Chapter 69: Chief Mondragon

Hello, dear readers. Welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today’s chapter is Kevin Malone’s favorite based on the number alone.

But to get serious, today we see the world through the eyes of Chief Mondragon, the highest ranking official on—and leader of—Mr. Walker’s protector force. If you enjoy this chapter and can’t wait to finish the entire novel, don’t forget to pick up a full copy in print or ebook format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

LXIX. Chief Mondragon

Ugh. Shit. Chief Mondragon was exhausted. Tired of everything. Something was going to have to give soon or she was going to snap. She stood in her private locker room, strapping on and straightening her plated armor vest in a wall-sized mirror, and she knew that much at least. Something had to give.

When she was still just an Officer, Chief Mondragon had thought that her superior officers were making excuses to hide their own irrational decision-making when they would complain about their hands being tied behind their backs by even further superior officers. When she had been promoted to Captain, she found out firsthand that they weren’t excuses after all. Her hands had been strictly bound by the orders of the Chief, even if it looked from the lower ranks like she had more freedom than she really did. And now that she was finally the Chief herself? Of course, she felt no freer than she ever had throughout her entire career as a protector.

Sure, she got to order everyone around, from the Officers at the bottom on up to the Captains right below her and everything in between. Yes, every member of the Protector Force was required to stand and salute any time she entered a room. And okay, nominally, she was the one who decided the direction in which the Force’s efforts would primarily be directed on a day to day basis. But these were nothing more than illusions of power. She was still being ordered around, not only by the traditions, rules, and entrenched institutions of the Force’s bureaucracy itself, but by the owners whose abundance of wealth somehow granted them supreme control over a fighting force which they had not the first of how to oversee. Still she was forced to stand, bow, and acquiesce any time one of the fat, out-of-shape office jockeys decided to let their pneumatic pants carry them out of their mansions and into the real worlds. In short, she was no more powerful or free than she had ever been in her entire career as a protector, even as the Chief Officer overseeing the entire Force.

None of that would have been a problem for her, either, except for the fact that the people who did have all the power and freedom, the owners of the Protector Force, hadn’t done a single bit of work to get into that position of superiority over her. Most of them, the current owner Mr. Walker and his anti-robot agenda along with them, inherited their wealth and power, explaining why they were so terrible at running the Force in the first place, but instead of admitting to that fact, the owners were too busy claiming responsibility for any of the Chief’s successes and blaming all their failures on the Invisible Hand.

I have no choice was Mr. Walker’s favorite refrain in response to any of Chief Mondragon’s disagreements. The Market demands obedience, and the Market knows best. Even when those decisions, dictated by the market, resulted in losses of profits, lives, and property, and even when criminals roamed free because of the decisions made by Mr. Walker, his excuse remained the same: The Market demanded it. And every single time, Chief Mondragon bit her tongue, protecting her position as Chief instead of saying what she really wanted to say: “If the Market was so damn demanding, how could it ever be free?”

Chief Mondragon was not free. She knew that much. She had only one course of action in front of her if she wanted to keep the career that she had dedicated her entire wasted life to. She put her helmet on her head, waited for her brain to adjust to the three hundred and sixty degree view of the world it provided, then brushed her mustache and goatee to perfection, before—satisfied with her appearance—she marched out of her private locker room, through whitewashed halls, and into the briefing auditorium without even a second to spare before it was time for her speech—the same one she had given every year since becoming Captain.

Some Lieutenant opened the auditorium door for her, Chief Mondragon marched up to the stage’s podium, and the entire room of rookies all stood at attention and saluted her. The Chief saluted back and said, “At ease.” surprised for a moment at the sound of her modulated voice as the entire auditorium of Officers sat in one fluid motion.

“Protectors of Outland,” the Chief went on, regaining her composure as she fell into the routine of oft rehearsed words. “From this day forward, that includes you. You have sworn to uphold the sacred duties of Protectorship, and you will uphold those virtues or perish in embarrassment. Now, children—because y’all truly are babies in the eyes of the Force—life out there is real, and we’re here for one reason and one reason alone: To protect the ideals of Outland. Protectors, what are those ideals?”

“Property, liberty, life,” most of the Officers staring back at her from their soft, cushy stadium seating spoke on top of and over one another. It wasn’t anywhere near good enough for Chief Mondragon.

“I said, protectors,” she repeated, doing what little she could to prepare these poor little noobies for the thankless, endless, Sisyphean career that lay ahead of them from this day forward, pumping them up like a football coach in the locker room before a big game. “What. Are. Those. Ideals?” she demanded.

“Property! Liberty! Life! Sir,” the room sang in unison.

“And without these basic freedoms, what are we? We are not civilization. We are not human. We are nothing. Today you are tried by fire. Every protector is baptized into the Force the same way. If you cannot make it in Outland Six, then you are not strong enough, you are not fit enough, you are not enough to protect any of the Outlands. Do you understand me? This work is dangerous, protectors. You’ve been told the stories of your ancestors. You’ve been trained. You know as well as you can know what awaits you out those doors. So I’m going to ask you one more time. Protectors, are you ready?”

“Hoo-ra!” they replied.

“Hoo-ra!” Chief Mondragon repeated. “You know your vows rookies. I suggest you listen to your Sergeant if you want to make it through this alive. Lock and load.”

The mass of them stood and milled around to find their squad assignments, following the directions projected on their helmets’ viewports. One lucky pair—well, half lucky—would be grouped with Chief Mondragon instead of a Sergeant, and soon the new round of legends and rumors surrounding the most recent class of rookies would begin to take shape, further chaining future generations to the traditions of the past the same way that had always been done every year a new cohort graduated from the Protector Academy. The same as everyone else, the Chief was bound by the Market to act as she acted, greeting the two nervous recruits who had been assigned to her squad and preparing each for herodom in their own way.

“Officer Michelle Kelley,” the first of the two said, standing erect and saluting Chief Mondragon. “Reporting for duty, sir.”

“Officer.” The Chief saluted back. “And your partner?”

Officer Jones,” Officer Kelley groaned. “She’s kind of a joke around the locker room, sir.”

“Did I ask you what you think’s funny?” Chief Mondragon demanded. “Do you think I care what y’all talk about in the locker room? Why do you think I have my own?”

“I— No—” Officer Kelley stammered. “I don’t understand, sir. I—”

“If I want to hear about your jokes, I’ll ask you to say something funny. Right now, I want to know why you’re reporting to me without your partner by your side.”

“I— Uh…” Officer Kelley still didn’t understand.

I— Uh” Chief Mondragon mocked her. “You’ll come to find that your partner’s the only person in the worlds who has your back, Officer. Never leave their side. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, saluting.

And at the same time, Officer Nakia Jones marched into position next to Officer Kelley, saluting just the same. “Officer Jones, reporting for duty, sir.”

Chief Mondragon saluted back. “At ease, Officers. I selected you two specifically for this operation because I feel like you show the most potential out of our new class of rookies.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted again.

“I—uh… Me, sir?” Officer Jones started before saying. “I mean, yes, sir.”

“Yes, you,” Chief Mondragon said. “The both of you. But I can’t give you any more details until we’re in the field proper, so let’s get on with it. Go, go, go. Move, move.”

They followed the rest of their squadron out into the transport bay where Chief Mondragon ordered the machine to take them to Outland Six. The floor fell out from underneath them, and when it stopped again, the doors slid open and all the protectors inside flooded out onto the streets like a white water rapid, heading toward lower ground at their designated sectors where they would march, patrol, and put on a show, doing nothing of any importance while Chief Mondragon initiated the traditional culling ceremony for a new rookie cohort.

#     #     #

Chief Mondragon led the two rookie Officers along the green grass of the Neutral Ground while Sixers split in front of them like the Red Sea afraid of Amaru’s wrath. Construction on the border wall was coming along nicely, and the Neutral Ground was almost a continuous strip of green grass again, but off in the far distance, Chief Mondragon could still see patches of skyscrapers blocking what was once a straight line view into a beautiful blue and green infinity.

They followed the Neutral Ground for a while before turning into the streets where the skyscrapers ate them like darkness. Chief Mondragon leisurely wound her way through the boulevards and alleys, even doubling back in some places, not only so she could enjoy the stark, brutalist architecture, but also to test her charges’ sense of direction as they made their way toward destiny.

When she stopped their procession in front of the door she was looking for, hidden deep in a dark alley and flanked by dumpsters, she turned to find both of her charges confused under their screaming facemasks—Officer Kelley tried to cover her reaction up as quickly as possible, but Officer Jones let her confusion linger.

“Here we are, girls,” Chief Mondragon said, trying to lighten the mood a bit since they were going to be getting into character soon anyway. “You two ready?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Officer Kelley saluted.

“Ready for what?” Officer Jones asked.

“You’ll see,” the Chief said, opening the door and letting the rookies in first before following them inside and locking the door behind her. “Come on in.”

They stepped into a costume closet. It was one of many that the Force had requisitioned from Outland Three using their powers of eminent domain. Now, instead of dressing up some artsy-fartsy thespian hippies who would use the costumes for nothing more meaningful than playacting, these outfits would go to a more productive use: allowing protectors to go undercover in protection of the ideals of humanity: property, liberty, and life—in that order. Of course, they would also be used for the annual culling event, but that was just as important, and in this instance, one in the same.

“Where are we?” Officer Jones asked.

“You just walked here,” Chief Mondragon said, chuckling—she loved when she got an opportunity to use that joke. “You tell me.”

Uh. It looks like a costume closet?”

“Very observant, Officer,” the Chief said with a smile. “And what do you think we’re doing here?”

“Going undercover, sir,” Officer Kelley said with a salute.

“Well, yes, Kelley,” the Chief said. “But I didn’t ask you. And you have no need to show off. Trust me. But, yes. We’re here because we’re going undercover. We have intel saying there’s a cache of stolen printers in this sector. Hopefully we get the chance to make some arrests today.”

Hoo-rah,” Officer Kelley intoned.

Uh— Undercover, sir?” Officer Jones said, not as excited about the prospect as Officer Kelley.

“Undercover, Officer,” Chief Mondragon repeated. “All three of us. They did go over that in the Academy, didn’t they? Jones, you’ll be playing my lovely lady wife. So do dress appropriately. And Kelley, you’re just a normal Sixer. So pick something trashy. As long as you don’t stick out too much, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

“I— Your wife?” Officer Jones said, taking off her helmet and looking even more confused without it on.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Officer Kelley said, picking out a costume and changing into it.

“Yes, my wife,” Chief Mondragon said, mocking offense as she changed into her own costume—a simple blue jeans and t-shirt combo that most of the Sixers seemed to wear. “Do you have a problem with that? Should I be offended?”

Oh. No, sir,” Jones said, stumbling around, trying to take off her shoes. “I didn’t mean to offend you, sir. I— I—” And she almost fell over before she finally did get her boots off.

“Careful, Jones,” Officer Kelley said with a smirk. “I already told you, take your shoes off before your helmet. If you’re not careful, you’re gonna give yourself a concussion.”

The Chief let them chuckle and joke together while they got dressed, then she performed an inspection. Officer Kelley was wearing a similar blue jean and t-shirt combo to the one that the Chief was wearing, which was perfectly acceptable, but she also still had her gun strapped over her shoulder.

“Lose the rifle, kid,” the Chief told her. “Side arms only. This is undercover. No flashing guns.”

The Captain turned to Officer Jones who wasn’t carrying her rifle, that’s for sure. She was wearing a purple flowery sundress and blushing under the Chief’s inspection.

“Officer Jones, a dress?” Chief Mondragon asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, embarrassed. “I thought I was supposed to be your wife. If this won’t do, I can change.”

“You look fine,” the Chief said with a wink—she looked fantastic, in fact. “But where exactly do you plan on putting your sidearm?”

“Right here, sir,” Officer Jones said, flipping her skirt up to pull her sidearm out of her garter. The Chief had to admit, she was impressed.

“If you don’t mind flashing the world to get to it, I don’t mind seeing what you’re packing,” Chief Mondragon said with a laugh.

“Maybe it’ll be a useful distraction,” Officer Jones said, chuckling herself.

“Alright, then,” the Chief said. “Looks good. I’m to be referred to as Ms. Mona Mondragon from here on out. You’re my wife, Nakia Mondragon. And you’re back up. Give us seven minutes exactly to scope the place out, then if we haven’t called down an abort, you come up to assist with the arrest. Can we handle that?”

Hoo-rah!” Kelley cheered while Jones said, “Yes, sir—erhoo-rah.”

“That’ll have to do.”

The door they were looking for was squashed tight between two others that were too close on either side, like the one they were using didn’t belong where it was, plucked out of some other world entirely and squeezed here into this one. It led them into a short hall and up a tall staircase, both too skinny just the same as the door, so much so that Chief Mondragon’s gun, hidden in her pants waist, scraped along the wall as they climbed.

“Just let me do all the talking in here,” the Chief said, taking step by creaky step. “I don’t need you messing anything up.”

“Yes, sir,” Officer Jones said, breathing heavily from the climb.

“And no more sirs. It’ll give us away. To you, I’m Mona.”

“Yes, sir—er. Okay… wifey?”

Seriously.” The Chief scoffed. “Just let me do the talking.”

Ms. Mondragon—now fully in character herself—knocked the secret knock, and after a moment, the door at the top of the stairs swung open to reveal an empty room with chipped vinyl floors, moldy crumbling ceiling panels, and two doors besides the one they went in through, one closed tight behind the man who had answered their call, and the other, the exit, slightly ajar.

“No one told me there’d be two of ya,” the man who had answered the door grumbled, looking between Ms. Mondragon and Nakia nervously.

“No one told me I couldn’t bring my pack mule with me,” Ms. Mondragon said, smacking Nakia—who responded with a yelp—on the butt. “Thought I might need some help carrying my purchases, see.”

The Sixer didn’t like it, though. Scum that he was, he still knew enough to be suspicious, even if he had no choice but to go along with the transaction anyway—no matter how shady. Ms. Mondragon had flashed a stack of cash to get into this meeting, and all that the trash on Six ever thought about was money, so he was sure to go along in the end. Same way they did every year.

Mmmhmmm…” He liked the sound of that. “Well, if ya’re buying so much ya need two people to carry it, I guess I don’t really mind. But in the future, ya need to give us some forewarning. Or else.”

“Sure, sure,” Ms. Mondragon said, waving the man’s concerns away. There’d never be another next time for him. “In the future. But let me ask you, where are these printers of yours? I’ve always wanted to see one up close.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” the man said, shaking his head. “Boss’s orders. We keep the printers locked up in the other room and the customers here in this one. It’s called the airlock system.”

“Airlock system?” Ms. Mondragon sighed. “You know that really was half the reason I came out here in the first place. If I knew I wasn’t going to get to see one in action, I would have just sent the mule to get everything on her own.” She tried to smack Nakia’s butt again, but this time wifey was expecting it and jumped out of the way.

“Well, I’m sorry,” the man said, looking at the floor. “Those are the rules. Maybe ya just should have sent her.”

“The rules?” Ms. Mondragon repeated. “Put in place by your boss, I assume. The same woman who I negotiated with to purchase the knock that got me in here. And what a high price I paid, might I remind you. Is she here, by the way? Locked up with the printers, I assume. Letting you vet the possible infection in the airlock. Well, we’re not contagious. There’s nothing to worry about.” She smiled wide, trying to make the man believe, but he still didn’t.

“Those are the rules, ma’am,” he said, still looking at his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“Is she here?” Ms. Mondragon demanded, tired of playing games with this piece of trash—she never was a fan of kick the can.

“I— Uh— Who?” the man stammered.

Your boss. Let me speak to her.”

“I—uh…”

Now.”

And at that, the man kind of jumped up and yelped, exactly like Nakia had done when Ms. Mondragon had goosed her earlier. He turned and ran out through the closed airlock door, locking a deadbolt behind him.

“Don’t ever touch me again,” Nakia snapped.

Ms. Mondragon chuckled. “Calm down, woman. You’ve got bigger problems ahead of you.”

“I will not calm down. You just sexually… What did you say?”

Ms. Mondragon pulled her gun out of the waist of her pants and pointed it at Nakia. “I said you’ve got bigger problems to worry about. It’s almost time for Kelley to come up, and she’s never late. Not by a second.”

“Yeah. So?” Nakia said, slowly backing towards the exit while keeping her eyes on Ms. Mondragon’s gun. “That’s no problem.”

“Not for me, it isn’t. But for you, I’m afraid, it’s a culling.”

“A culling, sir?” Nakia asked at the same time that the airlock door opened and out came the giant, limping robot who Ms. Mondragon had really come for, distracting her for just long enough that when she pulled the trigger, Nakia had time to dive out of the way of the bullet, shoot one back that grazed Ms. Mondragon’s arm, and escape through the exit, her purple, flowery dress flowing in a wave of ripples behind her.

“What’s the meaning of this—” the robot demanded before Ms. Mondragon swung her gun around and put a bullet between the limping machine’s eyes, exploding its plastic face all over the frightened airlock attendant who ran away to lock himself inside with all his precious printers. Ms. Mondragon hoped he was willing to die for them, because she was going to make sure that he did.

She was rubbing the red-hot gunshot wound on her arm, trying to decide whether to chase that fucking traitor Nakia or to kick down the door and kill the Sixer asshole first, when Kelley came bursting into the room, reminding Ms. Mondragon that she didn’t have to do either for herself, she had backup.

“I— Sir, what happened?” Kelley asked, her gun already out, staring confused at the obviously dead but not bleeding robot corpse on the floor.

“That way,” Mondragon yelled, pointing out the exit that Jones had escaped through. “She shot me. Officer Jones. Get her.”

“I— What? Who?” Kelley hesitated, still confused.

“Now!” Mondragon yelled, and Kelley sprinted out in pursuit of Jones.

Ms./Chief Mondragon lay on the cold vinyl floor next to the dead robot, resting for just a moment. At least she had gotten that much right. The ringleader was dead. Mr. Walker could get off her back about that. But Nakia was still alive, and she could end up causing more trouble than Mondragon cared to deal with. Maybe Kelley would take care of that in the Streets so Mondragon didn’t have to. Probably not. Nakia had gotten a pretty good head start and she was smarter than any of them had given her credit for.

Either way, all Mondragon could do was wait. Wait for backup to come clear out bodies and printers alike. Wait for the medics to bring pain relievers and patch her arm up. Wait for Mr. Walker to come up with another impossible demand that she’d have to find some way of complying with. And wait for Nakia to be served the justice that was coming for her. That last one was what Mondragon most looked forward to, and just imagining the scene filled her with a wave of relaxing serotonin as she closed her eyes, waiting for everything to come.

#     #     #

< LXVIII. Sonya     [Table of Contents]     LXX. The Scientist >

And there you have it, dear readers, the sixty-ninth chapter in the Infinite Limits series. If you enjoyed that and what to read the rest right now, or if you just want to support my future writing endeavors, please do pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. Otherwise, we’ll see you back next weekend for another chapter in the story. Until then, take care, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 67: Mr. Kitty

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back again this weekend. Today we return to the character that was probably most enjoyable to write throughout this series, the one and only Mr. Kitty. If you want to read the rest of his story and the conclusion to the Infinite Limits series, you can pick up a full copy of the novel in print or ebook format through this link. Otherwise, come on back next week to read the next chapter in the story. Until then, enjoy.

< LXVI. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXVIII. Sonya >

LXVII. Mr. Kitty

Mr. Kitty slept, as he often did, spread across the cool, flat top of Tillie’s desk while she worked, typing and clicking, swipping, and swiping in response to the computer screens’ blinking, flashing colors and the various bleeps and blips that accompanied them. For so many hours of every week Tillie sat there, moaning and groaning about whatever it was that the screens were telling her, and for just about as many hours, Mr. Kitty would sleep next to her, dreaming through it all. He was climbing a tree that seemed like it went on forever, one branch after another, higher and higher into infinity, when Tillie’s phone rang, ripping Mr. Kitty out of dreamland with a startled lurch and a garbled meow.

“Settle down, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said with a chuckle, reaching for her phone with one hand and petting Mr. Kitty with the other. “It’s just a phone.” And answering it, she added, “Tillie Manager speaking. Go ahead.”

“I— No. You can’t be serious.”

“No. Not again.”

“No, they’re not! I mean— I—”

Yes. I realize they’re just robots.”

“Yes. I’ll put the work order in, but I—”

“No. I’m sorry. I—”

Bye. Fuck.”

She slammed the phone on the desk and Mr. Kitty jumped again, purring this time.

“Sorry, Mr. Kitty,” she said, wiping her eyes before petting him. “Those assholes have no idea what they’re talking about. I shouldn’t get so upset at their ignorance, it isn’t their fault, but it’s not my fault I get pissed, either.”

“Or mine for being startled,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“Yes. I should try harder. I know. But so should they.” She patted Mr. Kitty a few times, wiped her eyes again, then went back to typing and clicking on the computer—some kind of reaction to the news she had been given over the phone.

Mr. Kitty licked himself a few times, curling up in a ball to go to back sleep, but the phone rang again, interrupting his plans.

“Tillie Manager speaking,” Tillie answered. “Go ahead.”

“Oh, no. Leo. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was—”

“Yes. Of course I’m working. You know your mother. What else do I do?”

No. Of course. No.”

Definitely. Just like I promised. I won’t touch a phone or a computer for the entire weekend. For as long as you’re here, even, if you want to stay longer…”

“That’s why I’m getting it all done now.”

“Okay. I love you. See you soon.”

She hung up the phone and patted Mr. Kitty with a smile, forgetting whatever news about the robots that had nearly brought her to tears earlier. “Did you hear that, Mr. Kitty?” she asked. “Leo’s running late, but he’s on the way. I’m sure he can’t wait to see you.”

Sure,” Mr. Kitty meowed, but he didn’t really believe that. Leo and Mr. Kitty had never gotten along when Leo was growing up, and going off to college hadn’t changed anything about his attitude toward animals. Still, Leo’s presence made Tillie happy, and Tillie being happy made Mr. Kitty happy, so as long as the kid kept out of Kitty’s way, they wouldn’t have any problems.

Mr. Kitty fell asleep on Tillie’s desk until the doorbell rang and woke him up. He yawned and stretched, then licked himself a few times before jumping off the desk with a thud to follow Tillie out to answer the door. Tillie held her hand on the doorknob for a moment, taking a deep breath and brushing her hair out of her face, before she smiled and opened the door.

“Leo, my boy,” she said as she did. “It’s so good to see you. You look as wonderful as ever.” She pulled Leo in for a hug that he tried to squirm his way out of.

Aw, Ma. C’mon,” he complained, straightening himself out once he had finally escaped his mom’s loving bear grip. “I just saw you two weeks ago. We’re only an elevator ride away from each other. Don’t be so dramatic.”

“Yes, well, it’s not really dramatic when I’m genuinely happy to see you. Is it?” Tillie said, sounding offended. “Besides, I’m your mother and your my only son. What do you expect?”

“This is exactly what I expect,” Leo said, brushing past Tillie and almost stepping on Mr. Kitty’s tail as he made his way toward the kitchen. Mr. Kitty hissed, but no one seemed to hear it so he just had to follow along behind them anyway. He was still curious to see how Leo had been even if Leo wasn’t curious in the least to see how he was.

“So you didn’t bring any bags with you?” Tillie asked, still smiling though more nervously now. “You are planning on staying for the full weekend, aren’t you?”

“You do still have a 3D printer, don’t you?” Leo said, pressing the voice activation button. “Tall boy of Pabst,” he added and a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon—which had apparently won the award back in the ancient age of 1893—came out of the printer’s mouth. “And it still works. So, no. I didn’t really need to bring anything with me. Did I?’

“You know you’re not old enough to drink that,” Tillie said, crossing her arms. “Did I give you permission to order alcohol?”

Ugh.” Leo groaned, chugged half his drink, burped, wiped his mouth, and said, “Ma, please. You went to LSU. You know how things work. I’ve been drinking for a long time now. I think I can handle myself.”

Tillie chuckled, shaking her head. “Oh yeah?” she said. “Big ol’ tough guy going to a big ol’ party school. Is that right? I guess you think you know something about the worlds now. Do you?”

“I know I know something about the worlds,” Leo said, chugging the rest of his drink and ordering another along with some chips and dip.

“And you think you can just come in here using my printer however you want to, no questions asked?” Tillie grinned.

“That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it?” Leo pressed the printer’s voice activation button one more time and ordered a pack of Camel Greens to prove his point.

“Well, you can,” Tillie said, bringing Leo in for another hug that he tried to squirm his way out of. “But you gotta share those Greens. C’mon. Let’s smoke one on the porch.”

Tillie ordered her own beer—a pint of something thick, dark, and chocolatey in a glass, not whatever hipster piss water her son was drinking—and Mr. Kitty followed her and Leo out onto the back porch where they sat on metal grated patio chairs at a metal grated table and Mr. Kitty laid on the cool, hard cement, licking himself so he didn’t fall asleep.

After some time of smoking and drinking, Leo broke the silence to say, “Still living in the same old house, I noticed. Don’t you ever get tired of this thing?”

“Tired of it?” Tillie giggled like she only ever did while smoking. “Never. I grew up in this place, you know. Your Grandpa used to own it back when I was in the fifth grade.”

Ptuh. No wonder it looks so old.” Leo laughed.

It does not,” Tillie complained. “You take that back. I take wonderful care of this place. It looks just as good as it did on the day my dad bought it.”

“Which is exactly the problem,” Leo said, putting out one joint to light another. “That was ages ago, and styles change faster than phones are updated. I mean, Grandpa knew as much himself. Which is why he sold the thing off and bought something better with the profits. You could learn a lot from Grandpa.”

Pffft.” Tillie scoffed, stubbing out her own joint and almost reaching for another but thinking twice about it. “I’ve learned plenty from your grandfather, thank you very much. And I don’t think he ever sold a house because it was out of fashion. He never really had any interest in trends and fashionability. No, I’m sure the only thing he ever sold a house for was the profits. Trust me.”

“Still,” Leo said, finishing off his drink and crushing the can under his foot. “That’s as good as the same thing. Better even. If he keeps selling them for a profit, he’s gotta know something about fashion, right? And money can buy stylists to follow all that for you. But only for as long as the profits flow. So maybe profits are more important than fashion in the end.”

“Not to me,” Tillie said, shaking her head. “Not at all. Neither are important. I’m never gonna sell this house. I’m more interested in the history I have here, the history we share here—you and I, me and your grandpa, me and your father, everyone. No amount of money is going to remind me of the time you colored a mural all over those walls right there and we left it up for a week so you wouldn’t cry about it when we covered it up,” she said, pointing in through the glass door to the living room where Leo—and Mr. Kitty—turned to look. Mr. Kitty felt like he could almost see the mural still up there. “Do you remember that?” Tillie chuckled. “I do. It’s still behind the paint on those walls. And what about the time you broke your leg on that trampoline that still stands right over there while I was sitting right here in this very chair watching you. There’s the first night you came home from the hospital after being born, the first night you slept all the way until morning, the first night you spent at a friend’s house when it was my turn to bawl until morning instead of yours.” She almost started crying again, and Mr. Kitty could tell that it made Leo uncomfortable. “This house, as old and out of fashion as you may think it is, reminds me of all those stories, and that reminder could never have a price tag put on it. I’ll never sell this house. And I hope that you might eventually feel the same way about it when I pass it down to you.”

Leo was feeling really awkward now, squirming in his seat. “Alright, alright,” he said. “Enough mushy stuff. And definitely stop talking about death. Sheesh. I only just got here. Can’t I rest a little after that horrid travelling experience before you start grilling me with the heavy stuff?”

“Hey, you’re the one who ordered the Greens,” Tillie said with a chuckle. “You know how I get when I’m high.”

“Now that you reminded me, I do,” Leo said.

“Which should prove to you why reminders are so important.” Tillie laughed, and at the same time an alarm went off on the phone in Leo’s pocket.

“Speaking of which,” Leo said, pulling the phone out to turn off the alarm. “Now, I know we agreed that neither of us would do work or anything like that while I was here, but I have to break that promise for, like… thirty minutes. Okay? This is really important. It’s the finale of my favorite TV show, and— Now wait just a second, okay. I’m not done. I was going to say that it’ll take just thirty minutes, and I have to do it or the internet will definitely spoil it for me when I’m inevitably surfing social media at this boring dinner party you have planned for later. So if you don’t want me to be totally depressed in front of all your upper management friends, you’d do better to just let me sit down and watch this real quick. After that, I promise nothing but family time for the rest of the weekend. So what do you say?”

Tillie didn’t answer for a moment, in which Leo fidgeted, checking the clock on his phone, then she said, “Of course you can watch your show. It’s not like I’m trying to keep you in prison here. But only if you don’t mind me sitting next to you and watching along. That’s all I care about. Spending time with you. No matter what it is we’re doing together.”

Great,” Leo said, standing up and almost stepping on Mr. Kitty again. This time Mr. Kitty meowed loud enough so everyone could hear it. “Oh, sorry, Kitty,” Leo said, patting him too hard on the head to which Mr. Kitty meowed again. “Yes,” Leo went on. “You can watch with us, too. As long as you stay out of my lap and shut up.” He turned to his mom. “But I’m gonna go get some snacks, first. Do you want anything? The shows about to start.”

“Another beer for sure,” Tillie said, standing. “But I’ll come help you.” And Mr. Kitty followed them back into the kitchen where he laid on the hard, cool tile floor, listening to them talk and gather their snacks while he licked his dirty paws clean.

Ooh. White cheddar popcorn,” Tillie said to the printer. Then to Leo, “I love white cheddar popcorn when I’m high.”

“Me, too,” Leo said, nodding and staring off into the distance, as if he were imagining the taste of it. “And some corn chips and bean dip,” he added for the printer and his mother alike.

“Always your favorite,” Tillie said, smiling. “Ever since you started school. How are your classes going now, anyway?”

“Classes are classes.” Leo shrugged.  “I always seem to get by. Peanut M&M’s.”

“Yeah, but you’re doing a little more than just getting by, aren’t you?” Tillie said. “I know you’re only a sophomore, but you should have at least started whittling away some of your options. Right…”

Sure,” Leo said sarcastically. “I whittle every day. But whittling’s a slow process. Pabst tall boy. Two, please.”

“You know, I once thought I wanted to be a lobbyist,” Tillie said with a smile at the thought. “When I was pretty much the same age you are right now, as a matter of fact.”

Pfft. A lobbyist?” Leo laughed, stacking the last little bits of his snackery onto a serving tray. “You? You’ve got to be kidding me. You need anything else?”

“Another beer, please,” Tillie said to the printer. And, “No, I’m not kidding.” she said to Leo. “Your mother was heavily involved in campus activism when she went to LSU. You’ve heard of the Reclaim the Grounds movement, right? That started with us, at LSU.”

Pffft. Yeah right. You’re kidding me. You were one of those hippies? What made you quit and become a manager? Was it Grandpa?”

Tillie paused to think about it. As well as Mr. Kitty knew her by then, he knew that she was picturing Nikola and Emma in her mind and how they had both been so violently stolen from Tillie right in front of her eyes. “Because if you want to do the right thing in lobbying,” she finally said, “it inevitably becomes life-threatening. And I didn’t want to leave you or your grandpa with no one to take care of y’all. The Hand knows you both need it. Now come on. It’s about time for that show of yours to start.”

They carried their snacks into the living room and set everything on the coffee table—exactly where Mr. Kitty had intended to lay—so he tried to jump onto Tillie’s lap instead, but she didn’t like that idea so she pushed him down onto the floor where he had the worst view of the TV out of anyone. Luckily, he didn’t really care about whatever the show was anyway so he just went on licking himself and listening to the sounds.

“Not now, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said. “I’m trying to eat.” She shoved a big handful of white cheddar popcorn into her mouth, puffing her cheeks out like a chipmunk.

“TV on,” Leo said. “Cartoon Network.”

“The Cartoon Network, huh?” Tillie said. “What sort of show is this that you find so fascinating?”

“Protector Time,” Leo said. “And yes, it’s a cartoon, but it’s something more than that. Okay.”

“So adults enjoy it, too?” Tillie asked, mouth still full of popcorn. “Like anime. Or the Simpsons.”

“I’m not sure if enjoy is quite the right word. Like, it’s more about the cultural phenomenon that the cartoon represents, you know. It’s like— I mean… You’ll see when you watch it, but you can pretty much tell outright from the name of the show that it’s, like, pure pro-cop propaganda. Right? One hundred percent pure ideology, okay. But the thing is that no one can really figure out who exactly the target audience is, you know. I mean, how long has it been since we’ve even had a real protector force? Not since the invention of printers, right? So why are we still wasting resources on producing this nonsense?”

“I— Uh—” Tillie started to say, but Leo cut her off.

“Wait. Shhh. It’s about to start,” he said. Then, “Volume up. Up, up, up. Got it.”

A cartoon came on the screen with an upbeat theme song, and Leo stopped munching on his snacks to lean forward and pay closer attention. Tillie couldn’t resist the lure of the popcorn, but she slowed down, too, putting one kernel in her mouth at a time instead of eating it by the handful. She seemed genuinely interested in what the show held in store for her. Mr. Kitty, for his part, stole glances at the screen out of the corner of his eye as he licked his coat clean—a maintenance project which took up most of his time that he didn’t spend sleeping. The cartoon hadn’t been running for more than a few minutes—no amount of time for an uninitiated fan to pick up any sort of storyline—when it was interrupted by a breaking news segment.

“Pardon the interruption, TV viewers,” a big, sweaty head said on the screen, and Leo groaned.

“Not right now. Fuck!” he complained.

“We interrupt your regularly scheduled content to bring you a breaking news report.”

“We know, we know,” Leo complained. “Just get on with it already.”

“Jorah Baldwin, highest paid and most-viewed celebrity in all of history, has been reported missing.”

The TV screen changed from the reporter’s sweaty bust to a montage of photographs of Jorah in various outfits.

“Fuck that guy,” Leo said, chugging his beer. “All his movies suck, anyway. How can anyone watch him?”

“If you have any information about Jorah’s whereabouts,” the reporter’s disembodied voice went on over the shifting images of Jorah Baldwin. “Please call your local Crimestoppers number or the number on the television screen now.”

A phone number flashed on the screen, then the message repeated itself while Leo complained some more. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “Of course this shitty actor has got to go missing right when my show’s on. I don’t care how popular they try to tell us he is, no one gives two shits about Jorah Baldwin.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Tillie said. “I think he’s a pretty good actor.”

“How can you even tell?” Leo scoffed. “He’s always in such shitty roles. No actor could make them good. I mean, just like this Protector Time propaganda, why do we need all the blatantly Luddite films that Baldwin’s been acting in ever since Russ Logo’s death? Robots already took all those jobs ages ago, and we’re better off because of it.”

“Right, well… Hmmm.” Tillie wanted to say more, Mr. Kitty knew from their conversations together, but she hesitated long enough for the news report to end and the cartoon to come back on—and not where they had been interrupted, either, but further into the show as if it had kept playing while the news report ran.

“Of fucking course.” Leo growled. “Great. TV off.”

“No. What? C’mon.” Tillie complained as if she really had wanted to watch the show. “But I was just getting into it.”

“Yeah, but we missed the setup. It wouldn’t make any sense. Trust me. I’ll just have to try to avoid spoilers tonight. Ugh.” He cracked open another beer and stuffed his face with popcorn. “I think I’m gonna go take a nap before this dinner party. Seven o’clock, right?”

Uh… Yeah. Seven,” Tillie said. “I’ll wake you before then.”

“Alright, Ma. I love you,” Leo said, marching his way off toward his old bedroom—which Tillie had left exactly how it was before Leo had moved to campus.

Tillie finished off her beer, sighed, and stood from the couch, stretching. Mr. Kitty took the cue and stood to yawn and stretch himself.

“Well, Mr. Kitty,” Tillie said. “That was a close one. I almost blurted it out this time.”

“Maybe you should have,” Mr. Kitty meowed, following her into her office where she sat behind the desk and he jumped up onto it.

“You know, maybe I should just tell him,” Tillie said, nodding with imagined confidence.

“That’s what I just said,” Mr. Kitty meowed.

“I mean, I was pretty pissed that my dad never told me. And Leo’s gonna find out the truth eventually. Right?”

“Do you even care what I say?” Mr. Kitty asked.

“And what harm could it really do in the end?” Tillie went on. “I mean, he just told me he’s not interested in lobbying. He only seems to care about cartoons. Maybe I could just casually show him a photo of a factory accident and see how he reacts.”

“I’ll take that as a no,” Mr. Kitty said, and he walked around in a circle a few times before finding a comfortable position to lay down in.

“You’re right,” Tillie said. “It’s a risk, for sure, but I think it might just be a risk I’m willing to take.”

Mr. Kitty didn’t respond. Tillie was free to take whatever risks she wanted to take. He had no plan to stop her, especially considering the fact that he had already advised her to do exactly what she was planning to do. Instead, he listened while Tillie clicked and typed, searching for a picture from her archives that she could show to Leo in order to reveal to him the truth. Mr. Kitty fell asleep while she did, not to be woken up again until sometime later by an argument between Leo and Tillie.

“Just tell me what you see, then we can get ready for dinner,” Tillie said, pointing at her computer screen where a picture of several dead children, eaten by the machines they were supposed to be cleaning, their blood retouched black to look like oil, stared back at them.

“I thought you said no work while I was here,” Leo complained, avoiding the image on the screen as if he might actually know the truth of what it held without ever having been told.

“This isn’t work,” Tillie said. “This is more important than work. This is about your education. So please, tell me, what do you see in the picture?”

Uh… I don’t know,” Leo said, looking at the screen for the first time but still only out of his peripheral vision. “Is it like a factory or something?”

“Yes, it’s a factory,” Tillie said. “But you’re not even trying. You have to look. Actually look at it and tell me what you see.”

Leo looked at the picture for real now. There was a flash of recognition in his eyes, a flash of disgust, then nothing. No emotional reaction. No critical analysis. Just regurgitation of what he had always been taught by everyone—Tillie included.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It looks like— It looks like some cleaner bots malfunctioned and were destroyed by the machine. I don’t know specifics, though. I haven’t learned much about the actual factory floor yet.”

“Cleaner bots?” Tillie asked. “They really look like cleaner bots to you?”

“I don’t know,” Leo said, crossing his arms and getting defensive. “I told you we haven’t learned about the factory floor yet.”

“You don’t have to know about the factory floor,” Tillie snapped before correcting her tone. “I mean, just look. They’re not robots, Leo. Those are not robots. Okay. Look.” She pointed again.

Leo chuckled, shaking his head and trying to avoid looking again at the picture on the screen. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “Ma. Please tell me you’re not one of them. A conspiracy theorist?”

“This isn’t a conspiracy theory, Leo. This is the truth. It’s right there in front of your face, plain for anyone to see. You just have to open your eyes and look, son.”

Pffft. Sure, Mom,” Leo said, leaving the office. “That’s what all the conspiracy theorists say. Wake up sheeple! Right? I get it. But isn’t it about time for your dinner party?”

The office was silent for a moment after Leo had left, all except for the sound of Mr. Kitty licking himself. Then Tillie broke the silence by saying, “I should have told him the truth a long time ago. When he was younger. Right off the bat. Now I may not be able to convince him ever.”

“There’s always hope,” Mr. Kitty meowed, and he went back to licking himself, hoping to get his coat clean before he fell asleep.

 

#     #     #

< LXVI. Jorah     [Table of Contents]     LXVIII. Sonya >

And there you have it, dear readers, the next chapter in the story. If you liked that, don’t forget to pick up a copy of the novel through this link. If you purchase the print version, we’ll even throw in an ebook for free. Otherwise, we’ll be back again next week. Until then, comrades. We do nothing alone.

Chapter 59: Anna

Hello, dear readers, and welcome back for another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. Today we rejoin Anna for her third and final point of view chapter in Dividing by Ø. She’s just find out what kind of bending feats the Scientist is capable of, and now she has to come up with a way to fight back, save Roo, and help poor little Mike find his missing mom all at the same time.

Enjoy the story, and if you do, please do think about leaving a review for this one and all the novels in the series through this link. Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone.

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

LIX. Anna

That was her. That was the Scientist who had told Rosa that she was watching the Family. She had enough power to steal Rosa en route through the fields, and she had enough power to hack into Anna’s pathways, bending them to the Scientist’s own will. It had to have been her. Anna knew it. But what was she supposed to do about it?

“What the fuck was that?” the little boy who had come looking for his mom said, cowering at the foot of the stairs where he had been sitting when the doors opened and the monstrous mechanical arm came storming in to snatch the little girl away and disappear with her. “Wh—Where’s Roo?”

“Roo?” Anna shook her head. Who was Roo? She couldn’t think of anything but the Scientist’s cold grip on the universe, her power to bend and shape it, not only to her own will but against Anna’s.

“Um… Miss, uh…ma’am,” the boy squeaked in a cracking, trembling voice that was ready to break down into full on sobs at any second. Anna almost felt a tear in her eye at the sound of it. “Where’s my mom?” the boy asked, crying now. “I want to go home.”

And Anna’s tears came, too. She couldn’t stop them. The universe, and bending, and the Scientist’s control over every aspect of every tiny detail of every single human’s life evaporated from her mind. Anna had lost sight of what truly mattered. She had forgone Family and Home for power and influence, and now she was on the verge of forgetting this little boy who was standing in front of her—this little boy whose name she couldn’t even recall, only driving Anna to further tears—this little boy who had just lost his best friend in their search for his missing mother, and all he was asking for was to go home.

“Oh, child, no,” Anna said, still weeping as she moved to embrace the boy who backed away, crab crawling up a few stairs, before giving in to her hug and sobbing in rhythm with Anna’s sobs, comforted in the knowledge of being unjudged. “You are Home,” Anna went on in a soft voice. “I’m your Mother now. One of them at least. You can call me Anna.” She soon controlled her own tears and comforted the boy until he stopped weeping himself.

“W—What happened?” the boy asked, done sobbing now but still wiping tears from his eyes.

“Someone kidnapped your friend,” Anna said, patting him on the back. “Did you say her name was Roo?”

The boy nodded, looking like he could break down into tears again at any moment. “Who would do that?”

“I think I know the answer to your question, and I have a way to find out for sure. I might even be able to get your friend back. But first we need to take care of you.”

The boy shook his head, eyes welling up with tears again. “No, but— Roo, she…”

“No buts,” Anna said, standing from the stairs and pulling the boy up with her. “You look hungry. I know you just ate, but wouldn’t some dessert sound perfect?”

The boy grinned a little despite the tears still tumbling from his eyes and the rush of red blood still flushing his face. “I like ice cream,” he said. “Though Mom never buys it.”

“Of course,” Anna said, leading him upstairs to a seat at the bar in the kitchen. “That’s why you were here in the first place, wasn’t it? You were searching for your mother. What was her name again?”

“Melody Singer,” the boy said, climbing up into the stool to cross his arms and lay them on the counter. “Chocolate, please.”

Hmmm. Melody Singer,” Anna said, searching the freezer for ice cream—Rosa usually liked to keep a little around when they could find it, and she had stocked up with the printers in use. “And your name is?”

“Mike, ma’am,” the boy said with a grin. “Mike Singer. What’s yours?”

“Anna Chandelier,” Anna said, plopping a bucket of ice cream, chocolate—Rosa’s favorite, too—on the counter between them. “It’s very nice to meet you, Mike.”

The boy laughed and sniffled, wiping a big glob of snot onto his sleeve. “And you, ma’am.” He grabbed the spoon and swallowed a scoop of ice cream that looked too big to fit in his mouth.

“I only wish we could have met under better conditions,” Anna said, still standing across the bar from the boy and watching the poor child as he ate, taking each heaping spoonful straight out of the bucket. His mother was Melody Singer. She was one of the bodies who had been taken by the scum protectors, probably to be desecrated for kicks. This little boy had been through so much Hell already and it was only looking to get worse for him. Anna pitied the boy’s tiny face as he teared up again, sobbing through a big bite of ice cream because he somehow knew what Anna was about to say.

“Better conditions?” the boy asked, his trembling lips sending slops of chocolate ice cream all of the counter. “Y—You mean, my mother. She’s not at home, is she?”

Anna grabbed a towel to wipe up the mess then hurried around the counter to comfort the sobbing boy. “She was an honorable woman, your mother,” Anna said, because it was true. “She died fighting to give you a better life.”

Dead?” The boy dropped his spoon now, creating another mess which Anna ignored in order to pull him up out of the stool and into a hug. “She can’t be!” he demanded, as he fought against her, crying in anger and pain.

“No, no, no. Shhhhh. It’s okay.” Anna patted his back and rocked him like a baby, reassuring him until he settled to the occasional sob and a trickle of tears—not to mention a lot of sniffling. “She was a good woman, your mother. She was doing what she thought was best for you. She was doing what was in your best interests. She deserves our respect for that much, for everything she did for you and the Human Family in general. She was a good woman.”

Hah.” The boy scoffed, gaining enough composure finally to wriggle away from Anna and stand up, wiping the tears from his eyes and sniffling. “Yeah, right. We must be talking about different people then. Maybe my mom isn’t dead after all.”

Anna’s heart broke just a little bit at the sound of this little boy’s beautiful, tragic hope. She shook her head, fighting to hold back more tears of her own. “I wish that were true,” she forced through them.

“It is!” the boy yelled, stomping a foot. “That’s not my mom! My mom wasn’t honorable. She was an addict jumpie who forgot about her kids because she needed to… Oh my God.” The boy crumpled to his knees on the kitchen floor, bawling again. “My— What am—I— My brothers—” And his day became worse than Anna had already imagined it to be.

“W—We’ll take care of your brothers,” she said, only barely controlling her own sobs and having more trouble the more she tried to speak. “And you. But you can’t talk about your mother like that. She loved her Family.”

“You know nothing about our family!” the boy screamed. “You didn’t even know I had brothers! You’re the reason my mom’s dead. Why would I trust you to take care of us?” He looked around as if he were searching for an escape.

“Because I am your family, dear. Me and Rosa are the Family your mom’s been coming to help. She’s no jumpie.” Though she also never mentioned having any kids, but Anna wasn’t about to tell the boy that. “She was helping us, helping build a better world for you and your brothers to live in.”

The boy scoffed. “You’re a jumpie. Of course you wouldn’t admit that she was. You’re a jumpie, my mom who you got killed was, and Roo who you got kidnapped was. Now I’m getting out of here before you try to turn me into one, too, and something equally as bad happens to me.” He made for a door but it went to the office, deeper into the Family Home instead of out of it.

Anna followed him, blocking the doorway so he couldn’t escape. “I’m not a jumpie,” she said. “And neither was your mom. I’m telling you. Why won’t you listen to me?”

“Listen to you?” the boy said, still searching for an escape that Anna wasn’t going to give to him. “I am listening, but you aren’t saying anything. You keep talking about some family I’ve never even heard of, acting like it’s my family, too, when you didn’t even know I had brothers. You don’t even know their names. You probably don’t even remember my name, either, and I just told you.”

Anna tried to go back in her mind to when he had introduced himself but his name still wouldn’t come to her. Her mind was still filled with the problem of the Scientist and where she took that girl to. The only name Anna could think of was the boy’s last name so she said that. “Singer.”

“Yeah,” the boy urged her on. “That’s the easy part. What’s my first name?” He waited for an answer but Anna just couldn’t think of one. “Exactly my point,” he said. “You don’t know the rest. You don’t know me at all. I’m not who you think I am and you better let me go.” He rushed at her, trying to push through her arms to the other side of the door, and he did in a way, but only inasmuch as he and Anna fell in a tangle to the ground, both struggling to their feet and ending up in the position they had begun in, the boy searching for some way out of the office and Anna blocking his every exit.

“Hold on, hold on, now. Wait a second,” Anna said, breathing heavily. The fall and ensuing struggle had taken more out of her than she’d care to acknowledge. It made her feel so old next to this tiny young thing who would never give up fighting by the looks of him. “You’re right. Okay. You’re right. Settle down.”

The boy stopped searching for an escape for just a moment, taken aback by this admission of ignorance from so old and decayed a woman as Anna herself. Anna took his momentary lapse as a point of entry and continued her speech.

“I’ve come too far and lost my way,” she said. “But I was pushed here, Lord. I was pushed here. And you…” She paused, shaking her head and letting one tear fall from her eye, just one. “Yes, dear child of the one true Family, you are correct when you say that I know nothing about you and your maternal brothers. You are correct when you say that I have lost sight of your names. But child, sweet, innocent, pure, and living human child, you are wrong about why I have lost that sight.”

The boy made to speak but the weight of Anna’s words, and her heavy eyes staring, kept him quiet.

“You, sweet child, say that I do not care about you, that I am not your real family,” Anna went on in his silence. “You think I forgot your name because I don’t care to remember it. I say, no. No! Your face is forever in my memory after this day. Your love is forever in my heart. Your infinite potential as a free and autonomous human being is forever in my mind. But forgive me your name. Please. Name’s pile up with the years. There are too many countless whose flames have gone extinguished and whose light we must continue to reflect in order to keep them alive. Your mother: Melody Singer. Who died protecting you and your brothers from evils she hoped you would never have to face. Yujin Moon and Isha Tender, two of our Family members who died on the same day as your mother and in the same manner. The countless brothers and sisters taken from our lives on the day the protectors invaded our homes and murdered our Family for sharing our food with one another. Do you want me to list the names? I can: Billy Serkin, Rwanda Driver, Audrey Baker, John Ryder, Jason Garifo, Treyvon Baker, Aneesha Holmes. I can go on and on and on, but I won’t. I assume you get the picture. Names upon names upon names of people I personally knew and cared for. My Family. Our Family, yours and mine. And all dead for what?”

The boy just shook his head, tears all dry by now. “How am I supposed to know?” he asked. “You tell me.”

“All for you, precious child. All for you and your brothers. Your mother hid you from us because it was the only way she could hide you from the truth of the worlds, but the truth of the worlds took her so now there’s nothing left but reality from here on out. You are still a child, though. You’re vulnerable. I mean, I’m sure you could take care of yourself if it was only you who you had to worry about, but you have your brothers, too.”

“Ron and Bob.” The boy shook his head.

“You have Ron and Bob to worry about,” Anna said, sensing the boy’s interest intensify at the mere mention of solid names he recognized and could grasp onto. “You would never dream of leaving them to fend for themselves, they’re too young.”

The boy was still shaking his head. “Never,” he said. “They’re my brothers. I’m the oldest now so I’m the one who has to take responsibility for them. That’s how it works.”

Anna didn’t know whether to chuckle or to cry. The boy looked so earnest in what he said, and he probably truly believed it—and that was probably how the worlds should work—but he was oh so wrong. It was never the oldest, the humans who had been there the longest, giving them the most time to make a mess of things, who paid for all the fun and foley the Family inevitably fell into. No, it was always the youth, the next generation, the ones who had nothing do with anything, who only inherited a mess that no one could teach them how to handle because no one knew how to handle it in the first place, it was always the youngest and most vulnerable who faced the ultimate consequences of all the sins of every human who came before them.

“That is how it should go, my son,” Anna said, kind of chuckling and tearing up at the same time. “And that’s how it will go in the future that we’re building. But you’re not the oldest, you hear me? You’re too young to be taking on that much responsibility. One life is too many for you to take care of, not to mention three. No. I told you. You’re a part of the Family now. You always have been, even when we didn’t know you existed. Your mother was a dear good friend of mine, and I swear on her grave and the grave of my own mother that I’ll do everything in my power—which is a lot if you’ll excuse a momentary lapse of humbleness—to ensure that you and your brothers will have everything you need to continue your life as usual, if not more than that.”

The boy scoffed. “What?” he asked. “Like two moms?”

Anna had to suppress a grin. He had played into her hand so perfectly. “On the face of it,” she said, “yes. You will have two moms directly in myself and my partner Rosa—that is if you would like to stay here, we have more room than ever and more than enough to accommodate you—but even more than that, you’ll be gaining every single mother in the Human Family. Your mother was one of us when—God rest her soul—she was still alive, and now you will meet and be loved by the rest of us.”

“I don’t know.” The boy shook his head. “I don’t know. How do I trust you?”

“How do you trust anyone? Why did you trust your mother?”

The boy laughed. “She was always there for me. She’s my mom. Why wouldn’t I?”

“I thought you said she forgot about you and your brothers.”

“Yeah, well…” The boy was looking bashful now. “Not really, you know. Like she always came back just in time or whatever. You know. I mean, we’re still alive aren’t we?”

“You are.” Anna smiled. “More alive than ever. And your mother did everything she could to keep you that way, including working with us and making connections in the Human Family. It was her insurance. I know you don’t know what insurance is, but that’s what it was. She was making sure you and your brothers would be protected in case anything ever happened to her.”

“No, but…” The boy was fighting two sides of a lose lose battle in his head. The cognitive dissonance was visible on his face. “I don’t even know you. She would have told us something about you if she wanted this, anything.”

“She was protecting you, son. Not from us, but from everything we’re fighting against. But now, I’m afraid, the fight has come to your doorstep and you’re left only with two options. You can give up and run away, try to make it on your own protecting your two brothers by yourself, or you can join the Family that’s waiting for you, choose the option that’s best for yourself, and more importantly, choose the option that’s best for your brothers.”

“No, but…” He shook his head.

“But what? Where else do you have to go?”

He looked like he was going to burst again. This time, though, not into tears, into something else entirely, something which Anna couldn’t predict, only wait to unfold. “But—”

The front doors burst open instead, and Anna could hear it even though it was a few rooms away. Feet stomped from the door, through the conference room and kitchen, until they were stomping up behind Anna who turned to see Rosa as pissed as she had ever been. “Anna! Anna!” she called as she stormed through the Home. “You’ll never believe what the—” She stopped in her tracks when she saw the kid, still trying to decide what his future would be. “Who’s this?”

“Oh, I…” Anna said, glancing between them.

“Mike,” the boy said, saving Anna from the embarrassment of still not remembering. “Mike Singer, newest member of the Family—apparently.”

“Mike Singer?” Rosa said.

Mike,” Anna said, embracing him. “Really?”

“You said so yourself,” he said, squirming away a little but not trying too hard. “I can’t take care of my brothers myself, can I? I need a family. I need you.”

“Yes, yes, oh yes,” Anna said, kissing him on the head then turning to Rosa. “Did you hear that, Rosa dear? You’ll never believe it. We have three new children.”

Great,” Rosa said, rolling her eyes. Obviously the meeting about the movie didn’t go too well or else she would be in a better mood. “Just what we need. some kids running around the House with all the new guns we have.”

“Guns?” Mike said, wide eyed and excited by the prospect.

“I told you I didn’t want them in the House,” Anna said. She had forgotten about that little discussion in her need to overpower the Scientist, but now that she remembered it, she would have to be sure to take extra precautionary measures in storing the armory away so the kids couldn’t get to it.

“And I told you we had no other choice,” Rosa said. “We’ve talked about this already and I don’t have time to go over it again. Any arguments?” She shot a look at the kid which Anna thought didn’t bode well for the future of their growing nuclear family. “No? Then if you’ll excuse me,” she stepped between them into the office and gently showed them out, “I have some planning to get underway and there’s no time to waste. Good day.” And she slammed the door behind her.

“Shit,” Mike said, holding a hand to his mouth as if Anna would chastise him for using the word. “I mean, she was cranky.”

“You must forgive her,” Anna said, showing Mike back to the kitchen. “It’s been a rough day on her—a rough few weeks, as a matter of fact. She’s not always like this, though. I promise that, cross my heart. She’ll warm up to you and your brothers. You’ll see.”

“Um, yeah. About that,” Mike said, playing with the hem of his shirt. “So does that mean we’re supposed to move in here or what? We wouldn’t be able to stay in our own place, would we?”

“Oh, no.” Anna shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. There’s no telling what would happen when the owners of the apartment found you boys living there without paying rent, but I can tell you for sure that, whatever it is, it won’t be good. No, you’re going to have to go get your brothers right now and pack all your things up then come back here where we can set you up with a room of your own.”

“I get my own bed, though, right?” Mike asked, holding up a finger as if his question were a demand and this conversation some kind of negotiation. “I’m not sharing again after I only just got my own. Waking up in a puddle of pee every night is no way to live.”

“Of course, dear. Each of you can have your own bed. Bunk beds, as a matter of fact. Three stacked on top of each other. You hurry up and get your brothers, then I’ll show you.”

“Bunk beds?” Mike said, excited, scurrying for the front door now that he knew which it was. “I call top!” he said and he slammed the door behind him, off to bring two other new children back into the Family. Oh how it continued to grow.

Anna groaned. All she wanted to do was get back on the consoles to hunt the Scientist and the missing girl, but she knew she had to see what was bothering Rosa first—problems with the execution of her precious movie, no doubt. Anna had tried to tell her that Threes couldn’t be trusted, their entire profession was lying, but Rosa insisted that they needed professionals to do the job if they wanted it done right.

Rosa was sitting behind her desk, scribbling in one of the many notebooks that were strewn all around the office, when Anna entered. Rosa didn’t look up at the sound of the door opening or closing, or even at the feel of Anna’s hands massaging her too tense shoulders. She only looked up when the thought in her head was all out on the paper, and then she did it with a sigh. “You won’t believe what I just went through,” she said, shaking her head and getting into the massage now. Finally her muscles started to loosen. “Though it sounds like you’ve had an adventure of your own today.”

Anna chuckled, shaking her head though Rosa couldn’t see the gesture. “Besides the three kids we just adopted,” Rosa groaned, “another one was kidnapped right out of our basement.”

“Out of our basement?” Rosa asked, turning to look at Anna. “How? By who?”

“The Scientist,” Anna said, crossing around to take a seat on the other side of the desk so Rosa wouldn’t have to crane her already tense neck. “And some giant robot arm. I’m pretty sure I can find where she took the girl to, though—and get us there, which might be even harder.”

“Great.” Rosa sighed. “Just what we need on top of everything we’re already facing.”

“So how’d your meeting go, then?” Anna asked, trying to change the subject even though she could already predict the answer to her own question based on Rosa’s mood.

“Horrible. Terrible. No good. Very bad. Worse than I could have imagined. Worse still because of our dear Lord Walker’s involvement. I’m not sure we can rely on this project to spread our message at all anymore. It may be time to abort the mission entirely and start over at a more opportune time.”

“That bad, huh?” There weren’t likely to be any more opportune times than this one. Now was the moment they had been waiting their entire lives for.

“Worse. They’re not following the script we agreed on.”

“I told you we shouldn’t have given them their equipment until after they shot the movie for us.”

“But then they couldn’t have shot the movie at all.” Rosa sighed. “We had no choice.”

“So how different can it be, though?” Anna asked. “Can’t we just make them change it back?”

“Too different.” Rosa scoffed. “It’s still anti-robot, but that’s only half the message—the less important half, at that. All mention of the Family and its supreme importance: Whoosh.” She made a gesture with her hands as if they were flying out the window.

“But we had an agreement.” That was worse than Anna had thought it could be. She didn’t care nearly as much about the anti-robot message as the pro-Family one. To her, that was pretty much the entire message, not just half of it. “We’ll make them change it or take back everything we’ve given them. It’s the only way we can respond.”

“Oh, I’ve thought of that already,” Rosa said, chuckling and shaking her head. “That was my first thought, in fact. But I’m afraid it’s impossible. Our great and powerful Lord Walker has taken control of things, and anything we took from those no good Threes would simply be returned to them from Lord Walker’s own stores. In the end it means nothing to any of them who they’re working for or which of our printers their equipment comes out of, they just want to work.”

Great.” No wonder Rosa was ready to scrap the project altogether. Anna would have no problem scrapping it, either, if the pro-Family message wasn’t going to be included, but, “Wouldn’t Lord Walker just continue filming without us anyway? So what’s the point in scrapping the project?”

“That’s the exact point,” Rosa said with a big smile. “We sacrifice this project because we’re not going to be able to change their minds, and they’ll still make half our message without us doing any work. This way we can direct our time and attention toward tactics with a higher chance of success and revisit this one if it becomes feasible again in the future.” She leaned back in her chair, satisfied with her assessment of the situation but not looking happy about it.

“And what tactics did you have in mind, exactly?”

“I’ve been waiting for you to ask just that,” Rosa said, leaning forward again and putting her arms on the desk. “I think we should leave our Lord to his play acting—never alerting him to our exit from the project, of course—while we get back to reality.”

“I wish you’d stop calling him Lord,” Anna complained, smacking her lips like she had a disgusting taste in her mouth. “It sounds so blasphemous.”

“Whatever,” Rosa said, waving her hands. “That’s not the point. He’s nothing compared to our Lord, and he has nothing to do with what I plan next, anyway.”

“Which is…” Anna said, slightly comforted by Rosa’s words.

“Which is to bring the fight to the people who deserve it the most, to bring it to the things that cause all our problems in the first place. I’ve had enough of dealing with flabby, fat tuxedoed owners and slippery, sly, lying Threes. It’s time for us to take our fate into our own hands by taking the fight to the robots’ front door.”

“The robots’ front door?” Anna scoffed. “Do you even know where that is?”

Rosa twiddled her thumbs on the desk and put on her puppy dog—I’m innocent of any evil ever—face that Anna knew all too well. “Well, darling.” Rosa smiled, a twinkle in her eye. “That’s where you come in.”

“Of course.” Anna sighed. “And do you have any idea how hard it is to do something like that? Do you know how much work it takes? The energy?”

“I know that my Nanna is the greatest four dimensional composer known to all of Humankind. I know you can do it.” She smiled wider. “I know I love you.”

Anna scoffed despite her blushing grin. “And how do you know all that when you don’t even know the work it takes?”

“Because I know my Nanna Banana,” Rosa said, coming around the desk to sit on Anna’s lap and kiss her all over her face. “She can do anything in that fourth dimension of hers. She’s the Queen of it, master and commander.” Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. “You are, though, aren’t you? You can do it,” Rosa said, standing and going around to massage Anna’s back. “You can do it.”

Anna groaned in pleasure as her muscles gave way to Rosa’s touch. “Well, yes,” she said. “That is,” she added, correcting herself so as to not sound too pretentious. “I think I can find your robots for you—not that I think I’m the Queen of the Fourth Dimension, or whatever you called me.”

Rosa laughed. “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.” She retook her seat behind the desk. “So you really think you can find them?”

“Yes.” Anna nodded. “I do. On two conditions.”

“Go ahead.” Rosa smiled.

“One: You have to come down there in the basement with me while I do it so you can see just how much work it takes. Maybe then you won’t be so willy nilly about how you throw the fourth dimension into your plans in the future.”

Rosa chuckled. “I can do that. What’s number two?”

“We talk about the kids before we do anything.”

Rosa groaned. Anna knew this would be the only way to get her to discuss the matter, though, so she pressed on. “They need us,” she said. “They need a Family, Rosa, and their mother died helping ours.”

“And why them?” Rosa asked, shrugging. “Why not one of the countless other human children across Six—and beyond—who all need the same exact thing?”

Anna hadn’t exactly thought about that. How many other Mikes were there out there? How many orphans were created on the day the protectors came storming through their streets, guns ablazing and looking for a target? Too many, Anna was sure, but they would have to wait. First she would take care of these three who were right in front of her, then she would take care of the Scientist who had created the androids and promoted the killing of her Family, then she’d take care of the rest of the needy children after all of that. “Because these three landed on our doorstep,” Anna finally said. “Because their mother was killed in our assault on the protector’s facilities and that makes us more culpable in their situation than the situations of the other orphans in Six. Because I already told the boy we’d give him and his brothers a place to stay. And because we have more than enough food and room to accommodate them with our countless transporter rings and printers.”

“Well, when you put it that way,” Rosa said, giving in. She had fought too many battles already that day to keep arguing this unwinnable one. “What about the guns?”

“I’ll keep the armory on lockdown,” Anna said. “And you’ll make sure everyone else keeps close track of theirs. In the meantime, we’ll teach the kids proper safety precautions. Everything will be fine as long as we’re not stupid about it.”

“And maybe we can get a few more little soldiers out of it.” Rosa chuckled.

Anna frowned, even if it was just a joke.

“Alright, alright. I was just kidding,” Rosa said. “Can we go find those robots now? I want to set the battle plans as soon as I can.”

“So that’s it?” Anna asked. “You agree just like that, now on to what you wanted to talk about in the first place?”

“Well, did you want me to argue further?”

“No. Of course not. But I do want you to actually consider what you’re agreeing to, Rosa. We’ll be their parents for the rest of their lives. There’s no turning our back on that responsibility once we’ve agree to bear it.”

“Which you already did,” Rosa said.

“Yeah, but—”

“So there’s nothing more to discuss until the kids actually get here, right?”

“I guess, but—”

“Then let’s do what’s best for the Family and find those robots.”

Anna cracked a smile despite her annoyance with Rosa’s flippancy. “You know, you’re lucky I want to find that Scientist so bad,” she said.

“Oh yeah?” Rosa asked, crossing her eyes. “Why’s that?”

“Because I think we’ll find her and the robots in the same place. Now come on.” Anna grabbed Rosa by the hand and led her down to the basement.

“Well, then,” Rosa said. “Demonstrate, my Queen of the Fourth Dimension.”

“Stop that,” Anna said, chuckling and slapping Rosa on the arm. “Now look. You see this?” She flipped both consoles on at once and set them into motion.

“Yeah, so?” Rosa shrugged.

“This is the solution to all your problems. Look at this.” She tapped and swiped a few times, one hand on each console, to bring up a map of all seven worlds spanning both the screens. “This is the universe as you know it.”

“I don’t see anything,” Rosa said, but Anna didn’t hear her. She wasn’t paying attention anymore. Something was going on in the fourth dimension that she had never seen before. She swiped and typed and clicked and tapped. The notes of the universe arranged themselves into patterns so complex as to be impossible. She searched for a source, expecting to find the Scientist in control of this symphony, but it came from somewhere else, somewhere familiar. Then she knew where it was.

Anna looked up from the consoles, calling, “The girl!” but even though Rosa was there to hear her, it was too late. The basement had vanished around them and they were in a new world entirely. A world like nothing Anna had ever seen before.

 

#     #     #

< LVIII. Laura     [Table of Contents]     LX. Roo >

So there ends another chapter. Anna has found someone bending space beyond what she thought possible and now she’s stuck in the new world created by said power. Read on next week to find out if Anna escapes the danger she finds herself in, or if you can’t wait that long, pick up a full copy of the novel through this link.

Thanks again for joining us, dear readers. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend.

Chapter 56: Mr. Walker

Hello, dear readers. Good news. Yesterday I finished the handwritten draft of book four in the Infinite Limits series, 0.N Repeating. That means that after a good bit of transcribing and a few months of the first draft sitting in a drawer I’ll soon be editing and publishing the completion of the Infinite Limits story. Yay!

Today, however, we join Mr. Walker for his second point of view chapter which marks the 2/3 complete point in Dividing by Ø. So join us now as Mr. Walker tries to become Lord again and don’t forget to stick with us to see the exciting conclusion of the Infinite Limits saga. We do nothing alone.

< LV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     LVII. Nikola >

LVI. Mr. Walker

“Waltronics Unlimited is seeing profits rise sky high as riots around the worlds increase demand for friendlier, more compliant employees at an exponential rate,” recited the big bald face on the television screen, beads of sweat glistening in the camera lights. “The cost of food and other amenities continues to plummet as cheaper robotic labor drives down profit margins at the benefit of preventing shortages in the luxuries we all need to live.”

Mr. Walker chuckled in his bed, the springs bouncing up and down with his behemoth movement. This newscaster knew nothing about the inner workings of the Free Market. He—like all journalists and most owners—was stuck in the fetishism of numbers. He and people like him had a money fetish, but Mr. Walker knew better. Mr. Walker could see beyond the glamour of the gold and green to the true source of money’s power: Power.

A bit redundant, sure. He chuckled again. But that’s why it was such a powerful realization when he had finally come to it. It was hidden in plain view. He could tell any owner in existence the secret to his success, and each and every one of them would no doubt laugh him off. The source of money’s power is power? they would say with a wry grin on their faces, not sure if good ol’ Mr. Walker was having a jest with them, making a fool, taking the piss. That’s ridiculous. It’s a tautology.

At which point Mr. Walker would smile and nod, still not letting on to whichever owner it was whether he were joking or not. Would he really give his secret away like that? But after all he would decide that it didn’t matter if any of them knew the secret because none of them were man enough to wield it anyway, and Mr. Walker would say, “Yes, my boy.” Maybe patting him on the back—because it would undoubtedly be a him, the owners were almost invariably men as the secretaries were almost invariably women—but Mr. Walker would pat whoever he was on the back to encourage him on a bit then say, “The source of money’s power is power. That is what’s truly important in life and in business. That’s my secret to success.”

Then Mr. Walker’s student would mull it over for a bit, unable to tease out the very truth which was so simply and plainly staring him in the face, only to laugh and pat Mr. Walker on the back, saying, Good one, old Lord. You had me going there for a second. At which time the poor boy would walk away to the next conversation, forever to be haunted by the spectre of lost opportunity and missed information.

“The Market as a whole is in a steep decline,” the sweating bald face on the television droned on mechanically, obviously reading from some eye implant. “Not since the historic rise and crash of the last century have we seen such steep and bracing freefalls in stock prices all across the board.”

Mr. Walker laughed out loud now. The fetish was blinding our dear newscaster again, only this time it wasn’t simply a fetishism of money but a fetishism of the Market itself. This particular fetish was probably more prevalent and harder to get past than the money fetish. Owners especially loved to hold the Market on high as a separate being worthy of being kept alive for the sake of principal. The Market should exist because it always had existed, was their motto, and who could blame them? For all intents and purposes it was the Market—and money—which gave these owners their power. Or so it appeared.

Mr. Walker knew better, though. He knew better than this idiot newscaster, of course, but better even than any other owner in Inland. That was how he had remained on top for as long as he had. Forever, really, until a minor lapse of attention on his part and one lucky decision—along with some mildly clever colluding with Mr. Angrom, he had to admit—made by the now Lord Douglas. But Mr. Walker was back in the survival mode which had made him Lord, the survival mode which he should have maintained even while on top of the food chain and which he would never come out of again—even when he finally and inevitably did regain his Lordship from the Standing Lord Dougy.

Mr. Walker understood that the Market was nothing more than a means to an end. That was it. It was no magical force. It was no independent actor. It was simply the culmination of billions and billions of tiny independent social interactions, all expressing themselves at the same time in a similar place. Each of countless billions of actors did what they themselves thought would get them most of what they wanted in life, and it was that exact selfishness that was the embodiment of the Market, its driving force.

So what if there were less economic exchanges occurring today than there were yesterday? So what if less wealth changed hands? Mr. Walker still ate fifteen square meals a day—more on weekends—and drank his old fashioneds to top off the night. So what?

It made no difference, but only as long as you hadn’t been caught up in the money fetish. Money isn’t power. Mr. Walker knew that. Money’s only power when it’s in style. That’s when it can best perform its magic trick illusion. And money’s only in style when times are good. When times are rough—when the worlds are rioting and there are plenty of robots to make all the commodities but no humans to buy them up—that’s when money loses its flair, the glamour fades, the fetish is revealed. Owners finally see what Fives and Sixes live through their entire lives: money is nothing but symbols. People, food, and electricity form real wealth. Those are the three basics any economy will always need: People, food, electricity. Power, power, power.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” a new voice said on the TV screen and Mr. Walker groaned. The propaganda sector was his least favorite section of Outland and he hated hearing their news. Still, he was deep into Three with this movie business—and only getting deeper as things progressed—so he would have to bear through it.

“We have with us live the one and only Jorah Baldwin—most viewed living actor—for an exclusive interview. So, Jorah, your building is at the heart of the affected area, you’re right in the middle of this brown out, is that correct?”

“Brown out?” Jorah said, frowning. Even Mr. Walker, with as little experience as he had in PR, could tell that Jorah’s makeup was off, like it had been put on by a broken robot. “What is that supposed to mean? You mean blackout?”

The camera cut to the news caster whose face had turned red, embarrassed. “Oh—Uh. I’m sorry. I thought that was— I didn’t want to offend you.”

Jorah scoffed and the camera cut to him. “Well, the blackout sucks, and there isn’t anything offensive about that, girl. My makeup is likely much more offensive. I had to put it on by hand, in the dark. So you can imagine how tough that was. I mean… damn.”

“Oh no, you look great,” the newscaster said, smiling and nodding—and maybe even flirting a little. Pretty creepy if you asked Mr. Walker. Jorah was his property after all. “Tell me, have you been able to get food or water? What about the elevators? Are they running? Are you trapped?”

“Oh, well…” Jorah bit his lip. “I’m afraid I haven’t tried the elevator, or gotten hungry for that matter. In fact, all I’ve done since the blackout is get dressed and prepped for this interview. Which was pretty hard, you know. Did I mention that I had to put my makeup on in the dark?”

“You heard it here fans,” the newscaster said, a serious look on his face as he stared into the camera. “They’re putting their makeup on manually and in the dark. And in case you were unaware, that is a difficult and annoying task. More in thirty minutes as the story progresses.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, wishing he had an old fashioned to sip after that story but not wanting to call Haley for it—really he shouldn’t have to call her, she should just predict his every need like a robot was supposed to do. He shook his head, ignoring Haley’s incompetence and bouncing up and down in his bed with more laughter. Putting on their makeup in the dark? Ho ho ho! That was an apt metaphor for his fellow owners if there ever was one. Mr. Walker, on the other hand, created his own light by which to see. Power, power, power. And he was ready to leverage himself into more of it.

Haley came in—finally—carrying an old fashioned. Mr. Walker sighed in relief at the sight of the drink but growled in anger at her tardiness. Robots, it seemed, were going out of style, and Mr. Walker needed to get himself positioned on the right side of that divide before anyone else did.

“I thought you might like a drink, sir,” Haley said, curtsying by his side table.

“I would have liked a drink five minutes ago,” Mr. Walker grumbled. “Now I absolutely need one. Gimme.” He snatched the drink out of her hand, spilling some on his nightshirt and the comforter in the process. “Now look what you’ve done,” he snapped, sipping the drink. “Clean it up!”

Haley was already cleaning it. “Yes, sir.”

“And you get out of here until it’s time for my meeting. I’m not to be disturbed. Do you understand me? I need to prepare.”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied and left, slamming the door too loudly as she went.

If only Mr. Walker could fire her right then and there. He was so mad he wanted to chuck his glass at the TV but the drink’s soothing insobriety and the television’s priceless information were both worth too much to him and it would no doubt take Haley far too long to replace them both as it took her far too long to do anything these days. Mr. Walker would simply have to continue biding his time as he had been doing since that fateful day on which he had lost his crown as Lord of Outland.

He was no longer Mr. Walker at all, in fact. Instead becoming Mr. Red Queen, the Sisyphus of playing cards, always running faster and faster just to keep up—not to mention getting ahead—and he would find his way to the top of the deck again no matter what it took.

“The power went out in one Three neighborhood and they were not pleased,” the newscaster repeated, and Mr. Walker groaned as they played the same “live” interview with the same poorly made up Jorah. The power was out. Mr. Walker had gotten the point the first time around. This wasn’t a news story that needed repeating.

“Haley!” Mr. Walker called. “Haley, dear. Get in here!”

It took her much too long to open the door in a fluster and say, “Yes, sir.” with a clumsy curtsy.

“Get my pants, dear. I’m not waiting any longer. We’ll take the old boy by surprise. Chop chop, now. Hop to it.” He clapped his hands together, jiggling his belly with genuine mirth.

“Yes, sir.”

Getting dressed was the same struggle it had been ever since he had gotten this new model of Haley. Mr. Walker couldn’t wait until he could finally get rid of the ignorant, useless thing. Perhaps if this meeting went well enough, he could set that process into motion sooner than later. Not before getting the android to find her own human replacement, of course, but soon. He laughed then yelped as the idiot machine pinched his thigh in the restricting pants.

Damnit,” he snapped. “Be careful!”

“Yes, sir.” Haley curtsied as she worked, pinching him again. “Sorry, sir.”

By the time he was fully dressed Mr. Walker was happy to have summoned Haley as early as he had. If he had waited any longer, her incompetence might have made them late. As it was they were almost five minutes early, which to Mr. Walker was right on time.

They parked in the cheap parking garage—the one that didn’t even have reserved owner parking—and Mr. Walker didn’t gripe once on the long walk all the way from the bus parking spots to the elevator. In fact, Mr. Walker had even insisted that they hold this meeting at Douglas Towers. He wanted Lord Douglas to feel comfortable on his own turf as they made the negotiations. The more comfortable Lord Douglas was the more likely he was to go along with Mr. Walker’s offers. That was Salesmanship 101. If it took parking in bum fuck Egypt with the busses and meeting in an austere conference room, then that was exactly what Mr. Walker was going to do.

Haley made an incessant tapping noise with her feet on the floor of the elevator as they rode it down to the conference room. Mr. Walker was about to yell at her to stop when the elevator doors slid open to reveal Lord Douglas’s grinning face waiting in the hall for them. Mr. Walker almost scoffed though he was able to hold it in. If he wasn’t mistaken, Lord Douglas’s hat had grown noticeably taller since they had last met.

“Wally the Walrus,” Lord Douglas said with a smile. “You’re just on time, five minutes early. As predictable as a secretary, you are.” He chuckled.

“Sometimes I’d wish they were more predictable.” Mr. Walker tipped his hat and bowed as low as his pneumatic pants would allow. “But you know that I prefer to treat my business associates with respect, Lord Douglas. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unforgivable in my book.”

“Yes, well in that case, you were early so you were on time so you were late, and that, my friend, is unforgivable in your very own book.” Lord Douglas laughed, looking at Haley to join in but Haley only blushed and broke eye contact.

Mr. Walker fumed. What was his robot doing blushing at a single glance from his arch nemesis? What was he doing trying to make a deal with that very same enemy? Why hadn’t he spit in the insolent fool’s face, marched out of those shabby wannabe towers, and been done with this toxic relationship once and for all?

He smiled, regaining his cool, remembering why he was there, and said, “Of course, Lord.” bowing again, but this time not as low and without the hat flourish. “The contradictions are there for anyone to see. It’s just wordplay, though. You know what I mean.”

“Is it though?” Lord Douglas smiled. “Just word play, I mean. You honestly believe that someone who is not early is not on time, don’t you?”

Mr. Walker fiddled with the knob of his cane. He didn’t like this line of questioning one bit. He was losing control of the conversation already and they hadn’t even started the negotiations. This was going to be a long meeting if it continued on like this, but Mr. Walker had no choice. He had to answer in appeasement if he wanted to keep Lord Douglas on the line. He only wished he had ever actually fished before—rather than seeing it in old movies—so he could better understand the metaphor.

“Yes, well, that’s my personal motto,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “I can’t hold everyone to it though, of course.”

“Yes, so if you’re early, you’re on time, right?”

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said, groaning in his mind. And if I’m on time, I’m late. You’ve been there already. Get on with it so we can get to where I want to go.

“Then I’m sure you can see where I’m going from here,” Lord Douglas said, stepping into the elevator with Mr. Walker who stepped back in surprise to let him on. “But I’m not sure you’ll be able to predict where we’re going now.” Lord Douglas smiled.

The doors slid closed and the elevator fell into motion without another command from Lord Douglas. When the doors reopened Mr. Walker was speechless.

This wasn’t the drab gray conference room he had expected. No, this wasn’t Lord Douglas’s style at all. It couldn’t be. It was too grand, too beautiful, too…

The room was a giant office, at least twice as big as Mr. Walker’s own. There was a big desk—twice again the size of the desk in Mr. Walker’s office—and some fluffy looking chairs that surrounded a side table, all looking out onto a wilderness mountain scene.

“I see you like this office much better than my usual conference room,” Lord Douglas said, already seated in one of the fluffy chairs by the windowwall and indicating for Mr. Walker to take the seat across from him. “I thought it might be a bit more your style.”

Mr. Walker tried not to react as he took his seat, but he knew that not reacting was reaction enough for Lord Douglas to discern. “I didn’t know you had any taste,” Mr. Walker said with a smile. “Even this little,” he added, trying to play some small amount of offense in what had become a defensive game for him.

“Well.” Lord Douglas shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t take much credit for the decor in here—if any. I pay people to worry about such minor details for me. You know how it goes.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, fidgeting in his seat. “Oh, I don’t now. I like to do things the old fashioned way myself.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Lord Douglas said, standing from his chair. “Did you need something to drink? I’m such an ungracious host. An old fashioned, though, right? That is your preferred beverage.”

“An old fashioned would be just fine,” Mr. Walker said.

“Very good, then.” Lord Douglas smiled and bowed. “I’ll return shortly.”

Mr. Walker couldn’t believe that Lord Douglas actually left the room to get the drinks himself after showing off with this magnificent office. What kind of madness was he getting at? Lord Douglas had a secretary who Mr. Walker had seen on many occasions, so where was she in all this? Mr. Walker turned around and Haley was still standing there, staring at one of the blank walls instead of out the window. She smiled and feigned a curtsy, conscious of Mr. Walker’s gaze, while Mr. Walker just went on wondering what kind of play Lord Douglas was making.

Lord Douglas returned with drinks in hand and gave one to Mr. Walker—who didn’t leave his seat to accept it, wanting to reappropriate some control of the situation. “There you are. One old fashioned for you and one for myself. Let us drink together to the Invisible Hand’s rule over all our fates.” Lord Douglas raised his glass.

Mr. Walker clinked his glass to Lord Douglas’s with a smirk. “To the Hand’s infinite wisdom,” he said

The old fashioned burned hot all the way down Mr. Walker’s throat and into his stomach, like nothing he had tasted since Christmas when the new Haley had come into his life and fucked everything up for him. She wouldn’t be in it for much longer, though. Not much longer at all.

“So,” Lord Douglas said, setting his empty glass on one of the side tables, unphased by the fire of his own drink. “You came here for a reason, Wally Boy. Let’s get down to it.”

Mr. Walker chuckled, trying to cover up the burning that was still going on inside his own mouth and stomach. “Of course I did, Douggy. It’s always business between us, isn’t it?”

Lord Douglas frowned. “Is it, Walrus? You don’t consider me a close personal friend?” Even Lord Douglas couldn’t keep a straight face saying something as ridiculous as that.

“Am I?” Mr. Walker asked, chuckling himself. “Is that what you’re looking for here, a friend?”

“No—Ha ha! No, Wally.” Lord Douglas put on a straight face again, abruptly halting his laughter. “Not exactly. I’m looking for something more than that.”

Mr. Walker felt like he was on the defensive again. He had initiated these negotiations, how had they gotten so far out of hand so quickly? He needed to retake control of the conversation and fast.

“But this isn’t about me,” Lord Douglas said, as if laying down his arms for the time being, giving up his advantage and letting Mr. Walker speak for some unknown and supremely suspicious reason. “You initiated this meeting, Walker, so you tell me what it is you want and I’ll decide where we go from there.”

“Yes, well…” Mr. Walker fixed his bow tie through his grizzly beard. “I hate to tread ground already walked upon, but I’m afraid we never made it to the end of the particular path in question. That is to say that I called this meeting to finish what we’ve already started.”

Lord Douglas didn’t smile or nod, but his eyes twinkled. “I assumed as much,” he said. “I also assume—forgive my presumptiveness—that you are talking about your desire to relieve me of my shares in the protector force. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

Mr. Walker smiled. Now they were getting into territory he had prepared for. Finally he could retake control of the negotiations. “No, you’re not often wrong. Are you Lord Douglas?” He diverted his eyes, being as earnest as he possibly could, feigning a sacrifice of position but only setting himself up for success in the long run.

Lord Douglas couldn’t help but grin, as Mr. Walker knew he would. “Go on, Walrus,” he said. “This flattery gets you nowhere.”

“It’s not flattery when it’s true,” Mr. Walker said, taking a page from Jorah’s book. “Only embellishments can be flattery. But let’s continue anyway. Stating common knowledge is no use to either of us. No, what’s most useful to both parties is for us to discuss the benefit that would accrue to you by consolidating ownership over the android and AI industry.”

Here Lord Douglas was caught speechless. His jaw didn’t drop but the subtle twitch of his eyes expressed his complete and utter awe at the prospect.  “Slow down there, Walton my boy,” Lord Douglas said, fidgeting in his seat. “I thought you were here to talk about the protectors.”

“Oh, yes, yes.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Of course the protectors factor into this, but that’s exactly the ground we’ve already tread upon.”

“I see.” Lord Douglas nodded.

“Do you though? Can you honestly see the possibilities? Have you been following the news at all, Lord Douglas? The numbers? The more the people riot the more the robots are worth and the the more the protectors cost. These are basic axioms of economics.”

“Sure.” Lord Douglas laughed. “That’s why you’re so eager to rid yourself of Waltronics for a bigger share of the protectorship. Right? Because androids are becoming more profitable and protectors are becoming less. That makes a whole lot of sense.”

“That’s where you get me wrong, Doug.” Mr. Walker smiled a tense smile. This was the hail mary, the lynchpin of his entire plan. It was all or nothing, full force or no force, and so he went into it with everything he had. “I’m not in it for the money, my Lord. I’m in it for something more than that.”

Lord Douglas scoffed. “Oh yeah? What more could there be besides money?”

Principle,” Mr. Walker said, slamming his ham fist on a side table and nearly crumbling the fragile thing under his brute strength. “The rule of law. The sanctity of private property and the Free Market. What more could there be in the worlds than that?”

Lord Douglas tapped his chin, thinking about how to answer—or at least wanting to look the part. He took his monocle out of his eye and blew some warm breath on it to rub it clean with his pocket square. “Principle, you say,” he said. “I think I understand all too well the principles on which you stand, and I’m not sure I would like those to be the driving force behind the protectors.”

“But they already are.” Mr. Walker laughed. “Ignoring the fact that I already own a majority share—however slight that majority might be—the principles I stand for are the principles we all stand for. They are the principles of the Free Market, foremost among those being the absolute utility of private property rights and the complete freedom of discretion with regards to one’s own property. What could you find to argue against in that?”

“I could argue with your performance, Wally Boy. That’s what. Talk all you want about ideals, the fact of the matter remains that you have yet to solve the two largest terrorist attacks in recent history, one of which occurred under your Lordship.”

“I’m afraid your information’s a little dated.” Mr. Walker smiled. “Both cases have been solved and the terrorists responsible are being held accountable.”

“Oh. Well then.” Lord Douglas gave a slow, sarcastic, palm clap. “Bravo. It’s only taken you this long. Do you want a cookie cake?”

“No,” Mr. Walker answered without hesitation. “I’m not proud of the time it took. I should have done better. I can do better. And I would have, but I didn’t have the proper resources. We’re running low in One, as you know. We’re pulling rookies up before they’re properly trained. Furthermore, the force is too fractured for it to be as effective as it needs to be in these particularly trying times—as evidenced by our little armory attack last afternoon.”

Your little armory attack, Mr. Walker.”

“Exactly my point, dear Lord. This is our protector force, meant to protect all of us, not just the ones who own them. If we had shared information instead of hoarding it, we could have prevented the attack instead of letting that scum get away with the guns. Now hold on a second there, Lord. Let me finish, please. You see, I know you’ll never work that close with me, sharing all the secrets you gain, and I don’t blame you for it. Information is too valuable to be sharing it like that. So the way I see it, for the good of every owner of Inland, I believe we should consolidate ownership of the protector force under one head so—whoever that head is—he will be able to properly utilize the resources and manpower that are needed to completely and thoroughly protect our economy in these dire times in which we find ourselves.” Mr. Walker was breathing hard by the end of his speech. He had to get it all out in one breath so as not to leave any spaces for Lord Douglas to interject. Now that Mr. Walker wanted him to respond, though, Lord Douglas was taking his time.

After what seemed like an eternity, Lord Douglas, with raised eyebrows, finally asked, “And why, then, should it be you at the helm of the protectors and not me?”

“Well, Lord Douglas.” Mr. Walker bowed as low as he could without losing his top hat—not far because the hat was so tall. “Do you really want to be at the helm of a sinking ship? The protector force is hemorrhaging money. Life would be so much easier taking advantage of the riots by selling robot replacement workers than it would be paying for the protectors who are supposed to put those riots to an end. Don’t you think?”

“Which brings us back to the question of why you would be volunteering to do the harder job in my place.”

“I’ve already told you. Honor, my boy.” Mr. Walker puffed out his chest. “Respect. I’m no longer Lord, you know, and it’s starting to sink in. Not only that, I keep falling further and further behind every day. I’m sure you know that. You watch the markets as close as any good owner.”

Lord Douglas smiled and gave a slight nod.

“I’m not catching up to you any time soon—even with complete control of Waltronics Llc.—and I know that. You know that. Every owner who can read a stock quote knows that because it’s a fact. I’m just trying to find another way to do something worth being remembered for, and I think stopping this riot might be the best course of action for me. You’re beyond all this protecting now. You’re Lord. Everything you do is honorable and destined for the history books. I, on the other hand, am forced to find other avenues through which to make my life a fulfilling one, and protecting is what I’ve chosen.”

Lord Douglas nodded. “And what exactly is it that you’re offering?” he asked. “What is it that you want?”

“I propose a one for one trade. I own ninety percent of Waltronics android facilities while you own ten percent of the same. I own fifty-one percent of the protector force while you own forty-nine percent of the same. I suggest an even exchange, my Waltronics holdings for your protector stocks. Straight up. Now, I know they’re not exactly—”

“Deal.”

“Wait a second. You can have some time to— What?”

Lord Douglas stood and extended his white gloved hand across the desk. “I agree to trade all my protector stocks for all your robotics stocks. Deal.”

Mr. Walker looked at the hand. This was way too easy. How was it so easy? Still, it was what Mr. Walker had wanted. He stood and shook Lord Douglas’s hand vigorously. “Deal, then Douggy,” he said. “I’m glad you could finally see it my way. You won’t regret this, now. Haley, my dear, you got that, right? You witnessed it?”

“The transaction has been processed, sir,” Haley said with a curtsy.

“Very good. Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker said, still shaking Lord Douglas’s hand. “It was so good doing business with you, Lord.”

“And you, my friend,” Lord Douglas said with a wry smile. “Better than you could imagine. But—and only if you don’t mind, of course—there is one last piece of business I’d like to share with you. If you would, please, sit down.”

Ho ho ho!” Mr. Walker retook his seat, his stomach jiggling in glee. “Anything, my Lord,” he said. “After a deal like that, I’ll do anything you ask of me.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Lord Douglas said, leaving the room. “There’s someone I’d like you to see.”

Mr. Walker didn’t care who it was. He had gotten what he wanted out of these negotiations, and they were a success no matter who came through that door behind Lord Dug Bot. The fool had no doubt fallen into the same sense of ease that Mr. Walker had when he was Lord, and Mr. Walker was going to make him pay for it.

The door opened and Mr. Walker did a double take, looking back at Haley then forward to Haley again. No. It couldn’t be.

“I believe you know Haley,” Lord Douglas said with a grin, stepping behind her. “And I hope you don’t regret our deal, after all.”

 

#     #     #

< LV. Ansel     [Table of Contents]     LVII. Nikola >

So there it is, dear readers, another chapter in the Infinite Limits saga. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If so, don’t forget to go through this link to purchase full copies of all the novels in the series–and maybe leave some positive reviews, I could really use the exposure. Thanks again for following along. We do nothing alone. Now have a great weekend, y’all.

Chapter 55: Ansel

Hello, dear readers. Today we return to Ansel’s story. She’s found a way off of Sisyphus’s mountain through the seams of reality and now she’s forced to face another brand new world entirely. Discover what she finds there in this next chapter of the Infinite Limits saga, and please do think about picking up a full copy of this and any of the other novels in the series through this link.

Thanks again for reading along, dear readers. Enjoy the story.

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

LV. Ansel

“I asked you first,” the boy said, standing from where he had been knocked down by Ansel and brushing himself off. She could see that he was a boy now and that he was wearing a long white coat just like the Scientist’s.

“So,” Ansel said, picking up her rucksack and wishing she had come up with a better response than “So”.

“So?” The boy scoffed. “So you should answer first, that’s what. It’s common courtesy.”

“And what if I don’t answer you at all?” Ansel asked, crossing her arms, stuck in this ridiculous line of reasoning because of her earlier one word response. “What if I don’t trust that you’ll answer my question in return?”

The boy laughed now, but when Ansel gave him a look he stopped. “Wait,” he said. “You’re serious? Why wouldn’t I? Sharing information costs me nothing and maybe you could do something useful with the knowledge. As to why you wouldn’t give me your name, I don’t see any good reason for you not to. I mean, our conversation would certainly be more productive if we knew each other’s names. Don’t you think?”

Ansel couldn’t argue with that. She wasn’t quite sure why she was arguing in the first place. Maybe she just didn’t want to trust anybody anymore. “I’m Ansel,” she said with a shrug.

“Hello, Ansel,” the boy said, holding out a gloved hand for her to shake. “I’m Ashley.”

Ansel scoffed. “Ashley?”

“Yes, well, I answered your question, didn’t I? That’s my name. So what’s the problem?”

“Well, that’s a…” Ansel didn’t know how to else to say it so she just put it bluntly. “That’s a girl’s name and you’re a boy.”

“I’m not a boy!” Ashley insisted, crossing his arms and tapping one foot.

Ansel couldn’t argue with that, either. She knew how much she hated it when people tried to tell her she was a girl when she knew she wasn’t one, and now here she was doing the same exact thing to this bo—eher—Ashley. “I’m—uh—I’m sorry,” she stuttered. “I didn’t mean to… I’m just sorry.”

“Good,” Ashley said, nodding and uncrossing his arms. “And in the future don’t go around assuming things when you only have limited evidence. You’ll end up making a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.” He picked up a heavy bag and strapped it over one shoulder, making to lug it away and leave Ansel behind without another word.

Uh, wait,” Ansel said, stopping him. He looked pretty irritated to be standing there with the heavy bag over his shoulder. “Where are you going?” she asked. “Where are we now?” She hadn’t taken the time to look around before, but now that she did, she was a little unsettled by the place. They were standing in a long, dark, slightly curved tunnel with cement walls and metal grating for a floor. Maybe going through that seam wasn’t such a good idea after all. It didn’t look like she’d be able to find food or water anywhere near this tunneled labyrinth of caves, and her minimal supplies were only enough to last a day or so at most.

“I’m going home,” Ashley said, his voice straining against the weight on his shoulder. “My shift’s over and you’re here to relieve me. So on that note, goodbye.” He started to walk again, his feet clanging on the metal grating with every heavy step.

“Wait, relieve you?” Ansel said, rushing over and taking his bag off his shoulder to let it fall with an echoing bang on the metal floor. “What are you talking about?”

Ashley groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me. You have been through training, haven’t you? Let me guess, you don’t even have your own interface.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Ansel shrugged. “I don’t even know what an interface is.”

Great.” Ashley sighed, bending over to open his bag and fish a big heavy computer tablet out of it. “Just what I needed. You know, I don’t get enough credit to waste my time training newbies. I have other shit to do.”

“I don’t need any—”

“Look. It’s okay. You can use mine this once, but you have to bring it back to me right after your shift. You got it?”

“Would you listen to me?” Ansel said, stomping her foot with a loud clang. “I don’t have any shift. I don’t need any training. And I’m not here to relieve you. I just need you to tell me where I am and how I can get out of this stupid tunnel.”

Ashley stared at her, blank faced, taken aback by Ansel’s aggressiveness and finally at a loss for words.

“Well…” Ansel said. “You had answers for everything else. Why not this?”

“I—uh— Who are you now?” Ashley asked, taking a step back from her.

“I’m Ansel. I already told you that. Now it’s your turn. Where am I?”

“How did you get here if you don’t know where you are?” Ashley asked, taking another step back. “Who are you?”

I’m Ansel,” Ansel repeated. “How many times do I have to tell you? I came through the seams the elevators travel through and now I’m here. Where is here, and how do I get out of this stupid cement tunnel?”

The seams.” Ashley said, excited, stepping forward now and apparently over his initial fears. “What seams? What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Ansel said. “The seams between the edges of the worlds. I think it’s the same sort of way an elevator travels between them.”

“But you didn’t take the elevator?” He was putting the interface, or whatever, into his bag now and fishing some other foreign tool out of it. “You walked through the fields without any protection?” He waved a little beeping and flashing wand in front of her, apparently communicating some meaning to Ashley who was staring at it rather than Ansel as he spoke.

“No elevator,” Ansel said. “Not this time. I hate those things. And besides, do you see any elevator doors around here?”

“Of course not,” Ashley said, still scanning her with the wand. “But you could have ridden an elevator near here then walked the rest of the way.”

“Hey, cut that out!” Ansel pushed the wand away and stepped back from Ashley now. “All I need to know is how to get out of these stupid tunnels, alright. Leave your little beeping scanner doohickies for someone else.”

Ashley chuckled. “Doohickies? Hardly. If you came through the fields unprotected, there’s no telling what you passed through—or for that matter, what passed through you. This here little doohickey might just save your life. Now, can you read this?” He held the wand too close to her face for her to see anything.

Ansel snatched it out of his hand to get a better look. “Sonic Scanner,” she read.

“Good. Very good,” Ashley said, snatching the scanner back. “That means you have no spatial distortions. You came out facing the same way as you were when you went in. Getting flipped around’s not a fatal outcome, of course, but it would be rather annoying to deal with if you ask me.”

“Whatever.” Ansel sighed. “I’ve had about enough of this examination. If you’re not going to show me which way is out, I’ll just find it on my own. Good bye and good riddance.” She stomped loudly down the dark tunnel, picking a direction at random.

Uh, I wouldn’t go that way,” Ashley said, re-packing his bag and hefting it up over his shoulder. “The security bots will stop you if you try. I’m surprised they haven’t noticed you yet as it is. Come on. Let’s go this way. I’ll show you.”

Ansel hesitated, not sure if she wanted to trust this guy just yet—she had made plenty of judgement errors in deciding who to trust lately and she didn’t need to add another mistake to that list—but in the end she didn’t really have a choice either way.

“We’ll get something to eat, too,” Ashley said, starting his slow trudge up the tunnel and limping from the weight of his bag over one shoulder. “Come on. We have so much to talk about.”

Ansel hesitated again but only for show this time. She knew he was her best bet in finding out where she was, whether she trusted him or not. After a moment’s wait to let him think she wasn’t too eager to join him, she jogged to catch up and followed him to an elevator.

“I hate these things,” Ansel said as the doors slid closed.

“I love them,” Ashley said, dropping his bag with a thud. “Dorms, please.”

“Dorms?” Ansel said, and her stomach grumbled—she wasn’t sure if it was out of hunger or because the floor falling out from underneath her made the butterflies in her stomach scatter.

“Don’t worry,” Ashley said. “It’s not like I’m inviting you up to my room or anything. You can wait in the lobby. I just have to drop this bag off. It’s too—ugh—heavy.” He lifted it up on his shoulders with a huff as the doors slid open.

Ansel tried to say that she could take care of herself whether it was in the lobby, in his bedroom, or anywhere else in all the worlds, but she couldn’t form words when she saw what the elevator doors opened onto. This was no lobby. It couldn’t be. It was outside. It looked like the wilderness with the endless mountains she had just escaped from, like a tiny patch of the green belt without the skyscraper walls closing it in on either side.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said, already on his way through the grass. “There’s a bench by the bubble. You can wait for me there if you don’t want to come up to my room. Let’s go.”

Ansel forced her jaw shut and hurried to catch up. “This is the lobby?” she asked, stupidly, regretting it instantly.

“That it is. Pretty lame, huh? But it could be worse.”

“Worse?” What was this guy talking about? He didn’t know how good he had it. “Are there any animals?”

Ugh. Yes. Tons of squirrels and rabbits. And beware, they will charge at you for any little crumb of food. They’ve gotten pretty mean lately, but they usually stick by the pond so as long you stay away from there, you should be safe.”

“There’s a pond?”

“Well, duh,” Ashley chuckled, setting his bag on a little bench under a huge oak tree that was hung with ivy. “This isn’t Pennbrook. We have some class here. Though—what am I saying?—there’s no telling where you come from. You probably have no idea at all what I’m blathering on about, do you? Here. You wait right here and I’ll be right back.” He hefted up his bag one more time and carried it into a little glass bubble near the bench. The doors of the bubble slid closed and the translucent thing carried Ashley up into the sky to disappear behind the fluffy white clouds.

Ansel set her rucksack on the bench then sat beside it to take in this new wilderness. It seemed larger than the one she had come from, but maybe that was only because there was no mountain to give her perspective. There were no hills at all, in fact, only flat ground and trees too thick to see through in every direction. It didn’t really seem like a forest, though. It was more like a bunch of trees.

Ansel stood and paced in front of the bench, getting anxious. What was taking this kid so long and when was someone going to figure out that she didn’t belong there? There weren’t many people around, sure, and plenty of space for them to spread out into, but the few that Ansel did see were all wearing the same long white coat that Ashley was—like it was some kind of uniform or something. It made Ansel feel self-conscious about the new jeans and t-shirt that had so shortly ago made her feel more comfortable than she’d ever felt wearing clothes.

Where was she anyway? Ugh.

Maybe she shouldn’t wait for this Ashley kid to come back, after all. She had promised herself to be more careful about trusting strangers, and here she was waiting for one to come and take her who knows where. Maybe she should just go find that pond he was talking about and hunt those squirrels and rabbits, whatever they were. They probably tasted good. Why else would someone stock this wilderness with them?

She had gathered her rucksack and decided to go do just that when the bubble came back down out of the sky, carrying Ashley in his long white coat. “You’re not planning on ditching me, are you?” he asked as the pod doors slid open. “I’ve got so many questions I need to ask you before you go.”

Well, she was planning on ditching him, but it was too late for that now. “Nah,” she lied. “I saw you coming. I was just getting ready.”

“Let’s go, then,” Ashley said. “You said you were hungry, right? Well come on.” He waved her on back toward the elevator they had ridden in on. Getting into it after him, Ansel noticed the elevator was in a wooden shack just like the elevator in the wilderness outside of the Scientist’s window. In fact, the shack looked like an exact replica. “Dining Hall,” Ashley said as the doors closed, and his stomach grumbled while the elevator fell into motion. “I guess I’m pretty hungry myself,” he said with a blush.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened onto a huge dining room filled with long tables that were half empty. The floor was white vinyl, the tables and chairs were silvery and metallic, and every single person besides Ansel was wearing a long white coat.

“Well, come on,” Ashley said after some time of Ansel staring at the scene from the safety of the elevator. “Let’s get some food, then we can talk.”

“I don’t know,” Ansel said, hesitating, still standing in the elevator door and preventing it from closing. “I don’t feel right. I wish I had one of those white coats. I look like a Street orphan trying to pass herself off as a Day Schooler.”

Ashley looked at her as if he hadn’t even known she were wearing clothes until she mentioned them. “Well, I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t even notice they were different.” But now that she had pointed it out, Ansel could tell that he couldn’t stop noticing.

“Well, someone will notice,” Ansel said. “And when they do, it won’t be hard to figure out that I don’t belong here. Then what would they do with me? I don’t need any protectors ruining my plans.”

“Protectors?” Ashley chuckled. “Protectors haven’t existed since 3D printers were invented. There’s no need for them anymore. They’re ancient history. I promise. You don’t have anything to worry about. Now come on out of that elevator, someone’s probably trying to use it.”

Ansel scoffed. “Then the 3D printer hasn’t been invented yet,” she said. “I’ve seen protectors and I know they exist. You can fuck with them if you want to, but I’m getting out of here so I don’t get caught. Doors close.”

The elevator doors tried to close but Ashley stuck his arm inside to stop them before they could. “Wait,” he said. “Hold on a second. You see, that kind of information is exactly what I want to talk to you about. You can’t leave.”

“Well I’m not going in there looking like this,” Ansel said, crossing her arms. “I won’t do it. That would be stupid and dangerous.”

Hmmm.” Ashley thought about it for a moment. “Okay, well, here.” He started to take off his jacket. “Take mine. You’ll look like you belong here so no one will mess with you, and I actually do so it won’t matter if they try messing with me.” He held out the jacket with a smile.

Ansel hesitated. She wasn’t sure his logic was sound, but she was getting pretty hungry and she still had no idea where she was or where she was trying to get to. “Alright. I guess,” she said, begrudgingly taking the coat and slipping it on. It fit her perfectly and smelled like something attached to a distant memory she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “But if anyone starts acting suspicious, I’m out of here.”

“And I won’t stop you,” Ashley said with a big smile. “You say the word and I’ll show you back to the seam where I found you—or you found me—whatever.”

Ansel nodded. “Good. Let’s go get some food then.”

He led her between the tables, and at first Ansel was still worried that she was going to be found out, but she came to recognize that no one there was paying any attention to her. They were all too busy with their own lives, doing their own things. Some were arguing with one another—across tables and up and down them—about a subject matter that must have been important from the tones of their voices. Peppered among the debaters, sitting at tables all alone even if sitting right next to one another in body, were others who furiously clicked and typed on tiny computer screens, working on something equally as important as the debates going on around them. None of them from either group were really even eating, it seemed, and those who were only did it with one hand or through a mouth full of words, more worried about subjects far beyond basic human needs for nourishment.

The line they waited in for food was short and quick. Each person ordered the same thing without thinking, and the printer dashed it off, no questions asked. When it was their turn to order, Ashley said, “One special, and a—uh…” and he looked to Ansel.

She froze. She didn’t know what she wanted to eat. She never knew. There were always way too many things to choose from, and she had no way of knowing what this Ashley might think was weird food to order. Before she went into full meltdown mode, agonizing over the decision, Ansel went with the only thing she could think of, the same choice she usually made during anxiety breakdowns, following the crowd. “Same,” she said.

“And one special,” Ashley said with a grin. The printer hummed into motion and soon Ashley was handing Ansel a tray and leading the way to a table. He started to sit at one that was already filled with people until Ansel urged him to move to a more secluded area. Even with the jacket she didn’t really feel comfortable being out there in the open like that.

“So,” Ashley said through a bite of his sandwich, the same sandwich Ansel was chewing on. The special was apparently the same meal she had gotten for lunch when she let the 3D printer order for her in the Scientist’s kitchen: soup and a sandwich. “I have so much to ask you I don’t even know where to start.”

Ansel scoffed, poking at her sandwich. She should have ordered wild game, that was what she really wanted to eat, not this sliced, pre-made cold sandwich. “How about you start by answering some of my questions,” she said.

“Splendid idea,” Ashley said, spitting a little half-chewed bit of food across the table in his excitement. “Your questions should be as informative as my answers. Even more so, probably.”

“Well, okay,” Ansel said, stirring her soup. She didn’t really believe what he said, but she didn’t mind the flattery. “So where am I?”

“Where are you? Hmmm.” Ashley dropped his sandwich, really thinking about the question. “That all depends on how you mean.”

Ugh.” This wasn’t getting anywhere fast. “What do you mean how I mean? I mean where am I?”

“Well, you’re sitting right there aren’t you? But that isn’t a very useful answer.”

“No. It’s not. It’s a little too obvious.”

Exactly,” Ashley said, clapping his hands. “Too specific. Already known. I could say you’re in the dining hall of Tulane Advanced STEM Academy, too, but that would be equally useless for you.”

“What’s the Tulane Advanced Stem Academy?”

“You hit the nail on the head again.” Ashley laughed. “Though technically true, the statement relies on knowledge inaccessible to you, rendering the truth it holds once again moot.”

“Oh my God,” Ansel said, putting her head down on the table, almost in her soup. “Can you tell me anything useful?”

“God?” Ashley grinned. “Now that’s an archaic term. And finally we find some small illumination of the matter at hand. May I ask you a question now? Have you ever heard the word of Sic bo?”

Ansel groaned, raising her head to look at him and actually spilling some of her soup with the motion. “I don’t know. Is it something useful?”

Ashley chuckled. “About as useful as God most of the time, if you ask me, but in this instance rather useful as it appears to be a key to your origins.”

“My origins?”

“Your origins. From the Latin oriri meaning to rise, become visible, or appear, sometimes used to mean zero on the Cartesian coordinate plane. Your origin is thus the center or your world, where you came from. So, have you ever heard of Sic bo?”

Ansel shook her head.

“And Mother Maria, ruler of fate?”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Ansel complained. “I thought I was supposed to be asking the questions.”

“I’ll take that as a no, and I’m not surprised by the fact, either. It’s further evidence in support of the hypothesis that you, Ansel, are not from this world at all—maybe not even from this country or time period for all I know, but more evidence is required before making further inferences.”

“I’m from the Streets,” Ansel said, fighting back unexpected tears from the memory of them. “I don’t know what world you’re from, and I don’t know what a country is, but I do know that I’m from the Streets.”

“The streets? You see? I mean, is that even in America?”

“What’s America?”

Ashley made to speak then stopped. He put a hand to his chin and shook his head. “I— Well, it’s— You know… our country.”

“Whose country?”

Us. The people who live here. The people who think and create here, moving America’s technology forward. Who else is there?”

Ansel chuckled. She had no idea what this guy was talking about anymore, and the only way she could respond without lashing out or crying was with laughter. “Who are you even?” she asked.

Ashley had to think about that one, too. “You know,” he said after some time. “I’ve never really pondered that one, either. You ask a lot of questions I’ve never even thought of. This is amazing.”

“Well while you do ponder it, maybe you can figure out how to tell me where I am, then more importantly, how to get out of here. I think I’m done with this place.”

No,” Ashley said without hesitation. “You can’t go yet. I have so much to learn.”

“Well I’m not learning anything, Ash. So what’s the point?”

He smiled wide. “I know how I can explain where you are and maybe find out where you’re from at the same time.”

Ansel shook her head, not believing him. “And what about where I want to go?”

“That, too. All of it.” He stood fast from his seat, knocking it over with a clang. “Come on. I’ll show you.” He grabbed Ansel’s hand and pulled her to the elevator, leaving her just enough time to grab her rucksack in the process. “Lab,” he said when the doors closed behind them.

“Lab?” Ansel said. “No, I’m not going back there.”

“Back?” Ashley scoffed. “You’ve never been to my lab before.”

Ansel calmed down, blushing. All this time she had thought that there was only the one lab, the Scientist’s Lab, she had no idea it was a general word like kitchen or bedroom.

The elevator doors opened onto a short hall that looked just like the Scientist’s. Ansel fought her urge to push Ashley out of the elevator and ride it back to the wilderness lobby where she could live in peace and instead followed him through the hall to the door at the other end.

“Are you ready?” he asked, holding his hand on the doorknob.

Ansel nodded

Ashley opened the door to reveal a room that looked exactly like the Scientist’s office—the smaller one Ansel had only been in a few times—but instead of looking out onto a line of assembly line workers, the window here looked out onto the same scene as the window in Rosalind’s giant office—the wilderness scene with the endless mountains which Ansel had climbed over and over and over before travelling through the seams to literally run into Ashley.

“So what do you think?” Ashley asked, scurrying to the desk where he flipped on the big bank of monitors—just like the Scientist’s only a little smaller.

“I’ve seen better,” Ansel said, casually strolling to stand behind him and drop her bag. “That view’s kind of played out, isn’t it?”

“I like the mountain,” Ashley said, defensively, still typing and clicking at the computer. “It reminds me of Sisyphus. I could only imagine what it would look like to stand atop that mountain.”

Ansel scoffed. “I don’t know what Sisyphus is, but it’s not that great of a view up there. It’s kind of annoying, really, to see all those mountains and know that you’ll never be able to climb them all. And I’m telling you that from experience.”

Ashley stopped typing to turn and stare at her. “No,” he said, jaw dropped. “You haven’t. You couldn’t have. That would mean that you—”

I did,” Ansel said, smiling and nodding, proud of herself. “That’s where I came from when I ran into you.” She pointed out the window. “I stood on that mountaintop before I traveled unprotected through the elevator seams into your tunnels.”

“No way. Uh uh. Impossible,” Ashley said, clicking and typing away again. “Look at this.” A complicated diagram came up on the bank of screens. Ansel wasn’t sure, but it looked kind of like a three dimensional map. “There’s only one way into that sector and it’s too heavily guarded for anyone to get into or out of, much less both.”

“Well I did,” Ansel said, beaming—and blushing a little bit, becoming a little full of herself for some reason. “Now how do I get back?”

“You don’t.” Ashley scoffed. “I don’t even know how you claim to have gotten in there in the first place, but it’s out of the question to go back.”

“That’s shit,” Ansel complained. “You told me you could help me find where I wanted to go. I want to go back there, to where I can at least hunt for my own food. So are you going to help me do it or what?”

“Hunt for food? Now you’re really crazy.”

“I am not, and I don’t care what you think. I’m leaving.” Ansel stormed out of the room but she didn’t emerge into the hallway. She would have complained about how hard those stupid doors were to operate, but she was distracted by what she saw. The room she had gone into was filled with the same type of glassware she had seen in the Scientist’s big lab, these vials and beakers filled with variously colored chemicals in different states of matter—Rosalind had already taught Ansel a little bit about chemistry in her short stay with them. Ansel rushed over to get a closer look at a particularly bright red concoction that was boiling, steaming, and mixing with a colorless gas to form a new green liquid, when Ashley rushed up and pulled her back from the table. “Be careful,” he said. “I’ve been working on that set up for weeks. Don’t mess it up.”

“What is it?”

“Chemistry homework. I hate chemistry.” He grimaced. “I don’t see how it’s ever supposed to be useful for a spatial physics major, but they make us all take the basic science classes and that includes the worst of them, chemistry.”

Ansel scoffed. “This is basic?”

Ashley blushed. “Yeah, well, I got held back in my first few attempts. None of those being my fault, of course.

“But what are you doing?” Ansel asked, ignoring his embarrassment.

“Making some inorganic something or other. Ugh. I can’t even remember anymore. Does it matter?”

UhYeah,” Ansel said. “It’s pretty much the coolest thing you’ve shown me since I’ve been here.”

“My homework? Wow. You know, there’s a lot cooler stuff around here. You should see the zoo. We have actual four dimensional animals, though all you can really see are their projections on our 3D space, of course.”

“Zoo?”

Ashley laughed. “Yeah, you know, a place where they keep animals to look at. It’s much better than stupid chemistry, and it’ll help me explain where you are. Come on. It’s not going to make sense until I show you.”

Ansel didn’t want to leave the shimmering colorful glass paradise, but she would like to see some strange new animals—and maybe even figure out what that long eared rat she had eaten in the shade of the endless mountain was. She followed Ashley down the hall and into the elevator where he said, “Zoo.”

“So you just keep the animals caged up or something?” Ansel asked. “Is it so they’re easier to eat?”

“Eat?” Ashley chuckled. “Mother Maria, no. Of course not. It’s so we can study them. And preserve most of them, really. There aren’t many species that aren’t endangered these days.”

Ansel nodded, not entirely sure what he meant, but at the same time not wanting to make a fool of herself. She thought she could understand the word species from context clues—it was a type of animal—but endangered was a little more difficult. Ansel knew what danger was—probably a lot more so than this white coated kid would ever understand it—but she still had no idea what it meant to be endangered. Was she endangered every time she was in danger? It was better she didn’t ask so she could save herself from sounding like an idiot. She’d try to pick up more clues as to what the word meant when they got to this zoo.

The elevator doors slid open to reveal another wilderness scene but this one packed denser with dark leaved trees all hung with vines. Ansel stepped out onto the soft soil of a dirt path and stared up at the canopy where the sun burst through in tiny clumps of rays, giving the canopy the appearance of a green night sky similar to the black one she had seen twinkling over the endless mountain.

“They always bring you to Africa first,” Ashley said, leading Ansel along the tiny dirt path that seemed to go on forever in front them. “Every zoo I’ve ever been to, I swear. They want to hit you with the big stuff right when you enter so you’ll be hooked from the start for the rest of a mediocre ride to the grand finale.”

“Africa?” Ansel asked, not really interested in his response because she was too distracted by the endless trees and echoing noises which must have belonged to some strange creatures.

Ashley chuckled, stopping in Ansel’s way and pointing out to guide her vision through a small clearing in the trees. “Africa,” he said. “Another country, one with animals like you’ve never seen before.”

There in the clearing was a black cat that looked almost exactly the same as that Mr. Kitty that Ansel had chased ages ago, but this cat was twenty times Mr. Kitty’s size. It stood in a hunter’s stance, muscles tense and twitching, ears pointed backward, long black tail held flat, and green eyes staring through Ansel’s skin to the meat and bones it so wanted to taste underneath. Ansel’s muscles tensed up along with the big black cat’s, her own hunter’s reflexes kicking in, while Ashley didn’t seem to care that the thing was staring at them, ready to pounce, when it did.

Ansel let out a shrill scream that didn’t make sense—she had meant to yell “Look out!” but the words came out jumbled and unintelligible—and dove to push Ashley out of the hungry beast’s way, dreading those sharp, deadly claws which were angling for her jugular.

 

#     #     #

< LIV. Chelsea     [Table of Contents]     LVI. Mr. Walker >

And so ends another chapter in the Infinite Limits series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading the story as much as I have writing it. Do join us again next week for the next chapter. Until then, have a great weekend and a great week after that. And always remember: We do nothing alone.

Chapter 36: Tillie

This lovely Saturday brings us the third and final chapter from Tillie’s point of view in book two of the Infinite Limits series, An Almost Tangent. Today Tillie and friends brave a second General Assembly on campus even after the first was so violently dispersed. Will they be the only students with enough courage to continue their protest, or will the campus support them. To find out, read on here and now or pick up a full copy of the novel through this link. And don’t forget to sign up for the email newsletter to keep up to date on all my new book releases.

Thanks for joining us. Happy reading.

< XXXV. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXXVII. Huey >

XXXVI. Tillie

They waited a little while longer, letting the clock get past five to see if anyone would brave going out on campus before they did, but when they went out themselves at five-oh-one the campus was still empty. They could see eyes peering through dorm windows and heads poking out of doors, but there were no actual bodies on the campus with them. Tillie tried to hold her head high, to show the onlookers that she wasn’t afraid as she walked along, while Emma kept her eyes straight ahead, dead set on getting to the parade grounds. Rod kept staring back and forth at the people in the windows and doors, a big smile on his face, waving at them and trying to get them to join. And Nikola followed behind, meek and hunched over, pushing her glasses up every few steps as if she were offended by everyone watching her walk.

When they got to the parade grounds, they were empty, too. Emma led the group straight to the flagpole in the center of the field and stood up on its cement base, holding the pole for support, trying to get a better view of the campus. She shielded her eyes with her hands and scanned the horizon.

“Why won’t they follow us?” Rod asked. “They were all looking.”

“They’re afraid,” Tillie said. She knew it from the beginning. She would be, too, if she didn’t have Emma to inspire her on.

“They’ll come,” Emma said, still scanning the campus from her vantage point on the flagpole. “If only to see who else does.”

“I don’t know,” Nikola said with a shrug.

“I do,” Emma said. “Look. Over there.” She pointed in the opposite direction from which they had come. There were people coming alright, a band of ten or so of them, and they didn’t need to see anyone else doing it before they were brave enough to come. “It’s the Americorp. kids,” Emma said.

They were the news nerds who Tillie had met at the first party on New Year’s Eve. One came up and hugged her, saying, “We saw the video. I can’t believe it wasn’t on the news. Sorry we weren’t here to support you. We’re here now, though. Solidarity.”

Tillie shook her head, blushing. She didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t sure that this Americorp. kid was actually talking to the right person.

“We’re glad to have you,” Emma said, hugging each of them in turn. “Where’s Jason? He was here yesterday.”

They all kind of shook their heads and frowned, looking at the ground or kicking dirt. “They still have him,” the one who had hugged Tillie said. “He had no insurance, money, or parents to bail him out. There’s no telling how much time he’ll get. That’s when we knew we had to help y’all fight. For him.”

“That’s right,” Emma said. “I completely agree. And I—”

“I think some other people agree, too,” Rod said, pointing toward a new group of students on their way to join the assembly.

People were streaming out now, each made braver and more curious by every new person that joined. Soon they were coming from every direction, hundreds of them, and when the parade grounds was packed and spilling out between the stone-faced buildings, it felt like the entire student body was there with them.

Emma gathered the Americorp. kids around her and said, “Go up to as many people as you can and tell them that we’ll get started soon, they should discuss what happened yesterday among themselves, and to pass it on. Alright?”

Everyone nodded and fanned out into the crowd. The message spread like waves through the masses. Tillie took the chance to stand up on the flagpole and look out at the mass of them. There was no end to the people, whichever direction she looked in. The crowd wrapped around all the buildings in sight, and some of the attendants went so far as to climb trees so they could watch everything from above. Tillie didn’t realize there were this many people who lived on campus. How did they all fit? She was lost thinking about it when Emma pulled her down off of the flagpole.

“I told you they’d come out,” Emma said with a smile.

“Since when did this many people go to this school?” Tillie asked.

“My address book extends to the local community,” Emma said. “They care about what happens to us, too.”

“Well, you were right,” Tillie said. “What do we do now?”

“I’m going to get the assembly started. I need you to stay up on the flagpole and look for any signs of protectors. They’ll be out here for sure. There’s no telling how long we’ll have.”

“How will I know when they’re coming?” Tillie asked.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know. They won’t be subtle about it.”

Tillie shrugged. “Okay, I guess,” she said, and she climbed back up onto the flagpole.

“Wait,” Emma said. “Bend down here for a second.”

Tillie bent down close to her, and Emma pinned the American flag camera onto Tillie’s shirt.

“You’ll have a better view,” Emma said with a shrug and a smile.

“I’ll give it back to you when we’re done,” Tillie said.

Emma smiled and nodded then turned to the crowd. “My friends,” she called as loud as she could. Not many could likely hear her, though, with all the chatter going around. “Please repeat everything I say.” No one answered.

“My friends!” she yelled louder. “Please repeat everything I say!”

A few members of the crowd who were close to her responded, but their chorus was broken and incoherent. The whole crowd started to quiet down and listen now, though. Something was finally happening.

“Good try,” Emma yelled. “In unison now.”

She paused and indicated for them to repeat that, too. And no one did at first, but then a few caught on and yelled it back incoherently at her.

“My friends,” she called one more time, stopping and indicating for them to repeat that.

“My friends,” a chorus started to emerge from the crowd.

“Please repeat everything I say,” Emma added with a smile.

“Please repeat everything I say,” the crowd repeated, and it was so catchy that even Tillie found herself yelling it from the flagpole.

“This is the people’s mic,” Emma went on.

“This is the people’s mic.”

“We will use it so everyone can hear.”

“We will use it so everyone can hear.”

“Can you hear me?”

“Can you hear me?”

Good.”

“Good.”

“We are here today.”

“We are here today.”

“To reclaim these grounds.”

“To reclaim these grounds.”

“We’ve paid our dues.”

“We’ve paid our dues.”

“This is our school.”

“This is our school.”

“And we will not be scared away.”

“And we will not be scared away.”

“Now do you stand with me?”

“Now do you stand with me?”

“No answer that one.”

“No answer that one,” some of them yelled while others just whooped and whistled and cheered.

“Mic check!” Emma yelled after the cheering had died down.

“Mic check,” a few yelled back.

“Mic check,” she called again, and soon the chorus was back in sync.

“Mic check,” they said.

“That is how.”

“That is how.”

“We will acknowledge.”

“We will acknowledge.”

“Who’s at the mic.”

“Who’s at the—”

The rest of the snippet was only finished by part of the crowd. There was yelling and screaming coming from all directions. Tillie remembered she was supposed to be the lookout and scanned the crowd all around her. Everyone was pushing inward. What little clearance there had been around the flagpole closed and Tillie stood nearly on top of the crowd. She had lost everyone she had come with in the chaotic masses, but she could still hear Emma yelling, “Mic check! Mic check!” to no response.

They were surrounded by the same pepper gas cloud that they had been sprayed with only yesterday. Tillie knew burning pores were in her future. Gunshots rang out over the crowd. Not beanbag air shots, but bullets, accompanied by more and louder screaming and further stampeding of bodies which had no way to go but toward the center of the parade grounds, where Tillie was standing alone, sliding off the flagpole where the human currents were roughest.

She almost fell off when Emma jumped up to join her, grabbing Tillie and holding her tight to the pole.

“What the fuck is going on?” Tillie asked.

“A more drastic response than last time,” Emma said.

“Well, no shit,” Tillie said. “But what—”

Shhh.” Emma held a finger to her mouth. “There’s no time,” she said. She pressed the tiny flag pin to Tillie’s chest and looked straight into it. “This is how they respond to a threat to their power,” she said. “They fear us for good reason, and they will silence us at all costs. We will win as long as we never sto—”

Emma’s head jerked back, exploded. Her hand let go of the flagpole. Her body slouched into the stampeding crowd. It happened in slow motion. Tillie reached down to grab her, almost losing her own grasp on the flagpole, and missed Emma’s hand by an inch. She jumped down and tried to push the crowd away but it didn’t matter. If Emma had been trampled already, it wasn’t clear. The damage to her head was such that Tillie couldn’t see anything else. Nothing was left on Emma’s shoulders but raw ravaged neck.

Tillie turned and leaned on the flagpole, vomiting burning acidic bile into oncoming footsteps. No one noticed. They just trampled and splashed through what was once the contents of her stomach, as they no doubt aslo did through what was once Emma. Tillie took a few deep breaths and fought the urge to lie there on the ground, to give up, letting happen whatever happened, letting the stampeding masses trample over her and turn her into the same nothingness that Emma had become. She fought the urge to look back at Emma’s obliterated face, at the destruction the protectors had rained down on them for doing nothing that was not within their rights. She didn’t want to throw up anymore, and there was nothing she could do for Emma now.

Her first instinct was to get to an elevator and go to her dad’s house, but she knew there was no chance of getting an elevator in this nonsense. She jumped back up onto the flagpole to see what was going on. The cloud of pepper gas was getting closer, it surrounded her. No matter which way she went, she’d have to go through it, but the sooner she went the thinner the cloud would be. If she couldn’t get to her dad’s, her only choice was her dorm so she jumped down off the flagpole and fought her way through the crowd in that direction.

She pushed her way through bodies going this way and that and made slow progress. When she hit the wall of gas, she had to stop to cough and wipe her eyes, but that only made things worse. She pushed and fought blindly against the mass of bodies surrounding her, holding her eyelids closed tight against the fire gas. She had no idea anymore if she was even going in the right direction, but she wasn’t going to stop fighting. Those were Emma’s last words, and Tillie would live up to them or die trying. She would never sto—

The thought was driven out of her mind with the familiar pressure of a beanbag in her chest. Apparently they were still using some. She was bent over, trying to catch her breath, when another hit her in the head and knocked her unconscious.

#     #     #

This time she knew where she was when she woke up. She recognized the cold bed and the harsh white walls. Pulling herself up to lean on the wall, groaning, she wondered if it was the same cell she was held in before. She was in a lot more pain this time, though, longing for the little gray shot that would make her all better.

The heavy door whined open. A protector in full gear came in. “Come with me, citizen,” it demanded in its glowing modulated voice.

“I can’t move,” Tillie groaned. “Give me my shot.”

“No shot,” the protector said, walking over, lifting Tillie up like a baby, and marching out of the room, down the hall, and into another door. Tillie let out a loud groan when the protector plopped her down on the ground in front of a tall table and stomped out without another word.

Somehow this room was even brighter than the room they had taken her from. She had to close her eyes against the light, and even that wasn’t enough. She bumped her head hard on the table, fumbling blindly for anything to block out the white heat, and groaned at the pain all throughout her body. Her eyes felt like they were going to pulse out of her head. She managed to find a stool and pull herself up onto it to flop her head down on the table in front of her, using her arms to finally block out the light. The cool black relief didn’t last long, though, because the door opened, another protector walked in, and they yelled, “Look at me, citizen!”

Tillie didn’t budge. She didn’t want to be blinded again. The protector didn’t care, though, grabbing a clump of Tillie’s hair to pull. “You’re in it deep, now,” the protector hissed. “Not even daddy’s platinum plan can save you. You do understand that, don’t you?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Tillie yelled, and the protector let go of her hair. Tillie’s head slammed on the table from the momentum, and she screamed as her pain only grew.

“Didn’t do anything?” the protector said. “Ha! Lights.”

The lights dimmed. Tillie could feel it, even with her arms blocking out the light. She blinked her eyes in her arm cave, relishing the dark comfort for one more second, before slowly raising her head. Across the table, in the white, white room, was a protector with no helmet on and a big black mirror behind her.

“So you weren’t at the center of the riot on LSU’s parade grounds?” the protector asked.

“That wasn’t a riot,” Tillie said.

“No?” The protector frowned. “Then it didn’t end in violence and bloodshed? That must have been my imagination.”

Tillie pictured Emma and her stomach grumbled. She choked back vomit and fought the urge to jump over the table and attack this pro. That would probably work out poorly for everyone, especially Tillie.

The protector grinned. “No, girl,” she said. “It wasn’t your imagination, either. It did end in bloodshed.”

“Not until you got there.” Tillie sneered.

“Well, we wouldn’t have been there if you weren’t,” the protector said. “Would we? What did you expect after the previous day’s outburst? We’d let you bring out more of your little thug friends to disrespect the sacred rights of private property?”

“We own those parade grounds as much as anyone,” Tillie protested. “We pay to go to that school.”

“Yes,” the protector said. “You pay to attend the school. You pay to learn and sleep and eat, not to own the school grounds. You’re merely a tenant. The school belongs to Mr. Smörgåsbord, and you’ve trespassed on his property too many times for us to let it slide.”

“It’s not his!” Tillie yelled, then she groaned and hunched over the table in pain. She had forgotten her injuries in her anxiousness to deal with this protector, and now the pain of them all rushed back at the same time.

The protector laughed. “No, dear,” she said. “As long as he can afford the guns to protect it, it belongs to Mr. Smörgåsbord.”

As long as he can afford you,” Tillie groaned.

Well.” The protector laughed some more. “Not just me, girl,” she said. “The whole force. You think you can afford that?”

Tillie shook her head, sobbing silently at the pain.

“No. That’s right. And that’s why the school belongs to him and not you. That’s why you’re here with me now. Do you understand yet? No more demonstrations on our property or our responses will continue to get more drastic. Do you understand?”

“Why are you telling me all this?” Tillie asked. She wasn’t any leader. She didn’t plan any of this. She just happened to take part in it. Why was she getting all the blame?

“Because you wear the pin now.” The protector nodded at it.

Tillie looked down. The little American flag camera was still pinned to her shirt. She wanted to cry at the sight of it, at the memory of what they had done to Emma, but she fought that back. She looked up at the protector and said, “But—”

“Of course we know,” the protector said. “Why do you think she still had it yesterday?” She chuckled. “We’re not as ignorant as y’all hope we are.”

“Then why didn’t you take it?” Tillie asked, fumbling to get the thing off but failing.

“Because we want you to have it,” the protector said. “We can track it, download what it uploads, we see everything it sees, child. Why would we want to take that away from you when we would be taking it away from us?”

Tillie shook her head. She didn’t even notice her pain anymore. It was covered by a fierce anger and hatred, directed at the protectors in general, sure, but at this protector especially. “Then why give away your capabilities?” she asked.

“Because you wear the pin,” the protector repeated. “Because it doesn’t matter if you know, you need that technology in order to be effective. Because you’re powerless against us, and I want you to know that fact. More than that, I want you to feel it deep inside of your bones and all throughout your nervous system. I know you do, child. I know you’re still hurting from the beating we gave you. That, dear, is why we did this: To show you that we’re the big bad wolf and the boogie monster and all your childhood nightmares all rolled into one, and you’re just a little girl with nothing to do about it.”

“I—” Tillie protested.

No. Listen, girl. You have it good. I know who your father is. I know what kind of life you’re living. What I don’t know is why you would throw that life away for something like this. I mean, what are you even doing it for?”

Tillie shook her head, trying not to cry. She wasn’t sure how to answer that question anymore. She came into all this because she wanted to fight to give robots a voice, but when she learned it was really humans on the assembly lines, she went to fighting to free them instead. But now what was she doing it for? It was more than that now, more than giving robots a voice or freeing humans from sweatshop labor. When she watched the only friend she had left in the world die right in front of her eyes, the protectors had made it personal. “Fuck you,” she said.

The protector looked taken aback. “What was that?”

“Fuck. You,” Tillie repeated, sitting up taller.

“You do understand the situation you find yourself in, don’t you?” The protector chuckled.

“I do,” Tillie said. “I understand you’re questioning me without first giving me a medical examination. I know you haven’t even scanned my insurance level yet. I know that you are required by law to follow certain regulations, too. And I know that my lawyer, Mr…” She couldn’t remember Rod’s last name. “Roderick, will have a field day taking the protectors—and you especially—for everything you’re worth in court.”

The protector grinned. “Is that so?”

“Well, there are a few ways to find out,” Tillie said. She held her breath and tried to calm her beating heart while waiting for a response. She had no idea what those few ways might be.

“Have it your way,” the protector said, standing from her chair. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Tillie fought the urge to call the protector back and apologize as she walked out. She slouched down onto the table and covered her head again when the door closed.

What the fuck did she just do? How could she talk to a protector like that? But the protector did leave. Maybe Tillie had said the right thing. She hoped so. She didn’t know how much worse it could get.

The door opened, and she looked up, groaning, to find the face of the protector who had given her the shot before. She sighed in relief.

You again,” he said with a smile, crossing around the table to her and fumbling through his pockets.

“And you,” Tillie groaned. “I need my shot.”

“I—uh—well…” The protector avoided her gaze, fumbling through his pockets still. “I can’t right now,” he said.

But—” Tillie protested.

“I’m sorry,” he said, holding his tablet out to her. “I’m on orders, but I’ll do what I can for you.”

Another let down in a long line of them. The worlds kept getting worse and worse. Tillie pressed her thumb to his little tablet, and when he read the screen, he frowned.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Well, you’re not gonna like this,” he said.

“I already don’t,” she said, groaning and rubbing her head. “I need my shot.”

“Yes, you do. But…”

“But what?”

“This is a second felony in two days,” the protector said, “both on campus. The school contract has a clause which overrides your insurance policy. I’m sorry. I…” He looked at his feet, avoiding eye contact with her.

“What? So what is that supposed to mean?” she begged, holding back tears.

“Well, it means—”

The door swung open and in came two protectors, pointing their guns at her. “Hands on your head, citizen,” one of them said.

Tillie tried to stand, but the stool fell out from underneath her, and she fell to the floor. “No,” she said, crab crawling backwards on the cold floor.

“This is your final warning, citizen.”

“No!” She backed into the wall behind her and there was nowhere left to go. One protector grabbed her, and when Tillie fought away, trying to escape, the other hit her in the back of the head with a gun, knocking her out cold.

#     #     #

Tillie woke to shadows towering over her. She panicked, jumping up and flailing her arms, groaning from the pain, but the shadows gently restrained her, and when she came to, Tillie realized that it was Nikola and Rod who were looking down on her, and a whole crowd of others who she didn’t recognize. The room looked like it used to be white but now it was dirtied gray. She groaned some more and tried to sit up but couldn’t do it without their help. How had she lived through so much pain?

“Where am I?” she asked when she had gathered herself enough to speak.

“This is general holding,” Nikola said.

“And my dad’s gonna have a field day with it.” Rod chuckled. “Disregard Rod Swadson’s Platinum Plan and see if you’re not bankrupt in the morning.”

“How long have we been here?” Tillie asked. She noticed the crowd was still silently staring at her. There must have been twenty or more of them. It was hard to count from her vantage point on the small room’s floor, especially with a pounding headache.

“We were already here for hours before they tossed you in with us,” Rod said. “Haven’t seen a protector since—unless they were tossing someone else in. And they’ll hear about that from my dad, too. You can be sure of that.” He huffed.

“They killed Emma,” Tillie said. The whole crowd gasped. She had forgotten they were listening, but now that she remembered, she didn’t care. They should all hear this, too. They were probably all out there when it happened. The same thing could have happened to any one of them. “I saw it,” she said. “Her head exploded in front of me. Look…” She wiped her shirt, but it wasn’t sticky anymore, just stained red. “That’s her blood on my shirt.”

“That’s her blood on their hands,” Nikola said.

Tillie forced herself to stand, against all the advice of every nerve in her body. “You people don’t understand yet,” she groaned. “They killed her because she wanted to tell you something they didn’t want you to know. That’s it.”

“That humans work on the assembly lines,” Nikola said, urging Tillie on.

No,” Tillie protested. She wasn’t trying to encourage them. She was trying to illustrate the reality of their situation. “That’s not important,” she said. “What she said doesn’t matter. What they did because of it does.”

“Because they’re afraid!” Nikola said.

The crowd cheered. Nikola was making everything Tillie said have the opposite meaning from what she intended. “Because they want to make us afraid,” Tillie said. “And we should be. I was interrogated by one of them before they dumped me in here. They thought I took over for Emma because I wear her pin. They ensured me that their responses would get more drastic if we continued doing what we’re doing, and I believe them. I’m scared.”

The huddled mass of prisoners didn’t know how to respond to that. They looked back and forth at each other, hoping one or another of them could tell the rest what to do. Tillie thought she might have actually gotten through to them until Nikola said, “And we must use that fear. We must not run away from it. We must not let them win by default. Together we can prevail!”

The cheering grew so loud it had to be heard by the guards. “No,” Tillie pleaded. “That’s not what I mean. I meant—”

The door of the cell swung open and a column of white-clad protectors made their way in, packing the room tighter than it already was. “Quiet citizens,” one of the protectors ordered. “Break this meeting up or every one of you will be placed in solitary confinement.”

The crowd stomped and protested, Nikola and Rod especially. Tillie turned her back to the protectors and waved her arms, shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No no no. I told you. Be afraid.”

“And use it!” they replied.

“For Emma!” Nikola said.

“For Emma!” they repeated.

“And Tillie!” Nikola said.

“And Tillie!” they repeated.

“No!” Tillie said, and the protectors crashed down on them. Tillie couldn’t fight. She couldn’t run. She couldn’t do anything. She tried to give up, crumpling to the floor where she would probably be stomped to death, but as she let go of herself a bag went over her head and she was lifted by strong arms to be thrown over a broad shoulder.

She didn’t resist or struggle as she was carried away from the sound of the riot in the cell. She didn’t care anymore. She had nothing left in her, no energy at all. She would certainly never break another law again as long as it meant that she never had to interact with another protector in her life.

Then she thought she heard someone whispering her name. “Tillie Manager,” it said. “Psst. It’s me—uh—” It was the protector who was carrying her. “Well, the guy who processed you last time. And gave you your shot. Get ready for another one.”

She felt the sting of a needle in the back of her thigh and sighed at the instant relief.

“That should make this a little easier,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He hefted her off his shoulder and laid her down in between two tight walls, pushing her forward into even deeper darkness. She tried to move but there was no room, only inches before she hit a hard surface in every direction. She banged on the walls of the tiny space around her, breathing heavily. The hood was still on her head so she kept inhaling cloth. She felt like she was going to suffocate, like they were going to scare her to death.

She tried to calm herself. She stopped struggling and laid as still as she could. At least she had gotten a shot so she wasn’t hurting anymore. She slowed her breathing and managed to keep the cloth out of her mouth. Maybe Nikola was right. Maybe they should use their fear. They should become stronger by overcoming it. But how was she supposed to do that now? Stuck in here, in a drawer, with a limited air supply.

Her heart beat faster. She lost control of her breath again until she remembered where she was. They wouldn’t let a prisoner die in their custody. Would they? They di—

The drawer slid open. She tried to move, to stand, but she was grabbed by two pairs of hands and lifted out of her resting place. “Come with us,” a voice she didn’t recognize said. “We’ll get you out of here.”

“But—” she protested, and someone flung her over their shoulder, with the hood still on her head, to run on their way to she had no idea where.

#     #     #

< XXXV. Olsen     [Table of Contents]     XXXVII. Huey >

That’s it for Tillie’s point of view in Almost Tangent. To find out who has her and where she’s going you’ll have to read on in the Infinite Limits series. If you’d like to support the creation of further works from me, Bryan “with a Y” Perkins, please do pick up a full copy of each novel on the page linked here before joining my email newsletter through this link.

Thanks again for reading me, friends. Have a great weekend and happy Mardi Gras.

 

Chapter 30: Huey

Hey, y’all. Late again this weekend thanks to the holiday season messing with my internal clock, but here’s the next chapter in the Infinite Limits tetralogy. This time we return to Huey as he bargains and deals with the owners of Inland and Rosalind as she tries to keep him in line.

I hope you’re enjoying everything so far. If so, pick up a physical or digital copy of the full novel An Almost Tangent through this link and sign up to join my email newsletter here. I don’t send out many messages to the list, but when I do free books are usually involved.

Enjoy now. And have a good Sunday.

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

XXX. Huey

It was amazing to finally get to spend some time alone with Haley. It was the first chance Huey had gotten since Christmas. She was so busy spending time with her mom and sister, and he had his owner duties to tend to.

They had spent the rest of that day listing activities for Haley to try, and when they first started out, she could only name things she had already done. Huey helped her along with some suggestions she hadn’t thought of, though, and soon, they were shooting off ideas back and forth, creating a never-ending list of activities for her to try and find out if she loved.

“How could anyone ever be bored?” Haley had asked just as the Scientist and the kids came into the room, destroying Huey’s little Heaven. That was the end of his time alone with Haley, but even that small bit was enough to remain in his mind all through the rest of the next day which he spent sitting in one of the puffy office chairs, talking to Mr. Kitty about life, love, and Haley. He was still doing it late into the afternoon when Rosalind stormed in, breaking him from his conversation.

“Of course you’re in here,” she snapped, crossing her arms. “Doing nothing as always, I assume.”

“What?” Huey asked, shrugging at Mr. Kitty. “There’s nothing to be done. Of course I’m doing nothing.”

“Nothing to be done?” Rosalind huffed. “I take it you haven’t been following the proceedings in Outland Two, then, Mr. Douglas.”

“I—uh…” He hadn’t. Ever since his time with Haley he had thought about nothing else, and certainly not all this nonsense going on in the Outlands. He could only put off his duties for so long, though.

Your undercover operations,” Rosalind said. “You do remember those, don’t you?”

Huey nodded, embarrassed.

“Well, the protectors have intel which should help prepare you for the inevitable meeting you’ll be having with the Fortune Five about it. So, if you don’t protest, Mr. Douglas, sir, your elevator’s waiting.” She curtsied and stepped out of the room into the hall.

“Well, Mr. Kitty,” Huey said, standing from his chair. “You heard her. I have work to do. Thanks for stopping by. I always enjoy your company.”

Mr. Kitty didn’t answer. He just kept licking himself.

Huey fixed his tuxedo, putting on his top hat and monocle, in the reflection on the wallwindow. He always had to look the part of an owner or all the work they had been doing for so long would be all for not. Satisfied, he went out to the hall where Rosalind was waiting in the elevator.

The doors slid closed. “So, any background I need for this?” Huey asked as the elevator carried them downward.

“I’m sure your squad will brief you,” Rosalind said.

The elevator doors opened to three protectors saluting them. “At ease,” Huey said.

They dropped their salutes, and the protector in front, Agent Colvin, said, “Yes, sir. We thought you’d like an update before the planned demonstration, sir. Were we wrong, sir?”

“Demonstration?” Huey asked. He should have been paying more attention instead of dreaming about Haley. Rosalind shot him a dirty look as if she agreed with his very thoughts.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin went on. “From the video message, sir. We’ll show you everything right away, sir. Follow me.” She directed them down a long white hall, lined with blue carpet. There were glass doors every so often, with offices behind them, and in the door at the end of the hall was a long room with stadium seating, all directed at a podium and screen.

“If you’ll take a seat, sir,” Agent Colvin said.

Huey took the front row center seat and tried to signal to Rosalind to sit next to him, but she stood off to the side, ignoring him. Agent Colvin stood behind the podium and didn’t say a word. She simply stared out at Huey and the empty seats around him, standing at attention. After he took his tall hat off and set it on the chair next to him, rolling his neck to stretch it, he realized that she was waiting for him and said, “Go ahead.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “Where would you like me to begin, sir?”

“From the beginning, please,” Huey said. “Whatever you had planned to tell me. Assume I haven’t paid any attention in the last twenty four hours.”

Rosalind scoffed behind him.

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “As you know, since the Christmas attack we’ve seen a rapid increase in cross-world contamination incidents. That includes border crossings, printer theft, the usual. We believe we’ve got our thumbs on the major illegal immigration cartels, but even with our increased activities, contamination incidents continue to grow. That’s all without mentioning the den of thieves which Outland Five has become with its introduction to Outland Six.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Perhaps I should have been more clear, Agent. My major concern right now is Outland Two. We all know that the savages in Five and Six can’t be domesticated, but when their behavior spreads closer to us, we have reason to worry. Do you understand?” He felt bad for saying it like that. He didn’t really believe that the people who lived in Five and Six were any more savages than the people that lived in any of the worlds, but he had a role to fill. The protectors here were required to believe that he was no different from any other owner so he had to act like one. He could practically hear Rosalind’s head shaking behind him, though—and her eyes rolling. She probably thought that he actually believed what he was saying, even though she knew from experience that he was helping fight to free those very “savages” from their oppression. She always thought that he enjoyed filling the role of an owner too much, and in some ways, she was right. It did have its benefits. But this wasn’t one of them.

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted behind the podium, trying to get back on track after the tangent.

Huey felt bad for her so he tried to help her along. “You said something about a video message,” he said. “Let’s start with that.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, standing up straighter again. “As you know, at seventeen hundred hours yesterday an unpermitted group of students gathered on private school grounds to spread blasphemous libel.”

Huey nodded. He wasn’t sure he would call it blasphemous or libel, but he appreciated her enthusiasm.

“This particular group of students,” Agent Colvin went on. “Was led by one Emma Whistleblower.” A picture of the Emma in question, with her name in block letters underneath, came up on the screen behind Agent Colvin. “We’ve been tracking her as per your previous request, and as such, we were in prime position for yesterday’s incident. That is to say we already had, and still do have, an agent embedded in their group, sir.”

“Good, good,” Huey said. “But I know all of this already. What about the video?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin straightened up even more, if that was at all possible. “Whistleblower, it’s been revealed—and with due attention to the irony, I might add, sir—wears a camera pin to all illicit functions. She had an emergency protocol in place, and when the illegal activity was put to a halt, the video was sent out to her entire contact list, including everyone who had their contact information in the school’s directory. That’s everyone who works at, teaches at, or attends the university, sir.”

Huey was going to respond, but Agent Colvin stepped out from in front of the screen. The picture of Emma disappeared, and a video of a group of young students, including their Whistleblower, came up in its stead. There was no sound, but Huey could tell they were all listening to Emma speak from behind the camera. Everyone turned their heads at once, and the camera panned over to look the way they were all staring to see a troupe of a hundred white-clad protectors marching toward them. The camera got shakier and panned back and forth between the students, who were tightening up into a bunch—only to make themselves easier targets—and the protectors, who had started hitting them with gas and bean bags, filling the screen with smoke. In the gaseous, dense fog the camera fell to the ground and blacked out.

Agent Colvin stepped back up to the podium. “As you can see, sir,” she said. “The situation was handled efficiently.”

Huey let out a loud chortle. “No,” he said. “That it wasn’t, Agent Colvin. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. And it wasn’t you protectors’ fault, at that.”

Agent Colvin fidgeted again behind the podium. “That’s not all, sir,” she said.

“Go on,” Huey said, waving her on. Of course that wasn’t the end of it. That was just the beginning. It was the spark of an explosion he had talked about with Mr. Angrom.

“Well, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “There was a message sent with the video, sir. Shall I read it to you, or—”

“On the screen, please,” he said.

It popped up. “This is how they protect you,” it read. “We are students. We gathered on the parade grounds. We did no wrong. We tried to warn you. What you thought was yours does not belong to you. Now the protectors have shown you. The protectors have shown us all. How long will we let them take what is ours?

“We ask you to clear all school grounds in memory of those who were viciously attacked by our ‘protectors’. We will hold this vigil for 24 hours, and at 5:00 PM on January 2nd we will reclaim the grounds! The only question left is will you be there to help us take back what is ours?”

It didn’t take Huey more than a few seconds to read and a couple more to process. He smiled when he had then licked his lips to hide it. Now was not the time for celebration. Now was the time to fill his role. He waited a little longer to answer, the amount of time that a normal owner would take to read such a minor amount of text, then said, “And have you been surveying the campus?”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. She fidgeted then added, “Not a soul, sir.”

Huey fought the smile again. “Is our embedded agent in place?”

“Sir, yes, sir. He was arrested with everyone else, but his cover wasn’t blown. We’ll be set up for the demonstration at seventeen hundred, sir.”

Good,” Huey said. “Very good. It’s extremely important that we keep our eyes on this particular movement. Do you understand? This is the start of something much bigger. I know it is.”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted. “Our agent is moving into position as we speak, and we have the parade grounds monitored from all sides. We have been monitoring them since long before yesterday, sir. We’ll be ready, but how do you want us to proceed?”

Huey laughed. Oh how he wished it was his decision. Well, not really. If he was in control, he would be able to actually put an end to all this, but that’s not what he really wanted. Sometimes he almost forgot that himself. No, what the owners would undoubtedly do would be violent and painful for those brave few children on the front lines, but it would only help to bolster their message in the long run. The owners were fighting gasoline with fire just like Mr. Angrom had said.

“Unfortunately,” Huey said, “That decision does not lie with me. We can only prepare and react based on Lord Walker’s whims.”

“Sir, but—” Agent Colvin started.

“Let me finish, please,” Huey said, holding up a hand to stop her. “There are a few things I need from you. First, have you noticed our food and energy costs declining?”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said, confused. “But what does—”

“In exchange for this gift,” Huey said, ignoring her questions, “we will ensure that no harm comes to Emma Whistleblower or her roommate Tillie Manager. Do you understand me?”

“I—uh. But, sir. Emma is—”

“Emma is the roommate and best friend of Mr. Angrom’s top manager’s daughter—Tillie, the one with Manager in the name. If any harm comes to either of them, I will hold you personally responsible. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir. But the efficient—”

“Stop right there,” Huey said. “I don’t need a lecture on efficiency. I define efficiency, Agent Colvin. I know what is most efficient, and it’s my decision either way. We will ensure that no harm comes to either of them. We will enjoy lower costs as a result. And we will do it most efficiently without any arguing from underlings like you. Do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Agent Colvin saluted.

“Good. Very good,” Huey stood up and rubbed his hands together. “Then if there’s nothing else, I’ll be on my way. Business to get to. You know.”

“Yes, sir,” Agent Colvin said. “But…we’ll need to deploy more agents if we—”

“Oh, yes yes,” Huey said. “Of course. Go ahead. We can afford it now.” He smiled. “Okay, Agent Colvin. I’ll see myself out. You have your own work to tend to.”

Huey turned, expecting to see Rosalind, but she wasn’t there. He walked himself all the way out to the elevator before he found her. She avoided eye contact with him until he stepped into the elevator, too, and they watched the doors close.

When the elevator was on its way down, Rosalind scoffed. “You define efficiency,” she said. “I think we might be using different dictionaries.”

“It was an act, Roz,” Huey said, shaking his head. “Everything you see me do in front of the owners or my employees is an act. That’s not really me.”

“I’m one of your employees,” she said as the elevator doors opened. “I guess you’re acting when you’re in front of me.”

“It’s not the same,” he called, but she had already disappeared through the hall door.

Huey sighed to himself. He hated this animosity he felt between him and Rosalind. He wished there was some way he could set things right, but he had no idea where they had gone wrong in the first place. In order to do anything about it he would have to discern that first. He was set on doing just that when the elevator door opened behind him and Ansel and Richard came running through the hall past him.

“Woah, now,” he said as they disappeared through the hall door.

“I’m sorry,” Haley said behind him, laughing.

Huey turned and smiled. “Ah,” he said. “How lovely to see you.”

Haley blushed. “Hello, Mr. Douglas.”

Huey,” he said. “How has your day been, dear?”

Oh.” Haley smiled wide. “You wouldn’t believe it. The kids took me out to run in the grass and chase animals. We climbed trees, and I even got to shoot a slingshot! Uh. I mean… How was your day, sir?”

Huey chuckled. “Not as good yours, I’m afraid. Nowhere near it. And it only looks to be getting worse.”

“Oh no,” Haley frowned. “Is there anything I can do about it?”

Huey checked his watch. It was getting on toward time to go to a feast, and he knew there would be business at this one. His protectors had just told him as much. Still, he wanted even more than ever to spend as much time as he could with Haley. Maybe she could be of assistance with his problems. She was the most experienced android in existence. But no. She had no idea of the situation. She had only just become independent. There was no way she could help. It was his desire to spend time with her and nothing more.

“No,” Huey said finally. “I’m afraid not. Not this time at least. But if you’ll let me get through this feast, there is one thing I could use your help with.”

“What?” Haley asked.

“Finding what it is you love,” he said. “We never finished that yesterday.”

Haley chuckled and blushed again. “No, well, I have a lot to try,” she said. “You said so yourself.”

“Yes.” Huey smiled. “But I have some ideas I think you might not have thought of yet.”

“I can’t wait to hear them,” Haley said. “But I promised the kids that I’d show them how to make cheesecake and whipped cream first. Do you want to join us?”

“Oh, no,” Huey said, shaking his head. “I’m afraid I don’t have the time. You go ahead. I’ll find you again when I’m not so busy. I promise.”

“I can’t wait,” Haley said as she slipped through the hall door into the kitchen.

Huey took a second to catch his breath and let his head calm down. What was wrong with him? He had never felt this way about anyone before. He shook his head to get the thought of her out of it, and made his way through the hall door. He didn’t pick a room before he opened it, but it came out to the office. Probably a default because this was the room he chose most often. Rosalind was sitting in one of the chairs, staring out the window onto the wilderness scene. She didn’t turn to acknowledge him, even when he sat on a chair across from her and put his heavy top hat on a side table.

“You finally made it,” she said after some time’s silence.

Huey didn’t give her the satisfaction of a response.

“So how do you think the owners will respond?” she asked, still looking out the window.

“Exactly how we’ve predicted they would all along,” he said. “They haven’t failed us yet. Or they’ve only failed us. Is there a difference?”

“No, brother. There isn’t a difference,” she said, shaking her head and gazing out the window. “Not with owners. The sooner you learn that, the better off you’ll be. The better off we’ll all be, as a matter of fact.”

“You know, I’m sick of you always undermining me.”

Rosalind laughed. “Me, too, sir,” she said with a smile. “Me, too.”

“We’re on the same side whether you believe it or not,” Huey went on. “I’m doing what I was built to do. I’m fulfilling my role, just like you are. I want to free the assembly line workers just as much as you do, and that’s the only reason I put on this disgusting costume every day.”

Rosalind laughed. “Free the assembly line workers, huh? But that’s the entire point of our disagreement, brother. You only see the assembly line workers, and you ignore the secretaries who bathe, dress, and feed the owners. You ignore the oppression they need to be freed from. You ignore me.”

Huey shook his head and grimaced. “Ugh,” he said. “No I don’t. I—”

It doesn’t matter,” Rosalind snapped. “It’s time. Lord Walker called the feast. Let’s tend to your duties, Mr. Douglas.”

“No,” Huey said. “Wait, but—” But Rosalind had left the room already.

She was wrong. Huey did care about the secretaries. He wanted to help everyone, but he had to start somewhere. He couldn’t do everything all at once. Roz only cared about the secretaries because she was currently fulfilling the role of one. Her view was biased. Huey, however, could see clearly from his position as an owner, so he knew his strategy would work better than Rosalind’s. He stood from the chair, put back on his top hat, and followed Roz out to the elevator.

She was waiting inside the doors as usual. He stepped in, and she didn’t say anything to him for the entire ride to the same spinning carousel restaurant in which the previous meeting feast was held. Any time Lord Walker got to choose where the meeting feasts were, he chose the same restaurant. Lord Walker owned the Carousel, and the more often the Fortune Five was seen there, the more likely it would be for other owners to want to be seen there themselves. It was perfect advertising on top of the fact that whatever anyone ordered during the meeting they had to pay Lord Walker for. No outside food or drinks were allowed on the premises.

Huey and Rosalind rode the hover platform up to the head table where Lord Walker and Mr. Loch were laughing drunkenly, patting each other on the back with one hand and waving fried chicken legs around in the air with the other. Mr. Loch dropped his chicken leg and started banging on the table while Lord Walker—who noticed Huey’s arrival—tried to stifle his laughter to speak. “Oh ho ho! Wooooo. Douggy boy. Ho ho ho! You—ho—you beat Smörgy. Ho ho have a seat.”

Numbers clicked in Huey’s head, a small signal from the stock market. He smiled. He had expected this to happen soon but not this soon. In fact, he had almost forgotten about it, lost with everything else he had lost because he had been spending his time thinking about Haley. He turned to Rosalind and grinned. She just shrugged and rolled her eyes, shaking her head. Huey picked up a seat from the end of the table furthest from Walker and dragged it around to the head of the table opposite from him. He sat down on it with a smile as the laughter from the other end of the table died down.

Ahem. Mr. Douglas,” Loch said, an embarrassed look on his face. “Mannersh,” he slurred.

“Now, now, Douggy Poo,” Walker said, cool and collected. He tapped his greasy fingers on the table cloth, leaving stains in their wake. “What is this all about? Huh?”

“You don’t know?” Huey asked with a smile. “You called this meeting.”

“Yes,” Walker said, smiling back. “I called it so we could discuss our next step in dealing with the burgeoning complications in Outland Two. Not so we could bicker over the seating arrangements. Now if you’ll please.” He waved the chicken leg in his hand, trying to tell Huey to move his chair back, but Lord Douglas just smiled.

The hover platform came up carrying Angrom and his secretary. Angrom stood there staring at the table, as if trying to decide how to react, before he went and sat at the right hand of Huey—kitty-corner to Loch—without a word.

“Angrom!” Loch complained, slamming his fist on the table. “What do you think about this?”

“About what, sir?” Angrom asked, shaking his head and feigning confusion. “I’ve only just arrived. How am I to know what you’ve been blathering on about before I got here?”

“You know what I’m—” Loch started, but Walker stopped him.

“Settle down now, Loch Ness,” he said. “We all know what you’re talking about, Mr. Angrom included. He made his decision when he sat down. Didn’t you Angry?”

Angrom smiled. “Not so angry anymore, Wally,” he said with a chuckle. “I think the view is turning for the better. How about you?”

Walker couldn’t hide his derision. “What is this?” he demanded, his voice losing confidence. “Is this some sort of coup or something? You trying to take over, boy?”

Huey shook his head. “I’ve never been a boy,” he said.

No, boy?” Walker raised his voice. “You’ve always been one. And you’ll never amount to anything more than that by acting like this. Now our Smörgy should be here soon, and we’ll let him break this little stalemate for us once and for all.”

“It’s not for any of us to decide,” Huey replied.

The hover platform came up carrying Smörgåsbord, and he walked right up to the seat at Huey’s left hand side to sit down without pause.

Loch’s face instantly turned bright red. He slammed his fist on the table, setting a turkey leg flying, and yelled, “You, too, Smörgåsbord?”

Walker couldn’t hold in his true thoughts, either. “You boxhead, hyrdie-byrdie traitor!” he screamed. “What are you doing?”

“Um, excuse me?” Smörgåsbord demanded, wide eyed and obviously trying not to take visible offence. “How was that now?”

“I said,” Walker said, “why are you sitting on that side of the table, Smörgbox? Do you not realize what you’ve done?”

“Well, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said with a straight face. “I’ll spare you any racial slurs which might apply all too well to you and ask you similar questions in a civilized manner. Why are you sitting at the foot of the table, sir? Do you not notice what you’ve done?”

Walker’s face turned a shade of red which Huey didn’t know human skin was capable of. “I—” Walker stammered, looking around at each face sitting at the table in turn. “The foot? Lord Walker…” His head looked like it was going to explode.

“No, Mr. Walker,” Smörgåsbord said. “I checked the numbers before I came here—as I do before I go anywhere—and while you were in your right to call this meeting when you did, as of now, you’re sitting at the foot of the table, sir.”

Lord Huey Douglas smiled. He soaked in Walker’s anger, embarrassment, and disbelief. Walker had been the richest man in all the world for his entire life practically, and now he was no one, he was number two. It took Walker a while to finally accept that fact and he looked like he was going to cry before he finally gave in. Eventually he stood up and called Haley’s doppelganger over to move his chair for him. Seeing Haley have to do that—and knowing that the real Haley was forced to do the same menial tasks, and worse, for so long—only made Huey want to punish Walker all the more, but now wasn’t the time for that. There was business to tend to first.

“Now that we have the seating arrangement under control,” Huey said. “I believe that Mr. Walker called this feast to talk about his botched job in Outland Two. And because I think that Mr. Walker’s failure is a pertinent topic of discussion myself, let’s get on with it.”

“Now I—” Walker started.

Now, I believe that you and I would agree on our next course of action, Mr. Walker,” Huey cut him off. Walker looked around for anyone to protest in his defense, but Loch avoided his gaze, chugging his drink instead, and Angrom laughed silently at him. “I believe—like I know you do, Mr. Walker—in fact, to use your own choice of language, I believe that we should handle this the old-fashioned way.”

Walker sneered.

“How’s that, Lord?” Angrom asked, happy to call Huey his new Lord rather than the much greater evil of Walker.

“We tear it up by the roots,” Huey said, motioning as if he were tearing up weeds from a garden as he spoke. “Like our friends here failed so miserably to do the first time. The key, which they didn’t have, is to know which part of the plant is the root. You target that and the problem won’t ever come back again.”

We tried that,” Walker whined. “And now my protectors expect exponentially more of those hobgoblins out there today. How do you propose to find the roots through all that foliage?” He smiled, satisfied that he had destroyed Huey’s point, no doubt.

Huey chuckled. “That’s the secret, my walrus-sized friend. We already know who the roots are. We’ve known since before you and yours went and fucked things up worse than they already were. I tried to warn you, but you’re made of brick. Aren’t you, Wally?”

Walker didn’t answer. He seethed and ordered Haley’s twin to get him more drinks.

“So these roots,” Smörgåsbord said. He clearly wasn’t comfortable with the change in power yet, but he wasn’t hesitating to go with what he knew the market demanded. “You say you know what—or is it who?—whatever. What are they, Lord Douglas?”

They are a she,” Huey said. The whole table looked confused at the wording. “One student in particular: Emma Whistleblower.”

Pffft. Whistleblower?” Loch said, splashing his drink.

“Yes, Mr. Loch,” Huey said. “Thank you for pointing that out. She is the driving force behind all of this. It was she who started the first Reclaim the Grounds demonstration on New Year’s Day. My private protection agents have evidence which suggests that she was involved in the twelve twenty five attacks as well. We’ve known all of this since before Mr. Walker made his blunder. I tried to warn him before now, but I can still pick up the pieces like I promised I would.”

“No, wait—” Walker protested.

“Kill her!” Loch said, raising his glass.

“Is that what the intelligence said?” Angrom asked.

“Yes,” Huey said. “It is. So let’s put an end to this nonsense once and for all.”

#     #     #

< XXIX. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXXI. Rosa >

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