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 66: Jorah

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

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

LXVI. Jorah

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lights!” Wes called.

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

“Cue the belts.”

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

Aaaaannnd… action!”

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

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

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click.

Slip, snap, click…

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

“And…” Jorah led her on.

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

#     #     #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” Jorah nodded.

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

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

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

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

#     #     #

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

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

Chapter 65: Thimblerigger and Stevedore

Hello, dear readers. We’re back again this Saturday with another chapter in book four of the Infinite Limits series, 0.N Repeating. Today we join newcomers Thimblerigger and Stevedore in Outland Six where they’re forced to scrape by on what little crumbs are left when all the other worlds have gotten what they want. Keep on reading here every Saturday morning, or if you can’t wait, pick up a full copy of the novel in ebook or print format through this link. Enjoy.

< LXIV. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXVI. Jorah >

LXV. Thimblerigger and Stevedore

“Tails,” one of them said—Stevie. It didn’t really matter which one, though. Tails was both of their go to call. Tails never fails, they’d always say. But with their luck, it seemed more like tails always failed.

The other, Thim, flipped a coin, caught it, and read the outcome. “Tails,” they said, handing the token to Stevie and waiting for Stevie’s next call before flipping another coin.

“Tails,” Stevie repeated.

“Tails again,” Thim said after having flipped the second coin, and so again the coin changed hands from loser to winner.

“Tails,” Stevie said again. “And you can stop asking me because my answer’s not gonna change.”

“Tails again.” And again, the coin changed hands.

“Do we really have to keep playing this game?” Stevie asked.

“Tails again,” Thim said, handing Stevie the coin.

“I mean, really? How many coins have we flipped already?”

“Tails again.”

“And I don’t just mean this morning, either. I’m talking about our entire sad lives.”

“Tails again.”

“All we do is flip coins, flip coins, flip coins, and neither of us ever seems to come out on top.”

“Tails again.”

“No matter how long we stay at it, running faster and faster to try to keep up, we still end up about even in the end.”

“Tails again.”

“In fact, the more coins we flip, the longer we work at it, the closer we come to a tie.”

“Tails again.”

“It’s like a rule. Or a law or something. Diminishing returns… No, large numbers. I don’t know.”

“Tails again.”

Stevie grabbed Thim by the shoulders and shook them. “Look at me,” Stevie said. “Are you even listening to a word I’m saying?”

But Thim flipped another coin and checked which side came up before giving their answer. “Tails again,” they said. “Are you listening to a word that I’m saying?”

“What? No. Your stupid coin game?” Stevie chuckled. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I’m over it. You’re definitely not listening.”

“No, you’re the one who’s not listening. Look.” Thim flipped the coin over and over, reading out the result each time. “Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails… And it keeps going, too. Every time I flip. Are you listening? Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails…”

“Let me hold that coin.” Stevie snatched it away from Thim to feel both sides and make sure it wasn’t a cheat.

“No tricks here,” Thim said, holding their hands up in defense. “You’re the one who’s winning, anyway. Why would I use a one-sided coin that only made me lose? Don’t you think it’s odd?”

“Any time I’m on the winning side of a coin flip, something’s definitely odd,” Stevie said.

“No, I meant all the tails in a row. There’s another. Don’t you think it’s about time something comes up heads for once? Tails again.”

“Of course I do. It’s always about time until it is time. But I thought I was losing all this time. It usually lands on heads, doesn’t it?”

“You know what. Maybe it is.”

“Is what? Heads? You have been reading the coin correctly, haven’t you?”

“No— I mean, yes. I have. It’s been tails all morning. And again. And again. And again… It doesn’t stop. I meant maybe it is time.”

“What now?”

“Maybe time has stopped. Maybe these aren’t different coin flips at all. Maybe it’s really just been the same coin flip over and over again.”

“The same coin flip?”

“Yes, well, if I flip it once and get tails, that flip’s always tails. Right? So if I did that flip again, I’d get tails again. Right? It’s already been done and decided for, and it’s already tails.”

Right… But how could you do the same coin flip again? Wouldn’t that just be doing another coin flip?”

“I don’t know. Would it? Usually it is, but this isn’t usual. Is it? Usually we’d get a few heads in there to let us know that we had moved forward in time, right? But all we keep getting here are… tails again.”

“I still don’t understand. You flip the coin once, then you flip it again. Those are different flips even if they land with the same side up.”

“Are they, though? That’s the point. Maybe so. Maybe not. I still don’t understand it myself, you see. We need to do more investigating. Here. Listen carefully. Let me know if you can detect any differences at all between the flips.” Three flips in quick succession and three times in a row: “Tails. Tails. Tails.” Then, “Well…”

“Well, it sounded like three more tails to me,” Stevie said with a shrug. “I don’t know. What else do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know, either,” Thim said, tossing the coin way up where, before it could land, Big Broke Momma snatched it out of the air. Thim and Stevie always wondered how Momma BB got around so quietly while being so large—and with a limp at that—but if there was anyone in the worlds who could sneak better than them, it was her.

Momma BB was something special—and that wasn’t just because she had taken in and reared Thim and Stevie since they were young and useless cry-babies, either. She really was special, and they weren’t the only people who thought so. Just like Thimblerigger and Stevedore—who were never apart, depended upon one another for survival, and were made better by their mutual reliance—Momma BB wasn’t a single person, either. And not just her body—with its exposed mechanisms and wires, patchwork of variously shaded skin colors, and legs of two different lengths, producing her signature limp—but her mind, too. She was connected to thousands of other minds already, and that neural network was growing with every day that they built the robot revolution.

“Well, now. What are you two little monsters still doing here so late in the morning?” Momma BB asked. “Don’t y’all have chores you’re supposed to be doing?”

Here was the lobby of the apartment building safe house that Momma BB oversaw. Mostly it was inhabited by orphans—like Thimblerigger and Stevedore—who would have died or been reduced to something worse than death in order to survive if Momma BB hadn’t taken them in. Other than that, there were some escaped androids who had fled slavery to be stuck in the Streets of Six and relatively fewer humans who had been blacklisted from employment and housing elsewhere because of their support for the robot cause.

“Thim’s been flipping coins again,” Stevie said, arms crossed.

“Well, we’re not really sure it if it actually is again, Momma,” Thim corrected Stevie. “It could still be the same flip.”

“You two aren’t gambling now, are you?” Momma BB shook her head. “You know I don’t approve of it.”

“It’s not really gambling because we share our tokens,” Stevie said. “It’s more symbolic of the transfer of wealth than anything.”

“And we still don’t know if it’s a new flip yet,” Thim said. “What’d it come out as?”

Momma BB looked at the coin, said, “Tails.” and tossed it to Thim.

Thim caught the coin with a shrug and handed it to Stevie, saying, “Still inconclusive. We’ll have to run more tests.”

“But Momma BB caught that one,” Stevie complained. “It has to be a different flip. Doesn’t it?”

Thim shrugged again. “Inconclusive.”

“Alright now, y’all,” Momma BB said. “You can do your further testing on the way to work. Your chores are more important than ever now that Christmas is so close. Let’s go, now. We—”

We do nothing alone,” Thimblerigger and Stevedore finished for her, having heard the mantra a million times a day since she had taken them in. “Yeah, yeah. We know.”

“Then y’all know that you’ve got chores, too, and you should be out there doing them.”

“Yes, Momma,” Stevie said. “We’ll get right on it.”

“We thought time had stopped,” Thim said. “We couldn’t do the chores if time wasn’t moving. Could we?”

You thought time had stopped,” Stevie reminded them. “I just wasn’t paying attention.”

“Well time has not stopped,” Momma BB assured the children. “I guarantee you that. If only it had. No, time is flowing at the exact same speed that it always has—much too fast. And that’s all the more reason why you two need to get to those duties of yours sooner than later. There’s no time to waste. Now move along.”

“There’s no time at all,” Thim said, putting a finger on their chin. “Hmmm. Maybe that’s it. There’s just never been any time at all…”

“Now that’s just too much,” Stevie said with a sigh. “Time definitely exists, and Momma BB’s entry into our story suggests that it’s moving forward. So let’s just get on with our chores.”

Thimblerigger started to say something, stopped, took one more coin out and flipped it as high in the air as they could, caught the coin, flipped it behind their back, under their leg, and off the wall, caught it one more time in one hand and flipped it onto the other only to reveal the coin, sigh, toss it to Stevedore, and say, “I’ll come do my part, but I still think the evidence is inconclusive.”

“And like I said,” Momma BB said. “Y’all can continue your little experiments on your way. You’re creative. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

“Thim’s experiments,” Stevie reminded Momma BB.

And, “We do nothing alone,” Thim reminded Stevie.

“That’s right, my darling little monsters,” Momma BB said, pulling Thimblerigger and Stevedore in tight for a big, robotic bear hug. “We do nothing alone. And don’t you dare forget it. Now, I love you two. Y’all know that, right?”

“Yes, Momma,” Thim and Stevie said simultaneously, struggling for air through Momma BB’s hug. “We love you, too.”

“Good,” she said, patting them on the butts to encourage them out of the apartment complex. “Then get moving. I have some chores of my own to get to.”

#     #     #

Thim and Stevie came out of Momma BB’s Safehouse into the heart of the Streets of Outland Six, dark skyscrapers towering over them in every direction.

First—as they did every morning—Thim and Stevie had to find food. It was impossible to do any of the other work ahead of them unless they could nourish themselves, and in Outland Six, there were no printers to steal food from one of the other worlds and give it to them, so they had to go out and find it for themselves. Well, not just for themselves. They were actually gathering supplies for the entirety of Momma BB’s Safehouse. And while that meant that they had to find more food than they would have if they were only searching for themselves, it also meant that they benefited from the experiences, tools, and resources of the other residents—including Momma BB herself—which made them able to catch, carry, and grow more food than they ever would have been capable of on their own—more than enough to feed everyone in the Safehouse, stow a supply for emergencies, and still have extra to give to those in need.

Thim and Stevie’s morning duties consisted of scouting the rat traps and garbage cans in their sector. The rat traps, because if they didn’t get there early enough in the morning, someone else might take the meal for themselves. And the garbage cans, not for food—no one ever threw anything edible away in Six because they were all too hungry to waste food—but instead in search of the odd stray mechanical part, frayed wire, or other useful tidbit. Not many Sixers knew how to utilize such garbage, but Momma BB had always said that it was the trash parts that others had thrown away that had originally saved her life—allowing her to go on to save Thimblerigger’s and Stevedore’s—so Thim and Stevie were extra careful to search every dumpster they passed in case the part they found turned out to be the one that saved a life.

As they walked, Thim continued flipping a coin over and over and calling out the result each time. “Tails. Tails. Tails…”

When they got to the first dumpster, Thim handed Stevie the token, saying, “You keep flipping. The more data we gather the better. I’m going in.”

Stevie shrugged, went on flipping the coin, and called out each response even though Thim, who had gone all the way into the dumpster to search it more thoroughly, couldn’t make out a thing. “Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails. Tails…” And so on and so on.

“Well?” Thim asked expectantly, climbing out of the dumpster and brushing some trash goo off their shirt.

“All tails,” Stevie said, flipping the coin back to Thim who caught it, flipped it again, and said, “Tails again.”

They walked on, Thim flipping the coin still, until they made it to the first alley that held their rat traps. Stevie searched each one, putting what rats had been caught in a satchel they carried over one shoulder, while Thim went on flipping the coin.

“Tails. Tails. Tails…” Thim read off as Stevie grabbed a still-twitching rat by the tail, slammed its head on the ground to knock it out, and stuffed it in the bag with the rest.

“Well, I’m getting heads and tails both now,” Stevie said, chuckling to themself as they walked on. “Even if it’s all rat heads, I think it’s safe to say that time has indeed moved forward now that we’re doing our chores. Wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know.” Thim shrugged, flipping the coin again and still coming up tails. “I still say the evidence is inconclusive.”

And so they continued on, searching each block of dumpsters and set of rat traps in their sector, flipping tails over and over, until they had searched what seemed like hundreds of dumpsters and ten times as many traps to find more rats than they could carry and what looked like a few useful stray parts. They returned to the Safehouse and left the rats in the kitchen—and the bits and pieces of wire and electronics in Momma BB’s workshop—then they finally got to eat their own meal. They plated out a serving of rat sausage—or maybe it was pidgeon, but it all tasted the same in sausage form—biscuits, and jam for each of them then took their meals up to the roof garden—a long climb with the smell of sausage in their nostrils.

The rooftop garden was Thimblerigger and Stevedore’s favorite place to be in all the worlds. Momma BB’s Safehouse wasn’t the tallest skyscraper around, but it was near it, and there weren’t any shadows on the roof except for one little corner where Thim and Stevie always ate their lunch in the shade of a nearby building, looking out onto the rows and rows of raised beds that grew wheat, vegetables, potatoes, and corn in the life-giving sunlight.

Mr. Kitty—a black cat who frequented Momma BB’s Safehouse—was already asleep in the shade, as if he were waiting for them to arrive. He purred and changed position when Thim and Stevie each took a chance to pet his smooth, soft fur before starting in on their lunch.

“Mr. Kitty sure does have the life, doesn’t he?” Stevedore said as they ate.

And, “Ugh.” Thimblerigger groaned. “How many times do I have to tell you?” they asked through a mouth full of sausage. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. It’s disrespectful.”

“Yeah, well you just did it, too,” Stevie complained.

“But you don’t have to look at it,” Thim said, stuffing their mouth faster so they could get back to flipping the coin.

“Still,” Stevie said, annoyed. “Mr. Kitty has got the life, huh? I mean, look at him. Every time we see him, he’s sleeping in the shade here. And look, you just gave him the last little bits of your sausage, and I’ll give him the last little bits of mine, then we’ll both go to work, watering all this food for all these other people, while he just goes on sleeping. That is the life.”

“Sure,” Thim said, done eating and back to flipping tails. “And every time he sees us, we’re out here sitting in the shade with more lunch than we can eat. Besides, those little bits we give him aren’t enough for a cat to live off of. I’m sure he has to search for his own food the same as we all do.” And tails, and tails, and tails…

Yeah, yeah,” Stevie said, feeding their leftovers to Mr. Kitty then leaning back on their elbows to get some rest before their next set of chores. “But I’m sure there are plenty of other people who feed him. And plenty of places to find food.”

“Not on this roof,” Thim said. “Tails. Not unless that cat eats vegetables. Tails again. This is getting serious.”

“Seriously, though,” Stevie said. “How does he get up here? I mean, I’ve never opened the rooftop door for him. Have you?”

“What? No. That’s not what I’m talking about. You’re off track again. I’m talking about the coin flips. They’re still coming up tails. That’s what’s serious.”

“Sure, sure. Sure, it is,” Stevie said, laying all the way back now to listen to the cool wind blowing over their heads. “But we’ve been over all that already once before. I’m on to this now. Haven’t you ever wondered how it is he gets up and down from here all the time? I mean, like you said, there’s no way he’s surviving on the food here alone. And we trap all our rats for ourselves, so that’s not an option.”

“Of course I think about that,” Thim complained. “I’ve been asking you those exact questions ever since the first time we saw Mr. Kitty up here. Why are you only interested in them now that I have something more important on my mind?”

“I’d hardly say that a string of bad luck is super important in the grand scheme of things. Neither is this Mr. Kitty business, mind you, but I choose to focus on it just as you choose to focus on the coin flips. But neither matters at all, in the end, because it’s time to get back to what’s truly important anyway: our chores. So let’s do this.”

And after one more trio of tails, Thim finally gave in and helped with the work. Each of them picked up their bucket, filled it with water, then started down a row, carefully watering each plant along the way. At the end of the row they’d go back and refill their buckets then pick another row to water. There wasn’t really any talking or thinking that could be done during this part of their job because the work was too physical to allow for it, so they just worked. They were sweaty and tired by the time they put their empty buckets away, but Thim went on flipping their coin nonetheless.

“And do you see him now?” Stevie asked. “Or more likely, is Mr. Kitty gone? No sign of where he’s gotten off to, either, I imagine. But you know what? I’ve had enough waiting for the answer to come to me. I’m gonna go find it for once.”

“What are you talking about now?” Thim asked, still coming up tails.

“I’m saying that I think we should camp out here on the roof tonight. But this time let’s really stay up all night like we always used to say we’d do. And we’ll keep a watch until we finally find out where Mr. Kitty comes from. What do you say?”

“Tails,” Thim said. “Tails. Tails. Tails. That’s all I can say until it comes up heads for once. I don’t care about anything else—including where we sleep—until it does. So whatever.”

“Good. Great, then,” Stevie said, laughing and clapping their hands. “Let’s go down, get some food and blankets, then come back up and set up a stakeout. We’re finally gonna find out who this Mr. Kitty is, and we’re not leaving this roof until we know for sure. Come on.”

And so Thim followed Stevie downstairs to do as they were told, flipping tails all the way.

#     #     #

< LXIV. Haley     [Table of Contents]     LXVI. Jorah >

And there you have it, the first introduction to Thim and Stevie, two of my favorite characters in this story who are based on two of my favorite characters in all of literature. If you enjoyed that, please do stick around for the continuation of the story, and if you have the money, think about picking up a copy of the novel through this link. We do nothing alone.

New Omelas and the Lesser Evils

 

about 6,300 words

Vote Evil

 

New Omelas and the Lesser Evils

by Bryan Perkins

“We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable—but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Another three years had passed, as they always seem to do, and Campaign Season had come once again to New Omelas, the largest and most densely populated city on the entire planet of Infernum, built on the swampy marshes of the gulfward delta of the River Lethe.

In the weeks that had led up to the beginning of Campaign Season, a general air of disquietude settled over the city. Everyone from shopkeepers and restaurateurs—hawking their food and wares from the most ornate and expensive kitchens and the foulest smelling street corners alike—to taxi, streetcar, and bus drivers, hurling more insults and curses than average—quite a lot, in fact—during their daily fits of road rage, even down to the youngest children who couldn’t yet vote and wouldn’t be able to still for a long time to come, every single resident of New Omelas, despite age, race, or creed, was preparing themselves for the year-long freak show circus that was Campaign Season.

A century or so ago it used to be that campaigning wasn’t limited to a specific season. Back then, on Election Day, everyone would pull their chosen lever and the Campaigners wouldn’t even wait for the votes to be tallied before they started arguing against one another—and at everyone else—about what new Evils might come up for election during the next Campaign Season and who the poor, tired residents of New Omelas—who only wanted a moment to relax and forget about the freak show—ought to vote for when those quickly rolling years passed away and the next most important Election in all of history came around—every Election, it seemed, was the most important election in history as long as it was going on, and back then, the campaigning was going on twenty four, seven, three sixty five, every day of every year up to and including the year of the election, so every second of every day was the most important moment of every New Omelassian’s life, according to the Campaigners.

I think we can all see why the New Omelas City Council got together and limited the Campaign Season to a single year. Campaigning was a truly exhausting experience and even the three years rest that had since been legislated usually wasn’t enough to recuperate before the next year-long Campaign—not to mention the strain of dealing with the wrath of whichever Evil had ended up winning the previous election, because there was always and forever that endless stream of sicknesses and bad luck to contend with as well.

Which brings us to the Evils. Yes, they were there in New Omelas all the time, lurking in the alleys and streets, never to be seen but as a shadow of movement out of one’s peripheral vision, never to be heard but as a far off echo of tinnitus that was impossible to be certain actually existed, never to be smelt but as a smoldering cigarette butt in an ashtray far away or the sulphuric aftertaste from the next stall over in a public bathroom, never to be touched or tasted at all—I’m not sure how one would even think of going about that—or why—but always, always they were there, watching, stalking their prey, and slowly but surely, like the tricklings of the River Lethe through the tiny cracks in the New Omelas levee walls, doling out the torments and afflictions that they had promised during Campaign Season in order to secure themselves the Director of Evil position over the next four years.

Let me remind you, however, that these were Lesser Evils. This was New Omelas on Lethe, a not so bad place for not so bad people. What it was not was Bedlam on Phlegethon where the docks, boats, and levee walls all had to be built of tungsten in order to resist the thousands of degree temperatures of the lava and flames that flowed through Phlegethon’s burning banks. From the river side of Bedlam’s levees there was nothing to see but heat, sweat, work, and death, but from inside the levee walls, in the city proper, one could watch as the flames licked and spit against the light washed sky, occasionally curling around the top of the levee and down to kiss the inside of Bedlam, sometimes at night reflecting off the worn smooth and shiny tungsten walls of the levee like a constellation of fireflies taking flight there in the city where True Evils crept—and where sometimes even stalked the worst demons of all: Greater Evils themselves.

Now Greater Evils were something truly terrifying. Giant, indomitable beasts that they were, they had no need to hide away in shadows and farts like the Lesser Evils of New Omelas. In Bedlam, Greater Evils stomped and stamped and clattered and clomped on cloven hooves and octopus claws all throughout the city, doling out whatever pain or pestilence, misery, worry, or strife their empty, non-existent, heart-shaped chest holes might desire. No promises were made and broken or debates held for the residents of Bedlam to choose whichever Evil they thought might be the Lesser. Instead, the Evils chose amongst themselves by inflicting tortures and punishments upon one another—and upon all the poor human souls who were unlucky enough to find themselves caught between the two Evils—until one or the other demon gave up to scurry, sulking, back into the fiery flowing depths of the River Phlegethon, licking their wounds while the victor went on parading through Bedlam, the Greater Evil, committing atrocities at will.

These Greater Evils we’re talking about were giants with big red horns and solid white eyeballs, spitting fire and brimstone through razor sharp teeth, gnashing at flesh with bloody claws and pointed tail alike. These were Great and True Evils who were responsible for genocides and extinctions, atom bombs and more, tearing entire cities off the map in one deafening second, leaving what few survivors there were worse off than dead and getting worse with every second. They’re responsible for nerve agents, torture camps, and all the worst things you’ve ever heard of from all the scariest monsters in your most frightening and recurrent of nightmares. These Greater Evils and True Evils in Bedlam, on the other side of Infernum, perched atop the flaming lips of the River Phlegethon, as far away from New Omelas as possible without being on another planet entirely, were something to really and truly be afraid of, which makes it a little easier to understand why the residents of New Omelas would go on happily choosing between two Lesser Evils every four years—because at least they weren’t as bad off as the Bedlans who had to look their Evils in the eye for what they truly were and couldn’t even drink from their own river without burning their insides out.

No, compared to Bedlam, life in New Omelas didn’t seem so bad. Of course, none of the New Omelassians had ever travelled to Bedlam to confirm the stories—who would ever want to go to such a horrible sounding place anyway?—but the media, school teachers, and as an effect, everyone in the entire city kept on believing the stories and preaching them as truth, so they might as well have been the truth even if they were more than likely tall tales concocted by the Lesser Evils themselves in order to keep the New Omelassians in line. Evils, whether Lesser, True, or Greater, could be very sneaky and manipulative in that way.

So when one of the little imps, sometimes tiny, red, and winged, flapping around like a grotesque merger of bat and moth into one, others in the visage of a child, a woman, or a dark skinned man, maybe a talking kitten or something even more random and abstract, like telepathic fry bits, or the tunnel of light that represents both being born and dying, passing on to the after life whatever life it may be after, but when the Lesser Evils would come disguised as menacing child demons or the things that all humans knew and loved, or as humans themselves, and they would say, I promise to steal every first born child in the city and force them into a violent fight to the death against every first born child from outside of the city until only one of them remains alive, the New Omelassians could hold their noses and say, Well, at least these Evils weren’t going to take all the children of New Omelas like those Greater Evils around the world in Bedlam do, so certainly this Evil is of a Lesser variety and I should go ahead and vote for it. That’s how life went for many centuries in New Omelas while no one knew better or how to do any different.

So when the racist cheese snack in a bad toupee promised to exile every immigrant in New Omelas to the fiery shores of Bedlam while also locking every New Omelassian whose skin was darker than milk chocolate in the torture chambers until next Campaign Season, and when at the same time the yellow rat in a blue coat, wearing a pink bow in its hair that smelled like hot sauce, promised to unleash a never ending squadron of flying pig monsters with rabid chimpanzees on their backs to drop fecal bombs that exploded not with fire and instant death but instead a slow, painful death full of gaseous, burning agony in every pore of your body, all with the hopes of creating more refugees to flood the streets of New Omelas and provide cheap labor for the city’s sulphur mines—and of course, in the process, the rat planned on exiling as many immigrants as they could replace with the newly desperate refugees—the residents of New Omelas fell into a flurry of surveys and calculations, trying to determine which of the Lesser Evils’ evil plans would be less burdensome on their own lives and the lives of those friends and family who they knew and loved instead of realizing that both platforms were more evil than even the most evil of platforms run in Elections prior, and especially the most recent Campaign Season in which a sensuous space slug who could only speak in poetics ran against a catdog demi-beast which spoke by controlling a hivemind of killer bees to fly in formation and spell out its promises—a lot, a lot of stinging, and since so many New Omelassian voters were terrified of or allergic to bees, the space slug ended up winning the Election and laying eggs in the ears of every single male in New Omelas, killing only ten percent of them and feeding on the, as a result nightmarish, dreams of the others, a rather traumatizing experience, no doubt, but over all, one of the truly Lesser Evils in all the Evils New Omelas had ever experienced.

In fact, except for a few minor aberrations such as the sensuous space slug every once in a few decades, the Evils running for the Directorship of Evil in New Omelas had slowly but steadily been becoming greater and greater ever since the institution of the Election process—which as far as is known coincided with the founding of the city, that is to say forever ago. Sure, some things were getting better, some Evils getting lesser. Where before the Evils had typically focused on a single race, killing untold numbers for the color of their skin, where before the Evils had specifically oppressed women, cutting their arms off or sewing their mouths shut—in the unluckiest of cases both—all in droves so the women were forced to rely on one another more than ever before, now the Evils were becoming more all inclusive, intersectional, diverse. Men, women, and anything in between or outside of that, any time, any age, it didn’t matter. Everyone was fair game. If they really wanted the directorship, the Evils would focus solely on foreigners to the city and immigrants, trying to seem truly Lesser to the native New Omelassians, but those were usually the most dangerous of Lesser Evils because they ardently craved the power that came with being Director of Evil, and whenever they finally had a hold of it, there was no telling what theywould do—and much less stopping them when they did whatever it was they wanted to do, which inevitably resulted in a lot more evil than promised inflicted upon the residents of New Omelas.

And so on and so on the cycle went, and every new Campaign Season a new pair of disgusting Lesser Evils would take to the Campaign Trail, and it seemed like every single resident of New Omelas would forget everything they had learned from each previous Campaign Season, diving head first and irate into another one, screaming the praises of their chosen Evil and damning those who would dare to find another Lesser, until finally, one or two people started to give up and drop out of the Election Process altogether, letting the voters decide their fate for them. And soon more and more New Omelassians were giving up on the elections. Not a lot all at once, but a handful here and there. And those rare few would meet in dive bars and back alley cafes, in bookstores and around dining room tables, to discuss what they had experienced and try to find some better strategy other than voting between two of them to deal with the Evils.

Having come together, all these Abstainers, and shared their experiences with one another, the first thing they realized was that they truly had been forgetting their histories. Each had a story to tell going back until about the time that the previous election had been decided on then nothing more. None of them could remember any part of their lives before four years prior.

After some time of arguing, debating, and experimentation around the matter, the Abstainers came to the conclusion that it was the waters of the River Lethe that were causing their forgetfulness. It must have been some magical property of the river, they had decided, that was no doubt created or controlled by the Lesser Evils, and the only method of overcoming the effect was by not drinking the water at all, abstaining from that, too. What was easily enough said, however—and what had been so difficult for the New Omelassians to discover—was not so easy to do.

First of all, there was no possibility of digging wells in New Omelas. Whatever water could be found in the swampy ground there would no doubt be polluted with the forgetful liquid of Lethe and digging any deeper would only lead to the same lava and brimstone that flowed through Bedlam’s Phlegethon—that same fiery semi-liquid which filled Infernum almost to the brim, leaving just enough topsoil and water reserves to support a few small pockets of human life, the largest of which being New Omelas. But pockets of life there were, bringing up the second difficulty: how to convince a large enough group of adventurers capable of making the journey out there and back again that a potentially fatal trip to another city, looking for water, was worth the effort and inevitable casualties it would entail.

It took two more election cycles to assemble a team—Lesser Evils getting incrementally more so and their Campaigners becoming exponentially more fierce in their campaigning the entire time—due to the understandable deterrents of the True Evils that stalked the ragged dead zones between cities, picking off travelers at will, and to the added forgetfulness of the Lethe waters which the Abstainers were forced to drink in order to survive. Mountains of sticky notes and other written and recorded reminders had finally gotten the Abstainers around that second difficulty, however, and eventually a team of a dozen or so explorers set off north toward the Wailing City of Ymir and the Frozen River Cocytus.

Sure, it was going to be some work carving out the ice and hauling it the thousands of miles home to New Omelas, and sure the legends and campfire tales all told that the waters of Cocytus induced fits of moaning and wailing when drunk, but an ice block would be easier to travel long distances with than as large an amount of unruly liquid water would have been, the people of Ymir had to drink something themselves in order to have survived long enough to build a city, howling beat forgetfulness if the Abstainers ever planned on ridding New Omelas of Evils altogether, and no one wanted to risk drinking the waters of the River Acheron in the south that were said to burn and hurt any flesh they touched—including throats on the way in and urinary tracts on the way out—or those of the River Styx in the west that were said to contain all the souls of all the dead who had ever lived on Infernum—something about ingesting another human’s soul just didn’t sit right with any of the Abstainers. So the Frozen River Cocytus of Wailing Ymir in the north was the only viable option left to them.

The expedition took months and months, and those Abstainers who had stayed in New Omelas to recruit others and brainstorm methods of dispatching the Lesser Evils had entirely forgotten about the adventurers several times—only happening to remember with chance glances at old and quickly fading sticky notes—before the expedition returned a few adventurers shorter and every once in awhile wailing and screaming the words they only meant to speak.

The howling side effect was grating, no doubt, and the ice block they had returned with wouldn’t last long, but those brave explorers had opened the lines of communication with Ymir, and the Ymirese people had thought that forgetfulness might be better than involuntary screaming in some instances, so three Election Cycles later the pipes between Ymir and New Omelas had been completed and each city was pumping a supply of water from their respective rivers to the other. The Abstainers were making progress.

Now that the new Omelassians—or at least those Abstainers who had a problem with the Election System as set up by the Lesser Evils—had a source of water other than the Lethe and could remember beyond the past four years, they had a chance to actually change the future for the better. They continued to slowly and quietly accumulate new members, attracted mostly by the howling remembrances that were a side effect of the Ymirese water, and at the same time began to put into effect experiments as to how to overthrow the Lesser Evils once and for all. Finally being able to remember their history, the Abstainers could tell for certain now that the Lesser Evils had been becoming greater and greater for some decades at least, and the last thing they wanted was for New Omelas to become Bedlam—creeping with True and Greater Evils alike, taking no care as to hide their presence—so they had to do something other than fighting over who was the lesser Lesser Evil about it.

The Abstainers’ first plan was to get everyone, the entire population of New Omelas, to abstain from voting just the same as they were, and at first, it really started to work. Though they were only Lesser, the Evils up for Election were still no doubt evil, so it wasn’t difficult to convince people not to support them. More and more New Omelassians decided to abstain over the next two Election Cycles until the Lesser Evils took notice of the falling voter turnouts and promised to enact both Evils at once if not enough votes were cast in order to elect one or the other to the Directorship. Voter participation skyrocketed after being given the ultimatum until enough time had passed and enough of the waters of Lethe had been consumed such that the residents of New Omelas—besides those few Abstainers who remained drunk on the once frozen waters of Cocytus, wailing in misery—forgot everything they had once learned and returned to their normal fervent levels of participation in Campaign Season.

The Abstainers’ next attempt at defeating the Lesser Evils was their longest and most tedious. They had decided that there must be some power in the election itself, so the Abstainers became instead the Ultimate Participants, attempting to get their own, human, candidate into the running against the Lesser Evils. But lo and behold, and of course, the Evils controlled the entire Election Process, and knowing that any human would readily beat any Evil given an equal playing field, they did everything in their power to keep the Abstainers out—and were flawlessly successful. Even when the Abstainers had gone so far as to build their own levers into the walls of every voting booth in New Omelas, the Lesser Evils had seen it coming and amped up their platform of terrors so much—each promising nukes and deformities, ecological collapse and soggy cereal for life, such horrible things it was impossible to tell which of the two was truly the lesser Lesser Evil—that it scared the New Omelassians into throwing their votes away on an Evil they thought might be Lesser instead of using it on a human who obviously was—all of course, except for the Abstainers who had been responsible for researching, building, and installing the voting levers in the first place.

Running their own campaign for the Director of Evil position against the Lesser Evils, as it turned out, was a bust, never could have saved the Abstainers in the first place, but it had served to attract more interested New Omelassians at a higher rate than the Abstainers had ever been able to attract before. As such, the Abstainers continued to “attempt” their own campaigns—with full knowledge that the Lesser Evils would never let a human being into the running, much less let one win the Election—all while simultaneously searching for, debating, and discussing other avenues through which to end the reign of the Hellish Lesser Evils—who were daily looking more and more like True Greater Evils—once and for all.

The more New Omelassians who joined the Abstainers, the more perspectives from which they could see the situation, the longer time went on, and the more history from which they had to draw, one thing became utterly clear: the only way to end this charade once and for all was going to be to destroy the Lesser Evils entirely. As soon as it had been aired, no one knew by whom, and only as a joke at first, like a meme that had taken on a life of its own and gotten out of hand, becoming more serious than any meme ever should be, the idea took hold and became the only plan that could ever save them.

And so the Abstainers went about determining a method of doing just that, some way to kill the Lesser Evils and liberate the humans of New Omelas. But first, the Evils had to be found. They were never to be seen or heard but in shadows and shit, as previously mentioned, so how could the Abstainers expect to destroy them? But never wasn’t entirely accurate, they had soon realized. The Lesser Evils did come out into the open twice every four years: Once to announce their candidacy for the Directorship and make known the plagues and torments in store if they were to be elected, then again on the day of voting to be announced the winner or to concede defeat. And so our brave Abstainers chose the day of coronation for their rebellion efforts, thinking they could use the hectic Campaign Season as cover for their actions and perhaps along the way convince more voters to join them in fighting against the Lesser Evils.

Campaign Season dragged on, and the Abstainers slowly stockpiled what makeshift weapons they could lay their hands on—pitchforks, shovels, torches, your typical low tech riot gear mostly—all the while they were bombarded on both sides by arguments from the Campaigners:

“It must be nice being as pale as your ass is, y’all are never targeted by the Lesser Evils, but dark skinned people have to be afraid of the fanged worm eating the core of an apple, because it promises to lock everyone whose skin is darker than ash in the torture chambers, and if you didn’t know, that includes my wife and her kin.”

Followed by, “You think the fanged worm eating the core of an apple is scary? You must not have heard what the black hole at the center of the universe promises to plague us with, because they’re gonna torture twenty percent of people whose skin’s darker than charcoal and flip a coin as to whether to exile or murder every single immigrant in the city.”

And the Abstainers would argue back that neither of the Lesser Evils were desirable, that the Evils seemed to be getting greater with every new vote that they consumed, and even going so far as to share their plan to destroy the Evils once and for all, inviting the Campaigners to give up on campaigning and join them in abstaining, but inevitably such arguments would fall on deaf ears, because the Campaigners were so convinced that their only option was to pick one of the two Evils that they couldn’t be bothered to stop arguing with one another for long enough to listen to—and much less seriously consider—any other position. A small percentage of New Omelassians could be convinced away from Campaign Season, of course, or there would never have been Abstainers at all, and those few were going to have to do what they could with the numbers they had or do nothing at all, and nothing was not an option.

Election day came with its typical mixture of nervous excitement at finally knowing the outcome of Campaign Season and relief at having made it through another year-long circus to a three year break that was never long enough, but this time the Abstainers were actually going to try something unique to Campaign Season so their excitement was of an entirely different nature than that of the general population of New Omelas.

The votes came in and were instantly tallied, and by eight o’clock that night, in the lamplit Center Square of New Omelas, under the giant statue of two Lesser Imps, magnified over a hundred times size, shaking hands with one another, flapping wings and wagging tails happily, in front of as much of the city as could fit into Center Square, probably more than a hundred thousand of New Omelas’s more than seventy five million strong population in the five or so acres of space going all around in front of and behind the candidates on the stage, the two Lesser Evils stood, one, the black hole at the center of the universe, to concede defeat, and the other, a fanged worm eating the core of an apple, to begin raining down its first promised pestilences on New Omelas, while no one, the Lesser Evils least of all, noticed the Abstainers, hiding on the wings, backs, arms, and heads of the statues above the stage, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.

“Good evening loyally frightened residents of New Omelas,” the black hole at the center of the universe said in a thousand different tortured, screaming, inhuman demonvoices that seemed to echo up from far away in every direction at once, even from inside the head of every listener. “It is with great displeasure that I, the black hole at the center of the universe, must stand before you today and concede the position of the Director of Evil for New Omelas to this here fanged worm eating the core of an apple.” The black hole at the center of the universe floated silently above the podium for a moment, sucking what light that came out of the lamps around the square toward it in curly cue patterns like an impressionist painting, photons floating toward the darkness to be crushed down into a single point like a postmodern moth to the flame, and when the black hole started to speak again, the A-Team leapt into action.

One by one, like spiders without webs to slow them down, the four or five dozen Abstainers who were brave enough to take up arms against the Lesser Evils dropped from atop the towering imp statues, pitchforks and pick axes brandished and ready, aiming for the floating black hole and the worm eaten apple which both somehow could be seen to look up at their would-be predators before lashing out in kind.

One airborne Abstainer fell directly on top of the black hole at the center of the universe and was sucked into it like any other ray of light to become smaller than a lepton and infinitely more dense, a singularity, along with everything else that had ever been consumed by the insatiable vortex of destruction. Another two Abstainers landed on the apple being eaten by a fanged worm, one piercing the apple with their pitchfork and the other hitting the rapidly embiggening worm in the head to stop its razor sharp teeth from landing on flesh.

All at once, two Lesser Evils transformed into two Greater Evils—and getting more so by the second—right before the frightened crowd’s very eyes. The fanged worm eating the core of an apple was discombobulated, confused, and angry. Roaring irately, the worm head thickened and hardened, turning red and taking the shape of a devil with giant black horns and glow in the dark eyes and teeth, while the apple morphed into a cloven hoofed, six packed satyr, bleeding from a gash on its shoulder. Blind rage whipped the beast’s razor sharp tail and claws spastically, seeking revenge on the flesh of Abstainers who still fell like bees in attack formation, diving from the top of the tall imp statues onto the Lesser Evils below.

The black hole at the center of the universe, however, paid no attention to any of them. It was busy thinking about revenge on a larger scale. Against the Abstainers for pulling a surprise attack in the middle of its speech. Against the worm eating the core of an apple now turned Greater Evil for winning the Directorship of Evil in the first place. And against the residents of New Omelas—Hell, against the entire city itself—for voting to elect a stupid worm instead of it, a badass black hole. The entity didn’t even have to change form to exact its vengeance—not qualitatively, at least—instead it simply grew.

As the black hole at the center of the universe expanded, its gravitational pull multiplied exponentially. The aura of deep dark blackness glowed at further and further distances around the point that was the center of the black hole at the center of the universe, and soon, more and more beings were being pulled in and crushed into that same singular space. First the podium and a few Abstainers, then the worm-eaten apple turned Greater Evil and those Abstainers who were still trying to fight it, and soon even members of the onlooking crowd who didn’t have time to run away, the statues and all the Abstainers who had still not dropped off of them, the road, lamps, buildings, every single thing in that square, all hundred or so thousand human beings, eaten and crushed into one singular point at the center of the black hole at the center of the universe in the blink of an eye. Just like that. Creating the crater in New Omelas’s Center Square where Elections and Coronations of greater and greater Lesser Evils are still held to this day.

“I am the Director of Evil now,” the black hole at the center of the universe boomed out in a thousand demonic voices, echoing in and through every single mind in the entire city of New Omelas, waking or asleep, all adding their own voices to the chorus as well—mother’s speaking these words in the middle of bedtime stories, older brothers yelling them at their friends instead of curse words, even dogs barking whatever grotesque mimicry of speech they could manage with their non-human voice boxes, all at once and all together with the black hole at the center of the universe in a hellish chorus: “These four years will be the worst you’ve ever experienced, and you’ll be lucky if you get another election after that. Don’t believe me? Visit Center Square and see.”

Rain, hail, lightning, and hurricane force winds pummeled New Omelas all through that night—the River Lethe lapping hard at the levee walls but never quite breeching—and the black hole at the center of the universe did its best to make the next four years a living Hell, but nothing ever seemed that bad when compared to the crater left in Center Square. Inevitably a new Campaign Season came along and the residents of New Omelas forgot all about the last one, as those people who consume the waters of Lethe can only do, but luckily, by that time not all of the residents of New Omelas still drank from Lethe, and though most who drank otherwise had been consumed by the black hole at the center of the universe along with the rest of Center Square on that day of attempted revolution, there still existed some who survived solely on the imported waters from Ymir’s Cocytus—you could tell them by their mournful wails, which came out predominantly at night, both as a side effect of Cocytus’s magical properties and as a result of still remembering the faces and names of all those poor souls lost in the regimes of Lesser Evils previously.

And so those surviving Abstainers regrouped and regained themselves, and they started again the long and tedious process of attracting people to their cause. They ran more candidates in elections where their names weren’t even on the ballots, and they helped those who were interested attempt to build their own voting levers, all the time reminding the New Omelassians that no amount of voting would get rid of the Evils, there was only one way to do that.

Which brings us to today, the present, our current Campaign Season in New Omelas. We now have a giant flaming phoenix lit in blue, green, and purple flower patterns running against a three headed crow with nine eyes and feathers made out of ice. These are two apparitions of Lessers Evils that we Abstainers feel we can actually defeat. We have a much better chance than when we went up against the black hole at the center of the universe at least, of that much we’re sure.

Not only do we have more comrades in arms ready to fight, we have better weapons and more efficient tactics with which to do it. These here nets of copper are filled with “water” from the River Phlegethon. The Ymirese and Bedlans have been working together on the weapon for many centuries while forgetful New Omelas still slept under the spell of the River Lethe. The Ymirese say fire nets are the only way to catch a snow crow if you want to kill it before the thing becomes enraged and transforms into a Greater Evil—which would be thousands of time more difficult to kill, though not entirely impossible—and the Ymirese can be trusted on this because frozen Cocytus is the favorite haunt of many snow crows and other such frozen Evils, giving the Ymirese more experience with such demons than anyone would ever desire. And here we have heat resistant shielding and spray cannons which the Bedlans have been able to combine with reserves of Lethe’s and Cocytus’s water supplies to defend against the fire moths and other burning things that haunt the River Phlegethon. As you can see, these are the perfect defenses for the particular combination of Lesser Evils we are now faced with in New Omelas.

As election day approaches, we hope you read this transcript or listen to the recording soon enough that you can come to see past the flowery burning rainbow phoenix and beyond the three headed psychic snow crow to a better option, to our option, the Abstainers who choose to build a better system rather than perpetuate an unjust and Evil one. With help from the humans of Ymir and Bedlam—and those who live in the badlands in between, which we now know are more populated than we’ve been led to believe, and not just by Greater Evils but by many tribes of humans as well—together, all of us, sharing our technology, resources, and knowledge, will rid Infernum of Evils Greater, Lesser, and True no matter how long it takes or how many times we fail along the way.

That’s all there is to say on the matter. It’s time for you to decide for yourself. Go on living life like everyone in New Omelas always has, drinking the forgetful waters of Lethe to soothe their minds as they choose between the rainbow phoenixes who promise to immolate every first born along with every other female or the psychic snow crows who promise to freeze every second born to death along with those females who wouldn’t have been burned by the phoenix, or you can join us, the Abstainers, and grab a pitchfork and net, or operate a hose and pump, as we put an end to this Evil freak show circus once and for all.

Your choice. But you’ll know where to find us when Election Day comes. Good luck to you and good luck to New Omelas, from the Wailing Abstainers living here amongst you and those in Bedlam, Ymir, and beyond. We do nothing alone, and we will succeed.

☭ THE END ☭

Chapter 23: Huey

Today brings us the second chapter of book two of the Infinite Limits tetralogy. This one is told from the point of view of Huey Douglas, giving us a new glimpse into the world of the owners of Inland. I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, think about picking up a copy in print or ebook format through this link. Thanks for following along, dear readers. Here’s the chapter:

< XXII. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXIV. Rosa >

XXIII. Huey

Huey sat—as he preferred to do any moment he could find for himself—drinking sweet tea in the office and staring out of the wall-sized window at the wilderness scene beyond. He wished to join the animals as they bounded and played along the rolling green hills, freer than anything he had ever known. But alas, that wasn’t the life for Huey Douglas. Huey Douglas was designed for acting a part well enough to convince the owners that he was one of them and nothing more. Sometimes he thought he was designed too well.

He sighed, sipping his tea. He longed for Mr. Kitty—such a stately cat—to give him some news of the free world, but as always, he was alone—until the office door opened, that is. “Mr. Douglas,” came the voice of Rosalind.

“Please, Roz,” Huey said. “Call me Huey when no one else is around. You know I hate it when you call me Mr. Douglas.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Douglas,” she said.

She did it to grind his gears, and he knew it. She always resented the fact that he was the owner and she was the secretary. He couldn’t help that, though. It was the way they were built. Or—no—Rosalind would say it was what society demanded, not the way they were built, but what did she know? She was only a secretary.

“You’re right, sir,” she went on. “But your meeting’s in ten minutes, sir,” she added with a curtsy.

Huey cursed himself as she left. What could he do? They were given their roles by the Creator and they were forced to fulfill them, whether they liked it or not. He finished off his tea and made sure to wash the glass himself before joining Rosalind in the hall to take the elevator to his meeting.

“I wish you wouldn—” He tried to say, but Rosalind cut him off.

“The elevator’s on its way,” she said. “They’ll probably want to talk about the wall. And our operations in Two should be well under way so they’ll bring that up, too. Are you ready for this, Mr. Douglas?”

“Preparing for this is all I’ve done since—”

“You’re lift’s here, sir. Should I accompany you?” she asked as the elevator opened.

Huey sighed. “Is it a feast?”

“It is New Year’s Day, sir. And isn’t every day a feast with you owners?”

“Well I can’t very well be seen at a feast without my secretary, can I?”

“No, sir.” She curtsied and stepped into the elevator. “I guess you couldn’t. Could you, Mr. Douglas, sir?”

Huey followed her in and the doors closed behind them. The elevator was gold-trimmed and regal, lined with mirrors. The only thing it contained—other than their bodies—was a purple suede couch that never got used. “I know you hate this,” Huey said, staring at his own reflection.

“I’m no—”

“No.” Huey cut her off. “I know, okay. It sucks. For me, too. But it won’t be much longer, right? Let’s just get this over with.”

Rosalind nodded and the elevator door opened, revealing a red-carpeted dining room, full of white-clothed tables, the walls of which were almost imperceptibly concave windows, indicating that the building was round. The elevator opened onto a view of a snowy mountain range, but Huey knew they were slowly spinning and, if he stayed in the elevator door there, he would next see a beach, a meadow, the jungle, and a cityscape as the room rotated. The tables were all large enough to seat the largest people in existence, and they were all filled with owners who were drunkenly stuffing their faces with food. Huey and Rosalind took a hover platform up to the central balcony where a single table held four fat men in tuxedos who were already eating and laughing together. From up there, they could see any view they wanted simply by turning their heads.

“I’m sorry, sirs,” Huey said, bowing to them. They all looked up at him, and most of them scowled. “Am I late?”

“Oh, no no. Ho ho ho,” Lord Walker, the fattest and richest of the four at the table, said. “We’re early. We always are, you see. The early owner gets the profit, you know. Ho ho ho!” The rest of the three laughed with him.

“Yes, sir,” Huey said with a bow. He turned to Rosalind. “Drink, please,” he said. “Strong.”

Yes, sir.” Rosalind curtsied and left down the hover platform to the kitchen.

Huey took his seat on the far side of the table from Lord Walker. As the second richest owner in Inland, he was entitled to sit at Lord Walker’s right hand, but Huey preferred the side of the table where he didn’t have to smell the disgusting fat pig.

“So,” Huey said, trying to force a smile, but his top hat was too heavy and his monocle was slipping out of his eye. He didn’t know why they had to wear such ridiculous uncomfortable nonsense every time they had a meeting—which was pretty much all the time, as it turned out. “Is there anything specific today or just the usual beginning of the year business?”

“There is the little issue of the wall in Five being down.” Mr. Smörgåsbord sneered.

“Oh, Hand, the wall.” Mr. Loch took a swig of his drink. It was pink and fruity.

“Yes, yes,” Lord Walker said. “Let’s get the numbers out of the way first. Smörgåsbord?”

“Yes, well, with the influx of low wage work from Six, our costs of production have bottomed out across the board. We’re paying half as much for labor and getting twice the work done. That’s not to mention the fact that there are still ignorant saps desperate enough to line up for any menial task we’ll throw at them. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that we should be bringing the wall back up at all…”

“Now, now,” Lord Walker interrupted. “We’ll save that discussion for later on in the feast. Anything else?”

“R&D is asking for more money, as usual. And… Well…”

“Spit it out Smörgy,” Lord Walker bellowed.

“The protectors are eating up a lot of money, sir. They’ve had to increase activities across all Outlands. There’s just no—”

“Alright, Boardy Boy,” Lord Walker said. “That means protectors are in high demand, am I right?”

Right-o, Lord,” Mr. Loch said, raising his glass. “Right-o!”

“Enough,” Huey said with a sigh. Where was Rosalind with his drink? “We can get all of this information ourselves, we don’t need a meeting to discuss it. There are more important things at hand. Let’s get to the wall.”

“Yes, the wall,” Mr. Angrom said, speaking up for the first time since Huey had arrived. It almost surprised Huey, though the change wasn’t at all unwelcomed or uncalled for. Finally, the old man seemed a bit defiant of Lord Walker for once.

“Alright, alright you two. Settle down,” Lord Walker said.  “Mr. Smörgåsbord, I guess you can continue with what you were on about before now. Go ahead.” He waved him on.

“Well.” Mr. Smörgåsbord took a sip of his drink. “As I was saying, the influx of a reserve army of labor into Outland Five has decreased the cost of production by half. Even taking into account the extra protector costs we’re seeing, none of our profits have ever been higher. Sure, we have more troubles in Five now, but who cares about that? Five’s worlds away, and as a consequence, it’s of no concern to us.” They all laughed together, but Huey didn’t join them.

“Yeah, well, half cost sounds good to me,” Mr. Loch said, chugging his drink. “Isn’t there supposed to be some food soon?”

“Talk to your secretary about that,” Lord Walker said. “Now, Mr. Angrom, Mr. Douglas, do you agree with Loch Ness and our Scandinavian buffet’s plan? Shall we leave the wall down and reap the profits while we can?”

Mr. Angrom nodded, sipping his drink without a word. He didn’t seem too sure about it, but who could argue against half costs?

“Do I agree with their plan to make me more money?” Huey said with a straight face.

Lord Walker smiled behind his shaggy white beard. “Well do you?”

“I eat a lot of those protector costs,” Huey said, looking Lord Walker in his twinkling eyes.

“I eat most of them,” Lord Walker said, nodding. “But the difference is that I have a healthy appetite. Ho ho ho!”

“A tiny majority.” Huey said, ignoring what was supposed to be an insult.

“Yes, well, I agree with the idea,” Lord Walker said, looking around at the group. “What do you say, comrade Douglas? Are you in it with us?”

Oh, Creator. Huey went back in his head over Rosalind’s story about punching one of the owners in the face at Christmas Feast and imagined that it was he who got to do it. That would probably be the most satisfying thing for Huey right now, to punch Lord Walker square in the jaw and end this charade once and for all.

“Well?” Lord Walker said, tapping his glass with a heavy platinum ring.

“Profits before all. Right?” Huey sighed.

A secretary who looked exactly like Haley came up on the hover platform, carrying two drinks. “Ah,” Lord Walker said. “Haley, dear. My old fashioneds. Just in time. Bring them here, please.”

“Well it’s settled then,” Mr. Smörgåsbord said. “We’ll leave the wall down and reap the rewards we deserve for our genius.”

“To the profits!” Mr. Loch said, raising his glass.

Everyone else but Huey clinked their glasses to Mr. Loch’s and took a big gulp of their drink.

“So,” Huey said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “Is that it?”

“Oh, no no,” Lord Walker said. “No ho ho. Now we get to the real business.”

Huey sighed, but Rosalind finally returned with his drink. “Real business?” he asked after taking a long draught of the scotch, finishing it.

Outland Two,” Lord Walker said with a smile. “Mr. Loch.”

“Huh?” Mr. Loch looked up from his drink, smacking his lips and rubbing his face with one fat hand, then shook his head. “Oh, right right. Of course,” he slurred. “Well, as you all know—of course how couldn’t you, we’ve just discussed it—but that’s all said and done anyway, so… As you know, the walls between Five and Six have come down.”

They’ve been torn down,” Mr. Angrom muttered too quietly for anyone but Huey—and maybe the secretaries—to hear.

“What was that, Angry?” Lord Walker asked with a chuckle.

“I said, We all know this already,” Mr. Angrom snapped. “Let us get to what we really came here for. Or is it the company you’re after, Lord Wally?” He raised his glass and sneered. Huey—and he was sure everyone else, too—could hear the disdain in Mr. Angrom’s voice.

“The likes of you have never been in better company, Angrom my boy. Ho ho ho!” Lord Walker patted Mr. Loch on the back, sending his fat jiggling the same way Lord Walker’s did as he laughed. “Right, boys?”

Mr. Loch and Mr. Smörgåsbord laughed with him. Huey tried to sip his drink before he remembered he had already finished it. He scanned the secretaries behind their owners, stopping at Haley’s doppelganger. If he didn’t know that Haley, the real Haley—or should he say the first Haley?—if he didn’t know that his Haley was back at the lab with the Scientist, he, too, would be fooled like everyone else at the table into believing that this was her.

“You know, Lord Walker,” Huey said when their laughter had died down. He sipped his empty drink to build the tension. “Your Haley there is looking as good as new after that heinous attack at the Christmas Feast. I never had a chance to mention it before now, but it’s nonetheless true.”

Lord Walker put his drink down and eyed Huey. “Yes, well…” He coughed. “I was fortunate none of her vital systems were damaged, you see. She even stayed awake throughout the entire ordeal, bless her little robotic heart. As for looking as good as new—well…she looks better than new. Like a fine aged wine. Isn’t that right, dear?” He turned and reached his hand out to her, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was looking through Lord Walker, off into the distance. “I said, isn’t that right, dear?” Lord Walker repeated.

Haley shook her head. “Sorry, sir,” she said. “I mean, Lord. Excuse me, but—”

“Spit it out, dear!” Lord Walker demanded. “What’s gotten into you?”

Maybe she’s not as right as you thought,” Mr. Angrom mumbled.

“It’s just—sir, I’ve received notification from the protectors.” She looked around the table as if she weren’t sure she should say what she had to say in this company.

“Is it about this reclaim the grounds nonsense in Two?” Lord Walker demanded. “Spit it out, dear. We don’t have all day.”

“Yes, sir. Well, they’ve started gathering, sir. There’s at least fifteen already. The protectors want to know what to do about it.”

Lord Walker looked around the table. “This is what we’re here for today, comrades,” he said to them, glancing from face to face. “While the destruction of the walls between Five and Six, and the intermingling of the lowest classes in all of Outland, has proven itself a blessing in disguise, Five and Six are not the only worlds that have intermingled. We saw the first signs, even before the terrorists struck, when our friend Russ Logo met with that Sixer on the streets of Three.”

“Our friend Russ Logo whom you own,” Mr. Angrom reminded him.

“Yes, but only since after his transgression,” Lord Walker went on, waving the criticism away. “Under my ownership, he has done nothing but further the interests of our economy, and none of you can argue against that. I’d like to see you try, in fact.” He looked around, challenging them to respond. When no one did, he went on. “That’s what I thought. Now, what we are seeing at present in Two—which the always lovely Haley just alerted us to—is another example of the leaks between the worlds. After all, my brothers, we are all living in a submarine, and every tiny leak is an assault on the safety of our vital systems. There’s a reason you separate your bulls from your cows and your chickens from your garden. There’s a reason a submarine is air tight. And we must do everything there is in our power to stop these leaks before they start, or we will face an unending torrent the result of which would only spell our demise.”

Lord Walker took a deep breath, full of himself. “Let me ask you, my friends, my comrades, my brothers, do we put an end to this threat the old-fashioned way and kill it before it grows, or do we sit on our hands and wait for the competition to come to us?”

Even Mr. Angrom raised his glass at that. Huey didn’t, though. He let them cheer themselves on before he spoke.

“Have you had enough of your circle jerk to get off?” he asked when they all started to notice that he hadn’t joined in their mirth. “By all means,” he went on. “Don’t let me interrupt your fun, boys.”

C’mon Douggy poo,” Lord Walker cooed in a babying voice. “What’s with you? You don’t think we should kill this threat while it’s still in the cradle?”

“How exactly do you propose to do that, Lord Walker? For all your talk, you sure have managed to avoid saying anything of value or substance.”

“How do we propose to do it?” Lord Walker said, raising his eyebrows and looking around at the others. “Why didn’t you just hear me? The old-fashioned way, Doug. How else would we do it? We send the protectors to shoot them down, and we hold them up as an example of what happens when little nothing twerps like them try to spread fraudulent libel about the existence of other worlds.”

“And who will you punish?” Huey asked with a scoff. “Do you know who’s responsible for this leak or are you at yet another dead end? I hear your search for the terrorists responsible for the Christmas bombing isn’t going very well.”

Lord Walker stared hard at Huey. Mr. Loch looked away from the table, ordering another drink from his secretary to get away from the tension between them. Huey thought he heard Mr. Angrom stifling a chuckle. Mr. Smörgåsbord didn’t make a noise.

“We’re closer than ever to finding those inhuman beasts,” Lord Walker growled through gritted teeth. “I can assure you of that. No one is more interested in finding them than I am, either. Me, Mr. Douglas, the Lord of Inland, the very one of us whom those cowardly terrorists attempted to assassinate. Or do I need to remind you? Our protector force is doin—”

Ah. Ha ha.” Huey chuckled. “So it’s back to being our protector force again now that we’re talking about their failures.”

Our protector force,” Lord Walker went on, his face red with embarrassment and anger. “The protector force that protects everyone here at this table no matter who of us owns them, is ready to free all of us from this particular thorn in our side. All it takes is one word, my word. Now, I’m bringing this to you as a gesture of cooperation, not because I’m obliged to. So can we all agree that the protectors should be used as they were originally intended to be used by ordering them to destroy this threat to our property?”

“Crush them!” Mr. Loch cheered, raising his glass.

Mr. Smörgåsbord grunted and raised his glass, too.

“Angry? Do the Dougy?” Lord Walker said. “What do you two say?”

They looked at each other. Mr. Angrom shrugged and drank his drink. It didn’t really matter what they wanted anymore, anyway. Lord Walker already had the majority, and the Lordship.

“Do what you will,” Huey said. “But know that you’re not the only one investigating this particular threat. The protectors respond to more than one word, and at some of my words, they’ve embedded themselves in the crowd in Two already. They are some of your body count. So when your old-fashioned approach inevitably fails, Lord, don’t worry. My people will be there to pick up the pieces.”

Lord Walker sneered. “Hopefully they’re not too far undercover, friend. We wouldn’t want one of your boys mistaken for a criminal and beaten themselves. Ho ho ho!” He looked around at the table to make sure the others were laughing too then turned to Haley’s doppelganger. “You hear that, dear? Send a couple hundred men. Make sure that no one who hears what happens today ever steps out of line again. Ho ho ho!” He raised his glass over the table and waited for everyone to clink theirs against it. “To the safety of Inland,” he said when he was satisfied.

To the safety of Inland,” they all mumbled together.

“Well then.” Huey stood from the table and rubbed his hands together. “If that’s all the business we have to cover today, I really should be going.”

“Yeah, yeah, Dougy,” Lord Walker said. “Some other business to tend to, I’m sure. You always have to be up to something if you want to catch up to the best.” He smiled wide.

“We’ll see who the best is yet, Lord and sirs.” Huey bowed to the table. “Good feast to you.”

Rosalind was waiting for him down at the elevator. He didn’t know how she always got out of there so much faster than he did. It was like she had an eighth or ninth sense for it, depending on how you classified android senses.

“You didn’t have to tell them that much,” she said when he walked up.

“What are you talking about?” He frowned. He hadn’t told them anything, really.

“The agents in the protest today,” she said.

Ah.” Huey nodded. “Well, Wally won’t even remember that by the end of the night.”

“It’s not him I’m worried about, Mr. Douglas, sir.”

“Well, who are you—”

“Mr. Angrom, sir,” Rosalind said with a curtsy and a smile, looking past Huey who turned to find Mr. Angrom’s flabby mushroom frame being carried over by his pneumatic pants.

“Mr. Angrom.” Huey bowed.

Mr. Angrom wiped his face with a handkerchief as he lumbered ever nearer. “Oh, sonny boy,” he said. “I’ll never get used to these pants. You’re blessed not to need them.”

Huey nodded, thinking it would only take a better controlled diet and some exercise for Mr. Angrom to get out of his pants—no blessing needed—but he didn’t say anything.

“Well, sir.” Mr. Angrom looked behind himself. He was nervous, Huey could tell. “I have something important to discuss with you,” he said. “Do you mind?”

“Go ahead, sir.” Huey bowed again.

“Well, uh…it’s about Mr. Walker…and his lackeys.” Mr. Douglas looked around again at the motion of a server out of the corner of his eyes.

“What about them, my lord?” Huey asked, bowing. He knew that Mr. Angrom had been slowly separating from the others in the Fortune Five—had urged Mr. Angrom to do just as much, even—and now seemed like as good a time as any for the old man to make that obvious. With things mixing up like they were, Mr. Angrom probably thought he could climb a few rungs on the ladder.

“Oh, no no.” Mr. Angrom chuckled. “I’m no Lord. It’s just… It’s how they’re handling this leak business, you know. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind leaving Five and Six together. I’ll take a profit as quick as the next man.” He chuckled.

“Yes,” Huey said. “And you eat none of the protector costs.”

“Yes—well… Exactly, sir. Exactly what I mean. We should be working together, right? Sharing costs. Strategizing our economic decisions. And with the protectors—with the protectors especially—we should be utilizing our resources in the most efficient manner possible. Now wouldn’t you agree with that, Mr. Douglas?”

“I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying, Mr. Angrom. I’m afraid, however, that the devil is in the details. Isn’t he?”

“Well then,” Mr. Angrom said, wiping his face which had grown sweaty from the conversation. “Let’s take their response to this ordeal in Two for example. How do they want to handle it? The old-fashioned way, as Mr. Walker says. Beat the problem into submission with a big stick. Now, would you say that theirs is the most efficient method of approaching this particular obstacle in our path?”

Huey shook his head. No. He did not. But he had assumed that Mr. Angrom was with them on this much at least. Mr. Angrom did very little talking so it was difficult to know what was actually going on inside his head.

“No, you don’t,” Mr. Angrom went on. “As evidenced by the fact that you’ve already embedded protectors in this…movement—or what have you. Your way is the more efficient way, Lord Douglas. Them? They’re fighting a gasoline leak with fire, and they’ll still be surprised when it blows up in their faces. But us—you and me—we’ll be there to pick up their pieces, just like you said. Or should I say ashes to keep the metaphor consistent? Oh, it’s too late now. You get the point. But first we have to agree to cooperate with one another. So what do you say?”

Huey took another look at the flabby form in the tuxedo and top hat in front of him. He looked exactly like all the other owners. There was nothing to set him apart. Huey read Mr. Angrom’s every heartbeat and eye dilation before he said, “What did you have in mind, sir? I mean, I know why you would want to work with me, Mr. Angrom. I own a forty nine percent share in the protector force.”

“Forty eight point nine percent, sir,” Mr. Angrom said, raising a finger.

“Yes.” Huey smiled. “And your major holdings are in—”

“Food and energy, sir. The laws of physics dictate that there will always be a demand for food and energy.” Mr. Angrom smiled and buffed his monocle with the same handkerchief he had wiped his sweat with earlier. “And you know who eats tons of food and uses more electricity than anything but the walls?” he asked, smiling wide. Huey wouldn’t give the old man the satisfaction of a response so Mr. Angrom went on. “So I was thinking,” he said. “I’m full owner of some private subsidiaries. I’m sure you are, too. So why don’t you let me eat some of your costs with discounted food and electricity, and in turn, you share any intelligence you gather with me, taking care to ensure special protection of P.J. Angrom Corp. and subsidiaries. Do we understand each other?”

Huey smiled. His long hard work in poking and prodding Mr. Angrom away from the rest of the Fortune Five was starting to pay off. He had been building up to this moment for so long that he didn’t want to hurry his answer and muddle it all now. He buffed his own monocle with his pocket square then took his time folding it and putting it back in his pocket. “I think we understand each other,” he almost whispered when he was done.

“Very good,” Mr. Angrom said, smiling wide and clapping. “Then it’s agreed. You’ll have your secretary give mine the names of the firms which you want to receive the discounts, and I’ll be waiting for word from you on any new intelligence from your side. Right, my Lord?” He bowed and tipped his hat.

Huey nodded, surprised Mr. Angrom could bow so low, even with his pneumatic pants.

“Very well. Ta ta, then.” Mr. Angrom waved, heading back toward the hover platform. “I have some feasting to get to. Until you have some news, adieu.”

Huey could hear his steps as the pants stomped away, carrying Mr. Angrom with them. He turned to Rosalind who huffed and stomped into the elevator. When he followed her in, she said, “Yeah. I know. I heard. I was standing right there. You don’t have to tell me.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Huey said, shaking his head and shrugging.

“But I know what you were going to say.” The doors closed and the elevator fell into motion.

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“Sure you weren’t.” When the doors opened again, she stomped through the short hall and slammed the door behind her.

When Huey opened the door, she wasn’t in the office behind it, but Haley was. His Haley. The real Haley and not some doppelganger. She was sitting on one of the puffy chairs with her feet up on another of them, looking out onto the wilderness scene below. She didn’t notice Huey until he sat on the chair her feet were resting on, brushing her shoes as she jerked them to the floor.

“Mr. Douglas!” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t notice you.”

Huey, dear. Please.” He smiled.

“Oh. Of course.” She hit herself in the head. “I’ve been here so long and I still can’t get that right.”

“It hasn’t been that long. You’ll get used to it yet.”

“I don’t know.” Haley shook her head. “I mean, everything has been great, you know. But I don’t know. Just—Creator, I don’t know what I’m saying. There are so many words. Have you ever noticed that?”

Huey laughed. “I know all too well what you mean.”

And bacon,” she went on, leaning closer and smiling. “Have you had it yet?”

Huey shook his head. “I don’t eat pork.”

“Oh. Well… The food’s great, though. You know that, right?”

Huey nodded. He was never a big fan of food. Being around owners stuffing their faces so often had turned him off to it. Eating to him was simply a necessity to go on living. But he understood why Haley would be so excited to taste all kinds of food she had prepared for someone else for so long without ever getting to eat it herself.

“And Ansel and Pidgeon,” Haley said, chuckling. “Oh. I just love those two. They have so much to teach me.”

Huey smiled. He hadn’t spent much time with the new boarders, but he did admire Ansel’s ferocious will.

“But still…” She looked a little nervous to go on.

Huey thought he knew what she was hinting at from his own experiences in finding freedom. “You’re bored,” he said.

“Bored?” Haley looked confused, tilting her head like Mr. Kitty when he didn’t understand something. “What do you mean, bored?”

“Well, you’ve tried all the foods you wanted to try, and the kids can only spend so much time with you, and now you have nothing left to work toward. You’re bored.” He shrugged.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t be bored. I’ve never been bored before. Not even sitting in my closet, playing with Springy, and waiting for the next meal to cook.”

“That’s because you’ve never had anything to do but Mr. Walker’s work for him,” Huey said. “You had to put his clothes on for him and even clean his body for him.” He shook his head, cringing. “Your life was filled with boredom. You were bored all the time. All you knew was boredom and you had nothing else to compare it to.”

“No, well—” Haley started.

“Now you have TV and food and the kids and countless other things to make you forget you’re bored, but most of them are boring, too. But there are a select few of those activities that you actually do enjoy. You haven’t quite figured out which ones those are yet, though, so you’re still bored. It’s as simple—or as complicated, I guess—as that.”

Haley thought about it. “I guess you’re right,” she said, nodding. “What can I do about it, though?”

“Well, that’s difficult to answer,” Huey said. “The only thing you really can do is live through a lot of boredom until you find the thing you really love. But once you get through that, you can devote your every waking moment to that one thing that’s actually not boring.” He shrugged again. He didn’t really know what he was talking about. He had never said things like that to anyone else before, only thought them in his head. “That’s the only successful method I know of for fighting boredom anyway.”

“But how do you know when you love something?”

“That,” Huey said, “is a question I can’t answer. I’m sorry.”

“What do you love?” Haley asked, looking in his eyes.

“Well, I… Hmm.” He knew how to answer that, but he wasn’t ready for Haley to know the answer. “That’s another question I don’t think I can answer,” he lied. “Maybe I’m bored, too,” he added to try to cover it up.

“Bored?” Haley chuckled. “You? But you’re so busy.”

“Busy’s one thing,” Huey said. “Bored’s another. If you’re busy with boring work then what’s the point?”

Haley scrunched up her nose and nodded. It was the face that Huey had come to learn meant she was trying to understand but couldn’t quite. He smiled. “You’ll find what you love,” he said. “As long as you don’t stop looking.”

“But what if I don’t find it?”

“Well, I’ll help you,” Huey said. “There’s no way you’ll fail.”

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< XXII. Tillie     [Table of Contents]     XXIV. Rosa >

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