left Officer Janitor at your station.”

Chelsea didn’t care who was there. She just wanted to get back to her desk and be alone for a while—and maybe beat her head on it’s hard surface a few times—but she couldn’t even escape the elevator because Sergeant Clueless was blocking her way.

“Well, then, Officer,” he said, not budging. “How did the meeting go? You didn’t manage to embarrass me, did you?”

Chelsea shook her head, biting her tongue. “No, sir. I—”

“Well spit it out, then. What did the Captain say?”

“A promotion, sir. She offered me a—uh—a promotion.”

“A promotion?” Sergeant Disbelief chuckled, holding his belly. “You’ve got to be kidding me. For what? All you do is sit behind that stupid desk all day.”

Chelsea was pretty sure that all he did was sit behind his own desk all day—and a bigger, more comfortable desk at that—but she didn’t want to draw the conversation out any longer. “I don’t know, sir, but she told me I was being promoted.”

“But, no.” His face was turning red now. “I would— Someone would have told me if you, an inferior in my department, were getting a promotion. I would have known.”

Chelsea shrugged. Obviously not.

“What did she really say? You can’t hide your punishment like this, you know. I’ll talk to the Captain myself if I have to.”

“Go right ahead, sir,” Chelsea said, stepping to the side so he could get in the elevator and out of her way.

“Well—I—uh… I will, then.” He stepped in and Chelsea hurried past him toward her office. “Just you wait and see.”

Officer Janitor let out a huge sigh of relief when she came in. He looked utterly terrified to be sitting behind her desk. “Thank Amaru,” he said, standing up and brushing off the seat behind him. “This is your job, right? I hope you don’t need to check anything out because I don’t have the slightest idea of what I’m supposed to be doing here.” He scurried back to his supply cart and checked it to make sure everything was in order.

“Yes,” Chelsea said, taking her seat. “You can go.” And she didn’t add, “please”.

“Amaru serve you,” Officer Janitor said with a little bow, pushing the cart out of the room. “I don’t know how you stand such responsibility.”

When he was finally gone, Chelsea slammed her head on the desk three times in quick succession. Why did her life continue to get worse?

No. She knew why. Tom was why. Even though his failures were so far away, they still rippled out to fuck her little world up.

All of a sudden her world literally shook. Her desk rattled, and not from her tapping feet or slamming head.  Gun blasts went off in the hall outside, and Chelsea paused, frozen in place with shock.

Her heart beat faster and her hands slickened up. Her stomach gurgled. She had to react but how? Her muscles were ready before her mind was and they jumped into motion.

She scooped up her helmet and slammed it on her head first thing. She regretted forgetting it once already today and she wasn’t about to let that happen again. As her eyes adjusted to the helmet’s cameras, more gunshots rang from outside. It sounded like a war zone out there.

She ordered up a gun from the armory—she wasn’t assigned one for normal duty but was almost certain that the gunfire outside was cause enough to implement emergency procedures. When she was sure her gun was loaded and ready, she pressed her back to the wall right next to the office door and took a deep breath. The gunfire had stopped but the assailants would no doubt still be out there. It was now or never.

She took one more deep breath and kicked the door open, pointing her gun out to look up and down the hall. The normally pristine white was marred with splatters of red, still bleeding bodies strewn across the hall. Here and there were a couple of dirty clothed pieces of trash who looked like they had come from Six. If anyone deserved to die, it was them, but Chelsea was remiss to see that the third body in the hall was clad in protector’s white and lying next to a supply cart.

She ran to him and knelt at his side. Officer Janitor was still bleeding and having some trouble breathing, gasping for air with every breath. “It’ll be alright,” Chelsea whispered, brushing hair from his eyes.

Janitor coughed from deep inside his lungs. “I— They— Get them. Kak kak. Get… Them…” he managed to cough up before his lifeless head slumped to the ground.

Chelsea took a deep breath and tried to wipe away a tear but her helmet’s face mask was in the way. Blinking the tear away instead, she stood in a rage. Scumbag Sixer trash had been responsible for enough misery in her life, it was about time they started paying for all they had done.

She sprinted down the hall, toward where she thought the gunfire had come from, and pressed her back against the wall. She took a deep breath then turned quickly around the corner, pointing her gun, to find no one, no bodies even. At the same time, two shots rang out from the other end of the hall and Chelsea only barely dove out of their path.

She crab crawled up to another wall—her back now to her office and the assailants—and took a few deep breaths, trying not to panic.There was no more gunfire. The Sixers were probably rifling through her stock already. Now was the time to make things right.

She jumped up and spun fast, pointing her gun down the hall that was still empty of any living person. She jogged to her office door, slammed her back on the wall next to it, then pointed her gun inside.

“Freeze fuckers!” she yelled, accidentally squeezing the trigger and letting off a string of bullets into the room. One body fell to the ground as the others dove for cover. Realizing what she had done, Chelsea jumped to the other side of the door, taking cover herself. Good thing, too, because a barrage of bullets came flying back soon after. The Sixers had obviously gotten into the weapon stock, exactly what Chelsea was trying to prevent. She was pretty sure nothing could get worse when:

“Pardy!”

Chelsea turned to see the Captain—mustachioed helmet giving her away—yelling from down the hall.

“What the fuck are you doing? Don’t you know what’s going on?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Chelsea called back. Of course she fucking did. “We have intruders, sir.”

“Intruders?” the Captain asked, moving closer. “Way down here? I thought they were all in the holding cells.”

A round of shots rang out from Chelsea’s office, embedding themselves in snug little holes in the wall across the hall. The Captain slid on her ass to put her back on the other wall, right next to Chelsea’s.

“Intruders, sir,” Chelsea repeated, smiling for some reason, though the Captain couldn’t see it.

“I see. Well, take care of them, Pardy.”

“Take care of them?” Chelsea chuckled. “Do you know how many there are? How many guns they have now? You take care of them.”

“Now, Pardy, you listen to me. If you can’t take care of a storage desk, then how can I promote you to street work? No, you’ll take care of them yourself, and your son will thank you for it.”

Chelsea scoffed. “You’re not going to be able to hold this over me forever, you know. My son won’t always be a student.”

“But I’ll always be his superior officer.” The Captain smiled. “And yours. And I’ll make both of your lives Hell if you don’t do everything I say.”

Chelsea shook her head. “This is only the beginning. You’ll never let me out from underneath your thumb, will you?”

“Not at this rate I won’t.” The Captain laughed. “So get going or find yourself deeper in debt.”

“I… Fuck.” Chelsea had no choice. She took a quick deep breath, reassured her grip on her gun, then stood and fired blindly into the office, hoping for the best.

#     #     #

< XLVI. Roo     [Table of Contents]     XLVIII. Ansel >

There it is, dear readers. Hope you enjoyed it. Don’t forget to pick up a copy here if you want to read the whole book. Have a great weekend.

-Bryan

 

Dividing by Ø

Here comes another one, folks. If you’ve been following along on the blog, you already know that, last weekend, I posted the final chapter of book two of the Infinite Limits series, An Almost Tangent, to the website here. Well, I’m happy to say that today I’m right on schedule to publish book three, Dividing by Ø, and continue sharing chapters in the Infinite Limits story to my blog. (If you subscribe to my email newsletter, you already know this and have entered for your chance to win a free copy of the ebook, of course, but if you don’t, you can subscribe to that here.)

Yay! 🙂

That’s right, dear readers. You can purchase a full copy of book three in the Infinite Limits tetralogy starting today through this link. Now, Amazon is taking some time in figuring out which books are mine and that the print and ebook versions are the same book so you may have to do a little searching to find the one you want, but they should both be on my Amazon author’s page right here.

Thank you all for your support so far and into the future. We do nothing alone. And now, without further ado, here’s the first chapter in Dividing by Ø. Enjoy.

Dividing_by__Cover_for_Kindle

 

 

 

 

 

For you.

 

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

43. Nikola
44. Laura
45. Anna
46. Roo
47. Chelsea
48. Ansel
49. Mr. Walker
50. Nikola
51. Laura
52. Anna
53. Roo
54. Chelsea
55. Ansel
56. Mr. Walker
57. Nikola
58. Laura
59. Anna
60. Roo
61. Chelsea
62. Ansel
63. Mr. Walker

 

 

 

 

 

“Cause I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”

Nina Simone

 

 

 

 

 

XLIII. Nikola

Nikola took a deep breath of the cool air and held it in her lungs for as long as she could, her hand set gingerly on the doorknob in front of her. Letting the air out as slowly as possible, molecule by molecule almost, she adjusted her glasses. She knew that Tillie would be happy to get out of the Hellish prison the protectors had put her in, but she wasn’t as sure about how Tillie would feel concerning where they had taken her. She huffed and fixed her glasses again. There was only one way to find out.

The door creaked open to reveal an official looking reception area, something requiring a high level of security to get past. The walls and carpet were two slightly different shades of gray, and the short chairs lining the room were a third. Behind the reception desk a gray-haired old man peered like a fish through the bulletproof glass that separated his side of the room from hers.

Nikola crept up to the desk, trying to make as little noise as possible—all these drab gray offices made her feel like she was in a library—but the door creaked closed behind her and slammed shut. She jumped at the sound of it, pretty sure she saw the old man behind the desk groan and roll his eyes, and when she got close enough to speak, he cut her off before she could even get started.

“Bonjour,” he said in a slow, drawling voice. “Comment puis-je vous aider?”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola blushed. She knew enough French to understand the old man’s question, but she wasn’t confident she could speak her response. “Eh—Je m’appelle Nikola. Je suis ici pour…uh…I was sent to see the American.” She shrugged at the English bit.

The old man behind the desk rolled his fishy eyes for sure this time. “Ah.” He nodded. “L’American. Oui. Let me see here…” Somehow he spoke even slower in English. “Here it is. Yes. Nikola Montpierre, Special Agent First Class in the Revolutionary Workers Defense League. Here to put one Tillie Manager through orientation. Is that correct, mademoiselle?”

Nikola nodded. “Yes, sir. That’s me. What do you—”

“Please place your thumb on the scanner in front of you.”

“Oh—uh…” Nikola pressed her thumb to the tiny window on the desk in front of her and the camera behind it scanned her print. Satisfied, the glass door next to her beeped and opened.

“Agent Pierre of intake will give you further directions,” the old man said, not even looking at her anymore as he spoke, back instead to staring at his computer screen. “Just through the door there.”

“Oh—uh… Thanks.” Nikola nodded and went in the clear glass door, through a short hall, and into a smaller, darker reception area. There were no chairs in this room, and the colors bordered closer to black than gray, but there was still bullet proof glass between her and who she assumed was Agent Pierre behind the desk in front of her.

“Bonjour,” he said with a smile and a twinkle in his eye. He seemed much nicer than the old man already. “How can I help you?”

“Oh, uh—I’m here to see Tillie.”

“Oh, oui, oui, mon couer.” He chuckled, his eyes twinkling. “Of course. But I already knew that. I intended to ask if there was any further assistance I could offer.”

Nikola blushed. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what she was doing, or what to expect. She just wanted to talk to Tillie. “Uh…”

“I see.” Agent Pierre winked. “It’s your first time, then, huh?”

Nikola nodded.

“Well, she’ll be right inside waiting for you. And remember, you can do whatever it is you have to do in there. The walls are thick, see. You might as well be in an entirely different world.” He laughed a big hearty laugh, still somehow managing to maintain his French accent as he did.

“Um…okay,” Nikola said. She wasn’t sure why she would need soundproofing but Pierre seemed to be trying to help. “So I just—I just go in then?” She looked around for a door but there was only the one she had come in through.

“Oh, no, sweetie. You don’t go anywhere. We take you there. Adieu.”

Before she could respond, the floor fell out from underneath her. She hadn’t realized she was in an elevator until just then, gasping at the jolt of inertia. The walls were all bullet proof glass and she could see the rest of the building as it fell up up and away around her. When the elevator stopped, it was in front of some frightened soul who was hunching in a metal chair with a bag over their head. Through the glass, whoever it was seemed as far away as the old man in the reception area—and even more fishy. The doors slid open and Nikola rushed to the person’s side, hurrying to remove the bag from their head.

Tillie flinched away at first, jumping up and struggling against the unknown assailant. “Stop! Let go! Stop!” she yelled as Nikola wrenched the bag from her head. Tillie still must not have recognized Nikola, though, because it took her some time to stop struggling, even with the bag removed. When she finally did recognize Nikola, she started weeping and repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

“Nikola. I never thought I’d— Nikola, help me— Nikola, Nikola.”

What had they done to her?

Nikola tried to hug Tillie to calm her down but Tillie’s arms were cuffed to the chair. “They tied you down! Why would they tie you down?”

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola,” Tillie muttered. Her head looked heavy and her eyes wouldn’t stop blinking at a rapid pace. It seemed like she could lose consciousness at any time.

“Yes, Tillie. It’s Nikola. I’ll get you out of this. Just let me—let me…”

Tillie went on repeating her name while Nikola scanned the room. It was tiny and dark. There was nothing in it but the chair Tillie was tied to and a button on one wall which Nikola ran over to press.

“Bonjour. C’est Pierre. Puis-je vous aider?” came a voice over the intercom.

“Why’d you cuff her?” Nikola demanded of the red button.

“Qui?”

“Tillie Manager. This is Nikola Montpierre. Why did you—”

Ah,” the voice cut her off. “L’American. You did not say you wanted her uncuffed, ma’am. I did ask if there was any way I could help you. Remember?”

“Why’d you cuff her in the first place?”

“Standard procedure, mademoiselle. Much like asking for the keys before you go down the hole. Perhaps you’ll remember that in—”

“Just bring me the keys!”

Nikola! Nikola, Nik—cola,” Tillie mumbled louder at the sound of Nikola’s yelling.

“Oui, mademoiselle. Right away, mademoiselle. Be down in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, mademoiselle,” Pierre said in an overly subservient tone, dripping with pomposity.

“I’ll have you out as soon as I can,” Nikola said, crossing to Tillie to stroke her hair as the elevator fell from behind the fishbowl door and soon reappeared, coming from the top down and carrying Agent Pierre. The doors slid open and Agent Pierre bowed low, presenting a keychain and key to Nikola who rushed to grab it and ran back to unlock Tillie.

“Je t’en prie, ma chérie. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No!” Nikola stomped a foot at him then went back to comforting Tillie.

“Then, adieu.” Agent Pierre bowed low, the fishbowl elevator doors slid closed, and he fell out of the picture.

Nikola unlocked Tillie’s hands and feet, but still Tillie wouldn’t stand. She kept rocking in the chair, repeating Nikola’s name over and over.

Nikola sighed, pushed her glasses up on her nose, then took Tillie’s face between her hands to look her friend in the eyes. “Look at me,” she said. “Tillie. It’s me. It’s Nikola. I’m Nikola. I’m here to help.”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling despite her red puffy eyes. “Nik-ola, Nikol-a, Nikola.”

“Yes, dear. It’s—I’m—” Nikola’s own eyes went red. She let go of Tillie’s face to wipe away the moisture. “Nikola’s here, honey. What did they do to you?”

“Nikola?” Tillie started crying again.

Nikola did, too. She didn’t know what else to do. They weren’t supposed to treat Tillie like this. They were supposed to be saving her from that horrible place, not putting her somewhere worse.

“Alright,” Nikola said, grabbing Tillie’s hand and helping her stand. Tillie protested at first but eventually gave in, standing with some effort and a lot of assistance.

“Nikola?” she said, looking like a sad, lost child.

“Yes,” Nikola said. “It’s me. And I’m getting you out of here. You need some fresh air and a doctor. Now come on. Up you go.” She lifted Tillie’s arm over her shoulder and walked her to the elevator.

“Nikola,” Tillie said, smiling as the elevator’s fishbowl doors closed and the floor fell out from underneath them.

Agent Pierre didn’t look happy to see Tillie when they arrived. “Mademoiselle,” he said with a sneer. “I don’t think you have clearance to take L’American with you. I’m afraid—”

“I have clearance!” Nikola said, banging on the glass between her and Agent Pierre, Tillie still holding onto her shoulders for support. “Let us out of here!”

“I—uh…” Agent Pierre was flustered. He looked this way then that, trapped in his fish bowl, then typed and clicked on his computer, gaping wide-eyed at whatever it was he saw there.

“Oh, mademoiselle,” he said. “Je suis désolé. Go ahead. Go ahead,” he added, waving them through the now open doors.

Nikola practically carried Tillie through the reception area into the cool air outside. They came out of the tall, official looking cement building into the center of everything. To Tillie it probably looked like a war zone from some movie produced in Outland Three. They were surrounded by crumbling buildings—all but the gray behemoth they had just come from were crumbling into piles of rubble at their feet—interspersed with huge canvas tents, all in various shades of browngreen. To add to the effect, most of the people walking around the rubbled streets wore big black combat boots and camouflaged uniforms, whether they were working one of the many food stands—one on each corner practically—or actually parading from one assignment to the next in preparation for a military maneuver. To Nikola it looked entirely different though. To Nikola it looked like home.

Tillie’s eyes brightened as she squinted against the sunlight. She looked this way and that, taking everything in, then smiled at Nikola and said, “Nikola.” with a nod.

Nikola tried to smile back. “Yep,” she said. “Though I was hoping some fresh air might help with that. I can’t imagine what they did to to you to make you—hmmm…”

“Nikola?”

Nikola sighed. “Exactly.” She took Tillie by the arm and led her through streets lined with rubble, toward nowhere in particular. She didn’t know where to go. What would cause a person to lose the ability to speak anything but a single word? Why did that word have to be Nikola’s name? And what could she do to change it?

She looked up from her thoughts and they were in front of her parents’ half building, half tent office. Where all the other tents they had passed were more like canopies, this one had dark green walls held down with big slabs of rubble and armed guards at either side of the entrance flap. Nikola stopped in her tracks but Tillie kept going, pulling Nikola’s arm a bit before coming to a halt, too.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Nikola said. “I—it’s just—”

“Nikola Nikola.” Tillie shook her head, not wanting to go in.

“Right, well. It’s just that exactly,” Nikola said, adjusting her glasses. “You keep saying that over and over, and I’m not entirely sure what to do about it.”

“N—N—Nik—ol—a,” Tillie said with some effort, like she was trying to say something else but couldn’t.

“No, no no.” Nikola waved her arms and stepped closer to Tillie, patting her on the back. “I mean, I’m sure you’re fine, you know. But I—but— Okay. Well, let me start from the beginning. You see that tent building?” Nikola pointed and Tillie looked at the two armed guards.

“Nikola?” she said with raised eyebrows.

“Yep,” Nikola said, nodding. “The one guarded by those two big guns. Well, behind those guns are my parents—my whole family probably. And—well—since they were the reason I was in your country in the first place, I guess they’re the best people to ask about what happened to you because of it. Besides, they’re gonna want to know how you’re doing anyway. They’ve been pretty worried about us ever since I left.”

“Nikola?”

“Well—no—of course it would be better if you could actually talk when you met them, but you’ll have to meet them sooner or later anyway and they can probably help get your words back. Two birds with one stone, you know.”

Tillie shrugged with a sigh, shaking her head.

“I’m glad you agree.” Nikola grinned. “And whatever you do, don’t mention our smoking on the balcony, okay?” She chuckled a little, but Tillie wasn’t ready to find the situation funny. Nikola couldn’t really blame her. “Alright. Well, let’s do it then,” she said, taking Tillie’s arm.

Nikola pulled Tillie between the guards, and she could feel Tillie’s fear rise up through the goosebumps in her skin as they passed inside the tentbuilding. If Nikola hadn’t grown up with the guards always there, twenty four seven, she might feel the same way. She might also have gasped—like Tillie—at how official the inside of a canvas tent and crumbling building could be made to look, almost exactly like the inside of the holding cell Tillie had only moments ago been released from. Tillie must have noticed the similarity, too. After her gasp she struggled trying to get away from Nikola and out of the building, but Nikola held her tight.

“Nikola. Nikola. Nikola!” Tillie begged as she tried to escape.

“No—it’s okay—I—” Nikola argued, but she couldn’t formulate words and hold Tillie at the same time.

Luckily, her little brother—she loved to call him that even though he was so much bigger than her (or anyone for that matter)—Curie ran around from behind the reception desk to help her. “Woah there, lil’ Nikkie,” he said, holding Tillie still but somehow managing to be gentle about it at the same time. “Who’s this frightened little bird you brought us today?”

“Tillie,” Nikola said, more to Tillie than her brother. “It’s okay. This is my little brother, Curie. He can—he’ll help us, okay. You’re safe now. You’re safe with us.”

Tillie was still darting her wide eyes back and forth between their faces, but she was struggling less and less, and as Nikola’s brother continued to talk, his voice seemed to have a soothing effect on her.

“Ah. Tillie,” he said with a smile. “The beautiful American you’ve told me so much about. And one of a very few in her country to really see the truth of the worlds, from what I understand. I embarrass myself by calling her a mere bird. No, she’s too intelligent for that, too fierce. I must be blind to miss a majestic eagle as it stares me in the eyes.”

Tillie stopped struggling, staring Curie in the eyes. Nikola had let go of her a long time ago, but Curie still held her one hand in both of his, looking deep into her eyes just the same. Nikola fidgeted and coughed. “Ahem,” she cleared her throat. “So, Curie, this is Tillie. Tillie, Curie. You two seem to be pretty well acquainted by now.”

“Not well enough,” Curie said, not taking his hands off Tillie’s.

“Curie?” Tillie said.

“Tillie!” Nikola cheered, clapping her hands together. “You said something else. You—”

“Nikola, Nikola!” Tillie exclaimed, deflating again when the words only came out Nikola.

“It’s okay, my eagle,” Curie said, rubbing Nikola’s hand in his palm now. “We’ll take care of your injuries and have you flying again in no time. Singing, too. I promise. Just, please, come with me. I’ll make you right again.”

Tillie gave in to him, lost in Curie’s eyes and words. Nikola kept her feelings of awkwardness quiet this time, instead following them in silence and letting Curie continue to do what seemed to be working for Tillie.

There was no elevator in this building, nor any bullet proof glass. Curie led Tillie hand in hand through grayed halls into a brightly lit, clean white room. Tillie jumped up onto the hospital bed just as Curie asked her to, and Nikola began to hope that she might get better sooner than later.

“Now,” Curie said, looking Tillie in the eyes again. “Look at me, okay. I’m going to get you some paper.” He rummaged through a drawer and handed her a pad of paper and a pen. “Okay. Are you ready?”

“Nikola,” Tillie said, nodding.

“Good,” Curie said. “Very good. You anticipate me already. So, first, I want you to write my sister’s name for me,” he said, pointing at Nikola. “Right there on the pad.” He pointed at the paper.

Tillie wrote the name with ease and held it up for them to see. Nikola smiled and nodded, trying to be encouraging.

“Very good, my eagle,” Curie said. “Now, this time I would like you to write my name on the pad, please.”

Tillie struggled hard to write something down then scribbled it out with a sigh. She wrote something else then scribbled it out again in a huff.

“It’s okay, Tillie. You can—” Nikola tried to say but Curie shot her a look, cutting her sentence off with his ice blue eyes.

“You can do it,” he said to Tillie. “You remember what it is. I know you do. You just said it. And it’s not hard to spell, just five letters exactly how it sounds.”

Tillie was sweating by the time she finished, and the letters looked like chicken scratch when she held the notepad up for them to see, but Curie and Nikola smiled, nodded, and cheered her on as if it were a much more difficult task.

Perfect,” Curie said, bringing Tillie in for a hug. “Now, what’s your name?”

“Tillie!” Tillie blurted out, holding her hands to her mouth when she did. “My name is Tillie Manager!”

“Yes, my eagle,” Curie said, smiling wide and hugging. “Your name’s Tillie Manager.”

“Tillie!” Nikola screamed too loudly. “I knew you’d be okay.” She grabbed Tillie and squeezed her tight. “I’m so glad you—”

“What is all this racquet down here?” asked a voice from behind them, Nikola’s mother’s voice. “How many times do I have to tell you kids that this is an official building and not a playground?”

“I’m sorry, Mom. We were just…” Nikola trailed off, not sure how to finish the sentence.

“Sorry, ma’am,” Tillie said, bowing her head.

“Mother,” Curie said, standing taller and stepping toward their mom. “This is the American. She was in need of medical attention. We took care of that and we were just about to send her to you.”

Nikola’s mother looked between the three of them suspiciously. “Is that so?”

“Yes, Mother,” Curie said, nodding earnestly.

“Of course, Mom,” Nikola said. “Why would we lie?.”

Her mother looked around at them one more time. “Of course,” she said. “Well, then, Curie, you get back to the desk now. You’ve already left someone waiting for you, which is why I’m down here in the first place. And Nikola, you bring the American up to my office. Your father will want to speak with her.”

“I was about to do exactly that,” Nikola said, “but I—”

“Then go,” her mom said, clapping her hands at Nikola like she was still a child. “Allons-y. Rapide. I have business to attend to.” She kept clapping until Nikola grabbed Tillie by the hand and ran up two flights of stairs, the first of which her mother followed them up, clapping all the way.

Nikola stopped to catch her breath between flights, hunched over and trying not to curse. She looked up and Tillie was hunched over, breathing heavily, too, but she was smiling at least. Nikola couldn’t help but chuckle at the sight of her, and soon they were laughing together, their laughs echoing through the empty stairway.

“So,” Nikola said when they had gotten their laughter under control. “That was my mom.” She shrugged.

“And your brother.” Tillie smiled.

“Yes. And my brother,” Nikola repeated, giving Tillie a look she probably couldn’t decipher. Something along the lines of Watch it sister. Nikola wasn’t quite sure how she felt about Tillie and Curie’s rapidly developing relationship, and she had bigger issues on her mind for the moment so she didn’t want to think about it at all. “And you’re about to meet my father,” she went on, trying to change the subject. “Him and my mother being the reasons you’re here now.”

Right,” Tillie said. “You said that already. What I still don’t know is where here is, though.”

“Oh. Of course.” Nikola chuckled nervously and fixed her glasses. She forgot about the basics in her need to get Tillie talking again. “Well, you’re in my home now,” she explained. “This is my country, or—er—our world, or whatever you Americans call it.”

“So you are a Russian, then,” Tillie said, taking a step back from her. “And we’re in—you took me to…Russia?” She held her hand to her mouth, as if terrified.

“What?” Nikola chuckled. “No. Of course not. I told you I wasn’t—”

“Then where are we?” Tillie demanded. “If we’re not in Russia and we’re not in America, then where could we be?”

“Lots of other places,” Nikola said, trying not to laugh now that she remembered how dismal Tillie’s American education must truly have been. “There are many more than two countries, you know. Too many more. This one included. Come on. I’m sure my dad can explain it better than I ever could, and I know for a fact that he’ll end up explaining it to you again, anyway. So let’s just go and get it over with.”

Tillie hesitated.

“Honestly, Tillie,” Nikola said, “It’s the only way forward, whether you’re actually in Russia or not—which I guarantee you’re not.” She extended her hand.

Tillie looked at it for a second then took it. “You’re right,” she said. “Y’all got me out of that prison. I should be thanking you, not complaining. Let’s go.”

The office was up a few flights of stairs still. The walls were all gray and slightly crumbling—patched in parts with green canvas—and there were two big desks facing each other on either side of the room. Nikola’s dad was at his desk, on the right hand side of the office, furiously typing at something, and the other, her mother’s desk on the left hand side, was empty. Nikola’s dad didn’t even look up when they entered the room.

Ahem,” Nikola cleared her throat, adjusting her glasses. “Uh—Dad—or—er, sir. It’s me. Nikola.”

“Just a moment, dear,” her dad said, lifting a hand just long enough to wave it once and get back to typing. “Almost done.”

“Oh, well…” Nikola looked at Tillie and shrugged, mouthing, “I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t more than a minute before Nikola’s dad stopped typing and looked up from his work, satisfied. “Ah, there we are,” he said with a smile. “Now, dear—oh—you should have told me there was company.” He stood up fast and ticked off a salute. “General Andre Montpierre at your service, mademoiselle.”

“Oh—uh—” Tillie blushed.

“It’s just Tillie, Dad,” Nikola said. “No need to salute. She’s here—”

“Nonsense, Nikola.” Her dad scoffed. “And just Tillie? That’s all the more reason to show our respect. She’s an ambassador from another country, dear. Practically another world!”

“Yeah, well,” Nikola said. “I thought maybe you could hold off on the theatrics a bit. At least until she feels more comfortable in her transition, you know. She’s been through a lot.”

“Oh, no. I mean, of course. I’m sorry, dears.” He crossed from behind the desk and led Tillie to a soft chair by a window. “Here, take a seat. Can I get you anything? We don’t have much, but there’s some ice in the freezer and a mighty nice tap for water, if I do say so myself.”

“No, dad,” Nikola said. “We’re fine.”

“Actually some water would be nice,” Tillie said, getting comfortable in her seat.

“There you have it,” Nikola’s dad said, crossing to a sink on the far wall. “One ice cold water, coming right up.”

“Thanks,” Tillie said, taking a sip of the water as Nikola’s father sat in one of the chairs himself—not his desk chair.

“So,” her dad said. “America, huh? It must have been a long trip getting here.”

Ugh. You wouldn’t believe,” Tillie said with a sigh. “It was a nightmare.”

“Yes, yes. I’m sorry about that, dear. So sorry.” He shook his head, staring off into the distance. “But,” he said, brightening up, “that’s all behind us now. Now is the time to look to the future. Are you ready for that, Tillie?”

“I—uh…” Tillie looked like a landlord caught in a rent strike. She couldn’t even move or speak. Nikola was worried Tillie might revert to repeating Nikola’s name again so she tried to come to Tillie’s rescue.

“You know, Dad,” Nikola said, “maybe you can kind of explain what’s going on—or—I don’t know, why Tillie’s here or whatever. I only just got her out of holding, you know, and they still had her locked up with a bag over her head when I got there.”

“Locked up and bagged? No!” Her dad looked seriously concerned but Nikola knew better. Nothing on base went down without his knowing it. He might be a good enough actor to fool Tillie, but Nikola had lived with him for long enough to see through it.

“Yes, Father,” Nikola said. “Now why would they do that?”

“Oh, you know,” he said, shaking his head and waving her concerns away. “They’re soldiers, dear. All they do is follow orders, live by regulations. It’s procedure so they follow it. That’s all.”

“Procedure set by—” Nikola started to say, but her dad cut her off.

“Now, Tillie,” he said, “I know this must be pretty overwhelming for you, but do you have any questions for me? Let’s start there.”

Nikola wanted to drive the point further, but she knew her dad wouldn’t react well so she just sighed and let Tillie speak.

“Well, sir.” Tillie shook her head. “I have a lot, actually.”

“Of course. Of course you do, dear. Ha ha ha! Who am I kidding?” He rocked back and forth in his chair, clapping his hands and laughing. “Well, then. Go ahead. What first?”

“Well, sir. Uh… I guess, where am I?”

“You’re in my office. Where else? Ho ho ho.”

Nikola groaned.

“But really,” her dad said, putting on a straight face, “you’re at Bitburg Revolutionary Base in The People’s France. Right now you’re in one of the most closely protected and highly classified buildings—nay rooms—in the entire country. Welcome, little American. Welcome to our workers’ paradise.”

“Oh, uh…” Tillie hesitated.

“Don’t make it seem so great,” Nikola said. “The People’s France isn’t a very protected place in general. And besides that, it’s tiny.”

“No, well, for now it is,” her dad said. “But we’re working on that. We’re growing, aren’t we? Step by step, every day, the incessant march of modernization drives on. You know.”

Nikola shrugged. “I guess.”

“So what am I doing here?” Tillie asked. “When do I go home?”

“You are being protected here, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “You’re being protected from the ones you Americans call protectors. You were there. You experienced it: A bag over your head, shoved into a drawer to rot. And let me tell you, the things they had in store for you are so much worse than that. It’s unimaginable. If we hadn’t secured your escape… Well, let me just say that you have no idea what would have happened to you and you should be happy for that fact.”

“Dad!” Nikola said, slapping his arm.

“It’s true, Nikola,” he said, rubbing where she had hit him. “And Tillie should know it. That’s why you’re here, Tillie. We saved you from things unthinkable inside those prison walls.”

Tillie shook her head. “Like what?”

Torture,” Nikola’s dad said. “A fate worse than death. They’d kill you a thousand times and keep you alive to do it again. Human or android, it makes no difference to them. They’ll make you suffer until you give up and then make you suffer a little more. That’s just the way they like it.”

“I…” Tillie looked to Nikola who nodded. Nikola knew that much wasn’t an exaggeration. At least that’s what they had told her when she agreed to go undercover, that she, too, would be risking a fate worse than death. “I can’t believe that,” Tillie said.

“I know, child,” Nikola’s dad said. “It’s unbelievable. But it also happens to be the truth. I think you’ll find that all truths are a little hard to bear, especially when you first learn of them. We live in unbelievable times, girls, so what else can we expect but unbelievable things?”

“No, but…” Tillie started.

“Dad, maybe that’s a little—” Nikola tried to say but Tillie cut her off.

“I want to go home!” she demanded.

“I know, child.” Nikola’s dad frowned. He shook his head. “I know. But you can’t. Not yet. It’s not safe for you. We’d be sending you back into exactly what we rescued you from in the first place. I can’t have that on my conscious. I’m sorry.”

“Then when?”

Hmmm.” Nikola’s dad thought on that for a moment. “When the time’s right is all I can say. Sooner than later, I hope. But I don’t know. It’s out of my control. In the meantime, there are a few things you could help us with around here. The more help we have the sooner we can make our world and yours safer for everyone, and only when it’s safe will I send you home.”

Ah.” Tillie nodded. “I see.”

Nikola frowned. She didn’t like the tone of Tillie’s voice or the look on her face, something. Her father didn’t seem to notice anything suspicious, though, because he just smiled and nodded and went on talking.

“Good,” he said. “Great! Then let Nikola here show you around, and once you’re settled in, we’ll see what exactly it is that you can do to help us help you. How does that sound?”

“Sure.” Tillie nodded. “Whatever you say, sir.”

#     #     #

< Book II     [Table of Contents]     XLIV. Laura >

There y’all have it, the next chapter in the Infinite Limits story. If you just can’t wait to read the entire novel, pick up a full copy through this link. Thanks for your support, as always. I look forward to sharing the rest of the story the with you.

We do nothing alone.

-Bryan Perkins 03/26/16

Chapter 25: Ansel

Today, chapter four of An Almost Tangent brings us back to the story of Ansel, the only point of view character who carries over from the first book of the Infinite Limits tetralogy, The Asymptote’s Tail.

When we last left her, Ansel was with the Scientist, mourning her mother and still eager to search for her father. Let’s find out where the worlds take her now, and if you want to find out the entire story, pick up a copy of the full novel through here. Thanks for joining us, readers, and enjoy.

< XXIV. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXVI. Jonah >

XXV. Ansel

After three days now of it being no more than an elevator ride away, Ansel still wanted to brush her fingers through the cool grass she was kneeling in, but even the slightest movement would send her prey running. How long would that urge last?

She could hear Pidgeon’s breathing behind her. In those same short days he had become a much better hunter. He only sounded like a human when he walked now, not a lumbering giant who was intentionally breaking every branch it walked by. His aim with the slingshot was getting better, too—he could take out a target set up on a branch, at least, even if he still couldn’t sneak up close enough to anything living for him to be able to hit it—but that aim still wasn’t anywhere near good enough to hit the target she had in sight.

She raised up the slingshot, arm muscles flexed solid with the effort of pulling the elastic band, and sighted along it to the eye of the giant, horned, four-legged beast, eating grass in the clearing in front of them. She heard Pidgeon hold his breath with her while she aimed, and when she thought he couldn’t hold it any longer, she let go of the heavy rock, allowing the sling to hurl it toward her target.

The beast made a shrill bleating sound, shook its multi-pronged head, and ran in the opposite direction through the trees.

“Shit!” Ansel yelled, hitting the soft ground with a closed fist then taking the chance to ruffle the grass. “Shit, shit, shit.”

“I thought you had it,” Pidgeon said.

“Shut up, Pidgeon. What would you know?” She stood up and Pidgeon did the same. They were out in the woods they had first seen through the Scientist’s office window. Surrounded by grass, trees, animals, and sky it would be easy to assume that Ansel had nothing in the world to worry about, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t enjoy herself. “You can’t hit a pine cone from five feet away,” she went on, taking her frustration out on Pidgeon.

“Well, I was just saying, I think you hit it.” He plucked a needle off a nearby tree and tore it to bits. “I mean, didn’t you see the way it shook its head and screamed like that?”

“Yes, Pidgeon.” Ansel groaned. “Of course I did. I was the one who shot it. Did you think I had my eyes closed?”

“No. Well, of course not. But you did hit it, then. Didn’t you?”

“I’m about to hit you if you don’t shut up.” She reared her hand up like she was going to do it.

“You don’t have to be mean,” Pidgeon said, tearing another needle to pieces. “I just thought that you might—”

“I know, I know,” she said. “I need a bigger weapon. It was worth a shot, anyway. Wasn’t it? Now c’mon. I’m getting hungry and it’s about time for the Scientist to get off work. Let’s go.” She stuffed the slingshot in her back pocket and started the hike back to the elevator.

“I’m getting hungry, too,” Pidgeon said, hurrying to keep up and getting back to his normal volume of walking.

One day, Ansel was going to run ahead of him and hide behind some bush to see if Pidgeon could find his own way back to the elevator—which was surprisingly difficult even for Ansel sometimes—or if he would get lost and cry alone in the forest. But right now, she didn’t have the time. She had more important business to tend to. She chuckled aloud about the idea anyway.

“What?” Pidgeon asked through a huff of breath, tired from all the hiking.

“Nothing, Pidg. Watch your step on the root, though, we’re almost there.” As she said it, he tripped and fell into the grass, face-first. Ansel laughed. “I tried to warn ya.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Pidgeon said, brushing his knees off, red-faced. “Let’s just get something to eat.”

The elevator was hidden behind bushes and trees with vines growing all over it. Except for the metal doors, it looked like an old one-room wooden shack which had been left out to rot. When she had first gone out there with Rosalind and Huey, Rosalind laughed while Ansel tried to find some way to open those doors, prying at the crack between them with her fingers.

“Elevator open,” Ansel said this time. She felt strange talking to an elevator, though, even if it did respond to her. The doors slid open to reveal a mirror-lined cube. Ansel and Pidgeon stepped in, and Ansel said, “Office. Or—er—the lab. Whatever.” The doors closed, and the floor fell out from underneath them, forcing a surprised gasp out of Ansel. She still hadn’t gotten used to elevator travel.

“This is so cool,” Pidgeon said, unphased by the unnatural motion. “I still can’t believe we’re actually riding in one. It’s just like the protectors’ transport bays!”

Ansel shrugged. “It gets us from here to there,” she said.

“Yes, well, how far is it between here and there though?” Pidgeon asked as the doors opened, revealing a short hall with a door at the end of it. “And look, we’re already here. Amazing.”

Ansel huffed and stomped down the hall. She pushed the door open to reveal an empty kitchen. “No!” she complained, stepping back into the hall and slamming the door. “How does this stupid thing work?”

“You just have to think about the room you want before you open it,” Pidgeon said. “Here, like this.” He opened the door and there was the kitchen again.

“I wanted the office,” she said.

“Oh.” Pidgeon closed the door and opened it to reveal the office. “Or you can just say the room out loud if that helps.” He smiled.

Ugh. Whatever.” Ansel stomped past him, bumping his shoulder with hers as she did, into the spacious, high-ceilinged office. It was bigger than any house Ansel had ever lived in and lined with a soft carpet on top of which sat a desk and a few puffy chairs and side tables around a larger table. Sitting in two of the puffy chairs, looking out the ceiling-high, wall-length window onto the rolling hills and greenery that Ansel and Pidgeon had just come from, were Rosalind and Huey.

“Having more trouble, girl?” Rosalind asked, laughing, as Ansel struggled up onto one of the tall puffy chairs. Everything was made to Rosalind and Huey’s size, and they were giants compared to anyone that Ansel had ever met. Well, except for Tom, of course, but she wasn’t thinking about Tom anymore.

“I’m not a girl!” Ansel said when she had positioned herself comfortably on the seat.

“That’s not what your boyfriend says.” Rosalind laughed some more.

“I’m not her boyfriend!” Pidgeon said. He had chosen to sit on the floor with his back to everyone, leaning on one of the chairs to get the perfect view of the world outside the window.

“I say you’re both in denial,” Rosalind said. “Or at least one of you is.”

I’m not a girl!” Ansel repeated.

“Leave them alone, Roz,” Huey said. “They’re just children. Let them decide for themselves. They have plenty of time for it.”

“Don’t you Roz me, Mr. Douglas,” Rosalind snapped, standing from her chair. “You really are getting to be too good at your job, you know. You won’t even let me have the least bit of fun when we’re at home. You’re just like an owner these days.” She stomped from the room.

“I apologize, children,” Huey said, wiping his monocle with his handkerchief. “You shouldn’t have to see that. It really is my fault, though. She’s right, you know. I find it hard to come out of my character sometimes.”

“Oh, no,” Pidgeon said from behind his chair. “You’ve always been great to me. You brought me food that one time, remember? Speaking of which…”

“What do you do as an owner?” Ansel asked, scrunching up her nose. All she knew was that he wore tuxedos, top hats, and bow ties to go to Feasts—which she understood from experience to be a bunch of fat guys huddling up together in a giant circle and crying like babies.

“Oh, well, dear… That’s a hard question to answer. I… Honestly, I don’t do much but order Rosalind around, to tell you the truth. I think that’s why she hates it so much.”

“Well, no wonder,” Ansel said.

“Yes, well, we can’t change the roles we were given now, can we? It was easier for Rosalind to get close to Haley than it would have been for me, anyway. If the roles had been reversed, we might not have Haley with us today.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to treat Rosalind like you own her,” Ansel said.

“Yes, well…” Huey thought about it for a second. “No. You’re right about that. But I do have to treat her like I own her when I’m at work. That’s why they call me an owner.”

“Yeah, well, this isn’t work. Is it?” Ansel said.

“No. You’re right about that, too. But—”

“Then don’t treat her like you own her,” Ansel said. “Simple as that.”

“I guess you’re right, dear.” Huey chuckled. “You’re so wise for such a young gir—er—child.”

“Yeah, well, I’m old for my age.” Ansel crossed her arms. “Now where’s the Scientist? We have some business to tend to.”

“Oh, well.” Huey shook his head, frowning. “I’m sure she’s off with Haley somewhere, you know. You understand why, don’t you?”

Ansel nodded. She understood that the Scientist was supposed to be Haley’s mom, but she still didn’t understand how someone so old could have given birth to someone so much younger and larger in comparison. “Family stuff,” she said.

“Yes, but more than that dear,” Huey said. “Haley was the Scientist’s first born daughter. Those two have been separated for longer than you could imagine. So of course they’re spending every second together.”

“Right.” Ansel shrugged. She still thought it was creepy that such an old lady was supposed to be Haley’s mom, though. But they could believe whatever it was they wanted to believe. It was their life, after all, not hers. “So, do you know when they’ll be back?” she asked.

“Oh, there’s no telling,” Huey said, shaking his head and frowning some more. “They left hours ago, but who knows how long they’ll be gone for. Like I said, they’ve been separated for longer than you could imagine.”

Ugh.” Ansel sighed. Maybe she shouldn’t be trusting this Scientist after all. Ansel really had no idea who the woman was. She was probably lying like everyone else. Ansel knew that the Scientist was too sure of herself, and it was probably to hide the fact that she had no way of actually getting Ansel’s dad back. But if she didn’t, then who did? Pidgeon was still trying to get her to go back to Anna and Rosa for help, but Ansel trusted them less than anyone, so that wasn’t an option at all. Which only left Tom. Who was God knows where. And even if Ansel knew where he was, how was she supposed to get to him? No, Tom was a last resort at best. She had to count on the Scientist to be true to her word for now and hope it didn’t come to the Hail Mary after all.

“You know what we should do while we wait,” Pidgeon said, standing up from the view. “We should get something to eat.”

“You always want to eat, Pidgeon.”

“Hey, you just said you were hungry, too.”

“Yeah, well, I guess…” She looked at Huey.

“Oh, no,” he said, waving his hands. “You two go ahead. Order anything you want. You know how it works, right?”

Oh, yeah,” Pidgeon cheered, jumping up from his seat on the floor and looking to Ansel for confirmation.

Ansel shrugged. “Whatever.”

“Let’s do it!” Pidgeon rushed to the door and ran out into the hall. Ansel took her time getting there, though, and when she was, Pidgeon closed the door and opened it right up to the kitchen. Pidgeon ran to put the stepstool the Scientist had made for them under the 3D printer then stood back and said, “So what you gonna get?” He was smiling and looking back and forth between Ansel and the machine. He looked like he was going to burst into laughter, or cry, or both at the same time. But Ansel could only stare past him, out the window above the sink, looking out onto those lines and lines of people doing who knows what. It was so weird to have that in a kitchen, she thought, but no one else even seemed to notice.

“Well?” Pidgeon asked again, proving her point and breaking her away from the strange view out the sink window.

“Uh, I don’t know.” Ansel shrugged. In the few days that they had been there, Pidgeon had ordered more kinds of food than Ansel knew existed, but every time she stood in front of the printer, Ansel had trouble deciding what she wanted. Her mind kept going back to the one thing it seemed to want to think about: how to get her dad back, but the printer couldn’t give her that.

“Well, you have to pick something,” Pidgeon said. “You can choose anything you want, Ansel. Anything. But it won’t give it to you until you ask.”

“I don’t care,” she said, stepping up onto the stool and pressing the 3D printer’s little red voice activation button. “Lunch,” she said, and again she cringed at talking to a robot.

Lunch?” Pidgeon groaned as a sandwich and a bowl of soup popped out of the printer’s big hatch.

“A sliced meat sandwich and soup,” Ansel said, taking it to the shorter table they had set up in the kitchen for the kids to eat at. “Now that’s a meal.” She took a big bite of the sandwich—turkey—and savored the taste.

Boring,” Pidgeon said, stepping up onto the stool. “You have anything you can imagine at your fingertips, and you ask for lunch, you let the printer decide for you. Well, not me, you see. I hold my fate in my own hands. And I choose…”

He tapped his chin as Ansel dipped the sandwich in the soup and took a soggy bite. “This is good,” she said. “You should try some.”

“No. No… I want…” He pressed the voice activation button. “Chicken! And spaghetti. No, chicken spaghetti. And cheesecake with ice cream. The ice cream on top!”

The food kept coming as he talked. By the time the machine was done printing, he was carrying a tray of chicken, spaghetti, chicken spaghetti, cheesecake, ice cream, and cheesecake with ice cream on top to the table. Ansel thought he should have taken two trips, and he almost lost the tray on the way, but he made it to the table with everything intact, breathing heavily and eyes wide at the piles of food. “You’re gonna have to help me with this,” he said as he set to eating.

“No I’m not,” Ansel said, finishing her own meal. “But I will anyway.” She took the ice cream and started in on it.

Pidgeon was still eating, and Ansel was staring in awe at how much he could put down, when Haley came into the kitchen.

“Oh, hello,” Haley said, curtsying with a smile then walking over to the printer. “How was your day?”

Ansel stood from the table as soon as she heard Haley’s voice. “You’re home,” she said.

“We just got back. We were going to eat some lunch. Do you two want anything?”

“Where’s the Scientist?” Ansel demanded.

“She’s in the office. I was jus—”

“Thanks.” Ansel rushed out of the kitchen into the hall. She closed the door and opened it but still got the kitchen. “Shit,” she said, closing it and opening it to the kitchen a second time. “Shit shit shit.” After a few more tries, she finally said, “Office.” and the door opened to the room she wanted.

The Scientist was sitting on one of the puffy chairs, looking out onto the view. “I love this view,” she said, turning around. “Oh. It’s you. I thought you were Haley.”

“Yeah,” Ansel said, climbing into a chair. “It’s me. Don’t sound so let down.”

“Oh, no, dear. I didn’t mean to—”

“When are we going to get my dad out?”

“Yes, well… About that, dear.” The Scientist looked out the window again, avoiding eye contact with Ansel. “It’s only been a few days, you know. These things take time.”

“Every day we waste is another day closer to them taking him from me, just like they did with my mom. I don’t have time.”

“Yes, dear.” The Scientist shook her head. “I mean, no. Well, that would be true if it wasn’t. You see, we’ve got their computers confused. They’re not sure if he’s in prison or not right now. That buys us the time we need to determine the most efficient method of breaking him out.”

“But what happens when they realize he is there? What then?”

“By then we’ll have him out, you see. I assure you, dear. These things take time to be put properly into motion, but the balls are rolling and it’s picking up steam. I promise you that.”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, shaking her head. “That’s hard to believe with what I’ve been through.”

“I know it is, dear. But you have to believe we’re doing everything we—”

The door opened and in came Haley, pushing a cart stacked high with more food than Ansel had ever seen in one place.

“Oh, dear,” the Scientist said. “You didn’t have to go through all that. A sandwich and some soup would have done just fine.”

“Yes, well,” Haley said, stacking the food on the table until Ansel couldn’t see the Scientist’s face anymore. “I couldn’t decide what I wanted so I ordered a little bit of everything. The printer doesn’t do a little bit of anything, though, so here we are.” She sat down and started in on some of the food.

“So when do you think we will get him?” Ansel asked. “My dad.”

“What’s that?” Haley asked, chewing on some food Ansel didn’t recognize.

“Oh, nothing, dear,” the Scientist said. “And soon,” she added for Ansel. “Within the week. I promise.”

“Within the week what?” Haley asked.

“Within the week your mom,” Ansel said, “will finally get my dad back—like she promised.”

“Oh, right,” Haley said. “On Christmas Feast Day. Where is he anyway?”

“The protectors took him,” Ansel said.

“Oh, well, that’s easy. Just tell them to—oh wait… I don’t work for Lord Walker anymore.” She frowned.

“No,” the Scientist said. “You don’t. And you should be glad for that. And we’ll get your father out in due time, Ansel dear. Without asking the protectors for permission. I promise you that. You just have to wait until the time is right. Your dad’s not the only political prisoner we’ll want to free if we’re going in there, so we want to make sure we have everything planned to the last detail.”

“Yeah, but—” Ansel started, but Haley cut her off.

“Here, Mom. Try this,” she said, holding out a plate to the Scientist, and it was still odd for Ansel to hear her call the old lady Mom.

Ansel huffed and stomped out of the room. They weren’t going to listen to her. The Scientist had her daughter and she didn’t care about anything else anymore. She was going to be no help in getting Ansel’s dad back, and that was clearer than ever. All she had been doing was distracting Ansel, and Ansel had lost too many days because of it.

She slammed the hall door closed behind her, and when she opened it again, she got the kitchen on the first try. The lines of workers were still doing whatever it is they did through the sink window, and Pidgeon was still eating at the table, though the pile of food in front of him had gotten considerably smaller.

“Oh, Ansel,” he groaned when she walked in and sat at the table across from him. “You have to help me with this. I can’t bring myself to throw any of it away.”

Ansel looked at what he had left on the table. It was mostly chicken and spaghetti or chicken spaghetti. “No,” she said, shaking her head and crinkling up her nose. “I have more important things to discuss.”

Oghmnoghmugh. What could be more important than this right now?”

“My dad, Pidgeon. The only thing I care about. Remember.”

“Yeah, well.” He set his fork on the plate with a clank and leaned back in his chair, unbuttoning his pants. “What are you gonna do about it?”

“I don’t know. But I have to do something, don’t I? I can’t sit here and wait anymore.”

“Okay, but what are you going to do? I mean, unless you plan on taking the elevator to wherever the protectors are, but that would be stupid. You know what they’re like now, don’t you?”

“There has to be something I can do, Pidgeon. I know there does.”

“What about Rosa and—”

“No! I told you. I won’t work with them. You weren’t there, Pidgeon. They convinced Tom to kill someone in my name. I never asked anyone to kill anyone, okay. And I won’t ask anyone who has for help.”

“Yeah, well, I know they can help you, Ansel. They can do the same thing the Scientist can but without elevators. How else do you think you’re gonna get him out?”

“I don’t know. But I think I have a plan.”

“Oh yeah?” Pidgeon took a slow, groggy bite from the pile of chicken spaghetti in front of him. It must have been a third or fourth wind for him by now. “And what’s that?” he asked through a full mouth.

Tom.”

Pidgeon dropped his fork. “You can’t be serious.”

Ansel nodded. “He’s the only other person I know who can get through.”

“Ansel, he killed your mom. He killed that person at the Feast. I mean, you won’t work with Rosa and Anna when they asked him to do it, why will you work with him when he literally did it?”

“It’s not the same,” Ansel said. “They made him do it. It wasn’t his idea. He wanted to protect me. They’re the ones that twisted it.”

“I keep trying to tell you, they’re the ones that have the ability to help you. Not Tom. He admitted as much.”

“Well, I have to try, don’t I? I have to do something. I’m not going to sit here and wait for the Scientist to decide when the time’s right.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t care what you think.” She stood and stomped out of the kitchen into the hallway. Who was Pidgeon to say anything? He had no idea what she was going through. She would find a way to get her dad back no matter what.

She opened the hall door to find Rosalind, sitting behind a lab table, surrounded by glassware that was filled with various colored liquids. She was playing cards at an emptied table with the big mechanical arm they called Popeye.

“I see you creepin’, girl,” Rosalind said. “Come on in or get on out.”

Ansel walked up to the table and watched as Rosalind and Popeye pick up cards and laid them down at what looked to be random.

“Alright, girl,” Rosalind said. “Spit it out. What do you want?”

“I’m not a girl.”

“Whatever. Tell me what you want or leave. Popeye and I were enjoying ourselves before you came along to interrupt us.”

Ansel looked at the mechanical arm, who was still intent on the card game she could somehow tell. “How does it know what cards it has without any eyes?” she asked.

“Is that what you came here for?” Rosalind replied. “A lesson on the anatomy of Popeye?”

The metal arm waved at Ansel as if it were excited for the prospect.

“No—I—No…” Ansel shook her head, shuddering.

“I didn’t think so. So spit it out then.”

Ansel hesitated. This was a Hail Mary if there ever was one, and she wasn’t sure it was time to throw it up just yet, but she really had no other choice except for doing nothing, and that wasn’t a choice at all.

“It’s about my dad,” she said.

You don’t say.” Rosalind chuckled. “Is the Scientist taking a little too long for your liking?”

“Yeah, well, I have my own plan.”

“Your own plan, huh?” Rosalind laughed, laying a card on the table. “Did you hear that, Popeye? Her own plan. Well then. Out with it. What is this plan of yours?”

Ansel blushed. She was afraid to share it now, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. “I want to see Tom,” she said

“Tom?” Rosalind set all her cards on the table, finally intent on what Ansel was saying.

“Tom,” Ansel repeated. “You know who I’m talking about. The protector who I gave you information on. I want to talk to him.”

Ohhh. Tom,” Rosalind said, nodding. “You mean the man who shot my sister?”

“Your sister?”

Haley.”

“Oh, yeah. Well… I know he—”

“And why would you want see this Tom?”

“I don’t know. I just… I think he can help me get my dad back.”

“And you don’t think the Scientist is going to do that?”

“I—I just can’t sit here and do nothing anymore.”

“And you’re sure this is what you want to do instead of nothing?”

“I—I don’t know. I think so. Yes.”

“There might be something I can do for you, then.”

#     #     #

< XXIV. Rosa     [Table of Contents]     XXVI. Jonah >

Thanks again for joining us, and thanks for keeping up for so long. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. Please do think about picking up a full copy of the novel right here, and we’ll see you again next Saturday for another chapter in An Almost Tangent.